Keeping time

by Lilla Orly

 

Paige sat on the partially deflated air mattress with her back against the hard grey wall. The entire room was six identical sides; no windows or doors except for a small metal flap in the corner that was bolted shut. Sometimes she amused herself by imagining that the floor was really the ceiling but often stopped immediately after the sense of panic at losing her grip. The only indicator that the side she sat on was really the floor was the single sharp fluorescent light above her head thats incessant buzzing never failed to irritate her. She currently sat, staring up at the aforementioned light, trying to find a rhythm to its song and thinking back to the night that she agreed to take part in this sick experiment.

***

            It was a house party that she didn’t even want to go to in the first place. The type that always had the cops show up at least once and left the front lawn littered with red solo cups. Her friend Hanna had pulled Paige unwillingly to her secondhand BMW and driven them to the neighborhood one town over where the party was taking place. They had parked a few blocks away since the street was already filled with hundreds of other cars. As Hanna was fixing her make-up in the overhead mirror she decided to take the time to lecture Paige on her poor social skills.

“C’mon Paige, why do you always have to be such a drag? Let loose for once in your life! You’re not even going to know anybody there so it won’t matter!”

“I’ve heard those famous last words in about a dozen teen blockbusters and at least half of them have ended in disaster,” Paige retorted. Hanna stopped applying mascara to her already thick lashes and turned to Paige to give her a look of pure annoyance.

“Fine,” she said, her voice filled with indignation, “you can stay in the car if you want to, but I’m not going to bother cracking the window.”

“Hanna, you know I’m not going to let you go to a huge rager all by yourself. There’s bound to be creepy guys and spiked drinks all over the place!”

“Well I’m definitely going so I guess you’ll have to follow me either way,” said Hanna with a smirk.

They arrived at the party shortly after and, sure enough, each face that stared back at their own was that of a complete stranger. Paige always wondered whether there was a definite beginning to big parties like this one. It always seemed to her as though they were suddenly brought into existence, and there was no slow accumulation in the arrival of guests.

An hour into the party Paige was pretty buzzed after Hanna had insisted that she have a couple drinks to loosen up. Paige stood by the wall while Hanna danced with a random guy she had found earlier and briefly spoken with about their mutual love for Nirvana. “No way!” Hanna had exclaimed drunkenly when he said his celebrity crush was Courtney Love, “ Kurt Cobain is like my spirit animal.” They currently danced closely in the growing and shrinking mass of people, every so often shouting over the music into each others’ ears.

Paige was just calculating how fast she would suffocate in the enclosed space if the 400 people around her were all breathing at an even rate when a tall, lanky and obviously heavily intoxicated boy stumbled and spilled his drink all over her.

“Woah, man,” the boy slurred. Paige looked down in horror at the only nice shirt she owned slowly being devoured by a spreading purple stain. The clumsy boy stumbled on and left Paige fuming. She got Hanna’s attention and mouthed, ‘Bathroom.’ ‘Need help?’ Hanna mouthed in return. Paige shook her head and immediately pushed through the crowd in search of a restroom. She went up a set of stairs, stepping over a few sleeping corpses along the way and found herself in a dark hallway where people stood on either side. Though she wasn’t sure where the source of the blaring music was, it definitely sounded louder upstairs. The heavy bass overpowered the beating of her heart and she felt her whole body pulsing with the beat. The electric whine of the melody droned in her ear making her feel dizzy and disoriented. The shadowed faces around her seemed to distort and she swore she saw one’s eyes flash gold momentarily.

She forgot about her search for the lavatory and crashed into the room directly to her right, panting and sweating as though she’d just been running. She slammed the door behind her and leaned against it, shutting her eyes and attempting to control her breathing.

“Are you alright?” a voice asked, causing her to jump. She opened her eyes to a boy sitting in a chair in the corner opposite her. He stared intently with sharp green eyes, and held a paperback loosely in his large hands.

“Jesus,” she breathed, a hand flying to her chest, “You scared the crap out of me.”

“Sorry, you just looked like you were about to pass out,” he answered in a genuine tone of concern. Paige flushed bright red, embarrassed by her agitation. “What happened to your shirt?” the boy asked motioning towards the hideous stain that now gave her the appearance of poor table manners.

“Oh,” she said looking down at it and feeling her blush deepen, “Some idiot spilled his drink on me.”

“That sucks, there’s a bathroom through there, if you want to get cleaned up,” the boy pointed at a door to his right.

“That’s alright,” Paige answered, “It’s done it’s damage already. There’s no use trying to fix it now.”

“Do you want to borrow a sweater or something?” the boy asked.

“Do you live here?” Paige inquired, raising a suspicious eyebrow.

“Yea, my brother is the guy throwing the party. I’m not really into the whole drink ‘til you drop scene, so I’m guarding my bedroom from any miscreants.”

“Oh, true. Well, then yeah sure, I guess a sweater would be nice,” Paige shrugged her shoulders, trying to play it cool.

The boy stood up and his height suddenly became very apparent. He moved over to a dark wood dresser and began rummaging through the drawers. While his back was turned to her, Paige took in the room. From what she could see peeking through dozens of band posters, the wall was a dark grey-blue. Other than that, there wasn’t much evidence of a soul living in the space. All the furniture was black and rather plain, the bed looked pristinely made as though it had never once been slept in. Finally, the boy pulled out a dark grey Berkeley University hoodie and handed it to Paige. He towered over her as she slipped her arms then her head into the oversized sweatshirt, feeling rather awkward and childish.

“You’re swimming in that thing,” he laughed.

“Yea well I didn’t know I would be borrowing a giant’s sweater,” she giggled in return.      “What are you reading?” she asked nodding at the book in his hands.

“Oh, I was just rereading ‘Slaughterhouse Five,’” the boy answered.

“Really?! I love that book! Vonnegut is hilarious.”

“I agree. I just love his ability to combine serious subjects with satire and humor without demeaning any of it,” the boy replied.

“You know, ever since I’ve read that book, I’ve had a different view on life and time,” Paige blurted feeling an unusual lightheadedness, “I even sometimes think that I feel myself jumping through life moments like Billy Pilgrim. I’ll be like on the bus or something, and suddenly, I’m overcome by an emotion that provokes a memory I had completely forgotten. Other times I feel almost violated by unfamiliar emotions that I feel I have no understanding of because I haven’t experienced them yet.” She looked up at the boy to find him staring at her with a straight face. “If that makes sense…” she murmured.

“No, it makes complete sense,” the boy said, nodding enthusiastically. He suddenly spoke in an eager manner, “You know, I really believe that time is bullshit. A man made creation and all that. We invented clocks and calendars so that we could keep track of our meetings and birthdays and important dates. Its all just to help make us feel in control of something far greater than we are. Time is simply bullshit.”

“Wow, I never thought of it that way,” Paige said quietly and looked away from the boy, no longer able to hold his set gaze. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence that was broken by the boy.

“Would you like to take part in an experiment?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, what?” Paige responded, dumbfounded.

“I’m majoring in psychology and I’m doing this experiment with my university on how we measure time. How accurate our intuition is and what not. No one has really wanted to take part, but you seem mentally stable enough and have a firm grasp on what I’m trying to prove.”

“Mentally stable enough?” Paige repeated.

“Yeah well you see, my experiment is this: I lock you in a room for a year. You’re provided with food, water, all the basic needs, but there will be nothing in the room that will give you any trace of time. You will have to guess when you believe a year is up.”

“You’re messing with me, right?” Paige asked skeptically.

“I’m dead serious,” he responded, his expression proving his words.

“Are you crazy?!” Paige suddenly burst. “Solitude for a year?! Who would willingly submit to that?! I just met you! I don’t even know your name!” She turned to leave the room, but the boy grabbed her sleeve and pulled her back. For a moment, she believed that his eyes flashed gold.

“Look, my names Dylan and I know the idea seems crazy, but there’s a reward.”

“What, insanity?” Paige answered in frustration, yanking her arm from his grip.

“No,” he said, raising his thick brows, “The reward is ten million dollars.”

***

            Ten million dollars. Enough to pay through her student loans. Enough to help her mother out of debt. Enough to allow the both of them to live comfortably for the rest of their lives without having to work unless ennui threatened to kill. She accepted the offer right away, though she blamed her hasty decision on the alcohol warming her stomach, feigning hunger and exhausting her mind. When she spoke with Hanna through the phone, her response was unexpected and hurtful, “You’re getting paid a shitload to do what you’ve done your whole life? You had better at least pay me as a symbol of your gratitude towards me for taking you to that party in the first place.” Paige grumbled a vague promise and farewell, irritated by her friend’s behavior before hanging up.

Her mother’s reaction was devastating. Paige had shown up at the house unannounced, not wishing to call in advance, knowing her mother would worry that the imminent news was an unexpected pregnancy or drug addiction. She had decided not to prance around the subject and so told her mother bluntly about the deal she had accepted. Her mother’s usually warm smile had faded into a disbelieving grimace.

“Oh, Paige,” she whispered, “What have you done?”

“What do you mean?” Paige asked.

“I know we’ve never really been well off but do you think that taking a year from your life is worth that sum of money? You’re young! These years are impressionable. You’re impressionable! God, no wonder you agreed to such a deranged act.”

“Impressionable? Mom, I agreed to this to better your life just as much as mine! I can’t believe that you would disregard my good intentions for you! Do you even realize how much money I’ll get?”

“Who cares about the money, Paige? You could get a good job that you enjoy doing after university, you could gain experience, and friendships, just as much as you would money. Don’t do this.”

“I respect your concern because you’re my mother, but I’m an adult now so you should respect my decisions as well. Besides, I didn’t come here for your permission. I came to say goodbye,” said Paige, infuriated, turning to leave.

“Oh, Paige let’s not part on bad terms,” her mother pleaded. Paige froze with the doorknob in her hand but did not turn around.

“I love you,” she said sternly before opening the door and walking out into the chilling fall night.

***

            Before the experiment began, Paige was told a set of rules and boundaries while they ran medical tests on her. As a doctor took her blood Dylan explained, “You won’t be able to write or receive any letters; we can’t take any chances with someone sending you messages or giving any hints at the date. You will not be allowed to listen to music. Again, the songs would help you count the passing time. For entertainment, you can read books and write for yourself. You will be fed three meals a day through a trap door that you cannot open from your side. The food will be served at irregular intervals to disorient you. When it comes to hygiene we will send in a bed pan for waste, and a bucket of water and soap for bathing as well as fresh clothing. Do you have any questions?” Paige looked at him astounded, as anxiety slowly crept over her.

“You’re going to be observing me throughout the whole thing.”

“Yes,” Dylan answered, his eyes staying level with hers, never once blinking or looking away.

“Alright, let’s do this,” she said.

Once Paige had been declared to be in perfect health, she was led by Dylan to a concrete wall, behind which was the room that she would be spending the next 365 days in. They stood before it and Dylan looked at her sideways.

“You nervous?” he asked.

“Oddly enough, no,” Paige responded, returning his gaze.

“Good,” he said and smirked, just as the wall slid open to reveal the bare room. Paige stepped inside, her eyes darting from floor to ceiling and wall to wall.

“Remember,” Dylan said from behind her, forcing her to turn. The wall was slowly sliding shut once more as he said, “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”

***

            That was eleven months ago. Or, she supposed it was eleven months ago. She had completely lost track of time. There was nothing around to help her count the seconds, minutes, days, weeks. At one point she had tried counting the beating of her heart, but had lost count and trust of the speed of her pumping blood.

She had spent most of her time in the room reading and writing, recording things she thought or quotes she enjoyed from the novels she read. Though she was presented with unseen worlds created by the authors of the books, she no longer dreamt. Her mind and heart had lost all desire since entering the room. The bleak walls and still air left her with no want to see or breathe.

For the last month of her willful imprisonment, Paige simply thought. She sat on the air mattress, staring blankly at the wall opposite her. She rarely touched the food that was served and refused any new books or writing utensils. Though her face remained expressionless, her mind raced, assessing images, memories, and thoughts. She reflected on past conversations, experiences, relationships, and contemplated the ones not had.

***

            No one understood how on the final day of her captivity, Paige stood up from the mattress ten seconds before the one year interval and walked to the centre of the room knowingly. She looked at the buzzing light above her head, and once the clock had struck zero she smiled and said, “Times up.”

***

            One week after being released, Paige was found on the tiled floor of her bathroom with slit wrists. Alongside her body was found a last letter written to Dylan, that he was later given by the police. It read:

Dear Dylan,

Though I could have written this letter to anyone who claimed more importance in my life, I chose to address it to you since I believe you will be the only one to fully understand. While I sat in that room, all became clear to me, though I did not wish it to. You may perceive time as one continuous, and even flow of passing moments, but I know truly that it is nothing of the sort. It is erratic and cares for no mortal soul. In fact, it despises you and me. Once I was left to my own devices in the room, I was cornered by time and forced to give up my innocence. Upon leaving I knew that I could no longer wait for death, because if I did so, death would never come.  

I knew that I could not jump in front of a train, for the hurling, steaming engine followed a schedule, one that I could not and would not follow. Though the ocean’s crushing waves tempted me, I soon realized that the tide was also restricted by time, moving in and out at set periods. I went through a list of possibilities for my final repose before subsequently deciding on the blade. I could not let my end be in the hands of anyone or anything other than myself. 

So you see, I have now escaped the slow approaching fate which you will never reach. You will never know the bliss or serenity that I know. While you believe that you are keeping time, you are gravely mistaken for time is keeping you. You will remain confined in it’s grip and I will not. Finally, everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. 

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