I’m in the process of turning this experimental short story into an even shorter, albeit more work-intensive, comic. Once I have the layouts for that done I think I’ll probably end up revisiting it and restructuring the opening and closing, but I am still really happy with the piece as it is; it was meant to be an experiment to establish whether I still have this piece of my brain intact, and to me, at least, it’s evidence that I do.
PRISON OF THE MIND
“I don’t want to talk about my parents, OK?” I take a forkful of linguine and chase it with wine. This reporter is already getting on my nerves. I wonder how he got my number. It’s restricted. Was restricted, I remind myself.
“You’re the story here. People know more about that bloody machine than they know about you.” He’s staring at me now a little crazy-eyed, or maybe I’m just paranoid from too many years keeping everything secret from everyone.
Things have changed. I’m exposed. So I relent.
“My mom died when I was young, so I never knew her. My father raised me. My mother’s family blamed him for her death; I never knew them. That’s all I have to say about it.”
“All right. Is Samantha off-limits too?” He ducks his head to catch my eye.
“No.” Who can resist talking about their kid?
“Well then, what about it? How old is she? Do you have pictures?”
“She’ll be five next month,” I say, reaching automatically for the purse at my feet. Something cool and dark blocks my vision – a projection mask, I realize as it clicks shut around my head. Goddammit I said this would
My senses die circuit-breaker quick. The process happens between thoughts, a total discontinuity from one nanosecond to the next.
I just did science for the capture device; don’t know much about the technology. It relies on magnetic neural stimulation (like a jewel made of brightness/facets sparkling below the resolution of MRI display) for the initial capture, process is typically fatal (I insisted we release drugs to ensure it was quick and painless/victim’s body stiff and still/rows of dead animals lined up like pictures of genocide). Better than quick-freezing heads (we thought when we were developing the damn thing/Getmeoutofhere stop it stop it).
We called it The Mask. One of the marvels of modern nanotechnology and quantum computing. Back of the mask (me): capture device, doped-carbon gates, barely-possible electronic elements. Supposedly stores neuron-level structure (supposedlya dreamless sleep not a sense-deprived blankness).
Front (silver/always looked like Mom to me/half-smile and high cheekbones) of the mask is the magnetic stimulator. It simultaneously stimulates every neuron in the brain. Thinkeverythoughtatonce (now you know how it feels/so pretty), then the subject is in the capture device. A dozen insects on my lab bench (specimens side-by-side with device/would that be the insecticide?). Move up the chain, things get worse. Mice take seizures (squeaking down the mazes for cheese/Mr. Biggles had to learn all over again/Missy retained significant knowledge) (captures performed better than mice, on average). Canines are knocked out, go comatose or enter dream-sleep (some recover, but Buster/black-and-white mutt with big brown eyes/I went and got him myself/would only piss on other dogs afterward) (again captures were superior to originals) (protesters when we started mercy killings/whitesigns/screams/hardtogetintotheofficethatday). Guilty relief when simians turned out vegetables (Jesus Janick when do we stop killing these poor things/When we have something to sell). Then we perfected drug regimen (too late for the nightmares/dreams alive with death screeches/wonder if I made a sound/peep).
I didn’t know that the time spent in storage could be perceived by the store-ee. No senses to connect you to anything. Disorienting (I’ll go crazy by degrees stop it just stop it).
There’s a story about war vet trapped in his own head, arms, legs, hearing, sight, voice all lost in frame-shift fashion, the instant of shell-burst and the instant of awakening. Read it a hundred times (under the covers with a flashlight); my father said I was obsessive (looming dark in the doorway/jerked the flashlight from my hands/shut the door so hard my ears hurt). Gripped my imagination (proof of existence: things worse than death) for what seemed like a long time (long nightmares trapped in darkness/sudden shocking disembodiment/not like me not like me I’m fine calm down). The war vet managed to get his thoughts out of his own (prison) (stop that) mind. (not much hope for me stopit)
Someone might pick me up; they see activity on the monitors, they might wonder what’s up with the mask (long shot/you’re in a dumpster girl/track a mask from ten kilometers/we do not fuck around with this kind of money). Not like I have a lot of options.
What’s the best way to go about this?
Got to figure something out. I have to get back to Samantha (don’t get your hopes up).
Sammie. Damn it. What if…? Thank god the sitter is my neighbor’s daughter. (Victoria…?/sweet kid/just a baby herself). Sammie’s strong (for a five-year-old) (I hope).
These thoughts are too general to be helpful. I know the science, but not much about the system. Go with what I know, then. The science says the most skillful activity equals the least effective stimulation. The most developed brain sectors are the most efficient so they make the least noise on activation. So the least developed should give the most noise (no sound here it’s so dark stop it). Signaling thoughts should stem from least-used brain tasks. My best candidate is family relations (emotionally repressed/bloody headshrinkers/I don’t need therapy thanks for asking).
Damn. This is going to hurt.
Ease myself into the groove. Sammie. Baby’s last birthday: twelve kids from other lab families running around the house, Sammie in her red jumper and her white “Kiss Me!” shirt, her hair in little black pigtails (semi-random directions all over her head/Sammie smiling Twizzler rubies). Then everyone into the living room; we watched Snow White on the old DVD player. I always loved that movie (twelve toddlers screamed and peed and laughed in all the wrong places). Samantha, not to be left out, waited until Prince Charming bent to kiss Snow White’s bloody red lips to shout “I made pee-pee!” (everyone shrieking and jumping for a good half hour screaming “Pee-pee!” whenever it got too quiet).
After the movie (and the screaming), cake. Exactly as messy as I’d imagined it would be (chocolate/never again/nothing worse than chocolate everywhere); Sammie was surprisingly good at putting cake on the jumper not the bib. One of the moms warned against changing her (one set of clothes ruined was bad enough, she said, clucking her tongue/I’ll give you bad enough right in your fat face).
Finally, presents: the kids lined up to give them to Sammie (cry-screaming for her gifts) (dear god I just want beddy-bye). The children were quiet for the duration (Sammie snot-sniffling liquidly).
I don’t remember goodbyes. Beddy-bye and then four hours of cleanup; Sammie slept six long hours (jumping on the bed/lever my eyes open and scream at her/falls off and beans her head/well you’re up now/she was just being a kid you hard-hearted shrew).
No sign of any change in my no-place. Sammie’s too familiar (love her every minute/remember how her eyes went wide whenever the ice cream boy went by/licking Rockets on the sidewalk in 28 degree weather/didn’t even think about sunscreen/stopitstopitstopit).
Cramer, then. Husband. Sammie’s idiot father. He had a left eye twitch when we fought (often too often). Brown hair brown eyes long head decent body (beer belly at the end/couldn’t stand the slap of sex)(twitching constantly/coming in drunk/passed out from booze/smelly frigger). Liver or stroke, we knew he wasn’t going gently. Left us (me) before Sammie could talk.
First big fight was about Sammie. I wanted to abort (stupidstupidstupid bitch). Cramer screamed and cursed (and cried and begged/”Do you even care about what I think you bitch?”). I felt my face twisted (ugly scrunched hot/my eyes and mouth closed tight like the Christmas picture/hate him for that picture), tears pouring on cheeks slick and pitted and then I (hate myself for this/never tell Sammie/how could I even do this) balled fists and hit my stomach (electricity through my mind/I can’t believe I did that to my baby/Cramer’s eye twitched).
I remember, it for sure twitched. Was that what started the twitch? So hard to remember now.
I had second thoughts about aborting, about what it meant to me (career on hold/something new to hold onto/Cramer spiraling away from me). I didn’t understand my own desire to keep the baby (thank you thank you Cramer thank you for miracles).
Something tweaks my awareness.
Nothing. Damn it.
I will not use my father (will not/even for Sammie/you selfish bitch she needs you to get out/what about that tweak just then/can’t you get over yourself/but it hurts you don’t understand/get over yourself get back to your daughter/I know but I can’t/just get on with it she NeedsYouNeedsYouNeedsYou).
Nothing comes with regard to my father (never dad daddy you’re still blocking it out I know give me a minute how long does Sammie have?).
Waiting (you can wait in this self-powered hell until the heat death of the universe it’s never coming/getonwithit).
My father (black hair bushy eyebrows face carved out of rock/never smiling at me mouth always turned down unless I screwed up) raised me (no joy in his life and none in mine/at least he didn’t hit you much/no he never hit me much with his hands didn’t have to/still luckier than the nurses you can’t even take care of your own father stopit). Whenever I tried something (skating that first jump landed perfectly but the skate hooked on the ice, just about broke my ass/look up and see him laughing at me/crying hot tears/cold ice melting through my tights on my butt and legs/freezing/should have worn practice pants, but I was too vain/maybe just too young to know better) whenever I tried he was there to see me fail (always knew it would happen eventually/he made sure of it/cut off from any chance at a decent life/that asshole hate him forever).
I couldn’t bring friends (Josh liked me/he was so gorgeous wavy blond hair perfect blue eyes/so popular in school/wanted me/so awkward/probably just wanted sex/he could have whatever he wanted) couldn’t bring friends over (dad took him by the throat/oh god he’s going to choke him/please don’t he’s my boyfriend/Josh on the concrete bleeding/Please tell me nothing is broken/my father turns tight face/muscles tense he’s going to hit me kick me out kill me why is he doing this/please daddy no/”You’re sorry now are you”/it’s for my own good/you’re losing your mind old man and you don’t even know it).
Forced into seclusion. Already smarter than anyone around me – knew everything, analyzed everything (useless teachers in the last couple of years/had to do everything for myself/hours every day in the library/night classes at the university last year of high school/talking to kids and professors finding out how to get in/get out of my hell of a life). Success (full academic scholarships/the papers typed in plain font/letterheads so beautiful/offers from schools/phone ringing until my father put it in the drawer) success got me away from him, for good (letters the first year/I loveyoumissyou/dropped every one of them in the garbage in the dorm hallway/carpet on the walls and no recycle basins/how old are you at all).
Didn’t see him for a while after I left for university (he never called/so much to do/what was it like alone in that house). Then (that sick, awful meeting) Social Services called (the agent wearing that disgusting lemon cardigan/perfect auburn hair/boring) called to say my father was growing violent (I know a few things about it/her blank nod) growing violent and could I come to the hospital (walking down the corridor/white/sterile/the buzzing fluorescents/you think it’s a cliche until you go in for someone else/the door solid wood an inch thick/heavy/pretty doorknob black worked metal with gold tracings not sterile-round-silver like the doctor’s offices) could I come to the hospital for a meeting.
We met (my guts roiling the whole way down/electric shadow of sensation even now) met in her office (painted bricks/“That’s the price you pay for a office with a window dearie”/tiny little space on the corner/filled up with filing cabinet and computer desk/how do you work like this). She directed me to take a seat (ugly one-piece/soft cushion/fabric scratched my butt) take a seat sandwiched between the filing cabinet (cold on my elbow) and the wall (even colder/ran my fingers over the brick/interesting texture/smooth/yellow-cream paint), and she took a seat in her thousand-dollar chair (she sat/cushion squeaked and deflated with a puff like a fart/nice fake-mahogany desk/way too big/take the hutch off missus/how do you work like this). Sunlight (pretty diagonal slashes behind her yellowed like autumn light/window probably tinted for protection) sunlight somehow managed to get in and she kept her fluorescent off.
“This,” she said (thin jagged colored lines on a flatscreen faded in the sun/experimental data comparison no obvious correlation to anything you know what it means now PleaseStopStopPleaseStop), “is the profile of a patient in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.” (NononoDon’tTellMeThis) “This is your father’s profile.” (side-by-side duplicate every peak and valley red blue yellow/near perfect match/years since we talked/I knew what was coming/did you actually know/I was afraid/yes you damn well were).
“What exactly are you telling me?”
“Ms. Gault, your father is in the final stages of a degenerative disease known as Alzheimer’s.” Told her I know what Alzheimer’s is (twit I’m doing a Ph.D. in neuroscience). She apologized, explained she was just being thorough, said she knew his stability and health “must be a sore point” (missus you don’t know the half of it). “We think he’s been slowly failing for at least twenty years” (my whole life). “All we can do” (there are lots of things we could do medical science knows lots of little things about Alzheimer’s/delaying tactics/I’m not going to mention them let the bastard rot) “All we can do now is ensure that he is properly attended to, ease his passage (you’re welcome to him).”
She started in on the behavioral shifts (like he was ever that stable if it wasn’t disease it was mom’s death/slight lapses in memory/forgot my birthday/not his fault/never forgot to heckle me though did he/”increasingly violent”/goddamn it that was my boyfriend you feebleminded prick) the behavioural shifts I’d seen and the shifts he’d be going through soon enough (forget you completely/too late he’s out of your life/out of his mind/shuffles down the corridor stinking of his own piss/didn’t even look at me/fine goodbye you bastard/Hatchet-faced nurse with sympathy written on her face/here’s the money keep him here until he dies I don’t want anything else to do with him/she grimaces the sympathy gone all gone). Lemon dress kept on talking about how she understood (you have no idea my dear) that things had probably been bad between us, saying the disease did terrible things, tore families apart, that the disease confused people, that it destroyed them.
Did you mean me missus? No, you meant my father.
(It destroyed him and he destroyed me).
Her not-his-fault theory was not going to fly with me, and I told her as much (coherently? no/what did I even say/shaking in a red haze of rage). I got up to leave.
She jumped up. “Ms. Gault (you had balls, I give you that much)?”
“Yes (straining so I cut the word off halfway)?”
She took a moment, searching for some crack in the veneer. “You might consider being screened for the condition as well.” Then she sat back down and turned the flatscreen away from me.
I got checked. The doctors at the clinic (that one young one was so cute/wavy blond hair/great teeth/some things never change) said they hoped to delay the worst until my mid-forties, but they could make no guarantees. At the time I was in the middle of my thesis. I had Sammie on the way.
I guess I was expected to mourn for my father or worry or something (crying at midnight for six months/no reason/nothing at all to do with my father of course not/daddy please don’t forget me). I was more worried about having my own children (dying/degenerating/becoming him stopit). I really doubt they expected me to stay angry, or to cut off all contact after the obligatory first visit (oh god he didn’t even know me/please it’s me/his speech broken up childlike bite-sized/he throws the vase/explodes in slow motion/throw myself to the floor/pieces already bouncing and crumbling away from the wall crashing around me/the flowers tumbling down/a rainbow drifting onto me water drenching my new shirt/my father with fists raised rushing at my prostrate, pregnant body/the orderly takes his arms and saves me from my father/screaming obscenities/can’t remember my name but he remembers ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’). Nobody except my father knew what was going on (he didn’t know/couldn’t know/I know you couldn’t help it/I don’t care that bastard made me what I am oh god Sammie what am I going to do I can’t give you up everneverever please don’t let me lose my mind).
Came home to Sammie (my black hair/pudgy cheeks/green eyes/Cramer’s ski jump nose/her little red overalls all her own), and made her the center of my life. Still spent too much time at work (you’re missing her whole childhood how can you do that to your baby girl) Every day the worry that the disease is going to catch up to you (have to find a solution/the mask was just a milestone stupid). She jumped up and held me, knowing I was somehow wrong. Didn’t know how I’d give her up (even though you knew/worse than he ever was/I can’t give her up please don’t take her from me I’ll find a cure I promise never hurt her oh god never hurt her).
My father didn’t have that choice, he didn’t even know; I couldn’t make it even when I did. He couldn’t help himself. He didn’t know (I didn’t know how much it hurt/please forgive me daddy
Hello. The word appears inside me. Electricity arcs through my mind, the majesty of this simple word like fire written across a sky.
Help, I say, hesitantly, in what I think might be the same place.
Who have we got here? God’s own voice deep in the guts of my mind.
Connie Gault. Is that who I am, still? Has nothing been added or removed?
I wish I could nod.
Hang on, OK? The voice seems less majestic. My synapses are adapting to the stimulus.
Anyway, I doubt God would say “Hang on”.
A buzzing fluorescent shines down on me. Burning roils up from my stomach to the space behind my eyes and erupts into a wracking cough that feels like I’m being torn in two.
A hand rests on my side, its humanity and warmth flowing down into me. The sensation is calming; the fire in my body settles and my cough becomes a scratchy breath.
“Mom?” A rich contralto I could almost mistake for my own voice.
I smile. This will be a good dream. I nestle into the pillow.
“Constance Gault? Mom?” I open my eyes, looking around. The woman whose hand rests on my side is looking down at me, an uncertain smile on her face. “Connie?”
“Yes?” My voice is a gluey rasp. The woman holds a transparent squeeze bottle filled with a thick blue liquid to my mouth. I slurp greedily, the action sending pinpoints of fire through my face.
“Do you know who I am?”
I study her carefully. She certainly seems familiar. Raven-haired, ruby-lipped, more severe-looking than I would have expected from her voice alone. Early signs of crow’s feet surround tight green eyes. Eyes very much like my own.
Her greeting finally sinks in.
“S-Sammie?” My throat tightens around the word, choking it.
“Hi mom. I wanted to be the first person you saw. Is that OK?” Her jaw bulges and her face tightens even further. The crow’s feet clench tight around her eyes. I recognize myself in her, holding it in, trying to be safe and stable.
This is my little girl, my red-jumpered sweetie-pie? She looks older than I am.
“Do you need another sip?” She extends the squeeze bottle again. I take a few long pulls, trying to decide what to say next. The liquid seems alive. Cascades of taste and nerve-needles follow it around my mouth. I swallow, and it tickles on the way down, dulling what remains of the fire inside.
“What is this drink?”
“Medical nanotechnology.” I purse my lips and blow, but can’t get a whistle out. “That’s nothing,” she says nervously, “you should see the stuff that put this body together and moved you out of the simstem – sorry, I mean the computer they had you in after the mask.”
“How long?” I ask.
“Twenty-five years, one month.”
My gut ignites again. “You’re thirty?” I can barely see her, water filming on my eyes, running down my face.
“Tomorrow. I’m sorry I woke you. I didn’t want to spend another birthday wishing you were there.” Now she chokes on the words, tears spilling. That does me in. I struggle up, wrapping my arms around her midsection, my head laid against her stomach.
“Sammie! Oh my god, don’t be sorry!” I’m snot-snuffling into her top.
She wraps her arms around me, laying her head atop mine, crying. For a long moment we share a hard embrace. My still-new arms shake from the effort, but I hold on.
Sammie breaks away first, gently urging me to lie back. “We have a lot to talk about. Get some rest. You’re safe. All those old protest movements died out a long time ago. They caught the guy that did you in.”
“You’re safe,” she repeats, stroking my hair and kissing my forehead. I feel the trace of makeup left by her lips and stop her attempt to wipe it away. Her hand is warm. I fold my fingers through hers. They are, I see now, identical. Hard to believe so much time has gone by.
“Stay with me.” I smile a bit and let my head sink back into the pillow.
“Sleep tight,” she says, enclosing my hand with both of hers. I wonder at all the ways she resembles me and at the dedication which finds her here two and a half decades later. My daughter, strong enough for both of us.
“Sammie?” I ask sleepily.
“How is my f…my dad?”
“He died, mom. Not long after you were taken.” I’d expected as much. I didn’t even try to get him masked.
“I’m going to go put down flowers for him when I’m better, OK?”
“OK, mom. Good night.”
“Good night, Sammie. I love you.”
“Love you too, mom. See you in the morning.”
This time, when the world disappears, I think of nothing.