"Don't worry, it's not that bad here. it's actually kind of fun," Alice chirped. Mac groaned and poked his pile of peas with a plastic spoon.
"Cheer up Mac, I'm sure you'll love it here, you just don't know it yet."
Mac said nothing, and stared viciously at his chicken. He felt sick. In his eyes, his life was over.
Trapped like a rat in this polished prison, he had no idea where to turn. Everywhere he looked, someone insane sat, eating as if nothing was awry.
Alice held up a handful of peas. "you want some of mine? You seem to have crushed all of yours."
Mac's blood turned to ice as a sudden thought struck him. What if I am crazy? It would make sense. maybe it was like Catch Twenty-Two, and the reason he didn't think he was insane was because he actually was. Except, I'm questioning my sanity now, so there goes that theory, he thought.
Mac took a deep breath and refocused himself. He felt suddenly ashamed for breaking down so easily. If there was anything Mac prided himself in, it was his ability to go down swinging.
"Hey Alice, can I ask you something?"
She smiled and looked up from her food, exited at the prospect of being useful.
"Does anyone ever leave here?"
Alice stared at the ceiling for a moment furrowing her brow.
"Not anybody I know of."
Mac's heart sunk. He knew it. He would be stuck here forever, eating hospital food and drawing pictures. Alice noticed his gloomy visage.
"It's definitely possible though," she added. " We have therapy sessions two times a week to see if we're healthy enough to go out in society. That reminds me! You still have to do your entrance interview."
Mac looked up from the patch of floor he had been staring at miserably, his eyes suddenly bright again.
"Oh that's great! So all I have to do is prove to them that I'm sane, and they have to let me out. Hold on a sec, what's an entrance interview?"
"It's a little different than regular therapy because instead of trying to cure you, the doctor tries to figure out what's wrong with you," Alice said, eating a eating a piece of her chicken like it was a stick of beef jerky. She closed her eyes, savoring her meal, as Mac frowned and bit his lip.
"So do you have any tips for how I might come across as sane during the interview? I mean you had to do one right? What was it like?"
"It's not a big deal," she responded, casually brushing a lock of hair from her eyes, "Some doctor guy just asks you a bunch of weird questions and then they let you go. I didn't really like it, but hey, maybe yours will be different. Natalie, are you going to eat your chicken?"
Natalie awoke from what appeared to be some sort of trance state. "I partake not in the flesh of any living creature, but if you wish to do so I will not stop you."
Alice grinned from ear to ear. "Great, thanks!"
Neither girl seemed aware that their reactions to each other had been at all out of place. Mac found it difficult not to laugh at this odd exchange, but quickly remembered that his freedom was at stake, and sobered himself.
"Alice focus! I need your help here. I need you to tell me in detail everything they asked you in your entrance interview."
She looked slightly startled, but quickly regained her bubbly attitude.
"Well mine was almost a year and half ago, so I'm going to have to think hard to remember, but I'll do my best to help you in every way! Hey this might even be fun! We can make like a study group or something."
Just as Alice opened her mouth to talk again, the tone Mac had heard earlier sounded.
"That marks curfew," she told him. "We should get to our rooms."
Mac started to panic, realizing that he might not get any advice before the interview began. "What about the study group?" he asked, as everyone in the mess hall began standing up and hurrying off to their rooms.
"We'll have time to talk at breakfast," Alice said over her shoulder as she walked spiritedly away. "See you then!"
That night, all Mac could think about was the interview. He was deeply anxious, and was certain that he would mess up and end up convincing them that he was mad. In addition, he was also terribly hungry, having eaten barely anything at dinner. He knew he probably should have, but the anxiety of the interview and the stress of the day had dissolved his appetite. In an ironic twist of fate, Mac worried that he might end up botching the interview because of his lack of sustenance, and realized that he may have created a self fulfilling prophesy. The more he worried, the harder it was to sleep, and every minute that went by lowered his chances of looking healthy in the interview. Eventually, his mind lost the required energy to worry, and sleep took him.
What felt like ten minutes later, Mac woke to the sound of the screeching tone from the day before, followed by an unseen lock clicking open inside of his door. He hadn't even realized that it had auto-locked for the night, but was too tired to care as he stumbled over to the mess hall for breakfast. This time, he caused no trouble. The guard from yesterday was especially rough when grabbed Mac's wrist to scan it. Mac said nothing, and looked at the ground submissively until the guard finished the roll call. As soon as he finished, the man with the beard, who's name Mac learned was Mr. O., announced the schedule. Anyone not adhering to the schedule, Mr. O. announced, would be swiftly punished. He looked scalding at Mac when he said this. Mac wanted to tell him off, and probably would have, if he hadn't been more concerned with passing a mental examination. If he acted out now, it would only make him look less sane, so he held his tongue.
After scanning the device on his wrist in front of the receiver, Mac was delighted to find a tray of yellow mush slide out onto the counter from some hidden kitchen. The mush tasted vaguely egg-like, and was evidently indented to thought of as such, despite having the consistency of pudding. The supposed bacon was no better, being almost translucent. Mac wondered how much of it was actually meat, but didn't really care. All he was concerned with was getting enough nutrients to look healthy for his interview. If they did that, he didn't mind the fact that they didn't resemble food in the slightest. He turned to Alice as he continued to eat voraciously.
"So Alice, you were in the middle of giving me advice yesterday, remember?"
Alice looked up from the handful of scrambled eggs she had been munching on.
"Oh yeah! Let's do that. What exactly is it you want to know?"
"Tell me the questions they asked you, so I can be ready for them," he said. Alice wiped her hands on a paper napkin and thought for a moment.
"Definitely one of the questions was 'how are you feeling'," she said. "And they also asked me about... my past." All at once, her playful smile faded, and her eyes looked vacant. She stopped eating and stared at a patch of wall as if she were somewhere else. Mac was about to ask her what was wrong, when Natalie began to speak.
"You want advice? Don't tell them anything. I've been through a lot of interrogations, and the important thing is not to let them break you."
Mac narrowed his eyes. "What?"
"You said yesterday you wanted advice about the interrogation. Now I'm giving it to you."
"I thought it was an interview, not an interrogation. And why aren't you talking like a fortune cookie anymore?"
"Maybe you've got me confused with someone else," she said, looking around the room suspiciously. "I'm agent Natalie Cole of the FCA."
"What does FCA stand for?" Mac asked, wondering why she didn't tell him any of this yesterday.
"That's highly confidential. My mission is on a need to know basis, and so is my organization."
Steven, who had been sitting across the table to her right in silence, now spoke up.
"Don't mind her, she's not always like this. Only every third day."
Mac scratched his head. "What do you mean every third day?"
"Well, she has a very rare case of schizophrenia. She's delusional about different things on different days. It has something to do with circadian rhythms I think."
Natalie cut him off. "Don't listen to him. He's one of them."
Steven gave him an understanding smile, the first happy expression Mac had seen on his face. "See what I mean?"
"I'm sorry, hold on, I have to talk to Alice for a bit," Mac said, turning back to her. "So you were saying about the interview?"
Alice still looked slightly dazed, and looked at Mac as if she didn't recognize him.
"I've- I've got to go," she said, before rushing out of the room, the spring gone from her step. Mac didn't understand what had just happened, but was more concerned with the fact that breakfast was almost over.
"Steven, you can help me right?"
"Everyone's interview is different, but-"
Steven was cut short by the tone. Mac groaned, remembering that Mr. O. had designated the first tone to signal therapy sessions, or in Mac's case, his entrance interview. The moment he had been dreading had come.
Mac sat down in his chair and waited for the interviewer to arrive. He had expected some sort of comfortable couch in a dusty old room, but all he found in the therapy room was a table and two chairs. The room itself was small, white, and brightly lit, contrasting greatly with Mac's picture of what it would be.
After a couple minutes had passed, which Mac suspected was an intentional attempt to make him nervous, a man dressed in medical scrubs entered the room.
"Hello Mac, I'm doctor Hammond. I'll be conducting your entrance interview today."
"Hi," Mac answered.
Reaching into his pocket, the doctor pulled out a black box, the size of a small radio, with a single wire protruding from it. The wire split in two, and ended with two tabs that he recognized from a movie he saw once. Electrodes.
"You want to read my mind?"
The doctor chuckled heartily and slid the device across the table.
"No, it's not for that. This just helps us gather valuable data for future research. All it measures is your brainwaves, not your thoughts."
It suddenly occurred to Mac that objecting would make him seem paranoid, and so he obliged the request, placing the two tabs on his temples.
"So how are you feeling today Mac?"
Mac realized that this was his chance to prove his sanity. He took a deep breath and responded confidently, putting on his best "sane face".
"I feel great today. In fact, I've never felt healthier in my life! I mean, I've got tons of energy, and I feel really relaxed..."
The man had stopped paying attention to him and was now looking worriedly at his tablet computer.
"I'm going to have to step out for a bit, there's been an emergency."
"Um, ok," Mac said. The man exited, and left Mac in his chair to think about what he would do if the doctor didn't return. Mac's breathing became more and more rapid as time passed, and as he wondered if that one question was the interview. He eyed the camera hanging from the ceiling, and was about to remove his electrodes when the door opened again. He puzzled for a moment over what sort of emergency could be dealt with in a minute and a half, before realizing that the person entering was not the doctor. Instead, it was a girl of about nineteen, with shoulder length brown hair and a gentle smile. Mac relaxed into his chair, hoping that this was his new therapist.
"Hello! I'm Mira," She announced, folding her hands neatly on the table.
"Hi. Are you-?"
Mira interrupted him as if she wasn't aware he was talking. "I've been having a wonderful day, how about you?"
Mac furrowed his brow, but felt himself smiling despite his confusion. She's a bit weird, but it sure beats talking to that doctor, he thought to himself.
"It's been pretty great actually," Mac answered. "Is this-"
Once more, the girl stopped paying him any attention whatsoever, this time focusing on her phone. She cut him off mid sentence with a dramatic gasp.
"Is something wrong?"
Mira's eyes became very wide and her smile twisted into a grimace. Tears began to form in her deep brown eyes.
"My dad just... died."
Mac's throat constricted, causing swallowing to feel like eating rocks.
"Oh my God, I'm so sorry."
Her eyes looked vacant, and her face was now streaming unceasingly with tears. She clutched her head in her hands and sobbed.
"We were so close... I can't believe he's really... gone."
Mac's face felt very hot, and his vision blurred as tears entered his eyes as well. Deep in his gut, he felt a sickening pain.
"Mira, it's going to be ok," he said hoarsely. Mira sat up. Their eyes met, each separated by its own salty veil. For a moment they just sat there, gazing at each other in shared misery, before the girl continued sobbing.
"It's all over! I can't do this!"
Mac gritted his teeth, as a new wave of grief rose to meet him.
"You have to!" he reached across the table uncomfortably to grab her limp hand. "You have to be strong Mira. It's not over."
She kept crying for a moment more, before retracting her hand to check her phone again. In an instant, her expression changed. She glared at her phone as it shook in her quivering hands. With an animalistic shout, Mira threw the phone at the wall. A bitter scowl grew on her face as she watched it snap into three pieces. Mac gripped the arms of his chair so tightly that the veins on his hands began to bulge.
"What? What is it?"
Mira looked up at him, her eyes filled with hate. She was breathing heavily as she replied, and every muscle in her body seemed to shake uncontrollably.
"It's my stupid brother! He just told me that father never loved me! Who the hell does he think he is!" she slammed her fist down on the table.
Mac wanted to crush something. He felt a violent urge to flip the table over and break its legs to pieces. He struggled to keep from screaming as he spoke.
"Don't even think about listening to him! Your brother is an asshole."
The girl continued staring at the table in fury. Mac stood up now planting his hands firmly on the table as he leaned over it.
"Mira look at me! Your brother is wrong. You can't listen to him!"
He was yelling now, and his voice felt like someone else's, like he was watching himself from the inside. Mac's mind swirled with violent ugly thoughts. His only wish at that moment was to find Mira's brother, who's face he could only imagine, and tear him limb from limb.
In an instant, everything stopped. Mac's anger faded, and Mira looked as calm as she had when she entered. The doctor reentered the room, and Mira stood up, as if on cue.
"Thank you Mira, that's all we need."
"Okay," she said, pushing in her chair.
"Mac, you're free to go, the interview is over," said the doctor.
Mac's blood turned to ice. The color drained from his face, and a feeling of emptiness built in his chest. He had been played. Worse still, he didn't even understand how he had been played. One minute, he had sat patiently across from the doctor, acting perfectly normal, and the next moment, he was crying his eyes out, and shouting at a girl he didn't even know. There was only one explanation, but he felt sick at even the thought of it. Mac was going insane.