Short Fiction – The Cell

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Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

“Ohhhh. My head . . .”

Brent Hathaway woke up dazed and half-sick. He lifted his eyes and fixed them on a glowing mechanical clock. His dim sight began to focus. 11:00 a.m. He looked around and saw a misty room lit by what looked like neon light.

A bar? Was he in a bar? He turned to a man standing behind a black countertop and said, “Where . . . am I?”

The bartender wore a white tank top with a phosphorescent sword running its length. “Flatliners,” he said. “You slept here last night.” He smiled and shook his head. “You had a little too much to drink.”

“Why . . . didn’t–”

“You were out cold. The owner decided to leave you here. Said he had no problem with you crashing on the table.” Chuckling, the bartender added, “What’s your name? No, let’s make it simple. How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Brent Hathaway . . . Two.”

“Can I get you something? You look pretty rough.”

“Water,” Brent mumbled. “Please.”

The bartender hoisted a glass and grabbed the bar hose. “Sharp suit. It’d look nicer if you hadn’t slept in it.”

Brent couldn’t manage a response.

“So, what brings you to the area? You from around here?”

“Where are we?” Brent asked.

“Man, you are out of it. Crystal City.”

Brent shook his head. “I can’t even remember how I got here.”

“That’s not good,” said the bartender. “Check your cell phone, look at your recent calls. That might help you remember.”

“I don’t have my phone. Must have lost it.”

“Well, let’s start easy. How about you tell me what you do?”

“I, uh–”

“Take your time.”

“I work at a think tank, called . . . GPI. The Global Policy Institute in Washington.”

“Interesting. Generic sounding, but I bet it’s interesting.”

As the words left the bartender’s mouth, Brent bent toward the sound of pattering feet. A brunette girl around nine was walking out of a side room, backlit by violet light. She drew toward him, halted, peered into his eyes and said, “You know what you did.”

Suddenly he was fully awake. “What?”

“Don’t listen to her,” said the bartender. “Come on, Sophie, you know you’re not supposed to bother customers.”

The girl glared at the bartender, her stern look turned into a smile and she skipped back into the side room.

Brent closed his eyes. He saw a mechanical owl with dark-purple eyes flying toward him in slow-motion.

“That’s the owner’s daughter. She’s strange, usually doesn’t talk much. She throws away her summers watching old sci-fi movies in the game room.”

Aside from Brent’s amnesia and the weird statement, something was bizarre about the situation. He had an agitation, deep in his mind.

Lyrics he had heard a thousand times were humming in the background. Something about a dark desert highway and cool wind in his hair. “Hotel California,” a techno remix.

Brent turned to the bartender and said, “Look, I’m gonna get out of here. I’m going back to my apartment to lie down. I guess I let college sneak up on me, but like I said, my memory . . . I don’t know, it’s like weeks are missing. I’m scared I might have taken–”

“Don’t worry about it,” the bartender said.  “Alcohol-induced memory loss. It’s pretty common. I had a wild night a few years ago with my trader buddies from New York, and my brain was fried the next morning. You’ll be OK. But don’t leave yet, we don’t want you falling down in the street. Just sit there awhile.” He hesitated, put two fingers over his mouth and his thumb under his chin. “Actually, you know what, you’re going to say I’m crazy, but you need to have one more drink.”

“You got to be kidding me. That’s the worst idea I ever–”

“No, I’m telling you! We make a grape fruit drink. It’s called Infinite Silence. It’s free, on me. The best cure is what makes you sick to begin with. I know you know the expression ‘hair of the dog.’

“Really?”

“That’s what they say.” The bartender beamed and held up his fists in a boxing stance. “If it doesn’t work you can punch me.”

“Ha-ha. I’m not the fighting type. And who’s they?” Brent asked.

“Doesn’t matter. I know what I’m talking about.”

He shrugged. “Whatever.”

Ice clinking the side of the glass, the bartender stirred the drink and handed it to him. It had a pinkish hue that glowed in the dimly-lit basement bar.

“Didn’t catch your name,” Brent said.

“Sam.”  The bartender stuck out his hand.

“Thanks, Sam.”

“No problem. Tell me more about your job in DC.”

“We specialize in foreign policy.”

“Oh yeah? What kind of foreign policy?”

“Our goal is to reduce conflict through international exchange. We promote peaceful trade between nations. We use the American system as a model for the world.”

“Honestly, I don’t know much about politics,” Sam said. “I avoid the subject. Poor topic for someone who lives off tips, especially in this area.” He paused for a moment. “So, you can’t remember how you got here. You know where you’re from?”

“Massachusetts. We spent a lot of time in Nantucket. My parents have a home on the coast.”

“You come from money?”

“Yeah, but my parents inherited.”

“Inherited?”

“Well, the Hathaways came over with the first settlers. A son set up a law office, did well, bought several thousand acres in New England, and that land was passed down through the family.”

“Your family still has it?”

“Not really. It was split up, and most was developed long ago. My great-grandfather made use of our name and expanded our holdings. He became a prominent statesman later in life.” Sam paused, remembering. “He was a believer in noblesse oblige, thought it was our family’s duty to lead this country. He was what you’d call an elitist, all about ‘his honor, his purpose.’ Nonsense.”

“I see. And where’d you get your education?” Sam asked.

“I went to a fancy private school and later attended Yale. I wanted to get my law degree, but GPI offered me a position. They lobbied hard for me.”

“So these guys hired you right after you got your bachelor’s?”

“Yeah, they said my work would directly affect U.S. foreign policy.”

“And their views lined up with yours?”

“I can’t say I have any moral convictions on the subject. I had way too much fun in college for that–”

“You still are, based on the way you were acting yesterday,” Sam said, chuckling.

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“Ha-ha. Fair enough. Obviously, I did well enough to attract the interest of one of Washington’s top think tanks. They offered me a great salary, but what appealed to me was that it’s where all the action is.”

“I knew you were important when I saw you come in here yesterday. Your work keeps us safe, you’re a guardian, that’s a special task,” said Sam.

“No, I’m not any more significant than you. What’s ‘Ivy League?’ An overblown ordeal. And my name, it’s just a title,” Brent said as he finished up his drink.

He looked up at the gaudy art on the wall, retro-future, then back at the clock and thought There’s something familiar about this place. There was something about Sam too, something about him Brent couldn’t pinpoint. Had he seen him before yesterday? The thought became a sense, and the sense morphed into a private panic.

“Sam, you ever get déjà vu? I’m talking about the kind mixed with dark tones. Like you’ve lived this moment before and it scares you. I’m getting it now.”

“I don’t know,” Sam said. “Amnesia and déjà vu? You’re saying you have a problem remembering and not remembering . . . at the same time?” He laughed. “Sorry, it’s just funny.”

Brent sighed. “Look, I appreciate all you’ve done, but I should go. I might call my doctor, see if he advises I check into a hospital.”

“Wait. Don’t go yet.” Sam nodded toward the TV. It was on The Weather Channel. “Looks like there’s a storm coming, it’ll be here in just a minute.”

Then another voice rang out. “Don’t listen to him!” Sophie said. She had snuck her way back into the bar. “That feeling you’re having? Your body’s rejecting the truth. Let your head accept it.”

Brent gasped. He was shocked to stiffness as some of his memory returned to him.

“Sophie? What did I tell you? Leave him alone and go back to the game room. Put on that movie.” As she obeyed, Sam turned to his bewildered patron. “Brent, look at me, you really shouldn’t leave now, especially in your condition. I’ll have the guy in the back make you some food. You need something in your stomach. It’s on us.”

Sam leaned toward Brent and added, “let me tell you a secret about that girl. She’s off. She–”

“Sam, I can remember—”

“No, let me finish. She has issues. Nothing she says has anything to do with her setting. She’s detached, her thoughts are always out of context. Too many films, not enough–”

“Sam, listen to me. I don’t care. I’m telling you I can remember.”

Sam exhaled. “OK. What do you remember?” He switched off the TV and tapped the rewind button.

Brent got out of his chair, breathing hard. “I was thrilled,” he said. “I had a big promotion, an important appointment, a presidential appointment.”

“Hmm. Now that you mention it, you do look really familiar. Were you on TV?”

“Yes, occasionally. I was appointed to work directly under the Secretary of Defense. They found my policy paper on the bipolar nature of global power in line with their goals. I said intervention would necessary to ensure peace and quell the aggressive Eastern bloc. Wasn’t my idea, I had gotten it from my colleague, but they liked how I articulated it.” Brent paused, and swallowed. “Wow, that must have been over a month ago. There’s still a lot I can’t remember, about the past couple weeks, how I got here–but it’s coming back.”

“Told you there was nothing to worry about,” said Sam.

Brent blinked. “I had an emergency meeting to attend, that’s why I came here. Something happened.” He looked up and said, “I’m leaving now, forget the weather.”

“Don’t!” Sam barked.

Brent stalled, surprised by the outburst, then said, “Look. I’ve had enough of this. Where’s your phone? I’m calling a cab.”

“Our phone doesn’t work anymore,” Sam said in a dull voice.

“What kind of bar doesn’t have a working phone? Let me–”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I don’t care who you are, you can’t come in here and disrespect my bar!” Sam shouted.

Brent stood there staring at him. “Whatever. I’m out of here.”

“Wait, Brent. Wait. It’s nasty out there.”

Brent gave Sam a disgusted look, then turned and headed for the stairs.

As he walked up he heard a door shut in the confined lobby up top, and when he finished the ascent he saw a woman standing there. She was stunning: blue eyes, fiery red hair, white blouse, pink skirt. She had the sign of Libra at the end of her necklace. Just the type of girl Brent would dream about.

“You can’t be going out in that,” she said.

Brent shrugged. “It can’t be that rainy. You’re dry.” She stared back, not saying a word. “I . . . I have to go,” he said, about to leave.

“Wait,” she said. He swiveled around. Her palms were covering her face and she was crying.

“What’s the matter?”

“I’m scared,” she sniffled. “My boyfriend and I broke up a month ago. He was drunk and got mad and called me the worst names. I’d never seen that side of him. I told him it was over and left immediately, and the next week he stalked me, showed up at my house and at work. I got a restraining order but he kept coming back. I called the police and they arrested him. He’s in jail. Now I feel so worthless. I need someone to–” Suddenly she began weeping hysterically.

For a moment Brent forgot his own troubles. “It’ll be OK,” he murmured, and put a hand on her shoulder.

“You have a gentle face,” she said. “Can you . . . could you come downstairs and talk to me?”

“You know, I’m not having a good day myself. Plus, the bartender yelled at me. I don’t want to look at him right now.”

“Please. Your issues can’t be worse than mine. Just give me a few minutes.” She looked at him with a pitiful but somehow charming gaze.

“Fine,” he said. “I guess I could give you a minute or two.”

They walked back down together. Brent saw a steaming plate of chicken and rice sitting on the table. The food Sam had ordered him? Odd, he thought.

As they came in together Sam growled, “Well, well. Look who came back.”

“Just ignore him,” the woman said. The two sat down at the table together. Brent, hungry as he was, managed to restrain himself. He offered her the meal. She refused.

“Well, you mind if I eat?”

“Not at all.”

It took everything he had to remember his manners. He was starving.

“So, what’s your name?” Brent asked, chewing.

“Sarah.”

Her smell, Brent thought, was intoxicating. He studied her as they talked. Her skirt and blouse were modest her skin soft and pale. Her personality was sweet and accommodating. Whenever he made a joke, she would throw her head back, expose her neck and laugh. Brent felt he was talking to a girl he had known a very long time.

“So, what do you do for a living?” she asked.

As she spoke, Sophie peeked her head out of the side room, caught Brent’s attention and gave him a nod.

What do I do for a living? Brent heard himself gasp. Memories were gleaming through his brain.

“What’s the matter?” she said.

“It’s wild,” he said. “I woke up with heavy amnesia–but I was into our conversation and forgot about it.”

“Forgot about your amnesia?”

“Yeah. But something came back.”

She just sat there, watching him with a worried look.

“An appointment,” he said. “Yes, an appointment–but then something awful happened.”

“What?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“You do,” said Sophie, making her way out again.

Brent’s heartbeat quickened; he was just on the cusp of remembering everything. He rose and said to Sophie, “What is it? Tell me!”

Sam, his face red, screamed at Sophie, “We’ve been over this a thousand times, now keep your mouth shut. This isn’t your place. Get out of here!”

Startled, she ran back out.

“Why’d you do that?!” yelled Brent. “Look, Sarah, I’ve had it with this place. I’m leaving, come with me.”

“No,” Sarah said in a now distant and lifeless voice. She got up and walked over to Sam. She put her arm around his waist and said to Brent, “You should stay with us.”

“Sarah? What are you doing? Are you teasing me?”

“You should stay, it’s absolutely terrible out there,” replied Sarah.

“What the hell is this?”

“You’re free to leave, but you we know you won’t,” said Sam.

“What do you mean!?”

Sam turned and looked at Sarah, then back at Brent. “We’ll be direct. You’re a prisoner. Our prisoner.”

Scan 1

“Prisoner?” said Brent.

“Yes. We’re prison guards, the non-physical kind. That is, we don’t believe in using force, tying people down or making them do anything against their will. Sarah and I are deeply nonviolent people. Just like everyone else these days.”

“These days?”

Sam paused and stared at him a moment, “You’ve been here longer than one night, Brent.”

Brent swallowed. He knew in his soul that this was true. He took a deep breath and asked, “What day is it?”

“We’d never force you to stay here. But nevertheless, here you will remain.”

“Answer my question. What day is it?!”

“It doesn’t really matter what day it is anymore. The only the thing that matters is how long you’ve been here.”

“In this bar? What? How long? Tell me!”

“Years.”

Years? No way. It’s not possible.”

“Coming up on three, to be accurate. And that’s just the starting point, you’ll be here much longer than that. Our shift is about to end for the day. We’ll leave and go home. But you won’t.”

“What? You said I was free to go. Damnit, I will go!”

“Brent, it doesn’t matter. Once you go upstairs and step outside, you won’t have the courage to leave. We know this. Your conscience will hit you like a bolt of lightning. You let everyone down. It’s not what you did, rather what you failed to do. You were given something special, but you didn’t live up to it and we’ve all had to pay the consequence. This is your retribution. Your memory is filling in the blanks and when you step outside you will see plainly. But it doesn’t matter. You’ll be ours again soon.”

“What  . . . what is it?! I’m not a bad person!”

“We’ve given you a tablet. It’s in a small slit on your left coat lapel. It’s a memory-erasing drug.”

Brent felt his lapel. There it was. A small bump.

“I don’t believe you. You’re insane both of you. I’m outa here.”

Brent darted out of the bar and up the stairs. He stormed through the lobby and threw open the double doors. The sun blinded him. As his eyes adjusted, he could make out the setting: outright devastation, not one building standing, rubble running all the way to the horizon. The scene sparked, in the recesses of his mind, a final recollection. New appointment. Department of Defense. Secretary Stein. His crew had been gearing up for a massive conflict.

Oh God. It had never been real, any of it. It was all a sham. All that intellectual posturing, all that talk about peace, it was just a power grab. That’s all those devils ever wanted. God, I feel sick. I could have let the President know what I felt. He would have listened. He was clueless. But I stood back and let it happen, like a frozen animal, let it all happen. War . . . total war!

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Brent was gasping for air when a bold of agony hit him. Pain like a thousand bullets, from every angle. He dropped to his knees and vomited on the pavement. He fell back onto the street writhing in terror. Clutching for the tablet in his lapel, he pulled it through the slit, popped it in his mouth, and gulped it down. It wasn’t long before the soporific took him. He got up and staggered back down the stairs.

Three blurred faces were waiting.

“Look, it’s our old friend. Did you miss us?” Sam said with a grin. “Why don’t you come in and have a seat?”

“It can’t be true,” said Brent. He stumbled further inside, the room swirling around him. He found his way into a booth, lay his forearms on the table and dropped his head onto them.

As his mind slipped into darkness, Sophie whispered, “Tomorrow.”

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