Thursday, March 29, 2012

30 Day Writing Challenge - Day 22

I spent quite some time trying to come up with an idea for today's challenge - Standing at the precipice - but, when the idea finally dropped into place, it didn't take that long to write. If you enjoy reading this even 10% as much as I enjoyed writing it, then we'll both be reasonably happy...

Standing at the Precipice

The Grand Canyon stretches out in front of me and, despite myself, I find that there is something overwhelming in its raw, physical grandeur.

The early morning sky is pale pink and almost entirely bereft of clouds. I suck the cool air, crisp and clean, into my lungs and hold the breath in my chest. I close my eyes and listen to the world around me, to the birds that twitter and the insects that chirrup restlessly in the trees and undergrowth. For the moment, I am alone here at Moran Point.

Moran Point is approximately eighty five metres in height. By my calculations that means that I will attain a speed somewhere in the region of one hundred and forty kilometres per hour in the four seconds it will take me to fall to the ground below. If time is truly relative, I anticipate that those four seconds could last a long time.

I open my eyes and take a step closer to the edge, now no more than two metres in front of me.

There is no suicide note left behind, of course. To write a note would have been to accept that there was, in some small dark corner of my mind, the barest semblance of a doubt and I couldn’t have that. But, of course, as I stand here and feel the breeze and the way that it ruffles my hair, it is difficult not to entertain some doubts as to whether I am doing the right thing by plunging off a cliff.

I push the doubts aside and take another step. Everything has been leading up to this moment and I cannot lose my faith now.  This is the moment where I either prove that I am right or I accept that I am wrong; I don’t think that I could live with the alternative in any case.

As far as I am able to determine, it all started more than ten years ago at Gravesner Laboratories. Back then I was just twenty; a penniless student on the third year of an Art degree that was getting me nowhere but into more and more debt than I can ever imagine repaying.  A couple of my friends at university had made money through taking part in medical tests; they’d been put in control groups and taken placebos, or tested out male contraceptives, or taken pills that were supposedly designed to prevent you from getting drunk. Easy money, they said. So, when I saw Gravesner’s advert in the paper, I didn’t hesitate to get in touch. They got back to me a week later and told me that they were prepared to pay my travel expenses and give me £200 if I attended one of their weekend study groups. I jumped at the chance.

The laboratory was located about eight miles outside of Birmingham, off the beaten track and hidden away in the greenery of the Clent Hills in a former stately manor. My memories of what I did that weekend have dimmed with time, and perhaps that’s the way they want it. A test of a revolutionary medical technology, they told me; a form of virtual reality that would help patients in a vegetative state to communicate with the outside world.

But, as far as I can remember, all I did that weekend was have a couple of blood samples taken and then sit in a room for a few hours and watch TV while wired up to a monitor that tracked my vital signs. Eventually, a doctor came in and told me that the tests had shown that I wasn’t going to be compatible with the technology and that they wouldn’t be needing me anymore. Don’t worry, they said, you’ll still receive the full fee and if you experience any kind of side effects to having had the blood taken, just call us on this number.

They gave me a business card and, ten years on, I still have it. The card is creased and slightly yellowed as I look at it now.

The headaches started a few weeks later; searing migraines that left me lying In my bed with the light off and the curtains closed. I’d never had any problems like this before so I phoned the number.  Someone at the other end listened to my problems and reassured me that this couldn’t be the results of their taking a blood sample; they reminded me that I’d not even undergone the main experiment and made me feel like I was a complete idiot.

Eventually, the headaches went away, but things didn’t really improve. Everything felt wrong; I felt disconnected from what I doing and dropped out of University, I felt alienated from the people around me and split up from my girlfriend and stayed away from my family and friends. I couldn’t put a finger on anything specific that was wrong, there was just the sense that something wasn’t quite right.

A year on and I began to think that maybe they’d done something to me while I was at Gravesner and they’d just not told me; maybe they given me some chemical that was affecting my brain, affecting my emotions and the way I thought, so  I rang the number again.

It was unobtainable.

A few phone calls later and I found out that Gravesner Laboratories had gone out of business about three weeks after I’d last spoken to them. There was nothing left. The principal scientists behind the company had supposedly fled the country; there were allegations about medical malpractice and unethical experiments. I drove straight to the nearest hospital and insisted they run a full battery of tests on me; the result of which was the pronouncement that, contrary to my better instincts, I was actually 100% fit and healthy.

But I couldn’t let it go so I spent years digging around for information on what Gravesner had been involved in, tried to find out more about the technology they’d wanted to test on me.  And, when I finally realised what it was that they’d done to me, when it finally dawned on me why it was that I felt so very wrong, I spent a long time uncertain what I could do about it. But that uncertainty is over.

I remember, when I was young, hearing what was presented to me as a philosophical conundrum: “if a tree falls In the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” At the time, it seemed ludicrous – of course it makes a sound, I thought. Later, as I delved into quantum mechanics and the possible role that the observer plays in reality, I became less certain of the answer. And now? Now, I’m convinced that there’s not even a forest.

If I’m right, Gravesner Laboratories didn’t just take some blood samples from me; instead they conducted their virtual reality experiment. If I’m right, I’m still in it.

The simulation is near perfect. I can’t find any fault in the sensation, in the immersive qualities of it. I can peer closely at a tree and not see some carefully crafted texture map; there’s no pixilation, no draw distance problems. It’s perfect to look at and touch and listen to and smell, but I can feel that my brain still rebels against the unreality of it all. It’s that feeling you sometimes get in a dream, when you cotton on to the fact that maybe, just maybe, this is a dream and then you wake up before you get a chance to check for sure. Except I never wake up; I’m just tortured by the question of whether any of this is real.

I take another step. I am now only a pace away from the drop and I can feel my stomach lurch slightly. Heights have never been my thing. Telling myself none of this is real doesn’t help in the slightest.

Of course, there is a chance I’m wrong; that this is all in my head, that I’m just a paranoid and this is all a carefully constructed fantasy that I’ve built around the shambles that my life has become. But that’s the gamble that I have to take.

If I’m right, I hope I’m going to wake up and I’m going to have my old life back. If I’m not, at least I’m out of this life that feels so very wrong to me.

I was braver when this was all hypothetical. When I decided to fly out to the Grand Canyon, make my grand gesture in a place I visited as a child and which had such a huge impact on me, this all seemed so black and white. But, as I approach the edge, things seem far greyer.

I stand at the precipice and gaze down into the abyss; but my body clings to the idea of life, unwilling to take that final step out into nothingness.

This isn’t real. I believe that.

But what if you’re wrong?

I’m not.

But what if you are?

I have faith. I wonder to myself, if a man falls into a canyon and no one else is real, does he make a sound?

I take the last step. 

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