~~~

***SPOILER ALERT***
This is just a reminder for anyone currently reading Don’t Feed The Dark that these spin-off stories branch off directly from the main story line and will jump around all over the place, revealing revelations out of normal sequence. I highly recommend skipping this read of The Scientist, the Salesman, and the Serpent until after reading Chapter 35: Dead Dolls.

~~~

Spring 1970:

She couldn’t stop her hands from shaking. Several times while trying to organize her notes, Candice Forrester nearly dropped them on the well-buffed linoleum floor. She looked around at the large lobby of the Administration Building and wanted to vomit. She’d never needed to share the same air with the college Big Wigs before, let alone, having to speak directly to the Board. And now, she was under their microscope.

“Relax,” Michael told her again. He placed her hands in his to stop the explosion of paperwork. “Honestly, you won’t need these,” he said, laughing lightly to diffuse the tension etched upon her face. “They won’t understand a word of it anyway. These types only understand profit margins, pie charts, and golf outings.”

Candice gave him a weak smile, removed the glasses from her tired eyes, and then tugged nervously on her tightly braided brown ponytail. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but you’re not the one with your life’s work on the line. If they start questioning what we’ve been doing with the research grant…”

“…Then you will finally have a chance to blow their socks off with your brilliance,” Michael finished. “Just tell them about it, like you’ve told me. Speak passionately and with conviction, and they’ll know the funding has been well spent.” Michael Finch laid back in the uncomfortable lounge chair and stretched. His long and curly red ponytail slipped out of the back of his suit and hung down behind the chair.

Candice let out a giddy laugh at the sight of her hippy-looking boyfriend in the suit. She rarely saw him dressed in his ‘professional’ attire and was surprised to see him out of his flip-flops for once.

Michael replaced his ponytail back down his jacket. “What… do I amuse you this morning?”

“I’m just trying to figure out when my boyfriend was eaten by the corporate suit-and-tie monster,” she poked.

“Back before my days as an entertainer of business wares, I once had lofty aspirations to become a lawyer,” he reminded her while dusting lint off his well-pressed, outdated suit. “These fine articles of clothing are a result of those days. Besides, it’s easier to sell anything with confidence… and that’s what a good suit does for a man.”

“I know, I know. I better stop now before you try to sell me the suit off your back, right?” she teased.

Michael laughed. “You know me too well. I just wish I could sell you a bottle of calm-the-hell-down and make you drink ‘till your drunk on the stuff.” He looked her in the eyes and finished, “No matter what happens, it’s going to be alright. You know that, don’t you?”

Candice shook her head. “I need this, Michael. I’m too damn close. If they stop funding, I’ll go rogue, take over the lab, and barricade myself in until I’m finished! I can’t start over… I won’t!” She stood up and stopped herself from stomping on the floor.

Michael covered his mouth to hide his amusement at her borderline tantrum.

She shook her head and nervously laughed. “And I’m supposed to be some kind of neurologist with a Master’s Degree and everything. Just look at what I’ve been reduced to.” She sat back down. “I don’t have time for this. The work is at a critical stage.”

“You’re kind of cute—in a geeky mad scientist kind of way—when you get all fired up,” Michael offered.

She gave him a stern look and was about to speak.

Two large doors opened at the other end of the lounge and a tall, pretty secretary, with far too much leg showing in Candice’s professional opinion, approached them, clicking her high heel shoes on the tiles just to drive her nuts with the sound. “Miss Forrester?” Legs asked.

“That’s Dr. Forrester,” Candice corrected.

“My apologies. The Board of Directors will see you now.” Legs turned toward the double doors. “Just follow me, please.”

Click… Clack… Click… Clack…

Candice stood up and felt dizzy. Holy shit! This is really happening! She turned to Michael.

He was already up and moving beside her. “I’m right here. We’ll get through this… I promise.”

~~~

“So, help us understand, Dr. Forrester. What, exactly, have you and your team been researching these last two years?” Dean Stockwell shuffled through a stack of papers on the table as the remaining Board members stared at her as if trying to probe her thoughts. “If I’m understanding correctly, your field of study specified under the conditions of your grant have something to do with analyzing patterns in brain activity with patients suffering various sleep disorders and categorizing REM states over long periods. You claimed that if you could find the common irregular “frequency” in the dream state, that various disorders could be treatable, perhaps preventable. But what you’re telling us doesn’t sound like a sleep study at all. Could you explain to us, in layman’s terms, where you are in your study?”

Candice swallowed hard, then took a sip from her water glass. She looked over at Michael who gave her an encouraging nod. “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Board,” she started, “while it is true that my primary field of research consisted of documenting dream patterns… my work has since evolved into something far more important, something much more vital than simply studying patterns in REM sleep.”

They all waited.

She took another sip from her glass, silently wishing she could drown herself in it. “While studying the patterns in certain dream states, we began to realize that there were similarities between the most vivid dreams and actual conscious thought, especially within the brain patterns of people who suffered extreme night terrors or those prone to excessive episodes of sleep walking. Comparing those brain patterns with people who were actually awake… well… the evidence showed us that in those extreme cases, it was the unconscious minds which were more ‘active’ than those who were conscious. That’s when we started considering the possibility that unconsciousness may actually be another state of consciousness altogether, rather than just the mind’s way of processing stimuli experienced previously in the conscious state.”

“So what are your saying then?” a stern, hawk-nosed older woman asked. She reminded Candice of every teacher she hated in high school all rolled into one. “Are we supposed to believe that you and your team have managed to uncover and redefine the conscious and unconscious mind based upon your assumption that dreams are… what… real?”

“In a manner of speaking… yes.” Candice stood up. “What I’m saying is that we’ve found far too much evidence of higher brain function activity in many unconscious minds which suggested that some patients, while dreaming, actually believed that the dreams were as real as all of us believe we are sitting here today. The brain patterns were no different from the patterns of those who were wide awake.”

“That isn’t anything new,” an older, robust man with white hair said. “Everyone’s had a dream on occasion that’s felt so real that when they wake, they were surprised they were still in bed. Even the unconscious mind can make a fictional place seem real. That doesn’t make it so.”

“It’s more than that,” Candice defended. “When I said there were no differences in the patterns, I meant more than just believing in the dream itself. There was evidence of self-awareness, responding to experiences… memory recall. It was as though the dreamers were fully awake… and aware… but were elsewhere at the same time. That’s what led us to the real discovery. It’s not about whether the dreams are real or not… it’s about what they really are… or more accurately… what they contain.”

“And that is?” the hawk-nosed woman pushed.

Candice looked to Michael and smiled. She turned back and said, “The dreams are ‘us’. Specifically, they are the place, for lack of a better word, which holds everything about us—who we are, our memories, our personality, beliefs… our very identity. Our dreams are not the playground in which our minds use to process day-to-day activity in an unconscious state. The dreams themselves are the place in which our consciousness originates from. It is this discovery that has altered our aim and led our research to the brink of an extraordinary place… one we simply call, ‘Elsewhere’.”

“That’s not science talking, that’s science fiction!” another older man with a cane and a large grey beard interrupted. “You are making incredible leaps based upon brain wave data which is inconclusive and highly subjective. Regardless of your wild theories, I want to know what all of this has to do with real science and who gave you authorization to include working with coma patients? You have clearly exceeded the mandate of your grant and it’s apparent that the college has been funding your wild goose chase long enough!”

“Alright, alright, let’s keep this civil,” Stockwell said, addressing them all. He turned to Candice. “We could debate theories all day, Dr. Forrester, but that’s not the point of this meeting today. I think it’s clear that, regardless of your findings, you’ve clearly moved your research outside the bounds of your authorized grant, and without prior approval. As it has been pointed out, it was your work with the coma patients that brought you to our attention. Do you deny this?”

Candice looked away. “No, I don’t deny that. But we had to. Working in the coma ward was the next logical step. It was the only way to gain any ground if what we had discovered was true.”

“Well I’ve heard enough,” the bearded man said. “The only logical conclusion after Dr. Forrester’s admission, is to deny any further funds to aid in her… misguided research.”

“Dr. Forrester,” Stockwell said, “Could you please step outside, we will call you back in shortly.”

The Board members started speaking to each other.

Candice felt defeated. She started to rise.

Michael put his hand on her shoulder and whispered, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this. You’ve done enough.”

Before she could protest, Michael stood up, straightened his suit, and then walked over toward a large window and peered outside. He then raised his voice just loud enough to gain the Boards’ attention. “It’s hard to believe we did it. I mean… we all heard it… we were all a part of it… but it’s still hard to believe.”

Dean Stockwell said, “Excuse me, young man, did you have something to add?”

Michael turned and smiled. “It was just last summer… July 20… 1969… I remember it like it was just yesterday. I was washing my car, listening to the radio when NASA put those guys up there on that floating chunk of rock. It was an incredible day.”

Stockwell nodded. “Yes, we will all certainly remember that extraordinary event, probably for the rest of our lives. But back to the matter at hand-”

“I remember what I was thinking about, washing that car, when Neil Armstrong stepped out on the moon,” Michael said. He started getting animated with his hands. “It was like I was in shock… you know… something like that happening… defying all belief. I immediately fell back in time to when I was a kid and my dad and I used to go out on his boat at night. We’d stare up at that moon and he’d tell me stories about men in rocket ships and aliens in outer space. I remember asking him, ‘Dad, do you think anyone could ever walk on the moon?’ He’d laughed at me and messed up my hair. Then he’d said, ‘You keep dreaming hard enough and the impossible might just become improbable. And if you work towards those dreams hard enough, that’s when the improbable becomes possible.’ I didn’t understand that until I was out washing my car last July. Was a hell of a feeling.”

He had their attention.

Michael started pacing the room. “I hear they have these elaborate computers over there at NASA. Fancy technological do-dads the size of my garage that act like big old robots with brains bigger than anyone in this room. Some people say, dreamers mainly, that we’ll all have computers one day that will be as small as televisions… can you imagine that? Anyway, these same people say that these computers will do just about anything eventually, and they’ll even be so small that you’ll hold them in your hand… crazy talk, right? But wait… we did just put two men on the moon… so who knows?”

He walked around the table, looking into all their eyes. “Now, I don’t pretend to know how those big old fancy computers work, but I’m told their brains will get bigger and bigger as the technology that holds them gets smaller and smaller, until one day, those brains will be so small that you can take it out of one computer and put it in another. Now, before you cut me off, I would like to point out that Dr. Forrester’s theory on dreams is much like those computers. You see… we are all a bit like those fancy computers. We come in all sorts of shapes and sizes but we all have a brain. And just like those fancy computer brains, our brains are a mystery. But let’s suppose for a minute that there’s a place in our minds where everything is stored… like those computers… and then let’s suppose that the only place large enough to hold an entire human being’s inner most thoughts, feelings, memories and experiences would have to be in a place that’s as unlimited as we are. If that’s the case, then why not the dreamscape buried deep within our own minds? And that… my friends… is what Dr. Forrester has attempted to explain to you. But you won’t listen… you won’t hear her out… you won’t believe.”

“What you are suggesting,” hawk-nosed woman said, “is impossible. You want us to believe that Dr. Forrester’s research will prove that dreams house our identity? That the dreams are what… our souls? You’re out of your mind, Sir.”

“Exactly!” Michael was getting animated. “Just last summer, we put two men up on the moon,” Michael reminded them. “Now… that was impossible, too, right? But we went and did it anyway.”

“So what are you suggesting?” Stockwell said. “Should we continue to fund Dr. Forrester’s research just in case she manages to turn water into wine?”

“No,” Michael said. “I’m not asking anyone to believe… I’m just asking that you allow this incredible woman time to continue believing long enough to put another man on the moon, despite the odds of her actually pulling off the impossible… and what it would mean for this University if she did.”

The Board members got up, walked toward the window, and started talking again.

Michael sat back down.

Candice turned to him and whispered, “That was awesome. Regardless of what they decide, thank you for trying. There’s no way I could’ve made them listen like you just did.” She kissed him on the cheek.

He smiled and said, “Nothing but the best pitch I can muster for the woman I love. Besides, that was easy. You’ve already made a believer out of me, Armstrong.”

After a few minutes they returned.

“Regardless of whether we believe or don’t believe in what you’re trying to accomplish, and honestly, I can’t say that we understand it,” Stockwell began, “this University is not in the business of funding the impossible. So I regret to inform you that your grant extension request has been den-”

“Improbable,” a short middle-aged man with silver hair interrupted. He was the only Board member who had remained silent until now.

“Come again, Mr. Bawle?” Stockwell said.

Mr. Bawle walked over to Michael and Candice and said, “Not all of us believe as wholeheartedly as the two of you, but not all of us wholeheartedly denounce your research either.” He gave them a wink.

“Mr. Bawle, we’ve discussed this already,” Stockwell said. “Their grant has been turned down.”

“Yes, yes, but unlike the rest of you, not only am I a Board member, but the organization in which I represent is a substantial financial contributor to this University… among other things.” Mr. Bawle turned to the other Board members and said, “You may all leave now. This matter is now above your station.”

The other Board members grudgingly departed without another word.

“Shit,” Candice whispered to Michael. “What just happened?”

Michael shrugged his shoulders.

Mr. Bawle turned to them, his hands neatly folded behind his back. “It seems that I am the deciding vote on whether or not your research gains further funding, Dr. Forrester.”

Candice didn’t know what to say.

The little man smiled. “Now, before this enthusiastic young man you brought with you today tries to convince me that the sky is indeed not blue, Dr. Forrester, I will settle this matter. Yes, you have your funding.”

Candice’s knees gave way as Michael caught her. “Thank you, Mr. Bawle,” she said. “You won’t regret it.”

Mr. Bawle lifted one eyebrow and said, “Oh, I am sure to regret a great many things in the days to come. But that is no concern of yours. Now tell me, why the coma ward? If you hadn’t gone and got them involved, you wouldn’t be here today.”

Michael and Candice gave each other a look.

“Come on,” Mr. Bawle said, “out with it. No more secrets.”

Candice sighed heavily and said, “We haven’t been as forthcoming about ‘all’ the research yet. Some of it might be considered… unethical.”

Mr. Bawle smiled. “Well… if it makes you feel any better, you can just tell me and I’ll forget to mention it to the rest of the Board. Acceptable?”

Candice nodded.

“Go ahead and tell the man,” Michael said. “He’s holding the pocketbook, after all.”

“It’s not the coma patients we’re interested in,” Candice said. “Our research involves the others who share the same ward.”

“And who might that be?” Mr. Bawle asked.

“The patients who are being kept alive on life support,” Candice said.

“Excuse my ignorance,” Mr. Bawle said, “but aren’t we still talking about coma patients?”

“Not exactly,” Michael said.

“No,” Candice added. “Coma patients, like those who are in a vegetative state, still have lower brain function, but the others on life support only, have lost all neurological function.”

Mr. Bawle still looked confused.

Candice shook her head in frustration. “The patients included in our research have clinically been declared deceased… brain dead, is the term. But they’re not… and my research will prove it.”

“They’re ‘Elsewhere’,” Michael added.

Mr. Bawle turned toward the window.

Shit… we’ve said too much, Candice thought.

“So let me get this straight,” he finally said. “The patients involved in your research are essentially dead… correct?”

“In laymen’s terms… yes,” Candice conceded.

“But you’re telling me that you can prove that they are not?”

Candice felt like the roof was about to collapse on her head. She looked at Michael. “Like my… colleague… tried to illustrate with the computer analogy, the data can be retrieved from a built in back-up system… even after the primary system has essentially… crashed.”

Mr. Bawle turned with his eyebrows raised. “I’m confused, Dr. Forrester. Either they are dead, or they are not. Which is it?”

Candice took a deep breath. “In order to adequately explain what we’ve discovered, I’m reluctant to answer that question without opening up a big old can of worms on the afterlife, Sir. Let me just say that if our research-”

“Fine. Fine. So… if I’m understanding where this is going, you want me to believe that you can prove that regardless of where the deceased have gone—Heaven, Hell…‘Elsewhere’—that you can… what… bring back the dead?”

“There’s a lot more to it than that,” she started. “It’s not a matter of-”

“Yes or no?” Mr. Bawle interrupted.

Candice let out a nervous little laugh. “Well… Sir… in a rudimentary sense… yes.”

This time it was Michael who gave her a surprised look.

Mr. Bawle smiled at her, then nodded at them both, before turning back toward the window.

Candice and Michael gave each other a confused glance.

“I appreciate you being straight forward with me, Dr. Forrester. I’m equally appreciative that you withheld what you just told me from the others.” He turned back around. “They would not understand or be as open-minded to such… possibilities… as my employer would be.”

Candice didn’t know how to respond.

“As I’ve said, your funding has been approved… for now.”

“With all due respect… what does that mean?” Candice said.

Mr. Bawle placed his hands on the table and stared at his feet. “It’s just a matter of time before someone at the University brings your research back into question. And I’m afraid that should the information you’ve shared with me gets out… there will be no way to protect you from the backlash.”

Candice nodded and said, “I’m aware of the risks. We’ve been careful to keep our true research hidden. We’ll just have to be more care-”

“How long do you think it will take for someone to connect the dots, Dr. Forrester?” Bawle interrupted.

Candice looked confused. “What… what do you mean by that?”

Mr. Bawle laughed lightly, shook his head, and approached them again. “What I mean is… I’m having a difficult time believing that the connection you share with one of the… brain-dead patients… is coincidental. Or, did you just forget to mention the rest in all the excitement?”

Michael sighed heavily. “Tell him,” he urged. “He already knows.”

Candice nodded and stared at the floor in front of Mr. Bawle’s feet. “Yes, one of the patients happens to be a relative of mine… but that in no way diminishes the results of my research. I didn’t mention it because-”

“You didn’t mention it because if anyone thought that your research was connected to your younger brother’s… condition… they would immediately dismiss your project and declare you emotionally unfit to continue,” Mr. Bawle finished. “Does that about cover it?”

“It’s not like that!” Michael stepped in. “If anything, she’s more motivated to succeed because of it!”

Candice placed her hand on Michael’s shoulder. “It’s okay. It was going to come out eventually… we both knew that.”

Michael frowned and nodded, stepping back.

Mr. Bawle returned his hands behind his back, waiting patiently for the young man’s temper to subside. He gave Candice a well-practiced concerned face, and continued, “I mean no disrespect to you… or your delicate situation. I merely wanted to point out that the truth will come out eventually… and sooner than you think. That’s why I want to offer you a better arrangement so that you can continue your research uninhibited by the University.”

This got both their attention.

Mr. Bawle smiled. “The organization I represent has vested interests all around the globe. Many are not very exciting, I can assure you, but on occasion… we dabble in some, how shall I put it, ‘off the books’ projects that some might consider… ‘impossible’.”

Candice smiled. “You mean ‘improbable’… right?”

Mr. Bawle laughed and pointed at her. “You got me.” He turned and started walking back toward the window. “As it turns out, we have a current long-running project that’s struck a wall. I believe that your research, and the current project my organization has spent considerable resources exploring, might mutually benefit from each other.”

“What are you proposing?” Candice said.

Mr. Bawle turned and gave her a serious face. “My organization is prepared to fund your research indefinitely, meaning, you will no longer need to rely upon the University… at all. You will be free to continue your research without fear of being found out or shut down prematurely by… unbelievers.” He gave Michael a wink.

Michael shifted uncomfortably.

“What’s the catch?” Candice asked.

“Well… my organization wants you to succeed, of course, but we also want shared rights to all your discoveries, including the actual application of your work to our current project. And need I remind you, this arrangement is entirely fair, since we are covering all the costs. You would retain all rights to your own work, of course, and could back out whenever you wish. But I believe when you find out what my organization has already achieved, and can apply it to your own work, you will be highly motivated to continue.”

“What could your organization possibly be involved in that would benefit from my research, or vice versa?”

Mr. Bawle smiled. “We can discuss that in more detail after we’ve relocated you off campus and given you a more private and secure location to continue your work.”

Michael and Candice shared a concerned look.

Candice sighed. “What about my patients? I can’t… I can’t leave them here.”

Mr. Bawle nodded thoughtfully. “Of course, you can’t. We will arrange to have them relocated, as well.”

“You can do that?” Michael said.

“Consider it done… should you both agree to our arrangement.” Mr. Bawle raised his hands and finished, “Please, talk it over. But I’ll need to know your answer before the end of the day. We’ve a lot of logistics to take care of and I’d like to get my team started on it.”

“Who do you work for, exactly?” Candice asked.

“Let me just say, I work for an organization that will make sure nothing can hinder your research… ever again. But I’m afraid that’s all I can say… for now. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity presented to you today. I strongly suggest you put aside your doubts and take it.”

“We’ll think about it,” Michael was quick to chime in, staring suspiciously at the short man with the devilish grin.

“Very good,” Mr. Bawle said, putting his hands together. “I have a few more appointments to get in today. Let’s say we meet back together for dinner. Seven o’clock sound good?”

“Sure. That would be great,” Candice said, too quickly.

“Splendid! I’ll have my driver pick you up. I really do hope you accept my organization’s generous offer, Dr. Forrester. You won’t regret it.” Mr. Bawle was about to exit the room, stopped, then turned. “Oh… I’ve one more question for the both of you. Might sound a bit strange.”

“Ask away,” Michael said. “Strange has been the theme today.”

Mr. Bawle laughed mechanically and then said, “Do either of you have any objections to working with children? Specifically, young girls?”

~~~

Author’s Note: As a refresher, this story takes place three years prior to Candice Forrester and Michael Finch’s involvement with the mysterious orphanage (which isn’t really an orphanage) where Meredith spent some time at back in Chapter 35: Dead Dolls. This story hopefully sheds a little light on Candice and Michael’s initial involvement with the organization (a.k.a. Mother if you’re reading between the lines) as Candice decides to ‘deal with the devil’ to further her research.

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