Short Story: The Program

Memories make us what we are, who we are. They differentiate us from one another. They buoy us against the storm of moments where we feel life is least worth living; slogging through the daily grind, being stuck in traffic, waiting for our pills at the pharmacy; those things no amount of progress or technology can cut from the human experience. The memories are always there; smiles, tears, laughter. They bob about us just beneath the surface, acting as flotation devices. They are the record of our experiential datum, of our lives.

Sometimes, we need them more than ever. More than any time we have before. It’s in those moments their vigilance and strength ensures we ride the storm or sink beneath to its depths. Sometimes we do one. Sometimes the other. Sometimes though you can do only one or the other, never both.

Rare as it is, ludicrous as it seems to those with average lives and memories; sometimes there is only good. Or only bad. There are no hints of the other. Only a steady stream of one. The lives of these afflicted are imbalanced, abnormal, damaged. In a word, unique.

Almost invariably, that uniqueness leads to total, mental instability.

In a world where normality is sought, it is almost predictable such notoriety should be quashed. Recall that uniqueness is merely an adjective, not an identifier. It is a description, not a condemnation nor ambition. It just is, like us.

That’s what we’re taught, anyway. Where?The place isn’t given a name. They don’t want us identifying it afterward, drawing attention to it. We’re not supposed to want to anyhow. We’re only supposed to recognize it for what it is; a program for preparing our return to society. A return, I might add, that is meant as a rebirth.

As they say, “The Program” is gestation; the facility, the womb.

From the moment you’re discharged and step outside the facility’s doors, you’re born. Your life begins anew.When you have no memory of your life before, it’s easier to become what they want you to be, what you should be. Who are they, and why do they care about your functioning? You can’t remember. You do know however, that you’re comfortable with the idea. That they want to help, only for the sake of helping. After all, human beings can only learn so much when their established mnemonic processes align with the imbalances common to normality.

I was unique. Nothing sinister of course, it’s an adjective, not an identifier. A better term is aberration. We aren’t really unique, those of us in the program. Not in the grander sense, but in our narrower, social sense.

We were the worst of the worst. Socially. That’s why we’re here. There’s no other reason, no explanation. It was this or die. Losing one’s memories in hopes of becoming whole seems more sensible anyhow. Those were the stakes for all of us, they tell us. We’d had every chance, squandered it. So, we wound up here; memories wiped. Pasts forgotten. Futures cemented– the immediate ones anyway.

The Program itself is rather simple; we live our lives to our current age in an accelerated way. We play. Laugh. Love. Cry. Hurt. We’re given a free-reign of life from childhood to adulthood where only the worst kinds of mental scarring’s avoided so we don’t repeat our past.

In other words, we reform life by reliving life, if on fast-forward. Along the way, we establish new mnemonic patterns through an expressed understanding we’re doing so.

In this way, they say, growth’s facilitated. We can eventually re-enter society. Of course, that society’s wholly different and scarring in its own way. It has to be, otherwise we’d never’ve ended up here. Difference is, this time the Programs instilled us with an identity, an inner-peace, and the emotional fortitude we were lacking before hand. We leave new people, knowing our lives might then truly begin.

I do not remember my life before the Program, but I do remember my life during the program. Necessary as it is, I do wonder about that first life. We all do. It’s human nature to wonder, especially about the past, our past. It’s not important, we are continually taught. In fact, the importance is deliberately understated because it is so wholly important, we have no choice but to be left wondering. Knowing otherwise leads us back into old patterns, nullifying growth.

It’s doublespeak; the past’s unimportance is its importance.

In order to remember properly we must forget, let our pasts remain forgotten. We were all sent here for a reason. We’ve all progressed together. Some have paired off, in love with the world we’ve come to know. Others have gained a self-love they lacked.

Personally, I have only imagination fueled by wondering. I can’t know what life might was like before, but I can imagine it. That’s important, if nothing else.

I step through the facility’s front doors and am forced to pause:

This is the only home I’ve ever known. I know of no family outside, no friends. The Program gives us tools to handle this, but I can’t help wondering; maybe this isn’t the way things are meant to be. Even if by all, known accounts, I’ve come far and changed for the better the gut instinct exists.

Because those accounts may be dubious; I know only that I came from somewhere to live life over, gaining a supposed clarity. Yet somehow, everything seems muddier. I know I have a place to go, where I’m likely to live alongside others I “grew up” with, if only temporarily; all of it provided by the facility and The Program’s overseers.

But what of all the people that came before? I must have a mother, a father. Perhaps I disappeared to them, when I was sent here. Perhaps they sent me here. Perhaps not. After all would they not be here now, collecting me? Shouldn’t they have been part of this? I know they would have been, as I know everything else inside me, things sheer memory alone cannot affect.

I know too, something is deeply wrong with the Program, the facility. I feel it in my gut. I felt it before too; every moment, isolation. Every interaction, controlled. There’s no way to know what causes the feeling, nor what insidiousness lies beneath the Program’s seeming benevolence, if any. Still, I sense some things cannot be so, even if I’ve no real proof to it.

Nothing save a vivid memory; an older man, screaming terror in the night. He was part of the group, forced to grow with us. Something had frightened him so wholly he began screaming. The Program was a lie. A control. Meant to reign us all in socially.

I can’t attest to that, obviously, but we were told his outburst was the result of a brain aneurysm hemorrhaging. He was never seen again, and it fit their story, but I can’t help wondering, imagining.

Thinking of him, I remember something said often in reference to our pasts; we’d formed our past selves by deluding ourselves in degrees, through small doses of dark behaviors until wholly believing the growing lies we’d told ourselves. It was a psychological manipulation, our instructors said, done for the sake of our deepest darkness.

I can’t help wondering about that. Maybe the old man was right. After all, if the instructors knew of that manipulation, couldn’t they employ it? Wouldn’t they? Hadn’t they admitted to it already?If not directly,by virtue of the Program’s aims? If so, who was to say he wasn’t right? That the Program’s benevolence wasn’t just a lie, a control?Judging by what we were taught, and the supposed reasons for it, it’s no doubt our species is capable of extreme acts of darkness. So, what truth do we have to the Program’s benevolence then, but its own word?

None. Perhaps uniqueness isn’t an adjective. I aim to find out.

Bonus Short Story: Indifferent Reactions

Marcus Emerson was one of the shy, introverted types that found few friends in school, even fewer through life. He was often bullied; both for his small, lanky size and his brainy smarts that regularly netted him high grades and the title of teacher’s pet. In truth, Marcus wasn’t a teacher’s pet. He wasn’t even much of a student. Most things of the academic nature came naturally to him, more instinct than nose-to-book study and grind. Nowhere was his natural prowess more obvious however, than the high-school chemistry lab.

There was something about the bonds of molecular structures that filled his lonely, longing heart with more excitement and intrigue than anything else he ever encountered. Perhaps it was their inability to truly break, but rather evolve, change over time to more. Chemistry was as much a metaphor for life to the teenage-recluse as it was its sole motivator. Where most kids his age worked for their first car, he made his first bout of cash to put toward a proper chemistry set. Then, with a constant income, he procured more and more chemicals and building blocks for his experiments.

It was not difficult to see how the boy might easily come to harm were he not careful, but he always was. He wore the proper safety suit of a lab-coat, rubber gloves, and goggles that did little to help his already-afflicted fashion sense. Day and night were spent in his parents garage at his father’s commandeered workbench. Across it were Marcus’ tools of trade and pass-time. Half-full Griffin beakers and Erlenmeyer Flasks were scattered where there weren’t racked test-tubes, droppers, burners or coiled tubing. Always to one side, was a sheet of paper of chicken-scratch formulas that gave all the more confusion to the Chemistry-genius’ ambitions and plans.

It was no surprise then, that Marcus became head of his chemistry-class in high-school. Finally he embraced the title of teacher’s pet and aided in demonstrative experiments. Before long, he took over the class, his teacher proud not to be capable of an edge-wise word. His appeal to classmates couldn’t stoop much lower by then. All it took were the needs of one, rather stubborn and more than occasionally disingenuous boy named Micheal for the seeds of tragedy to be planted.

Mike was a polar opposite to Marcus; a kind of ne’er do well that did nothing well anyhow. He was failing all of his classes, except the one with the teacher’s-aide he was dating. There was little doubt she’d changed his grades. It was said he had other, similar plans in the works for the rest of his classes. Marcus had heard all the rumors, knew something of the drug and sex-crazed kid that sought him out. Unfortunately, ever the social outcast, Marcus’ thirst for companionship was nonetheless unquenched when Mike approached him.

Marcus was at the edge of the high-school’s property, just past its football field, when Mike hailed him across the road. As was his way, Marcus approached with a feeble resistance and more than a gut-full of resignation. Mike needed help, he said with a little begging. He was going to fail chemistry, and with it, high-school altogether. It was enough to arouse Marcus’ sympathy. He’d never been hard of heart, least of all when his help was needed. If only he’d known what Mike’s real plans were, and where they’d eventually put him, he might have been more callous.

Instead, with a slow and insidious way, Mike used Marcus. First, to help write out his homework, the answers manipulated from the learned peer with blank stares and calculatedly-blunt self-flagellation. Then came the corrections and fully-written work by Marcus alone. Soon enough, Mike’s passing grade in Chemistry was as assured as his bad-boy-loving girlfriend’s Geometry class.

A single conversation between the two boys in the garage should have been enough for Marcus to spot Mike’s true intentions. Such was Marcus’ naivete that he couldn’t see the conversation for what it was. The two stood over a round of Hydrochloric Acid experiments that involved observing its effects on various materials– plastics, metals, rubber and the like. They wore respirators for safety’s sake, their voices muffled.
“Haven’t you ever thought about making stuff to sell on this thing?” Mike said innocuously.

Marcus was focused on his work, “I don’t make things here, Mike. At least nothing you could sell– what would there be to make and sell anyhow?”

“I dunno,” Mike lied sheepishly. He preempted the planting of a sinister seed with friendly laugh, “We could always make drugs. That’d be something to sell.”

Marcus snorted into his respirator, poured the contents of one test-tube into another. Perhaps if he were more socially versed, or slightly less-trusting, he’d have seen that playful banter for what it was; the feeling out from a juvenile reprobate ready to take his illicitness to the next level. Whom better to use for that next step than the easily-manipulated loner and chemistry-wunderkind that was Marcus Emerson? No-one would ever suspect someone like Marcus. He was a good kid, well-liked by adults.

It was the perfect plan, Mike knew, he bore all the risk as the bad-seed, could easily hide the worst of his wrong doings by deflecting with Marcus’ presence alone– the mentor to Michael’s apprentice. All he needed was Marcus’ compliance and ultra-powerful brains, and they’d be rolling in dough and dope.

In the scheme of things, it didn’t take long to convince Marcus to try it. Like all great snakes, he played on the boy’s curiosity and before long had his mouth watering for results.

“It’s not like we’re hurting anyone, Mark,” Mike said with his usual, pleading way. “We just gotta’ see if we can actually do it.”

“You swear this won’t get out?” Marcus asked, less concerned than he came across.

“Hand to God,” Mike said as he raised a hand.

“I mean it, Mike, if anyone finds out we–” he lowered his voice severely. “– made crack in my garage, the whole county’s going to come down on us.”

“I would never do that,” Mike assured him with a hefty lie.

To his credit, Mike didn’t tell anyone for the first week. It was purposeful; he needed to feel out the neighborhoods, find which ones were frequented by junkies. Then, with “samples” from Marcus’ trash-can, he made a thick of wad of cash he later taunted Marcus with. The promise of money lit in the boys eyes. After all, why wouldn’t it? He was only doing as he’d been taught– using his inherent skills for money– or at least that’s what Mike assured him.

No matter what way Marcus rationalized it, his state of mind decayed quickly. Before long, he was doing nothing more than slogging through classes to get home and whip up more batches of his new cash-cow. Mike did the running, left the boy alone to the cat-piss stench consuming the garage. His parents had long ago learned not to enter the den of chemical experiments, their senses one too many times assaulted by its innards.

Then, as with all tragic figures, Marcus fell to the vise he so casually created.

In the midst of a lonely bout of depression, spurred both my Mike’s obvious abuse and Marcus’ own, lack of sleep and nourishment, the boy vaporized a rock in a test-tube and inhaled its fumes. His world spun with euphoria until he fell over dizzy, vomited on the floor.

Over the next few weeks, he kept his pass-time hidden. Granted, the signs were there, especially to Mike whom noticed the dwindling supply to feed his dope-hungry clients. He was wild, entered the garage as usual, found Marcus hunched over a heated test-tube and huffing its fumes.

“What the–” he yanked the hot tube from Marcus, looked it over, burned his hand, then dropped it. The tube shattered on the floor. Mike’s eyes lit with rage. “God damn it, Mark. I fucking told you! I told you, don’t get high on your own supply. That’s how you fucking get caught. ‘Cause you fuck up.” He pulled Marcus up from the floor, his eyes still dazed, shoved him backward across the garage. “Didn’t I fucking tell you? You fucking loser! Screwing me over.” He spit venom as Marcus landed with a crash against the work bench, “You fuckin’ loser. You fuckin’ cheat!”

Mike fumed, released his anger the only way he knew. He left Marcus in a heap on the floor, bloody, bruised and broken, and stole the last of the drugs around for a sale. The boy wasn’t sure how long he lie their, half-dead, half-high, but it eventually prompted a search for him. He was immediately rushed to a hospital. His addiction was discovered, and preceded weeks spent getting clean and healing fully from the beating he’d continually blamed on a fall.

But Mike grew more paranoid, as addicted to cash and the rush of slinging rocks as others were to smoking them. Without Marcus at his side, he was forced into hiding, running from Junkies that needed their fix and pestered him relentlessly. Just as Mike was hitting his own bottom, Marcus was in recovery, finally able to walk again.

It was late in the evening when the two finally met again, outside an addiction recovery center Marcus had been court-ordered to attend. He didn’t mind. He’d found new friends. Real ones– however admittedly older than himself. They knew the perils of addiction and loneliness as he did. Mike on the other hand, knew only the paranoid terror that comes from having one’s deepest, darkest secrets known.

Mike was haggard; hair wild, face soot-blackened, and stinking of whiskey, “Marcus!”

The boy turned at the shout, saw the shambling figure, “Mike?”

He entered the light that shone through the doors of the recovery center, within arms reach of Marcus, demanded an answer, “You kept my name out, right!?”

“Of course, Mike, I’d never do that to you,” Marcus said earnestly.

Mike knew nothing of sincerity, trust, nor friendship. He didn’t believe him, “Bullshit.”

He launched himself at Marcus, shanked his gut with a shattered bottle. A large, middle-aged black man that had taken a liking to Marcus’ smarts– and saw enough of himself in the boy to sponsor him as a former addict– appeared at the door. Before he could react, Mike was disarmed, on the ground, pinned by the grieving giant. A crowd formed to phone the police and ambulance, apply pressure to Marcus’ wounds.

He died in his hospital bed, seventeen and lost too young with a corrupted innocence. Michael was taken to prison for murder without chance of parole, for life.

Many might seek a moral to the tale the two boys’ lives have formed. There are few, but not one seeks to place blame. It is neither boy’s fault to have been children, playing with adult toys and ideas, and too immature to know better. Morally, they cannot be blamed. Nor can Marcus’ parents, whom believed their son, like always, was teaching and bettering himself with the help of a new friend. Not even the oblivious school-teachers, administrators, or peers for their disregard of obvious signs, can be blamed. Though a case could be made against, Michael’s own, abusive and neglectful parents, such arguments are moot. Both boys were the sole masters of their lives, destined or not, to helm it toward tragedy.

Perhaps the only true entities at fault are those of the collective effects of loneliness, curiosity, and the lust for companionship. Even if that were true, they could hardly be blamed either. They are but mere fragments, indifferent reactions from a solution of human-consciousness and the human condition ne’er to be properly controlled.