House of Cards

If I had to choose, the worst part was probably that it never dawned on me to keep track of time. Usually I don’t bother to wear a watch, and the day I disappeared was no exception. In hindsight, even my clunky old men’s watch that slides off sometimes would’ve been better than nothing. I never would have known the day of the week, but at least the date wouldn’t have been off by more than a day or two. And I would’ve known exactly how long I was in there. 

I don’t remember much leading up to it. I remember I was running late, I had forgotten to put on deodorant, and I was pretty sure I had put my contact lenses in the wrong eyes. It’s honestly not a huge deal, but I had a really bad headache all morning, and when I closed my left eye it was nearly impossible to read the signs on the awnings above all the little shops downtown. 

That was probably it, actually. The fact that my vision wasn’t up to its usual standard. I never suspected that anything was wrong when the number on my classroom door looked like it said 10B instead of 103. I had no reason to rely on the accuracy of my visual perceptions. I was running on half a can of leftover Red Bull and pure animal instinct. Honestly, I should’ve just closed my eyes and followed the scent of misery to my Monday morning bio class. Maybe then I would’ve ended up in the right place. 

As it was, I slowly opened the door and snuck slowly into the classroom, facing backwards so that I could ensure that the door closed quietly behind me. I was definitely late. But as I turned around to face what would have normally been a room full of judgmental faces, instead I was confronted with a blinding white emptiness. In shock, I let the door slam behind me. I heard it click loudly shut. Wait, since when do these doors lock? 

The room was completely void of its normal furniture and decorations. I squinted into the bright light, but nothing was coming into focus. But besides that, I was assaulted with emptiness: no chairs, no desks. Just a white floor underneath a white ceiling, and maybe some white walls out there in the distance. And me. I looked down at my jeans, but they were still blue. Thank God.

I began to walk slowly toward the whiteboard, dazed. I let my backpack slide off my shoulders, and I heard it clunk to the floor. As I approached the front of the room, I realized that someone had forgotten to clean the whiteboard.

Suddenly, I felt myself seized by panic. I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping to block out this apparent hallucination. Had I finally learned to lucid dream? Mentally, I retraced my steps. I definitely remembered getting out of bed, so I had to scratch that possibility. Maybe there were still drugs in my system from that one rave I went to? Can MDMA even do that?

I shook my head, hard, and opened my eyes to the same blinding brightness. I’m an optimist, but I’m also a realist, and I was starting to feel really, really screwed. 

Fueled by a sudden burst of fear-induced adrenaline, I began frantically searching the room for further clues to my surroundings. I glanced disappointedly over my shoulder at the locked door. It had a single, solitary, old-fashioned gold doorknob… no latch or lock in sight. What kind of psycho designs classroom doors that lock from the outside? I began to explore my other options. A shadow near the whiteboard caught my eye. As I approached, I realized that it was actually a small, square-shaped hole in the wall. And there was something in it. I figured I’d take anything I could get. 

Here’s what I found: a box of matches, two packs of Trident gum (Wintergreen), 3 cigarettes, an iPod shuffle, an unwrapped cherry cough drop, a can of Diet Dr. Pepper, a deck of cards, one bottle of sunscreen (SPF 60, for sensitive skin), a clean coffee mug, and a black Sharpie. 

I stared blankly at the hole. What could I possibly do with any of this stuff? Obviously I was going to keep the mug (score!) but I couldn’t really think of a use for anything else. There was nothing in the room to set on fire, I haven’t smoked since my semester abroad, and I hate Wintergreen. It’s a made-up flavor, like blue raspberry. That whole thing seems kind of fucked up to me. 

I sat on the floor cross-legged, closed my eyes, and placed my thumbs on my third-eye chakra, hoping for a sudden burst of insight. When none came, I decided to take a nap, because I was already on the floor and it was Monday, after all. 

I was awakened by what I thought was an alarm, but it could have just been my stress-addled mind conjuring up explanations where none existed. I didn’t even have my iPhone with me so it would’ve have to come from outside. As my vision came into near-focus, the direness of the situation began to set in. I needed to get out of there.

I had to stop wasting time. Whoever (or whatever) had trapped me in here probably thought I had no concern for my own self-preservation. Which is sometimes true, but not in potentially life-or-death situations. I’m not an idiot.

I stood up and walked quickly to the door. I tried to turn the doorknob, but it wouldn’t budge. Obviously. I felt my heartbeat accelerate. Frantically, I began to bang on the door. “Help!” I screamed. I was getting breathless as I frantically pounded on the heavy wooden door. No one was coming. 

I decided it was necessary to evaluate my escape options once again. I was trying not to panic, but I hated being trapped. I looked over at my stash of supplies once again. I realized I also had a bottle of Vitamin Water, three notebooks, my psych textbook, six pens, a few Tums, and two more pieces of gum in my backpack. Except my gum was peppermint, which is a real flavor that exists in nature. 

I pondered my resources. I would really have to pull some weird Houdini shit if I decided that any of these things could actually be of use. Obviously, the gum was useless to me, as were the cigarettes. I could probably survive on Tums for a day or two, maximum. The Vitamin Water… I‘d have to ration that. How many sips per hour could I take? How dehydrated would I have to be to die? 

About a million other questions rushed through my mind. What was actually happening here? What sick mastermind could be behind all this? Was this some weird psych experiment that I’d forgotten I’d signed up for? Even I’m not that desperate for cash. Also, the ethical hurdles would have to be enormous. “WHAT’S GOING ON?” I screamed. No one answered. 

I felt myself getting breathless again. My heart was pounding in my chest. (Fucking Red Bull.) I was sweating, and my hair was sticking to the back of my neck. In a burst of inspiration, I ripped off my tank top and tore a strip off to fashion myself a makeshift hair tie. I took the rest of the fabric and strode purposefully over to the door. I tied the shirt in a knot around the doorknob and began to pull on the fabric, hoping that the added leverage would give me some advantage over the unyielding door. The shirt ripped. I screamed. My exasperation and fear were steadily mounting. I threw myself to the floor again and curled up in fetal position. I rocked back and forth as tears started streaming down my face. Was this really how it all ended? I never even got to taste that new Ben & Jerry’s flavor. There was no way I was dying without doing that. I guess they probably have plenty of ice cream in heaven… 

I needed to do something drastic. I sniffled and blew my nose disgustingly into the excess shirt material. At this point, fire was starting to sound like my best extreme option. But strangely I was also kind of drawn to the cards. An inexplicable (and completely inappropriate) feeling of serenity came over me. Maybe I didn’t have to do much at all. I opened up the pack, shuffled, and started building a house of cards.

I am not sure if you have ever constructed a house of cards, but let me tell you, it is an exercise in determination. My first fourteen attempts collapsed after two levels. My fifteenth attempt was only slightly less pathetic. I smoked one of the cigarettes to calm down. But after twenty-seven gut-wrenching structure collapses, my twenty-eighth masterpiece stood on its own. I gazed at it lovingly. I realized that never before had I given myself the time to devote my self so singularly to one essentially useless project. I curtsied and bowed before my imaginary audience. 

Considering my handiwork, I tried to figure out my next steps. I knew I had to become single-mindedly rational and use the house of cards for something; otherwise, I would be forced to admit that I had already gone completely insane, and that seemed a little premature, curtsying aside. It had been, like, a few hours…Right? There was no way of knowing. I contemplated the rest of my supplies, now pensively sipping the Dr. Pepper. Eventually, my eyes settled on the matches. 

Fire exists for two reasons: to solve problems and to create them. I thought it might be a good idea to do both at once. It seemed like my captors weren’t interested in my demise, but at any rate, so I could probably bank on their intervention before I actually died of asphyxiation. Fire has a way of calling attention to itself. Otherwise I was totally fucked, but at this point I was ready to try anything. I had looked death in the face. Also, I really had to pee. About this time I remembered why I don’t usually drink Dr. Pepper. 

I held my breath and lit a match. I tentatively threw it at the house of cards, which managed to collapse and ignite at about the same moment. I watched it slowly smolder, and tried to simultaneously channel my inner badass and also not choke on the thickening air. 

Within moments, a siren began blaring. I patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. The fire was barely spreading, but the room was immensely smokey. I was definitely calling attention to myself. Soon, I would be free. Or, I would die a pretty quick death. 

Suddenly, I heard the door squeak open behind me. A member of the custodial staff was standing there, wide-eyed. He looked alarmed. Pun intended. I couldn’t blame him… here he was, on an otherwise ordinary Monday, confronted by a half-naked stranger rising from the ashes of a burning house of cards like a deranged phoenix.

“What are you doing here?” he cried. I stared at him, dumbfounded, hardly daring to believe my luck. It was all over? “Come on, let’s go!” he yelled. I ran toward the door, and together we exited the room. As he closed the door behind him, I realized that he was not holding a key. “Come outside with me,” he said. He was avoiding eye contact. Probably because of my semi-nude state. Or because he doesn’t regularly interact with psychos. 

I stopped short and grabbed him by the collar. “Wait!” I yelled. I was about 3 inches away from his face. “Wait a second,” I growled, staring into his panicked eyes. “How did you get in that room? How did you find me?” I grabbed the front of his shirt and stared him down without blinking, trying to make him speak. 

He stared back at me now, terrified. “The door, it was open…” he stammered. “And I smelled the smoke…” he trailed off. I had let go of his shirt and started backing away, wide-eyed, shaking my head. 

“You’re lying,” I whispered. Then everything went dark.

I must have lost consciousness. I swear to you, I really don’t remember anything else. I have no idea how I got here — wherever here is. And I still don’t know who you are, either, which seems unethical. This is so fucked up. 

Anyway, please, you have to believe me. It doesn’t exactly feel real anymore, but I know that it was. I know that I tried to open that door. I know that I tried to escape. It would have been impossible to try to save myself any other way. 

I guess you don’t have to tell me everything. Maybe I’d be better off not knowing how I got there, or who was responsible. Not if it’ll make this whole thing worse. But I still kind of feel like I should ask… was it you?