The sudden blast of wind filled my lungs so violently that I couldn’t take a breath and my chest burned with the ache. My stomach lurched as I opened my eyes, aware that my body was spinning and falling, falling, falling. All I could see was darkness but my eyes searched anyway, as I rolled and tumbled out of control. Sudden glimpses of sparks of light caught my attention and I tried desperately to turn myself to face them. I seemed to move faster as I struggled to right myself, but I had no concept of what was up or down. The lights became my main focus. Fighting to spread out my limbs, I finally stopped spinning and felt a push of air so fierce against my chest that I could hardly breathe, but it was a relief to be more stable. The lights were just pinpricks in the distance of inky blackness in front of me, clustered together in groups of differing sizes. As I watched, they appeared to be growing in size, morphing into chunky blocks and structures….buildings! Suddenly my situation became very clear. My scream was ripped from my throat, thrown to the caprice of the stars at my back as I plummeted ever closer to the earth.
I was starting to be able to decipher individual buildings and black shadowy shapes which must have been trees and shrubbery. I didn’t have much time left. Cold sweat ran down my back, and I noticed a heavy object strapped there….a backpack. Could I be so lucky? I fumbled around with the straps which were bound across my shoulders and around my chest, sending me spiraling out of control again. Finally I found it….A large shiny ring was attached to a red cord hanging next to my right shoulder. The buildings were closer now. I could tell they were houses, following a wave-shaped grid of roads and street lights. A suburb. I saw a yellow car, illuminated and cartoon-like under the glare of lights, winding its way along one of the roads. For a moment I wondered whether they would see me falling and stop to watch. Time seemed to stand still as I ripped on the red chord as hard as I could. At first I didn’t think anything would happen, but then, in a whoosh, I was jerked back in a ferocious tug, forcing out the small amount of air which was left inside my lungs. I gasped and was suspended in mid-fall.
Instinct seemed to take over. There were rings hanging on the chording attached to the parachute and I grabbed them, sending my suspended figure rocking. I tested them out and found that I was able to navigate myself by pulling on the chords. I aimed for a dark expanse, which looked like a field surrounded by trees. I could see that the field was empty, a perfect landing spot. The ground was rushing toward me now, I was coming in so fast. Then a sudden gust of wind blew me to the side. I tilted in midair, my parachute heading for the looming darkness of trees. Before I could compensate for the change in direction, the parachute was snagged in the grappling grasp of knobby branches. Once again, a tremendous tug forced me backwards, but then the pressure was released, leaving me swinging in the tree.
My heart pounding in my ears, I took a few deep breaths and looked around me. I was positioned about twenty feet from the ground, my feet suspended in a surreal air dance. I was sprinkled in golden leaves, spiraling in their descent to join the jumble of color on the ground below. Another gust of wind rocked me sharply to the side, creating another flurry of cascading color. The tree seemed to protest my presence, making a loud groaning sound as I swayed heavily. A few cracks, a sudden drop, and the branches began to give way. Another gust, an explosive pop overhead, and I was falling once again. The ground came at me with fury, and this time there was no softening of the blow.
A groan escaped my lips. I was lying on the gold and rust-colored blanket of leaves, my legs awkwardly sprawled underneath me, looking up at the draping black carcass of my parachute still tangled in the branches overhead. It loomed over me like a ghostly representation of the Grim Reaper, its billowing folds fighting the clinging branches. Lying there, I was immediately immersed in the scent of dirt and decaying foliage, reminding me of….what? I don’t know. I can’t remember. I fingered one of the crinkled leaves, and the delicate framework crumbled in my hand, releasing more of the scent.
I was alive.
Groaning again, I tried to sit upright. I was caught up in the chords from my parachute and had to release myself from their entrapment. Gingerly I touched my legs, my ankles, my feet. Other than a dull throbbing ache, I seemed to have escaped any major damage. I tested them further by getting to my feet. I could walk. I took a few steps, but a wave of nausea swept over me and I lurched forward. Sucking in air, I tried to right myself again. I was so dizzy, and my vision was fuzzy around the edges. Maybe the shock of the fall….I felt a trickle running down my neck. Touching the sticky wetness, I withdrew my hand and found it covered in congealing blood.
I decided that I better find someone to help me. I didn’t even know where I was. The houses that I flew over couldn’t be too far. I started to head in the direction of the lights, crossing through the empty field. As I approached the road I could make out a dark house adjacent to the field. I decided to try it out. It was probably the owner of the property I just landed in. There was a dilapidated barn behind the house, with farming equipment and a collection of rusted out vehicles scattered throughout the yard.
The house itself was dark, but not uninviting. From the lack of lighting, it looked like a nondescript grey desperately in need of a paint job. Maybe an old farmer and his wife lived here. There was a pair of mud-encrusted work boots by the front door. There had to be someone at home.
The sagging screen door squeaked noisily as I opened it to knock. I waited a few minutes and knocked again. Finally I heard some movement inside the house and the porch light flicked on, momentarily blinding me.
The door opened and I caught my breath. This was no aging farmer. A man in his thirties was standing there, his brown hair disheveled from sleep, a red and white flannel shirt hastily thrown over a white undershirt. But what caught my attention the most was the fact that I was looking down the barrel of a shotgun, pointed directly at me.
The man seemed to falter a little when he saw me. He lowered the gun.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know where to go,” I stammered. But then I stopped.
I didn’t know who I was.
Tremors of disbelief trickled across his face as he took me in from my mussed hair, my torn clothing then all the way down to my black rubber-soled boots. His eyes quickly returned to mine, searching for something, and then I noticed a flicker of suspicion that was quickly hidden by the darkness behind him. His behavior seemed odd, not that of a man who didn’t know who I was but rather a man seeing a ghost.
“I’m sorry to bother you so late, but I have lost my way and need some medical assistance. Wasn’t quite sure where to go and your farmhouse seemed the closest to my immediate location,” I croaked as I lamely tried to explain my presence.
Then that feeling of shakiness and dizziness was returning, my eyes fogging over and my thoughts muddling within themselves. I collapsed in a heap on this man’s doorstep, giving myself over to weakness and the pull of unconsciousness. It seemed blissful compared to the terror of the past few hours.
“It’s impossible, I can’t believe I’m even considering it. But calling anybody at The Center would only alert any enemies to our location as well as his – if it really is him,” were the whispered words I overheard as I pulled myself up out of the darkness of sweet oblivion. My body ached, my throat was dry with thirst and my eyes gritty with sand. I must have moaned aloud as I tried to reposition my limbs, struggling to sit upright because suddenly the conversation stopped.
“How are you feeling?” asked a shy, thin woman with hair that almost made me forget to answer her. It was vibrant purple and full of corkscrew curls. I don’t know why but I had an immediate impulse to pull on one and watch it boing and bounce back into place. Her eyes were bright green and a smattering of freckles covered her cheeks. Thin lips belied many sentiments she may have felt as she pursed them together, giving her a rather severe look. She also looked frightened and had that same disbelieving look the farmer had had. “And what kind of farmer married someone who had purple hair anyway?!” was just one of the crazy thoughts that raced through my mind as I began to wonder who she was.
“Where am I? And who are you,” I replied, easily evading her query. The last thing I wanted was to admit any weaknesses considering I knew nothing about my situation otherwise. Why was I suddenly so suspicious?
“I’m Amy and you’re at my family’s farm in New Mexico. Do you remember anything about before you got here?” The words seemed to spill from her before she could hold them back, her curiosity more than just idle interest. It seemed more intense, more raw, more personal somehow. And her eyes, why did they look so sad and yet hopeful at the same time?
Rather than admit to any frailties, I tried to sit up and learn more about my surroundings. I was in a bedroom that looked like something my grandmother might have decorated. Roosters and cows were hung in pastel pink and blue frames and placed prominently throughout the room; the bedding resembled window treatments more than something one would sleep in. There was an old fashioned pitcher and bowl on a daintily stitched doily on the dresser nearby and I idly wondered if that was where I was to shave and if they would require me to use a straight-blade and lather from powder as well. The furniture was well worn but sturdy and throw rugs around the room promised to keep one’s toes warm when a run to the loo was necessary even on colder nights. Of course they were decorated with roosters cock-a-doodle-doing or colorful cows surrounded by fields of grass and tulips. For some reason the room made my insides feel warm and gooey, an odd feeling given my current state of affairs.
“I’m thirsty, might I trouble you for something to drink? Or somewhere to clean up? I’m afraid I’ve made an awful mess here with my…” my voice trailed off as I noticed my clean clothes, my arms that looked and smelled as if they’d been freshly scrubbed with lemon and mint and other fresh herbs. My face was clean as well although my eyes must have been hard to clean what with them being shut with sleep. Suddenly I felt exposed, wondering what they had seen. They now knew me better than I did, as I still did not remember who I was, never-mind what I might look like under all my clothing. Do I have telling scars or embarrassing tattoos? Do I have all my toes; is my back covered with hair? Embarrassment flooded my face and I couldn’t contain the flush of heat from spreading from my cheeks to my ears and down the back of my neck.
At that, the small purple haired woman shrieked, grabbed me and held me fiercely, whispering, “Jack, I knew it. I just knew it. I knew they were all wrong. I just knew you weren’t dead!”
The others in the room looked over in alarm at the sudden outburst from Amy. She seemed to remember herself and stood up, smoothing her clothes.
The name Jack triggered something in my mind. “Am I Jack?” I wondered.
“I don’t remember…” I said, rubbing my temple.
“Hush now,” Amy said. “Lay back. You need some rest.”
She gestured everyone else to get out of the room. Minutes later, she reentered the room. It was all very confusing.
“Jack seems familiar. Should you look familiar?”
Amy nodded at me vigorously. “Yes, you are Jack. I don’t know if you’d remember me, but I surely remember you. Everyone knows you. You were captured and presumed dead. Some of us never gave up hope though. As for your memory, I’m pretty sure you were heavily drugged. They probably drugged you to keep you captive and to get information out of you.”
I felt that uncomfortable exposed feeling again. Information?
“We have spies with them though. I’m thinking someone saved you. They must have equipped you with a parachute and tossed you out of a plane right over our headquarters. It’s genius, actually.”
I remembered the terrifying journey to the ground. It didn’t feel completely genius. But, I was alive.
“Listen,” Amy said urgently in a whispered voice, “There are some,” she gestured with her chin outside the room, “Who would rather have you gone, who may have betrayed you in the first place. You need to keep acting like you don’t remember who you are until you know who you can trust.”
“OK,” I said, nodding, though I didn’t really have any idea what she was talking about.
Amy smiled encouragingly and left the room again.
Acting like I don’t remember? I was pretty sure I could do that. My mind felt like a heavy fog was over it.
I closed my eyes and must have slept because the next thing I knew, there was daylight streaming in between the curtains and a man was standing over me, staring down. He was the man who had opened the door of the farmhouse. Also, his name was Hank. I remembered that.
“Jack?” he asked, “Is it really you? You look very…altered.”
I remembered what Amy had said about not knowing whom I could trust. I wondered if I could trust her?
I rubbed my head and acted like I was confused. It didn’t take too much effort because I was still quite confused.
“You’ve been through a lot,” Hank said, “Amy said she thinks you were drugged. Do you remember anything about the time you were…away?”
“How long was I gone?” I asked.
“Almost three years,” he answered.
Three years! That was a long time to have lost, to not have any memory of. Then I realized I had no memories at all. I did remember Hank though. Maybe things would come back to me.
"Three years, that's a long time to be gone," I replied.
"It is but do you remember anything? Anything you can remember from when you were captured could really help us," said Hank.
"I don't remember anything from the last three years or any of the years before that. I can't remember anything at all. It's news to me that my name is Jack. I don't remember Amy or this farmhouse or anyone else I've seen so far. The only one that is vaguely familiar is you, which is the only reason I'm telling you this. I'm hoping because I can remember you, it means I can trust you. I'm hoping you can tell me something that will bring back my memory or at least understand what's going on," I replied.
"I can tell you who you are, why you probably trust me, and what is going on in the world, but you're probably not going to like most of it so let's first get you some food. You're definitely in need of some nourishment," said Hank as he left through the door.
I was worried. What if I'd put my trust in the wrong person just because I could remember him faintly? "I need to see if I can even stand up," I thought. I pulled back the covers to expose my legs, fully clothed in someone else's clothes. At least they were a nice pair of jeans but the waist was a bit loose. I turned my body so that my legs now touched the ground. I remembered how hard it was to sit up so I took it easy. Slowly I pushed myself up off the bed until I was upright. The room spun and I quickly sat back down. Hank was right, I needed something to eat, but I probably also needed a lot of R and R to recuperate from my freefall from the sky. I looked around the room for some kind of weapon I could use. The best I could do was a heavy old book on the bedside table, or the bedside lamp might come in handy. I'd have to keep my wits about me and hope I wouldn't need to escape tonight. I couldn't stand, let alone escape. Time would have to be on my side.
Hank came back after about twenty minutes with a tray laden with soup, toast and milk. Food for the sick. It would have to do. Amy was hovering right behind him.
"Amy, I told you to wait in the kitchen," said Hank.
"I know, but I wanted to see him again."
"Well, there he is, now get back downstairs. Come back after a little bit and we'll fill in Jack," said Hank.
"Okay, dear," replied Amy as she waved and left the room.
I waved back, but I knew she still was not familiar.
"You probably don't remember her very well. Amy and I married right before you disappeared. You'd only met a handful of times. She's wonderful but can be a bit exuberant at times. Her Grandmother's old farmhouse has sure come in handy for us, though," said Hank. "I'm glad she left it to Amy. Eat up. It's not much, but I didn't think you'd be up for much to eat after your descent. Jumping always made me sick to my stomach and I would imagine crashing would make it all that much worse. Amy makes a fabulous chicken soup. Eat up."
I ate my soup like a good, little boy, hoping it wasn't poisoned. I didn't have any other options. I knew I needed to eat to get better and the soup was very good. I finished all the food and then looked up at Hank who had been watching me all this time.
"Soooo, what's the deal? What have I forgotten? Why are you the only one I have a faint memory of? What is The Center? Yes, I heard them talking. How do you think I came to be jumping out of a plane and happen to land such a short distance from your farm?" the questions poured out of me.
"Let's start with why I think you remember me. I am your older brother. We grew up together. I am five years older but we still spent a bunch of time together, mostly because you tagged along behind me whether I wanted you or not. Mom and Dad always made me take you. By the way, they're both dead. They died about a year before you disappeared. They're one of the reasons we're at war with the government. We believe the government had them killed as a tactic to try to get to you. We have a younger sister that lives in Las Vegas. She is blissfully ignorant about our lives. We keep her that way to keep her safe. She has four kids and is a Mormon. Her life is completely different from ours," said Hank.
He took a breather and looked at me but I didn't know what to say. I had a brother and a sister plus four nieces and nephews. My parents were dead. My brother has a wife with purple hair. I'm at war with the government. What do you say to all that?
I shrugged my shoulders, "It's all news to me. What about The Center? What is it and how does it fit into this mess?"
"The Center is a government program where they were trying to figure out ways to give humans super abilities. They would create concoctions using steroids, drugs and natural ingredients that they hoped would give humans the ability to be stronger or have better hearing or just be healthier so we could live longer. They tried these all out on mice but they needed a human guinea pig. Someone who was young and healthy and could hopefully survive the testing. You were chosen and accepted the orders. You used to be in the Air Force. After they gave you the serum, you changed; you got stronger, seemed healthier, had super human hearing, ran faster than anyone else, you had a photographic memory and who knows what else," said Hank. We were interrupted by a knock at the door and Amy came in and sat by Hank.
"I was just telling Jack his story," said Hank to Amy.
"Oh good, I'll help if I can," said Amy.
Hank began again, "You were the miracle boy until you disappeared off their radar. That's when you came to me for help because you wanted out of their program. You said you didn't like what they were doing to your body and how you felt and you knew they wouldn't let you out just because you asked. We hid you, but they went after Mom and Dad, not the people at The Center. They're just a bunch of scientists who were excited about the results. It was the government that came after us. They couldn't find you so they went after Mom and Dad in hopes they would tell them where you were hiding. It was about three months after you left the program that the house exploded from a supposed broken gas main and they were killed instantly. You were on the run from the government when we figured they must have caught you and killed you as well. We have no idea where you have been the last three years. We have tried everything we could to find out where you were but everything was a dead end. All official documents list you as dead," said Hank.
"And none of our spies on the inside have been able to find any trace of you, Jack," said Amy.
"What I don't understand is why we are at war with the government? I mean, they killed our parents, so is that why we are at war with them?" I asked.
"I think I can explain that," said Amy.
“During the early stages of the program, The Center tried unsuccessfully to not only create a super-human with substantial physical abilities, but superior psychological abilities as well. Each treatment was temporary. They would experiment with different formulas and let the side effects wear off; then they would try a new round and record the results. As the success rate increased, so did their funding. They began to develop formulas for increased memory, language comprehension, dream enhancements and so on. At one point, they thought to have determined the formula that allowed man to communicate telepathically. But they were wrong. After they injected you with the first dose you had the ability to ‘map out’ anyone’s mind within close proximity. I guess the best way to describe it is that you absorbed their capacity to learn in the manner that they learned, and added to your own intelligence. Make sense?”
“Not really, but go on anyway.”
“It’s like you copied and pasted their intelligence into your brain. Everything they knew, you knew. Instantly.” Hank clarified.
“Ah…Why would that be a problem? Especially if the side effects are temporary?” Jack asked.
“Because it wasn’t temporary. It was the only formula that never wore off; and the information you gleaned was sensitive in nature to say the least.” Amy shook her head and paced around the room.
“So they want me dead… to bury their secrets?”
“No, Jack. They don’t want you dead; not yet at least. They want their formulas back. When you realized the power they were playing with, you destroyed their research. The only record of their work is trapped in here...” Amy tapped Jack’s forehead and looked at him severely.
Jack rubbed his temples and returned Amy’s gaze. He stood slowly. “Just out of curiosity…how do you know so much about this secret government program?”
Amy sat back and brushed the curls out of her face. “Well,” she said, looking at Hank for reassurance, “I worked for The Center.”
She looked much too young to be a scientist working miracles. The disbelief must have shown on my face because she launched into more of the story.
“I was recruited while I was doing grad work at Stanford. They were happy to have me; I’m good at what I do. There were rumors in the scientific community about what The Center was achieving with human performance and I wanted to see for myself. After an internship I was hired full time. What I discovered is that a lot of their recruits for the testing come from the staff itself. Everyone was so eager to become enhanced. I got caught up in the excitement. They juiced up my physical abilities. I was able to put up some Olympic caliber times with my running. I can only imagine how you could manipulate someone who already had that type of peak performance on their own. They also enhanced my ability to remember. I was able to recall everything that had happened in my life—back to the womb. Pretty cool and disconcerting at the same time. But just like nearly everyone else, my abilities faded over a matter of months. Every once in a while I’ll get a resurgence of my abilities, but it’s unpredictable and I’m weak afterward and my memory’s fuzzy. I’m worse off than before I was enhanced. I wish I’d never done it.”
Hank put an arm around Amy’s shoulders while I pondered her story. If she were telling the truth, maybe that explained my amnesia. Maybe after years of superhuman powers, I was coming down off some extreme high. Could I have had too much of being inside others’ minds and now my own was revolting and refusing to remember? At least I was creating new memories. I remembered the crash and making my way to the farmhouse and everything else since I regained consciousness. I hadn’t been able to see inside anyone else’s mind though. Could what they were telling me even possibly be real?
“Listen, Jack. I’m not sure we’re safe here. If we have spies in The Center, they may have infiltrated our operations as well. Are you feeling well enough to move on? There are other places that we can get you to without the others having to know.”
Listening to Hank speak I realized he meant to go now. At least I had some food in me. I swung my legs off the bed. With the two helping me I stood, but my dizziness took over and I wasn’t able to move under my own power. I collapsed back onto the bed with complete exhaustion.
I watched Amy and Hank communicate something silently to each other. “We need you to be able to move under your own power before we can transfer you. Carrying you out of here would cause a lot of commotion. Our orders are to have you recover before we relocate,” Amy explained.
Knowing that I might be in danger from others inside the home made me determined to get better and fast.
“I’ll hang out outside your door tonight,” Hank volunteered.
I contemplated the risks to my life as I tried to settle into the bed for the night. My mind refused to stop racing as I reviewed everything I had been told. Funny how the pastel frills and farm animal décor in my farmhouse bedroom had suddenly become almost menacing as I realized the danger I was in.
I awoke the next morning to a knock at my door. Hank opened the door just enough to get a peek inside. “You decent?” he asked. I sat up in response, rubbing my eyes. I couldn’t believe I had actually slept. And slept well, apparently. While still weak and sore, I could tell that the nausea and dizziness from yesterday had significantly abated. Hank opened the door farther and a middle-aged woman with a dark braid entered. She set a breakfast tray down by my bed. “I’m Sharon,” she said, smiling kindly at me. I gratefully eyed the plate of bacon and eggs. I grabbed the hot mug of coffee and smiled my thanks at Sharon. As I inhaled the aroma, a sudden jolt went through my body.
With absolute clarity I flashbacked to several years before. I was in a safe house and still had all my childhood memories. I was sitting over coffee with Sharon in a cabin in Montana. Every feature of the room was etched in perfect detail in my mind. I understood what the government wanted from me and what superhuman powers I was capable of. My memories started filling in as I rushed toward the present.
My body was being overwhelmed by my memory returning. I could feel someone taking the steaming coffee out of my hands. I looked up to see Sharon’s concerned face hovering over me. As I made eye contact with her, my brain suddenly became supercharged. My memories abruptly cut off and I felt like Sharon’s brain was gushing into mine. I tried to remain still and placid, but it was difficult when I was being flooded with someone else’s knowledge and memories. I tried to channel Sharon’s knowledge to a reservoir in some part of my brain so it didn’t drown who I was and what I had just remembered.
Sharon’s life streamed through me: third grade dance recital, Easter morning, state capitals, romantic sunsets, periodic chart, speeding ticket, government contacts. The pertinent information somehow came floating to the top of this infinite well of information. I knew she was working for the enemy. Despite the concern on Sharon’s face, I knew she could not be trusted. I had to get out now.
“Hank, could I have a little time? I’m not quite well.” I flopped back on the pillows, willing Sharon to leave before she realized I had just downloaded her brain. I was feeling hyper-alert, but faked my exhaustion. I’m glad I knew who Sharon was now but I was incredibly frustrated that my own memory had shut down before it remembered everything. I had both photographically clear snippets and gaping voids. Why had I gotten on that plane? Was my freefall my own doing? Sharon and Hank were huddled together looking worried and talking quietly. Finally Sharon left and Hank came back to the bedside. As soon as the door shut, I whispered “We have to get out of here!” and jumped out of the bed, ignoring my physical pain.
“What’s going on?” Hank whispered. He silently locked the door before coming back to me. “Did you start remembering something?”
“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.