An excerpt from the first book in a yet-to-be-published (or finished) series, telling the story of a society obsessed with achievement and aversion of emotional attachment.
I stand in the doorway for a moment, suddenly hesitant. The walls are painted vibrant colors – neon yellow, skyblue, bright green, orange, purple – not like the rest of the walls in this building, solid white or grey. The walls also have pictures hanging on them: paintings I recognize from history of art class.
It pulls you in. It makes you want to sit down, stay awhile.
I’m not here to stay. I’m here for answers.
“Professor?” Prof. Arbor looks up from his work, seeming pleased that I’ve come to visit so late. “May I speak with you for a moment?”
“Certainly, Miss Manor. Have a seat.”
I sit down in the chair across from his desk, which is filled with stacks of hardcopy playbills and what look like handwritten manuscripts. The playbill on top is from a play I’ve never heard of.
“Have I ever told you the story of how I nearly ran over the actor who plays the main character in that one with my Ultra? I was trying to read my GPS—”
“Professor, I’d like to talk with you about my grade.”
He leans back a little, after leaning forward to grab the playbill I’d been eyeing. “Your grade, Miss Manor?”
“In your class. Acting 2020.”
“Ah, yes. Have you and Mr. Akin worked on that … troubling scene since your last performance in class?”
“Um … a little,” I say, which I suppose isn’t entirely a lie. “It’s not just about the grade you gave me on that particular performance – it’s all the grades you’ve given me since the beginning of the term.”
“You’re disgruntled because I’ve been giving you excellent marks rather than your usual perfects. Am I correct in my assumptions?”
“I just don’t understand what I’m doing wrong.”
“I can assure you, you’re doing nothing ‘wrong,’ Miss Manor. If it lifts your spirits, out of the five enrolled, your cumulative grade is the highest of all.”
“I need a perfect,” I argue, hoping I can override his usual stubbornness long enough to listen to my words. “The silentium career track is competitive. If I don’t graduate with the highest possible GPA, my chances of landing a paid apprenticeship with Dowry are cut in half.”
“Let me ask you something, Abbie.”
He stands, grabs a small remote from the corner of his desk and walks toward the opposite wall. I turn in my chair and watch him press a button on the remote. The screen on that wall comes to life with the image of a face, generic, no one recognizable to me.
“How is this gentleman feeling?”
“Feeling?” I repeat.
“Yes, feeling. Describe the emotion associated with his features.”
“I would have to guess he’s happy.”
“He’s smiling. And the corners of his eyes are raised.” He’s also immensely attractive, as far as older males can be, but I refrain from saying that out loud.
“Excellent operational definitions. But he could also be excited about something, or someone may have made him laugh just before the camera captured his image. He could be forcing that smile, to please someone he just met.”
He presses a button on the remote again, and this time the image changes to a woman, seemingly not much older than I, her gaze indirect relative to the camera.
“How about this one?”
“That’s Silentium Dowry,” I say impulsively.
“I didn’t ask WHO’s face it is. How is she feeling based on her expression?”
“I would say disappointed? Is that the correct word for it? Because … well, it isn’t ‘sad.’ She’s looking past the camera almost as if she’s lost in a thought or something, but there’s a bit of anger or frustration mixed in – her jaw is clenched.”
“It’s very rare we see this sort of emotion conveyed on her face when in public,” he explains, leaving the picture on the screen as he walks back over to his desk and sets down the remote. “We don’t know the source of her disappointment and we don’t know if it was prolonged or just happened to be captured in this image at the exact moment before it subsided. You’re following me, yes?”
I nod. I know where he is going with this minilesson, but it’s clear he’s enjoying it, so I let him go on without interrupting.
“The first face I showed you – we don’t know whether the figure is happy because he won an award, excited because he’s going on a trip or faking the whole thing to impress a potential employer. It’s a computergenerated face, a combination of about a thousand faces taken from databases, I don’t know the logistics of it all. The point is, we don’t know his story unless we create one for him.
“The second face – the face of our silentium, as you pointed out – has a story. The picture was taken the day she was sworn into office. The rumors are that an individual she invited specifically to attend the ceremony chose not to attend, against her hopes – thus, the disappointment you noted on her face.”
I look back at the image still on the wall, wondering who would have turned down a personal invite to attend her inauguration ceremony. I would have given anything to be there in person, instead of watching the whole thing broadcasted live with at least a thousand other students scattered around the auditorium.
“All emotions have a story behind them,” I say, turning to face him again.
“Exactly. As an individual, one does not typically cycle through multiple emotions in any given day without specific reasons for each. As an actress, how can you, for example, convey an emotion you aren’t feeling to make that emotion believable to an audience? By studying the story behind that emotion. That is why a good play must have a believable storyline to support the emotions each character conveys throughout, from beginning to end. If we cannot practice how to make connections between feelings and what lie behind them, essentially, we cannot hope to be able to make those connections outside of the classroom.”
“Which is why you wanted to test Acting 2020.”
“I wanted to see how well a diverse mix of students responded to the opportunity to express their emotions, as former sire silentium has oh so subtly deprived you of for the majority of your lives. To my surprise, the majority of you have made exceptional progress in your ability to both interpret and convey emotions since the first day.”
“That, Miss Manor, is where you’re wrong.”
He folds his hands and looks at me as if intrigued, as if my coming here to talk about my grade in an elective – which I’m not even getting credit for, I might add – was only half the reason for requesting entrance into his private office.
“Of all our voluntary participants, you have shown the greatest and most progressive knowledge of what it means to feel.”
To my astonishment, he stands and cuts me off. “Contrary to popular belief, Miss Manor, perfect marks aren’t handed out like vials of Infinyte in the Unfortunate district. Excellent marks are expected. Perfect marks are EARNED. Ah, former Silentium Patter. How may I be of assistance to you this evening?”
His hand slams down on top of the remote, causing the current silentium’s face to vanish. I turn in my chair, and the man stands in the doorway with a face empty of expression, as always.
“Nothing in particular, professor. I was just heading back to my quarters for the night and thought I would take … the long way out.”
“Have a pleasant evening, then, Sire,” Prof. Arbor nods out of respect, his hands folded in front of him, as is customary to do.
“I plan to,” Patter answers, shifting his gaze from professor to pupil, holding it there a second too long before speaking. “Best to you, Miss Manor. I look forward to our career coordination meeting first thing tomorrow.”
“As do I. Take care, Sire.”
The man nods, glances once more at Prof. Arbor, and then steps out of the room and continues on down the hallway, his footsteps nearly silent on the floor beneath him as he goes.
The two of us wait in silence until we hear the familiar sound of an outer door opening and closing once again.
“You best head back to your residence now. It’s getting quite late.”
“I would feel excessively troubled if you lost valuable hours of sleep because I kept you up chatting about nonsense,” he says, staring directly at me, his face drained of the vibrant emotion that had filled it only minutes earlier. “After all, it takes hard work and a brave heart to earn optimal grades – and to master the art of expressing what you feel is right, compared to what your superiors believe is the proper procedure.”
“I understand,” I promise him, standing and preparing to leave.
“Abbie.” One foot over the threshold, I look over my shoulder. “No matter what happens, you must never sacrifice your emotions for the sake of knowledge and power. Earn your success through recognizing that no matter what they have told you, the things you feel cannot be isolated from the actions you carry out.”
“Yes, professor,” I say. And with a nod, I exit the room.
Excerpt written by Meg Dowell, revised and posted 12/10/2014, in memory of Kevin Wall.