By Jamie Sheffield
The home-med stopped giving Alice her usual meds on Tuesday, and by Friday she was feeling unlike the person she’d been, unlike anyone she’d ever met or even heard about. The feelings were waves pushing a new tide ashore, erasing and redrawing the beach of her mind with each of a thousand pulses from an ocean she’d been unaware of until sometime on Thursday. She’d lain in bed Thursday night, drifting in a sweaty tangle of cotton, dangerous and terrifying thoughts banging noisily around inside her skull; Alice couldn’t decide if she was more scared that the new thoughts and feelings would continue or that they’d stop.
The auto-tinting in the windows began to lighten at eight, bringing a false dawn to Alice’s bedroom, the sun already several hands above the trees across the field from her house. She rolled out of bed and stomp-staggered across the wide planking of the retrofitted barn to her bathroom to pee and submit to testing. She blinked at herself in the mirror, grimacing broadly to check her teeth while she waited for the unit’s gentle stab, blood-draw, then the cool hiss and astringent smell of the antiseptic sealant. The blue light strobed for the standard couple of seconds, then switched to green as she heard a trio of pills slide down the chute and into the trough by her waterglass.
Alice’s home-med had been serving up the same quartet of pills for as long as she could remember, until Tuesday that is. Home-meds had been installed in every house, apartment, and hotel-room years before Alice was born, and everyone knew they had saved countless lives through the daily blood-monitoring and precision adjustment of necessary medicines of which they were capable. Home units got to know the people they served, and the daily pills would be ready in seconds, but even in a hotel room you only had to wait a minute or so while it compared your new sample to past records and treatments. Alice had heard that people had initially worried and complained about the installations, but that had all stopped a few weeks into the new health initiative as people grew noticeably healthier and happier, and more placid. At one of the increasingly rare face-to-face meetings with a human-med—a doctor her mom had called the man—Alice, a reasonably healthy young woman, had been told that her medications treated a number of conditions that would have been considered ‘sub-clinical’ in the old days, along with providing nutritional and other supplements as needed. She’d been aware of seasonal changes in her old regimen; when a sinus infection came almost every winter, so did the small green pills for ten days; when she’d first moved into the barn, bright red square ones helped with her allergies until snow flew, and then came back each year with the fall foliage. She hadn’t been ready for Tuesday’s change. Her standard four pills had become three, but had also changed in shape and size and color, an outward signal of changes that took seed, then root, and grew over the following days.
She washed the pills down as she’d done every day since she was three years old, with a sip, then a follow-up swallow, of cold water. She’d never thought, until recently, of the great trust the act extended to the home-med; now it was all she could think about, but she didn’t know exactly what to say about it, or who to say it to if she did. She thought about her neighbors, in the big red house across the valley from her barn, but people didn’t go visiting much anymore, especially without family obligations or emergencies. She’d considered sending her human-med, the ‘doctor’, a message about the changes in the pills the home-med had been giving her, but then the changing within her began, and without being able to explain why, she’d held off.
When she’d woken up Thursday morning, and for the third day in a row received and swallowed the strange and different trio of meds, she found herself feeling around in her belly, and innards, and brain, for the sensation of the pills dissolving and taking effect. Alice had climbed back into bed, cocooned herself in blankets, and waited; what came was like some ritualized unmasking, as in a dimly remembered horror film from before the restrictions, but with her playing audience, victim, and villain. It was like peeking over the top of cheap sunglasses at the beach, removing workgloves to feel woodgrains, taking off layers of sweaters to feel a sensual breeze tickling tiny feather-like armhairs. Her whole body, and mind, felt raw, too keen a sensory device, and the layers of altered and improved perception made an old and comfortable world feel new, jangly, and overbright.
Alice felt a ragged toenail catch on infinitesimal imperfections on the sheet at the bottom of her bed. The Italian roast coffee the kitchen-unit had made for her smelt burnt, made her nose wrinkle and mouth water. The barely audible skittering of tiny feet above her head not only registered, but she found herself analyzing the pattern of scratching sounds for pacing, settling on ‘unhurried mouse’. For the first time since moving here, she noticed a subtle fogging of the double-paned glass of the window overlooking the field where she’d been told sheep once grazed, and knew without knowing how she knew that the seal in the bottom-right corner must have failed somehow. The last taste-residue of the pills she’d taken minutes before flopped around on her tongue, both salty and bitter, whispering secrets she couldn’t quite make out.
Alice burrowed deeper in her nest, hiding from the world while reaching out with her improving sensorium; newly installed, or debugged, processing software. She’d been asleep her whole life, nodding and noodling her way through a haze of days, a witless witness, oblivious to the obvious—she giggled at a newfound love for wordplay, then stifled her reaction, her self, fearful that whoever had made this mistake would somehow hear, somehow know.
She’d just started her journey through the looking-glass, you see, and she very much wanted this, whatever this was, to continue. She wanted, needed, to more fully become this Alice that had only begun to emerge from a drugged lifetime of foggy mornings that lasted until bedtime. She didn’t know if the home-med had malfunctioned, or if someone had chosen her to be set free from the pharmacological prison everyone now lived in. Alice crept out of bed, sniffed, then sipped, suspiciously at the mug of coffee the kitchen had waiting for her, and wondered at, wandered around, the new world she’d somehow been invited to, mistakenly or on purpose. An element or aspect, of her newfound state of being that she kept strolling past in forced nonchalance was the question of whether the change had come from the addition, or deletion, of a drug or drugs to her daily dosing.
Was the new Alice an accident, experiment, or purposeful act? Did she have a role to play, a duty to strike out from her newly expanded her-ness, an obligation to spread the word, share the wealth? Should she say something, do something; if so, to who, to what end? Her mind, a newly fine-tuned machine, raced and revved and racked and rampaged, throughout the day and across the long dark night; headlights shining on an open and empty roadway.
Saturday morning, Alice raced out of bed long before the windows in her room had de-tinted or the attic-mouse had finished his (or her) chores; even before the real dawn had begun to light the field and trees beyond. She skipped on light and nimble toes across the black expanse of bedroom and into her bathroom, to the home-med. Pinkie-finger jammed into the sampler, she always, unconsciously nowadays, alternated fingers to avoid scarring; she felt the quick jab of the hungry minute steel straw, then the blast of antiseptic, followed by blue strobing. Long seconds later, the light greened, and pills rattled down into her trough.
The four pills she’d received Monday, before the change; she stared down at them for a long time.