A Bird In The Hand

It is after all, I must admit, entirely of my own doing, yet I somehow feel cheated out of what I was thinking would have most certainly been a bright future. All of what had transpired had occurred because I had recognised my own inability to do what I thought was both deserved and necessary. I take the mop and return to the hall.

It was my last three months of high school, that all important last series of exams on the horizon, and I was the certified dunce of my year as I had been for the previous eight or so. My father’s dire predictions of my future, or rather lack thereof, together with the efforts and cajoling of my teachers, had all seemed to fade into a background noise that sat as a fine mist over my life. I was not unpopular (after all, everybody needs somebody they can feel superior to) and my physical strength meant that I was not overly picked on. No brains, some brawn, that basically summed me up. Not that I cared. Friends, girls, going out, I was not bored and hadn’t really missed out in any of those respects. But as that final year and a half had dragged on I noticed that I was being left behind in conversations and had started to miss the point of jokes being told. Invited out less and less, I started to become the social outcast I had never been, and then to top it all off my father’s words started to get through to me. Now, coming to my seventeenth birthday, I felt as if my life was over before it had begun. It was only my new found despair that made me do what I did.

I don’t, as a rule, answer personal ads or even read the messages left on the Coles notice board. But that day, late in August, I would have sold my soul to the devil for an edge. In fact, I would have been much better off if I did.

It seemed harmless enough. Buried five columns deep in the personal ads of the local rag, it stated quite simply:

Underachiever at school? Want to earn a few dollars AND improve? Over seventeen? Educator requires subjects for an experimental treatment. Safety and results assured.

 Talk about a red rag to a bull, I couldn’t resist. I tore the ad out and, an hour later, presented myself at a large house in a slightly run down suburb on the other side of town. A quick check to make sure my clothes were straight and my fly was done up (I had been caught out once before like that), and I rapped on the door. Shortly it was answered by a man who, from my limited knowledge of such things, appeared to be at least eighty years old.

“Yes young man, how may I help you?” I didn’t trust him from the start – he was smiling and looked too much like my granddad.

I thrust the ad at him. “I’m here for this, have I got the right place?”

He looked at the ad as if he had never seen it before and, motioning me to follow him, went inside. “Yes” he commented as he closed the door behind him and started off down the corridor, “you certainly have come to the right address. But I must warn you, we don’t take just anyone you know, you have to qualify.”

My spirits sank. “Great” I moaned, “more exams. Look, I’m not here because I can do tests, I’m here because I can’t.”

He stopped and looked at me, a grin creasing his face. “I’m sorry” he started, “I didn’t mean to give you that impression. There are tests but not the ones you are thinking of. You see” he continued as we made our way into what I presumed was the library “we have had a number of people answering that ad, and others quite like it, who were just trying to improve on their already quite adequate skills. We are, however, only interested in those who do not have the mental ability to do well, not in the lazy or the over ambitious.” He motioned me to sit on the couch opposite him. He offered me a drink and something to eat from a small table beside him which, given my walk across town, I was more than willing to accept. I started to relax a bit as he continued on.

“Our research is designed to help those who cannot help themselves and may, in fact, be detrimental to anyone else. We have taken the opinion that as they can, and do, help themselves, it is the others who have the desire but not the ability that we are interested in. Hence the ad. It would be simple enough to find subjects and to carry out our treatment on them, but that would provide only half of what we are really after. We prefer our subjects to show enough desire to actually answer an ad and follow it through, and then we have to make sure that those subjects are, in a manner of speaking, that they are in possession of less than adequate mental facilities.”

“You mean you want thick people who aren’t lazy?”

“You could put it that way” he grinned “and that is what the ad and the tests I mentioned are for. To make sure that a subject is suitable. Now that you have answered the ad, we have a series of very simple tests that will tell us if you are suitable or not.” He uncrossed his legs and leant forward with what seemed to be great effort. “That is, if you’re still interested.”

Of course I was, did he think I was about to waste a trip across town? “Yeah, I still am, but the ad also mentioned that ….”

“Ah yes, of course, you want to know if you will be paid.”

I smiled rather sheepishly. My mother, god rest her soul, had taught me that it was not polite to mention money but my father had taken an altogether opposite view which had rubbed off on me. Still, I felt twinges now and then, particularly with older people around. “Well yes, that too” and I was trying to think quick to cover my embarrassment, “but I wanted to know how long all this will take.”

“Don’t worry about that” he assured me as he stood, “even if you don’t prove to be suitable we will still pay you for the time taken today to do the tests, and they should only take half an hour or so at most.”

It sounded quite reasonable. “And if I do pass the tests, then what?”

“Then we will start today. It will take three one hour sessions over the course of a half day or so, and the effects will start showing in about a week. We will need you to see us once a week for a month to check the results, all of which you will be paid for, and at the end of that you will walk away brighter and with a slightly heavier wallet.”

I was hooked then and there. Money for nothing, one days work and a few visits? I stood up hurriedly, spilling the last few crumbs of chocolate cake from my jeans onto the polished wooden floor. “Lets get started then!”

The first bit was easy, just filling out some forms. I had to start by lying, the old guy being adamant I had to be seventeen. Luckily for me I had worked out a false birth date so that I appeared seventeen, and he didn’t ask for any identification either. It wasn’t that long a form but he was watching and timing me as I went but hey, it was his money not mine. That over he cleared the small desk and placed a yellow plastic box, maybe 30 cm on a side, in front of me. On each side it had a rubber hand grip, and the top was angled towards me.

“Well now, this is the test proper” he announced. He made me sit closer to the desk and adjusted my arms and seat until I was looking squarely down on the angled top face of the box, one hand on each grip. “What you have in front of you is a sophisticated computer, and it is going to take you through a series of problems and exercises. You don’t need to write or say anything, all you have to do is try and work out the problems in your head. The machine will know how you are progressing as long as you keep hold of those grips, so whatever you do don’t let go. Don’t worry if it moves you onto another problem before you have an answer to the first, just take each one as they come. Any questions?”

“Can’t say that I have. All I do is think, right?”

“Right. I’ll be sitting over there” he said, pointing back to the couch across the room, “just monitoring your progress with this” holding what looked like a blue clipboard without paper on it to me. “Once the half hour is over this will give me the results and we will see what we will see. Ready to start?”

With a final look at me he touched the middle of the clipboard with his finger. With that, the yellow box in front of me developed a shimmering grey square on it’s angled top and my palms began to tingle slightly. I clung on and the grey rapidly faded away and was replaced by a picture of a stream, more like a photo, but in 3 D and with movement. On one side of the stream I could see a dog, a man, a chicken and a cat. On the other, nothing but grass. A soft voice appeared to come out of nowhere and stated:

“A man and his animals want to cross the stream. The man needs to carry the animals as they cannot swim, but he can only carry one at a time. If the man leaves the dog and the cat alone, the dog eats the cat. If the man leaves the cat and the chicken alone, the cat eats the chicken. How can the man and his animals cross the stream without any animals being eaten?”

As I tried to think of solutions, the characters on the screen did exactly as I was thinking. Unfortunately for the chicken I was not too good with that one, and the second problem came around quickly. And that’s the way it went. Some problems were similar to that one, some were spot the difference or the similarity, some were things I did not recognise. A few were simply patches of colours from which my imagination ran riot, one in particular making even me blush as it transformed itself on the screen. I didn’t think I went too well, although it was fun, and after what I thought was a too short period of time I was back drinking coffee on the couch and waiting for the result. He stared at the clipboard for a minute or so, and then looked up at me with a smile.

“You tried very hard with that, I’m pleased, it’s a good sign. As for the result, well, I’d better give you a bit of an idea how the score is worked out. It’s not quite your IQ test” he began, crossing his legs, “but the computer actually looks at not only your answers but how you tried to reach those answers, the way you think, and the way you understand or don’t understand the questions being put. It actually rates how your whole brain system operates, not just one part of it. In the end it gives you a score from zero to 200, a score of 100 being normal for a person of your age, and a score of 75 is just on the lower limits of being normal. If you get 75 or above we can’t help you.”

I was crestfallen. Obviously I’d gotten more than 75.

“I’m sorry I wasted your time” I said as I stood up, “I’ll go now.”

The old man jumped up as if someone had electrocuted him. “No, it’s not like that” he cried, placing one hand on my shoulder and gently pushing me back down onto the couch. “We’ve waited a long time for someone like you to respond – in fact, we weren’t even sure you would be able to read the ad! You see my boy, you only scored 45! You are about as close to being mentally retarded as you can be and still function nearly normally. We want you to start right away.”

I smiled. Finally I had won something for being dumb.

The rest of the day went fast. We moved into a small room on the first floor, sparsely furnished save for a deeply upholstered chair in one corner and a straight backed wooden chair and roll top desk in the other. For three of the next five hours I sat in that upholstered chair wearing a helmet and glasses and listening to strange voices and watching a parade of colours pass before me. The old guy just sat at the desk with the clipboard, occasionally touching it here or there and murmuring gently to himself. As each session wore on I felt more and more drained until, at the end of the last, I felt as if I had gone twelve rounds with Mohammed Ali.

“You’ve taken to the treatment really well” he stated confidently as we made our way downstairs, “even from session to session there has been an improvement, although you would not be aware of it, and I think in a week you will be surprised.” He held open the door for me and offered me his hand. “There are two things that still bother me though” he said.

“Oh, what?”

“Well, for a start I know that you are not quite seventeen yet and that you lied on the application form, but we thought that someone who could make that sort of effort to be an experimental subject must be keen.”

I looked down at my shoes, slightly ashamed of being caught out.

He smiled. “And you also seem to have neglected to ask me what we would be paying for your time. That’s a rather large oversight, don’t you think?”

It was my turn to grin. “I guess that compared to the chance to get smarter the money doesn’t seem so important. Not now anyway.”

“But a deal is, after all, a deal” he commented, pressing a few bills into my left hand. “We will see you next Saturday here at 4:30 pm” with which the door closed.

I started noticing changes after two days. Only in small things, but they were things I usually got wrong anyway. At first it was only my memory. Dad found me on Tuesday night putting the garbage out.

“Hey,” as his hand alighted on my shoulder, “the garbage night isn’t until Wednesday son.”

“But they said on the radio the rosters had changed this week and we were Tuesday.”

“Hmmm” he mused, “I’d forgotten about that, good thing you remembered. It’s not like you, remembering things.”

“Maybe I’ve just started to take more notice now” I offered.

“Well, it’s about time” he smiled, “I’m glad to see it. Try and make it a habit eh?”

I couldn’t help but make it a habit. I started to remember my chores around the house, and for the first time I could remember Dad wasn’t on my back for this or that. I got my Aunt Tilly’s birthday right too, and sent her some flowers with part of the money I’d made. I started to feel much better about myself, and mentioned this on my first follow up visit Saturday. The old guy was, as usual, full of smiles.

“That’s a very good sign you know” he said across his coffee. Even if I didn’t have too I’d come back just for the chocolate cake. “Shows that your mind is working better, recalling facts, operating properly. You should start seeing your intelligence and problem solving skills improving now.”

School work started to make sense to me, and instead of sleeping in class I was trying to make sense of what was going on around me. It was no revelation, no sudden influx of knowledge – I had eight years of work to catch up on, and although I was starting to see through the gloom I was still so far behind. I started spending morning and afternoon tea breaks and lunches in the library studying, something that gave old Mrs Lynch the school librarian, the willies. She accosted me the first day at the borrowing desk.

“And just what, young man” she vented at me, “do you think you are doing here?”

I peered out from behind the stack of books I was carrying. “Just studying a bit, that’s all.”

“Hmmff. Your reputation precedes you and this would have to be the first time you have darkened this doorway! I’ll be keeping my eyes on you. I don’t need troublemakers in here, the first sign from you and you are out, understand?”

I nodded. Of course I understood, I had always understood, only now I could remember.

I kept improving, but as I did I started to realise the enormity of the task before me. With less than two months to go I had to cram all of my school studies into that and face the final exams. And, I now knew, all I would end up being was normal for my age. On my second last visit I fronted the old man with this.

“Not quite” he stated, again looking at me paternally, “you are showing a great deal of improvement and we feel you will be above average once we are through. In fact, we will give you another test on our last visit to make sure of exactly what progress you have made. But in any event you need to look at how you will be compared to how you were, and I am sure that you will agree with me that compared to what you were a month or so ago you are so much more capable. I am not even sure if you would recognise yourself if you looked back.”

“It’s not that I’m ungrateful” I countered “but I need to catch up on what I have missed, and quickly. I have only got a month and a half to get the results and if I fail that’s the end of me.”

“Surely not. You are able to repeat your final year? Your father would allow it?”

“Yes, but another year! All my friends would have left and I’d be on my own, not to mention how it would look on my results card.”

“Ah, the impetuousness of youth.” He settled further into his chair. “One more year may seem like an eternity to you but be assured, your results at the end of it will more than make up for the extra time. You must learn to be patient, as we have been. Nothing is done properly that is done in haste.” He raised himself to his feet with what seemed to be a great effort and guided me to the door. “Do not forget to return in a week, and we will see what our efforts have produced.”

I returned on time but I came back as a far more troubled young man. What he had said did of course make sense, but that was of little value to me. All I could see was that I would again be left behind and I would be labelled ‘slow’ or ‘dumb’, something that I felt offended and wounded by. I knew what a stigma was by now, and I had no desire to have one. I had earned the right to progress now rather than later, and after a decade of being last of all my class mates I most deserved to pass through that final set of exams. As I lay awake on my bed that last Friday night, I devised my plan to make sure I would do so.

So on that final Saturday I presented myself to the old man and went through the series of tests with the yellow box. They were different this time, and I found no trouble in working my way through them. Upon completion I was told that, far from the 45 I was four weeks ago, I now was sitting on a score of 110, over average but not brilliant. I feigned delight with this; the old man’s was genuine.

“Marvellous” he gushed, “that is just about as good as we could expect to get. The improvement will assure you of a slightly above normal mental capacity and yet will not draw undue attention to yourself. That, you must realise,” he explained as we made our way downstairs, “is of the utmost importance to us.”

He continued as we stood on the porch and he locked the door behind him, “You must make sure not to show off your new found abilities too much. At best people will think you a charlatan for pretending for so long, or at worst a liar and a cheat, and the last thing we want is that sort of attention coming upon ourselves. Once you have obtained your final results your life should be far better than you had envisioned before.”

We strolled over to where his car was parked. He examined his watch carefully “Now I must leave you as I have to make arrangements for our departure. We leave tomorrow, never spend too long in any one place.” He continued on as he closed the car door behind him and put the key in the ignition, “You would obviously understand that people get suspicious very quickly of an old man seeing so many young boys and girls on a regular basis. May I offer you a lift to town?”

I pretended to mull the offer over. “No thanks, I think the walk does me good, but I appreciate the offer. And thanks again for the treatments.”

“Our pleasure” he replied as the car moved past me. I waited until it had rounded the corner and then made my move. I turned and ran back to the house until I was standing under the first floor window of the room in question. After taking a few deep breaths I clambered up the adjacent drainpipe until, straddling the pipe and with one hand on the ledge, I jemmied the old window lock with my free hand and pocket knife. It took less than two minutes for the whole thing, and as I stood breathless in the room I noticed the helmet, glasses and clipboard opposite me on the desk. Taking hold of them both, I slipped the helmet on and, keeping the glasses on my knees as I sat in the chair, examined the clipboard. As I had thought, it contained no paper but had the same semi luminous quality that the yellow box had. I examined it closely and, seeing a slight indentation to the left, placed my finger on it. Instantly the centre of the clipboard displayed a list of names, mine being towards the middle. Next to it was a green and red square and a scrolling bar gauged from one to ten. Looking all the world as a computer touch screen I moved the bar from one to ten.

“Accelerated programme test subject ten commences in ten seconds” a lilting voice announced in my head, and I hurriedly put on the glasses and sat back.

Half an hour later it was over. Although more intense than I had recalled the previous sessions I felt none the worse, except for mild pangs of guilt at having been forced to deceive the old man. Putting the helmet and clipboard back where I had found them, I exited in the same manner as I had entered and made my way home confident that I was now equipped to get what I deserved. My only question was how quickly I would see the effects, and if that would be quick enough for the exams.

That I night I slept fitfully, and the following day seemed to disappear in a faint haze of noise, jumbled and lost to me. That following night the nightmares and sweats started, but the following day boded ill as my memory started to fail me again. I thought this to be just a side effect, a passing phase that would not last, but as the days wore on it became gradually worse. One week after that last visit I had hardly slept, my nights being filled with demons and horrors from my imagination, my days being a mad mix of half forgotten memories, shattering headaches and times where I was at a loss to understand any spoken word. At school I was useless, at home avoided, and it was all I could do on that Friday to drag myself back across town, back to the house where it had all started.

Maybe it was due to the lack of sleep or perhaps the pain in my head that was now my constant, boisterous companion, that I stood there for what seemed ages staring at the vacant, weed tangled lot without comprehension. When it slowly dawned on me that I was looking at the place where that neat, two storey house had stood only a week ago, and I in it, and that all it held were waist high weeds and tangles of bougainvillea and oleander, my world seemed to tilt off axis. I looked around to make sure I was where I thought I was and, confirming that, ran across the road to the house opposite. Pounding on the door with both fists I was greeted by a sour faced woman with a child in her arms.

“Hey, hey, quit the bangin’ I’m here” she shouted opening the door, “whatya want anyway?”

“The old house across the road” I panted, “when did they move it? Where did it go?”

“What house? Are you nuts? Nobody’s built on that, dunno if it’s even owned.”

“But I was there, last week, with the old man, you must have seen him!”

“I know everyone here, and there ain’t no old man, and there sure as hell isn’t any old house.” She was getting agitated and the child started to whine.

“But there has to be!” My chest was tightening and I felt the taste of my own bile in my mouth. “I was there, I talked with him and we ate cake in his front room and it was there! Dammit” I shouted at her as I grabbed the door frame for support as my legs threatened to give way, “it was there!!”

“I’ve been here twenty bloody years” she screamed, the child adding to it in a rising credenza, “and there has never been anything on it. I don’t know what sort of shit you’re putting in your arm but if you’re not gone in ten seconds I’m getting the police!” with which the door slammed in my face, catching my fingers with it.

I stumbled across the yard and ran down the street, my head thundering with pain, unable to accept what I had seen. By the time I had reached the bridge that led back to my part of town my despair had deepened as reality sunk in. I had had the chance to be a normal, average person with some small future but my greed and pride had made me reach too far. There was no hope of a cure, for now it seemed all trace of the old man and the house had been wiped from the face of the earth, and I was doomed to revert to my former, if not a worse, state, and permanently.

I leant heavily on the rail to keep my balance as my head grew worse and my body started to shake uncontrollably. I gazed down at the water below and realised that what I had feared most would now happen, that I would form part of the human refuse that others look down upon. There was no exit, no relief from my pain, none that could give me solace. I clambered onto the rail and, without a backwards glance, cast myself out and down.

I have been told that it was blind chance that saved my life that day, that the fisherman on the river bank happened to be somewhat proficient in CPR, and that her mobile phone was working. They say I didn’t breathe for two and a half minutes, and it was only the constant mouth to mouth that kept my brain alive. All I know is that, a month later, I awoke in a hospital bed.

Since then I have been the same, mentally, as I was those years ago when I answered the ad. If anything, I read and write far worse than I did, and have greatest trouble remembering even the most mundane things. Worse, as a result of my jump I have lost the use of my left side above the waist and my nightmares, although far less frequent, always end with me drowning. I never did sit the final high school exams either. But I am alive, and I suppose that is a positive point, and my job is (barely) within my abilities. Heck, even I can be a janitor, and I have lists for each day’s work.

But that month and a half I can never forget. I have tried to find that old man, and have kept a sharp eye on the papers, but have not seen sight nor sound of him. I watch the vacant block for a potential reappearance, and have fruitlessly worn out my welcome at the Council and Titles Office hunting for its owner. Vacant and unowned it seems to have always been, and seems more likely to ever more remain so, but I know for a short while back there it was neither. I have even gone so far as to talk to the people out at the University, but they deny that any such person or research programme existed. They usually laugh at me when I describe the yellow box, clipboard or helmet, saying I have been watching too much Star Trek or spending too much time at the pub. At times I even doubt what happened, but I am certain otherwise. And of the treatments, today I have nothing.

Well, not quite. Although I have never been interested in such things, ever since that time I have been spending more and more of my evenings on my back, gazing at the stars, wondering. And with my next weeks pay packet I will finally be able to pick up the telescope I have on lay-by at DJ’s. I can’t help but feel it’s all to do with those past events. I have even heard the voices lately too ……………..

The End

4 thoughts on “A Bird In The Hand

  1. I’ve not read Flowers for Algernon so I can’t comment on that.
    I enjoyed this but i’m not sure about the last paragraph. It seems somehow tacked on to point the reader in the direction of the stars. IMO that’s not necessary.
    The woman’s voice doesn’t ring true to me. I think it needs to be more different from the protagonists voice.


    1. Thanks for your comments Fred. My character ‘voicing’ has been a weak point for a while, I’m starting to draw them out more distinctly now. This story is one of my very earlier efforts and yes, you picked the ending up correctly. Ciao, Ish


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