(written in 2004 for tenth grade English)
It all started when I got braces.
First there’s the long awkward car ride where your parents keep craning their necks around to look at you and make that “You’re crazy but we love you anyway” smile. Funny how car rides to dreadful things take no time at all.
Unbuckle, door open, up, out, zip, pow and you’re in the reception area staring at digital projections of fish—cheaper than aquariums—and filling out page after page of questions.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how social are you? Do you consider yourself more introspective or extrospective? Please check off your favorites from a list of hobbies. Fifty feet of paperwork done, cramped hand surgically reattached, you’re ready for the procedure. Oh yes, the procedure.
Once, parents had kids and just hoped for the best. Thanks to modern medical science, now there are other options.
The Doc has thin wire glasses, decorative since everyone has perfect vision these days, and has somehow packed a bajillion extra teeth behind Botox’d lips. More attractive the farther you are away from him, the Doc cocks his head and says, “Well hello there,” a smug little spark dancing around his pupils.
He asks how you are. Just fantastic.
Nurse comes in, overweight and sporting hair-sprouting moles, one of the few non-plastic humans left on the planet. She rushes through all the usual measurements and pulse-taking, syringe burning a hole in her big baggy pocket.
This might sting a little, and she giggles madly.
Once, braces were just for teeth. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, now there are other options.
You’re stabbed and the anesthesia fills your body so quickly that you can’t even recoil from the needle, liquid paralysis. Your brain’s connection to your body is largely severed, giving you distorted grayscale vision and pain hardly worse than a mild toothache when they start to saw.
The first time they put on a pair of braces, the story goes, the saw got switched to high power by mistake. Not only did the Doc pulverize the patient’s skull, blood and chunks of brain covered the walls and slid down the colleagues gathered round. Fortunately, it was just some kid from the streets. That’s how the story goes.
The first braces weighed so much that supports had to be sent down the kid’s neck to his spine so they wouldn’t crush the whole brain. Now they’re leaf-thin, more like a piece of paper covered with foreign writing than the mind-altering circuit board they are.
The Doc attaches them with goop he claims is not Elmer’s Glue, but you have doubts. It’s like someone climbing up a nostril, sliding down your throat, going for a swim in your stomach, splashing around in the acid, and forcing themselves out your rectum, except worse. It’s not your body or mind being invaded, but your personality itself.
Then the changes start.
I didn’t even notice until it was too late.
I’d find myself staring blankly at the closet on the verge of tears. Marveling at the faded tees, the wrinkled khakis, war-torn blue jeans, I stopped short of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Legs and fingers trembling like my muscles were having an earthquake, I’d fall to the floor and just stare up at the clothes, and all of a sudden I’m seven and I’ve wet the bed, and cried, and fallen asleep again, and woken up all sticky and
It’s mid-dinner, my fork crashed to the table and I lurched suddenly up, darting to my room, pulling off ancient socks and tossing them into the wastebasket with a sudden sensation of relief.
Each time I emptied my trash, another shirt would be there, lettering all chipped, bunched up like a broken promise in the bottom of the can, no memory of how it got there.
Mother offers to take me shopping like she usually does when winter is just starting and instead of groaning I leap at the chance, poring over rack after rack of ridiculous shirts sprinkled with vague innuendos, advertising non-existent parties, businesses, and sports teams. Sales people back away from my menacing stare as I dart towards sales racks, toss aside other customers in a search for the perfect size or color. Mother stands there bewildered, jaw opened as much as she can manage, exposing wrinkles she never lets show, one of the few times she ever looks away from her magazines predicting the end of the world.
When I come home to put away these new clothes, I realize my closet is empty, save a few lucky undershirts and a pair of shoes. Then Nathan’s standing in the doorway and laughing, a shock since he’s been glued to the phone for months. Natalie this and Natalie that. I don’t know what’s so funny until I realize he’s pointing and I look down, aware for the first time of what I’m wearing.
“Looks like you finally got some good taste,” Nathan says.
We have on the same shirt. The same pair of jeans, the same sandals, the same chain around our neck. And when I try to muster up some disgust, when I try to remember how much I hate wearing the same junk everyone else wears, all I can think is how good I look in red.
Everyone picks up their capsule at the front. Containing all the recommended servings and vitamins for the day, it negates eating, though most still indulge in munching on fake foods for the tradition and flavor. Sealed in their own wrappers now, since the militia group has been switching out the capsules with poison. Someone has thrown a crumpled wrapper into my corner spot that I kick aside before sitting down and pulling out a book, sighing because it’s not the one l remembered packing, and then getting that brief nauseous feeling I’ve been having so much lately.
From here, the rows of tables are a vast sea of color and noise, rippling waves as people sit and rise, jump up, throw paper airplanes and chatter loudly about nothing. It’s like when I was twelve and we went to the beach and there were miles and miles of vast potential ahead of me, it would be so easy to just get lost and drift and
I’m sitting down next to strangers before I even realize I’ve stood up. My head twitches and a kid across from me remarks, “Just got your braces huh?”
I nod and, bewildered, decide to stay. Might as well, since I brought the wrong book anyway.
“They’re like that,” the one next to me says. “I was twitching so much when I had mine, they had to put me on ADHD meds just to keep me still.”
A chuckle escapes me like hiccupping a bomb and I impulsively cover my mouth in disgust, then try to play it off as scratching my nose and fail miserably.
The others laugh and then the one across from me tells me about Heather Sinclair. A blurry picture of pigtails and pale make-up drifts into my mind. She’s the one who kept getting suspended for all the piercings. When they got her on braces, everyone thought it was a miracle, the best recovery yet. She ripped out the piercings, injected some color into her face, and was homecoming queen by the end of the year. But then as she was accepting the crown she fell down, and when people went to help her up, she started screaming and pulled out a knife. At first everyone backed away, scared, but instead of attacking them, she began to chip away at her skull.
I always imagine my plane rides like the ones in old movies, where the characters board the plane and it cuts to a map and they draw a dotted line from departure to destination to cheerful music. It takes far longer to get through recently-tightened security than to fly from California to New York in the jet. Somehow, though, Mother manages to make even short trips miserable.
“I’m so happy for you Brian, so very pleased with your progress, you’re well on your way to becoming a fine boy just like Nathan, in fact, I’m just positive you’ll turn out as perfect as your brother…” All the surgeries have made her P sounds rather unpleasant.
We arrive at the convention in a few short minutes, her reminding me for the nth time how this is the last year I can come, I’m much too old to be so interested in these ridiculous games.
The theme this year is discovery, so they have the whole thing rigged like a great labyrinth, booths at every corner you turn. Mother’s company snagged a choice booth near the entrance to the maze’s center, the auditorium where the software purchases will be announced. She adjusts a knob under the collar of her business suit, darkening its shade of green, and brushes off invisible lint as she hurries.
My eyes don’t bulge with excitement as they usually do over the thousands of beeping monitors, all the new graphics cards and faster gaming engines; in fact, they can barely manage to twitch.
As soon as she gets to the booth for her company—a Microsoft knock-off promising better 3D graphics in their word processors—she hugs a tall blond with spiked hair and suit tight enough to reveal his biceps. “Oh Frank,” she says, “it’s been so long.”
Another twitch, but at least the frantic noise of the convention is finally starting to lull me into my usual gaming bliss. I wander away from Mother and look for the nearest exciting terminal.
It’s actually because of Nathan, king of the conformists, that I learn about pockets.
Some Saturday afternoon, lying around and staring wistfully at the sketchbooks I once drew in, I hear the doorbell ring. Natalie again, here to see Nathan I’m sure, only there’s another voice too. The happy blah-blah of excited greetings muffled by the door, and then feet slamming on the stairs. Some other girl—does Nathan need two, now?
Suddenly my door opens and a girl I’ve never seen before is standing in my room. Same long brown hair as Natalie, same bright blue eyes, but everything else is slightly off like she’s a pod person or something. She says, “You gonna say anything or should I start for you?” and smiles.
I manage some grunt similar to a hi. Just looking at her sends waves of euphoria throughout my body, and a thousand memories play before my mental eye, riding a roller coaster, getting ice cream, finally making an A. Instead of the tremors I’ve been used to, the sick, sad feeling, I have joy.
“Just got your braces, huh? I don’t have mine yet, my parents don’t really believe in it. Natalie had to wear hers for, like, five seconds, since she was so perfect to begin with, and I figured that the only way to avoid getting them was to act the same.”
“So you’re as perfect as Natalie?” I sit up and I’m running along the beach, watching a movie, finally hitting the ball like Nathan has from the beginning.
“At least around my parents,” she says. Then, like the sentences were colliding trains, she starts, “Have you heard about pockets?”
“Like in jeans?”
She did research, back when such information was available, before the government started putting restrictions on that kind of thing. Since braces turn your head into a living computer, able to be programmed and accessed by the Doc, you can use it too, and do without even realizing it. Every time you have a thought it becomes a document. Similar thoughts are grouped in a folder. Et cetera.
Pockets are places to keep your bad thoughts, the ones the braces make you twitch away—you connect them to something harmless so you can hold onto them.
She says memories are the only things people can’t get to, the only thing about you they can’t take away. She starts to ask about my sketchpads, and I’m winning the Spelling Bee, flying back and forth on a swing set, falling in love.
Then she says, memories are so powerful—that’s why the braces use them. They recall nice things to encourage you, shameful ones to make you stop.
She sits down on the bed next to me, the only time a girl ever has, and running her words over and over in my head, I realize I don’t know where I stop and the braces start. Scarier still is the fact that I no longer seem to care.
Winding back and forth between the corridors of the maze, I start to think of it like my mind. Boring or dumb ideas around some corners, great ones around others.
And even though I’m fighting off passing out, even though some voice inside me is saying, don’t be a nerd, play a sport, do something active, be like Nathan, I try desperately to hold onto these memories.
Then I turn a corner of the maze and see them. Mother, and that Frank guy, in the corner, making out. I stare like some sick voyeur—how could they not see me—but as if granting my wish some techie coughs at them, trying to get to a plug in the corner, and looking away from Frank her eyes lock with mine, and there’s a sudden flash of hatred so strong I’m surprised her plastic face doesn’t shatter.
Let this be a memory I forget. Please oh please.
Natalie’s sister is named Kathryn. She’s 15, my age, and Nathan wants to know why I’m asking.
Most people have books on their bookcases. Nathan has trophies. Sports, honor roll and all sorts of certificates for who knows what. Meanwhile I just have an ancient Snickers bar in a shoebox under my bed, the prize Joey Fisher had to give me when I beat him for the only time at our daily playground race.
“Maybe we should get you tinkered with a bit… I mean Kathryn’s not a great pick, she’s like the exact opposite of her sis, and if that’s the best your braces can pick for you—”
I stop him.
“Well yeah, how’d you think you’d fall in love? How would I ever find someone as perfect as Natalie without a computer? That’s ridiculous. Mom and Dad’s braces picked each other, and their moms and dads, since before braces when people just randomly picked someone to have kids with, I guess. No wonder the divorce rate was so high—none of the compatibility tests.”
So when Kathryn calls to ask how I am, I try to stay distant. Because my interest in her must not be me, just the machine.
One day I wake up holding a bat.
It’s new, wrapped in plastic, price tag still on it. I’ve been clutching it so tightly that my hands are bright red. I didn’t buy it, and Nathan never buys me anything, so who could it be from?
I go downstairs where Father is making breakfast, and the familiar smell of pancakes drifts into my nose. I remember before he got the job—the one his braces picked for him—and became busy. How he and I used to talk and he would make breakfast every Saturday and he didn’t believe in cell phones because they took time away from us.
Mother’s sitting there reading the newspaper, headlines screaming about the coming threat to California’s technology district by the militia group. I ask her about the bat. She and I have been going along as if everything’s fine.
“Don’t you remember? You asked for it yesterday.”
No, I don’t remember. But I do know that baseball used to be Nathan’s favorite sport.
A week or so later, I’m watching the news when Nathan barges into my room without knocking, something he’d strangle me for, and tells me that Natalie’s parents have invited us to dinner.
I tell him no, that my stomach hurts. I threw away the baseball bat and I ripped one of my new shirts just so I could stand wearing it, but the nausea continues to rise and rise.
“You just need food. Come on, Kathryn will be there, and Natalie’s parents really want to see you. I bet they’re inviting us to Cancun with them this summer.”
I don’t budge. That would require movement, and with stomach acid ready to squirt out my orifices, it’s not appealing.
“Brian, go with your brother!” Mother, shouting from downstairs. I sigh and stand up unsteadily, finding I feel better from the movement after all.
The sidewalks are pretty empty tonight, and it’s getting darker earlier and earlier to prepare for another mild Californian winter. The walk is long and quiet, Nathan talking loudly and listening only to himself, me saying hardly anything.
We’re nearly to their doorstep when the van pulls up. Long, gray, boxy, the one in all the news reports.
I think of tall trees sprouting branches, buildings rising from the ground, every weapon-wielding action hero, a million tough things racing through my mind. The braces want me to stay. Be an American. Fight. But my heart, the shriveled remains of it, tells me to run.
Two men come out, holding guns and glaring at Nathan and I. One pulls out a photograph and then glances at us. “You’re Pat Simmons’ kids.” Patricia Simmons, our mom, the famous technological entrepreneur. Now her kids are here, face to face with the militia trying to bring down major corporations.
Nathan says that we are, his voice full but ringing false to my ear. His braces are telling him to stay, too. But look how he’s trembling.
One of the men checks his portable computer, notices the house we’re standing outside. “This is the Miller house, they’re on the list too. Might as well kill two birds with one stone.”
“You’re not going to hurt them,” forces itself out of my mouth. I keep telling my legs to move but they won’t budge.
All my resistance, all my trying to ignore Kathryn, sitting by myself at lunch instead of with friends, playing video games instead of sports, fighting over these petty things, they have made the braces stronger too. I’m not even in control anymore.
It happens quickly, Nathan and I lunging for them, knocking them to the ground by surprise, gunshots going off in rapid succession, punching, clawing, eyes red with fury, screams—are they my own?—more gunshots and then silence.
The men throw us off and stand up, running to their vans and driving away. It isn’t til I turn around that I find out why.
There’s Mr. Miller, holding a shotgun—and sprawled across the sidewalk in front of him is Natalie, blood gushing from a wound to her head.
Kathryn gets braces later that day. Her parents, disturbed at her catatonic state, decided she was in shock and would need some help coping with her sister’s death.
The funeral is only two days later, and already, she holds Nathan’s hand. Gives him hugs that are more than friendly support. And when Mother sees me staring, she says that certain people are just meant to be together, and I really ought to get over it. Somehow, I don’t think she’s talking about Nathan and Kathryn.
Bending over the coffin, I ask Natalie if it was worth it, being perfect, or if she would rather have been herself. Her blank stare gives me all the answer I need… and my plan is in place already.
They only have to drag me as far as the sliding doors before the retrieval system kicks in and I’m stumbling, standing, one foot in front of the other and the doc’s setting my scalp on the table and telling me I really ought to use better conditioner because my hair is awfully frizzy. Clamps snake around my arms and my eyes glaze over making everyone’s head large and fuzzy, all the colors dull gray.
“Now what,” straightening his tie, “exactly,” picking up the usual bucket of metal tools, “is the problem?”
I open my mouth to speak forgetting that it doesn’t work and he’s really talking to my parents after all.
“We were at his monthly cleaning,” that would be my mother, with the Invisalign face mask and folds of skin tucked neatly beneath her belt making a kind of mountain range just under her skirt—they were having a buy-one-get-two- done sale at the liposuction store—”and she found a pocket, double encrypted, all that nonsense from those hacking pages, honestly, we update daily but the sniffer never catches them all.”
“Now Brian,” turning to face me, “why,” looking into my dilated pupils, “would you do a thing like that?” Rhetorical, because my tongue is crawling on the ceiling and my teeth have fallen out.
Nurse stumbles in and trips over the cords and she picks the NITS off the floor and plugs it into my head. The wall screen lights up and says Welcome to Windows. Mother scoffs at my cemetery wallpaper but the doc overlooks it and clicks open the C:/ drive going straight to where I keep all the nasty stuff. Natalie has hers marked Scriptures to Remember; mine is just called The Stuff You’ll Want to Click On First. No one can hide their pockets for long.
The doc says, “Very tricky,” and Father coughs somewhere in the background but I haven’t seen him for years. The doc says, “Nurse?” and out of the bucket she pulls a syringe and a moistened towel.
Shot after shot until my hazy vision dissolves from dull gray to electric pink.
Mother hops up and down in her fat suit and nibbles on floating cakes and Father soars around the room looking at his cell phone, putting it to his ear, looking at it again, saying “Can you hear me now? Now? Now?”
The doc is sitting on a giant check held by Nurse and he tells me “You have been very naughty.” A filing cabinet appears next to him and he rips it in half with his bare hands, laughing all the while and repeating, “Naughty, naughty, naughty…”
Then I’m awake and chained to a hard plastic chair across from my mother, who keeps uncomfortably swaying from side to side, not used to her new figure. The doc hands her a thick printout of Encrypted Folder number six and she barely thumbs through it before liberating an exasperated sigh and demanding to know what all of this means.
Frowning at me, “Well,” turning back to her and pushing up his glasses, “we scanned it and it got a ninety-five. Thirty to fifty is the generally accepted range…”
“And what does that mean, exactly?” As if she doesn’t know. She shifts so far back that her head clunks against the wall.
“Well,” the doc says, “why don’t you check his left pocket?”
Nurse gropes around in my jeans and pulls out the knife.
It all started when I got braces. It ends with me in the treatment center for homicidal tendencies.
Once, parents had to wait until the suicide note to discover that their child wanted to die. Thanks to the brilliance of privacy invasion, now there are other options.
They rehabilitate me here, at least that’s what they call it. There are classes on how to dress, homework assignments like Finding Ten Reasons to Smile. The teachers, counselors, jail wardens only use electric surges when I’ve done something really naughty.
So I try to accept my fate. Try to honor Kathryn’s words, hold on to my memories.
They’re all I have left.