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art by Shot Hot Design

The Box That Eats Memories

Ken Liu was a programmer before he became a lawyer. His fiction has appeared in F&SF, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed, among other places. He lives with his family in Massachusetts.

***Adult Content. If you are uncomfortable with fictional depictions of domestic violence, or are not at least eighteen years of age, do not read on***
In the moonlight, Magda walked through the memory room.
This was her room, even more so than the kitchen. Nate never came in here. Piles of papers and bags of old clothes turned the floor into a maze. Along the wall were broken bookshelves, chairs missing legs, old toys from her girlhood.
Right after Nate first moved in, after her mother died, he had suggested that they clean the room out. "We'll put in a poker table so my buddies can come over every Thursday night. You can serve us drinks."
She had gone his way on everything else, but on this one point she refused to budge. After a while he gave up. "Fine, keep your parents' junk."
Now she walked slowly and sucked in her breath because of the pain. Nate liked to punch her right in the stomach and around the kidneys. The bruises didn't show in public, but oh God it hurt.
"Stupid bitch," he had raged. "Why don't you ever learn? Always with the backtalk." He had dragged her along the floor by her hair and then thrown her against the wall, which rattled.
Now he was drunk and asleep upstairs. Magda carefully picked her way to an old stuffed chair full of holes by the wall. She sat down, and winced.
Tendrils of white fog rose from the chair, and she breathed them in. This was why she loved this room. The fog was full of memories.
She was four, sitting in her father's lap in this chair as he read to her. "And then she married a very worthy gentleman, who made her forget all the horrible time she spent with Bluebeard."
She clapped. "Bad Bluebeard!" She felt very warm and safe. She wished her father could hold her forever.
"Yes," her father agreed, and kissed her. "It's all about picking the right guy."
The fog dissipated.
"And if you picked wrong, Papa?" Magda whispered.
She stood up and walked to an old dresser with a broken mirror. She picked up a wooden hairbrush on top. She breathed in the white mist, smelling of her mother's perfume.
She was six, and crying because she had fallen down the stairs and scraped her knee. (The older Magda smiled--little Magda had been so ignorant about pain).
"It's all right, baby," her mother said. She took a warm washcloth and wiped up the blood. "Here, watch." Her mother made a gesture around the wound in Magda's knee, and bright red liquid beads, sizzling and hissing, seeped out of the wound.
Magda stopped crying. She held her breath.
"These are bad memories," her mother said. "We'll soak them up."
Her mother gently, gently wiped away the sizzling red beads and lifted the lid on the large red box placed against the wall. It was as tall as little Magda. "And we'll lock them away in the forgetting box. Then you won't remember the pain anymore." She threw the washcloth in and closed the lid.
"Let's brush your hair now and make some nice new memories. Remember the good, forget the bad."
She hugged her mother as she brushed her hair, stroke after stroke.
The fog faded. Magda put down the hairbrush.
A dried corsage was tucked into the frame of the mirror. Magda held it against her nose, inhaling the white mist that came out of the dead flowers.
"You sure know how to pick 'em," her mother said, giggling.
At the door, Nate looked dashing in his black tux and silver vest, his smile a promise of danger and adventure. They would be the best looking couple at the prom.
Her father cleared his throat.
"Don't worry, Sir. I'll take good care of her," Nate said. His eyes, so warm and kind, were focused entirely on her. And she went to him, wishing that she could move faster.
The fog faded. She put down the corsage.
"Mama, Papa, I messed up," she whispered.
Funny how you never really know a person until you're dependent on him.
The washcloth she held was now cold, but it would do the job. She made her way to the red box by the wall and lifted her dress. In the moonlight the little beads that appeared on her skin hissed and danced. She wiped them away, shivering at the cold.
It was her fault, she told herself. She shouldn't have made Nate mad. He was having trouble holding down a job, and he needed her to build him up, so he could feel like a man. She wanted to forget the pain, the terror, the tears, the muffled crunch of his fists against her body. She needed to forget that she hated him, wished that he would die.
She opened the lid of the red box to drop the used washcloth in. In the morning, she would again be able to smile at Nate, as if nothing had happened. Despite the bruises, she would still believe she loved him.
The lid would not go back down. The box was full.
She pushed and pushed at the lid, growing more frantic by the moment. Tendrils of red mist rose from within the box and curled around her, pushing at her nostrils. She took a deep breath.
The fetid smell made her stumble. All the memories that had been eaten were thrown back at her. She remembered everything: each belittling comment, each harsh word, each trip to the emergency room, each tearful apology followed by a visit to this room, and the hope, the hopeless hope that this time was different. How many times had she made the trip down here in the dark? How many washcloths had she dropped in?
She saw herself approaching the bed. She saw Nate's sleeping figure. She looked down at her hand: the chef's knife, heavy, long, sharp. She felt strong, clear-headed, ready to remember.
This time was different.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Author Comments

I wrote this story based on the prompt for a flash fiction contest: a photograph of an abandoned room with a large, red box set against one wall. My hope was to evoke the structure and darkness of a classic fairy tale.

- Ken Liu
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