This story is by Joslyn Chase and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I’ve been in The Room so long I don’t remember what it looks like outside. I think there were colors.
Here, everything’s white. The cement floor is coated with a glossy white finish that squeaks under our rubber-soled shoes. The walls, the plastic-covered mattresses we sleep on, the blankets they give us—all white. Even the lights, burning down from the high ceiling are white with no trace of the golden glow I almost remember.
We wear white jumpsuits, no pockets. There’s no place to hide anything here. Even the bathroom is just a screened-off area without a door, open at the top so our most private moments can be witnessed through opaque windows that stretch around the upper perimeter of The Room.
Three metallic taps sound, echoing against bare walls. It’s feeding time. I cringe when the panel snaps open—a stark and sudden clank against the silence—and see what they’ve sent through. Today, they’ve designed that one of us will go hungry as they watch through their windows and cameras to see how we handle the shortage. I’ve been here longest, and that gives me some authority, but two here are larger than me and their aggression is growing.
Five mouths to feed, and only four sandwiches. I grab one and Ocho, Dimebag, and Half Deck snatch the rest. Doomie stands empty-handed, which comes as no surprise. He is wasting-away thin and past caring.
“Tear off the end of your sandwich for Doomie,” I command, doing the same. Ocho does as I say, but Dimebag and Half Deck chew away, ignoring me.
Doomie is Subject 13, bad luck from the start, and that’s how he got his nickname. Dr. Thurston called it a self-fulfilling prophecy, and Doomie seems obliged to see it through. He sits against the wall, staring forward, skinny legs stretched out in front while he gnaws on the sandwich.
We’re all numbers here, our real names conditioned out of us. I don’t remember mine, although sometimes I can feel it at the tip of my tongue. Ocho is Subject 8, Dimebag is 10, and Half Deck’s nickname serves a dual purpose, denoting number 26 and suggesting that he’s not playing with a full deck. None of us are, if it comes to that.
Every day brings a new torture, a new experiment, a new manipulation or device to test us or break us or whatever the hell it is they’re trying to do to us here. Most nights I fall asleep hoping tomorrow will never come.
But it always does.
I dream of the sun, a yellow disk like the butterscotch candies my grandma kept in a crystal dish. In my dream, I can taste the golden flavor, melting on my tongue. I am jerked awake by an ominous beeping and I know immediately what is happening—we’re getting a new kid.
The metal door, almost a foot thick, swings open slow, a mere inch with each sonorous beep, stretching out the suspense. Three men in black rubber suits and masks, like divers on a deep-sea mission, flow into The Room, carrying a mattress and blanket. Dr. Thurston follows, his mane of snowy hair and white lab coat in keeping with the color theme.
Beside him is a kid with a full-blown mohawk, and all I can think is how ridiculous it will look once it starts to grow out. We don’t get barber privileges here. The boy’s jaw is set, thrust forward in a show of defiance, his eyes all flash and snap, hands balled into fists. They all look that way on day one.
“Subject 29,” Dr. Thurston announces. “Give him a warm welcome and feel free to explain the rules. I’ll leave you now.”
There are no rules in The Room. Or if there are, they’re constantly changing. We adapt on the fly. The door closes behind the doctor and his frogmen bodyguards, swishing shut with disconcerting speed, promising the loss of a limb should one of us try to squeeze through.
“All right, Prime,” I say, “you’re over there.”
I indicate a section of wall, but he narrows his eyes and points to Dimebag’s mattress. “Nah, I want that space.”
I take a step closer, squaring up. “That space is taken.”
He glares, but drags his mattress to an empty spot along the wall, pointedly different from the place I’d assigned him.
“Why’d you call him Prime?” Ocho asks.
I shrug. “Twenty-nine is a prime number.”
Half Deck snorts. “It fits too. The guy is a grade-A, prime—”
“Shut it,” I say, cutting him off. “Let’s be nice. It’s never easy on the first day.”
“When does it get easy, Cyclops?”
I don’t answer.
The new kid pipes up, “What’s there to do around here?”
“Sleep,” we all say.
I like sleeping, shutting my eyes to the white space, visiting a land where the yellow sun shines and the air smells sweet, like blankets fresh from the laundry. Being asleep is as good as it gets in here.
When I’m awake, I can’t be sure I ever had a grandma.
Feeding time on Prime’s first day is good. Pizza—two slices for everyone—and chocolate cookies, but I worry about expectations. It would have been better if they sent in short rations, or provided extra, meaning a fight over the surplus. If Prime thinks we get fed this way every day, things are bound to get ugly real quick. I sense he’s got a low boiling point.
There are six of us now. On the second day, the feed drawer pops open with only three foil-wrapped burgers. I scramble and get there first. Dimebag and Half Deck grab the other two. Before I can insist that we each get half, Prime lands a kidney punch on Dimebag that makes me wonder which neighborhood they snatched him from.
Dimebag doubles over, but doesn’t let go of the burger.
“Give it, dimrod!” Prime holds out a palm, waiting, but Dimebag shakes his head, panting out a string of curses without breath to back them up. And just like that, Prime has a knife and it’s in Dimebag’s gut, a pool of blood spreading out over the glossy white floor, more color than The Room has ever seen.
I stare. I can’t move or make my brain take in what I’m seeing. Dimebag’s fingers loosen and Prime seizes the burger, taking it to his mattress where he strips off the foil and bites into it like a man at a picnic.
Doomie runs behind the screen and I hear him puking. We’ve all backed away from Dimebag whose eyes stare up into the white light and I wonder what he’s looking at because he’s no longer in The Room. The knife sticks up from his ribs.
“Where’d you get it?” I say, my voice all squeaky. “The knife?”
“From my pocket, Sherlock,” Prime says, his mouth full.
“We don’t have pockets.”
“I do,” he says, and now I see it. His jumpsuit is different.
“Doc gave it to me. Said I could stick anyone who made me mad.”
A wash of acid floods my veins and I’m shaking so I can barely move, but I pull the knife out of Subject 10 and snap the blade shut.
“Hey, that’s mine.”
“Shut it.” I turn my gaze to the row of windows that circles the top of The Room and shake the bloody knife. “You and the knife can go to hell!” I say, heaving with all my might. The knife sails up, turning end over end, flicking a fine spray of scarlet against the white enamel wall.
I want the glass to shatter, to fall down in a rain of jagged splinters, but the knife only bounces off and falls to the ground, skittering away like a cockroach. I snatch it up and stare at it, a tiny thing with the power to snuff out life with a single jab. I look at Prime. He’s licking ketchup off his fingers.
“Whatcha gonna do, Cyclops?” Ocho whispers.
A knife is a lethal weapon. But only in the hands of a killer. I run behind the screen, drop it in the toilet, and flush.
They call me Cyclops because I am Subject One. I’ve been here longer than any of us—gone hungry more days, survived more fights, and dreamed more dreams inside these walls than anyone else. I’ve been in The Room so long I’m not sure anything exists outside it.
When the rhythmic beeping interrupts my sleep again, I sit up and watch the door inch open. Men in black swarm in, the doctor appears, but there’s no new kid.
They’ve come for me.
As they seize my arms, I realize I am leaving The Room, and I suddenly feel weightless as a bird buoyed along on currents of air, a tiny being under a sky bursting with color, and I know where I’m going.
To see the sun.