by Robert H. Prestridge
for Charlotte Anderson
Sarai Pernell, an exit counselor at the Total Happiness and Wellness Institute, stared at the man sitting across from her.
“How many times do I have to tell you people?” Klaus Jenkins said. “I don’t want them to go away.”
“Sometimes we hold on to things that aren’t pleasant, Mr. Jenkins—”
“Lots of things in life aren’t pleasant, Dr. Pernell. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we should get rid of them.”
Pernell felt like tossing up her hands. The psychologist had done all that she could to make the last part of his treatment bearable, namely, the complete eradication of any memory that he had ever had cancer.
“I don’t understand, Mr. Jenkins,” she said. “Why do you insist upon holding on to your pain?”
No one was meant to be unhappy, at least according to the law. Unhappiness caused wars, social division, and other maladies.
“I just do and that’s that.” Jenkins crossed his arms.
Pernell sighed. She had worked with patients of many ages — eight to eighty-eight — and none of them had proven as troublesome as Klaus Jenkins, who didn’t look like the seventy-nine year-old man that he was. Then again, neither did she look like a woman about to enter retirement.
“I’m afraid that’s not an option, Mr. Jenkins. The law states—”
“I know what the law states,” Jenkins said. “But I have my reasons for not wanting to forget.”
“Why won’t you tell me?”
Jenkins didn’t reply.
“Can you at least tell me why—”
“I’m going to my room,” Jenkins said, standing, adjusting the sleeves of his tweed jacket. “I expect to be discharged tomorrow, and discharged completely intact. Have I made myself clear?”
“But the eradication is scheduled for tomorrow morning—”
“Goodbye, Dr. Pernell.”
Jenkins exited the office.
Pernell swiveled her chair to face her office window. The sunny landscape did nothing to relieve an oncoming migraine. The psychologist popped a lemon-flavored anti-migraine tab into her mouth, closed her eyes, and waited for the tab to dissolve.
A little more than an hour later, Pernell was walking around the well-tended lawns of the institute with Lyman Metzger, its director.
“No matter what I do, Lyman, I just can’t get through to him. He doesn’t want to forget.”
“You’ve done everything you could to persuade him?”
Pernell nodded. “Everything.”
“Unfortunately, we’re going to have to eradicate the memories, regardless of what Mr. Jenkins wants.”
Of course the institute would eradicate the memories, regardless of what Jenkins wanted. The Grieving, Healing, and Happiness Act of 2031 said that the procedure had to be done. The procedure itself, as she knew, was painless and relatively simple: technicians neuro-trafficked bad memories, isolated them, and eradicated them by altering kinase enzymes linked to the memories.
But whether the procedure was painless or not was beside the point. The point was to have the patient accept the treatment willingly, according to the law. That was the point. And besides, Pernell liked Jenkins and wanted to help him.
Pernell swatted at a yellow jacket, which was hovering near her face. The insect darted one direction, then another, then headed towards the arboretum.
“I know,” she said. “I was hoping for a more positive resolution.”
Metzger nodded in seeming appreciation. “You can’t always bat one thousand, Sarai. I know that you didn’t want to end your career this way. But at least you can look back and know that you’ve helped thousands of people. This time you’ll just have to accept that one of them fell through the cracks.”
A sprinter appeared and beeped.
“Yes?” Metzger asked it.
“Mr. Jenkins has fled the premises, Dr. Metzger. Shall we go Active Nineteen?”
Metzger glowered. “Of course we go Active Nineteen.”
The sprinter blipped in acknowledgment and sped away.
“See if you can figure out where he might have gone,” Metzger said.
Pernell nodded, turned, and walked down another path.
* * *
She found Jenkins sitting at Baker’s Point, a spot on a beach about thirty miles south of the institute, at dawn the next day. A hologram in his room — showing a much younger Jenkins huddling with a woman under a blanket — had provided Pernell the clue to locate him.
Jenkins looked at her, then away.
“You’ll have to kill me,” he said. “I’m not giving up any of my memories.”
Pernell sat down beside him. She placed her hand on his.
“I know about Eva,” she said.
“What do you know?”
“I understand now. At least I think that I do. You’ve felt guilty all these years because of what happened.”
“I didn’t do enough research,” Pernell said. “I should have gone back further in your history. Please forgive me.”
He shook his head. “I deserve—”
“You saw the cancer as a means of punishment, the justice you deserved because of what happened.” She squeezed his hand. “I reviewed the reports, Mr. Jenkins. It wasn’t you fault.”
“I took her out on that back road, didn’t I?” he said, removing his hand from hers. “If only—”
“It was the other man’s fault. You don’t need to punish yourself any longer, Mr. Jenkins. You never had to.”
They watched waves rolling in through mists. The smell of brine tickled her nostrils. A sandpiper darted about the beach.
“We used to come here all of the time,” Jenkins said, about half an hour later. “We took morning walks before I went to school to teach. And sometimes we would come out here at night, too.”
He blinked, blew his nose, and shook his head.
“After she was gone, I had no real reason to live, Dr. Pernell. Oh, I lived, but I lived as a mere shadow of my former self. Can you understand that?”
She nodded. She did, indeed, understand. But now was not the time to think about Frank.
“Will you come back to the institute?” she asked.
Jenkins stood and looked at the waves.
“No, I won’t. It ends here. It all ends here.”
Two sprinters appeared, followed by Metzger.
Jenkins looked down at Pernell. She thought of a trapped animal.
“Please don’t let them do this to me, Dr. Pernell. Please. My pain is my only link to her.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Jenkins.”
The sprinters secured Jenkins with titanium webbing. Metzger lead the sprinters securing Jenkins to an awaiting vehicle.
The beach no longer looked so beautiful, and the mists had by then evaporated.
* * *
That night Pernell stood near a window in the institute lounge, warmed glass of cognac in hand. A fire burned in a hearth, and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons played on the lounge’s sound system.
But neither the smooth-tasting alcohol, nor the warmth from the crackling fire, nor the soft music made her feel any better.
She heard the lounge door open, and because of the heavy footsteps knew that Metzger had entered.
She felt his hand on her shoulder. She reached up and touched his fingers.
“I feel as if I’m ready to toss away my thirty pieces of silver,” she said.
“Don’t feel that way, Sarai. We have to do this.”
She turned and looked up at Metzger.
“Do we?” she asked. “Why can’t anyone live with pain if they choose to? What gives us the right to choose for them?”
“Because, well, because. When he leaves our institute tomorrow afternoon, he’s going to be a new man. He won’t remember the cancer or the pain—”
“And without the pain, he won’t have an emotional connection to his dead wife. And if he doesn’t have that emotional connection, he will have lost her.”
Metzger frowned. “He doesn’t have her now, Sarai. He only has a memory of her. In fact, we’re going to remove those memories of his dead wife so that he won’t suffer.”
“What we’re doing is so humane that it’s inhumane,” she said.
“Just drop it, Lyman. I accept it. It’s over.”
They were silent a few moments. Pernell turned and sipped her cognac.
He cleared his throat. “You’ve finished packing your things?”
“You’ve more than earned your retirement, Sarai. You were the best exit counselor we ever had.”
Pernell felt a tear at the inner corner of her eye. Had she earned anything? Had she ever truly helped anyone? What if, in actuality, she had been a monster?
“See you at the party tomorrow,” he said. “Good night, Sarai.”
“Good night, Lyman.”
Metzger exited the lounge. She placed the warm cognac glass down onto a table and stared out the window.
* * *
At home Pernell showered and then attempted to watch the U, but couldn’t concentrate. She left the den and entered the master bedroom, a room that she no longer occupied but that she maintained, as if the lost love of her life, Frank, might appear once again.
The psychologist ordered the lights to turn on and went to a far wall. She nodded and holograms appeared. Several showed her and Frank at their wedding. Another showed them fishing with her parents at the exact starting point of the Arkansas River. Another showed Frank standing next to a maroon 1967 Ford Mustang.
How you loved your ancient cars, Frank. And how I wished I could have stopped you from going to that track that day.
She collapsed on their old bed. “Why, Frank, why?”
She cried for almost twenty minutes.
“You’re such a hypocrite,” she said, sitting up, looking at herself in a mirror. “How could I have done that to all those people?”
Pernell wiped away her tears.
“I’ll tell you why you did what you did. It kept you from feeling guilty about Frank, that’s why.”
Outside, on a balcony, Pernell wrapped her arms around herself and exhaled plumes of breath that evaporated quickly in the night air.
Klaus and Eva Jenkins had probably spent nights like this making love in the woods, or perhaps even on Baker’s Point. How many of those nights did he remember? And after tomorrow, how would these memories affect him emotionally, if at all? Well, they wouldn’t. That was the thing.
If only Klaus Jenkins could walk hand in hand with Eva Jenkins once again. If only there was a way. If only the technicians...
She smiled. “Of course,” she said. “This will solve everything.”
Some might have considered that what she was going to do was just a lie covering another lie. But what they were going to do to Klaus Jenkins was far, far worse than that.
Half an hour later Pernell was at the institute lab. She told the night technician, Arul, what she wanted to do.
He rubbed his stubbly jaw. “This isn’t policy, Dr. Pernell.”
She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. “It’s not against policy either, Arul. And it’s not against the law. You can use his memories to create new ones in—”
“I don’t know—”
“I take full responsibility,” Pernell said.
He yawned. His breath smelled of peppermint mouthwash. “All right, I’ll do it. But I have a feeling that Dr. Metzger isn’t going to like it.”
The tech prepared his instruments. Pernell sat down in a chair, turned on her nano-palmer, and scanthought a note to Metzger.
* * *
The next morning Metzger raced to the institute. He was nearing the entrance when the doors opened and Pernell and Jenkins stepped out, hand in hand.
Metzger stopped. “Sarai?”
The director and the woman stared at one another.
“Sarai? No, I’m Eva. Eva Jenkins.”
Metzger felt his chest tighten. A few seconds passed.
“Well, I hope you two are happy,” Metzger said.
“Oh, we are,” Jenkins said, laughing. “How long has it been now, dear?”
“Going on fifty happy years, Klaus.”
“That’s what I thought, Eva. Fifty great, happy years, except for the blip in the road that brought me here.”
The two laughed and kissed.
““Thank you for all that you did,” the woman who was once Pernell said.
“Yes, thank you, Dr. Metzger, for all that you and the institute have done,” Jenkins said. “I can’t remember a thing.”
Metzger feigned a smile. “Goodbye, Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins.”
The director watched them walk down the path leading away from the institute. Pernell had said in her note that after Klaus Jenkins died, they might find her at Baker’s Point, watching a sunrise. If she were happy, they were to leave her alone.
“Sarai,” Metzger said, and with that he turned and entered the building.
Copyright © 2008 by Robert H. Prestridge