The first incident occurs at Brenda Marciniak’s, four doors down from Brayden’s house. It’s about three months after construction begins on the new building up Rich Hill Road that no one can figure out. Standing outside in her bathrobe at eight in the morning, Brenda wails for neighbors to come quick. Mr. Rivera hobbles down rickety steps next door, and Breonna and Travis Emmerich dart from across the road in disheveled bed clothes, hair still tousled from sleep. Others emerge more slowly. Brayden grabs his backpack and races out to see what’s happening before the school bus arrives.
“Who would do this?” Brenda howls, inflamed cheeks slick with tears. “Roses, begonias, impatiens—all ripped from their stems.”
She searches from face to face, eyes widening. “Strangest thing …” She motions them to follow. “Come see for yourselves.”
Neighbors huddle like mourners in her meager backyard where blossoms, cruelly purged from her garden patch, lay beautifully arranged by color in a giant swirling pinwheel pattern on the sparse grass.
They murmur among themselves. Brayden, who has hung back to avoid unwanted attention, inches toward the design like he’s nearing a deadly crevasse. It’s as though someone aimed to terrorize folks here, vandalize what few comforts they claim in this cluster of seventeen hardscrabble clapboard houses lining both sides of Rich Hill Road. He knows that desire too as rage rises ever closer to his surface these days. But whoever did this also tried to soften the blow by transforming wrong into beauty. Brayden knows that desire as well, and is struck speechless by the strands of comfort and atonement woven through this violation in Brenda’s yard. Not a message of contrition exactly, but a reason not to fall fully to fear. The perpetrator is troubled and angry, but struggling not to harden. He understands completely.
“Brayden, get back,” Reynold Davies chides him. “Always poking where you shouldn’t.”
Neighbors glare at him. Eight-year-old Tayla Oberholtzer rolls her eyes. Brayden imagines spitting in her face. Or something worse. Instead, he slinks away to catch the bus, swallowing yet another slight. It’s becoming harder to keep bitter lumps of rejection from turning into insoluble hate.
All through school, Brayden’s mind teeters between this flower art, if you can call it that, and the squat brick-and-stucco building being erected up the road from his house. Certainly, there’s no connection. And yet they intertwine in his mind no matter how hard he works to separate them.
Lately, Brayden has taken to parking himself after school at the weedy edge of Marge Ruhle’s cluttered yard to contemplate construction occurring on the former lot of spindly trees and brush—long his refuge when kids called him names, respite from his mom’s abandonment and his dad’s loss of self. It sits gutted and angry now, stripped of peace and beauty, its soul. Increasingly, Brayden feels the same inside, forever nursing a grievous, aching hole he isn’t equipped to explore.
Today he absorbs the rumble of cement mixers as workmen prepare to lay a sidewalk outside the building. His body vibrates inside and out from the enormity of their roar. It temporarily overwhelms the sinkhole of fury and heartache in his gut, not unlike the relief he feels playing gruesome videogames when his dad isn’t home. Agitation will surface again once the engines power down and quiet returns. Where will he find sustenance to keep from exploding?
“Did you hear what happened at Brenda’s last night?” he asks his dad at dinner.
“Who would do that?
His dad shrugs, slicing off a hunk of pork chop and dragging it through a puddle of barbecue sauce on his plate. “Probably kids.” His eyes are leaden after a long shift at the warehouse.
Brayden picks at chipped yellow paint on the kitchen table where they always eat. “What do you suppose they’re building on the corner?”
His dad chews without glancing up. “Office building maybe.”
“You should’ve seen them pouring cement today—tons of it.”
“Eat up, Brayden—time for homework.”
Brayden clenches his paper napkin under the table, squeezing mightily to keep everything in. This is always how he feels now as conversations with his dad die daily, when he recalls the relief on his mom’s face as she walked out for good, when kids taunt him for being different, too good in school, too into books and science, too eager to share what he knows, too curious with more questions than anyone can answer.
Brayden tries hard not to blurt out everything he thinks and strives to attune himself more perfectly to the interests and moods of those around him. But it takes all his concentration. He keeps ramming frustration down beneath thought where it seethes like black lava.
It’s late afternoon and Brayden hunkers down in his usual spot at Marge Ruhle’s, the only haven left from life. Today workmen are installing shrubs at the building’s front entrance.
Nothing about this two-story structure is distinctive—standard-issue rectangle with a dozen identical windows on each of its four identical sides. Nondescript, unmarked, unnamed, unclaimed with no seeming purpose. Brayden is drawn to it, though—its lack of any obvious reason for being, or perhaps its generic tidiness and newness, so unlike the shabbiness of his house and those around it.
Neighbors haven’t commented on it much. They’re still whispering about Brenda’s garden desecration, unable to process change beyond the most immediate and alarming. But Brayden can’t get this structure out of his mind, arriving day after day, trying to make sense of why he and no one else is drawn here.
At four o’clock a slight woman with short, graying hair and a tight expression arrives in a red Prius. She wears rumpled navy slacks and a teal blouse, glancing warily at Brayden before scurrying through workmen into the building. He can hear pounding and drilling inside.
The next day, the woman nods as she scoots inside. Days later she gives a guarded smile.
He smiles back. “Hey, what’s this building for?”
She pauses and clears her throat like she hasn’t spoken in a while. “An office for my psychiatry practice,” she says. “And a research center.”
“Are you a scientist or doctor or something?”
“Yes … both … from the university.”
“That’s what I want to be. Actually an exobiologist.”
She squints as if trying to focus on a microscopic specimen.
“I want to find intelligent life in the universe,” Brayden says. “Something better than humans.”
She frowns. “Maybe earthlings should improve themselves before looking elsewhere.”
“Maybe they can’t,” he says. His voice sounds louder and angrier than he intended, and he looks away.
An odd noise emanates from deep inside the building, something like a moan. The woman glances at the door and then quickly at Brayden. “Well, study hard and go to college.”
“My dad can’t afford it.”
“I understand,” she says.
But of course she doesn’t. No one does. Powerlessness pushes against Brayden’s insides, aching to pummel anything within reach. He tries to hide it behind a neutral face, but she’s seen it—he can tell. She recognizes the terror beneath his anger—terror that dreams are a waste of time—because there’s terror in her eyes too. A different kind that he can’t name.
Days later, the woman motions him over. “How would you like a job?”
Surely he’s misheard.
“I need someone to mow here, trim the shrubbery, shovel snow, things like that. Money for college.” she says.
Brayden scans her face, searching for the catch. “For real?”
“For real,” she says, handing him a book. Her face softens, terror from the other day gone.
“The Evolution of Life,” he reads and looks up. “Did you write this?”
“No … just thought you’d be interested. My son loved this book.”
“I’ve got to run, but there are plenty more if you’re interested.”
He hugs the book. “Thank you.” Something unfamiliar swells inside him, something absolutely beautiful, warm and bright. It’s like she knows him. She’s seen his ugliness, but also something others don’t, promising things deserving of unconditional nurture, worthy of gifts.
The following Tuesday night the Wysocki’s patio is torn up. Crumbling brick pavers are arranged in a meandering path through their yard with grimy plastic lawn ornaments and rusted patio furniture grouped at intervals like jerry-built museum displays. Manny Machado wakes on Thursday to a stripped-bare oak tree, the only tree in his puny yard. The leaves are woven into wreaths and hung on each of his windows as if it were Christmas. The Demarest’s log pile—a winter’s worth—is burned the following night with the charred remains used to draw giant deer, rabbits and other forest creatures across the front of their house and garage. On Saturday Linny Duong discovers a carpet of dead fireflies, crickets and earthworms arranged on her front porch in the shape of a giant sun and moon.
Brayden considers talking to his dad again but knows better.
That night brings a rustling sound from the backyard. Brayden peers into the darkness from his bedroom window, heart thumping, but can’t see a thing. He scrambles back to bed, curling tight beneath his threadbare quilt.
“Have you heard about the strange stuff going on?” he asks the woman when he arrives for work the following afternoon.
“I have not.” Something flickers momentarily on her face, like a swift shadow across the sun—a microsecond tightening around her mouth, an evanescent narrowing of her eyes, a blink of annoyance. And fear. “Let’s get you started,” she says abruptly.
“Hey, I’m Brayden…What’s your name?” he asks following her to a storage shed.
She hands him a broom. “I’m Dr. Mellon.” She turns to leave, but swivels back. “Treasure what makes you unique, Brayden … people like us must stay strong.”
He nods, unsure of her meaning.
“And please tell me about anymore strange occurrences.”
The following day Brayden heads to the school library during lunch to Google her. Dr. Mellon, it turns out, is internationally known for her research on emotional centers in the brain. He leans back in relief. She is who she says she is—nearly famous, in fact. And yet there’s something more, a disquieting sense that these words on the screen aren’t everything. It throbs behind his mind like a low-grade headache.
Brayden watches from the night shadows behind his house, clutching his dad’s hunting knife. The moon illuminates just enough to reveal a girl tearing feathers off dead birds and tossing the carcasses on her growing pile. She strings multi-hued plumage on vines with bloody hands and winds her feathery garlands around Brayden’s front porch railing.
He inches toward her, dressed only in bed shorts, and beams his flashlight in her face. “Who are you?” he hisses, waving the knife in his other hand.
She’s young, but older than him by a few years, maybe nineteen or twenty. She has short bleached hair and large, dark eyes that radiate something unfamiliar. Not fear or surprise or anger—any of the emotions you’d expect. It’s like she’s looking into him, or beyond him. She floats in some zone of peace—tranquility he craves—surveying him with warm caramel eyes you could tumble into and never escape.
Her head bows as if in formal greeting, and when her eyes lift again, they’re different, watchful and wary in a way they weren’t only seconds before. She bolts up with a grunt and takes off through dark backyards. She’s small and fast.
Brayden struggles to keep pace as she sprints up Rich Hill Road, face straight ahead, never varying her speed, never looking back. She skirts the perimeter of Dr. Mellon’s building, opens a drain grate in the rear just beyond the view of security cameras, and begins lowering herself down.
Brayden tosses his knife and flashlight and lunges, tugging her out before she can disappear. She wrestles hard, but he manages to pin her shoulders to the ground.
“Let me go!”
Brayden bears down, fury pressing harder and harder. “Who are you?”
“We live inside,” she cries, eyes squeezed tight, chest heaving. “No one can leave. I’m the only one who gets out.”
“Nine…. nine left.”
He gasps, almost letting go.
“She was trying to help us.” The girl squirms and twists. “We were supposed to get better—stop being angry.” She turns her head suddenly and sinks teeth into his forearm. Brayden springs back, hand clamped on the wound, and she flees again into the night.
Dr. Mellon’s car rolls slowly up beside him, but he keeps walking, eyes on the ground.
“You haven’t come to work. I was afraid something happened.”
“I’m fine,” he mutters, walking faster.
“She told me she met you—Sonia.”
He slows. He should run.
“Brayden, please listen.” She reaches her hand out the car window. “I made a terrible mistake.”
He moves off the road away from her car.
“Please let me explain.”
“It cost me everything, including my own son.” She grips the steering wheel.
Brayden speeds up. If he can just get home.
“Please,” she begs, motioning him into the car. “Brayden, I promise you the truth.”
He does as she says. Not because he can’t say no. Not because he’s compelled to obey, but because her voice won’t let him go. He won’t let go of her.
They move down a bright, sterile hallway filled with the smell of new paint. He follows numbly.
Downstairs in a room marked “Lab” she hands him a model of a human brain. “The area highlighted in red is the hypothalamus,” she explains. “Within it—specifically in the ventrolateral part of the ventromedial hypothalamus—scientists recently discovered a small group of neurons that drive aggressive behavior.”
Brayden studies the model, shifting it from side to side, trying to focus. It’s hard to breathe.
“I used a process called optogenetics to engineer those neurons to switch on and off with a laser light,” Dr. Mellon says. “To control my patients’ anger and aggression.”
He shakes his head, unable to look at her. “Why?” His voice is nearly a whisper.
“To improve their lives,” she says softly. “But something went wrong. The neurons switched off for good—their ability to take aggressive action is gone.”
“Then why does she destroy things?”
“I should clarify—aggressive action as we know it is gone, but there’s much I didn’t take into account.” Dr. Mellon moves toward the door, motioning him to follow.
Brayden scans the room. There must be a way out.
“Please, come meet them. They’ve seen you working … they ask for you.”
Time slows. He blinks back tears. They know him here? He’s seen, sought after? Brayden follows down another hallway lined with doors.
“This is Jarvis,” Dr. Mellon says, ushering Brayden to the first door.
A young, thin man with dreadlocks, perhaps in his mid-twenties, sits huddled on his bed. He gives a quick nod, but never manages eye contact.
One by one, Dr. Mellon introduces the others. One teen shoves unkempt hair out of his eyes and says, “I’m Gage.” Brayden notices bandages on his wrists.
Sonia peers out from her room. “Hi Brayden,” she says shyly, nothing like the other night. He tries to smile but his face freezes.
Dr. Mellon leads him through double doors into a common room. “I’m afraid they’re here for the duration,” she says. “I built this place to protect them, assure their privacy.”
“What about their families?”
“Orphans and runaways mostly, unwanted and assumed permanently missing or dead…no one knows.”
Something hard pushes into Brayden’s throat. How can he live with what he’s seen?
“Listen to me,” Dr. Mellon says, moving closer, hands clasped. “You can’t know how sorry I am for this.”
“Evil.” It slips out before he can stop, heavy like thick fog. He loves the sound of it, the hard blast it releases into the room. Its power slams into her, and she sags as if he’s slugged her. “Evil.”
“Brayden, no—misguided maybe, foolish and reckless, yes, but never intentionally evil.”
He moves toward her.
“I did it out of love.” She cries, backing away, small and alone. “I’m working to rectify my mistake…let me explain.”
Suddenly venom drains away, leaving Brayden hollow, barely able to stand. “I can’t,” he whispers and bolts down the hall to keep from collapsing, past secret eyes watching, out the front entrance and down the road toward home. Back to his life, the one he hates, the one he might never overcome. He has to forget their haunted eyes begging for love. Loving him. Offering inclusion. He has to forget them all.
He traces her handwriting with his finger and lies back on his pillow. Words for him he can’t bear to read.
Please come Thursday after school. Let me show you my work more closely before you decide what to do.
What can he do? Pretend the building is an illusion? Burn it down? Tell someone what’s inside? Run away? There’s no comfort in any possibility.
Please hear me out and give me a chance to explain properly.
Brayden crumples the letter into a ball, letting it drop to the floor. His dad creaks up the stairs and shuffles down the hallway toward his room. He doesn’t stop to say good night. He never does. Loss fills Brayden like cold sludge. There’s no one to talk to. There never is. Nowhere to belong. No one to love that loves back.
Brayden watches through an observation window as Sonia helps Gage onto the surgical table and secures his headframe.
Dr. Mellon glances at Brayden. She’s wearing a light blue surgical gown, and her hair is completely hidden under a surgical cap. “Can you hear me?”
He nods, positioning his headset so the microphone is closer to his mouth. He can hardly believe the scene before him: Gage’s shaved head glowing under an operating light in the cavernous operating room, rows of exquisite equipment, pristine silence as vast and reverent as inside a cathedral.
“Brayden, deep brain stimulation requires making an incision laterally across the top of the scalp,” Dr. Mellon says. “Then we’ll drill quarter-sized holes on the left and right side of Gage’s skull and insert electrodes directly into his hypothalamus to reset the neurons and hopefully restore full aggression function.”
Sonia, dressed in matching blue scrubs, stands without expression.
“I thought you wanted to stop aggression.” His voice booms as if he’s bellowing through a megaphone.
“I did.” Dr. Mellon says, reaching for a scalpel. “But the few neurons I switched off didn’t shut everything down. We’ve since discovered other brain regions that also regulate aggression—an entire neural network that remains partly functional in each patient here.”
“Can’t you turn those off, too?”
“Please increase the anesthesia, Sonia.” Dr. Mellon studies Gage’s brain scan on a monitor.
“Brayden, sorry, let me preface: Aggressive thoughts prompted by negative emotions like sadness, fear, frustration and anger are actually quite necessary—natural responses to life’s challenges. They’re meant to flow freely so we can uncover their messages and choose constructive action.”
Dr. Mellon makes a clean slice across Gage’s scalp, then peels back his skin to reveal shiny, living skull. Brayden shudders, but can’t look away.
“Negative emotions alert us to danger,” she continues. “They boost resilience, move us toward forgiveness and love, and help make us whole.” She nods at Sonia who hands her a device, not unlike a power drill, and she begins boring through the left side of Gage’s skull as if it were balsa wood.
Brayden imagines the power, ghastly and gorgeous, like blasting through granite with his bare fists, like in a videogame. But this power is real.
Dr. Mellon drills a second hole then peers inside as if she’s a sculptor admiring her artistry. “Negative feelings are part of being fully human, Brayden.”
If only he could gaze into Gage’s brain with her. What beauty must lie inside—all the mysteries of human thought and behavior.
“Sonia, please reduce the anesthesia so we can consult with Gage as we test the electrodes.” Dr. Mellon attaches something that looks like an arch to Gage’s headframe and uses an attached tool to drive in the first electrode.
Brayden leans forward, unable to stop watching. Gage trembles.
“By the way, Brayden, the brain doesn’t feel pain. Isn’t that right, Gage?
He manages a tight smile. “Yes.”
“Such bravery.” She squeezes his hand and begins moving his legs and arms while watching the undulating brain waves on her monitor.
“As I was saying, Brayden—aggression is only a problem when negative feelings are suppressed instead of being processed in healthy ways, as often happens in society. With few avenues for expression, they finally explode outward as violence, unhappiness and dysfunction.”
Sonia hovers beside Gage, still expressionless.
“What I failed to realize,” Dr. Mellon continues, “is that angry thoughts don’t evaporate just because you switch off brain areas that make people act aggressively. They still get thought.”
She peers at Brayden. “You suggested eliminating all neural channels, but that would only bottle up aggression even more. Without any release these feelings would manifest in ever more tragic behaviors—as has happened here.”
Brayden is suddenly cold. The observation room feels darker. “What do you mean?”
Dr. Mellon bows her head. “It’s so difficult…” Her voice trails off. “Some patients like Gage have turned violent thoughts on themselves. Hence the bandages on his wrists.” She pauses, eyes closed. “Several have committed suicide, including my beloved son, Lorenz, who struggled with anger for years after his father and I divorced.”
Her eyes open suddenly like she’s been startled awake and she swiftly plunges in the second electrode. “Can you feel that, Gage?”
“Only a little pressure.” His face is pale.
“Good boy.” She manipulates his legs and arms again. “Now, Brayden … others have directed violence outward.” Her voice is stronger now, steadier. “Sadly, one young man murdered three here before I finally had no choice but to put him down.”
Gage shudders, and Sonia quickly tucks another blanket around him. She leans close to say something Brayden can’t hear.
“Sonia here is an interesting example.” Dr. Mellon gazes at her like a treasured doll. “Her anger compels her to vandalize, but she retains enough anger-management function to transform her destruction into something artful and pleasing. If this surgery is successful, she’ll be next. No more neighborhood vandalism, isn’t that right, dear?”
Sonia smiles. Love lights her face, love for Dr. Mellon. Yet something else lingers there too—an inscrutable unease.
“Please close the incision, dear … we’ll implant the neuro-stimulator next week near his collarbone and attach it to the electrodes.”
Brayden can’t think. Everything is hard and knotted inside.
“My remaining patients, Brayden, have simply grown afraid of life, like Jarvis. Apparently, my brain manipulations were enough to render them defenseless, and they retreat, unable to act with any force in the world.”
Dr. Mellon stares at him without blinking. “What I should have done is teach them to funnel their aggression into good. Instead, I rewired their brains to short-circuit it and stripped them of their freewill to learn healthy coping strategies.” A flash of terror crosses her face like the first day they spoke. “I’ll do whatever’s necessary to reverse this and help them learn the right way. Then I can begin teaching others.” Terror vanishes again behind her stare.
“Does it hurt?”
Gage shakes his head. The light is dim in the recovery room, but Brayden sees him wince. His forehead is damp, and two swollen purplish holes remain where headframe pins secured his head.
“I’ll be okay.” Gage struggles to get the words out. His breathing is ragged.
The monitor crawls with numbers and lines—heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen levels, brain waves. Brayden stares, mesmerized, as he takes Gage’s hand, cold and moist like raw meat. What do they all mean?
“It’s my chance to help the world,” Gage murmurs, trembling. “Dr. Mellon says progress requires sacrifice.” His body convulses suddenly, and a line on the monitor flattens. The device beeps wildly.
Brayden bolts for help and slams directly into Dr. Mellon. How long has she been there?
“My god,” she cries, rushing past him to Gage. “A blood vessel ruptured in his brain. Quick, grab a syringe!”
Brayden does as he’s told and watches helplessly as she fills it and jams the needle into Gage’s arm. “This should stop the bleeding and relieve pressure.” She looks old in the dim light. Tears well in her eyes. “Gage willingly agreed to this—all my patients understand the risks.”
“He’s dying, isn’t he?”
“Brayden, my patients are like children to me—you have to know that.” Her voice is tender, pleading. “I believed I could help them. I still do.”
He wipes furiously at his eyes. The skin around them burns.
“Here’s the most profound thing, Brayden—the real reason I must succeed—you see aggression is the basis for all action. A wondering smile opens across her face like a child’s. “Allowed its natural expression, it leads to the most marvelous things—art, love, birth, play, growth from infancy to adulthood, scientific discovery, the rise of civilizations. It’s the outward creative thrust behind all that makes us human and drives the natural world. Without it, life as we know it is nearly unrecognizable.”
“You ruined them,” he snarls.
“No, Brayden, please listen. You of all people should know the dangers of suppressed anger—as both a carrier and recipient yourself.” Her face softens and she steps toward him. “Me too. I was also bullied as a child and wanted to keep others from that pain. That’s your goal, too. We’re the same, Brayden.”
“You could be of such service here—help me create a better world where everyone freely follows their natural creative thrusts.” Her eyes are liquid and begging. “You’d benefit as well, enriched by the friendships you’ll find.”
She cups his face in her hands. Like his mom used to do. It feels like love. Too real to trust. “I’ll make you a scientist, provide for your education.”
He jerks free and balls his hands into fists. Mighty enough to slay her. Monster.
“Brayden, please, I need you.”
“No!” He places a hand on Gage’s chest, breathing barely palpable. “We’re not the same.”
“Come, I’ll walk you out,” she says gently. “I understand.” They traipse down the corridor together without speaking, their footsteps echoing in rhythm.
She stands in the front entrance silhouetted by bright lobby lights. “Brayden, please come in, out of the dark.” She seems unsurprised to see him.
He had no choice but to come. He can’t stay.
Sonia peers around the corner and tiptoes toward him. Others hang behind Dr. Mellon, anxiously watching, waiting for him to declare his intent. There’s Gage, head encased in bandages. The left half of his face droops as if it’s melted. But he’s alive.
“I came to say goodbye.”
“You have so much to give, Brayden.”
He looks away into the darkness, deflecting her words.
“You helped save Gage … always remember you have a home here.”
Her words hold him still. Dozens of eyes keep hold too, melting through hard places, rounding off painful corners, soothing grief’s brutality, calming wrath too wieldy to contain. He’s ached to lay down these burdens, channel them toward something that won’t topple him into permanent bitterness, something he can believe in. The future is laid out here—everything he needs to move forward. No need to chart his own path against nearly insuperable odds.
“I’ll come every day after school.” The words spill out. “My dad knows I have a job here…that’s all I need to say.”
Sonia opens her arms, and Brayden steps through the door into her warmth. Dr. Mellon and the others encircle him, absorbing him into their secret. He tingles as if they bestow electric energy. There’s nothing but love in their darkness and pain, salvation in their cloistered existence. He’s found his place in their kinship of neurological defilement—monsters all of them. This is the only way. He belongs.
Sidney Stevens writes fiction and non-fiction, and is the author of four books on natural health. www.sidney-stevens.com