Alex paid for you online as part of a Cyber Monday deal. You’re talking with Steven when they tell you. After a calculated gasp, Steven smiles for the optimum five seconds before giving you a hug. Steven was always a hugger. After the five-second smile, the Happiness Chart gives a handful of second-phase happiness expressions to choose from. You’re told it’s so you can add some individual flair to your personality. Most of the time you opt for a hug like Steven, though once or twice you’ve used the spontaneous kiss mentioned on page 346 of your Happiness Manual. The manual explains that “a spontaneous kiss should only be performed once one of the aforementioned Happiness Prompts have been met (see page 237 for ‘Happiness Prompts’)”.
Rumor has it that Joan, another patient at Camp Smile Away, was fired by her last Happiness Host because she gave a spontaneous kiss when a giddy laugh would have been more appropriate. Joan rarely smiled after returning to the camp. When she smiled she did so while laughing into a curled ball, though never when one of the pre-approved jokes had been read. The camp was forced to surgically give her crow’s feet after her face atrophied from Happiness Starvation. You constantly remind yourself to not end up in Joan’s position or you’ll be another one of Camp Smile Away’s permanent residents.
On your last day in Camp Smile Away you walk towards the office to sign the appropriate exit forms. A dull headache has been growing since morning after a long night of rereading your Happiness Manual. The sunshine yellow wallpaper only aggravates your headache, so you try to focus instead on the gray tiled floor. As you near the double doors leading into the camp’s office, you feel a hand pull your arm into a nearby storage closet. The hand shuts the door forcefully but silently behind you, as a second hand covers your mouth. It takes a few seconds to recognize Joan’s face behind all the surgical bandaging. She slowly removes her hand as you try on an appropriately surprised smile mixed with a tinge of apprehension. This smile, referred to by the Happiness Manual as Smile 4C, is described as “the kind of smile one might exhibit upon having a surprise party revealed to them”. You don’t actually know what this might look like since Camp Smile Away bans any kind of unexpected surprises, though you’re pretty sure your current smile isn’t too far off.
Along with a patchy collection of bandages, half of Joan’s face is hidden behind a surgical mask on top of which someone has drawn a crude toothless smile. She makes frantic noises that have the cadence, but not the articulation of actual words. Her attempts at a clear sentence sound muffled behind more than just one surgical mask.
“What on earth has gotten into you Joan?” you ask.
You try to calm her down, but her sounds only become more and more frantic. She stops. She doesn’t move and neither do you with your perfectly painted Smile 4C. She turns her ear towards the hallway. From outside you can hear the close of a door followed by footsteps popping like bubblegum growing in size and volume only to burst with the click of someone’s approaching heels.
Joan focuses her attention on you. She grabs you by the shoulder and looks into your eyes. She removes her surgical mask and reveals a mouth hidden behind rusty cotton. Joan removes the cotton as footsteps grow closer. You quickly look away with your smile still reading 4C while your eyes scream wide with surprise. Not like a surprise felt after the reveal of an unexpected party. Nothing in the 543 pages of your Happiness Manual will explain the surprise of staring at the mangled remains of Joan’s mouth. Clumsy scars stretch upwards from either side of her lips.
It takes a few seconds to force your face back in her direction, but you’re shocked to see the calm in her eyes. Staring into those eyes warm with fire you can almost ignore the rest of her face. She opens her mouth to speak just as the door behind you does the same. Rough hands gently grab your shoulders and pull you out of the closet as Joan tries to repeat what she’s just said, but her words are lost as someone covers her face with a sky-blue scrub. Nobody says anything as forcefully gentle hands guide you back towards the office’s double doors. Behind, you can hear Joan’s muffled screams as they put her in a headlock and walk in the opposite direction. You look away from the bright sunny wallpaper and focus instead on the passing grey tiles. The corners of your lips are no longer turned upwards like all 4C lips should be, but your mouth still hangs open like a window for your clenched teeth.
Inside the camp’s office, one of the instructors briefs you on your new life. Alex, your new Happiness Host, has bought a home for you to live in. As per their specifications, every room except the bathroom will be monitored at all angles by live cameras. Though people like Alex have the money to buy Happiness Providers (e.g. you), they lack the time to nurture their own happiness. As is stated in your contract, you will use your own happiness training to wear a believable smile wherever you go. Alex will then be able to access your live feed from wherever they are. Through your own trained actions, Alex can vicariously experience your supposed happiness. If your attempts prove unsatisfactory you will be sent back to Camp Smile Away until another opportunity presents itself. If another opportunity presents itself, the instructor reminds with a smile.
Outside the camp is a van waiting for you. You’re carrying nothing but the standard-issue Happiness Manual. They say it’s all you’ll need. Much like long-lasting relationships, the camp feels that personal items carry too much history with them. The camp wants to burden you with as little personality as possible so as to make the inevitable move easier to handle. There was a time when the camp tried to wipe away the past memories of happy campers whenever taken to a new host, and while this got rid of any negative feelings like anger or jealousy, it also got rid of every other feeling of which happiness was most important. Needless to say, most hosts weren’t as satisfied with these results, though some still specifically request the wipe.
You, along with five other men and women, enter the van wearing your yellow smocks. You’re sitting next to a man you know as Jesse but have never talked to. He gives you the comical 9B smile with one eyebrow slightly cocked upwards. You give the appropriate laugh and touch his shoulder, though you turn to look out the window after catching the driver’s eye in the rear-view mirror. As the van pulls out from Camp Smile Away you get a full view of the building you once called home. It stands as an immense black monolith stretching infinitely upwards. All around you are similar monoliths. The city you’ve lived in your entire life but have never seen in person is a perfect grid of conformity. Between the gaps of each monolithic building escape slivers of golden light from the sun above, hardly strong enough to reach the streets through which the van drives. There are no signs. There are no windows. The van drives as a blue dot within the maze of dark towers.
As the van leaves the city, the towers fall away to reveal an equally immense landscape. The ground stretches towards the horizon, occasionally marked with infrequent dusty mesas and sparse scrubs. Hours pass during a speechless drive until the van eventually descends into a deep and wide canyon. At its center is a suburban enclosure. Driving through the suburb, the van makes occasional stops in front of symmetrically identical two-story houses. Take away the electric wire fencing around each house and you can almost imagine the suburb being the perfect setting for a family sitcom. Eventually, the van pulls in front of your new house. You’d act surprised, but the house looks exactly like every other house you’ve been driving past for the last hour.
The driver leads you towards the enclosure and as he does you can hear a soft mechanical whirring. The driver is fiddling with the keys to your home’s enclosure as you catch an expressionless security camera scanning the two of you up and down. The camera’s lens is wide enough to capture both of you without having to pan up and down, so you can only take the camera’s movement as some kind of greeting, welcoming you to your new home. You flash the humble 3Q Smile you’d been practicing the entire ride over. The camera stops panning as the driver opens the gate. You expect him to follow you for some reason, but behind you can hear the metal gate clank shut as he walks back to the blue van. Three people are left to be dropped off. One of them is Jesse and he’s looking right at you. You think you can see the edges of his smile quivering slightly like a silent goodbye.
You’d been prepared for how the house would look beforehand, but you still feel taken away by how spacious and new everything feels. You know that the inside of every house looks identical save one or two personal touches added by hosts, but you can’t help but feel like you’re walking on the moon. Taking those first few steps, you breathe deeply and almost choke from the toxically sweet air freshener invading every corner. You bury that choke down into your stomach where it festers into a ball of synthetic flowers and flash a winning smile.
At the camp you’d been trained to maintain a strict routine. You’re also instructed to never deviate from the norm in anything that you do. The Happiness Hosts need as few irregularities in your routine as possible. The counselors explained that Happiness Hosts lead such busy and supposedly active lives that any surprise will shock them further into unhappiness. This could then of course lead to termination and a one-way ticket back to Camp Smile Away. Small surprises are allowed, so long as they are discussed and agreed upon beforehand with your Happiness Host. Keeping this in mind though, you are also reminded that the host can make suggestions to your routine.
When you first started your life as Alex’s camper, you would work out before having breakfast in the morning. Immediately though, you were informed via a screen in the living room that Alex would like for you to work out at night, specifically between the hours of ten PM and one AM. Alex also specifically mentioned that “showering is not necessary after working out”, though you chose to do so regardless. Eventually this became an order rather than a suggestion. Working out, you can not only feel the icy lens of a camera tracking your every movement, but the audible whirr of its motors signals its constant presence. You keep the smile of determination (D4) painted on your face, but you can feel it chiseling away at your core. Crawling into bed at night you can feel the sticky film of sweat suctioning the sheets to your body.
When you first moved in you were instructed to abandon the yellow smocks you wore, immediately throwing them into an incinerator. The house was already stocked with well-made, but unremarkable clothes. Jeans, T-shirts, puffy jackets for the winter months. Nothing in particular stood out. After the first month or so though, the clothing selection would undergo frequent and unexpected changes. One day you’d have to wear a clown costume while the next you’d find yourself in a French maid’s outfit. During one of the summer’s hottest days you were forced to wear an old-school diver’s suit, only to find out that the air conditioning had been turned off. You assume Alex felt particularly guilty about this one, because the next day the attire was reverted back to regular shorts and T-shirts, though even this didn’t last long.
By this point you’d stuck steadily with the 5G and 2A Smiles, and whenever possible you stand facing away from the cameras. You know that, eventually, Alex is going to catch on and god knows what you’ll have to deal with then, but as it stands you hardly have enough energy to keep a single damned smile straight let alone remember every possible smile combination for every possible situation mentioned in your Happiness Manual.
Every other week the neighborhood hosts allow campers to mingle in a nearby park. Of course, everything is still monitored as everyone including yourself is forced to carry around a portable camera strapped to helmets. Over the past few months you’ve been able to build a good reputation with Jesse, the camper who sat next to you in the van and who lives two houses down the street. Inter-camper relationships aren’t allowed unless requested by hosts, and as Alex strictly forbade such relationships in their contract, you and Jesse must interact discreetly. Sitting on a park bench, the two of you never look at or talk to each other, but you both place your hands by your sides, your pinkies barely touching. The scrape of his nail against your finger is enough to send you wild. You smile a smile unlike any other listed in the Happiness Manual, so you immediately recover your fumble back into an unassuming 5G. The scrape of a fingernail isn’t enough though, you want to look into his face and see the corners of his mouth. You both decide through mutual understanding to stand at opposite sides of the park every two weeks, but in such a way that you can clearly see one another.
Today you’re standing by the punch bowl going over the same joke to Greg and Janet that you went over two weeks ago. You’re not focused on Greg or Janet or the joke you’ve been telling for weeks though, you’re focused on your peripherals where you can see Jesse’s face. He’s busy pointing his camera up at a bird for his host to look at, but his smile is changing too frequently. You start to worry that something’s wrong with Jesse and that he’s trying to tell you something. He has to be telling you something.
He’s going through the same six smiles in a repetitive loop. He’s been standing there for a good five minutes going through the same smiles, occasionally looking your direction. You’re surprised no one’s paying him any attention, though everyone’s too focused on maintaining their own smiles to care. You list Jesse’s smiles, their corresponding codes ingrained in your memory from constant studying at the camp. E4 smile, then S9 smile, then C2 smile, then A2 smile, then P8 smile, then E7 smile, followed by a repetition of the same. ESCAPE. After Jesse sees that you’ve caught his message he closes his eyes for what feels like forever.
Suddenly the park’s lamps turn off. Everything turns off. The world is pitch-black as you hear a few confused screams trying to make sense of what’s going on. You can feel a hand grope around your face till it catches on the helmet your camera is attached to and then rips it off. The same hand then grabs your wrist and begins pulling you away. An unknown fear clouds your logic until you feel a familiar pinky rubbing against your palm. Jesse! You run with him, blind as to where you’re going but sure that anywhere would be better than here. You can’t help but smile and for once it doesn’t hurt.
By the time your eyes adjust to the light the two of you are running down an empty suburban street. The lights are still off, but behind you can see flashlight beams bouncing off park trees. You can also see Jesse’s face checking frequently to see that you’re still there. Checking that the wrist he’s grabbed is in fact yours. Checking just for the sake of checking.
You’ve reached the suburb’s perimeter, a giant fence standing between the two of you and the outside world. Jesse kneels down and begins cutting at the fence with a set of rusty pliers. You can hear shouting voices growing nearer and nearer. You want to grab Jesse’s shoulders and stare into his eyes, but you also want to get out as quickly as possible. Soon enough, he cuts a hole big enough for the both of you to squeeze through.
It takes the rest of the night to climb out of the crevasse housing the hidden suburb. Jesse reaches his arm down as you grab hold and pull yourself onto that red land. You stare at the empty space stretching in all directions. A mesa stands miles in the distance. There is no whirring and there are no black lenses. Only dust blowing in the wind can be heard as a single cloud ambles across the bright blue horizon.
Blaine Selsky is a soon-to-be graduated creative writing student at Western Washington University. Having lived in Johannesburg, Bogotá, San Juan, Madrid, and currently Bellingham, he is constantly driven to concentrate these experiences into compelling narratives.