by Laurence Klavan

Raymond’s hand fluttered in his palm, throbbed as if it were a baby bird with a madly beating heart. Nate was twenty-two, and he was shocked to see the blue veins beneath the old man’s pock-marked skin. Next stop, his skeleton, he thought, and there would be no secrets left. Suddenly, he felt the fingers start to fold around his own.

“Listen to me,” his father said, so hoarsely it was hard to hear.

“I’m trying to,” Nate said.

“Don’t do what I did.”

“Which was what?” After all, his dad had done a lot of things.

“Don’t know.” What did he mean? Did he mean “I don’t know” or something else? Nate’s dad didn’t elaborate, as if he held his truth to be self-evident. 

Even dying, the old man was a prickly, dark, and comic person, an attitude which had rubbed off on Nate. Raymond had always been blunt, even brutal about himself, his constant struggles and—he wasn’t afraid to admit—many failures. He had employed scathing self-satire, with a dour and droll delivery, coming from a stiff and stony face. Nate was also following in his footsteps by being self-effacing and unemployed. 

Now Raymond nodded at the newspaper on the night table, old-fashioned enough to still read the print version and ask Nate to chase one down for him on the days he visited, no easy feat. He indicated the front-page stories about the current trend in self-delusion, the believing of lies, how it was winning elections and altering other areas of life. Nate’s father raised a shaky thumb to show that he approved.

“Don’t know,” he repeated. 

Nate realized he meant: be ignorant, live in the dark, stay stupid about yourself; doing the opposite had done nothing for him. Ray reared up alongside Nate’s left ear, and his son could smell something new coming off him. Death? That Ensure stuff? Nate couldn’t tell.

“A fake smile is as good as a real one,” his father whispered and explained why. (The old man had also been an amateur science buff, too lazy—by his own lights—to ever apply to med school.) A smile, Raymond said, real or not, made the brain release neurotransmitters, molecules which fought off stress, relieved pain, and reduced heart rates. This “Facial Feedback Hypothesis” had been posited as long ago as the early 1900s by William James, the brother of…and here was where Nate stopped listening and his father sank back into the sheets, each admitting his own limitations, which in Nate’s case was a short attention span and his father’s a small amount of time to live, for these were the last words he ever spoke.

Nate looked down at him. His father’s skin immediately became more sheer, silken over his insides. It must have been his imagination, for that wasn’t how it worked: was it? Nate reached up and tried to close the old man’s eyes (Ray stared, as if—as usual—he saw everything too clearly) but it wasn’t like it was in the movies and was too hard to do. Nate picked up the hand which had finally freed his own and held it, to perceive no pulse, for that’s what they did in movies, too. Then tears poured like incontinent piss from his eyes. 

Nate made himself smile, bigger and bigger, straining the sides of his mouth. He hoped his father had been right and he would feel better, even if the smile wasn’t real.


“How do you feel?”


Nate felt fingers press on his wrist, checking the pulse. 

“I’ll say.”

“Sorry?” This was an enthusiastic young doctor, examining him for a new job, and Nate wasn’t used to him.

“You’re in great shape.”

“Well, if you already knew, why ask?”

The doctor shrugged, taken aback by Nate’s snotty tone. “Reflex. And speaking of reflexes…” He went on to praise Nate’s crack physical responses, the low numbers in his bodily network, the general robustness of his health. The gauges and tests that decided these things got results quickly now—they’d been improved in the five years since Raymond’s death—you didn’t have to wait weeks or whatever.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Nate was cocky enough to say about his condition. 

Yet how would the doctor know? A check-up couldn’t go that deep inside Nate’s brain and glands, couldn’t reveal how the pumping of neurotransmitters—dopamine, serotonin, endorphins—had been bathing him in positivity, as if from a faucet turned on by Nate’s continual fake smiling. His father had been right: Nate’s acne-scarred skin had cleared up, his hair (starting to thin when he was nineteen) been replenished, his potency (never impressive) much improved. Had he even gotten taller? It felt like it, especially as Nate glanced down at the doctor, stoop-shouldered at twenty-seven, pointing at a TV screen mounted on a wall and always on.

“Will you look at those clowns?” the doc said.

He meant people taking willful ignorance to a new level, repeating lies “proving” the nonexistence of a currently rampaging and deadly disease. He didn’t know, as Nate and Raymond did, that they might be made younger, stronger, and maybe even taller by believing it.

Lying on a table, Nate directed his bare bum at the doctor, and not just because he’d been requested to do so. The next exam would go even farther inside him yet he knew would reveal nothing. Nate felt himself being thrillingly filled up by sedatives, as if by more falsehoods.


When he opened his eyes, Nate was submerged in water. He bobbed to the top of a huge infinity pool, the whole Earth on his level. In the distance, he’d heard a bell, which had brought him to the surface. Now there was only silence. It must have been a ringing in his ears, which was odd, since nothing was ever wrong with him. In fact, anyone who saw Nate spring from the deep end onto the imported tiles would have believed the man in a Speedo was half his age of forty and did nothing in his life but work out.

Of course, Nate did much more. The enormous mansion he entered, followed by falling water forming a filmy cape, was irrefutable evidence. In recent years, Nate had bought the company he had once been examined to join, and that had been the beginning of his global empire. It had been fueled by fake smiling but also by pleasing fabrications he paid employees to tell him, which had swelled not just his chest and buttocks but his bank accounts. He emulated all those on Earth, now overwhelmed everywhere by myth.

Yet Nate’s achievements had come at the price of painful solitude. He employed women to fib that they loved him or loved sleeping with him, and it felt as good to hear as if they’d been honest. Yet he never asked any to stay overnight, let alone live with him. More and more, he dreamed of having something deeper with someone, and he was doing so now, thinking about a woman he’d met that morning. Nate had offered her a job and she’d turned him down, an unusual occurrence, given the unprecedently high salaries he could afford. Nate had seen something in her face when she said no: What?

Nate looked down. Chlorinated liquid had pooled at his feet on the marble floor of his giant living room. Someone else would mop it up. Then Nate recalled that his robot cleaning person was being repaired, and he was alone in the house.

He heard the bell again. 

It was—had been all along—the front door. Nate walked to answer it, tickled by the opportunity, as privileged people are by taking actions of which everyone else is sick and tired (doing dishes, raising children, working).

The woman who refused him was there. 

She was small and nondescript, slightly older than Nate or maybe just not packed in and preserved by lies. The only thing more direct than her stare was her attitude.

“I’m Aletheia Tsitsipas,” she said. “I’m sure you remember.” Then she entered without asking.

Nate didn’t wonder how she’d found his address or overridden his vast security system. He realized what had been in her face that morning: she had known or at least seen through him. 

“It was why I couldn’t take the job,” she said. Whether this knowledge made her ineligible or would simply have been unseemly was unstated.

Before her, Nate felt naked even though nominally dressed. She looked him up and down, not with appreciation—or not just—to confirm what he was and what must be done to him. Done for him, for this was the kind of person Aletheia was.

“It’ll be for your own good,” she said.

Suddenly, Nate knew that the years of loneliness had taken their toll: it was time, he decided, for something new.

“Yes,” he said. “Please. Tell me the truth.”

Aletheia advanced farther and did. She offered him facts about himself, researched and intuited, with the conviction he would be helped if not saved by hearing them.

“…lazy…crass…barely talented…insensitive…grating…morally repellent…”

She did not stop coming forward. The intensity of her expression plus her proximity made Nate back away. As he did, beads of moisture bounced from his well-muscled chest onto Aletheia’s breasts and with a stab made sheer parts of her blouse, exposing her lacy flowered bra. The encounter seemed intimate, sexual, even if chaste.

“Don’t stop,” Nate said. “Please. Keep going.”

Reversing, Nate slipped on drops he’d deposited behind him. He fell onto the cold stone, where he curled as if occupying less space would make him fetal and reborn. Aletheia loomed over him and rained down more reality, sure it would cause him to flourish and flower and not be drowned. 

Yet, lying there, Nate found that his father was still right. Hormones and chemicals like cortisone and adrenaline began to irrigate his insides. Dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine rampaged unregulated, as a rebellion, to over-correct and protect him. All the work of what hadn’t been true was undone: His biceps softened, his loud white teeth went quietly gray; the length and girth of his penis were returned—as if they’d always been on loan—to better lovers. Clumps of Nate’s head and chest hair littered the marble underneath him.

Aletheia stopped, stunned, before the weak, twitching and misshapen pile of Nate. She was aghast at the result of her having revealed what was true.

Nate made a great effort to lift the head flapping on the slight stalk of his neck. His face was as wan as Raymond’s at the end. Then he parted his lips from his few remaining teeth and smiled. 

“Is it real?” Aletheia asked, excited and confused.

“What do you think?” Nate said, with his final breath.

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