Click on the picture
a short story by Bill Ectric
The two medics had to shield their eyes from the glaring light when they looked up at me. Wishing to avert the helicopter searchlight away from the them, my hands fumbled for the navigation stick in the pitch-dark cockpit. The medics bravely crouched over an injured body on the ground, trying to do their job, even as I nose-dived toward them against my will. I blinked and looked away. Then the treetops lit up and I was sailing upwards, toward the woods.
I remember bright green pine needles in the intense light, backed by jet-blackness. The pine needles hissed and shriveled from the heat as I swooped up through a cloud of steam and emerged to see stars and a silver crescent moon. The moon crescent turned sideways and shot upward, but it was really me turning sideways and falling. The grass lit up and I felt the hard, hard ground jarring me unconscious.
I thought I saw the medics bending over me.
I woke up in a hospital bed. No broken bones, but feeling bruised all over, with some bandages on my arms and head.
“Out of body experiences,” said Dr. Gray. “I’ve had people tell me they saw themselves laying on the operating room table.”
He pointed to the side of his head with the stem of his unlit pipe and said, “The mind is remarkable.”
Dr. Gray put the pipe back in his mouth long enough to scribble something on a clipboard.
“Your pipe isn’t lit,” I said.
“Helps me to not smoke,” he answered.
“If I wasn’t the pilot, who was?” I asked.
“There’s a good chance your memory will return, Lieutenant Dassett,” the doctor assured me. “I told the legal team they will have to wait before asking you any more questions. They haven’t accused you of killing the two medics. They just want to find out what happened.”
“I want to find out what happened!” I moaned.
“Well,” said Dr. Gray, “You obviously weren’t flying the helicopter, because it was nowhere to be found. You either jumped or fell out of the cockpit before the pilot flew away.”
“How long before I can get out of here?” I asked.
Dr. Gray said, “Your orders are to not talk about this to anyone. For security reasons. And even if you start feeling better, don’t be too anxious to leave. You are under orders not to leave the hospital.”
“Doctor’s orders?” I asked.
Dr. Gray thought for a moment before removing the unlit pipe from his mouth again.
“Yes,” he said. “And Captain’s orders as well.”
I rested my head back on the pillow, looked around the room, and closed my eyes.
Later, having no TV in my room to distract me, I thought back to the day I first volunteered for the experiment. I remembered the day I met the two researchers, Bob Vereen and Alice Smith. They were not in the military, but they had a military contract and worked in a lab on the base. Their laboratory building was only a short walk from the hospital where I was now a patient.
I remembered the three of us sitting casually in Dr. Bob Vereen’s office. Bob, in his mid-thirties, wore his usual short sleeve dress shirt and tie, his stomach hanging slightly over his belt. He was always pulling up his slacks because they inched down under his gut when he tried to hold it in. He liked to slip off his brown loafers when relaxing with his feet up on the desk. The other researcher was Dr. Alice Smith. Attractive, nice, younger and more physically fit than Bob, but more formal and professional, Alice always wore a white lab coat.
Bob had once remarked to me, “If you think she looks good in that lab coat, you should see her in a bathing suit.”
“I bet so,” I laughed, “Is she married or what?”
“No,” said Doctor Bob. “She’s single. Don’t tell her we talked about her. She’s still friends with my ex-wife.”
The three of us sat in Bob’s office, Bob and I drinking coffee, Alice drinking bottled water.
“Well, what kind of guinea pig am I going to be?” I asked them. “You’re not going to dose me with LSD and watch me wig out, are you?”
Bob laughed, “No, sorry. You wish.”
Alice said, “We’re working on ways to help people who are paralyzed, Lieutenant Dassett. Mostly war casualties. You fit the criteria because of your left hand. What do you hope to get out of this?”
I looked at my stiff hand and said, “I want to fly again.”
Bob said, “You were a helicopter pilot, I understand.”
“I was, until I was grounded. I mean, I think I can fly with one good hand but regulations say otherwise.
Doctor Bob pulled something out of his desk drawer and chuckled, “Check out what I made.”
It looked like a disposable camera that Bob had taken apart and lashed back together with black electrical tape, with two big silver nail heads sticking out of the top.
Bob said to me, “Alright, test subject. Let me test this on you.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Bob,” said Alice. “Don’t listen to him, Lieutenant. It’s one of his home-made toys.”
“Is that a Taser?” I asked.
“Sure is,” said Bob. “Made it myself. This little bastard will knock you on your ass!”
I asked, “You mean a disposable camera has that much power?”
“Nah,” he said. “I kicked it up a few notches. I installed a couple of little step-up transformers. They take the juice from the battery, bat it back & forth a few thousand times and store the charge in a capacitor.”
Bob stood up and walked toward me. “When these two nail heads come in contact with you, and I push this button here…”
“Get that thing away from me,” I said, backing up.
“Come on, Dassett, there’s no permanent damage.”
I decided to stand my ground.
“I will put that thing up your ass,” I said.
Bob stopped and laughed, “Ah, man, I’m just kiddin’ with ya.”
Alice said, “It’s not funny, Bob.”
Bob pulled his belt and waistband up over his gut, sat on the front edge of his desk, and said, “I would like to try it somebody, though.”
I said, “Why don’t you try it on yourself?”
Alice said, “Well, this isn’t a good way to start off with our volunteer. Put it away, Bob.”
“These experiments,” I asked. “Are they going to hurt?
“Not at all,” said Alice. “We’ll use a local anesthetic on your scalp, and the brain itself actually feels no pain.”
Now I’m laying in a hospital bed wondering if Doctors Bob and Alice will have to find another guinea pig. “If so,” I mused,
“maybe it’s for the best. I don’t much like smart-ass Bob.”
The next day I was able to walk out to a sunny little outdoor rest area; a patio with tables and chairs. It was still part of the hospital, so I figured it was within the limits of my orders. I sat at a round concrete table, shielded from the sun by an umbrella on a pole in the center of the table. An elderly man and woman sat at another table over on the other side of the patio, talking quietly.
I sensed someone looking at me and turned to see a short young man standing to my right. He was apparently a patient, wearing a white robe and slippers, smoking a cigarette.
“Lieutenant Dassett?” he asked meekly.
“Yep, that’s me,” I said.
“Can I sit down?”
“Be my guest.”
He sat down opposite me at the table, leaned forward, and almost whispered, “They don’t want me to talk to you but I think I should.”
I was prepared to say nothing. He might be gathering information for who-knows-what and I was under orders not to talk.
I said, “I really don’t feel like talking.”
“Look,” he said, still speaking low, “I know you didn’t steal any weapons.”
I just looked at him, wondering what he was talking about. What did he mean by “steal any weapons?”
“I’m on your side,” he said nervously.
“Well,” I finally said, “I certainly haven’t stolen anything. Are you okay? You seem kind of shaky.”
The young man took a long drag on his cigarette, held the smoke for a moment, then looked up and blew the smoke toward the umbrella. The smoke curled and floated over onto me.
I felt strange. The smoke must have triggered a flashback. The night sky. The burning pine needles. I spaced out and forgot about the kid sitting next to me. I must have been staring into space.
“Huh? Oh, sorry. What?”
“Are you remembering something?”
“Look,” the kid said, “I know you didn’t burn those guys.”
“Burn?” I asked. “What?”
The young man continued, “Aren’t they charging you with stealing a helicopter and some incendiary bombs?”
I didn’t say anything but my mind was racing, trying to put this together. I had no memory of stealing anything but I remembered diving, against my will, on the medics and their patient. My curiosity struggled with my discipline. I felt like I had a right to know some things.
I asked, “Are you the guy who was lying on the ground?”
“What?” asked the young man.
“With the medics,” I said. “The medics were kneeling over someone on the ground. Was that you?”
Now it was the young man’s turn to stare. The long ash of his cigarette fell onto the table.
“There was no patient other than you,” he said. “They were kneeling over you.”
“No,” I said. “Before that. I saw them bending over someone else before I fell.”
“There was nobody else,” he said again. “Those two medics had no other patient but you.”
We looked at each other, both puzzled.
“Then who got burned?” I asked. “You said somebody was burned.”
“The two medics,” he said incredulously. “You didn’t know? They were burned to death by some kind of incendiary device. Or something.”
I was getting more worried and confused by the minute. This was a lot more serious that stealing a helicopter, an act which I was apparently a party to. I seriously wondered for a moment if I had gotten drunk out of my head again and done something terrible.
“Have they found the helicopter?” I finally asked.
“No helicopters are missing,” said the young man. “Inventory shows them all accounted for and,” he lit another cigarette, “there is no evidence that any unauthorized flight took place.”
“How do you know all this?” I asked.
“Well, I wasn’t supposed to be there that night, but…”
“The lab building. Where they were testing. I was down the hall using one of the computers. I wasn’t supposed to be there. I think Dr. Vereen and Dr. Smith know what happened.”
“Bob and Alice?” I pondered out loud.
I knew that behind the lab building is a lawn. We had squadron picnics out there sometimes. Beyond the lawn are some woods. Pine trees. Is that where I saw the two medics?
The young man said, “Nobody knows what I saw. I’m not even sure what I saw.”
“Who are you?” I finally asked.
“Pratt. Private Pratt, at least until I get my discharge. I’m hoping to get out of the service, be a civilian again, leave here and never come back. That’s why I don’t want any trouble.”
“Why are you here?” I asked
“To help you.”
“No, I mean, why are you in the hospital?”
“I’m in the psych ward,” he said sheepishly.
“Oh, great. Are you crazy?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so.”
Private Pratt fumbled in his robe pocket and pulled out a folded newspaper clipping.
“Here,” he said. “Take this and read it when no one is around. I’ve got to go.”
I took the paper and watched Pratt walk away.
Back in my room, I unfolded the section of newspaper. Pratt had drawn a red square around an article. With the same red marker, he had scrawled the four digit phone number to his hospital room in the margin. The article said:
Shelly Vereen, the President of Vereen Children’s Mentoring Program, was found dead in her Garden Heights home today around 9:00 am. According to police, her badly burned body was discovered in bed by her fiancé. There are some unusual circumstances surrounding Ms. Vereen’s death. According to police, only her bed and body were burned. The rest of the room was unharmed other than a window which was broken from the outside, leaving glass inside the room. An investigation is ongoing. Shelly Vereen is the ex-wife of Dr. Bob Vereen, who is scheduled to appear at a fund-raiser for medical research to help victims of paralysis. At this time, it is not known if Dr. Vereen will cancel his appearance. He could not be reached for comment.
I lay in my hospital bed and read the article twice, more slowly the second time. Why did Pratt give me this? Bob Vereen, one of the researchers of the experiment I had volunteered for, had an ex-wife who was killed in a fire.
My head hurt. I touched the top of my head and felt the bandage with a twinge of pain. Tired of my scalp sweating under the bandages, I pulled them off. Gently touching a shaved spot on top of my head, it felt like a hard baseball stitch. I looked at my fingers. No blood. Must be healing.
hen the nurse came, I hid the newspaper under my pillow. She put another bandage on my head and gave me two pills.
“This one is for pain,” she said. “And this one will help you relax so you can sleep.”
I pretended to take both pills, but really only took the one for pain. The nurse left the room.
Later that night I was restless. I got out of bed and slowly opened the door a couple of inches. I saw no one in the hall so I slipped out for a walk, avoiding the nurse’s station, which was around the corner. Two doors down, through an open door, a TV newscaster was yakking.
“Gala affair tonight…” said the newsman, “Overshadowed by tragedy. Dr. Vereen is expected to attend, saying his ex-wife would want it that way.”
I stood outside the room, where the occupant couldn’t see me, watching the television. So Dr. Bob’s big benefit was tonight and they’ve decided not to cancel it.
“Crazy,” I thought.
Should I walk out of this hospital and find civilian clothes and attend this friggin’ gala? That would be the stupid thing to do.
Except, sometimes I do stupid things. Did you know my hand isn’t really paralyzed? Yeah, I had faked them into grounding me before they found out my real secret. Sometimes I had tremors it was so bad. When I tried to stop drinking. I didn’t want to admit that. So I had this medic who owed me a favor inject Lidocaine into my left hand, with a tourniquet applied to the wrist for two minutes to keep most of the numbness in my hand. This wouldn’t fool the doctors forever, but it was a way to stall for time while I tapered off my drinking, or so I thought.
I returned to my room and paced back & forth, wanting a drink. Having not taken my sleep medication, I was restless. I decided to go to the benefit, have a few drinks, and see what Dr. Bob is up to.
I called Private Pratts’s room and he answered before the first ring ended.
“I want to get out of here,” I told him. “I don’t know how to sneak past the nurse’s station. Besides the nurses, there’s a security guard. Sometimes he walks around, sometimes he sits in the nurse’s station. But he keeps his eyes open.”
Pratt whispered on the phone, “Did they post a guard at your door?”
“No,” I said. “There’s just the regular security guard who walks around.”
“Amazing,” Pratt said. “Just the one guy?”
“Well, they think I’m doped up,” I explained. “And besides, they think I’m afraid to disobey orders not to leave.”
Pratt whispered excitedly, “I’ve got it all figured out. That guard is mainly looking for people in hospital gowns and robes.
There’s a Captain up here in the mental ward strapped to a bed in his underwear with the D.T’s. They’ve got his uniform neatly hanging in the closet. He’s not going anywhere.”
“Go on,” I said.
“I believe his uniform will fit you. The staff lets me walk around because I’ve never tried to leave, so I can bring you the uniform. We can walk right by the nurse’s station.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “They still might recognize me.”
“No,” said Pratt, whispering conspiratorially. “You walk with your head turned toward me. I’ll be on your left in my hospital gown, the nurse’s station will be over to our right. I’ll be talking to you, so you just keep looking at me and don’t say anything.
It’s just a short walk to the elevator or the stairs.”
“These elevators always take so long to come,” I protested. “They’ll say something to us.”
“Okay, listen. While you’re looking at me, I’ll say, ‘Captain, I get nervous in elevators. Can we take the stairs up to my room?’
They might wonder about us, but they won’t put it together that fast. For all they know, you’re my Squadron Captain come to visit me. They’re always telling me to go to my room before curfew, so they’ll think, ‘Okay, Pratt’s going up to his room and he’s with a Captain, so we don’t have to worry about him.’ We’ll walk through the door to the stairs. But we don’t go up. We haul ass down the stairs to the first floor. Even if the guard decides to follow us, he’ll be going up, not down, see? You can slip out and call a cab. I’ll go on back to my room.”
“Is there a hat?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. Hat, shoes, medals, a whole Captain’s uniform!”
“You don’t want to escape, too?” I asked.
“Hell, no,” he said. “Not like that. I’m still trying for my discharge papers.”
“Well, come on, then,” I said.
“A new guard comes on duty at 7:00 PM,” he said. “I’ll be there a few minutes after that.”
The whole idea was stupid, but my curiosity, not to mention my craving for a stiff drink, overruled my good sense.
Private Pratt was at my door a few minutes later. He had a big paper bag from the hospital gift shop. Inside the bag was the uniform.
“The guard spoke to me when I walked by the station,” said Pratt. “I told him my Captain was visiting somebody down the hall and I was gonna drop in on them, too.”
We walked by the guard and nurses just as we had planned. I took a cab to a nearby bar where the owner is a friend of mine. I left the Captain’s hat and jacket in the cab and asked the driver to wait. My bar-owner friend leant me money and gave me three shots of Jack Daniels. What a guy!
I took the cab to the ritzy Hawkshore Hotel, where the upscale fund-raising affair was in full swing.
“I’m a patron,” I told the doorman, and removed my hat as I walked in wearing the Captain’s uniform.
Men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns filled the ballroom. The speeches were over by this time. Hotel staff navigated trays of hors d’oeuvres and glasses of champagne from guest to guest. I accepted a glass of champagne and walked among the crowd, looking for Alice Smith or Bob Vereen, feeling bold from the alcohol. A pianist played soft dinner music.
I finally caught sight of them. Through a set of open doors, on a balcony, Doctors Alice and Bob were talking under the night stars. For once she wasn’t wearing her lab coat. In formal attire she was elegantly good looking. They didn’t see me as I approached. I stood over to the side of the entrance.
Dr. Bob was saying, “What’s the matter? Relax!”
He was holding her arm but she jerked it briskly from his grip and looked away from him.
“Don’t put your hands on me again,” she said.
“I don’t see the big deal. Let’s enjoy the evening!” Bob said. His voice sounded a bit drunk.
Alice said, “I think we had better keep this relationship professional, Bob.”
“If that’s what you want,” Bob said sarcastically. “And after I gave you such a good evaluation!”
“You damn well better be joking,” said Alice. “And if you are, it’s not funny. Stop it!”
When she yelled ‘stop it’ I had to see what was going on. I gulped down the champagne in my glass and walked out onto the balcony.
Bob was gripping Alice’s forearms. She was struggling to pull away from him. They both looked at me.
Bob relaxed his grip on Alice and said to me, “What the hell are you doing here?”
Alice said, “Lieutenant Dassett! I thought you were in the hospital.”
I asked, “What the hell is wrong with you, Bob?”
Bob’s arms dropped to his sides.
“None of your business, asshole!” he replied. “And what are you doing in a Captain’s uniform?”
I jammed the hat back onto my head defiantly and stuck my chin out.
Alice, arms loosely crossed, was rubbing her forearms gently with her hands, where Bob had gripped her.
“I’ve got to go,” she said.
Bob started to follow her but I put my arm out in front of him. I actually wanted to go with Alice, to ask her about everything that had happened, to make some sense of the two burned medics and all the rest. But it was clear Bob would follow her, too.
As Alice walked back into the ballroom , Bob and I squared off on the balcony. We were both feeling the booze.
“You dick!” said Bob. “Get out of my way!”
“You’re the dick!” I countered.
“Oh,” he said, slurring his words, “That was a cleffer come-back.”
Bob hiked up his pants as he always does, picked up a half-full cocktail glass from the balcony railing, and quickly drank the contents of the glass. He leered at me drunkenly.
“You,” he pointed a finger at me with the hand still holding the empty glass, “Are AWOL, I suspect.”
“Don’t you worry about that, fat boy,” I said.
He shoved past me.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked.
“I’m going to catch up with Alice after I report you to security.”
“You stay away from her!” I yelled
“Don’t tell me what to do, Lieutenant. I can go anywhere I want.” He brought his drunken sneer close to my face, and said in a low, twisted voice, “I can go places nobody else can go. I’m an incubus.”
“What?” I asked.
“You are an incubus, too, Lieutenant Dassett. A stupid one. No, worse than that! You are an angel of death! Security!”
He raised the hand holding the glass and motioned for someone.
A tall, fit man in a dark suit with an earpiece quickly approached. I didn’t know if he was military, secret service, or hotel security, but I knew Bob was going to turn me in for leaving the hospital against orders and impersonating a Captain. I grabbed Bob by the lapels of his tuxedo and shoved him at the security man as hard as I could.
As he stumbled against the tall man, Bob leaned forward and I saw something strange on the top of his head. Strands of his combed-over hair fell loosely out of place, revealing a small raised implant in his scalp.
I froze, trying to recapture a vague memory.
I took off my hat and felt the top of my own head, where a strip of white tape held a piece of gauze in place. I pulled off the gauze and felt again. Right in the middle of the stitches on top of my head was a small dimple in the skin. Something had been removed and stitched up.
The security guy must have seen the look on my face because he just stood there for a moment, wondering what the hell was wrong. Dr. Bob was back on his feet, reaching into his jacket pocket.
“I’m telling you,” Bob yelled as he pulled the Taser from his pocket, “This man should be placed under arrest!”
Bob rammed his homemade Taser against my chest.
Spasms of pain, searing high voltage, like angry fire ants, made me jerk involuntarily. But with the shock came the flowing restoration of my memory. I knew the truth even as I slumped onto the floor and lost consciousness.
In my dream, I was back in the laboratory, the night the medics were killed. Bob and Alice were prepping me for the test.
“That didn’t hurt much, did it,” Alice Smith had said, as the pulled the syringe needle out of my scalp.
Feeling comfortable in a kind of dentist’s chair, I said, “No. You’re pretty good at that, I’m happy to say. Now what?”
“Well,” said Alice, “As you see on this chart, information travels in the brain from one neuron to the other.”
The chart showed a diagram of the brain, and inside the brain were a bunch of dots. Some of the dots were connected by little lightning bolt symbols.
“These dots represent neurons,” Alice said, “And information is carried from one dot to the other by synapses. Most brain synapses are chemical, but a small percent of them are electrical.”
“I’ve got electricity in my brain?” I asked.
“Everyone does,” she said. “Very low voltage. That’s why, in order for a brain synapse to have any effect on an outside object, like an artificial limb, we have to amplify the electrical charge many times over, using capacitors and step-up transformers.”
They had implanted a little plug-in socket in the top of my head, where they could attach a wire, which would make contact with the synapses in my brain, and carry them to an amplifying device. I stayed awake through it all, until something went wrong. I remember a big ball of lightning crackling as it rose to the ceiling and caught the room on fire. I remember Alice looking down at me.
“He’s not breathing, Bob,” she had said. “I don’t think his heart is beating!”
Bob had called in the two medics to resuscitate me. The medics carried me outside because of the fire in the room. Bob had a fire extinguisher, blowing white foam all over the place.
Outside, looking down, I saw myself on the ground with the medics bending over me. The medics looked up and saw the same big ball of electricity that had started the fire inside. It had crashed through a window and was now diving on them.
There was no helicopter. That was my body on the ground and my highly amplified brain plasma pulsating overhead. I didn’t want to dive on them. I veered off, into the pine trees, my mutant synapse showering a trail of sparks, then upward, and vanished in a cloud of acrid smoke, like a burned out sun.
But I had pulled back too late to save the medics. Their heads and upper bodies were fatally burned. I had only succeeded in saving myself.
I think I screamed in my sleep.
Eyes closed. I hear a familiar whisper.
I opened my eyes and there was Private Pratt, standing near me, whispering. I couldn’t move my arms and legs. I was strapped to a hospital bed. I looked at Pratt.
“How do you feel, Lieutenant?”
“How is it,” I asked, “that you can walk around this hospital anywhere you want, but they tie me down at the drop of a hat?”
“You’re up here in the psych ward now,” he said. “With me. They don’t know that I know you. I can’t talk long, they’ll be back soon.”
“What’s an incubus?” I asked.
“Bob Vereen said he was an incubus.”
“It’s an old superstition,” Pratt said. “Like goblins and ghosts.”
“Why would he say that?”
Pratt said, “An incubus is like an evil spirit that floats into a woman’s bedroom at night to, you know, have sex with her. There’s the succubus, which is female, and the incubus, which is male.”
“Shelly Vereen’s window was broken when she was burned to death in her bed,” I said, alarmed.
“Yeah,” said Pratt.
“Alice Smith is in trouble,” I said, struggling at the straps that held me. “What day is it?”
“Not so loud,” whispered Private Pratt. “What’s the matter?”
“Vereen’s going to kill Alice Smith if he hasn’t already! God! Get these straps off me! Come on, get ‘em off!”
“I can’t. This time they have a military guard posted outside the door. What do you mean, ‘kill Alice Smith?’ What…”
“He’ll burn her! The same way he burned his ex-wife! What day is it?” I demanded.
“It’s only the day after you snuck out. Calm down,” Pratt said. “They brought you back in here last night.”
I tried to lower my voice and regain my calm.
“Pratt, listen to me. You’re the one that brought me the newspaper article. You must know something. Put it together, for God’s sake!”
“Did Dr. Vereen burn those two medics?” asked Pratt.
“No, no, I…I…I didn’t mean to hurt them… I…”
“I saw the fireball,” said Pratt. “The night it happened. It almost got you, too. The medics shielded you there on the ground.
That’s why I knew you didn’t do it. I didn’t want to get involved at first because I have problems of my own. I’m just trying to get out of the military. I don’t wanna rock the boat. So what are you saying happened?”
“Just get me loose!” I pleaded. “Jesus Christ, I don’t have time to explain the whole fucking thing!”
Pratt was backing up, getting ready to leave. The military guard, followed by a nurse and an attendant entered the room.
“What’s the problem?” asked the nurse.
“Why am I strapped down?!” I demanded. “Where’s Dr. Smith, Dr. Alice Smith, where is she?”
“You are no longer assigned to her,” the nurse said calmly.
“That doesn’t matter!” I shouted. “Where is she? Is she here today? Dr. Vereen is going to kill her!”
They looked at me like I was a raving maniac.
The nurse said, “I’m going to give you something to calm you down.”
I protested in vain as she slid the hypodermic needle into my arm. I overheard the attendant say in a low voice, “Should we reschedule the shock therapy?”
“No,” the nurse answered. “We’ll proceed.”
I remember being wheeled down the hall and into another room. Other people stood around me. They placed a rubber tooth-guard in my mouth so I wouldn’t bite my tongue or chip my teeth. I wanted to speak but only gibberish came out.
Why are they doing this? Are they trying to help me or hurt me? Did Bob Vereen order this? Do they think I’m crazy? Did they find out I’m an alcoholic? Am I really losing my mind?
Racking pain! The shock therapy was in session.
My eyes were closed and I felt relaxed. The painful shocks were fading. I could see the doctors and attendants. I could see the tops of their heads. I saw myself lying on the stretcher. I was doing it again. This time there was no fireball of lightning.
The shock treatment was opening up my own mind’s ability to travel.
I saw the window in the shock therapy room, then the window ledge, then outside. The street. Brick walls of buildings. Trees. The street below. It was a beautiful feeling. No pain. Sailing over the roads. A church steeple. A bank. Sailing past telephone poles, following telephone lines. A bird lands on top of a stop sign and my trail somehow catches the bird’s eye; it’s head flicks left to right as it watches my winding progress around the corner and further on. A bus rolls to a stop at a red light but I keep moving. Sailing.
Alice Smith lives in the sandstone brick apartments up ahead.
As I approach the apartment building, two police cars and an evidence van are parked below me. Yellow tape is blocking off the area.
I can already see the shattered window to Alice Smith’s apartment, surrounded by black soot on the tan brick.
I fly in through the window. Alice’s bedroom. One of the policemen has a camera.
Soot on the wall over the headboard where a picture hangs, glass cracked from the heat and the canvas scorched brown, picture obscured.
The bed, a sunken, smoldering pit of horror. The charred skeletal remains of Alice Smith in the sagging remains of the mattress.
I didn’t want to see any more. I tried to close my eyes but there was no shutting out the scene. Then I remembered, my eyes were already closed.
Of all things, I remembered reading something about out-of-body experiences by Carlos Castaneda. The old Indian teacher had said, “When you want to return to your body, look at your hands.” With a great effort, I opened my eyes wide. I craned my neck and head forward and saw my hands down by my sides, struggling against leather straps. I relaxed my neck, let my head drop back onto a soft pillow, and saw the white ceiling of the hospital room. I was back.
Days passed. I slept a lot. I could barely lift food to my mouth. They stuck an intravenous tube in my arm. The restraints were removed.
One day I opened my eyes to see Dr. Gray holding that empty pipe in his teeth, looking at my chart.
He removed the pipe from his mouth and said, “Remember me?”
“You’re the first doctor I spoke to after the two medics were killed,” I said.
“Well, your recent memory is okay,” he observed. “And your hand,” he remarked with a suspicious smile, “ seems a lot better.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled weakly.
Dr. Gray continued, “Do you remember me telling you that I had asked the legal team to leave you alone for a while?”
“Well, they’re back and they really want to talk to you soon. Do you feel up to it?”
My mind was racing. I had no way of knowing what influence Bob Vereen had over my treatment here, or if he was a friend of
Dr. Gray. As long as I was a patient, especially a mental patient, it seemed that Vereen had some power over my situation.
“Are the police here now?”
“No,” said Dr. Gray. “They want me to call them when you’re ready to talk to them.”
“I want to go to the police station,” I said.
Dr. Gray said, “There’s no need for that. They’re willing to come here.”
“No,” I said. “I will talk to them at the police station or not at all.”
“Well, I don’t understand, but, I’ll tell them. They can probably be here first thing in the morning to pick you up. They are going to want to escort you there, of course.”
“Sure,” I said. “That’s fine.”
Alone in my room that night, I mulled over the situation. Bob Vereen probably thought nobody would believe me about any of this. I’m in the crazy ward, after all.
On the other hand, why would he take the chance? I could lead the authorities to his brain synapse amplifying apparatus if they did listen to me. I didn’t think Dr. Bob wanted me to make it to the police station tomorrow. I was sure he could check on me anytime and find out I was going to the police. I was convinced that if I waited until morning, Bob would come for me this night.
I did the old trick, pillows-under-the-sheets, to make it look like I was in bed asleep. First I sat in the corner of the room and waited. Then I thought of the whole room being lit up by one of Bob’s giant, bloated brain sparks, so I hid in the bathroom with the light out. I waited.
Just after midnight, I heard the squeaking, squeegee sound of glass under pressure, just before the windowpane shattered from the heat. The loud, harsh pop and hum of electricity entered the room. A rectangle of bright of light framed the bathroom door.
The guard outside my room heard the noise, opened the door, and looked in.
He said, “Holy shit! Get a fire extinguisher!”
The regular night security guard said, “Here! What’s going on?”
I barely opened the bathroom door and peeked out. One guard was spraying CO2 from the fire extinguisher all over the flaming bed while the other guard looked on. They both had their backs to me.
One guard shouted, “Lieutenant Dasset!”
The other guard asked, “Is he there? Is that him in bed?”
But Bob had failed at burning me to death in bed.
I bolted out of the bathroom, behind the two guards, out the door into the hallway, in pajamas and bare feet. I sprinted past the nurse’s station, into the stairwell, and barreled down the steps, three at a time. I fell once, rolled down a few stairs, jumped up, and kept running. Down to the first floor and out the door.
I ran along the sidewalk, around the corner of the hospital, and toward the lab building.
The front door to the lab building was locked. The side door was also locked. I picked up a trash can and hurled it through a closed window. Quickly chipping away the jagged shards of glass with the trash can lid, I climbed into the lab building.
Looking around the dark room, I wondered if Bob had heard the breaking glass. Was he still weak or unconscious from the effects of sending out his murderous brain synapse? If I could find him like that, it would be like finding Dracula asleep in his coffin. I walked across the room and found a door that led into the hallway.
As soon had I entered the hallway I heard a noise behind me. Dr. Bob, fully conscious, lunged at me with the Taser.
My anger boiled. I grabbed Bob’s throat with both hands, but his Taser sent spasms of pain into my stomach, wrenching my gut tight from the high voltage. My vision went blurred and then dark.
All I wanted was escape. How could all this have happened? Why? Not so long ago, everything was good. The spring and summer were so nice here. I could see the water fountain in the middle of the courtyard. I floated over the fountain, over tops of buildings, a basketball court. Down there is a young couple sitting together on a bench. Now I see grass and trees below me. There’s the tarmac. Helicopters and airplanes sitting on the tarmac. Soon I’ll be sailing over the runway.
“Oh, right,” I thought. “This is a military base. These aircraft are off limits. What am I doing here? I need to go back. How do I get back? Close my eyes? No, open eyes. Look at hands. Look at my hands.”
My eyes opened to the jarring scene of both my hands locked tightly on Dr. Bob Vereen’s throat. His face was blue. His body hung heavy in my hands. During the muscle contractions and paralysis of electrocution by the Taser, I had involuntarily choked him to death.
It took an effort to open my fingers and let the body drop to the floor. I stood there, not knowing what to do.
“Lieutenant Dassett!” came a familiar whisper.
“Lieutenant! I got my discharge! You need a ride out of here?”
Pratt drove off the base through the front gate with me hiding in the trunk.
With Inherent Vice now a movie, I thought I would repeat this post that originally appeared at Bill Ectric’s Place on 2011:
The books of Thomas Pynchon are so chock-full of cool references, I had to make two collages for this blog entry. Pynchon is one of my favorite writers. I recently read his noir-hippie novel, Inherent Vice (The Penguin Press, New York, 2009). The term “inherent vice” is a legal term that refers to physical properties of goods which may cause them to suffer deterioration or damage without outside influence, like rust or decay. Near the end of the book, someone asks if “inherent vice” is like “original sin.” By this time, the story has unfolded to the point where we recognize that even the so-called “good guys” are flawed, which is not a new theme of course, but Pynchon just does it so well. Here are some of the observations I jotted down while reading Inherent Vice, whenever I had the presence of mind to do so:
There was a show on television about drugs, either PBS or the History Channel, which ended by suggesting that the internet might provide the “expanded consciousness” sought by hippies and psychedelic gurus like Timothy Leary. And, in fact Wikipedia tells us:
By the mid 1980s, Leary had begun to incorporate computers, the Internet, and virtual reality into his aegis of thought. Leary established one of the earliest sites on the World Wide Web, and was often quoted describing the Internet as “the LSD of the 1990s. ”
Pynchon touches upon this idea in Inherent Vice. Private investigator Doc Sportello consults with an 1970 version of a computer geek named Fritz, is, who looks up information on a forerunner of the World Wide Web called ARPAnet. Fritz calls it “surfing the wave of the future.” He tells Doc:
(We) just got this new hire in, name of Sparky, has to call his mom if he’s gonna be late for supper, only guess what – we’re his trainees! He gets on this ARPAnet trip, and I swear it’s like acid, a whole ‘nother strange world – time, space, all that shit.
“So when they gonna make it illegal?” asked Doc.
I like the way Pynchon throws philosophical concepts into his stories without annoying anyone who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about philosophy. Case in point, again from Inherent Vice:
While spying on some shady characters, Doc Sportello is surprised and alarmed to see a rather risque, hand-painted image of his ex-girlfriend, Shasta, on a neck-tie worn by one of the thugs. Not only does Doc feel a twinge of jealousy, he also realizes that Shasta’s life may be endangered by her involvement with suspected criminals. In trying to cope with these concerns, he thinks:
Back in junior college, professors had pointed out to Doc the useful notion that the word is not the thing, the map is not the territory. He supposed you could extend this also to the nudie necktie is not the girl.
Doc’s professors were quoting Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski (July 3, 1879 – March 1, 1950) was a Polish-American philosopher and scientist best known for developing the theory of general semantics. This theory says that people can’t experience the world directly, but only through impressions we get from our five senses and through our understanding of the meaning of words; or to put it another way, words are merely imperfect symbols that represent reality, therefore, reality can never be perfectly understood. This concept is sometimes incorporated into the work of science fiction writers such as A. E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, and Samuel R. Delaney, as well as Beat writer William S. Burroughs (whose work can sometimes be classified as science-fiction as well).
Pynchon paints uncanny pictures with words – uncanny because they remind me of scenes or situations I’ve found myself in. It’s not so much that I’ve been the the same exact situations; it’s more a feeling of deja-vu experienced vicariously through Pynchon’s characters:
The sun vanished behind clouds which grew thicker by the minute . . . After hours of detouring for landslides and traffic jams and accidents, Doc and Shasta finally located the mystically revealed dope dealer’s address, which turned out to be an empty lot with a gigantic excavation in it, between a laundromat and an Orange Julius-plus-car wash, all of them closed. In the thick mist and lashing rain, you couldn’t even see to the other side of the hole . . . Doc and Shasta sat parked by the edge of the empty swamped rectangle and watched its edges now and then slide in, and then after a while things rotated ninety degrees, and began to look, to Doc at least, like a doorway, a great wet temple entrance, into someplace else . . .
I first saw a link to this on John Shirley’s Facebook page. Rudy Rucker’s “Transrealist Manifesto” struck a harmonious chord in my perception of the writing craft. I especially like his statement, “Although reading is linear, writing is not.”
Rucker goes on to explain why you don’t necessarily needs an outline:
A book with no readers is not a fully effective work of art. A successful novel of any sort should drag the reader through it. How is it possible to write such a book without an outline? The analogy is to the drawing of a maze. In drawing a maze, one has a start (characters and setting) and certain goals (key scenes). A good maze forces the tracer past all the goals in a coherent way. When you draw a maze, you start out with a certain path, but leave a lot a gaps where other paths can hook back in. In writing a coherent Transrealist novel, you include a number of unexplained happenings throughout the text. Things that you don’t know the reason for. Later you bend strands of the ramifying narrative back to hook into these nodes. If no node is available for a given strand-loop, you go back and write a node in (cf. erasing a piece of wall in the maze).
Not only is this a good writing tip, it also reminds me of William S. Burroughs notion that “cause and effect” is an illusion. In an article at 3 Quarks Daily, Burroughs says, “I must give up the attempt to explain, to seek any answer in terms of cause and effect and prediction, leave behind the entire structure of pragmatic, result seeking, use seeking, question asking Western thought.” Writers can create events for our fictional characters. Some would say that God, or some force, guides and maybe even predestines our experiences on Earth. This is either reality reflecting fiction or fiction reflecting reality. In The Mosaic of Juxtaposition , Micheal Sean Bolton quotes Burroughs as saying, “When I got interested in cats, I started seeing cats in Brion’s paintings. The notion that what goes on inside somebody can effect something outside goes against the dogma of scientific materialism . . . but that’s obviously not true. I’m thinking about New Mexico, and I come around the corner and there’s a New Mexico license plate. The land of enchantment. I didn’t put it there by thinking about it. But I was there at the same time.”
I’m happy to announce that a story I wrote has been included in issue number 10 of Spolia. The concept was to write a story based on one of Henry James’ stories. In other words, it’s the literary equivalent of a Henry James covers album. The story I wrote, called “Trending,” is based on Henry James’ story, “The Papers.”
They say there are only so many stories to tell, just different ways to tell them. Take the classic ghost story about a spirit that cannot rest until something or other is resolved. I never realized how old that story was until I saw this.
Pliny the Younger was an elected official in ancient Rome. He and his uncle, Pliny the Elder, were both witnesses to the eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79 AD. The elder Pliny was killed during the eruption while attempting to rescue some friends by boat.
Pliny the Younger was also an author who wrote hundreds of letters that have survived to this day. His letters have enabled historians to learn much about ancient Rome. One of the earliest non-Biblical references to Christianity is in a letter from Pliny to the Greek Emperor Trajan, asking for advice on how to conduct trials for Christians (most likely for the crime of not bowing to statues of the Emperor).
Pliny does not necessarily present the ghost story as fiction. In his letter to a Roman Senator named Sura, Pliny writes, “I am extremely desirous to know whether you believe in the existence of ghosts, and that they have real form . . . or only the visionary impression of terrified imagination.”
Pliny follows up his question with two stories. The first story is about a man who sees a vision of a beautiful woman who accurately predicts his death.
The second story begins:
There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands. The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health, and brought on distempers, their terror grew upon them, and death ensued.
Naturally, no one wants to live in the house. No one, that is, until a philosopher named Athenodorus comes along and, being fully apprised of the fearful circumstances, decides to buy the house and live in it. The story ends when the philosopher sees the apparition one night and follows it:
The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains, and, turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves on the spot where the spirit left him. The next day he gave information to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was found there; for the body, having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters. The bones being collected together were publicly buried, and thus after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more.
You can read the entire letter, and all the letters of Pliny the Younger, here at Project Guttenberg. For the “ghost letter” scroll down to LXXXIII — To SURA.