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Nothing but the Truth

Stephen V. Ramey lives and writes in an 1870's Victorian home perched on the edge of New Castle's Historic District, the third largest such district in Pennsylvania. His short stories can be read in Strange Horizons, Triangulation: Taking Flight, A Fly in Amber, and Every Day Fiction among others. He is co-editor for this year's Triangulation: Last Contact anthology and his website is tinyurl.com/TheNewCastle.

This was before the change, before the world became transparent as they like to say. I was a thirty-something woman with a son I could not understand, a mortgage that sapped my savings, and no husband to call my own. My world was lies, from simple fibs about age and weight, to complex manufactures concerning my husband's prolonged "absence." Truth was I had never married and never been asked.
Why did I agree to the procedure? I was a mother losing my boy to forces beyond my control. It was a no-brainer at the time.
In my mind's eye, I watch Doctor Cane unwind bandages from Jeremy's head. He has given me a hand mirror to hold in anticipation of my son wanting to see the scars on his scalp. I cannot help but to surreptitiously watch my reflection, my brow, too tall for the rest of my face, the prominent nose and lips. I missed a spot with my lipstick; it niggles at me and I lick, attempting to even the coating with my tongue.
Doctor Cane stops, gauzy material draped from his fingers. My body tenses. I sniff.
"There's nothing to worry about," he says. "We've kept Jeremy in an artificial coma to enhance his healing." He touches my wrist. I think of the kiss we shared yesterday, the way his tongue probed mine.
He returns to his task.
I sit straight. Jeremy will be reborn when this final layer is unwound. He will see the world through new eyes. No more worries about his falling into the wrong crowd or losing the bedrock of his faith.
The bandage pulls free, revealing a teenage boy's sleeping face. He looks like Jeremy looked before the operation, the same slanting cheeks and high forehead, the long eyelashes and full lips. His head has been shaved, but that is only cosmetic. His hair will grow back.
This is my son. I have done what I have done for his sake. Someday he will thank me. Still, my stomach feels uneasy.
I recall Doctor Cane explaining the procedure, his gentle voice, the steel certainty of his gaze.
"We do not change his brain, Mrs. Cheney. That's not what the process is about. We simply implant a device to enhance Jeremy's native brain chemistry." He nods encouragement. "If you want to protect him from unsavory influences, this is the state-of-the-art way to go."
Of course I want to protect my son.
"Most of us," he said, "can detect subtle signals of falseness in the body language of others. The Sheindlin process codifies this innate awareness and sends tactile feedback to Jeremy, alerting him to what he already knows beneath his consciousness."
I twist a button on my blouse. The doctor's eyes fall to my hand. Cheeks flushing, I drop it to my lap.
"Will he... will he feel pain, Doctor?"
"Of course not," he says. "Feedback typically arrives in the form of an extreme sour taste, which research has revealed to be a most effective stimulus in Jeremy's age range."
He leans forward. "You've made a wise choice, Mrs. Cheney, you'll see. This will reinforce Jeremy's moral grounding."
A series of distinct images flash through my thoughts, the smell of marijuana in Jeremy's room, that middle school girl wearing a tube top too small for her breasts, overlarge pupils sucking Jeremy into her world, exposing Jeremy to who knows what bad influences. It was like that with his father. He tempted me away from my parents, seduced me from my religion. That will not happen to Jeremy.
The doctor smiles. "Was your husband unable to attend today? Family involvement is critical to Jeremy's recovery."
I squirm, staring at the diamond ring on my finger. "I'm recently widowed." It's time for my story to evolve.
"I'm sorry for your loss." Is that approval or pity in his tone? He licks his lips. Innocent enough, I think. It is winter and the air is dry.
"I want to save him," I murmur.
"Of course you do." The doctor presents a clipboard and a pen. He glances at a clock mounted above the open doorway.
"The technical term for the process is aversive therapy," he says. "That's what that first line says. You can read the rest if you want, but I assure you--"
"No need." I take the pen, brushing his fingers in the process. A thrill shoots up my arm. I sign on a line marked with a Post-It tag. "I trust you."
"Good," the doctor says, turning the page. "Sign here. And here. And here."
"Thank you," I say each time until it sounds like a prayer in my head.
"And, finally," he says, "sign here, Mrs. Cheney. This page attests that I have described the procedure to your satisfaction. Are you satisfied?"
I lift my gaze. His eyes meet mine and hold.
A male nurse enters the hospital room and injects something into Jeremy's IV tube. Nothing happens for a few seconds. I begin to worry.
Jeremy blinks, blue eyes shining. "Mom?"
"Yes, Jeremy, it's me." I lean forward, straining not to rush, holding back the words that want to come. I did it for you, Jeremy, for you, not me. I did this for us.
He thinks it was a tumor. I told him it was a tumor and the operation would save his life.
"How do you feel?" Doctor Cane asks.
Jeremy looks to him, then back at me.
His gaze hardens. "Mom?"
"Yes?" My pulse thuds, slower, cooler. Is something wrong?
Jeremy's mouth works, nostrils flaring. "Why do you seem so... different, Mom?" He seems about to spit.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

Author Comments

"Nothing but the Truth" began as a simple image of a doctor unwinding bandages from a child's head. I wanted to write something succinct, as I had been focusing on longer works for many years and my tendency was toward bloated prose. If anything would cure me of the unnecessary, surely Flash Fiction would. But what was behind that last layer of gauze? A wound? Surgery scar? And what did it have to do with science fiction? I've long been interested in the rationalizations and outright lies we tell in order to protect our secret selves. What would our lives be like if we could no longer fool each other? The idea of a Transparent World crept into my thinking. The rest flowed from there. The story is certainly a "be careful what you wish for" tale, but I hope it's also a little more than that.

- Stephen V. Ramey
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