The Cost of Wonder
by Leah Cypess
I’ll keep this one, I thought, that day at the fair, as the sunset cut a sharp line across the sky. Gina’s laughter rose in a crescendo of delighted giggles, and life seemed absolutely perfect: a sparkling gift of wonder and joy.
I could never afford a memory like this, but I wasn’t buying this one. I had made it, and it was mine, and I wanted it to last forever.
I’m not going to sell this day.
But even as I thought it, I was calculating, trying to guess just how much it was worth. I had known today would be magical; I had dressed Gina for the part, in a little denim dress and matching hat, both of which I’d bought with my earnings from last week’s trip to the playground. The hat flattened but didn’t tame her curls, and her round face was stretched by her smile. She squealed again as soap bubbles filled the air, trying to catch them with tiny, uncoordinated half-jumps, unaware of the iridescent globes settling all over her arms.
My heart swelled with a joy so potent it almost hurt, and I swore it again: I’ll keep this day for myself.
But the next morning Gina woke up sobbing, with a temperature so high she was hot to the touch. I had to beg the doctor to let me bring her in. He was busy, but he relented; I always paid on time.
It was, as I had feared, strep throat. I looked at the antibiotics prescription, which included the price, and knew the day at the fair was already gone.
I never got black-market meds for Gina, and the official pharmacy wouldn’t dispense without payment, even though they knew I was good for it. The sale of memories was technically illegal — despite the memory clinic’s large storefront and numerous billboard advertisements — so the pharmacists had to look away, pretend they didn’t know how mothers in this town got the money to buy their children’s medicine.
So I had to bring a still-sick Gina with me to do the memory transfer. I got lucky; she fell asleep on the bus, and remained slumped over in the stroller as I filled out a quick description of yesterday’s joy.
Clara, the receptionist, raised her eyebrows. “Was it as good as it sounds?”
“Yes,” I said, and the memory came back to me: the way Gina had thrown her head back when I twirled her around, her large dark eyes bright and dancing, my smile stretching as wide as hers. Already, it felt less real and vivid than when it had been happening. Eventually, the details would blur and vanish, the feelings would fade. Ten years from now, I would recall it only if I saw a picture — and what I would remember wouldn’t be the real thing, anyhow; it would be fragmentary and unsure.
All I was doing today was speeding up that process. Yet my voice came out thick. “It’s going to be worth a lot.”
“Definitely.” Clara clicked her tongue at her ancient computer and jabbed a button. “Especially because it was at the fair. Buyers love `multicultural experiences’ — ” she gave it air quotes — “especially the American women.”
Once, back when she had first started working here, Clara had wondered out loud why those women didn’t have children of their own, instead of fulfilling their maternal needs with purchased memories. All the mothers in the clinic had looked at each other and laughed.
Gina stirred and muttered in the stroller, and I knew it was only a matter of time before she woke up howling. I said, “Can you squeeze me in today? I’ll take cash on transfer.”
“Are you sure? If the memory’s as good as you say, you’ll get more if you wait for a full evaluation.”
“If I could afford to wait, I wouldn’t be here,” I snapped. And it was true; I would be selfishly holding onto that memory until it was gone, and neither Gina nor I would have gained anything from it.
Making Memories Last, said one of the more outdated signs on the clinic’s door. The procedure had been invented as a way for people to keep their own memories, transferring them into a form that could be replayed over and over in their minds. Because the problem had been the same, even then: memories didn’t last. They passed, they eluded the mind’s attempts to hold them, they faded and then they vanished.
But medicine, a nice apartment, school and books and comfort… those things lasted. It was a good deal, for me and for Gina.
Clara’s eyes narrowed. I softened my voice. “Please? She’s miserable. And we’ll all be miserable if she wakes up before I’m done.”
Clara hesitated, then shrugged. “All right. I can get you in.”
The procedure took ten minutes, and the sales rep who eyeballed the memory was generous. I left with enough money not just for the medicine, but for a trip out of the city next week.
Maybe we would go to the beach again. Have a day just as fun as yesterday had been.
Maybe this time, I would keep it for myself.
I hadn’t forgotten the day at the fair. It just felt vague, distant, like it had happened to someone else. Like it had happened ten years ago. Which, eventually, would have been true no matter what. No moment, no matter how perfect, stretched into eternity. And I knew, deep down, that I would end up passing the heartbreakingly perfect ones off to someone else. Trading them for things that lasted, rather than letting them vanish into the relentless stream of time.
It was, really, a good deal.
I turned in the direction of the bus stop just as Gina woke up and began wailing. A pacifier didn’t help, and neither did her bottle. When I gave in and offered her a lollipop, she threw it so hard it landed in the street and was immediately pulverized by a passing car. Which made her shriek louder, suddenly deciding she wanted the lollipop after all.
In the end, I pushed the stroller along the sidewalk with her screaming and thrashing in it, enduring the startled, scornful looks from everyone I passed. When the bus came, the driver winced and slid her eyes away from me, like she would throw me off if she could. I hurried to the back before she had too much time to think about it, the folded-up stroller under one arm, Gina’s thrashing, sweaty body in the other.
Halfway there, she hit me, and I almost dropped her. If not for the watching eyes, I would have slapped her.
Why don’t they have children of their own, indeed.
There was a one-hour wait at the pharmacy. By the time I got my hands on the medicine, I was so desperate I tried to give Gina the first dose right there in the drug aisle. She shut her mouth and turned her head, and a syringe-full of expensive, sticky redness sprayed all over my hands.
“That’s not going to accomplish anything,” observed the pharmacist, a middle-aged man with a painstaking comb-over. “You need to calm her down first.”
“Thank you,” I said, through gritted teeth.
Gina did fall asleep on the bus ride home, which gave me the chance to finally catch my breath — even though it meant I would have to wake her to give her the medicine, a thought so exhausting I decided to pretend it wasn’t true. I looked out the smeared window as the bus rattled through the street, just in time to catch a billboard: Memories Can Last Forever.
As if that was always a good thing.
When I got home, the first thing I did was call my mother. I was that desperate.
Mom showed up, irritably but dutifully, half an hour later. Together, we woke Gina, pried her mouth open, and tilted her head back. “Aim the medicine at her cheek,” my mother snapped, “not straight down her throat,” and, “Did you notice when she started getting sick?” and “This is why you need to stop letting her suck her thumb.”
Gina, to my vast relief, fell right back asleep after swallowing the medicine. But I didn’t get to go to bed, because Mom was still there. She wanted dinner, and of course I made it for her; she had, after all, come over to help. Our relationship was a series of trades, all overshadowed by my ultimate, unpay-able debt: the fact that she had given up everything for me, and I could never pay that back.
She always said she had done it for love. Which meant that once, she had truly loved me. Normally I held tightly to that belief, but on days like today, when I had gone to the clinic, I tried not to think about it too hard.
“I can’t even count the times I held you down for medicine,” she said, as she watched me stir the pot. There was an odd note in her voice — neither fondness nor anger, but a sort of emptiness that fell between them. “Once, you threw up all over a silk shirt your dad had bought me. Blue, with designs of golden chains. It was only the second time I had worn it. I never got the stains out.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“We were supposed to go dancing that night. It was the last time we would have gone. I didn’t know that yet, of course.”
I bent my head, the familiar sadness suffused with relief. Our grief over my father was one of the few things we genuinely shared.
“Do you remember what you traded for that medicine?” I asked.
Mom blinked. “What?”
“You were selling memories by then, weren’t you? What memory did you sell?”
She waved a hand irritably. “There were so many. I have no idea.”
“Did you ever not want to? ”
“Honestly,” she said impatiently. “What does it matter? Even if I hadn’t sold them, I wouldn’t remember them by now.”
“You remember the shirt,” I pointed out.
“That was different.”
“Yeah.” I turned off the flame. “Mom, can you hang out here for a little bit? The food is done, and I’ll be back soon. There’s a new bin of ice cream in the freezer, if you want dessert.”
I left the instant her head inclined in a nod, before she had a chance to let me know how much I owed her for this one.
The clinic only had a skeleton crew at night, but I got lucky; Clara was on duty, and so was Dan, who was always generous with his evals and who also had a crush on me. Neither of them, I knew, would be averse to making a little extra money on the side. After all, this was technically an illegal operation to begin with.
On the negative side, Dan wasn’t the sharpest of the techs. I had to go over my request three times before he understood what I was asking.
“You want to pay me to take your memories?” he said finally.
“Just the bad ones. The ones that won’t sell.” I was clutching my wallet so tightly that my fingers had gone bloodless. “You have ways of discarding them, right? Like last year, after that kennel incident, when kids-playing-with-dogs went out of fashion — ”
“Yeah, it’s not hard to dump them. But you can do that yourself, can’t you? Just don’t think about them, and they’ll fade away.”
If Dan had been smarter, I might have tried to explain. Instead, I said, “I don’t want to wait. Do you want my money, or not?”
When I got home, my mother had fallen asleep — on my bed, naturally — so I stretched out on the couch, shifting until nothing was poking me. I didn’t like sleeping apart from Gina, but hey; she’d probably wake up in the middle of the night, and it would be Mom’s job to take care of that. She would probably do a better job of it than I would.
Mom loved Gina more than she loved me, something I had always been grateful for. So grateful that I had never, before, stopped to wonder why. It wasn’t like she was a typical grandmother, who enjoyed the good parts of Gina but got to hand her back when she was stinky or difficult. I’d had Gina alone, and I’d always had to lean on my mother.
But with Gina, my mother had all the memories. The good and the bad, the laughs and the tantrums, the first smile along with the first throw-up. Playgrounds and doctor visits, street fairs and supermarkets, smiles and screams.
They don’t fade away, I could have told Dan. They sink in. They dissolve into you, not out of you.
Imagining his blank confusion, I fell asleep.
The next morning, I woke to utter silence and the smell of coffee. I glanced into the kitchen, but my mother was there alone, glancing through some catalogues while sipping from my favorite mug. I backed away before she could see me and went into Gina’s room.
Gina was awake, lying on her side with her thumb in her mouth, curled around her favorite blanket. She twisted to look at me and smiled, bright-eyed and cheerful, as if yesterday’s misery had never been.
The medicine was working.
I smiled back, and waited. For a second, the emptiness frightened me. Then the love came, and my heart expanded, warmly and painfully.
A little more slowly — a little less intensely — than yesterday?
No. I didn’t think so.
Though I also wasn’t sure how I would have been able to tell if it was.
Gina sat up and held out her arms. I scooped her out of the crib, burying my face briefly in her soft, sweaty neck. She giggled, and I kissed her before putting her on the changing table. Her diaper had soaked through her clothes, but otherwise she was fine.
Today, we would go to the beach. I would make sand castles with her, and hold her tight against me as we waded through the waves, where she would scream in terror and delight and wrap her arms around my neck. I would hold a seashell to her ear, and watch her eyes go wide with wonder, and I’d deal with the temper tantrum when we had to leave. A whole new day, a whole new memory.
This one, for sure, I was going to keep.
This story about broke my heart. The words, “They don’t fade away. They sink in.” ring far too true when it comes to painful memories. Us humans are really good at remembering the bad experiences and letting the good ones fade away. It’s partly a survival instinct, I suspect, but it means that in the modern world, when we aren’t worried about getting eaten or falling off a cliff, we can be full of anxieties that outweigh the good in our lives.
For my own child, I spent nearly four years without a solid night of sleep. My memories of those years are mostly gone due to sleep deprivation, but the trauma of it all has stuck around a lot more vividly than the joy. That’s why I’m super grateful for all the photos and videos of smiling, adorable moments. I replay those to make my brain remember the good with the bad.
But if I were paying someone to take those good memories from me, as in this story, it makes sense to balance that by removing some of the worst ones. How can you love and care for your child without holding the good and the bad in your mind? Sometimes it’s hard even when we have good memories, it might be impossible without them.
I think about what my child, who’s a fifth grader now, and her friends will remember about our present situation. The upheaval that the novel coronavirus has wrought upon most of our lives is going to leave a strong impression, and probably not a good one. I’m sure an entire generation is going to remember these few months for the rest of their lives – being out of school, missing birthday parties and graduations, losing a parent or grandparent.
I only hope that in the decades to come, they’ll be able create positive experiences that help balance these. They’re young, and hopefully they’ll have an easier time letting go of the past as they move into their adulthood. For the rest of us, I just hope that we get to share in their joys and make some lasting good memories.
Come back next week for a different kind of story – a highly philosophical look at life with a very light touch.
About the Author
Leah Cypess is the author of four young adult fantasy novels published by HarperCollins, starting with MISTWOOD (2010). She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland with her family.
About the Narrator
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards. She co-hosts Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and all four Escape Artists podcasts, and runs the Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake. Find Tina at tinaconnolly.com.
Her very first Escape Pod appearance was in #209, when “On the Eyeball Floor” was narrated by Norm Sherman.