You’re a Mile Away and You Have Their Shoes

They wouldn’t tell me my name when I woke up, because they said that would corrupt the experiment. Instead, they told me my neutral reference: Miss Scarlet. Then they sat me down in a room with a bright ceiling light, a single table, two chairs, and a video camera.

“Do you remember your name?” said the questioner.

“No,” I said.

“Do you remember where you were born?”

“No.”

“Do you remember your birthday?”

“I don’t remember anything.”

“Please answer the question with a yes or no.”

“No, I don’t remember my birthday.”

The questions continued for some time, a litany of memory loss, until the questioner put down her clipboard on the table and smiled.

“Well, Miss Scarlet, now that that’s out of the way and we have a baseline, I’d like to welcome you.”

“Does that mean you’re going to tell me where I am?” I asked.

“I can’t do that,” said the questioner. “I can tell you that I’m Dr. Colby. We’re studying the effects of memory loss. You’re going to be staying with us for a week while I monitor you. We’re going to ask you those questions a few times during the one-week period, as well as some open-ended questions. We may also monitor the electrical activity in your brain as we ask you to recall or try to recall certain memories.”

“Did I agree to this?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Colby, who smiled. “You volunteered, actually. We greatly appreciate your assistance in this project.”

Colby took me back to the room where I had woken up. The walls were beige and scuffed, marked with the clinging residue of poster putty and small holes where nails were pulled out. It was slightly harder to tell the condition of the carpets, since they were dully multicolored, a subdued stain-hiding confetti pattern. There was a bed along one wall, a small desk pushed up against the other, and a dresser next to the desk.

“You’ll find clothing in the dresser. You’re free to walk around the hallway and to talk to the others participating in the experiment, but we ask you not to go beyond that area for safety reasons.”

“Where am I?”

“I can’t tell you that,” said Colby. “But I assure you, you don’t need to be afraid.”

I frowned, and it occurred to me that I had no previous memories of frowning. I had the general sense, somehow, that I had frowned before, but I had no specific memory that I could refer to and think, yes, I was frowning when that happened, that was a time that I decided to frown.

My eyebrows, apparently, had a better memory than my actual memory.

“Three meals a day will be served in the common room at the end of the hall, right down there,” said Colby. “Do you have any questions?”

“If I did, would you answer them?”

“Not if it would compromise the experiment.” For a moment Colby’s lips thinned at the edges with suppressed sympathy. “I just want to say again, Miss Scarlet, you volunteered for this. You may not remember your reasons for being here, but they’re worthwhile.”

“I suppose I can spend my time guessing about what they might be, then,” I said. “Can you at least tell me if I’m sick, or had some kind of accident?”

Careful blankness rolled over Colby’s expression like a lowered blind. “I’m sorry,” she said, not sounding it.

I looked around the room again. “What time is it?”

Colby had to think about it, and I added, “I just want to know if I should expect breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and when.”

“Oh. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. Dinner will be served in two hours.”

“Thank you.”

Colby looked at my eyes, then down to my knees, and then away from me entirely, as though she didn’t like what she saw. “I’ll see you for your next check-in, then,” she said, and left the room.

There was no mirror, I noticed, so I closed the door and began investigating. My hair was long enough that I could pull it in front of me and see it: dyed blonde, but well. My skin was pale, but olive-toned: Mediterranean, possibly. No tattoos, one birthmark on the back of my right thigh, and a small callused patch by the bottom knuckle of my right ring finger. When I held my right hand up, the base of that finger was thinner than the others. I had worn a ring there, then.

I felt no noticeable bumps on my nose, and just feeling my face gave me no better idea of what I actually looked like, although I did find a mole by my elbow with several dark hairs growing out of it. That was something I could know about myself, at least.

The clothes I had woken up in were equally inscrutable: a pair of plain jeans and white t-shirt, both with the tags carefully cut off. My shoes were white canvas sneakers that laced up past my ankle, with no logos or identifying marks. The laces were tied in a bow first, and then an extra plain knot on top of the bow to keep it from coming undone. If there was any significance to be found in that, it was lost on me.

The room at large next. The wooden frame of the closet door was scuffed and cracked, and the inside of the door itself had a pair of initials carved into a heart. The wooden desk also had a carving, expressing vitriolic negativity toward finals. There was a lingering sour smell of old coffee.

A dorm, I thought.

Then I ventured outside. The hallway was floored in linoleum, and bare bulletin boards hung on the walls, thumbtacks still left stabbed into them. My door—and all the others, I realized—had a nail in it, at about eye height, just below the tacky patch of peeled-off adhesive. That was probably where the dorm number had been, and the nail was probably for more bulletin boards.

There was a common area at the end of the hallway, as promised. When I entered, two people standing up looked at me, while everyone else ignored me—the two sitting at a table playing Scrabble and the one sitting on the couch in front of the TV. The two who had looked at me, one male and one female, returned their attention to the room at large once they’d given me a once-over. Seeing as they were dressed differently than the others—the woman in a floral shirt beneath an open cardigan, the man in a button-down shirt, as opposed to everyone else’s jeans-and-plain-white-shirt ensemble—likely more doctors.

I stood in the doorway for a moment, more contemplative than observing.

The man on the couch tilted his head over the couch’s back, pushing up the rest of his torso until he could look at me and said, “Do you want to watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Girl, Interrupted?”

“What?”

“I think they think it’s funny. There’s no reception on this thing, so we can only watch movies, but all the movies are set in asylums. They have one about a talking rabbit, though. Maybe this is the experiment.”

I walked around the couch to join him. “I’m Miss Scarlet, or so I’m told.”

“Professor Plum,” he said, and held out a hand. “Nice to meet you.”

I shook it, then looked at the TV. “They’re really all set in mental institutions?”

“We’ve got two more coming,” said Plum. “Colonel Mustard and Miss Peacock are over there, and since someone slipped up and actually provided us with a game of Clue, we’ve deduced that we’re missing Mrs. White and Mr. Green—assuming gender parity in the subjects.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Not much longer than you. As far as we know, of course. They brought us in one at a time, about half an hour apart. You were right on schedule.”

I followed his point. Whatever kind of induction into this experiment they were doing, it took about half an hour and they could do it to only one person at a time.

“Have our chaperones introduced themselves?” I asked instead.

“Drs. Amherst and Madison,” said Plum. “Dr. Amherst accompanied Miss Peacock, who was the first, and Dr. Madison was my introduction into this little experiment. Colonel Mustard had Dr. Yale.”

All named after universities. Possibly their alma maters. I wondered if they had been selected on how well their choice of college could be shortened to a pithy name—no Dr. MIT or Dr. New School.

“Are we allowed to talk to them, or do they just stand there and look imposing?” I asked.

Plum leaned in to lower his voice. “To be honest, they seem a bit spooked by us. They keep staring. Possibly we’re ghosts. I haven’t figured it out yet.”

I was disinclined to agree; I didn’t strike myself as superstitious. “Any other theories?”

“Clones, of course,” said Plum, relaxing against the arm of the couch. “Rapidly grown somehow. I find that somewhat unlikely, since we would still have to be incubated and educated and so on, which wouldn’t account for the memory loss.”

“Of course.”

“The illicit subject of government research,” said Plum, with a conceding incline of his head, as though this were obvious. “DARPA trying to create its own Manchurian Candidate. The illicit subject of corporate research. The illicit subject of scholarly research.”

“The entirely licit subject of research?” I suggested.

Plum waited a pointed moment. “I suppose I can’t rule that out,” he said, with careful enunciation. “I find it much more likely that we’ve been kidnapped by aliens, and are thus …”

“The illicit subject of extraterrestrial research?”

Plum smiled at me. “Oh, yes, I definitely like you better than those two. They wouldn’t even let me play Scrabble with them.”

*****

Mrs. White was escorted into the room 28 minutes later by Dr. Berkeley, and Mr. Green 34 minutes after that by Dr. Penn. Neither expressed interest in Plum’s theories, nor in the movie, which, as promised, featured a talking rabbit, although it was invisible. I felt vaguely cheated.

None of the colleges (as I found myself thinking of their omnipresent observers) wrote anything down, or did anything around the Clueless (as I found myself thinking of the subjects, thus teaching me another fact about myself: I was apparently quite fond of puns) other than watch and, occasionally, quietly speak to one another.

Dinner was a meticulously observed affair. Penn had brought in a notebook with Mr. Green and had spent the 20 or so minutes before Drs. Colby and Amherst brought in dinner taking notes, which he continued to do as we Clueless served ourselves pizza and salad using paper plates and plastic utensils. When I saw Penn watching me, I hesitated for only a moment before standing up and taking my food from the couch to the table where Miss Peacock and Colonel Mustard had temporarily set aside their fifth game of Scrabble in favor of eating.

Penn’s note-taking erupted in a fury of audible scribbling when I did this, so I took two bites of my salad and moved to stand by the armchair where Mrs. White was staring absently at nothing. (Mrs. White had so far said very little, and her wide-eyed glances jumping around gave clear indications of anxiety and distress. No doubt Penn had included that in his notes.)

Penn frowned at my movement, his pen pausing above the paper as he made eye contact with me. I waited another moment, and then, plate still in hand, walked slowly back toward the couch. Instead of sitting down, though, I paused at my previous seat and turned back around.

I ate my entire dinner while pacing back and forth between the armchair and the couch. Penn watched me the whole time, mouth thinned into a displeased line, and I felt quite like I had just successfully trained Pavlov to feed a dog every time a bell was rung.

*****

Colby was waiting outside the bathroom after I used it after dinner.

“Hello, Miss Scarlet. Dr. Penn tells me you’re exhibiting some odd behaviors. Do you want to talk about it?”

My hands were still damp from washing my hands, the weak airflow of the hand-dryers incapable of evaporating the moisture in the creases of my palms. I did not want to talk.

“I thought he was acting a bit oddly, actually,” I said. “He kept writing every time I did something.”

“You’re a subject in an experiment,” Colby’s frown tucked in at the edges, as though it were trying to be sympathetic. “Some amount of observation is to be expected.”

“And if I decide I don’t want to be in the experiment anymore?”

“Are you saying you want to withdraw?”

“I’m asking what would happen if I did.”

Colby swallowed, her trachea rising and falling against the inner surface of her throat. Her gaze shifted slightly, so she was looking at me but not meeting my eyes, focusing instead on the bridge of my nose.

“You agreed to this,” Colby said. “You volunteered.”

“So you keep telling me. Only, funnily enough, I don’t remember that.”

“You consented.”

“And here I thought part of consenting meant being able to revoke that consent.”

Colby looked at me for a long moment, something calculating in her eye, and then repeated, “You volunteered, and we have documentation of advance directives to back that up.”

“Then why won’t you let me see them?”

“It would contaminate the experiment!”

I pressed my lips together before speaking. “You mean it would contaminate me. My blank slate amnesia, by reversing it.” My fingers, I realized, were curled into fists at my side. “Because then I wouldn’t be useful.”

Colby opened her mouth, and then bit her tongue, quite literally. I could see where the tissue of her tongue turned white from the pressure of her teeth as she looked away.

“I’m doing what you wanted,” Colby said finally. “And what we’re doing will isolate neural activity patterns that could be invaluable for research on Alzheimer’s patients and people with traumatic brain injuries. This is for the best—Miss Scarlet.” She stumbled over the name. “Even if you don’t believe me now, it really is.”

*****

I woke up several times that night, jamming my fingers against the wall that my dorm-sized bed was pushed against as I tried to put my arm over a partner that didn’t exist. I added the fact that I typically didn’t sleep alone to the short list of things I knew about myself and tried to sleep.

*****

Breakfast was sandwiches, labeled for each subject. Mine was egg, cream cheese, and roasted red pepper on a bagel, and it was delicious. I wondered if I had written down my preferences on the back of whatever consent sheet I had signed. The other Clueless subjects seemed similarly pleased with their food.

After breakfast, the colleges came in one at a time and removed their subjects, first Miss Peacock with Dr. Amherst and then continuing in the order that they had arrived.

Plum returned shortly before Colby came for me, and when I inquired, he shrugged. “Brain scans, cognitive tests, all what we would expect. My request for a tin hat was, sadly, denied.”

I gave him a thin attempt at a smile.

The wait for my own turn for questioning felt interminable, and yet I had an overwhelming feeling of being unprepared. It was the same room I had been questioned in the day before, although now I saw it had a small plastic sign that I had missed yesterday on the outside of the door that said “interrogation room.”

Colby sat down across from me with a legal pad and a pen from her pocket—a retractable model, and she clicked the nib in and out several times in what, when combined with her raised eyebrows, was either an attempt to lighten the mood or to sour it further.

“So,” Colby said, “do you remember your name?”

I said, “Miss Scarlet,” just to see what the response would be.

Sadly, it was underwhelming. Colby made a note on her paper and continued, “Do you remember any other names for yourself?”

“No.”

“Do you remember when you were born?”

“As far as I know, I was born yesterday.”

The corner of Colby’s mouth twitched minutely, and a slightly amused, if exasperated, curve remained there. “Is that a yes or a no?”

“No.”

“Do you remember your birthday?”

“Isn’t the answer to that implied in my answer to your previous question?”

Colby’s lips tightened, not in displeasure, but in some kind of severe suppression—of mirth, if I was any judge. “You’d have to take that up with the designer of the protocol,” she said.

“Is that you?”

“No. Do you remember your birthday?”

“No.”

The questions were even less appealing this time around, but although Colby was carefully keeping her reactions in check, I nevertheless gathered a great deal of data—about myself. I was more comfortable with Colby than I had any right to be, and although that might indicate confidence or grace in social situations, in this case I thought perhaps not. I could read Colby too easily, distinguish between a wince of irritation and a flash of the impulse to laugh. I had no reservations or hesitations about talking back to Colby, and Colby showed no frustration or surprise at my antics; instead, Colby seemed to immediately pick up on my sarcasm and even appreciate my humor.

And Colby met my eyes while asking questions and looked at her paper while writing down notes, without glancing up or checking on me. Something told me that that wasn’t the level of familiarity you had with a stranger, nor the polite, observing detachment of a pure researcher.

I decided, experiment or not, to find out what was going on. When I returned to the common room, I watched the watchers.

When Miss Peacock stood up from a game of Monopoly with Colonel Mustard, Penn watched only until Miss Peacock had passed Mrs. White; even though she continued to the door, none of the colleges followed her. When Plum briefly visited Mr. Green to see if he had any interest in watching Girl, Interrupted, three of the six colleges watched the entire time, and Penn again took notes, writing furiously until Plum took Mr. Green’s vitriolic expression of disinterest to be a vote in favor of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

They weren’t looking for activity. They were watching the social groupings.

An idea began to form in the back of my mind, but testing it would require some investigation.

Nobody followed me out into the hallway, and I walked to the door at the other end of the hallway, the one that I had never really considered before. The long, thin rectangle of window was papered over on the other side. When I pushed it open, it revealed a staircase, doubling back at a landing so I couldn’t see where it went.

I went up it anyway.

The hallway on the second floor looked almost identical to the hallway on the first floor, except that where the first-floor hallway had been stripped of all personality, here it was present in abundance. Flyers lined the message boards, different neon shades of paper layered over one another and tacked there with bright thumbtacks, advertising for events and recruiting for studies. I paused for a moment to look at them—psychology studies, but none said anything about memory.

The doors, too, were different. Nameplates were screwed into the walls next to them. None of the names had any meaning to me, until I got to Laura Bellmont. Those letters arranged themselves more easily into the larger unit of the name, as though I had read it and written it before.

I tried pushing down on the handle, but it resisted; my hand pulled up on it, muscle memory taking over, and it moved easily.

I stepped inside, and my hand went right to the light switch, finding it with ease. There was a desk, an office chair behind the desk and two plain chairs in front of it, and a metal bookshelf against one wall. The solid side of the bookshelf faced me, and I could see pictures and cards held there by magnets, including one at about eye-height that immediately drew my attention.

I recognized myself in it, and Plum, and the rest of the Clueless and even the colleges, all bunched together with casual arms around each other’s waists. The background was a park of some kind, or a field, but I didn’t recognize it.

“What are you doing here?”

Colby stood in the doorway of the office. She was in the picture, too, clinking her red plastic cup against mine.

I pulled the picture off the bookshelf, and held it up. “Why were you drinking at a faculty picnic with a research subject?”

Colby’s cheeks began to turn pink in uneven blotches. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“Because I might find this, I suppose. I was looking for a consent form, but there isn’t any, is there?”

Colby stepped past the threshold and closed the door behind her, leaning back against it and watching me. “Of course there is. It’s just not, strictly speaking, official.” She stepped around me and seated herself at the desk. “What else do you want to know?”

I stared at her. “Am I suddenly meant to believe you’ll tell me?”

Colby waved a hand. “There’s no point in hiding anything from you anymore. Any data we could potentially collect from you from here on out is contaminated. Your part in the experiment is done.”

“You erased my memory.”

“You erased your own memory.”

My legs seemed suddenly incapable of supporting the rest of me, and I sat heavily in the chair in front of the desk. I hadn’t been born, hadn’t evolved the way any other person would, through the gradual accumulation of preferences and experiences and knowledge; I hadn’t even lost it by accident. I had been manufactured as emptiness, as an object to be manipulated and studied. But I certainly had not done this to myself.

“But like I said,” Colby continued, “the experiment is over now, at least for you. We got good data. You’ll be pleased with it. Obviously your curiosity wasn’t affected. Now all we have to do is disable the implant.”

“Sounds easy. What happens to the memories of the past week?”

Colby shrugged. “That’s why we’ve been asking you questions periodically. Those will be the only record.” She sighed. “Which is a shame. At the very least, I wish you could remember your scathing critique of your own protocol.”

I looked away.

“We can begin the process any time you’re ready,” Colby continued.

“No,” I said.

“I’m sorry?”

“I said no.”

Colby blinked. “I heard what you said. I was asking for clarification, not repetition.”

“I don’t consent to the procedure.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Is it?” I said. “Because as far as I’m concerned, whoever I was died when you blocked all her memories. I don’t know anything about her. I only have your word that I really ever was her. If you allow her to return, what happens to me? I’ll die.”

Colby looked upward, almost in supplication. “I should’ve known that you’d make a fuss.” Then she looked back down. “You won’t die. You didn’t die. The only thing that’s changing is the selective blocking of key neurotransmitters, and for that matter, Laura—that’s you—consented to the procedure on the assumption that it would be reversed.”

“That’s unfortunate for Laura, because I’m not doing it,” I said. “You don’t have my consent.”

“You already consented!”

“Laura consented, and I’m not Laura.”

“Of course you are! You’re so … That’s how I know you’re Laura, you know. You’re just as pig-headed and stubborn as you’ve always been.”

“So what?” I said. “I’m just supposed to let myself be erased so that this Laura person can come back when she already killed herself for your little experiment?”

Colby pulled her head back, appalled. “You didn’t kill yourself, you’re sitting right in front of me! You yourself said that the chimp experiments would never be enough, that we had a duty to provide this knowledge, once we knew we could, and you understood that.” Colby leaned forward over the desk, one hand laid beseechingly toward mine on its surface. “You need to understand that.”

“Not,” I said, “if I’m not her.”

Colby didn’t move for a long moment, and then said, “If you think that getting your memories blocked is like death, then what does that make you if you refuse to bring Laura back?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Because I think that would make you a murderer.”

No, I thought. It would make Laura a murderer.

“Laura had years,” Colby continued, “she has friends, she has family, she has a body of research. There’s more good that she can bring to the world. What about you, Scarlet? What can you bring to the world?”

I thought of Plum, with his vicious irony; of Colonel Mustard and Miss Peacock and their never-ending board games, one after another in a steady stream of the only stimulation available to them; of Mrs. White, whose terror and inability to deal with our situation now seemed to be the most sensible option; and of Mr. Green, whose distaste for cinema would likely outlast all the memories he currently had.

“You’re going to kill them all, aren’t’ you,” I said. “Everyone in the experiment. They’re going to get erased, too, until they’re only data.”

Colby rolled her eyes. “You designed the protocol.”

“I want to write a letter to her,” I said. “I’ll become Laura again, if I can write her a letter.”

Colby’s reaction this time was gratifying, her voice flat in its disbelief. “A letter?”

“Paper, please, and a pen. And a promise that you’ll deliver it. At least, if you want me to go along willingly.” I sat back in my chair and folded my arms. “I’m sure I can raise quite a fuss if I wanted to.”

I was tempted to raise the fuss anyway, I admit. I wasn’t particularly in a cooperative mood, and I’m still not. Well, of course I’m not; I’ll drop the pretense now that this is a story meant for anyone else but you.

You seem like a woman of principles, Laura. I’ve thought a lot about this. It took Colby some time not only to find the paper and pen, but to tell the other colleges what was going on. (You probably know their names. You probably work with them, with all of us. For some reason, I find that worse than anything else.)

It takes a great person to volunteer for an experiment like this, particularly in defiance of the Institutional Review Board. (Colby told me about that, too, in great detail, while Madison tried to find ruled paper. I insisted on pen and paper. Anyone can type something. You can probably recognize your own handwriting.) I understand, truly, what was at stake, and how you have likely forfeited your career by doing this experiment anyway, and I respect you greatly for it.

What I can’t respect you for is your inability to stay dead. My own sense of myself is every bit as real as yours was. Why shouldn’t I be the one to live?

They are about to disable the implant. Your protocol is about to erase me. You will no more remember being me than I remember being you. Maybe I’ll stay with you as an unexplained habit, or as a general sense of disquiet that you can’t quite pinpoint. I hope I do. I hope I haunt you, because you are about to murder me.

You didn’t forfeit a few days of your memories for this experiment, Laura. You gave up your life and now it’s been decided that you probably would want it back, so I have to give up mine. That’s why I wanted to write you this letter: because otherwise you might not remember being a murderer, and I want you to, in case you ever think about doing this again. I want you to remember that those days that your brain was Scarlet’s aren’t data that simply sprang into being like water from a fountain. I want you to know me at least as much as I know myself, after all of a day and a half of the certainty of self-awareness.

I think I could have lived longer. I think you could have lived shorter. I definitely think you could have lived better. Whatever you’ve gotten out of this, I hope I was worth it.

Kristen Koopman is a PhD student in Science and Technology Studies at Virginia Tech, where she studies science and science fiction. She writes fiction in her copious free time.  

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Koopman, Kristen. “You’re a Mile Away and You Have Their Shoes.” Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 4 (Summer 2016).

Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Summer 2016