Two men in white coats sit across a long gleaming mahogany table from me.
“List everything you may need.” The bigger one with big meaty hands clutches his clipboard. He barely looks at me.
He slides an instruction booklet to me, and then the two of them exchange glances. “Read it yourself.”
I flip through the document. “There must be a hundred pages of fine print here!”
“Take it home and read it later. Basically, it states we place you for seven days exactly, right to the second, in a temporary domicile unit.”
Little interrupts, “It’s really more like a mansion—”
“You must list everything you will want or need to have inside the house,” Big finishes.
“Can I have things from my own home?” I ask.
“Sure,” says Little. He smiles at me. I wonder how long he’s been doing this. I wonder if he has any choice at all or if he, like me, is caught in the system.
“Or all new things?”
“If you’d like,” he says. “Anything you want. But if you don’t put it down on paper, you can’t take it with you.”
“And if I refuse to participate?”
Big doesn’t even blink. “You’ll be shot.”
Did I imagine it or did Little just turn pale?
I swallow hard. “What if I die during the experiment?”
“We can’t save you.” Little sits forward. “Although there are extenuating circumstances…”
Big looks like he might skewer and eat him.
Little clears his throat and continues, “If, say, you have a heart attack or an aneurism, then the experiment stops and we do our utmost to save you. But if you, for example, drop something heavy—something that wouldn’t be there unless you listed it—then you suffer the natural consequences of that action.”
Little fidgets, first with his pen, then his tie. “You might want to keep that in mind—”
Big interrupts. “But of course, we can’t tell you what to list. That’s up to you.”
My hand shakes as I sign the bottom of the release.
They stack the rules book and a clipboard, filled with fresh paper for my list, in my hands. Big leads me to the door.
Little whispers to me as I leave, “Don’t overthink it.”
That night, I try to sleep. Eventually, I do.
Don’t overthink it. Don’t overthink it.
I sit up in a sea of tangled sheets, heart racing, covered in sweat. I turn on a light and fish inside the top drawer of my nightstand for the document. I read for a bit and then nod off.
Don’t overthink it follows me back into sleep.
In the morning, I go for my run and work up an appetite for a big breakfast. Why not?
I start my list. And I realize that Little is right. I shouldn’t overthink it. It’s another government experiment about human need, human greed, and waste, and I have no choice but to participate. Might as well cooperate and just be done with it.
I finish my list and head to the testing station to hand it in. I have ten days left, time for me to prepare and I guess time for them to fill my requests. I’ve gone over it in my head a hundred times. I’ve thought of everything. More food than I can possibly ever eat in a week. That should knock their socks off. It’s the picture of wastefulness.
I’ve ordered every kitchen gadget, every entertainment DVD, a computer, music of all sorts, books, video games. The temperature will be set at 72F.
There’ll be a bolt on every door, in case some sort of weird creature is set to lurk around outside. I’m taking no chances.
I’ve ordered medical supplies, remedies in the event of just about any sickness or injury. The only thing I really worry about is if I do something stupid, like cut my finger off or something. I’ll bleed out and all they will do is record the time of death and how much blood I’ve lost.
I’ll just be very careful.
And I’ll need to watch how I chew. Slowly and cautiously. If I choke, it’s over.
Then I figure, what the hell? What can really go wrong? I’m smart. I really have thought of everything.
The morning of the experiment, they ask me if I’m ready. I am.
Big says, “You’re permitted by law to take one more hour to look over your list if you’d like.”
I shake my head.
“Sooner I start, sooner I finish. Am I right?” I wipe my sweaty palms on my pants.
As I’m shut into my new home, Big’s voice drones over the intercom. He counts down from ten.
The observation window darkens. Before it goes completely dark, I see them, their eyebrows furrowed, scribbling madly on their clipboards. Little is looking through my list, flipping page after page, searching. Then he fades into black.
I take a deep breath and feel a cold chill wrap me in a death grip. Something’s off, but I don’t know what.
Then I realize…
I’m so stupid.
I scan the room, looking for the air vents. I spot one on the living room floor. It closes and recedes as if by magic. Gone forever. The same thing happens to the others on the ceilings and located all throughout the house as I run from room to room, watching them vanish.
Back in the living room, my Monet watercolor moves to the side. Behind it, a giant pipe gapes at me and then lets out a squeal. It sucks the air from the room.
I can’t breathe. I stand before the observation window. I can’t see them but I plead anyway. Surely they’re still watching, listening.
“Please help me! Don’t let me die!”
I fall to my knees and gasp, a fish out of water flopping around at the bottom of the boat.
Air…air…I didn’t list air.
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