I was contractually obligated to sleep as much as possible, a challenge I felt uniquely qualified to meet. In those moments I wasn’t asleep, I was to maintain the posture of sleep. “Play dead, so to speak,” my sister said. She was the neurologist in charge. She pulled up on the computer screen an image of the sensory deprivation chamber to which I’d been assigned. Even I could tell at a glance that it was cheap, makeshift. On the fold-up bed was an eye mask, the rough, polyester kind given out for free on transatlantic flights, and a pair of spongy orange earplugs. Kitchen rubber gloves completed the outfit. My sister assured me they were filled with a special kind of goo, to limit sensation. Vaseline, I guessed. This sleep lab was supposed to be the top funded one in the country. I wondered where my sister was spending the money.
Obviously, there was a conflict of interest, with our being related. My sister reasoned that we might have different fathers, a not-implausible scenario. It was true we looked nothing alike. I was prettier, but I had all the problems. This is why I was willing to go through the whole six-week experiment for free. I believed the sleep study could be the solution to my perpetual lassitude. My sister asked me if I was ready and I stared at her with a heavy lethargy. She rolled the office chair I was propped up on into the lab and helped me onto the bed. She squished the foam plugs into my ears. I felt them slowly swell and fill, like tampons. She laughed at me then, though I couldn’t hear it, and then the eye mask went on and I was alone in the dark.
I started dreaming almost immediately. I was performing a strange modern dance, part slithery ballet, part erotic tai chi. I wore a silky white tunic-like ensemble that slipped over my skin as I moved, revealing a bony rib here, a fleshy thigh there. Though I was improvising the performance, I felt a complete confidence. I moved with the certainty that I was defining a new school of art, perhaps even an entire new culture. It was amazing that the body could feel this free and intuitive. I felt an energy inside me that heretofore had eluded me, a breathy burning in the lungs threatening to combust. I moved harder and harder to give it release. The more ferociously I spun and teased, the more the world stood still, my audience of millions sitting stoic in their seats, impassively capturing my image on their phones for their Instagram feeds.
I didn’t so much wake up as get grudgingly pulled back to my senses. The so-called deprivation chamber was giving me every sensation. The straps of the eyemask squeezed my head. The holes of my ears itched and chafed. My underwear stuck uncomfortably against my crotch, damp from my dream dance. Still, I didn’t move, didn’t even fidget the parts that couldn’t be seen. I did not shift my eyeballs. I did not practice my kegels. I did not probe with my tongue the canker sore in the crevice between my bottom lip and gum. Instead I relaxed into its throbbing pain. Feelings came and went like odors in a beauty supply store, a bleachy desperation, followed by a dark musk, followed by a cool, misty dysthymia. There was a heaviness to all of it, but also a release, a strange sort of lightness that came from refusing to tense the muscles.
Back in the glare of the interrogation room, my sister prodded me with a plastic hammer, tapping my forehead, listening for echoes in my brain. Her face was very close to mine. She’d always been a mouth breather but now her exhales felt asphyxiating. I snuck clean breaths by turning my head from time to time, until my sister said, “Sit still, what’s gotten into you all of a sudden?” She had her assistant come over and hold my head. It was then that I realized that the stud in the assistant’s nose was actually a tiny jingle bell. So that was the ringing in my ears. No one else seemed to hear it, much less be bothered by it. I wondered if the deprivation chamber had worked in a way after all, if my senses had become freakishly heightened.
I tried to find the right words to address the ringing issue. But even now my thinking was fuzzed up from fatigue. For a long time I’d been so tired I found it hard to talk to people, even just to be polite, to say nice to see you too, or thank you. It offended many. I developed a few coping mechanisms; my favorite was to just sit immobilized, mouth in a pouty, pink smile. I attracted a good number of admirers that way, the suited types when I wore the polka dotted A-line, all the rest in the off-the-shoulder floral sundress. It took surprisingly little energy to sustain multiple love affairs, I discovered. I simply lay quiet, breathing, and everyone was happy.
At first I waved away the envelope of cash the assistant handed me, but then my sister shoved it into my hands. “The grant administrators check up on every line item,” she said. When I didn’t bother to open it, she added, “It’s ten thousand dollars.” I nodded like this was about what I expected. My sister smirked, and it was then that I realized it was all a setup, there was no experiment, or perhaps there was an experiment but it was studying something else, something peculiar, perhaps illegal. The assistant explained that they hadn’t figured out the cause of my malaise, but that they could give me a Vitamin B shot that might help. I nodded. My sister came at me with a large syringe. She pressed it into my third eye. I heard a small “pock” as it penetrated my skull. And with that, everything turned red and green. This time, I heard my sister’s cackling laughter. “Merry Christmas,” she said.
Kevin Sampsell creates collages and hosts a monthly collage-making night in Portland, Oregon. His art has been published in Ohio Edit, The Rumpus, Black Candies, and elsewhere. He is the author of a novel, This Is Between Us, and a memoir, A Common Pornography.
Siel Ju’s novel-in-stories, Cake Time, is the winner of the 2015 Red Hen Press Fiction Manuscript Award and will be published Spring 2017. Siel is also the author of two poetry chapbooks. Her stories and poems appear in ZYZZYVA, The Missouri Review (Poem of the Week), The Los Angeles Review, Denver Quarterly, and other places. Siel is the recipient of a residency from The Anderson Center at Tower View and Vermont Studio Center. She blogs about writing and Los Angeles at sielju.com.