The nanoprocessor points lit up, flashing blue in each corner of the wall of windows in my daughter Miell’s swanky apartment. A bigger than life vid appeared, the date showing on the lower right. I advanced it until I found the memory I wanted: Hayes’ sixth birthday.
What was I expecting?
A joyful birthday party. Messy and loud. Cake. Balloons. This glamorous skyrise full of giddy children. My grandson Hayes excited, happy, grinning from ear-to-ear.
But a very different scene played out—all from his own eyes and ears. No internal emotions recorded, of course. No smells or tastes. Nevertheless, I was in his head, experiencing the world through him.
Hayes, like many children these days, had been implanted just after birth with a ReMemory slot behind his right ear.
Just another example of technology that’s passed me by.
Years ago, I was a professional tech junkie, constantly at some kind of interface—anything other than the real life kind. Before my kids were born, I swore it off and moved to the country.
It felt weird—invasive—to be in his head.
He sat at their gleaming cocobolo dining table that held a mountain of professionally-wrapped presents. The room was quiet. Hayes looked down at the present he’d just unwrapped.
“Mom?” he said, his voice projecting. “Thank you. It’s the game I wanted.”
He sighed and I felt my own echoing breath rise up and fall. The sensation was similar to inhabiting an avatar on an MMORPG, but more intense.
He got down and walked toward the living room.
I heard an animal sound. But there were no pets here.
“Mom?” Hayes came around the corner. My tall, lean Miell knelt on the floor, forehead to the ground, her hands in loose fists clawing at her temples. The high-pitched moans came from her.
My heart sped up.
“Hold on… Hayes,” she said, her voice muffled. “Gimme a sec.”
He just watched her. She seemed to be in pain, but he didn’t run over to help or ask her what was wrong.
As if he’s used to this kind of scene.
After a while he said, “What about v-linking the other kids in for the party? Weren’t we going to do that?”
She didn’t respond.
Hayes looked back at the presents on the table. Then he walked past them into the kitchen and opened the fridge. A cake sat on a lower shelf, beautifully decorated with IncrediBlaster—a heroic game character he loved and often pretended to be. He leaned in, scooped a finger full of icing off the back corner, and put his finger in his mouth.
Some link in my brain caused my salivary glands to respond.
Hayes returned to the dining room and opened another gift, this one a bright red and yellow IncrediBlaster costume. In the background I now heard Miell talking to someone in a desperate voice, but it was too far away to understand the words. Or maybe Hayes didn’t want to hear.
What a lousy party. What a lousy memory.
Miell and I fought when she was a teenager and young adult. She stopped routine contact, which meant that I’d seen Hayes exactly twice before this visit. When she called me three weeks ago, saying that she had to go on an extended business trip and wondered if I might like to stay with my grandson, I jumped at the chance and asked few questions.
Over the weeks though, I’d grown suspicious. Miell v-linked in everyday to check up on us, but she wouldn’t tell me where she was or when she’d be back. Plus, she looked bad. Overly thin, with deep circles under her eyes.
She was mostly full of instructions.
“Make sure he gets exercise.” This meant exercise videos—cartoon characters running him through a little cardio. If it was so important, why wasn’t he allowed to walk on the city streets with me?
“Are you putting on his finger clip every night?” The clip monitored his vital signs even though she said he had no history of illness.
Techno-chicanery promising to keep children safe from harm. As if…
Earlier today, she said, “Don’t forget to change his memory chip. It fills up every three to four weeks depending on how much he sleeps. Put the full one in sequence in the chip reader in his bedside drawer. It makes a back-up.”
This was the first time I’d heard about this.
Maybe because she didn’t expect to be gone so long?
“When are you coming back? Hayes misses you.”
“He obviously loves having you there. I saw that his reading’s improved. That’s your doing. Thanks.”
“Talk to me. I don’t even know where you are. Yes, I was thrilled to be let into your lives. I would’ve done anything you asked—and I have. But… “
She glanced over her shoulder, then turned to face me again. “I’m right here. You can always get in touch. I’m working. You’ve nagged me forever to get to know Hayes. Enjoy it. Don’t forget, regular school will be out soon. The info on the summer school is on your comppad. Gotta go.”
Since Miell wouldn’t tell me anything, I decided to look at Hayes’ recorded memories. I never expected to see her writhing on the floor in agony.
I fell asleep worrying about Miell, but woke up with the idea of throwing a replacement party to make a happy memory for Hayes.
But how? I’d never been to his school, didn’t know the parents or the other kids. None had been to the apartment since I’d been here. They v-linked in for play dates.
“Want to walk with me on the way to the station this morning?” I suggested as he pulled on his sneakers. His big brown eyes stayed neutral, but I had the feeling he liked this idea. “I want to have a conversation which is hard when you’re in front of me in the wheelie. Plus, it’s more grown-up, don’t you think?”
“I know. Six-year-olds can walk, right?”
I’d forgotten that a crowded, noisy city street isn’t the best place for a conversation. Even walking side-by-side we had to shout. “Is your mom sick?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are there times when she can’t work? Stays in bed?”
“Oh. Yes. Well, she does work—” He looked up at me and said proudly, “in the movies! But sometimes she seems kind of, like, sick.”
“She hasn’t told you what’s wrong?”
He didn’t answer. I looked down and he just shook his head.
It hit me. Hayes was so careful with words, with his reactions to things because of ReMemory. His mother could, would, see whatever he did or said. The only private thing he had were his thoughts.
We walked in silence.
When we got to the station, I strapped him in the wheelie.
“Can I walk home this afternoon?” he asked.
Negotiating knots of heedless teenagers and self-absorbed business types, I wheeled him through the throng until we arrived at his private berth on the Peditrain.
I pushed him up the shallow ramp, smiling at the functionary who wore puke green and acted as if she’d never seen us before. She held the scanner in front of Hayes’ eye. It beeped cheerily, one of hundreds of others going off in the terminal. She nodded and we boarded the train.
Hefty metal hooks locked the wheelie into place. I had twenty seconds to kiss Hayes good-bye for the day before a belt with eight inches of bright blue and orange padding lowered around him and the whole wheelie. I gave him a quick hug and we touched noses. I exited and the door closed behind me. The windows were one-way. I could no longer see my boy, but I always waved at him anyway.
“I can’t stay indefinitely,” I said to Miell when she showed up on the vid later that day.
“You wanted to get to know your grandson.”
“True, but I know something’s seriously wrong. I watched Hayes’ memory of his last birthday.”
She drew back in a long slow motion that reminded me of a snake considering whether or not to strike. Her shaky hand floated up and grabbed onto the back of her skull, her fingertips digging in.
“You’re sick, or addicted, or both.”
“I’ve seen you on the floor. Moaning. What’s the drug?”
“I’ll hire a nanny so you can go home. Don’t know why I let you into my life again. Big mistake.”
“Let me help.”
Her hand now lay on the desk in a tight fist. She wore heavy make-up, but it didn’t cover up anything.
“I… I am not addicted to any drug. I just can’t come home right now. We’re… trying to cobble a complicated, time-sensitive deal on a film. Sorry this didn’t work out. I’ll find a nanny for Hayes.”
I fussed with Hayes’ bed covers as he snuggled on one side, settling in for the night. As soon as I’d tucked in his arm, it wiggled out again. He turned his head to look at me, splayed his fingers and said, “Gama, you forgot the monitor.”
I sighed. “So I did.” I fished the bright red finger clip out of a dish on his bedside table and sat down on the bed. Pinching the plastic device to open its tiny padded jaws, I slipped it over his middle finger and let go. He had reassured me that he didn’t even feel it.
“Nice that it’s red,” I said.
“Red’s my favorite color.”
“It is?” I feigned shock and surprise.
He grinned, only then remembering that he’d told me this dozens of times. “Yeah, like IncrediBlaster’s cape. Don’t forget to turn the monitor on.” He rolled over again, pulling both hands together and under his head in the classic child-sleeping pose. I tucked thick strands of light brown hair behind his ear.
“Tell me again why you need monitoring.”
“I dunno,” he said, his voice muffled. Then, remembering that it was his duty to educate his clueless grandmother, he added, “So you’ll get an alert if something happens to me in the middle of the night.”
Parroted words. What if it isn’t about Hayes, but Miell?
What if he had to wear a monitor because she was often so indisposed that she wouldn’t hear a normal kid’s cry in the night?
While Hayes was at school, I zipped through hundreds of his memories. Most of the chip held ordinary, mundane scenes.
A series of women looked after Hayes. I took Miell’s threat to replace me with a nanny even more seriously after seeing them all. But I also took heart that she had called me this time. First time in six years. There had to be a reason.
The vids showed that Hayes had friends at school. He was a bit of a hanger-on, never the center of attention, but I saw no evidence of bullying or being actively disliked.
At home, he often went into his mother’s empty room, lay on her bed and put on her head phones. Then, the vid would pause, indicating that he’d gone to sleep.
I also witnessed him and his mother together in the bed. Once they watched a funny movie while eating popcorn. I giggled out loud at a wrestling/tickle fight they had another night. It wasn’t all bad.
But for weeks at a time Hayes saw Miell only on the vid or in person briefly at night after he was asleep. His eyes would open a slit and she’d appear blurry, a wreck. And worse, there were dozens of memories Hayes had of his mother seemingly passed out, or rolling on the floor clawing at her scalp, or pleading with someone to get her a fix.
I am not addicted to any drug, she’d said, like a politician denying a specific thing truthfully while lying by omitting the larger truth. So, if not a drug… what?
I ran the vid back to one of those pleading scenes. Hayes sat on the couch playing a game. Miell told him to mute it while she argued with some man. I backed it up a little more.
Maybe I could…
I minimized the vid controls on the comppad and searched the menu for editing software. This was one of my obsessions back in the day. The one I found had way more bells and whistles on it than I ever had, but I knew enough to know what to ignore.
I soon had the scene downloaded to the pad. I copied the section I wanted to work with and brought up the snippet in the editing software. Isolating the audio, I ran it back several times.
“D… dal… Bi..l be… s[unintelligible]… You got… [unintelligible]… can’t ren… [unintelligible]… No… —ts!”
This section finished with a barrage of enraged words from Miell that were also unintelligible, but the meaning was clear.
It wasn’t much to go on.
I worked with it: dulling the ambient noise, pulling up the dominant frequency of Miell’s voice, tweaking the bass and treble so the vowels would come in more clearly, running it over and over. Sometimes the results were worse. Finally some of the words came in more clearly.
“… deal’s a deal. Bi-n[-something]-l beats. You got me hooked… [unintelligible]can’t renege. Didn’t know… [unintelligible]… No… [unintelligible]… fucking implants!” And then the cursing.
Bi-n[something]-l… beats. It tugged at my memory.
What else could she be addicted to if not a drug?
I used to be addicted to digital technology; that’s why I was so wary of it to this day.
Binaural beats. Of course.
Audio recordings geared specifically for human ears, the human brain. One sound thread for each ear, running into and mixing in the brain. They’d been around forever and—like snake oil—people would periodically claim that they were digital drugs, safe for relaxation, stimulation and highs. Just like pharmaceuticals without criminality or side effects. I never knew them to gain any credibility and I hadn’t heard or thought of them in years.
I did an Internet search and was, once again, blown away by what I had missed. Binaurals were big business. Huge.
I walked into Miell’s bedroom. There in the bedside table were the headphones I’d seen Hayes listening to when she wasn’t at home. They were hardwired into a dedicated audio device. Odd, I thought, I never saw her wearing them in any of Hayes’ memories. But then, I couldn’t watch every minute of his life.
I put them on and turned up the volume.
“Hayes, are you asleep?”
“Mom told me to check your chip yesterday. I almost forgot again.”
He rolled over and looked at me sleepily.
Sure enough, it blinked red. I popped the chip out, put it on the table and turned back to him. I stroked his soft cheek, passively bemoaning the day in the future when coarse whiskers would sprout from them.
“I want you to come to my house for a visit.”
“Uh-huh. We’ll wait till school’s out and go then.”
“Does Mom know?”
“Um, no. I just thought of it. Don’t mention it yet. Let me work out the details first, okay?”
“Sure. How will we get there? How far is it?”
“Let’s talk tomorrow. Another week of school?”
“Okay, I’ll need to tell the school camp that you won’t be there at first. Do you mind missing it?”
He shrugged and shook his head.
“We’ll have an adventure.”
He didn’t react much. This was a boy who waited to see. “You have cousins.”
I nodded. “Some older, some younger.”
“I’ll meet them?”
I nodded again thinking of the birthday party I was going to give him. “Remember I told you about my animals.”
“Oh yeah.” He thought for a minute. “A dog?”
“Yep. A big, old, stinky golden retriever. And cats. And ducks.”
“I can see them all?”
“Of course. Guess what my dog’s name is.”
“I don’t know.”
He gasped. “Red’s my fav—”
We broke into a fit of giggles. When it faded, he said, “Mom will think this is okay?”
“I’m hoping she’ll come too.”
This was obviously too far-fetched for him to believe, but he grinned when he said, “Not really.”
“Maybe not. But I’ll try to convince her.”
I patted him again and got up to leave.
“Gama, you forgot to put in the new chip.”
The next day, I set to work researching the coding behind ReMemory. Once a techie, always a techie. I went searching for forums I hadn’t been near in years. There they were with the same clunky, old-fashioned formats and an astounding number of the same names; old Internet friends who were more than happy to help me hack into the program.
I ran a bunch of old memory chips through the vid, copying and pasting clips onto the comppad, constructing the most boring, generic memories I could find from Hayes’ life until I had almost enough for a full chip. I slipped an empty chip into the vid, dated it next in sequence before the one Hayes was currently wearing and filled it with the fabricated comppad memories.
By the time his school was out for a few weeks of summer, we were packed and ready to go. Hayes had asked no more questions about how much his mother knew or whether she was coming, but I owed him the truth.
“I haven’t told your mom that we’re going, Hayes,” I said that morning.
“You said you would.”
“I know, but that could backfire.”
“What do you mean?”
“She might fly home, hire another nanny, make me leave without you and life would go on as it was before I got here. I don’t want to take that risk. I hope you don’t either.”
He sat at the kitchen bar eating his cereal. He took several more bites before answering. I sweated out the long pause. “I want to go with you. But, are you kidnapping me?”
“Good question. Kind of. I guess. But your mom cares about both of us. I believe she finally let me into your lives because she knows she needs help and didn’t know how to get it any other way. I hope she’ll join us there, but she might just come and bring you right back here. I can’t stop her if that’s what she wants.”
He nodded, still chewing. “Okay. I want her to be like she was before she got the mic-implants.”
I stopped cleaning up the counter and turned to him. “The what?”
He looked guilty.
I walked over to him, pressed on his implant and took out his memory chip, putting it down on the counter. “It’s okay. I need to know.”
“She got implants. They’re like microphones in your ears so you don’t have to wear headphones.”
I breathed. “And since she got them… ?”
He shrugged. “She’s been really weird.”
It took me a while, but I finally said, “I want her to be like she used to be too, buddy. So, we have to do one more thing to make this work. We’re going to record a fake memory on one of your chips. It’s called ‘acting.'”
We caught a shuttle flight, a high-speed train, and were met in the nearest little town, Macklins Corner, by my son—Miell’s older brother—the one who’d been taking care of my life here. He drove us to the house. Hayes, always quiet, withdrew even more the farther we got from the city.
I kept talking to him. “We’re going to see Red soon.” “Tomorrow you’ll meet your aunt and some of your cousins.” “Are you homesick?” But it wasn’t until I said, “We aren’t really farther from your mother here than we were at home, Hayes.”
He looked at me. “Do you have a vid?”
“No. Not like yours. But we have a computer and Internet. You’ll be able to see and talk to her, she’ll just be smaller. But remember when I said we needed a little time first?”
He nodded, but he looked scared.
I patted his leg. “When Mom can’t v-link to us, she’ll be worried, but eventually, she’ll think to look at the back-up of the last chip in your series and see the scene we acted out, right?”
“Yeah. Then she’ll think that we’ve gone to the national park for a camping trip and that’s why she can’t v-link with me for a while.”
“Right. She’ll be mad, but with me, not you.”
I smiled at him. “She’ll try to contact me here, or if not, I’ll call her. Look!” I pointed out the front window.
Down the gravel drive, Red, his wavy, amber coat looking unnaturally clean and well-groomed, came running up to meet us.
It took longer than I expected for Miell to figure out what I’d done. I made myself unavailable online most of the time, but I had my call-in software set to record missed calls. We’d been there almost two weeks before she made her first attempt.
By that time, Hayes had met all of his extended family, knew how to take care of the chickens and ducks, had recovered from his first ever case of poison ivy and was beginning to tan.
I was ready. I set my status to “available” one morning and waited for the alert. When it came, Hayes was out swimming with his cousins.
“Hi, Miell. As you see, I took matters into my own hands. I think that’s what you wanted… even if you’ll deny it.”
“You are at home? He’s with you?”
“Yes. He’s well.”
“Mother… Jesus, you faked the memory chip! Why? Why’d you go to so… to such lengths?”
Today she wasn’t wearing any make-up. I could more easily see the girl I raised even through her dulled eyes. My heart went out to her.
“His life was lousy.”
“He’s in need of… many things. But, we can agree that the most important thing he needs is his mother.”
She looked over her shoulder. “You don’t understand.”
“I do. I know about the binaural beats and the implants.”
She teared up. “You don’t know that I’m… trapped. I’m literally trapped.”
“My brain.” She spat the words in a harsh whisper.
“I got the implants removed. That’s why I went away. My plan was to get them removed, come home, thank you, and have my life back. You wouldn’t have to be confronted with what a fuck-up I am.”
“So you got hooked on this stuff before the implants?”
“Oh god, yeah. For years. It changes your brain. I couldn’t sleep without The Beats. Then I couldn’t wake up without it. And the company knows exactly what they’re doing! They know. They hook you till you need more and then sell and insert the implants and, under the influence of it all, it seems like a good thing. You program it to put you to sleep or give you a high or stimulate you and no one’s the wiser because it doesn’t show. It’s piped into your brain 24/7!”
“I knew right away the implants were a mistake. I wanted the company to take them out, but they had me where they wanted me. They refused to download The Beats when I said I wanted the implants removed.”
“So how’d you… What did you do?”
“I had to go to a private doctor. They’re out now. But my brain is ruined.”
“No, no baby. It’ll get better.”
“I’m glad you took Hayes.”
I gulped hard. “Come here.”
She shook her head.
“You are one of the strongest people I have ever known. We’ll help you.”
“But… I’m no good to him. Kinda, you know, crazy right now.” She paused for a long time and then jumped at some noise. “Thanks, Mom. I’ll be in touch.”
Strains of an off-key “Happy Birthday” had just finished. Hayes, standing by the dining room table surrounded by seven cousins, two new friends, and even more adults, was about to blow out his candles.
Twisted crêpe paper in multiple colors hung crisscrossed over the ceiling and windows. Paper streamers curled from the light fixture along with dozens of balloons. A piñata awaited us outside on the maple tree. Everyone had gone all out to throw this sweet, sad boy, the best party ever.
I made the cake, so it was a tottering affair, but Hayes’ artistic cousin saved the day by drawing a fine facsimile of IncrediBlaster’s upper body with red cape streaming over its lumpy surface.
Just before he blew out the candles, my calico cat jumped on the table and stuck a paw right into IncrediBlaster’s nose. Everyone reacted: screaming, yelling, waving, shooing, shouting, laughing, and then someone noticed the cat’s tail was on fire.
The flames were quickly extinguished, the cat was unharmed, and the chocolate cake was delicious.
Loud. Messy. Colorful. Giddy. Playful. Boisterous. Joyful. Unforgettable. A real birthday party.
Everyone moved outside and the kids were well into their mission to destroy the piñata when my attention was drawn by Red barking and running to the front of the house. I followed him.
A taxi sat in the drive. The back door opened and Miell stepped out into the bright sunshine. She held onto the open car door as if she might crawl back in and take off again.
“Mom,” she croaked.
I rushed over, found her wallet, paid the driver, put my arm around her waist and said, “I’ve never been so happy to see anyone in my life.” She crept along like a woman much older than me but she managed to squeeze my shoulder with her shaking hand.
“I’m taking you upstairs. We’re having a party for Hayes and there are too many people here for you to face right now.”
“A party? For Hayes?”
“I’ll explain later. What do we have to do to help get your brain healthy again?”
“Oh god, Mom, if I knew that, I’d… ” We were half-way up the stairs. She turned and looked at me, the pain in her eyes palpable. “I need to be reminded of why… “
“Why you’re putting yourself through this?”
“Yeah. Like a hundred times a day. I’ll forget.”
I tucked both kids into bed that night.
Miell first. My son gave her a mild sedative from his medicine cabinet. She looked calm for now, lying in her old bed. “I’ve always been trouble.”
“You’re worth it.”
“One doctor suggested electroshock.”
“No. They still do that?”
Her shoulders rose and fell against the pillow. “Guess so. I decided coming here to the boonies might be a little more pleasant than that alternative. And being this far out in the country might serve as enough of a shock to my brain. It’s worth a shot.”
I smiled at her. She was broken, but not destroyed. “That part of you that’s ‘trouble?’ It’s your best part as well as your worst. Put that fierceness to work for you.”
“Easy, right?” she said, gripping the bed sheets. I stroked her hands and she relaxed them, closing her eyes.
I stayed with her until she drifted off.
Do I have the energy for this? The stamina, the reserves to deal with a six-year-old and an addicted daughter who’s always been trouble? I didn’t know. The only thing I was sure of is that this was going in the right direction.
I watched her sleep for a few minutes and then went to Hayes. He was in bed wearing his IncrediBlaster costume.
“You going to sleep in that?”
He nodded, dark eyes defying me to tell him ‘no.’ I sat on the bed. “What’d you think of your party?”
Our boy of few words struggled to find the right ones. Finally he said, “The best.” He squeezed me around the middle. “Ever.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
Putting him to bed reminded me of our time in the city. “I guess I should check to see if your chip’s full.” I sighed. As I reached behind his ear, he pulled away. “What’s wrong?” I pressed on his implant, but didn’t feel the pop of the chip sliding out. “Turn around.”
The implant was empty.
I was confused. I left the chip out? No. The day we left the city, I put the real one back in after we recorded the camping scene on the phony chip.
“I took it out.”
“Hayes. When? Before your party?”
“But… I wanted to make you a happy memory and now… Why did you do that?”
He stuck his jaw out. “I knew it was going to be special. So, I wanted to keep it… private. Just for me. Is that okay?”
My breath caught in my throat. All I could do was nod.
“Don’t worry, Gama, I won’t ever forget it.”
He lay back, snuggling under the quilt.
My body plopped down on the bed. I reached out over him, feeling soft patchwork and his warm body, my mind holding on hard to this moment.
© 2015 by Nancy S.M. Waldman
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