By the time David got around to flat out begging us, he really was the only kid left at school who didn’t have a Pilot.
"You’re a scholarship kid in a school of rich boys," I said, looking to Julie for reinforcement. "Nobody’s expecting you to have everything."
I piled brown rice onto my plate before passing the serving bowl along and helping myself to the next bowl, steamed broccoli. I was on a health kick, which meant the whole family was on a health kick. David sat opposite me, his body rigid with annoyance. The food hadn’t reached him yet, and he clenched his empty plate in two white-knuckled fists.
"That’s all the more reason for me to get it, Ma," he said. "I’m different already. Why make me even more different? It’s not like the surgery is expensive."
I cringed at the word "surgery," and he changed his approach. "Who ever heard of mothers refusing their kid something that helps him study better?"
The food made its way past Julie and Sophie. David relaxed his death grip on the dinnerware to heap rice, then broccoli, then half a chicken onto his plate. He was always served last these days, a forced measure after the night a loaf of bread disappeared before three of the four of us had gotten any. I even called him BC for a while, for boa constrictor, after I had a dream that he unhinged his jaw and ate the entire Thanksgiving turkey.
There was silence while we chewed, then David raised his fork in triumph, a spear of broccoli still impaled on the tines. "Just think of my grades, Ma! And the health benefits. I’d have more time. I could join the track team…"
I exchanged a look with Julie. We had been trying to get him out of his bedroom and away from his computer for two years. He had steadfastly refused to join any clubs or teams. His real peers were online, he’d argued. We hadn’t pressed, as long as he kept up his schoolwork and came willingly to the dinner table. Lately, he hadn't maintained the promised grades.
"Let us talk it over," Julie said.
"Is that ‘I want to say no, but I don’t feel like fighting over dinner,’ or will you really talk it over?" he asked. Sophie giggled.
"Both," I said. "New topic time. Soph, your turn. How’s fourth grade treating you today?"
"My teacher farted during math."
Julie’s shoulders were already shaking. I tried to hold it together. "That’s it? Did you learn anything?"
David grinned. "Maybe Sophie didn’t, but I guess the teacher learned not to eat beans for lunch."
"How do you know what my teacher ate for lunch?"
"I know everything," David said, waggling voodoo fingers at his sister. She looked impressed. I glanced at Julie, knowing she too was savoring this moment of normalcy.
The argument continued in bed that night. The lights had already been off for several minutes when Julie called me back from the edge of sleep.
"I understand why this is a big deal for you, Valerie," she said, making me grasp for the subject momentarily. There had been several big deals over the course of the day. After dinner, Sophie had had her first seizure in four months, breaking through yet another medication. We should have known it was too good to last. Still, Julie couldn’t be talking about that, since the seizure was obviously a big deal for all of us.
"The Pilot?" I asked. She didn’t respond so I assumed I had guessed right. "How could it not be a big deal?"
"Maybe it would help him in school. He’s having a rough time."
"And the answer to a rough time is brain surgery? How could a kid whose sister has epilepsy ask his mothers for voluntary brain surgery? Especially one that was supposed to treat drug-resistant seizures?" That had been in the link that David had sent us the first time he broached the subject. I had been incensed. Deep brain stimulation still hadn't been approved for use in cases like Sophie's. Meanwhile some research lab had developed a modified recreational use and marketed it to the masses. It wasn't fair.
"It’s only an outpatient procedure. I’ve read the risks and it seems pretty safe. Hell, I’ve considered it for myself."
I rolled over to look at her in the dark. "Are you serious? You’re on board?"
"I’m open to it. I’d like to do more research, but from what I’ve heard it’s no big deal. It might get him out of his room a little more. It won’t break the bank either; we’ll just have to wait a little longer on your brakes."
"And the gutter?"
"And the gutter," she said, wrapping her arms around me. "Small price to buy our kid’s happiness."
"I’d be crazy to agree to this, and you’re crazy to ask."
"Mm hmmm," she said, and was asleep a moment later. As always, I envied her ability to put the day aside. Worst case scenarios branched through my head for another hour before I finally fell asleep.
I tried to sort it out with a run the next morning. My runs have always helped me think. Something about the rhythm of my footfall, the rise of the road. On the days I need to find clarity, I leave my music behind. I’d marked all of our family milestones, good and bad, with actual miles. Julie’s terrifyingly difficult pregnancy, the decision to adopt Sophie after David’s birth, Sophie’s first seizure, the endless treatment discussions. Most of these were things that Julie and I went through together, discussed and diagrammed and planned to the degree that anything can be planned. And still there were conversations that I had with myself in addition to those with Julie, nuances and personal decisions and choices of which concerns to share out loud and which to swallow. I’m sure she did the same, though I can’t say when or where or how.
It’s part of why I’d encouraged David to run, though he had never taken me up on it. Despite my lack of biological contribution, he’s built like me, tall and lanky. He thinks like me. He retreats into his head and holes up there, unable to see his way around the obstacles in front of him.
I laced up my shoes, pulled my hair back into a ponytail, and slipped out the front gate. After a couple of impatient minutes of warm up, I broke into a jog, then an easy run. I pushed myself a little faster, trying to reach the place where my body segued into its own autopilot, where each step generated the next, and it was easier to keep going than stop. I thought about our serious children, and then I ran away from that concern. I thought about brains and their intricacies and vulnerabilities. And then I was running, and all was quiet in my head, and in the quiet I found my own answers. And then I was just running. When I got back to house, drenched in sweat, I found my family eating breakfast around the kitchen table. I gave each of them a kiss on the head, met with various degrees of acceptance and revulsion and a general agreement that I should shower.
David’s Parent-Teacher night was the final straw. Julie stayed home with Sophie. The doctors had upped her dosage again, and we were hoping this time it would work. Otherwise we’d be starting over again with another medication, a fifth multi-month round of trial and error. Why did David want his brain messed with when the best neurologists in the country still played guessing games? How could recreational surgery be so precise when there was still no surgery that would work for Sophie? It boggled my mind.
I hadn’t expected to have to fight his teachers over it as well, but they were spouting the same lines David and Julie had.
"He really is getting left out without a Pilot," said his math teacher, Ms. Sloan. She was young, probably closer to David’s age than mine.
"How so?" I asked.
"It gives them more time to study. Dedicated time."
I shifted in the narrow chair. Math teachers had always made me feel stupid. "I don’t really understand how it does that. Isn’t it just another way to waste time better?"
She came around the front of her desk and leaned against it. It came across like a practiced move, like something she rehearsed in her spare time.
"It’s not a gaming system. It’s a communication tool, and a study tool. That isn’t why he needs it, though. It’s an optimizer. They get more out of their brains. Multi-tasking. The kids that have them have more time to spend with each other and more time to study and more time for extracurriculars – like gaming – because it lets them do it all at once. With upside-down learning they’re all listening to me lecture at home anyway, and doing problem sets when they get to class. This way they can do something fun while they listen. They’re still using their own brains. They’re just using them better."
Ms. Sloan swept her hair back into a knot and cocked her head. A blue LED flashed behind her right ear. She smiled at me. The smile of a zealot, I told myself. At least now I knew where she found the time to practice her desk-sitting.
She tapped the light with her index finger. "Right now I’m going back over David’s grades while I talk to you. I could probably be doing three or four more things as well – listening to music and texting and driving. You wouldn’t even have known if I hadn’t told you."
It was true. I would have sworn I had her full attention.
"How do you, um, access all of that stuff? How do you know you’re paying enough attention to everything?"
"Practice, for starters. I’ve had my Pilot for three years now. I’ve trained my brain, the same as you train yours. It just helps me use my time better. I know that David got 68 percent on our last quiz, for example. If I graded on a curve that would be a serious problem."
I sighed, defeated. I was willing to be the mother who didn’t let her kid get the latest toy, but I couldn’t disadvantage him in school too. Maybe Julie was right and he deserved a break. I didn’t like it, but I would go along.
I drew the line at attending the procedure, then erased it, then drew it again, then erased it again. In the end we all went, a Saturday morning outing for the modern family. David thrummed the window as we drove, a massive sound in an otherwise silent car. I would normally have told him to knock it off, but I was perversely happy to see that at least he had the sense to be nervous. Sophie dozed in the seat next to him, even though she had only woken up an hour before. Another side effect to weigh against benefits. No seizures yet today, but a comatose ten year old.
Julie had been the one to meet with the doctor and make the arrangements, so this was my first visit to the Neural Implantation Center. It didn’t match my expectations at all. The waiting room was warm and inviting, full of comfortable-looking armchairs and couches rather than the metal and plastic torture devices where we spent so many hours waiting for Sophie’s doctors. It didn’t even smell like a hospital.
"Why does it smell like fresh-baked cookies? That can’t be hygienic," I muttered to my wife.
Sophie broke away from me to investigate a shelf full of children’s books. I kept an eye on her as a Piloted nurse explained everything the brochures had already told us. Maybe I needed one of the devices myself, so I could listen and observe and process without losing anything.
I had definitely missed something, because David looked crestfallen.
"It’s okay," Julie said to him, putting her arm around his shoulder. "It’ll be ready by the time you have to study for exams."
I remembered this from the literature, though I didn’t recall pointing it out to David. They would do the installation today, but the device wouldn’t be turned on for another month.
"Your head has to get used to having something else in there," I said, pleased to have something else to contribute to the conversation. "Plus you have to attend a couple of orientation sessions to learn how to use it. It’s not too late to change your mind, you know."
I knew I shouldn’t have added those last bits, and I was rewarded with a vicious shake of his head. "I want this, Ma. Moms understands." He looked to Julie for support.
"Your Ma knows," she said. "She’s here, isn’t she? We’ve already paid the deposit. You’re allowed to change your mind, but we’re committed if you are." She shot me a glance that I read as, ‘Back off.’
"Moms is right," I said. "We’re here. Ready when you are."
The nurse had apparently finished her checklist, because she beckoned to David and turned on her heel. I watched our boy disappear with her through an unmarked mahogany door.
"That’s it?" I asked. "Off he goes?"
"Looks like," Julie said, also staring at the closed door. "Feels odd that we aren’t supposed to follow, but I guess they’d tell us if we were. The whole thing is made to seem so easy."
I agreed. "I can’t believe it’s an outpatient procedure."
We sat down in the two chairs nearest the corner where Sophie sat reading in a beanbag chair. I picked up a magazine and was amazed to find it was the current week’s issue. Julie pulled out her tablet and started working on a spreadsheet. Her fingers moved quickly and surely. As always, I was impressed by her ability to put aside the things she couldn’t affect and concentrate on something else. I flipped open the gossip rag to a random article.
I was still on the same page two hours later when they let us into the recovery room. David dozed under mild anesthesia. His boyish face looked even younger than usual, and they had shaved the honey brown curls from the right side of his head. He seemed lop-sided. A bandage behind his ear was the only evidence of the surgeon’s trespass. Beneath that bandage was a hole, small and raw and neat. Beneath that, a gross intrusion on his perfect brain. How had they done so much so easily? Such a contrast with Sophie. In order to decide if Sophie was a candidate for epilepsy surgery, the neurologists had removed the top of her skull. Pre-surgery surgery. They had mapped her mind, gridded it with tiny electrodes in a silk-based substrate that settled into the curves of her brain like it belonged there. All that to discover that the focal points of her seizures were too scattered to be removed or safely zapped. Corrective surgery was still impossible.
David’s new implant, threaded in through that one tiny hole, would settle into his right parieto-temporal junction, according to the literature. It would relax, get comfortable, put its feet on the coffee table and wait to be activated.In an hour we would be on our way home with the boy with the boosted brain and the girl with the busted one.
I ran dozens of extra miles over the ensuing weeks, trying to assuage my fears. Most of them proved unfounded. No infection, no seizures, no noticeable change. David, whom I had started calling "Ze Brain" in my best Herve Villechaize, did not act any different, except for an endearing little tic where he raised his hand halfway to his head, realized he shouldn’t poke at the spot, and transformed the motion into a fake stretch and yawn instead. He did a lot of stretching and yawning. He dutifully attended the follow-up classes, learning to access something that was still only theoretical. As his access date grew nearer, he began drumming his fingers on all available surfaces. One night after dinner, while we all watched a movie together, the tapping got to be too much for me and I threw one of the couch pillows at him to get him to quit. He surprised me by bursting into tears. Sophie crossed the room to him and wrapped her arms around him. He hugged her back.
"What’s up?" Julie asked him.
"What if it doesn’t work?" He lifted his hand and then forced it down, clutching his sister to him. "What if I don’t like it?"
Yes! I wanted to say. It’s not too late! Instead, I told him what I thought he needed to hear. "It’s what you wanted, kiddo. You’ll be able to keep up with your classes, and spend more time doing stuff you like."
"It’s natural to be scared, Davey," Julie said. For all the nicknames I came up with, she was the only one he allowed to call him Davey.
"I swear I want this. I really do."
Sophie sat back. "You know what I do when I’m scared? I pretend I’m somebody else who wouldn’t be scared. Like a superhero, or Moms."
I glanced over at Julie, and she caught my eye and smiled.
"This is going to be great, David," I said. "You’ll see."
At breakfast the next morning, Sophie had two massive tonic-clonic seizures in a row. Heartbreak city after a successful month. David was closest to her and lowered her from her chair to the kitchen floor before she hurt herself. I wasn’t sure when he had gotten big enough to do that so easily. He pulled his sweatshirt off and placed it under her head, then turned her on her side. Another piece of me broke off and caught fire and burned out under its own fuel. These were the seizures that still terrified me: that small body, engaged in its own tortured dance. I was proud of David, but I wished his actions hadn’t looked quite so routine.
Julie ended up taking David to the activation appointment. I stayed with Sophie while she slept. I updated her seizure log, checked in with her doctor to say that she was still breaking through, read through various parent accounts online to see whether anyone had anything new or different to say. I tried to stay off of the Pilot parent forum, which I had already browsed a dozen times in the past. There hadn’t been any negative accounts, which made me all the more suspicious. What doesn’t have negative accounts? Peanut butter has negative reviews. Puppies have negative reviews.
They were gone only two hours, arriving back with a clatter of groceries.
"Celebration!" Julie announced, revealing an ice cream cake nestled in one of the bags, the kids’ favorite. I wished I had thought of it. "Where’s the young ‘un?"
"You check on her?"
"Of course. And the monitor is on," I said, indicating the receiver on the countertop, tuned to the sensors in her bed.
I turned to David. He didn’t look any different. "So, how does your new improved brain feel? Extra brainy? Are you solving world hunger yet?"
"Not too different."
"Are you doing the exercises now?" I caught his chin with my hand and gently turned his head to see the light marring his perfect skin. He grunted and nodded.
"So you’re talking - well, grunting - and unpacking the groceries and doing what?"
"The exercises, Ma. I’m doing times tables, like they told me to. They said it’s like rubbing your head and patting your stomach."
"Rubbing your stomach and patting your head. Keep practicing."
I pointed him toward the groceries and turned to Julie.
"Cake now, or cake later?"
She glanced at the clock. "Lunch cake, in an hour, if Sophie’s up. Otherwise dinner. Maybe by then the boy will be doing quantum physics."
"I’m not deaf, you know. Soon I’ll be paying better attention than ever, and you’ll have to be extra careful what you say when you think I’m not listening."
"What have we doooone?" wailed Julie, mock horrified. "Back to the doctor, quick!"
He finished unloading the groceries, tossing a head of purple cabbage between his hands like a basketball. "Do we really have to wait an hour for lunch? I could eat a horse."
Definitely still the same kid.
December exams rolled around, and David aced them. We celebrated with another ice cream cake, season be damned. Sophie ate a small slice. Even though the ketogenic diet had long ago proved ineffective for her, I was still convinced that we might be able to control the seizures better if we controlled her sugar intake. And her stress. And her sleep. And her temperature. Poor kid. Wait until she was a teenager and we broke the news about alcohol and caffeine.
And what if her class was soon full of children with Pilots too? Surely it was only a matter of time. We had managed to keep her just a year below her age level and working well despite the doctors and tests and brain-numbing medications, but there was no way her head could ever host that enhancement. She would fall farther behind. Maybe there would be special classes for all the kids who couldn’t get Pilots for one reason or another. I let that train of thought chug into the logical future for a moment. We would deal with that when the time came.
Toward the end of winter, David asked me if he could start running with me before school. I tried to be casual about it, though I was secretly overjoyed. I took him to buy a new pair of running shoes, since he had grown out of his last gym sneakers over the winter break. His feet were like snowshoes now. I teased him that if he walked barefoot across the lawn after a storm, someone would think a Yeti had passed through the neighborhood.
For our first run, I allowed him to set a pace. We set out through the neighborhood, matching stride for stride. I argued with myself over whether to talk or run in silence. I didn’t want running with me to become connected with invasive conversations, but it also seemed like a good opportunity. I settled on the topic at hand.
"So, you think you’re actually going to try out for cross country?"
"It’s not much of a tryout, really. Anybody can join and run with the practices. I think they only have to make decisions when there’s a race with limited entries. I’m not all that into racing in any case."
"Nah. I want to run with my friends. And..." he paused to navigate some roots pushing up through the sidewalk, then stayed quiet a little longer than I expected "...you know how you always used to tell me you wanted to teach me to run because of the way it helped you think?"
I stayed quiet and he spoke again. "I was hoping it would work for me too. You said it helped you think, and it helped you stop overthinking. That’s what I want."
"Is the Pilot bothering you?"
"No! I mean, I know I need it, and I’m doing way better in school. I don’t think I could go back to living without it. It’s just...loud."
"Is there a way to adjust the volume?" I asked. He gave me a look of disappointment. I shut up again.
"No, not volume loud. Just...what can I use? Busy. My head is always busy."
"Mine feels like that too sometimes, so I can’t imagine what yours must be like," I said. He ran with his chin up and his shoulders back, easily, naturally perfect. I wondered what else he was doing in his head while we ran. Math problems? Chinese conjugations?
"Yeah...I was hoping maybe if I ran I could figure out a way to shut some of it up for a minute."
"I hope so too," I said. I sped up a little, and he matched my stride. We ran in silence, or I did at least.
In April, Sophie’s seizures increased in frequency. Most of them were complex partial, knocking her out but not down. We would see her disappear on an almost daily basis, disappear for seconds or minutes to a place that she couldn’t find words to describe.
"It doesn’t matter where, anyway," she said at dinner one night, "It’s not here. I miss here when I’m there."
"So long as you don’t miss there while you’re here," Julie said, doling out the whole-wheat pasta I had made.
"No, I like here, Moms. I just don’t know how to stay." Another piece of me broke off.
That night, after Sophie was in bed and David had locked himself in his room to do homework and play videogames, I bent my own rule about not running after dark. Julie watched me change into shorts and nodded in understanding.
Dinner felt heavy in my stomach. Cool spring air usually energized me but my limbs were like lead. Still, I ran. I ran until I was no longer thinking of our daughter who didn’t know how to stay, or our boy who was becoming an adult in a world that demanded so much more from him than I would ever have imagined.
The next day, I picked Sophie up from school and took her to do some grocery shopping. The route home passed close to David’s school, and as I pumped my soft brakes, waiting to take my left turn, I noticed a blur of movement out of the corner of my eye.
"I see David!" said Sophie, face pressed to the window. David’s cross-country team. I searched for him and found him in the middle of the pack, his face serene. They were all serene, actually, their bodies straining and sweating but their faces showing no sign of exertion. A couple of them joked with each other, sharing relaxed smiles. None seemed entirely present, and I hoped they had the focus to look both ways as they crossed the busy rush hour streets back to the school.
They were a strange collection of animals: a herd of boys, scrawny bare chests thrust forth and heaving, legs churning as they vied with each other for position. They would achieve great things, these boys. Their parents - we - had given them everything we could. They would spend another year or two or three at their excellent school, with their excellent brains doing more than any brains had done before. How could they not succeed?
And yet, even as I watched their healthy young bodies navigate a perfect spring day, I worried. What kind of society were we creating where kids voluntarily changed their brains to keep up with all the input coming at them in a constant stream? Surely there were some who would bow under the immense pressure to succeed, to do more, to do more all the time and never stop doing. I couldn't help imagining the noise in all those Piloted heads.
One of the boys near David stumbled. I saw my son reach out an arm to steady him without breaking stride, but the kid behind him clipped his heel and fell. Two more ran over him before someone at the back of the pack stopped to help. He brushed his bloody knees with his hands, then took off after his friends.
The traffic light changed and we left the boys behind. When we reached the house, I turned off the car but lingered for a moment, key still in the ignition.
I turned to face Sophie. "I have a secret to tell you."
She unbuckled herself and climbed into the passenger seat to hear what I had to say. She was all about secrets.
"I can see the future," I said in a conspiratorial voice. "Not all of it, but a little. In a few years, almost everyone is going to have a Pilot, except you and me."
Her eyes grew wide. "Even Moms?"
I considered. "Yes. She’ll have one too. People with Pilots are going to do some very good things, but you and I and a few other people will be the only people without them. And the others are going to make it seem like we need them, but it’ll be okay."
"Because it’s okay to be different?" She looked skeptical. She had heard that line before.
"Because we're going to be different together. As long as you don’t have one, I won’t have one. We’ll both do fine." I was about to add, "I promise," but stopped short.
Sophie nodded like she understood. I kissed her forehead and hoped she’d never have to. I counted the hours until I could run all of this out of my mind.