Chapter Forty-Two

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I know it's going to be bad. There's just no questioning the potency of an evil concoction featuring Oleg as the primary ingredient and a splash of Jared. I badly want to ignore the message, to pretend Elite has no power over me and can't compel me to do one blasted thing no matter what bile they broadcast...

But it isn't so.

Oleg is trained in brutalizing people—brutalizing people in the service of his goals. I can't ignore this. I can't bury my head in the sand.

With cold dread, I prop Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt against the side of the duct. Her monochromatic display won't make for dreamboat video, but I'm not about to risk exposing myself in search of an empty conference room. I find Intra-1 in the company directory and, hating to, tap its icon.

The feed takes several seconds to appear on screen, initializing, obtaining a network socket, buffering. Finally, an image. The image is comprised wholly of green shades. The background is faint—maybe beige in person—with eerily familiar horizontal stripes I know I've seen before.

Wallpaper?

In the foreground, a thick-bearded man sits at a breakfast table. A sliver of his forearm is visible as though he's holding the camera, a phone I'm guessing. He's staunch-necked and wears the characteristic Elite polo shirt.

Two people in hairnets pass behind, one pulling a tray and the other carrying domed platters.

My stomach backs up into my spine—that sensation of cresting a roller coaster's first maniacal hill.

When the man shifts, I see his other arm—the one not holding the phone—is draped around a high-backed wicker chair. Sitting in the chair, looking groggy and confused, is Mom.

Oleg's voice returns, "We took the liberty of sending a facilitator ahead to notify your mother of Blackquest 40. It's come to our attention that you often dine with her, and we wanted to alleviate any alarm she might be feeling at having missed you last night. And to assure her you were safe."

He draws out this last word like a bow across a string.

Even a quarter-inch high on Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt's screen, I can see Mom is frazzed. Her eyes hunt about with the alarm of broken routine. The collar of her iris-print nightgown is folded under, and her whorling, gray-blond locks—kinda my spiked hair on speed—would've made Albert Einstein look preppy.

The Elite facilitator is balancing a bite of scrambled egg on a fork, glancing at the camera as though for approval. I want to reach through Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt's screen and yank his fork away and ram those tines larynx-deep into that overstuffed neck of his.

Mom bristles from the bite. "Where's the avocado? Who're you? I can use silverware, where's my avocado?"

The facilitator tries advancing the bite toward Mom's face, but she pinches her lips tight. He moves a glass of orange juice onto her place mat. She eyes it suspiciously, then dumps it out.

The facilitator dabs juice from his sleeve. After a tense look to the camera, he pulls Mom's chair closer.

Now the image switches to Oleg, standing before the main cubicle farm on the second floor.

"Apparently the orderlies were quite trusting of Peter," he says, "and did not challenge the documents proving he is your mother's cousin. He offered to assist with the morning bath, and they were grateful for the help."

This strikes me as no bluff. Crestwood Psychiatric, despite being the top facility of its kind in the Bay Area, is criminally understaffed. Most night I'm in visiting Mom, I end up filing nails or freshening the wheelchair blankets of some resident with no people of their own around.

Oleg continues, "Your colleagues here on the second floor are facing their greatest challenge yet. They need you to make the wise decision. Your mother needs you to make the wise decision."

The feed returns to Crestwood, where the polo-shirted facilitator is pressing both Mom's wrists against the table with a single hand, pinning them, rough. Glee flashes across the man's face before an orderly arrives to check the escalating situation—Mom has begun screaming incoherently. The facilitator gestures to the spilled juice with a shrug.

The orderly nods understandingly and hands him a rag.

I flop onto my back, spread-eagle in the duct, gripping my hair spikes. Jared. I never told anyone in the office where Mom stayed; he must've done some aggressive Googling about me in the early days, back when I looked like a promising harassment candidate rather than thorn in his side.

I need to understand this link to Omar Mohammed. Is he involved with the Russians? Is he some closet extremist they've recruited to their side? An ISIS sleeper?

No, that's nonsensical right-wing fantasy. Omar is more Westernized than I am; he absolutely owned Christmas party karaoke—and nobody pulls that off sober. The only thing about Omar that would start alarm bells ringing in anyone's ear is his name.

The PA clicks. "Perhaps you are far from a monitor, and need extra time to reach one." Oleg doesn't know about Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt—good. "We will play the last minutes of Intra-1 on loop for five minutes. After this, should you choose not to rejoin your team, there will be consequences."

The feed reverted to Mom, the facilitator, and scrambled eggs.

What consequences did Oleg have in mind? Killing mom—smothering her with a pillow or something—would get them nowhere. Oleg would understand this. He's a pro; he'd find some intermediate cruelty to use for leverage. Perhaps the facilitator would take Mom back to her room and slice off a finger, waggle it at his phone camera for Oleg to use against me.

This actually happened when I was twelve—Mom got the top knuckle of her right ring finger lopped off. The woman who did it had been Mom's friend. I knew her as Sweets because her cart was always spilling loose Skittles. The two had been arguing about who had dibs on trash from a Dim Sum joint on Haight. It wasn't food they were after—there were tastier, more generous restaurants nearby—but discarded woks. Mom used them for street art, painting the rusted streaks bright reds and blues that always reminded me of beta fish. I never heard what Sweets wanted them for.

One day, three woks got tossed all at once. If it had been two or four, maybe they would've split the bounty and carried on, but no such luck. Mom screamed and reached and claimed Sweets had been scheming. Sweets kept her body between Mom and the woks—she'd shown up first and nabbed them—and, after Mom boiled over and kicked her shin, snapped open a pocketknife.

This only made Mom more convinced of premeditation. She lunged heedlessly for the blade, and as I watched, shaking, holding myself up with a downspout, Sweets slashed a half-inch of flesh clean off.

Blood spouted from the finger, spraying both women. Their cries became loud and frantic, and they seemed on the verge of doing worse to each other when I came back to my senses and stepped between them. Sweets—whose son had been one of my good friends before the overdose—dropped the knife at once.

I saved the fingertip in a plastic bag of ice. Cecil and I got Mom to St. Mary's Medical quickly as we could, but the doctor said reattaching "carried a prohibitively high expectation of failure." Which I took to mean Mom didn't deserve it.

This incident didn't start Mom's descent, but it surely accelerated it. We avoided any spot Sweets might show up—which in Mom's mind encompassed half of San Francisco—and she never painted another wok.

What if a similar thing happens now? Crestwood is already pushing to increase her dosages, to "curb the increasingly antisocial impulses of her disease." I've pushed back, but if a fresh trauma makes Mom even more unmanageable, I just don't know what standing I'll have.

On the spectrum of treatment versus living, Crestwood Psychiatric falls right about at the dividing line. That's why I chose it. Mom can swim. She can enjoy their garden courtyard relatively unsupervised. If you can't keep it inside the yellow lines there, you're looking at shackles and rubber walls. Around-the-clock sedation. Basically, loss of personhood.

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