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Less Misery Enough to Bear

Yelena Crane juggles being an adjunct professor, freelance writer, and assistant editor at FFO. With a PhD in the sciences, she has followed her passions from mad scientist to science fiction writer. Her work has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Flame Tree newsletter, and now in DSF.

A crowd gathered outside the clinic. Memvocates held up signs against Rewind, urging anyone who passed to stay resilient and embrace our pain. Others were more violent in their approach. EJ waited ten long years to be approved for the procedure thanks to them. Ten years of carrying around the weight of a broken heart. She pointed her chin up and didn't even stop to wipe her face when they spat at her. They wouldn't get that part of her too. Their lobbying added more and more red tape around what the state could do. Because time could heal their wounds, it meant time would do it for everyone else too. Well, it hadn't.
Screw you all, she thought. Let them carry her years worth of what-ifs for a day. What if they'd been there a minute sooner? What if they'd raised him differently? What if they'd suggested different, better, therapists?
As soon as she cleared the doors, the receptionist helped wipe her face with a tissue.
"I'm so sorry. They're such hypocrites but you know the rules. They won't be at the exit. I promise, you won't have to see them again." The receptionist smiled, the kind where she used her mouth and her eyes. A real smile, like she'd never known a reason not to. EJ used to smile like that. So long ago now, she wasn't sure about it.
The room she was led into made every attempt to look like a typical doctor's examination room: white walls, generic grey cabinetry and tabletops, the overall sterile aura of unlived-in spaces found in offices. It almost passed, except for the chair with all its head fixings.
"This is the hardest part," the doctor walked in saying.
No. The hardest part she lived and relived for a decade. This was the easy part. EJ didn't correct him.
"You're going to feel a lot of pressure as your neuronal connections are rewired. You may still feel some of that after the procedure is over, as some of the gyri reposition to make up for the change in contacts."
He handed me the tablet to sign for my consent. " This is your last chance to back out of the procedure before erasure. Do you still want to proceed?"
"I can't keep any part of Brian?" Ej said.
EJ had only spoken about Brian when she had to, and she'd had to more than she'd have liked, thanks to the Memvocates and their forced therapy sessions.
The doctor shook his head. Another restriction Memvocates pushed forth in "her interest," to help dissuade her and others from going through with it.
EJ wanted it done; she only found herself stalling for one last glimpse at the happier moments with her son. She focused hard to picture the Brian who could only sleep if she had her hand squeezed through the crib bars, rubbing his back. She didn't want that part trashed in a hard drive somewhere.
"What happens to all my memories after the extraction?"
EJ forced her best smile. Those were the only kind she knew how to make. "You can tell me, not like I'll remember." She could never understand how this managed to stay a secret after all this time and the Memvocates's probing.
The doctor considered this. "Grief is not for everyone, but some people need the certainty of it."
EJ almost sprang out of her chair if it weren't for the straps.
"Excuse me?"
In all their fear mongering, the Memovocates never mentioned this.
"Is that what took ten years? The state had to find a freak willing enough to take this from me?"
The doctor stopped fastening the neuronal probes to her head. They were surprisingly warm. "I don't judge anyone's choices. Some find it soothing, that someone else can carry on the pain they can't. Should I stop?"
Knowing EJ wasn't just getting rid of these memories, but giving them away, made her question everything.
She imagined another woman in her place, finding Brian swinging from a rope. Another woman, hearing the thunk his body made when she finally got him down. Another woman trying to breathe red into his skin. Or worse, another woman never hearing his full-bellied giggles, hearing his keen wit.
EJ's eyes were drawn across the room. Was this woman just behind the wall?
She had to know more. A hard drive was one thing, a person with a grief fetish was another. Brian didn't deserve that.
"Can I meet them?"
"Maybe after."
After. After, there'd be nothing to remember. "Why would any woman want this?"
"Man. He lost his child too. Kidnapping. Never found. He needs... a body, years of hope and what-ifs to bury. He went through the same hoops you did to be approved. It won't be exactly as you remember it. The brain will recontextualize the memory to work with his life experience. The look of the house. It's not so much the memory, as a memory of the memory."
EJ briefly wondered how many laws of HIPPA and MEM the doctor broke in telling her. She didn't care. She had one chance at this, reversals were impossible.
"And they concluded my Brian would help make him happy?"
"Would help him move on."
Move on. The words made EJ dizzy, and grateful for the chair. She wondered how it would feel to go to sleep without regret bearing down on her, pushing her to the edge of the bed. How it would feel to wake up without the dread of walking through that living room she couldn't bear to look at or look away from. "And me?"
"We're here to help you move on, too."
EJ left the clinic, with no memory of why she'd come in, smiling without effort. She held the door for an older man, whose face was buried in aged frowns. They turned in different directions and parted.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 26th, 2022

Author Comments

Although the prompt: "the state was a machine that sucked up memory and bleached it white," from artist Ai Weiwei inspired this piece, I chose to go in a different direction from the classic dystopian nightmare tropes. The possible existence of such a technology made me think about the sacrifices a person might make (giving up cherished memories of a son in order to get rid of the painful ones) all not even to achieve happiness but to be able to move on just enough. The story became about how such a technology would reflect on us and the choices we can make to either help carry one another's grief or--like the protestors in the story-- try to force everyone to keep it to themselves.

- Yelena Crane
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