Alan Wain is the author of two novels, Harperstown (1987) and White Death (1989), an adventure thriller about a team of researchers looking for the remains of the lost Franklin expedition in the Canadian Arctic. A former journalist, he lives In Milton, Ontario and is currently working on a book about of Charles Darwin.
The Two-Man Condition
by Alan Wain
A man wakes up face-down on the floor of a well-furnished room. He rolls on to his back and is now facing an unfamiliar ceiling. He feels confused and sees another man lying beside him who is staring up too.
“Hey man, where are we?” he asks.
“I was just going to ask you that,” is the reply.
“You don’t remember coming here?”
“I’m drawing a blank. You?”
The first man pats the top of his head without even realizing he is feeling for a bump. Then he says: “I’m a bit groggy. Could we have been drugged or blacked out?”
“Are you a druggie? Or a drunk?” asks the second.
“I’m… fuck. I don’t remember that either.”
“How about your name?”
“It’s… Okay, it’s official. I’ve got amnesia.”
“Bullshit you have amnesia. I’ve got amnesia. We can’t both have it. What’re the odds?”
“I don’t know what to say, man. You’re right – this makes no sense. But here we are.”
That answer is far from satisfactory. Each man remains suspicious of the other. But after going briefly silent to give each other the once over, the first man finally shrugs and makes a productive suggestion.
He says, “We’re wasting time. Let’s get out of here.” To which the second answers: “Amen to that.”
They each check their pockets for I.D. but they are empty. Neither is wearing a wedding ring and, later, they will confirm that neither has a tattoo.
They stand up and begin looking for an exit but none is immediately found. The circular room is lit from above and looks like a clean and well-maintained apartment, but it has no windows and the only doors are to rooms with no exits. There is a circular opening in the floor but solid metal bars prevent anyone from going down to whatever lies below. The ceiling above is solid with no openings.
“I’ve heard about these places,” the first man says. ‘‘I think we are in an escape room. It’s a game to see if we can figure out how to get out of it.”
“Really? Okay. HELLO?” the second man shouts. “I don’t want to play. I give up. I lose. You stumped me. Now let me out!”
“We need clues,” says the first man. “Help me look.”
So they open every drawer they can find, pull every handle, twist every knob, push every button, lift every object, peer into every hole, crawl into every space and climb up every climbable structure. They look behind and under and within everything they find.
But nothing strikes them as useful clues.
After a while one of them gets tired of yelling “hey, buddy” every time he wants the other’s attention. So he suggests: “We need names. What should I call you?”
“Okay. If you’re “A”, I’ll be “B”.”
The place is well stocked with the necessities of life. Off the main room is a fully-equipped kitchen. Some cupboards and the refrigerator contain food and drink. And when they get hungry enough to try it, they learn it is not just safe to consume but actually tasty. There is also a well-stocked bathroom and some furnished bedrooms full of appropriately-sized clothes off the main room. Also, a laundry room. Everything they might need seems available – food and drink, clothes, medicine, linen, soap, light, warmth. There is even a wine cellar.
Just no exit.
“It is like a bunker,” says A. “A nice one, but still a bunker. I’ll bet we’ are underground in some rich survivalist’s place.”
B nods and adds, “Or a government place, maybe. We could be government ourselves. Or in the survivalist cult.”
“Yeah,” agrees A. “Then we would be expected to know how to exit.”
For the briefest moment they look hopeful. Then they deflate because they are really no further ahead.
“You know if this is a trap or a prison, it’s probably good news that it’s like this,” says A.
“How?” asks B.
“Could be worse, right? We could have woken up in some ugly basement or dungeon like in that horror movie where the guys realize they have to kill each other to get out.”
“Shut the fuck up! Don’t even joke. We’re NOT in a horror movie!”
“Relax B. I agree. We aren’t. We will work together. I’m just saying our jailer or whatever seems benign. It does not seem like anyone is trying to hurt us. It’s more like pampering.”
“If this were a horror movie we’d be in danger. This place would be trying to kill us. The walls would be closing in or spewing poison to incentivize us to hurry up and escape. But there’s nothing like that.”
“Not yet,” says A.
“Again, not funny man.”
“Maybe we’re in quarantine. Maybe we’re infected with something.”
“I don’t feel sick,” says B.
“Me neither. Then maybe the illness is out there and someone’s keeping us safe in here. Or….”
B interrupts. “Or it’s a kidnapping. Kidnappers have to keep their victims safe to collect the ransom. We could be important or rich. Right? Would you say either of is well dressed?”
A shrugs. “Beats me. Actually no. I’m no fashionista but our clothes look normal to me.”
“Yeah,” B agrees. “This is getting us nowhere.”
“Look, it doesn’t really matter right?” says A. “We’ll figure it out. Our memories will come back. Or, if not, somebody’s probably gonna come and explain – the warden, the doctor or the kidnapper. Somebody. There’s a reason we are here, right? Somebody will want to explain this.”
“And if nobody comes?” asks B.
“Somebody will. But if not, we’ll figure it out. There’s got to be clues we missed and an exit. There’s no such thing as an exit room with no solution.”
But A’s optimism goes unrewarded. After a good (night’s?) sleep, they wake up refreshed and expectant. But no one shows up. No more clues are found. Nothing happens except more exploring, more talk, continued amnesia, more good food and another sound sleep.
And so it begins. The days repeat with each one nearly identical to the one before. Eventually a lot of time passes. It is impossible to say how much because they have no clock and no way of telling night from day.
All they discover is that the construction of the place is rock-solid. Every attempt to bore through the outer walls, the floor or the ceiling runs into solid metal. And for some reason all the furniture is bolted into place and immovable. They learn this when they try to move the dining table to retrieve an empty glasssomething that rolled underneath it.
“So what does that tell us?” asks A.
“That our captor slash host is anal about his interior design preferences?”
“Yes. But why?”
“Come on, man. Try. It’s a clue,” says A.
“Then it’s as fucking shitty as all the other clues,” mutters B.
A cannot disagree.
A eventually says what both of them have been thinking. “Something’s gone wrong. Whatever the original plan was must be kaput. We’ve been forgotten. Someone should have come by now. Our ransom wasn’t paid. Our jailor died. Something. Why just leaving us here?”
“Yeah, but then why does everything still work?” counters B. “Why are the lights still on? Who is restocking the fridge and taking the garbage away? Somebody’s still paying the bills.”
“Automation? A prepayment plan? I don’t know but I can’t see this lasting forever.”
Not forever maybe. But it lasts a long, long time.
Because there is nothing else to be done, they just keep speculating. “Maybe we are traumatized,” says A. “Maybe we experienced something horrible and developed amnesia to protect ourselves. That happens, right?”
Another time, for a few weeks, B becomes absolutely convinced A is behind it all and knows why it is all happening. They even speculate briefly about being in a simulation, or dreaming or having gone crazy or died. All the usual suspects.
But their guesses never matter because there is no one around to confirm a guess is correct.
They try to will their memories to return but only manage to summon the vaguest sense of déjà vu. Each feels they been in this place – or one very like it – before. But each time they try to pull that memory to the surface, it slips away again.
Meanwhile, both become increasingly obsessed with detecting clues. Once they exhaust all the more obvious sources of clues to an exit they move on to increasingly more bizarre theories. They find themselves looking for meaning in the dimensions of the rooms, the colours of the dish towels and the food they are served. But no meaning is found.
Eventually so much time passes that they become resigned to the fact their puzzle has no solution. That’s when the solution finally appears.
At first the change is alarming. They start feeling increasingly unwell. They weaken and develop coughs. Their colour is off and their hair starts falling out. Their skin dries out and gets blotchy. One night at dinner A comments: “Is it just me or does the lasagne taste off tonight?”
“It’s shit,” B agrees. “And it’s not just the lasagne or just tonight. I think the kitchen is on the fritz. Everything tastes off lately.”
“So it’s not just me.”
“No A. And its not just the food. The lights are dimmer. And one night my room was so cold and I had to fetch another blanket. The furnace may be going. I think the machine is wearing down.”
“Don’t say that. If it stops we’re fucked. We will starve in the cold and the dark.”
“I know. I know,” A agrees. He looks up and plaintively mutters, “For God’s sake, let us out!”
Which is when the miracle finally happens. As if in answer to his prayer the ceiling rumbles and slides open, revealing a dark passage way.
B stares up open mouthed but A is quicker thinking. “Quick B! Grab the rope!”
Seconds later B is back below the opening holding their rope. A says, “Now bend over and boost me up.”
In seconds A disappears up the hole in the ceiling, drops the rope back down and hauls B up. That’s how they escape.
A man wakes up face-down on the floor of a room. He rolls onto his back to face an unfamiliar ceiling. He notices another man, a stranger, lying beside him, also looking up.
Then everything unfolds pretty much the same as above until they check their pockets for I.D. The man called A this time around finds some papers folded up in his pocket. He pulls them out, unfolds the pages and starts reading.
“What’s it say?” asks B impatiently.
So A reads it out loud. It is, verbatim, the story told above.
When he is done, B’s only initial comment is, “Hmm. Weird.”
But that assessment is soon replaced once they realize they too have amnesia and appear to be in an escape room of their own.
“If we are in an escape room, then the story must be our clue,” says A. “It’s telling us to go out through the ceiling.”
“A cheat sheet!” says B. “I love it.”
But their optimism soon fades when they check the ceiling in their main room. No matter how many times they poke it with a broom handle or use their words to ask it to let them out say “For God’s sake, let us out!” like in the story, nothing happens. When they bang on the ceiling it seems as solid as any other barrier.
When they sit down to rest, B asks: “Why do you even have that story? Did you write it?”
“It’s not ringing any bells,” answers A.
Then B has an idea. He finds a pen and paper and tells A: “Write something down. Just a few sentences.“ When A complies, B follows suit. Then they compare their handwriting with the penmanship of the story writer. A’s is closer but there is clearly no match.
“His story is not mine or yours,” says A.
“I didn’t really think it would be.”
“It mentioned them getting sick and their hair falling out. We’re both healthy with thick hair.”
“Good catch Sherlock. That’s the kind of detail we will need to notice to figure this out.”
But, unfortunately, all the story found in A’s pocket did was cause arguments like this:
“His story is useless,” B would say to bait A.
“It can’t be. It’s the only clue we’ve got,” insisted A. “Clues are always the keys to mysteries.”
“But we don’t even know if it actually happened. His story could be pure fiction.”
“No way! Who would plant a false clue in an escape room? That makes no sense.”
“Who? Whoever is messing with us is who. You have noticed our ceiling doesn’t open?”
Then A would usually repeat what became his mantra. “We’re just missing something. It’s like that old saying – he who does not understand his story is doomed to repeat it.’’
They were doomed to repeat it. Once again much time passed in a fruitless search for the clues needed to escape until their captivity had a very similar ending. They got sick again at the eleventh hour. A once again begged to be let out. The ceiling opened, B fetched their rope before boosting A up through the dark opening. Then A lowered the rope, hauled B up and they escaped.
There were many more versions of this story, each so similar it would be tedious to repeat them all. In the later versions footnotes got added to that story A finds in his pocket.
One says: “Our walls are blue” which seemed exciting news actually when it was read aloud in a room with beige walls.
“It’s a different room!” exclaims A.
“Or they’ve redecorated!” says B.
“Or… or… yeah. Or that, I guess.”
But the great different room/same room controversy gets definitively resolved in iteration 17 or 27 (scholars dispute the sequence of the stories). A footnote had described the ceiling as nearly a half-metre higher than in the present room.
Seeing how excited this made A, B tried to share in his enthusiasm.
“That’s great man!” B agrees. “Now we’re getting somewhere. About time. But…how does that help us exactly?”
“Elementary my dear Watson. Don’t you see? It’s not about the furniture, or the room dimensions or the wall colours or the menu or any such crap. Those are red herrings, not our clues. Those won’t help us escape.”
“Different variables, same outcome. So, forget the variables. We must look instead for the constants in the stories. Failure to understand his story dooms one to repeat it by repeating the same mistakes.”
The import of this revelation was not immediately clear until, in a late iteration of the story, there appeared a footnote asking: “What is the meaning of A and B?”
The question planted something in A’s brain that grew into an obsession. It became all he’d ever talk about. B was less intrigued by it, noting, “Our names are arbitrary. Why should they mean anything?”
But A was adamant. “Don’t do that B. Don’t throw our best clue away. It’s an escape room. Everything in it is contrived. We have to assume things are as they are for a reason. The commentaries on the scriptures are telling us something.”
“They’re ‘scriptures’ now?”
“They’re written aren’t they? They kind of prophesize how we get out of here. What would you call them?”
“The story found in your pocket.’’
After that, A began bouncing his thoughts on “A”s and “B”s off his companion by saying stuff like:
“There are two types of people in this world: ‘A’s’ and ‘B’s.”
“I have an A-type personality. You’re a B-type.”
“One is either on the A-team or a back-up.”
“Alpha dogs, beta dogs.”
“A students, B students.”
Sometimes B would bristle.
“You know I could just as easily be A and you could be B,” says B.
A does not argue. But B notices the smug look on his companion’s face, suggesting disagreement. He knows A believes things are as they are for a reason.
Another time A muses: “His story has been entrusted to A, the chosen one or ‘the anointed one’?, and B chirps: “Or the annoying one?”
“Egos won’t help us B,” A scolds. “We’re just spitballing about what roles A and B need to play to get us out of here. It’s about the roles, not the actors. It would be silly to make this personal.”
Yet A’s spitballing often feels to B like being spat upon. It is not the best topic for generating harmony when A’s conversational gambits include:
“A receives the clue because…why? A is the first awake? Or the most woke?”
“Whoa! I‘m plenty woke,” says B.
“Sure. But I think I have an aptitude for puzzles. I’m alert, attentive, attuned, astute, analytical. I’ve got this. It’s like I was born to play A.”
“Don’t forget arrogant,” says B. “’A’ could be for arrogant.”
“Yeah, and B could stand for belligerent. But we have to take our few clues seriously. We don’t have many. And we can only use what we’re given.”
“Meaning I think we might be being told who should take the lead and who is more likely to find The Answer.”
“A is the alpha. B follows A. Sometimes the most obvious way to read clues is the right one.”
“You want me to follow you?”
“It’s not about that. I didn’t make the rules or write the clue. I’m just trying to understand what’s expected of us here like you should be doing too. Apparently one of us is expected to lead, to play the authority, be the adult in this room. I think maybe Plan A is supposed to literally be A’s plan.”
“Fine,” says B. “But you don’t have a Plan A, right?”
“I’m working on it. All I’m asking you is to play your role too. Be supportive. If I think I’ve found The Answer, you should probably trust me.”
“A is the apostle. B is the believer,” says B.
“Something like that. It can’t be for nothing that his story shows B supporting A. B boosts him up raising him up above.”
“Well our ceiling doesn’t open,” says B. “But should…”
An exasperated A says: “B, don’t be so literal. The overwhelming consensus of the comments on his story agree the story is metaphorical. I need to know you’re behind me metaphorically.”
Such conversations become less frequent over time. Maybe A stops valuing B’s input. Maybe he’s trying to avoid arguments. Or maybe there just isn’t much to discuss because they never solve the mystery of how to escape their escape room.
Eventually, repeating what always happens, signs appear that the machine is running down. The food tastes off, the lights and furnace go on the fritz. The two men weaken and grow sick. And one day, without warning, the ceiling in the main room opens.
“Wow!” yells A. “It’s happening. Quick B, get the rope!”
B retrieves it in no time and boosts A up into the opening. Once A is through, B tosses the rope up and waits for A to secure it and drop it down. B ties the rope around himself and calls up, “Ready.”
“A…?” B asks.
After a pause the answer comes: “B, listen to me and try to stay calm. I’ve thought this through from every angle. I don’t think we are meant to repeat his story. If we want a different result we need to act differently.”
“Sure. Whatever. Hoist me up and we will talk about it.”
“B, you’re too heavy a burden.”
“That’s crap. I’m not that heavy. But I need a little help here.”
“Boy, that’s you in a nutshell isn’t it? Dense till the end. You’re not literally heavy. But metaphorically you’ve become a burden. You’ve become baggage I don’t need to carry anymore. I think we are meant to separate.”
“Fuck that. I want out too.”
“A adapts, aspires and ascends above. Burdensome B belongs below. There could still be an exit on your floor.”
“Still with that stupid letter obsession, man! You’ve completely lost it. You’re delusional.”
As if in answer, A drops his end of the rope to the floor.
B, starting to be overwhelmed by a mixture of panic and anger, yells: “How about A is for asshole and…” But before he can finish with “B is for…(something positive)”, the ceiling starts to rumble and the opening closes.
A little later, B’s life supports fail him. He dies in the dark, cold, weak and hungry.
A man wakes up face down on the floor. He rolls over on his back and stares up at an unfamiliar ceiling. He is alone with no memory of how he got there or who he is. He tries but fails to find an exit. Eventually he discovers a story, with commentaries or notes about it written in several different hand writing styles. The stories are about two men stuck in an escape room but they don’t help him figure out how to exit from his own escape room.
He spends a long, long time alone in this place. It is stocked with all the provisions he needs to survive but his is a lonely existence. One day, the ceiling of the central room opens to reveal a passageway out. It opens, just as the ceiling in the stories found in his pocket did. He leaps up trying to enter it but it is too high. Eventually the opening closes.
A bit later, his life supports fail. He feels hungry, cold and weak before curling up to die on the floor.
Copyright 2023 by Alan Wain