Swimmer by BlueSloth
Shirley Taylor liked to think of herself as a fast swimmer. In her swimming cap and skin tight bathing suit, she was as sleek as a dolphin, and always got a thrill out of passing everybody else in the pool in her high school PE class. She had powerful muscles, and a thin layer of insulating fat all over her. Not so much that she looked overweight, but enough to keep her from looking bony.
She had always liked water, and even dressed up as a mermaid for Halloween one time when she was 12. She noticed that it was hard to trick-or-treat with both her legs stuck in a mermaid tail, though, and hasn't used the costume since. Everybody she knew had always been trying to talk her into swimming competitively. In high school, she finally gave in, and had a little bit of success with it. When she got to college, she knew she didn't stand a chance, and went back to swimming for fun and exercise.
College is where she met Carlton, her new boyfriend. Carlton is also the son of the little known chemistry prodigy Dr. Deshotel. Dr. Deshotel was as brilliant as the infamous Harry Sheck, but without all the pranks. She completed her Chemistry Ph.D. at the ripe old age of 24, and immediately devoted her life to finding a solvent to unstick Maxim glue. That, of course, quickly led to a nervous breakdown, followed by a stay in a mental hospital, during which she lost the then 5 year old Carlton in a divorce settlement.
Those were the events that occupied Shirley's mind as she drove up Dr. Deshotel's 8 mile long driveway one winter a decade and a half later. At least, they occupied the part of her mind that wasn't occupied with trying to keep her old car from bouncing off the rutted road.
She started shivering and reached down to make sure the heater control was still on full hot. Carlton, who was next to her in the passenger seat, put his arm around her.
"Mom's got a swimming pool heated to 310 Kelvin, plus or minus 1.5 Kelvin," he said. "It's in a room that's practically as well insulated as a calorimeter. It takes hardly any power to keep it warm. And there's no chlorine. And the water's disinfected by an optically pumped UV dye laser." He smiled and added, "she made the dye herself."
"That sounds great," said Shirley. "Why is it so cold here, anyway? I thought this was a desert. At least we're out of the snowy part now. I never thought I'd see snow in a desert in California." "You don't know much about deserts, do you," said Carlton. "Evidently not," said Shirley.
Just then, an airplane came into view out the windshield. It was a blue and white Maule, just 200 feet overhead, and descending with full flaps. "What's that plane doing?" asked Shirley. "Landing. That's Allison, Mom's psychologist. The only psychologist I know of who makes house calls by airplane." "Well, not many people have their own runway. How's Dr. Deshotel doing, anyway?" "You can call her Doris. She's back on Paxil, and I think that's all this time. For now. It's been about a month now, I guess, and she's not spending all day curled up on the floor moaning about how much her mind hurts anymore.
She hasn't sold any new patents in awhile, but I don't actually think she needs to anymore anyway. She could probably retire right now. She just likes chemistry so much that it's always been more of a hobby to her than a job, and you don't retire from a hobby." Carlton sighed. "I hope the Paxil works. I can't stand to see her too sick to do chemistry. And there's no way she's ever going to try electro-shock therapy."
They went around a corner and Dr. Doris Deshotel's house came into view. It was shaped like a giant conical flask. "It's shaped like a giant conical flask!" said Shirley. Carlton said, "Yeah, well, it's an eccentric mad scientist's house. What do you expect?" "He he," said Shirley.
"It's made out of a polymer that Mom invented. It doesn't rot like wood does, termites don't eat it, it's fire resistant, and it's very strong and light. And it's made from plant extracts so it doesn't use up any crude oil." "If it's so perfect, then why aren't all houses made out of it?" said Shirley.
"It's not really that perfect-- the ingredients are very expensive, and they stink so bad that everybody has to wear gas masks around them, and the stuff hardens less than 30 seconds after it's mixed. When the house was being built, it took the workers two or three tries to make some of the walls, because they kept hardening too soon." "Big waste of money," said Shirley.
"Yeah. So Mom's been talking about making a new improved version of the stuff that's completely non-toxic and non-stinky, and won't harden until somebody puts a few drops of a catalyst on it to start a chain reaction, and also doesn't heat up when it hardens. The old stuff would heat up a little bit. Which wasn't necessarily a bad thing, since the house was built during a cold winter like this one. The workers used to huddle over the walls when they were hardening to keep warm." Carlton laid his head on Shirley's shoulder. "Some people say that one of them fell in one time, and the polymer hardened around her. They say that if you listen carefully you can still hear her screaming for help." "You just made that last part up." "Yeah, I guess I did," said Carlton.
It took another 10 minutes for Shirley and Carlton to reach the house, during which they hit a few bumps that made Shirley wish that she hadn't just had the wheels aligned the week before. Carlton seemed to have run out of things to say, which was fine with Shirley. At the house, they drove into the big garage/hanger that made up half of the ground floor. Allison's Maule was there, and Allison was running her hands along the propeller blades to check for nicks. They waved at Allison and parked just behind her left wingtip.
They got out of the car and Carlton said, "I got bad news for you, Alley, this beautiful Shirley is my girlfriend, which means I'm unavailable right now. I know that disappoints you.." Allison said, "Wow, that's great. I'm sure my boyfriend will be happy to hear that." "Good," said Shirley.
Allison finished feeling her propeller and the three of them went into the house and started looking for Doris. Carlton said that she might be in the lab, in which case she would have locked the door so that she couldn't be bothered. He went to check, and came back saying that she was indeed in the lab, and might not come out until nighttime. Allison said, "It'd be more cost effective for her to actually see me when I come!" Carlton said to Shirley, "Shall I show you the pool?"
"Ok," said Shirley, and Carlton started leading her towards the pool. On the way, Shirley looked at the walls. They looked just like ordinary drywall covered with plaster and paint, but there were more curves than could be done with drywall. She said, "The walls look normal." Carlton said, "They're painted just like any other wall. If you want to see the polymer without any paint on it, just look at a window." "Oh. Does it look like glass?" "Yeah, except it has a lower index of refraction." "Oh." "Well, here we are," said Carlton. "The pool's right through that door there that says 'SWIMMING POOL' on it. Inside there there's a changing room behind a door that says 'CHANGING ROOM' and a bathroom behind a door that says 'BATHROOM'. Don't go through the door that says 'WATER TREATMENT'. That's where the laser is. Did you wear your bathing suit under your clothes again?"
Shirley took off her shirt to reveal a blue bikini partially covering her breasts just as Allison's voice came from down a hallway saying "I'm gonna go to see if I can talk Doris into coming out of the lab to see us. Do you want to come, Carlton?"
Carlton yelled, "I'm gonna get a drink of juice or something, then I'll be there." He looked at Shirley's breasts and said, "I'll see you later.. um, I mean" --he looked at her face-- "I'll see you later." Shirley giggled and gave him a quick kiss, then went into the pool room. It was a big room, with a big pool in the middle of it. The air was warm and surprisingly dry. She took off her shoes, socks and pants, then walked to the edge of the pool. There was a strange smell coming from the water that Shirley couldn't quite recognize.
When Carlton had told her that there was no chlorine in the pool, she thought that he meant that it was pure water. But maybe the only way Doris could get away with not using chlorine was to replace it with some other chemical. "Oh well," she thought. "I guess no pool is perfect." She dove in using her favorite diving technique, the cannonball, and swam underwater to the other side of the pool.
The warm water was almost shockingly pleasant, and whatever chemical was in it didn't sting her eyes at all. She pushed off the side of the pool and somersaulted down towards the deepest part, then pushed off the bottom and swam straight up as hard as she could. As she broke the surface she leaned forward and dove back down again, then rolled over and came back up belly first with a big grin on her face. She floated on her back for a while while she looked around the room. She noticed a test tube rack with two test tubes in it sitting on the floor by the pool. She laughed and wondered how many more test tubes were laying around the house. --- There were, of course, lots of test tubes laying around the house, most of which were in the laboratory. Which is where Doris was, and also Allison and Carlton. Doris had unlocked the door and let them in. They watched Doris pipette chemicals into a beaker for a while, then Carlton mentioned that Shirley had come to visit. "Oh, right, Shirley. She's your girlfriend," said Doris.
Allison said, "Shirley came a long way to see you, so I suggest you take a break from chemistry and go talk to her. I can hang around and we can have an hour long session this afternoon. Or we could reschedule for tomorrow. It would cut in to my 2 weeks off, but I really don't mind."
"This afternoon is OK," said Doris. Carlton said, "Right now Shirley is swimming in the pool." He and Allison were startled by a sudden look of horror on Doris's face. "What's wrong?" asked Carlton. "I'm using that pool. I've been doing very large scale experiments.. to see how large volumes of things behave.. ya know, some things don't behave the same with a different surface area to volume ratio. Because of thermal scaling effects.. ya know? So I'm using the pool as a huge test tube. So.. that pool is filled with a polymer! I don't think it's toxic, but it could polymerize and get as hard as a rock.." "Oh my god.." The three of them ran out of the lab and headed towards the pool. As they were running, Carlton asked, "Is it that new version of the stuff that this house is made out of?" "Yeah," said Doris. --- Shirley was swimming laps when she heard the door burst open. She looked over and saw Carlton, Allison, and a gray haired woman who she figured must be Doris. Carlton was running so fast that he slipped and accidentally kicked the test tube rack. The test tubes flew out of it and landed in the pool next to Shirley. The stopper came off one of them, letting it's contents spill into the "water". Shirley grabbed it and noticed that there was something written on it. "N C12 H26 O - OH. Polymerization catalyst. What's that mean?"
"Get out of the pool!" yelled Allison, Carlton and Doris simultaneously. Shirley dropped the test tube and started swimming towards the edge. "The water's getting thicker!" Carlton started getting ready to dive in after her. Doris told him, "You shouldn't do that if I were me." Shirley was getting slower and slower. She let her feet slowly sink to the bottom and tried walking, but she couldn't get much traction, as usual. By that time she was close enough to the edge for somebody to grab her hands and try to pull her out, but the polymer was getting so thick that she wasn't sure if she could even get her hands above the surface. She strained her muscles and her arms started moving up.
The polymer on her face and in her hair wasn't thickening as fast, and she had to close her eyes as it ran down over them. She started to get really scared as she realized that she might not make it out of the pool. She thought of the story that Carlton had made up about the construction worker who fell into some polymer and got stuck forever. She put all of her energy into pushing her hands up. Eventually her hands slowly emerged from the surface, taking big glops of polymer with them. She tried to reach forward, instinctively spreading her fingers so that they wouldn't stick together. After about 2 inches of progress, her hands came to a halt as the polymer finally solidified.
Shirley could still move her tongue, but the rest of her body wouldn't budge at all. A few years before she had seen bugs encased in plastic, and had wondered what that would be like for the bug if it was still alive. Now she knew. It was hell. --- Doris, Carlton and Allison were all staring at Shirley and her plastic prison with their mouths hanging open. "That's not something you see every day," said Allison. Shirley's eyes were stuck closed and her mouth was stuck open. There was a look of panic mixed with determination frozen on her face. She tried to say something but all that came out was something like "aaaaaah". The sound of her voice and the movement of her tongue were the only clues that she was a real, living person. Her unmoving body looked eerily like some kind of wax dummy or hologram. Allison bent over and reached out to touch the polymer on Shirley's hand. "It's really sticky," she said. "In fact.. oh shit. It's so sticky that I can't pull my fingers off of it. Pardon my language."
"There is a time for everything," said Doris. "Even words like shit. And I think now is one of those times." "Yep," said Carlton as he paced along the edge of the pool, trying to figure out what to do in a situation like this. Allison, who was using every curse word she could think of as she struggled in vain to peel her fingers off the surface of the polymer, noticed that parts of Shirley's skin kept changing color. They were alternating between red and white. When she pointed this out to the others, Carlton said, "she's struggling against the polymer. Skin turns white when it's being pushed on, because the blood is forced out of it. It turns red when the blood rushes back." "Oh yeah. It looks weird, though."
"Yeah," said Carlton. He turned towards Doris. "So how do you un-polymerize that stuff, anyway?"
"You just pour the depolymerizing catalyst on it, and a few minutes later it will be as thin as water again."
"Great. So where is your depolymerizing catalyst?"
"It's in that test tube that's laying on the bottom of the pool."
"Oh. Do you have any that's not stuck at the bottom of the pool?"
"Oh. Can you make more?"
"How long will that take?"
"Three days?!" said Allison.
--- It occurred to Shirley that she had no idea how long she had been trapped in the polymer. She also had no idea how much longer she would stay trapped. She wondered if she was going to be trapped for the rest of her life. She used to not believe that anything could really last forever, but then she found out about Maxim glue. Maxim glue forms a bond that does last forever. Of course, nobody can ever experimentally prove that, but it is a well known fact that nobody knows a way to get Maxim glue unstuck. Shirley was afraid that Doris's polymer might be just as permanent.
She tried to come to terms with the possibility that she might never swim, or do anything else for that matter, again. She might never see part 3 of the Lord Of The Rings, or hike the Grand Canyon, or have sex. She didn't want to die a virgin. She also might never hear music again. All she could hear were occasional faint, muffled voices.
The worst part was wondering if she could stand the boredom of being stuck for the rest of her life. And if she couldn't stand it, what was she supposed to do? There was no way for her to kill herself. And even if she could, she'd be afraid that she'd do it the day before Doris finally found a way to free her.
All she wanted to do was swim for a few minutes to get warm. She didn't expect to ruin her life. She decided to struggle for a little while just to pass the time, and realized that her arms and legs were already pushing hard against the polymer. She concentrated on relaxing her muscles. One of her leg muscles started to cramp up, but there wasn't anything she could do about it.
She realized that she didn't even know exactly where her arms and legs were. Her brain had lost track of them. She was working on trying to remember what position she was stuck in when she noticed that her muscles had tensed up again. She took deep, slow breaths and relaxed. Her breasts compressed as her lungs expanded. She felt like she was floating horizontally, face down, and slowly rotating. "I know that's not right," she thought. "I must be going insane. My brain can't handle this." She saw a brain in front of her. The arteries running through it were pulsating. One of them started blowing up like a balloon.
A blood clot wedged itself inside it and it burst. Blood spilled out and the brain tissue soaked it up like a sponge. The dark red splotch spread, killing all the tissue it touched. Whole lobes rotted and shriveled up like an old apple. Shirley fell down towards the brain. It looked bigger and bigger as she got closer, and she realized that she was much smaller that it was. The dura ruptured when she hit the brain, and she sank down into it, drowning in the rotted blood and dead neurons. The blood clotted and she couldn't move. Her mind was pulsating and swirling, and she was getting dizzy. A knife stabbed into her leg. She tried to pull her leg away and dodge it but she still couldn't move. "Am I asleep?" she thought. "I don't know. I don't think so. If I am, it would be nice if I had better dreams." She noticed that she was hyperventilating. She concentrated on taking slow, deep breaths again. She suddenly felt cold water in her mouth. "Where did that come from?" she thought. It took a while for her to figure out how to swallow with her mouth stuck open. When she finally swallowed the water, more water started pouring into her mouth. "Somebody must be giving me a drink," she thought. --- Carlton had just finished emptying the cup into Shirley's mouth when the door opened. Doris stepped into the pool room and said, "we have a problem. Come look at this."
Carlton followed her into the lab. Doris pointed at a computer screen. "According to this, if we depolymerize the stuff using this catalyst, one of the intermediate steps in the process is a chemical which is extremely corrosive to human flesh. Shirley's skin will dissolve before she can get free."
"Oh," said Carlton. "That wouldn't be good. Have you found a way around that problem yet?"
"Maybe use a different catalyst?"
"There is no other catalyst," said Doris.
Carlton sat down and thought for 10 minutes. Then he said, "if we could somehow attach a Buckyball with a positive ion trapped inside of it to the end of that.. um.. wait a minute.."
He jumped up and started furiously scribbling on a whiteboard.
"If we could get a nitrogen there.. and get rid of that hydrogen.. "
"You're crazy," said Doris. "We could never figure out how to do that. Besides, that would depolymerize the whole house."
"Well then.. " Carlton's voice trailed off and he studied his scribbles. After a while he heard a moan. He looked around and saw Doris sitting on the floor crying. "Are you OK?" he asked.
Doris screamed and started punching a cardboard box that was sitting by the wall. After a while she calmed down and laid on the floor, making a little puddle of tears.
It was very disturbing for Carlton to see his mom act like that. He wanted to be strong and supportive, but he suddenly felt like laying down and crying too. He thought about Shirley and Allison, and knew he couldn't give up. "I can't do this without your help," he said.
Doris didn't know why he didn't just shut up and leave her alone. If she could get up and help, she would. Years ago she would have used every bit of willpower she had to fight the depression and keep going. But she had lost the fight so many times that she had given up. Her brain was mutinying against her, and sometimes even high doses of therapy and SSRI drugs couldn't help her. Now she didn't care anymore.
She didn't care about her problems or even Shirley and Allison's problems. It would hurt too much to care. She just wanted to die. She wished that she would just die right there on the floor. Then she wouldn't have to worry about any problems anymore.
She knew that there was still hope for everybody, and that wanting to die didn't actually make much sense, but the rest of her brain couldn't believe that. She looked at the scars on her wrists. She remembered that after every one of her suicide attempts, she was relieved to find out that she was still alive. But now she couldn't understand why. --- "A problem?" thought Allison, as she tugged on her stuck fingers some more. "I thought we already had enough problems." She was laying on the floor, staring at Shirley's frozen face. Her elbow was now stuck to the surface of the polymer, making her somewhat more stuck that she was before.
"Shirley, if you can hear me, I'm still here. I just want to tell you that Doris and Carlton are 2 of the best chemists I've ever met, and they're working as hard as they can to get us free."
Shirley was comforted by Allison's voice, but couldn't make out what she was saying. She could barely hear Allison over the sound of her own breathing and heartbeat. She had been counting heartbeats, and was up to 1,547. That number should have been a lot higher, but she kept losing her place and having to start over.
She was also starting to learn to consciously control her heart rate. She occasionally slowed her heart down to try to force her body into some kind of relaxed, less active state. She was hoping that that might help pass the time. Sometimes she went to sleep. But even sleep didn't take her mind off being stuck, because she would always dream about being stuck. Whenever she woke up, she was always profoundly disappointed to find out that her nightmares were real. She would wonder if she was actually still asleep, and eventually realize that she probably wasn't. Then she would start struggling. She would try as hard as she could to get out of the polymer, or even just move something other that her tongue. She had never been so desperate before in her life. No matter what she did, though, the rock hard polymer held her perfectly still.
When she was too tired to struggle any longer, she would start to wonder what she could possibly do to entertain herself. Counting heartbeats was better that nothing, but it got boring fast. Sometimes she could hallucinate if she could get herself in the right state of mind. Sometimes she tried solving differential equations in her head. Sometimes she tried to figure out which was worse: the extreme boredom she was feeling, or not knowing how much longer she was going to be stuck. --- "Come on, Mom, I really need your help," said Carlton. Doris was still laying on the floor. "We can do it. This is doable. It's not like we're dealing with Maxim glue."
"Don't say that word!" screamed Doris, as she scrambled to her feet. She staggered to the left a few steps, moving very stiffly and awkwardly, and practically dragging her right leg behind her. She stopped, then slowly collapsed onto the floor again. The look on her face was a mixture of pain and weariness, as if she had been in agony for a long time and was tired of it.
She laid there for a while, then started saying something very quietly.
"What'd you say?" asked Carlton.
"I can..." Her voice trailed off.
After a few minutes, Carlton tried again. "What were you saying?"
"Shut up," said Doris.
After a few more minutes, Doris said, "I think I can concentrate on one thing for a few days. I've done it before when I was in this condition."
"Good," said Carlton. "I'll help you. Can you get up?"
"Yeah." She slowly got up and looked at the whiteboard. "Maybe that right there shouldn't be an aqueous solution. Maybe some other solvent would work better.."
"Now we're making progress," said Carlton.
For days, Doris and Carlton spent almost all of their time either eating, sleeping, or working in the lab. They regularly poured water and liquefied food into Shirley's mouth. They gave Allison food that could easily be eaten with one hand. They also gave her a bucket to use as a chamber pot.
Eventually, Doris and Carlton went down to the pool room with a test tube full of new depolymerizing catalyst. Carlton poured it onto Shirley, and Allison's fingers and elbow came loose almost immediately. After 5 minutes, enough polymer had liquefied that they could pull Shirley out of the pool. Shirley was weak and confused. She also smelled like pee.
When Shirley's mind cleared enough for her to realize that she was finally free, she started crying with joy. She crawled around on the floor and stretched every muscle.
She tried to say something, but her mouth had been stuck open so long that it wouldn't work right. She concentrated and tried again. "How long was I stuck?"
"9 days," said Carlton. "And Allison was stuck to you that whole time."
"Wow," said Shirley.
"Your eyes are still closed, ya know," said Carlton.
"Oh. They are, aren't they."
"You should probably keep them closed until you rinse your face off."
Shirley started to get up, but she got dizzy and fell down again. "Take it easy," said Doris. Carlton picked Shirley up and carried her to a bath/shower combination, where they took a shower together.
Later that same day, Doris refilled the pool with pure water, and she, Shirley, Allison and Carlton all went swimming. They figured that if they didn't do it then, they would be afraid of swimming for the rest of their lives.
The successful rescue of Shirley and Allison helped to improve Doris's mental state somewhat, although she still has a lot of room for improvement.
Her psychiatrist increased her dose of Paxil, and she is now seeing Allison every week.
Carlton has earned his Bachelor's degree in Chemistry, and is now working towards a Ph.D. In what little free time he has, he is starting to think about how to unstick Maxim glue. He hasn't come up with any viable ideas yet.
Shirley still swims a lot, although she sniffs the water carefully before she dives in. She occasionally relives her experience in nightmares, but she always wakes up to find herself safe in bed, well on her way to living happily ever after.