On the last day of each month, I’ll take a story from the previous month, clean it up a little, see if I can make it better than the first time it appeared, and post it up. This time I’m taking another look at A New World from Day 76, wherein a man comes back from some time in a mental hospital in order to deal with delusions of a fantasy world – only to realize that it was real. I didn’t make any radical changes to it, but just put in a few sentences here and there to fill in some cracks. It’s an idea I’ve had in my head for a while, so I want to figure out how to do it well.
Adam let the door swing open and stood on the front step, looking into his house. His sister had kept it in good shape for him while he was… away. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been gone, though. A few months in the hospital, but the time before that was indistinct. Cloudy. He touched that space in his memory like it was a sprained ankle, a bone-deep bruise, and then left it alone.
He stepped inside and took a deep breath. The air smelled dry and flat, unused. He dropped his suitcase by the door, which he then shut and locked. The lights seemed too bright, but they were still working, so his sister must have been paying for the electricity. He felt bad, what she had been through. She didn’t have a lot of reason to be so kind to him, and they both knew it. There were too many years apart, too long between just a simple phone call and a chat. But when he asked why, she said, “Because you’re my brother. What else could I do?”
The water in the kitchen sink sputtered a little when he turned it on, but it came out cold and clear. He held his hands under it, letting it fill his palms and then wash away. For a moment, he felt something else. A stream. Snowmelt from high, impassable mountains. A woman, over his shoulder who made him smile.
He spun around, and there was no one there. The memory, too, clouded back over and he couldn’t quite remember what it was he had remembered. But it made him feel sad, whatever it was.
There was no food in the fridge, of course. It had been switched off and was disconcertingly warm when he stuck his hand inside to turn the dial and get the cold going again. There were probably menus somewhere, someplace he could order from. Even being away as long as he had, there would always be delivery menus. He went through a drawer under the phone until he found a bunch of menus from a Chinese place, Jade Hall. The menus, classic red-on-white printing, had a great sinuous dragon flowing across the top, and he found himself staring at it, unable to move, unable to look away. A voice came to him from the depths of his battered and broken memory, and it was terrifying. It resonated like a funeral bell the size of the world and held nothing but contempt for him and everyone else in creation.
“Very well, then,” he remembered it saying. “We are agreed.” There was a smell in the voice, like burning metal.
Adam felt a sudden pain in his arm, like someone had set a burning iron against it. He howled and grabbed at his sleeve, nearly tearing it off as he ran back to the sink to hold his arm under water. A sob broke through his teeth as he held his burned and mangled arm – and when he looked at it, the skin was clean and undamaged. The burning feeling was gone, along with the voice.
The fear settled into his stomach like a lump of iron. “No,” he said. “No, no.” He started walking around the kitchen, gripping at the sides of his head. “This is just what the doctors said would happen.” He was aware that he was talking to no one, but the silence of the house seemed worse. It seemed to be watching him, waiting to see what he would do next. “Oh, hell, damn, damn,” he said, slumping down on the kitchen floor with his hands over his eyes.
Doctor Greer had recommended against Adam leaving the hospital when he did. He called Adam into his clean, wood-paneled office and sat him down, and then looked at him with that weird, avuncular smile he had. “Adam,” he said. His beard gave his voice a gentle, muffled tone that probably went a long way towards calming his patients. “Adam, we want to help you, you know that?”
“Yes, Doctor Greer,” Adam said. He sat up straight and tried to push out a bright and cheerful voice from the back of his throat where it usually wanted to sit like a frog. “I know that. But I really feel like I’m better now.” Smile. This would be a good place for a smile. “I think I’m going to be okay.”
“And that is wonderful to hear, Adam.” Doctor Greer took up Adam’s file and looked it over, as if he hadn’t been treating the man for months. “No more intrusive fantasies? No more of those voices?”
Adam shook his head. “No, doctor,” he said, and it was true. He had gone a long time without flashing back to that strange reality he’d built for himself. Without thinking he had to get back. Greer said it was just an escape fantasy, that it was all brought on by stress. Work, with the cutbacks. His mother’s death. His marriage. Nothing was staying the way it was supposed to stay – stable, reliable, true. The bargain that he thought he had made with the world was breaking down, and the things that he had counted on were slipping through his fingers.
And so he had retreated, the doctors said. He had gone into his mind, into another world where things made sense. Where he could be the hero and impose order on the world and make it make sense. It was a fully-realized place in his mind, far better than the world he just happened to be born into.
He’d gone crazy, in other words. Nuts. Wacko. Or, in psychological parlance, “experienced a near-total disassociative state of mental dissonance.”
And, after a lot of therapy and a regular regimen of medication, Adam knew that they were right. They had to be. He’d gone off the deep end, lost his marbles, and when they found him in that field, laughing and crying at the same time, well, how else could you explain it? What other explanation could there possibly be? That he had gone to another world? That he had become some kind of fantasy hero, battling dragons and saving princesses?
It made no sense. It never had, and when he walked out of the hospital that morning, Adam was ready to face the real world, the true world. The only world that was really real.
“We are agreed,” that burning, horrible voice said again, and it made Adam cover his head and scream. It opened up cracks and fissures and gaps in his mind, and it let other things flow up out from between them. A great mansion gilded and perched atop a high mountain. A woman with eyes as blue as the sky on a late autumn day and skin that was deep, almost impossible violet, and her breath smelled of honey when they kissed. Red skies and rains that burned, and great insects that flew and carried people off only to let them fall from the sky again. A blade in his hand that sang to him and called down the lightning when he needed it.
“It was all a dream,” Adam said. “It wasn’t real,” and he said it again and again and again, but he knew… In his heart he knew.
There was a stone, and that stone was a key.
There was a door, but it wasn’t a door.
There was a path, and it was a path he could not see but he walked anyway and it led him to her. To the keep.
To the dragon and the battle and the promise. And the field.
The truth and the loss hit Adam like thunder and he wept. He cried for a long time, curled up on the kitchen floor.
Comic books are liars.
Not just because it seems like super powers always seem to come with the physique of an Olympic athlete and the ability to look good in spandex. When someone gets their powers in a comic, there’s always this moment of confusion where they don’t know what’s just happened to them. They got hit by the cosmic beams or bitten by a radioactive whatsit or get handed a bit of shiny jewelry that gives them more power than God. They stand there, looking confused, and two panels later they’re flying through the sky or lifting cars over their head or bending time and space to their will. Their powers just work for them, as easy as walking. They may discover some extra tricks later, or run into a weakness, but for the most part, the moment a newly-minted metahuman gets powered up, they’re ready to go and either fight or contribute to crime.
When Carly Siminsky’s powers manifested themselves in the middle of softball practice, twelve people died in the first sixty seconds. Nearly a hundred more in the minutes that followed, and if it hadn’t been for quick thinking by her coach, the death toll would have been even higher. To this day, Coach Simone keeps the bent and twisted aluminum bat she used on her player as a reminder of the tragedy.
It took Carly three years to learn how to not kill people with her mind. She was taken by Department of National Security to a facility where they carefully and systematically forced her to learn how to control herself. She caused millions of dollars in damage during that time, and it resulted in the deaths of five doctors and seven medical technicians.
Her current practice regimen involved a set of nesting boxes. She was to take all the boxes out and then put them all back inside without letting the sides of one box touch another. If she did, an alarm would go off and the experiment would be immediately ended.
On this day, Carly sat cross-legged in front of the experiment table. The box full of boxes sat on in front of her, gleaming dully in the fluorescent light. Martin, her current lab tech, was sitting behind her, and she could hear the scratching of his pen against paper. She squeezed her eyes shut and started counting her breaths again. She would restart the count every time she was distracted, by Martin, or an itch, or a thought. When she reached twenty, she would begin. This used to take upwards of half an hour, but she’d gotten it down to seven and a half minutes with practice.
Her eyes opened when she hit twenty. She took one more breath and reached out with her mind for the box. The largest one stayed on the table while the next lifted carefully out. All the boxes were metal, each a different color, and she was intimately familiar with them at this point. The second box, dull blue, hovered for a moment, and then set down on the mat. A red box lifted out from that one, and then from the red came a green and from the green a yellow. The final box, about the size of the end of her thumb, was violet. They were all lined up, left to right. She heard Martin make a note behind her.
She took another breath and started putting the boxes back together. This had always been the hard part. This was where she had always failed. The counselor they had her talk to once a week told her not to think about succeeding, that she shouldn’t envision a completed box and a pat on the head from Martin. She should imagine one at a time, the process of completing the task.
Violet went into yellow without touching the sides. Yellow lifted and positioned itself over green. She rotated it, ever so slightly, fighting the urge to stand up and view it from another angle. It lowered, slowly sliding into the green box. No alarm sounded. Carly took another breath, held it, and let it go. The green box lifted up and took its position over the red one. Carly realized she was gritting her teeth, and made herself stop. The red box lowered for a moment, stopped, and then continued with more care and precision than she had used with the other ones. It went in without a sound, and again Carly breathed.
A drop of sweat rolled down the side of her face and she flicked it away without moving her hands. Simon’s writing filled her ears and she wanted to turn around and make him stop, but she knew how that would end. She lifted the red box and positioned it over the blue one. She bit her lip and braced herself for the alarm. This is where it always came. She took flexed her fingers and forced them to lay flat on her thighs, rolled her shoulders and did a slow count to five. The red box started to lower.
Just before it went in, she stopped it. She wanted to stop entirely, to turn around to Martin and tell him that she couldn’t do it – she’d never do it. The first time she had done that, they didn’t feed her for a day. The second time, for two days. There was no third time.
She reached out, feeling the two boxes, feeling along their edges. In that moment, it was like she was both boxes. And she was the air around them, the boxes inside them, the table, the room. She kept her attention on them and closed her eyes. She felt the red box slide into the blue, felt the space between them and a smile broke out on her face. Her eyes flashed open and she spun around to look at Martin. The young man was writing, but he looked up at her through his horn-rimmed glasses and pointed at the last box – the silver one – with his pen.
Carly rolled her eyes. She could feel them, and she understood what it was she was feeling, and why she had failed before. While she kept her eyes trained on Martin, the blue box lifted up into the air, and, without pause, dropped into the silver box without a sound. Martin’s eyebrows rose, he made a note on his form, and stood up. “Well done, Carly,” he said. He extended a hand, and she used it to help herself up. “You’ve made wonderful progress.”
She smiled despite herself. “Thanks,” she said. She glanced back at the nested boxes. “So… what now?”
Martin looked down at the forms on his clipboard. “I take these to my boss, and we figure out what to do with you next.” He patted her shoulder. “You should be very proud of yourself.” He turned for the door, fishing in his pocket for the passcard that would unlock it.
“Martin,” Carly said. He stopped and turned around. She glanced up at the window and walked over to stand between him and it. He looked from her to the door, and he reached into his other pocket. “No,” she said. “You don’t need the alarm – I’m not going to hurt you.” That didn’t seem to ease his mind, but the alarm didn’t go off. “I need to know,” she whispered. “I need to know when I’ll be okay. When they’ll let me out of this place.” She looked up at the window again and then back to him. “Martin, when am I going to go home?”
He held her gaze for a moment, and then looked down at the floor. He cleared his throat. “I don’t know,” he said, his voice thick. “Soon. Okay?” He gave her arm a quick squeeze. “Soon.” He turned around, slid his passcard across the reader, and left the room, the door locking behind him.
She started at that door for a long time. It wouldn’t be hard to open it, that much she knew. Brute force had never been a problem for her. She rubbed the lump in her side, the place where they had implanted the tranquilizer pump. With that inside her, she wouldn’t get three steps out of the room. She sighed and went back to her bed, lay back and stared at the ceiling.
This was her home now. This was where she was going to get better, and where they would help her to stop hurting people. And someday, they had promised, she would be able to leave. She closed her eyes and started counting again. And she breathed, as she counted, the boxes on the table began to un-nest themselves and hover in mid-air. By the time she got to thirty, they were turning in lazy circles around the table, one never touching another.
The first thing I do is wait for the sun to set. It takes a long time, if you wait for the whole thing. I mean, just seeing the disc of the sun finally drop below the horizon is great, but there’s still so much light out there. Red and purple and orange, bouncing off clouds and refracting through the air. You usually have to wait an hour, maybe more, for the terminator to truly pass you by and for the sunlight to be gone for good.
I used to be terrified of this. I can still remember running home before sundown, looking at the beacon of safety that was my house, all brightly lit inside and out. I could feel the darkness nipping at my heels and all the things it contained. All the ghosts and goblins and werewolves and vampires. The night was hungry for the blood of a little kid, and I ran like the wind to deny it a meal.
Now I stand on tiptoe, a feeling of tingly excitement growing in my belly. When the sun is finally gone – well and truly gone – there is still light that needs to be taken care of. Unlike the sun, though, I have a little more control over this.
If I had my own house, this would be easier, and someday I hope to. But right now I make do with what I have, and what I have is a little apartment with west-facing windows. The living room is no good. I put up blackout curtains, but they still let light in around the edges, tiny trickles of illumination that find their way through the gaps no matter how careful I am with them. There’s also the myriad lights from the TV, the computer, the DVD player, all the electronics that we all use to make our lives better and easier. I tried putting black tape over them, but there was still the tiniest, faintest glow – nearly imperceptible, but not imperceptible enough for me.
I could use the toilet, but – no. I mean, if all else fails, it’s certainly dark enough, but it’s the toilet.
The shower room, on the other hand….
For some reason, the bathroom was built against an inside wall of the unit. So there’s no window – just a fan to keep air circulating. The fan is no problem. It’s not noise that I’m trying to get rid of. It’s big enough that I can stretch my arms out and touch nothing, which is what I need, and there’s nothing in there that creates a shadow.
I bring a candle with me. Not for any practical reason, really. If I wanted to, I could just flip off the light switch. But this is important. This is a ritual. And rituals need to be important.
An old book on photography taught me how to make a light-lock: a two-stage entry into a room that’s designed to minimize the amount of light getting in. The one I made is temporary. Putting it up and taking it down only takes a couple of minutes, and the whole thing just clicks together. When it’s done, a heavy black curtain blocks the door to the bathroom, extending at least another foot in every direction.
Candle in hand, I go in and shut the door behind me. There’s a draft-snake that goes at the bottom. I lock the door. Again, ritual.
The bathroom lights are bright and fluorescent. They make me look terrible in the morning, but they do that to everyone. I light the candle and turn off the lights, and that feeling in my belly grows. It’s still fear, I know that much. But it’s fear that’s been tamed. It’s been brought to heel like a lion at the circus. The fear is a beast that I broke many years ago.
It was that, or go mad, after all. And even though the beast has been made docile, slow – it still needs careful attention in order to keep it from remembering what it was.
The candle goes on the floor, and I sit in front of it. I close my eyes and try to feel the candle’s light hitting my face, my skin, my hair. It’s sunlight, really. It’s sunlight held captive in the cotton fibers of the wick, in the wax rendered from plants or animals long dead. The little sun shines on me, and it’s the only thing in the world besides myself.
I open my eyes.
I blow it out.
The darkness rushes in to take the place of the light, it floods the room now that the pressure of luminescence has been removed. I can feel it, this absence, this great shadow, all around me. I don’t know if my eyes are open or closed, and I don’t care. The darkness holds me, it cradles me, it caresses me and it presses in on me. It clings to me, to every inch, and when I open my mouth, it floods inside.
Now I’m home.
“An… an… an… And it’s the Jews, right, they’re the ones who really know what’s going on, right. They have all the banks ‘n shit and they’re pullin’ all the fuggin’ strings. AN’ you. An’ me. An’ him. We’re all juss puppets. Dolls. We don’t know anything. But I know. Damn right I know.”
The man next to Carl was, obviously, drunk. In a bar, of course, so that was fine. Expected, even. There were few places, in fact, where you could be as drunk as this man was and still not get arrested, so as far as his choice of places to get really shitfaced in went, he chose a good one.
According to the bartender, he’d been there all night, just sitting and drinking and trying to get someone interested in his weird drunk theories. Like that the Jews controlled all the banks, or that George W. Bush was a member of a secret cabal controlled by the French, or that all the white men in America were being oppressed under the iron boot of the minorities. Had Carl known this, of course, he would have sat elsewhere. But all the other places were taken, the bar was filling up, and if he wanted to stay sitting then he had to sit on the left side of a very drunk prophet of doom. When he sat down, the bartender had just shrugged as if to say, “Good luck,” and made his whiskey sour a little stronger than usual.
The man drained his glass and turned back to Carl. “You know what I found out?” he asked.
“No,” Carl said, getting the bartender’s attention for another drink. “That the Jews rule the world?”
“I already tol’ you that,” the man said. “No, thissis more important than that.”
“We never walked on the moon?”
“Monsanto has a patent on the human brain?”
He paused. “No, but I wanna hear more about that one later.”
“The mole men have been controlling the U.S. Congress since the end of the Civil War?” He thanked the bartender and paid him.
The man looked at him blankly for a moment and he burst out laughing. “Jeezus, no,” he said. “That’s just fucked up, no.” He waved to the bartender and held up his glass. “No, man, nothing like that.” He leaned in close, and Carl tried to lean away. “I found out. On the internet. That the government.” He said that word like it was dirty, like he couldn’t stand to have it in his mouth. “The government. Has been taking DNA samples from children. From children, um… uh… Name.” He stared at Carl blankly.
“Carl,” he said.
“Carl, right. ‘M Barry.”
“Yes,” Carl said. “You told me.”
“The government, Carl, is taking DNA samples from kids, Carl. To make – get this.” He looked around ostentatiously. “Clones.”
Carl actually put down his drink and, for the first time that night, looked Barry in the eyes. He raised an eyebrow. “Clones?”
“Clones,” Barry said, and he took another long drink.
The bartender was on his way back. Barry caught his eye and said, “I think he’s had enough.” The bartender grinned and nodded.
“Not had nearly enough yet,” Barry said darkly. “Cuz there’re clones out there. And nobody knows the truth ‘cept me.”
“Well, you and the guy on the internet.”
Barry nodded. “Me and the guy.” He drained his drink. “Me and the guy. And Brandon.”
Carl cocked his head. “Brandon?”
“Brandon.” Barry nodded. “Cuz he’s probably a clone now. Somewhere.”
Carl sighed. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll bite. Who’s Brandon?”
The other man was silent and still for a moment. Then he put his glass down and pulled out his wallet. From inside he pulled a photograph. It was small, discolored and creased. It showed a younger Barry, looking much less torn up by the world, and a younger man. They looked enough alike that their relationship was instantly clear. “Your son?” Carl asked.
Barry nodded. “Yeah.” He carefully put the photo back in his wallet. “He was in New York on… on that day.” He went to take another drink, but his glass was empty. “He called me that morning to remind me we were going out to dinner. And that…” He took a shuddering breath. “Yeah.”
Carl couldn’t look at him. “Yeah,” he said.
“An’ I know, I know that they pulled down those towers. They did, Carlos.” Carl didn’t correct him. “I saw the videos with my own eyes.” His eyes were filling up. His voice was getting thick. “They killed my boy,” he said. Something that was half-sob, half-laugh came up from his throat. “But I know they have him somewhere. In a drawer somewhere. An’ maybe… maybe I can get them to give him back.” He rolled his glass in his hands. “They have my boy,” he said quietly, his words almost lost in the noise.
Carl sat there next to him for a while, and neither said anything. When the bartender came back, Carl held up his hand. No more drinks right now.
There was a glass of water, a green ball-point pen, and a piece of loose-leaf notepaper on the table. Nicholas drummed his fingers and looked up at the large mirror set into the wall. It was double-sided, of course. If he could see through, there’d be a small flock of guys in suits staring at him. Somehow, the fact that he couldn’t see them just made it worse.
Water. Pen. Paper. They had sat him here and a man in a white coat, carrying a clipboard, said, “This is a test of creative thinking. Please write whatever comes to your mind for five minutes. The timer will begin when you start writing. Once you have started, do not stop until directed.” Having delivered his instructions, the man ticked something off on his clipboard, left the room and locked the door.
Creative thinking. What the hell was that supposed to mean? And why the two-way mirror? The room was tiny, like those interrogation rooms you saw in police dramas, and he was feeling distinctly uncomfortable. He had been approached out of the blue in his college dining hall by Dr. Eva Bettencourt, the head of the psychology department. That was his first clue. He wasn’t a psych major, so there was no reason she should have even known his name, much less where he was at any given time.
She had approached him, passing by several other tables to get there. “Mister Ingram,” she said. “I need you to sign this.” She slapped a form down in front of him.
Nicholas didn’t even stop chewing his chicken much less look at the form. “No.”
She blinked and resettled her glasses. “Mister Ingram,” she said again, “I can’t stress this enough. This is very important.” She had a British tone to her voice, slurring out her “r” sounds. With her flat American “a” it just sounded weird.
“I’m sure it is,” he said, swallowing his food. “I just don’t care.”
She took the glasses off. “Mister. Ingram.” Dr. Bettencourt steepled her fingers in front of her. “I have spoken to your advisor. Dr. Keniston informed me that you would be an ideal subject for a study I am doing.” She smiled, and it looked like she’d practiced. “Your participation is essential.”
Nicholas leaned back. “There’s about a hundred other students in here right now. Why me?” And why had she gone to Keniston? A question for later.
“But I want you,” she said. He snickered, and it took a moment before she blushed. “To be in this study,” she finished.
She sat down across the table from him. “Your advisor tells me that you’re one of the most creative writers she’s seen come through her class in a long time.” Nicholas arched an eyebrow, but didn’t interrupt. “She showed me some of your stories and poetry, and I have to say that I was impressed. Your use of imagery and metaphor show a clearly dominant right hemisphere, signs of very creative thinking. I’m doing some research in that field, and as soon as I read your stories, I knew that you were someone who had to be involved.”
Nicholas nodded a little. “Which one did you read?”
“Pardon?” She was tapping the form absently.
“Does it matter? Mister Ingram, with your help, I could make some clear advances in my research.” She slid the form over to him and took a pen from her pocket. “Do the right thing.”
He stretched languidly and put his hands behind his head. “What’s in it for me?”
“One hundred dollars and free meals for a week.”
“Sold.” He yanked the pen from her hand and signed the form. She took the top copy, handed the carbon to him, and told him to be at the psychology center on Saturday at noon. Without another word, she stood up and stalked out of the dining hall.
Whatever he expected of a creativity study, what he found at the psych center wasn’t it. He had to have a medical exam, which included drawing blood, a chest x-ray, and an EKG reading. He asked what it was for, and they just said, “Standard procedure.” They wouldn’t say anything else, except to ask some very personal questions, give him instructions and tell him when to put his clothes back on. He didn’t see Dr. Bettencourt anywhere, but he was pretty sure she was watching.
When the physical was over, he was sent into another room, where he was shown images and asked to say whether he liked them or didn’t like them. Some – the kitten, the girl in a bikini, the rainbow – he liked. Others – the pit bull, the President, the tsunami – he didn’t. There were about two hundred of these, and he was asked to do them as fast as possible. A guy in a white coat, carrying a clipboard, made some notes and then wordlessly led him to the next room.
This test was followed by another, wherein he had to fit geometric shapes together to form a specific pattern. It was accompanied by a ticking clock and a digital timer that noted how long it was taking for him to finish. When he finally made the shape – what looked like a duck in a sombrero – the guy in the white coat took him to the tiny room, read him his instructions, and left him there.
Nicholas stared at the table. The water. The pen. The paper. He looked up at the mirror.
Then, carefully, he picked up the pen. He imagined them getting excited behind the mirror, scribbling away on their damned clipboards.
He dropped the pen in the glass. It was a tall glass and a short pen, so it wound up completely submerged.
Write about that.
He folded the piece of paper twice, laid it over the top of the glass, and quickly flipped it over. A little water slipped out before he was able to set it down on the table again, but most of it stayed inside. He slid the paper out from under the glass, crumpled it up, and tossed it at the mirror. “When do I get my hundred bucks?” he yelled.
There was silence for a minute or two. Then a speaker in the ceiling crackled to life. “Thank you, Mister Ingram,” a man said. “Please see the receptionist on your way out.” The door popped open.
The hell? Nicholas stood and went to the door. He pulled it open slowly. “I’ve seen this movie,” he muttered. He waited, counting to ten, and then stuck his head out the door.
There was no one in the corridor. He crept out of the room, trying to look casual and alert at the same time, and failing at both. He tried to remember which corners he had turned to get there, but his memory was full of rainbows and shark attacks and ducks wearing hats. He had to backtrack a few times after finding locked doors and broom closets. He wondered how big this place was.
The weirdest thing was that there was no one there. He seemed to remember lots of people scurrying about, all in lab coats and carrying clipboards. But now, every hallway looked like every other hallway, and there was no one there. He tried more doors, but they were locked.
“Hello?” he yelled. “Anyone there?” His voice echoed down the halls, but no one came. He started to jog, taking random lefts and rights, but there still seemed to be no way out. In moments, he was running, skidding around corners. This was impossible. There was no way the facility was this big, but he couldn’t be sure. He wondered what they had really been doing to him in those tests. Playing hypnotic messages, messing with his brain. He could see Bettencourt doing it, too – watching as whatever weird little experiment she’d set up slowly ate away at his brain.
He chose another random door, and this time the handle turned. He nearly laughed with relief, flung the door open and rushed through.
It was a small room, with a table in the middle. A chair was at the table, facing a large mirror that was set into the wall. On the table was a glass of water, a green ball-point pen, and a piece of loose-leaf notepaper.
“Oh you have got to be kidding me,” Nicholas said.
Wynona Mooney grinned over the tops of her cards at the scowling face of Lamont Deldeo. She couldn’t tell anything from the scowl – that was his permanent look – but she grinned nonetheless. It was her best poker grin, the one that usually got her kicked out of casinos. It radiated insouciant innocence and drove people nuts.
“What’re you thinkin’, Monty?” she asked. “Whether to trade in that eight?” His eyes didn’t flicker anywhere. He just stared at her and scowled. “My, my,” she said. “You must be holding a thing of beauty over there.” She sat back, fanning herself with her spread of cards. Her shirt was open a little, and it was hot in the room. His bodyguards had been sneaking peeks for the last half hour, but Lamont, as yet, had restrained himself. “I wonder what a little girl like me is gonna do if I lose to such a man like yourself.”
From behind, held by one of Deldeo’s bodyguards, her partner screamed at her. “For the love of God, Wynona,” he yelled. “They! Are! Going! To Kill! US!”
She waved at him without looking. “Don’t mind Ellis,” she said to Deldeo. “He’s not good under stress. Not like you.” She spread her cards open slightly, ostentatiously peeking at them. “I may be in a bit of a pickle,” she said, and switched grins to the cute one. She checked her watch, a big diving watch that looked far too heavy for her hands. “How’re we doing for time?”
“Bet,” Deldeo said. “Or fold.” His expression didn’t change.
Wynona sighed. “Fine, Monty. One shot at me, one at Ellis back there.” He yowled. “And…” She held up a large USB drive. It was about the size of her thumb, black and unassuming. “The contents of this memory stick.”
Deldeo raised an eyebrow.
“Glad I have your attention,” she said. “On it is the full and complete bank account information for ten CEOs of international corporations. The giants of industry. The rulers of the world. Win, Monty, and they’re all yours.”
The eyebrow dropped. “No,” he said. “I take that, load it into my machine, and it installs a virus into my system that’ll cripple my operations.” He nodded to the other bodyguard, who removed a gun from under his jacket. “Try again.”
Wynona shrugged. “If that’s what you think. You can always test it out – get a clean laptop over here, something you can afford to lose.” She palmed the memory stick. Because if you don’t take this, then I’m out of resources, and our little game is at an end.” She shrugged and ran her thumb along the tops of her cards. “What do you say?”
He sat and scowled for a moment, and then nodded to the guard with the gun. He put it away and left the room. Wynona hummed under her breath. The guard came back a few minutes later with an old laptop, booted it up and gave it to Wynona. “Show us,” Deldeo said.
She plugged the USB key into the machine and waited until the file explorer popped up. A few clicks of an oversensitive touchpad and she opened a text file. The guard took it and gave it to Deldeo. He nodded. “Fine,” he said. He dropped the laptop in the middle of the table. “Your lives, plus this information, against your freedom. Agreed?”
Wynona nodded and sat back. “Groovy.”
“Very well. What’s in your hand, Mooney?”
She carefully placed her cards on the table, face up, one at a time. Two kings, three queens. “See?” she said. “And here you probably thought I was bluffing.”
Deldeo dropped his cards on the table in front of her. Two jacks, three tens. “You win,” he said. From the back of the room, Ellis groaned, and there was a thump as a bodyguard hit him. Deldeo stood up and smoothed the front of his pale linen shirt. “You win,” he said again.
Wynona remained seated. “Is this the part where you tell your bodyguards to kill us anyway?”
For the first time, Deldeo showed an emotion other than sullen anger. He looked shocked and just a little bit hurt. “Of course not,” he said, walking over towards her side of the table. “What kind of person would I be if I did that?” He held his hand out, and the bodyguard put a gun in it. Deldeo checked that it was loaded, pointed it at her head, and smiled. “You must never ask others to do what you would not be willing to do yourself,” he said. He nodded to the bodyguard, who picked up the laptop, closed it, and put it under his arm.
“Like welsh on a bet?” Wynona was doing her best to ignore Ellis’ theatrical weeping in the back of the room.
“Exactly,” Deldeo said. “My men have their pride to think about.” He pointed the gun at her forehead and looked her in the eyes. “I think I can live with myself.”
Wynona pressed a button on the side of her watch, and the USB stick exploded, taking out the computer with it.
The bodyguard was screaming and covered in blood. The distraction was just long enough for Wynona to deliver a punch straight to Deldeo’s crotch. He doubled over in pain and dropped the gun, which Wynona swept up and pointed at the guard holding Ellis. “Put him down, hon,” she said. The bodyguard hesitated, and she put two shots into the wall on either side of his head. He let go of Ellis, and put his hands up. Ellis reached into his jacket and armed himself.
“I can’t believe that worked,” he said, holding the man at gunpoint. He glanced at the screaming guard. “Is he gonna be okay?”
“Probably not,” she said. She looked down and gave Deldeo a solid kick to the stomach. “It’s been fun, Monty,” she said. “We’ll have to play blackjack next time.” She reached into Deldeo’s shirt pocket and took out a small vial. The liquid inside glowed faintly, even in the brightly lit room. “And that’s all, folks,” she said.
She turned to the remaining guard. “Keys?” she said, gesturing with the gun. He gingerly reached into a pocket and pulled out a large car key. Ellis took it. “Can we go now?” he asked her.
“Absolutely.” She looked at the vial one more time and smiled again. Had he seen this smile, Deldeo would have killed her right away. “Now things are going to finally get interesting.”
It was a feeling too big to hold on to. Every time I tried, the fingers of my mind would slip, like trying to hold onto soap in the bathtub. It was right in front of me, all around me, inside and out, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t handle it, make it make sense. I had lost everything. Everything. How do you hold on to a concept like that?
The fire department arrived about two minutes after I made it out. Those two minutes stretched into eternity, an eternity where I could see and hear everything I had ever worked for, everything I had ever loved, burn and die. In my mind, I saw the flames eagerly devouring hundreds of books, falling from their shelves as their pages fluttered through the air like the wings of brilliant birds. Books I had read and loved, books I had yet to read. The fire annihilated them, one at a time and all at once.
I remember the neighbors holding me down on the lawn as I screamed and tried to get in.
The rocking chair that my wife’s mother had left us. Solid oak, hand-carved by her father. It was the chair in which my wife had sat as a little girl when she learned her letters, when she read her bible. It was the chair I sat in when our little girl wouldn’t sleep, or our boy wanted to read. It was the chair I sat in on that last night, when the love of my life left this world. It was rendered down into char, stripped and eaten alive.
The fire department arrived in a flurry of noise and light. Three trucks, bringing flashing red brilliance to the night and an order where there was none. The flickering of the flames was brought to heel by the oscillating red brilliance. The aimless wandering of neighbors was undone by the men of great purpose who came to fight fire with water. They turned their hoses on my house, and kept others ready in case the fire spread.
Photographs in the dining room, all in an old Macy’s shopping bag that my mother had given to me. Some of them went back to the late 19th century, images of stiff and uncomfortable people trying to leave their mark on the world through this new and magical medium. My great-great grandmother, in her youth, was a woman of vibrance and mischief, a woman I never would know. If the flames didn’t get them – and I was sure they did – the water would seep in, find them, and insinuate itself. The moisture would warp and twist and inflate the photographs, and if anything at all was left, it would be only a piece. An eye. A hand. The top of someone’s head.
I sat on my lawn, as close as the firefighters would let me get. The night had turned cold, perhaps just in comparison to the waves of heat coming off the home I would never live in again. I was in my pajamas and my coat, the only thing I could grab on the way out. We had played that game, my wife and I – what would you save? And in my head, in the peaceful security of a glass of wine in the living room, I had mapped it all out. Despite the impending certainty of destruction, I would calmly and carefully gather the items I needed – wallet, phone, the bank book – and the items I treasured – the photos, my first edition Mark Twain, our wedding album.
I had none of those. Escaping the house was gone from my memory, erased in a moment of madness and terror. I had myself. I had the clothes I was wearing.
The lady from across the street brought me cocoa. I took it, and I think I said thank you. I sipped it as I watched my house burn. All that I had been, all that I was, was gone. Up in smoke.
So I remembered. I thought of the house, of each room. The living room we repainted three times because the green we thought we bought wasn’t the one we had in mind. The bathroom where our son almost drowned when he was three, where I pulled him back from death on a floor tiled with flowers. The bedrooms that we went back to night after night. The bed that we slept and fought and loved in. There was a cabinet door in the kitchen that didn’t shut right. A chair in the den that we couldn’t move because it would reveal the wine stain on the carpet. The huge dinner table that hosted Thanksgiving every year. That framed painting that our son did in college that a team of wild horses wouldn’t get me to admit was terrible.
It was all there, in my head. In my memories.
I sipped the cocoa. Several other neighbors had come by, asked if I was okay. I may have nodded. The firefighters were shooting water into the upstairs window, into the bedroom that our daughter defiantly painted black when she was in high school. While her mother and I were on vacation, of course.
The house was huge, in my memory. Room enough for decades. For armies of people. Everything we had was in there, somewhere. The feeling of the rag rug in my “study,” the smell of the incipient mildew in the basement. The hum of the refrigerator and the sound of rain on the skylight. It was all there, and bright, and real.
I sat on the lawn. I watched my house burn.
And I was at home.