Sheila Jensen’s heart jumps when the gavel is struck, and it feels as if the solid ground beneath her has suddenly fallen away. She is thirty-three and stunning in her pale-gray business suit and slick, blonde ponytail. Sitting amid an impressive rank of lawyers with equally impressive peers from her elite research unit behind her, she looks invincible. But the sink of her shoulders, like a slowly deflating balloon, indicates otherwise. The imposing female judge with a grating voice that irritates Sheila departs abruptly, and suddenly everyone around Sheila is getting up. She briskly wipes a tear from her right eye. Sheila never cries. She is a scientist who is brilliant, practical, and rational. Crying is not part of her tool kit, and the lone tear that has snuck by her emotional guard profoundly embarrasses her. One of her lawyers clumsily grabs her arm in a consoling gesture. Startled, Sheila winces and pulls away. Touching is another unnatural thing for her, and right now she feels particularly raw. She looks at the lawyer and tries to force a thin smile; then she stands up with difficulty.
Sheila can’t wait to get out of this building. Even though she is tired and struggles to move gracefully with her delicate cane, she possesses a vital energy. She is swept along in a crowd of winners and losers still arguing bitterly for both sides of the issue. Her work put her here right in the center of the fray. She need say nothing. She has nothing to say. She said it all inside, and clearly the ears of the court are deaf. Sheila gasps as she squeezes through the angry press of people and out onto the sunlit platform above the steps of the federal courthouse. She stumbles at the precipice of the steeply descending stairs, and someone grabs her arm. It’s Dr. Philip Ohl, her boss, who is only a few years older than her and is a great administrator as well as a scientist. He looks handsome in his steel-colored suit—much better than the lab coat and jeans she is used to seeing him in. Her heart pounds. Hurt and betrayal well up and almost swallow her whole being. She is terrified that he will see her cry. She shakes him off, determined to retain her dignity and sovereignty if she can, and tries to steady herself on her slender cane.
“That’s her!” someone shouts.
A crowd rushes up the imposing steps toward her, and Sheila teeters back and falls unwillingly into Philip’s arms. Police wearing imposing riot gear swarm out of the courthouse behind them. They jostle Sheila and Philip on their way past and clear a path through the riotous crowd down the steps of the court.
Sheila notices a man with absurd donkey ears brandishing a banner that reads, “humanimal.” A red circle with a slash through it is superimposed over the word. He pushes against the protective police wall and screams unintelligible slurs at her. Farther down, a woman made up to look like a cat waves a sign that says, “no gene humanipulation.”
The tall, official buildings surrounding the square that Sheila looks out on create an echo chamber. The noise escalates as more and more people enter from the five streets converging here and flock toward them at the main courthouse steps. Sheila’s heart pounds in her chest. No one has ever seen anything like this, and she is the target of the anger.
Philip whispers in her ear, “Look forward. Don’t listen to them. We know they’ve got it all wrong.”
Sheila takes a last look out at the whole mad scene and quakes at the thought of walking down into it. So she breathes in deeply and wills herself to dispel the feeling of shock; then she steels herself and steps down the first step.
As they descend, Sheila loses sight of the TV support crews and high-tech media vans that surround the five-sided plaza. Every national channel is represented and even several foreign outlets. This is big news. The myriad of smartly dressed correspondents form a stark contrast to the unruly and angry crowd. She saw eager TV crews push toward them, grabbing startling footage and provoking protesters to further outrage. Soon enough, she will be trying to navigate through them.
“What do you think the verdict should be?” a crisp-looking reporter on the step nearby asks.
“She’s a witch!” a man yells. “She should be burned like in the old days.”
Sheila flinches, suddenly looking worn out. Philip is still holding her elbow. She and Philip, surrounded by their entourage of lawyers and other handlers, are swept farther down the vast, imposing stairs.
Blazing ahead of them both, wearing anger on his sleeve, is Dr. Gerald Spiner, a wiry man in his sixties. He exudes the energy of a bureaucratic boss and waves his fleet of lawyers onward. He practically spits at a grasping TV correspondent, shoving him out of the way.
Sheila looks around. “Cynthia? Where is she?”
Philip doesn’t respond but forcefully guides Sheila down, clearing her path as they go. Somewhere behind them in the midst of the throng still struggling to get out of the courthouse is Sheila’s younger sister, Cynthia Clark. Cynthia is a softer, rounder version of her sister. She moves with a happier bounce and a sparkle in her eye.
“Sheila, wait for me!” Cynthia yells, but her voice is lost in the tumult.
A young male reporter slips through the handlers and practically punches Philip with his mic. “Dr. Ohl, you must have known about the experiments!”
“Will you fire Ms. Jensen?” another reporter yells from farther down.
Philip scowls at the second reporter. “That’s Doctor Jensen!”
Loraine Hampshire, PR director of the research facility, pulls Philip away and whispers in his ear. She’s a smart African-American woman with a neat, retro Afro. She stands out in her bright suit with its pencil skirt. She steps efficiently between Philip and the reporter. “Dr. Ohl has no comment.”
Sheila tries to keep her head high and exude confidence, but the stress she feels shows in her tight, quivering lips.
They are near the bottom of the stairwell, and the police phalanx has spread thin trying to contain the raucous crowd. The crowd surges again, and Sheila, flanked by her coworkers and their vast legal team, retreats back up a couple of steps. Philip steadies her when she wavers on her cane as a woman in a furry hat spits on Sheila’s lapel.
“Only God creates!”
Before Sheila can turn fully to see her attacker, the woman is gone.
A man in a devil costume steps in and pushes Sheila roughly. “Go to hell, Dr. Frankenstein!”
He viciously kicks her cane out from under her. Too late, Philip reaches for her as she trips down the last few steps and lands on her knees in the plaza.
Sheila looks up a bit stunned. The crowd backs up. Bizarre faces leer at her and shout, but she can’t hear what they say. The throng shifts and spooks a flock of pigeons that flap en masse into the air, creating a murmur of wings.
From Sheila’s humiliating position splayed on the plaza, it seems as if time has stopped. She spaces out. The racket whirls around her, and she just wistfully watches the birds. How great it would be to fly away.
A shaft of blinding sunshine bursts through the high buildings lining the city streets, carving deep, black shadows below. The silhouetted birds flicker light and dark, one moment sparkling and another invisible as their wings turn toward and away from the sharp light. Sheila’s brain clicks into work mode, watching in an imagined construct the mysterious phenomenon of DNA clicking on and off like a binary computer code. She’s so close to answers that she can taste the victory of discovery, but she can’t quite see the actual shape that it takes or how to get there. But here she is, derailed from her projects, shamed, trapped, and crippled, unable even to stand up without help.
Suddenly, Cynthia is bending over her. She lifts her sister up. Philip, who has been distracted by a particularly aggressive and vociferous protestor, extricates himself and closes in on the other side, taking Sheila’s elbow.
“Sheila, I’m so sorry,” he says as he leans in. He feels like he’s losing her. This might be his last chance to try to mitigate the damage of this groundbreaking legal ruling that affects them both but is worse for Sheila. “I had to, or we would both be out. I promise we’ll get through this.”
“We? We? You blamed me and saved your career,” Sheila says through clenched teeth. It is getting harder for her to keep her cool. “We did this together, for good, for all kinds of good. For …” She stands up and faces him.
“To cure disease. I know,” he says softly.
Tears well in her eyes. “You knew my work was my last hope.”
Cynthia tugs at Sheila’s other arm. “Come on. Let’s get out of here. It doesn’t feel safe.”
Sheila turns to look at Cynthia and notices another face in the crowd—an overly made-up TV reporter framed in artificial light chattering into a camera. Cynthia ushers Sheila past the reporter and almost forces her into a nearby limousine. She slams the door and then works her way through the irate, pressing crowd to the other side of the car.
Inside the limo, Sheila fidgets behind the tinted glass. Her eyes wander to the TV monitor inside the car, and there she is, that same TV reporter already meting out her judgment. Everyone’s judgment.
“Dr. Sheila Jensen received judgment today in the most critical trial of the millennium. The Harold Bowman Research Facility of New Empire University’s La Salle Medical Center received no more than a slap on the wrist. However, they must pay fines of up to seventy million dollars for supporting Dr. Jensen’s illegal genome experiments, and Dr. Jensen is no longer permitted to run any such experiments involving human DNA again.”
Cynthia opens the back door on the driver’s side and starts to climb in, but suddenly Philip is there. He gives her an appealing look. She backs off to give him space, and he jumps in beside Sheila. He taps on the glass divider to indicate that the driver should get going and then leans in to take Sheila’s hand. She pulls away
“Don’t. In fact, here.” She rips his engagement ring off her finger and stuffs it into his jacket breast pocket.
His eyes beg her to listen, but she turns away. They drive off in silence.
Only a year earlier, they were excited and in love, on the verge of an amazing new discovery. In the year since one romantic, candlelit night, Sheila’s life went from bliss to hell.
She tries to push the memory out of her mind, but all she can do is mourn for how light, joyous, and hopeful she was only a year earlier when Phillip proposed. She can still see him lit by an aura of candlelight. They were in their favorite pizza parlor, and she had wondered why the place was lit like a shrine, with multiple candles on every surface, when they entered. Vinny, the owner, mumbled something about a power outage, but the rest of the street looked fine.
When Phillip knelt down, she started laughing so hysterically that he caught the buzz too and couldn’t quite find the words he wanted to say. Pretty soon the entire place was laughing and cheering him on. Other patrons started feeding him lines, like “Darling, please marry me. You know how much I love you” or “Come on, sweetie pie, let’s get hitched.” Finally, Vinny brought over a bottle of bubbly. It was certainly not on the menu in a place where the typical fizzy beverage is soda. Then Phillip simply pushed the ring onto her finger and kissed her.
Living and working together never worked as well for any other couple as it had for Phillip and Sheila. She is innovative, thorough, and very, very smart. He is charming and a great salesman. He embodies confidence and a practical kind of hope that inspires investors and the research division board to trust him. It’s no surprise that he emerged from this charade unscathed; it happened without his engineering it.
In the back of the limo, Sheila turns to Philip. “I’m not going home. That’s why Cynthia was getting into the car.”
“Oh, sorry,” Philip responds. “I hope she has a way to get home.”
“She’ll manage,” Sheila replies, refusing to look at him. “Anyway, shall I drop you at the hospital or home?”
Philip turns to her; his face is so sad and beseeching. She turns away; she can’t bear to look at him. “Sheila, let’s just go back to the house together. We really should talk, sort this out, and figure out how to move forward.” He pauses. She’s looking out the window; he’s looking at the back of her head. “Please.”
“No,” she says without turning to look at him. “I think I’ll move out. That’s the only way I can move forward.”
He sucks in a breath. He was holding it, hoping she would come with him. He sits back, resolved. “Okay. You don’t have to move out. It was your house anyway. I’ll be gone tomorrow. You can come … go home whenever you want.”
Sheila Jensen, desperate to invent a genetic cure, defies rules against combining animal and human DNA. She stirs outrage, which leads her fiancé and boss, Philip Ohl, to blame her for the illegal and immoral work, destroying her career. Still, Sheila is motivated; her rare nerve disorder will kill her. She engineers her last ovum in the hopes of creating a cure for the deadly nerve disease. Risking her life, she bears the child, hoping her transferable DNA cure will work. But the child she bears is not what she expected.
Muriel Stockdale’s 35-year career in entertainment as a designer, director, filmmaker and artist honed her ability and desire to tell her stories. Her first novel, Gabriel Born, published in 2016 by Balboa press is intended to explore consciousness and creativity, and to present a window of possibility that may inspire and enthuse its audience. The novel is based on her award winning film script entitled, Gabriel’s Flight.
Black text on 60# white paper
Softcover, matte finish