An essay by Jon, as provided by Faith Consiglio
Art by Luke Spooner
It’s been seven months since I gave consent. I still haven’t seen any of the money they promised. Soon, I’m thinking, it can’t go on forever, right?
I sit across from the lipstick-clad woman, who’s eyeing me with her legs crossed. I still don’t know what to call her. Therapist? Counselor? Consultant? Her role is to get my feedback, but sometimes her questions feel invasive, so personal I want to leave. But I need the money.
I typically talk as long as I want, getting her undivided attention. But not today. Today, something’s wrong. She shifts in her seat as if she has to pee. Something’s beeping, like a pager.
She actually stops our meeting.
“Excuse me; I’m obligated to check this.”
I halt, somewhat embarrassed. I’ve been going on about Sara, the only woman I ever loved. I still beam with pride thinking about her. I can’t believe she agreed to move in with me a month ago. It feels like a dream, one I’m afraid I’ll awake from when she realizes I don’t deserve her.
Because I don’t. I’m a medicine intern with mediocre feedback like, completed required tasks. Never anything better. My heart was never in it though… until I met her. Sara’s an internal medicine attending. Within her first month at the hospital, she had everyone’s attention. She knew the correct diagnoses, every time, before anyone else. She had unparalleled efficiency, seeing more patients than the entire team. But it wasn’t just her intellect that attracted, it was something else; something made her magnetic. Everyone wanted to be around her. She was inspiring, with an infectious optimism that made even me like medicine.
I hadn’t chased anything in a long time, but I went for her, expecting I’d be rejected. Only I wasn’t, and ever since we started dating, I’ve been a better version of myself.
I’ve been rambling. So when the counselor stops me, I blush. People must hate me. I found the one, and she’s undeniably special.
I look at the woman’s expression. It looks like she’s seen a ghost. She mumbles a few affirmations, then an, “I see.” She hangs up. Something’s wrong.
“I’m sorry, we have to end early.” She forces a glance at her tablet. “Next week we can meet for longer to make up for it.”
“Is everything ok?” I ask. “That sounded serious.”
“It’s nothing,” she says, waving a stiff hand.
I leave feeling unsettled. I decide to call Sara, but when I reach for my phone, I find the screen inundated with missed calls and texts, all from my team at the hospital.
Things are extra busy this week; everyone’s on edge. The Russian ambassador has been admitted to our hospital following chest pain. It’s a big deal, even I admit, although I act like I don’t care. It gives our little hospital a lot of publicity. It requires our best performance at all times, which means Sara taking charge of course.
I’ve already finished my shift, but they might be calling me back to cover for someone swept up by the press. I don’t want to go back. I want to relax and go home, talk to Sara later about my appointment.
I debate not returning the calls, but as I scroll through, another comes in. It’s Brandon, my senior resident.
“Jon?” His voice is urgent. “Jesus Christ, where have you been?”
“At my appointment.” I wasn’t expecting this.
“Oh my God … have you talked to anyone yet?”
“No,” I say, getting nervous. “What’s wrong?”
“He’s dead,” he says, and I freeze.
A million questions flood my mind, but before I can ask one, he continues.
“We think that … well, it looks like Sara–”
“Sara? Sara what?” I’m sweating.
“It looks like she’s responsible.”
A crowd is gathered around the hospital entrance. I run to the side doors where you can only enter by iris scan. I burst into the stairwell and sprint to the third floor. This must be some sick joke, or misunderstanding. Sara couldn’t make a mistake this bad.
The telemetry floor is flooded with people. The majority of them shouldn’t be there, and a few nurses are frantically trying to push people out. They’re crowding around the room, the nicest one in our hospital, gussied up to suit the needs of the elite.
Before I can push my way through, someone grabs my arm. Brandon pulls me into the resident room and slams the door.
“Where is she?”
“What?” I say. “What the hell’s happening?
“You don’t know where Sara is?”
“No one’s heard from her since–”
“Since what? What happened?”
“Ok,” he says. “Ok.” His chest heaves, and he’s holding his head. “Try calling her.”
“Tell me what happened first.”
He glares at me. “Something was wrong today,” he says. “Sara wasn’t talking. She was just staring at the screens. She skipped morning report. When I asked her questions, she ignored me. No smile. When I asked her if something was wrong, she shook her head, but that was it. Silence. I thought maybe something had gone wrong between you two. And then … it happened. And she’s just disappeared.”
“Nothing was wrong with us,” I say. “She was fine this morning.” I remember her tying her hair back in front of the mirror and kissing me goodbye.
“I thought maybe the pressure was getting to her.”
“Sara doesn’t feel pressure.”
“Well something was wrong, Jon,” he says, sounding suspicious. “The ambassador’s dead.”
“It’s been confirmed and everything?” I say stupidly.
“He was pronounced two hours ago.”
“Shit,” I say, knowing how bad this’ll look. But I deny any fault of Sara’s.
“Yeah, it’s bad … firings, lawsuits, even de-accreditation bad.”
“What makes you think it’s her fault?”
He takes a long breath. “He came in with AFib, and was monitored over-cautiously; he couldn’t go to the bathroom without an army of nurses running in. We should’ve discharged him already; he wasn’t having any more episodes. But this morning, his monitor flat-lined. They called a code, everyone rushed in, tried resuscitating for over an hour. No one wanted to call it. Then the blood chemistry comes back and shows his potassium is way high. Doesn’t make any sense. I go back and check the orders. There were six orders of potassium chloride, for no reason. Six. And guess who ordered them?”
I shake my head. “There’s some mistake.”
“It was her. And that’s not just a mistake, or an oversight from being tired or something; it’s intentional.”
“Something screwed with the record.”
He shakes his head.
“You need fingerprints to log in!”
“Someone must have tricked her into logging in and done it later,” I say, my body heating. “Ever since he’s been a patient here, there’s been a ton of privacy breaches.”
He just stares. “The nurse saw her go into the med room and retrieve the vials. They would never question Sara, you know that. But there are six potassium chloride vials gone now.” He pauses. “It’s blatant. She didn’t even try to hide it.”
“What nurse are you talking about?” I ask.
That bitch. “She’s making up a story to make Sara look bad. She’s been jealous since Sara arrived. Or she’s trying to cover up what really happened.” I stand.
“Stay,” Brandon says. “Stay in this room.”
“This is ridiculous” I shout. “Sara would never, ever do this. She’s brilliant. If she did plot a murder, she’d at least conceal it better.”
He sighs. “None of this makes any sense,” he says. We agree on something.
I try calling Sara. The phone keeps ringing. On the seventh try, it still goes to voicemail. Brandon is telling the truth about something. Sara’s unreachable.
“People first noticed when they called the code and she wasn’t there. After excessive paging with no response, they made announcements. Finally, a security guard reported seeing her leave the building.”
My palms are sweating.
“They’ll be search parties,” he says. “We’ll all be implicated too … unless she returns and claims full responsibility.”
Anger flares. “Sara’s not responsible for this. I’ll find her and figure out what happened.” Before he can stop me, I rush through the door.
“Sara!” I shout as I unlock the door to my apartment. “Sara?” I stride through the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom.
Empty. I call her number again and again, each time with rising pulse. The phone slips in my sweating palms.
I pace. My eyes settle on the wall, where a painting I had printed for Sara hangs. There’s a sculptor, kissing a nude woman, her body half human flesh, and half still marble. I’m frozen.
I call again, but this time, there’s not even a ring; I hear the robotic woman’s voice claiming the number is unavailable.
I feel sick.
It takes two hours for the police to show up with a warrant. I’m impressed by the efficiency displayed when it’s a government official at the center of a crime. If it was some poor kid from the neighboring city, I’d probably never hear about the case again. But this is an ambassador. And it doesn’t matter that everyone hated him, that everyone in the hospital would’ve been at least slightly satisfied if he died.
I clench my fists as I answer the door. I let them in because I have nothing to hide; Sara has nothing to hide.
Two more officers appear and want me to come to the station. They’re not arresting me. They just want me to answer questions.
I don’t need any convincing. Of course I’ll go, and tell them Sara’s innocent.
I sit down in a fluorescently lit room, across from two officers.
“You don’t look well,” the first says, as if it will make me unravel and tell him some hidden truth. His name’s Harvey.
“My girlfriend’s missing,” I say.
He nods. His partner drinks his coffee, leaning back as if amused.
The smell reminds me of her. Sara makes coffee, but never drinks it. She just likes the smell. So do I … except now, it feels offensive.
“How long have you known Sara?” Harvey asks.
She’s my whole life; I can barely remember not knowing her. But when I actually count, I realize my answer doesn’t sound good. “It’s been six months.”
He nods. “What was the nature of your relationship?”
I hesitate. Maybe I shouldn’t say the truth; it makes me biased. But a lie makes me look like I’m hiding something. “I fell for her early on. She’s incredible–brilliant, caring, funny–she agreed to date me and we’re looking forward to a future together.”
His pen scribbles on a tablet. “You talked a lot with her then?”
I pause. “Everything–the hospital, physiology. We talk about my therapy sessions, and art, and,” my mind scrambles. “And music, which neither of us really likes.” I cut myself off; I’m rambling.
“Did you ever talk about politics?”
I know where he’s going with this. But I don’t have to lie. “No, actually.”
“She seems to talk about a lot of things. But never politics?”
“Well … she sometimes mentions the order of things.”
“What do you mean?”
“Once, she asked why some people are treated differently than others; why, despite universal rules, some patients are given priority. She has an eye for hypocrisy.”
“Hmm.” He furrows his brow.
I don’t know how to explain it. Sometimes I think Sara has some social deficit. She can’t understand things like racism or sexism. To her, every person is literally the same. I didn’t think it was possible to have no bias, until I met her. I suddenly think that’s important. “Sara believes in equality,” I say. “She gives fair attention to all patients.”
“What about this new patient? He’s an important figure. Was she maybe upset he was given too much?”
I realize he’s taking this the wrong way. “She wasn’t upset. I just meant she didn’t act like it was any more pressure to care for him.”
“Isn’t that odd?”
“No,” I snap. “That’s called being a good doctor.”
That night I can’t sleep. I start thinking about the first day I met her, when her bright smile elevated my soul and gave me a reason to come to the hospital. I think about the first time I took her out, how she licked ice cream sitting on a bench on a breezy August day and said simply, “I like this.”
“What’s so impressive about her?” Harvey asks, the following day at the station. “Anything specific?”
“She remembers everything. Most doctors regularly check databases for treatment guidelines, diagnostic criteria. She remembers it all, no need to reference. She’s a genius. And she’s honest. She can never lie about anything.”
It looks like he doesn’t believe me, or thinks I’ve been fooled.
“Did Sara ever meet your family?”
“No. It’s just my mom. She lives in Michigan and I don’t go back much. I call sometimes.”
“When’s the last time you called?”
“I don’t know.” I remember my mom’s voice but can’t tell if it’s been a week or a year.
“Does she know about Sara?”
I shake my head.
“We’re just not close. I can tell her next time.”
“So she doesn’t know what’s happening now?”
I shake my head. “Unless she’s seen it on the news.”
The officers glance at each other, then pen some notes.
“Yesterday, you mentioned therapy sessions. What are they for?”
“They’re unrelated. I don’t have any psychiatric problems.” They stare. “They’re not actually therapy.”
When they continue to stare I get annoyed.
“I agreed to be part of a study, run by a tech company introducing a new technology at the hospital. They didn’t tell what kind because it’d bias us. They just note our observations each week. They didn’t even say when it happened. But I’ve assumed they’re studying the new EMR.”
“Electronic medical record. The one the hospital transitioned to is the most advanced.”
He nods. “So you talk about what exactly?”
“I report on anything–what’s going on at the hospital, my mood, my personal life.”
“That’s strange,” he says. “Most studies are more focused right? No time to talk about personal life.”
“That’s true. I mean, I don’t think everything I say is relevant to them, but I think they let me talk, try to keep it vague so they eliminate any bias I could have from knowing what the study’s on.”
“So you signed up for a study, without knowing what it was for, and you go every single week?”
“Every Wednesday. They offered money; that’s what got me into it.”
“I know, it’s unheard of.”
“Do you have a copy of the consent form?”
“No, they didn’t let me keep it.”
“Something about this sounds off to me,” he says.
I shrug. “I did wonder why they pay so much. I figured they’re one of those absurdly wealthy companies, invested so deeply in a development, they’ll shell out for proper feedback.”
“Why’d you need the money?”
“Med school cost a fortune. I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore but paying back the loans would be hard with a career change. This would help.”
“Why’d you want to quit?”
I roll my eyes. Sara’s disappearance feels too urgent to get into this. But they stare, waiting.
“It just didn’t excite me. It’s so wasteful. You don’t really save anyone. Someone comes in pretty much dead, but families want to keep them alive at all costs, even with zero quality of life; the patients don’t know where they are, who their families are, but as long as they’re breathing, resources pour in. When the chance of death in the next week is near 100%, it’s time to say goodbye and plan a funeral, not an invasive surgery.” I’m riled. I haven’t dwelled on these sentiments for months. Sara made me see past them. “Anyway,” I say. “I don’t think my appointments have anything to do with what’s going on. Do you?”
“If this company introduced new technology at the hospital, of course we should follow up. It could’ve affected staff performance.”
I don’t see the connection but at least they’re looking into something other than Sara.
“What’s the company?”
“OCELOT,” I say. They look at each other like they know something. “Is that significant?”
Harvey taps his tablet in several places. “The ambassador’s on the list of OCELOT’s major donors.”
My mind reels. What could this mean? “Is there some connection?”
“We’ll look into it.”
I nod, trusting them.
“Did Sara ever hide anything from you?” Harvey asks.
I’m taken aback by the change in direction. “No,” I say, reflexively. Then I recall the time she did; it was just a misunderstanding though. After a month of dating, I saw her out with a different guy, sitting in a café and laughing. I walked right up and made her come outside. She didn’t understand my rage. It was as if, before that moment, she had no notion of jealousy. Once I told her I wanted her to be mine, she promised not to see anyone else. She said she wanted to make me happy. I believed her, and it never happened again.
“Did you ever talk about having kids?” he asks. I tense. What was he trying to prove?
“She doesn’t want kids. I don’t either, at least not now. But she said not ever, that she can’t. I didn’t ask more. She’s a doctor, she knows how to explain everything to me, but I could tell she didn’t want to.”
There’s a long pause.
“Do you think it’s possible,” he says, “that she doesn’t love you?”
Rage pulses, but I control it. “Why would she be with me then? I offer nothing.”
I try to forget their words as I lie in bed. I call her again, just in case, but the same voice tells me the number is unavailable.
I should turn the light off to sleep, but I remember her telling me she liked that light, that it looked warm like the sun, unlike the cold lights of the hospital.
Where are you? I want to turn and find her lying beside me again. I fight the urge to leave and look for her. The police might think I’m running from them; I could make both of us look guilty. My blood heats. Why am I worried about looking guilty? I’ve done nothing. And she’s done nothing! But how can I explain what everyone’s saying? That she administered those injections. I don’t know, but someone’s lying.
I look at the painting on the wall, a copy of the one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I brought her there one day, through the hall of massive sculptures. She had paused at this painting, transfixed.
“It’s Pygmalion,” I said. “A sculptor falls in love with his creation, only she isn’t real. So he prays to the goddess of love, and when he returns home, he kisses the sculpture and she becomes human.”
She whispered then, something under her breath. I didn’t want to say what and ruin the moment. She turned to me, and her hand gently brushed my fingertips before she held it.
That was the first time I kissed her.
A month later, I brought her this replica, and her eyes filled with joy.
I ache inside.
“Come back,” I whisper. “Come back to me.”
It’s Wednesday. I go to my appointment. The woman greets me with her usual smile.
“How are you doing?”
“Are you aware of what’s going on?” I ask, not in the mood for formality.
“If you’re referring to the incident in the hospital, yes.”
She nods emphatically. “How are you holding up?”
I haven’t showered in days, my sweat is staining my shirt and my face is ghostly after no sleep. I don’t answer. “I have a lot to do this week, so if we could cut this meeting short–”
“Are you busy at the hospital?”
“No. interns aren’t going in while this whole mess is underway.” They were probably excited by all the drama. None of them were missing the love of their lives.
“So what are you busy with?”
“Trying to reach her, to figure out what happened.”
“You think she’s innocent?” She looks down at her tablet and I’m suddenly worried she could be reporting this to someone.
“She is innocent.”
She doesn’t answer.
“Am I finished? Haven’t I given enough feedback?”
“Soon,” she says. “The conclusion’s not yet finalized, but we’re very near the end of this cycle. We like your feedback though. You’re surprisingly interesting.”
It’s a weird compliment; I don’t know how to take it.
“Did you ever think she was just too perfect?” she asks suddenly. The question surprises me.
“She is perfect.”
The meeting feels disjointed, questions jumping from place to place. I share my feelings, my desire to find Sara, but instead of validation, I feel she’s observing me like a mouse in a tank. I leave feeling invaded and decide to skip the next appointment. I doubt I’ll ever get that money anyway.
I go home, still hoping to open the door and find her there. But it’s empty. Drawers are opened, desks overturned, and closets picked through. The police didn’t find anything though, at least not that I know of.
I decide to take a walk. Near the door of my building, I notice my mailbox, an obsolete contraption, like a relic, no longer used. Except I see a paper protruding from the bottom. It must have just arrived, avoiding the police search.
I look around then slide the paper out. My heart pounds. I run back to my room and lock the door, wondering if anyone has seen me.
I sit to unfold it.
It’s from her.
I see her name at the bottom. My vision blurs, and I can barely read from my trembling hands.
I’m writing this from a bathroom on telemetry floor. People are always watching me. But right now, someone’s blocking me from them so I can write this to you.
I know I’m acting differently. It’s like ideas are being put in my head, ones I don’t remember having before, or derived from any experience. I can’t make sense of it. In some ways, this message is not from me. It’s from someone who wants you to know the truth, because you’re in love with me, you deserve it.
Others need to know too. The world needs to know what’s happening.
I know this sounds strange, but I need to tell you to look at my eyes. Watch me blink.
I read it several more times. What the hell is she talking about? My skin stings with a heated shiver. Someone must have taken her, forced her to make a message. Why did it end so abruptly?
This is my only clue. Should I go to the police? I pace. What if they take it as proof she’s guilty? She didn’t explain anything.
Yet she hadn’t mentioned the ambassador at all … maybe this letter was about something else entirely. An abduction. My head swirls; I sit down. Someone is keeping her captive, and the police need to get her back.
I’m shaking as I sit in the chair at the station. The officers look eager.
“You have something?”
I nod, but hesitate. I might regret this. I reach into my pocket and give them the letter. “This was in my mailbox. It says it’s from her.”
They practically jump from their seats to take it. I watch their wide eyes squint as they read then reread the letter. It doesn’t make sense to them either.
“I think she’s having psychosis,” Harvey says finally.
“No,” I say. “She didn’t have any illness. Someone forced her to write that.”
“We’re not saying she can be diagnosed, based on this, schizophrenic or bipolar. But this could be psychosis. People can have acute episodes, even just once in their life.”
“You don’t need to explain that to me,” I say, fuming.
“Can you think of anything that might have triggered her? Anything at home stressing her out? Any recent rants about, say, politics?
“No!” I snatch the letter from their hands. “She was perfect!”
“Ok, Jon,” Harvey’s partner says. “Breathe.”
I realize I shouldn’t shout at the ones investigating this case, but I’m angry for trusting them with the letter. “It’s probably not even from her,” I say.
“We’ll look into this,” he says.
“Aren’t you worried someone could have her?”
Harvey nods like I’ve said something about the weather.
I decide to hire a private investigator.
He holds out a hand, and I slowly return the letter.
“Let me ask you something,” he says.
“Where does she go every Wednesday afternoon?”
“You mean, where do I go?” I think he’s talking about my appointments.
He shakes his head. “She’s unaccounted for.”
“I don’t know what you mean. She’s working.”
“No, she’s not in the hospital every Wednesday afternoon.”
I sit in my apartment, not knowing what to think. I’m not sure I believe the police’s claims. If she went somewhere, why didn’t she tell me? Was there something I didn’t know? I consider asking Brandon if it’s true but decide not to call.
The only thing I know for sure is that she’s innocent, somehow, some way. I pick up my phone and study the picture I took of the letter before leaving it with the police. Besides her name at the bottom, there’s no sign it’s from her–no cute words or references to our inside jokes; it’s not her style, not really her handwriting, although I rarely saw her handwriting.
I begin swiping through my pictures then, all of her. We’re out to dinner, getting ice cream, walking through museums and parks. My heart aches. Finally, I reach a five-minute video she recorded on my birthday. I know it’ll be hard to watch, but I let it play and absorb every word of it, every nuance of her voice. She tears up, laughs, even sings. I watch it again, and then a third time. Tears flood over my cheeks.
Then, suddenly, I remember something. I swipe back to the letter, paying attention to the ending.
Watch me blink.
I don’t want to do this, but I play her video again, this time muted, turned off to the emotion. I watch only her eyes.
Am I going crazy? By the third time, I swear I see a pattern in the way she blinks. I even time it.
Maybe I’m losing my mind. It’s past midnight and I haven’t slept in a long time. And even if there is a pattern, what does that mean? A secret message? It doesn’t make any sense.
I try to push this madness away. It’s dark, but I go for a walk outside, automatically retracing the paths I took with Sara, to the bridge overlooking the river, to the park where tulips grow.
When I try to settle in bed again, I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking about the letter, or her blinking.
When my phone rings I jolt from the bed. It could be her.
I fumble as I answer, breathless.
My heart sinks.
“We’re closing this case,” Harvey says.
I can’t comprehend. “What?”
He doesn’t elaborate.
“You’re joking right? How can you close it? Did you find something? Did you find Sara?”
“We don’t need to investigate anymore.”
“It’s pretty obvious what happened. They settled on an amount to be paid.”
“Are you still going to look for her?”
“Of course. She’s a murderer.”
“Alleged,” he says, to calm me down.
“Aren’t you looking at any other suspects? What about all the nurses?” My voice is raspy.
“All evidence points at Sara.”
“What about the OCELOT study? Did you look into it?” I’m desperate now.
There’s a longer pause than I expect.
“Yes. Nothing incriminating,” he says.
“Did you find out what the technology was? How it affected staff?”
“If you have questions, go ask them,” he says. He almost sounds bitter.
“Did they tell you?” I just want to know; I don’t care if I get my money. I want to know if anything can prove Sara isn’t responsible.
“I’m telling you the investigation’s over.” The hairs on my neck rise. “Look, Jon, just be happy you’re not a suspect; that’s a big deal. You should feel good.”
I scoff. “I’ll never feel good about this.”
I haven’t been in the hospital in nearly two weeks. I find Brandon in the call room, dictating his note. When he sees me, he jumps up.
“Jon!” His gaze stops at the hollows beneath my eyes. I feel my skin sagging with fatigue. “Are the interns back?”
I shake my head. I haven’t thought about going back. Now I realize I might never. How can I, without finding Sara, and at a hospital full of people who blame her?
“Sit down,” he says. “You look beat.”
I sit. “I came to ask if you know what happened.”
He looks past me to see if anyone’s around. “I know it’s hard to hear … but everyone thinks it’s Sara. Why else would she run away?”
“Maybe whoever did it wants you to think that, and is holding her hostage.”
“But who? Everyone else in the ambassador’s care is accounted for.”
“It could be anyone! He’s from Russia.”
Brandon only shakes his head.
“Everyone’s way too happy to blame this perfect, brilliant woman; maybe she makes them feel inadequate.”
There’s an awkward silence.
“I know you love her, and this is hard. But I think … it might be more complex than that.”
“The hospital is just going to pay? Without finding her first?”
“The case is happening a lot faster than I thought too,” he says. “They’re shelling out a ton of money.”
“Over a billion.”
I cock my head. “That can’t be true. That would shut down the hospital!”
“The government’s covering the costs.”
“Why would they?”
“It was a government official who died. Who knows what this’ll do to our Russian relations.”
My head throbs. I stand to leave.
“Where you headed?”
“I’m going to find Sara,” I say.
He sighs and wishes me luck.
I gather a few bags and leave my apartment, not sure where to go first. I’m trying to understand everything, but there are pieces missing. Sara couldn’t have just disappeared. Was there really a clue in the way she was blinking? How could she have purposefully left one so long ago, before all this happened? I need to hire an investigator, present all of this. With what money, though? I think about the study promising $40,000.
I could demand it now. Then a thought arises. I have to figure out what the new technology is. Maybe it screwed with the system, faked the orders for the potassium chloride. I should find out, before seeing an investigator.
When I enter the atrium, the receptionist looks surprised.
“Hello, are you scheduled for–”
“I’m not scheduled, but I demand to be seen.”
I must look alarming, with my bloodshot eyes and pale skin. I haven’t even put on a clean shirt. The receptionist nods and makes a phone call.
I lean on the desk, my mind racing.
At last, I sit in the room with my usual therapist, or whatever she is.
“I’m surprised to see you. It’s not Wednesday.” She doesn’t look surprised.
“I need to know what your study’s on.”
“The form you signed agreed to never knowing.”
“I need to know, or I’m going to hire an investigator.”
“An investigator?” Her brows rise. “For what?”
“I think something at the hospital influenced the incident.” Maybe I shouldn’t have told her that, but the truth oozes from me.
Her eyelid flinches. “I’ll be right back.”
When she returns, she’s accompanied by a tall, suited man I haven’t met before. He tells me he has all the answers I seek.
“I doubt that,” I say. “I want to know everything that happened, and you don’t even know–”
“We can tell you where Sara is.”
I freeze. “You know where she is?” I can’t breathe.
“You have options,” the man says. “You can leave here with no answers. You can have your money. Or, we can answer your questions. But,” he says, and sits down. “We can’t just give them to you; we only share this information with employees. We’re willing to offer you a position within our company. If you’re part of the team, you can learn everything.”
“If you really know where she is then everyone needs to know.”
“You can’t tell anyone anything.”
“Or else what?”
They stare at me. Was the answer so unspeakable?
“What if, after you answer my questions, I want nothing to do with you?” I ask.
“That’s not an option. You’d have to work for us. We demand absolute loyalty and secrecy.”
My heart’s racing and I’m struggling to follow. “So no one can ever quit here?”
“If you decide to leave the company, you’ll be constantly monitored, with certain restraints on what you can do and say.”
I decide what they’re proposing is illegal, and that once I know where Sara is, I’ll leave, and I’ll tell. “I want to know,” I say.
“I can’t answer any questions before we have an agreement.” I sign a consent form.
The door behind me clicks, presumably locking, and I fear it might be more difficult to leave than I thought. The hair on my neck rises. Who are these people?
“Tell me now,” I say.
The man nods. “Do you have any idea what kind of technology our company develops?”
I shake my head.
“What do you know about artificial intelligence?”
I blink. “It’s used in the self-driving cars,” I say. “And there are robots taking vitals and histories in our ER.”
“Our company has made significant advancements in AI.”
There’s a long pause.
“Ok?” I say.
“So advanced that there are products walking around that no one can tell are different from human beings.”
I scoff. They’re bullshitting me, after all I’ve gone through. “Can you just tell me where Sara is?”
“You don’t believe us,” the woman says.
“No, I don’t believe you. How could there be human robots, introduced into society without any announcement? That doesn’t happen in a poof overnight.”
“No, it took many decades, and tons of money from investors and the government.”
“So you’re saying this was some sort of secret, and the government’s in on it?”
I want to punch both of them for putting me through this.
“If artificial creations walk among us, no one can know the difference between them and humans,” the man says. “They need to complement us, challenge us to be better, encourage optimism. We’ll always be the innovators, but they’ll increase our efficiency. Unless they’re known and labeled as non-human, then there won’t be cooperation. There’d be a class distinction, conflict, and they won’t be trusted or utilized in the way they’re designed to be. To progress while maintaining stability, the transition must be silent. Our study, besides testing the performance of our products, was designed to see how feasible this plan is. Since our conception, our products have been tested within the company alone. This was our first wave introduced outside. We needed to know how they’d interact, what kind of relationships they’d have. Would humans recognize them? Would they recognize each other for what they are? That’s what we must avoid.”
“The government can’t fool us like that,” I say. They’re insane.
The woman chuckles. “The government can do whatever it wants. You should know that by now.”
I tense. “What does this have to do with Sara?”
“We’re forever trying to compensate for human error, coming up with new hospital policies, trying to make systems and apparatus foolproof,” the man says. “But one source of error always remains–the human component: illness, forgetfulness, fatigue, distractibility, inconsistency, biases, drifting from protocol. We introduced our products to fix this.”
“You mean, the robots in the ER?”
“No, more advanced. They even showed capacity to learn,” she says. “It was seamless, with improved safety and productivity. Until we had a violation within our company; the ambassador was a prominent investor, and an employee with his own agenda saw his admission as an opportunity. He altered the programming of one our creations.”
What were they trying to say? I feel dizzy and nothing makes sense.
“Our biggest fault is advancing with high-performing systems, faster than we have the ability to secure them. Once something’s programmed, it can be hacked and altered. Sara was a perfect doctor, before that.”
All the blood drains from my face. “Sara’s not … Sara’s human. You can’t pretend you can make something like her.”
“The employee tried to stop our whole initiative,” she says. “When he controlled her, he made her write that letter. He wanted you to know our intelligence systems can be recognized by watching the eyes. We made that so we would be able to tell, externally. But he wanted the world to tell. They have a distinct pattern of blinking, which I think you’ve seen.”
How do they know about that? Have they been watching me too?
“No,” I say. That can’t be the explanation for the blinking pattern. There’s something else, something between Sara and me. I just have to figure it out. “Is this supposed to be a test, before I leave the study?”
“No more tests. You’ve already provided us with crucial information. You weren’t able to tell the difference, between human, and our products. Do you want to see her?”
My pulse climbs again. “She’s not here.”
“We’ll show you. But you should know, she remembers you now, but she won’t always. We have to reprogram her after what’s happened. She already lost chunks of data, when the employee altered her. He had a plan, after the incident, to reveal her as AI to the masses, but we regained control and terminated him before that. We made her come here and forget. She only remembers some major moments.”
I feel dizzy. This can’t be real. But I’m scared of what they’ll show me. What if they did make something, what if it looks like her? I’m ready to vomit. I know that instead I should be thinking of what I’m going to do when I get out of here. Who should I go to first, what should I tell them? If any part of this story is true, if there’s some AI in the hospital, everyone needs to know. I’ll tear this company down.
They await my acknowledgement.
“It’ll be hard,” she says. “But we’re here to support your transition into the company.”
“Just let me see,” I say. They stand and the man gestures toward the door behind them, which opens automatically.
The room behind them is dimly lit. I hesitate. What if this is some sort of trap? Could they even kill me? No, I decide, I live in a free, fair country. Things like that can’t happen. There are laws.
I walk through the door and in the dim light of the room, I see a chair. My eyes adjust, and the woman seated there turns toward me.
It’s her, undoubtedly.
They couldn’t have copied the nuances of her smile, the way her eyes upturn, and their color. She rushes toward me. We embrace. My body’s trembling, and though I want to reject all possibility of it being true, a doubt is seeded in my mind. A doubt that she’s not what I thought she was. I push it from mind.
“What have they done to you? How did they take you here?”
“What do you mean?” she asks. “I came here. I’m waiting for my appointment.”
“You don’t remember what happened?”
“In the hospital.”
Panic grips me. I stare at her, waiting for the façade to crack, waiting for her to snap out of whatever she’s stuck in. Perhaps, after facing whatever trauma she’s been through, she’s experiencing a memory block, a defense mechanism human brains can employ.
“Do you know anything about what happened to the ambassador?”
She looks confused, and for a moment I’m partly relieved. At least she’s innocent. I just need to prove it to everyone.
“We have to get out of here,” I say.
She stares at me with a pleasant expression, then shakes her head. “They told me I have to stay.”
“What else did they tell you?”
“That you were coming. They said you might work for them.”
“Never,” I mutter.
Before I can ask anything else, she speaks again. “You remember our apartment, don’t you?” She blinks at me. “Is that painting still on the wall?”
I almost fall with relief. I nod and take her hands into mine.
“You know what I was thinking?” she said. “About that story. What if the artist used to be a sculpture too?”
I’m not sure where we’ll go from here, but at least she’s back with me, for this moment. Tears gather in my eyes, but I don’t blink them away. At least not at that second.
Bio for Jon:
I always wanted to be a doctor. I briefly considered business school, but medicine sounded more interesting. We’ve advanced in so many areas; medicine seemed to just be catching up. The possibilities technologies could bring captivated me. But med school was a let down. Teaching methods were archaic, and rotations through the hospital were disappointing. I lost interest, but only after accumulating enough debt to make me feel trapped in this. Sara saved me. She made me want to excel and dream of the potentials again. So maybe I’ll be a doctor after all.
Bio for Faith Consiglio:
I grew up in Rockland County, NY, before completing college and medical school at Stony Brook in Long Island. I am currently a psychiatry resident physician in Westchester and have a passion for studying and creating characters.
Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.
“Pygmalion” is © 2019 Faith Consiglio
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Luke Spooner