“What are you waiting for?”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ve been over this.” I snapped my fingers a couple of times. “Hello? You listening?”
“What the hell are you talking about?” The man in front of me had his arms glued to his sides like a dead old tree stump, and his hands were shaking like all hell.
“It’s the only way you’ll ever get better. What are you waiting for?” I couldn’t believe he was doing this to me. Not again.
“I don’t even know who you are. Where am I?”
“Marcus.” I said his name the way a person would speak to a misbehaving dog.
“Who are you?”
“A friend. I’m here to help you, remember? You don’t remember me?” I walked over to him and forcibly raised his right hand up at a ninety-degree angle, the cold metal of the gun in his hand leaving its residual sensation on my skin. The brightness of the room was beginning to annoy me, but not as much as my client was right now. Perhaps I should have selected a different setting.
“It’s easy.” I smiled and turned away from him then. I stepped a couple of paces back to where I stood earlier. “We’ve been through this.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” he yelled.
“You’re losing yourself again.” I remarked, facing him again. “You’re the one that requested these sessions, right? You’re the one who said you were ready. I’m just the one you enlisted to help.”
He screamed again, covering his face and sobbing. “Wh- hu- why do you keep doing that? Your face!”
I sighed. I kept switching through faces in his memory –– enemies, rivals, people he wouldn’t think twice about shooting in the face within the confines of a controlled setting. It usually helps, but this wasn’t a usual case.
“I don’t know what to do!” He fell to his knees, the gun falling out of his hands and clacking across the blank white floor.
I couldn’t help but sigh. I walked towards him again. “I’m telling you! All your fears and anxieties will be gone! You just gotta take that leap! That’s what I’m here to do: to make you take that leap. It’s what you wanted, more than anything in this world.” I crouched beside him, reaching for his shoulder as my skin changed from white to black. “When I asked you what you wanted most in this world, what did you tell me?”
He started sobbing again, not paying attention.
I shook my head. “You’ve made so much progress. We are at the divide now, the one we have both worked so hard to get you to. There is nothing more I can do. Nothing other than encourage you to take that leap.”
He peered up at me again and let out another cry.
Maybe the face changes weren’t the best idea. I picked up the gun again and nestled it into his grip. His hands were wet. I urged him to his feet, and once he was there, I dropped to my knees. I looked up at him, hands and fingers crossed as if in prayer. “Don’t throw it all away now,” I said. “It’s your last chance. Take the shot.”
He shook his head.
“Would a change of scenery help?”
The blank room turned into a vast grassy plain, rolling hills. New Zealand. The first thing that came to mind.
“That doesn’t help me! No amount of face-changing or room-changing is going to help. It doesn’t work that way. You’re asking me to kill a part of myself!”
“A diseased, corrupted parasite that happens to reside within the boundaries of your existence. Sapping away at your delicate life, your happiness. I am the personification of this parasite, this tumor, that needs to be cut out. I am that tumor! And you are holding the scalpel. This is what it’s all about!”
I saw him calm down a bit. He wiped away a few tears, and I decided to change faces one final time. He didn’t flinch, thankfully.
“You asked for this. We’ve worked for this. I’ve counselled you, trained you, and now you’re here, on the cusp of it all. I’m right here. Please. Take the shot.”
The wind felt so real on my face as it must have felt for him. The new-found warmth in the air filled me with its wonderful scent, as I hoped it did him.
“Marcus. Time is running out.”
It really was, and I could mentally see my pay-check getting picked up by the breeze behind him and fly out of eyeshot. I was glad he didn’t see that. My own blips of thought making their way into the projection I had created for him.
He took a moment, then slowly raised his arm at an angle, pointing it at my forehead. Finally.
“That’s it. Take the shot. You got this. One more step, and it’ll be done. You’ll be free!”
His hands were shaking now, branches in the wind.
“Take the shot, Marcus.”
“Do not give up on this now. Take the shot.”
I yanked his arm and pressed the barrel against my temple. “Take the shot.”
“Take the shot.”
“I don’t know if I can!!”
“You’ve told me yourself: you hate me with all of your heart! You would do anything to get rid of me. I ruined your life! I did! And now you can end it all! The gun is in your hand. Shoot!”
Darkness. The gun went off, and the sound almost made my ears pop, which was scary, even for me. I quickly deactivated the layer of mental projections and waited for him to get to his senses. He had collapsed onto the floor in a slobbering heap. When he would open his eyes again, the room before him would become familiar. The house he stood in, the room he resided in… it had to be perfect.
This had to be her room. This had to be the year 2047, sixty years ago.
When he stopped crying, I hooked my arm under his arm and tried to lift him up. “You did it Marcus.”
“Get up!” I grinned at him, and urged him to look down at what he had done. “Look! You did it!”
Flustered, he looked down at the small bed before him. A child lay within it, a bullet through the side of her head, blood spewing from her open skull, pieces of her brain adorning the pillows. He fell backwards, recoiling as far as he could, his back hitting the wall behind him. “Oh my god, what have I done? What have I done?”
“All that hard work, all this time, and you actually did it. I’m so proud of you.” I sat down next to him. My smile was beginning to hurt my jaw. “This was what you wanted, remember? Clear your mind, and remember.” I projected my own face this time, my true face, and suddenly his own began to turn. He remembered it.
“It’s me Marcus! Look! Stand up and look at what all those sessions and all that training has done for you! Don’t be scared!”
He got to his feet, and looked at the corpse, like a small child analyzing a lizard.
“You took the shot, buddy!”
“I did it.”
“It’s what you wanted.” I stole a glance at my watch. Right on time, too. “You wanted this, and you went out and did it, my friend! A success.” Thank fucking Christ.
“Yeah!” He was beaming now. Fully remembering the task he had laid out for us both, and realizing that we had succeeded. He turned swiftly to the girl’s nightstand and brushed all the toys and pill bottles and machines off the top and watched them fall onto the floor.
“How are you feeling?” I asked him.
“Like a weight has been lifted?” I rested a hand on his shoulder. “You won’t be needing those machines anymore, or the pills to keep her alive, right? No more expenses or bills. The minivan you hate. The physiotherapy, that wheelchair you needed to push around. All that money you threw away. It’s over now. You have what you wanted. Calm. Peace.”
He ran from the room and tossed the wheelchair –– the one he had once bought for her comfort –– down the flight of stairs outside her room, past the electric lift he had once installed along its length for her. He was on top of the world. The happiest I’ve ever seen a person. I suddenly felt a vibration on my wrist, the kick, and with a final look of what pure ecstasy felt like –– perhaps something I’d never feel –– I removed my physical projection from the environment.
I watched like a ghost, as Marcus returned to the little girl’s room, completely forgetting my existence altogether. He picked up the corpse like a doll, and began dancing with it, laughing as only the happiest man in the whole world could, blood pouring from the open wound, the child’s body flailing limply as he shuffled across the room. I stared at my watch again. I let him enjoy one last moment of ecstasy, the last he’d ever feel, before I cut the simulation.
I quickly removed the diodes from my temples and the Halo Mechanism from my head, setting it on the table beside me as I put the real world back into focus once again. I was greeted by a myriad of medical machines blaring, all to their own tunes. A solid flat line across the heart rate monitor. I found my tablet and peered a my watch once more.
Time of death: ten minutes to 5:00pm.
I leaned over and snapped the heart rate monitor off, along with the life support machine, before standing and removing his own Halo from its mounting points, and the diodes that sent the projections from my brain directly into his, hijacking his dream and implanting my own. I nodded, and one of the nurses who oversaw the operation began removing the tubes from his nose and the IV from his arm, and prepared the body to be removed. I looked to my tablet again, filling in the rest of the post-mortem information necessary to satisfy the mediators, who by law had the final say over the success of the operation.
Time within: ten and a half minutes.
The time on the outside world was minimal. It always feels longer on the inside, where hours within accounted for minutes in the real world.
Target: reached with success. Transmission sent to base.
With everything off him, I looked down at the elderly corpse of Marcus Ball, ninety-eight years old, and dead of multiple organ failure. Even in death, the cutting out and the replacing of his memories had done its job. He died smiling, believing that what he had done within his own mind had happened in reality. The faintest of grins etched across his dead lips.
Notes: died happy.
Without another thought, I shut off my tablet and left the hospital room, closing the door behind me.
I froze. My pulse sped up. I turned around, and a woman with tears already streaming down her face approached me. I had hoped to avoid this confrontation.
“They called me, they… they said he was dying, and I came as fast as I could. I ––” She burst into tears.
I lowered my head. “I am sincerely sorry for your loss. I want you to know that the staff and I took every measure at our disposal to make sure he died peacefully.”
She nodded, regaining some resolve. “He was the only one I had.” She chuckled, trying to see the bright side of it all, and wiped her eyes. “When I was young, he was the only one who took care of me. After my mom passed away, I mean. I loved him so much.”
I nodded. “He was a great man. He was so proud of you.”
She turned her electric wheelchair towards the door. “Can I see him?”
“Of course, Ms. Ball.”
She didn’t move from her spot, peering at her father though the glass slit in the door. “What were his final moment like?”
“We made the preparations to make him comfortable. I’m afraid he was asleep in his ––”
“No. I mean his final moments.” She wheeled back towards me, the small electric motor humming softly in the silent corridor. “I know he had the procedure done.” She smiled. “You gave him once final experience. You fabricated a memory, a moment he believed he lived. His final moment. I know he did.”
“I see. I apologize, Ms. Ball. He requested to keep the procedure private. He didn’t want to alarm you. The operations can be quite intense.”
“I understand. You reconstructed a memory, right?”
“Was it about me?” she asked. “I always remember him telling me that he would see me walking and sprinting and jumping in his dreams, and that it would make him so happy. Was that it? Was that the memory you constructed for him in his final moments? Me getting up from my chair and running into his arms one last time?”
My lips parted, but no words came out.
“You don’t need to tell me.” She nodded and reached for the door handle. “I loved him so much, but deep down, I knew he always loved me even more.” She pushed through the door. “Thank you, doctor. I appreciate everything you’ve done for him.” She disappeared behind the partition, the door closing behind her.
I stood there motionless, and after a few moments I walked towards the door and laid my fingers on the handle, peering through the glass. I stopped myself. Ms. Ball was holding the hand of her deceased father, a fresh fountain of tears streaming down her face.
I stood at a crossroads. Ms. Ball believed that her father loved her. Was she blind to how he truly felt? A burning hatred, masked by a façade of unwavering love and support. Would knowing the truth even change the way she thought about him? Would it change anything? Would it change everything? I felt my hand slip off the lever.
It was in that moment, through the small slit of glass in the hospital door, that I witnessed what love truly is. An illusion. To the eyes of the beholder, and threshed within the lies we tell ourselves on a daily basis. It is the cage that imprisons us all. A cage to which we hold a key that we have swallowed long ago.
MICHAEL FORMATO is a science-fiction writer born and raised in Montreal Quebec. He is currently a student at McGill University in the faculty of Education. As a writer of fiction, he is obsessed with twisting and contorting what we as a society take for granted in life. Things like technology, family, relationships, the very idea of love, and bringing out the subconscious anxieties that reside just below the surface of our paranoid thoughts.
Copyright © 2018 by Michael Formato. All rights reserved.