Zona Incerta


Short Fiction by Sophie Hopesmith

 

Everybody has good and bad luck, in different ways. So it was that Jack came to be travelling at 60 miles per hour when a car on the other side of the highway misjudged the situation and attempted to overtake. The vehicles collided and the other car flipped before slamming into the verge. Internal organ smashed internal organ. The driver died in less than two minutes as a rib bone punctured his heart and the contents of his bowels billowed into his chest.

Jack’s vehicle shot across the speedway and spun into a hornbeam. His head hit the wheel and his brain clipped the skull and the blood then exploded like New Year’s Eve fireworks. He was lucky he did not die. He was unlucky to sustain a brain injury at the age of just 18.

Jack had only been driving for nine months. Like everything Jack did, he did it well and effortlessly; he passed the test on his first attempt. He had no particular ego about this, for it was typical of the way that his life had unfolded. Jack was good looking, clever, shrewd and sporty, and had a confident bearing borne from a loving, wealthy family. He was white, straight and privately educated. Liked and admired by all, he was pursued by girls that peers could not even engage in conversation. Sometimes, he was the subject of envy, yes – many a boy had coughed obscenities into the pillow or wept mid-wank as they beseeched the gods for his luck or looks. But they did not know this: never be envious of anyone and never overlook your blessings, either. For we are all dealt our cards, full of both horror and miracle.

When Frank and Diana arrived at the hospital, the doctors were getting their son ready for emergency surgery. His brain had swollen to three times its size. They shone lights into dilated pupils. They inserted a breathing tube into his trachea. They would drill into the bone to drain the blood. Diana fell to her knees and screamed with such guttural force that her necklace broke. Frank got on his hands and knees to gather up the pearls.

Jack did not recover consciousness.

For 404 days, he stayed in a coma without incident. Diana would visit him every week. ‘Hello darling, are you comfortable? Is the sun in your eyes?’ Diana brushed the hair from his eyes and patted moisturiser into the clefts where his skin had ulcered and chafed. But Frank dropped from weekly visits to monthly to barely coming at all. He wavered between thinking that his son was dead and that he must be on vacation – a gap year, a mission, a chance to sow his oats. Frank was surely better off at home, preparing for Jack’s return: making the bed, fixing the bookshelf, attending to finances. He still deposited a monthly allowance into Jack’s account.

During those first few months, a parade of Jack’s friends and former lovers often swung by the hospital. They brought flowers that he could not see. They brought grapes that he could not eat. They brought helium balloons that would eventually sink. This group of young, lithe, interchangeable faces did not recognise their transgressions. They held up photos of Jack in various guises and spoke to him as if he were merely hungover or idle. On his 19th birthday (the week he should have taken up his place at the University of Oxford), the gang turned up with cake. Someone said ‘Make a wish’, and there was an awkward lull. Jack’s girlfriend, Pippa, squeezed his hand to prompt him – as if he could still long for betterment, as if an undamaged brain were a state of mind – but then they blew out the candles and wished for something generic.

Soon after, they stopped coming and just got on with their lives.

On the 405th day, Frank had a talk with Diana. He had been meaning to broach the subject for a while. Yet the timing was lousy; Diana was struggling with a risotto when he said, ‘I think we’re getting to the point where we need to switch off Jack’s monitor.’ Her hands shook so hard that a bowl tipped to the floor and smashed on the tiles. There were howls of pain and Frank led her to the sofa, where he murmured the reasons: reasons he had rehearsed and did believe in. But Diana rummaged around in a handbag for a sheet of paper, which she shook in the air.

‘Let’s see if this works. And if it doesn’t work, then all right: we’ll switch off the machine.’

Frank was trying to read, but his eyes and brain could not connect. The printout said something about a trial at the hospital; some early experimentation; a callout for candidates.

‘He’s not coming back,’ said Frank.

‘I know it’s a long shot,’ she choked. ‘But I have to know that we tried and did our best.’

*

It is often said that we know less about the deep sea than we do outer space. It is more accurate to say that we know less than we think about everything. It is easy in these days of mobile phones, microwaves and quantum computers to feel like we have slain all the dragons and chased out the shadows with Prometheus’ fire. But what do we know about consciousness? Or before the Big Bang? Or the time after we die? Even when we know ‘what’, do we ever know ‘why’, or whether there’s a reason at all? Either way, we are dazed and amazed and full of outraged fury. That is how we feel, you see, when presented, with the zona incerta.

The zona incerta has stayed unexplained for over 100 years. It lies between the thalamus and the subthalamic nucleus and serves as a major crossroads in the brain, connecting with neurons throughout the cortex and into the spinal cord. However, its precise function – the purpose for all this – is unclear. Maybe, they say, just maybe. Maybe this is the area that regulates sensory processing. Maybe it switches awareness on and off. Maybe it maintains our motion and posture. We hunt for mystery so we can pin it to the board like a butterfly, but there is always more to catch.

At 12.52pm on the 3rd of November, an assembled medical team inserted electrodes seven centimetres deep into Jack’s temple. When this was complete, an electrical current was blasted into his thalamus and cortical areas, including the zona incerta, on and off for ten minutes. They repeated this sequence over the course of 48 hours, and then, periodically, over the following six months. Until, at last, there came a breakthrough.

Diana and Frank sobbed when Jack opened his eyes. Soon, those eyes tracked them and he moaned very softly. One day, the doctor told a joke and Jack laughed. But none of that topped the moment that Jack sat bolt-upright in bed, whimpering ‘Water’ to the ward, his eyes locked with his mother’s, and a hand reaching out for her hand.

*

Jack returned home once the process was over. Since he was now a medical curiosity, it was on the proviso that Diana and Frank stuck to regular appointments and alerted the hospital of any significant changes at all. ‘Of course,’ they said, feeling proud of their boy. They got his room ready like it was a newborn’s nursery. But the first time he walked into that house was dreadful. They had no idea what he would say or do, so they watched, mute and astonished, as he stumbled up the stairs and went straight into his bedroom to sit at his desk. This was to set the pattern of the days to come. Jack could sit at that desk for hours, staring at the pylons in the distance. This is where he had done homework and made calls, watched porn and dreamt of holidays. It was hard to know what he did now. Physiotherapy was the only thing that exhausted him enough to sleep. His face belied no expression and he initiated neither action nor conversation. If Diana went up to see him and ask how he was doing, his hands would jerk into a thumbs-up action that looked strange and puppet-like and without affirmative thought. Occasionally, he would indulge in destructive behaviour. Frank found him piercing his ankle with a pencil. Another time, he hit his head against the bedstead to the repeated beat of a nonsense word. But it was more common to get a vacant look. Diana and Frank encouraged him to sit in front of the television, which made the staring less disturbing.

Still, it felt like time would heal. They had their boy back. There was hope to be had. Although affection was not offered as a rule, he would return the pressure of a hug and pucker his lips when kissed. He liked to clasp at hands occasionally, especially in confusion. Sometimes he sat so close to them on the sofa that they felt the heat and tremor of his body, and they dared to wonder if he was trembling with want.

This is why Frank and Diana were so delighted when a few friends dropped by with hearty grins and champagne: surely they would now marvel at his new, improved state? Except, they left very quickly and did not return.

Jack had always been an excellent conversationalist, but now the banter was scant, although he could speak in short sentences, if he felt so obliged, and would certainly answer any questions that were put to him.

‘Jack, what do you want for dinner tonight?’

‘Sausages.’

‘Jack, when’s my birthday? Do you remember?’

‘March, daffodils.’

Later, Diana found out that Jack’s so-called friends had held an unofficial ‘funeral’ for him: they had scattered the ashes of a burnt rugby ball and read out his favourite song lyrics. When she saw his old girlfriend in the supermarket, she was overcome with an uncharacteristic rage. ‘He’s not dead,’ she spat, and every word felt like glass.

‘That’s not Jack,’ said Pippa: her arms folded, relentless. ‘It isn’t him.’

‘You don’t want it to be.’ Diana felt the weight of her hand slap Pippa’s face and she did not know which of them screamed. Everybody turned to stare as a security guard came to escort her through tragic aisles of cereal, chickens, redcurrants, egg noodles: all dead things on the edge of decay.

*

It wasn’t long before there were others like Jack. Within a couple of years, they could halt other forms of neurodegeneration. There were success stories for people with dementia, Parkinson’s, brain tumours, catatonic states and severe psychosis. They all showed improvement to cognition and awareness. One or two even went on talk shows, where the hosts paraded them to squawking spectators. A few people, it is true, did relapse and get a reboot, like electric cars plugged in for a charge. It was not unusual now to see people carry around mini-laser guns in their cars or handbags to shoot into their brains in an emergency, the way an allergy sufferer must remember their EpiPen.

There were one or two oddities, however, which people seldom discussed: everyone had a similar glazed look and there was some damage to motor skills. Their limbs did not manoeuvre, as they should. There was no smooth double-pendulum motion, the human stride: left, right, left, right. Instead, people like Jack staggered in a slight diagonal with arms stuck stiffly to their sides. Yet most could carry out fine motor tasks, such as plucking a guitar string or pushing a thread through a needle. The medics vowed to research and refine. At this stage, some things were still – frustratingly, damnably – unknown.

One day (it could have been any day), Diana was sitting in her favourite chair in the sunlight, listening to the radio and fidgeting with her fingers. She was tracing a scarlet cut that ran across her middle finger, already knotting together. On the radio, they were talking about the turritopsis nutricula jellyfish: a tiny intangible thing, barely bigger than the size of her fingernail.

It looks like a transparent bell with tendrils shooing out from it,’ said a woman, her voice lifting with zeal.

Cue dramatic music, with a woman’s voice strung against it. ‘This jellyfish goes by another name, a quite extraordinary name: the immortal jellyfish. It has this name because there is no limit to its lifespan. A mature adult – when under attack or in stress – can transform itself back into an immature polyp. It’s like a butterfly re-becoming a caterpillar. Just imagine.’

Diana did imagine it, and missed a few seconds of the programme with her daydream. Apparently, the presenter was now looking into a Petri dish while the globular creature was stabbed with pins.

Very soon, we will start to see visible changes. The jellyfish will transform its cells into other types of cells, in a process called transdifferentiation. Nerve cells can become sperm cells. Egg cells can become muscle cells. The jellyfish takes the original building blocks and it remakes itself anew.

Diana heard footsteps making their way to her: heavy, clanking sounds that she knew were from the boots of her boy. She looked up as he entered the doorway, ducking his head so as not to hit it.

‘Can I get anything for you?’ she asked, turning the radio down.

‘Yes.’

‘What, Jack? What can I get you?’

‘Tea.’

‘Well, you know you can make that yourself. Remember?’

He blinked his eyes at her but the face said nothing. ‘No.’

‘You don’t remember? You did it just this morning.’

Now he gazed up into the corner of the room, as if replaying some inner footage. ‘Yes.’

‘Yes? Well, the kettle’s just there, sweetie.’

She had her back to him now and she heard the kettle click on (how she hoped it had water). She did not know what he was doing; perhaps he was only standing there and staring. She waited a moment to see if he would pull up a chair and try to talk. There was no movement at all. Of course not. What was she thinking? As the kettle rattled with steam, she turned the radio back up and swallowed the feeling away.

We’ve known for some time that the human body is capable of healing its wounds and regenerating certain organs.’ It was a male voice, now. ‘You only have to look at the liver to see that in action. Many people don’t know that we have been 3D printing bladders, as just one example, for some time now. And we are seeing huge progress with other, more complex, structures. We know that there is this capability out there in nature, and we are not so different, genetically, from the jellyfish.’

Really? We’re not so different from the immortal jellyfish?

We don’t have to be, no.’

There was a thud and an inhalation of breath and she knew that he had knocked over the cup and the boiling water was searing his skin.

So now the immortal jellyfish is proving the key to some regenerative research that is just months away from being tested on humans. Do you worry about what this means for the future?

No, I don’t. I worry about death and disease. I worry about cancer. I don’t worry about that. We are very lucky to live in these times.’

Later that night, Diana was tossing and turning while Frank grunted and groaned. The depth of his sleep, that unstoppable snoring, was an insult. She prodded him a few times but soon she made peace and let herself lie still and awake, eyes pointed up to the ceiling and, through it, the stars. She saw worms cut in half and rows of roses deadheaded. She saw wrinkles smoothed over and a baby back in her arms. A smile so big that that it hurt.

*

Looking back, it is unclear exactly when the government became more hostile. But soon people like Jack did not have full rights as citizens. There was mandatory work service – menial tasks such as picking up litter and manufacturing toothpaste – to keep boredom at bay and reduce any ‘difficult’ behaviour. Cheap immigrant labour was no longer in vogue and robotics were costly. It was a popular move, until the day that it wasn’t.

On a job in Kent, in a group of ten, a woman bent down to a pigeon and rammed it full in her mouth. The bird shook so hard that it shed all its tail feathers. Her eyes went wild as she clamped down with her jaws and a weird whistle flew out. She grinded her teeth, her face full of rapture, the blood on her chin, the slow bellowing crunch of it.

The supervisor was over in seconds, armed with a taser, but the damage was done. People screamed and fled, dropping their shopping bags. Others stood frozen with phones, filming it all so they could share it with the world and prove they had been there. Within half an hour, the event was trending on social media. In less than an hour, the video was streaming on news sites. Later that day, they were discussing it on programmes and talk shows. That evening, a headline: ‘The Rise of the Zombies’. Turning to the inside pages, the editorial read: ‘Today, it’s a pigeon; tomorrow, your baby.’

What most people didn’t notice – except for Diana and Frank – were the other figures in the photo that was doing the rounds. Behind the woman, and the pigeon, and the feathers, and the blood – a blurry but undeniable shape. A little out of focus with a mouth fallen open, eyes shiny and bright, the interest piqued, his fingers splayed as if scanning for birds: Jack.

*

The medics do not perform the procedure on people anymore. This is the case for the foreseeable future, as they carry out investigations into possible risk. People rant and rave about disposing of the ‘zombies’, but the country’s divided and the debate plays out. After all, it is not so easy now there is no machine to switch off, and not everyone needs a top-up (otherwise, you could simply let them wind down – like having a watch and not replacing the battery). The reality of disposal is grim, so some politicians make the case for housing the zombies in government institutions or army divisions, where they can serve their country away from the public. Some holler that they won’t pay for the ‘subhumans’ with their well-earned money, that tax goes up all the time and they’ve had enough. Scientists screech that we’re on the brink of breakthrough. Other scientists warn of impending doom. For now, there’s an impasse and society hangs in wait.

Diana and Frank do not listen to these debates and they no longer buy the newspapers. Sometimes, at night, they talk about fleeing, but where would they go? They are people who rely on the everyday and the here-to-stay, the routine and the ritual. So, they touch and hold their son and feel the breath streaming out of his lungs. They are ecstatic to have him present: he is alive, he is conscious, and anything is better than nothing. There are indivisible things inside us: quarks, leptons, the rush of neutrinos. His parents bask in the certitude of this and will not speak of their grief for a different version. There is only here and now and this.

Jack sits at the table with his parents: he sees them, he hears them, he is aware of the cool starch of linen on the seat. His parents do not ask how he feels – and even if they did, he does not have the commensurate biology to answer them. Does he feel like a slave? Do the days feel long? If the old Jack saw the new Jack, would he cry out with terror? Would he fall to his knees and would he grab a knife? Or would he hug them and thank them, and say that all of this is enough…

At night, the walls edge closer. The presence of him and yet all of the absence too.

But the days, the days are easier. His parents bring milk and toast at 6 am. The washing is done on Wednesdays and Sundays. There are 45 minutes of cartoons in the mornings. One tablespoon of protein powder is added to the 3 pm smoothie. The temperature is kept at 21 degrees Celsius. The duvet cover is folded three times into a rectangle. They stand in queues, they stand before mirrors, they stand at cash machines and in front of clothes on clothes racks. They pass him five tablets to take at night. They smear his lips with a finger of Vaseline. They never run the hot water for more than ten minutes. They will not let him pass him into the zone of uncertainty.

 


Sophie Hopesmith co-hosts the Papertrail Podcast, a monthly interview series with the most talked about writers. Her debut novel, Another Justified Sinner, was published in 2017 by Dead Ink Books. Sophie works for a children’s charity by day and tends to a short story collection by night. She likes cats, dark laughter, and Oxford commas. All of her favourite films were made in the 70s.