Down the Well

Mohra Muradu well in Pakistan (By Dawoodmajoka (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Originally written in response to a Human Parts writing prompt at Medium.com.


Trina’s first seizure came the day after her tenth birthday. My husband was running an errand, and we were eating some leftover ice cream cake for lunch. She was in the middle of telling me about a girl in her class, Vivian or some name like that, when her voice dropped an octave. Then it disappeared completely. Her eyes went bloodshot as she mouthed the word “Mommy.” I reached out for her shoulder and asked her, “Are you okay?” Instinctively, I reached into my pocket for my phone. It wasn’t there. When I looked back up, her eyes were completely black, the pupils dilated fully. Her head swayed, a sway I would come to know all too well over the years, and then she fell to the ground. Her fingers curled up into grotesque claws. Her breathing got heavier and heavier. The corners of her eyes formed deep wrinkles as tears welled up. Her knees retracted to her chest and she locked into a fetal position. I had no choice but to leave her there so I could call for help. I couldn’t find my phone anywhere. I raced from room to room desperately trying to find any of our phones, my mind filled with the panic of a mother losing her child. I finally found the cordless phone that Tim used for his work, and then I heard Trina’s voice. I raced back, phone in hand, and she was sitting up on the kitchen floor with a worried look on her face. She was speaking hurriedly in fluent Spanish, a language I didn’t know, and still don’t. As far as I knew, she had only taken one summer enrichment course in Spanish, but here she was describing what she went through in perfect, colloquial Spanish.

We went to our pediatrician that afternoon. There was nothing wrong. She got a CAT scan. There was nothing wrong. Within a few days, she had completely forgotten how to speak Spanish. She said the seizure felt like she was falling down a well, and that it was horrifying agony for the entire 96 seconds. She was strangely accurate about the amount of time. While she was falling, and even through the pain, she thought very clearly. Ideas connected in ways she wouldn’t have imagined ten minutes earlier. Memories surfaced that were long repressed. This stuck around for a few days after her seizure, but then fell into the normal background noise of school life.

I was a geneticist at Broadbent, so it made sense to bring her to Dr. Hatchley and Dr. Vagora after her second seizure. They were the best neurological researchers I knew and they happened to work where I worked. I had eaten lunch with them on a few occasions. We were friendly. What I didn’t know was that it would make their careers or that they would name the syndrome after themselves, Hatchley-Vagora Syndrome, HVS. But I was desperate to give my little girl some relief, any relief, so I signed whatever they gave me. I signed away my rights to information as both a parent and an employee. I signed away my rights to second opinions, to discussing her case outside of the family or work, to talking to the media. I made her a research subject. I let them experiment with treatments on my little girl for years, in the name of helping her. They weren’t helping her. They were testing her, trying to isolate what made her so lucid while she was down the well.

Eleven years later, Trina went down the well for 5 months. She had only been 21 for ten days. She was curled up in a room with 3 other patients, all being fed by IV, when a geneticist friend in Argentina called me. He suggested there was an hereditary link to HVS. This was something I could do something about. He needed to see her genome, my husband’s, mine. I asked Hatchley for my daughter’s DNA and he wouldn’t give it to me. When I told him I would take her blood myself, he reminded me that it was illegal to take company property. The way he drew out the word company made my ears burn with hatred. Then he had Broadbent place a guard outside of her room, in a hospital they owned. A sympathetic nurse, a friend, delivered me a vile of her blood and then took my husband’s in the hospital parking lot.

Eleven days after Trina turned twenty-one, I stood outside of my lab, rubbing my keycard between the thumb and forefinger in one hand and held two Trina Tim’s samples of blood in the other. I scanned my keycard at the front door and the pad flashed green. Thankfully, Hatchley hadn’t thought to disable my access yet. I greeted the night watchman, Bill, and made my way up the grand marble staircase behind him. I passed Hatchley and Vagora’s lab, locked for the night, and made the right turn down the pallidly lit genetics wing. A cadaver like glow falling across the board of director paintings that adorned the walls. I scanned the keycard at my lab’s door, and the automatic lock popped open.

I had to work fast. The scan at my door would raise an alarm with someone. I hardly ever worked at night and anything out of the ordinary would trigger suspicion. Standard operating procedure. I put Trina and Tim’s blood in the centrifuge and dug through my files until I found the five-year-old printout of my own DNA. I couldn’t photocopy it. The copier machine was down the hall and I would have had to scan my badge to turn it on. I couldn’t take it with me. Each piece of Broadbent paper had an embedded RFID chip to prevent its theft.

I put Tim’s blood sample in one Trighton DNA sequencer and Trina’s in the other. In about ten minutes, I would have both their genomes. Since I couldn’t use a copier and couldn’t take any of the printouts without triggering alarms, I pulled down my old college ruled black and white notebook from when I was a grad student. There were still a few blank pages in the back. There was only one pen on my desk. One of my lab assistants always took thegood black pens, and the only thing left was a bright red metallic gel pen.

It had to do, so I sat below the humming sequencer as it scanned my daughter’s blood. I didn’t want to turn on the overhead lights for fear of bringing too much attention to myself, so I worked beneath the electric blue of the sequencer’s control panel. I began to copy my genome into one of the last three pages of the notebook. ACTG-GCTA and on and on. Trina and Tim’s sequencing finished and I did the same with theirs. The pen almost ran out of ink as I finished Tim’s.

I tore the pages out of the book and carefully put the notebook back where I found it. I disposed of the blood vials in the hazardous waste container near the door to the lab and backed out, closing the door softly behind me. There was no one in the hallway. I said goodbye to the night watchman, who had to suspect something, with how much I was sweating, and made my way to my car. As I drove away from the facility, the red pulse of an alarm went off inside the lobby and I accelerated.


Creative Commons License
Down the Well by Christopher Hazlett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://robotissmiling.com/?p=229.