Full Circle




“Let’s go over the events again, Mr Steven,” Dr Thomas said. It was morning, and they were back at their designated places — Dr Thomas on his single-seater beige couch chair and his patient, Steven, sprawled on the full-length couch in front of him. “Let’s not.” Dr Thomas looked at the bald-headed, dark and lanky man dressed in striped blue and white overalls. He looked like any normal individual out on the streets. That he was far from normal was something only Dr Thomas knew. “Why not?” “Because we’ve done this a hundred times already, Doc,” Steven retorted. “What’s the point of doing it again and again? In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve confessed. You guys have caught me!” Dr Thomas smiled. “The point, Mr Steven, is to figure out the why. Why did you feel you had to murder your own wife and children? And, more importantly, after six years of treatment, what do you feel about your actions? Do you regret it? Do you feel remorse?” Steven stared at Dr Thomas for a full minute before responding.  “I killed my wife and children. What if I feel sorry about it now? What if I regret my actions? How does it change anything?” “It might change you.” Silence. “And you think that is a valid investment of time and tax money? I see it in your eyes that you think ‘rehabilitation’ is a joke. At least in my case. So, I ask again, Doc, what’s the fucking point of this?!” Steven was shouting. He was still lying down on the couch, but the muscles in his neck and arms bulged out and his voice shook with repressed rage. Dr Thomas flipped his notepad shut. “Mr Steven, the point of these sessions is the possibility of rehabilitation. Yes, we have caught you. But whether you can be allowed out is something I need to judge. Talking to me is the only way you can be out there someday, if that’s what you want. I am holding the door for you.” “Where are you standing as you hold the door to my freedom, Doc? Are you on the inside? Or are you on the outside?”

***

Steven lay on his cot, staring up at the pristine white ceiling of his room. No, not a room. My cell. His stomach cramped with hunger pangs, but he ignored them with practised disinterest. Dinner had been the same pathetic excuse for a meal as always—tomato soup, bread, mashed potatoes and peas. No matter how much he ate, he always felt starved. Perhaps it wasn’t food that he was starved of… perhaps it was the warmth of a home-cooked meal, the wholesomeness of knowing it was prepared with gentle, loving care. An image flashed before his eyes—his wife standing in the kitchen, kneading the dough for bread. Her long, dark hair was tied up in a messy bun. She had been wearing one of his shirts, a faded dark brown that reached her knees. The thick knot of the white apron she had tied over the shirt sat loosely over the curve of her hips. Her bare, bronze legs shone in the early morning light that filtered through the lace curtains of the kitchen window. Her bare feet tapped in time with the melody she was humming. That was the last time he’d seen her. He shook his head to get rid of the image. He hated it.  Outside his cell, the institute was retiring for the night. The screams of the insane were closely followed by those of the sane; the orderlies commanding their charges, verbally at first, and then by the aid of physical restraints. Gradually, as the hens returned to their coops, an ethereal quietude settled over the building. When all the lights were turned off, Steven turned his back to the camera mounted in the right corner of his cell. Then, in the darkness, he spit out the 3 prescription tablets they had made him swallow after dinner.

***

Three Weeks Later “They say God always offers us a second chance in life. It may not come in the form we are expecting, but it’s always there waiting for us. But that’s God, isn’t it? What about humans? Do men always offer second chances to fellow men? I think not. For us, it’s one strike, and we are out.” “That’s not always true, Mr Steven.”  Dr Thomas put his pen down and flipped his notepad shut.  Steven arched an eyebrow. “You think I ought to get a second chance, Doc?” The doctor didn’t respond.  Steven snorted and leaned back on the couch. He stretched his heavily muscled arms up above his bald head and crossed them behind his neck.  His posture was carefully manoeuvred to affect an air of calm disinterest, but Dr Thomas knew otherwise. Steven counted down in a sing-song voice. “Violent, unstable, pathologically insane, high functioning psychopath… Your words, not mine,” he indicated the notepad. An educated guess. That was the thing about high functioning psychopaths; they could read people and situations better than anybody else. Steven would’ve made a good psychologist. Perhaps as good as Thomas himself. Shame that his talents would only amount to crime and bloodshed. “Will you ever let me walk out of those doors on my own two feet, Doc?” “There’s always hope, Mr Steven... But to answer your question, not if I can help it.” “Aha! See?! That second chance nonsense is just that, utter nonsense!” “Have you been taking your medications, Mr Steven?” Dr Thomas asked abruptly. Silence. “Mr Steven?” “Wouldn’t one of your minions have told you if I hadn’t? The only place they don’t look is up my butthole.” Steven’s affected air of disinterest was disintegrating. His voice went up a few notches, and his knuckles turned white. The slumped posture did not fool Dr Thomas. Steven was wired taut like a spring; about to jump into action any second. “Orderly, please escort Mr Steven to his room. He needs some downtime.” Dr Thomas called out to the burly man in uniform—plain light blue tunic and loose trousers—standing beside the door. Quick as a flash, Steven closed the distance between the doctor and himself.  “Fucking asshole!” he screamed and shoved him hard even as the orderly wrestled him to the ground. 

***

“Schedule Mr Steven for a bloodwork,” Thomas told the orderly when he returned. “But we just completed the quarterly bloodwork three weeks ago.”  “I don’t care if we did it yesterday. Bloodwork. Stat. Inform me as soon as we have the reports.” “I’m sorry, Doctor. The lab is down for renovations for the next two weeks. That’s why we had to rush through our routine samples last month.” Thomas banged his fist on his desk.  “The patient is skipping meds, Benny. Can you explain how that’s happening?” Benny frowned. “That’s not possible… We check them after they swallow the meds. All of them.” “Well, Mr Steven has figured out a way to bypass your checks. So,” Thomas’s voice rose till he was shouting, “do a fucking bloodwork and get me the reports ASAP! Am I clear?!” Benny stared at Thomas, his eyes and mouth wide open. In 10 years of his service at the centre, he’d never seen the doctor lose his temper like this. It took Thomas a few seconds to comprehend the shock on the orderly’s face and register his folly. “Use the private lab. I’ll fund the bill,” he said in a measured tone and hitched up a smile. “Until then, keep an eye on Mr Steven.” Benny nodded and scurried from the room.  As the door slid shut, the smile slid off Thomas’s lips like sand from cupped fingers. He stepped into the attached washroom and splashed water on his face. The cool water helped ward off some of the tension that had crept inside him during the session. He stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. The protuberant grey eyes, the pallid, vitiligo infested skin, and the mop of grey hair coupled with the white doctor’s coat made him look like a ghost. He gritted his teeth. It had been fifteen years since Thomas had been practising in his field and yet, after all this time, the job got to him. Dealing with the worst that humanity had to offer on a daily basis was never easy. But dealing with Steven was another battle altogether. Especially because Thomas knew Steven was innocent. Could he know?  No, how can he? Thomas closed his eyes, and the memory blossomed inside him. It had been too easy. The temptation had been too great. It was unbelievable how complacent people became in their lives. Knowing that death was just around the corner and still growing so oblivious to its presence.  An isolated house far from the city — meant to provide an environment of peace. Open plains and meadows — meant to provide the children with a much-needed space to play and grow. Proximity to nature, low network coverage, unpaved towpaths instead of concrete roadways…  … and an open door. It was almost as if they’d invited him in.  He’d read somewhere — ‘How people die remains in the memory of those who live on’. It was true. Every second of that experience was alive inside him, thrumming with the captured energies of those lost souls. How magnificently they had died! How he had hacked at the nubile bodies of the two boys and the woman, how they had screamed, loudly at first and then their voices growing feebler. How their life force had spurted out of them, rejoicing, like him, in its liberation from its captivity! The silence that had surrounded him as he sat amidst the carnage, taking notes on the psychology of human behaviour as life transformed into death, was transcendent.  Oh! To be the creator of the end! All his years of dealing with the criminally insane and never, not even once, had he been able to truly understand them. Now, that elusive aspect of the human psyche was within his grasp! Now he knew!

***

Steven rubbed the puncture wound in the crook of his left arm as the orderly packed up his medical case and left. I shouldn’t have lost my temper. That bastard knows I’ve been skipping meds. Well, it didn’t matter now. The centre’s path lab was undergoing renovations, and the private lab Steven knew they used in emergencies would be closed for the upcoming weekend. He had two days before the reports came in.  He closed his eyes. Now that the drug haze had lifted, it seemed unthinkable how he’d ever believed he could kill his wife and children. In his mind’s eye, he saw the carefree smiles of his two boys. Their identical toothless grins pierced his heart. He hated the image of his wife in the kitchen, knowing that he would never see Maria’s face again. Her twinkling eyes and those gentle lips… all of it, all of her was lost, irretrievable, beyond the darkness that had swept over him in the next instant. A blow to the head from behind and he was knocked out cold. When he woke up, he was lying in a pool of his loved one’s blood, their bodies scattered around him like dried leaves in the crimson river. And then there was an infinite darkness. Reflecting, he saw it as the calm before the storm. Nothing and nobody was in there with him. Except for a gentle whisper of words… the same words over and over again. I killed my kids… I killed my wife… I don’t know what came over me.  It was a normal day. My wife was in the kitchen making bread. She loved homemade bread… we all did. There is just something about the warmth of a home-cooked meal, the wholesomeness of knowing it is prepared with gentle, loving care… Nothing you buy from the store can compare to it; you know? True. She baked fresh bread every morning. False. She baked fresh bread on Sundays and it lasted us all week.   Something inside me snapped. There was sudden darkness… True. I picked up the meat cleaver from the kitchen counter… False. We kept our knives in a large bowl above the fridge. Maria wouldn’t leave sharp objects lying around for fear of the boys getting hurt… I stabbed my wife. My hand wasn’t my own… It acted as if it belonged to someone else! Somewhere inside me; I wanted to stop! I was screaming… but my hand just kept stabbing and hacking! My wife tried to defend herself... True. She pushed me so hard I hit my head on one of the kitchen cabinets… False. The kitchen cabinets stood at least 3 inches above my head. Maria had been after me to fix them ever since we bought the house. She always used a stool to reach inside them. She would’ve had to fling me into the air for me to have hit my head on the cabinets… When he woke up, after five years, he confessed. The investigation had been protracted and justice swift. For the first 6 months of his treatment at the State’s institution for holding the criminally insane, he’d been a model patient. He attended his sessions with Dr Thomas; he took his medications, and he worked tirelessly to arrive at the root cause of his horrific crimes. Then the doctor said something, and it felt as if Steven awoke from a long, long sleep.  ‘The point, Mr Steven, is to figure out the why. Why did you feel like you had to murder your own wife and children?... And, more importantly, after six years of treatment, what do you feel about your actions?’ After 6 years of treatment? But it had been only 6 months since Steven had arrived at the institution. Steven remembered a verse from the Gospel of Matthew: Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: So, he had asked questions and received answers from the orderlies and nurses. Dr Thomas had been treating Steven since the day of the murders. He was with him in the police van, which brought him to the hospital. He was with Steven through the 5 years of coma.  At his bedside, whispering into his ear…  The same words over and over again. I killed my kids… I killed my wife… It was only recently that Steven figured out it was called hypnopaedia or sleep-learning. A technique used to give information to a sleeping person (or a person in a coma) by playing a sound recording to them while they slept. Normally, people used it to learn a new language… or to stop bad habits like smoking. In Steven’s case, Dr Thomas had used it to condition him into believing that he was a killer. That Thomas had taken a huge risk basing his whole plan on Steven accepting the hypnopaedia in his comatose state and confessing when he woke up (if he woke up), didn’t escape him. Try as he might, he couldn’t understand why the Doc had risked it all by staying in such close contact with one of his victims. Steven breathed out. Hopefully, there would be time to find that out...  He closed his eyes and listened again to the noises of the centre retiring for the night. When all the lights were turned off, Steven turned his back to the camera. Then, he opened his mouth, put two fingers deep down his throat and regurgitated the 3 prescription tablets and his entire dinner. As the sick flowed over his mouth and onto his tunic, he reached under his armpits and, using the ballpoint pen he had stolen from Thomas’s office, started scratching until he drew blood. Methodically, he smeared the blood over his tunic and hid the pen in his underwear. Then he started screaming.

***

‘What about humans? Do men always offer second chances to fellow men? I think not. For us, it’s one strike, and we are out.’ Thomas paused the Dictaphone and transcribed his observations on his laptop. As he saved the document, he noticed the word count had crossed the 3,00,000 mark. A shiver of excitement ran through him. This book would be a ground-breaking work in Human Psychology! Just a few more months and he was looking at an APA Award! He would be the only Indian Psychologist to have ever bagged the honour.  A treatise into hitherto unknown and unseen aspects of criminal psychological behaviour! Thomas could almost hear the din of ringing applause in his ears. He had gone farther than anyone in his attempt to understand the workings of the human mind and criminal behaviour. And this was just the beginning. There was so much more yet to be explored! If only that lab rat Steven would corporate.  Thomas scowled at the unpleasant memory of the man.  That night, he’d staged the crime scene to frame Steven. But when he slipped into a coma, he’d leaped at the chance to test out sleep-learning. It had been too good an opportunity to miss. He’d taken a leap of faith and invested so much time into creating the perfect test subject.  And now, that bastard was going to ruin it all! Well, we’ll know for sure by Monday. 

***

Steven stood outside Thomas’s swanky bungalow. It hadn’t been difficult to get the Doctor’s address. A sharp scalpel and the threat of death (coming from a hardened criminal) could do wonders to open people’s mouths. Steven felt a niggle of pity for Benny and the trauma he’d caused him in his escape from the hospital ER wing. It was just a small cut, close to the carotid. Indifference soon replaced the pity. The man was in a hospital. He’ll live. Steven waited with bated breath. There was no movement from within. Slowly, he edged around the perimeter of the house. At the back, he found a slightly open window.  He smiled. It was unbelievable how complacent people became in their lives.

***

Thomas put away his laptop. Humming to himself, he picked up his phone and walked upstairs, locking the basement door behind him. As he emerged into the open-plan kitchen, his cellphone vibrated in his pocket. The network in the basement was pathetic. He’d been thinking of installing a Wi-Fi down there, but it always slipped his mind. Even as he turned on the stove and put a kettle to boil, his phone started beeping non-stop. What the hell? He retrieved the phone and scrolled through the flurry of incoming texts and missed calls. Whh..?! In the next instant, several things happened simultaneously.  The kettle boiled over and let out a loud whistle.  The cellphone came alive with an incoming call from the centre.  There was a scurrying of footsteps.  Then, a sharp blow to the head from behind and he was knocked out cold.

***

When Thomas woke up, he was lying in a dark, decrepit looking place. There was a musty smell to the air that told him he must be underground. He squinted his eyes and tried to remember what had happened.  There’d been someone in the house!  He remembered hearing footsteps behind him before darkness overtook him. His head swam as he tried to look around the cellar. When he tried to move his hands, he discovered they were bound by a thick rope that also tied his feet together. Where am I? “Hello?” he said out loud. His throat felt parched and his voice came out scratchy. “Steven? I know it’s you. I saw the messages from the centre.” Silence. Thomas wriggled and moved around to face the solitary door on the far side of the room. His head throbbed painfully with every movement. “Steven! I know it’s you! Well, you have me now. Go ahead and take your revenge.” There was a loud clattering of bolts. The door creaked open and, silhouetted against the light that streamed in through the open door, stood Steven. “What are you waiting for, Steven?” Thomas asked dully. “Finish it. Kill me.” The silence inside the cellar echoed ominously. A feeling of dread pressed upon Thomas’s chest, making it difficult to breathe. “Wh… what do you want from me? A confession? Fine. I killed your family. First your children and then your wife. I made her watch. It wasn’t you. It was me. Is that good enough? I can give it in writing. Your name will be cleared. You’ll be free. Isn’t that what you want?” Silence. “Answer me, goddamit! There’s nothing else I can do for you. Why did you take me if not to kill me? What’s the point of keeping me here?!” “The point, Dr Thomas, is to figure out the why. Death is too convenient a punishment for you, Doc. Oh, I will kill you. Eventually. First, we talk.”

***

Glossary: APA Award- The APA Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions honours psychologists who have made distinguished theoretical or empirical contributions to basic research in psychology.

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