The single most reliable mechanical device in the history of technology had been fitted to Jacob Frohmstein’s forehead at birth. Jacob’s father and mother were behavioral psychologists, and, prior to his birth, they had volunteered their child to have the device fitted, for the purposes of what they considered the most interesting experiment their field had ever known.
The device looked like a tiny fly swatter with a small, self-agitating leverage device attached. Its only mechanical function was to slap Jacob’s forehead once a second, every second of every day. The device had never malfunctioned, never skipped a single beat. The experiment was to let Jacob live his life with the slapper, and then at the start of his 13th year the slapper was to be removed, and his reaction observed.
People often asked Jacob what it was like to be slapped in the middle of the forehead all the time, and he had no answer, no frame of reference by which to even attempt an answer. To Jacob Frohmstein being slapped in the forehead and the experiential life of a human were the same thing.
There was no data on Jacob’s faculties prior to the slapper, and the device had been so instrumental in his childhood development that its ultimate effects were impossible to discern. He lived a sheltered life, for fear of upsetting the device, and he was, it must be said, a little slow mentally. Physical inactivity had left his cheeks rounded with baby fat, and he had not a single scar.
Also, he was exceptionally reliable at keeping time.
The experiment was explained to Jacob on his 8th birthday, after the pizza had been served, and before the ice-cream cake, and he accepted the information, as was his usual style, passively, and with a rhythmic tapping of his foot. The most obvious consequence of the device was that Jacob placed a great deal of value on individual moments in time, as both his parents had stressed the incredible importance of those few seconds on his 13th birthday to come. It would be a turning point in his life, a special occasion, like a Bar Mitzvah, only instead of reading some Hebrew, getting presents, and trying to convince one of the girls to give him a hand-job in the parking lot behind the restaurant Jacob would be experiencing a fundamental inversion of the universe as he had known it.
The day came punctually, with the resolute steadiness that Jacob had come to expect of life. There were hundreds of students and doctors and academics all watching, ready to record everything, but they were kept out of sight, so that the boy would feel less nervous. In this way too Jacob’s big day was different from a Bar Mitzvah. Jacob’s father (whose hands were so thin they suggested bone through skin) touched his arm and asked if he was ready, and because Jacob was not in the habit of nodding (having been taught that such movements may obstruct the device before being potty trained) he made a gesture of affirmation with his thumb. Jacob’s father did not tousle his hair, but in the family’s accepted alternative gesture of affection tapped the boy’s leg three times with an open palm, and left the room wordlessly.
As science watched Jacob sat in the empty, sterile doctor’s room, closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and waited for the sudden disappearance of complete consistency.
Andrew Battershill is the co-founder and editor of Dragnet Magazine, online. He was the winner of the 2010 Irving Layton Award for Fiction, and the On the Danforth Postcard Fiction Contest.