Blue Halo

A short story


Her eyes were deep, dilated, staring towards the ceiling above her two visitors’ heads. The common room was pleasant enough–old but clean. None of the neon lights were flickering, despite the author’s temptation to lend an ominous air of dysfunction to the mental institution that we find ourselves in at the beginning of this story.

‘Mum sends her love,’ said Pierre to his sister. She continued to stare at the ceiling, blinking rarely. Her pale blue dressing gown pooled around her as she sat with her slender hands raised up to her left shoulder maintaining her modesty.

Pierre’s friend Luc could not bring himself to look at her face. He fixed his gaze upon her neck, which simply drew his mind’s eye towards her concealed clavicles and the soft slopes of her shoulders. Let us not pretend that Luc is not in love with the girl sitting before him. His girl in blue.

Luc had spent his formative years with Pierre and Pierre’s sister Fleur, throughout school and into university. Fleur was a year younger than them both but had been moved up, due to her raging intellect. Luc and Fleur had started dating during their first semester at university. Pierre seemed ambivalent towards the relationship.

In fleetingly rare moments of apparent lucidity, Fleur spoke fondly of her teenage years but never did she reveal any memories of the two years of intimacy she and Luc had shared. Upon her admittance to her new home among the mentally ill, any trace of their relationship had seemingly evaporated. Even now, Luc’s anguish had barely waned.

‘Your halo is beautiful,’ were the four softly spoken words that broke Luc’s attentiveness to her neck. He raised his eyes and met her gaze. She was looking directly at him with the eyes of a younger woman, the eyes that had smiled at him when he asked her out to dinner for the first time. The eyes that had said yes.

Luc managed to splutter a ‘thank you’. Pierre’s reaction comprised of a broad grin and the words, ‘that’s nice of you sis. I don’t suppose I have one too?’

She didn’t seem to hear anything they had said, but continued to stare at Luc fondly. He found this both warming and unnerving. Was this really her or just a fiendish apparition?

‘I think it’s time we had to go, sis’, Pierre said jovially. ‘Is that ok? They’ll probably be kicking us out soon anyway. Heaven forbid we stay beyond visiting hours.’

He was always good at staying upbeat. Luc admired this about him. Pierre checked his watch and stood up with a cheerful grunt. Fleur broke eye contact with Luc. She began studying a blank piece of wall. Two hugs were dispensed, followed by expressions of endearment and promises to visit again soon. Fleur remained seated, passive.

‘Full of psychos this place, eh? Feel at home?’ whispered Pierre as they left the common room. It was characteristic of him to try and buoy Luc up with a dash of humour, inappropriateness be damned.

So, you know in those films where there’s some drug or something that speeds up your brain and lets you unlock all your crazy brain potential? Well, you know they actually invented that for real in our lab here on campus?’

The small group of freshers were crowded round a corner table, hanging on Pierre’s every word. He’d had a few drinks, none of which he’d had had to pay for. The first year students’ bursaries had not yet been depleted by the on-campus bar.

‘It didn’t work out like in the movies, though! Proper messed people up. I mean, it was great at the start. You got a nice high and they even recorded a ten percent increase in brain function in some people. That’s what got them so excited. Better brain function just through chemical manipulation with minor side effects. At least, that’s what they thought.’

Pierre had a way with words when in front of an audience. It wasn’t eloquence. It was, rather, the manner in which his oration grabbed everyone by the shoulders and shook them vigorously. He took a swig from his pint glass and splashed it back down on the table.

‘So the problem was that even if you got that ten percent boost, you would start degrading after a few weeks or months. It would be really subtle at first, but after a few months of human trials they had a nice little group of messed-up schizophrenics. Basically, it was like sticking a jet engine on a go-cart. The wheels just ended up flying off. Oh, and they code-named it Blu. B-L-U, without the ‘E’. A nice friendly name for a drug that basically does a massive dump on your brain.’

Most of the students were still hanging on every word, their mouths agape. They loved this kind of stuff and Pierre knew it. Pierre and Luc had graduated only two years earlier but had landed positions on the faculty. They liked to maintain aspects of their old student lifestyle, despite now being members of staff.

Pierre was always a hit with the new blood. He had an air of intelligence without pretence. Luc was, though, more intelligent than Pierre. Both intellectually and emotionally. He bore the greater curse.

Luc took a sip of his lemonade and shuffled out from beside Pierre while the story continued. Luc had heard it many times before. As he wandered over to a quieter part of the bar with his glass in hand, sober yet sleepy, he wondered whether Pierre would have the restraint to avoid telling those students about the more unsettling facets of the story.

Would he tell them that he was, in fact, writing an article denouncing the lead scientists on the research project? Would he tell them that his sister had been one of the first test subjects and that she resided in a mental institution with scrambled egg instead of a brain?

Would he tell them he had plans to sue the university? Would he tell them that he actually had a small stash of the drug at home which he had managed to steal just before human tests had begun?

Luc hoped Pierre would be delivering a short version of the story tonight. It would be safer for all involved. Truth be told, he didn’t think Pierre had the guts to sue the university, and he had repeatedly told Pierre to flush the Blu down the toilet. There was no sane reason to keep it around. It had been crazy of him to steal it in the first place.

But Pierre was his best friend, brother of the love of his life. That tended to complicate things.

The hospital waiting room chairs were incredibly uncomfortable. This was one of the many mundane facts about Luc’s current environment that had not crossed his mind. He was staring at a blank portion of the wall opposite–not an easy task, given the array of health-related posters clinging to the walls.

A middle-aged man slept awkwardly across three chairs below a poster exhorting the elderly to have their flu jabs and a smaller sign stating that violent behaviour towards members of staff would not be tolerated. Pierre’s mother sat next to Luc, pensive, drained of tears. Apart from her, Luc, and the sleeping stranger, there was nobody else in the waiting room.

The small section of blank wall became a canvas upon which Luc’s mind projected grainy memories. He was momentarily transported back to the end of his first year at university. An undeniably carefree summer of love, however trite the phrase may seem.

A beach. Pierre and Fleur. Bathing costumes and sunshine. The glitter of the waves. Luc’s arm around Fleur’s shoulders. She leans against him. Happiness. She wears a loose blue top hanging off her shoulders. Bikini straps showing. Collar bones glowing. Luc’s love growing. Pierre jesting. Luc and Fleur laughing. They kiss. Eyes linger. They know they will be together forever.

Luc’s dream was dismantled abruptly by the arrival of a doctor and nurse. The doctor began talking to Pierre’s mother and Luc felt like an outsider, as if he had slipped into another dream. The nurse sat down next to Pierre’s mother and extended a comforting arm around her.

She began to sob. Luc remained unemotional, detached, trying to work out how he should behave in the situation at hand. Pierre would know. Pierre would keep everyone buoyed up. They both really needed Pierre right now. But Pierre lay dead in the operating theatre not thirty yards away from the hospital waiting room.

Luc sat alone in his flat. His eyes were heavy from the lack of sleep. He had returned home in the early hours of the morning after spending the night staring at the walls of the hospital waiting room. A clear plastic bag containing a blue granular substance lay before him on his coffee-stained coffee table. He had a choice to make.

The official cause of death had been recorded as liver failure. Pierre’s liver had supposedly given up due to prolonged abuse of alcohol. Luc never saw Pierre as a binge drinker, though. It was strange. But what is there about death that is normal?

He remembered once having read in an academic journal about the poisonous effects of peanut mould on the human liver. With a high enough dose, it could kill. A perfunctory post-mortem would point towards generic liver failure. If the deceased had been known to drink regularly, alcohol abuse would certainly be near the top of the list of likely causes.

Why was he thinking about this? Did he think somebody had poisoned Pierre? He really did not have the energy to follow that line of reasoning to where it would inevitably lead.

Pierre should have flushed the blue stuff a long time ago. It had only ever caused trouble for Fleur. But even though Pierre’s actions may have seemed reckless, they sprang from genuine motives. Luc knew that Pierre had doubted the safety of the drug from the start, that he had questioned those running the project, and had even tried to stop his sister from taking part in the trials.

The choice that Luc now had to make was this: either try to forget the whole ordeal, put it behind him, flush the drug, and move on with his life–or finish what Pierre had started, expose the malpractice, share Fleur’s story, and forever live in fear of the repercussions.

Neither of these options seemed viable. In the state of mind that he was in, he only saw his own suicide at the end of each path. So he found another option.

Hands shaking, he reached for the bag of blue crystals. He tore it open and haemorrhaged its contents onto the table. He grabbed a fistful of the drug, brought it to his mouth, raised his head and swallowed it down through gritted teeth and wincing eyes, as if he were eating sand. He repeated this several times until most of the mess before him was depleted.

He began to shake more violently now, and tears seeped from his dilating eyes. His synapses would begin to fire more rapidly within minutes. The ingested chemicals would not take long to enter his bloodstream and reach his brain.

The massive self-administered dose would not let him enjoy enhanced lucidity for long, though. His consciousness would soon plummet off a cliff, deranged and lost in the void.

All he hoped for was the chance of seeing what she saw. He remembered the blue halo. He saw her face appear before his.

‘I’m coming,’ he said softly, the last words he would ever speak.

Thank you so much for reading. If you’re looking for another short read, try this…

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