The Third Eye
by Hayley Chow
“You don’t have to go through with this you know.”
Calla looked at her dad beside her in the backseat of the autocar and patted his knee. “C’mon Dad, it’s practically necessary these days.”
He looked back down at his tablet. “But some people don’t get one.”
“Only because they can’t.” Calla gazed out at the rain streaking the window.
“Your mom and I didn’t get one.”
“You were already too old when they started implanting TECs.”
“Well, I don’t know if forty-five is old, per se.” Her dad said with a frown.
Calla laughed and poked her dad’s temple, just beneath his thinning gray hair. “Dad, you know the brain isn’t malleable enough for TEC install after forty.”
Her dad grunted.
Calla ran a quick search on her tablet. “This says only four percent of graduating seniors last year didn’t have TECs, and half of those were due to medical reasons.”
“Hmm… do you know anyone in your class who hasn’t gotten one?”
“In the whole class?” Calla chewed her lip as she thought. “I’ve heard of a few, but none in my room.” She scoffed, as if the very idea was preposterous. “Everyone else’s parents made their appointments on time, before school started.” She glared at her dad.
He ignored the jibe and rubbed his bottom lip. “You know when Gram was a girl, kids used to get checked out of school to go take a driver’s test.” He chuckled to himself.
Calla feigned a look of horror. “Can you imagine Gram driving? It’s amazing anyone survived that.”
The autocar’s robotic voice chimed from the center console. “Arriving at Fenton Medical Clinic, on right.”
Calla and her dad jumped out of autocar and jogged through the rain to the clinic. The secretary smiled brightly as they walked in and directed them straight to an examination room.
Calla’s dad took a seat by the wall while she settled on the patient’s table and opened her tablet to read while they waited. Soon she wouldn’t have to lug around the clunky thing anymore. She’d be able to pull up the words with a thought.
The doctor knocked and walked in briskly. “Who do we have here?” His eyes clouded over as he checked the notes stored in his TEC. “Ah, Ms. Calla Green.” He smiled at her, his eyes clearing. “Are you ready for your Third Eye Cybernetics?”
“Remind me how this works again exactly?” Calla’s dad interjected, rubbing his bottom lip.
He proffered a hand with a bright smile. “One of the old stock. We don’t see many without a TEC these days.” His eyes clouded over again for a moment. “I’ve just sent you a pamphlet that will explain everything.”
Her dad’s tablet chirped, confirming receipt.
“But it’s really simple.” The doctor continued. “She gets two chip stacks”—he fished in the pocket of his scrubs and produced a shiny silver cylinder— “screwed into each temple. Once inserted, it’ll look like a metal disk on each side of her head, like so.” He pointed to his own temple. “Then she also gets a pair of removable contacts. The chips electrically interface with her brain waves and connect to the digital readout on her contacts.” He smiled at Calla, perhaps remembering the revolutionary day when he first got his TEC. “With just a thought, she’ll have access to everything on her tablet and be able to see it through her contacts whenever she wants.”
Her father sighed. “Are there any risks?”
“Well, she’ll go under general anesthesia for about an hour, and she’ll need a week to recover. She’ll be sore at first and might get headaches for a while, but we’ll give her pain meds for that.” He looked at the ceiling and rubbed his smooth jaw. “Occasionally we see a slight infection at the insertion site, or some discomfort that needs adjustment, but it’s nothing we can’t fix.”
Calla’s dad’s head bobbed, his lips pressed together.
The doctor looked back at Calla with a smile. “Are you ready?
Calla practically trembled with excitement. “Yes!”
“All right then. Sir, I’ll have you step out as we prep the room.”
Calla’s dad smiled weakly and squeezed her shoulder before stepping out with the doctor. When the door closed, she pumped a fist in the air of the empty room. She’d been looking forward to this for years. Finally, she could join the rest of the world. She muffled a squeal. Everything would be different from here on out.
Calla awoke from the anesthesia slowly. The nurse handed her a Styrofoam cup of water, and it took her a moment to remember where she was. As her vision sharpened, she remembered—her TEC! Calla’s fingers flew to her temple. Nothing. Not even a little sore. She looked around in confusion. Had something gone wrong with the anesthetic?
“What—” she started.
Calla turned to see her father and the doctor sitting at the bedside. Her dad looked like an old basset hound, his lips, cheeks, and eyebrows all drooping towards the ground. The doctor was fidgeting, his eyes cloudy as he consulted his TEC.
A bolt of fear shot through her and tears welled in her eyes like a sudden rain. “Dad?” she whispered, bottom lip trembling. “What’s wrong?”
“Sweetheart….” Her dad reached out to squeeze her hand. “It turns out your brainwaves are incompatible with the implant software. You won’t be able to get a TEC.” His voice was small. “But it’ll be ok—”
“Wait, what?” She brushed at a tear leaking from her eye and turned to the doctor. “Can’t you fix me? Adjust the TEC? Something?” Her voice rose to a squeak.
The doctor’s eyes focused, and he cleared his throat. “I’m afraid not. I’ve been combing the net. It seems the brainwave anomaly you have is seen in less than one percent of the population.”
Calla’s head fell back in the chair, and she squeezed her eyes shut in a vain attempt to stem the now steady flow of tears.
“But plenty of people have had good success living with this kind of handicap….”
The rest of the doctor’s words faded to a drone in Calla’s ears as the word “handicap” echoed again and again and again.
“Are you sure you want to go back to class today?” Her father asked as the autocar pulled up to the school’s empty loading zone. They’re not expecting you back for another week. We could go home, watch a movie, and eat ice cream.” His smile doesn’t reach his eyes, not even close.
“No.” Calla’s voice sounded empty, dead. “It wouldn’t be excused.”
The top student in the class playing hooky? Ridiculous. Well, at least she had been the top student. Her face crumpled. Emily had been helping her with assignments for the first two weeks so she could keep up with everyone else while they waited for her belated appointment.
She sniffed and lifted her head. “Besides, if I miss too much, I’ll never catch up. Maybe if I work hard, Ms. Darcen will let me stay with the room. It’s the last year after all.”
Her dad rubbed his forehead. “Calla….”
Calla tried a smile. “And why are you sad? Now you and mom will still stand a fighting chance at Scrabble.”
Her father blinked rapidly and reached out to wrap her in a fierce hug. “It’ll be okay, love.”
Calla sighed deeply, expunging her choked tears, and scrubbed her face once more with the sleeve of her school uniform. “Yeah, I know.” She offered him another almost smile as she opened the car door. “The world’s still spinning and all that.”
“Love you, Cal.”
“You too, Dad.”
Calla walked up to room 308C with small steps, her tablet still tucked up under one arm, and peered in the small window in the door. The class was silent. Every pair of eyes was clouded over, even Ms. Darcen’s—everyone lost in the net doing something, schoolwork presumably.
Calla’s hand felt heavy as an anvil as she raised it to knock gingerly on the door. She peeked in again. No one noticed. She rolled her eyes and rapped again—two quick strong strikes. Ms. Darcen’s eyes cleared, and she strode over to the door, swinging it wide open.
“Calla?” Her brow wrinkled in confusion, and she looked at the class, several of whom were now watching the exchange with clear eyes, before turning back to Calla. Her eyes flicked to Calla’s unmarred temples. “We thought you were getting your TEC today.”
Calla glanced nervously at her friends in the room. At Eldridge Academy they kept rooms together from kindergarten through twelfth grade to form “lifelong bonds.” Room pride was intense, and theirs was one of the best. Everyone else would move forward effortlessly now that they had their TEC. Except her. She was just a blight on their perfect record.
She expected to hear the speculative whispers start at any moment, but then she remembered that they didn’t have to whisper anymore. With a thought, they could send messages on the net privately and twice as fast. Someone had probably even opened a room group chat where everyone was guessing what could have happened. Calla could find it on her tablet in a minute or two—practically an age in TEC time.
“Did the operation get canceled?”
Calla opened her mouth, but no words came out. She bit her lip to keep the tears from spilling over again as she opened her tablet. With two taps and a flick of her wrist, she sent the doctor’s letter to Ms. Darcen’s TEC.
Ms. Darcen’s eyes clouded over, and a frown creased her lips. “Oh, I see.” She stepped into the hall and closed the door behind her. “I’m so sorry, dear.” Her sympathy stung like alcohol on an open wound.
Ms. Darcen’s eyes were still clouded, but her voice was gentle as she spoke. “I’ve forwarded the letter to the front office, and they’re transferring you to the class for the blind—”
“But Ms. Darcen,” Calla cut in. “I’ve been with this class for twelve years. All my friends are in here. I’m a top student, maybe if I just work really hard—”
“And I’m sure Emily would help me—”
“Calla.” Ms. Darcen’s eyes sharpened on her. “This class is to help students adjust to their TECs and learn how to use the technology to its full potential.” She sighed, pressing her lips together. “I’m afraid you would find little use for it.”
Calla’s tablet chimed. She glanced down at a message from Emily shining brightly on the screen. “What’s going on? Are you ok?”
“And besides”—Ms. Darcen put a hand on Calla’s shoulder and gently guided her away from 308C— “the class for the blind is just across the building, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see your old friends.”
With a flush of shame, Calla realized that may be the last thing she wanted after all—reminding them to speak aloud and slow down so she could keep up.
“Your new class is in room 136F. Do you know where that is?”
Calla shook her head. Her eyes bored resolutely into the speckled tiles beneath her feet, willing her thoughts to quiet and her emotions to numb.
“I’ve sent a school map to your tablet.” Ms. Darcen faced her and gave her shoulder a squeeze. “I know this must be a shock and a terrible disappointment to you and your family, but the class for the blind is specifically for people like you. They’ll help you cope with your newfound condition.”
Disappointment to your family… people like you…. The words hit her like a punch in the gut, leaving her breathless.
Ms. Darcen smiled with something akin to relief. Now that the awkward encounter was finally over, she could pawn the handicapped girl off onto someone else. Calla met her eyes and nodded once before turning to shuffle down the hall—away from her friends and the bright future that had just been snuffed out.
Calla paused outside of room 136F, which turned out to be as far away from 308C and the other senior classes as possible. Her father had been right, she should’ve stayed home today. Her tablet dinged over and over with a wave of digital sympathy from her classmates until she finally silenced it. She raised a fist to knock on the door, but before she got the chance, it swung open of its own accord.
A young, dark-haired teacher stood on the other side. His voice was soft, as though coaxing a wild animal. “You must be Calla. I’m Mr. Brenderson. We’ve been expecting you.”
Calla’s eyes moved past him to take in the other students. There were only five, sitting at desks arranged in an oblong circle, and she recognized no one. Her heart sank a little lower as she stepped through the door.
“I heard you just got the news today. That was very brave of you to come back so soon.”
The students whispered to each other now, their eyes darting from their classmates to Calla and back.
“You can sit here,” Mr. Brenderson gestured to an empty desk in their circle. “Oh, and I’ll take your tablet.”
“You’ll do what?” Calla clutched her tablet to her chest. She glanced around at the other students. They had actual books in their hands. Did they even make those anymore? One twirled a pencil between her fingers, and another scribbled on a sheet of paper.
Calla couldn’t remember the last time she had seen paper. She’d had her tablet even in her earliest memories—games, stories, and answers always at her fingertips. Did they think she was too stupid to use a tablet, too? It wasn’t enough for her to be years behind her classmates, they had to set her back a century?
Mr. Brenderson reached out his hand and took a step towards her. “It helps minimize distraction and—”
“No, I don’t belong here!” Calla turned sharply, threw open the door, and ran into the hall.
She could hear the teacher calling her name, but she didn’t care. What good was class now if they were only going to handicap her further? Calla didn’t know where she was going, but there was a hope hidden in her heart that maybe if she ran fast enough, she could escape this nightmare.
Calla didn’t make it off campus before she folded over in the gasping, ugly sobs that had been threatening all day. Hunched in defeat, she crumpled onto the bench on the side of the football field behind the school. The morning rain had puddled on the cold metal and soaked the seat of her pants, but she was beyond caring. Her future was unrecognizable to her now.
As the best student in their class, she had dreamed of becoming a cybernetic neurosurgeon or an environmental engineer, but those professions were so dependent on the speed of the TEC network, they would be inaccessible to her now. Hell, even Steven, the school janitor, had a TEC. Your ten-digit TEC registration number was almost required information for even the most banal of job interviews.
Why even go back to class now? If the seniors were just learning the ins and outs of the TECs, what would the blind learn instead? She would withdraw from Elridge and finish her senior year from home, shielded from the judgment of a world that didn’t accept her. Her parents would understand.
Staring blankly at the green grass under her feet and drowning in a maelstrom of self-pity, she didn’t notice her audience until his muddy, untied sneakers appeared beneath her eyes.
“I found her,” the intruder yelled, looking back to another student by the double doors of the school.
She looked up at the smug smile of a tall blonde with shaggy hair. He looked her age, but his temples were metal-free. “And you are?”
“Murray Halston, your new classmate.” He kicked a shoe up on the bench to tighten his sopping laces.
Calla sniffed, her breathing still hitched with emotion.
“I’m not going back to that stupid class.”
Murray wiped his hands on his pants to dry them, his eyebrows knitting as he considered her. “Why?”
“Because it’s embarrassing and worthless.” She sniffed again, dabbing at her nose with her sleeve.
“Hmm….” Murray fished a white cloth square from the inside pocket of his jacket and handed it to her.
“What’s this?” Calla asked, looking at the swirling letters embroidered on the edge of the silky fabric.
“It’s a handkerchief,” Murray tapped his freckled nose. “Don’t worry, it’s clean. I swear.”
“Oh.” The only time Calla had even heard of a handkerchief was when they had been forced to read Jane Austen.
“And you should come back to school. Brendersen is high-speed, and his class actually isn’t half-bad.”
“So? What’s the point?” She wiped her nose with the handkerchief.
Murray scuffed his shoes against the grass. “Well….” He looked up, searching for the words in the sky. “You don’t need a TEC for everything.”
“Art. Wondering. Conversation.” A half smile crossed his face. “I know it’s kind of weird to give up the net at first, but it’s actually kind of freeing.” He shrugged.
“Who cares if we’re free if we don’t have a future?”
Murray laughed, a rich, ringing sound. “Well, I guarantee Brendersen will talk your ear off about your future if you’ll let him.” He paused, but Calla looked away.
“I know we all forget sometimes but….” He leaned down to her ear and cupped a hand around his mouth. His warm breath tickled Calla’s ear. “The world is wider than the net.”
She pushed him away, her mouth curving just barely upward. “I know that.”
Murray straightened and raised his eyebrows. “But do you believe it?”
“You’re telling me you’re not upset about being blind?”
“Well, I was.” He shrugged again, his mouth widening in a smile. “But being miserable doesn’t suit me.”
Calla rolled her eyes.
“Seriously, you’ll get over it. Not having a TEC doesn’t make you any less of a person.”
She looked back at him. Was that really true? Two minutes ago, she knew she was useless, but now she was unsure.
“Just give it a chance.” He reached out a hand.
Calla suddenly felt the cold chill of the autumn day and the hard metal seat on her wet butt. She stuffed the handkerchief in her jacket pocket and sighed. It still sucked. But it would probably suck more out here.
“All right.” She grabbed his hand, surprised at its warmth.
“Besides,”—his eyes sparked— “what have you got better to do?”
She shoved him, but the corner of her mouth quirked up once again.
They could hear the laughter and buzz of conversation even before they opened the door of room 136F. Calla peered in the small window and was surprised to find the other students standing at easels with palettes of bright colors beside them. The students were once again arranged in a circle, but with the easels facing inward so everyone could see all the canvases. Mr. Brendersen was stationed at his own easel among the students, his eyes crinkling as he chatted with the boy next to him.
Murray threw open the door and waltzed in with arms wide. “Fear not citizens, we have returned.”
Calla shuffled in behind him, cheeks burning pink.
“Welcome back,” Brendersen called. He set his paintbrush down and crossed the room towards her.
Calla chewed her lip. “Sorry, Mr. Brendersen.”
The teacher shrugged. “Sometimes our emotions get the better of us. Happens to everybody.”
Calla’s eye wandered towards the canvases filling up with brilliant mixtures of blues, reds, and yellows. One in particular drew her eye. The girl in front of it moved her brush with sure quick strokes, morphing the blank page into a world of fire. Calla couldn’t take her eyes away. Every dab and swirl added a new dimension, brought a new feeling.
Brendersen nodded to the easel next to where Murray had already pulled on an apron. “We have a blank canvas for you.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “Would you like to give it a try?”
Calla took a deep breath. The oily smell of the acrylics filled her lungs. She looked back at Brendersen and held out her tablet. “Sure, why not?”
Bio: Hayley Chow is a professional emailer (aka engineer) by day and a new writer by night. She lives in Florida with two insomniac toddlers, her long-suffering husband, and a dog that thinks it’s a cat.