I used to think that the crawling sensation on my back was a symptom. It began as an occasional twinge and grew into an ache, passing from the base of my neck down to my lower back in waves. Perhaps it was some manifestation of anxiety or dread; it certainly occurred alongside those things. The unease in my gut. My clenched jaw. The tightness in my chest.
Those sensations hit me in turn as I suffered through my first Medical Neuroscience exam in graduate school. Dread overtook me when I reached the sixth question and realized I was woefully underprepared. I already had been subjected to multiple anatomy courses in undergrad, not to mention that my earlier courses as a graduate student had already covered much of basic neuroanatomy. Yet, I had not prepared for the specificity or style of questions on this exam and my skin crawled with anxiety. By the time I reached the section on brain development, my mind had gone blank. Sweat gathered on my brow as I contemplated the possibility that perhaps my own brain had failed to develop at all.
After tossing my exam on the stack of papers, I hid in the bathroom. My anxiety continued to buzz, now accompanied by an ache throughout my back. Maybe it was some musculoskeletal concern, a symptom of too many hours spent hunched over my laptop or staring into a microscope. Or perhaps it heralded the onset of some debilitating neurological disorder I would conveniently learn about in my next lecture.
The atrium outside was filled with medical students, though I spotted a fellow grad student from my neuroscience cohort as I crept from the bathroom. He waved at me, but I hurried across the atrium and out the door.
I felt little relief after the exam as another deadline loomed: my first grant proposal was due in less than a week. And I had written a single paragraph. Jenna, my mentor, had strongly advised me against taking Medical Neuroscience and the grant writing class in the same semester, but I insisted. The former was an intensive neuroanatomy course with both a lecture and a lab component, and the latter required writing multiple grant proposals over the semester. I was overwhelmed. Instead of making steady progress on my dissertation research, I spent most of my time in the lab frantically chipping away at the grant.
Noise filtered over from the neighboring lab and the nearby break room. The sounds had ebbed and flowed over the morning, but lunchtime approached. People entered the break room. A chair squeaked as someone sat down with a thump and a loud grunt. Quiet conversation followed. Then someone else roared with laughter, and the ensuing chatter burned into my brain until it was all I could hear. One woman explained the sensations of her last pregnancy in great detail. A man offered sympathetic descriptions of his gastrointestinal woes in reply. I tore out a few hairs from my eyebrows and flicked them to the floor.
I snapped my laptop shut and gathered my things, striding out of the lab as quickly as I could without running. The small study room in the library was blissfully quiet, and I sighed. I set my backpack down and cracked my back. The ache there was intense enough that it seemed to extend well outside of my body, as though I possessed another appendage, the sole purpose of which was to cause me pain and aggravation.
I snorted. “That’s ridiculous,” I said to myself.
In return, I felt an odd sensation, as though someone was rolling their eyes at me.
That evening, I returned home to fight with the wording in my specific aims section while shoveling dinner into my mouth. My front room was sparsely furnished, the lighting yellow. I lacked enough lamps to create a cozy environment, and instead I was left with a dim, cave-like living space with deep shadows in the corners. The glow from passing headlights filtered into the room through the flimsy curtains.
An ambulance passed, and I jumped at the sound of the siren and the sudden glow of blue and red light splashing across my walls. I stared into the dark corner of the room, watching the static move across my vision while my heart rate returned to normal. It was like watching an old TV. When I was a kid, I watched the noise when I got bored with the regular channels. I would stare at the TV, letting my focus shift until I could make out patterns and shapes in the noise.
My eyelids drooped; my mind was wandering, and I quickly set an alarm. I thought I had closed my eyes, but I remained aware of the ceiling and walls around me. The shadows danced across them, forming letters in the air. As much as I was inclined to try, I could not understand them. Perhaps the vision would give me some new insight into how to improve my grant proposal.
Yet the crawling sensation passed up and down my spine like ants under my shirt. The skin there burned, stretching as though something was fighting its way out. I wanted to reach behind me, but my arms were too heavy and I was too tired. My alarm beeped, and I stared at the ceiling of my apartment.
I turned in my grant proposal the next morning. Minutes after I had done so, an email arrived, informing me that the grades for my exam had been posted, and I had failed.
I set my backpack on the floor of the small room outside the anatomy lab. From nowhere, a hand settled on my shoulder and I jumped.
“Sorry man, didn’t mean to startle you,” Glen said, drawing back.
“No, no, you’re fine,” I said.
He grinned at me. “You ready for the limbic system today?” His eyes twinkled in the low light, and a wave of brown hair curled over his forehead. Glen was the other member of my neuroscience cohort in this course. Part of me envied his languid posture and artfully tousled hair; if I styled my hair that way, it would have looked like a mess of cowlicks. The other part of me was simply attracted to him, though I had no time to do anything about that.
“I suppose so,” I said.
“I’m not looking forward to this lab exam. The lecture exam was bad enough.”
I pulled a face. “Yeah, tell me about it.”
A mix of mostly medical students, with a few graduate students, filtered into the lab. Glen and I joined a pair of PhD students from the anatomy program. One of them smiled at us while the other scowled at the next table over.
“What is it?” Glen asked.
“Those med students have been touching the brain specimens without gloves on again,” she said.
I wrinkled my nose. “They can pickle their fingers in the formaldehyde for all I care, but they better not damage the stroke specimens.”
Glen nodded. “Yeah, how often does someone with a textbook example of a lesion in Broca’s area donate their brain to science?”
The smell of the preserved specimens was uniquely terrible, both acrid and meaty. Glen traced a metal probe from the amygdala to the thalamus and hypothalamus on the specimen. Below the hypothalamus sat the rounded pituitary gland. It was strange to think that so many bodily processes depended on something so small. My back tingled, and an image filled my mind. A ropelike nerve emerged from my spine, connecting me to something far outside my body. I imagined a substance oozing from a gland I didn’t physically possess, crossing from the void back into me through some ephemeral link.
I shook my head to clear it; the formaldehyde was getting to me. The smell had invaded my nose and wouldn’t leave. Even long after the lab was over, I still smelled it, despite showering and washing my clothes.
“Just ignore it,” I muttered to myself.
I dug out my lecture notes and set them out on the couch, squinting between them and my laptop. My left arm tingled, and I blinked hard, unable to concentrate on the screen as the tingling turned to numbness. I leaned back, staring at a strange spot on the ceiling, a sparkling kaleidoscope blooming into view. The numbness in my arm worsened, and the staticky mass danced across my vision.
Anxiety and curiosity bled through me in equal parts. It was a scintillating scotoma. I’d never had a migraine before, but I recognized the visual symptoms of the aura. A quick search on my phone revealed several depictions of the aura that matched the strange, sparkling mass overtaking my visual field. I checked my watch. I lay there for thirty minutes until the aura subsided, but the headache pounded for hours, turning my brain to mush. Finally, I fell asleep.
In a moment, I stood on a floating island in the void. There was a nerve-like cord on my back. It was tender to the touch, and it snaked back across the ground, hidden under trees and in the shadows of stone ruins covered in brilliant green moss. Only a few gray brick walls stood, and I crossed between them, gingerly holding the cord. I reached the edge of the island, overlooking a sheer drop into the starry void. The cord wound over the edge and I peered down.
There I saw darkness. In it lay a massive shape, though whether it was a swirling cloud or flesh, I could not tell. However, it had the colors of an oil slick, ranging from dark blues to brighter purples and greens. It expanded and contracted as if breathing, and I backed away from the edge, unsure whether I felt horror or relief.
When Monday morning came, I woke with a clear head. I passed the laboratory exam.
I chalked my migraine up to stress and spending too much time cooped up in my apartment. So I began walking at night, listening to my notes through a text to speech app. A thin hoodie and knit hat were enough to stave off the chill as I headed out to the vast open field nearby. Streetlamps lit the sidewalk. It didn’t take long to reach the edge of the farmland outside the college town. From across the field, I saw the warm golden light of a farmhouse. The lights glowing in the dark looked both lonely and welcoming at the same time. I understood that. I felt like a tiny star in the sky, near others and yet isolated. As I stood there, the robotic voice from my app read to me about the cerebellum.
A streetlamp flickered out, plunging the path into darkness. I fumbled with my phone, preparing to use its flashlight; instead, I dropped it in the roadside weeds. Grumbling, I crouched. My shirt stretched against my back, and I noticed movement beneath my skin and outside my body. It was as though dozens of invisible eyes had opened behind me and around me. They flicked back and forth, searching for my phone, and I swore they spotted it before my physical eyes did.
The eyes rolled themselves at me. Took you long enough, they seemed to say. As I grabbed my phone, the streetlights blinked at me and flickered back on.
I sat in the lab, flipping through my notebooks, when the door creaked open, and Glen approached. He leaned on the side of the fridge near my bench and smiled. Gosh, he was handsome with his big grin and twinkly eyes.
“Hey,” he said. “How are you doing?”
“Could be better.”
“Yeah. I went to that extra review and ugh.” He grimaced. “How are you feeling about giving neuroscience seminar this week?”
I stared at him. The invisible eyes around me blinked in confusion as well, and for a moment I thought Glen was looking at them, until his gaze met mine again. “Oh my god, I forgot about my seminar presentation,” I said.
The panic must have shown on my face as he waved his hands. “Hey, it’s cool. You still have a few days.”
I sat up. “I don’t have any new data. I’ve done nothing but coursework this semester.”
“It’s all good; recycle your presentation from last time and add more to the intro or something.”
I whirled back to my laptop, pulling up the folder with my lab data. “Well, I have a little data I haven’t analyzed yet. I could do that. Add a few more slides in.”
He chewed his lip. “Okay, I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. I mean, nobody’s going to blame you for not having much to show.”
“I blame me.”
Glen snorted. “Well, I actually came here to ask if you wanted to get coffee.”
“No, I’m alright,” I said. “Thanks.”
He nodded and left. The eyes surrounding me watched him go, though my focus remained set on my laptop as I sifted through my recent data. There was a sharp tug at my back, like something was trying to yank me out of my seat to follow Glen. Much as I wanted to join him, I stayed put.
I had to show new data at this presentation, to prove I had done something this semester. I spent the next two nights up late, hurrying through data analysis, my back aching as I hunched over my computer. The eyes rolled themselves at my furious insistence on adding new slides to my seminar presentation. They flicked toward my class notes and the grant I had been working on. A jolt of electricity sent a twitch through my fingers, causing my cursor to open my grant proposal document by accident. I stubbornly returned to my presentation.
Thursday rolled around. Seminar started, sweat gathering at my hairline as I introduced myself, stumbling over my words. The eyes surrounding me flicked over the room, spotting a postdoc in the back nodding off. Halfway through my presentation, I caught sight of a first-year student in the front row scribbling paragraphs of feedback on the sheet, reviewing my performance. On the other side of the room, my mentor squinted and frowned at my slides.
“I haven’t seen this data before,” she said after the presentation. “Maybe we should talk about it.”
“Sure,” I said weakly.
I sat in the bathroom stall afterward, waiting for the crowd outside to leave. The bathroom door creaked open and a tug at my back jerked me forward until I almost rammed the stall door with my head. I dragged myself to my feet, heading out to wash my hands.
Glen stood at the sink nearby, picking something out of his teeth before washing his own hands. He nodded to me. “Are you hiding in here?”
“Of course not. That would be embarrassing,” I said. “I would only do that if I happened to be mortified by how my seminar talk went.”
He snorted. “It wasn’t bad. Seriously, nobody expects second years to have any interesting data.”
“Jenna came up to me afterward and said, ‘We should talk about your data.’ When does that mean anything good?”
Glen held the restroom door for me as we exited. “I guarantee you it won’t be a big deal. Worst-case scenario, she has a different interpretation of that data.”
“Or she thinks I’m a bad scientist and a fool for taking Medical Neuroscience the same semester as the grants class,” I said.
He put his hand on my shoulder and tilted his head toward me. “You’re not a bad scientist. You’re a second-year PhD student, and none of this will matter in a year. Besides, if you’re a fool, I’m also a fool for taking those courses at the same time.” He drew back, clasping his hands. “I was thinking, do you want to go over notes for the lab exam? We could be study buddies,” he said.
“N-no, I think I just need to work alone,” I said, my stomach sinking. I had forgotten about the lab exam next week.
“Fair enough,” he said. “Shoot, I still have to finish my grant proposal tonight too.”
The invisible eyes around me began to cry.
I finished the grant proposal, but my mediocre grade on the lab exam did little to bring my average up enough to pass the course. My body rebelled. The more I tried to enforce a schedule of nightly studying, the sooner I nodded off. When I stayed asleep for more than a few minutes, I dreamed of floating in that starry void.
The night before the lecture exam, I fell asleep early in the evening. I found myself on the floating island, the cord still at my back. Frustrated, I marched through the ruins, determined to see the thing that kept calling me here. The eyes that surrounded me blinked into view. Dozens of them floated after me as I crept back to the cliff where the cord descended into the nebulous shadows below. They squinted skeptically at me as I hoisted myself off the edge of the cliff.
I reached the underbelly of the island and stood on a small outcropping above the void. The cord continued further down into the mist, and there was nowhere else for me to go unless I jumped. Unsure what else to do, I pulled the long end of the cord. Then a bulbous mass of shadows emerged from the mist.
“Why do you keep bringing me here?” I yelled.
It moved nearer, the shadows writhing as though made of worms covered in an oil slick. Its fleshiness reminded me horribly of the preserved brain specimens from the anatomy lab. As it held up a dark tendril, my back ached in response. We were connected. I was its eyes, and this cord, the nerve connecting us.
I woke up, inhaling a gasp so deep that my lungs ached. Not allowing myself to think, I got into my car and drove. I took the back roads, passing vast fields of corn and soybeans with the lights of farmhouses in the distance. My muscles stretched, as if something stirred underneath them, threatening to burst from the center of my back. The pain intensified, and I pulled into a deserted grocery store parking lot in a tiny town. The neon lights of a local burger place cast a glow across the street. I parked my car and rubbed my hands down my face.
“Am I losing my mind? Is that it? My second year of grad school was too much and I’m having a mental breakdown,” I said.
The eyes around me rolled themselves skyward with obvious disdain.
I scowled at them. “Of course I’m being dramatic.” I leaned back, lightly thumping my head against the headrest.
My stomach growled, and I glanced at the burger place across the street only to see its open sign flicker out. Frustration growing, I stumbled from the car into the bright fluorescent lighting of the grocery store. The eyes took pity on me, pointing themselves in the direction of prepackaged meals. Then I sat in my car eating a Greek salad and an oversized chocolate chip cookie, dropping crumbs all over my shirt and seat. After driving home and falling into bed, I wasn’t surprised when I returned to the dream immediately.
There, I sat hunched on the edge of the floating island, my head in my hands.
“What do you want from me?” I asked, gesturing to the massive entity that lay below. “I’ve got a human brain, and you’re trying to communicate in a way I don’t understand. Even if you’re trying to help, I can’t make sense of what you’re telling me through this nerve that connects us.”
The entity shifted, and the eyes that surrounded me moved as though having an animated conversation. I didn’t know what they were saying, so I sulked there. Then, my shoulder blades prickled, and the cord on the ground near me dried up, crumbling into dust. I touched my back and found nothing there.
The entity reached up with a dark tendril and lightly patted my knee.
After the exam, I sat on a bench outside the lecture hall, too tired to hide from the other students.
Glen sat beside me. “You look as rough as I feel.”
I grunted and bumped my leg against his.
He sighed. “It pains me to say this, but I might have to drop this class and retake it next semester. This has not been a good time.”
“Yeah. At least I’m doing alright in the grants class.”
I ran my fingers through my hair. “Jenna was right. I shouldn’t have tried to take both classes this semester; it’s been a nightmare. I’ll probably end up dropping and retaking it, too.” I inclined my head toward him. “Hey. Want to study together if we need to retake it next semester?” I asked.
He gave my shoulder a light shake. “Let’s do it. I’m sure I could use the emotional support.”
Grades came out. Shortly after, Glen and I met to drop the class together. When we were done, he sighed and dusted off his hands.
“Hey, want to go somewhere to celebrate?” I asked.
“Celebrate failing Medical Neuroscience?”
“Celebrate getting that over with. Besides, I’m hungry.”
“Yeah, okay. Food sounds nice,” he said, his mouth quirking into a smile.
“Actually, there’s this burger place I want to check out.”
Eyes twinkling, he flashed me a grin and nodded. We climbed into my car, and I drove past the corn and soybean fields, to the small burger place across from the grocery store. A few minutes later, I handed a pair of greasy paper bags to Glen, and he stuck a fry in my mouth. We headed to the nearby park, driving up the winding road to a parking lot overlooking the woods. The trees below were yellow, orange, and red, some already bare of leaves.
“Is this a date?” he asked as we sat across from each other at a picnic table.
“Honestly? I’m not sure,” I said. “I’d have to be dating material for this to be a date.”
He huffed. “So, it’s not not a date.”
“Good. Yeah, that’s good. So, what gave you the most trouble in the class? Because it was the vestibular system for me. Could not wrap my brain around it.”
“The visual system, I guess.”
He raised his eyebrows, looking at me sidelong. “In that case, I’ve got something cheesy to say.”
“Go for it,” I said.
“That’s ironic, because you have really nice eyes.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m good at understanding the visual system, but thanks.”
“Sure,” he said, breaking eye contact for a moment.
The eyes around me met his gaze instead, and then he turned back to face me, smiling. For the first time, I noticed that his smile was a little too wide, his teeth a little too sharp. There was no menace in his expression, but there was something unearthly about it. The shadows surrounding him flicked back and forth like a cat’s tail. Then a leaf floated down, balancing on the edge of my shoulder, where one of my invisible eyes sat. The eye blinked closed in response. Glen watched it, and a shadow from somewhere behind him edged forward and flicked it off my shoulder.
“Like I said, you have nice eyes,” he said.
A smile spread over my face and I laughed.
He stood, holding his hand out to me. “Trash? I’m going to throw mine out.”
I nodded, crinkling the empty paper bag and handing it to him. I watched him walk away. The eyes surrounding me idly observed the way the shadows moved unnaturally at his back, as though long, spindly limbs swayed in the breeze. My shoulders relaxed, the invisible eyes softening their gaze as we all felt the brisk wind flowing through us.
“I can still feel the entity,” I said to the eyes. “It’s there, but not as overwhelming. Like an emotion, or a soft voice at the back of my mind, not a cord pulling me around. I think it liked that cheeseburger.” I stood and stretched. “What did the entity say to you in our dream?”
You are seen, the eyes said.
“You are seen; you aren’t alone,” I repeated and smiled to myself. “You know, I may not be able to understand any of you well, but I’ll try my best. After all, we’re in this together.”
They nodded. Humming to myself, I turned back to Glen. He stood near the picnic table, his hand resting on a nearby tree as he watched the forest. I didn’t know if I’d be a good boyfriend, but I would try. At the very least, I’d be a better friend to him than I was this semester.
Next semester would be better. We all would be better.
Catherine Yeates is a writer, illustrator, and former neuroscience researcher. Their work has been published in MetaStellar, The Metaworker, and The Big Windows Review. They live with their partner, cat, and two rambunctious dogs.