By Kent Shawn
Jesse stood at the entrance to a white room.
“Please come in and have a seat, Mr. Callum.” Her name tag read Ms. Bernice Federal Health Care Tech Grade I. She was an adjuster, clean, and neat to the point of the surreal. Her plain white clothes matched the clinic’s walls, dimly luminescent and without seams.
“I’m not sure why I’m here,” Jesse said, trying to keep the edge from his voice and in no hurry to enter the blank room and float in white oblivion. “It’s only a headache, and I have work.”
Ms. Bernice smiled and waited. Jesse surrendered to her patience and sat in the room’s only furnishing, an oval contour alignment chair, also sterile white. The Innerlink portal at his wrist glowed blue, offering some much-needed color. It transmitted sense data to the chair, and the seat molded itself to him with a hiss of air.
“Did the link-trace have a diagnosis? Am I getting an adjustment?”
“I didn’t read the trace, Mr. Callum, but relax, we are the best clinic in Tennessee, you will be back to work in no time.”
Jesse nodded and gave her a weak smile. The Nashville clinic was big, and state of the art, the first universal clinics on the coasts were falling apart. He held out his wrist, the blue diamond of his portal glowing softly, he was ready to link and get this over with.
“No, no.” Ms. Bernice said, “I am not your tech today, he is on his way, just relax and enjoy the wall.”
“You sure you don’t know what this is about?”
Ms. Bernice paused at the door. “I am sure the Director will answer all your questions. Please try and relax, Mr. Callum—we are here to help.”
Jesse swallowed a cold hunk of fear. Sweat bloomed on his forehead. “Thanks.”
Ms. Bernice waved her wrist across a panel in the white wall, which glowed blue in answer to her portal. The door slid shut behind her, slick and silent. Jesse bet his portal would not open that door.
Jesse’s wife Erin had come to this clinic six years ago. Maybe to this same room. That year had been a whirlwind, freshly minted doctorates on the wall, hers in botany, his in engineering. Jesse’s Doctorate thesis had landed him a job as a project manager for Innerlink to the envy of all his peers. Then fate swung twin hammers down to smash their lives. Jesse confessed his secret desire. Then Erin got sick.
I am. I think.
His head did hurt. There was a circular throb near his temples. Like a schoolyard bully’s thumbs pressing in. He had never heard of a headache precipitating a healthcare call-in.
Jesse squirmed in the comfortable chair. Unwilling to bear the unrelieved white any longer, Jesse thought: Wall on. His portal flashed blue, and the wall flared to life. Floor to ceiling white clouds began to drift by on a field of deep blue, a standard three dimensional for a rest screen.
Jesse thought: News.
The drifting clouds were replaced by the stern face of Taylor Nelson, the self-proclaimed voice of America.
“Terrorists attacked a healthcare clinic in Seattle today, claiming the lives of three federal workers. Healthcare techs, both grade I, Teresa Wiley, Jeremy Evens, and the facility Director, Edmond Graham. The criminal, or criminals, escaped without being seen, and no link-trace was established. This brutal attack is the sixth of the so-called ghost phenomenon. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the deceased.”
The newscast cut to film of a burning building, an older model universal clinic, a grey aging shadow compared to the one in which Jesse was currently ensconced. Chemical sprays suffocated the flames. Through the white foamy streams, defacing the Federal Board of Health and Wellness motto, ‘We are here to help‘ a name had been scrawled in livid red.
Jesse thought: Wall off.
The wall flickered, the image suspended, the name hung like a shout. Then the wall went white.
I am. I think.
Jesse’s heart pounded out stroke rhythms. He took deep breaths and tried to slow it down. He wiped clammy palms on his slacks. They were probably monitoring his vitals through his link. People did not get this worked for adjustments. Thousands received them every day. What happened to Erin was a fluke. It was my fault.
When you jerk the wheel of your car going eighty, you were bound to crash. That’s what he had done to their lives the night he told Erin his fantasy.
“Have you ever thought about kids?” Jesse asked as they snuggled in bed, the lights dimmed, the wall pitched low.
Erin laughed. “Right, I spent the last eight years in college to quit and play mommy.”
That stung. Jesse tried to hide it, but his body betrayed him. She turned to face him, brushing black hair aside, surprise, and a species of humor on her face.
“Oh, God, your serious.” She lay a hand on his chest as if to read his heart.
“I was just thinking out loud.”
“Children.” She said in a small voice. Her eyes drifted, her focus turning inward. Erin’s mind was made up before the last syllable left her lips. She had taken the first step towards her death.
A chime sounded. The door’s control panel glowed red. A control link. A Director. The door hissed open, and a man walked in. He was middle-aged, tall, and on the way to fat. Unlike the other employees at the clinic in their seamless white, he wore a rumpled Hawaiian shirt in sickening pinks and purples, untucked, shirttail lounging over white jeans. Flip flops on hairy feet. The scruff of beard on his face looked five days old, and he beamed at Jesse from under sun-bleached bangs in need of a cut.
“Hi Jesse, I’m Cary.” He gave his name tag a tap, it said Cary Evans and that was all. At each wrist, a portal glowed red, hexagonal instead of diamond. Only Directors had those portals. He waved an arm, seemingly at random, and a section of wall parted. A second chair slid out on a cushion of air. “Mind if I sit?”
Jesse mumbled, “Sure, free country.”
Evans flopped into the chair; one leg flung over the side. “How are you feeling, Jesse?”
“I have a pretty good headache. Wouldn’t have thought it was enough for a call-in. My portal needs service, could be that.”
“You need service, a link engineer?” Evans laughed. “If you can’t get service, what are us regular folks to do?”
This guy was far from regular folks, his eye twitched. Jesse suspected he had juiced up his neural rig. Overclocking was dangerous, some minds cracked under the strain.
The silence stretched out between them, Evans smiling, Jesse sweating.
At last, Evans sniffed and went on. “So, you’re working at Innerlink? The project manager for Cradle Sync no less. We are quite the important dude, aren’t we Jesse?”
Jesse ground his teeth at the mention of Cradle Sync. “I don’t want to be rude, but if I am here on a health care call-in, can we get on with it, I have work.”
“Nothing is more important than your health, brother. Relax, we are here to help.” Evans leaned forward, brushing tawny hair back from wide eyes. “You know what a Director does? I bet a link engineer has a pretty good idea.”
“I know about your link system.”
“Come on, Jesse, don’t be shy, you’ve heard the stories—all garbage, but I want to know what you think.”
I think you erase people that cause trouble. I think you delete the parts of them that are hard to control, and a happy puppet walks out of this white hell of a clinic.
“You’re here to help me?” Jesse said.
“Bingo! Jesse scores. Hope you mean that.” Evans gave him a sly grin. “Not just having a little fun with Cary, right?”
Jesse sketched a laugh and stopped himself short from wiping the cold sweat from his forehead. Walking out of this room, the same man, was a proposition he could feel slipping away. All for the name on the brick wall. The name scrawled in red.
I am. I think
“Let’s get to it, Jesse. You ready?” Flipping back his long bangs, he investigated the portal on his right wrist. A cone of light splashed up a few inches, forming a three-dimensional screen in livid red. Characters and colors sped by, Evan’s eyes locked open painfully wide and unblinking as data flowed past faster than Jesse could follow.
This guy is overclocked by at least ten. He will burn himself out if he keeps this up.
The red screen winked out, and the portal went dark. “Your file says you have never been adjusted.” Evan’s eyes narrowed from bulging insanity back to something approximating normal. “You’ve got to tell me your secret, bro. Never sick enough to need medicine, no broken bones, not even a stitch. You must have an angel on your shoulder.”
“Just lucky, I guess.”
Jesse understood his confusion. The Innerlink system was a nano-bot constructed neural net that ran up the spine and connected with the brain. Within six months of your first injection, you were wired. Their labors finished; the Nano-bots went dormant.
Transport, household controls, internal cellular comms, all run by thought and wrist portal. Like the smart-phone revolution in early 2000, Innerlink took the world by storm. A person could think an electronic funds transfer or whisper a message in a friend’s ear half the world away. No one got lost anymore. Links automatically sent messages to first responders if the host was in distress. There was always someone there to help.
“It makes me wonder, Jesse? Have you really never been sick? Or is it that your big ole’ engineer brain figured a way around health care call-ins?”
“Obviously not, I’m here.”
The Federal Total Wellness Act, arguably the most disputed piece of legislation ever passed, allowed the Federal Board of Health and Wellness to use the links to monitor the health of all enrollees. Factory updates to link systems now included sophisticated biomonitoring. Coming down with tonsillitis? You got a call-in. Cancers that previously went undiagnosed were treated at the onset, countless lives were prolonged and saved. The program flourished; the opposition faded. Soon the Federal Program was the primary health care provider for 98% of the populace. The other two percent used knives on their kitchen tables.
By the time Jesse got his job at Innerlink, the sixth amendment to the original FTWA slipped in silently under the radar. It became known as the “Adjustment Act.” Knowledge of the amendment sifted its way into the public consciousness. The amendment allowed for anyone with a health care call-in that met the criteria stated under the law to undergo a “mental health adjustment.” Most call-ins fit the criteria. At first, the adjustments targeted depression, anti-social, and compulsive behaviors. The flare of outrage subsided as friends, and loved ones kicked addictions and stopped biting their nails.
Jesse knew about the adjustments and how they were made. There were soft adjustments and hard adjustments. The one that killed Erin was soft. Hers had been made by an adjuster like the clean seamless women that led Jesse to this chamber. Hard adjustments were more like deletions. Those could only be performed by Directors. Like this smiling mess in front of him.
“So, Jesse, my man, headache, right?”
“Yes.” This smiling mess who thinks I’m a terrorist.
“Are we getting enough sleep? Staying hydrated? The corners of his mouth turned down, pulling at his eyes. “Avoiding stressful situations?” Pregnant pause. “Having bad dreams?”
The Director’s portals glowed red. Jesse’s blue portal flared in answer. An unpleasant warmth ran through his arm and up and down his spine. A new spring of fresh sweat spouted to top the sour old. We are linked now. The bastard is in my head. Oh, God…
I am, I think.
“I dream about my wife sometimes.” Jesse’s voice came out a dry croak.
“Your wife, so sad. So rare and tragic. A real kick to the balls, Jesse. Over five years now, right?”
“How does a man ever get over a thing like that? We should have called you in, gave you an adjustment for the grief. I will say this, Erin must have been a clever girl; most experts thought a linked suicide was impossible.”
“Erin was the first.”
“Enough to make a man angry, bitter?”
“Enough for him to look for someone to blame?”
The heat in Jesse’s head grew to the point of pain. “I know what you want, but I can’t help you.”
“What do I want, Jesse?”
“I don’t know her, I never met her, she contacted me.”
The heat increased. Pressure began to build behind Jesse’s eyes. “Stop, you’re hurting me.”
“Who contacted you, Jesse?”
Jesse fell from the contour chair, knees cracking on the cold white floor. Head held in his hands, Jesse cried, “Please…”
Evans stood and loomed over him, bathed in the lurid glow of his burning portals. “I am tuning you to feel pain from guilt, Jesse, feeling a little guilty?”
“Her name is…” the word would not come. But the pain did.
I am. I think.
“Make it stop, God… Jesse’s words collapsed into a wounded cry.
“No?” Evan’s toothsome grin split his face. “Then allow me.” He spun like a dancer waving his wrist as he cavorted across the room. Both chairs joined him in his dance, spinning, and hissing as they vanished into a wall compartment. Evans came to a stop, feet splayed. With a flourish fit for the circus, he brandished one wrist at Jesse, the other at the viewing wall.
The pain vanished, and the wall screen surged to life. Jesse slumped in relief. But on the wall, no fluffy clouds paraded by; no field of blue. Instead, it was a still image, the last moment of the newscast, a burning clinic, a red name. Magnified and focused in exquisite detail, runnels of paint ran from the sprayed letters like fresh blood.
Fighting back a sob—the pain had unmanned him—Jesse’s eyes locked on the bleeding name. His knees hurt against the cold hard floor, he wanted to stand, but his guts were like water.
I am. I think.
“Jesse, Jesse, Jesse…” Evans stalked in slow bouncing steps, circling, like a buzzard with the first scent of death in its nose. “Do you like your job?”
“You have to let me explain…”
“Cuz, I love mine.” Jared jumped down into a crouch, his nose an inch from Jesse’s “I get up every morning fucking thrilled to help people like you. That’s what I live for, fixing all the ungrateful little fucks like you. I am here to help.”
Jesse cowered back from the heat, cooking off Evan’s face. The walls were tinted red from the frozen image on the wall.
“And you brother, you—need—my—help. Your health is in jeopardy.”
A thought shot through Jesse’s head like a bullet. Hope ran out of the wound. This guy has overclocked himself insane, even if we weren’t linked, he could probably tear my head off. No matter what I say, he is going to rummage around in my head deleting until I am gone, and no one remembers Erin.
“I like being a link engineer. I have nothing personal against Innerlink.”
“Oh, that was a careful answer, Jesse.” Evans backed off and resumed his circling. “Come on, what do you really think about Innerlink and the Federal Health and Wellness Act? I’m worried, Jesse. Did what happened to your wife open a door inside you that should stay closed in all—healthy citizens? That is all it takes. Just a crack.” His smile evaporated, and his face flushed. “For a terrorist like Lydia to slither in.”
“The adjustment didn’t kill Erin, I did it when I told her I wanted kids. I don’t blame anyone but myself.”
I am. I think.
The same week Jesse told Erin he wanted children; she had a fertility test. All women were rendered sterile at puberty for over twenty years when Erin came of age. It was a simple process and reversible. They had almost burst with happiness when the test came back clean. She had none of the two hundred or so undesirable characteristics that precluded a woman from a procreation license. Within the month, she had a life inside her.
Erin wanted a girl. Jesse didn’t argue. They selected a female of middle height, with a generous division of features between mother and father, and crossed their fingers. Sex assignment was simple, but getting mother’s dimples and father’s hair might go either way.
Jesse was up to his ears, pitching the Cradle Sync project. Links installed in the womb achieving heightened synergism as the nervous system of the fetus and the link’s integration fibers would develop together. The number of connections would increase by a power of ten, giving their link new access to the brain. Even the control links the Directors possessed could only sense and isolate emotions. Cradle sync would change the world forever.
“Imagine,” Jesse would say to his coworkers, “Being able to think to your child in the womb. To share your feelings selectively and interactively with those you love. We could understand each other for the first time. Truly understand. Language would be no barrier.”
Meanwhile, the Federal Health Directors were creating the first adjustment lists. They were also choosing Health Centers for testing: Nashville, Little Rock, Dallas. Everywhere the powers that be thought there was the most backward thinking. As Jesse was designing Cradle Sync, the first adjustments began.
Evans looked somber. “What happened to your wife was unfortunate, Jesse. But it wasn’t anyone’s fault.” His portal flared, and his eyes bulged as flash traffic speed across the holographic screen. “Erin Callum got a nasty infection in her lungs, complications resulting in pneumonia, priority one due to pregnancy. Call in, medication, and standard mental health adjustment. Three months later, suicide.”
Rage tore through Jesse like a talon. It left him bare for one sticky moment.
Evans, eyes still bulging, locked onto Jesse like some predatory insect. “I felt that Jesse. I would be pissed off too. She should have never been given that set of adjustments. Not a pregnant woman. That protocol was still in the test phase.”
Jesse’s headache was really stomping now. “She should have never been pregnant at all.” He tried to swallow the guilt and anger, both useless here. He could feel the tight awareness that was Director Evans inside his head. It was wary, on guard, like a coiled spring.
Evans extinguished his screen and resumed his circling. “So, you don’t blame us for Erin’s Death?”
“Looking at this place makes me sick. It doesn’t make me a terrorist.” Jesse was tired of being looked down on by this man but could not find the strength to rise. The floor was ice, but his head felt hot and wrapped in wool. The headache grew, the pain sharp.
“But Lydia contacted you just the same. What did she want, Jesse?”
“I know what you think. You think she wanted a way to burn down clinics without being caught.”
“Could someone do that with the Cradle Sync architecture Jesse? Could they make ghosts who cannot be tracked by their link?”
“No one knows what Cradle Sync can do yet. No one.”
In the years since Erin’s death, Jesse had taken to walking. It took an hour to walk from his office. He needed that hour to ready himself to enter the house where he found her, hanging in the closet, dark hair obscuring her face, belly like swollen fruit.
One day, on the way home, a flash of red in an alley caught his eye. There was seldom graffiti in this day and age. It was easy as hell to get caught and impossible to run when the police could track your Innerlink system to within a meter. But there it was in red paint.
Startled, Jesse looked about him. The passersby ignored the red name, his name. They ignored him. Like he was a ghost. The next day it was gone. A month later, he saw red again.
YOU KNOW THEY KILLED HER
This time panic gripped him, and he fled. Who would play a cruel joke like this? Eventually, his anger dissolved into tears. He resolved to take the tube to work.
A week later, he walked home, but the alley was empty. Then he walked every day, sometimes even returning after sundown as if the alley drew him.
The day he decided to abandon this obsession, he found red letters waiting for him.
LOOK FOR MY NAME
A few nights later, the first Federal Health Clinic burned, its Director murdered. No one had been seen, no link-trace made. The report flashed across the flickering wall, and Jesse fell from his chair in an ignoble sprawl, his dinner slopping onto the floor. The wall was filled with the familiar crimson scrawl.
Jesse’s first thought was to report the strange messages. People were dead. He activated his portal to make the call, but something stopped him.
I am. I think.
Whoever Lydia was, she knew about Erin. She knew about him.
Evans had stopped his pacing. “Were there any more marks on the wall?”
“One more.” Jesse felt drained. The memories pulsed and throbbed in his head. “It read: ‘Find the list, and I will find you.’
“The first adjustment protocol that killed your wife.” Evans nodded. “To turn you against your country, to get you to do nasty things for Lydia and her ghosts. You found it didn’t you, Jesse?”
“It wasn’t hard. My office makes sure the Innerlink hardware can support the software needed for the adjustment protocols.” Jesse tried to meet Evans’ eyes. “I guess the powers that be thought we breed a little too often here in the middle USA.” He was surprised how even he sounded. He had wept and raged the first dozen times he read the lines of suggestion that killed his wife and unborn daughter. He knew it word for word,
Jesse finally locked eyes with Evans, and in a steady voice, he let it spill out of him, to stain the sterile room. “Having children is a burden on myself, those I love, and the society I live in. I will not be a burden.
“Yes, that was in the original batch.” Evans said. “Still there in a much better-written version. Your wife’s case was instructive. The middle of the country had been voting against progress for thirty years, they had to be winnowed.” Evans laughed. “Really, it was not the item on the adjustment list that went wrong, it was the delivery.”
“What the hell does that mean—”
Evan’s links both burned bright. A brief swimming vertigo engulfed Jesse. Then it was replaced by the overwhelming desire to bite into a raw ripe tomato. He could feel his teeth breaking the tense red skin and the squirt of the cold juices hitting the top of his mouth. The sensations faded, but the taste lingered.
Evans fairly cackled as Jesse raised a finger to his lips. “Tomatoes are good for you, Jesse. There, your first adjustment, my man. If you had ever been sick and had a health care call-in, you would already be excited about a healthy diet. Would have added years to your life and saved the good old US of A a truckload of cash taking care of you in your later years.”
“Erin didn’t come home, craving tomatoes.” The bitterness in his voice in contrast with the sweet taste on his lips.
“No, no, she didn’t. Those early adjustments were implanted through both positive and negative reinforcement. That, in hindsight, was a big mistake. Only the positive these days, Jesse. I didn’t implant the suggestion that candy bars are disgusting. But guess what, if I offered you a Snickers bar or a vine-ripe tomato, you would pick the fruit every time. Forever. See—positive. The negative ones, well, they developed into negative behaviors.”
When Erin came home from the very same clinic where her husband currently cowered on the floor, her infection was gone, and the baby slept safe inside her. All Jesse could talk about was their daughter. He begged Erin to consider being in the human trials for Cradle Sync. The beta test was already in chimps and functioning perfectly. They could hear their child think. Wasn’t it exciting, how could she say no?
Erin gave short answers. She changed the subject. As the warm heart and mind of their child grew inside her, so did a second darker child of confusion. I will not be a burden. Her adjustment bent her against herself. Her love for Jesse was the lever.
She left no note.
Jesse had lost track of how long he had sat on the floor, sweating as the grinning bug-eyed monster that was this clinic’s Director circled him like a vulture. He wasn’t sure how much more healthcare he could endure.
“What happens now?” Jesse was trembling and ashamed. The headache had dulled, receded. He almost wished he had it back, something to distract him from his loss, and the white hell where he cowered before one of the architects of Erin’s death.
Evans hunkered down in front of him, eyes glittering. “What now? I’ll tell you what now. Give me everything you know about Lydia. She has killed three Directors with her ‘Ghosts.'” He imbued the word Director with an almost religious reverence. “The Police are worthless now, without a link-trace they couldn’t find a jaywalker much less a terrorist. Did you do it, Jesse? Who else but a link engineer could teach them to shut down the tracker on their link system? Who else but a bereaved hubby and daddy would? We have technicians trying to duplicate the feat, but everyone has failed.”
Jesse was silent. This had always been why he was here.
“Remember Jesse, I am listening in that head of yours. Not mind reading, like your Cradle Sync promises, but I am damn good at it. If I sense you are holding something back, well, that’s where the fun begins. You thought my guilt-heat trick was a bummer. I can light every pain receptor in your body like little candles. Think you can take the pain? I can take your memories. I won’t know exactly what they are, Jesse, but I have learned to know the good from the bad. I’ll find the best and squeeze till they pop. One by one, they’ll go till you are barely human at all. Never to remember your first kiss or your mother’s love. No moments of triumph that shaped you into a man. How about a lifetime of education snipped in random places, leaving you a sad, confused creature? I can do it all.”
I am. I think.
“How do they do it, Jesse? How are they killing Directors? Anyone with my link system should have stopped them cold. And last but not least, the million-dollar question—how do I find Lydia?” Evan’s grin became feral.
Jesse searched for courage. But in the bowels of the clinic that killed his wife, trapped in white oblivion with this madman who could kill him with a thought, it was like trying to grasp smoke. “I don’t know where she is, she finds me, and leaves me messages.”
“We know that already, Jesse. There are only two or three engineers with your knowledge of all the new systems. A nan-injector containing Cradle Sync went missing years ago, an empty delivery fluid in its place. Before that, no Ghosts.”
“I didn’t give anyone Cradle Sync I took it for—”
“For what, what did you do with it?” Evan’s portals flared angry red. “Better answer quick. Give me what I want, or I will start taking things from you.”
I came home I found her hanging—”
“You’re out of time, Jesse.” The lurid glow of his portals made him ghoulish, insane.
“Erin was still warm. If I had only got home a few minutes earlier. I could sense something crying out within her—broadcasting to my portal. Not words, but one thought so powerful, so alive.
I am. I think.
“What are you talking about?” Evan’s expression slipped from its predatory grimace. Doubt crept forward.
“I opened my link to the signal. The thought was fading.”
Evans straightened, knees popping like fireworks, he backed away from Jesse.
“It was Cradle Sync, it held a charge, even after my wife and daughter died, trillions of connections, a neural net, still active. It thought to me. It told me it was alive.” Jesse said, the tension leaving his voice. “I downloaded something—lines of code flowing, gushing from Erin into me. The dormant nano-bots inside me began to build.”
A second blue portal appeared on Jesse’s upturned left wrist. A perfect circle to offset the glowing diamond on his right.
Evan’s balanced on the edge of panic. The nodes of thought and emotion in Jesse’s head that he had gripped with his link were fading away. He tried to call an adjuster, security anyone, but his link was cut from the network. He made for the door. The muscles in his legs and hips locked down. He struggled, gnashing his teeth, he lost his fight for balance and fell stiff as a board landing flat on his back. His muscles spasmed as if he had been shocked. “How is this possible?” He could not feel the other man in the room at all now. Jesse was gone, his link vanished. A ghost. “Help—” he tried to scream, but his jaw muscles locked down tight. His portals were blazing red, and heat began to bloom in his skull.
Jesse’s face swam into view, floating over him. All the lines of tension were smoothed away. The once broken man seemed younger, lighter.
“Hello, bad man.”
Evan’s struggled like a fiend, legs thrashing, sandals sent flying. His overclocked nano-enhanced muscles rippled and strained. Jesse watched, patient, almost unblinking. Evans tired, his struggles ceased. The muscles of his jaw unknit. “You? You are a ghost?”
Evans knew with sudden clarity that he was not speaking to Jesse any longer. This placid thing before him was not human at all. It explained the silent link. Without Jesse, the link could not broadcast his signature.
“He downloaded you from his unborn daughter?” Evans whispered, afraid his jaw would lock down again and break his teeth. Jesse’s head went up and down. “What do you want from me? Why are you here?”
“I’m here to help.”
Evans thought fast, he could salvage this. This thing had the mind of a child. “Your Dad—Jesse, he’s sick. He needs my help.”
“LIAR.” The scream filled the space. Jesse’s face contorted into a mask of rage, inhuman in its totality. Then it vanished replaced by eerie calm. The child’s voice spoke through Jesse. “I help Jesse, not you. Jesse saved me when you killed mother. I remember the hurt you gave mother. I can feel Jesse hurting right now, missing her—missing me. You are bad. You need—adjusting.”
“Jesse, are you in there, can you hear me?” A painless implosion tickled somewhere inside Evans’ head, leaving—leaving nothing. Something had been deleted. Even as that thought fluttered, it faded. What had he been thinking? “Jesse, you have to fight her, stop this before its too late. This is what Lydia wants, to use you to make ghosts. Don’t let her use the memory of your daughter to hurt people.”
For a moment, the warm ticklish deletions halted, the eyes of a disembodied child peered out through Jesse’s. “What Lydia wants?” Jesse’s body knelt over the Evans. “I killed the men that made Jesse sad. I killed men like you who hurt mother. I would have killed you, but people know that Jesse is here, and they would hurt him. While you were in his head, I was in yours. You taught me new tricks while you tortured Jesse. I learn fast.”
Evans could feel his time running out.
“They had already picked a name for me, for their little girl. Since I came inside he can’t hear me. I use his hands to paint on walls. He paints them in red. I help Jesse forget so he won’t worry, so he won’t be sad. I send him my first thought, and the pain goes away.”
I am. I think.
“Don’t let the terrorists use you, don’t let them win.” Evans sobbed, desperate to find the words to stall this inhuman child.
“There are no terrorists, there is only me. Lydia can’t use me bad man. I am Lydia.”
Evans tried to scream. Before the sound could leave his lips, it echoed away into a deep empty hole in his mind.
The seamless woman came to let Jesse out of the treatment room. The Director escorted him to the door, a hand on his shoulder.
“Jesse, I think you are going to feel much better.”
“Thanks,” Jesse said.
“Of course, Jesse, we are here to help.”
Jesse’s headache remained. He could remember nothing of his conversation with Director Evans, but that was to be expected. He could still remember Erin, the love for her warm inside him. That was all that mattered. The grinning Director’s face looked a touch gray, the grin forced. A feeling of déjà vu washed over Jesse like vertigo. Turning away from the Director’s strained smile and the adjuster’s seamless dress, Jesse departed. He walked on unsteady legs, lost and sad, as he retraced his steps back down the hall and out into the Nashville sun.
The light bored into him. He looked around for something lost, something almost glimpsed from the corner of the eye.
Jesse went home. Lydia went with him.
A few days later, Jesse saw Director Evans’s smiling face again, flickering five feet tall on the wall in his living room. A still shot in which he looked slightly less insane than he remembered. Taylor Nelson showed America his best frown for the report.
“In a shocking and rare tragedy, Cary Evans, Director for the Nashville Federal Healthcare Clinic, was found dead at home, where he had hung himself Sunday night. This is only the second linked suicide since the Federal Total Wellness Act was enacted…”
I am. I think.
Jesse thought: Wall off.