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Finally Free

Dan has something like a hundred stories published online and in print, and has also been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, the Manchester literary prize, and twice for the Aeon Award. In the summer of 2013, he completed an MA in novel writing at Brunel, and is currently working on his first novel. Come say hello at danmalakin.com or on Twitter @danmalakin.
Veterans are most in demand. The rawest memories, brutal and blood-sticky, they're what people want.
The movie studio found Josh through the veteran's register, then did research. No friends, no family, an old alcoholic living on disability. His life lost to the pain of the past. They're the ones with the best stories to tell.
On the operating table, preparing to receive his anaesthetic, the veteran stares into the doctor's grey-blue eyes, the same color as the sea he ran screaming into in '67, and says, "Biloxi. Let me remember Biloxi, the guys I trained with. Don't let me forget them." His mind floods with memories of poker hands won and lost, night push-ups in the mud, the faces of friends who would later die. He needs a drink.
"That's not part of it," the doctor replies. He's only doing his job, the veteran knows that, but it's the blankness in his face, the coldness of those grey-blue eyes. He doesn't care either way. It's all just money to him.
"Four of them were tortured in front of me," says the veteran. "Bamboo under the nails, eyelids cut off, but they left them alive. Willians was next and they just sliced him across the throat." He pulls a finger across his neck and makes a noise like shhhup. "Gone."
The doctor flicks the end of his needle and watches clear droplets spray out of the end.
"Please," the veteran says, "what will they do with my memories?"
The doctor smiles with his mouth and his cheeks, but not his eyes. "That's of no real concern to you."
"Will I even recognize myself? In the film?"
After the war, the veteran became a clam digger, then a salmon fisher, then a shrimper, anything that brought him food and bed, as long as it was by the water. He was a hard worker, but a drinker. His dreams always ended with him running out of the jungle, across the wide yellow sand and into a churning sea that sucked him under, stole the air from his lungs and the life from his body. Upon waking, he wished it had happened that way.
The needle poised, the doctor asks, "Anything else before we begin?"
"I had an affair with a beautiful girl called Rosie," says the veteran. "A guy in my platoon claimed he could fix the World Series with his mind." He starts to cry. "The first time I saw the Queensboro Bridge after the war it was gleaming and it was sunny, and I was so glad to be home. I wanted that feeling to last, but it didn't."
Eventually, the veteran settled in his hometown of Newton and became a barber. He cut kids' hair, mainly. Some color and sets for the older women. Every night, over the swept up piles, he wept and remembered the boys. He drank bourbon, alone. Sometimes he drank all night. Eventually he lost his barbershop. The studios found him in the line at the soup kitchen, greasy grey bowl in hand, a bourbon-soaked beard festooned to his face.
"Ready?" asks the doctor.
The veteran shoots up, face clenched. "Who will keep their vigil?"
He sinks back down, and the doctor injects him.
When Josh wakes up he remembers only to the end of his childhood. He has a new sea-view apartment and a bank account with enough money to live on for the rest of his life. He doesn't realize he's an alcoholic, so despite the strange gnawing in his gut he doesn't buy a drink. He wakes up every day with a smile and throws the curtains open to let in the sun, to stare at the sea. Its endless churning means nothing to him now.
Josh starts to jog. He feels strong, alive. One morning he stops to chat to a lady straining with an English Bulldog that slobbers over his face when he bends to pet it. They walk for a while, Josh holding the dog with ease. Her name is Gladys. Soon they are meeting every day.
Later in the year they go and see a film together called Valley of Ashes. It's about war, atrocities, despair, and pain. Josh is riveted. How he suffered, thinks Josh about the man in the film, the soldier, the hero, who at the end runs into the ocean, screaming, but free. Finally free.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, October 5th, 2015


What interests me most about this story is the inversion of the traditional idea that exploitative technologies--such as taking someone's memories to make a film--necessarily have negative implications for the person involved. In this case the veteran is tortured by his past; in being coerced to give it up, he is freed. Extrapolating this out, who's to say we won't all be much happier strapped into pleasure machines while our robot overlords harvest our endorphins for fuel? So if you're listening, oh sentient mechanical masters, I'm ready!

- Dan Malakin

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