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Science Fiction Sad Speculative

What did I do for dinner last Wednesday? It’s remarkable how hard it can be to think back after only five days. I remember Thursday’s dinner, a lackluster meatloaf smothered in ketchup, something totally forgettable aside from its brash mediocrity, but that isn’t past the look-back threshold. The memory has to be five days old to buy this combo McDouble meal, and why not trade the memory of one forgettable dinner for another? Now just to remember. 

I had already ordered the meal at the kiosk, and now I’m standing here with the neurolink making its barely perceptible vibration behind my ear to tell me it’s connected to the machine, waiting for my own brain to populate the memory of last Wednesday’s dinner. There’s a line beginning to form behind me, which obviously is making it even harder to remember. The hunger isn’t helping my recall either. 

“Hey, if you can’t conjure it then keep moving, buddy.” A large man says behind me. I turn my head the slightest bit to look at him, unsure if I should respond. I see he’s wearing an oversized long sleeve shirt with a logo that I vaguely recognize, and there’s a red-orange stain down by the hem. 

Spaghetti! I remember finally, the memory triggered by the sauce stain. I conjure the memory in as much detail as I can recall: a very mediocre dinner, a second date with this woman at the new Italian place down the street. The neurolink’s vibration begins to take a tangible form inside my thoughts. It appears almost like a receptacle in my mind, a visually pleasing trash can with smooth edges. I compartmentalize the memory, feeling the spaghetti, the plate, the fork, the awkward conversation, and my experience of it all coagulate into a gray-tinged block in my open hand, and then I mentally lean over and drop it in. 

Immediately it is gone. It’s strange to totally forget a memory, and not just like everyday forgetfulness but like a surgeon had carved it from your brain with a scalpel, like a vestigial organ we never knew we didn’t need. The feeling is slightly similar to the forgetfulness I was feeling right before this slob’s shirt triggered the memory, but this time there isn’t ever going to be an answer to what I did for dinner last Wednesday. 

The order is confirmed and I step over to the receiving window and wait for my number to be called. I grab the food soon after and get back in the car, stopping briefly to get more toilet paper in exchange for three small inconvenient and unpleasant memories which I can no longer remember now. At home, I turned the television on and laid out my McDouble meal. It’s times like these that the insidious solitude begins to creep in. My eyes immediately go to the bookshelf, where the large picture still remains in a mahogany frame: myself, Sharon, and Kimmy in loving embrace, Kimmy only five then and clinging to our legs. I really should take it down, seeing that they’re not coming back any time soon. It’s been fifteen months since they moved out after Sharon took Kimmy with her to live with this new man, whose name I actively choose not to remember. 

Two years ago I would have picked up two more meals, or even better, made a homemade meal for them. Maybe we would even cook something together, Kimmy being our little helper while Sharon and I flirted between tasks. 

For now, I need a distraction, so I pull up a new movie I had been wanting to see. It’s still new enough that I have to pay for it, which I don’t mind doing, so I activate the neurolink and conjure the memory of a movie I had enjoyed a year ago, a sad, romantic drama that had aligned almost too well with my marital woes at the time. I’m happy to see it go, feeling just the slightest weight lift from my mind as I immediately forget what that memory held. I eat the McDouble and fries as the movie begins, and lean back on my couch to enjoy.

#   #   #

Red hot pain screams through my stomach and out into my back. I try to sit up but am stopped by the pain shooting through my back as if I’ve been impaled; nausea is creeping up into my throat and head. I’m still on the couch, the television is still on. I must have fallen asleep watching the movie.

I finally push myself to a seated position, wincing and breathing heavily through the sharp scrapes I feel in my abdomen. I think for a moment of possible next steps: a pain reliever is out of the question, and I’m not sure what the home remedy could be for this kind of pain. I check the time, and it's still too early in the morning to go to the neighborhood doctor. There’s only one option, but I want to be sure that this won’t just pass. I wait about twenty minutes, nearly screaming through gritted teeth before I finally call the ambulance.

They immediately put me on an IV, and begin examining me while the vehicle is on the way to the hospital. Eventually, we arrive and they check me in, doing tests on my vitals and asking me questions about what I’ve eaten, any drugs I’ve taken, and where I’ve been. 

The IV begins to work, and the pain subsides. I start to realize how fuzzy the last hour or two have been and become both intoxicated with comforting, slow-moving warmth and more acutely aware of my surroundings. A woman in a white coat is standing near me, and she explains with a courteous smile that there’s nothing really wrong with me, but I have a kidney stone that I will have to pass in the next few days. It’s normal for a man my age, and it will be painful but ultimately harmless. They provide some more painkillers and tell me I can be discharged soon. 

After a short rest and very bland peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I leave the bed, feeling much better now, and head to the front desk with a newly formed knot in my stomach.

“Here’s your bill sir.” The grandmotherly woman behind the desk says as she turns a screen toward me. The itemized list includes the ambulance ride, drugs, IV, bed stay, and other miscellaneous charges, all adding up to one Key Memory. My heart sinks. I’ve never had to pay with a Key Memory before, but from what I’ve heard there’s no cheating the system. Before I can even protest, the neurolink connects, and I’m visualizing the endless catalog that is my memory bank. Yet there aren’t nearly as many as usual, just a short collection of scenes with yellowing and reddening tints. Before I can even choose, one shoots out at me, submerging me into that memory, the moment Sharon and I moved in together, the same day I had proposed to her. I’m feeling waves of joy and panic and hope and dread as the emotions from that moment clash with my current feelings about Sharon and where this moment ultimately led. 

All at once, the dreamworld around me is gone, as though a vacuum had sucked it up, and forms into a yellowish block. It passes into the receptacle and is gone. 

I return to the present, feeling mostly the same but with the lingering anxiety that I’m forgetting something important. Sadness creeps in at the thought, similar to the guilt you feel when you forget someone’s birthday or your anniversary, an unforgivable transgression. 

Not knowing what else to do, I turn away from the desk, but not before the woman gives me one last look of pity like she knows what I’m experiencing. She must see a lot working here, so I understand. 

I realize as I approach the exit that there’s no one to call to pick me up. I’m definitely short on close friends, and my ex-wife is gone. The only one I can think of is Trisha, a woman I had once been on a date with and interested in for a short period of time, but no longer. I decide I’ll take the risk, unsure of what else I would do and not wanting to pay for a taxi with another memory. 

She arrives rather quickly, gently helping me into the car with a smile. I feel so grateful and sad, and I gently kiss her on the cheek as I say my thanks. She’s not overly sentimental or loving, just clearly a kind person knowing I didn’t have any other options. I appreciate that. Her hair is back in a hasty ponytail, strands of black, curling hairs peeking out from the sides. Her eyes are soft and brown, almost echoing the piteous look of the hospital worker.

We pull out of the parking lot in silence, as expected, and I don’t make any effort to converse past another sincere thank you. She finally strikes up a conversation as we merge onto the highway. 

“So are you going to tell me why you didn’t call me back?” She says, her voice flat and hiding some frustration. 

I keep silent for a moment, unsure what to say. I’m not sure I figured that out myself. 

“I thought we had a good time last week.” She says, and a switch seems to click in my brain. There’s a fuzzy cloud there, but suddenly I remember I had gone on that second date with her to the Italian place. I don’t remember any specifics, which the neurolink must have taken from me. 

“I think we did,” I say. “I just… don’t know right now.” 

She coughs into her arm and tries to clear her throat before letting out a hoarse “it’s okay. I understand.”

She coughs some more before turning fast on me with a worried and panicked look on her face. 

“Did you eat something with peanuts?” She asks, her voice an angry whisper. I ate that PB&J, but I’m not sure why she asked.

“I… had told…" she says, wheezing now, and I realize she must be allergic to peanuts. Her eyes are fluttering now, and my heart begins to pound, my hands tingling and cold with anxiety and fear. We’re still moving very fast on the highway, and I feel powerless.

“Do you have an EpiPen?” I ask with intensity. Her head bobs clumsily and she indicates to the back seat. I look and her bag is there. I reach back and grab her bag and begin fumbling through it on my lap. That’s when her head falls down and hits the steering wheel, and the car spins out of control, twirling around and flipping once, twice—then blackness.

#   #   #

It’s hard to keep time when you’re in a windowless room for most of the day. I can’t even remember how long I’ve been in this cell awaiting trial. The last few months feel like a year. I had been in the hospital for a week with head trauma, chest contusions, and a broken arm and leg, when the police came and placed a handcuff on the unbroken arm, explaining I was under arrest for manslaughter. It was hard for me to make sense of it all back then, but even now, months later and mostly healed, I wrack my brain for some sort of explanation. They say everyone in prison is innocent, a winking joke at the pleas for freedom from the rightly and wrongly incarcerated alike. But I genuinely don’t understand what I did. Maybe I’ll get some answers today at my trial. 

The guards walk me into a small windowless room not unlike the cell I now call home, with a large screen on the wall and a bench facing it. The screen turns on, and an older woman sits behind a desk. The beginning remarks enter and leave my brain before I can comprehend them; I just hear the words “wreckless,” and “death,” and “manslaughter,” and “prison.” I plead not guilty when asked, because I know I’m innocent. 

“This is an open and shut case,” the woman says, not even consulting me or anyone else. She clicks a button and the screen shifts to some sort of list, like a receipt. Her voice continues over the image. “This is your neurolink transaction history. You can see here,” a line is highlighted toward the bottom of the list, “that you made a transaction on Thursday, November 4th, at a McDonalds, transferring a memory in exchange for a McDouble combo meal. That memory has been uncovered in the neurolink database, and it was of you at dinner with the deceased. Do you acknowledge this?”

I think for a moment, trying to remember the events of what feels like a year ago, events of which my memory was taken. She asks again and I nod impulsively as she continues.

“I have written testimony from the waiter at that restaurant that she was clearly told about a peanut allergy by the deceased, and you were perfectly lucid and aware of her doing so. A week later you were admitted to the hospital with a kidney stone, and were picked up the next morning by the deceased, but not before eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We can tell from the autopsy that the deceased died from anaphylactic shock due to her peanut allergy, and your hospital records show you had residue of peanuts in your saliva.”

This is all crashing down upon me, and I feel helpless and confused. It feels dissociative, like I’m watching a tidal wave overtake a small village from afar, imagining the suffering of those others but not possibly imagining it for myself. This can’t be real. I gave up a small memory in exchange for a small good, that is the social contract of the neurolink system. I try to argue, but before I can say anything the woman raises her voice. 

“There is no arguing the truth, sir. The law clearly defines the responsibility of the individual in using the neurolink system. Since its implementation, it has been known that you are responsible for the memories you conjure. You are responsible for holding onto important memories, not wasting them, and living within your means to do so. And you have failed your civic duty by willingly sacrificing a memory so important to another person’s survival. That is wreckless and dangerous and frankly unforgivable. You are guilty on all charges, including manslaughter, wreckless endangerment, and dangerous misuse of a neurolink memory transaction.”

I feel the tears before I know I’ve released them. My eyes are fluttering, and I’m unable to control my lips, nervously twitching to the side. This can’t be real. I barely knew Trisha, and I used a simple, forgettable memory of a date. That can’t be so bad, can it? I want to scream, to thrash, to break the screen in front of me; but I don’t move. I just cry. 

“This charge carries the maximum sentence, but luckily for you, you have a choice. You can spend the rest of your life in a maximum security prison cell, or you can relinquish a core memory of the court’s choice and be placed on probation and forced community service. What will it be?”

I can’t think. A core memory could mean anything. I don’t know what to do. Who would choose prison, though? Am I so secure with my life that I’m alright with living in a box forever? There’s so much life left to live, so much I now wish I had done and could vow to do. But I know that whatever they choose could break me. I’m paralyzed by indecision.

“What’ll it be?” She repeats herself. 

I hear myself murmur but don’t know what I said. Neither does she, because she asks me to repeat it louder this time. 

“Memory,” I say, unsure of what I mean. Apparently it’s enough because she slams down a gavel and the screen turns black.

Immediately the door opens and a set of hands is upon me, activating my neurolink and sending me into that dreamlike state. I watch as scenes pass me by like a rolodex, waves of time and space absorbing me into them and shooting past me like an asteroid. I’m at my first baseball game with my father, I’m comfortingly crying on my mother’s shoulder after my first breakup, I’m watching Sharon walk down the aisle. 

Then it stops. The dream fades away, leaving me in a white space with nothing but that ungodly receptacle. I wait impatiently, dreading what might appear and then quickly disappear into that memory hole forever. I know what it is before I see it, but it’s still hard to comprehend.

Kimmy appears, her body a translucent echo of itself, radiating rainbows of flashing color, somehow an infant and an eight-year-old and everything in between at once. She looks at me with those loving eyes, the eyes that had kept me going for so long, kept me loving and feeling and hoping even in the darkest of times. I feel a calm wash over me. She smiles, and I smile back, and I say comforting words. I know the words are for me and she’s not really here, but I need them.

The flashing lights begin to brighten, and I know what’s coming next. I won’t watch her go. I won’t. I’ll remember her as she was, not as some disposable memory. I’ll remember, I just know I will.

I close my eyes and wait.

August 19, 2022 20:20

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4 comments

Ayesha 🌙
16:22 Aug 23, 2022

Woah, this was really good. It's such an interesting concept, and I would love to see it fleshed out a bit more. I would also like to see more of the mc's thoughts, get in his head a bit more. The neurolink concept has real bones!

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Zach Shapiro
18:37 Aug 23, 2022

Thanks Ayesha! If the story could be longer I totally agree! Was already at the max

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Marty B
05:28 Aug 25, 2022

Interesting concept! I found the story picked up pace at the second scene, 'Red hot pain screams through my stomach...' (great line!) Any thought of starting the story there? the first scene is exposition, and not driving the plot forward in my opinion. Welcome to reedsy!

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Sable Rivers
21:39 Aug 24, 2022

Nice concept! The trial scene was especially well written. I was frustrated on the behalf of the protagonist for the injustice he faces. There's one change I would recommend to make the last scene more impactful: change the person who is forgotten to Sharon OR focus on Kimmy and the protagonist's relationship more beforehand. I could tell the protagonist cared about Sharon, but Kimmy seems secondary in comparison. You could even change it so he forgets about both of them! You did a nice job of describing the experience of forgoing a memory....

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