Seven years had passed since the accident that stole Aaron’s ability to smile. The condition baffled doctors who hypothesized that a localized region of synapses in Aaron’s brain which controlled the muscles that allowed people to smile had become blocked as a result of the blunt head injury. He was informed that he would likely never smile again.
Aaron was a handsome young man with a bright personality who enjoyed goofing off with his classmates in high school and went on to become one of the bright faces displayed on a billboard which advertised the University he attended. It wasn’t a bad deal overall since the school offered to deduct a portion of his tuition expenses. But only months after the billboard was posted when Aaron suffered his tragic accident the smiling face plastered on the forty foot by ten foot sign only served as a depressing reminder of something he could never have again.
Of course his parents were thankful that their son survived the head-on collision. Doctors and law enforcement alike believed it was nothing short of a miracle that he was relatively unscathed. It seemed like everyone except for Aaron felt that he had come out of the accident in one piece, whole, and fully alive. Aaron knew he was not whole. He was not fully alive.
His lawyers testified that the accident could have been easily prevented. No one believed that more than Aaron.
“This was a case of pure negligence,” the lawyer said. “A case of technology getting in the way of the driver’s seat. If the driver had paid attention to the signs along the interstate ramp, he would have noticed they clearly stated WRONG WAY. But despite the driver’s reservations, they continued to drive onto a nearly deserted highway going the wrong direction.
“A map application which advertised faster commutes encouraged the driver to put himself and my client in a life-threatening situation,” the lawyer continued. “The driver didn’t think twice because of his complete trust in a faulty piece of technology.”
The driver of the truck was somehow in worse shape than Aaron to the naked eye. His arm sling and leg cast along with a few scars on his face that hadn’t fully healed conveyed that he was more of a victim than Aaron. Those ailments, Aaron knew, would heal in time. The jury quickly developed the notion that Aaron had a sour attitude and expressed disbelief in his inability to smile. But still, his lawyer pressed onward.
“It wasn’t the only mistake the driver has blamed on faulty technology. As you may remember, the headlights on the pickup truck were not in use at the time of the accident - 3:47 in the morning. The driver claims that the truck had automatic lights, and upon further inspection, it was found that the driver had the headlights set in a manual mode which did not activate the lights. If my client had seen approaching headlights, he likely would have been able to avoid the collision entirely.”
Aaron recalled the moment he noticed the black truck ahead of him. Within seconds it appeared seemingly from nowhere and struck him like a phantom wall. Everything in his car lurched forward at seventy miles an hour as the two vehicles mashed together in a crumpled cluster of glass, metal and debris. It happened so quickly that Aaron’s head took a direct hit to the steering wheel just a millisecond before his airbags deployed, which doctors believed may have caused further damage.
The court ruled that the driver of the truck was innocent. A blanket statement was made on behalf of the map application for the glitch in directions and a reminder to always check that headlights are working properly was issued by the pickup truck company. It was a hard slap in the face for Aaron. The rest of the world got a slap on the wrist while Aaron faced a trauma that no one wanted to recognize. He knew his quality of life would only diminish.
Following the accident, Aaron grew to distrust technology. Eventually he felt comfortable in the driver’s seat again, but he never relied on any maps or GPS technology. He learned to utilize road signs and print maps. His distrust turned into a full-blown phobia as he fell victim to conspiracy theories about computers, microphones, cameras, and phones. He took precautions that ranged from placing a post-it note over the built-in webcam in his laptop to completely deconstructing furniture in hotel rooms to check for hidden cameras or other spying technology.
In time Aaron sought therapy for his irrational fears as they had begun to affect his job, his friends and his family. Eventually the fear subsided into a subconscious heightened awareness he felt whenever he used a new piece of tech. Those who knew Aaron were grateful for his progress and made sure to tell him how proud they were of him. Aaron felt a warmth bubbling inside of himself because of the kind words, but the warmth was always replaced by a cold bitterness as he was reminded of his inability to physically express that joy.
As the years went on he received less positive reinforcement from his community. They simply forgot his fears were an issue as he became better at managing them. Aaron grew accustomed to his inability to smile, but it came at the cost of his once bright and lively personality.
Aaron had just gotten off work when he noticed a series of missed calls from a phone number he didn’t recognize. More spam callers, a thought popped into the back of his mind, but he saw that in addition to the missed calls there were a series of voicemails.
“Aaron Kennedy? This is Dr. Reimond,” a woman’s voice said over the phone speakers. “We have some very encouraging information regarding your condition and we’d like you to come in as soon as possible.”
Aaron blinked, staring at his phone for a moment, not fully grasping the reality of the voicemail. He returned to his inbox and selected another from the same number.
“Dr. Reimond calling again. I realize my last message may have been a little vague, as we’re not fully allowed to discuss personal medical information without the verbal consent of a patient, but Mr. Kennedy, I believe you’ll be very… glad… to hear about a new option. Please call us back at…”
Not the most tactful choice of words, Aaron thought to himself. Still, a strange feeling of hope grew within him. He worried about the prospect of having his hopes crushed like the times before when doctors wanted to try new treatment ideas, but something told him this was different. Dr. Reimond’s voice, although it still had the same professional quality to it, seemed a touch eager in the voicemails. He arrived at the doctor’s office in under fifteen minutes, which he realized was a result of unconscious speeding on the highway.
Dr. Reimond was a neurosurgeon who had been assigned to Aaron’s case years prior when many other doctors had given up on him. She found his unique case fascinating and spent a good amount of time reaching out to other neurosurgeons and medical professionals to see if they had any identical cases. Of course, no one had ever seen the exact same case.
Aaron waited patiently in the leather office chair across from her desk, which was home to a number of miniature brain dioramas and cross-sections. On the walls she had posters featuring the brain, spine, arteries, and a number of other body parts he figured she must deal with on a daily basis. When she entered the room, Aaron couldn’t help but notice her attempt to suppress a smile. How he envied her in that moment - her ability to suppress a smile in which she had the full ability to make good use of. He figured she trained herself to keep her composure as a medical professional and reluctantly allowed himself to forgive her internally.
“Good morning, Mr. Kennedy,” Dr. Reimond allowed her smile to peak through as she set a manilla folder stuffed with documents on her desk.
“Good morning,” Aaron replied automatically as he often did.
Dr. Reimond leafed through the folder and retrieved an image. Aaron believed it was likely one of the many brain scans they had taken of him over the years, but to his surprise, he was presented with a picture of a young girl with a gentle smile.
“I’d like to introduce you to Caitlyn,” Dr. Reimond said. Aaron took the picture and stared at it a moment, not understanding the significance Dr. Reimond seemed to believe the photograph held.
“Caitlyn is the first patient I was able to track down with a condition similar to yours,” Dr. Reimond continued. “This picture was taken before she experienced trauma to her cingulate cortex. That’s the part of the brain that is responsible for smiling.”
Aaron nodded and set the picture back on Dr. Reimond’s desk. She retrieved another photo from the manilla envelope and placed it alongside the other image. It was the same girl, Caitlyn, but obviously several years older - now an adult woman with a positively radiant smile.
“This is Caitlyn post operation,” Dr. Reimond said with a glow in her eyes. “Caitlyn is why I asked you to come here today. We have discovered a new option for you.”
Aaron felt the glimmer of hope surge into his head. He blinked to keep back tears he could feel forming in his eyes, afraid Dr. Reimond would take notice. Fortunately, eyes on the verge of tears were less noticeable than great big smiles, he thought.
She retrieved a small box from the drawer of her desk, no larger than a bite sized piece of candy. She took care as she opened the flap and retrieved a small chip from inside. It reminded him of a miniature memory card he had seen people use inside of their phones. He felt unsettled at once.
“This little device,” Dr. Reimond said as she held it in her fingers. “Is the key to Caitlyn’s smile. And this little device could also be the key to your own smile.”
Aaron felt nauseous and his heart rate hastened as he stared down the menacing little microchip. He wondered how she could seriously suggest implanting a piece of technology into his brain - a brain that worked perfectly fine outside of one singular function. Who needs to smile, anyway, he thought.
Dr. Reinard didn’t notice the tears in his eyes a moment before, but she took notice of Aaron’s change in demeanor almost instantly.
“I know this may be a little unnerving for you. I’m here to reassure you that everything will work out just fine. Technology has come a long way in just the last seven years since your incident and we strongly believe that this is a safe and effective solution for your condition. It’s a one-time implant that will last your whole life. No one will know the wiser that it’s even there!”
She reached out for Aaron’s hand, which had become clammy and tense. He watched her place the small device in the palm of his hand as if he were watching from outside of his own body. The small metal chip that was no larger than half the size of his thumbnail seemed to weigh one ton when he held onto it, although he knew it was only the weight of his fears resurfacing and pressing upon him. He wanted to yell and throw it across the room, but he just stared at it a while.
Dr. Reinard observed his reaction to the device and waited for him to run through an onslaught of thoughts and probable questions before she interrupted again. “How do you feel about this option, Aaron?”
Aaron took a deep breath and carefully set the microchip back inside of the small white box. He couldn’t believe the words that escaped from his mouth. “I want my smile back,” he said.
The tears welled up suddenly in his eyes and he began to weep in the office chair, hiding his hands in his face. He wanted his smile back so badly. He wanted nothing more than to be the person he was before the accident. He wanted to try the new option even though his fears rattled around inside of him like the tail of a predatory snake.
It took several more years for Aaron to learn how to smile again. It was not considered an immediate success when he awoke from surgery. Dr. Reimond believed the trauma from the accident was still a powerful interference in his ability to smile.
Aaron remembered the first smile since his incident like it was yesterday. He was waiting for his order at a local coffee shop when the barista called his name. Aaron hurried up to the counter and grabbed for the cup, but instead grabbed the hand of a total stranger. Her name was Erin. She joked about the coincidence - how they ordered the same drink and both shared the same name. It was all so ridiculous and unexpected that he couldn’t help but smile, then laugh. After a moment Erin hurried away with her coffee, a little unnerved by the stranger’s total lack of control. Aaron didn’t care that everyone stared at him.
Years later he smiled as his wife had a nervous breakdown before their wedding, half expecting it to happen eventually, and he smiled again when she approached him in her beautiful ivory gown in the church. He smiled when their second daughter was born with one arm that had not fully developed, knowing she would have many years of physical therapy ahead and that he could be there to offer a warm smile and encouragement. He smiled on that rainy day in March when he passed away in a hospital bed surrounded by his wife, his three children and those who had grown to love him and his radiant personality.
The chip, which was triggered by the electrodes in the brain, automatically deactivated when he died. But Aaron's smile - a content and warm grin - stayed with him.
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You did a great job capturing Aaron's internal trauma processes.