A short story by Youssef Hamdi.
It was all a setup.
“Every morning, I wake up at 6 a.m., and I have to face the world with its inconveniences. My routine is very simple: First, I take a shower. Then, I dress up in a black suit and wear a red tie that suffocates the hell out of my neck. I take my scrambled eggs and my sugarless cup of coffee while reading the daily newspaper. Every sip I take reminds me of how bitter my life is.
8 a.m. That’s when I usually take my leave for work. I spend 8 hours sitting at a depressing desk, facing a dimly lit window. It saddens me, really. How sick and plain my life is!” I wrote down my routine as I woke up from a nightmare, hands trembling, terrified of random illusions my brain made up.
The next morning, the clock again strikes 6 a.m.
The tormenting beeps woke me, and I began my daily routine. As usual, I went to work, set myself up on my desk, and worked on some files I had accumulated. Ambient music filled my ears. While I was browsing through those files, I happened to receive an email from Kelly. Clicking the notification, a wild message appeared saying, “Act Normal, meet me downstairs. NOW!”
Kelly would never think of pranking me. Kelly is the sort of girls who doesn’t know how to make up a lie. I thought. Driven by a sense of panic, I pushed the chair back and tried to untie my tie. To my own surprise, I realised I didn’t have it on and began to freak out. I would never miss a single part of my routine. Something was peculiar about this place. I had a simple trick to check whether I was fine. I recited my daily routine. Alarm beeps. 6 a.m. Dress. Work. Was my memory wrong? My lips mumbled the routine out loud, “ALARM…B-BEEPS…six…six…work…” My eyes popped out and I groaned. I had hidden a paper somewhere in my pocket, in which I had my routine written on. I quickly checked for it, but it was not there. I sat back on the chair, faced the screen, and read Kelly’s email carefully. “ACT NORMAL, meet me downstairs. NOW!” What could be happening? I whispered to myself.
Taking a deep breath, I wiped off the sweat that coated my forehead. Act Normal. I repeated while fixing myself. I got up to get a cup of coffee, acting like nothing had ever happened. I laid my hand on the doorknob, turned it left and right, and slowly stepped out of my office. I found myself trembling. Everyone had their backs turned my way and the sight was odd. I walked towards the coffee machine breathing in and out. Are those my colleagues? I thought.
I knew those people, but I did not have a memory of their names, identities, or any contact with them. They looked like potential threats. They all had badges on while I had a bracelet. I always had it on. There were random numbers carved on it. I tucked my hands in the pockets of my vest, looked down, and then kept walking. I bumped into someone and turned to excuse myself. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said reflexively before I noticed the grotesque mask that was her face. Despite my heart skipping a beat at the sight, I tried to keep calm, not wanting them to see me freak out. They’d know. I felt.
Their chattering was unbearable. It was all muzzled echoes, and I tried not to listen. Not looking back, I went to the fire exit door and opened it. Stepping onto the stairs, I closed the door, then broke the door handle with a fire extinguisher, and ran downstairs as fast as I could. My breathing was erratic as I looked around to spot Kelly.
Everything around me distorted, almost as if the world glitched. I decided it was all in my mind just as a voice cracked the placidity of the place, “Jonathan, here.” It was hard to grasp, but I understood.
“Follow my voice, Jon,” the voice echoed in my head as it tried to lead me somewhere. I sat down as I had a panic attack, beginning to gasp for air.
Once I regained control again, I stood up and slowly walked around, checking if there’s a hidden entry. Once again, the voice addressed me, “Jon, move straight forward and face that wall.”
I moved straight forward. Eventually, I found myself standing before an eerie black wooden door. Unless you were standing in front of it, it couldn’t be spotted. The door creaked as I opened it. The chamber inside seemed untenanted, though the voice vibrated louder as I peered inside. “Finally, you made it,” said a female voice. “Now, get in and let me explain. Quick, before they see you!”
See me? I wondered. “IS THAT YOU KELLY?” I yelled.
“Yes, it’s Kelly,” she replied.
“What’s happening?” I asked, confused.
I heard footsteps coming towards me and the same voice uttered, “You’ll understand. Here, take this pill. It’s your only way out of here.” I turned to see Kelly, her face stuttering.
She pressed a pink pill into my hand, and I inspected it. It smelled awful, exactly like my bitter coffee, or worse. “What now?” I asked, “Are we staying here?”
“Just swallow the pill and lie still in that bed,” she replied, looking back through a crack, waiting for something. “Now, recite your routine,” she urged.
“My routine? Why?”
“It’s your only way out. Go on, recite your routine!”
“Alright!” I nodded.
I started with what I could remember, “Alarm beeps. 6 a.m. Dress. Work.” I faltered, then rubbed my face exasperated. “I know more than that. Alarm beeps…6 a.m…Dress…S-sui–…Work…” My brain felt sluggish and useless. “My routine is simple,” I said to myself, trying to remember the details. “My routine is simple. My routine is simple.”
“Why does this feel wrong?” I thought. My body began to feel numb as if all my limbs had fallen asleep. I found I could not move. My eyes darted towards Kelly, and the world collapsed before my eyes, darkness enveloping everything.
Alarm beeps…6…Work. My voice faltered as I fell unconscious.
The sound of indistinct chatter reached me through the darkness.
I opened my eyes to see a strong flashlight shining in my eyes. Everything was white.
Looking around, I felt panic as I noticed I was strapped to a bed, my neck tightly affixed to the mattress by straps. I thudded in a trial to free myself, but to no avail. I blinked my aching eyes. The light was so strong. I still could not grasp a word of what was being said by those around me, the sterile smell filling my nostrils.
Where am I? I murmured, mostly to myself.
My voice was too low to be heard. People dressed in long, white scrubs entered through a door that was in front of me, ignoring me in their conversation.
“Are you sure it’s him, Dr. Kelly?”
“I have no doubt.”
“In that case Miss Kelly, I’m sorry to say your subject failed the test.”
Kelly approached me, “You will be put in an asylum, my dear subject.” She turned to address one of the men in scrubs, the man who seemed to be the leader, “What do you think, Dr. Morgan?”
“Kelly, we had a deal. I remember saying that we’d turn him off if he ever failed. He did, and he proved to us that he’s a weakling,” he said, pitying me as if I were a pet.
“Dr. Morgan, please. He’s an interesting subject. We could still experiment on him,” Kelly said persisting. “I will make sure he won’t escape again.”
“Well, you take full responsibility for the consequences then,” he responded, hesitating.
“I will, Dr. Morgan.” Kelly then approached me and murmured, “Want to know something your broken brain won’t be able to grasp? You once had a life of your own until we brainwashed all your memories.” she continued, “The bracelet on your wrist. Your name is on it, but you also have your ID number. We planted that routine that you think every day. Your consciousness was unable to detect that it had been planted.” I had a hard time following her as she walked while explaining, “Today, you didn’t wear your tie. You questioned your memory, and that’s when your brain began to question our planted ideas.”
This was too much to take in, too strange to understand. My head ached, but she didn’t stop explaining.
“We immediately knew there was a malfunction in your brain, that you were trying to re-establish your own consciousness,” she said, taking my face in her hand and turning it towards her. “You were never going to be useful with your mind as your own,” she whispered, voice cruel and scathing. “I had to use what controls we have left to make you see everyone as monsters, to make you fear that they would harm you. Sending an email seemed old-fashioned in comparison, but it was very effective in actually getting you here.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because we needed a prototype.” Kelly answered, “You were a decaying body. We gave you a life of your own an–”
“BUT WHY?” I screamed, cutting her off in my impatience to know, to understand.
“Poor Jonathan,” she grinned, caressing my hair, “we want to become immortals. You, and many replicas of You, are going to be our lives.” She resumed walking again, “You will be our life, our death. You will be a reincarnation of our consciousness.” she leant towards me, “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have other matters to take care of. We will meet again, soon.” She snapped her fingers, drawing the attention of the orderlies.
“Whatever you’re doing, it won’t en—”
“Take him to the asylum,” she ordered, interrupting my words, then disappeared into thin air.
“N-NO…HELP,” I yelled my head off, pounding.
Two huge, masked men approached me and drove my stretcher out of the room.
The creaks of the stretcher echoed through a dark tunnel. It was dim, and I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel when they suddenly stopped.
I could see nothing, but I felt a cold, pointed needle piercing my skin. What could that be? An injection? I wondered, terrified. They turned left. One guy approached a big steeled door to unlock it, then the other threw me in, and they both left. I heard them locking the door, and a glance at it was enough to know that it would be impossible to breach.
The air of the asylum was dank as though it was left abandoned for years. Perhaps, it had been waiting to embrace my presence.
I crawled to a corner as my body began losing control. I felt dizzy; everything around me was spinning. The injection’s effects were taking place. My eyes closed, though it hardly mattered, dark as it was, my vision blurred.
At a loss for words, I whispered to myself, endlessly repeating: It was all a setup.