Palo Alto Weekly 35th Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Young Adult

Memento

by Jessica Wang

Author Bio

Jessica Wang is a rising senior at Henry M. Gunn High School. A resident of Palo Alto, she fell in love with writing at a young age and has been spinning stories ever since. At Gunn, she is looking forward to serving as the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper The Oracle. She also co-leads and composes arrangements for the A Cappella Club. Outside of writing, she enjoys dabbling in photography, solving puzzles, running, and folding tiny paper cranes.

Inspiration

"Memento" began as a single line of dialogue—"You would tell me…right?"—and a vivid mental image of two siblings watching the sunset together. Then, a stray daydream about anterograde amnesia in my psychology class revived the premise in the context of cognitive disabilities in a futuristic world. Writing this piece allowed me to explore the core values of family, trust, and remembrance in the context of my newfound awareness of mortality during the pandemic. What are the traces we leave on the world? How do we care for our loved ones? How much do we tell them?

Judge Comments

Alternately artful, masterfully show-run, and baffling, "Memento" is worth the work it takes to grok… or, at least, to track its deft flashbacks for the poignant memories they evoke. Reading it is like watching an avant-garde ballet, while doing the New York Times double-acrostic. I’ll admit, I didn’t fully get it. I just liked it. A lot.

— Tom Parker

Mae stands out on the back porch step, watching the 57th autumn sunrise play over the sky. Today, it has green streaks—streaks that take me back to the time in seventh grade when she laser-infused her hair with seaweed and Mom freaked out.

"Did you order those?" I say, gesturing to the sky.

"Oh, no," Mae says wryly. "I didn’t put any sunrise requests in. Anyway, the sky’s the same today as it was yesterday."

I wonder, not for the first time, what her yesterday was. Mine was having tea with her and pretending my two-year-old son didn’t just try asparagus for the first time. As far as Mae knows, my son doesn’t exist, and Sydney is still my latest sweetheart. As far as she knows…

The evening trumpets blast across the domed city, and the horizon’s light show fades softly into indigo twilight. A hovercar sails across the silver moon, then another and another as traffic resumes. As if on cue, a cool wind sweeps across the yard, bringing goosebumps to my skin. I turn and reenter the warmth of the house.

This is the house of our childhood, and it has no mirrors. The photos on the mantelpiece are five years old, from just before I married Sydney. Mae couldn’t even attend my wedding, even though when we were kids I promised her she could be the flower girl, no matter how old she was. There were a lot of promises that I couldn’t keep.

I move to the living room and touch the cardboard box on the table. It arrived this morning from Mae’s distant friend Lynn from middle school. I guess it took five years for the news to reach her. Time travels at its own pace these days.

I carry the box to the Memory Room and open it gingerly, sliding my fingers under the concealing tape. My hands sift through the items.

A small bead bracelet. The tag reads: Mae gave this to me for my thirteenth birthday.

A stack of cards. One reads, Congratulations on passing your time quals! We all finished training in middle school. Time jumping can be dangerous, but Mae studied and got her license just like us all.

At the bottom, the soft cotton of a T-shirt. Mae let me borrow this for gym. I never returned it.

Next to it, the cold edges of a chess piece. She beat me, of course. A knot catches in my throat, and suddenly I feel as though I am falling, except there’s someone to catch me—rather, someone to stand over me with her hands on her hips, demanding I get up, and—

"Checkmate," Mae says. It’s a humid summer day, and she’s sitting across the table from me with a shrewd squint. Skinny face, a smattering of freckles. She is ten, and I just turned twelve.

"It’s too hot to think," I complain. "Mae, how do you keep beating me?"

"It’s just strategy," she says with a shrug, and touches two fingers to her temple like Professor X in those old sci-fi movies. "I can predict the future…and it tells me that…you’re doing my load of dishes!" She leaps to her feet with a happy grin. "Come on, Solomon—pay up!"

There’s her hand, outstretched to help me up. Bare wrist, tanned from the sun, no timepiece. I ended up washing her dishes, but after a few moments of flitting around in triumph, Mae declared that I was working too slowly and began rinsing the utensils. Even though she won fair and square, we ended up side by side, sharing the luxury of running water through our fingers on a humid summer day.

I set the chess piece on the table and sigh. Four items to sum up an entire relationship. My fingers catch on a note tucked in the folds of the shirt. My condolences. I hope this helps. Mae was a good friend.

Is, I think reflexively.

When we were younger, the time revolution was the world’s most exciting game of hopscotch. Jump past a set of chores, skip the travel time to your destination, wake up and you’ve lost a few minutes of your life, boom, but who wants to waste time on that anyway? We couldn’t wait to get our first timepieces.

But that was before people started having accidents, before the company released its statement, and before the geneticists revealed that there was a rare biological predisposition for what they called "time loops." We learned to harness time before we learned what time could do. A fluke, the companies called it, and they promised the next model would be safe. There were a lot of promises they didn’t keep.

Another piece of mail chimes in our inbox. I reach in and pull out an e-flyer, and my insides seize up.

PROTECT YOUR LOVED ONES FROM THE CHANGING WORLD, the e-flyer reads. The Clive Wearing House: a safe facility for time loopers. No mirrors, no Memory Rooms, no mistakes. Quality care 24/7 with holographic visits.

I swipe the flyer to the trash with trembling hands. They shouldn’t have our address. It’s only been five years. We’re not ready for that. I wouldn’t do that. Mae belongs at home.

"Sol?" She stands in the doorway, her expression wavering between uncertainty and surprise. "When did you get here?"

"I…" I close the inbox. What I want to say is, I saw you five minutes ago, but I know she won’t understand. She doesn’t usually have a relapse in the evening. "...just did," I finish lamely. "I let myself in. Spare key."

Mae’s eyes drop to the items on the table.

"Lynn," she says wonderingly, and takes the cotton shirt in her hands with a smile. "I remember this…"

I watch her intently, hanging in the suspense of the dip in her voice, the dot-dot-dot that used to give us so much hope. And…? What else do you remember? I bite my tongue. Silence draws water from wells.

"She never gave it back to me, huh," Mae says, and my shoulders deflate. There used to be a chorus of us prompting her eagerly, waiting for that moment when something would click and everything would rush back into place. Now, I’m the only one left that still hopes she’ll be part of the miraculous 0.2% cured by retrieval cues. Sometimes, I don’t know if I still hope.

The image of the e-flyer rises to my mind, but I shake it away.



Two years into the loop, I found her sitting on the floor of the Memory Room with tears in her eyes. I’d forgotten to lock the door, and she’d wandered in. Thirty-two and not even going silver. She looked straight at me and said waveringly,

"Is it me?"

And I said, "It’s you, Pugs."

And there among dusty shelves full of cards, gifts, figurines, letters and words and memories contained in glass bubbles, she put her head in my lap and cried. She didn’t ask how it had happened because no one asks how or why. It just does. Time heals mistakes, and it makes mistakes sometimes.

"How long has it been, Sol?" she asked me with glossy eyes.

"Two years."

She touched my face and felt the wrinkles around my eyes and cried. For a moment, it was a relief to tell her, a relief that she knew.

As kids, we’d seen it happen to others, even those that were licensed. We just never thought—I never thought that it could really affect us. It was like getting into a hovercar accident. "Just wear your seatbelt and stay on the skyway!" said the jolly advertisements.

Two years of caring for my baby sister. She could tie her own shoelaces, but I had to filter out her mail and bring in the memento boxes. Back then, they were still pouring in—boxes of memories from friends, family, acquaintances that I’d never heard of. All of the people she had touched in thirty years returned everything she’d given them. These were the traces she’d left on the world, packed into neat brown boxes.

Back then, we were still full of foolish prayers, pinning our hopes on that miraculous 0.2%. We’d given up on treatments—after all, there wasn’t a promised cure that wasn’t part-faith. Back then, I had no son, just a wife and a house close to Mae.

That day, Mae knew what had happened, and it stole away her hope. I don’t think for a minute she believed in the 0.2%—that was classic analytical Mae—and from the stacks of shelves, she knew it had been awhile. Instead, she cried in my lap until she cried herself to sleep, and when she woke back in her bed it had vanished like a dream. Blank slate. No Memory Room. No mistakes.



Mae walks into the kitchen rubbing the cotton shirt absently in her hands and sets it down on the counter.

"Tea?" I ask.

"Sure," she murmurs, and runs a hand through her hair. I pick up the kettle and pour a steady stream of hot water into the ceramic teacup.

Four years into the loop, Mae screamed and dropped the tea kettle on the floor, splashing scalding water on her feet. When I ran into the room, she wasn’t moving, just transfixed. It was nighttime, and with the glowing lights indoors, her reflection in the window stared back.

"What happened to me, Sol?" she asked in horror, her hands reaching up to touch her hair and her cheeks. "What happened to my face?"

She turned to me and her eyes widened again. "What happened to you?"

"We’re getting old, Mae," I joked, and laughed tensely. "Come on, we’re not sweet spry teenagers anymore."

"But I’m so—I’m so—" She turned back to the window. "I look like I’ve aged four years. Did I look like this yesterday?"

"Sure you did, Mae," I said lightly, and moved to pull the window blinds shut. "Time is a sneaky thing."

"Is it," she said, and her hand absently drifted to the bare spot on her wrist where her timepiece used to be.

I calmed her down, and together we limped to the kitchen to pour cold water on her lobster-red feet. Take care of your baby sister. It was my first commandment.

Now she sips tea calmly, and the youth that remains in her face makes me want to cry. No mirrors, no mistakes. Our house isn’t foolproof. We painted the windows with matte, and most of the silverware is gone. But there’s always the risk of slipping up, of her discovering the medical files or the condolence cards or the Memory Room. I’d do anything not to see that naked horror on her face again.

"Mae, you’re so young still," I say softly.

"Not much younger than you," she retorts. In her head she is still thirty, and will always be thirty.

"Oh, Pugs," I say, and we lapse into silence.

Time makes mistakes sometimes, but time keeps moving forward. Our whole family swore off timepieces for the sake of a genetic predisposition, but one day my son will ask me, Why not? All my friends are doing it. What will my answer be? One day, I’ll be sixty and unmistakably grey, and Mae’ll be fifty-eight and having mysterious back pains, and I won’t be able to visit without her spooking at the sight of me. Would the holographic visits be worth it then?

"Is everything okay?"

"What? Yes."

Some things haven’t changed. She still loves to watch the sunset.

"Sol?"

"Hm?"

"You would tell me if I was stuck in a time loop, right?"

I suck in a breath, and suddenly the moment seems suspended in honey, her words echoing thickly through the air as if I was underwater. You would tell me…you would tell me…right?

There was a time when I didn’t keep anything from her. We played the same sports and joined the same clubs. We even studied for our time quals together. But that was ages ago.

You would tell me…right? I dreaded this question yesterday. I dread it today. I’ll dread it tomorrow.

"Of course," I told her yesterday. "Of course I would, Pugs."

But the words felt bitter like iron on my tongue, slippery like an oily fish.

Today, I just say,

"You’re my baby sister, Pugs."

And I turn away before she can see the shine in my eyes. Mae, too smart and too caring to live a life of isolation. She’d beat me at chess and then tempt me to laser-infuse my hair ocean blue, but I wouldn’t give up watching the sunset with her. Not so long as I have the choice.