I wrote this in 2006. I was living in Beirut again. Not knowing what to do with myself and spending most nights smoking endless cigarettes at a coffee shop by campus. I submitted it to Strange Horizons, where I’ve submitted all of my short stories. So far, they’ve rejected them all, and for good reason. I’ve read – I don’t remember where – that everyone has ten horrible short stories in them before they write a good one. Which is fine. I’ve written four, which means that, if this is true, I only need to write 6 more and I’ll finally write something worth reading. This means I only have six to go. So here is a glimpse into the mind of 25 year old craig. Drunk and overseas, figuring it all out.
I throw whatever is close at hand against the wall and you duck under the shards that fly about the room. You back into the kitchen corner and sink down to the floor, hands held tight to the sides of your head.
I run to you and grab your shoulders. “He was right here! In this f*cking apartment! He was a part of us!”
You’re crying now, choking out the same sobbing questions. “Why are you doing this, Stephen? What, what’s wrong with you?”
I’ve done this a dozen times since you had the operation while I was at work, since I came home to find everything we’d bought for him gone and you suddenly believing we’d never had a son.
““He has to still be in there somewhere, Kate! You can’t just shut this out! You can’t kill him again! You nursed him right here, for two months, right here and one morning he just didn’t wake up and you can’t just…” but your eyes roll back in your head as the bots flood your brain and start erasing everything I just said. Every bad memory you didn’t want. A nice, clean whitewash that the implants are going to make damned sure I mess up.
“You…can’t…” I’m still trying. I don’t know what else to do. The only proof we ever had a son is in my head and it’s not enough. God damn it, I need him to live in yours, too. I stand up and watch, aware of how quickly this has become familiar to me.
You sit there, slack faced and drooling, while until the bots finish clearing your memory pathways. Your eyes come back into focus and you look around, the room, getting your bearings. I won’t put you through this again. No sense in wasting good china.
Glass crunches beneath your feet when you stand up.
“Oh sh*t,” you say, “I broke another glass.”
I head out the door without saying anything and make a beeline for the nearest bar.
I can’t blame her for wanting to forget falling asleep on the sofa with Sam on her chest and waking up an hour later to find she was clutching a tiny dead body that was once her son. That’s the kind of thing you can’t put away from away you. All the therapy, meditation and self-help books in the world can’t keep something like that from creeping back into your brain.
But the procedure can. It’s a same-day surgery now, and ever since the HMOs bowed to collective popular demand and starting picking up the tab for anyone who could get their shrink to write a prescription, well, I think I read in the paper that it’s now the most-common medical procedure in the country.
“Did you know that?”
The bartender looks bored with me but I’m the only one in here at 2:00 in the afternoon aside from the sad old *beep* down at the end silently sucking down PBR. “Nah, I’d of figured it was getting your tonsils out.”
“Hit me again.” I push the glass toward him. I gulp down the burning well whiskey and return it. “Yeah, something like two million last year. You know what number two is?”
“Getting your tonsils out?”
“Eh, well it’s kinda the same thing, huh? Getting rid of something you don’t want.” He looks down at my already empty glass. “Another?”
“Yeah, make it a double.”
He leaves me with the bottle.
I know all about the process of forgetting. I’m a cop. I’ve seen more than my fair share of awful things that I’d rather not have swimming around in my head: rape victims, dead kids, you name it. There was the time I got called to an apartment in Little Tokyo where 16 girls decided to commit mass seppuku after Johnny Matsui, the pop god, overdosed on heroin. They were all members of one of his internet fan clubs.
Some of them hadn’t done it correctly and were still alive, rolling around in the inch-deep blood with butcher knives sticking out of their stomachs. That’s something that you just can’t un-see once you’ve seen it. The trick is not to lock it away. Keep it, accept it, put it in perspective. That night I went home and made love to my wife like I was on a mission, so I could hold her afterwards, sweating in the darkness, and convince myself that, as long as I had Kate to keep me warm, the world couldn’t be a completely terrible place.
My partner Ray called in sick to work the rest of the week. I couldn’t blame him. When I finally saw him again I told him the good news. Two of the girls from the apartment were in stable condition and expected to recover.
“What girls?” Ray asked, asked, lowering his eyebrows.
“Two of the girls from the apartment. They didn’t hit any internal organs and…”
“The apartment…” Ray said, concentrating very hard on the floor. When his eyes rolled back into his head I thought he was having a seizure.
Turns out Ray had gone to the clinic the very next day and gotten his memory fixed. The bots were programmed to respond to certain keywords to proactively keep this memory hidden in his subconscious where it belonged.
So Ray didn’t have to remember the sight of a dozen dead girls covered in blood. And it didn’t mean anything to him a few days later when on the front page of the paper there was a story about an investigation into the security at St. Francis Hospital after two 12 year-old girls on suicide watch managed to break into a janitor’s closet and split a gallon of Drano.
A week after that, Kate missed her period.
The three-inch long clipping I carry in my wallet reads:
Stephen and Kate Willis are proud to
announce the birth of their son, Samuel
Raymond, on July 14 at St. Francis Medical
Center. He was delivered at 2:17 a.m.,
weighing 7 pounds, 5 ounces.
Newspaper print is cheap, designed to be ephemeral. I need something more permanent, I decide, reading it over in by streetlight, the rain coming down on my shoulders.
I hail a cab and twenty minutes later stumble in out of the night, sopping wet, and the monster in the leather vest looks up from a bare, reddened ass.
“You can’t piss here. F*ck off.”
“Nah, I…I…” I point to the red neon glow in the window that reads OOTTAT. “I wanna tattoo.”
He jerks his head at some chairs by the wall. “Have a seat.” He turns back to the ass, on which he’s etching a broken heart with “MVN” written on side and “K.T.” on the other. The girl itbelongs to looks like she can’t be any older than 17. Whoever broke her heart, she’s not about to let it go. I can sympathize.
He finishes with a flourish, slapping the un-tattooed cheek. “That’ll do ya.” She pays him $200 and scurries out the door. He looks at me and makes a sweeping gesture over the chair. “Batterup.”
I slap the sopping wet newspaper clipping into his great, meaty hand and take off my shirt.
“That was my son. His name was Sam. Samuel Ryan Willis. He was my son and he was alive.”
“Wheredya want it?”
I point to my chest with drunken romanticism. “My..my heart.”
The procedure was originally developed by the military for soldiers who came back from North Korea with heads full of bad wiring. Mental hospitals were filled up with eighteen year-old kids who just cracked after spending months clearing Dear Leader’s suicide squadrons out of the caves they’d dug into the mountains. The procedure was quicker, easier and a hell of a lot cheaper than paying for years of psychotherapy.
For a while after that they started using it on rape victims and abused children and the like. Then the back alley erasure clinics started popping up when the public demand for cosmetic memory modification outstripped the number of shrinks willing to write up a recommendation to have an ex-boyfriend or a dead pet erased.
Elsie Liddle had a back alley job. Elsie’s boyfriend was a sadistic, drunken creep named Moulton who beat the sh*t out of her like clockwork. Every couple of months he’d break something and she’d actually call 911 and we’d go arrest the *beep*. And every time she’d refuse to press charges, telling through a face like hamburger that she’d fallen down the stairs. Then a couple of months later she’d call again.
One day he fractured her skull and we finally convinced her to press charges and got him put away for six months. He got out in three and she was right there at the prison gates, waiting to pick him up. You’d think he’d appreciate something like that. Instead, he put her in a coma.
He got two years for that one and no one was really surprised to hear that when he got out she was right there waiting for him. Only this time she never called. Either Moulton had mended his ways, in which case all those poor souls in hell better get sweaters, or he’d finally killed her.
I knocked on her door and something that looked vaguely Elsie-like opened it a chain-length and regarded me with a blackened eye.
She didn’t know who I was. I guess she’d known he’d never stop hurting her, but he only did it because he loved her – he told her so. So she went and got a hack-job done so every time he beat her she’d forget as soon as he tired out.
“Listen to me, Elsie, no, I know you don’t remember me, but just listen. Your husband’s a lowlife. You…”
“You don’t know a *beep* thing about my husband! Look at this face!” She opened the door all the way and pointed to what had once been her face. “I get seizures. I fall down a lot. But he’s good enough to stay with me so don’t call my husband a lowlife, f*ck you very much!”
And she slammed the door in my face.
They’d reprogrammed her to explain the damage she knew she’d be seeing in the mirror every morning. Lose a case of domestic abuse, gain an imaginary case of epilepsy.
And the horse you rode in, Jim Carrey.
You’re already coming down the stairs, I make such a racket getting through the door. The silk kimono you’re pulling around your shoulders trails behind you and I can see the stretch marks on your stomach that Sam gave you. I wonder how you explain that to yourself when you look in the mirror.
“Stephen, where have you been? Do you know what time it is?” But the tone in your voice is concern, not anger.
“Oh, I was at the…that thing.”
“That, uh, Ralph Greer’s retirement dinner. “
“You didn’t tell me anything about a retirement dinner. I was worried sick!”
I can smell you from here. I reach out and talk hold of you, absorbing your warmth. “I’m sorry, babe. You know how many of those things I go to…”
“Ah, Stephen, you’re soaking wet!”
“Yeah, we had a few too many and I had to walk home…”
“Oh, Jesus. You should have taken a cab! Come on, let’s get you dried off.” You reach down to undo my belt and I feel myself respond. You look up at me with that same expression you wore in college when pulled me into the bathroom at a party and started taking off my pants while impatient drunks pounded on the door.
The world cannot be a completely terrible place. I’ve still got you and that counts for a whole hell of a lot. Now we’re up in our room, in our bed, where we made our son, and you’re unbuttoning my shirt. You lost your kimono on the way up the stairs. You’re pulling back my shirt but you stop and get a confused look on your face.
“Jesus, Stephen, when did you get a tat…” You’re eyes roll back in your head and your hands go limp at your sides. Oh, yeah. I forgot about the tattoo.
What a mood killer. You come to and start pawing at me again. Damn it.
“I…uh, I really think I’m too uh…too drunk right now, babe.”
“Awwww!!” And you blow a raspberry at me, bouncing up and down naked on the bed. “You sure?” And you grab at my pants again.
I give in. Life’s to short, after all, to pass up fine memories. After, I’m holding you, or sweat mingling, and reminding myself of Hemmingway said, that the world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.
“Stephen, are you still awake?”
“I’ve been thinking…don’t you think it’s time we tried to have a baby?”
Do not start crying. Keep it close but focus on the now.
“Yeah. Yeah, babe, I was thinking the same thing.”
The perspective that pain gives life is the reason we hold it so dear.
They say death brings people closer together. That’s because tragedy puts everything else into perspective. After Dad died it was amazing how all the trivial things that had gotten in the way of my relationship with the rest of my family just kind of ceased to matter.
After Sammy died my desk was a riot of flower baskets and cards expressing sorrow and remorse. Whenever anyone in the department loses a loved one everyone else is expected to send something over, whether you know them or not.
For over a week bits of manufactured empathy and assembly line consolations piled higher and higher on and around my desk, crowding out paperwork. The same cards telling me how sorry the sender was in spirally handwriting. Why is it we assume the best way to best way to comfort a grieving friend is to give them impersonal crap?
Half of the cards had the same poem in them:
If tears could build a walkway
And memories a lane
I’d walk right up to Heaven
And bring you down again.
If that doesn’t cheer you up, I don’t know what will. Ray didn’t give me a card or flowers or a sad teddy bear holding a balloon with “I’m sorry” written on it, he just held me and cried. He didn’t need to prove to me or anyone else how sorry he was that his godson died.
Death can bring families together because they use affection, tenderness and love to fill the void left by it. It’s how they cope. But what solace can I take from someone who does not and will not ever know of the death I still hold so dear?
You’re pregnant again. Two weeks late on your period and the test was just a formality. We both knew. I look at you in Sam’s old room, which you said would be perfect, just perfect for a nursery room, setting up a crib, packing the window with stuffed animals and singing, singing, singing.
I’ve made a to do list – three simple things I need to get done.
I wrap my arms around you, my hands on your stomach.
“I think it’s a boy.” You sound confident. “If it’s a girl we’ll call her Elizabeth after my grandmother but I think it’s a boy.”
I ask a question I already know the answer to. “And if it’s a boy?”
“What do you think about ‘Sam?’”
“It’s a great name, babe. Just perfect.” I kiss your neck. “Look I gotta run some errands, okay? I’ll be right back.”
“Ooh! I’ve got a list of stuff I need! Hold on!” And you run into the kitchen.
So add one more thing to my to do list. A quick stop by Bad, Bath and Beyond for two gallons of blue paint, a 15X12 section of blue carpet and set of blue linens for the crib (You’re really, really sure that it’s a boy), and I’m on my way.
The first one’s going to hurt. A lot. I had done once before to get rid of a drunken decision to immortalize a doomed relationship. It just wouldn’t do for a married man to carry the name of an old flame emblazoned on his chest.
Senior year I went on an all night bender in Vegas with my fraternity brothers and woke up with “Evangeline,” intertwined with red roses, tattooed on my left breast. She got “Stephen” on her arm which, considering the guy she left more for two weeks later was also named Stephen, worked out well for her.
Both times I’ve gotten a tattoo I’ve been drunk. There should be a law about giving tattoos to drunk people. Some kind of a waiting list to prevent “body modification under the influence.”
It’s just getting too awkward, having to always have sex with Kate with either my shirt on or the room pitch-dark. Seeing my wife gently convulse as the memories of our dead son are re-erased is, as I said, a real mood-killer.
“Just relax,” the nurse says, “this won’t hurt too bad.”
“Like hell, honey. I’ve had a tattoo removed before. I know what it feels like.”
“Oh. Well, yeah, it’s gonna hurt like hell. Sorry.”
“Not your fault.”
She moves something that looks not entirely unlike high-tech *beep* over my chest and stops long enough to read it. A quick glance at my eyes is enough to tell her not to ask any *beep* questions and she gets to work. Something like electric fire jumps from the *beep* into my chest, just for a fraction of second. “Stephen and Kate” fade away, leaving behind only a tingly pain like a sleeping limb. Or a severed one.
A few jolts later and “Samuel” vanishes, too.
“Sorry, buddy,” I say aloud. At this, the nurse fixes her mouth up and starts working faster.
An hour later I walk out of the clinic, eyes puffy from crying despite my best efforts not to, freshly de-tattooed and $2,500 poorer. I get in my car and cross the first item off the to do list.
“Get tattoo removed.” Check.
I leave you with all the things I bought at the store and, with a kiss, you get right to work getting the room ready for Sammy the second. Or, as far as you’re concerned, Sammy the first.
I can’t help but feel a terrible guilt at this, you busily making preparations to replace our child, but people replace children all the time, right? A few years ago our neighbors, the Ludvigs, lost all four of their children. The babysitter they hired didn’t make the children buckle up when she picked them up from school and proceeded drive right in front of a bus.
A year later Mr. and Mrs. Ludvig found out about these four orphans from Africa, all the same age as their own. It was a sign from God, they said, and immediately adopted them. They’re the happiest damned family I’ve ever seen. Keep the death close, for perspective, and move on.
An hour later, while you’re making a little part of the world ready to receive new life, I pull up in front of a squalid apartment building a couple of streets over from the endless rows of empty, decaying office buildings that used to be this city’s pride and joy. Rusting hulks of corporate art play host to indigents and stray cats.
A couple of years after the last of them closed down and moved everything to China the cops stopped getting out of their cars here. A couple years more and they stopped coming all together. Now this part of the city has the highest murder rate in the country.
The radio plays that forgotten song, a wounded voice crying,
Well there’s a piece of Maria in every song that I sing
And the price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings
In the hour I sit, waiting for sunset, I hear half a dozen gunshots. This reassures me. I mean, who’s going to notice half a dozen more?
I take another slug of whiskey, then another to steady my nerves and watch the sky darken. None of the streetlights in this place work and it gets just about as dark as it can in this city; the only light comes reflected down from the smog. Aside from the occasional gunshot, all is silent.
Check the gun again. It was sitting in lockup for two years. I do, and the action’s clean. The ski mask is too tight but I can see well and start snaking my way through the burned out SUVs that they never bothered to clear off the streets after the riots.
On my way down the dark hallway, stepping over a vagrant passed out on the floor, I see not one but two doors with yellow police tape stretched across them, a pretence of police diligence left over from murders no one ever intended to solve. This, too, reassures me.
After a few minutes standing outside the last door on the left I hear a muffled thud and something crash to the floor. Then nothing for several minutes more.
The chain lock, probably the worst security device ever designed, seems almost too happy to give way. A second of protection is all a chain is good for.
Moulton’s right there, watching “Girls Gone Wild” and jerking off. He manages to get halfway out of his recliner before I put him back in it. A round from a .38 snub nose will do very bad things to a person’s internal organs. Six of them will do a great many very bad things to a person’s internal organs.
Elsie is slumped in the corner of the kitchen, unconscious. I push a clump of hair away from her bloodied face. I’m sorry you gotta wake up and see this, Elsie. But with any luck those cheap bots infesting your brain will erase everything you see and you’ll probably end up thinking he ran off and left you.
Better a broken heart than a shattered skull.
I dial 911 and leave the phone off the hook. As I step into the hallway half a dozen heads disappear behind slamming doors followed by the sounds of deadbolts and chains snapping into place. In my car, I cross off the second item on the list, “ Save Elsie,” – check! – before driving out and away from the ruins of the once-vaunted Silicon Valley.
The inscription on the tombstone at the head of burial plot 71, row five, lot 60 of the Saint Mary Children’s Cemetery reads,
Warm summer sun, shine kindly here;
Warm southern wind, blow softly here;
Green sod above, lie light, lie light—
Good-night, dear heart, good-night, good-night.
It was Kate’s idea to include the poem, written by Mark Twain and inscribed on his daughter’s tombstone. A message, carved in stone, to a son she doesn’t even remember having. You’re almost finished with the room now, it looks great, it really does, and I’m almost done with my list.
The graves they dig for babies aren’t as deep those for adults. The coffins are smaller and I suppose it’s difficult to dig a hole that’s two feet wide and six deep. Maybe the shallowness is keeping it from settling properly or maybe it’s the fact that it never rains here. Whatever the case, the sod covering the hole sticks up about four inches in perfect outline of the coffin.
I start tamping down the edges with my foot, hoping to convince the grass to reunite with the rest of the ground, finishing the burial. I feel like I could just grab hold of the sod with two hands and roll it back like a blanket to reveal a tiny, baby-sized coffin. Like a blanket, like his blanket, the one I pulled up to chin a dozen times a day when I was home and kiss his head and say, “Good night,” even if it were mid day.
But he died when I was work I never got a chance to say my last good night.
The last thing on my list is the hardest. My hands, covered in dirt and bleeding where some of the fingernails ripped off, grip a piece of paper and a pen but I can’t make them come together and finish it. The first three were easy – shopping, doctor’s appointment, murder.
This last one’s going to be hard. Back and forth, my eyes flick to the sign above the door to the erasure clinic on south Macarthur Street and back the bloodied, filthy sheet of department stationery. Just cross it off. Finish it. Just sweep up the shards and cross it off…