The two researchers made their way through the breakfast room, the woman looking over her shoulder to see if Liam was still following. She whispered something to the older researcher, who looked at Liam.
“Liam,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
There was only ever one answer. “Tired,” he said, even though he felt less tired than he’d felt in a long time.
“You should get more sleep,” said the doctor. Then he turned away. The woman looked with hesitation at Liam, then pursed her lips and followed the other researcher through the restricted door, which was flanked by two broad-shouldered “assistants”.
One of the assistants brought a pure white plastic bottle to his lips and drank. His top lip was left as white as the bottle, like glue. He licked it away. Liam could smell the stuff from where he was. It was a familiar smell–the assistants all drank whatever it was. And yet, it was more familiar than that. Like he smelled it every night in his dreams.
A wave of sleepiness hit him. He closed one eye. Then he opened it and closed the other. Next, he found himself dragging a plastic tray along a wood surface. Next, the smell of porridge as the cook poured it into his bowl. Next, releasing his weight onto the cafeteria table. Next, the taste of oats and sugar, half in his mouth and half dribbling down his chin, too tired to keep his mouth shut. He forced himself to swallow. Others, nearby, lacked such ambition, and let the white slop slide off their tongues and paint their pajamas.
Frank and Hal sat at the cafeteria table with Liam. He barely noticed them. His eyes were blurry from moisture. Too much yawning. He yawned.
“Anyone else as tired as me?” he mumbled after coming down from the slow gasp. Neither man answered. They groaned. Porridge bubbled from their half-closed mouths. “I can’t decide if I’m less tired or more tired than usual,” Liam went on, absently stirring at the slop in his bowl. He blinked tears into his breakfast. Normally he wouldn’t notice, but today the sight of it made him lose his appetite. He pushed his tray away.
“Why d’they have to wake us?” said Frank, his normally black lips stained white from his meal. “Why can’t they just let us … let us sleep?” Frank rested his scruffy chin on his fist, his eyes drooping lower and lower.
“Quit complaining,” bellowed Hal.
Liam never knew whether Hal’s lack of volume control was due to his oldness or his tiredness. Normally Liam’s mind would be too exhausted to care about such things. Today was different. Perhaps he was less tired than usual, if only a little.
Hall put up one bony white finger and counted it off. “We get free food,” he said, then counted a second finger. “We get a roof over our heads.” A third finger. “We get … we get …” He counted a fourth finger. “And we get … and we don’t have to pay for nothing.” He yawned. “So don’t be complaining, Frankie. We got it good. Better’n working for a living.”
“Never felt so damn tired when I was at the mill,” said Liam, trying not to let Hal’s yawn infect him. It did.
“I tell you something I do miss,” shouted Hal. “I miss coffee.”
Frank and Liam hummed in agreement.
Hal managed to lower his voice, but not by much. “Wonder if that blueshirt there will let me have a sip of his,” he said, nodding to one of the barrel-chested assistants, who sipped from his white plastic bottle.
“Tried,” said Frank without looking. “They don’t let us have none of it. Interferes with their research, they says.”
“I know,” said Hal, back to his normally high volume. “I been here a lot longer than you, Frankie. A lot longer, Frankie. Liam, too. We both been here a good long while compared to you.”
“Maybe,” said Frank, rubbing his eyes. “But I do know one thing you old timers don’t.”
Hal yawned and said nothing, too tired to take the bait. So Liam did instead.
“What do you know, Frank?” he asked.
“That stuff they’re drinking,” said Frank, jerking his thumb over his shoulder vaguely in the direction of the researcher with the beverage, “ain’t coffee. Not regular coffee, anyways.”
“What is it?” asked Liam.
Frank shrugged. “Some new brew. Hell if I know what’s in it. Too expensive for my ass. Came out a year ago or some such. Keeps you wired, like a triple shot of caffeine, except it ain’t caffeine that’s in it.
Liam said, “It’s white. Whiter than any coffee I remember.”
The rest hummed. They weren’t especially interested in the colour of the assistants’ coffee. But Liam was. It was the smell. He knew that smell, not from before he signed up to be a test subject in order to pay off debt, but now, every night. He remembered something about the night before. The doctor with the surgeon’s mask, the too-white lab-coat. The surprise in his eyes when–his? Was the doctor a man? No. A woman.
The woman who was just speaking to the older researcher. She had wide eyes, surprise, concern. It was because Liam said, “No. Stop.” That was the dream. No, stop. The smell–that copper-grain smell. The same as the not-coffee. Liam had interrupted her. She pulled the syringe away, surprised.
“I think they’re injecting us with it,” said Liam.
More groans, these with question marks at the end.
“The white coffee. I think they’re giving it to us at night.”
“We did sign up as research subjects,” Frankie mumbled.
Yes, but… something wasn’t right. They didn’t sign up for this. To be injected and filled with some strange white liquid in the middle of the night without being walked through what exactly was being done to them. Only sleep-walked. Everything was sleep-walking now.
He had to wake up.
Day 214’s three random prompt categories were, “Professional sleeper,” “Lab coat,” and, “Running late.”
Aaaand a part three…