Seven Conversations in Locked Rooms

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The lawyer looked at his watch for what must’ve been the hundredth time.

“It’s a good thing that they’re taking this long. Means the jury is seriously considering our argument, at least. A quick verdict would’ve likely been bad news.”

Lewis couldn’t tell if Malcolm meant it. Was he merely trying to offer a glimmer of hope or, perhaps, just calming his own nerves? He watched his lawyer pace back and forth in the small holding room.

“I want you to promise me something, Malcolm,” Lewis said after several more agonizing minutes of waiting.

“What’s that?” The lawyer quit pacing and turned to his client.

“Claire’s been telling me how there’s all sorts of hoopla about my case. Talking heads discussing it on the news programs and all that. You and I are practically celebrities right now, fifteen minutes of fame sort of thing. That about right?”

“Well, yes. There’s quite a bit of media attention. The ethical and philosophical implications of this case are rather important.”

“Yeah, whatever. My point is, whether I win or lose, you’re gonna win. You’ll be the famous lawyer everyone saw on TV, and with that comes the big bucks.”

The attorney made no comment, waiting for Lewis to continue.

“So, I figure, you owe me. Whichever way this goes, I want you to promise that you’ll keep tabs on Claire and the girls. Help them out if they get into any sort of trouble.”

The lawyer made all kinds of fancy sounding assurances. It was easy to make promises, Lewis thought, to a man who probably wouldn’t even remember asking if they lost this final appeal.

Guards unlocked the door. “It’s time,” one of them said. They escorted Lewis back into the courtroom.

“Thank you for agreeing to this interview.”

Talking to the lady Lewis used to watch on TV was a bit surreal. She looked older in person, sitting right across the table from him, with cameramen and guards positioned a few steps behind her.

“No problem. It’s not like I have much else to do with my time.”

He agreed to the interview because the network offered to pay twenty large for the exclusive. The money would help Claire catch up on her bills, and there would still be some left over for Linda’s and Betty’s college funds. But he wasn’t supposed to mention getting paid during the interview.

“Time is something you have in abundance,” the journalist said. “The judge sentenced you to fifteen years in prison after it was ruled that you had a right to decline medical treatment. That’s an awfully long time to spend behind bars. Do you now regret opting out of the memory modification?”

“If you’re asking whether I’m happy to rot in here for the next fifteen years, then no, of course I’m not. But it’s loads better than a lobotomy. What you call memory modification is really mind murder.”

“You equate treatment with murder,” she said, “but your own actions resulted in a real, physical murder, to which you pleaded guilty. What do you say to those who might feel that your attitude toward treatment only makes it a more fitting punishment?”

“I didn’t mean to kill that guy. It was a stupid bar fight gone wrong, and I’m sorry it happened. I take full responsibility, but erasing who I am won’t bring him back. It would be a deliberate act, an eye for an eye punishment as final as a lethal injection.”

“There’s overwhelming scientific evidence that selective memory removal is a safe and effective way to treat sociopathic behavior,” countered the reporter. “It’s proven very efficient in people who’ve committed violent crimes with almost no incidents of recidivism. Don’t you want to be cured?”

“I ain’t sick,” said Lewis. “I am guilty of a crime, and I’m being punished for that now. I’d rather spend time in jail than have my personality wiped by one of those Memory Eater abominations. I read up on the ‘cured’ people you’re talking about. Shrinks went in and deleted whatever memories they say shaped the patient’s personality and predisposed him to violence.”

Lewis became animated as he spoke, causing the guards to tense up.

“Whatever the research you quote says, it’s not an exact science. There are side effects. People whose minds are messed with like that, they come out different. Their tastes, desires and temperaments are not what they used to be.”

“Why is that such a bad thing?”

Lewis leaned in, his voice overcome with emotion.

“Because no one knows exactly what kind of changes the memory wipe will cause. Because there’s a chance I wouldn’t love my wife, or my kids, anymore. I’m not willing to risk that for anything.”

“Where’s your mother?”

Linda looked down at the floor, avoiding eye contact. “She’s working tonight. She’s been putting in overtime hours now that I’m old enough to take care of Betty.”

Lewis frowned. Claire used to come by every week, like clockwork, during the visitation hour. Sometimes she brought the girls, sometimes not. After a couple of years she began to miss a few weeks here and there. Nowadays he was lucky to see her once every two months. This was the first time Linda came to visit him on her own.

“I’m glad to see you, Kiddo,” he said. “But fourteen-year-old girls shouldn’t come to a place like this by themselves. It’s not like Claire to send you over unattended. Does she even know that you’re here?”

Linda looked down at the floor again.

Malcolm dropped a thick stack of paperwork on the table.

“Divorce papers,” he said.

“The guy she’s with now—what’s he like?”

“I don’t really know. I ran the background check like you asked, and he’s clean. Other than that…” Malcolm shrugged.

“I don’t blame her,” said Lewis. “Seven years is a very long time.” He leafed through the pages filled with tiny print. “I still want you to keep your promise and look out for her and the girls. Especially the girls with a stranger in the house.”

Lewis picked up the pen and began to sign.

Malcolm walked into the room and shook his head.

“Goddamn it!” Lewis punched the table. “They wouldn’t grant me furlough for Linda’s wedding, and I get that, but for this… How could they say no?”

“They’re holding a grudge,” said the lawyer. “Do you know how much money it’s costing the city to keep you incarcerated? Not to mention the others who chose prison sentences over the Memory Eater, citing your case as precedence? They’re being petty.”

“Did you find out how it happened?”

“Betty overdosed at a sorority party. The cops are still looking into it, interviewing her roommates and such. It looks as though she might’ve been using for some time. The other girls were too scared to call for an ambulance and by the time somebody did, it was already too late. I’m so sorry, Lewis.”

“They say fathers should never live long enough to bury their children. But not being able to attend your own daughter’s funeral has got to be even worse. If only I was there for her, things might’ve turned out differently.”

Malcolm put his hand on Lewis’s shoulder.

“Don’t beat yourself up,” he said. “This kind of tragedy can happen to good people, families, whether both parents are there or not.

Lewis’s eyes were moist as he stared past Malcolm at the bare gray walls.

“I came to say goodbye.”

Linda was a young woman now, twenty-two years of age and carrying herself with an easy assurance and optimism of youth.

“Peter and I have been accepted into the Prometheus program,” she went on to say. “We’re a young, healthy and educated couple, just the sort of people they’re looking for to establish the Mars colony.”

The speech sounded rehearsed, practiced in front of a mirror. His Linda was like that, even as a kid she always had to work up the courage to deliver bad news.

“It’s a one way trip, Dad,” she said slowly, as though he didn’t understand the implications, the finality of her decision. “We won’t be coming back.”

Lewis managed to hold himself together long enough to wish her luck and say proper goodbyes. There was plenty of time to cry after she left.

On the day the colony ship landed safely on Mars, he told the guards that he wanted to see his lawyer.

“My name is Malcolm,” said the stranger. “I’m your attorney.”

“Thank God,” said Lewis. “Finally, someone who can fill me in on what’s happening. These people, they won’t tell me anything!”

“That was one of the conditions of your deal,” said Malcolm. “You asked to undergo a Memory Eater procedure in lieu of serving out the remainder of your sentence. You also asked that certain painful memories be edited out. As per the negotiated terms, you’ll be given a new name and allowed to reintegrate into society with relative anonymity. As far as everyone else knows, you’re still incarcerated.”

“A new life sounds better than prison,” said Lewis. “I don’t even get how an old me could stand being cooped up in here for years. I wonder, though, if there are any friends or relatives, or maybe a girlfriend that I should contact? Any people who might be worried about me?”

“Afraid not,” said Malcolm. “You’re all alone.”

end article

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Alex Shvartsman

About Alex Shvartsman

Alex Shvartsman is a writer and game designer. His adventures so far have included traveling to over 30 countries, playing a card game for a living, and building a successful business. Alex resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and son.