He still fights them in his mind. They come from the foliage after dark, shadows that hardly make a sound. He can smell them before he can see them, muck and gun oil and basa fish. They yell in a language he can’t understand, and his heart thumps like an out-of-balance clothes dryer. Guns crack, the air sings with bullets, and people die around him. They gurgle and scream, clawing at the dirt while their blood deserts them.
After the battle, he pukes C-rations and his friend offers him a cigarette. At least he thinks that it’s his friend; sometimes he’s not even sure of his own name. Robert? Do people call him Rob or Bob?
“Dad, I’m here,” a man says. The stranger grabs his wrists. “You’re OK. You’re not there anymore.”
He’s not even sure where there is — or here, for that matter. He just recalls it being hot, humid, and muddy in that place with all the trees. Insects chewed up his skin, too, and he once shit himself in a swollen river after a bout with dysentery. It’s odd that he remembers that but not the name of the jungle. Why had they sent him there again?
“Who are you?” he asks the stranger. They sit together in a cramped room with white walls and furniture that looks futuristic — like something out of a science fiction movie. They used to make sofas out of scratchy fabric or leather, but this one feels like plastic.
“Rob,” the stranger says. “Your son.”
He scrunches his face. The stranger looks to be middle-aged, a little soft around the midsection, and his hair fights a losing battle on his scalp.
“Did you give me that cigarette in the jungle?”
“No, Dad. I wasn’t even born.”
He shakes his head. “Sorry. I don’t know you then.”
“Don’t worry. Soon you’ll remember everything.”
He’s not sure he wants to remember more.
A nurse hovers over him with a low-cut top that reveals the tops of her pale breasts, maybe a hint of something more. He can’t be sure. He does know that someone should tell her to buy a better bra or a shirt with more cloth or something. Back in his day, women made you work for that sort of thing, though he can’t seem to remember when that might have been.
“I’m Dr. Safran,” the woman says.
“Am I sick?” he asks. He can’t recall why they brought him to this room full of lights and whirring gadgets. Something behind him hisses and clicks over and over as if it’s struggling to breathe. A stranger sits in the corner, half shrouded in shadows, and the pudgy man looks even less like a doctor than the girl with the pretty smile floating through the room.
“Your brain needs some repair,” the doctor says. She still hasn’t fixed her shirt.
“Where am I?” he asks. “And you should tell somebody to turn the lights down.”
“You’re at the Caradion Neurological Research Facility in Boston,” she says. “And it’s June of 2026.”
2026? He turns his hands over and looks at the gnarled fingers, the tufts of white hair along his knuckles.
“They’re going to hook you up to some machines for awhile, Dad. Just close your eyes and relax,” the stranger says.
“We’ve had success in other clinical trials using pulse technology to coax and instruct the brain to repair itself, neurological structure by neurological structure, particularly in the hippocampus and other memory centers. When prompted, the brain can be an amazingly regenerative organ. If things go well you’ll see similar results from the stimulation. It may take a few sessions, but we hope to restore much of your brain function, Mr. Foster.”
While the doctor explains this nonsense him, he dwells on the name Mr. Foster. He thinks he knew a Mr. Foster once — a gray-haired bastard with an Irish temper. The man always smelled like chewing tobacco.
“It’s not invasive at all, Dad,” the man says. “No knives. It’ll just be some sticky patches on your head and a little tingling.”
He focuses on a knife in his mind — a long one that curves. A small man wields it, eyes beady in the dark. The man barks something before he brings it down, and it’s nothing but screaming and agony after.
“I’ll be waiting for you, Dad,” the stranger says.
He looks at the man and rubs the bumpy scar under his shirt. “I never had a son.”
The machine behind him ramps up with a whir, and something tickles his head. He closes his eyes and thinks of that knife and a puddle of blood so deep he could drown in it. Still, that’s not the worst of it. There’s something else lingering, waiting to be pried out by the machine, and he shouts for them to leave it be.
Too bad his mouth belongs to someone else.
Robert sits on the patio, looking down at the facility gardens. The bushes could use a trim, but the staff seem too preoccupied with flirting with each other and chiding guests who trample the flowers. A little girl with pigtails picks the white petals off a dogwood tree and presses them into the palm of a frail woman who looks half a corpse already. Robert remembers that woman from breakfast. She had been the one who complained about her eggs being too runny and her bacon being too black.
Robert remembers a lot of things now. He knows that yesterday he ate split pea soup with a pathetic amount of ham and watched a game show on a TV that projected images into his room so lifelike he tried to swat them with his shoe. Also, a stranger sat with him and tried to talk to him about baseball.
Robert remembers more about the war, too — even the name of it. It’s not worth thinking about, though, because otherwise he finds himself back there, knee-deep in mud and corpses. Once, he stood guard while three of the men in his platoon raped a woman, and after, he put a pistol in his mouth and nearly pulled the trigger. He figures that’s not a memory worth having.
Robert also remembers a woman in a yellow summer dress. She liked to drive a blue Coupe de Ville with the top down, her burnished gold hair like autumn leaves in the wind. They drank cold beer on a bobbing pier at night and watched the sun die over the ocean. Later they wrestled and laughed on the planks, and after, helped each other pluck the slivers out.
They’re not all happy memories with her, though. The woman looks older in some, and in those she rarely smiles. He figures he probably married that girl at some point, though that part of the story escapes him. Robert and …
Anne Mulcaney who became Anne Foster. Yes, that’s it. He wonders what happened to her as he thinks about a time they made love beneath a willow tree that danced in the wind. He’s glad the treatment seems to be working — at least when it comes to thinking about that skinny, pretty thing in the yellow dress.
He doesn’t remember the stranger that comes to visit him, though, the one that looms behind him now, hands on the back of the wheelchair. Not yet at least. Something tells him it is better that way.
Robert sits silently while Dr. Safran’s aide attaches the patches to his head. The stranger sits across from him, staring at him. It’s like he’s trying to will Robert to remember him, but instead, Robert asks the doctor to send him away. The stranger seems to follow him wherever he goes and asks more questions than the demented lady with the runny eggs.
“You really want me to go?” the stranger asks.
“I’m not your father,” Robert responds. He closes his eyes and thinks of Anne in the yellow dress. He married her before the war in a wedding beneath a canopy but remembers little of what happened after. The stranger moves toward the door. Robert sighs and says, “Wait. Suppose I was your father. Does that make Anne your mother?”
“Yes,” the stranger says. He smiles and clasps Robert’s hands.
“What happened to her?” Robert asks. The machine whirs behind him as it gears up for another hour-long session. He pictures a note scrawled in Anne’s flowery hand, pinned to the kitchen table with a knife that cut worse than that VC’s kukri, saying something about never coming back.
“She died last year,” the stranger says. “I was with her at the end. We all were. The cancer ate her up so fast, though, and sometimes even science can’t fix everything.”
“There are three of us,” the stranger says.
“Where are the others?” Robert asks.
He shrugs. “When Mom passed, she wanted us all to make peace with you,” the stranger says, voice trailing away. He pauses. “The others aren’t coming, but after more than thirty years of trying to forget you, here I am.”
“And why am I in this place?”
“Because I found you in a shoddy apartment, reliving the war in your recliner, and in no state to hash out our differences. So that’s why you’re here. Not for science like these people around us think. Not for you and your salvation. Not for me and my peace of mind either. For her.”
“She was a good woman.”
The aide ushers the man out of the room, and Dr. Safran hums a lullaby while the machines massage Robert’s brain. Robert wants to shout after the stranger and tell him that he remembers their names now — Robert, Jonathan, and Valerie — but he’s paralyzed. Instead, he makes himself forget them again.
“You have a good looking boy,” Mary Josephine says. She pushes her meal away, half-eaten eggs a yellow smear on her plate. “What’s his name again?”
“I’m Rob,” the stranger says. Robert blinks at him over a platter of maple sausages. The man adds, “He should remember me soon. He remembers more and more every day with the treatments.”
Robert should have warned the stranger that he would have had a better chance talking to the pitcher of orange juice than trying to converse with Mary Josephine. She returns to complaining about her eggs and the lumpy oatmeal.
Carl from last night’s card game leans across the table, arms folded. He likes to chain smoke and croaks, “I was like your father not two months ago. The memories come back slowly, and your mind picks and chooses in what order. It seems the worst ones always come last.”
The stranger cuts the crust off his toast. “But he remembers the war and his wound and the day my mother walked out on him for good.”
Carl shrugs. “Something else eats him up worse must be.”
Robert throws the entire platter of sausages at Carl. “What do you know? You’re no doctor.”
“Last session,” Dr. Safran announces.
The stranger wheels his stool across the floor. “You’ve shown great progress, Dad. Maybe it’s better you don’t remember everything. We gave it an honest effort, just like Mom would have wanted, right?”
Robert shrugs. “I suppose.”
He closes his eyes and lets the machine take control of him. His arms and legs go rigid, his jaw clenches. Lights dance behind his eyes as the probes stimulate his brain. Memories flash past like an old picture show, grainy and warped. He only catches snippets — that blue Coupe de Ville, the man with the cigarette again, a girl in a hospital bed, the year 1975 on a banner proclaiming: It’s a BOY!
Robert wants to rip the patches off his skull, to forget this all again. His arms refuse him, though, and his hands continue to clutch the chair.
He remembers everything now — the pain pills mixed with booze, Anne’s blood on the linoleum, the principal calling to ask about the welt on the back of Valerie’s calves, Jonathan walking home seven miles in a snow storm from the baseball diamond, the pistol pressed into the roof of his mouth again.
He sees the bottom of Anne’s note, the one pinned to the table with that paring knife: “You’re a terrible man. I’m taking the kids, and I will never forgive you.”
Robert sags from the chair, body still frozen, tears streaking from his unblinking eyes. He can feel them cold on his skin as they snake their way down his cheeks. The aides rush to hoist him back into the chair, and he wants to ask them to leave him there. But his lips feel like plaster.
Robert sits on the patio and sucks his dentures. Mary Josephine plods along the winding garden trail below, her cane clicking on the stones. A gaggle of children, teens, and adults surround her, whooping as if she has won the lottery. They celebrate her healing mind with cheers and hugs. Robert presses his forefinger to a temple and blasts his memories away.
“Dad,” Rob says from behind him.
“You should warn a man before you sneak up on him.”
Rob settles into the chair beside him and stretches out his legs. “Nice day.”
They say nothing for a while, and Robert clicks his gums. Finally, he says, “I suppose you want to talk about it now.”
His son shrugs. “Not really.”
“I suppose you’re looking for an apology then.”
Robert laughs. “Then why restore these memories? Just to remind me how vile I am?”
Rob puts a hand on Robert’s knee. “Surely you have a few good memories in there worth holding onto. I don’t have many of you, to be honest, but I have a few. For one, that time you bought me a new mitt, and we played catch well past midnight with just the porch light.”
Robert nods. “Yes. It was a Wilson glove. Do you have kids?”
“Two grown,” Rob says. “The oldest has a boy of his own. He’s five.”
“And you’re a good father?”
Rob smiles. “The best.”
“You think Johnny and Val will come?” Robert asks. Little Val was just twelve the last time he had seen her all those years ago.
“Not a chance. Sorry.”
Robert grips the arms of the chair. “I can’t say I blame them. I’m glad to remember, you know. I deserve these memories, it would be cowardly to escape them so easily.”
“I wasn’t going to say it.”
“So what about you?” Robert asked. “Is this the end for us now that you’ve discharged your duty to your mother?”
Rob stands and goes to the patio rail. “We’ll see. One day at a time. They’re going to keep you here for tests and trials another couple months. Their technology is changing lives — mostly for the better, I think.”
“Maybe.” Robert swallows. “So what did your mother say about me at the end?”
Rob says nothing for a while, just leans precariously over the rail. With a sigh, he turns back.
“She whispered while she gasped for breath that she saw you on a pier by the ocean on a day before the war took you, before it stripped you down, before you vented your anger on the world. You were an eager and dashing young man then. She remembered you good, before the jungle took that from you.”
“Better memories,” Robert says. He closes his eyes as they well with tears and thinks of a Christmas photo with all the children smiling, all three wearing their Sunday finest. “And Val and Johnny? They’re good like you?”
Rob claps him on the shoulder. “They are. And good parents, too. But I’ve got to go watch my grandson play T-ball, so we’ll catch up more another time. See you around.”
“See you around.”
The wind whistles across the patio, and Robert sits alone, thinking of an ocean that shimmered orange and gold beneath a dying sun and of a skinny thing in a yellow summer dress.
Shane D. Rhinewald is a communications professional by day and writes speculative fiction by night (except when there’s hockey on TV, of course). His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Nature, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and a number of other publications. You can find him on Twitter at @sdrhinewald.