Cries and Whispers (fiction)

Adam arrives at the breakfast table wearing Winnie the Pooh tops and Spiderman bottoms. He pulls out the chair and sits. He casts his eyes downward, between the table and his stomach.

“I feel bad eating in front of you,” I tell him.

“That’s okay.”

“They’ll probably give you a snack after.”

He nods almost imperceptibly and then he starts to cry. I go around to the other side of the table to give him a hug.

“You know we love you more than anything and would never do anything that wasn’t going to be good for you?”

He doesn’t answer.

“You’ll be asleep, I tell him. You won’t feel anything.”

“But after?” he asks.

Fortunately, his sister answers before I have to:

“It was like the day after you scrape you knee. You hardly notice it.”

Hannah had the implant two years ago.

“And then it’s so cool,” she says. “Mental video games. No more keyboards.”

She was twelve when she got hers so it’s not as if she’d done a lot of typing. Not like her mother and me. We were in our thirties, with many more years of translating thoughts into words, then letters, and then tapping them through our finger-tips. I suppose it does seem like an inefficient way to communicate. Still, I miss it. Sometimes I’ll still sit at the computer to write an email—not at work (the younger staff would snicker), but at home.

I get Adam a half cup of juice, but he shakes his head. “I’m not supposed to,” he says.

Gina is watching, but I say, “Sips of juice are okay. The surgery’s not for a few hours.”

Gina sighs quietly, but when Adam reaches out and takes a sip, it is so tiny that the disapproval in her eyes eases.

For a moment the token drops of juice seem to cheer him up, if cheer is the right word. I go into the kitchen and guiltily pour myself a second bowl of cereal. Gina sends me a G-wave message: Maybe it’s best if we try to change the subject.

She’s probably right, so I G-wave the message on to Hannah as I walk back into the dining room.

I wasn’t the one talking about it, she replies.

I know. I didn’t say you were.

When I re-enter the dining room, Hannah glares at me fiercely. She likes to play with dirty looks.

“Are you guys whispering?” Adam asks. He calls it ‘whispering’. In fact, he invented the term and it has stuck. We use it all the time.

“Just a little G-waving,” I say.

“What about?”

“About having another bowl of cereal.”

“You’re not talking about cereal,” he says.

I put a spoonful of Rice Crispers in my mouth. As I chew I see the tears running down his cheeks. “What’s wrong?”

“But we won’t talk anymore!”

I look around the table: a glance toward Hannah, a glance to Gina. “We will,” I say.

“No, we won’t!”

“I still talk to Mom and Gina,” I tell him. I expect him to say it’s only because he doesn’t have his implant yet, but he just hunches over and his face turns pink, and I start to feel so helpless it makes me angry. I pick up my dishes, carry them to the sink and go down the hall to get dressed.

Gina takes over with Adam. I hear her consoling tone, but the words don’t carry this far.

I’ve told myself there are no real options. We need the implant. Everything is G-waved now. There’s no decision to make. Some people delay it a year, but they always get it, unless they can’t afford it. What would you do without it? Couldn’t go to the best schools and then he wouldn’t get into a university. He wouldn’t know what’s going on in the world. Likely would find it hard to make friends. Wouldn’t qualify for credit. Would have to pay more for everything because he wouldn’t be eligible for the brand-stream plans.

Gina got it first. She had to for work. It was more expensive then, but her company covered it.

After the surgery I noticed that she was in her own world for the first half-hour of the morning. She was catching up on all the G-wave activity during the night. I would sometimes make a comment about it so she started hiding in the bathroom.

I suppose I was jealous, curious at the very least, about that other life she lived, and envious of her new role as the family’s sole fount of knowledge. The kids stopped asking me what the capital of Slovakia was, how hydro-electric dams work, or who won the hockey game. They asked Gina instead. She always had the answer. I was even asking her for directions.

I became enamored with the idea of accessing all that knowledge. I already had it at my fingertips, but what a bottleneck the keyboard is, or the tongue, or the ear even, compared to a clean flow of data directly in and out of the brain. When our company offered to pay half for the procedure and the implant hardware, I pretended to wrestle with the idea for three days. Then I got in line.

Does it change you? I think it must. It’s hard to say how much. Maybe it changes you so much that you can’t say, because you’re not the same you. Other people are the best judges. Or science. There’s a lot of research, preliminary though. It’s too early to know all the effects. One thing I read recently was about when to get it. Early has advantages because the brain is still growing and it will more fully adapt, but scientists have already noticed that verbal skills develop more slowly once children get it. It makes sense. They talk less, listen less. I could be wrong, but I think I see it in Hannah.

They say the children of parents who have the implant also develop language skills more slowly too. I’m glad Gina and I didn’t have ours when the kids were babies. It’ll be different for Hannah, though. She’ll fall in love implanted, have children implanted. At what age will her children get it?

Are you thinking about me?

Maybe.

I was thinking too intensely. That’s the thing about adults. We’re not great at closing channels. There’s some bleed, “spillage” as Hannah says. Children aren’t good at it either, but they improve quickly and almost all of them will attain full G-wave accuracy and continence within three years.

I was just remembering when Hannah got her implant. I don’t remember this much drama.

Nah! bursts out Hannah. I wanted it.

Yes, you did, Gina recalls.

It’s strange. I imagine I can hear a thoughtful, almost hesitant tone of voice, but I cannot. The fact is that the tone markers in G-waving are still pretty crude. That tone I hear is imagined, or rather I’m able to imagine it, since I know Gina’s voice so well.

I try to quietly close the channel. I hear them—I mean actually hear them—moving, starting to clear the breakfast table. I go into the washroom and stand before the mirror. You can’t see the implant. It’s thin and pliable and branches out into numerous filaments, all slipped neatly beneath the scalp, but I wonder for the two hundredth time if I look different.

 

Adam breaks down as we try to get out of the house. His sobbing turns into hyperventilating. “Oh, sweat pea,” says Gina, “it’s really nothing to be worried about. Millions of children have had this procedure this year alone. If it was dangerous at all we would have heard about it.” Realizing she should not have mentioned the word “dangerous”, she says, “And we’ll be so close by the whole time. We won’t leave the hospital.”

He is a good boy. He forces himself to get in the car, though he is still gasping for air between sobs.

I watch him in the mirror. Dutifully, I console him, pep talk him, all the while on the verge of turning off the car. A voice tells me the procedure is for his own good, that this is one of the scary moments in life that you have to pass through if you want to thrive, and if you don’t, you will be left behind, unlikely to ever catch up. But I’m not sure I believe it.

I don’t know what I believe, but we pay $30 to park and sticking close together we walk toward the hospital. Perhaps out of respect or fear for the six-story institution, Adam has stopped sobbing. I put my arm around him and pull his body against mine, half congratulatory, half protective. Gina runs her fingers through his hair. I look ahead at the rotating doors.

We don’t stop at the front desk because we already know which floor. Hannah walks ahead purposefully. I’m puzzled for a moment, until I realize that she has connected to the hospital’s inter-nav system. We let her lead us to the Children’s Implant Procedure Facility, where we give Adam’s name and take a seat. The waiting room here is small with dark, wood-like paneling and spongey carpet.

Soon we’re approached by a young man in a suit with perfectly styled hair. “You must be Adam. My name’s Tray. Would you like to come right this way with me, Adam?”

“Okay.” Adam slips off the edge of his chair.

Gina rises and smiles at Tray. I stay seated and put my arm around Hannah.

We know the rules. One parent at a time until they take him to the operating room.

“Bye, Dad,” says Adam, looking back at me over his right shoulder. It catches me off guard.

“Bye,” I try to say, and then they are gone.

I look over at Hannah. I can tell by the look in her eye that she is already occupied with something, a message from a friend, or a new chapter in one of the fantasy tales she is currently following. This is just a boring family outing for her. I suppose she might be like this–indifferent–whether or not she had the implant.

 

Gina is back in twenty minutes. I cannot tell much from her expression, which looks worried but composed. She casts us a reassuring smile.

“They gave him a tour of the acclimation room and then got him set up in his bed.”

“How is he?”

“Fragile. They just gave him something to calm him.”

 

He is heart-breakingly calm. I talk to him to assess his level of consciousness and to discern whether he is subdued by chemicals or fear. He is sitting up in bed, quite still, except for his eyes, which flit around the room as if they are following invisible butterflies. I put my hand on his shoulder and leave it there, holding him firmly. I ask questions, which he answers in one sentence or less.

“Are you feeling a little better about the implant now?”

He responds with a slight, quick nod.

And then they come in. They sweep in, with a breezy authority, denying doubt or alternative.

Powerless, I take a step back as they surround him.

 

After the surgery he will need 48 hours in the acclimation chamber. People ironically call it “booting up”, but that’s not really what it is. It’s recuperation for the brain, time to adapt to the new feed. We’re allowed to see him for two minutes every four hours through two thick panes of glass. They make it so the sound can’t travel through, so you’re less tempted to speak (with your mouth, I mean), though you still are. And you can’t G-wave him yet. They’ll restrict him to one channel, I-bilical. It delivers a brain training program that, among other things, teaches him how to operate the device. No doubt it has evolved since I had the surgery. I have to admit I found it very stimulating, like travel, like getting a new gadget.

After a few weeks, the ads begin to flow. Just one a day at first, but they become more prevalent. I remember my first one. It was for Coke. I was riding my bicycle on a hot day and had forgotten to bring a water bottle. I was thinking about where I could find a water fountain and then the world lit up in red and the word “Coke” floated … somewhere, not before my eyes exactly, but behind them, and then a moving image of bubbly soda being poured into a glass of ice cubes. I swore I could taste it, but they claim that is just an “illusion”. The current generation of implants is not supposed to stimulate taste, smell or touch, although it can “perfume” its casts by tickling certain emotion centres. Apparently, it works better for some people than others.

It is the ads that bother a lot of people, but the activists say the people who worry about the ads are missing the point, that they don’t appreciate the profound consequences of the implants. “If all you worry about is obnoxious ads, you will soon be a fully content consumer,” they say. They are alluding to OOSIM tech. Out of Sight, Into Mind, a new implant technology that will appeal directly to the unconscious, so we won’t have to “see” the ads. We will just find ourselves attracted to those brands that have paid the most to access our brains with their synapse-altering algorithms. Some people say OOSIM is already here. I don’t believe it, but I have to admit I find it hard to think about, which sometimes makes me think I’m wrong—that it does exist, because surely if it existed one of the first things they would do is reprogram you so you can’t think about it.

 

I pace down the hallway. I’m not sure where I am going, but I need to move. Ahead of me an orderly with a cart stops by a door. He takes a box from the bottom shelf and disappears into a room. I notice a stack of metal dishes on the top. One is labelled “ER6”. I could snatch a scalpel and cut this implant out of me right now. How painful would it be? What damage would I do to myself? Would my life be ruined?

 

Are you guys finished eating?

Yes. We’re back in the waiting room.

I’m on my way there, but the woman behind the desk looks at me as I’m passing by. I swerve toward her.

“I’m just wondering,” I say.

“Yes?”

“Do they remove implants here, or just install them?”

“Now and again, some people need an upgrade, if they had one of the earlier models.”

“Doesn’t anyone have them removed?”

She smiles at me tolerantly.

I return to the waiting room and sit next to Hannah. The three of us are quiet. Gina and Hannah are browsing. I am just plain old thinking–thinking and thinking, until I can’t sit still any longer. I’m not sure that I’m supposed to take the stairs, but I do–down to the lobby. I walk through the front doors out to the street–to wind and trees and clouds. Small drops of rain are flung down by the breeze. I look up, tempted to holler toward the sky.

 

I see Hannah, her fists in the front pocket of her hoodie, her elbows bent close to her body for warmth. She is standing tall, to see better, gazing left, along the sidewalk, then right, until she spots me. A moment to take me in before she calls out. I can barely hear her voice through the noise of the rain.

“What are you doing?”

She watches me carefully as I walk toward her. She is fourteen years old and this is the first time I have ever seen her look at me with concern. Thankfully, there are already raindrops on my cheeks.

“Was I spilling?” I ask her.

“Yes!”

“A lot?”

She looks rattled, in her own, poised way. If she wasn’t, she would say something, or G-wave. She’d ask, “Why were you freaking out?”

So I tell her: “I was worried about Adam.” And you, and me, and your mom.

“Why?”

“We’ve mangled ourselves.”

She shakes her head. At this point in her life she has absolutely no qualms about the implant, none. She doesn’t like to see me upset, but the substance of my doubts are insignificant to her. She tilts her head pedantically. “You’re the one standing in the rain.”

 

A few minutes later, as we’re sitting side-by-side-by-side, I’m fed a new ad, well-produced, big-budget, engineered to trigger a mild serotonin excretion as the message “Lifft Anti-depressant makes it all better” is sky-written across the inner surface of my forehead. I try to brush it away, but it must run its course.

“I’m going to get my implant removed,” I tell them.

“Really? You’re going to be stupid again,” Hannah says.

“Did I used to be stupid?”

Hannah makes one of her faces. Gina listens tolerantly. She thinks I’m all talk, that I have silly ideas sometimes but that I usually do the right thing in the end, thankfully.

“So when are you going to do this?” Hannah asks.

“I can’t do it here,” I say. “They only treat kids. I’ll look it up. I’ll–”

“You’re going to use your implant to get rid of your implant.”

“That’s right.”

“How ironic.”

 

In his short hospital gown Adam moves toward the window and then stops. He studies us for a moment and then he gives us a thumbs up. He doesn’t want us to worry. The three of us make the same sign back at him. I see his eyes move from Gina, to Hannah, to me. He watches me with searching eyes, the same eyes I saw on our first visit to the barber, his first swimming lesson and bicycle ride. He’s looking for assurance that everything is fine, that he’s done alright, that he’ll be okay.

He is innocent and trustful and I have betrayed him. I was too weak. I hid in fatalism. He is looking at me, waiting, uncertainty tingeing his gaze. I cannot bear it. I raise my other fist and pop up my thumb, not one but two thumbs up.

He grins and points to the white gauze on his temple. His joints move stiffly, zombie-like. His mouth opens wide into a mask of horror.

We mime our laughter to show that we’re amused by his antics. Amused, and so pleased to see that the old Adam is back.

 

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Cries and Whispers (fiction)

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