This is part three of my scruffy, unedited attempt at last year’s NaNoWriMo. It’s the longest chunk yet, and I wouldn’t blame you for skipping it, though it does kind of establish half the plot. Boy, this needs work.
James Cortland was well aware of the effect he had on Clementine. He had worked with people suffering from synesthesia for nearly two decades, and he knew they lived in a world that wasn’t designed for them, that was nearly always confusing or dreary or overwhelming. Though the perceptions of every patient were nuanced and different, over time the professor had learned various ways to make himself more pleasing to the unique sense of aesthetics that synesthesia creates. To that end he had developed a peculiar fashion and bearing that seemed eccentric to most, but tended to strike a chord in young patients coming to terms with the condition. However he had found it necessary to severely adjust this technique in recent years, and his presentation to Clementine was in part an experiment. Her visible reaction strengthened certain larger suspicions he had been fostering, and he decided he would share the results of his recent research with her parents.
As they awaited dinner, Professor Cortland engaged Clementine with various toys and word games. Her parents were baffled: Clementine had never been good with simple children’s brain-teasers, but now she was solving puzzles with esoteric rules that seemed complex even to them. She was arranging a set of coloured tiles into apparently meaningless patterns that nonetheless delighted the professor when Dr. Avery entered to tell them the food had been served. After securing a promise that there would be more games later, Clementine followed her parents into the dining room.
Meals with others were a stressful affair for Clementine’s parents. Their daughter was extremly fussy about food, and could sometimes be driven to screaming or reduced to tears by being forced to eat something she didn’t like. But Dr. Avery had prepared for this and, at the professor’s advice, had served a variety of dishes buffet-style on a sideboard table. Clementine was delighted and looked up at Professor Cortland, who winked at her and nodded knowingly to her parents. They too were delighted, and they began to understand that Clementine’s demanding palate was also a product of her condition as they watched the professor make mental notes of their daughter’s choices.
When Clementine brought her plate to the table, she almost yelped with excitement. In addition to forks and knives, her place had been set with pencils and crayons and a thick pad of paper. Her parents looked at each other, and then the professor, in astonishment: her whole life, Clementine had shown no interest in drawing, but as a baby she had developed the destructive habit of spooning her food onto the tablecloth. Now here she was, seated and silent, devouring a chicken drumstick with one hand and relaxedly drawing concentric circles with the other. She was wholly absorbed, and Dr. Avery led the party into casual conversations on unrelated topics. The professor remained partially detached and kept an eye on Clementine, who was filling page after page with colourful patterns as she ate. By the end of the meal she had almost reached the last sheet of paper, and when Professor Cortland asked her what she thought of the food, she pushed the pad towards him and smiled.
“You said we would play more games!” Clementine said. Her parents made practiced apologetic faces.
“Now Clementine, we’ve just finished dinner. Don’t rush the professor!” her mother said, but Cortland shook his head.
“No, it’s true, we did make a promise,” he said as he stood, inviting Clementine to return to the den. “Clementine, this next puzzle is a bit more difficult, so it might take you a while to solve. I’ll leave you to work on it while I have coffee with your parents and Dr. Avery, okay?”
Clementine nodded and followed the professor back to the den. Her parents beamed at Dr. Avery.
“Well, obviously we can see why you wanted us to meet him,” said her father. “It’s almost as if he knows her better than we do.”
“I hate to admit it, but you’re right,” said her mother. She turned to the doctor. “I know you said he wouldn’t be treating Clementine but, I think I would like him to be involved somehow.”
Dr. Avery nodded. “The professor has a great empathy for the mentally ill, but at the end of the day he is a man of science. I am sure he will offer you advice about Lana’s treatment if it will help him expand his understanding of her condition.”
He had said “Lana” on purpose – he still wasn’t entirely comfortable with her unusual new nickname. But it had sounded overly formal, even ominous.
“You mean he’d want to study her,” said Clementine’s father, taking on a defensive tone.
“More like, monitor her,” said Professor Cortland, at that moment returning from the den. Clementine’s mother blushed and Dr. Avery began to apologise, but the professor waved him down.
“Please, we will have that conversation later, and only if you wish to have it,” he said. “First I want to tell you what I have already observed.”
The professor took a seat at the table as Dr. Avery rose and excused himself to brew coffee. Clementine’s parents looked at each other, and her father spoke.
“We’re very impressed with your understanding of our daughter’s condition, professor. There’s one thing we’ve been very curious about, though.” He looked at his wife again, who nodded. “We’ve been doing some reading about synesthesia since the doctor first told us about it and, well-”
Professor Cortland interrupted him: “And it doesn’t sound quite like this at all.”
Clementine’s parents nodded, and the professor’s face became serious. “Your research is accurate,” he said. “Your daughter’s condition is something almost entirely new and, I must confess, troubling.”
Clementine’s mother began to fight back tears, and the professor looked shocked and stumbled in his speech.
“No, please, Mrs. Simmons, you misunderstand,” he said. “It is my fault. Of course what every parent wants to know first is their child’s prognosis, and in your daughter’s case it is my opinion she can live a life of normal standards. Her experience of life will be decidedly different in certain ways, but that is true of every individual to some degree.” Clementine’s mother looked somewhat comforted, and he continued. “I say it is troubling because Clementine is not the first person I have met who exhibits these symptoms. She is part of a small but significant trend that represents the emergence of a novel condition.”
“So it’s not synesthesia?” asked Clementine’s father.
“Not exactly. It is of a similar nature, but as you discovered yourself, synesthesia’s symptoms are neither as numerous nor as extreme as your daughter’s,” said the profesor. “This new condition is commonly diagnosed as synesthesia, however, which unfortunately leads to woefully ineffective treatments.”
Dr. Avery returned with a coffee tray, and Clementine’s mother looked up at him with new and unexpected suspicion. The professor noticed this, and continued before she could speak. “Avery here is one of the few doctors who agrees with my opinion on this matter, which is why he brought you to me.”
Dr. Avery set the coffee tray on the table, and began passing out cups. “Officially, this new condition does not exist. Although as a general pediatrician I am not in fact qualified to diagnose synesthesia by myself either,” he said, and ventured a smile. “I apologise for temporarily misleading you.”
Clementine’s parents were silent for a moment, but eventually her mother smiled in return. “No, if it’s what you had to do to introduce us to the professor here, I certainly understand,” she said. “Thank you Andrew.”
Her husband considered this and nodded his assent. “But I have to admit I’m still confused,” he said. “What exactly are we dealing with here?”
“It’s hard to say, exactly,” the professor replied. “It’s believed that a large portion of the population experiences some form of synesthesia in their sensory perceptions, but it is part of the isolated nature of man that it’s hard, or even impossible, discover these things – as it would be to discover it if you should see red where I see blue, and vice versa, since ‘red’ and ‘blue’ are just the names we have attached to the colours in our mind’s eye. But it’s extremely rare for synesthesia to become disruptive, let alone for it to express itself in such a marvelous variety of ways.”
Clementine’s mother frowned at this, and the professor made an apologetic face that was becoming rather familiar.
“You must forgive my choice of words,” he said. “But in many ways, your daughter’s condition might represent an opportunity. People with highly pronounced synesthesia in the traiditional form have found it gives them a unique insight into art, music, literature, mathematics or other fields, often granting them rather special talents. But, as you observed yourselves, what your daughter experiences goes beyond the traditional form of synesthesia. She has difficulty expressing herself in a normal fashion, but she delights in expressing herself in ways that distort and transcend the senses. She exhibits all the known forms of synesthesia, and far more beyond – and yet she seems capable of communicating with others, even if she hasn’t quite perfected it yet.”
“But there are others, with the same thing Clementine has?”
“Yes, but I want to encourage you not to think of this as a ‘disease’ that anyone ‘has’ – it is a condition of the mind, and that is something very different,” the professor continued. “Over the past five years I have met a handful of people with experiences almost identical to your daughter’s, none older than twenty, and none quite as young as her. I believe there are more out there – perhaps many more – but they are difficult to find since I don’t know what I’m looking for. You should know that, while some doctors see this new condition as a severe form of synesthesia, others have diagnosed it as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and even aphasia.”
Clementine’s father interrupted him. “Professor Cortland, I hate to say it, but it almost sounds like you’re suggesting there’s some sort of conspiracy.”
The professor exhaled and sunk deeper into his chair. After a moment of silence, he responded. “I don’t like the word conspiracy. It suggests a co-ordinated evil – some mysterious cabal or insidious secret order. In my experience things are much more chaotic than that. Everything is a struggle, with different interests pushing and pulling at each other, and only a tiny number of individuals who could perhaps be called evil. Mostly it’s just normal people, contributing tiny pieces of ignorance and ill will – often unknowingly – to a system that exists outside us all, that we somehow created and made ourselves slave to.”
Clementine’s parents listened politely, but it was clear they were beginning to have difficulty keeping up. The professor noticed this and his apologetic face returned once more.
“I am waxing philosophical,” he said. “My point is that I do not believe there is some organized movement to ignore this condition, but simply that its existence is inconvenient enough to established ideas and protocols that nobody can be bothered to acknowledge it. At least not until it becomes a bigger problem.”
Continued on next page…