“This,” said Nick, while he jiggled the doorknob and forced the key to unlock the door, “is my humble home.”
His sister scanned the small apartment in seconds. “Where’s your room?” Cecily flicked a newly-dyed wayward long strand of metallic blue hair away from her left eye. Nick’s right eyebrow arched—he saw a new piercing that added to her other five.
“Why?” He smirked. “Do you want to bounce a quarter off my bed to make sure?”
She returned his smile and parried in false enthusiastic glee, “Ooh, can I?! Can I?!”
“Down the hall. On the left.” Nick pointed.
Cecily already was at his bedroom door and walked in with Nick close behind her.
“I like it.” He knew that she was being honest. She went over to his desk and saw the framed picture of their family standing next to his laptop. She remembered that it was taken during their family’s summer vacation this year.
“I thought you would be. Now you’ve seen the whole campus.”
“Not really. I haven’t seen any really cute guys.” Cecily turned around to face her brother.
“You’re still in high school.”
“So?” Nick looked like he wanted to change the subject. But she didn’t really want to. Why couldn’t he see that she wasn’t a little girl anymore? “Everything is calm at the shop.”
“Yeah? How’s that?” He put his phone down on his desk.
“Stan’s on vacation this week. So, working over the summer isn’t so bad.”
“Has he made any new threats against Dad?”
She sat down on the sofa. “Last week.”
“Tell me.” Nick pulled up his desk chair to sit down near his sister. “Is Dad okay?”
“Oh, he’ll be all right. Just a bruise where the screwdriver hit him.”
“What!? I should beat Stan into a bloody pulp! Did Dad call the police and have the sonufabitch arrested!”
“Dad didn’t and won’t call the police. Maybe he doesn’t want Mid-City getting any bad publicity.”
Nick remembered last year’s Holiday Party for the Mid-City employees. It was usually held on December 26. As a tradition, the two partners would take turns holding the party. The party was at his home last year. There were about fifty people. Compared to the Claye’s home, his family’s house was modest by comparison.
Nick was standing next to Stan’s oldest son, who looked as uncomfortable as he. “How’s school?” Nick hated small talk, but he was one of the hosts.
Anthony barely looked at him when he answered, “Alright. How’s school for you?”
Nick didn’t want to parrot back the same answer. There had to be something else more to say, so he just shrugged. “I’m going to be on a big project next fall. It’s a program to measure the brain’s synaptic impulses. So, I’m getting as many classes as I can out of the way now.”
Anthony was looking around when he said, “That’s great.”
His answer was so flat that Nick thought the spinach dip was more interesting to him.
“I thought you were a doctor or something already.”
“Working on it. But right now, I’m being funded so that I can dedicate the time on this project. Hopefully it’ll take only one year to complete.”
“When I’m done with school I migh’ . . .”
Jane Claye ran past them to the den sobbing. Her husband was quickly behind her; fuming about something. The crowded living room parted like lake water would part from a speeding motor boat. Nick heard, “leave me alone, Stan,” coming from the den. She quickly came out with her coat slung over an arm and started to fumble in her purse. Snuffling back tears, she bolted for the front door not caring about the cold weather outside. Stan was still behind her shoving his arms in the sleeves of his coat, looking as if he was going to explode in rage. Nick noticed the room became quiet enough to hear Stan and Jane yelling at each other outside.
He knew how much his parents had hoped that Stan would behave himself during the party. His stomach tightened when he saw how embarrassed his mother looked. She made a statement to him that afternoon how she dreaded having Stan in her home because he was so verbally abusive to everyone, especially his wife.
Now Nick mentally clicked off ten years that (each one worse than the previous year) the Colemores had to tolerate Stan’s verbal abuse. This year, Nick could add physical abuse to the list.
“He-llo!” His sister snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Still with me? Anyway . . .”
Nick’s mind came back to his room and Cecily. “Anyway.”
“Stan was in the back of the shop, late last Wednesday. Everyone was gone by then. Yelling and screaming about Hinckler being so incompetent.”
Nick chuckled because Hinckler was a very good mechanic, Stan’s assistant, and more importantly, he could put up with Stan’s crap. Hinckler was so easygoing, that most of the time he didn’t mind coming very early and leaving very late to match Stan’s work schedule.
“Yeah, Stan’s an idiot. The whole world knows that. This is what happened: Last Wednesday morning it was Dad’s turn to have his desk trashed by Stan. Dad wasn’t in. Stan called him up and started yelling at him about something he was looking for on Dad’s computer. It was Hinckler’s fault he couldn’t find it. Dad wanted to work at home that day, but he came in to the shop anyway and tried to calm Stan down.”
Imitating Stan’s voice, Cecily yelled, “Don’t tell me what to do! Back here I’m in charge! You don’t know nothing about this place!” Her voice returned to normal. “And then Stan started to push Dad. And Stan said something like, come on do something, you stupid asshole! Can’t fight?! Then Dad said that he wasn’t going to fight and told Stan to just stop. He tried telling Stan that whatever Hinckler did was a simple mistake and that it could be corrected. He even tried to get Stan to go home. Stan picked up a screwdriver on a bench and threw it at Dad. Dad put up his arms like this.” Cecily crossed her arms in front of her face. “But it still got him on the forehead. Just a bruise. Didn’t even break the skin.”
She creased her brow and she lowered her eyes to remember any other incident. “The day before that, Stan came back from lunch. He came in the front office just clenching his teeth and saying, ‘I should kill that effing bastard! He’s such an effing bastard!’ He’d gone out to lunch with Dad. Dad wanted to buy Stan out.”
” ‘Bout time.”
Cecily nodded. “Stan’s driving everyone crazy, and Mid-City is losing business. At least Dad can buy him out and save what’s left.”
“Did he take it?” Nick hoped Stan would accept the offer. Ten years. Ten years of grief and pain caused by Stan.
“Of course not! How would he start his own company? Who would work for him? Who would hire him if he couldn’t start his own company?”
“Good point. Why doesn’t Jane have him committed to a mental hospital? He does sound unstable. Remember that one summer when Anthony and I were working at the shop?”
She nodded. “I think so.”
“One day Stan yelled all over the place that he should kill Jane? That it would be cheaper than a divorce.”
“I don’t know why his wife won’t. Or why the twins won’t move out.”
After all this time, Ben and Brian were still called the twins.
“They are his family.”
She shook her head in disgust. “I don’t know.”
“I can see why Ben and Brian won’t. But Anthony? Stupid. Useless.” Nick said.
“It’s getting late. You want to go get something to eat? I know a great pizza place that’s not far. Just about everyone from school goes there.”
“Okay. Maybe then I’ll get to see a few cute guys. You know, the ones who aren’t your friends.”
“Thanks,” Nick replied. Then in a more serious tone that wasn’t sarcastic, “Hopefully we won’t get back too late. I want you to get on the road tomorrow at a decent time.”
Cecily jumped up. “I really don’t care if I get home late. It’s still summer for me. Classes don’t begin until next week. It’s still light out. And best of all, I don’t have to be at work tomorrow. For either job.”
“Wasn’t referring to school or work. I was referring to not making Mom and Dad worry about you.” Nick got up, returned his chair to its place, and grabbed his phone. Then ushered his sister out of the apartment, “You haven’t told me about your other job. Still doing grunt work?”
They started down the hall. There was a game this weekend, and the usual parties were underway. Cecily was in the lead. She stopped at one door that held back loud talking and blaring music. She stopped and turned to Nick with a wide, hopeful smile.
He knew exactly what she wanted. “The answer is still no.” He gave her a gentle push to keep walking. After all, the university was out in the sticks and cornstalks in Illinois. Nick stayed because his sister wanted to come for a visit (even if she was planning on going to a fine arts school in Chicago the following year). After Cecily left in the morning, he also wanted to take advantage of the quiet to concentrate on his studying since his roommate had left for the weekend.
Audra Kramer had been a technician for the school’s research lab at the university for the past three years. When she’d first met Nick, she enjoyed walking him through the simulator for the SRT monitoring and testing rooms. He wasn’t like the administrators or various patrons of the sciences. Their walk-throughs were as easy and second nature to her as breathing. Quite frankly, when it came to showing non-personnel the rooms, she was almost bored. She recalled feeling uncomfortable on several occasions: There were men who seemed to appear as if they were fighting the incredible urge to ask her out. At one point during one tour she was giving to two men, she envisioned them looking like Pavlovian dogs to quell some of her discomfort. She now smiled at her little joke: men looking as if they were trying their best to maintain their composure and not end up slobbering all over themselves like hungry Pavlovian hounds.
She’d always had an idea that she was okay-looking (maybe good-looking). She had shoulder-length brown hair that she kept either in a bun or a ponytail for work. She had hazel eyes. Her face had just enough freckles to annoy her. All these features she felt were ordinary.
When she first met Nick, she noticed that his whole face said, “I want to ask you out!” Instead, he quickly diverted his eyes and cleared his throat nervously after they shook hands. It was endearing to her.
Audra liked Nick because of his shyness. It was a month before Nick got the courage to ask her out for a movie and dinner at one of the better local pub/restaurants.
She discovered that aside from excelling in science, they both liked football. They liked the same kind of movies and food. They had the same kind of humor. They even came from similar backgrounds of close-knit families, with both parents still married to one another.
Audra learned that Nick had a pet project. He was writing a computer game, and was far from having it completed. He told her the game was his way of diverting his mind from his other daily stresses. What impressed Audra the most was that Nick was so self-effacing: he was not a braggart.
Although Audra’s first assessment of Nick was right, he was more than a stubborn, tenacious twenty-three-year-old wunderkind.
Now they were doing the first of what was going to be many tests in their newly-built SRT laboratory.
“Okay, Nick, I’ll be over here at my computer,” Audra said. “Would you like to do any setting up?”
“No, thanks. Just make sure you can see and hear everything that’s going on with me when I’m in that”—he pointed his thumb towards the other room,—”thing.” They both looked at the machine through the window. The top half of the SRT unit was open, and to Nick it looked like it wanted to swallow him whole.
He walked over to the middle computer and sat down to type on the keyboard.
“On second thought, I’m just making sure that everything’s monitored and recorded. The entire test.” Then he got up and sat in front of the computer to the far left. “I’m also making sure the first program is okay.”
“Dr. Allen already verified everything. Don’t change anything without his approval.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not,” Nick replied, smiling. Audra didn’t look reassured.
When Nick was done reviewing all the routines and protocols, he got up and went through the swinging hospital-sized door and into the smaller white room where the machine stood. He went over to the long white cylindrical machine and looked at the panel by the headrest to make his final inspection.
Someday we won’t have to use a machine like this for SRTs. We might not even have to bother with being hooked up like we’re getting an elaborate EKG or EEG. Having stuff stuck on my arm, chest, and head doesn’t appeal to me. Come to think of it. I really don’t look forward being in a place that reminds me of a coffin, Nick thought as he finished.
“I really hate this thing.” He said it loud enough so that Audra could hear him. He passed his hand by the air ducts from the cooling system by the headrest to be certain there was cool air while he was inside during the test. He hoped that Audra couldn’t tell he was nervous.
“I can give you medication that Geoffrey ordered to relax you if you want it.”
Damn. “Thanks for the reassurance. I don’t think it will help, but I’ll take it anyway.” Nick walked away from the machine and into the control room, he stopped and looked at Audra. “You want me to go change now?”
Nick walked out of the control room and made an immediate right. There were locker rooms: one for women and one for men. Unlike the control room and the testing room which were in floor-to-ceiling white, there were bold colors: blue, yellow, and green in the men’s locker room. Pushing open the door with the picture of a man on it, he grabbed green hospital clothes and disposable slippers from a cabinet before going to his own locker.
When he was done changing from the campus uniform of well-worn jeans, university sweatshirt, socks, and old sneakers, he checked his right wrist to make sure he wasn’t wearing his watch. The workings of watches did strange things to the finely-tuned electronics of the SRT. The tan line of his wrist was a definite indication that he had remembered to remove it.
Nick closed and locked the orange-colored door of his locker with the brass and plastic key that was kept in the keyhole until it was removed. He looked at the long row of lockers. Some of the keys were still in their keyholes. Nick allowed his mind to concentrate on the unused lockers as a temporary diversion. He was becoming even more nervous about the first test.
Why did he accept this job? It was good money to pay off his undergrad loans that much quicker. He could always go back to teaching. Yet it was the project itself that intrigued him. He signed the contract.
When he turned and headed for the control room to begin the SRT, Nick noticed his legs were a little shaky. His mind repeated: The SRT is just another video game. The SRT is just another video game. This is just another video game. He could just about hear the screech when his next thought was: This SRT is just the first full-run test that the university’s SRT research team is making. It means no more fun and safe computer games in the privacy of his home. Real results would be expected. This first full SRT was going to be real (if it succeeded). If it did work, it would be used to train police cadets to be better officers. Then he returned to one of his favorite questions regarding the SRT: Could it be taken any further? What would it be to help with post-traumatic stress disorder?
Nick entered the control room and accepted a little paper cup with a single tablet that Audra offered him. He raised the cup in a ‘cheers’ salute, tipped the pill into his mouth, and then exchanged the cup for another one that held water.
When that one was empty, Audra then handed him another cup of water and another cup containing three different pills from the crash cart that would enhance their monitoring the program.
“Mud in your eye,” Nick said as he unceremoniously emptied those cups as well. He hoped the one pill that was the tranquilizer would take effect very quickly.
“Now for the fun part,” Audra said.
“I can’t wait.” He headed from the other room. “When will Geoffrey be here?”
“In about 15 minutes.”
“Try to go easy on the goop.” Nick said.
Audra smiled and in a mock laugh, said “Hee-hee-hee.” That was followed by, “My only pleasure around here is to see how uncomfortable I can make you.”
He wanted to show her that he didn’t really mind but instead his reply, “Great,” came out just a little too sarcastic for his liking. Then he followed it with, “No. Really. The leads will stay on my head just as well.”
“Iiiiit’s gooop time!”
Nick had to smile at her parody of Ed McMahon saying “Heeeere’s Johnny!” Some nights, Nick would go over to Audra’s apartment and watch her collection of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show with her. Her parents and grandparents had recorded some of the shows when their favorite stars were on, and they still had the original videos, which they had since converted to the latest technology. Now Audra had a very fine collection. But it wasn’t just watching old Tonight Show episodes that he enjoyed while at Audra’s place, either.
Dr. Allen sat back in his office chair staring at a post-grad’s profile on his computer screen. His mind began to wander, and the young man’s photo and bio blurred. He was glad that he’d made the correct choice in his career, selecting research over a conventional medical practice. That choice, and the correct benefactor, had helped with his educational bills and now at forty-two, he had no student debt to worry him.
He preferred that his assistants called him by his first name when they were working on the project. However, that was where his being unconventional ended. When in public or dealing with the public, he preferred to be called Dr. Allen. To him, curing people didn’t give him that same sense of accomplishment as research did.
When he was six years old, there was a huge tree in the backyard. He had dug a hole by that tree, hoping that he would find buried treasure. He really believed he would find treasure if he dug deep enough. And one day he did. Fake coins and rhinestones that had been left there by his mother for him to find. It was like that: a sense of the thrill of discovery like that little boy who spent his days digging in the backyard pretending to find buried treasure and then really finding something. Now as a grown man, research was the only way to feel that same kind of thrill he had felt as that little boy digging by the big tree in his backyard.
He came back to the present and clicked through one of his files: an entry from his private journal titled, “Dr. Geoffrey Allen-private journal, 20th November.” His eyes focused on the following:
. . . We’ve finished all the computer simulations for Synaptic Reflex Control. We’ve hired a doctoral candidate, Nick Colemore, Jr., to do the next phase. He’s an excellent candidate and even more, as his parents graduated from the school and his uncle is a senator of this state. The Company is rather pleased at the progress we’re making. The school needs all the funding it can get. We need to have the Synaptic Reflex Testing a success. Heaven help us if this fails. Heaven help us if we fail . . .
He closed that file and then scrolled to another. It was dated earlier this year.
“Dr. Geoffrey Allen-private journal, 3rd April”
. . . Are we doing the right thing? God, I only hope so.
There was no more. He closed all the files with a sigh and stood up. The chair creaked with the sudden change of pressure. He walked to his office’s door and said, “Lights. Off.” The room’s only remaining light was from the sun, muted by the window. He pulled the door closed behind him and headed towards the lab.
“Hi, Nick, how are you doing in there? Can you hear me okay?” asked Dr. Geoffrey Allen through his speaker.
In his mind, Nick replied, “Feel great. Why are you screaming? Must be the leads. Great drugs.”
Audra and Dr. Allen looked at the monitors in the control room and read: Feel great. Why are you screaming? Must be the leads. Great drugs.
Audra looked at the lower portion of her monitor and allowed herself a slight grin. “He’s flying.”
Dr. Allen looked at Audra and then turned back to his monitor. “Okay, Nick. This is for everything. Let’s see what this all can do. To the future.”
To the future. Nick answered.
“Begin the Police Simulation Program,” said Dr. Allen.
“Starting it now.” Audra’s fingers clicked on the keyboard. Click. Click. Click-click-click. Click-click.
Nick could hear the computer keys clicking in the distance.
Hey, Audra! I can hear you typing.
Click. Click-click-click-click. Click-click. Click, click. Police Simulation Program. Click. Click. Click-click-click. Click-click.
The top half of the monitors showed:
SYNAPTIC REFLEX TEST
Police Simulation Program
The very bottom of each monitor showed the data of the program, Nick’s vital signs including all brain function, and the SRT program’s interpretation of Nick’s emotions while Nick saw, or at least his mind thought it saw those same words.
Dr. Allen sat back to watch his monitor and see Nick’s initial brainwave patterns. As he continued watching, he fished through his lab coat pocket for his phone so he could record his own notes. He set it next to his computer while studying the monitors. So far everything appeared normal.
Nick was reacting and responding along with the program with Audra’s inputted data. No deviations from the SRT Program (or rather Nick’s memories). If Nick fell into a memory, he would veer off the Program. The only way Nick could be placed back into the SRT was if Audra keyed in the necessary data. The whole point of the research was for the SRT to be eventually self-correcting.
The monitors showed:
SYNAPTIC REFLEX TEST
The monitor flickered again.
Then the monitor showed:
Police Simulation Program
Ready to Continue
while the bottom right of the monitors showed:
Ready to Continue
Nick’s mind saw:
SYNAPTIC REFLEX TEST
Police Simulation Program
Ready to Continue
Geoffrey and Audra saw images flash on their monitors then:
Nick carefully walked through the shadow-casted halls, gripping his gun to reassure himself. While inside the machine, Nick’s fingers were wrapped around an imaginary gun. Inside the simulation he looked at the shadows play against the walls and aimed his gun at them. Thinking he saw someone; he almost pulled the trigger. But he stopped. It was only the moonlight through the trees outside of the opposite window. The light and shadows fell against a class photo of a smiling teen-aged girl on the wall. The effect momentarily gave the picture animation and from the corner of his eye, it seemed that another person was with him in the hall.
Hey, Audra! I hear you typing again, I’m glad I’m not alone flashed on the monitors.
Nick thought while the monitors read, Teen-aged girl. My sister. We used to fight when we were kids. Light.
Pain slammed through Nick’s mind before he saw:
As Audra keyed in the data, the monitors showed:
The doctor made a note about the personal memory (a deviation) during Synaptic Reflex Testing.
The monitors showed:
Then the following scene formed on the monitors:
Nick and his sister were sitting on the concrete patched granite steps of the fine arts building where Cecily hoped to attend school. It was a sunny day with a slight breeze that trailed down the busy city street. Students carrying huge book bags or art portfolios scrambled in and out of the huge double doors of the building.
“I sometimes feel Dad is still upset with me,” said Nick.
A college student dropped his book bag at the bottom of the step. He swung his beat-up guitar case around from his back, took it off, and opened it to remove his guitar. A few strums of tuning joined Nick and Cecily’s conversation. The college student began playing.
“He was, at first. He was hoping that you would take over the shop. But he told me that it’s okay doing what you’re doing.”
“Truck and car engine parts never enthused me.”
Nick momentarily looked up when he heard the whirring of a helicopter as it passed overhead, and then at the guitar player who was now joined by a young woman and her saxophone.
Nick and Cecily stopped talking for a while and listened to the two musicians play a jazz song and watched students and visitors pass by them. They both loved people watching.
“Why did you choose to go into medicine?” his sister finally asked.
Nick shrugged his shoulders then leaned back against the step above him. “Bioengineering,” he corrected. “Because I’m good at it. Isn’t that the usual reason? I don’t really want to take over Dad’s business. Not with Stan around, and I really don’t like Stan’s sons enough to want to be their partners. But then again, I could ask you why you’re going to art school and not taking over the business too.”
A sound of another helicopter flew over them. An ambulance screeched around a corner at Nick’s left. A man in an old army coat took out his guitar and started to play a few strings with the first two musicians.
“Because I’m good at it. I’m an artist.” Then she said as she stood up to model her multi-colored and patterned outfit, “Where else can I get away with dressing the way I want to? I made it myself,” then gave a twirl so her brother could get the whole effect, and then sat back down.
“Yep. You did. You blend in with the crowd. In fact, all you artsy-fartsy types look like Picasso threw up on you.” Nick smiled so she would know he was not serious.
Cecily’s rebuttal was giving her brother a disgusted look and said, “Bite me. Maybe I won’t visit you at your school in the fall.”
“I’m sorry. I overstepped?”
“What do you think?” replied Cecily.
The monitors showed:
END OF MEMORY
while he heard:
Click. Click-click. Click, click. Click-click-click.
“He’s back in the Program,” Audra said.
Geoffrey recorded a few more personal notes to be reviewed when he got back to his office later that day and then recorded notes in his private file for Nick.
Nick walked into the moonlit living room. He heard heavy boots clump on the tiling by the entrance way. When he saw the shadow dance in the room, he clicked his gun to be ready to fire at the sound.
It came again, the slamming sensation. Yet, this time the pain didn’t feel like it was shuddering through his brain—it was much worse.
Audra tried to keep up with the speed of the data. “Geoffrey, there’s something wrong.” Her fingers flew on the keyboard. “I don’t know how to explain this. Look!” She spared a glance at the doctor, who was watching in amazement. “His brain’s patterns aren’t corresponding to the SRT Program.”
Dr. Allen sat closer to his monitor.
They both continued to watch in horror as the data on the monitors seemed to fight for attention. It was as if someone were trying to watch two different TV channels, one an accessible channel and the other inaccessible, by switching back and forth between the two channels to the point where one program seemed to be an overlay of the other.
Audra’s fingers were trying to keep up with the data.
Crap. Crap. Crap, Dr. Allen thought. “Don’t bring him up yet. At this point, we might lose him. Just try to stay with him.” He tried to keep himself from panicking, at the same time he wondered what they were discovering. He hoped Nick was going to be all right.
“I’m trying.” Audra was typing too fast to really allow herself to feel the full extent of her fright for Nick.
Click. Click-click-click-click. Click. Click. Click. Click-click-click-click. Click-click.
The flickering scenes on the monitors stopped to show the lights come back on in the living room. And then there was a flicker.
Nick saw the remains of a blood and gore splattered body slumped against a wall.
“I think we got him . . .” Audra muttered an expletive under her breath. “No. Sorry.”
The monitors flickered off again and showed:
Then they showed:
SRT PROGRAM ONE
But then showed:
“What the HELL IS GOING ON!? STOP THE PROGRAM!”
“I don’t know. I’m trying!”
Then. Then it was as if a piece of someone else’s memory was trying to superimpose itself onto Nick’s own memory. And. Now it looked as if . . . Nick’s mind was fighting over . . . The SRT program was fighting to come through the first phantom memory.
“Oh, no. No. No, Nick. Come on, Nick. Fight,” Audra’s mind kept saying. She could feel a headache trying to pulse to her temples.
A million jumbled pictures and words flashed on their monitors as if at the same time.
Then their monitors showed:
Nick’s eyes were closed, but he knew it was light out. The sunshine tried to break through his lids. Nick felt warm. Something was making his bare arms and neck itch. He smelled clean straw and the odor of horses. He thought he was back at camp. He opened his eyes and looked around.
He was in a barn, lying in a stall filled with fresh straw and an old horse blanket. A pitchfork was propped against one side of the stall. Dusty light strained through the dirty windows.
He sat up to get a better look. Then something occurred to him. Ma and Pa would be mad at him when he got home. He was most surely going to get a whipping.
“How do I know that? I don’t call my parents ‘Ma and Pa.’ “
Nick stood up.
Everything is so big . . . Why? Then he understood who he was. I’m a little kid.
He heard voices. He knew that those voices belonged to his two bosses.
Who were they? Oh, yeah. Mr. Kurtz and Mr. Graham. He’s nice, Mr. Kurtz is. He works a lot and gets dirty like Pa. He gives me candy sticks sometimes. He always tells me that he bought one too many for his three girls.
Mr. Graham boxes m’ ears sometimes. Mr. Graham thinks ‘M good for nuthn’. Not so. ‘M never goin’ t’ wear them sissy, city clothes that h’ wear.
Nick crouched down and crawled to be closer to the voices, being careful that he wouldn’t get caught by Mr. Graham. If that would happen, Mr. Graham would beat him for sure.
Nick stopped crawling when he heard gunshots. He sprawled face down on the straw-covered dirt floor. He covered his eyes as tightly as he could and covered his head with his arms. He clamped his mouth shut in the hope that he wouldn’t make a sound. He shuddered at each crack of the gun. Then it was quiet. Nick opened his eyes and saw a spider scurry pass his face.
And . . .
“I think I can get him out. His responses are slow enough.” Audra said.
“OK. Grab him . . . Here!” Geoffrey ordered.
“Doing it now.” While Audra typed, she had one relieved thought: It’s over.
SYNAPTIC REFLEX TEST
End of Police Simulation Program
Click. Click-click. Click-click-click.
The monitors showed:
before he fell into a very deep sleep.
When Nick woke up, he saw the lid of the machine was open. He felt his left arm and head. He was no longer hooked up, but he would need a good shower because of the gel and the sweat he had built up while he was under the test.
Nick heard movement in the little room before he saw Audra peer over the edge of the machine. She had a forced smile on her face.
“How’re you feeling?”
“Like crap. My head really hurts. A lot.” It bothered him that Audra was trying not to look worried. Why was she worried?
“I wish I could give you something more. But I don’t think Geoffrey really can prescribe something else. One of the little pills was supposed to prevent you from getting headaches.”
“Well, take a wild guess what didn’t work,” He tried to sit up in spite of the spinning room. He grimaced. His attempt at not showing that he was in pain was not good enough. The throbbing continued to get worse with the exertion.
“Easy, Nick,” said Geoffrey. He suddenly appeared in the room by Nick’s side.
“Just show me where the floor is and I’ll be fine.” The room suddenly lurched into a casual somersault.
It was night, and Dr. Allen was in his office upstairs from the research lab reviewing the results from Nick’s test. He reached for his recording device while continuing to watch the data and final scene scroll on his monitor. Without taking his eyes off of the monitor, he began to make notes in Nick’s file.
“I’ll get one of my assistants to do research on Kurtz and Graham. If they really existed, then we have proof of innate memories. I never believed in collective species memories or ancestral memories; however, from today’s test all the data shows that innate memories may be real. Provided proof of the men’s existence.
“It was always speculation that our ancestors had the ability to retain past or collective memories. Like birds do. And as we humans developed, we lost the ability to retain these types of memories.” He clicked the device off.
In his bedroom, Nick finally got to sleep after a lot of tossing and turning interrupted by trying to form patterns from the cracks and water stains above his bed. It took most of the afternoon and into early evening for the thudding pain in his head to finally subside and finally convincing Dr. Allen to let him go home. The last clouds of thought he had before he drifted off to sleep were . . .
He stood in a huge building with walls made of wooden planks and a hard-packed dirt floor. The sunlight strained to come in through the dusty windows.
Five wagons and two coaches in various stages of completion occupied most of the floor space. Nick also saw the equipment for repairing these wagons and coaches scattered around the place.
A man in dirty and sweat-stained work clothes was bent over a broken wheel he was repairing. Nick wanted to go to the man and warn him about something.
“What do I need to tell him?”
Movement caught the corner of Nick’s left eye, and he turned to see a silhouette of a big man in the wide doorway. Nick couldn’t see any other features: the bright sunlight behind the man rendered him a dark silhouette.
“James Kurtz. You son-ufa-whore!” The man in the doorway bellowed as he came into the building. He was dressed in a dark brown suit and bowler. Nick could see that he had his right hand hidden in his topcoat. Nick remembered why the big man’s hand was hidden. As the big man walked to James Kurtz, he took his hand out of his coat. Nick saw that the man was holding a gun and was aiming it at James Kurtz.
“No. Don’t shoot him.” The words Nick said came out as some kind of gurgled whisper, as if his mouth were clogged.
James Kurtz stopped working as he saw the gun and stood up. “Harold. No.”
“You ruined this place. You made me go bankrupt!” yelled Harold.
“Harold,” James put up his hands, palms out. “Please, let’s talk. I can pay you back. Every last penny.”
This time the words came out as Nick yelled, “Stop! No!” as he heard the hammer of the gun click. This time the words came very clear and loud. The two men ignored Nick.
The familiar shattering sound went through James Kurtz’s body. His blood splattered against the wagon wheel that James was working on and onto the dirt floor. Nick noticed how the blood tried to blend into the dirt.
“No!” Nick yelled again. He tried to run to what was once James Kurtz but he couldn’t move.
Nick tried to will the nightmare away, but he couldn’t. He smelled the musky odors of horses and the acrid scent of smelted iron mixed with gun smoke. Strange. He thought he smelled blood and the eyes of James Kurtz.
Kurtz’s eyes were staring at him, pleading for help
and . . .
Nick tried to scream.
He stopped screaming when he found that he was awake and sitting upright in bed. He was also sweating.
Peter Young stood in Nick’s bedroom doorway. “Hey, are you alright?” his roommate asked through groggy half-sleep.
“It was nothin’. Bad dream, Pete. Go back to sleep.”
His roommate complied by closing the door. It wasn’t long until Nick could hear snoring.
Once again, Nick spent an hour-and-a-half staring at the cracked and water stained ceiling over his bed trying to find logical patterns. And thought about what he would be doing tomorrow. He had a feeling that by morning he wouldn’t want to get up, but would rather stay in bed. On the other hand, he wanted time alone to look at the SRT alone even though he was scheduled to do another run through with the SRT machine at 1:00 tomorrow. He finally got back to a very fitful and shallow sleep.
The blaring 6:00 a.m. alarm woke him. He headed to the bathroom and found the shower curtain was still wet. When he went to the kitchenette, he found a used cereal bowl and spoon in the sink that also gave him confirmation that Peter was up and had left. Nick was grateful that at least Peter had left half a pot of coffee for him.
He heard his cellphone ring and saw a text message. Dr. Westwell had called for a meeting in his office at 8:00 a.m. Great, that’ll cut into the time I can spend with the SRT program. He filled a traveling mug with the remaining coffee and left for the SRT lab. He wasn’t particularly hungry this morning.
“You look like hell! What happened!?”
“Good morning to you too, Audra. Bad night,” Nick said as he shuffled into the room and took a long swig of his black coffee.
“No kiddin’.” She went over to a coffee pot on a filing cabinet. “Have some more,” and refilled Nick’s mug before returning the pot to its place.
“Well then, shall we?”
Nick tried to muffle a yawn. He really just wanted to go to sleep in his own bed. Last night’s nightmare flashed through his mind, and he hoped that it was just his anxiety about today’s test. Then again, if last night was what could be expected, then he could definitely wait to dream.
They left the lab to go to Westwell’s office.
Audra and Nick saw that Geoffrey was already sitting in one of the chairs in front of Dr. Willis Westwell’s desk. Nick immediately felt uneasy when he saw Westwell and Geoffrey’s serious expressions. Dr. Westwell was Geoffrey’s superior, although Geoffrey was in charge of the SRT Project that was funded by I-N Inc.
Dr. Westwell and Geoffrey both greeted Nick and Audra and they returned the greeting.
Westwell leaned forward in his chair behind his desk and began speaking as Nick and Audra sat in the remaining two chairs. “Let’s get to it.” He paused. “Dr. Allen and I are putting a hold on the SRT Program until further notice.”
“What?” Now Nick was really awake. He saw Audra’s surprised expression. He thought Dr. Allen looked very self-controlled. Why wasn’t he fighting for this?
“We are concerned by yesterday’s test results. This doesn’t mean funding will be discontinued, of course. In the meantime, I-N will be giving us a temporary project to do. They would like us to verify data from a previous project. We’ll start next Monday. I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation you, Audra, and Nick have a break from work on the SRT.”
Geoffrey filled the silence, “For now, I’m having one of my assistants do some research to see if those two men really did exist but other than that . . . That’s it for now.”
Nick didn’t know if he should be happy or not based on what happened yesterday and last night’s dream. He knew there was a direct correlation between the SRT Program and his dream. Now what?
Geoffrey went back to his office and Audra went to another lab to see if she could help a co-worker. Nick went to the SRT Lab and stood in front of the door. Something made him go to the SRT Lab. He stared at it for a long time and then left for home.
Nick sat in his bedroom. He had one hour before Peter came home. He made a few adjustments before sliding his visor over his eyes and clicking the game to begin.
Nick noticed the shadows of the early morning sun as he walked to the abandoned building on the waterfront. The rusted chain and lock were broken and clanked against the weather beaten and rusty fence. He heard a metallic crunch against concrete and looked down. He had stepped on a decaying metal sign when he went through the gate. He looked down. Nick’s right foot covered part of a peeling word: Engine.
Nick’s visor flashed off and on twice and then went dark. “Crap!” He tore off his headgear and threw it against the wall.
In his dream that night, Nick was inside the building. Heavy machinery and dirty work benches seemed to crowd around him. Everything looked like a scene from an old 1930s or 1940s movie. He wasn’t sure of the exact time period, as history was never his best subject in school.
A man in a gray business suit sat at a desk by a double door doing paperwork. Nick stood about twenty or twenty-five feet from the man behind the desk.
Nick tried to walk to him, but couldn’t move his feet. He was about to call out to the man in the gray suit when another man in a brown business suit walked through the double doors and stood directly in front of the man behind the desk. His right hand was concealed in his suit jacket.
The man in the gray suit stopped working and looked up.
“Kevin! Good morning! How are ya’? I’ll be ready to go in a minute.” He said cheerfully. “Too bad the wives can’t go.”
Now Nick was standing by an old rusty stairwell inside the abandoned building. From the few remaining crates, he surmised that it was a warehouse.
Nick saw a shadow overhead run past him. Nick looked up and over his left shoulder before he ran up the old stairs. His expensive gym shoes made padded thuds as he ascended. The shadow passed along the cinderblock wall to his right and one level above him. Seeing the shadow made Nick clamber up the stairwell that much faster. He gripped the rusty railing with his left hand and held his gun in his right hand. Do I know how to do this? Yeah. Sure. I’m a cop. I’m very good when it comes to shooting.
Somewhere between sleep and the waking world, Nick was trying to scream, “KEVIN SHOOTING HIS PARTNER . . . THREE MORE TIMES . . . ALL THE BLOOD . . . GORE . . . HIS NECK . . . I THINK I SEE BONE . . . ALL THE BLOOD . . .
KEVIN IS LOOKING AT HIS GUN . . . BLANK EXPRESSION . . . HE’S STARING AT GERALD’S BODY . . . FOR HOW LONG? . . .
FOREVER . . .
KEVIN’S CLOSING HIS EYES . . . GUN INSIDE MOUTH . . . HE FIRED GUN . . . BLOOD . . . BODY . . . SOMEONE . . . HELP . . .
Nick bolted up in bed and looked around at his room and listened for Pete. Lucky for him, Pete was with his girlfriend that night.
The dreams/nightmares came frequently to interrupt Nick’s nights. They revolved around the four men: James Kurtz and Harold Graham, and then Gerald Martin and Kevin Smith. Every time he dreamed about the four men; it was as if Nick were being reminded of something he forgot. He didn’t understand why. But, the most horrifying thing was that there seemed to be no end to each nightmare. The murders. Nick would try to scream himself awake. He almost wished that he could simply fast forward to the end to get it over with.
After each nightmare, he tried reading until he felt tired. Soon, that didn’t work. He tried writing on his computer. Not even over-the-counter medication worked. He finally decided to avoid the nightmares all together by not sleeping: he turned to his work. That helped him. Getting an average of five hours of sleep was fine with him. He was glad that Pete wasn’t around much anymore. Maybe Pete was avoiding him and his late-night screaming.
During the winter break, Nick went home. His family was worried about him when they saw his haggard face and the dark circles around his eyes. He passed this off as stress from work and school. He even passed off his nightmares as another part of his stressful work.
For once, Nick was glad that Mid-City’s post-Christmas party was going to be held at the Claye’s home. If Nick wasn’t so exhausted, he would have noticed the strain on the relationships between the Claye family members during the party.
By the third of January, Nick returned to campus even though classes were to resume the following week. He didn’t want to be at home anymore.
As the winter semester drew on, Nick’s version of reality was becoming twisted. The dreams became real and tangible. James and Harold and Gerald and Kevin were real. At first, and for some lucky reason, Nick could hide the beginnings of his psychosis as simply lack of sleep. One time when discussing the SRT Program and hoping the project would resume, Nick casually referred to the unused white cylinder shaped SRT machine as the Dream Machine. The name stuck.
Audra tried to help Nick and became more and more worried until one day she tried a new tactic: confrontation.
“Nick, you can avoid only so long. You need help.”
“I’m good. Leave me alone.” He was turning for the breakroom when Audra grabbed his arm.”
Maybe it was the anger. He couldn’t control himself. He tore away from her grasp and then shoved her hard into the wall. It was the stunned look that made him regret what he did. But he didn’t say anything. He just turned and left the building and headed back to his apartment. He felt guilty. He had never done that to anyone before. Even after changing his shift to completely avoid Audra, she still called—or texted—him or ‘tried’ to run into him at work or on campus. He never answered his phone when she called. He never returned her calls or texts.
It was spring. College students became more entrenched in their social lives. Nick’s friends and fellow colleagues assumed he was just overly involved in work and school to even have a social life. Besides, it was time for the party of all parties: SPRING BREAK. But Nick didn’t even go home. He only allowed himself brief phone calls or texts with his sister. He used the constant excuse that he was very busy. Cecily was persistent with her calls and texts with him.
There was going to be a birthday celebration: a little girl’s seventh birthday. Mama, Papa, and her two older sisters were around the dining room table. It was early spring. Nick looked around. He couldn’t be sure, but from the way the dining room looked and how the family was dressed, the time period was around the late 1800s, maybe even the turn of the twentieth century. The gas lamps in the room hissed very soothing quiet light on the family.
Mama had baked a special cake. Papa had given her sisters money to pick out the dolly clothes, iron, and ironing board for the little girl from Sears and Roebuck’s catalogue. The cake and the gifts were a surprise for after dinner.
Papa finished the last bite of food on his plate and sat back. He patted his stomach and told his family that he was glad there was no dessert tonight. He couldn’t manage to eat another morsel. The little girl looked very disappointed, and her two sisters giggled.
Mama smiled her gentle smile and said, “Well, I better clean the table and dishes. Anna, since it’s your birthday, you don’t have to help.” Mama got up from the table. “Happy birthday, my darling.”
Anna looked even more disappointed and scowled at her sisters for their giggling.
“Can I put the ice card in the window, Mama?” said the oldest daughter.
“Yes, that would be fine. The same amount as last week.”
The two older daughters continued to giggle and whispered to each other as they went into the kitchen carrying plates and silverware while Anna looked glumly at her lap.
“Papa, may I be excused?”
Papa took out his pocket watch and then looked at the black crescents of his finger nails. “Where would you like to go?”
“To my room, please.”
“I would think that would be the last place you would want to go. It’s your sisters’ room, too.”
“I don’t care.”
“Hmmm. Anna, remember to marry a man who likes to do work with his hands. That’s the key to happiness. Not someone who does work sitting at a desk in an office. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Papa. But, today’s my birthday,” She held back a snuffle.
Just then, Mama came out of the kitchen with the cake. Her older sisters trailed behind their mother, carrying their sister’s birthday presents.
“Happy birthday, to you!” Anna’s family sang. Everyone really made this a special day for her. This was the best birthday, ever.
The family and the dining room dimmed into a blackness. Only Papa was there. But he was wearing dirty overalls and working on a wheel.
“Mr. Kurtz? What happened to your family?” Nick asked. James Kurtz ignored him and kept on working on the wheel.
Harold Graham was dressed in a dark brown suit and bowler. Nick could see that he had his right hand hidden. Nick turned to warn James Kurtz what Harold Graham was about to do. But James was gone.
Gerald Martin was sitting behind a desk doing paperwork. Nick was confused, but he wasn’t really surprised. For some reason, it made sense to him. He turned away from Gerald and saw Kevin Smith pull a gun out of the jacket of his gray suit.
“You ruined me and this business. When we started, Dynamic Engine was the best. I could’ve done better without you,” said Kevin.
If I yell for them to stop, would they hear me? Nick thought.
“Kevin. Please,” begged Gerald.
Kevin smiled. “Pleading won’t help, Gerry.” Kevin fired the gun at his partner’s chest. The impact made Gerald fall backward from his chair and onto the floor, as Nick had seen several times before in his nightmares.
Then just as before, Nick saw Kevin shooting his partner three more times. Kevin stopped and looked at the gun with a blank expression. Just as before. He opened his mouth as he placed the barrel inside. Just as before. Kevin slowly pulled the trigger then . . .
Nick was standing in Stan and his father’s shop, Mid-City Manufacturers, Inc.
Stan was in Kevin’s gray suit and holding a gun over his father who was sitting at Gerald’s desk. Was this supposed to be Stan and Kevin’s shop? Stan fired the gun at his partner’s chest. The impact made Nick’s father fall backward from his chair and onto the floor.
Nick tried to scream and run to Stan in a tackle-like defense. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t scream. Nothing came from his throat.
Stan-Kevin stopped and looked at the gun with a blank expression. He slowly turned his head and looked at Nick. For the first time in all those dreams, Nick’s presence was acknowledged.
“Hey, Nick,” Stan-Kevin said with a twisted smile. “You want to see the end? I bet you do. Watch this.”
Nick stood there petrified. He tried to scream himself awake but he couldn’t. He couldn’t even close his eyes. The same thought roared through his mind: I’m going to see the end. I’m going to see the end. I’m going to see the end . . .
Now it was just Stan with the gun standing before Nick. Stan opened his mouth that was still twisted in a grin. He placed the barrel of the gun in his mouth and said, “Now you watch, Nick.” But with the barrel in his mouth it sounded like “Naw u wathnhk, Nuk,” There was an insane gleam in his eyes and a mad expression of tormented delight on his face. Nick understood clearly that Stan was telling him to watch.
Stan took the gun out of his mouth. “Or do you think this gun would look better in your mouth, Nick? Would ya’ want to really see the end, huh, Nick. Would ya’?” Now Stan’s mouth was an insane, twisted snarl.
“NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!” Nick screamed as he was being shaken awake by his sister.
“Hey, hey, wake up. Wake up!”
“Wha’?” Nick said in that age-old reply.
His sister stood over his bed. She sat down in his chair by his computer desk. The light from the street outside cast a yellowish glow on her worried expression.
“I don’t care what lies you’re telling Mom and Dad. You can’t hide anything from me.”
Nick swung his legs out from under the blanket. “Look. You begged to visit me, remember? I don’t mind you visiting. I like when you come up, and we have fun. But, don’t overreact to a bad dream I had.”
“A bad dream? No, I don’t think it was just a bad dream. I talked to Pete today. . . Yesterday . . . He said you woke him up twice in the past three weeks.”
“He stays with his girlfriend a lot.”
“When he’s not with her, he’s here. When he’s here, you wake him up with your screaming.”
“It was only a dream. I’m alright.”
“Liar. You’re not alright.”
“Yes. I am.” Nick was annoyed by his sister and dismissed her by pulling the blanket back on himself and rolling away from her to face the wall. “I’m fine.”
“Tomorrow . . . Today you’re going to a doctor.”
“No, I’m not. Let me get back to sleep.”
Cecily came over to him and shook his shoulder. “Then I’m telling Mom and Dad.”
“No.” Nick rolled onto his back to look up into his sister’s tired and wrinkled-worried face. Their mother had that same look when she was worried. “It’s just the project I’m working on. It’s very intense. There’s a lot to do.”
“So, it is the project. I thought . . .” She didn’t know what to think. Her brother said it was only a computer program that he was helping to write.
Nick shook his head. “If word gets around, then there goes the funding and my work on any project.”
“A project. Everything comes back to it. I should’ve guessed a lot sooner. What good would it do if you end up in the hospital from exhaustion?”
Crap, he thought, some of me had to rub off on to her now of all times. Then out loud, “It’s not going to happen. I’m fine.” He rolled over again to face the wall. Cecily grabbed his shoulder and tried to pull him on to his back. He swatted the air for her to leave him alone.
“How about one of my friends I met from work last summer? He’s in art school now. I want you to talk to him.”
“What?! One of the wannabe beautiful people?”
Cecily ignored her brother’s biting remark, even though she usually wouldn’t allow anyone—even Nick—to demean her future chosen profession. “He’s into dream interpretations and all that stuff.”
“Great,” Nick mumbled. “A witch doctor in the making.”
“Then I’m going to let Mom and Dad know exactly how things are going with you.”
Did he have a choice? Really? What happened to the good old days when they were kids and really hated each other? She always accused their parents of favoring Nick because he was so smart and was in a private school for the gifted. He always accused their parents of favoring Cecily. She got away with a lot of things he knew he would never be able to get away with.
One summer when his sister was ten years old, she went away to camp while he attended a program for gifted teens. Two weeks into the summer, she was sent home. She couldn’t stand the constant headache that she continually complained of having to the counselors and nurse. Like a typical older brother, when Nick learned of Cecily’s headache, he assumed that it was just another ploy for their parents’ attention.
He quickly changed his mind when he was told a day or so later by his father that Cecily was put in the hospital for spinal meningitis. For the first time, he realized that he loved his sister. He’d been afraid that he was going to lose her during that summer. Things changed between the two of them, and he became protective of her and was kind to her.
A portable fan droned in front of a window and between the two beds of the small dorm room. Nick and Cecily sat on one of the beds. It was the second day of a very warm spell in spring. Unframed artwork covered one half of the wall above them. Opposite of Nick and Cecily, unframed photographs covered the other wall. Someone—Nick couldn’t decide if it was Cecily’s friend or her friend’s roommate—had managed to get an old pair of boots, three used textbooks, and a pencil to stay up on the ceiling. The objects looked like they had been casually left there by their owner. A ceiling lamp was placed in the middle of the floor.
Cecily saw her brother staring at the ceiling. “Self-expression.”
“And you think I’m having problems?”
“Hey!” A young man carrying an old backpack entered the room. He was momentarily surprised at the two visitors, but his face brightened when he saw Cecily. “I got the stuff. Now we can start.” He closed the door and pulled out a six-pack of the cheapest beer one could buy from his backpack. He was wearing torn, paint-stained jeans, an old Harley-Davidson T-shirt, a pair of sunglasses, and a red bandanna around his head. In spite of the rest of his appearance, he was clean-shaven.
“Bing let us in. I thought it’d be cool with you,” said Cecily.
“Yeah. It’s cool. I’m John. Want one?” he asked, holding up the six-pack by the plastic rings.
“No, thanks.” Nick replied.
“Yeah,” Cecily said. “No tossing.”
John smiled at her. It was obvious to Nick that a lot of tossed beers had fizzed and splattered his sister before. Nick smirked at his sister. She wasn’t old enough to be legally drinking.
“Okay. Tell me everything. Ces told me some. But I need more.”
“Look. I’m only doing this to shut Cecily up.”
Cecily’s “Thanks” dripped with sarcasm.
John tapped the top of his can before opening it. “So, start.” He took off his glasses and placed them on a shelf and sat down on his bed and started drinking.
Nick got up and started walking to the door. He was done humoring his sister.
“Do it, or I’m making that call.” Cecily said to her brother’s back.
“Don’t you have a can of beer in your hands?”
“Hey, hey. Play nice,” John said. “Come on, Nick, sit down. Relax. You can trust me.”
Did he have a choice? Nick stopped and turned around to face his sister and her friend. Then he sat down next to his sister again before he began telling them his story from the time of the first nightmare from the SRT test to the present nightmare. He left out any vital information that would seem as if he were divulging privileged information.
There were two empty beer cans and one empty bottle of soda by John’s bed when Nick was done retelling his dreams. Somewhere in the middle of all his talking, Nick had asked for a can of beer. Just having to think about the nightmares was giving him the heeby-jeebies.
The only sound in the room when Nick was done talking was the ssssurrrrr-ing drone fan. Then John tried to muffle a cheap-beer belch.
“You pig!” Cecily looked at her friend in disgust.
“I could’ve farted!” which was followed by a muted burp. He patted his chest twice with his fist. “‘Cuse me.” John was now blushing and trying to conceal his embarrassment. He gave Cecily a toothy, insincere smile and batted his eyelashes to make his blue eyes look sweetly innocent.
“She’s my sister!” He lowered his head and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger. Why had he allowed himself to come here in the first place? He would definitely talk to her about her choice of friend.
“Sorry. Really.” Nick thought it was a pretty weak apology. Then to change the subject, John said, “I was right.”
Nick looked up and saw that he was very serious. When Nick had been retelling his dreams, John appeared to be more interested in emptying a beer can. Nick now knew there was more to John than he had first suspected: that he was an intense person in spite of his appearance and mannerisms.
“This all happened before.”
“I really don’t believe all that crap.” Nick looked directly into his eyes and realized that Cecily’s friend really believed what he was saying.
“Look. Your father got screwed over by his partner in two different past lives. I guess he didn’t do so good. In business. And each time, the partner tried to even the score. I’ll bet you anything it’s going to happen again. You’re here now because you didn’t stop it from happening before, and you want to break the cycle.” Nick looked at John as if he were really crazy. “I’m just bein’ honest here.”
“Our father is a damn good businessman!” Cecily said.
“I didn’t say he wasn’t. I just said that in his past lives he made a few mistakes.”
Nick didn’t like John’s flippant remark, Cecily’s friend or not. Screw it! He should just walk out now. But something made him want to stay.
“Then . . . how do we stop it from happening this time?” Cecily seemed to say it more for herself.
“You’re kidding, right?” Nick looked at his sister as if she were just as crazy as her friend.
“Don’t know. Do you, Nick?”
“Yes, you do,” John said. “Or rather, you will know when the time comes. You just haven’ re-experienced that part yet.”
Nick yelled, “NO!!!”
Gerald Martin fell backwards from his chair and onto the floor. There was blood and gore everywhere. Nick thought he could smell the blood and the smoke from Kevin Smith’s gun.
Nick saw Kevin shooting his partner three more times. Kevin looked at the gun with a blank expression then closed his eyes and placed the gun in his mouth and fired . . .
“NOOOOOO!!!” Nick sat straight up in his bed screaming. He quickly looked around the dark room. He concentrated on the slow shadows from a passing car’s lights that played on the walls to calm his nerves. After his breathing returned to normal, he realized he was drenched in sweat.
He lay back down and thought about the Dream Machine. The SRT. And then the nightmares. He wanted to see the end.
” ‘Yes, you do. Or rather, you will know when the time comes. You just haven’ re-experienced that part yet,’ “ John had said to him in an absurdly decorated dorm room from that afternoon. Or was it several days ago? Was it months? He couldn’t remember.
It was around 6:30 a.m. and the security guard’s desk was unoccupied. Good, the guard was away. Nick hoped the guard was on his rounds on the other side of the building or at the very least not near the SRT Lab.
Nick’s badge still worked, and he walked into the lab. He started the Dream Machine and the computer program. Before he climbed in the unit, he dry-swallowed two aspirin and then attached the leads to himself. He remembered to take aspirin, but he forgot about the security system.
“GET HIM AWAY!!! GET HIM AWAY!!! STOP!!! STOP!!!” The words could be seen on the monitors as well as be heard from inside the unit. Nick left deep scratch marks on his face and arms and patches of bloody scalp where there used to be hair from clawing the leads off his head and body.
He had finally seen the end.
Audra woke before her alarm went off. She’d had the most bizarre dream. Instead of trying to go back to sleep, she got up and started her day early.
Geoffrey absentmindedly had changed the time on his alarm the night before.
“Damn!” Geoffrey pressed a button by his monitor and leaned into the speaker. “Two aides! Now! Bring a gurney!” He looked over to Audra, who was frantically keying in data on her keyboard. “Is he responding?”
“No.” She continued typing at a maddening pace.
The monitors showed:
Help me!!! He’s coming after me!!!
over and over.
Help me!!! He’s coming after me!!!
The data that spat out showed that the doctor’s and technician’s attempts at erasing the past few SRT-induced memories were a dismal failure.
The screaming grew worse. Audra, without stopping from entering data, looked through the window at the Dream Machine. Geoffrey followed her stare. They both looked gaped-mouthed as the machine seemed to rock and jig as if it were something from an animated cartoon.
Damn it! He couldn’t wait for the aides. Geoffrey filled an injection gun with a tranquilizer and pushed open the door to the little white room. He threw open the top of the machine and began wrestling with Nick. Leads and arms were flying everywhere.
Two aides came in to hold down Nick, who was still screaming. Geoffrey didn’t waste the opportunity to sedate Nick.
“Take him to the infirmary. Put him in an exam room and restrain him.”
One aide questioned, “Infirmary?” Two new isolation rooms were just completed by private funding.
“The infirmary before he wakes up,” the doctor repeated.
The two aides looked at each other as they lifted Nick onto the gurney, restrained his wrists and ankles and then covered him with a blanket. Nick was babbling, clawing against the restraints at imaginary leads, and twitching in a drug-sedated sleep as they wheeled him out of the lab.
Dr. Allen regretted that he couldn’t get to the lab in enough time to stop the test. Even Audra had tried. They’d both failed miserably.
He called Dr. Westwell, and the brief conversation had ended when Westwell said he was on his way.
“Give me everything. Send the files to me. All the results. Everything,”
“I’m just finishing,” Audra answered without stopping to look at the doctor. She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t allow herself to cry now.
“He’ll get the best of care. He’ll get better.” Geoffrey made the comment more for his own behalf than for Audra’s.
“Here,” said Audra as she handed the doctor several CDs. “Will you let me know when I can visit him?”
“Thanks. I will.” Geoffrey went down to his office. He sat in front of his computer to review the last twenty minutes of Nick’s “final test and performance.” Geoffrey made notes to update Nick’s file before he and Westwell discussed calling his parents and then admitting him to one of the best psychiatric hospitals in the country at the expense of the university (or perhaps I-N, Inc.). Nick had deteriorated from a promising future bio-engineer to a young man who babbled about guns, blood, and death. No wonder he did almost all his work at home or late at night. Maybe, with the right help, he could return to his work with them. Worst-case scenario would be he could at least gather what was left of his brains and work a simple menial job or maybe function in a workshop for the mentally disadvantaged. Crap.
There was a time when a little boy had kept digging a deep hole by the huge tree in the family’s backyard. That little boy thought he had found treasure . . . but it had all been a lie.
Geoffrey had just left Westwell’s office to call Nick’s parents to tell them about their son. Westwell was furious. Damn it! He slammed his fist down on his desk then he opened the first file on his computer that read: Nicholas Colemore, Jr.: SRT #1 and selected the data he wanted to review first.
The computer screen went from:
then blinked to:
Dr. Westwell found the particular section he needed:
SYNAPTIC REFLEX TEST
Police Simulation Program
in the center of the monitor. In the right lower corner the numbers
Dr. Westwell settled back in his chair to view Nick’s recordings, including recordings of some of Nick’s own thoughts. Seeing everything in the subject’s point of view was a problem that would need to be rectified later, if there was to be a future for the project.
Nick carefully walked through the shadowed halls. He gripped his gun to reassure himself. Inside the machine, Nick’s left hand seemed to grip an imaginary gun. He looked at the shadow play against the walls. He quickly aimed to shoot, then stopped. He thought he’d seen someone. It was only the moonlight through the trees outside of the opposite window. The light and shadows fell against a picture of a teen-aged girl on the wall. The effect momentarily gave the picture animation and from the corner of his eye, it seemed that another person was with him in the hall.
Teen-aged girl. My sister. We used to fight when we were kids. Light.
Nick and his sister sat on the concrete and granite steps of the fine arts building where Cecily hoped to attend school. It was a sunny day with a slight breeze that trailed down the busy city street. Students carrying huge book bags or art portfolios scrambled in and out of the huge double doors of the building.
“I sometimes feel Dad is still upset with me,” said Nick.
A college student dropped his book bag at the bottom of the step and swung his weather-worn and beaten guitar case around from his back, took it off, and opened it to begin playing. A few strums of tuning joined Nick and Cecily’s conversation. The college student began to play.
“To be honest, he would rather see you taking over the shop. But he said it’s okay doing what you’re doing,” answered Cecily.
“Truck and car engine parts never enthused me.”
Westwell observed Nick taking in the immediate surroundings.
“The kid on guitar is good,” Westwell said to himself. He happened to like jazz.
Nick and his sister stopped talking for a while. Instead they watched students and visitors pass by during the late spring day. A young woman started to play the saxophone.
“The girl’s good too.” Westwell said out loud again.
“Why did you choose to go into medicine?” his sister asked.
The doctor listened to the conversation as an ambulance screeched in a panicked cry around the corner. In front of him, a taxi honked before speeding away from the curb. All the extraneous sights and sounds were registered in Nick’s mind and duly noted in a part of his brain for him to remember or not to remember. However, Nick did take notice of a man in an old army coat taking his guitar out of a beaten case and starting to play a few chords with the first two musicians.
Nick shrugged, then leaned back against the step above him. “bioengineering. Because I’m good at it. Isn’t that the usual reason? I don’t really want to take over Dad’s business. Not with Stan around and I really don’t like Stan’s sons enough to want to be their partner. But then again, I could ask you why you’re going to art school and not taking over the business too.”
A sound of another helicopter flew overhead.
“Because I’m good at art. I’m an artist.” Cecily stood up. “Where else can I get away with dressing the way I want to? I made it myself.” She spun around and then sat back down.
Nick smiled. “Yep. You did. You blend in with the crowd. In fact, all you artsy-fartsy students look like Picasso threw up on you.”
Westwell chuckled and skipped forward.
The monitor blinked:
The recorded program showed Nick watching the interchange between Gerald Martin and Kevin Smith. There was a spike of activity in the lower part of the computer.
Dr. Westwell saw the internal thought from Nick flash on the monitor: They don’t see or hear me. It’s just like with James Kurtz and Harold Graham.
What makes Nick remember from one test to another? He wondered.
The monitor soon showed:
The screen then showed:
“Every step, every nuance is repeated.” Westwell had to look at another file to verify that this was true.
There was a flicker that came on the small section of the screen that lasted a few seconds while Westwell looked through a file. If he were watching the screen at that particular moment, he would have seen Stan’s face. It was the same flicker that Dr. Allen and Audra Kramer missed during their initial run of the test because they were too preoccupied with the erratic output and were busy trying to stabilize Nick to look.
Gerald begged for his life. Kevin fired the gun at his partner’s chest.
“NO!!!” Nick saw the body fall. He saw blood splatter around on the desk and the chair
The chair swiveled to face the door. I think I see Gerald’s arm from behind the desk. It has blood on it.
Kevin looked at the gun with a blank expression. He closed his eyes and placed the gun to his open mouth. Kevin was about to shoot himself. He stopped and opened his eyes.
It’s not goin’ to happen this time.
Kevin took the gun away from his mouth, turned to Nick and aimed the gun at him. Kevin started to walk towards Nick with a twisted smile that now curled into a snarl.
Dr. Westwell sat forward in his chair as he saw the top half of the screen look like the recording was sped up by 80% while the bottom half was going just as wild with data.
“It would look better in ‘your’ mouth.”
HE SEES ME! NO!!!
The last audio recording of Nicholas Colemore, Jr., promising bio-engineer: “GET HIM AWAY!!! GET HIM AWAY!!! STOP!!! STOP!!!”
Dr. Westwell just stared at the blank screen in disbelief before sitting back and rested his elbows on the arms of his chair. His hands were together with the sides of his index fingers lightly touching his mouth. He looked like he was praying. After a few moments, he dropped his hands to his lap. “Hospitalization.” He wanted to be physically ill. Hospitalization and intensive psychiatric treatments. “Traditional, non-invasive psychiatric treatments,” he said to his silent office.
In a room somewhere, deep in Nick’s pharmaceutically-induced slurred thoughts, he made the connection that he had to leave.
But he couldn’t. He couldn’t move his arms or legs. It didn’t matter, he really felt too good to leave anyway. Maybe he would sleep awhile. Sleep would be good.
Nick and his doctor—Neil—were in a session. Things were a little different this time. Nick was looking forward to going home. He now knew for a fact that Kevin wouldn’t be there. This was a lot of improvement from five months ago. It was almost a year since that last time in the SRT unit. Wait . . . Had it been a year? When he first came to the hospital, he knew that Harold was one of the floor aides.
“Do your dreams scare you?”
“No.” He emphasized the comment with a shrug. “They’re just dreams.” He hoped his therapist believed him.
“Do you really believe that? Now?”
“They’re just dreams.”
“Do you think you’re ready to go home?”
“I would like to try. Yeah. I’m ready.”
“Good. I’ll write up the discharge first thing tomorrow. I know that your family is looking forward to seeing you. I expect you to see me on an out-patient basis. I want you to continue taking your medication. And before you go home, I want to run another sleep test.” As Neil got up, he extended his right hand. “I wish you all the luck.”
“Thanks.” Nick shook Neil’s hand.
Nick stood by one of the deburring machines in the shop of Mid-City Manufacturers. Across half of the floor he could see his father doing paperwork at the desk by the door to the offices. Nicholas Colmore, Sr. stopped writing and looked to his left at Nick.
“Nicky, you’ve got to help us.” Only his father called him ‘Nicky.’
“How, Dad?” Nick asked. But his father went back to his work. Nick had a feeling that his father no longer saw him.
Stan came through the door. When he stood in front of the desk, he pulled out a gun from his gray suit.
“You’ve ruined this business. You brought Mid-City down with you. You son-ufa-bitch.” Stan fired the gun at his partner’s chest. The impact made his father fall backward from his chair and onto the floor.
Nick tried to scream and run to Stan to tackle him in defense of his father. He couldn’t move, nothing came from his mouth. All Nick could do was watch Stan shoot his father three more times. Then just like Harold and Kevin, Stan stopped and looked at the gun with a blank expression before he opened his mouth as he placed the barrel inside. Stan slowly pulled the trigger and then stopped. He took the gun away from his mouth and looked at Nick.
“Do you think this gun would look better in your mouth?” Stan said with an insane, twisted smile. He started walking towards Nick, who tried to move backward. Maybe he could run for the loading dock and escape that way. But Nick couldn’t move his feet. He couldn’t scream.
“NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!” Nick tried to scream himself awake. It was the only thing that escaped from his throat.
“Not this time, you bastard. I’m going to make sure I get you this time.” Stan said with his insane and twisted smile. Yet, he spoke very calmly, evenly.
“No, Stan, not this time either,” said a shadow to Nick’s right. The shadow moved towards Nick and Stan to reveal that it was James Kurtz. Both Stan and Nick could only look open-mouthed at James, who was wearing a very neat suit of his period.
“Don’t bother trying to turn the gun on me either,” said James, who now was Gerald.
“Nicky, you’ve got to help us. Today, this morning at 6:30. Please help us,” said Gerald, who was now his father.
Nick came to Mid-City at 5:43, according to his car’s clock. Part of the agreement he had with his doctor was that he wasn’t supposed to be behind the wheel of a car. But, then again, I’m not supposed to allow my father get murdered by his partner, either, he thought.
Nick parked his car two-and-a-half blocks away in the industrial park and walked to the loading dock of Mid-City. He was dressed like any other truck driver, and he made sure the bill of his baseball cap was low and the hood from one of his hoodies pulled over enough to hide his face from the security camera. Once he got into the building, he thought he would hide and wait by one of the deburring machines.
Nick sat in a huddle by the deburring machine, making sure that the cold early morning sun didn’t cast his shadow against the dirty cement floor. He waited. The cold seemed to be working its way through his sneakers and up his legs. The chill was also working its way through all the heavy layers he wore. He didn’t want to wear his regular winter coat because the material would make a scraping noise. He hoped that the winter chill wouldn’t make his legs cramp before he had to . . .
Nick heard the shop door screech open and heavy work boots clump on the floor. The clumping stopped. One of the smaller machines started with a thrum. He then heard a tool chest being unlocked and tools being taken out for the day’s use. Whatever Nick thought of Stan, he had to admit the man was fastidious enough to have the shop employees clean their work areas at the end of their shifts. Nick then heard the door screech again. He was alone once more.
He looked at his watch. 6:12. The door screeched again. By the sound of the treading feet and the early hour, it was either his father or Stan. Nick stood up only enough to get a glimpse of the person without being detected. He quietly blew in his cupped hands to warm them. It was his father, who was now at a desk by the Final Inspection area, organizing the day’s work. Nick crouched down again and pushed the sleeve away from his right wrist and looked at his watch.
The door screeched open again.
“Stan. Good morning.” Nick heard his father say in a congenial and even tone. “I’ll be ready in a minute. If the guys get here before 7:00, maybe you can get them coffee. I started a pot up front. Sue will be bringing donuts and bagels. Dave just left.”
Nick stood up just high enough to see what was happening. As before, he made sure neither man would see him. He rubbed and massaged his legs as quietly as he could, hoping that would bring back some of the circulation. Still in a semi-crouch, he started making his way closer to the desk. He hoped that the machines he had chosen to conceal himself behind would be good choices.
Finally, he was directly behind the two men. Nick guessed he was about seven yards away.
He almost lost his balance when he tried to avoid a pile of rejected parts. His right arm shot out and grabbed the leg of a table to regain his equilibrium. No noise made. At least Stan still had his back to him. He looked at his right arm and without thinking at the watch that peeked out of the sleeves of the two jersey jackets.
Nick looked again at the two men. Stan had a gun aimed at his father.
“Wha’?” Nick’s father asked.
“You f-king, son-ufa-bitch. I could’ve done better without you.”
All of Nick’s muscles tensed. Now he knew exactly what he was supposed to do. No second thought and pure adrenaline-driven instinct.
Nick sprang up, yelling, and ran to tackle his father’s partner.
Stan spun around and fired a single bullet.
Nick felt hot pain in his chest as he fell backward. Everything became blurred for him. His chest hurt. It was hard to breathe. He must have had the wind knocked out of him when he fell backward. Everything became blurred. Faces swarmed round him. What time is it?
Someone had slipped something over his face, while another person was trying to do something to his chest. Why? There was no more pain.
Then he slept.
“Thank you,” said a voice from behind him. Nick turned around and saw a man he had never seen before.
“Thank you. You broke the cycle,” said the man. He looked to be middle-aged, with all gray hair and at least two days’ worth of beard stubble. The man was dressed in old, worn jeans and a faded gray polo shirt. His sneakers were worn with holes by the toes.
Nick’s only reply was a quizzical look.
“Let’s take a walk while I explain. I’m Ed, by the way.”
The two started walking down a deserted hospital corridor. Nick noticed there was no sound. He couldn’t even hear their footfalls, or the hollow echo of Ed’s voice. But he should have been able to hear some kind of sound other than Ed’s echoless voice. He wondered about this.
After they turned and entered another deserted corridor, Ed broke the silence. “Do you believe in past lives?”
“No,” Nick said flatly. He wavered. Wasn’t there something else? He tried to hold on to his beliefs that were firmly entrenched in the sciences.
“Too bad,” Ed replied. They continued to walk a little slower without speaking. Then Ed stopped and turned to Nick. “Harold killed James because their business was going bankrupt. In actuality, times were bad, and Harold was really a poor businessman to begin with. If those two stayed with it a little longer, things would have worked out.”
“But one of my sister’s friends said . . .”
Ed chuckled. “That kid was close, I’ll give him that, but he still has a ways to go before he completely understands. But he was pretty close.” he shrugged. ” ‘Half an idea is better than none.’
“As I was saying, I left off with . . . Harold killed James because . . . bankruptcy . . . Oh, yeah. Business would have gotten better if those two had stuck things out. But Harold couldn’t see beyond that. Maybe if psychology were better known then.”
Ed stopped talking and stood looking at a spot a few feet down the corridor. He appeared to be lost in his own thoughts. He turned to Nick, who looked curious as to why Ed was smiling. “Hmm. Oh, well. Shall we continue?” Ed and Nick started to walk down the corridor again.
“If there was a psychologist in town back then, Harold would’ve been diagnosed as being, shall we say, paranoid.”
“I think anyone could’ve seen that he was crazy. Even back then.”
“True. Years later, Harold came back as Kevin and you came back as Gerald. In that lifetime, Kevin was to kill Gerald and—”
“Wait a minute. The SRTs.”
“I know. A month from now, Geoffrey will discover that he had simulated one of the effects of narcolepsy—”
“—The dreamer being able to see him-or herself—in a dream.” Nick finished Ed’s sentence. “Are you a doctor?”
Ed smiled and gave Nick a coy shrug, palms up. Nick noticed Ed’s hands. They were very clean and free of calluses. His fingernails were well-groomed. Ed’s hands were incongruous with the stubble on his face and his shabby clothes.
“They match everyone up. Don’t judge the package. If you know what I mean.”
“Who’re they?” and realized that by Ed’s expression that he shouldn’t press any further.
“Where was I—?”
“I think you left off where I came back as Gerald. Kevin to kill Gerald,” Nick was getting impatient.
“Yeah. Gerald. There’s a third party missing, you see. The shop boy who fell asleep the night before in the barn and saw Harold kill James. Now here’s where it gets interesting. At least for me. James came back as another little shop boy to prevent Kevin from killing Gerald.”
“But he doesn’t succeed,” Nick said.
“Nope. So, we’re back again where we started.”
“Wait a minute. Stan is really Harold? And I’m really James?” Nick asked.
“Almost got it. Stan is Harold. But your father is James. And you’re the shop boy.
“All along, Harold was insane enough not to learn from the first life experience. And unfortunately, he took James right along with him. Because James wanted his partner—in more ways than one—to learn and move on.”
“But Harold wouldn’t,” Nick said.
“Harold couldn’t. Let’s sit down in here,” Ed said.
They approached an empty waiting room. When they sat down on an old and worn blue vinyl couch, Ed continued. “James thought he could break the cycle as the shop boy the second time around. He tried. Not very successful.
“Then it was going to be the third time around. Something had to be done and done right.”
“Can’t say right now. You’ll find out. But now is not the time to know. Believe me.” Ed rested his elbows on his knees and gave his chin a good scratch before he continued. “It was the third time around and the situation had to be corrected. It was, shall we say, that it was no coincidence that you liked bioengineering. How else would you have gotten involved with the SRT Project that started everything? It was finally you who broke the cycle.”
Ed straightened up before he rose and walked out of the waiting room. Nick followed him. Both walked down the corridor in silence.
Finally, Nick spoke, “It was planned like that? Me breaking the cycle.”
“More or less.”
The two men stopped at a pair of double doors that lead to another corridor.
“Go through these doors,” Ed said as he gave his chin another quick scratch. “and it’s up to you. We all have choices that we are given during our lives. You broke the cycle. Now things can move on the way they should have during that one time so long ago. You can return to your life and continue. Or not return and continue.”
“What happens to Stan?” Nick asked.
“Prison for the criminally insane. Maybe someday the Synaptic Reflex Control Programs will be re-evaluated, and be developed to help the criminally insane. We can only hope. Maybe the Program could even help Stan.”
Nick nodded in appreciation. Choices. If I choose to go back to my life . . . I wonder how good a bioengineer I would be . . . ?” He trailed off, deep in thought.
Ed shrugged. “Up to you.”
“What if I go back that way?” Nick asked, jerking a thumb at the corridor the two men had just walked through.
“Not an option.”
Nick looked at the doors. He turned to his companion and extended his hand to shake.
“Thanks again, Nick.”
“You’re welcome. I’m glad it turned out the way it did.”
Nicholas Colemore, Jr. pushed the double doors open and walked through.
An excerpt from Dr. Geoffrey Allen’s private journal, 24th April:
. . . I came across a copy of my wife’s senior thesis. She used part of a quote from Harry Emerson Fordick that I always liked:
Nothing else matters much—not wealth, nor
learning, nor even health—without this gift: the
spiritual capacity to keep zest in living.
This is the creed of creeds, the final deposit
and distillation of all man’s important faiths:
That he should be able to believe in life . . .