A cold shudder runs through me as I look through the one-way mirror at the psycho in the orange jumpsuit who’s handcuffed to the table. What I’ll see in his head, what I’ll feel and experience first hand will be like living nightmares. I don’t know if I can handle them. I’ve seen some terrible things, but nothing like what he’s done.
The psycho raises a styrofoam cup of hot coffee to his mouth, but the chain connecting his handcuffs to the table is too short, so when he gets the cup halfway up, his arm jerks to a stop and the coffee spills onto the lap of his bright orange coveralls. He swears and frantically squirms in his seat to stop the coffee from scalding him. The pained look on his face tells me that he isn’t succeeding.
Good, I think. He deserves that. That’s fitting for a guy like him. That’s perfect.
He plunks the cup down in front of him and shakes the hot brown liquid from his hands, which sends his chains rattling and clanking over the table’s black metal top.
He doesn’t look like much sitting there, coke-bottle glasses, short salt and pepper hair, and so skinny he seems lost in those orange overalls. With what they told me about him, I imagined some beefy guy with tattoos of little spiders at the corner of his eyes and pipes the size of my head–not somebody who could have been my grade 9 science teacher.
Let someone else do this, my inner voice tells me. Don’t they have people trained to do stuff this? Why the hell does it have to be me?
Then I remind myself of the deal I made, a deal I’ll find nowhere else: get what the authorities need from this lunatic and then the agency goes back to working out how to shut off this mechanism in my head.
Life will be worth living again without it.
“Doctor Brown,” I say as I step into the interrogation room. The overhead lights wash over me, making me pause and blink stupidly as my eyes adjust. Considering I was trying to look like I know what I’m doing, I’m off to a cracking start.
“How long have you been in the dark on the other side of the mirror watching me?” he asks.
I ignore him and skirt the room to keep out of his reach. I pull out the metal folding chair on the opposite side of the table and sit. The chair groans under the pressure of my considerable bulk.
Appear confident and don’t directly engage him, they told me during the prep. There is no need to talk to him. Just tune in, get what we need, and then get out.
I open his packed vanilla folder on the table and pretend to read over some of the details. I give the papers a little nod like I’m agreeing to some tidbit I read and then I look up at him.
His coke-bottle lenses engorge his pale grey eyes. A thin smile splits his lips.
I break eye contact and look down at the papers.
“You’re pretty fat for an agent,” he says suddenly. “Don’t you guys have to keep fit?”
His comment catches me off guard and I snap my head up to look at him.
His eyes are leveled straight at mine and I don’t think he’s blinked since I last looked away. He’s baiting me I realize, and I look back down at the folder. I pretend I’ve finished reading the page and turn it over.
“Congratulations,” he says. “You finally got through that page. That took some doing.”
I keep my head down and focus on the next page. I don’t need to talk to him to do this, I remind myself. I just need to be sitting close and my mind will automatically tune in to his. For the first time in my life, I’m grateful it’s automatic–I wouldn’t have the stones to do it intentionally with him.
“You are interesting,” he says and then I hear his seat shift and his chains clack. A jolt of fear rips through me. He’s gotten free! I think and I nearly leap out of my seat and scream. But when I look up, I see he hasn’t. The sounds were caused by him straightening out his chair and rattling the chains on the table as he clapsed his hands together.
He smiles, revealing a bright wall of teeth. He seems quite pleased with himself for scaring the hell out of me.
I notice there’s something different about him now, he seems bigger to me. When I saw him through the mirror, he was lost in his orange coveralls, but now it’s like he’s grown to fill them. He seems taller too. He must have been slouching when I came in and now that he’s sat up straight he towers over me.
“Clearly, you’re not an agent,” he says. “Nor are you a caseworker, policeman, psychologist, or anything that would make sense in this situation. You are interesting.”
“Great,” I say sarcastically, then I regret it because I remember that–no matter what–I wasn’t supposed to engage him. But he continues as though he didn’t hear me.
“They prepped me for you. Didn’t let me sleep, didn’t let me eat, and drove me round and round to disorient me. And then you’d think with all that build up, somebody important would come in and finish me off. But imagine my surprise when you walk in–you who doesn’t seem like anybody at all.”
His words bite deep and I pop off before I have a chance to think.
“You don’t seem like anything to me either,” I say defensively. “Just some skinny shit in handcuffs. Nothing special.”
“John Smith,” he says, leaning in and reading the name off the glossy white tag pinned to my black sweater. “That’s what I find so interesting. All this deception to bring in a fat little man who practically crept into this room and slunk along the walls to get away from me. And then he sits down across from me and there’s nothing–not a word or a peep out of you. That’s what I find so interesting.”
I’m not even pretending to read the papers anymore. I’m just going to sit here and wait for it to happen. I’m not engaging him.
“John…” he says slowly as though he doesn’t quite believe that’s my name. “Can I call you John? I have a couple questions John. First off, I’m an excellent judge of people, so don’t lie to me because I can pretty much see straight through you.”
I can’t help it, but my eyes flicker up at him when he says that.
“John, even when you’re not talking to me–you’re talking to me. Now my first question is: who are you really?”
And then it starts, a whoosh of static, like a radio without a signal, crackles in my ears.
“John! You surprise me. There’s a little sparkle in your eyes and you’re smiling now. What’s so funny?”
“Nothing’s funny,” I say, smiling and grinding my teeth together, trying not to show the discomfort I’m in. “It’s just that we’re almost finished and then I get to leave here while you go back to your cell and rot.”
“How can we be finished? We haven’t even started.”
Pain stabs through my left eye. Something hot and sharp is in my head and is digging its way out through my left temple. It’s already up to the skin now, about to breach, when the thing starts to track across my brow. It feels like a fat June bug is merrily making its way across the frontal plate of my skull. The pain is unbearable. I look at my reflection, expecting to see a thick lump inching across my forehead, but there’s nothing there but a fat plane of pale white flesh. As the pain creeps towards my right temple, the static gets louder and a high-pitched whine screams in my ear. Tiny dots of white light dance like fireflies at the edges of my vision and I’m just near passing out. Then amongst the popping static I hear something that sounds like a word and the pain starts to crawl back the other way.
“Good Lord,” he says and leans in to get a better look at my face. “Are you well? You look like you’re having a heart attack. Have all those donuts finally done you in?”
I’m huffing and puffing now because I can’t seem to get enough air.
Trickles of sweat run down my spine and dive into the valley of my butt crack. The crackling static is like a dull roar in my ears, then suddenly the agony dissapates and the little white fireflies start to wink out one by one. All of which means I’m close. Just another frequency or two and I’m there.
“The pain has lessened now it seems,” he says. “And your fat head is cocked to one side as though you’re listening for something. John I have to say, this has definitely been worth the trip out here. What’s next I wonder?”
I hit his station and my ears pop as the pressure in them release.
Relief floods through me like an orgasm as the static dies down, and a film, of sorts, plays in my mind. I’m standing on a raised platform, overlooking a small crowd. A man in a grey business suit hands me a giant golden key. I take it and proudly raise it above my head. The crowd begins to cheer.
Then I’m back in the interrogation room, looking straight into his googly eyes.
Damn, I think. I got garbage. I hoped to get lucky and nail it the first time so I could get the hell out of here. I suck in a deep breath and pray it’s the next one.
A smile crosses his face and my jaw drops in astonishment.
“John,” he says. “I told you. You are interesting.”
This can’t be, I think as I shift uncomfortably in my seat. No one has ever been so calm before. How is this possible? I just painfully sucked a memory out of his head and at the same time one of my memories was pumped into him. How can anybody be so calm after experiencing something like that for the first time?
“John, I saw you arguing with some woman that I’m guessing was your wife. You were screaming and she was crying. She wanted you to make love to her, but you wouldn’t. That was awfully mean of you. She just wanted a little love John.”
“Shut up,” I say, remembering the fight and the decade-old wound rips open afresh like she and I were just arguing moments ago. Why is it that people only see the deepest, darkest, most personal secrets in my head? It’s never anything but those. It’s like they’re all bubbling right at the surface of my mind, just waiting to burst into somebody else’s head.
“John, you wanted to though. I could feel it in your heart. I could hear it in your thoughts. You wanted to do it with her, but you didn’t want the closeness of it. Why is that? That’s the whole point of it isn’t it?”
“Shut up,” I say.
“John,” he says and laughs. “You need a better poker face. I can see straight through you big guy. This is too easy.”
Before I can even think, another of his memories pops into my head. I’m in the backseat of a Cadillac now. It’s a convertible and the top is down. We’re driving down a long road that’s lined with people. The sky is full of confetti streamers and everyone along the road is waving and cheering for me. Then the memory fades.
What the hell was that? I wonder. I’m not seeing anything I need.
Where’s the blood? Where’s the twisted faces of the victims?
From across the table, he leans in and gently takes my hands in his. I jump back from his touch and accidentally knock the folder off the table and send it sprawling on the floor.
“John, we really need to talk. I’ve seen some terrible things in your head. You need help big guy.”
I push back from the table and stand. This isn’t right, I think. He can’t be taking this so well–it’s impossible. Nobody can be this cool after seeing into somebody else’s mind. Nobody.
“John, what’s the matter?”
I make my way to the door, keeping close to the mirror and as far away from him as possible.
“John, buddy. Where are you going? We haven’t even started.”
Another memory of his bursts into my head. I see a General with a chest full of medals and big cob pipe hanging out of the corner of his mouth. An aide rushes up and hands a small bronze star to the General who then takes the medal and pins it to my chest. The General steps back, snaps a stiff salute to me, and then the memory fades.
What the hell was that garbage? I think as I twist the doorknob in my hand. To my surprise, it’s locked. I rap my fist on the door. When nobody answers, I start to pound on it.
“John, I told you we are just getting started.”
“Why is this locked!” I yell. “Who the hell locked this?” I stand at the mirror and flail my hands back and forth. I look like a frantic fat man, trying to wave down an ambulance. “Unlock this!” I yell to whoever’s behind the glass and then I point at the door. I lean in and try to peer through the mirror, but all I see is my chubby cheeks and my plump hands hooded over my face.
“Tell me about your wife,” he says. “What happened to her?”
I snap my head around and glare at him. I try to read his face to see what he meant by that, but he’s sitting there with his hands clasped together, smiling pleasantly as can be and I can’t tell anything.
“Take a seat,” he says. “We may be here for some time John.”
“How the hell would you know that?” I growl.
“Just call it a hunch.” He replies.
There’s something wrong with this whole situation and he’s a part of it–I can feel it in the pit of my big stomach. I look at his huge grin and then back at the locked door. I’m trapped in here with him, I realize. Where the hell are they? On a coffee break? Didn’t I tell them–didn’t I specifically say–I can’t turn it off once it’s started?
Goddammit, open the fucking door before I lose my mind.
Suddenly a scene, his memory, plays in my head. It’s the same one of him getting the key to the city.
When the memory ends and I’m looking through my eyes again, I see him smile and nod at me. “Ahhh..,” he says like he’s just found the last elusive piece to a puzzle. “I understand now,” he says. “I understand you John.”
I know he wants me to ask him what it is he understands, but I’m not playing his game and responding. All I want is for this damn door to open so I can get the hell out of here.
“John,” he says. “What did you do with all of them?”
I freeze. My heart stops and I can barely breath.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say and I turn around and try the door again.
“Don’t lie to me John. I can see straight through you–straight through you like you’re not even there.”
His words knife into me and I spin around and face him.
“How many people did you kill to get your bronze star?” I snap at him.
I watch his reaction, but his smile doesn’t crack and those googly eyes don’t waver.
“Was it lots?” I continue. “Did you kill kids? Did you enjoy that?”
Static crackles in my head and suddenly I see the same scene of him being driven down the road in the Cadillac. The crowds are cheering and the sky rains confetti. Then the scene ends and I’m back in the room.
How is it possible to get the same crap from him every time? It’s like I’m watching looping stock footage. And meanwhile, he plumbs the depths of my mind and sees my deepest, darkest secrets.
God, I hate this thing in my head. Strangers who just happen to be in the same room as me will learn my most personal, most secret, most unthinkable things, and all my masks are stripped away, laying bare my innermost self for them to see. Nothing is my own. Everything, every part of my life, is on display for the fucking world to see.
“John, you’re so alone. What I’ve seen in your head, you living in the gutters, bumming for spare change, keeping as far as you can from people…you’re so alone.”
“Stay out of my head!” I shout.
“John, it’s you who’s doing this,” he replies.
Rage flushes through me and I walk towards him with my fat fists bunched together. He’s so cocky and sure of himself that he doesn’t even flinch when I get near him. I want to sock this smug, smiling son of a bitch in the jaw and rain blows down on his head till blood runs out of his ears.
“That would land you in trouble,” he says. “They’re probably right behind the mirror you know.”
I look at the mirror and I see my fat self with my hands poised like two hammers above his head.
He’s right, I realize, and I lower my fists and step back from him.
“John, I saw you as a skinny little boy of seventeen. You were in a dark room on a couch kissing some girl. Naughty. Naughty.”
“Shut up!” I say, and I instantly remember the girl and the situation.
“I could hear her name in your head. Sarah, lovely Sarah. And you were thinking: first base, finally first base.”
“Be quiet!” I shout.
“Then that thing in your mind, that wondrous mechanism you hate so much, kicked in. You thought the pain burning in your brow was because you were all hot and bothered, but it was you dialing in and a memory of her kissing some other boy popped into your head. That must have been quite upsetting: it’s your first kiss, she’s thinking about kissing someone else, and her memory is so real you can taste the other boy’s lips and feel his tongue rooting around in your mouth. Then she was screaming. She must have seen something terrible in your head because she was just screeching.”
His head snaps back as I punch him smack in the center of his flapping mouth. Somehow, by some miracle, his glasses stay on. But he’s not smiling anymore now though. His big eyes are watering and blood runs out of a split in his swelling purple lip. I look at my hand and see a small puncture hole between the fat of my knuckles where his tooth went in.
“And then I saw you much older and much fatter,” he continues as though two seconds ago I hadn’t punched him square in the face. “You were in a seedy hotel room with a prostitute whose face was plastered mess of makeup and you were doing what you could to get your business over with as quickly as possible before it could happen. But then, right in the middle of it, you tuned in and she was in your head and you were in hers. Good lord, the things you saw in that woman’s mind; felt them too…in a way you lived them.”
I raise my fist to punch him in the face again.
“Let me ask you one question,” he says and lifts his hands up to protect himself. “Do you see a pattern here?”
“Pattern?” I ask. “What pattern? What are you talking about?”
“The pattern of your life. You, women, and this thing in your head.
Think of it. Just calm down and think of it for one second.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” I say. “I just want you to shut up.”
“I understand your frustrations, but try to think of it. All these things, these watershed moments in your life have built you into the person you are today.”
“Don’t analyze what you see in my head. Those are my memories! Mine!”
“I can’t help it John. I’m trained to think this way. I can’t help it as much as you can’t help tuning in.”
“Stay out of my head!” I yell as sobs wrack my big body.
“John, I’m trying to help you.”
“Fuck off,” I say.
I feel dizzy now. The floor sways beneath my feet like I’m aboard a ship. I can’t breathe either, it’s like all the air has gone out of the room. I need to sit down before I collapse, so I stumble over and take a seat in the empty chair.
“John, I thought this thing was a blessing, but I see how wrong I was. I see what it has done to you…what it’s turned you into.”
“Please stop,” I mumble.
I’m so exhausted from all this that I can barely raise my head up from the table to look at him. When I do, I see he’s neither smiling nor frowning; he actually has a look of concern for me on his face.
“John, this thing has weighed on you. Pressed you down and formed you into the person you are now. It’s the reason you are the way you are.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I choke out through mumbled sobs.
“Because I want you to know that it’s not your fault. All this was forced on you. What other life could you have led with this thing in your head? In my practice, I usually tell people all their problems are caused by themselves. But not you. You’re the victim here.”
I nod. He’s right. This was put on me. I never wanted it. I didn’t do anything to deserve this.
“John, what did you do with them?”
I stare through a veil of tears at the swimming tabletop. My emotions have drained out of me and now all I am is tired.
“John. All those women I saw in your head. The ones that got too close. What did you do with them?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“I understand John. It was the only way to shut it off. The only way to stop them from seeing into you and you into them. It’s not your fault. It’s this thing in your head.”
“I never wanted this,” I blubber. “I never wanted any of this.”
“I know. I know.” he says and takes my hands in his. This time I don’t pull back. His hands are warm and I welcome his touch.
“John. Where did you put them?”