Delete Your First Memory for Free
by Kel Coleman
The bus jerks to a stop and I tighten my grip on the smooth, metal bar. Doors open. More passengers.
Bodies hem me in, which makes me anxious, which makes me bite my nails. I maneuver the shredded bits with my tongue, push them out past my lips, pinch them between my fingers, slither my hand down to my side, flick the moist clippings to the floor.
I feel eyes. I think it’s the lady in the beige knee-high boots. She must get on at one of the first stops ‘cause she always has a seat. She’s looking at her phone now, but she probably saw. White women are always pretending they don’t see me.
I make myself stop biting my nails, look at my phone. Pull up Connext and expand my web of friends. Accept a request from Ava. The new link tugs the existing ones with Max and Ye-jun closer. A recommendation pops up. The picture makes my heart race:
Fatima. Sitting on a park bench, looking off to the side, light-brown skin warm in the sunlight. She’s almost smiling.
I close out the pop-up, minimize the web, spend the rest of the commute trawling the feed for jokes. Trigger an ad that interrupts my music. A breathy voice, bland as pastel, offers a discount on my first visit.
“You have nothing to lose, Devin. Try what some are calling ‘detox for your mind.’ Satisfaction guaranteed.”
I’m early to work so I can eat breakfast alone in the breakroom.
Someone says, “Hold the elevator!”
I press hold.
Nancy fast-walks over the threshold, smiles. Ugh. Every time I see her, I think about that time I joked about smoking pot. I know she remembers. Old people love it when you prove them right and–
Shit. She’s saying something. Can’t she see my earbuds?
“Sorry,” I mutter, press pause, lose my bubble. “Didn’t hear you.”
Nancy laughs, quiet. “Oh, just good morning.”
“Oh, yeah. G’morning.” Not polite enough. I say, “Going to the karaoke thing later?”
“Yesss,” she says, eyes bulging. A snake spotting a nest of eggs. “Are you?”
I would rather down a jigger of pus than hang out with my coworkers. “Can’t. Already have plans.”
I stopped trying to be New Devin after summer, when everyone was showing off their Cancun pics and telling me, “You just have to see Alaska someday,” and, “You don’t know how much you don’t know until you’ve traveled abroad.” So I hide in my cubicle and no one invites me to lunch anymore. That’s good. And that’s bad.
I eat a rushed breakfast at my desk since Nancy is in the breakroom digging through the fridge and tutting about expired food. Brush crumbs off my keyboard, crank up the volume on my earbuds. The music turns to syrup in my brain.
Transferring data from one spreadsheet to another and digging up gold for some blue blood motherfucker isn’t saving the world, but I actually like my job. Minus the meetings.
I find an excuse to work through the first one, but the second one, just before end-of-day, is mandatory. Nancy and a guy whose name I can never remember talk about quarterly goals. I watch myself doodle on a notepad. Monster faces. F inside a heart. And PANIC PANIC PANIC stacked like bricks in the margin. The meeting finally ends with an enthusiastic reminder, “Everyone gets two free drinks at karaoke!”
On my way out, I tear the page from my notebook, ball it up, toss it in the trash, then pretend I need something I wrote on there, pluck it back out, pocket it to throw away at home.
I wanna bail on my plans. They’re my friends so they’ll understand, but since they’re my friends it’s good to spend time with them, right? And Fatima will be there…
That could be good. Or bad.
I leave work without saying goodbye to anyone. Bite my nails on the bus, skim the news for conversation starters, stress about happy hour.
“Hello,” the hostess says. “Dining in?”
“How many in your party?” She takes out one menu.
“Four. No, five.”
She hides her shock, grabs four more menus, leads me to a table.
“Sorry, can we have a booth?” High backs so I can’t feel the eyes.
She smiles and pivots to a booth. She’ll tell the server I’m difficult.
I sit where I can watch the door and say, “THANK YOU.” Too much.
She leaves the pile of menus but I ignore them. Checked yesterday when Ye-jun sent the address.
The server appears. I stare at the table, ask her for water and house vodka on the rocks. When the drinks come, I watch the door harder. Maybe they changed the plan and forgot to tell me?
I grimace through the first half of my vodka. Pull up Connext. Get hit with the ‘clear your mental clutter’ ad again. Am I getting this ‘cause I searched for therapy? Check my messages. He said 5:30. It’s 5:30. I should text him but don’t want to seem desperate.
I know Ye-jun from high school. We weren’t friends or anything, but we had that part-of-the-minority awareness of each other. Me and a few other black kids even let him in on ‘the nod.’ We went to different colleges, but linked through Connext. We both moved here around spring. Random. He invited me to a hangout at his place. I was trying to reinvent myself, so I accepted. All that’s left of New Devin is an updated wardrobe, but Ye-jun keeps inviting me out and I don’t want to fuck it up.
I finish the vodka. Chug the water. Play a puzzle game on my phone ‘til 5:55. Time to text him.
Hi! — No. Hola — NO. Hey. I’m here and — backspace. Hey, I’ve been here since — backspace, don’t be that person. Hey, I’m at the restarant, but I haven’t seen y’all come in. Did I get the time wrong or something?
Reread. Nonchalant enough? Yeah. Hit send. See the typo and my heart does its favorite wiggle-out-of-my-chest dance. It blossoms, blooms, sends tendrils to steal my breath like that guy who grew a tree in his lungs. My worries are oak trees. Or maybe one of those paper trees with the peeling–
I look up. Ye-jun is staring down at me, puzzled.
I can’t find words.
“We’re in the back.” He points unnecessarily.
“Oh.” I scramble to my feet. “I didn’t…” Course I didn’t.
I follow Ye-jun, cross paths with my server. She makes eye contact, but, again, I can’t find words. I gesture at Ye-jun’s back like ‘ain’t this the darndest?’
She nods, says she’ll tell the other server. I should tip extra.
My friends have a six-seater and of course Ava and Max left a seat between them, and of course Fatima is across from them but in the corner and Ye-jun has the seat next to her so ahhhhhhhhhh. I take the seat next to Ye-jun. The note from work is a rock in my pocket.
I’m outside of myself. Maybe I should’ve eaten before the vodka.
I say, “Hi. Hi,” to Max and Ava, who look like a department store ad for his-and-hers knit sweaters. Lean forward to look past Ye-jun. Fatima’s staring into her water like it’s doing something fascinating.
I give her a tiny wave even though she isn’t looking. “Hey, Fatima.”
She glances up, says a quick, quiet, “Hey, Devin,” then goes back to her water. A lock of shiny dark-brown hair falls into her face.
I made a terrible joke the first time I met her. I don’t remember the lead-up, but the punchline was naan-sense. Fatima gave me that almost-smile, but I have a feeling she was offended. It’s been four or five hangouts since then. She doesn’t say much to me.
“You didn’t see us, huh?” asks Max. Lieutenant Obvious. Give the man a medal.
I shake my head. “Yeah, no.”
Ava makes a sound like a laugh got stuck in her throat. “Glad we found you! I told Ye-jun to message you. You’re never late. Didn’t I say that?”
Ye-jun shrugs. “We got off work early. I figured you would spot us.”
“He should’ve messaged you.”
“Ava…” says Max.
I mumble, “S’ okay.” Please drop it.
They do. Thank God. But all four of them work in education, so I’m stuck doing my spectating thing while they talk shop. Every so often Ye-jun tries to steer the conversation to a different topic, but it always circles back around.
I don’t fight it. It’s just nice to be around people. Sometimes. And I notice things.
Max looks at Ye-jun like he’s candy. Or a sunset. Meanwhile, Ava looks at Max the same way he looks at Ye-jun. Max is bi so she’s not totally off-track, but his eye twitches whenever she spatters us with giggles. Ye-jun acts like he doesn’t see any of this. I think he knows he’s the center, doesn’t want to throw the group off balance. And Fatima… well, I can’t look at her without being too obvious, but she’s quiet. Makes me feel less alone.
The food comes. Max blows on a steaming french fry while Ye-jun and Ava talk about video games. Every time they mention one I’m familiar with, my mouth opens, I suck in air, but nothing comes out. By the time my words are right, they’ve switched topics.
Eventually, Max catches my eye. “Have you ever gotten one of those?”
I frown. “Huh?”
“Fatima and I were talking about Connext ads. You know, the ones that are obnoxiously targeted?”
I blurt, “I keep getting ads for memory deletion.” I should stop drinking.
“That’s weird,” Ava says.
Fatima speaks low, but my ears are tuned to her frequency. “I’ve seen those too.”
Ye-jun asks, “What is this?”
“It’s like a brain spa,” says Max. “They attach wires to your head, you think of a bad memory, and they delete it.”
“What?” Ava asks. “That can’t be good for you.”
Max rolls his eyes. “It would be illegal if it was dangerous.”
I want to ask him if he’s heard of cigarettes or alcohol.
“Guys,” Ye-jun says, looking at his phone, “there’s one not too far from here. Does anybody want to check it out?”
Ava gasps. “No.”
Max makes an affirmative sound around a mouthful of fries.
“Y’all have fun with that,” I say. “Gotta fold laundry.” Don’t wanna prove those ads right.
Then Fatima says, “I’d like to go.”
Ye-jun leans forward to show Max something on his phone and suddenly I can see her. A thought escapes before I can finish it.
“So, you’re uh… this is your kinda thing?”
Fatima shrugs. “It might be fun, to go as a group.” Pause. “Are you sure your laundry can’t wait?”
Health In Mind has a punch-you-in-the-face modern storefront. It’s all gleaming silver and white granite and fuzzy chairs that hang from the ceiling like spider sacs.
“You guys sure about this?” Ava asks, eyes skittering over the window displaying posters of grinning, presumably satisfied, customers and the ‘menu’ of options. I wish she’d chill. Her nervousness is making me itchy.
Max puts his arm around her shoulders and I watch her thoughts scatter. “You don’t have to do it, Ava.” He sounds sincere.
“No, I said I would. It’s weird, but I’ll do it.” Then, more mumbly, “I just wish we were getting tattoos like normal drunk people.”
As we all enter the ‘brain spa,’ me and Fatima exchange a glance. Her mouth is a tiny O as she takes in the decor. I ask her, “Ever done this before?”
“No,” she says, “but I’ve thought about it.”
I start to ask what memories she wants to get rid of, but it’s my turn to check in. I sign a waiver that amounts to ‘this procedure is totally safe, but it’s not our fault if you break your brain,’ then show the coupon from the Connext ad and leave a credit card for my tab. Even with the discount, I can only afford to delete three memories. I’ll have to live with the rest.
A woman in gray scrubs, who I’d bet good money is not a medical professional, leads me to a private room with soft, blue overhead lighting. She puts a swim cap on my head — it’s not really a swim cap but it fits like one — and has me lie down in a white, oval pod that’s basically an oversized tanning bed. She tells me I can get out or ring for help at any time, then closes the lid.
It’s surprisingly roomy in the pod. Cushy too. Feels like I’m resting on a stack of pancakes.
The screen built into the dome lid comes to life and a pleasant voice runs through the rules with accompanying animations: Stay relaxed. You’ll be asked twice before anything is deleted. It’s basically impossible to delete anything vital but if you’re worried you might have, call for assistance. Brains are tricky, so we can’t promise results will last forever. If you know what’s fucking good for you, you’ll stay relaxed.
I spend a few minutes fidgeting. Tell myself to relax. Fidget. Shove open the lid. Get out. Pace around the room. How do people relax? Should’ve kept drinking. Why isn’t there a fucking chair? Sit on the floor, cross-legged. I need to clear my mind. Close my eyes. Fatima’s face. “Naan-sense.” Open my eyes. Get back in the pod. Close the lid.
Fatima? High school? No. Smaller. Press ‘Ready.’ Think of Nancy and the Pot Incident. Wouldn’t miss that one.
The pleasant voice says, “Please repeat memory.” The words appear on the screen too.
I think about that day in the breakroom again.
The memory rushes through my mind, unprompted.
“4/20 should be a holiday if you ask me.”
Nancy’s pinched expression. She looks up from her tablet and says, “Hm?”
I take a bite of my sandwich.
I try to think about something else, but it clobbers its way to the front.
“4/20 should be a holiday if you ask me.”
Nancy frowns, looks up from her tablet. “Hm?”
I bite into my sandwich, pretend I didn’t say anything.
How is it–
“4/20 should be–”
“Yes!” I tell the pod. “That’s it! Jesus…”
“Would you like to delete this memory?”
“Yes or No?”
“Are you sure?”
A pause. A quick, almost painful shudder in my skull. The pleasant voice says, “Memory deleted.”
My heart does its dance and my hands search for something to grip, slipping along the sides of the pod with a streaking sound.
“Would you like to delete another memory?”
The pod is too small, the dance is frenetic. This feels like when I wake up and expect the object I was holding in a dream to still be in my hand. I squeeze and grasp and grieve for the empty space.
“Would you like to–”
“–recall the last memory you deleted?”
“Are you sure?”
“There will be no additional cost should you choose to delete this memory again.”
My brain gives a shiver and the memory rushes back. Nancy, the 4/20 joke. I break the surface of my panic and gulp the pod’s filtered air. As if it knows I need a minute, the voice says nothing. The joke plays over and over in my mind. I wish I’d let it go, let it stay gone.
I say, “Hello?”
“Would you like to delete another memory?”
Now that I know what to expect… “Yes.”
I take a deep breath. Press ‘Ready.’ Think of tenth grade.
I see the freshman I have a crush on. Maddy. Smart, funny. Pretty too. There’s a five-minute break between periods so I pop into her classroom. She smiles at me, indulgent.
We chat. I’m awkward, but she laughs at the right moments.
Another freshman comes over, steps between us. I know him as Smug Prick. He cocks his head, gets in my face. “Why are you always coming in here?”
I can’t find a witty response. “Why do you care?”
“Because you’re always in here being weird. You’re not even in our grade. What kind of loser doesn’t have friends their own age?”
It goes unspoken that kids from his and Maddy’s demographics don’t typically socialize with kids from mine.
“I-I do.” Glance at Maddy. She bites her lip.
Smug Prick steps closer. “Yeah? Then go hang out with your ‘friends.’” He air quotes the last word.
I look at Maddy again. Thought we were friends. She finally puts a hand on Smug Prick’s arm. “Come on. Stop it.”
But my eyes are hot and I can’t cry here. I say, “Whatever,” and leave.
“Please repeat memory.”
I run through it again, then tense up, waiting for the computer’s intrusive repetitions.
Instead, there’s an animation of a corkboard. Reminds me of my Connext web when it’s all zoomed out, except the hundreds of links are colorful pins attached by thin yarn. Some of the pins have only one or two threads, others a handful. The green pin labeled ‘Your Memory’ has more threads than I can count.
The pleasant voice says, “Our patented system works by blocking pathways leading to and from the targeted memory. I apologize, but this memory is too interconnected to be safely or effectively deleted. May I email you a list of Deep Memory Removal clinical trials that are currently enrolling subjects in your area?”
“Yes or No?”
The animation fades out. “Would you like to delete another memory?”
A stubby fingernail finds its way to my lips, but I decide to try the Pot Incident again. At least I know that one works.
When the voice says, “Memory deleted,” there’s a hole but I don’t panic. I recall the first time and I have to believe I got rid of something I didn’t need or want. Feels like right after throwing up. I’m shaky, but it’s a relief.
“Would you like to delete another memory?”
Back outside of Health In Mind, the five of us compare notes.
I deleted three memories, Ye-jun and Max two, Ava one. Fatima tops us all with six. That sounds intense, but if I had the money I would probably delete dozens.
For real, I should get serious about finding a therapist. I’ve been scared they’d tell me I was hopeless, but… maybe there’s a chance. I’m feeling calm. At least, calmer than usual, and when I listen for it, the hum of my worries is so low it almost freaks me out.
Max reminds us that, as a test, we all agreed to forget his full name. I’m not surprised when he says the computer wouldn’t let him do it. Identity is everything.
Ava punches his shoulder. “So what is it?”
“No way I’m telling now,” says Max, laughing louder than usual. We’re all louder than usual, even Fatima.
“Come on,” says Ye-jun. “You have to tell us. For science.”
Max groans but he can’t resist Ye-jun, so he tells us. The name doesn’t ring a bell for me, but Ava says, “Oh yeah. That time I stole your wallet.”
And just like that, I can find it again. Not just the name, but the memory and agreeing to forget it.
Ye-jun’s apartment. Ava playing keep-away with Max’s license, shimmying and giggling and shrieking, “Maximillian Keene?” The rest of us laughing our asses off.
I should be disappointed — so many things I’d like to forget forever — plus something about the memory tingles like a sleeping limb, but now the hum is stronger, familiar. Though it’s still quiet enough I can smile at Fatima. She gives a little smile back. I convince myself she means it.
I say, “You live east of the city, right? Does the 32 go your way?”
“Wanna ride together?”
Me and Fatima pick inward-facing seats near the front of the empty bus. We leave a seat between us, and Fatima — who’s not so quiet now — finishes telling me a story about college and an ex of hers.
“I don’t have any exes,” I say. “Only been on a few dates.” Fuck. What made me say that?
“Really? But you’re so…”
I risk meeting her eyes, begging her to keep going.
“Nice. And cute.”
“Uh… so are you.” The hum is SO loud.
She looks down. Mumbles, “Thanks.”
Silence. The bus rolls past three empty stops.
Time presses on me. I don’t want the night to end like this.
“That was weird, right? The memory place?”
Fatima perks up and we try to share our experiences at Health In Mind. We go over our decision-making processes. Follow thoughts that are like smoke. Conclude that maybe — possibly? — we both deleted something from the first time we met at Ye-jun’s. At first we think it’s Max’s name, but no? No. The tingle’s still there. I’m half-scared, half-excited to remember ‘cause what if we deleted the same thing?
“I probably did somethin’ foolish,” I tell her.
“It could’ve been me,” she says, shrugging. “I have a serious case of Foot-In-Mouth disease.”
I bark a laugh, which startles her. “Sorry, it’s just… I get that.”
Fatima smiles. There’s nothing almost about it. “Then let’s forget it.”
We ride in silence for a while. Whenever I look up, I see her reflected against the dark city beyond the window. A few times, I catch her peeking at me. I start to bite my nails but make myself stop. I put my other hand, palm up, a few inches into the space between us.
by Tina Connolly
After I read this through the first time I just wrote down: awwww. Often stories about memory deletion have a dystopian setting, and the story takes a painful twist for people willing to undergo the experience. (I narrated a Leah Cypess story for Escape Pod last year, The Cost of Wonder, that takes an excellent look at the flip side.) But this story had a delightful turn that I did not spot at all, likely because I was expecting that all Devin’s anxieties would be borne out and that they would end up in a bad place.
But the wonderful thing about this story is that thematically it bears out some of the truths about anxiety – that it is often based in very little, and that if you can figure out how to let the worry go, things may in fact work out just fine. Kel Coleman has beautifully captured here the all-too familiar brain weasels of anxiety, constantly chattering in your head, never stopping. Devin here has a variety of worries on their mind – I love the one about trying to figure out the right thing to say before the conversation moves on again – but the main memory of this story is a very familiar anxiety – worrying that you’ve hurt someone you care about.
This futuristic procedure works beautifully to anesthetize this worry (and even carries with it the helpful anxiety-reducer of letting you doublecheck to make extra sure this memory can go.) Coleman gives us some beautiful, pitch-perfect lines in this – for example, the way Devin thinks “This feels like when I wake up and expect the object I was holding in a dream to still be in my hand.” That helped give me an exact sense of what this procedure would feel like. I also liked their description of the ad voice – “A breathy voice, bland as pastel.” And: “my ears are tuned to her frequency” is a perfect way of describing being in the same room as one’s crush. It all works together to create a lovely story where you can get that little extra help to dampen the brain weasels and find a fresh chance at happiness.
In exciting news, Black Future Month is coming up next week! Tune in for all of October for four stories picked by guest editor and host, Brent Lambert of FIYAH Magazine. He’s got some really great stories to share with you, so be looking forward to that.
If you’re eligible to vote for the Hugo awards, don’t forget that nominations close in mid-November! Our esteemed editors Mur and Divya are on there under best editor short form, and Escape Pod itself is there under Best Semiprozine with a fabulous line up that not only includes our sibling Podcastle but also Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fiyah, Strange Horizons, and Uncanny.
And our closing quotation this week is from Tove Jannsson in Tales From Moominvalley, who said: I know everything will turn out badly. I think about that all the time. Even while I’m washing my carpet. Do you understand that? Do you feel the same way?”
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
Kel Coleman is an author, editor, and stay-at-home mom. Their fiction has appeared in FIYAH, Anathema: Spec from the Margins, Apparition Lit, and others, and they are an Assistant Editor for Diabolical Plots. Though Kel is a Marylander at heart, their new home is in the Philadelphia suburbs with their husband, tiny human, and stuffed dragon named Pen.
About the Narrator
Hollis Monroe is an award winning radio producer, opera and jazz singer and Shakespearean. He served as executive producer and also read for Iowa Public Radio’s “The Book Club” for many years and is an active voice actor, emcee and singer.