The alarm is a set of chimes, the tone and number of their call is precise and the same as it was each day before. My eyes open to the ceiling. Gray, featureless, no lamps. The room is lit softly from the window, the only light allowed here is that which comes from outside.
I don’t bother looking for the source of the chimes, they will end after thirteen tones, just as they always have.
I exhale as the final note plays and rise.
In the room is a small desk with a screen and a keyboard resting atop. The screen is black. A black leather couch rests on the opposite wall of my bed. The walls are bare. The carpet is plush, a beige that reminds me of some natural element that I can’t remember.
Thirty seconds from the last chime is all I have before I must go clean, or else my privilege is lost for the day. I rise without hurry from the bed, flipping the gray comforter from my legs, and leave the room.
In the bathroom, I wait. From my calculations, I have ten seconds before it happens. I stand in front of the sink, a square mirror hangs above, reflecting my image back. At least, I think it’s me but I don’t remember. Steel gray walls surround me. A glass corral conceals the shower. All of it is clean.
There aren’t handles on the faucet in the sink or the shower. No cleaning supplies, brushes, or combs lay about. There is nothing here that shouldn’t be.
The last three seconds extinguish as I wait, prepared.
A tone sounds. After which, a square in the wall extends toward me. It’s a drawer without depth, a flat surface like a platter. On the drawer is a toothbrush, it glimmers at me, sparkling clean.
I grab the brush. The drawer disappears into the wall and I wait, unthinking, with the end of the brush poised near the drawer. Another tone. This time a cylinder emerges from the wall, extending perpendicularly. With my toothbrush underneath, the nozzle lays a quarter inch of tooth paste on the bristles, and retreats back into the wall.
A second later, the faucet turns on, and I’m ready. A splash of water, then the tap stops. After this, I have ninety seconds to brush my teeth before the next spatter of water comes, this time it lasts for ten seconds. It allows me to rinse my mouth and the brush before the drawer spits out from the wall, I place the brush its cradle, and the drawer pulls back again.
There was a time I watched as this played out in front of me and I questioned the purpose but those times have passed, I have learned it is better to silence the mind and simply follow the cues. Nothing here can harm me, I no longer worry. It is only for my good and if I do not wash, breakfast will not come. I figured this out the the hard way.
There are fifteen seconds now for me to undress. I pull off my black athletic shorts and strip the tee off my back, both are of the same color and material. I set them on a shelf near the toilet. Soon, a rectangle opens, it hisses, and the garments are sucked away. I stand naked in front of the glass doors to the shower and looked down. My penis lays flat against my scrotum, it’s color consistent. The hairs surrounding are short and trim, as are the hairs that cover my legs. A shiver runs up my body as I wait.
A pneumatic sound and the glass door slides open. I step in. The door closes behind me. It is locked now, the door, I’ve tried to open it before but it is not a trap, only to keep the water inside the compartment. At least, that’s what I assume.
The shower head comes to life. The spray embraces my skin, a perfect temperature, not too hot or cool. Nozzles emerge from the wall. Shampoo first, then conditioner, finally comes body wash. I scrub thoroughly. My scalp, face, arms, chest, pits, legs, and feet. Moving quickly through these, I save my anus, balls, and penis for last, spending more time on them than the others. I don’t know why, there is some primal urge that forces me into this routine. As I wash my penis, I feel a prickle of electricity run through my stomach, but I force the feeling away. Last time, when I pursued this sensation, the water turned icy and I shivered the rest of the day because of it.
Two minutes later, I am rinsed and the shower head stops. Not one drip continues from the end, it is completely dry. Large squares open from each wall, the ceiling, and the floor of the tub. There is a gurgle from the vents and they come to life, whipping warm air at me from all directions. I stand with my legs spread and run my hands through my hair to help it dry quickly. After a short while, I am dry. The shower door hisses open and I step onto the cold floor.
On the shelf, where I placed my shorts and shirt, lays a pressed white dress shirt, gray slacks, black tie, black belt, and a shining pair of black shoes.
I quickly dress and check myself in the mirror one last time. My black hair is trim and appears combed, though I haven’t touched it. My eyes are silver, the same color as the walls. My body is overall thin but there is muscular definition to my face, neck, and shoulders. After this moment, which I know is the last moment I will see myself for the day, the mirror fades away and becomes part of the steel gray walls.
I walk from the bathroom and the door shuts behind me.
From there I enter the only other room in the flat. It resembles a kitchen but there isn’t a stove, sink, or microwave. It is empty except for a small square table with two chairs. The same gray walls surround all sides, nothing hangs from them, with a single window opposite from the table. I sit at the chair which faces the window and the empty seat across from me.
As usual, I contemplate the seat and the window, both useless. The blinds are drawn and the seat vacant.
Natural light floods through the slits of the blinds but, otherwise, nothing else is to be seen. I am not allowed to approach the window, because the blinds will fold over and close all light from the room, I’ve tried. I like the light, so I have not attempted this again.
The seat is a question in itself. It seems out of place because it is only I who occupies this place and I cannot sit in both chairs at once. However, I have the option to sit in the other chair, if I choose. This is the one thing I have a decision in, everything else is left to their discretion. Still, not once have I had company, one chair always remains empty, and I hate it for being here. It reminds me of an emotion I cannot recall, like standing at the edge of a dark hole, an emptiness whose depth is without measure.
Three minutes pass, as I sit at the table. I do not know why I have so much time without anything to occupy my thoughts but it’s always this way. I press away the questions of what lays on the opposite side of the window, the empty chair and table, but they come flying back at me as if they intend not to go unnoticed.
The bell rings, a ding-dong, and I rise from my seat.
Tracing my steps back through the room, I stop where the hall turns to my right, leading to the bathroom and bedroom. To my left is something that is only here three times a day, a door.
I step towards it.
It is a door unlike the rest, all of them automatic, because, on this one, is a handle. Another decision I have yet to mention, is that I can choose to open the door or watch as it fades away, a minute later. But I do not count this as much of a decision because my stomach growls in hunger and forces me to grab the handle, as I have always done.
I open the door. On the other side is a young woman. She is wearing a navy blue uniform dress that rises to her neck, culminating in a white collar. Her face is fair and her features smooth, framed by shoulder length black hair. She is younger than me, I can tell, no lines at the edge of her smile or eyes as I do. In her hands is a metal tray with a lid over it’s contents. Next to the lid is a thermos of steaming coffee.
A fragrant smell of living things strike my nose, drifting toward me from a warm breeze at her back but her hair does not shift in the wind. Behind her extends a concrete walkway, it travels straight and is bordered by green plants and tall trees. The sunlight tips the trees in gold but leaves the walkway in the cool of shadows. There is no one else in view. No buildings except for my own. The only thing that exists is the path which leads from my door, a path that I will always wonder to which it leads, but I am not allowed to travel its length. There is a stab of pain in my heart at the thought, similar to the sensation the chair gives me.
“Good Morning, Cornelius.” The woman says. Her tone is harmonic and her syllables well placed. Her face shows no emotion.
“Good Morning, Tabitha.” I return the greeting.
“Here is your breakfast.” She extends the tray. “The coffee is black. A light roast, just the way you like it.” She adds.
I nod and take the tray. This is the moment I should return to my room but I hesitate.
“Will I be allowed to leave today?” I ask and search her black eyes. They tell me nothing.
“Not today, Cornelius. It is still too dangerous. Maybe tomorrow.” She says, her tone is without inflection.
“You said that yesterday. It seems peaceful out. I could keep close to home.” I say.
Tabitha nods but it isn’t agreement.
“It may seem that way, Cornelius. But we are safe here, beyond what we can see are dangers I cannot explain. This is for your own good.” Tabitha says at last. As she speaks, she moves to the side and we both gaze down the path that leads from my door.
The breeze ripples the leaves of the bulbous shaped trees and square bushes. Nothing else moves. No animals stir or call. The path is clean, there isn’t a speck of debris anywhere. I cannot see where the path leads, before long it descends and drops out of sight. In the daylight, it looks inviting and I feel lust rising in my chest, even though I know what Tabitha says is true.
“Where do you go, when you are not bringing my food?” I ask her at last.
“Secrets are our only way to remain safe, Cornelius. You must not ask questions of this nature. Knowledge brings danger. I am your doorkeeper and I am here to keep you safe, what I do beyond that does not matter. I exist for this alone.” Tabitha tells me.
I nod and look down at the tray. The scent of the coffee rises to my nostrils and awakens my craving.
“Would you like to come in?” I ask her.
“I cannot keep watch on your door if I join you. You must understand this.” She replies.
“Why do I have two chairs?” I ask her.
“Because a table is not complete without it.”
“But the chair remains empty. It’s excessive. I don’t like looking at it.” I say.
“One day, the chair will be filled and then will you understand. But you must be patient.” Tabitha says and folds her hands across her stomach.
“I have been here for a long time, Tabitha. Not one is coming. There is no one here but you and if you will not come in then I will sit alone again today.” I say.
“One day, it will be safe again, you will walk the path and others will join you. But you must put these thoughts away, they can only harm you, and you will be lonelier because of them. For now, you must remain inside and safe.” She tells me.
“When will one day come?” I ask.
“You must go back inside, Cornelius. The door is about to close.” Tabitha says firmly.
I nod and step backwards, not wanting to turn my eyes from her. Once I’m past the door, it closes automatically and disappears. I am locked in silence.
I return to the table and set the tray down. From the window filters white light, the warmth I’d seen at my door is extracted from it, and it glows pale and soft around the room.
After I’m seated, I lift the tray, releasing the scent of freshly seared vegetables, eggs, and a single biscuit.
I grab the biscuit and peel it apart. As I do, something falls from its center to the ground. A thin strip of paper. I scoot back and reach under the table to pick it up. It is folded and blank on either side. When I open it, there is a single word scrawled upon it’s surface in black ink.
ESCAPE, it reads.
The note does not alarm me. In fact, I receive this same note every morning, only at breakfast, tucked away in a biscuit or muffin, under my coffee, or wrapped in a tortilla. Similar one word messages, all of them. Such as; FREEDOM, UNTRUTH, DISBELIEVE, LIES, HIDDEN, GO. I do not have the courage to ask Tabitha where they come from, I do not want her to worry. As she said, I must remain here, it is unsafe for me to leave, and I believe her.
I place the strip of paper on my biscuit, butter over it, and eat it, as I have done each morning before.