My body was numb, immobile, frozen. I stared into the light because I could not even glance away. A man's face, clean-shaven, leaned into my view from one side. He was not particularly old, but his flesh was thin and clung to his bones so closely that I could not help but recognize him as Death. His gaze was dispassionate, detached, like that of a doctor- or perhaps a coroner. His parched, cracked lips slowly parted, as though to speak, and I knew that he was going to say something, something terrible, something so horrible that I dared not listen. I awoke, screaming, covering my hands with my ears to block out his words.
It took ten minutes for the hospital orderlies to calm me back down.
"These nightmares you've been having," Doctor Davis said slowly, "don't seem to have anything to do with the accident you were in."
"No," I replied, slowly. "You'd think that they'd at least be about the car wreck, but I can't see how it figures into them at all."
"Mr. Myerson," he said, "have you ever been institutionalized?"
"I'm sorry?" I asked, thrown by the question.
"Have you ever spent time in, say, an asylum? Some sort of mental institution?"
"No, never," I said, aghast.
"I'm not suggesting that you're crazy; actually, the description of your nightmares reminded me of another patient who suffered from similar ones."
"Oh?" I asked, relieved.
"Yes. That poor fellow had spent several years in a rather disreputable institution. He was subjected to a great deal of electroshock therapy. When he was finally released, his memories were so spotty that he really didn't remember his time there at all, except in nightmares.
"He had nightmares about being tied up while doctors hooked electrical equipment up to him. He would wake up just as they were about to throw the switch."
I closed my eyes for a few moments, then slowly asked, "Doctor... Doctor, could I have been locked up for awhile, and just not remember it?"
Dr. Davis shook his head, smiling faintly. "No, no, I don't think so. Your medical records show no major psychological problems before; certainly no treatments that might be responsible for these nightmares."
"Then where do they come from?" I demanded. Frustration swelled up inside of me. "I've never had any bad experiences with doctors or hospitals. So why these stupid nightmares, every night?"
"I don't know, Mr. Myerson, I just don't know. Either... either your nightmares are some sort of subconscious analogy that just isn't clear yet, or they are some kind of repressed memory coming back to the surface."
"But a memory of what?" I cried, sitting up. "A visit to the dentist that went bad? What?" I laughed, bitterly.
"Please calm down," he said, waving his hand. "Just relax. Mr. Myerson, I'm still not sure what the cause of your nightmares is. But since they seem to be getting steadily worse instead of better, I would tend to say that they are some type of repressed memory coming to the surface. Something that you have blotted out for years because of its unpleasantness, but now the memories are returning."
"Are you sure I haven't been in an asylum?" I asked, lying back down now. I felt like crying; these visits with the hospital therapist weren't accomplishing anything.
"I suppose it's possible that your records are incomplete, or that you spent only a couple of days in an institution because of some mix-up. I'd... I'd like to recommend some outpatient care for you. Your tests don't show any major organic damage. These nightmares are wholly psychological.
"I think perhaps you have some deep-rooted phobia of hospitals, something buried so deep that you aren't even allowing yourself to be aware of it. I'd like to have you move back home briefly and see whether or not the nightmares stop."
He must've seen the look of despair on my face. "We'll schedule another meeting for a week from now. If leaving the hospital doesn't help, I give you a reference to a psychiatrist who should be able to help you."
I didn't both to reply. I think we both knew that I wouldn't have been able to afford the hospital stay if not for my insurance. There was no way I could afford to see a psychiatrist. They were just getting rid of me. It was a feeling I was used to; my few surviving relatives had all done the same thing, sooner or later.
I tried to resume my life. By day I took the bus to work. The insurance settlement for my old clunker hadn't come yet, so I couldn't afford to buy a new car. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to keep up the payments, even then.
The nightmares got worse. I had visions of being shoved around by brutal, uncaring men in hospital uniforms. During the day I suffered from disturbing daydreams about being injected with drugs and subjected to steady electric shocks. At night it became truly unbearable, for my recurring nightmare about the cruel, skull-faced man came back time and time again. Always he would open his mouth as though to speak, and I would wake up screaming, covering my ears, anything to drown out the awful words he was about to say.
I grew haggard, uncaring. I thought I was going mad. By the end of that first week I was on the verge of losing my job, and I could hardly bring myself to care. I was desperate for help when I returned to the hospital, but I didn't get it. The session with Doctor Davis lasted barely twenty minutes. All I got out of it was a business card for some woman who promised reasonable rates.
When I finally managed to make it home, I could hear the phone ringing, but I really didn't care. I let myself in slowly, then hung up my coat and went to the bathroom. I waited for the caller to give up, but he never did. The phone just kept ringing.
I finally decided that it had to be some kind of screw-up in the phone line. It had probably been ringing for hours.
I picked it up, and was surprised to hear a man choke for a moment, as though he had been sipping something while he waited.
"Mr... Mr. Myerson?" he coughed.
"Yes," I replied.
"I... I can explain your nightmares."
"What?" I cried.
"Meet me at the Firehouse Cafe at 1200 Oak Leaf. Tonight, around eight o'clock."
"Are you serious?" I asked, flabbergasted.
"Oh, yes. I can explain everything. But I need to do it in person. 1200 Oak Leaf, eight o'clock. I'll have a table reserved in your name."
"Who are you?" I asked.
"It's too long a story," he replied. "Remember, the Firehouse Cafe, eight o'clock."
I left the psychiatrist's business card sitting by the phone as I pulled my coat and hat back on. I couldn't believe what had just happened. How did this man know that I was having nightmares? What on earth made him think that he could explain them when I couldn't? Why wouldn't he tell me anything over the phone? Was he some sort of con-man?
If so, he had to be a thoroughly incompetent one; I barely had enough money left to take the bus downtown to the cafe. I was heading out the door less than a minute after I put the receiver back on the phone cradle.
The cafe was a dingy building that was probably slowly running itself out of business. There were very few customers, and most of them were here to drink at the cafe bar, not eat. I showed up as soon as I could get there, around seven o'clock. The surly waiter I talked to didn't comment on my early arrival, but led me back to a private table in the back. The room stank of spilled beer and cigar smoke.
I took a menu and pretended to scrutinize it, but I was too wound up to eat, and had no intention of drinking any alcohol. I ended up ordering a soda and told the man that I was expecting a guest to arrive soon and we would order our food then.
Then I waited. I tapped my hand on the table. I memorized the scratches which disfigured it. Inside, I alternated from berating myself for falling for this strange, purposeless joke and agonizing over what possible reason my mystery man could have for being late, even though it was I who was there early.
I convinced myself to go and call the police, to go home and give it up, even to go up front and look for suspicious characters, all before eight o'clock. If he had been late, I would've been a nervous wreck, but just before eight a man arrived to join me.
He was older than I expected, perhaps in his early sixties. What little hair he still had was a mix of white and gray. He was dressed in an ill-fitting brown suit, and seemed very uncomfortable.
He sat down and we ordered drinks. When the waiter left, he made a curious motion with one hand. "Just a moment," he said. "Let me get my drink first, then I'll tell you what I know. This isn't easy for me."
"It hasn't been easy for me, either," I replied, but I waited impatiently for the waiter to return. Finally I had another soda and he had a glass of brandy and our waiter had left again. The mystery man took a sip, as though to steady his nerves. I noticed that his hands tended to tremble whenever he wasn't using them.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"I can't tell you that," he replied. "But I can explain what's happening to you. Please. After you've heard my story, you'll understand."
"Okay," I said. "Spill it." My knuckles were white around my glass. I think if it had shattered I would hardly have noticed.
"What I have to tell you will be unpleasant, but it is true. You have buried memories which are starting to come to the surface. I visited your doctor, pretending to be a co-worker. When I heard the sort of things you'd been saying, I knew that your memories were coming back."
"Memories of what?"
"Listen... Nearly forty years ago now, the U.S. government commissioned a study on the potential uses of hypnotism in espionage. It was new stuff, then. No one really knew what would work, or what wouldn't. A secret project was set up."
"Go on," I prompted.
"It... well, it was..."
"It was what?"
"It was highly illegal. I know that sounds funny now, but it was started when the Cold War was at its hottest. They... they hoped to be able to hypnotise captured russians so that they would spill all of their secrets. To implant hidden commands so that they would shoot their own commanders when they returned home. So they studied new ways of putting people in hypnotic states, new drugs to try on them.
"It... They ran short on foreign subjects. And there was the language barrier. They decided to use english-speaking subjects for their tests, then capture real subjects later.
"It... Then... Back then we thought the russians were winning the Cold War. Communism was sweeping over one little country after another. The 'domino theory' was considered a proven fact, on both sides of the Atlantic. We believed... we believed back then that the Russians were beating us because they were more ruthless than we were. We had to be willing to outdo them at their own game, or they'd sweep over the whole world.
"It wasn't the only project of its kind. The U.S. had experiments in poison gas, cultured diseases, hallucinogenic drugs... We were hiding Nazi war criminals in return for whatever aid we could get from them... We even had a small group of trained assassins whose job it was to eliminate petty dictators who went too far towards the Soviet side.
"Well, the project you were involved in is the only one that I know about for sure. Secrecy, absolute secrecy, was the watchword. When some of the projects were compromised, they started assassinating people to keep them quiet. And once you've justified a murder in the interests of national security, there's really nothing you can't justify."
"What are you getting at?" I asked, suspiciously. I thought I knew, already.
"You weren't a volunteer," he said morosely. "The test subjects in the final year were all kidnapped. That was the acid test, you see. Take an ordinary U.S. citizen, implant your hypnotic commands, including an order to forget about the process, then see if they could still pass for normal.
"Without any normal legal restrictions, they accomplished quite a lot. They took the technology to its limits."
He laughed, suddenly, bitterly. "And what a limit it was. Out of all the lives that they wasted, the only useful thing that they managed to come up with was a way to make people forget things. Oh, there were a few other successes. They could put a message in your mind that you couldn't remember until you heard the appropriate code phrase."
He paused, then tilted his head to one side. "You know how so much of your heart rate is controlled by your emotional state?"
I nodded, slowly. An anger was building up inside of me.
"They could even implant a code phrase that would slow your heart down to a stop. Caused an immediate, massive heart attack.
"What use was that?" he said, looking up at the ceiling. "It was all a waste. And how do you test something like that? Well, you instill the command in someone, then you kill them with it. If they live, you try again, until you get it right."
"That's horrible," I whispered.
"I know. You were one of the last subjects they had. You got the maximum treatment. The drugs, the electroshock. The works. Then, when they had to let you go, you got two weeks of memory suppression. To try and make you think nothing had happened."
"How could they hide something like that?"
"It's on your records as two months of temp work at an accounting firm. You were chosen for lack of next of kin, lack of close friends, lack of anyone likely to check up on you or miss you. If you tried to remember those months, you'd just remember endless days of meaningless paperwork.
"Oh, the process screwed you up, all right. Their procedures were downright brutal. I know... I've seen your job record. Lackluster performances, mood swings. The signs are all there. Even if they hid your memories, they couldn't change the trauma that you'd suffered. The emotional damage."
"God damn them," I muttered. "I never suspected. All those years, wondering what was wrong with me, why little things set me off that other people took in stride... I never remembered any of it."
He nodded, and nervously choked down a sip of his drink.
He coughed once, then suddenly leaned forward. "But your accident changed all that. It... jumbled your brain, if you like. Your thoughts were all scrambled, for awhile. The hypnotic command to forget the entire project started to slip up. Your brain wasn't sure what memories it was supposed to be suppressing, anymore."
"That's why I started to remember things," I whispered.
"No hypnotic command could function properly in a mind as confused as yours had become. You starting thinking that you were crazy, and your emotional uncertainty let more and more memories slip free."
I was suddenly afraid, then. "But won't my memories bury themselves again, now that I'm recovered?"
He shook his head. "No. Even when the command reasserts itself, you'll still remember the times that you remembered strange things. You'd... you'd have a new link to those memories, from a recent one. Since your mind is straightening itself out now, the command is probably back, but... Hypnotism relies on convincing the brain to fool itself. Once you became aware of the effect, you could learn how to bypass it. The longer you think about those suppressed memories, the more of them will come free."
"Thank you for coming to me," I said, slowly. I shook my head. "You can't understand what it means to me... just to know that I'm not insane, that the images in my head were *real*."
"It must've been terrible," he murmured.
"Can you help me prove it? Do you have any evidence that I can take to the police?"
He sighed, and shook his head slowly, sadly. "No, I can't help you. You see, I was involved with the project myself. Oh, not as a researcher, more of an accountant."
"I don't remember you," I said.
"You wouldn't. I never had contact with any of the test subjects. But I knew what was going on... I..." His voice drifted off, and he looked up at me with eyes filled with pain.
"Go on," I prompted.
"At the time... At the time," he repeated, "we thought we were heroes. Then... These days, the kids have trouble believing how so much changed, so fast. The dirty-trick projects were all failures, really. They... used up... innocent civilian lives and produced nothing of value. Even our project... it took months of indoctrination to implant those hypnotic commands. Even then we couldn't do anything useful.
"Oh, we could make a man die on cue... But what use was that? If you could capture an important Soviet long enough to implant the commands, you could do anything to him. We never found a way to make a man betray what he believed in, or even to give out information he wasn't supposed to. Sodium pentothal did a thousand times more for the espionage age than our project ever could.
"So we lost our funding. Down-sized, if you like. And some of the dirty-trick projects got caught. Administrations fell from the scandals. New people took over the government. Word came down that the higher-ups were shredding all references to our existence.
"It... it gets to you. Living with fear. You thought you were doing something... well, not ethical, but important. Something that had to be done. Then you get declared useless. Your work gets destroyed because no one wants to take the blame. Suddenly being secret isn't a matter of national security, it's a matter of personal survival. You shred every scrap of evidence. Swear up and down that it never happened, never discuss it with anyone.
"And it keeps getting worse. The cold war dies off, you know, and suddenly in retrospect it looks worse than unethical. It looks stupid. Criminal. You spend years, watching the news each night, wondering if someone will finally crack and spill the beans and you'll see your face listed beside the logo, 'Cold War Criminal.' The fear just keeps growing until it's all you have. It's with you every night and every day."
I let him sit in silence and nurse his drink for about a minute, thinking: I need this man, I need his knowledge and whatever evidence he kept. He knows the names. He knows who the other victims were, who the researchers were. I would do my best to see that he was spared for his bravery in finally coming forward, but the truth had to come out. They owed me that much, at least, for destroying those lives. For destroying my life.
"Look," I whispered, trying to keep my voice as sympathetic as possible, "everything comes out eventually. Look at me. All it took was a car wreck and I started remembering everything."
He nodded, miserably. "I know. I... I kept a record of people who had been involved. The subjects that had survived. Kept track of them. When you had your wreck, I asked about your condition. They said you were delirious. I came here and snooped around, asked people about the things that you'd been saying. That's when I knew that the hypnotic controls were slipping.
"I was scared... I still am. So scared I can't even tell you. I can't tell you how much you frighten me."
"So then you came to me?" I said.
"No," he said. "I wasn't sure what to do, then. I spoke with the chief psychologist who had been involved in the project..."
"Dr. Drawland!" I interjected, with sudden certainty. There was a face with the name, a face from my nightmares.
"Yes," he replied, nodding grimly. "Dr. Drawland explained how the disorder in your mind was interfering with the hypnotic commands. He said that all of the confusion in your mind would have to be cleared up first."
"First?" I asked, uncertainly. "Before what?"
He turned away for a moment, as though terrified by my question. Then he managed to muster whatever courage remained to him, and he turned back towards me. Slowly and steadily, enunciating with great care, he said, "Before Gemini crosses the train tracks at midnight."
Back to Home Page