Read an Excerpt from Lynn Hightower’s THE ENLIGHTENMENT PROJECT
by Severn House on 17 November 2021
‘A spooky, suspenseful masterpiece. Super-recommended!’ – Lee Child, #1 international bestselling author of the Jack Reacher thrillers
Cutting-edge science meets demonic possession: the long-awaited new supernatural thriller from award-winning author Lynn Hightower.
Here’s a sneak preview from Chapter One of The Enlightenment Project.
That night, late in the OR, exhausted after hours on my feet, topped off with a late-night emergency surgery, I was removing the octopus tentacles of a medulloblastoma from the brain of a fourteen-year-old girl who wanted to work for NASA when she grew up . . . and I felt the presence.
It had been there since I was eleven, like a shadow in my peripheral vision, but tonight . . . tonight there was some kind of shift, like a sudden change in air pressure, and it broke my concentration.
Nothing broke my concentration when I was operating. I would only be aware, after it was all over, of the pain in the small of my back, that my feet were on fire, that I needed to piss, but I was not conscious of any of this when I was perched on the edge of the cliff making minute incisions or cauterizing the cells of your brain.
I felt a surge of nausea that brought bile to my mouth, and caught a whiff of something that would make a man with less control gag and turn away.
A quick look at my surgical team – but no one had noticed anything. The anesthesiologist was focused on her computer monitor, sitting heavily on the stool at the head of the table where Olivia Van Owen lay with her brain exposed. She wore black-framed rectangular glasses, Olivia did, and had two long blonde braids. She presented with four months of on-and-off headaches, vomiting, tinnitus and a stiff neck before she was diagnosed. Vigilant mother, good pediatrician. Luck.
My student, Marshall, watched with sweat globules rolling down the side of his face into the beard that was starting to shadow his face at the end of an excruciating shift. My head nurse, a veteran of Iraq, wiped sweat from my forehead, bringing me back into the moment. He was the only one who seemed to feel the prick of something other in the room. He gave me a strange look, his combat experience putting him on the alert, for what he likely did not know.
Because like me he had the sense that something here was wrong.
I took another long look at the brain tissue magnified for my viewing pleasure. I had the feeling that something was waiting, wanting, circling my patient, and that I was out of time. I was just on the verge of letting Marshall close, and Marshall knew he was closing, which was why he was sweating. But this thing stirred my warrior energy and my protective instincts for Olivia Van Owen. Something was wrong and I took another look.
I knew exactly where. A small feeling, earlier, looking at the brain stem, though I knew the tumor, burrowing into Olivia’s cerebellum, had not reached that far. And yet, something felt off, like a small wrong note of music, and I tilted my head and squinted, well aware of the dangers here; the brain stem was the gatekeeper of the brain, less was safer, always. Still. That small, anvil-shaped bit of tissue near the bone should not really have had a shape, and healthy as it looked, it bulged slightly, which I didn’t like to see. I probed ever so gently, and I found it . . . the dirty little handprint of the tumor, hiding away.
Malignant tumors were ambitious. Warriors out to invade and conquer. The enemy. We still don’t know what causes them. I did not like not knowing; I do not like uncertainly. I was a neurosurgeon, one of the Gods Of Medicine. But like all of us, I had to live with it.
So I took what was wise, prayed to the gods of radiation to annihilate the rest, and envisioned my patient in twenty years. I pictured myself sitting at my desk, opening an email from Olivia Van Owen, where she told me about her promotion at NASA, and that, yes, all of her kids were doing fine.
I did this with all of my patients.
My recovery stats were extraordinary – for a neurosurgeon. So many of my patients die, or wind up in nursing homes needing twenty-four hour care. I might buy them a year or two before hospice. It made a difference, the doctor, the surgeon you chose. A series of decisions, of instinct, of hands that might heal better than others. There was more mystery in healing than you might think, and I looked for this in my students. Perfect candidates with no sign of this ability were shocked to be passed over in favor of students with more mundane qualifications, but innate ability. Healing hands.
I nodded to Marshall to close, my head nurse gave me another look, and I walked away from the OR, stripping off, taking a racehorse piss, then heading down the corridors that were so quiet here, late-night silence in a hospital, so pregnant in the halls outside the patient’s rooms, so empty outside the OR.
Olivia’s parents jumped when I came into the room, their faces tight with tension and the tracks of tears. I held their hands and we sat together, and I answered their questions. All of them that could be answered. I didn’t rush away, like most surgeons, who are fairly slick at the art of disengaging, which is simpler than it sounds. A quick nod, then you walked away. Instead I sat with them a few minutes, allowing the silence to settle, allowing them to process. It was life or death for their child. I could give them a few minutes.
Olivia’s mother looked up at me, holding tight to her husband’s hand. ‘I’m just . . . scared,’ she said.
‘I know. It’s scary stuff. You have my cell number.’
I stood. Touched her shoulder. Her husband leaped up and shook my hand. And I was off.
The corridors to my office, noisy during the day, were quiet, the thin gray carpet absorbing the tread of my footsteps. I longed for Moira, knowing she would be curled up in a Sherpa blanket on the leather couch, lesson planning or reading a Georgette Heyer Regency. She read them over and over, sneaking chocolate, smiling absently when I came into the room and ignoring me when I buried my face in the rich, chocolate-dark curly hair she hated and I adored. I would have to wait for my kiss until she was at the end of the chapter. This was to keep my surgeon’s ego in line; she really couldn’t concentrate with me roaming behind her, clattering in the kitchen. Delicate as a dancer in the OR, in my own kitchen I tended to break glasses, knock things over, and make Moira wonder out loud why anyone trusted me to actually open up their head. I was a god in the OR, and the village idiot in my own home.
There was something, a darkness that scurried, like a rat in the corner, right at the edge of my vision. I stopped for a moment, then, wisely, I ignored it. Wisely, I looked away.
When the crossroad comes, you do not recognize it. You do not know it until afterward, looking back. But this is when it began. Again.
Have you ever known anyone who survived being possessed? You do now. You’ve met me. Like you, I had questions. Why bad things happened, the nature of evil. Was it safe to bring a child into this world?
I headed into my office to get my car keys, make a few notes. My office lights were on, the door opened a crack. I felt the presence before I saw the man on the couch beside my desk. A priest.