Tabula Rasa Excerpt

Here is the first chapter of TABULA RASA.

I don’t want to sit. The chair is cold metal, and I’m wearing a backless hospital gown. So I stand there staring at it until Nurse Jenner clears her throat.he points to the chair. “Sit.”

“Come on now, Sarah. We can’t keep the doctor waiting.”

The first time I saw this chair, I thought it was an electric chair. I thought they were going to kill me.

But they’re not. I know they’re not. I remind myself of that again.

The chair keeps me upright so they can access any part of my skull—front, back, sides. Long-term memories are scattered throughout the upper brain, and getting at just the right ones so they can be neutralized is nearly impossible. But that’s what we’re here for today. Stage six of the nearly impossible.

“I thought I was scheduled for next week,” I say.

“Schedules change. Just be glad. It means you’re that much closer to a fresh start.” She’s right.

And so I sit.

Nurse Jenner starts securing my restraints: first the one around my neck, then the ones for my wrists and ankles, and finally the belt that goes around my chest. She fastens all of them a little too tightly and then gives me two pats on the shoulder.

“Try to relax now. This isn’t your first trip to the rodeo, remember.”

I know what’s coming next, and I hate it. She’s going to lock me into the halo. It’s this metal birdcage thing that holds my head completely still while the doctor works on me. I have four metal inserts embedded in my scalp and forehead, and the points of the halo snap into the inserts. I feel the click-click-click against my skull as she finishes locking down all the prongs.

“What’s the matter with you today? You’re shaking all over.”

“I’m a little cold.”

“You know you’re not supposed to move at all.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She heaves a sigh and hurries away. A moment later she returns and drapes a scratchy blanket across my bare knees. After checking my blood pressure, she gives the thumbs-up to the doctor in the booth above the operating room. I hear the door latch as she departs.

Now we can get started.

A spotlight comes on above my bald head. Once all the injections are done, my hair will be allowed to grow back, but right now I’m on a special chemo regimen to keep me completely hairless. Otherwise they’d have to shave my head every time they did a memory modification. Bald makes it easier for them, and it doesn’t really matter to me, since I can’t see what I look like anyway. There are no mirrors or shiny surfaces to be found in this place.

Well, not many.

In the outdoor exercise area, there’s a small pond with goldfish and water lilies. It’s a nice spot to relax. Or it was, right up until a girl fell in and drowned. An orderly found her floating facedown in the black water, her hospital gown spread out at her sides like wings. Afterward, Nurse Jenner said to me, “I bet she fell in while she was trying to see her reflection.” I got the message: This is what happens when you don’t follow the rules.

The doctors tell us it’s got to be this way. Seeing things from our past—even our own faces—can cause a setback in our treatment. They go to great lengths to make sure we remain unknown to ourselves. Not that any of their precautions can keep me from wondering. I’ve tried to put together a mental sketch of myself by running my hands over my face. I must have done it a thousand times, but I still have no idea if I got anything right. The girl I see in my mind’s eye remains a blurry, half-formed image.

The only thing I’m pretty sure of is that I normally have dark hair. My skin is sort of olive toned, and usually olive skin goes with dark hair, not blonde. I figure I’d be a warm, toasty brown if I could just get a little sunshine, but we don’t get a lot of sun here. Wherever we are. In every direction there are jagged, white-capped mountains like rows of shark teeth. What’s beyond those mountains, I don’t know. Maybe if you walk out there, you get to a point where the world simply falls away.

Just like my memories.

Any minute now, a male voice will address me. It’ll be Dr. Buckley. I’ve met him just once, in the hallway outside the director’s office on the first floor. He looks like a middle-aged Santa Claus: brown beard streaked with gray, bright red cheeks, and a twinkle in his blue eyes. He’s up in the surgical booth right now, behind smoke-colored glass, operating the injection needles with a robotic arm to ensure absolute precision.

“Are you ready, Sarah?”

And there’s Dr. Buckley now. Ho, ho, ho.

His question is just a formality. What am I going to say, no? Besides, now comes the only good part. I talk with Larry. He’s Dr. Buckley’s research partner.

Larry is the one who reads the CAT scans and the MRIs and then decides where to drill during these head-mining operations. He figures out the this to take and the that to leave alone. He’s also an expert on hypnosis.

Larry talks to me throughout the operation. I have to be awake and alert during surgery so they’ll know immediately if they’re damaging something important. While Dr. Buckley is busy puncturing my brain with needles, Larry will have me count backward from one hundred by sevens, or he’ll read me lines of poetry and ask me to repeat them back. Sometimes he tells me really bad knock-knock jokes, and I just have to say, “Who’s there?” at the right moment. Larry assures me that laughing at the punch line is not required or expected, which is good, because the jokes are never funny.

“Good morning.”

Larry’s voice startles me. He sounds so close, but I know he’s not. He’s up in the surgical booth. I’ve never seen him, and I only hear him through a speaker on procedure days.

“Big day today,” he says.

“Is it?”

“I’m sure you’ll be ready for whatever comes your way, though.”

It’s strange, I know. We seem to talk about nothing, and yet I feel like everything Larry says to me is somehow important. Maybe it’s just that his voice is the only thing that keeps me from drifting away for good. Sometimes— maybe a lot of times—I want one of those needles to go in a little too deep, in just the wrong place. Would it really be so bad? I’m sure there are worse ways to die. Loads of them.

I could never say this out loud. Nothing gets the staff riled up like saying you don’t care. These memory modifications are a chance for a new life. And they cost a fortune. The huge expense gets mentioned a lot, especially if the nurses think we’re being uncooperative. They seem to think all the research money they’ve invested in us to help get our lives back on track will make us feel obligated and appreciative. Maybe it should, but it doesn’t. “What’s on your mind, Sarah?” Sarah.

Can that really be my name? I’ve said it over and over again, trying to force this square peg into its round hole. It never fits.

Just as I’m about to answer Larry, I hear the high-pitched whine of the drill starting up. Dr. Buckley is in a hurry.

“Hold still now. You’ll feel a sharp prick and then pressure in juuuuust a moment. . . .”

I’d rather not picture the drill that’s about to bore its way through my skull, even if Santa Claus is the one operating on me. I need to distract myself. I know my post-op recovery is going to be deadly dull. The only things we get to watch on TV are old cartoons, and I’m tired of watching Tom and Jerry in the rec lounge.

“Larry, can you sign off on a reading request for me?”

Only Dr. Buckley and Dr. Ladner can give permission for us to read. And like the cartoons, the books they approve are usually really old. I guess they figure old books don’t matter anymore.

“Sure,” he says. “How about Hamlet?” Hamlet?

Dr. Buckley must also think it’s a strange suggestion, because he abruptly turns the drill off.

“I tried out for a part in Hamlet when I was in college.

Did I ever tell you that, Sarah?”

Larry has never shared anything personal before. He knows that.

“I wanted to play Polonius.”

“Oh yeah?” I ask. “Why not Hamlet?”

“Because Polonius has the best line in the whole play.”

“Which is?”

“‘This above all: to thine own self be true.’ Good advice.

Though not always easy to follow.”

“Or in my case, it’s impossible.”

Larry knows what I mean. I can’t be true to myself if I don’t know who I am.

“Don’t be so sure, Sarah. I’m less worried about you than I am about me.”

Should I ask him why he said that? Reassure him that he’ll be all right?

I say nothing.

A moment later, I get that sharp prick that Dr. Buckley warned me about. I suck in my breath and feel an intense cold where he’s stuck the needle in. Once the area is numb, Dr. Buckley will begin drilling. That’s the worst. I hate the smell of the bone dust.

“Just remember, Sarah, sometimes the answers to all our questions are staring us right in the face.”

I’m not sure what Larry’s talking about, but I stop wondering about it almost instantly. They give me something to keep me calm during these procedures, and it must be kicking in.

“Dr. Ladner,” Dr. Buckley says. “Are you quite ready to continue?”

The drill starts up again, but I don’t care. I don’t care about anything. I feel like my body is a wagon and my mind is a horse, and somebody just unhitched the two.

Despite what I tell them—that I’m ready to start my life over as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, whatever you want to call it—right now all I want to do is slip away into the cool, velvet nothingness that’s calling to me.

Oblivion.

That’s what I want. That’s what I need.

With each slow blink, time passes quickly, and nothing happens. No more needles, no more drilling. I’m just sitting here, waiting. Whatever happy juice they squirted into me is wearing off, and worse, I’m getting feeling back in my scalp. I’d ask what’s going on, but that would be a waste of time. They never, ever give you reasons for their delays.

I’m able to move my eyes just far enough to see the observation window. It’s up high, on the other side of the room, opposite the doctors’ booth.

Someone is up there watching me.

It’s her.

HER.

I feel something rise in my throat, fierce and foul. My teeth clench together, and an intense hatred fills me up so hot, so fast.

It takes all my strength to force my fisted hands to open and relax. I need to stop this. It’s ridiculous for me to feel this way. She’s some consultant they’ve brought in from New York. I don’t know her. I’ve never seen her before this week.

Ms. Hodges. That’s her name.

Hodges.

“Whoa. Everything all right, Sarah? Your heart is racing,” Larry says.

“I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Totally fine.”

There’s no reason for me to have such a strong reaction to this woman. She’s a stranger, and though it’s possible she reminds me of someone I used to know, there’s no way to be sure. I need to ignore these feelings. That’s all. Ignore them. Because I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t.

As the woman looks toward the surgeon’s booth, I sneak a quick glance at her. She’s wearing an ivory dress with lots of draped fabric. It’s elegant. Toga-like. Several gold bracelets circle her wrist. She spins them around, but as our eyes meet, she stops and lets her hands drop to her sides.

It’s hard to tell how old she is. Fortysomething, maybe?

My eyes dart toward her hair. It’s the most perfect shade of red, and if I didn’t feel so murderous right now, I’d admit that she’s beautiful.

You know, for her age.

I squeeze my eyes shut, hoping that when I open them again, she’ll be gone. But she isn’t. I want to make these feelings go away, but hatred is a sticky, clingy thing, and I can’t seem to get rid of it.

I remind myself what I’ve been told nearly every day since I arrived. Paranoia is a side effect of these tabula rasa treatments. So is a strong feeling of déjà vu, loss of depth perception, balance problems, color blindness, and, according to Larry, an inexplicable affinity for people wearing wooden clogs.

That breaks the spell a little. A smile tugs at the corner of my mouth. I wait for Larry to ask me what I’m thinking. He’s probably the only person who could tell me exactly how many times I’ve smiled since I got here.

Suddenly all the lights go out.

The room is black and instantly colder. The darkness only lasts a moment, but it feels much longer.

When the lights come back on, so does Larry’s microphone. “You okay down there?”

“I don’t know.”

A drop of blood drips onto my lap. I must have jumped when the lights went out. I didn’t think it was even possible, but somehow I tore one of the metal inserts loose from my skull.

The lights flicker and the heart rate monitor leaps back to life long enough to beep once.

“Sarah,” Dr. Buckley says through the balky speaker system. “I guess . . . having . . . technical . . . someone . . . will . . . try to . . . calm—”

The power goes out again, and this time the outage drags on.

Just as I’m starting to panic, I hear a door open and then footsteps. My whole body stiffens at the sound of someone hurtling toward me. Whoever it is knocks a piece of equipment onto the floor as he approaches.

I hear him breathing hard. He’s right there, right next to me, but he says nothing.

Aftershave.

That’s what I smell. I have no association to go with it, which makes me think it can’t be one of the orderlies. I know each of them by their body spray or shampoo or mouthwash.

I hold my breath, waiting, completely aware of how helpless I am. The man grabs my upper arm and then fumbles toward my wrist, finally locating my hand. He presses something into my palm and wraps my fingers around it. It feels like a plastic bag.

A moment later, he retreats, and then I hear the door click shut.

I’m alone in the dark again, but I feel a rush of something that I haven’t felt in a long time: hope, curiosity, and a little bit of anger.

I feel alive.

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