by Sarah A. Drew
The brontosaurus is following me to work, nipping at the wheels of my car. I turn right at the intersection and stop at the next light. The dinosaur sits just beyond my trunk gasping for breath.
He’s a naughty boy, the Man says.
The Woman laughs. Hurry, Hurry, Jennifer, my love, or we’ll be late.
She’s right, I know. But even if I was late, or didn’t show up at all, I wouldn’t get in trouble. I’m far too valuable for that.
When I pull into the company parking lot the brontosaurus disappears beneath my hood. His head sticks out from under the passenger side door. He frowns at me and his leathery brow wrinkles as I make my way to the front of the building. Before I can use the com, a young woman opens the door and looks me hard in the face. She isn’t glowing, or bursting into flame, which is how I know she’s there.
“I’m Lisa.” She smiles. “We’re so glad to have you here at Bergman-Jonson Intel.”
What a nice looking girl. I hope you two can be friends, the Woman says.
Jennifer can’t be friends with everyone. It’s not possible, the Man replies.
I shake my head and the Man and the Woman go silent. Lisa cranes her neck to look into the parking lot. “You drove here alone?” Her face flushes white.
“Of course,” I say.
“That’s. . .” She smiles even broader, but her eyes betray fear. “That’s fine. We can have a driver pick you up tomorrow morning. Free of charge.”
She leads me through security and at least a dozen locked doors. The Man and the Woman coo and fuss over every detail, the DNA readers, the armored guards, the IED-proof glass, but I’m not impressed. I see stranger things every morning before breakfast.
“It’s customary that new employees meet with Ms. Berman, the CEO. She insists on it. Especially someone as special as yourself,” Lisa says.
She waves me into an office. It’s light and airy, with an ancient ship’s wheel hanging on the wall. The Captain steering it glares at me, his hair and beard slicked with rain. I turn away from him, trying not to make eye contact. Ms. Bergman is sitting behind a desk made of weathered driftwood. She smirks.
“It’s completely authentic, you know,” she says. “From an 18th century privateer sloop. Everything here, everybody, is authentic, except myself. But then I run the place.”
She stands and shakes my hand. “I’m a sociopath, not naturally, but chemically-induced. All the great business leaders of the past 100 years had sociopathic tendencies; I just took things a step further.”
I look again at the Captain, but he’s too absorbed in steering his ship to notice. Ms. Bergman follows my gaze. “What’s it like to be schizophrenic, and a natural one at that? I’ve always wondered. I could have the treatment, but it wouldn’t be the same. I hear the natural ones are always superior.”
For a moment her head is encased in a shark’s jaw. Her eyes tint to shiny black.
Watch out, she’s going to bite you. The Man giggles.
Don’t be afraid, my sweet, sweet child. It’ll only tickle, like a feather duster, the Woman says.
I look Ms. Bergman in her glossy dead eyes and serrated teeth. “It’s the most terrible thing you can possibly imagine.”
When I had my first psychotic episode my mother laughed and my father cried. The Doctor himself seemed to glow as he announced the news, as if discussing the birth of a new child.
“The statistics worldwide for schizophrenia is 3 in 10,000,” the Doctor said. “Jennifer’s fortunate she was affected at such a young age. It’ll be easier for her to adjust to her new gifts.”
At that my mother pulled me close and kissed me on the head. “We always knew you were our special little girl.”
But I was too distracted to join in her enthusiasm. The posters on the Doctor’s walls had all seemed innocent enough – directions on washing hands, lists on what children should do if a stranger follows them home - but upon closer inspection I’d realized they were all about the merits of euthanasia.
Kill him before he gets you, the Man said.
Pick up that paperweight on his desk, the Woman said. Quickly. Quickly hit him in the eye before he puts his needle in you.
I’d reached for his paperweight then, a chunk of glass made to resemble a leaf. It’d felt good in my fingertips – heavy, real.
“You’re going to have to send her to a special school,” the Doctor said. “They’ll get her on the right medication and give her training. Some parents try to teach their schizophrenic children at home, but in my opinion the results are never as good. I’d suggest Alta Bates in Berkeley, or Gateways in Beverly Hills. And I’ve heard good things about Green Lane in Wiltshire. I’d be more than happy to give you a referral.”
The doctor smiled, my parents smiled, they all smiled. I’d raised the leaf then, clutching it in my palm. The doctor’s face had changed first, his mouth twisting into a scowl. My mother screamed as I tossed the paperweight through the air. It flew wide and shattered against the wall.
“No,” I said. “I won’t hurt him. You’re lying to me.”
The Man and the Woman had laughed. But I knew, I knew, they would never win. I wouldn’t let them.
The band around my wrist trills once and falls silent. I open my purse and rummage through it.
“Is there something I can help you with?” Lisa says.
“Time for my medication.” I pull out my pill box and shake a dose into my hand. “Could you find me a glass of water?”
“Anything you need.”
We duck into a cafeteria. It’s white, clean, maybe too clean. I feel as if I’ve violated it just by entering. Beneath the tables, I catch a glimpse of a duster rolling back to its charging station in the wall. For a moment it has long ears and a puffy tail. The room fills with rabbits, falling over the furniture, curling in the sink. Lisa passes me a glass of water then washes her hands with soap.
“I apologize if this is too personal, but why do you take medication?”
I take a sip and place the pill at the end of my tongue. It goes down my throat in one gulp. “For the hallucinations and paranoia. The medication makes my hallucinations harmless and ridiculous; it’d be impossible for me to mistake them for reality. And it gets rid of the paranoia, or at least most of it.”
“But you still see things?”
“Yes. The idea is to make me rational, but still leave the schizophrenia untouched.”
“We wouldn’t want that.”
We pass through a few more hallways, most of them lined with doors locked with blinking DNA readers. Lisa takes me to an office that opens at the touch of my hand. The room inside is small and blank. I can already feel my mind brewing up ridiculous creatures to fill it with. My desk is a simple affair, about as clean and untouched as the cafeteria. And the wires from my terminal look as if they’d just been taken out of the package.
Be careful with the plug, my darling. You don’t want to hurt yourself, the Woman says.
I brush my hair aside and insert the wires into my frontal lobe. The human brain contains no nerves, so I feel nothing as they slide into place. When I turn the terminal on it boots without a sound and the wires tickle as they spring to life. I close my eyes and dream of the war.
When it was announced I’d gotten a job at Bergman-Jonson, Nick was the first person to call. I’d asked for one of the private rooms at my school so we could talk face to face without eavesdropping. The teachers and administers had only the barest interest in our calls, but the other students were ravenous for gossip. I’d been at Alta Bates in Berkeley for five years by then, getting an education with the other schizos and learning how to cope with my “gifts.” It was the dullest place I’d been in my life, and we all treated rumors as if they were the sweetest nectar.
“How you doing there, kid?” Nick’s face beamed back at me from the com. He was burned red from his tour of duty in Egypt, but I could tell beneath his fatigues he was the same little boy I’d grown up with.
I tried to move my chair closer to the screen but found that, like most of the seats at Alta Bates, it was nailed to the ground. A few students could get violent, and I understood the need to keep weapons to a minimum, but the policy never failed to annoy me.
“You’re gonna like the place that hired me.” I smiled. “We’re going to be working together in a way.”
“What is it?” he said.
“It’s a private contractor that analyzes military intelligence. They want me to look through data collected on the battlefield. Maybe I’ll find some connections everyone else missed because their brains aren’t funny like mine.” I tapped my head. “They’re just starting out and they have a lot to prove, which is why they’ve hired a natural schizo instead of one of the chemical ones.”
Nick scratched at his wrists. His forearms twitched every few minutes. It was a side effect of the bipolar medication they’d given him on the field. A soldier in a medically-induced mania could go days without sleep or loss of concentration, although Nick always looked worn out when I spoke to him on the com.
“What about that ad agency that’s been talking to mom and dad?” he said. “They were hoping you could become the next Dianne White.”
She was a natural schizo that’d designed a number of ad campaigns for the terminal. Her work was always touching but bizarre. After experiencing her last piece I’d felt confused but at the same time comforted, as if my mother had swept me from a dark room and held me in her arms.
“The ad agency wanted me to work from this school.” I said. “The people at Bergman-Jonson are offering to place me in my own house and pay for my care. It was my best opportunity to get out of there.”
An especially severe twitch hit Nick and he shifted on the screen. “Are you sure you want this? I’m not going to lie, since I’ve joined the service I’ve seen things I wouldn’t want anyone else to deal with. Hell, I don’t want to deal with it. They’ve got implants you know, the militants do. They don’t even have to strap a bomb to their chests, they just blow up from the inside. Sometimes they put them in prisoners. We’ll be loading hostages into a truck and they’ll detonate right before our eyes.”
“It’s just data. I won’t be running around with a gun,” I said.
“Trust me. You don’t want any part of this.”
“Don’t tell me what I want.” I stood up from my chair. “I want my own life. I want things to be the way they were before this happened to me.”
Nick sat still for a moment. “More than anything, I wish I could do that for you.”
I dream of oil fields in flame, of men with guns. The soldiers feel no pain at the lives they’ve taken; they’re afflicted with artificial dissociative disorder. One personality does the killing, while the original one is left with no memories and a clear conscience. I stir through the information, thousands of cameras looking from the sky, the reports of commanders on the field. From the language they use I can tell many of them are sociopaths, and a lucky few naturally so.
The dead rise and fall in graphs from battlefield to battlefield, like a phoenix dying and being reborn. I smell the burn of smoke as it makes its path from Sudan to Kazakastan and curls at the border of China.
“The militants are moving to Tibet,” I say.
Lisa is sitting in a chair looking at me, her face screwed up in surprise. The voice of a man dying on the field fills my head. I have just enough time to pull out the plug before I throw up in the trash.
“Tibet?” Ms. Bergman says.
She’s plugged into her own terminal, combing through the data I’ve reviewed.
“Yes,” I say.
The Captain’s gone now, but a white whale fills the office, its head wedged against the ceiling and its tail spilling out the door. A pink tongue lolls from between its jaws.
You have to admit that is pretty funny, the Man says.
It is, it is, the Woman says. But the poor dear doesn’t look comfortable.
Ms. Bergman straightens the neck of her blouse. “I’m genuinely surprised that a new employee could come up with this information so quickly, but it’s too broad to be of real use.”
“The Tibetan border is, God I don’t know.” She leans back in her seat. “Thousands of miles long. They could strike at any part of it. If what you say is true.”
Of course she doesn’t believe me. Her mind isn’t like mine. She can’t see all the little connections that’d only make sense to a schizo.
Ms. Bergman pats me on the hand. I want to recoil from her touch.
Like petting a snake, the Man says.
“Take the rest of the day off.” Ms. Berman says. “Get yourself some lunch somewhere. You’re already entered into our DNA readers so you can come and go as you please.”
On my way down the hall, I pass by Lisa’s office. She’s wiping her desk down with cleaning fluid, her mouth pinched in concentration. A sweeper is rolling over her floor, but the hallucination of rabbits doesn’t come.
Lisa spots me at the door. “Can I help you with something?”
“Are you natural or artificial?” I say.
Lisa folds her hands and looks at her desk. “Natural. Ms. Berman insisted on having an assistant that was born with obsessive compulsive disorder. She always complements me on how neat my documents are and how I keep her up to date on appointments.” She straightens a box of pens. “I don’t think she really cares how I feel, though.”
“Are you leaving? I could use a break.”
The two of us walk outside into the afternoon air. The company parking lot is lined with a thin strip of grass with a wire fence surrounding it. Prisoners in black and white pajamas climb up and down the barbed wire. I recognize them from an old cartoon. Perhaps my subconscious is getting lazy.
“Have you ever heard of these?” Lisa takes two pills from her pocket and cradles them in her palm. “They’re called sleeper. I take them sometimes to take the edge off my compulsions. But not too many. I don’t want to get rid of them totally. I’d lose my job.”
I take one from her hand and pinch it between my fingers. It’s large and white, twice as big as my own medication. “Who prescribed this to you?”
“No one. I get them shipped from China.”
I bet they taste like sugar, like candy, the Woman says. So big and white. You should taste one. Just a taste.
“Can I have a few?” I say.
Lisa shakes her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how you’d respond. It could jeopardize Ms. Bergman’s project. She’d kill me. Maybe literally. She doesn’t feel any empathy.”
When I return home from work I go straight to my own terminal. It only takes a quick search to find sleeper, and even less time to hook up with a supplier. I order a whole box and have it shipped overnight.
The next day is a blur. I dream of the war, feeling the death of men pass through my teeth, hearing their voices as if they were the Man and the Woman in my mind. Tibet calls to me again, but I don’t tell Ms. Bergman. As a matter of fact, I don’t see her at all. The offices of Bergman-Jonson are largely empty, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the only schizo working. When I return home in the evening I find a package on my doorstep and a message from Nick on my terminal.
Hey, kid. How’s it going? We’re shipping out to Sudan tomorrow, and I wanted to drop you a quick message before I get too busy. I hope the new job’s going well. I can’t wait to hear about it.
His messages are always heartfelt but uninformative. I can’t help but wonder if this is because he’s going somewhere classified. Although with what I’ve been doing these past two days, I doubt any information he could give me would be a surprise.
The Man and the Woman titter and point out the features of my new house. I haven’t seen the inside of many, so I’m not sure what they’re comparing it with. When my dinner is finished, I place the package on the table and open it with a butter knife. I’m not allowed to keep anything sharp, and this is the best I can find.
I take two pills with a glass of water. Within a few hours the Man and the Woman’s voices die to a throaty whisper. The purple monster that’s been standing in the corner of my living room fades away too, but it takes me a little while to notice he’s gone. When everything is quiet I go outside to look at the stars. For the first time in many years, since I was a teenager, I gaze up at the sky and see nothing unusual at all.
Ms. Bergman enters my office and slaps her palm on my desk. I jump at the sound and open my eyes.
“They loved it,” she says. “My people at the NSA loved your information. They’ve been suspecting the enemy would strike at China next, and your data confirms that Tibet will be the next target.”
I pull the wires from my head. “I thought you weren’t going to tell them.”
She shrugs her shoulders. “I’m impulsive; it’s in my nature. Or my psychopathy.”
The Man and the Woman would have something to say about this, but their voices are so quiet I only hear the barest murmur, like wind over grass. No hallucinations come either, sharks heads or snakes. And the funny thing is I don’t miss them.
“You and me,” Ms. Bergman says. “We’re going out to dinner tonight.”
She heads for the door. “Dress nice. And don’t strain yourself today. You’ve done good work.”
I look at the terminal, at the wires curling across my desk. To be honest, I haven’t done any work at all. When I plug myself in I have no dreams, just a cacophony of voices and numbers falling on my mind.
I show up at the restaurant wearing the same clothes from work. It’s not that I don’t care about my appearance, I just don’t have much formalwear. There’s never been an opportunity for me to go out. I mean, sure, I’ve been on dates, but they were at the cafeteria in Alta Bates. Not much reason to dress up there.
Ms. Bergman is sitting at a table with a man. He looks so much like the stereotype of a businessman, with his suit and slick hair, I wonder for a moment if the sleeper has stopped working and I’m imagining things again.
“We were just talking about you,” Ms. Bergman says as I take a seat. “This is my friend from the NSA, John Cooper.”
He nods to me.
“Congratulations on your work,” Cooper says.
The Man and the Woman murmur, but I can’t make them out over the din of the restaurant. In the back of the room, near the kitchen, I see the silhouette of something long and thin. I’m not sure if it’s a trick of the eye or some hallucination trying to come through. Either way, it doesn’t seem to have much interest in our conversation.
“You’ve only been with Bergman-Jonson three days,” Cooper says. “That’s marvelous, marvelous. We had nearly two dozen chemically–induced schizophrenics going over this. Not one of them picked up the same evidence as fast as you.”
I nod. It’s nice to be complimented, even if I don’t like the work.
We talk for a little while, about the progress of the war, our jobs. Nobody asks me about my condition even once, and for the first time in many years I find myself relaxing, feeling as if I blend in. When our meals arrive I’m not sure if I should send mine back. My steak is cut to look like an ostrich wing, and my potatoes are painted like robin’s eggs. I venture a few bites. The flavors and colors fall together in a way that’s familiar but strange. There’s something uncanny about it, but still delicious.
Cooper plunges his fork into a red salad sprinkled with purple apples. The colors are so brazen, they look as if they were done by a child scribbling with crayons. He turns to me. “The head chef is schizophrenic.”
“I should’ve guessed.”
When our meals are finished, coffee is brought to the table. I decline a cup. A headache is starting behind my eyes. I’m not sure if it’s withdrawal from my old medication, the new medication, tiredness, or a little bit of them all.
“So, I’m dying to know,” Ms. Bergman drinks from her cup. “What have you been seeing here? Pink elephants, clowns?”
I curl my fingernails into my palm. “Something tall in the back. But it left a long time ago.”
“That’s dull. Are you sure you didn’t see anything?”
“Come, come, now, Gretchen.” Cooper pats Ms. Bergman on the shoulder. “Please tell me how Jonson’s been getting on.”
“Fine. Haven’t seen him in a while. If he doesn’t get back to the office soon I’m going to kick him out and shorten the name of the company.”
Cooper laughs. “You haven’t changed a bit. They say you changed when you became a psychopath but I think you’re exactly the same.”
Ms. Bergman points to me. “Sometimes I get impulses. How about you? I read you heard two voices in your head, a man and a woman. Do they ever tell you to do things? Maybe buy a rifle and shoot a politician?”
I stand from my chair. “You can’t talk to me that way. What am I your pet lunatic?”
Ms. Bergman smiles. I can almost picture her with glossy black eyes and serrated teeth.
“I don’t need this. I’m not coming in tomorrow; I’m not coming in at all.”
The room seems to grow quiet as I head for the door. Normally I’d brush it off as paranoia, but a few people do seem to be staring. Maybe they can tell I’m a schizo; they can tell from the way I move and talk. Cooper rushes from the table and meets me at the door.
“Don’t take it personally,” he says. “She just does that to people. It’s a game she plays.”
“Please don’t make excuses for her,” I say.
“I suppose I shouldn’t.” He shakes his head. “Would you like me to call you a cab?”
“I’m fine. I’d enjoy a walk.”
The street outside is lined with people heading to clubs and bars. I walk through them without raising the interest of a single person. Their faces don’t twist into a monster’s visage, and no dinosaurs waddle through their midst. All I see is light, skin, and people filled with excitement at what the evening holds. It’s a feeling I haven’t felt in a long time.
Music floods the street from open doors. At some of the nicer clubs a mist fills the air around the front. Holograms of men and women dance through the water, floating like leaves through the air. They aren’t so different from some of my own hallucinations.
Maybe I could get a job as a bartender, surrounded by people all day and night, laughing and talking. If I can’t analyze data anymore I’ll have to get a job somewhere. Being a waitress wouldn’t be so bad either. I’d have to be on my feet all day, but it’d be worth it just to be around others, just to be normal. With my meager paycheck I could get an apartment in the city, probably above a restaurant. It wouldn’t be as nice as my house, but I could have people over all the time. I could even buy real knives. Or I could start over again; move somewhere far away where people don’t know me. I could change my name. And no one would ever have to know I was once a schizo, crazy out of my head, seeing visions and hearing voices. So long as the sleeper keeps working.
I turn down a side street and the city grows quieter. Stores fade into brick apartment buildings and fire escapes. My parents would panic if they knew I was out here. Since I’d gotten my “gifts” they’d never left me alone. I’d either had to stay within their line of sight or locked away in Alta Bates. Some of my fellow students said that kind of treatment made them feel special, but I always felt like a helpless child.
One of the ground-floor apartments has a small garden. The plants don’t make any sense. There’s a hydrangea here, a few marigolds there, and a cluster of pansies. But somehow the effect overall is pleasing. The owner probably got the idea from some gardening ad on the terminal. It looks like it was designed by a schizo. Probably an artificial one, the colors aren’t quite right. Or maybe the owners did it themselves. Why people would want to make themselves crazy is beyond me. They’d have to be mad.
I make my way out to the main street and call for a cab. On the ride back to my house I form a plan. I’ll get up tomorrow morning and pack my clothes and the sleeper. Then I’ll call a cab and go to the nearest car dealer, the advance Bergman-Jonson gave me should be more than enough to afford something older and small. And I’ll pay with cash so it’ll be harder to trace. Then I’ll head out of town, out east. Maybe I’ll just keep on driving until I hit the ocean on the other side on the country.
When I’m in my house, I see the com is blinking at me – someone must’ve left a message. I turn it on. Nick’s face fills the screen. His eyes are wide and he’s breathing fast. They must have him on the bipolar meds again.
“Hey, kid,” he says. “There’s been a change of plan and we’re shipping out to China now. I’ll probably get in trouble for telling you this, but we’re going to Tibet. The militants have done some bombing where it borders with India. This might be the final step it takes to get China involved in the fight. God, I hope so.”
He stops for a deep breath. He’s still wearing his armor; usually he takes it off before calling home.
“I’ve made fun of guys for making calls like these,” he continues. “But I’m worried about this trip. It feels different. I don’t know. It’s like I’ve got this sixth sense about it, like what you do.” His attention fades away, and his face goes blank. A twitch hits his body and his eyes snap back into focus. “I wanted you to know I love you and if something happens to me you’re gonna have to take care of mom and dad. I know you hate them, but they’re just trying to do the best thing for you.”
I stop the message. It’s the ending. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want Nick to say goodbye. But he’s already said it. He said it long ago. All that’s left is for me to listen.
“Goodbye, kid. I’m sure I’m being stupid, and I’ll speak to you soon.”
The message ends.
Ms. Bergman is sitting at her desk of weathered driftwood. It seems warm and soft in the glow of her office, not in the least bit like her.
“You wanted to see me?” She crosses her arms.
“Yes,” I say. “I apologize for what I said last night. It was inappropriate. And I didn’t mean to quit my job. I was just upset.”
“It’s fine.” She waves her hand at me. “I understand. We’re both crazy here. Sometimes I say things I don’t mean either.”
“Are you sure I didn’t hurt your feelings, Gretchen?”
She laughs. “Oh, you’re a lot of fun. We have to go out again next week.” She pulls her face closer. “Don’t worry about my feelings. I have none to hurt.”
On the way to my office I wave to Lisa. Her desk doesn’t look quite as neat as before. A few pens are out of place, and some wads of paper are sitting on the floor. Maybe that sort of thing isn’t bothering her today, or maybe she’s been taking too much sleeper.
My own office opens at the touch of my hand. I sit down in front of my terminal and place my bag on the floor.
We should get to work, the Man says.
His voice is distant but clear.
Yes, yes, yes, Jennifer my love. There’s so much to do, the Woman says. So much to see and hear.
“You’re right, there is,” I say. “Perhaps we should take a vacation this summer. I’ve never gone with just myself and you two.”
The Man and the Woman cheer and giggle. The brontosaurus slips under my door and cranes his neck over my desk. His outline is a little fuzzy, like the holographic dancers at the club, but I can still make out his large, sad eyes.
“Don’t worry, you can come too.” I stroke his chin. “Everyone can come. Maybe if I see you all more, maybe if I lose myself to you, I can do my job better.” He nuzzles me with his soft nose. “Because you see, if I do that, maybe I can end the war faster and bring Nick home.”
While the dinosaur rubs my face and the Man and the Woman laugh, I place the plug in my head. I close my eyes and dream of my brother.
Sarah A. Drew works for a major university in Ohio with a large football team. Her work has appeared in Crossed Genres Magazine and the anthology Loco -Thology: Tales of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She can be found on Facebook.