Mark walks beside me, carrying the plastic bag that contains the belongings I had when admitted. He rests his hand on my shoulder, and I shrug it off. Since the accident, the thought of him touching me turns my stomach, though I’m not sure why.
“You really want to leave all this, Ana?” Dani asks.
“God, yes. I never want to see the inside of a hospital again.” My chest tightens as memories of the operation rush back. Pressure inside my skull. The gleam of a scalpel under fluorescent lights. They had only woken me for twenty minutes of the five-hour brain surgery, but every agonizing second is seared into my memory.
“Ana.” Mark’s voice drips with condescension. “These people saved your life.”
I dig my fingernails into the vinyl padding on the arms of the chair. He’s right, of course. “Sorry, hon. I’m just ready to be home.”
Dani leans down from her spot behind me and whispers, “I’ll definitely miss Dr. Shaw. That man is built.” She giggles, and her chin-length curls brush my cheek.
My hair is gone. I run one hand over my head, and the bare hint of stubble tickles my palm. A row of stitches runs lengthwise across the top of my scalp, still tender to the touch.
We reach the end of the hall, and Mark supplies the documentation detailing my release. The guards take far longer than necessary to scrutinize the paperwork, but the doors finally slide open. I take a deep breath of fresh mountain air. A breeze rustles through the trees and the fresh scent of pine cleanses my system, drowning out the antiseptic odor clinging to my skin. The heat of the summer sun warms me from the outside in.
My stomach does a little flip when I stand, and I let Mark take my right arm. “These stupid pain meds are going to make me lose my lunch.”
Dani holds my other arm. A full foot shorter than me, her head barely reaches my shoulder. “If you puke on me, I will never forgive you.” She wrinkles her freckled nose in disgust.
I laugh. I mean, really laugh, for the first time since I woke in the operating room. “Come on. I want to go home.”
I wake up but can’t move, pinned to my bed by an invisible force, unable to even wiggle my fingers. My eyes are wide open. Each beat of my pulse pounds through my veins. I try to blink, but even my eyelids are frozen. With my head locked in place, I can only stare straight up at the ceiling. My vision is hazy, as if a gauzy veil covers my face, but I make out two blurred figures in my peripheral.
They wear light blue tops, surgical masks, blue hospital caps, and latex gloves, and they stand on either side of the bed, bending over me. One says my name, ‘Ana,’ and something about administering medication. The one on the right has something in their hand, and I focus on the object, try to see through the veil.
A syringe. My heart pounds.
Pain pricks the inside of my elbow, and a slow burn spreads through my veins, building into a raging inferno. Tremors shake my body. A scream swells in my throat, but I can’t open my mouth, and the shriek stays locked inside, silently ripping through my brain.
I shoot up in bed, kicking away the sheets that tangle my legs. No menacing figures, but when I rub my thumb over my inner elbow at the injection site, the spot feels tender, like a fresh bruise. I press my fingers to my eyes so hard that white spots burst across my vision. Great. Now I’m hallucinating physical injuries.
Damn nightmares, night terrors, whatever you call them. It’s been weeks since I had an episode, and I’d gotten my hopes up they were gone. How much longer can I handle this without actually going crazy? Pressure beats against the inside of my skull, sending pulses of pain through my head, and I rub my temples. The headaches are always worse the day after.
My thin black tank top sticks to my sweat-soaked skin, and I peel it off, toss it on the floor. Stumbling to the dresser against the wall, I pull on a pair of running pants, an old sweatshirt, and my worn tennis shoes before making a pit stop in the bathroom. A quick combing is all my pixie haircut requires. I shake one of my seizure pills from the bottle and swallow it dry. Epilepsy occurs in some who’ve experienced traumatic brain injury, but it’s rare. Lucky me.
Mark looks up when I enter the kitchen, his face plastered with an eager smile.
“Morning, hon,” I say.
“Morning, sleepy head.” He plants a kiss on my cheek.
His touch, his lips, his smell, all grate against every nerve in my body until I want to scream, but I stop myself from pulling away. He’s trying. I should, too.
He grabs the coffee pot and pours me a cup.
I take a seat across from him at the breakfast nook table, facing the windows. “Thanks.” Snow blankets the backyard, and the stark whiteness burns my headache-sensitized eyes. I drop my gaze.
“You look a little pale.” Mark leans closer, bracing his elbows on the table. “Feeling okay?”
I should tell him about the nightmares, but the thought of stepping one foot into that long white hospital hallway is like a giant weight on my chest, suffocating me. “Just had a rough night’s sleep.” I sip my coffee; pray he’ll drop it.
“Hmm.” His eyes bore deep inside.
The tick, tick, tick of the wall clock fills the room, and I stare into the black abyss of my coffee.
He knows I’m lying. It doesn’t matter what I do or don’t tell him, he’s going to take me back to those doctors. My grip tightens on the cup. Calm down. Act normal.
The doorbell chimes, and I jolt in my chair, sloshing hot coffee on my hand. “Damn.”
“I’ll get it.” Mark hands me a towel, then ducks into the entryway adjacent to the kitchen.
“Get it together, Ana.” I drop the towel on the table and go after Mark, ignoring the burning sting on the back of my hand.
Dani smiles and waves from the front step, dressed for our run. “You ready?”
“Yep.” I wedge past Mark, grabbing a stocking cap and thin gloves from the cubby near the door.
“You haven’t had anything to eat.” He frowns.
“I’m not hungry.” I force a smile, but can’t make myself reach out to him. Why does his constant concern grate so badly? “See you in a bit.”
I hurry down the walk, the cold sting of the air cleansing my lungs, and pull on my hat and gloves.
“Something up with Mark?” Dani rushes up beside me, and we turn onto the main sidewalk.
I roll my neck from side to side. Damn headache. “Nope.”
“Really.” She angles a look my way.
We head toward the edge of the neighborhood, jagged snow-topped peaks on the horizon. A black SUV labeled “Security” drives past. CyTech, the company that employs many of Eagleton’s residents—Mark and Dani included—insists we’re under constant threat of corporate espionage. Seems like overkill to me, but you get used to it.
Dani and I both give a wave, and the vehicle keeps going.
She clears her throat and tugs her own beanie down, struggling to contain her curls. “Sooo…Mark?”
“Look, I don’t know what’s wrong, okay? He’s been great since the accident. Loving. Supportive. I couldn’t ask for more.”
I sigh. “I just feel suffocated, like he’s constantly watching me, waiting for me to do something wrong.” I rub my hands up and down my arms. “And when he touches me, it makes me sick, like physically ill. Crazy, huh?”
“You can’t help how you feel.” Her voice is quiet, like she’s talking to herself.
My vision blurs as a burst of pain hits the base of my skull, and I clench my eyes closed.
Dani grabs my arm. “You okay?”
The pain subsides to a dull throb, and I lower my chin to my chest, knowing it’ll be back.
“Should I call Mark?”
“No!” I jerk my head up and cringe when the pain rebounds through my skull.
She raises her gloved hands, palms out. “Ana, talk to me.”
If I don’t tell someone, soon, I really will go crazy, and she’s my best friend. “I’ve been having these…episodes. I get bad headaches the day after.”
Dani cocks her head to the side. “The day after what? What are you talking about?”
This is it. No going back now. “I’ve been having night terrors. I think I’m awake and lying in my bed, but I can’t move. An invisible force holds me down. Two figures are in the room, and I know they want to hurt me.” My mouth goes dry, and I struggle to swallow. “I know it’s a hallucination, but it feels completely real.”
Dani’s face goes pale. “How long has this been going on?”
Her sharp tone only amplifies my guilt at keeping this secret for so long from those who care about me. “Since the accident,” I whisper.
“Shit!” She fists her hands at her sides.
“I’m sorry. I just…I was so afraid of going back to that hospital and—”
“Shut up and let me think.” Her lips twist into a snarl.
I flinch, take a step back. The Dani I know would be quick to offer a hug, some comfort, a laugh.
She grabs my upper arms. “Have you told anyone else?” Her fingers dig in, her grip too tight.
My breath speeds up, sending puffs of white into the air.
She gives me a hard shake, snapping my head back. “Have you told anyone else?”
“No, no. Just you.”
“Good, that’s good.” She releases me.
I stumble and fall, landing on my butt. The cold of the sidewalk seeps through my pants.
She looks down at me, her expression harsh. “Do not tell anyone else about the nightmares, understand?”
“What?” I’d expected her to freak out about me not telling Mark, not asking for help.
“Ana.” She crouches and grips me by the chin. “This is important. You cannot tell anyone.”
“I’ll explain everything tonight. Tell Mark we’re going for another run after dinner and meet me at mile marker ten on Eagle Mountain Road. We should be safe from prying eyes there.” She stands.
I shake my head. “Turns out you’re crazy.”
She stares down at me. “Those figures from your nightmares? They’re real.”
Dani steps from the shadow drenched trees lining the road, her face stark-white against her black clothing. “I wasn’t sure you believed me.”
A shiver races through me, and I shove my hands in my pockets. Ever since this morning, I can’t get warm. “I didn’t, not at first.”
Headlights pierce the darkness as a security vehicle rounds the bend. The SUV slows when it passes us, and my throat tightens. A spotlight attached to the driver’s side blazes to life and sweeps across the tree line.
Dani grabs my arm and pulls me back into the evergreens. “Don’t move.”
The light moves over us, and I’m sure we’ve been seen. My palms break out in a sweat, my legs twitch with the desire to bolt, but the light flips off and the car continues down the road. I slump against the nearest tree.
“So, what changed your mind?”
“Found this on our bedroom floor.” I fish the plastic cap from my pocket and hold it up. “It’s for a syringe.” I’d locked myself in the bathroom, turned on the shower, and cried for an hour after realizing the hallucinations were real.
She sighs and slings the backpack off her shoulder, dropping it to the ground in a spot clear of snow. “You better sit down.”
I sink to the dirt and she sits across from me. Lines crease her brow, her mouth, the edges of her eyes. She’s pulled her unruly curls back and braided them close to her head. This is not my funny, bubbly, best friend.
She waves a hand toward the road. “Eagleton isn’t a normal town, it’s an installation owned and operated by CyTech. I work for them.”
“Yeah, I know. So does Mark and half this town.”
“I’m not a programmer, Ana. I’m your handler, have been for the last year.” She unzips her pack and pulls out a thin, rectangular piece of plastic, shoving it into my hands. “My security badge.”
The picture of her looks as she does now, serious and reserved, and a blue stylized logo covers the top of the card: CyTech, For a Better Tomorrow. The name under the picture reads “Catherine Scott, Handler.”
The card slips from my hand to lay in the dirt.
“Catherine?” My mouth goes dry. “This is a joke, right? You weren’t assigned a year ago, we’ve been friends for a decade.”
She sticks the badge back in her pack. “Those memories are fake, implanted to make you trust me, trust your life here.”
“What is wrong with you? Why would you say that?” A slideshow of important moments scrolls through my mind. Our high school graduation, my wedding day, countless dinners. They can’t all be fake. “No.”
She retrieves a newspaper from her pack, holds it out. “Mark isn’t your husband. He’s your keeper.”
I jump to my feet and grip my head in both hands. “No, you’re lying.” The throbbing pain in my head spreads. “Why are you doing this?”
She stands and snaps the newspaper open. “Look.”
I want to turn and run away, forget everything she said, go back to normal, but memories keep playing through my mind, one after another. Moments from my life. The slideshow starts to repeat. Still images, frozen in time. My wedding day, Dani by my side laughing as Mark and I cut the cake.
But what happened before the cake, and what happened after? Why can’t I remember the rest? A sharp pain slices across my skull, and I clench my hands so tight my nails dig into my palms. So does the syringe cap.
It’s real. The night terrors are real.
There is no going back, no forgetting.
She rustles the newspaper, and I make myself look. The black and white photo is a group shot, a bunch of doctors in white coats, with Mark in the front row. The headline reads, “Scientific Visionary Dr. Jonathan Kenrick Receives Government Funding for Controversial Artificial Intelligence Project.”
Dani points at Mark’s face. “Dr. Paulson is his real name. He’s a neuroscientist.”
“Your paranoia at being watched? Your disgust every time he touches you? Deep down, you knew something was off,” she says.
I shove the paper away, my chest aching as if someone ripped it open and tore out my heart. My whole life is a lie. “Why would you do this?”
“Dr. Kenrick insists artificial intelligence will be the greatest invention in human history. The applications are limitless, ranging from companionship to forced labor.” Her nose wrinkles as she says the last two words.
“What does that have to do with me?” I ask.
“You’re the second generation of an A.I. project called the Cy. The first generation were told the truth: that they weren’t human. They displayed violent tendencies and a lack of conscience.” She shakes her head. “Dr. Paulson, the man you call your husband, was the one who came up with the idea to make you more human. Give you friends, family, a life. His theory is that if you have real human experiences, you’ll basically act human even though you’re not.”
I rub my hand over my chest, my heartbeat thumping against my palm. It isn’t possible, can’t be. A joke; this is all just a big joke. I try to laugh, but it turns into a sob.
“No, I am human. I’m a person.” I shove my hands in her face, showing her the marks where my nails dug deep into my palms and broke the skin. “I bleed.”
“I’m sorry.” Her voice breaks. Finally, some emotion from this person who’s supposed to be my friend. “You’re a partially biological organism, that’s true, but other parts of you are mechanical.”
I stare at my hands, at the blood smeared across my skin. What lays beneath the surface? Metal? Wires? My stomach twists, sending bile up my throat, and I lurch to the side to throw up, spitting before I stand back up.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“You know things you shouldn’t.” She wipes her hands down the front of her pants, as if trying to get them clean. “The events you described as hallucinations are real. The problem is, you’re not supposed to be awake.”
“Who are they? The people I see at night?” My body shakes under the memory of being paralyzed and helpless.
“Mark and his assistant. They monitor your system to ensure its functioning properly, upload any minor alterations to your memories. A control chip is activated in your brain to keep you in a state of perceived sleep.”
Tremors race through my body, and I wrap my arms around my middle, try to hold myself together. I’m just some kind of experiment to those people.
“The fact that you’re awake when it happens means your controls are failing. And when your controls fail, you get reconditioned.” Her mouth twists at the corners. “They’re afraid. They think if you realize what you are, you’ll revolt and become violent. So, they wipe your memory and start over.”
“How? All the others in town, they’d notice.” My other friends at work, at church, they’d know something had been done to me. They’d know.
“Everyone here is an employee like me, or a test subject like you. We’re briefed on anyone who’s been reconditioned, and the Cy just get uploaded with new memories.”
“But, they can’t just wipe me out.” I shake my head.
She drops her chin to her chest and averts her eyes. “Your accident wasn’t real, Ana. They reconditioned you.”
“No, that’s not true.” My memories are real. My life is real. It can’t all be a lie.
Dani moves toward me, and I scramble backward, my heal slipping in the gravel. She grabs me by the shoulders. “Don’t you get it? That wasn’t the first time you’ve been wiped, and I can’t do it again. I won’t.”
Tears flood my vision. I don’t want to ask the question burning my brain, but I have to. “How many times?”
Her breath hitches, and her grip on me tightens. “Four since I became your handler. I’m not sure how many before that.”
Oh, God. I’ve been erased over and over and over.
Sobs rack my chest, and I sag against her. I can’t let them take my life away from me. “Please help me.”
“I won’t let them hurt you again, I promise.” She pulls me into a tight hug. “We’re getting out of here. Tonight.”
I lie curled up in bed beneath the comforter, still wearing my running clothes. The lamp on the nightstand offers only a small circle of light, casts the rest of the room in shadow.
Mark peeks his head through the bedroom door. “Still not feeling well?”
I try for a comforting smile, anything to get him to leave. “It’s probably just a cold.”
He comes in and bends over me, cups my cheek with his hand. “I can’t get out of work. Will you be okay here by yourself?”
I gag down the bile stinging the back of my throat. The bastard made me think he loved me. Made me love him back. “Dani said she’d stop by later. I’ll be fine.” Please, just get out of here. Leave me alone.
“Try to get some sleep. I’ll be back in a few hours.” He quietly closes the door behind him. So considerate.
The garage door opens, then closes again. He’s gone. The pressure on my chest loosens a fraction, and I slip from bed and creep to the window to peek through the blinds. The street in front of our house, his house, is quiet, not a car in sight.
No sign of Dani. The red display of my alarm clock reads 7:59 p.m., so she should be here any minute.
I curl my fingers around the bottle of pills in my pocket. She said they aren’t for epilepsy at all. The biological elements of my immune system constantly fight against the mechanical parts. Foreign body rejection, she called it, and without the pills, I won’t live for more than a week.
Dani may not be who I thought she was, but she’s the only person I can trust. I’m not sure where we’re going, or what will happen once we get there, and I don’t care. Anywhere is better than this prison.
A thump sounds somewhere in the house. My heart pounds in my chest, picking up pace until I think it might explode. If Mark finds out what I’m doing, they’ll recondition me. Erase me.
The floorboards creak in the hall outside the bedroom door, and I dive for my bed, burrowing beneath the covers. I feel under the pillow, touch the handle of the butcher knife I stole from the kitchen. My stomach clenches in a tight knot.
Where is Dani? She should be here by now.
Pain pierces my temple, and I gasp, try to raise my hands to my head, but an invisible force pins my body to the bed. No! This can’t be happening, not tonight, not now. I try to twist and strain, but can’t move any part of my body.
The bedroom door opens, and Mark walks in followed by a woman in a white lab coat. They aren’t wearing any scrubs or surgical masks this time. Standing side by side, they lean over my immobile body and peer down at me.
“Something is off with her lately,” Mark says. “Ever since that supposed accident.”
“Supposed? You don’t believe she got hit?” his assistant asks.
“No. Whoever hit her would’ve reported it. And there was that break-in at the office, the missing files. Let’s run a full diagnostic.”
I try to open my mouth, to cry and scream, but can’t. Where’s Dani? Why did she leave me to these monsters?
Mark reaches down and brushes my bangs off my forehead with a light touch.
His caress makes my skin crawl, and my breathing picks up speed, rasping in and out through my nostrils. I strain against the invisible bonds holding me down. Suddenly, I feel my finger, and then my whole hand breaks free.
A scream erupts from my mouth as I leap from the bed and tackle Mark to the floor. His nose crunches beneath by fist and blood sprays from his nostrils.
“Get off,” his assistant cries, wrenching at my arm.
Mark grabs my wrists. He’s too strong, and he shoves me off him. I crash into the nightstand as he scrabbles backward and climbs to his feet.
He holds his hands out in front of him. “Calm down, Ana.”
His assistant rushes to his side. “How the fuck did she do that? Wake herself up?”
He ignores her question, focuses on me. “You’re sick, Ana. I just want to help you get better.”
“Bullshit.” I pull my phone from my pocket and call Dani. It goes to voicemail. “Where are you? Mark is here, and I need your help. Now.” I hang up and slip the phone back in my pocket.
“I don’t know who you’re calling or why you’re afraid, Ana. I love you, and I just want to help.” Mark takes a step forward.
I snatch the butcher knife from under my pillow and hold it out in front of me. “I know what I am, Doctor Paulson. You’ve never loved me.”
His assistant gasps, and he stands up straighter, his demeanor shifting—no more ‘loving husband’ act. “Okay. So, you know.”
“I know everything.” Heat flushes my body, and I wish I could direct the raging fire at him, burn him alive. “All those nights you came in here with your injections and your tests, I was awake, you bastard. I saw it all. Felt it all.”
He frowns. “What injections?”
“Don’t you lie to me!” I swipe the knife through the air, and they back up into the corner dresser.
“It’s okay, everything is going be fine. We can fix this,” he says.
“Fix this? How, by wiping my memories again? Faking another accident?”
“I had nothing to do with that accident. I would never do that to you.” Mark’s face softens. “I do care about you, Ana. I want you to be happy.”
“Shut up!” Pain slices through my skull, and I press my free hand to my forehead. “It’s torture, what you’ve been doing to me, and I won’t let you keep me here any longer.”
The bedroom door flies open and slams into Mark. Dani bursts into the room, holding a gun.
“Dani, thank God,” I say. “We’ve got to go. Now.”
She aims the gun at Mark and his assistant, and the two instinctively raise their hands above their heads.
Mark’s mouth twists in a scowl. “You.”
“Me.” She smiles, and the gun goes off. Two quick pops.
A high whine fills my ears. I watch Mark and his assistant collapse to the floor, half propped against the wall, with bloody holes puncturing each of their foreheads. They stare sightlessly into the middle distance, surprised expressions frozen on their faces.
“Jesus. You killed them.” Not only killed them, but with perfect shots that speak of experience. My legs go weak, and I slump down on the edge of the bed. The knife slips from my hand. Maybe it’s for the best, so they can’t come after us, so we have a bigger head start before anyone realizes what’s happened.
Dani tucks the gun in the back of her pants and pulls a small silver device from her pocket. “No, you killed them.” She presses a button and my body goes rigid.
I fall back on the bed, then feel hands on my ankles as Dani lifts my legs onto the mattress. No! I try to scream but my mouth won’t work. Nothing will work.
“I always hated, Mark, you know? That fake love act is so gross, cruel really.” Dani looks down at me. “But it wasn’t him coming in here at night. That was me.”
No, that can’t be. But I can’t even shake my head in denial. All I can do is stare into the face of the woman who was supposed to be my friend, who was supposed to save me.
She pulls the gun out, wipes it off with the hem of her shirt, then curls my fingers around the grip before dropping it on the floor beside the bed. “That corporate espionage stuff? It’s real. I work for the other guys. Don’t tell anyone, though.”
Liquid pools in my eyes and runs down the sides of my face. She’s acting like this is some kind of game, like I’m worth nothing.
“You actually found me out once before, but you don’t remember that, do you?” She smirks. “That’s why I had to arrange that little accident. Couldn’t have you ratting me out.”
I focus on my fingers, try to get just one to move. I did it once, I can do it again. But no matter how hard I focus and strain, my arms stay pinned beside me, don’t move even an inch. My eyes won’t even close I’m being forced to watch. To see everything.
“Don’t worry, you won’t remember any of this.” She extracts a syringe from her pocket and removes the cap.
No, please, no! I want to beg her not to do it, not to take my memories away. To remember that she’s supposed to be my friend.
Her face is impassive. She doesn’t even pretend to care as she plunges the needle into my arm.
Terror grips my mind with sharp claws as darkness creeps into the edges of my vision. Please, let me live. I want to live! I put every bit of strength and will into a last push against the bonds that hold me, and manage to open my mouth. My screams fill the room, and I lose consciousness.
The automatic sliding glass doors at the end of the sterile white hallway seem miles away. My best friend and roommate, Dani, pushes my wheelchair at an excruciatingly slow pace. The urge to bolt from the chair and sprint the distance to the doors is overwhelming.
She leans down from her spot behind me. “Forget it, Ana, you’ll never make it.” She giggles.
“I might.” She’s right, of course. I’m still hopped-up on heavy-duty painkillers. I’d get maybe five feet before the dizziness took over and caused me to face plant on the tile floor.
I run one hand over my bald head, cringing at the feel of the stitches against my skin. “Just hurry up, okay? I want to go home.”
Copyright © 2023 Angela Sylvaine