This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
The effects of the sedative were wearing off. At first the foggy sluggishness was too compelling and Johanna basked in the languorous calm of prescription medication, enjoying that she didn’t care how disturbed and unsettled everything was. The room was dark, and there were no sounds floating down the halls to her, so it was probably sometime between midnight and five in the morning. There was no telling the time any more accurately until first light crawled through the bars of the tiny window opposite her bed.
An hour or so later, some strength returned to her body, and Johanna stirred and tried to sit up, then fell back down against the pillow. Some kind of restraint was holding her, but Johanna was still too dazed to try to figure out exactly what it was and where the knots were tied. Suffice that she couldn’t get up, she had no idea where she was, it was still some time before dawn, and Johanna had to be in serious trouble.
After several hours had passed, a false dawn played the promise of light into her window. Through the darkness, Johanna could make out some shapes of objects around her—a couple of closed doors, something that looked like a bureau and some waist-high pieces of furniture that might have been chairs or a table. The room was small—bigger than a closet but not by much. And the air had a strong smell of disinfectant, the kind they use in hospitals and other institutions.
Johanna dozed and woke. She listened for sounds, but there were none—no one talking outside, no ticking clocks, not even a motor. She moved her foot along the bed, listening to the shushing sound it made rubbing along the sheet, loud against the backdrop of quiet.
She peered out at the darkness, trying to get her mind to come up with a plan for coping, a plan for escaping, a plan to make all of this go away. Except that she wasn’t even sure what all of “this” was in the first place.
She remembered hanging a sign—her feeble protest against the imminent invasion of Iraq. It had been written on a bed sheet with a felt tipped pen. Someone had displayed an American flag at the overpass to Highway Four, and she had hung her sign just below the flag, fastening it to the wire fence that safeguards pedestrians. She remembered the material flapping wildly in the wind as she struggled to attach it to the wire. She remembered how hard her heart had pounded, half with fear and half with excitement, as she secured the sign to the wire, making her message known to thousands of commuters. And she remembered telling God, “I sure hope that this is what you want.”
That memory at least was clear, but the rest—the rest was all noise and confusion. There was pain, a lot of pain, and shouting, and maybe policemen or federal agents or something, and then…then… well, there was no then. There just wasn’t anything until the bed and the fog and the restraints. It was as if her mind had stopped and started all over.
What else? She tried to pull some more information out of the sticky goo that was her memory. But she couldn’t think for more than a second or two before some singsong ditty popped into her head. “You can’t go to Heaven on roller skates, ‘cause you’ll roll right by those pearly gates.” The tune from childhood knocked her thoughts over the way an exuberant dog’s tail knocks over a project painstakingly put together, and Johanna was back like Alice in a medicated wonderland.
Dawn broke. Things happened. They let her use the bathroom. “They” were a hospital sort of “they”—white jackets or smocks and how-are-you-feeling-today smiles—the kind of smiles you could cut out of a magazine.
They fed her some mashed orange stuff, which they shoved into her mouth with a spoon. The taste was similar to sweet potato, only it had a gritty feel to it and was so sweet that she gagged on the second mouthful. Johanna considered not eating, but that would have taken more effort than she could muster.
After the meal, Johanna hung limp while they washed her face and dressed her in a gray pair of sweat pants and T-shirt. Then they left, and came back and took her temperature. They left, and came back and gave her juice. They asked her what day it was and who she was and where she was. Johanna could only answer the second question. Then they untied what seemed to be a vest, which had held her attached to the bed with two plaited straps. And, finally, they left her alone—for a while.
With the restraint gone, Johanna dragged herself up off of the bed and stumbled around the room. There wasn’t much there. Both doors were locked. The furniture, what there was of it, was bolted to the floor. Johanna made two full circles around her room, touching, probing, looking for something to come loose. Then she plopped back down on the bed and dozed, and woke, and dozed some more.
With a sound like a cricket makes, the door creaked open, and Johanna stirred awake. “How are you feeling today, Miss Johanna?” The woman who spoke wore a nurse’s uniform, and the words were startling after the quiet. She was young, barely old enough to have made it through nursing school, with black hair cut into a pageboy and light brown skin. “My name is Maria.” Her voice was calm and soothing, with a hint of a Filipino accent.
“Uh,” said Johanna.
“Come with me please. You’re going to see Dr. Heckleweit this morning.” She put a hand under Johanna’s arm to support her, and Johanna leaned against it. Maria’s touch was gentle, reassuring. And Maria was the first human in this institution who had told Johanna her name.
Johanna was still pretty groggy, but was able to stumble around with Maria holding on to her arm. They walked down a long hallway. To Johanna it seemed to go on and on with no end. Finally they reached an elevator, and Maria held up a plastic card to activate it. The elevator dropped a few floors, and they walked through a maze of corridors that culminated with a cherry-wood door, and a yellow smiley face. “You are welcome,” said the sign next to the smiley face. “Please come in and be seated.” Maria ushered Johanna inside and sat her down on a folding chair.
“Is… this Dr. Heck…is this… his office?” It was an effort to speak. Probably Maria didn’t understand her because she just nodded, smiled and said, “Yes, Honey.” Or maybe it was Dr. Heck’s office. Johanna looked around, scuffing her feet against the floor as a child would do. In fact, Johanna felt very much like a child—a miniature person in an adult world—and very much out of control.
After a time, a large, brisk man in a white doctor’s coat walked Johanna into an inner office and positioned her like a throw pillow onto a cream-colored overstuffed couch. Standing in front of his walnut desk, he towered menacingly over Johanna.
“Good morning, Johanna, I’m Dr. Heckleweit,” said the doctor-looking person. “How are you feeling today?”
“Okay.” The words were thick, muffled. They fell through her teeth like wilted lettuce. Her head nodded to the left and her thick black curls dangled matted, pulled back into a snarled tail behind her neck. Greasy wisps drooped sadly down around her ears.
Dr. Heckleweit smiled with his teeth, a professional smile. While his lips turned up in greeting, his steel-gray eyes examined Johanna, alert for any information that her body language might give away.
“So, my friend,” he said, “we’ll be meeting like this every day for a while. “Please feel free to tell me anything that’s on your mind. You’re safe here. You can say anything, anything at all, and know that whatever you say will not leave this room.”
Johanna looked up into his eyes. He was very tall. Johanna felt like she was staring up at a stone monument. Words buzzed inside her head like mosquitoes. Be not afraid. Be not afraid. “Okay,” she said out loud.
“So, my friend,” Dr. Heckleweit continued, “I’ll ask you some questions, and you answer. Easy questions. For example, tell me your name.” He touched some buttons to start up a tape recorder and a video camcorder; then he pulled up a chair from behind his desk, and sat down, a notepad and pencil poised in his hand.
“Johanna Jacobson,” she said.
“Good. Now tell me a little about yourself.”
The words came slowly, with large gaps of silence between them. “I work… for… the Up…start Gazette. Live in Berkeley... Forty-three years…old.” All the talking seemed frightening somehow after the silence of her room.
“Please go on,” said the doctor. “How do you feel right now?”
“Tired… Confused. I don’t…know.”
“You don’t know what?”
“Tell me about your job.”
“Write a…column.” It was hard for Johanna to talk, but she put together a few phrases. “Nature…environment… stuff.” He let her ramble for a few minutes to give her a chance to feel comfortable, to drop her guard.
“Who told you that they torture prisoners at Guantanamo?” he asked casually, and his eyes searched Johanna for clues.
“No one,” said Johanna.
“You thought it up by yourself?” There was a sharpening in his voice.
The room was still for a second. Dr. Heckleweit waited and studied Johanna’s face. There had to be something important here, something Johanna was holding back.
“Tell me what your sign says.”
“Make me…a channel of…your peace.”
“Why did you put it up under the American flag? When your country is on the brink of war?”
Johanna shrugged like a little girl. She was too woozy to actually explain what she believed. Be not afraid. Be not afraid. The words kept on buzzing, and her brain ached with the effort of talking.
“Are you a member of Al Qaeda?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“Are you a Moslem?”
“Are you a Christian?”
“Then why did you write that sign? Why? Why would you betray your country and your God? You said you’re a Christian. Do you fear hell?”
“Just hung …a sign.”
Johanna shrugged. Dr. Heckleweit watched her breathing and her eye movements. He looked for twitches, coughs and grunts, any movement that might indicate discomfort, but there was nothing conclusive.
“What do you know about anthrax?”
“Probably tied …to… White House.”
“Who told you this?”
“No one.” She was tired and upset.
“And the link between Al Qaeda and Sadaam Hussein?”
“Who told you this?”
“Sadaam’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction?”
“Made up.” It was very hard to talk, and Johanna felt heavy and sleepy.
“Who gave you this information?”
’ “Then why did you post it on the Internet?”
“But why? If you weren’t sure?”
“There’s always a reason.”
Johanna sighed. She knew better than to tell the truth, but the words had to be said. Otherwise she’d be denying the most essential core of her being. She took a breath.
“God…told me to.”
Here Dr. Heckleweit wrote some notes on his pad.