“The point of what?” asked Tom. God, was he dense.
“The point of what we’re doing here today, Tom,” I said.
“I’m here to get paid.
“Now that is brilliant,” said Adam.
“Maybe this is the real study,” I said.
“What is? The food?” asked Donna.
“What’s the real study?” Tom asked again.
“Tom,” I said, “do you find anything strange about your day so far?”
“Where do I start? You got this guy over here giving everybody nicknames and going on about the dumplings like he’s about to introduce them to his parents.”
“What do you think is going on here today?” I said.
“We’re taking a psychology test.”
“About memory. Aren’t we?”
“And have we taken any memory tests in the hour or so since we got here? No. Instead, we were told to wait here in a room where there’s an enormous feast laid out, and we’re told to eat as much as we want, and we’re not told anything else and haven’t seen or heard from anyone else since we got here. Right?”
“Yeah. So?” Tom was not impressed. “What difference does it make to me?”
“You should care.”
“You don’t care that you’re being manipulated?”
Talking to Tom, I was better able to understand the sorry state of the world.
“How can you not care?” I asked him.
“Give me a reason I should care. It’s really none of my business. I mean, they’re tricking us for a good reason, right? You said so yourself: they’re doing it so they can complete their work. If they told us we’re doing memory tests, and instead, it turns out to be something about food, so what? They wouldn’t be tricking us if it wasn’t for a good reason, right?”
I saw Donna and Adam nodding their heads. It is so frustrating to deal with ignorance.
“Well,” I said, “don’t be proud that you don’t even know what you’re doing here today.”
“Neither do you.”
“Yes, I do. Believe me, I do,” I said. “So, I’m curious, Tom, how you could invest so much of your time into something and not care enough about it to research or even question it.”
Donna walked over to us. “Let’s not argue about something we don’t know for sure.” Words of wisdom from the Donna Reed Show.
“Seriously,” said Adam. “This is turning into a downer.”
“Be quiet, Adam,” I snapped.
“Why’s Hunger Strike getting so upset?” Adam said.
“Stop calling me Hunger Strike. I’m not talking to you.” I turned to Tom. “Don’t you wonder what you’re doing and why?”
“And that’s OK with you?”
Tom’s face exploded into a grin, but his brow was arched. He spoke slowly. “Talk to me when you’ve worked for a company for twenty-one years and then get canned by phone, like you meant nothing to them, and then have to do this kind of shit for extra cash, at my age. Then realize there’s not a goddamn thing you can do about it, and see if you’ll care.”
“That’s no excuse.”
“Don’t get nasty,” Donna said to Tom.
“Who’s getting nasty? I just don’t appreciate being talked to like, like I don’t know what’s going on. I know what’s going on. I just don’t care, because I know it’s pointless. It’s pointless to care. Whatever’s gonna happen is gonna happen, and that’s the end of the story.
“You make a subtle point,” Adam teased.
“And I’ve had about enough of your mouth too.” Tom pointed a thick finger at Adam’s face. Things had gotten out of control, and it was my fault. Well, not my fault, but people misinterpreted what I was trying to say.
“Please, please,” I said. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be doing this. It’s not fair to the people conducting this study.”
“It isn’t,” said Donna. “That young doctor we met, in the beginning, may not even be a doctor yet. He may still be in school himself.”
“Who, Doctor X?” asked Adam, revealing his nickname.
“Now that’s a cool nickname,” I said. “Why couldn’t you give me a name like that.”
“Yours is cool too. You just don’t know it yet.”
I wanted to make peace, for the sake of the experiment. I apologized to Tom and asked him to forget about what I had said, to which he replied that he already had. I told him that I hadn’t eaten and was really hungry and a little grumpy.
“Aw, so we all still love each other?” said Adam.
“I shouldn’t have said any of it. Don’t listen to me. I was a little afraid this would happen, and I’m sorry.”
That was the worst thing I could’ve said. Adam and Donna exchanged glances.
“A little afraid what would happen?” Adam asked.
“Afraid you would be too smart for them?” asked Donna. “That you would figure it out and ruin the study? Is that what you meant?”
“You know, I’m a big dummy, but that’s my guess,” said Tom.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Yes, it is, said Adam who then cackled. “God, I may have to change your name to Ms. Know-It-All.”
I asked them to forget what I said, but it was like trying to put air back into a balloon that had popped.
“Wait a minute,” Adam said. “So, if not eating makes you really smart, then it follows logically that I must be really, really, really dumb.”
“No, it doesn’t,” I said.
“Oh, but you, the really smart person, figured everything out and didn’t eat, so that must make me, the guy who hasn’t stopped eating since Doctor X left the room — right, Tom, you’ve been keeping track, I haven’t stopped eating, have I?”
“Nope. You love those dumplings.”
“That must make me the dumbest person here,” Adam said.
“No, I think that’s still me,” Tom said. “And it can’t make Donna too bright either.”
I tried to apologize, but whatever I said they all misinterpreted as me being uppity. Adam was the most offended, which at the time made me think there was some underlying insecurity because he really went over the top.
“Well, I’m not dumb,” he said. “I’m actually pretty smart. When I’m not a lab rat in a psychological study or pretending I’ve been kicked in the nuts as a standardized patient, I teach the fabulously wealthy and musically hopeless how to destroy Bach on a Steinway. I would even go as far as to say that I’m smarter than you, Hunger Strike because I did something really brilliant: I ate because I was hungry. I’m so stupid that I actually ate because I was hungry. And why was I hungry? You’ll love this. It’s because I skipped breakfast and didn’t have much of a dinner last night because the ATM laughed in my face when I went to take out money.”
That statement opened an opportunity for me to make my case.
I said, “Well maybe that’s why you were chosen for this experiment. They probably needed people who would eat, and they knew you’d eat. They knew your occupation and that you’re someone who’d have the associated economic pressures. I’m a grad student. Most grad students are broke too. Maybe that’s why I’m here. Or Tom: he’s unemployed.”
“Yup,” said Tom. “The big unemployed dummy definitely has economic pressures.”
“Well I’m not broke, and I’m not doing this for the money,” said Donna.
Tom looked at her like she had two heads. “Why are you here if not for the money?”
“I thought it would be fun,” she replied.
“You thought this would be fun?” Adam exclaimed.
“I’m interested in psychology,” Donna said. “I thought it would be interesting, which is as close to fun as it gets for me.”
Adam threw back his head and laughed in a magnum opus of mockery.
“So are you having fun?” he said. “Because I can think of plenty of other things I’d rather be doing right now. But I’m here because I have to be. I’m here because they’re about to boot my car. I’m not doing this for fun; I’m not doing it because I’m interested in psychology, and I could give a rat’s ass about why we’re really here. I’ll do whatever they ask me to do. I’ll run inside a gigantic, fucking hamster wheel so long as I get paid at the end of it.”
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Tom said.
“I never said there was.”
“I agree with you. Don’t get defensive.”
“I’m not getting defensive.”
“Yes you are, and it’s my fault,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize to me,” he hissed. “Where do you get off pretending you know what’s going on in my life? You have the nerve to stand there and suggest you have some superior intellect because you’re too damn smart to eat a delicious feast they’ve given us for free. If that’s being smart —
Adam never finished the sentence. He doubled over and clutched his abdomen, then rose back to a standing position, inhaling breaths as if through a straw. He exhaled them in a raspy sort of way and then fell against Tom. I declared him dead minutes later.
Before the words “He’s dead” exited my mouth, Tom ran to the only door to the room and pounded on it like a man possessed. It was painful to watch, and I don’t know how he didn’t break both his hands. He screamed for help, but none came. We heard nothing from the outside, no acknowledgment of any kind. Tom walked back toward us to stop to ask Aqualung to help him through break through the door, and what he said next sent legitimate chills through my body. “This guy’s not breathing,” he said. We all thought Aqualung had been sleeping, and none of us were able to guess when he died, only that it had to be sometime before Adam. We made a much greater fuss over Adam than we did over Aqualung and it makes me ashamed.
Tom suddenly became very calm, and he spoke softly in a way that affected me more than when he had been screaming.
“What is going on here?” he said. “Where are the people running this thing?”
Donna paced about nervously with tears in her eyes and a voice that quavered. “Where could they have gone?” she said. She squeezed the tip of each finger of her right hand, starting from her thumb and going in order down to her pinky and back again. She did this several times — a nervous tick of some sort. “Would they really leave us unattended?”
“They wouldn’t,” said.
“Then where are they?” Tom asked calmly. He looked exhausted, and he massaged his right hand which must’ve been injured during his freak-out pounding on the door.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but they have to be watching us.”
“If they’re watching us, why aren’t they coming in here?” he said, which was an excellent question. It didn’t make sense that no one came in. None whatsoever.
“I don’t know,” I continued, “but I find it hard to believe they would be so negligent.”
“Doctors and scientists make mistakes all the time,” Donna said. “There is such a thing as negligence, you know.”
Tom walked toward us. “What if they’re not dead and just passed out? We should help them. Do either of you have any medical training?”
Donna and I shook our heads. Then Donna held up her finger, and then something truly wonderful happened. She looked at us and said, “Wasn’t that one of the questions on our screening?”
“What?” asked Tom.
“On those papers I signed. One of the things they asked was if I had any medical training. I thought that was odd.”
I remembered that question too, and I said so.
“There were so many weird questions on that thing, who can remember?” Tom said.
I laughed. “When you devastate your parents by not going to medical school, you remember a question like that.”
“Well I can’t remember if it was or if it wasn’t,” he said.
“It was,” said Donna. “I’m sure of it.”
I could barely contain my enthusiasm. I turned to Donna and said, “Do you think that question just became important?” It was something right out of a movie.
Tom started to walk toward Adam, and I told him not to bother. In his usually coarse way, he asked me why.
“Where are all the doctors, Tom? Do you really think they’d risk the liability of not coming to the aid of someone who passed out, much less died, in their lab?” As loudly as I could, I yelled, “Hey! We need some help in here! Two of your subjects are sick! He’ll probably sue you if you don’t come in here and help him right now!”
“They’re probably at lunch,” Tom said stupidly.
“They’re not at lunch, Tom. They’ve been watching us the whole time. They’re watching us right now, I guarantee it, and they don’t seem too concerned about Adam’s or Aqualung’s conditions.”
“How do three strangers deal with a crisis”? Donna said.
“Hold on,” said Tom. “You’re saying these guys are faking it?”
“She’s saying it’s a possibility,” Donna said.
Tom improvised a rant to tell us we were out of our “fucking” minds, peppered with rhetorical questions like, “Did you see the way the color drained from his fucking face?” and “Did you feel him fucking shake?”
“Then why aren’t the doctors coming in to help him?” I asked.
“You are really dense,” he said. “I just told you: they’re probably at lunch.”
“You don’t go to lunch in the middle of an experiment!”
“You do if you’re hungry!”
“Let’s not shout,” Donna pleaded.
“I have to shout to get it through her head.”
“Fine,” I said. “Help them.” I timed it so I cut Tom off just as he started to answer. “Oh wait, you can’t because you don’t have any medical training. None of us do. It might be difficult for people with no medical training to tell the difference between someone’s who’s really passed out and someone who’s faking it.
“They’re not faking it, you dumb broad. They’d be laughing their asses off right now.”
“Let’s lower the volume of our voices, please,” said Donna. “Either way it seems we’re in a bad situation. Let’s not make it worse by yelling at each other.”
“She’s the one who’s yelling. And you agree with her?”
“No, she said. “It’s a preference. If she’s right, that means the two men are fine, and we’ve found ourselves in the middle of a very strange experiment. But if you’re right, Tom, that means we’ve been locked in a room and are at the mercy of people who are grossly negligent and don’t care if we live or die. Given those two choices, I hope she’s right.
“I am,” I said.
“Just because I hope you’re right doesn’t mean I’m convinced you are,” she said. “You seem so sure of yourself. How can you be so sure?”
“It’s the only logical conclusion. Think about it. They told us to eat as much as we want. Then they locked us in with no way to tell the time or call for help. Then they disappeared. Now, this. Donna, we both thought the food might be part of the experiment, albeit in a different way. Why not Adam and Aqualung too? Adam was the one who was trying to get everyone to eat, especially me.”
“I think I ate more than he did,” Tom said.
“I don’t think that’s possible,” said Donna.
“He ate more often, but I think I had a bigger amount.” Then he added a bit defensively, “I’m a bigger guy.”
No argument there.
“Fine,” I said, “but he was like the cheerleader. He was raving about the food, going on and on about how delicious it was, trying to get everyone to eat. Wasn’t he trying to get me to eat?”
I tried to get Donna and Tom to admit that Adam was disproportionately concerned whether or not I ate, but they wouldn’t. As Tom put it, “He was a pain in the ass to everyone.”
Then Tom started to panic. He ran back to Adam and tried to find a pulse. Then he moved on to Aqualung. Then he asked either of us if we had a small mirror so he could check for breathing. Donna handed him a compact she had in her back pocket, and he hovered over them with the mirror, waiting for it to fog. After several minutes, he looked up at us.
“They’re dead,” he said. He sounded like he was on the verge of sobbing. “They’re not breathing. I may not be a trained medical person, but I know when someone’s not breathing. Dear Christ, why isn’t someone coming in here?” Then he began screaming for help again.
Donna began to cry.
“Stay calm,” I said.
“Calm? How can you be calm?” Tom yelled at me, cursed me. He didn’t want to listen to reason.
“There has to be an explanation,” I said. “This is a scientific study. Things can’t be what they seem right now.”
“Not what they seem?” yelled Tom. “Did I just imagine this fuckin’ guy dying right in front of me?” He pointed at Adam. “How are things not what they seem? Is he…what’s that guy? Lazarus? Is he gonna rise from the dead? If not, this exactly what it seems.”
“Please,” Donna said to me. “How can this not be what it seems?”
“It is what it seems,” Tom screamed. “Look at this poor guy!” Then he yelled at the ceiling. “You hear me! This guy’s dead! You better let us outta here!”
Tom stared down at Adam and then drew the sign of the cross on his forehead with his finger.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Giving him his last rights.”
“I think it’s too late for that,” Donna instructed.
“I don’t care.”
“Is he even a Christian?” I asked.
“That doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t care about your opinion anyway.”
I told him he could be doing something constructive instead, like trying to break down that door, but he said it was hopeless. I told him that we couldn’t fall to pieces and regress into childish rituals. This really offended Donna, and normally I’d be more diplomatic, but a crisis calls for straight talk.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I hate to see people following lessons mapped out in a Psych 101 class. It’s dehumanizing. You read about people acting a certain way during a crisis, and then they act that same way. Tom’s regressing; he’s falling back on religion when tragedy strikes.
“Many people find comfort in religion,” she said.
“Some find comfort in blowing up buildings too,” I replied.
Tom rose and walked toward us, Frankensteinian in gait, his thinning hair obeying some invisible energy that scattered it about his scalp.
“You want to know what I think?” he said. “I think those guys are drunk. Those guys in the lab coats? I think they went out and got loaded right after they left us here. They brought us here, went someplace to drink their asses off, and forgot all about us.”
“That’s absurd,” I said, almost laughing.
“It’s better than your theory.”
“They wouldn’t do that.”
“After what’s just happened,” said Donna to me. “How can you say what they would or wouldn’t do? You don’t even know who they are.”
“But I know what they are,” I said. “They’re scientists, and there’s a strict code of ethics involved with running experiments.”
“Listen to me,” said Tom. “I know it’s scary for you ladies to hear this, but it looks like we’ve been locked in a room by a bunch of fuckin’ wack-jobs.”
“Must you keep swearing?” she said.
“Swearing? You’re complaining about my fuckin’ swearing? A fuckin’ guy fuckin’ dies right the fuck in front of me, and you’re complaining about my swearing?”
Tom walked to the table and faced away from us. Donna went to him.
“I’m sorry, Tom. I didn’t mean to chastise you. I’m scared. You can swear as much as you want, OK? If that’s what you need to do, go right ahead.”
Tom wouldn’t look at her.
“Tom, I said I’m sorry. Would you please turn around?”
When Tom turned around, the look on his face raised the hair on my arms.
“I don’t feel so good,” he said. He doubled over and dropped his knees in front of Donna. He begged her to help him. She kept shouting his name, telling him to stay with her. He fell onto his back, and she held his hand.
“Do you want a glass of water?” said. Panic was the only thing left in her voice. “I’ll get you some water.” She ran to the table, poured a glass of water, and then stopped abruptly.
“What?” I asked. “What?”
She put the glass of water down and backed away from the table. She turned to me.
“Tom, Adam, and Aqualung ate the most food.”
Tom somehow managed to raise his head. He spoke, his voice feeble. “You’re saying we got food poisoning? This doesn’t feel like food poisoning.”
“Food poisoning would take longer,” she said.
“So what are you saying?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Tom’s bigger than the other two,” she said, “which would explain why they became ill first.”
This really made Tom scared. “What, are you saying they poisoned us?”
“Why would they poison us?”
“Donna, it’s impossible.”
Tom fought so hard to sit up but couldn’t. “Why would they do that?” he said. “Why would they want to poison us?”
Donna looked at me. “Not all of us.”
Tom stared at me, and his eyes became very wide.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” I yelled at him. “Donna, what are you trying to do?”
She looked at me; her head sat loosely on her head, and it shook. Her eyes no longer smiled, would not smile again. “You were the one who suggested one of us was in on it. I’m beginning to think you’re right, but it’s clear it wasn’t Adam or Aqualung.”
“So you think it’s me?”
“You’re the only one who didn’t eat.”
“I told you why I didn’t eat.”
“Why would you do that? What did I ever do to you?”
Those were Tom’s last words. He slipped away from us as we remained looking down at his shell. That, at least, was what we were meant to believe.