The Quiet Room
What’s Your Favorite Color?
The night was clear and cool, and although the distant lights from a handful of determined stars did their best to cut through the dense urban haze of the city, it was dark.
The kind of dark where all kinds of horrible shit could happen.
The tester stepped from the passenger door of a black SUV and instinctively pulled up the collar of her gray jacket against a light rain that hadn’t started to fall, but would do so presently.
She was on her way to administer the test.
She hadn’t tested anyone new in over a year. The fact that she was doing so now was none of her concern. She was hired to administer the test, nothing more.
Ask the questions.
Record the answers.
Submit the card.
Glass of wine.
That last one wasn’t part of the protocol, of course, but it had been a long day and she hadn’t had a drink for weeks. She’d asked for something on the plane, but they weren’t serving alcohol for some reason. The lack of alcohol wasn’t the end of the world. It was a short flight, two hours from San Francisco to Seattle, but still, flying without drinking felt almost uncivilized.
She’d been to Seattle once before, as a child. It was the first time she’d seen an ocean. She remembered picking up broken seashells and flipping over rocks to chase the tiny crabs that would appear from the sand beneath the rocks as if by magic.
She wondered, as she approached a wooden door in the middle of a low red-brick building, if she’d have time to visit the Pike Place Market. Or maybe the Space Needle? She knocked twice, and waited for a response.
“Come in,” said a low raspy voice from the other side.
She opened the door and stepped into a small waiting area.
There was a man standing there. He was about forty years old, tall and athletic, with a thick frame and curly black hair. He looked like a generic government agent straight out of central casting except for the fact that his dark gray suit fit him a whole lot better than she’d ever seen on an agent. There was something sharp and dangerous about his eyes.
He handed her a clipboard that included a pen along with a Phase Four testing form, then turned and started walking away.
Phase Four. They didn’t get many of those.
She pressed the clipboard against her leg and followed.
The man led her down a dark, narrow hallway that eventually dog-legged into another slightly wider and much brighter hall. There were a number of doors on either side, each labeled with a wide strip of white tape featuring a collection of arcane symbols written in black Sharpie. The tester thought she may have recognized some of the symbols, but she wasn’t really paying attention. She knew the rooms were empty.
That wasn’t why she was here. Not this time.
Her guide stopped at the end of the hallway in front of a wide gray metal door, knocked, and then nodded at the tester.
“How long?” she asked.
“As long as it takes.” He turned and walked back down the hall.
When she could no longer hear the sound of his footsteps, the tester took a slow deep breath and opened the door.
It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness, but eventually everything slipped into focus.
The room was about twenty-five feet square. A small rectangular metal table with two matching chairs sat in the center, and the walls were covered with dark gray soundproofing foam. Seated at the table in the metal chair farthest from the door was the subject of the test: a woman wearing black-framed Ray-Ban glasses, faded jeans, and a loose-fitting cream-colored long-sleeved shirt. Her long auburn hair had been pulled back into a thick ponytail, her arms were crossed, and she looked pissed off. The tester figured she had to be somewhere between thirty-five and forty years old—thirty-seven, she thought. She could check the file, of course, but she liked to guess.
The tester took a seat across from the subject, set the clipboard down on the table, and removed a pen from where it had been clipped against the testing form.
“Who the f*** are you?” the subject said, shifting slightly in her chair.
The tester removed a small tablet from her pocket, hit a few virtual buttons, and set it down on the table between them.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” the tester said. “I had to fly in from California.”
“What am I doing here?”
“Please, just do your best to relax, this won’t take very long. I’m here to administer a quick test.”
“What the f*** are you talking about? What test?”
“All we need you to do is look at a few photographs, answer some questions, and you’ll be free to go.”
“You know I’m going to call the cops as soon as I get out of here.”
“Of course. Do you mind if we get started?”
The subject leaned back in her chair. “Fine.”
“What’s your favorite color?”
“I just need to get a baseline.”
“Children have favorite colors, not adults.”
“I’m afraid I will need an answer. It’s actually not—”
“Great. Thank you.” The tester picked up the pen and checked a couple of boxes on the first page of the form, then swiped up on the tablet to reveal a photograph of a man wearing wraparound black sunglasses.
“Do you recognize this person?”
“Seriously?” the subject said.
Nothing from the tester.
“That’s Bono. From the band U2.”
“Great.” The tester swiped to the next photo: a modern house on a lake surrounded by dense, dark green woods. “And this?”
“That’s my house. I grew up there.”
The tester nodded, made a couple of notes on the form, then swiped to the next photo: a lime-green AMC Pacer with Washington plates.
“That’s my car. I mean, it was my car, in high school. Why are you asking me about this shit?”
The tester ignored the question, made a couple of notes, then swiped again, this time revealing a photo of a small ceramic tray. It looked like it had been designed to hold soap, but it was filled with a variety of tarnished silver rings.
“Looks like a soap tray.”
The subject nodded.
“It doesn’t look familiar?”
“No. Should it?”
The tester smiled. “There is no should or shouldn’t, only what you remember.”
She swiped to the next image: an extremely detailed abstract line drawing featuring tiny shapes and symbols that upon closer examination appeared to compose a dense, intricate maze.
“I bought that at an auction last year in Vancouver. It’s hanging in my bedroom. How the f*** did you get these pictures?”
“Just try to focus on the test, please.”
“Why did you say ‘remember’? Am I supposed to remember that soap tray?”
The tester smiled. “This is going to go a lot faster if you do your best to remain calm.”
The subject jumped out of her chair and stood. “No way, lady. I need you to tell me what the f*** is happening. Right now.”
“You didn’t react this way to the first four pictures I showed you.”
“What do you mean?”
“It took you five pictures to get angry. Why do you think that is?”
“What?” the subject said, her voice cracking as she stared down at her hands, which had begun shaking. She slowly sat back down. “I don’t know what’s happening. I find it hard to remember certain things. I was kidnapped, I think.”
“Would you like a glass of water?”
“Is that part of the test?”
The tester just smiled.
“What’s going on?”
“If you just relax and answer my questions to the very best of your ability, you’ll be out of here in ten minutes. You have my word.”
The subject took a deep breath and exhaled. “I’m fine. Let’s just get it over with.”
The tester thought that the subject looked worn out and made a note to speak with the administrator about the manner in which the woman had been secured and transferred for the test.
The subject shifted in her seat. “Please, hurry the f*** up.”
The tester swiped up to the next photo. It was a medium-sized dog with a ball in its mouth. The photograph looked like it had been taken on a beach somewhere.
“It’s a dog.”