The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Andy Nowicki’s new novella, Under the Nihil, which Counter-Currents is publishing later this month.
When I opened my eyes the next morning and saw you standing before me, Mr. X, I didn’t at all wonder who you were; I didn’t care. What occupied my mind were two very different questions, rooted in my palpable sense of extreme bitterness: I wondered how long you had been standing there before my creaky hospital bed, and more importantly, when would you at long last leave?
I closed my eyes, pretending not to have noticed you. I feigned a return to sleep, thinking you might just go away, whoever you were, but felt your unwanted presence lingering all the while.
Just think, Mr. X! You could have scampered off at that moment, and all the trouble incurred by you and yours could have been avoided. But you stayed where you were—an implacable force, not easily to be willed away, and I groaned inwardly at your damnable tenacity. When I opened my eyes again, your smiling face infuriated me; I would have spat into it, had I the energy or the necessary saliva. But my mouth felt as dry as Christ’s, so I just scowled.
You were, of course, utterly unmoved by my grouchiness; you took it in stride, pretending not to notice. You called me by my name, and introduced yourself, not by name but by corporation, whose name you also declined to mention. You said you were from a privately-run organization which sometimes consulted for the interests of American security. I think I snickered a little at that, in my feeble, sickly way, and you nodded apologetically.
“I know it sounds a little ‘cloak and dagger,’” you allowed, “but it’s actually pretty boring work most of the time. Wish I could tell you I was James Bond or Jack Bauer or whoever, but nope . . . Just a mid-level paper-pusher, I’m afraid. Not much to see here, folks, move along!”
I remained silent, scowl unabated, but you refused to be daunted.
“I know you’re not a man for small talk,” you said, “so I won’t insult your intelligence. And I know you are a man of very high intelligence, by the way, which is part of the reason why I’m talking to you now . . .”
I said nothing, pursed my lips, narrowed my eyes. Though I wouldn’t admit it, my curiosity had started to assert itself. I still wished you would go away, but I also wanted to know just what exactly you wanted of me. You’d probably banked on my interest being piqued at this point; you could no doubt glimpse the gears of my brain starting to turn, no matter how hard I tried to arrest their infernal rotation, to cease to care about anything, to become one with the free fall, the eternal death drop. Much as I strained against it, I still in fact did care, and the persistence of my interest drove me to a kind of impotent, fumbling anger; I raised my hand and tried to wave you away, petulantly, like a childish, emasculated, deposed autocrat trying desperately to assert the authority he knows he’s lost.
You chuckled lustily at my ridiculous gesture, and I’ve never hated you more than I did at that moment. I am sure I would have murdered you, in fact, had I the means and the physical strength just then. You told me that you would “get out of my hair” at that point, perhaps sensing that you’d worn out your welcome, even though in fact I’d never welcomed you in the first place. You left a card on my dresser, strolled to the door, then turned to face me one last time.
“Give me a call when you’re feeling up to it,” you said. “Maybe we can come to some kind of agreement, one that may be lucrative for you and beneficial for me and those who sent me . . .”
I giggled mirthlessly at your attempt at enticement with the adjective “lucrative”—of all the forces that fought for possession of my soul at that moment, lust for lucre was certainly not one of them. You smiled at my bitter laughter, as if both of us were in on the joke, before wishing me well and taking your leave.
* * *
In your immediate absence, I pulled my covers over myself and scoffed and harrumphed loudly and ostentatiously, as if you were still there and would somehow feel wounded by my overwrought, dismissive mannerisms. You cut such a ridiculous figure, talking aw-shucks-it’s-not-cloak-and-dagger-or-anything-like-that while you stood in your impeccably casual clothes with your charming smile, except I’m not a woman or a fag, so I wasn’t taken in by your good looks and your fashion sense and the gaudy class ring on your finger from your Ivy League college. The Big Man on Campus bearing, incongruously clashing with the foot-shuffling false modesty, really made an unbearably insufferable combination.
Yet if you were ridiculous in your handsome uninvitedness, I cut a far more ludicrous figure, lying abed in my poseurish mental patient garb, all fanged and dangerous on the exterior, but a shivering little puppy dog beneath my hospital straitjacket.
And again the curiosity arose: what in the world does Big Man want with Little Boy?
Of course, you were cockily self-assured that I’d go along with your “lucrative” scheme, whatever it was, but what was in it for you? That question had me stumped. And much as I wanted to throw your card away without even looking at it, just to spite your arrogant assumption of my interest in joining forces, I found that I couldn’t pass up the forbidden knowledge implied in your offer. I needed to know exactly what made you feel the need to condescend to appear in my hospital room, a redemptive, resplendent deity gracing a wretch like me with the present of his immaculate presence.
So you stayed in my heart, Mr. X. And through the following days of my so-called “recovery,” I made sure not to lose your card, which, when I examined it more closely, proved to have nothing inscribed upon it except a telephone number. No name was engraved, nor was there a name of any “security consulting firm.” I began to wonder if I were the victim of some kind of prank, before realizing that I didn’t even care—in fact, I welcomed the prank; I tipped my hat (though I wore no hat, which made the gesture all the more fitting) to you at that point, a handsome, successful man evidently getting his jollies from “punking” the loser defrocked would-be priest-cum-demented freak. Reality TV gold, surely! More ballsily tasteless than bum fighting on YouTube! Hell, count me in, I decided; I’m so there!
I called the number on your card, with the notion of punking the punkers, of pretending to be ignorant of the setup, biding my time, then springing it upon you that I’d in fact known the score all along.
And behold! That’s exactly what I did! Dig me, the usurping fiend, daring to disturb the universe; kicking ass and taking names! Before your buddies with hidden cameras jumped out from behind a curtain, I jumped out on all of you . . . Revenge of the freak.
* * *
After getting discharged from the ward, my first act as a “free” man was to call the phone number written on that blank card of yours. You answered after two rings, greeting me like an old friend; I got the impression that my call went directly to a cellphone which had been purchased for the express purpose of me calling it; otherwise, how could you have known it was me? Yet you did, and I didn’t question the circumstance. I had a role to play here, and I’d play it to everyone’s satisfaction: I was the Unsuspecting Victim, who in truth suspects his victimization all along.
You asked if I’d had a chance to think over your proposal. I said there’d been no “proposal,” as such, made—merely vague talk of mutually beneficial activities and “lucre.” You laughed at that, and asked when might be a good time to meet and talk. I told you that my schedule, surprisingly enough, looked quite open for the next couple of decades. You laughed again, and I wanted to tell you to shut the hell up, but didn’t.
We met for supper the next night. It was “your treat,” you said. You gave me the address of an expensive restaurant that I’d never heard of, and I met you there. You were dressed to the nines this time, in a fine, double-breasted suit; I looked like a homeless person, in rumpled, stained rags. The contrast could not have been more marked; we were an odd couple: the have, and the have-not; the sane, worldly, important Prince of the Universe, and the soiled, shaggy Nowhere Man.
The hostess led us to a private booth, and handed us our menus. I ordered the least expensive item, which caused you to regard me quizzically, asking if that were really all that I wanted. I nodded, and you shrugged.
“Suit yourself,” you said. “Remember, it’s on me.”
The food arrived; we ate in silence, the din of happy, convivial, rich people soaking through the booth’s partitions, along with the clatter of fine plates, the popping of corks, the tinkling of glasses, the bubbling exuberant splashes of expensive wine being poured. Finally, obeying the promptings of an inner impulse, I asked you directly:
“Who are you, and why are we here?”
You took this pointed query in stride, as always.
“____,” you said (calling me informally by my first name with an over-familiarity that set my teeth on edge), “you can gather that the world has changed a great deal in the last decade or so.”
This seeming non-sequitur caught me up short, I’ll admit, but I sat silently, prompting you to continue:
“The War on Terror was joined with great enthusiasm after September 11th, 2001, but as the years have gone by, it’s become something of a tough slog . . .” Your careful, patrician voice just then betrayed your Kennedyesque Bostonian accent, which I hadn’t detected before; you pronounced “terror” as “terr-ah” and “slog” as “slaagh,” which struck me as funny, but I didn’t laugh; I just nibbled at my food. I wasn’t terribly hungry.
“One of the difficulties,” you continued, “is inherent (‘in-haah-rant’) in the very nature of the enemy.” You leaned close, for the first time projecting an almost boyish excitement.
“Imagine,” you said, “the mindset of the suicide bomber (‘baah-mah’). What makes that guy tick? What can you do against a guy like that, someone who wants to die? You kill him, so what? He was gonna die, anyhow . . . He’s got nothing to lose! Why does he do it? Is it because he’s just horny for those seventy-two beautiful virgins that await him in Heaven? Or is that just a cop-out on our part? I mean, maybe we just go on about the vah-gins because we want to lower the enemy to our level . . .
“I mean, geez, how to handle that: an enemy who aims to die, and to take as many of us down with him?”
You evinced an obvious admiration for the standard-issue jihadist, which startled me a little. If I’d really pondered the matter, it would have struck me the way it does now, the fact that you really seemed to envy those guys. I had no idea how your discourse and observations bore upon me, however, and I asked you to clarify why any of this was important or relevant to why you and I were sitting in this private booth, eating expensive food on your gracious dime. You rubbed your lip with your cloth napkin, unbuttoned your suit jacket, as if to indicate that we were finally getting down to the nitty-gritty.
And once more, you called me by my first name.
“_____,” you said. “I know you’ve been through a lot. Now, I’m not judging you, or anything (here you raised your arms, palms out, in a kind of “Please don’t shoot me” gesture—which was odd, under the circumstances) . . . I don’t judge. We don’t judge. But a man in your position must know what it’s like to have been put through the ringer (‘ring-ahh’). Not unlike our boys at the front, eh?”
I took a sip of water (I’d refused to order a drink to accompany my relatively cheap meal), and mumbled that I didn’t really know about that—nobody’d shot at me or tried to blow me up; I still had all of my limbs, and wasn’t being carted around in a wheelchair. You nodded vigorously, as if to say, “Sure, sure—don’t misunderstand me or anything!” But even if I were something akin to a wounded or psychologically scarred soldier, I still failed to see the significance or relevance.
And then, do you know what you did, Mr. X? You again called me by my first name! Holy hell . . . for a bureaucratic bigwig, you sure could come on like a cheesy little salesman! I mean, three times with the first name intro! Now, looking back, I wonder: were you trying to make me despise you by aggravating my chagrin at your backslapping “we’re-just-two-regular-guys-talkin’-here” pretense? Was it all carefully calculated? Did you want to press my buttons?
If so, do you have any second thoughts, considering where it all led?
“____,” you said, “I’ll get right to the point. “Brevity is the soul of wit, after all, so let me be brief.” You leaned close, really close, inducing me also to bend my head forward, my irritation notwithstanding.
“We’re losing this war,” you said, in a voice barely above a whisper.
I nodded solemnly, thinking that this was an appropriate response to such a portentous revelation. In my mind, of course, I’d grown far beyond caring about the meaning behind the words. I didn’t feel possessed in the least to care about a bunch of camo-clad GIs facing off against a lot of grubby ragheads against a blandly arid backdrop teeming with sand and cracked earth. It failed to capture my interest who was “winning” and who “losing” this grim game of grab-ass in the dust.
“Yes. We are,” you insisting, nodding emphatically as if you had been challenged on this point by an invisible heckler. “I don’t care what you’ve heard on the news about ‘surge’ this or ‘tah-garted strike’ that . . . I’m telling you, we’re losing. And I’ll tell you why, although this is just my opinion, of course. It’s because, what have we really got to fight for? Our freedom? Yeah, sure; that’s all well and good; I don’t demean it, but who gets all hot and bah-thahed over ‘freedom’? It’s way too obscure and highfalutin’ a concept. But our enemy? Well, they may not have our superior weaponry, but hell’s bells, who needs it; they’ve got Allah! I mean, who the hell cares why they’re stuck in the Stone Age with this untenable ideology and this death wish? And don’t give me that bleeding heart gah-bage about pah-varty breeding hopelessness; hell, most of the 9/11 gang were from well-off families! But they still want to die, and they still want to take a big chunk of us down with ’em.”
Brevity was certainly not the soul of your wit, Mr. X . . . but it was okay, because what you were saying now somewhat intrigued me. I thought to myself: faith. Faith can move mountains, or demolish them, if need be. Faith destroyed two implacable, imposing skyscrapers not too long ago, brought all of that abundant glass and steel tumbling into the fiery dust of the earth. A man with faith has nothing to lose, does not set his life at a pin’s fee.
Suddenly I saw your point, Mr. X. I saw why the camel-riding ragheads would win and the camo-rocking, hip-hopping GIs would lose—one side wanted to die, while the other side only wanted to live. And death beats life every time. Check and mate.
“So, here’s where someone like you can be of sahr-vice,” you continued, your voice still brimming with enthusiasm.
There were, you proceeded to tell me, many officials in high places who were well aware of this dilemma, this quandary facing the fighting forces in their struggle against the enemy. This absence of motivation to fight to the finish, as it were. A lot of options were being looked into, including, of course, drug treatments. This was all, needless to say, top secret, you added, looking hurriedly to your left and your right, which amused me.
You hastened to clarify that not everyone in the “corri-dahs of pow-ah” knew about these experiments. And you said you would adamantly deny any knowledge of any such program, were you directly asked in any official, on-the-record sort of way.
As of now, you informed me, the most promising medication was an experimental compound called nihil.
“I can’t tell you how or why it works, to the extent that it does work,” you said. “And I’m not at liberty even to say what nihil is composed of, chemically speaking.” You pronounced nihil the same way one does the river in Egypt, on which Death stalked the dwellers of the cruise ship in that famous Agatha Christie novel. The nihil was so named, you said, because it had been designed to dissolve one’s fear and apprehension in the heat of battle, to render one’s natural inhibitors ineffective; in essence, its function was to reverse God’s miraculous creative gifts, and render nothing out of something, rather than vice versa.
Of course, the drug, once approved, would only be used for select missions involving extreme danger, you emphatically insisted, and it would never be administered without a soldier’s written consent. It would be a slippery slope, you sagely owned, to allow any exceptions whatsoever to this iron-clad rule. But if a drug like nihil could be perfected, it would provide an invaluable service for our fighting men and women.
“Imagine!” you declared, growing excited again. “I mean, just imagine it! We could match their resolve, without having to become like them. We could transform into fierce birds of prey, hawks of death, while eschewing all of this Dark Age crap about Allah and jee-hahd and seventy vah-gins, and all of that other gah-bage.”
The fruits of faith, together with the luxuries of faithlessness, I pondered to myself.
Once the subject of the mysterious substance nihil had been broached, the rest of the matter soon tumbled forth of its own accord. As one who’d recently suffered mental anguish, yet was still legally sane, I’d been set upon as a promising potential lab rat. You put the offer right on the table at that point, Mr. X: the nameless company with which you (a nameless man) worked was willing to pay all of my expenses for an indefinite amount of time. I would be very kindly taken care of, you said; all of my bills and my rent would be subsidized in full, and I’d also receive a very generous weekly stipend (this being the “lucrative” bit), and all I would have to do is take my daily pills.
Of course, I would also have to consent to being watched at all times: a video camera would be set up in every room of my apartment, and a microphone on my person would record every exchange I ever had with anyone. I’d have to forfeit my privacy totally, you told me solemnly. “We’re gonna have an eye or an ear on you at all times; when you’re in the bathroom, when you’re gettin’ laid, what have you . . . I want to make that very cleah. We need to constantly observe your behavior. If you go out, we’ll have people following you, keeping track of every little thing you do—they’ll accompany you to the grocery store, to the whorehouse, what have you . . . We need to see what becomes of you—any personality changes, lifestyle changes, shifts in temp-rah-ment, what have you. Every jot and tittle. Nothing left to the imagination. We don’t do imagination. We’re not ahh-tists; we’re men of Fact . . .”
I nodded, fascinated though repulsed. You went on to emphasize that the drug was experimental that there were assuredly possible dangers, and likely long-term side-effects. The organization would assume no responsibility for any unfortunate development, “though we will take care of you to the best of our ability and means,” you added. I snickered at that; I couldn’t imagine that your means were in any sense limited, if you really were who you claimed to be.
It should be noted that I never, even once, asked how you found me and why, of all the other unhappy men in the nation, you chose me for this particular test case. I figured that people like you simply had your ways. And I knew I was no one special. I wasn’t going to flatter myself to think otherwise. Moreover, such concerns for some reason struck me as juvenile and utterly superfluous. Why me? Why not me?
I agreed on the spot to be your lab rat. You told me I should probably think it over a bit first. I thought of Adam when he plucked the fruit from the tree and held it in his hand—was being bold enough to go that far not the first original sin? Was choosing even to consider the choice of disobeying God’s one commandment not the real point of no return? Why pussyfoot around when you’ve already been ballsy enough to think the unthinkable? You’re pretty much there already . . .
I told you I would get back to you with my answer in a few days, but in fact it was just a formality, so as not to appear rash; I had already made up my mind.
* * *
There followed a bit more talk that night, talk about how I need to understand that nothing would ever be in writing, but that if I agreed to be the guinea pig, the checks would immediately begin sweeping into my mailbox. Sure enough, after I formally said “yes,” my first check was FedEx-ed to me that very night. Each time, I received a personal check, with a different name engraved and signed. Some of the names were utterly laughable: there was a “Grand Moff Tarkin,” a “Helena Troy,” a “Luce Sopher,” a “Clubber Lang.” Yet each time I took the check to the bank, it cleared instantly.
I suddenly found myself with a surplus of money, more funds than I knew what to do with. And naturally, I did nothing with them at first. My mother and sister had left a few voicemail messages from time to time, expressing their concern, and of course, their willingness to help in any way possible. “Don’t be a stranger!” my mom said once, although she sounded more sternly admonishing than friendly. I emailed them both back, saying I was doing well, that I’d found a job and met a girl, that things were actually going quite smoothly for once. I refused actually to call or speak directly with anyone in my family, fearing what I might say in my bitter scorn and contempt for all aspects of my former life, particularly disdain for my silly servility as a boy; whether my mental slavery had found expression towards my parents, towards my siblings, or towards the Church, I found it absolutely useless now; beyond useless, in fact—thoroughly contemptible. I now wanted both to laugh and to vomit in all of their smug little faces, sear them with my demonic rage, yet prudence dictated that it would be best simply to keep my distance from them.
There came a knock on my door one day; it was the maid service, supposedly: a group of plump, matronly women who spoke only broken English. They were here to “clean,” they said; I needed to take my leave for an hour or so. I understood immediately that they’d come to install cameras. I obediently left, took a walk in the wretched cold (it had snowed the night before, and a hard freeze was now in effect). When I came back, my apartment was clean and spotless, and the “maids” were gone. I was given to understand that my privacy had been utterly compromised; a camera had been mounted at some unknown spot in every room, and a hidden, microscopic microphone had been implanted on all of my clothes. I would be seen and/or heard wherever I went, just as you promised, Mr. X.
The next day, the first bottle of pills came in the mail. I was instructed to “take one in the evening and one in the morning, as needed.” Of course, nothing on the bottle indicated that I held in my hand anything other than a standard painkiller, as opposed to a fear-killer. I flashed again to Adam in the Garden (or as you would say, Mr. X, the “gah-daan”) as I took out the first tiny pellet and popped it in my mouth.
And immediately, it happened: nothing. [. . .]