The Observer

Dr. Gates was an ambitious man. He always carried his clipboard with him and exactly one black pen, one blue pen, one red pen, and one finely sharpened No.2 Ticonderoga yellow pencil. He was tall but unimposing, and as thin as the lead of his pencil. The gaunt angles of his face fought against the distinctive angle of his aquiline nose. A few months ago he applied for his post doc. Now, he could still not believe that he was working at the Vesta Research Institute. His only other interest outside of social psychology was basketball. He loved to argue that the two were related. The previous night he could not rest. Larry Bird and the Celtics had lost the NBA Finals to Magic Johnson and the Lakers. Today would be a day for strong coffee- he liked to think that coffee and basketball were his only vices. Gates could still taste the acid on his tongue from the cheap instant coffee as he opened the door to the interview room.

"Are you ready to begin?" he asked the boy mechanically. They began this study six weeks ago and the interview sessions had become routine for both subject and observer.

The interview room was cold and sterile. The well-funded institute spared no expense soundproofing each room to maintain privacy. Malcom was always first in the interview room, he sat across from an empty wooden chair.  A steel table with two chairs stood in the middle of the windowless room - this was a temple of no nonsense. The walls were an unnatural white and the fluorescent light above would hum audibly during silences. On the table there were three new VHS tapes and a small camera with a tripod was provided by the institute to record interviews. Once this phase of the study was completed Gates would be eligible for promotion if Dr. Janus, the program director, approved. He sat down across from Malcolm and adjusted his wire frame glasses, waiting for a response.

"I guess", a shy reply came from a stocky freckled boy. His big green eyes darted back and forth.

"Alright Malcolm, let me turn the camera on and then we will play questions. Have you been keeping up with your schoolwork?” Dr. Gates asked, as he put a new tape into the camera and pressed record. His twiggy hands held a pen and clipboard with the last set of interview questions.

"Yes, Dr. Gates. Can we play questions next week instead?" said Malcolm. He did not like to sit still in the chair. It was too tall for him, and his legs dangled lazily from it.

Malcolm was an ideal candidate for the study. His file read that he loved to play outside, eat candy, and read comics. He always wore a t-shirt with some sort of superhero. His jeans and sneakers were usually dirty, and his red hair was usually unruly. Malcolm was shy with most adults, but his relationship with Gates was special. Gates had been able to break through to him. The only thing that distinguished Malcolm from any other ten-year-old was that he was an orphan, like Gates himself. The study examined children from troubled backgrounds to see how their conception of morality developed under difficult circumstances. This was a groundbreaking joint project conducted between the government and the Vesta Research Institute. Such groundbreaking studies bolstered the reputation of the institute. Working there was a career maker.

"You know we have to play questions like we do every day. Listen, I will give you a sticker after we finish. Sound good?” asked Dr. Gates.

“You mean it? None of the other kids ever get stickers.” Said Malcolm as he looked intensely at Dr. Gates’ thin, tired face.

“I promise. Today is our last interview. I wanted to reward you, you have been a big help.” Dr. Gates said, even though bribing a subject was against the rules of the institute. He needed the boy to cooperate.

“Ok, I’m ready.” said Malcolm.

“First question, is it okay to lie when the lie protects someone? Remember just answer yes or no. " Gates turned the camera toward Malcom as he smiled. But the smile was met with an empty silent stare.


"No." replied Malcolm before breaking eye contact. He began to swing his feet nervously, the sloppy shoelaces dragged on the floor.

“Sometimes…there are good reasons to lie.” Malcolm said staring at the floor.

“Remember Malcolm - only yes or no answers. Focus please, we must stick to the questions. Is it good to help people, even strangers? Yes or no?" Dr. Gates asked as he worked impatiently down the list.

"Yes." replied Malcom, his eyes now steady on Dr. Gates.

"Good. Next question, is it okay to lie to people to get to the truth?" Dr. Gates knew that sitting still could often be a challenge for Malcolm, but something was different today.
The boy stopped swinging his feet. Malcolm’s eyes grew pale as he stared and leaned slowly towards Dr. Gates.

"Dr. Janus, she hurts people. She scared me when we played questions too. Last time…she put wires in my mouth." Malcolm whispered. His green eyes filled with tears as he began to stutter, "She...She…She used wires to shock me. The other kids too. Rebecca told Dr. Juno and Timmy told Dr. Wolf ... but they didn't believe them. Do you believe me?"

"What? That’s not funny Malcolm. I guess you don’t want this sticker. I’ll have to mention this in my report to Dr. Janus. Now we need to start over.” Gates reached to turn the camera off before he took out the tape.

"No, you can't tell her! Please Dr. Gates don't tell anybody!" He jumped out of his chair and ran out of the room.

Instinctively, Dr. Gates grabbed the tape and his notes before he flew out of the room. Outside the interview room, the busy hall was full of people. The clipboard and tape slowed him down. A blur of red hair over weaved and darted between people in white lab coats. Dr. Gates pushed through the crowd as his thoughts began to race. I was stupid. I shouldn’t have pressed the kid. The social worker will be furious. I can't lose this position. There, there! I can see recognize that hair from anywhere. What is all this about Dr. Janus? Where could he have gone? This can't be happening to me. Is it just his imagination?

He turned sharply, bumping into people that he now could only view as obstacles. The tape and notes were clutched tightly, as he pressed them against his body. A door slammed around the corner. There. Over there. He must be there. The crowded halls began to thin, as Gates found himself in an unfamiliar part of the institute. He stood outside a set of dark wooden doors. A brass plate on the doors read “Executive Conference Room.” Beside the plate there was a handwritten sign "Board of Directors Meeting in Session. Quiet Please." Gates recognized the distinctly slanted and elaborate handwriting, it belonged to Dr. Janus.

This was the only doorway in the hall. He paced in shrinking frantic circles like a vulture. There was no other place Malcolm could have gone. As he caught his breath Gates began to think about his next move. He would apologize. Children run off all the time. The previous interviews with Malcolm were not compromised and there was no need to confront Dr. Janus about an allegation from a little boy. He sighed as he set the tape and clipboard down on the floor outside of the conference room. The fear in Malcolm’s voice was all too real – he remembered the horrors of being passed around the system after his mother died. Gates hadn’t thought about her in many years. Gates hadn’t thought about the scars that cigarette burns left on her lifeless arms. Gates hadn’t thought about his father, incarcerated for murder all those years ago until he opened the conference room door gently.

The conference room was sterile and cold. The board of directors were all either wearing suits or lab coats. Twelve sets of expressionless eyes around the mahogany conference table focused on Gates. Malcolm was standing in the far corner next to Dr. Janus. Her presence dominated the room. She wore a white lab coat over an elegant black dress that matched her dark hair almost exactly. Her manicured aristocratic hand rested on the boy’s shoulder. She looked so tall next to him.

"Dr. Gates, it seems your little helper stumbled into the middle of our meeting,” she said with a sinister sweetness, as every big wig in the room smiled and chuckled. Malcolm's lively green eyes grew pale again, unblinking.

"My apologies. You know how boys his age can be. Let’s go Malcolm." Dr. Gates spoke calmly as he approached, he boy and led him by the hand. Malcolm was shaking with every small step. Gates closed his eyes before stopping short of the door. He remembered that his father liked cheap coffee and basketball too. His mother would often say that they were almost copies of each other.

"Something else Dr. Gates?" said Dr. Janus, her voice now stern. Malcolm continued to look straight down at his sloppy shoelaces.

Gates was overcome with a gnawing feeling. He looked once more at Malcolm before speaking, "Yes. I believe that Dr. Janus has been harming this boy and others. I have no reason to think that Malcolm would lie."

The room now looked toward Dr. Janus. She stood still like a tombstone, smiling. Malcolm let go of Gates’ hand. then the boy smiled brightly at him before skipping gleefully towards Dr. Janus. His eyes were lively and green again as he sat in her empty conference chair at the head of the table. The directors began to applaud and congratulate him.

“We chose you well dear boy, excellent work” Dr. Janus said as she reached into her purse and gave Malcolm a sticker. Malcolm was glowing with pride. She reached into her purse again.

“Malcolm? What is going on here?” demanded Gates.

“Dr. Gates, this is for you.” said Dr. Janus, as she swiftly pulled out a pistol and aimed it at Gates. He felt a sharp pain in his stomach, the room rolled with applause as everything slowly faded to black.

"Wake up Dr. Gates, wake up." Said a voice sweetly.

"Dr. Janus?” He said with difficulty. He realized he was now seated, his hands handcuffed behind his back. He could hear a familiar fluorescent hum. This was the interview room. As Gates opened his eyes, he could make out one familiar silhouette - Dr. Janus. There were two others seated on either side of him. There was something in his mouth. As his vision adjusted, he recognized Juno and Wolf. They looked dehydrated, sleep deprived, and shriveled. They avoided looking at directly at Gates. In the corners of their mouths he could see wires. Across the table Gates noticed three empty chairs. A small console with one red button was on the table, connected to the wires. That was when he knew that no one could help him.

"Save your energy Dr. Gates.” Dr. Janus said standing over him with a sinister smile, “I have some good news. First, Malcolm is fine. Everything he told you was a carefully designed lie. You see, Malcolm and the other children are my wards. They have been observing you and your colleagues quite closely during phase one. Although we have been researching morality and conditioning, what the institute really wanted to observe was how susceptible young and intelligent people were to moral corruption. As you know, we select our postdocs with utmost care. The three of you proved to be ideal candidates for our study. Three different backgrounds but equally ambitious and smart. So, allow me to congratulate you on being promoted to phase two. The wires in your mouths are there to help you with your conditioning. You will be asked a series of yes or no questions. If the observers feel that one of you is lying, they will send a shock to all three of you. Children, come in please.” Malcom entered the room together with two other children. His red hair was neatly brushed and parted. The children wore small lab coats. Malcolm carried a familiar clipboard. They sat down in the empty chairs.

"Why me?" asked Gates.

“Oh, Dr. Gates, your research notes were greatly detailed and the tape you kindly brought to us was particularly helpful. Initially, you chose not to help the child. You dismissed his plea for help. However, unlike your colleagues you spoke up at the last possible moment.  But did you forget about your lie? The sticker? You really should not bribe children. I have trained these observers to do much better.” The heels of her shoes tapped slowly as she left the room, softly closing the door behind her without turning around.

"Are you ready to begin?" asked Malcolm mechanically, already bored by his subject.

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About the Author

Zhenya Yevtushenko is one of the sons of the late poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. He is a published translator, a former substitute teacher and funeral home consultant. Currently, Zhenya has resumed pursuing his undergraduate degrees in Political Science, History and English. Zhenya aspires to become a Foreign Service Officer and a literary translator. He resides in Tulsa, Oklahoma and owes his inspiration to his brothers, his mother, and to the love of his life, Olivia.

Zhenya Yevtushenko
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