If you died and came back to life, you would think that all the little things you remembered about living would bring you joy. You would rejoice at the morning walk to class. Stopping at the crosswalk would warm your heart. You’d race to press the button just to hear it say, “wait”. You’d try to observe everyone and everything, to lock your senses into the trance of your surroundings: the cold morning air, the sounds of cars passing by, the shuffling and rearranging of bags and backpacks. You’d let yourself get lost in the journey across the street and wonder where everyone was going. You’d be happy to be alive, grateful for your mundane and precious existence.

But depression has done a lot of horrible things to you. When you finally emerged from your coffin of an apartment this morning, it was less that you had been blessed with a second chance at life and more that you had been reanimated against your will. Your sense of familiarity with the world has been perverted. Reality is no longer your home. It’s a place you lived once upon a time. This walk, this cold air, these sounds of cars, these shufflings and rearrangings, these little things you remember about living feel nostalgic. And how do you get to the point where you’re doing so poorly that life itself is nostalgic rather than familiar?

Meanwhile, you’re rotting. You’ve put on the cleanest pair of jeans you could find. You’re used to breathing recycled air from the dying plants in your apartment, from the mold growing in your sink. You’ve been breathing this warm, dank air for a month. You’re in that hyper-alert wired state of mind you get when you stay up all night. You have to think about how to walk, how to slow down to a stop, how to stand when you’re waiting for the light to change. Truly, you are more zombified than reincarnated.

And so, your painfully nostalgic walk continues. You finally make it to campus, the building of your morning class only a patch of grass away. Pinecones litter the ground you walk on. They provide you a sweet relief from reality in the form of a memory. A nice memory of recess, blissfully and properly nostalgic rather than out-of-place and painful. You would run around with scraped knees, pick up pinecones, and examine them. You’d puzzle over their spirals, not quite sure where they ended or started, before wiggling the spines as if they were loose baby teeth. Fat thumbs would try to shimmy their way in, to pry it open and peer inside. But the pinecone kept its secrets, so you’d stash it as if it were some little treasure. Maybe a dragon egg or something.

You still hadn’t shaken your incongruity when you entered the classroom of your upper-division neuroscience course, NEUROBIO 421. As other students assumed their seats, pulled out their laptops and notebooks, you pondered your first dilemma: where to sit. You liked sitting up front. There, it was easier to see and hear the professor, easier to lock in. Better, you could pretend you were the only one there. You could ask the questions you’d feel too embarrassed to ask otherwise.

However, you haven’t been to class in weeks. Maybe the professor would see your face and make a mental note of just how long it’s been. And how weird is that, that you’d been so involved in the beginning, a model student attending every class, and raising her hand, and popping into office hours. And here you were, this rotting thing with the audacity to show up a week before the midterm? And maybe some other more dedicated student had claimed your seat while you were gone. For today, you’ll be sitting in the back and a little off to the side too. You can earn your spot back, front and center, if you do okay on next week’s midterm.

Students continue to file into the room, in clumps of two or three, rarely as one, chatting softly and exchanging nothings. I’m so tired. What’d you think of that exam last week? I’m going home this weekend. You stare at your phone, and with nothing to look at, you wait for the little minutes to change. You’re already missing the front. Back here, it’s as if you don’t exist.

Finally, it was 8:00, and the professor began to speak. No one was sitting in your spot in the front. The first slide of the lecture was staring at you, a white glow reflecting faintly on your arms.


Molecular components of the clock

Light entrainment


Genetic disorders

Each word makes the lump in your throat heavier. It really has been a whole month since you’ve been to class. The last time you were here, the professor was still going over basic neuron structure and ion channels. You take a deep, shaky breath to steel your nerves. He’s already on the third slide now.

“The suprachiasmatic nucleus,” he starts, “is the master clock of the brain.” He points to diagrams on the screen and recites his lecture, with a few interjections. Like all seasoned professors, he didn’t make this presentation himself. To everyone’s dismay, he’d make a few corrections every now and then. It was a nightmare to study the slides, especially for someone who didn’t show up to class.

“Neurons in the suprachiasmatic nucleus fire action potentials in a 24-hour rhythm,” he continued. “Isolated neurons will maintain this rhythm. If you transplanted a suprachiasmatic nucleus from one subject to another, the timekeeping of the host would be conferred to the recipient.”

Your mind gets stuck on the word “clock,” and drifts to visions of grandfather clocks, their pendulums oscillating back and forth. The mental image perplexes, now visions of oscillation, of clocks, of metronomes, of swing sets. Oh, swing sets, what fun they used to be. It was around this time of year you’d be swaddled in a jacket and sat in a swing set during recess. You’d sail back and forth, each kick propelling you higher. Your weight was light and your legs were long; you could get yourself higher than anyone. To their amazement, at the peak of your parabolic genius, you’d fly right off the seat. For a few short moments, you’d be free of everything, of weight, of time, of rhythm.

And then your mind lands back in class as roughly as you landed on the ground as a kid. Good nostalgia, bad timing. He had moved on to the “light entrainment” portion of the lecture. The slide intimidates you. There’s a diagram of the brain, clearly pulled from a textbook, and scrawls of messy red handwriting on top of it. He was making more corrections, it seemed. If you’re going to make all these corrections, you really should just make the slides yourself.

You didn’t return to that class for the following week, or any class for that matter. You were behind, so behind, in fact, that going to class would be counterproductive. You would’ve just sat there with no clue as to what was going on. So, you stayed in your apartment again for an entire week. Sleeping through the days. Trying to stay awake through the nights. Failing at that, then sleeping through the days again.

But tonight was going to be different. Tomorrow was your NEUROBIO 421 midterm. Or today, really, since it is 2 a.m. You map it all out. You will spend one hour finishing the readings. You will spend the next hour studying the slides. You will spend the hour after that doing the practice exams. You will repeat this pattern (readings, slides, practice exams) until 11:30 a.m to leave for your exam at noon. You will take no breaks, have no rest, pass the exam tomorrow, and everything will be okay again. The curse will break the moment the sun rises; all you have to do is make it through the night.

You stared at the textbook on your kitchen table. Your desk was next to your bed and you had to be as far away from your bed as possible. This was the tenth time you were starting over reading just this one paragraph. You took another sip of coffee, shook your head, and tried again. Pineal gland. You were focusing on the sleep portion of the exam. You remembered that the pineal gland was important; it was connected to the suprachiasmatic nucleus and generated melatonin, the compound that helps you sleep. Not you, but other people. So far, so good.

René Descartes

thought that the

pineal gland

was the part of

the body

That would land so, so hard on the ground

If I just had the guts to


Lost. Try again.

René Descartes thought that

the pineal gland

was the part of the body

with which the soul

is most immediately associated.

Better. Next paragraph.

Pineal gland calcification

(the hardening of tissue

This exam will be too hard for me

There isn’t enough time

Even if I do manage to study

Every second from now

Until the exam

It still won’t be enough

A breath.

It still won’t be enough.


Pineal gland calcification

(the hardening of tissue

into calcium carbonate

or other insoluble calcium compounds)

has a rate of high prevalence,

with some studies reporting rates

as high as 60-80%

Exhaustion clouds your eyes; the blur of words in the next paragraph won’t come into focus. You would will your eyes to center the words, but you’re running out of will. You press your cheek down flat into the book, the page as white as your pillow but not nearly as soft. Is your pineal gland still soft? What is calcium carbonate? Bone? Has your pineal gland hardened into bone? Probably. Your gaze rolls lazily over the curve of the page, nothing really in focus now.

Out of breath, you collapse into the swing. You got stuck as cop again. You wanted to be the fugitive. It’s always more fun to be chased than to do the chasing. But your little lungs are riddled with asthma, and you don’t last being chased more than a minute. You don’t last very long doing the chasing either. You pound your feet into the ground harder and harder with every stride. The cold morning air burns your lungs. And everyone just gets further and further away. So, you quit and go pout on the swings. Why can’t we just play hide-and-seek?

Your legs dangle, your feet brushing up against a discarded pinecone. Still huffing, you reach down and pick it up. It’s heavier than you expected. And it doesn’t have that pine scent like the ones your mom puts out for Christmas. You strum the spines with the back of your nail, making the pinecone croak like those wooden frog percussion toys. You heard that the number of spirals on a pinecone is always a Fibonacci number. You flip it over to check, grazing the tip of your finger over the spines. 1, 2, 3. You count at a rhythm, your breathing finally settles, and you oscillate slowly back and forth on the swing. But you get to eight before your mind drifts again. You remember that the pineal gland is shaped like a pinecone. Hence ‘pine’ in ‘pineal.’ Although, it’s pronounced pin-nee-ull not pine-ull. You’ve lost your place and try to start again, but your line of sight lingers on the center of the pinecone where it’s been plucked off from the tree. It looks like an eye. You remember that Descartes thought that the pineal gland was the location of the human soul. Did he ever hold a pinecone like this? Did he ever cradle his own soul in his hands and wonder what was wrong with him?

You finally notice the quiet that surrounds you and look up. There’s no one left on the playground. Did the bell ring? Panic sets in. You were supposed to take a test after recess.

Your heart is already pounding when you sit up, the page of your textbook stuck to your cheek. The sky tells you it’s too late, but you check your phone anyway. It’s 3 p.m. The exam was at noon. You don’t have the energy to start thinking of excuses to email your professor. You don’t even have the energy to cry. You just get up and drag yourself to the bed. Fading into the mattress, you plunge your face into darkness and beg your brain to sleep again.

Photo by Vladislav Muslakov on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Noelle Trost

Noelle Trost is an emerging writer based in Los Angeles, CA. She is a current student at the University of Southern California, pursuing her degree in Neuroscience and minor in News & Media Society. She has been writing creatively since she was a child and is passionate about incorporating the brain into her works of fiction and poetry. Currently, she is honing her craft and is in the process of submitting her work to literary journals for publication. She is excited to see where her writing journey will take her and is looking forward to further developing her skills.