The moment Theta awoke, an immediate sickening sensation hit the pit of her stomach. Slowly, with trepidation, she opened her eyes and peered into the black abyss. It was the morning after the day before, and life as she had known it would now be over. The only questions were where, what, and how? Would she be tortured? Imprisoned? Silently executed without so much left as a whisper of her existence? Had They taken her to some remote locale where They could violate her any way They liked? There were rumors about what They did to people in cases like this, but no one really knew for sure…Theta’s mind raced with possibilities, causing the upheaval in her gut to roil into a whirling cyclone of stomach acids.
The day before had started out smoothly. She had slipped into the underground unit as usual, unnoticed—or so she thought. Her last broadcast had generated more numerous calls from listeners seeking to join her call to action than usual. Theta had been surprised and pleased, touched even, by their willingness to reach out despite the perilous consequences. It was for that reason, perhaps, that she had let her caution slip…or had she? She still couldn’t comprehend exactly how it had happened, or what the tip-off had been. One minute she was hunched over her mic revealing the latest shocking outrage from atop The Bluff; the next, a swift, sharp pain pierced the back of her skull, followed by a red miasma swimming before her eyes. Her last memory was the fleeting image of hands pulling something over her head, before she passed out altogether and everything faded into blackness.
And now she was blinking into that same blackness. She attempted to sit up, and the throbbing agony pulsing through her skull distracted her from the violent thrashing in her stomach. Her eyes were slowly starting to make out images. A chair here. A bureau there. It didn’t look like a cell. Outside, she could hear birds twittering.
Cradling her head in her hands, she managed to stumble over to a large window. Outside was a picturesque scene of domesticity on a sunny morning. A trim, well-manicured lawn. A dogwood tree. Even a garden full of daffodils! Was she dreaming? She stepped outside and faced the quaint little cottage she’d been sleeping in, then turned to the house next door, which was similar but also included a gleaming, just-waxed sedan in the driveway.
Suddenly, a man in a green alligator shirt with his brown hair neatly parted to one side appeared from the garage with a rag in one hand and a can of Turtle Wax in the other. “Well, hell-O there!” he exclaimed upon seeing her, giving her a friendly wave of the rag. “And you must be the new resident?” Theta answered by tenderly massaging her head. “Ohhh, don’t worry about the noggin, that’ll pass,” he chortled. “We all go through it at first. But believe me, it’s worth it in the end. You’ll never have been as happy as you will be here!”
“Where am I?” Her voice was hoarse and slurred. Through the haze clouding her brain, she squinted at the man. He looked familiar. His face. She was sure she’d seen it before somewhere. She racked her memories, but couldn’t place him.
“You’re somewhere safe. It doesn’t matter where. You’re safe, and no harm can come to you now. And you’ve got your own house, and lawn, and soon They’ll even give you a car, too! This is a place to relax and enjoy. Welcome.” He opened his arms expansively. There was something about that gesture, the expression on his face…so familiar.
And then…she knew. “It’s you!” she blurted out. “The one who went missing! You were one of the leaders of the Radical Resistance Project! You were all over the news for weeks. They tried to say you’d been abducted by rogue thugs, but I never believed it. How the hell did you end up…here?”
The man winced a bit. “Well, yes, that was me in a past life. But I’ve changed, and so will you. All of that fighting and struggling, and for what? For the right to remain miserable? I’ve come to appreciate the simpler joys in life these days. A good meal. A nice, green lawn. A car so shiny you can see your reflection.” He winked and wiggled the Turtle Wax. “These are the things that make life worth living.” He smiled at her look of horror. “Yes, I remember the days when I would have felt exactly the same. But as you get older, your priorities change. The outside world doesn’t matter so much when you’re content with life. Everyone here will tell you that.”
“WHERE AM I?” This time the plea was more insistent.
The man opened his mouth as if to answer, but then his expression changed. “Well, hell-O there!” He gave the same chipper wave of the rag to a tall, lithe woman with gray-streaked hair and a beak nose, striding purposefully out of the house next door.
This time, Theta immediately recognized the woman from rallies she had attended back when such things were legal. This woman had spoken at numerous events, and always seemed to work the crowd up into a frenzy. But that was years ago, and no one had seen or heard from her since then. “I know you, you’re—”
The woman interjected with an impatient sigh and a dismissive wave of her ringed fingers. “The one who used to speak at the demonstrations in the valley below The Bluff. Yes, and now I live here, and I’ve never been happier. I have no need for any of that nonsense any more.” She turned to the man. “That lawn looks like it could use a good hosing.” And with that she spun on her heels and marched off, leaving Theta stunned and grasping at thin air where a response should have been.
The former radical resister put his hand on her shoulder consolingly. “I know it’s hard to realize the truth,” he urged. “But you‘ll thank me once you understand. I spent years trying to teach people what I thought was the truth. Turns out it was right here all along!”
Theta turned away in disgust. It was obvious these two weren’t going to help her situation. She needed to get out—and soon. Back to allies who could hide her from Them. If only she knew where she was! There didn’t seem to be any street signs or distinctive landmarks. And her head was aching so terribly…
For hours, she wandered each identical nameless street, asking passersby where she was. No one would say anything other than that she was “somewhere safe” and that she “shouldn’t worry,” and when she begged and pleaded with them to help her escape, even crying at times with frustration, they gawked at her in bewilderment and in shock as if she were a raving lunatic for even suggesting such a thing.
Every person she encountered had once been a member of the underground movement, yet now wanted nothing to do with it. The sense of impending doom hovered above her like a sun being slowly eclipsed. Why had They left her there? When would her punishment begin? Had there been some mistake? The dread of the unknown in the midst of this environment of false security was almost worse than any penalty she could have envisioned.
It was now dark, and Theta was exhausted. The pain in her skull had spread to the rest of her body. She wasn’t getting anywhere, and she was close to passing out. Visions of the bed she had woken up in danced in her mind, beckoning her. Just a little rest, she thought, a little sleep can‘t hurt. Her leaden feet dragged her back to the house.
She crawled into bed and lay awake for several moments, still tense with fear and expectation. But the house was quiet. Even the birds had gone to sleep. Gradually, she drifted away…
The next morning she awoke feeling much better. The birds twittered their merry songs. She rose and looked out the big picture window. This time, there was a car of her very own in the driveway. She could escape! Except…
Except she wasn’t sure now if she wanted to.
It’s such a beautiful day, she mused. The grass is so green. Actually, maybe there is something to be said for having a nice house and a car, and really taking care of those things. This is a comfortable house, but I could stay and make it even better. And I could maintain that lawn, maybe put in some sprinklers. And that car! That car is so new and shiny…
She stepped outside and slowly, almost reverently, walked towards the car. It was shiny enough that she could see her reflection in it. She spent the rest of the morning mesmerized by the image of herself and the neighborhood reflected in the sheen on the car.
A short distance away, the Doctor was still putting his ice pick back into his instrument case. “Excellent work yet again, Doctor!” exclaimed the nurse admiringly. “Oh, it’s nothing,” he replied, ever modest. “Such a simple procedure, really. A few swift knocks to the frontal lobe, and the patient doesn’t feel a thing.” He was pleased with his work as usual. He closed the latch of the case and stepped outside into the spring day, taking a deep breath of fresh air. It really was a beautiful day in the neighborhood.