Bryant slowed his car to a crawl as he searched for the dirt path alley which intersected Third Street. It had been a few years, but not much had changed in this part of downtown Phoenix. He turned into a side street, guessing a little as his headlights revealed an alley with high block walls on each side with large trash cans every twenty yards. The narrow corridor was just wide enough for one car.
As he rolled forward, a large metal gate slid open and a thin man with a long golden ponytail waved at Bryant to pull in.
“Is that him?” Margo asked.
“That’s him,” Bryant said, parking the car next to the back door.
Dr. Scott Lipson slid the gate shut and came over to greet his guests.
“Hey,” Bryant said with a sheepish grin. “How’s it going, Scott?”
“Good, buddy,” Lipson said, shaking his hand and looking at Margo. “And?”
“This is Margo,” Bryant said. “She’s the girl I was speaking about.”
Lipson couldn’t keep the smile from his face. “Yeah, hey, nice to meet you.” He ushered his guests toward the back door. “I figured you would know to come around back. This isn’t the best part of town.”
“You still running the sleep clinic?” Bryant asked.
“I am,” Lipson said, pushing numbers into a keypad installed on the block wall next to the back door. “I have a patient coming much later. I want them really tired before I hook them up.”
Lipson’s clinic was no more than a renovated one-story house, probably built in the fifties, with block construction, worn fascia boards, and wood trim around the windows. They stood under the patio cover—a lone incandescent bulb hung on the wall and illuminated the back entrance—while Lipson opened the door for them.
“Come on in,” he said.
Once inside, the resemblance to a house disappeared. The gutted interior was pure science. Weight-bearing columns stood in strategic locations throughout the place, while the floor was a white industrial-strength linoleum. There were laboratory stations along the left side of the complex; stainless steel sinks jutted out from the walls with their stainless steel countertops next to them. Even the overhead lighting was high-tech. A gentle stream of halogen bulbs seemed to sense their movements and illuminated several feet ahead of their path, leaving the perimeter of the building in the shadows.
Pink Floyd played quietly from unseen speakers. Bryant wasn’t sure of the song, something from Animals maybe, but he recognized David Gilmour’s ghostly guitar at work.
Lipson led them to the right side of his lab, ushering them through an open door. The overhead lights came to life, exposing a chest-high countertop full of computer screens and keyboards. Beyond the control panel of computer equipment was a glass wall. Beyond that, a separate room with a king-size bed next to a small table holding a mechanical device. A nose mask mingled with wires and electrodes and tubing, all designed to diagnose sleep apnea.
“Wow,” Bryant said. “You’ve really geared this place up.”
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” Lipson said, sitting on a lab stool in front of the control panel and spinning around to face his guests. He focused on Margo. “So, tell me about yourself?”
Margo gave Bryant an apprehensive glance.
“Well,” Margo began, “I’m . . . uh . . .”
“She’s special,” Bryant said.
“Special?” Lipson asked. “Tell me.”
Bryant sighed. He gave Margo an open hand, suggesting she proceed with the proof.
“Pick a card,” Margo said.
“A card?” Lipson said. “What kind of a card?”
“You know, five of spades, that kind of a card. Just think of one in your head.”
Lipson shrugged. “Okay. I got one.”
“Jack of diamonds,” Margo said, casually.
Lipson raised his eyebrows. “Do it again.”
Margo looked around the room, as if occupying her time with something more substantial. “Ace of hearts,” Margo said. Then pointing to the device inside the bedroom, she added, “What’s that machine do in there?”
Lipson jumped off his chair and came around to face Margo, placing his hands on her arms and saying, “Do it again.”
Margo put her lips together in a tired sulk. She looked at him for a few seconds, then tilted her head. “You’re not thinking of a card. Now, you’re thinking of a monkey. His name is Silas. You named him after a character from a Neil Gaiman novel.”
Lipson hopped away from her, clapping his hands and doing a mock jig, his ponytail bouncing up and down to his dance. He stopped and pointed at Bryant with an impish grin. “This is what you meant on the phone, huh? Someone special?”
“Yeah, Scott, she’s special, but I need your help.”
Lipson stopped in his tracks. “Yes, of course. Neuroplasticity. That’s why you’re here.”
“Yes,” Bryant said.
“And you believe Margo has the ability to regenerate her brain tissue?”
“And you think I can prove that?”
“And what exactly does that have to do with her special talent?”
Bryant scuffed his right toe along the floor, trying to consider how much to tell his friend.
“You have a pet monkey?” Margo said.
Lipson smiled. He turned to the open doorway and called, “Silas.”
A few moments later a three-foot-tall monkey came waddling in, his arms flailing with his gait. The furry, brown creature had a flat nose and inquisitive eyes. He hunched forward on all fours and approached Margo.
“He’s a little feisty to strangers” Lipson said, “So I wouldn’t try to pet him.”
Silas came up on his hind legs and began pulling on Margo’s shorts, picking out tiny pieces of lint from her cotton shorts, like grooming his own child.
Lipson grinned. “He seems to like you.”
“Yeah,” Margo said, caressing the monkey’s head as he continued his grooming process.
“He’s a howler monkey,” Lipson said, watching closely. He tilted his head. “He’s been trained to protect me. I’ve never seen him become this friendly so fast.”
Bryant examined some of the equipment on Lipson’s counter. “You’ve added quite a bit of technology since the last time I was here.”
“I did, yeah,” Lipson said, looking over at Margo who was enjoying her visit with Silas. He gave Bryant a conspiratorial grin. “Can I have a go at her?”
“Let me have a minute,” Bryant said, then took Margo’s hand and led her around the glass wall onto a vacant bed and sat her down. Lipson called to Silas, and the monkey responded to his voice back into the outer room.
Bryant sat next to Margo and said, “What do you think of Dr. Lipson?”
She smiled. “He’s nice. He’s a good person.”
“Yes, he is,” Bryant said, taking in the large expanse of digital scanning devices and table-size computers.
Margo followed his gaze. “You want him to do tests on me?” she asked in a little girl’s voice.
Bryant took hold of her hands. “Look, we need to find out what’s going on inside your beautifully complex brain. It could help you understand what happened and maybe help you deal with your abilities. Maybe even—”
“Shut it off?” she finished for him.
Bryant hadn’t considered that. He was so bent on getting at the truth, it hadn’t crossed his mind that Lipson might actually be able to reduce Margo’s symptoms. How did he miss that?
“He can help,” Bryant said. “I just don’t know how, yet.”
Margo seemed to appreciate the honesty in his voice. “Okay.”
“Yes,” she said, accepting the need for answers.
Bryant took her back to Lipson’s control panel where he was playing with some knobs while the computer screen changed colors.
“Just working on my contrast,” Lipson said, twisting a knob until the screen was a pale white. “There,” he said. Then he turned to Margo. “Are you ready, young lady?”
Margo couldn’t help but smile at anything Lipson said, which gave Bryant comfort knowing she trusted him. Lipson took Margo around the glass wall and had her sit down in a hydraulic procedure chair facing the control panel. Once seated, Lipson lowered a fiberglass helmet around her head and attached a few electrodes to her temple and forehead. Margo looked nervous. Perhaps from the electronic device, or perhaps from being so close to understanding her condition.
Lipson returned to the control panel where Bryant waited for them. Lipson leaned forward and pushed a button on the panel. “Can you hear me okay?” he said into a miniature microphone.
From the other side of the glass, Margo nodded. “Yes, Dr. Lipson,” her voice came back through the receiver.
“Good,” he said. “You’re going to hear a loud rattling noise for a minute or so, but that will smooth out once it gets going.”
Margo appeared stiff, but she showed a brave face.
On the computer, the image of Margo’s brain illuminated the screen with a myriad of diverse colors.
“Wow,” Lipson murmured under his breath. “Will you look at that?”
“What?” Bryant asked. “What are you seeing?”
Lipson said, “Wait a minute.” Then he pushed the button again and said, “Margo, in your head, I want you to count by twos up to one hundred.”
The left side of the brain glowed a bright green. Lipson blew out a small breath.
“What?” Bryant asked again.
Lipson held up a finger to him, then said into the speaker. “Now, Margo, I want you to think of one of your favorite songs. Maybe hum it to yourself.”
Now the right side of the brain illuminated with an iridescent purple. Lipson’s face brightened to a new level. Bryant left him alone and let him work.
Lipson pointed to a drawer at the end of the control panel. “In there is a lancet for doing blood sugars,” he said to Bryant. “Take one out and prick her finger for me.” The excitement kept mounting as Lipson observed the waterfall of colors on his computer screen.
Bryant took the lancet and went around the corner to Margo.
Lipson spoke into the microphone again. “Now, Margo, I’m going to have Dr. Bryant prick your finger with a tiny needle made to puncture the skin for a small blood sample. It’s made for diabetics to get their blood sugar readings. It will sting for a moment, but that’s all.”
Bryant came over to Margo and explained what he would do. She seemed even more nervous about exposing her healing ability, but held out her index finger for him. Bryant pressed the lancet device against her skin and pushed the release button. The lancet instantly snapped out. Bryant pulled the device away and saw a tiny bubble of blood surface on her fingertip. It lingered there like a ball of mercury, quivering and moving until it began to trickle down her finger. By the time it reached her palm, the miniscule puncture wound had already healed. Bryant wiped the drop of blood from her hand with a tissue.
From the other side of the glass wall, Lipson was mumbling words of excitement to himself. He was obviously trying to contain his emotions, but was losing the battle.
“Okay, you two,” Lipson said into the microphone. “That’s enough.” He came into the room and removed the electrodes from Margo’s head, then pulled the helmet off. He held out his hand to assist Margo from the procedure chair.
“Let’s go into my office,” he said with a wry grin. “We need to talk.”
They followed Lipson into a small side room, where it was obvious he’d spent very little time. There was a bare wooden desk fronted by two vinyl patient chairs and nothing else. No college degrees on the wall or family photos on the desk. It was simply a consultation room. Lipson’s real office was out in his laboratory, where he kept all his intimate details.
Bryant and Margo took their seats and Lipson sat behind his desk, the wheels squeaking as he pulled himself close and laid his hands flat on the desk. “So,” he said, casually, “when I was a young boy my father bought me a starfish for my birthday. It only took my older brother three days to take a knife and cut off one of its limbs.”
Lipson gestured toward Bryant. “He knows my brother, Earl. He’s a piece of work.”
Bryant grinned and nodded at the mention of Lipson’s older and menacing sibling.
“Anyway,” Lipson said, “as you might’ve suspected, the limb grew back over time and I became absolutely mesmerized by the event. I would tell other people at school and they’d shrug or say, ‘cool,’ and walk away. But I could never get that image of the new limb growing back out of my mind. I’ve spent the past ten years of my professional life trying everything to be able to reproduce the same effect within the brain of a human being. I knew it was possible. I just needed the right patient to prove it.”
Lipson held out his hand to Margo. “And there you are.”
Margo was working it out in her mind, but didn’t seem to be gathering all the information. “But how?” was all she said.
Lipson leaned back in his chair and folded his hands on his lap. “Margo, we are born with billions of neurons in our brain. Once these neurons die, either by brain damage or disease, they can never grow back,” Lipson held up his index finger, “except in two regions of the brain. The obvious hypothesis is that these two areas need to be highly plastic and need to learn more than other regions, and that’s why new neurons need to be created.”
Lipson looked back and forth between Bryant and Margo. “Are you getting this?”
Margo shrugged. “I guess.”
“Can I ask you something?” Lipson said.
“Have you always healed quickly?”
Margo took a frustrated breath. “No. This began just recently.”
“Have you been in any kind of an accident lately, or endured any kind of trauma to your head?”
Margo gave Bryant a furtive glance.
“What?” Lipson said.
“You really don’t know who she is, do you?” Bryant said.
Lipson shrugged. He looked around his clinic and gestured with his hand. “This is my cave. I come out each afternoon to spend time with the family, play catch, go bowling, then it’s right back in here. So please don’t be insulted.” He eyed Margo carefully. “Are you a famous singer, something like that?”
For the first time since Bryant had known her, Margo giggled. She seemed to become younger and more innocent. “No,” she said, “I’m the one everyone calls the alien girl.”
Lipson had no reaction to that.
“I thought I was hearing aliens from another planet, planning to destroy Earth.” She added, “The media had a ball making fun of me.”
“I’ll bet they did,” Lipson said.
Bryant intervened and told Lipson about her accident, the gunshot, the recovery and everything else, except the part about an FBI agent chasing her.
Lipson took it all in and rubbed his hands together when he was done. He gazed back and forth between Margo and Bryant. “Look,” he said, “I can sit here and bore you with data and technical terms for what I saw on my scanning device while your body was healing itself.” He leaned over his desk. “I believe the accident prompted a response in just the right spot of your brain which has accelerated its healing ability. The fact is, there are no fundamental limits to what the brain can accomplish. This isn’t like the laws of physics which have certain restrictions. The neurons in your brain are regenerating at a rapid pace. I could see the signals being sent right before my eyes, and somehow they’re extending their healing abilities to the rest of your body. Margo, it would take me a lifetime to prove it scientifically, but that hardly matters. It is happening, that much is for certain.”
Margo had no expression. She sat listening and absorbing without emotion.
Bryant took her hand and felt how cold it was. “Are you okay?”
She had a distant stare in her eyes. “I think.”
“Do you have any questions?”
“Will I ever die?”
Lipson grinned. “Most certainly. Your brain will age along with your body. I doubt anything will break that sequence of events.”
“But what about now? Can’t I just die like a regular person?” Margo frowned.
Lipson glanced at Bryant for help.
“Well,” Bryant intervened, “If something should happen to your brain, a severe head wound or trauma of some sort, then your brain wouldn’t be capable of repairing the other cells in your body. In that case you would die, yes.”
Margo’s expression appeared to lighten. “Really?” She spoke with enthusiasm in her voice.
Bryant looked at Lipson and held out his hand as if to prompt the scientist for validation.
“Oh, yes, absolutely,” Lipson said, now realizing how important it was that Margo feel more human. “You couldn’t survive without that mind of yours doing its thing.”
There was a loud howl from the lab. The sound of feet shuffling and chairs falling echoed out in the hallway.
Margo bolted upright in her chair. She jerked her head sideways and looked frantically out the office door. “Someone’s here.”