Keeper of the Light

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The patient looked hopelessly skeletal, lifelessly lying on one of the few relatively-comfortable beds in Kundalini reserved for routine awakenings. His wrists and ankles were fastened with thick, red restraints — “just in case” — that merely wrapped around the underside of the bed into a large knot of shadowy fabric, and a similar run of red fabric wrapped around the old man’s bald head to keep it similarly still.

Occasionally, it looked like one of his eyes would twitch briefly, set into the deep recesses that had formed in his face over time, but it could have just been shadows playing tricks on my mind. There was a single window against the far wall that cast a thin ray of natural light next to the bed, as if a holy deity of their choosing were reaching out directly to the patient to say, “Hey, I’m here too.” An assortment of weird, mismatched lamps along the edges of the otherwise-dim room also cast long, stringy shadows around in unnatural ways.

While I waited for the patient to wake up for the first time in two years, I turned to Dr. Ezalor and began my interview:

“Who is this?”

The doctor took his seat on a stool next to the patient and thought about his answer while unpacking a briefcase full of diagnostic apparatus. Eventually, he turned to me and quietly said, “For the patient’s privacy, I cannot give you a name or other identifying information. However, I can tell you he was an estranged artist that lost all hope in life after his wife died in an accident with his two kids. He came to Kundalini broken, eyes bloodshot from sobbing, and asked for me directly. I could feel his overwhelming sorrow the moment I entered the room.”

The doctor fell silent. He worked quickly, attaching wires and IVs to the patient’s body, and monitors around the bed began to fade in with additional information: graphs, charts, blinking numbers, and symbols I didn’t understand.

“What did you say to him?”

“I didn’t say anything,” Dr. Ezalor countered. “I listened. I listened to his story, his plight, his living hell. It was clear he was struggling from the beginning, but I didn’t understand the extent of his guilt and self-loathing until he told me his story. I’ll spare you his personal information, but he felt responsible for his wife and children’s deaths. And honestly? He was responsible.”

I gasped, covering my mouth. The patient remained motionless, skin stretched out over bones like a cadaver, except with shallow breaths that seemed to inflate and deflate the skin wrapped tightly over his ribcage.

“You told him he was responsible?”

“Of course not,” the doctor said, voice briefly flaring up with the most subtle hint of anger. “I told you already, I didn’t say anything. Who am I to judge? I listened to his somber story to the end without a word. I knew why he came here; he knew why he came here. There was already a mutual understanding, a deep connection, between us. When he was done, I gave him the consent forms and he signed them. And here we are.”

I wanted to press further onto what alternative paths could have been followed that day — perhaps with a different guide — but we were interrupted. As if on queue, a guttural grunt came from the patient, followed quickly by a phlegmy cough, and the patient’s eyes shot wide open.

He didn’t speak, but his sunken, dilated eyes held a look of grogginess and fear. Dr. Ezalor took his hand in his own and said, “Thomas, everything is okay. I am the light at the end of your tunnel; come to me and open your eyes. Do you know where you are?”

Thomas sighed. He tried moving one hand, found it restrained, and squinted to see the red straps. Eventually, he relaxed and closed his eyes again. He sighed and whispered meekly, “I remember.”

“Good,” Dr. Ezalor said. “I am going to show you a short video that you made for yourself three and a half years ago, on this day. When it’s done, I am going to give you a new consent form to sign. You do not have to sign it. Do you understand?”

Thomas nodded. A monitor at the opposite end of his bed turned on, and I repositioned myself — as quietly as possible, as the doctor instructed — so I could also see.

The video came into focus and a man I didn’t immediately recognize to be Thomas sat centered in the frame. He was overweight with bloodshot eyes, balding with sparse red hair, and clearly distraught.

Between deep sobs, he managed the following monologue:

“Hi Thomas, it’s me. Well, you. Welcome back. If I’m seeing this — I mean, if you’re seeing this, it’s probably after a long, peaceful sleep. That’s what they said it’d be like, at least. I hope it’s true. Anyway, they asked me to make a video explaining why I agreed to do this, and this is it. Sorry, you know that.

“There’s nothing left,” he continued, flatly, color draining from his face. “Dr. Felstein may say it’s not my fault, but he wasn’t there. I know better. It’s my fault the kids are dead, and Lisa… I should have been there, if I had just — if we had just…

“You know what? You know what happened. There’s no need for me to retell it, to relive it, any more than already echoes every second I’m awake. When I close my eyes, I see Lisa. When I sleep, I’m back at Cedar Point with the kids. They’re bittersweet reminders of what I had, and I love every second I’m back in their presence, but it’s not real. It’s not… real. It’s like losing them over and over again every time I open my eyes, every time I blink, every time I wake up. And when I know that heartbreak is coming, it becomes harder and harder to appreciate the good times we had. What was once a fond memory is now corrupt, a debilitating reminder of what once was — and never will be again.

“There’s nothing left for me in this world, and if there is, I certainly don’t deserve it.”

The audio cut off as on-screen Thomas looked off camera and said something, still sobbing uncontrollably. He was handed a sheet of paper and the audio faded back in to whimpers as he glanced at it. He looked back at the camera, swallowed, and continued:

“They say I need to read this too, so you — so I — can hear it when I wake up again: I, Thomas Platt, voluntarily agreed to undergo indefinite sessions of temporal suicide. I acknowledge that I am free to end consent at the end of any session, and that I will be required to complete a new consent form upon the completion of each. Similarly, I understand that my session durations will double in length with each renewal, beginning with my first session of six months starting today, August 17th, 2029.

Furthermore, I also acknowledge and agree to the scientific use of my body for the benefit of mankind while I am unconscious and slash or comatose within each of my sessions. I have been informed of the importance of having living human subjects as well as the downsides and potential risks. I am committing myself to Kundalini under my own free will, and waive all constitutional rights for myself while under their care. I acknowledge that this recorded video will be replayed to myself in the future and serve as my recurring contract upon which I may be recorded giving verbal consent in lieu of a signature. I acknowledge,” he continued, breaking down into tears again and struggling to finish with composure, “that even a successful session may end in death.”

I felt the chill of the room permeate the silence as the monitor switched off, and I watched transfixed as the real-life Thomas stared quietly at the black mirror. I glanced at Dr. Ezalor, who remained steadfast at the patient’s side.

Finally, Thomas turned to the doctor and stumbled with his words, a known side effect of not using one’s vocal cords in years: “Is it worth it? Have I done anything?”

“You know I can’t discuss any realized or potential breakthroughs as a result of your session,” Ezalor responded, “for it could bias your choice to continue your sessions. There is always the potential for goodness, but nothing is ever guaranteed.”

Thomas nodded, eyes dropping to his frail, bony body. He lifted a hand — as much as the restraint would allow — and flexed his fingers slowly. The cracks of each knuckle in each finger echoed, one after the other, in the silence.

“Do it,” Thomas eventually croaked, fighting back thick tears welling up in his dark eyes. With each additional word, emotion burst back into his tone: first overwhelming sadness, and then anger as he began raging against his restraints. “Nothing’s changed. I’m still me, and Lisa’s still dead. I still killed her, and I still deserve — ”

Dr. Ezalor moved swiftly to flip a switch a panel next to the bed and then push a button that corresponded with a quick green liquid flowing down one of the IV’s and into the patient’s veins. He broke, mid sentence, into slurred jumbles of sounds that no longer made coherent words, and the instantaneous burst of aggression immediately waned into a long sigh of air escaping Thomas’s lungs before he slipped back into a four-year coma.

As the vitals and charts and graphs on each screen began to stabilize, the doctor looked at his watch, announced, “Fourteen-forty, Sunday, February 17, 2030. Patient 359 has begun a new session.”

It took me a few minutes to recover from the sight of someone reeling off into the darkness, as if they had died in front of me. Of course, I knew it was a temporary death, as they called it, but there were still such a dense sense of finality to it that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around, as if a void had opened up in the room where Thomas’s soul had been, and his presence were palpably missing.

“Will he be alright?”

“Of course,” Dr. Ezalor responded, cleaning up and sorting his medical apparatus back into his briefcase. “This is a very standard procedure: one that was perfected long before we chose to use it. He will remain alive from our perspective, but not from his.”

I nodded, doing my best to force my brain to come to terms with the logic of giving a broken old man exactly what he had asked for, but it was still a leap I wasn’t yet ready to take. I wanted to keep the doctor talking to distract myself from biting off more than I could chew with this interview, so I continued with a broader question: “Where did you get the idea to start something… like this?”

“Of course,” the doctor said, wrapping up, “this will be my last answer if that is alright with you. I have many more patients to get through today, and more important science to do after that, so you’ll forgive me if I’m brief. However, I do have a great story for you from a long time ago that I’ll leave you with.

“I was a young man, just out of a dozen grueling years in university. I was living with a roommate at the time that was quite the controlling character; we’ll call him Tyler. He paid the rent for the both of us — as I’d yet to find a job, but that’s a story of its own — and he often reminded me of it. His house, his rules, his house, his rules.”

He shook his head, and continued, “I’m sorry, don’t let me get distracted. Much of my time before Kundalini was fraught with negative emotions that all played a part in driving me here where I am today. They were important, yes, but I won’t divert too much to describe them: I’m sure you’ve had your fair share of disagreements or falling out with others, especially in times where you’ve felt you were helping or doing good.

“I was living in an apartment complex and took out the trash one day when I laid my eyes on a wonderful lamp. One, I thought, someone must have been crazy to throw out: it was a beautiful gold, stretching from the floor to nearly seven feet tall, splitting into seven individually-lit, golden heads. I tossed my trash into the dumpster and couldn’t take my eyes off of it: why would someone throw away something so nice? I never looked, but I’m sure it cost more than anything else I had in my apartment — or would have, for a long time.

“So I, naturally, began to grapple with the concept of stealing. If you take something that someone throws away, are you stealing? If they never expected to see it again, and you take it any make it your own, is that wrong? I think we can both agree on that, especially if that thing is literally sitting in a dumpster.

“But what if you take that lamp and invite a neighbor over and they recognize it? What if it was their lamp, and they see how magnificent it looks in your apartment, and they decide they want it back? You don’t legally have to give it back, of course, but… should you? The answer’s a lot less obvious, but I think most would end up feeling back about deciding not to give it back. It is theirs, after all.

“So I carefully took the lamp out of the dumpster and set it down on the ground. I looked around the area for its owner: a tenant lying in wait for an unsuspecting thief to steal their prized lamp, and saw no one. I looked for police cars — because, after all, I’d never stolen anything in my life! — that I thought might be conducting a sting on valuable light fixtures. Nothing. Nobody around. No eyes watching me, so I took it.

“I took the discarded lamp back up to my apartment and I set it gently in the corner I’d pictured it in. I plugged it in and… it didn’t turn on. It was broken. I understood why someone had thrown it out.

“However, I’ve never been the kind of person that gives up on anything — or anyone, as I hope you’ve noticed with Kundalini — so I went to the library and found a book on wiring, and another on general electronics. I learned how to safely open up the lamp, and I learned some ways I could try to fix it. I figured, ‘why not?’ Someone threw it out; it was already broken; what does it matter if I take it apart and break it further or can’t put it back together again?

“So I tried. I took the entire lamp apart and inspected each of its parts and each of its wires between those parts, looking for shorts in the boards and nicks in the lines. I poured over it for hours until I found a small nick in the wire. I filled it, taped it back up with black electrical tape, and put the lamp back together. But when I flipped the switch, it didn’t turn back on. It was still broken.

“I didn’t give up. I took the beautiful lamp apart again and found a fray further up the cord. I figured, ‘the thing is already broken’ so I chopped the whole section of frayed cord off and set to work attaching the remaining pieces together. It took about an hour and far steadier hands than I have now — sadly — but I finally reattached it. I put the lamp back together and flipped the switch. It turned on. I’d fixed the lamp.

The doctor stood in silence, picking up the last of his tools. Finally, he continued:

“I turned the lamp on and enjoyed it. Someone threw it away because it was broken, and I fixed it. If they could only see it then, they probably would have wanted it back.

“But then my roommate came home from work,” the doctor growled, giving in to anger clearly attached to his recollections, “and he was raging something fierce about something at work. Yelling, screaming, and being the usual brute I’d randomly matched up with for some free rent. I thought he’d like the lamp, or at least appreciate the work I’d put in to fix it, but before I could show him what I’d done he ordered me to throw that shit out. His house, his rules. So I did, and that night the lamp was back in the dumpster where it was originally.”

“So what was the point of fixing it?” I blurted, trying to make sense of the story in the context of how it led to a company that I was increasingly to thinking of as an abomination.

“Look around you,” Dr. Ezalor said with a sweeping motion at all the weird lamps lining the room. “I may have thrown the lamp away, but I learned how to fix it. Lamps are actually a hobby of mine now; I wouldn’t have learned anything about them if I hadn’t found that gorgeous, broken one in the dumpster that day. That lamp itself was wasted — sadly— but the skills it gave me haven’t been.”

I stood, following the doctor out of the office as he talked.

“So now I take broken people and I give them what they want. They want death, and I give them death, because we both know they’ll end up with it anyway. But we also both know death is a final solution to a temporary problem, and sometimes all you need is a little time for things to simmer down — and I give these broken people that time, too. In return, I merely ask for them to help me learn skills I couldn’t otherwise learn. How to treat diseases, how to attack cancers head on, how to recover from bad burns, even how to combat aging.”

“But you do all that with human experiments, right? Dangerous ones, that could end in death, as the video said?”

“Of course,” Dr. Ezalor clarified. “The experiments can be dangerous, potentially fatal. But,” he paused, “worst case — and I do mean worst case — a patient dies. They’re kept under, and they never suffer. Is that worse than if they would have found death on their own? Is that, well, better than if they would have otherwise suffered? Are they adding value to their life by helping others? Or, having a chance to help others?

“These people are broken, and I’m not here to fix them. If I do, that’s a miracle I won’t take credit for. However, I am here to learn how to fix others before they get this broken. That’s why I founded Kundalini, and why I work every day to make the world a better place. I know we don’t have the the brightest reputation out there, but I was hoping this interview might shed some light on what’s really happening here.”

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