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The Cost of a Memory

by Ali Hormann 11 months ago in fiction

What would you pay to forget for a day?

The Cost of a Memory
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Junia Taylor had always felt that her memory was her most valuable possession. That was, until she got into the business of forgetting.

After the pandemic hit, she was given two weeks’ notice, a month’s severance, and the kind of reality check that is framed by guilt and dread.

On day one, she drank all the wine in her apartment. Day two, she nursed a hangover that reminded her she wasn’t 21 anymore. Day three brought about a kind of clarity that said, It’s time to write that novel. A month in, she realized that her muse was still nowhere to be found.

She did write every day, just not her novel. With neat rows of tiny black books lining her shelves, Junia bought them in bulk to accommodate her extensive journaling. At dawn and dusk she scrawled religiously, writing down each minute detail from what she ate to whom she had texted.

Journaling was a habit she had taken up four years ago, determined to outsmart and outrun the early onset dementia that coursed through her family. The fact her siblings were 10 and 12 years younger than her meant they were looking to her to figure out what was happening with Mom. Dad did his best, but inevitably broke down in tears watching his wife’s clear and vibrant presence wither away to a shadow of her former self.

On June 17 Junia took her current journal off its prescribed place on her shelf and began to recount the day's events in excruciating detail. She strung sentences together until she found herself on the very last page. Instead of cracking open a new one, she finished her thought and diligently used her label maker to affix the dates that this diary covered: “May 19 - June 17, 2020.” With that she washed her face, brushed her teeth and crawled into bed, distinctly aware that she needed to change her sheets.

The morning of June 18 started like any other, with Junia rolling out of bed at 10:00 swearing that tomorrow she would wake up at 7:00. She made herself coffee and a bagel and sat down to chronicle what she had dreamed about. She opened a new notebook and reveled in the small cracking sound the spine made, like a chiropractic adjustment.

Thursday, June 18, 2020, she began. I think that movie really affected the dreams I had last night, she was continuing, when her door buzzer sounded and she closed the book.

It was 11:00, so she knew it was dry cleaning for the jerk from 4A who never answered his door. She hit “Open” and heard a grateful delivery person on the other end mutter a thank you.

She went back to her desk and coffee, and when she sat down she had a strange sense of déjà vu. She re-opened her journal, but it was blank. “I could have sworn I wrote something,” Junia said to her plants. She shrugged her shoulders and began again but this time couldn’t remember what she had dreamt about.

6/18/20. Last night I didn’t dream, she began, and at that moment her phone rang so she closed the book again. After assuring the telemarketer that no, she didn’t need to renew her warranty for a car she did not have, she turned off the ringer to write in peace. Opening the little black notebook she was halted by an awful awareness. She couldn’t remember if she had written anything already.

After vomiting her bagel into the toilet out of sheer terror that she started forgetting she started furtively reading her old journals, vowing she would never forget, never ending up oblivious to the life she lived and the people she loved. She read over the books until she could recite 2018 by heart.

She then went back to the journal, and with a paranoia she didn’t fully understand she recorded herself on her phone. Narrating her words, she wrote, Yesterday I don’t remember what I did, and then she closed the notebook. She opened it again and her words were gone. In a blind panic, she hit play on her phone and watched herself writing and speaking the words, something of which she had no recollection. The dissonance was enough to make her faint.

In an instant, every movie or book she had consumed about time travel or the space-time continuum flooded her mind. She sat frozen at her desk and questions ransacked her brain all day, until she had a thought: what if this wasn’t a memory journal, but a forgetting journal? At 6:00 pm, she called up her friend Trisha. “Trish, what is something small that you would love to forget?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Don’t think about it too hard, just tell me something you don’t want to remember anymore.”

Trish laughed, “Definitely that creep I met at the bar Friday.”

“What’s his name?”

“Josh. Juni, what’s this about?”

“Give me a second.” Junia furiously wrote, Trish would like to forget Josh from the bar and closed the book. Then out loud, “What was the name of that creepy guy you met at the bar?”

“What guy?”

Junia’s jaw dropped. “Trish, this is going to sound crazy, but I think I can make people forget things.” After a lot of back and forth, Trish incredulous and Junia choosing her words carefully so as not to reveal too much, she asked her friend, “Say this is real. How much do you think people would pay to forget?”

With that question, she was in business.

It didn’t take long for her to realize she couldn’t make large swaths of time disappear because the memory gap would be filled in too quickly by corresponding memories. For example, she couldn’t take away the memory of a cheating husband, but she could take away the pain for a day so that a grieving single mom could have a productive day. She couldn’t release childhood trauma, but she had a client who paid her daily to take away the crippling pain and fear that followed a lifetime of atrocities at the hands of her father.

Her client circle was small and discreet, or so she thought. As that circle grew though, the texts and calls came faster, and with them the money. Once she had her debts paid and an emergency fund, Junia set a goal to upgrade her mom’s room at the Buffalo Center for Memory Care. It was this goal that kept her working through the ever-nagging feeling that she was simply a dealer of pain and shame management instead of drugs.

She had her scruples. She always answered “no” and blocked the number of anyone who asked her to erase someone else’s memory. She convinced herself that was a boundary not worth crossing because it was against someone’s will, but each night she lay awake wondering if she was kidding herself. When someone forgot something, was that ever really their will? The question regularly haunted her, until the morning of August 31.

Junia had been waking up earlier these days, her constantly buzzing phone driving her crazy. She went on her daily sunrise walk with the book and today, decided to treat herself to a latte and croissant at a nearby outdoor café.

She walked to her table with her breakfast…and promptly spilled coffee on her jeans. When she returned with an absurd number of napkins there was an envelope next to her pastry. The exterior had her name, address, birthday and phone number as well as the same information for her family. Flipping the envelope over and staring in horror, she saw her mother’s room number.

Dropping the napkins, she sat and opened the envelope with trembling hands, looking around to see if she could spot who had dropped it. Inside was a thick stack of cash, the likes of which she had never seen, and a clean, typewritten note that read: Mr. Hammond S. Penn would like to forget to call his wife on Sept 4, 2020. Another $20,000 will be delivered upon completion.

Junia was numb with fear. Her hands were shaking so hard now that people were staring. She shoved the envelope in her bag, abandoned her breakfast and walked away at a pace that looked as suspicious as she felt. When she got to her building she sprinted up the stairs, nearly smashing into the jerk from 4A.

“Watch it!” he shouted.

She said nothing, only trembled violently as she tried to turn the key in the knob, and forcefully slammed the door behind her. She turned every deadbolt, kicking herself for not getting a chain lock as she slid to the floor, weeping. What was she going to do? She had four days to act and she had never been asked to make a future memory disappear. What might they do to her if it didn’t work? Moreover, what would happen if it did?

But the money. She had in her possession $20,000 in cash. The idea of doubling it meant not only a better setup for Mom but grad school, traveling, and more. She opened a browser window and a cursory search of Mr. Penn revealed only that he was old money with some ties to manufacturing. She found lots of photos of him and his wife together. He looked like a happy old rich dude that probably modeled for golf commercials. Why did he want to forget to call his perfectly lovely-looking wife? Was he even the one who wanted the call forgotten?

After several hours of her brain spinning through the possible outcomes, she decided to sleep on it. That is, she decided to shut off her phone, take three melatonin and chase them with a bottle of chardonnay. So, sleep she did.

When she woke up she had 384 unread texts and another $1500 in her Venmo from clients, but was only concerned about the eerie white envelope stuck in her door jam. It read: September 4, 2020, Hammond S. Penn will forget to call his wife. This time instead of money, it held her sister’s class schedule at SUNY. She was too hungover to cry, so she ran to the bathroom and heaved until she passed out on the cool tile floor.

The next day, there was yet another envelope, this time containing one of the ancient business cards from her dad’s desk. She went to grab her phone to try and warn him, but recoiled when she realized Hammond and his people – whoever they were – could be listening. Leaving her phone, she went to the bodega for another box of wine and obliterated her day.

Thursday, she woke up with a start, hyperventilating at the sound of paper against concrete. She stood quickly, but the wine hit her head before her feet hit the floor so her attempt to get the peephole in time failed. Today’s envelope was larger and inside were photos of her mom, through her window at BCMC, looking despondent.

Junia knew what she needed to do.

She grabbed the book, quickly wrote the designated text about Hammond, and closed it. She then scribbled on a sticky note and affixed it to the front cover.

Opening the book one last time, she wrote shakily, This notebook allows me to make people forget things.

She closed her eyes and the book, took a deep breath, and opened her eyes. She was surprised to see a note that read, “Destroy this book, go visit mom, thank me tomorrow.” She did just that.

fiction

Ali Hormann

Minnesota mom, author, photographer, comedian, and all-around creative. Adventure-loving homebody. I am always more than one thing.

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