Theresa saw the sign held up by a single push pin on the notice board. It was a single sheet of A4 paper, typed with care and containing the least possible amount of information. It was a notice that knew its own appeal and power over the students who stopped to read it, drawn in by need.
VOLUNTEERS FOR MEDICAL TESTS
Theresa needed cash. She had given blood twice in the last month, signing in under a different name and suffering the tinny, empty hangover of deprivation, shovelling multi-vitamins and drinking orange juice to enable her to make it through classes and assignments until she recovered.
College was not the grand escape she had been led to believe. These doubts haunted her, but she would think of returning home, slinking across the threshold to the mockery of her family, an eternity of shifts at the IHOP, having a baby in lieu of anything else to do with her time and that would motivate her to keep going.
Hunger was her steady guy but it was a bipolar relationship. Hunger motivates a great many decisions, and history showed that Theresa Thomas was like a great many other college students, chained down with debt and starting to wonder if a college education was the great escape society told her it was, or simply a better mousetrap to snap her fragile neck with.
She went over to the science department building, thinking of what a little cash injection would do for her situation, and all that the email said was required was to sit in a high backed chair with an IV in her arm, and the worst that might happen was either a vague sense of discomforting penetration or a mild elevation of mood. Which was how she had characterised her sex life anyway, so she entered the building with a muted but steadfast enthusiasm.
The people who gave the briefing had the shiny, superficial charm of low-end motivational speakers, their appearances and voices pitched at too high an energy level for a group of college students on a Sunday morning. Harry had a halo of light blonde hair, dazzling white teeth and pink, cherubic cheeks. His suit cost more than Theresa’s tuition and he spoke in the patrician tones of inherited wealth and indifference. His title was Vice President of Trials and Innovations, which Theresa took to be middle management, and not important enough to be allowed to spend their weekends on any amount of leisure time.
His partner, Gail, wore a tailored business, accentuating her marathon-hardened legs but otherwise sealing her in up to her throat. She had a gristly, overly tanned countenance and smiled as though levity caused her physical pain. She allowed Harry to give the briefing whilst typing carefully into a tablet without looking up. Theresa thought that the pairing reminded her of a divorced parent spending court mandated time with a child they weren’t sure was actually theirs.
‘So, this is an exciting time for Braiston Pharmaceuticals, where we’ve reached human testing with a product that we are sure will bring relief to the millions of Americans who suffer from long term anxiety related disorders.’
He clapped his hands together.
‘You’re all being ably compensated for your time here but in truth, you’re helping people. You embody the pioneer spirit that has made this country great.’
Theresa looked over at Nina, who had detected the scent of Republican and was sat there, fighting the internal conflict of need versus ideology by shifting in her seat. Looking around, Theresa saw that the small group of four people had the restlessness that she had known as the awkward wait for weed with a dealer you didn’t like, but felt obligated to have a conversation with before you picked up your shit and went home.
Save us the spiel, stick us and give us the money, motherfucker, Theresa thought.
Theresa zoned out, thinking about how after this, she could saunter over to Four Panel Grid and collect the comics she had on her pull list. She had always let her geek flag fly and had done so for long enough to foster a healthy resentment for the latter day surge in pop culture enthusiasm that had infected society. Theresa was ambivalent about most aspects of her hobby, she liked going to conventions in costume and understood how some women used it to build careers based on being titillating and crying victim at the same time yet she also thought that Obama should have passed as a federal law that anyone who said without irony that Spider Man was their favourite DC character should die by lethal injection. She would also volunteer that her ideal superpower would be telepathy, followed by telekinesis. Then invisibility, although she would want to figure out how she would be able to see if her eyes were unable to collect
She was excited about the next volume of Deadly Class and although it had been plagued by artist delays, she had an issue of Karnak waiting for her to pick up.
These reveries occupied her whilst physically, she signed release forms and was led to the high backed chair. She came to herself only when the first sharp pinch of the needle was inserted into her vein. The nurse looked at her with bright green eyes and auburn hair, smiling with a maternal ambivalence as she asked her if she was okay. Theresa shrugged and that made the nurse grin with recognition.
‘I had to do shit like this when I was at college. It’ll make for good stories later on, I promise.’
Theresa smiled back, relieved that someone was treating her like she was real, rather than a prop in someone else’s scheme. The nurse patted her on the forearm and stood up with a wince for her efforts before moving on to do the same for Nina.
Theresa had read Firestarter by Stephen King at a formative age plus a solid library of ‘experiments gone wrong’ mythology to unnerve her. She experienced nothing beyond a faint boredom and discomfort. She left the building with a white envelope and she managed to wait until she was on her way to the comic store before she checked it. It was the happiest she had been in a while, and she immediately experienced a small burst of shame for it, but on cue, her stomach burbled with hunger pangs and she got over it.
She fell asleep with the greasy remains of a Philly Cheese steak floating on a lake of Vanilla Coke in her stomach and her comics already back in their mylar bags and cardboard backing.
Her room mate Judy woke her just after seven, which wasn’t unusual as Judy had that perky efficiency which made her an ideal room mate but potentially an awful girlfriend.
What made Theresa bite back a cry of terror was what floated above Judy’s head.
A thought balloon. The dimensions of a dirigible with a stiff triangle pointing to the crown of Judy’s blue dreadlocked hair. The words were in upper case, flickering into being as Theresa’s eyes adjusted to the morning light.
WOULD IT KILL YOU TO ORGANISE YOUR OWN FUCKING LIFE FOR ONCE?
Theresa shuddered as she pushed back the duvet.
‘I never asked you, you know?’
‘Hey, all I said was good morning. What’s up with you?’
WHO’S PISSED IN YOUR CEREAL THIS MORNING?
Theresa had never experienced a florid degree of insanity, tangentially or otherwise. There had been a girl on campus who had moved from vegan activism through to believing that she could talk to animals and there were rumours she was caught naked in the riding stables ten miles down the road but otherwise she held the same awareness of functional anxiety, depression and suicide as performance.
The words kept twisting as Theresa tried not to stare in appalled awe at Judy’s thought patterns laid bare before her. She got out of bed with an appalled haste, running to the bathroom and looking in the mirror, telling herself that this was all a bad dream. She stared at herself, feeling a directed pressure building in her temples, like the mental equivalent of holding back the urge to pee.
Which was when the mirror shattered and fell from the wall in a burst of small shards like she had swung a sledgehammer at it. She sliced the heel of her left foot open as she darted backwards to avoid it, hand clamped over her mouth to keep from screaming. Judy called to her through the closed door and Theresa stood there, believing only in the solidity of the door at her back and the deeply realised belief that things were going really really wrong for her.
Judy relished the opportunity to fuel her passive aggressive resentment by playing reluctant caregiver, bandaging Theresa’s foot and sweeping up the glass. Theresa watched her train of thought travel from the station of:
SHE’S BEING REALLY FUCKING WEIRD THIS MORNING
It stopped at:
OH GOD IS SHE ON DRUGS? WAIT, OF COURSE SHE IS, THE BONG ON THE NIGHTSTAND WAS YOUR FIRST CLUE, MOODY JUDY. HEY WHAT RHYMES WITH ORANGE?
Then as she bandaged Theresa’s foot.
POOR THING, SHE’S PROBABLY ON THE VERGE OF A BREAKDOWN. I WONDER IF IT’S TRUE THAT IF SHE KILLS HERSELF, I’D GET AN A. THANK GOD BECAUSE I HAVE NO FUCKING CLUE HOW TO WRITE TWO THOUSAND WORDS ABOUT STANISLAVSKI. NOT EVEN IF YOU HELD A GUN TO MY HEAD.
Theresa limped out, kissed Judy on the cheek which warranted:
SHE’S COMING OUT. I MEAN, I WENT THROUGH THAT PHASE WHERE I IMAGINED SHE WAS FINGERBLASTING ME DRESSED AS BATGIRL BUT THAT WAS PROBABLY WHEN INDIA WAS DEALING WITH HER POST RACIAL GUILT ABOUT BLM. OH GOD AM I READY FOR ANOTHER RELATIONSHIP?
The relief of escaping that lasted for the time to took to get outside.
Theresa had gone to a writer’s panel at a convention once, and a pudgy young man dressed as Walter White in the yellow hazmat suit had asked the taciturn Englishman what was the thing artists hated most from him. He had given a deep chuckle. winked at the wiry artist to his left and told him.
‘Scenes with too much going on. It takes me thirty poxy seconds to write THE CROWD CHANTS but it takes him a week to draw and letter the bloody thing.’
There was a sea of thought balloons, each one writhing and dancing with the dance of subconscious thought made visible. Theresa did not imagine what her own would look like. Nina stood a few feet away, her hands pressed against her cheeks as tears streamed down.
Theresa made it over to her and pulled her into a tight, desperate hug.
‘It’s okay. This is just our secret origin, Nina, that’s all.’
Nina cried harder and Theresa remembered how she had laughed in shrill mockery when Tom Hanks blustered the need ‘to get me to a library’. The irony of what she said next did not escape her.
‘We need to get to the comic shop.’
It was after that, that things got really strange.