“You can open your eyes now, Sir. Your session is complete.”
Doctor Billington gently squeezes Cap’s shoulder and adjusts wires on his forehead. A yellow light fades in and out over the vinyl chair. Cap feels tired, lonely like he’s driving on a dark street at 2:00 am in a pounding rain. His orientation is skewed. Beads of sweat congregate on his brow.
“I’m awake, I’m awake,” says Cap. “I just can’t see.” Salt encrusts his eyes. A fluorescent surgical light beats down.
“Your eyes will adjust,” says Billington. “Give it time. Right now the light’s so bright that it’s dark.”
Cap shadows his face with his hand. Sounds like a metaphor, he thinks, like Billington is reading from a script.
Billington adjusts the resolution on the monitor and examines Cap’s brain scan. “You’re close,” he says. “Very close, but the humor’s still there. Not to worry, it’s one of the last things to go.”
Cap shrugs. Doesn’t notice anything unusual about his state of mind. His original thoughts feel normal and intact, including his memory. Actually, EnLight did not appear to be tampering with the past at all. It’s his future orientation that is at stake—his thoughts, feelings and ambitions about tomorrow, the next day, five years from now.
“I never intended to hurt anyone’s feelings,” he says. “I just wanted to make people think.”
“Yes, but the jokes hurt. The jokes offended. Your moonlighting in short stories was not appreciated by your employer. Zoetic Magazine stands for peace and justice, not biting social commentary. Hence, your enrollment in the program.”
“I understand, and I respect my employer, though I had a pen name.”
“Sure, but the pen name was so obvious, wasn’t it…and insulting? Your HR department saw through that pretty quickly. ‘Naomi Jones’? Really? Posing as a woman…of a different ethnicity no less. That’s taking food off the table of another writer.”
High-pitched noises. Metal tools clanking together. Cool air blows across Cap’s face. He riled by the inference. “That’s not how it works,” he says. “If you have passion, you go with it. There are an infinity of ideas out there. No two people can express them the same way. I’m not taking food from anyone. Besides, ‘Naomi’ is ethnically ambiguous.”
Billington examines the biofeedback translator. Critical responses from the subject are a bad sign. Dissent from the narrative means that the neural reimaging needs tweaking. EnLight just isn’t quite getting to the root of the problem. Billington clicks hard into the emotional analogue subsequencer.
Cap’s jaw seizes up.
Electrical impulses course through his veins.
Strange sounds. Echoes. Cap feels like he’s in a cave. No, not a cave…a boardroom. The monthly Zoetic stakeholder meeting is happening. He’s being questioned about the subversive nature of his story. He’s being asked how the Lead Editor of the magazine could pen such an insensitive piece.
Cap stumbles on his words. He’s nervous. Never before had his job felt so threatened. Never before had his moral personhood been questioned to this degree. “I’ll make reparations,” he responds. “I’m sorry. I thought the story would be received in a good way. It got a lot of compliments…from many walks of life.”
“Yes, your article garnered many views.”
More high-pitched sounds. Grinding. A woman with a mask leans over the surgical table. Her face is red, lumpy, disorderly like a pomegranate smashed on a rock.
“Please don’t fire me,” says Cap. “I’ve got a family. I’m older. This is my only path to retirement.”
The fMRI thought encoder shows Cap’s responses. The experience of fear registers on the monitor a full five seconds before it is felt. “You’re not being fired,” says Billington. “Per the professional development agreement, you’re just being engaged…in guided reflection.”
At this point, Cap doesn’t even know who he is talking to, and his brain feels sectionized like a bag of frozen peas. Background voices. Pulsations. A repeating sequence of numbers. 5s, 3s, 2s. The distinction between EnLight and reality is fundamentally unclear.
Cap feels dizzy.
The room is spinning.
His eyes roll back in his head.
“Where am I?”
Running water in the background. Bright lights. A medicinal smell that reminds him of cotton candy.
“You’ve finished Stage 2,” says Billington, raising a cup of water to Cap’s mouth. “Though you had an episode, a seizure. Not to worry, I’m treating you with lamotrigine. You will be fine. These are just behavioral withdrawals. Your body is overcompensating for bad habits.”
Cap tries to speak, though his lips are numb.
Billington clicks deep into the interpersonal similarity feedback platform.
Cap’s daughter appears in the room. In real life, she’s twenty years old and had just finished her junior year at college, though at this moment, she’s an older version of herself, ten years removed from her first real job. She sits down on a chair next to the surgical table. A golden hue hangs over her head. Her words are smooth but piercing.
“Dad, you hurt people with your writing. You lost sight of the boundaries of your art. You misled, you misappropriated.”
Cap is confused, destabilized. Amanda would never say something like this. She’s a creative writing major schooled in the literary greats. Nabokov, Melville, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Joyce. Amanda would never tell her dad to bow down to current cultural trends. She’s a free spirit, a nonconformist, a purveyor of oddity, just like him.
Amanda hands Cap the latest edition of Zoetic. She’s on the cover. Cap skims his daughter’s biography. She’s a full-time writer and author of three novels. Her work has been reviewed in The New Yorker. She’s the Director of the Center for Humanitarian Excellence. Cap is overwhelmed by emotion, full of pride.
Though as he goes deeper into the words, a sinking feeling. The article is actually about him and his misguided career as a writer. Stories that he had penned, which were humorous to some but offensive to many. “Harmful individuality” were the specific words his daughter used, “a promoter of invisible structures of entitlement.”
Cap’s heart sinks. He’s hyperventilating. Vibrations oscillate from ear to ear. He winces. There’s a pain deep in his skull. Cortisol particles swim through his bloodstream like salmon up a fish ladder. He asks for EnLight to stop.
Fearing a new seizure, Billington hits pause on the emotional reimaging software and moves the camera away from Cap’s head. “You’re okay. You’re just overstimulated, anxious. All part of the extraction process.”
Billington is holding a metal surgical instrument that resembles pliers. “Perhaps it’s time we talk about your short story?”
Cap squirms in the chair.
“Are you aware of the pain your writing caused? Do you know how much it hurt?”
“Decay,” Cap mutters.
“Yes, decay is a part of it. Moral decay. Literary decay. You penned a character who was oppressed, yet you filled this character with traits of the oppressor.”
Cap doesn’t understand the point, though the predictive brain analytics tells all.
“In doing so,” continues Billington, “you obscured your own identity to make light of certain groups of people. You made fun of their religious traditions. You critiqued their politics. You distorted and ridiculed their very identity.”
“But it was humor,” mumbles Cap. “It was satire and parody. My hero has always been Mark Twain.”
“Parody and pain both start with ‘p’. Laughing is secondary to accountability. How can Twain know the pain of that which he has not experienced?”
“But writers imagine, writers empathize. There’s admiration there and openness to influence. I just wanted the reader to think about hypocrisy and stereotypes…or not stereotypes, but stereotypes of stereotypes, I guess you could say. I wanted people to question. The identity of the writer doesn’t have to matter.”
Billington eyes the monitor. A defensiveness alert pop-up. Sophisticated attempts to maintain the status quo. His emotional resonance centers are not lining up as they should. Cap believes what he is saying. He likes his story, doesn’t understand what it means in the greater cultural landscape. Time for a deeper dive into his psyche. Time to drill down into what matters most.
Cap’s daughter reappears. She’s standing beside the surgical table once again, dissolving in and out of consciousness like fog in the sun.
“I had to say goodbye, Dad. Living under your shadow hurt my career, hurt me. I appreciated everything you did for me. Your influence on me is beyond words. But in the end, in terms of my career, I couldn’t become you, I couldn’t even associate with you. Your work just went too far.”
Spittle drips from the corner of Cap’s mouth. He’s cold, tired, feels a profound sense of emptiness. Losing his job would undermine his future. He’s sixty years old. He walks with a limp. Losing his daughter would be nothing short of experiencing his own death. Amanda is his heart and soul. She is his inspiration. She is him. EnLight makes this painfully clear.
The cranial ultrasonic scaler blinks red.
The modular summary spits out its final report.
Cap now sees the pain he is causing his future self.
And there’s not a damn thing funny about it.
When he sits up and looks around, the room feels different. Corporate posters cover the walls. Inspirational quotes. Pictures colored by children. A cup of lollipops rests on the windowsill. People seem…happy.
Billington takes off his rubber gloves and clicks out of the X-ray. “You did great,” he says. “You mumbled a little during the procedure, but we see that a lot. The nitrous oxide makes it all feel like a dream.”
Cap looks down at his hand. He’s holding a toothbrush and a packet with floss and dental threaders.
“Your daughter is in the waiting room. The sedation should wear off soon.”
Amanda greets him at the exit. As she does, she hands papers to the secretary who files them away under the letter ‘E’.”
“How did it go?” asks Amanda.
“I don’t know,” says Cap. “I can’t remember.”
The secretary waves him over.
“Would you like to make your follow-up appointment now or later? Doctor B would like to see you in a week.”
Cap looks at his work calendar.
He looks at his daughter.
He looks at the secretary.
“I guess I can do next week.”
“Great, here you go,” she says, handing him an appointment card.
Amanda leads Cap out of the building. Sun hits their faces. The Denver skyline is shrouded in smoke.
“How are you feeling, Dad?”
“Tired. I think I’ll take the rest of the day off.”
“Good idea. You had some major dental work done.”
Amanda escorts her father to his car.
He sits down, opens his briefcase and skims a story he’s working on. There’s feedback from a co-worker written in red ink. “Be cautious” were the words on the final page. “Remember who your audience might be.”
Cap puts the keys in the ignition and watches blackbirds fly over the hood of the car. Odd that he’s thinking about writing at this moment. Strange how one thought jumps to the next.
Confused, gauze tucked into the side of his cheek, he turns over the engine. Orange streaks on the windshield. Dusty images. Cap glances in the rearview mirror as he drives away. A man in a two-piece suit stands outside the dentist’s office, watching him leave.