Hanging on the white wall across from me is a white sign with a list of rules printed in black. In this padded cell, these are the rules:
- Obey all rules.
- Do not write on the walls.
- Do not discuss your memories with your inmate.
Inmate? There is no one in here but me. I am sitting on the floor, and when I rise, I hit my head on something.
Ouch, I say. The something is a small thin translucent ledge. There is a tiny clear door that abuts the ledge. I pull up on the handle to open it, but it does not budge. To the left of the ledge is a clear plastic bin affixed to the cell wall. The bin looks like a brochure holder, except there is only a black pen inside. There is another bin on the right side of the ledge—it is bigger and holds sheets of blank white paper. I know where I have seen this arrangement before: the post office. When the person on the other side pulls their door down to close it, mine will be unlocked. This arrangement is so that we can interact without physical contact. This arrangement is for safety.
But my memory has vanished. No, omit that: I can remember certain images. I see myself in line at the post office. I tilt my head down to look at my black sandals, my feet. I am wearing shorts and a T-shirt. In my hands is a sealed brown box. Inside the box is an explosive device.
The middle-aged blonde lady asks if there is anything fragile, liquid, perishable or potentially hazardous inside my box. I say no. She types on her computer keyboard, prints a shipping label. The box will soon be on its way to a nonexistent person, and will explode in transit. She tosses the box into a large bin a few feet away from her. I do not cringe. The box will not explode until it is time. It feels like that occurred years ago. Decades, even.
I also remember what things are, what they are designed to do. I raise my hand some inches in front of my face. The bright lights above provide exceptional illumination. My hand has four fingers and a thumb. My hand is white. I use it to grab things: a ball, a knife, a gun.
I look down at the rest of my body, which is naked. Everything is intact. Why do I not remember why I am here? What was I doing before I arrived here?
The door. I walk up to the door, lean down, and attempt to see into the other room. The door is so small that I can barely see anything. There is a light shining down onto the middle—in between both doors—but I cannot see anything past it. I close my left eye so I can focus with my right, but all I see is the light that is quickly overtaken by darkness.
I walk to the corner of my cell and sit down. I lean against the wall, my legs extended in front of me with my hands lying motionless in my lap. Time passes. I do not know how much.
Later, I hear a knock, which sounds like it came from the wall beside me, the wall with the tiny door in it. I stand and approach the ledge. There is a strip of black paper in between the doors. The other door is now closed, which means I can open mine. I raise my door and remove the piece of black paper. The writing is messy cursive, in white ink. It reads: What is your name?
I have to think about this question very hard. I should have a name, but I cannot remember it. I remove my pen from its stand and, using the ledge for support, write on the other side of the paper: I do not know. My ink is black, making my black words on black paper hard to read. Very hard. I place the strip of paper back in between the doors. I pull my door down so the other person can read the note.
Instead of looking away, I watch the space to see what happens. Its door raises and I see a black hand fish the paper from the illuminated spot and withdraw into darkness. I continue watching. Soon, the black hand sets another note down and closes the door. I raise my door and take the note.
Cannot read your writing—use your own pen and paper, the note reads in white ink on a black sheet. I glance at the bin full of white paper. I lick my right forefinger—I am not sure why—and pluck a sheet from the bin. I rub the sheet between my forefinger and thumb. The paper is thick, and when I hold it close to my face, it appears to glow. If the black person is in total darkness, this might be the only thing this person can see to read.
With my black ink pen I write: Is this better? Can you read this?
We go through the process again. This time the black person says: Yes and yes.
I write back, asking: Are you male or female?
Male, he writes.
What has happened to us?
Do not fear the men in white.
Who are the men in white? I write, but my note remains where I put it. I knock on the thick plastic of the clear door. Nothing happens. I knock again. Nothing happens. This conversation may be over.
I walk to the middle of the cell, close my eyes, and lie down. If I were in the black cell, it would not matter if I had my eyes open or not—I would still see only darkness. I feel pity for this black individual, sorrowful. What has he done to warrant his imprisonment? What have I done to deserve mine?
I open my eyes, look at the ceiling. Above is a line of red text, shakily written. It is small, but I manage to decipher it. It says: FEAR THE WHITE MEN.
White men? I have to stretch to reach the ceiling, where I write a W and then an H and then a Y and then a ? underneath the statement. One letter at a time because the pen does not work well when writing on the ceiling. Suddenly: another memory. I see a Stop sign with the word CONSUMING underneath STOP. I do not know who wrote CONSUMING. Nonetheless, I write HOW? next to it with a black marker at night. It feels like that occurred decades ago, too. Scores.
I put the cap back on my pen and glance around the cell. I take note of the rules. I have broken rule 2, and therefore have broken rule 1. Soon I believe I will discover what consequences will result from my disobedience.
Cameras. I should have investigated this cell earlier, found out how they are monitoring me. I cannot imagine where they would plant a camera. The cell walls, floor and ceiling have no holes. Is the pen a camera? I try to open the pen by twisting it, but it does not budge. There is no evidence suggesting that there are any recording devices in this cell. My conjecture is that there are no recording devices, as strange as that may be. I am not sure why they are not watching me.
I put the pen back in its bin, noticing that the note I left earlier is gone. It read: Who are the men in white? There is nothing in its place. His door is open. Mine will remain shut until his is closed.
I remove the paper from its bin, but there is nothing alarming about it. I return the paper to its spot. I look around again. There is nothing out of the ordinary in this cell. Except me. I have been conscious for hours, yet I have not experienced hunger pangs. I have not been thirsty. I have not needed to urinate or defecate. I look down at my slender frame and poke my stomach with a finger. I exist. I am here. This is real life and I am living it.
The ledge. I examined every surface of this cell except the underside of the ledge. I situate myself underneath it. The following is scratched into it: DO NOT LET THEM TAKE YOU. I rub a finger over the letters carved into the façade. They feel rough on my skin.
Eventually I move to one of the corners, the corner to the left of the tiny door. I sit down and bring my legs toward my torso. I wrap my arms around my knees, locking my legs in place.
Later, I check the ledge for a note. There is a strip of black paper inside. His door is closed. I open my door, remove the strip, read it.
What do you remember? it says.
I remember images, I write. I slide my piece of paper to the designated area. I close my door, watch him open his, watch his hand grasp the paper. I believe I have now broken rule 3, and therefore have broken rule 1 again.
I hear a noise behind me, so I turn to face the opposite wall. The middle panel on the opposite wall moves backward and slides to the left, revealing only a dark opaque space. I squint. I am reminded of this saying: darkness is not the opposite of the light; it is the absence of it. A white figure emerges from the blackness. It resembles a human. Clad in a white outfit, like a Hazmat suit, the person is covered except for the face. It has no eyes. There is a mouth, a nose, and I see the bulges of ears, but it has no eyes.
The person opens its mouth and clicks it tongue, producing a series of sounds. Afterward, it sidesteps to the very left of the opposite wall. I scurry to the middle of my wall, my back against it, where I find myself below the ledge again. I look up and reread the admonishment.
Another person enters the cell in the same fashion. Performs the same actions and moves to its designated position. Before long there are fifteen of them—five per wall. I am surrounded. The following flashes in my mind: strength in numbers.
They are still. The one in the middle of the opposite wall reaches behind its back and produces a contraption. It appears to be some sort of pump. It is a white rod with two circular concave structures on its end—one on each side, though they are only inches apart. No wonder they do not use visual surveillance, I think.
They click their tongues.
They converge on my position.