Semper in Memoria is the second place winner in the Autumn 2023 Quarterly Short Story Competition
There's this guy who lives over on Main Street in that old dilapidated blue cottage near the school. The one all covered in ivy. He and his wife bought it way back during the real estate boom of the early 20's. They overpaid of course; but they were happy. They had some small gripes that would cost them a small fortune to repair/replace over time, but who doesn't? They lived there for over 30 years until the wife passed recently. Since then, he's let the place go to shit.
Some say he's the greatest of all time. You know, because he took on the conglomerate. But he's just like you and me. Truth is, he gets up every morning with the same back pain that's plagued him the last few years. Shuffling off to the bathroom where up until recently his wife could hear the usual A.M. symphony of the odd fart and his urine hitting the bowl. Starting the coffee so they could enjoy a cup together, watching the sunrise, from the back deck.
It was around midnight one chilly October evening when neighbors gathered near the cottage’s front door, in response to the flashing lights and sirens of emergency vehicles which ruptured the cadence of an otherwise tranquil night. The neighbors proceeded to huddle around the man who appeared comatose and crumbled in an awkward sitting position on the front stoop - staring off at the moon through the big oak tree across the way.
"Is everything alright?" someone finally mustered up the courage to ask. "No." was all he said.
Back when they bought it you could get a home without the now mandatory RemAll station installed. The conceit being that everyone should have the right, not privilege, of tapping into any and every one of their past memories, at any moment. The stations were optional back then, but everyone wanted one. The tax incentives just about made you a fool not to buy one. This guy and his wife held out as long as they could - until the government sanctions just about forced them into every household. The belief was, if everyone was home experiencing and interacting with their favorite memories - they couldn't be out on the street. Thus, culling the recent crime epidemic.
That was the PR spin. Of course, RemAll and the government were in exclusive reciprocity agreements which rewarded each, handsomely.
Call the couple superstitious conspiracy theorists - but they didn't believe jacking a needle into a microscopic port just below their temple was safe, fun, or overall, a great idea - despite what the government dictums stated. They never touched their station. Reason being they were content reminiscing with one another over their shared and separate memories. Of course, now, station or no station, there are easier ways to jack in.
What first came as the tiny port beneath the temple quickly segued into bio-nodes you could attach to your temples, the transorbital laser stations, which ultimately led to the fingerprint scanner stations being used now. There are even rumbles of RemAll being available in pill form - which would eliminate the need for home stations, altogether. Although, you'd still need the station to use many of the custom add-ons.
There are rumors the release of the pill would mollify any wrongdoing on the part of the RemAll Corporation, since it is much easier to skirt FDA regulations than it is to take on the brutes of the newly formed TechSafe panel. The latter of which can't be bought off, at least, not yet. This panel was formed after a video surfaced online showing what appeared to be RemAll employees dumping large quantities of their newly tested oral products into local reservoirs of communities with less than 10,000 residents as a way to streamline research and development of the new pill; thus allowing them to see the effects of the pill in varying dosages on unknowing guinea pigs.
As you can probably imagine what was at first a novelty quickly turned into an obsession. Hailed as the greatest invention of all time, stations were mass-produced and made affordable so all families, despite their social and economic standing, or political leanings, could experience the life-altering majesty. Things started off as you’d expect. A family gathering becomes nostalgic/sentimental and firing up their RemAll machine to live out their happy memories with Grandma. A widow using their station to relive old memories with their now deceased spouse.
As we as a species are apt to do, however, we modified it and adapted its use for our further enjoyment. We made it bigger and better. Faster, more potent, and potentially more unstable. What are a few deaths when you have millions of satisfied customers?
While the deaths were argued out in depositions, legalese, and courtroom battles which always took decades to unravel, RemAll continued their innovations. Soon the stations were made portable and authorized enhancements, such as the optional Teleportic Stasis Attachment add-on allowed anyone willing to pay the $5,000 fee to experience the memories of any living creature they could get their hands on. The catch being, the party with the memory needed to willingly consent to the sharing of the memory, e-sign, provide fingerprint identification, as well as verbal, optic, and sometimes, hair sample authorization.
Once this was obtained the individual with the memory used their preferred memory access method to pinpoint the memory they would like to share – and that was that. Memory Shares became quite popular during this time. Did you miss your sister's wedding? Your nephew's first birthday or communion? No worries! Head on over to Aunt Ethel's house where you can all watch it over and over - as many times as you like. Don't forget the bean dip.
There's even talk of a non-living entity scanner that's in the works - which would make it so you could participate, alter, and augment the past as experienced by, say, a plank of wood on the floor of a 250-year-old house. Don't ask how that one works.
Then the hacking began. As a way to bypass the consent of the attachment add-on hackers began manipulating the code and after joining forces on the unregulated 8Chan and Gitsyhub, were able to modify the build into a new version and under the auspices of Fair Use, no one could touch them. Meaning, those with the proper skills now had the capabilities to access, modify, and corrupt the memories of others. Essentially empowering the owner of the hacked machine to hijack the memories of anyone - whether the owner of the memory was/is willing to share it or not and "live out" any and all possibilities of that memory, in any and all depraved ways they saw fit. The cherry on the sundae being they could also upload the memories online for all to take part in.
Anyway, back to our widower with the blue house. It was around this time he got it in his head that he'd break down and buy one of the back-end market pills, released early for alpha testing. He'd never done anything like it before. He was surprised how neatly arranged it all turned out to be. He knew one of his work acquaintances had some back-end connections and he inquired. Before he knew it he was meeting them both out back behind Ralphie's Pizza for the deal.
Truth is, he had done his research, most of it anecdotal, and discovered that over time individuals built up a sort of endurance each time they interacted with a memory - and that over time it slowly ate away at your hippocampus. Since so many people were avid users of RemAll, in all of its myriad forms, they'd never see these side-effects in their lifetime, but the pill was a game-changer.
Pushed through by the aforementioned dirty FDA with testing done only on lab-grown human brains; the whole process was rushed. And our protagonist here, having never once indulged in the RemAll process of any kind – knew that once he took the pill with that high a dosage, without any prior endurance built-up, it would have catastrophic results.
Now that she was gone he found his mind was all scattered. Six sheets to the wind, constantly. Sure, the kids checked in on him and visited when they could - but they had lives and kids of their own now. And scattered all over the northeast. He'd miss them desperately, but he felt mostly secure in his heart that he had given them a good life and they had grown into three amazing individuals. If there was a credo he hoped he had instilled in them, it was, to think, critically, but not too much. And most importantly, to every once in a while, give a shit, and be kind. His own secret paternal goal was to foster an atmosphere allowing and nurturing their hearts and minds to be as vast as the sea. He hoped, anyway.
Of course, he had some doubts and would've done some things differently.
All his life he'd felt like a vessel of worry and obsession. If his shirt was too high in the back and someone could see his boxers during a pep rally. If he sounded smart enough. If he was smart enough. About what people thought of him.
All he ever wanted was to be left alone and not draw attention to himself. Not be front and center - but rather in back and over to the left somewhere. His wife always told him he was too busy looking down to avoid being looked at or chosen, that he could never live in and enjoy the moment.
Prufrock’s words pulsed anxiously within him. He "should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas." He worried incessantly and inanely about everything. From brain tumors to letting the dog on the bed because God forbid a tick would fall off and kill them all. And just the thought of having to speak out loud in front of a group gave him the trots.
In fact, just the other day he worried he had fucked up his kids. Not to the point of no return or anything, but, just like...you know...in little subtle ways that could somewhere down the line burden them or make them miniature versions of the wreck he sees himself as today. Kinda like that poem. About how our parents pass down a lot of their own messed-up traits and issues to us, so we in turn, then pass down ours to our own kids - in addition to some new little nuggets of neuroses of our own. He guesses he was a little less than stellar in that department. Of course, meeting her and participating in the creation and development of three amazing kids did help alleviate some of the fears and worry but it wasn't a cure-all and he spent way too many hours, days, and years agonizing over the invisible battle of forces unseen, many of his own creation.
He wanted a job to pay the bills and participate in the American Dream of buying a home for his wife and kids, and then with that job, allowed his insecurities, doubt, and worry to take over again. He worked and worried so much that he forgot to love. At least to love as well as he knew he could. It was hard to dwell too often on all the negatives though, sinceeverything that was right, wrong, and everywhere in between – had led them to one another.
He looked up at the moon as the cool breeze from the shore dampened his brow. He stood on the same rocks they exchanged vows on all those years ago. Would he be with her again? He wondered. He was utterly, completely, and unequivocally out of control and out of his mind. He was lost here. Adrift in a sea of veiled and motionless forms that no longer interested him. An empty vessel left to his own devices. Floating endlessly amongst the flotsam and jetsam. Wherever she was, did she think of him while the waves rolled in? Was she thinking of him right now? Do they have waves and moons where she was? He felt like the endling of all of their memories. The last holder of their story.
He remembered all those stories she used to tell him about her parents. He had been thinking about her as a kid a lot lately. How many fights did she hear? Screaming matches did she listen to from under her bed - listening to her Walkman with the volume maxed out in the hopes to drown out the violent and hurtful noise? So many words flying around her pre-pubescent brain could barely parse what was going on. She heard it, though. The cadence in the voices clueing her in on the fact that something was not right. All while her adorable bangs dangled steadfast above those achingly beautiful foresty hazel-hued eyes. Eyes that always saw the kindness and hope in just about every situation. Was she foolish and naive enough to think it was her fault? He hoped not. He thought of her huddling under her bed and wished he could be right there alongside her; squeezing her tight and trying to make her feel better. Trying his best to take her mind off of the violent cacophony - if only for a little while. He hoped she eventually came to realize the light she brought to all she touched and gazed upon. In the end, they had saved one another.
He thought a bit more. The things he took for granted. The people, too. He thought about the fact that if you manage to stick around long enough you realize this world can be pretty cruel, but, once in a while, fairly miraculous, as well. It hits you low and has no qualms or regrets. But serves up some banquets, too. He wondered why, if we’re all here, in this same boat of misery, with the occasional miraculous sparkle, we all didn’t treat one another a bit better. Didn’t pay more attention.
He wonders why he didn’t speak up more. Didn’t follow-up or check-in with co-workers more. Especially when he knew they had similar interests. Why he sometimes viewed family as a chore. How he genuinely wished he could have met all of those ancestors he only knew through stories and memories that were not his own.
He remembers hearing somewhere once that we don't get a lot of things to really care about. And wasn't that the truth?
He sits down on the rocks, his back propped up against the seawall; whispers something to himself and pops the pill in his mouth - the bitterness swirling around on his tongue. He had no idea how long the effects would take but within seconds felt a twinge from deep within. A feeling like something was on the tip of his tongue or the top of his mind - but slipping away. Words long ago floating off into the ether. Words he should’ve uttered and never did – or that were spoken but long forgotten through the machinations and sands of time.
He's paying attention.
He's watching his Grandma prepare his favorite meatball recipe in the kitchen of his childhood home. He is riding his bike down the street in the pouring rain. He is playing football after school and after getting too carried away is being punched in the face by an over-zealous fellow-player. He is feeling the shame of getting caught trying to steal a candy bar from a convenience store. He's looking into his wife's hazel eyes as they first make love. He's looking down at his first-born son and as they lock eyes and he utters the first of many eternal paternal pledges, "It's ok, I've got you. No one's gonna hurt you." He is watching his daughter out of the corner of his eye as she sheepishly but gorgeously performs a living room concert. All while this same daughter is watching him and his wife and slowly formulating thoughts and notions on what it means to be in love and what love should be. He is preparing the plant-based version of his Grandma's meatball recipe a decade later with his wife and kids by his side. He is dancing with her in a semi-buzzed state, as they circle one another with devious smiles.
He's really redlining now.
He's in a swirling vortex where he sees his parents on a beach together recording some of his first steps - somewhere in time.
He's lost all control and is spiraling out until he is catapulted up great distances and is sailing over the sea of stars - soon staring into those familiar forest-hazel-hued eyes while in a warm embrace.
A television is playing in an empty house as the rain falls on the tin roof. It's playing as families take a break from their daily RemAll addiction and sit down for dinner all over the world. It plays for the just and the unjust alike. It plays for the kind and the noble and those whose star does not shine so brightly anymore. The local news drones on about their coverage of the apple harvest, the flesh-eating bacteria found in the water of the local reservoir, and the recent cold spell that's overtaken the state. Then, the morning news girl with the awkward smile, who could tell you about a double homicide with a twinkle in her eye; switches topics to the body of a man found dead on a local beach. He is holding a sign that reads "My wife was the greatest human being of all time and RemAll killed her with illegal dumping. Their new pill will kill. TechSafe please investigate."