Dr. Burgis fought and failed to stifle a yawn. It was the final, grueling day of screening acne-ridden, emotional teens for twelve study patients, and the selection process had been brutal. Dr. Burgis was in his mid-fifties, sporting a salt and pepper beard, wire rim glasses, and a few extra pounds around the middle. He looked like someone’s grandfather. Someone’s tired and less than thrilled grandfather in this case.
The teenage girl perched on the exam bed stared at him with the same startled expression he’d seen on a blur of other faces. The face of an introverted, self-conscious teen being uncomfortably daring. The girl had attractive features, perfect teeth, a delicate nose, large hazel gray eyes framed by high cheekbones, but all anyone would notice when they first laid eyes on her would be the acne-stricken cheeks and brow.
Despite her desperately pleading eyes Burgis had already made his decision. All that remained was to find, or engineer, some reason to set her aside so he could move on to the next applicant. The Doctor licked his index finger and thumbed through the pages of the file in his hands, eyes scanning, searching for something that tickled at his mind about the girl. He made a grunt of satisfied discovery and asked his last question.
“One final question, Jane, and I believe we’ll be finished with your psychological evaluation. I noticed you were reading a book in the waiting room when I called you back. May I ask what you were reading?” He arched an eyebrow and forced a reassuring smile onto his face.
“Oh, it’s nothing, just a silly teen book,” the girl shrugged.
Burgis frowned. “But, Jane, in your bio you said that you didn’t read books or novels of any kind. Obviously, you do read books.” He sounded less than pleased. “I know that the online questionnaire was long and horribly tedious. There were a large number of questions. Mistakes and even omissions were bound to happen.”
Instantly Jane flushed with dread. If the Doctor thought she’d been deceptive in her answers, she was done! She threw her explanation at him before he could say another word because she knew what his next words would be.
“Oh no!” she practically shouted. “It’s not a mistake! I answered all the questions myself, and no one helped me or answered for me. And I took my time. I’m not a reader! Not normally anyway.” Jane gave the book lying on her purse a hateful, angry glare. Stupid book! She turned her pleading eyes back to Burgis. “Honestly, I told the truth in my bio. And I don’t like books, but one of my best friends, Stacy, she’s been pestering the living crap out of me all summer to read the Midnight books and I finally said I’d do it just to get her to shut up! She even made me promise not to cheat and watch the movies first. Stacy said the books were better than the movies and it would mess me up if I watched them and make the books suck.”
Burgis was smiling.
Jane cocked her head back in surprise. What did it mean?
“You haven’t read any books or novels just for the pleasure of reading before today?” he asked, eagerly awaiting her response.
“No, sir,” Jane answered, too relieved that Dr. Burgis seemed to be happy with her again to give too much thought to how weird the question was or what it had to do with anything.
“Surely when you were little you read books just for the pleasure of enjoying a good story,” Burgis pressed.
Jane’s relief began to turn to suspicion. Was he still trying to catch her in a lie about her reading habits? He must be. She answered as if she were stepping through a mine field of words, her reply filled with hesitant pauses, as if any wrong word might explode and ruin everything.
“Well, my mom would read me books… to put me to sleep when I was a baby… and… I’m pretty sure I read a couple of books when I was little… I sorta remember one about a rabbit. Edward something… I remember it was really sad… and—” she swallowed and faced him squarely. “Honestly, Dr. Burgis, if it’s not a book I have to read for a book report or some school book, I don’t read – at all.” She ended with an apologetic face.
Dr. Burgis pursed his lips, picked up her book, and studied the cover art.
Jane summed up her “booklessness” with the standard cop-out statement, “Books take too long to read. I’d rather just watch a movie.”
“What’s it about?” Burgis asked as he opened the book to where her bookmark held her place.
He nodded and turned a page or two, like this was an expected theme for teen reading. “As I guessed from the cover, but give me more details than that,” he urged warmly. “Who is the main character in the book? Is it a boy, a girl, or some vampire? You’re well over a hundred pages in, what’s happened so far?”
Dr. Burgis was watching her so closely, Jane felt a little like a bug in a box. She could tell he was still in psych evaluation mode. Pressure!
“Well, the main character is a girl named Sarah, and she just found out that the guy she likes is a vampire.”
“And are you like this Sarah in the book? Same age, same hair color, same interests?” Dr. Burgis looked over the top of his glasses at Jane, striking a classic “teacher” pose as he lectured. “The best way to read a story is to imagine yourself as the main character and let yourself be part of the story. Let your mind create the world of the book instead of some director and a movie screen. Your imagination is far better than the movie will ever be, so in this I agree wholeheartedly with your annoying friend—” he searched his memory for a moment, “Stacy, you said.”
Jane nodded and Dr. Burgis handed her back the book and asked again, “Are you like Sarah in the book, Jane?”
Jane reached up self-consciously to her red pimply face as she answered. “No, I’m not like Sarah. I mean, she— Sarah is pale and has real fair skin— in the book she has perfect skin.” She wouldn’t meet the doctor’s eyes as she answered but studied the book in her hands and the cover art.
Jane tried not to let the tight knot she felt in her stomach creep up into her eyes. Not the best time to cry, during a psych evaluation, but it didn’t look like she was going to be able to stop it. It was getting hard to see. Her eyes were filling up. Dr. Burgis coughed and cleared his throat and rubbed at his own eyes which made Jane blink, which was like flushing two toilets! Everything that she’d managed to keep pooled in her two aquatic orbs hosed down her face.
“Good grief!” she moaned. She was ruined! Now she was crying, and she had the doctor crying!
Burgis chuckled and smiled. “We’re done. And, Jane, you’re in the drug study if,” he held up a finger, “you agree to all the trial restrictions, and one very important condition.”
Jane’s watery eyes got huge as she processed this. I’m IN! She let out a happy “Yea!” and bounced around on the exam bed in celebration as she wiped her tears away with the palms of her hands.
Dr. Burgis cleared his throat again and wiped quickly under his glasses at his own eyes with a tissue he’d grabbed from the box on his desk. He handed the box to Jane.
“All right now, let’s get this wrapped up.” He harrumphed, cleared his throat a final time, and busied himself, organizing papers and handing them to Jane as he talked. “I know you’re already aware that this drug study is very special. We’re trying to make changes to your genes, the very most basic parts of what makes you ‘uniquely’ you, and that is very serious business, so you’ll have to follow our directives to the letter. You understand, Jane?” He looked at her expectantly and waited.
“You will be back here, in my office, this coming Monday to start the five-day course of the Derm 513 pills. You will take the Derm 513 pill in my presence and will let me know each day if you are experiencing any side effects, changes in mood, diet, sleep patterns, or any other adverse or unusual reactions. Although we don’t expect anything severe to happen, we’re still going to be keeping an extremely close eye on you. You’ll have to give up any travel plans you may have made for the last weeks of summer vacation before school starts as well. We can’t have you going out and getting into trouble, getting hurt or catching a cold from someone. Gene therapy medicine is still a new science, and we must treat it with care. You must abide by the following restrictions— without fail.” He paused again, waiting until she nodded her understanding and acceptance.
“First is the drug testing. Before you leave, you’ll have to provide a urine, blood, and hair sample to Nurse Ann. I’m sure you’ve read the restriction on prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs like pain and cold pills, and of course illicit drugs, but we’ll still do testing to make sure you’re drug free, and we will be testing all five days of the study to make sure you stay that way. Also, no excessive physical activity starting today. That means no working out, no stressing out, and you’ll have to stay home and indoors as much as possible till the end of the study next Friday.
“Second. Avoid direct and prolonged sunlight. Absolutely no tanning till the end of the study.
“Third.” Dr. Burgis took out a white bottle of pills from his pocket and wrote her name on it. “You’ll be taking a weak antibiotic for the next ten days to make sure you don’t catch a cold. There are ten pills in this bottle, take two today and two each day after lunch so these” he shook the bottle “will be gone before I see you in my office on Monday. When you come on Monday, I expect you to bring me back this bottle, empty.” He handed her the bottle of pills with her name on it.
Dr. Burgis leaned over and used his pen to point at RESTRICTION #4 on the paper he’d given her for emphasis as he went on. “Fourth, final, and also, I’m sure, the most egregious restriction to you and any teenager, absolutely no soda or other sweetened drinks or energy drinks for the next ten days. Only water. Yes, that’s plain old H2O. And no excessive sweets like candy bars or doughnuts. Sugar on your corn flakes is fine but don’t overdo it.”
“How many others are in the drug study, Dr. Burgis?” Jane was almost afraid to know how lucky she was.
“There are only twelve teens in the clinical trial, Jane, and as I have informed your parents, there are no placebo slots. All twelve of you will be getting the same treatment – no sugar pills – not for this particular trial, just the real drug.”
Jane was relieved to hear this again. “Good, I’d hate to think that I was lucky enough to get in only to get a fake pill.” She wiped at her eyes with one of the doctor’s tissues as she thought about the waiting room filled with other teens who were trying to get into the drug study. A sad, crowded room packed with desperate kids with bad skin, all of them dreaming of getting it fixed– permanently– by five magic pills.
“Dr. Burgis, how many open spots are left in the study?” Jane asked, thinking about the waiting room.
“You were the last one, Jane. Study patient number 12.” As if he could read her thoughts, he continued, “Yes, you are very, very fortunate, Jane. Hundreds have come here hoping to be a part of this clinical trial and I have selected you, and this reminds me of my one condition for you to be part of this drug study.” Burgis leaned in, “You remember?”
Jane nodded, worried again.
“About your book,” Dr. Burgis said, “your vampire book with the young girl named Sarah.”
Jane still had it in her hands, and she hugged the book to her chest as her emotions from earlier threatened to wash back over her. She didn’t want to cry again. She was done with that! She sat up straighter and listened carefully as the doctor spoke.
“Jane, you’re in the study, but in exchange I want you to do something for me. I want you to read your book and I want you to picture yourself as Sarah, with perfect pale skin. The heart and the imagination are very powerful, Jane. Your heart and your mind can change what you are, not just on the inside, but also on the outside if you only believe. So here is what I propose. First, you will read these – Midnight books.” He tapped the book she held tight in her arms.
He scratched his head with his pen as he thought, then picked up a brown envelope off his desk, opened it, and took out a new fifty dollar bill. The envelope was filled with money. “This is not supposed to be a paid trial, Jane, so we’ll keep this between us.” He cast a furtive look over his shoulder toward the waiting room where Jane’s mother was sitting then turned back to her and held out the fifty. “To help break you out of your book free existence, and to help you on your way to being more like Sarah, I will give you this fifty, and an additional fifty dollar bill for each vampire book you can read between now and the end of the drug study. Few things motivate a teenager like hard cold cash.”
He put the fifty into Jane’s open hand. “And don’t worry about me, I’m good for it. As many books about pale, perfect skinned vampires as you can read, fifty for each book. Don’t bring me the books, just tell me what books you’ve read when you come in. And for goodness sake, don’t let your parents see you waving that cash around so they get suspicious and end our arrangement. Now, is this acceptable, Jane, or would you still rather watch the movie?” Dr. Burgis waited with his eyes on Jane, studying her every twitch and reaction to his proposal.
“Yes sir, I’ll read them – and thank you,” Jane answered, as sincerely as she could. She liked the book so far and wanted to finish it anyway. She hid the bill inside her purse picked her book back up and thought about Sarah, how she had perfect pale skin. She wondered how her skin would look soon. Hope warmed her chest. Maybe she would be like Sarah after all.
Lunch with Friends
Jane twisted the top of the brown pill bottle and took out two white pills.
“Is that the Derm pill? I thought you didn’t start that till Monday,” Emma asked, just before she bit into her slice of food court pizza.
“No, this is just an antibiotic. I have to take this before I start the Derm pills.” Jane grabbed her bottle of water and downed the pills, took a quick bite of her Chick Fil-A sandwich, and picked her book back up. She hadn’t stopped reading it since she left the doctor’s office an hour ago.
Stacy stabbed her salad with a fork. “I still can’t believe you got in. Thousands of teens must have tried to get into that Derm thing. I mean, I’m glad I don’t really need it, but for you it’s gotta be like winning the lotto!” Stacy cringed after those words were out. She looked up from her salad, expecting to find Jane with her feelings hurt, only to find Jane with her nose still buried in the book and not even listening. She reached over with a quick snakelike strike and snatched the book.
“Hey!” Jane cried, then looked into Stacy’s frustrated face as she held her book hostage.
“I’m glad you’re into the book and all, but unplug already!” Stacy growled. “You can read when you go home. And anyway, you’re going to be unavailable all next week, so this is girl time. Talk! Spill the details, let’s hear it.”
Jane knew she wouldn’t get the book back till after lunch, which totally sucked because she was at a good part. Stacy was right though; she would have plenty of time to read at home. Her mother told her on the way to the mall that this was the last time she would leave the house until after the trial, except to go to the doctor’s office. Doctor Burgis made her parents promise and even sign some legal papers agreeing to keep her home till after the drug trial. Her dad had jokingly called it “house arrest.” She knew that she probably wouldn’t see her two best friends again till the start of school.
“OK! OK!” Jane put up her hands in surrender. “I’m unplugged already.” She took another drink of her water and made a yuck face. “Accck! Nothing but water for ten days. I’m gonna DIE.” She smiled contentedly and sighed, “But at least I’ll look good in my coffin. Five pills and my zit days are done.”
“Are you sure this stuff is gonna work that good?” Emma asked.
“Yeah, the pictures and films they showed us from the earlier trials were totally amazing. It works.”
“Did you get there super early?” Stacy asked.
“We got there three hours before they opened!” Jane lamented. “I’d already signed up online and filled out all the paperwork and finished filling out the endless online bio, but so had everyone else! It was crazy! And once we got inside the doctor’s office we waited another four hours before my name was called. The room was so, so freaking overcrowded that it stank!” Jane made a retching motion.
“Are we talking packed elevator stank, overloaded school bus reekage, or gross, sweaty, sardine style mosh pit with people disguised as human waste rubbing up against you?” Emma asked, curiously delving into the experience with a happy smile.
“There are no words,” Jane said in a traumatized voice with wide open eyes, and Emma and Stacy both laughed, delighted at the agony as Jane continued her report. “And then I waited some more once I got into a room.”
“I’d a lost it!” Emma said, “What freakin’ time did you get there this morning?”
“We got there at 4AM. It was still dark in the parking lot, but we still weren’t the first ones there. Some people camped out. Mom almost lost it in the waiting room, and I was so bored I actually started reading the book, and it’s so weird because the book is what helped me get picked for the final spot!”
“The book?” Stacy asked. “What, was the doctor like a major Midnight fan or something?”
“No, it was so strange! When I went into the meeting for the psychological evaluation, which is the last part before they either dump you or keep you, it really seemed like Dr. Burgis didn’t like me. But then he got all freaked when I told him that this was the first book I ever read just for fun. He said that if I agreed to read the Midnight books I was ‘in’ and he gave me a fifty dollar bill!” Jane took the fifty out of her purse where she’d stashed it and waved it in front of Stacy.
“Holy crap! Did I come through for you or what!?” Stacy declared. Jane nodded her total agreement as Stacy went on, “Damn girl, I think at the very least you owe me a movie and dinner at Sonic. You should be falling down on your knees and crying out I’m Not Worthy! I’ve made you RICH! and BEAUTIFUL!” Stacy took a pull off her soda and summed up her accomplishment with mock humility, “I’m awesome.”
Emma, Jane’s self-appointed guardian, cut in, “Give it a rest, Stace, Jane don’t owe you shit! It’s not like you knew that stupid book would impress the doctor guy.”
Jane shook her head no and backed Stacy up, “Nope. If Stacy hadn’t of pestered the living crap out of me to read that stupid book, I wouldn’t have brought it with me, and I wouldn’t be in the study, so—” She gave Stacy sincere eye contact and said, “I am so not worthy. Which movie? And will Friday be OK?”
Stacy, with a smug look directed at Emma said, “Friday works for me!”
Jane, still waving the fifty around said, “Come on, Emms, let’s take Mr. Fifty and celebrate! My treat!”
Emma nodded her agreement as she took another bite of her egg roll.
“Oh crap!” Jane was suddenly crestfallen. “I forgot, I can’t go out till after the drug study’s over. You guys should still go though. Just because I’m in lockdown doesn’t mean you guys have to stay in.” Jane handed the fifty to Stacy and said, “Seriously, take it.” Stacy took it, but didn’t look happy about it.
“No way!” Emma shot back. “We’ll wait till you can come too. Wer’e not spending Mr. Fifty without you.”
Jane grabbed her book back from Stacy, who was distracted making Mr. Fifty do a dance on the table top. “You guys go – and don’t worry about it. I’ll have another Mr. Fifty soon. Dr. Burgis said he would pay me another fifty for each vampire book I read from today till the end of the study.”
“He’s paying you fifty for each book!?” Stacy’s eyes danced as she did the mental math. “You’re a slow reader, and those Midnight books are some thick mothers,” she added with a grin, “but you should still be able to finish all four books. You could make another $ 150 just by reading vampire books for the next ten days.”
“Still,” Emma said, “why’d the doctor want you to read vampire books. That’s just WEIRD.” She had her pen out and was drawing little hearts and smiley faces all over Mr. Fifty.
Jane didn’t want to get into the details of her crying at the doctor’s office, not here, and hopefully, not ever. “It’s a mental thing. Dr. Burgis thought that reading about vampires with ‘pale, fair skin’ would be good for me while I was in the clinical trial, and I was already reading a vampire book. It sorta fit. I guess.” She hoped that sounded like a good enough explanation.
“Stace, can I borrow the rest of the books? Do you have them all?”
“Sure, I’ll bring them over tomorrow.”
Emma laughed, “Jane’s mom might not even open the door for you. “No visitors! Remember? You’ll have to leave the books in a bag on her porch, ring the doorbell, then run like hell! Leave it like a flaming bag of poo.”
They all laughed. Emma was funning, but Jane’s mom had made it quite clear that she was totally off limits for a while.
“I’ll just leave them on the porch for you,” Stacy said.
They talked for a while about the new school year, boys, music and “girl stuff” till Jane’s mom came back from shopping to take her home. Jane told her friends goodbye and left them at the table, planning which movie to watch on Friday and how best to celebrate with Mr. Fifty.