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Cover Story

R.L. Thull is a graphic designer, illustrator, and writer with a small robot collection. Her speculative fiction has appeared in Fireside Magazine and received an honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest. Currently, she is working on a graphic novel called The Neighbors. R.L. resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband and two misbehaving cats.

Jackie pulled into the drive of a blue rambler with thirsty brown grass, her next assignment. She always took the company van on her runs, a nondescript white box without rear windows, and--for discretion--side panel branding that vanished as she neared her destination. The company had an app for its field employees with all the relevant details--the subject's name and birthdate and photo, the home and work addresses.
And of course, the cover story.
What a day it had been. Sixteen assignments including this one--it must be a new record. Jackie had a friend at the company who had got her the job--a temporary measure until better prospects came along. But that was three years ago. Somehow, she'd been roped into a five-year contract, and the tarnish on her resume was getting on her soul. She examined her face in the rearview mirror, made a fake smile to check for lipstick on her teeth. "Last one this week," she told herself, summoning good posture. A professional demeanor was important. This man, Mr. Price, was in for some upsetting news.
She threw open the car door and stepped out, straightening the ridiculous white jumpsuit uniform. Embroidered on the chest pocket was the company logo--a geometric sun that looked as much like it was rising as it was setting. On her collar, there was a tiny camera always running, and at the belt, a Taser and spray bottle of mace--in case things went badly.
She rang the bell and stepped back.
When a big middle-aged man with horn-rimmed glasses and an untucked shirt appeared at the door, Jackie assumed a serious-but-pleasant tone. "Raymond J. Price?"
"Yes," he said tentatively, as though he might rescind his identity if circumstances warranted. Already, he'd noticed her uniform. Jackie could tell by the way his body tightened, bracing for impact.
"Good evening, Mr. Price. I am a representative from New Vista Memory Services." It was the script they gave her, with the right names dropped into place. Always follow the script they said, for liability reasons, for clarity, to keep from losing your nerve. "This is your official notice," she went on, "that the person you knew, Sharon Jefferson, has willfully expunged you from her permanent memory."
The man wilted before her. "Sharon deleted me?" By his reaction, Jackie guessed the woman was once his long-term girlfriend, his wife even--although you couldn't erase a living spouse without a divorce or court order.
Jackie had served expungement notices to people who had once been siblings, lifelong friends, soldiers in combat. Some of them melted into grief, some got hostile, some were stoic or indifferent. In her opinion, the hardest news to deliver was a child expunging their parent, which was rare and expensive too, due of the years of elaborate cover story involved. A gray-haired asthmatic woman had once beaten Jackie's shoulders with frail abandon and sobbed for the son who had snipped her out of his life. Jackie wasn't allowed to see why they did it--only the cover stories. All the redacted parts, the truth, were kept tight in the company vault and occasionally audited by federal regulators.
A lot of people were surprised by Jackie's job, not that she liked to talk about it. Their eyebrows lifted to hear that serving expungement notices was a real thing. The majority of memory cover-ups were simpler than what Jackie handled, without need of an in-person notice. Usually, a single traumatic event was erased, an STE. Some were even cloistered secrets that required no cover-up at all. Anyone who might expose the trauma was brought into the cover story ahead of time, often by the patient themself. In a ten-minute procedure, the bad memory would be snipped--perhaps some horrific accident, an assault, an infidelity. Not whole chapters of life, not entire relationships. Once, Jackie's friend Hector--the one who had pulled strings to get her in with the company three years ago--had told her, "Wiping a memory is easy; expunging a person is murder plus alibi."
Mr. Price looked a bit weak in the knees, and leaned his bulk on the doorframe. He was the under-reaction type, lost for words, or just plain lost. This was a relief to Jackie, who had been keeping one hand close to her mace. "Your public records and accounts have been scrubbed of all references to Ms. Jefferson," she said, handing him a sheaf of paper. The cover-up involved several years of humanitarian work in Kenya. "Please review this legal disclosure and cover story. We've also sent a copy to the email address on record."
The man took the papers without looking and asked, "Did she say anything?" Like most cases of this nature, he'd been given no warning.
Who wants to tell somebody, I want to delete you?
"There's a statement from Ms. Jefferson here," said Jackie, referring the man to an addendum. Statements from memory cases varied wildly, from long-winded letters that added heft to the paperwork to the two-worded zingers. "Fuck you," was a perennial favorite, but this one from Ms. Jefferson said only, "I'm sorry."
The hardest part over, Jackie went on with the disclaimers by rote. "Ms. Jefferson has no ability to remember or recognize you. Future contact with her is strongly discouraged and violation of the official cover story is a federal crime under the Memory Protections Act."
Uncovering, as it was called, was punishable by steep fines, restraining orders, and even prison sentences. Jackie had seen a handful of distressed patients who had returned to the clinic with a doctor's referral. Some stupid person had shattered their illusion, left them confused and paranoid, waiting for the sky to cave in.
Sometimes worse than the bad news itself, was the part when Jackie had to hand over the trifold company brochure, shameless in its sales pitch: Mutual expungement could be for you. She gave Mr. Price a moment and asked, had he understood everything? He signed the screen like he was signing for a poison package and shut the door.
The sun was starting to set as Jackie hauled herself back into the van, surrendering to an exhausted slouch. This company vehicle was newer than her personal car, a self-driving model that often caused her to lapse into gripping the wheel. On the ride home, she dwelled on all the assignments of the day. The embittered woman who was expunged by her own sister, probably rightfully so, the adopted high schooler she had to pull out of class to tell; his birthmother had wiped him from memory. The cover stories had been typical--studying abroad, a skiing accident causing a small window of amnesia, a colorless but rewarding office job. The key to a good cover story, said Hector, was maintaining some degree of the mundane. If you got food poisoning on your European holiday, how could it be fabrication?
Jackie watched the traffic through her window, low pink-and-white sun glaring intensely off cars. Perhaps now was the time to start again. She'd been saving for a few years. As a passing fancy, she had considered wiping her own memory of this time, this terror of a job, and replacing it with something worthwhile and soothing. But she could never do that--the thought of someone knocking on her coworkers' doors always stopped her, the thought of telling her parents before the procedure, or chickening out and letting fat envelopes inform her whole family: Jackie can no longer remember her time at New Vista Memory Services. It was far too ironic.
She could never.
Her phone buzzed when she was still ten minutes from home. It was a text from Hector. He was having a party tonight, to celebrate his New Vista contract having ended. "My cover is over," he wrote, punctuating the message with effusive exclamation points and emoji. She texted back, what did he mean his cover was over? A moment later he was calling. Jackie felt a flutter of confusion as she answered. "What are you talking about, Hector?"
"You know, the reason we do this," he said. She thought by his slippery voice he might have imbibed a beer or two already. "Why we work at the company."
It was creepy, thought Jackie, like there was some subtext she was supposed to get but didn't. "I don't follow."
He swore. "I thought you knew. Everybody knows, right?" He might have had more than two drinks. "Why we get paid shit for this work, why we all sign multi-year contracts with no benefits?" A wry laugh fell out of him. "Everybody takes this job to pay off their debt to the company."
She scoffed. "Why would we owe the company?" But as her words came out, it became clear. Realization crashed upon her, blunt and dizzying.
This was their cover story.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 4th, 2018

Author Comments

For a long time, I've been intrigued by the idea of a world where bad memories could be eliminated. Why would someone choose such a thing, how would the erased bits be explained, and how would the expunged people left behind be notified? Cover Story had several false starts. Among them was a less successful version told from the opposite point of view, by the recipient of bad news. But things didn't come together until I reversed perspectives. Once I considered how the abysmal work of telling person after person "you've been deleted" might affect someone--and how they might wind up in such a job in the first place--everything clicked.

- R.L. Thull
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