Escape From Spider Head Essay Contest

“Drip on?” Abnesti said over the P.A.

“What’s in it?” I said.

“Hilarious,” he said.

“Acknowledge,” I said.

Abnesti used his remote. My MobiPak™ whirred. Soon the Interior Garden looked really nice. Everything seemed super-clear.

I said out loud, as I was supposed to, what I was feeling.

“Garden looks nice,” I said. “Super-clear.”

Abnesti said, “Jeff, how about we pep up those language centers?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Drip on?” he said.

“Acknowledge,” I said.

He added some Verbaluce™ to the drip, and soon I was feeling the same things but saying them better. The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.

I sat, pleasantly engaged in these thoughts, until the Verbaluce™ began to wane. At which point the garden just looked nice again. It was something about the bushes and whatnot? It made you just want to lay out there and catch rays and think your happy thoughts. If you get what I mean.

Then whatever else was in the drip wore off, and I didn’t feel much about the garden one way or the other. My mouth was dry, though, and my gut had that post-Verbaluce™ feel to it.

“What’s going to be cool about that one?” Abnesti said. “Is, say a guy has to stay up late guarding a perimeter. Or is at school waiting for his kid and gets bored. But there’s some nature nearby? Or say a park ranger has to work a double shift?”

“That will be cool,” I said.

“That’s ED763,” he said. “We’re thinking of calling it NatuGlide. Or maybe ErthAdmire.”

“Those are both good,” I said.

“Thanks for your help, Jeff,” he said.

Which was what he always said.

“Only a million years to go,” I said.

Which was what I always said.

Then he said, “Exit the Interior Garden now, Jeff, head over to Small Workroom 2.”

II

Into Small Workroom 2 they sent this pale tall girl.

“What do you think?” Abnesti said over the P.A.

“Me?” I said. “Or her?”

“Both,” Abnesti said.

“Pretty good,” I said.

“Fine, you know,” she said. “Normal.”

Abnesti asked us to rate each other more quantifiably, as per pretty, as per sexy.

It appeared we liked each other about average, i.e., no big attraction or revulsion either way.

Abnesti said, “Jeff, drip on?”

“Acknowledge,” I said.

“Heather, drip on?” he said.

“Acknowledge,” Heather said.

Then we looked at each other like, What happens next?

What happened next was, Heather soon looked super-good. And I could tell she thought the same of me. It came on so sudden we were like laughing. How could we not have seen it, how cute the other one was? Luckily there was a couch in the Workroom. It felt like our drip had, in addition to whatever they were testing, some ED556 in it, which lowers your shame level to like nil. Because soon, there on the couch, off we went. It was super-hot between us. And not merely in a horndog way. Hot, yes, but also just right. Like if you’d dreamed of a certain girl all your life and all of a sudden there she was, in your Domain.

“Jeff,” Abnesti said. “I’d like your permission to pep up your language centers.”

“Go for it,” I said, under her now.

“Drip on?” he said.

“Acknowledge,” I said.

“Me, too?” Heather said.

“You got it,” Abnesti said, with a laugh. “Drip on?”

“Acknowledge,” she said, all breathless.

Soon, experiencing the benefits of the flowing Verbaluce™ in our drips, we were not only fucking really well but also talking pretty great. Like, instead of just saying the sex-type things we had been saying (such as “wow” and “oh God” and “hell yes” and so forth), we now began freestyling re our sensations and thoughts, in elevated diction, with eighty-per-cent increased vocab, our well-articulated thoughts being recorded for later analysis.

For me, the feeling was, approximately: Astonishment at the dawning realization that this woman was being created in real time, directly from my own mind, per my deepest longings. Finally, after all these years (was my thought), I had found the precise arrangement of body/face/mind that personified all that was desirable. The taste of her mouth, the look of that halo of blondish hair spread out around her cherubic yet naughty-looking face (she was beneath me now, legs way up), even (not to be crude or dishonor the exalted feelings I was experiencing) the sensations her vagina was producing along the length of my thrusting penis were precisely those I had always hungered for, though I had never, before this instant, realized that I so ardently hungered for them.

That is to say: a desire would arise and, concurrently, the satisfaction of that desire would also arise. It was as if (a) I longed for a certain (heretofore untasted) taste until (b) said longing became nearly unbearable, at which time (c) I found a morsel of food with that exact taste already in my mouth, perfectly satisfying my longing.

Every utterance, every adjustment of posture bespoke the same thing: we had known each other forever, were soul mates, had met and loved in numerous preceding lifetimes, and would meet and love in many subsequent lifetimes, always with the same transcendently stupefying results.

Then there came a hard-to-describe but very real drifting-off into a number of sequential reveries that might best be described as a type of nonnarrative mind scenery, i.e., a series of vague mental images of places I had never been (a certain pine-packed valley in high white mountains, a chalet-type house in a cul-de-sac, the yard of which was overgrown with wide, stunted Seussian trees), each of which triggered a deep sentimental longing, longings that coalesced into, and were soon reduced to, one central longing, i.e., an intense longing for Heather and Heather alone.

This mind-scenery phenomenon was strongest during our third (!) bout of lovemaking. (Apparently, Abnesti had included some Vivistif™ in my drip.)

Afterward, our protestations of love poured forth simultaneously, linguistically complex and metaphorically rich: I daresay we had become poets. We were allowed to lie there, limbs intermingled, for nearly an hour. It was bliss. It was perfection. It was that impossible thing: happiness that does not wilt to reveal the thin shoots of some new desire rising from within it.

We cuddled with a fierceness/focus that rivalled the fierceness/focus with which we had fucked. There was nothing less about cuddling vis-à-vis fucking, is what I mean to say. We were all over each other in the super-friendly way of puppies, or spouses meeting for the first time after one of them has undergone a close brush with death. Everything seemed moist, permeable, sayable.

Then something in the drip began to wane. I think Abnesti had shut off the Verbaluce™? Also the shame reducer? Basically, everything began to dwindle. Suddenly we felt shy. But still loving. We began the process of trying to talk après Verbaluce™: always awkward.

Yet I could see in her eyes that she was still feeling love for me.

And I was definitely still feeling love for her.

Well, why not? We had just fucked three times! Why do you think they call it “making love”? That was what we had just made three times: love.

Then Abnesti said, “Drip on?”

We had kind of forgotten he was even there, behind his one-way mirror.

I said, “Do we have to? We are really liking this right now.”

“We’re just going to try to get you guys back to baseline,” he said. “We’ve got more to do today.”

“Shit,” I said.

“Rats,” she said.

“Drip on?” he said.

“Acknowledge,” we said.

Soon something began to change. I mean, she was fine. A handsome pale girl. But nothing special. And I could see that she felt the same re me, i.e., what had all that fuss been about just now?

Why weren’t we dressed? We real quick got dressed.

Kind of embarrassing.

Did I love her? Did she love me?

Ha.

No.

Then it was time for her to go. We shook hands.

Out she went.

Lunch came in. On a tray. Spaghetti with chicken chunks.

Man, was I hungry.

I spent all lunchtime thinking. It was weird. I had the memory of fucking Heather, the memory of having felt the things I’d felt for her, the memory of having said the things I’d said to her. My throat was like raw from how much I’d said and how fast I’d felt compelled to say it. But in terms of feelings? I basically had nada left.

Just a hot face and some shame re having fucked three times in front of Abnesti.

III

After lunch in came another girl.

About equally so-so. Dark hair. Average build. Nothing special, just like, upon first entry, Heather had been nothing special.

“This is Rachel,” Abnesti said on the P.A. “This is Jeff.”

“Hi, Rachel,” I said.

“Hi, Jeff,” she said.

“Drip on?” Abnesti said.

We Acknowledged.

Something seemed very familiar about the way I now began feeling. Suddenly Rachel looked super-good. Abnesti requested permission to pep up our language centers via Verbaluce™. We Acknowledged. Soon we, too, were fucking like bunnies. Soon we, too, were talking like articulate maniacs re our love. Once again certain sensations were arising to meet my concurrently arising desperate hunger for just those sensations. Soon my memory of the perfect taste of Heather’s mouth was being overwritten by the current taste of Rachel’s mouth, so much more the taste I now desired. I was feeling unprecedented emotions, even though those unprecedented emotions were (I discerned somewhere in my consciousness) exactly the same emotions I had felt earlier, for that now unworthy-seeming vessel Heather. Rachel was, I mean to say, it. Her lithe waist, her voice, her hungry mouth/hands/loins—they were all it.

I just loved Rachel so much.

Then came the sequential geographic reveries (see above): same pine-packed valley, same chalet-looking house, accompanied by that same longing-for-place transmuting into a longing for (this time) Rachel. While continuing to enact a level of sexual strenuousness that caused what I would describe as a gradually tightening, chest-located, sweetness rubber band to both connect us and compel us onward, we whispered feverishly (precisely, poetically) about how long we felt we had known each other, i.e., forever.

Again the total number of times we made love was three.

Then, like before, came the dwindling. Our talking became less excellent. Words were fewer, our sentences shorter. Still, I loved her. Loved Rachel. Everything about her just seemed perfect: her cheek mole, her black hair, the little butt-squirm she did now and then, as if to say, Mmm-mmm, was that ever good.

“Drip on?” Abnesti said. “We are going to try to get you both back to baseline.”

“Acknowledge,” she said.

“Well, hold on,” I said.

“Jeff,” Abnesti said, irritated, as if trying to remind me that I was here not by choice but because I had done my crime and was in the process of doing my time.

“Acknowledge,” I said. And gave Rachel one last look of love, knowing (as she did not yet know) that this would be the last look of love I would be giving her.

Soon she was merely fine to me, and I merely fine to her. She looked, as had Heather, embarrassed, as in, What was up with that just now? Why did I just go so overboard with Mr. Average here?

Did I love her? Or her me?

No.

When it was time for her to go, we shook hands.

The place where my MobiPak™ was surgically joined to my lower back was sore from all our positional changes. Plus I was way tired. Plus I was feeling so sad. Why sad? Was I not a dude? Had I not just fucked two different girls, for a total of six times, in one day?

Still, honestly, I felt sadder than sad.

I guess I was sad that love was not real? Or not all that real, anyway? I guess I was sad that love could feel so real and the next minute be gone, and all because of something Abnesti was doing.

IV

After Snack Abnesti called me into Control. Control being like the head of a spider. With its various legs being our Workrooms. Sometimes we were called upon to work alongside Abnesti in the head of the spider. Or, as we termed it: the Spiderhead.

“Sit,” he said. “Look into Large Workroom 1.”

In Large Workroom 1 were Heather and Rachel, side by side.

“Recognize them?” he said.

“Ha,” I said.

“Now,” Abnesti said. “I’m going to present you with a choice, Jeff. This is what we’re playing at here. See this remote? Let’s say you can hit this button and Rachel gets some Darkenfloxx™. Or you can hit this button and Heather gets the Darkenfloxx™. See? You choose.”

“They’ve got Darkenfloxx™ in their MobiPaks™?” I said.

“You’ve all got have Darkenfloxx™ in your MobiPaks™, dummy,” Abnesti said affectionately. “Verlaine put it there Wednesday. In anticipation of this very study.”

Well, that made me nervous.

Imagine the worst you have ever felt, times ten. That does not even come close to how bad you feel on Darkenfloxx™. The time it was administered to us in Orientation, briefly, for demo purposes, at one-third the dose now selected on Abnesti’s remote? I have never felt so terrible. All of us were just moaning, heads down, like, How could we ever have felt life was worth living?

I do not even like to think about that time.

“What’s your decision, Jeff?” Abnesti said. “Is Rachel getting the Darkenfloxx™? Or Heather?”

“I can’t say,” I said.

“You have to,” he said.

“I can’t,” I said. “It would be like random.”

“You feel your decision would be random,” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

And that was true. I really didn’t care. It was like if I put you in the Spiderhead and gave you the choice: which of these two strangers would you like to send into the shadow of the valley of death?

“Ten seconds,” Abnesti said. “What we’re testing for here is any residual fondness.”

It wasn’t that I liked them both. I honestly felt completely neutral toward both. It was exactly as if I had never seen, much less fucked, either one. (They had really succeeded in taking me back to baseline, I guess I am saying.)

But, having once been Darkenfloxxed™, I just didn’t want to do that to anyone. Even if I didn’t like the person very much, even if I hated the person, I still wouldn’t want to do it.

“Five seconds,” Abnesti said.

“I can’t decide,” I said. “It’s random.”

“Truly random?” he said. “O.K. I’m giving the Darkenfloxx™ to Heather.”

I just sat there.

“No, actually,” he said. “I’m giving it to Rachel.”

Just sat there.

“Jeff,” he said. “You have convinced me. It would, to you, be random. You truly have no preference. I can see that. And therefore I don’t have to do it. See what we just did? With your help? For the first time? Via the ED289/290 suite? Which is what we’ve been testing today? You have to admit it: you were in love. Twice. Right?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Very much in love,” he said. “Twice.”

“I said yes,” I said.

“But you just now expressed no preference,” he said. “Ergo, no trace of either of those great loves remains. You are totally cleansed. We brought you high, laid you low, and now here you sit, the same emotionwise as before our testing even began. That is powerful. That is killer. We have unlocked a mysterious eternal secret. What a fantastic game-changer! Say someone can’t love? Now he or she can. We can make him. Say someone loves too much? Or loves someone deemed unsuitable by his or her caregiver? We can tone that shit right down. Say someone is blue, because of true love? We step in, or his or her caregiver does: blue no more. No longer, in terms of emotional controllability, are we ships adrift. No one is. We see a ship adrift, we climb aboard, install a rudder. Guide him/her toward love. Or away from it. You say, ‘All you need is love’? Look, here comes ED289/290. Can we stop war? We can sure as heck slow it down! Suddenly the soldiers on both sides start fucking. Or, at low dosage, feeling super-fond. Or say we have two rival dictators in a death grudge. Assuming ED289/290 develops nicely in pill form, allow me to slip each dictator a mickey. Soon their tongues are down each other’s throats and doves of peace are pooping on their epaulets. Or, depending on the dosage, they may just be hugging. And who helped us do that? You did.”

All this time, Rachel and Heather had just been sitting there in Large Workroom 1.

“That’s it, gals, thanks,” Abnesti said on the P.A.

And they left, neither knowing how close they had come to getting Darkenfloxxed™ out their wing-wangs.

Verlaine took them out the back way, i.e., not through the Spiderhead but via the Back Alley. Which is not really an alley, just a carpeted hallway leading back to our Domain Cluster.

“Think, Jeff,” Abnesti said. “Think if you’d had the benefit of ED289/290 on your fateful night.”

Tell the truth, I was getting kind of sick of him always talking about my fateful night.

I’d been sorry about it right away and had got sorrier about it ever since, and was now so sorry about it that him rubbing it in my face did not make me one bit sorrier, it just made me think of him as being kind of a dick.

“Can I go to bed now?” I said.

“Not yet,” Abnesti said. “It is hours to go before you sleep.”

Then he sent me into Small Workroom 3, where some dude I didn’t know was sitting.

V

“Rogan,” the dude said.

“Jeff,” I said.

“What’s up?” he said.

“Not much,” I said.

We sat tensely for a long time, not talking. Maybe ten minutes passed.

We got some rough customers in here. I noted that Rogan had a tattoo of a rat on his neck, a rat that had just been knifed and was crying. But even through its tears it was knifing a smaller rat, who just looked surprised.

Finally Abnesti came on the P.A.

“That’s it, guys, thanks,” he said.

“What the fuck was that about?” Rogan said.

Good question, Rogan, I thought. Why had we been left just sitting there? In the same manner that Heather and Rachel had been left just sitting there? Then I had a hunch. To test my hunch, I did a sudden lurch into the Spiderhead. Which Abnesti always made a point of not keeping locked, to show how much he trusted and was unafraid of us.

And guess who was in there?

“Hey, Jeff,” Heather said.

“Jeff, get out,” Abnesti said.

“Heather, did Mr. Abnesti just now make you decide which of us, me or Rogan, to give some Darkenfloxx™ to?” I said.

“Yes,” Heather said. She must have been on some VeriTalk™, because she spoke the truth in spite of Abnesti’s withering silencing glance.

“Did you recently fuck Rogan, Heather?” I said. “In addition to me? And also fall in love with him, as you did with me?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Heather, honestly,” Abnesti said. “Put a sock in it.”

Heather looked around for a sock, VeriTalk™ making one quite literal.

Back in my Domain, I did the math: Heather had fucked me three times. Heather had probably also fucked Rogan three times, since, in the name of design consistency, Abnesti would have given Rogan and me equal relative doses of Vivistif™.

And yet, speaking of design consistency, there was still one shoe to drop, if I knew Abnesti, always a stickler in terms of data symmetry, which was: wouldn’t Abnesti also need Rachel to decide who to Darkenfloxx™, i.e., me or Rogan?

After a short break, my suspicions were confirmed: I found myself again sitting in Small Workroom 3 with Rogan!

Again we sat not talking for a long time. Mostly he picked at the smaller rat and I tried to watch without him seeing.

Then, like before, Abnesti came on the P.A. and said, “That’s it, guys, thanks.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “Rachel’s in there with you.”

“Jeff, if you don’t stop doing that, I swear,” Abnesti said.

“And she just declined to Darkenfloxx™ either me or Rogan?” I said.

“Hi, Jeff!” Rachel said. “Hi, Rogan!”

“Rogan,” I said. “Did you by any chance fuck Rachel earlier today?”

“Pretty much,” Rogan said.

My mind was like reeling. Rachel had fucked me plus Rogan? Heather had fucked me plus Rogan? And everyone who had fucked anyone had fallen in love with that person, then out of it?

What kind of crazy-ass Project Team was this?

I mean, I had been on some crazy-ass Project Teams in my time, such as one where the drip had something in it that made hearing music exquisite, and hence when some Shostakovich was piped in actual bats seemed to circle my Domain, or the one where my legs became totally numb and yet I found I could still stand fifteen straight hours at a fake cash register, miraculously suddenly able to do extremely hard long-division problems in my mind.

But of all my crazy-ass Project Teams this was by far the most crazy-assed.

I could not help but wonder what tomorrow would bring.

VI

Except today wasn’t even over.

I was again called into Small Workroom 3. And was sitting there when this unfamiliar guy came in.

“I’m Keith!” he said, rushing over to shake my hand.

He was a tall Southern drink of water, all teeth and wavy hair.

“Jeff,” I said.

“Really nice meeting you!” he said.

Then we sat there not talking. Whenever I looked over at Keith, he would gleam his teeth at me and shake his head all wry, as if to say, “Odd job of work, isn’t it?”

“Keith,” I said. “Do you by any chance know two chicks named Rachel and Heather?”

“I sure as heck do,” Keith said. And suddenly his teeth had a leering quality to them.

“Did you by any chance have sex with both Rachel and Heather earlier today, three times each?” I said.

“What are you, man, a dang psychic?” Keith said. “You’re blowing my mind, I itmit it!”

“Jeff, you’re totally doinking with our experimental design integrity,” Abnesti said.

“So either Rachel or Heather is sitting in the Spiderhead right now,” I said. “Trying to decide.”

“Decide what?” Keith said.

“Which of us to Darkenfloxx™,” I said.

“Eek,” Keith said. And now his teeth looked scared.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “She won’t do it.”

“Who won’t?” Keith said.

“Whoever’s in there,” I said.

“That’s it, guys, thanks,” Abnesti said.

Then, after a short break, Keith and I were once again brought into Small Workroom 3, where once again we waited as, this time, Heather declined to Darkenfloxx™ either one of us.

Back in my Domain, I constructed a who-had-fucked-whom chart, which went like this:

Abnesti came in.

“Despite all your shenanigans,” he said, “Rogan and Keith had exactly the same reaction as you did. And as Rachel and Heather did. None of you, at the critical moment, could decide whom to Darkenfloxx™. Which is super. What does that mean? Why is it super? It means that ED289/290 is the real deal. It can make love, it can take love away. I’m almost inclined to start the naming process.”

“Those girls did it nine times each today?” I said.

“Peace4All,” he said. “LuvInclyned. You seem pissy. Are you pissy?”

“Well, I feel a little jerked around,” I said.

“Do you feel jerked around because you still have feelings of love for one of the girls?” he said. “That would need to be noted. Anger? Possessiveness? Residual sexual longing?”

“No,” I said.

“You honestly don’t feel miffed that a girl for whom you felt love was then funked by two other guys, and, not only that, she then felt exactly the same quality/quantity of love for those guys as she had felt for you, or, in the case of Rachel, was about to feel for you, at the time that she funked Rogan? I think it was Rogan. She may have funked Keith first. Then you, penultimately. I’m vague on the order of operations. I could look it up. But think deeply on this.”

I thought deeply on it.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Well, it’s a lot to sort through,” he said. “Luckily it’s night. Our day is done. Anything else you want to talk about? Anything else you’re feeling?”

“My penis is sore,” I said.

“Well, no surprise there,” he said. “Think how those girls must feel. I’ll send Verlaine in with some cream.”

Soon Verlaine came in with some cream.

“Hi, Verlaine,” I said.

“Hi, Jeff,” he said. “You want to put this on yourself or want me to do it?”

“I’ll do it,” I said.

“Cool,” he said.

And I could tell he meant it.

“Looks painful,” he said.

“It really is,” I said.

“Must have felt pretty good at the time, though?” he said.

His words seemed to be saying he was envious, but I could see in his eyes, as they looked at my penis, that he wasn’t envious at all.

Then I slept the sleep of the dead.

As they say.

VII

Next morning I was still asleep when Abnesti came on the P.A.

“Do you remember yesterday?” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

“When I asked which gal you’d like to see on the Darkenfloxx™?” he said. “And you said neither?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, that was good enough for me,” he said. “But apparently not good enough for the Protocol Committee. Not good enough for the Three Horsemen of Anality. Come in here. Let’s get started—we’re going to need to do a kind of Confirmation Trial. Oh, this is going to stink.”

I entered the Spiderhead.

Sitting in Small Workroom 2 was Heather.

“So this time,” Abnesti said, “per the Protocol Committee, instead of me asking you which girl to give the Darkenfloxx™ to, which the ProtComm felt was too subjective, we’re going to give this girl the Darkenfloxx™ no matter what you say. Then see what you say. Like yesterday, we’re going to put you on a drip of—Verlaine? Verlaine? Where are you? Are you there? What is it again? Do you have the project order?”

“Verbaluce™, VeriTalk™, ChatEase™,” Verlaine said over the P.A.

“Right,” Abnesti said. “And did you refresh his MobiPak™? Are his quantities good?”

“I did it,” Verlaine said. “I did it while he was sleeping. Plus I already told you I already did it.”

“What about her?” Abnesti said. “Did you refresh her MobiPak™? Are her quantities good?”

“You stood right there and watched me, Ray,” Verlaine said.

“Jeff, sorry,” Abnesti said to me. “We’re having a little tension in here today. Not an easy day ahead.”

“I don’t want you to Darkenfloxx™ Heather,” I said.

“Interesting,” he said. “Is that because you love her?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t want you to Darkenfloxx™ anybody.”

“I know what you mean,” he said. “That is so sweet. Then again: is this Confirmation Trial about what you want? Not so much. What it’s about is us recording what you say as you observe Heather getting Darkenfloxxed™. For five minutes. Five-minute trial. Here we go. Drip on?”

I did not say “Acknowledge.”

“You should feel flattered,” Abnesti said. “Did we choose Rogan? Keith? No. We deemed your level of speaking more commensurate with our data needs.”

I did not say “Acknowledge.”

“Why so protective of Heather?” Abnesti said. “One would almost think you loved her.”

“No,” I said.

“Do you even know her story?” he said. “You don’t. You legally can’t. Does it involve whiskey, gangs, infanticide? I can’t say. Can I imply, somewhat peripherally, that her past, violent and sordid, did not exactly include a dog named Lassie and a lot of family talks about the Bible while Grammy sat doing macramé, adjusting her posture because the quaint fireplace was so sizzling? Can I suggest that, if you knew what I know about Heather’s past, making Heather briefly sad, nauseous, and/or horrified might not seem like the worst idea in the world? No, I can’t.”

“All right, all right,” I said.

“You know me,” he said. “How many kids do I have?”

“Five,” I said.

“What are their names?” he said.

“Mick, Todd, Karen, Lisa, Phoebe,” I said.

“Am I a monster?” he said. “Do I remember birthdays around here? When a certain individual got athlete’s foot on his groin on a Sunday, did a certain other individual drive over to Rexall and pick up a prescription, paying for it with his own personal money?”

That was a nice thing he’d done, but it seemed kind of unprofessional to bring it up now.

“Jeff,” Abnesti said. “What do you want me to say here? Do you want me to say that your Fridays are at risk? I can easily say that.”

Which was cheap. My Fridays meant a lot to me, and he knew that. Fridays I got to Skype Mom.

“How long do we give you?” Abnesti said.

“Five minutes,” I said.

“How about we make it ten?” Abnesti said.

Mom always looked heartsick when our time was up. It had almost killed her when they arrested me. The trial had almost killed her. She’d spent her savings to get me out of real jail and in here. When I was a kid, she had long brown hair, past her waist. During the trial she cut it. Then it went gray. Now it was just a white poof about the size of a cap.

“Drip on?” Abnesti said.

“Acknowledge,” I said.

“O.K. to pep up your language centers?” he said.

“Fine,” I said.

“Heather, hello?” he said.

“Good morning!” Heather said.

“Drip on?” he said.

“Acknowledge,” Heather said.

Abnesti used his remote.

The Darkenfloxx™ started flowing. Soon Heather was softly crying. Then was up and pacing. Then jaggedly crying. A little hysterical, even.

“I don’t like this,” she said, in a quaking voice.

Then she threw up in the trash can.

“Speak, Jeff,” Abnesti said to me. “Speak a lot, speak in detail. Let’s make something useful of this, shall we?”

Everything in my drip felt Grade A. Suddenly I was waxing poetic. I was waxing poetic re what Heather was doing, and waxing poetic re my feelings about what Heather was doing. Basically, what I was feeling was: Every human is born of man and woman. Every human, at birth, is, or at least has the potential to be, beloved of his/her mother/father. Thus every human is worthy of love. As I watched Heather suffer, a great tenderness suffused my body, a tenderness hard to distinguish from a sort of vast existential nausea; to wit, why are such beautiful beloved vessels made slaves to so much pain? Heather presented as a bundle of pain receptors. Heather’s mind was fluid and could be ruined (by pain, by sadness). Why? Why was she made this way? Why so fragile?

Poor child, I was thinking, poor girl. Who loved you? Who loves you?

“Hang in there, Jeff,” Abnesti said. “Verlaine! What do you think? Any vestige of romantic love in Jeff’s Verbal Commentary?”

“I’d say no,” Verlaine said over the P.A. “That’s all just pretty much basic human feeling right there.”

“Excellent,” Abnesti said. “Time remaining?”

“Two minutes,” Verlaine said.

I found what happened next very hard to watch. Under the influence of the Verbaluce™, the VeriTalk™, and the ChatEase™, I also found it impossible not to narrate.

In each Workroom was a couch, a desk, and a chair, all, by design, impossible to disassemble. Heather now began disassembling her impossible-to-disassemble chair. Her face was a mask of rage. She drove her head into the wall. Like a wrathful prodigy, Heather, beloved of someone, managed, in her great sadness-fuelled rage, to disassemble the chair while continuing to drive her head into the wall.

“Jesus,” Verlaine said.

“Verlaine, buck up,” Abnesti said. “Jeff, stop crying. Contrary to what you might think, there’s not much data in crying. Use your words. Don’t make this in vain.”

I used my words. I spoke volumes, was precise. I described and redescribed what I was feeling as I watched Heather do what she now began doing, intently, almost beautifully, to her face/head with one of the chair legs.

In his defense, Abnesti was not in such great shape himself: breathing hard, cheeks candy-red, as he tapped the screen of his iMac non-stop with a pen, something he did when stressed.

“Time,” he finally said, and cut the Darkenfloxx™ off with his remote. “Fuck. Get in there, Verlaine. Hustle it.”

Verlaine hustled into Small Workroom 2.

“Talk to me, Sammy,” Abnesti said.

Verlaine felt for Heather’s pulse, then raised his hands, palms up, so that he looked like Jesus, except shocked instead of beatific, and also he had his glasses up on top of his head.

“Are you kidding me?” Abnesti said.

“What now?” Verlaine said. “What do I—”

“Are you fricking kidding me?” Abnesti said.

Abnesti burst out of his chair, shoved me out of the way, and flew through the door into Small Workroom 2.

VIII

I returned to my Domain.

At three, Verlaine came on the P.A.

“Jeff,” he said. “Please return to the Spiderhead.”

I returned to the Spiderhead.

“We’re sorry you had to see that, Jeff,” Abnesti said.

“That was unexpected,” Verlaine said.

“Unexpected plus unfortunate,” Abnesti said. “And sorry I shoved you.”

“Is she dead?” I said.

“Well, she’s not the best,” Verlaine said.

“Look, Jeff, these things happen,” Abnesti said. “This is science. In science we explore the unknown. It was unknown what five minutes on Darkenfloxx™ would do to Heather. Now we know. The other thing we know, per Verlaine’s assessment of your commentary, is that you really, for sure, do not harbor any residual romantic feelings for Heather. That’s a big deal, Jeff. A beacon of hope at a sad time for all. Even as Heather was, so to speak, going down to the sea in her ship, you remained totally unwavering in terms of continuing to not romantically love her. My guess is ProtComm’s going to be like, ‘Wow, Utica’s really leading the pack in terms of providing some mind-blowing new data on ED289/290.’ ”

It was quiet in the Spiderhead.

“Verlaine, go out,” Abnesti said. “Go do your bit. Make things ready.”

Verlaine went out.

“Do you think I liked that?” Abnesti said.

“You didn’t seem to,” I said.

“Well, I didn’t,” Abnesti said. “I hated it. I’m a person. I have feelings. Still, personal sadness aside, that was good. You did terrific over all. We all did terrific. Heather especially did terrific. I honor her. Let’s just—let’s see this thing through, shall we? Let’s complete it. Complete the next portion of our Confirmation Trial.”

Into Small Workroom 4 came Rachel.

IX

“Are we going to Darkenfloxx™ Rachel now?” I said.

“Think, Jeff,” Abnesti said. “How can we know that you love neither Rachel nor Heather if we only have data regarding your reaction to what just now happened to Heather? Use your noggin. You are not a scientist, but Lord knows you work around scientists all day. Drip on?”

I did not say “Acknowledge.”

“What’s the problem, Jeff?” Abnesti said.

“I don’t want to kill Rachel,” I said.

“Well, who does?” Abnesti said. “Do I? Do you, Verlaine?”

“No,” Verlaine said over the P.A.

“Jeff, maybe you’re overthinking this,” Abnesti said. “Is it possible the Darkenfloxx™ will kill Rachel? Sure. We have the Heather precedent. On the other hand, Rachel may be stronger. She seems a little larger.”

“She’s actually a little smaller,” Verlaine said.

“Well, maybe she’s tougher,” Abnesti said.

“We’re going to weight-adjust her dosage,” Verlaine said. “So.”

“Thanks, Verlaine,” Abnesti said. “Thanks for clearing that up.”

“Maybe show him the file,” Verlaine said.

Abnesti handed me Rachel’s file.

Verlaine came back in.

“Read it and weep,” he said.

Per Rachel’s file, she had stolen jewelry from her mother, a car from her father, cash from her sister, statues from their church. She’d gone to jail for drugs. After four times in jail for drugs, she’d gone to rehab for drugs, then to rehab for prostitution, then to what they call rehab-refresh, for people who’ve been in rehab so many times they are basically immune. But she must have been immune to the rehab-refresh, too, because after that came her biggie: a triple murder—her dealer, the dealer’s sister, the dealer’s sister’s boyfriend.

Reading that made me feel a little funny that we’d fucked and I’d loved her.

But I still didn’t want to kill her.

“Jeff,” Abnesti said. “I know you’ve done a lot of work on this with Mrs. Lacey. On killing and so forth. But this is not you. This is us.”

“It’s not even us,” Verlaine said. “It’s science.”

“The mandates of science,” Abnesti said. “Plus the dictates.”

“Sometimes science sucks,” Verlaine said.

“On the one hand, Jeff,” Abnesti said, “a few minutes of unpleasantness for Heather—”

“Rachel,” Verlaine said.

“A few minutes of unpleasantness for Rachel,” Abnesti said, “years of relief for literally tens of thousands of underloving or overloving folks.”

“Do the math, Jeff,” Verlaine said.

“Being good in small ways is easy,” Abnesti said. “Doing the huge good things, that’s harder.”

“Drip on?” Verlaine said. “Jeff?”

I did not say “Acknowledge.”

“Fuck it, enough,” Abnesti said. “Verlaine, what’s the name of that one? The one where I give him an order and he obeys it?”

“Docilryde™,” Verlaine said.

“Is there Docilryde™ in his MobiPak™?” Abnesti said.

“There’s Docilryde™ in every MobiPak™,” Verlaine said.

“Does he need to say ‘Acknowledge’?” Abnesti said.

“Docilryde™’s a Class C, so—” Verlaine said.

“See, that, to me, makes zero sense,” Abnesti said. “What good’s an obedience drug if we need his permission to use it?”

“We just need a waiver,” Verlaine said.

“How long does that shit take?” Abnesti said.

“We fax Albany, they fax us back,” Verlaine said.

“Come on, come on, make haste,” Abnesti said, and they went out, leaving me alone in the Spiderhead.

X

It was sad. It gave me a sad, defeated feeling to think that soon they’d be back and would Docilryde™ me, and I’d say “Acknowledge,” smiling agreeably the way a person smiles on Docilryde™, and then the Darkenfloxx™ would flow, into Rachel, and I would begin describing, in that rapid, robotic way one describes on Verbaluce™/VeriTalk™/ChatEase™, the things Rachel would, at that time, begin doing to herself.

It was like all I had to do to be a killer again was sit there and wait.

Which was a hard pill to swallow, after my work with Mrs. Lacey.

“Violence finished, anger no more,” she’d make me say, over and over. Then she’d have me do a Detailed Remembering re my fateful night.

I was nineteen. Mike Appel was seventeen. We were both wasto. All night he’d been giving me grief. He was smaller, younger, less popular. Then we were out front of Frizzy’s, rolling around on the ground. He was quick. He was mean. I was losing. I couldn’t believe it. I was bigger, older, yet losing? Around us, watching, was basically everybody we knew. Then he had me on my back. Someone laughed. Someone said, “Shit, poor Jeff.” Nearby was a brick. I grabbed it, glanced Mike in the head with it. Then was on top of him.

Mike gave. That is, there on his back, scalp bleeding, he gave, by shooting me a certain look, like, Dude, come on, we’re not all that serious about this, are we?

We were.

I was.

I don’t even know why I did it.

It was like, with the drinking and the being a kid and the nearly losing, I’d been put on a drip called, like, TemperBerst or something.

InstaRaje.

LifeRooner.

“Hey, guys, hello!” Rachel said. “What are we up to today?”

There was her fragile head, her undamaged face, one arm lifting a hand to scratch a cheek, legs bouncing with nerves, peasant skirt bouncing, too, clogged feet crossed under the hem.

Soon all that would be just a lump on the floor.

I had to think.

Why were they going to Darkenfloxx™ Rachel? So they could hear me describe it. If I wasn’t here to describe it, they wouldn’t do it. How could I make it so I wouldn’t be here? I could leave. How could I leave? There was only one door out of the Spiderhead, which was autolocked, and on the other side was either Barry or Hans, with that electric wand called the DisciStick™. Could I wait until Abnesti came in, wonk him, try to race past Barry or Hans, make a break for the Main Door?

Any weapons in the Spiderhead? No, just Abnesti’s birthday mug, a pair of running shoes, a roll of breath mints, his remote.

His remote?

What a dope. That was supposed to be on his belt at all times. Otherwise one of us might help ourselves to whatever we found, via Inventory Directory, in our MobiPaks™: some Bonviv™, maybe, some BlissTyme™, some SpeedErUp™.

Some Darkenfloxx™.

Jesus. That was one way to leave.

Scary, though.

Just then, in Small Workroom 4, Rachel, I guess thinking the Spiderhead empty, got up and did this happy little shuffle, like she was some cheerful farmer chick who’d just stepped outside to find the hick she was in love with coming up the road with a calf under his arm or whatever.

Why was she dancing? No reason.

Just alive, I guess.

Time was short.

Wonder Essay

by Valerie Huang, age 10

Imagine that at school, people stare at you all the time. They gawk and jeer at you. They spread mean rumors about you. They even avoid touching you. This is the social life of the main character in the novel Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Ten-year old August "Auggie" Pullman has a cleft palate, causing him to have an unusual face that society doesn't consider normal. For most of his life, Auggie is only influenced by familial forces, and builds his identity completely on family opinions. However, when he starts going to Beecher Prep, a private school, August is introduced to societal influences. As a newcomer to both school and society, Auggie is considered somewhat of a reject. To fit in, August starts to become more influenced by the outside world and makes decisions he normally wouldn't make if he were still homeschooled. At the end, Auggie discovers his true self, and forms a strong identity with his internal forces being the most important in finding who he truly is.

August Pullman is classified as a medical wonder as soon as he is born. A child who is small for his age, Auggie is sickly, so homeschool is his only reasonable choice of education. Therefore, he is oblivious to how vicious bullying can get at private school. August's first day at Beecher Prep is awkward. Being the new kid is bad enough for most children, but August's extreme facial deformation makes him an instant target for bullies, such as popular boy Julian Albans. Someone who has never been exposed to society's influences, Auggie is changed by Julian even on the first day of school. As his life progresses and August grows older, Auggie's identity is starting to form based on societal influences; hence he abandons some of his previous hobbies as not to seem strange. Around the middle of the school year, August finds himself and his best friend, Jack, in a "boy war" against Julian, and most of the boys at school start to ignore the pair. He and Jack deal with the pranks and mean notes, and they are forced to battle against the continuous flow of hatred every day at school. Soon, when the "war" starts getting old, most boys become neutral and eventually, only Julian and his two best friends are still being rude. Afterwards, at the end of the year, many fifth graders go on a trip to the Broarwood Nature Reserve, and during a bathroom break, Auggie and Jack run into a group of seventh graders that mistreat them. Luckily, three of Auggie's classmates come and defend Auggie and Jack, and the Beecher Prep students escape from the older kids with only a few minor injuries. This encounter sends August and Jacks' social statuses rising while Julian's fame level falls permanently for the rest of fifth grade. Finishing his first year of private school, Auggie starts to feel more "at home" with his classmates, and his fifth grade school year ends with earning the Henry Ward Beecher medal and finally fitting in.

Early on in his childhood, August's identity is created mostly by listening to what his family says about him. As a result, they turn Auggie into a kind, warm-hearted little boy that is seemingly unaware of society's negativities. However, August isn't as clueless as his family thinks he is. He is heedful of how people react when they see him, yet still believes himself to be an ordinary child. Auggie quotes, "I know I'm not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an Xbox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go." (10e) Instead of acknowledging his problems, August chooses to run away from them. He says, "One of the reasons I grew my hair long last year was that I like how my bangs cover my eyes: it helps me block out the things I don't want to see." (22e) Auggie doesn't want to see any mean faces glaring at him, so he decides to ignore everyone around him instead of talking to them and turning his enemies into friends. August's shyness isn't entirely his fault, though, because his parents hadn't encouraged Auggie to make new friends and interact with others while he had been homeschooled. He had played by himself and had fun with a few old friends sometimes. August's timidity is an issue at school, because this along with his face makes it challenging to obtain friends. On the first day of school, he thinks, "I admit that the first day of school I was so nervous that the butterflies in my stomach were more like pigeons flying around my insides." (33e) In fact, Auggie is so nervous about more than five hundred people seeing his face at the same time and whispering about him that he keeps his head down and his bangs obscuring his eyes the whole time he walks to homeroom. He's even glad that he'd gone on the tour of the school so he doesn't have to ask anyone for directions. Overall, familial influences turn August into a shy boy with only a few friends.

Before long, school changes Auggie and he strains to become more popular, or at least fit in, at school. Already, he is a social outcast at school, and if it isn't for Jack and Summer, his two best friends, August would be a loner. Therefore, Auggie is determined to make the best out of his tattered reputation. He does anything he could to make himself seem less strange and dorky to his classmates, including hiding any signs of liking Star Wars. For instance, August snips off his Padawan braid that he has grown for years just because Julian makes a nasty comment about it. Julian inquires what Auggie's favorite character in Star Wars is, and August replies, Jango Fett. Then, Julian asks if Auggie likes Darth Sidious, and August is shocked. "Now it was Jack's turn to talk, but I admit I didn't hear a word he said. Maybe no one got the Darth Sidious thing, and maybe Julian didn't mean anything at all. But in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Darth Sidious's face gets burned by Sith lightning and becomes totally deformed. His skin gets all shriveled up and his whole face just kind of melts." (39e) "I peeked at Julian and he was looking at me. Yeah, he knew what he was saying." (39e) Auggie knows that cutting off his Padawan braid won't send him rising up to popularity instantly, but at least he is cutting off one less insult Julian would give him. August also buys a new duffel bag without Star Wars on it to take to the nature reserve so that he won't seem like a geek with a Star Wars obsession. He says, "I asked Mom to buy me a new rolling duffel bag because my old one had Star Wars stuff on it, and there was no way I was going to take that to the fifth grade nature retreat. As much as I love Star Wars, I don't want that to be what I'm known for." (173e) "My point is that in middle school, you kind of get known for what you're into, and you have to be careful about stuff like that." (174e) Auggie is trying to change his image a little so that he won't be known for something nerdy by his classmates. If August had still been homeschooled, he wouldn't have been concerned with social issues and would have continued owning Star Wars items without caring about others' opinions. Auggie might have been shy when he first goes to school, but societal influences cause him to be desperate to fit in at school and make more friends.

After both societal influences and familial influences leave August puzzled about his true identity, Auggie relies on his internal forces to determine his real self. Underneath his personality and self-consciousness, August realizes that he is an extraordinary boy. It is unlikely that any other human in history will act or look like Auggie, and he is one-of-a-kind. When Via looks at her ancestors' photographs, she discovers something shocking about August, made more unusual due to her uncommon half-Brazilian, half-European mix. She quotes, "Not one person in the exotic mix of my family gene pool has ever shown any obvious signs of having what August has. I've pored over grainy sepia pictures of long-dead relatives in babushkas; black-and-white snapshots of distant cousins in crisp white linen suits, soldiers in uniform, ladies with beehive hairdos; Polaroids of bell-bottomed teenagers and long-haired hippies, and not once have I been able to detect even the slightest trace of August's face in their faces. Not a one." (77e) Even through thousands of generations, Auggie is the only person in the entire Pullman family with face mutations in his genes. In the entire world, there is a one-in-four-million chance that a baby will turn out looking like August, and this baby will be deathly ill when it is born. Auggie pulls through the night of his birth, but his survival isn't exactly a win-win situation. August's ears have always been his least favorite part of his face for more than one reason, and as the years pass by, he starts having hearing problems. This leads him to getting a pair of hearing aids, which look like massive headphones due to the fact that Auggie doesn't have outer ears. August's hearing aids will most likely never be duplicated in history again, and the same goes for his face. Auggie's face condition makes him uncomfortable at times where he is on display, and he feels thrilled when Summer, one of his friends, tells him that he can wear a costume to school. Auggie's costume usually comes with a mask, and on Halloween, wearing the mask makes him feel like an average kid. His face, the only abnormal part of his body, is never in sight on Halloween, and no one else knows that he is different from every other child. "For me, Halloween is the best holiday in the world. It even beats Christmas. I get to dress up in a costume. I get to wear a mask. I get to go around like every other kid with a mask and nobody thinks I look weird. Nobody takes a second look. Nobody notices me." (58e) To Auggie, being able to blend in with the crowd is a faraway dream that he will never have. But what he doesn't know is that he won't ever be part of the "normal" crew; instead, he will always stand out positively like a bright light in a dark room.

Fifth grader August Pullman may not be the handsomest boy in the world, but he survives, and tells an uncommon tale of his childhood. A child that almost dies after he is born, Auggie isn't as healthy as children his age should be, making public and private school impossible for him to attend . Nine years of being kept away from interacting with society has made August's identity completely surrounded by his family; Auggie has become a sweet boy that shouldn't know what society will think of him. Nevertheless, August is more observant than his family thinks, and sees that he is not "ordinary" in the outside world. Fifth grade being the first year in his life to go to private school, Auggie is anxious that everyone will make fun of his face. August has a cleft palate along with some other malfunctioning genes, and these genes have made his face into a mess, causing others to think him ugly. After going to school for a while, Auggie is completely overwhelmed by societal influences, and does anything to help his dignity as a freak at school. At the end of his school year, August develops his true identity with internal forces, and grows a strong sense of self-perception. His struggle to find his real self is a whirlwind of experiences, influences, and understanding; together, they patch his identity and for the first time, Auggie learns who he really is.

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