You know those people who treat everything like they’ve just been asked to climb mount Everest? Where every little thing is an insurmountable ordeal, whether it’s waking up, taking a shower, or even just going outside? Almost as if the whole world was an elaborate conspiracy designed solely to slightly inconvenience them, god-forbid some effort was actually required to survive.
That was my buddy Craig. What irritated me the most is that he wasn’t always like that either. Growing up he read philosophy and filled notebooks with plans about what he was going to do when he grew up, meticulously mapping out possible career paths with their required steps. He graduated high-school with nearly perfect grades, and after he was accepted into MIT, I figured his whole life was pretty much set.
The only thing that could have stopped him from getting what he wanted was getting something he thought he wanted, and her name was Natalie. Controlling, obsessive, jealous, always putting him down for this or chewing him out for that. I have no idea why he stuck with her, but two years later when he dropped out I can only imagine that was the cause.
They broke up soon after, but the damage was already done. Craig was an absolute mess. He couldn’t get out of bed without a beer, and every time we talked it was just him bitching about how much he missed Natalie and how worthless he felt without her. I thought it was just going to be a phase and that he’d move on, but the obsession just kept growing in an endless feedback loop.
He couldn’t do anything because he felt like shit. He felt like shit because he couldn’t do anything. And on and on, doubts feeding doubts. Hating her and loving her, and then hating himself for both. Even though I’ve known him since we were kids, I was getting to the point of just giving up on and cutting him out for good. Last week I decided to tell him to his face: one last shot at taking some responsibility for his life.
I hardly recognized the guy who opened the door. Clean shaven and grinning from ear to ear, Craig invited me inside. His apartment was immaculate all the way down to the gleaming grout in his tile floor. His laptop was open to spreadsheets and a color coded calendar. I couldn’t believe the transformation. I congratulated him on finally getting past Natalie, but he didn’t understand what I was talking about.
“Natalie? Who is Natalie?” he asked.
I thought it was a joke at first, but she was just one piece of the puzzle. He kept talking about high-school like it was yesterday, and how excited he was to start MIT. It didn’t take long for me to realize the last two years of his life were completely gone. He seemed obviously better for it though, so I held my tongue in case I accidentally reminded him of something that sent him back into his depressive spiral.
It wasn’t until I left when I noticed the business card half-concealed beneath his entry mat. Black card, back and front, with nothing but the words “I buy and sell memories” and a phone number.
I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t just seen the results. It was one thing to discard shameful or destructive memories, but the chance of buying new ones too? Maybe I could remember what it was like to travel the world without any of the expense or inconvenience. Or learn new skills without the effort of practice. My fingers were actually trembling as I dialed the number.
An automated voice guided me through the steps of setting up a free consultation. By the next morning I was in the office building, checking the directories for “Dr. Sinclair”. Sure enough, there he was, his office listed as Cognitive Reconstruction.
“It’s not magic,” the beak-nosed doctor told me as I sat down. “My team has mapped a large archive of neuronal patterns which can be replicated with their corresponding electrical signals.”
I didn’t really understand what that meant, but throughout the session he drove his case home. Folders filled with brain scans, a wall cluttered with degrees, and my own mounting excitement proved an irresistibly combination. Within the hour I had signed consent for the treatment.
“We’re going to put you under for this part,” Dr. Sinclair told me. “The fluctuations of the conscious mind make it impossible to get an accurate reading of baseline activity. Just write down a list of memories you’d like to have when you wake-up.”
I did so before reclining on his sofa while he set up the anesthesia mask.
“I’m not going to have to forget anything to make room, am I?” I asked.
“Old telephone numbers, the occasional date or address – nothing but clutter. Deep breaths now.”
It seemed too good to be true. I was absolutely euphoric as I inhaled the strawberry scented gas. Dr. Sinclair briefly studied the list I wrote before crumpling it up in his hand.
“These are rubbish,” he said, his words distorting like a radio with a weak signal.
The anesthesia was muddling my mind, but a brief surge of panic still flooded my veins. I started to sit up, but he put a hand over the mask and pressed my head firmly back into the couch.
“Most people prefer to hold onto their good memories, mind you,” he said. “The ones they sell me tend to be a tad more… exotic. Why don’t you just relax and let me choose?”
It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say I fell asleep then. It was more like I fell awoke, slipping in an and out of consciousness so subtly that I didn’t even realize time had passed. One second I was struggling against the mask, and the next I tore it off my face and sat up panting. Only now I was sitting on the sidewalk. The mask lay at my feet, dangling from its severed chords. Dr. Sinclair was nowhere to be seen.
And everything in the world was wrong. The roar of traffic bludgeoned me from the nearby street. I flinched and cowered as my every instinct screamed a warning for the impending collision, even though I was well out of harms way. Dark clouds had begun rolling in from the sky and I shuttered to imagine some phantasmic presence leering at me from behind them. The eyes of passing strangers cut me with their disdain.
Everything in the world was normal. I was the one who was wrong. In the space of those odd hours on Dr. Sinclairs couch I had lived through the nightmares of a hundred lives. A man like my father had beaten me to within an inch of my life, although I knew he wasn’t the father I grew up with. My hand burned as it had when it was torn off by a tractor, even though I could see its perfect vitality at the end of my wrist. I had been shot at, maimed, humiliated, and betrayed a hundred times, and so could I feel the blood of my victims as fresh as the day they were choked to death by hands that were not my own.
I don’t know how long I sat there screaming on the sidewalk before someone called the police. I’m vaguely aware of an ambulance picking me up, but my internal world was so much more vibrant and clashed do disorientatingly with the one I saw that I couldn’t keep them straight. The hellish memories were mixed with my own so seamlessly that I couldn’t figure out which were true and which were not. Maybe I had done these things, hurt these people. Maybe I deserved to suffer.
But the maddening conflict of a hundred contradictory memories made it impossible to maintain any coherent identity. By the time I got to the hospital, I couldn’t have told you my own name. I didn’t even know whether I was a man or a woman, having lived distinctly through the most traumatic ordeals of each.
Next I was able to make sense of the world was within a hospital room. Dr. Sinclair was there as I had seen him last, peering down at me from over a clipboard. His presence was branded into my mind, and I couldn’t turn away from him to look at who he was talking to on my other side. He was the point of singularity: the one common aspect in all my separate lives. The person I most feared and most needed in the whole world. I had seen him from so many different eyes and known him from so many different minds that all these thoughts conjoined into an amorphous blob of desperate hope.
“Patient exhibiting signs of psychosis, schizophrenia, and multiple personality disorder,” Dr. Sinclair was saying. “He is a danger to himself and others, and must not leave this room until I consent. Is that understood?”
“I know he’s your friend, so if you’d like to be reassigned -”
“No doctor. I can handle it,” Craig said from my other side. “I just want what’s best for him.”
“We all do,” Dr. Sinclair replied, his voice oozing with compassion. “I’ll check in again at the end of my rounds. Buzz me if he remembers anything about that man.”
I turned to Craig as the doctor exited the room. Craig was wearing a white lab coat as well, his own clipboard hanging limp at his side. My mouth twisted with uncertainty, trying to make sense of which language was natural to its shape.
“Get some rest,” Craig said. “The Doctor knows best. He’s going to make you better again.”
“He did this to me,” I managed to match my thoughts to English.
“Me too,” Craig grinned. “He was my professor at MIT. He told me I was failing, and that I’d be expelled unless I participated in the experiment.”
“But the nightmares -”
“Yeah, I guess I missed that part,” Craig said. “I just had my last two years erased. I’ve been relying on him to fill me in on the details.”
“Then why the fuck did he fill my head with this shit?”
“Sorry. We had to,” Craig sat down at the end of my bed. “All those memories you’ve got came from the last two years of clinical trials. Someone has been trying to disrupt the study, and we need you to access the common memory to find out who it is.”
“Then go ask them. Why’d you have to put them in me -” my words were failing. There was so much pain, and loss, and suffering spinning around my head. No-one should ever be forced to bury their son or endure their loved ones wasting away from cancer. Not once. How was I supposed to survive it dozens of times?
“That’s the thing,” Craig said. “They’re being killed. One at a time. Every person who has participated in the study. You’re the only one with their memories now, and our only chance of stopping whoever is doing this before he gets us too.”
Craig patted my hand as he stood to leave. I was speechless, comprehending but bewildered by the situation I was forced into.
“And besides,” Craig said as he passed through the door. “These memories will make you stronger if you can get through them. Stronger than you thought possible. Nothing will be able to hurt you after this.”
“And if I can’t get through?” I asked.
Craig shrugged. “Then you’ll be left behind, same as everyone who can’t move on from the past. Same as you were going to do to me. But don’t worry, because I think you’re going to be fine. Eventually.”
I had no intention of helping Dr. Sinclair after what he’d done to me though. If I could push myself to examine each painful memory until I found clues to the one trying to kill him, then I figure I might just help him finish the job. Dr. Sinclair had turned me into a living nightmare, so it only seemed right to show him some terror of his own.