This short story was submitted to the Post Apocalyptic Media Short Story Contest for 2021. All rights belong to the writer.
Healing is hard. Forgetting is easy.
Xoey stood beneath the glowing marquee of The Memory Store. She’d passed this store many times because it was the closest one to the microapartment she shared with her roommate, though there were about three dozen locations throughout the city. She sighed, knowing that not going to her appointment was only delaying the inevitable.
“Welcome Xoey Appleton-Nandini-García 12,” an automated voice said when she entered the store, reading her biometric data. “A Memory Specialist will be with you shortly.”
The black floor lit up with a glowing arrow directing her to an all-white private room with a plush twin bed.
The concept of The Memory Store was simple supply and demand. There was high demand for good memories and low, but present, demand for bad memories. Sell your bad memories for next to nothing in a crowded market. Sell your best memories for a fortune in the most in-demand market in the world.
“Choose your dream theme,” the voice instructed.
The options were infinite, just like memory. You could choose from a real place, historical or present, a fictional place from any immersive film or virtual reality, or nothing at all. In a world so full of stimulation and countless possibilities, the sensory deprivation dreamless sleep was rumored to be the most common choice.
Xoey chose a forest with a lush canopy of leaves, a trail weaving through the tree trunks, deer dashing through the hollows and rabbits bouncing through the grass. It’s hard to believe such things really existed.
“Now make yourself comfortable,” the voice said in a subdued, calming tone and dimmed the lights.
As she waited for the Memory Specialist, Xoey thought about the people who bought bad memories. The artists who believed you had to suffer to create work that’s true; the memory activists who insisted that bad memories were a normal part of the human experience and that to extricate them is to make our species subhuman, a step back in evolution. Xoey had researched all the arguments and read the studies.
Suicide nearly nonexistent since widespread use of memory extraction!
Are mentally ill people the next endangered species?
With such little demand for antiquated mental health services like therapy and psychiatry, those who regret implanting bad memories work to fight The Memory Store’s no return policy.
There were stories of people who had their best memories extracted only to become unmoored. They fell out of love with their spouse, they swore their children had been adopted, they felt no connection to their homes, they wondered why they ever did the hobbies that once brought them joy. They forgot connection points that made the most important people and places and things in their lives meaningful. Those who sold their best memories often did so in bouts of depression, finding a Memory Store location closer than a mental health clinic. Or they had compelling reasons to need money suddenly: to escape unhousedness, to put up the ransom for a kidnapping, to fulfill a lifelong dream of living a life of luxury on the moon colony. These were normal, happy people––until they weren’t.
Then there were people who had regular appointments at The Memory Store. Disgraced politicians, celebrities who had been publicly dumped, those from all walks of life who had been publicly shamed––people who were constantly being reminded of their scandal in the media, by protesters outside their homes, by hecklers who sought to do them harm.
There were, too, victims of abuse who were unable to leave their abusers who had standing appointments at The Memory Store. They wanted only to forget.
And there were people who wanted The Memory Store to extract from them the worst things they’d ever done. Memories so vile they paid years of their salary to ensure the memories were destroyed instead of resold.
There were also the ethicists who worried over the implications of all the unsold bad memories and how they were donated to prisons… and whether bad memories might be used as biological-mental warfare.
Xoey laid back on the bed, the mattress and pillow adjusting automatically to support her head and spine in the most optimal way. The ceiling was a giant screen with animated script.
Healing is hard. Forgetting is easy.
The tagline for The Memory Store dotted every gleaming, glow-in-the-dark billboard in the city. Was on the side of every skyscraper. Scrolled across the news banners on the tops of windshields on every self-driving bus and car, and in the augmented reality shown through every pair of glasses. Which is to say, The Memory Store was everywhere––a place impossible to forget, though forgetting was their specialty.
There were millennia of suppressing emotions and refusing to talk about feelings before the therapy craze of the 2000s. Suddenly it was okay to not be okay, antipsychotic medication was normalized and encouraged, and not going to talk therapy was seen as a red flag, one worthy of refusing dates, cutting off contact with family, and writing kind but firm emails ending years-long friendships. Those intrepid travelers through the bureaucracy of insurance, the inertia of Congress, and the apathy of public opinion in the early 2000s eventually won out. By the 2020s there were PSAs about mental healthcare, free help lines where you could speak to professionals, yoga in schools, endless classes on mindfulness and how to breathe properly; how to think positive thoughts and how not to think anything at all.
And in cultivating this awareness––or consciousness, as these early pioneers in wellness preferred to call it––in mental health, the cause of widespread mental illness was revealed: America. Or perhaps, more accurately, that which America holds most dear: capitalism and its requisite productivity and wealth creation. Some in the 2020s rejected this, saying “this is just the way things are,” but eventually the mental healthcare activists’ message and burgeoning socialist platform caught on. It really was ridiculous to not have universal education and expect students to go tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt to get a job that would maybe, if they were lucky, allow them to pay off their student debt before they died. It was asinine to not have universal healthcare and for a sick person to lose their home just so they could recover from their illness and be forced to live on the streets. It truly was cruel and manipulative to demand a 40+ hour workweek so people would be too exhausted to consider their lot in life and lack the energy and time for organizing to do anything about it.
But––and there’s always a but, isn’t there? In the 70 years that followed, universal education and universal healthcare were granted, but the cost of housing and food rose so much that it hardly mattered. There were still people struggling to afford what they needed and people were depressed and anxious and burned out as a result. What America had failed to do was address the root cause of the nations’ and its peoples’ ills. So the market––capitalism made manifest––convinced the people their troubles may have been caused by the demands of labor in the form of long hours and low pay, but people’s inability to cope was no one’s fault but their own.
Capitalism was the problem, but capitalism insisted it was also the solution. The wellness industry was all too happy to capitalize on the problem. It began as social media influencers––thought leaders, as they preferred to call themselves––hawking boutique vitamins, affirmational bracelets, polished crystals with every imaginable healing power, juice cleanses, workbooks on introspection, cozy hand-knitted shawls, CBD lotion, vape pens, water bottles to remind you to drink, watches to remind you to move, anything and everything under the all-encompassing umbrella of #selfcare. This evolved into meditation apps, sleep apps, breathing exercise apps, talk therapy apps, video therapy apps, reiki apps, tarot apps, mood tracker apps, period tracker apps, daily questionnaire apps that claimed to delve deep into your psyche––anything mental, physical, or emotional that could be tracked and counted and quantified and extracted for data.
Now, in 2099, on the cusp of the new century, it’s The Memory Store. Because why bother tracking your emotional and biometric data and doing talk therapy, where everything you
said was repeated back to you in an affirming way without judgment, when you could simply make the bad memories disappear? The Memory Store made trauma go poof! After all, healing is hard. Forgetting is easy.
“Your Memory Specialist is approaching,” the automated voice warned.
A woman entered, appearing normal except for her eyes, which were milky. No pupils, no irises.
“Hello, Xoey. I’m your Memory Specialist, Xara Sánchez-Takomi-McDowell 15.”
Xoey had heard of The Vacants before, but she’d never seen one in person. People who sold so many of their memories that they didn’t know who they were or where they’d come from and didn’t recognize anyone they knew. They were so far gone that they had no basis for creating new memories and no way to regain the memories they lost. They were often such burdens to their families that many opted to return them to The Memory Stores, having the store pay the family for the Vacants’ labor in exchange for the family never suing or speaking ill of the company. When a person disappeared, one never knew if it was because they’d been kidnapped, they’d run away, or because of a memory appointment gone horribly wrong. Xoey gulped, hoping she wouldn’t become a Vacant.
“I see you’re nervous,” Xara said. “Is this your first time?”
“Yes,” Xoey replied, surprised that Xara could see at all.
“We don’t see many first-timers in their forties. Most people start in their teens. But don’t worry, the procedure is completely painless. There’s no downtime and no medical side effects. You’ll simply go to sleep and wake up without the memory, like it was never there.”
Xara even gave Xoey a pat on the hand, an attempt at comfort that came off stilted and forced, as though Xara wasn’t her own. “Will you be selling a good memory or a bad memory today?”
“A good memory.”
“How nice! We rarely get those,” Xara said. “You’ll leave here a rich woman, Xoey Appleton-Nandini-García 12, and you won’t even know what you’re missing. I’ll place some nodes on your head and––”
“I have a question,” Xoey gasped. “How do I know you’ll only take the one memory I want to sell and not all the other memories connected to it? If I won’t know what I’m missing, how will I know you didn’t rip me off and take a bunch of memories when I only wanted to sell one?”
Xara chuckled. “That’s a great question, Xoey, and you’d be surprised how many memory sellers wonder the same thing. Although the people selling bad memories often don’t
mind if you take more than they asked for, as long as you don’t extract a good memory instead…” she added, grinning.
“Our system has been fully tested and government approved. The science, which is proprietary to our lab, is unparalleled. Our scientists figured out how to isolate specific memories, so we can sense the edges of each memory and know where to cut––though no actual incision is involved. Instead of thinking of memories as spaghetti, all thrown together and touching one another, our technology sees each memory as an individual item that can be cleanly separated from the rest of your mind and removes it non-invasively.”
“I want to know that you’ll only take the one memory, no more.”
“Of course, like we agreed. We pride ourselves on excellent customer service,” Xara smiled. Xoey wondered if Xara’s own Memory Specialist had told her that before they extracted the last memory she would ever sell.
Xara placed each node on Xoey’s head with precision, stopping to consult a hologram of a diagram showing the placements specifically calculated to optimize removal of Xoey’s memory. Xara then pulled a panel from the wall and lowered it over Xoey’s body. The panel would wirelessly read Xoey’s heart rate, pulse, oxygen saturation, brain activity, and other vitals throughout the procedure.
“Would you like a few moments undisturbed to enjoy the memory one last time?” Xara asked when she completed her preparations.
She thought about the type of person who would buy this memory, who would have it permanently superimposed in their own memory as though it had been there from the start. She wondered if she would even remember having sold a memory or if The Memory Store’s concierge service would ensure she woke up in her microapartment none the wiser.
“No,” Xoey said, feeling her eyes twitch with suppressed tears. “I’ve had it for a long time.”
“Very well,” said Xara, pressing a button on the panel. “You’ll be asleep before you can say ‘forgetting is easy.’”
In Xoey’s mind’s eye, she saw a forest, full and thriving. Not logged, not burned, not extracted of its resources. In the lab, Xara and the precision robot used to remove memories identified the one Xoey wanted to sell. Each memory The Memory Store removed was viewed by a Vacant for cataloguing purposes and to ensure the robot cut the edges as far as they could go without interfering with other memories. Sometimes the robot and the Memory Specialist could see the grayed parts of the memory, things the seller didn’t even realize they’d remembered; things their subconscious had pushed to the periphery.
Not that this mattered to either the robot or The Vacant. Neither could form memories themselves. The Vacant would forget everything she’d seen within a few minutes of seeing it. The robot could only store information, not react to them or attach emotional meaning to them.
The robot extracted the metadata from Xoey’s memory: The year was 2076 (23 years ago) in what remained of Antarctica. The memory played as a hologram; the perspective through Xoey’s eyes.
A much younger Xoey, about 17 then, with long curly brown hair tied back into a braid wearing jeans (how dated!) and a short-sleeve t-shirt (made of cotton! how retro!) and muddied boots stood with her hands in her pockets next to a woman who appeared ancient. The woman was holding a coat with a fur-lined hood in her arms. It wasn’t nearly cold enough for her to need it.
The robot was able to pull more metadata as the memory progressed. According to the emotional markers attached to the memory and the parts of the Xoey’s brain that lit up when this memory was prodded, the old woman is Xoey’s great-great-grandmother.
“It’s nothing like it used to be,” Grandmother said, the many lines of her face obscuring her disappointed expression.
“Was this continent really covered in ice once?” Xoey asked, toeing at the muddy ground.
“Like you wouldn’t believe. Blankets of snow as far as the eye could see. And beyond that?” Grandma paused. “The ocean… with ice shelves dozens of feet thick and strong enough to hold multiple families of polar bears with each individual weighing a ton.”
Xoey looked out to the Southern Ocean now, no ice shelves or ice sheets in sight. It had been decades since Grandmother had been to Antarctica since it required a special dispensation to visit due to its fragile state. And yet, along the coast, construction crews rushed to build resorts. With the ice gone and Antarctica’s temperatures becoming more moderate by the year, the continent was destined to become the world’s first truly international resort, owned and operated by hospitality representatives from each of the 54 nations who agreed to the Antarctic Treaty and once, a long time ago, held it dear.
“I can’t even imagine what that must have been like.”
“This place was beautiful until 2031. The ice had been melting before that, but that’s when things really got bad.”
“That’s the year California split off, right?” Xoey asked. “And all the coastlines around the world moved inland twenty miles and a bunch of people lost their homes?”
“Smart kid. You get that from me,” Grandmother said, smiling and pulling Xoey into a hug.
Xoey began to cry softly. “Are you sure this is what you want?”
“I am. I’ve never been surer of anything in my life,” Grandmother replied, pushing back to look into Xoey’s eyes.
“Not even that you wanted to devote your life to climate research in the coldest place on Earth?”
Grandmother laughed, or tried to before her weary throat choked the sound. “Not even that. Now walk with me.”
They trekked along the coast through the black gravel rocks and mud until the sounds of construction were far beyond them. When they arrived at an outcropping, a place only a trained eye such as Grandmother’s would notice, she fell to her knees along the bank. Xoey bent to help her up, momentarily worried she was in pain, then remembered her knees were solid metal, replaced a half-century before, all feeling gone.
Along the bank, in an oblong shape roughly eight feet wide and ten feet long, was a transparent sheet of ice roughly three inches thick. From a distance it was nearly invisible, especially without snow topping it.
Still on her knees, Grandmother said, “‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ I have taken you to discover ice and fulfilled my dying wish.”
Xoey knew the quote––it was from a novel published in 1967, the year Grandmother was born, and one of her favorites. At 109, she had lived her hundred years and then some, decades of which were spent in the solitude of Antarctica.
Grandmother tugged Xoey’s hand so that Xoey crouched on the ground beside her.
“Touch it,” Grandmother instructed. Xoey had felt ice made from machines before, but ice made by nature was all but nonexistent. She reached out and pressed her fingers into its chill, feeling the ache in her fingertips; the tingling and burning sensation that comes before numbness.
It occurred to her: this was one of the last pieces of ice on Earth and she was one of the last people to see it.
When Xoey removed her hand from the sheet of ice, Grandmother held her. “Remember, Xoey, that when you face the firing squads of your life, that you have known ice. Never forget the inseparability of the past, present, and future. And know that in all my 109 years, you have given me the happiest day of my life.”
Grandmother smiled and Xoey saw tears running like rivers through the wrinkled canyons of her face. Then Grandmother crawled onto the ice and put her jacket under her head as a pillow. Xoey shoved the ice sheet carrying her great-great-grandmother into the waters of the Southern Ocean, hard enough that the tide would carry her out to sea. At some point, the pill Grandmother had taken would slow her heart until there was no sound left. She would return to the place she loved most and devoted her life to saving, though she had known all along the forces against her were more powerful than she was. She had placed her fragile humanity before her own kind of firing squad.
But it was summer in Antarctica and the sun would not set on her
great-great-grandmother until she was long gone––and there was nothing more powerful than that.
“I love you!” Xoey called when Grandmother was a hundred or so feet from shore. Grandmother didn’t rise on her bed of ice or respond, at least not that Xoey could hear, but she felt loved all the same. When she could no longer see the speckle of her grandmother’s floating frame, she began making the long walk back to the Divided States of America research station.
“Here. Cut here,” Xara said, though the robot didn’t need direction. “Oh, Xoey. You are going to be a rich woman.”
For a moment, Xara considered stopping the procedure, finding the memory too beautiful to remove. Surely if it was possible to extract a memory it was possible to duplicate it. There had
to be a way to let Xoey keep this memory, this beautiful memory, while also selling a copy? There had to be…
The implants behind each of Xara’s eyes reset and her train of thought ended abruptly. From one moment to the next, all she knew was that her name was Xara, she was a Memory Specialist at The Memory Store location 58147, and her latest appointment had just arrived. She had better attend to the memory seller.
* * *
Xoey awoke in her microapartment to the sound of her roommate, Xerin, jogging on her hover treadmill. She’d been dreaming about a forest. She’d been running to keep pace with a doe.
“Oh good, you’re awake,” Xerin said. “I have some messages for you from the Memory Store people. They said the money is in your account and that if you have any more good memories you’d like to sell to please contact them right away. They were able to sell yours almost immediately after extracting it.”
Xoey sat up, hearing Xerin’s words but not registering them. She didn’t recall visiting The Memory Store but Xerin wouldn’t lie. Still sitting on her bed, she wondered why she had four different editions of One Hundred Years of Solitude beside her bed and was so badly craving
a glass of cold water. No, not cold––ice water. She went to the kitchen and tried to remember what she meant to use the money from The Memory Store on anyway.
“Forgetting is easy,” she mumbled, rubbing her temples.