If you enjoyed “To Learn or to Burn,” you’re in luck. Dr. Zella’s back, a few years wiser, and more eager than ever to focus on her advancement at the university where she works and teaches. If she can push for excellence in her research and gain seniority among her colleagues, it might just be enough to help her purge her mind of all the rumors and red flags about this institution. Of course, it seems like there’s always one more hoop to jump through on the path to success, and just how much of herself is Dr. Amy H. Zella willing to give?
Hope you enjoy.
Pain… the first sensation. Throbbing above her eye, but she couldn’t move.
* * *
Dr. Zella strode across the campus toward the biochemistry building. Her thoughts lingered on the lecture she’d just given. She sighed. How she loathed the 101 classes. How she yearned for the end of this semester, her planned summer abroad (her first real vacation since signing her contract)! And next year, next year when she would take on teaching much more of the advanced coursework and finally start working with students who could begin to comprehend the research she’d actually come here to do.
Inside the bio-chem building, she turned away from the bank of elevators and reached instead for the door leading to the stairwell. She jogged up six flights, pleased to find herself only slightly winded as she placed her thumb on the touchpad next to the door. She accessed the fourth floor faculty suite and turned left toward her office.
She allowed herself a small private smile as her eyes lingered half a second on the brass plate installed on her door last fall reading “Dr. Amy H. Zella.” She might not yet be tenured here, and truthfully she wasn’t sure she wanted that, but it still felt affirming to have her name engraved on the plate, unofficially symbolic of her growing importance to the university, importance she would actualize next fall when she took on her brand new teaching load with more of the upper level courses and even a few graduate students working toward degrees like the one she held.
She locked her office door behind her, glad not to be expecting any student appointments today. She always felt as if inside these four walls, she could feel more like herself, more like Amy, a name only a few people called her here.
Her mood leveling out, she roused her laptop to life and skimmed down her email. A subject line a few messages from the top caught her attention: Mandatory Additional Tissue Collection.
Dear Dr. Zella,
You’ve been randomly selected to participate in an additional blood and tissue collection protocol. Please report at your earliest convenience to the university health center, lab A-6, for a blood draw and cheek swab.
Thank you for your continued contributions to our ongoing research.
Dr. Zella scowled. Of course she knew that participating in the university’s DNA research program was compulsory for all faculty and staff. But as she’d understood it, upon her contract-signing, sample collection took place once every five years. Just last fall, she’d submitted her second set of samples. What on earth could’ve changed substantially enough over the last six months to make a lick of difference in the type of anonymous aggregate research the university conducted?
She wondered if there were any way to get out of it. She realized the submission wouldn’t take much time, a simple cheek swab and blood draw. She didn’t fear any part about it. She’d drawn her own blood for research purposes before. She wasn’t afraid of needles, but it just struck her as such an unnecessary hassle.
Her eyes darted to the from section of the email. If she could figure out the requesting department, she’d have a better idea of her odds of talking her way out of it, but the message had been sent from the university’s general admin address. She scowled again as she minimized it, one more annoyance to deal with whether she tried to be excused from it or not.
She leaned back in her chair, wishing she’d gotten on task as soon as she’d come in her office. Now she faced 20 to 30 minutes of paperwork with the beginnings of a tension headache.
* * *
Head throbbing… yes. Why couldn’t she move? She focused all attention on opening her eyes. More excruciating pain in her head, and a new awareness of a red light flashing. Her left eye seemed sealed shut, but she felt her right eyelid twitch. She tried again to open it and for a half second, she saw a flash of blurry red. Her lid closed again as a knife-like pain stabbed through her forehead.
* * *
Dr. Zella turned her head to see her colleague Rhonda Rauch approaching her table in the commons. “Still surviving those first-year students?” Rhonda asked with a wan, knowing smile.
Amy groaned, letting her salad fork fall back onto the plate. “Just barely,” she replied. “How’s your research going?” She felt eager to talk about anything else.
“Fair,” Rhonda replied. “Unfortunately that supplemental grant I applied for didn’t come through, so I’m stuck on this side of the wall, at least for the rest of this year.”
Amy gulped at the mention of the wall. She rarely visited that end of campus. Even in broad daylight, the sight of it, its ominous height and crown of razor wire, chilled her. She’d never had a strong urge to take part in the work that happened on the other side, and after her only encounter with someone who did, she’d firmly decided she never wanted to join those ranks. But of course, she couldn’t say any of that to Rhonda right now.
“You’re more adventurous than I am,” she replied carefully. “I’ll stick with rats for my research.” She expected her colleague to say something else, but Rhonda just chuckled. “Speaking of research,” Amy continued. “Did you get this?” She swiped her phone pulling up the email about the additional tissue collection.
Rhonda took the phone and reached for her glasses hanging from a beaded cord around her neck. She read for a few seconds, her forehead creasing.
“That’s odd,” she said. “No, I didn’t get that. The last time I submitted a sample was two years ago. That was my third. You submitted your second set last year, didn’t you?”
Amy nodded. “Just six months ago. I can’t imagine what they think might have changed in that time.”
“Well, and I suppose it’s not about that, if it’s a random selection,” Rhonda said. “Still it’s odd. I’ve never heard of them requesting additional samples from anyone.”
“Do you think I can get out of it?” Amy asked, “maybe if I can find out the requesting department and point out I submitted just six months ago?”
“Afraid of needles, are we?” Rhonda asked with a chuckle. “Probably easier just to do it, you know. You’ll spend more time trying to get exempted than you will reporting for the swab and stick.”
“I know. I know. It’s just the principle of the thing.”
“Not worth the hassle if you ask me,” Rhonda said, handing back the phone. “With Dr. Gibson retiring this spring, you’ll be right in line to take on more of the 300 and 400 level credits next year, am I right? Best not to make waves right now.”
Amy sighed. “You’re probably right. I’m not sure why I’m letting it rattle me this much. I guess I’m just eager to be done with this semester all the way around. It just feels like one more annoyance.”
Rhonda chuckled again. “You’ve taken your licks here like a trooper. You’re in the home stretch now. Don’t sweat it.”
Amy nodded, stabbing a forkful of her unappetizing salad.
* * *
Alone in her apartment later, Amy quieted her mind with her white noise machine and her deep breathing exercises. While she’d broken her own rule and poured herself a glass of wine before she even started, she did her best to only take a few small sips between the sets of deep breaths.
When she’d finished, she stood up, picked up the glass and walked out onto the small balcony of her 18th floor studio. She loved this view of the city at night. Despite her apartment being only a few times as large as her office on campus, Amy loved her private space. Its modest size, sound-proof walls and exceptionally secure door made it one of the few places she felt truly safe. The considerable height from the street level together with the building’s robust security system and staff also bolstered her sense of safety.
And yet, some of my colleagues’ research perpetuates the undeniable reality that no one is ever actually safe, she mused. This truth haunted her often. She thought of her office on campus, its locking door a secondary contingency beyond the sealed doors of the faculty suite. Still Amy could never fully relax there.
And then there was the wall, the wall purportedly constructed primarily for the safety of everyone outside of it. Never having needed or requested a higher security clearance, Amy, much like her students, knew only what she heard from rumors about it: that supposedly it was far more than a physical barrier and contained highly advanced surveillance and tactical component;, that some professors who chose to move their research inside it perished within its boundary, the university covering up their deaths for long periods of times with claims that they’d chosen to take “internal sabbaticals.”
Amy seriously doubted the second claim. It rang in her mind with much the same timbre as so many other ubiquitous urban legends she’d heard dating back to 20th century. It belonged, she felt, side-by-side with cautionary tales about strangulation by bra strap and bloody messages on dorm-room walls.
Still the ominous visage of the wall chilled her, even when she saw it only in her own imagination. Blessedly, her office on campus faced in the opposite direction, so she never had to stare at it out her window. Still, even when she locked herself in her office, she couldn’t shake the reality that the same administration that had put all the apparent safeguards in place could very easily have installed bypasses to them.
She couldn’t figure why her brain took her on these speculative journeys. She supposed it was the same inquisitive nature that had led her to a life of research in the first place. But as much as she loved her research, she often found herself wishing she didn’t have to cooperate with an institution like this to carry it out.
Amy chastised herself for letting her mind wander in these directions. especially at a time of day she attempted to dedicate to relaxation. She knew the illicit glass of wine at least partially accounted for her untethered thoughts. She came back in from the balcony and dumped the rest of the glass down the kitchen sink.
The next morning, she woke to her alarm 45 minutes earlier than usual. It took only a split second to remember why she’d set it that way.
* * *
She might not have feared needles since the age of 12, but Amy had yet to derive a way not to feel them. She watched nonplussed, however, as the lab tech unscrewed the first full vial handing it to her assistant for sealing before screwing another in its place. A third tech came over with a couple long-stemmed cotton swabs for gathering cells from her cheeks. Amy opened her mouth wide before the tech even asked her to.
“Am I good to go now?” Dr. Zella asked a couple minutes later. She had a cotton ball taped to her arm where the blood had been drawn, but she’d waved away the paper cup full of water they’d offered.
“You’re done here,” the head tech replied, but just be sure to give this to the attendant downstairs.” She handed Amy a slip of paper that read Additional Release Authorization.
“What’s this?” she asked.
The tech shrugged, “Not for me to know. They’ve flagged a few charts over the past few months. Today, it was yours.”
Amy nodded. The university’s policies and the way they carried them out often reflected their need-to-know attitudes. Amy doubted the attendant she’d be handing the slip to downstairs would know much more than the tech. She also knew that whatever they might be asking her to authorize, she’d have little choice but to agree if she wanted to get out of here and get on with her day, not to mention her research and career advancement.