Chapter 1: Today Chapter 1 TODAY
Their arrival is reflected like a head-on collision as Liv’s car lurches across traffic and into the driveway of a glass structure along the Pacific Coast Highway. Lucien locks onto the details, trying to still his mind. Like where does all that glass come from? And how did they get it out to this frantic stretch of highway in one impossibly long piece? The frothing sea is mirrored around its sharp corners, and Lucien looks away, swallowing the salt-heavy breeze and the sourness of car exhaust. He concentrates on more questions. Like, how do the gulls miss it in their soaring arcs above the ocean, and goddammit why, surrounded by so much glass, is it still so hard to see?
Cars whiz behind him as Lucien stumbles toward the entrance. When did he get out of the car? His body is sore. Exhausted. The visions that coursed through him hours ago still rumble under his skin.
The building might otherwise be a getaway for some rock star or more relevant tech mogul, instead of a rehabilitation center for those who, like Lucien, have “lost themselves.” This was the phrase used on the website he found during the hour-long drive over Mulholland and down the twisting roads of dirt-dry Topanga. He’d come back to consciousness when the car sickness set in, grounding him in his body and restoring his vision, albeit intermittently. Liv had to pull over twice on the no-shoulder roads for him to vomit sheer iridescence over their railings.
“For those who have lost themselves.” The website hardly loaded, given the spotty service, but that phrase populated his screen immediately and resonated just as fast.
Shocks of fractured light and color interject with the sun overhead, and Lucien holds a hand over his eyes to find the steps. He feels Liv’s gaze hot on his neck, but he cannot turn. Maybe he’s ashamed. Maybe he just doesn’t want to see her face.
A woman with a low ponytail meets him inside. Her hair sweeps her back as she walks, and over her shoulder Lucien notices the leaves of a fern pressed against the glass, like fingers feeling for contact. Or escape. The woman wears a beige jumpsuit that highlights the lack of color inside, where she shows him past a large fire pit in the common area, marked by its natural stones and sunken living area, then down a hallway to his room.
On top of a twin bed in the corner is a stack of towels and what appears to be a uniform. Beige. The woman pushes her lips into a tranquil smile as Lucien’s eyes fall to where one might find a name tag. He stares at her breasts, his mind too slow to move on. She blinks.
“Thank you, sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” he says, the words sticking to his tongue.
Without answering, she hands him a slim folder, open to the first page. The rules here are like the glass, clear.
No jewelry, watches, accessories.
“Your initial treatment will begin in one hour. Please be dressed and ready.”
Once she shuts the door, Lucien pulls off his sweater and lets his pants fall to the floor. For a moment he feels self-conscious; he looks up to the corners of the ceiling, but they disappear into shadow. He pulls the linen jumpsuit up his body and hooks it behind his neck. Then he runs a hand through his hair, surprised for a moment to find it still there, still his. His fingers linger, remembering a curl.
What will they do to him? What intrinsic, untouched things still inside might this treatment redefine? He tries to imagine what those things are, where they lurk ether-like underneath his skin, or within the cage of his ribs, impossible to sense until they are gone.
In the quiet, his brain longs for variety—anything to ground him here. His finger twitches back and forth against his thigh, feeling for some imaginary shutter click, and he follows the shades of gray along the wall. When the shadows start to twist, he closes his eyes and feels a rush of her again.
Holding her baby, the curse of her joy. Lungs full of desert dust. The hum in the editing room; eyes on her back, her hips, waist. All the eyes that will never—
Lucien blinks hard until the room shifts into focus. Over and over, a fly buzzes into the closed window high in the corner, a shock of blue beyond it. One hour. How long is an hour?
His clothing sits slumped like a snakeskin, shed. The clothes look like him, like New York thrift; clothes that have spent months under layers, building up some impenetrable front to face the winter. Here they look defeated, futile. His sweater’s navy and olive stripes have grown to look like one another. Holes for his thumbs.
He lifts it to his face and inhales. This is how it feels, then, to have nothing. To know it. He hopes he doesn’t lose this, of all things. The knowledge of his failure.
Florence is gone; what does it matter now? There’s no fixing this. Not for him. And who is worth fixing him for? No, that’s not right—how is he who’s worth fixing? How is he the only one left? Everyone, everyone, has finally left.
Next to the pristine white towels, his clothes appear to have given up, too. Another time he might have wanted to photograph the stark contrast of such loaded objects. The long clean shapes they cast. Another time, he might have had a camera.
He eyes the folder that was forgotten in his hands. He pinches his arm to stay focused and opens its cover to a welcome letter.
You’ve taken the first step in joining us at the Center. After your initial treatment you will be matched with a therapist who can assist you with any questions or support, 24/7. Prior to your initial treatment, you will remain in isolation to respect other patients’ space in the common area.
The treatment runs in three parts. Some steps may happen consecutively and some simultaneously depending on the severity of your contamination. Rest assured, we know opening yourself up to such a procedure can feel intimidating, even violating. That’s why transparency is vital at the Center.
Phase 1: Diagnosis
You will be placed in sensory deprivation and sedated for several hours to detox from all present Memoroxin and external stimuli from prior to arriving at the Center. During this time, our patented machine will use noninvasive laser technology to mine and categorize your memories—both visual and sensory—for the memory map we will use to code them. Don’t be nervous: this feels just like your standard eye exam!
In this phase, we will separate your core memories from all foreign ones, including any of your own that have been compromised. All memories since the first instance of Memoroxin abuse will be removed, given that they contain the corruption to your consciousness.
Phase 2: Cleanup**
Once your core memories have been mapped and triple–backed up, we administer a gentle drip that effectively cleans out the memory system. In this phase, all sensory and visual memories will be cleared. Consider this a form of helpful amnesia to reset your system. Given the gentle sedative in the drip, you won’t have a moment to realize that your memories are missing before passing into the next phase.
Phase 3: The Return
In the final phase, we reintroduce your own memories using a custom mix of what we mapped in Phase 1. Keep in mind that any memory, no matter how arbitrary, effectively holds every one that came before, so the chance of a single memory slipping through is almost impossible. This drip feels like a smooth wash of feeling, lasting over several hours at a low-level stimulation to reinstate your baseline. Phase 3 is reinforced by steam infused with sensory notes pulled from your most pleasing memories, along with light projections to further activate your return.
“Okay, so now I’m cleaned up and back to myself… What’s next? Can I leave?”
Not quite. It is vital that you stay in our sanctuary to allow the reinstated memories to settle and to take while you are protected from all excessive stimuli. We will supply your room with nutritious juices and meal shakes multiple times a day, to nourish your body without triggering an excess of cravings in your mind. It may require days or weeks for you to truly feel like yourself again. Breaking protocol too quickly after your treatment may cause side effects such as loss of memory, distortion, personality disorder, apathy, and, most important, relapse.
While in recovery, your therapist will provide you with a custom mix of supplements. These are a series of enzymes that activate precisely the same synapsis the organic memory triggered in your brain, thereby re-creating the original memory, synthetically. While these memories have already been encoded in the initial drip, your supplements mimic the organic process of memory—an initial implantation, followed by a gradual reinforcing to solidify the memory.
**Add-On: The Clean Slate** We have the unique opportunity to remove any traumas you would rather not hold on to moving forward. Prior to Phase 1, any selections must be run past your counselor, who will guide you in crafting the best memory map to maintain a cohesive identity, even with your chosen omission.
We hope your time at the Center is grounding and regenerative. You found the Center, now let the Center find you.
Lucien’s mind takes time to process. Being addressed with such assurance is calming, but also terrifying. To wipe him of everything that’s come before? To trust that anyone could reinstate such things that feel so unalterably organic, so tied to who he is?
But who is he now?
He violated his grandmother, Florence, the moment he took her pill. And every time after, when he disappeared into her, or swallowed her into him. He shivers with the knowledge, the irreversible truth. He cannot hold on to something that was never his. And still, he wants to remember everything before it is gone.
The desert, a baby, her secret.
He should put it all down.
A triumph, never hers. Ashes in the kitchen sink.
He looks at his fingernails, the subtle shimmer around their edges. If he could only find something sharp, he could scratch it into the floorboards under his bed. A note to himself that he’d never remember, that won’t be taken away. An arrow to guide him there. Something sharp, he thinks, scanning the room. Something sharp, when his mind feels so soft.
He could close his eyes. Just for a moment. He holds a cool fingertip against his eyelid and feels the flickering underneath. But there isn’t time.
He examines the papers again, rereading the final option for this “Add-On.” He thinks of his mother, the wave of her crashing against his ribs. Her slim, sick body between his arms, and the tickle of her wavy hair under his nose; her hand on his back, back when he was the small one; pulling the covers up, a kiss on the forehead. Everything in him, built on her.
The desert. Dust everywhere. Ashes in the kitchen sink.
He rests a moment on the imperfections he alone knows. Her vacant face staring at a canvas in her studio, the distant anger when his father called unexpectedly, always, always following a successful show. Her disdain for anything new, until disproven. Moreover, what she did in the end, alone. But only in one memory is his mother dead. Lucien still feels his grandmother’s cresting on top of his own.
He knows he cannot hold on to both. But could he let go altogether? No, he cannot stand the thought of a future without his mother. Even if that future promised more happiness, less weight. Lucien unclips the dull pencil from the folder and writes his answer.
“I’d like to leave everything else as it were.”
The words look overly formal and possibly in the wrong tense. But what is one to use when determining their own past in the future? This requires a new grammar; perhaps we have finally outreached the limit of ours, he thinks. Or perhaps tense as a construct will not survive, if at any moment one can alter their present by rearranging memories from the past.
He looks at the first page again. All those words. Words, when he needs to write. Letters, right there in front of him. He hears a low laughter, his own.
Lucien tears the paper, freeing its letters despite his clumsy fingers. C waits in the very first word. Beside it, O, and he can keep that, too. Even the N is there already—CON—but everything is always there, the past doesn’t change because you learn it; knowing where to look, that was the thing. He holds the three tiny letters, the beginning of it all, and is tearing an R when a knock interrupts him.
“It’s time,” the voice says, and he hears the doorknob turn.
The same nurse stands at the door when he greets her. They match.
She nods to the bed, where his clothes are piled, belt coiled on top. Then she glances at the folder, open on the floor. The torn page. Lucien turns to the bed and hands off his clothing. Their weight—once gone—is heavy in his open palms.
The three tiny letters stick to his pointer finger, then flutter to the floor.