Morality is a tricky thing. No one ever tells you exactly what’s right or wrong. There’s no bullet-point list outlining the consequences of each action you take. Let alone a bullet-point list explaining how your actions might affect others.
I reread the same sentence for the fifth time. “The key is listening.”
Rather prejudice against deaf, aren’t they?
The bookstore is quiet. A soft glow illuminates the dust floating near me. It casts an ethereal light on the shelves of untouched spines. People whisper around me and the smell of books fills the air.
Isn’t it interesting how people feel they have to be different depending on their environment? Quiet in a bookstore, anxious in hospitals, belligerent at clubs.
“This is dumb,” I sigh and put down “Empathy for Dummies.”
There’s a couple arguing silently, but emphatically in the self-help aisle. They’ve been picking up and setting down books on marital conflict for the past thirty minutes. The man’s in his mid-thirties, with long black hair, and a creepy mustache. He’s the one picking up the books and offering them to his wife. The woman is short, her black hair tied in a ponytail so tight it could be used as a hanger. Each book title seems to ignite infuriating memories within her. “Finding Forgiveness” and “Healing from Infidelity” really got her gears going.
Who wears a mustache in 2022?
My parents realized I was different when I was four. They got a call from a very terrified Mrs. Johnson asking them what in the world they were teaching me at home. Turns out tearing off the limbs of little animals is “creepy and unacceptable behavior. Enough to scar the other children.” Gosh I hope it was enough to scar a gray-haired, ever-squinting fifty-year old grumpy lady, too.
I realized I was different when I was six. Other kids didn’t interest me. Neither did the teachers, the principal, or the guidance counselors. Though you’d assume they were my best friends given how often I spoke with each. No, it wasn’t until I was six that I learned that my disinterest was itself my anomaly. I was too unconcerned to realize that others were concerned. Little boys were concerned with how good looking others thought they were. How fast they were perceived to run, how much smarter they were than their classmates. Little girls were concerned with how good looking others thought they were. How fast they were perceived to run, how much smarter they were than their classmates.
The significance of these perceptions confuses me to this day. If I’m smart, but everyone around me thinks I’m dumb, doesn’t that say more about them than it does about me?
It wasn’t until eighth grade, and the ninth school I’d been to—second grade was a double: something about blood, laughter, and a horrified Mr. Jox—that the other kids stopped realizing that I was different. I learned to fake interest just enough to get by. Interestingly enough, a touch of true disinterest is seen as attractive by other humans. Strange isn’t it? Too much interest and you’re creepy. That was the lesson of seventh grade.
“Learning to empathize?” A young woman asks me, mirth in her voice. She is about my age. She has a button nose, symmetrical features, perfect glowing skin, and stark brown eyes. I’ve learned I’m expected to simulate a special sort of interest when women like her talk to me.
I smile sheepishly. Which does not mean like a sheep. Sheep don’t smile. They baah. No, I smile in a way that feigns slight embarrassment. My muscles have been trained to display the emotion. Meanwhile, my brain contemplates ways of getting out of the store in the fewest words possible.
I could start a fire? Books burn rather well.
“My girlfriend told me I needed to be a better listener,” I admit.
I don’t have a girlfriend. Or an anything-friend, really.
“Oh,” she replies with a laugh. Her smile doesn’t reach her eyes. Score. “Hope the book helps!”
I smile politely as she turns away. A smile that says, “it was nice of you to come talk to me, but we both have nothing to gain from further interaction.” That’s a lot to expect from a smile.
Now, just so you don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not some 30-year-old recluse creeping from store to store unable to socialize. I don’t stalk people or keep them in my basement.
No, as I said, I’ve learned to play people rather proficiently. I have a tightly knit group of friends. We have game nights on Fridays, bake on Saturdays, and go rock climbing Tuesdays and Thursdays.
My chocolate eclairs are buttery perfection.
I’ve created quite the facade, with carefully trained facial muscles displaying every human emotion, slight intonation in my voice portraying my “emotions,” even late night walks reflecting on their emotions.
I put the book back on the shelf and look at the tinder around me. A real smile flashes across my face.
So why was I reading a book on empathy?
To be honest.... I’m bored. I’m bored of faking it. I understand why serial killers go and do their thing. It’s something to do. But that doesn’t sound very engaging. It doesn’t sound challenging. Anyone can kill. Anyone smart can do it without getting caught. No, that feels beneath me. I want something truly stimulating.
At first, humans were my game. Getting them to like me, slowly sowing discord between them. Ooh the most fun is getting uncharacteristically discordant people to fall in love. Michael and Kyle kept me entertained for a year and a half before Michael keyed Kyle’s car.
After 10 years, humans have lost their charm. There’s nothing new.
It’s time for a real challenge. One that could keep me entertained for a lifetime.
I’m going to find a cure to sociopathy. My test subject: Me.
Burning bookstores will have to wait till I can feel guilty about it.
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Joshua you're living up to your name somehow even if negatively. Joshua is Always Joshua. It is hilarious I tell you. Fine work.
Your story engaged me from the get-go. It built great momentum and continued to be captivating all the way through, because your writing is great. I like that you use the scene in the bookstore to engage us with the MC, and then characterise them using narrative summary. A lot of narrative summary can make a story drag, but this really didn't, which is a testament to the quality of your writing. The wry humour of the protagonist is so delectable to me! They are self aware about their sociopathy, which makes them more sympathetic--more ...
This is awesome! Like a different perspective from a "Criminal Minds" episode. I love the commentary, for someone without empathy and emotion, he has quite a good sense of humor (or maybe that says more about my sense of humor... LOL). Great work!!
If he only burns down the self-help section, I will be fine with it. A rather charming story here... ;)
Thank you for an engrossing read (Not gross of course). I enjoyed the way you highlighted the difference in words and the way we interpret them. Sadly, or not so, the character also reminds me of myself. Hope to read more from you soon.
This was both a very easy read, gripping and flowy, and a very uneasy one! Chills!