Before the world collapsed, they did a poll about the Challenger explosion to determine how many people saw it in their classroom. Eighty percent responded they had clear memories of watching it live.
I remember the grainy images on the TV, watching in rapt attention as the teacher cried in the corner with her hands over her mouth, all of us shocked to silence by the tragedy of the explosion. The memory is so vivid, I can almost smell the cleaning solution they used on the floors.
Someone did the math to figure out how many schools existed in 1986 and further, how many of them had TVs. They determined that if every single TV in every single school had been used, only something like thirty percent of people could have seen it live.
So, did I see it? Or do I remember stories from other people?
Memory was broken even before the Bleed.
— # —
I don’t wear my band around Jeff anymore. Our memories are so blurred, it seems pointless. Besides, they use a ton of energy and it’s better to save them for emergencies. Or for days like today.
He kissed me when he woke up and his stubble grated against mine, two pieces of sandpaper rubbing together. I wasn’t gay before, but I have so many memories of being with Jeff, that it’s hard to remember who I found attractive before the Bleed fused everyone’s memories.
When the virus hit, we’d hidden with our wives, all four of us clotted together in the basement. I have clear memories of Jeff asking me to marry him, and the delirious joy of the moment. I remember panting, sticky nights, laughing at his jokes and holding his hand when his sister died. I have the same memories of his dead wife. Or my dead wife? It’s hard to tell which memories are pre-Bleed and which came after. Regardless, I remember loving this man and feeling attraction for him, and so here we are. Personality is nothing more than the stories we tell ourselves.
I kissed him back and a small amount of his morning dripped into my brain. I’d woken up and gone for a walk around the periphery of the farm, checking on the fences; Jeff had slept in. Only now that we were close by, I could remember both things and I wasn’t honestly sure which one I did. Did I walk the fence? I’m making breakfast, so surely, I didn’t sleep in?
I bit my lip and he noticed.
“I slept in, Cooper. I wrote myself a note when I first woke up. See? It’s okay.”
He showed me the note and I sighed in relief. So, I did walk the perimeter. Even though I remembered sleeping in, I knew which one was fake. Over time, if I cared to, I could force the false one away, but for something like sleeping in, it wasn’t worth the effort. He knew how much it bothered me though, and it was dear of him to give me comfort.
“I have to go to town today,” I said.
Jeff frowned and took a breath through his nose. “Okay.”
“My band is at full power. I’ll be safe.”
“Yeah. I know.”
He didn’t like me going out. I hated it too. We lived on the outskirts of Moncton, one of the very few unblurred cities that remained. The virus swept through the larger cities with such incredible speed that no one had any time to react. In a week, all of New York, all eighteen million people, shared amorphous memories of each other’s lives, all of them equally real. We were lucky to be in Canada, where the spread-out population gave us some time to protect ourselves.
They made the bands in about three months. Tons of people thought it was a hoax. How is it possible, they reasoned, to come up with protection against this virus so quickly? As it turns out when you focus the accumulated wealth and intellect of seven billion people towards a singular problem, it’s not only possible, it’s inevitable.
The bands stopped the memory bleed and made the virus tolerable. It didn’t cure it; nothing could do that. But at least we could carve out lives. Sort of. As long as you didn’t think too hard about who you were and how much of what you remembered was real, it was a life.
We had a list of the basic supplies we needed by the front door. Things like nails, soap, Tupperware if I could find any, aspirin, any long-term foodstuffs.
“I’ll go this time,” Jeff said.
“You went last time. It’s my turn.”
“Are you sure?”
I paused. I could clearly recall both going and staying home. The notepad we kept hung on the fridge was filled with dates, notes, little reminders. Writing was infallible. Memory was a liar.
“Don’t do that. We wrote it on the list. See? Next turn: Cooper.”
“I’m only worried about you.”
“It will be fine. In and out.”
We grew potatoes because they were stupidly easy to grow. About a year ago, we’d done a memory swap with our neighbour. He’d grown up on a farm and knew everything there was to know about crops. Jeff was a doctor. The three of us got together and took off our bands, and boom. Now we had memories of how to work a farm, and he knew how to suture a wound. On the downside, we also remembered another dead spouse, another childhood, another life, and so on, but the price was worth it.
I’m not entirely positive, but I think I have nine people’s worth in my head. Jeff has maybe ten. We were lucky. Some people, like in the cities, have millions. No wonder so many people chose to end it.
There was no sense in putting it off, and so I loaded up the bike with potatoes, kissed Jeff goodbye and stopped for a long hug that I enjoyed very much. Jeff had never been one for hugging, probably his wife’s memory, but I also remembered how badly Jeff wanted to be hugged, perhaps a memory from Jeff himself. Who knew? Our brains only recall the information, not where it was gathered. Research papers with no footnotes.
The risk of going to a city is if your band malfunctions, or someone knocks it off, or any of one hundred other things that could go wrong. Moncton wasn’t too bad; it had a band mandate. You could get in and out without losing yourself.
— # —
The walls appeared on the horizon, a slapdash construction that surrounded the city, rising to as high as a hundred feet in some parts and as low as ten in others. The lineup wasn’t bad, but my stomach clenched as I approached. My band heated immediately, already hard at work. Nothing could stop the virus from transmitting, so all the bands did was destroy new memories before they had time to take root. The burning I was experiencing was wiring in my brain being microwaved. The less time I spent here, the better. My headband was an older model and it would get hot enough to almost burn the skin. Sweat already dripped down my cheeks, but I tightened the straps.
I really hated the bands.
Passage through the wall only required proof your band was running, and the line moved quickly. It conjured the memory of waiting for two hours to get a marriage license, and a companion one of registering online in five minutes. I wish I knew which one was mine. With no way to tell, I picked the memory I liked best, and let that one win. Sort of how everyone did it before, except now we all acknowledged it.
I traded exclusively with Nora, not only because she had the best selection, but because she was closest to the wall. As a bonus, both Jeff and I found Nora to be affable and honest, so there was no conflict when our dual memories of our visits with her merged.
When I went inside, Nora was arguing with a customer, yelling at them to get out. The guy’s face was flushed red, and he pointed his finger at her while he hollered some choice swear words. I wasn’t sure if the guy was going to get violent, so I made my way to the counter in case Nora needed help. But the guy turned with his head down and shouldered past me, slamming the door on the way out.
I tried to grin, to make light of it. “What was that all about, Nora? Haven’t I seen that guy in here before?”
She ran her fingers through her hair, breathing deeply. “Sorry, Cooper. Yeah, he used to shop here. We were soaked into each other.”
“Then why the scrap?” It was somewhat unusual to fight, or even get angry, with someone you’d shared memories with. Once you understood every decision they made as if you made it yourself, it tended to make you more forgiving.
“I remember what he did, but it’s not me anymore. I can’t believe I allowed that in my head for so long.”
“What?” I was having trouble following what she was telling me.
“The new headbands.” She tapped the one on her head and her eyes shone with excitement. “God, haven’t you done it yet? This is the new upgrade, just released yesterday. I’m surprised no one came by your farm. They have people out all over the place, basically giving these away for free.”
“What’s the big deal? Less heat?”
“No, Cooper, they cut out all the memories that aren’t yours.”
“They finally did it. They figured out a way to eliminate any foreign memory.” Nora smiled beatifically. “It’s just me in here, Cooper. It got rid of everything else. It works.” She reached behind the counter and handed me a band.
“Are you serious?” I took it from her and turned it over in my hands. “It takes away everything?”
“It’s almost over Cooper. Once these get out and people put them on, we can go back to normal. They’re already talking about a version that can be implanted permanently. Here, you can put it on right now. They told me to pass out as many as I can, I have dozens.”
I hesitated. If this thing worked as Nora said, it would mean my pre-bleed memories of Jeff would vanish. I’d still remember being with him, but what would that mean? How would I feel about him if all my memories of us disappeared? Did I even want that? Would I still love him if I were only me? I didn’t want to stop being in love with him.
I took two headbands and got the rest of the stuff and finished up as fast as possible. I’d need to talk to him about this. Whatever we did, it needed to be a decision made together. Surely, I’d still love him. We had two years of memories together that wouldn’t be erased, they belonged to us exclusively. Surely that would be enough.
— # —
When I got home, Jeff was sitting on the porch, like he always did around this time of day. He liked to have ‘moments of reflection’ as he called them, even though I knew he mostly just liked to fall asleep in the sun.
Something sparkled on his head as I approached and I realized he was wearing his headband. He never wore his headband. My stomach dropped.
It was the new model.
I stopped in front of the porch, and he stood up. Neither one of us moved, we only stared at each other from across the space.
“You put it on,” I finally said.
“Why didn’t you talk to me about it? I waited for you, see?” I held out the two new bands. “Why didn’t you wait?” My heart was beating so fast I could hardly hear anything. I wanted so badly for him to reach out to me. I knew he loved being hugged. Why wasn’t he hugging me?
He gave me the sad eyes that meant he was upset about something and said, “We should talk.”
I shook my head and stepped forward. “Take off your headband and let’s merge. We can still work.”
“No, Cooper, stop.”
I ripped off my headband and lunged at him, but he skipped out of the way. With my headband off, all his memories slammed into mine.
His hands, reaching up to put on the new headband. The sensation of all the corrupted memories being peeled away, like stripping paint off a wall. Seeing myself, through his eyes, the disgust for what we’d done. Relief, now that he could think clearly, that he was free of me.
All of this became my memory, leaving me with remorse and regret. I remembered thinking how I’d forced us to bleed, but no, that wasn’t the way it happened, we did it together, a joint decision. But Jeff was telling himself new stories now and they were all becoming my stories.
I dropped to my knees and looked up at the man I loved, who did not love me back. All of the happy times we’d spent together were being replaced with rage for what I had done. I’d forced this on him, apparently the only story he could tell himself that would let him go on.
“Put it on, Cooper.” He kicked the new band over. “It’s better. I promise.”
A wave of self-loathing so profound that I shook with the hurt of it tore through my body. I picked up the device. What choice did I have? I still loved him. And he didn’t even like me.
Perhaps, in time, I wouldn’t remember this moment at all.
I put the band around my head.
© 2022 Michael James
About the Author
Michael James is the Canadian author of the fantasy series, The Hotel at the End of Time.
His work has been featured in several anthologies, including “The Website is Broken” in Executive Dread, and “Attention” in Horror Library Volume 7.
He can be found on Twitter @MikeJamesAuthor