“At least I got the car,” Maria said, walking up to a shiny red convertible. She smiled at the flawless leather interior and the glossy finish of the paint. Everything about it was perfect. Maria gazed at it, wanting to get in and drive off.
“Yes?” said the car’s driver, who was peering at her strangely. “Can I help you?”
“Oh, sorry,” Maria said, stepping away from the vehicle. He rolled his eyes and quickly drove off, revealing Maria’s beat up old car that was hiding behind it in the parking lot. She sighed.
Behind her stood the courthouse. Its front doors opened, and a man and two small children emerged, walking in-between the building’s large columns. The man stared straight ahead, making eye contact only with his car, but screams came from the children.
Maria turned around with a jolt, a tear running down her cheek.
“No, stay with me, we’re going home,” the girl’s father said sternly, grabbing the wrists of his two daughters.
“But I want to go with Mommy!” one of them yelled, flailing her arms in the air, tears streaming down her face.
He pushed the children into the back seat of his car, strapped them in, and slammed the door shut.
“Please don’t take them from me!” Maria bellowed, standing right behind the man. “Matthew, you know I can’t live without them!”
The children’s wailing screams could still be heard from inside the car.
“You should have thought about that before you started drinking,” Matthew said. “Maybe then your life wouldn’t have gotten so out of control, and the judge wouldn’t have found you to be an unfit parent.”
“I am not an unfit parent!” Maria screamed.
“I could never trust you to watch over the kids! You would just get drunk instead of taking care of them. You put yourself above them, which is not what a good, fit parent should do.”
“I know you were able to hide everything from the kids, and from our friends, even from your parents, but not from me. The judge was right on the money; you can’t handle the kids right now. You’re only a danger to them.”
Maria slapped him in the face, leaving a bright red mark on his cheek.
“And you wonder why I had to leave you,” he said. “You’re not the woman I married. You let yourself be changed by your drinking habits.”
“I am not a danger to my children!”
“You need to get help before you destroy yourself and everyone else you love. For now, stay away from me and my children.”
With that, he got in his car and drove away.
The apartment was messy, looking as if a hurricane had just gone through a library. Books and papers were everywhere, some torn in pieces. The paint on the walls was faded and peeling. Boxes piled up in the corner and the furniture’s layout seemed to have been decided at random. Sitting at a desk in the middle was Maria, staring at a stack of papers.
“Rent, food, insurance, telephone, it’s all due,” she said out loud. “How am I supposed to afford this?”
For the past seven years, Maria had been a housewife and stay-at-home mother. She and Matthew were married when she was twenty-seven; he was twenty-nine. A year later, she gave birth to their first daughter, Dixie. Two years after that, their second daughter, Nevaeh, was born. Maria’s time had been spent raising those two children, while Matthew was working as an accountant at a tax service. Now thirty-four, she was completely on her own and self-sufficient for the first time.
Maria had never had a job. Her parents were very wealthy, and both were dead by the time she was seventeen, leaving everything to Maria, their only child. Her inheritance supported her and her husband well into their marriage. However, four years ago, things turned downhill. Maria had fallen into deep postpartum depression after the birth of their younger daughter, Nevaeh. She had turned to alcohol and drugs, and other things that she doesn’t remember. Her fortune dwindled down to nothing.
They tried counseling, they tried hypnosis, and they tried medicinal drugs. They tried everything they could think of, but Maria couldn’t stop reaching for the bottle. She would sneak out of the house at night to go to a bar or liquor store, or down to her secret stash of booze in the basement. Anything to wash her troubles away in a bottle of something hard.
Sooner or later, enough was enough for Matthew, and he filed for divorce. He won custody of the children in a court battle, due to Maria’s continuing destructive lifestyle. Now she lives alone, making minimum wage as a receptionist in a local office building.
She stared at the pile of bills on her desk, which seemed to grow by the day. She still hadn’t paid her custody battle court fees or her rent for the last month. She slammed her fist down on the desk, then melted into a pile of tears. She stood up and walked to the refrigerator and opened it, taking out a bottle of vodka. Maria quickly flicked off the cap with her fingers and lifted it up to her mouth, but then stopped. She stared directly ahead, though the open doorway of the bathroom, into the mirror hanging on the wall. She saw her reflection there, with the bottle of beer lifted up to her mouth. She hated that image.
“You did this to me,” she said to the bottle. “My life was great before you came into it. I had it all, and I lost everything because of you.”
She slowly walked over to the sink, closed her eyes, breathed deeply, and poured the beer down the drain. She laughed.
“She was right! That crazy shrink was right! I can say no, I can control myself, I don’t need you!”
Maybe it was the hypnosis kicking in a year late, but something in her brain clicked at that moment. She suddenly felt a power over the drink that she hadn’t felt before. She no longer craved it; she no longer found her refuge in it. She gave away all the remaining alcohol in her apartment and threw away the address to her favorite bar. She never touched alcohol again.
Two knocks at the door and Matthew answered, surprised to see his ex-wife outside. His house, formerly their house, was large and impressive. The outside walls were of a light colored rustic brick, and the yard was outlined with pristinely shaped fir trees. Everything about the house was perfect.
“Maria, hi, what are you doing here?”
“I came to see my children.”
“Mommy!” she heard from inside. Dixie ran through a hallway towards the open door, arms outreached, sporting a wide smile on her face.
“No!” her father screamed, stopping her dead in her tracks. “Back in the other room!” he yelled, obviously irritated, causing Dixie to run into another room, crying. He turned back to Maria.
“You know you’re not supposed to be around them, judge’s order.”
“But I’ve changed, Matthew!” she said, smiling. “I haven’t touched a drink in a month. I have a stable job and everything, I’m doing fine.”
“I’m sure you are, but you’re really not supposed to be here.”
“Just let me see my children, Matthew!”
“You already had your visitation this month, didn’t you?”
She scowled at him. “A visitation which you cut way short, Matthew. I want the rest of it now.”
“Please go, Maria,” he said nervously, “or I will have the police take you home.”
A tear rolled down her cheek.
“Why don’t you believe me? I really have changed, I really am better.”
“I’ve heard this all before, it’s the same old thing. You resist for a while and then you run back to it. It’s always a roller coaster ride with you, Maria, up and down and up and down. You can’t stabilize your need for alcohol and whatever else you’re still doing.”
“I’m not doing anything! Why don’t you trust me?”
“Trust? Trust is leaving your children with a woman who you think is mentally stable enough not to put them in mortal danger. Trust is giving your heart and soul to your wife because you think she will always be there for you. Trust is not worrying about your children every time they’re in the presence of their mother. I’m sorry, but it’ll take quite a bit of time to get me to trust you again.”
And with that, he closed the door.
The phone woke Maria up.
“Hello?” she said groggily.
“Maria, this is Jane at the apartment office.”
“You know that you’re two months behind on your rent, right?”
“Yes, yes, I know, but I can pay part of it when I get paid.”
“When is that?”
“Just two more weeks.”
“Maria, we’ve been very patient with you,” Jane said harshly. “We’ve given you several warnings. You’re constantly late, and you constantly don’t have the money when you say you do. Our patience has grown too thin and has—“
“It’ll be different this time; I promise I’ll pay it.”
“We can’t afford any more next times, Maria. There is no next time. We have no choice but to evict you from our building.”
“What? But, how can you do this to me?”
“We can’t afford to have people living here for free.”
“But what will I do? Where can I go? I have nowhere else!”
“I’m sure you have family or friends who will take you in for the short term, but that’s out of our hands.”
“I’m sorry, but our decision is final. You need to be out by the end of the month.”
“Good day, Maria. I hope you land on your feet.”
Two more knocks on the door, and Matthew answered again, and again was surprised to see her.
“Before you say anything,” she said, “I want you to hear me out. I lost my apartment last week. I sold everything I own just so I can afford food. I’ve been sleeping on the street for the last couple weeks, under park benches and trees. I lost my job because I never got to work on time and because I couldn’t shower. Please, Matthew, help me.”
He stared at her, mouth open. He pulled out his wallet and handed her some cash. “This is all I can do,” he said. “I can’t let you stay here; I don’t think it’d be good for the children.”
“What about what’s good for me, Matthew?”
“I can’t keep pulling you out of the holes you’ve dug for yourself. You need to be able to do that,” he said, pointing at her. “You and you alone.”
“But what am I supposed to do? You can’t leave me out on the street!”
“The girls are my priority now. I can’t solve your problems too.”
“The girls are my priority too!”
“You fix your situation, and show me that your life isn’t a wreck anymore, and maybe you’ll be able to see the girls more. Until then, I’m sorry, but I can’t let you any closer.”
And with that, he closed the door.
Maria awoke suddenly and sat up, banging her head on the bottom of the bench she was sleeping under. She lay back down, massaging her forehead with her palm. She blinked several times and tried to focus on the bottom of the bench. Something was there.
It was white and rectangular, and soon came into focus; it was an envelope, taped to the bottom of the bench, and on it “MARIA” was printed in big black letters. She blinked at it confusedly, and reached up and tore if off the bench. She opened it and removed a professionally printed business letter.
Dear Ms. Goldsmith:
I am much distressed over your current situation, and would like to offer a chance to help. It will require much patience on your part, but if you succeed, your financial problems will be over.
If this sounds like something that interests you, please give me a call at 555-2677. I have provided a quarter to make this easier for you.
Thank you for your time.
She didn’t know what to think of it. Who knows me here? She thought to herself. Probably a big hoax. At least I have a quarter now.
She rolled out from underneath the bench, crumpled up the envelope and paper, and tossed it in the trash.
Maria had accepted her place on the street, scavenging through trash dumpsters looking for food, and begging to people on street corners. No place to live, no place to work, and no skills anyway; it seemed to her that life had demoted her to this spot. Just a few years ago, she was wealthy; now she is poor. That didn’t bother her nearly as much as the fact that just a few months ago, she lived with her daughters; now she is alone.
As the day set its sights on dusk, Maria set her sights on a dumpster outside of a fast food restaurant. She climbed inside, and could smell the food in the garbage bags. A month ago she would have thought terribly of looking for a meal in a dumpster. Now she’ll get a meal from anywhere she can get it.
She tore open a bag, took a few sandwiches out, and starting eating. She felt quite lucky with this meal, as the sandwiches were a much better find than whatever scraps she managed to get together for lunch. She looked up at the side of the dumpster and stopped chewing, staring at something. It was another envelope, with her name on the outside.
She snatched it off the side of the wall. What in the world? She thought. Am I being stalked? She quickly stood up and looked outside the dumpster, but nobody was around. She sat back down, and removed the piece of paper from the envelope. It was another letter.
Dear Ms. Goldsmith:
I know it may be odd, getting a letter on the bottom of a park bench, or on the inside wall of a dumpster. However, I would not discard my offer so quickly. I can help you more than you know.
Let me, at very least, pique your curiosity about how I know who you are. I know your name is Maria Goldsmith. I know you were recently divorced and lost custody of your 2 daughters, Dixie and Nevaeh. I know that you lost your job and your apartment and have resorted to the street to meet your needs. However, the street will not provide you with what you need in order to get your children back. But I can.
I have more money than I know what to do with, and I am willing to share it with you, should you make it through what is planned. Contacting me will be the best move you’ve ever made. My number again is 555-2677, and I have provided another quarter, since I know you already spent the first one.
She stared at the letter for several minutes, her face contorted with confusion. She finished her meal and climbed out of the dumpster, making her way across the street to a pay phone.
“I’m crazy, aren’t I,” she said aloud. She glanced around but didn’t see anyone. She dialed.
“I’ve been expecting your call,” the scruffy voice of an older man answered on the other end.
“Oh, yes, well, what do you want?” she said nervously.
“Just to make the world a better place.”
“You can call me Mr. Boss, and I am the solution to all your problems.”
“Do tell,” she said sarcastically.
“I am 89 years old, and I am sitting on a pile of money. Hundreds of millions of dollars. Part of that can be yours.”
“Is this a joke?”
“Of course not, why would I joke about giving away money?”
“I don’t know,” Maria said.
“Good. I need only a month of your time, and you have the chance to be well paid for it.”
“A 100% chance if you play your cards right.”
“A part of it can be mine; what is it, next to nothing?”
“I’m talking millions, not pocket change.”
“How do I know this isn’t a scam?”
“Next Tuesday, the eleventh, there is a meeting at my office,” the old voice said, wheezing. “You and a few others will be invited. There I will prove to you, beyond a shadow of any doubt, that this is for real, and that you can trust me.”
“Well we’ll see,” she said. “No promises.”
“And there is no obligation. But it would be a grave mistake to skip out on this opportunity.”
“I’m sure,” she said, and she hung up.
Maria stared at the phone for a few moments, replaying the conversation in her mind. Must be a scam, she thought. Why would anyone give away their money to someone like me? She sighed, walking away from the phone. Definitely a scam. Everything’s a scam these days.
She walked through the downtown shopping area, gazing inside the stores at comfortable pieces of furniture and new clothes, wishing for the days when she could afford such things. Passing by an electronics store, she peered at a line of televisions inside. Each screen was showing the same movie. A man and a woman were kissing passionately, and soon started removing each other’s clothing. This was shown completely uncensored.
Maria shook her head. Everything’s going to Hell, she thought to herself. After they revoked all censorship laws, there’s no telling how low into the gutter they’ll go to make a buck. How can anyone with a moral fiber in them get by in this world? They’ll just get tossed aside by those who value money over morals.
A few days passed, and the days were getting colder, as autumn was fading and leaving room for the oncoming winter. She had visited a local shelter and had been given a light jacket. It was too big, ugly, and worn, but it added a few degrees to her temperature. Maria had no gloves or mittens, no thicker clothing except the spring jacket she now wore.
It was Monday the tenth, and the last rain of the season fell from the sky. Maria had found shelter under another park bench, out of the rain, but her fingers were almost numb. At that moment, the full impact of her situation hit her. She yearned for her house, a warm bed, even the touch of her ex-husband. But more than anything, she wished to hold her children. Her tears mixed with the rain on the cold, hard cement ground as her emotions let loose. She regretted each drink she’d ever downed and each drug she’d ever puffed, inhaled, or injected into her body. No amount of temporary high could make up for what she’d done and for what she’d lost. She felt hopeless, unloved, uncared for. She felt alone.
Sooner or later, she nodded off into unconsciousness, to the happier place where dreams are made. There, she saw her children. There were other things, but they didn’t matter; Maria had what she cared for more than anything. In her dream, she was happy, and in the real world, she was smiling.
Maria awoke still smiling, but quickly remembered where she was, and the smile faded away. She looked up to see another letter taped to the bottom of the bench, and she tore it open, sighing.
Dear Ms. Goldsmith:
As you may know, winter is coming. Your fingers won’t survive much longer without mittens. Staying on the street will do you nothing except take you closer to a meaningless and unnoticed death, but if you come tomorrow, there will be more than enough warmth for you.
I know your desperation, and I know your love for your children. You’d be willing to do anything for them, to die for them. I can give you the means to get them back, to show your ex-husband that you are a fit mother. I know that nothing would make you happier than to be with them again.
The meeting is at 11:00 tomorrow morning. If you are interested, please meet at 179 Washington Street by 10:30. This is your last chance. After this, there is only winter.
She pulled from her pocket a small picture book, pulling out a picture of each of her children. Dixie, who was four, had the blondest colored hair she’d ever seen, and two of the cutest dimples in the world. Her smile was thin and stretched from ear to ear, and her hair came down to her shoulders.
The six-year-old Nevaeh was a freckle-faced brunette, with a very womanly smile for her age. She was the pretty one, and Dixie was the cute one. Maria loved them both more than her own life.
She looked at the letter once more, sighing. She folded it up and put it in her pocket, and closed her eyes. Better get some shut-eye, she thought. Have a big day tomorrow.
The rain continued through the night and into the next morning. Maria walked the four miles from her park bench shelter to 179 Washington Street. This location was downtown, in the middle of the skyscrapers. She walked down the street, getting closer to the address. 399 Washington. 349. 299. 249. 199. 149. She stopped, and turned around. Where is it? She thought, for it was not there. There was no building, no space for a building, no nothing. It was a scam, she screamed in her thoughts. She sat down and leaned against a no parking sign, with her back to the street. The rain started to come down heavier, and Maria pulled her legs up to her chest and held them tightly, trying to keep warm.
Behind her, she heard a horn. A few moments passed, and she heard it again. Turning around, she saw a limousine parked across the street, with the number “179” blinking in lights in the window. She stared for a moment, and blinked. She looked around for several moments, but no one else was coming up to the limo, and it was not leaving. She slowly stood up and made her way across the street, walking up to the limo. When she approached, the door opened automatically. She stood confused for a minute, before stepping inside, with the door closing automatically behind her.
The compartment of the limousine was massive, and empty. Nobody else was inside. On a rack was a wide variety of snack foods and drinks, and Maria immediately started eating. She was so enthralled with the food that she barely noticed the car driving off, and at that very moment, she didn’t care. She hadn’t eaten this much food in the last month. Rich chocolate bars and other candied assortments, all of Maria’s favorites.
The windows of the limousine were very darkly tinted. After indulging on the sweets for several minutes, she tried to look outside, but couldn’t. All she saw was black. This worried her slightly, but her worry quickly dissolved as she went back to eating the food.
Twenty minutes later, the limousine came to a stop, and the door automatically opened. She stepped out to find that she was in a large inside parking area. Next to her limo were five other identical limos, all lined up in a row. In front of her a door was open, and the smell of a turkey dinner convinced her to walk through it. Inside the door were stairs, which she followed up several levels to the fifth floor, the first of the levels to have an unlocked door. She opened the door and peered down the hallway, seeing light and hearing voices coming from a room down the hall. She walked towards the door.
“And here comes the last of the six,” a voice from inside the room said as Maria appeared in the doorway. The voice was the same as she had heard on the phone the other day. In the room was a large conference room table. Around the table sat five other people. At one end sat an elderly gentleman, with unnaturally dark hair for his age. His weak body sat in a state of the art wheelchair, and his body was hooked up to tubes.
“Welcome, Maria,” his familiar scruffy voice said. “You can call me Mr. Boss.”
“Hello,” she said nervously, sitting down in the last empty chair at the opposite end of the table.
“Glad you could make it,” Mr. Boss said, smiling. “Now let’s get down to business. I am, first and foremost, a scientist. A psychologist to be exact. I am very interested to see how people act in certain situations. You are here to help me conduct an experiment on behavior. You are Group 2, the observing group. You will observe and analyze the behavior of those people who are in Group 1. You will write about what you see, and will report back to me on a daily basis. Group 2 contains six people, just like this group, and each of you will be assigned a specific person. Each day, for twenty-eight days, you will be given a sheet to fill out about your assigned person. You will need to pay close attention to his or her every movement and action. I don’t want to miss anything.”
“What is this experiment for?” asked a man who was sitting at the table.
“Good question, Alan,” Mr. Boss replied. “I have been commissioned to do this study by The Psychology School here in town. The head of that school, Doctor Michael Kennerton, will be personally supervising much of this study. They will be affecting the experiment environment in several ways, and want to see how these changes affect behavior. They will be using this information in their school. This is very important to them.”
“Why are they using random people like us to observe, and not other more, psychological people?” asked Alan.
“I’m not sure,” Mr. Boss replied, with a puzzled look on his face. “But this is what they requested.”
“Seems a little odd, doesn’t it? A little fishy?”
“There is nothing fishy about The Psychology School. I attended it myself, nearly seventy years ago.”
“Well I’ve never heard of it.”
“Are you a psychologist?”
“Okay then. You will each be handsomely rewarded for your participation in this study, should you stay for the entire event so your results can be used by the school. Those of you who stay to the end will split a one hundred eighty million dollar jackpot.”
Everyone stared at him.
“I know what you’re thinking, but this is not a scam. I am an old man who can almost make out the light at the end of the tunnel. I have worked my entire life and haven’t spent very much of it, accumulating more money than I could have ever imagined or needed. I have given millions of my dollars to charities and other great organizations, including the school. I then decided to improve the lives of twelve individuals who were in less-than-desirable circumstances. You are some of those lucky individuals. However, I decided that you should have to work for your payday, but for a good cause. Any other questions?”
The room was silent. The six just stared at him, some of them with their mouths open, all in disbelief.
“I see,” Mr. Boss said. He reached forward and pressed a button on a telephone, and said, “Bring in the cash.” Two large men entered, carrying a long rectangular glass container. Inside was piles of money.
“One hundred eighty million dollars in cash,” Mr. Boss said. “Thank you, gentlemen,” he said, and the two cash-carrying men left the room. “That is your prize,” he said, backing away from the table in his wheelchair. “Those who want a piece of the pie can pick up a contract from the table, sign it, and follow me. Those who don’t can leave. But you have five minutes,” he said, sitting a clock timer on the table that started ticking. “When this buzzer goes off, the door for this opportunity will be closed.”
He left the room. The six sat there for a few moments in silence. One by one, four of the other five, except George, stood up, signed a contract, and followed.
“This is crazy,” Maria said to herself in a whisper. “I am crazy. I must be,” she said, and she stood and followed the others, signed contract in hand.
George was reading the contract fervently. The text of the ten page document was small print and single spaced. The timer changed ticking noises, and George looked up to see there was thirty seconds left. He frantically read more of it. With fifteen seconds left, he swore and signed the contract, ending his reading at the second paragraph on the third page. He ran to catch up to the others.
The hallway was long and dark, going down at a constant angle. After walking for several minutes, they arrived in a large room, about the size of the average house’s foundation, which was exquisitely decorated with expensive looking art pieces. There was a large TV in one corner connected to a massive stereo system. The floors were dark wood, as was all of the expensive looking furniture. There was a pool table and a ping-pong table. Off to the side were sleeping rooms, one for the men and one for the women, each with three soft king-sized beds and an attached bathroom. There was an ornate dining room table next to a good sized kitchen, with a refrigerator that was well stocked with beer and wine. Hanging from the ceiling above the television was a camera. There were no windows in this room or the sleeping quarters, except one large window that showed into another smaller room, which was plainly painted in white.
“We spared no expense on this place,” Mr. Boss said. “It’s been used as living quarters for countless experiments over the years. Each of you has a bed over in the sleeping rooms with your name on it, made just the way you like it. Next to each bed is a table connected to a chute. Each day, new papers will be delivered, which will contain information about what will happen with the experiment on that day, so you know what to expect. It will also contain instructions about what to do for that day. You will only need to observe from 8-5 each day. Besides that, your time is your own. We will be able to see whatever goes on in the living quarters,” he said, pointing at the camera above the television. “Any questions?”
“Where is Group 1?” Alan asked.
“You will find out soon enough,” Mr. Boss answered. “You won’t be able to miss them.”
“Make yourself at home today, the experiment will begin in the morning. Food will be delivered for each meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, to the dining area. The bathroom and kitchen will be cleaned by our custodial staff on a daily basis. There is a phone next to each of your beds, dial 9 for a direct line to me. Feel free to ask any questions, anytime.”
And with that, he left.
Maria walked into the women’s sleeping area and found her bed. It was just the bed she’d always dreamed of – large, elaborate stained wood headboard and footboard with dark red sheets and comforter and a large white stuffed puppy. She lay down on the bed and nearly fell immediately to sleep. The bed was softer than anything she’d every slept on.
“Lunch,” came a voice from the main living area.
On the dining room table was a wonderfully smelling turkey dinner. The six of them sat down and began eating, nobody talking. Everyone else seemed to be as hungry as Maria was. After the main course came pieces of dark chocolate cheesecake for dessert. Twenty minutes later, everyone sat there full, hands on their stomachs, looking completely content. Across the table from Maria sat Alan, a thin man, without any hair.
“I suppose we should get to know each other,” he said. “Let’s go around the table and introduce ourselves, tell each other a little about ourselves.”
Nobody objected, so Alan continued.
“My name is Alan Axleby. I’m 25 years old, and am a pastor at a small local church. We are having severe financial problems, with a building that is falling apart and a congregation that is leaving, and I think this experiment is a blessing for us.” He turned to the woman next to him, a heavyset woman with a large white hat on her head.
“Hi, I’m Sally, Sally Feathers, and I’m a preschool teacher at a small school. I love kids, but have never had any of my own.”
“Hello,” said the next man, a muscular African American man with more biceps than he has uses for. “The name’s Bishop Riggs, and I’m a bouncer down at the local bar and strip club. Used to be a bodyguard, before I got too old and they forced me to retire.”
“George Henderson, and I’m a truck driver. All I do is drive.”
“Jendy Vorshank,” said the next lady, so skinny she appeared to be anorexic. “And I don’t do much.”
“My name is Maria Goldsmith,” Maria said, “and I’ve never been much of anything. I’m recently divorced, and don’t have a job. I’m hoping this payday will put me back on track and, most importantly, get my kids back.”
The other five seemed to nod in agreement. The rest of the day was spent in pleasant conversation, watching movies, playing games, or otherwise relaxing. At night, Maria lay her head down on the soft pillow and smiled. Everything’s gonna be okay, she thought to herself. I think I’m gonna like this place.
It was six o’clock in the morning, and not a soul was awake in the living quarters. All six members of Group 2 were sound asleep, and some were snoring. Maria was dreaming about her children, and about the potential to have them back in her life.
An hour later, her eyes opened. She stretched and sat up, seeing a folder on the table next to her bed that had come through the chute during the night. She opened it, and read from the first page.
NAME: Maria Goldsmith
ASSIGNED TO: Harry Jones
BIO: Construction worker. Divorced. Born and raised in Wisconsin. Wants a new woman. Likes watching Oprah. Loves lobster. Has an eighth grade education. Can’t swim. Owns a poodle. Drives a Chevy truck. Has size 12 feet. Listens to country. Is a bad listener. Self-absorbed.
There was a picture attached to this sheet. It showed Harry, a large, strong African American, with a tattoo on his arm of barbed wire. Maria read from the second page.
ASSIGNMENT: Observe Harry and how he interacts with the other members of Group 1. Note any friendships or enemies being formed. Count how many times he shows off his tattoo and how many times he flexes.
Interesting, Maria thought to herself. Nobody else was awake as of yet. She made her way out to the living area, flipping on a light switch. She stopped in her tracks at what she saw. In front of her, a section of wall had been removed. There was now a row of thick metal bars, each about four inches apart. Behind the bars was a thick pane of soundproof glass. Behind the glass was a room no larger than a small bedroom. In that room were six people. One of them was Harry. All of them were asleep.
The room contained no door, no sink, and no toilet. There was a small opening in the wall on the ground, about seven inches wide and three inches tall. The inside ceiling of the room rose ten feet higher than the top of the bars and glass wall. A speaker on the outside of the cage allowed the members of Group 2 to hear what was happening inside the cage.
People in a cage, she thought to herself. I’m sure they’ll be let out to use the bathroom, and I’m sure they’ll be fed. Must all be part of the experiment. She sat there for several minutes, peering curiously at the members of Group 1 in the cage. Soon, Alan came out to the living quarters.
“What in the world? What is this? Why are they in a cage?” he blurted.
“Part of the experim—”
“How can they do this? This is inhumane!”
“I’m sure they’re well treat—”
“I’ll see about that. I’m calling Mr. Boss.”
He took off into the sleeping quarters, and Maria followed and stood outside the door.
“Mr. Boss, this is Alan… yes, dinner yesterday was very good, but… yes… Well, I need to show disapproval with this setup. Group 1 is down here in a cage. Do you know how inhumane that… yes… it’s just not right… yes… yes… I do love my church, but I don’t see why that has to do… yes… the church could use the money. Yes. How did you know… yes. Yes. Okay. Thank you.”
He came out, disgusted and upset.
“It’s still not right.”
By this time, the other four members of Group 2 had come out of the sleeping quarters and were peering into the cage. Some didn’t seem to have any reaction to it. Others, like Alan, were irate about it.
“How could they do that?”
“Why are they in there?”
“Where do they go to the bathroom?”
“Is this legal?”
“Why isn’t there a door?”
“What’s for lunch?”
The last voice was that of Jendy. “Oh, nevermind, I found the snacks.”
“Don’t you care that these people are here, locked up like this?”
“I’m sure they’re there by choice. And it’s my choice to eat the dark chocolate candies.”
The voice of Mr. Boss was suddenly heard over the speakers.
“Worry not, they will be fine, and they will not be mistreated.”
“There he is,” Alan said, pointing at the other room behind glass.
“This is the observation room. We can see what’s happening from here. And yes, Jendy, they are there by choice, and can leave whenever they want to.”
“Why are they behind glass?” asked Bishop.
“It’s all part of the experiment. You will all just have to trust me.”
He rolled off. The six members of Group 2 stood there quiet for a few moments, then each of them took out their folder and started watching the cage.
The first day was uneventful. Group 2 sat and watched, taking notes on how their assigned group member was interacting with others. Harry revealed his tattoo three times and flexed six times. Every couple hours, the wall on the left side of the cage slid to one side, allowing them to use the bathroom and get a bite to eat.
“Anyone bring any cards?” asked as skinny, middle-aged gentlemen inside the cage. “Shouldn’t they be entertaining us more?”
“Would be nice,” answered a younger woman.
“A TV, radio, anything. If they’re going to keep us here for this long, they better give us something to do.”
Everyone else in the cage nodded. There was only general conversation: sports, cars, clothing, movies. Nothing too complicated or controversial. The night ended, and Maria went to sleep.
The second morning came, and no envelopes were delivered to any of the members in Group 2, and no breakfast was served. Maria walked out into the living area, where Harry was acting erratically in the cage.
“Where’s our breakfast? And why haven’t they let us out in six hours? We don’t all have barrel-sized bladders in here!”
“I’m sure they’ll let us out soon,” answered the skinny man. “It would be unethical for them not—”
“Oh shut up!” Harry screamed, standing up and banging on the wall that acts as a door. “Come on! Let us out so we can eat and use the bathroom! Help!”
“Pipe down, would ya?” snapped an elderly woman. “Don’t want to get yourself in trouble.”
“Aren’t you a little concerned about this? That they’ve left us in here this long?”
“All I care about is my paycheck. I can hold it for days if I have to.”
“Well I can’t,” Harry said, finally sitting down.
“Where’s breakfast?” Jendy’s voice came from behind Maria.
“Not sure,” Maria answered. “Things don’t seem as right this morning. Like, no envelopes and no breakfast. And these guys have been stuck here for several hours without being let out to use the bathroom or eat.”
“Strange,” Jendy replied, before sitting down on the couch and flipping on the TV.
“Well I don’t like it,” Maria said. “I’m gonna call Mr. Boss.”
She walked into the sleeping quarters, where Sally was dressing. Maria sat on her bed and picked up the phone. There wasn’t a dial tone.
“Something is definitely not right,” she said.
“What’s not right?” Sally said, yawning.
“No envelopes, no breakfast, and Group 1 hasn’t been let out in way too many hours.”
“Mr. Boss asleep at the wheel?”
Maria walked over to the door that leads out of the livings quarters and up to the meeting room they had originally met at two days ago. The door was locked.
A sudden feeling of panic and fear rushed over Maria. What have I gotten myself into? She screamed in her mind. Everything was fine yesterday. What happened? Did something happen to Mr. Boss or whoever is watching over this?
“BISHOP!” she screamed.
A thud was heard in the sleeping quarters, followed by a curse word, and Bishop scampered out, still wearing only his boxer shorts.
“What do you want, woman?”
She was hyperventilating and could barely get the words out. “No envelopes, no breakfast, no phone, people, can’t leave, door, locked!”
“Whoa, slow down there miss,” he said, holding his hands forward with a calming motion. “What’s goin’ on?”
She sat down on a chair and slowed down her breathing. “Things are strange this morning. We didn’t get an envelope and weren’t served breakfast. Those people in the cage haven’t been let out for hours. The phones don’t work, and this door is locked.”
“Alright then, was that so hard?” he said, smiling. Then what she had said hit him.
“Oh, geesh, well—”
“Can you break down the door, Bishop?”
“Well let’s have a look at it,” he said, inspecting the door. He sighed.
“This door is thick metal, triple deadbolted, really heavy. They didn’t want us going anywhere.”
“We can’t get out?” came the panicked voice of Alan. “Mr. Boss is gonna hear an earful now!” he said, heading for the sleeping quarters.
“Phones are dead,” Maria said. Alan stopped dead in his tracks, slowly turning around.
“Phones are dead,” Maria repeated.
“Wh… Wh… Why?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything.”
By this time, all six members of Group 2 where standing in the living area. All where silent.
“What should we do?” asked Maria.
“We haven’t much choice,” Bishop said. “We can’t go anywhere or contact anyone. The wall to the cage has that thick glass and bars, so I don’t think there’s much we can do for them either. We at least have a bathroom and some more snacks for food. But for now, we’ve got nowhere to go. We’re trapped.”
Small amounts of food were slid through openings in the wall for both lunch and supper for both groups. However, Group 1 was not let out of the cage for all of the second day. The sanitary conditions of the cage soon decreased greatly, as they soon had to give in to the yearning of their bladders and bowels, designating a corner of the cage as the bathroom.
“I think I need to throw up,” said the younger woman in the cage.
“Just use the bathroom, would ya?” said Harry. The woman kneeled over the bathroom corner.
“Very attractive,” Harry said, staring at the woman’s rear end while she was losing her lunch.
“Oh, shut up,” the woman said after she had finished, wiping her mouth on her shirt sleeve. “This place makes me sick.”
“I can tell,” Harry said, looking at the pile of vomit.
“You must have a stronger stomach than I do.”
“Blondes,” he said, shaking his head. She scowled.
“Excuse me? What does the color of my hair possibly have to do with my weak stomach?”
“All you girls are the same. Can’t handle the heat. Or in this case, can’t handle the stench. Always melting under the pressure.”
“What do you know about pressure? You’re a construction worker! I know about pressure, buddy.”
“How would a cute little thing like you know anything about pressure?”
“I’m a journalist, and in that business, we need today’s news yesterday. I have bosses breathing down my neck for every story and article I write. Everything needs to be done now and it needs to be done perfect. Do you have bosses at your throat telling you to hurry up with the next stretch of pavement?”
“Oh shut up, seriously.”
“You know, you’ve been quiet so far, and I liked you a lot better that way.”
“Well I’m sorry,” the woman said, “but you pinched a nerve.”
“That’s understandable, being that you’re a blonde.”
“Listen here, I don’t need your chauvinist pig-head right now, I’ve got enough on my mind.”
“Yeah, and I’m going to spill my guts to you.”
“Why not?” Harry said. “Have you got something else to do, somewhere else to go?”
“I think I’d rather talk to the wall.”
“Makes sense. It’s always good to talk to something that’s at least as smart as you and –”
“You don’t even know me!”
“I know enough.”
The woman crossed her arms and turned away from Harry, who had a wide smile on his face.
The six members of Group 2 searched every crack and crevice of the living and sleeping quarters, looking for a way out. A secret passageway maybe, or even just a sight of sunlight. Something to give them hope. But none was found.
Maria walked up to the glass and looked at Harry, and he was staring right back at her from his seat along the back wall. She smiled, trying to make contact. His facial expression didn’t change. She waved, he didn’t move. He leaned his head back against the wall, closing his eyes.
Maria sighed, and then tried to get the attention of the skinny man in the cage. He seemed to look near her, but never at her. No matter what she did, she couldn’t get the attention of anyone in the cage. Have they been told to ignore us? She thought.
“It’s a one-way mirror,” Bishop said from behind her. “They can’t see us.”
Maria scowled. “Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “Another mystery.”
She nodded, peering into the cage. “We’ve got it made compared to them.”
“Well, at least we can’t smell them,” Jendy said, sitting on the couch and playing with her hair. “I mean, come on. Gross.”
“That’s the least of my concerns right now,” Bishop said. “I just wish we could help them out of that tiny space they’re in.”
“So they can what, be trapped here too?” Jendy replied. “I say, let them keep their smell in there, cause I don’t want it out here.”
Bishop frowned at her.
“It wouldn’t really be much of an improvement,” she said, “were they to be out here instead of in there.”
“They’d have a toilet and some more room.”
“Maybe you should have been in there with them!” Bishop snapped.
“Me? In there? Without a toilet and a soft bed? What are you crazy?”
“Do you think you’re some kind of princess or something?”
“I just know that I deserve better than they do.”
The other five members just glared at her. And Bishop snapped.
“It’s all about you, isn’t it? Let me guess. Rich parents. An only child. Never had a job. Never lifted a finger. Always got what you wanted. Every ounce of you has been spoiled. Well sister, it’s time to wake up and smell the crap, cause you’re in it.”
With that, she started to cry, and Bishop rolled his eyes.
“What a brat,” he said, walking back into the sleeping quarters.
“Calm down, Bishop,” Sally said, putting a condoling arm around Jendy.
“Calm down? Don’t you see where we are?” he said, his voice loud and aggravated. “We’re locked in this, this, this prison of sorts, for who knows how long. We can’t get out and we can’t contact anyone. I bet this was all part of their plan, we’ve been kidnapped!”
“Get a hold of yourself,” said Sally, calmly. “Getting upset won’t help anyone. I’m sure all this will be figured out soon and—”
“Yeah, okay, thank you, Mrs. Feathers,” he said sarcastically. “That may work on a four year old, but this is real life, not some kind of childhood dream world.”
“Well excuse me for not being a rabid pessimist. There’s always light at the end of the—”
“The tunnel? This is the type of thinking I’d expect from a preschooler, but a student, not a teacher! There is not always light at the end of the tunnel, not in real life!”
“Okay everyone, just calm down,” Alan interjected. “Fighting won’t help us—”
“Okay, Pastor Alan, I don’t need any more sermons, they’re not helping.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Do you think your God is going to save you?” Bishop looked at Alan, then at Sally. “Neither of you know the first thing about real life, about reality. I suggest you both wake up and smell the roses. Before winter is gone and the garden is dead.”
An awkward silence filled the air, and for several moments, everyone just stared at Bishop. Some with angry eyes, some with sad eyes, some with fearful eyes. Bishop looked at each one of them before turning around and walking into the sleeping quarters.
“He thinks we’re gonna die,” Jendy said. “Die. In here. You think we’ll get out, don’t you, Sally?”
“Of course, dear. We’ll be let out. Why would they leave us down here to die?”
“Somebody’s idea of a cruel trick, maybe,” said George, who had been sitting against the wall near the locked door. “Maybe we’re the experiment, and someone else is watching us.”
“I can’t imagine such a study being ethical,” said Alan.
“Well, the study we thought we were doing wasn’t ethical either,” George said. “But big corporations will do anything for a paycheck. I’m sure the government’s involved somehow.”
“The government? Why?”
“They’re always involved. Everything’s a conspiracy. The moon landing, the JFK assassination, September 11, the government loves to create a story. It loves the publicity, and the sympathy. Or the glory, depending on what it is they’re conspiring.”
“And why would the government put us down here?”
“I don’t know, but I’m sure people will die to protect that information. It’s the way the government functions. They need something, they just generate it. It’s easier with physical goods or currency, but it’s still done with sympathy, anger, and hate. We’re just rats in the government’s maze of lies and deceit.”
Sally shook her head. “Do you always overanalyze things?”
“Do you always underanalyze things?”
She stared at him, before turning the other way.
“The government has all of us right where they want us, and most of the time, we don’t even know it. But they’re always watching,” George continued. “But not in my house. It’s spy-proof. I can do whatever I want in there, and the government hasn’t a clue. At least I don’t think they do. Next I’m going to spy-proof my car.”
The others started to ignore him.
“Someday, you’ll discover it; you’ll see everything the government has their hand in, all the places they’re meddling in that we don’t know about.”
“You don’t even want to know the connection between Richard Nixon, a Russian butcher, and a band of gypsies that live in Montana.”
Maria pushed the bickering away from her mind and closed her eyes. She thought of her children. She even thought about her ex-husband. She missed Dixie and Nevaeh greatly. She felt ashamed that she was fooled into coming along on this adventure. I knew it was a scam, a trap she thought to herself. I should always follow my gut. But since I didn’t, I’ve ruined everything. I’ll be stuck down here forever and won’t ever see them again. Stupid Maria!
And with that, she started to cry. Not just a few tears, but the waterfalls were unleashed. Large teardrops fell from her eyes, splashing on the wooden floor below. She fell forward, landing on her knees, then falling to the side and curling up in the fetal position. She wailed loudly and constantly.
Sally rushed over, putting a hand on her side and consoling her.
“I know it’s hard, dear, but we’ll all make it through.”
“That’s right,” said Alan, kneeling down beside her. “We must have faith.”
“I know…” said Maria, amid her continuing weeping. “It’s just… this was my big break. I’ve been through Hell, and this was supposed to be the end of it. All my troubles were going to be over.”
“Because of money?” Alan said.
“I really don’t care about money. But I had just recently started turning my life around. I had stopped the drugs, the drinking. I had been living on the streets, but I saw the potential for improvement, the hope for something better, which is something I hadn’t seen in years. The money could have been used to get myself back on my feet and show the world that I am a good mother. It could have helped me get my kids back. Now I’m stuck in this place, for who knows how long. And I bet nobody even knows I’m missing. Nobody ever knew where I was anyway, before I came here, I was just out on the street somewhere. In here I’m trapped, and out there I’m not even missed.”
Alan nodded sympathetically.
“Maybe there is a greater power at work here. A greater power than Mr. Boss,” he said.
“Like who? Or what?”
“Something higher, someone who sees everything from a different perspective. Someone like—”
“Preacher!” yelled Bishop, stomping across the floor towards him. “I said no preaching! We don’t need any false hope or hypocritical religious teachings here. We need to use our brains, not our hearts, to get us out of this place.”
“Sometimes, our minds get us into trouble, and—”
“Oh shut up, would you?” Bishop snapped.
Alan stared at him.
“I know you don’t think hope and faith have its place, Bishop, but what good does yelling and being upset do?”
“At least I’m not deceiving myself.”
Alan shook his head, and stood up.
“I know what you need, and its—”
Bishop’s fist slammed into Alan’s face, launching him backwards and into a table. He fell to the floor, blood pouring from his nose. Maria and Jendy screamed, and Sally ran over to see if he was alright. He stood on his knees, for a moment looking dazed, before finding Bishop’s blurred image in his field of vision.
“This is the line that you preach?” Alan said, holding back his anger. “Disagree with a guy and punch his lights out? This is the world you want to live in?”
“At least I’m punching the lights out of something that is real, not praying to some figment of my wishful imagination.”
“They’re setting all this up; they’re pitting us against each other,” George said. Everyone stopped and look at him. “It’s all part of their plan, to create this type of tension and hate. And we’re falling for it.”
A noise came from the cage. It was the sound of running and splashing water. The six people in the cage gasped as water starting pouring into it from holes in the ceiling. The small opening that was used to send in food had been closed, and the cage area started filling up.
Screams came from both the inside and the outside as all twelve of them panicked simultaneously. The water rose to two feet high, then three feet, then four feet. The human waste that had been in the corner of the cage started to float in the water.
“What is going on?” Alan screamed. “Mr. Boss, these people are dying!”
“And you’re going to watch them die,” Mr. Boss’ voice came over the speakers.
“How can you do this?” Alan yelled.
“Because I can,” Mr. Boss said.
Alan and Bishop banged on the glass, but it wouldn’t budge. The water was now six feet high, and the six members of Group 1 were floating up toward the ceiling. Seven feet. Eight feet. Nine feet. Soon only a foot of air was available. Their screams could barely be heard by those outside the cage. Those outside stood there silently, watching the legs of those inside kick to stay afloat.
Six inches of breathing room. Four inches. The young woman’s small body sank into the water, her eyes closed and air streaming out of her lungs.
“Ally!” Harry screamed from above, peering down into the water at the sinking woman. At that moment, the water stopped flowing. The hole at the bottom of the cage opened, and water rushed out of it and another drain on the bottom. Harry’s hand reached down and grabbed on to Ally’s arm, pulling her up and allowing her to breathe.
The water fully receded, and the six of them lay on the floor, exhausted. The six outside could only stare inside, hands over their mouths. Two minutes later, six plates, each with a piece of rich chocolate cake, slid through the opening in the cage. None of them were touched.