Prison of the Mind

I remember being set free dozens of times. I’ve run, limped, and crawled out of this cell every day for weeks. Sometimes alone and sometimes leading others to safety. In victory and defeat. None of it is real.

I’m in a recovery room, surrounded by doctors, by family and friends. All of them ask questions. They ask questions about me, but mostly they ask questions about what I know. About what the aliens wanted from me so desperately. They ask what the aliens asked and I refuse to answer. It’s a trap, of course. If I ignore the people long enough my captors will get bored and prep the next scenario.

Their hallucinations are getting better, less nonsensical. Once, I could tell reality from fiction by the gaps in time. When I couldn’t remember leaving my cell, or walking into the room, when I couldn’t remember how I’d escaped or been set free, then I could jar my mind out of the illusion. Then I could remember not to give anything away. But this scenario, this is a good one, a happy one, and I don’t wish to endure it any longer.

I look for the seams in this reality.

A woman who looks just like my mother sits beside me. The doctors told her to be careful with me. Not to touch me because I might startle or break down. But she can’t seem to stop herself and she takes my hand anyway. She strokes my arm and I try not to look at her. Have those lines around her eyes always been there or have the aliens added them this time to make it seem like time has passed? I can’t remember.

If I look at her then I’ll be tempted to engage. Just one comment, just a little taste of my life before, and I could let go and believe that I’m safe. I could let go of everything. She’s too dangerous.

I turn my attention to scrutinize my surroundings. They’re better now at filling in the holes in my memory. I’ve never seen this batch of doctors before or the ugly couch I’m sitting on. They used to rely on stock footage from my memories – newscasters I saw once or furniture from a doctor’s office – but these are newly created places and characters. I can pick fibers out of the frayed corners and they feel like real fibers. They’ve had too much practice in my mind.

A man sits down across from me. I recognize his face, though it looks tanner and healthier than I remember. But the eyes, the dark circles and the heavy lids. The way his gaze moves about the room looking for details that others miss. The aliens haven’t erased those.

“It’s John. He was a cell mate of yours,” the woman who looks like my mother says to me. She turns to him and adds, “I wish you could get her to talk about it. She won’t say anything to us.”

My eyes are tired of being forced to focus elsewhere. I look at him more out of reflex than interest. And immediately I regret it. The wall cracks. He is watching my eyes, watching the way I grimace when our eyes meet. I look away again but not before I see him nod.

“Johnny Boy,” I say. “I knew that you were never real. All those conversations back in that cell. Just another alien trick.”

“No, it wasn’t a trick. I’m real,” he says.

“No one is real anymore,” I say. “There are only the aliens and the questions. That’s what you said to me once. Don’t you bastards remember your own scenarios?”

“Yes, I said that to you. I said it to myself over and over again every time I went into that damn machine. And we both needed the mantra, then, the same way that we needed the memory tricks and the walls. I know you can’t believe this, but we won. The rebellion won. You don’t need the mantra anymore,” he says.

I shake my head and return to my search of the room. There’s something just at the corner of my eye, something important. If I can just figure it out. Maybe it’s just the tears blurring my vision but I have to find proof that this is an illusion soon. Before I start to believe in it. If the walls crumble, lives are at stake.

“There’s nothing I can say to convince you, is there?” John asks.

I lean forward, feeling the clean fabric of my hospital gown. I don’t know how my brain even remembers what clean fabric feels like. I look that alien bastard right in the eye. “I swore an oath never to reveal a word of what I know to the enemy. There is nothing you can do to break that oath.”

He stands to go and I let myself fall back into a slump. Scenarios with my family always sap my energy. I just have to hold out a little longer. Eventually the aliens will give up on this attempt and I’ll be free for a few hours back in my cell. Just a little longer.

“I’m sorry. She’s been like this since, you know,” my mother says.

“I understand. She’s a hero whether she knows it or not. She never cracked, not once, and she was there longer than any of us. In her mind, she’s still there. She won’t rest, won’t engage, won’t ever let her guard down one bit until she’s back in that cell,” he says.

My mother squeezes my hand and I want to return that gesture so badly. But there are only the aliens and the questions here. I just have to keep it up until they give in and this all goes away. And then I’ll be free again.

Dianne Williams lives in Lawrence, Kansas. She grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries and classic science fiction. She once dreamed of being an astronaut. Or maybe a lawyer. Or an artist. She settled for being as many of them as she could all at once through fiction writing.

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