“What do you feel?” The question floated to me as if borne on a stiff breeze—the kind of wind that doesn’t stir or excite, but simply moves, brushing past you on its way. The words did the same, lingering upon my ears for only moments before moving along.
What did I feel? Nothing, really. I opened my eyes, thinking that sight would bring some feeling with it, but my eyelids slid up to reveal nothing but a sterile white ceiling lit by harsh white light. Still, I supposed I should answer the voice.
“I don’t feel anything.”
Hands fumbled across my chest, and with the metal on leather sound of straps sliding through buckles, pressure disappeared. Funny, I hadn’t even realized I was being restrained.
“You may sit up now.”
I did so, and noted now the source of the voice. Standing at the end of my bed, holding a folder, was a short doctor dressed in faded blue scrubs. He was clean shaven, and his hair was cut close to the scalp. He sniffled as he thumbed through his folder. “Are you feeling better?” he asked.
“I suppose,” I said. “I’m not really sure how I was feeling before.”
“You were feeling entirely too much.” The doctor spoke without even raising his eyes. “So many conflicting emotions. You had a bout of hysteria—a bit of a breakdown.”
“Now?” The doctor finally looked up, gazing at me over thick-rimmed glasses that I noticed for the first time. I hadn’t really cared to look before. “Well, I’ll have to run a few more tests, but you seem to be doing better.”
“That’s a good thing,” I said, and I supposed it was.
The doctor approached me, and I swung my legs off the bed so that I was sitting on the edge. He held up a cautious hand toward my chest, and I raised my arms. I wasn’t going to move any further—he didn’t seem to like the idea of that. There had been something in his face when I moved, something fleeting but present. Had it been worry? Not that it mattered, it was gone now.
Now that he was sure I would stay seated, the doctor decided to reveal the contents of his folder. He pulled out a picture and held it up to me. “How do you feel about this?” he asked.
I took the picture and looked at it more closely. In it, a masked man held a purse underneath his arm as he ran. Behind him, an elderly woman was attempting to rise from a chair, her mouth open and arms outstretched.
I handed the picture back with a shrug. “He shouldn’t do that,” I said. “Theft is not permitted.”
The doctor jotted down a note. “Yes, but how does it make you feel? Angry? Sad?”
Angry. Sad. I turned the unfamiliar words over in my mouth, finding them largely meaningless. Nobody truly felt that way anymore. I shook my head.
More notes, and then the doctor handed me another picture, this one of a child sitting up against a dog smiling ear to ear. The dog’s tongue lolled lazily from its mouth. “How about this one?”
I shrugged again. It occurred to me that the child was happy, and likely the dog as well, but I wasn’t sure if that made me happy. “There is nothing wrong with this one,” I said.
More notes. The testing continued for a while in the same manner, but none of the pictures stirred anything in me. Sometimes the doctor prompted me, asking if I felt worried or scared or excited, but mostly he presented the image without commentary, and answered me only with a scratching pen.
Finally, when all the pictures had been set to the side, the doctor set down his folder and went to the door, taking only his notes with him. “I’ll be back with your test results,” he said. “It shouldn’t take long; you’ve performed admirably.”
He shut the door behind him, leaving me in a cube of blinding whiteness. Everything was white—the bed, the walls, the folder—and were illuminated by such a harsh light. Even the pictures I had been shown were black and white.
I noticed something then; inconsequentially, as one might notice that a wall is blue or that the sky was cloudless. Poking out from the folder was color: a picture I had yet to see.
That stirred something in me. It was something small, but harmless enough that I let it rise to the front of my mind. It wasn’t an emotion—those were dangerous—but a nagging curiosity. Why was it different? Forgetting what I had promised the doctor, I rose from the bed and opened the folder. Inside was a simple portrait of a woman smiling.
Immediately, this picture was different. It was as if the color seeped from the image and saturated the room, lending its vibrancy to all aspects of my experience. Emotions rose unbidden in me, raw and primal. There was happiness and sadness together, tied up in a sense of longing. There was loss there, yes, but also hope, which permeated my mind and lent a glow of optimism.
Beneath everything was a promise of more. As powerful as this emotion was—and it consumed me—it was but a memory of feeling, something false that would pale before the real thing. And I was certain the real thing was out there. I would find it.
Knowing that it wasn’t permitted, I lifted the picture from the folder, folded it once carefully, and slipped it into the waistband of my smooth white pants. It was the first time I had noticed my clothing—stark, loose, white shirt and trousers. They were rough.
I crossed to the door, feeling freedom beneath my bare feet with every step. Remnants of my conditioned mindset rose to meet me in the doorway. Leaving was not permitted. Those thoughts were quelled quickly, overwhelmed by a wave of emotion that was all the more powerful now for its prolonged absence.
The handle turned smoothly on the first try and the door swung inward on silent hinges. Clearly, my return to emotion had not been anticipated. Or had it? Was this a final test? I took a deep breath, then felt for the picture in my waistband. When my fingers found it, I pulled it forth and unfolded it, smoothing the crease so as to better see the woman in it. Just the sight of her caused a new surge of emotion, and I knew that if this was a test, I would fail it gladly. I would face any punishment before relinquishing this new feeling. Stuffing the picture back into my waistband, I stepped through the door.
More of the same white walls lay beyond. I had entered a long, blank hallway, marked only by doors at regular intervals. On the wall next to each door was a picture above a name. On mine, a picture of me sat above the name H. Scoville. It was my name, I assumed, but I couldn’t remember what the H stood for. Henry? Harry? Clearly, not everything had returned to me.
A quick glance up and down the hall confirmed that it was empty, so I chose at random to turn right and to follow the hall until I found freedom. I was confident in nothing but my own resolve. With barely a memory, luck would have to favor me.
Moving confidently but warily, I started down the hall, very aware that freedom and danger grew closer with every step. It wasn’t until I passed the fourth door that my stride faltered. There, mounted just to the right of the door. Her picture, and a name.
I don’t know how long I stood there staring at that name. C. Wimm. I had expected the name to bring memory with it, but nothing came but that same burning emotion. It was more powerful now, strong to the point of overwhelming. The hole inside of me was being filled so suddenly that emotions were nearly spilling at the edges.
The door opened silently, though I only moved it a few inches. The hinges, newly oiled, stealthily gave way, opening a crack through which I peered through. Between door and frame I watched as the woman from the photograph rose from her bed—identical to the one I had just been restrained in. Moving as if she was in a trance, she slipped from her hospital gown and began to dress. Fading jeans first, then a simple white t-shirt. It was just after the shirt slipped down over her bare back that I stepped inside.
“You are not meant to be here.” She spoke monotonously and unthinkingly, barely looking up.
“Cynthia,” I said, not knowing where the name came from, but sure that it was the right one. “It’s me.”
Cynthia fully raised her head this time, looking me over. As her eyes wandered, they never once changed or showed any signs of life. Her mouth stayed slack, her posturer slouched. And then our eyes met.
Her pupils dilated, and the frost melted from her irises. Suddenly they were as they had been: deep, warm brown, and full of emotion. Her jaw dropped, and she choked on the first words she tried to say. Shaking her head to clear it, she took a hesitant step forward and tried again. “Hank? Hank, is it really you?”
I nodded. Strange, until that moment I hadn’t even been sure that I was Hank. I held my hand out, and Cynthia took it. Her grip was that of a drowning woman holding to a buoy. Mine was no weaker. Hand in hand, we stepped into the white hallway. And we ran.