Edition 5: The Memory Eater by Holly Day
John sat on the floor, wishing desperately he hadn’t stubbed his last cigarette out. If he was outside, he could smoke; but he wasn’t outside, and the idea of getting up and walking all the way to the front door just to go outside and smoke seemed ridiculously tedious. If he was going to go that far, he might as well just go home. Which didn’t seem like such a bad idea, really.
He climbed to his feet, steadying himself against the wall. His hand was completely encircled by one large yellowed water stain, a blemish that started in the top right-hand corner of the room and widened and narrowed, almost artistically, all the way down to the floor. He stared at the stain for way too long, thinking about how much fun it would be to trace the shape of the stain with a black magic marker, fill in the shape with doodles and squiggles, turn it into a real piece of artwork. He forced himself to take the two small staggering steps that would take him out of the room and into the hallway leading to the living room, the hallway full of family photos framed in cheap flowery metal frames, all the pictures of Keith and Sarah’s family, including the ones of the two children they lost. The little girl, aged five, and the little boy, aged nine, both dead.
This hallway never seemed right to him. There was too much before photographed and cataloged in this walk, and it bothered him. This hallway belonged to a nice house, of a happy family, and of him as a welcome guest, wearing clean clothes and bearing gifts like nice bottles of wine and takeout food and even flowers, like some smarmy character from a feel-good television show. The walk through the short hallway always felt to him like drowning, and it was only with the greatest exertion that he pulled himself along the wall through the congested hallway and into the living room.
Keith was sitting on the couch with a little boy. The room was full of hungover people ruffling the little boy’s short hair again and again, with the boy smiling patiently through it all as if happy to be in the center of attention. “That’s my boy!” said Keith, again and again, his arm around the boy’s shoulders. He also ruffled the little boy’s haircut. Sarah, in the kitchen making Irish coffees for everyone, smiled every time Keith said “That’s my boy,” patting her stomach as though to reassure the baby inside that he or she would also receive similar accolades once born.
“This kid, he’s so smart,” said Keith. “He’s just great. Tell everybody something smart, little boy.”
“Did you know that there might be planet-sized moons inside of Saturn’s rings that could be terra-formed for human habitation?” piped the little boy, smiling around the room. “It’s true. I read it in National Geographic. We don’t even know how many moons Saturn has, because we can’t look inside the rings properly. It has hundreds of moons.”
I know the names of at least a dozen of Saturn’s moons, John thought suddenly. Why can’t I remember the names of Saturn’s moons? He opened his mouth, determined to list at least one of the moons, but nothing came out. It seemed really important to him to remember just one of the moons.
“Wow.” Keith looked at the little boy with renewed adoration. “That is so cool. This one, he’s like a rocket scientist, he is.”
Like I was, thought John. That wasn’t right. He wasn’t a rocket scientist, but he was something, something different than this. He had that feeling like he had when he was in the hallway, like he was drowning. He opened his mouth to speak, only to find a beer bottle heading toward it, propelled by his hand.
“That boy, this, it’s not right,” he muttered just barely under his breath, swallowing half the bottle in one draught.
He looked up to see the little boy staring across the room at him with a look like drowning on his face. Bobby. The boy’s name was Bobby.
“You’re all wrong, Bobby,” he said to the boy, loud enough for everyone to stop talking at look at him.
“Little boy, I need you in the kitchen for a second,” called Sarah from the kitchen, glaring at John through the doorway. “A minute, maybe. I don’t know.” She wrinkled her forehead as if concentrating on something really important. “Right now.”
“Aw, I never get to spend any time with my boy,” protested Keith, but let Bobby get up anyway. The little boy held onto his sweet smile all the way out of the room, held onto it in such a way that John could tell he was trying not to cry.
“Aw, shit,” John said, and got up himself.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said to Keith.
“Well, you’d better go and apologize, asshole,” said Keith. “You can’t talk to kids that way. Especially my kids.”
“All right, all right. I’m going.”
John quickly walked through the hallway to the kitchen. Sarah was standing at the stove, holding a knife in her hand, a blank expression on her face. Bobby was standing next to her, two pieces of bread laid out on the counter in front of him, as well as an open jar of peanut butter and an open jar of jelly.
“I think I can handle this part, Sarah,” said Bobby, reaching up and taking the knife from her.
“No!” Sarah shouted, suddenly coming to life. She pulled the knife back from the little boy.
“See this knife, little boy?” she said, pointing. “It’s too sharp for peanut butter and jelly. You can’t use this kind of knife for making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You need a knife that’s less sharp, so you don’t cut yourself.”
She put the sharp filet knife down on the counter in front of Bobby and stared off into the corner for several quiet seconds. Bobby looked up at her expectantly, then sighed. He picked up the filet knife.
“No!” shouted Sarah again, grabbing the knife. The blade slipped across her palm, cutting a thin red line through the pale yellow skin. She dropped the knife on the floor and sucked at the blood welling out of the wound.
“It’s okay,” said John to the boy. He reached down and carefully picked up the knife. He grabbed a paper towel and wadded it around the blade, then put the knife and the towel in the trash can, pushing it deep beneath a mound of coffee grinds and filters so that no one would accidentally cut themselves if they reached into the bag themselves. He opened first one drawer, then another, until he finally found a butter knife.
“You won’t be able to hurt yourself on this one,” he said, handing it to Bobby. Sarah looked at him with gratitude in her eyes. Bobby began scooping globs of peanut butter and jelly on the pieces of bread.
“I have to teach him,” said Sarah, grabbing John’s arm. Her voice sounded like she was forcing herself to speak very clearly and evenly, as though that was some sort of extreme effort. “I remember why my own—my other–children died. I didn’t feed them, John. I forgot to feed them, and dress them, and put them to bed, and they got sick and died.”
“What’s wrong with me?” she hissed through her clenched teeth. “How could I forget to feed my kids? They were eating crap out of the trash can, and I just—I just—I drank. I smoked, I drank, and I think I even went out for a burger. And all that time, they were sick, and then they were dead. I can’t…”
“…let it happen to Bobby,” nodded John. He ruffled the little boy’s crew cut, and seemed to remember doing the same thing to some other little boy, some boy who was his. “We won’t let it happen to Bobby. See how good he is at making his own sandwich? He barely even needs you here, right, big guy?”
“It’s a pretty good sandwich, Sarah,” nodded Bobby. “I can make you one, too, if you’d like.”
“No.” Sarah shook her head. “I want to you wash off the knife when you’re done, then put it somewhere where you can find it again, okay? Put the peanut butter and jelly in your backpack, with the bread, so that any time you feel hungry, you can just make yourself a sandwich. This is important, Bobby,” she said, kneeling down so that she could look her son straight in the eye. “Don’t let the backpack out of your sight. When you run out of bread, get more out of the kitchen and put t in your bag. Or crackers. Or you can just eat right out of the jar. Any time you get hungry, promise me you’ll just eat, okay? You won’t wait for me to make you something?”
“Okay,” said Bobby. He looked like he was about to cry again.
“And, and, you’ll start calling me ‘Mom’ again, right?” said Sarah. “What kind of kid calls his mother ‘Sarah’?”
She stared hard at Bobby again, and a confused look clouded her face. After a couple of seconds, she reached over and set the open peanut butter jar on the stovetop. She turned the burner on and began humming.
“Whoa.” John reached over and turned the burner off. He grabbed the jar of peanut butter and twisted the lid back on.
“Put this stuff in your backpack. Now,” he ordered Bobby.
“When are we going home, Dad?” asked Bobby quietly.
Sarah stopped humming for half a second, and Bobby backed away to stand behind John. “I want to go home. I just want to go home. You have to fix this, Dad,” the little boy continued, looking up at John with a desperate look in his eyes.
Bobby choked back a sob and wiped his eyes furiously with the back of his hand. John felt the beginning of a scream build in his chest. How long had he been here?
“You have to show me the way out of here,” he said, finally. He grabbed the little boy’s hand and pushed him towards the door. “You have to get me out of here, before I forget you again.”
“And then everything’ll be okay?” whispered Bobby. “You’ll fix the Memory Eater?”
“What’s that?” snorted John. “Some kind of video game?”
“No!” hissed Bobby fearfully. “It’s that thing that’s broken! You’ll see when we get home!”
He pulled John after him, out of the kitchen and into the living room, through the room full of people and past the sofa where Keith lay sprawled out, smoking a cigarette and laughing at the television.
“What the fuck?” said Keith, watching John and Bobby. “Where’re you taking my kid?”
“We’ll be right back!” called Bobby, squeezing John’s hand tightly. “We’re going to the store to buy more cigarettes!”
“That’s a great idea,” said Keith, nodding and smiling. “That’s a fucking awesome idea.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wad of bills. “Buy me this many cigarettes, okay?” he added, passing it over to Bobby. John tried to pull his hand free from the little boy so he could sit on the couch next to Keith, but Bobby held on tightly.
“Hey, little dude,” he started, smiling, trying to pull free.
“I can’t buy cigarettes by myself,” said Bobby loudly, looking over at Keith. “I’m too young.” He pulled again, and John nodded, following him out the door.
The light outside was so bright that John just stood there, blinking, for several seconds. How long had he been inside? It felt like weeks, or even longer, since he couldn’t remember for the life of him when he’d actually arrived here, or where he’d even come here from. The party that had been going on inside seemed to have followed him outside, though, which was somewhat comforting.
A yellow school bus squealed by him and Bobby, nearly tipping onto its side as it turned the corner. “We’re number one!” shouted the bus driver, half his body hanging out the window as he drove by, both arms waving wildly. “Number one!”
“All right!” John shouted back, holding up his index finger and hooting back. “Number one! All right!”
“Do you think Mom’s all right?” asked Bobby quietly. The little boy sat on the stoop of Keith and Sarah’s house, his arms wrapped around the blue backpack on his lap. “I tried counting the days we were here, but the sun didn’t come up for a real long time, and now it won’t go down.”
“Yeah. It’s real bright out,” said John, whistling. He jammed his hands into his pockets. Something felt wrong, something was missing here. “You still brushing your teeth?” he asked.
“I don’t think it’s the sun at all,” the boy continued, his voice so quiet it was practically a whisper. “It’s too bright, and it’s on all the time. And it’s so noisy out! Do you hear it? It’s like a car revving its engines, but it just keeps going on. Do you think your machine can do all that? Make it daylight all the time and be so noisy?”
“Oh, that’s just traffic. It’s a busy street,” said John, ruffling the boy’s crew cut. “See? There’s a car right now.”
A Volkswagen bug careened down the street, fire shooting out of its tailpipe, the driver slumped over the steering wheel.
“Now that’s a noisy car,” he added, nodding sagely at the boy. “Was that what you heard?”
“No. Can’t you hear it?” Bobby put his hands over his ears and clapped them tightly.
“I can still hear it,” he said after a few seconds. “It’s like it’s in my head!”
“Could be,” said John. “You know what, little dude? I just realized I left my wallet in the house, and I should really go back in and get it before I forget. It’ll just take me a second, okay?” He turned to go back into the house.
“You can’t go back in there!” said Bobby, leaping up and grabbing his hand. “Dad, if you go in there, you’ll forget me again. I’ll be alone out here!”
The little boy fell against John, wrapping around his leg, digging his fingernails into his pants. “I’ll be all alone,” he sobbed, shaking uncontrollably. “We have to go home so you can fix the Memory Eater!”
“What’s that?” snorted John. “Some kind of video game?”
And then it suddenly felt like a thick, sticky web was pulling away from John’s brain. It was all coming back to him—his son, his wife, his home. It was all just down the street from here, less than two blocks away. “Bobby, I’ll just be a second,” he said, trying to sound as reassuring as possible. “I’ll just go in, grab my wallet, and come back. It’ll take a second. Two seconds. It’s okay, buddy.” he said, pulling his son’s arms off his leg. “I won’t forget you, okay? I promise. I’ll just be a second, and then we’ll go home, and I’ll fix everything. I promise.”
Bobby looked up at the change in his father’s voice, a glint of hope in his eyes. “Okay,” he said at last, backing up and taking his seat on the stoop once more. “But you’d better come back,” he added. “I’m just going to sit here and wait for you to come back, and if you don’t come back, I’ll be out here all alone.”
John opened the door of the house and stepped back inside. His wallet was right where he had left it the night before, on the corner of the coffee table full of beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays.
“Dude!” said Keith, laughing. “I can’t believe that nobody lifted your wallet. Did you leave it there all night?”
“Yeah,” said John. “Pretty stupid, huh?”
“You’re pretty lucky, is what it is.” Keith sat up and made room for John on the couch. “You want a beer?”
“Oh, sure, man,” John said, plopping down on the couch. He reached into the paper bag on the table and pulled out first one empty beer bottle, then another. “Are there any full bottles in here?” he asked, pulling out a third empty.
“Sarah! Get John a beer, will ya?” Keith yelled, taking the bag from John and throwing it into the corner of the room with a loud crashing sound. A dark stain spread over the brown paper bag and began leaking. “Oh, shit!” said Keith, laughing. “I guess there was a full beer in there. Oh, well. They’re better when they’re cold, right?”
“Sure,” agreed John. Sarah came in from the kitchen and handed John a cold beer. He took a swig from it and grunted approval. “Yeah, this is good.”
“Don’t go in the back room, by the way,” said Sarah. “Everyone else is back there, fucking, or dying, whatever. Something noisy. I mean, you can go back there if you want,” she added mischievously, “but I wouldn’t want you to wander back there thinking you were going to take a nap or get in some meditation time.”
“Wow. I might have to go back there just to take a look,” said John. “How did that happen??
“I dunno. The TV went off for a moment, and I went to the bathroom, and when I got back, everybody was gone,” said Keith.
“I was in the kitchen, trying to make Keith a sandwich, but I couldn’t find the peanut butter,” said Sarah. “I just know people are in there because they’re making noises.”
“You can hear them really good when you press your ear against the door,” she added, gesturing.
“I think I’ll take your word for it,” said John. “So the TV went out?” he asked Keith.
“Yeah! It was the weirdest thing!” Keith reached over and grabbed the remote control. He flipped around the channels for a while, then leaned back against the sofa. “We were watching the news, when all of a sudden, it was like the cameraman just dropped the camera and it broke or something. There was just static for like, ten minutes.”
“Looks like it’s working now,” said John.
The screen showed what looked like a grocery store parking lot, except the big plate glass storefront of the grocery store was shattered and the parking lot was full of half-clothed people riding around in shopping carts. The picture was sideways, as though the camera was lying down on the ground.
“Looks like some kind of movie,” said Sarah. She sat down on the couch next to Keith and lit herself a cigarette. “What movie is this?”
John stared at the flickering television screen. Over the sound of the people yelling and laughing hysterically, he could hear a low, noisy, metallic roar, like a car engine revving up over and over. Huge shadows passed over the parking lot scene, but the camera angle made it impossible to see what the shadows were coming from. Part of something really big appeared briefly in the background, and John thought he recognized a word on the side of the really big object, a company logo, graffiti. Damn kids. Something about kids.
“I think I’ve gotta go,” he said, suddenly, standing up. He opened his wallet and looked inside. There was something in here that was really important. There was something he was supposed to do. He flipped through the credit cards and saw a picture of a woman, my wife, and a little boy, Bobby.
“Aw, so soon?” said Keith. “Oh, hey, you think you could go in back and get Paul to come out here and hang out with us? That Paul, he’s so funny! Were you here earlier when he was telling that story?”
“I’ve gotta go,” said John. He ran at the door, ran because he wasn’t sure how long he could remember the face of the little boy that he had left on the other side, sitting on the stoop. That sad little face that believed him when he said he was coming back. That sad little face that believed him when he said he was going to fix everything.
“Bobby?” he said, pulling open the door. The stoop was empty. The little boy wasn’t there. John ran down the sidewalk, looking around wildly for his son. “Bobby?” he shouted, once more.
All around him, in the street, in the sidewalks, people were lying down on the ground, as if they were asleep, except their eyes were open, staring at the sky. Some of them looked as though they had been run over by a car, with big, comical drag lines bisecting their bodies, while others were in perfect condition.
Overhead, something huge and noisy was making another pass of the neighborhood. John looked up at the huge gray object, the gigantic flat metal disc that was blocking out the sun. He thought he recognized a word on the underside of the big thing, that really thing blocking out the sun, a company logo, graffiti. Damn kids. Something about kids. He couldn’t remember. But it was really huge! He giggled. What in the world could be that big? And noisy! He put his hands over his ears, trying to block out the wave of noise that seemed to be rushing at him from all directions. His hands were just not big enough.
Holly Day is a housewife and mother of two living in Minneapolis, Minnesota who teaches needlepoint classes in the Minneapolis school district. Her poetry and fiction has recently appeared in Hawai’i Pacific Review, The Oxford American, and Slipstream, and she is a recent recipient of the Sam Ragan Poetry Prize from Barton College. Her book publications include Music Composition for Dummies, Guitar-All-in-One for Dummies, and Music Theory for Dummies, which has recently been translated into French, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese.