Scrawled hastily by Valannin
The bell chimed gently as the door opened, and Todd stepped quickly inside, shaking the rain from his polyester coat and paused briefly to glance around at the inside of the restaurant. Todd had been getting his breakfast at Sassafras Café every morning for what, 10, 15 years? It was the natural order of things – wake up, check his email, get dressed, and then walk the six short blocks down to the café. He could make that walk blindfolded, in his sleep, at 2 AM during a blackout and not so much as bump into a mailbox.
Something today seemed off, though, and it wasn’t just the rain. Todd tried to tell himself it was due to the fact that he woke up an extra hour early this morning to get a head start on his journey, but still, things were off. Even though it was late November, Todd didn’t see a single Christmas decoration in the windows of any of the stores in town. Like clockwork, he told himself, those decorations had gone up before the Thanksgiving turkey had finished cooling, but he hadn’t noticed one manger, one candy cane, not so much as a scrap of tinsel. The café’s front window and interior was devoid of any notion of Christmas as well, but Todd chalked it up to the fact that it was still early on a Monday and since all of the stores were closed on Sunday (as any good American business would be) the owners had simply just not gotten around to digging through their closets for that well-work cardboard box of ornaments and banners. Lunchtime, he told himself. By lunchtime, the whole of Main Street will look like a Currier and Ives postcard.
Todd leaned his umbrella against the stand near the front door and strode up to the counter. The clerk was leaning laconically against the register, blankly staring at the TV bolted over the coffee maker, mindlessly humming under her breath along to the infomercial jingle blaring across the screen. Almost as if she were waiting specifically for him.
“Morning, Maryjane, “ Todd said, cheerfully, wiping the last drops of water from his cuff and before taking off his glasses and polishing them on his red and white striped tie. “What’s good today?” Todd asked the same question every day, even though every day, he ordered the same thing: whatever Maryjane suggested.
The clerk turned and looked at him, scowling with playful suspicion. “Mornin’ Mr. Starnes, don’t you seem ever so chipper this fine day.” She pointed at his dripping coat and said, “You a big fan of the rain? Part duck, maybe?”
Todd flashed her a smile that coursed across his ruddy face. “Rain, shine, gloom of night – don’t’ make no difference today!”
Maryjane put her hands on her hips and smiled right back at him, “Well aren’t you just the littlest bit of sunshine this morning? And so early too! What can I get for you? Buns just came out of the oven. Hot as an August afternoon on the prairie.”
“Then I’ll take two!” Todd responded, emphatically motioning with two chubby fingers. “Extra butter, please!” Another smile crept across his lips, and as Maryjane fetched the buns, Todd called out, “Aren’t you going to ask me why?”
As she put the buns in a waxed carryout bag, she said, “Well, you know me, Mr. Starnes. Ain’t my place to pry. But I will admit to being curious as to what has you so fired up this morning. And why you’re standing here almost an hour earlier than you normally are.”
Todd grasped the countertop in both hands, leaned forward and, in an excited whisper said, “Maryjane, I made my decision. Made it last night as I was washing the dishes. Came straight out of the blue like it was a sign from God himself. I’m going Maryjane. Going to have my breakfast, get on the downtown bus, and, barring any traffic from the weather, I’ll be there by 9:30 sharp!”. Todd chuckled to himself. Traffic. There were a grand total of 2,084 people living in Crossed Forks, and he doubted they’d all be out in this weather clogging up the thoroughfare.
She regarded him with a curious smile. “Where is that, Mr. Starnes?”
Todd pointed at the infomercial still playing on the little TV. “There. Right there.”
Even though she knew exactly what he was pointing at (after all, the infomercial was broadcast at least 15 times a day on every channel, accompanied by that terribly catchy but outdated song), she still cast a glance over her shoulder to where Todd was pointing. “MAGA, Mr. Starnes? You’re going to MAGA? Today?” she asked, the tiniest bit of concern creeping into her drawl.
Todd picked up the bag and then shoved some napkins into his coat pocket. “Yes, Ma’am. And since you’re the first one I told about my decision, you’ll be the first one I tell about my experience when I’m done. You can count on that!”
Worry replaced concern. “I don’t know, Mr. Starnes. I’ve heard stories..”
Todd waved her off. “We’ve all heard the stories, and stories are all they are. Rumors. And, if I may say so, nothing more than prop-a-ganda. Believe me, I’ve looked into it, done my research. It’s as safe as an afternoon nap on the porch!”
“If you say so, Mr. Starnes. Not for me, though. I’m happy just the way things are.”
“Are you, Maryjane? Are you really happy?” He stared at her seriously for a moment, at her as if expecting an actual answer, but quickly shifted his tone. “Nevermind, don’t answer that, I’d love to stay and chat, but I don’t want to miss my bus. Like I said, you’ll be the first person I tell. You go on then and have a great day! And Merry Christmas!”
Todd was already halfway out the door when Mary Jane finally said, “You too, Mr. Starnes.” And then turned to pick up the phone.
The bus stopped almost a quarter mile from the institute, and between the rain and the buttered buns, Todd was huffing by the time he reached the front entrance. He paused for a moment, bent over with his hand on his knees, and inhaled deeply. The streets were nearly deserted, even though this was “rush hour”, it was still a small town. In fact, the entire downtown area was comprised of only a handful of buildings, none over three stories. Except the institute, of course. A nearly 60 foot tall of highly polished black granite flecked with gold stretching the length of a city block. A gleaming bronze plaque was inset into the stone next to the imposing double doors – Memory Augmentation and Generation Alliance, 2027 – it proclaimed, with no other visible information anywhere on the sign or the building, except for its corporate logo, a monochrome sprig of holly. Todd walked up the short ramp to the entrance and pushed open the door.
Inside, it was even more sparsely decorated. Black granite stretched across the first floor, and the walls were painted a stark off-white. An enormous ebony desk brooded in the far corner, and behind the desk, stood a tall blonde woman in a cyan pantsuit, her hands folded, almost as if she had been waiting for him.
As Todd approached the desk, the woman smiled and greeted him warmly, “Good morning Mr. Starnes. Welcome to the MAGA Institute”. Todd was startled.
“How did you know who I was?”
She smiled again and gestured to an appointment book open beside her. “You’re our first appointment of the day. In fact, you’re our only appointment.”
“Really? I find that hard to believe.”
“We don’t get too many clients to visit us at this location, and even so, when Dr. Sanford read your casefile, he cleared the rest of the day’s schedule.”
Todd was puzzled. “Why, is there some sort of problem?”
She smiled again, wider. “Not at all. People of a certain…caliber…are entitled to a more private experience.”
Now it was Todd’s turn to smile. Sometimes it was difficult to process, but he supposed that he was something of a celebrity. Not that he would ever be mobbed in public, or hounded for autographs, but between his column, his radio show and his growing book publications, there was a sizable population that recognized him, at least by name. Perhaps Dr. Sanford was a fan.
“Is there anything I have to sign, or perhaps check in?”
“Not at all, Mr. Starnes, all formalities have been dealt with.” She gently and absently fingered the bronze holly sprig pinned to her blazer lapel. “ Can I offer you anything while you wait? Coffee, water, sweet tea?”
“No, no, I just had breakfast myself. I’m just eager to get started.”
“Of course, Mr. Starnes. Hold on a moment.”
Todd stood with his arms crossed behind him and watched as the woman slid open a small panel set into the top of the desk, and pressed an oblong button. Immediately it began to blink a bright blue, and she slid the panel closed. At the same time, on the wall to the left of the desk, an LED inlaid into the stone illuminated the same shade of blue and a door, previously hidden, slid open.
“Right this way, Mr. Starnes,” she gestured at the portal, but did not move from behind the desk.
“Thank you,” replied Todd, and walked apprehensively towards the door opening, “Have a great morning!” He stepped through and almost immediately, the door slid shut again.
Dr. Sanford’s office was an exercise in tasteful minimalism. Dark slate walls lined the room, which was finished in a deep, plush grey carpet. A black leather reclining chair stood in the center, its stainless hardware looping up over the headrest and snaking down to a port below the floor. A single blue light flashed intermittently on the headrest, reflecting in a framed painting hanging on the opposite wall. Todd stepped closer to look at it, and was surprised by its content. A single brown bear sat in the center, looking up at a cloud-filled sky, the rain falling upwards instead of down. In the background, beams of light crisscrossed from the top down, bathing the scene in an eerie, otherworldly glow. In the lower right corner, in yellow, in a thin steady hand, were the letters, “v.e.n.”. Todd didn’t care much for ‘modern’ art and chuckled softly to himself, wondering how much money the doctor wasted on such a ridiculous painting.
“97 thousand dollars,” came a soft but deep voice from over his right shoulder. Todd whipped around and faced the owner, who had seemingly apparated into thin air. He was tall, almost impossibly tall, with hard chiseled features and a shock of thick white hair swept back over his head. Small, rimless glasses sat the end of his sharp nose and the pocket square (which perfectly matched the purple jacquard tie) was folded impeccably into the top pocket of a suit that easily cost the equivalent of Todd’s weekly salary. He spoke again, he hands stuffed in his pockets, “Before you ask. Everyone asks. It’s called, ‘Covefe Dawn’ and no, I have no idea what that means. But the artist is notorious for not letting his pieces go, so any price is more than worth it. Kevin Sanford.” He extended his right hand to Todd, and shook it firmly.
“Oh, I know, Mr. Starnes, I know. And let’s just get this out of the way right now by saying that I’m a big fan of yours. Big fan. Won’t you sit down?”
Todd looked around, but the recliner was the only chair in the room. There wasn’t even a desk. Come to think of it, there weren’t any other doors either, so the doctor’s sudden appearance was a bit mystifying. Apprehensively, Todd took a seat at the edge of the recliner and folded his hands on his lap.
“Anything you need? Did Cat offer you any refreshments?”
“In the lobby. My assistant, did she offer you anything?”
“Yes, yes, she did, thank you. Odd, very odd, I’ve never been offered ‘sweet tea’ before in any setting. It was a nice touch, Doctor.”
“We strive for absolute comfort, Mr. Starnes. In fact, why don’t you lie back and relax, you seem…nervous.”
“To be honest, Doc, I am. We’ve all heard the stories, and even though I consider myself one who strives for truth, I can’t help but get to worrying.”
Sanford smiled, and stuck his hands back into his pockets. “The stories, Mr. Starnes, are just that. Stories. Exaggerated to instill fear in the population. One little incident, occurring during the technique’s inception, has been blown out of proportion by every journalist, blogger and social media personality with an axe to grind and books to sell. And to be completely fair, Mr. Starnes, even that incident wasn’t reported accurately.”
“So K.C. Wayne didn’t go completely insane after the procedure?”
Dr. Sanford leaned against the wall and sighed. “A mistake has become a legend has become a myth. K.C. Wayne was already completely insane. No, that’s not fair. It was PTSD, actually, and something we should have picked up on during the vetting process. Does he now spend his days ranting about how government schools are secret facilities that train terrorists? Yes, sad to say that it’s completely true. But he’s one in a million, Mr. Starnes. One in a billion, really. Do you know how many successful procedures we’ve done since then? 125 thousand. In just 3 years. Not one hiccup, even so much as a bloody nose or a migraine headache.”
He pursed his lips and clasped his hands together. “Enough of dredging up the past.”
Todd smiled. “Well, that’s certainly ironic, isn’t it?”
Sanford threw his head back and coughed out a short, dry laugh. “Very good, Mr. Starnes, very clever. Your cool dry wit is one of the reasons I’m such a big fan. Ironic indeed, but not nearly as much as your own comment.”
“I…I don’t understand.”
Sandford stepped forward and stood directly in front of the reclining chair’s footrest. The lighting in the room dimmed, as if on command, and a soft yellow glow emanated from beneath the chair.
“Why are you here, Mr. Starnes? Tell me, in your own words – forget the application, the interview, tell me why you’re sitting in this chair today in ten words or less. I know you’re capable of brevity; I’ve read your articles.”
Todd breathed deep and exhaled loudly. He studied his hands for a moment, the creased lines in his chubby fingers, the nails bitten down to the quick. “I’m tired of seeing what the future has become.”
“You can see the future, Mr. Starnes?”
“No. Ha ha. The future that I was promised. The future that we all were promised. Now. Today. It’s wrong. All around us, it’s..it’s wrong.”
“How is it wrong, Mr. Starnes?”
“Everything that was good is fading away. Everything moral, everything we valued as Americans.”
Sanford chuckled. “As Americans, Mr.Starnes? Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt, I just found that…wryly amusing. Go on.”
“Faith, family, country…these used to mean something to us all, a common value, a common goal. Not anymore. Everyone is out for themselves, everyone’s selfish, everyone is just…wrong. This is not the way it used to be, and I can’t face it anymore. I don’t want to open my eyes every morning and see a country that doesn’t know what’s right. I tried, Doctor, to change their perception. Ten years, I tried, and I failed. So now it’s time to change mine.”
Sanford scratched his chin and adjusted his glasses. “And you think that we can change it for you? To make your memories a present day reality?”
“Wait. Are you saying you can’t do it?” Todd was perplexed. “Isn’t that the whole point of your institute?”
Sanford chuckled again and rubbed the back of his head. “No, no, you’re misinterpreting me. That’s precisely what we do. We take a reference point in your life, mirror it, and then remap your brain so that every subsequent experience and interaction you have is interpreted relative to that reference point. Your eyes see a homeless drug addict crouching in the corner by your apartment. But your brain sees a man getting ready to head to church. You spot a single mother in a miniskirt smacking her kid across the face, but your mind sees that as a loving daughter walking with her mom to pick up her dad from work. The newspaper screams “War!” and you read “Peace!”. That about right?”
Todd was getting impatient, “I don’t mean to be rude, Doc, but it almost sounds as if you’re mocking me. Am I being unrealistic? The consultant I first met with told me a story of a procedure you did that replaced all the rap music that the patient heard with 1980’s new wave. Was that just a lie to get me in here?”
“No, Todd, not a lie. That was indeed the story. But memory…well memory can be a fickle thing. Let’s talk about your memories, Mr. Starnes – let’s talk about your earliest memories, in fact. Tell me about your childhood.”
Todd thought for a moment, almost wistfully. “I had a very typical, American childhood. Grew up right here in Tennessee, my father was a Colonel in the Army and a deacon in the church, my mom was a homemaker, but also an accomplished gardener. I remember how she’d come in from the backyard, pulling off her soiled gloves and washing her hands in the sink before making lunch. I have a younger sister who grew up to be a schoolteacher – Christian school, you understand, not one of those government schools. I went to my Boy Scouts meetings on Thursdays, same time that my sis went to Girl Scouts, I had football practice on Saturday afternoons, and Sundays we all went to Church together in the morning, and then back home for an early supper – my mom’s fried chicken was a national treasure. A typical, wholesome, all-American childhood.”
Sanford paused for a moment, leaning against the wall, listening intently to Todd speak favorably but not quite enthusiastically about his childhood. “But no specific memories, Mr. Starnes? Is there one day you vividly and distinctly remember as standing out as being, say, your favorite?
Todd scowled, “Well…yes. Of course. Lots of them.” He looked up at the ceiling and scratched his nose. “Graduation. High school graduation. Such a proud, proud day. I remember that distinctly. It was a small school – well, it was a small town – and there were only 50 graduates – exactly 25 girls and 25 boys. And each one of us carried a flag representing one of the States as we walked up the aisle to the stage. Girls on the left, in white robes, boys on the right, in navy blue. Our little school band played ‘God Bless America’ and we sang our hearts out. Not a dry eye in the room, I tell you. Not a dry eye. And you know who our guest speaker was? The Governor. Came down from the capital and shook the hands of every graduate as he made his way to the podium. Personal responsibility – that was the theme of his speech. Personal responsibility. Best speech I ever heard.” Todd nodded as if to punctuate this statement.
Sanford picked up a thick manila file folder from a small stainless steel desk that Todd didn’t recall being there when he walked in. “What was the name of your high school, Mr. Starnes?”
Todd hesitated for a moment. “In our town? Center…Center High? Right? It was a long time ago. Centerville maybe…”
“What was the Governor’s name, Mr Starnes?” Sanford interrupted, “The one that spoke at graduation.”
“Lord, help me, I don’t remember. William, something. With an H. I honestly don’t…”
Sandford cut him off again, “What was your first job, your first girlfriend’s name, what street did you live on when you moved out of your parents’ house?”
Todd stammered for a second, his cheeks flushing red as he ran a sweaty hand through his thinning hair, “Uh…gimme a second…just one second…so many questions and I wasn’t really prepared…”
“You weren’t prepared? Does someone have to prepare memories? Don’t overthink it Mr. Starnes, just blurt out whatever first pops into your head. As many details as you can.”
Todd’s eyes glazed over for a second and he stared dead ahead before closing his eyes. “Melissa. Her name was Melissa. Blonde and tall with a rich white smile. Moved away in Senior year, owns a bakery now in Oregon.”
“Melissa? Todd, listen…”
“And my first job was with the Baptist Press, I interned there right after high school, in the research department looking for evidence of liberal bias in the media…”
“Jay Street. 58 Jay Street. Big white farmhouse with two acres of land and a flagpole near the driveway that reached to the sky. Mom was in the back in the garden, and dad in the garage tinkering with one of his rifles….”
Todd shook his head quickly, as if to snap himself out of a trance. “That’s what you wanted, Doc. My memories. And that’s what I want too. To live every day with those memories right here,” Todd gestured emphatically with his index finger at his forehead, “as the first thing I see when I get up in the morning to the last thing when I go to sleep at night. My memories of a better time, a better place, better people and a better America. That’s what your company does, Dr. Sandford, right? Takes people’s memories and uses them a new outlook on life? Well that’s what I want.”
Sanford leafed through the folder, silently, not looking up, and then sat gently on the steel stool that Todd was positive wasn’t originally in the room, either. He sighed, sipped a bit from his coffee mug, and then set it on the desk on top of a stack of similar folders. He swiveled the stool to face Todd and looked at him intently before pushing up his sleeves. Todd was 100 percent sure that the doctor had been wearing a suit jacket, but now he was in jeans and a grey cotton shirt. On his right forearm, Todd spied a small black tattoo of a phoenix and something in Todd’s brain sparked wildly, flashes of memories pouring through a hole in his subconscious and flooding the room before his eyes. He fell backwards against the reclining headrest and clenched his eyelids shut, his head jerking spasmodically. His breathing became labored and the blue light on the chair, which had previously been glowing steadily, began to pulse.
“I can’t give you your memories, Todd. I can’t use them to create a better world for you. Because they’re not your memories. And this is not your world.”
Sanford stood up and pressed the blue light, and Todd immediately stopped twitching, his eyes flew open. “What did you do to me, Doc? What’s going on here?”
“Relax, Todd, you’re just…broken. I don’t know how else to explain it without breaking the illusion.”
“Illusion? Illusion of what?”
“Time. Space. Memory. Life. You think you’re Todd Starnes, affable radio host and stalwart defender of the American Dream. Every morning you think you get up, stroll across the street for breakfast, and then tip your hat to passersby as you make your way to your office. You’re not in a small town in Tennessee, Todd, you’re in a server farm in Brooklyn. You’re not even Todd Starnes.”
Todd slowly sat up and stared down the doctor. “Doc, you’ll have to excuse my French, but what in tarnation are you talking about?? Have you gone completely loony? This is some sort of IiberaI joke, isn’t it? Some Hollywood prank? Are there cameras filming this right now? Well, I don’t consent to this, I don’t consent to you using my image or personality for your sick games.” He tried to lift himself off the chair, but his legs went all wobbly and he had to sit back into the recliner and inhaled deeply.
“Todd, I don’t need your consent. Sit down.” Sanford smiled.
“I have rights! Creator-endowed, God-given rights! I’m not some bag of meat!” he huffed, sharply drawing in breath between each sentence.
Suddenly, the lights came up, full blast, bathing the room in pure white phosphorescence. Sanford was gone, the lab was gone, nothing remained but Todd, standing in the center of the space, a booming echo ripping through his ears, getting louder and louder until it coalesced into a sharp but calm tones of Sanford’s voice.
“Oh, that’s right, Todd. You’re certainly not.”