A Mini-Prologue, Sort of…
I, Jamie Maddox, must confess that until all this happened I’d never given much thought to my own sanity. I mean, really. Who stops every morning before leaving the house to take this inventory: Keys? Check. Backpack. Check. Sanity. Oops. Left it on the kitchen table.
But now, sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for my shot, I get it. The journey to becoming a nutter, as the British say, is much shorter than we think. Sanity isn’t a given. It’s a fragile mix of hope for the future and an unwavering belief in yourself. Lose one of these two and you can probably limp along.
Lose both and you’re pretty screwed.
Lose both and travel backward in time, and suddenly those people who’ve been taken by alien spaceships and operated on by little green men appear stone-cold sane next to you.
All of those things happened to me (except the little green men), so it should have been no surprise that my life ended up being truly fire trucked. That word was in my life because Aunt Nicole deplored the f-word and pleaded with me, “Jamie, dear, there must be another, less offensive word you could use.” You’d think she was eighty instead of fifty. For her, I did find an alternative, which was harder than you might think. After she died, I continue to use it, even though I suspect it makes me sound a little…well…crazy.…
I loved London. People there ate biscuits instead of cookies, had rows instead of arguments, and lived in flats instead of apartments. They also snogged instead of kissed, which just struck me as hysterical.
In London I inhaled history with every breath. It rose from a cobblestoned street polished to a sheen, and from the stones of the eighteenth century buildings that looked like faded blocks of soft butterscotch. Even the air felt laden with history as centuries of other people’s breaths flowed into my lungs.
After eight months here I still hadn’t tired of disembarking at random Tube stations to explore. I’d stumble onto a small, one-block park and sit on the cool iron bench as music blared from the Pakistani grocery around the corner and men argued good-naturedly outside a Russian teahouse. My partner, Chris, never came with me, since she thought a journey without a clear destination made no sense.
Today our destination—her choice—had been the National Gallery. So here I was, stuck inside staring at this “artwork,” when all I wanted to do was flee to Trafalgar Square and find Bradley. This uninspiring exhibit left me speechless. Another five minutes and I thought I might lose my mind, ironic given what happened three days later.
The “artwork” was nothing more than twelve nearly identical brain scans. While the colors of each varied a little, I couldn’t tell if the colors had been done digitally or if the neurology professor had just colored them in with a handful of Sharpies.
Chris squeezed my elbow, her blue eyes drilling into me. “What do you think? Aren’t they amazing?” Chris was everything I wasn’t—driven Type A, scientific, and crazy smart. My brother Jake once called her a computer with breasts, which wasn’t very nice.
I smiled at her. “These images are unforgettable.” The Artistry of Neurological Scans, by Dr. Anoop Rajamani had not been high on my list of must-see art exhibits.
Chris growled softly in her throat as we maneuvered around the packed room to the next brain scan. “Liar.”
I struggled for something kind to say. In art school, they called me Switzerland because I couldn’t stand giving harsh critiques. To me, if someone made art they loved, that was all the reason I needed to accept its existence. Loving what you did was infinitely more important than creating a piece that could hang next to a Degas or a van Gogh with pride. “Art should move you in some way,” I said, “even if it’s to hate it. But I’m not moved. I’m not anything.” I cocked my head. “No, that’s not true. I am curious why there is way more white in the scans for Subject Seven and Subject Twelve. Other than that, the art has failed to move me.”
Chris shot me an impatient look and moved to the next piece, her blond ponytail swishing like a haughty horse’s tail. I loved her hair.
I followed, checking my phone for the time. Bradley would be leaving Trafalgar Square in exactly thirty minutes. Because very little was certain in Bradley’s life, he kept to his schedule with the precision expected of the ex-British Army officer that he was.
“I saw that,” Chris whispered. “Why are you in such a hurry?” We stood at the far back of the crowd so we could whisper during the professor’s incredibly boring speech. “How many art exhibits have you dragged me to?”
Hmmm. Good question. “Four here, two at the National Portrait Gallery, and three at the Tate Modern.”
“What about The Sounds of Art?”
Our grimaces matched, the result of ten years together. “Yeah, okay, point made.” I’d expected The Sounds of Art to present music inspired by art, but it had been an interpretive dramatic work sharing the shrieks and howls made by paint itself as it was cruelly smashed and slapped and dragged across the rough canvas. Fire truck, that was a painful two hours.
Chris turned back to the speaker still droning on. How could I get out of here? I shifted the straps of my heavy backpack, then froze when it rattled.
Chris shot me a confused look, then leaned closer as applause masked her voice. “What’s in your pack?”
I shrugged. “Nothing.” Actually, it was a small box of Burgess Excel Adult Rabbit Food with Oregano, to be exact. Sainsbury’s had been out of the rosemary and thyme. Chris shook her head. “It’s rabbit food for Annie, isn’t it?”
I nodded, hoping my sheepish grin would buy me a little of Chris’s patience. Call me a crazy optimist, but that’s who I was.
I shifted, feeling hemmed in by the enthusiastic crowd in the small room. Someone behind me was wearing way too much lavender perfume. Perspiration slid down my back and soaked into my waistband, which made me feel sticky and cranky. The painfully microscopic details of this mind-numbing neurobiology exhibit were fascinating only to neurobiologists like Chris. When she shot me another “pay attention” look, I rolled my eyes.
“…to build this wiring diagram of the human brain, we are mapping all the structures and functions.” Dr. Rajamani spoke with an endearing, singsong Mumbai accent. He wore a knee-length yellow jacket with a Nehru collar, and yellow slacks. When the image of a banana Popsicle zapped forward from my childhood, I bit my lip to cut off the chuckle.
“Descartes’s notion that the mind and body are separate has been abandoned by most of the scientific world. As a result, scientists are studying how the brain creates our consciousness.”
“Isn’t he brilliant?” Chris whispered. She glared at me before I could come up with a sufficiently witty retort.
“My scans show brain connectivity by capturing myelin content around the nerves. The areas in red and yellow have higher myelin content, and therefore are more responsible for brain connectivity.” It was easy to get swept up in his musical accent; it was as if he were singing his speech. Then Dr. Rajamani waved his arms. “See those thin threads of white around the edges of the high myelin sections?” Chris’s professor at University College London glowed with pride. “Our project does not yet have an explanation for these white areas, but I am conducting further research.” He leaned closer to the microphone. “And this is what I have theorized. The white is the world’s first visual image of a person’s actual consciousness.”
Luckily, the crowd’s gasps were loud enough to mask my snort. I ignored Chris’s dig into my ribs. Either the Gallery had been desperate for an exhibit, or Dr. Anoop Rajamani had forked over a double-decker bus full of money to buy himself the right to exhibit here.
I tuned out as the professor began describing with great enthusiasm something called “glial cells.” Finally, polite applause followed the end of Dr. Rajamani’s remarks.
“What is wrong with you?” Chris said. “As an artist, you should appreciate the creative value of these scans, even if you don’t buy the science.”
“That’s true,” I replied. “But as a scientist, don’t you think this guy’s a little wacky?” I lowered my voice, since neither of us liked PDAs—public displays of argument. “He believes he’s located the site of human consciousness. That’s like saying you’ve discovered what love looks like. How insane is that?”
But Chris had stopped listening and began leading me to the “artist.” When he saw Chris, Dr. Rajamani’s white teeth gleamed in his handsome face. He pushed through the others and reached for her hand.
“Chris, how are you feeling?”
“Just fine, Dr. Raj.”
I frowned at my partner. Aftereffects of what?
“None whatsoever.” Chris smoothly made introductions before I could ask. I had to look up to meet the man’s eyes, unusual for me. His brow furrowed as if he were on the verge of some scientific breakthrough that I’d just interrupted.
“You are the artist, no?” The professor’s childlike glee was infectious as he motioned to his scans. “Have you ever seen such colors?”
I attempted a supportive smile. “They are amazing. Thank you for sharing them with us.” I checked my phone again, the niceties out of the way. “Chris, I’m sorry, but I need to get going. I’ll meet you back at the flat like we planned.”
“Jamie, wait. Dr. Raj has something to ask you.”
Dr. Raj took my hands in both his large, smooth palms. “These scans are only the first step in locating consciousness, the spark of who we are. I need volunteers for the next, and most important phase, of my research. Chris thought you might be willing to be one of my subjects.”
I fired an eye laser at Chris: Thanks a bunch. Really appreciate it. But my Minnesota Nice asserted itself. “I could probably do that. What’s involved?”
“Ninety minutes of your time, no more. I will attach electrodes to your face and head, then ask a series of questions and record your brain scans as you answer.”
“Sure, okay.” I tingled with pleasure at Chris’s beam of approval. I loved making Chris happy, especially since it was getting harder to do. I wasn’t sure why our relationship seemed to be faltering, but I was confident I could figure it out and fix things.
Dr. Rajamani clasped his hands together and bowed. “This Monday at nine a.m.?”
“Excellent. Please eat nothing after nine p.m. the evening before. You will need three hours after the experiment before you should drive. It takes the GCA that long to reduce in strength.”
“The magic serum!” he crowed. “GCA, or glial cell activator, is the drug that will help me locate your consciousness by providing a slight electrical charge to cells that normally do not conduct electricity.”
I failed to hide my grimace. “Okay, first, I’m not big on drugs. Second, not wild about the idea of electrifying my brain. And third, is this GCA administered orally?” Chris stiffened at my question and glared at me. Her anger, however, was less important than my suddenly sweaty hands and crazy heartbeat.
“GCA is not oral,” Dr. Rajamani said. “One simple shot is all you will need.”
I stepped back, palms up. “Uh oh. Needles are my kryptonite.”
Dr. Raj threw back his head and laughed. “Ha! You are making a joke with me! Superman, no?”
“Jamie, it’s just one shot,” Chris said. “It doesn’t hurt. I’ve particpated in the experiment myself. There’s nothing to it.”
I lived to give Chris what she wanted, but I didn’t know if that included a shot. I shook the doctor’s hand. “Let me think about it.” I turned to Chris. “I’m late for an appointment. Gotta go. See you at home.”
I jogged up the stairs from the basement level, then detoured over to the lobby’s polyurethane collection box and dropped in a fiver, something Chris always refused to do. “It’s a free museum, she’d say,” and I’d always respond, “That’s why it needs our support.”
I moved with the crowds through the National Gallery’s wide glass doors out onto the landing. The crisp air brought relief from the stuffy exhibit room. A needle. Crap. After a nurse in college had clumsily taken a blood sample from my arm with a needle the size of a garden hose, I’d sworn off needles. I sighed. Sometimes I wondered if Chris had been paying attention these last ten years. How could she not remember that I hated needles? I knew everything there was to know about her.
When I started at the University of Minnesota, I’d been unwilling to live at home, so I rented an apartment over Midwest Mountaineering, where I worked part-time. Because both apartment and work were only a short walk to the U’s art department, my world narrowed to the West Bank campus, the bars gathering like lonely sheep at Seven Corners, and the Somali coffee shop that got me hooked on sambusas.
For twenty hours a week, I sold Midwest canoes, skateboards, skis, and mountaineering crampons with the confidence of someone who’d done it all, ridiculous since my riskiest sport was walking around Lake Calhoun. My knowledge came from watching weekend sports shows and Netflix documentaries.
During undergraduate and grad school, I went through girlfriends with the speed and recklessness of a world-class ski flyer. Then the week before I received my master’s in art education, a gorgeous blonde with high cheekbones and awe-inspiring grace came shopping for a pair of inline skates. Nearly tongue-tied by her slight dimple, I managed to croak out my usual spiel about skates and which brand I preferred and why. When I sputtered to a triumphant finish with the words, “Um…they’re, um, great,” the woman’s languid grin melted my remaining brain cells.
She leaned closer, smelling exotically of eucalyptus. “Has anyone told you that you’re full of shit?”
My eyes widened.
“You’ve not skated once in your life, have you?” Her voice was playful, not angry.
I met her eyes. “So busted.” When I held out my wrists for cuffing, she circled them with warm, strong hands, and I fell in love with Chris.
Applause for the juggler performing on the plaza below snapped me back to the present. The National Gallery, with its dramatic central portico and impressive facade, formed the northern boundary of Trafalgar Square. In my free time, I was drawn to the Gallery, spending most of my time with my favorite artist, Vincent van Gogh, in Room 45. The most compelling painting, however, was in Room 41—Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. I’d stand, transfixed, at the image of the sixteen-year-old girl, Queen of England for only nine days. Lady Jane was blindfolded, dressed in a flowing white gown that seemed made of polished pearls, and was reaching out a slender hand in search of the chopping block where she was to lay her head. Painting with oils wasn’t in my skill set, so a well-executed oil never failed to astound me. Delaroche’s layers of thin paint created flesh so real I was tempted to feel for a pulse.
I descended the Gallery’s front steps, then crossed the pedestrian plaza to the upper level of Trafalgar Square, scanning the main plaza below for Bradley’s faded military jacket. It still took my breath away to realize that just south of the square, in an area now filled with gray office buildings, was the former site of Whitehall Palace, home of King Henry VIII and his doomed wife Anne Boleyn. When their daughter Elizabeth became queen in 1558, she moved to Whitehall. The palace was gone now, but no matter. I drank up Elizabethan history like Chris drank up brain science. Soon after I began teaching at Carleton, my colleague Mary spent an evening entertaining me with the story of the Tudors. This family was the ultimate reality show, with its intrigue, adultery, hangings, and the occasional beheading. I was hooked, and after reading dozens of books and watching movies, I soon became weirdly conversant in Tudor England.
It didn’t hurt that every child in my dad’s family had been baptized in a christening gown said to have been given to the family by Queen Elizabeth I. Even though the story was just family lore gone wild, I loved to fantasize that Elizabeth might have actually touched the gown. The poor little dress was now yellowed with age, and almost all the tiny pearls from the gown’s front were missing.
Noise rose from the impatient traffic curling around three sides of the square. Where was he? Was I too late? Another scan found the aging Bradley sitting on the pavement against a short wall, with Annie on a slender leash by his hip. I hurried down the central staircase and past the western fountain as the spray cooled my skin. “Hey, Bradley.”
“Jamie Maddox! My very best American friend.” His gray dreads flashed almost silver in the sun. His worn eyes radiated a kindness that always drew me in. This was a man who’d been knocked down and dragged behind the pickup truck of life, yet could still love.
“I’m your only American friend, big guy.”
We bumped fists and I sank onto the warm pavement beside him, opening my pack. “More food for Annie.”
Bradley’s hands were scarred, the fingers curled with arthritis. It was a fire trucking crime that this veteran was living “rough” at his age. He’d fought for the British in the Falklands in the early 1980s.
Bradley’s worn, mahogany face glowed as he opened the box and fed Annie a few pellets. “Brilliant,” Bradley crooned. “She’s chuffed over this new flavor.”
I ran my hand over the brown-and-white rabbit, then scratched behind one floppy ear. I’d been trying for months to get Bradley off the streets, but he resisted at every turn. St Martin-in-the-Field Church, not twenty paces from the eastern edge of Trafalgar Square, had both day and night centers for the homeless.
“Won’t let Annie in,” had been Bradley’s excuse for St Martin’s. “Too claustrophobic,” had ruled out the shelter at the north end of Drury Lane. So I did what I could, buying food for Annie, granola bars and toothpaste for Bradley, and listening to his favorite stories from British history. In Minneapolis, I’d never stopped for the homeless, but for some reason in London I couldn’t not stop. That was why last winter, as Chris and I were learning how to be Londoners, and Chris was starting special degree classes in cognitive neuropsychiatry at University College London, I had befriended Bradley, a fixture in Trafalgar Square. I’d been drawn to Bradley because of his rabbit, and we’d found in each other someone willing to listen to whatever crazy thoughts invaded our minds. The only secret I’d kept from Chris was that on six of the coldest nights in February, I’d let Bradley and Annie into the locked vestibule between our inner door and the second floor hallway. Chris, not a fan of the homeless, never knew that Bradley and Annie were rolled up inside a sleeping bag thirty feet from her bed.
“I love this square,” I said. Talking with Bradley had different rules than normal society. We could switch topics without warning.
“It’s the heart of London,” Bradley intoned. “Did you know that this whole area used to be the Royal Mews? They were the stables for centuries of royal horses.”
I did know that, since Bradley had told me three times already, but I didn’t want to discourage him. When he’d been stationed in the Falklands years ago, before cell phones and e-readers, the only two books he had access to were the Bible and a history of London. Too poor to actually travel by Tube, now he would walk to a station and establish a command outside, shouting all the history he could remember, hoping that donations would clank into his worn tin box.
Traffic banged on around us. Kids shrieked as they tried but failed to climb the four reclining lions guarding the base of Nelson’s Column at the southern edge of the square. Tourists chattered on in Japanese, German, and French. Twice, I climbed to my feet and fulfilled requests to photograph tourists in front of the nearest fountain. Perhaps selfies were finally losing their appeal.
I closed my eyes as Bradley and I sat in silence, feeling all of London swirling around its beating heart. Political protests, New Year’s Eve celebrations, rock concerts, announcements, everything happened here. Victory Day at the end of WWII brought Londoners to the square. The premiere of the final Harry Potter movie had Emma Watson walking a red carpet across the square.
We watched Annie nibble at her pellets. “Much obliged,” Bradley whispered.
“No worries,” I replied, then checked my phone. “Time for you to head for Charing Cross?”
Bradley nodded. “There is so much history to share.”
“I wish you’d use one of the shelters. And there are programs to help vets like you.” Bradley’s answer was to gently lift Annie and press his face into her lush side.
“I know,” I said. “Annie is your love and you want to keep her, but I worry about you.” How did he get up every morning, from whatever doorway or park bench had been his bed, and keep going?
“Life is a constant battle not to lose yourself,” he said.
“Amen,” I replied with appreciation, but really, I didn’t have any experience with that. I’d never really lost myself, since my parents, two brothers, my aunts and uncles, and Chris had always supported and accepted my choices. My mom called me “spunky” because I was such an optimist. Sometimes during parties in college I’d try to play the jaded pessimist, but my friends would end up laughing because I couldn’t pull it off.
Quietly, we began transferring the goodies from my pack into Bradley’s, which was patched with grimy duct tape.
“I hope to see you soon,” I said.
Bradley jumped when a shadow fell across our laps.
“It’s okay,” I said as I shot to my feet. “Chris, I’d like you to meet Bradley. Bradley, my partner, Chris.” Chris knew about Bradley and Annie but had never met them.
Bradley scrambled to his feet, much faster than you’d expect from a guy his age, then held out Annie for Chris to pat. “This is my rabbit, Annie,” he said. I held my breath but needn’t have, for Chris’s Minnesota Nice was as automatic as my own.
When she reached out and lightly touched Annie’s head with one finger, her flinch was invisible to the untrained eye. Chris wasn’t an animal person. “Hello, Bradley. Hello, Annie. It’s nice to meet you.” She looked at me. “I’m done at the Gallery so I thought we could ride home together.”
After one last stroke of Annie’s silky back, I told Bradley I’d find him again. Then Chris and I walked across the main plaza and up the stairs. As we followed the sidewalk toward Leicester Square, I lightly touched Chris’s arm. “Slow down. No need to run.”
Chris’s usually rosy cheeks were carved marble. A muscle twitched along her jaw, but she slowed down. “I know. I’m sorry. Homeless people push some weird button in me that I don’t understand, so I flee. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.”
I slid my arm into Chris’s to avoid being separated by oncoming pedestrians. “Are you afraid of him?”
“No, not at all. But right now, Bradley’s not important. I’m just so disappointed that you didn’t say yes. Dr. Raj really needs help with his experiment.”
“He’s a prof. He has dozens of students to experiment on.”
“Students are a little afraid of him. He’s sort of considered, well, on the fringe.”
“No kidding. Locating our consciousness? He’s not on the fringe, he’s hanging from the very frayed end of it.”
We crossed the street and fed our Oyster cards through the turnstiles just inside the Tube station. “I’m not just disappointed with you,” she said. “I’m disappointed in you.”
I swallowed. “What?” Instead of heading down the stairs, I pulled her aside into a small alcove. The unspoken rule of the Tube system was not to bring conflict down those stairs. Conflict created tension, and tension created a desire to flee. But when you descended crowded stairways, were trapped on crowded escalators, or stood along the narrow, crowded platforms, there was no way to escape. PDAs were highly frowned upon in the underground.
“You’re afraid of needles, which are sanitary and safe. Yet you’ll cuddle up right next to a homeless guy and his germ-infested rabbit.”
“How is it fair to be disappointed in who I am?”
Chris worried her upper lip. “I’m not saying this right. The last thing I want to do is hurt your feelings. You are so kind and diplomatic and creative, but I worry that sometimes you let your fears define you. Instead of stepping outside your comfort zone, you hide inside it. You don’t seem to take many risks in life.”
I felt as if I’d been slapped. “I took a sabbatical from teaching to come with you to London. That’s a risk. I often propose radical art classes. That’s a risk. I’m paying my half of the bills with work-for-hire that could disappear at any second. That’s a risk.”
“But you make no effort to conquer your fear of needles.”
People had begun to stare as they passed, no doubt noticing the hurt look twisting my features. “Chris, my dad is so claustrophobic he can barely get onto an airplane. It’s not a conscious choice. Do you judge him because he can’t will away his fear?”
“One year my family rented a cabin in Itasca State Park. Marcus opened the door and came face-to-face with a spider the size of his fist. The little guy whirled around and climbed me like a tree. He’s still terrified of spiders. It’s a fear, Chris. Fears aren’t logical or defensible.”
Chris watched the crowds streaming past us. “I just wish you would try harder. It feels kind of cowardly not to step outside your comfort zone.”
My jaw dropped. “Cowardly? Remember your sister’s meltdown when I put a dirty knife in the sink? She started shaking like a leaf, yelling at me to get it out of there because she hated to reach in and touch the bottom of the sink. How cowardly is that?”
“Yeah, she is a freak.” Chris sighed. “Okay, I get your point. It’s just…it’s just that facing our fears builds strength of character.”
“And you think I need to build character?”
She shot me an odd look.
“Chris, this is who I’ve always been. I can’t just run over to Harrod’s and buy a new personality.”
She turned and headed down the stairs. Stunned, I followed.
We said nothing when we reached the platform. A few minutes later, a low rumble announced the approaching train. It whooshed to a stop and the doors slid open.
Chris took the first open seat, but I strode to the very end of the car and sat down. This problem between us was bigger than I’d thought, much more serious than me loading the dishwasher wrong, or not being on time, or falling asleep in front of the TV.
I closed my eyes, feeling a little sick to my stomach as the train rattled around a curve. No, I would not despair. We loved each other. We could figure this out. I just needed a little time to nurse my wounded pride.
Once I’d recovered from this latest shock, I would do whatever was needed so Chris would continue to love me, to love us. We had four months left in London, and I would make each moment count. I was not a quitter.
And even though just the thought of a needle made me wince, I knew what my first step would be: Letting Dr. Rajamani experiment on me.
When the train stopped at Holborn, I exited without looking back, then hurried up the left side of the escalator and out the building onto High Holborn Street. During the two-block walk to our flat, I knew Chris had to be no more than twenty paces behind me. Half a block before our flat, I turned to face her. “I’m sorry you’re so disappointed in me. I need a few hours to myself.”
She nodded, so I veered off to the right and entered The Bountiful Cow. Sam, a black Swede working the bar, looked up and grinned. I loved Sam for his sense of humor, and because every time I saw him it was a refreshing slap in the face. He reminded me that not all Swedes were blond, an easy stereotype to develop living in Minnesota. He was as tall and slender as the bottles of vodka lined up behind him.
One of Sam’s eyebrows shot up. My reply was to nod, meaning Yes, send up a Bounty Burger with the works. Now that was taking a risk, consuming a massive burger with chopped onions, gherkin, bleu cheese, bacon, and a fried egg.
Two more flights of stairs brought me to my studio, nothing more than a small room with one window. The room held my drawing table and stool, as well as a long table with books, supplies, and printer. The only bit of comfort came from the green overstuffed chair left in the flat across the hallway by the tenants evicted for nonpayment. Chris had vacuumed it for over an hour to lift out every speck of anything living in the fabric.
While I waited for my heart attack burger, I paced the perimeter of my studio. City sounds rolled through the open window. Even though I was two floors above the pub, the smell of roasting meat and beer somehow wafted up through the floorboards. The family living in the flat between me and the pub must gain weight just by breathing.
Coward? Comfort zone? Chris’s labels stung. But I wasn’t a coward, and I wasn’t afraid to step outside my comfort zone. However, when I considered the eight light and airy watercolors tacked to my board, paintings for the most recent Mr. Froggity book, a shiver ran down my spine. Was Chris right? The book publisher’s art director had requested pastel colors, so the blandness wasn’t my fault. Still, Mr. Froggity easily fit within my artistic comfort zone.
I’d worked hard all my life and achieved more than I’d hoped, yet I was cowardly?
Chris had still been a graduate student when we met, so we needed to live in the Twin Cities. While she attended the U of M, I got a job teaching art and art history at Carleton College, a private college fifty minutes south in the sleepy river city of Northfield. I loved the slower pace of life there and had nurtured an unspoken dream of the two of us becoming Northfielders one day.
In addition to art department classes, I also taught an art class for non-majors called Art Isms: How to Sound Smart at Parties. The course proved to be one of the most popular on campus, so my star rose high enough to be short-listed for tenure. My brothers, Jake and Marcus, said I was the family’s go-getter, the super-ambitious one who fought her way up the academic ladder. But they also both held wonderful jobs. Jake ran an anti-poverty nonprofit, and Marcus was a computer programmer. We were all three pretty happy and content with our lives.
Then a few years ago, Chris discovered an obscure branch of psychiatry called cognitive neuropsychiatry and decided this was her future. She suspended her therapy practice, went back to grad school, then decided she needed to attend the University College London for one year. Our options? We could lease our house while Chris was in London and I’d take an apartment in Northfield and keep working. Or I could take a sabbatical and join Chris in London. After nine years together, the prospect of twelve months apart was too painful, so even though I was next in line for tenure, I convinced my department head to release me for a few semesters. Hopefully, I’d still be at the top of the list when I returned, but it wasn’t a given. Putting my career at risk to support Chris’s was brave. I didn’t deserve the “coward” label.
I texted my brother Jake. He was my Bullshit-O-Meter. No one got to the heart of a problem quicker than Jake. Do I lack courage? Stuck in comfort zone?
Too impatient to await his reply, I texted the same questions to Ashley. Our friendship was cemented the day in third grade when we both stood up to a kid bullying a second grader. She was my cheerleader. No matter what I wanted to do, Ashley supported me unconditionally. She thought I was the smartest, bravest person in her life. I didn’t agree, but whenever I felt a little falter in my step, Ashley made it disappear. Stout and fierce as a bulldog, Ashley defended me without hesitation.
I waited five minutes. Nothing. Then I texted Mary, my art department colleague at Carleton. The tall, outspoken black woman stood out in the mostly white river city of Northfield, but she wasn’t self-conscious. In fact, she loved playing the inner Chicago kid shocking the rural white folks. Mary was my go-to party girl, but she was also my analyst. When I had a problem, she expertly deconstructed it until we could see all the pieces and make sense of what had befuddled me.
I moved my easel to better see the view outside my window—the roofs of surrounding buildings, a few tall trees adding color. Then I jammed earbuds in and turned on my music.
I would show Chris. I primed the canvas with black acrylic, then when it was dry, I attacked with color. In a fever, I gave no thought to matching color with reality, but only matching color to emotions. The heavy bass line in my ears set the rhythm for my brush.
I took a break to eat my Bounty Burger. Soon all my fingers but one pinkie were covered in melted cheese so I used it to open and read my texts.
Jake: Don’t be stupid.
Ashley: You are much braver than I am!
Mary: Sounds like you need wine. Even if you have a comfort zone, who the hell cares? Fire truck anyone who says otherwise. Blinking back tears, I finished my burger and cleaned my hands. I didn’t tell any of them that the words had been Chris’s, since protecting her came so naturally to me I hardly gave it a thought.
It was eight p.m. when I finally stepped back. A thread of cadmium red dripped down onto the black border, adding an edginess I could feel in my teeth. Red buildings, green sky, blue trees all crashed together in a riot of color that made my heart ring like a Caribbean steel drum. Instead of delicate watercolor lines, the painting vibrated with thick slashes and broad splashes of color. Black glowered around the colors, an angry outline to the ragged buildings.
“Oh, my God.”
I jumped. Chris stood behind me, two glasses of lemonade from downstairs in her hands. “That is fucking amazing,” she continued. She’d never spent much time with Aunt Nicole.
I pressed my lips together and shrugged. I accepted the glass, then perched on my stool and waited. The only other chair in the room was the green saggy chair that sat much lower than the stool. Chris took it.
“I’m sorry about this afternoon,” Chris said.
I sipped the sharp lemonade, enjoying the cool slipping down my throat. “You called me a coward because I don’t want to let your Dr. Raj shoot me full of his GCA.”
Chris bent her head, nodding. “Yes, that was really inappropriate. I’ve been thinking this evening about why I did that, and I think it’s because I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something kind of hard, and it came out sideways.”
My heart thumped up into my throat. “Hard?”
Chris rested her head back on the chair and flashed her dark blues at me. “I’ve been trying to find the courage to ask you what you want.”
“What I want? Right now? I want you to apologize for being such a jerk. Then I want us to make up and move on.”
She smiled weakly. “No, not right now. I mean what you want out of life. What do you yearn for, Jamie?”
Because it was obviously important to Chris, I took a moment to consider, then shrugged. “I don’t really feel any deep yearning.”
“Everyone yearns. There has to be something you want that’s bigger than you, unattainable even, something that drives you.”
“Chris, I’m happy. I’m content. I have a great job at Carleton, at least I think I still do, where I love the faculty and the students. My life is full of art. And now? I’m living in London, for God’s sake, and most of the people we love have come to visit. I’m healthy. My brain works. And most of all, I have you. I have nothing left to yearn for except world peace and a rational plan to combat climate change.”
Chris pressed her lips together. “I can appreciate that you’re content. That’s not a bad thing. But…but you seem to lack ambition.”
I could feel my eyes double in size. “Chris, I work hard. I learn something new about myself, and about the world, every day.”
She struggled out of the chair and began pacing in a circle around me. “Don’t you want a painting of yours to hang in the National Gallery some day?”
“The Gallery only shows Western European art, thirteenth to nineteenth centuries.”
“Okay, then, the Tate Modern.”
I nodded toward the board on the wall. “I suppose, but it’s highly unlikely the Tate is going to devote much wall space to Mr. Froggity.”
“So that’s why you’re not trying?”
“Not trying? Chris, I’m painting nearly every day. I’m proud of these paintings. Yeah, the Froggity thing is getting old, but it’s paying my bills.”
“But you could be so much better than this.”
“Why must everyone push for the best job, the best body, the highest position? Why must you take something wonderful, like contentment, and turn it into a horrible weakness?”
“Because it’s important to me.” She stopped pacing.
I tipped my head back and drained my glass. “Well, okay, then what do you want?”
“I want to break open the field of neurobiological psychotherapy. I want to conduct history-making research.” She hesitated. “I also want you to want more than you want.”
A surprised chuckle bubbled up my throat and slipped out. “Let me get this straight. Your ambition is that I get more ambitious.”
“Chris, I’ve loved you with every fiber of my being for ten years. I care for you when you’re sick. Every day I look for new ways to make you laugh. For ten winters I’ve filled your hot water bottle.” One of the strange things that had glued us together was a hatred of electric blankets, and a love of snuggling our feet up to the spreading warmth of a hot water bottle. Filling each other’s bottle had become a symbol of our love and devotion. I drew in a shuddering breath, not afraid to show her I was upset. “You think I’m unambitious, that I’m wasting my life. That’s really, really hard to hear.”
Chris’s face softened and she took my hands in hers. “Good. Maybe it will get you thinking about your future and what drives you.”
“What drives me is love and beauty and the feel of a brush on canvas. Isn’t that enough?”
We stood facing each other. Chris’s eyes were shaded in the poor light. “Not for me,” she whispered.
So. Now it was out. Chris didn’t want a contented me. She wanted an ambitious me.
Chris hugged herself. “I don’t know what to say. I can’t help wanting what I want. You are so smart and talented that I just wish you would push yourself harder.” She waved toward my painting. “Like that.”
I filled my lungs with air. “You want to know what I want? One, I want us to hold hands and be okay. Two, I want us to figure out a way through this by talking more about ambition and see where it might take us. Three, I also want all six original My Little Ponies and an Easy Bake-Oven and a Crocodile Dentist game that works. Four, I want directions to Rajamani’s lab so I can show up Monday morning at nine a.m.”
Chris’s face crumpled into tears. “I want all of that too,” she said softly. “Except for the Crocodile Dentist game. It scared the pee right out of me, literally.”
I pulled Chris into a hug and held her tightly enough that her crazy expectations about ambition couldn’t fit between us. Finally, she pulled away and blew her nose. “Let’s go home. I’d be happy to give you directions to Rajamani’s office.”
Home was a two-bedroom flat in a four-story building of brown brick that faced a small park called Red Lion Square. The view outside our windows wasn’t the park, but the apartment building next door. The narrow street between the two buildings was a shortcut for commuters walking to and from the Holborn Tube station two blocks away, so the sound of feet scuffling and pedestrians talking came with the flat.
The flat had worn mustard carpeting, cream walls, glass door handles, and white fixtures. My favorite was the faucet in the tub—the shower head rested like an old-fashioned phone in its cradle. The first time I took a bath and tried to wash my hair with the “phone,” I managed to spray everything in the bathroom but my head.
That night I lay awake for hours, puzzling through all that had been said. I’d never really stopped and analyzed my life. What if I had stopped trying? What if I’d let complacency look like contentment?
I smoothly navigated around the parked cars on Hampstead Road, pleased with the used bike I’d bought from Sam at the pub. A warm mist brushed my skin, soft as the caresses Chris had offered last night but which I’d declined, surprising us both. I pulled up at the red light and checked my watch. Plenty of time. Steadying myself against the curb, I inhaled the city smells—hot streets, gasoline, and fresh naan being sold by a street vendor.
The first few months we’d lived in London, I’d been overawed by the city’s heady mix of history and architecture and royalty. Gradually, I transformed myself from London tourist to London resident, learning to take out the rubbish instead of the trash, grousing about the prime minister, and accepting that the rain would, eventually, ruin all my leather shoes and boots. And it had.
I’d learned that exploring London meant getting lost, an unusual experience for someone with a great sense of direction. Yet getting lost was a rare treat I cherished. Chris would reach for her phone’s GPS app, but I’d stop her. “No, let’s figure this out on our own.”
The traffic light changed, and I surged ahead until the Wilkins Portico, the iconic image of University College London, rose up in front of me. I turned right, then left, weaving my way deeper into the compact but bustling campus. I slid into the last free slot of a bike rack and snapped the lock shut.
Traffic noise from Euston Road drifted between the buildings, but the campus itself was wondrously quiet. I inhaled the moist air, still marveling that approaching rain smelled the same here as it did in Minnesota. A few drops plopped on my face, and the clouds overhead seemed to thicken and swirl with sudden rage. In the distance, thunder rolled like a bass drum on parade. I ran for the door.
Dr. Rajamani’s office was in the Alexandra House, home to the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and one of the older and shabbier campus buildings. Much of London was either new or very renovated. Old buildings such as this one created a sense of how layered the city was. For generations, buildings had been built, used, torn down, and replaced with others, which were used and then torn down for new ones.
I took the stone stairs two at a time until I reached the top floor, out of breath but not wanting to admit it. Clearly, I needed to spend more time biking and less time painting to stay in better shape. My body was an average size ten, maybe a twelve in winter when bread became my food of choice, but my muscles were going to mush here in London.
I knocked on Dr. Raj’s door, unable to see through the frosted glass. The door swung open. “You are here!” Dr. Raj clasped my shoulders and pressed one of his cheeks against mine, then the other.
“My lab is at the end of the hallway. Come, come.” He stepped out ahead of me, the sides of his white lab coat flapping like wings. Dr. Raj seemed to lean forward when he walked, as if he were pushing himself through water. From what Chris had told me of his career, that made sense. When everyone around you resisted, you pushed harder.
Dr. Raj hurried us down a gritty linoleum floor that buckled and bent in places from water damage. The bare fluorescents running down the dim hallway were either out or flickering like in a homemade scary movie. The walls needed a coat of paint fifty years ago. A small prick of alarm tickled the base of my skull.
The lab itself was no better, boasting a vintage look, sort of an Early Frankenstein. The walls were a puke green and could have used a good scrubbing. The floors, covered in what once must have been a snappy black and white tile, were gritty and dull.
I sat down on the cold folding chair Dr. Raj set up, then watched as he wheeled over a cart of really old equipment, stuff that hadn’t been dusted since the war, and I don’t mean Afghanistan or Iraq or even Vietnam. There were a few laptops, but the main instrument was a huge green metal box with twenty small gauges that looked like car speedometers. Dr. Raj opened a box of electrodes and began peeling off the plastic wrap. At least those things were new.
“So,” I said, “how many people have gone through this experiment?”
He tipped his head. “I think you are the tenth person, in this round at least.”
I licked my lips. Even though Chris and a handful of others had gone through this and were fine, the whole setup was making me nervous. “This round? You’ve done this before?”
“Last year I was perfecting my GCA.”
I jumped as a crack of thunder rattled the window. “And now it works perfectly, right?” I watched as he opened another electrode wrapper, knowing the needle would be coming out soon. Apparently, I hadn’t left my fear of needles behind in Red Lion Square. It had stalked me and now shivered up from the soles of my feet. For Chris, for us, I mentally chanted.
I looked out the rain-streaked window and listened to the quality of the thunder—some were faraway booms, others so close and deep you could feel them through your feet.
“Yes, yes, I learned much from the experiment, even though a few subjects dropped out,” Dr. Rajamani said.
I attempted a laugh, but ended up coughing. “So GCA makes people disappear?”
Dr. Raj smiled. “Faulty reasoning, my dear. No, even though the man never returned my phone calls, I am sure he is just fine. But do not fear. The GCA is flawless now. Everyone in this study has returned for the follow-up.” He frowned.
“Everyone?” I jumped as the professor attached a cold electrode to my forehead.
“One other woman did not return, but she was having relationship problems, so I believe she moved from London.”
The electrodes continued around my face, then Dr. Raj attached some to the base of my skull, moving my hair aside. His dark brown eyes gleamed as he worked. Here was a man obsessed. “I am most appreciative that you are volunteering. Others will follow. I am sure of it. This work is too exciting to be ignored.” He picked up another electrode. “I am close. I feel most certain of this fact. I will locate the consciousness.”
“Why are you interested in this anyway?”
“It is one of the last great mysteries of the body,” he crowed. “I want to solve that mystery.”
“Yeah, but that’s the beauty of the whole thing. It is a mystery. Shouldn’t it stay that way? Why do I need to know what part of my brain is me?”
Dr. Rajamani sat back suddenly. “Why would you not want to know?”
“Because I’m more than just my body. My personality, my thoughts, and my dreams are created by my conscious mind. It’s magic how our brains do that.” To be honest, before that moment I’d never given much thought to this topic, but I liked that one part of the human mind was still a mystery. I liked that my consciousness was all mine, and was housed in my body, and that it ran the show. “Besides, if you locate this part of who we are, won’t people start treating it like other organs, to be studied and fixed?”
“Oh, yes, all that and more. But I am interested in something much greater, something most radical.” He patted my knee confidentially and leaned forward. “Once I locate the conscious mind, then I can transplant it.”
“Transplant it?” My words came out as a squeak.
Dr. Raj placed the last electrode. “What if your body is dying? Why not transplant your brain and its consciousness into a storage vessel? You could live forever.”
“That’s a freaky idea.”
“No, no. Did you not watch the old Star Trek TV shows? I saw one when I was a child that created in me the desire to do this. The explorers find a race of people whose bodies have died, so they stored their consciousness in these oval eggs that flashed with color and light.” He shook his head, face aglow with the memory. Another crack of thunder surprised us both and he smiled. “I love storms.”
“I thought thunderstorms were rare in London.” I watched as Dr. Raj fiddled with his equipment.
“Not in the summer,” he replied.
A flash of lightning was followed almost immediately by crashing thunder directly overhead. I considered the old equipment, now plugged in. The only step left was to connect my electrodes. “Is it safe doing this in the middle of a thunderstorm?” Surely the answer had to be “no.”
Dr. Rajamani considered my question, then waved dismissively. “Yes, yes, of course. These buildings are old, but they have been grounded sufficiently to protect us. Not to worry!”
Dr. Raj then connected each electrode to the big green box with all the speedometers. “I built this equipment myself,” he said. “It may not be beautiful, but it will do the tricks and treats, since I am making do with a most pathetic budget.”
A tiny shiver of fear slid up my spine. I’d assumed the university had sanctioned the experiment, but what did I know? Maybe a professor could conduct crazy-ass experiments without getting approval. I closed my eyes briefly, trusting that Chris would not get me into anything dangerous.
“My experiments are less orthodox, shall we say, than most. But you are not to have fear. Now I ask you to describe the experiment so I know you know what is going on.” Another crack of thunder seemed to come up through the floor.
“You’re trying to locate the consciousness in the brain. You’ve hooked me up to a machine that will record the activity when I use various parts of my brain. And just to clarify, you are not, at this time, attempting to remove or in any way transport my consciousness.”
Dr. Rajamani laughed, a short seal bark. “That is most correct. Our brain is made up of lobes and cells and dendrites, but it also contains you, the person that exists within your body, the spark of your consciousness. I am not transporting that today because I do not know where it is. To isolate the location of our thoughts, of our consciousness, the core of who we are, I will activate…” He waited.
My mind spun as I tried to recall his words from the National Gallery lecture. “My glee cells?”
Dr. Raj smiled. “Your glial cells. I believe the secret to our consciousness lies with the millions of glial cells in our brains. Glials were once considered nothing more than bubble wrap for the brain, but now we suspect they do so much more. Your glial cells might, when electrically charged, reveal their secrets about our consciousness.”
“Electrically charged?” My mouth felt dry.
“That is what the electrodes do—deliver a minuscule electrical charge enabling us to better see what is going on inside there.” He knocked gently on my skull. “I am telling you, glials and electricity are the key to everything. Imagine the various parts of your brain as an orchestra tuning up. It is chaos until the conductor steps up and sets the beat. The conductor is your intralaminar nuclei, which set up an electrical oscillation. When the oscillation reaches forty hertz, consciousness happens! Is this not amazing?”
He lost me at intralaminar nuclei. I nodded. “Totally.”
Dr. Raj opened a small flat box, pulled out a syringe, and ripped open the plastic wrapper.
My throat tightened. Damn it. Chris had better appreciate the sacrifice here. I strained to see the size of the needle. Thank God it was small. “I see it’s time for your magic serum.” Dr. Rajamani patted my arm reassuringly. “It is most certainly nothing to be frightened of. It will simply heighten the responses of your consciousness so we can see the results more clearly. The GCA, or glial cell activator, is necessary for the experiment because it provides a slight electrical charge to cells that normally do not conduct electricity.”
I forced myself to return his smile. One GCA injection, twenty electrodes, and a thunderstorm. Nothing to worry about.
The injection was swift and painless. By the time I opened my eyes, Dr. Raj was tossing the needle into a biohazard waste bin.
“How are you feeling?”
I blinked. “Weird. Very weird.”
“That is normal,” he said. “The effects will wear off soon.”
The hair on my forearms stood straight up. “Dr. Raj, I feel really weird, as if I’m….” I couldn’t find the words. “As if I’m full of static electricity.”
He frowned. “Really?” He glanced at his big green box and shot to his feet, muttering something in what I presumed to be Hindi. He began checking the electrode connections.
The little speedometer needles had all sprung to life and were reaching nearly all the way to the right, as if a car were pushing one hundred miles per hour. “But the equipment’s not on,” I said. “How can that be?”
Dr. Raj unplugged the machine, disconnected it from the three laptops, then reconnected everything. The needles shot up again. “I do not know. The electrodes must be faulty. I will replace them.”
I shivered as he applied the new electrodes, hoping we’d exchange a spark of static to drain the electricity coursing through me, but no. And when I closed my eyes, it was as if a door had blown open somewhere. How did I know that? If you were sitting in a room with your eyes closed and someone opened a door, you’d feel the air currents change; a breeze would brush against your skin. Smells would enter; sound would change. I felt all of that sitting on the folding chair in Dr. Raj’s lab. A door had opened, and I wanted it closed.
The new electrodes behaved the same way—they measured an electrical current coming from my brain even though Dr. Raj wasn’t sending any current through them. It was as if I were generating the current myself.
After a few minutes, my vision cleared and my alarm faded. The freaky feeling receded, even though the needles remained in the red zone. “Dr. Raj, I’m feeling better. I’m okay.”
Dr. Raj leaned close. “Are you sure?”
“Everything seems more…intense, but I’m okay.”
“Good,” he said. “We will proceed. You might have had a slight reaction to the GCA.” He turned on the machines, clicked a few keys on the computers, then began asking me questions from a thick stack of papers. I sighed. I was going to be here a while.
After some questions, Dr. Raj scribbled in his notebook, then asked more questions—about the weather, some math problems, about movies, books, names of British prime ministers, of which I knew only one—for another thirty minutes. Thunder still boomed outside; after a particularly bone-rattling clap, Dr. Raj’s gaze swung toward the indicators. His eyes widened. “Good gods, your glials are lighting up like fireworks.”
I licked my dry lips. “Is that why the electrodes are kind of tingling now?”
Dr. Raj looked at me in alarm, which wasn’t very reassuring. “Tingling?” he said. He tapped the keyboard, muttering to himself. “You should not be feeling the electrodes. You say they are tingling?”
I cleared my throat. “Maybe we should stop now, since there’s such a huge storm. Maybe the lightning—”
“I have never seen glials react this way. I wonder if I am misdosing the GCA.”
Okay, that was the last straw. Between the thunderstorm and Dr. Raj’s confusion over the GCA dose and the electrodes burning my skin, it was time to leave. I knew it, my consciousness knew it, and since we were one and the same, the decision was unanimous. “I’m no longer feeling comfortable doing this. Please unhook me.”
Still entranced by the data on his screen, the professor nodded but didn’t look up.
“Unhook me now.”
I finally got his attention. As he reached for the dial to shut everything off, the loudest thunderclap yet sent an earthquake of a tremor through my Birkenstocks. Sparks flew from the old equipment with a sickening snap. My entire body buzzed, and I clutched at an electrode, trying to rip it off, but suddenly everything moved in slow motion. All sound faded. The world disintegrated into a black sea of nothingness as I was yanked upward, drowning in an upside-down ocean. I fought the current, but it was too strong. The sky sucked me in.
I tried moving, but my legs resisted, as if bound by ropes or heavy fabric. With my eyes squeezed shut against the nausea, I tried again, this time succeeding in rolling onto my side. Something musical hit the floor nearby; must be rain given the smell and the mist settling across my skin. Voices spoke to me, but from behind a wall too thick to penetrate.
“Dr. Raj?” I managed to whisper. “Chris?”
The storm. The huge spark. Had the equipment exploded? Was I dead? Hands tugged on my arms, tugging impatiently. “I’m trying,” I muttered. “Have you called an ambulance?” I opened my eyes a crack to see a woman bending over me.
“Are you unwell? What manner of play is this?”
For an emergency technician, the woman was unusually abrupt and impatient. I forced my eyes open. “Please call Chris Johansen. Her cell is….” My brain struggled for the number. “Use my phone. It’s in my pocket.”
“You are making no sense at all. Her majesty sent you to complete a task, and she expects you to return quickly. You may be her pet, but you can still incur her wrath.”
As I sat up, I realized my legs had felt bound because of yards and yards of a heavy fabric were lying across them. A dress. Blue brocade with silver trim. I groped at my waist, chest, and hair. Someone had changed my clothing and dressed me in a wig and headdress. The woman pulling on my arm was dressed in the same manner. I clutched at my aching head. How had I gone from Dr. Raj’s lab to an Elizabethan costume event?
“Come, you must return to the Queen.” The woman helped me stagger to my feet, but the wet dress slowed me down.
Shocked at the weakness in my legs, I leaned back against the wall. “Damn, that GCA crap really packs a punch. Who brought me here? Does Dr. Rajamani think this is funny?”
We were under the covered edge of a small, outdoor courtyard. Rain pounded the cobblestoned floor and bounced off two wooden chairs. Was it still Monday morning? How much time had passed? Surely Chris must be worried about me, since we’d planned to meet at the Wilkins Portico for lunch.
When I inhaled deeply, a sharp pain burned across my ribs. I clutched at my body and discovered I was bound by some sort of corset. Then I bent over and vomited onto the cobblestone walk, spitting out as much of the acrid taste as I could before I wiped my mouth. Damn it.
Clucking in disgust, the woman once again grabbed impatiently for my arm and managed to pull me down the walkway. “Her majesty sent me to find you, and I have done. I am not going to endanger my own position here for one of your childish pranks.” Shorter than me, and quite stout, the woman looked about forty, with deep fissures along her mouth and nose that were unsuccessfully hidden under a layer of chalky cake makeup. “I will deliver you back to her chambers and then you are on your own.”
We entered through a thick, planked wood door, then hurried down a dark corridor, lit only by candles on wall sconces every ten feet or so. We passed through a number of richly decorated rooms, and I thought at once of the sets for The Tudors, the Showtime series about King Henry VIII and his six wives. Was I on some sort of movie set?
But when the woman hurried us past a window, I yanked myself free and peered through the mullioned glass. I was too stunned at the sight to even gasp. I was in a building that rose a few stories directly above the Thames. To the left was the familiar curve in the river, and beyond it rose St. Paul’s Cathedral, only the spire was taller and more slender. I could just see the roof of the White Tower, the central feature of the Tower of London. Dozens of white swans floated in the river, despite the rain. When I pressed my left cheek to the pane, I could see Westminster to the right. But everything else about the London skyscape was wrong. Where was the Tower Bridge, the Gherkin building, the London Eye?
I stepped back, rubbing my eyes. What the hell was going on?
“Make haste,” the woman snapped. She latched onto my wrist and pulled me into a warm room lit with a gilded candelabra suspended overhead that blazed with candlelight. Six women, all dressed in some version of the costume I wore, sat on stools or on the floor, each bent over a sewing project. With their skirts spread wide, the women looked like elegant flowers that had collapsed into themselves. The room smelled of burning candle, body odor, roses, and cloves.
I stumbled over the hem of someone’s skirt as the woman yanked me one more time, then released me. The woman sank into a deep curtsey. “Ma’am, as you requested I have found Lady Blanche and brought her to you. She was in the eastern courtyard.”
A woman sat on a wide chair, its wooden back elaborately carved into a scene of battling lions. She leaned over the table beside her, eating the last of some sort of meat. Dressed in green fabric shot through with silver, the woman was younger than me—mid twenties?—yet she practically vibrated with the same sense of privilege I’d seen at my uncle’s country club years ago. She wore an excessive number of ropes of pearls around her neck, as well as a ruff of delicate white lace. Her sleeves ended in matching ruffs. A pearl headdress held back pale red hair tight with curls.
Judging by the red hair, pale skin, and long, slender fingers, the woman was obviously playing the role of Queen Elizabeth I, and since the actor was young, she must be playing the period shortly after Elizabeth had taken the throne at age twenty-five. In the United States there were murder mystery parties. Did the UK hold Life in Elizabethan England parties?
“Dear Blanche, how lovely of you to grace us with your presence,” said the woman in the broad chair. “You have been gone so long, we thought that perchance you had decided to seduce one of our courtiers.”
The women in the room laughed.
I scowled. Why were they calling me Blanche? And why did they think this was some sort of joke?
“Although, from what we hear about most of the men, very little time would be required to consummate the act.” The actor grinned wickedly, as if hoping to shock me.
I stepped forward. “Listen, you all look lovely. Your costumes are stunning, and you—” I motioned to “Elizabeth.” “You even bear a remarkable likeness to the Queen, at least from the paintings I’ve studied in the National Portrait Gallery. So congratulations.” I gave a slow, insolent clap. “But I’m done. Point me toward the exit. I have no wish to keep playing your games. And my name’s Jamie, not Blanche.”
Both of “Elizabeth’s” brows arched. Her smile frosted over. “Games? Hell’s gate, we see no games being played at the moment. And your name is certainly Blanche and we sent you on an errand. Has our Master of the Horse yet returned from his hunting trip?”
From my Tudor obsession, I knew that Elizabeth’s Master of the Horse was Robert Dudley. Elizabeth had loved him her entire life, but no one knew for sure if they’d ever consummated the relationship. I admitted to being a little curious to see the actor portraying Dudley, since he’d been considered one of the most handsome men at Elizabeth’s court—tall, dark, and broad-shouldered.
I rested my hands on the fabric flaring out from my hips. “Much as I’d love to meet your Dudley, I’m serious. Where are my real clothes? My cell phone? I intend to call the authorities and have you all arrested for kidnapping. And I’ll have Dr. Raj arrested for reckless experimenting.”
The tittering laughter turned to murmurs. “Arrest us? For kidnapping?” The room seemed to hold its breath until “Elizabeth” threw back her head and roared. “Ah, dearest, you are amusing us again. Lord Cecil is our Spirit, Dudley is our Eyes, and you are our Spark, the flash of humor and soul in our life.”
The woman who had dragged me to the room stepped forward. “Ma’am, I found Lady Blanche on the ground, with a bruise on her head.” When the woman motioned to my forehead, I reached up and touched what was indeed a tender lump. “Blanche is not amusing you,” the woman said, “but is perchance injured in some way from her fall.” The look the woman shot me made it clear she hoped for major brain damage.
The Elizabeth actor rose to her feet and gracefully crossed the room with more speed than seemed possible in these restrictive dresses. She lightly probed my forehead with long, cool fingers. “Poor dear, you might be befuddled after all. Here, you shall sit until you have fully recovered your senses.” The woman urged me down into another carved wooden chair and then tucked a shawl across my shoulders.
I remained in the chair, surprised at how good it felt to be still. Perhaps I had fallen, or been dropped, when being transported from Dr. Raj’s office to this…whatever this was. While I should seek medical attention, I didn’t seem to be in any immediate danger, so I relaxed into the chair. Activity in the room returned to normal as the women picked up their work, talking quietly among themselves. The Elizabeth actor returned to her chair, sipped something from a jewel-encrusted goblet, then picked up a small book and began to read. With the women’s dresses sparkling like constellations and the warm air, and the quiet voices, the setting was almost peaceful.
My eyelids closed, but I forced them open again. Falling asleep with a concussion could be bad news. Instead, I examined the room in which we sat. Large windows behind “Elizabeth” were gray with the storm. Heavy drapes hung at the windows and large, dark tapestries had been draped across the remaining three walls. A few small dogs rested on some of the women’s laps. The ceiling was dark as well, carved into deep wells that arched over our heads.
I picked up that the woman who’d brought me to the room called herself “Lady Mary,” and the older woman who seemed to be in charge used the name “Kat.” Kat Ashley was Queen Elizabeth I’s dearest friend, so at least these women were accurate in their role-playing.
Then an attractive woman across the room caught my eye. Her black hair was pulled back and up into a sleek bun, and the small cap on the woman’s head matched her blue dress, which was the same dress that I wore. The costume shop must have run a discount on it. I smiled shyly, and she answered with an equally shy smile, as if to acknowledge we wore matching gowns.
But when I brushed a lock of hair back off my face and she did the same, my throat constricted. I straightened the lace dripping out my left sleeve. She did the same. What?
When I rose and approached her, she did the same. I reached out to touch her, but instead touched something smooth and cool.
I stared at the unfamiliar woman staring back at me, then ripped off my cap and tried to remove the wig, but it wasn’t a wig. I winced as I pulled the hair free of its constraining pins. What the hell was going on? My own hair was reddish brown, not black, and this face was all wrong. Dark blue eyes instead of light hazel. Fine eyebrows instead of thick ones. Wide forehead, high cheekbones.
I probed my face. Was this a mask? Prosthetics? Where were my cheekbones or my chin? My dainty ears?
Sudden fear squeezed my chest even tighter than the corset. “Off!” I yelled, and I began clawing at my dress. But there was no visible way to get it off—no buttons, no zippers, no Velcro. I yanked the nearest woman to her feet. “Off! Take this off!” With shaking fingers, I helped the woman untie and tug and unlace until I stood before the mirror wearing nothing but a thin white chemise. Stunned, I ignored the concerned murmurs that rippled through the room.
I lifted the chemise over my head, aware of the gasps and “Elizabeth’s” loud guffaw. This wasn’t my body. The breasts were large and full; mine were much smaller. The waist was thick, where mine was narrow. The thighs pressed against each other more than mine did. I wore a consistent size ten, but this body surely wore a size with an X in it, if not two. I stared at the body in the mirror, then touched it, feeling my hands on my body as I did so.
Not only was I wearing someone else’s dress, but I was wearing someone else’s body.