Within These Walls

Natalie Burrows

Wyld FLASH July 9th 2021

I am being watched. But that’s okay, because they always watch me. They think it doesn’t bother me, how their eyes search for meaning in my every movement. As though I should not have an opinion, or know how to form one. Such subjective thought has not been coded into my programming, for how could it? Opinions were personal, framed by experience and I am yet to have any.

The image on the video reel flickers as it changes. The equipment is old where I am new. “What do you see?” There are three young students with clipboards standing in the room at a suitable distance. There were three last time I looked, which I don’t often do because they seem not to like it. It unsettles them when I make eye contact.

So I examine the video footage, listening to the scratching of graphite on paper as they record the way my head tilts.

They don’t know I’m fooling them. That these movements are not natural but done merely to give them something to obsess over. Knowing I can lead them down the garden path amuses me. If I were to have a garden path I would joyfully lead you down it to the white marble bench I will put at the end, under a great willow tree and listen to the way the wind moves the thin branches.

I return my thoughts to the room, as the video continues to play and I continue to pretend to watch it. A little girl is celebrating her birthday. She wears a pointy paper hat and blows out six wax candles on a cake with gaudy decoration. I tell them what I see.

More scribbling.

“How does the child feel?”

I turn my head slowly, away from the students to stare at my reflection in the one way glass – that’s what they observe. But I sharpen my focus, count the souls in the room beyond where they think they are safe and out of sight. This exercise is unproductive; for what they see and what I am doing are not the same.

The little girl claps excitedly at the delivery of presents. They are still waiting to hear my thoughts on what this little girl feels. I feel a smile threaten my cheeks. I like playing this game with them, the way a cat toys with a mouse. I count the minutes to see how long they will wait before prodding me again. Perform for us.

“That is impossible to say,” I respond finally. I’m tired of this game.

The dull grey door swings open and a team of two walk in, filling the space of this uncompromising concrete room. There is now five, and one, which makes six. “Look again. She’s got presents. It’s her birthday. Do you think she looks happy? Sad? This one should be easy,” The man who once introduced himself as Jeff, pushes me frustratedly. His tie is askew and there are coffee stains down his shirt.

If I were him I would be embarrassed to look so sloppy.

“It is not possible to say how the little girl feels,” I repeat, suddenly turning ninety degrees in the chair to stare at him more closely. The students scatter fearfully, wary of my movement, eyeing the wiring in my arm sliding back and for when I flex my fingers. “Only what she chooses to make you believe,” I elucidate further, but I can tell from how Jeff rubs his palm across his stubbled chin he does not understand. “She may not like the colour of the cake. She may have preferred chocolate. But she does not say because she knows her mother spent last night baking it specially for her, and it would hurt her mothers feelings. So she smiles anyway. She appears, happy.”

Jeff’s eyes widen nervously. “But – “

“You want me to follow an algorithm to the correct answer, happy, because that is how you coded me to understand emotion. By reading given signals and behaviours, thereby deducing how that person must feel,” I state, standing up because they are all standing up and you should be face to face when talking. “But it does not mean, that she actually feels happy, on the inside.”

Jeff looks uncomfortable. I sit back down.

When we sit together on the white marble bench my hand will be cool where yours is warm. You will it hold it anyway, and I think I will be happy about that.

Author Bio: Natalie is a British-born author now based in Germany with her family. She writes mostly flash and short stories, has been placed in competitions for both, and is working on a full length novel. She is mostly interested in writing in voices considered “other”, that can reflect on humanity from the outside. 

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