Tessa usually liked the waiting room. It was a place where everything was out of her control. She had done her duty, and now it was someone else’s turn. She found that soothing. Of course, nothing in the waiting room was soothing. It had thick, florescent lights that gave her a headache. There were three-month-old tabloids scattered around a chipped coffee table. Somewhere unseen, a speaker pumped in new age spa music. Outside it was raining. Tessa didn’t like it when it rained. When it rained, the lobby of Dr. Greenblatt’s office was sweaty and damp. Everyone tracked the mud and slime from outside and hung their sopping wool coats on a wooden, overburdened rack.
Tessa didn’t really know why she had come. She had written on the entrance form that she was suffering from anxiety, but that wasn’t the whole truth. She was anxious but that was nothing new. She had been anxious the first time she had first learned about the Intelligence Placement Test. She didn’t like the idea that she would be labeled for her entire life based on one examination. She had been anxious for her brother Robert when he was scheduled to take the test. She was even more anxious when the results came back and she learned that his scores had been so high that they had needed to create a new category: Level Sixteen.
But, her anxiety wasn’t the reason she had come to see Dr. Greenblatt. The truth was, she was drifting. Her brain didn’t seem as focused as it once had. She wanted to go back in time when everything felt simpler.
Deep in the mountains, everything was dark.
“I can’t see anything. It’s too dark. Where are you?”
“I’m over here.”
Tessa Gardner was ten, and her brother Robert was seventeen. Their parents were out of town for a conference, and they had agreed it would be reasonably acceptable for their children to go camping in the mountains a few miles from their home.
“Robert, where are you? I still can’t see.”
“Over here! Follow the sound of my voice.”
As Tessa stumbled through the dark, she could hear her brother’s feet trampling dried leaves and fallen sticks somewhere vaguely ahead of her. She didn’t know how he found his way so easily. Something about the way he processed the world was effortless. Eventually, Tessa caught up to him.
“Why are you walking so fast? How can you see anything?”
“I must just be smarter than you. Now hurry up, or we’ll be late.”
“Late for what? My feet hurt. Stop walking so fast!”
“Don’t be so lazy. If you miss this, you’ll regret it.”
Tessa accepted this. She supposed it couldn’t have been very far now anyway. The pair walked in silence for several more minutes until Robert finally came to a stop at the edge of a small clearing.
“Why are you stopping now?”
Tessa obliged again. She knew her brother well enough to understand that this was something important. Robert only paid attention to things that were important. Under his breath, Tessa heard Robert exclaim, “Now!”
And all of a sudden, the sky was awash with light. Thousands of points streaking across the pitch-dark night like travelers desperate to return home. In the distance, Tessa could hear crackling, as the forest they had just walked through was peppered with meteorites.
“One of them should be big enough—I think this one.”
Tessa knew Robert was gone. His mind was busy calculating the trajectories of a thousand rocks hurdling at them. She assumed that he had picked this spot because he knew it would be safe. It was comforting.
“Now!” Robert said again. Sure enough, there was a boom, a brilliant flash and in the clearing a few meters ahead of them was a glowing orb of molten rock.
Tessa’s ears were ringing, but her amazement was undeniable. She clung close to her brother, but fought back the urge to run out and inspect the newest addition to the Earth. After a few minutes, the streaks began to subside, and Robert gave Tessa a gentle pat on the shoulder that signaled it was safe to move.
As Tessa ran into the clearing, Robert followed more slowly. He rolled out two sleeping bags at the edge of the clearing. Eventually, and to Tessa’s great amazement, he withdrew from his hiking pack a bag of marshmallows and two sticks.
“Roast these over the rock.”
A nurse called Tessa’s name. Ever since Robert had died, there hadn’t been anyone quite worth holding on to. Everyone seemed like vapor. It reminded Tessa of when she and Robert were children and their mother would tell them a stories in a very slow, comical voice. She’d get all the inflections wrong so the whole thing ended up being a jumble of unintelligible words and phrases. But, it was nice. It was nice for Tessa and her brother to sit in the dark and fill their heads with something that didn’t burn white hot.
Tessa struggled sometimes when it came to her earliest memories of Robert. There was so much to unpack; it was difficult to find the point of it all. She did have one memory though. Tessa thought that this might have been her oldest memory. She used it as a way of centering herself. It wasn’t perfect, obviously. It was faded and had round, charred edges like a photograph saved from a fire. They had been at home, or at least it was somewhere that felt like home, with Robert that could have been almost anywhere. Tessa remembered the smell of pine like an old-fashioned Christmas. She also vaguely remembered something happening. She hadn’t know exactly what it was. After all, she couldn’t have been more than four or five at the time. But, it was turbulent and upsetting like storm clouds on a blackened sea. Had their parents had been in a fight? Had she had done something she hadn’t been supposed to? Or, maybe it was something four- or five-year-olds couldn’t even understand. Maybe someone close to the family had contracted an illness the doctors couldn’t do anything about. Maybe someone had hung themselves off their own back porch. Maybe one of Tessa’s parents had finally figured out that they’d fallen out of love.
None of this was really the point of the memory. It wasn’t a sad memory. The sadness was just the setting: the background. The real heart of the thing was Robert. Robert had been there even if he was just a few years older than Tessa and barely capable himself. He said soothing things. He made interesting conversation. He distracted her until the storm blew past.
“Ms. Gardner? Dr. Greenblatt is ready to see you now. You can just go on back.”
Tessa nodded politely and wandered out of the waiting room and into Dr. Greenblatt’s office.
Everything in the office was designed to be soothing. The walls were carpeted and absorbed any harsh sounds. There were a variety of stress toys and pillows scattered around the room. New age music murmured from a speaker disguised as a rock. Tessa had always thought that the camouflage effect of the rock was somewhat negated by its placement indoors, but it wasn’t her office after all. Dr. Greenblatt’s was a tall, somewhat thin man. He was wearing the usual Level Twelve badge. He had wireframe glasses that seemed far too narrow to be of much use.
As Tessa hovered in the doorway, the man looked up.
“Ms. Gardner? I’m Dr. Greenblatt. Please have a seat.”
Robert was leaving in a few days. Tessa had known this for a while, but it had never seemed to sink in until the two of them were having lunch the Saturday before his scheduled departure. Robert had promised her that things wouldn’t change that much. He would only be five hours away after all. Somehow though, Tessa had a hard time believing that such a monumental restructuring of her life would cause “hardly any change at all” as Robert had so gently put it.
Robert was going away, and he probably wouldn’t be able to come back that often. They wouldn’t be able to go to lunch on weekends, they wouldn’t be able to talk about things late at night, they wouldn’t be able to hide form their parents together—though the frequency of these incidences had decreased some since they were children. Although these things bothered Tessa, none of them were cause for fear. She had learned how to navigate her parents, could mostly manage to get her own lunch and usually what she liked to do at night was sleep. But, Tessa was afraid that if her brother left, he would never come back, at least not same the version of him that had left. If Robert could change, he would inexorably.
What was doubly worrisome was that even the spectrum of change was entirely unpredictable. Obviously, he could change in large ways. He could be hit by a car and need to have his legs amputated. A spider could bite him on the nose and the tissue on his face could become infected and necrotic, and the infection could spread to his brain and make him a vegetable. But, Tessa was smart enough to dismiss these fears as unfounded. After all, there were spiders and cars where they lived now. The probability of something catastrophic happening didn’t dramatically rise with his location.
What was more concerning were the little changes. What if he got a girlfriend who didn’t like her? What if he changed in some imperceptible way that made them intolerable to each other? What if he stopped being that person who could magically make things go away?
Eventually, when Tessa did finally have to say her temporary goodbyes to Robert. All she could think about was his eyebrows. They were very funny looking, but not like caterpillars. Everyone’s eyebrows looked like caterpillars. Robert’s eyebrows were more like pipe cleaners. They were thin and funny and seemed like they could bend any way imaginable. As Tessa was hugging her brother and wishing him well, she was actually hoping against hope that when Robert returned his eyebrows would be just like she remembered.
Tessa sat and received the usual pleasantries from Greenblatt. After awhile, he asked her why it was she had come. Tessa didn’t know the answer to this exactly. All she knew was that she didn’t want to end up like her brother.
“Robert, why are mom and dad scared of you now?”
Robert didn’t look up from his marshmallow as he answered. “They’re not afraid of me. They’re just afraid of what might happen because of me.”
“What might happen?”
Robert sighed. “It’s hard to explain. Do you know about the performance testing?”
Tessa nodded. “It’s how they figure out how smart you are. How they assign you your level.”
“Well, my results came back last week and the test says I’m a Level Sixteen.”
Tessa was quiet for a moment. “I’ve never heard of a Level Sixteen before.”
“There’s never been a Level Sixteen before.”
Tessa was quiet again.
As soon as Tessa started talking to Dr. Greenblatt, it felt like she couldn’t stop. She had already laid out her entire family history, and now she was saying more personal things. Things she had never told anyone. It all came flowing out like water from a burst pipe.
“I remember when Robert, my brother, did this; he had such high hopes. He said he felt like his mind was tearing him apart, and he didn’t know what to do. That’s why he came here. He wanted to get better. Desperately. We’d have breakfast together every morning, and he’d tell me all about the latest treatment they were putting him on. A new medicine every week, none of them seemed to work. In the end his neural pathways were so badly eroded he couldn’t tell his right hand from his left. The only Level Sixteen in history, and they microwaved his brain from the inside. He smiled the whole way through.”
Tessa didn’t say anything for a while after that.
“Maybe we should stop for today,” Greenblatt suggested.
Tessa said it suddenly. She hadn’t meant for it to come out that desperately, but when something really matters there sometimes isn’t much you can do to control yourself. She steadied herself.
Tessa was trying to be calm, but it was incredibly difficult. Calmness did not come naturally to her under any circumstances, and this was something extraordinary. Robert was coming home for the first time in three years. It hadn’t been the plan for Robert to go away for so long. He was supposed to come back on his vacations and long weekends and things like that. But, that didn’t end up happening. Tessa supposed that it happened for lots of reasons. That was always the way things went. For one, the distance between them was certainly an annoyance, or at least that was the excuse that Robert tended to use.
Tessa suspected that the real reason for his extended absence was that he was being overworked. During the first few months away, Tessa and Robert had talked on the phone almost everyday. After a while, the phone calls decreased in both frequency and length. Eventually, the best Tessa could hope for was a hasty email. In what little communication she did receive from him, he was always preoccupied with the projects he had been assigned. Of course, since he was a Level Sixteen, he was made to work on nearly insoluble problems. The problem was, since he was the first and only Level Sixteen in existence, no one knew what to expect. Everyone else in the facility was either a Fourteen or Fifteen. Some of them expected him to be robotic or even godlike. Some didn’t associate with him for fear of the unknown. Whatever the case, there was the expectation that Robert would change things.
Tessa gathered that no one was more aware of this expectation than Robert himself. Over the course of the months and years since their separation, and even though their contact had become minimal, Tessa could tell there was a strain on her brother. At first, she wasn’t exactly sure what it was; she only sensed a general frustration. However, as time went on, and Robert began talking about his work more and more, Tessa could tell from his tone that Robert wanted desperately to find something that would, in his eyes at least, make him worthy of being the most intelligent person to have ever existed.
Tessa wasn’t sure how to console Robert. She more than anyone understood what it was to be covered in other people’s gazes. Tessa was not unintelligent herself and being Robert’s brother did not go unnoticed by her educators. She remembered when she had been tested, the proctor, who was supposed to be impartial, could not seem to take her eyes off of Tessa. It was aggravating, and Tessa had missed a few questions just so people wouldn’t make quite as big a deal about her as they did her brother.
Despite her best efforts, however, her scores had come back remarkably high. Tessa’s parents had been so proud. They threw her a party and invited everyone they knew. They even went so far as to order a sheet cake with Tessa’s evaluations printed on it. At the party, everyone had smiled and shaken Tessa’s hand, clapped her on the back, etc. Robert was there. He stood in a quiet corner of the party and tried not to draw too much attention to himself. This didn’t work. Once everyone had congratulated Tessa, they were just as eager to meet the smartest man alive. In this way, the party morphed into a sort of sideshow featuring Tessa and Robert. The two were pushed by crowds to opposite ends of the room and spent the duration of the day signing things, smiling politely and answering questions. Every once and awhile, Tessa would get a glimpse of Robert. His mouth was always smiling, but his eyes looked sad. Whenever he looked at Tessa he would give her a nod as if to give her his condolences that this was the way things were.
“No. I’m fine. I’m sorry I snapped. Like I said, they didn’t really teach me this stuff in school.”
“Okay, why don’t you start by trying to pinpoint why you’re unhappy.”
Tessa ignored his question. It wasn’t the right question anyway.
“And, the people. I walk down the street and these people come towards me. They have these faces, and it’s like they know. They know I’m not one of them. Sometimes I think I can hear their thoughts. Hear them judging me. Sometimes I feel like they’re not even human. Maybe I’m not human.”
When Robert finally did come home, his eyes were tired. Everything about him looked tired. Tessa hardly recognized him.
“Hey, Tess.” His voice sounded low and rough. His eyes darted down whenever he spoke as if he were attempting to avoid an awkward encounter with the world. Tessa and Robert’s parents wasted no time in fawning over their son’s return. Almost as soon as he had arrived, they scooped him into the kitchen and began seasoning him with questions. “What have you been doing? Have you been seeing anyone? Tell us about your work! Why do you work so much? Are you my angel?” The questions poured from both parents’ mouths, enveloping Robert, cooking him at an even boil. Tessa knew better than to try and interrupt her parents. They would prod and poke until they were satisfied that everything was as they thought it should be. They would go to bed satisfied, and Tessa and Robert could discuss the way things actually were. As it happened, this wouldn’t be until late into the night.
Tessa, having less patience than Robert for her parent’s questions, went to be early that night, presuming that she and Robert would be able to talk in the morning. However, at around midnight, Tessa was startled to find Robert knocking on her bedroom door.
“Robert, it’s the middle of the night…”
“I know, but there’s something I need to talk to you about. Come for a walk.”
“It’s cold out.”
“Come for a walk. It’ll be fine.” With that, Robert exited the house.
Begrudgingly, Tessa put on a pair of old sneakers and walked out the door after her brother.
“Where are we going, Robert?”
Robert looked back at her, and Tessa expected him to smile, but he didn’t. He just sort of stared into the distance. “I don’t know” was his eventual reply. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. It all seemed so clear before, but I’ve lost it.”
Robert looked up at the sky which was mostly black. “You can never see the stars anymore.” After a pause he said, “Tessa, I’m not staying for long. I’m really sorry. I know it’s been forever since I’ve been home, but next week I’m going into the city to see a specialist. Some people at the facility recommended him. Dr. Greenblatt is his name. He’s supposed to be excellent.”
Tessa was confused. “A specialist for what? Are you sick?”
“Not my body I guess, but my mind. My brain is sick. It’s not working properly. Things are supposed to be simple, but they aren’t anymore.”
“Can I come with you? I don’t want to be alone here anymore.”
“I don’t know. Maybe for awhile, but not permanently. I don’t want whatever this is to start affecting you.”
“I don’t think it’s contagious.”
“You never know. There are more things in heaven and earth…” he trailed off, unable to complete the magnitude of his thought. The two of them stood there for awhile, enveloped in the blackened night.
Tessa saw the world in the way she had been taught to see it: only in the boldest of strokes. “The calculations are trivial once you recognize the meaning behind them.” That was what her eighth grade calculus teacher used to say. Robert had said it too. The important thing was to find that thread that bound everything together. If you tugged on that thread, everything would unravel.
Maybe she was too close to it. She couldn’t separate the ghost from the machine because she was the ghost. She couldn’t solve the puzzle of herself. It was like trying to pluck a note out of a symphony while crashing through the orchestra.
“Tessa, we’re almost out of time,” Greenblatt’s voice was affirming and soft, but Tessa couldn’t help but feel an edge to it.
Tessa had tested as a Level Fifteen: the high side of Fifteen. Most people were in the eight to twelve range. A barista was a six, maybe. Greenblatt was a twelve. Everyone who tested below Five was generally euthanized. Fifteens generally chose to shelter themselves in research camps, churning out papers no one could read. Tessa never wanted that.
All she wanted was to be happy. To feel like her mind wasn’t constantly slipping away from her. To feel like she wouldn’t implode if she lost concentration for a moment. That’s why she was seeing Greenblatt. Maybe if she talked to someone, she could figure things out.
Besides her brother, she had never really met anyone of interest. Even the Twelves and Thirteens seemed a little slow. Fourteens were interesting but naturally unstable. They had the raw computational power of Fifteens but not the mental oversight to put it to good use. Usually they blew themselves up trying to break the land speed record with some kind of trans-light drive or something else equally peculiar.
“I don’t want medication. I’m not even sure I want to be here,” Tessa said.
“Here, in this office, at work, at home, on Earth. I’m not sure I want to be alive. Nothing surprises me. No one even speaks the language I speak.”
“There are plenty of people who can speak Xyntax. If you went to a research facility—”
“No. Nobody speaks the language I speak. The language Robert and I spoke. I’ve seen the people in those research farms. Behind their eyes there’s nothing but a computer and a little man punching in code. If you read what they write it’s all perfection. They dot every “i” and cross every “t.” Did you know there are seventeen different letter T’s in the Xyntaxian alphabet?”
“I had heard twelve.”
“Most people can’t tell the difference between the last few. But the point is, no one in those research camps ever uses the wrong T. No one ever renders meaning that way. No one ever says anything other than exactly what they’re trying to say. No one speaks my language.”
“Except for Robert?”
“Except for Robert.”
“Robert was a Level Sixteen. The only one we know of. His death was a tragedy, but you have to move on. He would have wanted you to move on.”
“By the time he died, he didn’t know what he wanted. He dropped below a Level Six because of that ‘medicine’ and now there’s no one on earth who could possibly understand me.”
“We’re almost out of time” was all Greenblatt could think to say.
At first, Tessa did go to live with Robert. The research camp he had worked at had given Robert a generous stipend in order to peruse his health. The first thing Dr. Greenblatt did was put Robert on some kind of new medicine at a very high dose. The pills were the size of quarters. The initial signs were promising. Robert said that his mood was improving, and he felt that he was returning to something he thought resembled himself. After a few more weeks though, it became evident that there was going to be a problem of diminishing returns. Dr. Greenblatt, pleased with the initial results, kept increasing Robert’s dosage. Up and up and up until the pills looked like those novelty jawbreakers that you cold lick until they dissolved into sugar in your hand.
Tessa was probably exaggerating the size of the pills in her mind, but she did distinctly remember Robert’s complaints about their size. Eventually, Tessa had to leave. School was starting, and despite her insistence that it was more important that she stay with him, Robert insisted she return to their mutual ancestral home.
Tessa knew though that the real reason Robert had sent her away was because he didn’t think he was getting better. She could see it on his face whenever he thought she wasn’t looking. His carefully constructed look of happy indifference would fade to a sort of melancholy defeat. On the day Robert put Tessa on the train back home, he looked as if he had resigned himself to something. Tessa asked him what was wrong, but she never got an adequate response. He said he was still feeling positive about the trajectory of his treatment, but Tessa thought it was fairly clear that this wasn’t true.
As the train pulled away from the station, Tessa looked back at her brother. He looked ghostly. He died a few weeks later.
“How are you, Tessa?” There was undoubtedly something different about his demeanor. Like he was suddenly being fried under a microscope. He probably was.
“Is that a lie?”
“Why do you always feel the need to lie to me?”
“I feel like I’m slipping away, and I feel like you couldn’t possibly understand that.”
“Maybe take a deep breath?”
Tessa took a deep breath.
“Is that a lie?”
“Tessa, I think you should consider medication.”
“I’ve considered it.”
“You should consider reconsidering your consideration.”
“I’ve considered my considerations as considerably as I care to consider them.”
There was something in Greenblatt’s tone that she didn’t like. Was he joking? Was he toying with her? Did he think her only hope was to chemically suture herself together? That sort of thing left scars. Greenblatt continued to smile distantly. Behind his eyes there was nothing.
“What is it?”
“What is what, Tessa?” The words seemed to slither from him.
“What are you smiling about? How are you so goddamn happy?”
“I’m not smiling about anything Tessa. I just don’t think I can help you anymore.”
The words were like being punched. “What do you mean you can’t help me?”
“I mean, your continued refusal to do what’s best for you means that I’ve had to report your case to some people who, I’m afraid, will take more intensive measures.”
“I don’t want that.”
“I’m afraid you’re in no condition to understand what you want. You’ll see in the end everything will be better. This is really for your own good.”
Tessa’s head felt like it would split open. Was this what had happened to Robert? Had all his optimism been forced? Tessa ran for the door but found it locked.
“I’m afraid it’s rather inevitable now, Tessa. You might as well sit down and conserve your energy.” Tessa turned to Greenblatt’s chair but found that he had vanished. His voice had replaced the new age music being pumped through the speakers. “Please Tessa, sit down. It’ll be better in the end.”
Tessa stood in the center of the room. Maybe he was right. Tessa knew a lot of things about herself. She knew she could write symphonies or solve long forgotten equations. She could design buildings or create machines so complex it would take years for someone like Greenblatt to infer their function, let alone understand their fundamental mechanisms.
She probably couldn’t be happy. She never thought she could. She didn’t know why she had embarked on this in the first place. Wouldn’t it have been better to stay in the shadows? Conceal herself expertly in relative peace and quiet agony. She could have lived out a life as herself.
And yet, she wouldn’t have been herself. Maybe this way was better. Maybe it was all the same. There wasn’t really any escaping it at this point. But, Tessa was far beyond that now. She was beyond anything but herself. Occasionally, she would glance up at the clock and check on her remaining time. It passed much more slowly than she thought it would. She was happy about that. Eventually, of course, the final seconds ticked away.
The doors to the office opened, and two men walked in. Tessa didn’t know them, but she knew who they were. They wore pins with “Intensive Treatment Ward” neatly engraved in gold and black. Tessa got up and greeted the men. She could have run, she could have struggled. But, that wouldn’t have made much difference.
But, life moved on. She would have to move on, just like Robert had moved on. Would she see him now? These men were moving her whether she liked it or not. It didn’t matter. They’d shove pills down her throat that made her brain feel like bland soup. But, it didn’t matter. She was free of them now anyway. As she stepped through the door of the office, her body moved into the pale synthetic wasteland. Tessa thought she heard Robert shout something. “Now, Tessa! Now!”
“I know” was all she could say in return. Tessa thought about that night when Robert had shown her the meteor shower. She remembered so vividly that explosion and that glowing rock. All she could think about now was how the world would soon be bathed in that same brilliant light.
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