Room of Screens
In an abandoned industrial neighborhood on the south side of Boston, down a street where hardly a car was parked, Willie Silverman had an appointment. He was supposed to meet with someone he didn’t know, and that made him nervous. Especially considering the money he’d deposited in the bank earlier in the week, and what he’d had to do to get it.
Willie got out of the van and looked up the street, squinting through the newborn downpour. The rainstorm had been brewing for hours above the city, finally breaking open just as he’d pulled up. There was no umbrella in the car, but he wouldn’t park any closer.
He had three blocks to go in the downpour, a particularly dystopian stroll on this early fall day. Boarded up windows and doors, waist-high weed lawns bordering gutters for spent needles. No cars parked on the side of the road, or rolling through while he walked. This neighborhood, if a place without neighbors could still be called that, had moved on.
Willie crossed the street, stepping through puddles. A road crew had at some point come through and slapped asphalt into the wounded street, leaving a patchwork of unintended speed bumps. Nobody had returned to smooth them out. He couldn’t blame them—who wanted to get shot for tax dollars? For Willie, nothing less than cash up front would do.
Usually all the cash up front, not just half.
It was unfortunate he had to accept those terms but here he was. Not to mention this job made him do things beyond what he was comfortable with. He spent three days after the job resting to recover, wondering what had happened after he was out of the picture. All for five thousand dollars. Now here he was, walking into a meeting blind. Normally he’d never do it, but they’d promised another five grand just for showing up, and the thing was—
We’re scraping the barrel now, is the thing.
For the final two blocks, he thought about the depth of the shit he and his wife were in, letting rain pelt him in the face.
He came to a squat building near the back of a vacant lot. It was brick, painted a used-to-be-white, now peeling. This building had been described to him in the audio file they left for him—though even that description had been lacking, and now he understood why.
It was a square brown box of a building without any windows, each wall the length of a city bus. There was one door, painted the same color as the building, rust bubbling through in a pattern that reminded him of skin.
He turned the handle, but it didn’t go. Willie pounded a wet fist against the metal and waited, soaked and annoyed.
The door finally opened. A tall woman with glasses and wild black hair stood there, flinching at the rain. She nodded at Willie, then turned and motioned that he should step through. Willie stepped forward, slipping momentarily on a rubber-coated metal stair before regaining his balance and stepping nimbly down the rest.
At the bottom of the stairs there was a brightly lit room. In the center, four men sat around a pentagonal console the same harsh white as the rest of the room. Each side of the console housed a dark screen, a notebook, and a button. In all but one of the wedges sat a man. The woman who let Willie in, the one wearing the labcoat, bridged her fingers. She was smiling. The men sitting at the consoles stared up at him.
“I’m late, then,” Willie said, speaking to the woman. Her face stretched to allow for a wider smile, one with teeth. “Oh, not at all. Silverman, William. Come on in. You look just like your footage.”
Willie nodded, rankling behind his eyes. Footage? What was this? A sting? Blackmail? Either way, if there was footage of him abducting the kid, evidence that could put him away for good, that meant things had already gone very wrong. Still, there was the little matter of being paid the other half. He’d gone too far to cut his losses, even if everything felt sideways.
“Is there something wrong?” the scientist asked.
“Sorry, I just thought the meeting would be one-on-one, not...in the round.“
“We regret the information about the type of gathering couldn’t be provided. We are extremely excited to see you finally arrive, however, Mr. Silverman. You’ve been a long time coming. Please sit.” She motioned to the empty chair at the front of the console. “We’ve been keeping it warm for you.”
Willie took a step, sponging water onto the brushed metal floor. He glanced at the faces of the other men. They didn’t look happy to see him at all.
The scientist frowned, then went through a door to Willie’s right. She came out with a white towel, and not just a hand towel, either, but a full-fledged beach item.
Willie made the towel into a bucket then threw his head into it, scrubbing and shaking the water out of it. His hair was a dark puff above him. As he sat down, he sized up the two men on either side of him. The man on his left had a lean face and sideburns that drove up into a bush of dark curls. Regular build. The man on his right was bald, with two metal hooks hanging from his left brow. Tattoos, bare arms. Muscles.
Seated, Willie swiveled to face the woman in the coat. The towel was wrapped around his jeans now. She waited impatiently and Willie tried to crack his knuckles. They didn’t crack.
“Now,” the scientist said, “that we’re all here, I will address the job.”
“About time,” Tattoos said, staring at Willie.
“You were each contracted by my organization for a special, two-part assignment. The first part you’ve all completed.”
“First part? That was the whole job!” the man sitting across and to the left of him said. He was older, with silver hair and glasses. “I’m just here to collect. I never agreed to any part two.”
“We apologize that some of the details about the job couldn’t be disclosed at the outset. Regardless, there is a part two, and you are all here now. So we can disclose the other half of the puzzle. Very exciting. Part two—”
“This is bullshit.”
“Part two of your assignment is to observe an experiment and write down your observations. It will take at most an hour or two of your time, then you will each receive your money. That sounds reasonable to me, what about you?”
The scientist moved to the front of the room, where she grasped a dangling string and pulled, rolling down a large map with a sharp mechanical SQUEE. On the map was a diagram of a tall box, like ten or so bricks stacked upright, end to end. Willie might have assumed it was a skyscraper, except it was too narrow. There were no windows.
“This is an underground facility,” the scientist said. “It was built specifically for this experiment. The subjects, five of them, have been sedated and placed at each of the insertion points. You have each been assigned a subject, and your task will be to record their behavior.”
To the left of the side view was a top-down, or bottom-up, view. Like a floor plan to an apartment with no doors, only stairs leading up, down. Beneath that was a three-quarter view that showed a practical interpretation of the other drawings. It was too small to read in any detail. There were twenty-five, no—thirty, levels. Half-levels.
A death trap.
“What do they do? What are they thinking? Can you predict how they’ll act? Don’t worry about recording what they say or where they are. We have machines for that. You are here to observe.“
Willie understood that a room like this was a booby trap, an intentional and constant danger. The inner part of every level, what would in a normal building be an elevator or support column, there was nothing. That had been cut out. The thing was just one big elevator shaft with stairs built around it.
Willie tried to distinguish one single stair from the diagram, but couldn’t. The scale was too small. Pointing to several distinct points within the visual model were five red arrows and one green one. The green was unlabeled and pointed to a spot that seemed almost directly at the center of the diagram. The red were numbered 1-5 and pointed to locations that were distributed evenly among the levels.
The scientist yanked on the cord again, and the map sucked back up into the casing. She clapped her hands.
“Okay. The bunks are in the other room, the shower as well. Sleep when you must, but I would advise you to treat the observations seriously. If you have any questions, you may submit them to my staff and I in writing. Put them in the slot. If there are no further delays, I’ll start the experiment.”
She walked to a door at the side of the room and went through it, closing it behind her.
“I have a damn question now,” Tattoos said. “How long we gotta play this little experiment game till we get paid our other half?” But the door was closed. A moment later a slab of white steel came down and latched into the floor directly in front of it.
“I thought she said an hour or two.”
“Then why point out the shower and bunk beds? If we were going to be out of here that quick.”
“Good luck,” came her voice over the system of speakers. For half a moment Willie was tricked into the thinking the voice was in his head, but then he realized the speakers were most likely positioned throughout the space.
They waited for her voice to give them more, but “good luck” had been all.
Tattoos threw his hands in the air, started to say something about how he wasn’t used to being ignored, but he was interrupted. The screens came alive all at once. Willie stopped caring that his damp clothes were starting to itch, forgot his surprise and anger at being lied to and locked in.
In front of him, in his fifth of the console, was the image of a small round boy on his back, almost parallel between a wall and what looked like a ledge. Gee, Willie thought to himself, This kid is going to roll right off the edge.
At the other stations, other men were looking at screens just like he was, each showing a different child. He couldn’t see the other side of the terminal, but he could guess, because the boy in the video was the one he’d kidnapped. How had he rationalized it? The boy was harmful to society, and the people who were paying him were scientists, so maybe some good could come out of it? Now he was here, watching a boy in a jumpsuit sleep on concrete walls.
How long have they been here?
On the wall to his left, near the PA speaker, an array of the video feeds of each kid, each on its own liquid crystal display. There were five.
To Willie’s far left was the image of a girl with greasy hair and acne that bloomed on her face. She was pale and bezitted, her extra pounds stuffed softly into the same plain white jumpsuit it seemed all the specimens wore.
The screen to the right of that showed a boy with short blond hair. He was muscular, and his body was long on its platform. Willie spent less time looking at this image because he didn’t need to. It was the boy he saw on the screen in front of him, the boy he’d brought in.
The third image was another boy. His hair was jet black, and it grew in patches across his face and down his neck, like sideburns that had gotten lost.
The fourth screen showed a girl with freckles and strawberry red hair. Pretty.
The fifth was the boy that appeared on his screen. Short and fat with curly brown hair, seemingly younger than the others. His nose was turned upward; his nostrils stretched wide. Supine.
Willie already thought of him as Piggy.
He kept looking at the mosaic on the wall. The children (that’s what they were, none of them yet seventeen) were all positioned in the same way. They looked like fetal astronauts.
“Hoo-ee,” Tattoos exclaimed at once. “Tell you what, I’ve never been paid to write anything down before, and that was even when the going price was a penny.”
He locked eyes with Willie. “How about you? A penny for your thoughts?” He snorted.
Willie scanned the others; he didn’t like their eyes. Be careful, you’re outnumbered. This is a bucket of shit if you get singled out—these are mercenaries for real. This was an identity for them, not a last resort, not a get-out-of-debt-quick scheme. He only had one option, and that was to play dumb. Be agreeable, show you aren’t a threat and they’ll ignore you. Maybe you got a smart mouth, but maybe your head is a step or two behind. Maybe that was best. Who knew how long this experiment was going to last?
“A hundred thousand and you’re getting closer. What’s your name?”
“Call me...Harry,” said the bald man, and winked. The other three chuckled.
Willie smiled. “Willie.”
“So, I was asking what you thought. I thought I’d be hunting people when they showed me the contract. That’s what I’m good at. Not writing a storybook. You okay with what they got us doing here, Silverfish?”
“Sure, I mean. Money plays,” Willie said, trying not to bristle. “If it’s five thousand dollars to sit here and write about these kids, why not?”
Harry got up on his heels, paced around, taking on a grandiose appearance that was almost comical.
“It’s always been about more than money for me,” Harry said. “When you get a job, you’re not thinking about the envelope you get at the end, you’re thinking about the thrill of doing the job, the chase of a worthy opponent. The capture, the kill. It’s more than money.” The others were nodding. Harry looked around at all of them. “Which is why I won’t stand for being a pen jockey.”
“You gonna leave?” The guy to Harry’s right, the man with the earrings, spoke up for the first time. “I’m Frank, by the way.” He held out a hand. Harry ignored it.
“No, I’m not gonna leave, Frank. Franky-boy. I’m just not going to write. This,” he picked up the pen, “and this,” he picked up the paper, “can get fucked. Do any of you have fire? A lighter?”
“You gonna burn it?” Willie asked. Harry barely glanced in his direction. Good. Now back off the stupid a little, back off or he won’t be ignoring you later, he’ll be figuring a way to get you to do stuff for him.
The guy to Harry’s right, Sideburns, pulled a Zippo from his pocket and held it out.
Three seconds later the bald man’s paper was aflame, and he dropped it. It fluttered, smoldering, to the ground and made a black mark there. Harry snapped the pen in half and threw it on the charred spot. He held onto the Zippo, even though Sideburns was reaching for it.
“Why do you really think we’re here? Frank, Willie, Harry…” He pointed to himself then at the other two.
“Mark,” said the guy to Willie’s right.
“Gil,” said Sideburns. He reached for his lighter again, but Harry pulled away.
“Answer the question, Gil.”
“I don’t know, man. To watch these kids.” Harry gave his head a slight shake and put the lighter on Gil’s fifth of the console.
“Sure, sure. But why not some of that lady’s friends? More scientists? That’s what scientists do, right? Sit in rooms and write notes about experiments? Scientists, man. Not bounty hunters.“ He raised an eyebrow and waited for them to react to his profound observation.
Willie would have rolled his eyes if he could have—of course there was something off about this whole thing. He glanced at the wall again, seeing that none of the figures on the wall had moved. Were the screens showing static images? No, he saw breathing. Piggy’s was most obvious since his flabby chest puffed up more than the others.
“I guess it’s got to do with what the coat said. That we brought these kids in. Me, I got the ugly chick,” Gil said. He’d pocketed the lighter.
“And I got the beardy kid and his ginger girlfriend,” Harry said. “You got the blonde one,” he said, addressing Willie, “so that leaves two of you and only one kid left. Which one of you didn’t bring one in?”
Mark, the man to Willie’s right, raised a hand. “I didn’t. Not this time.”
“I could have told you that,” Frank said, “That fat kid wasn’t easy. Took two tranqs to get him down, then I almost broke myself putting him in the bed of my truck.”
Harry ignored him. He was looking at Mark, eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, this time?”
“Just that, none of the kids I brought in for these people are on those screens.”
“Yeah? Or maybe you’re a plant. Is that it? You some cop?”
Mark yawned. “Go fuck yourself.”
Harry stood up, his bald head turning pink. “What did you just say to me? Go fuck my-”
There was a hissing sound then, one they all seemed to recognize as the releasing of gas. There was a flurry of movement. Gil and Frank both lurched to their feet and were looking about for vents and pipes that they might plug.
“Stop,” Willie said, noticing on the wall that the mosaic of images was no longer so seemingly static.
“The gas is in the facility. They’re waking them up.” Mark, it seemed, had noticed the same thing. He hadn’t moved—his eyes were still locked on Harry, and Willie saw something in them.
Gil, Harry, and Frank all turned to watch the screens on the wall.
The kids were indeed waking up. They each did it in similar fashions, rolling over and reaching for their heads, pushing themselves to a position on hands and knees and pausing, perhaps to clear their heads from the effects of the drugs.
Willie turned to his monitor and picked up the pen by his notebook. He opened it to the first page and wrote a word at the top:
Then, considering, he drew an arrow to the right.
It was a long time before he felt he had anything notable to observe. He had an idea it didn’t matter.
“Christ, how weird,” Frank said. “Like rats in a maze. What happens when they find each other?”
“Lord of the Butterflies.” This from Harry.
“Flies,” Gil said. “And I don’t think much like that will happen—no firewood or jungle. No pigs.” Then he laughed.
Willie tried to crack his thumb. Just that one, but it didn’t crack. These men joked, but they didn’t know—couldn’t see what was going on here. All these kids, if they followed the model of the blonde boy he’d brought in, were criminals. Shaped by desires and anti-social behavior instead of morals. Bad kids who wouldn’t be missed by schools, friends, or parents.
Willie got up. He started walking to the living quarters.
“Going to have a shower and a change of clothes. Yell or something if anything interesting happens.” The other men had turned back to the screen, already losing interest in Willie.
“Yeah, sure,” Gil said.
Willie went through the door the scientist lady had retrieved the towel from. There were six bunks, stacked in twos. He threw his shirt on the bottom bunk furthest from the door, then pulled the rest of his clothes off. There was a door directly across from his bunk, and he pulled it open to find a big bathroom with a stainless steel sink, stainless steel mirrors, two prison-style toilets and two shower heads coming down from the ceiling.
Beneath the shower heads were drains, but no curtain, no dividers. The latest in comfort and privacy, he thought. What have I wrangled this time? He’d shower quickly, get dressed, then make some excuse to go to his van. Then he’d just drive away. Fuck the money. He’d made a living on his intuition, and the only other time he’d ignored it had gotten him thrown in the can.
Willie didn’t bother to worry about if the door was already locked. If that had happened, there wouldn’t be any running away. If that had happened, he’d already stepped off the cliff. The rest of it depended on a few unknown factors: how high was the cliff and was there anything soft to land on. You might come out all right if you got lucky, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that you were already falling.
Willie pulled one of the wall levers, and cold water came out of the tap. He waited about fifteen seconds with one hand in the stream to see if it would get any warmer, but that was wishful thinking. Come on down, folks! Cold showers, cold showers for everybody! He stepped in and closed his eyes.
He was outside again, with the rain pouring down on him. He rode his shivers and chattering teeth to a place of calm, a place of vibration that allowed him to center himself, to get as close as he could to peace. He relaxed each one of his muscles, starting with his little toe and moving up, nudghing himself back to the task when he drifted off. It was a common self-hypnosis technique. Self-actualizing visualization was another term he’d heard, but it was all the same thing.
Willie relaxed himself until he felt that he’d severed the mind-body connection, and that now they were two separate entities, his mind a balloon on a string, floating above a vast landscape of his physical volume. There were no stresses here, no aches or memories, only the blissful peace of being.
When the water ran out, it took almost a minute for Willie to notice. He blinked, then looked down at himself. His feet were dark the dark purple-blue of a tropical fish. They were numb, or asleep.
He was about to go for a towel, but then he noticed someone in the doorway. Gil stood there, twisting his sideburns and averting his eyes.
“We’re locked in here.”
I knew it. “I thought the lock was on the inside.”
“One of those big walls came down in front of it. We tried to move it, but...” Gil shrugged.
Under the bunks were long drawers packed with white jumpsuits. On the chests, to the right of the zipper, were nametags. G STUCKY, the first one read.
“That one’s mine,” Sideburns said. “Gil Stucky.”
“It’s yours? Did you know about these?”
Stucky looked at him. “No, but I can read. What’s your name? Silverman? Those should be yours.” He pointed to a pile of jumpsuits at the end of the drawer. W SILVERMAN. Between the two S’s, there was a M LOWENSTEIN, a F HANKERSON, and a H BLACKSHIRE.
“We get what, five jumpsuits each? How long are we supposed to sit in here doing God knows what?”
“Guess that depends on how many showers you plan on taking.” He winked. Willie clenched his teeth and inside where nobody could see, rolled his eyes. Wouldn’t want any of that annoyance trickle out, not now. Stucky wanted to make friends, see, and that was good.
“Not too many more. No hot water, and not a whole lot in here to get dirty with.”
Willie pulled a suit with his name on it from the drawer, then looked at Stucky amiably. “You mind? You already seen about two or three dates worth of my ass, probably.” The other man laughed, and held a hand up. Gee, mister, sorry. I got it. “See you in the war room.”
“Right.” He got into the thing. It was soft, and it was thin. Breathable, but in a way that suggested it kept just the right amount of heat in. How simple would it have been to give them all suits that didn’t keep them warm enough, or sweated them out? How long had they been planning this?
The war room, Willie thought as he walked into it, was an apt description. He’d seen movies – this was like NASA or something. Except instead of buttons to push they got pens and notepads, and instead of Ed Harris, they got Tattoos himself, Harry Blackshire. Three of the men were sitting down, watching their screens with varying levels of interest.
The guy who’d called himself Mark, the one Harry had fingered at least momentarily as a cop or a plant, had his knees up to his chin and was squinting, eyebrows furrowed, so they made the space between them and just above his nose bulge out like a stubbly peanut.
Harry was pacing, not even bothering with the screens. He was doing laps in front of where the door to the outside used to be. Willie walked over, pretending to appreciate the white wall as a superior piece of tech. He gave a low whistle. Harry, sensing he had an audience, began to mutter.
“Had to lock us in once they figured out we weren’t going to stay. Bastard came up right when I was about to lead a march. I said we didn’t need this bullshit, that we didn’t need any of it. I got jobs waiting that’ll pay more than this stupid expeeeeriment.” He looked over at Willie and raised an eyebrow. “What the hell you got on, soldier?”
“We’re gonna go out through the big TV, Harry. Wonkavision,” Willie said, then forced himself to laugh like he was half gone on acid.
Harry looked like he was afraid of being contaminated with stupid. He took a step back, and Willie wandered toward the console, grinning. He stopped grinning when he saw that Piggy had found the ugly girl, and they were both standing in front of some box.
“Who’s watching the...less pretty one?”
“I call her Rhonda,” Frank said. “Reminds me of my first wife. I wasn’t one to show her off around town, but she got prettier when the lights went out. Feisty, too.”
“Gross. How long have she and the…big kid been together?”
“The words you’re looking for are ugly and fat, and it’s been about five minutes now. They were the two closest to the middle of the column, you see. Only about eight levels between them. Where they are now, that’s where the blue arrow was on the map. Where the box is.”
On the wall, two of the screens were the same. Piggy and Rhonda, regarding each other. Mouths moving.
“Why can’t I hear them?”
Frank pointed to his ear. There was a white plastic bud in it.
“There should be one attached to the monitor. Put it in your ear, the microphone for your kid and the earpiece are connected. Must be in their jumpsuit somewhere, but I haven’t been able to see anything. Probably real small so they don’t notice.”
Willie sat down. Just under the bottom right of his monitor was a little black tray with the headphones symbol stamped into it. He slid the tray out. The earpiece went in his ear. Immediately he began to hear them.
“…so I just followed the smell. I’m not too good at making decisions.” This was Rhonda. On his screen, the girl waited for Piggy to respond.
“I want to open it. Do you have anything to smash it with? Of course you don’t. You’re useless. Look and see if there’s some button.”
Rhonda eyed him and crouched down to the box. Willie leaned forward, trying to get a better look as well. It was a white box, white like the stairs, like the jumpsuits, like the room of screens. On it’s front, the side that faced the children, was a small hole, about the size of a billiard ball.
“What do you think goes in there?” Piggy asked. The girl didn’t answer him. “Or comes out of it? I’ve never seen a vending machine with only one hole.” Then he laughed. His voice was high and squeaky, and his laugh was like that cartoon woodpecker’s. Woody. “Put your hand in it,” he said.
“I don’t wanna. What if it bites me?”
“It’s a box, you stupid. It’s not gonna bite.”
“You do it.”
Piggy looked around, then the corners of his mouth started to twitch. “Listen, Betty-Boo, you’re gonna put your arm up that hole or I’m gonna kick you in the mouth. You’re down there and I’m up here and you should wish to God I don’t because I’m the kicker on my school’s football team.”
Willie picked up his pen. Controlling personality, enjoys the upper hand. Bad at nicknames. Probably not on any football team.
Rhonda’s lip quivered. She looked from Piggy’s face back to the hole, then stretched her hand out. She put it in.
“It’s warm in there. But there’s nothing...it’s just a tube.”
She rolled up the sleeve of her jumpsuit with her other hand and stretched. Pretty soon she was in up to her elbow.
“There still isn’t anything. It’s emp-” she stopped. Her eyes got wide. “Oh.”
“What?” Piggy crouched, and his nostrils had started to flare rapidly. He licked his lips. “Oh, yeah, I can smell it. Bring it out.”
“Give it to me!” He pantomimed a place-kicker’s wind-up and follow-through. “That’s your head, Betty-Boo. It’s up, and it’s goooood.”
“Not too fond of your boy, Willie.” Frank was picking his teeth. “I think Rhonda has a right to whatever it is she’s got ahold of.”
“Not my boy, Frank. You brought him.”
“Yeah...” The other man whistled and slid his eyes to the left.
On the screen, Rhonda was pulling her arm from the hole in the box. She held up a dark brown ball.
“What the fuck is that, Willie?” Frank said, but Willie said nothing until Piggy snatched the ball from the girl’s fingers and took a bite out of it.
“Only one thing you’d eat like that if you weren’t hungry.”
“I’d have to say so.”
“They’ve got a machine feeding them chocolate balls.”
“At least one.” Willie didn’t clarify if he meant one ball, one machine, or one person getting fed. It didn’t matter. The girl stood up and put her hands on her hips. She was taller than Piggy now, but only by an inch or so, and she didn’t have the mass to worry him. The fat boy gnawed at the chocolate ball, and after about a minute it was small enough to pop into his mouth. His cheeks bulged, and dark brown drool made it down his lips. He grinned devilishly at Rhonda, and her eyes were beady with murder.
“The best I’ve ever tasted,” Piggy said and stuck his dark tongue out at her. “You can lick it if you want. Leftovers, you know.”
In the War Room, Gil looked up from his screen at Willie and Frank. “Here he comes. My guy.”
“You’re gross,” Rhonda said, turning around. As she did, the blonde boy jumped down the eight stairs that separated the half-level above. He was quiet, landing with a softness that suggested he was much stronger than he looked.
Willie knew all about it.
The blonde boy took in the scene from a crouch, eyes darting from Piggy to Rhonda to inside the box. Then back to Piggy, with brown lines of drying chocolate on his chin.
Blondie leapt up, and in one catlike motion took Piggy’s legs out from under him and dropped the fat boy to the ground. Rhonda stood back, arms crossed. Willie had a good idea of what she was thinking: here’s the police, come to set things straight. Here’s a man who knows right from wrong. But her satisfaction soon soured.
“Where’d you get it. The box? That thing give you the chocolate?”
Piggy nodded emphatically, his eyes bulging. Willie thought he might be choking. Throat laden with the dark material, airways blocked up, and that sudden change of up and down couldn’t have helped any. But the boy was merely suffering from a vice-grip on his trachea. Which loosened when he started trying to blab.
“She,” he croaked, pointing, “She got it for me.”
The blonde boy let go of Piggy. The fat boy dropped to the floor, one hand at his throat, the other at his chest. While the blonde boy ordered the girl to get on her knees again and shove her arm up the hole, Piggy took a finger and licked the chocolate off his chin and put it in his mouth. Willie watched.
He watched, and he wrote. “Exhibits antisocial behavior. Selfish. Blonde boy is alpha male; Piggy won’t challenge him.”
Inside, where he’d been justifying to himself that what he was doing was just a job, something began to bang against his spine. The blonde boy was the reason for that. He’d brought him. He’d put him here. Willie Silverman was the reason Rhonda was on her knees again, was fishing another of the coveted treats from the box. It would be her second, and she wouldn’t be able to taste this one either. Not that Willie felt particularly sorry for her or any of them. They were all bad, all the kids. Still, injustice was injustice, whether it happened to someone innocent or someone guilty. Moreover, this injustice was his fault.
This time the girl gave the chocolate up willingly, handing it to the blonde boy. She looked at the newcomer like he was a god, like she was already in love. The blonde boy didn’t eat the ball. He sniffed it, gave it a swift lick, then stuffed it in his jumpsuit. It would melt, Willie thought, but maybe that wasn’t the point at all. Maybe it was just that he had something the others wanted, or that he’d deprived them of it.
Piggy had gotten back to his feet, slowly and carefully. He didn’t look mad, just thoughtful. He seemed to be building a grin somewhere behind his blank facade. Willie waited for a laugh, for the kind of idiotic show of fealty he’d expect right about now, but none came.
“Fucking kid’s plotting already.” He said this to himself, and none of the console men heard. The voice that answered him wasn’t any of theirs, and it wasn’t in his earphone.
“Damn right I am. Gotta start somewhere.” Behind him. Harry.
After almost forty minutes of pacing and regarding the blocked door, Harry sat back down. This relieved Willie greatly because he wasn’t in the habit of turning his back on potential threats. The bald man was back in front of his console, where Willie could keep an eye on him. He supposed he had the scientist to thank since the only chairs in the whole place were the ones she and her fellow baby monitors were sitting in.
The dark-haired boy and his girlfriend had finally wandered up to the box, and the other three. He held her hand, and she let him pull her along because that was probably what she was used to. They were introduced to Blondie and Rhonda and Piggy, and to the box, and that was where they’d all gathered, what they all sat around rubbing their hands together as though it made fire as well as chocolate. And chocolate was what it had stopped making. Rhonda’s arm had only been good for three balls of the dark brown stuff before it stopped coming, and all of them tried it but only the strawberry-haired girl’s arm was skinny enough to get in past the elbow. She looked at Rhonda while she did it, and the ugly girl was grinning cruelly. It was as if she didn’t understand the difference—
“Was there anything special you did? A button you pressed in here? A lever?”
“What kind of special thing is there to do to a tube, slag? I just stuck my arm up there and waited for that thing to lay its egg.” “Shut up!” the girl said to Rhonda, then to the boys, “It’s not working. She must have gotten them all.”
“Or it’s on a timer,” the dark-haired boy said. Blondie, who had been watching the attractive redhead squirm on the floor, regarded the newcomer with cold eyes but nodded. “Could be. But it’s just chocolate. We can’t live off that. You ask me, we’re wasting our time messing with the box.”
On Willie’s screen, Piggy stopped picking his nose.
“What should we do instead?” Playing dumb, just like me.
Blondie raised both of his arms. “Figure out how to get the hell out of here. I sure didn’t ask to wake up in some weird building with a bunch of idiots. Someone’s messing with us, and I don’t let that sort of thing stand. I’m going up top, back to where I woke up, to look for an exit. Any of you want to come?”
None of them moved. Then, the dark-haired boy stepped forward.
“Let’s go then. I don’t like it in here any more than anyone else. Besides, if there’s no more chocolate...”
To his right, Willie heard a tut-tutting and looked up. Mark, the guy who’d told Harry to go fuck himself. M LOWENSTEIN. “Bad move, Raggedy Andy. That boy’s going to do something bad.”
“Sure is something, isn’t he?” Gil asked, and winked. “Glad I didn’t have to bring him in. He might have got me instead.” He looked at Willie. “What was it like, man? Catch of the year. How do you feel?”
“Like they suckered me a good one.” He forced himself to laugh and got up from his chair. He didn’t open his mouth about the kid, didn’t make up a story to satisfy anyone’s curiosity.
He’d been so desperate. Now this job, this trap. The kid hadn’t mattered in the face of his downward plunge, the blonde kid who’d almost killed him in the chase, who Willie had painstakingly kept alive (it had been a very narrow margin, that), who he’d brought in and been paid with money he might never be able to spend, depending on how things went here. So he said nothing, rested his chin on the palm of his hand and stood, watching the wall.
A minute later the three of the men who’d remained around the console were standing too—in a line in front of the wall projections, squinting at the two identical screens: The blonde and curly-haired boys. The blonde had his arm around the other boy’s shoulder and was regaling him with stories of his street smarts. His other hand, they could all see, was balled into a fist. Harry was still pacing, but he wandered over when Gil sounded the alarm.
“Count it on your toes, Mark. Your boy’s got less than one little piggy to live.” Gil laughed, and Mark said nothing.
“But here’s the thing, buddy. I like you, a lot. On the outside, you and I would be best friends. Loyal and honest right down till the end, no backstabbing, no doing each others’ girlfriends, you know. None of that.”
Raggedy Andy looked up at Blondie. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. Like I said, on the outside it might work out like that. In here...”
The fist shot out, and Andy’s head snapped to the side. He went reeling backward and stepped right off the staircase and into the hollow center, where gravity sucked him down.
The boy’s screen image flickered as the feed was switched to each new camera – to Willie it was like watching a flipbook of a boy undulating in a gravity loop. Ten or so levels below, Andy’s right leg was torn clean off as he twisted into a stairway. He screamed until his head made a red smudge on another stairway another six or so levels below that (one that made Willie think of the tips of his fingers when he ate raspberries), then his limp body whiffled and thunked past the box and its chocolate balls and the bewildered animals it fed.
The children watched the body drop out of sight, and while the girls’ faces were expressionless, Piggy nodded appreciatively. Willie, unsure of what else to do, noted this on his pad.
Impressed with the death, or with the killing?
Raggedy Andy’s screen was no longer being projected on the wall.
“Holy fuck.” Gil’s eyes were glittering. “Did we all just watch that?”
Nobody said a thing, except for Harry, who echoed what Willie was thinking more and more. “They locked us in here so we would have to watch them all die.”
They turned toward him, expecting the wonder in the bald man’s voice to lead into a monolog that would inspire fear or awe in them because that’s what a leader would do. But Harry was just Harry, and he said, “I’m starving over here, men. Let’s find some food.”
It made the most sense out of anything he’d said so far.
What they found, after an increasingly frustrating fifteen-minute search, could not exactly be called food. Willie supposed it was edible, after a fashion, but that didn’t seem to be the point. The point was that they were being fucked with.
At the end of the shower room, just beyond where the last metal umbrella had chilled Willie numb, was a small door about six feet tall and a foot wide. It had a handle you couldn’t make out right away because it was stainless steel like everything else and just a pull-tab sort of job. Behind the door, and they’d taken turns looking since the opening was so narrow, was a pneumatic tube and a button to push, just like at a bank drive-through. The tube was open at the bottom and curved toward them like the bottom of a hockey stick.
“I tried to stop him, but he was too quick,” a faint voice said in his ear. “He said he couldn’t stand it in here, being closed in like this. He had to get out. After that...”
“Do any of you have an objection to me pushing the button?” Harry said. Mark, Gil, Frank and Willie shook their heads. No objections. In his earpiece, Blondie finished his explanation: “Then he jumped. Just like that.” A girl was sobbing, probably Strawberry Fields Forever, and Piggy said something so low only Willie could hear.
“Yeah, I scream when I kill myself too.”
Harry pushed the button, and stood there, arms crossed, waiting with an impatience that begged to be repaid. A rush of air preceded the package, and Harry stepped back, but not enough. The glass jar FUMPed from the tube with a healthy amount of momentum, and struck the bald man in the right thigh, eliciting an equally healthy scream.
“Gaaaaaaaaauughfuckmotherfuck oh you bitch!” The jar spanged to the ground and spun harmlessly toward the opposite end of the room. Gil sprinted over to pick it up.
“Careful, retard. You don’t know where that’s been,” Frank said, and Harry clutched himself, squinting up at Willie through tears. “Fucker just about broke my leg, man.” Willie nodded and tried to look sympathetic. “You’ll be all right.”
The other three men gathered around the jar.
“Some big joke, huh?” Gil.
“They’re feeding us goober?” Frank.
“Did you find an exit while you were up there?” Piggy.
“After he jumped, I was in shock. Sorry, I forgot about looking.” Blondie.
“At least...at least...you tried. Thank you for that.” Strawberry Fields.
“What the fuck is...goober? God_damn_ that hurts.” Harry.
“Peanut butter and jelly. Swirled together in a jar.” Willie.
“Only this jar don’t seem to have a lid.” Frank.
“It’s got two bottoms. Glass, all the way around.” Gil.
Mark was the only one of them smiling. He turned to Harry, who was still doubled over in front of the little door. “Hey Harold, why don’t you press that button again and see if a loaf of bread flies out?”
Harry raised a meaty middle digit and waggled it. “Yeah, or a gun. A gun would be nice. I’d end you right here, Lowenstein. Give your brains something useful to do; like paint a wall.”
Willie’s eyebrows went up. If he’d brought his pad along, he would have scribbled:
Observations —-> Harry: Skinhead
Mark stopped smiling. He frowned, then backed away, gauging the zeal in Harry’s eyes. What he saw must have been enough, because he turned and left the shower room without any response.
“Cold-blooded, man,” Gil said and whistled.
“Yeah? Maybe. But to those white-coats, we’re all the same. Evil men, evil deeds. They locked you in here with me, remember?”
“I remember.” There was an edge in Gil’s voice now, and Willie saw a bit of what Harry had been pointing out. Evil man, evil deeds. Willie felt a pang of something go through him. Fear, maybe. These weren’t his friends.
The hours dragged on, and by and by the others started bunking up. The children were safe for the time being, huddled around the box. Blondie had his arm around Strawberry Fields, and Piggy watched. Rhonda had gone to sleep, shallow mouth-breathing becoming a snore as she lay sprawled across the platform.
The light in the house of stairs was still on, still as bright and fluorescent white that Willie’s eyes burned as he watched. There was no light switch in the bunk room, but the guys had rolled fabric from their jumpsuits around their knuckles and smashed at the thick bulbs until they’d busted. Sleep would be easier in the dark, but the bulb-busting also gave anyone with the desire a legitimate ambush site – he hadn’t forgotten his situation or his company.
Willie was the only one left at the console, and he let himself stay that way for forty minutes before he stood up, stretching. His colleagues should be asleep by now. On screen, Blondie and Strawberry Fields had fallen asleep in each others’ arms. Piggy was awake. A moment after Willie stood up, so did Piggy. He stepped over the sleeping Rhonda, past the other two, and began to climb stairs.
“It’s about time you got some exercise,” Willie said. He would have been more interested in the boy’s actions, but he was tired. Unusually so; anxiety had been creeping in more and more as the day went on. He didn’t care why Piggy was going up. He reached for the earphone and heard someone say his name.
For a second he thought it was Piggy, speaking to him, even though the fat boy should have no idea that he existed. But the voice had come from behind him, near the bunks. He turned. Standing in the shadow of the darkened room was Mark. He stepped into the light, and Willie saw right away that there was a black piece of metal in his hand.
Willie dropped, pivoting to the left and trying to get his body around to the other side of the console, so he’d have something between him and the bullet when it came. Forget that he was already dead no matter where he moved, because there was nowhere to hide in the room of screens.
His heart was loud in his throat, and he counted off seconds and listened. No bullet came. No footsteps.
“Willie. I’m not going to shoot you.”
“Of course not,” Willie said from his crouch, “I don’t know why the thought entered my head.”
“The gun is what I want to talk to you about.”
“I’d like to talk to you about it.”
Mark strolled around the console and sat on the floor beside him. He held the gun in both hands like it was a bird that had crashed into a window and broken its neck. It was small and black, its barrel leaning forward, its grip punctuated with ridges. Willie recognized it – a Firestorm .22 caliber pistol. Ten rounds per magazine, eleven if you preloaded the chamber. He’d never had a handgun himself. They made things too easy, and too easy to fuck up. He was better at what he did with shotgun loaded with birdshot and a knife than most others were with the full spectrum of power tools.
“This was under my pillow,” Mark said.
Mark nodded, frowning. “Cocked. Safety off. I put my hands under there and caressed the trigger. Almost blew my head off.”
Mark shook his head, and his voice went even lower.
“I thought of that, but the idea of putting a loaded gun with the safety off under someone’s pillow and expecting them to friendly fire themselves is just...stupid. So if someone wasn’t trying to kill me...” He looked at Willie, eyebrows raised.
“Someone wants you to have it.”
“Someone is either very mean or very stupid. Having a gun doesn’t help me. If the others find out...I’ll have some explaining to do. No guns. It’s in the contract.”
“Why are you telling me?”
“I don’t know. You’re still up. You’re not him.”
“Mmm.” Was there more to it? You wouldn’t tell your secrets to the town idiot, would you? Unless you thought he might be the only one who could help you. Then it clicked.
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“Well, the way I see it...I didn’t bring a kid. I don’t have a reason to be here. If they go through my stuff, find the gun – I’d give it up, I don’t want just anyone to have it because bad things could go on. I thought you could take it.”
“You want me to take the gun?”
“Yeah, you have it.”
“You better keep it. You might need it.” Mark looked at him for a long time, and Willie looked back. Finally, Willie got up and walked into the bunk room, leaving Mark alone on the floor with the gun. It was a decision he’d come to regret, because who knew how much trouble he could have saved himself had he had a gun in the end. As it was, he was too tired to care.
The next morning Mark and the gun were gone, and the box was feeding the children balls of raw meat instead of chocolate. It gave much more this time, not stopping at three or even four, not seeming to stop at all. It sent a soggy sphere of bloody processed muscle down the chute each time they offered at the hole, and Willie couldn’t understand why they kept doing it.
There were piles of meat.
Blondie looked dismayed, but only slightly. His economy of scarcity would be foiled if the box just gave and gave, although what prize was raw, ground meat? Before long they were throwing it—at walls, down the shaft where Raggedy Andy’s body still lay in a heap, at each other. Rhonda seemed most excited about this new game; Strawberry Fields was predictably least.
The meat play colored their white jumpsuits a cheerful dark red. Piggy, out of sight of the others, (he said he had to pee and descended several levels) crouched in a corner and stuffed two of the balls in his mouth. He chewed slowly, with a workmanlike fortitude that Willie could admire. Down here this kid didn’t have to be stupid – down here, Piggy could be a genius. Whatever he was planning, all Willie heard in his earpiece was the meat as the boy chewed.
Willie recorded it.
Gets his vitamins and minerals
“They’re like monkeys, really,” Frank said. “Monkeys I’d be more interested in if I knew where that guy who said he did this before went.”
The discovery that Mark was gone was met with only mild surprise, and Willie had been the only one to know of the gun, so that never even entered any discussion. Gil ribbed Harry as they milled about the shower room in the morning, struggling to wake up, joking that the bald man had something to do with their newly-trimmed number. Harry had simply looked out toward the console and white slab of metal covering the door beyond.
“Figured a way out and didn’t bother telling us. Probably just a big middle finger at me, for giving him a hard time.”
They’d checked it all, the doors, the locks, the slabs. All sound. In a place where it seemed nothing could happen without their noticing, a man had gone missing. A man with a gun. Willie thought there was a chance Mark had left that particular thing behind, hidden it somewhere. If so, could he find it before the rest of them?
Only a few hours after he thought this, he saw the gun again.
The three remaining men and Willie sat around the console, the novelty of conversation long dead. The jar of Goober had been smashed and they’d all taken turns scooping it into their mouths without a word. Willie ignored the jelly, forcing down peanut butter instead. He had a suspicion that if they went back to the little door in the shower room, it would spit jars of meat swirled with potatoes or something equally bizarre. But they hadn’t gone back, and that was all right with him.
Once they’d eaten Willie tried the chute again. Another jar of Goober shot out, and stood spinning. He pressed it again, but no more came out. Just like last time. He left the new jar of Goober on his bunk and returned to the room of screens.
The children in the screens had left the box in favor of exploring to the top level, where Blondie told them he’d hidden a ball of chocolate he would divide amongst them. They climbed the stairs slowly, and even their lithe leader and resident murderer seemed to be suffering the ill effects of the confined spaces and unfaltering fluorescence that the house of stairs afforded. Their dark red jumpsuits became a crusty ocher.
Then, as those in each captive group finally resigned themselves to the realities of their own individual Hells, the rules changed.
Raggedy Andy’s screen came back on, and so was solved The Mystery of Mark and the Missing Gun.
He was on the bottom level, stepping over the dead boy’s body in mock horror, arms and legs stuttering badly as he moved. Willie stood up, his mouth a dark hole. On the wall, Mark was a walking epileptic seizure, then a climbing one as he graduated to the stairs.
“Good Christ,” Frank said, “What have they got him on? PCP?”
“He’s got a gun too,” Harry said. They watched Mark struggle up the stairs, stopping every now and then to stare with buggy eyes at a camera. There was no doubt he was hallucinating.
“Holy shit,” Willie said, to himself or everyone. “This is all the same experiment.” Something in him dropped, like an elevator with a detached counterbalance. He’d been viewing this as two separate situations – two experiments, running side-by-side. The rats in the maze, and the cats in the cage watching the rats run. But now...
“Oh fuck,” Gil said. “They’re going to take us and put us in there with them, aren’t they? One by one, and we’re going to be tripping balls and defenseless. That’s what’s going to happen, isn’t it?”
On the screen, it appeared Mark had begun to sing.
Later, after Blondie put the bullet in Mark’s head, the box spit out a book of matches.
“What’s it for?” Strawberry Fields asked.
“Cooking the meat,” Piggy said.
Nothing was good for starting the fire. Once they figured out how to light a match (the book had no strip and Blondie was left to strike it with his teeth) they were at a loss for kindling. The stairs weren’t made of wood, but some compound plastic and the box didn’t burn either. They touched the second match to Mark’s dead body, and it went up like a frozen Christmas turkey in a deep fryer. They jumped back whooping, because the dead man’s jumpsuit was flammable, and sustained its burn long enough for the children to half-cook their balls of meat on his smoldering ribs.
Back in the room of screens, Willie felt sick. When Mark started singing on their way to the top of the house of stairs, Blondie had stopped, head in the air like a dog on point. Then he’d bounded back down the stairs, taking them a level at a time in jumps, until he was regarding the mercenary with wild eyes. It only took him a second to see the gun and only a split-second more to leap over his stoned adversary and knock him forward into the stairs. The gun came loose, they both seemed to bobble it, and then it was in Blondie’s hand. Willie didn’t look away quick enough – he heard a distant POP through Piggy’s microphone and Mark’s head was all over the wall.
“It’s too bad,” Harry had said. “I always kind of liked the guy.”
Now they were biting into the gray meatballs, though the insides were still red and dripped juice all down their fronts.
“It tastes like gas,” Rhonda said, holding her ball away from her. “Or like when I huff paint. I want the chocolate you hid upstairs instead.”
Blondie didn’t say anything, and Piggy and Strawberry Fields kept chewing. Rhonda dropped the ball on the ground and started up the stairs.
“Don’t go up there,” Blondie said.
“You going to stop me? What are you going to do? You wouldn’t hit a girl, would you?”
She kept going, and Blondie chewed his meat for a minute or so. Then he stopped. He looked at Piggy.
“You go up after her.”
Piggy, addressed by the bigger boy for the first time since he’d been taken down, looked around. There was nobody else.
“Go up after her and pull her back down here.”
“Oh. Sure I—” Blondie was on his feet, and his mouth was against Piggy’s ear. Strawberry Fields wouldn’t hear, but Willie and Frank both did.
“Get your rocks off if you want. Then kill her. Then bring her back down so we can cook more.”
Piggy got up. He started climbing the stairs after Rhonda.
“He’s going to kill her,” Willie said.
“This doesn’t feel good,” Frank said. He was leaning forward on the console, watching Rhonda ascend the stairs. “What happens when my kid dies?”
“You go in there,” Gil said. “Like Lowenstein.”
Harry laughed, sitting over by the blocked off door. He’d lost all interest in the screens, and his earpiece was still in its place at his fifth of the console, in front of an image that showed Strawberry Fields shucking her bloodied jumpsuit. On the wall, Blondie was doing the same.
“I wouldn’t go to sleep tonight, if I were you,” Harry said, post-chuckle. “They came in last night and grabbed Mark, and I didn’t even hear it. Did you? That’s what you should be thinking about.”
Gil and Frank each glanced at each other and looked away. Willie looked down. They didn’t know that he’d left Mark alone in the room of screens. What would have happened to him if the poor guy hadn’t taken his place?
Frank spoke up. “If I get put in there, I’m going to kill them all. Drugs or no drugs.”
On two screens, Blondie and Strawberry Fields were naked.
On another one, Piggy was scrambling up the stairs, panting. “Gotta get her before she finds it,” Willie heard in his earpiece.
On the last screen, Rhonda was on all fours, sniffing the floor. “Where you at, chocolate?”
Harry walked up to Strawberry Fields’ screen, licking his lips. Willie watched Rhonda get up, and totter to the wall where she put hands on it. “She can’t find it. She’s too dumb to find it,“ Piggy said. The little dot on the map that represented Piggy blinked, and rose another level. He was still five levels from the top.
“Get it girl,” Harry said. He’d started rubbing himself through his pants. On the screen, the two bodies writhed like snakes.
Rhonda’s hands found a vent on the wall, nearly invisible in the hard fluorescence. Her bloody fingers tugged at it, her mouth curving up at the corners, her eyes beady with greed. “You in there, I can smell you.”
Her fingers slipped from the sides of the vent, so she pulled from the top. Nothing. Sweat started to ball on her nose. She tugged upwards, trying to grip the grated opening with her fingernails. To no avail.
Piggy was two levels below, not yet in position to stop the girl from getting to her prize, when succumbed to impatience and kicked the vent. It popped off, clanging to the ground and narrowly missing her feet.
“Oh fuck no,” Piggy said in Willie’s earpiece, and launched himself up the stairs. He reached the top level, panting, snot bubbling from his nostrils. Rhonda looked at him, smiling, her arm embedded in the vent. “I found where he hid...“ Her eyes went wide.
Willie had seen an electrocution before. Back when he thought he wanted to be a soldier for the government. It had been a matter of curiosity, this final step of death-by-committee. The executioner hidden behind a drape, pulling a lever that ended another man. The whole thing had been contained, sterile, and quick.
This was nothing like that.
Rhonda’s mouth opened and closed, her cheek muscles twitching. She danced, bloody brown jumpsuit darkening as she lost her bladder. Her eyes rolled up, and blood poured from her ears. Piggy lay on the floor, feet away.
Willie watched. Maybe it was only fifteen seconds. Maybe it was double that. Whatever the actual duration, the moment seemed to stretch toward infinity. Rhonda’s eyes popped like steaming soft-boiled eggs. Either she was screaming or the energy pumping from the wall was using her lungs to emit a low warble that filled the whole place. Then it stopped, and her smoking corpse just hung there, on the wall. Finally her jumpsuit went up. Electrical blue fire, charring fat and eating through her hair.
Frank had his hands on his hips, and a moment later produced a stream of goober and bile that covered the floor. Harry turned from Strawberry Fields’ screen, frowning. “Come on man, why do you have to mess with a good time?” Then he threw his head back and laughed. Willie’s hand involuntarily pantomimed a gun and his thumb, the imaginary hammer, dropped. Gil, who must have seen him do it, caught his eye and nodded.
On Blondie’s screen, Willie could see he was laughing. He pulled Strawberry Fields’ hair and slapped her. Then he picked up the gun and shot it into the air three times.
Harry clapped his hands and barked laughter, then the screens all went out, each a liquid retina of light that pulsed before winking into itself.
The men stood staring at five black screens.
CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!
Gunfire from down below. So the other girl is dead, the chubby boy thought.
His time was running out. Piggy got up and moved toward the charred body, nostrils flaring. She smelled the way tin-foil tasted. And her hair! That had been the worst of it. It went up in a ball of green, a match head struck. He calculated. There would be time, not much, but enough if he moved quickly. The trap wouldn’t trip twice, not with the girl’s arm still clutching at something in the hole. Something she’d thought was the chocolate.
It wasn’t the worst thought she could have had—the ball had been there at one point. Piggy had found it while the others slept. A smeared, melted ball tucked into an electrical grate. He’d eaten the chocolate right there, mashing his jaws together and swallowing. He’d found it easy; he had the best sense of smell, and it was warm at the top. It seemed much warmer now, standing over the roasted girl. The air this time was something, thicker. He could feel the cool air below, sucking at his eardrums and pulling him toward the middle, toward the tower of nothing. So he went that way, dragging the girl’s jellied mass. She didn’t come apart on the floor, not exactly, but parts of her were left behind, like a skidding tire.
She wasn’t supposed to fry. Blondie was the one who’d hid the ball, and he was the one who should have returned to it, plunged his hand into the grate and grabbed lightning. It hadn’t gone that way, but it was too late now. That plan was over with; she’d ruined the trap by burning her shape into it. Piggy didn’t curse, didn’t dwell. He had to survive, and regret didn’t enter into that. It was about adapting.
All light died. Piggy thought for a moment he’d jammed his eyes shut so tight that he’d blinded himself, but his eyes were open. He blinked, left hand sinking into an ankle. How far was he from the edge? In the dark, it felt like he could have had his heels dangling. He felt her legs twitch, almost a kick, and he staggered back. He would lose it now, and to fight the momentum he dropped to his knees and leaned forward, crouching. Then lights came on.
The light moved across him in gray and brown, splayed across the walls in squares.
“Stop,” Strawberry Fields said.
Blondie rolled off her. It was dark.
“What is it?” the girl said.
“I think the power we-“ The lights came on. On the wall across the shaft their outlines silhouetted. Blondie turned around and squinted into the shaft of dirty light. Was it over? When he was in elementary school, the teacher often turned the lights out when the class got too rowdy.
But the woman in the coat had told him he could do anything he wanted. So then what-
“Look,” Strawberry Fields said, “There’s people.” She was pointing at the wall where they were still silhouetted. He thought for a moment she meant them and was about to tell her what a dumb bitch she must be, but then he saw: the projection was an image of four men, standing more or less shoulder to shoulder, standing in the dark.
“Yeah, I saw them. Move out of the way so I can see the whole thing.”
Strawberry Fields crab-walked toward him.
“Move out of the way the other way.” The naked girl frowned, then obeyed.
Blondie surveyed the men on the wall. He recognized one of them. The one he’d been about to kill with a length of pipe before the tranquilizer took him too quickly out. When he’d awoken he was somewhere else with an IV in his arm and leather straps cinched at every joint. A woman in a coat sat beside him.
After the woman in the coat, he hadn’t given the mercenary a thought.
The lips of one of the projected men moved. There was a delay, but a moment later a voice came into the house of stairs, echoing tinnily:
“What just happened?”
Another pair of lips moved, and then: “The screens went dead.” The one he’d almost killed: “And I can’t hear Piggy anymore.”
That man pulled a small white plug out of if his ear.
“I can hear you,” Blondie said. One of the men, one that reminded him of his favorite wrestler Steve Austin, turned away from the others.
“Bummer. I was just getting into that. If I’d known the girl was so dirty, I’d have spent a few more hours with her before bringing her in.”
Strawberry Fields put a hand over her mouth. Blondie imagined things were starting to make the slightest amount of sense in her head. She’d have recognized the man who’d brought her here. She’d have realized he’d just been talking about her. Any moment now, she’d say something like—
“He was watching us. Those men saw what we did.”
“Of course he saw. They’ve been watching us this whole time.” Blondie smiled. The woman in the coat had been telling the truth. She said he’d only let Blondie in on the secret, but the boy had been suspicious. Why run an experiment in which only one of the participants knew anything useful? But then, the woman in the coat had told him:
“They’re the control group. You’re the free radical.”
He’d liked that. Here, in the environment, he’d played up his role. There would be juvenile detention, no jail time. The woman in the coat told him he was protected from the consequences of any of his actions during the test, as it was expected that subjects would be under intense stress and couldn’t be held responsible.
“Besides,” the woman in the coat had said, “Imagine us trying to explain our part of it. No, we won’t. As far as all of us are concerned, anything that happens within the space of the experiment—or in the adjacent observation bunker—hasn’t happened. Of course, there are hypotheses at play, and conclusions to be made, but following completion of the experiment, subjects will of course be free of any legal repercussions. What does that mean to you?”
Blondie had said, “It can be like a dream. Anything I want.”
The woman in the coat nodded and pressed a button on the end of a long wire. The boy felt a cold gush of something going into his arm and swirled into unconsciousness once more.
In the house of stairs, standing naked and watching the men, Blondie tapped the butt of the gun with his index finger.
The men had lost interest in the wall and were now sitting down at a console. From the point of view the projected camera had, Blondie could see there were five spaces, but only four men.
He didn’t know for sure, but the weight of the gun in his hand seemed to confirm a thought now blooming: there were four because he’d killed the fifth.
If only it had been the one who’d gotten the best of him. That one, Blondie would have gotten some real enjoyment out of. Blondie didn’t despair. The woman in the coat had already given him one, so maybe he’d still get his chance.
He turned back to Strawberry Fields, still grinning.
“Be a dog for me now, beautiful. They can’t see us anymore.”
Piggy heard the man on the screen (the projection played on every level, like windows that somehow showed the same vantage point, no matter the height) call him Piggy, and he curled his lip. He didn’t like to be called Piggy. Kids at school had said that, and he’d had to defend himself.
On the information side of it, however, it meant the men in the projection didn’t know his real name. Which meant they weren’t responsible for what had happened to him. Or the curly-headed boy, or the mousy trap-tripper. Responsibility lay with Blondie. And whoever had placed them all here.
He stored all of this in the back of his mind. Retribution was a luxury he couldn’t afford. Not before survival. Fifteen levels above the remainder of his little group, he paused.
On the floor, he did fifty pushups with his breath held. The men in the projected room talked, and Piggy listened.
“Now we can’t even do our jobs. How are we supposed to observe?”
“Come on, Gil. What jobs? We’re locked in here. The kids in the tube were a distraction. They killed one of us.”
“That blonde fuck killed one of us.”
“They put him down there with him. Doped, too. Couldn’t even defend himself.”
“How? They took him out of our room while we all slept?”
“No, couldn’t be. One of us would have heard something.”
Air forced its way into his lungs. The taste of it was worse than he remembered, chemical and thick. Hot. Piggy resisted the urge to vomit, then forced himself to his feet. Sweat oozed from his pores.
He was ready.
He started climbing the stairs.
Piggy never thought of himself in the abstract. What he saw, what he felt, what he did: that’s who he was. He never worried about what would happen if he died or if something he decided to do didn’t work out quite right. It had landed him here, but he knew some of the rules and he knew the older blonde boy would underestimate him.
That was all he needed.
He got on his hands and knees and edged closer to the center of the structure. He hung one eye out into the chasm. Laying here, he could also hear his own breathing and feel the cold solidity of the white cement. His entire body was an eardrum. He’d feel any movement up or down within the closed system before he heard it. When the men who had been talking about them were projected on the walls, the way the place had reverberated made it clear the entire thing was an amplifier for noise.
He thought back to the noise Raggedy Andy had made when he’d died, how voluminous and clear his screams had been, even as they deepened with the distance, been replaced by clunks and sickening thuds. It was horrible to hear.
After what seemed like five minutes he became aware of footsteps far below. He edged his face further out, now both eyes over the shaft. His hair hung past his eyes, and he could see a drop of sweat rolling down a grouping of about twenty strands. He caught it out of the corner of his eye.
It rolled off the tip of his hair before he could move. He watched it accelerate out of view down the vortex. Incredibly, about five seconds later he heard it.
Then he heard an echo of the plink. Then he heard footsteps speeding up.
About an hour after the screens turned off, the mercenary men were gathered around the console, trying to figure out how to open it up. They’d gathered Mark must have gone that way to get into the house of stairs.
Willy stayed at the back of them all, watching as they tried to open up the panel in the center console.
“How does he figure this out?” Harry wondered aloud. “That mouthy prick, how does he open it?”
Willy had been the last one to see Mark. Should he tell what he’d seen if it would help them open the console? Should he say something about the gun and how Mark had tried to give it to him? He almost did, but then a voice came on over the intercom.
“Stop that. You are damaging gov—scientific property.”
“What do you mean?” Gil’s face turned upward, awash with betrayal, terror. “Gov…?”
“She means we’re on to their shitty fucking plan,” Harry said, stepping back from the console and looking up and around menacingly. “You don’t like it, huh? Well, what about this?” He kicked the console in the center, jostling the entire unit in the floor. “We good? You fucking government psyop puppet?” He kicked the console again. It shook less than it had the first time. Harry puffed but didn’t attempt a third kick.
“This was a sting,” Gil said, putting his face in his hands. “We were set up; we’ve been caught by the government. They put us in this rat maze. It’s an experiment.”
“An experiment nobody is meant to survive,” Willie said.
The other men turned to look at him. “Yeah, Silverfish?” Frank asked.
Willie ignored the slight. “We’re here to die. We’re kidnappers. smugglers. Not even good ones. We’re stooges, idiots.”
“Speak for yourself,” Harry said.
“We all walked into the same trap. I’d be willing to bet it’s not the first time they’ve done this. For people to still be falling into the pitcher plant—”
“Nobody gets out.”
“What about the kids?” Gil asked.
Before he could answer, the console Harry had been kicking started beeping, like the sound of a truck backing up. The beeping quickened, the rate of the beeps intensifying until the tone resembled the long range acoustic devices police used against protesters. The men put their fingers in their ears and backed away from the console slowly.
The center of the console dropped down, revealing a dark hole. Then the lights went off.
The LRAD blaring stopped.
“The fuck is goin—” Harry’s voice, abruptly cut off as the lights came back on.
Standing atop the console was Piggy, who’d apparently figured out how to operate the console elevator from the other side, and now he was pointing a gun at Harry’s head.
“Remember me? I remember you,” Piggy said to Harry, and then pulled the trigger.
Willie closed his eyes, but not before seeing Harry’s head pop like a grape. Flecks of tissue and blood sprayed his face.
That left Gil, Willie, Frank and Piggy.
“Jesus, fuck!” Frank yelled, and started running toward the console. Piggy swiveled and pointed the barrel of the gun right into Frank’s chest.
“I wouldn’t. I can kill you and nobody will care. The doctor lady said I got immunity.”
Gil ran back toward the barracks, disappearing through the door and to the right. For his part, Willie hadn’t moved an inch.
“Where are the other two?” he asked the pudgy boy in the dark brown bloodstained white suit. “You obviously got the gun from Blondie...where’s the girl?”
“I don’t think I’ll say. But I’ll give you a clue.”
Piggy pulled the trigger on Frank. The mercenary staggered back, touching his chest with fingertips, the wet hole there. He gurgled blood, then fell forward. His head hit the console with the sound an egg makes when you crack it against the side of a frying pan, and his body slumped over like a bag of groceries.
Willie didn’t close his eyes this time. There was no longer time for squeamishness.
Piggy stayed on the console and kept the gun up, moving it in an arc until it was pointed at Willie.
“You’re in control,” Willie said. “I have keys to a van parked outside. I’ll give you the keys, and you can take the van.”
“I can’t drive,” Piggy said, and then shot him three times walking down. Once in the right bicep, once in the ribs under the right pectoral muscle, and once in the groin.
Willie hadn’t ever been shot before, had only seen it happen to people on television, but this was like being hit with a flaming hammer. It was permanent—it destroyed everything in its path. His arm and his ribs and his groin. He fell, and when he crashed to the ground it was a relief to have some other pain.
He lay on the floor, blood pouring out of him, unable to move his head, but he watched Piggy walk into the barracks and turn right. Then he heard a struggle, and then several loud sounds that reminded him of glass on bone and screams that sounded like a dog howling.
Somebody’s dying in there, he thought. But now he was dozing off, engaging in an alternate reality where he was sitting at home, looking at a newspaper. His wife made noises in the kitchen. His feet were warm, were those new slippers?
Then he was back on the floor, staring at the open doorway leading to the barracks. Piggy walked out as he watched, licking brown and purple goo off his fingers, lips smacking loudly. Goober.
He beat Gil to death with the Goober.
Piggy glanced at Willie dying on the floor and then looked away. He seemed to be thinking about what to do next. He went back to the console. He reached down inside of it, and brought the redhead girl out. She was wearing a smock again.
They walked to the door; the one Willie had come through soaking wet, the one that had a solid steel column obstructing any access to it.
“We’re here to be let out.”
Willie watched idly, not expecting the simple incantation to work, because of course it wasn’t going to work, but he was wrong. The steel column slid effortlessly up, revealing the metal steps to the open door. Piggy held Strawberry Fields’ hands as he led her up. Then they pulled the handle, and the door opened. Light filled the steel room. For a moment Willie saw beyond the door—it was bright like daylight and there were rolling green and yellow hills, somehow, where the boarded up houses had been—and then the door shut, and the children were gone.
Willie was alone in the building, minutes from death. Would the scientist woman come out and take note of his last moments? Didn’t she want to see his notes, wasn’t it important to see all the field notes? Wouldn’t she want to ask him how he thought the experiment went? Didn’t she want to hear what he had to say? That he was innocent, that he didn’t want to die, that they should call an ambulance and save his life? That he’d stay quiet…
The seconds ticked by and the scientist didn’t appear. Willie, lightheaded as he died, sang. He sang the best he had in his life, even if in a whisper and through shivers from shock and loss of motor control.
“Let me take you down…’cause I’m goin’…to Strawberry Fields. Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about. Strawberry Fields forever.
“Strawberry Fields forever.”