“It’s been fifteen years since the Blackout. Almost four billion people were affected at the time. Over one billion committed suicide over the years that followed. They were unable to cope with the condition – some dealt with declarative, and some with procedural memory loss, or a varied combination of both; either way, the damage was devastating to many. Another billion died from the sudden lack of doctors and nurses – the Blackout erased everything.
That wasn’t even the worst part. Even not knowing what triggered it in the first place wasn’t the worst part. To this day, we are still unable to identify the cause or physical conditions that favour the onset of this disease – we have no other word for it, still. It simply happened.
[…] The real tragedy came with the realisation that, once it affected the brain, it latched onto the genetic matrix and it became a naturally-inherited condition. People who suffered from the Blackout unwillingly passed it on to their children in an altered form – short-term memory loss is now as common as the flue. Millions of children and teenagers live with personal assistants on their smartphones and post-it notes everywhere, just so they can remember the way home or how to tie their shoelaces. And we’re nowhere close to finding a cure.
[…] Today, the world population has reached the six billion figure again. But growth has slowed. With more than half the population of the globe now struggling with the Blackout and its effects, those unaffected have had to focus their resources and educational efforts towards filling the gaps left behind by engineers, scientists, medics, teachers and millions of other career people who suddenly forgot who they were and what they knew, as well as the plethora of children with the inherited condition and little hope for a good future.
[…] Psychiatrists became millionaires almost overnight, with throngs of new patients desperate to get their memories back, unable to accept the loss – by psychiatrists we mean those on the neurological side of the medical profession who didn’t suffer from the Blackout, and who found this to be a profitable niche.
A so-called salvation came in the form of technology. Investments in Silicon Valley quadrupled over the last five years alone, after Menga, a Palo Alto start-up, developed a technology meant to replace the lost memories with new, digital ones. It’s not yet accessible to the wider public – the production costs, from analysis, research, faux memory and software development to the manufacturing process of the devices and the medical procedure required for their implant, are extremely high.
[…] Unless you’re rich – as in, ‘trust-fund rich’, ‘Fortune 500 rich’, ‘Wall Street rich’ or ‘my-mother-wears-a-crown-to-work rich’, to name but a few – you don’t have access to the Memoirs. It can cost up to $3,000,000 altogether, including hospital bills. But if you have the money, your new memories can be anything you want them to be. You can learn anything you want to learn – from compact educational archives through “REM-transplants” or from digital archives collected from generous donors.
Several Democratic senators across the western states are pushing for legislation to fund government support and make the Memoir technology more accessible, but opposition from the remaining Republican camp qualifies memories as ‘luxury treatments’ and therefore not worthy of government funding. They insist that Blackout victims can simply be taught new jobs and reassigned to different companies or production lines. Ironically, it’s the first time in decades that we see the conservative branch push for funding towards education – albeit, more on the crafts side, but still, a form of education nonetheless.
[…] But the question remains, as painful and as uncomfortable as it was yesterday, and five years ago, when Memoirs was first made public: what about the rest of us?”
Fred rolls the newspaper and shoves it back into his jacket pocket. It’s nothing he hasn’t read before, but he prefers the Post editorials over others. They focus less on what Jess Walton, the hotel heiress, is doing with her new memories as a rocket scientist, and more on the billions of still unsolved problems like himself. It brings him no comfort to know that Jess Walton went from a private “suite” at Betty Ford to working for NASA at the green age of 25. If anything, it’s insulting.
Fred knows he’s 45 now and that he used to work for a private research facility in Virginia. His specialisation was genetic engineering for animals, with later applications on humans. Apparently, his work was important. But then the Blackout happened.
A terrible global headache that affected everyone at the same time, spanning 21 minutes – and then everything was blank. It didn’t feel like the usual migraine – more like glass shards piercing into the brain, just beneath the temples, and eyes burning. Drivers lost control of their cars. Several planes crashed and some rocked through emergency-landings. A few trains were derailed. There was plenty of instant death to go around.
If people thought headaches were harmless before, the Blackout definitely convinced them otherwise.
Fred found himself on a bench, in a park, at the time. As if he’d just descended into consciousness for the first time in his life, it took him a while to understand that he was in a place called Jardin des Tuileries, in Paris, at the time of the Blackout, on a long-awaited holiday.
Fifteen years later, Fred sits on another bench – also made of wood and wrought iron. But this time he’s inside a pawnshop, with six people queueing up and standing in front of him. He gently taps the rolled newspaper sticking out of his jacket. He’s read that editorial before, it’s about two weeks old, but he still carries it with him – it holds emotional value, it gives him enough courage to sit on that bench with a wad of hard-earned cash in his pocket, ready to buy someone else’s memories or a new profession, if he can afford it, just so he can feel like he belongs somewhere, anywhere.
It’s not an easy choice.
He struggled for the first few years – in the beginning, it was the frustration of being unable to remember who he was, the sound of his mother’s voice, his favourite dish. Then, it was his financial inability to get Memoirs – he had barely gotten relatively comfortable in a production line post at a cannery up-state. You don’t save up $3,000,000 for a set of Memoirs by packing tuna cans.
But the creators of the Memoirs soon had competition. Smaller tech firms from other parts of California and the world started releasing alternative products – software and microchips which were soon bootlegged and spread out like wildfire into pawnshops and side alley joints.
Those who can’t afford Memoirs can now buy second-hand ones, real ones from real people – either generous souls who can part with their memories for the sake of others, or desperate folks who can’t cover their mortgage. The latter is a higher probability. Few people would willingly forget things to help others remember. On the other hand, more people are willing to live with someone else’s memories than have none at all.
It’s not an easy choice.
It’s like letting complete strangers into your head, just so you can feel like you belong to someone. It’s better than being a nobody, though. Your name is worthless on paper if you don’t remember hearing it from people who love you. Your age is nothing on paper if you don’t remember that time you scratched your knee running after your dog when you were five. You are nobody if you remember nothing before the Blackout. It’s a collective feeling and there isn’t enough therapy in the world to make that go away.
So, Fred sits there, seventh in line, tired and his joints aching, a little purple ticket behind his ear, with the number 124 printed on it. He’s the 124th ‘nobody’ who’s trying to become somebody today.
‘Excuse me, can I sit here?’, a young woman asks him.
Fred looks up and smiles politely.
‘Sure,’ he says.
She smiles back and sits next to him. Her purple ticket says ‘125’. He can’t help but wonder what sort of memories she’s looking for. Who was she, before the Blackout? She must’ve been just a child when it happened, as she doesn’t look like she’s left her 20’s yet.
‘Looking for memories, then?’ he asks, his voice weaker than usual. There’s a tinge of shame in it. People who remember look down upon people like him – they call them ‘weak’, unable to cope with the condition. “Why can’t you just be grateful you’re still alive and healthy?”, they ask. What do they know?
Well, they know more than he does, for sure. But they can’t possibly know how it feels.
The young woman looks at him – hopeful blue eyes meet his. Straw-coloured curls frame her small face, with sharp bangs carefully trimmed to cover her forehead, but not her eyebrows. Her mouth is also small, with pale pink lips and a tiny mole just beneath, and just above the chin. She wears a blue shirt, with jeans and a beige overcoat – autumn in Long Island calls for an extra layer. He wishes whether he could remember himself before the Blackout – was he always this observant?
‘Actually no… I’m here to donate,’ she says slowly.
Fred is unable to hide his surprise.
‘Really? That is rare… And kind of you. Why are you doing this?’
Her hands roll into little fists in her lap as she looks around, and sadness lowers the corners of her mouth.
‘I feel sorry for people like this. My memories might mean a lot to me, really, but they might be worth a lot more to others, I guess. I just want to do something good, this whole Blackout thing is just… tragic…’
Fred straightens his back and gently shifts his trunk so he can face her a little better. She has his full attention now – his head cocked to one side and eyes squinting, as if trying to read her. She blushes and smiles.
‘You must think I’m a liberal idealist or something,’ she says.
‘You probably are,’ he replies. ‘But who says that’s a bad thing? After all, your donation will give sense to someone’s life. Even if they’re someone else’s, some memories are better than none, after all. It’s why I’m here…’
She sighs and leans back against the bench.
At the front of the queue, a woman in her mid-fifties takes her receipt from the pawnshop clerk and heads into another room, behind a walnut door with a sign that says ‘Implants’ on it. Fred watches her turn the doorknob with a trembling hand. In the meantime, a man in his 20’s reaches the clerk, with his ID and a credit card.
The clerk, an African-American man who’s recently turned fifty looks at him with a raised eyebrow, and points at the sign on the plexiglass in front of him. It says ‘CASH ONLY’, scribbled with a black marker. The young man sighs and leaves, fist tightened around his ID and card as he walks out in search of an ATM. Someone else takes his place at the clerk’s counter.
‘I have a few great memories I’m willing to part with. I can live without them. I wrote them down and I saved pictures too, so I’ll be okay,’ the young woman says to Fred, hopefulness blossoming in her voice.
He nods, unable to bring himself to tell her about the gigabytes of photos on his smartphone that he feels, knows, and remembers nothing about. He has texts and emails and instant messages that he has saved, but they mean nothing as well. He can’t disappoint her – she might change her mind and there are thousands of women who could benefit from her memories. She wouldn’t understand the emptiness anyway – only those who suffered the Blackout understand.
‘That’s very noble of you,’ he replies instead. ‘Do you mind if I ask, which memories you’re willing to let go of?’
She stares ahead, her cheeks lifted in a warm smile, as she remembers. Something nudges his stomach as the sight of her remembering things. It’s painful but beautiful at the same time.
‘The first time I rode my bike. My dad was running right behind me. He was trying to keep me going straight, and he had a hard time letting go. I wanted to go faster, but he was holding me back. So, I was laughing and yelling “Dad, let me go, let me go!” … And finally, he did… And I pedalled but then I panicked because I wasn’t sure how to fully stop. So, my dad ran even faster to catch up,’ she laughs lightly. ‘And he pulls the bike as he’s telling me to hit the brakes, hit the brakes! It was hilarious… I love that moment… I love my dad. I’m hoping to share a little bit of that love with someone else…’
‘Your dad sounds like a great guy,’ Frank says, almost imagining the scene. He looks ahead, and there are two people left before him.
He stands up and takes his spot in the queue, as there is now enough room in the narrow space between the wall and the clerk’s counter. The young woman stands up as well and stays close to Fred. Her smile is infectious, as he feels his mouth’s corners turn upwards.
‘He was. Never too serious, never too strict, but boy, was he protective!’
‘I can only imagine…’
Her joy fades away as she remembers his condition.
‘I am so sorry, I forgot that— ‘
‘Don’t worry about it, really. Not your fault, nothing you can do about it,’ Fred laughs lightly in an attempt to eliminate the awkwardness that creeps up on them as she starts to apologise. ‘Tell me another memory… I like hearing this stuff.’
She relaxes and her shoulders drop slowly.
‘There’s another one with my mom and dad on Halloween. I was six and I was angry because my mom had dressed me up as a princess. I didn’t want to be a princess… so I was crying in a corner in my room, like it was the end of the world or something,’ she laughs.
The queue shortens as another man goes behind the walnut door with the ‘Implants’ sign. Fred and the young woman take a few steps forward, almost automatically, as the man in front of them engages with the clerk. The digital wall clock shows 16:45hrs in bright green lines.
‘And my dad came up to my room, and he didn’t know what was going on but he looked so pained. Later on, I realised that every time he saw me cry, even if it was for the smallest and most insignificant things, it tore him apart on the inside,’ she says, and tucks some of the curls behind her right ear.
‘He loved you very much, for sure,’ Fred replies with genuine empathy. He can’t wait for the guy in front of him to finish his transaction. He’s afraid that if he waits any longer he will change his mind and walk out and then regret it. He’s afraid of a vicious circle that he’s been in before. The decision, the doubt, the withdrawal, the regret and the return – that pawnshop clerk has seen Fred before. Maybe he won’t remember him.
‘Yes, he did… And I told him about my drama, and he hugged me and kissed me on the forehead. And then he took my hand and he drove me to Walmart, they were still open for Halloween. And he took me to the party aisle, and said I could pick any costume I wanted, since I didn’t want to be a princess. And I remember my eyes were still puffy and I was mad at my mom, who had insisted that nice girls like me should dress up as princesses on Halloween. My mom and I never got along, you see…’
Fred smiles and tries to think of something he remembers from the last fifteen years, something that could resonate with her mom-related statement. Janice, he thinks.
‘I have this co-worker, Janice. She never got along with her mom either. They used to fight like crazy, ever since she was a kid. High school was even worse, apparently,’ Fred laughs as he tells the story. It’s a new memory and he enjoys talking about it. It’s precious, even though it isn’t his. ‘And all the way into community college, Janice kept fighting with her mother – she could’ve done better than just community college, she should lose some weight, she should pick better friends, she should ease up on the eyeliner… you know, that kind of stuff. Silly stuff for a guy like me, but it obviously meant a lot to Janice.’
‘I don’t blame her… sounds like a difficult mother…’
‘Yeah, I guess she was. But in the end, by the time Janice hit her thirties, the Blackout happened. Janice was ok, but her mom lost her declarative memory altogether. She could remember how to do things, she worked on the assembly line of a furniture manufacturer, so she was able to keep her job. But she couldn’t remember the people anymore, not even her dead husband, or her only daughter for that matter. It broke Janice apart. And I remember asking her, “Janice, your mother sounds like she’s very hard to be around in the first place, why does this hurt you so much?”, and Janice looked at me and sighed and said:
“Because believe it or not, through all the fights and harsh words, she gave birth to me, she nurtured and she raised me. When I scratched my knees, she was the one applying the plasters and telling me that I’d be fine… You know, motherly stuff. She doesn’t remember any of it now, she doesn’t remember me! She can fix a leg on a table but she can’t remember the day I lost my first tooth. It’s horrible. It’s my mom… And according to her, she doesn’t even feel like she has a daughter. Through thick and thin, she was my mom, and now I lost her!”,’ Fred says.
The young woman sighs and nods gently, as if trying to understand Janice’s feelings. Unable to process the thought, she switched back to her happy memory.
‘So, dad said I could have any costume I wanted!’
At this point, Fred stares at the young woman, surprised by how quickly she brushed off a situation she couldn’t really cope with. It irritated him.
‘Hold on,’ he says. ‘Did any of your loved ones suffer from the Blackout?’
She shook her head in a decided NO.
‘Sorry, what do you mean?’ she asks, slightly confused.
Before the situation turns awkward and Fred’s feelings get the better of him, it’s his turn to speak to the clerk. He apologises briefly to the woman and steps forward. The pawnshop clerk looks tired and not very happy to be there anymore. Fred has a hard time imagining anyone happy to deal with desperate and frustrated fools like himself every day. It must be depressing. Maybe even daunting.
‘I’ve seen you before. Glad to see you’ve made up your mind this time. How can I help?’ the clerk asks, his tone nasal and flat and unwelcoming.
So, he does remember him. Fred takes a deep breath, takes out his roll of cash, and puts it in the small tray beneath the plexiglass panel between them. His fingers tremble as they release the money. That’s 3 years’ worth of savings and noodles for dinner.
‘I’d like to buy some memories… sir.’
‘I need to see an ID,’ the clerk responds automatically.
‘Oh yes… yes, of course,’ Fred says and drops his ID card in the tray as well. The man takes it, places a small hand-held scanner on top of it until its red little light flashes over the barcode below his photo and beeps, then drops it back into the tray. Frank puts it back in his jeans’ back-pocket and resumes his request with a soft voice.
‘So, yeah, memories— ‘
‘What kind of memory loss do you have?’ the clerk interrupts him with the same flat and automated tone. He’s seen millions of Fred until this point, for sure.
Fred smiles and looks at the young woman next to him, then turns back to face the plexiglass and the dull voice behind it.
‘Complete declarative and profession-procedural, sir… I don’t remember anything about myself, I was an engineer and I remember nothing of that, but I can read and write and tie my shoes, basically…’
‘Yeah, I know what that means. Do you have any other neurological or psychiatric conditions?’
‘Everything is in my medical file. I assume you can access it from my barcode…’
‘Indeed, I can,’ the clerk quips, ‘but that doesn’t mean I have the time to do that, so if there’s something I need to know, you should tell me now so we can move this along.’
Fred sighs and nods absently.
‘Yeah, sorry. No medical conditions other than the Blackout. My blood pressure has been a bit high, but my doctor said it shouldn’t interfere with a memory transplant,’ he responds, almost feeling the young woman’s blue eyes on him. He can almost feel the pity gnawing into his skin.
The clerk nods and starts filling out an electronic form. He asks Fred a few more basic questions, including some uncomfortable ones – how many times per week does he have sexual intercourse, has he ever considered or taken psychiatric treatment of any kind, and so on. His cheeks are on fire by the time the clerk takes the money and puts it in the counting machine. He looks at the figure on the small screen at the same time as Fred.
‘I can only give you five declarative memories or a full procedural one, from a low to mid spectrum of professions, for this amount. What’ll it be?’
Fred takes a deep breath and looks at the young woman again. He didn’t know what he was getting for that money when he first walked in. The choice becomes more difficult with every moment that passes. The clerk notices his discomfort, and decides to offer some advice.
‘Listen, Mr Hardy,’ he addresses Fred, ‘You probably know that as far as procedural memory implants go, we haven’t come as far as Menga and their Memoirs have. At least not yet. You’ve managed to learn something at the cannery, from what I can read in your file. The best we can do is get you from one menial task to another, like weaving or something, the kind of stuff that doesn’t put too much work into those crippled synapses of yours. I don’t think you’d get much benefit out of that.’
‘Then, what do you suggest I do? Someone else’s memories? I was a genetic engineer before the Blackout, but that’s clearly off the table now. I guess my options are limited, huh?’
More pity blares from the young woman’s blue eyes. If only she could stop looking at him altogether!
‘Look, man, I can’t tell you what to choose, obviously,’ the clerk bites the inside of his cheek, regretting his interference. They’re always like this, Blackout folks – confused, undecided and so desperate and quick to part with their money. ‘I’m just telling you that whatever emptiness you’re feeling right now, or you’ve been feeling for fifteen years, I’m just not sure that learning how to crop pants is going to fix that. That’s all…’
Fred closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and briefly smiles at the young woman.
‘So, what did you pick?’ he asks her.
She looks confused.
‘What… what did I pick? What do you mean?’
‘At Walmart. With your dad. Halloween.’
‘Oh! Oh, that,’ she laughs lightly. ‘I wanted the Iron Man costume. It was on sale, all red and fake gold and shiny, with a cool helmet and gloves…’
‘And what did your dad say?’
She looks to his side, as if picturing her father standing next to him. Tears glaze her eyes and her lower lip trembles slightly.
‘He said that if his little girl wants to be Iron Man, then she can be Iron Man. Who is he to say otherwise?’
The sobs follow and she has no way of controlling them. She covers her face and apologises. Fred nods and turns to face a now-impatient clerk.
‘A stranger’s memories it is, then!’ he communicates his decision and takes the receipt from the tray.
As he opens the ‘Implants’ door, the young woman wipes her tears and smiles at him. There’s another door on the perpendicular wall next to Fred, with a metal sign that says ‘Uploads’. That one’s for her, once she finishes her own transaction. He smiles back.
‘Thank you, miss. And I hope you have a great life, even without those beautiful memories,’ he says.
She nods enthusiastically as she approaches the counter. There are three more people behind her – their expressions blank and grey and lost. They all need implants, and aren’t dressed well enough for Memoirs.
‘I’ll be okay. I have so many good moments with my Dad. Like I said, if anyone can feel at least an ounce of the joy he gave me as a child, then it means they’re worth more to them than they are to me…’
He waves her goodbye, and disappears behind the narrow walnut door.
Half an hour later, he walks out – receipt still in his hand. His eyes are wide open, and he uses his spare hand to scratch the back of his neck. The puncture wound will take a couple of days to heal, the doctor said.
Fred looks around. There’s no one left in the pawnshop. He can hear some clinks and clanks from the back office, but the counter is abandoned, the light above it turned off.
He puts the receipt in his pocket, and walks out into the main street. The shop door closes behind him with a decided thud, locking automatically.
He takes a deep breath and looks around. Cars drive by. People walk up and down the street, some laughing or talking on the phone, while others are silent and seem lifeless. A smile blooms on his face as he replays his new memories inside his once-empty mind.
The implant technician asked him to choose from a memory catalogue – thousands upon thousands of moments sold or sometimes donated by people who haven’t suffered a Blackout. Funny how technology can survive and evolve in such conditions, he thought as he made his selection.
The smell of her ruby red hair. The glimmer in her hazel green eyes. The way she held him tight when he fell from the roof, after foolishly attempting to run away from home so he could join his friends for that pool party. The way she cried and told him she loved him, and that she couldn’t bear to see him hurt. The turbulent drive to the hospital that night, when she ran three red lights and reached the emergency ward with a police car on her tail. The tremor in her sweet voice when she begged the doctors to fix his leg.
Except it wasn’t him. It was a Jimmy Medina from Lexington, Kentucky.
But that doesn’t matter.
For the first time in fifteen years, Fred remembers a mother caring for her son, kissing his cheeks and forehead, white as a sheet of paper from worry and fierce in her defence of her little ‘man-cub’.
For the first time in fifteen years, the air smells different. His chest is less constricted. He has something to think about on the way home – something from before the Blackout.