Hart-Benton knew fear when the store clerk told him he’d reached his limit for coffee. He’d have to put it back. No more coffee. Ever. Once your personal limit for consumption was met, you could no longer purchase that item. Rationing, it was called, although Hart-Benton didn’t find much rational about it. There was plenty of coffee on the shelf. Bags of it. The store had so much coffee they must throw away the oldest bags over time if they aren’t consumed, or so Hart-Benton thought. He also knew that throwing away food never happened because food never got old, never expired, all because of the rationing. There was always enough for everyone, up until the time when they’d used all they were allowed, when they’d grown old. Hart-Benton knew, down in the marrow, that running out of coffee meant more than just that he’d had too many second or third cups and used up his allotment early. No, it meant that Hart-Benton himself was old, that soon he’d expire, his time allowed on this earth used up, too many sunrises and sunsets, too many seasons, all behind him.
The room felt disheveled, untidy. He’d expected that. An unordered environment, while not conclusive in itself, always expressed itself in cases like this. In his line of work, investigating potential enforced integration, the internal conflict between a primary or initial personality and a secondary or invading personality rendered the vessel, the physical person, impaired in several ways. A pronounced lack of propriety among them.
A formal interview of the patient would come, in time, but first, there was an investigation. That was the protocol, and he insisted on gathering a clear understanding of the environment. To confront the person without first placing them in time and space produced a biased understanding; and a first impression would also tinge the perception of the place to fit that bias instead of telling its own story in its own way. Not that he heard voices in the room. No, there were no spirits untethered to roam. All spirits needed anchoring. There could be no animas without an animal in which to reside. Inanimate objects were just that, things without spirit.
He started with the bedroom. This would be the place where the patient was most vulnerable. Sleepers experience dreams without inhibitions, or rather only those inhibitions the sleepers truly believe in rather than those imposed by the world around them. Their true selves would be expressed in this place, this room of sanctuary. It was here that he would find evidence, if any existed, of the imposition of alien personalities.
“Come on, you can do it. It’s perfectly safe,” says Daddy. “You won’t feel a thing. Promise.”
“Promise like birthdays?” The little boy looks up at his dad. “Or promise like Mommy’s coming back?”
The dad’s shoulders droop. He takes a deep breath.
“You two come through or step out of line,” says a security guard. He waves a short dark club at them.
“It’s okay,” Daddy says to the boy. “I’ll go first so you can see it’s safe. Just wait for me turn around and then you do it the same way I do. Okay?”
The boy bit his lip as his dad said ‘okay’ again, but this time it wasn’t a question.
The dad lets go of the boy’s hand, adjusts his shirt, and steps through the security scanner. Red lights flash and the sound of sirens fill the air. Daddy is knocked to the floor by the security guard and suddenly there are guards all around everyone in line, shouting and pointing and hitting and the boy cries, an open-mouth scream, wanting for all the world not to have to walk through the scanner and get knocked down.
The tableaux arranged itself, three inhabitants, unknown to each other prior to this moment. Jeny, a young mother working in the community garden family plot, Marshal, a retired gentleman on his way to the library for a senior center board meeting, and Pic, a self-proclaimed anti-social teen pretending to walk to school by cutting through the neighborhood park, hoping to score a bag of weed. Who can say why these three came to the same place and moment, the same awareness of each other, that generated a link between them? Any other day and they might have ignored each other like most people do in public spaces.
The book, the sum total of all their inheritance, did not make any sense, at least at first. Then one of them notices that the book was written backwards, meant to be read from end to front. Still, no one cared except for one little girl who took time to sit on the floor, crisscross-applesauce, and read the darn thing. It was she who had noticed the reverse order of the words in the first place. Well, any of them would have figured it out if they’d bothered to look. The first page had two words on it: End The. And the last page also contained a grand total of two words: Beginning The. Of course it was backwards, but why would Uncle go to the trouble of writing a book in reverse order? The little girl had to find out.