A Game of Cards
The woman across from me wears a plague mask. Except she’s not really wearing a plague mask, she’s making me think she’s wearing a plague mask. She thinks I’m one of them–someone like her. But I’m not one of them. I’m not one of anybody. If I was somebody, I’d have a real job, a real life. I’d have a home. If I were one of anybody or a somebody at all, I wouldn’t have ended up here to begin with.
“Are you paying attention?” she asks.
“Sure.” I lie.
She shows me a card. The back is absence-white, color of nothing and everything at once. “I need you to focus on the card,” she says. “I’ll know if you don’t.”
She’s not lying. I’ve danced these steps a dozen times. I haven’t had a choice. Legally speaking, I signed up for this. Technically. There’s a contract somewhere, my name’s on it. Someone handed me a lot of cash and deposited even more in a bank account opened in my name. All for this.
I focus on the card. Blank white. Nothing white.
“What do you think is on my side of the card?” she asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Guess,” she says.
“The number seven.” It’s a blind guess. They’re all blind guesses, for the most part. I just say something to say something.
She nods curtly and sets the card aside. From the stack of exact-same cards, she plucks one anew and holds it up between her fingers, nothing side facing me. “Is this one also a number?”
“Sure,” I mutter. “Why not?”
The glass eyes of the plague mask mirror me, the waste that I’ve become. She doesn’t acknowledge my tone. She lets everything pass as if none of it mattered. Maybe it doesn’t. “And what number do you think it is?”
“Fucking thirteen for all I care.”
Another short nod. “Interesting,” she says.
She sets the card aside, replaces it with another blank. Everything is so white in this place. Her coat: white. Her mask: white. The back of every card: white. The floor tiles, the walls, everything. Except the meds I’m allegedly ‘testing.’ Those come in all colors, shimmering like oil, glowing like a rainbow or the scales of a dead fish.
“This one is a picture,” she talks to me like I’m her student, like I’m learning from her.
“What is it a picture of?”
“Correct again.” She sets the card aside, shuffles the stack a couple times, cuts the deck, re-cuts it, re-shuffles, and fans them out in front of me like a row of too many teeth. “Could you pick out the number twelve?”
“Give it a guess. Go with your gut.”
I roll my eyes. Pick a random card.
She turns it over. Twelve.
“You’ve had a seventy-percent success rate across two hundred guesses, in the time you’ve been here. Are you sure you’re guessing?”
“Yes!” I slam my hands on the table. She tilts her head. I’d stand up, but my feet are chained to the chair legs. I slouch, instead, curl in. “Of course I’m fucking guessing, they’re a bunch of blank cards.”
“Right. On one side.”
I show her my middle finger but she doesn’t react to it. Not that I can tell, at least. But maybe she’s done that to me, too. I can feel her in my head, tinkering around with my retinas, my eardrums. Picking at the folds of my brains like a groping pervert.
“Do you know how long you’ve been here?” she asks.
“I signed a contract for ninety days.”
“And how many days has it been?”
I open my mouth. Balk. Close it. How many days? “Fifteen? Twenty?”
“Well, how many goddamned days has it been?” I yell.
An enormous figure shifts against the wall behind her, a blur against white paint. She holds her hand up and the blur vanishes, melting back into nothing. I saw him, for a moment, her bodyguard, an orderly the size of a rhino, but then…
But I know something’s there, now. If I blur my eyes I can make it out. Man-shaped, huge, with hands big enough to wrap around my whole head.
“Please don’t yell,” she says. “I assure you, we will release you.”
“How many days?”
“Out of ninety?”
A cold pain rolls through my veins, rooting itself in the fabric of my lungs. My jaw slacks, my eyes burn. I clutch the edge of the table like a drowning man clutches the side of a lifeboat. “No. You’re lying.”
She sets a small amber pill down in front of me. I know this one–tastes of honey and campfire, gives me tatters of dreams I can never quite remember the day after. What kind of drug company is this?
She sets down a glass of water (where did it come from?) and pushes it toward me. “Exit of the study is considered forfeiture of pay and all other signed gains. The NDA, inclusive of all fine print, will still apply, however.”
“What are you doing to me?”
“We’re studying you.”
“Who is ‘we?'”
“Unfortunately, due to my own NDA, and my personal interest, I can’t answer that.”
“Who are you people?”
“Please, take the pill. We will give you a break from memory and guessing tests for the next four days.”
“I can’t do this…” I half-collapse forward, losing all balance, suddenly nauseous and wet-faced, tears streaking my cheeks. “I can’t–I can’t–I can’t…”
“You can, actually. And you’ll be better for it.” She puts a gentle hand on my shoulder, consolation for her own victim. Squeezes. “There is a power sleeping inside of you. We’re just trying to help wake it up.”
“Don’t touch me.”
But I like it. It feels good to have human contact. Has it really only been twelve days? Had she said fourteen, or twelve? Twelve. No. Fourteen? Out of ninety? It feels like weeks already. Months, even.
She withdraws her hand from my shoulder and pushes the water closer to me. I take the pill. When I look back at the room, she’s gone. Or she’s making me think she’s gone. She can do these things. My ankles are uncuffed, unchained from the chair legs.
I wonder if the manacles were ever really there at all.