Speculative fiction by Jack Bragen
If a threat is bad enough, sometimes a person must even hide certain things from their own conscious mind…
The Waiting Room
A chill breeze prompted me to zip up my green-and-gray, secondhand windbreaker. I put my key in the door of the car to lock it, and I picked up my lunch bag from the asphalt of the parking lot. Something wasn’t right, but I could not get myself to know what it was.
As I walked toward the entrance, I found that movement was difficult, and I had to make an effort to force my arms and legs to obey. I went in through the reinforced glass door. The waiting room was dingy, poorly lit, noisy, far too warm, and packed with mentally ill people. I detected a strong mix of smells: body odors, acrid tobacco and marijuana, and the scent of stale, alcohol breath.
The din of multiple conversations, mixed with other irritating noises, was aggravating. I could barely contain my impulse to walk out. But, of course, this was a great place! They had my best interests in mind, I remembered. The counselors would never lie!
My counselor emerged from the heavy, secure, wooden door that led to the back area. “Hi Harold, I’m sorry to keep you waiting.” Felix had a habit of smiling too often. He didn’t look like a Felix; he was tall and stocky, and he sported a waxed, handlebar mustache. “It will be room sixteen today, Harold.”
I sat in a chair lower than Felix’s, placing me six inches closer to the floor. He sat too close to me, and I struggled at not squirming or bolting. These impulses, I had been told, were my symptoms.
“How’s your week been?” he asked.
“I applied for five jobs,” I replied.
“Five job applications! That’s amazing!” He wrote something on his yellow paper tablet. Felix then asked, “What were the positions?”
“I’m trying for an entry-level position in data entry.”
“Data entry! You’re kidding me. Can you do that?”
“I’ve been trained and my keyboarding is fast enough.”
“Then you are computer literate?” He wrote some more on his yellow paper. “Who taught you this?”
I knew that I was expected to lap up the compliments, even though in the back of my mind, it was obvious that the counselor’s comments were condescending. Moments of anger would come infrequently, and I was being reconfigured to prevent them.
“I’m actually not an idiot,” I said.
Felix wrote something on his yellow pad of paper. He paused and said, “I do not regard you as an idiot. You are having a paranoid thought.”
Fighting Off Bleariness
I came back to consciousness because of a painful sensation atop my right thigh. I was sitting on my upholstered chair in my unit at the “project.”
A beer was in one hand and a lit cigarette had just fallen from the other hand and was burning my bare leg. I stood quickly while fighting off bleariness, and retrieved the cigarette from the carpeting, but not before it left a burn mark — among a dozen similar burn marks. I put the beer down on a table, and I looked at myself in the mirror. A surreal memory came to me.
I’d had an “inappropriate outburst.” I’d been restrained, and then the device was used on me. It was designed to shut down the errant part of my brain by using a magnetic pulse. I was uncertain of whether the memory was real, or if it could have been a nightmare.
I picked up the beer again, and gulped down what little remained in the bottle; it was warm. I checked the refrigerator, and there were two more bottles of beer. I had no memory of purchasing them.
I sat and was about to turn on the television. Then I noticed it was four in the morning, and I realized it was Saturday. The other version of me had come up. It was the version that I was not allowed to have. I had a surge of rage and wanted to destroy things in my room, but restrained the impulse.
I’d modified myself such that a different area of my mind was being used for independent thought. My brain, at my direction, had given up on use of my frontal lobes, the area that the mental health professionals kept zapping with their magnetic pulse device.
A Grand Act
It occurred to me that if I wanted to keep this reserve consciousness, I needed to put on a grand act of being obedient, and of not being excessively smart. I mentally went over how I would handle various situations. I dared not put anything down on paper, so as not to look too suspicious. I was under constant surveillance, and could not let them know that I was thinking.
I picked up the remote control and began channel surfing. At the same time, I had a lot of thinking to do — thinking that must be done in the reserve mental area that I’d created. No one must know of this.
Soon, the nine a.m. hour approached. My phone rang. I dreaded answering it, but I needed to uphold a good appearance. The monitor people did not like it when a client refused to answer a call.
I constructed my speech to resemble that of a numbed-out, drugged, and burned-out psychiatric patient, one who was also naive and compliant. This subterfuge was not hard.
“Is this Harold Browne?”
“Yes, this is me.” I put a bit of eagerness into my voice, as though I were thrilled with someone calling me, personally, by name.
“You were supposed to be here an hour ago.” The voice I heard over the phone was female and stern.
“We need to give you a refresher training on your compliance. How soon can you be here?”
I replied, “I’m sorry. I have an awful headache and nausea. Could I take this refresher another time?”
“If you can’t make it today, can you tell me when you will be here?”
“Is today Monday?”
“No, it is Saturday.”
I paused for a good thirty seconds to give the impression of confused thought.
“Can I come in Wednesday? Is that soon enough?”
“Okay, but no later than Wednesday. Can you plan to be here at 10:15 on Wednesday morning?”
“Of course.” I said. “Is there anything else you need at the moment?”
“You’re good to go. I hope you feel better soon.”
On Wednesday, I went to the refresher class, and I feigned a seemingly feeble attempt at independent thought, which was enough to convince the instructor that I wasn’t faking anything. If I had appeared too easily convinced of their garbage, it would appear suspicious.
When I got back home and checked my calendar, I was relieved to find that I had no appointments for the rest of the week. I checked the refrigerator and found that three cold beers had shown up, apparently without my doing.
Alcohol supposedly wasn’t permitted. However, the current management was willing to look the other way. At a guess, they acknowledged that if you did not allow clients some pitiful type of release, you would create living time bombs.
It was afternoon, and a cool breeze came in through the window. I looked outside and noticed that some pigeons were nesting under the rafters of the building across the street. I had a brief impulse to jump out of the window. But I wasn’t at that point yet; it was worth it to hang on a bit longer.
The phone rang again; I did not answer it. I was reaching the point where I would refuse to live in fear.
I began to stuff clothes into a duffle bag. I added a can opener and some canned food. And I put in an unopened gallon jug of water. I had formulated a plan. I knew a possible, yet very risky way of getting out, with some slim chance of reaching the border. Tomorrow, early in the morning, I would go.
I looked in my closet that was stuffed with old junk I’d kept. I was looking for anything I might bring with me, that I hadn’t thought of.
I spotted a trophy, picked it up, and brushed the dust off it. “First place in Science Project competition…” I’d won it in my senior year in high school.
I could barely contain my rage. Rather than bring this with me, I made a gesture. I got a sharp knife and I beheaded the trophy. I intended to leave it atop my breakfast table, to be found, after I left…