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As I walk into the holding cell, I am bound by more than just my handcuffs. Here it comes again—the deja vu. I know it. I have been here before. I have never been arrested, but something in my brain recognizes the chilling sense of tawdry, overly-tightened handcuffs, the officers breathing down my neck, the guards in every corner. There are scientific explanations for deja vu. There are scientific explanations for everything. There must be a—
The walls have the same beige-tinted stucco, the floor the same dirt and blood stained concrete, and the lack of square footage equally as suffocating. I just can’t place it. I know that I have never been in the Cibola County Correctional Center before, but something about this place feels alarmingly like home.
“Snap out of it!” Yells Officer Harding, a name I only was able to gather by reading the rusted nametag on his starchy dry cleaned uniform. The officers here aren’t necessarily keen on introductions. “You will wait here until the trials begin.”
I nod in accordance, still confused about what I did to deserve being locked up. I mean I was only going six over the limit, but not even four seconds after handing the officer my license and registration, she frantically dialed for backup.
What feels like hours start to pass by, and the familiarity of this place multiplies. It’s almost as if I have slept in this bed; it’s almost as if I have paced back and forth within these walls; it's almost as if—almost as if I’ve died in here.
No. It must be the fumes of sweat and mildew, or the rotting tattooed souls in the cells nearest to mine. I am an accountant from Sacramento. I went to Stanford. I am not a prisoner. I never have been a prisoner. I never will be a prisoner.
As I hear the clanking sound of keys reverberating off a gun holster, my focus shifts to Officer Adwell, the very one that pulled me over. Her eyes paralyzed with fear and looking anywhere but at mine, she hesitantly unlocks my cell.
“Mr. Daley,” she says, her voice breaking, “please follow me, there is something you should know.”
I walk down the narrow hallways of the Center, each prisoner staring me down as I pass their cell. Some heckle me, some harass the officers, but we continue walking. Still in my Ralph Lauren polo, I wonder why they didn’t make me change; why did they send me straight to my cell? My cell. I shiver at the thought of already feeling accustomed to it. How could I already claim it as my own when I don’t even know what I'm here for?
I count sixty-seven inmates before Officer Harding greets us at a conference room, with that fancy one-sided mirrored glass that I saw just last night on an episode of Criminal Minds. As I sit down, a Powerpoint presentation is being projected on a wall so disgusting I can barely read the letters. Six guards sit in the room with us, security cameras line the perimeter of the ceiling, and eventually, the stream that is my compliance trickles out.
“I was going six over the speed limit. What could I have possi—”
Officer Adwell kicks the leg of my chair, jolting my entire body and signaling for me to look at the presentation with such desperation that I am forced to obey.
“Mr. Daley,” Officer Harding reaches for my attention. “Now I know that you are confused, and I am aware that you did nothing to deserve to be here as far as you’re concerned. In light of recent news, a lot of things are about to change in this facility. A lot of things are about to change everywhere in fact. What you’re about to hear may come as a shock to you, and I hope that you manage to stay calm and above all believe us.”
The cheap metal I am sitting on isn’t nearly as uncomfortable as this suspenseful agony, and even though I haven’t even been in this room for five minutes, this presentation has been the longest experience of my life. I don’t know what was more unsettling—the sight of Adwell’s nod queuing the guards to load their guns, or what the words on the next slide said. In just one click of a remote in Officer Harding’s hand, my life as I knew it changed forever. Letters strung together to form the three very words I had never expected to hear in my life:
REINCARNATION IS REAL
I couldn’t help but let out a small laugh; I was in utter disbelief and I had no defense.
“Mr. Daley!” Harding exclaims. “I am going to need you to pay attention, and listen very closely.”
The next slide displays a list of facts and research about “the science” behind this nonsense and as I try to make out the size 10 font, he goes off on another tangent about how I play into this. This has to be some sick joke, a dream, anything but reality. I am no lawyer, but I am damn near positive that my rights should exempt me from involuntary participation.
“You must be curious about what this has to do with your presence in this facility, and while I can’t disclose any details to you, I can in fact tell you that a group of us have been selected to find some subjects and test them. You will not be forced to do anything that will physically harm you, but our process is rather extensive. Our subjects are not random. You are here because your past life was not honorable. While—”
“This is bullsh*t. Who do you believe I was and how are you certain you are correct?”
“We can’t disclose that information to you. The facts are all up on the wall right there. Our program has been put in place to protect the souls that are deserving based on their past lives and to penalize those who weren’t. Over the next eleven days, you will perform a set of trials for us. Your mission is to prove to us that your soul has changed. If you pass, you will learn your past identity and continue your life as normal; however, if your soul shows a lack of empathetic progression, you will be terminated.”
After about ten minutes of suffocating conversation, my demands to call my lawyer are forcibly subsided and I am shoved back into that same holding cell the way that I put my Yorkie in his crate this morning.
I am jarred awake just ten minutes after I finally fell asleep. Officer Janson, a man I could almost swear is the hulk with a badge, screams like a sergeant on the battle line and hands me a box with a lock on it but no key.
His low voice rumbles within the cell walls, “You have forty-five minutes with this. What you do with it is up to you. You will receive no further instructions, but I am obligated to tell you that you will be monitored and studied for your actions.”
He places an owl-shaped kitchen timer on the top bunk and the door to my cell slams shut. Still in protest to the complete insanity of today, I set the box down and lay back on my cot. I am in no way obligated to fidget with a box against my will. Half asleep, I hear a voice crackling through an intercom I had no idea I was rooming with.
“Mr. Daley,” Of course. Harding. “If you fail to attempt on your first trial, you will be sent to solitary confinement.”
I can’t believe this. There is no world in which I am not calling my attorney in the morning and getting the fuck out of here.
“I’ll run that risk.”
Half an hour passes and I shoot out of bed with that feeling you get in the middle of a dream where you feel like you are falling forty-seven stories down. I look at the axis on the owl’s rotating head to see that I have just twelve minutes left. Reluctantly, I let Harding’s threat get the best of me and stumble over to the box. I mean, if he can keep me in this cell and make me sit through a nonsensical presentation, I have no choice but to think he’s serious.
The box torments me. Within its power lies my survival. I am puzzled by its complexity and mocked by its simpleness. I shake it like a child does his Christmas presents, hoping in some way I can uncover a clue as to what I am supposed to do with it. Just last week my coworkers and I were forced to participate in one of those escape rooms by HR, and we solved a similar puzzle by setting the box down on a magnetic picture frame, which then opened a door, which led to a filing cabinet, which had a lock, which had a combination of…
The owl's head ticks louder than it did before and I see that I have only six minutes left. Panicked, I search the room for the key. I flip the “mattress” upside down, tear apart the pile of food scraps I had left from my “dinner”, but nothing. The owl ticks louder. Thirty seconds. Overwhelmed by frustration, I pick up the box and throw it at the one brick wall accenting the West end of my room. It bursts into pieces and inside it: nothing. BRINGGGG. The owl shakes like an 8.0 earthquake, and the intercom buzzes once more.
“Thank you Mr. Daley. That is all for now.”
20 minutes later a piece of paper was posted on the bulletin board outside my cell:
Trial 1: Anger Management
Your results were truly disappointing. Failure to participate: -4. Lack of Effort: -2. Anger Management: -7. Overall: FAILURE
“I demand to call my attorney!” I scream back to Harding through the intercom and I hope Adwell, who I know is listening despite her avoidance of me since the presentation, heard that too.
“That is fine” says Harding with an ease in his voice that alarms me—my lawyer must be clued in on this by now.
The ring of the cell door opening still makes me jump every time. Led by Officer Adwell, I walk down the same narrow hallways of the Center, each prisoner staring me down as I pass their cell yet again. I count seventy-three inmates this time before Officer Harding greets us at the phone—unlike yesterday, some of them are in their work clothes just as I was. There are more of us. I must speak with them. “Thanks, I’ve got it from here,” Harding says as I am handed over to his reign. “You wish to speak with Mr. Cox, am I correct?”. I sneer about how he has been my attorney since college and that we are old childhood friends. I tell Harding that whatever lies he has fed him won’t work as we have a well-rooted mutual trust and respect for one another. However, instead of dialing the phone, he brings me back to the observation room I was in yesterday, only this time I get to be on the ‘fun side’ of the glass. Puzzled, I peer through to find jumpsuit-bound Harley Cox himself listening to the same presentation I was forced to.
“He is here under the same conditions as you. Only, this time, you found him for us. Mr. Daley, you have to understand that we are not holding you here for fun and your stay doesn’t bring any of us any additional benefit. We are simply seeing to it that our community stays safe from, well, potential threats. You can ask to see one hundred lawyers but we can assure you that they will not defend a client who doesn’t even know the crimes they have committed. So long as you complete your trials, and pass them at that, you will be free to go. All we ask is for ten more days of obedience.”
They lead me to a field where a tour jeep awaits me. I climb into the backseat of the Wrangler and the driver shifts out of park before I can shut the door. We sit in silence for a solid twenty minutes before he turns on his radio, the white, static noise blaring behind the mask of Hotel California’s repetitive melody. He hums along in a surprisingly well-pitched manner and adjusts his rearview mirror so his eyes can meet mine.
“What’d ya do to end up in prison?” He asks me rather forwardly, before even asking my name. I’ve mentioned the staff’s fondness for introductions.
“I wish I could tell you,” I begin, “I haven’t even been—”
“Yur one of those.” He exclaims, “Yur not the first case I have seen, and ya won’t be the last.”
“Well what do you know?! How do I leave?”
“I’m in no position to tell you. Hell, I don’t even know what I would tell ya. They don’t tell me sh*t. I don't get the special treatment those wardens down there do.”
As he leans forward to check his blindspots, I notice the eagle tattoo on the back of his pale, ashy neck. I choose not to say anything about it because I see it’s covering a scar or mark of some sort. We continue along the bumpy path, winding up a mountain I didn’t even know you could find in this part of town. After ten more minutes of the static-infested radio shielding us from awkward silence, he tells me he has to “take a leak”.
“Here?” I question, shocked by the current 30 degree slant of our car on the side of this cliff.
He shifts the car into park and gets out of the car. I fantasize about making an Alcatraz-level escape, about busting the windows and breaking my handcuffs over my knee with nothing but the strength of my own arms, about running at Olympic record speeds down this mountain to safety and dodging the bullets of a S.W.A.T team. But instead, I sit in this car thinking about how this could possibly be a trial. What could be awaiting me at the top of this mountain that they couldn’t have tested back at the facility? The possibilities are endless, the list of random—
Gunshots. Two gunshots were fired outside the car and I hear the wailing scream of none other than my driver yelling back at me. I look outside to see him collapsed on the ground. I feel helpless. Here I am, an accountant with no medical experience, handcuffed in the backseat, with no way to escape the car to help him. He yells back to me.
“Please! I can’t be left like this! There are two keys taped to the b-bottom of my passenger-side floor mat. Unlock your handcuffs and the d-door and come save me!”
Immediately, I hurl my body towards that coveted mat and by the grace of some cirque du soleil-grade contortion, I am able to acquire the keys. I rapidly unlock my cuffs and as I turn the key to the door the thoughts of escape come rushing back in the same sequence as before. This time, I can taste it. My Alcatraz escape, my Olympic record speed propelling me down this mountain to safety and the dodging of bullets of the S.W.A.T team behind me. The click of my rickety door hinges unlocking is the sweetest sound I have ever heard. I am so close to freedom. My sneaker touches the ground and for the first time in days I am in control. Only I’m not. My damn morals are wrestling with my selfishness and I am consumed by indecision.
“Are you gonna f*cking help me?!” Shouts the driver, bleeding so rapidly he could almost drown. Who have I become? I am appalled by the selfish temptation of escape that is suppressing my values and my very human nature. But still, I can’t look away. The path winding down the mountain is so clearly paved thanks to our journey so far. As I take my final look to freedom, my body involuntarily runs to my driver’s aid. His screams haven’t subsided, but they are growing weaker.
I crouch to his seizing body and notice that one of the bullets struck his calf. I take off my shirt, tear it in half, and wrap it around his wound, applying pressure and advising him to take deep breaths. I know that when you’re bleeding out organized respiration is not at the forefront of your priorities, but I truly have no idea what to say and my composure is fleeting. I can’t stand the sight of blood and now I am swimming in it. I scream for help and my eyes meet the second wound on his stomach. I thought the leg was bad until I quite literally made eye contact with an intestine-level hole.
Frantically, I take the other half of my shirt and push it against his stomach. He lets out a blaring scream of pain and I cover his mouth. I don’t know why, but I did. I secure my shirt scraps against his wounds and by the power of strength I didn't even know I had, picked him up and carried him to the passenger side of his car. Weakened, I hobble over to the driver’s seat and start the car. Only problem: I can’t drive a stick. I ask my driver to give me directions to the nearest hospital, but no response. He’s out. I panic.
I see that he’s got a radio strapped to his belt. I turn the dial until I reach a channel where I can make out the conversation being had.
“We’ve lost connection,” a woman’s voice crackles, which sounds uncomfortably familiar.
“Well, find it!” demands a man whose monotonous tone flares with anger.
“The radio beeps three times and I can almost hear the ruffling of papers and the clicking of keys, with vague distant whispers echoing through the busted speaker.
“Hello?” I say, hoping to god that the people on the other end of the radio can hear my desperation.
“Who is this?” shouts the man back to me. I don’t want to reveal my identity.
“I am in a vehicle with a man who is severely wounded and bleeding out from gun wounds. I need serious help.”
The radio beeps twice this time, and I hear no response.
Right before I switch channels I hear that same woman’s voice coming back on.
“Are you injured?” she inquires.
“No. But please, I don't have a phone on me and I found this radio and I need immediate help.” I begin to hyperventilate and the road below my tires becomes increasingly more rough.
“Can you tell me where you are?”
“No. I do not know where I am and I have no way to find out.”
“I am going to ask you your name once more please.”
I really don’t want to say, but then I look over and see that the once tan seat that eagle tattoo was sitting on is now stained red. I scream to try and wake him up and apply more pressure against my practically dissolved shirt. His eyelids flutter open and twitch as he inhales.
“Sir, what is your name?” She asks again. I can tell her patience is running thin.
“What is your name?” I snap. I don’t know why, but I have a feeling that she might not even be on the police force that I am trying to reach. Then, it clicks.
“Officer Farah Adwell. If you do not tell me your name, I am going to end this conversation.”
Eagle tattoo is looking over at me, the life escaping from his eyes.
“Justin Daley. My name is Justin Daley and I am currently driving the vehicle that you led me to for my second trial. Only the driver was shot twice before we reached the trial and I need to find him medical aid. Please Officer, I need direction. I need—”
“Well done Mr. Daley.” A man’s voice now radiates through the speaker. Now that’s a voice I recognize. “This is Officer Harding. We have a tracker on your car. We have vehicles surrounding you, so there is no point in an escape attempt. Officer Janson is behind you and will take you back to the facility. We’ve got it from here.”
Trial 2: Instinct
Your results were pleasantly surprising. Resisting selfish actions : +8. Resourcefulness: +2. Sympathy: +5. Overall: SUCCESS
The trial was eagle tattoo. How could I have not seen it? The production team on that one must have worked on Marvel sets. I sit on my cot and watch him pass by, walking around casually and able-bodied as if nothing had happened, because, well, nothing had happened.
“What is your name?” I scream at him. No answer. His continued rhythmic saunter carries him out of my line of vision.
It’s day 5, and I am suspensefully awaiting my next trial. Yesterday I had nothing. I just sat in my cell with nothing but my own thoughts. There it is again— I’m still calling it my cell. Only this time, I mean it. I truly have become accustomed to it, and the sense of familiarity hasn’t left. I know that I have been here. I have felt the discomfort a prison cot can bring. I know the smell, the alarms, the sounds. The food feels comforting. Not because it’s good—believe me, it’s not good. But it’s distinctly recognizable. The deja-vu is killing me. It’s the only thing on my mind when I close my eyes at night, and my first thought as I open them and see the springs of the bunk above me in the morning. I sit in the cafeteria next to men who could be murderers, con-artists, rapists, and then there’s Cox. My chubby friend of 18 years is sitting in a steroid sandwich, drowning in piercings, buzzcuts and testosterone. I look over at him and gesture my head to direct him to sit next in the open seat next to me. Struggling, he gets up and walks over to my seat.
“What the hell is going on?” He asks me. I tell him that I know nothing except what was on the slides he was shown.
“Have you had any trials yet?” I ask him.
“Yes. I’ve had two. One the first day, and another yesterday.”
“What did they have you do?”
“Are you crazy?!” He looks around frantically paranoid as if he’s certain we’re being listened to. “They told me we can’t discuss the trials with other people in our experiments, or we will be penalized.”
“Did they say why?”
“Something about confidentiality and the integrity of the study. They think that if we talk about it with other participants that we will compromise the fairness of each person’s trial and in turn jeopardize our chances of making it out of here.”
“What are you talking about?!”
“They did tell you that not everyone is going to make it out of here, right?”
“They told me that if I fail to pass the tests I will be terminated, is that what you mean?”
“Yes, but additionally they are aiming to terminate or at the very least keep some of us in custody after our trials are up.”
“Your entire profession revolves around violations of justice. How can any of this be legal?”
“To be honest, prison laws have always been shaky and the common population tends to overlook any violations because people believe that criminals aren’t deserving of human rights like the rest of them. And plus, they have strategically orchestrated this whole production to weave through loopholes and have covered their bases with almost every law firm in the state.”
“I don’t believe this. I need to know what trials you have done because that’s the only way to guarantee that we make it out of here. If we work together, we can survive this and report it to the government.”
“I really don’t think that would be wise of us. If we get caught, all of our triumphs would be for nothing and they could keep us here forever. We just need to be hyper-aware that a trial could come at any time.”
“I really think that we will benefit from—”
The bell rings and alerts us that lunch is over and Cox and I part ways as our cells are at different ends of the facility.
Harding calls me into the observation room through my intercom. Officer Adwell, or Farah as I guess I now know her first name, was sent to unlock my cell and retrieve me.
“Good job the other day, Daley.” She says as she leads me back to that same room that I am always dragged into.
“Thanks. Is he truly okay? It was so believable that I almost swore he died.”
“Yep. He’s fine.”
We walk another 500 feet in utter silence until Adwell gives me a look as if she has something she wants to tell me, but can’t decide if she wants to. I try to avoid eye-contact in an effort to diffuse the awkwardness, but the occasional glance back at her to see if her eyes are still on me accompanied with the meeting of our eyes each time as she, in fact, has not looked away, grows the tension each time. Finally, she comes closer to me and leans in towards my ear to whisper.
“You didn’t hear this from me, but—” she looks around frantically, just as Cox did earlier, to ensure that no one is watching. “You’re gonna want to deny the self-gratifying version of the offer you will be presented in this room. It’s going to be tempting, but you have to trust me, I know something you don’t.”
I have no response. I don’t know who or what to trust anymore after my last trial, and Adwell is the reason I’m here in the first place. How do I know that I should take her word on this when I don’t know her intentions? Still, once a seed like that is planted in your brain, it metamorphosizes and is nearly impossible to ignore. I just need to figure out her motivation for telling me. In what way could this benefit her? How am I supposed to discern allies from enemies, succor from deception?
We arrive at the observation room’s door, and Adwell hands me off to the two guards that await me. She vanishes into the side of the glass where, even though I can’t see her, I know she sits alongside a panel, studying me with her piercing blue eyes. Harding creaks open the door and walks past me, without a word, to the opposite end of the table. I am beyond nervous.
“Hello Mr. Daley.” He begins, as he always does. Holding up a piece of paper that he uses as a script, he begins. “You have been called here to receive an offer regarding your next trial.” Adwells words echo throughout my brain, alerting me to hear each word that Harding could say and analyze the potential tricks. “You are the only candidate selected for this offer because, as a result of your triumph in trial two, you are currently our highest-ranked subject. Your growth has been tremendous and your willingness to participate, although not entirely ideal, has improved. For trial three, I can tell you that I have an advantage that would almost certainly result in your passing of the test at hand. If you choose to hear it, you may listen to me and then you will be led back to your cell, where you will await said trial. However, if you choose not to accept the asset, you may instead grant it to someone of your choosing who is more in need of points than yourself.” If Adwell hadn’t disclosed to me what she did, I can assure you, I would reach for that golden ticket in an instant. However, if I have learned anything in this experience, it is that selfishness and immediate instincts almost always need to be thought through and confronted. “I must inform you though, that what we have told some of our new recruits but haven’t clued you in on is our most recent policy. After careful review, our supervisors found it best that not every participant in this experiment will leave our facility when we initially thought. With the risk of not obtaining enough data, only our top candidates will be released back to everyday life. The rest of our subjects will be researched further and kept in custody until further notice.”
I try to act surprised so I don’t reveal that Harley had told me that earlier, but I am cautious not to overdo it, and to keep a consistent reaction to the ones I have had since the beginning. An inaudible expression of surprise, or at least what I hope looks like surprise, takes shape across my face.
“So, what’ll it be?” He asks me, growing impatient. “Do you choose to have the advantage revealed to you or would you like to sacrifice it for someone else whose results are less proficient than yours so far to increase their chances of making it out?”
“Who’s results are ‘less proficient than mine’?” I ask, nearly mocking his tone of delivery. “Would I get a list?”
“That will be revealed should you choose to waive this opportunity.” He says.
We sit in more silence where I, again, must be careful with my reaction. I have been told that I have a very expressive face and that the positioning of my eyebrows alone can offer someone a direct glimpse into my thoughts. I pretend that I genuinely don’t know which choice to pick so that the very thought of Adwell granting me advice never crosses anyone’s mind. To be honest though, it’s not too hard to pretend. I truly don’t know which one to pick. Adwell could be cued in on this, testing my likelihood of accepting her unapproved aid for my self betterment. She could have an ulterior motive, like maybe there is someone that she knows in here, that she would rather see gain the advantage than me. I ultimately blurt out, with almost no control, the stupidest response. The words just flow off my tongue unbeknownst to my conscience.
“I’ll give it to someone else.” I say. Did I just do that? My chances of getting out of here were just sabotaged by my own decisions. Was Adwell telling the truth? She better have been.
“Very well.” Says Officer Harding as he takes off his readers and rubs them against his button up shirt to clean them. He looks extraordinarily shocked and nearly suspicious. He looks over at himself in the mirror, which I can’t decipher if he does to actually view his reflection or to look inside the glass towards the viewing party. The clicker he used my first day here to give that presentation rests below his hand on the table, and he slowly reaches for it before hitting the “power” button. A list of names longer than I could have fathomed floods the wall with the same font vaguely vibrating against the dirty wall due to the shaky projector. “You may choose from this list who you wish to grant your forgone advantage to.” I request to stand to get a closer look, and he nods.
I look at the list. Forty-three names. Forty-three innocent people incarcerated for a radical made-up trial. Forty-three families unaware of how to get their mothers, fathers, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends back. Forty-three people behind bars for uncommitted crimes. Forty-three people who all have lower scores than me. Forty-three people who are at risk of being kept here beyond the mere twelve day trial. Forty-three people at risk for “termination”, whatever that may mean. Potential death. Potential life-sentences. Forty-three first and last name combinations, which, although just letters and words taking shape on a wall, are all owned by real people, real human life. All people who had no idea why they were brought here. I don’t recognize any names besides Harley. I should give it to him. He would’ve chosen me if he were standing here, staring at these forty-three names. But I can’t help but be distracted by the forty-two other names out here. It would be selfish of me to choose my own friend without giving the other candidates a fair shot. It would be selfish of me to not choose Cox, a man who has been there with me through all of life’s challenges.
“Do I get to know how many points each of these people have?” I ask Harding.
“I’m afraid not. I am forbidden to disclose any information about our subjects to other subjects.”
“How long do I have to make my decision?”
“Take as long as you need, but know that you may not leave this room until you decide. We can’t have you mingling with the others discussing what we have offered you.”
I stare at the names for a little while longer. I am typically a decisive person. But through the past few days, I have been hung up on reaching conclusions like never before. I mean, it makes sense, my life is potentially on the line. Harding leaves the room for a little while, locking the door from the outside obviously. Throughout what feels like an hour of analysis of names I don't even know, he re-enters and exits, re-enters and exits, and then re-enters again. As he’s on his way out, I finally reach a decision.
“I would like to give the advantage to the person with the least amount of points.” I interject.
“They could use it the most. You don’t have to tell me who that is. Truly. I don’t need to know who, but that's the only way I can make a decision. Otherwise I’ll be here all night.”
“Thank you, Mr. Daley. He says. That will be all we need from you for now. Officer Adwell will return you to your cell.” She walks in, avoiding eye contact with both me and him. For someone trained in interrogation, she’s pretty terrible at being suspicious. We walk out of the room and towards my cell. We’re already halfway there in complete silence. The tension eats me alive.
“How did I do?” I ask. “I’m still pissed at myself for not taking the advantage, but I am hoping to God that your advice was truly for my best benefit.”
“What advice?” She says, avoiding eye contact with me. “We haven’t spoken since your second trial.”
I pick up on the hint, and nod my head. “I’m sorry, I must have been dreaming about that. I have not had explainable dreams since being here. They all feel so real and familiar, it’s hard to distinguish reality from them.”
We reach my cell and go our separate ways after she uncuffs my hands. She discreetly slips me her cuff key, and inaudibly mouths “don’t lose this”. As I watch through the bars as she walks away without another word, I stand in disbelief. Probably for two minutes. I turn and walk a whopping five paces back to my cot and lay down. I need to lie down.
I wake up to the sound of the ruffling of papers outside my door. A cop I don’t recognize is pasting the results from my third trial. That’s weird. I haven’t had a third trial.
“Excuse me, sir?!” I yell to try and get my sound underneath his earbuds. No response. “Sir!” He takes one out as he turns to face me. “Is this for me?” I ask, nodding to the page in his hand.
“I don’t know,” He looks at me as if he’s angry that I interrupted his creative process. “Just obeying orders. This is the cell I was told to go to. You are Mr. Daley, right?” I know that only Harding could’ve sent him if that’s how he addresses me.
“Yes?” I say, confused.
“Fine then. You just let me do my job and I’ll be on my way.” He pulls on the dangling cord and aggressively repositions his earbud into his left ear. As he walks away, I run to the cell door to get a view of this sheet. I haven’t had a third trial. What could this be?
Trial 3: Selflessness
Your behavior is gratifying. Defying temptation : +5. Thoughtfulness: +2. Sympathy: +5. Overall: SUCCESS
Was it the decision? Was it a conversation I had? What did I do that was tested? It’s getting more and more difficult to figure out what’s testing me and what isn’t. What is recorded and what is left unwritten. I am starting to panic. Sure, I got good results, but for what? When will the next test come? Am I being tested right now? Are they watching me? I scan the cell for cameras but the only one I see is on the wall above the bulletin board. The one that Adwell strategically faced away from when handing me the key. The deja-vu returns. This time though, I can’t recognize what feels familiar. This time, it’s not my environment. It’s not my food, my bed, or even my clothes. It’s internal. I have felt this ever-growing paranoia. I have felt these invisible eyes watching my every move. I have felt the uncertainty of trying to unmask who is friend and who isn’t. The inability to trust anyone. Then, I get a vision.
I see a flash of a man approaching me. I have a gun in hand.
Flash back to reality and I am sitting down. Hyperventilating. What is going on?! Where am I? Who was that man? Suddenly I’m hungry. Maybe I need to eat. It’s been a little while since I last did.
I am led to the Cafeteria and find Harley. Scarfing down our food like we haven’t eaten in days, there isn’t much room for conversation, but he interrupts our silence with a whisper.
“Hey. You won't believe this.” He does the obligatory look around, seeing if any guards are near. “I was sitting in my cell yesterday and one of the officers came up to my door. You know the bald one?”
“That's Harding” I say.
“How do you know his name?”
“Nametag. I have realized that’s pretty much the only way to gather someone’s name in here.”
“Alright, whatever. So ‘Harding’ comes up to my cell and I thought he was gonna take me for my next trial or whatever right?” He takes a massive bite of his sandwich and muffled, continues, “Instead, he comes inside and tells me that someone has granted me an advantage in my next trial.” No. NO. If Harley got the advantage that means—
“I don’t know who gave it to me,” He keeps whispering, increasingly louder the more excited he gets. “I haven’t even gotten the advantage yet. He said it will be given to me during the next trial. All I know is that I have one. Did you get one too?” He asks, hopeful.
“Yeah! I did,” I whisper back. I had to lie to him. He’s a smart man. I can’t have him wondering why he got one and not me. I am heart broken. “I didn’t wanna say anything because yesterday you wouldn’t stop b*tching about how we need to keep things confidential.” He laughs.
“I got a good feeling about us, Justin.” He smiles. “I think we’re gonna make it.”
“I do too, Harley. I really do.” I assure him through a fake smile. I am crushed.
The bell rings again and just like every other day, we go to our opposite corridors. I sit alone in my cell and almost start to cry thinking about Harley’s possible termination. I don’t get it. He’s a good person, how could he be doing so poorly in his trials? And even further, how can he have hope that he’s making it out of here if his results are that bad? Doesn’t he see his results on the bulletin? Then, out of the corner of my eye I see none other than Officer Adewell approaching my cell. I haven’t seen her since she handed me the…you know.
“Hi Justin,” she says to me like we’ve been friends for years, “take a walk with me.”
I’m sorry what? Did she just ask me that? Is this a trial? It’s definitely going to be a trial. She slides open my cell door and handcuffs me.
“You still have what I gave you, right?” She asks seriously and quietly.
“Alright, come with me.”
She leads me outside and we start walking. Passing guard after guard, she exudes confidence with each step and doesn’t waver in her path. No one asks any questions. When we get outside there are bags and a trash picker awaiting me. She uncuffs my hands.
“Take these.” She demands. She leans in closer and whispers, “We need to make this look like I’m punishing you, but I have some things to tell you.”
I don’t even know what to trust anymore. If trial 3 was the advantage decision, her advice paid off immensely. If not though, it could’ve led me astray. We begin walking along the perimeter of the facility and she trails behind me as I pick up trash. There’s surprisingly a lot.
“I know that you know about Harley being in the most need of points.” She says, looking around as she always does, her bright eyes scanning for snitches. “You need to be more careful about who you decide to converse with. My colleagues are growing suspicious of collusion.”
I feel a pit in my stomach. Am I about to be punished?
“Don’t worry. They still don’t have any evidence because I luckily was the unit on you today. But truly, it may be in your best interest to distance yourself from him.”
“Why are you helping me?” I ask. “How do I even know that I can believe you?” My skepticism from day 1 is creeping back in.
“Look. I wasn’t going to tell you this but I guess it’s the only way I can get you to trust me.”
The pit in my stomach is now a bowling ball.
“Officer Adwell,” I say. “Wha—”
“Please Justin, call me Farah. Unless other people are around.”
My confusion has quadrupled.
“I am one of you. I was not a good person in my past life, Daley, I really wasn’t. The only difference between me and all of you subjects is that I’ve known for as long as I can remember. I was a child getting weird war-time flashbacks that I truly couldn’t explain. When I tried to tell my parents they just thought I had a wild imagination. As I grew older, the flashbacks only got longer and clearer and I had to conceal who—”
Harding approaches us, furrowing an eyebrow. “See, Daley, this walk is good for you,” she assures me, quickly switching her tone.
“I didn’t know we were doing community service today, Adwell.”
“As I was walking past his cell today I saw him pacing back and forth like a mad man and he seemed like he was in need of some fresh air. I figured I might as well put him to use, so here we are.”
“Ah. Good idea. Keep up the good work Mr. Daley!” He smiles, nods, and walks away. That was unlike him.
We continue walking until she knows for sure that we’re out of hearing range.
“Anyways, I changed my name and decided to take on a new life, a third one if you will. I became interested in law enforcement pretty recently, and under my training I had heard about this concept of reincarnation training, and instantly knew what side I wanted to be on. I put in the hours and worked my way up the ladder super fast, and they put me on this case. You were my first find, so I feel like I owe you some help. We’ve got to look out for each other, because if this goes public, no one else will. I’m not gonna lie, I was a bad person in my past life. A bad, bad person Justin. And you were too. And so was everyone else in here. I just need you to stay on track because I see potential in you. If we work together to get you out of here we can bust the whole system for violating nearly every human right possible.”
I am dumbfounded. “Well if you are on the outside why don’t you just report it yourself”
“You think I haven’t thought about that every single day, every single time I pass one of your guys’ cells? The thing is, lawsuits kinda take a while, and the second someone catches wind of my plots against them, I’ll be out of here. I figured if I help you instead, we can get the numbers on our side to protect the rest of us.”
That’s a pretty good point. “Alright,” I say. “How are we going to save the rest of us, so that no one dies under conditions from a past life?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I need more information on the boss’s definition of ‘termination’. If it truly means death, I think that is enough ammunition to take this up with the National government.”
“Do you know when my next trial is? What it is? Was my last one the decision? If it was, thanks for your help. How does Cox not know he’s dead last? How does—”
“Woah woah. One question at a time please. Cox doesn’t know he’s last because no one else gets the reports you do. Those posted papers are just photocopies of Harding’s observatory notes. I make a copy every time he sends me to put his notebook away. That’s why I send random guards to post them for you, and only at night. They’re always gone by lunch.”
It’s starting to come together now. After picking up my last piece of trash just before sunset, we walk back into the facility. Once again, I am re-handcuffed and walked back to my cell.
What a day.
We are directed to the cafeteria for breakfast. When we get there though, the blocked off serving table indicates that we’re not going to be eating right now. I am starving. Officer Janson shuts down the murmurs and whispered conversation with his booming voice.
“Listen up!” He screams. I swear the roof lifted off the building for a second.
Harding walks up to the little makeshift stage that is in here for god knows what. He’s not super tall, so if he were to try and get the attention of all forty-four of us at ground level, he may not be successful. We’re all looking around at each other, the confusion across our faces signifies that no one is in the loop. I scan the room for Adwell, but can’t see her.
“Welcome, everyone,” Harding says with an uncomfortable smile. “Welcome to your next trial.”
Cox shuffles through the crowd toward my direction. I try to pretend I don’t see him, but his clumsiness is audible. I can’t shake Adwell’s words. I continue to ignore his unignorable presence. I can nearly feel his eyes on me. Uncontrollably, I look over at him. I have to. I feel so much sympathy for him and he doesn’t even know it.
“Please split yourselves into groups of eleven. If you cannot do this in an organized, timely fashion, we will select them by force.”
The crowd disperses into panic. Standing shoulder to shoulder, no one can find their colleagues, their families, or anyone to join their team. About two minutes later, Janson blows his whistle. That’s who he reminds me of! Coach McKnight from High School.
“Listen up! Single file line!”
We all scramble to get in a line, shoving people away, rushing to not stand out of the crowd, rushing to not be the last one in line. We file towards Harding, he separates us as we get closer. “Group one” he says pointing to someone going to one corner of the room. “Group two” he demands pointing at a new corner opposite of the previous one. “Group three” the next person in line walks to the designated area. Eventually, we are all assembled into our respective groups, eagerly waiting for our instructions.
“Please elect a leader or a spokesperson for each group,” He says calmly, “Again, if you do not make a timely decision, you will be selected at random by us.”
This time around, all of the groups elected a leader within moments. For our group, a man named James was our elected leader. I look over at groups 1, 3, and 4, and see that all the other leaders are women. James steps forward and says that he will represent us. As the four leaders are called to the center, Harding and Janson patrol the cafeteria and keep a close eye on the rest of us. I look over at Harley, in group 2, and see that his eyes are already on mine. He attempts to draw my attention to something but I can’t tell what. He looks up at the clock, back at me, and back up at the clock again. I see the digital numbers counting down, not up, and know that it’s a countdown to something. It’s such a subtle nuance, yet now I can’t unsee it. I look back at him with puzzled eyes, my irises asking his a question, but notice that he is now facing away from me, as if he’s trying not to look at me. I scan the room to find Adwell looking at me. She had just walked in and seems to have been watching Cox and my interaction. I can tell that he had looked away from me because he was afraid of her watching him tell me something, but he doesn’t know her intentions. He doesn’t know that she’s on our side. She looks like she has something to tell me, but we both know that we can’t. I catch Harley peering back at me out of the corner of his eye, checking to see if I am still looking at him, looking back at Adwell just the same. She is looking back at the countdown and I notice that nearly everyone else is as well. The elected leaders begin their return to their respective groups, and we all brace ourselves for whatever information they are about to present us with.
James approaches us masked with an expression that indicates he knows too much. I can tell he doesn’t want to disclose what he is about to tell us. He opens his mouth to speak solemnly.
“I have been informed that one of us—”
Glass shatters. Doors slam open and are busted down. Screaming chaos ensues. Radio signal static is blaring alongside muffled electronic orders. Men in bulletproof vests storm the facility. Helicopter engines rev from the outside. We are being saved. We are being saved!! It’s as if everything is happening in slow motion. I can’t feel my legs. I can’t see straight. I try to find Harley and Farah. The smoke and screams veil my line of vision and I am scrambling to find an exit.
“EVERYONE ON THE GROUND!” yells a man, although I can’t discern if it is Janson or a S.W.A.T. member. I don’t even know if these people are S.W.A.T. I thought Harding said that this organization was entirely legal and approved by the government. If they aren't S.W.A.T. though, who are they? I look around to see the vague silhouettes of my fellow detainees crouched in their own contracted shells of fear, placing their hands over their heads like they are in a 1950’s duck and cover drill. Mob-mentality pulls the strings of my body and I involuntarily do the same. With my head curled to my knees, I look around to try and get a clearer view. My body jolts to the rhythmic sounds of gunshots and am praying that they were fired in the air to achieve silence, not at someone.
“LISTEN CLOSELY,” he continues. I can almost hear the spit spewing from his mouth as his vocal chords beg for rest. “NO ONE IS LEAVING THIS BUILDING UNTIL OUR ORDERS ARE MET. EVERY ATTEMPT AT ESCAPE WILL BE MET WITH EQUITABLE PUNISHMENT OR OPEN FIRE. AM I CLEAR?!”
The silence after his question is louder than his previous screams. The rhetorical emphasis on that final question was undeniable, and anyone who dared to answer would have a better chance of survival making a run for it out the door. Seeing Harding in sheer terror on the ground tells me that he is in fact not in on this for once. The echoes of sirens and helicopter propellers grow louder as more and more law-enforcement vehicles come to our rescue. News stations swarm the building providing what I can only imagine is live footage to the public.
“I AM GOING TO CHECK YOU ALL ONE AT A TIME FOR BODILY OR MENTAL TRAUMAS, AND THEN THE INTERVIEW SESSION WILL COMMENCE.”
One by one, with no objections whatsoever, the officers who aren’t guarding the exits with Remington 870s survey our bodies and ask us two questions: a mere “How are you feeling?” followed by “Have you had a medical history of any sort of mental disorder, and do you feel that throughout this process you have developed a mental ailment?”. Harding said that they aren’t allowed to use physical force on us, yet the amount of my peers that reveal severe bruises and scratches shocks me. A forensic scientist travels from person to person, verifying the dates in which these pains had to have taken shape, and for nearly everyone, they were within their stay here. I can’t help but wonder why not me? I know that all of our trials were different, but how come I was left unscathed? Why did Farah choose to trust me with her plans?
One of the officers approaches me, asking the two questions, checking for any signs of abuse of torment. I tell him that I have been unharmed throughout this process and that I was informed that no one was to be harmed. I told him what Harding had told me, but before I get too in depth, he looks at me and tells me to stop talking. “That is enough. We will continue this conversation in phase two. Please try not to overshare until we are in private”, he says looking over at Harding who is watching our conversation with desperation in his eyes.
“PHASE ONE: COMPLETE” yells the same man as before. “Before we can release you all, we must individually interview you. One of the officers will lead you to a room where you will address me and a panel of others. You will be free to go after doing so. However, there will be no talking to each other before your interview, as we cannot have any form of collaboration or strategy on your end. Our guards will be responsible for maintaining silence while you wait, and will resort to force if necessary.”
I am humored by the incongruous nature of this whole situation. These people came to bust us out of here because we were being held against our will, but are doing so by continuing to hold us against our will.
One by one, people are being led to the conference room, and I’ve yet to see anyone return. That’s a good thing, right? By now, there are sixteen of us left in the cafeteria, plus Harding, Adwell, Janson, and the guards at the exits. Cox is sitting in an opposite corner to me, and hasn’t looked me in the eye since the storming. I stare at him in an effort to get his attention, to see how he’s doing, but nothing. A woman sitting facing the corner clutching her knees is called into her interview.
I look over at Adwell and see her scanning the room, looking for any clues she can find, just like she’s always doing. I study her expression as her eyes meander around the tables, down the floors, and around the ceiling; she has the same stoic stare—she hasn't found anything. It’s not until she scans the walls that her face flushes with urgency. Her lungs are rendered breathless, her eyes sightless. Another man is called into an interview. I can’t tell what she’s found. What could she have seen? I begin to look around the tables, down the floors, and around the ceiling. Nothing. I turn to the walls.
I see it. My breath shortens. The clock. It’s still counting down. Only now, there’s only three minutes and twenty four seconds left. It’s almost as if I’m in my first trial again, listening to the head of the owl mocking me with its staccato ticking. I can visualize the box that was impossible to open. I see that a few of us have started to notice the countdown. Including Harding. The only difference is I don’t know what it’s counting down to. We look at each other, equally afraid to speak, equally uncertain of what will become of us in what now is two minutes and fifty eight seconds. fifty seven. fifty six. I look over once more at Cox, only this time, he is actually looking back at me. We meet eyes, and I signal for him to find the clock the same way he did to me a few hours ago.
Harding is called into interviews next, which is strange because he is the first non-subject to be called while there are still fourteen of us left, sitting in this cafeteria awaiting our interviews and trying to crack what will happen to us in ninety nine seconds. I want to scream at everyone to look at the clock. I want to ask Farah what it’s counting down to. I have so many questions, but know that I can’t voice them. My eyes haven’t wavered from the countdown. How could they? As I watch the LED lights taking shape to form the numbers, I can still see both Harley and Farah looking at me out of my peripheral vision. The clock now reads one minute and thirty one seconds. Suddenly, she approaches me. Her footsteps, which are normally the volume of a mouse’s, are as loud as Janson’s. The metrical pacing of her feet is the loudest sound I’ve heard since the interviews started. She walks with a sort of confidence that her and I both know she doesn’t have; she’s trying to show the guards that she knows what she’s doing. Just before she reaches me, she is called into her interview. I can see her frantically trying to mouth something to me, and the other guards must have as well, because they yell at us and after she chooses to continue, a shot is fired in the air. She’s taken away.
I try to remember what she told me. I deplore myself for not hearing her warnings. I look at Cox, and he looks at me. For a moment, the mutual hopelessness and confusion in our minds are verbalized without words. My eyes are drawn back to the clock.