It took place in a corner office high in the sky, the conversation between Dale Lazzatto, the legendary profiteer, and Boris, his cadaverous mentee.
The encounter promised to elevate the trajectory of Boris’ professional career and indeed the young man’s entire life. Lazzatto looked upon his dour mentee with a smile that practically beamed. In fact, this smile was the very topic of their conversation. Lazzatto had just revealed some surprising information about it.
“You, a button-presser?” Boris cringed at his own words. “I hope that doesn’t sound disrespectful.”
Typically Lazzatto dodged the subject, but Boris reminded him of a younger version of himself, and he felt compelled to help. So he slowly raised the cuff of his shiny dress shirt to reveal it, the subtle skin-colored nub on the inside of his wrist. Just as dramatically, he reached for this button with his other hand. He pressed it. The powerful man’s smile vanished in an instant, replaced by an especially bitter pout. Boris thought it even worse than his own pathetic mug.
“Easy as that, I turn the smile on and off. I used to be like you, Boris. My natural expression is pained, even when I’m in relatively good humor. Unconcealed, my genuine smile struck others as a leer — perhaps that’s what it is. I was labeled a cantankerous upstart. I was going nowhere fast at this company.”
“The button changed your life,” Boris asserted. He’d considered button surgery for months, and craved affirmation that it was the strategic, moral thing to do.
Lazzatto held up his hand; the executive’s gesture combined with the miserable squint of his yellowish eyes confused young Boris. With that depressing face, Lazzatto no longer resembled an industry pioneer, not even close. He nodded slowly as if mulling a toxic memory, but Boris knew the man’s natural contours were misleading. Boris had much experience with people misinterpreting his own oddly mournful features.
Lazzatto finally said, “Gabriella Santino,” and let the words hang for Boris to consider. The intern arched his brow in anticipation.
“The love of my life,” the mentor explained. “She said she couldn’t love me if I got the implant. She stayed true to her word. I’ve been alone ever since.”
Boris shook his head. “But you wear a ring.”
“Marriage hasn’t a thing to do with loneliness.” Lazzatto sighed and swiveled his chair to gaze on his miraculously broad view. In the distance the tall buildings had turned charcoal, their windows electrifying as the sun dropped, and the early evening sky had purpled. Boris could tell the view saddened the man — oh, that’s just his regular pout, Boris reminded himself. Lazzatto directed the following question to his expansive window: “You know the button doesn’t just connect to a person’s lips… don’t you, Boris?”
“Yes, the button connects to the neural intercepts. The effect is to simulate the anatomical manifestations of joy, though the emotion itself isn’t experienced. Thus my eyes glimmer. Thus my cheeks turn rosy. My face responds precisely as if I’m experiencing peak happiness. The apparent authenticity of my smile is the foundation of my personal charisma. And yet…”
“It’s a façade,” said Boris. He’d thought about all this. “But it’s true for most people with charisma, even if they aren’t born with our cry faces. They practice charisma many years before perfecting it. They supplement what they’re initially capable of. It’s no different from implanting a button.”
“Ah, but where does it stop? You know, I’ve discovered my buttons can affect perception in some of the strangest ways, even how others perceive reality, how they explain it to themselves.” Lazzatto rolled his shirt sleeve higher by a couple inches. Boris shifted in his seat uncomfortably. The office had darkened quite a bit, yet Lazatto made no move to switch on a light. Boris could still make out a second nub on the inside of the executive’s arm. When Lazzatto pressed it, he issued a mellifluous laugh like a bird coaxing its mate in spring. The intern thought he heard the laugh behind him.
“You didn’t know about the laugh button?”
“No,” said Boris.
“Will you want this button as well?”
“I don’t think so. My laugh is fine.”
“I’m sure it’s not as fine as mine.”
Boris, too, looked at the window, the panorama. He didn’t care about status but knew others cared, and he wanted to care about things other people cared about; he was 23. He nodded. “Maybe I would get it. I want what you have.”
Lazzatto laughed again but this time hadn’t pressed the button, so what Boris heard was Lazzatto’s natural laugh, which sounded like a glass pitcher shattering. He reached for his ears.
“You want what I have,” Lazzatto repeated as he hiked his sleeve about four inches. The sun had disappeared. Boris squinted in the dark and just barely made out a third button on Lazatto’s arm.
The mentor pressed the third button and then leaned towards his desk lamp.
When all was illuminated, Boris yelped like a struck dog as the glass pitcher exploded in every direction.
He was no longer high up in the corner office of a tower. The city lights were gone. The walls were windowless and decaying with thin cracks like spider legs. The two men sat on hard, creased leather; a lone naked bulb flickered on the ceiling; an empty sucking sound came from above and something rumbled below; the floor smelled of piss and rot. Lazzatto’s shiny shirt was stained.
Boris couldn’t tell if the third button was on or off, couldn’t tell which room was real.
He ran for the door, and found himself in a hallway. He was back on the twenty-ninth floor.
The rest of his internship he avoided Lazzatto the corporate titan.
He never got around to button surgery.
Matt Fuchs writes speculative fiction novels and short stories. His novella Rise of Hypnodrome (CCLaP) was released in 2015. More recent fiction has been published or is forthcoming with Centropic Oracle, Compelling Science Fiction, and Allegory. Other endeavors include law review articles on the first amendment and magazine pieces about adventurous eating. More of his fiction can be found at fuchswriter.com.