The Thumbdrive

They had been talking to me telepathically for several months, but I think there was a slight break, in the vein of a dramatic pause, before they told me to kill myself.

“You’re dead Eddie,” Wendy said. “We want you to die, and we’re prepared to do whatever it takes to make that happen.”

But I didn’t do anything, I thought.

“Doesn’t matter,” answered Steve. “You know too much. You’ve got to go.”

What if I destroyed it? I asked.

“It’s too late,” Wendy again, no hesitation. Except when it was obviously intentional they never spoke with hesitation.

“We can’t have you walking around,” she said.

“Kill yourself, Eddie,” said Steve.

I know too much, my mind echoed.

“That’s right, you do,” Steve replied.

I know what you guys have been up to.

“You don’t know the half of it,” said Wendy.

“We’re going to kill your brother and your girlfriend if you don’t do it.”

Don’t kill them.

“We don’t want to. We have to. We’re just doing our job.”

Your job is fucking terrifying.

“We know it is.”

You’re so disgusting.

“It doesn’t matter. Get up off your ass, Eddie. Nope. Don’t think about calling him to say goodbye.”

“He would only try to talk you out of it.”

“That’s right.”

“Yup! There you go, you’re thinking about it already. With a knife? With the stove? You’re one brave motherfucker Eddie Vasco.”

I started to cry.

“Kill yourself, Eddie Vasco,” said Steve.

“Get up and get the knife.”

“You know you have no choice.”

I stood up from my bed.

“Oh my God, he’s actually going to do it!” said Wendy.

I sobbed in terror. The tears burst out and started streaming down my face, an accumulation of the pressure built up over the last few months, now with this terrible climax. I’d come to know some time ago that they had the capability. My life was their plaything. I’d been scared out of my mind. It wasn’t just Steve and Wendy, there was a whole team of them. I was defenseless. I should just get it out of the way now.

I left my bedroom, my eyes passing over the clothes on the floor, the unfinished Michael Pollan book on my nightstand, things that would be left just the way they were until somebody, most likely Tobi, found them and cleaned them up when the apartment was emptied out.

I walked into the kitchen, sunlight shining in through the open window.

I would be leaving so much undone: my career, my relationship with Scarlet, my plans for the future. But all of that had been torn from me already. In fact there was a certain appeal to this course of action, a kind of nobility. Forceful, decisive, departing this hell by the strength of my own conviction. It was the first decision I’d made for myself since Steve and Wendy had showed up.

While I was thinking these things, the two of them were going crazy.

“You know you have to do it.”

“He knows that, Steve. That’s why he’s doing it.”

“I have much respect for you for this shit. You’re one brave motherfucker.”

You’re always repeating yourself, my mind responded.

“We know we’re always repeating ourselves.”

“There you go, get the knife, Eddie,” said Wendy. “There you go, you know what to do.”

“There you go, take it into the bathroom.”

The tiles of the kitchen floor were cold beneath my feet. There were piles of dirty dishes in the sink. I’d been getting my groceries delivered, too afraid these days to step outside my front door.

How on Earth did they do it? According to them it had something to do with satellites, but they never went into the details. On the thumbdrive I’d seen something of their handiwork. There were thousands of files on the thumbdrive.

“There are thousands of files,” Steve interjected. “We do know everything you’re thinking.”

After I picked up the knife I’d stopped crying, perhaps because of the distress I detected in my operators’ voices.

“We’re not distressed!”

“No we’re not!”

I remember everything that happened. Going into the bathroom and closing the door behind me. Getting into the bathtub and pinning my left wrist against the wall with the knife and sticking it in. The piercing metallic pain. Blood beaded up around the blade. I screamed, a brutal tearing sound, coming mostly from the pain, but also from the effort it took.

I pulled the blade down my wrist, searing, tearing, difficult. I kept on screaming. I didn’t think about whether anyone would hear me. I didn’t think about the consequences of my actions. I would be dead within the hour.

Out of breath, my left wrist numb, trembling, torn open, I pulled the knife out.

The knife fell out of my hands and clattered to the floor of the bathtub next to me. I could barely feel my wrist, as if the pain were too much for my consciousness to take.

I leaned back against the wall of the bathtub, breathing hard. At a certain point I realized that Bitchface, the worst of the two, was crying.

“You have a new name for me?” Wendy said through her tears.

I thought about the thumbdrive. The dumbfounded ease with which I’d stolen it.

“It was our mistake!” said Wendy. “And you aren’t done yet. You missed the artery.”

A kind of calm descended over me. I felt rational, resolved of my course of action, like I knew I’d made the right decision. My arm was split open, disfigured, and I could see the insides. Muscles and bones but mostly blood. A whole lot of blood. I might have ruined the whole limb, I thought, but then I reminded myself, before Steve or Bitchface could, that it didn’t matter: I wasn’t going to need it any more anyways.

“Are you going to pick up the knife, Eddie Vasco?” asked Steve.

“You aren’t done yet,” reiterated Wendy.

Not Tobi. Not Scarlet. No more of this. I had to do it.

I picked up the knife. I had seen what looked like a thick vein in my wrist. I stuck the knife back in and caught the vein, flicked up and severed it. Wendy let out a shriek.

“Oh my God, you did it! I can’t believe it!” she said.

I shifted position so that I could hang my arm over the side of the bathtub. Blood began to drip onto the tiles.

Steve and Bitchface were going crazy. Why were they going crazy?

“Because you weren’t supposed to fucking kill yourself you stupid piece of shit!” Steve hollered. “You were just supposed to destroy the thumbdrive!”

“Now somebody’s going to find it,” Bitchface sobbed.

Oh, I thought, and, momentarily, felt sort of stupid.

“You stupid fucking dipshit!” said Steve.

You’re not going to kill my family?

“We might! If they find it! We’re going to do whatever we damn well please. If it takes doing the same thing to Tobi of course we’re going to fucking do it. We’re professionals, Eddie. We’ll do whatever it fucking takes!”

I can’t believe what I’ve done to myself.

“Neither can we, Eddie! We’re in shock! But it’s done now, and you better not call anyone for help, because that’ll only make it worse for you.”

Do you think my brother has any doubts?

“Of course he has doubts. He’s your fucking brother. And he knows you don’t have schizophrenia.”

At least I didn’t used to, I thought. Months of this shit, malevolent beings reading my mind, interjecting comments and opinions into every one of my thought processes. It was too fantastic. Apart from the encrypted thumbdrive I didn’t have any proof that it wasn’t all in my mind.

“It’s all on the thumbdrive,” Bitchface moaned. “And somebody’s going to find it.”

Plink, plink, plink…

My blood dripping onto the tiles. I looked over the side at the lumpy, steadily expanding little pool and thought it looked like the filling to cheap strawberry pie.

Time passed. I began to feel woozy.

At some point Wendy and Steve stopped talking. Maybe they had the courtesy to let me live out my final minutes in peace.

But I was quickly disabused of this notion when I heard the door to my apartment open.

“Eddie?”

It was my brother. No sweeter sound had ever been heard. Blearily I thought that maybe we would get to say goodbye to each other through the bathroom door. But if that happened he would probably save me.

I waited. I thought thoughts at them, but Steve and Bitchface were gone.

“Eddie?” He called out again, from the living room.

“I’m here,” I answered.

I heard his footsteps coming down the hallway. They stopped at the doorway.

“How long are you going to be in there?” he asked.

In an ashamed voice, as if a parent had caught me doing something I shouldn’t, I told him the truth: “Another hour or so.”

Silence at first, hesitation, then the door opened and Tobi saw me.

“Eddie!”

I noticed that he already had his phone in hand and was dialing 9-1-1.

***

“Bernie Sanders is coming to the city,” Scarlet was saying.

“Is that so?”

We were in Golden Gate Park. There was a big blanket spread out beneath us and I was having a beer from the cooler. Scarlet was eating a sandwich, legs curled underneath her.

“I want to go to his rally. You want to come with me?”

“I don’t think so.”

“What was that?”

“Didn’t I tell you? I’m voting Trump.”

“God Eddie. I always knew you were a racist.”

Scarlet laughed lightly. She had been phonebanking for Bernie in her spare time, participating in voter registration drives and canvassing San Francisco handing out election swag. It was important to her, not so much to me. I was a Bernie supporter but I had my hands full living my life. I barely had enough time to come to this picnic.

She was stroking my shoulders and upper back with the nails of her right hand.

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” she said, somewhat insistently.

“I was just joking.”

“You might have to take off work.”

“In that case I might not be able to.”

Her hand left my back. She didn’t know it, but my attention had become divided between her and a young suit-wearing couple who had just arrived at a park bench across the greens from us. They were laughing it up. I wondered if they worked together, an inter-office romance perhaps. There was something forced about the way they were smiling at each other, as if they were doing it for the benefit of an audience, but there were no other office-looking types around.

“We don’t do enough things together,” Scarlet said, sounding angry.

“Oh God not this again.”

“It’s the truth! This is the first time we’ve done anything together in weeks, and you had to be convinced by your fucking friends to do it.”

She was talking about John, Chris and Monica. They were playing Frisbee not far from us.

“It hasn’t been weeks,” I said.

“Yes it has!”

I closed my eyes and rubbed them with one hand. I finished my beer, then turned towards Scarlet and saw that sharp look in her eyes that meant this wasn’t a game.

“You know I love you, don’t you?” I asked.

“That goes without saying.”

“Just give me some time. Mr. Aspy’s putting me on some big cases. I’m moving up the food chain but I need to put time in. There’s actually a lot depending on my availability.”

“You need time for yourself too.”

“And I’ll have it. Just not right now.”

I looked away from Scarlet and my eyes landed on the business couple again. They were already getting up from their bench. They’d only been there a few minutes. Then I saw something strange: in a swift, un-self conscious motion, still smiling at his partner, the man took something out of his pocket and stuck it under the bench. It didn’t fall to the ground when he removed his hand. It was stuck to the underside of the bench.

“Hm,” I said beneath my breath.

The man stood up and laughed at something the woman said. He put his arm around her waist and the two started walking away, still laughing.

“Huh,” I said. “I think I’m witnessing a drug deal.”

“A what?”

“A drug deal.”

“Golden Gate Park in this day and age? Not likely.”

“Well maybe not a drug deal, but some kind of clandestine activity for sure.”

“You’re quite easily distracted.”

“Sorry, were you saying something?”

“You were apologizing to me for being so busy all the time.”

I looked at her.

“I think you’re putting words in my mouth.”

“Oh is that right? You’re not apologizing to me?”

“God damn it, Scarlet, ease up. I don’t need you hectoring me every time I see you. There’s no fucking point. Go hector a clock if you want to be more productive.”

“So you’re not coming to the Bernie Sanders rally?”

“I don’t know right now!”

Scarlet took a bite from her sandwich.

I turned away from her, and was just in time to see the Frisbee sail past us. I tried to block it with my left hand and missed.

“Little help?” Chris called out, jogging towards us.

I got up, retrieved the Frisbee and threw it towards him, but my throw was way off and he ended up having to go further than if I hadn’t helped in the first place. Scarlet laughed, a short bark of a “Ha,” spiteful and unhappy. I sat down next to her and took her into my arms and rocked her back and forth, stroking her hair, but after not too long she pushed me away, saying “Okay, okay, I’m not a doll.” I let her go. I started talking to her about the endemic corruption of the Clinton Institute, the malleability of Hillary’s worldview, and the hefty fees she was awarded for speaking to Wall Street and its cronies. Everything except her e-mails, which we both believed to be more an excuse to dislike her than a convincing reason. Scarlet loved bashing Hillary. She knew I knew that, so she could see that I was trying to cheer her up. Before too long it started to work. She told me I was hopeless. I told her not to give up.

For the rest of the afternoon, between occasionally helping with the Frisbee and talking with Scarlet, I kept watching the park bench. No receiving party to the deal showed up. I wondered what the thing that had been left behind could be. The business-looking couple had appeared well off, but they’d been terrible actors. Why had they left it in the park in the first place? Scarlet was right. Most likely it was not drugs.

When we started packing up the picnic I told Scarlet to wait, I wanted to check something, and she asked “What, the drug deal?” and I didn’t answer her. 

“What drug deal?” John asked.

Scarlet started explaining my preoccupation while I ran across the greens to the bench. I got on my hands and knees and looked under the bench. It was a small, black cloth parcel no larger than a child’s fist. I peeled it off the lacquered wood. I sat back and considered it. It was very light.

“What is it?” I heard Chris yell, but I ignored him.

I opened the parcel, and, after rooting through a layer of white stuffing (at first I thought that’s all that was in there), I found a small, silver USB thumbdrive.

I heard a low-pitched man’s voice, quavering with feeling, tell me to “Put it back.” I looked around but there was no one there. I noticed that my friends were all looking at me. Had I heard something?

“Yes you did you son of a bitch. Put it back right fucking now.”

But I didn’t take the voice seriously, it had to be my mind playing tricks on me. The thumbdrive must be something that I shouldn’t have found.

“You’re damn fucking right.”

There it was again.

I’d had a smile on my face. It died. I kept hearing the voice, telling me that I should be more careful. I decided to ignore it.

I returned to Scarlet and my friends, brandishing the parcel I’d found.

“Look,” I said. “It’s a thumbdrive.”

“Huh,” said Monica. “I wonder what’s on it.”

“Who knows, but I’m going…”

“PUT IT BACK RIGHT FUCKING NOW!!”

That time there was no mistaking it. I blanched and stopped talking mid-sentence. Monica was looking at me. She didn’t seem to have heard it.

“NO SHE DIDN’T HEAR ANYTHING, EDDIE!”

Scarlet was looking at me too. She had a picnic basket under her arm. She looked so beautiful, if a little pissed off.

“SHE SURE DOES LOOK BEAUTIFUL!”

What the hell is that?

“IT’S ME, EDDIE VASCO. MY NAME’S STEVE! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!”

“Is something wrong, Eddie?” Monica asked.

“Do you hear something?” I asked.

She shook her head.

“IF YOU DON’T PUT IT BACK WE’RE GOING TO FUCKING KILL YOU!!”

There’s someone yelling at me.

“THERE SURE FUCKING IS!”

I felt a hand on my shoulder and started. It was John, coming over with the blanket and a couple of lawn chairs.

“Come on, Eddie,” he said. “Help us carry.”

In a daze I took the lawn chairs and the blanket under my arm. I stuck the thumbdrive in my pocket.

“OH MY GOD, YOU’RE TAKING IT? YOU’RE ONE BRAVE MOTHERFUCKER EDDIE VASCO!”

I started walking. It couldn’t be real, what I was hearing. Maybe I was daydreaming. I couldn’t come up with an adequate explanation. But looking at my friends, at Scarlet, walking apart from me, somehow I couldn’t bring myself to go and return the thumbdrive. I felt intense trepidation. The voice, Steve’s, apparently, was soon joined by a screechy-sounding female’s.

We left the park.

That was the beginning of it all, the episode that irrevocably changed my life.

***

After flushing the wound with water, the nurse stitched me up. Steve and Bitchface badgered me the whole time. Worse than that they were badgering the nurse. They told me so, and I could also tell by her reactions, the way she would look at me when I thought a dirty thought, which was often, when images of Scarlet or Tobi in pain flashed through my mind, because that was what I was worried about now. Steve and Wendy were telegraphing my thoughts again. Except now every time my thoughts moved that way they would assure me that they weren’t going to kill anyone else.

The hospital room pounded with dark energy. Whenever I looked at something that brought to mind a person I cared about — the nurse’s scrubs like Scarlet’s pajamas, the hand washing reminder sign above the sink just like in the restroom of the restaurant my mother used to work at, Tobi himself sitting in the chair in the corner of the hospital room, averting his eyes from what I had done to myself — every time an image would flash in my mind of this person doing unspeakable things to me.

“They’re actors,” Bitchface said. “You’re seeing paid actors playing out the things we want to do to you.”

Actors?

“That’s right. There’s a lot of us working on you, Eddie Vasco.”

So why don’t you kill me?

“It’s not that simple. We can’t do anything to you given what you have in your possession. All we can do is scare the living shit out of you, and I think we’re succeeding.”

You sure are, I thought. It’s incredibly difficult not to be honest when there are people reading your mind.

The pain in my wrist, despite the Novocain they’d pumped into me, was excruciating. I was terrified, but at the same time perhaps a little less so than I’d been in my apartment, a little relieved. They weren’t going to kill me. They weren’t going to kill anyone else. They didn’t want me to die. They just wanted the thumbdrive, resting on my desk in my apartment’s office, to be destroyed. I kept telling myself this. They’d tried to trick me into destroying the thumbdrive, but it hadn’t even crossed my mind. I’d attempted suicide instead.

“We should have told you to destroy the thumbdrive. That was our mistake.”

Making a lot of mistakes aren’t you?

“I guess we are.”

When I get back to my apartment I’ll destroy it.

“Good. We might even let you go when you do.”

I don’t know why I haven’t destroyed it already.

“Neither do we,” said Bitchface.

“And stop calling me Bitchface,” she insisted.

I moaned softly.

“We’re not going to kill you, Eddie,” said Steve. “We don’t want you to kill yourself.”

“People have been asking questions.”

“Yes they have been.”

“This is some top secret shit you’ve stumbled across,” Wendy continued. “We don’t want it getting out even as a suspicion in anyone’s mind.”

That might be too late, I thought, looking at Tobias, who was still staring up at the ceiling.

What are you going to do to him?

“Not a goddamn thing!”

I decided that the worst part about them was that they never seemed to stop. They were always talking, never took a bathroom break, never paused to eat, never even slept. They talked to me through every night.

Who are you people?

“We’re specially trained, that’s who we are,” answered Bitchface.

I felt a sharp pain in my arm.

“Sorry,” said the nurse, “I missed the Novocaine.”

“Be more careful why don’t you?” I said.

“Sorry,” the nurse repeated, looking me in the face, perhaps trying to make sense of the strange sensation she was feeling, and the sense she had that it was connected to me.

“That’s exactly what she’s sensing,” said Steve. “That’s why you’re so dangerous.”

That doesn’t make any sense.

“Sure it does,” said Bitchface. “You’re spreading us around everywhere you go.”

The nurse was almost done sewing me up. There was dried blood crusted on my hand and my forearm. I couldn’t move my hand. That might have been the Novocaine puffing up my wrist, or it might have been the wound. I had really fucked myself up.

“What happens now?” I asked the nurse, to take my mind away from the voices.

“You’re going to John George Psychiatric Hospital,” said Tobi, standing up, looking at me carefully. “They’re putting you under an involuntary stay because you’re considered a danger to yourself.”

“How long will I be there for?”

“I don’t know. Are you still hearing the voices?”

His big green eyes were wide and penetrating. I wondered if he thought that I was crazy.

“Yes he does,” said Bitchface.

I don’t believe you, my mind responded.

I nodded at my brother, but Tobi couldn’t look at me. After catching sight of the horrific line of stitches lining my wrist he averted his eyes, hung his head like he’d done something wrong.

“I don’t know how long you’ll be there,” he said. “I imagine until you stop hearing the voices.”

I gritted my teeth as the nurse went in for another stitch.

“I understand,” I said.

Tobi put his hand on my other arm.

“You’re gonna be okay, pal,” he said.

“He really cares about you!” Steve exclaimed.

“Thanks,” I said. “But I wish I could believe you.”

Tobi was looking me in the face again. His questions burned into me, but he didn’t ask them, and I wouldn’t have had an answer if he had.

“We’re almost done here,” said the nurse. “Just gonna put the cast on and get you into the ambulance.”

“I’ll come see you as soon as I can,” Tobi said, tearing up. “Tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to,” I answered.

“I’m going to,” he insisted. “And I’ll tell Scarlet what happened too. Maybe she’ll come along.”

“Scarlet,” I murmured. “I forgot about her. I haven’t seen her in a while.”

“Are you kidding me? No one understands. What the fuck’s happened to you?”

I closed my eyes. Bitchface and Steve continued to pound me, but I tried to focus on Tobi’s words, however painful they were.

“I’ll have to tell everybody now, do you realize that?” He was saying. “Your fucking landlord, your job which you haven’t been back to in months, your friends, everyone. I won’t tell them everything, I won’t tell them what you’ve done to yourself, but I’ll have to tell them where you are. I’ll have to water your plants and pay your bills while you’re gone.”

My eyes snapped open.

“What was that?” Steve said. “Think that shit again. Go on. I dare you.”

“Promise me one thing,” I said, grabbing Tobi’s arm.

“What?” he asked, looking at me as if he were the one in pain.

“Tell him,” said Bitchface. “Go on.”

“Stay out of my office,” I said.

Tobi stared at me with naked worry etched into his brow.

He thinks I’m fucking batshit.

“Promise me,” I said.

“Oh Eddie.”

“God damn it, Tobi, this is important. Don’t go into my fucking office while I’m away! Promise me! The plants in there can wait.”

“Okay. I promise.”

He sounded like he was humoring me.

“I mean it,” I said.

“Why, man? Why can’t I go into your office?”

“Because I asked you. That’s gonna have to be enough.”

“You’re sick, man.”

“I’m not. I’m really not. Stay out of my fucking office.”

He pulled his arm out of my grip.

Two paramedics had pushed a stretcher into the hallway just outside the room. They came into the room.

“Come on, Mr. Vasco,” one of them said. “It’s time to go. Just swing your legs over the side. That’s it. Be careful. Move slowly.”

Tobias had moved back into the corner, allowing us passage. Steve was yelling at me that my brother thought I was crazy, no doubt about it now. The paramedic took my arm and helped to guide me out of the room.

“Stay out of trouble over there, okay?” Tobi said, his voice quavering. “I’ll come see you after I get off work tomorrow.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” I said while the paramedics helped me onto the stretcher. They strapped me in and wheeled me down the hallway, me staring at the lights in the ceiling so that, mercifully, I could no longer see my brother’s face.

They took me out of the hospital and into an ambulance. I tried not to look at the paramedics, who, along the way, began to look afraid. Bitchface and Steve told me that they were using more images generated by the actors, telling the paramedics everything they wanted to do to me. I stared straight up at the ceiling of the ambulance and fought back tears. The drive seemed perpetual. When we finally arrived my body was trembling in shock and fear.

***

Even during the worst of it I never thought I was crazy. At the same time, especially when it first started, I couldn’t think of a better explanation. It was just that the voices in my head sounded nothing like me. They were simple, brutal, and unrelenting. I couldn’t believe that your average schizophrenic would experience this kind of pounding, punishing expulsion from reality. I couldn’t explain it, except to accept what they themselves told me: that they were two practiced professionals named Wendy and Steve who could read my mind and talk to me via some kind of satellite technology; who could see what I saw, hear what I heard, and could likewise invade the mind of everyone around me, anyone they saw fit. No slight twitch of my limbs, no subtle facial expression, escaped their attention. “Look at his face!” Steve would laugh when he or Wendy said something that especially got to me. They talked to me in a tone of familiarity, unsurprised by any name or face that crossed my mind, as if they had been studying me for years.

My natural urge was to isolate. It was hard to be around people, to hold a conversation when my attention was so divided. At first I even avoided calling Scarlet because I didn’t want her to catch on. Besides, she’d seemed unhappy with me when we’d left the park, though I think the look of distress on my face did not escape her attention. 

Monday arrived, and I had to go to work, though Steve and Wendy insisted that I would regret it every time I came into contact with another person.

I dressed, ate breakfast and brushed my teeth just like I normally would. I found that when I was engaged in an activity that distracted me I could sort of tune them out. Maybe this would allow me to get through a day of work. Maybe I would be able to get used to it.

“No fucking way are you going to get used to it!”

How could they do this?

“Satellites,” said Wendy. “It’s satellites.”

I fixed my tie, looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes were sad, like a guilty puppy’s. This was extraordinarily depressing.

I packed my laptop into my briefcase and took the light rail downtown like I did every weekday, somehow afraid that the other passengers could tell that I was hearing voices. What an embarrassing thought.

“Nope. We’re not telling them. But we could! And we will! You’ll see!”

As the train approached Civic Center station I got out of my seat and stood in the crowd waiting for the doors to open. I locked eyes with an old white man with a crown of wispy white hair. I stared too long, and he raised his eyebrows at me.

“Nope! We didn’t tell him.”

But I was afraid that they had. The way he had looked at me, as if he had been surprised by something.

“It’s just your imagination, Eddie Vasco,” said Wendy. “You’ll be able to tell when we do it to you for real. When you get to work we’re going to make your life a living hell.”

The train doors opened. The crowd pushed out onto the platform, and I fought my way out with them, trying to distract myself from Wendy and Steve. I focused on my breathing, on my steps, on the escalator and the people around me. I found that I envied everyone else. It had only been a few days but already a little mental silence seemed like the most precious of luxuries.

Eventually I found myself on Market Street. I sang a song in my head, “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” while I walked down the noisy sidewalk. The music also proved an effective strategy for distancing myself from the voices.

“Satellites,” Wendy repeated when I reached my office building. “We know everything you think about.”

I got on the elevator and rode it to the eleventh floor, walked down the marble hallway flanked with wooden doorways with the names of their respective organizations stenciled on frosted glass windows. I arrived at Raymond Aspy, llc, and I opened the door. The office was quiet, like it always was. I passed Rachel, the administrative assistant, on the way to my office. There were envelopes in my inbox. Mr. Aspy had left work for me.

I sat down at my desk and took out my laptop. I accessed the office Wi-Fi and logged into our network. I loaded the first file that I had been e-mailed and found its corresponding paperwork in my basket. I opened the file on my laptop and started to read.

“Nope! I’m not going to let you read, Eddie Vasco!” Steve said.

And he started to read right along with me, reciting every word that my eyes passed over.

“Mrs. Delorean went to work at 5100 Sunnyside Road, Los Angeles on July 31st, 2014, Eddie Vasco! She had long been employed as a Research Associate at Dean Stewart & Co., where she performed various research and administrative tasks for her direct supervisor, Jonathon Nemoy. On that Sunday morning she found…!”

I stopped.

What are you doing to me?

“We’re fucking torturing you, Eddie Vasco!”

Why?

“Because you stole our fucking thumbdrive. No one was supposed to do that!”

Not for the first time I wondered, all of a sudden, what information the thing contained. I had spent all weekend holed up in my house. I hadn’t been able to summon the nerve to open it.

“Don’t even fucking think about it!”

It must be really fucking good.

“Don’t even fucking think about it!”

I put my head in my hands. I tried to get back to the file, and found that I could, with some effort, read and process the content before me, even with the two of them reading along with me, which they did stubbornly and consistently. It was like having a loudspeaker blasting in your brain, a doubling of Steve’s voice with the words as I read them, a bizarre and intrusive echo.

“We can see everything you see, remember that!” Wendy interjected.

I tried to go on, wincing with every word. I was beginning to worry that I wasn’t absorbing any of it when I heard a knock at my door.

“Hello! Come in!”

The door opened. I noticed by the clock on the wall that I had been at work for thirty minutes. I had accomplished nothing.

It was Mr. Aspy.

“Morning, Eddie,” he said, standing in the doorway. “Have you gotten started on the Delorean file?”

“I have!” I said, with too much enthusiasm. “I’m looking through the preliminaries right now.”

“Workers compensation.”

“Right, right, right.”

Mr. Aspy paused.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“NO YOU’RE NOT OKAY, EDDIE VASCO! AND HE KNOWS RIGHT NOW THAT YOU ARE FUCKING SCARED!!”

Mr. Aspy, fifty years old, portly, with a neatly manicured beard that followed his jawline and a head of short white hair, had a manila envelope in his hands.

“HE’S GOT WORK FOR YOU EDDIE VASCO!”

“You’re pale,” Mr. Aspy said. “You look distraught.”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I just got here a little late. I had to walk fast, you know?”

Mr. Aspy didn’t respond.

“HE’S GOT WORK HE WANTS TO GIVE YOU EDDIE!”

“I have more work for you, Eddie,” Mr. Aspy said. “Do you have some time?”

I was one of Mr. Aspy’s favorites. With enough time, and once I passed the BAR, he might take me under his wing. I’d been at his law firm for two years. All of this passed through my mind while I was looking at the manila envelope in his hands. It did not escape Steve’s notice.

“Come in, come in!” I said, standing up.

Mr. Aspy came in and took a seat. I sat down again. He was looking at me strangely.

“YOU TWO ARE FUCKING LINKED RIGHT NOW! HE KNOWS YOU THINK THAT YOU’RE ONE OF HIS FAVORITES!”

The words “Something’s happening to me” involuntarily escaped my lips.

I realized I had said that out loud.

Mr. Aspy cocked his head to the side, with concern but also a weird kind of suspicion in his eyes: “Can you be more specific?” he asked.

I clapped a hand over my mouth.

I can’t believe I said that out loud.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

I shook my head.

“HE’S STARTING TO WONDER ABOUT YOU, EDDIE!”

You fucking assholes.

“I’m sorry,” I said, watching Mr. Aspy’s expression change. “I’m not myself.”

Mr. Aspy furrowed his brow.

“GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE, EDDIE VASCO!”

You fucking assholes.

“What’s wrong?” Mr. Aspy asked.

I was thinking about the thumbdrive. I was wondering again how they could do this to me.

“I… I… I think I need to go home.”

Mr. Aspy didn’t respond. He was still sizing me up. I wondered again what they were telling him.

“Anything we damn well please, and he doesn’t even know it’s us,” Wendy said.

“Fuck you,” I muttered.

“You really aren’t well, are you?” Mr. Aspy said.

I shook my head.

“You seem very distracted.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine, I only wish I could put you to work. You’re the first person I thought of for this case.”

I closed my laptop. Bitchface was whispering threatening words.

“Do you need to go home?” Mr. Aspy asked.

I nodded numbly. Mr. Aspy smiled.

“That’s fine. We’ll survive without you. You’ve still got time to work on the Delorean file.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. Take the day off. We’ll survive without you.”

I packed my laptop back into my briefcase. I was thinking about the thumbdrive. Moving quickly I stood up and walked past Mr. Aspy. I had to get out of there. I couldn’t stand to have him looking at me like that.

“We could make it even worse for you, Eddie Vasco. What we’re telling him right now is only the tip of the iceberg. We could tell him that you’re hearing voices.”

“Eddie!” Mr. Aspy barked when I was at the door of my office.

I turned around, shamefaced.

“You’re not going to tell me what’s going on?”

Mr. Aspy stood up.

“Don’t even think about it Eddie!”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I have to go.”

Maybe the thumbdrive would tell me how to deal with them. Maybe I could gain some leverage there.

I turned around again and opened the door. I charged out of the office almost at a run, without bothering to look and see if anyone else had noticed me.

Well I could have handled that better, I thought.

“You sure fucking could have!” shouted Wendy.

But I had more important things to worry about right now. This was a question of my very sanity. It started right when I picked up the thumbdrive. Obviously there was material on it that they did not want me or anyone else to find. Maybe I could force them out of my mind. Maybe I could blackmail them.

“Don’t fucking count on it!”

I retreated back down my morning commute. When I arrived at home I had a headache. This was to become more common over the ensuing weeks and months.

“We’re going to kill you, Eddie Vasco,” Wendy whispered.

No you’re not, I responded.

“Oh yes we are.”

Not if I kill you first.

I went into my office and opened my laptop on my desk. The black parcel I had found in the park was resting on my printer. I opened it and took out the thumbdrive.

“You’re making a mistake,” said Steve.

Maybe I am, I wondered.

I plugged the thumbdrive into my laptop, waited for it to load and opened it. I was greeted by dozens of numbered folders. Inside one of these folders was a column of pdf files delineated by strings of numbers and letters. I opened one of them and was greeted with a smiling picture of a young man with blond hair. There was text next to his name. I started to read, and Steve and Wendy, excitedly, read right along with me.

***

I woke up lying on a mattress laid out on the institution’s dirty linoleum floor. I was in a big room, walls painted antiseptic blue like a hospital’s. The floor was crowded with bodies lying on mattresses like mine, as well as on regular beds arranged in rows, and a large, U-shaped couch. Some patients were awake, sitting up, talking to each other or to themselves. A clock on the wall read just after 4:00, and it must be AM, as it was dark. Three staff members, recognizable by the regular street clothes they wore as opposed to the patients’ blue scrubs, were sitting on a row of chairs pushed up against a wall. There was also a desk where more staff, some in nurse’s uniforms, manned computers and stood by a dock of blood pressure machines.

Where am I? I thought.

“John George Psychiatric Hospital,” Wendy answered.

I knew that.

“Yes you did.”

I sat up, cross-legged. My arm throbbed, and when I tried to move it it felt like the blood and insides were loose, painfully, heavily sloshing around inside.

An older, heavyset black man was smiling at me from an adjacent raised bed.

“You did that to yourself,” he said. It hadn’t been a question.

“How did you know?” I answered.

“A little birdie told me.”

“That was us, Eddie Vasco,” Wendy said. “We’re going to fuck with your world so hard you’re going to wish you had never been born.”

Why?

“Because you looked at the files on the thumbdrive. You weren’t supposed to do that.”

The heavyset patient sighed and put his legs over the side of his bed. His feet were bare. He stood up.

“Do you want my cot?” he asked.

I shook my head: “No thank you.”

“TAKE IT EDDIE VASCO! HE KNOWS YOU’RE NOT CRAZY!”

“Come on my man, you look like you’re seeing ghosts.”

“That’s because I am.”

“You want my cot? Imma leave it, take it if you want it.”

He slipped on a pair of pink plastic clogs and walked away. He scratched his head as he looked at the floor. He sat down at an open space on the big couch, looked back at me and was still smiling.

Did you scare him away? I asked.

“We sure did!” Wendy answered. “No one is going to come anywhere near you while you’re here. You’ll see.”

I took in my surroundings, checking to see if anyone else was scoping me. I was one of the only white people in the room. Some of the patients had the red, hard looking skin of the long-time itinerant. One of them, a woman with short spiky blond hair, let out a scream when my eyes passed over her. I looked away.

The recently vacated bed lay empty. My mattress, hard and thin, wasn’t very comfortable. Beds were probably in high demand. God damn did my arm hurt.

“I bet it does, Eddie. You really fucked yourself up.”

Fuck off.

“No we’re not going to fuck off. We’re going to drive you fucking crazy!”

I decided to take the bed. I stood up and took my blanket with me, sat down on the bed and gingerly put my arm across my lap. The cast was hard. Apart from the throbbing pain there was no feeling in my hand. My heart was beating fast just from the effort it had taken to move my arm. It was like the knife was still in me. I found that Wendy’s ranting had momentarily receded into the background while I hadn’t been paying attention to her.

“But now I’m back again, aren’t I, Eddie Vasco?”

Why are you doing this to me?

“Oh my God, we’ve been over this already! Because you found something you shouldn’t have. That was some top secret shit you found.”

What were you doing with it in the park in the first place?

“That’s none of your fucking business!”

A young Latino man with a closely cropped haircut was pacing back and forth in front of a security guard seated in the aisle just behind the head of my bed.

“Niggas keep talking to me!” the man was saying. “Talking in my fucking head.”

“Sit down, son,” the security guard said.

“I ain’t sitting down. That’s when they get you, let your guard down.”

I put my head in my hands. If my friends and family could see me now… Everyone’s going to think I’m crazy.

“Especially because you’re going to delete those files and destroy that fucking thumbdrive as soon as you get home!” Steve said. He had been gone for a little while, now he was back.

“Yes I am!” he said.

Sometimes I couldn’t decide which of them was worse. But usually it was Bitchface.

“Awww. You’re sweet.”

“I don’t fucking care about that man, nigga!” the Latino man shouted. “He ain’t mean shit to me.”

“Hey! Keep your voice down,” said the security guard.

“Yeah, he don’t mean shit!” someone else in the room echoed.

“They keep testing me, man,” the Latino man said to the security guard, waving his arms over his head. “They testing me!”

“You’re testing me too, Luis,” said the guard.

“Man I ain’t testing shit! They fucking everywhere! Everywhere!”

I was watching the exchange slack-jawed. I wondered how many like Bitchface and Steve there were, and what they were saying to the patients. Were they telling everyone what I was thinking?

“Sometimes we will, sometimes we won’t! You never know what we’re gonna do next.”

“Come on,” said the guard, putting his arm around Luis’ shoulders. “Let’s get you to bed.”

“I ain’t going nowhere man. They fucking testing me!”

Luis tried to wriggle free from the guard’s grasp, his voice raised to a pitch, but the guard’s at-first friendly arm instantly slipped around Luis’ neck into a headlock, and he brought the man down to the floor. Luis’ legs flailed up into the air and hit the side of my bed.

An image of Scarlet’s smiling face flashed in my mind. What would she think of me? I think she had come to believe, after she’d seen me.

“What was that, Eddie Vasco?!” said Bitchface.

Luis had been brought down to the floor. He was still yelling about being tested.

I’m in a fucking nuthouse, I thought.

“You tried to fucking kill yourself, Eddie. You’re going to be here for some time.”

I’m hearing fucking voices.

“We’re going to hound you until you fucking die!”

But if you don’t leave I’ll never get home, so I can’t destroy the thumb drive.

“We’ve already thought of that.”

“Let me up!” Luis yelled, no longer struggling beneath the guard. “You’re hurting me!”

“Keep it down, please!” the patient in the bed next to mine responded.

Two more guards had come running at the sight of their co-worker’s action. They took Luis’ arms behind his back and, as the first guard slowly allowed Luis to stand up, the three of them held him together, and Luis struggled.

“You’re going into seg, Luis,” said the first guard. “Come on.”

“Man I ain’t going nowhere!” Luis yelled, sock-clad feet kicking and sliding on the floor.

“Oh yes you are,” said the guard.

“He’s right, you know,” I heard from the man in the cot next to me. “They’re testing us.”

He was looking at me.

“Who is?” I asked.

“You know.”

The man rolled away and pulled his blanket up over his head.

“They’re all gonna turn on you, Eddie Vasco! You’ll see!”

Oh my God, get out of my head.

“We’ve got plans for you, Eddie.”

Just leave me alone.

“Nope. We aren’t going anywhere.”

The guards were taking Luis down the hall. He was screaming incoherently, kicking his feet and jerking from side to side. At a certain point one of the guards came around to his front and grabbed his legs, and now they were carrying him down the hall.

I watched them open a metal door and put Luis inside, then close and lock the door behind him. Luis’ screams became muffled, but still audible.

I lay down on my back and stared at the ceiling. I took stock of my situation. At least they couldn’t get me to kill myself while I was in here. But I thought again of Scarlet, and of Tobi. I realized that I was more afraid for them now than I had ever been before.

“Just you wait until we’re done with you.”

“You’ll be able to hear what we’re doing to them.”

Sure enough, right on cue, the voices of the rest of the patients in the room, those that had been talking to themselves and to each other, became louder, though still disjointed. There was a chorus of groans and then staff members yelling to “Keep it down!”

“They’re hearing your thoughts, Eddie Vasco. They can taste your fear.”

“Stop it!” someone called out.

“Leave him alone!” shouted another.

“Come on guys, pipe down!”

“He’s being fucking tortured!”

“They’re testing us!”

“Can’t you hear them?”

“No I don’t hear anything!”

It’s only the patients? I thought.

“Only the patients. The staff members will always think you’re crazy. They’re not going to treat you any differently than your co-workers did.”

I closed my eyes to the sounds around me. The blood in my wrist pounded. There was a similar sense of pounding in my mind, like Steve and Wendy were beating a drum or a bass guitar. The shouts in the room grew louder still. All the patients must be awake now, listening to my thoughts. There was nothing I could do.

“There sure fucking isn’t!”

I’m sorry everybody, I thought.

“Yep! They sure fucking heard that!”

I rolled onto my side and shut my eyes. I breathed measuredly through my nostrils and told myself to stay calm, to keep breathing. To think of it like I was being tested wasn’t such a terrible approach. But the maelstrom of voices only intensified around me.

“What’s going on here?” I heard a staff member ask.

I curled into a ball.

Eventually, miraculously, even despite the shouts around me and in my mind, I fell asleep.

***

From what I could tell, the thumbdrive was filled with files on people; intimate knowledge, some of it, that very few should rightly know: a mother’s pet name that stuck with close family members, memories of a first kiss, detailed biographies and then a sort of synopsis summing up what that person was up to these days, what their hang ups were, what they thought about their significant other, how good they thought they were at their job. It was as if they’d been looking through the eyes of that person for years. Files like these stretched on endlessly. I didn’t bother to read more than a few of them, then, unable to bear Steve’s voice doubling for the words I was reading, I removed the thumbdrive and closed my laptop.

“You know too much,” Wendy said.

What on earth have you been up to?

“That’s none of your fucking business!”

That was some intimate shit that I was reading.

“We know it was!”

I interrupted something important didn’t I? Someone specific was supposed to find that thing in the park.

“That’s none of your fucking business either!”

Holding the thumbdrive in my right hand, I found myself pacing back and forth in my little office. Steve and Wendy continued to hammer me. I tried to think but it was quite difficult through their interference. I wondered what I had gotten myself mixed up in.

“We’re not going to tell you, Eddie Vasco!”

I know. Stop repeating yourself.

“We’ll do whatever we Goddamn please.”

My phone rang. I took it out of my pocket and saw that it was Scarlet. I hadn’t seen her since the picnic. That had been four days ago.

“Hello?” I said, answering it.

“Hey Eddie, how’s tricks?”

“Not too bad,” I said, unevenly.

“I’m calling because I got Citizen Kane on Netflix.”

“Oh did you?”

“Do you know what I’m talking about?”

I did, but it took me a second to bring it to mind. Scarlet was taking a film class at the San Francisco Art Institute. She had decided to write her term paper on noteworthy examples of cinematography and how different lighting techniques related to storytelling. Along the way she had learned that I had never seen Citizen Kane. She’d insisted that this was a problem that must be rectified.

“Of course I know what you’re talking about,” I said.

“Sorry, just making sure,” she said.

“Just making sure,” I echoed.

“Are you free tonight?”

“NO YOU’RE NOT FREE TONIGHT, EDDIE VASCO!”

“I… I don’t know.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I don’t know if you should come over or not.”

“Um… okay.”

She sounded displeased.

“Please don’t take it personally,” I said.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I don’t think I can see anybody right now.”

“THAT’S RIGHT EDDIE! TELL HER THAT!”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m… I’m not sure. I just don’t feel like myself I guess.”

“This all sounds very strange,” Scarlet said, but the curtness in her voice had been replaced by what might have been a concerned kind of confusion.

“I know it does,” I said.

“When did it start?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I lied.

“Did it start at the park?”

“Wow she’s one smart cookie,” said Wendy.

“How did you know that?” I blurted out.

“Because you seemed so out of sorts. You went pale at the end, and totally quiet all the way back to Monica’s house. You think I didn’t notice? I catch on to more than I let on.”

I smiled briefly. I love her childlike way of speaking.

I thought about telling her to come over anyways. Maybe I could tell her what I was going through. Maybe Steve and Wendy would let her be.

“YOU KNOW DAMN WELL THAT WE WON’T!”

“I’m sorry, but you can’t come over,” I said.

“Okay. Whatever.”

“It’s not because of you at all.”

“I don’t understand. You’re kind of confusing me.”

“I even came home from work early.”

“Will you just tell me what’s going on?”

“I’m sorry but I have to go.”

“Don’t you dare.”

“Save the movie for me, okay?”

Then I hung up, interrupting Scarlet in the middle of a fresh protestation. As soon as I had I wished that I hadn’t, because I was instantly engulfed in the punishing words of Wendy and Steve. Maybe I should have let her come over, to hell with them.

“That would have been a really bad idea, Eddie,” Wendy said. 

“DAMN WELL FUCKING RIGHT!”

I moaned and walked into my bedroom, wondering again how they could do this to me. Furthermore I wondered why. But they wouldn’t tell me. They let me walk into my bedroom and get into bed. I listened to them, on and on into the growing dark of the evening.

***

The first time Tobi and Scarlet came to visit me I was still in John George Psychiatric Hospital’s large room with the cots and mattresses, which, according to one of the orderlies, was the waiting room, where I was on call to be assigned to one of the hospital’s wards once a bed opened up. I worried that I would lose my plush raised cot while I was meeting my visitors, but seeing them, a break from the miserable, muttering mental patients, would be more than worth it. There was unmitigated horror on Scarlet’s face when she saw me in my blue scrubs, the cast on my arm. I smiled at her and she dropped her eyes. It looked like it was out of respect.

I hugged her and kissed her cheek. Tobi looked on with arms crossed, then took a seat at the desk we were meeting at. His expression could best be described as one of disapproval.

“So Tobi told you?” I asked Scarlet. Her eyes looked wet.

She nodded, and sat down next to Tobi. I sat across from them. The desk was in a hallway that branched off from the waiting room. There was a door leading to the outside world, washed in sunlight, and there was a security guard standing before it.

“But he didn’t tell me why,” Scarlet said after a pause. She looked like she was trying to search something out of me.

“THAT’S BECAUSE SHE KNOWS YOU’RE NOT CRAZY, EDDIE VASCO!”

I cleared my throat.

“Did you tell him everything I told you?” I asked her.

Scarlet shook her head.

“Tell me what?” Tobi asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” I shot back immediately. “You wouldn’t believe it if we did.”

“Try me.”

“I’m not going to.”

“Well then there’s nothing I can do for you,” he intoned.

I didn’t say anything. He was speaking through his confusion. It didn’t make any sense to him.

“I’ve got something for you,” he said, producing a yogurt container from a Trader Joe’s bag he had with him.

“What’s this?” I took it.

“HE REALLY CARES ABOUT YOU, EDDIE!” the voices interrupted. I must have shaken them loose for a little while.

“It’s soup,” he said. And indeed it was. It smelled like pumpkin spice. “You can eat it while we talk.”

I started to wolf it down. It was far superior to the plastic-wrapped ham sandwiches they’d been giving us in the waiting room.

“Did you hurt yourself?” I heard Scarlet ask.

I nodded and looked at her. She put a hand over her mouth.

“Are you okay?”

I shook my head.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I’m still hearing them,” I answered.

“The voices,” Tobi said.

I nodded again. Steve was hollering that Tobi was starting to believe me too, but I think he was only telling me what I wanted to hear.

“THAT’S RIGHT, I AM!”

“How could you do this to yourself?” Scarlet asked.

“He’s not going to tell us,” Tobi said.

“Sure I’ll tell you,” I responded. “I did it because I didn’t think I had a choice.”

Tobi sighed. “I have no idea what that means,” he said.

“Me neither,” Scarlet said, but she’d said it quietly. I remembered what she’d been like the last time I’d seen her. She had been quite distraught. Over the last few months I’d found it hard to speak about what was happening to me, insisting that I wasn’t insane, that this wasn’t a schizophrenic episode. But Scarlet knew. She had seen everything.

“What are they saying to you now?” Scarlet asked.

I waited for a second.

“They’re telling me that you love me.”

“I do.”

“I know you do.”

“It hurts me.”

“It hurts me too.”

“I want you to get out of this,” she said. Tobi was looking at the two of us. I went back to eating the soup. “Just tell me what you need from me.”

“DON’T TELL HER TO HELP YOU, EDDIE! IT’LL ONLY MAKE THINGS WORSE FOR HER. AND NO, WE’RE NOT TELLING THEM WHAT YOU’RE FUCKING THINKING!”

“Just keep coming,” I said. “It’s great to see you two.”

“I’ll pick her up after I get off work when we can,” Tobi said. “We’ll swing by. Schedule permitting.”

“Thank you.”

I took another gulp of soup.

I don’t even know who they work for, I thought.

“WE WORK FOR THE MOTHERFUCKING NSA, EDDIE VASCO!” Steve said. “THERE, NOW YOU KNOW.”

They were a top secret unit of mind readers called Contact Specialists according to the files in the thumbdrive, completely unaccountable and bound by no discernible rule of law. If I could ever prove what they were doing the entire nation would have a fit, but that was unlikely ever to happen.

“YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT IT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN!”

“It’s the thumbdrive,” I heard Scarlet say, and her words cut directly through my thought process. She was looking at me. She was testing me.

I shook my head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Of course you do.”

“What’s this?” Tobi asked.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Just a symptom of my illness.”

“Something Eddie found in the park a few months ago,” Scarlet said. “He told me it’s what got all of this started. He told me who he thinks the voices are.”

“What are you saying?” Tobi asked her.

“I’m saying that Eddie doesn’t think he’s crazy.”

“Oh yes I do,” I insisted. “I’m batshit fucking nuts, and neither of you can do a thing about it.”

“Oh yeah?” she asked. “Then why did you do it? If you think it’s all in your head then why would you try to protect us?”

“A moment of weakness,” I answered, and took another spoonful of soup. My hand shook on the way and I dribbled some of it onto my chin. I wiped my chin with the sleeve of my scrubs. My arm hurt like white-hot fire.

“I’ve been thinking about you a lot, Eddie,” Scarlet said in that obsessive tone of voice I knew so well.

I didn’t know what to say.

“TELL HER YOU FUCKING LOVE HER YOU IDIOT!”

“I love you,” I said. Scarlet smiled at me, happy to have heard it. Her eyes might have moistened a little bit more.

“What is happening between you?” Tobi asked.

“It’s nothing,” I said.

“It’s not nothing!” Scarlet shouted. “You tried to fucking kill yourself!”

“Maybe you should go,” I said.

“Maybe we should go!? Is that the best you can do?”

“I don’t know what you want from me,” I said.

“I want you to be normal again!”

“NOPE! CAN’T HELP YOU THERE, EDDIE!”

“Thanks for the soup,” I said, standing up. “Thanks for coming to see me.”

“I’m going to break into your fucking office and send that fucking thumbdrive to the closest newspaper!”

“SEE!”

“What are you talking about?” Tobi echoed, now looking at Scarlet with a similar element of concern.

“Your brother’s not crazy, Tobi,” Scarlet said. “He’s just being made to look that way.”

“Don’t break into my office,” I said.

“That’s what he told me too,” Tobi interjected, reaching out and touching Scarlet’s shoulder, but she swatted his hand away.

“I’m going,” I said. “Don’t you do it, Scarlet,” I repeated. Steve and Bitchface were going crazy in my mind, but there was an element of mirth in their voices as they continued to tell me that my girlfriend loved me and knew I wasn’t crazy.

But, to be absolutely honest, there was a part of me that wanted to know what would happen if she did just what she’d threatened.

“WE KNOW THERE IS, EDDIE VASCO! WE KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT YOU!”

I gave Tobi back the yogurt container. Scarlet was still crying when I turned and walked away. Tobi didn’t bother to say goodbye. My back was turned but I would bet that he was still studying Scarlet, watching her shoulders buck with sobs, her hands wet from the tears on her face. I knew that Tobi liked her. She was a very good looking woman.

“SHE’S QUITE THE CATCH, EDDIE VASCO!” Steve shouted. “LET’S HOPE SHE DOESN’T DO ANYTHING STUPID!”

I hope she doesn’t come back to see me tomorrow.

“NO YOU DON’T. YOU HOPE SHE FUCKING WELL SAVES YOUR LIFE! AND SHE MIGHT, EDDIE! SHE JUST FUCKING MIGHT.”

Just as I’d suspected, a patient had taken my bed while I was away. I sat down on an open space on the big couch. The patients around me scooted away. The orderlies were looking at me strangely. I wondered what Steve, Wendy and the rest of their co-workers had told the room in my absence.

***

My doorbell rang.

“It’s her,” Wendy said.

I know it’s her.

“Well aren’t you going to answer it?” she asked.

I don’t think I want to, my mind responded.

“That’s because you’re a smart motherfucker, Eddie Vasco.”

I started to cry. I covered my face with one of my hands and I waited. I contemplated not letting Scarlet come up, and developing some kind of excuse later. Of course I had the best excuse in the world, but she wouldn’t believe me if I told her. She would think I’d gone crazy.

“She’s already wondering about you,” Steve said. “Just so you know.”

No she’s not.

“Yes she fucking is.”

I don’t believe you. Shut up.

The bell rang again. I curled onto my side. I’d had a headache all day. I hadn’t left my apartment since they’d driven me from my job. I was getting hungry. It was hard even to make meals for myself because it made me feel exposed. I felt safest when I was lying in bed. But no matter what I did Steve and Wendy never stopped, they continued all day and all night.

Scarlet had been calling me. Maybe my strange and sudden lapse into an even unavailability had affected her in a way I wouldn’t expect.

The doorbell didn’t ring again. Maybe she would go away. I could mend fences with her later. She loved me.

“She does love you, Eddie Vasco. She cares about you. And guess what, she knows something’s wrong with you. She already knows that.”

Well, it’s obvious.

“Not to everyone. You’re good at hiding it from people sometimes. Those you come across on the street have no idea you’re hearing voices like a fucking schizo.”

The bell still wasn’t ringing. It had been a few minutes from the first time. My tears were drying up. I didn’t want her to see me like this.

Then my cellphone rang, Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” Scarlet’s ring.

I don’t want her to see me like this.

“Do you really want her to leave you? Because she might. There are men slobbering all over her everywhere. If she starts to think you’re not much of a catch after all maybe she won’t love you any more.”

I reached out and picked up my phone. There was her name. Scarlet Hemsworth.

“Preacher man goin tell me heaven is on the Earth,” Bob Marley sang. “I know you don’t know what life is really worth. It’s a hard and bitter road. Half of my story’s never been told.”

I can’t.

“No you can’t, can you?”

“So now they see the light, hey, and stand up for your rights. Come on.”

I answered my phone.

“Hey Scarlet,” I said.

There was a pause. I could hear voices and traffic in the background.

“Are you going to come get me?” she asked.

“I feel like shit,” I answered.

“Really? When did that start?”

“SEE! SHE’S SUSPICIOUS ALREADY!”

I wiped my eyes and sniffed back a clot of snot.

“I don’t know if I can,” I said.

“Of course you can,” she answered. “We can talk about what’s happening to you. Whatever it is.”

“SHE REALLY CARES ABOUT YOU, EDDIE!”

I know.

“I know,” I said.

“You know what?”

“I know you’re here to help.”

“Then come and get me. I’ve got a movie. We can watch it and I can make you feel better.”

“I don’t think so. Not this time.”

“What the fuck is happening to you? Why haven’t you wanted to see me?”

I moaned. The distress in her voice was not what I wanted to hear. But I wanted to see her. I craved comfort and distraction if I could find it somewhere, no matter what Steve and Wendy and whoever else was working on me might cook up.

“Come get your door,” Scarlet said, her voice now more conciliatory. “We can talk it through.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be just a second.”

“I’m waiting.”

“Thank you, Scarlet.”

“Don’t thank me,” she said seriously. I hoped that my pitiful state wouldn’t be too much for her.

“It won’t be,” Wendy said with feeling. “She just wants to see you.”

I hung up the phone. I pushed myself out of bed and looked at myself in the full body mirror. I was dressed in a tattered white T-shirt and boxers. My eyes were red and puffy from stress and tears. My mouth hung in a sorry looking frown.

I clapped my hands. I rolled my shoulders and did a couple quick jumping jacks. I tried to think about Scarlet instead of the voices in my head, which were now encouraging me. I tried to think about making love to her. Wendy started laughing. I wondered if, should it come to it, I would be able to get it up.

“OVER MY DEAD BODY EDDIE VASCO!” Steve hollered.

Changing into new clothes, putting on a pair of jeans and a fresh T-shirt. Socks on my bare feet. I put deodorant under my arms.

“She’s going to be horrified, Eddie Vasco,” Wendy whined.

She might be.

“We’re going to scare the living shit out of her.”

You might.

I slipped on my house slippers and left my bedroom. On the way through the living room I stopped at my stereo system and put in Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, took a moment to survey my surroundings and search out anything incriminating. My laptop was open on the coffee table. The last time I’d been on it I’d been reading the mysterious files crowding the thumbdrive.

I walked over and closed it. I picked the thumbdrive out, cursed the thing, and put it in my pocket.

“You better not let her find it, Eddie Vasco,” Wendy sang mockingly.

I won’t.

“You better not.”

“We’re going to pulverize her, Eddie. You’ll see,” Steve said.

At least she’ll know what I’m dealing with.

“No she won’t. Just like everybody else.”

Well maybe I’ll tell her.

“That’s your fucking decision.”

I walked out into the hallway and left the door to my apartment open.

Down the stairs to the glass-paneled front door I saw Scarlet standing on the other side. She wore a pale pink summer dress and large sunglasses, standing head turned, looking down the sidewalk. A gray handbag dangled from her crossed arms.

“I’d hit that in a second, Eddie Vasco,” said Steve.

Don’t fucking look at her.

“Fuck you, Eddie, I’ll look at whoever I want to.”

I walked down the stairs and opened the front door.

“Hi,” Scarlet said, stepping towards me immediately.

“Hi,” I answered.

“HI EDDIE!” Steve hollered.

“So you going to let me in or what?”

“Of course,” I said, stepping back from the doorway.

She came in.

“I like that that was even a question,” she said.

I didn’t answer her. I shut the door.

“It started at the picnic?” she asked.

I nodded. I took her hand and started leading her up the stairs. Her hand was warm, soft and slightly damp. It was an unusually hot San Francisco summer day.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

I shook my head, but didn’t answer with words. I didn’t like the way I knew I would sound. Steve and Wendy drove their voices into my mind like drill bits mining mountain rock beds, and they made fun of me for feeling insecure around her. But they weren’t sharing my thoughts.

“NOPE, WE SURE AREN’T!” Steve said.

Thank fucking God.

“ENJOY YOURSELF, EDDIE VASCO. IF YOU CAN!”

God I hate you.

***

The next day, just after lunch, that is, just after noon-time, I was transferred to the hospital’s C-ward. A staff member called out my name and that was it, no more uncomfortable cots or mattresses on the floor, no more sharing a room with thirty-five lunatics.

They took me down the hall to another large, rectangular room with two big couches, a flat-screen TV on the wall and a set of tables near the back. There was a glass wall at the end and a door that let out into a fenced-in patio area. There were more lunatics milling around in this large room, some of them watching TV, some of them seated at the tables, and some just standing or walking around.

One of the orderlies led me to my room (the large room was circled by doors leading to other rooms like mine). Inside there were two beds, one of which was occupied by a large, breathing, slug-shaped lump that didn’t seem to notice when I came in. The orderly shut the door behind me and I took a seat on my bed. I listened to the loud, snoring breaths of my roommate, and to Steve and Wendy, who were talking to me about my observations of the population of patients, who, the voices assured me, would be fully aware of my thoughts every time I ventured to poke my head outside of my room.

Okay, I thought. I’m going to have to go outside for meals. Other than that I’m going to stay put.

“That’s a good fucking idea, Eddie Vasco,” said Wendy.

“We’re not going to do it all the time. Just like we did for Scarlet, we’ll let you breathe from time to time. But you’re going to be fucking miserable here. You’re going to want to kill yourself again, I swear to fucking God.”

I curled up in bed and I closed my eyes. I would ask Tobi to bring me a book the next time I saw him. I would try to read through the voices. I didn’t know what else I could do. I couldn’t think about anything. Maybe I was going to go crazy.

“Eventually you will,” said Wendy. “It’s just a matter of time.”

I’ll do my best, I thought, and, because there was nothing else to do, I drifted off into sleep. When I woke up Steve, sounding somber, said something that startled me.

“Scarlet’s going to see Tobi, Eddie Vasco. She wants to find the thumbdrive.”

***

I followed Scarlet into the kitchen, where she took a seat at the kitchen table.

“So what are you going to make me?” she asked.

I shook my head.

“Check the fridge,” I said.

She looked at me a moment.

“Are you saying you don’t have anything to eat?”

“THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE FUCKING SAYING!”

I nodded.

She sat with her back straight and her head held high.

“So how are you surviving?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Takeout mostly.”

“You used to like to cook.”

“I still do.”

“Then what’s changed? What’s happening to you? I can’t help you if you won’t tell me anything.”

“GO AHEAD EDDIE. TELL HER ABOUT US! WE DON’T FUCKING CARE!”

I sat down at the table across from her. I put both hands flat on the wood and rubbed them back and forth idly, staring at the space between them.

I don’t want to tell her, I thought.

“OF COURSE YOU DON’T! YOU DON’T WANT HER TO THINK YOU’RE FUCKING CRAZY! BUT YOU’RE NOT CRAZY EDDIE. THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING TO YOU!”

I shook my head.

“I’m not going to tell you,” I finally said.

My thumbs lightly drummed the table. I heard Scarlet’s chair creak as she shifted position. One of her hands took one of mine and squeezed it.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m not going to judge you.”

I squeezed her hand back. She felt good to touch. My other hand came and clasped the other side of hers. I enjoyed her warmth in physical, if not psychological silence. I couldn’t bring myself to open my mouth and form words.

“WE MIGHT FORM THE WORDS, EDDIE! YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT WE’RE GOING TO DO NEXT!”

“Come on,” she said softly, but insistently. Her hands were comforting but there was also a forcefulness about the way she was holding me. Something about this surprised me.

“I didn’t know you cared so much,” I found myself saying.

“Of course I care,” she answered. “You’re pretty important to me.”

“Even if I’m going crazy?” I pushed, still unable to look her in the face.

“If you are it’s only a passing thing. It can’t be to stay.”

“I hope you’re right about that.”

“SHE’S DEAD WRONG EDDIE VASCO!”

I winced

“What on earth could have precipitated this?” Scarlet asked. “You sure didn’t seem crazy to me three weeks ago.”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Does it run in your family?”

I shook my head.

“Has anything like this ever happened to you before?”

I kept shaking my head.

“But you’re not going to tell me what brought this about?”

I finally looked at her. Her eyes were still wide, worried and concerned. And here I’d thought our relationship had been stagnating.

“SHE THOUGHT IT WAS STAGNATING TOO, EDDIE! BUT SHE WASN’T HAPPY ABOUT IT!”

Please shut up.

“HELL NO, EDDIE VASCO!”

Scarlet was still looking at me as my thoughts had started to wander with the sound of Steve’s voice. I snapped back to attention, but I feared that she had seen it.

“SHE DID SEE…”

“The thing is,” I said, “I don’t think I’m crazy, and that’s the craziest part.”

“Huh.”

“But you wouldn’t believe me if I told you why.”

“I know you’re not crazy, Eddie. This all happened too fast for that.”

“I agree,” I said. I was still able to look at this dispassionately.

“In fact it’s been hard for me not to take it a little personally. When you first told me not to come over last week I thought you might want to break up with me. But then I did a little digging. I found out you hadn’t been into work. That’s really not like you.”

“You called my job?”

“Yes I did.”

She was worried that I was leaving her. Women always assume the worst.

“Yes they do,” said Wendy, sounding encouraging. “You’re doing just fine,” she said. For some reason the sound of sympathy in her voice infuriated me even more than the will to dominate I’d heard in Steve’s.

“…by something,” Scarlet was saying.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I was saying that you seem distracted by something,” she said, and laughed a little. “No kidding, right?”

I swallowed and let go of her hands. I leaned back in the chair away from her.

“Am I onto something?” she asked.

“ONE SMART COOKIE YOU GOT HERE!”

I thought about the thumbdrive. I thought about what it would be like to tell her. Maybe it was exactly what I needed, to have somebody in my corner, somebody who knew everything.

“We can hear everything you’re thinking about,” Wendy reminded me.

I stood up.

“Do you want to order Chinese?” I asked.

She shrugged. “We need to eat something.”

“I’ll order some Chinese. What do you want?”

“Just get me some chow mein.”

“You got it.”

I went into the living room, found my phone, and called a nearby Chinese restaurant that I had in my phonebook.

I started to choose the words I would speak to Scarlet, and I tried to ignore Steve’s and Wendy’s clambering. And when the Chinese restaurant employee answered the phone I found myself listening to them again, because they told me that they’d decided to beat me to the punch. They were going to tell Scarlet everything.

***

“Breakfast! Breakfast time!” I heard a voice, lightly accented, call from beyond my door.

I got out of bed and put on my hospital scrubs.

“She’s going to see him right now, Eddie. She’s on the MUNI as we speak.”

Are you going to hurt her?

“We just fucking might. You never know with us.”

“Breakfast! Breakfast time!”

I opened the door to the main hall and found the patients gathering around a cart in the area with the circular tables built into the floor. There was a staff member reading off a roll call and another one handing out trays of food. There was also what looked like a coffee dispenser, and patients were getting coffee. I walked towards the crowd. Thoughts of Scarlet, how I hadn’t seen at all for the last few months, scrolled through my mind. She’d called me a few times, but I’d never answered. After a while she gave up. She never came to my apartment again. It felt like I had been robbed of something irreplaceable.

Please don’t hurt her, I thought.

“We might and we might not.”

I couldn’t live with myself if you did anything to her.

“You might just have to.”

In the crowd of mental patients I noticed that some of them were looking at me strangely, with their heads low on their shoulders as if fearful of me. There were many sorry frowns in the crowd. It was not a happy group of people.

“MUNI just let out at Tobi’s apartment, Eddie. Scarlet’s gotten off the train.”

I wonder what she’s thinking about.

“She’s thinking about how crazy she must be to be doing what she’s about to be doing. She’s also thinking about you, about what’s happened to you and what you did to yourself. She wishes she could have been there for you.”

Don’t you hurt her.

“We’re not going to, Eddie. Don’t worry so much, man.”

You guys are liars.

“Sometimes we are and sometimes we’re not. You never know with us.”

The staff member reading roll call called out my name and I stepped forward to collect my tray. I took it to one of the tables, removed the cover and found what looked to be surprisingly edible scrambled eggs, sausage, toast and fruit; in other words a full breakfast. The meal I’d had for dinner last night had been mere cafeteria food. Seemed John George was a bit better when it came to breakfast.

“How can you think about breakfast at a time like this?” Wendy asked. “Your life is on the line.”

“Do you even care about your girlfriend, Eddie? She’s putting herself on the line too.”

She doesn’t know she is.

“She thinks she is.”

“She knows you’re not crazy, Eddie.”

But she can’t explain it.

“That’s right, she sure can’t.”

It’s so weird to be falling into dialogue with you.

“Quite an experience, isn’t it?”

Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

“Then you’re about to be one strong ass motherfucker.”

I started to eat my food. The eggs needed salt. Was Scarlet going to die? Were they going to kill her? I swallowed my food with some effort.

“We might, Eddie. It depends on what she does with the thumbdrive,” said Steve.

“She’s speaking to your brother now. She’s convincing him to let her into your apartment.”

What does he think about the whole thing?

“He thinks she’s going crazy too.”

But is he going to do it?

“I don’t know,” said Wendy. “We haven’t gotten that far yet. He feels terrible about this whole thing. It was a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky to him.”

For everyone probably.

“Everyone that heard about it.”

Are you going to let me go on with my life?

“Not until you destroy that fucking thumbdrive,” said Steve.

“I think your brother likes your girlfriend, Eddie,” Wendy said. “He keeps looking at her.”

Don’t tell me that.

“Maybe he’ll put the moves on her while you’re otherwise occupied.”

“He thinks you’ve wasted your life but he has no idea why.”

I have no idea why either.

“Because of that fucking thumbdrive. You weren’t supposed to find that shit.”

I finished eating. God, how did they keep going all the time without eating?

“We’re specially trained, Eddie. We told you that already.”

But that’s impossible. People need to sleep. People need to eat.

“Not us.”

You’re lying.

“No we’re not.”

I stood up with my tray of food and took it across the dining area to the carts where the staff was stacking the dirty dishes. I couldn’t eat any more. I would go back to bed and curl up and listen to what they had to say, listen to where Scarlet and Tobi were. And about twenty minutes later they told me that Scarlet, after breaking through his sympathy and resistance, had convinced him to let her into my apartment.

***

After ordering I hung up the phone and sat down on the couch. I put my head in my hands.

“Eddie?” Scarlet called from the kitchen.

“I’m in the living room,” I said.

She came down the short hallway.

“We’re telling her right now, Eddie,” Wendy said. “But we’re speaking to her very quietly. She’s getting an impression of your experience, but by the end of the evening she’ll understand completely.”

She sat down on the couch next to me. We sat that way a few moments in stillness. Steve was yelling at my thoughts, telling me not to worry, that they had my back.

I looked at Scarlet. She was staring forward at the blank screen of my television. I saw her eyebrows working, which meant she was concentrating on something. I took her hand.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“You haven’t told me anything,” she said, but there was something in her voice I couldn’t quite place, something between fear and empathy.

“Do you understand why I don’t want to tell you?”

“You’re embarrassed, obviously.”

“It’s worse than that.”

“How could it be worse than that?”

“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I don’t think what I’d have to say would leave the best impression. And maybe you’ll come to know just by being here with me, by seeing how I react to things.”

“Gosh you’re being cryptic.”

“I know.”

“WE’RE TELLING HER WHAT YOU’RE THINKING, EDDIE VASCO!” Steve hollered. “SHE KNOWS YOU DON’T THINK YOU’RE CRAZY!”

We’d both fallen silent again. The look of concentration hadn’t left her face. I wondered how they were talking to her.

“We’re guiding her thoughts with subtle nudges and associations. We know everything about her, just like you. We know what makes her tick.”

You’re not going to leave us in peace?

“Fuck no we’re not.”

“Will you tell me one thing?” Scarlet asked, still staring straight ahead.

“What?”

“Will you tell me what you think it has to do with the thing you found in the park?”

“That’s when it started,” I said instantly. “Right when I picked it up.”

“That’s good, Eddie. That jives with what she’s coming to realize.”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

I didn’t answer.

“Was it an especially hard day for you? We were just talking about Bernie Sanders. I wasn’t being that ornery was I?”

“You were fine.”

“You’re just too fucking busy, Eddie. I want to see more of you, that’s all. It’s a good problem to have, you know.”

She was looking at me now, but her hand was pulling a little bit, trying to free itself from mine. I didn’t want to let it go.

“WE KNOW YOU LOVE HER, EDDIE! IT’S FUCKING OBVIOUS!”

Scarlet was staring into my distraction. I felt uncomfortable, ashamed, and I wished that she would turn away again.

“What started in the park?” she asked.

“I started hearing things,” I relented, and there was no surprise in her eyes when I said it.

“That’s cause we fucking told her, Eddie. And she’s not blind. You’re acting really fucking weird.”

“What kind of things?” she asked.

“Voices,” I said. “Telling me to put it back.”

Her eyebrows were working again.

“Is that all they said?” she asked.

“That’s what they said at first, but when I didn’t put it back they just kept talking to me, about everything I was thinking.”

“What you were thinking?”

“They can read my mind.”

“Who are they?”

“I don’t know. I think they work for the government.”

“That must be really scary.”

I nodded.

“Can you separate what they’re saying from what’s happening to you?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She smiled a little, and there was an element of condescension in her voice, just like I feared there would be, when she said:

“Do you know that they’re just in your head?”

That’s not a question I wanted to answer.

“WE KNOW IT’S NOT!”

My hesitation was apparent.

“You still know that, don’t you?” Scarlet pressed. “You know they’re not real.”

“They feel pretty fucking real to me.”

I let go of her hand. I thought about showing her the thumbdrive.

“Don’t you fucking dare.”

“Don’t you think it’s strange that it never happened to me before,” I said, “then it started all at once right at a specific time?”

“I don’t know anything about it.”

“That’s right, you don’t.”

“Why are you getting angry at me?”

“Because I don’t have schizophrenia, that’s why.”

“I don’t know what else to call it.”

“GO AHEAD, EDDIE! SHE THINKS YOU’RE FUCKING CRAZY!”

I’m not going to say you’re real.

“Why the fuck not?”

Because I don’t know it for sure.

“We’re telling her what you’re thinking right fucking now.”

You guys are almost being sweet to me.

“No we’re not. Not at all. If you want to know the truth, Eddie, right now she’s a little bit afraid of you.”

Afraid?

“Are you afraid?” I asked her, and I watched her cool evaporate in surprise.

“That’s quite perceptive of you,” she said. “You aren’t usually so sensitive to me.”

“I’m getting help,” I said.

She looked at me.

“They’re talking to me right now,” I said. “They’re telling me what you’re thinking.”

“Oh, Eddie. How do they know what I’m thinking?”

“She’s thinking about your brother right now,” said Wendy.

“You’re thinking about Tobias right now, aren’t you?”

Her eyebrows weren’t working anymore. She was still staring at me.

“I was right, wasn’t I?”

She gave no response. Her face was still, unbelieving.

“I guess I’m more sensitive than I ever let on.”

I put on the nervous smile again. Outside a fire truck drove down the street, honking its horn, siren wailing. Scarlet started and got to her feet and walked to the window. 

“I wonder what’s happening,” she said.

“I’m not fucking crazy,” I answered.

“Now she’s thinking about the Chinese food and wondering when it’s going to get here.”

“Now you’re wondering when the Chinese food is going to get here,” I said.

She turned towards me. Her eyes were wider.

“I told you I’m not crazy.”

I stood up. All at once I felt powerful, commanding. I recognized her disconcertion and felt the urge to comfort her, but as I crossed the room toward her Steve started yelling at me again, and I blanched.

“NOW SHE DOESN’T KNOW WHAT TO THINK, BUT GUESS WHAT, YOU PLAYED RIGHT INTO OUR HANDS! NOW WE’RE GOING TO START TALKING TO HER FOR REAL, UNTIL SHE LEAVES, AND THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN DO TO FUCKING STOP US!”

Don’t you fucking dare.

“TOO LATE!”

I watched the nervous smile disappear into an expression of abject horror.

“Are they talking to you now?” I asked loudly, demanded.

Scarlet gave no answer.

I noted that the sun was setting. The light in my apartment had taken on an amber hue.

I crossed the room toward my terrified girlfriend. She had gone pale, just like I had in the park. Her eyebrows were frozen in upside down U’s above her eyes. I felt helpless and afraid. They were taking from me the only chance of comfort I would find anywhere.

“Scarlet?” I said. “Are they talking to you?”

I took another few steps toward her. She shrank away from me, circled around me and backed down the living room toward my front door.

I felt desperation, frustration and anger at Wendy and Steve.

“Are you leaving?” I asked.

She nodded slowly.

“I told you I wasn’t crazy,” I said.

It was like a hole was opening up in my heart. Watching my woman manhandled at my expense.

“THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE FUCKING WATCHING!”

She’d backed up to the wall. Without turning from me, like I was some dangerous animal that she didn’t want to turn away from, she opened the front door and ran into the hallway. She went down the hall towards the stairs.

“I TOLD YOU NOT TO HAVE HER OVER, EDDIE!”

“She’s never going to visit you again.”

“NO SHE CERTAINLY ISN’T!”

I went out and watched her leave. Then I went back into my apartment, and was surrounded in thundering silence.

“It’s just you and us, Eddie,” said Wendy. “Just you and us.”

A few minutes later my front doorbell rang. The Chinese food had arrived.

***

I stayed in bed most of the day. There wasn’t much else to do at John George. I couldn’t exactly interact with any of the other patients, even if I wanted to. My roommate snored, farted and yawned, rolled over in his bed and made throughout the day an assortment of interesting noises. The orderlies gave me pills. I didn’t know what they were, but I took them without question.

“They went into your office,” Wendy told me. “They found the thumbdrive.”

Oh God.

“Don’t worry. They read it through and decided to send it to a reporter Tobi knows who works for the San Francisco Guardian.”

This was horrifying to me.

“We know it is.”

What the fuck are you going to do to them?

“Not a damn thing. It’s all good, man.”

For the rest of the day it all happened without incident.

Steve and Wendy kept talking to me, interfering with me the way they always had, and then, at around midnight that night, several hours after Scarlet had delivered the thumbdrive, they told me that they were leaving.

“This is goodbye, Eddie,” said Wendy. “We’ve gotten what we came to you for.”

What do you mean?

“I mean we’re going to leave you alone. You won’t hear from us any more.”

But I don’t understand.

“We came for you, Eddie. It was just a training exercise. If it wasn’t you it was going to be the person we’d arranged to pick up the thumbdrive in the park. We were just testing out our capabilities, seeing what we could do, how long we could go, how good we could do. Now that you don’t have the thumbdrive any more the jig’s up. We’re done fucking with you.”

How dare you do this to me.

“We’re sorry, Eddie. You weren’t supposed to kill yourself. You surprised us with that shit. You really care about Scarlet and your brother, that’s what we learned. And they both really care about you.”

Scarlet knows I’m not crazy.

“Yes she does.”

What about Tobias?

“He doesn’t know what to think. He certainly can’t explain the files on the thumbdrive. But neither will the reporter. Scarlet doesn’t realize it but there’s no story there. Nothing you say will ever be corroborated. No one knows who we are.”

The NSA?

“I’m not going to tell you.”

How dare you do this to me.

“We’re sorry, okay? We’re going to leave you alone, and you’ll be able to get back to your life. If your hand isn’t too fucked up, that is, which it might be. You really did a number on yourself.”

I couldn’t believe it. They had never told me that they were going to leave before. I’d been so afraid for Scarlet and my brother. It had never occurred to me that maybe it was what Wendy and Steve had wanted all along, a little exposure.

“That’s what we wanted. A little exposure.”

Now it was just me and my roommate here in the mental institution. But Tobi was coming to visit me the next day. At least I had that to look forward to.

“You’re lucky to be alive, Eddie. You should thank your lucky stars.”

Fuck you.

“You know that we saved your life, don’t you? We told your brother to go visit you. You were just lucky that he was in the neighborhood.”

Fuck you.

I couldn’t stop dialoguing with them. It was just a reflex in my mind. I couldn’t think about anything else.

“Goodbye Eddie,” Wendy said. “It’s been real.”

I fucking hate you.

“We don’t care.”

“NOPE WE SURE DON’T!”

I pulled the blankets up over my head, shut my eyes and tried to think about something else, anything else. And while Steve and Wendy kept talking to me it was impossible, but they started to grow quieter, quieter and quieter, until finally, some several hours later, they were gone, leaving with me relief, clear and pure, like as if I suddenly realized I had gotten used to breathing underwater. I found optimism instantly bloom within me. I found myself smiling. Now that I had made it through this shit I would always appreciate silence. And I loved Scarlet for putting herself back in harm’s way, for coming to my rescue. I would try to make it work with her. She came to visit me with Tobias the next day, and I kissed her and saw the relief in her eyes. The two of them assured me that they would be there for me when I got out, when I started my recovery. My wrist would require surgery, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I would be back on my feet in no time.

When I got home some several weeks later I went onto my laptop. Sure enough, the files I’d copied from the thumbdrive were still there. I’d forgotten to tell Scarlet and Tobi about them. I’d made the duplicates simply because I’d always felt finicky about opening files directly from a USB connection. Now, between the files and the scar on my wrist, I actually had evidence, at least for myself, that this terrible thing had happened to me. But I was okay, I kept telling myself. I was okay.

From now on, I resolved, if I ever saw a strange looking couple of professionals laughing it up in a public place, I would be sure to leave them be.

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