At 4:51AM, I woke up in a beige hotel room in a town I didn’t know. I had almost nothing, no real possessions, no identity, and no memories. At first I didn’t realize anything was wrong, and I just tried to go back to sleep. But I was struck by a momentary panic when I realized that I didn’t know who I was, or where I was, or why I had to go back to sleep.
I searched the beige hotel room. There was nothing, other than a wallet and a business card. The wallet contained $5,000 in cash and a note. Written upon the note, in an illegible scrawl, were the following words:
“Don’t try to remember. Start over. I’m sorry.”
The handwriting, I later deduced, was my own.
The business card had been slid under the door. It was matte, and white, with black text that read:
“Trouble remembering? Memories for sale! Call 0800-662-606”
I should have destroyed it right then and there, I should have thrown it out the window, or tore it into tiny pieces, or burned it, or eaten it. But I didn’t. I slid it into my pocket.
For a long while, I tried to work out what to do. I knew how to read, obviously. I probably knew other stuff as well. But I didn’t know that I knew it. I went downstairs and asked the lady in reception. She said she remembered me check in. She said I’d booked the room for 6 more nights. And she said I looked like shit. Thanks, I said.
I felt like everything I knew was just on the cusp of my consciousness. Positioned just out of reach. Out of fear? Out of sorrow? Out of malice? I weighed up the possibilities in my empty head. Unconsciously, I started turning the business card over in my hands.
For the next few weeks, little happened. I was in a grimy, nondescript town. There was a cinema and a shopping mall and an elementary school and a big box store, and there were cars and trees and people and birds, and they all took their history for granted. I managed to get a job working nights at a gas station. It was winter and the nights were long, so I didn’t see the sun very often. My boss thought I was doing a great job. She told me that I was the best employee she ever had. All I ever did was sit there and serve the customers. I never thought about myself. I didn’t have aspirations. I didn’t have bad habits. For those weeks, I was a nameless, faceless tool of the Shell corporation, in a literal sense.
Oh, I gave myself a name. John Doe. Imaginative, isn’t it? Maybe I forgot, or maybe I didn’t care. I rented a grungy apartment near to the gas station, and I put a few pieces of furniture in there. I started to dread the end of my shifts at the gas station. At work, I had purpose, I had meaning. At home, I didn’t know what to do. I would turn on the TV and try to remember if there was anything I liked, but I couldn’t. I bought a few things, to try and remember if I could use them. I didn’t like reading books, and I didn’t know many words. I couldn’t play any musical instruments. I wasn’t good with computers. I was allergic to fish. I sucked at video games. And I sucked at crochet.
I suppose there are worse things than sucking at crochet.
The business card, meanwhile, burned a hole in my pocket. I wanted to call them. Oh, how I wanted to call them. But all I knew was that I’d wanted to forget. I put it off.
I’m sure you have things that you’d rather forget. Embarrassing memories, social faux-pas, perhaps? Or maybe something worse. Maybe you’d wanted to forget your grief. Or maybe you’d wanted to forget something you’d done.
On the other hand, maybe I knew something that the powers that be hadn’t wanted me to know. I knew I was hiding. Nobody in town had recognized me. Who could I have been hiding from?
As the weeks passed, as I ran out of shitty hobbies and began to resent the beige walls of my new living quarters. As every morning at home became a long grind, I realized that the card was winning.
I picked up the phone and I dialled the number.
A man answered.
“Hello! You’ve reached The Memory Corporation. My name is Mr. Loftus. Can I help you?”
“Uh, hi. I don’t remember anything.”
“Ha, if I had a nickel for every time someone told me that. Well, how about I book you in for an appointment? I’m free tomorrow afternoon, if that suits.”
“Yeah, that suits, I guess.”
“What can I call you, sir?”
“Perfect! I look forward to meeting you, Mr. Doe!”
He gave me an address. It was not in a good part of town.
Now, it was my shift at the gas station that went by like treacle. There was a clock at the far end of the room from me. I watched the seconds march on.
“Hello, Mr. Doe! In the flesh! Yes, I remember hearing about you. You look like you’re doing quite well for yourself!”
The address pointed to a narrow building, sandwiched between a chicken shop and what may have been an estate agent at some point. You had to go up a flight of stairs to get there. The name of the place was ‘The Memory Corporation’.
“Thank you. I have some questions, if you don’t mind.” I said.
Loftus was a man in his mid-thirties, white as a ghost, with short black hair, well-trimmed sideburns, and a pronounced jawline. He smiled a practised smile as he talked.
“Yes, everybody does. I will be straight with you, Mr. Doe. I can’t tell you anything about your past, and I don’t know your past.”
“What can you do?” I asked.
“Here at The Memory Corporation, we buy and sell memories. People come to us because they have memories that they want to take off of their minds, and we do just that. And we pay for these memories in cash. We don’t ask questions, and nor do our customers.”
“What do you do with the memories?”
“You remember what I just told you about asking questions?” grinned Loftus.
“Of course, we have one more service,” he went on, “you can buy your memories back from us, if it turns out that you really want them. The first memory is free. The second is a dollar. The third is two dollars. The fourth is four dollars. The fifth is eight dollars. And so on.”
I shook his hand and I left the office. But the seeds had been sewn, and my desire to know more fought its way to the forefront of my mind, and it stayed there, burning more intensely each day, threatening to consume the chance i gave myself at a normal life.
The weeks turned into months. I worked longer shifts at the gas station. I got a very small pay rise. With nothing to spend it on, my money sat there, waiting to be transformed into the past.
It was only so long before I caved. I made another appointment with Loftus, and I went back to The Memory Corporation. I didn’t know what to expect. Loftus asked me if I was here for my free sample, barely concealing a smile, and I told him I was. He ushered me into a room that looked a little bit like a room at a doctor’s surgery, and told me to look straight up at the ceiling. I obeyed. I heard him wheeling something into the room. He appeared in eyeshot again, holding a device that looked like a wire mesh hat, festooned with spools of wire of various colours. On the inside of device, I could make out what looked like an array of tiny needles.
“You may feel a slight scratching sensation.” he said. “Don’t panic. Your safety is our primary concern.” I was going to protest, but the words wouldn’t come I just lay there, motionless, while he strapped the device to my head.
I can’t really explain the sensation. It’s somewhere between a migraine and an orgasm. It’s a pounding, shimmering, falling sensation that drives shivers down your spine and makes your whole body convulse. The room didn’t go dark, it pinwheeled, it went light, it shone, it sparkled, and then it was gone.
I was sitting at a bench, on a playground. It was hot, outside, and humid. It felt as though a storm was coming. I was watching the children playing on a bunch of wooden equipment adorned with slides, poles and ropes. The children were yelling at one another and laughing. In the distance, I could hear the faint sound of a lawnmower.
In particular, I was watching a girl of about seven years, with curly red hair and freckles. She was at the top of the structure, and she was engaged in some kind of heated debate with a boy of about the same age. At one point, he put his hands out and shoved. She shoved back, and they began a minor brawl.
I stood up and cupped my hands around my mouth.
And then it was over. The room came swimming back into view.
“How was it?” said Loftus.
“I don’t know.” said I.
I had more questions than I did before. I went home as if I was in a trance. In my mind’s eye, I was still at the playground. It was like a tiny opening in a sea of dark clouds, and I could see the sunlight streaming through.
Who was I? I weighed up the possibilities. Maybe I was a paedophile.
Over the next few weeks, I continued working my shitty clerk job at the gas station. But the days were longer than they had been. It was as if I had only just woken up, for real this time, and 4:51AM in the beige hotel room had just been a false start. Simply put, I felt better.
At home, I decided I would start sketching out all of my memories. I discovered that I wasn’t too bad at drawing. I began to look forward to leaving the gas station, and returning home, to the castle of memories that I was building for myself.
I saw Loftus regularly. And I begun to pay the fee. It wasn’t much at first.
The memories kept coming.
Most of them were quite mundane. In the $1 memory, for example, I was making breakfast. It was a Sunday, and I was in the kitchen of a large, well-furnished suburban home. Nothing really important happened.
$2. $4. $8. Small change. I could afford it.
I got a glimpse of myself at work. I think I was an accountant. I was working with spreadsheets with a lot of dollar signs and acronyms, and I was on the phone to a client, who was starting his own business. Something ridiculous, if I remember right. It might have been ‘GlassFrog’. It was definitely a glass animal of some sort.
My boss came into my office. He was a smartly dressed, broad-shouldered middle-aged man with a gaunt face and glasses. He paced while he talked, he didn’t look like the type who ever sat down.
“Have you heard the rumours?” he said.
“Yes. Well, most of them”
“They don’t reflect very well on you.”
“They don’t reflect very well on the company.” he said.
Whatever they were, I didn’t believe them.
I was sitting at a restaurant. There was a woman at the opposite end of the table. She was young, and pretty, with curly black hair and dark blue eyes, and a nose that was slightly too small for her face.
“I had no idea you were so funny!” she exclaimed.
“Nor did I,” I said. “maybe it’s this wine.” I rolled the wine around in the glass.
The waiter comes over. “Which of you ordered the Bacalhau à Brás?” he said.
“I did.” I said.
The woman flashed me a shy smile from the other end of the table.
Most of my memories were mundane and told me nothing. I remember the one I got at the $64 mark. I was at work. I went to the bathroom. The company had unisex bathrooms. Very modern. I was washing my hands, and I looked up at the mirror. It was blurry.
And so, I kept working at the gas station. The hours seemed to drag on for longer each time. I worked on auto-pilot for as much time as possible. I had very little contact with my co-workers, but at the end of my shift, I would hand over to a weasley young man with acne, who looked like he’d not finished high school. And I kept working on my scrapbook, filling it with details and pictures and sketches. My memories were very short and very fragmented, but they let me build up a patchwork identity. I think I knew which company it was that I worked for. I had narrowed it down to a few, at least. Similarly, I’d been noting down places, names of businesses, names of streets, trying to work out which city I was in. There was one which was about a day’s drive from here.
And, as I pushed the cash into his hand, time and time again, Loftus smiled with his mouth. And playing on his eyes was an emotion that I couldn’t quite place – but I think it was pity.
In many of my memories, I was wearing a ring. I think I was either engaged, or married. I wasn’t entirely sure who to. I hadn’t seen the woman from the restaurant again, although I guessed it could have been her. I used to work very long hours at the office, and I would get home, back to that pleasant suburban house, and collapse into bed, next to a disturbance in the blankets. I could have been married to a pile of pillows, for all I knew.
The girl I saw. She was my daughter. I became convinced of it. At the $512 mark, I got the jackpot – I got her first steps. I saw her cautiously wobbling across the carpet of our living room. I saw the pride on her little face.
“Daddy!” she says. And she smiled at me with the semi-toothless grin of an infant.
I smiled back. And I was proud.
I have her name. Eleanor. It was delightfully old-fashioned.
It had been around 4 months since 4:51AM. I was still working at the gas station. I’d begun to ration the memories out a little more, because I was at the $512 mark, and it seemed like I ought to start being careful with my money. Looking back on it, it’s clear that I was feeding an addiction, and that I didn’t really care how much it cost, as long as I could get my next fix. At home, I’d been working on another project. I still didn’t know much about the woman who I’d seen at the restaurant, but I had enough information to look up Eleanor. I knew where she lived. She was about a day’s drive away.
I took a day off of work, and I drove there, to find her. The whole way there, I was excited, and I was panicked.
I loved her. I loved Eleanor. I’d been dreaming about her. And, with her gone, I’d been missing her. I was so excited to see her. At the same time, I was worried. I still didn’t know why exactly why I’d sold my memories, and I wasn’t looking forward to finding out. Was it something to do with her? I suppose it must have been. But, whatever differences we’d had, we could work it out. That’s what I told myself. I’d entertained the idea that she was dead, but I put it out of my mind. I didn’t want to think about it.
I pulled up in the driveway of her house. It wasn’t the one from my memories. It was small and squat, only one floor. The front garden was unkempt, the grass came up to my ankles, and it was dotted with weeds and prickles.
With heart in mouth, I rapped on the front door, and waited. The 30 seconds I waited were, to me, longer than a day, a week, a month at that crappy gas station. The possibilities screamed through my head. Maybe she doesn’t want to see you. Maybe she doesn’t live here, maybe nobody does. Maybe she’s dead.
Click. The door unlocked. It opened about a foot, and a woman peered out.
It was her. She was older, perhaps in her mid-twenties now. Her features had long since lost their rounded, child-like quality, and now she looked thin and angular.
I’ll never forget her eyes. They were oldest of all.
She paused for a moment, peering at me, as if she were expecting me to say something.
“Eleanor?” I said.
“Do I know you?” she said.
“Yes, I’m-”, I faltered. I realised I still didn’t know my own name.
“I’m your father.” I managed.
I knew it was wrong, the moment I said it. She didn’t react at first, as if she didn’t understand the implication. Then, she flew into a rage.
“Look, mister, I don’t know who you are, and I don’t care. But if this is your idea of a joke, it isn’t fucking funny, OK? If you come here again, I’m calling the cops.”
She slammed the door in my face.
I’m sorry, Eleanor. I was crying. I didn’t realize until I got in the car. I cried for a long time, and barely made a sound.
I kept visiting The Memory Corporation. I didn’t let on any of this to Loftus. I just put the money into his hand, and he wheeled out the machine. He knew that I was an addict, but he didn’t say anything. It wasn’t his job to judge me. My patrons at the gas station never begrudged me for selling them cigarettes and booze, and I never begrudged him.
At the $8192 mark, I was in trouble. I would probably need to take out a loan if I was going to go any further. But I had to know why Eleanor hadn’t recognized me. Her rejection hurt, and it wouldn’t stop hurting, but right now it was a meaningless pain. I didn’t understand what I’d done to deserve it.
I was in the interrogation room of a police station. It was blue. I was blue. Everything was blue.
An officer came in, slamming the door behind him. He was a bald, overweight man, and he looked like the kind of cop who broke skateboards in half and shot other people’s dogs.
“I won’t answer any questions without my attorney present.” I said.
The cop looked on me, his nose wrinkled, his eyes narrowed.
“It’s not a legal requirement for you to have an attorney present, Mr. Pearson.” He said.
“Can I get your badge number, sir?” I said.
“Sure thing,” he said. “It won’t help you in jail. Because that’s where you’re going, pal. Jail. You sick fuck”. He spat on the floor. It was disgusting.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, officer,” I said, “but can I please be allowed to call my attorney?”
“No. Stay put. You can stew.” He left the room.
I sat there for god knows how long. I was blue. Maybe it was hours, maybe it was only thirty minutes. They’d confiscated my watch. Occasionally I heard voices outside, but I didn’t know what they were saying. Maybe it was about me. I went through periods of fear and anger. One moment I had to stop myself shaking, put my hand on my jaw and stop my teeth chattering. Was my wife okay? Was my daughter okay? What the hell had happened? I remembered the strange conversation I’d had with my boss earlier that week. What had he meant? The next moment I was angry. What the hell had I done to deserve this? What was their right to detain me? Why wouldn’t someone come in and tell me what had happened? Why?
Eventually, the cop from before came back. This time, he didn’t want to question me, and he dropped his tough guy persona. He spoke quietly and with tremendous restraint.
“Mr. Pearson?” he said.
“Yes, officer?” I said.
“You’re free to go.”. He paused. “Your wife confessed everything. They found the note on her bedside table.”
“When they got there, it was too late.” he said.
The world began to fall apart, and then splintered into a million tiny fragments.
The last thing I remember is him saying “I’m sorry.”
When I got up, Loftus knew that something was wrong. For the first time, he dropped the attitude of slick professionalism that he’d been carefully maintaining for the past few months.
“Are you OK?” he said.
I hurried out.
I didn’t sleep for the longest time. I couldn’t sleep. I could put the pieces together, but I no longer wanted to. I knew I shouldn’t have tried to put it all together. I knew that I was escaping from something. It was my folly.
I didn’t go to the gas station that night. There was no point. My boss called my phone, asking where I was, threatening to dock my pay. I told her I didn’t care.
I burned the scrapbook. It was too painful to look at for any longer. The fire consumed the pages, and it consumed the delicate strokes of my pencil, but it didn’t consume the memories.
In the small hours of the morning, there was a knock at the door of my beige apartment. I didn’t answer, I tried to pretend I wasn’t home. Then it came once more, louder this time.
“Hello?! I need to talk to you! It’s urgent!”.
It was a familiar voice. It was Loftus. I tensed. It was Loftus! For a moment, I projected my self-loathing onto him. It was all his fault. He was the one who’d fed me this cocktail of waking dreams and nightmares. He would pay.
I opened the door. He was carrying a folder bursting with papers. He looked dishevelled. He looked ill.
“I’m so glad I caught you.” he said, breathlessly. “I thought you might not have been home. I thought it might have been too late.”
I said nothing. My anger was gone.
“John. I’m quitting my job at the Memory Corporation. I’m coming clean. I don’t know where I’ll go or what I’ll do, but I can’t do it anymore. I’m going to make it all right. I’m going to make it all right for you.”
I said nothing.
“John, the memories that I gave you. They aren’t yours. I don’t know how else to say it. They’re not yours! They belong to another man, who came to The Memory Corporation over a decade ago. One of our first customers.”
I said nothing. I just listened. I don’t know if I felt better or worse.
“They filed his memories away with everyone else’s and he left. But a few weeks later he came back, he said he wanted his memories back. We gave them back to him, and then he wanted to get rid of them again.
Since then, we’ve given his memories to dozens, possibly hundreds of clients. They work like a charm. They have a great return rate. They turn one-off customers into repeat customers, if you know what I mean.”
He scrabbled through his papers until he found mine.
“I don’t know very much about you. You weren’t married and you had no children. You were some kind of engineer, I think. I don’t know why you came to The Corporation. But when I arrived, you’d been using them for some time, and you’ve been using them for years since.”
“You’re taking this very well.” he said. “I didn’t know quite how people would react. Now, If you’ll excuse me, I have a huge list of clients to get to. Here’s your file, have a good life, and I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you sooner.”
He left in a hurry. I wonder if The Corporation was already looking for him. I glanced at the file he’d given me. Software engineer. 32 years of age. Childless and unmarried. Unhappy with his job. I suppose Loftus could relate.
I tried to go on. I tried to lead a normal life. I’m still trying, now. But I can’t. I ruined it, I ruined everything. When I close my eyes, I see the woman I never married, and the daughter I never had.
What did she do to Eleanor while I was working late? I don’t want to know.
At some point, I lost the will to continue. I stopped going to work. I stopped showering. I stopped eating. The rational part of my brain knows my memories aren’t real, but they feel real to me. I can’t bear to live a moment longer without them, without her. The memories may be fake, but the love is real and the grief is realer still.
I’ve decided what I’m going to do. And there’s no point trying to stop me. By the time you read this, It’ll already be done.
I’m going back to the Memory Corporation. They have branches in other towns, maybe I’ll go to one of them. I’ll shake hands, cordially, with the salesperson. And I’ll tell them I want to erase everything. And I’ll start over, for real this time.
I don’t care if you think I’m stupid for doing it; I can’t bear to live like this for another moment.
Memories are all that holds our fragile little world together. Without them, we have nothing. When you get old, you start to forget, so you surround yourself with pictures and mementos, and you reminisce about days gone by, because you want to hold onto your memories forever.
Sometimes, memories hurt. They hurt bad. But it is our memories that define who we are. Without them, we are nothing.
My advice to you is this: cherish your memories. Even the ones that cause you pain. Don’t throw them away.