What You’re Missing
by Allison Mulder
The words slipped past Anya’s lips, not for the first time. Most days she could keep them buried under other, safer thoughts. But on quiet, peaceful days like this one, when she’d successfully coaxed Colton past the fences to the off-grid hills, the words had a nasty habit of wriggling out to warm themselves in the sun.
“Of course something’s missing,” Colton said, staring back toward the sprawling gray city. Sun sparkled off the high chain link fences between the hills and town. “No Wi-Fi, no cell signals. The power grid’s scrapped out here. If it bothers you, let’s head back.” He fiddled hopefully with his loose tie, obviously ready and waiting to tighten it.
Anya shook her head, enjoying the unfamiliar feeling of unbound hair swishing against her cheeks. “Not what I mean.”
“You bring this up every time you drag me here,” Colton said. “If it bothers you that much, why keep coming?”
She couldn’t help herself. The gap in the fence was like the hole left behind by a lost tooth. She couldn’t stop fiddling with it. It had been like that from the first day she found the hole, on another warm day like this one. Her feet had carried her to the overgrown, unknown exit, and then past it, until she stumbled onto a little, weed-covered path. It was an escape route–sure to be forbidden if any of the adults knew about it. It was like it had lain there for years, just waiting for her.
She’d followed the path all the way up to the hill, fighting the sense that she’d done so before; she’d never felt such a strong case of déjà vu in all her life.
“Because if I sit here long enough,” she said, feeling out the words as she said them, “maybe I’ll remember what it is that’s missing.”
“Or, if we sit here long enough, we’ll get caught,” Colton said, pushing to his feet. “Come on. Let’s head back.”
He tightened his tie. She pulled back her hair. They brushed the dead grass from their pants and sheathed their feet in the plain, worn-out shoes distributed to everyone in the community. Anya lingered on the hill’s peak, searching her mind as Colton fidgeted on the path back to the city.
“It’s on the tip of my tongue,” she said.
“Well, let’s make a list,” Colton said. “Got your socks? Your interface remote?”
She shook her head, starting down the path. “It’s nothing like that.”
Whatever it was, it was something important.
As usual, they detoured to Solitude Park before switching their interfaces back on. They hung around by the reflecting pool’s edge for ten minutes or so–just long enough to avoid drawing attention from the mobs who cluttered the grass, drawing, napping, or reading. No one bothered passing through Solitude Park without spending at least a few minutes in the network-free zone.
As far as the system was concerned, Anya and Colton had been at the park all afternoon, their interfaces switched off, their minds all to themselves.
The network’s tendrils floated back into place as Anya began her walk home, their touch light but insistent, familiar as the fit of her shoes. Her daily calendar, her messages, community conversations, and general news, all playing in the back of her mind like afterthoughts, carefully moderated to keep everyone on an even keel.
It was possible that the unfamiliar feeling beyond the fence was just being unlinked…except Anya never felt it at Solitude Park. Whatever she lacked was something far less obvious.
Mother and Father were engrossed in the network when she got home, eyes far away as they sat absorbed in their respective work, communicating with coworkers and business contacts. They each raised a hand as she passed, though, wiggling their pinky fingers in the usual reassurance that they really had noticed her. Welcome home. We missed you. Anya let their interfaces overlap with her and the house’s sensors as she walked upstairs, and settled into the comfort of their background chatter and the building’s regular status updates.
By habit, Anya trailed her hand along the picture frames that studded the hallway, focusing on each person’s interface as she passed their picture. Her father in the first frame (busy talking with his boss, aiming for a promotion, reasonably sure he’ll get it). In the frame beside it, her mother (soothing a client with dissatisfaction so high it registers even through the public network settings–she might call it into Community Health Services afterward). Next hung Anya’s picture, smiling in her former favorite dress (no obligations listed for the rest of the day; schoolwork due Monday, but she has plenty of time to finish). All three pictures had the same lighting, the same background, all taken on the same day last time the community updated its records.
The fourth picture was the odd one out, and like always, Anya’s thoughts stuttered when her hand thudded dully onto the frame. The simple wooden borders were the same as the others, but the photo was older, of grandparents Anya had never met. They’d lived and died before the community networks were fully up and running, and their history wasn’t available through any in-network records. It was a blank spot. But even that gap was familiar.
A wave of déjà vu rolled over Anya. The feeling from the hill, like something was missing.
That had never happened within the fences before.
She stared harder at the picture, like it was one of those Spot the Difference puzzles administered to child groups as they learned to network together. But there was nothing to spot. She felt it in her gut, that not all was right, but it had nothing to do with the picture.
It had to do with…
Her fingers brushed the fourth picture frame again.
She moved on autopilot. Following her gut from room to room, playing Spot the Difference except she had no classmates to cooperate with. She only had what was in front of her–nothing to compare to but a sense of how things ought to be in the back of her mind. Little half-thoughts trickled through the network from her parents: What are you doing, sweetie? Can we help you find something? She ignored them, even though it ruffled the network and raised the tension levels registered in the household.
What Anya found on her own was hints.
A row of little sailboats carved where the wall met the floor in Father’s study, in a style matching the row of little horses in Anya’s room. A pair of hand-me-down shoes in her closet which she’d always assumed were from her parents, but they looked too new. A class pin like the one Anya got when she entered school, but from several years earlier.
She knew what they added up to. She guessed, and she worried, and she tossed and turned all night thinking about it, driving up the house’s tension register despite her best efforts to stay calm.
“You don’t know,” she told herself. “The house had prior owners, the rest could be…crowd-shared shoes, or…” She couldn’t justify the class pin. How it would get into the house. Why her parents would have brought it in from anywhere.
“You don’t know for sure.”
She recorded the words, and played them on a loop through her private interface, trying to soothe herself to sleep.
The next day, she dragged Colton back to the gap in the fence. She nearly forgot to stop off at Solitude Park, the need to be outside the fence was so strong.
The gap in the fence, cut for someone just a little taller than her. The barest trace of a path, where someone had walked and she had followed. The hill and the city view and the sun beating down, the warmest it had been all month. A boy Colton’s age, sitting next to her, staring off.
Her chest ached with the certainty she’d done all this before.
But I was younger. I was younger, and he was laughing. And it was such a nice day.
She snapped to attention, and she stared at Colton blankly, waiting for the feeling–the déjà vu, the tip-of-the-tongue nagging–to go away, like it always did.
How many times have I felt this before?
“What’s wrong?” Colton asked.
“I think I have to go home,” she said softly. She got up and brushed her pants off, and Colton hurried after her, bewildered.
She remembered. Something. A boy–a specific boy. His face. She’d guessed before, but now she remembered.
The boy, walking in front of her, showing her the gap in the fence, and the path. He’d taught her to stop at Solitude Park first–she’d never considered it strange, the first time she did it alone. The first time she switched the network off and went looking for the hole in the fence.
The boy was laughing, always laughing and making her smile. Reading her stories–old books he got from Grandpa and Grandma, books that weren’t in the network. Books that were never supposed to be in the network. Books that weren’t right for the community…
Anya felt sick.
She ran, leaving Colton behind, his dismayed shout not quite making it from her ears to the part of her brain that controlled her feet.
Images of the boy–daydreams, memories–were everywhere. Leading her to the hill. Teasing ducks by the pond at Solitude Park while people glared at him for being loud. Running ahead of her and into the house before she could catch up–he’d always turned everything into a contest. And as her older brother, he’d always been determined to win.
He was always laughing. Always.
Anya wasn’t sure who reported her new memories to Community Health Services. Colton? Her parents? Her interface itself, once she switched it back on at the park?
It wasn’t worth agonizing over, once CHS had her in a chair.
“I didn’t mean for my stress levels to spike,” she said, folding her hands carefully. “I had a shock. But I’m back in control of my emotions now. I didn’t mean to worry anyone.”
“But you did,” said the analyst. His interface was blocked to her own, like those of most medical professionals or people with stressful occupations, but the neutral blankness had never bothered her this much at her annual checkups. “We just want what’s best for everyone, so let’s talk about this shock you felt recently.”
She felt information bleeding through her interface. There were no privacy settings in this kind of situation. He’d see everything whether she spoke or not.
So. She kept her mouth shut.
“You remember your brother,” the analyst said. He checked the screen on his desk. “Alex.”
The name was the last thing she’d been missing. It filled in all the blank spaces left in her memories. She remembered his name, she remembered a day when the sun beat down on the hill so hard it put them both to sleep in the grass. She remembered screaming Alex’s name as CHS officers dragged the two of them back toward the fence. She remembered them taking her home, and taking Alex somewhere else, and taking her interface to someone who could rewrite her memories. Bury the natural ones under an artificial history better for the network.
“I could never forget him completely, no matter what you did to me,” Anya said, clinging to the armrests of her chair. “Deny it all you want, but I know he’s real. He was real. I know–”
“No one’s denying that,” the analyst said. He typed as he talked, filling his screen with lines of code and coded observations. Anya couldn’t understand the little she could see from her chair. “You’re absolutely right. Alex was real.”
Anya flinched. The confirmation was almost worse. Knowing he was real meant something had happened to him. “You’re not going to brainwash me into forgetting him again?”
“Look, I’m not a psychologist.” The analyst leaned closer toward his screen. “It’s not my job to claim you’re delusional, or talk you through the whys of his elimination.”
“Elimination?” Anya half-stood, and the officers standing on either side of her chair held her down.
“It’s not even my job to rewrite memories,” the analyst said, chewing on a thumbnail as he compared two windows to each other. “My job is just to document what sparked the organic memories, so we can block them out more thoroughly in the next round.” Distractedly, he sent a file to Anya’s interface–a list.
A list of community disturbances and major network violations, all of them tied to Alex’s name. Outbursts and grudges and conflicts, protests and wrong questions Alex couldn’t let go of.
“He was real, he was a problem, he’s gone now,” the analyst said. His tone changed a little, to something like how Father sounded a few years ago, when he told Anya the baby bird she’d been trying to save had died during the night. “It’s too bad you remembered him. But it doesn’t change anything.”
Anya sat very still. “Does anyone else remember him? My parents?”
The analyst shook his head. “No one. Most people stick to the interface’s records and don’t even realize something’s been taken away. No one grieves, no one suffers. When the artificial memories don’t stick, we replant them, and that’s usually enough.”
“And that’s why you’re telling me this,” Anya said slowly. “I won’t remember. I’ll just go back, never knowing anything was wrong.” She shut her eyes. Thought again of Alex, and the nagging feeling of something missing.
It hadn’t been a pleasant feeling. More like picking at a scab.
“Fine,” she said. “Rewrite my memories. If that’s what’s best for the network, then fine.”
He shook his head slowly. “Sorry, Anya. But no.”
She blinked. “You said the next round–”
“The next time this happens with someone else. But there is no next round for you. You’ll remember. You’ll start causing problems.”
“I won’t,” she said. “Patch the hole in the fence, and it shouldn’t happen again. I’ll go along with it, so–” She broke off as another file appeared on her interface. More disturbances. More outbursts. Holes cut in fences, no matter how many times they were patched.
These infractions were attached to her own name.
The analyst rose from his chair. “With some people, the artificial memories never really stick.”
She trembled, reading through the list. “I don’t understand.” She did. But she didn’t want to. She didn’t want to know for sure…
“We’ve already replanted your artificial memories,” the analyst said. “Many times. You’ve used up all your chances to forget.”
Mrs. Burr straightened the third picture in the upstairs hallway, right between her portrait and the one of her parents. She stood back, then adjusted it again, trying to get their wedding picture to hang straight.
“Leave it alone, honey,” her husband said in passing, squeezing her hand as he headed for his study. “You fiddle with that thing every time a friend’s kid gets engaged. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were jealous.” A ripple of stress bled through his interface. Are you jealous?
“I’m not, I’m really not, it’s just–weddings.” Mrs. Burr forced a laugh, trying not to think of what would no doubt come soon after Celine’s daughter got married. Grandkids. Baby pictures all over the network. But that doesn’t matter–that’s not everything–we’ve been happy even without…
Mr. Burr stopped in the hallway. Went back to rub her shoulder. “You know what’ll happen after the wedding. Celine will be expected to babysit at any given moment, and all her free time will disappear, just like back when she and Robert had their kids in the first place. Felt like we didn’t see them for years.” He laughed. It didn’t match the mood she felt through the network. But she laughed with him. It’s for the best…it’s for the best we never had children. Not everyone needs to, after all.
They just felt like the sort of thing she’d have liked to have, personally.
“Let’s go for a walk this evening,” Robert whispered.
She nodded tiredly.
It was for the best. Occasional regrets aside, it never took her long to remember all the good things she and her husband would’ve missed if they’d had children.
She almost laughed as she entered her sewing room with a bittersweet glance at the little horses carved where the wall met the floor. The previous owners probably used the room as a nursery.
The infuriating thing was that Celine would be sympathetic. Pitying, more like. As if Mrs. Burr was lacking something all-important, just because she never had children. A lot of Mrs. Burr’s friends still thought that way.
They just didn’t realize what they were missing.
About the Author
Allison Mulder grew up in various small Midwestern towns and a sizable swath of the internet. She writes fantasy, science fiction, and–often by accident–horror. Her fiction has appeared previously at Escape Pod, Fireside Fiction, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and elsewhere. With patience, sensitive equipment, and ample provisions, you can sometimes glimpse Allison at allisonmulder.wordpress.com. Or, track her far more easily on Twitter at @AMulderWrites, where she broadcasts any significant life happenings, gushes over her current fictional obsessions, and uses far too many X-Files gifs.
About the Narrator
Mel Bugaj (Boo-Gay) is a mom of a 12 year old son and 10 year old daughter. She and her husband produced a podcast called Night Light Stories where you can find and download their 60+ original children’s stories for free. Just go to nightlightstories.net. Mel has been an educator for 19 years and currently is pursuing her second masters in Educational Leadership. In her spare time she enjoys getting her butt kicked when playing UNO with her daughter, listening to podcasts with her son and watching horror flicks with her husband.