In this darkly satirical speculation, Blake Montgomery imagines a world where the drive towards wellness is not only fully institutionalized, but omnipresent. Hope you enjoy this multi-tiered story—you'll see what I mean in a second. -the Ed
In a white concrete cell under St. Leticia’s, a doctor from the Department of Suicide sat across a plastic table and questioned Catherine Gabriel as to why she had chosen misery over standard-issue happiness.
“How are you, Ms. Gabriel?”
“I wish I could talk to Ursula again,” Catherine said. She crossed her arms and wiped away residual tears. She still wore her school uniform. The Department did not believe she was a danger to herself or others.
“Why is that?”
“I would tell her that what we were doing was weird and fun for a while but that we should’ve stopped before it got actually dangerous. I didn’t think any of us would get hurt. She was my first childhood friend.”
“Why didn’t you think you would get hurt?”
“I thought the three of us were just playing a game,” she said. “That’s how everybody thought of the scanners anyway. They didn’t seem real.”
“Did you ever intend to improve your condition?”
“I did want to get better, but Ursula and Thomas were the only friends I had an actual connection with. They wanted to feel bad, and I wanted to be their friend. Sadness was a statement to them. They weren’t so wrong, either. I hated what school did to all of us. I hated it even more than that awful emptiness we all were dealing with. Mendings don’t fix it. The kids you treat come back like smiling zombies. Then our teachers haul them in front of the class and ask how happy they are. Always happy, they always say. They grin. They don’t stop grinning. But they never remember the treatment.”
“You were not ‘dealing with’ your negative and depressive emotions, Ms. Gabriel. You were nurturing them.”
He paused to pull up notes on his tablets: “Ms. Lawrence wrote in her journal, ‘The only young people in history anyone cares about were rebels — those kids whom parents saw as rude and precocious and incomprehensible. So what does that make me?’ Did you share her sentiments?”
“Can I talk to Thomas?”
“We’ve only just begun.”
“I know, but I’d like to speak with him, please. I’m worried about him.”
“If the Department finds you to be in a suitable state, you will be sent home with strict prescriptions, both psychiatric and behavioral. The results of your evaluation will determine whether you are allowed to speak to Mr. Isidore.”
“It is no stretch to say that your friendship has yielded negative results. It is one thing to participate in national mourning at the Half-Mast Sadness, but it is something else entirely to live in vacant despair on purpose. The latter is a psychological crime against your community.”
“I guess.” She twisted her hair. “We call your department School Shooter Central.” “What did the meditation feel like?”
“Why should I tell you if you won’t let me see him?”
“You may refuse my interview, but the Department will access the information it needs with or without your help or consent.”
“If I do talk to you, then can I talk to him?”
“That may be possible. It becomes a more likely possibility if you do.”
“Fine. Ursula described what we were doing best: ‘Anxiety becomes tranquility, sadness becomes enthusiasm, and resignation became a rosy openness to new things.’ It was beautiful.”
“How would you meditate?”
“Since we’ll be here for a while, I’ll tell you about a typical morning.”
*Press Release from the Dept. of Suicide*
School was the only place with trees. There were three in a triangle that protected us like a pentagram where we could summon and dispel our worst selves. We each sat, back against the bark, eyes closed.
Ursula was the one who got us into all this, so she led us. She taught us how to breathe, how to zoom into the zones of our brains that the scanners focused on, and how to make mental hands to mold the clay.
I went to the back of my head first. I woke up with a ball of black feelings that threatened to burst into the rest of me. I had to massage it, soothe it, knead it until I felt it loosen, ooze a bit, and then dissipate as a bright yellow peace down my back. It was a quiet thrill when I felt it thrum through my feet.
We stayed sitting awhile. Then, together, we walked to school and passed through the How Are Yous with scans as clean as washed fruit.
“Did you know at the time it was disingenuous?” the inquisitor asked.
“Likely someone in a Mending.”
“Aren’t they supposed to be therapeutic?”
“Therapy is not always gentle. Mental illness can be an unruly enemy.” “Enemy?”
“Happiness is the guiding star for everything the Department undertakes, Ms. Gabriel, and should be yours as well. The goal of any society that rises beyond barbarism is to maximize happiness and eliminate its opposite. I am interviewing you now so that you can reach your own happiness. Every person has it within them.”
“I was happy.”
“You were not.”
“Before I started meditating, I mean. I was happy, but I was unsatisfied.” “It is possible to live through dissatisfaction.”
“But not a lifetime of it.”
“Strictly speaking, it is. You may dispute quality all you wish, but life and death remain a binary. Additionally, satisfaction is far more challenging to engineer than gratification or enjoyment.”
“Can I speak to Thomas now? I want to know he’s ok.”
“I’m glad you brought up Mr. Isidore,” the doctor said, flipping through his notes. “Before he refused to speak with Department medical personnel, he said he had been happy to be depressed, that he preferred it to ‘the monotony of imposed contentment,’ a phrase he borrowed from Ms. Lawrence. He believed he was cultivating what he called ‘a mind free from external inference.’ Did you share his sentiments?”
“Yeah, that sounds like Thomas. Grand, but just a bit off. I bet he meant to say ‘interference.’”
“Did you share his feelings?”
“Yes. I couldn’t think without worrying about the consequences, which gave me even more anxiety. My parents read my journal. My phone eavesdropped on my conversations and never turned off. My school scanned my brain. I didn’t even have private space in my own head. I could only worry about how I was the only one feeling different. And why? Asking that only made it worse. We meditated to hide for just a minute. We wanted to shelter ourselves from the blast of your eyes.
“There are so many things we’re not allowed to do. Most of them we can’t control. There are chips that let our parents move our bodies for us. You can zap into our brains and crank our emotions, and you only ever ratchet them up. So choosing sadness looked powerful to Ursula and Thomas and eventually to me, too. It was a dark freedom. There. Isn’t that what you wanted? Can I talk to Thomas now?”
“No. You may speak to Mr. Isidore when you both have completed your Mendings to the satisfaction of the Department.”
She sighed. “Fine. I don’t want to kill myself, after all.” She fidgeted.
“Ms. Gabriel, please refrain from mentioning evanescence.”
“Isn’t that what we’re here to talk about? Me not dying?”
“We at the Department prefer to focus on the possible positive outcomes, such as how much life and happiness you have ahead of you. What do you imagine when you think of your future?”
“I imagine making more friends and finding things in common with them other than our brain scans.”
“Where did you get the idea for meditation?”
“Online mindfulness tutorials. Ursula would send them to us. We’d use her family’s home How Are You to test the effectiveness of each one.”
“Why did you trust Ms. Lawrence with your mental health? She had developed an obsession with her own scans at the expense of her true emotions and conduct. She would sometimes scan herself six times in a night, far more than the recommended two per day. Hardly a stable caretaker or leader.”
“I knew she believed the worst thing a person could do was betray their friends. I was sure she cared about me. I trusted her. We would listen to music a lot and dance in her room or mine, usually playing videos on every wall. Sometimes she would just do that by herself. I think other people would laugh if I asked them to do that.”
“The Department regards this behavior as deleterious to the mental health of the individual and her community. You know that.”
“Yeah, well, there are some things you can’t figure out by cutting up someone’s brain.”
The agent wrote notes on his tablet.
“Can I ask you something?” Catherine said. “What do you want from me?”
“I am determining what treatments would be most appropriate for a possible Mental Mending.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“I would like to catalogue your emotions without conducting an invasive mental investigation.” Still scribbling.
“Again, same question. And when did you start having a problem with raiding people’s minds?”
“It may surprise you that, as a doctor, I have taken an oath to do no harm. To that end, I would like you to answer my questions, which, so far, you have.”
“How did Ursula die?”
Not looking up from his notepad, he said, “That information has been redacted.” “Do you have it?”
“Knowing how Ms. Lawrence ceased would not aid in your recovery, Ms. Gabriel. It would hinder it.”
“Where is Thomas?”
“Mr. Isidore turned himself into the Department. Unlike you, he has declined to speak with his parents.”
“Is he ok?”
“The Department is evaluating him.”
“That is confidential.”
“Is it an interview like this? Are you hurting him?”
The doctor finished his notes. “Allow me to share an exchange with Mr. Isidore that is indicative of his situation.”
Mr. Isidore at first refused an interview with Department interrogators.
After an hour, however, he decided to argue for his cause: “What we did wasn’t wrong. I miss Ursula, and I would give anything to have her back, but I’m not angry at her.” He chafed at his arm and leg restraints.
“The way we all live, all fine with feeling the same, is a joke. She refused to do that. She lived as herself.” He attempted to bite one of the guards holding him.
Indeed, and she ceased as herself as well, the Department reminded him. When asked what he would have done differently to save his friend, he said, “She made a choice, which is all we were ever trying to do. We wanted to decide something for ourselves for once. We’ve never known what that felt like. Part of me is happy we did it.”
Though he did not consent to a mental probe, the Department was obligated to perform one, as he rebuffed all further questions. Examining his inner thoughts, the Department found that his motivations were not so ironclad as they initially seemed. The Department found that during meditation he agonized over whether he should pursue his friend’s wayward dreams or surrender to the care of his guardians and the government. He obviously made the wrong choice. The Department’s analysis yielded information useful for determining the course of his Mental Mending.
The inquisitor turned off his tablet.
“Ms. Gabriel, your Mending will consist of a typical inpatient drug regimen and and 24/7 supervision by Department psychiatrists while you remain in our care. The initial incarceration period of your Mending will not be abbreviated and will include an Emotional Reset Injection in your spine. This procedure involves a short but painful recovery.”
“Let me talk to Thomas. What did you do to him after he said all that?”
A Department enforcer opened the cell door. Twice Catherine’s size, he closed his hands around her arms and forced her to her feet.
“Let me go! I have to see him!” She twisted and writhed in his grasp but could not break free.
“Choose to be happy, Ms. Gabriel," her interrogator said. "You will enjoy the world a great deal more, even here. Many before you died never feeling any peace of mind at all. You will never see Mr. Isidore again. Take her away."