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  • Writer's pictureLannie Neely III

From Lost to Lasting

Updated: Jul 1

PART ONE


“So, you’re just going to eat that pie?” Neil adjusted his heavy lenses. “Just like that? Just like you baked it yourself?”

He could imagine the fat man rubbing his large stomach, one hand beneath his shirt, while trying to manage the dream equipment with his other hand. Now he was devouring the client’s homemade rhubarb pie. He was insatiable. He couldn’t stop eating even when the food wasn’t real.

“This taste simulation is top notch, Wattsy. You can’t beat it.” Alistair flicked a crumb from his artificially chiseled jaw. The fleck of buttered crust flickered and sizzled soundlessly before disappearing into the grass.

“That pie could have easily been a Memory Link,” Neil said half-heartedly. “Who am I kidding? I’m sure you don’t care.”

“Starting to sound like Eva, Wattsy.”

“Quit calling me Wattsy,” Neil retorted. He chided himself for being too serious. He shouldn’t lose his rebellious, witty edge just because he was in charge for a change—just because Eva requested him personally.

Alistair looked up from the empty pie tin. Cerise rhubarb juice flickered away from his high cheekbones and perfect smile. “What is this dump, anyway?”

Neil had trouble looking at Alistair when he talked—at least while diving into a client’s dream. The same software that made it possible to be physically undetectable could also be used to change other perceived appearances—that is, within the world of extracted memories. It was actually the original purpose of this small section of software. It was meant to alter the user’s in-machine avatar. But as the career field evolved the practice became an unneeded distraction, looked down upon by the majority of scientists. It wasn’t unethical, just extremely unprofessional.

But that didn’t stop Neil’s obese colleague, Dr. Alistair McAnders. He waltzed through the software in a dark, toned physique a whole six inches taller than his real self. His dirty blonde hair was replaced with an unnatural umber reminiscent of Hollywood superstars. This was why Neil couldn’t look at him when he spoke: Alistair’s voice and body didn’t match. It disgusted him.

“It isn’t over here,” a small girl yelled across the yard. “Did you leave it in the car?”

“Leave what in the car?” said a man who, being mostly shadows and static, could only be discerned by his partially broken lawn chair.

“Pause it,” Neil sighed.

The young girl stopped halfway across the yard, her brown pigtails suspended behind her, one foot hovering above the freshly mowed grass in an awkward gallop. A woman leaned against the frame of the front door, curiosity spread across her lips, looking at the young girl. A muscular man with hairy forearms wedged a spatula beneath a charred patty. A shaded car. A faded neighborhood.

Neil swiped his arm above the blue-checked cover of the wooden table. He rubbed his hand in circles over a spot between the potato salad and a bowl of pixelated corn chips.

“See anything missing here?”

“Could be any number of diff—”

“No,” Neil interrupted. “It could only be one thing. Do you happen to remember what our client’s husband’s favorite food is? I’ll give you one clue: it’s in your fat stomach.”

Alistair’s mouth turned slowly downward, as if to frown, but stopped short with a twitch. It was a visual error that occurred because he hadn’t programmed every possible expression into his facial model. He was more worried about his abs.

“There’s no need to get personal, Wattsy. How was I supposed to know?”

“Because she said it, like, forty-two—” Neil placed his index finger on the bridge of his glasses. Don’t sound like Eva. He took a deep breath. Never sound like Eva. This could be fixed.

“It’s not like we weren’t going to tamper with the memories here soon anyway,” Alistair said. His mouth had stopped fluttering. He now wore a sweet smile with teeth bright enough to attract moths.

“Reset it, McAnders. And this time don’t eat the rhubarb—well don’t eat anything. It’s not like it curbs your appetite.”

“It’s the only place I can indulge without worrying about my delicate frame,” Alistair grumbled with a sparkle in his eye. He phased out.

The scene—suburban houses, faceless friends and relatives, lawn ornaments, tables of food—sucked into small pixels, leaving Neil alone in a black space of indeterminable size. Colors flashed sporadically in the distance. He wondered if it was a good time to log out and use the restroom.

The default jingle sounded. 1120 South Armistice Street reloaded itself in seconds, dabbing bits of scenery and sound like Bob Ross with an unlimited amount of ink. Neil now stood a few feet to the left of where he was before—where he had entered the memory—and immediately scanned for inconsistencies.

“Pie’s there,” Alistair said, gripping Neil by the shoulder. Neil thought he could hear the man’s stomach growl through the software. 

Dr. McAnders was a head taller than Neil in the simulation. It was creepy. Neil scooted forward, removing his invasive colleague’s hand. 

“Good job, McAnders. Now keep your paws to your side till we’re through.” 

Neil peeled a small bit of crust upward to make sure it was the right pie. This was important: The client’s husband loved her homemade rhubarb pie, and this would probably be his last slice. And on his birthday, no less. They could change her past all they wanted, but if her husband didn’t get that last bit of satisfaction, the widowed Mrs. Rosalene would probably regret it. That would be a “mission fail,” as Eva once put it.

Neil’s skin went cold. He wanted this to end quickly, but knew he would have to rummage around the extracted memories for at least another few hours. And with this annoyance! He should have denied the job—but no. Eva would never let him. This was a special request. All the more reason to feel nervous.

“I got it, Auntie,” said the pig-tailed girl, wrapping her scrawny arms around the warm pie. She was probably burning herself, but proudly skipped across the yard to the smiling woman in the doorway.

Their client. Rosalene.

She had long, dark brown hair and piercing hazelnut eyes. Family features. Almost everyone at the party—everyone that Rosalene could remember well—had those same characteristics. The ones that were hazy or had different features were probably from Edmund’s side of the family.

“There’s our target.” Alistair used his best commando impression and dropped to one knee with a fake firearm. “Loading more ammunition. Wattsy, you take the interior. I’m doing reconnaissance in the front yard for Links. That potato salad looks promising. Don’t let me down, soldier!” He rolled to the side and army crawled beneath the table.

Neil held his forehead. He made his way to the front door. If he was lucky, he could gather the Memory Links and leap to the next scene without General Tum-Tum. It would make things easier. And less stressful.

He side-stepped the smiling little girl and the client—she was starting to show her age, small laugh lines and crow’s feet—making his way through the kitchen. He could already hear a raucous of laughter around the corner.

The scene flickered mildly when he entered the living room. It looked to be later in the evening and family members were all gathered around Edmund, wishing him a happy birthday in exaggerated singsong. Open bottles of alcohol and juice—for the kids—covered the modest coffee table. Younger people were piled onto each other’s laps to make room with the limited seating. Everyone looked to be sincerely enjoying themselves.

The client leaned against Edmund Rosalene’s shoulder, hugging him around the waist. She served him a piece of pie with an extinguished candle in the crust. They both smiled and kissed.

“This could get nauseating,” Neil whispered aloud, half wishing Eva were there to hear him. He wasn’t at the top of his game today anyway.

He examined various objects around the room, inspecting them each for levels of sentimentality or significance. A snow globe reacted—there’s always a sort of sweet satisfaction with the first Memory Link of the scene. It had a red-cheeked Santa Clause with a workshop carefully crafted of gingerbread and candy canes. He shook the globe—who can resist?—and placed it back on its shelf.

The dinnerware looked fancy, so he inspected that next. “Memory Link numero dos.” 

The table didn’t react. Nor did a vase of flowers. Nor did a mock portrait of Giorgio de Chirico’s The Nostalgia of the Infinite.

The rhubarb pie reacted—go figure—but only the partially eaten slice with the candle, rather than the whole pie.

He dropped to his hands and knees, climbing along the brown carpet. He fumbled through the shreds of birthday present wrappings with no luck. “What am I, a garbage man?”

There was an opened shoe box among the empty wrappers. Florsheim. Another minute of searching the floor. Edmund’s loafers, brand new. He inspected them for another Memory Link.

“That’s four. One more,” he said, making a song out of it. “That’s four, one more! That’s four, one more!”

One of the guests quickly stood up, his muscular arms erupting from his lap like a bird spreading its wings. He started to say “Happy Birthday!” in a loud voice, but stopped short when his beer bottle flew from his hand to the wall, narrowly missing the pig-tailed head of the small girl. Glass landed in the girl’s hair, as well as about four ounces of beer, and the bottle left a sizeable hole in the drywall.

It seemed like everyone in the room gasped simultaneously. Neil was a statue in the center of the commotion. All eyes appeared to be on poor, invisible Neil.

The noise clipped to a halt and the scene froze.

“Bingo!” came a familiar, whiny voice. “Did I come just in the knick of time or what?” Alistair glided in wearing his business suit and grin combination. He slid his hand over the hole in the wall, activating another Memory Link.

Neil stepped through the wide-eyed crowd. “What, you want a cookie?” 

Alistair burped. “Already had one.”

“Disturbing,” Neil said, sliding his hand over the Memory Link as well. That’s five… No more song…

“I’ve been thinking, Wattsy—”

“Dr. Watts.”

“Dr. Wattsy. Our client doesn’t have that long. Maybe we should kick it up a notch or two.”

“You think I’ve been in here picking daisies?”

“You must have been. I had dinner and nabbed five Links before you.”

“This is a serious rush job, McAnders. I’m not just playing around here.” He cleared his throat. “If the timer runs out, we don’t get paid as well.”

Alistair picked at a piece of the protruding drywall. “It sure is a crap-tastic way to end.”

Neil looked away. Something about that whiny voice of McAnders’ could irritate him. Maybe he was just feeling the pressure.

Their client had been in a car accident. Not the kind a person lives through. It happened on the Levington Bridge on her way home. It was foggy. An oncoming vehicle had been in an accident earlier that week and the owner hadn’t bothered replacing their headlights. It was a head-on disaster. Neil was there, in a way: it was their client’s most recent memory. He sat next to her in the Ford hybrid while Alistair stood by the railing outside, overlooking the river.

“I have some bad news,” Neil had said.

“What’s happening? How did you get in here? Why isn’t my car moving?”

It wasn’t easy telling her that, though they couldn’t see it, there was a car heading straight for them less than a quarter-mile away. And that she would die just like her husband had died many years ago.

“How long have we been in here?” Neil asked his colleague, somewhat agitated.

Alistair clicked a fingernail against one of his shiny veneers. “Two hours and twenty-seven minutes. The doc said she probably wouldn’t live passed two a.m. with all of that internal bleeding. It’ll take a Doogie Howser miracle to keep her here that long, if you ask me.”

“Don’t assume I’d ask you, McAnders.” Neil tapped the rim of his giant glasses. 

Two hours. They took the dive at roughly eleven-o-clock. That didn’t leave them much time to fulfill a wish. 

At least it was an easy one.

“I think we’re getting close. Help me find the Memento.”

“Roger that,” Alistair said, again mocking a rough military voice. He slid his hand over the cabinet, pulling at knobs and toying with trinkets. He made the occasional machine gun sound.

Neil had been at this job longer than Alistair. It showed. But more importantly, his intuition had grown sharp. Hell, sharper than most. Damn it, Neil was the best in the biz. He had half a mind to write a contract for himself, should he ever be on the verge of death:


My last wish: hang out with Dr. Neil Watts.

Signed, Dr. Neil Watts


Oh, the conversations they could have…

Neil walked back over to the happy couple and inspected the pie tin. If it wasn’t a Memory Link, it could still be a Memento. Eva had told him that. Or maybe it was the instructional videos…

A chime sounded in Neil’s head. Yep, a Memento.

“This way, Goliath.” He motioned Alistair over with his hand.

“That was fast.”

“I’m what you small fish call ‘a pro.’”


PART TWO


“I’m pretty sure this is it,” Neil said. “How much longer do we have?”

“It’s one thirty-five in real life, Wattsy. Are you sure this is it?”

“I’m not positive, but our client said it would be almost storming in the middle of the afternoon. And this is about the right age, unless we’ve hopped too far back.”

“Nah, I think you’re right.”

“But we need to be sure.”

Alistair placed his palms together. He had on a large silver Rolex. “Teach me, oh great master.”

“Knock it off.” Neil shifted his lenses. “No, on second thought, keep calling me Great Master. Super Great, if you can spare the humility.”

“I’ll start on Monday, Wattsy.” Alistair grinned.

Neil led the way, wrapping around the side of the house to the back porch. He grabbed the copper-colored key from a poorly decorated flower pot—Eva probably made it when she was younger—and unlocked the door. They had been to this same house about six times and he knew it up and down, inside and out, as if he had been raised there himself.

He held the door open for Alistair, who immediately raided the nearest cupboard for snacks.

“We still have a time limit, Jolly Green!”

Alistair opened a jar of yellowed marshmallow creme and dipped his finger inside. The bottom was thick with an oil that must have taken years to separate. 

“Come on, Wattsy,” Alistair whined. “I haven’t eaten since that birthday party. And I haven’t had anything since dinner in real life.”

“That creme can’t be fresh. It looks like dinosaurs could be excavated from it, and could probably be used to prevent wooden ships from rotting.”

Alistair sucked at the congealed blob on his finger. “I’ll try anything thrice.” 

Neil sighed. “Where were you when I had to eat pickled olives?”

“I actually love pickled… anything really.”

“You would.”

Neil walked quickly through the rooms to look for his client. There was a faint tapping of computer keys in the silence. That made sense. She would most likely be in her room typing poetry. It was one of her hobbies, but she never expanded it into a profession.

The rest of the house was empty.

“Hey,” Alsitair yelled from the kitchen. “The calendar on the fridge says it’s the 15th of May.”

“You sure?” They didn’t have time for false alarms.

“Positive. I’ve seen a calendar on the fridge almost every leap. It looks like she keeps it up to date.”

What a break! They were almost done. They just needed to make sure that the event hadn’t happened yet.

“Should I head out?” Alistair asked through an audible finger sucking.

“Not yet, McAnders. I need to check one more thing.”

The house was eerily quiet. Other than the tap-tap-tapping, there was nothing. Mrs. Rosalene didn’t have an ear for music, nor did she watch television. If she wasn’t reading, she was writing. It was a strange sensation Neil had yet to get used to. He was walking through a haunted house: there was always someone there, but you could never tell where.

He poked his head into her room. She was at an oak desk, musing over the screen with sporadic keystrokes. There was a pink pencil tucked over her ear.


Eyes that whisper

Silver, Gold

Antlers of March and May

Together


She hadn’t gotten far on her poem. She would never finish it. There were bad memories that came with it. A pretty serious argument was about to happen, and it was Neil and Chubby’s job to stop it. To make things right.

“We’re good, McAnders,” Neil yelled, plopping down on Mrs. Rosalene’s bed. “Get your head out of the fridge and bring Eva in. It’s now or never.”

The room flickered.

No response.

“Do you got that, soldier?” Neil mocked, in a much better mood. It had taken a few hours, but they had made it in time. They had beat the deadline.

Well, really, he had beat the deadline. McAnders couldn’t handle a project like this. No one could really. It was all up to Neil. Super Neil. That’s why Eva asked him to go personally—she knew he was the best. He was someone she could trust to get in and get out as quick as possible. Efficient and effective.

“Good ol’ me,” Neil said aloud, leaning onto a floral pillow. How did Edmund sleep on this frilly garbage? 

Neil could just see the back of his client’s head. She had stopped typing, her pencil to her upper lip, probably thinking of how to finish the line. Together as one, her last line would say. She wouldn’t get any further.

“You’d better be gone already,” Neil shouted into the lull.

Eva would show up soon. Not real life Eva, but the Eva of many years ago. So far Neil hadn’t run into her in Mrs. Rosalene’s memories. And there was a good reason for that. In fact, that good reason is exactly what he was here to prevent.


My last wish: Please allow me peace with my daughter. My biggest regret is when our relationship was lost. I’ve missed her so much. If I could go back in time and prevent us from fighting, from separating ourselves from each other, I could die happy. I’ve always wanted a lasting relationship with Eva.

Signed, Evelyn Rosalene 


Some catastrophic incident—something neither Eva nor her mother wanted to reveal—had occurred on the 15th of May. It was so terrible that Eva never visited with her mother again, and what little phone interaction they had was distant and unsatisfying. Mrs. Rosalene tried on many occasions to remedy the situation, but the damage was done. The bridge had been burned. Their only hope for reconnecting was probably through Edmund, who hadn’t lasted long enough.

After Evelyn Rosalene’s car accident, Eva had called up the company to see if her mother had made a contract. Go figure that even in times of crisis Eva would have work on her mind.

But there was a contract. It had been made the exact day that Eva joined the company.

For some reason, Eva couldn’t make the dive herself. Maybe she couldn’t handle it. Maybe she still didn’t have feelings for her mother. Maybe there was some regulation about it—probably not. Whatever her reasoning, she called Neil and asked him to take the job. Her tear-laden pleas and sobbing were music to his ears—although she would describe it differently.

“Here’s the deal, Watts,” she had said. “I want you to follow my mother’s request, just as she asks, just like normal. But, when you get to the 15th, don’t change anything. Switch me in. You and whomever replaces me will leave and I’ll take over.”

“What are you going to do?” he had asked.

“If that were your business, I wouldn’t have you leave.”

“Play fair, I’m doing you a huge favor!”

“Don’t pull this crap, Watts.”

“Just tell me a little, really quick. What are you planning to do that I can’t?”

She was silent for a moment. “I’m going to talk to her. Until she dies. I’m going to be by her side for the rest of her life.”

“Mushy,” he squealed. “Enough of the mush. I’ll do it.”

Part of Neil was curious. What was this younger Eva like? He had known Eva for many years, but only on a professional level. Had she always been so hard on the exterior? And what was this fight that could abolish the relationship between mother and daughter? He wanted nothing more than to stick around and find out.

He lifted his head from the pillow. What was taking them so long? If they didn’t hurry and make the switch, he would find out. He scooted to the edge of the bed and peaked over Mrs. Rosalene’s shoulder. She still hadn’t finished the poem.


Together


What was it even about? He never understood her poetry; and he had read quite a bit of it in the last few hours. 

“Just two words away from happy chaos, Mrs. Rosalene,” he whispered. 

The scene flickered again.

“What the hell is happening?” He stood up and walked toward the kitchen. “McAnders? Are you fooling around in here? Where’s Eva?”

He stepped through the kitchen doorway, but there was nothing inside. An open blackness spread before him, a random pixel or two firing in the distance.

He took a step back, thinking he’d be in the living room, but tripped backward over a chair. His hand landed on a pink pencil that was spurting out of existence. He was back in the bedroom.

Mrs. Rosalene wasn’t at her desk. She stood in the darkened doorway, motionless, her arms in the air like a swooping vulture. Her face was contorted with a scream of anger. Eva stood before her, crunched down midway with a mixture of fear and high-voltage offense. Both of their dark hair was strewn about.

Neil clamored to his feet. He tried to use the bed as a prop but discovered it was intangible. The walls had fizzled away, dying pixels popping and flashing all around the room. The bed finally left completely. Then the lamp and the end table. The carpet. The dresser. Neil walked closer to the two women, but either they were rising or he was sinking. He was at about waist level to them both by the time he made it over.

The scene erupted in an inaudible argument, with more than one Eva yelling at more than one Evelyn through the sound of crackling, crackling. 

Neil covered his ears. “The decibels are too high! Turn it down, McAnders! Someone!”

The noise continued, an unhealthy, anger-and-hate hissing that was part software malfunction and part family turmoil. Nothing was left in the scene except for the two women, the computer screen with the poem—not even the rest of the monitor was there—and Neil, buckled down with his hands over his ears. 

Then silence.

Everything was black.

The system recovery jingle sounded. Neil could feel himself being pulled out of the dream. Thank goodness.

“What happened?” he muttered, still adjusting from the sudden pull and the perceived tinnitus. “Where’s McAnders?”

Eva stood to his right, adjusting some of the equipment. “He fell out, Watts.”

“Sorry about that,” came a whiny voice from a chair a few feet away. McAnders was back to his fat self. The legs of the chair looked barely able to support his weight.

They were in a hospital room. The machine was connected to Evelyn, somewhere behind Neil, extracting her memories for Neil and McAnders to sort through before putting them back with Eva inside.

“Where were you?” Neil said. “We had the right spot. Why didn’t you jump in?”

Eva dipped her head. 

Neil could hear people behind him, banging equipment and talking in hurried breaths. Reality seeped into focus. Neil had come back in the midst of a commotion. A sour feeling washed through his stomach.

“She’s dead, Neil. Mission fail.”




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  • Image: Neil and Eva by Lannie "Merlandese" Neely III

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