side effect

Pleasure is the absence of pain.

 

Ray always felt he had reached that profound conclusion on his own, though a drunk Professor in a bar once assured him that Epicurus got to his hot take first. Today he knew it with a certainty that pulled it from the realm of philosophy to the busy sidewalk around him. Weeks before, this same walk would have been excruciating. Rumbling vibrations traveling from trucks to his feet would kick off a sensory assault. Sometimes he would get dizzy, his chest tightening and he’d feel like he had to force himself to breathe. He’d put a finger to his neck to check his pulse- what was that supposed to do? Confirm that he had one? Maybe he would sit on a bench and belly-breathe, try to wait for the panic to pass through and over him. If that didn’t work, he’d call Evie. They weren’t dating anymore, but she was always ready to talk him through the attack. You’re fine, it’s only temporary, these are symptoms without causes. Also you need to bring in more of a support circle in case I can’t pick up. 

The first panic attack was the most terrifying, a core feeling that something was deeply wrong and he could drop dead at any moment. That was five years ago, and ended in a trip to the emergency room with electrocardiograms and blood tests. Also an unsubtle examination of Ray's arms and other body parts where he may have given himself an injection. The anger and embarrassment of being thought a junkie began to replace the subsiding fear. None of the doctors on staff suggested anything about anxiety or panic, only that they couldn't find anything wrong with him. It wasn't until his second ER visit six months later prompted by a racing heartbeat where a nurse mentioned that many of the patients they see are actually experiencing panic attacks. News that would have been nice to hear before his insurance increased his copay. Ray began searching out books on this affliction that he had a passing awareness of at best. None of the material showed a way out of his plight, but at least what was happening to him was no longer a mystery. It was a very common condition that Ray found almost no one liked to discuss. Even friends he knew to have gone through treatment for it would quickly change the subject, and he understood why. For them it was in the past, conquered... but utter the demon's name too often and it might be summoned again.

 

Ray still had periods of feeling normal, almost always on his days off. When he had more control over his schedule, his activities. A weekend or holiday was always more relaxing, but he was determined to never take a job working from home, certain that was the fast track to full-blown agoraphobia. Ray didn’t fear outdoor spaces but there were plenty of other situations he avoided. Like how he learned to never look up symptoms online. Every search led to imminent fatality. If a radio or tv segment touched on health and medical conditions, the channel was changed with blinding speed. Ray had only to hear the barest description of a painful symptom to experience it later. Often it wouldn’t kick in until the next day or two, that’s how devious the recesses of his mind were. Forget the discussion you heard, but remember something key about the symptom and its deadly cause. Tingling in extremities quickly suggested heart problems instead of the more likely possibility that he was sitting too long in a bad position. He usually had to remind himself that he was in good health - could always be better - and there was only one root cause for the way he felt. His own brain, fucking with him. 

 

None of that mattered today. Ray rolled his injection-molded case and cart down the sidewalk of Pine Street, heading to a restaurant to hang artwork in the private dining room, an easy job. Dozens of tourists moved around him, heading to the waterfront and the famous Pike’s Place Market. A child of four jacked up on ice cream rammed into his cart– it didn’t matter. Ray wasn't startled, the wall-hanging wasn’t damaged, and a chocolate smear on the case wouldn’t lose him his job. The art installation work began when he realized physical tasks brought him out of his head more, the tactile focus keeping the anxiety at bay. Like therapy that pays. But as with every strategy before, his brain would eventually find another path in to crank up his nervous system. Until now. Until Ataraxitol.

 

Ray stopped behind the crowd at the crosswalk, found a napkin still in his pocket from lunch, and wiped off his case. He could feel all the stimuli trying to affect him, the rumbling trucks, the cars honking for no real reason, people blurting at each other louder than necessary. Ray almost laughed. He had taken his new treatment this morning like clockwork, and no nerves, anxiety or panic were going to make it through. All the usual triggers were clicking, but it was as if they were happening in another universe. This is what it was like to feel normal, better than normal really, because he could appreciate it in a way everyone else took for granted. A six block walk to a job was now a chance to enjoy the rhythms of life.

 

Then the little boy with the ice cream darted again, his parents fumbling with bags at the wrong moment. Ray saw the deep blue shimmer flowing around the child, like a racing stream of vapor. The ice cream spilled out of the cone as the boy tumbled off the curb, rolling under the front wheel of the large parcel truck bearing down on him.

 

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“My opinion is that it’s a defense mechanism.”

 

This was said in the calming tones of Specialist Antony Biers, two years ago. Not a medical doctor, but a studied and licensed therapist focusing on Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Ray saw him nine times before breaking off the therapy because it wasn’t covered by his insurance. Out of pocket and repetitive after the first five sessions so doomed to fade out, but the initial visit felt transformative. Simply talking about his attacks to a professional made Ray feel a shift inside his head, a sense of control. He also came to another realization, glaringly obvious in hindsight. A good friend had died of cardiomyopathy nearly a year before Ray's attacks began. Biers acknowledged that likely played a part, but wasn't overly concerned with what Ray thought was a breakthrough moment. The therapeutic practice Biers employed focused on changing behaviors, and placed little weight in addressing root causes from the past. Ray could see the why of this approach, knowing why you are the way you are doesn't magically solve anything. It still left him feeling frustrated. Here he was, finally seeing a therapist and there was no comfortable couch where you talked about nightmares and no "Aha!" at some unearthed memory. Biers wasn't going to declare that the underpinning of his life's problems was the result of being fed formula as a baby. The path to wellness was going to be repetitive mental exercises. Work.

 

“You’re recognizing moments that can go in several directions, and imagining the worst outcomes. Though you can’t stop the panic, you know it rarely results in disaster. Likewise, by putting yourself through horrific scenarios, you’re trying to guarantee that they won’t actually happen. This isn’t uncommon.”

 

They had reached the subject of Intrusive Thoughts, which Ray hadn’t felt was particularly relevant but admitted to them because he was already tired of talking about phantom symptoms by the third visit. Biers argued that this was in fact very relevant, and common with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The second session made Ray realize he had experienced OCD to varying degrees since childhood, never realizing it wasn't normal or could later shift into something more potent. OCD blended in very naturally with GAD, each painful in different ways. Feeling like you’ll drop dead wasn’t pleasant, but neither was imagining a bus running a red light and crumpling your car, hearing the dull folding of metal before the force began to crush you too. And yes, if he was walking on an overpass with a short railing, Ray couldn’t help but imagine how the 200 foot fall would play out. The ground would close in fast and then he’d make contact. He wanted to make clear to Biers this wasn’t suicidal ideation, because in his scenario the world didn’t suddenly go black with the pain ending. Ray could clearly imagine his head hitting the ungiving concrete and bending back, his body compressing and breaking as his skull shattered. This ‘test run’ left way too much time to experience agony and a new, unnatural shape to his body. The worst was the possibility that it wouldn't end there, he may be pushed into a ruined form that would never not know pain. In his teens, Ray grew better at pushing away the OCD intrusions, distraction was becoming a talent of his. But now the unwanted thoughts were more forceful, as if they were a bully who'd joined forces with the newer tormentor, Panic.

 

The best Biers could do on this matter was offer a workbook where Ray was to write down these intrusions each day and counter them with the actual developments in each entry. This helped until it didn’t. Progress at first, soon followed by ineffectiveness. In every instance, as he would start to gain control or diminish a symptom, a new pain in another part of his body or a new type of unwanted visualizing would jump in the ring and go to work on him. Psychosomatic whack-a-mole. The one through line Ray could see between Compulsion, Anxiety and Panic was the enemy inside. He wasn’t sure what he’d done to his brain to deserve constant assault. He read good books and watched mostly good movies. Ate healthy. He read more, including theories suggesting that his problem was one of many artifacts left over from evolution, now-useless parts like a tailbone or appendix. Man of 60,000 years ago had to be ready for predators that don’t exist anymore, and the treacherous whims of nature. Our senses are always taking in information whether we acknowledge it or not. Sounds, smells, frequencies- no one knows what in the cacophony of the 21st century resembled the stimuli that made our ancestors’ blood start pumping at top speed, readying us to act. So we’re quickly revved up for fight- but mostly flight, in a mundane environment that doesn’t line up with our sensations. From the mists of prehistory a 600 lb. Saber-tooth Tiger stalks us, but we've got to keep it together because sir, this is a Walgreens. Sometimes this leads to dissociating, all times it leads to exhaustion. 

 

The true end of the sessions for Ray came when he asked Biers if he'd ever suffered from these disorders. No. Whatever else Biers said after that point about his training turned to distant garble in Ray's head. Ray couldn't imagine someone understanding his condition purely academically. To talk about it in this setting originally felt like shedding a burden, and now he was regressing to imagining how crazy he must sound to someone who never woke in the middle of the night, heart pounding from an unprovoked adrenaline spike. His final session was so uncomfortable he cut it short, ended the appointments by a voice message and blocked the office's email. 

 

Therapy wasn’t a complete dead end, Ray could now go to a medical doctor and show that he’d been diagnosed. A doctor might be able to find the right combination of treatments to stop this misery cycle. He found Dr. Burana at the medical clinic close to his apartment. This began more than a year of misadventures in medication, primarily different doses of Xanax and Valium, and ultimately leading to the first experience of the Blue Shimmer.

 

The first time the shimmer became visible was three days after Dr. Burana handed Ray the bottle labeled ATARAXITOL.  A month prior Burana had called to offer Ray to join a trial subject group for a new treatment. This involved a stack of paperwork absolving the clinic and the pharmaceutical company of legal obligations. He wasn’t overly concerned, experience taught him that anxiety meds would work at first, boosting his hopes, before fading to no results within weeks. Increasing dosage worked a while longer, but as with Valium or Xanax, that would end too. Xanax mostly made him sleepy, so he guessed he was ready if insomnia ever became a problem. Ray would bring the unfinished meds back to the clinic to reassure everyone that he wasn’t addicted or possibly dealing them to friends. He worried the clinic staff regarded him as a nuisance, and when Dr. Burana brought up the possibility of participating in a study, he was certain he’d be given mere placebos. At least he didn't have to go pick them up as a prescription and wonder if the pharmacist smirked while handing over his fake meds. He was so sure of this that when he took his first dose, he bit down on the pill rather than swallowing, expecting to taste sugar. Instead his mouth filled with a bitter flavor and he washed it down with water as fast as he could. 

 

Ray felt foggy the next day. Burana had warned him to expect this, but to call her if it was excessive. Also, to not get behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle. This was no problem at first, he often biked to jobs but his small cargo trailer couldn’t handle all the installations he would need to do that week. Waves of panic still surfaced during the day, but the quality was different somehow. Steadier, perhaps? Ray looked back through his inbox to read more about the drug, only to realize there had never been email correspondence, only the phone discussion and the office visits. He found his old therapy workbook and wrote his observations down, thinking he could at least be helpful with the medicine trial.

 

The next day there was much less fogginess and the waves of panic still came, but with a noticeable change. They were muted, like someone had turned down a volume knob on his body, or maybe adjusted a tuning knob to move Ray away from a static-filled frequency to a clearer signal. Burana had said it was likely to take a week to notice any changes if at all.

 

Day Three: Is this what everyone else feels like, all the time? Ray experienced a calm like he had with early meds, usually before they made him fall asleep, but now with no drowsiness. He was far more aware of sunlight on his skin and a breeze in his hair than any random sharp sounds or rumbles from trucks rolling by. He postponed hanging a triptych display until later and continued on to the park. A few steps in, he took off his shoes. Walking through the grass barefoot felt lush and cooling, and he didn't even visualize puncturing his heel on a shard of glass. No obtrusive thoughts forced their way in, and all the stimuli that would normally wind him up bounced off an invisible barrier. Ray knew the impulses were there, but they weren’t making it inside. He heard himself blurt a sound of relief loud enough that picnickers looked over. Even in this new ecstasy he could still feel some embarrassment so he acted like he was replying to someone on a bluetooth earpiece and made his way to a bench to sit and enjoy himself.

 

Within an hour of allowing this pleasing calm to wash over him, he noticed something he usually didn’t; other people. A jogger running a circuit around the paths, down and back up a long steep series of steps from the tennis courts. A young mother pointing out wildflowers to her toddler, who kept falling back while trying to pick them. A reddish-coated dog in a graceful leap to catch a rubber frisbee and then running up to other visitors, expecting them to join in throwing his slobbery toy. Many did, wiping their hands on the grass after. Ray wished the dog would bring him the frisbee but he wasn't willing to give up his perfect seat to move into the field of play.

 

I bet this is Mindfulness, Ray thought. Being so thoroughly in the moment you’re not focused on yourself constantly. Am I taking some kind of... meditation pills? He had tried meditation in the past, and was always soon distracted and worried by the sound of his own raspy breathing, or infrequent rushing of blood behind his ear. This seemed like the goal he always imagined and it didn’t matter that a drug was getting him there. He drank in the experience of the park, and started to close his eyes to see what it was like only listening, when a flowing blue glow caught his eye.

 

The glow was back at the steep steps, a fellow somewhere in his 60s or early 70s was reaching the top with great difficulty. His knuckles on the metal rail were white, his face was bright red. And the shimmering effect Ray saw move around the gasping man’s body was blue- maybe more aqua? The shimmer was so tangible Ray thought there must be petroleum or some substance outgassing at the top landing where the older man stopped and swayed. Sweat dripped off the red face and bright teeth clenched. He reached for his chest, swayed, and then collapsed on the landing. Ray bolted upright from the bench. He had imagined this moment happening to himself so many times, despite a healthy diet and no medical history to support it. Heart attack. He rose to run towards the man, who now wasn’t there.

 

Ray already had his phone out and the first two digits of 911 pressed when he realized he was looking at an empty space on the platform. Before he could wonder if he’d slipped into a daydream, Ray's eyes drifted over to where the same red-faced man was struggling up the steps. He reached the top exactly as before, staggering, fighting for breath. As he clutched at his chest - again - Ray resumed his call, pressed the final 1 on his phone and returned to moving forward. When the man hit the ground, the jogger rushed over and started administering aid as a medical professional with years of training would. Ray felt relief as he had no idea what he would have done upon reaching the man, then heard "911, is this an emergency?" from his phone. He described someone having an episode at the park, maybe heat stroke or a heart thing, and the voice said responders were on the way. He’d only glanced aside to talk to the operator for a minute and when he looked back, the jogger was working at the older man’s chest, pumping desperately to force circulation. Ray could still see the blue shimmer flowing fast around the man, then slowing. The intensity of the blue began to fade as well, and in a few more seconds, the shimmer was gone. No one else seemed to notice it happening, but Ray saw the jogger’s body language change. Her shoulders dropped in a clear show of defeat, but she kept trying other approaches, while cursing under her breath about a medical bag she didn’t bring. Soon an ambulance arrived and the man’s body was rolled away.

 

Later Ray sat in his apartment looking out the window. He played the afternoon over in his mind with great clarity. It wasn’t a premonition, he told himself. Not exactly. Not like having a vision of someone in danger and then the person appeared. He must have seen the man making his way up the final flight of steps- was the shimmer already there? Did it grow gradually more intense in those last few steps? And, the part he felt some shame in thinking: this was exactly the kind of thing that would have convinced him of his own impending death and sent him into a spiral, the way his friend’s passing did years before. But that wasn’t happening now, Ray still felt calm, safe. More than he had ever been able to imagine. It could be selfishness, or a sense of self-preservation to be expected from years of being at the mercy of an erratic nervous system. He looked at the bottle of Ataraxitol on his kitchen counter. A week's worth of pills left.

 

So I might see when someone is about to die. Still worth it, no question. How often during the day do I see people die anyway? During a whole year? It’s not like I live in a war zone. 

 

It was true, in the past ten years of living in Seattle, Ray had only seen two other deaths. One, a very elderly lady who fell down an escalator at the mall. The other was a cyclist hit by a driver fooling with his phone behind the wheel. Ray didn’t find out the cyclist died until later, he’d hoped the man was only unconscious. The partly rhetorical question remained, how likely would he be subjected to many more previews of untimely death?

 

Over the next week, Ray found out.

 

 

Blue shimmers were everywhere, much more faint than around the man in the park but now that he was looking for them, they were common. He noticed some immediately on the first hot day of Summer, all around the flowers potted by his neighbor’s door at their sixplex building. She had left town for a while, and whoever promised they would stop over and water the plants was a lying bastard. The shimmer wasn’t as bright or intense or even moving as fast as he had seen in the park, Ray could have easily missed it and probably did before. This is bullshit, plants shouldn't count! As if there were some unwritten rule about detecting ebbing life force written on the medicine bottle. And there was no reason to assume Ataraxitol was responsible, though the new perception did coincide exactly with the abatement of his symptoms.

 

After getting coffee, he stepped out of the cafe and saw a meth addict muttering to himself, shambling down the sidewalk, pausing and looking around like ghosts were trying to get his attention, or duck him. At first the tweaker seemed older, then Ray had glimpses of how he would appear if not ravaged by meth or whatever opioids he could find. Mid-30s, like himself. Again a blue shimmer appeared, very faint, and disappeared. Ray followed his new subject for a few blocks, trying to work out what was happening. The shimmer was there for a minute, then went away. Ray realized it reappeared most when the tweaker was ranting furiously about something. He’s thinking of doing something bad, Ray thought. One minute he’s thinking about what-the-hell ever, nothing big, then his mind gets off-track, onto some path that’s going to get him killed. But it’s farther out, not something that may even happen today. Am I picking up on probability? How?

 

There was no way to prove Ray’s hunches, they were gut feelings and that could be the medication curbing his tendency towards self-doubt. That Thursday in the lobby of a tech start-up he mounted a long, fluid metal sculpture to the upper wall, the kind of art that announced welcome lucky client, you have just stepped into the future and kept looking down from his ladder at the receptionist. The blue shimmer was fading in and out around her, even fainter than the one around the tweaker. She looked sad. Was she having suicidal thoughts? Was that enough to make the shimmer appear? Not really something he could ask. By now Ray was very clear on the fact that no one else could see the shimmers, because multiple executives came out and spoke directly to her while they manifested. He did notice the effect appeared almost every time one of her many bosses approached her. When he finished his work, she told him it looked great. Ray smiled, and was happy that she instigated conversation. “Thanks. You know, you can probably find somewhere better than this, you should leave this job.”

 

If this advice from a stranger was welcome, it wasn’t reflected anywhere in the young woman’s face. In fact, he saw the shimmer again, briefly at least. Ray packed up and left quietly, wondering how else he could have handled that. Being a lot less obvious would have been a start. He started thinking instead about his appointment tomorrow, his first evaluation with Dr. Burana, and how that would go. It needed to go much better than this.

 

 

 

 

* * * 

 

 

“Have you experienced any unwanted effects, dizziness or maybe drowsiness?”

 

Doctor Burana picked up a clipboard which Ray imagined doctors to use, but he’d never seen her with one. Usually she’d talk with him, nod a lot, and make notes at the end of the visit. Ray was freaking the fuck out, but somewhere else. Another reality. Here in the patient room he was calm, almost bored to anyone observing, as he needed to be. He played out multiple scenarios in seconds, weighing each one to see if it was the right path to being prescribed more Ataraxitol. I saw an old guy keel over and die— twice was not the version that led to more of the medication. He had this blue vapor, or a shimmering around him, I could tell other people couldn’t see it was also a deal breaker. Burana didn’t strike him as someone who could be bluffed, so Ray opted for talking about the meds without any of the details that sounded like hallucinations.

 

“I don’t think I’ve had any side effects? It’s pretty interesting. I don’t exactly feel the panic attacks coming on… it’s like I feel that they would be happening, and even how bad they would hurt or scare me. But I stay normal. Like they weren’t allowed out of my head into the rest of my body. I’m probably not describing that well.”

 

Maybe he said too much. Ray had known friends who were addicts, one old roommate was the absolute worst at playing it cool when offered weed or even a drink. The roomie - Josh, not that it matters - would instantly go wide-eyed with flared nostrils and it was clear that whatever substance mentioned was all he hoped for. Ray was aiming more for I think these meds work, but I’m open to whatever you think, Doctor. You don’t tell Columbo your theory of how the murder you committed went down, the detective knows when you’re trying to plant ideas. There were so many outcomes where Burana would scratch out Ataraxitol and say ‘let’s try another approach,’ and normally they would all have Ray sweating bullets, but not today. Because he was on Ataraxitol.

 

“That sounds very promising. Like I told you before, I’ll be giving your comments to the pharmaceutical company since this isn’t in wide release yet, are you still fine with that?”

 

“Yeah, sure. Whatever they need.” Dial it back, that was too much. You almost drooled on her clipboard. 

 

“And obviously an important part of this is calibration– judging the dosage. So you felt at times like you might experience the heart-racing or tight chest like before, but it didn’t come? If that doesn’t describe your experience correct me, I don’t want to put words in your mouth.”

 

“That’s accurate though. I won’t lie, not having attacks would be enough but being able to tell that they’re being blocked? It’s a real relief.” Damn Ray, just grab the bottle and clutch it while rolling on the floor crying already, are you trying to make her cut you off?

 

Dr. Burana looked back down at her clipboard. “Your blood pressure that Tina took when you came in, it was 110 over 80.”

 

“Is that… not good?” Ray was mad with himself for still not knowing a good blood pressure reading after all these years of doctor visits. 

 

“It’s very good, actually. Usually when you come in it’s around 140, likely because you’re anxious about the visit. This is the first time you’ve ever given us the reading we like.” She smiled. Ray didn’t know if doctors were generally aware of how often they make concerned expressions when he would talk, but for her to make a genuine smile while talking about his health felt like a caffeine rush. He was so struck by it he barely noticed her unlocking a cabinet. From an upper shelf she produced another bottle.  Ataraxitol.

 

“I feel like we’re on the right track. I’m going to send you home with a month’s worth, same 10 milligram dosage, keep taking only one a day in the morning. But if anything feels out of the ordinary or strikes you as off, I want you to call my office and let me know right away.”

 

Ray felt like he was the one beaming now, but his reflection in the metal paper towel dispenser showed him only moderately satisfied. “Will do. Oh, I just remembered what I wanted to ask you. Does the clinic or maybe some group you know offer classes in CPR?”

 

Why did you say that before she handed you the bottle? What the fuck, Ray!

 

It made no difference, Burana handed him the meds anyway. “I’m fairly certain there’s a notice about classes at Reception. Do you know someone at risk that you’re concerned about? We could get them an appointment to be seen.”

 

“No, just an older neighbor of mine, he had an episode a while back. He goes to the V.A., I think he’s fine but I saw him yesterday and thought you know, why not learn it.”

 

“I wish everyone would think like that. So many bad outcomes could be averted if someone with knowledge were available quickly enough. If they can’t help you at reception leave my office a message and we’ll find you some options.”

 

“Thanks Doctor.”

 

 

 

 

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All the times Ray had imagined himself being in car crashes, drowning, falling out windows or dropping off narrow trails, as harshly detailed and nausea-inducing as they were in his mind, they were nothing before the sight of the small boy being pulled under the wheel of the delivery truck. It was the first thing in weeks that tore through his pervasive calm. Ray flinched in horror, a shout locked in the back of his throat. But when his eyes opened again, the child was still on the sidewalk. Still moving, still holding his ice cream cone. Still awash in a deep blue shimmer that clung to his form. Ray’s eyes went to the parents, arms full of packages and a folded umbrella stroller for when the child was ready to zonk out and nap. Each assumed the other was closer to their son, both had taken on too much at a busier intersection than they were used to. The massive parcel truck rolled into Ray’s line of sight, closing in tighter to the curb to make its turn before the light changed.

 

Ray shoved his cart out of his path as hard as he could. He launched himself forward as everyone around stood waiting for the walk signal. Maybe this was for nothing, maybe the medication was making him hallucinate after all. He was already closing the distance for an event that didn’t seem to be happening. Then the child shrieked with laughter and spun towards the street. His mother screamed his name and started dropping her bags, his father did the same with the stroller and daypacks he carried for the three. There were too many other pedestrians in the way for them to move far, while the boy darted around the legs with ease. He was looking back instead of the direction he was heading, as kids with little life experience will do. The truck closed in on the corner, the driver looking at the row of heads up high, his big side mirror blocking the view of anyone much shorter and now reaching the curb. 

 

The ice cream splattered on the street. The little boy stumbled off the curb and fell forward as the grill of the truck closed in. For a moment he seemed to hover, then rocked backward. Not enough time had passed for even his laughter to fully stop as he seemed to fly up and back, his foot barely tapping the truck’s mirror as the vehicle barreled on through the intersection. The child, dropping the empty waffle cone, fell into the crowd with Ray, who clutched the back of the boy's shirt as tightly as he could until they both landed on the sidewalk. Most of the crowd looked down in confusion, everything moving too fast for them to reverse-engineer the chain of events leading to a crying child on top of Ray, now releasing his grip. The parents knew. The boy’s mother was soon squeezing her son, sobbing much harder than the boy, the father was helping Ray up and then clutching his shoulders, a torrent of gratitude. A flurry of kind offers- can we take you out for dinner, drive you to your car, a reward, but Ray begged off, saying he really had to make it to another appointment, and rolled his scratched cart the longer way around the block to head back home. 

 

When he reached his apartment Ray pulled his gear in and paused, for how long he didn't know. As he processed the events of the past hour, he wasn't sure what he felt. Before, a brush with danger like that would have required a strong drink, usually combined with a hot bath and hours of listening to his special playlist of chill-out music. A normal reaction to a real experience, not a vague conceptual threat. But Ataraxitol was mitigating that too. What was it letting through instead? He didn’t need to calm down, but for the first time since taking the drug he wished he could have his usual responses. He wasn’t sure why.

 

After a few more minutes, Ray filled a pitcher of water, went outside, and poured it into the neighbor’s plants.

* * * * *