The man came in today with a glass of water.
He put it on the table in front of me, and sat down. He pushed his white coat over a chair. He sat, crossing his legs at the knee. He watched me from beneath his bushy, black-grey eyebrows. From over his glasses. He sat, pencil in hand, clip-board against his knee. He stared at me, at the water.
The man checks his wrist later. He stands up, scribbles something on his clip board. Then he grabs the glass of water, and walks towards the door. He sighs.
"You didn’t even move today. Not even one fucking inch."
He says this under his breath, but I still hear him. He always says things like that. Always just like that, low but loud enough to hear.
He grabs the door handle to my cell, turns it, and walks out. The door lets out a woosh as it swings shut behind him.
The man always gets upset when he comes in. He never says anything, but always comes in with something. He places it on the table, and then sits, waiting for me to do something.
Later, he brings in the letter T. The lower case one. He sits it on the table and watches me. When I move, adjusting my position, his head bends and he starts writing. He throws me a glance when I stop. He holds his eyes on me. But the moment passes, and he stands and sighs, and walks away, carrying his letter with him.
Days like this, I don’t know what he’s expecting. Some days I think he wants to tell me, but doesn’t. Then some days I thinks he just wants to come in and watch me forever.
I don’t have a name. Not one that people have ever called me. Not one that someone, like the man or the woman, have pointed to and said “This is you. This is who you are”.
But sometimes, when the man talks to the woman, he calls me “attempt 336”. Or, on the few times I’ve made him happy, “Him”. As in, “That’s him, this has got to be Him”. That’s how he phrased it precisely, the one time I didn’t disappoint him.
But that was a long time ago.
I don’t have a name, but i have a home. In my home, there are many rooms. There’s the room I sleep in. There’s the exercise room, the reading room. The doctor room, and the dentist room. There’s the room with many papers and files, but I’m not allowed in there. I opened the door to that room once, and the man started screaming and yelling at me. He pushed me away, and kept screaming until the woman came and stood between us, saying “John, he didn’t read anything. It’s okay, it’s okay really.”
The man shook his fist at me, and said “Just keep him the fuck away from it, okay? We don’t need him loose, like the others. You remember what happened to them, right Mary?”
The woman nodded, and grabbed my arm. She took me back to the room where I sleep, and stuck something in my arm. Then she made me get undressed. She put my clothes in a neat little pile, folding them putting them against the wall. She pointed towards the bed, and helped me lay down. She pulled the blanket up to my chin, and smiled. She patted my head. The man told her once that “Mary, you can’t do that. It’s against procedure. We can’t project. You know that”. But she did anyways. Only when the man wasn’t around.
I slept and had many dreams that night.
In those dreams, I wasn’t in my home. I wasn’t in any of the rooms, but in a space with trees and grass. Things I’ve only seen in the books the man and woman show me. And I walked through the grass, and many people came to me. Some had grey and white hair. Some had darkened skin, and some where pale. Just like all the people in those books.
They all approached me, grabbing my clothes and whispering. But there were so many of them, and so many approaching, that some started to scream as they were trampled beneath the others. Some pushed and shoved, which made others push an shove as well. It kept going and going, until everyone was pushing, screaming and punching, and paid me no attention at all.
Then man comes in today. He has his clip board in hand, and his pen. He looks over at me, and says “Are you awake?”
I sit up in bed, and nod. Like always. The man sits down, crossing his legs at the knee. He places his clip board on his leg, pen in hand. He looks up at me, over his glasses. “Today, we’re going to try something a little different. I’m going to say some words. And I want you to tell me if they make you feel anything. Alright?”
I nod, my hands curled over the edge of my mattress.
"We’re going to start off with an easy one. Father.”
I had heard this word before. I’d read it in several books, too. I looked at the man, and said “Father?”
The man begins writing before the word is out of my mouth. His pen jabs and scrawls, taking a note. He looks back up, silent. Then says “Yes, father. What does that word mean to you?”
I sit there a moment, staring at the space behind his head. I clear my throat, and say “I don’t understand.”
Another note, pen bleeding onto the page. He looks back up, and says “Father. Someone’s parent. What does that concept mean to you?”
I shrug my shoulders as the man watches and writes my actions, without looking down. “I don’t know. I don’t think I have a father. Are you my father?”
"Oh, no no no. No, not at all." The man shakes his head, still writing, face moving so hard his jowls jiggle. "Oh no, not me. I’m not your father."
"Do I have a father?"
The man raises his eyebrow. He puts his pencil down. He brings his hands together, and covers his knee with them. “That’s curious,” he says, “That’s a curious thing. You don’t know what a father is, but you know what parents are. Why is that?”
"I read it in a book once," I say, shrugging.
Times like this, I don’t know what to say. I think he wants me to say one thing, but he twists it around, makes it something else. Even when I tell him that’s not what I meant, he always does. He always scowls when I tell him the truth. I don’t know what a parent is either, but I don’t tell him that.
He picks up his pencil, grabbing his clip board. “Which book?” he asks, pencil raised above the paper.
"That one," I say, "That one with the man in it. He’s a hero, and everyone loves him. But the woman says I won’t like the ending."
Another note, and then the man stands. “You know, that’s all for today. Take an extra hour in the reading room today. Have Mary help you find something.” he says, walking towards the door, gripping the handle.
He turns, and says “But tell her no more of that comic-book crap. Tell her to read you something from the test selection. Okay?”
The door makes a woosh.
I sit and wait to be taken to the reading room.
The reading room is just down the hall. I could walk there, but it’s not allowed. I’m not allowed to go anywhere by myself. The man or the woman always have to come with me. Either two hands on a clip board, or an arm around me.
Even if they did let me go where and when I want, I don’t know the key codes. The reading room has this big panel with numbers on it. The man or woman always punch the numbers in fast. So fast, I can’t tell what they are, or if they’re the same numbers every day. I asked one time if I could go to the reading room when I wanted, but the man said it was forbidden.
But I’m not with him today.
Going with the woman to the reading room always seems better. She lets me look at any book I wanted, sometimes a few at a time. She doesn’t mind if I didn’t put them back in order. And she doesn’t mind me talking to Fred. Fred was my friend, and I didn’t see him often. Never outside of the reading room.
We enter, the door wooshing behind us. The woman says, “So, what do you want to read today? Maybe some more mythology? Or do you want to read about that one man again?”
"That one man. But it has to be from the test selection," I say, pointing towards the shelf.
She smiles and points to our two chairs, next to Fred. I go and sit on the right of him, like always. I turn my head to him and say, “Hey Fred. Feeling good today?”
Fred doesn’t say anything. He never does. So I pat his big, cloth leaves, and say “That’s good to hear, Fred. I’m glad you’re okay.”
The woman walks over, and sits on the left, with a book in her hand. She smiles when she sees me patting Fred. “He’s not a real plant, you know,” She says, like she does every time we come in.
She nods, watching me for a moment. “But even though he’s not real, he’s not any less special. Maybe one day we can get a real plant in here. Would you like that?” she says, cracking the spine of the book in her lap. A big leather one, with thin pages.
I shrug. “A real plant would be nice, I guess. Does that mean Fred would have to leave?”
She pauses, and looks back at me. She shakes her head, and says “No. Fred could stay. Maybe we’d even move him into your room. That’d be nice, right? You could be room mates.”
"I’d like that a lot."
She smiles, flipping through pages. “I’ll talk to John about it. It should be fine, but you know how he can be”.
She moves her finger down the pages, looking for the tic mark. She always makes them with a pencil, so we know where we left off. She finds it, and begins to read.
"Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven."
She looks up, holding her finger on the page. I’ve kept my eyes on her the entire time.
"Is everything okay? Do you want me to skip to another passage?" She says.
I look over at Fred, then at the book in her lap. “What is a father?"
The woman sits there. Finger firm on the page. She stutters, and flips through pages before closing the book. Her hands wrap around the top, and she looks at me.
"I, uh. I don’t know what to say. Well, I do. But I don’t know if I can."
She grips the book a little tighter, looking at the cover, and says “You’re a special case. Even among special cases. And because of that, there’s no real easy way to answer that question. I’m sorry. I know that’s not what you likely want to hear, but it’s all I can give you. I hope you can forgive me.”
I shrug, still looking at Fred. “Am I like him?” I say, pointing towards him.
She looks up, at the plant, at me, and leans back in her chair, sitting tall. Not loose like before. “What do you mean?”
"Well," I say, reaching for Fred’s leaf, "Fred doesn’t know what a father is, or if he is one or has one. So am I like Fred?"
She sits there, staring at the both of us. Then she smiles, but not like normal. She stands up, pushing the wrinkles out of her skirt. She walks over and puts the book-the one with that one guy in it-back on the shelf.
"Fred is a special case, too. Just like you. You’ve both got a lot in common." she says, walking back over. She looks at Fred, then at me, and says "Fred doesn’t have a father. Fred isn’t the only Fred, either. There are lots like him. But Fred fulfilled his purpose. Just like we’re starting to see you do. Does that make sense?"
When I don’t say anything, she comes over, and grabs me by the arm. Not hard, though. She pulls me up and says “It’s time to leave the reading room, okay? I know John said you could stay late, but he was wrong. Come on. We’re going back to your room now.”
The door goes woosh behind us.
When I’m awake, I follow others. But in my dreams, it’s never that way.
The people in my dreams, when they’re scratching and clawing and fighting to get to me, they call me many things. Some of the words I don’t understand. Some of them sound familiar, but by the way they’re fighting, I don’t think they are.
The entire time they’re fighting, I’m walking through them. The people part, but reach for me, their hands slipping and grasping at nothing. Some of them shout at me, and throw rocks. But they still let me walk through them, even though they don’t want to.
Sometimes, a man will come up from the crowd and approach me. He’ll get on his knees, and lower his head. As I pass him, he grabs my shirt and kisses it. Then he stands and walks behind me, his feet falling where mine do. Then another man comes up, and does the same thing. As I walk, the line grows longer and longer.
Eventually, everyone stops fighting. They stop cursing, and yelling. They’ve fallen in step with each other, with me. We form one continuous line, cutting a path through the grass and trees. We keep walking, until I begin to hear a loud roar, and the grass and trees stop. Until we come to the edge of the land.
I always look down. I always glance beneath our feet, beneath the edge, just to see the rushing water crashing against the rocks below. I push my foot forward, aiming for the water. Aiming for the waves, an unsteady staircase to guide me.
But then I’m falling hundreds of feet towards the ground, the land and waves and rocks all rushing past me. The line behind me follows, all stepping over the edge with me.
That’s when the screaming starts again.
In my home, there are many rooms. Today, I’m in the doctor’s room.
The doctor isn’t like the man or woman. He doesn’t talk to me. Except to say, “Inhale” or “exhale”, or “Sit here”. He never looks at me. He stares at moving pictures on big metal machines all around.
Today, he tells me to lay down on the leather bed. He takes the straps at the wrists and feet, and buckles me in. He turns and opens a drawer, and pulls out a syringe with a needle. He says, “Make a fist, and hold it please,” and I do. He presses the needle into my arm, and pulls back on the syringe.
I turn and watch as red builds up in the vial.
He pulls the needle back a moment later, applying a cotton swab to my arm. He’s about to put a bandage on when I say “What is a father?”
The doctor stops, the syringe needle in the air, and says “Excuse me?”
I look past his glasses, into his eyes and say “I said, what is a father? Are you a father? Are you my father? The man and woman won’t tell me anything.”
The doctor puts the syringe away, and doesn’t say anything. So I ask him again, and he says “No, I’m not your father. I don’t know who your father is.”
"But what is a father?"
The doctor turns, pushing his glasses back up on his face. “A father is a parent, a role model. Someone you’re around that you might try to be, or follow. Now, please,” he says, grabbing the tube with the drum on the end, “Let’s finish this.”
"Am I a father?"
He’s writing something on his clip board. His back is turned to me, and he goes on scribbling.
"People follow me at night when I sleep. They’re all kinds of different shapes, and colors." I say, watching him as he turns and watches me. He holds his pen still, then looks back down at his clip board, scribbling a note before turning back around.
"So you have trouble sleeping?" he says, his hands against a metal cabinet, holding himself up. "Because I’ve got something that can help you."
I shake my head the best I can. “No, I sleep fine. But people follow me in my dreams. Does that make me a father? You said-“
"I know what I said," he says, stopping me with his hand, "But dreams are different. They could mean anything. They’re the synapses of a busy brain. And yours? Huh. I’m not surprised, not surprised in the least."
He turns around again, opening the top most metal drawer. He reaches in and grabs a syringe, filled with green. He turns back around, and without asking me to form a fist, without a word, shoves the needle into my arm and presses the plunger down.
I’m fine at first, but then I feel cold. From my toes to the tips of my fingers. I can’t move my arms. My legs. As my eyelids start to droop, the man says one last thing.
"People following you. That’s new, at least."
The man comes in today with a little black box. On the box, there are several buttons. He presses one, and a little red light comes blinks from the end of the box.
He doesn’t have his clip board, or his pen. He still crosses his knees, and stares at me. But he does something odd, just as he clasps his hands together.
"You know, we got quite a stir out of you yesterday."
The red light blinks on the little box.
I cough, clearing my throat, and say “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
The man laughs, raising a hand. He’s still smiling. “Oh, that’s alright,” he says, “I’m actually happy we got you talking. For a while there, I’d almost thought you’d gone mute.”
I shrugged my shoulders, staring at the man as he stares at me. “I know how to talk” I say. I look down at the box, watching the red light pulse on and off.
The man laughs again, nodding his head. “Oh, I know you do. I taught you, remember? When you were still young. Just a small thing…”
The man pauses a moment, and his smile fades. He’s looking down at the box, at the pulsing, building light, and he says “You know, in a lot of ways, I suppose I’m like a father to you. That word struck you yesterday. For good reason too, I suppose”. The man stands, his knees letting out a soft pop. He turns his back to me, facing the door, clasping his wrists behind him.
"But I’m not. And you know that, don’t you?"
The man turns to face me, hands still behind his back. The red light goes on blinking. I don’t know what the box is for, or why it’s blinking, but it’s all I can think about.
The man takes a step towards the table, and says “What if I told you that you had no father? Would that disturb you?”
I think about this for a moment, shifting on the bed. The man bends and speaks into the red light, saying “Attempt three-three-six appears calm. Shifting weight.”
"I don’t think I’d care," I said, holding my knees. "I mean, I’ve never had one. I still don’t know what they are, not really."
The man nods, bending to speak into the light, saying “Three-three-six indicates no obvious mood elevation. Proceeding with objective.”
He walks around the table, and steps until he’s close enough for me to touch. Close enough for me to notice the nervous twitch in his upper mouth, to see his hands shaking through his sleeves.
"Good, good," he says, "Because you don’t. Not in an earthly sense, at the least."
He sits beside me on the bed, still shaking, still trembling.
"Now, slowly…I want you to tell me about your dreams. All of them, every detail. Can you do that for me?"
The man stays the rest of the night. He doesn’t ask questions, he doesn’t move. Except every now and then, he gasps. Or says, “They do that, they will do that, oh my god, oh my god…”
Every now and then, the woman brings us a pitcher of water. But she doesn’t say anything, and doesn’t look at anyone. The red light goes on blinking.
The door goes woosh as he leaves at last, when I’m too tired to talk.
There’s a flash of pain as the palm connects to my face. My eyes jerk open, and there’s the woman. Her hair is in a disarray, and her face is flushed. I begin to speak, but let out a groan.
"Oh, thank god. You’re awake. I was hoping he’d not sedate you tonight."
I try to sit up in the bed. The woman wraps her arm around my back, forcing me forward. She lets out a smile, and says “Even better. He didn’t undress you. He always was lazy.”
It’s then I notice the bag. It’s patterened in little brown, black, and green squares all over. It has big straps, and appears to be full. The woman takes my blanket off the bed, and reaches for my pillow. She ties both of them to the top, looking over the bag.
She reaches behind the bag, and turns back around. There are two leather looking things, with a ball of white fabric stuffed inside each of them. I sit and stare at them, until she says “They’re shoes. Don’t tell me you don’t recognize them?”
The woman stoops and takes the fabric, peeling it into two tubes. She spreads one over my foot, then the other. I reach for the shoes, and she gives them to me. I put them on, and she takes the strings across both, pulling them taught across my ankles. She folds the strings, over and over atop one another, making big loops.
"Alright, get up. Put this pack on, and follow me. We don’t have time."
I do as she says. We walk towards the door, and she grips the handle, pulling it open. The door goes woosh as it closes behind us. The woman is almost running, and I do everything I can to keep up with her, my pack shaking and clinking behind me.
I ask, “Where are we going?”, but the woman hisses at me, holding a finger over her mouth. We twist and turn down hallways, all of them dark. I follow her, pass the doctors room, the reading room, the dentist room.
I almost ask if Fred is okay, until we stop at the last door. The room with many files. The room the man doesn’t want me in. She turns and says “Wait here, okay? if anyone comes, just duck in here. Especially John. John can’t see you right now.”
She punches in the numbers, turns the handle and steps in. I watch the door, hands wrapped around the straps of my pack. The door opens, and the woman appears, holding a few files. All of them thick to the point of spilling paper. She moves, and so do I.
I almost ask here what we’re doing again, but as we turn a corner, I see a clear door. A glass door, a real one. And beyond that, far beyond that, a tree. A real tree, it’s branches reaching towards a real night sky. The woman turns to me, and says “Look, take these files. Hold onto them. Don’t let anyone take them from you. Walk into the forest, past there-” She says, pointing at the tree,”-until you hear someone speak to you. They’re a friend. They’re going to help you. Okay?”
I look down at the papers, and nod.
She stands there a moment, and then turns away, holding her hand to her face. “Well, go on, get out. Go. Don’t stop, not even for a second. Do you understand?”
I nod again, and meet her eyes. “I’ve never been outside before, though,” I say, clutching the papers tight.
The woman just stares at me for a moment, silence passing between us. Then she reaches forward, and hugs me. “I know, I know,” she says, patting the back of my head. “And where it not for John, you wouldn’t. He’s not thinking right. He thinks you’re like them…like the others”. She pulls back for a moment, her hands on my shoulders, and says “When you talked about your dreams to him earlier. Were you telling the truth? You weren’t telling him something out of a book?”
I shake my head. “No. People follow me in my dreams every night, but when they come together they always fight and hurt each other. Then they-“
She holds up her hand, covering my mouth. Her head hangs as her chest pitches, and she lets out a low sob. When she looks back up at me, her eyes are puffy. She’s crying.
"Oh, god," She whispers, chest heaving as she her tears flow, "I’d thought we’d gotten it right this time. I’d thought you were perfect, innocent. But…but you’re just like all the others. You’ve got to get out of here. Now. Or when John finds you, he’ll…"
Her hands drop, reaching and covering her face.
I walk towards the door, reaching for the handle. The first door I’ve ever opened on my own. The woman walks beside me, up to the number pad and punches the code. The door unlocks. Before I place my hand on it, I turn to her and say “Good bye, Mary.”
The woman’s head snaps around. Tears streaming down her face, she says “What did you just say?”
"I said good bye, Mary."
She stands there, staring at me. Then she runs towards me, her arms out stretched. She pushes me out the door, and a bell goes off. Red lights appear inside, pulsing and blinding. And the woman stands there, still crying, shoulders heaving.
"Past the tree! Run past the tree, and don’t stop until someone speaks to you! Do you hear me? Go! Fucking move it!"
She runs back inside. The door closes behind her. It makes a woosh, but I can’t hear it over the buzzing from inside.
I turn around and stare at the tree, the stars, the night. I breath in, and smell the outside world for the first time. I hear the sounds of the night, of bugs I’ve only read about, of birds and animals I’ve only seen in picture books.