Art by David Revoy/ Blender Foundation

Take the Standards

by Kallirroe Agelopoulou

There were holes in his head where certain memories should lie. Any attempt to recreate events, any attempt to watch the movie in his mind and it became some foreign, art-house existentialist exercise. Without subtitles.

Spared from the ravaging, only bits and pieces. There was a woman, really young. Her face blurred, but the color of her hair unmistakable. The yellow of the brightest sun. Standing in the middle of a cropped field, the endless blue above shielding her whole body, she was the sun. Somewhere near, a house by a lake. No specific detail about it remained. The water of the lake though, was frozen in some unforgettable moment, its calm surface mirrored till the end of the world. A dead picture, suddenly disturbed. Unraveling in front of his unwavering eyes, an event — like a huge rock fell in the middle of the lake, a hole forcing the waters to recede in its grasp, gushing out again, bigger, darker. Different.

And then it stopped. Where is that lake? Who is that woman? All details his mind considered too trivial to try to hold on to. It’s not important, it said, just forget about all that. You better forget about all that. Or else. His brain, the bully. Nobody knew why this happened to him, but the doctors had all unanimously reached their final diagnosis. Dissociative amnesia. Psychosomatic, which meant there was nothing biologically wrong with him. Psycho-somatic, which meant he was probably just crazy.

Being locked up in an asylum, however voluntarily, however self-consciously he made that decision, didn’t alleviate his worries. The doctors were reassuring, but this step could have been the beginning of a bottomless downward spiral. He was not the right age to start exhibiting signs of schizophrenia, but it was still possible. He knew this because of all the books he’d read. They were still easily retrievable from the recesses of his mind; more alive in him than at any time he might have actually needed them – during exams, tests, grueling finals. Medicine, engineering, biotechnology. He could have walked in any biotech lab the next morning, and he’d get hired on the spot. He’d have the knowledge to make it work. The books were there. As far as he knew, all of them. It was the people and the places and the events that were missing.

The Event. That’s what was missing. If anything triggered this partial memory loss in him, it must have been that moment by the lake. The decisive moment that destroyed him, that lingered on, salting the wound. Was it a drowning he witnessed? An accident? Suicide? He felt incapable of anything like that, but he was not the same person anymore. All he had left were the books and glimpses of an idealized … something. None of the resentment, the seething hatred, or all the sickness that came along with day-to-day life.

Still, he would try to get into that mindset.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————
“This could be my home there, by the lake.”

The doctor stopped him before he put another word in. “It is your home. We’ve talked about it before, haven’t we, Charles?”

That’s not the point. Pay attention. “Of course, of course. It’s mine. The house I bought and restored. For my family. I put in weeks of work, I slaved over it for months, and finally it was ready. Ready to be presented. But maybe there were gloomy faces at the unraveling. Maybe not everyone was happy. One frown, one negative remark and I would have been devastated. Disheartened enough to take the plunge.”

“That’s a nice theory. A very nice theory indeed, but what’s so different from the last one you shared with me, in this very room, just a few days back? The one where, once you build that beautiful house, you found yourself so deep in debt that you decided to leave it all behind. End your life, right there in that lake.”

Charles had no answer to that.

The doctor threw him a sympathetic look. “All very logical attempts to bind the threads of your remaining memories but — let’s not forget — debunked from the get-go. Your wife, she found you disoriented, lying in your room, dry as a stick. Not in the lake, half-drowned. It was months after you and your family moved to the place, and she swears you were all very excited to be there.”

“We were?”

The doctor made no attempt to hide his agitation. “Surely these facts, these checkpoints in your life that I’m sharing with you, they must be starting to take root inside your mind? You should really try to make them stick, don’t bother about the things you don’t remember. Instead, let’s see what it is that you can relearn. What you need to know to be back with your family as soon as possible. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Of course.” Charles meant it, too. Any sort of normalcy would be better than what he had now.

“Thank God for small miracles. You have no problem creating new memories. Just let the old ones go. We’re all here to help you.” The doctor started shuffling at his papers again, adding nonchalantly, “You can have visitors again soon, if you feel up to it.”

Visitors. That woman with the scarf and the heavy coat, brown hair cropped short. Cute, friendly. Funny. And that girl, the one with the long blonde hair. Not blonde like the sun, but close enough to make him feel … comfortable. Like he knew her. Even though she always just stared at him, even though she’d never even touched him. He had done something to her, Charles was sure of that. Nothing else would explain a daughter not touching her father — not when he found himself at his weakest.

Snapping out of it, he turned to face the doctor again. “No visitors, not yet. I need to be alone for a while.”

The doctor reassured him with a smile. “If that’s what you want, fine. Don’t worry too much. Take your time, you’re doing great.”

Doctor Cohen smiled, but who knew what he wrote down in that notebook of his? ‘Antisocial.’ ‘Irredeemable.’ ‘Unfit to be released. Ever.’

Charles knew he wouldn’t be able to avoid his family for long.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————
Back in his room, he lay down. Not to sleep, not exactly. He had been doing exercises. Push-ups for the brain. The doctor said forget; everybody simply wanted him to move on, make a new start, but they just didn’t get it. He couldn’t move on, not until he found out, made sure he wasn’t going crazy. For weeks now, he’d been working – trying to take the faces he had learned, apply them to all he remembered. Basic scientific research rules: take the Standards, those things that truly are, the facts. The Laws of this world. Add them to what you think might be. Each time getting a little bit closer to what the truth is. He closed his eyes.

Walking outside his house, in his field. Walking in that field with the sun on his side. He turned to look at her. Instead of that blurred face, the face that everyone told him was that of his daughter. It was his daughter with the sky behind her, lighting up the place. Her mother, his wife? That lovely woman, that honest smile, she should have been somewhere near, too. Maybe inside the house. That’s right, she was in the house preparing them lunch. They were ready to get back, him checking the field for insect specimens and his daughter … just sitting there, in the middle of the field, staring. Toward him, but not at him. Her eyes wide open, looking at something beyond where he stood. The lake. Calm, iridescent. He knew what that lake looked like. He turned to see what she was looking at. In the middle of watery stillness, something stirred. Something creating circular waves, as if a huge fish had just reached the surface, ready to jump. But it was no fish that came out of that stir pot. It was something big…

But what?

Charles was so close now, he was almost there, ready to find out. To know. Every time he managed to free a bit of the blackness, replace it with something, a possibility, it felt like he was pulling out a huge suction cup attached to his brain. This one — the last leech sucking on his remaining memories — was going to need all of his strength to get rid of.

He didn’t stop, not this time. He forced the brain to do its job. Remember. Something coming out of the lake. Big — not a fish. Lakes have fish. And algae, plants. A plant coming out of the water. Green … no, it wasn’t green. It was the color of death. Black. Whatever came out didn’t look alive, but it very well could have been. A tree. Eyes shut tight, Charles pushed even more, until logical deduction and imagination worked together to force out a specific image. He saw darkness underneath the crystal clear water, the skeletal frame of a huge tree. That was where the branches sprang from. They grew, tangled up from the deep until they reached just out of the surface. And then they rose, expanding, a sudden mass demanding space, splashing water furiously out of its way. Above and over the surface, the emaciated appendages moved rapidly, entwined, forming the most bizarre patterns, carving the sky. Reaching out, finally reaching him.

And there it really ended. Nothing more could come out of his memories; there weren’t any for him to build a story upon. He nervously got up, moving aimlessly through the room, finally settling in front of the window. Outside, the rest of the patients were wandering around the yard, under a sky stained with heavy clouds. Black sky, harboring rain. The color of death, alive.

Charles sat on a chair, eyes fixed high, mind circling all the possibilities of his revelation. That image in his head, that unreal growth emerging from the depths, tracing him. Forged by a diseased brain, under extreme duress, birthed out of his absolute need to solve this. Of course it was unreliable. Unbelievable, unscientific. As far as he knew, he could still be on the way to actual madness. Even worse, that image could send his mind down that path faster than he ever had imagined. The logical part of the brain told him so, but something else inside him screamed that he had found at least part of the truth.

Connecting the two opposites pulling him apart, wasn’t going to be easy, especially if he had to do it on his own. But how could he ever share what he found with Doctor Cohen? With anyone? He refused to end up as one of the zombies walking outside, tripping on their own feet, not when he still had a chance to get out of there, whole.

He took another look at the walking dead outside his window, never happier to be in his own room, separated from the everyday signs of madness that lived in this place. But maybe now was the time to get a feel of the other side. How it worked, how it operated. What it is they had, that he didn’t? Yet.

Before he really, truly, became one of them, he had to recognize the kind of thinking he had to avoid. See the way obsessions could take someone and rip him apart. Then maybe he would avoid the same fate — learn to keep this, whatever it was that he’d come up with, from destroying him completely.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————
Joining them for the first time, as they roamed among the high walls of the yard, Charles chose wisely. Not any of the heavily sedated ones, the ones that walked around dragging their feet, mouths drooling. Not someone from the OCD group, someone who might go on for hours rearranging the stems of flowers before settling down to speak to him — if they could ever do that. He spotted the perfect candidate right away. A young man, reading a book. He took a peek at the title. A Tree Grows Up in Brooklyn.

“Is it any good?”

“Entertaining. For chick-lit.” The man offered him a hand. “I’m Bryan.”

“Charles. I should have brought some books here, too.”

“They help.”

“How?” Charles sat down, ready to get into the mindset.

The man stared at him, seriously. “They fill up the void. Stop it from taking over.”

The comment caught him off-guard. “What?”

Bryan laughed as he closed his book. “I thought you were looking for crazy talk. Did my best to provide.”

“Hah. Very funny.”

“But seriously, books, music … they release the mind from obsession. For a bit, at least. If you don’t end up incorporating it all to your pathology, anyway.”

“It sounds complicated.”

“Hey man, it’s a daily struggle. You should already know that. You’re in here, right?”

“Right.” He nodded slowly in agreement, not ready to share his story. Not yet, maybe not ever.

Bryan continued, hopefully. “But we move on. Everything is possible. Even in this place.”

And there it was. Charles came here, among the ‘sick’, with the arrogance of a clinical trialist. Let’s see how ‘real’ mental patients think. Let’s observe and make notes of their primitive behavior. Instead he found a ray of light through the despair. Hope. There are no limits to the world. Anything is possible. Things never before imagined came true, changed people, reshaped the world. Every book he had ever read attested to that; his own line of work did.

Maybe even this, what his mind conjured, was not as impossible as it seemed. Maybe there was some truth to the absurdity.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————
“I saw you at the yard yesterday. You were talking to Bryan.” Doctor Cohen looked serious.

“Yeah … I felt like a walk. And a talk.”

Charles’ attempt at humor completely missed the mark. “You were talking to Bryan, but you don’t want your family to visit. Why do you think that is?”

There was a hint of an accusatory note there. An attempt to shame him. He accommodated the good doc. “It’s different. It’s difficult for me to see them. They know me, but I don’t know them.”

“But they don’t know you either. It’s as if you’re meeting for the first time. Only, these people care about you, they have an emotional attachment to you already. Take advantage of that. You should try to connect with them, instead of hanging around with any of the patients. They will be here for a long time, you won’t. Don’t feel you have to fit in this place. This is not your home, Charles.”

“Why not? What’s so different about me? Bryan seems perfectly fine, and yet he’s locked up in here.”

Doctor Cohen answered calmly. “Bryan took years and years of therapy to get to this level. Did he ever tell you why he’s in here? When he was twenty he took a screwdriver and jammed it to his father’s throat. Only the drugs keep his symptoms at bay. You are not like that.”

“How can I be sure?” A perfectly honest question, if there ever was one.

“Trust me. You have to have the right mindset, the right holds for his sort of ideas to take over. Your issues will take their time to get resolved, but if you don’t let them, they won’t cripple you. So, don’t let them.”

Charles remained unconvinced, but he’d heard enough. “Doctor? I think I’m ready to see my family again.”

The doctor’s face lit up, more than an overburdened Christmas tree.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————
Leaving Doctor Cohen’s office, Charles was convinced he made the right decision. It was the only way out of the situation. Avoiding them again would only make him look even worse. The doctor would surely start to question his ability to reintegrate into society. But there was something else, too. In his memories he was never alone. When it happened, whatever it was, she was there too. His daughter should surely remember it all. There had to be a way to relay to her the images in his head, without damning himself in the process. Following the stairs up to his room, so lost in thought, he barely registered the call.

“Hey!”

Charles turned to see Bryan, right behind him. “Sorry, just finished my session, I’m a little preoccupied.”

“No worries. That’s the way I usually end up after all the poking and prodding, too. Just thought I’d say hello.” Bryan smiled at him. “So, hi. You may go on with your business.”

Charles had to chuckle at that. “I don’t have much planned. My family’s visiting tomorrow, I should probably brush up on my social skills. You might have noticed they’re a bit rusty.”

“A family! That’s great. Be on your best behavior, polite and kind and … boom! Instant ticket out of here.”

“Do you have someone?”

“Sure. They just don’t care. Bad blood between us, plus they have their own problems.”

The words slipped out of Charles’ mouth, before he even realized it. “Don’t you mean spilled blood?”

“What?” Thankfully, Bryan hadn’t heard.

Charles still couldn’t resist the question. “Why are you in here?”

“Remember what I told you about the books keeping the void away? Turns out I prefer them to everything I left behind. I’m not interested in going back, not based on what I remember. Plus nobody wants me back.” He lifted his shoulders, sighing melodramatically. “I’m a lost cause.”

It was bizarre that he’d lie about it, in this place, where everyone had something to be ashamed off, but Charles decided to let it go. “I have to leave, run by my notes, see that I’m in shape for tomorrow.”

“Sure. We’ll talk.”

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————
Donna, his wife, started the visit by hugging him tight. She eventually let him go, but not before she planted a soft kiss on his left cheek. It felt nice.

“How are you? It’s been a long time.” She immediately started fussing over him, fixing his pillows, rearranging the sheets.

I’m not incapacitated, he wanted to say. Instead he answered in his friendliest tone, “I’m doing better. How are you two?”

“All quiet on the Western front!” He smiled at that and her eyes watered. “I’m sorry,” she continued, “it’s just … I keep forgetting how you remember every single book you’ve ever read, in detail, but nothing about us.”

Donna was always so smiley; he hated seeing her like that. “There are things I remember about you, just not a whole picture. More like … feelings.” Now he was just making stuff up. “I remember being happy. For what it’s worth.”

Her thankful look made the lie worth it. She leaned in, hugged him again. “You can be happy again! We can all go back to being happy. Isn’t that right, Megan?” She looked at their daughter, still standing by the doorway.

“Sure.”

Donna turned to him again. “Now that you’re better, you should come to the house. See if anything looks familiar.”

Bingo. This was his chance. “That would be nice.” He turned to look at Megan, speaking as nonchalantly as possible. “Maybe we could hang out by the lake some time, at the cornfield. Like we used to.”

She stared at him, eyes wide open, dumbfounded. Nothing he said would have justified her reaction, unless she did know something about the day he lost his mind, something about that lake, something she was too afraid to tell anyone.

“Megan, your father asked you a question.”

Eyes clouded, the girl conformed to the circumstance, but he sensed her discomfort as she spat the words out. “Sure. Walk by the lake.”

Oblivious to the signs, or just used to teenage behavior, his wife got up and moved toward the door. “I think I’m gonna go get us all something to drink. Megan, go sit by your father, talk a bit, ok?”

Megan barely had time to protest before her mother was gone. She slowly approached his bed, careful to always keep him at arm’s length.

Charles decided to jump right in. It was now or never. “So, that lake must be really something, huh? I don’t remember it, not exactly, but it feels like it’s a sight to be seen.”

“It’s just a lake.”

“Are you sure? Nothing amazing about it? Nothing at all?”

She looked at him intently, frowning, mouth closed tight.

“Megan? Is there something you’re not telling me?”

Finally reaching her boiling point, she let it all out. “What about the lake? You know what happened! You might have everybody else fooled, but I know! You’re not my father!” For a moment she stood, body trembling from head to toe, before she ran out the door.

That didn’t go well. But now Charles knew, something actually happened, something that had her so scared, she couldn’t even talk to him about it. Something as scary as what he remembered. Something, exactly like he remembered. Giddily realizing he might not be going crazy after all, Charles laughed with abandonment. Now that he knew he was not crazy, he sounded crazier than ever. He forced himself to stop and Donna returned soon enough.

“Where’s Megan?”

“Went to get some air.” He shifted the conversation, before she had time to process that. “I think we should arrange for me to visit the house as soon as possible.”

She looked at him gratefully, unaware of the cogs always turning in his brain. “I’ll talk to Doctor Cohen. Right away.”

This time he instigated their hug. Their kiss, too.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————
That night as he fell asleep, he didn’t force himself to remember. He didn’t seek out the problem. The problem found him.

The lake, calm like always. Nothing special about it. The sun was almost lost, but he stayed by its side, until it faded away completely. Eyes fixed on the water. Sure enough, the event unfolded. Branches, infinite lines, rising from the depths, rushing over to reach him. Only this time, the darkness spoke.

Forget, Charles. Forget it all. Wouldn’t you want to forget it all?

No, he ached to reply, don’t take them. Don’t take the memories away from me. I’ll lose myself; there’ll be nothing to hold on to. Nothing real. He tried to utter the words, but this was a dream, there was not the slightest chance he could ever control what happened. He could only watch as they entered his head; all the lines, however massive, fitting perfectly inside, finding their place. Taking over.

He woke up drenched in sweat, in the middle of the night, alone in his room. What he feared most was finally here. The first sign. Voices speaking to him. This time his laughter was forced; it didn’t spawn from any real exhilaration. This time it didn’t just sound crazy.

It was.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————
All Charles had to do was remain calm. Regain control, stop the madness from taking over. The next morning he made sure the hallucinations hadn’t followed him outside dreamworld. He remained silent all morning, ready to ambush and crush them, should they appear. They never did.

There might be hope yet. If he could get to the house with his family, with his daughter, he’d find out what happened that day by the lake. What that thing stalking him really was.

Doctor Cohen lifted his head from his papers to greet him. It was not a warm welcome. “I saw you yesterday. You were talking to Bryan. Did he ever tell you why he was in here?”

Charles eyed the doctor curiously. “I bumped into him by chance. And no, he never told me why he was in here. You did. Just a couple of days ago, remember?”

The doctor continued with his speech anyway. “Right. You should focus on your family, this institution is not your home, Charles.”

“I understand that. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Did Donna tell you our plans?”

Cohen’s face smiled for the first time that morning. “Yes! I think it’s a great idea. If you’re feeling up to it, it should be arranged as soon as possible!”

“We’d like that. Tomorrow?”

A nod. “Start packing your suitcases. Wait here, I have something for you.” He walked out the door, leaving Charles alone.

There was no plan, how could there have been? Still, Charles knew exactly what to do once that door shut him in. As if he had done this countless times before, he got up and headed straight to the cabinet. His file was easily retrieved. He read fast, focusing on the final, bold letters from each set of papers.

Rational/ Remembering/ Hopeful/ A chance?

He spotted a familiar name as he put the file back. Bryan. He shuffled through the notes.

Denial/ Hallucinations/ Withdrawn/ Forgetting.

Something drew him to look up the more detailed description of Bryan’s hallucinations. What he found almost made him drop everything. Charles opened more and more files, as fast as his hands could run through them. Discovering the same pattern, again and again. Black tentacles, ropes, branches, whatever. The patients, they all had the same memories, they knew, they had seen it too. Coming through kitchen faucets and bathtubs, mirrors and television sets. An otherworldly being, calling them to forget. But they didn’t remember any of it, like he did. Not anymore. The moment he heard footsteps, he was back at his seat, heart racing, face calmer than ever.

Doctor Cohen beamed as he handed Charles a disposable camera. “Here you are. Go ahead, make new memories, record them. Start over. You’re leaving early morning tomorrow. Who knows? Maybe you’ll never come back!” He offered his hand. “I hope you’ll find all you need, there. I really do.”

Charles was pretty sure they were not referring to the same thing, but he held the doctor’s hand tightly anyway. “Me too.”

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————
Mind racing, he spent the rest of the day in his room. They all felt it, they all heard it – the thing of black reaching out. This was not mass hysteria or anything like it. He had never met the people of this institution before. It had to be real. It spoke, trying to shut up their fear and doubt. Forget, it always said, the word appearing in the documents again and again. Some of the patients must have been really afraid because it wouldn’t shut up. That vision of talking madness, finally engulfing them all, beating them down. They had all done exactly as it commanded — they forgot. All except him.

He was the only one still trying to remember and, by God, he would try to keep it that way.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————
The lake wasn’t calm. Frogs and insects and fish were troubling the water incessantly — a perfectly normal, lively ecosystem. Charles stood for a good while looking at it, taking photographs, trying to force something to happen. Nothing did. Donna joined him.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

“More than I would have imagined.”

She smiled and placed her hands on his chest. “Stay here, relax all you want. But … won’t you go talk to Megan, too? She’s at the cornfield. She’s hasn’t been herself lately. Tell her everything’s gonna be alright. She needs to hear it.”

He had no problem obliging. “Of course.” That was the plan anyway. Talk to Megan, elicit the truth from her. The time had come.

Donna headed back to the house and he left the lakeside, walked slowly toward the sun standing in the middle of his field. She was staring at the horizon, a lean figure painting the prettiest picture.

“Megan.”

She turned to face him, angrily. “What do you want?”

Charles spoke as softly as possible. “Just to talk.”

“There’s nothing to say, not anymore.”

“We could talk about what we shared. Here, you and me. There are things in my head, that I cannot understand. My memories—”

She immediately cut him off, eyes on the verge of tears. “Memory loss, my ass. I actually took pity on you when they locked you up. And then you started asking about the lake and the field and us, walking together. And I knew what this was really all about. A lie, to get you off the hook. How can you stand there like nothing has happened? Like you never pushed me down in this field, like you never touched me? I swear, if you ever leave that asylum, if you try to come back, I’ll tell. I’ll tell them all!”

She stormed away, leaving him behind. Leaving him to waddle his way through the mess again. To process the impossible. His rabbit hole was deep.

Forget.

In the middle of that field, Charles stood still, mind in shambles. He only ever wanted to remember. Take the Standards. He looked up at the sky, to where the sun kept beaming. Megan. Beautiful Megan. That bitch, the thoughts she tried to plant into his mind. Those horrible thoughts were all her fault. And his wife, that timid flower, that unreal niceness. Who knew what she really thought of him, what plans she had. To get rid of him, kill him. Why else would she want him out of the asylum, after everything that happened? Take the Standards; apply them to what might be. There was no way she didn’t know.

Forget.

He had holes in his head. Hungry pits of nothingness sucking on the tit of the universe, newborn kittens gobbling down details and facts and analyses. Never satiated, they bided their time until it finally came. They existed for it to take hold of. Invisible tentacles sprouting, taking over his brain, planting the seed. You have to have the right holds. The right holds, for the idea to form in you.

Forget.

He had holes in his head and finally they stopped screaming. Finally, happy again, no worries, no questions. Silence. And the pull of God. The liberator, liberating him. What else could it be?

Calmly, Charles followed the path back to the house.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————
“Didn’t you hear me the first time?” Megan was sitting by the bushes at the other side of the lake. Face smeared from tears, she turned up to look at him as he approached, knife behind his back.

He slit his wife’s throat, too.

And then, real silence. Nothing. He sat alone by the lake, the blood of two dead bodies on his hands, the sun lying on his lap and nature didn’t care. Why would it? He got up, but before he left, to go God knows where, he had to look at that lake again, for one last time. There was nothing more to expect, no more revelations, not really. He already had his absolution. Still, when he turned, the water was locked in stillness. That blackness again rippled through, started going at him. Would it say anything this time? Would it speak?

Back again, Charles? So soon? What a pity.

Just like that, he was back at the doctor’s office.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————
“Ah, our star patient. Welcome back, Charles.”

He looked around, dazed, knife still in hand. This couldn’t be happening. “What’s going on?”

Doctor Cohen smiled at him. “It’s really amazing what the brain can do, Charles. What it can create. But yours went far and beyond that. It really did.”

The doctor got up, pointed to the patients outside his window. “See them all down there?”

They were walking around like always, just like he remembered them. Charles didn’t even try to mask his confusion.

“Was it all a dream?”

Doctor Cohen kept his eyes outside the window. “The ones that didn’t make it… They’ve been here a long time; most of them succumbed. The holes cracked open completely, driving them insane, their pathologies returning, even worse. Some, like your friend Bryan, they simply chose not to go back, filled the emptiness with books, new stories. You’re the only one remaining. The only one who remembers, that can’t let go. Not going forward, or regressing.” He turned to look at Charles again. “Well, until today. Although none of us could ever imagine how far you’d take it, the twisted ways you’d create to bring everything together. But you were obviously a very clever man. Very well-read. You managed to incorporate what you remembered in your pathology. Finally making it so, that killing your own family was justified.” The doctor stared at him, impressed. “It’s part of what makes you such an interesting specimen.”

The words out of his mouth were but a whisper. “Specimen?”

“Come.”

Doctor Cohen closed the door of the office behind them. Calm waters, sparkling under the sun. They were looking straight at his lake.

This must be a dream. “Where am I?”

“I’ll give you a hint. At least one of us is dead.”

Or maybe Charles wasn’t dreaming. Maybe…

“Is this hell?”

A laugh. “Of course not. But I can see why you’d think that.” Doctor Cohen walked through the place like he’d been there before. “See, I know you are dead, because we found your body. Right there.” He pointed to a bush near the water and turned to look at Charles again. “That day at the lake, was your last. But I could very well be dead too. Who knows how long the experiment has been going on? You never check bio-cultures as they grow, do you? You put them to a machine and eventually, the results pop up.” Doctor Cohen laughed under the cloudless sky. “Isn’t it amazing? We’re just bodiless minds, interacting inside an extremely intricate Petri dish. Erasing the past, recreating the future. Trying to find the root of human malice. Together, like we always meant to be. On opposite sides of the fence, but still…” He turned to look at Charles again, a twinkle in his eye. “You used to call it holistic therapy. Oh boy, did we have a good laugh at that. Get it, Charlie? Holes, holistic?”

Charles stood, staring at the man talking to him, the sky, the lake. The water. Still trying to scientifically weasel his way out of this predicament. But there was nowhere to go, not anymore. For just one moment, everything was back. Charlie. Charlie the biotech engineer, who helped create this thing. The one who would have been immortalized as another doctor, another artificial intelligence guiding the experiment. Charlie, who couldn’t have anticipated what would happen, that day by the lake.

“The experiment will continue. Of course it will.” The doctor muttered to himself. “Take dead, twisted people, people who have done horrible things. The brains of the irredeemable, plug them in. What does it take to fix their pathology? What do they have to lose to be whole again?”

He started walking away. “Maybe now we’ll take the books out as well. You might still remember the plug-in process, but you wouldn’t have the tools to keep digging, to keep searching for the truth.” He continued walking, deep in thought, already considering the possibilities. “We’ll see.”

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Kallirroe is a med intern with a severe case of sci-fi and horror addiction. Writing helps. Some of her work appears in such publications as Dark Bits, Sanitarium, Dark Edifice, Bewildering stories, Thick Jam, and Microhorror. She keeps trying to hit her daily writing quota in Athens, Greece, but only sporadically updates her blog. It can be found online at kallirroe.blogspot.com

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