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The Ephemera - Chapter Six
This is part of my new book, The Ephemera. I’m publishing it here as I write it, without revision, because readers asked to see my process. You can find previously-published chapters of The Ephemera here.
I’m making the first chapters public, but you’ll need to be a member to read the full book. Learn more or become a member here. Membership is cheap, and an extremely appreciated way to show your support.
There will only be one more chapter available for free after this one.
(It was marshmallows.)
Now it almost seemed that she was hearing voices. The two insistent thoughts — Callum on hot dogs versus marshmallows, Rhys wanting to know if she heard him about his guitar pick — were playing off each other inside her head like dueling amplifiers. It felt like one was picking at the other, trying to bring it back to the surface. Why? The two events were entirely unrelated.
(But it was hot dogs. But it was marshmallows. Here’s my phone number. Here’s the phone number, Elara, that I won’t have for another five years.)
She was looking at her music box. Still dripping, still wearing her towel. She didn’t remember what song it played. Wasn’t that strange, to not remember something so core to her childhood? Her mother had given her that music box to make Elara feel better one day after they’d all gone to a street fair and Elara had dropped her hot dog, and this time it really was a hot dog, and Elara had cried and cried.
(Except that you hate hot dogs. If someone gave you a hot dog, you’d cheer if you dropped it.)
She stopped with her hand on the music box. She felt unreal for just a moment. Untethered. The world around her was the same as always, but it’d seemed for just a minute there that she was seeing it all differently, as if from a different vantage or from up above.
You’ve finally done it, girl, said a voice inside — the voice, interestingly, of her teenage self. She’d forgotten the sound of that voice (the one that used to tell her to run off, to break things, to cause mayhem because the world was cruel and it’d caused so much mayhem around her) until just moments ago, when she’d been thinking of Rhys, asking with upheld guitar pick if she’d heard him. You’ve finally repressed yourself to the breaking point.
She ignored the voice as she got dressed, spending too much time thinking about each part of the process just so her mind would be occupied and unable to stray. First pants. Then underwear. I mean, fuck.
She fixed things, slightly worried now that atop the flashbacks and discordant recollections today, she’d now forgotten how to dress herself. But it was fine. It was just one of those days. This was happening because Rhys had his birthday tomorrow and she couldn’t stop thinking about him, right down to hallucinating him into her apartment earlier, complete with sheep. Maybe she needed to get outside and clear her head. She should put some shoes on her hands and a hat on her feet, then go for a walk.
She put her hand on her music box. The one Mom had given her after she’d dropped her hot dog, obviously pleased about it but apparently crying for some reason. The music box whose tune, played so often in her childhood, she now couldn’t recall.
(Maybe it’s not your music box.)
She stopped at that. Obviously it was her music box. It’d been in her room forever, and before that in the room she’d shared with Rhys. She was as sure of it as she was sure of the song she played, and the circumstances under which she’d received it from … from …
Her phone trilled. The sound of it was ordinary, but it made her jump. Because she’d repressed herself to the breaking point, and because it was Rhys’s birthday tomorrow, and she was much more on edge than she’d realized. She didn’t used to be this edgy and nervous, because back in the day she never repressed anything. Everyone around Young Elara knew exactly how she felt, even and especially when it was socially unacceptable. The people who knew Adult Elara today would never believe it. She was a model employee now. A good girl. She’d become the most boring kind of rebel: one with a cause … and a pointless cause at that.
Because hey, documents needed to be filed. It was exactly what she’d planned to do with her life.
Her phone’s screen showed a new message, but it came with a large and unknown attachment. The attachment’s size had somehow throttled the message itself, the whole shebang unable to load.
She tossed it to her laptop to view it properly. Without her touching it further, the attachment immediately began to unpack and run itself. It took a few seconds before Elara thought to panic (this was a virus of some sort; what to do?), and by that time the unpacking was finished. She found her screen blacked out, the attachment having maximized to fill it.
Then the cartoon form of Woody Woodpecker appeared. That made sense. He was wearing a bright white suit and a speaker’s ear-worn headset — the kind with a tiny boom like Britney Spears used to wear onstage back when Britney Spears was a thing, which was either right now or possibly eighty years ago, before anyone Elara’s age would have a clue who she was.
“Howdy, folks,” said Woody Woodpecker. He wasn’t speaking in his usual rat-a-tat voice in the way Elara, again, was far too young to know in the first place. Instead, he had a soft southern drawl that brought howdy closer to haady. “Praise be to you, from the Church of Memetheosis.”
Elara wasn’t sure if she should laugh or turn her machine off and rush it to tech support. She’d definitely just fallen for some sort of computer worm, but on the upside it was a pretty witty worm. Whoever made this could get into a fair amount of shit, mocking Isaiah Hart like this.
“Now, I gotta tell ya,” Woody/Isaiah went on, “usually we’ve got it all under control. Usually, we got your heads grabbed nice and tight. Ain’t that right, Huckleberry Hound?”
The white-suited cartoon woodpecker had been strolling side to side as he gave his folksy sermon, just like Memorarch Hart did onstage. Now he’d reached the edge of that stage, where a blue cartoon dog stood tied up with both hands anchored to a post above his head. He wore a red bowtie and a scallop-edged straw hat that could only be worn on a Tennessee porch while sipping mint juleps, but nothing else. Usually cartoons wore no pants and correspondingly had no genitals. This time he had testicles, and a big bulldog was squeezing them like overfilled balloons. No matter what Woody said, it wasn’t his head that’d been grabbed nice and tight.
“My mind is for all minds!” Huckleberry Hound with the all the religious ecstasy of a penitent making a mimetic confession. “Without the memorarch, my memories are unclean!”
Woody rubbed his hands, looked down as if troubled by the Hound’s lack of purity, and strolled back until the other was out of sight.
“But something’s happened, friend,” he said, now looking toward the camera — toward Elara. “It’s possible you’ve fucked us. You get me, pard? One of you motherfuckers out there got yourself a singe.”
Elara startled at the word, but relaxed almost immediately after. This message wasn’t just for her; its plural nature suggested it’d gone out to a lot of people, maybe even to the whole city. She’d heard rumors there might be singe happening in the memory markets, but she’d been good in that department for a long time now. She’d resisted the lure of the Recollarium for weeks, despite all the enticing foreign memories that were bought and sold there. You could remember taking a trip to space there, or you could remember winning the Nobel Prize. If you didn’t mind browsing the adult section in public, you could also remember having an orgy with the cast of Friends or Beverley Hills 90210.
But Elara hadn’t bought a tube in forever, despite a latent-addict’s burning desire to. It meant she didn’t need to worry about running across dangerously singed memories. With the exception of whatever Callum had given her, she’d wasted troubling amounts of time viewing only her own recorded memories — those she’d had, and kept quarantined, for years.
“Now here’s the thing,” said Memorarch Woody Woodpecker, still using Hart’s soft preacher voice. “You see any singe and report it to the Watchers, they’re gonna pay you a visit. Because they’re tied into the business — and the collection — of someone the watchers don’t much like.” Woody smiled. “I do, though.”
Morozov, Elara thought. This message must have come from Vadim Morozov, Curator of the Archive.
“Look, I ain’t here to judge. Everyone likes to dip all sorts of wicks into all sorts of honeypots, and I understand that. Maybe you’re a Follower, and after this message ends you’re gonna tell the Watchers about this, about what ol’ Woody warned you about. But a lot of you are just regular folks. Folks who ain’t been brainwashed. Or at least, you think you ain’t been brainwashed.”
Elara sat back, starting to wonder. She’d heard a few other distant trills when her phone had made its alert, and that meant her neighbors were probably watching this video right now, too. She’d heard Seeker conspiracy theories about mental manipulation, but it was strange to hear them coming from the office, probably, of the Curator. He was a shadowy, disturbed sort of man, but she’d never heard the Archive talk this way. False nostalgia somehow presented to everyone, everywhere, all at once to keep the city in line? It was crazy. As crazy as Woody Woodpecker’s laugh.
“Singe is dangerous. Maybe you love the church and maybe you hate the folks on the other side, even though officially we all know there is no other side. But if you got singe, it didn’t come from them. It either came from something illegal you bought — something Memetheosis wouldn’t look kindly on, hear? — or you’re making singed memories all by your lonesome. So let me ask you, friend.” Woody put on the most earnest, most caring expression a cartoon woodpecker can wear. “What do you think the Watchers will do to you if you tell them that?”
Elara felt a chill.
“So here’s what you’re gonna do. First, you’re gonna keep an eye out. You’re gonna watch any memories you play for signs of breaking apart. Anything that hits you funny. Blips. Omissions that weren’t there before. You’re gonna watch for POV shifts: Like maybe you’re watching a memory from behind your granny’s eyes, but then all of a sudden you’re seeing it all from the brain of someone else in the room, or maybe from outside anyone, just floating around. All those things scream singe. And if you see anything, you’re gonna say something. Not to the Watchers, but to us.”
The fullscreen presentation became a window. A second window opened, containing contact information. It was through a digital remailer of some sort: the ideal way to ensure that both sender and receiver would remain completely anonymous.
Huckleberry Hound was back in the screen, now in a wide two-shot with white-suited Woody.
“You okay with that, my canine friend?”
Despite the torsion on his privates, Hound’s expression was ecstatic like someone receiving a vision. “My past for our future!” he wailed.
The torturer ripped off his testicles. Blood flowed. Woody Woodpecker looked at Elara and gave his signature cartoon laugh, finally sounding more like Woody and less like Hart: “Ha-ha-hahaha!”
The video window vanished. The contact window doubled in size. Elara’s eyes lingered a beat too long, as if it might answer some of her own questions. Why bother with an anonymous address? Everyone who got what she’d just seen would know it came from Morozov and the Archive. Nobody else would dare profane the church like this.
After that, the room was too quiet.
Turning away from the laptop, her vision blurred. Cleared. Blurred. She found herself staring at the music box. The one her mother had given her after she’d been so sad about dropping her hot dog. Which Elara clearly remembered, except now she couldn’t get one thing out of her head, and it was that the memory just didn’t fit. She’d never noticed that before, but it was true. She remembered the fair and she remembered the music box, but all the little sub-modalities were wrong. She’d been nervous at the start of that day about a performance of some sort, a performance she couldn’t remember, but Elara had been an extrovert as a child and loved performing. She seemed to remember hiding from the big costumed characters walking the fair to the delight of other children because they freaked her out, but Elara loved that kind of thing, too. She also distinctly remembered a bullying feeling from her older brother prior to the hot dog incident — just a feeling, nothing specific. Except that Rhys was younger, not older, and the memory felt like before they’d adopted him. So what was that fraternal, bullying sense within her … the one that shared mental space with the hot dog and the music box?
She looked at the contact information onscreen. Was this singe? No, it couldn’t possibly be.
She’d had that music box forever. Since before Rhys, she was pretty sure.
How sure? Do you hear me, Elara?
Clearer in her mind now than the history of the music box was when Rhys had gone to it in her vision. That’s what it felt like now: a vision. It was sort of like a memory, but that might be because it was now in the past. When it was happening, it’d been as real as this.
When you’re ready, you know where to find me, he’d said before parting.
But she didn’t know. Not at all. Just like she hadn’t known Callum’s phone number when, in the marketplace, he’d also told her something she knew that she hadn’t thought she’d known at all.
She’d risen from her chair without intending to. She stood by the knickknack shelf, beside the music box. The box that Rhys had approached before he’d vanished. The box whose drawer he’d opened, then slipped something inside.
Her vision flashed. She saw her shelf exactly as it was now, but with an empty space where the music box stood. Because she would never have been sad if she dropped a hot dog. Nobody, ever, would console Elara for that.
It’s not mine.
But of course it was hers. She’d had it all along.
Just like she’d had Callum’s phone number all along. Although that wasn’t precisely true either, was it?
Her eyes went to the scrap of paper still on her coffee table, on which she’d scrawled his number from memory. She needed to call him. She needed to know why the Watchers were after him and why their encounter had been so cryptic. Her vision of Rhys had said that Callum was a messenger, that he hadn’t run into Elara by accident today. But Rhys was as good as dead, right? She was only losing her mind now because it was almost his birthday.
Losing your mind.
She wasn’t losing her mind. She had no singe. There was no way it could happen, unless this was just a garden-variety breakdown. It was true that she’d bottled herself up these past years. After Mom’s tumor, Elara had needed to become the responsible one. Gone were her rebellious tendencies. Gone was her intention to upend the system, like all young punks intend to do. She pushed all that down since age 19, and this right now was probably the result of all that pressure, finally breaking through.
So we’re in agreement. You are losing your mind.
“No,” she said aloud.
One hand was on the top of the music box. The other was on the tiny brass pull on its front, opening the drawer to see what Dream Rhys had put inside.
There was only one thing, covered in thick dust as if it’d been in the drawer for years. Elara lifted it out, turning it before her eyes to catch the light.
It was Rhys’s favorite guitar pick, with the telltale chip in its side.
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