Whiplash Mandela

New York, Broadway & 5th, 1910

The E-train was already full when the doors opened, but Thomas was pushed in by the impatient platform crowd. The doors attempted to close 3 times as the crowd pressed in, then finally shut.

Thomas hated New Year’s Eve in New York. Shoulder-to-shoulder in a stale car rank with the smell of impatient passengers, he scanned the ads covering the walls showing him products and services to fill deficiencies he didn’t realize he had.

Only a couple passengers were looking around. Everyone else’s eyes were fixed on phones, playing games, reading e-books, chatting on social media, watching videos, or lost in music.

He felt utterly alone. Ironic that he could feel that way in a city of millions, pressed up against several others in a crowded train, with the whole world in the palm of his hand. He should be happy: he could talk to anyone both near and far, learn anything he wanted, be entertained in any manner. Yet somehow all the technology and closeness of people made him feel more invisible and alone than ever.

His cellphone chimed with a FaceTime call. Annoyed, he declined and poked listlessly through his phone.

There were new photos from NASA’s Juno and New Horizons missions. He scanned the images and was slightly disappointed in himself for not being more interested. 50 years ago we’d landed a man on the moon and it captured the world’s imagination. Since then mankind has landed robots on Venus and Mars and flew satellites to the far end of the solar system, yet all he could think was that these images didn’t live up to what he’d seen in the movies for years.

His Roomba informed him that the floor was clean, the news was all argumentative speculation, and everywhere were the inescapable ads for depression medications and dating apps. There were a few invitations to celebrate the new year. He scrolled past without accepting or declining.

He spilled out of the train and flowed with the crowd up the stairs onto the crowded streets. The bustle of New York was comforting in its consistency. People moved with purpose, never making eye contact, yet deftly avoiding each other as they hurried along. The air buzzed with the sound of hundreds of phone conversations, engines and horns, and a cacophony of music spilling from unknown places. The air was ripe with exhaust, hot metal and rubber, and the ever-present underlying scent of garbage.

Always the same were the streets. At least that never changed. That made New York home. He knew he’d never come home to find them empty, deserted, without a word of why he was left there alone and in silence. Unlike his apartment. 

His phone once again broke his reverie. It was Darin calling once more, no doubt redoubling his efforts to get Thomas out for the evening. He considered rejecting the call, but knew Darin would persist.

Darin’s face filled the screen. “Yo, man! Glad you finally picked up, I know you’re trying to avoid me.”

“No, I wasn’t. Just been busy, and then was on the train. What’s up?” Thomas shifted the phone so it was out of the way, looking up at his face as he walked.

“You coming out tonight? Look at this place, bro,” Darin swept the phone around to show a penthouse view. “This place is the shit, seriously! The upstairs opens to roof with a full bar. Music, the best view you’re gonna see…”

“I don’t know. I was invited by a few people from work out to… a thing.”

Darin’s face filled the view. “Uh huh… I call bullshit. What you’re really going to do is tell everyone maybe, then go back to that sad apartment.”

Thomas said nothing, and looked around before crossing the street.

“I’m being serious now. I’m not going to beg you or keep calling, but I really think you should get out tonight. You got a lot of friends here that would love to see you. Ellen’s been asking about you, know know?” Darin face was earnest. “There’s a time to retreat and recover, but then you gotta re-engage again.”

“I know you’re right. Really, and I do appreciate it.”

“Ok, Ok… I hear you. Just gonna plant a seed, then. In a few minutes you’ll get to your place. Before you go in the building, just stop and think. Plan A: go on up to your apartment, put on Ryan Seacrest and watch everyone else having fun while throwing down a couple drinks and going to bed early. Or,” here Darin paused watching Thomas’s frown, “or… Just turn around, call Uber, and you can be here in 15 minutes. Have the time of your life. Think about it, OK?”

“OK, I will.”

“That’s all I ask. See you later, my man.”

“Seeya.”

Thomas put the phone away, shrugged tighter into his coat, and walked on through the crisp December air.

He stopped at the entrance to his building. It was a non-descript brownstone in what used to be a rundown industrial area that had been revitalized in recent decades to an artsy bohemian district of restaurants and shops. Inside: yes, a few drinks, maybe a movie, and going to bed early and alone. Alternative: ring in the new year with some old friends, maybe some new ones, and who knew where the night would lead?

He shook his head and walked into the building.

Entering his apartment, he called out “Hey Google, I’m home” and was rewarded with the lights coming on, the TV flipping on silently to the Science Channel, and a Spotify playlist of music from happier times playing.

4 hours and 6 drinks later, Thomas fell asleep on his couch while binge-watching episodes of “How It Was Made” while the world rang in 2020.

. . .

Thomas awoke screaming in a bare room, horrified to find his hands bound to rails inside what appeared to be a enclosed metal crib. Two attendants in white rushed into the room and unlocked the top and opened it. “Alright, Mr. Covney. Calm down and breathe.”

Thomas yanked at the restraints and tried to pull himself up. “What happened? Why am I tied up? What IS this?” he screamed.

One attendant pushed him down into the crib. “You need to calm down, sir. You had another bad dream.”

Thomas fixated on the man’s face. A hardened face with tobacco-stained and uneven teeth smiled at him. Instead of being reassured, Thomas pulled away from the scent of rotting teeth and the attendants oddly emotionless eyes. “What? Let me GO!” he yelled, fighting to get free.

The attendant holding him down nodded to the other.

Thomas turned his head to see the second attendant with a large stainless-steel hypodermic needle that looked like it came out of a vintage horror movie. The needle sank into his unwilling arm with unapologetic violence. This wasn’t like the modern hair-thin needles that minimized pain, this felt like a drinking straw had been plunged onto his arm. The nerve pain shot up to his shoulder.

“This’ll relax you, and the doctor will see you soon.”

The pain didn’t subside, but the caring about pain did. His body lolled loosely as the world drifted in and out of focus. Words slid sideways into a comforting mumble as he felt himself untied and transferred to a chair and restrained again. He didn’t care. Maybe he should have went to that party after all. Party?

Minutes. Hours. Possibly days passed. It was a hazy dream of dark and light and motion. Swallowing something that tasted grey. Wetness in his pants, rough hands cleaning him. Dreams of a different place, a lingering sadness of losing… something? Someone? Someplace?

Thomas awoke being rolled down a stark corridor, naked lights throwing shadows and glare. He remembered the restraints and attendants this time, took three deep breaths, then looked around slowly.

“Ah, I see you are with us again, Mr. Covney.” The voice behind him, pushing the wheelchair, was not unkind.

“Where am I? Why am I tied up?” Thomas asked.

“You had some bad reactions to treatment, and your, ah… dreams… had gotten worse. You had to be sedated for the last 2 days because you kept waking up violently. We’re on our way to see Dr. Ramsey now.”

“Where are we?”

“We’re at Old Main. Utica. You’ve been here a while.”

“What???” Thomas said. “The Utica Lunatic Asylum??!!”

“Shh… Don’t get excited, or they’ll sedate you again,” the voice said. “We don’t call it that anymore, we call it Old Main.”

. . .

Dr. Ramsey’s office was a well-appointed room in dark wood and books. Thomas was wheeled in before a great desk where the mustachioed Dr. Ramsey sat. The doctor looked up from the papers before him. “Thank you. You may leave us.”

Then, to Thomas: “How are we feeling today. Mr. Covney?”

“I don’t understand what is going on, where I am, why I am here.”

Dr. Ramsey made a note on a page. “That’s not entirely unexpected given the treatment you’d been undergoing for the last couple years. Let me recap.”

“Let’s see… You were remanded to Old Main when you were 17 years old for,” he flipped pages, “eh, reasons of hysteria, epileptic fits, and overaction of the mind. That was in December 1916. You became a ward of the State and have been undergoing treatment here for 4 years now.”

Thomas stared, wide-eyed. He wanted to correct the doctor because he remembered his life, his modern life in New York city, and yet… there was something else.

“I will admit your case is unique. You have chronic and recurring visions, dreams, that you live in a world 100 years in the future.” Dr. Ramsey opened a large journal, and flipped through the pages. “Indeed, your descriptions are quite compelling, although much of the terminology is meaningless. Things like the internet, robots, social media, smart TV, jet planes, air conditioning, computers that you can hold in your hand that allow you to see anyone anywhere in the world, men on the moon, space missions… It’s fantastic. I would think you were caught up in a tale spun by Jules Verne himself.”

Thomas blanched. “It is real. That’s where I am from, that’s where I grew up! This,” Thomas swung his head around the room, “is a dream. This stuff, your desk, the books, paper files, you, and… is that an actual fountain pen??? This isn’t real. I want to wake up from this, this… nightmare!”

Dr. Ramsey stood. “In that, we are in agreement. I want to help you wake up to the real world also. But you have to understand, this place, here in Old Main in 1920, you and I in this office: THIS is reality. You have been plagued by delusions for years, and they are only getting worse. Not better.”

“No, that can’t be!” Thomas exclaimed.

“It is. I can prove it. Do remember your parents, where you were born in this future world of yours? Where you grew up?”

Rage grew within Thomas. “Of course I can remember! My parents were,” but paused. While his parents’ faces were clear, they were not modern faces. Old-fashioned hair and clothes. The toys he remembered from childhood, the 7-pack of Crayola’s, a Radio Flyer wagon, and a Meccano set his father brought back from England, were not modern toys.

“You remember a childhood here, don’t you? It wasn’t a childhood in the future, correct?”

Thomas thought long, rage melting away to be replaced with confusion. “It isn’t.”

Dr. Ramsey patted Thomas on the shoulder. “It’s good you recognize that. Very good. What you are experiencing is a disconnection in reality, and fortunately there is a new form of treatment that we think will resolve your problems.”

Thomas turned to look at the doctor as he moved behind and unlocked the wheelchair. “What kind of treatment?”

“It’s called a Leucotomy. It’s a small surgical treatment where the connections in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex are severed. We have had some great success in this facility with this procedure.”

The chair turned toward the door.

“No, no, no!!! That’s a Lobotomy!” Thomas jerked and rocked in the chair, trying to pull free. “You can’t do this; I know what happens to Lobotomy patients!!! I saw it on the Science Channel!” Thomas screamed.

The door opened, and the two attendants entered, one holding a shiny stainless-steel syringe and smiling that terrifying smile.