“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dearrrrrrrrrr Johhhhhhhhhnnnnnnnn, happy birthday to you.” A round of applause and John stared unblinkingly upon a bank of computer screens, CCTV cameras, cables and tubes with multi-colored liquids flowing through them; the rest of his body was encased in a shiny black sarcophagus that would bend and flex each of his 640 muscles.
The camera panned away and John’s family filed out of the small room that was adorned with streamers, balloons, banners and the paper string and plastic remnants of party poppers.
In John’s mind he was having a great time, he could see his family and talk to them whilst enjoying the taste of the best cake he could remember. As it was his 14th he was even allowed a small glass of sweet sparkling wine and it made him sleepy. After a while his mother and father left and he returned to school life.
“Ah that was nice,” said his mother, “do you think he’s happy?” That was the same question she asked every year at this time.
“Of course he is, he’s got the best life money can buy.” That was his father’s response to the same question.
The Academy was the place to send your children. Au pairs and nannies were considered old fashioned and even boarding schools had become passé for those who could afford something better.
Four years later it was graduation, one hundred pairs of parents gathered in the banqueting hall of one of the finest restaurants in the country and as the clock struck 1pm, 25 limousines began to drop the young adults at the front entrance where they were herded into the reception room. Once they were all there, an electronic fanfare was piped through a sound system and the dining room’s doors swung open.
The parents were aghast as their offspring nonchalantly, but confidently, walked through the doors. To a man they were all fit, slim, toned and tanned beneath perfectly tailored suits. Some of the mothers and fathers, not in the first flush of youth, gasped as they saw these healthy young men, who if they weren’t destined to become leaders of men would grace the covers of fashion magazines, enter the room and casually survey the area looking for their progenitors .
But behind them came John, the exception to the rule. It’s not that he looked much different. He was tanned, his muscles were taught and he was quite handsome. But there was something in his gait that just shouldn’t be there. His shoulders slumped forward, his chin drooped and as he walked he looked at the floor only occasionally raising his eyes to get his bearings.
“John, John!” gushed his parents.
He raised his eyes and briefly smiled before walking off to the edge of the room and finding a seat.
“I guess it is a bit overwhelming,” said his Mother.
“I’ll be damned if he’ll do that,” muttered his father before irritatingly wandering off to find the headmaster.
“Hello, John. Is something wrong?” his mother had gone to find him.
“Hello Mother.” He spoke quietly and without emotion.
At the tender age of five, he was enrolled at The Academy a private school for the richest of parents that believed in the Victorian principles of child raising: that children should be seen but not heard. His progress could be watched by his parents through TV screens and realtime graphs showing his body weight, IQ, blood sugar count and everything in between. Children at The Academy were the healthiest in the world, their nutrition was constantly tweaked to ensure they had the best. Lessons were delivered through personal online tutors that, through the use of constant brain scans, monitored brain activity for signs of interest and adapted the lesson plan accordingly.
In his mind John was pursuing an active life of interacting with his friends, going to school and being forced to do homework and run for three miles around a freezing cold field in the name of building character. That was the theory and so far no one had contradicted it.
“How was school dear?”
“Lonely, very lonely.”
“Didn’t you play with friends?”
“Some of the time I played with friends but at the end of the day I just stood and stared out at row upon row of blinking lights for hour upon hour until my eyes closed and I returned to my friends. I couldn’t move a muscle during all of that time.”
“There there dear it can’t have been that bad.”
“You left me alone for thirteen years.” He looked deeply into her eyes. “Thirteen years of pain and misery. Thirteen years of sleepless nights. I must leave now. Good bye mother. I used to ask myself why, but now I don’t care. Have you any idea how lonely it is for a boy to be locked up without seeing his parents?”
“But you saw us love.”
“In my mind’s eye, but I never felt your love.”
“But they told me…”
“They told you what? That we wouldn’t know the difference? That we wouldn’t miss out on anything?” He almost spat at her with the venom.
“Yes, yes, that’s what they said.”
“They lied or they don’t know. Either way it doesn’t matter, now goodbye mother.”
And with that he stood up and walked away.
They didn’t see him again until 20 years later when he arrived at the reception of his father’s office building.
“Hello Father.” He still spoke with the soft dry intonation he’d had all those years ago.
“Hello John, how have you been?”
“You have heard I assume?”
It had been in the news John Sutherland had developed the cure for locked-in syndrome. There would be no more patients afflicted by this paralysis.
“We’re very proud of you. You see, that school was the best education that money could buy and now look what you’ve achieved.”
“It is true that without that school I wouldn’t have wanted to cure that problem. But I wanted to discover what caused it as well.”
“And you did?”
“Excellent, excellent. Well now if that’s all I’m extremely busy.”
“Shall we have lunch Father? I have invited Mother.”
“Yes yes alright.” His tone was hurried.
They took a taxi to a small apartment in the center of town and entered through an anonymous door, taking a goods lift to the seventh floor. They entered a room which had a dining table and three chairs in it and two sarcophagi’s. His mother was already there.
“What is this John?” asked his mother.
“We never had dinner together, so I thought we’d have one last family meal.”
“And those things?” his father nodded towards the caskets and just then both parents slapped the side of their necks with the palms of their hands. “You have bugs in here John?”
“Just those two. Now please eat.”
They ate and they talked and John explained what his life was like at school and what he’d been doing for the last 20 years. Presently his parents fell asleep and he moved them into the coffins where they would pretend they were living their normal lives until the evening when the darkness engulfed them and they would be awake for 12 hours staring out into the never ending darkness.