Oubliette by Stewart C. Baker [sci-fi]

Oubliette by Stewart C. Baker

“Change your life,” the poster says. “With one simple surgery, you can live fully in the moment. No stress, no worries, no lies.”

The text is accompanied by the usual images. Smiling adults, laughing children, a couple on a sunset beach walking and holding hands. That’s all, but I pick up a brochure anyway—if nothing else, I want to know what kind of charlatan’s trick they’re passing off as science.

“It’s just as easy as it sounds,” the booth girl tells me. “We install a chip in the hippocampus that triggers whenever stress generates neuropsin in the amygdala. The chip tracks the neural connections used to store the event, and simply blocks the brain when it tries to retrieve the memories.”

“So it doesn’t actually make you happier,” I say.

Her smile is startlingly white against the red of her lipstick. “It absolutely does. You’ll live each moment in the moment, without the past dragging you down. And you’ll build happy memories naturally as a result. As you’ll see in that brochure, trial participants showed a marked increase in serotonin after installation of the chip. Many reported that after a few small blackouts in the first week, they didn’t even need the chip, because of how great they felt.”

I shake my head and leave without replying.

Still, I keep the brochure.

***

My taxi’s late to the airport, so I miss my scheduled flight. One red-eye later, I stumble in through the door to find Marjorie just slouched there on the sofa watching TV like she was when I left four days ago.

I don’t need to check to see the sink of dirty dishes, the microwave dinner boxes littering the counter. These are all familiar friends. Next to the door there’s a wilted rose and a box of chocolates—my usual pre-conference gift, untouched.

Usually I’d ignore it, go do the dishes, take out the trash. Check up on Kate. But I’m stressed from the flight, I guess, or maybe I’ve just finally had enough. I step in front of the TV, and the blue-white-blue-black-green-red-blue stops its flickering over Marjorie’s face.

Her pupils dilate a little, she blinks a few times. “Oh,” she says.

“Just ‘Oh’? What happened, Marjorie? Tell me what I’m doing wrong, so we can fix this.”

But she just grunts and waits for me to move, so I do, setting in on the dishes, the trash, the dust, the windows—everything that doesn’t need doing and nothing that does, as usual.

By the time I’m finished, it’s late afternoon. I stop outside Kate’s room and knock on the door, but she doesn’t answer even when I say I’m home. Just turns up her music. I jiggle the handle, which is locked, and give up. I sit on the bed in mine and Marjorie’s room until night comes in, holding the brochure on my lap and flicking one corner of it with my thumb. What if I could make us both happy?

The next morning, I call to set up an appointment. No charlatan’s trick can be worse than this.

***

Summer at the beach, and the sun warm on the back of my neck. There’s a young woman sitting next to me I’ve never seen before, leaned back in a recliner with a drink in one hand. She laughs at something I’ve just said, but I can’t recall what it is, or where I am, or why.

The woman looks at me expectantly, like she’s waiting for me to continue some story, but I just sit there, mouth open. Where’s Marjorie? Where’s Kate?

“Robert,” she says. “Robert, what’s wrong?”

There’s a sudden pressure where my spine meets the base of my skull, and—

***

Rain out a motel window, and I’m watching the redwoods through it. My face is reflected in the dimness of the glass, older and grayer than I remember. Nobody else’s. When did…

I stop myself, focus on the gentle sounds of rain. Feel the peace, I tell myself. Feel the solitude, and learn to enjoy it.

But Marjorie, and—

***

This time, I have a book in my hands. Without looking at the title, I set it down on the table I find next to me, stand, and focus my mind on the past.

Kate’s birth. My wedding with Marjorie, our first date, way back when. Kate on a set of swings, gap-toothed with laughter. Endless summer vacation days of my own as a child, when the afternoon blended seamlessly into evening, and evening into night into day again, with nothing to do but lie there in the grass and breathe its heady greenness, or go swimming at the lake with friends and girls.

The whole time I’m remembering—reliving my past, reaffirming who I am—my body is acting. I’ve picked up the phone and dialed the number from the brochure. I get hold music for fifteen minutes, and almost panic, but then someone answers and the flood of serotonin is enough to get me through the whole conversation, and by the time the familiar pressure starts in at the base of my skull, I’ve arranged for an expert to come to me and remove the chip.

***

After the second surgery, everything changes. I’m still who I was, I think, all those years ago, but at the same time I’m not. I’m the old me, made new.

I call Marjorie, but a stranger answers the phone. Nobody by that name lives there, she says. Eventually I track down Kate. She’s married now, to a woman she introduces as Sarah when we meet by Marjorie’s grave. There are lines along her eyes deeper than any I remember on her mother’s.

“So you’re back,” she says.

“Yeah,” I say. “I’m sorry, Kate. God, I’m so—”

“It’s okay, Dad,” she says, placing a hand on my arm. “We can make it okay.”

I nod, unable to speak, and we turn and walk from the grave, from the past, together.

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