(written for the [Fiction] Friday >prompt on August 28, 2009: “A new Government research and development facility is built on a decomissioned prison site”.)
“Hey! Watch where you’re putting that picket sign, buddy. Some of us like our faces the way they are!”
James Madsen cursed under his breath as he walked down the sidewalk past the old Albercrombie Maximum Security Prison. It was no longer a prison, of course, having been closed for thirteen years now. In fact, the government had just reopened it as a brand new, state of the art research and development facility. Dubbed the CRAP Institute by the media, the Center for Realizing America’s Potential had been opened with much fanfare, including a visit from the President himself. After an interminable number of speeches which included the obligatory self-congratulatory statements of the co-sponsors of the Formation, Accumulation and Revitalization of the Country’s Ego Act (the FARCE Act), the Institute’s official purpose was announced: to find that which makes us human and enhance the bonds between the people of the country.
Rumors abounded about the actual work being done at the CRAP Institute. There were daily protests outside of the grounds for the compound, usually peaceful and very highly unorganized because the protestors could never agree to what, exactly, they were protesting. Today was no different as James walked along the sidewalk with the double-barbed wire fence surrounding the Institute to his right. Protestors were all over the sidewalk, the grass and the road. Random chants came from some groups while others stood there, sullenly holding their signs and ringing solitary bells. Still others were burning some kind of incense while meditating dramatically next to a stack of flyers or leaflets about the awful activities going on inside the heavily secured buildings.
A man jumped in front of James and clasped onto his shoulders, causing him to stop in his tracks. The man’s eyes kept darting around, first left to right, then up and down. His beard was wild and untrimmed, his hair was matted down and uncombed and his clothing appeared to have been worn and slept in for several days. His breath smelled like a combination of old fish, rotten eggs and sour buttermilk, causing James’ eyes to water as the man leaned right into his face. “They’re doing experiments on babies in there, man. Turning babies into frogs. And puppies, too. They’re turning puppies into frogs, man. When they have enough frogs, they’re going to unleash a frog-based flu on the planet, bringing the world to its knees. And just when the frog plague is at its height, the government will ride in on its white horse with a cure. It’s true, man, I’ve seen it on the internet!”
James stared at the man for a moment and pushed his hands away. “Are you alright?”
The man’s eyes stopped flitting back and forth and looked straight at James. “Yes, I’m fine. What happened? What was I going on about?”
“I don’t know,” said James, truthfully, watching as the man slowly walked away from him. A few seconds later, he heard the man shouting about babies and frogs again, his step back into controlled sanity apparently only a momentary one. James continued on. Clutching the summons in his hands, he walked toward the corner of Madville Lane and Minderton Way as he headed to the one and only entrance that was on the far side from where he was currently walking.
James was nervous. He had, of course, heard all the rumors about what happens to the people who get summoned to the Institute with nothing but a form letter informing them of their duty as citizens to attend an important meeting. The rumors were that no one ever returned from these meetings. James did not know anyone personally who had been called to attend one of these meetings but, of course, there were a multitude of stories about it on the internet as well as among the many stories played out along the sidewalk here on Madville Lane. One woman, wearing a dark trench coat with so many holes in it that it offered only minor protection against the drizzling rain of the day, sat along the edge of the walk with pictures of what must have been her family, a candle in front of each picture. A sign stood behind the presentation saying simply: “Summonsed and Never returned: my husband, my kids and our six month old puppy. September 13.” This was typeset in block lettering. Down near the bottom, in a shaky handwriting, was added: “And now a goldfish, September 16”. The woman spoke to no one and did not make eye contact with anyone. She just sat there, silently mourning what had befallen her family, just weeks ago.
James pressed on, feeling the fear of the unknown welling up inside him as he made the turn onto Minderton Way. He was sure that the rumors were not true, that the people were, in fact, fine. Perhaps they were put into the witness protection program for some reason. James tried to think of any reason that he would need to go into witness protection, and he came up with nothing. His thoughts were interrupted when a young boy grabbed his arm. “Sir? Are you going in there? You should run. You should not go there. This is where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies under the tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Do you like being on a boat on a river? Do you?” His eyes looked glazed over, pupils smaller than a pencil point. His eyelids fluttered rapidly.
James pushed past the boy. The boy kept shouting “Do you?” as James walked away.
What had happened to the town? Everyone seemed to have gone crazy, quoting random song lyrics or making up wild stories about the evil going on in the new government facility. It had all started soon after the facility had opened. James had simply dismissed the crazy theories and rumors as being hyped up stories the conservatives and the anti-government types were making up just to gain a handful of votes in November. Remembering that the election was just a few weeks away calmed him. It is always crazy like this before an election, he thought. But it is usually only the politicians that are insane.
James turned the corner and started walking on Asylum Street, where the heavily guarded entrance to the facility was. A woman holding three signs stood in his way, blocking the way. One sign said, “The End is Near.” The next sign said, “The government has sold us out to the aliens, we are doomed.” The third said, “This Is the Beginning.” She said nothing, just stood there blocking his way, staring at him with her eyes darting back and forth. Clutched under her arm was a folder filled with wrinkled papers that were stinking out of it.
“Excuse me,” said James quietly. “I have an appointment and I need to get past you.”
She continued to stare at him, not moving out of his way, unblinking, eyes shifting. A commotion behind her caught James’ attention just as a couple of kids being chased by a uniformed officer bumped into her, knocking her signs and papers all over the place. As she mumbled and whimpered as she scurried to clean up her items, James considered this an opportunity to move past her and on his way. He started and then stopped, returning to the mess and helping her clean up. He picked up her signs and handed them to her as she finished shoving the wrinkled and now damp and dirty papers back into the folder and then under her arm. “So, which is it, The Beginning or The End?” he asked. She did not answer. He touched her arm, which appeared to have a small scratch on it as a result of the collision a moment ago. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“Y-yes,” she said, fixing her gaze on him with what appeared to be some effort. “What happened?”
“Some kids bumped into you,” James said. “Knocked all of your stuff around. I think you’ve got it all again.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, putting the signs down and looking at the folder held snugly under her arm. “I don’t even know what this is. What is this?”
“I don’t know,” said James. “I have to… get to my appointment.” He turned and walked away quickly. Getting to the entrance he turned to face it and then turned his head to look back at where the woman had been. She was, once again, standing rigidly in the middle of the sidewalk, holding her signs. Looking forward, James took a deep breath and walked up to the guard.
The guard took the offered summons and read it carefully. “ID,” he said in a monotone voice. James handed the guard his ID, which was quickly reviewed and handed back. “Fourth building on the right, check in at the desk.”
James walked forward into the compound, looking at his surroundings. He could see where the guards used to perch, guns ready, when the inmates at the prison used to have time to exercise or relax outdoors. He saw old, rusty chains hanging along a brick wall, reminders of what this place used to be. Entering the fourth building, he went to the desk and handed the desk agent the paperwork. Seeing it, she pressed a button on the desk and within seconds James found himself being carried roughly by four heavily armed guards, first through a set of metal gates and then down a long, dark corridor. They shoved him inside a small, windowless room and slammed the door behind him. James heard the locks engage and then heard nothing.
The room was completely dark. It was made of cement or cinderblocks. Cautiously, James felt his way around the room and found that there was nothing in it except for him. He shouted, but all he heard was his own voice, echoing against the cement walls. So he sat.
Time passed slowly. Without any windows or indication of the passage of time, James could not really guess how much time was passing. Eventually, he gauged by the growth of his beard that several weeks had passed. Every so often, bright lights flashed, lights brighter than any James had ever seen, so bright that they blinded him even more than the darkness had. At this point, a small bowl of oatmeal would be slid through the door, his only sustenance. He had learned rather quickly that the corner of the room which served as his bathroom should be as far away as possible from the spot where the bowl would appear.
For the first few “days”, James kept trying to keep his thoughts going, wondering what was going on, trying to stay calm about whatever it was they were going to do to him. Eventually, he gave up on this and just stopped thinking about his predicament. He slept a lot. When he awoke, he would just sit there, staring at the dark nothingness before him. Then he would repeat the sleep/awake pattern frequently. His dreams were more vivid, especially after he had eaten a bowl of oatmeal earlier, as if the food was drugged. When he realized this, he tried to stop eating it, only to find that he had become addicted to whatever it was in the food. When he did not eat it, he would get chills and fevers. He would shake and get a bad headache. It all went away when he ate. So, he did.
A commotion outside of his room awoke him. “Who’s there?” he demanded in his weak, dry voice. He had eaten just a little while ago, so far as he could tell, so it could not have been another food delivery. The lights flashed brightly and he covered his eyes. Suddenly, he felt four sets of hands on his legs and arms as he was lifted and carried out into the dim corridor. He shouted questions about where he was being taken, but no answers were forthcoming and he was not even certain that he was speaking them aloud.
Eventually he was roughly dropped into a big leather chair in an office. The office was decorated with fine mahogany furniture, crystal decorations and thick, luxurious carpeting. A balding man sat across the desk from him and stared at him.
“Mister… Madsen is it?”
“Oh, where are my manners. Would you like a drink?” the balding man poured a glass of water and handed it to James, who took it and drank quickly, spilling the majority of it down his dirty, smelly shirt.
“Mister Madsen, my name is Fredrick Hansleman. You can call me ‘Sir’. I am the lead researcher here at the Center for Realizing America’s Potential. I am happy to finally meet you. I apologize for the delay in seeing you, but I trust my team took wonderful care of you for the past five weeks. You know how crazy things can get with starting up a new department in every city in the country. Meetings, furniture deliveries, learning where the best pizza places are… incidentally, what is your favorite pizza place? No favorite? Well, that’s a shame.”
“Mister Madsen, I’m sure you know why you are here. We are very in-”
“I have no idea why I am here,” James replied quietly.
“Oh, my. I see,” said Hansleman. “Well, let me put it to you straight, then, Mister Madsen. Our real job here at the Institute is to rid the world of you and your type. Mister Madsen, aliens will not be tolerated on Earth.”
Hansleman turned a desk lamp so that the light shined right into James’ eyes. “Yes!” he shouted. “You are an alien and the sooner you admit it, the sooner we can be done with you.”
“I don’t understand. What gives you the idea that… what gives you the right to incarcerate me, an American citizen, without evidence and without any kind of trial? There are no aliens, Mr. Hansleman, only lunatics like you.”
Hansleman laughed heartily. “Ah, that’s great, Mister Madsen. Call me names. But we do have evidence.” Hansleman walked over to the curtained window and pulled back the coverings. “Look out there, Mister Madsen. I’m sure you’ve noticed all of the people milling about, spouting gibberish about rumors and evil doing going on here. That is our evidence.”
“You think I am an alien and that I caused… that?”
“Oh, no, you misunderstand. We caused that. It was our job to cause that.”
“You’re right. I don’t understand.”
“WHY AREN’T YOU CRAZY, MISTER MADSEN?”
“I’m not sure, really. Maybe I am. I know you are trying your hardest to drive me there.”
“No, no. That’s not it. Your people might think you’ve got us fooled, Mister Madsen, but I’ll tell you we are wise to you. We know that you and your people exhale a pheromone that has the effect of stabilizing the human brain, keeping it calm and sane. Over the generations, you have made the human race calm down, defining the norms of our society. At first, this was fine because there were enough people resistant to your influence that our prisons were full of life, valuable places. But now, prisons are being decommissioned and closed down because crime rates are down so low. Do you realize the impact this has on the American economy? Guards out of work, businesses that supply the prisons with monogrammed sheets and uniforms no longer have a captive audience for their wares. Cigarette sales are way down, since prisons no longer buy them by the ton. It is all bad for business and we will not have that any longer! We released a chemical into the air that blocked your vile pheromones. Without the pheromones in their systems, people lost the control that you aliens were forcing on them. Without your chemicals dulling their senses, our nation has become stronger and has become more capable of defending our interests at home and abroad. Crime rates are up sufficiently such that new prisons are being built, putting more and more fine, hard working American citizens back to work. All that’s left is for us to rid the world, once and for all, of you and your kind.”
“Why are you not impacted?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, if you are breathing the same air as all the people out there who are going crazy because of this pheromone that is now being blocked… why are you not crazy? Does that make you an alien, too?”
“I get it,” said Hansleman, laughing. “You are trying to trap me into some kind of awkward logic situation. But it isn’t going to work, Mister Madsen. I am a researcher and I have done a lot of research. I know with absolute certainty that only aliens are not impacted by our pheromone blocking chemicals.”
“So, to prove that aliens are controlling the populace and making them peaceful and nice to each other, you have essentially drugged them into a crazed and violent stupor? Maybe you are, in fact, impacted by it.”
“I will not have you insulting me!” shouted Hansleman. “Guards!”
The guards came in and grabbed James, pulling him to his feet and began to drag him out of the office. “Wait!” shouted Hansleman. “This one has irritated me. I want to see him suffer. Bring him back and close the door.”
The guards dropped James to his knees in the middle of the room as Hansleman closed the curtain before walking over to where James was being held down.
Looking up, James said, “Don’t you think, Mr. Hansleman, that if I were an alien, I would use my mind powers to overcome your evil plan and bring you down? Don’t you think that if I were an alien, I could make these guards do as I told them to do, rather than do as you tell them? Don’t you think, Mr. Hansleman, that my people would be unhappy with you beating me to death?”
“Your people are nearing extinction, Mister Madsen. When I am finished with you and the stories spread about what I have done, they will all be begging to be put down like the filth they are. Now stand up and be quiet!”
Hansleman reached out with one arm and smacked James across the face. Another arm punched him in the stomach, making James double over. “Is that all you’ve got, Hansleman?”
“Call me Sir!” The smack and punch were repeated several times before James fell to the floor, laughing.
“Oh, stop, you’re making me laugh and the laughing hurts after so long in solitary confinement!” It was uncontrollable now and he closed his eyes to hold back the tears forming due to the laughter.
“Get up!” shouted Hansleman. James felt one hand on each side of his head as Hansleman lifted him back to his feet. His face held steady by the two hands that were surrounding it, James was surprised to feel another hand punch him in the stomach and another in the back of the head. Still another punch came behind each knee, but he did not fall to the ground because he was being held up by the hands holding his face. He opened his eyes when the guards gasped.
Hansleman had eleven arms coming off of his torso, all wildly swinging and punching. His face had turned into a marshmallowy mass with thirteen dots that James assumed were eyes. James shifted his gaze toward the guards as best as he could and shouted, “Don’t just stand there, help me!”
The guards rushed forward and each one grabbed an arm or three, pulling Hansleman from James. Blood coming from the various cuts on his face and body, James said, “I guess my pheromones act differently on you government-style aliens.”
The guards dragged Hansleman away, kicking and screaming. “It is a trick! He’s convinced you that I am the alien because he is really the alien. He’s controlling your minds! He made me lash out at him just to make you do what he wanted! Let me go!”
James walked out of the building and out of the compound. He walked over to a crowd of people who were watching two kids fight in the street, all of them showing no emotion or awareness in their eyes. James moved in front of each of them and reached out to shake their hands. “I am James Madsen and I hope to someday be your senator so that things like this never happen again. I can make everything better. It’s nice to meet you,” he would say, grasping their hand even if the person did not offer it to him and smiling. “Are you okay?”
Setting their gazes upon him, the answer came forth: “Yes, I’m fine. What happened? Did you know you have a bloody lip?” Followed by: “You look awful, Mr. Madsen, but you sure do smell good.”
James walked the block back to his house. Clearing five weeks’ worth of conspiracy theory flyers from in front of the doorway, he walked inside, past the television that had apparently been left on all this time, straight to the room in the back. As he passed the television, he heard it blaring that there had been news of an attack at the CRAP Institute but everyone should remain calm. Flipping on the radio, he picked up the microphone and said simply, “I am sure you have seen the news. The next phase has begun.”