“Have you ever seen a guy so hot, you’d, like, do anything he said?”
The question is shouted over music that has way too much bass, some young guy in tight pants crooning his dubious attitudes to women and relationships over a pounding drum beat.
“Oh, my god,” Crystal laughs. “Have you seen Jackson Mower of Game of Loans? That reality real estate program? I’d let him do anything to me!”
She chortles into her drink and we all laugh along with her. This is a girls’ night, and if you can’t confess your crushes on unattainable male celebrities, what can you do?
“Jackson Mower? More like Jackson Mom-mower,” Stephanie pipes up. “He could lay me like turf!” We all groan at the dirty pun that doesn’t quite work. Typical Stephanie.
I’m not really feeling the conversation. It’s not that the guys we’re talking about aren’t hot, it’s that I have a snowball’s chance in hell of meeting a guy like that. We all want some five percent body fat raging muscular bull to come rut us into incoherence, but we’re more likely to get pawed by a tipsy investment banker in this bar here in the financial district. This is where people who used to go to seedy bars come to pretend they’re still twenty. At almost thirty, I can’t even remember twenty, except I’m pretty sure my jeans were smaller then.
“We should go to a strip club!” Maria suggests. One drink and she always wants to go to a strip club. We never go to one. It’s a constant source of disappointment for the poor girl. If she ever gets married, we’ll get her a stripper for the bachelorette party. That’s the deal.
The squeal is taken up around my little group of friends.
“You guys go. I’ll watch the bags.”
They think it’s a generous offer. It’s not. I’m not in the mood to dance.
“We can dance if we want to!” Crystal shouts.
“We can leave your friends behind…” Maria croons back.
“Because if they don’t dance, and if they won’t dance, then they’re no friends of mine!” they all chorus together.
Just knowing the lyrics to that song means we’re all too old for this. That doesn’t stop them from clattering onto the dance floor, all smiles and flailing limbs. Soon the music takes them, and I am left like a fawn inside a small protective barrier of handbags.
The atmosphere is thick with lust, the desperate rutting and grinding of would-be couples. Women cluster in little cliques just like mine, giggling and pretending not to look at the men who lurk around the edges of the room, the bolder and drunker ones making moves, some of which are accepted, many of which aren’t.
I’ve been nursing the same cocktail since I got here, a California Screwdriver. It’s decent. It tastes like overpriced orange juice with a slight kick. I’m not drunk. I’m barely even buzzed. Truthfully, I don’t even know why I came tonight.
No. That’s a lie. I know exactly why I came. Peer pressure, and the ache between my thighs. The need that can’t ever really be itched by toys and fingers. I’ve been driven out here by the same animal impulse that brought everyone else out here. I need to fuck. But not just anyone. It’s probably not fair of me to dismiss every guy I see within 0.2 seconds of laying eyes on him. Too soft. Too gangly. Wearing sneakers. Scruffy beard. I have as many reasons to reject a man as there are men in the club.
Until he walks in.
He’s handsome. Very. Very handsome. His jaw is hard and square. His cheeks are two slabs of muscle framed by bone. His brow is strong and sits above dark eyes that peer out at the world with a predatory kind of stare. His hair is dark, a mane of shining thick black hair that falls back from a natural widow’s peak. It has body I couldn’t achieve with all the extensions in the world.
He’s here for me.
Delusional. Narcissistic. Prophetic. Whatever you call it, the thought lodges in my mind. It’s irrational, but I can feel the truth of it coursing through me, pumping with every beat of my heart. The world has just changed, undergone a shift in state, and I am caught in that change whether I like it or not.
He moves through the crowd as if it isn’t there. He walks between tables, splits friends who are talking, ignores a small sea of gyrating femininity just to get to me. It’s not very bright in the club, and the flashing lights make it more difficult to take him in as well as I’d like. This is the sort of man who needs to be inspected in daylight, just to make sure he really exists.
As he gets closer, I see that his clothing looks a little outdated. It doesn’t matter. A man like him could be wearing a sack and still look hot. It’s also a size too small. The shirt strains across his chest in a way that is indecently perfect.
The closer he gets, the more I see that he is beyond handsome. It’s not just his appearance. It’s his vibe. Pure confidence. Kids these days would call it swagger. Not that he’d be listening, because he doesn’t seem to see or hear anything besides me. There are a hundred other scantily clad young women in this room. A lot of them are younger than me. Some of them are prettier. But his gaze doesn’t so much as flicker toward them. It is locked on me, and it remains that way as he prowls across the floor.
I turn around and look behind myself just to make sure there’s not some supermodel behind me. Nope. Just the wall. It is me he’s looking at. Me he’s made a beeline for.
I’m suddenly too nervous to know what to do with myself. All my poise evaporates as he comes around the table, reaches for my chin with one hand, grips it lightly with a touch that exudes confidence and control. There’s no escaping him, or the gaze that blazes into my uncertain eyes.
“Come with me,” he says in a husky male growl. “I’m going to fuck you.”
Twelve hours earlier…
“You forgot this, Daniel.”
Briarlee holds the length of ornately carved oak out toward me, her slim fingers wrapped around my greatest source of shame.
I love her.
She’ll never know that. I’ll never tell her. Partially because of the way she looks at me. She pities me. As I take the cane, the illusion of easy equality we built up while sitting down dissipates. Her eyes soften at the corners, her mouth turns down. She’s the most beautiful woman in the world, but when she looks at me she starts melting with sadness.
She is stunning. She has golden blonde hair tinged naturally with red around her scalp. It tends to ringlets, even though she fights to keep it straight. Her eyes are blue. The kind of blue you see on a summer’s day, when the sky is utterly clear. She has an adorably rounded face, lips that never pout but are deliciously full, and her figure is perfectly curvy, though she tries to fight that too. She ordered the salad again today. And then ate all my fries.
I’ve known her a very long time. We dated briefly back in high school. Now we’re friends. Great friends. Best friends. Friends with a past that makes that sadness cloud her pretty gaze every time she is reminded of my condition.
Fifteen years rush back every time I see that expression. We were together in my car the night we crashed. She came out of the collision almost unscathed. Even drunk out of her skull, she was smart enough to wear her seatbelt, and stupid me was just a fraction too slow to turn all the way out of danger’s path as a drunk driver crossed the center line and turned my father’s car to a crumpled wreck.
It was a long way back from the edge of oblivion. A lot of surgery. A lot of pain. But I made it. Briarlee isn’t my girlfriend, but she’ll always be my friend—which might actually be worse than having lost touch with her altogether in some ways.
I get to see her once a week for lunch. I make noises about how my research is going. She listens with that sweet smile and then inevitably tells me about whatever asshole she’s dating at the moment. She always picks the bad boys. The ones who treat her like dirt.
I’d judge her more for that, if I hadn’t been in her house when she was a teenager, and if I didn’t know precisely why she craves male protection. If I was stronger, I’d protect her. But she thinks of me as the little brother she needs to look after. Because the only thing that bonds us more than experience is her guilt.
She says I saved her that night in the car. But I can’t save her from the string of assholes who see a delicate, beautiful thing and want to claim it, then destroy it.
Friend-zoned, they call it. But I’m not the sort of man who thinks of things that way. I’m lucky to have her in my life, and one of these days, I hope she meets someone who treats her the way she deserves to be treated.
“You want help to the car?”
It’s been years since I’ve needed help but she still sees me as that broken teenage boy struggling to recover from something I shouldn’t have survived.
“Thanks, Briar. I’m good.”
I smile because I appreciate her kindness, and try to hold back any expression that would show the contempt I have for this cane—and for the weakness that forces me to use it.
“Okay, well, good luck with the review board!” She flashes me one of her dazzling smiles and waves. I watch her leave with the same smile I always have on my face when she is near. There’s just something about the way she moves, a gazelle-like sway. Whenever we have lunch, I make sure I’m here early and I make sure I leave last. I don’t want her to see my pained gait. It brings shame and guilt to us both, even after all this time.
In seconds she melts into the city crowd and the spell is broken. I’m back in the present moment, and I have work to do. A lot of it. Today is a very big day. It could be, should be, the day all my work pays off. For fifteen years, I have been searching for a way to fix myself. I will not stay broken. No matter what.
Every day since that accident, I’ve been working on fixing myself. They said I wouldn’t walk. I walked. First with a walker. Then with a cane. I still have the cane. But not for much longer.
That crash sent me on a path that I have never deviated from. Science track courses, undergrad at seventeen, and into a research position by twenty-two. It has taken eight years to develop my unique formula, Regenermax, which is already showing incredible promise. In the course of my work, I’ve seen rats with broken backs regain full use of their legs. I know what’s possible, and I’m excited to share it with the world. Up until now, there’s been only so much science can do for damaged and dead nerves. I’m about to advance the field a very long way.
Accident and injury are realities of life, but I refuse to accept their effects as permanent. I have the means and the intelligence to not only fix my own injuries, but help others recover from theirs as well.
“Stay strong.” It’s the ironic thing people love to say to you when you’re crippled. But I’m not strong. And what kills you doesn’t make you stronger. It leaves you limping through life.
I have been weak too long. Not for much longer.
I pay the bill for lunch, just like I always do, and I take my cane and I limp slowly out of the restaurant. The regulars don’t look at me, but there’s always someone new to cross paths with in the city, someone who can’t quite help but stare at the man with the cane.
My rideshare is waiting outside. I take it back to my lab. On the way I delve into my smartphone, am absorbed by the data, and get some relief from the unrequited desire that makes me so restless whenever Briarlee is near. That woman is a drug like no other. Repeated exposure leads to increased heart rate, vascular dilation, and occasionally, priapism.
“How are the boys today?” I ask my research assistant as I hobble into the lab.
“We had to separate Titus and Archimedes,” he says. “They got past the cage divider and were fighting again.”
“Bad boys,” I quip. We know our rats better than most researchers. Part of the longer term study on the ongoing effects of the treatment. Both Titus and Archimedes were runts with spinal defects. They would have been euthanized as pups in most labs, but we made sure they stuck around long enough to get the benefit of my work.
“Did you give them females?”
“Had to pull the females out. They were getting fucked to death.”
“Is that the scientific name for it?”
“Look at them.”
He shows me a cage with six female rats all passed out fast asleep. They have some scarring around the back of the neck and ears, where overeager males have been trying to get a grip on them.
“Poor girls,” I sympathize.
“They’re all in pup,” he says. “Seems to be a significant effect on virility.”
I’m excited. This drug doesn’t just make the paralyzed walk. It transforms every facet of an organism’s functioning. It’s like a chemical rebuilder, getting into every physiological pathway and enhancing it.
Titus and Archimedes are twice the size they used to be. Someone has put a ‘swole’ sticker on Titus’s cage. I’m guessing that’s some reference to his strength. We’ve had to reinforce both their enclosures because they kept getting out. Usually when rats do that, you lose them, but we found both of them in the female cages, banging their little brains out in between bouts of battle with each other.
We’re not supposed to keep them alone because rats are social creatures, but the treatment seems to have some negative effects on them in terms of behavior. They will fuck each other to death if they’re not separated. Something to work on down the track. Something that probably won’t be as much of an issue in human subjects, as humans tend to have a lot more in the way of impulse control than rats.
“Good luck, boss!” My assistant waves me off to the meeting I’ve been waiting to take for years.
It’s up on the ninth floor. Room 42 A. I hardly ever come up here. The laboratories are on the lower floors. Mine’s technically in the basement. The research we do down there props up the tower above, produces obscene profits for people who wear suits, not lab coats. I don’t care about that. I just want to hear that Regenermax is going to help people.
I knock on the door. A voice summons me in.
I’m expecting smiles and jubilation. I’m expecting a panel of excited directors, another round of funding, and a hefty promotion. Instead there’s one guy in the room. He shakes my hand and then his head.
“I’ll cut to the chase, Doctor,” he says, easing himself down into a chair, which creaks under his weight. “We’re not going to bring Regenermax to human trials.”
I swallow my anger and my confusion as this fucking pencil pusher steps on my dream. “May I ask why?”
“Your preliminary data on nerve regeneration is promising,” he says. “But the side effects are too many and too intense, and the LD50 is too low for human trials.”
LD50 is the dose where half the rats given the drug die. It’s determined in mgs per kg. Acetaminophen has an LD50 of 2402 mg per kg. That’s considered safe. But rats can survive a lot more of it than humans, so it’s not actually a great measuring tool, even though they insist on using it regardless. Caffeine is much more dangerous in rats. They can only tolerate 92 mg per kg before half of them die. The point is, LD50 is almost meaningless if you don’t take species into account.
“Rats are sensitive to Regenermax in a variety of ways,” I try to explain. “Humans have more complex pathways. We can start with very low doses to determine toxicity, but I am certain the LD50 will improve in humans.”
“It’s not just the lethality of the drug. It’s the other effects. The psychosocial effects. The report indicates seriously increased aggression and hyper-sexuality. These are not effects we can impose on human subjects.”
“So you’d rather have a guy never walk again than be horny?”
I’m losing my professional cool, but that’s because this shitty little paper shuffler who never knew a day’s hardship in his life is destroying the chance thousands upon thousands of people have to get their lives back.
He senses my agitation and pulls back into officious speech. “We’re not positioned to accept Regenermax for human trials at this time. It’s considered too unstable and too likely to cause problems.”
“Rats are only human allegories to a certain extent,” I explain, even though we both already understand what I’m saying. “Without a human trial, we’ll never be able to fine tune the drug. This could make a difference to so many people. Serious, long-term injuries. Potential paralysis cures.”
“You have a great deal invested in this, and we understand why…” He gives me one of those pitying looks I am so sick of receiving. “But this drug has not met the standards to be put forward for human trials. Another round of animal testing and perhaps we will consider it.”
Another round. That’s years of work. I don’t have funding for years, and I’m not guaranteed to get it either. This company, Edison Enterprises, has taken me on, but my work is a long way down their list of priorities. They have four different products available for getting an erection past eighty, but this potentially life-changing treatment is barely of interest to them.
This news is crushing. Anger rises in me, but I push it back down. Can’t be the cripple who cries in business meetings. That would be another level of pathetic.
I thank him for his time and I leave the office. My hope, my dignity are both utterly shredded. Bad news travels fast. By the time I get to the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee, which technically has a more dangerous LD50 than the drug I’m trying to get onto the market, people are already expressing their sympathy with back slaps and those muted half-smiles I have come to hate so much.
By the time I get back to my lab, the death has spread. The research techs who have been on this project can smell failure, so the laboratory is empty apart from me. They’re off polishing their resumes. Soon I’ll be getting requests for referrals. I’m betting there’s already at least one of those emails waiting for me. I’m the only one who really cares about this treatment. Regenermax doesn’t mean anything to these people. It means everything to me.
Alone in my lab, I pull the samples we had already started to synthesize for a small-scale human trial. According to the paperwork I received upstairs, they’re to be destroyed. I have several dozen doses of what could be—should be—life-changing, lifesaving treatment. And I can’t give them to anyone who needs them because bureaucrats worry more about grumpy rats than they do about saving human lives.
I pick up a vial. Hold it up to the light. It has a silver iridescence to it. It’s beautiful. It represents a leap forward in medicine that the board can’t understand. Everything is called revolutionary now. When I can’t sleep at night because of my leg, I watch infomercials where orange peelers are described as revolutionary. The word has lost its meaning in the wider world. But this actually is a revolution. This is the real thing. The future. And there’s no way I’m destroying it because a man who doesn’t know a carbon bond from a couch tells me it’s too risky.
My leg is throbbing. It’s always worse after a day of walking around, and when I’m alone with nothing to distract from the pain.
I look at the vial again. And I start to think.
Scientists throughout history have tested their inventions on themselves. We wouldn’t have a polio vaccine if Salk hadn’t dosed himself and his family. Hoffman tested LSD on himself. And I guess the Curies technically discovered the effects of radiation on themselves too, albeit far too late. So, will taking this make me a Salk or a Curie? There’s no way to know.
What I do know, is that I’m in pain.
Pain that will never go away. Pain I’ll never adjust to. Because it is the pain of death, creeping slowly through my body one little bit at a time.
Nobody is here to stop me from putting the vials into my bag. And nobody blames me when I head home early. Nobody ever thinks to suspect the man they pity. I’m too pathetic to worry about as I leave the lab with thousands of dollars’ worth of illicit, unapproved, highly toxic drug.
Regenermax is stable at room temperature, so it won’t need any special handling. I have enough to treat a single person for months. At this stage, I’m not necessarily intending on taking it myself. Right now, I just want it to survive. This is all I have worked for, and I know they’ll destroy it if I leave it behind. That’s not going to happen.
I retreat home, to the apartment that is too small and too dark to ever be nice. Small spaces save money. They’re also easier to get around in when you’re caught in the throbbing throes of your nerves sending panicked signals, the same way they have for many years, never really learning the nuances of this broken frame. My body rejects my injuries. It wants to be strong again.
I microwave dinner. I avoid my cell phone and the text messages I am sure will already be piling up. I don’t want to be part of the world anymore. I want to escape from the events of the day, the bitterness of defeat not because I couldn’t formulate a treatment, but because a bureaucrat wouldn’t sign off on it.
I get angrier and angrier with every passing hour. This is bullshit. This doesn’t make sense. I want to take my cane and beat the hell out of them for stopping the next phase of trials.
The vials are still in my bag. I start to wonder what’s stopped me all this time. I could have started taking this weeks ago, but I was waiting for official trials. Official results. I was playing by the rules. I was trusting others to do the right thing. In the end, it was pointless. In the end, I have only myself to blame and myself to cure.
Earlier, in the laboratory, I wanted to drink one of the vials. But it was daytime then, too bright to entertain that behavior. Light suppresses illicit impulses. The dark of night is freeing.
Nobody will ever know that I took a dose. And if I can prove that the formulation works in humans, who have far more advanced capacity for emotional regulation than rats, then perhaps trials can be put back on the table.
Or at least, I’ll be able to walk without pain.
I began this journey in the attempt to help many millions of people. In the end, I might only be able to help myself.
The decision is already made. It feels like it was made a very long time ago. Almost as if it was inevitable. Maybe some part of me knew how this would end even before I began. I feel a sense of fate sinking through me. Not the airy-fairy type of fate people swing crystals to, but the rock-solid connections of cause and effect that inextricably lead from one thing to another. The moment I started working on this medicine, I was going to end up taking it.
It’s just a matter of following through.
I uncap a vial. Think about whether it would be better to mix it with something or do it straight, like a shot. I choose shot.
It hits the back of my throat. I swallow immediately. There’s a metallic sensation around the back of my teeth that spreads unpleasantly across my tongue in the aftermath, but it’s not too bad.
I settle back down into my chair and I wait.
Five minutes in, it feels as though absolutely nothing has happened. The dose I took should have been more than enough, and in rats the effects seemed to be somewhat immediate even if they took a few hours to days to fully manifest.
I wait, watching the clock. Waiting to feel better. Waiting to feel worse. Waiting to feel… anything at all.
It turns out that there’s something worse than having my life’s work shot down by a paper pusher. It’s finding out that it never worked at all.
Disappointed beyond compare, I hobble to bed and go to sleep.