Practicing My Sad Face

By Marc Schultz

I wake up every morning at 7:00 a.m. when my eyes turn on. If I leave them on at night, the background connection sends shades of gray drifting through the darkness. This makes it hard to sleep. Dr. Anderson asked if I can see in my dreams when my eyes are off, but I do not dream anymore so the question has no answer.

I think I used to dream, back before my trauma event. That was when a suicider blew up the M2 bus at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Sixty-First Street, killing twenty-three people, plus a carriage horse that was beheaded by a flying pane of bus window. Everybody on the bus died but me.

Joyce Farley says I had just answered her phone call when the bomb went off. Joyce is my girlfriend. Now that I am myself again, I use my cell phone implant to call her every night, but yesterday she did not answer. The phone is wired directly to my Mitsutomo ears so I get the incoming voice signal directly, and to speak I just have to talk loudly enough so my ears can hear. The phone signals travel via the LAN connecting me to the server of my pMemory prosthetic memory system.

At 7:30 a.m. Roger Santoro enters my hospital room pushing a cart. I know it is him because pMemory uses a face-recognition program to find his name, which is displayed just under his face in my visual field. I am not good at recognizing faces. I can see really well, though. Especially since I got the new pair of prototype retinas installed with new drivers for the optic nerve interface. Dr. Anderson says that nothing is too good for me because I am a symbol.

"Hey there, Billy, name your poison," Roger says. "French toast? Pancakes? Shrimp scampi? Green eggs and ham? The culinary staff of Walter Reed Medical Center awaits your command! What would you like today?"

"I don't know," I answer. I'm not good at making decisions.

"How did I know you were going to say that? Holy Rod Serling, I must be psychic," Roger says, and he sings a short tune with the words "do do do do, do do do do."

A blinking line at the bottom of my visual field shows that pMemory has flagged a PSD—a potential situational derivative. This PSD was generated by three parameters: "Rod," "Serling," and the tune that Roger sang. When I say the command "Open," a transparent window appears showing the message:

Introductory music from The Twilight Zone, a television series.

Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone.

I don't know what any of this is about, but I read the words to Roger.

"Awesome! You're a genius, Billy," Roger says, repeating the tune as he puts the breakfast tray on my table. "Well, eat hearty, you've got your regular Tuesday visitor this afternoon!"

I voice the command "Schedule" and a new window opens. The entry at 1:00 says: "Joyce Farley." I feel my heart beating hard in my chest so I do some calming breaths. Dr. Anderson calls these reactions memory pangs. She says they are physiological manifestations of emotions I don't know I have. She says it's God's own irony that I have memory pangs but no memories.

It's not really true anymore that I have no memories. It's true that I can't remember anything specific from before my trauma event, just general things like what a carrot is or how to brush my teeth. And even stuff for a long time afterwards I can't remember. But a couple of months ago I got a Mitsutomo artificial hippocampus implanted, so now I can make new meat memories. It's an experimental model the President got from Japan just for me, but it's not legal here so I'm not supposed to talk about it, or about the stem cells used for stimulating the nerve growth needed to connect the chip to my neurons. Those stem cells were extracted from a fetus cloned with my own DNA.

Dr. Anderson tests my recall every day, and she says it's getting better as they fine-tune the hippocampus input and output connections. Now I remember that Joyce is my girlfriend without looking her up in pMemory. I still don't recognize her face or voice, but those are separate problems. Dr. Anderson says that, along with everything else, I have prosopagnosia and phonagnosia originating in occipital, parietal, and temporal lobe damage. Whatever.

Before my trauma event I lived with Joyce and her cat Reggae in Joyce's apartment on the first floor of a five-story building on East Twelfth Street in Manhattan. The apartment has one bedroom and a small deck in back where we sat and did the crossword puzzle on Sunday mornings although sometimes we stayed in bed until lunchtime. Of course I don't remember this happening. Joyce told me that's what we did, and she showed me pictures and some home DVDs. She says that as soon as I am better we will live together in that apartment again. Dr. Anderson loaded the pictures and DVDs into pMemory for me, along with other stuff from my past like family photos and my dad's home movies. I've looked at those things so often that sometimes I think I remember them really happening, but the memories are secondhand.

Joyce's apartment is just down the street from the Strand Book Store, where I worked for eleven years. On my birthday last month she brought me a present from the Strand staff. There was a note saying, "An old favorite of yours and something to remember us by. Your friends at the Strand." The package contained two old books, a 1934 two-volume edition of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust.

"Those jerks! Is this their idea of a joke?" Joyce said, and I could see she was doing an angry face. If it was a joke I didn't get it. pMemory displayed a message saying that the original French and three English translations were available for download, so I didn't really need the dead-tree edition. I put the first volume up to my nose and smelled it.

"What is it, Billy? What are you thinking?" Dr. Anderson asked.

I wasn't thinking anything, but I sniffed again. I needed to get up and walk.

"Let's see what he is going to do," Dr. Anderson said. When I pulled the data and power cable from its port in my neck, two icons appeared in my visual field. One for the small battery implant that powers my electronics during trips to the bathroom and physical therapy room, and the other for the wireless LAN linking me to the pMemory server when I am unplugged. Standing at the door of my room, I held the book to my nose again and turned down my eyes and ears so I could concentrate on the smell. Suddenly I walked forward nine steps, turned left eight steps, turned right thirty steps, turned left six steps, turned right four steps, and stopped. With no more urge to move, I turned my eyes and ears back up and saw I was next to the nurse's station at the far end of the second-floor hallway.

"Wait a minute," a woman behind me said. "I know what he just did! I'm positive. He walked from the front door, turned left at the bag check, right at the first new hardcover table, then all the way to the back and into the fiction shelves. This is wonderful! Billy remembers the inside of the Strand."

"Well, no, I don't," I said. "By the way, who are you?" She was turned toward Dr. Anderson so pMemory had not yet tagged her with a name.

She ran back down the hall without answering.

"That was Joyce, Billy," Dr. Anderson said.

Dr. Anderson had someone measure my path. She said that at the real Strand I would have stood at the exact place where those old books had been shelved.

Later we figured out that I could walk a clear path through a simulated layout of Joyce's apartment if I smelled Reggae's dirty cat litter. Joyce brought some into the hospital for the experiment after security finally decided it was not some kind of biological weapon. Dr. Anderson says the odors somehow stimulate spatial and musculoskeletal memories.

I was standing at the front of the bus facing right and holding the phone to my right ear when the bomb blew me through the front window, and shrapnel plowed into my brain, leaving fragments of cell phone in its wake.

The first couple of operations removed most of the shrapnel and phone parts and installed my bionic eyes and ears. Dr. Anderson says I could see and hear when I woke up after the fourth operation, but that it took quite a while before I could recognize what I was seeing and hearing.

The President came to visit me after the eighth operation, when my face had healed from the plastic surgery. The news reports show him shaking my hand and saying the prayers of the American people are with me. He said the doctors were giving me a prosthetic memory thing that would make me better.

A couple months later some guys in suits came and asked me questions I couldn't answer. They told Dr. Anderson that the President wanted to see more progress. She made an angry face. "As I would have told the President myself if his handlers had let me get through, you can't make someone with a damaged hippocampus good as new by networking his eyes and ears to a prosthetic memory database, no matter how smart the search algorithms are. The problem goes deeper than that. Billy is trapped within the temporal bounds of short-term memory. He has no self." She was standing way over by the window, but my bionic ears are very sensitive. Of course I have no meat memory of this period, but pMemory records everything I see and hear, so it was all saved in the archives, where I found it after they installed the artificial hippocampus that gave me a self again.

At 10:00 someone comes into my room. I look carefully because Dr. Anderson says I should try to be observant. The woman has brown eyes, white skin, and tied-back black hair with some gray at the roots. She is wearing a white lab coat that has one pocket on the front. pMemory tags her with the name Dr. Janice Anderson.

"Good morning, Billy."

"Good morning, Dr. Anderson.

"What emotion am I feeling today, Billy?"

Dr. Anderson asks this kind of question every day because she is trying to teach me to recognize people's emotions.

I have pMemory display the sample pictures in my facial-expression folder. Faces are hard. I compare each sample to Dr. Anderson's face. The one I think is closest is the "Sad" one.

"You are sad," I answer.

"Very good," she says. "The reason I am sad today is that there is another bomb alert for Washington, D.C. How do you feel about that?"

"I don't know," I answer, but after thinking for a little while I notice my lower back hurts, so I tell her that.

She looks at the monitors beside my bed and nods.

"Stress indicators. The PTSD is there, you just don't know it."

Dr. Anderson says that I am out of touch with my feelings because prefrontal cortex damage prevents my emotions from reaching conscious awareness. There are feelings still there somewhere, however. Dr. Anderson says that when Joyce arrives I smile half a second before pMemory tells me who it is.

"Did you prepare this morning's exercise, Billy?"

"It was a hard one," I say. Every morning and afternoon I have special mental exercises to do. Sometimes I look at a video and sometimes Roger Santoro takes me somewhere. I'm supposed to describe what I see in order to develop my perceptual sensitivities. For this morning's exercise I watched a short video. I tell Dr. Anderson the answer I recorded in pMemory.

"The man is sad. The crying woman turns away."

"Let's look at it again," Dr. Anderson says.

pMemory opens a window in my vision and plays the video again. A man stands on the right. He has a sad face. I know this because it looks like the one labeled sad, and like Dr. Anderson's face does now. A woman stands on the left. She makes sounds of crying as she turns away from the man. I cannot see her face.

"What about the woman, Billy, how do you think she feels?"

I think about this awhile, but I cannot see her face to compare to my samples. I know that when people cry it sometimes means they are sad. But not always, so I can't be sure. Finally I notice that her head is hanging way over and her shoulders are sagging down, so I say, "The woman is tired."

Dr. Anderson nods her head. "You may be right, Billy, you may be right. The line between tired and sad can be a fine one indeed."

"I think we'll end the exercise here, Billy, because there is something else I want to talk to you about. You know that Joyce is coming down from New York to see you today."

"It's on my schedule," I answer.

"You know that ever since we started letting her visit you she has come every week."

"I know."

"Well, today she is going to tell you that she cannot come to see you anymore. She is going to cry."

"Is she sad?" I ask.

"Yes she is, Billy. Very, very sad and very, very tired," Dr. Anderson says, and then she just sits there looking down for 17 seconds. Maybe Dr. Anderson is tired too. "I've thought about this a long time, and I'm still not sure if it will make things worse or better for either of you, but when Joyce says that she can't visit anymore, I want you to make a sad face. Like the man in today's exercise. Will you practice your sad face for me?"

"Yes," I say and I practice a couple times tilting my head forward and turning the ends of my mouth down a little.

"That will have to do," she says and sighs. "I can't stand the idea of you just sitting there grinning when she says it's over."

I can hear Dr. Anderson sniffling as she goes out the door. Maybe she has a cold.

Seven seconds after the door closes, three giant explosions rattle the windows and shake my bed. Dr. Anderson runs back in.

"Are you okay, Billy?" she asks as she checks the monitors.

"Yes," I say.

"No, you're not. Your adrenaline must be sky-high. I want you to relax and do your calming breaths now," she says, and I notice that I'm half sitting up and my hands are gripping hard to the bed rails.

When I manage to open my hands and lie back, she goes to the window.

"It was just east of here," she says, so softly I have to turn my ears way up to hear it. "There's smoke rising over past Blair Road. Oh God no, they've hit an Amtrak train." She checks her watch. "Please not Joyce, please not Joyce," she says, and she looks at me with a look I can't find in my facial-expression folder. Then she runs out the door just as the sirens go off and the intercom calls for all medical personnel not currently engaged in life-critical tasks to assemble immediately in the lobby.

There is somewhere I must go now. I disconnect the data and power cable and get out of bed. The battery icon shows a full charge, so I have about 50 minutes until my electronics shut down. I put on my sneakers and sunglasses. Dr. Anderson tells me to always wear sunglasses when I go down to the lobby so other people won't be frightened by my eyes. Every time Roger sees me with the sunglasses he yells, "men in black," which I don't understand because I wear blue hospital clothes. pMemory always displays a message saying Men in Black is a movie, but I still don't understand.

I walk down the stairs and out the emergency exit. Many people are outside. Some are getting into ambulances, and some are walking or running towards the east gate. There are people in army uniforms, but most are wearing hospital clothes like mine so I just go with the crowd.

After crossing some streets, we come to a chain-link fence with a big gap cut in it. On the other side are the train tracks.

Going through the fence, I step to the side so I don't get knocked over by people running down the embankment. Many of them grab a paper hospital mask from a box by the fence and put it on, so I do too.

The derailed train cars make a line of Ws zigzagging across the tracks. Two are turned over on their sides. Three are blown almost in half. One of those is on fire, and smoke in the air makes my throat hurt. Damaged people are scattered on the ground.

I am standing there with my back to the fence when a man runs up the bank and grabs me. He is tagged "Roger Santoro." "Holy Mother of God, Billy, what the hell are you doing here." He looks back at the tracks for eight seconds and then back at me. "Joyce is coming from New York on Amtrak today, isn't she?"

He lets go of my shirt and looks down, but I can still see his face. It is a sad face. Or maybe tired, I'm not sure.

"Billy, she might be here, but even if she is, there is nothing you can do. You've gotta go back before your battery goes dead. I should take you but I can't, Billy, I just can't. I got things I gotta do." He turns and runs toward the train.

The wireless LAN icon shows I still have a good signal. The battery icon has turned yellow.

I don't know why I am here, but Roger said Joyce might be here too, so I think I should try to find her. I tell my cell phone to dial Joyce's number, but I hang up after 10 rings when a machine answers. pMemory flags a PSD for "joyce" and "cell phone," so I open the results window and see a video clip of Joyce answering her phone when it rang last week. pMemory identifies the ring tune: "Soul Almighty" by Bob Marley.

I call again and listen for Joyce's cell phone ringing "Soul Almighty," but I don't hear it. Maybe I am too far away, so I walk closer to the train. Police and firefighters are pulling people out of overturned cars, and hospital staff are running back and forth carrying stretchers. Feeling a crunch under my right foot, I look down and see that I have stepped on a man's wristwatch. A TAG Heuer watch with a wrist still in it and a hand on one side but no arm on the other. My white sneaker is bright red. The smell of burning plastic is strong.

Listening for "Soul Almighty," I turn my ears all the way up and try to ignore the noise of the crying and the screaming and the beating rotors of the news helicopters overhead. Two cars to the left, a woman tagged "Dr. Anderson" shouts "triage" over and over. A couple of tunes are ringing in the other direction, so I move that way, but pMemory tells me they're the "Buckeye Battle Cry" and "Start Me Up" by the Rolling Stones. Walking along, I hear more phones starting to ring up and down the train. Some are just ordinary rings, but some are ring tunes or the song-clip kind of ring. Sometimes a song stops but usually it starts up again a few seconds later. pMemory scrolls a list of titles one after another across my visual field:

"Let's Dance," by David Bowie

"Just a Memory," by The Notorious B.I.G.

"Call Me," by Blondie

"What Else?" by Avril Lavigne

"Ave Maria," by Johann Sebastian Bach

"Truckin'," by the Grateful Dead

. . .

I keep calling and listening for "Soul Almighty," but it is not on the list. I want to search some more, but I must sit down on a nearby piece of train seat and do calming breaths to ease the pain in my back. I practice my sad face too so I am ready for Joyce's visit today.

Soon a schedule icon tells me it is time to prepare my afternoon exercise. The entry says: "Life observation." That means Roger Santoro is supposed to take me somewhere to observe, but he is here and I am here so this must be the place. This exercise should not be too hard since there are no faces nearby to be compared to my facial-expression folder. A man's head is on the ground six feet to my left but it is turned away. I look and listen very carefully.

Just as I finish, the red battery icon starts to blink. That means I have forty seconds of battery time left. I speak my answer aloud so pMemory will remember it for me:

"The train is off the track. People are running. People are crying. Cell phones are ringing. No one answers."

Marc Schultz's two previously published stories appeared long ago in the magazines Tomorrow and Pirate Writings. After many years of being both too busy and too lazy, he recently started writing again. A native of New York State, for the past 22 years he has lived in or near Tokyo, working as a freelance Japanese-to-English translator.