Empathy, an important yet seldom appreciated emotion — what occurs when it disappears altogether in favor of personal excellence?

My breath comes quick. I sprint through the halls, my friend in tow. We desperately look for solace — any place to shelter us.

“They’re coming!” He screams. We catapult ourselves behind a row of dusty lockers, barely allowing ourselves to breathe as we strain to hear footsteps, boot-clicks — anything to alert us to the fact that we aren’t alone. We don’t move, locked in a desperate tangle for survival. My brain wanders and try as I might, I cannot bring it back.

The heels. They were the first sign. Stiff boots clicking down hallways. Sharp creases tucked within starched white pants. Scientists swarming, watching, waiting — after all, we are special. We are the in-betweens, the teenagers, the ones with their future lying grey before them, yet not so much that dreams of spaceships and flying heroes still exist in viable reach; we’re not quite children, yet not adults either. That murkiness, the middle-ground, makes scientists see us as potential. Conducting test after test, drawing vials after vials of blood, and now they finally have a viable hypothesis.

“We’re testing human empathy.” 

That was how it all began. All I understood was that we were test subjects. They wanted to measure the effect empathy had on us as growing humans, how we could impact society. 

“We wonder, what will be the effect when instead of worrying about other individuals, the brain’s power learns at an early age to hone its own talent? What marvels can we coach into existence?”

“It’ll be painless.” They promised. 

One by one, students got up from their seats. I remember their frantic eyes, their faces a mask of confidence. I remember the faces, all faces I’ve seen scowling at one another the second test scores float their way into our classrooms, each congratulatory message a façade for venomous jealousy. People were at each other’s throats already, vying for the top spot, top colleges, top GPA. Whatever invisible dust of empathy sifts through our school, I’ve yet to see it.

This is what they wanted to fix. They wanted to eradicate every flake of compassion from our malleable minds, hoping we would change our society into an efficient machine. They fabricated drug after drug until they settled on one. This was their problem: their “wonder drug” slowly inhibited all emotion, not just empathy. We saw so many eager faces turn into husks of themselves, all traces of life stripped away. I remember the burn. My forearm still has the angry pucker.

It was too late. We became a liability. We were slowly breaking, our emotions crystalizing as their drug had done to our blood. The scientists couldn’t let us roam around. They had to get rid of us. Or so they apologetically claimed, their blue surgical masks bobbing up and down with the words. I couldn’t stand to look at them.

My brain jumps back into the present. The brilliant blue of their masks scythe across my vision and I reel back in horror, my friend already comforting me out of the reverie. He and I glance around anxiously, waiting for a steel-booted man to brutally stab his syringe into us, waiting until our chests rise no more.

This is our mistake. We hear no boots, no feet, no heels. We think we are safe. We are swathed in the promise of survival and we become brash. Ever the hero, he ventures out warily, but one can never be too careful.

A blur. A black blur, and he is torn away from me. I remember my screams. I remember his screams. I remember the handler’s grunts as he fought, trying to tear away into an empty classroom, an empty stairwell, anywhere he can get to. He was unsuccessful. I could do nothing but watch the needle as he slowly shuddered into a stiff upright position, finally nothing but a husk.

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