Research Volunteers Wanted
Something unsettling happened on day three at the research facility. ‘Crazy Ray’ happened. I should have listened to the nagging warning that he sparked in me. Instead, I doused the flame and I laughed him off like the rest of the fools.
I felt proud to have been chosen, (yes, never achieved anything or been noticed me.) They’d asked about my background and aspirations and could I devote an initial six weeks at the centre on this remote Scottish Island, with potential for longer duration. Easy to answer: I am an orphan, have no relatives, no dependants, save for my cat, and I want to be able to earn enough from my dead end waiter’s job to go to university. They would take care of my cat for the duration they said. Fund my degree and give me somewhere to live.
They didn’t lie exactly, although I don’t know about Smoggie, I’ve not seen him since we said goodbye to my bedsit and I handed him over at the facility’s security gate. My heart was so full of marvel and the thrill of being chosen. I was going to be a useful contributor to science and be rewarded with my greatest desire. I did not stop to wonder: ‘why choose me?’
Upon arrival, my curiosity was piqued by the guards. They had the faintest stilting of movement and an almost mechanical way of talking. By the time we had reached the third check point and the guard with flawless skin and beefy grin opened the steel gates, my driver caught my puzzlement and chuckled.
“I know. Pretty freaky impressive hey? Yep, they’re not human. Can’t call them robot’s either but that’s what they are fundamentally.”
“Wow!” was all I managed as the questions began to queue and jostle for position. But there was no time for queries, as I was soon at induction, in the white hall and then settled into my white room, by most definitely human staff, in dazzlingly white uniforms.
The programme was intense and the lunch break in the spring sunshine, on the manicured lawn, with some of my fellow volunteers, was most welcome. We saw the man at a distance, our eyes drawn by his garish, misplaced, hippy clothing and his loud amiable manner towards his two companions, who looked like American secret service types. They drew closer and we could hear his background banter as our attentions turned back to each other. Then it happened: he made a dash towards us yelling,
“Don’t ... my body... today...regret it... brain...monsters.” He was panting, frenzied and we only caught part of what he was gabbling and his manic eyes were soon relieved from their popping, as his first guard reached him and with a hand to the neck the man relaxed, nodded once and walked away, meekly, with the suit. The other suit smiled at us and said,
“Sorry about that. He’s Crazy Ray, brother of the Director. He should be in a mental hospital but the boss won’t hear of it, so we have to accompany him and take care of him. He’s harmless really. You enjoy the rest of your picnic now.” And with a curt dip of his head, he turned on his heel and our small group let out nervous laughter that gained flippant confidence as we dismissed Ray.
“What did he say about his brain?” asked Sally, one of the meeker natures in the group.
“Just he wished he had one!” guffawed Brett, who with a flirty grin pinched a tomato from Sally’s plate and we all settled back to general chit chat.
No, they didn’t lie exactly. They have funded my education. I have done a whole history degree from the confines of my space. The home they have provided for me. Apparently, I’ve been an excellent student and subject and helped enormously with the facility’s research. As a reward, today, I’ve been promised I can see some of the results of that research.
I am stationary waiting for my vision “to be turned on.” I wait with trepidation for the moment, as my handler fiddles around me. I can hear her and am aware of her presence but cannot see her.
“Ready Matthew? On count of three. One...” A buzz to my right. “Two...” a click to my left and “three!” Blinding light fills my brain until my vision settles. I’m unable to look down at my body and I can’t feel anything there. I look opposite me and would scream, if I had a mouth. I see a brain suspended at the centre of a glass tank with a curved back wall of steel, like an oyster sheltering its pearl. I follow the wires up and across until they disappear behind the next tank and the next. And I see the labels on each tank, incongruously handwritten, amongst all this high tech: ‘Sally.’ ‘Brett.’ I cannot turn to see further to my left or right, nor down, but just know there will be one for me too, bearing the name ‘Matthew.’
My white robed handler appears in my line of vision. “Well Matthew! Was that a treat? A long time since you’ve been able to see. The Director is so pleased with you, he’s said you can have a body for a day and go wherever you like. Have a think about what year you would like to go to. It’s a rare privilege. The last person he allowed to go chose a 1960’s body and went back to 2025.”
She adjusts my position as she chats. “Look there he is.” I scream inwardly as my re-found vision falls upon another brain tank with the handwritten name: ‘Ray.
It’s All Hallows Eve and I have not seen her yet. I’ve scanned all the usual places but she is nowhere to be seen. No raspy, drawn-out hissing sound to alert me to her presence. It is eerie how she always knows the day. She didn’t frighten me but due to the date, I naturally called her “Ghost.” I think back to our first encounter on 31st October, nine years ago.
I peek out the door to the garden; the light of a crisp autumnal sun is shredded through the splays of the cherry tree branches. Stepping out I kick through the shed auburn and ochre leaves across the sodden lawn. My wellies make that typical squelchy sound when every step into the soft earth becomes a minor tug of war as I pull up each foot and plop back into the squishiness. The smell of early morning freshness caresses my nostrils and replenishes my city work lungs. Pausing to cast my eye around the garden I am at once relaxed and overwhelmed by its natural state. My garden is a delight, but whatever the time of year there is always so much to do. Each season brings a different challenge. The recent winds have battered the leaves and tendrils of the gourd patch and I pick my way through the yellow squash and green pumpkins to the centre. I cut away the twining stems and pull back the plate size leaves to reveal my huge bright beauty, nicely rounded and a vivid orange. Time for harvest has really passed but there are too many to use and I do so love the intense variety of colours. From my kitchen window, they lift eye and mood to see them nestled amongst the varied hues of the garden’s backdrop of russets, yellows and greens. They will make a wonderful feast for the field fares and red wing when they descend soon, en route from Scandinavia to warmer climes. This glorious prize, however, is coming with me- carving and pumpkin soup is on today’s agenda.
I hear a noise, like the mew of a cat. Where is that coming from? Walking towards the orchard I hear it again. Yes, like a cat, yet not. There it is again. I’m closer. I wander around the fruit trees, but nothing. The noise has stopped now. I head towards the chestnut tree. Nothing. How peculiar. I begin to head back to the pumpkin patch and then a faint flutter catches my eye. I turn to see it. There at the base of the oak tree, now silent and stock still, I see Ghost. Eyes staring wildly, studying me intently, mouth agape and panting. Each of us in statue mode, we look at each other, assessing the next move.
I break the moment and step towards her. She splays her wings and the brown and mottled feathers contrast with the black wing tips. She is panting again. She looks dazed. I take a step closer and she rasps a warning. I retreat and sit away from her and just observe. I have never seen a buzzard this close up before. After twenty minutes she has not moved. I take out my mobile and ring for some advice.
“Probably, a yearling knocked herself out flying into the tree,” is the vet’s assessment. So armed with advice I sit and wait. She shows little sign of recovery and I worry that there is something seriously wrong. I’m reluctant to leave her. The foxes are bold around here at any time of day. Eventually, I make a dash to the house for the equipment to make a rescue. I return quickly and can see the bird untouched. No fox has ventured into the garden. I brave it and heeding the vet’s words I use the cardboard box and some gloves and tentatively approach. No hiss now. I talk softly to her. I can only assume my gentle voice translates well into buzzard speak. I reach out – a small flinch but no other movement, her eyes still have that almost dead quality of the shark, dark and unmoving. She pants lightly her yellow and black beak still open. Nothing for it, I take my courage and the bird in my hands and scoop her up into the box and close the lid. She does not protest. I carry her back to the house.
I go straight to the downstairs bathroom. I open the box, put some water in a shallow bowl and find some scraps of meat. I entice her with a bit of bacon rind. Hmm, not interested. Has this bird grander taste or is it that bacon is salty? I sneak a bit of cooked chicken from my husband’s sandwich. Nope, still no appeal. I turn my attention to the raw fillet steak, our treat for our evening meal. A slither won’t be missed. No. Not interested in that either. I leave it on the tiled floor just in case she changes her mind. She has not moved from the box which I have put on its side with the flaps open. I decide to give her a break from my attentions, but before I go, gently pull out each wing and feel along, nothing obvious to me and no reaction from her. I can’t see any blood. She still has a dazed look. Perhaps it is just concussion. I need to leave her, give her time to get over her fright of colliding with the tree and of human intervention.
I check in with the vet again who reassures me I have done the right thing. She will not eat in captivity. If she is not recovered in an hour or so I will need to take her to the bird sanctuary. She gives me the name of the hawking centre, only a couple of miles away.
Forty minutes later I hear a fluttering. It gets stronger and I push open the bathroom door to see her out of the box, stretching her wings. I don’t know if I startle her but she certainly startles me as she suddenly leaps up onto the bath. She stretches her wings again and does a plop, right over the bath panel. Lovely! She begins to flap but the room is too small to fly. She then turns and looks at me, very deliberately, her mouth now closed and her eye calmer and she conveys “I’m ready now.” She allows me to gather her up in my arms. No struggle. I head out to the garden and set her down on the ground and she’s off. She soars up to the skies, her wings in a shallow v shape her tail fanned. I can see the paler under feathers and the fine bars of the tail. Then she swoops down, takes up a perch on the cherry tree and looks at me. I head back in and cut a bigger chunk off the steak and lay it on the grass. She immediately swoops, picks it up with her talons and gracefully flies off to a fence post where she gulps it down. Another look in my direction and I’m sure she nods, then she’s flapping her wings and away she soars effortlessly ascending the heights until I see a speck disappearing into the blue sky and I feel both glad and sad.
What an interlude! Such a beautiful creature. I’ll never see her again. Back to my pumpkin soup.
But I was wrong, every year since that first encounter she has visited us and always on this date. Habitually, she would call out whilst circling the skies before taking up her vantage point in the cherry tree. I always have some raw meat ready. It has been a joy to see her. But not today, there is no sign of her. I am sad to think she may have passed on. Ten years is a good age for a buzzard. I browse through some of my photos taken of her over the years and smile at the pleasure she has brought to our lives.
I scan the garden again. Then I hear her calling. But I can’t find her. I search and search. I see the merest flicker, a haze of light and shadow, a wisp on the wind and a poignant echo of times past, then nothing.
I smile and think to myself perhaps she was appropriately called “Ghost.”
J M Curry is a lawyer living in Wales who enjoys the short story as a vehicle away from the formality of legal language and as a channel for the myriad of ideas that bombard the creative side. Recently published in Bridgend Writer’s Circle, Free Flash Fiction and ASP Publishing. J M Curry’s main writing focus is on criminal thrillers and a second novel is in progress.