What’s so funny?
Loughaton, January 2018, 8:00 AM
“Haa, ha ha ha ha!”
The folks stood in a circle. Raising their hands, they embarked on another round of laughing. I shook my head, scratching my tightly woven curls. These laughter club folks were becoming insufferable.
“Wo, hoooo,hooo..” I stared in disbelief as Becky collapsed into a fit of laughter after the other folks had ceased laughing.
“Are you ok, Becky?” Nadia, Becky’s friend, and the laughter club instructor seemed concerned.
“I’m okay, haha, haha!” She collapsed into another fit.
The joggers in the park slowed down to look at the sixty-year-old woman laughing like a maniac.
Come on Becky, don’t embarrass me further. I glanced at the puzzled faces all around.
“Eh, eh…ha, haha!” Becky’s pale face turned crimson as she clenched her teeth in an attempt to curb another bout of laughter.
Sebastian, something is wrong. My gut told me.
I ran closer, trying to comfort her.
“Ho, ho, ho!” She fell to the ground, rolling in the wet grass. Despicable behaviour, I bit my tongue.
“What is so funny?” A lady from the crowd asked aloud.
“Ah, ah huh…” Becky was flailing her arms now. The amused smiles in the crowd turned to scowls.
No, no, she is shaking. She is having a seizure, lord! I jumped in panic.
“Woof, woof!” I screamed, asking for help.
The folks continued to watch her in bewilderment. Idiots!
“Woof, woof!” Becky, are you okay? I pleaded with the crowd for help.
“Quiet, Sebastian!” Nadia ordered.
Damn! I must get help myself. I rushed out of the park to fetch a doctor.
Becky’s eyes suddenly rolled up, as white froth crept out of the corner of her mouth.
“Someone call an ambulance!” I heard Nadia’s voice as I raced ahead.
How do you feel?
1 year later
“Holy moly! Look at that!” Ginny exclaimed as she rolled Becky sideways to sponge her back.
“What is it? Bring me a mirror!” Becky lay on her left side, supported with pillows. Her eyes glowed in anticipation like a child waiting for Christmas.
“Here it is!” Ginny handed her the mirror. Becky stole a glance at herself. Cropped hair, hollowed cheeks, a bunch of fresh wrinkles. Her mouth deviated slightly to the right. She blinked only with her right eye. The left half of her face was an inexpressive mask.
“Well, I look half as good as before!” Becky chuckled.
Humour in misery, poetic. But very unlike Becky. I stared quietly from a corner, partly burying my muzzle in my furry arms.
The two ladies went back and forth with the mirror till Becky could see the back of her right thigh.
“There it is! A bedsore. My first, girl! It’s a milestone.” Becky said gleefully.
“Does it hurt bad, Madam?” Ginny looked concerned.
“Yeah, of course.” Becky nodded excitedly.
“Then let me bake a cake.” Ginny skidded off to the kitchen.
Dimwit! Celebrating bedsores. I would have considered this behaviour alarming before. But I had been mutely observing this for a year. Ever since Becky collapsed in the park and had a stroke. She woke up hemiplegic. A repulsively cheerful hemiplegic.
Nadia walked in with her cane basket. It was time for their fortnightly tea party. I sized up the woman, one more time.
Lanky, thin, in her sixties. Her salt and pepper hair fell in loose curls till her waist. She wore a steel grey ankle-length dress, with a silly teal scarf wrapping her head. Her green eyes glimmered with amusement at the cheerfulness of the folks around her. Everyone seemed in good spirits constantly in the town. Her town.
You cannot trust a woman who lives on a hilltop with thirteen cats.
Did I mention Nadia was now the mayor? And that she had rechristened Loughaton to Laugh-a-ton?
“Would you get us some tea, Ginny?” Nadia spoke with a smile. Unlike the mindless giggles that everyone else around town attached with every spoken word.
How come she has not lost it? I asked myself for the thousandth time.
I watched suspiciously as Nadia fished out a lead box from her basket. She rubbed her palms to powder the dry herbs she held in her hands. Her happy herbs. As she dropped them in the teapot, a citrus aroma pervaded my senses, like always.
I inhaled deeply.
She laid out a cup in front of Becky. “There you go. And don’t forget your medicines.” Nadia held out an assorted collection of tablets in her palm.
I watched in resignation as I did every fortnight. The three women drank from their cups, making small talk.
10, 9, 8…I began a mental countdown as I anticipated the question…3,2,1
“How do you feel, Becky?” Nadia’s eyes bore into Becky’s as if staring right through to her soul.
“Cheerful.” Becky nodded.
Yeah right. Cheerful is the apt emotion in this situation of yours! I clawed at my fur in helplessness.
You are up to something, Nadia, and I will find out. Upon a poodle’s honour.
Do you get the drift?
I dug my untrimmed nails under the flaking paint of the wall, as I steadied myself on my long hind limbs. Mr. And Mrs. Terson sat at the table facing Nadia, drinking, you guessed it right, tea.
I was all ears.
“Did you get those happy herbs, Madam Mayor?” Mr. Terson rubbed his hands excitedly.
“Of course. I’m glad you like them so much.”
“I wait for our monthly tea party, you know. And how could I not? My Wife starts getting tetchy by the end of the month.” Mr. Terson warily looked at his wife.
“Ah, you naughty boy!” Mrs. Terson had already sipped the happy tea.
“It is so nice of you to go to visit each household, every month. I believe there is no mayor like you in this world!” Mr. Terson said after finishing his second cup.
“Well, doesn’t the world need more mayors like me?” Nadia smiled enigmatically, as she rose.
“May your tribe increase!” the tea-full Tersons chirped.
Are you guys serious? This woman is drugging you. Drugging the whole town. And not a single person sees through!
But what drug is this, which only makes folks sickeningly happy? And affects nothing else?
And why does she visit Becky every fortnight, when she only drugs others once a month?
Is he coming?
“How are you, my little pumpkin pie?” Ginny video-called her son the other day. She stayed with us all the time, to care for Becky and me. Not that I needed to be cared for by giggling mad women.
“Like a rotten pumpkin, that’s what!” I watched the smartphone screen with interest. The teenager at the other end was rolling his eyes.
“Such an angry young man!” Ginny giggled, as she walked to the kitchen.
Oh, yeah. The guy seemed irritable. Like a regular teenager. That was a welcome change.
What if we had a visitor? A sane person to keep me company for a few days.
I dismissed my thoughts. There had been weekend visitors. But they always returned marveling about the cheerful vibes the locals of Laugh-a-ton emanated.
Anyone who stayed beyond a weekend joined the tribe of compulsive cheeries, as I called them.
Did I mention the local cafeterias served happy tea and happy beverages too? All under the solicitous gaze of the Mayor.
“Rudolf, my child!” Becky squealed in joy.
I bolted to her room. Was he coming home?
I could see him on Becky’s phone screen. Wait, where was he? That’s our courtyard! I raced to the door.
“Woof!” I threw myself over Rudolf’s broad shoulders.
“How are you, buddy?” Rudolf gripped me with my forelimbs. I licked his bulbous nose. His wiry stubble tickled me. I did not want to share him, even with Becky.
Do you remember?
We sat on the porch, absorbing the February sunlight. Rudolf and I. Just like the old days.
They say poodles are among the smartest dogs. Of course, we are. But that is not why the two of us gelled. We conversed in silence. He could detect the slightest twitch of my ear, and know what it meant. I knew just why he was frowning. Because he would never say himself.
His parents had gifted me to him on his fifteenth birthday. The local pet shop owner had said poodles were hypoallergic. Charmed with my apricot coat, the couple selected me for their asthmatic, introverted son.
I don’t know about dander, but Rudolf was certainly allergic to people. He loved making intelligent observations, but never voiced them. Imagine how proud I felt when he decided I was smart enough to be his friend! Perhaps his only friend.
“How are things at work?” I wagged my tail.
He stroked my ruff. There has been a layoff, isn’t it? No wonder you paid us a surprise visit. I blinked in solidarity.
Rudolf was a chemical engineer working in Germany. A brilliant one, I’m sure. But dealing with people was not his forte. That must have cost you your job, brother.
“How are things here? Aunt Nadia really seems to have turned the place around.” Nadia and Becky were childhood friends.
You mean turned the people’s brains around. Into happy mince pies. I gnarled.
“What are you saying, buddy?” Rudolf was taken aback.
Let’s go for a walk. I growled.
Don’t you see it?
Do you remember the streets teeming with people frowning over their taxing schedules? Bickering about the lack of rain and sun, in turns?
People only wave and smile at each other now. Or slap each other’s backs. Don’t you see it? I glanced at Rudolf.
“Hey, watch out!” The car racing beside us came to a screeching halt.
A biker crossing the road in the wrong direction lay sprawled on the floor. The car driver walked up to the biker. Helping him up, he shook the other’s hand. They walked into an adjacent cafeteria for a coffee. The car stood unlocked, with the key at the ignition. In the middle of the road.
Do you remember how people honked horns at signals?
They are now chatting with adjacent vehicle drivers, while the traffic jam swells behind vehicles randomly parked on the road. Don’t you see it?
Rudolf turned to me. “Look, I know this is a drastic change. But aren’t the people happier? Aunt Nadia is a celebrated neuroscientist. Maybe her techniques really work.”
Enough of the mystery of the mind routine! People learn, they adapt. They do not change into entirely different persons. They should not. I barked in protest.
“Let’s stop for a coffee.” Rudolf dragged me. I barked like I was witnessing the end of my life.
“Is the cafeteria on your radar?” Rudolf whispered.
I wagged my tail for the first time since morning, pointing at the board. Cafe Cantankerous had been renamed Cafe Can’t-anger-us.
Now, do you see it?
Nadia visited us the next morning. With her happy herbs. Why was I the only one not surprised? It had only been a couple of days since her last visit.
“Take a sip, Rudolf dear. I specifically came to see you. How are you doing?”
I let out a yelp in protest.
“I guess I shall pass. You know I am not a tea person.” Rudolf smiled at me.
“Did you see my bedsore? It’s growing!” Becky remarked.
Like she was speaking of her kitchen garden!
“Mom, why didn’t you tell me? It must be painful! Let me see.”
“Ah, pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Becky reflected.
Profound words. And true, I conceded.
“And we endeavour to eliminate all suffering. Forever.” Nadia spoke with a palpable thrill in her voice.
Rudolf was examining the sore. “When was the last time you visited a doctor, Mom?”
“Well, I supervise her medication personally. The least I can do for an old friend.” Nadia clasped Becky’s palm in hers.
Now, do you see it? I and Rudolf exchanged a knowing glance.
Did you check my homework?
There was a nip in the air at the crack of dawn. Yet I was panting with excitement. All the snippets of information I had collated through the year swam in my head. Rudolf held the leash.
I led him to the plains on the outskirts of the town. Windmills dotted the mauve horizon.
“None of this makes sense, Sebastian.” Rudolf was panting after our brisk jog.
I raised my muzzle and smelled intently. The third windmill from the left, I reasoned. If my meticulous observations were right, she would be here today. As she had been, on this day, each month.
We crouched over the base of the windmill. The door of the tower that led to the top of the windmill was on the opposite side.
A few minutes later, we saw a tall slender figure climb up the tower. After what seemed like an eternity, we saw the gray-clad figure emerge from the door, locking it behind her.
Rudolf fiddled with the lock.
Break it, damn it! She would not be back for another month. I goaded him.
“What are we looking for?” Rudolf mumbled.
You needn’t talk in hushed tones. She is gone.
He surveyed the blades of the windmill, spinning leisurely. A black box caught his attention. He retrieved it from its perch at the base of the fan. Smaller than my monthly pack of bony bites, the box did look remotely familiar.
“I guess I need my toolkit to figure this one.”
Or your lab. Or a bigger lab… I know where I’ve seen this box before! In the tree-house lab!
I dashed across the cropped fields, Rudolf at my heels.
“You’ve got to tell me where we’re headed, buddy!”
How can it be?
2 hours later
We sat in Rudolf’s lab. Rudolf was still reeling under the effect of the unearthed facts.
“This box is a radiation emitter. And my radiation detector has not stopped beeping once since I switched it on. We are being bombarded with some sort of radiation!”
Does that mean you can fix it? I blinked.
“I can’t ascertain which type of radiation, with my rudimentary equipment. The tree-house lab you showed me has been abandoned. No equipment there. Are you sure you saw the same device there?”
“Woof, woof!” Doubly sure.
“So Aunt Nadia worked with radiation in that lab before she shifted to her Mayor-house on the hilltop. How could a neuroscientist have made this alone? She would need a physicist…wait…no! Mom?”
Oh boy, you really lost touch while studying abroad! They worked together every evening!
“We have to interrogate Mom first.”
Does Mom know the best?
We wheeled Becky to the courtyard. She bobbed excitedly in her wheelchair, as Rudolf gave me a haircut.
She seemed more than willing to share her tree-house tales.
“You must understand we were both going through difficult times. We had lost your Dad to an accident. You had just moved abroad. And Nadia lost her son to depression. She was shaken. How did she not see it coming?
We turned to each other for solace. And our brains turned to science for solutions. Like we had done all our lives.
I vividly remember the day I managed to design a neurotransmitter cocktail that abolished feelings of anger, sadness, and panic in mice. Neurotransmitters are our brain’s messengers, you know. They help carry signals from one nerve to another.
It took Nadia a while to figure out a liposomal vehicle that allowed the molecule to resist digestion by gastric acids and cross the blood-brain barrier too.
But we persisted, each evening in our little tree-house lab. And before long, we had the right molecule, ‘Adulorphin’ we called it.”
And she fried Becky’s brains in the cocktail! My respect for human intelligence dwindled further.
What is so wrong?
“I see you’ve already been initiated into the philosophy.”
Nadia walked in unexpectedly, again.
“Wow, you are quick!” Becky complimented her friend.
“I’ve got my eyes and ears on you at all times, should you recover to your brilliant self again.” Nadia gave Ginny a knowing smile.
I stood on my toes, ready for attack. This woman had made me doubt my own sanity several times.
Rudolf seemed calm. “Aunt Nadia, just one question. Why?”
My toes were hurting, but I decided to stay attentive. Nadia was dangerous.
“We were about to apply for a patent when Nadia had another happy brainwave!” Becky chipped in.
“Theozeta radiation was recently postulated to form new nerve synapses in the amygdala, the emotional seat of the brain. I wondered if we could deliver the Adulorphin to those specific new synapses, to target specific areas of the brain.
Turns out, we could! And that is how ‘The Happy World Project’ was born. The happy ecosystem we built astonishes me to date. The positive vibes were such, no one ever questioned us. I am actually surprised you thought something was altered. ” Nadia narrowed her eyes.
Trust these geeks to forget the larger picture! This is a madwoman. We need to get the police. My poodle heart was thudding.
“Theozeta is ionizing radiation! It can cause cancer, strokes, and what not!” Rudolf sprang from his seat.
“That is why we abandoned the study!” Becky nodded excitedly.
Nadia smiled sympathetically.
“No, she did not.” Rudolf thundered. “You did this to her. You overdosed her, did you not? You keep dozing her still she is nothing more than a pincushion! Those herbs and the medication you give her, are all phony. They are your neurotransmitters in disguise.” Rudolf cornered Nadia.
“Calm down there. Is she not in a better place today?” Nadia’s voice was icy.
“You detached her brain from her body! She is celebrating bedsores! Yes, suffering is optional, but only when we make the choice mindfully. Not when you knock off basic human instinct!”
Attaboy! My brother was finally talking. It was my cue to fetch help. I rushed out.
“Ah, well. Like mother, like son. I guess I must sacrifice one more brilliant mind. Too bad, I thought you might help me design a long-lasting Theozeta emitter. I need to change this one every month!” Nadia held a syringe with a bare needle.
“You can have this one! The radiation level shall subside within a week.”Rudolf hurled the black box at Nadia. She ducked.
“You nincompoops! Don’t you see I am designing a better world?” She lunged forward, twisting Rudolf’s arm with surprising strength.
“Nadia!” Becky shrieked, as Nadia raised her arm to stab him with the syringe.
“Woof!” I threw myself at Nadia, knocking her down with vengeance I did not know I was capable of.
The police constables rushed in to grab her.
I gasped as I saw Nadia plunge the needle into her own thigh, brushing aside her radio-protective grey garb. She emptied the bilious contents of the syringe with a single push.
“Ginny, take good care of Sasha. She is the queen of my world.” Nadia screamed, before collapsing into a massive seizure. She never woke up.
Oh, that’s the name of her favourite cat. Wait, Officer! Could you arrest the cat as well? Just for, you know…existing?
Rudolf handed over the video recording of the tete-a-tete with the late scientist. I glanced at her froth-smeared lips. They were as grey as her dress.
Why is he still single?
“And that is how my dog saved the day.”
Rudolf puts his arm around my neck, as those annoying cameras click away. I see Becky beaming with pride. She shifts in her wheelchair, worried about her bedsore.
There is a spat owing to the traffic jam on the road outside. People are arguing in the cafeteria. All music to my ears. May these humans choose to consciously detach from the stress triggers. May they learn to consciously choose happiness.
A bevy of ladies is going, “Awww, so cute.” I acknowledge them with a plain ‘woof’. I am used to the attention. They glance at Rudolf, who is looking right into the cameras, flashing his dimples. My clueless brother is now the most eligible bachelor in Loughaton.
“Ionizing radiation can alter linkages in our DNA. It can affect animals too. Only time will tell what havoc it has wreaked. Hope we haven’t been too late.” The ladies smiled warily, drifting away.
Trust Rudolf to repel humans wherever he goes! I have a lot to teach him.
Sasha uncurls in her basket and glances around. She is in the shelter home, with all her other feline friends. Nadia is gone, she remembers. The keeper is distributing the daily ration of fish to the cats.
“There you go, minstrels!” He barks.
His temperament is stinkier than the fish, Sasha reasons. Not for long. He is just a lick away from laughing his guts out! Sasha yawns, baring her razor-sharp canines.
Poodles are among the smartest breeds of dogs in the world.
Theozeta radiation is fictional. But ionizing radiation does cause injury to the DNA material in living
cells by generating free radicals.
Adulorphin is a fictional term. Few neurotransmitters like Dopamine and GABA are available in oral
medications for treatment of diseases like Parkinson’s , neuralgia.
There are several neurotransmitters and it is the delicate balance between their positive and
inhibitory effects that is largely responsible for our mental, physical, intellectual and emotional well
This is a fictional work and creative liberties have been taken with technical aspects of radiation,
neurotransmitters and neurophysiology.
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