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Truth, in Plain Sight Hidden

Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she's left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nature, and elsewhere. Her time travel novella series, beginning with "The Continuum", is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com.

It's election day and every electronic device registered to me is beeping in one-minute intervals. They chirp with the urgency of a fire alarm, a persistent reminder for me to do my civic duty. Ignored, they'll start chirping every thirty seconds, then every fifteen, until by the end of the day, they become nothing more than a constant, metallic screech, until 9:00, when the polls close.
Then at 9:01--the Rewrite.
My tablet screen flashes, begging for my attention. Just thinking of it makes me sick. Makes my eyes feel swollen from last night's lack of sleep and the residual grief of the past three months. I take Julie's picture off the wall, remove it from the frame and set it on the table, face-down.
But first, coffee. Chirp. Hair. Chirp. Makeup. Chirp. Shoes. Chirp.
The beeping is maddening. Apparently, 85% of the population votes within twenty minutes of the first chirp. I used to be part of that majority. Responsible. Punctual. Reliable. The kind of woman who'd never be late for a lunch date with her sister. Never--until that one time I was.
My tablet's still flashing when I sit down with my boiled egg and orange juice. It's still flashing when I set the glass and plate in the sink. It's still flashing when I glance at the cuckoo clock--the one Julie had bought in Germany for her fortieth birthday--and realize that if I don't vote soon, I'm going to be late for work. Ted gave us an extra hour this morning, making it clear that he didn't want to hear a single chirp after our late start.
I sit at the table with the tablet before me, next to her photograph and a pen. I close my eyes, remembering vividly the sting of smoke in my eyes and throat, the pandemonium that muted my scream: "Julie!"
The tablet chirps one last time, and I press my thumbprint to the screen.
Part I is simple, relatively. Select a representative. Vote YES or NO. Approve a new budget. The screen vibrates gently beneath my finger, confirming each input. This portion will be printed in duplicate--one sheet mailed to me, one sheet filed away in the government archives, to verify that my vote was counted.
"Ready for Part II?" the screen asks.
I flip over Julie's picture, torn between wanting to forget and wanting to commit each of those moments into some deeper, hidden place in my memory. Somewhere the Rewrite can't destroy it. Am I ready? No.
But the cuckoo clock is ticking noisily, and I can't afford to be late for work again. Ted was patient with me, those weeks afterward, but I know that, for my sake, he's looking forward to the polls closing, to the Rewrite that will wipe so much clean.
"Thanks to Rewrite Corp technology," the tablet screen reads, "we now have the opportunity to remove from our collective memory some of the most harmful and divisive memories of the past year. Please select up to five national, regional, or local incidences that you believe should be rewritten to preserve peace and unity within our communities and nation. Upon the closure of the polls, a Rewrite Pulse will be sent out, effectively eliminating any neurological record or electronic references to the event."
I hesitate, and the tablet chirps again, reminding me not to dally. I peruse the drop-down menus, past plane crashes and riots, past school shootings and political scandals, past all the terror and uncertainty wrought down upon us these past 365 days. Here's our chance to re-write history, to clean the slate, to declare ourselves victors and remember things as they should have happened, rather than as they did.
The one I'm looking for is in the "regional" section--too small an incident for the whole nation to care, but with effects that reached beyond the city itself. They've labeled it, simply, "The Silver Street Cafe Bomb," but if you hover on the title, as I do, they bring up the all-too-familiar photos of the event: the image of the overturned patio chair before a background of smoke and ash; the arrest of the man who'd pressed the button. If it passes, they'll give him a false memory of some other crime to justify his life-plus-twenty sentence. They'll give us a false memory of a car crash. Still painful, but for the Greater Good, so that people can sit in cafes and feel safe. So they can walk down Silver Street without fear.
It's all queued up on the Rewrite computers. All it needs is a majority vote.
The tablet chirps. I have to choose: the truth, or a red-white-and-blue lie.
NONE, I press. Then with one final fingerprint, I'm done and hurrying to work, a pen and Julia's photo still clutched in my trembling hand.
The words are tiny. The ink smudges. But when I finally finish, at 8:55PM, the backside of the photograph tells the story of that day in my own words. If the Rewrite passes, a record like this would be contraband, and there'd be no proof to back up my claim. I slip the photo back into the frame, satisfied that at least the story will still exist somewhere. Even if I don't remember it, the truth won't really be gone.
I sit on my sofa and clutch the frame, watching the cuckoo-clock count down the seconds, bracing myself for the polls to close and the Pulse to wash over me and wondering if I'd even remember that I'd hidden something. Wondering how many people, in how many houses, had their own scribbled truths hidden away where even they didn't remember.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 7th, 2021
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