Drawing of three levels of puppet masters.
(Enera Wilson)

Creating multiple inconveniences was one of many strategies for interfering with James Michaelson’s inconvenient, daily activities.

He was opening a can of tomatoes, and my prompt instructed me to speak into the microphone.

“You’re clumsy and you can’t help hurting yourself on that can,” I said.

This would come to the subject as a peripheral thought, conveyed via the subliminal audio system The Com- pany had installed in his house. The subject would not be conscious of it, or if he was, he would take it as his own thought.

A few seconds later, he cut his hand on the can lid and blood began to drip. Now, he would probably have to get to the ER to get the bleeding to stop, and this would put a hole into his day. Enough days with enough disruptions would substantially stall Michaelson.

I’d been told just enough to allow me to do my job of wrecking James. He’d worked in some type of Civil Rights and had mysteriously contract- ed a neurological condition that was being managed medically. I was not told much more than that. It didn’t matter to me, because I was collecting a good paycheck.

My back tensed up, and this was perplexing. I heard a faint, fleeting sound between my ears. I scratched my head. However, the sound was garbled, and it was probably a random sound that I’d overinterpreted. I looked at my coffee cup. Was I hallucinating?

Michaelson located some gauze and some bandage tape in his linen closet and applied them to his bleeding hand. For a moment, one of the pin- hole cameras caught his face up close.

Then he scrunched his brow. He stared directly at the camera, and I could see his face appear curious, then develop a look of outrage.

Shit. Should I contact my supervisor at The Company? I had an odd feeling that I should not.

When such a thing happened, my protocol was to create a diversion
and enable the preinstalled memo- ry-blanking unit. In this case, an agent had installed one in the subject’s attic, above the kitchen. The subject also kept his primary phone in there. I needed to get the subject within range of the memory blanker.

I dialed his phone number. He used an old-style answering machine, which answered his line after three rings. By this time, he had located a garden trowel, and was preparing to dig the surveillance camera out of the wall. For some reason he wanted to mark the wall with a marker first, and this gave me a few moments.

I spoke to the answering machine. This would be audible in the hallway. “Hello Mr. Michaelson. This is Lori Thorardson. You probably don’t re- member me from college, but…”

It was enough to stop him in his tracks. There had been a Miss Thorardson in his college Biology class who he’d had a crush on for many years. Yet he never had the nerve to ask her out.

He walked to the kitchen and picked up the phone, and I immediately tapped on the button on my screen that would activate the device. The effect would be retroactive for an entire day. I saw him shudder from the impact of the device’s magnetic field. Then, I saw him wobble on his feet. His eyes started blinking repeatedly.

I took a bite of my sandwich, and I thought of turning on my air condi- tioning. It occurred to me that Mi- chaelson lived across town from me, then I had another thought that I felt no compassion and no pity for this man. This was simply my job; this was how I generated my income.

The subject held the phone, yet it appeared he didn’t know why he stood in his kitchen holding a phone.

Michaelson appeared very confused. He began to pace, room to room within his house. Then he spotted the garden trowel that he’d put down next to the phone. He paused.

He picked up the trowel and put it down, baffled. He went back into the kitchen, and he noticed that the light was flashing on his answering device. Then he picked up the phone from where it rested on the counter.


A second time, I heard that static-like thing in my headphones. I attributed to my imagination and stress. It struck me as a high-pitched, speeded-up voice. “Get it out. Tell him everything.” But I dismissed it; it was just a brief burst of static, nothing more.

I realized I’d forgotten to terminate my end of the phone connection. At that point, I did something dumb. I told Michaelson what I’d been doing to him.

It was enough to do irreparable damage to the situation. I’d even told him I’d blanked his memory, so he took notes.

I kept asking myself, why was I telling him all of this? Did I have a death wish? It was too late to blank his memory a second time, and I real- ized that his answering machine could record a conversation.

It seemed that partly he wanted to make me ashamed of myself. He told me of some of his activities. He’d been involved in the movement to disallow corporate immunity. The Company wasn’t happy with this.

“Can you meet me?” he asked.

The knot in my stomach told me that I was in far over my head and was probably in the zone of being eliminated by The Company. Yet, I found myself accepting the offer to see Michaelson. I had a sensation of not being in control of my actions.

I met with the subject on the patio of Coffee Buck. I didn’t doubt that any- one interested could hear us or could take video. The conversation was long and detailed. Eventually, I became the subject of discussion. I told him about a fear that I had been harboring for years, and never disclosed to anyone.

My mind flashed on my father, and I tensed with anxiety. My father had been involved in inconveniences to

The Company. He’d said when I was young: “You carry the same trait.” He’d disappeared soon after, and I’d been put in a foster home.

A year later, I received a cryptic, computer-printed, government letter, that vaguely implied my father had been committed to a psych hospital in Vermont. I couldn’t decipher the intended meaning of the letter, and
it disappeared out of my chest of personal belongings when I’d looked for it a day later.

At nineteen, I’d gone to Vermont to look for him, and State Police told me to go home.

I told Michaelson, “I try very hard not to inconvenience The Company.”

I saw Michaelson stiffen at that. “And it is I they are after.” He spoke with an odd inflection.

I was annoyed and anxious. “Is that a question?”

Michaelson mumbled under his breath, and I couldn’t distinguish what he said.

By this time, I assumed that my life was forfeit.

The patio was not far from the parking lot. Michaelson’s gaze was alerted and was focused on the parking lot which was to my back. I turned my head and saw that two, plain sedans had pulled up that had the look of government vehicles.

Men emerged from the cars and I was frozen with terror. They approached quickly. They looked directly at Michaelson and at me.

I awoke and I was handcuffed to a bed, and I didn’t know where the hell I was. A man’s face was above mine, and I noticed he wore a nurse’s uniform.

“Do you know where you are?”

“Where?” I asked. I realized that my voice was dry and faint.

“You are in Gladman Psychiatric Hospital. You’ve been suffering from severe psychosis. Things are going to seem odd or strange for you for a while. The medication will help you.”

“I’m not dead?”
“No, of course you’re not. Where would you get that idea?”
“I violated the Prime Standing Order.”
“From who?”
“The Company.”
“What company?”
“I guess it was all in my head,” I said.

The nurse nodded his head. “We might give you cranial stimulation.” It was standard procedure.

My agreement had been that, as an option, if I violated guidelines, I could choose the psych route rather than being killed and disposed of. Soon, I would completely forget about my former life of lots of money, a nice car, and a nice house.

I knew that I would be forced to live as a psych patient. My weight would likely double because of the meds and the bad food. I would lose teeth. I would probably have my choice of men who had psychiatric disabilities. I did not relish my prospects, but, at a guess, it was better than being killed. But not by much.


I turned my head, and I saw a man who appeared to be Michaelson in a white lab coat with a stethoscope. He walked up to my bed. While he un- locked the handcuff that attached my hand to the bedrail, I saw a fresh scar in the area where I’d caused Michael- son to cut his hand.


“I’m Doctor Wiess. I am not Mi- chaelson. Who is Michaelson?”

He was lying. The voice, face and scar, everything, the same. This was the same man.

“Don’t worry about a thing. We’ll fix you right up with a shot of medi- cation,” the doctor said.

And at that, I realized that the actu- al target individual of The Company was me.

“A little too much thinking,” the doctor said. A hospital worker rolled in a stainless-steel table, and on top of it was a very large syringe.

Jack Bragen is author of “Revising Behaviors that Don’t Work,” “Instructions for Dealing with Schizophrenia,” and “Jack Bragen’s 2021 Fiction Collection,” and lives in Martinez.