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It was hard to tell through the medication, but I think it might've been the next day, or maybe the day after, that I found myself at Shady Oaks Psychiatric Hospital.

I missed what the building looked like from the outside because I'd had an "episode" on the way over and they pumped me full of sedatives again. The episode consisted of me "mistakenly" seeing Anton-- an Iotech goon I might’ve killed-- watching the van when they were loading me in, and then acting completely appropriately by calling them all liars when they denied his existence. I might have taken a swing at some of them, but it was just so I could get away, not because I wanted to hurt anyone. They took it personally, though, so I wasn't really awake and didn't get a chance to appreciate Shady Oaks until mid-afternoon.

I haven’t been to many mental institutions. Hospitals, yes. And an underground corporate mad scientist facility or two, but never a legit mental institution. It was nicer than I expected.

I woke up in my room.

My room was small and vaguely cell-like, but it was clean, smelled fresh, the bed was slightly more comfortable than most of the motel beds I’d been in, albeit smaller and shaped like a rectangular box. The walls were light blue and free of padding, and the only other pieces of furniture in the room were a small bedside table with a clock on it, and a cork board hanging up. There weren’t any pins or tacks in it; it looked like the only way to get papers on it was the clip them.

My burned hand throbbed with pain. I guessed that the pain medicine was out of my system by then, and now I would start feeling it more keenly. My head ached as well, but not as badly. The problem there was more itching on my scalp, where the stitches were, and I supposed that was a good sign, because it meant the skin was healing.

I probably should’ve gotten up and investigated. Maybe tried to break out. Instead, I stayed on the bed and stared at the ceiling. For the first time, I tried to calmly figure out just what the hell had happened to me.

The doctors at the hospital said I wasn't me. I wasn't Alan. That was ridiculous for obvious reasons. However, they were right in that I didn’t look like me. My powers weren’t working, my eyes weren’t-- well. Whatever they were that drove people nuts.

So then, the next question was how did I get here? Did I shapeshift into this body overnight? Did Brandon and I switch minds? Was he in my body right now with Dog and Bugsy? Or was this body an empty vessel? This Brandon guy seemed to have a life-- or a solid medical history, at least. It was possible Iotech devised it somehow, just fabricated a life story from nothing, but that seemed like too much effort. If they had me, they'd take me back to the lab, wouldn't they? Unless they had, and my body was at the lab that very second, empty and being experimented on while my mind was stuck in Brandon.

Distantly I noticed my heart was pounding, and my breathing was shallow and fast. My arms felt clammy and the room was far too small. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself.

First thing I had to do was escape. After I got out of this place, I could work on finding my body, or changing myself back, or whatever needed to be done.

There was a knock at the door.

"Hey," said someone. "You awake in there, Brandon?"

I looked up. Standing in the doorway was a strange man.

"Sorry," I said automatically. Then, "I'm not--"

"Hiya Brandon," he said, plowing over my words. "I'm Darren." He had a broad face and broad shoulders and a broad smile. His black hair was very, very short, like he had shaved it not too long ago and now it was starting to grow back.

"Hi?" I said.

"I'm one of the folks who works here. I'm here to help. Come with me and we'll get you all situated before you see the doc."

"Uh?" I said.

I was ushered out of the room and led down the hall before I could even process what had happened.

The first stop was a shower. An open, communal one like at a gym.

“Uh,” I said.

“Here,” said Darren cheerfully. He passed me a plastic bag.

I didn’t know what he wanted from me until, after a few awkward seconds, he wrapped my bandaged hand in plastic, then taped it shut, water-proofing it.

I took a shower. That was awkward for a number of reasons, but lucky for me, I was the only one there. Darren stood in the doorjamb the whole time in case I tried to bolt, but he was politely looking away.

Cleanliness felt strange; I hadn’t realized how grimy this body was until it was clean. Whoever had it before me had not been keeping it up.

I wrestled momentarily with the moral quandary over how thoroughly to inspect my new, hopefully temporary, body and decided that Brandon had given up his right to privacy when he switched brains with me. There was no glass mirror in the communal shower, but there was a large plane of polished metal, and after I was reasonably clean, I went to get a better look at myself.

My first thought was that out of the two of us, I had gotten the better deal. Brandon was built like a brick shithouse, and while he was no body builder, he was miles more fit than I was. His still-damp-but-drying hair-- mine for now, I guessed-- was on the darker side of blond, and the eyes were the same shade of pale green I remembered from the hospital.

"You're not still in here, are you?" I said, watching the mirror.

What if accidentally I'd taken him over somehow, and he was still inside? What if I was the villain here?

The reflection did nothing suspicious. No sign of some kind of inner struggle, no flicker of Brandon trying to break out. Just me looking intently at a stranger's face.

I sighed and went to put on the clothes Darren had brought me: light blue and gray pajama-looking scrubs and slippers. He passed me the clothes and politely pretended I hadn’t just been talking to my reflection.

“Need help?” he said as I struggled one-handed with the bottoms.

“No, no. I think-- there. Shoes?" I said, shrugging on the shirt.

"Just slippers.”

He led me out.

There were other people walking in the hallways unassisted. While some of them were wearing the pajamas like I was, most were not. But they weren't wearing the tucked in polos like Darren, either.

"How come they get to wear normal clothes?" I said.

"You'll get to wear your clothes too," he said calmly. "But the ones you came in with are being washed. We'll find more in your size later."

There wasn't going to be a later, not if I could help it. But I didn't say that out loud, and just crossed my arms and nodded. I just needed to cooperate until I could get out. Convince them I was sane, or find the perfect moment to escape.

"Where are we going?" I said.

"Around. You know where the showers are now. Down that hallway is the nurse's station. If you're feeling sick, they'll take care of you. You can't tell, but it connects to a window in the common room. Depending on the doc's orders, you'll get in line in the morning and get your meds from there. Out here . . . "

We passed through a set of double doors. ". . .is the common room!"

I froze.

The commons room was huge and open. One side led to a sort of dining-like area, with cafeteria tables and a cafeteria-style counter, behind which was presumably the kitchen. The other half, separated by a partial wall, was a sort of living room. Couches, smaller tables in front of cushioned seats, a blocky TV from the 90’s hanging in the corner. There were even large, floor-to-ceiling windows, though the steel bars on them ruined the waiting-room effect.

All that I noticed distantly, with some small part of my brain dedicated to noticing that sort of thing.

Because what the rest of me was focused on, what I noticed before anything else, what I saw were the shadows on the walls. Huge, human-shaped ones that didn't belong to anybody there. They were like silhouettes of people standing still, facing the front. They weren't detailed; I couldn't tell man from woman, or pick out what clothes they wore. I knew their arms were at their sides, melted and merged with the torso, and that they all hated me.

Every single one of them emitted a fierce, burning hatred. They were angry. They were watching. A low hum of chattering voices filled my ears like static.

"Brandon?" said Darren. He looked at me with confusion and concern. I realized I was holding my breath.

"Do you see those?” I said.

“See what?”

I looked at him, really looked at him. I could do that now; my eyes weren’t bad anymore.

He returned the look with a confused, slightly cheerful one of his own. Completely ignorant.

“You have a foosball table," I said lamely. The voices in my ears grew a little louder, but I still couldn’t make out what they were saying. Like a crowd of people decided to whisper nonsense in choir.

"Yeah. You like?"

"Love it."

He continued the tour, leading me down a hallway sprouting from the common room, rattling off information about the place that I didn’t really take in; I was too busy looking at the shadows.

“That there,” he said, pointing to a metal gate blocking off the end of the hallway, “Is the exit. When you’re better, that’s how you’ll leave. And here,” he said, gesturing to the door near the gate, “Is Dr. Proctor’s office.”

I snapped out of it and found that we’d come to a dark door with a gold plaque on it.

“Dr. Proctor is inside waiting for you. This is an intake meeting, where he’ll get a feel for you and what you need to get set up around here.”

“Do I have to go?” I said, suddenly filled with dread. I hadn’t really seen a doctor in ages, and the ones I’d dealt with had been less than friendly, to say the least.

“Don’t sweat it,” he said. “He doesn’t bite.” Darren nodded his head towards the door and ushered me in.

That's where I met my shrink. He was an older guy with salt-and-pepper hair and matching beard, a square jaw and small, rectangle-ish glasses that rested snugly on the bridge of his nose. I immediately didn’t trust him-- though that didn't mean much as I found myself instinctively mistrusting anyone with "doctor" in front of their names. But in particular, he set me on edge.

"Hello, Brandon," Dr. Proctor said in a fatherly tone.

"Hi," I said. "I'm not crazy."

He didn’t miss a beat. "No one said you were."

"You were thinking it," I said.

He raised his eyebrows. "Oh?"

"You had to be, or else I wouldn't be here. I want to leave," I said.

"That is perfectly understandable," he said. "We want you to leave, too."

That took me by surprise.

"What, really?" I said.

He looked at me in a way I'm sure was meant to be understanding and full of doctorly compassion, but came off as too full of pity and condescension. Though I might be biased. "Brandon, you're not a prisoner here, you're a patient. The goal isn't to keep you locked away, it's to provide a safe place for you to get better."

"Really? Then I can leave?"

"Once you're deemed well enough to care for yourself, or if your family comes and gets you."

It took me a second the register what he'd said.

"My family," I said flatly.

"Yes.”

“Family. I don’t have a family,” I said. “They’re dead.”

“What makes you think that?” he said. His voice was calm and full of practiced-friendliness. It put me on edge.

“Because they’re dead,” I said. “They died in a car crash when I was sixteen.”

“Who did?”

“My parents,” I said, starting to get frustrated.

“What about your sister?”

For some reason, that got me. It was like a dagger to the gut, even though I had no idea what he was talking about.

“I don’t have a sister. I have a dog. And some bugs."

“So you’re alone?”

“I have a dog and I have bugs.”

I risked looking up at him and met his level gaze.

“Do you want to tell me about your dog?”

“Why?” I said.

“I’m just trying to understand where you’re coming from,” he said. “If you don’t want to talk about your dog, that’s fine. But if he’s all you have, then it seems to me like he must be pretty important to you.”

“Yeah,” I said, hating myself a little for answering. “I’m really worried about him, but I know I shouldn’t be. He can take care of himself. I saw him eat a bear, once. I didn’t see, but I­­­­ saw the body. He left it on the-- How long do I have to stay here?”

“Long enough for me to best figure out how to help you,” he said smoothly. “What were you saying?”

“About what?”

He jotted down some notes.

“You mentioned your dog.”

“Yeah. I need you to let me out so I can find him.”

“Do you want to tell me about him?”

No, I thought.

“Yes,” I said.

“Tell me.”

I sat back in my chair, still hunched up like a shy turtle, but I figured I had nothing left to lose.

“His name is Dog. He's big, black, kinda fluffy, has pointy wolfy ears, and he eats monsters. Dog's name is Dog because I'm not that creative. Besides, it sorta fits him. He's like the quintessential dog. I normally don't like dogs, but Dog's likeable, and we met when he kept dragging dead things to my door."

"Dead things?"

"Bears. Wolves. I had to dump them into the grave in my backyard to get rid of them."

"Grave--?"

"Big hole that eats trash. Keep up with me, Doc. So the grave showed up when I was working for Iotech and it kept stealing my time, and I used to be able to dump trash in it, but then the void monsters started getting more physical and the grave didn’t want them anymore, and also I think it leads to my old house from when I was a kid, but that might have been a dream--"

I went on like that for another ten minutes; just blithely telling the exact truth of what had been happening to me. It was a relief, really. There was no question of him believing me; I could see in his face that he didn't buy a word. Either this guy was Iotech or he wasn't, but whichever way it went, I finally got to say out loud all the crazy weird shit that had been plaguing me for years.

When I started slowing down, trying to pick out which weird thing to talk about next, he managed to get a question in.

"Why do you think all this is happening to you?" he said.

"I don't know," I said. "I'm just lucky. My eyes are bad."

He jotted down more notes.

"If it's all real," he said, "then where is Dog now?"

"I don't know," I said. "Something must be keeping him from me. That’ why I have to get out of here. I need to find him and find out why I’m Brandon.”

“So you are Brandon?”

“Right now I am. If he’s real. If not, then I have to find out why I’m a fake person everyone thinks is named Brandon.”

He finished scribbling some notes onto his clipboard, then nodded. “Alright,” he said. “I think I’m getting the picture. Can you tell me why you think you’re here?”

I shifted uncomfortably in the chair, still turtled. “Because you guys think I’m crazy. Or Iotech made you bring me in.”

“But do you know the specific reason? The exact incident for why you were found and brought in?”

I squinted, trying to remember. “I don’t know,” I confessed. “Something about a cop? Probably they saw me fighting monsters, or I tried to tell them about the monsters. There was a reason. I don’t remember.”

“That’s okay. I’m sure we’ll find out more later.” He glanced through his notes. “I must say, a lot of the stuff you’ve described seems pretty unpleasant.”

“Yeah,” I said.

Duh, I thought.

“Do you ever get frightened by it all? I certainly would.”

“Yeah?” I said, uncertainly. “But I’m more used to it now.”

“So you’re not afraid of all this stuff? Monsters, bugs--”

“Bugsy’s cool,” I said. “He and his group. There’s a lot of them. I still get scared, I’m just used to it. They ate a guy once.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“I felt bad, but also he was going to kill me I think, so I don’t feel too bad about it anymore.”

“I meant about being used to it.”

I blinked. “Being used to what?”

“Being acclimated to being afraid all the time. Most people outside of-- I don’t know, firemen and soldiers, maybe, don’t go their whole lives so used to being afraid that they ‘get used to it’. Is this how you want to spend your life?”

“It’s what I’ve got,” I said.

“How does that thought make you feel? If this is going to be your whole life from now on. . .”

“Tired, mostly.”

And, with the words, I suddenly realized how desperately tired I was. It was as though by speaking it, I’d finally allowed my brain to notice how sore my back and shoulders were, how much I ached, how much I wanted to sleep.

“I’m always tired,” I confessed.

“That doesn’t seem healthy.”

“Neither is dying.”

Scribble scribble scribble. Notes, notes, notes.

“Do you feel safe right now?”

“No,” I said.

“Do you think something will attack you here?”

I faltered. “Well, no. Not directly.”

“Then why do you feel unsafe?”

“Because someone put me in here, and if they put me in here, that means I should be out.”

He set down his clipboard and sat back in his chair.

“Mr. Fischer--”

“Campbell,” I said.

“But you’re Fischer right now though, aren't you? You just said.”

“I’m not-- Well, I guess--”

“Then Mr. Fischer, I want you to understand that part of our job here is to make sure people are emotionally and physically safe. You’ve told me yourself that you’re afraid of things and people hunting you. You don’t have a human support network-- dogs and bugs don’t count-- and you’re gotten so used to being afraid that you’re numb to it.”

“But you don’t think any of it’s happened to me. You think I’m making it up.”

Or you do know it’s happening, and all this is some kind of pretend. . .

“You’re right,” he said simply. “But you do, and it’s making you miserable. I want to help you, and we need to find ways to help.”

“You’re not letting me go,” I said.

“I think it would be unwise for a number of reasons. As I’ve said, we’ve contacted your family, and they think it best you remain here until you’re ready to leave.”

I’m going to die in here,” I said.

“I assure you, you are not going to die here. It would ruin our reputation as a healthcare facility.”

He smiled.

“I’m dead,” I mumbled.

“However,” he said, like I hadn’t said anything. “A key part of your recovery will involve taking your prescriptions. From what I understand, you were taking Haloperidol at Goldview, yes?”

“I don’t know.”

My mind flashed back to when I was still working for Iotech. How my supervisor, Simon Brandenburg, evil-science-businessman and walking HR nightmare extraordinaire, had me taking strange pills from a doctor I didn’t remember. I’d never learned the names of them.

“Brandon?”

I blinked and looked up. Proctor looked at me, and I could tell that he’d probably been trying to get my attention for a while.

“Yeah?”

“Did you hear me?”

“Yeah,” I mumbled. “Pills. I don’t have a grave to dump these ones in anymore.”

“It’s important you take them, Brandon.”

I wanted to argue, but it occurred to me that I’d already spoken waaaaay too much. It was too late to pretend to be normal now.

“Right-o,” I said. “Pills. Meds. Great. Love ‘em.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that. As I was saying, because it seems the Haloperidol doesn’t seem to be keeping up with your illness’ progression, we’re going to switch from Haloperidol to something little newer. A second generation antipsychotic with a smaller chance of serious side effects. We’ve contacted your family already and have gotten their permission--”

“I don’t have a family,” I said.

He paused a moment and cast his eyes up at the clock on the wall. “I think that is a conversation for after the Seroquel has started.”

“What do you mean? What’s Seroquel? Why do I need it? Why did you look at the clock? Is there a camera in there”

What if that’s how Iotech was spying on me?

“Seroquel is your new medication, and I want you to be more stable before we start working through traditional therapy. I don’t want to start a conversation right at the end of the session, so I check the clock to make sure there’s still time, and no, as far as I know, there’s no camera.”

His voice was patient. His face seemed patient. It bothered me. Why was he so patient? I’d just told him all sorts of stuff that normal people don’t believe. Why wasn’t he irritated with me?

Clearly Iotech was paying him.

He leaned forward and clicked the smartphone on his desk, and for a split second, I saw the audio symbol. I hadn’t even realized he was recording this.

“Why did you record that?” I said.

“I told you, I record all these sessions.”

“You didn’t say that!” I said. “You didn’t tell me that at all!”

“Brandon, I asked you when we started if I could record this session, and you said yes.”

His voice was still calm and friendly, but his face was mostly flat, with just a bit of concern. He didn’t look like he was lying. . .

“Why did you record that?” I said again. “What will you use it for?”

“I record all my sessions. I use the notes to help my analysis later. They are entirely private, I assure you. I won’t distribute these to any third party-- that would be violating doctor-patient confidentiality.”

I must have still looked uncertain.

“Brandon, if I shared these with anybody, I’d go to jail, and your family would wind up owning this facility in a lawsuit. I’m not going to show this to anybody else."

What does it even matter? I thought suddenly. Either he thinks I'm crazy and this is fuel for the fire, or he's Iotech and already knows this. Any way you slice it, a loose recording floating around didn't change anything.

Though this meant there probably wasn’t a camera in the wall clock. Why would they need a camera there if he was recording the audio? Unless it was some kind of double bluff--

I made a frustrated noise.

"Brandon?"

"There's too much stuff," I said. I started biting my nails.

He glanced at the wall clock behind me, then back at me again. "Is there something you want to say?"

"No. Yes. No. We’re probably being spied on anyway, so I don’t care if you do it too. I want to go sleep."

"I'm sure that can be arranged."

He walked me to the door, where Darren was waiting. I don’t know if he’d timed it to look like he’d been waiting there, and was actually gone, or if he really did stand there the whole session.

“We’ll talk more at a later time,” Proctor said. “I’m going to sort out some of your paperwork and let your family know you’re alright, alright?”

I nodded, but said nothing, and I kept my eyes on the ground.

"Ready for lunch?" Darren said.

I grunted at him, and he took it as an affirmative.

"Right this way," he said.

“I want to go to my room,” I said.

“Sure thing, buddy,” he said. “We’ll just stop by the nurses station first.”

“Why?” I said, matching his long strides effortlessly.

“Because the Doc says you need them. They’ll help you.”

He led me to the common room where the shadows were still watching. I tried to stay in the center of the room, away from the walls, but the nurses station was up against the far wall. It was a little window with a person behind it and a little counter, and there was a line to see the nurse.

“Aren’t you going to get in line?” Darren said.

The line was up against the wall.

“Do I have to?” I said.

I didn’t want to mention the shadows in case he thought I was crazy.

“I don’t like walls,” I said instead.

“I could stand with you?” he said. “Or you could stick out from the wall a little still in line, but not as close?”

Clearly, he wasn’t going to let me off the hook for this one. I gave the shadows a nervous glance, then went to the back of the line. Darren stuck around, not exactly next to me, but close enough to tackle me if I went running.

The pills the nurse gave me came in a little plastic cup, with another larger little cup of water. For a long while, I stood there looking at them. Two little round tablets with the word SEROQUEL on them.

"Mr. Fischer?" said the nurse at the counter. I snuck a quick glance up at her and saw she was pretty and freckled. I felt my cheeks heat up and looked back down at the pills.

"They might be poison," I said, sorry to say it, sorry to bother her with my worry..

"They're not," she said, sounding tired. Like she'd heard this before. "If they were poison, we'd get sued."

I tried to find the hole in her logic and couldn't.

Oh well, I thought. Not like it was the first time I took random pills people gave me.

I downed them and tossed the cups into the trash bin.

“Good work,” she said. A quick look showed me she was smiling, like she knew how hard it was, and I tried to quash down how happy that made me. I returned to Darren and stared resolutely at the ground.

"Can I go to my room now?" I said.

"What are you going to do there?" Darren said.

"Sleep."

"Then sure."

He led the way back, chatting idly about things I didn’t really understand, trying to point out the different patients and their names. I didn’t listen, partly because it was a little hard to hear him over the buzzing voices in my ears, and partly because I didn’t intend to be there that long, so learning people’s names seemed like a waste of time.

I was going to get out. Dog would show up eventually. Bugsy would come in and spirit me away, like they did in the old days.

* * * * *


Once in my room, I lay down on the bed sideways, my head almost touching the wall, my legs hanging over the side, and I stared at the ceiling. The voices quieted down, presumably because there weren’t any wall shadows in here, but they were replaced by a methodical scratching noise.

Family. People kept saying I had one. Clearly that was a lie. They were probably talking to Simon, or some other Iotech goon. Probably reporting in like good little evil scientists, letting him know how the rat in the maze was doing.

Unless the psych hospital was innocent, and maybe Simon was pretending to be my family.

If this was even a real psychiatric hospital. What if it was all a lie? What if--

The scratching noise grew louder, like someone dragging a metal table across a concrete floor. I clenched my jaw and tried to ignore it, tried to think through it, but it was impossible. I buried my head under the pillow, and my reward was the noise to grow even louder. It sounded like it was at the door.

I sat up, ready to yell at whoever was dragging furniture around.

I froze.

My door was creeping open, and through it long, spindly, stick-like legs poked their way through. Then followed an enormous, basketball sized abdomen.

My mouth dried immediately, and a small whimper escaped my throat.

A huge spider.

Slowly, scarcely daring to breathe, I drew my feet over the edge of the bed and crawled backwards until my back was up against the wall. The spider paid no mind, slowly trundling closer, each movement achingly slow and precise. I watched it cross the room, then squeeze itself beneath the bedside table.

Despite how large it was, it managed to squeeze itself under without rattling the table; its massive legs stuck out between the table legs for a moment, but it soon drew them in, vanishing from sight.

I sat there on the bed, staring at the bedside table and shivering. I didn’t want to look. I didn’t want to see it. Beetles were one thing, but spiders were another. Spiders were spiders. My hands ached, and I realized I was clenching my fists too hard-- my nails had drawn blood on my left hand and left red, crescent-moon indents lining my palm. As I investigated them, my hands shook uncontrollably.

Giant spiders.

I wanted to call for help, but no. I couldn’t. If I did, the spider could hurt someone. I had to deal with this myself. I didn’t want to. I wanted to run screaming.

But. I had to.

It took me another several minutes to work up the courage to get off the bed. When my feet touched the ground, and I let loose another involuntary whimper, hating myself even as I did.

Slowly, so slowly, I crept to the night stand.

“Okay,” I said to myself, hoping the spider didn’t speak English. “If it’s still under there, then I’ll get help, and if there’s a team of us, then maybe we can take it down.”

That seemed fair. Better chances if there was more than one person.

Without further hesitation, I kicked out as forcefully as I could, knocking over the little table, and, without stopping or looking back, I ran out the door and down the hall. Only when I was several doors down did I stop and look back, expecting to see a spider chasing after me.

Nothing. The hallway was clear.

“Hey buddy, you okay?”

I turned and saw another polo-wearing man in the hall, escorting someone else to their room.

“There was a spider in my room,” I said. I realized how dumb that sounded and added, “A really big one.”

The man waved goodbye to the woman he was helping and came over to me. “Let me help you take care of that,” he said. “You’re Brandon, right?”

“Sorta.”

“I’m Basco,” said the man. “Let’s see. . . “

“Be careful!” I hissed.

“Don’t worry,” he said, entering the room first. “I’ve dealt with spiders before.”

I followed him in, ready to drag him out if the spider got him.

The room was empty. No spider, just the knocked over end table.

“Was it on the table?” he asked. He bent down to right the table and put the clock back on.

“Underneath,” I said. I started gnawing on my nails. “It was big. It was giant. Like a dog. What if it’s loose? It got out, it must have. It could be in another room, or in the hallway--”

Panic was rising in my voice, but I couldn’t stop it. What if it was on the ceiling, so people didn’t see it? Or inside a toilet? What if it was waiting for night time--

“Okay, Brandon. I’ll make sure everybody’s aware of the spider,” he said.

“Really?” Did he believe me?

“I’ll let them know you’re worried,” he said. “You took your meds already, right?”

“Yeah.”

“When?”

“Uh. fifteen minutes ago? Maybe?”

“Okay. So you hang out in here, and let me know if you still see it in about two hours, alright?” He turned to go.

“Why two hours?” I said, confused.

He gave a little smile. “That’s how long it takes the neuroleptics to kick in.”

And then he was gone, and I was alone.

* * * * *


The spider did not come back that day, but I heard it scratching. I don’t know how it did it, but it managed to get inside the walls. I heard it traveling over my ceiling, running along side the wall by my bed, sometimes under the floor.

That was horrifying, but I figured if it was stuck inside the walls, it couldn’t jump out and kill anyone, so that was probably the safest place for it.

* * * * *


Darren woke me up the next morning, and if my old mysterious wormhole grave had been anywhere nearby, I would have been sorely tempted to shove him into it.

"Rise and shine, Brandon," he said with entirely too much cheer.

I pulled the thin blankets over my head. Outside, I could hear the whole facility up and at ‘em. People talking to each other, probably having the time of their lives. Their voices were muffled by the walls, but still there.

"No."

"Doc says you're good to go."

"What?" I tore off the covers and shot up. "I can leave?"

He laughed. "No, no, sorry. I mean, you're good to start your sessions."

I sank back into bed and pulled the blankets over again. The room was cool enough that if I wasn't in the exact same spot and position I had been in before, the covers were chilly. The walls buzzed with electricity. It didn’t seem fair that I couldn’t call it any more, but I could still hear it.

“Come out for breakfast,” he said. “You didn’t have dinner last night, did you?”

I shook my head, and my stomach chose that point to cramp painfully with hunger. I’d turned down lunch and slept through dinner, and now everything ached and felt generally gross.

“I heard that,” Darren said, referring to the stomach noise. “Come on, I’ll walk you over.”

I didn’t want to get up-- who knew what kind of dangers were out there? But my stomach was killing me. I hadn’t eaten lunch in case the food was poisoned, but it occurred to me after that if anything was poison, it would be the medication.

I decided then, I was not going to take their pills. I didn’t feel any different yesterday after taking them, but that didn’t mean they weren’t doing anything to me. Maybe it was slow-acting poison. Maybe it was some kind of mind control to keep me in Brandon’s body. Maybe--

“Brandon?”

“Coming,” I said, getting up. I met him at the doorway and followed him down the hall. The lights above us hummed with electricity, almost loud enough to drown out the sound of people talking in the other rooms, and I grit my teeth.

“Do I see Proctor again?” I said.

“Not today. Looks like you’ve been signed up for group therapy, though.”

I stopped walking. “Group? I don’t want to work in a group. Why won’t Proctor see me I don’t want to see him, but why doesn’t he want to see me? I don’t want to be around people!” I couldn’t hide the edge of panic in my voice.

“Relax,” said Darren. “It’s nothing bad. He just wants to wait for the meds to clear your head a little before he starts the more intensive therapy.”

“Intensive? What do you mean intensive? I don’t want to be in a group.”

“Nobody will make you go to group,” he said quickly. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to right now.”

“But I’ll have to later?”

“I don’t know. That’s up to Proctor.”

I followed him, still uncertain. The last thing I wanted was to be around people.

The mess was basically right next to the common room. Small, but large enough for us to get our food and go sit together at several long tables, with a school-cafeteria style counter and trays for us to get our food. To my surprise, most of the people there weren’t actually talking. I still heard the sounds of conversation, but most people there were just eating.

There was a tall shadow on the wall, right next to where the line began.

“I’m not hungry,” I said.

My stomach growled, demonstrating to the world that I was a liar.

“It’s okay,” Darren said. “It’s all good.”

“Is it poison?” I said, still looking at the shadow on the wall. I was asking it almost as much as I was asking Darren.

“No. Do you see other people getting poisoned?”

The shadow said nothing. And other people eating looked okay. . .

I hovered to the side of the line, then dove in when there was a clearing. I grabbed a handful of toast and backed away, feeling like some kind of bread gremlin.

Darren left me when it looked like I wasn’t going to cause trouble. I sat on the floor in the corner, watching the shadow on the wall across from me, and ate my toast thoughtfully.

Shadows were cast because of something obstructing a light source. But there was nobody in front of them. Therefore, I reasoned, the light was coming from the other side of the wall. So there were people inside the wall that were getting light shined on them, and that was making their shadows appear.

It made perfect sense. I don’t know why I hadn’t stopped to consider it before. I’d just been blindly accepting the weird shadows as another part of the scenery.

No wonder they were so mad, if they were stuck in the wall.

I finished my toast and debated grabbing more, but decided against it in case the next batch was the one with poison in it. As casually as I could manage, I sauntered out of the out of the dining area and tried to slink back into my room, but Daren cut me off at the pass.

“Did you get your meds yet?” he said.

“No,” I said.

He had his arms out slightly to the side, not exactly blocking me off, but still giving the impression that he was. “Right over there,” he said. “At the nurses station. Just like yesterday.”

He guided me over, and I thought about it.

What would happen if I just refused?

Darren was a big man, but we were about even in height--

Wait.

Now that was a weird thought. I forgot about the pills and looked around the room, this time focusing on the real people instead of the shadow ones.

The group of men nearest me were, at most, the same height as me, some being shorter. The few women running around were also unanimously shorter.

"How tall am I?" I asked Darren.

He was getting something from the nurse while I was looking around.

"Excuse me?" he said, half paying attention. The nurse passed him two plastic cups.

"I'm not used to being tall,” I said. “We're the same height."

"That's great, Brandon.” He handed me the cups. “Take your pills now."

I popped them into my mouth without thinking, then downed the little cup of water. I frowned and tried flexing my arm muscles. Not showing off, but just tensing them and un-tensing them while I held the cup. The bulges were bigger than I was used to.

"It was dumb of them to put me in a stronger body," I said.

"Uh-huh. Open up, lemme see." He pulled a tiny flashlight from his pocket.

I opened my mouth and he shone the flashlight inside.

"Lift your tongue."

"So I am guessing you guys don't see the shadows then, huh?"

"Lift it without talking, please."

I did, and he finished checking, satisfied.

"Dang!" I said, wanting to kick myself.

“What’s up?”

“I forgot. I was supposed to not do that."

He laughed. “Well, maybe you’ll remember tomorrow. If you do, it might be a sign they’re working.”

We walked away from the line, through the common room. There were small clusters of people here and there, some watching TV, some playing with the Foosball table. At one corner of the living-room looking part of the commons, there was a woman and several patients sitting in a large circle, with a couple empty chairs spacing them out. Darren walked me over there, guiding me by the arm when I started hanging back.

“Hi, Laura,” he said. “This is our newest face, Brandon.”

“Hi Brandon,” she said, rising to her feet.

“Hi Brandon,” said several of the patients.

“Hi?” I said, looking at her shoes. Her hand entered my field of vision, open and ready to shake.

“I’m Laura. I’m the group therapy coordinator. It’s very nice to meet you.”

“I don’t want to be here,” I said. It sorta burst out of me. “They said I don’t have to go to group.”

“That’s alright,” she said, beaming. “You don’t need to start today. I just wanted to meet you. And I want to let you know that you’re welcome to join us at any time.”

I gave her a stiff nod, and inched away. We left her and the group to do whatever it was they were doing.

“So,” Darren said, “What would you like to do? Watch TV, play Foosball--”

“Can I go back to my room?” I said.

“You can, but the day’s just started--”

“Hello,” said a new voice.

We turned.

The voice belonged to a man I hadn’t seen before coming from the nurse’s station. He saw us looking and smiled and waved us over.

He was a weedy, red-haired little man with a reedy voice and a sharp looking haircut. He looked at me through a set of thickly brimmed glasses that angled slightly. He was a head shorter than me, and he didn’t have the practiced confidence Proctor had-- or any of the rest of the staff here, actually. He carried a clip board and wore a sweater that reminded me of Mr. Rogers, but not in a good way. A pretender-Rogers.

He nodded politely at Darren, but turned his eyes back to me. “Hello, Brandon. I’m happy to meet you.”

“I’ll give you two some time,” Darren said. He wandered away towards the group of people at the TV, leaving us alone.

“Who are you?” I said, a little rudely. I’d rather have Darren around than this guy. I don’t know when I’d decided that Darren wasn’t part of the grand conspiracy keeping me trapped here, but at the moment, he was the only one I felt like I could trust.

“I’m Vincent,” said Vincent with a smile. “Think of me as Dr. Proctor’s assistant.”

Something about the way he said it clicked in my head. “You’re an intern,” I said.

He chuckled. “No, not quite. A little more than that. I’m a medical student working on my--”

“You’re an intern. Do they pay you?”

“Not well,” he said, like a joke. “Darren mentioned to Dr. Proctor that you wanted to speak with him--”

“Darren’s a squealer and he’s wrong,” I said. “I don’t want to talk to Proctor. I don’t want to go to group.”

“Nobody will make you go to group,” Vincent said smoothly. He gestured to the sofas by the wall, away from where everybody was clustered around the TV.

“Do you want to sit down?”

“No,” I said. “Yes, but no.”

There was a beat of silence.

“So, no?”

“Not there. It’s too close to the-- wall,” I ended weakly.

“I see. You don’t like the walls?”

I looked Vincent over, wondering if I should just tell him. He was an underling working for Proctor. Anything I said to him went back to Proctor. But Proctor already knew everything because I told him everything. Well, not everything. But a lot of stuff. Did I tell him about the shadows? I couldn’t remember.

My head ached.

My hand hurt.

“There’s a lot of stuff,” I said, rubbing my eyes. My shoulders were killing me. My back. My neck, head, eyes-- everything was sore and tired. Above me, the lights were humming that continuous drone that I never seemed to be able to tune out, and the people in the next rooms over were still talking.

“A lot on the wall?” he said slowly. “Well, we can sit in the middle of the room, if you want.”

It was true. The two people on the sofa had gone elsewhere, freeing it up. Reluctantly, I let Vincent guide me over, and we sat on opposite of each other, the coffee table between us.

“So what’s wrong with him?” I said.

“Who?”

“Brandon,” I said.

"Ah. So you haven’t been informed? Well, I think Dr. Proctor is still working out the paperwork, but it looks like you have something called schizophrenia. Do you know what that is?”

“It’s perfect,” I grumbled. “Great.” The one diagnosis to make sure nobody took me seriously ever again. I don’t know who this Brandon guy was, but he was in for a real treat when he got back to his body.

If he was real, that was.

“You have what we refer to as 'positive' schizophrenia symptoms,” Vincent continued.

I snorted. "Oh sure, real positive."

"Not that kind of positive. Positive as in you are experiencing things due to your disorder that people without the disorder don't. Negative symptoms are the opposite, you don’t experience things that others do.”

I glanced at the shadows. Still there. Still watching. Still emanating their hatred for all living things, me in specific. There was one in particular that caught my attention, looming on the wall directly behind Vincent. I don’t know why it stood out so much from the others; they all looked the same.

“I see stuff you can’t,” I said. “It’s not because I’m crazy. It’s because you’re all blind.”

“Does that seem likely?” he said. He jotted down some notes on his clipboard, but kept looking at me. I looked down at his shoes, not wanting to risk eye contact. Sure, my eyes weren’t hurting people right now, but they might start again at any time.

“I don’t know what’s likely. I know what’s happening.”

Between his feet was a shadow. It was small-- football sized, maybe, though it was hard to tell with its flatness-- and unlike the others, it had white triangles where its eyes should be. I stared in fascination as it wound around his legs, cat-like.

“What are you seeing?” said Vincent.

“A new one,” I said. “Most of the shadows are big and mean. Yours looks like a weird little animal.”

As if it heard me, the shadow opened its mouth-- now it had a mouth!-- and stuck out its tongue. A cartoonish negative-space silhouette, with a mouth like a cat’s.

“It’s sticking out its tongue.”

“Is that bad?”

The creature grinned.

“I think it means your shadow’s a dick.”

He scribbled down some notes.

“Are we done?” I said.

He smiled. “Sure. Would it be alright if I talked to you more later though? Not today, unless you want. But on other days?”

I nodded curtly and he left.

Almost immediately, he was replaced by a patient I’d seen around, but hadn’t spoken to before. I sat, my arms crossed, and watched him take Vincent’s place.

“He’s writing a paper,” the man said, not bothering to introduce himself.

I took the bait. “About what?”

He shrugged. “Us. Crazy people. Part of his thing. School thing. Gotta write a paper about somethin’ and he picked us. Nice guy, but he’s writing down everything you say.”

“Why?”

“Because we see shit,” he said, like I was stupid. “Or you see shit. I don’t. I’ve got Seroqel, I’m all good now.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Yep. Leavin’ next week.”

“Nice,” I said, unsure of what else to say.

“That’s how you get out,” he said. “You follow the rules. They don’t believe anything you say, even if they pretend to. The only way out is to do what they say and fake it until you’re gone.”

“Hey, Robby!” A guy by the Foosball table was waving at him. The man-- Robby-- waved back.

“Good luck, man,” he said, walking away from me.

I stayed on the chair and tried to think.

Maybe that guy was right. It was one thing to try and defend myself, to argue against the blatantly incorrect idea that I wasn’t me, but that wouldn’t do me any good.

Of course, that only would work provided Iotech wasn’t in on all of this.

My ears rang with the sound of chattering voices that said nothing of use. The electricity hummed in the walls and lights and in the blood of people around me, and I found myself insanely jealous of them. I couldn’t feel it in my blood. I couldn’t feel anything in this stupid fake body except the pain in my hand.

“I’m going to my room,” I said out loud to nobody.

Nobody stopped me.

* * * * *


They wouldn’t let me stay in my room forever.

Over the next two days, they let me mostly hang out in there, but every day, I had to get out and get pills and food. I didn’t want either, but if I put up a fuss, Darren and a big security guy would come and escort me. Sometimes Proctor was with them, often he was not.

“He’s a busy guy,” Darren told me.

They called me out for meals. Like before, I’d grab some food and hide away like some kind of goblin. The nurses and orderlies were too busy worrying about some girl who couldn’t use plastic knives or she’d cut herself and another guy who couldn’t use plastic knives because he’d cut others, so my hiding didn’t seem to be high on their priority list.

After food and pills, they’d take me to the health office so someone could check my hand. I’d get new bandages and the chance to appreciate how badly I had messed up my finger.

”You’re lucky,” Glenda, the office nurse said. “Any worse and it would have snapped off like charcoal.”

I didn’t know if she was exaggerating or if she was serious, and I promised myself that next time I tried, I’d shove a fork or something into the outlet instead of my hand.

If only they had metal cutlery here instead of that useless plastic stuff. . .

On the second day, as I sat in the middle of the commons room, watching the shadows on the wall and waiting for them to make their move, Robby approached me again.

“You’re not doing it right,” he said.

I didn’t take my eyes off the wall. “Doing what right?”

“Fitting in. Or, I guess, you’re fitting in great, which is the problem. If you want them to let you out, you’re not supposed to fit in with a bunch of crazy people.”

“I’m taking my pills,” I said. “What more do they want from me?”

“They want you to do something aside from look at invisible monsters on the wall.”

The shadow stood there angrily.

“I don’t think they’re monsters, just shadows of them,” I said.

I didn’t look, but I imagined him shaking his head. “You’re nuts. Go to group or something.”

“Thanks, Robby,” I said. “I’ll take it into consideration.”

He left, and I stayed put, watching the shadow watch me back.

As if I would take advice from a crazy person.

* * * * *


On the third day, I saw Dog.

It was morning, before Devon or Basco came around for the wake up call,

My door was open and I was in bed, listening to the sound of the people in the other rooms talking. I had just about come to the conclusion that everybody in the facility was in on it; why else would they talk so loudly to each other when I was gone, but not be talking when I was there? Because they were talking about me, obviously.

Then, through the muffled voices, I heard the familiar sound of paws padding across the floor.

My heart caught in my throat, and every instinct screamed at me to run out and see him, but I held back. What if this was some kind of trick? What if they were making noise on purpose, and then I’d go out there, and there’d be no Dog, and they’d use it as an excuse to keep me here even longer?

I watched the doorway from the bed, trying to appear casual in case there was a secret camera watching, and waited.

Dog trotted past the open doorway.

He didn’t even look at me.

I scrambled out of bed, nearly falling out as I did.

“Dog!” I shouted. “Come here, boy! Dog!”

I ran to the doorway and into the hall.

Dog was gone.

Blood rushed in my ears, and my bandaged hand throbbed in pain.

“Dog!” I hollered, moving fast down the hall. “Dog!”

A couple patients stuck their heads out of their rooms.

“Dog?” said someone.

“There’s a dog?” said someone else.

“There can’t be dogs here!” said another person, sounding afraid.

“He’s not bad,” I said. “He’s a good boy. Dog! Dog!”

My voice grew louder and louder until I was screaming. “Dog! Dog!”

I jogged into the common room, wondering if he’d gone in there. “Dog! Dog!”

“Dog?” said some other patient. Frankie or Freddy or something. He was the one who always hung out by the Foosball table and wanted people to play.

“Have you seen my dog?” I said.

“No, no dog. Wanna play?”

“No, I gotta find--”

“Brandon!”

Dr. Proctor, Darren, and a security guard were suddenly there.

“Brandon!” said Proctor again, “What are you doing?”

“I saw my dog!” I said, waving my arms. “He was here! I saw him! He’s big and black and he’s got paws--”

“There is no dog,” Proctor said, his voice loud and clear. It was the closest I’d heard him come to yelling.

I froze, suddenly afraid.

“But he was here,” I said. I looked wildly around the commons, in case Dog had gone under a table or something.

He was nowhere.

Something inside me cracked. I don’t know what, I don’t know why. It was like my chest broke open and everything inside spilled out, gushed to the floor before I even had a chance to stop it, and I was left standing there with a gaping hole, cold and empty. I turned my eyes to the floor.

“I saw him,” I said, hugging myself. Maybe trying to hold the hole in my chest closed.

Proctor sighed. “I’d been hoping the higher Seroquel dose would be effective, but clearly your condition has outpaced it.”

“What are you going to do?” I said quietly.

“Don’t worry, Brandon,” he said. “You’re not in trouble. We’ll try another medication.”

“But Dog--”

His face was impassive. Not mean, just completely blank. Professional.

“There is no dog,” he said again.

My eyes were wet. I wiped them off with my pajama shirt sleeves.

“Hey, come on,” said Basco appearing beside me. “Let’s get you some breakfast, ehy?”

I said nothing and let him lead me away.

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