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Little Monsters



Adam Gardner hadn’t slept well in weeks. He awoke daily to random words, incoherent thoughts, and fleeting images, convinced that their meaning, though not yet clear, would develop in the gelatin silver process of his mind. Each morning, buzzing, he slung his legs off the bed and sat bolt upright, naked, allowing his male parts to hang over the edge of the mattress, and did his best to capture these jangled dreams, recording what details he could remember in a spiral-bound notebook kept by his bedside. His daytime musings spread onto legal pads, Post-it Notes, and the backs of envelopes and receipts, mostly in the form of unedited bullet-point lists. His house, located deep in the Wellfleet Woods, was littered with scraps of paper covered with his fastidious penmanship.

  • Deepening pitch of whale vocalizations
  • Ocean spirals: shells, whirlpools, waves, bubble nets, seahorse tails
  • Sound’s relationship to the inner-ear labyrinth (another spiral?)
  • Mystery of infinity: 1 = .99999999…

Adam tried to decipher the clues his mind was depositing. He had one big discovery left in him, he felt sure of that. This thing, whatever it was—an idea? a theory?—was taking its own sweet time to make itself known. He knew he needed to trust the process. If he could practice patience and maintain equilibrium, Adam felt certain that every book he’d ever read, every piece of art that had ever moved him, every conversation, creature, curiosity, and concept he’d encountered in his lifetime would align like cherries in the slot machine of his mind.

For now, the anticipation of it, the pre-buzz of impending discovery, was as mouthwatering as the squeak of a wine cork before dinner. He basked in an exquisite sensation of déjà vu, feeling a comradeship with other great discoverers: James Cook, Charles Darwin, Jacques Cousteau…

To his credit, at the onset of this latest bout of insomnia, Adam followed protocol and made an appointment at the clinic in Hyannis knowing full well what to expect: a blood draw, a barrage of questions, an adjustment of medication. What he hadn’t expected was that the doctor who’d been treating him for the last three decades had retired. Why Dr. Peabody hadn’t bothered to inform him directly was beyond him. Thirty years was… well, a very long time. Adam pointed out the oversight to the front desk clerk, a busty young woman with blue fingernails, who assured him an email had been sent to patients the previous month. Had he thought to check his junk folder? she asked, clicking together her talons. Adam started to answer but held his tongue. (Who, but an idiot, would bother to check a “junk” folder?) He followed her down the hall to the exam room, still puzzling over why his longtime doctor, at least five years his junior, would have retired. To do what?

In Peabody’s place, a kid half Adam’s age, outfitted in tight pants and alarmingly bright orange socks, strode into the exam room. Was it too much to ask that the person evaluating his mental state have at least one gray hair on his head? The new doctor acknowledged Adam only cursorily, opting to study his electronic patient chart first—mistake number one. Mistake number two was the doctor’s lecture on “sleep hygiene.” For the love of God! Why not just call a thing a thing? “Passed away,” “big-boned”—what was so wrong with “dead” and “fat”? Euphemisms were tools of the feeble-minded. “Hygiene” brought to mind feminine products, something Adam did not wish to contemplate. But that led him to think about parts of the female anatomy he did like to contemplate.

Stay focused, Adam reminded himself. He took notice of the boy’s weak chin.

“I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure of a proper introduction,” Adam said, cutting the lecture short. “I’m Dr. Gardner.”

In his lifetime, Adam Gardner, Ph.D., had had an acclaimed career as a research scientist for the Cape Cod Institute of Oceanography, CCIO to those in the know. His glory days were in the late 1970s when, as a young scientist, he was part of a team that disproved once and for all the notion that life could be sustained only by a photosynthesis-based food chain. In the pitch-black depths of the Pacific Ocean north of the Galápagos Islands, they’d encountered evidence—in the form of foot-long clams, giant red tube worms, and spiny white crabs—that even in darkness, there was life. Adam and his team discovered and named more than two dozen species. In the decades since those early successes, he’d become one of the foremost experts on cetacean biology, studying the population dynamics and communication of humpback whales. Beyond these professional accomplishments, he was a Vietnam veteran who had single-handedly raised his two children after his beloved first wife, Emily, died suddenly at the age of thirty. In short: he wasn’t about to let some kid outrank him.

Adam looked his so-called doctor in the eye and delivered a formidable handshake. He’d teach this generation proper conduct, one millennial at a time.

“It’s a real pleasure, Dr. Gardner,” the doctor replied, accepting the rebuke with bemused resignation.

“I believe the word you’re after is ‘habit,’?” Adam said.

The doctor regarded him blankly.

“Sleep habit,” Adam repeated. “Not ‘hygiene.’?”

At this, the doctor plastered on the kind of smile a kindergarten teacher might offer an unruly child at the end of a long day. He exhaled audibly and resumed his list of banal recommendations: limit stress, exercise daily, eat a balanced diet. The doctor reviewed Adam’s long history of episodes, noting that he generally cycled once a year, typically in the late spring, with symptoms lasting anywhere from ten to fourteen weeks. “Looks like you’re not too far off your normal schedule,” he said. “We should be able to manage this pharmacologically, no problem. That said, many of my patients benefit from group therapy. Have you considered this option, Dr. Gardner?”

Adam regarded the doctor’s garish orange socks, a pathetic attempt at nonconformity. Back in his day, socks like those indicated only one thing: a pansy. Not that he had anything against gays, but when had it become so hard to tell them from normal guys? And when had doctors stopped wearing white coats? No one gave a damn about appearances anymore, as far as he could tell—full arm tattoos on white-collar professionals, women in their “comfortable” shoes, blue jeans as the pant of choice.

It was the first day of April 2016, and the world was a white-hot mess. Adam was willing to put money down that soon the presidential choice would be between a boorish billionaire and an unscrupulous woman. Hard to say which was worse. He’d vote for the woman, maybe, but he couldn’t stand either of them—the pronouncements, promises, platitudes. But really, how was the billionaire still standing? The things that man said about women, Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims! Adam’s mistakes were never so easily ignored. If he so much as glanced at a woman the wrong way—or, God forbid, commented on her appearance—he’d get an indignant earful from someone, most likely his granddaughter, Tessa, or his daughter, Abby. When had it become a crime to appreciate an attractive woman?

One thing was for sure: he’d be damned if he would abide by the half-baked blather of a child doctor. As far as he was concerned, this young man could take a long swim in shark-infested waters before he’d consent to any of his quack remedies. Adam closed his eyes and massaged his temples with his thumbs as his mind raced.

“Dr. Gardner?”

The voices in his head, which had been passing through for several weeks, seemed to have taken up permanent residency. “Right here, Doctor,” Adam replied, blinking his eyes open and smiling. He tried to focus. What was the question? Oh yes, if he’d considered group therapy. Adam rearranged his features to look as if he was contemplating sound advice. “I get all the support I need from my children. From my family.”

“Okay, then. Is the CVS in Orleans still your primary pharmacy?” the doctor asked, concluding their visit as he’d started it, hunched over his computer.

Adam confirmed that it was.

“Great. I’m emailing in the prescription now.”

Determined to conduct himself as a model patient, Adam drove himself straight to the pharmacy to pick up his medications.

He waited in line behind a lumpy woman in leggings, an unfortunate fashion choice. Once she waddled off, it was his turn. Adam handed over the prescription slips—although the doctor had emailed them, he insisted on a paper copy—and smiled patiently at the bespectacled man who moved like molasses behind the counter. When the pharmacist finally presented him with his two bags of bottles, Adam could practically hear his doctor’s computer pinging from twenty miles away, alerting the good man that his new patient, Adam Gardner, Ph.D., had picked up his lithium and Seroquel prescriptions and was in medical compliance.

If Adam was serious about his plan, he had to stay in control. He’d had slipups before—too many to count, really—but this time would be different. For the first time, Adam intended to succumb knowingly to the allure of mania. He would enter the state with intention and leverage it to his advantage. Perhaps with careful planning, he thought, rattling the pills in their containers, he could extend his mania beyond its usual course, buying himself enough time to solve the puzzle of cetacean language. His goal was to announce his breakthrough by his seventieth birthday, August 18. To think, so many people were desperate to get their hands on a bottle of Ritalin or Adderall, and Adam was lucky enough to have a built-in supply. He’d been around this block enough times to know how to read the signals. The trick would be to monitor his moods and avoid spiraling out of control. (Ha! Another spiral.) What did he have to lose? He lived alone: no wife to worry about, no children to neglect. Hell, the simple fact that he was weighing the pros and cons of the decision was evidence enough that he was behaving rationally. That others found his ingenuity threatening was not his problem; perhaps they should be the ones consuming mood-regulating drugs. Soon his brain would be making the types of cosmic connections only possible once liberated from its narcotic anesthetization. He realized now that lithium, the magical salt that had stabilized his moods for years, had also been sapping his energy and brainpower. The lithium rationing would start today. He’d drop his dose by half—maybe three-quarters—and tweak as necessary.

Exiting the pharmacy, white prescription bags tucked under his arm, Adam felt giddy at having outmaneuvered his odiously smug new doctor. So much so that when he saw the overhead camera suspended in the corner, he flipped it the bird. I wasn’t born yesterday, Socks. With a spring in his step, he climbed into his beloved 2002 Subaru, patted the steering wheel, and noted with satisfaction that the odometer had just passed 208,000 miles.

Route 6 was chock-full of incompetent drivers, as usual, people who had no business being on the road. Adam swore under his breath at an old lady driving forty in the fast lane and raised his arm out the window at a lunatic in a convertible cutting in and out of traffic. It would only get worse in the coming months when knuckleheads from around the country descended on Cape Cod for their summer vacations, cars loaded down with bikes, surfboards, and diapered toddlers.

At home, Adam tossed the pharmacy bags on the kitchen counter and made himself a cup of tea, which he took outside. He wrapped his teabag around a spoon and set it aside so he could use it again later. Pine needles had gathered between the slats of his large wooden deck, and Adam contemplated giving it a sweep but instead sank into the Adirondack chair facing the pond. A gentle breeze stirred the budding leaves in the topmost branches of the trees, but the air was still at ground level, the pond water glassy. It was a mild day that signaled spring was arriving on schedule: cattails rising, waterfowl returning to nest, frogs croaking lusty songs. But the evenings were still cool enough that he’d pull the extra blanket at his footboard over himself as he went to bed. Time was passing. The end of another decade loomed. If he was lucky, he figured he might have five—maybe ten—good years of brilliance left in him. The only thing that mattered now was coaxing this new idea out of hiding. An overhead movement caught his attention, an osprey being driven over the tree line by a group of smaller birds. Adam could relate—those aggressive, young scientists at CCIO clearly wanted him gone.

Adam willed his gaze to soften. The pond and the woods blurred, and he turned his concentration inward, hovering over the dazzling presence of his idea, which was still just out of reach. It was like swimming beyond the coral reefs and snorkeling out to where the shelf dropped off. One moment, you’re studying the white-pink sand below; the next, you’re over a blue-black abyss and staring into darkness. The only way to proceed is to steady your nerves, take a breath, and plunge into the depths, trusting that the darkness will hold you. Like birth. Or death.

Little Monsters
by by Adrienne Brodeur

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1982198109
  • ISBN-13: 9781982198107