Charles opened his eyes and saw only blackness. At first he thought he had gone blind, but he didn’t feel blind, whatever that meant. The only other time he had experienced darkness this complete and suffocating was when he had gone on a tour of an underground cavern with his family. The tour guide had turned off all the lights and joked that if you rubbed your pants fast enough, you could see the static electricity. When the guide flipped the lights back on, he was one of the idiots rubbing his pants.
He reached for the light on his wristwatch, but it was missing, as were the rest of his clothes. And then it hit him like a bucket of cold water: I’ve been abducted and stripped, and I don’t know where I am. He jumped to his feet, fully awake now. The last thing he remembered was walking back to his car after working late at the office. Somebody must have snuck up behind him. He didn’t remember that part exactly, but he was sure his memories did not extend past the parking lot.
Others were stirring around him. A hand brushed against his leg, and then it jumped back, and a woman shrieked, “Don’t touch me! Get away from me!” There was a grunt as the woman ran into someone else, and then that person screamed and hit another. Soon, the entire room was filled with confusion and panic.
“Where am I?!”
“What do you people want?!”
“Get back! Get back!”
Charles was not the leader type, but wherever there was chaos, he was always the one to step in and take control of the situation when no one else would. He stuck two fingers in his mouth, whistled as loudly as he could, and yelled, “EVERYONE SHUT UP AND STAY STILL!”
The room immediately fell silent.
“As far as I know, we’re all in the same situation,” he said. “We’re naked, scared, and we don’t know where we are or how we got here. Is that correct?”
There were mumbles of affirmation. A couple people were crying.
“Okay, we can’t all be wandering in the dark aimlessly. I’m going to reach out and carefully place my right hand on someone’s right shoulder. Then that person will do the same to someone else, and we’ll keep doing that until we’re one long chain. Count off so we know we’re making progress, and close your eyes so they don’t get poked by accident. If you’re a woman, you might want to cover yourself. Does everyone understand?”
Yeses from the crowd.
“Alright, here I go.” He waved his hand in front of him until his fingertips touched someone’s elbow, which shrank back involuntarily and then relaxed. He found the person’s shoulder and said, “One.”
This went on for several minutes. There were yelps, apologies, and even some laughter as people poked and tickled one another. If someone heard “the seeker” nearby, they let them know they were close. Charles was glad that the initial fear had passed, and they were starting to work together as a team. He was reminded of a trust game he had played way back in elementary school. One person was blindfolded, and another person would help them achieve some goal by guiding them verbally. Except now they were all blindfolded.
The count stopped at nine.
“Now everyone turn around so that I’ll be at the front of the line and the person at the front will be at the back of the line.” Everyone did what they were told. “Okay, I’m going to walk forward until I reach the wall. Everyone keep your right hand on the right shoulder of the person in front of you. When I get to the wall, I’m going to turn right and make my way around the room. Use your left hand to feel the wall. If you find anything—a door, a switch, a lever—let us know right away.”
He crept forward slowly, and everyone followed behind him like a train. After ten steps, his hand touched a rough vertical surface. His fingers traced the outline of cinderblocks. He turned right and began to search the wall with his left hand. For a long time, all he felt was wall, wall, and more wall. Just as he was beginning to lose patience, his fingers touched cool metal.
“You guys, I think I found a door.” There were gasps of excitement from behind him. He grabbed the handle and pulled as hard as he could, but the steel door wouldn’t budge. It’s locked, you idiot. What did you think was gonna happen? He relayed the news to the others, and they sighed with disappointment. “Let’s keep going. Maybe we’ll find something else.”
They made one complete revolution but couldn’t find anything. Charles shook his head. Nine naked strangers in a pitch black room about thirty-by-thirty feet with one locked door and nothing else.
“What do we do now?” someone asked.
“We try to figure out why we’re here,” said Charles. They let go of each other’s shoulders and sat down side-by-side in the middle of the room. “Let’s begin by introducing ourselves—our names, what we do, where we’re from, anything that might be important. Maybe there’s something linking us all together. I’ll start. My name is Charles Feldman. I’m fifty-six years old. I’m a manager at an advertising agency. I live in Dallas, Texas. I’ve been married for twenty-nine years, and I have two sons.”
They went around like that, casually speaking about themselves as if they were meeting at a dinner party. There were six males and three females. Occupations ranged from schoolteacher to pediatrician. Some were married; some weren’t. Some had kids; some didn’t. Charles tried to keep track of everyone’s voices, but there were just too many of them.
“So what do we have in common?” he asked after all introductions had been made.
“Well, six of us live in Dallas County.”
“Actually, I lived in Dallas County ten years ago,” said one of the other three.
“I used to live in Dallas County, too,” said another.
“Me too,” said the last.
“Okay, so we’ve all lived in Dallas County at one time,” said Charles. “I think that’s pretty significant. What else?”
“We’re all over forty-five.”
“Good. Anything else?”
They sat in silence for over a minute. Nobody could think of anything.
“It’s random,” someone said. “We’re trying to find patterns where there aren’t any.”
“Maybe that’s true,” said Charles. “But if it isn’t, then assuming it’s true isn’t going to do us any good. So for now, let’s say it has something to do with us living in Dallas County. And the age thing…I don’t know. What are things restricted by age?”
People blurted out whatever they could think of: “Driving.” “Drinking.” “Buying cigarettes.” “Voting.” “Jury duty—”
“Oh my God,” a woman interrupted. “It’s Michael Fisher.”
“Who’s Michael Fisher?”
“He was convicted of rape twenty-seven years ago. Last week, DNA testing exonerated him. I saw it on the news. I thought the name sounded familiar, and then I remembered: I was on the jury that convicted him. I think we all were.”
Charles’s heart skipped a beat. He remembered now. Fisher had been accused of raping a girl at a college party. He had only been twenty at the time. Charles himself had been twenty-nine. He remembered how upset he had been when they’d selected him as a juror. He had a wife and two-year-old at home, and his job wouldn’t compensate for the missed pay. The evidence seemed so straightforward—the victim claimed Fisher had raped her, and witnesses said they’d seen him at the party. It was an open-and-shut case. Everybody, including Charles, had voted guilty without hesitation. The deliberation took all of fifteen minutes. They delivered the verdict, left the courtroom, and went on with their lives. They had all forgotten about Michael Fisher…but Michael Fisher hadn’t forgotten about them.
“Twenty-seven years,” he said. “Twenty-seven. Jesus Christ, what have we done?”
“It’s not our fault,” said an elderly man. “The girl said he did it.”
“She was drunk, remember? She was an unreliable witness.”
“So what, we were supposed to let a possible rapist go free?”
“There’s no such thing as a possible rapist. You’re either a rapist or you aren’t. Guilty or innocent. Michael Fisher was innocent, and we took twenty-seven years of his life away because we failed to do our duty. We were all so anxious to leave and go back to our lives that we ended up destroying someone else’s.”
“Oh, fuck you, the kid was a goddamn nigger!” cried the old timer, and hearing that nasty word made everyone shudder. “What were we supposed to think? He was a fucking nigg—” But the old man burst into tears before he could finish. His guilt had overpowered his denial. “I’m sorry!” he wailed. “Son, if you can hear me, I’m sorry! Oh God, I’m so sorry!” Now others were crying and chanting apologies as well.
In his mind, Charles saw Michael Fisher sitting alone in his cell, marking the days off his calendar one by one, wondering when someone was going to wake him up from this nightmare. As if by time-lapse photography, he saw him grow from a 20-year-old college student to a 47-year-old man. Wrinkles appeared on his face; white streaks crept into his hair.
He pictured a storage room filled with rows and rows of shelves, and on one of those shelves was a box, and in that box was a DNA sample, waiting, waiting, waiting to be heard, waiting for the technology to come along and listen to what it had to say. He pictured a scientist working hard in some laboratory thousands of miles away, and he wanted to grab him by the shoulders and scream, “Why did it take you so long to invent it? Didn’t you know there was someone out there who really needed it? How could you be so inconsiderate?”
But he couldn’t blame the scientist for not inventing the technology fast enough. He couldn’t blame the lawyers for doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. He couldn’t blame the victim for being scared, for wanting some kind of justice. He couldn’t blame Michael for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for flirting with a pretty girl who would later remember his face in the wrong context.
No, he could only blame himself and the eleven others who sat with him one autumn afternoon and decided a man’s fate in fifteen minutes—because, like the old timer said, he was just a nigger, a dumb unimportant nigger, and they had lives to go back to and bills to pay and families to care for, and if they could put away a rapist in fifteen minutes, then let them do it in fifteen minutes, before they missed the football game, before their home-cooked dinners got cold.
He pictured himself, driving to work in the morning, making love to his wife, raising his two beautiful children—and he thought, that could have been Michael doing those things, and he wished with all his might to switch places with him, to give him the life he so rightly deserved.
They all held each other and wept in the dark—nine surviving jurors of a forgotten case, united by a common sin. They wept for Michael, for themselves, for mistakes that could never be undone. Eventually, their sobs died off, and they sat in silence. In the pure blackness, they had lost all sense of time. They had no idea if they had been there for one hour or one day. Swimming in that never-ending abyss, they slipped into a semi-delirious state of mind where they couldn’t tell up from down, left from right. It was not hard to imagine that they were buried in a coffin deep underground, or that they were continuously falling in a bottomless pit.
Suddenly, there was a bang and a screech, and a vertical bar of light appeared in the darkness and stung their retinas. It stretched into a rectangle of whiteness, and in front of it stood the outline of a man—or what was left of a man after three decades of injustice. The silhouette watched them for a few seconds and then walked out of sight.
“Is he letting us go?” someone asked. “Why?”
Charles thought for a moment and said, “I don’t think he wanted to leave us here forever. He just wanted to give us a taste of what he went through every day for twenty-seven years. That feeling of helplessness and vulnerability and fear. He just wanted to give us a taste, because a taste is all you need to understand.”
The door was wide open, but none of them moved. Strangely enough, they were more afraid of the light than they were of the darkness. They knew that once they stepped out that door, the guilt of what they had done would plague them for the rest of their lives. It would chip away at their souls until there was nothing left. Being kidnapped and locked in a room wasn’t their punishment; that was their redemption. Exoneration was their real punishment. Every second of freedom they enjoyed would remind them of the freedom they had so carelessly taken away. Michael Fisher may have forgiven them, but they had not yet forgiven themselves.
And so they sat silently in the dark, afraid to drink the freedom they did not deserve. Afraid that it would taste like poison.