For Alan (because I promised him a short story for his birthday. Sorry it doesn’t have a shiny happy ending.)
I’m in a hospital. The word flared across his mind, then quickly faded. No, that couldn’t be right. A hospital had nurses that checked your pulse every ten minutes, and noisy machines that blipped and beeped like video games. This place was calm and white. Blazing white lights. White, sterile walls stretching up toward a high ceiling. White tile floors that felt cool and hard under his bare feet as he dangled his legs over the side of his cot. A long mirror ran across the wall opposite him, reflecting the sparse room, and him – a middle age man with a paunch and hair that resembled a dried-out lawn in need of mowing.
Is that me? He frowned. Were his eyes always ringed by such dark shadows? How had he ended up in this room? What was his name? He clenched the edge of his mattress, straining to recall any details about himself. But there was only emptiness.
He stood, approached the mirror. It reminded him of something he’d once seen. An observation window. Somewhere behind the glass, someone was watching him, maybe taking notes.
“Hello!” He rapped his fingers against the glass. “Is anyone there?”
He wandered around the room, searching for a hidden door. But the walls were smooth, blank. No way out. But if he got in here, then there must also be a way for him to get out, right?
In one corner of the room, a low privacy wall separated a toilet and sink from the rest of the room. Resting on the sink, a metal cup. He pressed a small button to activate the sink, cupping his hands beneath the thing stream of water and splashing it on his face. Then he explored the rest of the room, which didn’t take long. There was his cot in the center of the room, metal legs bolted to the floor. A few feet away sat a narrow desk with an attached swing-out stool, also bolted to the floor. On the white laminate surface sat a white book and pencil.
He perched on the stool and opened it, hungry for words of instruction, or a written explanation as to why he was confined to this strange place. But there was nothing. Every single page in the book was blank. He looked at the pencil. Were they expecting him to keep a journal? To write a confession for some crime he didn’t commit and couldn’t remember?
He twisted around, facing the mirror again. “Hey!” He waved his arms, certain that they could see him. “Is this some kind of joke? What is this?” He picked up the pencil, threw it across the room. Then he hurled the book at the mirror. It glanced off and landed against the floor. Thwack! “I want out of here! Do you hear me? Let me out of here!”
Still, no response.
The next day (Or was it a day? He couldn’t be sure), his throat was parched from yelling at no one, his hands red and sore from pounding on the glass, on the walls, on the floor. As he sat up in bed, his stomach let out a low, angry growl. When had he last eaten? He couldn’t remember.
“Are you going to feed me, or what?” His voice came out in a croak. Didn’t matter. No one responded from behind the glass. Maybe he’d been mistaken to think that someone was observing him from the opposite side. Maybe there was no one. Maybe they, whoever they were, had locked him in here and left him alone. The idea lodged in his throat, too big to swallow.
It wasn’t until after he’d used the toilet and gulped down two cups of water from the sink that it occurred to him. Something in the room had changed. The white notebook and pencil once again sat on the little desk. And in one corner of the room, where before had been nothing, sat a potted plant. It was knee height, with glossy, arching green leaves that reminded him of something. Tree. He closed his eyes, savoring the brief flash of memory. Outside. Trees. Gardens. He’d had a garden at his house! His heart accelerated. A garden with plants like this, sprouting from the ground. Flowers, too. And a tree that burst with orange, sweet fruit. His stomach rumbled again.
Could he eat the plant? He ripped off an experimental piece of leaf and chewed it. Then he spat it out, retching from the bitter taste. The plant was useless.
He stood and began to pace the room, until hunger made him so weary, he at last sat at the table. With nothing else to do, he opened the notebook and lifted the pencil. He intended to write his name, but it still eluded him. Instead, he sketched the plant. It wasn’t a great sketch – maybe he’d never learned how to draw well. But the moment he finished and set the pencil aside, there was a small whoosh sound as a small panel opened in the wall across from him. As he watched, openmouthed, a tray loaded with food slid toward him. Shaking with relief, he pounced on the tray and ate every morsel.
The next day was the same. Only this time, the food didn’t appear until after he’d drawn several pictures of the plant and given it a drink of water from the metal cup. On the fourth day, he filled the entire notebook with sketches and words – rambling, almost childlike writings about the plant. His plant. His living, growing, leafed companion. He was rewarded with more food than he could eat, so he saved the scraps on the edge of the sink.
The day after that, the scraps had mysteriously vanished. And like before, there was a fresh, empty notebook and new pencil. But though he filled the notebook as he had before, no food appeared.
“How do you like that?” he said to the plant, fists balled in frustration. “Now what do I have to do?” No sooner had he spoken than the wall panel opened, whoosh. “Talk? All I had to do was talk to you?” he said to the plant.
He spent the next few days engaged in one-way conversation with his plant. As faded memories returned, he told it all about his life. His lucrative, though unfulfilling job at the bank. His black and white cat, Panda, who curled in his lap as he sat reading in his favorite chair. The strong black coffee he ordered every morning from Java Hut. His routine had been so simple, comfortable, dull. But he ached to return to its familiarity. He longed to sleep in his cozy bed, lulled into drowsiness by Panda’s purr. As he spoke, Plant listened, but of course, never responded. He sometimes offered it water, even reached out to stroke its smooth, rubbery leaves.
One day when he woke, a large pair of scissors sat gleaming on the desktop. He stared at the, puzzled. Were the rules about the change again? “What do they expect me to do now?” he asked plant. When food didn’t come, he turned the scissors around in his hand, feeling the cool, heavy blade. When at last his stomach began to grumble, he lifted the scissors, opened them, and snapped the blades together. A hunk of graying brown hair floated, featherlike, to the floor.
Still no reward.
At last he collapsed on his cot from exhaustion, mad with hunger, the cold floor littered with tufts of hair, white scraps of notebook paper.
He rose with a sick feeling, knowing what they expected him to do. Before he could think, before he could allow himself to feel, he grabbed the scissors and raised them to his plant. Snap! One shiny green leaf dropped to the floor. Snap! Another. Then another. When at last his plant was stripped bare, doomed to die of starvation, the wall panel slid open. He ate, hating himself for his own desperate hunger, tears seasoning each bite. Then he buried a handful of leaves along the scissors, beneath his thin mattress, and slept.
He awoke with a lead heaviness in his chest, not wanting to open his eyes to see the lifeless plant in the corner. But he opened them anyway and yelped with surprise.
Someone else was in his room.
Several feet away, a second bed was now bolted to the floor. In it, a bearded, gray-haired man was sleeping.
“Hey,” he said aloud. Beard stirred. “Hey!” Louder this time. Beard startled awake, confused brown eyes meeting his. In seconds, he was on his feet, backing away, looking around the room with a wild expression on his face.
Guy held up his hands, like he would to calm an agitated animal. “It’s okay,” he said. “No one’s going to hurt you.”
Beard shook his head and spouted panicked words some another language. Russian? Slovakian? Guy had no idea. He watched from his cot as Beard went through the same desperate gestures, feeling the walls for a hidden exit, pounding on the observation mirror, yelling what sounded like a stream of foreign obscenities, complete with hand gestures.
“They won’t answer,” he said. Beard ignored him.
Hours later, when Beard was rocking on his bed, holding his stomach, Guy tried to draw pictures in the white notebook to show Beard where the food came from. But he had no idea how to explain the unpredictable things he’d had to do to earn it. Nor did he know what they were expected to do now.
The next day, Beard turned his back to him, and to the mirror. Guy tried to talk to him. Then he tried singing songs. Were the Food Givers fond of eighties pop tunes? Folk songs? Dancing? He tried everything he could think of, until he was weak with hunger. He even drew lame pictures of Beard in the notebook, and then on the walls. But there was no food. That is, until Beard hurled the notebook at his head, then kicked the pencil across the floor.
The panel slid open.
The next day, Beard destroyed the notebook and cracked the pencil. When he was not rewarded, he took out his frustrations of Guy, pinning him against the desk and twisting his arm behind his back. The resulting tray was piled high with food. Beard left him little.
Guy’s anxiety rose like a swarm of insects, stinging his insides. Whoever was watching was obviously thirsty for blood. Sadistic, the word came to his mind. He couldn’t remember, but he somehow knew that outside these walls, he was not a violent person. He was patient, cool-headed, even under pressure. But this went far beyond pressure.
Beard barely waited for Guy to awaken each morning before the beatings began. Afterward, Guy would collapse on his cot, weakened and bruised, listening to the munching noises as his stronger opponent ate all of the food.
One day, Beard struck him with a blow to the temple that made his ears ring and his vision fade to black. When he awoke, he was lying on his cot. Beard was straddled on top of him, face screwed into a frightening leer. As Guy held his breath, waiting for the next blow to come, Beard lifted a pillow and held it above Guy’s face. Then he brought it down.
Lewis! Fight back! A voice said in his mind. Guy kicked and struggled, trying to shake the pillow from his face. But Beard was too strong. Guy was suffocating, he knew, tiny white points sparking in his vision. He was going to die, just like Plant.
Somehow, Guy managed to slip his hand beneath the edge of his mattress, where it closed around a hard metal object. They hadn’t taken the scissors away. With his last ounce of strength, he thrust the point upward, felt them penetrate the pillow.
No, not the pillow. Beard’s body jerked, then went slack on top of Guy’s. The pillow slipped to the floor, and fresh air filled Guy’s lungs. Still gripping the handle of the scissors, Guy pushed upward, until Beard’s body rolled off of his, landing on the floor with a thud.
Blood, so much blood. Warm and sticky on his hands, on his clothes, on the floor. Still gushing from Beard’s abdomen, where the scissors were still planted. Bile burned the back of Guy’s throat. What had he done?
He clambered off the bed, crawled across the room, retching. What had he done?
“I couldn’t be a soldier. I could never kill someone,” his own voice had said once.
“Anyone could kill a person if your life depended on it, Lewis,” another voice had said.
The observation mirror slid down like a car window, revealing a dozen watchers in lab coats, all applauding. At the same time, the impaled man on the floor vanished, as did the traces of blood. When the large panel door opened, and a medical team entered to retrieve Guy, he still sat in the corner of the room.
“Lewis,” he said, still clutching the lifeless plant. “Lewis. My name is Lewis.”