Test Subjects

by | Sep 13, 2016 | Fiction

 

There was something wrong with the self-checkout at Queen’s Grocer, I could tell. I didn’t know quite what it was yet, but I was sure there was something wrong with it. “Insert bills, or select method of payment,” said the robotic female voice.

I touched the “cash” button.

“Insert coins first, then bills,” said the machine.

“I’ll insert your bills,” I muttered. I like to talk to the machines.

“Five…dollars,” said the machine, “sixty-three cents change.” A quarter, a dime and two pennies rolled into the black dish to the right of the bag area, I grabbed them up. “Please take your bags—don’t forget your change and your receipt—and go home,” said the machine.

I looked at it suspiciously. Had it always said that? The part about going home, I mean. I didn’t ever remember it saying that…

My name is Willy Wilberforce Wainscot. Besides having a name whose initials are like the start of most websites, I was—am—a recovering paranoid schizophrenic.

There never has been a cure for schizophrenia. But stabilizing influences—friends, family, spouses etcetera—these kind of people make living with the condition tolerable, and will keep a schizo like me from harming himself or others.

Not that I’m dangerous. I’ve always been docile enough. No violent episodes or anything—I just hear and see things that aren’t there. Occasionally, and let me empha-size that word and use it a lot; Occasionally I have to take Thorazine—but only if I choose. I haven’t had a catatonic episode in months, and while my imagination Occa-sionally pushes mental figments into the real world and forces me to deal with them, I have learned to differentiate between them and real people. The best way to do so—if the hallucination is new or unfamiliar, say—is to insult the person you think is just a vi-sion. A middle finger, a harsh word, a derisive comment or vulgar expression; these’ll buy an unpredictable reaction from a real person.

I’ve been slapped a lot.

But you know, I’d rather have the bejesus slapped out of me than follow my dead sister into moving traffic again—that’s why I ended up in the loony bin to begin with.

And that’s enough background. I’m a great writer, but I hate doing it because in-evitably I end up relating way too many personal details of my life for some random stranger to pick up. Things I don’t want anybody to know about but myself and maybe a few of those stabilizing influences I wrote about in the previous paragraphs, you know?

Anyway, I have to write this all down for my Statement. Marie will kill me if she gets incarcerated, and I’m her only real hope—insane though I may be/recently was. But I guess if I don’t finish this, it’ll be ten years until she catches up with me…

Best not to think about that. I’ll start suspecting she’s hiding in my closet with a bat, next; one of the ones you can conceal by unscrewing it until you need to assemble it, then pummel somebody to death with. And she’ll be angry I didn’t testify on her behalf. That’s what it means to be paranoid—you think and feel everybody is after you, or think of reasons they oughta be. And I guess that’s kind of how this all started.

Paranoia.

I was just getting a snack, that’s all. But the fridge was empty, and so was the pantry, and unless I wanted to eat cat food I was going to have to take a trip to the gro-cery store behind my apartment. So I stole a glance at myself in the bathroom mirror—I let my hair and beard grow long; it’s a good idea to keep razors away from your head when you’re a schizo—straightened my whiskers, grabbed a coat and sunglasses, and left my basement-level apartment. It was snowy out, and my eyes are blue. When the sun reflects off the snowdrifts, it blinds me pretty good, unless I’ve got sunglasses. When I’m blind I have to squint, and when you squint you start seeing things. Normal folks forget about ‘em. I don’t. So I’ve always got sunglasses—big aviators, you know? I mean if you’re crazy and you have to take measures to protect yourself, why not look good? I look kind of like an old pop-singer from Scotland—I think it was Scotland—named Gerry Rafferty. He does this really great song about being young in the city. It’s called Baker Street. I love the saxophone solo in it, it’s really pretty. Anyway, I looked kind of like him that day, leaving the apartment complex.

Now the complex has a lot of people like me in it. We were “repatriated”, if you will, en masse from the mental institution. It was the teens, you know? Everybody was trying new things. Start of a whole new century, one decade down—time to define the new era, right? So our apartments, they were a low-income deal, partially funded by a government-run loony bin. Some of us were stable enough they figured we could live on our own.

And you know, they did their best not to belittle or patronize us. We got our own rooms, two keys—the hospital staff didn’t keep any—a few items of furniture, and a discount card to the grocery store just behind the wooden fence across the alley. Not bad, right?

I figure they rigged all the apartments with cameras to see what we’d do with our newfound freedom. They’re always watching you, you know. It doesn’t matter where you go or what you do—they’ve got to keep tabs on you.

I mean they’ll act like every-thing is hunky-dory, but you know it’s not. I know it’s not.

Now let me ask you: am I being paranoid now? Gosh, I don’t know. I swear though, I know just where they’d have mine hid. The vents, see—there’s a vent in the middle of my living room, one in my bathroom, one in the pantry, one in the bedroom. The only place there isn’t one is in my closet. So if I have to have private conversations, or do anything else private—that’s where I do it. That way they’re not watching me with their vent-hidden cameras, see?

I mean I can’t remove those vents, not without damaging the paint and sheetrock and whatever they’re installed in. And if I start doing that, they’ll come get me, right? Because the cameras will see me getting curious, so they’ll want to stop me before I fig-ure out their secret. Once I walked toward a duct with a screwdriver and like a minute later Marie shows up from a block east at the campus, where she researches—she’s a grad student in some psychological field. Pretty big coincidence, eh? Anyway, I think they saw me coming and sent her to diffuse the situation. She was sweaty and her hair was ruffled—and she just came over because she forgot her house keys.

Right. Okay, Marie, I believe you.

But she’s a gorgeous girl. Blonde hair, blue eyes, a figure that’d make an adoles-cent boy start crying, then change his pants… Why she was dating a schizophrenic mess-up like me? Well, I had my suspicions about that, too.

Anyway—vents: perfect place to hide cameras. And if I ask why there are so many vents, what do they say?

They say “building codes”, and “what if there’s a fire?” and all this hooey. I know better.

At least Queen’s Grocer isn’t so concerned with subtlety. I mean that supermar-ket’s got cameras, sure—but they’re in those black half-spheres on the ceiling, out in plain sight. And you’ve got to have cameras in a grocery store, don’t you?

I was checking out—all I got was some “two-percent real juice” drink and a deli sandwich. I slid my card across the reader, typed in my code, scanned my items, and fished around for a few crumpled bills to pay for it all.
“Please, slide your Queen’s Grocer discount card,” said the machine.

“I already did,” I muttered—I like talking back to the machines.

“Please, slide your—” I pushed the “cash” button and cut the machine off. It changed its tune: “Insert coins first, then bills.”

I pushed in a five.

“Fifty-three cents change,” it said. “Please take your bags. Don’t forget your re-ceipt. Perhaps see a movie—and have a nice day.”

“You too—” I stopped short. “What?” But another customer had been waiting behind me—that college campus I mentioned about a block east; a lot of young kids out this time of afternoon on a Friday. I stepped to the side.

“Welcome to Queen’s Grocer,” said the machine—nonchalant and normal.

I stood at the front of the store, watching.

“Please take your bags. Don’t forget your receipt, and have a nice day,” said the machine.

“No,” I muttered. “No, no no. That’s not what it said.” I stood back and waited by some ice bags, watching the other shoppers go through that self-checkout register. I was just so far away that I could barely hear it: “Welcome to Queen’s Grocer,” followed by the usual questions and commands, ending with “…and have a nice day.” I listened to that a dozen times, and it was all exactly the same. I shook my head. It must’ve been in my mind.

Subconsciously I probably wanted to see a movie—that was it. I hadn’t been to the movies in a while. That’s why the machine…that had to be it.

I was about to go back home—I was starting to remember that I was kind of hun-gry—when Mikey Parkins stepped to the very machine, running through a list of grocery items that’d probably keep him a weekend.

“Mikey!” I called out.

He looked up.

Mikey was a skinny blonde kid with teeth that jutted at a slight angle, kind of giv-ing him a horse mouth. “Hey, Willy,” he said.

“Please scan your first item,” added the machine.

Mikey was a neighbor of mine, and also a previous resident of the hospital. “Just getting some stuff for the weekend?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he continued scanning items. “You know.”

“Anything exciting planned?”

He shrugged. “Not really. Might be trippin’ Tussin later.” Mikey was a bit of an experimental drug-user. “Trippin’ Tussin” referred to a particular high that can be ob-tained by drinking an entire bottle of Robitussin.

“Insert coins first, then bills,” the machine approved.

“Cool, cool. I was thinking I might see a movie,” I replied.

Mikey finished paying for his groceries, stuffing a bottle of Robitussin in a bag as he did so. “Well have fun,” he said.

“…your receipt, and go home,” said the machine.

“See you,” said Mikey

“Wait, wait—did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“The machine—it told you to go home.”

“Did it? That’s where I’m headed—”

“No, no,” I shook my head, “it usually tells you to have a nice day.”

“Maybe they upgraded,” he replied, and left through the sliding doors.

I couldn’t let it go at that. I switched my own grocery bag from one hand to the other, turned and caught the eye of a plump high-school girl attending the counter be-tween self-checkout aisles. “Ma’am?” I said.

She didn’t look up for a minute, then smiled belatedly: “May I help you?”

“Your machine,” I said, pointing at the cash register.

“Did it give you the wrong change? We’ve had a few problems with that one.”

“No…I was wondering…” I cleared my throat and smiled nervously. “I was wondering, have there been any software upgrades, or anything like that? Is it a new model or anything?”

She looked genuinely perplexed. “Not that I’m aware of…”

“It’s just that it keeps telling me things.”

An eyebrow fought like Atlas against a thick forehead: “telling you things?”

“I mean—it told me to go see a movie; I thought it might be some new ad cam-paign, or…”

“I’ve never heard the machines do anything like that,” she said. “Would you like me to get a manger?”

“No, that’s alright,” and I went home. She’d given me all I needed: she didn’t know about it either.

That meant, somehow, it was all in my mind. Right?

Mikey hadn’t noticed anything. Or if he did, he hadn’t cared…it had to be in my head. It couldn’t be real…but then what if it was addressed to me, and specifically me? Like, what if the machine only talked to me? That was entirely possible—but no, it had given an individual message to Mikey also. But he hadn’t noticed, only I had, right?

I realized I’d been pacing for the better part of an hour thinking about it. I was getting jittery—when you’ve got a condition like I do, it sometimes isn’t the best idea to be alone and by yourself. Especially when you’ve started having ideas like I was.

I went to see a movie to clear my head—maybe that machine wasn’t so dumb af-ter all.

It was some mindless college comedy. I laughed here and there, but don’t re-member most of it. An old SNL alum headed the cast, it was something about police of-ficers undercover at a fraternity. Formulaic and dull—not nearly so interesting as what-ever it was that had happened to me.

I went home feeling no better.

 

II

 

I misplaced my wallet; left it in a pair of pants that got kicked under the bed. As such, I was without my discount card for a few weeks. Paid with cash and probably much more than I needed to. When you’re broke in a low-income place like I am…or, like I was, I guess. Anyway, when you’re that broke, you notice little extra expenses like that. And throughout those weeks, the self-checkout registers acted totally normal. As if the one hadn’t malfunctioned and started talking to me. Or at least sending messages that weren’t normal to me.

It had been a hallucination, sure. But that didn’t mean it weren’t a possibility. For the hell of it, I started thinking about why a machine would do something like that. I couldn’t think of a lot of reasons. Maybe some tech was a practical joker when he put together the self-checkout programming; perhaps selecting certain items and payment options made a hidden code that would give you what programmers call an “Easter egg”. That’s a hidden little snippet in a game or a program or something. You’ve got to search to find it, and when you do you get a little “prize”; thus the name “Easter egg”. Marie taught me that. She’s real technical. I’m not—used to be, but my condition kind of made it difficult for me to pursue my old hobbies and pleasures, you know? Anyway, the East-er egg explanation seemed pretty good…only that wouldn’t explain Mikey getting a dif-ferent message.

After all, he’d purchased more items than I had, and in a different order. So that means there couldn’t have been a code unlocking it, right?

Now I knew this was all kind of crazy thinking, but you know, I wasn’t seeing or hearing the things I usually do. It really helps to focus your mind on something, when you’ve got the condition I do. It blocks out the other things, except for what you’re thinking about. Your brain doesn’t have time to give you any fantasies, see? At least that was the theory.

So I continued to run through the scenarios. Couldn’t be a programming Easter egg…maybe a glitch? No, that’s a pretty specific glitch. It couldn’t be accidental. Or perhaps a hacker got into it? Maybe one of the self-checkout people had some cell-phone app that could wirelessly reprogram a register, make it say weird things—that was pretty plausible. Kids were always doing things like that, these days. You heard about it in the news all the time.
It was too bad I couldn’t seem to get it to talk weird at me again. I wanted to con-firm one of these ideas…

But no, it was in my head.

Just like Robin, who was approaching from his corner of the street, smiling a black-toothed grin, dripping lice most likely and certainly smelling to high heaven. The English accent that popped out of him was totally incongruous: “Friend, citi-zen…partner,” he said that last word trying to affect a cowboy accent, “spare a nickel?”

“Leave me alone, Robin. Get a job.”

“This is a job.”

“You’re homeless!”

“Please, we prefer the term ‘dwelling impaired’—”

“What?”

“ ‘Dwelling Impaired’, you heard me. Now about that nickel—”

“Sure I heard you, I just can’t believe it.”

“Well, believe it.”

I blew air through my lips. “So even bums are politically correct, these days—”

“Oh, I’m not a bum.”

“A bum ain’t homeless ?”

“’Dwelling Impaired’, I said! And no. A ‘bum’, as you so brusquely put it, is an indigent person who cleverly sequesters resources.”

“Like panhandling at an intersection, you mean?”

“Yes, but it’s not ‘panhandling’—”

“No, of course it’s not.”

“—It’s convincing NDII individuals to contribute humanitarian aid.”
“NDII?”

“ ‘Non Dwelling Impaired Individuals.”

I couldn’t help chuckling—I don’t know where my subconscious dug this charac-ter up, but at least he was entertaining. I began to play along: “So what do you call a ‘ho-bo’ then?”

“’A Locomotive Enthusiast’.”

I laughed. “And a ‘Vagrant’?”

He squinted. “They’re just vagrants.”

“What, no PC term for them?”

“Naw, those guys’re assholes,” He said it ‘oss-oles’. “Now you got a nickel or not?”

“No. I don’t have a job, much less a nickel. The government sends me a check every month.”

“Go on!” He said, then suddenly screamed and pointed—“THAT CASH REG-ISTER IS ALIVE!!!”

“What? Register—where—!” I followed his finger, turning fast as I could, star-tled despite myself but equally determined—there was nothing. I turned back: “Okay, you got m-…oh.” And the bum—sorry, “indigent person who cleverly sequestered re-sources”—was gone.

It’s kind of what happens. I never can start to enjoy a fantasy or a vision or a hal-lucination or a delusion—the second I do, it does something crazy and disappears.

 

III

 

“Slinky, what’re you doing?” Slinky is my cat. “Slinky, get away from—so there those pants are. Cat, I’ll never know why you drag my clothes under the bed—hey, my wallet! Thanks, Slinky.” Slinky was Marie’s name for Stinky-Pants. She hated that I called the cat Stinky—but she always broke wind! Not Marie, I mean the cat. And I’m not trying to be vulgar or anything. The cat just plain had digestion problems. If you picked her up and she was afraid, she’d skunk you. At least, until I changed her diet—the stinky days were really when she was a kitten, lasting just long enough for me to name her inappropriately. Now she wouldn’t do that, but she still responded to the name. When Marie and I started dating, she thought that “Stinky” was just such a cruel name. So she called her Slinky, because the little black cat is lithe and ferret-like. It sounded so similar, the cat couldn’t tell the difference. Eventually I started calling her Slinky too—why not?

There was twenty bucks in my wallet, and my discount card.

Hot diggety.

I’d get a pizza and some root beer. I strolled with a whistle to and through Queen’s Grocer, grabbed what I wanted to, scanned my discount card, checked out—

“…your receipt, and have a restful evening.”

“!” I said, followed by: “No way.”

It was doing it again.

I cautiously stood back once more, watched the regular shoppers to see. Again, the machine responded to them normally—the same canned messages. Such that nobody seemed to notice the robotic voice speaking to them at all. It was background noise…

The same plump blue-shirted attendant was standing at the counter between self-checkout aisles.

I had to see if it was always like that with me, maybe the machine was sentient! But no, this was a different machine—

This was a different machine.

Holy Moses on a roller coaster, I was on the opposite side of the aisle! My heart began to pound in my chest. I had been going to the same machine all last week—maybe it got wise to me.

I fished out a dollar, grabbed a pack of gum, waited till the register was open—

Okay. I paid for it, inserted the bill, “…your receipt, and have a nice day,” said the machine.

“Damnit!” I yelled.

Ten-or-so people looked up.

“Is there a problem, sir?” Said the attendant at the counter.

“No,” and I grabbed the gum and left the store.

Something was going on. Something was definitely going on.

I refused to have a “restful evening”. Screw that machine. I would specifically not have a restful evening—and just because it told me to. Maybe the other customers would have a restful evening. Not me. I was going to have a talk with somebody about this, and get to the bottom of it. Somehow, some way.

When I got to the apartments I went and watched TV in the lobby until somebody came and sat down in the chair opposite my couch. One of my fellow ex-residents of the mental institution. I’d never talked to the fellow, but I vaguely recognized him. “Even-ing,” I said.

He glanced from the TV back at me. “Hey,” he replied. He was an old buzzard of a man. Probably in his sixties, pudgy, white-bearded and balding despite a kind of skullet that stretched to his shoulders. Missing half his teeth.

“I’m Willy,” I said, offering my hand.

“Donnie,” he replied.

“How long ago they move you here?” I asked.

“A week, two weeks,” he said.

“I been here a few months,” I replied.

“Oh.” Donnie watched the TV.

It was a B. Lizard commercial, just then. This little computer-animated green liz-ard was their spokesman, and he was always getting second place in something or other. Maybe he’d choose the wrong insurance and wreck a lizard-sized motorcycle. Then the deep-voiced announcer would say something like: “Don’t be a B. Lizard—”
“You get snookered outta your ‘ard-earned cash!” Cut in the little green mascot.

“—Go with B. Lizard! Car insurance, that is; save a buck or six,” and the reptile would float by on a helium balloon and say something belligerent like: “If your not wiff B. Lizard, you might as well be homeless!” in an Americanized cockney accent.

“Ha! Ha Ha!” Donnie said.

I tried to smile. “He means ‘Dwelling Impaired’.”

“What?”

“Not homeless—’Dwelling Impaired’.”

“What in hell are you talking about, ‘Dwelling Impaired’—”

“I’m just amazed a big insurance company can get away with it—being so politi-cally incorrect, I mean.”

“That lizard cracks me up—I like those commercials.”

I decided to try a new tactic: “Crazy what they can do with computers these days, isn’t it?”

“Not like in my day—in my day, you’d get a minute spot with an animated mas-cot. Not so good animation, but you actually got a little story. Shoot—I remember when some ads would be a half hour show that wasn’t too bad.”

“I’ve seen some of those—Dad used to work at the mines; he’d record Star Trek automatically every night on the VCR when I was a kid. I used to see all kinds of old commercials.”

“See why I find ‘em so fun with the computer animation?”

“Not really…but you know, the stuff they do with computers these days—it’s fas-cinating.”

“It’s scary, is what it is.” Donnie had acquired a bottled soda somewhere and was sipping it.

“You think so too?”

“Damn right I think so!” Now he took a bite of his sandwich. I wondered where he kept getting these food items.

“What scares you?”

He looked at me with a wily grey eyeball that wasn’t afraid to dress in faint pink-ish veins. “Government control.”

“Yeah?”

“Know that Googly website?”

“Google?”

“That’s what I said. They track everywhere you go in these big databases—for customer service, they say. But look how fast Googly’s expanding. Coming out with their own browser, getting adapted to other countries and all that—and that Googly map stuff! You know it’s CIA. That’s who it’s got to be—what an excuse! Use privatized technology to keep tabs on your citizens—what’ll they expect? Hide it in plain sight! Those are the best conspiracies—the ones utterly un-provable. The kind where anybody can just look at ‘em and say: that isn’t right, it’s obvious they’re just doing such-and-such. Know what I mean?”

The fellow’s views were eerily similar to my own. “What were you in the hospi-tal for?” I asked.

“Oh, they used to keep me on Thorazine,” he said. A lot of us schizos replied like that.

“Me too,” I sighed. This guy…sure he sounded like me. He was like me. What had I expected? But no, I wouldn’t be deterred. I had to get somebody in cahoots with me. “Say, you wanna go smoke?”

“I don’t smoke.”

“How about a breath of fresh air?”

“It’s cold outside.”

“Hey, Donnie,” I said, making eye-contact with him. He looked at me curiously, and I motioned with my head to the vent. He followed my stare.

“So?” Donnie asked.

I cleared my throat and tried to mime a camera.

“I never liked charades,” he said.

“I’m not trying to—look, they have—you know, they have…” I tried to mime holding a camera.

“Guns? Er…vision problems? Arthritis—no, okay…Parkinson’s! Um…Muscle fatigue? Back problems—Oh! Oh, oh, OH! Yeah, I haven’t had a smoke all evening.”

“I thought you said you didn’t smoke?”

“Well that’s why I haven’t had one all evening, isn’t it? Can you bum me one?”

“It’s not ‘bum’, it’s Dwelling-Impaired—wait a second. Is it Dwelling Impaired, or was it the one about sequestering—”

“I thought you really needed to smoke.”

I blinked. “Yes. Let’s go.”

We went outside and neither of us lit up, because it turns out neither of us smoke. Donnie led the way.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Bus stop.”

“Why the bus stop?”

“No cameras or anything.”

“But it’s a public bus stop—don’t you think they’ll have listening devices and that sort of thing on the bus? I mean, they totally could.”

Donnie stopped to consider that. “You know, you’re right.”

“So where do we go?”

He played with white whiskers a little bit, then: “I know just the place.”

We ended up in a drainage culvert that ran under the main street of Fort Mary—the town we lived in. Both of us could tell there were no bugs, cameras, or anything much besides empty pop-bottles, dirt, and a few bird nests down here.

Donnie said: “So whatcha got?”

I looked around nervously. “Well…what do you know about subliminal messag-es? Or…like, hackers with machines that talk to you—”

“You’re talking about the self-checkouts at the Queen’s Grocer.”

“YES!” I jumped up and smacked my head on the cement, cursing and grabbing at the maturing bump. The whole world flickered for a minute, including the fat old man in the culvert with me.

When Donnie had quit laughing enough to respond to that, he said: “They tell you things, don’t they?”

I nodded. “Yes—man that hurt!—yeah, they’re always telling me to go home, or see a movie, or have a nice day, or stay in—it told me to stay in tonight!”

“It told me the exact same thing!” Donnie exclaimed. “So I went to the lobby. I figured it couldn’t hurt anything to bump into somebody.”

“That’s why I went to the lobby!”

Donnie’s eyes got wide. “You don’t think…you don’t think that was the real aim the machine had in telling us to have a restful night in?”

“What?”

“Like, maybe it told us to stay in because it knew we were on to it, and really wanted us to discuss this kind of stuff, and hear how crazy it sounds—”

“No. No, no no—Donnie, now you’re starting to talk crazy. There’s no way the machine could possibly be that sophisticated.”

“That’s because you don’t have the theory I do.”

“What theory?”

Donnie took a deep breath—he’d been talking a lot, and was kind of a large man, so he had indeed winded himself. “I think it’s a sociological experiment run on the sly by the campus, but really with the government at the top.”

“WHAT!”

“Keep your voice down!”

“Nobody can hear us, we’re in a drainage pipe—”

“But if we get loud enough…” He put his hands out, palms up.

“Okay, okay,” I sighed.

“Anyway,” he went on, “what they do—they’re collecting data, see. Statistical data. They have a certain number of people go through normal, like. Controls. Then they have us test subjects. When we go through, they have the robotic voices say things to us—so they pass subliminally, get it? It’s the new subliminal messaging! In the six-ties they did it in movies, and over the radio, and on records—you run a record back-wards, it turns out the song was telling you to do something, right? Some records, any-way. Well, that’s the old school. This is the new school.”

“But what’s the point of that?” I asked.

“To see if it could be done! Like…like, okay, the machines always tell me to go home, or rest easy, or something like that. See, they think we’re so used to the sounds and noises the checkouts make—please slide your card, thank you, have a nice day—that we wouldn’t notice if they changed things subtly, right? First time I actually noticed, I asked that fat girl at the counter if I were on candid camera, she looked at me like I had a duck in my armpit,” he chuckled at his joke. “Anyway—say there’s martial law. Say the government wants to round everybody up and put ‘em in camps, because there might be terrorists, or there’s a big bomb threat, or something, right? Well, if we’ve been told the-se things subliminally, it makes it easier to round us up, right? It makes it way easier! Because we already want to go—subconsciously! Get it? They’ve been working at mak-ing us docile sheep for years—fluoride, what’s that stuff do? It controls your mind! We’re just thinking livestock, that’s all we are—”

“Whoa, whoa, Donnie. Get back to the machines…they’re collecting data?”

“Yeah, they’re collecting data,” Donnie replied. “They’ve got to see if it works before they spend billions in subliminal programming, don’t they?”

“I guess that makes sense.”

“Hey, don’t look at me like that—everybody looks at me like that—”

“I know, I know…I’m sorry—okay? Remember, I was checked into Regency for the same reason.” Regency Medical Center was the name of the main hospital the mental institution was connected with.

“Okay. Well, okay. So what they do, they get a perfect group of individuals who can’t say yes or no that these things are happening if they notice—only they’re not as likely to notice, because they are or have been mentally handicapped, get it?”

“But how do they make sure the machines talk only to us?” I asked.

Donnie grinned semi-toothlessly and held out his Queen’s Grocer card. “When we scan this in the machine, it knows who we are.”

“Holy crap,” I said.

That had to be it—come to think of it, every time I used cash, the machine acted normal; it was only when I used my discount card that it said anything different! “And they gave all the outpatients the same cards in this complex!” I said.

“Exactly—you can’t test something like that if the people you’re testing know, can you?”

“I’m so glad you had the same suspicion I did. I thought I was having fantasies again.”

“I hear you, partner.”

“Yeah,” I laughed, then stopped cold. “Partner?”

Donnie looked suddenly nervous.

“You’re a fat old putz,” I said.

“What?”

“You heard me, fatty,” I said. “Fatty-fatty boombalatti! You’re a putz. An old fat one!”

Donnie’s eyes started getting icy. “Why are you saying those things to me?”

“Because they’re true! Look at you, you egg-headed ugly-ass old fat putz! You’re a waste of space, you can’t even keep teeth in your mouth!”

“You got a pretty loud bark, pup—”

“Put up your hams, piggy!”

“ACH!” The man screamed, fingers-into-fists, then ran at me. I hoped he wasn’t any good in a fight—
But then he was gone, into thin air.

“Damnit,” I said.

“DAMNIT!”

I crouched down and started crying.

“Partner,” I muttered. That’s what had given him away. Only person that ever said that to me—that was my Dad. I’d heard a few others say it, but usually it was one of the tell-tales. My fantasies—they always called me “partner” at some point, usually in a weird way that just didn’t jive with whatever else they had been up to.

“Damnit,” I said. I’m glad my insult system works—my mind’s just too rational. My fantasies either fight or do nothing. If they fight, they can’t hurt me—they’re not real! If they do nothing, they’re not human.
I stood in the empty culvert for another minute. It was dusk.

I wiped my eyes and went home.

 

IV

 

I rode my bike the next day, to the library. I had something I desperately needed to photocopy—there were ideas running around in my head, and I had to know what was and wasn’t real. I had to anchor myself some way, some how; when this all cleared up and blew over. I had a sense I was getting into something deep, messing with powers that could swallow me whole. So I needed backup.

Anyway, on the way to the library to use their photocopier—I have one, but there are cameras in my apartment, remember—something kind of funny happened. There was a pedestrian—a weird-looking Native American guy in a green coat—walking on the sidewalk, and I came to the left of him and the wind was blowing into my face. That meant it was blowing my sound away from the guy—er…I mean that isn’t technically right, but it made it harder for him to hear me, anyway. So when I passed, he wasn’t ex-pecting me, and yelped in surprise. I screamed back, scared by his yelp, which made him yelp again—and then I insulted him using my default, because I had to know if he was real, right?

It went something like this:

I rode by, he yelped: “AH!”

“AH!”

“AH-Ahhh—”

“Your mother shops at K-Mart!”

“My mother died at K-mart—!”

“Well I guess that means you’re real,” and I had to pedal faster because he was chasing me.

Now here’s why I’m telling you this—or telling me this. Or…I mean I don’t know who’s going to read this, and to be honest sometimes my condition makes it so that I can’t tell if I’m actually doing something, if I did something, or everything is just a memory of something else—

Anyway: was me passing that guy real? I mean he seemed real, I never touched him. I thought he was real. I remembered him being real—but couldn’t I just have imag-ined him on the ride down to the library? It’s a boring ride, you pass a lot of people; sometimes plausible—if comical—“what-if” scenarios spring up in your mind—sometimes you’ll forget that something didn’t happen when you recall it days or years later, and tell it as a real story. Sometimes you’ll start telling your fantasy as though you knew it were a real story, when in fact you made it up. And sometimes you’ll tell your little anecdote so long, you forget you made it up, and in that way you can also make yourself believe—if unintentionally—that something happened which really didn’t. Now rational, sane people do this all the time. What separates us technically “insane” ones is that normal things are done out of proportion with us, until they cease to be normal.

Understand?

Well, it had only been a few hours or minutes since the “incident”, whether it were real or imaginary. And I was already doubting it. This meant that my schizophre-nia was acting up—I might be near an episode, in effect. I was getting too excited, excit-ed over delusions of surveillance and persecution. Classic symptoms. And I was really having trouble distinguishing fiction from reality.

Anyway, it made it a bugger to get the photocopying done. First thing I did when I got an open computer was research K-mart to see if there were any deaths of Native American females in the news. Turned out there were—some old woman had a heart at-tack in the Electronics department, and the local K-mart manager had been fired because he pulled an advertising stunt in that week’s paper saying: “Our prices are so low, you might just have a heart-attack!”

Naturally, that didn’t go over well with K-mart HQ.

Okay, so that was real.

Or had my brain made me research it just to confirm another delusion—

Best not to think about it.

I remembered, belatedly, the photocopying and got it done, folding up six or sev-en sheets into my backpack and heading to the bank. I won’t tell you which bank, be-cause I don’t want you to know—nyah. In fact, maybe I didn’t even go to the bank? Maybe I hid the photocopies somewhere safe, so I could keep them in the event that any-body decided to follow up on this report, and steal my secrets!

Let’s just pretend I put them in a bank, okay?

After that I called Marie up, told her we needed to have a talk at my place.

“I know,” she said.

“Meet me there tonight?”

“Sure I will,” and she hung up.

 

V

 

Before I could get home, I made the fortuitous/fatal mistake of taking a break to watch the geese on the frozen lake in the park. It wasn’t too cold this January—that was nice. I’m pretty sure this was in January. Anyway, it wasn’t too cold, but the lake was still frozen.

That’s where I saw Donnie throwing bread at the geese—none of them took any of it. They would have been swarming him. I knew he wasn’t real, but it was good for me to confirm that detail in my head before I walked over.

“So why’d you show up,” I said.

“To give you some perspective, partner,” he replied.

“You’re just inside my head.”

“Sure. But maybe that means you need to tell yourself something, and be sure that you listen?”

“That makes no sense. This sounds like multiple personality disorder to me, and my doctors all told me that’s largely unproven. This sounds like what my mind would equate with schizophrenia before I was diagnosed and had it all explained to me.”

“Of course it does. Because that’s what it would be. But you know all this, so that means I’m not doing anything outside the norm of one of your fantasies, doesn’t it?

“Damn,” I said.

Donnie laughed. “You’re the best at fooling yourself. Which is why I came to talk to you, Willy. Maybe I’m your mind, or maybe I’m an angel. You know in the Bi-ble, it says we entertain angels unaware? I believe that’s true. That means a part of you does, too, doesn’t it?”

“I guess…”

“Well maybe I am, and maybe I’m not—but I do know the Good Lord, he’ll give ya’ thoughts, sometimes. Ideas. Things that’ll put you one way or another. It doesn’t take much, does it? ‘Go to the movies’, you go to the movies. That’s human subliminal messaging. Wouldn’t God do it way better from inside your own mind?”

“I guess so…”

“So maybe that’s what I am. Maybe that’s the case with all schizophrenics. Or maybe not. Maybe you’re descending deeper and deeper into madness, and soon will be so far gone you won’t even recognize yourself.”

I sighed. The conversation was losing its luster. “Okay, I get it. Come to the point, or I’ll ignore you.”

“But I’ll follow you.”

“My imagination will have to imagine your fat self running.”

“Touché,” Donnie laughed, skullet of whitened hair jiggling with the rest of him. “Okay: you’ve got to remember, Willy. You’ve got to remember that without a reference point, we can’t know anything. We can’t even trust our own thoughts, can we? You’ve got to remember, Willy. You’ve got to remember absolutes. You’ve got to remember that on these things, you’ve got to stand strong. Memories play tricks, so do the senses, so do emotions. All of them can change how you perceive things. Your age, your gen-der, your physicality—I’m a fat man, that means I remember things like a fat man, no? No, I’m part of your mind. But imagine I were real—or don’t, that might send you for a loop—”

“Donnie!”

“Okay. But just remember this: you can think, you can remember, you can feel, you can touch, you can make mistakes, and you can do things right, understand? Those are absolutes. If there is one absolute, it naturally follows that there are others. Either there is just one, or there are more than one. If you say there is only one absolute truth, then you have to also say there can be no more than one absolute truth. That means to validate the one, you must make up another, which turns the other one on its head and makes it false. There is only one absolute truth. There can be no other absolute truths. There you have two statements of incongruity, making one or the other or both of them false. Thusly it follows: if there is absolute truth, there must be more than one thing that is absolutely true.”

A very strange something happened. Donnie began to change, through this speech. He began to grow taller and skinnier, until he was a younger man I remembered from my childhood—a preacher, a Baptist preacher with a fat black mustache and a pris-tine suit.

“Donnie…”

“Call me Morgan,” Donnie said. Morgan continued: “As I was saying: I may ap-pear different, but you are still perceiving me. That means there is something to perceive, even if it is merely an emanation of your own mind.

Therefore because you think and can cogitate, you exist. If you exist, like the absolutes, it follows there are other things that exist also. You may not perceive them as they are, but if there were nothing to per-ceive, you could not perceive; as you wouldn’t understand. It’s like a man blind from birth trying to differentiate color. He cannot, just like a man with nothing to perceive cannot invent perception. So though I am an iteration of your mind, and not technically real, your perception is, and therefore there is a real world, and an absolute one. Do you understand?”

“This is all punk philosophy,” I said. “I got it out of a book.”

“Probably. But does it matter where something comes from if that something is true?”

“If it’s true? Well, I guess not.”

“And now I go.” Morgan/Donnie disappeared in a bright white flourish.

 

VI

 

Marie was waiting for me when I got home. She used my spare key to let herself in, and sat working with a Microsoft spreadsheet on her computer, organizing data, that sort of thing. “Hey, cookie,” she said as I closed the door.

“Hey, pretty lady.” I walked over, sat beside her, kissed her: “Whatcha working on?”

Marie sighed deeply. “Data. Data, data, data. My favorite Star Trek character,” she chuckled.

“I thought that was your ex-roommate’s?”

“Was it? I don’t know,” she smiled. “Anyway, I never thought research would be so boring. The statistical side of it sucks. Figuring out the mean, median, outliers—putting that into graphs, inferring data, writing technical papers…I got into this because I wanted to conduct the experiments!”

“But you knew there’d be paperwork.”

“Sure, I just didn’t figure…” Marie shook her head. “Anyway: you sounded a little desperate over the phone—how’re you feeling, babe? If things are getting a little, you know…I mean if they are, you can tell me. I work with the doctors on campus—”

“I know, I know. Yeah, they’re getting a little strange,” I said. Writing this now gives me chills…it’s hard to go back here, it interferes with my understanding of the now. The right now. The present. Marie…

“You can always check back in—”

“No! I don’t want to check back in. Check. Checkout—that’s right.”

“What’s right?”

“Look, you wanna take a walk with me? It’s nice out—I was just in the park.”

“It’s too cold, and there’re…people out there, the rough kinds. And you know about my knees.”

I sighed. “Yeah, I know about your knees—but what I’ve got to say…babe, you know how I feel about talking in here.”

She shook her head. “How can I prove to you there are no cameras, Willy?”

I blushed. “You can’t, I won’t believe you.”

“You’ve got to trust me.”

“I can’t trust you, Marie. I don’t know what to believe, I don’t know what to trust.”

“Me, Willy. You’ve got to trust me.”

My voice cracked a little: “I can’t do that—how do I know you’re real? I can’t know anything about people…”

She came to me, kissed me, bit my tongue gently. “I’m real,” she said.

I smiled. “Yeah…you are. But what I got to tell you—”

“It’s about the registers, isn’t it.”

My eyes popped like a surprised owl’s—and owls don’t get surprised too often. “How’d you know?”
She stood from the couch, walked across the room, folded her hands, played with her fingers nervously. “I always wanted to tell you, but I couldn’t—they wouldn’t let me. And you know I can’t tell them we’re together—”

“Marie, the cameras!”

“Will! Stop it, just stop it, okay? I work there—I work with the people that actu-ally observe you, and take data, okay? If there were cameras, I would know about it.”

I sighed. “What if they didn’t tell you?”

“Donnie, listen to me. They are messing with you—but not with the cameras, with the registers. They’re doing it with your Queen’s Grocer card. When you scan it, it lets the register know a test subject is coming through, and the night’s subliminal mes-sage is piped from the speakers. That’s the data I’m going through—we’ve got implanta-tions like this all over town; not all of them insane people. Some regular citizens like you or me—well, like me.”

My heart’s strong, and likes to punch my ribs when I get excited. I’ve tried to break it of the habit, but never successfully. “How did you know I suspected that—”

“Will, where they do have cameras; they have them in the grocery store. It’s legal there; we just put in a few listening bugs and monitor from the store’s security footage. You’ve been seen and heard, confronting customers, confronting the people behind the counter…baby, they’ve got to put a stop to it. It’ll wreck the entire experiment.”

I was shocked. I stood up. “Then we’ve got to act soon.”

“Soon?”

“I have a plan,” I muttered, moving to the kitchen where I rifled through a drawer I used to keep receipts in. I pulled out a diagram.

“What plan?”

I turned to her: “Baby, I know what it’s like for you.”

“What?”

“Dating me, I mean. You can’t tell anybody. It’s not quite a violation of that hypocritical oath—”

“Hippocratic, and I’ve never had to take one.”

“Whatever. Anyway, if you’re with me, if you’re part of the folks that are collect-ing data from people like me—then it’s dangerous for you to even be here, isn’t it? It might be a little immoral, too. You know I’ve got a condition…you know I can’t help a lot of things—”

“And so what? I love you anyway—”

I took her shoulders, kissed her. “I know. I love you, too. But for you to date me—you’re so much smarter than I am, Marie. It’s like you’re dating a dumb person, or something. I know I’m probably a little below your usual level—”

“Oh, you are not, Willy! I’m genuinely attracted to you…and I know you’re not stable, but you know—on you it fits, okay? It gives you a whole other dimension—”

“I know all that. See, I know you’ve got a real strong heart—like mine. You know what’s right and wrong. Marie, if this is real, it’s unethical, isn’t it? And they’re going to come, and they’re going to get me so I don’t wreck the experiment—but I’m not having an episode, am I? Sure, I’m still a little nuts. I know that. But I’m not having an episode. And that means I’m about to be taken away and…and tortured, in that hospi-tal—”

“Will, they don’t torture you—”

“Fine. You check in.”

“Point taken,” she said, her lips pursing.

“If you let them take me without a fight…what does that say about your love?”

“What are you planning to do, William?”

I smirked. Only my mother ever called me William…Only my mother ever—there was something there… “Partner,” I muttered.

“You want me to be your partner?”

I blinked tight, coming back to the moment: “I’m going to break all their ma-chines,” I said, showing her the diagram. “This is an escape route. So they’re—wait a minute, you’re sure there are no cameras in here?”

“For pete’s sake, I’m sure!”

“Okay,” I wiped the back of my hand across my sweaty upper-lip. “So we’ll es-cape this way—we put on ski-masks, run in with baseball bats, and we beat the hell out of those machines, okay? Then we escape using two different routes, leaving a fake trail, and we end up at your house, and you drive me home using the back mountain roads, and we leave out the window so nobody sees us exit my apartment door. That part about the apartment window is at the beginning of my plan, understand. Because it makes them all think that we never left this room, right? And when they question us, we’ve got an ali-bi—we were together in my apartment that night.”

“Right,” she said.

“Then they don’t take me away,” I added.

She didn’t look too eager about it. “Yeah,” she said.

“So?”

She sighed, and then she smiled: “Where’s the second baseball bat?”

 

VII

 

The colors of the night were bleeding—they seemed bright, they seemed tame, they seemed dark. I was very near having an episode as we climbed out the window-well of my garden-level apartment, making sure nobody saw us.

My plan called for us to circle around using back-alleys, avoiding any possible cameras on street lamps or that sort of thing. Marie didn’t quite believe me that there was surveillance there, and hey, maybe I was being paranoid…but I knew better.

Anyway, as the night progressed, the world started blinking faster, such that I had to hold Marie’s hand. I was getting really excited—far too excited.

It was a Friday again, and there were a lot of college kids out, walking the streets, riding by on bikes, playing loud music from sub-woofers at the intersections. We were approaching Queen’s Grocer from the East. My apartment complex was behind it, to the West. “Marie,” I said.

“I know that tone,” she replied.

“How many people do you see on this sidewalk?”

“There’re a lot of them.”

“I’ll say there are,” I said. There were hundreds. Some with evil, leering faces; some perfectly normal. They were everywhere; walking this way, walking that way… Staring at me, laughing at me. “I can’t tell…I can’t tell, Marie.”

“We can call this off—”

“No!” I yelled. An old woman in a scarf screamed and scurried out of the way.

“Settle down, Will.”

“You’ve got to insult them with me.”

“What?”

“I said you’ve got to—Hey! Your mother shops at K-mart!” I yelled at some-body walking by, he didn’t look up.

“William!”

“You saw him too?”

“You can’t say things like that!”

But I was about to bump into a punky little thing with spiky hair and feminazi written all over her: “Burn your bra, butch!” I said.

She punched me in the face.

“Doggone it, Will!” Marie threw her hands down—then: “Baggy pants don’t make you look skinnier!”

Donnie yelped: “That isn’t kind!” and promptly disappeared.

“Thanks, babe,” I said.

“Got a nickel?”

I turned, barked out: “Homeless! Bum! Hobo! Indigent! Transient! VA-GRANT!”

“Drunk!” Marie threw in.

“Talk ’bout overkill…” Robin was snatched away on a mental wind.

And so we went, insulting people and scaring them.

Now I suppose you think we were carrying the baseball bats this whole time, or I’m lying in this memoir because I forgot about them. Well, I didn’t. I did forget to say they were cheap ones, and that they unscrewed in half, and that you could keep them in a backpack. Because that’s what we were doing with them—I had them in a satchel over my shoulder.

So on we went, soon jogging, then running—yelling obscenities at people and generally making a high commotion of the night. Folks probably thought we were on drugs or worse—the cops were going to be called on this one for sure. Which meant I had to act fast.

We were twenty feet from the Queen’s Grocer: “Okay, showtime,” I said, pulling on my mask. Marie did the same.

We screwed our bats together, ran into the semi-crowded Queen’s Grocer, and beat the crimson bejesus out of every single self-checkout register in the store.

The cops were called, but by the time the squealing whirly-lights pulled into the parking lot, me and Marie had taken off, heading to rendezvous at her house.

And everything would have worked out just fine, too; but I got picked up because I couldn’t tell what was and wasn’t real, and told a female officer at a newsstand that she packed a box lunch—which is a lesbian euphemism.

***

So that’s it, in a nutshell. The events leading up to the vandalism. You see Marie wasn’t involved willingly…I kind of coerced her, you know? What else was she going to do? She was in a hard position—and I’m a charismatic guy, I really am.

Anyway, I’m done with this. Come get me. I’m tired of this little padded room, and my fingers are covered in ink, and my mouth is clammy. Somebody come get me.

***

It’s been several hours, and nobody’s—oh, speak of the devil. Here the goons are now. I’m ignoring them while I write this—one is starting to read over my shoulder. Al-right, alright, you’re reading me write this, aren’t you, goon? Let me finish this senten

 

VIII

 

A lot has happened since I added to this…Statement. Only, it’s not a Statement.

It really isn’t.

I’m sorry to confuse you. Well, me. I guess I’m really the only one to read this…

Let me explain.

The orderlies came and they took me to meet with Dr. Morgan. No, not the preacher I had fantasized Donnie morphing into—this was the real thing. I don’t know why I thought he was a Baptist preacher out of my childhood. I never went to a Baptist church as a kid, did I? I forget things. You forget things. That’s going to throw me for a loop when I read this next.

“Triple-double-yew,” said Doctor Morgan. That’s how he referred to me, the in-defatigable William Wilberforce Wainscot. I guess it made him think he was being a ge-nial, good-humored old man that called close friends by nicknames. I knew better.

“I wrote my Statement,” I said.

“Statement?”

“Like you told me to. Like they told me to when the cops brought me in.”

“The…police brought you in?”

“That’s why I was at the station, isn’t it?”

“William, where do you think you are?” Morgan asked.

“Why, I’m back at the hospital—”

“Exactly,” he cut me off. “Which means police didn’t bring you to me, orderlies did.”

“Oh, I knew that, I meant initially. And that’s why I was writing my Statement—so Marie wouldn’t get in trouble.”

“Marie?”

“Well they told me she got arrested too, down at the station—”

“Did they now?”

“Yeah. And I just wanted everybody to know it wasn’t her fault—because it wasn’t.”

“Tell me about this Marie, William.”

I blinked at him. “You know—Marie. She works with you, collating statistics, that sort of thing. That’s how we met, actually. She was studying me, and I guess got to like studying me a little closer, if you know what I mean.” I made a nudge-nudge, wink-wink gesture.

Morgan wouldn’t even let half his lip turn up. “There’s no Marie that works here,” he said.

“Sure there is!”

“No—”

“We were going to establish an alibi—that we had been at my apartment all night. That’s where we cooked up the plan—well, I cooked it up; she just learned about it there.”

“William, I am real, in this room right now. You are real. The desk I am sitting at, the couch you are sitting on, the roof, the walls, the credits and degrees on my walls—these are all real things. Do you understand?”

“Sure I understand—”

“Okay. Because you are acting as though one of your fantasies, this Marie—you are acting as though she is real.”

“She is real—she can’t be fake, she can’t be—no, trust me on this one. I know she’s real. I mean I’ve…we’ve…”

“Made love? It’s okay, you don’t have to be embarrassed.”

“Well I mean yeah, but…” I grew pale, suddenly thinking back. Marie always thought it kind of kinky that I’d kiss her in the closet. A lot of my clothes were in piles there. That’s where we’d lie down and…but if Marie wasn’t real, then that meant I was just…but that couldn’t be, there were sometimes stains on—oh no, no, no—“NO! She is real! She has to be—she’s the one thing, the one absolute, she’s what I base it all on, you understand—don’t you understand?”

“William, let me show you something.” He pulled an old videotape from his desk, moved to an archaic VCR.

“Excuse the dinosaurs,” he said as he plugged the tape into the VCR, “but we are notoriously under-funded here.”

“You were watching me!”

“Yes. Yes we were—what choice did we have, William? One of you might go crazy and wreck a supermarket.”
The video came up, and it showed me, walking around in my apartment, talking to no one. “Shall I turn up the sound?” Morgan asked, then did so before I could reply.

“Hey, pretty lady,” past-me said on the screen, greeting a person that wasn’t there.

“No,” I said, cutting myself off.

My screen-self answered the salutation he had just made to the air in falsetto. He talked to himself a little more, and I managed to regain focus about the time I heard my-self say: “—favorite Star Trek character.”

“It was your roommate’s, not yours,” I said; just as my past self said the same to thin air on the video.

“Is this where you are talking to Marie, William?”

I shook my head. “You made this up.”

“How could I make this up?”

“I don’t know—”

“William, remember I’m real—”

Donnie appeared beside him. “He’s real, Willy.”

“More so than we are, mate,” threw in Robin, now on his other side, “and I could still use a nickel.”

“No…” I said.

“Yes I am,” Morgan punctuated; and both apparitions disappeared. It took me a moment to again focus on what he was saying: “…and you really wrecked half the self-checkout registers in a supermarket for no apparent reason—”

“ALL the self-checkout registers! We got both aisles!”

“Who?”

“Me and Marie! We were yelling at the fake people, and then I screwed the bats together, ran in—”

“William, if Marie were real, then why did she yell at your fantasies? It’s all right here—you wrote it down, remember,” he pointed at my Statement—the orderlies snatched it when they brought me to him. “Only you can see them, remember; real peo-ple can’t. No, only half the supermarket self-checkout registers were damaged. And on-ly by you. Do you want to see that footage, too?”

“But you! You were testing me—testing us! At the complex, where you sent us crazies out into the real world—”

“Who told you this?”

“Marie!”

“But Marie isn’t real, Will. If you see her, it’s a lie.” He needn’t have bothered to say that. After this shock, I could hardly remember my own face, much less hers. And thank goodness he continued to speak, interrupting my train of thought; for it is likely that it would have derailed into some strange territory. “We were never testing you—”

“You had the machines play strange messages to subliminally control us—”

“We never did, Will.”

“Marie told me!”

“Marie was never real! William, you just saw the evidence. Let go of your de-sires, because they’re tending toward fantasy. Grip the real world—think! Why would somebody testing you go out with you? Why would a doctor see a patient? And for so long? How convenient! It would be like a schoolteacher dating a ten year old child, Will. It would be sick. Only a sick person would call themselves a doctor and date you and test you, don’t you see? It’s in your mind, it isn’t plausible!”

“But you gave us the cards! And the cards, the machines knew which people to talk to because of the cards!”

“We gave you no cards.”

“You DID! I KNOW you did, and I took measures to PROVE it!”

“What measures?”

I paused, blushing. “I can’t tell you.”

“You took measures to prove you’re not crazy, but now you can’t tell me about them?”

“Because then you’ll turn them against me, and take them away, and tell me those memories were all false!”

“Listen to yourself, Will!”

“No…”

“Yes.”

“No…no, no, no…” and as I fainted the world went white.

 

IX

 

That all happened the year before they moved me to this new housing complex, and they told me that what I had been writing—what I had been really writing—was a journal. Because it helps us schizos to organize our thoughts, and when we read over it later, it helps us to distinguish what’s real from what isn’t. Or at least, it helps some of us—doesn’t it? I don’t know. But that’s why they had me writing. It had nothing to do with any Statement, or…

I mean, I realize all that now, you know? I understand. It doesn’t make it easy, but I understand. And I see why it had to be the way it was. I mean I get all that, you know? But I think back to Marie—I mean I really loved that girl. I loved her a lot.

But of course I did. She was my perfect iteration of a woman, wasn’t she?

And I’d never suspect she wasn’t real, because I loved her, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to try and insult her.

My mind wanted to believe in her so much I even re-member touching her. But do I? Do I really?

Those who read this—only me? I’m the only one reading this. Which means you’re the only one reading this.

Which means you’re me, doesn’t it? You really wrote this. But you didn’t write this, did you? No, you didn’t. I wrote this. But you’re me, aren’t you? Or are you you? Who are you? How can you tell? What is real, and what isn’t? Are the things you see real? Are your memories? Or do you remember them wrong? Do you remember them colored through emotion, or fear, or circumstance? Sure, right now you’re reading this from a screen or a page, and you know that. But in a few hours, or months or years—will you remember this bit of writing, this very para-graph, and think you came up with it yourself?

How can you tell?

Without some standpoint, some reference, some absolute, you can’t. We never can.

Marie was my reference. She was my absolute.

But she wasn’t real.

And now I know—I know I believed in a fantasy. I put my faith in a dream. And when that dream crumbled, so did I.

Therefore I’ve added to this record, this Statement, this journal. To ease my mind.

But there is one detail…one that I cling to, and one that I hope will not die with me. I am mailing this journal somewhere safe—where, I can’t say. What if it were inter-cepted before I could send it off? I’m mailing it with the photocopy of my Queen’s Gro-cer card, the one with my name on the front and back. Morgan, back at the institute—he said it didn’t exist. That it was all in my mind. But it’s not—it’s right here, on this pho-tocopy. He said they were never testing us, that I made it all up, and smashed the ma-chines for no reason.

But I didn’t.

 

Kevin Bennett’s first novel “The Thief and the Sacrifice” debuted in May 2015. His second novel, Amphibian, came out March 8th. His story “2135: The Year Disco Came Back” headlined the ‘B-Sides’ segment of Drabblecast’s internet sci-fi theater. He has a piece published through Amphetamine Blue Press, another distributed by Escape Clause magazine, a story in issue number five of Abandoned Towers Magazine, is published with Bewildering Stories, Neonbeam Magazine, Clockwise Cat, Perpetual Magazine, The Short Humour Site, LitSnack, Print Static Movement, Freedom Fiction, The Fringe Magazine, and in several issues of Golden Visions Magazine. He also has published pieces in Crossed Genre’s “Menial” anthology, and Zharmae’s “Irony of Survival” anthology.

 

 

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