Grace wiped a spot of blood off the table, smearing it back and forward with her index finger. She glanced at the clock under the security camera. Nearly lunchtime. One more to go.
“Come in,” she called.
Footsteps clomped in the hallway, and she nudged a glass of water towards the centre of the table. And then slightly to the left.
One more. She could do this.
“Ready, Doc?” a guard asked, pausing in the doorway.
He was gripping the shoulder of her next client, his meaty hands forming dents in the man’s pale skin. She was a doctor. This was a gift. She hoped the twitching above her eye wasn’t obvious.
“Yes, bring him in,” she said.
A burst of colour peeked from under her sleeve, and she tugged the white fabric over the tattoo. A rose tangled around a single word. Henrietta. That was another lifetime. Such trivial affairs were distant memories now.
“This is Ray Viotto, Doc,” the guard said, walking to the table and pulling out a chair, the client shuffling quietly beside him. “He’s been nothing but compliant. Very docile.” He rubbed a blossoming bruise across his chin.
Their last one wasn’t docile.
The client stood, head down, looking at the floor, shaking. She wiped her hands on her dress. One more. Then lunch.
Perhaps she needed a holiday.
“I’ll stay anyway, though?” the guard asked.
Grace followed his gaze to the clock.
“I can handle this, thanks. You go have your lunch”—she dropped her gaze to the swipe card hanging round his neck—“Ron.”
How long had he been working here? Not long. Still, she should know his name. It irked her that remembering took more effort than she cared to admit.
“Thanks, Doc.” Ron folded his arms, his biceps bulging against the white fabric of his uniform. “Sing out if you need help.”
“Thank you, Ron.” She turned to her client. “Welcome.” She gestured to the chair next to the table. “Sit.”
The man perched awkwardly on the chair, his blonde hair springing off his head in haphazard angles. It gave him a carefree, surfer vibe which contrasted harshly with the clenched fists of his zip tied hands.
“Here, let me get that.” Grace pulled a small pair of clippers from her pocket. “I’m Doctor Grace.”
She snipped the zip tie, and he lifted his head, meeting her gaze. His eyes widened, and his chair scraped on the concrete as he recoiled from her touch.
Grace swallowed, and pretended she didn’t notice, making a fuss of throwing the zip tie into the bin. She didn’t blame him. This wasn’t a gift she’d like to receive, either.
“Ray Viotto?” she asked, pulling her script cards from her pocket, the familiar weight reassuring.
“This can’t be happening,” he whispered, his gaze darting over her face. “You won’t actually do this?”
“Ray Viotto, we are here because—”
“Oh, God.” Ray gripped his head, his hair poking through the gaps in his fingers. His shoulders shook as he crumpled into himself and sobbed.
“Have some water, Ray. I’ll wait until you’re ready.” She pushed the glass towards him and watched the trees sway in the breeze outside.
She needed more than just a holiday.
The wet hacking sound of Ray’s sobs spluttered around the room. Grace picked at the cuff of her sleeve, covering a red petal. Everyone had a past. She wasn’t a criminal, so she kept hers.
Ray’s sobs slowed, dissolving into jagged gasps. Grace put her finger on the script, marking her place. She should quit after lunch.
“Ray, you have been found guilty of treason and chosen to accept the Gracious Gift Programme over life imprisonment.” She set a small blue box on the table. “Today we give you that gift.”
Grace traced her finger over the edge of the box. She glanced at the security camera, then snapped open the lid. A syringe filled with orange liquid lay inside, nestled in the plush blue velvet.
Ray gave a small moan and reached for the glass. He sipped. Grace blinked. Nearly lunchtime.
She read from the script. “At the end of this meeting, your memories will be erased. You will be free from the past trauma that led you to crime. You will be provided with an alternative set of memories that will feel real but are, in fact, fictitious. These alternative memories will help you make a positive contribution to society.”
Ray took another sip of water, his hand shaking, sending the liquid sloshing over the side of the glass.
“Do you understand the information I have given you?” she asked.
“We had a child.”
Grace paused. “Pardon?”
Ray leant forward, grasping for her across the table. She slammed her hands into her lap, out of reach.
“We were saving our daughter,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Not committing treason.”
“You were found guilty.” She flicked through the script cards, searching for the correct response.
“You're not listening. She’s only nine. She was just having trouble sleeping.” He held her gaze. His eyes were pools of pain, and she was drowning.
This wasn’t allowed, this sharing of memories. She should stop him. She watched the trees instead. Her own tiny gift. Or perhaps a tiny rebellion before she quit.
“They were going to wipe her, because she was having nightmares.” Ray’s voice cracked.
He sniffed and wiped his eyes, holding his fingers at an awkward angle. Grace wondered if he had something in his hand.
“Nightmares. Children aren’t even allowed nightmares now.”
“What were they about?” The words were out of her mouth before she could catch them, and in their echo, she heard inevitability.
Ray frowned. “Going to the zoo.”
Grace leant forward, nodding for him to continue.
“She saw the tigers fighting and it gave her nightmares. We took her to the doctor, expecting a minor patch." Ray paused, a sob escaped. "But they said the memory was too traumatic. That it would affect her ability to make a positive contribution to society.”
He took another sip of water. Grace’s lip trembled. This was a serious breach of protocol. There would be consequences for her.
“Go on,” she said.
“They said it would be a full wipe. Our sweet Etta, erased.” Ray twisted something in his hands, tears rolling down his cheeks. “We ran, of course. They caught my wife first. Us, two days later.”
Grace swallowed. She needed to get back on script. Ray had been found guilty, and she was a doctor. She scratched at a white scaly patch of skin on her finger. What would she do for her daughter if she was a mother? That was a dangerous thought. It could cost her past.
She scanned the script for an appropriate response. “Crime, and re-offending, have fallen to almost zero with the Gracious Gift Programme. We recognise antisocial behaviour arises from previous trauma, so we set people free of their past. We gift memories of a happy childhood, secure attachments, financial security. All the factors necessary to produce citizens that make a positive contribution to society.”
Ray shook his head. “You’re not a doctor.”
He opened his hand and slid a tatty photo across the table. A tingle of fear crept across her back. A photo. Of all the contraband to have. She should swipe it off the table, throw it in the bin, follow the script.
She picked up the photo.
Ray watched her, his hands pressed against his mouth, and face twisted into a tangle of hope and despair.
“Anything?” he asked.
The photo was of Ray. He stood next to a young girl, his arm draped around her shoulders. She looked happy, her long pigtails framing her freckled face.
Grace staggered back, the chair scraping on the concrete. “No. No. That can't be true."
On the other side of Ray stood a woman.
“My wife is gone.” Ray reached for her hand, his face pale and a light sweat glistening on his forehead. “My memories are all that’s left of my beautiful Rose.”
The woman was her.
Grace grabbed at her sleeve, yanking it up. Rose. Henrietta. Etta. She plowed through the empty rooms of her mind, hunting for a whiff of her past.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, pressing her trembling fingers to her mouth.
Ray took her hand and kissed it, his lips cold. “If you wipe me, there’ll be nothing left of our Etta.”
The truth sat on her chest, gripping her throat. Nearly lunchtime. She looked at the floor. “It’s already done.”
Ray shook his head, frowning at the syringe nestled in the box. “But…”
“That’s a tranquilliser. For agitated clients.” Her words caught in her throat and she nodded at the half-empty glass. “We put it in the water.”
The clock chimed. Lunchtime.
Ray leant back in his chair, his face drooping. He opened and closed his mouth, but no words came.
Synapses in his brain were snapping. Soon his brain would shut him down. He’d awake a blank slate. Primed and ready for the new memories of his rehabilitation.
Grace looked at the security camera. They’d seen this. She’d be wiped by the end of the day, Etta erased.
She faced Ray. Her past. The past that gave her a chance to choose. To suffer adversity. To learn and love and grow.
She slipped the syringe out of the box and into her pocket. That was her past. Her heels clicked on the concrete as she moved towards her future.
Grace leant against the wall beside the door, curling her fingers around the syringe.
She had a positive contribution to make.
“Ron, I’m ready,” she called.