Thursday 7 February 2013

Second Excerpt from "Ill Humour"

For those of you who enjoyed that last excerpt from my forthcoming novel, I though I'd add two more. The first one gives you a look at one of the book's co-protagonists, Dr. Donald Firkin. The second comes from later on when Anna's struggling with her patient, Adam Renfrew.

Toronto 2011

Come on, heads my darling. Let me see heads.
Professor Donald Firkin slapped the coin on top of his hand and discovered that once again, it had landed heads’ side up. That made it twenty-four times in a row, the odds of which happening were – he tallied the number on his computer’s calculator – nearly seventeen million to one. It would’ve been an extraordinary feat, had he not been using a trick coin that showed heads on both sides. When he was twelve years old, his father had made a rare appearance at his mother’s house and given him the coin for his birthday. For months afterward, he’d used it to swindle his brothers and sister into losing bets and surrendering their favourite toys. After a while, though, his siblings sniffed out the deception and demanded that they be the ones who chose heads. So that was that.
Firkin heard a knock behind him. He recalled that he’d scheduled an appointment with a student, but didn’t immediately turn away from his computer. Instead, he played a round of Solitaire, knowing that the game’s lame green backdrop lay fully within his visitor’s view. Only when he’d finished did he finally turn and face his student – a blonde girl named Danielle who was enrolled in his second-year English Literature class. Her outfit consisted of black spandex leggings, a tan leather bag, and what looked to be a poorly tailored tanktop, which hung properly over one shoulder while sliding lazily off the other. The girl bore a term paper in her hands. As her email had suggested, she wanted to “discuss” – or in other words, argue – the grade she'd received on it. Already, Firkin could see her bottom lip quivering.
“Hello,” he said, waving at a chair. Danielle dropped her bag to the floor and sat down. She held her paper in front of her chest and stared down at it, shoulders hunched, trying to steady her fingers. Firkin pushed his bold, rectangular glasses up his nose and ran a hand over his bald pate.
“Yeah, like, I dunno.” Danielle glanced up, but finding him silent, dropped her eyes back to the paper. “It’s just like, you know, like, I don’t see what’s wrong with this.”
Firkin steepled his fingers and nodded. “Okay… Well have you read over the comments I wrote in your margins?”        
Danielle nodded several times and brushed some hair out of her eyes. “Yeah, but I mean, you know, like – How come you gave me a sixty-two?”
Firkin repeated his question about whether she’d read his comments. Danielle titled her face toward the ceiling, trying to keep the wet cups of her eyelids from running over. When she lowered her gaze to him again, she used the back of her hand to dab one eye. “I just don’t think it’s fair,” she insisted. “I mean, like, I think your comments are right and everything. But I was a straight-A student in high school.”
Firkin sighed. “I understand that university can seem difficult, Danielle. But this is not a first-year class and I cannot raise your mark. Your paper has many problems with both its writing and its argumentation, and I have tried to point them out in my comments. I’m sure that if you consider my notes carefully, you’ll show a lot of improvement on the next assignment.”
Danielle was shaking her head before he'd even finished speaking. “But this one mark will kill my GPA! It’s already over.”
Firkin knitted his brows and leaned back in his chair. If Danielle expected an exceptional average on her transcript, then yes, there was no avoiding the fact that a sixty-two would require her to shift her expectations for the coming semester. When he told her this, she fell silent for a moment. But a transformation soon overtook her features. Her face darkened. Supplication turned into anger when she realized how useless it would be to appeal to his sympathy. She flipped her paper around and fwapped it with her index finger. “But look at the comments!” she shouted. “You say here that my ideas are vague [fwap] and over here that my phrasing is awkward [fwap!]. What does that even mean?” She threw her hands up. “I mean, your marking is so subjective.”
Firkin could barely keep himself from laughing. It was wonderfully predictable for a student like Danielle to challenge the “subjective” nature of English grading when things didn't go her way. When Danielle realized how little of an effect she’d had on him, she wept openly.
“Danielle,” Firkin said. “You need to understand that – ”
“That what?! That English isn’t subjective? That’s crap and you know it. It’s just your own stupid opinion.”
He sighed and glanced at her over the top of his black frames. “So what, Danielle?”
The girl’s jaw fell as she drew her hands away from her face. What did he mean, so what? His personal opinion was about to wreck her GPA and ruin her future. Firkin interlaced his fingers and dropped his hands between his knees. He continued to hold the girl’s eyes, even when she couldn’t hold his.
“Danielle,” he said, “I know you think that your GPA is going to determine your future. But trust me, it won’t. When you get out of here, your prospects will be determined by your letters of reference, your interviews, application letters, and quite frankly, the people you know. All of these things are ten times more subjective than the marks I put on your English papers. And you know what? All of them will have ten times more of an impact than your GPA ever will.”
Danielle shook her head as fresh tears gushed from her eyes. “You’re not allowed to say this,” she protested. “It’s…” she searched for the word. “It’s evil.”
Firkin nearly laughed again, but steadied himself out of respect for the girl’s condition. After all, what could she know of the world outside school? It must have been nice to think that the grades on her assignments could entitle her to a bright career. “I’m sorry to tell you this, Danielle,” he concluded, “but the world is subjective, and it’s better you learn that now instead of later. If my English class has been able to teach you this much, then consider it the most important course you’ll ever take.”
“You can’t say this.”
“Life is not a math test you can feed into a machine, Danielle. And thankfully, neither is an English Studies paper.”
Upon hearing this, Danielle rose from her chair and stuffed her term paper back into her bag. She didn’t bother to shoulder the bag, but jammed it under her armpit and fled from the office. When she was gone, Professor Firkin spun back to his computer. He opened his internet browser and spent the next five minutes scrolling through the most popular videos on YouTube. One clip showed a young man breakdancing inside some sort of community centre. He was performing all of the usual tricks, wriggling his limbs in a gelatinous fashion, spinning on the ground with his legs splayed in a wide V. But suddenly a little girl wandered into the young man’s path and paff! – was struck in the chest by one of his whizzing feet. She soared a full five feet into the air before landing on her back. Firkin clapped a hand to his mouth and smothered a squeal. He paused to take in what had happened, then watched the clip again from the beginning. He scrolled down to read the comments that other people had posted about the video. The very first entry assured him that the child had miraculously escaped this incident without any major injuries. He was happy for that.
There was another knock at his door.
“Hi there, Don.”
Firkin recognized the voice as that of his young colleague, Joseph Werth, and swivelled to face him. The man wore a grey suit paired with a white shirt and sky-blue tie. He’d recently won a tenure-track appointment in the department, and his entire body buzzed with a fresh and irritating enthusiasm.
“So how are things?” Werth inquired.
“I’m afraid I’m swamped with work,” Firkin answered, reopening the Solitaire program on his computer screen. Werth forced a collegial laugh.
“Taking a break from your research, eh?”
“Not really. You don’t do so much of that stuff once you get tenure, unless you’re desperate to impress people.” He waved at the empty bookshelves that covered his office walls. All the other professors in the department had made certain to fill theirs to the point of overflowing.
Werth maintained his smile and nodded. “Well,” he said, “I think that your book on the history of western medicine is really wonderful, Don.”
“It feels like a lifetime since I wrote that.”
“Quite an argument, though, to say that we don’t know any more about human health today than we did a thousand years ago.”
Firkin shrugged once more and half-stood to pull the tail of his coat from beneath his corduroyed rump. “Well let me ask you this, Joseph. What would you say is the cause for most forms of cancer?”
Werth pursed his lips and considered the question for several seconds, but eventually shook his head with a snort. “Well, obviously there are different causes for different types. But as a rule of thumb, I don’t trust anything made of plastic, or anything petroleum-based, for that matter.” He paused again and glanced up at the ceiling, trying to choose his words more carefully. “In the end, I guess I’m suspicious of any chemical substance that’s artificially synthesized.”
Firkin nodded and explained to Werth that most of the North American middle class would agree with him. That said, there was no denying how idiotic this opinion was going to sound two hundred years in the future. It was not poor Joseph’s fault, of course. He was a smart young professional. It was simply a fact that all scientific theories, by definition, would eventually become outdated. Firkin’s book had merely tacked one more crucial observation onto this point – that if scientific “progress” was something that went on infinitely, every new breakthrough was infinitely small. And if so, how could anyone rightfully call it progress?
When Firkin had finished, Werth tilted his head from side to side and noncommittally answered, “Good point.”
“So what brings you to entrance of my lair?” Firkin added.
“Oh, well I’ve heard around the department that you’re quite the poker player, Don.”
“Practice.” Firkin jerked his thumb back toward his computer.
“Yes. Well I was thinking about putting together a poker night just for the profs, and wanted to gauge your interest.”
Firkin glanced about his office and drummed his fingers against the arm of his chair. “What night of the week would it be?”
“Any night that works for you.”
 “I’m afraid not, Joseph.”
Werth scratched the back of his neck and rested his elbow awkwardly against the office doorframe. “Okay then. Well I’m sure I’ll see you at the party coming up next week.” He offered one last smile and disappeared into the corridor.
Firkin spun back to his computer and opened his email account, where he was happy to find a message verifying what Werth had just told him. There was going to be an interfaculty party that week. He flipped open a leather-bound agenda on his desk and scribbled a note about the party. There were some professors, he fondly recalled, whose banter could make him nearly vomit with laughter, especially after he’d gulped down a few glasses of the free alcohol these parties always provided. It would be an enjoyable time, so long as no one talked about any articles they’d recently published or prestigious grants they’d just landed. At this last thought, Firkin felt his breathing become shallower. He dug at the horseshoe of grey hair that wrapped around the back of his head. Joseph Werth’s grinning face suddenly appeared in his mind, and Firkin watched in horror as the young man lay down a handful of cards at a poker table. A full house, straight flush, and royal flush descended in dizzying succession. Other professors from the department materialized on either side of Werth, snickering as Firkin squirmed in his chair, helpless as a worm pinned to a dissection board. They all wanted to see him defeated at something. But he would never give them that sort of satisfaction.
Clutching his chest, Firkin stood up from his chair, pulled his corduroy coat over his shoulders, and exited the English faculty’s building by the quickest possible route. Once outside, he drew a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket and lit one. The smoke encouraged him to breathe deeply. He tried to focus on the sound of the wind rustling through the municipal maples decorating the sidewalk.
Yes, he thought. The party could be good.

The squelching and squeaking of wet rubber soles echoed through the linoleum hallway. Not a single patient or staff member lay in sight. Anna had just come in from the rain, and the evaporating moisture was igniting her scalp with a maddening itch. She tried to ignore the sensation, but not a minute passed before she started clawing at her irritated skin. Flakes of dandruff leapt from her digging nails and vanished into the shoulders of her white lab coat. When the itch had finally abated, she glanced over her shoulder, fixed her hair, and ducked into one of the hallway’s many rooms. 
“Hi there. How are things today?”
Adam Renfrew grimaced as she entered. His face glowed beet-red and looked swollen – a very strange turn from the ashy pallor he’d shown just a day earlier. Anna suspected a fever, and quickly confirmed with her thermometer that Adam’s temperature had run to 104 degrees. 
“Would I ever love to stick my head out there right now,” Adam said, inclining his head toward the rain pattering against his window.
“Okay,” Anna said. “I’m going to set you up for a few more tests, and we’re really going to get to the bottom of this, okay Adam?”
 “You mean you haven’t really tried up ‘til now?” Adam gave a half-choked laugh. It was the first time he’d laughed in front of her. The sound was deeper than his young voice seemed capable of.
“I was just being positive,” Anna answered. “A good attitude does more for your health than you might realize.”
Adam waved a hand at her and let his eyes fall to his lap. “Yeah, I was just messin’ with you, Babe. I know what you mean.”
 Her mouth tightened into a frown. “Babe?” she demanded. “Please Adam, how about we stick to Doctor Mercer?”
Adam stared at his feet and wiggled his toes beneath the bed sheet. “Seriously, though,” he said, “D’you got any clue what’s wrong with me?”
“We’ve narrowed it down to a few things.”
He lifted his gaze back toward the window, where drops of rain clung to the pane and dribbled downward, zigzagging toward the bottom like rival skiers. The grey sky beyond glowed with a leaden intensity that stung the eyes. “You know,” he finally said. “I think you’re the only person who comes in and out of this room, Anna.”
            “Hasn’t your nurse been by?”
            “Yeah, but she just gives me my food and stuff. I think she’s a little afraid to come near the bed, since none of you know what’s wrong with me.”
            Anna glanced down at her clipboard. She had little more to say, but didn’t feel right leaving so quickly. There was something particularly disquieting about Adam today: a devilishness that animated his laugh, and which now seemed to be twisting his mouth into an unnerving grin.
She laid her hand on the bed’s guardrail. Adam met her eyes as she peered down at him. “Do you really have no one we can inform about where you are? Not even a friend?”
            Adam’s grin flickered. But like a rebounding flame, the thing swiftly returned and engulfed his entire mouth. His lips curled backward, baring his teeth. Farther up his face, his pupils glowed like two searing black coals. “Tell you what,” he suddenly answered. “I’ll call my people when you tell me what’s wrong with me.”
            “So you do have people in your life,” Anna said, striving to keep a steady voice. “Why won’t you let us contact them? Are you afraid of something?”
Adam turned his head from her again, though his burning eyes lingered on her face for a few extra seconds. Massive pearls of sweat rolled down his forehead and dripped from his nose.
“I’m going to double-check your temperature,” Anna said. She bent over the bed and reinserted her thermometer into his mouth, making sure to watch his eyes, which were turned toward the window. When two minutes had elapsed, she pulled out the thermometer and checked it, finding that his temperature had risen even higher to 105. When she glanced up from the thermometer, she found Adam glaring at her. She recoiled, but he caught her by the wrist and held her with an unnatural strength. The veins distending up his forearm looked as though they could leap from his body.
“You know what?” Adam hissed, “I find it really weird that you don’t know what’s wrong with me. How long have I been in here, anyway?”
            His hot breath stung her face. Nonetheless, Anna met him with a glare of her own. “Let go of me,” she ordered.
            Adam held fast and peered into her eyes. As the two of them remained in this embrace, Anna sensed she was no longer looking at the same Adam Renfrew she’d committed to the hospital a week earlier. She reached forward and pinched the hand that was holding her, but its grip only tightened around her wrist. “Let go of me now,” she ordered again.
            “You know what would bring the fever down? A little kiss, Honey. Maybe a little…”
“Adam!” Anna drove her nails into his hand until they punctured the skin. When blood flowed from the hand, Adam relaxed his grip. His smile disappeared and his eyes fell half shut. In the half-second before she tore herself from his grasp, Anna could feel his temperature plummet.
            “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know why I did that.”
            Anna rubbed her wrist and cast him an unforgiving glance. “This is a pretty drastic shift in behavior, Adam. I’m going to have to call in a psychologist.”
            His eyes popped open again. “You mean I’m going nuts?! How can you tell when you don’t even know what’s making me bleed black stuff out of my face?”
            “The two things might be unrelated. And in any case, we’ve got to try and look at what’s happening to you from every possible angle.”
            Adam lifted his head from his pillow and threw it back down – hard – several times. “Why don’t we know already?! I thought you docs were supposed to have all this stuff figured out.”
“We’re narrowing it down, Adam. We really are.”
            “The folks in charge are going to come get me soon. So you’d better hurry.”
            At the mention of the “folks in charge,” Anna stepped forward again. “Adam,” she said. “Your fever might be making you delusional. Can you tell me if you see any colored threads or popping lights right now?” She noticed at this same moment that Adam’s hand was bleeding far too much for such a small cut. She turned to retrieve a bandage from the metal cabinet behind her.  

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