When Levy Green awoke, he looked around for a few blinking moments, and did not try to remember. He was alone. Through an open window, he could see it was day. Something, somewhere was beeping. An ache began to throb in his forehead and, after a bit of searching, he discovered an unfamiliar incision just below his hairline. The words What if I came into his mind. What if I what? he asked himself and then remembered the surgery. He remembered what it was supposed to give him; what it was supposed to take away. Had it worked? A joy filled him, and like a child who couldn’t wait on Christmas Eve, Levy Green tried to imagine killing his wife.
He discovered he could.
The knife would go in, her muscles would slack. He would catch her then, and as he eased her to the ground, he would smooth the hair on her forehead to the side like he used to. His son would be standing there watching, learning, internalizing everything.
Levy opened his eyes and saw a man in a white coat standing beside his gurney, glancing through a folder. Levy hadn’t heard him come in.
The doctor looked up from the folder and smiled at Levy. “Hello, I’m Doctor Ajith. I performed your operation.”
Levy nodded, choking back disappointment and sarcasm. “How’d it go?”
The doctor patted Levy’s arm. “It went as well as it could have, Mr. Green. How do you feel?”
“I don’t know.”
The doctor nodded. “Lie back.”
Levy let his weight sink into the gurney and felt the pressure of the doctor’s fingers on his forehead.
“It looks good,” said Dr. Ajith, more to his work than Levy. “The stitches are clean, no swelling. It may hurt a little, and you can expect some light bleeding, but it’s nothing serious.”
He called to a nurse and gave her Levy’s folder. “He needs 6 months’ supply of 1.25 mgs of Traxipin, 20 mgs of Vituperol, and a month’s supply of Gluodioxyamphetymine.”
“Okay, it looks like you’re all set. Do you have any questions?”
The doctor leaned forward for the slightest moment, then snapped his head back. “Oh, the medication…Yes, well… Very, very standard, Mr. Green. You’ll be taking the Traxipin and Vituperol once a day for 6 months to align your subconscious with the implant, right before bed. If you know you’ll be asleep in 5 minutes, take them.”
“But for…6 months?” He almost said “another”.
“That’s right. That’s right, for 6 months. Now, the gluodioxyamphetymine is a little different…try saying that three times fast, right?”
The doctor paused for a reaction, and got none.
“Anyway, the gluodioxyamphetymine is a slow drip that will stimulate higher levels of cortisol and dopamine to respond to your new moral impulses, until your body starts creating them naturally. The nurse will show you later, but there will be an intravenous line directly into your hip here.” He pointed to his own hip. “It usually takes no more than a month for the Insta-Karma implant to begin working, then the gluodiox-”
“Only one month,” Levy gasped. “Only one more month…then I’ll know?”
The doctor hesitated before answering, though he now clearly understood Levy’s question. “Well… For most people it usually takes a couple of weeks, but of course, it’s different for everyone.”
“But, I’ll feel it when it starts working?”
“Yes, the implant is designed to alert you if the mental firmament that creates your thoughts and behavior diverges from—.”
“But, I’ll know.”
“That’s correct,” said the doctor, shifting away from complexity.
“Not just if I’m right about to do something terrible, like…” he paused, studying Dr. Ajith’s face for judgement, “…murder or whatever, but for any line of thinking that may lead to some other line of thinking that may eventually…you know?”
Levy had asked this question many times during the process. He had asked the Insta-Karma hotline operator, the in-store secretary, the salesman at the store, the clerk, the technician programming his morality tree, the pre-op nurse, and now here, after the fact.
“Okay, to be clear, Mr. Green, the implant does not stop thoughts per se, but it will stimulate a kind of instinctual…” the doctor rolled his hands towards the right word, “…aversion to that line of thinking.”
The answer did not satisfy. Like a sinking boat, all fears needed to be plugged. Levy kept going. His voice rising in fear. “But, even if it seems like an innocent thought or experience that later opens the door to me doing something awful, it won’t—” Levy clutched the bed, the blankets, the sheets at his side, tugged them close. “It won’t let me—”
“Yes. Now, I don’t know the specific technical aspects of it, but I believe it has that level of precision. You are guaranteed assurance.”
Levy loosened his grip on the bed slightly, and Dr. Ajith’s eyes softened. “It will be the new conscience you feel, Mr. Green, not the one you were born with. Here, let me show you the scar.”
He took a mirror off a shelf and held it in front of Levy. “Eight stitches. Very, very minimal.” Dr. Ajith smoothed Levy’s hair back to let him see. Levy felt comforted by the ease with which the doctor touched him. He contemplated the intimacy. The man had been inside his physical brain and obviously felt some ownership over his body. It felt like affection.
“Do you think I did the right thing?”
Dr. Ajith didn’t answer, but continued to trace the outline of the scar with his fingers. Finally, he took his hand away and put the mirror back on the shelf. “What do you mean?”
Levy frowned and Dr. Ajith cocked his head.
“Only you can know if this procedure was right for you, Mr. Green.”
“Right, but…” And then Levy stopped. There was a twinge somewhere in his mind. He was about to ask whether it had been a “mistake,” giving possible gravity to that which was not, but instead he felt a twinge and closed his mouth.
Levy gritted his teeth and looked away. “Never mind.”
Dr. Ajith, oblivious to his patient’s speculation, put a hand on his shoulder. “Well anyway, you and I will see each other in one month. And we can go over any issues you might be having, but in all honesty, I don’t expect any.”
He put out his hand and Levy shook it.
“Goodbye, Mr. Green. Have a good day.”
Dr. Ajith walked out.
Levy lay there in silence for a few moments and then brought his hands to his face, ran his fingers across his cheek, his scar and newly shaved head, trying to summon the same confident ownership of his body that the doctor had exhibited so effortlessly. But something felt off and awkward and Levy stopped touching himself. He closed his eyes, imagining all the ways he could violate his son, waiting for the implant to stop him.
Levy is 8 years old. His Mom let Dad back in. He’s been back for a month.
Their Labrador, Delilah, just had 5 puppies. Four black ones and one with both black and white. A mix, his mom says. Delilah isn’t a purebred. He watches them come out. Delilah licks them as Mom rushes around with a towel. Dad leans against the doorway and catches Levy’s eyes when he wants it.
They let Levy name all of them. He names them after the kids from his class. Pablo, Jamil, Nick, Brie, and David, the mix. David will be easy to remember because he’s the only black and white one, but the others all look the same. His mom wonders the question out loud. Levy looks at his Dad for an answer. The man smiles, shrugs and Dad tells him that Mom is kinda dumb and laughs. Levy doesn’t want to think his mom is dumb, but tries thinking she’s dumb anyway and laughs. Mom walks out of the room.
That evening Levy sits in the doorway of his room, listening to them downstairs. They are trying to be quiet tonight. She wants his Dad to start going to church with Levy and her this weekend. Levy likes going. You should go with us. He learns Dad doesn’t believe in God. Stop trying to turn him into you. Only idiots go to church. Levy wonders if he actually likes going to church. Should he think that his mom is tricking him into going? He doesn’t want his Dad to think he’s an idiot like Mom.
He starts kicking the door frame and knows they can hear. They come and stand over him. He needs something from both of them, but he’s not sure what. It’s bedtime, they say. Go to bed.
His mom is on a business trip. He’s alone with his Dad on the couch. They’ve been talking. Levy finds out that his mom likes to control people, that’s why Dad had to leave in the first place. He’s old enough now to understand. The phone rings. It’s his mom calling to tell him goodnight. She asks him questions about his day. His Dad is watching him. Levy gives her short “yeses and nos.” She asks him what’s wrong. “You’re what’s wrong.” Levy doesn’t know why he said that, but his Dad laughs in agreement. This is what it feels like to be right. His mom asks him why he said that. Levy remembers to think that she’s trying to trick him. “Why are you so controlling all the time?” She starts telling him she loves him over and over. His Dad grabs the phone, listens to words meant for him, and makes the talking too much sign with his hand. Levy makes himself to laugh and then his Dad hangs up the phone. His mom will think Levy did it to her. His Dad laughs and Levy forces himself to laugh too, as if he were proud of himself for hanging up on her. It was the right thing to do. His Dad turns on the football game and Levy gets off the couch. He walks into the den where the puppies are sleeping and buries his face into them. Levy knows that if his mom was there, she would tell him to be careful. Parents are supposed to stop you from doing bad things.
Mom is back at home, but Levy’s not speaking to her. He’s been looking for a way back to her, but he can’t find one.
That evening he sits in the doorframe again. They are louder than usual this time. He hears his own name, and then, though he doesn’t know the word for it, he gains an understanding of violence, and somehow it feels right, like Levy has done it, like he’d wanted to hurt his mom. Every impossibility pours into the possible, ever gaining potential, and he witnesses all the trust he ever had in himself vanish. He hadn’t even known it was there, not really, not until he saw it leave. The possible, the impossible, they had always seemed so different. And he had been so sure.
He gets up from the doorframe and lies down in bed. He starts cussing at God in his mind just to see. God is supposed to stop people from doing bad things. He waits for punishment, aching with guilt, but nothing comes. He finds his mind doesn’t stop. A dam breaks and he goes farther and the words “What if I” begin every thought, and every thought ends with him doing something worse and worse. He feels paralyzed by his own disgust and fear, unable to stop thinking, and yet, somehow, it still feels right. Isn’t there something that stops you from hurting what you love? It doesn’t seem like it. But if nothing is there to stop him, could he do something wrong even if he doesn’t want to? The muffled sounds of screams and terror below – and even his own empathy for them – feel like evidence he could.
It is Sunday morning. He gets up before they do, puts on his church clothes and walks out of the house, out to a field beyond the dead end of their street. There are no cars. He is holding David, the mix. The little puppy squirms in his palms. Holding the little dog close to his chest, he carefully shimmies down a stony hill into the dry bed of a retention pond. No one stops him. David whimpers and Levy presses his face into his velvet fur. He can feel the puppy’s ribs and brittle arms and legs with his cheeks and nose. The dog becomes quiet. He has to go somewhere no one can see. He needs to be sure.
At the far end of the pond, there is a large concrete tunnel. He stares at the entrance and looks around. No one stops him. He goes in. Someone will stop him.
The tunnel runs for a quarter mile under the field and ends in a large cubic space. Levy steps into the opening, relishing the contrast from the tight quarters of the tunnel. Some light filters in from four rectangular openings above near the ceiling, where rain might spill. He has been there before. He remembers watching the water cascade down onto the concrete slab in the center like some sacred altar, pooling around the edges. He would sit in the tunnel, staring at the four waterfalls, shivering from cold, and feeling guilty when his reverence turned to boredom.
David tries to climb up his button down shirt, his dewclaws catching the fabric and Levy pulls him off and lays him flat against his arm, cradling him. He runs a finger over David’s stomach and he feels an emotion pass between them and the dog is still. If anyone is going to stop him, now would be the time.
He looks up toward the manhole covering, a deep rust, and waits for it to open, blinding him. It doesn’t. He listens for his parent’s shouts, really his mom’s shouts, from far off. But there are none.
He places David in the center of the slab and crouches beside him, watching. The little dog’s legs flop about and he wiggles toward Levy, unaware of the edge. Levy catches him before he falls and puts him back in the center. The same thing happens again. The dog’s legs paddle against the concrete, scraping his belly across the surface toward the cliff and right before he tumbles, Levy saves him. He picks up the puppy and nuzzles the dogs face. David nips his nose again. Someone needs to stop him.
Levy holds David in the center of the slab with his left hand, not letting him move. He raises a rock. The dog whimpers. Someone is going to stop him.
“Dr. Ajith’s office.”
Levy pinched the phone between his head and shoulder, and put both hands back on the wheel.
“Hi, this is Levy Green, I’m calling to schedule my follow up appointment…Yes, I can hold.”
“Is that Mommy on the phone?”
Levy glanced at the 3 year old in his rearview mirror.
“No, it’s not Mommy, it’s a doctor.”
“Oh, Terry’s a doctor. Is it Terry?”
“He’s a friend of Mommy’s. He said he was a doctor. You could see him.”
“Did he stay the night?”
Ben blew out his cheeks.
“Ben, Did Terry stay the night?”
“I don’t know. Are you sick, Daddy?”
“No, I’m not sick, but did Terry stay the…yes ma’am, I’m here, next week will be fine, but I wanted to ask about something,” He stole a glance at the oncoming traffic on the other side of the highway. There was no partisan separating the two lanes. “I’m not sure the implant is working.”
“Daddy, Daddy, look. A school bus!”
He saw it coming from the other direction. “Wow, that’s a cool bus, Ben…No, I’m not in pain. That’s part of the problem.” What if I turn this wheel to the right and hit the school bus head on? He glanced at his son in the mirror. “It’s just that I don’t feel anything at all.” The bus would flip, and all the children would be thrown forward. His hands tightened on the steering wheel. It was getting closer. He started to hyperventilate. Dr. Ajith’s secretary continued on the other end of the line, but he heard none of it.
He would hear their screams. The jagged metal edges crocheted into their little bodies, the glass strewn across the road. The bus was only a few seconds away. He shut his eyes. Now or never. Levy opened his eyes. The bus had passed, and he breathed a sigh of relief into the phone.
“Hello? Yes, I’m still here…Sure, Tuesday’s fine.” Levy sunk in his seat, then hastily straightened back up so he could see the highway clearly. He glanced in the mirror and saw what his son had found. “I understand, yes, 8:30’s fine, bye.”
He hung up the phone and spoke to his son in the mirror. “No, put that down Ben, you could bend it, that’s Daddy’s.”
A few days before the surgery, Levy had sat down with the Insta-Karma technician and programmed exactly what he wanted his future morality to be. They’d given him a schematic of it in the shape of an intricately branched tree. He’d meditated on it often in the car, his personal morality made visible. It was his only copy.
Levy quickly reached behind him and snatched the schematic away from his son. The boy began to cry and Levy put his hands back on the wheel. “That’s not yours, Ben,” he said to the mirror.
“Yeah, it is. That’s MY TREE PICTURE!”
The crying continued for the rest of the trip. When Sarah opened the door, Ben was still rubbing his eyes and sniffling.
“Thanks for picking him up, Lev…Oh.” She bent down and touched Ben’s hair. “Hi sweetie, you okay?”
Ben shook his head and hugged her leg. She looked up at Levy and frowned.
He shrugged. “I took a paper away from him in the car.”
“Oh that’s mean, Daddy. Did Daddy take your paper away?”
“Hmm, well, why don’t you go play, I’m going to have a conversation with Daddy.”
“Is Daddy in trouble?”
“No, we’re going to have a conversation. Go play with your trucks.”
Ben scrambled over the stoop and walked into the playroom.
“You shouldn’t say I’m mean,” said Levy when Ben was out of sight.
She looked stunned. “I know. I was just…I wasn’t—”
“Now, he thinks I’m mean.”
“He doesn’t think you’re mean.”
He shouldn’t have to remind her about his childhood. “If you say it, Sarah, he thinks it.”
“I’m not trying to poison him against you, Levy. And clearly, he doesn’t even remember what yo—.”
“Just…” He held up a hand, interrupting her. “Please.”
“Okay, sure.” Her voice sounded a touch tight. “But, I’d never say anything bad about you. You know that at least, right?”
Levy nodded quickly and crossed his arms, struggling to find a way back. “You doing okay?”
She looked around their porch as if to assess her own state. “Yeah, I think so…we miss you…Ben told me that you went to the doctor. I didn’t get a chance to ask you about that last week, you rushed off too quickly.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He knew she knew about his implant. He’d talked with her about getting it, about his mental issues, far more than necessary. “It’s fine.”
She reached across and grabbed his crossed arms without hesitation and squeezed. It surprised him and he found himself nodding as if her touch contained every question.
After a moment, she removed her hand, rubbed it against her leg. “Okay, I was just curious.” Her eyes went to the scar on his forehead. “I’d heard about it, wanted to ask.”
“Yeah, I haven’t felt anything…I mean, it hasn’t really done anything, yet. They say it’s a process.”
“Oh, okay,” she said and took a few steps backward and leaned around the wall so she could see Ben. Levy watched her body arc and shuffled his feet. When she came back, she was smiling.
“He has on a cowboy hat and is humping the gator, going ‘ride ‘em cowboy.’ Come here.” She stood to the side and let him step into the foyer of his house.
She was not lying. Ben was indeed humping their large stuffed alligator. “Look, Daddy, I’m a cowboy!”
The boy waved his hat in the air like a bull rider. Levy shook his head and turned back to his wife to say goodbye, but she walked past him into the kitchen before he had the chance.
“You want an s-o-d-a or something?” She shouted. There was hope in her voice.
“No thanks, but I do have to go.”
“Come into the kitchen for a second, I have to make his lunches for next week.”
The kitchen looked clean. Far cleaner than when he was living there 6 months ago. The knives were back out. She had taken the knives back out. He saw himself stabbing her and Ben, violating both of them, the blood would cover everything. His little body. Levy pressed himself into the wall, trying not to move.
“So Lev, you haven’t, like, felt anything from it?”
“I have to go, Sarah.”
She ignored him. “You seem the same to me…Was it expensive?”
Levy shrugged. “Sarah.”
“I heard the government offers it free to some people.”
He closed his eyes, resigning himself to his own kitchen, to the conversation. “Pedophiles.”
“Yeah, a friend of mine, a doctor actually, told me they’ve started giving it to certain prisoners for a reduction in their sentence.”
Levy opened his eyes, “A doctor?”
“Yeah, you heard about this?”
He shook his head.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you. Janet told me that her husband got one…an implant, you know. You remember Greg, he had the—” She turned and pointed to her lip.
He nodded, remembering the man’s cleft lip.
“Isn’t that weird!” She turned back around. “He didn’t seem the type, but she told me he’s trying to get sober after he wrecked their car. Said he hasn’t touched a drop since.”
“That’s what she said.” She grabbed a knife from the rack and began cutting salami. “I haven’t seen him or anything, but she says he’s happier and calmer, doesn’t yell at Teddy as much. She told me he watches documentaries now.”
She put the knife down and got out some bread.
Levy’s eyes lingered on the knife. “Is he creepy now?”
Her head see-sawed, side to side, as she did when she processed his doubt. “She didn’t say, but she did tell me that…” she picked up the knife and spread some mayonnaise, “…it seemed natural to her somehow, so I guess not, I don’t know.”
“How does it work?” she asked.
He thought of saying, What, the fucking doctor didn’t tell you? But the words screwed up inside him, and he swallowed them. “It’s supposed to help prevent thoughts and beliefs that might become behavior.” His eyes returned to the knife in her hand.
He could rush her and tilt her over and take her right there, knife to her throat. Ben would walk in and see all of it.
“How does it know which thoughts become behaviors and which thoughts lead nowhere?”
Levy shrugged and closed his eyes again. He couldn’t trust himself with that knife in the room.. All of his muscles were tense, as if his body might start acting on its own if he relaxed in the slightest.
“And how deep does it go?” She started chopping lettuce. “Like, if Greg watched something with drinking in it, normally he’d like it, but now he couldn’t like it as much because the implant would stop him?” She put the knife down and laid the lettuce on the sandwich. “I don’t know. Sounds weird, Levy.” She wrapped the sandwich up and threw it on the counter. She turned around; knife behind her.
“It’s supposed to be more nuanced than that.”
“I know.” She pushed herself off the kitchen counter, afraid her casualty was offending him. “It was a stupid example.”
“No, no, it’s not about the example, I’m just saying…” He paused, unsure what he was saying, “It wouldn’t just stop him from thinking…It’s would make him aware.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Aware?”
Levy couldn’t meet them. “The implant would tell him.”
“It would hurt him?” Her words sounded less like a question and more like a realization. “Is this thing going to hurt you, Levy?” There was panic in her voice.
She looked at him for a moment, recognizing his silence for what it was, then grabbed the knife and began making another sandwich.
“Of course,” she muttered.
From the other room, he heard Ben ask the alligator if he was a cowboy like him. The alligator didn’t say one way or the other.
“Just like that Clockwork movie?” She wrapped up the second sandwich and quickly started on the third. “So, it just hurts you until you are who you want to be.”
“There’s supposed to be a spectrum,” said Levy, unwilling to grant her the summary. “And it depends on the person.” Her chopping became louder. He knew it to be anger. “It’s just we don’t know what we’re capable of until it’s too late, so—”
“Sure, Levy,” she interrupted. “Can you hand me some twist ties?”
He opened the cabinet, unable to stop explaining. “We like to pretend that our morality is fixed in cement, but we just…where are they?”
“They’re not there?”
He looked again. “No.”
“Check on top of the fridge.”
He found them and placed the twist ties beside her. “Here.” He stood at her shoulder. He was closer to the knife now. He could see it in her hand. There were so many things he could do with it; so many places he could—
She glanced up at him.
He took a step back. “We just don’t know when something might make us slip up.”
“Right, exactly what I said. So because you don’t know, you’re going to hurt yourself. It seems like you’ve already been doing that ever since Ben was born.” She wrapped up the sandwiches. “I’m guess I’m glad you found something to do it for you.”
Levy watched her shoulders, her hair. The brisk movements that signaled her frustration. He hadn’t meant to upset her. They stood together in silence until she finally thought of a way to communicate less directly.
“That same doctor friend of mine also told me some parents have started trying putting implants in their children if they worried about them being gay…to program them.” She said it with disgust. He knew some of it was for him.
Levy looked at the knife and then back at her. “I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
She picked up the sandwiches and put them in the fridge. “So, you haven’t felt anything? Maybe you can stay, then.”
He began to edge out of the kitchen.
“No, no, no…Levy, look, don’t go yet, okay. I know that fight we had freaked you out, but people fight sometimes.” Directness was always her last resort. “It didn’t mean anything, and it’s been 6 months. I know you thought you were doing me a favor, but I’m done with this seeing other people shit, Levy. So is Ben. Come home.”
“I can’t…not yet.” Levy couldn’t stop himself from looking at the knife again. She saw him do it, and quickly put the knife in the drawer.
“It’s still happening? Are you still worrying about hurting us?”
He didn’t like hearing it said out loud, like it was real. “No, no, no. It’s—”
“Oh, Levy. Are you okay?” She neared him, touched him so freely, like he was air she could move through. She touched him like he was empty space, and he ripped away from her and considered asking about “Dr. Terry” and whether or not Ben liked having a new dad, but he felt a twinge inside him and instead walked out of the kitchen.
“I’m sorry, Levy, I wasn’t trying to…”
“No, no, no,” he reassured her from the doorway. “It’s fine, I just have to go.”
He turned and shouted into the playroom, “I love you, Ben. Take care of your Mom for me, okay?”
That weekend, Levy went to a bar and met a woman who came home with him to his tiny rental apartment. They fumbled in the dark and made love, fell asleep. The next morning, she tried to tell him about herself. She sat at the edge of his bed, not bothering to cover herself and talked with a cold, chipper ease that made him feel alone. Levy barely heard a word and declined breakfast. She gave him a kiss on the cheek and left, leaving him alone with his consideration.
From his third story window, he watched her cross the street and get into a cab. As it disappeared down the street, he saw a family dressed in their Sunday best ambling along the sidewalk from the other direction. They were young, two little girls between them. The father was on the phone holding the older girl’s hand while the mother preoccupied herself as best she could with the smaller one’s demands for attention. Levy watched them from his window, a hand against the glass, and imagined the obscenities he could shout at them. They’d look up and he’d pull out his sex and let them see—
Suddenly, the smaller one lost her purchase on the sidewalk and fell into the road. A truck was coming. The parents were talking to each other. Levy banged against the window, struggling to open it. He banged again. They didn’t hear him. They couldn’t see. He tried again and again. The latch was rusted, tiny, immovable, the glass thick. The truck neared. The driver wasn’t slowing. He beat out a rhythm harder and louder, but still they didn’t hear, they didn’t see and he felt of himself the familiar ache of certain tragedy, the ghost of regret, and the years of grief, nooses around the hearts of everyone involved…He closed his eyes, screamed and forced himself to look again and saw the father, phone still to his ear, pick up the crying little girl by one arm and hold her still while the mom dusted concern from her dress. The driver raised a few fingers as he rumbled by. The father waved back.
Everything was still, but Levy found himself shaking in an aftermath he’d done nothing to stop. He put his hand to his forehead, hyperventilating within his tiny space until he noticed the older girl staring up at him.
While the family had busied themselves with the little girl, the older sister had taken a step back and watched everything the man in the window had done. Somehow, Levy knew she’d seen him.
He stared down at her wondering, seeing her looking at him, and waved without really thinking about it. She waved back just like her father had done to the truck driver, and they locked eyes across the distance for a tender moment before Levy realized he wasn’t wearing a shirt and quickly closed the curtain.
His mom is standing in the kitchen. His Dad is still sleeping. It’s late. They were supposed to go to church. Where has he been? He pulls David out of his pocket and sets him on the floor. Mom says nothing. The shakes begin in Levy’s hands and tremble up his arms and he feels the intense struggle of something that cannot be expressed, something terrible. He feels his mother’s hand on the back of his neck pulling him close, asking him for certainty. He does not speak. He cannot move. His forehead touches hers. For some reason, she tells him it’s okay, it’s okay, and Levy’s sobs break and he barks out apology after apology and each one feels like evidence to the contrary, like nothing but disagreement.
“Mr. Green, sit down, sit down. How are you? My nurse tells me that you don’t think the implant is working?”
Levy sat down across from Dr. Ajith and nodded silently for a few moments, clearing some space within him. “I just think that…I haven’t felt anything. Different. And I think I’m supposed to, and I just needed to be sure that…” He trailed off, quietly tracing the lines of absence of everything he didn’t say.
“What do you mean, you think you should be feeling something?”
“I mean, there have been moments this month where…I should’ve felt something.”
“Yes? Why is that? Did you do something illegal?”
“But, you have been feeling urged to do something, is that it?”
Levy winced. “No, urge isn’t the right word…or maybe it is, I don’t know.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Green. I’m not sure what we’re talking about here.”
Levy tightened in himself, quickened, noticing the details in Dr. Ajith’s face. He blinked. “I just…I’ve had some bad thoughts about doing horrible things, but I felt nothing.”
“Okay…” said Dr. Ajith, stretching the word.
“Isn’t it supposed to hurt me?”
“Isn’t is supposed to punish me or…?”
“No, I paid a lot of money for this fucking thing and I want…” He paused, trailing off again, unsure how to proceed.
Dr. Ajith cocked his head. “I’ve checked over the diagnostics of your implant…okay, let me say that there is a spectrum of potential sensations that a person might experience, so, not everyone who gets an Insta-Karma implant is going to be experiencing the same thing, you know. It would be unwise, yes, to assume or expect something in particular.”
Levy nodded in disagreement, “Yes, but—”
“Now hold on, Mr. Green, what I’m saying is…okay, I checked the diagnostics from the implant, here, for the whole month.”
“What?” Levy sat up. “What do you mean?”
Dr. Ajith held up a folder and placed it on the desk. “Well here, I mean, we, you can see any activity within the implant.”
Levy opened the folder. Numbers, words. He kept looking, hoping that meaning would find him. Dr. Ajith continued.
“Most implants, and I believe I told you this on the day of if I remember; most implants, it takes a few weeks, and in some cases at least a month before anything really begins taking effect, but…may I see that?”
Levy handed him back the folder.
“But in some cases, the implant begins working immediately. Do you see this line of zeroes here on the right side?” Dr. Ajith held up the readout and pointed to the numbers. “These indicate synthesis…complete unification of your morality tree and your central nervous system. A zero means that there are no deviations from the expectations of neural output put in place by the implant.”
Levy stared at the zeroes.
“Do you understand, Mr. Green?”
Levy shook his head. He did not understand and felt a pressure both cold and terrible. “Did I do something wrong?”
“What? No, you—”
“Can I trick the implant into thinking that I’m not…”
“No, that’s not possible, Mr. Green, listen to me. The implant began working immediately. This only happens if the morality you programmed into the implant was already in agreement with…” the doctor rolled his hand toward the right word, “…with you.”
Levy struggled in the chair, in empty space, open air. “I’ve thought of such horrible things. This doesn’t—”
“Look.” Dr. Ajith pointed to a -1 underneath the heading CARE. “It says here that the implant activated on day one and actually provided you with the tiniest adjustment, somewhere…sometime, let’s see, yes. You would’ve still been in the hospital at this time. Do you remember feeling anything?”
Levy was quiet.
“It says here that the only other time it activated was last Friday afternoon, see here it is, another negative one under DECENCY. Do you remember this? A negative one would’ve felt like almost nothing.”
The twinge — Dr. Terry. He tried to explain it brokenly. He failed.
“Well, in any event, we know the implant is working, even if it’s doing almost nothing.” Dr. Ajith put on a pair of glasses from his pocket and glanced over the readout. “You know, sometimes, the cognitive dissonance between who a person thinks they are and who they actually are is so wide that we have to…” His hand made a circle in the air towards the appropriate word. “Calibrate…a time release mechanism, so that the implant is not just exploding continuously inside some poor soul completely out of touch with reality.” He laughed, not unkindly. “These people, Mr. Green, they genuinely want to be good, you understand? I’m sorry, that was a silly question, but their neural pathways are so different from the ones they programmed for themselves that if not mediated, they would be in constant pain.”
Levy was about to speak, but thought better of it.
“They just want it so badly.” Dr. Ajith touched his cheek tenderly as if it were not his own. “These people, they…we make it so the implant only works every hour, until we can be sure they won’t be just constantly suffering…You see? Intellectually they know what is good, but…negative 1000, Mr. Green. A deviation of negative 1000 literally feels like an electric pulse through your brain…through your body, it’s crippling…I often wonder if I am so…What was I talking about?”
“Oh yes,” Dr. Ajith cringed and sat forward, remembering. “But you are not dealing with any sort of thing like that, are you? Only twice, Mr. Green. And only a -1 deviation, which means you probably would’ve corrected the aberrations yourself without the implant.”
“But I’ve imagined…” Levy pushed through, forcing himself to say it out loud. “I’ve imagined stabbing my family…worse. Why can I think these things and… How am I allowed to think these things?”
“Is this why you got the implant?”
“Have you ever talked to anyone about this? How long has this been going on?”
Levy started hyperventilating. He thought of that puppy long ago and looked at his shoes.
“Do you know how rare it is to go an entire month with only two deviations from your own idealized self, Mr. Green?”
Levy shook his head in disagreement. “You don’t understand. I’ve imagined raping women, doing horrifying things.”
“Worrying that you might do something is vastly different than fantasizing about it, Mr. Green. These are not real things, you’re thinking. None of them.”
Relief began hitting him, it felt the same shape as panic.
“Do you understand, Mr. Green? If there is no chance of the thought happening, the implant does nothing.”
“No chance?” Levy said, the words made it real. He imagined killing his wife. It felt hollow. He said it again. “No chance?”
Dr. Ajith shook his head. “None.”
Levy put his head down on the desk, sobs racked through his body like tides seconds apart. In and out. Levy felt a hand on his back.
“There’s nothing you can do about it, Mr. Green. You’re good.”
Levy listens to his parents yelling in the kitchen. They don’t understand what happened, but she blames him. She wants Dad to leave. There is fear in her voice, but he says he wanted to leave anyway. His father walks into the living room, passes him by without looking down. He goes into the bedroom. Levy watches his father’s hands pack a suitcase, watches him walk out the front door. His mom asks Levy if he’s hungry. He says he doesn’t know.
That evening, he is standing in the doorway of the den. The puppies are nursing. Delilah is asleep. He crouches. None of the puppies notice him, except David. The puppy removes himself from his siblings and edges towards the boy’s feet. Levy runs away into the hallway afraid he might hurt him for real this time, but David follows and gets caught on the door sill, whimpering. Levy watches him from a safe distance, turns to go, but then without knowing why, goes back, lifts the little dog into his arms and cradles him long after his tenderness has disappeared into boredom.
See Erik Goldsmith’s story “Misalignment” online at Metaphorosis.
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