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I Love You, and I Have the Brain Scans to Prove It

Kara writes marketing copy by day and SFF stories by night. Living in Nashville, Tennessee, she enjoys going to concerts, experimenting with new recipes, and reading too many books. She also makes crowns and other jewelry inspired by her favorite SFF books, which you can see on Instagram @literarygemsdesigns. You can find her on Twitter @kara_writing.
"Ready?" The neurotech waves at the plastic chips lying on the table between us. I lace my hand in Claire's, flash her a wavering smile.
"Ready," she says for both of us.
The neurotech taps both the chips. A holographic brain springs from each one, glowing in translucent 3D. The one on the right is a riot of colorful blobs. The one on the left is muted, scraggly, a roadside wildflower to a genemod bouquet.
Instantly, I know which one is mine.
"So this one belongs to--"
"Let's start with this one," I interrupt the tech, stabbing a finger at my colorful scan.
He clears his throat. "Ah, um, okay. As you can see, we've got a ton of activity going on here and here...."
He labels the areas, names the neurotransmitters that shunt between them. Ventral tegmental area. Caudate nucleus. Nucleus accumbens. Dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin. Such clinical names for an un-clinical phenomenon. Or is love really just a burst of chemicals swirling through a hunk of grey matter?
"Now, ah, this one." The neurotech turns to the second scan. Claire's. A flush of secondhand embarrassment rises in his cheeks at the paltry image. "Not to worry, we see mismatches in couple's brain activity like this all the time. So many factors can influence it--"
"But the whole point of the scan is that it's right!" I hear my voice pitch up, angry, and I don't like it. I bring it down an octave. "'Unite fact with feeling.' Isn't that your motto?"
"Yes, but no test is ever 100% accurate--"
"We're paying for it to be accurate!"
"Jasmine." Claire's voice is as firm as her hand on my arm. "I think we'd better go." She flashes the neurotech a strained smile. "Thanks for your help."
He makes the scans go dark with two clicks, then slides the chips into a manila envelope and hands it to Claire. "You can take these. We store the digital backups for one year in case you need them. Have a nice day." He darts a furtive glance at me as we exit the room.
My arm is a wooden log in Claire's grip. Brow wrinkling in distaste, she offers the envelope to me as soon as we're out of the squat brick building. We drive home in silence; I clutch the scans to my chest like a lifeline.
In our driveway, Claire breaks the quiet as the car puts itself in park. "I told you it wasn't going to work."
"Maybe it did work." My voice is tight, short. "Maybe it worked too well."
"I didn't even want to do it. This was your idea. And now you're mad at me because it didn't work out like your fantasy?"
"It wasn't a fantasy! I just wanted tangible proof, you know? "
Her thin mouth cuts across her face like a knife wound. "Why? Because my words aren't enough for you?" I know she means: Because I'm not enough for you.
"No, oh no, Claire, that's not--"
The car door slams behind her. Her boots crunch against gravel, up to the front of our apartment. Another door slams, and I'm alone outside.
So many friends have tried the scans since they hit the consumer market. Bill and Iris did one last summer, and seemed more in love than ever after their results. They had a lovely wedding too, up at the cape. Iris said neither of them got cold feet, because they looked at the scans and they knew. It would last. They would last, together.
Claire does not need assurances. She needs canvas to transform, paint under her nails, my fingers in hers. That's part of what attracted me to her, the first time I saw her, standing beside her work at the local gallery, silhouetted in light and confidence. I wanted her, and I think I also wanted some of that optimism for myself.
But six years is a long time. Sparks wear thin, bodies fill out, feelings change. Except mine haven't. I have a ring box hidden in my dresser; I want Claire to be my wife. But does she want to be mine? Or am I a mere convenience, incorporated into her life because I was simply close at the right time?
Claire does not need assurances. But I do.
The next morning, unable to stop myself, I tilt the envelope upside down, chips falling on the bedspread. Only one half of the sheets are wrinkled from my restless night; Claire slept in her studio, both of us alone. I tap the plastic devices, igniting the scans, but the chips are too close: The holographic brains overlap, blurring the boundaries between hers and mine. I pick up the chip for the colorful scan, to move it away, and my fingertips catch a rough surface on the back. Huh. Odd. I flip it over. A tiny label is affixed to the bottom edge. In clean type, it reads: "C. Miller."
Oh. My breath catches against my teeth.
My fingertips hover over the remaining scan. The quiet, greyed out one. I flip the chip over, fast as a pancake. There, on the bottom: "J. Hunt."
Moisture fogs the edges of my vision. Oh, Claire. It's me. It's always me.
I'm sorry.
She's where she always is: working in her garage-turned-studio. Our garage, her studio. She stands at the sink, washing brushes, light from the open door striking her back. I walk up to her, wrap my arms around her waist, lean my forehead into her hair. Her paint-soaked hands fall still in the sink, then she rests her dripping fingers on my bare forearm.
I picture each part of my brain lighting up one by one, bright and colorful as a Christmas tree: Ventral tegmental area. Caudate nucleus. Nucleus accumbens. Dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin.
But I don't need a scan to tell me what I already know.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, February 20th, 2020


The seed of this story idea was planted many years ago, during one of my college psychology classes, when we discussed research that used fMRI machines to measure the brain activity of couples in love. I began to wonder how similar technology might affect romantic relationships if it were to become cheap and accessible enough for everyday use. While I originally envisioned a "Modern Love from the Future"-style essay, this story became something quite different through the writing and editing process.

- Kara Allen
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