Almanecer - Chapter 1 of 16
Calvin opened his eyes slowly & found his bedroom ceiling in view, illuminated by morning light which spilled in through a sliding glass door. He found the light to be aggravating, & contemplated getting up to shut his blinds. Instead, he rolled onto his right side & pointed his vision away from the glass door. Before he shut his eyes again, he briefly glimpsed the disarray of his bedroom – clothes strewn about the floor, papers stacked on every piece of furniture, plates with nothing on them but crumbs & blotches of sauce. A plastic cup that was filled to the rim with vodka & orange juice last week was nothing more than a spittoon for sunflower shells now. Calvin shut his eyes tightly & hoped that when he opened them, everything would be neat & tidy again. Not just the room, but his entire existence. He felt himself drift off for a moment, then he was jerked back to alertness by the sudden sensation of tripping & falling in his mind. He inhaled deeply, his nose catching the scent of unwashed laundry. A grimaced look came over his face.
He sat up & pivoted his body toward the glass door, squinting slightly as he faced the sunshine. The change in body elevation brought a sharp throbbing to both temples. He rubbed them vigorously with his palms & felt slight relief. Grabbing his cell phone from a nightstand, he looked at the screen and saw that it was 8:20 AM. Doing a little quick math, Calvin determined that he had gotten 3 hours & 10 minutes of sleep. He shook his head, waving it back and forth, disgusted at the fact that he felt so tired, yet knowing he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. He placed both elbows on his legs, hunched his back and let his head drop a bit. He sat and contemplated how nice a Vicodin would feel, and wondered if he had any.
His phone began to buzz in his hands. It didn’t startle him in the slightest. He slowly picked his head up to look at the phone screen. It was an unfamiliar number from an unfamiliar area code. Bill collectors, he thought to himself. He sent the call to voicemail & tossed the phone back onto the nightstand. Then he began to drift again, and found himself thinking of Elena.
On their wedding day, Calvin & Elena shared vows & rode away in a limousine. Calvin’s brother, James, joked with him about how his life was over, while they sipped from clear plastic cups of whiskey & Coke. Their mother spoke at length several times during the night about what a blessing it was to see her son find his place within one of God’s most sacred institutions. He held a ten-minute conversation in Spanish with one of Elena’s distant uncles who had flown in from Mexico, as his friends looked on silently, unable to follow. There was the wedding cake, beautiful & bland, the mountain of gifts that looked so colorful & vibrant, most of which would never come out of their packages, the bottles of Ballatore that turned Calvin’s ankle-deep buzz into a pleasant swim by night’s end…
Calvin found himself in the kitchen, where the disorder continued. Dishes were stacked high, threatened with the prospect of never being washed again, as Calvin had long since switched to paper plates & red plastic cups. Still groggy, he went to the fridge & fished a clear plastic Starbucks cup from it, still half full with a Caffe Mocha from last night. He gulped it down in a single swallow, then set the empty cup on the counter. He swung the refrigerator door shut & caught a glimpse of the new message light blinking on his home phone. Playing it back, he found that his mom needed him to go next door & help her with some wireless network problems. Why his mom couldn’t get used to the idea of communicating via cell phone instead of land line was beyond him.
After the foreclosure, Calvin found himself homeless at the same time that his father found himself in failing health. Calvin moved into the second unit of the duplex that his mom & dad owned. They lived next door in the first unit, which put Calvin, by default, in the position of resident IT. Not that he minded – receiving the family discount when it came to rent was enough of a perk to make the job worthwhile.
Calvin ambled down the front steps of his apartment, then towards the front steps of his mom’s. Still clad in sweat pants & and an ancient, yellowed t-shirt (that was once pristine white), Calvin opened the screen & slid through the already-ajar front door.
“Mom,” he called out. His nose caught the scent of breakfast and he wandered to the kitchen.
“Hey, I called you last night,” said Mom. Calvin pulled up a chair as if about to eat, but found himself sitting in front of an empty placemat. The salty aroma of eggs & bacon was appealing, but he wasn’t hungry at all.
“Yeah, I got the message, that’s why I came by.” His mom smiled at him.
“You sure it wasn’t the bacon?” Calvin smiled back awkwardly & exhaled audibly through his nose.
“Nah, I’m not hungry. Thanks though.” He stood up, signaling that he was ready to try & fix the internet connection.
As he began fiddling with the wireless router, Calvin’s mind drifted again; this time to thoughts of struggling to get by with Elena - barely having enough to pay rent while living in cramped apartments & back lot houses. Yet there was a sense of connection between them. Even though they found themselves constantly in fear of falling behind with money, their bond grew stronger as they struggled together. He thought back to a particular moment in time when their power was off for two days because of a payroll snag that prevented Calvin from getting his paycheck – a common occurrence at the school district that he did his translations for. It was February, and the winter had almost fully set in. There was no snow in Pasadena, California, but at this time of year, one could still expect to wake up to ice-sheathed roofs and windows on mornings like these.
It was about 3 A.M. by Calvin’s best estimation. Him and Elena were both clad in thermal socks, sweatpants, & hooded sweatshirts underneath four comforters. By the lack of snoring in the room, which cast it with a dark, frigid silence, they both knew that the other wasn’t sleeping.
“I never pictured our lives being like this,” Elena uttered softly. She laughed delicately, yet the seriousness of her statement was an obvious undertone.
“I know, sweetie.” Calvin’s voice, disembodied in the darkness, was breathy and low, the voice of someone who had gotten snatched off the path towards sleep a few steps in. “It’s funny, the way they pump up the married life, they make it seem like once you take the plunge, all your problems are solved.” Elena then snapped back.
“Do you regret getting married?” Her tone was now sharp; battle lines had been drawn. Calvin rolled over to face his wife.
“No, baby. That’s not what I meant. Of course I don’t regret it. I just meant - ” He paused and thought his words out tactfully. “Think about every romantic comedy I’ve ever taken you to go see at the movies.” She gave him an mmmm hmmm that stretched to enormous lengths. “You know, the guy & the girl, they meet, they like each other, and the movie always ends right at that perfect moment, when everything’s great, all the tension’s been resolved, they’re free to just live their perfect lives. But those movies don’t show a second of what goes on afterwards.” Elena’s silent, paced breathing showed that she disliked Calvin’s cynical analysis, of her favorite movie genre no less.
“I guarantee, any of those movies, if you could film a sequel that started a few years after the first one ended, it wouldn’t be that same fairytale, they’d have to face the reality of living.” Calvin realized that his speaking volume had greatly increased. He was now standing on his soapbox.
“You’re so romantic baby, you’re winning me over with your charm.” Elena’s sarcasm was now full blown.
“All I’m saying is, we get this idea stamped into our heads of how the married life is gonna be, how it’s supposed to be, but those movies don’t say anything about what happens when payroll fucks up & now your lights are turned off and you’re fucking freezing.” Elena said nothing so Calvin decided to take the conversation in another direction.
“Okay, listen. In those movies, right before the end, right before the couple realizes how much they love each other, there’s always some kind of tension between them right? And there’s the whole part where they’re not sure what’s gonna happen, are they gonna stay together, do they want each other bad enough? Then they have some kind of huge revelation & they realize they want each other more than anything. I’m just thinking, maybe this is the tension part of our movie.”
“So you’re thinking, this is something we have to go through to get to that ending?” Elena asked. She felt Calvin smile even though she couldn’t see it in the dark.
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
Shortly after that, Calvin & Elena were finally able to fall asleep.
Calvin found himself sprawled out across the couch, back on his side of the duplex. A bag of trail mix sat limply on the floor, half-finished. An episode of Startrek: The Next Generation showed quietly on the TV screen as he flipped through random webpages on his phone. As Commander Ryker set phasers to stun on an unexplored, non-Federation planet, a headline caught Calvin’s eye. “Modified Blood Allows Humans To Hold Breath For Half Hour” read the link on his phone screen. He tapped the link, feeling not just curious, but enigmatically certain that the article was an important read.
As he soon found out, the article’s headline was somewhat misleading. The idea of “modified hemoglobin” was still just that – A promising molecular biologist at the University of Maine who claimed that he had a way to alter human blood to make it more akin to the hemoglobin in seal blood, thus allowing one to hold their breath for 30 to 40 minutes at a time. Sounds like science fiction to me, Calvin thought as he thumbed his way to the end of the article. Yet something about what he was reading was fascinating to him, and the more he thought about it, it became utterly enthralling. The applications of this modified hemoglobin were quite practical, as the article pointed out – from prevention of children drowning in pools all the way up to making space exploration more efficient by cutting down the need for bulky oxygen tanks. For his own selfish purposes, Calvin envisioned himself scuba diving with no scuba gear – exploring the Great Barrier Reef without drawing a breath.
Calvin sat up straight, scrolled back to the top and read the article again. Dr. Charles Amstel was the mind behind modified hemoglobin, a molecular biologist who had lost a son to SIDS years earlier, which inspired him to take his research in the direction that he had. It was a noble enough tale, yet Calvin couldn’t understand what was drawing him to it so powerfully. He set his phone down beside him & looked at the TV. He wasn’t watching it; he was looking through it. He allowed himself to daydream and drift off again.
Fortunes had turned around for Calvin & Elena when they bought their house together. Elena had picked up a job as an administrative assistant & Calvin had finally landed a big translation contract with the Pomona Unified School District. It was a brand new house in a brand new neighborhood, somewhere in the outer reaches of Riverside County where neighborhoods of tile roofs & sandblasted stucco formed what resembled a sea of salmon-red & crème-white from a distance. It was a world ruled by Housing Association fees & manicured lawns. Calvin never thought him & his wife would be able to live in such a place, yet there they were, assisted by innumerable cousins & uncles as they hauled furniture in. The year was 2005 & the real estate market was booming. Tens of thousands of these cookie-cutter slices of the American dream were springing up in California; Calvin & Elena now had theirs. Calvin’s mom frequently alluded to their lives being almost complete now. They had wed, bought their own property, now all that was left was a little procreation. Even though it seemed like something that was so far off in time, the thought of making his mom & dad proud by “completing” his own life was something that brought satisfaction to Calvin.
A downpour had fallen over Pasadena later in the evening when Calvin woke up. He could hear the intense sound of rain dropping from the clouds all around him, as well as the metallic, slow drip of water overflowing from the debris-packed gutters & falling onto an air conditioning unit which sat in the front living room window. He didn’t remember falling asleep, still on the couch with his phone next to him. He turned the phone screen on & saw the article again. The doctor’s name resounded in his mind.
Dr. Charles Amstel.
Calvin tried to shake the grogginess out of his head. He placed the heels of his palms over his forehead & slowly ran his hands downward. He wiped a thick layer of sweat from his face, something that was there in spite of the room being cold. Elena was on his mind again. This time, it wasn’t their early struggles that had fortified their bond, nor the good times shared at the house they bought together. This time, it was the thought of the medication that made her cold & detached, the screaming arguments, her late nights working at the office, the quiet phone calls she would place in the house’s empty bedrooms when she thought he wasn’t paying attention, the admission of her ultimate betrayal…
Calvin’s fists clenched tightly. He felt that his palms were clammy. He bit down on his lower lip, nearly hard enough to draw blood.
He saw Elena’s face, emotionless & blank, as he confronted her for the first time. He heard her insincere, flat apology. Vaguely, he heard himself asking her, “That’s it? You’re sorry?” He inhaled heavily & slammed both fists into his couch cushions. He picked up his phone. A guttural sound, that first sounded like he was screaming, “FUUUUUCK!” emanated from his mouth. Whatever this noise was, it ended in a beastly yell as he threw his phone across the room. He saw the case snap and the phone itself shattered, unable to absorb the blow. Plastic shrapnel flew in all directions. He toppled his coffee table; months-old mail & a lukewarm Carls Jr. cup of Sprite were launched into the air. Calvin collapsed to the ground, unwilling to stand on two feet any longer. His face was contorted into a bitter shape. He was breathing heavily & he felt new sweat forming on the back of his neck. He stared at the ceiling for a while, watching cobwebs as if they were going to move. Once his ear caught back on to the sound of the pouring rain, he was lulled back into the arms of sleep.
The silence was eerie and disconcerting when Calvin opened his eyes again. The rain had stopped; the only thing audible outside was the occasional drop falling from the gutter onto the air conditioner. An infomercial was bellowing from the TV, distracting & sharp, even though the volume wasn’t up very high. Slowly, he rolled over & hoisted himself back to uprightness. He pointed himself towards the bedroom & started walking. It felt as if he was being carried there. He was drawn to the laptop that was sitting on the floor, next to his bed. He flipped it open & entered a name into Google search.
Dr. Charles Amstel.
It was then that Calvin began to write.
Chapter 2 of 16
Seven weeks had trundled by since Calvin’s stream-of-consciousness moment had led him to write an e-mail to Dr. Amstel. It was mid-April, & the gloom of early spring was just beginning to give way to sunny, mild days & freshly blooming plant life. Calvin found himself parked in front of the TV, eating a turkey sandwich, all blinds in his living room shut, allowing in the most minimal of sunlight. A science program was quietly churning out the details of the Challenger space shuttle explosion, something he had already heard about hundreds of time. The gravity of sleep was pulling him towards a horizontal position on the couch. His eyes had grown quite heavy when the sound of his mail slot opening startled him back to a fully awakened state. The sound of junk mail filling up his box was surprisingly loud – enough to block out the TV for a split second. A strange parcel was the last to appear after the credit card applications & coupons. The mailman had curved it in half but hadn’t folded it. He saw that it was a mustard brown standard size legal envelope. Calvin rose from the couch & grabbed it, ignoring all of his other mail. He froze, his eyes widening when he saw the return address on the envelope:
Dr. Charles Amstel
191 School Street
Portland Maine 04038
He stood silently, staring at the envelope. The phrase there’s no way slipped from his mouth almost indiscernibly. Slowly, he found his way back to the couch & plopped back down, still holding the envelope with both hands. He began to carefully rip it open, his heartbeat picking up pace rapidly with anticipation of its contents. The first thing he pulled from it was a letter, two pages long. He began to read.
Dear Mr. Dunn,
I know that in this age of rapid technological advancement, it may seem a bit archaic of me to send you an old-fashioned letter on paper, yet it feels so perfect in that I can give my correspondence to you the personal touch I think it truly deserves. For it was the e-mail you sent me in the first place that inspired me so deeply. I do not claim to be an astute perceiver of moods or emotions, yet I felt such a sincerity in your words that I was moved to present you with a most unusual proposition. I honestly feel that I am on the brink of discovering something that could benefit all of humanity – this you already know. I am also on the brink of gaining federal approval to start clinical trials for my work.
What I ask of you is more than a question; much more than a favor. I ask you to make a leap of faith, to entrust me with your health & well being as we work towards a common goal. Not only that, but I feel supremely confident that what I ask of you will change your life & quite possibly bring you the direction & sense of self that I believe you have lost. I ask that you be the first human being to have the modified hemoglobin procedure performed on you.
The gravity of what I am asking of you is not lost on me, I assure you. I will spare you the untruths; I will not say to you that the experiment is without risk. However, I am an accomplished molecular biologist – a scientist who believes in his own ambitions, as well as his own abilities to see it through without incident. I want nothing more than to contribute something to mankind that will make life better & safer. My contribution would be something utterly small when you step back & look at man’s existence in a broad scope. But for me, the meaning of it is as immense as the universe itself. You, Calvin Dunn, are the missing piece to this puzzle. If you would become a part of what I’m working on, I think – I know! – that it would take on just as much meaning for yourself.
If you should decide to take me up on my offer, I’ve enclosed something for you.
Dr. Charles Amstel
Calvin put his hand back into the envelope & fished from it a plane ticket to Portland, Maine. He stared at it for a moment then flipped it over, certain that he would find some kind of fraudulent marking, something to make it not real, something that would reaffirm the reality of everything else around him. He found nothing. He slowly slipped the letter & plane ticket back into the envelope, & leaned back on his couch. There’s just no way. Calvin let out a chuckle, a sound that almost felt short of sane. Any second now, someone’s gonna run in here and tell me this is a joke. Certain that he would look down and see no envelope sitting next to him, that he dreamed up the entire thing, he glanced back at it & saw it, still there, quietly coaxing him to gather some clothes & go to the airport.
He was running through possibilities in his mind. Was this someone’s idea of a joke? It couldn’t have been, because he hadn’t told anyone about the e-mail he had sent to Dr. Amstel. So, say that it is true? Am I really just going to pick up & leave? He thought further. This is what I wanted from the beginning, isn’t it? To be a part of what Amstel was doing? Still, being faced with the tangible possibility of it was intimidating. He mulled over the consequences of taking Dr. Amstel up on his offer. He wondered what he would tell everyone. Am I going to say that I’m vacationing in Maine so I can help a mad scientist build his own Frankenstein? The thought was so ridiculous that he reconsidered everything. I can’t go, this is crazy. I’m just gonna throw this plane ticket & this letter in the trash & be done with it. He picked up the envelope & walked to the kitchen. He contemplated tossing it there, but instead walked into his bedroom & threw the sliding glass door open with a tremendous heave. He stepped onto the back deck & down into the yard where the big trash bin was sitting. He was opening it when he heard a sound from next door.
A scream. Coming from his mom’s backyard. Unsure, he yelled to her.
There was no response, so he darted back into his house, running through it and out the front door. He dashed down his front steps & threw his mom’s door open.
“Mom!” Panic was seizing his chest as he stormed through the living room. He ran back towards the kitchen. Marie Dunn was staring out of the back window, her face nearly pressed to the glass, into her backyard. He ran up to her & looked at the cold, frightened look on her face.
“What happened?” He asked frantically. She slowly backed away from the window.
“There was…there was a dog out there, a huge one. It was a husky or something, I don’t know. Thing just came back there running & barking. I was out there, I…I almost didn’t get back in the house in time.” Calvin peered out the window, puzzled.
“I didn’t hear any dogs barking.” He was talking to himself, sorting out the situation, as much as he was talking to his mom. “There’s nothing out there.” She stared blankly at him.
“You didn’t see the dog out front or anything?” She asked.
“No, I mean, I came in here so fast, I wasn’t looking around really, but…But no, I didn’t see anything.” An unusual smile came over her face – a look that was unfamiliar to Calvin. It was slightly unsettling to him.
“I’m so sorry Calvin. I really didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s ok, mom. I’m just glad you’re okay.” Hearing his mom’s sudden scream was not nearly as disconcerting as the strange smile she had given him. For that brief moment, he almost felt as if he was looking at a different person.
A few minutes later, Calvin walked out of his mom’s house & looked around. There were no dogs in sight, & the neighborhood was quiet. When Calvin walked back into his house, he almost instinctively went for the couch, where he slumped himself over & dove into sleep within minutes.
That night, Calvin slept uncomfortably as he dreamed. He was in his old house in Riverside. Elena was there, & so was the man she left Calvin for. They were all seated in the living room together. A jumbled mess of words spilled incomprehensibly from Calvin’s mouth. What he thought he was trying to ask was, “So this is how it’s going to be now?” Elena looked at him, her cold, dark eyes indicating that she was on her meds, & they had fully taken effect. “It’s best you go now. Your mom is waiting outside for you. Your dad is there too.”
“Dad?” Calvin asked, puzzled. “How?” Elena had no answers. She turned her attention back to the stubby, balding wretch of a man who she was now calling her lover. Calvin felt strangely calm about it. He stood up & walked away from them. They didn’t seem to notice him at all. He opened the front door & called for his father. The street outside looked empty, the street was much further away then he ever remembered it being. As he stepped onto the front stoop, the scenery shifted. He walked from his house to the top of a mountain. Below it, he saw a city that appeared to be Pasadena. Far below him, the Pink Prison that the older generation simply knew as Eliot Middle School was a tiny block of salmon-colored cement. The streets & the trees stretched out endlessly, appearing to be an urban forest. He looked back & his house in Riverside was gone, possibly swallowed by the shrubbery. He took a step forward, then another. He felt his heartbeat picking up as his slow creep turned into a dash for the edge of the mountain. Before he could reach it, a tall, stocky older fellow with white hair stepped out from what felt like thin air. His sprint was abruptly broken; he skidded to a halt. The man put his hand out, palm facing Calvin, as if to stop him. He wanted to ask the man’s identity, but the words wouldn’t come out.
“I can show you,” the man said esoterically. Calvin wanted to say, show me what? But his words were again jumbled & mushy. Still, the man understood him.
“You will see, Calvin,” he replied. He smiled, and Calvin felt at ease.
Calvin came out of his rest, groggy but calm. The first thing that crossed his mind was the letter Dr. Amstel had sent him. It was on his bed, where he should have been sleeping. Calvin had absently tossed it there and left it earlier, when he had run to his mom’s house. He made his way to the bedroom & grabbed the envelope. Still thinking it was some sort of hallucination, he shoved his hand into it & felt around for the letter & plane ticket. They were still there.
You will see, Calvin.
The words of the stocky white-haired man in his dream resounded, even in his awakened state. Calvin vaguely realized that this man was his mind’s depiction of how he imagined Dr. Amstel to look. This Dr. Amstel had assured Calvin that he would see, & he had become convinced that it was so. Calvin decided that it was time to pack, but before he started, he wanted to call his mom & make sure there hadn’t been any more dog sightings in her backyard. He pulled his phone out of his pocket & dialed her.
“Hey, Calvin,” Marie answered casually.
“Hey mom, everything ok?”
“Yeah, sure.” She was being far too nonchalant, considering the earlier events of the day. Calvin was somewhat puzzled.
“Ok. No more dogs running around your yard?”
“Mom?” She finally replied.
“Dogs? What are you talking about?”
Chapter 3 of 16
Calvin was staring out of the window. Thirty thousand feet below him, the fields of Middle America stretched out infinitely, small squares of green crops & light brown soil that formed an agricultural checkerboard. He was surrounded by quiet people & he found the near-silence unnerving. He wanted to turn to the small, white-haired lady in the seat next to him & let out every thought that was inside his head. He wanted to tell her that he was excited yet terrified, optimistic yet deathly afraid, hopeful that in some strange, esoteric way, taking part in Dr. Amstel’s experiments would open a new door & allow him to start a new chapter in his life. He wanted nothing more than to let go of the massive weights that felt as if they were chained to his ankles, dragging him down further and further - losing his home, his father, his wife, the entire life that he knew. He turned away from the window & looked off into the herds that populated the airplane seats. He saw an elderly man that he could’ve sworn was his father, then he blinked & realized it wasn’t. Was that Elena seated a few rows in front of him? She was sipping a bottled water & quietly conversing with a man seated next to her. As he confirmed that this man was not the one she had left Calvin for, his mind was also able to grasp that the woman was not Elena. He closed his eyes & ran the heels of his palms down his face, as if to clear his vision. His mind swam towards sleep, a strange location for Calvin to do so, as he could barely fall asleep in his own house. Somehow, the cramped seating & stuffy, stagnant air of the plane cabin formed the perfect complement to Calvin’s jagged, unbalanced state of mind.
When Calvin physically left the home that he and Elena had bought, he still remained attached to it, like a tent spike driven thirty feet into the ground with cement poured around it. They had divorced, unable to weather the storm brought about by Elena’s mental instability & repeated indiscretions. Still, there was a mortgage to be paid, on a house whose value had dropped through the floor after the real estate market crashed. They were unable to sell as there were no buyers, yet unable to keep the house – Calvin had been laid off from his translation job & Elena was receiving disability checks, crippled by the afflictions of her mind. Calvin watched his ultimate investment slip away, while his estranged wife enjoyed the spoils of going from part-time mistress to full-time girlfriend of the man she had been secretly seeing. Calvin’s innumerable sleepless nights were often filled with thoughts he never figured himself capable of. There was a big part of him that wanted to get even. He considered setting fire to the BMW that she had taken in the divorce, maybe even finding Elena’s new beau & beating him into the ground. When these thoughts had gotten so intense that he was finding sweat beading up on his forehead while he clenched his fists, he would simply pray.
Before he had gotten married, Calvin considered himself religious but not strongly so. In the year since he had moved back onto his parent’s property, he had prayed more than he had during his whole life, including his childhood when his mother insisted upon it every night before him & his brother went to sleep. His prayers were vague; he would often find himself on his back, staring at the popcorn plaster of his ceiling while he lay in bed, hands clasped, begging God to just make it all stop. There were times that he didn’t care how God did it – whether by simply silencing the voices & dimming the visions, making the roof of his own house crash down upon him, or by kick-starting Armageddon ahead of schedule.
His mind turned to Dr. Amstel. How Calvin’s role in the application of modified hemoglobin would change his life was too far beyond him to grasp; it was pure instinct that was driving him. Wow, so I can hold my breath a little longer, Calvin sarcastically quipped to himself. Next time someone throws a pool party, I’ll be able to win any breath-holding competition. Great. Even as he told jokes to an audience that consisted of only himself, he still felt like there was much more to it. Before his thought process could dig into the possibilities any deeper, the plane’s captain announced that they would be landing in Portland, Maine, within a matter of minutes.
The cool, smooth breeze of early spring that felt like home had given way to a crisp, dry cold that felt like California on its coldest winter day. He was ill-prepared for it, wearing only a windbreaker with t-shirt & jeans. It was late in the afternoon, & the sun had taken on a vivid orange glow as it began to dip below sight.
Calvin found himself in a taxi, bound for 191 School Street. Portland, Maine, was filled with tree-lined streets that were essentially urban with rural undertones. Gingerbread cottages & straightforward wooden farmhouses formed charming neighborhoods – unassuming enclaves that did not bestow the potentially revolutionary work that Dr. Amstel was pushing forward upon.
The scenery had somewhat changed once Calvin’s taxi turned onto School Street. The abundant foliage had grown even more so, & all of the houses were larger & set farther back from the street. Huge gravel driveways & sweeping lawns were set behind every house’s perimeter of shrubbery. The architecture hadn’t changed much, however – simple, bulky frame houses that were nothing more than pleasantly painted clapboard shoeboxes. 191 School Street was no exception. This particular house was perched atop a short incline that allowed it to peek farther above the green cover that each property had on this street. It was painted in a dark red that was edging its way towards burgundy – probably the only shade of red in the spectrum that could have been considered soothing. The stoop light was on even though it wasn’t dark yet. The taxi pulled into Dr. Amstel’s driveway & Calvin’s ears were treated to the pleasant sound of slow-rolling tires crunching over gravel. His heart started to pump a bit faster.
Calvin found himself walking up the remainder of Dr. Amstel’s driveway, carrying a single rolling suitcase behind him. His thoughts were beginning to swirl around rapidly, to the point he felt almost physically dizzy. He came to a halt at the front steps of the house and stopped. He tried to stand his suitcase upright without holding it. It fell backwards without Calvin paying it any mind. He was not just standing before the door to Dr. Amstel’s home – this was a door to a new chapter, a new beginning. His fingers trembled, almost indiscernibly. His hands were clammy & cold. Calvin suddenly felt small, overwhelmed by an immense world that threatened to envelop him; to make him indistinguishable from the scenery surrounding him. He was taking short, heavy breaths. It was too much for him. He turned around, first catching sight of his toppled suitcase before he focused his vision towards the end of the driveway, where he’d hoped to see the taxi cab waiting, as if the driver had any inkling of the importance of Calvin’s trip & of the hesitation he was now stricken with. As he returned his line of sight to the foreground, he realized that he was standing before a man. He was older, in his fifties, with short-cropped white hair & a thin beard/mustache combo to match it. He wore a black & red checkered shirt tucked into a pair of brown corduroys. A pair of black-rimmed glasses sat upon a dignified face. In his right hand was an axe, & tucked under the other were a few pieces of chopped wood. For a moment they stared at each other in sheer disbelief. Then they addressed each other, plainly & calmly.
“Please, call me Charles.”
They advanced towards each other. Dr. Amstel set his axe & wood chunks down. They shook hands vigorously.
“Please, Calvin, come inside. I’m sure you want to get out of this cold. You are most certainly not in California any more.” He laughed & gave Calvin a most inviting smile. The look on Dr. Amstel’s face was similar to the one Calvin saw in his dream. In fact, it was identical. Calvin narrowed his eyes with undertones of disbelief. Somehow, in the dream, he had imagined Dr. Amstel to look exactly as he did in real life. But he had never seen Dr. Amstel. So that’s impossible, right? Calvin did his best to shrug it off. Because it was impossible, or at least highly unlikely, to imagine how someone would look and then be completely accurate about it.
The inside of Dr. Amstel’s home was dark & woodsy. It was packed to the gills with old, ornate furniture that was piled high with various pieces of modern technology – tv’s, computers, scientific equipment. Calvin walked by the dining room & saw a behemoth table made of mahogany, stained dark reddish brown. Its legs were serpentine, akin to the sprawling roots of a giant oak tree. A desktop computer sat on top of it; there were no plates or silverware. Next to it was a variety of machines which emitted a dazzling, polychrome display of flashing LED lights. Calvin had no idea what these machines were, or what their purpose was. It was an eccentric setting, perfectly suited for the good doctor & his progressive ideas. Dr. Amstel called out to his wife.
“Rosie! He’s here!” The sound of feet bounding down stairs came from around a corner. Roslyn Amstel was a trim, short woman with hair in the process of becoming as white as her husband’s. She shared with Charles a constant facial expression of hope, something that Calvin found warm & inviting. She shook Calvin’s right hand with both of hers.
“It’s great to finally meet you both.” Calvin was dizzyingly ecstatic, yet excruciatingly nervous. The combination had left him quiet, near speechless. Dr. Amstel did his best to assuage Calvin’s obvious fears.
“Calvin, I wanted to assure you in person – I have many years of experience under my belt. It’s true, an experiment is just that – an experiment. However, we are most certainly not flying blind here. We’re dealing with something that I’ve been working on & working with for decades now.” Calvin nodded to Dr. Amstel, understanding him but not without apprehension.
“If we can get you settled in here, I’d like to show you my lab.”
Dr. Amstel’s lab was a completely separate building in the backyard of his massive property. It was about the size of a three-car garage. It was clad in the same horizontal boards as the main house, painted with the same dark red. The main difference was that the windows were all small, slim openings that ran along the upper perimeter of the walls, secretively paned with frosted glass. It was subtly uninviting. A blank wooden door, with no panels, bevels, or glass in it constituted the entrance.
Dr. Amstel fished the keys from his pocket & opened the lab. Calvin was amazed at the sheer contrast between the quaintness of Dr. Amstel’s property & the futuristic lair that revealed itself once the door was opened. In this room, a bank of computer screens took up one wall, while across from it, a bevy of test containers sat, their contents masked behind translucent plastic. In front of these containers were stacks of notepads, all of which contained various scrawls & calculations, none of which Calvin understood. Inbetween this was a massive dry erase board; it, too, was filled with notes & numbers. Dr. Amstel obliged Calvin to sit down. Dr. Amstel sat beside him, in front of one of his computer screens.
“Calvin, let me first tell you. I am deeply humbled by the interest you’ve taken in my work. It truly is a selfless act, that you would volunteer yourself for the advancement of science.” He was about to continue, but Calvin cut him off.
“Well, it’s like I said in the e-mail I wrote, I don’t exactly know what it is that led me to contact you. I just had this feeling, it was strong. Way too strong to ignore.” Dr. Amstel adjusted his glasses & shifted in his seat a bit.
“I…I gathered that you may have lost your direction. It seems as if taking part in this experiment might bring some of the meaning back to your life that you lost because of…” He paused for a moment, somewhat awkwardly. “Because of what happened with your wife.” Calvin’s face curled a bit, sour with a flash flood of rotten memories. Dr. Amstel motioned as if to apologize for driving the knife in too deep, but Calvin waved him off & tried his best to smile, to let him know it was okay.
“You’re right, you’re absolutely right. It was a devastating feeling to watch everything I worked so hard for just go down the drain. And you, Charles, you lost your son…I can’t even imagine how awful that must have been.” Dr. Amstel nodded & replied.
“Maybe it’s true, that both of us have experienced trauma in our lives that set us on our respective paths. It was my son’s passing that put me on this path with my research. It was hard, unimaginably so. But I feel that I’m on the cusp of turning that tragedy into something so utterly positive, something that will benefit all of humanity.”
“And I’d love to be a part of it,” Calvin said. A strange, grimaced look came over Dr. Amstel’s face. This worried Calvin – it was not a look that he had seen at all thusfar.
Dr. Amstel turned away from Calvin for a moment, pondering in an almost meditative way.
“I have good and bad news,” he said to Calvin abruptly. He looked at Dr. Amstel, unable to figure out where the conversation was headed.
“The FDA didn’t clear the clinical trials for the modified hemoglobin. There were some bumps in the road. I suppose it was to be expected; maybe I let my excitement over the whole damn thing get the best of me.” Calvin’s posture went from that of a soldier in boot camp to a balloon slowly letting out its air.
“I don’t understand. Why even bring me here, just to tell me that?” He looked away from Dr. Amstel, unsure of what he would say.
“Calvin, please let me explain. There is a purpose to all this, & it is a great one indeed.” Calvin leaned forward in his chair & clasped his hands together, ready to listen attentively.
“I’ve been working on the modified hemoglobin for years now, but I’ve also had another project that has been running parallel with it.” Calvin felt suspicious, yet undeniably curious.
“There was a new species of frog that was recently discovered, the North American Wood Frog. This frog is something amazing. You see, it has a sort of organic antifreeze in its blood that allows it to freeze in the winter. I don’t mean that it goes into hibernation. I mean that it freezes solid.” With the knuckle in his right pointer finger, he knocked on the hard wooden surface of his desk and said, “I mean solid like this. Total mental & cardio flat line. And without damaging any organs or brain cells. Then in the spring, it unfreezes itself. It gets up & walks away, as if nothing had happened.”
Calvin was dumbfounded. It sounded like an amazing creature, yet he couldn’t see what this had to do with him. As he sat and pondered, Dr. Amstel opened a window on his computer screen. A few mouse clicks later, he had pulled up a message from his e-mail.
“Calvin, this is the message you first sent to me.” He scrolled through it & stopped about halfway through.
“Here’s what I was looking for. You wrote about how hard it was to watch your father disintegrate from 210 to 131 pounds when he was sick. And you said that you would close your eyes and imagine freezing time until you could find a cure for him.” Calvin thought he saw Dr. Amstel’s direction, but it was too incredulous for him to accept.
“What are you saying?” Calvin exclaimed, feeling defensive & thus not calling him by his first name. Dr. Amstel exhaled deeply, feeling tense as he prepared to spell out the whole endeavor.
“I’m talking about ‘suspended animation’. More specifically, I mean the ability to stop brain & bodily cells from reproducing. This is something that is critical to someone who is fighting a terminal disease. Suspended animation can give us the time to find a cure for the incurable. Do you understand what I’m telling you, Calvin?” Calvin did, & he had no idea how to take it. Dr. Amstel wants to freeze me. He’s a fucking madman. Calvin felt like he was about to break a sweat.
“Jesus – Dr. Amstel, I…I really don’t know what you’re trying to pull here, I…” He was at a complete loss for words. He stood up awkwardly, looking around at the machines & beakers & computer screens & he felt dizzy. Dr. Amstel stood up too.
“Calvin, please, wait – “ Calvin was edging his way toward the door.
“This is a bait-and-switch! Who do you think I am?” Calvin was now screaming.
“Calvin, listen!” Dr. Amstel looked intense, focused & serious. “I’ll tell you who I think you are.” Calvin turned around, surprised.
“I think you are a most benevolent human being. I think you are someone who is much more courageous than me. Still, your energy is unfocused. That’s why you feel as lost as you do. Where do you point yourself? Who do you align with? Calvin, I can’t do this without you. And I don’t think you will find what you are looking for without these experiments.” Calvin drew in a deep breath, not wanting to understand Dr. Amstel’s position but doing so anyway.
“I needed to talk to you, to meet you in person. Without that, there was no way you’d ever consider this. Am I right?” Calvin nodded. Dr. Amstel said only one more thing.
“Not only do me & you need this, every man, woman, & child needs it too.”
Calvin mulled over the possibilities of being cryogenically frozen. He was essentially putting his life into Dr. Amstel’s hands. Well, it’s not like I wasn’t already doing that in the first place. Modified hemoglobin? On the other hand, Calvin wasn’t ready to give up his consciousness. What about the time he would lose that could be spent with his loved ones? Calvin was now facing an internal conflict that was not remotely near to him when he had woken up that morning. At that moment he saw Elena’s face, stoic, cold, without remorse, as if she had done nothing wrong. He saw his father, emaciated, tired, traversing the outer edges of life itself. He saw himself slamming shut the door of his foreclosed house for the last time ever.
“I’ll do it.” Calvin felt as if the words were not coming from him, but through him. Dr. Amstel took a few uncertain steps toward Calvin.
“Really? You’ll do it?” Dr. Amstel suddenly looked vibrant. He stepped forward and placed his hands on Calvin’s shoulders. “You can’t even begin to imagine what this means.” Calvin nodded, almost indifferently, but certain that he was making the right choice.
Chapter 4 of 16
Calvin stood in front of his mom’s front door. He had to face her and act as though nothing in his life was about to change. He briefly contemplated the nuts and bolts of it all. Am I going to fake my death? How else could I explain my sudden absence? The idea of just disappearing, vanishing into the shadows had crossed his mind, but he couldn’t bear to leave Marie, his mother, without the closure that she would surely need. Part of him felt utterly selfish for agreeing to the experiment – he felt as if he was running from his problems, perhaps farther than any human being ever had, short of committing suicide outright. Still, he saw no solutions in the current time, & he felt desperate enough to simply cross his frozen fingers & hope that the future would offer some small piece of what Calvin was looking for.
He contemplated what would happen if he died during the experiment. Would his & Dr. Amstel’s efforts be in vain? Or would it simply be a more noble form of suicide for Calvin? He wondered how he would be judged in the afterlife. Surely God would see that his intentions were good, that he wanted nothing more than to find happiness in doing something that could benefit every person on earth. Yet, he couldn’t be certain. Maybe he was tampering with God’s plans, doing something the Lord would not be fond of, something he would be judged harshly for. The thought of risking eternity for his immediate troubles weighed down upon him, but he had made his final decision. He often found that his deep interest in science threatened to collide with his religious beliefs, yet he always found a way to make the two work in conjunction, however beleaguered the relationship might be.
Marie greeted her son with jubilance when he walked into her living room for the first time since he left for Portland. She asked that he sit down & tell her how it was visiting with his old friends from high school. It was a well-rehearsed yet poorly executed subterfuge that he had gone over a few hundred times on his flight back to California. Still, his mom was so excited to see him that she overlooked the details. As they talked, Calvin found himself traveling away from the conversation, in his mind. He was still mulling over the possibilities. His eyes glazed over a bit as he drifted. For a few moments, he might as well have been floating through outer space. He snapped back into reality when she asked him what his plans for the weekend were.
“Huh? Oh, plans,” said Calvin, still halfway daydreaming. He definitely had plans. “I’m going paddle boarding.”
“Paddle boarding?” His mom reacted with some surprise. It was a new hobby, nothing she had ever heard about from her son, but it was not far-fetched for the ocean lover that Calvin was.
“Sounds great,” said Marie, enthused but clueless as to what paddle boarding was.
“It’s pretty straightforward. There’s a paddle, and um…There’s a board, and…” He trailed off as mother & son began to laugh together. Calvin smiled, yet there was an underlying distress that he was trying so hard to hide. There wouldn’t be many more times like these with him & his mom, & the reality was setting in.
“I’ll be heading up to Santa Barbara this weekend. Gonna try paddle boarding at the Channel Islands.”
“Oh, sounds fun!” Marie exclaimed. Calvin felt a sharp barb of pain & his face crumpled slightly. It wasn’t physical pain, however. He smiled again.
“Let’s spend some time together this week. I know I’ve been distant, mom. I think things are turning for the better now.”
“That’s great, Calvin.”
Tremendous waves crashed upon rocky embankments as Calvin cruised up Highway 1. The sun was hidden behind a thick marine layer, casting the scenery in a dark, somber tint. Miles off to the north, the marine layer gave way to actual storm clouds, fluffy in texture but gray and ominous in proportion. The highway was quiet and empty, with few sightseers to be found under the soon-to-be hazardous weather conditions. He wasn’t driving any faster than 20 miles per hour, but he scarcely noticed it. He was looking around, almost frantic, trying to take in & somehow enjoy scenery that he wouldn’t be seeing for a long time. A few miles up the road, his destination loomed.
Calvin found himself in the parking lot of the Channel Islands visitor center. His face looked calm as his gaze pointed off into infinity, but his hands were gripping his steering wheel so tightly that they were shaking. He was nearly alone in the parking lot. Scarce sunlight, already compromised by the incoming storm, was being depleted even further by impending nightfall. All he could see was Dr. Amstel’s face, promising, genuine, yet maybe overzealous. He was trying as hard as he could to simply trust his instinct, which told him Amstel was all that he claimed to be. Still, trusting his instinct with marrying Elena & buying a house with her had led him to ruin, & these were facts he simply could not ignore.
He got out of his car & looked around conspicuously. A hooded sweatshirt with the hood raised made him all the more suspect, but there was no one around to care either way. He went around to the back of his van & pulled out a paddle board, a device which was to propel him into his own personal future. A sharp gust of wind came abruptly from above him & he was hit in the face with frigid drops of moisture. He looked up and saw that the rain clouds had moved in above him. He slammed the back door of his van shut & ran towards the visitor center. Shortly before he reached the entrance, he veered off to the right, running under an eave which afforded him protection from the ever-increasing showers. He came to a short brick wall. Beyond it was the rocky cliffs, just starting to drop off into more jagged, rocky formations, and then into the ocean itself. Several hundred feet off to the north, a more serene-looking beach sat, also empty, save for a few seagulls flying off to find cover. Calvin found a section of the rocks that didn’t look too obtuse to navigate through. He dropped his board and paddle down, then slid after them carefully. When he got down to the bottom of the drop, he did the same thing again, peering over the side of the rocks & being fortunate enough to find another navigable drop. When he got down to the bottom of the second drop, he was only about three feet above the water level. By this time, the rain had graduated to a full-on downpour. Calvin didn’t even notice that he was already soaked.
He picked up the paddle and pivoted his upper half to the right, as if about to throw a discus. He tossed the paddle into the ocean with full strength. It whipped around like a helicopter blade before it hit the water with a light splash. He watched it float for a few moments, finding a strange, surreal sort of calm in it. He then picked up the board itself. On the bottom, it was emblazoned with a small metal placard which read: Calvin Dunn. He raised the board above his head. For a brief moment he felt the pleasant relief of his face being shielded from the rain. He stepped forward a bit & pulled the board back behind him. Then he went tumbling.
Calvin didn’t know what he did or what his misstep was, but he had lost his balance & gone flying headfirst into the ocean. He smashed into the water & let his board go. He felt his leg scrape past rocks. The pain of broken skin in salty waters began to set in almost immediately. He let out an underwater scream, doing nothing for his situation but filling his mouth with bitter ocean water. He flapped around, unsure of which way was up, forgetting all of his experience as an advanced swimmer. For a brief moment, what he thought was the board touched his hand, & he tried to grab on, with no success. The board floated away gently, in complete contrast to his state of panic. In this instant he felt like faking his death wouldn’t be necessary after all. His hand swiped a rock, & at first he pulled back as if it was white-hot, momentarily traumatized from the injury on his leg. What had started as a sharp sting was turning into an intense throbbing. He mustered up just enough sense to grab onto the rock again & hold it so he could find his way back to the surface. He felt his way up the embankment & found a rock high enough to hoist himself out of the water. His chest heaved as he kneeled down. He tried to stand upright once & failed, so he remained on one knee, panting. He spat a fat blob of phlegm & salt water from his throat. Jesus, he muttered to himself indiscriminately. After a few minutes, he finally managed to get back up on both feet. He grabbed a hold of the rocky wall in front of him & began to climb. Blood trailed behind him in a thin line of drops as he made his way back up. When he got to about half way, he looked back & saw his paddle board, floating aimlessly amongst the rocks, with the paddle itself farther out, slowly getting dragged to sea.
Calvin finally had a moment to breathe & calm down when he made it back to the top. He walked over to the deserted visitor center & leaned on one of its walls. He rolled the leg of his pants up & saw a deep, crimson gash that was wide open, slowly spilling blood. Not only that, but he had lost one of his shoes in the water. He trailed back towards the car with a slight limp. He fumbled for his keys; thankfully these had not slipped out of his pocket. He unlocked the car & grabbed his cell phone from off the driver’s seat. There was a text message from his mom. “Have fun paddle boarding!” It said simply. Calvin felt something welling up from deep inside of him. If they were tears, they were lost amid the downpour, nothing more than a few flecks of salt washed away by a torrent of raindrops.
In the distance, another car pulled up. Calvin looked up, watching it slowly snake across the distant landscape. He was not alarmed. It pulled up to the curb just outside of the visitor center parking lot. Its headlights were quickly snuffed out as soon as the car came to a stop. It sat quietly, idling. He threw the cell phone back into his car & locked it. At first, he started heading towards the mysterious vehicle that had just arrived, but then he remembered one last thing. He veered off again, towards the visitor center, running past it until he got to the edge where the cliffs were. He peered down but it had become so dark that all he could see were the dark, jagged silhouettes of the rocks. He couldn’t tell where his board had floated off to. He pulled his keys from his pocket & tossed them over the side, into the water, where they could join his board & paddle. He took one last look at the breathtaking view of the California coast. Off in the distance, the Channel Islands loomed, quiet, dark, & ominous under the weather conditions. Calvin still couldn’t believe that he was doing it. At this moment, he felt like he had jumped out of his own body & was watching himself embark on the journey. It was incredible – thrilling, terrifying, fulfilling.
Calvin turned away from the rocky cliffs. In the foreground, the visitor center sat, low-lying & silent. In the distance, the car that had pulled up was still quietly idling, waiting to accept a passenger who would ride shotgun.
In an instant, Calvin had climbed into the car, & they were gone.