It was a December night in 1882. We were working under the light of oil lamps. Winter had arrived — the shooing wind was doing enough to remind us so — but the cold had not been unbearable enough to force us into heavier clothing. My lab coat was providing my body with just enough warmth as I ran some calculations — my mind, even to this day, happens to be most at peace when I’m working — with my assistant Dr. Parkinson. We had been working overtime.
I had not married, and so I never had to worry about keeping a wife waiting for me at the dinner table. Not that I would have disliked to have someone care about me that way and it was not as if I never had time for people. In fact, I had time aplenty — there had been days when I had spent hours on books I didn’t like or spent the time standing before my office window watching people interact, or pass by — yet…
I had been haunted by self-doubt. I perceived it to be my worst flaw. What I had not known was that it was nothing compared to all the cracks and slits my psyche would have to endure in the years to come.
My lab was quite large. But it had not always been so. It had just been renovated at my request — yes, being the most prolific scholar at GU has its ups. I cannot say I had felt too bad about the space the authority had to take away from two adjacent labs. I had known the occupiers of those labs well enough to write without hesitation that they stank of incompetency. There had also been rumors about them misusing their research grant money. One time I had overheard the de facto prince of Gotham himself, Bruce Wayne, have a heated conversation with one of them in a hallway — after all, it’s the Wayne Foundation that funds most of Gotham’s scientists. The lad had so much of his father’s rage in his voice — not a surprise, yet it had been quite a discovery, considering his charming public image — that I had even felt concern for the stinking occupier for a brief moment.
My mind’s slipping into unnecessary details — it surprises me how old I have become.
Parkinson and I had been working on the SCRO-2 — a brain activity enhancing drug, or so was our intention. It was a fairly new project but we had hope. We had previously been developing SCRO-1 with an utter misunderstanding of enhancement. We had eventually corrected our approach and developed a principle that remains valid to this day — as these things work, it may as well be debunked or modified in the future. But as I understand now and as we did with SCRO-2, enhancement doesn’t work by stimulating or over-stimulating one’s cognition. With the new formula, we had been working the possibility that it would work by actually numbing down a subject’s certain cognitive functions — an act of natural balance, quite marvelous we thought it was — and it proved to be fruitful for a while. We were ecstatic. The hope was that SCRO-2 would help patients with neurodegenerative diseases live a more convenient life. Of course, it was no cure. The patients would also lose their vision, and in extreme cases, their sense of taste, but given the options, I believe they would have made the sacrifice. The possibilities of what could be done with the formula nonetheless seemed limitless.
But in the end, it wasn’t anyone’s salvation. SCRO-2 could enhance a brain’s activity, but not in the way we intended. Its functions can be better described as those of a hallucinogen. It numbed down the subject’s cognition, yes. The drug temporarily barred input to certain parts of the subject’s brain. It resulted in those part becoming hyperactive and that led to some bizarre, irrational outputs — the inevitable result was partial disintegration of the subject’s psyche.
I was the subject.
I remember clearly. It started with a bat. Parkinson had left an hour ago. I was done for the night as well. All that was left to do was for me to put the test tube carriers in a shelf, lock it — and then the lab itself — up nicely, and hope Jimmy the cabbie was still waiting for me. I had done that a lot to the chap in the university days, making him wait for hours at night and sometimes, past midnight. But I would always pay him up nicely.
Anyway, there I was, carrying the tubes to the other side of the room. That’s when I saw something dash right across — something dark. I stopped and tightened my grip on the tube carrier as well I could — I was trembling. I couldn’t have caught what it was — so fast I felt it move — even if there had been electric lights in the lab. I looked around but didn’t see anything suspicious. I tried not to think much about it. But that’s the fatal mistake. The brain does not accept negative suggestions. If you tell yourself to not kick the stone, what your brain hears is kick the sodding stone. I began walking towards the shelf again. As well as I knew my lab, as many nights as I’d spent there, I couldn’t help feeling self-conscious — I couldn’t ignore my footsteps, or the rippling noise of the SCRO-2 samples in the carrier. I could feel my body cutting through the air. An irrational thought began frequenting my mind: something is clinging onto my back. I told myself it’s just my sensory nerves being cautious and firing mad signals. I was too afraid to turn around to confirm it. But I needed to do it because every step I took my head felt heavier. I was mentally in a place where probability and rationality didn’t mean anything. I reluctantly turned around.
There was of course nothing. I felt stupid. I remember even grinning a little. But the sensation came back. I turned around again — this time breathing irregularly. Something was in the room. Part of me wanted to run for the door but I couldn’t leave the samples lying on a table and I couldn’t run to the shelf because the tubes needed to be moved with caution. I had to calm my nerves. I wondered…
What am I doing? I’m a professor of psychology.
I stood my ground and practiced abdominal breathing for a few moments. As the nerves settled, it crossed my mind — whatever it was, it was not behind me…
It was above me.
The oil lamps that I hadn’t still put out weren’t bright enough to illuminate the whole of the domed ceiling. But I saw movement up there. I couldn’t tell what it was but the movement… it was mesmerizing. I don’t know how many seconds I spent observing it — for the moment being, I was not aware of anything else but it. And then…
I tried to turn my head up a tad too much and heard a popping noise. The pop itself wasn’t so painful but my left hand instinctively went for my neck. And that was it — I became hyperaware of what was happening and sure of what was about to happen. The tube carrier tilted down to the left, swung and hung from my right hand. Quite a few tubes slipped out and loudly impacted the ground — immediately shattering into shards and unleashing the samples — by the time I handled the carrier.
The samples vaporized in a matter of blinks.
I did not run from it — no point, it was already in my system and unmistakably, it was an overexposure. Theoretically, I knew what symptoms to expect — my vision would go before all, so I didn’t have a lot of time. I was just as excited as I was terrified of the inevitable consequences. I began strolling towards the shelves — no excuse, not even exposure, can justify abandonment of caution. First things first, I kept reminding myself…
Just secure the remaining samples. The samples.
I was so focused that I don’t think it occurred to me once to look back at the ceiling.
Just a little more, you clumsy bastard.
I couldn’t tell for sure if my sight was getting blurrier but I began to feel dizzy. It did not seem to be a major problem. I reached the shelves, carefully placed the samples in their right places. I was cautious with the locks. But then something changed, I was not standing where I thought I was.
In the blink of an eye, I found myself in a dark plane. Surrounded by darkness, but I was not blind. I could see it, all of it — the structure, the different shades of black, the furniture… the tables around me, the shelves in the distance. It was still my lab, except it looked different in a fashion I cannot describe. Moreover, I was back at the centre of the room. A feeling of discomfort originated from somewhere in body, but I could not detect it. It tempted me like an itch between the flesh and the bones. I had never felt crazier, I had never craved anything more — I would have given up anything to just scratch it.
“Touch it… dig for it,” a voice whispered. Right in that moment, it was a metaphorical itch no more, and the discomfort was all over my body — ‘intense’ does not begin to describe it. My reflexes compelled me to follow the voice’s command. My hands, the nails, reached all over my body, scraping everything in their path — the itch no less resolved, the craving all the more violent. Drops of blood were dripping from all over me, the pain from the wounds felt like bliss in contrast to the itch. I tried to scream but my voice died down, as if in that moment, my brain unlearned any way of making vocal noise.
I fell to my knees and… my knees… something pierced through their skin and stabbed through the muscles, locking them in that bent position.
“Don’t look down… follow the bliss,” the voice commanded.
It was hard not to look. So close I was to the floor, my peripheral vision had already disobeyed the voice’s command. I looked down and the floor beneath me was all red and full of shards from the tubes — many were sticking out from my knees. With that realization something tingled in the centre of my brain — all the itch in my bones followed the tingle — and then it went somewhere else… in two new places.
My feet! I had been standing on the shards. Thus the discomfort. But…
It hadn’t occurred to me up until that point — the itch had numbed most of my senses down — that I didn’t have any shoes on. In fact, I was minimally dressed. I realized that the cold had not bothered me, despite my body being bare, up until then but at that exact moment of realization, I began to shiver. The pain — the scratches from my back and my belly, the wounds on my knees and under my feet — instantly became sharper. There was nothing I could do — I could not scream, I could not move my knees, and so, could not tend to my feet — except to silently weep. How was I supposed to tend to them anyway? If I had pulled the shards out, I’d have inflicted more damage and bled out — it all meant I had a low probability of survival without help. And then…
Something appeared in front of me… no more than ten yards away. Its fur-covered body stood tall — taller than the average man — with bat-like wings spread wide in opposite directions. Its eyes glowed yellow and blood drooled from different parts of its mouth. The most eerie part was that its ears were human-like. I was sure I had witnessed the devil even though I had not believed in any such thing beforehand, but beliefs weren’t worth shit anymore.
The devil strolled towards me. Something was still holding me back from screaming — my lungs could burst. My eyes closed up and my head fell as the footsteps gained — no hope — its weighted breath more clear to me now. Something was so gracious about this seemingly mindless beast’s movement — calculated, teasing. All of it signaled that it had power over me. But the footsteps hit a pause.
It’s right in front of me.
I kept my head down but a smell hit back of my nose — it was nauseating. Was it its breath? I did not want to know.
“Look at me,” it finally spoke, in a weak and hoarse voice. “Look. At. Me.”
I gave in, opened my eyes and…
Something changed. I was not where I thought I was. I was standing in front of the shelves, fully clothed and, at least physically unscathed. The remaining oil lamps gave the room a warm atmosphere. I could make out the shards lying on the floor over yonder — no trace of blood near the mess, nor was there any trace of the beast, none of that nauseating smell either. I fought the urge to look up at the ceiling and proceeded to put out the remaining lights, made sure I saved the closest ones to the entrance for the last.
Jimmy was still waiting for me outside the campus. I’d never been happier to see a human face. That night, I went home in one piece but I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t help wonder…
I have brought something back with me.
The same night Dr. Parkinson had been attacked by two muggers. He came out of the attack alive and with all of his possessions preserved. According to Parkinson’s then-ridiculed testimony, a caped, shadowy figure came to his rescue and disappeared before he could thank him.
That was the first reported sighting of the Batman.
Yes, I am relating the hallucination to the sighting. You could argue that it was the first reported sighting of the Bat, and so, he could have been around before that too — I can give you that he can be damn sneaky. But I could argue using the same point stated that since he hadn’t been reported — made news — until then, there is no way I could have known about him beforehand. To re-establish, those events are co-incidences, unless, either you are inclined to put faith on the off chance that my hallucination — only the devil would know how — was influenced by the Batman, or you would find it plausible that the Bat is a figment of my imagination and you are all living in Jonathan Crane’s eternal hallucination.
You must ask yourself what is more likely and listen to reason. If we consider that it was indeed a co-incidence, then it was by no means a meaningless one — at least, not to me. I have documented hundreds of cases of such meaningful co-incidences over the years but none are as strong as the one with the Bat.
I cannot say this without sounding like a lunatic — I live in Arkham Asylum, I might as well own up to it — but sometimes I suspect that I may truly be dreaming and that when I wake up, I’ll be trembling at the feet of the yellow-eyed devil. It’s a haunting thought, that something is tragically wrong with the world — I can feel it like that itch in my bones — and I wish I could figure out what.