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art by Tim Stewart

Memory Bugs

Alter S. Reiss is a field archaeologist and scientific editor who lives in Jerusalem, Israel with his wife Naomi, and their son Uriel. He likes good books, bad movies, and unusual foods.
"So, this is your place," said Susan, looking around.
I smiled, looked at her, and hoped that I hadn't left anything inappropriate anywhere visible. "Pretty much," I said. "It's kinda small, but with the rent---"
"No, it's great," she said, taking off her coat. The dress underneath it made my heart stop, same as it did when I had picked her up. Worse. "What's this?" she asked, looking at my hive.
"Oh, this is terrific," I said. "I got it from work. It's a memory hive."
"A what?"
"Here," I said, "I'll show you." I had brought two-dozen bugs with me that morning; I had used four for work, and six for the date. I took out one of the ones I had used for the date, a green beetle-looking thing, and put it on the top blank hive disc. The hive mites swarmed it, and it was gone within about two seconds.
Susan wrinkled her nose. "Gross," she said.
"A little," I agreed. "But here," I flipped through the side, called up the sub-hive of our first date. This would be a little more gross, if she thought it through. But it didn't look as gross. It looked like a glass disc, with a transparent lid, and a joint where the sugar-water tube went. I dabbed up a mite from the cover slide, swallowed it, and put the sub-hive back into the matrix.
"Okay," I said. "You know how you were wearing that bead necklace thing on our first date?"
"Um," said Susan. "I guess?"
"Right. It has," I closed my eyes, enjoyed the memory, as it rolled around my head. "Four small red crystals, two purple swirly things, and eighteen smooth green beads."
"You remembered that?" she asked.
"Not exactly," I said. "The hive did. Now I do again. It's a memory--"
"You recorded our date?" she asked. Her feet moved closer together; perhaps explaining the hive had been a tactical error.
"Well," I said. "It started for work; there are a lot of details in the contracts that I'm handling, and I need to have them all in my head when we're negotiating. Or those Koreans would screw us over. That's why the firm got it for me. But it's gotten to be a sort of reflex, when something happens that I want to remember."
"Huh," said Susan. She looked over into the hive. "Could I get your memories?" she asked.
"Not with this system," I said. "A lot of the contracts I have are confidential, and I know how we're trying to screw the Koreans over. So they keyed my hives to me."
Her curiosity about the hives more or less satisfied, we talked about other things: The movie we had seen, which was okay, but not great. Her work; there was a building going up in Canada, and she had to make sure that it matched local building codes as well as US building codes, because once the design was in their database, other architects were going to steal bits and pieces. My work, which was extremely boring. The color of her hair, the way my eyes looked when I smiled.
Things moved, as they did, to the bedroom. "Are you," she asked, as we broke apart, after a kiss, "going to use one of those bugs?"
"You seemed a little weirded out," I said. "If you don't want--"
"No," she said, and gave a little shiver, which nearly stopped my heart. "I mean, nobody else can use those bugs, right?"
I nodded. "So, why not?" she said. "I'll give you something to remember."
I did, and by God, she did.
When she came in from work, I kissed her at the door. She closed her eyes, melted into it, and when I pulled away, there was a hint of a smile in her eyes. "You've been hitting those bugs pretty hard," she said, and kissed me again.
"Our third date," she said, when she pulled away. "When you brought me back to that horrible apartment."
"Maybe," I said. It hadn't been that first time, though that was a favorite. It was three weeks later, when we had spent seven hours waiting on line for tickets to Shakespeare in the Park, and hadn't gotten them. But, close enough. "Why don't you get a hive, anyway? They've got some great systems nowadays."
"A, because I don't want to eat bugs, B, because I don't want to eat bugs, and C, because you spend enough time lost in memory for the both of us. If I had a set like that, we'd both just sit on the couch and remember doing things, rather than going out and doing things."
"It is a very nice couch," I said.
"And you're going to leave it to go see Guys and Dolls in five minutes," she said. "Oh, my God," she added, looking at my face. "You forgot."
"Sorry," I said. I had forgotten. Which isn't to say I couldn't still make it; I made a dash for the shower. I was in, I washed, I was out. Susan was leaning against the door of the bathroom. She shook her head as I tried to hop into a clean pair of pants while drying my hair. "Maybe next time," she said, "You should put together a hive full of things that you have to do."
"I'd rather," I replied, nearly tripping, catching myself on the towel rack, "remember what your hair smells like in the autumn."
She got a sort of unfocused look in her eyes when I said that, and pulled me in for a kiss. Turned out, we missed seeing Guys and Dolls that night.
This time, I was the one who got the tickets. It was a musical version of Othello, which struck me as a stupid idea, but Susan had wanted to see it, so I got the tickets. Only then, there was something at work, and her sister's kids needed a babysitter, and, well. She was going to be coming in late, long after the show already ended.
So, I sat on the couch, and had a beer, and went through the memories. I wasn't actually tasting them this time; I was organizing. By this point, I had a separate unit for the Susan sub-hives. The default organization was by date, which was fine, but what was keeping me entertained was tagging. I had done the obvious ones; sex, food, fights, music, and so on. But there were other tags to add as well; "blue dress," "sleepy eyes," "laughing at nothing."
There were a lot of memories to tag, and by that point, I knew most of them well enough that I didn't need to taste them to find out which tags I wanted. Just looking at the date and the description was enough.
It was a project that kept me busy enough that I didn't even mind that much when she didn't get back in at all that night.
I got a good look at myself in the bathroom mirror. It had been thirty hours since Susan had asked me for a divorce. It wasn't anything, it was everything. Apparently. Since that time, I hadn't slept, I hadn't eaten, I hadn't bathed. I had just sat on the couch, and swallowed memories. More than the manufacturer recommended in two weeks, let alone over the course of a day.
Even the last one, the one where we were stiff, and cold on the phone, where she said things about children, and her job, and growing apart, and I tried to argue and bargain until it was clear that there wasn't any argument or bargain to be had, and then I just sat and listened, and couldn't feel my fingers any more. Not just the last one, though: Lazy Sundays, where we unfolded section after section of the Times, until the living room looked like we were going to paint or something. The week in Bermuda, the sex—endless hours of sex. Exploring sex, comfortable sex, playful sex. Susan's face, in all its permutations of light and shadow, all the emotions, all the changes over the past nine years.
I was wobbling a bit, when I went back into the living room, from lack of sleep, from too many memories. I had taken out a beer, but I hadn't opened it. I picked it up, the bottle cool in my hand, comfortably heavy. Then, with a sudden jerk, I threw it at the hive. It shattered satisfyingly, cracking the glass window in front. That was good, but not enough.
I grabbed one of the chairs, picked it up, and smashed it into the hive. That did it; the hive was made out of plastic and glass and aluminum, and the chair was made of oak. It smashed, it crunched, the sub-hives broke and scattered, the sugar water drip spilled all over the floor. As I stood there, holding the chair and panting, one of the shelves of sub-hives gave way, and they fell to the floor, one by one. Shattering, mostly, except for one that rolled along the floor for a bit until it wobbled to a rest.
I saw the date and time stamp. Coney Island, when Susan had a dodgy hot-dog, then went on a carnival ride, and then vomited spectacularly. The subhive looked whole, but it wasn't; there was a crack on its side, a big one, and it was scattering mites as it rolled. There was that sudden moment of impact, when I realized what I had done, and wanted to take it back. The kind of thing like when you wreck your car, and you're standing next to it, and you think how, if you just managed your last five minutes differently, everything would be fine.
I picked up the subhive that was rolling along the floor, put it up on the coffee table. I tried to pick up some of the others, tried to get the fragments of subhives that still had enough mites in them to be saved separate from the rest, tried to catch the endless hundreds of thousands of tiny red mites, to make them go back into their hives, to put my memories back where they belonged.
The chair had done more damage than I had thought. Of the nine thousand, eight hundred subhives that had been in my Susan hive, only six hundred and eight were salvageable. Some of the ones that I most wanted--the breakfast on the third day of our honeymoon, the time she taught me how to ice-skate--were completely gone.
I had expected that. What I hadn't expected was that the mites that I had freed didn't all die off. They were supposed to, but I had gotten one of the earliest systems, and had let it propagate itself, rather than getting newer base hives. It was impossible; I had to wear a surgical mask when I was in the apartment, and somehow, a mite or two would always get in to my food, I'd have visions of Susan with her hands in her coat pockets with my breakfast, and the smell of her perfume when I got a drink of water.
Worse than that, they got into my other hives. This also wasn't supposed to be possible, but again, I had an early system. The apartment, I was able to fumigate. But I needed those other hives. There were ten years of work memories in those hives, ten years of contracts, of clients, of things that I needed to function. And there was Susan in all of them.
The company sent a tech in, but once they confirmed that the reason the hive broke was my fault, they didn't really care much about fixing things. The only hope that they could offer was that as time passed, and generations of mites succeeded each other, the memories of Susan would grow more diffuse, be drowned out by the memories that I had imprinted on those hives.
Maybe that's true, and maybe it isn't, but I don't think I can last that long. I can't describe what it's like; every time I try to lose myself in my work, every time I get five minutes of clear thinking, free from what I've lost, there's the smell of her hair, there's the curve of her neck.
I can't live this way. Nobody could.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 8th, 2011


This story came from a lot of directions, including my inability to remember phone numbers after I started using a cell phone, and the intermittent errors produced by a dying hard drive.

- Alter S. Reiss

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