Escape Pod 546: Recollection
by Nancy Fulda
The dream is always the same. You are a tangled mass of neurons, tumbling through meteors. Flaming impacts pierce your fragile surface, leaving ragged gouges. You writhe, deforming under bombardment, until nothing is left except a translucent tatter, crumbling as it descends. Comets pelt the desiccated fibers. You fall, and keep falling, and cannot escape the feeling that, despite your lack of hands, you are scrabbling desperately at the rim of a shrouded tunnel, unable to halt your descent. Glimmers crawl along the faint remaining strands, blurring as you tumble…
You awaken to warmth and stillness. Gone are the soulless tiled floors of the seniors’ home. Sterile window drapes have been replaced by sandalwood blinds. Fresh air blows through the vents, overlaying faint sounds from the bathroom and from morning traffic on nearby canyon roads. You clutch the quilted blankets, stomach plummeting. This cozy bedroom, with its sturdy hardwood furnishings, should be familiar to you; but it isn’t. Two days, and still nothing makes sense. You feel as though you’re suffocating. Tumbling…
Your wife has heard you gasping for air. She comes running, nightgown flapping behind her. Her face is creased in overlapping furrows. Your mirror tells you that the two of you are a match: the same fading hair, the same shrunken hollows along the eyes. Laugh lines, she calls them, but you cannot manage to see them as anything except deformities, in your face and hers both.
“Elliott?” She grabs your hand and kneels at the bedside to look in your eyes. “It’s me, Elliott. Everything’s fine. Everything’s going to be ok.”
Her name, you recall, is Grace. She told it to you two days ago, and is irrationally elated that you are able to repeat it to her upon demand, any time she asks. You feel like a trained puppy, yapping for treats, except there aren’t any treats.
There’s just Grace, and this room. And before that, the seniors’ home. And before that…? You’re not sure. You flail at the bedside for your notebook, thinking it might offer continuity. But there are only a few shaky scribbles, beginning the day before yesterday.
Grace pulls you upright, propping pillows against your spine. She fusses over you, adjusting your hair, prattling off questions. She seems to think you’re in pain, but you’re not. Not any more than you’d expect of a man with joints and bones as old as yours. She tries to kiss your forehead, and you recoil.
It’s a cruel gesture, pulling away like that, but you can’t help it. She’s a stranger, and despite the anguish in her eyes, it feels wrong to pretend otherwise. You can’t feign love. You won’t. Not to please her, not to please anyone.
Grace hesitates only slightly before continuing her efforts. You watch her, trying to recall more about this woman you’ve shared your life with, but your grasping thoughts turn up only emptiness. You haven’t recognized her – haven’t recognized anyone in your family – for years. That’s what Alzheimer’s means. Or what it used to mean.
You’re not sure what anything means, anymore.
Grace, arranging blankets along the side of your bed, pauses to stroke your arm. “Someone had to be first,” she says sadly, almost like a litany. “The next batch of patients will have it easier. They’ll begin treatments almost as soon as they’re diagnosed, long before the neural tissue breaks down…” She gazes into empty air, and adds with forced enthusiasm: “But we’ll get through this, you know we will. You were always tough as ironwood. Remember how we used to sit at Squaw Peak and look over the valley? You told me you felt cheated as a boy, because all the frontiers had been taken, and it was too late to be a pioneer.”
She keeps talking, wave after wave of trivialities burdening the air. It is clear that she loves you. It is equally clear that she does not realize how few of her words find purchase on the slippery crags of your recollection. Names and anecdotes sweep past you, unconnected to anything familiar, and therefore quickly forgotten. Your blank stare must be disheartening, but she doesn’t stop. She was always stubborn that way; ruthlessly optimistic in the absence of all evidence. Why you can remember that, when everything else is gone, you can’t say.
An image rips across your thoughts. A spiderweb, torn by a stick, so that the tattered remaining strands are left to dangle in the wind. The hand gripping the stick is yours – you are certain of it, although you must be remembering something wrong, because it looks like the hand of a child – and you recall staring, fascinated by how quickly the pattern disintegrates once the central supports have been torn away…
You feel suddenly dizzy. Your gaze sweeps the room, searching for some sort of anchor, but all you find is a photo next to the bed. It shows a stronger, less withered version of yourself and Grace, shouldering backpacks on a dusty mountain trail. The man is laughing. The woman’s balled fist is thrust against his side, her lips pressed in mock indignation. You wonder what he said to elicit such affectionate ire.
The neurologists said this would happen. Before you left the rest home, they showed you brightly colored images of your brain tissue. They outlined areas where beta-amyloid plaques had been cleared, pointed to the scattered remaining tau deposits, and explained that your brain is once again capable of parsing and recording information. You are no longer a dementia patient, but the memories you’ve lost will never return. The best you and Grace can hope for is to rebuild across the tattered rifts in your consciousness.
That won’t be too hard, Grace had laughed, hands clamped around your limp fingers, still ecstatic that you remembered her name. Elliott loves building things.
Grace isn’t laughing now, though. To be honest, she doesn’t look like a woman who laughs much at all. Hollow eyes, unkempt hair, slender to the point of spindliness… Her haggard face can no longer be described as beautiful. Also, she annoys you. The words keep coming, pointless babble on a dozen inconsequential topics, like a slew of shiny buttons which you have not hands enough to catch.
You must have loved her, once.
Yes, you almost certainly loved her, and the endless prattle now spilling off her lips must be weighted with decades’ worth of meaning – shared jokes, shared secrets, shared opinions… Each fleeting phrase a lifeline to a hoarded wealth of common history. It should mean something to you, but it doesn’t.
You close your eyes and grimace against the pillows, shutting out Grace, shutting out everything. It’s not right. You never asked for this. Why would anyone choose this?
Why didn’t they let you keep tumbling?
You hear whispering behind the door – eager, energetic voices – for several seconds before the handle swings downward and five towheaded bundles of chaos bounce into the sitting room.
They attack you from all directions, tugging your shirt sleeves, holding up paintings of horses and butterflies, jostling for positions on your lap.
“Hi, Grandpa. Mommy says the doctors fixed you!”
“But we’re not supposed to talk about that because it might make you sad.”
“Do you remember my birthday pony now, Grandpa? The one you carved out of wood from the old oak tree?”
You wet your lips, uncertain how to respond. There’s something you’re supposed to do, when you see your grandchildren. Words you’re supposed to say. Aren’t there?
“Hello Peter,” you finally murmur. “Hello Mandy. Hello, Candace. I hear you’re doing well in school.”
You say the words to the air, uncertain which child they belong to. A girl with pink butterflies in her hair smiles and proudly reports her latest math score. Two of the boys begin hopping on the carpet, shouting, “He does, he does, he remembers!”
You ask the children about school, and about their new baby cousin. They answer glibly, never realizing that you have cheated. Last night, after Grace predicted this visit, you wrote the children’s names and everything Grace told you about them in the nondescript brown notebook that has become a permanent fixture at your bedside. You are not so much conversing with them as throwing out random phrases in hopes that something will stick.
The children do not find this performance remarkable, but their mother, still lurking in the doorway, presses her knuckles to her teeth to mask a sudden hiss of indrawn breath. The moisture in her eyes ought to reassure you, but instead you feel like a swindler, dirty and shadowed.
This isn’t how you want to live your life.
Grace proclaims the existence of milk and cookies in the kitchen and the children vanish in a boisterous flurry. The adults remain, subdued yet jittery, glancing at you sidelong.
“Remember that time we got stranded on Snake River?” Grace asks. The others laugh and begin swapping memories like peddlers in a street bazaar, praising each in long and glorified detail. Remember when we hiked Mount Timpanogos? Remember when Peter dropped his lizard in your canteen? Remember that breathtaking sunrise near Vegas?
The muted hope emanating from your wife and daughter, and from the son-in-law who has pulled in an extra chair from the kitchen, is palpable. Should you lie? Nod and chuckle and permit the illusion, saying Oh yes, that was a good one…?
Maybe you should, but you can’t bring yourself to do it. Playing sleight-of-hand with the kids is one thing, but these are adults, too old for fairy stories.
“I’m sorry,” you whisper. In the stillness, you can already hear the crack of hearts destined to break. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember that.”
The silence drags on, heavy and awkward.
It’s madness, thinking they can rebuild your consciousness stone by stone, memory by memory. You’re not a model airplane, waiting for assembly. You cannot excavate the tattered remnants of a lifetime’s experience. You can’t even recognize your own grandchildren.
Finally Grace’s hand lifts and falls against your shoulder. “Well, that’s all right,” she says brightly. “Maybe you don’t remember, but we do. We’ll help you. You’ll see.”
The rest of the visit is agony. The conversation limps along, interspersed with furtive glances every time you call someone by the wrong name. After a while you stop talking and let the words continue without you. You listen, hollow, clawing through trivia which means nothing, and is swiftly forgotten.
“Tell them how you feel,” your therapist says at every appointment.
But you can’t. Or rather, you have, but they didn’t hear the words the way you meant them.
They take turns visiting, pouring out their life’s stories with loving dedication. They think they can stuff your past back into you, like a turkey packed with apples for Thanksgiving, but it doesn’t work like that.
Each day, after your visitors are gone, you close your eyes and lean against the padded back of your chair. You are so tired. Tired of the endless stream of strangers. Tired of attempting to be more than a tattered cluster of dendrites, tumbling and empty.
It doesn’t hurt, exactly. How can you hurt when most of you is missing? But it seems achingly, dreadfully wrong that you should feel nothing, when others drift like tormented spirits at your shirtsleeves.
Where is solace, for these poor strangers who have wept and struggled and plead to God on your behalf? The children were promised their grandfather back. They deserve to have their grandfather back. And instead they’ve gotten… you.
You shift against the cushions, ashamed at this betrayal, and wonder why healing seems so much crueler than breaking did.
It’s been two weeks.
You are standing in front of the toaster oven, trying to figure out what to do next. Your sandwich is inside. It’s supposed to get hot…
Your thumping first on the countertop draws Grace’s attention. You ignore her gentle inquiry and peer in frustration at the perplexing dials along the machine.
It’s all wrong. It doesn’t make sense. You still know the tensile strength of a dozen materials, yet this strange metal mechanism eludes you. Worse, it’s been eluding you for weeks now, with no sign of improvement.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Grace says. She crosses the kitchen and flips on the machine, aggravating you further. You saw what she did. You were watching the whole time, but you must have lost some critical junction in the scaffolding of your memory, some structural support line to which other information should connect, because the toaster oven still doesn’t make sense. You feel muddled, like an archival system in which half the data and most of the indexing information is gone. Torn away like the strands of a spiderweb, leaving only dangling edges.
Holes in thought are not like holes in a sidewalk, crisply defined and easy to repair. How do you know what you can remember, until you try to remember it? How do you build a framework for your thoughts, when the pieces that used to hold everything together are missing?
You stifle frustration. Grace’s impatient briskness surely would not have irritated someone who’d spent his life with this woman; someone whose accumulated cheerful memories offset the annoyance.
You’re not that man, though, and for some perverse reason, knowing that you’re being unfair only makes you angrier. You shove the toaster oven across the counter and stalk away upstairs.
It all falls apart on the morning of Mandy’s birthday.
Grace finds you at the dresser, tossing clothes across the room. You’ve already scooted the bed from its usual place and disheveled the curtains by searching behind them.
“I can’t find my notebook,” you growl when she asks what you are doing.
You’ve promised to join the family for lunch at Rock Canyon Park. It’s the first time since the rest home that you’ll see all of them together. You can’t do it without the notebook. You’ll mix up all the names…
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Grace says, cleaning up the mess. “Just be yourself, Elliott. You don’t need to pretend for us.”
“I’m not the one who’s pretending!” you shout.
You must look frightening. Wild-eyed. Disheveled. Grace backs up a few paces.
“Don’t you see?” you say, panting, shoving the easy chair aside. “I’m not the man you lost! I’ll never be him again.” You collapse onto the bench opposite, knuckles gripping like a sailor on a lifeline. “I can’t do this anymore.”
You don’t know what to make of this new, strange, broken life, but you know one thing: You don’t want it to become a sham. So you look into your wife’s eyes and tell her what you’ve been afraid to say out loud all along.
“I don’t love you, Grace. I want to, but it’s gone. Everything I felt for you. It’s all gone.”
You thought she would crumple, but she’s made of sterner stuff than you expected. She stands still for a long time, looking at you. The bedroom floats in chaos around her. It looks like it’s been hit by a meteor shower.
“We’ve been doing this all wrong,” she says finally, and leaves the room.
You stare after her, perplexed. Hurting. Yes, it finally hurts – a dull, throbbing ache in your chest. The air seems suddenly darker.
Sheepishly, you drag your old bones into motion and begin to put the place back together. Grace’s voice echoes up from downstairs, talking on the phone, perhaps. You’re too far away to make out the words.
Fifteen minutes later she’s back, rummaging in her closet and vanishing into the bathroom for an unbearably long time. You wonder if you should start packing a suitcase to take back to the rest home. Just as you decide you probably should, the bathroom door opens, and another stranger stands in the rectangle of light.
It takes you a while to realize that it’s Grace. You’re so used to seeing her in nightgowns or fraying sweaters worn over baggy jeans. The chic, brightly colored shirt she’s now wearing sits well beneath the jacket, dignified and feminine. She’s done something with her hair, and the glittering confidence in her eyes reminds you – suddenly, painfully – of the woman in the photograph next to your bed.
“Hi,” she says, and reaches out a hand. “I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced. I’m Grace. It’s very nice to meet you.”
You gape, dumbstruck. You want to say it’s nice to meet her, too, but fear it might be a lie. Grace’s arm is still outstretched, though, so you accept the handshake. “Elliott,” you manage. And then, after a hesitation. “Would you like to join me for breakfast?”
Grace smiles. You walk together to a nearby café, where you discover that you both like breakfast burritos, even though neither of you have tried them before. Grace is energetic, vibrant – like a teenager on a first date, very much hoping to make a good impression. You find yourself responding in kind, dredging up the few coherent memories you possess. Many of them involve floor plans for buildings in nearby cities, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
Your side of the conversation is halting, hesitant; but that doesn’t seem to matter, either. Grace produces a startling array of childhood confessions, many of them embarrassing, none of which she expects you to already know about. You tell her that you were once a civil engineer and discover, through a sequence of intent and interested questions, that you would like to consult on construction ventures, if anyone will still have you.
It’s a game, pretending to be two people who’ve only just met, but in many ways, the game is more honest than the truth. Grace smooths over occasional awkward pauses with questions or humorous anecdotes, listening alertly to your replies. You marvel at how beautiful she is when she laughs.
For two hours, there is no talk of “remember this” or “you used to love that”. No one expects to you conform to the mirror of the past. There is only Grace, vibrant and energetic and clearly interested in getting to know you better. Or perhaps, interested in helping you get to know yourself better. It doesn’t really matter which.
You find yourself thinking again of the spiderweb, ravaged by the curious swipe of a little boy’s stick, and wonder: If one could just find the two or three most important strands – the ones upon which everything else depends – and somehow weave them anew… Would everything else begin to fall into place?
You leave the restaurant and stroll together along the pavement, admiring the wildflowers. Halfway home, Grace checks her wristwatch and says, “My granddaughter’s celebrating her birthday up the canyon today. I’d love to introduce you to some of the people there.” She looks at you, oddly intent. “Would you like to come?”
You feel your mouth hang open in surprise, and discover that it would not be dishonest to say ‘Yes’.
About the Author
Nancy Fulda is a Phobos Award winner, a Jim Baen Memorial Award recipient, and a Hugo and Nebula nominee. During her graduate work at Brigham Young University she studied artificial intelligence, machine learning, and quantum computing. In the years since, she has grappled with the far more complex process of raising four children. All these experiences sometimes infiltrate her writing.