They tell me to smile more.
“You look like someone kicked your puppy.”
I force the corners of my mouth up, show a little tooth. I don’t feel it.
“There, your face didn’t crack, did it?”
The smile drops when they walk away. Maybe they see it slip. Maybe they don’t. Doesn’t matter. They see themselves as purveyors of good deeds. The Good Cheer Division, trademark. One and done.
Except they’re not. They sit me in a small room, cozy with its brown couch and pastoral scenes on the walls in cheap gilt frames, and use words like concerned, and unhappy. They don’t understand. I’m not unhappy. I’m baseline. Fair to middling, thank you, no I don’t need to be a smiling monkey. My mother’s here, stomach pooling on her lap while she talks about what a serious boy I’d been, my aunt with her anecdotes about reading while my cousins played in the yard. A coworker I’d thought a friend, details how I’d never once cracked a smile after winning a hundred-dollar gift card at the Christmas party. We worry about you. It’s the running theme, a wall of rose and perfume, and behind it the rotting stench of guilt that said they failed. They hadn’t raised me right. They’d tried, it said, and now they had no choice.
I look at the Optima tech, standing apart from the others in the room, an insect observing his prey. He turns his head this way and that, listening to their stories. He watches my reaction, his gaze crawling across my skin like a silken centipede. I wonder what he thinks. Am I just another case? A curiosity to be examined, to be pulled apart and reassembled the correct way? Am I a paycheck?
The voices quiet, and they turn to the man, his lab coat (who wears a lab coat out and about?) stitched with his name: Veldt. He nods to each of them and approaches, crouching beside me, a conciliatory hand on my shoulder. His eyes are a muddy brown behind wire-rim glasses.
“Are you unhappy?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“Then why don’t you smile? Can you do it now?”
Instead, the corners of my mouth turn down. Why was it so important? Veldt shakes his head and pats my shoulder, the ring on his finger tapping against the bone there. There’s a click, and a moment later, lassitude floods my limbs. I manage to raise my head, to see the glint of metal protruding from the ring. A needle. He’s drugged me. I stagger to my feet – try to, anyway, and end up collapsing in his arms. The others in the room gasp, and he waves them away.
“It’s fine. He’s fine.”
Others, men in white suits, enter and pick me up, carry me away. Before the room fades, before darkness falls, I can hear him still talking, his voice honey over toast.
“He’ll be even better soon.”
Dark. I wake in a dark room, a loose hospital gown tickling my skin. It’s cool, raising gooseflesh on my arms, and a shiver across my spine. I sit up in the bed and run my hands through my hair. A small patch is shaved at the back, stubble prickling my fingers. I probe and my fingers touch something metal, smooth. The echo of an ache throbs there, and the skin feels swollen. My stomach turns, and I squinch my eyes closed, tuck my elbows into my stomach and lean forward. The door opens, and I look up. A man in a lab coat – Veldt, stands over me with a tablet. He glances up from it.
“How are you feeling?”
“Sick. Sore. Scared.”
He nods and returns to the pad, touching a button here, fingers sliding up the screen like skates on ice. The thing in my neck hums, and I feel a pinch. Warmth floods me, and the fright and nausea flee. I rub the back of my neck and frown at him.
“What did you do?”
“Adjusted your serotonin levels. How do you feel now?”
I take inventory. I feel fine. Normal. I should be sick. I should be afraid. I should be screaming and tearing my fingernails off against the steel door in the wall. Instead I sit, relaxed, and a feel a smile tug at the corners of my mouth. I bite the insides of my cheeks and take a breath.
Veldt frowns and his finger skitter across the tablet again. The thing in my neck pinches me again, and that same warmth floods me. I feel a giggle tickle the insides of my ribs, come bubbling up through my throat. It escapes my lips, and I feel violated, sick. Vomit follows it, splashing on Veldt’s patent leather shoes. He steps back, disgust on his face. He leaves without a word, and I sit and cry while a sanitation worker cleans my sick. Later, they bring me food that I don’t eat. Instead, I sit in the antiseptic smell and close my eyes. Sleep comes later.
“And this one?”
A slide, with a smiling woman. She’s holding a child who is laughing. I shrug. Veldt’s shown me about a hundred of these. When he doesn’t think I’m responding the way I should, he turns up the dial on his little tablet. I resist the urge when the warmth floods through me – my cheeks hurt from not smiling, an ache around the corners of my eyes. It’s about the principle now. He sighs, and flicks to the next slide. A puppy, chasing a soap bubble. I can see it reflected in the iridescent surface, the oil-slick skin reflecting the sun and green grass. I force the corners of my lips down.
There’s a hum in my head, and the pinch. I cough, hiding the smile. I can see Veldt’s reflection in the black mirror of the monitor, and he frowns, fingers dancing across the tablet. The hum becomes aggressive, a nest of bees protecting their queen in my head. The pinch comes again and again. I cough harder, louder, until my ribs hurt, until I’m sure I’m going to vomit up the beef wellington I’d had for lunch.
Veldt makes a frustrated sound behind me, and his fingers move one more time. The hum cycles up to a squeal, a mechanical scream, and I see blood bloom in my vision, a red cloud across my iris. I close my eyes, the needle no longer pinching, but digging, burrowing, tunneling into my skull. I scream, and the thing in my head makes one more sound, that of a sick machine vomiting up its function. Heat blooms at the base of my brain, and I feel the corners of my mouth turn up. Joy overwhelms me. Laughter, full and brassy, boils from my lips. The world is bright and vibrant.
Veldt leaves his little room, stands in front of me, his lab coat crisp and white. He seems pleased, and I am happy for him. I am happy, and I am enraged – the two inextricable lovers now in the chemical storm in my brain. His throat is soft and savory as I bite into it, laughing through screams that remind me of the sweetest music. No one comes. No one comes as I watch, overjoyed at his bitter end, beauty in even the shit scent that floats up from his prone body, beauty in his glassy eyes, his lab coat stained in Pollack reds. Finally, I know true joy, and I know I must hear the music again.
I can’t help laughing on the bus. They move to the side, hiding their faces. They avoid my glee on the sidewalks, stepping to cross the street. At home, they open the door, and I thank my family for my rictus grin, for my overwhelming happiness. I try to tell them how much brighter the world is, but it’s so hard for them to hear over the screams. Besides, I just want to hear the music. There is joy in that music. True joy.
They tell me to smile more.