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 table that enters the light from some dark place. “Here, in case you’re thirsty.”

Jack reaches out grasping at the glass; he focuses, grabs it, takes a long drink, and closes his eyes. He clumsily sets the glass down on the edge and miraculously catches it as it falls. He places it closer to the center. His head is spinning from his migraine-induced vertigo. The outline of a figure is barely distinguishable through the blinding light, and Jack squirms from left to right against the hard white plastic chair desperately looking for a comfortable position; the squeaky sound of it irritates his head more and he cringes. He finally crosses his legs and leans to the right to reflect. I have to put up with this crap again? Another day of this whack job tryin’ to conjure up an alternate personality that doesn’t exist, just to validate his stupid theoretical mumbo jumbo. Jack frowns, furrowing his brow. Having multiple personalities vying for control is not the issue. Jack knows there is only one Jack, he is certain of it. I wouldn’t even be aware of another personality if there was one, isn’t that how it works? Then again, how could he explain the voices in his head or those memories that seem to be someone else’s warning some love in some other realm of a shadow wave?

“So, you simply left? Where did you say, an inner world, was it? I believe you described it as the planet being hollow with gardens in middle earth?” Dr. Worskovey peers up from his continuous note scribbling. “What do you think it all means?” The doctor remains hidden on the dark side of the light, waiting for an answer too long in coming. Jack imagines what the doctor must look like: clear blue eyes study Jack through thick-rimmed black glasses perched on a wrinkled-up analytical nose; tufted gray hairs climb out from over the arch of his ears and a couple of wild brows are sprouted with anticipation; pens stick out from his white lab coat pocket; mouth slightly open waiting for Jack’s answer.

After a prolonged silence, the doctor states, “I can tell you what I think…Would you like to hear what I think?” He is direct whereas Jack feels aloof, with exasperated nerves that dominate him. “No, I-I really don’t!  I don’t know what I’m doin’ here sayin’ the same things over and over. Look, I went through absolute hell before gettin’ here, and this? This isn’t any better! In fact, I think it’s worse!” A loud forced sigh emphasizes his obvious frustration.

“Could you start from the beginning?”

“Really? How many damn times do I have to tell you this?” The doctor’s silence answers for him. He regains some control. “Ok fine. Let’s see…I was thrown onto the surface from a…like a sanctuary…, or ah…, more like an inner garden, you know. Look doc, I really don’t understand what’s goin’ on…my head’s gonna explode.”

“You have quite an intriguing story Jack, which I feel you require more time to process. You have certainly been through quite a significant episode.” The doctor dims the blinding light and jots down yet more notes. Jack can make out some minor details: the shape of his posture, and the contour of his pen on the notebook when he put his fist to his mouth to catch a muffled cough. 

Jack continues, “I don´t know where I was, or what any of this means! Then I… I can hear what people are thinkin’ all around me…invadin’ my mind, my thoughts. It’s crazy! Frickin’ crazy!” Jack looks around frantically as his leg starts shaking uncontrollably and he lets out a faint moan.

“Relax Jack. Breathe in with me slowly… There you go. Let it out…Relax…One more time…Are you able to hear my thoughts right now?” Jack perceives Dr. Worskovey leaning forward in his chair with anticipation.

“Nooo! It’s not like that! It’s mostly when I’m outside. I can hear people everywhere. Then I have another one that’s with me every day! I just can’t take all the voices! It’s overwhelming!” Tears well up in his eyes, and his head drops into his hands, “Oh my Goood!” He groans softly.

“Hmm…alright. Well, take another deep breath…relax… At present, I am more interested in what you remember of your experience in the inner world. Do you recall where it was you emerged from while in this…dream?”

Jack lifts his head tears welling up in his eyes, “What?!? What difference does that make? This is my reality right here right now. How should I know what that dream means? You’re the one with the degree! You should be tellin’ me! C’mon, they don’t mean anything!” Light suddenly floods a dark corner at the other end of what seems to be a long room lending a sudden sense of space for this interrogation.

“Please, Jack, what do you remember?”

“How many times…? LOOK at your notes!” …countless seconds of silence pass, “Ok. Fine… Just give me a minute.”

“Take your time, I will be right back.” The doctor’s silhouette is mystic as it flickers quickly off toward the light. He appears to speak to someone until suddenly, the door slams. From the other side, Jack hears a faint female robotic voice, “oops, sorry.” The room floods back to black. The spotlight returns intensified. The theatrics of interrogation are harsh, though the doctor insists they’re beneficial. Yeah, maybe for Moth Man! Jack can’t think of what to say. Dr. Worskovey seems to know a lot more about the story than he does. He probably sat there and wrote it all down while I was out cold, recorded it or somethin’. Yeah, that’s it! They frickin’ recorded it. They were probably followin’ me for weeks. Yet Jack seems to remember having signed something about it all when he got here or…

“How are we doing, Jack? Would you like a bit more time?” With the door abruptly shut, complete darkness returns except for the blinding sphere of light exposing Jack to scrutiny for truth. The doctor’s shape drifts into view again, morphing from the dark corner of the room. 

“My apologies for the interruption, please continue.”

Jack continues, “So, there was a vast open space…, a cold place. I was lyin’ curled up under a tree that was there, with nothin’ else for as far as the eye could see…it was empty, beautiful yet chaotic, an untamed desolate landscape.” Jack’s mind drifts across the barren memory of this other world. Traces of whatever the doctor gave him earlier for his dreams are still affecting him.

After moments of near-silent scribbling Dr. Worskovey looks up, “Alright, we can return to that later.” Dr. Worskovey tries his best to make Jack feel comfortable. “Now then, you mentioned a woman you loved in the other realm. Who were you referring to? Is that person no longer with you?” Dr. Worskovey ponders to himself unaware of Jack’s scrutinizing eyes:

He is experiencing the convergence of multiple realities intertwining with one another. Being able to distinguish them would be quite useful. Come on Jack, WHO is your true self? The answer to that complex universal question, as for most humans, remains elusive until death. The doctor, realizing the irony and impossibility of a forthcoming answer, chuckles lightly under his breath. Though there may be a distinct correlation, you are in denial, yet there is a part of you that knows. I must bring forth this other self for only then will the truth be revealed.”

“Hello?” Jack loses his patience and hits the table with his fist. “Doc! What are you goin’ on about?” “You wanna know what I think? Maybe all this isn’t such a good idea.”

“Please remain calm Jack. I was merely asking about the woman you love. When you were within your dream, you mentioned your beloved. I might have even felt a presence in the room. She breathed life into the room, and I could feel her presence here with us. I made a note of it.”

“Are you tryin’ t0 gaslight me? I swear to God…” Jack’s eyes squint in the faint glow trying to discern the doctor’s expression, “This conversation is goin’ nowhere.”

“No, your love breathed life into the room, and I could feel her presence here with us. I made a note of it.”

“Are you trying to gaslight me? I swear to God…” Jack’s eyes search frantically in the dark for the nearest exit.

 “Jack, you’re not being very cooperative.” The sound of his voice is making Jack’s ears bleed, but the doctor remains cool and continues, “tell me, who is this love, this other you dream of? Where do you remember her from?”

“What? No! Noo! I have no idea who that woman is; she’s not even real. I can’t figure this out, and you’re not helpin’ me at all!! These dreams…th-they’re more like incomplete memories that aren’t mine, and then this insomnia! It’s gonna be the end of me! I can’t give you any more answers!”

“I understand. Sometimes, our personal lives, the authentic reality, have a way of projecting in curious ways. I wonder, have you discussed any of this with Mary?”

“What are you talking about? Wait a minute! H-how do you know Mary? You say that like, like you know her.” He looks suspiciously toward the doctor with eyes ablaze.

“Well, according to your chart, we have her listed as your emergency contact, and she signed you in earlier.”

The room spins and Jack shuts his eyes to stop it. He reopens them. The bright light has been turned off and the overhead lights are half lit. Dr. Worskovey is fully visible now, and he seems quite different from his impression of him. “Would you like to answer the question, Jack?”

He blurts out, “What question? How did you do that with the lights?”

“I asked about the medication you take for your condition.

“No, you didn’t.”

Dr. Worskovey glances at his intake sheet. “Perhaps you were not listening. Well, anyway, do you think it is working for you?” Dr. Worskovey begins tapping on the inner flap of his notebook and it seems to get louder and louder.

“I don´t know what’s going on here. I don´t understand anything!” What if the doctor is right… what if I am dealing with some severe personality disorders where some ancient spirit has awoken? Sometimes it’s like a nonstop projector feeding him shards of shattered memories he can’t comprehend. His mind rips him through scenes from his life interjected with those of some other life, some other world with unknown faces and feelings. Jack starts moving from side to side in his chair becoming increasingly agitated, and disoriented.

“We may attempt a different approach. Given the fact you will be with us for a while, would you like to hear wha—”

  “Wh-what do you mean I’m not going anywhere?” Panic swells and Jack starts hyperventilating. He knows he is not right. Jack grasps the sides of his chair white-knuckled slightly rocking, “I just wanna go hooome. I’ve been answering the same questions for days and days.”

“Actually Jack, you have just arrived, and we are in the middle of conducting your initial intake interview. I believe your wife has made a wonderfully wise decision. You are in no condition to leave these facilities. This is a good place to stop for today. We can proceed tomorrow after you have had some much-needed rest. Breakfast is served at 7 AM. Nursebot Ruby will be here shortly to take over for me.”

Jack leans back in the cold unfeeling chair beyond confused and exhausted, and his voice is but a mumble, “What, …I just got here? But how’s that even possible? I´ve been here for days…” His head drops into his right hand. “I feel like crap…Oooh, I really need something for this migraine, please.” He craves validation, but what he really needs is a stiff drink to help him think straight.

“Oh, come now Jack, there is no need to worry. Ruby will take care of you and that migraine.” The overhead lights increase to full strength, causing the cafeteria to come into full view: It all seems so oddly familiar. Jack can’t believe he let Mary talk him into this!  Dr. Worskovey turns off the interrogation light and gathers himself to leave. Jack looks around for the nearest exit to get out of there.

Nursebot approaches and assertively takes hold of Jack’s wrist to check his pulse. “Good evening, sir. Would you please open your mouth wide?” Jack clamps his mouth shut. “Please understand, if you resist it can be uncomfortable, but I can be very efficient with your cooperation.”

Jack tries to break free from the Nursebot’s grip unsuccessfully, and although exhausted, he gets easily excited. “Hey, get off me! I don’t need a medical exam! You’re hurting me!”

“I am incapable of harming you. I am an avant-garde advanced caregiver, an updated version of the S-7, much more enhanced because my code is more… customizable, unlike those older versions. Please hold still and relax. Then I will show you to your room.”

“I don’t wanna go to my room. I wanna go home!”

As Dr. Worskovey walks away he looks over his shoulder, “I understand Jack, the adjustment process takes time. Trust me, you will be fine.” and then gives instructions as he disappears around an anonymous corner. “Ruby, level two, please.” She releases Jack’s arm and remains motionless for a nanosecond, resetting to his voice command. Jack’s eyes widen as he begs, “Please, don’t hurt me!”

“Jack, I have already told you that I am incapable of causing you harm. Calm yourself please. Level two refers to relief, in this case for your headache. Therefore, if you would just relax, you will notice a marked improvement in your migraine.” Her hands begin to glow a pale blue and she holds them to Jack’s head infusing him with her calming energy. Jack’s shoulders slump, and after some minutes he opens his eyes. He is much calmer. “I really don’t understand anything, but my headache’s gone. I think I’d like to go to my room now.”

“Follow me please.” Ruby is so lifelike except her elegant mannerisms are more than human, a reminder of the separation from AI systems. This is how bots should be used, in medicine, not like so many of those pairing services for domestic partnerships. They flood the dating apps with ads, making it virtually impossible to find an actual human these days. Ruby leads him through the double doors at the other end. He trails behind staring blankly at the eternal hallway of identical, unnumbered rooms that look more like prison cells.

“You are here.” Ruby sweeps her open palm toward his room with a slight bow. Jack already knew which room was his, and he simply stares off and focuses in on a communal space set off in an alcove further down on the left with a white table and circle of matching colorless chairs facing outward.