Aphelion Issue 296, Volume 28
July 2024 --
 
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"It's Kind of Like That Planet in Alien 3"


by Steven Grogan



Jesus, Peter Malloy thought, how did I wind up in a madhouse like this?

It was a cloudy Saturday morning in Troy, New York, and Peter was at Prospect Park with his younger sister, Mary. They met up at a gazebo near the back, which gave anyone who cared to see it a wonderful view of downtown. From this angle, you could be fooled into thinking the city was alive and saturated with culture. However, that illusion would be shattered once you went down the hill and saw all the condemned buildings and vacant commercial properties.

Troy might not have been known as a happening place, but it was Peter's hometown, and he loved it. He loved its rich history, its architecture, its ability to attract filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and authors like Kurt Vonnegut (whose fictional city of Ilium was based on Troy) and Herman Melville (who once lived in North Troy, also known as Lansingburgh).

The one thing Peter didn't like about the city was that it was also the birthplace of one Terrence Schimmel. Although he knew there were countless Terrence Schimmels living in countless cities around the world, they weren't impacting Peter's life like this fellow Trojan was.

Terrence Schimmel of Troy, New York was the reason why Mary often wore a pair of sunglasses that were far too big for her face, like she did this morning. Some people gave her funny looks, finding it odd that she was wearing this accessory even though a thick blanket of clouds muted the sun's intensity, but Mary didn't wear them for protection from the UV rays.

She wore them to hide two black eyes.

The motive for Mary's concealment wasn't 100% selfish. Sure, she hid these bruises because she was embarrassed and ashamed, but she was also mindful of how her appearance would affect others. No one should lose their lunch just because her boyfriend was an abusive bastard.

That was sweet, loving Mary in a nutshell. Always thinking of others before herself, even when it came to her scumbag boyfriend. How could she leave Terrence and hurt his poor little feelings, even if staying with him meant he might break her jaw, or take her life?

Terrence was also the reason why Mary would call these meetings with her big brother from time to time, although he had no idea why she bothered anymore. In Peter's opinion, they were like two-hour movies that had only one scene repeating on a loop, and it went like so:

Mary would call and say she needed to see him. They would agree on a time and location. Upon arriving, Peter would immediately see the fresh bruises. She would tell him what led up to the beating. There would be a moment of silence. Then Peter would tell her she needed to leave the bastard, and her response was always, "I can't." Peter would ask why, and she'd give some lame reason. In two to three sentences, he would tear her "reason" apart, but she usually had some backup excuse that was even more ridiculous than the first. Finally, Peter would throw his hands up and say, "I don't know what you want me to do for you, sis," and he would walk away. In desperation, she would call after him, but Peter would keep going. Sometimes she would shout something like, "You know what I want from you? How about a little support!"

But how could he show that? She was essentially committing suicide in slow-motion. No, he couldn't support her, and he wouldn't give the illusion that he did anymore. That was what he was going to tell her today. In fact, it was the only reason Peter had agreed to this meeting.

They met in a parking lot near a playground and headed for the gazebo. As they walked, Peter looked at all the children that were laughing, running, sliding, swinging, climbing. The sight of them enjoying their innocence made Peter think of one thing: "Thank God Terrence and Mary never had children. Otherwise, they'd be getting beaten too!"

That thought had passed through his mind a mere five minutes ago, yet it felt like five years. It never ceased to amaze Peter how quickly time faded when you were doing something enjoyable, but it stretched out to infinity when you had to do something you dreaded.

Traditionally, Peter was the one who started the conversation. Judging by how tightly Mary's lips were pressed together, he could tell that part of the ritual wasn't going to change today. With a long sigh, he began their routine. (That was the best word to describe these conversations; they were like a very bad, very dark skit between two stand-up comedians, who, by the way, weren't very funny at all, or at least hadn't been for ages.)

"What set Terrence off this time, Mary?" Peter asked.

As soon as the sentence left his mouth, Peter regretted it. Not so much the words themselves, but the way he said them; there was so much snark in his voice that even an unobservant person would have noticed it, and that was one adjective no one could use to describe Mary. She was more perceptive than anyone Peter knew, which made this even more maddening. If she was so smart, why did she think it was a good idea to stay with the intellectual black hole Terrence Schimmel? This was one mystery that could stump all the philosophers and psychologists who ever lived. Hell, it could stump ones that hadn't even been born yet!

With a tremble in her voice, Mary said, "Well, well, well! You're certainly starting early today, Peter. Usually, you save your contempt for later."

"It's been appearing earlier in every conversation we've had over the years, sis," Peter said. "It was only a matter of time before it came out at the beginning."

Mary bit her lower lip. Don't be a wimp, sis, Peter thought, let all that anger out. Maybe if she learned to tap into her aggressive side with Peter, she would be able to do the same with good old Terrence. However, he quickly realized that hypothesis didn't hold water. She wasn't afraid to confront Peter because she knew her brother wouldn't hit her. With Terrence, it was the opposite: she never knew when he would hit her, or over what.

"Are you going to tell me?" Peter asked.

"Do you even care?" Mary fired back.

"You called me to tell me what happened. If you don't, then this is a waste of time."

It was Mary's turn to sigh. She realized there was no turning back now. Their scene had begun, and she had to follow the script once again. Peter braced himself in anticipation.

Over the years, the only part of the script that ever changed was related to Terrence's latest reason for hitting Mary: his dinner wasn't ready when he got home, she was on the phone too long, his laundry wasn't done, there were dirty dishes in the sink, and so on.

All these reasons were dwarfed by what she said next.

"I was late getting home from my doctor appointment."

Peter opened his mouth to respond, but something in his brain went haywire. He understood the words she'd said, but there was a delay before he fully recognized their meaning. When that hit home, Peter paused, like a toy whose batteries spontaneously ran out.

"Home late from a fucking doctor's appointment?" he said. "Are you serious? You can't predict when you'll get home from something like that!"

"Well, it would appear that Terrence thinks you can," Mary said.

Peter rubbed his temples with his thumb and pointer finger, knowing what he had to ask, but fearing the answer. Then he voiced the inevitable inquiry.

"And how, pray tell, can he do that?"

Mary looked at the ground, feeling as much embarrassment in admitting this as Terrence should have felt for doing it. She couldn't even bring herself to raise her voice above a whisper for her next response, which was a trio of words that floored Peter: "He kept records."

"What do you mean?" Peter asked.

"He wrote down every doctor appointment I had in a journal and noted when they started and what time I got home," she explained.

Peter inhaled deeply, then let the breath out in a controlled manner.

He asked, "How long has he done that?"

Another embarrassed look. "Two years."

Peter leaned his elbows on the railing and buried his face in his hands. Terrence had a long history of crazy reasons for the things he'd done, but this one took first prize for pure insanity. It also had the distinction of being the last lame excuse he could tolerate hearing.

He had the urge to tell Mary right then and there that he was done. However, there was a part of him (the part that harbored his sense of morbid curiosity) that said, Don't leave yet. Play your part one last time, for her sake. See if you can reach her. If you can't, then walk away.

Peter acquiesced to this inner command, and he began to plead his case.

"Mary, I don't know why you're still with this clown," his speech began. "It's not like you are a typical domestic abuse victim, by any stretch of the imagination."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Mary snapped.

"Lots of women in your situation have kids. They feel like they can't leave their abusers because no one would take them all in. That's not your case. You're by yourself. Plus, you have a support system. Most abused women don't. You have friends, not to mention me and Dad."

"I couldn't tell Daddy about all this," Mary said. "He'd probably kill Terrence."

Peter knew her worry was well-founded. Their father, Victor Malloy, was an ex-detective from the Troy Police Department. For the most part, none of the grisly cases he'd worked bothered him. However, there was one that rattled the man right down to the core of his soul.

It had involved the rape of a three-year-old girl. The prime suspect got released on a technicality, and he went off the grid. His disappearance meant that, even if the police found new evidence to take another shot at him, they couldn't.

Around that time, Victor took some time off from work. This was unusual because, in twenty-some-odd years on the force, their father had never used any vacation time. Even though it made alarms go off for everyone, no one questioned him about it.

Three days later, the toddler-rapist turned up dead. Victor was never investigated, but Peter and Mary knew their father was the culprit. If he would do that to a man who hurt a stranger's daughter, there's no telling what he'd do to someone who hurt his own.

"If you ask me," Peter said, "a quick death would be going too easy on the bastard."

"I guess that's the difference between you and I, brother dear," Mary said. "I don't think it's our place to judge, not even someone like Terrence."

"How is it not?" Peter exclaimed. "People like us judge others all the time! Who do you think fills a jury box, Mary? It's people like us!"

Mary said nothing. Peter was nearly at the end of his part of the scene, and it looked like the outcome was going to be the same: he'd storm off, and she'd go home to get beaten again.

He ran his fingers through his hair. As if this gesture was what dislodged it, a new question surfaced in his mind. It was an inquiry that Peter couldn't believe he'd never thought of until now, and he needed to verbalize it before the curtain fell on their tragicomic scene!

"Why don't you look up Jonathan Paulson?"

Mary's brow wrinkled in confusion. "Who?"

"Jonathan Paulson! That guy from high school who had a crush on you. He's still around," Peter said. "Why the hell didn't you go out with him instead of Terrence?"

Mary made a face as if she just smelled something awful. "You're joking, right?"

"No," Peter said. "Why would I be?"

"Peter, that guy was a loser! He always followed me from class to class, telling me how beautiful I was, bringing me flowers," Mary said. "Then he started leaving those envelopes on our porch. Do you know what was in them? Love poems!"

Peter was too stunned to speak. He paused, recalibrated his brain, and tried again.

"What's wrong with that?" he asked.

Mary rolled her eyes, then scoffed. "Peter, the envelopes never had any stamps on them. That means he must have dropped them off in person."

Peter's eyes drifted toward the view of downtown while he tried deciphering what Mary's message was. When nothing came to mind, he was forced to ask another question.

"So what?"

Mary threw her hands up (the first time she was the one to make such a gesture during one of these talks) and said, "Peter, how did the creep know where we lived? He stalked me!"

Aye, there's the rub! So that was why she thought Jonathan was a "weirdo." All these years, Mary imagined Jonathan lurking in the bushes outside school, ready to tail her home to find out where she lived. Or maybe she pictured him eavesdropping on conversations, or breaking into the main office at school to see if he could find her home address.

What this revealed to Peter was that Mary wasn't as observant as he once thought. There was some knowledge about Jonathan that Peter had, but she didn't.

This was the perfect moment to share it with her.

"Mary, Jonathan lived in our neighborhood."

His sister stared straight ahead, as if she hadn't even heard him. Then she turned her face toward Peter, and all she could utter was a one-word question:

"What?"

That one syllable said it all. Even with the sunglasses on her face, Peter knew that, in his sister's mind, reality was being ripped apart. For the last decade, Creepy Jonathan hadn't even been real … and if he wasn't, if she had been so colossally wrong about a topic where she had once been so sure she was right, how could she trust any of her thoughts?

"He lived on Desson Avenue," Peter said. "Sometimes he'd go by our house on his bike. Every now and then he'd stop and talk to me."

Mary looked back out over the city, her brain chewing on this information. An opinion she'd held for ten years had just been rendered obsolete in less than ten seconds. Peter didn't see how there was anything she could possibly throw back at him as a retort.

Oh, but not only was Mary observant, but she was also resourceful.

She found a response, albeit a lame one.

"Yeah, well … he was still a creep."

Peter didn't think it was possible for Mary or anything in her crazy situation that could floor him anymore, but this utterance proved him wrong. At this point, he backed away from the railing. Then he clasped his hands together, rubbing them back and forth as if he were brushing off dirt. Symbolically, that was exactly what he was doing.

Mary did an about-face to keep an eye on her brother. He was in the middle of the gazebo now, frozen in place while he wondered how he should depart. Should he make a big production out of it, delivering some long and impassioned speech about how Terrence was going to kill her someday? No; he'd made those speeches countless times, and they never changed things. There was only one alternative to making a scene, and that was to not make one.

In fact, this idea sounded so good to Peter that he put it to immediate use. Without a word, he turned around and started walking. He got only five steps before she spoke.

"Peter, where are you going?"

Don't explain yourself, Peter thought, just keep going!

Mary kept calling, and he kept walking, and that was how it went for the next few moments: calling and walking, calling and walking. Then he heard leaves crunching and twigs snapping as she ran after him. She caught up to Peter just as he reached his car, using one hand to spin him around while the other removed her sunglasses, revealing eyes so swollen that Peter couldn't understand how Mary had been able to see well enough to drive today.

Peter subdued his revulsion at her appearance and brought his sarcasm to the fore, saying, "Wow, Mary, that was quite dramatic. Did you major in theater without telling me?"

Ignoring his comment, Mary said, "Where are you going? I wasn't done talking to you!"

Peter sighed. "Maybe not, but I was done listening."

Mary laughed. Judging by the ugly purple welts on her cheek, Peter imagined this gesture must have caused her quite a bit of pain, but she hid it well.

"Oh, right," she said. "This is when you say you can't listen to this stuff anymore, right?"

"You got it, but this time is the last time."

Mary clapped her hands together and let out a squeal of amusement. "Oh, that old chestnut. You always say that, big brother, but if I call you to talk, we'll meet again."

"First, it's not 'if' you call, but 'when,'" Peter corrected her, "and second, you are wrong. I'm done hearing about Terrence. From now on, Big Brother won't be watching you. I know you don't believe me right now, but you will when your texts, emails, and calls go unanswered."

Mary stepped back, nodding as if she accepted this as reality, although the smirk on her face said otherwise. Peter got into his car, and he drove off without looking back.

He knew Mary doubted his sincerity. She was probably itching to prove he didn't mean it. Maybe she planned on rushing home so Terrence could beat her. Then she'd call Peter, and they'd meet again, and so on into eternity and beyond.

Peter had the chance to prove her wrong a mere two days later, when Mary sent a text that read: "We need to talk. Where and when can you meet?"

Peter didn't reply.

She messaged him on Facebook. Emailed him at home and work. Sent him direct messages on Twitter. All she got from her big brother was silence.

Two weeks later, Terrence made sure that was all Peter would ever get.

One evening, Peter heard a knock on his door. When he opened it, he was stunned to see two police officers standing in the hall. They'd come to tell him his little sister was dead. She had been strangled by none other than Terrence Schimmel.

Mary wasn't the only person Peter lost. When Terrence got out on bail, Victor Malloy made the sibling's worst fear come true: the old man went over to the abuser's apartment and knocked. When the scumbag opened the door, Victor unloaded an entire ammo clip into Terrence's chest. After having a smoke and a beer, Victor dialed 911 and turned himself in.

**********

Preparing for the funeral and visiting Dad in jail left Peter drained, to the point where he asked none other than Jonathan Paulson to drive him to and from the service.

On the way home, Peter thought about his mother. He found himself wishing now more than ever that she was still alive. In the worst of times, that woman always knew how to keep a level head, and she had the ability to pass this calmness on to others. Hell, if she were still around, Mary would never have been with someone like Terrence in the first place.

Unfortunately, that wasn't how things were. Cancer had taken Mom five years ago. Now Mary was gone, and Dad was in jail. Suddenly Peter's world was a very empty, lonely place.

"What's on your mind?" Jonathan asked.

The atmosphere in the car had been quiet for so long that the sound of Jonathan's voice startled Peter. Jonathan noticed his friend jump, and guilt swooped in.

"I'm sorry, man," he said. "I didn't mean …"

"It's okay," Peter said. "I was just thinking how Mary tried to contact me several times during the last two weeks of her life, but I never answered. I was tired of hearing about Terrence." Peter paused, fearing his throat would close up on him. When the danger passed, he said, "I'd give anything to listen to her now."

Peter buried his face in his hands as the guilt overwhelmed him. The sound of his cries pierced right to the core of Jonathan's soul. To hell with feeling awkward, he thought. His friend needed comforting, and there was no one else who could provide it.

Putting a hand on Peter's shoulder, Jonathan said, "Hey, man, she didn't think that. She knew you just hated hearing about the abuse. Mary was smart enough to know the difference."

Peter looked at Jonathan as if it were for the first time. He saw nothing but kindness in his old classmate's eyes. This was a good, kind man. Why couldn't Mary have seen that?

That was when Peter remembered Jonathan's name had been mentioned during his last conversation with her, and her comments had been less than flattering. Now here he was within arm's reach. Should he tell Jonathan what Mary said?

Fuck it, Peter thought. It's not like she is here to get mad at me. I might as well.

"Your name came up the last time I talked to her," Peter said. "I asked her why she never went out with you. She said it was because thought you were a stalker."

Jonathan arched an eyebrow. "What made her think that?"

"When you left those poems for her on our front porch, she noticed there was no postage on the envelope, so she realized you must have dropped them off in person," Peter explained. "She didn't understand how you could have known where we lived unless you stalked her."

Jonathan's eyes widened in shock. "Really? She didn't know I lived just over on Desson? I mean, I rode my bike around all the damn time. She must have seen me!"

"I told her that," Peter said, "but she still wouldn't change her opinion."

"I can understand why. If she did, then she'd have to admit she'd been a fool for ten years," Jonathan said. "I wouldn't be cool with that either."

"That doesn't make it okay to call you a stalker," Peter said, "especially if it's not true."

Jonathan shrugged. "Maybe, but what can be done about it?"

"Not much, I guess," Peter said. "It still blows my mind that she could have missed the fact that you lived near us. I mean, it's like you were invisible to her."

"I know," Jonathan said. The corners of his mouth dropped as all signs of joviality slipped from his face. Then he added, "I got used to it after a while."

Peter had no idea what to say, so he decided to say nothing. Instead, he just stared at Jonathan, who in turn stared out the driver's side window. Then something occurred to Peter: he wondered if Mary had shared her opinion of Jonathan with any of her girlfriends. Had her faulty impression sabotaged any other potential romantic connections?

That thought made him sick.

Peter looked ahead and saw the traffic light was green. He turned back to his friend, who was still lost in thought. Seconds passed, and he still hadn't moved his foot to the gas pedal.

Peter tapped Jonathan on the shoulder and said, "Hey, man, the light's changed."

Jonathan snapped out of his trance. After looking up at the green circle of illumination, he nodded and moved his foot from the brake pedal to the gas.

Then the world started spinning. Peter's head snapped to the right so violently that he thought his neck would break. He heard shattering glass, crunching metal, and squealing tires. Searing heat exploded along the left side of his face as something tore into his skin; blood started to flow. Jonathan let out a shout, but it was muffled as the air bag deployed and covered his face.

As quickly as it had begun, the spinning stopped. However, not all was silent. Peter heard people yelling and sirens wailing. The two friends addressed each other, seeking assurance that they were both okay. Then, with great effort, they exited the car to see what had happened.

Peter saw another car that had suffered as much damage to its front as Jonathan's had to its side. There were three figures inside it, but he couldn't tell if they were men or women.

And why not?

Because they all wore ski masks.

If Peter had been in the right frame of mind, he would have wondered why they wore ski masks in the middle of August, but the accident had knocked the curiosity out of him. Instead, he headed toward the car to make sure the other crash victims were all right. Before he got far, Jonathan grabbed Peter's shoulder, yanking him back so hard that it felt like he dislocated it.

"Dammit, Jonathan! What's the big idea?"

"Look!" Jonathan said emphatically.

Peter did, and that was when he saw a figure emerge from the other car with a gun in its hand. Now it all made sense. Ski masks, the approaching sirens, the fact that they ran a light that was clearly red on their side. The other crash victims were criminals. Most likely bank robbers.

Peter crouched down and pressed himself against the car. He closed his eyes tight, hoping the police would arrive before the criminals got the idea of taking him and/or Jonathan hostage.

The sound of squealing tires filled the air again. Peter opened his eyes to see the area was now surrounded by police vehicles. Several officers had already emerged from their patrol cars, using their doors as cover, and aiming handguns and shotguns at the perpetrators. Peter and Jonathan instinctively dove to their stomachs in anticipation of a shootout.

As it turned out, there wasn't one. The crooks dropped their weapons and surrendered immediately. While they were being cuffed and carted off, an officer took notice of Peter and Jonathan. He got on his radio and called for an ambulance.

Less than twenty minutes later, Peter was in an emergency room getting glass plucked from his face and neck. He wound up having to wear a brace to help him recover from whiplash, while Jonathan discovered he'd sustained a concussion. However, those injuries were nothing compared to the surprise that would wallop him over the head a few weeks later.

**********

It was a cool afternoon, so Peter decided to take his lunch break at a park near his job. Just as he sat down on a bench, his cell phone began vibrating in his pocket. The caller ID said it was Jonathan Paulson. He hit "accept" and discovered the conversation had started without him.

"…fucking unreal," Jonathan shouted. "What the fuck is this world coming to?"

"Hey, Jonathan, calm down," Peter said. "What's going on?"

"I'm sorry, Peter. I just…"

Jonathan trailed off. Peter knew why; he recognized the sounds coming over the phone from countless calls with Mary: his friend's words were being choked off by tears.

"It's okay. Take your time," Peter said.

After taking a breath, Jonathan said, "I just got a letter from a court. I'm being sued."

Peter was confused. While it was true that he and Jonathan had talked more in the last few weeks than they had in the last few years, Peter didn't think he'd earned the status of the friend Jonathan called when there was trouble. There must have been a specific reason why he called me instead of anyone else , Peter thought.

To prove this, more information was needed.

"Who would have any reason to sue you?" Peter asked.

"You'll love this," he said. "It's those fucking robbers who crashed into us!"

Now it all made sense. Jonathan called Peter because he had been there for the inciting event. He was a witness, and Jonathan would need his story when this went to court.

Wait a minute.

Peter was wrong.

This didn't make sense.

In fact, it was flat out insane!

The bank robbers were suing Jonathan because they ran a red light to escape the long arm of the law with their illegally obtained loot? How was this possible?

"Jonathan, it's September," Peter said. "You're a little late for an April Fool's Day joke."

The pitch of Jonathan's voice shot so high that Peter thought only dogs should be able to hear it. "This is no joke! I wouldn't have called you unless I was staring at the letter right now!"

Peter had to admit there was no good reason for Jonathan to prank him in this manner. It's not like they were close friends who had a history of ribbing each other. Now he felt like a prick for even thinking it was a joke, let alone saying it out loud.

"I'm sorry for doubting you," Peter said. "Does the letter have a court date?"

"October 2nd. Can you be there for me?" Jonathan said.

"Of course," Peter said. "I'll request the day off when I get back to the office."

Jonathan sighed. "Thanks, man. I'll let you go."

"You're welcome," Peter said.

They both hung up. Peter found himself staring off into space, ignoring his lunch because he was distracted by one nagging inquiry: what kind of psychotic world did we live in where any educated, intelligent judge would entertain a ridiculous lawsuit like this?

**********

Peter waited outside the courthouse for Jonathan. His testimony had been delivered hours ago, but the case was still going, and he wanted to be there as soon as it ended so he could know how everything turned out. Witnesses, plaintiffs, defendants, and attorneys exited the building, sharing random details about their cases, but Peter was oblivious to them.

Eventually a hand clamped down on his shoulder, startling him. He turned around and, with great relief, saw it was Jonathan.

"Hey!" Peter said. "How did it go?"

"No idea. This is just lunch break," Jonathan said. "Want to grab a bite at Manory's?"

"Sure," Peter said.

The two men started to head toward the restaurant. They hadn't made it five steps before Peter thought he recognized someone. Now it was his turn to grab Jonathan by the shoulder.

"Isn't that Dave Hansen?" Peter asked.

"Where?" Jonathan said.

Peter pointed down the block to a ragged, down-on-his-luck fellow, a man who looked like he had definitely seen better days. The worn-down gentleman was less than twenty feet away, talking to another man (who, judging by his attire, must have been an attorney).

"Yeah, that's him," Jonathan said. "Jesus, he looks like his age tripled since high school."

"Yeah. I wonder what happened," Peter said. "You know what? Let's find out."

Peter and Jonathan resumed walking toward their old classmate. Before they got to him, Peter could hear a few exchanges between Dave and his attorney.

"…and believe me when I say, you really lucked out this time," the attorney said. "Just keep your nose clean going forward, or I won't be able to save you next time."

"Someone should tell Stacy that," Dave replied.

"I'm not kidding," the lawyer said. "I have no more 'get out of jail free' cards. When these things happen, you've got to either file an emergency custody petition or call the police."

"They're too slow," David said. "If I rely on them, one of my kids will be dead."

The lawyer threw up his hands in frustration and started walking away. Over his shoulder, he said, "I can't do anything else here other than wish you good luck."

Peter and Jonathan were still ten feet away from their old friend. When David stared to head in the opposite direction, they hustled after him to close the distance.

"David!" Peter yelled out. "Wait up!"

If there was any doubt about his identity, it was banished when the ragged man turned around to face them. He smiled when he recognized who it was. For a moment, the sorrow was gone from his eyes. Peter was proud to know he was part of the reason for its disappearance.

"I'll be damned," he said. "Peter Malloy and Jonathan Paulson. How have you been?"

"Pretty good," Peter said, shaking David's hand. "You?"

David looked at the courthouse and said, "I've had better days."

Peter exchanged a look with Jonathan. They both knew exactly what David meant.

"What brings you two here?" David asked.

"That's a long, ridiculous story," Jonathan said. "We were about to grab lunch at Manory's. Want to join us? We can explain it to you there."

David gladly accepted the invitation.

**********

At Manory's, Jonathan told his story first. This turned out to be a mistake because, after hearing David's incredibly massive tale of woe, he felt guilty for complaining.

David had been rather busy since high school … procreating, that is. Here was a guy who was still a virgin (and who, in fact, had never even gone on a date) when he graduated, but now he had three kids (ages nine, seven, and four). They were all from the same mother: a woman named Evelyn Bloom. She met Dave when he got a temp job during the summer after senior year. They hit it off immediately, and it wasn't long before they were an item.

However, Evelyn had one trait that she managed to keep secret from David for a long time: she was a drug addict. To this day, David still beat himself up for not picking up on this before they brought any children into the world, but that's the thing about addicts: some of them know how to function even when they're a mess.

David didn't know Evelyn had a problem until sometime after their youngest child was born, and he found some paraphernalia in the bathroom. He didn't want to just abandon ship on the mother of his kids, so he tried convincing her to get help. She claimed that she started going to Narcotics Anonymous, but another thing addicts can do good is lie.

After many years, David realized it was hopeless, so he left her. They went to family court. Feeling that he had a slam dunk on his hands (because what judge in their right mind would give primary physical custody to someone like her?), David went without an attorney, which proved to be a huge mistake; the judge was pro-mom, still hanging on to the outdated belief that the woman was the better parent simply because the kid grew inside her.

It wasn't long before Evelyn went off the deep end. When he saw the kids on the weekend, they'd tell him that Mom had a new boyfriend every other week. Sometimes she'd even leave them alone with one of these guys while she went out for hours (most likely to score).

David asked his oldest child (Anthony), "Why don't you call me when this happens?"

"Mommy takes her cell phone with her, and we don't have a home phone," he said.

"Well, you live in an apartment building. Do you have any nice neighbors?" David asked.

The boy nodded. "Mr. and Mrs. Wilson."

"Are they home a lot?"

"Yeah. They don't work anymore," Anthony said.

"Good," David said. "The next time Mom leaves you alone, take your brother and sister over to the Wilsons' place. Knock on their door, tell them what happened, and then have them call Dad. Do you think you can remember to do that for me, buddy?"

Anthony nodded enthusiastically, for two reasons: (1) the last thing he wanted to do was let his father down, and (2) he was relieved to know there was a way to escape his nightmare.

Sure enough, Anthony did call David less than a week later. David did things the "legitimate" way that time, calling both CPS and the police. Less than an hour later, a CPS worker and an officer brought the kids to David's apartment, where they stayed while an investigation was conducted. It lasted a few weeks, and it was the best time of David's life. However, there is the old cliché, "all good things must come to an end," which was proven true for David: somehow, CPS determined the case was unfounded, and the kids went home.

The case might have been closed with CPS, but it wasn't with Evelyn. She knew David had called in the report (there was no one else who would have), and she wasn't going to take it lying down. When David came over to get the kids, they were nowhere to be found. No one answered the door. He called Evelyn's phone, but of course she didn't pick up. As a last resort, David knocked on the Wilsons' door and asked if they saw Evelyn and the kids leave, but they hadn't. His next step was to contact the police. They wouldn't get involved because it was a "civil matter," but they did advise him to file a violation petition first thing Monday morning.

David did as the authorities told him. It took the court a couple days to send him a letter with an appearance date, which was two weeks away. Two more weekends came and went, and Evelyn repeated the disappearing act both times. These days felt like an eternity to David, but there wasn't much he could do other than wait for the court date. That was the only thing that kept him going: the relief that the court would bring. After all, he couldn't imagine a judge letting her slide when it came to this kind of behavior.

At court, Evelyn said she kept the kids from David because she'd lost so much time with them when CPS placed them in his care. The judge told her if she hadn't left the children alone with strange men, CPS wouldn't have been involved in the first place. David wanted to stand up and cheer, but he waited to hear what kind of punishment she was given.

It was amazing.

The Judge told her not to do it again.

And that was it.

Life went back to normal after that. In other words, it wasn't long before Anthony called again to say they'd been left in the care of another one of Mommy's strange male friends.

The identity of this man wasn't the only thing different this time. David decided his approach to the situation needed to change, so instead of calling CPS or the police, he went to the apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and collected his children. Then he brought them back to his place, where they watched movies, made popcorn, and cuddled on the couch for most of the night … until there was a pounding on the door. It was another police officer and another CPS worker; except this time, they weren't on David's side. The kids went back to Evelyn, and David was taken into custody for kidnapping and custodial interference.

"And that, my friends," David said, "is why I'm here today."

Peter leaned back in his seat. He had no idea what to say, but Jonathan took a stab at it.

"I'm sorry to hear you're going through all that," Jonathan said, "but I feel even sorrier that I sat here griping about my totaled car. I mean, it doesn't even compare to your situation."

David laughed. "It's not a competition."

"If it was, you'd win," Peter said.

With a dismissive wave of his hand, David said, "Hey, look, if I listened to your story and I didn't have any bullshit in my life, I'd think you were going through a lot. Why should my feelings be any different just because I'm having a hard time too?"

Peter was stunned. Not many people were mature enough to have David's attitude. In fact, most would have scoffed at Jonathan and said, "You think you've got problems? Wait 'til you hear my story!" David's mere existence provided relief to that self-centered attitude.

Peter knew Jonathan agreed when he looked over and saw tears welling up in his eyes.

"Thanks, Dave," Jonathan said. "You're a good man."

David chuckled. "It's not a big deal. We all have different thresholds for pain. If we work at it, we can hopefully raise it over time, so we don't get beaten down so easily."

"Shit!" Peter said. "Speaking of time, what time is it?"

Jonathan looked at his phone and nearly jumped in surprise. "Wow! It's 12:52. We've got eight minutes to inhale this food and get back."

"Let's just pay the check and get this boxed up. We can eat on the walk back," Peter said.

Jonathan patted Peter on the back. "Good idea."

Moments later, the three friends were hustling back to the courthouse. They finished eating just as they reached their destination. After disposing of their containers, Paul and Jonathan turned to say goodbye to their old classmate.

"Luckily, I'm done here for the day, fellas," David said. "Good luck in there, Jonathan."

Peter and Jonathan shook David's hand. For a moment they stayed outside, watching him leave. Then they got in line, waiting for their turn to go through the metal detector.

The line hadn't even moved when they heard a shout from behind them. They turned and saw it was David, standing less than five yards away from the courthouse door.

"What the fuck do you mean?!" he shouted.

David was on his cell phone, running the fingers of his free hand through his hair, and pacing frantically. He was silent while the caller relayed their message.

After a few moments, David said, "All right, I'll be there soon. Thanks for calling."

David put the phone away, remaining frozen in the same spot where his conversation ended and staring at the pavement. Then he took out his wallet. Upon opening it, David let out another exclamation that expressed his frustration.

Peter tapped Jonathan on the shoulder. "Should we find out what's up?"

Jonathan nodded, and they walked over to David. Before they reached him, their friend exploded into tears. Peter put a hand gently on his shoulder.

"Dave, what happened?"

"It's my four-year-old Tiffany," David said. "She just went to the emergency room."

Jonathan's mouth fell open in shock. Peter was equally stunned.

Worst of all, David wasn't even finished yet.

"She overdosed," he said.

Peter and Jonathan exchanged a look that was both puzzled and scared. There was a question that had to be voiced, but neither one was brave enough to voice it.

Summoning up all the courage he could find, Peter asked, "How did she do that?"

So choked up he could hardly speak, David said, "She got into her mother's stash!"

Jonathan's hand shot to his mouth, stifling his shout of surprise, while Peter's still hung wide open. Eventually the shock wore off, and he was able to speak.

"Do you have a way to the hospital?" he asked.

"No!" David said. "I have no money in my wallet, and I have no money in the bank, so I can't even use my debit card to get a cab or an Uber or Lyft or whatever the fuck they're called."

Jonathan tapped Peter's shoulder. "I can get myself home. Take him to the hospital."

"Are you sure?" David asked.

Jonathan stepped forward, pulling David into a strong embrace, and said, "I'm positive."

David hugged Jonathan back and said, "Thanks, man."

Peter shook Jonathan's hand. "You're a good man, Charlie Brown. Do me just one favor though. Call me later and tell me how things turn out."

"Will do," Jonathan said.

Peter and David sprinted the five blocks to Peter's car.

**********

Peter couldn't accompany David to his daughter's bed. (Given Tiffany's age and delicate condition, only immediate family was allowed.) In fact, they almost didn't even let David see her. To the hospital staff, saying you are the non-custodial parent was the same as saying you were nothing to the child. David had to call family court and beg them to fax over a copy of his custody order before they would allow him to see his own daughter.

"I'm sorry you can't go with me," David said. "I'll come back out and tell you what's going on. You shouldn't have to spend your whole day here for someone else's kid."

"Don't worry about it, man. Take all the time you need," Peter said. "If I get bored, I'll just walk around. Call me if you come out and I'm not here."

David patted him on the shoulder, then followed a nurse back to Tiffany's bed. Peter went about entertaining himself, which was an endeavor he managed to sustain for much longer than he thought possible by browsing through the months-old magazines in the waiting room, staring out the window, eavesdropping on the conversations of other people waiting, watching television, and standing indecisively in front of the vending machines. Upon deciding there was nothing beyond the glass that appealed to him, Peter went to the cafeteria. Their selections weren't much better, but he settled on a turkey sandwich, chips, and a Snapple.

Just as he got around to the chips, his phone vibrated with an incoming text. It was David.

where are you?

Peter texted back his location. David arrived less than a minute later. His expression was still tense, but not as much as when he answered his phone outside court. He sat down but said nothing, resting his chin in the palm of his left hand, drumming the tabletop with the fingers of his right. It didn't take Peter long to realize that it was up to him to initiate the conversation.

"How is she?" Peter asked.

David's head snapped toward Peter as if he'd forgotten about his classmate's presence.

"Stable. It'll be a couple hours until the drugs are out of her system, though."

"I'm sorry, man."

"Thanks. I'm trying to look on the bright side. When she first got here, she lapsed into a coma for thirty minutes," David said. "I'm glad I missed that, at least."

Peter took a swig of his drink while he contemplated this. Then it dawned on him: David hadn't said a word about Tiffany's mother. Why was that?

Curious, Peter asked, "Did you say anything to Evelyn?"

David scoffed at this inquiry, which confused Peter. His friend clarified this reaction by saying, "Well, that's the punchline to the whole thing, my man. She wasn't even there."

Peter choked on his drink. After he recovered from this, he said, "Come again?"

"You heard that right. She was nowhere to be found."

"Then how did Tiffany get here?"

"Oh, Evelyn came in with Tiffany," David said, "but I guess she cut out shortly after Tiffany lapsed into a coma. Either she couldn't handle it, or she didn't want to be here when CPS or the police showed up or she went out to score. Maybe it was a little bit of all three."

Peter shook his head. "A mother leaving her kid alone in a hospital, when the whole reason she's here is that mom's fucking drug habit. Jesus, what a world."

"I know," David said, "and yet the courts still say the mother is the better parent."

"That's so messed up."

"You're not kidding. But you know what is going to be even more messed up?"

Peter didn't know what it was, but there was something odd about the way David presented that question. It was the tone of his voice: dark and dangerous.

Hesitantly, he asked, "What's that?"

"The way Evelyn's face is going to look once I get a hold of her," David said.

And there it was: the darkness, now out in the light for all to see. Peter swallowed hard, not sure what to say next. He realized it wasn't just the threat itself that alarmed him; it was David's choice of words. He didn't say "if" he got a hold of Evelyn; he said "when." In other words, David was ready to track her to the ends of the Earth, for all eternity.

Peter didn't want to be around if David didrun into Evelyn. That meant he'd have to make up an excuse so he could leave ASAP. He looked into the bag of chips and discovered it was empty. There was one last gulp of Snapple left. Meanwhile, David sat across from him with nothing to eat or drink. Aha, Peter thought, I will offer to go get him something!

"Are you hungry?" Peter asked.

"Not really," David said.

"Thirsty?"

David shook his head.

Oh come on, Peter thought. Do me a solid and give me a reason to leave!

"I want to get back to Tiffany."

Thank God for small favors, Peter thought.

A second later, Peter took back that gratitude because he realized that sometimes small favors were followed by huge misfortunes.

That was exactly what happened as soon as David turned toward the cafeteria door.

That was when Evelyn walked in.

Peter had heard the cliché about time standing still during dramatic moments, but he never experienced it until now. It wasn't a full stop; this was more like slow-motion. He saw Evelyn's eyes widen millimeter by millimeter, watched red blotches of anger blossom on David's cheeks, heard the creak of his joints as he raised his right arm and pointed at her, saw Evelyn's left shoulder drop and spin as she turned to exit the cafeteria as quickly as she had entered, and heard two words trickle out of David's mouth:

"Yyyyyyyooooouuuuuuuu biiiiittttccccchhhh!"

Peter watched as David started running after Evelyn. For a couple steps, he was still in slow-motion. Then someone hit the "speed" button, and everything was moving at a normal pace. The next thing Peter knew, David was halfway across the room. Cursing, Peter took off after them. Five steps into his pursuit, he realized it was hopeless. Evelyn was driven by fear, and David was fueled by rage. There was no way Peter could overtake them. They were already out of sight, reduced to nothing more than two voice echoing off the walls.

"You bitch! You fucking goddamn BITCH!"

"Get away from me, you psycho!"

"No! I'll run until I die to get my hands on your junky neck!"

The hallway veered to the right. Peter made it around the bend in time to see David tackle Evelyn. She fell backward toward a reception window. Seconds later, the air was filled with the sound of shattering glass. When the two combatants fell to the floor, Peter saw blood on some of the shards of the broken window. David straddled Evelyn, his hands quickly finding her throat and squeezing. Peter froze as he watched his classmate choke the life out of this woman.

"Why weren't you with her?" David screamed. "Did you go out to score, you bitch?"

Peter didn't think he could take David out even if the man wasn't in an adrenaline-fueled fury. His eyes darted around the environment, seeing if there was a makeshift weapon to help overcome his friend. Then he heard a female voice cutting through all the noise.

"I need security down near x-ray. There's a guy strangling a woman!"

Oh good, Peter thought, security will be here to take care of it. This didn't help Peter feel better about himself as a person, but at least the pressure was off now.

Moments later, five security guards appeared. They beat on David, pushed him, pulled him, used a Taser, yet his hands still wouldn't let go of Eveyln's throat. One of the guards wrapped an arm around David's neck and squeezed. Eventually, this did the trick: his hands opened, and they pulled him away from the mother of his child. She rolled away coughing and gasping while the guards put David face-down on the ground and handcuffed him.

In a reversal of the cafeteria scene, the next fifteen minutes went by on fast-forward. Peter watched two orderlies take Evelyn to the emergency room. Meanwhile, David had regained consciousness. The guards got him up to a sitting position, and that was where he stayed, not uttering a word, not even when the police showed up to haul him away. Before David was out of sight, he made eye contact with Peter. The look was vacant, like his soul was dead, but his body was still animated; it was a sight that would haunt Peter for the rest of his life.

Two officers stayed behind to interview the witnesses, starting with the receptionist behind the broken window. As they made their way toward Peter, he felt anger building in the pit of his stomach. He knew it wouldn't explode out of him in the form of physical violence, but it might cause him more grief than it was worth if it came out as sarcasm, which was a possibility.

The logical part of his brain said, "Don't be a wiseass to a cop." However, his emotional side wanted to lash out at them, to let these badge-wearing bullies know they failed David and his children. The threat of being stuck in a small, cold, gray room with several guys who could turn Peter into their girlfriend whenever they felt like it wasn't enough to dissuade him from running his mouth. Those bastards must be held accountable!

Peter stared at the floor. He focused on the pattern of the tiles as a form of pseudo-meditation, trying to gain enough control so he could prevent any foolishness from leaving his mouth. This activity worked a little too well because he got so absorbed in this activity that he didn't even realize an officer stood before him until the blue fellow tapped his shoulder.

Peter looked up and saw there were actually two officers standing before him. His eyes flickered to their nametags and learned they were Officer James and Officer Simpson.

"Sir, did you witness the assault?" Officer James asked.

"Yes," Peter said.

Peter's eyes went back to the tile, but it didn't help him focus anymore because the officers blocked the pattern with their bright, shiny, privileged shoes. For some reason, the sight of their footwear pushed Peter even closer to the edge. As if that weren't bad enough, Officer Simpson added fuel to the fire when, in his best "officer" voice, he said, "Excuse me, sir, but would you please stand up while we talk to you?"

Peter lifted his eyes toward the state-sanctioned alpha male. His face was now contorted into a scowl, although it had no effect on his adversary. Slowly, Peter rose to his feet.

"Thank you," Officer Simpson said. "Now, did you know either party involved in the altercation? Even if just in passing?"

"The man's name is David. We were classmates. I gave him a ride here because his daughter is in the ER. The woman is Evelyn. She's his ex, and his daughter's mother."

Officer James scribbled down everything Peter said. He seemed like the "good cop" half of this duo. If he would take over the conversation, Peter knew he could escape this questioning without getting in any trouble. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. Officer Simpson was the one who continued talking, and Peter knew right away that the next question was the beginning of the end.

"Can you please describe what you saw?"

Peter said, "What I saw was the logical conclusion people reach when they're told to follow the system, only for that system to repeatedly fail them."

Officer James stopped writing. He exchanged a glance of suspicion with his partner. Then they looked back at Peter. It was easy to see this wasn't going to end well.

"What do you mean by that?" Officer Simpson asked.

"He called both you boys in blue and CPS about the fact that Evelyn was an addict," Peter said. "He had them for a few weeks. Then the judge gave them back to her."

Crossing his arms, Officer James said, "Really? And can you tell me exactly how the police can be held accountable for a judge's crappy call?"

"You're both supposed to protect people, right? Well, handing them back to a junky is not protecting them," Peter said. "If David had been given custody of his kids, he wouldn't have been at the hospital tonight, and he definitely wouldn't have choked that woman."

"Oh, please," Officer Simpson scoffed. "Your friend had other options."

Peter laughed. "Like what?"

"He could have called CPS again."

Peter was amazed at his self-control. If this had been another civilian, he would have slugged the smug bastard right in the face.

"Are you're joking?" Peter asked. "You heard me say he already tried that, right?"

"I heard you," Officer Simpson said, "and I stand by my statement. He could have called again, and again, and again. You keep calling until you get them through legal channels."

"Yeah, and while you wait for the wheels of justice to turn, your kids wind up dead," Peter countered. "His little girl is in the emergency room because she got into Mommy's stash, but she could have just as easily been beaten to death by one of the countless men Evelyn brings home. God only knows what kind of fucking psychos she exposes them to."

That was when Peter committed the worst mistake he could have made: saying the "F" word to a police officer. Years ago, Whoopi Goldberg described this as something you never wanted to do. She said, "Never say 'fuck' to a cop unless he's off-duty, and you're offering."

Well, she was right.

As antagonistic as Peter had been up to that point, Officer Simpson had remained cool and calm. However, his façade of civility dropped once that "F" bomb hit his ears.

"All right, now you're pissing me off," he said through gritted teeth. "We're trying to help your friend out, and you're not doing him any favors by acting like an asshole."

"You could have helped by not letting those kids go back to that bitch!" Peter shouted.

Officer Simpson took a step toward Peter. The young man was amazed that he didn't flinch, but then again, why should he? He wasn't saying anything that wasn't true.

"Get out of here," the officer growled.

"I thought you needed my statement, Officers," Peter said.

"Unless you want to wind up going to the same fucking place as your friend," Officer Simpson said, "I suggest you leave now, before it's too late."

Peter stepped backward, inching out of Officer Simpson's reach. Once he figured he was far enough away, Peter released one last tirade.

"You're threatening to throw me in jail now? For what? For talking? This isn't Germany in the 1930's. Have you ever heard of freedom of speech, you fucking Nazi?"

That was the breaking point for Officer Simpson. Without any telegraphing of his intention, he started running toward Peter, who immediately turned and fled. For the first few yards, Peter thought back to his previous running experience of the day, when he was unable to increase his speed enough to catch David. He worried that history would repeat itself, and Officer Simpson would make good on his promise to send him to the same place as David. Then Peter remembered why he hadn't been able to reach David and Evelyn in time: he had been driven by rage, and she had been driven by fear. Well, right now, Peter was filled with both of those, so he should be able to escape capture.

Of course, that fate would be inevitable if Peter kept running down this hall. Eventually he came upon two doors. The one on his left led to oncology; the other led to a stairwell.

The oncology doors were automatic, so Peter moved close enough to trigger them. Then he darted across the hall and entered the stairwell. He made sure it was closed (otherwise Officer Simpson wouldn't be fooled by the ruse) and then took off down the stairs, going down and down and down until he could not go anywhere other than out of the stairwell.

He found himself in a hallway that had almost no lighting. There were no signs indicating what department this was or where he might find an exit. With nothing else to guide him, Peter chose to rely on his instinct, which told him to go left.

As it turned out, he reached several more spots where he had the option to go left, right, or straight. When he got to these intersections, Peter paused to let his internal compass guide him. Soon he abandoned the practice of pausing because, whenever he did, his instincts kept telling him to keep going straight. After all, it seemed like a logical idea that if he kept going in one direction, he'd hit a wall or an exit sooner or later.

No matter how far he wandered, the tunnel remained poorly lit. What section of the hospital could this be? Was it one they no longer used? If so, then it seemed strange that they wouldn't have blocked it off somehow. This whole area was a lawsuit in the making.

Peter looked at his phone to gauge how long it had been since he saw any signs of life, but that was pointless because he didn't know what time he got down here. Everything had been a blur since he started running from Officer Simpson.

No, the blur went further back than that.

It started when he watched David choking the life out of Evelyn.

No, further back still.

It was when David told him that the court, CPS, and police kept returning the kids to her.

No, that wasn't right either.

It was when his friend Jonathan got a letter in the mail stating that a gang of bank robbers were suing him for the damage done to their car.

Dammit, no! That wasn't it! When had it started? What was the date when Peter lost track of time? Could it be the day that he found out his sister was murdered?

No, but that was close.

When he focused all his attention on it, Peter knew exactly when time lost all meaning to him: the moment that claimed that prize was the first time Mary told him Terrence had hit her, but she was not going to leave him. When that happened, it was like Peter fell into an infinite nightmare. He never noticed how backwards and insane the world had become until that conversation. And once you see reality in that way, then you can never unsee it.

Before Peter could be sucked too far down by the quicksand of his depressing thoughts, he heard a sound that snapped him out of his trance: two voices, which were coming his way. Due to the bizarre acoustics of this hidden hallway, he couldn't pinpoint the location of the voices' owners. The only thing Peter knew was they were getting louder.

Moments ago, he had been lamenting the absence of other people. Now the thought of their approach sent Peter into a panic. There was no logical explanation to fear running into anyone, but he had a hunch it wouldn't be good if they found him down here. Given how secret this area was, it was a good bet that the hospital didn't want just anyone gaining access to it.

The voices drew closer. Peter looked to his left, then his right. There were doors on either side, but…which way to go? It was irrelevant. All that mattered was avoiding discovery.

Peter tried the door on his left first. It was locked, so he darted across the passage to the other one. This door opened, although the room beyond it was pitch-black. This fact wasn't exactly thrilling to Peter, but he had two choices: charge into that total darkness, or stay in the hall and get discovered. Either way, he was facing the unknown.

Peter stepped through the door and shut it. Panic took hold when the dark surrounded him like a cocoon. He closed his eyes, trying to picture scenes of serenity, but that didn't help because, when his eyelids dropped, all he saw was more darkness!

The voices drew closer. Peter guessed the owners must have turned down the same hall in which he had been standing. For a moment he felt good about avoiding detection, until a new question surfaced in his mind: w hat if this room was their destination?

Peter's lower lip quivered uncontrollably. The voices couldn't drown out the pounding of his heart. He waited for the door to open, for a probing hand to reach inside for a light, for the switch to be thrown, simultaneously blinding Peter while exposing his presence.

But none of these things happened. Just as they had gotten louder, the voice now grew softer, until Peter couldn't hear them anymore.

With the threat of exposure gone, Peter was free to relax, and to explore his surroundings. His vision had adjusted enough for him to see a light switch on the wall beside the door. After closing his eyes and covering them for protection, Peter flipped it. When he initially opened his eyes, he kept his hand in place to shield them until the light was no longer overwhelming. Then he slowly removed this cover and examined the room.

It wasn't very wide or long (in fact, Peter believed prison cells were bigger), and there was no furniture. Along the walls, he saw equipment that had been obsolete for decades: bulky computer monitors, typewriters, a dot-matrix printer, and the like. Then Peter spotted a door on the other side of the room, located diagonally across from where he stood. At the bottom, there was a narrow space where the door didn't meet the linoleum.

He saw light.

That meant someone was in there, or at least there was a good chance of it.

Peter wanted to know who was beyond that door, what department this was, and why it was so hidden. His entire reason for ducking into the room had been to avoid detection, but now his curiosity was stronger than his fear of being caught.

He walked across the room, put his ear to the door, and listened. Muffled voices drifted through the barrier. It sounded like several people having several conversations at once.

There was only one way to know who was in that room and find out where the hell he was. After drawing a deep breath, Peter grabbed the doorknob and turned it, shocked when it actually moved. (He'd expected just about every door in a secretive place like this to be locked.)

Peter pushed the door open slowly, fearing it would creak and draw the attention of whoever was on the other side. (He was relieved when it didn't.) The sound of the multiple conversations immediately got louder. Even with the door open, Peter couldn't decipher what any of them were saying; their voices blended together to form a wall of sound that bore a more-than-passing resemblance to the average My Bloody Valentine song.

The number of voices led Peter to believe the room was crowded, yet from this angle he saw no one. He opened the door further, just wide enough for him to stick his face in the room.

What he saw made it clear why there were so many voices but so few people: the wall across from the door was lined with video monitors. At first, Peter thought this was one of the hospital's security guard stations, and these screens displayed the feed from the cameras placed throughout the building. However, he noticed two details that proved this theory incorrect.

First, some of the screens displayed images that were not from the hospital grounds. He saw children riding a merry-go-round, students milling about a college campus, an addict and his dealer exchanging money and goods in an alley, and more.

Second, Peter saw three people sitting with their backs turned to him. They wore white coats, like those worn by doctors, and they held clipboards. Each person was aimed at a different group of monitors. Every now and then, they'd scribble down notes on their clipboards.

Last Peter knew, security guards didn't dress that way, nor did they take notes on what they saw on the security monitors, so what the hell was this place?

Peter continued to observe Doctor Left, Doctor Middle, and Doctor Right (nicknames he gave them because he couldn't see their name-tags). Doctor Right tapped Doctor Middle on the shoulder and then pointed to one of the screens.

"Hey, fast-forward this feed to today," Doctor Right said. "I heard something interesting happened, but I didn't get the chance to watch it yet."

Peter looked at the screen while the image sped up. If he was confused when he first came across this room, this disorientation was only compounded when the playback returned to normal speed, and he saw footage of David getting dressed in his bedroom. Yellow letters in the upper left-hand corner of the screen declared this was filmed yesterday.

Why were the doctors watching footage of people who weren't patients in this hospital, and why would they watch footage of people in their homes ? And how did they get it?

Peter's eyes flicked back to Doctor Left. The man had what looked like a DVD player remote in his hand. He pressed a button, and the scene with David began to fast-forward.

"This is it!" Doctor Right excitedly.

Peter looked at the screen. The footage was playing at regular speed again, and it displayed a scene that he knew all too well because he'd been present when it happened.

It was footage of David choking Evelyn.

Peter's mind was reeling. He lost all sense of who he was, where he was, how he got here. In the back of his mind, he knew he should take some sort of action, but what could it be? Barge into the room and ask what they were doing? Film them with his phone and take the footage to the nearest media outlet? Quietly leave and never say a word about this to anyone?

Having never been in a situation that was even within the vicinity of this, Peter could not rely on prior experience to guide him. He was frozen in place by indecision, risking discovery whether he wanted to make his presence known or not.

Then the choice was yanked out of his hands.

From beyond the door, someone exclaimed, "Hey, why is this door open?"

The doctors spun around, looking startled and worried. Peter realized they weren't the ones who had spoken, but then who had?

Not long after he started wondering, Peter found out who the inquirer was when the door flew open, revealing a large man behind it. His outfit indicated he was a security guard, and he fit the part: wide-framed, barrel-chested, square-jawed, and towering over Peter.

His mind told him to flee, but Peter's body would have nothing to do with it. Instead of fear helping him escape, it immobilized him. All he could do was watch as the giant's hand clamped down on his shoulder. (In a way, this was cool to see because Peter felt like he was watching a movie instead of observing something that was really happening to him.)

The guard pulled Peter into the room and slammed the door. Doctor Right and Doctor Middle faced their guest, while Doctor Left ran toward a red phone hanging on the wall. He picked up the receiver and started babbling things that sounded like nonsense to Peter.

"Emergency in station B4. One of the patients got down here. Charlie Smith is with us, but we don't know how violent this one is. Send backup just in case."

Peter figured Charlie Smith was the security guard.

But who the hell was the patient?

Then it hit him.

"Wait, are you talking about me?" Peter exclaimed. "I'm not a patient! I just brought a friend here to see his daughter in the emergency room."

"Sure, pal," Doctor Left said as he hung up the phone. "That's what they all say."

"I'm serious! Look for the footage on one of your nifty security monitors there. You'll see that I showed up with my friend David about two hours ago," Peter said.

Doctor Left ignored him and set about searching through a medicine cabinet next to the red phone. Doctor Right crossed his arm (Jack Benny style) while studying Peter. Doctor Middle stepped forward, giving Peter an empathetic, "you poor thing" look.

Then, in a gentle tone (the kind someone would use to avoid aggravating an unstable and/or agitated person), Doctor Middle said, "What kind of medication are you on, son?"

Peter had no idea how to answer, so he named the only medications he'd ever taken.

"Zyrtec for allergies, Ibuprofen for headaches …"

Charlie smacked Peter on the back of the head and growled, "Don't be a wiseass."

"I'm not! Those are the only kinds of meds that I take!" Peter shouted.

"Scan his barcode, Charlie," Doctor Middle said.

"Yes, sir." To Peter, he said, "Put your head down."

Countless thoughts ran through Peter's mind, the first one being, "Bar code? What bar code?" He wanted to ask what they were talking about, but the look on Charlie's face told him it would be better if he compiled for now; questions could (and would) be asked later.

As Peter bowed his head, Charlie took something out of his breast pocket that looked like the devices that UPS drivers use to scan packages. He pointed this at the back of Peter's neck while his other hand lifted the intruder's hair. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the fingers pushed aside a different section of hair. Another pause. Peter had no idea what was happening, but apparently the giant didn't find what he expected to.

"Sir, there's no code here," Charlie said.

Doctor Middle stormed over to look at Peter's neck. He reached the same conclusion as the security guard. Angered, he walked toward Doctor Left, choosing to distract himself from his frustration by helping his colleague find whatever he was searching for.

Peter dared to raise his head for a moment, and he caught a glimpse of Doctor Right's face. It was one of sadness. It probably didn't mean anything, but this look gave Peter hope. Maybe Doctor Right could be an ally in helping Peter find out what was happening here.

In his peripheral vision, Peter saw Doctor Left's search was done. And what had his search uncovered? A needle and a vial of some fluid that probably spelled bad news for Peter.

He needed to talk himself out of this now.

"Look, sirs, I don't know what's going on here. I think it's a case of mistaken identity," Peter said. "I'm not a patient, I'm not on any meds, and I'm not crazy."

Doctor Left laughed so hard at this that he almost dropped the needle. "Yeah, and no one in prison is guilty. Do you have any idea how many times patients say what you just said?"

"Hold on, Sam," Doctor Right said. "You can't just assume he is lying. If innocent people can wind up in jail, it stands to reason that someone who isn't ill could wind up here."

Peter was thrilled when he heard this. He had been correct; Doctor Right was an ally.

"Yeah! Listen to your colleague, Sam," Peter said.

Charlie delivered another slap to the back of Peter's head. "Shut up!"

Three security guards burst into the room. Each one was the same size as Charlie. One of them (with a name-tag that read Stan) stood to Peter's left.

Pointing at Peter, Stan asked, "This is him, huh?"

Doctor Left (oh wait, Peter knew his name was Sam now) nodded. The guards positioned themselves to the left and right of Peter. Sam approached, flicking the end of the needle to get rid of any air bubbles. Then, before injecting him, the doctor looked back at his colleague.

"Everyone who is here belongs here. The only way a mistake like that could happen is if someone was born here, but you know steps were taken to avoid that."

What did he mean by that? Where was "here?" They were on Earth, the only planet that was known to support life. It seemed like Sam wasn't talking about the hospital, but what else could he mean? And what was this nonsense about steps being taken to avoid people being born here? There were new births every damn day, announced in every newspaper!

"Mistakes can happen, Sam," Doctor Right (AKA John) said. "This place was such a mess when it was first set up. It's possible that some patients were never sterilized."

Sterilized? What the fuck were they talking about?

Spinning back to John, Sam shouted, "We've had countless patients claim they don't belong here, and you brushed them off as quickly as the rest of us. Why are you so adamant about believing this one? What's special about him?"

Not expecting a response, Sam turned back to Peter with the needle. Little did he know, John didhave a response, and it rendered the needle-wielding doctor speechless.

"Because he has no bar code."

This remark didn't stop just Sam: it brought the entire room to a standstill. Not even the molecules in the air moved. When Sam spoke again, it was with great difficulty, as if he had to physically wrench the words out of his mouth.

"I'll admit that is peculiar," Sam said, "but we can address that later."

Sam turned back to Peter. He rolled up his "patient's" right sleeve. Then, in one blur of motion, the doctor jammed the needle into Peter's arm and depressed the plunger, dispensing all the mystery fluid at once. A feeling of elation enveloped the young man, and he didn't have a care in the world, not even when his vision started to fade.

As he passed out, Peter thought, I never learned Doctor Middle's name.

He let out one loud, hearty laugh before collapsing into unconsciousness.

**********

When Peter woke up, he was strapped to a table in a windowless room. Although he knew it was pointless, Peter tugged against his restraints. Nope, there was no give. It was human nature to be hopeful, even after a lifetime of having countless dreams dashed against the rocks.

A moment later, Peter heard the door open. He wondered if he should pretend he was still unconscious. Before he could, someone came around the table into his line of sight. To his relief, it was John. AKA Doctor Right. AKA his only ally.

John wheeled a footstool over to Peter and sat down. He looked at the ground for a moment as if he were contemplating what to say. After a few seconds, he started talking.

"I'm Doctor John Simmons, Peter" he said in his relaxing voice. "I suppose there is only one question on your mind, and that is, 'What the hell is going on around here?'"

Peter didn't think he had it in him to find any amusement in this situation, which was why he was surprised to hear a hearty laugh pop out of his mouth.

"That's putting it mildly," Peter said. "Why did your partner keep calling me a patient? You have surveillance footage of my friend Dave, so you must have some of me, so you know damn well I was only visiting the hospital today."

"His full name is Sam Weinberg, and he wasn't talking about the hospital," John said. "The fact that you are on this planet means you are a patient of ours."

Peter heard about people being hit with news that was so stunning it left them speechless and tongue-tied, but he had never experience it. Until now.

"I … you … but …" Peter paused, took a deep breath, then tried again. His words weren't graceful, but they were adequate to express his confusion. "What the fuck does that even mean?"

John sighed. Then, after a few seconds, he asked, "Do you like sci-fi, Peter?"

At first, Peter didn't understand the question. Then it dawned on him: oh yeah, "sci fi" is short for "science fiction." That explained what the inquiry meant, but not why the doctor asked it. Peter guessed his reason would be revealed soon enough once he gave a response.

"Sci fi? Yeah, I like some of it."

"Have you ever watched the Alien movies?" John asked.

Now Peter was getting pissed. He answered the first nonsense question. As a reward, he got another? This was too much, so Peter decided to make the doctor sorry for asking.

"Oh, boy, I sure did!" Peter said. "But if you ask me, the only one worth watching was the first one. That's the one where Sigourney stripped down to her undies. You could see her nipples through her shirt, and you even got to see her ass crack! Man, I can't tell you how many tissues I went through because of that scene. I should have fucking bought stock in Kleenex!"

The doctor sat there, waiting until Peter's tirade was finished. Then, as if nothing unusual had happened, he asked his next question: "Do you remember the third one?"

For a moment, Peter was unable to speak. John's coolness took him off-guard. How was it possible that his 'Sigourney Weaver' rant hadn't pissed him off? Peter quickly decided the answer to that mystery was irrelevant. The truth was more important.

"The third one?" Peter said. "Isn't that the one where everyone was bald?"

"Yes. Ripley crashes on a desolate planet that has been converted into one giant prison."

"Okay. Yes, I'm remembering it now," Peter said. "What about it?"

John took another deep breath, preparing himself for the final plunge.

Then he jumped into the deep end.

"You've spent your entire life thinking you were living on planet Earth, but that's not where you are. This place was chosen for its similarities, but it's not Earth."

"If it's not Earth, then what is it?" Peter asked.

"Well, it's kind of like that planet in Alien3," John said, "except this is a mental hospital."

Peter laughed so long and hard that his stomach felt like he'd done 1,000 crunches. No matter how hard he tried to contain it, the laughter kept coming. Jesus, Peter thought, I sound like a madman! Maybe I do belong in a mental hospital!

When he could catch his breath again, Peter said, "You are a trip, Doctor Simmons. You wouldn't believe I'm not a patient, but you expect me to believe that tall tale?"

"Sam was the one who didn't believe you, not me, " John corrected him, "and is it really so hard to believe? How else do you explain being called a patient when you were only visiting the hospital? How do you explain being sedated and waking up strapped to a table?"

"A very unfortunate case of mistaken identity," Peter said. "By that, I mean unfortunate for this hospital because when I get out of here, I'm going to sue the shit out of this place."

John chuckled. "Okay. Then how do you explain the footage we were watching? Everyday citizens, living their everyday lives. What business would we have doing that?"

"Maybe you're a bunch of Peeping Toms."

"And we got the hospital to buy our Peeping Tom gear for us, huh?" John countered.

"Maybe the hospital is one giant pervert network!"

"Now you're getting unrealistic, Peter."

"Fuck you, Johnny boy! I've had enough of this shit!"

Peter renewed his struggle against the restraints, but it was just as useless as before. While he tugged and twisted and squirmed, John spoke again.

"Peter, how else do you explain your sister repeatedly going back to an abusive boyfriend when she had a strong support system and numerous ways out?"

Every muscle in Peter's body froze. He didn't see how John could have known anything about that. Then the truth dawned on him: he was still passed out, and this was a dream. Another possibility came to mind: when Peter was unconscious, John did some digging into his background. In this day and age, that information wouldn't be too hard to find.

"How do you explain a world where your friend can get hit by a bunch of bank robbers, and they're able to sue him and have it go to trial?" John said. "They sued him for their hospital bills, damage to their car … oh, and the real icing on the cake? For psychological damages!"

Okay, it would have been easy enough to locate information about Mary, but this? Peter couldn't think of any reasonable explanation how John could know all that.

"They won, by the way," John said.

Peter was confused. "Who did?"

"The bank robbers."

"Oh, that is bullshit!" Peter shouted. "How could you possibly know that?"

"I saw it happen in the courtroom," John said. "I can prove it."

John wheeled himself right up to the table. He reached into Peter's hip pocket and took out his cell phone. "I need your password and Jonathan's phone number."

Peter gave up both pieces of information. (On any other day, he wouldn't have told a complete stranger his password, but this time he overlooked that hang-up.) Once the phone was unlocked, he dialed Jonathan's number and put the phone on speaker.

Jonathan answered after two rings. "Hello?"

Peter could tell from the tone of voice that his friend wasn't happy.

"Hey, man, it's Peter. How did court go?"

"How do you think it went? They won!" Jonathan screamed. "I'm going to be working three jobs for the rest of my life to pay my debt to those scumbags!"

Peter was speechless. During his silence, he heard Jonathan sobbing. What could Peter say to comfort him? Nothing significant came to mind, so he threw out a canned answer.

"I'm sorry, buddy. If you need anything, just give me a call. Any time of day or night."

Jonathan mumbled a single "yeah." After that came the dial tone, without even a "goodbye" or "talk to you later." John put the phone back in Peter's pocket. Then the doctor folded his arms and waited for his patient to talk.

He would be waiting for a while because Peter's brain was spinning out of control. As unrealistic as it seemed, he had to accept the fact that John was telling the truth. This revelation raised more questions than it answered, but there was only one that Peter managed to voice.

"How the hell did I wind up here?"

"I don't know," John said, "but your lack of a bar code is a clue, and a huge one at that. You see, when patients are brought here, they are imprinted with bar codes. The reason for that is quite simple: tracking. In a large environment like this, it's impossible to remember who is on what medications, who has what illness, and so on. The bar code system solved that issue. We scan the code with a device that we call a 'wand,' and it accesses everything about the patient."

"So why don't I have one?" Peter said.

"I have a theory. Do you remember when Sam said precautions were taken so no one was born here?" Peter nodded, and John went on. "When patients arrive here, they are sterilized. You can understand why. If we had a planet full of mentally ill people procreating, soon there would be far too many of them for us to manage. The lunatics would be running the asylum."

"What about all the births announced in the newspaper every day?" Peter asked.

John laughed. "Have you ever seen a newborn in a hospital, in the flesh? I can tell by the look on your face that you just realized the answer is 'no.' Those announcements are fabricated, son. They help support the illusion that there's nothing unusual about this planet."

"What about David's kids?" Peter said.

"Those aren't really his children," John said. "You see, in some instances, mental illness can be detected at a young age. Those children are patients too, but it'd look weird if they were living somewhere on their own, so we made David and Evelyn believe they are theirs."

"How the hell did you do that?" Peter shouted.

"I can't discuss those procedures with you," John said.

Peter was horrified by this disclosure. This meant David had gone through hell with that addict for reasons beyond his control. Some higher-up, invisible person (or people) had been pulling the strings from behind the scenes, manipulating his life so that he wound up with a junky as a partner. Now he was going to jail for it. What reason could they possibly have had for doing that? Were these sick fuckers treating David's life like an experiment? Stick him with a drug addict for a partner. Make them believe they have kids together. Then let's step back and record what happens throughout the years.

John stood up and approached the table. He gave Peter's shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

"Don't you worry. I'm going to find the truth, Peter," the doctor said. "I won't rest until I prove you don't belong here."

John headed for the door. A lump of panic rose in Peter's throat.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"I can't be found in here with you," John said. "They'd start to think I was also mentally ill, and then they'd do to me what they're going to do to you."

"What do you mean by that?!"

"They're going to erase your memory," John said. "Not all of it. Just the last four hours. After all, they can't have you going out and telling everyone the truth."

"Even if I did, no one would believe me," Peter said. Then, with a laugh, he added, "And do you know why they wouldn't believe me, Doc?"

John looked back at Peter from the doorway. Then, after a long, thoughtful pause, he said, "Because they'd think you were crazy."

Another loud laugh exploded out of Peter. "You got it!" he said.

He laughed again. And again. And again.

And he was still laughing long after the doctor had shut the door and left.

THE END


Copyright 2024, Steven Grogan

Bio: Steve Grogan is from the often-filmed city of Troy, NY. He's been writing for over 30 years. His work has been published in several magazines and ezines. His biggest influences are Phillip K. Dick, William S. Burroughs, and Thomas Pynchon.

E-mail: Steven Grogan

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