Leisure Books, 2008
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Over 98% of the human genome is considered ‘junk DNA,’ sequences for which no function has yet been identified. Some scientists believe these sequences were once functional copies of genes that have since lost their protein-coding ability.
But what if those genes were simply dormant, and could become active with the proper trigger? And what if one of them, once awakened, made the carrier capable of things previously considered the stuff of legend-literally, the power of mind over matter?
The vision has haunted graduate student Jess Chambers for years-her autistic brother lying bloodied in the road, one hand still reaching out for her help. She was supposed to have been watching after him. Now nothing she could do would bring him back.
When Jess is assigned to work with a young schizophrenic housed in a children’s psychiatric ward, it seems as if her chance at redemption might finally be at hand. But Sarah is no ordinary little girl, and this is no ordinary facility. A shadowy biotechnology company called Helix has been studying Sarah’s remarkable genetic gift for years, enhancing and manipulating its effect, twisting something miraculous into something evil. But their plans have gone terribly wrong, erupting in an inferno of fire and blood, and Sarah has withdrawn deep inside her mind to a place no one else can reach.
Now Helix is growing desperate, and Jess Chambers finds herself in the middle of a battle over one of the most explosive genetic discoveries in the history of mankind. Every move Jess makes draws her deeper into a complex web of deceit, making her question her own strength and resolve, until finally she must make a choice; walk away from yet another young child she has come to see as her responsibility, or fight overwhelming odds to stop those who see the girl as nothing more than a tool that must be kept and controlled no matter what the consequence.
But Sarah has a mind of her own. Nobody can predict what she will do when pushed to the breaking point. None of them truly understand the terrifying power of The Reach.
The Thomas Ward School of Psychology is located on Boston's Beacon Street, within a connected row of converted private homes that seem to ask nothing more than to blend in and keep out of sight. It is a small school, modestly funded, but well known within certain circles as one of the best of its kind in the country.
Jess Chambers climbed the front steps to the porch and paused by the door to the administrative offices, looking absently at the small bronze sign and readying herself for whatever waited for her within. She had been here many times before, but this time was different and she knew it. Professor Shelley's voice on the phone had contained a conspiratorial edge, something she had never heard before. Shelley was not the sort to fraternize with students outside of class. The call had piqued Jess' curiosity as it had obviously been meant to do.
She checked the fall of her black cotton slacks and adjusted the collar of her blouse before stepping through the heavy wooden doors and into the reception area, a small, cramped room guarding the administrative and faculty offices.
The room smelled of stale coffee. Several Styrofoam cups sat discarded on the horseshoe countertop facing the door, and Jess resisted the nearly compulsive urge to straighten them up. Computer printouts were tacked to the walls, listing current events relating to the field and lecture times, along with an upcoming conference poster. A table to her left contained stacks of papers and magazines in an organized clutter, below a window that looked out onto the street and the T tracks, where the trains rattled and shook on their way into the city. A bit of gray light filtered inside, but did not do much for the decor.
Though she could hear muffled voices somewhere, the outer rooms were empty. In Professor Shelley's office she sat down in the slick vinyl chair facing the desk and crossed her hands in her lap.
The room was filled with odds and ends, files and folders, curling news photographs of various unsmiling people tacked to the walls. A few of them she recognized as researchers or faculty members, most she did not.
Though Shelley was known for throwing an occasional pop quiz, she was well respected among her students. It was the mystery which surrounded her that gave them pause; some claimed to have seen her sitting in the butterfly position for hours, her eyes closed. A few had even insisted they'd seen her levitating. These stories were told in the third-hand way of urban legend, often around a bar table, and Jess did not believe them for a second.
But Shelley's private life remained a mystery. What is it about psychiatrists and psychologists, anyway? Complex minds unraveling each other. And yet, such a need for secrecy. Jess found herself staring in mild amusement at a chart that supposedly revealed the details of the human aura. One thing was certain, no one had ever accused Shelley of being dull.
The Professor was at the door; Jess hadn't heard her come in. "There you are," Shelley said. "Hope I didn't pull you away from something important?"
"I've caught up on my reading."
"You always did seem to be ahead of the game. Maybe I should give a bit more, just to keep you busy."
Jess risked a smile. Students complained that Shelley gave more reading than the rest of their classes combined. Slightly more to it than good-natured grumbling, she thought, to be fair. She took Shelley's classes for the challenge, and she welcomed it; but there were others who did not feel they should be spending every spare moment in the library.
Shelley moved rather carefully now around a mountain of old exam papers to her desk, a tall woman in her early forties who bore a striking resemblance to the actress Diane Keaton. She wore a chocolate long-sleeve mock-ribbed cardigan that looked expensive. Her hair was cut in a fashionable, shoulder-length style, and she was blessed with aristocratic bone structure and very long fingers. Slight calluses on the tips, Jess noticed. A piano player, perhaps, or strings.
Normally she carried herself with elegance and style, but she seemed worn down today, too pale, and the circles under her eyes were darker than usual. Something was clearly going on with the Professor, though what exactly that might be, Jess could not guess.
"Let's see how much of that reading made an impression, then," Shelley said, sitting down in her chair. "You're familiar with Jacob's reconstructive study on depression?"
Jess recited from memory. "A five-step model, beginning with a long standing history of early childhood problems which leads to an acceleration of problems in adolescence, an isolation from peer groups and a dissolution of social relationships, which finally ends in a justification of the suicidal act or attempt."
"And earlier than that?"
"Extreme separation anxiety or isolation in early childhood, regressive behavior. Complaints of stomach pains."
Shelley nodded, her graceful fingers steepled before her nose. "But I'm referring to instances of total withdrawal. Come on now. No more book definitions. Give me your thoughts."
Jess felt slightly off-balance and didn't like it. Come on girl, get a grip, as her friend Charlie would say. "Let's see. The child is dependent on a caregiver to an unusual degree. Any unfamiliar event or surrounding sends her into a fugue state, caused mainly by the child's inability to accurately express what is wrong. Undue stress would come from feeling depressed, without actually understanding the concept. In the most severe cases, lack of response can be a sign of a serious mental disease: brain damage, autism, even schizophrenia."
"Interesting." Shelley was not one given to praise easily. Jess could not tell if she was satisfied or not. The professor shuffled some papers on her desk. "Now you're wondering why you're here."
The thought had crossed her mind. She had taken a class with Shelley once before and received an A, one of two that had been given that semester, she'd heard. Now she had her for Neurobiological Disorders, which she was finding very interesting. Male teachers had approached her in a less professional manner before; she was well aware of the effect she had on men. But Shelley was a woman. And this was certainly not a private tutoring session.
"I took the liberty of examining your records," Shelley said. "You're interested in child psychology, severe developmental disorders in particular. Any reason?"
"My younger brother was autistic."
"I see. So there's a personal element in your interest. But it has to stay out of your professional conduct. I say this because what I'm going to talk to you about requires it."
"Professor, with all due respect, if I didn't think I was capable of remaining professional, under any circumstance, I wouldn't be enrolled here."
It came out a little more forcefully than she'd intended. But Shelley simply nodded and smiled. "You've done well in my courses. Don't think I haven't noticed. That's one of the reasons you're here today. And the reports from your internship at the DSU clinic are stellar. You haven't chosen a topic for your dissertation?"
"There's a girl," Shelley said, "whose case I've been keeping an eye on for a long time. Right now she's in the Wasserman facility downtown. She's severely medicated, completely withdrawn for the past several weeks, though she has shown the ability to communicate. The director of the clinic has asked for my help in the past, and we've had some success. We haven't been able to reach her this time."
"Is there a diagnosis?"
"Dr. Wasserman believes she has a schizophreniform disorder."
Jess felt the familiar early buzz of excitement that came with an opportunity. "How old is she?"
"Awfully young for that sort of illness to manifest, isn't it?"
"It is. Here's the nuts and bolts of it, Jess. I'm not sure the diagnosis fits, but Dr. Wasserman disagrees. We do agree however that she may be more responsive to someone younger, less polished, if you forgive the description. To be honest, we could have given this to a counselor on staff, but I wanted to give the experience to one of my own."
"I'm glad to have it."
"Good. You have a rare mix of intellect and empathy. I think you might appeal to her. I want you to test her; Stanford-Binet, Weschler, Peabody, Rorschach. Let's hear any hypotheses you might have, suggestions for treatment. Then, if I like what you've done and Sarah shows progress, I'll allow you to present the case to the board of trustees."
"It would be an honor, Professor."
"You'll do just fine, I'm counting on it. But I want you to understand something. This is not some case study from a textbook. It is not a hypothetical situation. This is a very disturbed child we're talking about. She can be unpredictable, even violent. She's had an unusual history from the moment she was born. I know because I delivered her. I've been keeping tabs on her ever since."
Jess tried to picture a younger Professor Shelley in hospital scrubs. She had heard that the professor had been a practicing physician, but had thought it nothing more than a rumor. Shelley was a very good teacher. It seemed to Jess that she had been born to it.
"This girl is…unusual. She's been in foster care and institutions since she was little more than a year old. I don't know if she's seen the outside world more than a handful of times in her life. Don't misunderstand me. Most of the time she is simply catatonic, and that may be all she'll be for you. But I want you to be on your guard."
Shelley rose, signaling an end to their chat. A thread on her cardigan dangled down and trailed through the papers on her desk, at odds with the rest of her. She didn't seem to notice.
Copyright © 2008 by Nate Kenyon
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