The White Room
"IT'S ALL A matter of playing their game." Joe Gibson regarded the man blearily. "Game? What game?" The drugs made it so goddamn hard to focus on anything. He knew that the man's name was John West.
"You have to let them believe that they're curing you, that's the only way you'll ever get out of here."
A new innovation had occurred in the very expensive private clinic. It had come after Gibson had been there for, as far as he could calculate, about three weeks, although the drugs that they were feeding him made it almost impossible to keep track of time. He'd tried for a while to keep a record by marking each day on a secret slip of paper, but they'd found that and taken it away. The innovation was known as "patient interaction." Boiled down, this meant that every day, right after Love Connection, he was taken from his room and his private TV and wheeled by an orderly down to a large, white, sterile common room with too much light where he and a dozen or so other doped-up individuals sat in chrome wheelchairs, in varying states of vegetation, and lethargically watched a communal television. This so-called interaction was timed so that he always seemed to end up watching Gitligan's Island, Which was weird in its own way since, back in what he was increasingly thinking of as his old world, there had been an almost identical show except it had been known as Finnegan's Island. On the screen, the castaways were trying to use a misdirected NASA Mars probe to get themselves rescued. Beside rum, John West seemed to have a theory to expound. "Of course, it depends on who put you here in the first place and who's picking up the tab. There are some of us in here who aren't ever going to get out. Too much of an embarrassment to either families or the people that they used to work for. I've heard that there are agency people who've wound up in here just because they knew too much."
Gibson slowly nodded. The shot that they always gave him just before the patient interaction period made everything seem as if it were taking place underwater. "It sounds like the old-time Soviets."
"Things don't ever change. If you don't fit, you're crazy."
"I think they put me here because I didn't fit." He had been going to the interaction periods for over a week- once again, the calculations were a little uncertain-before John West had spoken to him. When West had wheeled himself over, pointed to the TV and muttered, "This is a fucking silly show for grown men to spend their time watching," it was the very first contact that Gibson had experienced with anyone in the clinic who wasn't staff. After that first observation, West had extended a shaking hand. "The name's West. John West."
Gibson had shaken the hand, glad of any contact that didn't come with a white coat and a professional smile. It was hard to tell what any given patient might have been on the outside. You had to read beyond the slack jaws, the vacant eyes, the hollow cheeks, and the uncoordinated movements. All these were a product of the relentless medication. When reading the faces, Gibson knew that he also had to remember that he was in as bad shape as anyone else. A certain residual strength was detectable in West's face, and, although his muscle tone was long gone, traces of what could have been an athletic physique still remained. Gibson suspected that West might well himself have been one of the ones who'd been incarcerated in the clinic because they either knew too much or thought that they knew too much. In all their conversations, West refused to say anything about his own background, although, from his claimed knowledge of the world, his travels seemed to have been extensive and exotic. They certainly would have fitted the profile for a heavy-hitting executive or a spook who later fell from grace.
He may have been reticent about his own past, but that didn't stop him closely questioning Gibson about his.
"So how do you figure you don't fit? What did you do?"
"It's like I told Kooning: I got involved with Necrom and this whole multidimensional thing, and I kept crossing from one dimension to another until, when I finally managed to get back home again, home wasn't home anymore. A lot of little things had changed. TV shows had different names, there were songs that I'd never heard of that were supposed to be classics, people were still alive who'd died in my world, the world I'd left. The worst part was that I didn't exist at all. All trace of me had vanished. How d'you like that for not fitting in. Kind of absolute, huh?"
Gibson found that the medication allowed him to tell the story with complete detachment. West, who'd been holding a Diet Sprite unnoticed in his left hand for almost all of the period, raised it thoughtfully to his lips and sucked on the straw.
After the first sip, he stopped and regarded the can with the look of one betrayed. "Damn thing's warm."
"You've been holding it for all of the period."
West carefully placed the can on the floor. His face showed a sad amusement, as though at how far he'd managed to fall. Then he straightened up and turned his attention back to Gibson. "And before that, in your world, you were a washed-up rock star?"
"That would be the blunt way of putting it."
"And there's no trace of you."
"Nothing. Me, the band, all erased, no magazine articles, no recordings, zip. That's the worst part. It's not only me that's gone, it's my work, too."
"And what does the good Dr. Kooning say about this?"
"She says that an inability to accept thwarted ambition had caused me to take a powder on reality."
West nodded. "That's a good start."
There were times when Gibson wondered if maybe West wasn't an inmate at all, just a spy for the doctors posing as an inmate. He again stared at him blearily and discovered that he didn't really care. "What do you mean, 'that's a good start'?"
West leaned forward like a man making his point. "It's like I've been trying to tell you. If you want to even have a chance at getting out of here, you have to convince them that they're curing you."
"How do I do that?"
West's face broke into a slack lopsided grin. There was no way that he could be an undercover shrink and took like that. "The trick is to start off acting real crazy, as crazy as you can, and then you gradually ease off. They think that they're doing it and they ease up on you. Easy. You dig?"
Gibson stared at him blankly. "I don't know."
West didn't seem to notice. "Like I said, you're off to a good start. What you have to do now is to start pretending to remember who you really are."
Gibson looked dourly at West. "How the hell am I supposed to do that? I've never been anyone else. I'm me. That's all there is. There isn't any other me to remember."
West wheeled himself backward as though he'd decided that he was wasting his time. "Then you got a problem, pal. A problem that's going to keep you here for a long time."
On the TV, Gilligan/Finnegan had screwed up yet again and prevented the castaways from being rescued.