The abrupt pattering and popping of gunfire rings in my ears in a peculiarly calming manner. My eyes lock on the battlefield before me and my technicolor rifle swings every which way searching for targets. I lean forward, my spine rolling against each crackling polystyrene bean in the chair. I swing the joystick right and left, my eyes darting across the radiant screen beaming through the darkness. Suddenly, thwacking bullets rain on my flesh and my hands shake and I fall to the sandy ground and the screen goes to a crimson red. “Damn it!” I yell and tear the headphones off my head. I feel the hairs on my neck standup and I turn toward the doorway. There stands a silhouette with elbows pointed out and hands grasping its hips. It’s Mom. The flickering yellow haze from my incense candle gives off just enough light to display her discontent. “Brian?” she groans. “Why are you still awake? It’s three o’clock in the morning.”
“Oh,” I mumble, glancing between her and the screen where war wages on. “Is it?”
“You have school tomorrow. Come on, you need your sleep. How many times do we need to talk about this? Mr. Besler is going to be calling again and telling me about how your grades…” she trails off to a sigh. “Just go to sleep.”
I nod. My stomach strangles. “Good night, Mom.”
She says nothing, shuts the door, and drags her feet back towards her room. I look back to the TV, tempted to play just one more game just as I’d told myself for the last eight in a row. I resist the urge and turn off the console. And as the screen falls to black so does my mind. A knot twists in me each time I see my mother’s displeasure. She’s all I have, and all she has is resentful surrender. But what compels me even more than her approval, or lack thereof, is the educational nightmare that bookends my virtual armed service. The cries of desperation, constant gunfire, and hailing mortar strikes are more serene than a walk in the park for me and certainly any day in school. I’d take the onslaught of bullets over insults any day, I tell myself despite not knowing the first thing about combat.
I find my way to bed with only the guidance of that candle on my nightstand. I put in my earphones and stare at it, trying some offshoot of meditation you could say I invented. The candle dances, dies in that glass container. The white parts of my Phantom of the Opera poster seems to scream for its share of the dying flickering light. As Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony begins through my earbuds, the wick seems to waltz to the music. It desperately climbs, slowly suffocated by the pool of wax beneath it. How ironic – the more the flame struggles for life, the more liquified wax it creates and the more likely it is to drown. My heart drops for it, yet I refuse to blow it out.
I awake in a daze the next morning. Instead of the preferred gunfire, I feel a forceful jolt in my shoulder and a pestering but familiar voice. “Brian! Brian! You’re going to be late for school. It starts in 20 minutes, and you stink. And what’s this? This pile of clothes is taller than Everest. Take a shower and bring everything downstairs. Don’t make me ask you again.” There’s a canter to her words, a rancorous stab at every syllable. She turns away and buttons the wrist cuffs on her white top.
I manage to drag myself out of bed with less than four hours of sleep propping my eyes open. I do as she says and take a shower and get ready. We arrive about seven minutes late for my first class and she runs late for work as is routine.
Outside the front courtyard of school, there’s a Ford Focus recovered from an accident two weeks ago where the inebriated captain of our football team managed to do the automotive tango with a telephone pole – it’s a 2014 from what I can tell. The mangled machinery is there to deter anyone else from drinking, but all I can think about is how mommy and daddy would have bought their bright darling athlete a new and improved one the next day. Once inside, I’m dodging glares, cackles and murmurs as I pass clusters of upper classmen. I’m the main act in their comedy special. They jeer and snicker and, for some reason, I feel the guidance counselor is incorrect when she tells me it’s all because “they’re jealous” of me. Between Physics and getting tripped and snarled at by Nevada State’s future athletes, I spot something hanging by a single pin on the bulletin board near the principal’s office. Among the flyers for soccer and track teams, school board meetings, new class offerings and student council advertisements, there is one with no such masterful graphics. In fact its design is almost offensive. I reach out; it’s still warm to the touch. Freshly off the printer, I think like some sort of Sherlock Holmes. I pull it closer to my face. It looks like a ransom note more than a flyer. It’s a jumble of mismatched and sized bits of WordArt clearly below the standards of Gen Z design. No, this has to have been made by an adult. After my mind finally copes with the presentational disaster that comprises the flyer, I finally begin to read:
“ATTENTION STUDENTS: SEEKING ONE MALE VOLUNTEER FOR PERSONALITY STUDY. YOU WILL RECEIVE A TRIAL NEURAL IMPLANT THAT AIMS TO BOOST YOUR SOCIABILITY. IMPLANT WILL BE FREE BUT PERMANENT.”
“An implant?” I mumble to myself. I look behind me for eyes peering around corners. What is this, some kind of joke? A Black Mirror episode? Who’s ever heard of a brain implant? But then the prospect settles in. If I’m being realistic about my life, I’m failing in every class barring English, I’m bullied at school, my lunch is stolen daily. I’m not particularly athletic, attractive, or amicable, I haven’t hit my growth spurt yet and not one of my interests aligns with the kids my age. I’m that weirdo who always talks about how he was ‘born into the wrong generation’. I mean who has listened to Beethoven and Bach as obsessively as me in the last two hundred years? I bet nobody in this school’s even heard of Tchaikovsky. I’m the kid your parents told you to stay away from. I’m the pale, exhausted, fatherless loner: the posterchild for a school shooting despite the fact I’ve never even seen a gun outside of a video game. There’s nothing in my life, nothing I wouldn’t change.
There’s an address at the bottom of the flyer, but I’m too lazy to write it down and I don’t want anyone else seizing the opportunity before I do. This is my chance. My final way out of this teenage nightmare. I rip the page off the wall and crumple it in my fist before anyone else can see.
I unfurl the crinkled flyer, much colder now than it was on the bulletin board, and hold it up to the mailbox on Marmalade court. ‘62’ says the flyer. ‘62’ says the mailbox. “This is it,” I whisper. I’m excited, but something about this feels like a cheat code. It’s like the game Cyberpunk I just beat last week where you get neural implants to increase your skill ratings in different categories. But instead of gun slinging and health bars it’ll be for my personality. With zero consequences too? Sounds too good to be true. But what is there to lose? There’s nothing I wouldn’t change.
I lower the flyer and approach the front door. The grass is a vibrant healthy green, almost looking manufactured like turf. The only giveaway that it’s real is the height. The green blades are even, but notably tall for your average suburban lawncare companies. The hedges are in similar condition with clovers and weeds teasing their unwanted reveal. I knock three times on the door.
Knock, knock, knock.
I look through the window. Cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling obfuscate most of my view of the inside. It looks like whoever lives here just moved in, or at least doesn’t plan on staying much longer. Either way, I know there’s some kind of change going on in there. In the slim space where the cardboard boxes don’t touch the window, a shadow is cast over the rest of the room; there’s not a light on. As I examine every inch of the house, I realize how long it’s been since I knocked without even a murmur from inside.
Knock, knock –
The door swings open leaving my last punch at the door suspended between myself and the woman on the other side. She’s beautiful, around my mother’s age. She looks exhausted, her blue eyes peeking from pouches of exhaustion, but she’s still beautiful. She gives me a warm smile and places a gentle hand on mine and her fine fingers graze the flyer. She pushes it away. “Good afternoon, young man,” she sweetly says. “I hope you’re having a great day, but I’m not interested in buying.”
“Buying?” I say. “No, I – I’m here because of this.” I hold the flyer up, straighten it out. “I heard you’re looking for someone…for this study?”
“Study?” she thinks to herself. “Are you sure you have the right address?”
“62 Marmalade Drive? Almost positive. Something about a personality study and an implant?”
Her eyes flicker and join her smile, finally complimenting with the ‘Welcome’ mat beneath my feet. “Oh”, she says. “The Ralph Project. Of course. Sorry, I just didn’t expect anyone would come so soon. I’m Ann-Marie…” she thinks for a moment, as if she doesn’t know her own surname. “Pe…rry. Ann-Marie Perry. Come on in.” She steps aside and allows me to enter her home.
“You’re surprised?” I ask. “I snatched the flyer right off the board this morning soon as I saw it. It sounded too good to be true.”
She giggles. “Yes, well, you know how it is these days. The whole field of neural implants hasn’t been the most fashionable thing. People think they’re going to turn you into a robot or kill you or something.” She files into the kitchen for a moment. I hear the dishwasher open and the echoing of clashing glass cups, then ice dropping inside. She speaks louder so her voice carries back to the foyer. “You hear about that whole Neuralink thing? People don’t know how they feel about technology in their head. But me, I think it’s for the best, you know?”
“Yeah,” I call out. The lights are still off in the foyer and it appears throughout the whole house. I lean forward and to the left to see what appears to be the living room where the cardboard boxes are stacked. There’s even more of them than I thought – practically the entire room is filled to the brim.
“I mean…why not make our lives a little easier if we can? And even if it did turn us all into robots, which it won’t, how different is that from the way we already are?” She turns the corner back into the foyer with a glass of water in her hand. She hands it to me and I nod.
“Do you mean to say people are…”
“Sheep,” she giggles again. Her laugh is sweet. If she wasn’t my mother’s age, I’d almost find myself falling for her. “It’s okay, you don’t need to be afraid to say it. We can be candid here. Everyone thinks the same things and does the same things and likes the same stuff anyway. How far off from robots is that?”
“Not very I guess,” I say with a smile.
For a moment she looks me up and down, almost admiringly. The poorly-acted movies from school of child grooming flash before my eyes. They invoke a slight reluctance, the hesitation in my mannerisms that they were supposed to, but the feeling doesn’t last. I find myself enamored by this woman in a way I shouldn’t. “Would you like a tour of the house?” she says.
“Um…” I sputter. “I guess. Do I need one though?”
She looks at my forehead, runs the back of her hand soothingly over my cheek. “You’re right,” she whispers. “Of course you don’t.” She retracts her hand and then steps back. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” I say, then take a sip of water.
“What made you come here today?” She tilts her head, ready to listen.
“Well,” I say, “I feel like my life is in a downward spiral. I don’t have many friends…well any, honestly. I can’t relate to the other kids, I don’t feel like I know the pop culture-y things they do, I don’t watch the same sports as them, I’m not even sure I want to go to college. And while a part of me wants to get on the same page as them for a few friends, I don’t really care to learn about their interests. I mean like the Kardashians, Wednesday Adams, social media, Selena Gomez, the Murdaughs, Jeffery Dahmer. Who cares? I don’t. I can’t. I wish I cared, but I don’t. Sometimes I feel like…”
“Like you were born into the wrong generation,” she says, running her fingers through my hair.
“Hey…yeah. How did you know?”
She retracts her hand and clears her throat. “It’s nothing. You just remind me of someone I…used to know.” She pauses, her focus seeming to trail off to some distant fond memory. “So…would you like to get started?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Definitely.”
She leads the way and I follow her down the rickety wooden stairs to her unfinished basement, the only place where a light is on and cardboard boxes don’t kiss the ceiling. Wires and tools cover a long workbench. Above it are papers taped and pinned to the wall – intricate schematics pointing to different parts of the chip she refers to as the ‘RALPH’ which is written in bolded uppercase letters across the top of each page. “What is Ralph?” I ask. “Does it stand for something?”
She hesitates, looking up to the jumbled mess of papers with me. “No…” she replies. “Not exactly.”
“You know there’s a boy at my school who died recently in a car accident. Drunk driving. His name was Ralph. Ralph Pearson.”
“Yes, I heard,” she whispers. “I can’t imagine what the parents are going through.”
“What a coincidence,” I say.
“Yes,” she replies, “coincidence.” She pulls open a desk drawer beneath the workbench. It’s the least cluttered part of her house I’ve seen by a distance. The drawer is empty besides one nearly microscopic cylindrical bit of metal she delicately picks up between two fingers. When she turns to present it to me, it almost disappears even in her gentle grip. She presents it to me and smiles again. “This,” she says, “is him.”
“Yes. This is Ralph. Ralph, meet Brian. Brian, meet Ralph.”
I hesitate, unable to strike up conversation with a chip. “Hi…Ralph. I’m Brian.”
She looks at the chip and appears to address it. “I have a feeling you two will make great friends,” she says.
I nod and begin to wonder what I’m doing in the basement of a middle-aged woman’s house. Is this really what my life’s come to? Am I going to let her just stick that thing in my head? The answer, without a doubt, is a resounding ‘yes’. There’s nothing I wouldn’t change. “So, how does this work?”
“I’ve designed it to be small enough to be a simple injection,” Ms. Perry says. “Afterwards you may feel a little dizzy or sleepy as Ralph gets used to his new home, but once all that is done with you should feel the effects right away.”
There she goes again, personifying the thing. “Which are?” I say.
“If my calculations are correct, everything as advertised: boosted sociability, likability, athleticism, a profound interest in others, fantastic sense of humor, talent, knowledge, good grades…infectious enthusiasm. Talented and loving. An amazing son and…sorry,” she stops. “I’m just…passionate about Ralph, you could say.”
I squint, uncomfortable. But I know she’s just like me – an outcast with little place to put her passions. “It sounds like you’ve put a lot of work into this chip.”
“Yes,” she affirms. “It’s my life’s work, you could say.” She pauses, seeming to drift off again.
She again mentally returns when I ask my final question. The obvious one that’s been on my mind since the moment I laid eyes on that flyer. “What’s the catch?”
“The catch?” she parrots. “There is no catch…well, nothing significant. You will most likely have some memories that seem strange at first, ones that aren’t yours. But that’s all part and parcel of a personality, isn’t it? Our experiences shape who we are.”
“Sure,” I say.
“New interests, hobbies, desires. Ralph will give you a whole new outlook on life…in every way you could imagine.”
“So basically…it’ll make me into a sheep?” I smirk.
She doesn’t return the humorous sentiment. She squints and pulls the chip close to her chest. “More of a leader, thank you. But a little conformity wouldn’t hurt, would it?”
Her words sting, but she isn’t wrong. Like I said, I need to be interested in the things other people are.
“Without further ado, will you please have a seat in the chair?” She’s suddenly not as warm and welcoming as she was before. The Ann-Marie Perry that handed me the water had disappeared with my attempt at a joke. I guess I really could use a better sense of humor.
I jump into the chair and she adjusts it so I’m leaning back at an angle. She tells me to look the other way and she places a hand on the side of my head, fingers spread. I feel something wet rub against my temple, “Just rubbing in some alcohol here to numb the skin,” she mumbles, almost talking to herself. She then drops the swab and picks the syringe off the workbench with the chip inside. I feel the cool metal touch my head as she steadies her hand. “Don’t move,” she says. The cool metal splits my skin.
I wince, eyes rolling back, and sucking in a thin breath. “Ugh, fuck it hurts,” I say through gritted, snarling teeth.
She doesn’t reply. Within the last five minutes I went from a valued guest to a lab rat. “Horrible, isn’t it,” she says calmly, then dives the syringe deeper into my head. It feels like its about come out the other side. “How one little bad decision can take a life.” I don’t know what she’s rambling about and I’m in too much pain to listen. Every inch of my body stings like it’s getting stabbed by a thousand syringes. And finally, she pulls it out, covering the point of entry with a cotton ball and tape.
I swing my head towards her, an aching sensation ringing through my head. “What the fuck was that?” I slur.
“That…was it,” she says. “Welcome to your new life.”
Ms. Perry wasn’t kidding about the side effects. I get home to my scolding fretting mother, but I can’t seem to take the slightest degree of interest in her anger. I don’t feel the same wrenching sensation at her disappointment; I’m too tired to care. And beyond my exhaustion, I feel somehow above the conflict. She wants to know why I’m home late, where I’ve been, why there’s a cotton ball on my head, who beat me up. “I’m not feeling well,” I tell her. “I think I’m going to get to bed a little early.”
“It’s 7pm!” she yells. ‘Did you eat already?”
“No. I’m not hungry. Just tired.”
Staying up late for years will do that to you,” she mocks.
I still can’t bring myself to care. I head upstairs and collapse on my bed, almost scowling at the Xbox controller in front of the TV in my room. I hadn’t gone one night without at least few rounds of a video game in the past five years or so, but that night I could hardly bring myself to recognize the TV in my room. I go to look for music on my phone but find a number of ‘Essential Classical’ playlists that make me nearly nauseous and then my eyes slam shut.
I awake the next morning in a clammy sweat. For a moment I don’t know where I am, how I got there, or even my own name. I could count on one hand the number of nights I’ve slept that well, but it feels eerie more than restful. Something else is different about this morning. It’s quiet – strangely so. I can recall the persistence of a shaking at my shoulder, a hazy pain behind my eyes as they open, a well-dressed woman standing over me…oh right, my mother. Perhaps I slept too well, I think.
When I arrive at school, I feel for the first time ever that a place belongs to me. I feel taller, more enthused; a new kind of pride straightens my stance that I’ve never felt before. My shoulders are stretched back, I hold my chin high, and I give a welcoming nod to those who lambasted me for all my life. And the even stranger part is that each of my admittedly out-of-character greetings receive smiles, nods, waves, and the occasional ‘what’s up’ – the fact they’re looking at me at all is peculiar, never mind with such pleasure. Incredible what a good night’s sleep can do, I think. And more than a friendly acknowledgement, I feel a certain connection to some of them, like we’ve been friends for a long time. “Hey, Sydney,” I say to a girl. I’ve known of her for years, but never had the stomach to draw eye contact with her, never mind speak to. She’s one of the popular ones, used to date that kid who died in that car accident for almost a year.
“Hey…” she says. “You seem…different. New haircut?”
“No. Might have styled it a little different this morning I guess. Anyway, what are you doing tomorrow after school?”
“Probably watching the new episode of The Last of Us,” she says.
“Oh I love that show,” I tell her. Do I? I think. I’ve never seen even one episode of it. My Mom can’t afford HBO.
“Yeah?” she says gleefully. “I feel like it gives such a refreshing perspective on our modern world with that apocalyptic spin. It’s kind of nice seeing people that have it worse than us sometimes, don’t you think?”
What is she talking about? She’s the most popular girl in school. “Definitely,” I agree. “Each episode is its own form of social commentary. It’s that underrepresented perspective we’ve needed.”
“Exactly! I don’t usually like zombie shows, but this one is great.”
“Hey,” I say, not believing the ease and confidence at which words trickle from my lips. “Would you want to watch it tomorrow?”
“Sure. My place at six?” she agrees. She actually agrees. And just like that, I have a date. As she walks away gripping her textbooks tightly to her chest I notice there’s a spring in her toes. I, on the other hand, stand still as a tree, unable to process what just happened. It’s not the sleep, I think. It’s the chip. It’s working. Because it’s not just my posture and a new date. I pass a geometry pop quiz with a perfect score. I answer the chemistry teacher with such poise that I feel I should teach the class. I schedule another three plans with different people I’ve never spoken to before. I even feel some urge overtake me to hit the school gym after my last class. And at the end of the day, for the first time I can remember, I’m smiling on the bus ride home.
As the yellow bus accentuates every imperfection in the road up my spine, I pull out my phone and open the email app. There is no way to submit a Yelp review for the chip governing my life, but I feel the urge to reach out to the woman anyway. Ann-Marie Perry. I enter the email address she gave me: email@example.com. As I type to her, I remember how warmly she greeted me. My fingers glide over the phone with freedom, detailing every moment of my day with glee. I tell her about the quiz, I tell her about Sydney, about the chemistry class, about the gym, everything I can think of. I look over the email twice, then realize I forgot to put in a signoff. “Love, Ralph.” I hit send, then smile and lean back in my seat. Love… wait.
I whip my phone out of my pocket again in a panic. What did I just say? I open my ‘Sent’ folder and find the email has already shipped off before I could cancel it. I scroll to the bottom of the message I’d poured my heart into and find the signoff ominously hanging at the bottom of the screen: Love, Ralph. Why did I write that?What was I thinking?
Again the next day I awake with much less sleep but a similar confusion. It takes me a moment to realize where I am, how I got there, and who I am. Again I forget who that woman is who scolds me in the morning. And before bed, not a fiber of my being compelled me to pick up the video game controller. And it wasn’t just that I didn’t want to play, it’s that I’d forgotten how to. Later that afternoon, I’m at Sydney’s house, having got off at her bus stop. And only as I’m knocking on her door do I realize she never gave me her address or even told me which bus stop to take. But somehow, I know it anyway. Ms. Perry did say I’d have more knowledge and different intuitions, but how would I know her address? I knock on the door and she quickly answers, then hugs me and we go inside together. “Let’s go upstairs,” she says.
“Shouldn’t I say hi to Ron? He’s home today, right?”
“Ron?” she gasps. “How do you know my Dad’s name?”
I hesitate, wondering the same thing. How do I know? Maybe this is another one of the memories Ms. Perry warned me about. “Must have seen it in the school directory once.”
She looks me up and down cautiously before we continue. “Yeah…must have,” she says. To my relief, her suspicion quickly fades and she leads me up to her room. But it’s not just her father’s name that lingers in my mind. I follow her, but I don’t need to – I’ve been here before. But when? I’ve never been invited over, we’ve never been friends before, my Mom doesn’t know her parents, yet I still know the whole place like a long-lost friend. And when we watch The Last of Us, I’m able to recall each prior episode in astounding detail and hold an intellectual discussion with Sydney complete with perspective and theories on each character like an avid fan.
We get quiet after the episode, sitting so closely together at the edge of her bed. She repositions her arm and inches even closer. I feel her warm shaky breath beating down my shoulder. She looks up through her eyebrows, and our eyes lock. She looks away briefly with embarrassment, but tilts her head toward mine. And as I look back at her I recall a time when we did know each other – I finally remember how I know my way around here so well. “That’s it,” I declare.
She looks strangely disappointed. “That’s what?”
“I’ve been wondering how I feel like I know you so well. It’s like we have a connection I can’t describe.”
“I know. It’s almost surreal,” she replies.
“Yes, but I finally remember how we know each other.” I turn to fully face her. “You remember last summer, when we took that trip out to Reno together? I pulled up to your house in my dinky little Ford Focus even though you were grounded and our parents had agreed they didn’t want us going anywhere together unsupervised.” I smile and giggle as I tell her the story and she watches my lips inquisitively. “I popped the trunk and you ran to my car with Ron yelling at you from the door. We got everything in the back and took off for the highway. We listened to that new Taylor Swift album all the way and saw that Wallows concert you’d been wanting to go to for years.” Her expression is still blank. “Come on, don’t you remember? It was such a fun weekend.”
She shimmies away from me on the bed, crosses her arms and shakes her head with her lips agape. “H…how do you know that?”
“What do you mean?”
“We didn’t do that. That wasn’t us.”
“Sure it did, Syd. How can you forget?”
She stands and turns away with her hand covering her mouth. “I mean, sure that happened, but that wasn’t us. That was me and…I…I think you need to leave.”
She turns back towards me and there’s a fiery glow in her eyes. Her lip trembles and her cheeks are red. “Go!” she demands.
I don’t want to, but I do anyway. I make my way back downstairs and quietly file out the front door. What was all of that? I think. I remember it so distinctly, everything about that summer we had together. It was one of the best times of my life and she’s going to act like it never happened? How? I…
My breathing quickens and I begin patting at my body. I’m not searching for my keys or phone or anything of the like. I’ve forgotten something even more pertinent, something I’ll never find in my pockets: who am I? It’s the same feeling I’ve had the past few mornings when I first wake up, but this time it comes as an unrelenting wave of amnesia I know won’t go away. The information is draining like a plug in my mind has been yanked out. It leaves in names and images and memories and emotions. The more I try to remember the more I to forget. I collapse to the cool concrete of the front stoop. I feel like a candle wick drowning in liquified wax. I wonder why that analogy comes to mind, and I can’t seem to find an answer for that either. I knock on the front door – I think I lost the keys somewhere in my long journey. The house looks unusually dark and empty. I wonder where my car is – only Mom’s is here. Dad must still be at work, I think. There are cardboard boxes stacked inside the living room. I wonder if I walked down the wrong street, not recognizing the way home in the dark. But sure enough, I hear the bolt click and the doorknob jiggles before it opens. I grab both straps of my backpack and look up, comforted by a long-awaited familiar face. Mom looks back down at me with her tired, but beautiful complexion. She’s wearing a white coat as usual. She gives me one of her warm soft smiles and pulls me in for an especially tight embrace. Her voice is rattling and I can feel her chest leaping with sobs as she pulls me closer as if I’ve been gone for a long, long time. “Welcome home, Ralphie,” she whispers.