Research Study #54

By Lisa Clark

Journal Entry: Sunday afternoon

Where are they? They said we’d be out of here in 48 hours. That much time has to have passed by now.

Liv is driving me nuts with her whining.

Hold it together, Dem.

“So where are they?” Liv sits on the edge of her cot. Her leg is bouncing like a jackhammer. I want to stalk over there, grab hold of it, and lean down until I’m about an inch from her face and growl. Real low.

I’m not going to do that. She’s as stressed as I am. Instead, I breathe through my teeth and try to sound nonchalant. “Chill, Liv. I’m sure they haven’t forgotten.”

“That’s what you said an hour ago.” Man, she’s annoying.

“An hour, huh? How do you get that?”

“Argh! You know, you’re really starting to bug me.”

“Right back at you.” I flip over on my cot, which is set up on the wall opposite hers. We’re really only a few feet apart. I’ve never shared a room with a woman before. It’s funny, though; I’m sure that statement is true, but I couldn’t tell you who my roommates have been for my first three years of college. Or even this semester, before this study. Is this brain fog from the lack of sunlight or the crappy food or claustrophobia or just not seeing the end when it seems like it should be in sight? I shake my head to try to rattle some reason into it, but the only effect is to aggravate the headache that’s been torqueing down on the back of my skull since we’ve been in here. And that’s another thing: I can’t even remember coming into this room. What kind of psychological weirdness is going on? This can’t be what we signed up for. Maybe they put something in the food. Or water.

Probably ten minutes pass before Liv speaks again. “What time do you think it is?” She sounds bored, but there’s a hint of worry threading through her words. I’ve been noticing that over the past few hours.

“I don’t know.” I flip onto my back. “They locked us in after lunch on Friday, around 1:00. We had dinner that day—”

“If you can call that garbage dinner.”

“Whatever, Liv. I’m trying to calculate here.”

“All right. Sorry.” She sounds like she actually means it. “So, yeah. Dinner. Then we slept.”

“Which we’ve got to figure was around eight hours.”

“It’s pitch black here at night,” she adds. Understatement of the century. “We might have slept even longer.”

“Nah. I never sleep longer than eight hours.” I’m keeping it light, keeping it fun. “Usually I’m up after six, seven hours of sleep. I like to exercise before classes.”

“Yeah, yeah. Anyway…”

“Okay. We’ll say eight hours. Can we agree on that?”

“I guess. So…” On her back, she pulls one knee up to her chest, then repeats with the other.

“So, we ate breakfast — and yeah, I know, ‘if you can call that breakfast’—”

“Shut up, Demetrius.” I glance over at her. She looks hypnotized by the warm yellow pool of light on the ceiling that dissipates throughout the room. At times like this, when we’re not reading or writing, we use only one of the small electric lanterns. It’s amazing what you get used to. At first, I felt as though I’d gone nearly blind. How, I wondered, would we survive the weekend without more light? By now I’m wondering how much electricity could be saved in the world if everyone were forced to conserve on light the way we’ve had to.

“Okay. Sorry,” I say, though I’m not really. “Then we wasted a few more hours—”

“Wasted is right.” Liv wiggles onto her side so that she’s facing me. Even though she can be annoying, I’m glad I’m doing this with her. When she’s not bellyaching, she can be a lot of fun. Before we fell asleep our first night, she made me stay up, and we cracked every single joke we could remember. My cheeks hurt after a while from smiling so much.

“I have a test next week,” she continues. “I shouldn’t be sitting in a locked room like some prisoner. Hey! That reminds me. Do you remember that news story about the guy they left in a jail cell and everyone forgot about him over the weekend? He nearly died.”

“Don’t go there, Liv.”

After a pause, she says, “They should have let us out by now.” Her voice cracks, and I’m sure she’s on the brink of tears.

I reach out over the space between us. She stretches out her hand and clutches mine so tight I can feel her nails digging into my palm. “I know.” My voice is high, encouraging. “But they haven’t. So where were we?” I say this like something silly has interrupted our train of thought. “Up to lunchtime on Saturday?”

“Yeah. I’m looking forward to real food, aren’t you? Who do you think chose our meals? Toaster oven pastries without the toaster, bagels and cheese… How long can you keep cheese out of a refrigerator before it goes bad? And that yogurt? I mean, it tastes okay, if warm yogurt’s your thing, but—”

I close my eyes briefly. She’s okay. “I’m sure they had to get approval for everything. They could run into liability issues if their subjects got sick.”

“You got that right.” She sits abruptly. “And what about not letting us out at the time we agreed on? So help me, when we get out of here, I’m suing them for so much they’ll never be able to conduct another study again. HEY YOU GUYS! LET US OUT OF HERE!”

I take that comment back about her being okay. “We’ve already tried yelling at them.” We’ve actually let out quite a bit of cathartic energy by shouting.

I push myself up.

“Yeah, well maybe they were taking a bathroom break.” She’s now up. Pacing is next.

“I doubt it. They said we’d be under constant surveillance in case of an emergency.”

“Which is kind of creepy when you think about it.” Stop, turn, take several steps in the opposite direction. Stop again. “Do you think they watch us in the bathroom?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Ew.” She plunks down on my cot. The springs yawn and, though she started out six inches from me, our shoulders cant inward so that we’re touching for a second before we scoot apart. I’m glad she doesn’t leave, though.

“Anyway, we were calculating how much time we’ve been here.” I’m looking at my hands, tapping my thumbs together for no other reason than it’s something to do. “We’re up to Saturday lunch, then Saturday dinner.”

“Yeah, basically the same junk we’ve been eating all along. It’s a good thing they included some fruit, at least. Then we slept that night.”

“I didn’t sleep that well that night.” In fact, I didn’t sleep well either night. I’ve had weird, disturbing nightmares, with hordes of people — hundreds, maybe even thousands of them. I feel rather than see them, though. A profound, intense darkness has us in its clutches, and I’m afraid something’s about to consume me. The mob is angry. They’re shouting, though I can’t distinguish what they’re saying. There, off in one direction, then in another, and then from many directions rise pop pop pops, like firecrackers going off. People scream and yell. Nearby, there is moaning and the agony of the sound coils around me, snaking upwards, squeezing my throat. In bursts of light, I spot police in riot gear. The crowd is crushing me, growing so close that my lungs struggle to expand. Then an immense pain, sudden and fierce, assaults the back of my head. I wake with a throbbing headache.

I have not told Liv about my dreams.

“Why?” she asks, turning her head toward me partway. She gives into the sag of the bedsprings and slouches into my arm, then takes my hand. “It’s dark and quiet.”

“You snored a little.” She didn’t, though.

“Phuh! I do not snore.” She bumps into my side and I smile.

“Right. It must have been me, then.”

“Anyway, so we woke up Sunday morning, had breakfast, had lunch, and here we are. It must be at least a couple hours after noon.”

“Well, maybe we ate earlier than we figured.” I don’t think so, but it’s possible. “There’s no way to tell.”

“Maybe not but — Hey, did you bring your copy of the statement we signed as participants?”

“Um, yeah. I think so.” I release her hand to yank the paper from my pocket.

“Oh, that’s secure.” She rises to adjust the lamp so it’s bright enough to read by.

“Hey, I don’t see you pulling out a copy.” I flatten it out over my lap, and she brings the lamp closer.

“You’re right. Sorry. Just read it, okay?”

“A-hem.” Again. My attempt at levity. Liv doesn’t chuckle or even smile. “All right. Here goes:

Thank you for participating in Research Study #54. As you know, our study focuses on withdrawal from all forms of electronics: computers in all their forms, obviously, but also the devices we’ve come to rely upon every day: telephones and televisions, radios, kitchen equipment, even watches and clocks. We’re hoping our findings will reveal ways ordinary people might respond in case of a massive EMP (i.e. electromagnetic pulse) regardless of the cause, either natural or manmade.

You’ll be spending the next 48 hours together in a small apartment equipped with a bathroom, beds, a table, and two chairs. A generous supply of packaged, prepared foods and drinks is available; you will neither be required nor allowed to cook your own meals. You will not have use of a refrigerator or water heater. You will have no access to electricity. The sole exceptions are two flashlights and two battery-powered lanterns; these are household devices people might have on hand in case of a massive power outage. Keep in mind that you’ll have to ration your use of these, as batteries drain quickly.

We’ve stocked the room with various items to occupy you during the next two days: books, puzzles, and board games.

You will be supplied with a small journal to record your thoughts and responses as the hours pass. These will be added to our own notes as part of the study. You will be under constant surveillance, even while you’re asleep. This should put your mind at ease; if any medical or other unforeseen problem should arise, someone will come to assist you.”

“This is so bogus!” Liv cries out, swinging the light away. “I wish I’d never signed up for this stupid study. I wish Mr. Golden locks with the bulging pecs and biceps had never come into our Abnormal Psych class.”

“With Miss India at his side.”

She sets the lamp down, but doesn’t dim it. “Right. Do you think they were models?

“I have no clue. But the $250 they promised to participants is nowhere near the compensation I deserve.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Anger flares up in her voice and eyes so quickly, I pull my head back.

“Nothing. Just the stuff we’ve been talking about. Not knowing when they’re going to let us out of here. What else would I mean?”

“N-nothing.” Her voice is so quiet I almost miss the word.

I rise and set my hand on her back. “No, tell me.”

She arches her back and steps away. “No.” The word is infused with hurt and something else. Embarrassment?

“Come on. I want to know. What, were you thinking I didn’t like being with you or something?”

She doesn’t answer.

“Liv? Is that it? Because—”

“No! It’s not it! I mean, never mind.” And right then, her tone or maybe her words strike me like a two by four to the skull, like déjà vu on drugs. An image even flashes inside my brain. There’s Liv, but her hair is blown back off her face and she’s smiling, only it’s not a smile of joy. It’s more like… like the look a little kid gets when she’s hatching a scheme. Then it’s gone.

“Just drop it, would you?”

I stare at her, trying to recapture the image.

“You’re such a jerk.” Her eyes are shiny with hurt.

I’m the jerk?”

We stand that way, face to face, for a long time. Because the lamp is below us, her cheeks are lit, but her eyes are shadowed, as though she were a villain, masked, trying to disguise her identity.

“Are we okay?” I finally say.

Liv sighs and drags her gaze away.

“They’ll probably be here any minute now,” I say.

She flops onto her cot. “Right.”

I walk around the room, lamp in hand, looking. For something. Clues, maybe. Or possible exits other than the door. We haven’t done so up to this point. That’s not to say we, or at least I, haven’t noticed the room itself. It’s small, maybe ten by twelve. An old dorm room, maybe. I don’t know, but it does have a small bathroom, which you’d expect in some sort of dormitory or apartment. The walls are made of concrete blocks. Painted. Illuminated by only the lantern or flashlight, it’s hard to distinguish the color. White, possibly, or yellow. Maybe pale green or blue. The suspended ceiling is made from old style acoustic tiles, ones with different sized holes. I think there’s a large stain in one corner, which makes me wonder whether there’s a leak in the room above us. Since I’ve heard no sound from up there, I assume the space is unoccupied. On the wall by the door is a large mirror. When I approach it, I’m startled at my reflection. The only face I’ve been looking at for the past two-ish days is Liv’s; I’ve only seen myself briefly in the bathroom mirror; I can brush my teeth and use the toilet without much light. Anyway, I look ragged. They didn’t leave razors and we weren’t allowed to bring in anything with us, so I haven’t shaved for two days. My hair’s sticking out Frankenstein-style, semi-matted on the sides and pushed up on top. Scary. Like someone capable of performing deeds a normal guy wouldn’t even consider. With only cold water available, I didn’t do a great job of matting my hair down this morning. Or whenever it is I awoke. One thing I’m going to put in the report when I get out of here? Living in pitch black with the possibility of only minimal illumination is disorienting.

I find no panels that might suggest an escape route.

I have no idea how much time has passed when Liv says, “You know, I don’t understand why they didn’t put us in a room that has natural light. If anything, it seems like people would use only natural light if there were an EMP. They’d save their flashlights for emergencies. Like they said, batteries drain quickly.”

“Oh. Yeah.” I glance at the lantern I’ve had running on high for however long and switch it to low. “Me neither.”

I sit on one of the chairs, my mind wandering to scenes I have no recollection of. How is that possible? They’re flashes, really. Of people I don’t recognize. I can’t figure out what they’re doing, only that they’re intent on doing something together.

“What if they don’t come to get us?”

Liv’s words bring me back to our dimly lit world. I’ve wondered about that, too.

“I mean, it’s not like they’ve left a ton of food. Or batteries.”

Seriously, what can I say?

“And I, for one,” Liv is speaking louder and pulls the other chair in front of mine so that I can’t ignore her, “don’t relish the thought of washing with cold water anymore.”

Is she expecting a response?

“Earth to Demetrius!” She’s in my face now, nearly shouting.

“What do you want me to say?” I’m nearly shouting, too.

Something.” Her eyes look so sad.

“We could play another game. Or sing,” I suggest.

“Really? Like what? ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’?”

“I do have Jamaican roots.” I put on a party smile. “We are the third happiest people in the world.” Okay, that’s not strictly true; Jamaica only got that rating one year and according to criteria not usually considered, but hey; it means something.

Groan.

“How about Risk?”

“Not again. I’m going to read.”

I say nothing about the light.

“Fine,” I say. “I’ll continue my survey.”

“Your survey?”

“Calculating how many holes are in the ceiling tiles. I’m afraid I might be missing some, though. With only lantern light, it’s hard to see the edges.”

“Whatever.”

Journal Entry: Sunday night

We just finished our third dinner: cold mac and cheese. Man, I’m seriously sick of this food. Worse, though, is that we’re nearly out of supplies, and there’s no sign that anyone will be opening the door anytime soon.

Liv is over on her bed, huffing and repositioning herself every two minutes or so. I really wonder what they were thinking, putting the two of us together. We’d never even spoken with each other before. Being in the same class means nothing. If there were an actual EMP, wouldn’t people more likely spend time with family or friends or people they work with?

“You really think they’re going to let us out?” she says when she returns from the bathroom with the forks she washed. I wonder why they gave us real silverware instead of plastic. Since we have no hot water, wouldn’t that be more sanitary? A second later, I remember that this is supposed to a simulation of how people sharing a home might act. I guess they wouldn’t have plastic-ware around.

“Yeah. Of course. They have to, right?”

“Well then, why haven’t they opened the door yet?” She’s on her bed, knees pulled up to her chest, her hair looking like she stuck her finger in a socket, which is kind of funny when you think about our predicament.

“We’ve probably just miscalculated the time.” It could be true.

“Demetrius?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m scared.” Has she said this to me before?

I sit on her bed and pull her close. She sniffles. “Don’t cry, Liv.”

She does anyway, and I have absolutely no idea how to help her.

“It’ll be okay,” I finally say, though I’m beginning to have serious doubts.

“I hate it when people say that so flippantly! How is this going to be okay? What about the food? There’s barely anything left. And the lights are growing dimmer by the second.

I blow out a long stream of air. “Let’s just get to tomorrow morning.”

“Is it night now?”

“Maybe.” We’ve been here already for two nights and that’s all we thought we’d be here for.

“Will you sleep next to me tonight?”

“Sure. Let me turn the lantern off.”

I snuggle in behind her so that her back is to my front and our bodies form two nesting question marks. My arm encircles her waist. This feels so right. Familiar. Like she fits.

“Do you ever get the feeling,” she says drowsily, slurring her words a little, “that we knew each other before? I mean, before our class?”

I do, kind of. It’s amazing how close you can feel to someone who’s shared an experience with you, especially one that’s extreme. When people go through disasters with each other, it draws them together in a way that would never otherwise have happened.

I don’t answer. She’s fallen into the steady breathing of sleep.

Journal Entry: Monday morning (I think)

We’ve begun beating on the door. Liv got a little frantic and smashed one of the chairs against the door, but there was still no response. She’s hoarse from screaming.

Halfway through the night, she bolted upright and almost knocked me off the bed. “What was that?” Someone or something was howling. It faded briefly then rose again. I actually felt the hair on the back of my neck rise.

“Turn the light on,” Liv wailed.

I knocked one of the flashlights to the floor and heard the crack of breaking plastic.

“What was that?”

I managed to click on one of the lanterns and, though it burned through the darkness, the light was dim. I scooped up the fallen flashlight and flipped its switch. Nothing.

Liv’s mouth was stretched into a boomerang, inverted and lopsided. I could see the whites of her eyes all the way around the irises.

The wailing dwindled slowly until disappearing. Liv covered her face. “Why is this happening to us?”

I held her for a long time. Until the bed stopped shaking. By then, the lantern’s light was little more than a glowing filament.

“What are we going to do?” she said.

I had no clue. “Let’s just try to sleep a little more.” Maybe it was morning already. I don’t know. It was all I could think to say.

I clicked the lantern off, hoping the battery would recharge a little by the time we woke. We lay down, but Liv was trembling and my heart was still thumping. Why hadn’t they come for us? Even without clocks, I felt sure we’d been here for more than forty-eight hours.

Somehow, we managed to sleep. When I woke, I jolted up, feeling strangled. Liv’s hair had webbed over my face. My arm was numb where she’d laid on it for who knows how long. Hours, maybe.

We’ve heard nothing since getting up.

Most of the food is gone. There are a couple of gnarly-looking bananas left, some hard candies that neither of us likes, instant coffee and a bunch of little creamers, but you can’t drink coffee all day and expect to sleep at night. Whenever night is.

This has to be some kind of psychological test, not the experiment we signed up for. I’ve heard of cases where the researchers are actually testing for something entirely different than their stated goals. The only thing is, I’ve participated in other research studies—lots of them, actually. For skin, smoking, sleeping, self-selected music behavior, metabolism, neurobiology, and anxiety predictors. They’re interesting, the compensation is good, and the researchers are always careful; their questions, procedures, reporting, even consent forms have to be approved.

I’m not saying anything to Liv, but what if something happened out there on the other side of the door? The noises we heard last night were real. What if there was some horrific terrorist attack? Or mutagen or something else? I don’t know. Maybe we’re safer in here than out there.

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