I never really thought I was crazy. That’s despite the fact that a panel of three psychiatrists, a judge and jury of my peers, and an ongoing evaluation by a state-certified mental institution said that I was. Three years in the Hillsboro Institute for the Criminally Insane was like thirty years anywhere else. Screaming at night, crying and shouting during the day, and very few people you can carry on a reasonable conversation with.
In the back of my mind, I knew that if they ever changed their opinions, they would put me in a real prison: one where you got brutalized every day of the week, where your bunkmate requires more of you than just telling him a bedtime story, where every meal is another opportunity to get a shank jabbed between your ribs. A mental hospital, taken in that context, really isn’t so bad. Get past the mind-numbing medications, and it could be okay.
But I missed having intelligent conversations. Having a PhD in relativistic physics doesn’t help you much when you have no books, no white board, and no access to colleagues you can speak to. Even the orderlies ignore me, probably because most of them are lucky to have a high-school education, and the most challenge their minds ever had was in figuring how to get the top off of child-proof bottles.
The closest thing to a conversation I can have is with Dr. Henry Iggleston, a fellow inmate. They call them patients here, but I know we are all really inmates. Henry was a physician in another life, a surgeon actually. That is, until he killed a child patient on the operating table and later tried to kill himself with a loaded handgun. The 22-caliber bullet did just enough damage to his brain to get him a ticket into this Wonderland without doing the job he had intended. Now Henry is locked in here, reliving his one spectacular failure in an otherwise stellar career.
Henry and I talk daily. He tells me about brain surgery, and I talk to him about wormholes. The bullet that struck his brain affected his short-term memory, and an hour later, he doesn’t remember having the conversation. So our discussions usually don’t last very long, or go very deep. One day I told him the same joke six times, and he laughed just as heartily all six times. The last time, I did it just as an experiment, and finally came to the conclusion that both of us needed to be in here.
But that was just for one day. All in all, I am convinced that I am a sane person, a victim of circumstances. What happened on that day in question is something I can’t explain. It was a twisted experience in an otherwise happy but mundane existence. I revisit now and again in my mind. But I am sane enough that sharing the story would just convince most people that I belong in there after all. After all, being honest with a judge and jury was what got me in here.
Looking back, I should have stuck with that philosophy. It had served me well for three years, and even if no one else believed that I was sane and whole, I could at least believe it of myself. But the one day that I broke my own code was the day when I started to slide down that slippery slope toward insanity.
I was sitting in the day room, playing a game of checkers with Edna, the woman who though she was Joan of Arc, when I first saw him. He stood at the locked entrance, talking to one of the doctors, who pointed me out. The new guy was tall and thin, not bad looking, about 30, with dark, slicked-back hair. He carried a Fedora and wore a tan trench coat over a blue pinstriped suit. He turned and looked at me, and I could see a thin, hawkish face that looked like it had its share of laughter and tears, with an open expression. He had struck me as a cop at first, but the openness of the face told me this guy was something else. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was an eager graduate student, but the clothes didn’t fit.
I watched him take long strides across the room past the tables filled with inmates doing jigsaw puzzles, drawing pictures and just staring into the distance. He wasted no time but stuck out his hand for me to shake.
“Dr. Reed?” he asked. His voice was a high baritone, and he sounded like he had used it to entrance more than one woman over the years. “I’m Jacob Astrid, from the Center for Concerned Studies.” It was then that I realized that his outstretched hand was not held out for me to shake, but held a business card. I took it and looked at it. It was a simple white card stating exactly what he had said: “Jacob Astrid. Center for Concerned Studies.”
I looked at him and smiled thinly. “You guys must be having budget problems. Seems like they could have included a bit more information. So what is your firm concerned with?”
Astrid shrugged. “Actually, we’re concerned with everything. It’s just a name. We had to call ourselves something.” He looked around. “Is there somewhere we can talk?’
I nodded. “Joan, the English are coming! Time to warn the others!” Edna’s head snapped upright and she leaped to her feet. She shouted something in French and ran to the other side of the room, shouting to the others until the orderlies came to settle her down. I winked at Astrid and shook his head.
“That wasn’t very nice,” he said, taking the chair next to mine.
“Ahh, Edna gets a rush out of it, and the rest of the room appreciates a little excitement now and then. Now…how can I help you?”
“We’ve been reviewing the transcripts of your court case, and we’ve become very interested in what happened. But there seems to be a few discrepancies.” As he spoke, he reached into his inside coat pocket and pulled out two folded sheets of paper and opened them to look at them.
“Look, Mr. Astrid….”
“Call me Jacob.”
“Jacob, I’m really not interested in going over a story that I presented a dozen times to the police, the psychiatrists and the courtroom. It’s all in there.”
“Is it?” he asked.
“Yes, it is,” I said, sighing. “I’ve learned that every time I tell my story, the people who hear it quickly join the ranks of those who think I am crazy.”
“I don’t think you are crazy.”
I smiled. “Sure you do. If you don’t, then you must not have read the transcripts.”
“Dr. Reed, the Center for Concerned Studies believes that you may be innocent. How would you like to walk out of here a free man?”
I hesitated. “That’s not going to happen. If I walk out of here, it will be to enter a maximum security penitentiary. No thank you, I prefer to sleep alone.”
Astrid leaned forward. “Dr. Reed,” he said quietly. “You’re a theoretical physicist, right?”
“Relativistic physics,” I corrected him. “Close, but not quite the same. My specialty is wormholes.”
“Wormholes,” Astrid repeated. “Interesting. Dr. Reed, have you ever seen a wormhole?”
I shook my head. This conversation was actually starting to become interesting.
“No one has seen a wormhole. But I have proven their probability mathematically.”
“So they probably exist.”
“I know they exist,” I said. “Statistically speaking, they are just as likely as quasars. It’s just a matter of finding one.”
“So you believe in the existence of something that you have never seen. Something no one in the world has ever seen.”
I shrugged and nodded.
“Dr. Reed, do you believe in life beyond earth?”
I smiled knowingly.
“The likelihood of life being limited to this planet out of vast multitude of universes is statistically improbable,” I said. “But what does this have to do with my wife’s death.”
Astrid held up a finger. “One more question, Dr. Reed.”
I reluctantly nodded. Where was he going with all this?
“Dr. Reed, did you kill your wife?”
I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and I inhaled through my nostrils, deep and long, trying to keep calm.
“No, I did not.”
“But the forensics team that studied the crime scene identified the body as that of Elizabeth Reed, your wife of 26 years. Both dental records and fingerprints show that it was her. The police who came to your door found a gun belonging to you. It had been fired once. Your fingerprints were on the gun. The bullet they pulled from your wife’s chest came from your gun.”
“That’s correct,” I said, trying to keep my voice level.
“How can you then say that you didn’t kill that woman?”
“I didn’t claim to have not killed that woman. I said I didn’t kill my wife.”
He hesitated. “So let me make sure I understand this clearly. You did kill that woman, but you didn’t kill your wife?”
“That’s correct,” I said.
Another pause. “So you’re saying that woman was not your wife?”
Now it my turn to stop and think. I wanted to say it right the first time.
“The woman that I killed was not the woman that I married. The woman, unfortunately, that died on that floor, was.” Even now, saying it as rationally as I could, it sounded insane.
I expected Jacob Astrid to shake his head and throw me in with the rest of the crazies. But he stared at me, as if trying to read my mind, a thin smile faint on his lips. Finally, he spoke:
“I believe you.” He continued staring at me as if trying to establish some unspoken bond, as if inviting me into a secret brotherhood of believers. I had my secret reality that I had tried to share with the world. He had accepted it, and now we were brothers. And somehow I knew that he was going to share secrets of his own.
“Dr. Reed, the Center for Concerned Studies has been following an entity for quite a long time. This entity has the ability to take the form of anyone it sees fit to emulate. It has been evading us for some time. But we have reason to believe that what you saw with your wife was actually this entity emulating your wife.”
I frowned at him. “Entity? What sort of entity?”
“Dr. Reed, earlier you said that you were willing to believe that in things no one had ever seen, as mathematical probabilities. You said you believed in life forms beyond earth’s experience. Is it so hard to believe that one of those life forms could visit us here?”
The scientist in me was laughing hard, having a hard time believing anything this man was placing before me. But the one who had found a brother who believed my story wanted to give him a chance. I waved for him to go on.
“When did you first notice a difference in your wife?”
“We took a trip to Hong Kong about six months before the…you know,” I said. “All the way back, my wife was strangely quiet. Then there was gradually more and more erratic behavior. We were never intimate after that vacation. She would disappear at night and refuse to tell me where she had gone. One time she didn’t come home from work for three days. I was frantic and had the police looking for her. She returned one Sunday morning and acted as if nothing had happened.
“I thought something was wrong for quite a while. I begged her to go in for psychiatric evaluation. I even had a psychiatrist friend and his wife come over for dinner. He talked to her for a few minutes over dinner, and told me that he thought she might have multiple personality disorder. That’s as far as I got with helping her.
“Then, stranger things began to happen. I found her diary. She had written in it in some obscure language. I took to a linguistics expert at the school, and he said that it was an early form of Sanskrit. She doesn’t know Sanskrit. She’s an interior decorator.
“Finally, pets began disappearing from the neighborhood. After neighbors complained, I began to look around. One day when I was at home alone, I went down to check the basement. As soon as I opened the door, I knew something was wrong. I’d recognize that dead smell anywhere. And whatever it was, it was huge and had been dead for quite a while.”
My hands were shaking now. I looked up at Jacob Astrid, and saw compassion in his eyes. I really needed a drink of water, but more than anything, I needed to finish my story. I took a deep breath and continued.
“When she got home that night, I confronted her with it. As usual, she didn’t even want to talk to me. It was if we were two strangers living in the same house. And this was a stranger I didn’t want to live with. She had become cold, indifferent, almost savage. I asked her what had happened to her. She responded by telling me that she was through with me. I told her once again that she needed psychiatric help. She responded by doing something I didn’t expect.”
I paused, and Astrid urged me on.
“Dr. Reed, what did she do?”
“She turned into me,” I whispered. “Right in front of my eyes, she turned into me. She said that she was moving on, that she—it—could travel farther and do more things as a university physics professor than as an interior decorator. And so this thing would continue on as me.”
I really needed that drink of water now. I cleared my throat and continued.
“I had been fearing for my life for quite a while. Without her knowing it, I had stored a 38 revolver in my bedside table. Now I knew this thing was definitely not my wife. In fact, I was looking at a creature that mirrored me. So I took my gun and shot it.”
Astrid paused. “When did it become your wife again?”
“When I pulled out the gun, it laughed and said that I wouldn’t dare shoot my loving wife. And then it took my wife’s form. By that time, I knew that it wasn’t my wife. It wasn’t until she was lying, dead on the floor, blood all over everything, that I realized that she was, indeed, my wife.”
Astrid pursed his lips and spoke.
“Dr. Reed, what you saw has been called by many things over the years. Changeling. Mesomorph. We call them simply Demons. They are in spirit form, but like to occupy the bodies of humans to do their dirty work. You did, indeed, kill your wife, but the Demon wouldn’t have left her body voluntarily any other way. Chances are, it was planning on taking you over next. The only thing that probably saved you was your resistance to what it represented.”
I blinked and listened to his story.
“A few years ago, I would have thought that story preposterous and believed you belonged in here,” I said. “Now it makes sense—in a strange sort of way.” I sighed and thought of Elizabeth.
“So how does a crazy story like that get me out of this crazy house?” I asked.
Jacob Astrid cleared his throat and stood.
“The Center has significant resources and quite a few important connections in high places. We’ll be in touch with you. In the meantime, we ask that you refrain from sharing your story with anyone else.”
I nodded. “I learned that a long time ago. I will wait for your call.”
He shook my hand and started away from the table. It took me a minute to realize that he wasn’t walking toward the door, but toward a storage closet in a quiet part of the room.
“Don’t you want to go that direction, Jacob?” I asked.
He smiled broadly. “Like I said, we have significant resources. We’ll be in touch.”
As I watched, his form folded from side to side into a thin vertical line, then the line collapsed into nothing. And I was once again alone in the day room.
A minute later, I still sat there, wondering if I had imagined the whole conversation, It wasn’t later that I realized that I still held a white business card in my hand which read simply:
“Jacob Astrid, Center for Concerned Studies.”