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The Ephemera - Chapter Three
This is a chapter 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.
After fifteen minutes inside the Watchers’ black sedan, Elara knew everything they wanted her to know about Callum and why they were after him. Which was very little. It was served to her as a memory, forcibly injected into her cortex. She tried to tell them she had a history with artificial memories and that giving her a port was like pouring vodka down the throat of an alcoholic, but they didn’t listen. Didn’t care. Maybe couldn’t, because to them the present was always the past.
She could almost taste the memory when it came. It bulldozed through the front wall of her attention, then seemed to go down her throat. That was strange; usually ports went to your head like the rush from standing up too fast. When it was over, Elara found herself recalling the Watchers telling her about Callum’s supposed criminality at some point in an undefined past: maybe yesterday, maybe years ago.
The Watchers were looking at her. Waiting, as if they’d just spoken seconds ago and wanted a response. When Elara realized, she wanted to shout at them. She wanted to tell them they were freaks, that normal people couldn’t seamlessly juggle the long-ago and the now. She wanted to scream and insult them, but she didn’t. It was probably better to just follow instructions. Things would end faster that way.
“I haven’t seen Callum in years, before today,” she said. The agents were dead-eyed, unwilling or unable to gaze directly at her. She’d heard rumors about the way Watchers lived: always looking back, never really in the moment. Elara couldn’t imagine what that would be like, although maybe Rhys could. Just thinking about it was enough to give her the shakes. It’s why she avoided external memories as much as she could, be they from the Recollarium or the black market … or, in this case, from the mind-rape of Watchers.
“What she says is true,” the male Watcher told his partner.
The woman nodded. She hadn’t been able to catch Callum in the market. “Of course it’s true.”
“I remember,” said the man.
“She’s not a Follower,” the woman said.
Annoyed, the man repeated: “I said I remember.”
“It’s not a crime not to follow the goddamn … the goddamn …” But she didn’t want to say it. She couldn’t even be kind. … the Church or … the Memorarch both fit her point, but she didn’t want to use official titles. Seeing Callum had stirred the old rebel within her — the one her father had worked so hard to guide because Young Elara couldn’t be contained. Even now, even in quasi-custody, she wanted to use words like cult. Like mind butchers. Demagogue. Motherfucking Isaiah Hart.
“Of course not,” said the woman. “Of course it’s not a crime.”
“And it wasn’t,” said the man.
“Wasn’t and hasn’t been,” the woman added.
“You’re free to go,” said the man.
“So is she free to go?” asked the woman.
Then they stared at her. Waiting. The car door had opened behind her, but she didn’t know when it’d happened.
A little confused — unsure if she was actually okay to leave — Elara stepped out, remembering only once her feet touched pavement to grab her two small shopping bags as well. She was still on the outskirts of the market, the place still full of Saturday crowds. Nobody would vanish her now. They’d had their chance when they’d grabbed her, but they wouldn’t do it now.
“This is bullshit,” she said to the Watchers. “You can’t just do things like this, you know.”
“Thank you for your cooperation, Elara Frost of 128 Bromwich, Apartment 6,” said the woman.
“You’re free to go,” said the man.
The door closed.
The car drove away, and it was all Elara could do, once they’d gone, not to collapse in relief, panic, and destabilized terror.
“Pennies?” said a voice.
Elara was back on her block, a mile or more from the bustle of the marketplace. She’d managed to return home with two goals accomplished. The first, set before she left, had been to buy groceries without watching any holographized memories for sale in the Recollarium’s grey market — a great feat of self-control, seeing as tomorrow Rhys would turn twenty-one if he was still alive. The second goal, which she set when the Watchers grabbed her, was to find her way home at all. If memories could be implanted in a person without permission, some said they could be stolen as well.
She turned toward the voice and saw Vespera. The woman was bone-white from head to toe, dressed in what looked like piles of lacy curtain fabric. Her hair was a beautiful mess: pale enough to have been bleached, piled in tufts that made her look a deliberate version of crazy. Her eyes were far away, but still somehow fixed on Elara. As usual, she was mostly buried in the pile of belongings that she called home. To Elara, those belongings looked like trash, but the pile never stank, never depleted, and never changed. In one sense, Vespera was a neighborhood fixture — one the police would have removed if she’d taken up station on a more upscale block. But in another sense, she was something else entirely. Even looking right at her, she seemed not to exist — like she was a glimmer, or an illusion. Her voice was melodic and dreamy and the loose white clothing she wore somehow never got dirty. She had hard, wild eyes, but an angelic presence. Elara kept trying to help her, but Vespera liked things how they were. Elara lived in an apartment. Vespera lived in a pile. The difference, she seemed to think, was just semantics.
“I only have nickels,” Elara said, setting her bags down to fish in her pocket.
“Let me see.”
Elara handed Vespera the silver. Vespera looked the nickels over, touching each and closing her eyes. Then she pinched one of them delicately between her thumb and forefinger and extended the rest back to Elara.
“Keep it,” Elara said. “Buy yourself some bread.”
Vespera shook the rejected nickels impatiently until Elara took them back. “Why would I need food? I have never needed food before.”
Elara shrugged indulgently. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe keep starvation at bay.”
“I do not require starvation.”
“No. But maybe you require food?”
Vespera wasn’t paying attention. She was rolling Elara’s nickel from one hand to the other. Every once in a while she’d pick it up, turn it very precisely, then set it back down. Elara resisted the impulse to push harder about the food. Vespera was so thin and so frail, her eyeballs bugged and her cheeks were sunken. She said she’d been born that way. She wouldn’t take anything, save pocket change, that anyone offered her. And one thing was true: Elara had never seen her eat.
“This is a good one,” she said of the nickel.
“Yes. It arrived in the city in the pocket of a man with great dreams and ambitions. He spent it on mints. It sat in a drawer, in a bodega, for weeks on end, always the remainder when the owner bagged his change for the bank. The things it heard, Elara. The things it heard.”
Elara gave the woman a press-lipped smile, nodded, and turned back to the sidewalk. Her doorway was just ahead. “Take care, Vespera,” she said.
“It was marshmallows,” Vespera mumbled behind her.
“It was hot dogs, yes. But it was also marshmallows.”
Elara turned fully, then walked back to the homeless woman. The trash around her was mostly shades of brown. In its middle, Vespera looked like a bright light, almost too washed-out for her face to have features.
“What did you say?”
“What did they say?” Vespera echoed.
“What did you mean just now, when you said marshmallows?”
“I don’t remember that,” Vespera said, not looking up.
“You just said—”
“You remember that.”
Vespera looked up. Right into Elara’s eyes. Her irises were so dark blue, they almost blended into the pupils. “But do you, Elara? Is it really yours?”
“Is what really mine?”
She held up the nickel. “It’s his birthday tomorrow.”
Elara felt cold. She’d bantered with Vespera almost every day since she’d gotten the museum job and moved into this building, but their exchanges always felt like talking to a child. She knew Vespera’s look: that of someone who’d farmed and sold so many memories that she no longer knew who she was, like many who’d had no other way to make ends meet — who’d literally sold their minds and still ended up on the streets.
But this was different. This was the first time Elara had seen Vespera so present. So apparently sound of mind, all at once and out of the blue. It was the first time the woman had said anything that meant anything to Elara, the first time she’d sounded like an adult able to make her own decisions. The first time, maybe, that she’d pulled back the curtain and shown Elara the real woman behind the specter.
It was an eerie feeling. With intelligence in her eyes, Vespera’s gaze was like a ghost’s.
“Whose birthday,” Elara said.
“The man on the nickel.”
“Whose birthday are you talking about, Vespera?”
“Hey!” said a gruff man’s voice. Elara turned to see Cooper, the building superintendent. He’d come down the stoop and was staring at Vespera like she was a troublemaker. Coop was fat through the belly, with three chins and the chest of a linebacker. His arms were small things, like those of a T-rex. He turned to Elara and said, “That one bothering you, Ms. Frost?”
Elara blinked. When she looked back, Vespera had retreated into her hovel. She was inside the box at the pile’s rear, now sitting with her legs bent and splayed like a W. She was playing with her new nickel. If there’d been intelligence in her eyes, it was gone now.
“No,” Elara told Cooper. “No, she’s fine.”
“Because I can clear her the fuck out of here. Don’ need no fuckin’ garbage on the stoop, if you know what I mean.”
“It’s fine, Cooper. Really. I’d rather you leave her alone.”
Coop nodded, then waddled back inside. He was new to the superintendent job. Wanted to do his best for the building so they’d keep paying him, but in truth clearing the streets of harmless vagrants was, in most of the residents’ minds, kind of a no-go no matter what he’d just told Elara. A fine line separated those with housing from those without in this part of town. Kicking out the homeless felt like kicking themselves out in advance. For all Elara knew, her brother might be like Vespera now. He’d had to support his habit somehow, and selling pieces of his past would be a natural way to do so.
She took a few steps, then looked back at the pile of trash. From the stoop, Vespera was invisible.
It’s his birthday tomorrow, she’d said.
As Elara turned and entered the building, she couldn’t shake a strange feeling: that if she’d kept asking Vespera questions, she could have read Elara’s whole day back to her.
And, of course, her constant thoughts of baby brother Rhys … wherever he’d gone.
Please note that the first chapters of The Ephemera will be publicly available, but only my members will get the whole book. Learn more and become a member here.
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