“The Scream,” Edvard Munch
The following story has been rejected by both Analog and Asimov’s science fiction and fantasy magazines, so I’ve reverted to my most reliable publisher, myself, to give a wider audience a chance to reject it, too. I think it’s amusing and somewhat reflective of my philosophy of life, such as it is. If there is a target of the satire, it would be The System as it exists today, one that creates mental illness by feeding it through an interconnected web of perverse incentives.
I am a visitor from a different future. They label me schizophrenic, not the paranoid type. My official diagnosis in 21st century mythology, is “disorganized schizophrenia.” In the past, this form was known as “hebephrenic,” from the Greek, meaning “youthful mind.” In real life, it means I laugh a lot, for no apparent reason.
I have been hospitalized, this time, because I went to the emergency room on a cold rainy night and told them I wanted to kill myself. Everyone in the ER knows me. They ask my name anyway. This time I say “Gunga Din.”
They write “Charlie Appleton” on their clipboards. If they already know, why do they ask? I play along. I practice my postures in the hall. The ballerina pose. The dog pose. The boxer pose. It makes them smile. I talk back to my voices and laugh at their jokes.
When I laugh too loudly, they usually give me a shot of haloperidol, an anti-psychotic. This makes my body slow but my feet restless, so I dance to music played by my friends in our shared future, music only I can hear.
If I’m lucky, they give me another shot, this time of lorazepam, a benzodiazepine and addictive relaxant, but on days Nurse Bully Bozo (not his real name) works, he substitutes diphenhydramine, a sinus and allergy medicine, for the lorazepam. He gives himself the feel-good shot in the medical supply room.
I know this because I see it in his aura. Where I come from, we all read auras, only we call these “energy fields.” They are as visible to everyone as the clothes they wear. It’s impossible to keep a secret, so no one tries. We could see through clothes, too, if we wanted, but nobody bothers. The clothes are more attractive than the flesh.
I’ve attempted to explain all this to the hospital staff, but there are no words in any Earth speech to describe unimaginable concepts, like alternate futures. They write on their clipboards that I’m “delusional.” It helps them sleep better at night.
When I threatened to tell Nurse Bully Bozo’s supervisor that he was giving himself the feel-good stuff, he hit me, then told everyone I’d run into a door. I tried to tell them the gash on my temple came from his ring, but no one believed me. He has an evil-looking ring with spikes on it, but he hid it after the incident. When I started screaming that the ring was in his pocket, they strapped me to a table for a full day to keep me safe.
I’ve quit telling people I see their secrets. I merely laugh when the psychiatrist’s deceased mother carps at him during his interviews with me. She is too, too funny. She wanted him to be a surgeon, instead of a psychiatrist. She nags him and gives him no peace. “Psychiatrists aren’t real doctors,” she says. “I knew you would never amount to anything. Just like your good-for-nothing father.”
I almost feel sorry for him, having a mother like that. No wonder he became a psychiatrist. The more she harasses him, the angrier he gets. His face gets red, his jaw sets, his knuckles holding his pen turn white, and his hand begins to quiver. I know he can hear her, but he pretends otherwise. I’m supposed to be the crazy one, in this past Earth I’m visiting.
“Where did I go wrong?” Dr. Gunn’s mama moans, winking at me. I try hard not to laugh–he thinks I’m laughing at him and ups the dose of my medications.
“Do you still feel like killing yourself?” he asks.
“I’m already dead,” I reply, and laugh again. Now his deceased father has joined his mother in his energy field, and they are arguing. They are blaming each other for the fact that their son is a loser. “He wouldn’t be an alcoholic if you weren’t,” his mother says.
“He might have a family by now if you hadn’t soured him on women.”
They are bickering so much that I have a hard time hearing his next question.
“Do you hear voices?” Dr. Gunn asks.
“Everyone hears voices,” I say. “Voices, choices, they make noises,” I chant, trying to drown out Dr. Gunn’s parents. “I hear your voice right now.” I dare not tell him what else I’m hearing. His mother is mad with him because he blew his inheritance on a floozy, who ran off with his best friend. His father holds a grudge for the time Dr. Gunn had him arrested for slugging his mother.
I hate seeing secrets nobody else sees. If they only knew what a burden it is, to carry all that baggage. At least Dr. Gunn is trying. He understands how widespread these secrets are. He knows his upbringing was pretty normal, in this past Earth’s time.
“Please, stop,” I tell his parents. I cover my ears. Dr. Gunn thinks these are my voices. He’s so used to hearing his parents bicker that he doesn’t even notice anymore. It runs in the background, like machine noise, but it drives him to drink after work.
“Stop what?” the doctor asks me.
I try to distract Dr. Gunn from his parents’ argument. When he’s angry or hung over, he takes it out on me, the staff, and whoever is closest. At the moment, I’m the closest, and I’ve already had enough feel-bad drugs to knock me bonkers.
“Stop de wop de boppedy bop,” I say, getting up, twirling and chanting. Dr. Gunn’s parents stop yelling at each other and watch me. They start to smile, so I whirl faster, then invite his mother to dance with me. When I slip up and call her by name, Dr. G freaks out and calls security. They haul me to a padded cell, my favorite place in the hospital. They watch through a thick, plexi-glass window as my movements slow, and I fall down. I drift off into my alternate future, where my friends laugh and applaud.
We gather around the instrument panel that monitors my past Earth body and discuss the effects of feel-bad psych meds on it. We analyze the past Earth energy field and how it affects the hospital staff. We pass the Spirits around and congratulate each other on having made the right choice in the Earth-split.
My best buddy, Henry, winces as he scrutinizes the scanning monitor and looks admiringly at me.
“They sure walloped you this time,” Henry says.
“This assignment is harder than you let on,” I reply. “Those people are crazy.”
“That’s why you’re there. They are suicidal, determined to annihilate the Earth and everything on it, to prove their prophets right.”
“I know, I know. I’m supposed to prepare them for the coming Earth-split, when probable futures split off like sparks from a cherry bomb. Different people ride into different futures, depending on their beliefs.”
“They believe in evil,” says Henry. “At least some of them do.”
“So do I, after what Nurse Bully Bozo did to me.”
“It didn’t hurt. You have evolved beyond pain,”
At the moment, Henry is beginning to look like Dr. Gunn, only uglier. He sees my thought and smiles.
“You don’t feel my pain,” I reply, almost smiling, but not quite. I have a slight crush on one of the other nurses, Nurse Bleeding Heart (not her real name). She claims to feel my pain. Her breasts graze my arm as she changes the bandages on my temple. The cut, which required three stitches, isn’t healing as quickly as they want. I gouge at the stitches when I get the chance, claiming they are worms eating through my brain. No one has noticed I only do that on Nurse Bleeding Heart’s shift.
“I don’t feel your pleasure, either, Lover Boy,” Henry says. “So quit whining and pass the Spirits.” I give up the bottle, reluctantly. It’s a great antidote for the anti-psychotic. It allows me to communicate with my future home and future friends when I’m operating in the Earth past before the split.
We turn away from the instrument panel and sit down to a lively dinner. I eat like I’m starving, because I am. That past Earth food is more poisonous than the drugs, so I’ve been refusing it. White bread. Soda pop. Baloney. Limp lettuce. Bottled dressing. Ugh. We discuss my work assignment for the next day. Rather, the others talk while I eat.
In the future Earth I inhabit—when I’m not on assignment to the past—everything is free, and money doesn’t exist. People work because they like it. They gravitate to areas of special interest or ability naturally and slip into their niches, like so many jigsaw pieces in a puzzle. Each is unique but integral to the whole. There is no competition and no overlap.
My future friends voted unanimously to place me in this assignment. I was the most evolved, they said. I was normal enough to pass for crazy. If I couldn’t bring the alternate future to the past, no one could. The integrity of the Earth split depended on me.
I look suspiciously at them. I decide they tricked me, set me up, and are having a whale of a time at my expense. Henry sees my thought and grins.
“You are the most evolved, you know,” he says now. “I couldn’t do what you’re doing.”
“I agree. You’re not smart enough to play dumb.” I know Henry has doubts about his intelligence, but I’m lonely on this assignment.
“I could use some help,” I say now. Henry passes the Spirits back to me. I take the bottle.
“Thanks for the uplifting Spirits,” I say, “but I’m talking about companionship. When I’m strapped down, or in a strait jacket, I have to do therapy on myself. ‘It really is them,’ I say. ‘It really is them.’”
“We know,” Henry replies. “We hear you. We’re there for you, just not physically.”
“Don’t I know it.” By now, the past body is waking up and I know time is short. I must return soon, lest they decide I’m catatonic and use shock therapy to jolt me into consciousness.
“You nag all day long, all of you at the same time. It’s enough to drive a past person crazy. There’s so much static in my brain I’m surprised other people don’t hear it.
“They do hear it, but they pretend not to. You push the envelope on crazy, so that they feel normal.”
I look skeptical, so Henry continues. “We’re all very grateful to you, you know. If you weren’t there then, we wouldn’t be here now.”