|Publisher:||Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.59(d)|
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For years I was clueless. Meandering through life believing I was just like every other boring human being on earth. Then, reality caught up with me. It didn't sneak up and give me a gentle nudge — no — it wasn't that generous. Instead, it reared up angrily and screamed right into my face with teeth bared.
It happened when I was busy making my usual rounds at Greater Hope Medical Hospital, tending to the countless glass cages, full of white mice that lined the wall. As a Tech, it was my responsibility to feed the laboratory animals and clean their soiled cages. I'd seen an assortment of animals come through the lab — various rodents, pigs, rabbits, and even cats.
The mice never bothered me. I actually thought they were kind of cute with their teeny red eyes and twitching noses. Some of the lab's cages were overstocked with them. Fuzzy balls of squirming energy crawling over one another, vying for a morsel of the carefully rationed pelleted food I issued them each day.
Other cages held just one rat or mouse, whose little body was being pumped with an unknown medication. The scientists who concocted the antidote were always hopeful it would cure whatever disease they injected the poor creature with. That's the harsh reality of scientific studies. Trial and error. Then repeat the pattern until you either run out of funding or you finally find success.
Humming to myself, I finished up the last mouse cage, fluffing the bedding and topping off the water bottle when the large metal cage in the far corner of the room rattled. I jerked at the sound, dropping the lid to the cage back into place with a clatter. The steel cage rattled again, raising every hair along both my arms. Shaking off the feeling, I secured the lid, twisting the locks tight before stepping away from the shelf of glass cages.
The animal within the metal cage was going ballistic; screeching and tearing around the small compartment so fanatically the entire cage shuddered across the tile floor. Having been at the laboratory for only a few days now, the creature inside was off-limits to me. No one other than Dr. Moore had been given clearance to tend to him.
But I had to go to it. I had to check to see if it was okay. It could be having a bad reaction to the administered medication.
My paper medical shoes were almost silent on the glossy tile floor as I moved closer. The aroma of bleach was strong in the sterile laboratory, but the distinct trace of feces always evaded the masking effect of the disinfectant. The smell perpetually overwhelmed my senses. I could practically taste the foul scent.
Confined to a small cage made of sturdy sheet metal, a rhesus macaque, a primate no bigger than a toy poodle, bounded about, his body clanging loudly off the bars. With each powerful charge, the cage scratched across the floor.
The door of the cage was designed with cross bars for ventilation. It looked like a prison. A tiny prison, and the poor felon was an innocent monkey. My heart broke for this animal.
I peered inside the cage.
The monkey screamed in alarm, its mouth stretched wide, baring its razor-sharp incisors as it flung itself against the bars. Startled, I jumped back, clutching at my chest.
After I regained a steady heartbeat, I swallowed hard and took a closer look. The distressed animal retreated to a corner, cowering like a scolded child. The fluorescent lighting overhead barely illuminated his soft pink face, but I could see that its neck had been shaved and tattooed with blue numbers. The code etched into its skin told me that it was a male, and his identification number was 98253.
His nostrils flared wide with each breath he took. It was obvious he was terrified, and I hated that I was the reason. I frowned to myself, watching with a heavy heart as the animal's beady black eyes darted madly around him.
What kind of study is Dr. Moore conducting on him, I wondered as I took a step closer to the cage. The primate peeled his lips back farther, revealing pointed fangs that reminded me of switchblades.
"It's okay," I said gently.
He sat poised, ready to hurl himself against the bars again, his small chest heaving wildly as he panted.
"I'm not going to hurt you. I promise."
As if having a battle of wills, we watched each other carefully for a long while, until finally, his breathing returned to normal. His lips slowly lowered like a closing curtain over his scary sharp teeth. The panic in his eyes receded, and he looked up at me with shining, trustful eyes.
He surprised me by ambling closer. His toes and fingers reminded me of my own. It's amazing how similar primates are to humans. The soft skin on his hands and feet were worn from the steel bars, raw and mottled with crusty callouses.
The door to the lab suddenly clicked opened. The monkey's eyes bulged, and the look of complete and total fear spread across his face.
Feeling oddly guilty, I whirled around, my thick braid whipping over my shoulder. Dr. Moore, the head scientist in Greater Hope's laboratory came toward me. I clasped my hands behind my back as if I'd been caught stealing.
"Hello, Dr. Moore." I forced a tight smile.
"Just getting a few supplies," he said as he tucked a handful of latex gloves into the pocket of his medical coat. "Things going well in here?" He lifted a gray brow at me.
"Oh yes. Just checking out the new guy." I turned my gaze to the shivering monkey. His dark eyes were fixated on Dr. Moore. His nostrils flared when the doctor stepped up to his cage.
I turned to stand shoulder to shoulder with the doctor, holding my breath as I waited for something to happen, either for the doctor to speak, or the macaque to rage again.
"His restrictions have been lifted," the doctor mentioned coolly. "So could you please remove his water source before you leave? He's scheduled for testing tomorrow and mustn't have anything in his stomach."
I looked at Dr. Moore sharply. Testing? I knew all too well what that could entail. The hospital ran an extensive research laboratory that experimented medicinal drugs on test subjects, such as the small mammals I cared for in the lab. I ground my teeth as I thought again for the hundredth time since I accepted the job, why the hell do I work here?
"Testing?" I asked, trying to keep my tone casual.
"Yes. He'll be injected with an experimental drug, called Triplastor. Then, we will simulate an ischemic stroke. With any luck, the drug will counteract the blocked arteries and stop the stroke before it starts."
I swallowed on a painfully dry throat. They were going to force the rhesus macaque to endure a terrifying stroke. Who knew if the drug would work, let alone what side effects it might cause?
My mind swirled in a chaotic windstorm of thoughts. Staring at the doctor, I forced measured breaths deep into my lungs, and out through my mouth. He didn't seem to notice my fraying composure. He gazed almost hungrily at the primate, his weathered face hanging like the folds of a wrinkled shirt. The monkey's shivering image reflected like a mirror against his wire-rimmed glasses. The macaque shrunk into a trembling heap of fur in the corner, and it was difficult to not react. It felt as though my heart was full of lead weights, making it difficult to breathe.
"If the drug proves to be a success," the doctor continued, "it will set the foundation for extraordinary advances."
"And if it fails?" I questioned, my voice low and surprisingly steady.
"Then the project will rhesus in peace." He gave a short, snort- like laugh.
I fought against the overwhelming urge to roll my eyes. An overpowering part of me demanded to know the primate's fate, so I pressed him further. "The monkey ... will he die?"
"Most likely," he said, turning his back to me. "But we can always get another."
Get another? He acted as though rhesus monkeys were a dime a dozen. Perhaps they were. My throat dried further at the idea.
The doctor went to the nearest cabinet, gathering a few more supplies. Unable to move, I watched him, my feet planted firmly in front of the monkey's cage.
Tucking a final handful of syringes into his coat pocket, he turned to look my way. "Have a good day, Layla," he said with a smile that was too tender for my liking.
I could only muster an acknowledging nod.
His polished loafers clicked loudly on the tile as he walked out of the laboratory. A sigh of relief escaped me as I watched the door sweep close.
I hung my head, my eyes growing misty and my stomach churning with disgust. What the hell am I doing here? This job is not for me. I balled my fists tightly, trying to not only dispel my gathering anger, but also collect my composure.
I wanted to strangle the doctor. How could he be so callous? We were talking about a living being, damn it. A creature who felt fear and pain just like the rest of us.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the monkey leaping angrily on the bottom of the cage, clattering the grate with each landing. He seemed to agree with me.
I gazed at him blankly, wondering what to do. Should I quit on the spot? Or perhaps a resignation letter to the president of the hospital, explaining how hypocritical I felt every time I watched one of the animals I cared for die.
The primate let out a shrill scream that sliced right through my skull and rattled my teeth. I clamped my hands over my ears, my eyes wide with fright. What is wrong with him? He leaped once more, hurling his body against the door with a sickening thud.
A detached voice cut through the air, "I don't want to die!"
I spun around, searching the room for the owner of the strange voice. There was no one. With the voice gone, the only sound I could hear was the faint rustling of movement coming from the mouse cages, and my own blood roaring in my eardrums.
Who said that? Trembling, I slowly made my way through the room. "Who's there?" I called. My legs were shaky as I placed one foot in front of the other. Rounding a corner, I gasped when I caught a glimpse of myself in the shiny door of the autoclave machine.
Jesus Layla, get a grip! I smoothed my hair with quaking fingers, tucking the loose pieces back into place as I tried to quell my mounting panic. Calm down, I instructed myself. It was probably just one of the interns playing a prank.
"Please help me!"
I stilled. There it was again. A cold, sinking feeling in my gut told me I knew exactly where the voice was coming from.
"I don't want to die!"
It was time to face it. No more denying or ignoring it. Slowly, I turned. The voice was coming from the primate's cage. With a hard swallow, I met the rhesus macaque's stare. His gaze was relentless as we shared a long, tense-filled moment.
Bristling with unrest, I felt the animal's emotions as my own. His skin was stretched wide across his gaping mouth, his canines gleaming menacingly as he pressed his face against the bars and let out a horrific scream that rang off the barren concrete walls of the laboratory.
Again, I held my palms over my ears, but this time I also shut my eyes tight. If I couldn't see or hear it — it wasn't real. My legs threatened to give out at any moment. This is not real. This is not happening. This is not real. This is not happening. I recited the mantra until the shrieking finally ceased.
I waited until a count of five before I finally opened my eyes. The macaque's dark eyes froze me where I stood. Why is he looking at me like that? Like he's pleading with me. Begging for help.
"You have to help me," the animal said into my mind.
I swayed on my feet, my thoughts crashing into one another as they raced. This is just a hallucination, I tried to convince myself. The panic attacks must be getting worse. I'd been plagued with them for as long as I could remember. Sometimes debilitating episodes, that left me spent and wracked with loneliness.
I shook my head violently, determined to get rid of the voice that kept creeping inside the walls of my skull. "This isn't real," I said aloud, hoping the words would anchor me back into reality.
"Please," the primate urged. "You're the only one who can help me."
No matter how hard I tried to rationalize what was happening — I just couldn't. This was real, and I knew as much as I stared into the animal's coal-black eyes. Something definite, something almost innate inside of me told me this was truly happening — that this was reality. My new reality.CHAPTER 2
"Don't leave me here to die."
My stomach lurched. I fumbled to the nearest wastebasket, my lunch barreling its way up my throat. Dropping to my knees, I vomited. Long and hard. When I finally emptied my stomach, I lifted my face from the trashcan feeling exhausted. A sheen of sticky perspiration covered my brow and neck. The lingering taste of bile burned my throat. I needed water to chase away the nasty sting of it.
Wiping my mouth, I rose on unsteady feet. Dimly aware that the primate had disappeared into the shadows of his cage, I stumbled to the sink, and turned the water on full blast. The cool water felt good against my flushed skin. Using my hands, I slurped up mouthful after mouthful of water until I could no longer taste the bitter tang of bile along my tongue.
I shut the water off and looked over at the cage. Taking a deep breath, I inched away from the sink, and walked slowly toward the metal cage. The prison. The prison which now held an inmate on death row.
As I drew closer, I braced myself, expecting the animal to fling himself against the bars screeching. Instead, he was curled up on the floor, his back to me and knees pulled up to his chest.
I swallowed. "How is this possible? How can I understand you?" I glanced around the room, suddenly thankful the hospital didn't have security cameras in the laboratory. I didn't need documentation of me having a nervous breakdown right there in the lab.
"You have a gift," he answered, staring at the wall of his cage.
I scoffed. "Gift? More like a curse," I said. "I'm still not sure this is even real. I must be dreaming." I wrapped my arms around myself, wishing I could rouse myself out of the situation as easily as waking from a horrible nightmare.
"I am set to die tomorrow." The animal's tone was harsh, almost cruel. "Your kind has taken over the role of Mother Nature. Trying to rule what doesn't belong to them."
I flinched involuntarily. The words were hurled at me like razors. My kind. I wanted desperately to deny it. To tell him he was wrong, but the argument fell lifeless at my lips. He was right. Humans overtake anything that is below them on the food chain or on the intellectual scale.
I felt sick inside that I was a part of the same cycle. I took care of the very animals they performed tests on. The innocent animals that endured torture, pain, disease, and the like all in the name of science.
Taking a slow look around the lab at the collection of animals, I said, "Come on. Let's get you out of here."
The primate didn't hesitate. He rolled over and sprang to his feet. I became aware of the low buzzing sound from the overhead lights. I glanced at the clock hanging over the lab door.
"Shit! It's almost five!" I unclipped my keyring full of jangling keys. "Day shift is ending soon. As the next shift comes in, there is going be a lot of activity in the hallways. That can either help us ..." I shot a worried glance at him. "Or hurt us."
He didn't seem bothered. He only watched my hands as I took the padlock into my palm.
"Plus, I'm not sure how to sneak you out yet." I bit my lip, trying to steady my shaking hands as I inserted the key into the lock. "We're on the third floor, so sticking you out the window is out of the question." With a quick twist of my wrist, I freed the lock and started to turn the handle of the door.
It was a well-known fact that primates are ridiculously strong and could be highly dangerous.
His voice echoed in my mind, "I will not hurt you."
I lowered my eyes and nodded, ashamed. Then, I steeled myself for what I was about to do. Something that went against everything the hospital instilled in me — allowing an animal to escape. Freeing them.
Swinging the door open, I stepped back, holding my breath as I watched the macaque gaze out across the laboratory — freedom just beyond the walls of his cage. After a moment of quiet regard, he finally looked up at me, his face gentle with something I can only describe as gratitude.
"Thank you, Matriarch," he said.
My mouth parted in surprise. Matriarch?
Before I could ponder what that meant, I heard the hallway bustle with activity. The exchange of shifts was happening.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Matriarch"
Copyright © 2019 Jillian Davis.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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