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Once More with Feeling

You are dead. Not literally dead, no, but you might as well be. You don't smile; you don't frown. You don't laugh or sob. But the thing is, nobody does anymore.
Three years ago, the world died. There was no warning. No one submitted a memo. One morning, everyone woke up and nobody was scared. Nobody was angry or hurt or happy or sad. Nobody felt anything but cold logic.
And the world is better off. The population has stopped growing out of control; hunger and crime have been all but eliminated. People are safe, maybe not happy, but... safe.
Trouble is, you miss your emotions, as much as you can miss anything these days. You watch old movies late into the night and try to feel how you felt when you watched them for the first time. You can't. You know you felt something, but the memory is intellectual, like trying to describe color to a blind man. It doesn't help you feel.
So today, you're making an experiment. Seems logical, right? Identify the problem, determine a solution, test. From your movies, it appears that all the good emotions--humor, happiness, pleasure, joy--all arise from interactions with others, so it is possible that if you interact with another human being in a manner other than the logical fulfillment of your everyday tasks, this will be enough to elicit an emotion.
You stand on the street outside your apartment and look for likely candidates, but everyone appears the same, their faces set in the same expression of concentration, eyes forward and unwavering. Eventually, you choose someone at random, a boy you don't remember meeting before.
The boy wears a red baseball cap and a shirt that is only half tucked into his shorts. His lips are set in a line. He moves like he has somewhere to go, but does not rush. There is no urgency in him.
You step up to the boy, imitate the smile you have seen in your old movies, though you do not feel the emotion this expression is supposed to convey. You say, "What kind of dinosaur has the biggest vocabulary?" Pause. "A Thesaurus!" Your delivery of the joke is flawless, but you feel nothing. You wait for a reaction from the boy, but there is nothing. He steps past you and continues on his way.
Your experiment is a failure. But, you remember, negative emotions were always stronger than positive ones, so perhaps you are going about this the wrong way. You quickly revise your experiment, then turn after the boy, walking just fast enough to catch him. You grab his shoulders, pause for a second, and push.
The boy, not expecting your assault, falls. He doesn't move his arms to catch himself, and his head strikes a fire hydrant. His body spins, and you can see a large gash in his forehead, already streaming blood.
You feel... something that is hard to define. You have been without emotions for so long that it is hard to identify them now that you have finally managed to elicit one. Anger? The word doesn't seem to fit, though it doesn't matter because the feeling is fleeting. Another lingers longer--remorse, you think--but then this, too, fades.
Standing over the boy, you stare down at his body; you think he is still breathing. The memory of your recent emotions lingers in your head like the echoing pain of a bruised funny bone, but you do not want it. You want to remember feeling good, not bad. How do you make yourself feel something good?
Carefully supporting his neck like you have seen in your old movies, you lift the boy off the ground. He is heavy, but not so heavy that you cannot carry him for several blocks. There is a hospital not far from where you stand, and you bring him there, taking care to avoid bumping into anyone else.
You reach the hospital and alert a nurse walking through the lobby. "He had an accident." She looks at the boy's head briefly--you realize that you left his baseball cap in the street--then signals to her co-workers, and they take him from you. The nurse says nothing other than a brief and emotionless "Thank you," but it is enough. You feel swellings of... pride? happiness? satisfaction in a job well done? The feelings are gone just as quick, but they are enough.
You smile a smile that you imagine is more genuine than it really is. That was a good feeling, one you would not be opposed to feeling again.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, January 4th, 2016

Author Comments

This story came from a friendly online writing contest and a prompt that included the Dorothy Parker quote: "They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm." I wanted to explore what would happen if something we all take for granted (such as emotions) suddenly disappeared. To what lengths would we go to get back what was lost, and what might we sacrifice in return? I chose to write the story in second person to try and put that decision on the reader and to force a confrontation with the possibility that our answer to that particular question might not be as magnanimous as we might hope.

- Austin DeMarco
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