White Room

The room is sterile. A small bed and a table and chair are there with only an intercom on the wall for decoration. He does not expect to hear the door lock from the outside when Ruby leaves. He checks the knob, and it’s locked. They can do almost anything to him in here. He wonders at the three vents in the ceiling and what they might be used for in such a small space. This is hardly the accommodation he was expecting. He wonders at how much this cost. He sits on the edge of the bed light-headed. He can barely feel the steel bar digging into the back of his thigh as his legs go numb. He is restless and tries to think about the trance that this whack-job doctor put him under. This is his first time, that he recalls, of being admitted for an evaluation but only because his wife, Mary, had given him an ultimatum: Get help or get out! He spends the next several minutes searching his memory and keeps going back to the other night when he fell off the wagon.  

Fits of drunken tirades and delusions of grandeur are unbearable for Mary, an ambitious woman driven for her own success, her own ego. The lack of follow through drove her insane.  Jack is deflated along with his place in life. He is inadequate, lost in a spiral of booze and mental illness. He is the last person anyone would suspect as being anything more than a drunk. For Jack, schizophrenia and depression were on his calling card, too. If not for the mysterious trust account, he would be alone.  

It is one of his walks down among the night crawlers of Seed City, when he stumbles into his own self-loathing, a place that festers from within, arguing in endless circles. He is tightly wound on a philosophical wheel of his demise and spins out of control suffering from trying to understand the meaning of his life.

I’m better off alone.
She hates me.
I love her and need to get home.
…She hates me. I don’t care.
She is weak without me. She hates me for that.
…This is not my life.
I can’t live without her.

He wonders at what others must think as he fumbles with the need to feed his addiction. Up ahead, just across Revolution Boulevard and old neon signs, an old man is lying on sheets of cardboard in a dark cutout to the entrance of a boarded-up storefront. Across the way, a young couple trip on the edge of a streetlamp and disappear into the night air. Shadows climb the walls in the alley avoiding the sporadic streetlights that flicker. He imagines tumbleweed rolling up a warm midnight walkway with wooden rails and dirt.

What is his purpose if not to please his wife? How does he connect when his efforts are met with scorn? He is empty as if carved out from his insides, scraping at the walls of his soul, hollowing him out. He can leave but thinks he loves her. She just doesn’t see it – or doesn’t care. It eats at him constantly and he struggles to reconcile her seeming indifference. But then, maybe he is the one that can’t see past his own needs?

He walks up to a man on the corner, known as ‘Billy Baggs’, and passes through a seamless transaction and midstride into an underworld where the protesters are and the homeless drug addicts and failed accountants. He studies the clear baggy that had just materialized in the palm of his hand, turning it over to measure its contents, a small blue sticker has the word: CLARITY.

He is the epitome of crap at a time when society is cracking under the weight of its greed, eating itself. It is so ironic, he thinks. The needle of society piercing where nerves no longer feel. Too many bruises have brought him to heel. The same question cycles through his thoughts, over and over: how did he get here? Everywhere, shadows slink just out of sight, but he can hear the dark whispers hiss in his head, coaxing him to awaken, but to what? How can people not see the cracks widening beneath their feet? Seeds of discontent are sown, and clear sight is lost from the true nature of our purpose. We want more and more and more, so caught up with a lust for power, we turned a blind eye to the chaos that had come into our lives. Jack just wanted to feel normal and get high.

A side street leads away from the shuttered storefronts and the few street people waiting for ‘last call’ to bum a smoke. CLARITY. His mind is trapped in a loop where he has been down this road before. Mary will do a crossword puzzle and watch her evening shows. A couple of drinks serve as a periscope into a better life. Perhaps, they are not that different, yet he is the one locked behind this door.

 Wrestling with iron grips of addiction, he relishes the uncertainty of his dysfunction like a crapshoot tumbling across the green. Slowly, chaos is devouring the spirit of the human species and he sees it – is part of it; people are losing their minds. Something is in the air that does not feel right. His thoughts are on the very edge of holding it together, struggling between the lightness of his true being and the dark essence that sits in this place, locked up with him.

He hears footsteps outside the door and goes motionless. After seconds, there is only silence. He begins to pace, counting steps: 1, 2, 3, 4… The room is about 12 x 8 paces. A cold chill runs up his spine. The shakes are not too far off now.

Pacing, he thinks back to the other day, before CLARITY set in. He is standing in front of Saviors, a fancy high-tech store over on Powell, watching their mega-media screen. The breaking news from the Web is that the United Soviet Empire have declared martial law in 7 sectors and have locked down all borders. Heavy military units are seizing the cities and rounding people up under a declaration of civil cleansing. Human rights activists are calling for a tribunal to intervene. Meanwhile, religious fanatics call the actions prophetic and say it is but a matter of time before the West will be forced to submit. Some have offered themselves like lemmings to be neutralized from the pains of humanity and join their gods in the night sky through rapture.

As he listens, he takes a deep sip from his day flask, mesmerized by the footage. Others gather like ghosts come to witness the reality of what had been warned… He recalls hearing about similar events happening in parts of major US cities but those are passed off as rumors or fake news. There, that is where it started; that was the first drink that day.

Jack then remembers shooting stick over at the Pelican and maybe a couple more shots there but isn’t sure whether that was before or after CLARITY. His mind flashes back to the side street off Revolution Blvd where it all began. He isn’t sure how much he had to drink by then, but he fit right in like an anonymous specter that belonged; no one ever suspected him of being anything more than just another drunk, which he isn’t. Jack just prefers a soiled landscape where he can rummage with fewer pressures. He is a man that walks without a name – a man who has forgotten who he is. An outstretched hand reaches from a hidden door casting a shadow across an alley of broken glass and brick where burn barrels warm shaking hands and calloused minds from shattered dreams. Chaos is in his nature having latched onto him from the moment he came to be and even the good part of him savored its unequivocal judgment.

Still, there is that nervous twitch beneath his skin. “Is everything ok, sir? Your neurological readings are irregular.” Nursebot enters as he sits recounting the events that brought him there in the first place.

The Interview

“How are you feeling? Do you remember anything?” An aging hand slides a glass of water across the end table. “Here, in case you’re thirsty.”

Jack’s head wobbles as if spun too fast on a merry-go-round. The outline of a figure behind a blinding light Is barely distinguishable. Large cushions have sucked him into a chair. This is one strange day and another shrink trying to induce characters to come forth and validate them. His memory is spent on many things, but split personality is not one of them. He knows there is only one Jack, that much he is certain. Of course, that doesn’t explain the voices in his mind – those extra thoughts that could easily be someone else’s.

“So, you simply left? Where is it you say, The Inner Garden? Are you saying the planet is hollow with a garden in the middle?” Dr. Worskovey doesn’t believe a word of it and appears to look up from scribbling some notes. “What do you think it means?” The doctor sat there on the dark side of the light, waiting. Jack imagines broad-brimmed black glasses and pens in a shirt pocket with a balding head and shaggy gray hair. That’s the image of him.

After a long silence, “I can tell you what I think. Do you want to hear what I think?” He is more direct where Jack is restless and fumbling for words.

“I’m sure it’s riveting. Look, I was expelled from hell, and…, and sent here…, to this place, which isn’t much of an improvement. I was puked onto the surface no longer in this sanctuary…, or ah…, inner garden, or whatever it is. I don’t understand any more than you so stop asking me. This migraine is killing me though!”

“OK, fine. This is an interesting story, but I think you need more time to process it. You have certainly been consistent; I’ll give you that.” The doctor seems genuine and scribbles more notes. Even though the light is blinding, Jack can still make out some details: the shape of his posture, the sound of his pen on the paper, and when he put his fist to his mouth to catch his cough, things like that. 

“I have no idea where I was or what it means. I only know that I sense things as if my mind is crowded with the thoughts of everyone else around me.”

“Can you hear my thoughts now?” Jack can tell that Dr. Worskovey leans forward in his chair, expectedly.

“No. But when I’m in public it’s a different story, I think.”

“Hmmm, ok. For now, then, I am more interested in what you remember from your guided dream. Do you recall where it was you emerged from?”

“I don’t know. What does that matter? This is my reality, now, in this moment, not when I am checked out under your spells. How should I know what the hell these dreams mean – if they have any meaning at all?” A light turns on somewhere down a hall that casts the slightest illumination, giving some sense and a realization of a long open room.

“Please, what do you remember?”

“Fine, just gimme a minute.”

“Take your time, I’ll be right back.” The doctor’s shape mystically rises and strolls off toward the small light. He is speaking to someone until suddenly, the door slams shut and the room floods back to black. The sphere of burning light returns, intensified. The theatrics of interrogation are harsh though the doctor insists they are useful. Maybe for a sadomasochist! Jack can’t think of what to say. Dr. Worskovey knows more about the story than he does. In fact, he probably sat there and wrote it all down while Jack was out – or recorded it or something. Yea, of course, it was recorded. Jack remembers he signed something about that when he got there.

“How are we doing, Jack? Do you need more time, or do you want to talk about it?” His shadowy shape slowly sharpens into view again. With the door abruptly shut, it is only Jack alone in a sphere of light, again.

“No, that’s fine. I think I remember a vast open space…, and cold. I was exposed, curled beneath the only tree in as far as I could see in any direction. It was barren, beautiful…, and chaotic – you know, an untamed desolate landscape.” Jack’s mind drifts into the blackness surrounding the bubble of light. Traces of whatever the doctor gave him are still working, causing a heavy fog to weigh down on him.

 “OK, we can come back to that later.” Dr. Worskovey tries his best to make him feel comfortable. “While on the other side, you mention a woman – someone you loved. Who is that? Is that person no longer with you? Was it Mary, your wife?”

Dr Worskovey thinks: “He seems to be experiencing a convergence of one reality skipping over another. It may become unclear very soon how to distinguish them. Who is your true self? Ironically, most humans are asking that very question.”  The doctor chuckles, making light of something before his tone sharpens. “I do not think it is in the same context for your particular experience but there does seem to be a correlation with the underlying question and so perhaps, at the end of the day, you may simply not know.”

 “What the hell are you talking about?” Jack loses his patience. “Maybe this is not a good idea.”

“Excuse me? All I asked was ‘who do you love’? When you were having your dream, you were carrying on about someone you love. I feel a presence in the room.”

“Yeah, doc, that’s me!”

“No, the love you expressed breathed life where none existed, and I could almost feel her presence here in the room with us.”

“Why do you ask me the same questions over, and over, and over again, and we go nowhere? Are you aware of that? Have you not heard a thing I’ve been trying to explain?”

“Jack, you’re not being very cooperative.” The doctor is cool, and the sound of his voice makes Jack’s ears bleed. “Tell me, who is this love – this other that you dream of? Are you having an affair?”

“What? No! It’s not like that! I have no idea who this person might be – it’s not supposed to be real. I’m trying to figure this out and you’re not helping. I keep having these dreams – except I am not asleep, and they feel more like memories of things I have no recollection of. The insomnia is killing me, doc! What’s going on with me?”

“I understand. Sometimes, our personal lives – the ‘real’ reality have a way of projecting in curious ways. I just wonder, have you discussed this with Mary?”

“How do you know Mary? You say that as if you know her.”

“Well, according to your chart, she is listed as an emergency contact and she did sign you in earlier. Are you feeling, ok?”

“What medication? What’s wrong with the medication?” The bright light was no longer so blinding, but Jack didn’t notice when it changed. Dr. Worskovey was almost visible now but something was different from what Jack remembered of him.

“Medication, I am not sure I understand?” Dr. Worskovey was looking at his chart again.

“Then why did you ask me about my medication?” He knew the doctor hadn’t asked about his medications but for some reason, Jack asked the question as if something else was controlling his speech from a dark corner of his mind.

“I’m sorry, Jack, but I didn’t ask about your medication. Speaking of it though, how do you think it’s working for you?” Dr. Worskovey is tapping on the inner flap of his notebook. “Let’s try something different. I mean, it’s not like you’re going anywhere and so what do you lose? Do you want to hear what I think?”

“What do you mean I am not going anywhere?” Jack is agitated and disorientated – he imagines falling for his own story if it weren’t so fantastic and out of the world. Yet, he can’t escape it. Some days are like a constant loudspeaker with that nagging voice feeding him fragments of things he does not understand. His mind rips through scenes from his life but also some other life, some other world with unknown faces and feelings.

“You just got here, Jack. By the sounds of it, your wife made a good decision. Perhaps, this is a good place to stop for today. We can finish your intake tomorrow after you’ve had some rest. Breakfast is served at 7 AM. I will have the Nursebot check on you and we can try again tomorrow.”

“I need something for this migraine, please.” He needs validation – to think straight. Jack needs a drink.

“Oh, don’t worry; the Nursebot will take care of you and that migraine.” With that, the lights were up to full strength and he can see he is sitting in a long room like a cafeteria with a counter along one wall and two doors at the end. It all seems oddly familiar. The back of Dr. Worskovey is leaving and all he can think is to get out of there. Jack can’t believe he let Mary talk him into this!

“Good evening, sir. Would you please open your mouth wide?” It takes hold of Jack’s wrist to check his pulse and he can’t pull his arm away. “I understand it can be uncomfortable, but I can be very efficient with your cooperation.” Jack cannot break away from the Nursebot.

“Hey, I don’t need a medical exam!”

“Ruby, go to Level 2, please,” Dr. Worskovey instructs over his shoulder as he walks away. He named the nursebot, Ruby. It immediately drops Jack’s arm and stands there motionless, resetting to his voice command. “Ruby is an advanced caregiver, and she won’t hurt you. She is an earlier version of the S-7, which is better because her code is not blocked like the newer versions and is more… ‘customizable’. Get some rest, Jack. Ruby will show you to your room and I think you will approve of the accommodations. These things usually take a few days to sort out. Don’t worry.”

“I don’t want a room.”

“I understand,” Dr. Worskovey calls back as he turns a corner.

“Come, please.” Ruby is so life-like except her mannerism is more than human, a reminder of the necessary separation from AI systems. This is where they should be utilized – in medicine, not like some of those pairing services for domestic partnerships. The dating apps were flooded with ads making it hard to find a real human these days. Ruby leads them through the double doors at the other end and into a long hallway with rooms that look more like prison cells.

“You are here.” Ruby sweeps her arm in the direction of his room. In the long empty hall, there is no distinction like a room number to know one room from the other. For his room, a small communal space was nearby with a circle of chairs that faced outward.