“Escape from Spiderhead” is a short story by George Saunders first published in 2010 that appeared in his 2013 collection Tenth of December: Stories. It’s about an inmate in an alternative to prison, an experimental pharmaceutical facility, who tests drugs in lieu of serving regular jail time. Here’s a summary of “Escape from Spiderhead”.
“Escape from Spiderhead” Summary
Jeff is in the Interior Garden wearing his MobiPak™. Abnesti uses his remote to control the drip while Jeff reports his experience.
The garden looks nice and clear. Abnesti adds some Verbaluce™ to improve Jeff’s language centers, which allows him to describe the garden more eloquently. It wears off and the garden just looks nice again. The rest wears off and he doesn’t have any particular feeling about the garden.
Jeff feels the aftereffects of the drug. This one will be marketed to nature lovers. They both say what they always say—Abnesti thanks Jeff for the help and he says there’s only a million years to go. Abnesti orders Jeff to Small Workroom 2.
“Escape from Spiderhead” Summary of Part II
A pale girl, Heather, enters Workroom 2. Abnesti asks them to rate each other. They find each other about average. Their drips are turned on.
They soon find each other extremely attractive. Something in the drip reduces their shame, so they make use of the couch. Their intimacy is hot but also just right. Verbaluce™ is added to their drips and they start articulating their feelings very well.
They find everything about each other perfect. A desire arises and it’s immediately satisfied. They’re soul mates and long for each other. Afterward, they proclaim their love for each other and lie in happiness, cuddling.
The drip starts to wear off and their feelings lose intensity. The drip returns them to baseline. They each realize the other is nothing special. They get dressed, shake hands, and Heather leaves.
Jeff has lunch. He remembers the experience he just had with Heather but all the feeling is gone. He’s embarrassed that Abnesti was watching.
“Escape from Spiderhead” Summary of Part III
After lunch, Rachel enters Workroom 2. She’s dark-haired and average. Their drips are turned on. Jeff starts to feel the same thing he felt earlier for Heather. They respond the same way, with intense intimacy and then a gradual fading of the feelings.
Jeff protests when Abnesti wants to return them to baseline but he has no choice but to comply. This is the sentence for his crime.
They return to baseline, shake hands, and Rachel leaves. Jeff’s lower back, where his MobiPak™ is attached, is sore from all the activity. He’s sad, either because love isn’t real or it’s so fleeting.
“Escape from Spiderhead” Summary of Part IV
After a snack break, Jeff reports to Control, which they call Spiderhead. He can see into Large Workroom 1, where Heather and Rachel are sitting. Abnesti tells him he has to choose who receives Darkenfloxx™, which makes the recipient feel terrible beyond imagining.
Jeff can’t choose. He has no preference; it would be random. Abnesti says he’ll give it to Heather then changes it to Rachel. Jeff doesn’t react either way. Abnesti says neither will receive it, satisfied that Jeff has no residual feelings for either woman.
The tests have proved this drug a success. It can make people love or stop them loving too much. It has tremendous potential for individuals and the world.
The woman are dismissed. Verlaine leads them back to the Domain Cluster. Abnesti says the drug could have helped Jeff the night of his crime, which he’s tired of hearing about. He was sorry as soon as he did it and is even sorrier now.
Jeff wants to sleep but there’s more work to do. He’s sent to Small Workroom 3.
“Escape from Spiderhead” Summary of Part V
He sits there with a man name Rogan for about ten minutes. Abnesti dismisses them. Jeff has hunch they were just at risk of receiving Darkenfloxx™. He rushes to Spiderhead and finds Heather there. She confirms his suspicions. The women had the same experience with Rogan. Abnesti orders him out and tells Heather to keep quiet.
He realizes Rachel must be put to the test as well, for consistency. He and Rogan are soon called in again, then dismissed after ten minutes. Jeff calls out what’s happening and is warned by Abnesti. His mind reels from the experiment.
“Escape from Spiderhead” Summary of Part VI
Jeff is called to Small Workroom 3 where he meets Keith. He asks Keith about Heather and Rachel and explains what’s happening, assuring him they’re safe from the Darkenfloxx™. Abnesti comes over the intercom, telling Jeff he’s ruining the integrity of the test. They’re dismissed then brought back soon after and dismissed again.
Back in his Domain, Jeff charts everyone’s involvement with each other. Abnesti comes to see him. Despite Jeff’s shenanigans, the drug, ED289/290, has fully passed the testing and looks ready to be named for the market.
Jeff feels manipulated but not because of any residual feelings for the women. He’s sore and the day is finally over. Verlaine brings some cream and even offer to apply it. Jeff does it himself and then sleeps soundly.
“Escape from Spiderhead” Summary of Part VII
The next morning, Abnesti wakes Jeff over the intercom. The Protocol Committee isn’t satisfied with the testing on ED289/290. They have to do another round today.
He reports to Spiderhead. Heather is in Small Workroom 2. She will be given Darkenfloxx™ for five minutes while Jeff watches and comments on it. He doesn’t want anyone to be given Darkenfloxx™ and tries to delay.
Abnesti can’t reveal details about the inmates, but he implies that with Heather’s past, inflicting five minutes of suffering on her isn’t the worst idea. Abnesti isn’t a monster. He offers Jeff five more minutes of Skype time with his mother on Saturday. Jeff’s mother was devastated by his arrest and trial. She spent her savings to have him placed here instead of a regular prison.
Jeff cooperates. Heather receives the Darkenfloxx™. She cries, paces and throws up. Jeff talks out his feelings, which are about the tragedy of human suffering. Verlaine agrees there’s no remnant of romantic feeling.
Heather starts smashing her face into the wall and furniture. Jeff cries but tries to keep narrating. Abnesti looks stressed. The five minutes ends and the Darkenfloxx™ is cut off. Verlaine rushes to Heather and checks her pulse. He holds his arms out and shrugs. Abnesti rushes to Small Workroom 2.
“Escape from Spiderhead” Summary of Part VIII
After returning to his Domain, Jeff is called to Spiderhead. Abnesti apologizes for the traumatic experience. Heather isn’t doing well. Unexpected things will happen. Abnesti doesn’t like it either.
The test proves Jeff has no remaining romantic feeling for Heather, which is a great accomplishment. They have to finish the Confirmation Trial. Rachel is called to Small Workroom 4.
“Escape from Spiderhead” Summary of Part IX
Jeff doesn’t want to kill Rachel; neither do Abnesti or Verlaine, but they need the data. She could be tougher than Heather. Abnesti seems to acknowledge Heather died. Verlaine shows Jeff Rachel’s file. She has a long history of stealing and drugs culminating in a triple murder. They explain they’re doing it for science and the greater good.
Jeff won’t agree to continue. Abnesti wants to give him a drip of Docilryde™ to gain his compliance. Without Jeff’s agreement, they need to fax for a waiver and wait for the return fax. They leave Jeff alone in Spiderhead.
“Escape from Spiderhead” Summary of Part X
Jeff is sad that he’ll soon be compliant and watching Rachel suffer. He feels like a killer again. He remembers that night.
He was nineteen and Mike was seventeen. They had both been drinking. They started wrestling and Mike, younger and smaller, was winning. Jeff grabbed a brick and hit Mike in the head, reversing the position. Then he hit him again.
Jeff tries to think of a way out of the situation. The door is locked and there are guards. He has no weapons. He spots the remote. In his haste, Abnesti left it behind. He gives himself Darkenfloxx™ and drops the remote down a vent.
The feeling hits worse than he imagined. He uses a corner of the desk to end things. When he dies, he feels unlimited.
He floats above the building and sees everything—the inmates, his mom, Mike’s mom, Verlaine and Abnesti, and birds singing. He thinks how the inmates were destined to be criminals.
He hears a voice asking if he wants to go back, but he doesn’t. He hopes he’ll be able to explain things to his mom one day, and she could be proud of him one last time.
Birds fly off and Jeff joins them. He’s happy because he didn’t kill and never would again.
I hope this short story summary of “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders was helpful.