Altered Reality

Chapter One

She awoke to find herself in a white room with padded walls.

Crouched on the floor, she was pressed into a corner with her knees drawn to her chest. She blinked, looking down at the dull gray clothing she was wearing, and fingered the ends of her limp, flat hair as it fell across her neck in confusion. When had her hair gotten this long...?

"Sweetheart, can you hear me?"

Her eyes darted up towards the padded ceiling, taking in her surroundings, and panic started to set in as she realized where she was.

No, she thought frantically. No, this can't be happening!

"She's lucid," a woman's voice said, vaguely familiar. "Keep talking, maybe the sound of your voice will ground her."

"Doc?"

Somewhat startled to hear that voice calling her by that affectionate nickname, Marlena blinked, realizing for the first time that she was not alone in the white room. Several male nurses, all dressed in white and holding syringes, stood by the steel door, tense and ready to act if necessary.

And kneeling in front of her, a concerned and hopeful look on his face, was her husband.

"John," she breathed, relieved and frightened at the same time.

His eyes lit up with an emotion too strong for her to identify, and he swallowed hard before nodding. "Yeah, Doc," he replied huskily, tears starting to well up in his eyes. "It's me."

He reached out a hand to touch her cheek, and she was surprised by the tenderness he was demonstrating words her after everything she'd done. If she was in a mental ward, then surely that meant that she had been caught as the serial killer.

So why was he looking at her like she was some kind of angel instead of a murderer?

"John, I'd like to ask her a few questions if you don't mind."

Marlena lifted her head to find Doctor Lexie Carver standing off to the side, holding a clipboard in her hand and wearing a long white lab-coat. She met the younger woman's gaze, steeling herself for the anger and hatred of a woman who she had made a widow, but she found nothing to allude to any sort of negative emotions from Lexie at all.

"Sure thing," John agreed, and he squeezed Marlena's hand. "Just try and answer her questions as best as you can, okay, sweetheart?"

Feeling a bit confused as to what exactly was going on, Marlena merely nodded.

"Do you know who this man is?" Lexie asked, gesturing to John.

"My husband," Marlena answered, wondering why Lexie was asking such a ridiculous question. "John Black."

John sighed, disappointment falling across his face, and Lexie shook her head sadly.

"No, Doc," John said softly. "That's not my name."

Startled, Marlena frowned. "Well, I know it's not your birth name, John, you were born Forrest Alamain, but-"

"No," John interrupted with a shake of his head. "No, Marlena, I wasn't. I was born Roman John Brady, remember? John is my middle name, I've been going by it since I was just a boy."

Marlena laughed. "John, this isn't funny."

"No, it's not funny," John agreed grimly. "You've got to try to remember, Doc. Forget about that other place and come back to us."

Marlena tried to speak, but she couldn't find words, so she only stared at him in shocked silence. What was he talking about? Yes, at one point they had all believed him to be Roman, but that was years and years ago, and it had just been one of Stefano's tricks.

Roman Augustus Brady was dead, she knew because she'd slit his throat herself at his wedding reception.

"Do you know where you are?" Lexie asked.

"The sanitarium," Marlena responded with a grimace.

"And do you know why you're here?" Lexie prodded gently.

"Because I'm the Salem Stalker," Marlena confessed, getting annoyed with their strange behavior. She wasn't crazy, she'd had good reason to kill the people she had, even if she couldn't remember exactly why she'd done those things, but if they had her locked up in a padded room, she must have plead insanity. "Because I killed Abe, Jack, Maggie, Caroline, Cassie, Roman, Tony and Doug."

"You didn't kill anyone, Marlena," Lexie told her evenly. "None of that is real. You're in a mental institution, you've been here for the past three years.

"No," Marlena argued, shaking her head in disbelief. "No, that's not true. That can't be true."

"It is, Doc," John murmured, lifting her hand to his lips, his eyes filled with grief and the echo of years of pain and loneliness. "Abe, Ma, Cassie and Maggie are all alive. Doug and Julie live over in Europe, remember? And Tony's been dead for twenty years."

Twenty years...! Marlena echoed to herself in disbelief.

"And Roman?" she whispered, afraid to hear the answer.

"There is no Roman," John answered gently. "At least not the Roman you think exists. Honey, I'm the only Roman Brady there's ever been in Salem. That other Roman, he's not real. He's just part of the delusion, like everything else that you think happened. It's all inside your head."

Marlena blinked in shock. "But that's not... it can't be true..."

"It is," John promised softly. "You've been very sick, baby, for a very long time. And we've missed you so much. The kids and I, we love you and we want you to come home."

"The kids..." Marlena echoed, a wave of dizziness washing over her. "Sami, Eric, Brady and Belle?"

A flicker of something she couldn't define passed through John's eyes. "They're fine, Doc, I promise, but Carrie, Rex and Cassie miss you, too."

"Cassie's dead," Marlena insisted, her throat tightening painfully. "I killed her."

"No, she's alive," John assured her. "She's safe and she's healthy." He chuckled, giving her a weak smile. "Well, I'm not so sure about the healthy part, actually, who knows what they're feeding her up at NYU."

"NYU?" Marlena repeated slowly. "She's at college in New York?"

"Yeah, she is," John nodded, a proud gleam in his eyes. "Like I brag down at the station, my stepdaughter's one talented little lady."

"Stepdaughter? Cassie's not my daughter," Marlena informed him with a frown. "We thought she was, but she's not. See, she's really Kate and Roman's daughter, I just carried her and Rex because Stefano..." Seeing John's expression, she trailed off, biting her lip. "That didn't happen, did it?" she asked softly.

"No," John replied quietly. "We divorced for a while when Eric and Sami were tiny, and you got involved with Tony DiMera for a few years."

"Why did we divorce?" Marlena asked absently, trying to understand the things she was hearing. It was crazy, this was some kind of trick, it had to be. Was this some kind of sick punishment for all the evil things she'd done?

"My ex-girlfriend Anna came back to town," John answered. "It turned out that when she'd left town all those years ago, she'd been pregnant. I had a six year-old daughter I didn't even know about until the day they showed up on our doorstep."

"Carrie," Marlena said knowingly.

"Right," John nodded. "It put a strain on our marriage, and even though the twins were only a year old, you filed for divorce. After you began your relationship with Tony, I met and fell in love with Isabella Kiriakis."

"Don't you mean Toscano?" Marlena asked in confusion.

"That's part of the delusions, sweetheart," John told her gently. "Isabella grew up in Rome with her mother, but Victor visited her often while she was growing up, she knew he was her father."

"Oh," she muttered, her chest tight with anxiety. None of this made any sense, she had no idea what John was talking about, but if she was in the sanitarium and they said that she was sick, then maybe it was true...

"Isabella and I weren't planning on getting married," John continued lowly. "But when she got pregnant, we decided it was for the best. Since Victor didn't have a son yet, and it looked doubtful that he ever would, Isabella wanted to give our son the Kiriakis name, so we named him Brady Kiriakis." He paused, searching her gaze hopefully. "Does any of this ring a bell at all?"

"I'm sorry," Marlena whispered, and she meant it. "I wish it did."

"Don't worry about it," John said, squeezing her hand. "Lexie says it will take time for you to adjust, but things will start to come back to you slowly."

Marlena nodded silently, but she wasn't too sure. None of this seemed possible, and yet part of her wanted to believe it.

"A year after Brady was born, you gave birth to Rex and Cassie."

"That can't be right," Marlena cried, frustrated that she none of her memories, what she thought to be true, were matching up with what he was telling her. "Brady is more than a year older than they are."

"No, baby, he's not," John sighed. "Think about it for a minute, okay? Didn't you ever notice that in your world, kids aged a lot faster than normal? And not just our kids, but all of the kids in town? I mean, you've claimed that Philip Kiriakis was born just before our grandson Will, but then later you changed your story so that he's Belle's age."

"It's not unusual for a patient with severe psychoses, such as yours, Marlena," Lexie spoke up. "To absorb the things family and friends update you on during their visits and then incorporate them into the delusionary world. As time progressed, more and more inconsistencies began to appear in your hallucinations."

Marlena tried to protest, and her mouth moved, but no sound came out. Her head was spinning, her heart pounding so loud she couldn't think. Now that she thought about it, a lot of strange things like that had gone unnoticed until now.

"How old is Philip?" she asked softly.

"Twenty," John answered. "The same as Belle, they've been dating since they were fifteen."

"But what about Shawn?" Marlena asked incredulously. Surely her youngest daughter was still in love with Shawn-Douglas Brady, that had been the only reason she'd been hesitant to kill him when he began to suspect her as the killer.

"Shawn is her cousin, Doc," John reminded her patiently. "Bo is my brother, remember?"

"Oh," Marlena murmured, feeling flustered. "Right..."

"It's okay, Marlena," John whispered tenderly. "I know this is hard for you."

You have no idea, Marlena thought with a groan. This is crazy, this is... this is just not possible... is it?

"A lot of what you perceive to be real, you'll find is simply make-believe," Lexie told her, looking at her with sympathy. "Not just events, but relationships and details about people's lives."

"What's wrong with me?" Marlena questioned evenly. Being a psychiatrist, or a former psychiatrist if what they were saying was true, she had a pretty good idea, but she wanted to hear it from Lexie to be sure.

"A little over three years ago, you started to have hallucinations," Lexie explained gently. "You experienced paranoia and began to believe things had happened that never happened. You were diagnosed with an undifferentiated type of schizophrenia."

"And you're a psychiatrist?" Marlena asked curiously. Lexie always had seemed to be good at just about every field of medicine, so she didn't know why she was surprised.

"You were my supervisor my first year of residency at the hospital's psych ward," Lexie replied with a weak smile. She paused a moment to let Marlena absorb that, then continued with her explanation. "Your mind has created an elaborate and complex history to support your delusions, down to the most minuscule detail. Even though you've only been sick for three years, you've concocted several decades worth of events as a backstory for what you perceived to be reality."

"Like Ma having an affair with Victor Kiriakis," John piped up, unable to keep from wincing at that idea.

"Exactly," Lexie agreed with a nod. "Your mind dreamed up things that never really happened to pull you deeper into the psychoses."

Marlena bit her lip, staring past them at the white walls for a long moment, trying to let her brain process what she'd just been told. It sounded crazy, but then again, the truth usually did sound crazy to a crazy person. And if she looked at it from an outside point of view, it made much more sense than a world where children jumped from ten to fifteen overnight and where people were constantly believed dead and then miraculously coming back to life again.

But if that was true then it meant that her whole life, her whole world, really, wasn't real. Everything she'd ever believed to be true was a lie, an illusion produced by a disease in her brain...

"You said I've been in here for three years?" she finally asked, forcing herself to keep a steady voice.

"That's right," Lexie confirmed.

"Is this the first time I've been lucid?" Marlena wanted to know, even though part of her didn't want to know the answer.

"You've had moments in the past where you were coherent," Lexie informed her. "But they were rare, and never lasted more than a few seconds at best."

"Then I might relapse again?" Marlena asked, uncertain if that would be such a bad thing. Real or not, that world was the only one she knew, and she felt safe there, despite the fact that she was killing off family and friends left and right, with the police on her trail.

"About the time that your 'killing spree' started in your head," Lexie replied, glancing down at the charts on her clipboard. "We began to administer several different experimental drugs into your system that were designed to help your mind begin to deconstruct the delusions, hence the murders of major character players in the delusions. Until recently, we hadn't found the right combination of drugs to keep you fully lucid, but now that we have, you should be able to recover."

"That means you could go home, Doc," John whispered, his eyes brimming with tears.

Marlena looked to Lexie for confirmation, and the doctor nodded. "As long as you continue to take your medication, we'd be able to release you. You could live a normal and healthy life again, Marlena. The way you used to, before all this happened."

"We'll be a family again, sweetheart," John said softly, gazing at her with such love that it made her heart ache, remembering the way she'd treated him recently... or the way she'd treated a figment of him in her imagination, anyway. "You, me, and the kids. And you won't believe how big Will has gotten, that boy keeps growing like a weed."

"How old is he?" she asked in a whisper, knowing that he probably wasn't really in the seventh grade. She'd never noticed until John brought it to her attention, but even Will had aged rapidly in her mind.

"Eight," John replied with a faint smile.

"So Sami is... twenty-six?" Marlena asked hesitantly, not sure if Sami had really been eighteen when Will was born or not.

"Yes," John responded with an understanding nod. "She and Eric are both twenty-six, Brady is twenty-three, Rex and Cassie are twenty-two and Belle is twenty."

"They're so close in age... Rex and Belle," Marlena murmured.

"Yeah," John said with a somber expression. "When Brady was only two, Isabella died suddenly."

"Was it still cancer?" Marlena asked.

"It was," John told her, his eyes flickering sadly at the thought of his ex-wife. "When Tony was killed in a car crash not too long after that, we... well, we were both alone and both hurting, and one thing led to another, and you wound up pregnant."

"The children must have been confused," Marlena mused, mostly to herself. Then again, this life was still so much easier and less complex for them than the other one had been, especially Sami and Eric.

"They were at first," John agreed. "Especially Sami and Eric, who were old enough to understand what was going on. They took Isabella's death pretty hard, and then when Belle was born, things just got more complicated. That's why we took things slow, to help the kids ease into the transition. We didn't get married until Belle was almost three, but when we did, we made it last. We've been together and happy ever since."

"Until I came here," Marlena said, her voice hitching slightly.

"I'd wait forever for you if I had to, Doc," John assured her. "You know that."

And she did know it, she could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice. This man loved her, with all his heart, and she didn't need to ask if he had waited for her these past three years, she knew that he had.

I can either accept what they've told me as the truth and try to get better, even if it is hard and painful and scary, she thought. Or I can reject it and slip back into that other place, where I'm in control and where no one will look at me like I belong in a straight-jacket.

"You're my wife," John said softly. "I love you. Carrie, Sami, Eric, Brady, Rex, Cassie and Belle, they all love you, too. We need you, Doc."

Swallowing hard, Marlena made her decision. She looked up at Lexie, who was watching them with a tired smile on her face. "I want to go home," she announced to the doctor, and she felt John squeeze her hand supportively. "What do I have to do?"