On Monday, the Professor learned that the dowager had three memories to extract. They were all to be taken at once, three fond recollections from her years of being courted by her late husband, before time could destroy them. Camille told me that when the Professor expressed hesitation at taking three memories in such a short period, the dowager confessed what the couple had suspected that night at the hotel.
“It appears my father’s condition is becoming mine. Slowly, as yet, but. A fractured mind is not a concern, Professor, it appears to be an inevitability.”
“Then, if I may, would you not prefer to keep your happiest memories for as long as possible?”
“Legacy, Professor, is something my family has always held dear. Publicly, of course, you may simply refer to me as a trendsetter, if that will settle curiosity.”
The Professor said she’d seemed prouder of that possibility than she cared to confess. “I will treasure these memories as long as I feel it’s safe to, and then employ you discreetly. I want the children to be surprised.”
They were fond memories and only three years old, on the short end of the life expectancy for happy Mems. Whether or not they were self-aware was what prompted the staff to observe them obsessively.
Of course the Professor said he’d do his very best to honor the dowager’s wishes. Chief among them was that the memories should be kept at the Vault, despite her means to care for them herself, because she intended one of them to go to each of her two daughters and only son. It was also because she hoped that by keeping them, the Professor might guarantee they could share my longevity. She’d seen ordinary Mems, of course, and knew one or two Sources who enjoyed entertaining with them. And while she enjoyed a good memory presentation as much as anyone, she felt entirely convinced that her Mems could be different. They could be like me. Certainly the Professor impressed upon her the fact that he could make no such guarantee and that he was entirely unsure why Dolores Extract #1 showed no signs of expiration, but life had taught the woman that all things were possible, as long as you made clear your reasonable desire.
I met them, the dowager’s Mems, on the third day of my recall to the Vault. They were referred to as the Keepsakes and it seemed possible that the older woman had in fact made something extraordinary, though it wasn’t clear to what extent.
The Keepsakes were strange, even to me, if only because they were always together. I saw them first when they swept merrily past my open door and I was drawn as much to their ethereal sighs as to the parasols they each carried. The sight of those pastel accessories paired with the dowdy dresses the Vault required us to wear was too curious to ignore and I hurried to the hall for a second look.
The fact that they still existed was not yet impressive. They were fond memories and only three years old, on the short end of the life expectancy for happy Mems. Whether or not they were self-aware was what prompted the staff to observe them obsessively, for though they never spoke except to whimsically utter their lover’s name, those utterances seemed to prompt or intensify their collective sighs.
The evening that the eldest Keepsake plucked a down feather from another’s loose hair, Harvey and a congregation of students descended on the sitting room for further observation. It hardly looked like science. There were no test tubes or gloves, as in the newsreels. They wore no protective glasses. Mostly, Harvey instructed one student or another to sit increasingly closer to the three and then, when the girls made no response, all members of the staff scribbled furiously. After that, they tried standing in what appeared to be the trio’s line of sight. Again, the girls made no reaction and again the men annotated their annotations.
Finally, I approached, sitting beside the eldest. “Hello.” She didn’t respond. I turned to Harvey, who’d said nothing of my intrusion. “May I have a feather?”
He delegated the task of retrieval to a member of his team and when a pillow was dissected and the feather given, I put it in my hair. The eldest took no notice. Removing it from my own, I went to the Keepsake seated next to her and placed the feather in her hair instead. I only had time to step back before the eldest smiled, lovingly pulling it out again. Behind me, there was a symphony of scribbling. When I turned, the gathered men looked at me expectantly.
“I think it’s part of her memory,” I concluded. “Something he did for her.”
“Or maybe she did it herself,” a second staff member posited over the theory of the first. “Maybe while looking in the mirror.”
“That’s why she only sees it when it’s in one of her look-a-likes’ hair.”
“Get a mirror.”
Harvey had yet to look away from me.
“Did that help?” I asked when he didn’t offer thanks.
The deep breath he took drew his head slightly back. “Yes. Thank you, Dolores.”
"He knows my skin by heart, and my Source’s too, so it’s been some time since I’ve seen Dolores and I compared. We were the same shade when I was extracted, did you know?”
I waited in my dormitory for Harvey’s daily visit. Despite what I knew of Vault protocol, his visits had not proved daily yet. He hadn’t come that morning or afternoon, though I’d heard him in the hall a number of times. He’d never come the day before, when the proper morning had begun. What I knew of real people’s behavior gave me hope that now – because of my intrusion in the sitting room – he would be obliged to. He was, after all, my Banker.
“I’m sorry for yesterday,” he said.
It seemed one moment he’d not been there and the next, he was. I wondered if somehow I’d managed to slip into a dream with my eyes wide open; otherwise how could I have watched the door so intently and yet been surprised to see him standing there.
“Why didn’t you come? I thought because I made you uncomfortable.”
At that, he blushed and on his skin, it was all the more apparent.
“Why should you make me uncomfortable,” he both asked and stated, walking further into the dormitory and running a hand over his hair. “No, I was held up elsewhere.”
It was the first time I’d been lied to by a man, that I knew of, and I felt it must mean something. What surprised me most was that while he was the one being dishonest, I somehow was the one made to feel small and uncertain.
“How did I do?” I asked after balling my fists against the threat of cowardice. When he only looked on quizzically, I was forced again to speak explicitly. “On my exam, the night I arrived. Am I expiring now?”
“No, Dolores.” Though he used that name, it was softened by the concern in his voice and by the way he stepped in my direction. “Not that we can tell.”
A shudder of relief sent my hand to my chest as though I could hold myself together.
“Did something make you think you were?”
“She didn’t say,” I said of the nurse. “She didn’t speak a word to me after you left.”
“She wouldn’t be accustomed to talking to Mems or having them talk back.”
“But you are?”
Instead of replying, Harvey’s lips rested, his face unreadable again. While male actors on screen tended to gesticulate and pantomime – sometimes wildly – by comparison the Banker was impressively reserved. I was never sure of his thoughts, even when he spoke.
“Professor rarely took my photo anymore, not with the examination equipment. He knows my skin by heart, and my Source’s too, so it’s been some time since I’ve seen Dolores and I compared. We were the same shade when I was extracted, did you know?”
If I were a real girl, I’d know whether this discomfort I felt meant I wanted him to go or to stay.
Of course he knew. That fact had been the single outward clue that I was different from the others, albeit in hindsight. While every other Mem began life slightly paler than their Source, I hadn’t. At the time, my original Banker and his team had decided that there were too many variables to say definitively if my pigmentation and consciousness were at all related, given that I was extracted so soon after the memory that spawned me. Now, when most Sources extracted memories from further in their past and differences in their coloring were attributable to any number of things, determining the significance of my complexion was harder still.
“I’d like to see them now,” I told Harvey. “The examination pictures the nurse took. To know for myself what will become of me.”
“Are you changing, Dolores?” His tone was academic. He may as well have had his writing pad in hand, prepared not to listen but to keep a detailed record.
“Perhaps. But if my skin is fading, it’s because I’m underground.”
“Away from sunlight?”
“No.” I resisted the frustration threatening to silence me. If Harvey Parrish could change my fate, whatever it was, I had to plead my case. “Away from freedom. I never felt I might expire until now, that’s all I know for sure.”
“Your color hasn’t changed,” he said with the reserve I was beginning to consider uniquely his. “It’s precisely the shade of brown it was the day you were extracted. The same is true of your hair and eyes. And it’s nothing short of remarkable, Dolores. That’s the truth.”
I noticed when his eyes flicked away and, at my noticing, he cleared his throat.
“But if you’d like to see for yourself, I’ll have the pictures shown to you.”
I breathed, as calmly as I did whenever I wore my silk robe with Elsie’s embroidered name. With his promise, the garment felt close though it still hung in the closet. And despite that I knew so little of her, no matter that I’d seen The Toll of the Sea numerous times, I knew she was the one to be envied. Elsie was the real girl, born in the same world as the man who loved her and perhaps loved for no more reason than that. Especially now, when I was alone with Harvey for a second time, Elsie was the one I wanted to be.
“I met that dowager,” I said, suddenly. “A few years ago. It’s remarkable to see her in the Keepsakes, looking so young. I only hope they’ll be the legacy she intended, if ever her children decide they want them.”
He nodded but didn’t appear to be listening, no matter how informed I proved myself to be. Unlike the Professor or my Banker before him, my interest in the discipline did not inspire him to energetic conversation. Standing in my dormitory, waiting to see whether his attention would return, I was trapped not just by the Vault but by the constant reminders that it was far better to be a real person. If I were a real girl, I’d know whether this discomfort I felt meant I wanted him to go or to stay.
“How old are you?”
He drew in a breath to answer. “Twenty-five.”
“Isn’t that funny? That I’m nineteen but so much older than you.”
“But you shouldn’t be.” Now he seemed to come out of his thoughts and face me, his tone expressing his curiosity. “You weren’t extracted until ought-six. You shouldn’t recall anything before then, not even what the real Dolores knows. You shouldn’t retain anything that happened after.”
“But I do.” ●
Illustrations by Jared Oriel for BuzzFeed News.
Excerpted from Mem by Bethany C Morrow, with permission from Unnamed Press.
A California native, Bethany C. Morrow spent six years living in Montreal, Quebec. Her speculative literary fiction uses a focus on character and language to engage with, comment on and investigate worlds not unlike our own. MEM is her debut novel. She currently resides in upstate New York.
Find out more about Mem.