There is something so alluring about a blank page. The mystery of what could be. The question of what was once but has been erased.
I think it is some combination of the two that draws my gaze toward Ruben and his gang as they hustle through the double glass doors across from my reception desk. They come every Friday, but still their eyes glaze with virgin awe as they study the posters on the walls.
With a polite smile, I wait. Legally, I cannot recommend a thrill unless directly asked. Either the ads will do their jobs in silence or someone will eventually beckon me to speak.
The slap of hard plastic against harder wood threatens to make me flinch as the leader slams a stack of money notes down on my desk.
I win, motionless save for a blink and a slow smile. “Careful or you’ll start an avalanche.”
He laughs. “What’s on sale this week?”
“We’ll take that.”
I knew they would. They always take the featured sale. The question is if they know that.
“Sign the waivers and proceed down the hall, please,” I instruct. “Exit the fourth door on the left. Next plane leaves in fifteen minutes.”
Sometimes the herd charges like bulls through the streets of San Fermin. Today they scurry behind their leader single-file like lost ants. Either way, their mouths hang open as if that frees their eyes to wander further.
And, as has happened on a few occasions, Rubin lingers.
“Freesia,” he says.
Now I lose the jump-scare game and flinch at the sound of my name. Does he remember it?
No. He reads the badge pinned to my lapel.
“Nice name. Slides off the tongue.”
“It’s the name of a flower,” I deflect.
He leans on my desk, dark hair fanning across eyes adrift somewhere between brown and gold. “You’re not a flower.”
“Flowers are delicate.” His smirk is so crooked, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it has a summer and winter. “Today’s thrill, jumping out of a plane, you’ve done it before.”
It’s not a question, so I don’t answer, instead staring at the broad plateaus and acute angles of his face. At the faint shadows beneath his eyes. At the slight tremble to his lips.
Do ones like him worry?
“A flower wouldn’t survive jumping out of a plane. Flowers prefer their roots in the ground.”
I return his smirk, peering over the top of my slender spectacles. “What am I, then?”
He shrugs. “First impression?”
I nearly flinch again. First impression. As if this is the first he has spoken to me. As if the other forty-two times never happened.
To him, they didn’t.
“I’d call you Falcon,” he proclaims with a knee-melting grin, pivoting even further over my desk. His bangs nearly touch my forehead. “Will you be working here tomorrow?”
“Money’s scarce for many these days. My family would disown me if I worked anything less than every hour I am awake and a few when I’m not.”
He laughs, but I’m not entirely joking.
“Can I bring you dinner here tomorrow around this same time?”
“Ruben, hurry up!” the leader calls from down the hall, and as if on a tether, he slinks away, trudging backward.
I nod as he disappears, blessed with that heart-stopping grin one more time.
“Wish me luck.” His words echo, disembodied and light, strained of the fear they reveal. “This is my first time on a thrill. Hopefully I don’t epically mess up and get everyone killed.”
That’s a lie. Sky diving has been the special for over a month now. They went last week and several times before that.
But it isn’t an intentional lie. Ruben just doesn’t remember.
I know what Ruben is. I know why he is a blank slate every time I see him. Any expectation beyond that is foolishness.
Yet, I find it harder to sit still and wear my mask on Saturday. The appointed time draws near, and I wait, stomach full of fireworks. An hour later, I still wait. Two hours fold into four, then six, and my shift ends. A part of me lingers, wondering if I loiter a moment longer, will I see Ruben rush through those glass doors?
But they show only my tired reflection.
Sunday, I cling to a shard of hope. Monday, it is a sliver stuck within my heart, cutting deeper with each beat.
I shouldn’t let it affect me. I should know better. I know he sells his memories. It’s why the gang comes here, to get memories worth selling, dangerous experiences rich men want without the risk.
A memory copied is equal to a fake. Because buyers insist an experience must be theirs alone, sellers erase the originals. Blankers like Ruben do not remember yesterday.
Friday cues the return of Ruben and his crew. He’s forgotten me. Again. His amber eyes light up when they meet mine as if for the first time. There is no recognition, only interest.
My stomach is made of stones grinding against one another. Scorched by my anger, my mask falters. My smile is not as polite as is proper for a good employee.
As they purchase the featured shark encounter and charge down the hall, I tell myself this rage has no bearing. I know Ruben sells his memories. It is who and what he is. He doesn’t try to hide it. I shouldn’t expect him to remember me tomorrow, next week, or ever.
My eyes burn, and I wallow in a blink. I know why he does it. Money is hard to come by for those who don’t already have it, and memories are lucrative. My family has sold some. My brother remembered his first steps, and those went for a fortune he uses to pay for his education.
I’ve considered doing the same. The thought lurks in the crannies of my mind, searching for a piece of my childhood I could give away, I could trade to buy myself out of this life.
But the thought is not meant for the light. If I dwell on it for too long, the spotlight of my attention transforms hope into the claws of fear. What if losing just one memory would change who I am?
I can jump out of a plane or play with a lion, but I’m too much of a coward to let machines poke around in my head.
Wet warmth trails down my cheek. I open my eyes. Ruben is still here, leaning on my desk. I am a mouse, small and wishing to be invisible.
As if he doesn’t know. He doesn’t. But he should. He would.
I am a viper curled in a chair. I am powerful, full of fire, fast. “The way you look at me every time you come in here, I didn’t think it would mean so little to you, that you would sell the memory of asking me out.”
His face scrunches. “I’ve never sold my memories.”
I see no lie in his lax posture, in the crooked set of his shoulders, the tightness of his jaw, or the depth of his gaze. Yet I know it is a falsehood. He doesn’t. How can he not know? Did he even sell the memories of him selling his memories?
No, those don’t sell.
I exhale through my nose and feel like a dragon breathing fire. “How did you get that?” I point to a narrow, jagged scar that runs between his thumb and pinky. I know its tale. I doubt he does.
His crooked smile falls. His brows meet and form a squiggly line.
“Ruben, get over here! The transport is leaving!” the leader calls, and Ruben heeds the tether of his words.
But his gaze doesn’t leave his hand.
I don’t know what to think of what I did. It was very unprofessional. Ruben probably won’t remember anyway, but I will. Why does that bug me? Why does it feel wrong that I have memories of him that he doesn’t have of himself?
It’s going to be a long week if I can’t cage these wild thoughts. Already, this Saturday feels a year long.
The doors crash open. I stand to address the hooligan who dares disrespect the space of our business, ready to point at the “no running” sign. But my chair barely has time to creak in protest of my absence before the charging silhouette takes on the colors and shapes of a face I have spent too much time dwelling on.
“I ran.” Tears streak his ruddy cheeks, fallen from wide, bloodshot eyes. “It didn’t seem right, the tubes leading into my bed. I asked what they were for.”
I tilt my head. “What did they tell you?”
“Nothing that made any sense. So I tried to leave, and they wouldn’t let me.”
That really doesn’t make any sense. Memories are sold on a voluntary basis. Donors frequently chicken out. It’s illegal to forcibly take another’s possessions, even a memory. Especially a memory.
I meet his dark gaze. It glows with something I can’t define, like a dying sun, umbra bubbling over light. He leans over the counter, arms collapsed beneath him, like the cold, polished wood is all that holds him up.
“Are you saying someone has been stealing your memories, Ruben?”
Very slowly, he nods and stands straighter. My belief is a crutch, something to cling to.
“I’ve been thinking. How did I get to be as old as I am, as big as I am? People are supposed to grow, right? But as far as I know, I have no past. I only know three people: myself, the leader, and…you.”
“Me?” I squawk. “You don’t even know me.”
My words are a knife. I see that too late. He deflates a little.
I don’t have time to take it back. The doors fling open again. Ruben dives over my desk as his name reverberates off the poster-laden walls. The glass frames shake as if in fear of the anger in that bellow.
“Sir,” I start in my sternest voice. My knee nudges the trembling man at my feet beneath the counter. “I do not know what argument you may be trying to continue, but this is a serious place of business. Maintain a respectful tone and volume or I will summon the authorities.”
“I know he’s here. The tracker says so.”
My heart slides to my toes. There isn’t room to spare for it in my narrow, pointed shoes.
“Ruben, stop hiding by the lady’s feet or I will call the authorities.”
“I don’t think you will,” I counter. “Thieves, wise ones anyway, avoid those who would punish them.”
“Thieves,” he sneers. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s illegal to force someone to give up their memories. It’s a gray area even to coerce one into doing so.”
“Memories. Listen”—he leans over my counter. Huge, well-manicured hands curl around the inside edge of the desk, just above Ruben’s head—“none of those memories belonged to Ruben anyway. Every single one was a situation I contrived, like how I bought these thrills. I paid for them. They’re mine to do with what I will.”
“Not as defined by law. Ruben has rights—”
“Ruben is no one. He’s been a conduit for my business since he was an infant, and I don’t need some floozy telling me how to make my money.”
Since he was an infant. The words echo in my mind. Childhood memories can be sold as an adult, and these are expensive, but…
“Only monsters sell the memories of children,” I whisper.
“You know what, I’m gonna make all this go away.” His massive hand slides into his pocket and pulls out a clear, bubble-filled box. A memory cube. And a port to go with it.
It glows as he attaches the cord to the top and points the other end toward me. A plethora of syringes wink in the canned lighting.
On this Saturday afternoon, I do the most unprofessional thing I have ever done. I leap on a loyal client. My pencil skirt rips. One of my shoes flies and cracks a poster. As its pieces fall to the floor, I kick and scratch and roll with this monster.
When we stop, he is on top, both my wrists pinned, my hips trapped between his thighs. The needles are a hairsbreadth from my skin when breaking glass screams again. It rains around me as the monster falls to the side.
Ruben takes his place in my sightline. His own gaze is glued to his leader, the man he just hit over the head with a poster to save me. Heedless of the shards digging into his shins, Ruben sinks to his knees. He is a statue, not even breathing. I don’t look, but in my peripherals there is a lot of red and no motion.
My heart goes out to Ruben. He is a puzzle made of many missing pieces. Now the largest piece shows him killing the only person he knows. What must he think of himself?
I see the blank page filling, and I don’t like what’s written. I want to write something better.
And I can.
I grab the memory cube from the floor alongside the fallen leader. Ruben’s chocolate gaze flicks to me as the syringes leap into my skin. It doesn’t hurt as much as I thought it would.
My thumbs run over transient buttons on the cube’s top, finding the memory I want him to have. The first time I met him. How I envied his easy-going nature, his sideways grin. How I wished my hair could be as sun-kissed.
The box clicks, containing something I wish to give Ruben, but I no longer remember what it is.