Each month in 2018, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—will publish a story on a theme. The theme for April–June 2018: Memory.
“You’re nervous, aren’t you?”
Papá sits across from me, arms folded, all stoic steadiness, but his brows are knit together in an unmistakable knot. “I know what you’re doing,” I say. “I appreciate it, but …” I shake my head, and dread stitches itself to my ribs.
He sighs loudly, reaches out to me with a calloused hand. “I’ll be right there with you the entire time.”
“I know. It’s just … I’m starting to wonder if I’m in over my head.”
“You can say no, Gabriela. It’s not too late.”
A brief flash of eagerness crosses his face, a light I wish I could unsee. He wants to do it in my place. He has been nothing but supportive ever since Abuela Carmen chose me for the Transfer, but this moment skirts an uncomfortable truth. Why did she choose me over him? Why will I be the bridge in our familia, the one to receive abuela’s memories before she leaves us? The love between us isn’t enough to explain why Carmen chose me over her own son, but she has offered no other clue.
“No, it’s what she wants,” I tell him. I tell myself.
He lets go of my hand and leans back into the hard plastic chair. “You know, you’re going to have some strange memories in that head of yours.”
A flutter of nerves rolls through me. “Like what?”
“Well,” he smirks, “are you prepared to change your papa’s diapers?”
“What if one of those memories gets through? Gonna be pretty weird.”
I swat at him playfully. “Papá, come on.”
His smile fades, but his deep-brown eyes are still warm. “I know this is all pretty strange, but … I’m glad it’s you.”
My Papá. I step across that expanse of linoleum to plant myself in the empty chair to his right, then curl up against his body. He runs his fingers through my hair, plants a kiss on top of my head.
The electricity of the unknown still courses through me. I am alight. I am unsure.
This room is not built for the limbo of extended goodbyes. Nothing to read except for the flashy and emotionally charged animations advertising the Transfer that adorn the walls. Loved ones smiling at some beatific elder relative’s bedside, every one of them white, with a single phrase at the bottom:
You never really die if you’re not forgotten.
It’s not as comforting as I think it’s meant to sound, and it doesn’t stop the nervous quiver in my stomach. Soon, I’ll be laid out alongside Abuela Carmen, wired up to her mind, ready for her to gift me with her memories. They say it doesn’t really hurt and that the transferred memories basically separate out from your own after a few weeks. But I’ve been reading the reviews, following forums, in the week since Abuela made her choice. It’s disorienting, everyone says. You can’t control what will trigger the new memories you have. Sometimes, they just pop in your head when you’re showering. When you’re at work or at school. Most especially when you’re asleep. Someone else’s memories, someone else’s secrets.
They’re about to be mine.
They finally come for us more than an hour later, while Papá is in the restroom. When he steps out, clicking the heavy door shut behind him, his eyes are bloodshot and puffy, and the sharp worry wrinkles on his forehead stand out in a map of grief. It breaks my heart. This is his mother. After this she’ll be gone forever, even if her memories live on. All I’d been thinking about was myself.
“I’m sorry, Papá,” I say into his chest. “This has to be hard.”
“It’s OK, m’ija.” His breath is warm on top of my head. “Saying goodbye isn’t meant to be easy. At least we have the chance to say it this time.”
The history rests unspoken between us. Mamá’s passing a few years back, before the Transfer was available, was sudden. There were no waiting rooms, no extended farewells, no exchange of memories. Just a mess of twisted metal and an ocean of grief that eroded the edges of what we knew of her. Mamá drifted further away with time; mi abuela would live sharply within me.
He squeezes once more, then leads me away, out of the waiting room, into the sterile, gray hallway, past recruitment offices and Transfer agents, running their orientation videos for other clients. At the end of the hall, we enter an elevator to head up to the medical wing. The floor hums beneath our silence. How can we say all of the things that need to be said? How can we possibly untangle this knot of hope and fear and grief that sits like a lump in our throat?
So we say nothing.
The doors open. Another gray hall. Another phalanx of animations set flush into the wall, all extolling the virtues of the Transfer, as if we still need convincing, even now. Nestled between their bright promises are the procedure rooms, which are hidden from us: dark panes of glass and windowless doors. How many people are going through the Transfer right now? How many are waking up from that last goodbye, heads crammed with memories that are not their own? I get a sudden, absurd urge to break into those shadowed caverns and wrest the truth from them. To force someone into saving me from myself, from the mistake of staying. Or the mistake of running away.
“You OK, m’ija?” Papá murmurs, putting his arm around me. “You’re not normally this quiet.”
“I’ll be fine,” I manage. “Just feel weird, that’s all.”
“As soon as you wake up, I’ll be there. You know, in case you have any questions about … well, whatever.”
He’ll be the only one who can answer them. It was in nearly every review I devoured. The Transfer offers peace to those who are near the end of their lives; it allows them to choose when to close the door. But it comes with a cost: the Fading. As memories flow out of their body, they “fade” out of consciousness. Apparently, Abuela Carmen will only be around for maybe a few minutes after the Transfer. Then … that’s it. She’ll live on in my head, just as the ads promise.
A door opens near me and a woman steps out, her brown hair clipped short above crisp scrubs. She looks so serious. Fear suddenly flares in me. I don’t want to do this. But she smiles at me and Papá, suddenly transformed with warmth, and my fear flutters into simple jitters as she ushers us into the room.
Inside is mi abuela. Laid out in the bed like a resting saint, become a figure from those votivas that line the ofrenda in her bedroom. Her frail limbs are swallowed in a halo of sheets and blankets.
She turns her head and her eyes lock on to me, and a smile rises on her like a slow morning. In her face I see the echo of my Papá, that etched forehead, that steady chin I love. The haze of my hesitation drifts away. If this is what she wants, then I want to do it.
The woman who let us in guides me over to a bed set up parallel to Abuela. She sits me down and the techs seem to come out of nowhere to start fussing over me. I’m given a long white gown and asked to remove my shirt behind a short partition. Through the gap, I watch my father as he squeezes his mother’s thin hand, coos to her in a tone just above a whisper.
Someone scurries behinds me, asks me to tie up my hair. After I do, there’s a buzzing tickle at the base of my skull. I knew they were going to shave the back of my head, but it’s so sudden, so careless. They probably do this all day. It means nothing to them. Heat rushes to my cheeks, and I’m blinking back tears when the woman returns to my side.
“I’m Yasmin,” she says. She could be my mamá’s sister if her skin were darker, her nose wider. “I’m sure you’re pretty anxious right now, but I’m here to walk you through the Transfer and I’ll be with you every step of the way, OK?”
“OK,” I say, and I try to smile back, but I’m sure it comes back mangled and ugly. I don’t feel much like smiling.
“Can I have you put your feet up and lean back into the bed?” She gestures to the headrest, which has a large hole in the middle of it. “Please make sure your head is centered here.”
I do as she says, and the back of the bed slowly rises upright so that I’m almost sitting up. The techs flutter behind me like birds, moving swiftly to secure my head with soft straps of fabric and Velcro. A panic blooms in me; I can’t move. But Yasmin’s soft voice is a rope in the darkness, pulling me back to the moment.
“So, we have a few steps before we get to the Transfer, OK?”
“OK,” I echo, my eyes locked on hers.
“You’ll feel a coolness on your neck first. We have to clean the entry site first. Then, a small prick. That’ll be the local anesthetic.”
“So it won’t hurt?”
“No, not really,” she said. “But I should note that you will feel a … pressure as the neural cables are inserted into the back of your head. As they expand and spread, you won’t feel any pain, but it is an odd sensation. I don’t want you to be surprised by it.”
I suck in a deep breath. It’s starting to feel real. “And then what?”
“You’ll get a light sedative. Just to help your mind deal with the initial trauma of the Transfer, to reduce your own confusion. Once you wake up, it’ll all be done!”
She says it with so much joy, so much certainty.
There’s motion behind me and the skin on the back of my neck rises with goose bumps from the chill of an alcohol swab. Seconds later, I feel the tiny pinprick and my back lifts off the bed, but the straps prevent me from moving my head much. Yasmin smiles again, and then it pushes into me. It feels like something alive, squirming into that soft spot at the base of my head where my skull connects to my neck. I cry out and am immediately embarrassed by it.
Papá’s face suddenly looms in front of me. “¿Estás bien, Gabriela? Do you need them to stop?”
Before I can say anything, Yasmin butts in. “We don’t recommend stopping at this point,” she says firmly. “The neural cables are seeking out the best place to attach to within her brain. There’s no easier way to explain. We find that the amygdala and the hippocampus are the best locations for grabbing the most important and vivid memories.”
I don’t know what those words mean. I just know there’s a foreign thing slipping and twisting somewhere near my spinal cord. I can sense each thrust it makes toward its goal. Tears leap to my eyes and I don’t care. I want to tear it out of me, screaming. Instead I grit my teeth and force myself to think of that probing finger as a gift, as my grandmother’s hand reaching for mine.
Thankfully, the pressure tapers off, its sudden absence followed by two beeps, loud and sharp, separated by a few seconds. One of the techs lays a hand on my shoulder. “We’ve made connection. The hardest part is over.”
I hope he’s right.
“Te amo, Gabi,” Papá says, his voice raw around the edges. He plants a kiss on my forehead. “I’ll be just a few feet away.”
And then he’s gone. I can move my head a little bit from side to side, but I can’t see him anymore. Yasmin is blocking the way. “I’m sure you heard plenty about the Transfer during orientation last week,” she says, “but I’ve found it healthy to remind patients what unconsciousness will feel like.”
“I know. It’s like a ‘continuously shifting dream,’ ” I say, parroting the line from the brochures.
Yasmin nods her head. “Most patients are aware of what’s happening. It’ll feel like you’re in someone else’s body as the memories are cycled through your own brain. Just …” She pauses, then smiles, bright with satisfaction. “Just roll with it.”
I hear the heart rate monitor spike then, and I twist my eyes to mi abuela, caught at the edges of my vision. She hasn’t said a thing since I entered the room. Maybe I shouldn’t have worried so much about the Transfer.
Maybe I should have spent more time saying goodbye.
It’s not enough, though. It can’t possibly be enough. The words slide out of my mouth like I’m opening a Hallmark card.
She doesn’t smile at me. “Perdóname,” she says, and something crosses over her face. It’s not joy or peace. She looks terrified.
“You ready?” Yasmin asks.
“I guess I have to be,” I say, and Yasmin chuckles, but all I see is mi abuela. There’s a glistening on her cheeks. Is she crying? I want to say something, but she’s a blur now, and I straighten my eyes and even the ceiling is a mess of shapes and colors. The light in the room fades out of view.
Someone is yelling at me. I look up at … a woman, towering over me, screaming. Spanish. What is she saying? I try to translate as quick as I can but realize I don’t have to. I know I’ve done something wrong, I can feel it, like in a dream. Who is she?
Mamá. It comes to me instantly. I see brown walls, a deep, earthy color. I can feel a scratchy rug under my feet. But I can’t look at it, only at this woman, a giant above me, and I cover my face and—
I’m near something large, square-shaped, and it takes a few seconds for me to recognize it. An old iron stove. I raise my hand to reach into the pot on the right, and I can’t stop myself. What are you doing? I think, knowing full well I’m about to touch it. My fingers rest briefly on the shining metal, and the searing is instant, painful, terrifying. I jerk my hand away and fall back, the wind rushing out of me as I slam into the floor. I hear screaming again. Am I screaming? What body am I inside of?
I am ripped from the floor and into a blinding brightness. There’s a man lying beside me, a rough blanket beneath us that doesn’t smooth out the stones and uneven ground. We’re outside, sunlight glinting on his skin, and lust twists in my belly, like a fist in my guts, and I want him, and he knows it. His hands are on me, caressing my back, then running up and down my body, and then I hear screaming again, the woman’s voice from before. Mamá.
But not my mamá. A wave of understanding washes over me, giving shape to these visions, this tangle of emotions filling me like an empty cup. This isn’t a dream. It’s the Transfer.
Carmen’s mother’s voice is a furious wind, lashing her daughter with words, and she chases the dark-eyed man from my side, and a vicious shame rips through my body, and then an anger. I hate this woman. I hate her, this screeching duende who tears into me. It’s bewildering. The feeling is mine and not mine at the same time. How can I hate someone I’ve never even met?
Then it’s dark. Hot. I’m indoors, and he has me up against the wall, and the desire rages in my chest. It takes my breath away. I don’t even like men, but all I can feel is a fiery need, a desperation to pull him closer, closer, into my skin. Carmen’s skin. My skin.
Another flash of brightness. Pain. A nausea washes over me, and I hold back a scream. The fluorescent lights above me shoot daggers in my eyes. I’m on my back, and when I grasp at the bed, I feel the crinkle of the hospital-issued sheets—rough, uneven, artificial. “¡Empujas!” someone shouts, and I do, despite how badly it hurts. I push and I push and—
Sorrow fills me. That dark-eyed man sits at my bedside, his skin paled by those fluorescent lights, but the need that chokes me isn’t desire but fear. Terror weighs heavy on my body. I’m telling him, begging him, to stay, but he shakes his head. “No quiero un niño,” he insists, and he swats my hand away.
A flash. A lanky man—a different man—is seated at a table, crying into his long fingers. “No me dejas,” he says. He looks familiar, but he’s gone before I can remember him.
Now I’m in the back of a pickup truck, my bones rattling with the metal. The cabin is covered, and it’s sweltering. Sweat stings my eyes, and I need water. I’m running my hand over my swollen belly, and I’m starving. Again. Craving nopales, the ones Mamá prepares with onions, peppers, tomato. My mouth would water if it could.
Where am I going? I am huddled up in between two men, and the one on the right has his head flopped forward, his tongue hanging strangely out of his mouth. Is he still breathing? The one on the left bangs on the small window that separates us from the front cab. “Agua,” he says. “Agua, por favor.”
The window opens. A bitter face fills the window. “¡Callate!” The man’s mustache droops over the sides of his mouth. I keep my eyes focused on the woman across from me, her long black hair matted to her head and face. Her hand is gripped around her daughter’s. She is praying, soft and determined.
I’m in a store. It’s cool. Too cool. I shiver as I stare at the neat rows of packaged food in a freezer, and I’ve had the door open for so long, but I can’t read any of the words on the boxes. Not a single one. My blood thumps in my ears and I am trying not to cry as I realize how little I know about this place, how far from familiarity I am. I turn around to find a woman staring at me, pity and annoyance on her pale face. “Are you done?” she says. “Can I get in there?”
I step away from the freezer, embarrassed, and the door shuts. There she is. There I am. Carmen. Staring at my reflection in the glass. For the first time I see the woman who is not yet my abuela, my self-not-self.
But it’s so short. I jump from one memory to the next with no time to recover from the emotional whiplash, a passenger in Carmen’s mind. I’m in another home. The lights are dim, and there’s a sour smell. I’ve never been here, but I know this place. Soft brown walls, and a rainbow ofrenda in the corner. The striped zarape hung precariously off a rickety chair. This is Carmen’s home, in Zapopan. A sound echoes and breaks the silence. I turn my head and see the weeping man, bent over himself, his body shaking with sobs. “Por favor,” he cries, “no me dejas, Carmen.”
His face is long, stretched out in another wail, and I know the worry lines mapped on his forehead. The same lines that etch my father’s face, that etch Carmen’s.
There is a terrible sadness in me, a piercing, furious thing. Is it mine? Carmen’s? I can’t tell. But I don’t go to him. Instead, I say, “Lo siento,” and I walk out the door.
Renato. The name arrives, fully formed. Renato. Who is he?
I don’t get time to figure it out. Flash. I watch Papá take his first steps, feel the soft carpet underneath me as I rush to catch him.
Flash. I hold myself in my arms just after Mamá gives birth to me. It feels wrong, to see my own blind emerging, to feel that blanket of her love from the inside.
Flash. I am watching myself perform “Como La Flor” in a shaky voice at my fourth-grade recital. Carmen’s tears wet my cheeks. She is proud of me, and it radiates through her whole body. She is my abuela. But the song stirs a tide of longing inside her. “Como me duele,” I sing, and she hurts. For home.
For the man she left behind.
I see him in Carmen’s home then, a memory inside this memory, as she thinks of him while watching me. I hear him beg her to not leave.
Renato. It’s her brother. I know it without any effort, so it must be true. But I’ve never seen this man, not even in the faded photographs that cluster their cracked frames around her votivas. Carmen has never even said his name.
The memories flash and jump and cycle through, but only one of them repeats.
No me dejas.
“Breathe normally,” says Yasmin. The lights are so bright. I gasp for air, and Papá is there, too.
“Calmate, m’ija,” he murmurs. “You’re OK, you’re fine, I’m right here. The cables have been removed. You’re fine.”
I reach up and yank at the straps keeping my head stationary, struggling to free myself. Yasmin tells me to take it easy, her voice a conditioned calm, born of years of practice.
“No!” I shout at her, and I’m surprised at how loud my own voice sounds. I rip off the strap and sit upright. My head swims. I push past it and swing my legs over the bed. Papá yells at me to stop. I sit there, glaring at mi abuela. I don’t even know who this anger belongs to. Me? Her? How am I supposed to tell?
“Who was he?” I ask her, and my voice breaks on the last word. I can see his anguished face in my mind. There’s a pain just behind my eyes that comes roaring to life, and I feel my breakfast come rushing up and spill out over the floor.
Yasmin wipes at my mouth with something and begs me to calm down. “Please, you just barely regained consciousness. You have to take it easy.”
She gently lowers me back down onto the bed, but the pain continues to thump in my head, a heavy heartbeat.
No me dejas.
“Abuela,” I croak, “¿por qué?”
She isn’t awake. She looks so peaceful, swaddled in the hospital’s white blankets, but she is quietly slipping away. The Fading is already tugging mi abuela away from me, drowning the truth I so desperately crave in its depths.
“Gabi,” Papá says. “Please. What happened? Why are you so upset?”
Yasmin hands me a small plastic cup with ice in it, tells me to take it slow. But I don’t move. I just stare at Carmen, her dark lashes resting like wings against her cheeks. They are a denial. “She left someone behind in Zapopan,” I say.
“What?” says Papá. “What are you talking about?”
“This is very common,” I hear Yasmin say, but I won’t look her way. “People who go through the Transfer can be disoriented just after they wake, while their mind is trying to sort through all the new memories now in their head.”
I turn my head slow and fix a glare on Yasmin. “I am not disoriented,” I spit. “I saw him. She left someone behind. Renato! He was begging her not to leave.”
Yasmin backs away a step. She glances from me to my papá and back. “Please let me know if you need anything,” she murmurs and then scurries away from us and our noise.
In the empty room, Papa and I sit in silence together, the beep of abuela’s heart rate monitor a metronome. Carmen is not dead, not yet, but not waking up. She’s just … there. Papá is running his hand up and down my back, and I can tell he wants to say something.
No me dejas.
The man’s face contorted with pain. The beam of light cutting across the table, leaving him in shadow. He drops his head into his hands, then raises it again.
The door has been opened, and sensations, emotions, colors, they all rush in. I see Carmen’s dirty knees as she plays outside the splintered wooden walls of her childhood home. Her mother, rushing toward her, hand outstretched. And there’s a young boy there, too, his hair bushy and unkempt. It’s him, it must be.
No me dejas.
Papá is holding my hand, gripping it hard, and I use it to give me some leverage. I yank myself up, and push away from him toward Carmen’s bed. “Abuela,” I say, “who is he? Who was Renato?”
Her head turns. Her eyes, barely open, still glisten around the edges. “Renato,” she says, the name a rough stone in her mouth. She spits it out.
It’s a switch. A trigger. An explosion. I cry out as memories burst open in my mind. I see him, much younger, running across that bare spot of dirt outside Carmen’s home in Zapopan. His dark hair flops over his face, a shining flag.
Carmen’s mother steps up to him, brushes it out of his eyes. “M’ijo,” she says lovingly and then she looks to Carmen and smiles. A warmness spreads through Carmen, and I can feel it in my body, as if it happened to me. The memory is warm and heady, long buried within mi abuela.
The memory of her brother.
“No, no, abuela,” I say. “You have to stay. Please, stay. Why? Why didn’t you tell us about your brother?”
She says nothing.
The words come out of my mouth in Spanish. “No me dejas,” I say, and I hear the thrum of Renato’s wail echoing in my voice. Is that me? Is it him? I search Abuela’s face, but it’s Renato’s I see before me. I see him beg her again, a loop of misery turning endlessly, but it feels like he’s imploring me to stay. I feel Carmen’s regret and sorrow. Or mine. I can no longer tell. Please.
“Gabriela, what are you talking about?” Papá squeezes my hand, and it’s too hard, but it can’t bring me back, can’t rip me away from the surge of emotion and terror. “I don’t understand, I don’t have an uncle.”
Papá sobs hard, a dark tearing noise, and there’s a desperate edge to it. He’s confused, looking from me to his dead mother. The chasm builds in my stomach. Between us. I know something my papá does not. I hate it. I hate that I have that stone of Renato’s name rattling in my head, that I have seen, that I have been, a Carmen that her son will never know.
I reach out and grab Carmen’s arm and I shake it, her bones limp in my hand. “Wake up,” I beg. “Please, don’t leave me.”
I should have said goodbye. I should have spent more time with her before the Transfer.
Papá is staring at me, and I have never been so far from him. I cannot repair this. I start howling in grief, and I don’t know what I’m crying over.
Regret. Mine or hers?
Sadness. Mine or hers?
Renato begs her to stay. I beg her to stay.
She lies still in the bed.
No me dejas.
Read a response essay by two philosophers studying issues related to memory transfer.
Previously in Future Tense Fiction:
“Mika Model,” by Paolo Bacigalupi
“Mr. Thursday,” by Emily St. John Mandel
“The Minnesota Diet,” by Charlie Jane Anders
“Mother of Invention,” by Nnedi Okorafor
“Domestic Violence,” by Madeline Ashby