“We can take control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation.”
– Memorandum from CIA Mind control project, January 1952
The furious rattling of tin bells pulled him from his slumber; the little hammer struck against them in quick succession; so quick that each piercing crescendo of sound seemed to blend into one shrill, droning wail.
His hand flicked out reflexively before he had opened his eyes, shutting out the sound.
He had nothing to wake up for, and yet every night he wound the clock, and every morning it rang at eleven. But he never rose at that time. He was a creature of habit and routine; that was –he reasoned- the only tether of logic that bound him to the realms of sensibility.
Each morning, as that shrill wail rang out -echoing off the chip paper walls of his shoebox bedroom- he felt for a split second that he might be late for work. Relief would wash over him in waves when he remembered that he had not worked in years. His brief stint as a clerk at a post office had ended many years ago due to his illness, just as he had lost his place at Stanford University years before that.
As he lay back in his nest, his eyes crept open to stare at the elliptical crack in the ceiling above his bed, his relief at having no reason to get up slowly faded into a melancholy gnawing at his stomach. Perhaps that was why he continued to set the alarm; if nothing else, it would force him to wake, and if he woke, he might do something to upset the monotony of his life.
He removed the mask from his face, hanging it up on the bracket attached to the canister. The headphones –which did nothing to nullify the sound of the alarm- sat comfortably on his ears. He lifted them off and hung them over the cassette player. Briefly, he glanced across at the coin perched against the cassette player; an Irish Halfcrown, minted in 1937. On the reverse side stood a Celtic harp, and on the obverse side, a horse, which faced him every morning.
He’d sometimes spend a few minutes looking at the horse. He had memorised every detail of the coin. He noticed that the tip of the horse’s tail and the tip of the ears both touched the edge of the coin, with a gap of exactly one third of the perimeter. He’d even counted the ridges in the circumference of the coin to confirm this. He looked at the coin for a moment, wondering why he preferred the horse to the Celtic harp. He mused on this for a moment, before the old familiar ache in his back forced him to squirm in his bed.
He had become accustomed to sleeping on his back; it was the only sleeping position that the apparatus for his sleep apnoea would allow. His head was muddled –more so than usual- and his heavy limbs implored him to remain in bed, but there was never a good time to get out of bed, and rising would be as difficult now as it would be if he waited for another hour or two.
He heaved himself into a sitting position. He looked across at the brown glass of the bottle of pills sat on his bedside table; his mouth was dry, and he would need a glass of water to wash down his morning dose. Throwing his weary legs to the side, he clumsily reached for the bottle, gripping it in his palm.
As he stood and turned, he looked down at the bed. His fingers flexed outwards; the bottle clattered to the wooden floor below, rolling under the bed. A woman lay in the bed, her auburn hair obscuring her face.
He steadied himself against the wooden bedpost, his trembling legs threatening to betray his balance as his mind raced, desperate to pick up any scraps of memory from the night before. He took deep breaths, finding his feet. He did not drink alcohol very often –and when he did- it was only in small amounts, never to get drunk. What had he done last night?
He pressed his palm to his forehead, crushing his eyes closed, rolling dizzily through the incoherent streams of memory that meandered through his consciousness, but no tangible thought seemed to take shape, nothing to grasp at, no solid brick of truth from which he could piece together the reality with which he was now faced; just shapeless clay.
He should rouse her; but what kind of person would he appear to be if he had no idea who she was, or how she came to be sleeping next to him?
For the moment, he stood still, observing the woman. He remembered some advice his elderly neighbor Mrs Orange had given him during his childhood; if you don’t know what to do, at first, do nothing.
He looked at what he could see of the nape of her neck; a thin scarlet line seemed to shoot out against the ivory backdrop of her skin. Rallying his nerves, he crept around to the side of the bed in a strange ballet, cautious to avoid the squeaky floorboards to which he had become so accustomed.
He reached the bedside without making a sound, and carefully drew back her hair from her scalp. He recoiled when he looked down at her face; she was not ugly –objectively speaking- but something about her face struck him as grotesque. She was at least fifty, possibly older. Crow’s feet left their mark around her eyes, and her pursed lips carried entrenched wrinkles; her skin seemed dry, sagging slightly, and her hair had begun to grey at the scalp. A small mole sat above her top lip and light freckles peppered her cheeks, but these had begun to fade with age.
He had been intimate with a woman once before; but it had been many years ago. He vaguely remembered the experience, but had no recollection as to how it had come about. He had been in a bar downtown, a fair-haired woman had approached him out of the blue, and the next thing he remembered, he was mechanically grinding his hips against her in the bed.
He had not enjoyed the experience, nor –it seemed- had she. He could not remember her name, nor any of the details of her face or body, save for the fact that she had been dirty blonde, and wore something blue. The next day, she had asked for money for a cab, which she promised she would pay back. He had never seen her again; he had not expected to. He envisioned that she had some ulterior motive for the encounter, one which he could not divine, and he had just been a supporting character in the story of her life.
He squeezed his eyes tight; what had been her name? Alice? Elizabeth? Alicia? Something beginning with a vowel.
He pressed his memory hard, trying to squeeze any drops of information from his mind. His mind snapped back to him on the bed, his face pressed over her shoulder, blonde hair tickling his face as he panted into the pillow, hoping the squeaking springs would not wake Mrs Orange next door. Now he was at a bar, sitting in a booth in the corner, watching the patrons lined up, ordering drinks. A smash of glass. A round of applause. The ice in his drink had nearly melted. He lifted the drink to his face and sniffed; bourbon. He didn’t drink bourbon, he didn’t even recognise the smell of it. Was this a dream or a memory, or some hybrid of the two? As he pushed harder for a solid memory, his head seemed to whir with a dull hum –a buzz tone that induced anxiety- and at once he stopped. The whirring sound seemed to shake up his head and bleach his thoughts, as if to prevent him from thinking.
What had he been doing? Hunting for a name. Who’s name? Alice’s name? Alicia? Something beginning with A? Wait, was this the girl in blue or the…
His eyes snapped open and he looked down at the woman in his bed.
Who was she?
He tentatively reached out an index finger, and ran it down her cheek.
It was ice-cold.
(c) JC Axe 2017.