Read Before You Sign by Kirby, 10th grade

“Are you guys interested in hearing about T.E.A.R?” said the young blonde woman standing in the booth to my left. She’s obviously had way too much coffee, there’s no reason to be this excited at 2 in the afternoon.

I didn’t even want to come to this stupid career fair. I wanted to ditch so I wouldn’t be berated by people like this who just memorized a script. I wanted to go do something with my life, like going to seeing a movie. That would broaden my horizons.

“Why yes we are!” said my weak-willed friend, Sawyer. I knew as soon as he had seen the girl he’d be interested. Classic Sawyer.

“Our organization is focused on the effects the ElectroMagnetic Pulse will have on the human race. The EMP isa solar flare, which is capable of happening at any minute. It will completely destroy technology as we know it.” This is obviously memorized from a script. “At T.E.A.R., which stands for Testing Earth’s Absolute Resistance, we want to observe how the reactions of some countries will affect the people who know how to rebuild society and civilizations, and watch how the resilience of the average person would change. You’d be helping the entire human race, and that’s pretty awesome.”

“So how does this work? Do you take away our cell phones for a week? Because if that’s it, my mom has been conducting these same experiments on me for years.” I retorted.

“Sort of. We take away all technology that would be useless when the EMP hits. That would be your radio, phone, mp3 player, calculators, everything. Then, we simulate the reactions of different governments while monitoring the brain waves of the subject.”

“How long would this last for a ‘subject’?”

“It depends entirely on the person. For some, maybe a few days. For others, their test could last up to 3 months.”

“You know, you’ve convinced me. I would like to sign up.” Anything that could get me out of re-learning what I already know in school classes.

“Is there any kind of compensation for this?” Sawyer said, unconvinced.

“Of course! You would be paid $127 a week,” Like that matters “but you wouldn’t receive that until the test is over. Can I go ahead and sign you up?” She said as she shoved a clipboard into my hands.

I quickly filled in all of my information. Some of the questions struck me as odd. They asked how I would classify my pain tolerance on a scale of 1-10. Weird. I said I was a solid 9. After I had finished filling out the basic application, the woman handed me two more pieces of paper. The first was the address of the testing facility and what time I was expected to be there. The second was a waiver. I skipped over the small print, signed my name, and handed it back to her. Sawyer shot me a baffled look. His eyes said, “What the royal heck are you doing?” I gave a slight smirk to Sawyer and a full smile to the woman.

“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow!” I said.

“Be sure to get plenty of rest! You’ll be needing it!”

For what?

As Sawyer and I walked away, I could hear the woman dialing her phone.

“Some finally signed up. Get everything ready, she’ll be there tomorrow.”

After we were out of ear shot, Sawyer finally said out loud what his eyes had been saying the entire time.“You’re crazy. That organization sounds more shady than a kid’s hair salon called kiddy cutter.”

“I think it sounds fun. To each their own. Now let’s go catch a movie. There’s nothing else interesting here.” I decided while strutting out of the gym that perpetually smelled like sweaty socks.

After the movie, I went back to my seedy apartment. As it turns out, a 16 year old can rent an apartment if she declares independence from her parents. I began to pack a suitcase, which was no easy task because I had no clue where I was going or how long I was going to be there. I decided they have to offer laundry services, so I only packed for a week. After drinking a cup of hot chocolate and setting my alarm, I went to bed.

I was rudely awoken by my blaring alarm. It’s way too early for this. I slapped my clock to shut it off. I sat up and brushed the sleep out of my eyes. It was still dark outside. My last night self had decided to be nice and set out some clothes to wear. I pulled on my ripped jeans, old t-shirt, a hoodie for a camp I went to years ago, socks with holes in the bottom, and my ratty old Tony Hawk shoes. I stood up and went to my decrepit sink where I quickly brushed my hair into a pony tail. On the way out to my car, I mixed a thermos of coffee and slung my backpack over my shoulder with my suitcase trailing behind me.

I tossed my stuff into the car and pulled my phone out of my pocket. Hey Mom, I’ve decided to help society. I won’t have my phone for probably 3 months, so don’t contact me. I don’t think I’ll really have to worry about that, but just in case. Later. I hit send and let out a long breath. I guess it really wasn’t her fault that she fell in love with an abusive sociopath, but that wasn’t something I could live with. The court trial for my independence had gone on for months. My lawyer was excellent at what she did, and she got me released from the prison that was my life. It turns out when you tell your mother that you want nothing to do with her though, she might take it a little rough and attempt to forget that you exist. I had come to terms with that. You can’t force someone to love you. I entered the address the woman had given me into the GPS and started my car. While it was loading my route, I sent a text to Sawyer. Hey dudeski, I’m out. I’ll see you in 3 months! Be good (but not too good, you have a reputation to uphold).

Before I knew it there was a massive warehouse looming in front of me. The twilight of the morning cast an eerie mist over everything. Here goes nothing. I grabbed my belongings out of the passenger seat and sauntered over to the shabby door that was barely hanging on its hinges. It opened with a creak. Inside was a pleasant waiting room that sharply contrasted the cold steel of the exterior. A warm yellow light gave an optimistic air to the small room with beige walls and beige carpets to match. A handsome young man at the desk was typing furiously into the computer in front of him. He didn’t hear me enter until I gently cleared my throat.

“Oh sorry! I didn’t hear you come in!” He said with a smile. His name tag read Gary. He seemed warm and welcoming. The wooden door at the other end of the room quickly swished open. A short bald man in a lab coat entered. He held a clipboard, and spoke with a nasally voice.

“Name?”

“Uh… Lacy.”

“Lacy…?”

“Stevens. Sorry, I’m kind of nervous.”

“How does that affect me?”

“I guess it doesn’t. Sorry.”

He gestured to a metal folding chair behind me. “Sit there. Someone will be out to take you into the testing area soon.”

Well I hope the rest of the administrators aren’t this cold. I pulled out my phone to make sure I didn’t get any last minute texts. I saw that Sawyer had replied. Shocking! He never wakes up before noon. Don’t be stupid, ok? I expect to hear loads of stories about all the other nice kids you meet! And you better know how freaking special you must be for me to be awake right now. Peace. I shut my phone off with a smile.

“Don’t start any conversations. You’re not going to be able to use it soon.”

“Dangit Gary, I’m not starting any conversations. How does this even concern you?”

“Don’t shoot the messenger. It’s policy.”

I felt bad for snapping at him. He seemed nice enough. The wood door swung open once again. The nametag I hadn’t noticed before said “Neville”. Figures. What a tool name.

“Lacy, you can come with me now.”

I slung my backpack over my shoulder, grabbed the handle of my suitcase, and stood up.

“Oh, you can leave those bags here. We’ll have Gary get them for you.”

Gary shot the man an annoyed look and groaned as he stood up. He obviously hadn’t volunteered to be the bellboy.

“My pleasure.” He said with a clearly false smile.

“Thanks Gary.”

I gave him my most sincere grin to make up for earlier, then rushed to follow the man. He lead me through winding hallways. Everything we passed had a metal, clinical feeling to it. It looked like a hospital, where everything could be cleaned easily and quickly. We passed numerous doors that all looked exactly the same. The guy finally stopped by a door. The sign hanging next to it said “Orientation and Experimentation Room”.

“Here you will be told exactly what’s expected of you. At the end of the orientation, you will begin the simulation immediately. From then on you won’t be able to ask any questions so make sure you’re completely clear before you start.”

“Ok, thank you.”

“Also I’ll need all of your electronic devices. Your phone, your watch, anything else that has an energy source.”

I quickly handed everything to him as he opened the door for me. I walked in hesitantly. The room looked like an interrogation room with a bed and a toilet in it. The woman from the fair was standing inside.

“Hello Lacy! So good to see you again!”

“Uh, hi. So are you going to be in charge of the simulation?”

“I am.”

Ok, maybe she wasn’t just reading from a memorized script.

“Here’s how the simulation is going to work. I’m going to give you a note card that has a phrase on it. That’s a representation of a secret. Those are the kind of secrets that will rebuild society, and those are the ones we need to protect. You need to memorize it quickly and exactly. Then, we’re going to try to get you to say it. Now I have to warn you. You put down that you have an extremely high pain tolerance level, so you’re going to be subjected to significantly more than someone who has a lower level would have been subjected to. The people who are going to be trying to make you tell cannot take the card from you; you have to orally tell them. There will also be a small pistol in your room, under the bed. It will always be loaded with a single bullet. That is your worst case scenario. If you truly believe you can’t take anymore, that’s the instant end. Remember the United States’ future is depending on you. You can either wait until we decide testing is over, or until you can’t take it anymore. Understand?”

“When does this end? When will my testing be over?”

“That’s going to depend.”

“On what?”

“Either things beyond your control or your resistance.”

“What do I have to do?”

“Just don’t tell the phrase to anyone, under any circumstances.”

Sounds easy enough.

“Any more questions?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Alright. Here is your card, the simulation starts now. Good luck.”

She strolled out of the room, closing the door behind her. I heard a deadbolt slide into place. I looked at the bright blue note card she had handed me. It said “a baker’s dozen consists of 13 items.” Ok then. I took an opportunity to take a better look of the room. On my right there was a mirror, which I suspected was one way glass. Straight ahead of me was a thin mattress on a metal frame. Next to it was a metal toilet. That was all. I’m supposed to live for 3 months in this?

I sat down on the flimsy bed and stared into the mirror. Well now what? I swung my legs onto the bed, when the exhaustion of waking up so early caught up to me. I quickly fell asleep.

I woke up what seemed to be hours later. The room was lit with a cold, unchanging light to match the rest of the facility. I had no idea of what time it was. After rubbing my eyes, I glanced towards the door. There was a food slot with a small ledge about half way up. I stood up and began to walk towards it. All of the sudden the door flung open. Two muscular men busted into the room and threw a bag over my head. One of the men tossed me over his strong shoulder, and I could feel him rushing out of the room. For the next few moments I could feel the men turning through hallways and hurrying down corridors, but I was too disoriented to tell where we were going. I heard a door squeak open and the man threw me down in a chair. They quickly secured my hands behind me. He ripped the bag off of my head, grabbing a few stray hairs along with it. I was given a warm greeting by yet another cold and clinical light. Geez, maybe they got a bulk discount. I felt the cold metal chair pressing against me. As I was trying to take in my surroundings a hand swiftly slapped my face. Oh this mother-

“What is the phrase?” someone shouted at me.

“What phrase?”

“Don’t play dumb. You’re not that good of an actor. I know you know.”

“Bro I don’t know what you’re talking abo-“

Another slap.

“Who the heck are you? Who do you think you are that you can do this to m-“

A third slap. Ok, well someone doesn’t want to talk about his feelings.

****************************************************************

An hour later I’m was in my room with several abrasions on my face. I didn’t tell the man the secret. This is going to be a long test. The slot on the door groaned open and a crusty piece of bread tumbled to the floor. A small tin cup was forced through the slot. I stooped down to pick up the bread, when I saw motion through the slot. A pair of legs rushed away. I unwedged the cup from the slot, and here is where I made the crucial mistake. I looked at what I was about to consume. The water was cloudy and smelled of sulfur. I guess I can wait a little bit on the water then.

A couple hours passed before another man rushed into the room in the same fashion as before. He carried me into another room, and strapped me to a board and secured my arms behind me.Again? Really? The bag was ripped of my head and replaced with a wash cloth. Where is this going? A cold wave of frigid water washed over me. It didn’t affect me at first, until it began to feel like the water was seeping into my lungs. I felt like I was perpetually drowning for more than 2 hours. They would wring out the towel, ask for the secret, then pour another pitcher’s worth of water on when I wouldn’t tell.

They returned me to the small interrogation room and deposited me onto the bed I would soon grow to call home.

****************************************************************

I had been here for what I believed to be weeks. They had tortured me to no end, but I wouldn’t tell them the secret. I had the entire future of the world resting on me. But one day, I was done. I was finished with this abuse. The idea that they could morally do that to another human sickened me to no end. I had been drowned without drowning. I had been slapped without succumbing. I wouldn’t give in. But today I had had enough. It’s better that no one knows this secret than the wrong people knowing. In the time I had been here, this experiment had become my life. I couldn’t seem to remember anything before I came here.

I eyed the pistol lying next to me. There has to be another way out of this. But there wasn’t. The small firearm was the only option. I struggled to pick it up and pass it between my hands. I looked at the one-way mirror on the wall across from me. All I could see was the deep hollowness where my previously life- filled eyes used to be, my swollen split lip, and the gash that was haphazardly stitched across my cheek. This is exactly what they want. They told me they would make me tell. There has to be a way out. There wasn’t. My shoulder quaked from waves of pain. I had thrown myself into the rusting iron door that was taunting me from the wall on my right more times than I cared to count. This will help other people. I’m helping the human race to prepare. Everyone else will benefit if I just keep going. But I couldn’t bear to think about it anymore. I couldn’t think about everyone else anymore. I grasped the pistol in my right hand and held it at my temple. I took a deep breath, then squeezed the trigger. I heard a dull thump. I waited for the pain in my shoulder to go away. It didn’t. I opened my eyes and saw my bloody face in the mirror that was still staring at me. I still tasted the iron in the blood in my mouth. These people really were monsters. I wanted my life to be over, and they had loaded the pistol with blanks. A tinny voice rang out from a decrepit speaker I hadn’t seen before in the corner of the room.

“Thank you Lacy, your test is complete.”

The door croaked open. Suddenly Gary was standing there.

“Lacy, can I escort you to your car?”