Cranial Loop (a novella) Chapter One

~cranial_loop~ Cover X

“Don’t turn out the lights,” she cried, “I’m lost, I’m lost and gone inside.”

 

Chapter One

Friends, forever Friends

“If you can see across it, it’s not a river; it’s a crick.”

Emily giggled. “What made you say that, Basil?”

“I overheard a couple of guys arguing in class,” Basil replied. “One was from Mississippi and the other from Texas. The Mississippi guy, from Biloxi if I heard right, made the statement as a means to setting the Texas guy straight as to the relative size difference between the Mississippi and the Rio Grande.”

“That’s a funny statement,” Emily said, “But rivers are rivers and creeks are creeks.”

Basil stared rapt into Emily’s dark exotic eyes. He lay on a blanket at the river’s edge. She sat next to him there and, through its reflection on her eyes, he watched her watch it flow. “There!” she said suddenly. “Look, Basil!  Hedgeny’s nearly halfway across already!” She nudged him playfully in the ribs with a bare foot. “Turn around and look, you silly!”

Basil, though tired of Hedgeny’s showing off, could deny Emily nothing. He turned, elbows to the ground, chin resting on his hands, and stared across the river. “He’s a good swimmer,” Basil acknowledged in a flat monotone voice.

“He’s a good swimmer,” Emily parroted. “Hedgeny is a magnificent athlete, Basil, world class and you know it.” She glanced pensively at her friend. “You aren’t jealous of Hedgeny, are you, Basil? It would be so unlike you.”

“What, jealous? Me?” Basil laughed. He flopped over on his back, posed his arms and legs at odd angles. “I can’t even swim.”

“But you are funny,” Emily giggled, “And the smartest man I know.”

Basil stood up and performed an exaggerated march in place, bony knees pumping up and down. “I gots de brains and he gots de brawn. Let de lady decide whose side she’s on.”

“Basil, you shouldn’t make fun of yourself,” Emily said sternly. “We’re a trio, you, Hedgeny and me. I could never make a choice between the two of you. You know that, don’t you?”

So they were, since arriving at the University a year ago. All three were enrolled in classes in the Department of Psychiatry. Basil and Emily had earned full academic scholarships and chosen to pursue careers in psychiatry and/or psychology. Hedgeny was an athlete, plain and simple. Psychiatry made as much sense to him as anything else as far as academics went. Someone had told him it would be easier and more open than other fields of study. Basil had fallen in love with Emily the moment he laid eyes on her. Shy by nature, he was hard put to so much as say hello.

Hedgeny had literally made a dramatic splash within a few days of arriving at the school by throwing himself into the swift flowing river at the edge of its campus and swimming across. He had talked it up a bit, so there were students watching from the moment he took his dive. Swimming across the river was a feat unparalleled in the centuries old history of the school. Though it was explicitly against the rules, each year a handful of students risked body and limb and a stern rebuke from school authorities to try their hand at reaching the other side. Over the years, there were a few who perished in the attempt. This fact only seemed to fuel the desire of fresh young-bloods bent on doing the impossible.

Administrators at the school had heard the rumors about a possible new swimmer and weren’t especially surprised. They were at water’s edge as soon as word reached them the deed was under way. Each year they had boatmen posted to pluck the young men from the water (a girl had never been foolish enough to try the trick, according to local lore). The men at the oars would deliver the scamp to the custody of administrators who would see that justice was done. Their jaws dropped as Hedgeny accomplished the undoable. He reached the other side and waded up the bank. Their jaws dropped a notch further when he waved victoriously and dove back in the water. Hedgeny swam bravely, heroically even, courageous throughout the arduous trip back. He defied the white water, challenged it even. He dodged the boatmen, made sport of them and their feeble attempts to haul him out. To the utter amazement of everyone involved, except Hedgeny, he swam successfully to shore.

Quite a crowd had gathered by this time and the administrators were forced to pluck Hedgeny from a sea of fawning peers. He was duly cited and assessed a stiff fine, which was eventually waived since he was, after all, attending University on a full athletic scholarship. He was also temporarily denied access to certain school clubs and scholastic organizations he had no interest in to begin with. He was, in fact, unaware of their existence until being notified he was temporarily exempt from partaking in their activities. He enjoyed many a laugh about this in local beer parlors where he spent a good part of his free time. An immediate hero and favorite, the irascible rebel, Hedgeny rarely had to put up funds for his ale.

Gifted athlete and all around good guy, Hedgeny had his problems in the classroom. He frequently cut classes and was prone to cutting up and napping when he did appear. Various mentors and academic assistants were appointed him from the school’s athletic squads. The results were always the same. Hedgeny became mentor and involved his associates, who had few problems prior to associating with him, in his goodtime brawling antics. This became a cause of embarrassment in the academic community and threatened to besmirch the good name of the school. There were also certain legal arrangements (no one said bribes) and compromises made that were sure to raise eyebrows if they ever came to light.

The Head Man appointed a committee to deal with the problem of Hedgeny. They pondered the problem, hardly a new one but certainly challenging given Hedgeny’s appetites and proclivities. After some time, they came up with a new idea, a fresh approach to the problem. They proposed to query the leading academic male and female freshmen as to their willingness to coach and mentor the school’s prize athlete. Basil and Emily were at the very top of that list.

Basil was a bit confused and doubtful when first confronted with the prospect of conforming the notorious Hedgeny. He had no previous experience tutoring others and thought it highly unlikely the school’s most famous infamous would give a good whit for any advice or assistance he had to offer. When Emily was brought into the picture, Basil’s doubts washed away, so many worms in the gutter on a rainy day. Here was his chance to speak with her, to know her, to spend time with her. Basil spoke none of this, of course. He adjusted his round, wire-rimmed, glasses and said, “I’m willing to try to help him if she is. Together we might stand a chance.”

Thus, did The Mighty Three come to exist. Who’s to say concerning the dynamics of human relationships. The bronzed Adonis, Hedgeny; diminutive princess, Emily; wise and scholarly, Basil, the three of them together became campus fixtures, the very in of the in crowd. Hedgeny bought the two of them their first beers and quickly discouraged anyone who slighted them in any way. Loving and protective, he would brook no opposition where they were concerned. Emily had Hedgeny reading and reciting poetry. Basil introduced him to the basics of physics, nothing too complicated and deep, the very basics but Hedgeny showed interest and that is all that mattered. His grades improved and he wasn’t nearly so inclined to wild troublemaking behavior while in the company of his two new friends. The administrators of the University breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The rewards to The Mighty Three were manifold. Emily and Basil, both extremely private people, found they enjoyed bits of the spotlight Hedgeny attracted wherever he went. Most times they could savor it a bit, then return to their rooms and private lives apart from Hedgeny. For his part, Hedgeny found that studies and attending class weren’t half bad with his two friends to help him along. At some level, fresh from childhood, the three of them realized their relationship was special. They might never again in their lives enjoy the closeness the three of them shared.

As for the University, prospects had never been brighter. Hedley’s past transgressions, swept under the carpet and behind them, his exploits on the field of athletics afforded the school world renown. They received unprecedented grants and endowments, found themselves wooed by media. World leaders petitioned the school to enroll their children. Most recently they broke ground and were in the process of having a domed stadium erected and… uh, a library. Hedgeny was an industry in his youth and glory, a cash cow they had paid highly for and intended to squeeze for every possible penny and prize. Ambitious and eager, they were fast becoming a machine; nothing and nobody could hinder their progress.

Yes, Basil watched Emily as she watched Hedgeny. Never spoken between the two of them, Basil knew what a man knows. He and Hedgeny were both and each, ass over tin cup, in love with Emily and had been from the start. A slight aggravation at first, his feelings for Emily had become an insurmountable problem over the past year. She didn’t seem to be aware of it or, if she was on to the fact, she was very good at hiding it. She made it known that she held them equal in her eyes, arm-in-arm at her sides.

Standing on the verge of the river, Basil made a gut-wrenching decision. They were beautiful, the two of them, Emily and Hedgeny, a paradigm as a couple. Basil was, had always known he was, odd man out. He needed to speak to Emily about his feelings but could not find the words. Hedgeny emerged on the far side and Emily clapped her hands gaily. He plunged into the water, began the journey back across. Basil touched Emily’s smooth and silky hair, light and loving, and simply walked away. There was nothing else for him to do.

Her voice, “Basil. Basil, where are you going? Basil! Come back to me, Basil!” pursued him.  He would forever regret not returning to her side that fateful day.

But that was yesterday. His whole world was yesterday, or so it seemed as he sat in Emily’s room. His eyes scanned the banks of lights, red and green, monitors and tonal devices. Professor Grimes appeared. He gave Basil’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “She’s asleep, son. For all we know, she’s just asleep. She might wake up any moment now. You need some rest. Why don’t you turn in, call it a night? Tomorrow, if she’s up to it, we’ll bundle Emily up and you can take her out for some fresh air.” Basil tried to speak but, unable to make the words, got up and left the room. Having never questioned God, he did so now. How could a bright promise, a vital source of life like Emily, go to sleep and simply not wake up in the morning? Why not him? Why not Hedgeny?

Hedgeny. Basil grabbed a jacket and headed for the bar rooms, certain he would find his friend there. Hedgeny was never hard to find. He was at the second booze house Basil checked. The music pounded through the place and there, in the center of its mob of patrons, was Hedgeny. He was uproariously drunk and howling like a wolf. Basil edged his way through the crowd and approached his friend. Hedgeny squinted his eyes. “Basil! Buddy! Hey, whaddya wanna drink? Hey, bartender, gi’ my friend, Basil, a drink, anything ‘e wants!”

Basil turned to walk away and Hedgeny grabbed his arm. “Let me go, please,” Basil said softly. “I need to talk to you but it’s obvious that now is not the time. I’ll find you tomorrow. I can see you’re busy right now.”

Hedgeny threw an arm around Basil’s waist and propelled him toward the bar. “It’s about our l’il girl, ain’t it? She’s gonna be all right, Buddy; our Emmy’s gonna be all right, you’ll see. Have a drink. It’ll make ya feel better.”

Basil sat down on a stool and waited for a pause in the music. He looked Hedgeny in the eye. “What did Emily say after I left her at the river? Was she angry with me? Do you have any idea what time she got home or what happened to her?”

Hedgeny slammed a fist into the bar. “Get us some drinks over here!” He glanced at Basil, then stared balefully across the room. “She didn’t say nothin’, man, just that she was tired and was goin’ home to get some rest. I had to do the same thing so I’d be ready for the big game today. I was readier ‘n ever too, ran all over their sorry asses!”

Basil stood up and shook his head sadly. “I have to go.”

“Whatever,” Hedgeny pouted. “Tell Emmy I’ll be up to visit. Hey Basil, it ain’t like she’s dead or somethin’. She’ll come out of it, you’ll see.”

But Emily didn’t come out of it. Basil got himself appointed Professors’ Assistant and managed to spend time with her every day. Her family had decided to commit her to the psychiatric ward at the University. What better place was there for her to be? This was her chosen place, where she went to sleep. It was their deepest hope that one day she’d wake up from her perpetual night of sleep.

Hedgeny never visited and, other than hearing exalted reports of his athletic prowess, Basil lost all contact with him. He entertained a plethora of melancholy thoughts concerning his old friend, memories of the happy days he and Emily had spent with him. He had studied the grief process and was aware there were as many ways of dealing with it as there were people grieving. His way was deep and thoughtful, a resounding weep. Hedgeny’s was forgetting himself in drunken brawls and pounding opponents into the field of play.

Emily had been comatose for a couple of months when Professor Grimes approached Basil. There was an experimental procedure, the Cranial Loop, that he and his colleagues had been practicing in the lab for a couple of years. It involved the simultaneous electromagnetic stimulation of the paired sets of cranial nerves where they pass through the openings in the skull. Emily’s family had read about the procedure, researched it, and petitioned the University to implement it in her case.

“But Professor Grimes,” Basil protested, “This procedure has only been used on monkeys and rats. From what you have told me, it has a very limited success rate.”

Professor Grimes nodded his head in agreement. “Frankly, I don’t have much confidence in the procedure in this case. On the other hand, I don’t believe it would cause further harm to Emily. That is exactly the point the family makes in favor of implementing it. If it has no effect, we’re back where we started. As they see it, they have nothing to lose and Emily’s life to gain.”

“But what if…” Basil began.

“What if,” Professor Grimes repeated. “That’s the nature of our business, my boy. I have mixed feelings on this issue, especially where Emily is concerned. If the Medical Association and the University agree to proceed, I’ll take on the task because I’m the man for the job. Fact is, the longer Emily remains comatose, the further she is from us. It’s a difficult call to make and I’m glad I’m not the one has to do it. I just wanted you to know what’s going on so it doesn’t come as a complete shock to you if it should come to pass. I know how dedicated you are to Emily.” He laid a hand on Basil’s shoulder. “I know how much you love her.”

“How does one go to sleep,” Basil wept, “And not die but simply never wake up.”

“Toss that one in with the what-ifs,” Professor Grimes replied. “Ours is a legend of shadows.”

Basil visited Emily and placed her in a wheelchair to take for walks whenever he got the chance. With Professor Grimes’ permission, he did so this day. He struggled with the wheelchair across the rough turf to the river’s edge, knelt before her and took her hands in his own. He kissed the backs of them lightly. “I have loved you from the first moment I saw you,” he spoke into her face. He went on to explain to Emily all he knew about the Cranial Loop, her family’s hopes and his fears.

Having concluded his medical explanation and avowal of love, Basil released Emily’s limp and unresponsive hands. He stood up and stared wistfully down the river. “I swear Emily, when I heard about your condition I began to deny a God I felt I’d known all my life. Yet you are here and, so long as you are, I will hope. That hope has renewed my faith and I pray every day that God will return you to our world.” He turned to face her. A breeze blew a wisp of hair across her forehead. “Emily, this is hard for me to say but I must. If you are afraid of the Cranial Loop or grow weary of lying in that bed all day; if you are in pain or distress and wish for it to be over, give me a sign. I will tie myself to your chair and roll us into the river. I cannot and will not go on without you.”

Basil’s heart broke as a single word, a name, blew through his mind, “Hedgeny.” There was no denying the sound of Emily’s sweet voice. How it reached him was a mystery because she sat stone still between the wheels of her chair. His eyes having never left her face, he was sure the sound didn’t issue from her mouth. Basil turned the chair around and pushed Emily back to the psychiatric ward. He helped the nurse put her into her bed, then returned to the dorm and his studies. Emily’s voice haunted him through the long night. He lay there half dazed and questioning his own sanity and tenuous hold on life.

A week later the Cranial Loop Procedures commenced. Professor Grimes insisted that they only be initiated twice weekly and the initial electrical impulses be as minute as possible. He refused to take any chances or to endanger his patient in any foreseeable way. In his words, “Time is on our side here.” Emily was stable and relatively healthy. No one used the phrase ‘brain dead’ but each and every one involved had felt it crawl through their consciousness.

Basil argued long and hard to be allowed to assist in the treatments but to no avail. Grimes was adamant in his refusal. He relented a bit in the end and agreed to allow Basil to observe upon his solemn promise not to interfere in any way. The Professor also agreed to allow Basil to accompany him to the Operating Theater to assist in setting up the equipment for the procedure. Basil, curious by nature, wanted to know every minute detail of the Cranial Loop. Having Emily as the patient for the experiment only intensified his innate need to know.

The apparatus for the experiment was located in an operating theater three levels below the psychiatric building in a sub-basement. It was decided to perform the procedure there since moving and reassembling the Cranial Loop was bound to affect its performance and would take too much time in any case. Psyche students, Basil and Emily included, who had never visited the sub-basements, referred to them as ‘the dungeon’ or ‘the crypt’. He got a chill as he climbed into the tiny antiquated elevator with Professor Grimes. Grimes pulled the steel, floor-to-ceiling, scissors gate closed. He pressed a button for ‘down’ and another for ‘sub-level-three’ and the car started its descent with an abrupt jerking motion. “What’s in there?” Basil asked as they passed sub-levels one and two.

“Supplies,” Grimes replied, “Old furniture and the like, centuries of castoff medical equipment. You could probably fill a museum with all that old stuff.”

Basil wrinkled up his nose.  “Smells like livestock.”

“That’s the lab animals,” Grimes explained. “Rats and monkeys, a couple of pigs. They’re kept on sub-level two.”

The elevator stopped with a jerk and the lights blinked off and on. “Not sure they’re supposed to do that,” Grimes commented. “They always do when you hit the bottom floor though.” Grimes pulled a large steel lever at one end of the elevator and held it down with his foot while he slid an iron keeper over it to hold it in place. “Mechanical brake,” he said to Basil. “If you forget to set that, the gates won’t open.” He chuckled a bit. “If you’re on one of the upper floors and don’t set the brake, the damned elevator won’t stay in place. There’s a massive coiled spring anchored into a pit underneath this thing, the latest in safety equipment a hundred years or so ago. I have the uneasy feeling it would likely go right through the floor of this thing should one ever be forced to depend on it.” He pulled back the scissors gate and Basil followed him into a dimly lit hallway.

“It’s dark down here,” Basil complained. “It’s cold and smells wet and fetid.”

Grimes clapped him on the back. “Welcome to my laboratory,” he said in his best Bela Lugosi voice. “C’mon Kid, lighten up. It’s much safer to bring Emily down here than it would be to move all the equipment upstairs and attempt to readjust it. The machine is very finicky. Emily’s well-being is my primary concern. The surgical arena cleaned up well. It’s all stainless-steel construction. You’ll feel better once we’re there.”

Basil followed Grimes through a labyrinth of hallways, curious at every turn but determined to be quiet and stop asking so many questions. The surgical area was just as the professor had described it. Its spotless stainless-steel walls and ceiling shined like glass. Walking into the room, Basil felt like he was entering a house of mirrors. “Here she is!” Grimes stood proudly next to an iron chair. It was as spotlessly clean as the room but dark and sinister in appearance as far as Basil was concerned. “Don’t worry, Basil,” Grimes responded to the concern evident on his favorite student’s face. “We’ll line it with pillows, nice and soft, for Emily.”

Basil watched attentively as Grimes went through his pre-procedural checklist. Grimes gave a professional instructor’s play-by-play while he flipped switches, adjusted valves, and consulted monitors. His clinical presence and professional detached demeanor impressed Basil. Professor Grimes was a man in his element. The phone rang and Grimes picked up. “Very good, we’re ready,” he said into the receiver. There was a chair positioned a couple of yards before and facing the Cranial Loop apparatus. Grimes hung up the phone and gestured for Basil to take a seat. “The attendants are on their way with Emily,” he said. “Sit down and relax, my boy. It’ll be over before you know it.”

 

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