“Sort of. Some of my memories started to come back, but it all stopped when I looked into Sharon’s eyes. I think I downloaded some of her brain,” I started to look around for my boots. We had to get out of here now.
“What did you find out?” Hank asked eagerly.
I lowered my voice to the point that I was mostly just mouthing the words. “She’s with them.”
Hank looked surprised, but then smoothed out his features quickly. He paced the floor for a minute while I laced up my boots.
“Okay, here’s what we’ll do,” he said finally, coming to stand in front of me. “We’re going to get you out of here, but you’ve got to be patient. We’d be caught in less than thirty seconds if we tried to leave right now. Tonight there is an important meeting, with a live feed to the other safe houses deposited around the country. We are supposed to be hearing some big news from our main headquarters, so everyone in the house is going to want to be there.”
Hank paused for a minute, thinking. He paced the floor a few more times.
“While everyone is busy in the command room, that’s in the kitchen in the back of the house, you can sneak downstairs and out the front door. Amy will have her grandpa’s truck parked back behind the barn with the keys in it. We will slip away when we can and meet you somewhere.”
As much as I wanted to escape right then, Hank’s plan was a good one. I was going to have to be patient.
“Okay,” I relented. “But you’ve got to try to keep people out. I can’t risk giving anything away if I suddenly download someone else.”
“Amy and I will take turns standing guard.”
“Okay,” I repeated. I slumped on the bed, suddenly feeling deflated after the intensity of downloading Sharon’s brain a few moments before, and discovering her secret. Sighing, I slipped my boots off one at a time. I knew it was going to be a long morning.
Hank sat down next to me on the bed. “Don’t worry. By this time tomorrow we’ll be safe in the mountains, away from everything here. Amy and I have another safe house set up in Colorado. It’s not as nice as this place, but no one here knows about it.” I nodded and he gave me a brotherly pat on the shoulder. “I’m going to go and start getting things ready for our escape.”
Hank slipped out the door and quietly closed it behind him.
I decided that, in case someone else came in the room, I should play the part of the invalid, so I slid back under the wrinkled covers of my bed. There was an old clock across the room, covered in ornate carvings in a floral motif, which ticked loudly as I lay in the bed, staring at the ceiling. Funny how I hadn’t noticed the insistent tick-tock-tick-tock before, back when I didn’t fear the passage of time. It just kept marching on to the inevitable conclusion of my uncertain future.
The door opened again and I willed myself not to whip around to see who entered. I mustn’t appear overly anxious.
“Jack,” Amy whispered from the doorway. I turned to look at her and she gave a timid smile. Closing the door behind her, she entered the room and sat down close to my bed.
“Hank told me what happened,” she said, leaning toward me so that I could hear her faint whisper. “You’re getting some of your memories back, that’s great!”
I nodded, but I didn’t return her smile.
“What? What’s the matter?” she asked.
“It’s just frustrating. Some of my memories started flooding back in, but they stopped when I got too close to Sharon, and absorbed her information instead. I just wish that I could remember everything.” I knew that I sounded like a petulant child, frustrated over not getting my way, so I looked away. “It’s hard not knowing who I can trust. And now that I know who Sharon is, it makes me wonder how many more people are in this house, trying to take back their secrets.”
Amy lightly touched my arm.
“Jack, you are one of the bravest people I know. This is going to work, you’ll see. And you won’t have to do this alone. I’m here for you, and Hank.”
“I know,” I said, feeling a little better. Somehow this crazy purple-haired girl knew just what to say to put my mind at ease.
Without warning, my vision flashed out of focus. I started to see images in front of my eyes, like I was watching a movie, but I knew that they were memories…MY memories, sifting in without any sort of logical sequence. A young girl laughing, as I pushed her on a swing, her pigtails flapping in her face as she whipped around to grin at me. Sitting at a desk, tapping my pencil while the instructor walked down the aisle, his military coat tight and crisp. My mother calling to me and Hank as we run out the back door to not be late for dinner. Listening to instructions given through my head set as I sit with the control stick of a fighter jet wedged between my knees. Feeling the cold burn rush through my body as I lie on a narrow cot, with a pretty girl in a navy blue uniform stooping to administer something from a syringe into a tube attached to my arm.
“Jack,” I heard faintly. I struggled to focus on the voice. I heard it again and shook my head. Finally I was able to open my bleary eyes, and I looked into Amy’s face. “Jack, what happened?” she cried.
“More of my memories are coming back,” I responded, feeling groggy and disoriented. “It’s like I am seeing parts of my life but they are all in pieces.”
“That’s good,” Amy said, encouraging. “Just try to relax. They will start filling in more.”
We sat quietly for a moment. All the scenes which had emerged from my suppressed memories were floating around in my head, like puzzle pieces with fuzzy edges which won’t fit together yet.
“I think I remember my little sister. Her name is Meg,” I said softly. “And my mother.” Amy smiled and nodded. I added hesitantly, “I remember being in The Center and receiving the enhancement serums.”
Amy froze, a startled look on her face.
“You remember The Center?” she asked eagerly. “What do you remember about it?”
“I remember how the serum felt. It was cold at first, so cold that it burned, and I felt totally out of control. The stuff was coursing through my veins, and it was like I could feel everything coming alive. Like every cell in my body was firing off electrical sparks, and then….changing somehow.”
Amy was staring at me wide-eyed, willing me to continue.
“It was agony for what seemed like eternity. But then suddenly it just stopped. Even though I knew that I should feel drained, exhausted from the pain, I felt good. Strong. And everything looked different. I could see more details, like I was examining it with a microscope from across the room. I could hear the tiniest of sounds: rats running through the walls, a faucet dripping in the room next door.”
Amy was nodding. “I remember that feeling too,” she said softly. “It was amazing, to feel so powerful, but then when it was gone….” she trailed off, seeming to be lost in her thoughts.
I continued. “But then I downloaded the mind of one of the lab tech guys, who happened to walk into my room when I wasn’t expecting it. I was overwhelmed with the flood of memories and details that were suddenly leached into my brain: things that were beautiful, things that were hideous, things that no one should see. An entire life. All his secrets: his secret hopes, secret desires, secret lies. All of them were now mine. I suddenly realized how dangerous this power was. No one should have unrestrained access to anyone’s mind. A power like that could change the course of history, stop wars, and provide a universal understanding of any and all cultures. But a power that strong is bound to corrupt. Who could resist the temptation of a power that all-encompassing?”
I was looking down at my hands as I spoke. More of my memories were still shifting around, piecing together into one life. But I remembered very clearly what I had experienced during that first download at The Center. I knew immediately that I had made a mistake in allowing the scientists at The Center to use me, and I knew that it had been a mistake for anyone to play with something so dangerous.
“Amy,” I said, looking back at her, “I have to get this out of my head. It’s too dangerous. No one can have it. Isn’t there any way to erase it somehow? Make an antidote…?”
“It’s impossible,” she said, shaking her head. “You destroyed all the research information. Without it, there is no way to piece it back together. The scientists at The Center worked on that information for years. It was incredibly complex. There would be no way of duplicating it.”
I knew that at the time, I felt that I had no other alternative than to destroy the scientists’ data. It was too dangerous to allow them to investigate the extent of the power they had created. But I also knew that in destroying the only record of all the research, I was dooming myself to a life on the run.
There was no antidote. There was no way out.
“Jack,” Amy said, suddenly grabbing my arm in her excitement. “You remember so much from The Center. Do you think that you can remember any of the research data? You have to have all that information stored away somewhere in there….”
“I think that I could access it,” I said slowly. “But why would I want to? It’s what these people are after. I can’t risk giving them any of it.”
“Yes,” she said, almost bouncing on the bed, she was so giddy with excitement. “But I worked at The Center too, remember? I can put the information together and find the antidote! We can cure you for good, and then destroy the research before anyone can have access to it!”
Suddenly I understood why she was so excited. “You think that you can do that?” I asked, trying not to sound incredulous. I didn’t want to offend her, but she just looked so young.
“Of course I can!” she retorted. “I’m good at what I do, remember? I worked there for years. I know the types of tests they were running. I just need the formulas to put it into motion….that, and a lab.”
She stood up abruptly.
“Jack, you lay still for a while. Try to relax. A lot has happened in the last little bit, and your brain is still trying to recouperate. I’m going to go and talk to Hank, see where we’re at in planning this escape.”
“Okay,” I said, and lay back onto my pillow as she exited the room.
I couldn’t rest, though. The memories which had already started flooding my brain were shuffling around, trying to find their place. Try as I might, though, they wouldn’t solidify. Flashes from my time in The Center kept coming to the surface, demanding to be recognized. I didn’t want those memories. I didn’t want access to the information that those memories would provide, but they came anyway..
It was like a file cabinet was opened in my brain. Sheet after sheet of information, numbers, figures, chemicals, and calculations flashed before my eyes. There wasn’t an explosion big enough to erase that data.
I had found the chemicals in the lab. I knew what they were and what they could do, because I had absorbed the information from Syd and Clarence, two of the scientists who had been hovering near me, filling in their charts with notes. I combined them with several compounds, enough to set off an explosion that would destroy the entire lab and all its computers. I sent a virus powerful enough to destroy any information that could have been sent outside of the lab
Then I had run.
Hank came into my room a little while later, carrying a lunch tray. He set it on the table next to me. I knew that I was hungry, but the thought of food made me sick. Memories and information had been reeling around in my head for the last several hours. Some parts were crystal clear, but others still did not fit into their proper place yet. It was an exhausting exercise, sorting through all the information in my head, trying to make sense of it.
“Amy told me that you are getting more of your memories back,” Hank said, sitting down next to me on the bed. “She said you remember a lot from The Center.”
I nodded my head, looking away. “I don’t want to remember that part,” I said. “You have no idea what a burden this information is to carry.”
“Jack, I think that Amy is right. If you can give her enough of the data, she can work with it to create an antidote.” Upon seeing the look of disbelief on my face, he continued. “It will work, I know it. Amy is very smart. She’s a little kooky, which disguises how intelligent she is. People don’t really take her seriously, but she’s a genius.”
He could tell that I was still hesitant. “You will never be able to really escape from them while that information is still in here,” he said, pointing to my head. “You are much too valuable. They will hunt you down no matter where you hide. Their resources are unimaginable. They will find you and they will torture you until they get what they want.”
There was a very heavy silence in the room as the truth of what Hank said sank in. He was right, of course. I could never truly escape. Hank and Amy might be able to conceal me for a while, but the government would find us eventually. And they would not hesitate to kill Hank and Amy to get to me. They already killed my parents, what would keep them from doing the same to anyone that I cared about?
I thought of my little sister living in Las Vegas, and my nieces and nephews who I haven’t even met yet. I had to protect them somehow.
Finally I said, “Okay, I’ll do it. I will write down all the information that I can, and hopefully Amy can make the antidote.”
Hank grinned at me and clapped me on the back. “That’s my brother!” he said, smiling.
“But Hank,” I interrupted. “Once Amy makes that antidote, the research and data will all be destroyed for good.”
“Of course,” he responded quickly. “That information isn’t going anywhere.”
A few minutes later Hank brought in a spiral bound notebook, with three large grease spots staining the front cover. He handed it to me, along with a pen.
“Here. Jot down whatever you can remember. Amy will have to work on interpreting the information, but she can do it. Once we get to the safe house in Colorado, she’ll be able to work on it some more. I think that I know of a lab that we can get access into, but we’ll worry about that when we get there.”
I nodded and looked down at the blotchy yellow cover of the notebook. I used to like yellow, I remembered. When I was a kid. My mother used to always dress me in red. I don’t know why. That was Hank’s favorite color, not mine. I remembered that the first bike that my parents got me, which wasn’t a scratched up hand-me-down from my brother, was a beautiful shiny red Schwinn. I thought the bike was cool, but I also quietly ached over the fact that I didn’t think my parents really knew me. They didn’t even know my favorite color.
“Okay, I’ll work on it,” I said firmly, taking the pen in hand and getting to work.
I worked on the notebook all afternoon. I could hear more voices downstairs, and a lot of shuffling of feet and furniture moving. I thought they must be preparing for the big meeting with their commander. It was almost show time.
Amy poked her head in the door.
“It will start in fifteen minutes. You ready to do this?” she whispered. She gave me a thumbs-up when I silently nodded.
I watched the clock for twenty minutes, just to play it safe. The insistent tick-tock put my nerves on edge. Finally, it was time to go.
I put the yellow notebook in a small backpack that Hank had smuggled up to my room. It contained a few bottles of water, some jerky sticks, a package of crackers, another pair of socks, and a sandwich bag with a roll of money in it.
I opened the door a crack and peeked into the hall, checking that the coast was clear. The hall was empty. As I silently crept down the hall, instinct seemed to take over again. Although my blood was pounding in my ears, my breaths were slow and even, my muscles were loose and ready for anything.
The stairs creaked slightly as I made my way down them as softly as I could. I could hear talking from the back of the house, where I assumed the kitchen was, along with the network of computers they would use for the command room. A deep voice that I vaguely recognized but could not place, was rumbling from the room. “Almost there,” he was saying. I didn’t stop long enough to figure out how I knew it and who it belonged to.
The front door was right at the base of the stairs, so I didn’t have far to go. I prayed that I could get through the squeaky screen door without drawing attention to myself. Hank must have thought of everything, because the doors opened silently, not a squeal or a creak to be heard. Once I made it to the front lawn I bolted for the barn, which was situated further up the drive. I knew that if anyone looked out the window they would see me, so I had to move fast.
My muscles surged with power and responded to my every command. I was behind the barn in a matter of seconds, and could see a faded old Ford pickup truck parked beside the wall furthest from the house. I laughed when I saw that it was red.
Like Hank had promised, a set of keys hung from the ignition, waiting and ready for me to make my escape. Before I was able to turn the key and start up the engine, Hank and Amy came running around the corner.
“I thought we were meeting at the gas station,” I whispered, as the two climbed into the truck next to me. I slid over to let Hank drive, since he knew where to go.
“Change of plans!” Amy said, beaming.
“We were bringing you your dinner, and we saw the perfect opportunity to get out, while everyone was still down in the kitchen,” Hank said, as he turned over the truck’s engine.
The truck roared to life, and I worried about the noise it made, but Hank didn’t waste any time waiting for someone to come investigate. We were on the road within a few moments, heading away from the street lights and other buildings, and into the safety of darkness and country roads.
We drove all night, stopping only for gas a few times. I spent the time writing down everything I could remember from my mental file cabinet of information, hoping that the sooner I could get it all written out, the sooner Amy could make the antidote, and I could finally be free.
Amy looked over my shoulder several times, reading some of my notes. Every once in a while, she would utter a surprised, “Oh!” or, “Of course!” before suppressing her excitement and looking out the front window again.
I must have dozed off because I woke to see the sun just peeking through a mass of trees. We were making our way over a bumpy dirt road and were surrounded by rocks and forest. There were small pockets of colorful deciduous trees nestled among the dark shapes of evergreen, and their warm glow seemed to be saying good morning to the rusty old truck bumping along the road.
We followed the road around one last bend and approached a rickety cabin situated deep in the trees. The windows were boarded over, and it had a distinctly empty and derelict look to it. It was perfect.
“Here we are,” Hank said, suppressing a yawn.
“It looks worse than I remember,” Amy sighed, but followed Hank as he stepped out of the truck.
I opened the passenger door and was immediately engulfed in the scent of outdoors: earth, leaves, and the moisture of the morning. I crunched through the leaves strewn across the walkway. They were no longer the bright and cheery yellows and rusts which were hanging in the trees around us, but were muddy brown. Dead.
Hank pulled a rusty key out of his pocket and unlocked the front door to the cabin. He then stepped into the darkness, shuffling around for a moment looking for something. With the subtle scrape of a chord being pulled, the room was suddenly illuminated from a single bulb swinging from the ceiling in the center of the room.
The cabin was only one room. There was a table in the center with a couple battered wooden chairs, two narrow cots resting under one of the boarded up windows, and a cold fireplace taking up the majority of the back wall.
“Lovely,” Amy muttered, but Hank ignored her. He wasted no time bringing in some firewood from the side of the cabin and got to work lighting a fire.
While Hank was occupied with the fire, I sat down with Amy at the dusty table. We swept the top off with our hands, wiping them on our pants, and I showed her the notebook.
Amy flipped through the pages, seeming to absorb the information that was just a jumble to me.
“Is this all of it?” she asked as she flipped through to the end.
“Yes. All that I can write down, anyway.”
“Okay, this is good. I can work with this.” She looked up to me and smiled. “You did the right thing, Jack.”
I nodded, but looked at her curiously when she stood up and moved toward the door. As she opened it I heard the faint sound of whirring blades in the distance, and tires grinding on the dirt road. She walked out to greet the three dark SUVs which were pulling up in the drive.
“Amy? What’s going on?” I called, and followed her out the door.
She was standing next to a man in a dark suit. More dark-suited men were filing out of the vehicles, in addition to armed men in SWAT gear, aiming their weapons directly at me. Two helicopters were circling over our heads, swirling the dirt and leaves in simultaneous cyclones.
I looked closely at the man that Amy was talking to, and suddenly I remembered.
He was the one who had recruited me into the program at The Center. “For your country,” he had said, and I had believed him. He was there when the icy burn of the enhancement serum had coursed through my veins, and when I absorbed the knowledge from my first victim. “This will save the lives of countless Americans, son,” he had said in his low gravelly voice. But by then, I no longer believed him.
It was the same voice that I heard last night coming from the kitchen.
“Good work, Matthews,” he said to Amy, as she was handing him the priceless yellow notebook.
“Amy, NO!!” I bellowed, but was stopped by a hand grasping my arm tightly. I turned to see Hank holding me back.
“She can’t do this! We have to stop her!” I pleaded desperately to him, but he just looked at me with a sad grimace.
“I’m sorry, Jack. We had to do it. They were going to kill Meg too.”
My heart was pounding in my chest. This couldn’t be happening!
“Well, hello Jack,” Agent Morgan said, walking toward me in his stiff, formerly military-trained manner. He looked down at the notebook in his hands. “Funny. All the years we tried to hunt you down. You were always just one step ahead.” He shook his head, then looked up at me again. “But in the end, all it took was a little drug-induced amnesia and some good old fashioned family drama pulling at the heart-strings.”
He chuckled to himself and pointed over to Amy. “Matthews here is our best agent yet.”
Sharon emerged from the vehicle, swinging her long dark braid around to her back. I remembered now. After I had destroyed the labs and computers at The Center, she was the first one who was able to track me down in the squat little cabin in Montana. She had tried to bribe me, offer me anything my heart could desire, if I would just come back and work with the authorities to reconstruct the information that I had destroyed. I had refused. Then her bribes had turned to threats.
“We know where your family is,” she had said, her words husky with anger.
By the time I was able to get to my parents’ house, it was too late. I seethed with the memory.
“It was so easy, really,” Sharon joined in. “When we found that we couldn’t convince you to come in on your own accord and give us what we needed, we decided to recruit someone else who would.” She looked pointedly at Hank.
“We found you again, this time you were living in the mountains in Northern Idaho. We captured you, gave you a mind-altering drug to make you more pliable to the affects of Amy’s control, and dropped you over your supposed safe house.”
An image flashed through my mind, the image of dropping onto a carpet of golden leaves outside the cabin in Idaho, my head pounding, vision swirling, and smelling the damp earth below.
“How could you?” I asked spinning to look my brother in the face. “After all they have done to our family, killing Mom and Dad, how could you betray me and side with them? Why didn’t you come to me instead? We could have figured it out together!”
Hank was kept from responding with a laugh that came from Amy, starting low and escalating in pitch and volume.
“Of course he agreed to it,” she finally said, then looked at her husband with a look of disgust. “He was living with me, after all.”
Hank and I looked at each other, confused.
“Honey, there is something that I neglected to tell you about my time spent at The Center,” she said, raising her shoulders in a mock shrug. “Jack isn’t the only one who received one of those specialized permanent serums. I did as well.”
We stood there, in a stunned silence. Hank released my arm.
“I may not be able to absorb information from those around me like your dear little brother can. But my ability is just as powerful. And cool, I think,” she smirked at us.
“Amy, what have you done?” Hank murmured.
“I can infiltrate other’s minds with thoughts and feelings. I can persuade them to think a certain thing, or have an emotional reaction to whatever I put in there. It’s only a suggestion, really. But it’s amazing what havoc I can wreak when I merely suggest to the mind something like hate, fear, distrust….”
Amy walked over to Hank, leaning in so close, for a moment I thought that she was going to kiss him.
“…or even love.”
Hank glowered at her.
A sick feeling was pooling in the bottom of my stomach. Not only did the authorities create the power to read people’s thoughts, they were able to suggest the feelings and attitudes of its citizens as well. It was a lethal combination.
Amy turned her back toward Hank and started sauntering back to Agent Morgan and the others.
The next moment seemed to make time stand still. As though in slow motion, I could see Hank pull a pistol from under the belt at his back and I could read the intent emanating from his mind. Almost instantaneously I saw bullets discharged from the countless SWAT team rifles, heading straight for my brother. Without even thinking, I threw my body in front of my brother, my muscles working at superhuman speed. And as the bullets pelted my body, I could see that my brother’s bullet met its mark, straight in the back of Amy’s head.
My body was falling, falling, falling, toward the brown leaves scattered across the ground. I could smell the dirt and decay from the fallen leaves, now mixing with the metallic heat of my own blood.
I heard Hank yelling “NO!!” but the sound came to me through a long narrow tunnel.
I knew that I was dying, but a smile crept onto my lips as my body convulsed from the shock of impact.
What they didn’t know, was that the notebook was not complete. I had told Amy the truth. It contained everything that I could write down. But it did not contain the most important element, the part that I would never have written down because it was entirely too dangerous…the formula which linked all the pieces together. The formula which was imprinted only inside the workings of my now fading mind.
See you tomorrow for a new Valentine's story by Maryanne!