Every morning I come to this shop to buy memories.
This morning I’m looking for a short, pleasant memory to give to my mother for her birthday. Eighteen seconds is enough. Anything longer will confuse her. She won’t notice an eighteen-second scene start over and repeat itself in an endless loop.
Life is like that sometimes. Flying a kite on a breezy day. Gazing at clouds in a pale blue sky. I know this because I bought these two memories last week. Each one lasts fifteen seconds, and I hardly notice when it jumps back to the beginning. I shouldn’t spend my money on memories much longer than eighteen seconds anyway. Memories are expensive.
I stand before the polished oak door, waiting for Mr. Smythe to open his shop. Mr. Smythe never pokes his head out to say hello, even though he knows I’m outside waiting every morning. Every day.
He needs his beauty rest, he told me.
The door is very old, but you can hardly tell. Mr. Smythe’s robot does a nice job keeping the wood polished and looking good as new.
Thick snowflakes like petals of lace float from the sky and dust the narrow strip of sidewalk swept bare by snowbots. I want to stick out my tongue and catch the snowflakes, but I don’t dare. You never know what contaminants are in the air. Fallout from South Asia’s nuclear war. Pollutants from never-ending wildfires. Sulphuric acid from cloud seeding. The world is depressing. It’s no wonder so many people spend their entire lives tapped into SimLife.
A hummingbird hovers nearby, even though there are no flowers or trees anywhere along the street. I stare at it, unafraid. I have nothing to hide. It zips away, hovering before empty windows, searching for squatters.
I cup my hands around my eyes and peer through the dark window. In six minutes and forty-two seconds, it will be eight o’clock, and the shop will open. I don’t need a watch to tell the time. I just know it, like I know the names of things. Knowing the time makes me impatient.
A cold wind picks up. I shiver. My coat is second-hand and too thin. I need another coat to layer over the one I wear, but I’m trying to save as much money as I can to buy memories.
My right coat pocket is stuffed with the business cards Mrs. Lin asked me to give to Mr. Smythe. My left pocket holds my Vita-Cal 600 bar. My fingers are freezing. I bring my hands to my mouth and breathe warmth into them. Then I grasp my wrists together, joining the ends of my sleeves to make a muff.
I glance down the street, at the dark windows, the missing signs, the boarded up shops. Across the street, further down the block, a solitary autocab idles outside The Opium Den, a recreational drug club struggling to stay profitable.
The door opens. A man and woman lurch out onto the sidewalk, laughing as they hold each other for support. They’re not wearing coats. I wonder if they left them inside, forgotten. The woman smiles as she grabs a fistful of snow and shoves it deep down the front of man’s pants. He returns the favor by grabbing her collar and shoving snow down her shirt. The woman’s shriek, punctuated by more laughter, pierces the snowy silence of the street.
What they just did was foolish. They could both be arrested for sexual assault. Lack of consent due to drug intoxication. Curious, I watch as the couple straggles into the waiting autocab. Their vehicle drives off, turns the corner, and disappears. Ten seconds later, a siren wails. The blue and red lights of a police vehicle flash by, chasing after them.
I kick snow onto the cleared strip of sidewalk, wondering how much snow needs to fall onto the ground before a snowbot comes to clear it. The snowbots are very good about keeping the sidewalks and streets free of snow. Robots take care of everything.
A young man in black slacks and a gray sweater crosses the street and approaches the shop. Instead of using the nearby crosswalk, which is clean and dry and free of snow, he crosses in the middle of the street, shuffling through a snowdrift the snowbots don’t consider a priority. He’s supposed to use the cross walk. Jaywalking is illegal. I glance around nervously for the hummingbird, wondering if it noticed. The man should know better. Cameras are everywhere.
The man’s shoes make snow prints on the sidewalk, messing up the snowbot’s work. He stands beneath the awning to shield himself from the wind and snow, hugging himself to stay warm. His white shirt peeks through the knit weave of his sweater at his elbows. His shirt cuffs are frayed. He’s gaunt. His eyes are sunken in, as if he doesn’t spend his monthly stipend on food. Or he simply forgets to eat.
I recognize that gaunt look. I see it every day when I accompany Mrs. Lin on her rounds. They all look the same—thin and hungry. When their addiction is severe, they are skeletal, their eyes vacant and confused. For a moment, I consider giving him one of Mrs. Lin’s business cards, then think better of it. I don’t want to offend him.
He flashes me a grim smile and stuffs his hands into his pockets. Then he looks down at the cracks in his black polyurethane shoes.
I step closer to the door to make it clear I’m first in line.
There are always customers looking for used memories. Second hand memories are more affordable than the new ones sold by the Axxon Corporation. This is why I’m here early every morning, even on school days. I have to look for the memories that were stolen from me and my mother.
Lights from the video displays inside the shop simultaneously turn on, casting a cool diffuse glow. Two minutes and fourteen seconds later, the door unlatches at exactly eight o’clock—not a second early or late. Mr. Smythe is not that precise.
Bells above the wooden door jingle when I open it. Mr. Smythe’s robot has its back to me as it returns to the register, its gait smooth and eerily human. The robot’s polished chrome limbs gleam in the cold light of memories displayed around it.
I think it’s interesting that Mr. Smythe, who utilizes a robot in a store that specializes in buying and selling memories, uses such a low tech device to let him know when customers enter and leave the store. The first time I asked him why, he didn’t answer my question. He pretended he didn’t hear me. The second time he shrugged. The third time, I went to the register and looked him in the eye. I told him how cheerful the bells sound when they jingle, like Christmas, which is another short memory I blew my money on. Then I asked him if he uses bells because they remind him of Christmas. I waited. Thirty minutes later, Mr. Smythe took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He told me the bells were placed on top of the door by his great-grandmother back when it was still a bookstore, when people still bought stories and information printed on paper, before people started going about with neural implants in their brains. The bells don’t need batteries, he said. They just need someone to open the damn door.
I don’t like to ask Mr. Smythe questions. Mr. Smythe is a grumpy man.
The store is a little warmer than the air outside, but not by much. To save money, Mr. Smythe doesn’t turn on the heat.
Before I begin my search, I follow the robot’s path to the register. I pull out the business cards from my coat pocket and tap the edges of the cards against the counter to get them back into a rectangular alignment. Then I set the stack beside the register and head to the front of the store, passing the young man who followed me inside.
The aisles are narrow, barely wide enough for two people. Each aisle is defined by display racks two meters high. Attached to each rack is an array of hundreds of tiny screens, each one the size of a child’s palm. A slot for a memory chip is built into the edge of the screen. A short loop of whatever is on the chip, ten to twenty seconds, plays on each display. Except for the green ceramic lamp at the register where Mr. Smythe stands, and the pale light that falls into the shop through the front window, the only other illumination comes from these digital screens.
When I look at them, I think of souls trapped in glass.
Memories in the store, which are available for purchase or rental, are divided into three categories. The first category is Fiction. These are displayed prominently in the front and take up half the shop because they’re the most profitable, according to Mr. Smythe, and have few glitches associated with memory remnants of past owners. These are fictional narratives that you experience in a first person point of view as one of the characters, or the third person viewpoint of an invisible observer, as if you are a ghost watching people oblivious to your presence.
When I’m near the register, I can’t help but overhear the conversation between the man and Mr. Smythe. I pretend to be interested in a first person, simulated reality adaptation of Jane Eyre and the Zombie in the Attic: Choose Your Own Adventure.
“My robot doesn’t eat, doesn’t sleep, and doesn’t complain” Mr. Smythe says. He nods to the robot mopping the entrance where the man and I tracked in footprints. “It works twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, never leaves the shop, and doesn’t ask for minimum wage.” Mr. Smythe peers over his spectacles. “Bet you can’t beat that work ethic.”
“If I don’t find a job, I’m going to get evicted,” the man says.
“You have a neural implant?”
“Any memories you’re interested in selling? Any interesting life experiences?”
The man considers this.
“Can you juggle? Are you good at playing the guitar? Yesterday, two customers asked if I had these in stock.”
The man shakes his head.
“A first kiss?” Mr. Smythe says. “Your first love? The first one after you were augmented, anyway. There’s a high demand for those.”
I stiffen, then step out of the aisle to glare at the two.
“Buying and selling memories of private moments with other people is wrong,” I blurt out.
Mr. Smythe and the young man look at me.
“Mr. Smythe will download your memory, then delete the original so you can’t resell to another shop,” I tell the man, ignoring Mr. Smythe. “He does this to ensure the market value of the memory. And you can’t get it back.”
“June.” Mr. Smythe says my name as if in warning.
“The ‘first love’ in your memory will have no say over this transaction,” I continue, “and whatever intimacy that happened in the memory will be shared with strangers for money. It’s wrong.”
“Better than having a feeding tube shoved down your nose, plugged into Disneyland for the rest of your life,” Mr. Smythe says. “People need to eat.” To the young man, Mr. Smythe says, “The memory is erased from the chip, not your own brain. You’ll remember things just as you would without an implant.”
“It’s not fair,” I say.
“Life isn’t fair,” Mr. Smythe says, shifting his eyes from the young man to me. “I run an honest business. I don’t steal memories. I wouldn’t know how to erase organic memories even if I wanted to. I don’t know what happened to you and your mother. You’re welcome to come in my shop to look for your memories. But if you harass my customers, I’ll have my robot escort you out.”
I step away from Jane Eyre, irritated. I’m wasting my time. Fictional memories are not what I’m looking for.
The second category of memories, Abilities, takes up the middle aisles of the store. These are the memories to buy if you want instant mastery of a skill or subject, for example, mathematics, jujitsu, or fluency in a foreign language. Because brand new memories sold by the Axxon Corporation are under digital rights management restrictions, the ones in Mr. Smythe’s shop are all secondhand—you may end up with remnants of irrelevant memories of the person they came from. Abilities purchased brand new from the Axxon Corporation are free of memory remnants, but are absurdly expensive. Selling memories secondhand keeps Mr. Smythe in business.
I gaze at the displays. A man sits outside a Beijing café, speaking to his wife in Mandarin Chinese. A martial arts instructor spars with a student. A woman in a red evening gown plays a violin to an audience in a dark theater. I turn up the volume just enough to hear the music, but not loud enough to bother Mr. Smythe.
She’s a virtuoso. The music is old and beautiful. No orchestra or piano accompanies her. This memory arrived last week, and it’s popular as a rental. Every time I see this display, I want to buy it. I know I shouldn’t waste my stipend on memories that don’t belong to me, but finding my old ones seems hopeless. I’ve been in this shop every morning for the past twenty days and found nothing. How do I look for my memories if I can’t remember what they are? Out of frustration, I started buying memories to replace my missing ones. Being a virtuoso violinist is an ability I want to have.
I remove the chip from the slot and the display goes dark.
When I look toward the front counter, Mr. Smythe and the man are not there. His robot stands at the register, watching me, its black camera eyes peering out of its skull, making sure I don’t steal anything. That robot is always watching me. It creeps me out.
The rest of the aisles display the third category of memories—actual, raw memories from people in real life, not SimLife. Memories generated while tapped into SimLife become property of the Axxon Corporation and can’t be exchanged or sold. Memories from famous people are the most popular, and the most profitable.
Actually, that’s not exactly right. The most popular memories are sex, drugs, and death. Mr. Smythe claims that he sells these only when they happened to be embedded within another sub-category, like “Adventure” or “Love and Relationships.” He doesn’t specialize in them. He said he doesn’t like the riffraff who come in to sell them.
I glance at the memories.
A famous surfer rides through a translucent, liquid tunnel of a massive wave off the coast of Oahu. An A-list celebrity talks with her co-stars at an Oscar party in Los Angeles. A U.N. peacekeeper shoots at armed insurgents in Bangui. A tourist witnesses a solar eclipse of earth, seen from the moon.
None of these seem like they would make a good gift for my mother.
I head to the back wall where the shortest and most affordable memories are on clearance. A hike down the Grand Canyon. A trek through a rainforest, back when rainforests used to exist. Snowboarding down a mountain slope. A walk along an ocean.
The sample loop of the ocean memory is short and simple. A woman walks barefoot along the ocean at sunset. When she looks down at the waves, I can see slender feet walking over sand.
My mother and I live in an apartment in the middle of the country, in the middle of winter, on the eastern outskirts of Denver, Colorado. Either coast is over a thousand miles away. I select this chip. I think she’ll like this memory. For one thing, it’s probably warm. And I can share it with her.
I look toward the register where Mr. Smythe is standing. I don’t see the robot or the young man. The man is probably in the back with the robot, having his memory downloaded and erased.
I walk up to the register and place the two memory chips on the counter. “Today is my mother’s birthday.” I push the chips toward him. “I found something nice I think she’ll like.”
Mr. Smythe ignores my comment as he scans the chips. It doesn’t seem to make any difference whether or not I say anything to him. His wild, gray hair and round spectacles make him look wise and thoughtful, like a grandfather, or a benevolent wizard, which is not at all the case.
Or maybe he didn’t hear me. He is kind of old.
“That’ll be thirty-four thousand, three hundred ten dollars,” he says.
I wince. I didn’t expect the violin performance to cost quite so much.
“What are you waiting for?” Mr. Smythe says. “I don’t have all day.”
I look at the empty store aisles behind me. There are no customers, other than me, and no reason to hurry, but his comment makes me flustered.
I know I should put it back, but I don’t want to. I’m sick of saving my money for memories I’ll never find. They’re probably gone by now anyway. My next government stipend will be deposited into my account in two days. I’ll be fine. I have enough to get by until then. And VitaCal bars are free. My mother and I won’t go hungry. If I don’t buy this memory, someone else will.
I peer into the facial recognition scanner. A green light blinks, indicating the transaction has been processed.
As Mr. Smythe drops the chips into a small, re-sealable polyethylene bag, his robot steps out from the back room, followed by the young man. He has a blank, resigned look in his eyes as he stares ahead of him. I wonder which of his memories he sold.
The robot goes straight to the aisles where I bought the ocean memory. I’ve noticed this robot doesn’t like empty display screens. It rearranges chips to keep them organized, then sticks a new chip into the empty display.
Out of curiosity, I walk over and look at it. The display shows a memory of having a picnic with a pretty girl. I recognize those black shoes, except these look brand new. I wonder if this is the memory the young man sold to Mr. Smythe.
I step outside the shop to find a policebot standing beside her vehicle. At first I think she’s here for me, but when she smiles and says nothing, I realize who she’s waiting for.
The snow has stopped falling. The sidewalk path where I kicked snow is clear again. Across the street, a snowbot chugs along the sidewalk, clearing a path. Perched on top of a streetlamp, the hummingbird is back.
The young man in the sweater steps out of the shop. The smiling policebot steps toward the man.
“Mr. William R. Harris,” the policebot says.
“At seven fifty-five this morning, you did not use the nearest crosswalk to cross the street. This is a violation of C.R.S. Title 42, Article 4, Section 803. Between adjacent intersections at which traffic control signals are in operation, pedestrians shall not cross at any place except in a marked crosswalk. Any person who violates any provision of this section commits a class B traffic infraction. Would you like to attend a class to review the traffic laws concerning pedestrians? Or would you prefer to pay the fine?”
The man’s shoulders sag. His gaze drops down to his dull, cracked shoes. “I can’t afford a fine.”
“Very well. Please step into the vehicle to complete your class. And have a pleasant day.”
The smiling policebot helps him into to the police vehicle. The man slumps into his seat and closes his eyes. The door slides shut. The vehicle drives off. The hummingbird flies away.