approx 4200 words, ~35 min read time
“Can’t you give me another extension? Please. My kid’s sick. Medicine isn’t cheap.” Angel tried her best to soften her voice, to plead with her eyes, to remove all traces of the hard edges people saw when they looked at her.
The woman behind the counter had a hardness of her own. Something in her eyes said she’d been at this job long enough to hear every excuse. Time—and perhaps the reckoning with her own powerlessness—had left her calloused. “No more extensions, Ms. Arroyo,” the woman said blandly. “Pay your bill by the end of the week or we’re shutting it down.”
Angel looked into the clerk’s tired eyes. Like recognized like; it would be pointless to argue further. “Fine.” She snatched her purse up from the counter and turned away.
She emerged from the building to find the warm afternoon drizzle had shifted to heavy sheets of rain. Cursing, Angel tented her denim jacket over her head and ran toward the parking lot. When she got to her car, she placed one hand on the bio-lock, awkwardly trying to keep the jacket aloft with the other.
The lock beeped once and blinked red.
“Come on, not today.”
She wiped her palm on her shirt and used the hem to wipe down the lock.
Beep. Red. “Fuck.”
Angel repeated the process three times before the light flashed green and the door opened with a shuddering screech, the hydraulics showing their age. She collapsed into the car with a sigh, flinging her jacket into the back where it landed with a wet plop. For a moment she just sat, cradling her purse in her lap, listening to the rain hammer the windshield, watching the droplets make tiny rivers down toward the hood. She dropped her head into her hands and gave herself a moment to feel the weight, though she couldn’t afford to feel it for too long. Being sad didn’t change anything.
The car’s autodrive was on the fritz, so Angel called up the manual controls and pulled out into the buzzing traffic, instinctively weaving around other cars, occasionally catching the flash of screens in her periphery. She squinted against the glare of the billboards blazing their offerings in an unbroken line on each side of the road. But she barely registered any of it, her mind too focused on other survival calculations.
Angel hadn’t been lying to the clerk. She pictured her daughter’s face—the gap in Luna’s smile where she’d lost another tooth, the cheeks that looked hollower every day.
The comm pinged, and the car’s canned voice began reading the incoming message. “Angel Arroyo: You missed your scheduled MRI. It is important that you contact us as soon—”
As if the message had conjured it, she felt another headache unfurling. At her last visit, Dr. Wright had used words like lasting effects and find other means and slow down. And as he spoke, Angel thought about all the bills that needed to be paid. All the decisions that were now only hers to make.
Luna was slipping away. Angel could feel it. No matter how many transfusions her daughter underwent, how many different drugs the doctors pumped into her small body, nothing seemed to help. The treatments were slowly bleeding their meager savings dry; soon there would be nothing left. But what was the alternative? As long as there was a chance, Angel had to take it. She’d already lost too much, but she’d lose everything before she lost her daughter.
She needed money and she needed time, and both were in short supply. Headache or no, lasting effects or no, there was nothing for it: she’d have to hit Echo again. Third time this month.
When Angel let herself into the apartment, her mother was wrapped in a blanket in the sweltering living room watching a K-drama Angel didn’t recognize.
“Taking a nap.” Her mother’s gaze didn’t leave the screen. “Rough one today.”
Angel closed her eyes against more feelings she didn’t have time for. “What’s this one about?”
“That one’s a ghost.” One thin, blue-veined hand emerged from the blanket to point at the screen. “Other’s a cyborg. Families won’t let them be together, like Romeo and Juliet.” This last with a sigh.
Angel smiled, just a little. “I have to go back out.”
“You get the bill taken care of?” Her mother finally looked over.
“Yeah,” Angel said, turning down the hall, so she wouldn’t have to look her mother in the eye.
She cracked the door to her daughter’s room and peeked inside. The light from the hall bathed the girl’s pale face. That morning, they’d played Go Fish and told each other knock-knock jokes until Angel had to leave for work. Luna had been upbeat, laughing even as her energy waned. Knock, knock. Who’s there? You. You who? You hoo, anybody home? She hadn’t wanted to stop even when her nose started bleeding.
Angel approached the bed quietly and checked Luna’s vitals. The bruising around her mouth looked more pronounced. The sight made Angel want to cry, but her eyes stayed dry. She placed a hand on Luna’s forehead: sleep-warm but not hot. That was good. Luna looked so peaceful in sleep, the pain temporarily gone. Angel held on to the moment, cataloging it, remembering to remember.
In the bedroom she shared with her mother, Angel hung her sodden jacket on the back of the door, stripped off her damp black t-shirt, and pulled an identical one from the closet. Her hair had puffed up in the humidity, so she scraped it up into a bun as she sat down heavily on the edge of the bed. She pulled the tablet from the bedside drawer and hunted around for the power cord. Found it sticking out from under the bed like the tail of a hiding cat. The tablet was an old model and didn’t hold much of a charge, but it worked alright if you plugged it in. She powered it on and opened the file, running her eyes over the familiar words.
Luis, the first time
Luis and Luna at the beach
Luna’s first steps
She stopped reading after a few. Looking at this list was like looking into a mirror and not recognizing her own face. She should know these things. All she knew now was that she’d lost them.
She closed the file and pulled up another, bracing herself as the first photo appeared onscreen. Luis with Luna in his arms, his head bent toward her, a fingertip touching her tiny, perfect nose. Luna in the bath, smiling, bubbles piled atop her head in a lopsided crown. The three of them on the boardwalk on an overcast day, hair whipped by the wind off the ocean, arms around each other, happy.
The pain was crowding in, so Angel turned to the safety of anger. She powered the tablet down and slipped it back into the drawer, closing it with a snap. She would focus on what needed to be done. As she grabbed a dry jacket from the closet and shrugged it on, she considered what she would give up this time. Mentally added Luis, the last time to the list. She’d thought about giving it up before but had always balked, even though she knew it would sell. Sex always sold, and she and Luis had had a lot of it, some of it memorable. That one just made her sad now, anyway. Maybe it would ease some if she could let that moment go.
In the living room, her mother was exactly where Angel had left her.
The ghost on the screen was weeping.
Angel’s boot heels click-clacked across the white marble floor, echoing in the cavernous entryway of EchoBank.
There were a few different memory banks out there, but Echo paid the most. They’d cultivated a wide client base of people who couldn’t just enjoy a sim like everyone else. Who had too much disposable income and wanted to spend it taking a ride in someone else’s life. The experience had to be authentic. Rich people were obsessed with authenticity.
Danny sat at the chest-high front desk, playing a handheld. Two holograms rose up from the device: a humanoid lizard fighting some kind of rock giant. They circled each other, jabbing and feinting. Angel could just make out Danny’s face, fuzzy and distorted, behind the two figures.
The rock giant landed a punch, and an arc of digital blood spurted from the lizard man’s snout.
“Damn,” Danny said, setting the game down. “You made me lose my concentration.”
“Angel.” He drew her name out in a way that made her teeth clench. “Back again.”
Danny was harmless enough—a slight man with spindly arms and a mustache that so badly wanted to be worthy of the word but just couldn’t manage it. Still, there was something about him that put Angel’s back up. Maybe it was the way he spoke to her, and maybe it was that he’d seen her come back here so many times. That he knew too much of her business.
“Can’t stay away. I need to make a deposit.”
“You know the drill.” Danny pushed a tablet toward her along with a waft of his cologne.
Angel scrolled to the bottom of the waiver without reading it and signed with the tip of one finger. She already knew its contents by heart. EchoBank is not responsible for…
“Level 3, Room 5 is open. Go on back and I’ll let someone know you’re here.”
Angel began to turn away from the desk, hitching her purse higher on her shoulder.
“Hey.” Danny looked her up and down, clearly appreciating the view. “You wanna go somewhere after? I’m off in an hour. Know a little spot around the corner. Good drinks, good music. Give you something good to remember.”
Angel was too tired to be annoyed at this escalation. “Can’t. Have to get home to my kid.”
Danny reared back in his chair, holding both palms up in a defensive posture. “I don’t date mothers,” he said. The fluff above his lip twisted as he grimaced.
Unbidden, Angel’s mind flashed to the summer Luis had grown a mustache. How she had teased him and refused to kiss him until he shaved it off in a huff. She blinked the memory away. “My loss,” she said, after a short pause, and headed toward the elevators.
In the narrow corridor on Level 3, Angel spotted an older woman with a patterned headscarf tied under her chin coming from the other direction. She was bent over a walker, moving slowly, and Angel had to press her back against the wall to let her pass. As she did, she looked up with a blank, milky-eyed stare. Angel watched until the woman disappeared into the elevator. She brought a hand up and pressed it to her temple. She hadn’t liked that hollow look reflecting back at her.
Room 5, like all the other rooms Angel had been assigned to in this place, was a spartan affair. A large reclining chair like the kind in dentists’ offices. A couple of screens built into the wall. Gray cabinets and a sink. A rolling stool. A single box of tissues.
Angel hung her purse on the wall hook and settled herself in the chair. She crossed her legs at the ankle. Shifted and crossed them the other way. Tilted her head back against the headrest, staring up into the little circles of LEDs spaced at intervals across the ceiling, a man-made constellation.
Angel sometimes wondered about the people who bought her memories. She figured some did it for the thrill, the novelty. And some because they could—like adding gold plating to a toilet. She knew some people were just born takers, and this was one more thing they could take from someone else. She’d even heard that some people did it to “gain empathy” or however they wanted to spin it. Experiencing someone else’s memory was, she supposed, the closest you could get to walking a mile in their shoes. But memory walking wasn’t that much different from playing a sim. Visceral and immersive, perhaps, but fleeting. It didn’t change the rest of your life. Angel wondered how much empathy could really be gained from something like that. And if the people paying for the privilege didn’t see the irony, didn’t think about what it cost someone else…well. Angel wouldn’t make a fuss. She needed the money.
She felt a vibration beneath her left buttock and shifted to retrieve the phone from her back pocket. Another med app alert, a message from Luna’s doctor this time. Ms. Arroyo, We’ve run the additional—
A quick rap on the door made Angel jolt. She slipped the phone back into her pocket with a shaking hand, mind spinning.
A young woman in pink scrubs, her hair a bright, joyful orange, pushed the door open without waiting for an answer. Her eyes, when she raised them from the tablet in her hands, were half-hidden behind the round yellow lenses of her glasses. “I see you’ve deposited with us before,” she said. Her smile was small but warm, and Angel had the sudden, whimsical thought that the woman looked like a walking sunset.
She decided it would be best to cut to the chase. “I was hoping to get an advance.”
The woman’s smile faltered. “Ms. Arroyo—”
“…Angel. I’m sure you know our policy. We only pay when the memory sells.”
Angel looked down at the pink laces threaded through the woman’s otherwise sensible white tennis shoes. “Look,” she said, glancing at the woman’s name tag: Patricia. Angel forced herself to soften, pasting a smile on her face, trying for a shade or two lighter than desperate. “Patricia, you seem nice.”
“I don’t have the authority to give you an advance.” The words were slightly clipped at the edges, the tablet now hugged to Patricia’s chest as though for protection.
Angel pressed her palms against her thighs, hard. Her control of the situation was slipping away, the helplessness clogging her throat threatening to choke her. She refocused, tried a different tack. “What if I deposit a few right now, then? Good ones.”
“There can be side effects.” Patricia looked unsure. “We generally don’t like to take more than one at a time.”
“I know. I’ve signed the waiver.” Angel could feel the other woman’s discomfort but pressed on. “Do you have children?”
A double blink. “No.”
“I have a daughter. She’s…unwell. I really need the money. Can you help me out?”
“Well…” Patricia bit her lip, softening. “I suppose…maybe…we could allow it this one time. But we couldn’t make it a habit.”
“And I can’t give you any money up front.”
“I understand.” Angel closed her eyes. She would call Martha after this. Try to pick up some extra hours.
Her earlier cheer now diminished, Patricia set down her tablet and got to business, opening cabinets and pulling out supplies in silence. She placed sterile pads on the electrodes and attached them along Angel’s hairline, leaning close and pressing each one gently with her fingertips, making sure they were secure. Angel could smell something sweet on the other woman’s breath and wondered if she’d ever banked a memory herself.
“Do those feel okay?”
Patricia handed Angel a glass of water and a small, sealed packet of pills. The standard cocktail, to help things along. She secured a bracelet on Angel’s wrist to monitor her pulse and heart rate, then picked up the tablet again. A few taps, and the screens on the wall came to life.
“All set,” she said after Angel swallowed the pills. “Press the button on the left between each banking and wait for the screens to clear. Then the one on the right when you’re finished.” She moved toward the door but stopped abruptly and blurted out: “I have a nephew.”
Angel took this offering graciously. “That’s nice,” she said.
Patricia gave Angel one last, subdued smile.
The door closed, and Angel was alone.
She sat back, feeling the drugs take effect, all the hairs on her body seeming to lift, her focus honing to a knifepoint. She let herself think about Luis. The memories had been waiting, always there right below the surface, they rose up inside her in a wave she didn’t try to control. She let them flood her, watched them materialize on the screens.
To bank a memory, it had to be a strong one. Something that had left a mark. Something that had worked its way right into that sweet spot in your neocortex. You couldn’t just give up Tuesday at the grocery store. Nothing so flimsy. Nothing that blended with all the other moments of your life.
On the screen, Luis had a hand on Angel’s throat, his lips at her breast. She tried to memorize every breath, every movement, some dim part of her wondering if maybe this time she could keep some piece of it for herself, though she knew it was futile.
If you wanted a memory to sell, it had to be something someone else would want to experience. Sex, love, and joy were always in demand, of course, but so were sadness and pain. The memories that left a mark usually had all these things.
The man on the screen kissed the woman’s mouth and pressed tenderly on her throat, sweetly stealing her breath. Angel watched and remembered. Until she didn’t.
Angel’s older brother, Hector, home from college, brings Luis around for the holidays. The whole family is there. There are pasteles filled with savory pork and sweet raisins, potato salad drenched in cilantro-infused olive oil, music in the air, dancing in the living room. It is 46 days before Angel’s father will be dead, and he and her mother are getting along. Her father is not drinking. Angel’s aunts gently tease her mother about her accent and pronunciation. Her mother blushes and throws up her hands, swearing, as she always does at their corrections, that she will never try to speak their language again. Everyone knows it is an empty oath.
And here is Luis. He has no family of his own left, this boy balanced on the precipice of manhood, all wild, dark hair and eyes that take everything in, a soft half-smile on his lips.
They click immediately, slotting together at the edge of the party like the corner pieces of a puzzle. His voice is soft and low, and Angel has to lean in close to hear him. Close enough to feel the warmth of his breath on her cheek, her ear. He tells her about his plans to go to medical school and of his mother, who died of a rare blood disease for which he is determined to find a cure. He touches her arm once, and Angel feels it all over her body, a rightness that is as comforting as it is overwhelming. She finds herself confiding in him about her parents’ volatile relationship, about her plans to open her own business and be her own boss, so she will never have to rely on anyone but herself.
They go to the seashore.
They go to the movies.
They go to the sim arcade.
They make love in the small bed in Luis’s dormitory while his roommate is out, and once, very quietly, while his roommate is asleep.
They make plans.
They move in together and Angel works odd jobs—sommelier in an upscale tea shop, night auditor in a pleasure hotel, grocery runner—to help put Luis through medical school, putting her dreams on hold for his. Soon after he graduates, Luna is born, a sweet, squalling tornado with her father’s straight black hair and her mother’s stubbornness. Angel takes online business classes at night, holding the baby to her breast with one hand while she takes notes with the other. This path they have chosen is a lot of work, but they are happy.
The last time Angel and Luis make love, it is a celebration of the future and each other. He’s found a position at a local hospital. Good pay, good benefits. He jokes, as he slowly removes her clothes, that she will finally have to rely on him for something. She smirks, says playfully, “You’ll always need me more than I need you,” before taking him into her mouth. Afterward, she watches lazily from the bed as he gets dressed. He leans down and kisses the tip of her breast, rests a warm hand on the curve of her throat, kisses her mouth. She keeps her eyes open and watches him straighten and walk away, out the door. It is the last time she sees him.
The next evening, he is late coming home. At first, Angel thinks nothing of it. She plays with Luna on the carpet, rolling a ball into the vee of the girl’s chubby legs, reveling in the sound of her chortle. It is only after she has put Luna to bed that she starts to worry.
Later, she is able to piece together some of the details from the city’s grainy camera footage: it happens fast. Luis is four blocks from home. At a crosswalk. The light changes. He steps out into the street and, in a matter of seconds, is hit by an autobus with out-of-date sensors.
One moment he is there.
The next he is another casualty of a city that continues to ignore its infrastructure. Nothing is left but a paltry settlement from the city, student loans that eat up all the life insurance money and are still hungry for more, and memories Angel can no longer afford to keep.
Angel cannot forgive Luis for leaving her alone.
The anger is one memory she doesn’t give up.
Angel always felt empty after a donation, but not like this. She’d never banked so much at once before. So strange. She had a vague recollection of the experience, but the memories at its center were completely gone. Like someone’s face cropped out of a photo, just white space where it should have been.
Her head pounded, and her body ached all over. She fought the urge to vomit and wondered if maybe this was what giving birth felt like. She could no longer remember.
Giving up a memory wasn’t like giving blood. Your body couldn’t work overtime to replace it. You couldn’t just rest and hydrate, drink a juice box, and get back what you’d given. Giving up memories changed you a little every time, though perhaps not the core of you. You were still who you were, she supposed, the grooves still dug deep in your riverbed. You’d just lost some of the why. The ability to explain yourself to yourself.
She remembered the message and dug out her phone. Luna’s test results were inconclusive; they would need to do more. And there was an experimental treatment they could try, but insurance wouldn’t cover it. Of course. There was a second message from Dr. Wright. She hadn’t felt the buzz. She saw “MRI” in the subject line and swiped her thumb to delete it.
Maybe she wasn’t completely empty, Angel mused, as she slipped the phone back into her pocket. She did have a new memory in place of whatever she’d given up: the memory of it being taken, the memory of losing something that might have been important.
Outside, it had stopped raining. Angel had taken the bus, which she generally hated to do, though now she couldn’t remember exactly why. She knew it was easier than trying to find parking in this part of town. She headed toward her stop, making an effort to ignore how shitty she felt.
She passed a bar in full swing, noise and light spilling out of the open doorway. Two women leaned against the side of the building. “I promise,” she heard one of them say before pulling the other into a hard kiss. Angel turned the corner, leaving them behind. She looked back over her shoulder down the street, her vision blurring at the edges. The bus was nowhere in sight, but she sped up her pace anyway, willing her shaking legs to move faster. She thought again about calling Martha, and maybe she could sell some of her grandmother’s old jewelry, not that it would be worth much. She thought briefly about calling Hector, but she hadn’t spoken to him in years, not since his last stint in rehab. She wasn’t even sure where he was living these days.
When Angel got to the bus shelter, she leaned her forehead against the cool plexiglass and closed her eyes. Sweat slicked between her shoulder blades. She licked her lips with a dry, rasping tongue and tried to remember, but she didn’t know what she was trying to remember. Knock, knock. Who’s there? Luna? Yes, Luna. Always, Luna. And something else that slipped from her grasp whenever she reached for it. But whatever it was didn’t matter anymore. Luna was all that mattered now.
If all else failed, she would just wait a couple weeks and go back to Echo. She would get the money together because she had to.
She still had something left to give.
Rachel Lastra is a writer and editor currently based in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, SmokeLong Quarterly, Chestnut Review, and MoonPark Review. She is a student in the MA in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University.