A broken cure for the need to stay smart.
A building with two large glass doors looms ahead at 8342 Blue Street, giant blue-and-white sign boasting SYNTELLIGENCE: LEADING THE FIELD OF SYNTHESIZED INTELLIGENCE.
Sora halts briefly, slowly clenching and unclenching her gloved fists as she rereads the words a final time. She then climbs up the stairs and goes in.
The receptionist greets her with a welcoming smile. Working in reception is what she’ll end up doing if she doesn’t ace the upcoming midterms, as her lovely grandmother kindly reminds her every day. Wordlessly, Sora walks by and navigates around the hallways, turning into the room she’s entered so many times before. Three hours and five thousand dollars later, she leaves.
It’s her sixth visit. Her grandmother first brought her here eight years ago to become smarter after being rejected from the gifted program. She’s plenty gifted, Grandma insisted. She has to be. When Sora retook the test, she scored the highest in the class. Then, her classmates admired her. They treated her nicely. And what’s more, Grandma smiled at her. It was right then and there that Sora decided that being smart felt nice. Sora would do anything to be smart. Stay smart.
Later, she learned that the rest of her classmates didn’t go to strange white rooms and fall asleep and wake up smart, they spent time studying and reading books. So Sora learned how to do that too. She found that she was good at it sometimes, but when she wasn’t, Grandma would take her back to the white room so that she’d return to being good enough.
One day, Sora was told that what she did was wrong and that what her classmates did was right. She was allowed to spend hours poring over books, but she wasn’t allowed to go into the white room. That was cheating. So for years, she locked herself up in her room, becoming smarter in the right way so that Grandma wouldn’t bring her to the white room to make her smarter in the wrong way. She tried her hardest to endure, but she broke down during finals and was sent to the emergency room. Her grades went down as a result, and her grandmother was livid. From then on, she stopped trying to avoid the white room.
If people can pay money to buy expensive cram courses, why can’t she pay money to achieve the same result? Aren’t the sleepless nights and tearful hours spent among the tomes of her mansion’s giant library worth avoiding?
Therefore, Sora no longer studies like a poor person because she’s not poor. She can go to the white room instead.
“Did you hear?”
“—full score on all the midterms!”
“Why, we all have to work so hard, and she just—”
“—it’s because she’s filthy rich already—”
“Well, does it matter?”
The whispers grow louder in Sora’s ears as she opens the door to the classroom. She walks to her seat in the front row and sits. Whether or not she is straining to tamp down her annoyance is externally indiscernible. Class starts in a few minutes, and everyone will shut up and focus on other things then. Endure.
Sora’s doing so well when Rank 2 comes running up to her and demands, “Is it true?” Sora closes her eyes for a moment. Rank 2 continues to press with urgency, “Well, is it?”
So what? So what? Slamming her hands down, she stands up and cries, “So what?!” The chatter in the classroom momentarily dies down at her outburst, before rising again all the more frantically.
Sora collapses back into her seat and buries her head in her arms, feeling the incoming headache. She is just perfecting the art of desensitization to external stimuli when a tap on the shoulder interrupts her meditation.
It’s the girl next to her who wears glasses with a probably long-expired prescription. They’ve been sitting next to each other for a while, but Sora only vaguely remembers her seatmate squinting at the board despite being in the front. And clicking her pen. And talking too much.
“You all right?” Glasses asks as she begins incessantly clicking her pen. Sora is mildly annoyed. “You know how gossip works. They’ll find something else to talk about soon. Remember that one time—”
“What’s your class rank?” Sora interrupts.
Glasses stops clicking and squints at her with a frown. “Is that all you think of me as?” she asks.
Sora shrugs. What else? There isn’t much to care about other than rank.
“I’m Rank 14,” Rank 14 answers flatly. “I know it’s not good for someone like you, but I’m fine with that.”
“I wish I were fine with that,” Sora mumbles. “If I weren’t someone like me.”
“Your rank slipped.”
Sora has barely stepped foot into the house when she sees the approaching shadow of her grandmother, a severe silhouette matched with a frown-hardened face, phone dangling from her fingertips. Ah. She’s caught on. Sora emotionlessly replies, “It did. Thank you for pointing that out.”
The wrinkles around her grandmother’s mouth tighten even more. Sora wonders how soon it will be until a vein pops. “It should not have slipped,” her grandmother remarks stiffly. How surprising. Sora has no idea her grandmother thinks that.
“Okay. It should not have slipped,” she nods along expressively with concerned eyes to affirm the egregiousness of the situation. “But it did. Now if you’ll excuse me—” She tries to flee to the stairway, but her grandmother grabs her arm before she can make it all the way to the so-close-yet-so-far escape.
“Rank first by next month. Otherwise, deal’s off,” she hisses into her ear before letting go and walking away.
Right. If she isn’t perfectly Rank 1…well, she has to be Rank 1. Okay. A little money out of her grandmother’s endless bank account will do the trick. It’s fine.
Rank 2 puts on her coat and hat and gloves and leaves for 8342 Blue Street.