The Room In My Head
an In Dark Alleys story
by Brian St.Claire-King

If you go to jail, and letís say youíre accused of killing some major guy in the Armenian Mafia, you should probably ask to be put in protective custody. Unfortunately, thereís not much to do in protective custody. They let you out for an hour a day to walk around and make phone calls, but other than that itís just you alone in a cell. If youíre lucky thereís a guard who likes to talk, and you can make friends with him and chat about random bullshit for hours a day. And if youíre lucky you have family and friends outside who will send you books and magazines to read, will send you letters every day, and will put money on your commissary account so you can buy paper and envelopes and stamps so you can write back.

Iíve never been that lucky.

Other stuff to do in protective custody: Exercise. You can do pretty much as many push-ups and sit-ups as your body can handle. Forget serious body-building though. They just donít feed you enough protein to really put on massive muscles.

And you can masturbate, but there comes a point where, if you havenít seen a woman in months, you forget what they look like, feel like, smell like, and it gets harder and harder to jack off. At first you might do it six times a day, but once your brainís store of images and fantasies gets emptied out you can only muster enough to do it once or twice a day. I suppose you could start inventing new kinds of fantasies, ones that substitute extremeness for eroticism, but I figure thatís a dangerous path to go down. Who knows, maybe thatís how serial killers get started.

You can also sleep a lot. You can train your body to sleep 12 hours a day, but that still leaves you with 12 hours awake with nothing to do.

After 17 days in solitary, I decided to try to learn to meditate. I didnít know shit about meditating, but I figured itís the only thing I havenít done that all you need for is free time, so I might as well try to figure out how to do it. I tried sitting and not thinking, but that didnít work. I tired concentrating on shit in the room around me, but that just got boring and reminded me I was in kind of a shithole. So I decided I would try to invent a room in my head. Iíve always had a good imagination. When I was a kid I used to write stories and shit and people said I should be a writer.

I wanted it to be small, because I wanted to fill in every detail and I didnít think Iíd be able to do that in a big space. I didnít give it any windows and doors because I didnít want to have to think about what was outside. It was just four walls in ceiling and floor. I didnít plan on this, but it ended up being a lot like the office my grandpa had at the back of his house when I was little. Even that acidic, dusty smell was the same.

I gave the room old green tiles on the floor, and old yellowish paint on the walls. There was a light fixture on the ceiling above with a round glass cover that was very dusty, and a little brass screw in the center that you would unscrew if you wanted to take off the glass to change the light bulb.

There was a big wooden desk, and a chalk board behind it for writing notes. At the desk there was an office chair, but a really old style one, with cracked dyed-green leather, and little bits of cotton stuffing peeking out. There was a wooden bookshelf, but it was empty. I planned on making stuff to put on the shelf later.

I donít know why I chose most of the details I did for the room. They just seemed right at the time. It felt comfortable for this to be an old place, a bit dusty, but with stuff that once must have been pretty nice.

I spent a lot of time just imagining I was in the room, walking around, looking at things, touching things, sitting in the chair and hearing the springs creak. I spent hours and hours imagining I was there, working on every little detail like a painter trying to get every last brush-stoke right. I wanted every part of the room to look, feel and smell like a real place.

I put a metal plate on the wall opposite the desk, like the kind that hides a fuse-box. Behind the plate, instead of fuses, I put two big black knobs. A tiny cold draft issued from the small spaces between the knobs and the metal behind them. When you opened the plate and listened hard, you could hear some sort of machinery chugging away in the distance.

Iíd heard about this thing, biofeedback, where you could control your own body. I decided the first knob was breath rate, the second was heart rate. I imagined the chugging of the machinery was really my body doing all the biological stuff a body does. I imagined that if I turned the knobs one way, it would speed up the chugging, and if I turned it the other way it would slow it down. If I turned them too fast, it would feel like some gear was slipping. I couldnít go straight from one extreme to another: I had to move the knobs slowly, carefully. If I was feeling lethargic (sleeping for 12 hours can do that to you) and didnít want to go leave the cell or do my exercises, turning the knobs up would help. If I had trouble calming down to go to sleep, turning the knobs down would help.

I practiced writing stuff on the chalkboard, or on pieces of paper that I kept in the top drawer of my desk. I would make stuff up, write it, and then come check on it the next day to see if it was still there. It worked really well. I could write down my Public Defenderís phone number on the chalkboard and it would still be there day after day.

I couldnít figure out what to put on the bookshelf. I tried making a book, but all the pages were blank. I wanted to make weird contraptions, or art, or animals or something, but my imagination just wasnít up to it. Instead, I started putting simple normal stuff on the walls: a half-used candle, a comb, a coffee cup. Stuff I could imagine easily. Yet each one was unique. I gave the coffee cup a little crack where the bottom part of the handle attached to the cup.

I thought about trying to make a woman in the room. Some hot babe I made perfect in every detail that I could go there and imagine having sex with. In the end, though, I didnít even try. It didnít feel right. I could have all the fantasies I wanted, imagine all the girls I wanted, but that wasnít what the room I was making was for. I did end up putting some porn on one of the walls. Not the page-ripped-out-of-Penthouse porn that most prisoners have in their cells. It was an old 50s style pinup of a redhead wearing a one-piece bathing suit. She had big hips and a naturally big chest, and wore a smile on her face.

Then one morning I went to the room, and someone had been there. Someone had gone through the desk, moved around the papers, even left the drawer open a crack. Some of the objects on the bookshelf had been moved slightly, as if someone had picked them up, looked at them, and put them down in almost but not exactly the same spot.

Iíve seen a lot of crazies. The L.A. County jail system is as much a place to house the mentally ill as it is a place to put criminals. Crazy people donít have common sense. They donít know the difference between a realistic idea and an unrealistic idea. I knew I wasnít going crazy. I never, for a moment, doubted my sanity. I knew that the presence in my room was not something I had imagined. The room wasnít real, it was a product of my mind, but nonetheless someone or something that wasnít me had gained access to it and had moved things around in it.

I created one of those spy cameras. It was a stubby little metal tube with a little glass lens on one side. You put in a AAA battery and it wirelessly transmitted to a receiver. I made the receiver look like a little portable TV, but with VCR like buttons: rewind, fast forward, play. I attached the receiver to the underside of my desk with duct tape. I stuck the camera in the corner of the top shelf of the bookshelf. Anyone who was giving the place a good going-over would see it, but I couldnít think of any place better to hide it.

The next day I went to the room, pulled the receiver from under the desk, stopped the recording and made it do that rewind-play thing where you see everything going backwards at high speed. There was a whole lot of nothing happening: just the room with nobody in it. Then, suddenly, there was someone moving around.

I hit the stop button, then the play button. I only caught glimpses of a shape moving past the camera. I rewound and played again.

I couldnít see how or where the figure entered the room. It looked like a person, dressed all in black, with a black veil obscuring the face. From the clothes and the shape and the way the figure moved, I figured it was a woman, but I couldnít be sure. She was investigating: looking around, inspecting things, touching things. She went over to the panel in the wall, and although I couldnít see what she was doing to it I could tell from the way her back moved and her elbows appeared and disappeared that she had opened the plate and probably fiddled with the knobs. At one point she came to look at things on the shelf. Her head filled up most of the screen, but it was a grainy, black and white picture and I wouldnít make out any details beyond the folds of her veil. At one point she picked up the camera, held it up to her face as if she was looking right into the lens, then put it back on the shelf pointing in the same direction it had been pointing.

I rewound and watched, did that a couple more times. She had been there about five minutes, then she had left the view of the camera and hadnít stepped back into it. She had disappeared as mysteriously as she had first appeared.

I erased everything on the chalkboard and wrote ďPerson in the black veil: Who are you?Ē

The next day I was slightly nervous as I returned to the room. I was afraid when I got there that the woman in the veil would be there and she might attack me. When I got there, I was ready to fight. The room was empty though. I went straight to the chalkboard behind my desk. Written under my words, in handwriting that definitely wasnít mine, was ďIím the mourner. Who are you?Ē

I wrote ďIím Alan Jackson. I made this room. How did you get here?Ē

I spent very little time in the room. To be honest, it was because I didnít want to be there when this ďmournerĒ suddenly appeared. Iím not ashamed to admit that I was afraid. I had no idea what this mourner thing was. I kept wondering if she was some kind of monster or rotten corpse beneath the veil.

Yet I still knew I wasnít going crazy, and I knew it wasnít just my imagination getting away with me. Itís like if your eye starts twitching, you donít think ďIím going crazyĒ or ďI must be making this happen without realizing itĒ you go ďOh fuck, somethingís wrong with my eye.Ē Thatís the way this felt: it wasnít my doing, it was something happening to me.

I was anxious to check the room and see if the mourner had written anything, but I was also nervous about going there too often, because I didnít want to walk in on her and surprise her. I decided I would check twice a day: after breakfast and after dinner.

I thought about making an imaginary weapon, but it wouldnít work. When I came to the room, I was always just me, wearing the stuff I was wearing now and holding nothing. If I made a weapon I would have to leave it in the room, and then she might grab it and use it against me next time I went there.

I wrote my message in the evening, and then after breakfast the next morning there was a response. ďI found this place by accident. Itís very interesting.Ē

That struck me as odd. If she found it so interesting, why didnít she ask any questions about it, like ďwhat do you mean you made it?Ē or ďwhy did you make it?Ē She just said itís interesting, like there was nothing she needed to know from me. She might not be curious, but I was. I erased everything and wrote ďWhat do you want?Ē

Later, sitting in my cell, I wondered if maybe I was some kind of psychic, and this was a real room that existed somewhere in the world, and I had been visiting it as a psychic ghost. But that made no sense. Why would there be a room without any doors or windows, and why would the knobs behind the panel speed up or slow my heart rate? No, I clearly remember designing the room. Some of the details just came to me, struck me as the right way to do things, but all the basic stuff was based on decisions I had made.

No, I couldnít think of any reasonable scenario where the room existed anywhere but in my mind. It was a figment of my imagination. So who was this person, who only called herself ďthe mournerĒ and wore a crazy getup? I had a lot of ideas, but no clues how to tell which one was the right one. Maybe she was a psychic. Maybe she was some sort of ghost, or alien from another dimension, or maybe she was a brain tumor. I had no way of knowing.

I checked after dinner, but there had been no response to my last question, so I left immediately. It seemed that she visited when I was sleeping, but I couldnít be sure that she would stick to that pattern. I had trouble sleeping that night.

The next morning I felt stressed out and had trouble eating my breakfast. As soon as I had swallowed the last bite of toast, I closed my eyes and imagined myself in the room. I was alone. I walked to the desk and stared at the board. Below ďWhat do you want?Ē She had answered ďFor you to die.Ē

I left the room immediately. I was so upset that I punched the wall. I just kept saying ďwhat the fuck?Ē to myself over and over again as I paced my cell.

Could she actually do it? I had no idea. What if, by creating this room, I had created some sort of access to the inside of me, something some demon or ghost could use to get in and fuck me up from the inside? I had no idea what she was, so I had no idea what she could do to me. If she could do it, and wanted to do it, why hadnít she done it already? Again, I had no idea. Maybe she was slowly killing me, giving me brain cancer or something. Maybe she was waiting for a time when she and I were in the room at the same time and she would kill me then.

Could I destroy the room? I didnít think so. You canít un-remember a memory, so I didnít think I could un-imagine a place. Maybe if I didnít think about it for years it would fade away, but before that she might figure out a way to kill me.

That afternoon, some couple of hours before dinner, I was pacing my cell, trying to figure out what to do, when I started to feel light-headed and dizzy. I had to sit down on my cot. I realized I was barely breathing. I forced myself to take several deep breaths but I still felt like I was about to pass out. I checked my wrist and my pulse was very slow. As I felt it, though, it started to speed up. It passed normal and hit high speed. I could feel the pounding in my chest, in my head, like how you feel when you just barely miss getting in a car accident. I caught myself hyperventilating. I tried to slow my breath but it was hard. My chest started to hurt.

I screamed for the guard. I told him something was happening to my heart and I had to go to the infirmary. By the time they got me down there, though, my heart beat was back to normal. The doctor and the guards acted pissed. I swore up and down that something was definitely going on with my heart. The doctor took some blood, gave me an aspirin, and warned me that if I came to the infirmary again without anything wrong with me I would start loosing privileges.

It seemed pretty obvious to me that this ďmournerĒ bitch had been in the room in my head, messing with my knobs, trying to kill me. And it seemed like she had come close. Why had she stopped? Did she figure she couldnít turn the knobs far enough to kill me? Did she somehow realize that I had called for a doctor and didnít want the doctor to see my heart going crazy and put me on heart medication? Or maybe she hadnít been trying to kill me. Maybe she had just been messing with the knobs to try to lure me into the room so she could do something to me there.

I could barely eat my dinner. After I ate I went to the room, ready for anything. It was empty. Looking behind me constantly, I proceeded to create a spring-gun. I had seen one before. This crazy asshole I knew set one up to protect the front door of his meth lab. He had to climb through the window to keep from getting shot. I imagined a sawed-off shotgun, then I attached it to the underside of the desk. I tied a cord to the trigger, wound it around one of the legs of the desk, and tied it to the chair so that if someone pulled the chair out it would pull the trigger. I made sure the shotgun had no shells in it and tried it a couple of times to make sure it would pull the trigger. Then I wrote ďfor the mournerĒ on an empty envelope and taped it to the chalkboard. Unless she had extend-o arms like Bender on Futurama, or liked climbing onto shit for no reason, she would have to move the chair to get to the envelope. I put a shell in the shotgun and made sure the safety was off, then I left.

I spend the rest of the evening pacing around my cell, checking my pulse, and punching my cot in frustration. The night guard for the PC wing, who never talks to me, asked me what was wrong. I told him some bullshit about how nobody believed that I was having health problems and I was worried I was going to keel over from a heart attack.

I had planned on waiting until after breakfast the next morning to check the room again. I couldnít sleep at all, though, and I just kept staring at the ceiling, feeling nervous and bored and impatient, with stomach acid eating away at my insides. Finally, at what must have been around 2 AM, I decided to fuck waiting till breakfast and go to the room now.

I closed my eyes and imagined myself there. Lying on the floor, in a pool of blood, was a figure dressed all in black. I stood there and stared at her. Then I noticed that the chest was moving. It was alive.

I surged forward with a roar and stomped on the figureís back. She cried out in pain. I kicked and kicked. She grabbed onto my leg with black gloved hands and tried to pull herself up. I shook my leg to try to get her off, but she wouldnít budge. I dropped down, kneeing her in the belly, then I started punching her. ďYouíre going to kill me?Ē I demanded, ďIíll kill you, you fucking bitch!Ē

Somehow she got her hands around my neck and started squeezing. She had the grip of a fucking body builder. It took me a second to realize that I had stopped punching her, stopped trying to resist. I was letting her strangle me. This sense of intense joy came over me, sort of like the one time Iíd tried heroin. It seemed to peaceful, so warm, so comforting to be strangled by her. I slowly lay down on the cold green tile of the floor, closed my eyes, and let her strangle me.

Then she coughed. Not a little cough, a ďmy lungs are filled with junk and I need to cough it up or Iíll drownĒ cough. I opened my eyes and blood was dripping out from the bottom of her veil. The pleasure disappeared and I punched her. We struggled, but now I knew not to let her get her hands around my neck. If thereís one thing I know how to do well, itís beat a fucker into submission with my bare fists. I kept hitting her, and finally got on top of her. Then I grabbed her head with both hands, picked it up, and smashed it into the floor until I heard a crack. I smashed her head down a couple of times to make sure.

I removed the veil, almost certain it would be a weird monster face, and afraid it would be alive and the unkillable monster would jump up to attack me again. What I saw, though, was a dead girl, eyes vacant and unmoving. She was intensely beautiful. She had full, red lips, dark eyes, and pale skin, but it didnít look like she was wearing makeup. She looked like all what those goth girls that hang around Venice at night wished they looked like.

The thing they never tell you about murdering someone is that your first emotion is not guilt that you killed somebody, or fear that youíre going to go to prison. The first thing you do is worry that the person you killed has buddies that are going to find out you did it and are going to come try to kill you. Thatís what I worried about at first. Maybe this thing, whatever she was, had friends, and they would find the room, find the body, and decide to come after me.

That didnít happen though, and as weeks passed my fear should have faded. I hadnít gone back to the room, and I figured my memory of it would fade and it would eventually loose that intense realism that made it so special. Yet my fear didnít fade. I found new things to worry about. The fear of death plagued me day after day. Every waking hour I would be afraid of death. Every night I would have nightmares about it. If I had a pain in my leg I would worry it was a blood clot that was going to kill me. Even when nothing was wrong, I would worry about that fact that I would someday die of old age. I hadnít worried about the fact that I would die some day since I was seven years old, but now it was all I could think about. Life seemed like nothing but a joyless, desperate attempt to avoid death for as long as possible, an attempt that would someday fail.

It was like some part of me, the part that was okay with death, that maybe even welcomed it, had just up and died.

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