Oblivion’s Wake

2051

“Memory is a story the mind tells to itself.”

Fragments_300

Chapter 1

 

David wondered how much time a drug could possibly need to travel from the crook of his arm to his brain. Two weeks was too long, the mosquito bite of the syringe a memory now. He’d hoped this would be the first visit where he didn’t have to imagine Auntie’s face and Uncle’s voice. That, by now, he would actually remember them.

He squeezed his eyes shut. Opened them and looked at the granite blocks at his feet.

 

Melanie Reed, Loving aunt. 1976—2028

Stuart Reed, Loving uncle. 1974—2028

 

His journals told him Uncle Stu used to push him on the swing in the backyard. Auntie baked on Sunday mornings, filling the air with the smell of cherry pie and whole wheat bread. David imagined the sound of rusted chains on the swing and the comforting odor of pastry. It was all imagination right now. Memory was what the syringe was meant to return.

Several strides away, Ariel stood at her grandmother’s tombstone. Her hands made fists in her jacket pockets, knuckles pressing tiny indentations against the fabric. Seeming to sense his gaze, she turned, forced a smile, and came toward him. With her black hair tied into a bun, she looked like a schoolteacher too long in the jaws of public education. Her coat was identical to his: magenta, with more pockets than one could possibly need, and zipped to her chin against November’s chill. She looked ready to stomp and curse like a plumber. Understandable, considering the shot in his arm had cost more than their car and had done less to his brain than a painkiller caplet.

Ariel slipped her gloved hand into his.

“Thank you.” David leaned down and kissed her. Her lips tasted of mint.

Ariel’s brow arched. “For what?”

“Being here. Being you.”

“If that’s all it takes to keep you amused, I can manage.”

“Going to ask whether anything has come back yet?”

“I’m tired of asking.” Ariel snorted and squeezed his arm. “I’m starting to think they shipped you a vial of Baltimore tap water.”

The car crossed from Vancouver into Burnaby beneath a sky threatening rain, made its way to Watling Street, and eased itself into the driveway. David climbed from the passenger side. Ariel joined him, pressing herself against him as they strode across the lawn – a mess of maple leaves blown and scattered by storm winds. The car dutifully waited for the garage door to slide up, then rolled itself inside.

The huge house with its oversized living room and brooding black couches was strangely free of racket. The kids were away for the weekend – thanks to a few words from Ariel to their friends’ parents. He had become used to the noises of his family competing for attention. There were times in the past two decades when he had longed for peace and quiet. Now it left him unsettled.

“Love?” Ariel said, stepping inside.

“Yes?”

Ariel cocked her left eyebrow. “That was a question. Was that your answer?”

“Always.” David grinned back, enjoying the old game.

Ariel ran her coat’s zipper from throat to waist and tugged it open with a flourish. Now David understood why she had put it on in the bedroom: to keep him from seeing her choice of garb. Ariel had opted for her burgundy vest with snaps up the front. Over the years she had grown somewhat thicker around her middle – a change only she and he were likely to notice – and the vest was a size too small now. But vanity or denial hadn’t prompted her to wear it. She had clearly chosen it for the spectacular things it did to her breasts.

Ariel licked her lips. “Don’t you know it’s rude to stare?” She slipped her arms beneath his, breathing spearmint against his cheek. “I love you.”

“Love you too.”

“I love you more.”

“Do not.”

“Do – ”

He shut her up with his tongue.

*****

The lapses are here. Damn it damn it damn it. My mind wanders away from what I’m doing now. Got to get this down. Remember the time Auntie and Uncle took me to the fair in ’26? They had those big fighting bots, the kind that can smash each other into pieces, but all the bits snap back together so the next player can do it again. Auntie kept saying, “Oh, that’s so mean, Davie.” I was beating up this other kid’s bot.

David studied the page of his journal, neat black strokes in his younger self’s handwriting. The wooden chair at the dining table chilled his naked behind.

The fair would have been in midsummer – weather for shorts and a T-shirt. He was thirteen. The place likely smelled of fast food.

The other kid’s name was Fredrick. I remember that ’cause he called himself Rick. It was his mom who called him Freddie. God, picture getting stuck with a name like that. “Davie” is bad enough.

The couch creaked as Ariel picked herself up.

“Been thinking,” David said.

“Uh-oh.” Ariel strutted to the table, hips swaying in a comically exaggerated stride, breasts bouncing. The surgical scar between them stood out in pink relief against her skin.

“Trying to distract me? The teenager I used to be thanks you from the depths of his libido.”

“Are you sure? What if it turns out I’m not his type?”

“Him: hetero teenage boy. You: warm, female, sans clothing. Definitely his type. But not the point.” David tapped the books in front of him. “I have an idea. I described Auntie and Uncle in these books. I can imagine how they looked, how the house must have smelled, even Uncle Stu’s blustery voice. Maybe the memories are so close to what I’ve imagined that I just haven’t noticed they’ve started coming back.”

Ariel’s gaze skipped away from his. “That’s an interesting thought.”

“You only say ‘that’s interesting’ when you mean ‘that’s crap.’”

“Name one case of a patient who got a beta ephemerase dose and didn’t have some kind of disorientation. It takes time for the stuff to kick in. Sometimes a month, or even more.”

“Majority start getting their lives back in less than a week.”

“And one in three start the week after, and one in seven the week after that. So you’re special but not very. Live with it.”

David slapped the notebook shut. “So, consensus: that was a stupid idea.”

“Put it in context. Your magnificently bizarre mind cooked it up while you were rolling me around on the couch. The blood normally feeding your brain cells had better places to be.” Ariel eased her arms around his neck. Warmth pressed against his back. “Let’s go to bed.”

“It’s four thirty. Tired already?”

“Don’t be silly.”

*****

David woke to a stench of rotten meat. His stomach clenched and squeezed until he couldn’t breathe. He tumbled out of bed and half staggered, half ran to the bathroom. His palm caught the light switch. The glare from the light strip above the mirror stabbed agony through his eyes. His belly heaved. He sank to his knees before the toilet and retched. Nothing came up but bile burning in his throat.

Ariel’s voice roared in his head. “Jesus. What’s wrong?”

“That smell. Something die under the bed?”

Ariel stood wide-eyed in the doorway. “No smell, David.”

David rose and leaned against the sink. He twisted the knob for cold water, bent down over the basin to drink directly from the flow. Mouth full of water, he sucked air in through his nostrils. No odor of rotting flesh. David emptied his mouth and drew a long breath.

“Must have dreamed it.”

“It certainly wasn’t coming from me.”

“Smelled like old meat. Roadkill. Strong and thick. As though it were all around me.” David reached for his toothbrush for the second time this night.

A smile dimpled Ariel’s cheeks. “So I guess we’re getting our money’s worth.”

“What?”

“It’s started.”

David worked the brush along his teeth and tongue, killing the acid taste. He spit froth into the basin. “Maybe. Didn’t write anything about old meat in my books.”

“You had five months to write down fifteen years of your life. Odds are good you left out a few details. Remember anything specific?”

“Maybe.”

“Coherent sentences, Mr. Glass.”

The images in his thoughts broke apart, but one remained, like a still-frame photograph. “Ridiculous.”

“What is?”

“You and Auntie Mel. Her with her hands on your neck. Choking you.”

Ariel’s brow shot up. “Not what I expected, considering.”

David nodded. Not only was it creepy as hell, it was impossible. The fire had burned his aunt and uncle to ashes four years before he found this woman standing frightened and alone before her grandmother’s grave.

 

Fragments_300

Chapter 2

 

Dreams drove a knife edge through David’s sleep. The smell of rotten flesh clogged his nostrils and mind. Ariel, Aunt Melanie, and Uncle Stu all stood over him, Auntie Mel’s face contorted in a rictus leer. David huddled at their feet, his body small and frail. Their bellows clashed in a din like a dozen trains rattling on parallel tracks. Then the scene in his mind shifted to a stench of plastic and tar and rubber: the house devouring itself with fire. The kids danced around the blaze.

David woke to see a face too close to his. He bolted back. His scalp struck the wrought iron at the head of the bed.

“Ari,” he breathed, rubbing the back of his head.

Her fingers touched his face. “Just another dream, love.”

“I know. Crazy.”

“What do you remember?”

“Elizabeth and Warren around the fire.”

“That isn’t an old memory. That was two years ago, down in Washington.”

“Dancing around the house fire. With Auntie and Uncle inside.”

“That’s – ”

“ – no memory at all. A dream. I know.”

“What else? Your aunt throttling your lovely and brilliant wife again?”

David sat up and leaned against the cool black iron. “Random pictures. Sounds. Voices.”

“Saying what?”

“Nothing I can make out.” The bedroom window glowed with afternoon sun. “We better get the kids.”

“I called Joleen’s and Hoshi’s houses. I’ll collect Warren and Elizabeth in an hour. Stay put and let your brain stew.” Ariel eased herself out of bed and reached for her robe. Her black hair hung free and straight now. David let his gaze take in the shape of her nose and jaw. Lines had sprouted in the corners of her eyes; he had watched them grow in her smooth skin over the years. They reminded him of feathers.

Why, he wondered, have we lasted so long? We never had much in common.

Then he thought of the cemetery, of standing over auntie’s and uncle’s graves while Ariel knelt where her grandmother lay. We have that in common, he thought. Loss.

At least Ariel had known her grandmother. David had only known a void that could not be filled by the words in his journals. But when the disease disconnected him from his childhood, it granted him a compensatory gift. He could remember everything Ariel had said when they first met. Like a film in his mind, he could play a montage of her swelling as Elizabeth grew in her belly, and then of standing next to her hospital bed as she declared her undying hatred of him when that doctor who looked like he could be fourteen ordered, “Push!”

Later: weeping and holding tiny Elizabeth to her breast, the baby’s body still damp from the womb. Gracing Ariel’s face was the most radiant smile David had ever known.

David frowned and turned his thoughts back to his dreams. Memories – his old deleted ones – should be like records in a computer or pad: distinct packages with dates and times and types. Beta ephemerase should have given him the code – the language – of those memories. Shouldn’t he be able to flip through them, like the pages in his journals?

A scene from his dream blossomed into sensibility. The house in flames dissolved into the campfire two years ago, down in Washington. The family had crossed over to Port Angeles on the Vancouver Island ferry and driven into the foothills of Olympic National Park. Warren had announced at the beginning that he would be bored silly without his netpad or his games. Then he vanished among the cedars and firs behind the campsite and spent hours terrorizing Elizabeth, darting out at her until they wrestled like small animals covered in pieces of forest.

At dusk beside the fire, Elizabeth insisted that David re-create the chess game they had begun days before at home. He laid his small travel chess set on a stone between them and set the pieces into place. They cast dancing shadows across the board, shaped by firelight.

Fire moved also at the edge of what might be an older memory. David pursued it, slipping off the bed and making his way down to the basement. He turned left and strode past the rec room with its wall screen and oak chess table and worn brown paisley couch to the library. Cool air lifted the hairs on his arms. He slowed his pace as he moved along the wall, his gaze skimming the shelves. Ariel’s grandmother had left behind a vast collection of fantasy novels. David ignored these. His own collection filled most of the shelves of one bookcase: Bennie Shimmerman’s seven books on the nature of memory (one of them, No Inner Voice, was missing), and ninety-two books on the subject of memory and ERIN – beginning with the first book on the topic, J. J. Sebastien’s dreadful Mindslayer: three hundred pages of poorly researched sewage that painted the disease as a scourge that would bring humanity to its knees when billions succumbed to “amnesia on steroids,” leaving a handful to care for the mindless.

David chuckled at the thought. How many at last count, worldwide? Eight hundred seventy thousand over the whole period of the outbreak.

The house computer had the same collection, along with thousands of articles from Scientific American, Psychology, and a long list of other publications. David preferred the hard-copy collection; paper had tactile appeal that digital print couldn’t match. In with Mindslayer and the rest were his journals. He tugged at the first of the thick black notebooks, the only one that dealt with the fire. His younger self had written little about it. He let the book fall open in his hand and skimmed page after page until he found the part he wanted.

The fire just ate the house like a monster in a B movie. This fireman (called John or Jim?) sat with me while his friends hosed the flames. He stayed on the bench waiting for the ambulance and cops to show up. He was a nice guy, kept saying, “We’ll get them out, we’ll get them out.” But I knew it wasn’t going to happen. The fire was too hot. There was too much smoke. I felt like crying but I couldn’t.

David slammed the book shut with a gunshot sound. “I remember that. I think.” He strode back upstairs to the bedroom, thumping the book against his thigh.

*****

Ariel heard David moving around the house as she mixed pancakes in the kitchen, blending flour and honey and baking powder in a bowl.

“Keep it real,” Gran used to say. “None of that processed crap.”

The chai maker hissed and burped, filling the air with a spicy smell. Soon the machine quieted down; its hum became the only sound in the house.

The pancakes could wait. Ariel carried two earthenware cups warming against her fingers to the bedroom. Movement from the window at her right caught her attention. The little Husqvarna lawn mower had emerged from its doghouse-like shed behind the garage and now rolled back and forth in the backyard, negotiating its way around the perpetually green cedar tree and the two stark, skeletal maples whose leaves lay scattered across thick grass.

Ariel turned her gaze to David. He lay on his stomach, face toward her, sheets covering his legs. One of his journals lay open beside him. Surrogate memory, Ariel thought. Out of those records had risen a love for his aunt and uncle, a keen and painful loss over the house fire that had taken them when he was fifteen, a quiet, simmering rage at the drunk driver who had killed his parents on an Oregon highway. Ariel was sure – had always felt sure – that on some level David did remember it all. Never mind what Bennie Shimmerman had written: there was more to memory than those strands of protein woven into the nerve cells of the brain. His uncle and aunt had ingrained themselves in his spirit. They had shaped him into the man he had become.

Of course, Ariel thought as her gaze travelled up David’s legs to his ass, his guardians probably had nothing to do with his tendency to wear nothing at all when the kids weren’t home. She had never known anyone else so truly comfortable in bare skin. No, not comfortable: natural. Unselfconscious.

Deep in sleep, his forehead furrowed and his eyes danced beneath his lids. Ariel remembered waking beside him for the first time, seeing his eyes move as though he were watching a high-speed tennis match projected against the inner flesh of his eyelids. At times his eyes would pop open, stare at the wall, fix on hers, then close again.

I married a being from another world, she thought.

After twenty years, David continued to surprise and unnerve her. At times she felt as though he were in her head, walking through her thoughts, turning them over, examining them. The tinfoil-hat crowd thought ERIN survivors like David had some mysterious psychic power, some talent for reading minds. The reality was far simpler, far more subtle.

David saw what was actually in front of him. His vision was not obscured by heaps of ancient emotional baggage stretching back into his childhood. He saw without the blinders of assumption and expectation.

Thump. The lawn mower had run itself into one of the maple trees. It backed off and pounded against it again, the sound muffled by the windows.

Ariel grimaced. Stupid machine.

David’s voice broke into her thoughts. “You’re hovering.” He turned onto his back and grinned up at her. “Put the cups down, woman. Gonna drag you into this bed.”

“Yes, my master, my liege, my king, my something-or-other.” Ariel set the mugs down and bowed. She glanced again at the machine in the backyard, rolling back and forth against the tree. Then she knelt on the edge of the bed and leaned over David. Her bathrobe slid down her arms, revealing her breasts. Her fingers ran along David’s inner thigh. His penis twitched in response.

Ariel’s voice grew husky and urgent. “Love, close your eyes. Imagine what you’d like to be doing to me right now.” She lowered her left breast until her nipple touched his cheek.

David arched his neck back, nuzzling her breast, then shut his eyes. “Oh yes,” he breathed. “Got it.”

“Good.” Ariel flung herself up. “The lawn mower is trying the same thing with a tree in the backyard.”

 

Fragments_300

Chapter 3

 

While boarding the Airbus at Baltimore/Washington International, Jackie Olver palmed two Vaxodin tablets from the bottle she had stolen from the narcotics locker at the university hospital. One came apart in her mouth, leaving its raw-eggs-and-sand flavour on her tongue. She dropped herself into her seat and shifted the V-pad she carried under her arm to her lap. Four rapid blinks switched her contact lenses from Clear to Display. David Glass’s children hovered before her.

What will David do when he remembers? Jackie pictured him, a boy barely older than his daughter today, his face contorted with madness, fingers tearing at her shirt, launching buttons free. Later, when she tried to shower his touch away, she found the claw-like imprint of his grip on her left breast.

The pills kicked the inside of her skull and a jolt of blue ecstasy arced across her brain. Jackie leaned her head against the seat and let the sensation pulse through her. Without the drug, sleep had eluded her these past two months – ever since a certain email appeared in her inbox. David Glass, patient designation VBC-1105, registered for beta ephemerase September 6. Jackie couldn’t remember exactly when she had set up the alert in the medical database. Three years ago, maybe longer – back when beta ephemerase, BE, was barely a gleam in Mo’s eye.

Why couldn’t Mo have been wrong, just once?

The effects of Shimmerman’s Disease were irreversible. It shattered the proteins of memory, boiling them into free-floating amino acids. Saint Bennie’s victims could not get their souls back. That had been conventional wisdom until Mohammad Seraf said otherwise. Mo endured ridicule for his “handedness” theory of memory formation, and for pronouncing a connection between Shimmerman’s Disease and influenza. His career nearly imploded when an elderly and famous neurophysiologist called him a joke in the New York Times.

These days Mo kept his gold Nobel medallion in a temperglass display cabinet in his office at Johns Hopkins. And these days, few called the illness Shimmerman’s Disease. Most referred to it by the acronym Mo had coined:

 

Jackie woke in a haze, the kids still staring at her from her contact-lens display. Her brain refused to translate the rumble of speech from overhead speakers into words. Moments later the aircraft shook as its wheels bit a runway. She switched the lenses to Clear and joined her fellow passengers struggling with luggage from the overhead bins.

Sky Harbour in central Phoenix looked and smelled like a hundred other airports she had wandered through in her life. Jackie passed a yellow sign proclaiming, “BigBurger just fifty yards ahead.” Next to it was the entrance to the restroom. Inside, she ran cold water and cupped it with her hands onto her cheeks, then gazed at herself in the mirror. Her eyes had begun to sink in recent days. She loosened her graying ponytail and ran her fingers through it. In her carry-on’s front pocket she found her bottle of saline spray and shot a dose up each nostril, hoping to stave off cracked skin and blood. Arizona was worse than the aircraft since the atmosphere started out desert dry even before the air conditioners and filters worked it over.

Her connecting flight was more than an hour from takeoff. In a seat near a row of screens showing arrivals and departures, she awakened her V-pad and blinked her lenses to Display. Her itinerary scrolled across her vision. Four days in Vancouver attending the Seventeenth Annual Convention on Neurological Disorders.

Jackie tapped the pad and opened a blue file folder in the air before her. David Glass had been a diligent former patient – dutiful to excess. Every six months for the past twenty-two years he had filled out the questionnaires the university emailed him. Jackie swiped her finger across the pad, turning pages past the intelligence profile, psychiatric analysis, and spatial acuity tests, until she found David’s own words.

 

March 21, 2030

Simon showed me chess. I like it. It makes music.

 

David was seventeen then. He had been her patient two years before, living out the final months of his old life in the North Vancouver Shimmerman Clinic. He must have written those words when Shimmerman’s Disease was still widely believed to cause brain damage.

 

December 6, 2030

I am learning about computers. I found two in the closet downstairs. I am going to fix them.

 

August 24, 2031

I like to read.

Simon says I need to have friends. Simon says I need people outside the house. Simon says I need to relate.

 

Jackie remembered Simon Markson: a thin, grizzled man with an unfortunate penchant for Hawaiian shirts and khaki shorts. He trusted her to manage the Incoming Patients floor in the clinic, leaving him free to deal with those in Recovery. He and Mo Seraf were of a kind: brilliantly practical. Simon was one of the first to realize the illness didn’t ruin its victims. It stripped away memory, certainly. It tore apart the soul until even the subconscious dissolved, leaving only kinesthetics and basic language.

The brain was undamaged, but empty – a tabula rasa.

Jackie spent the next hour wandering back and forth before the departure gate, drinking vending machine coffee and struggling to keep the effects of the sleep drug at bay until the announcement came, fed into her contacts in green text: Flight 688 to Vancouver now boarding at Gate 24. She shoved her pad into the pocket of her carry-on. Avoiding the gazes of her fellow passengers, she slipped into line behind a middle-aged couple and a young man in military pants and olive T-shirt. The couple were engaged in a hushed conversation which threatened to become a fight when they found somewhere more secluded. The military man wore fingertip gloves and motioned in the air before him, his gaze flickering over a view only he could see. Solitaire, she guessed.

The crowd flowed along the walkway into the aircraft. Jackie found her seat, settled into it, and shoved her carry-on under the seat ahead of her. She leaned back and prayed the drug would kick in once more.

It didn’t. An hour later, the steel bird humming around her, she returned to the files in her pad. David Glass’s kids peered at her again. Elizabeth was fourteen, hair cut short, laced with streaks of blonde. Warren, twelve, had a round face and his father’s dark green eyes.

Jackie skimmed the paragraphs and bullet points. David Glass had turned thirty-eight in September. She could walk past him on a street in Vancouver without his giving her a second glance. It would have been easy to leave things that way, to let him be, if not for those two children and his wife.

Jackie found David’s notes again and read:

 

February 30, 2032

I like playing chess at the library. They think I’m stupid until I beat them.

I met a woman at a grave. Her grandmother is dead. She is broken.

 

Jackie turned back to the beginning of the file, then past the pictures of the children. The woman on the last page of photos had sharp brown eyes and long black hair. Her mouth formed a slight smile. Beneath the photograph was a name in bold: Ariel Morrissey.

Jackie squeezed her fingers into a fist until she stopped trembling. David wouldn’t reach the top of the waiting list until spring. Plenty of time. But Morrissey had to be told about her husband. What precisely could Jackie say?

What indeed.

You must convince David to refuse the injection. If you don’t, you will let loose a monster.”

Currently available for the Kindle and Kobo.