Jackson Strehlow is and aspiring Sci-Fi/Fantasy writer and veteran of the United States Navy. You can follow him and more of his work @jsghostwriter.
FOILS OF THE MIND
I slumped into the worn-out fabric of my second-hand couch, feeling the little energy I had slip away into lethargy and exhaustion. As it turns out, losing the job that puts an ever-so-humble roof over one's head will put a damper on just about anyone. Especially those who don't have fallback options. I sighed and removed the want ads from the local paper, hoping that there was a shred of hope left for me to pick myself up and out of this gutter before I got swept along. I perused the various ads, keeping my eyes peeled for anything promising. Dog walker? No. Babysitter? Ugh, no. Part-time barista? Maybe.
I kept going through menial job ads until I spotted one that caught my interest. Local college professor looking for volunteers for long-term experiment. $5,000 a week, plus free room and board. Good lord, this sounded too good to be true! I quickly spied the number in the ad and dialed it into my phone. I waited for a several pregnant moments before the ringing came to a holt, now replaced by brittle and shrill female tone
"Hello, you've reached the offices of Dr. Farnsworth, may I ask who's calling?"
"Hi, this is Victor Franklin. I'm calling about your ad in today's paper."
The sun beat down on the back of my exposed neck, the outdoor seating area for the family friendly Mexican fast food joint my interviewer had arranged to meet up at neglected to have umbrellas set up for days like this. Damn weather was making me form sweat stains on the one good interview shirt I had left. I fidgeted in my fixed metal bench seat, alternating from running my fingers through my hair to running them over my shirt. Alright, just keep it together Victor. You're going to do fine in this interview. All you have to do is answer a few personal questions, be professional and soon the money will be flowing back into your account. You got this. I looked across the tables, seeing no one else present. I slumped into my chair a little. Where is this pers-
"Good afternoon, Victor." A sudden loud, authoritarian voice rang out from behind me, causing me to jolt upright in my chair just a bit. I turned to see a tall, brunette woman dressed in a beige cardigan stride towards me. "I'm Doctor Eliza Farnsworth. I'll be the one conducting you interview today." As she sat down at my table, I tried to discreetly wipe my somewhat sweaty palms on my jeans before I offered to shake her hand.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Doctor." She ignored my handshake, so I just put my arm down and tried not to look embarrassed. Dr. Farnsworth took the chair directly across from me, quickly removing a small recording device and setting it on the small plastic table we shared. As she settled in, she clasped her hands and cleared her throat.
"I'll keep this interview brief. I'm going to ask you a few questions, which may come across as odd and unusual, and you are going to offer me straightforward answers. Am I clear?"
"Good. Now, first question." She picked up her recording device and flipped a small switch before setting it down. "Why exactly were you fired from your last job? And be perfectly honest with me. I don't tolerate liars."
I blinked hard for a moment, not exactly expecting that particular question to come up right off the bat. "Well, I did have a tendency to daydream on the job, just a little bit. I'd get lost in my own head and zone out for a bit. But it's not a problem anymore, I promise!"
"Hmm, so would you call yourself an active dreamer?"
"Yes, I'd say so."
"And when were you a child, did you daydream often?"
"Yes, quite a bit actually."
"Did you have any imaginary friends?"
I blanked out, completely caught off guard by her rather odd question. "Yes. Why is this important?"
"That's for me to decide. Do you remember anything about them?"
I pondered for a minute, my mind struggling to remember a bygone age when the only friend I had was a figment of my imagination. "Her name was Mary. I remember her having long black hair, always tied up in a ribbon, and she had a dark blue dress that she wore everywhere. She was kind to me Kind of like the sister I never had. Does that help?"
"It does, actually. One more question, how are you at maintaining relationships with others?"
"Oh, well, um, I guess I try to maintain them to the best of my ability."
"Well, they always drift apart. You know, we lose contact, don't see or talk to each other much. That sort of thing."
"I see. That'll conclude this interview. Thank you for meeting with me, Victor." She switched off her recorder and placed her belongings back in her pocket. We stood up from our chairs at the same time, and I tried to keep myself from rubbing my hands together out of anxiety. Dr. Farnsworth wiped out a card from her pocket and handed it over to me.
"You are to report to this address tomorrow at precisely eight in the morning. And be sure to bring a bag of clothes and toiletries for your stay." I took the card from her and looked at the address handwritten on one side. Wollstone Luxury Condominiums, apartment 1818.
"Wait, does this mean I got it?"
"Yes. I know it may seem strange, but you are exactly the type of person I've been looking for. Unless you want to reconsider?"
"No, thank you. I'll be there. Thank you so much, Doctor. You won't be disappointed."
"I certainly hope not."
"Wait, I totally forgot to ask, but what exactly is it that I'll be doing for this...experiment?"
"Just show up on time tomorrow. You'll be given instructions then."
And without another word, Dr. Eliza left the seating area without so much as a second glance at me. I looked back at the card and smiled. This was going to be exactly what I needed.
I knocked loudly on the front door of the apartment when I arrived, duffle bag in hand. I wondered what exactly it was that they were going to have me do. I just hoped I wouldn't end up screwing this up too. I was about the knock on the door again when I heard an audible click and the door swung slightly inward. I moved into the apartment, taking in the spacious, empty front room I'd entered. A hallway to my right lead what must have been the rest of the apartment. The place felt so silent that it was kind of eerie. I had to see if anyone was here.
"Hello? Dr. Farnsworth? Anybody? I'm here for the experiment. Anybody here?" Just as I thought I had somehow ended up at the wrong apartment, a loud burst of static immediately filled the air.
"Hello, Victor. Yes, I'm here. As is the rest of my team. Please, close the door behind you and come into the living room, where we will discuss your duties."
Dr. Farnsworth's voice was coming in loud and clear from everywhere in the house, which felt rather odd. Where was she? What the heck was going on here? I decided not to keep her waiting and drew the front door closed behind me. The moment it was shut I could hear another click and the sound of a deadbolt sliding into place.
Ignoring the slightly creepy notion of being locked in, I walked down the hall until I entered a spacious open area. To my right, there was a large white carpeted area with a couple of dark brown sofas, a coffee table and a series of bookshelves lining the back wall. To my left, I could see a kitchen area with marble tiles and an island in the middle of the set up. It seemed like a nice place, but like the rest of the apartment, it was all pretty simple and almost empty.
"It's good to see you have arrived and time, Victor. Now we can get started right on schedule." I looked around the room trying to see where Dr. Farnsworth's voice was coming from and noticed that four large black speakers in the ceiling.
"If I may ask, where are you? Why aren't you here?"
"My team and I are currently located at our research lab. We'll be monitoring you through the use of hidden cameras and microphones we've installed all throughout the residence. We need you to be as isolated from human contact as possible for the experiment to succeed."
"Oh. Okay then. What exactly do you want me to do?"
"For the duration of your stay, you will be required to imagine that another person is living with you. Picture them as your ideal self, both physically and mentally. Keep them in your mind for as long as you are awake. Talk them, act as if they were right there with you."
I scrunched my forehead in minor confusion as I processed what the doctor had just told me.
"So, you're saying I have to create an imaginary friend to hang out with? That's it?"
"A crass oversimplification, but yes."
"But why? What kind of experiment did I sign up for?"
"One that doesn't require such incessant curiosity. From this point onward, you will keep contact with us as minimal as possible. In the meantime, I'd recommend you keep a log of your time here. Get to it." And with that, the loudspeaker went dead, the silence filling the apartment. I looked around and set myself and my bag on the couch. May as well get started on this so-called experiment. I leaned forward, propping my chin up with my arm as I focused on the space in front of me.
The ideal me? Well, I guess I could swap out my shaggy brown hair for something shorter. Perhaps change the color. Oh, I always liked red hair. Maybe I should go with that. Maybe change the eyes to something a little greener. Narrow the chin a bit, give the face a few more angles, darken the skin tone just a little bit. Oh, and I might as well add some muscle tone while I'm at it. Ideal me should be at least in shape. Alright, I'd say that does it.
The image I had created in my mind stood out clear as day right before me. I gotta admit, I was a little impressed with myself. This 'ideal me' thing was kind of fun. I wonder what I should name him?
"I think I'll call you...Adam."
Things were pretty slow-going for a while. Maintaining Adam took a lot of work, but I eventually got the hang of it. Took me a week to finally be able to picture him in front of me whenever I was awake. Turns out, having nothing but free time and no one to actually talk to, gave me no distractions from the supposed "work" I was doing. Dr. Farnsworth still kept me in the dark about why they wanted me to do this nonsense, claiming that it was to prevent any "contamination of the process" and such.
After a while, they had instructed me to start talking to Adam. I almost laughed myself into unconsciousness when they gave me the instruction. And I nearly pissed myself with fear when they shut off my utilities and left me in the pitch dark for doing so. It sure taught me not to mess around with these humorless zombies. With my motivation clear, I tried to have a legitimate conversation with Adam. And surprise, surprise, it takes a lot of work at first. I found my groove eventually, where all I did was talk about nonsense, but it apparently satisfied Dr. Farnsworth and her team.
It wasn't long after that, that I was told to create Adam's personality. I'll admit, it made everything feel a little less weird. More like I was talking to a different person instead of myself...despite that person still existing in my head. Well, I'd decided that if I was going to be the crazy, funny guy, perhaps Adam could be the serious guy to balance me out. Make him a real friend, the kind that would have my back and not flake out like normal people. A true best friend.
Everything went pretty well, all things considered. My conversations with Adam felt less creepy and more relieving. Farnsworth wasn't kidding when she said they wanted me to be as isolated as possible. The only time someone actually comes here in person is the grocery delivery service Farnsworth and her team have set up for me, so I don't starve. Even then, the whole place is locked from the outside and no one is there to greet me. I wondered if maybe they want me to rely only on Adam for company. Not a bad idea, but not one I'm entirely comfortable with either.
I've gotten so used to having Adam around. Talking to him all the time has gotten me used to his presence, as it were. I know I should be concerned that this is becoming my new normal, but I try not to concern myself with the idea too much. Adam is really coming into his own. Whenever I've felt anxious about being kept in this apartment or depressed about having nothing to do, Adam is always there to help me feel better. Most days, I just reminisce about old memories. Days that feel pretty far away now. Talking to Adam helps me remember.
Something very disturbing happened today. While I was talking to Adam, I was on the subject of my first childhood crush. I was struggling to remember her name, when Adam told me her name was Shannon, and that she was a cute blonde girl that always wore sundresses. And he was right. But I wasn't the one that recalled the memory. Up until now, our conversations have always been directed by me. I'd think what he was going to say, and he'd say it. But this time, Adam had spoken by himself. When I confronted Dr. Farnsworth about it, she finally decided to let me on the project's purpose. She said that Adam is becoming this sort of sentient connection to my subconscious. A manifestation of my unconscious mind. She called him a Tulpa, some sort of being that's created through an individual's willpower. Essentially, my belief that Adam is real is making him real, so to speak.
The way I understand it, Adam is now a separate person living in my brain, with access to everything my mind has stored over my life time. The concept is amazing. The reality is overwhelming. Dr. Farnsworth was so proud of my accomplishment, that she has asked me to try making another one. Guess it wouldn't hurt to give it a shot.
It took me a little while, though thankfully not as long as it did with Adam. I figured since I wasn't told to make something specific, I could try bringing my old imaginary friend back to life, so to speak. I sat down on the couch and put all my effort into rebuilding Mary's pale skin, her flowy blue dress, and her hair, black as raven's feather's. Before I knew it, I could see her, looking as shocked as...well, someone who just popped into existence. Her eyes lit up and she seemed happy to see me. I guess deep down, I missed her. She actually tried to hug me and for a moment I swear I could feel her arms wrapped around me.
I tried introducing Mary to Adam, but he seemed strangely at bay. He just looked at her with distain, like she was a pile of dog poop he'd stepped in. When Mary tried to shake his hand, he just slapped it away and disappeared. I sighed and told Mary we should just let him get used to her and hope he came around eventually.
It's been a few days, and things seem to be deteriorating with Adam. Mary has approached me, saying that she has seen Adam watching her and staring at her with anger in his eyes. I brought up Adam's behavior with Dr. Farnsworth, and she seemed...strangely uncertain about what to say. She told me that they may have to end the experiment soon. Maybe it's for the best.
Adam and Mary are missing. I tried calling out to them, but they never showed up. I tried asking Dr. Farnsworth what to do, but the intercom has been silent all day. I'm getting worried. This is also something that you could show us. Show him looking for them, show him worried. It would be much more intriguing.
Still no sign of Adam or Mary. And still nothing back from Farnsworth or her team. Also, the grocery delivery person hasn't come by yet. I'm getting scared. Now, I'm truly alone here.
Adam showed up today. I asked him where he'd been, but he just stood there in silence, not doing anything for the longest time. I tried getting him to tell me if he knew anything about Mary, but all he said was, "It was a mistake to bring her here.". I tried going to sleep earlier, but I could feel like I was being watched. I think I saw Adam watching me from outside the room. I'm terrified. I'm almost out of supplies, and communication still hasn't been re-established yet. If I can't find a way out of here soon...
I ran out of food today, and the water is not far behind. Adam just lingers around like a ghost, watching me in silence. I'm too afraid to talk to him. I finally fell to the floor and cried out for Farnsworth to come rescue me. After what felt like hours of screaming, Adam approached me and said he'd already dealt with "them", and now it would just be the two of us, forever.
I ran out of supplies days ago. Adam refuses to leave my side. He goes on and on about how we'll be "best friends forever." But the scariest part is how he's moving me around. Every time I pass out in one room, I wake up in my bedroom, tucked under the covers. He's real, I know he is. Please, whoever finds this, don't let him leave. Don't let him trick you. There's something terribly wrong with Adam. Something I didn't see soon enough. And I think it's my fault...