Tor.com is honored to reprint “The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick,” a short story by Charlie Jane Anders available now in the special “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” June 2014 issue of Lightspeed Magazine!
“The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick” explores the bonds and boundaries between friends in a future where one’s most intimate memories can downloaded and shared.
Guest-edited by longtime Lightspeed assistant editor Christie Yant, the “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” issue is over 180,000 words and features original short stories by Seanan McGuire, Charlie Jane Anders, N.K. Jemisin, Carrie Vaughn, Maria Dahvana Headley, Amal El-Mohtar, and many others. You can purchase the issue in a variety of ebook formats directly though Lightspeed or your preferred ebook retailer, as well as in print through Amazon or CreateSpace.
After Roger broke up with Mary, she only had two places to go:
1) Her home, which was a single room with a bed, a bath, and a kitchen that were three identical rectangles which came out of the wall and occupied the exact same space.
2) Her job at the smart-cookie makery, where she stood in an asymmetrical trench surrounded by screens, monitoring peptide levels. Colored lights swirling around her head, almost too fast to see.
She couldn’t even bring herself to cry. She walked around under a gray sky, feeling dead inside—as if she’d missed a couple of days of smart cookies and her brain was consequently shutting down.
Loss was not an ache or a pang, or anything dainty. It was more like a bucket of shit that kept falling and falling on her head: itchy, ugly, humiliating.
Mary’s friends kept calling, wanting to hang out, but she couldn’t face anyone. She wanted to avoid the places she and Roger had gone together—which was every place she liked to go. She couldn’t face eating a fancy meal because right now food tasted like dirt, and she could just barely manage to look presentable for work. Her friends all said that she had to get right back on the horse. Mary had never seen a horse, but she imagined that being ejected from one would lead to bruises and maybe some sprains or fractures, plus an angry horse that had already won the first round. That’s assuming the horse didn’t just trample you once it had already thrown you underfoot.
At last, two days after the breakup, she gave in and went out for drinks with her best friend, Stacia. Some part of her still remembered the three A.M. trash talk sessions about guys that she and Stacia had, back in college when the Sisterhood was new, and imagined it could be that way again.
“Don’t say anything about horses,” Mary growled preemptively at Stacia. “Or getting back on them, or anything else along those lines.”
“You know me.” Stacia shrugged, raised her palms so her bracelets jangled, and laughed. “I always change horses in the middle of a stream.”
This was so true. The whole time Mary had known Stacia, almost ten years since college, Stacia hadn’t had a relationship that lasted more than five or six weeks. The six years Mary had been with Roger was like a million years in Stacia-relationship-time. Just hearing Stacia’s laughter made Mary’s shoulders unhunch fractionally.
They were at the Swan Dive, the place with the white wing-shaped chandeliers and cherry-wood couches, and Stacia kept glancing around to see if there were any cute guys worth throwing some negs at. Mary would never stop envying Stacia’s ability to turn flirtation into a way of life.
Just when Mary was starting to feel slightly less tragic, Stacia leaned in and said, “You’re totally right to be scared to go back to the dating pool,” using her low, confiding tone. “Dating is a nightmare.”
At first, Mary thought Stacia was talking about whether Mary could still attract a man, with her cornsilk hair and fading kina-minx features, concerning which Stacia was always volunteering makeover advice. But then she realized Stacia was talking about something more fundamental.
“Dating is this relic of a primitive age, before kina-chat and smart cookies,” Stacia said. “You have to spend all this time getting to know someone: what they like to eat for breakfast, and all their hangups. And then once you’ve gathered all of this useless information, you probably realize that you’re not compatible after all. And then you have to start the whole process over from scratch.”
Back when Mary and Stacia first became friends, they’d both worn the black turtlenecks and hiking boots that were still Mary’s daily uniform, but after college Stacia had reinvented herself as an über-femme. Now she had special eyelashes that fluttered all on their own, hypnotically, and her black hair cascaded in waves around her creamy shoulders. Stacia’s ankles crossed sinuously on the bottom rung of the barstool, with her red ruffled skirt lapping against them. Two separate guys were trying to send her drinks, and she was rolling her eyes at them.
Stacia went on about what a chore it was, getting to know a new person. “You have to wait for him to open up, like the world’s slowest Venus flytrap. And meanwhile, you keep unspooling yourself for him, little by little, just enough to keep him interested, but not so much that you’re oversharing or overloading his buffers. Everybody has sex on the first date these days, but you have to wait until the fourth or fifth date before talking about your messed-up childhood.”
Around this point, Mary started to cry, for the first time since Roger kicked her to the curb. She would be alone forever, in her tiny apartment with the three rectangles. She couldn’t do this whole dance all over again, the way Stacia was describing it. She usually loved Stacia’s cynicism, but right now she was just too raw.
“And that’s why I think you should get Roger to do it,” Stacia was saying. “Everybody’s going to be doing it soon, so you’ll just be an early adopter. And honestly, since he’s the one who dumped you, he owes you.”
“Do what?” Mary was so startled, she stopped sniffling.
“Oh,” Stacia said. “You know. The memory thing.”
“Pretend I don’t know,” Mary said. She sort of knew. She’d read about this on the kina-cast a while back. It was the thing where your ex gave you a memory wisp, right? A download?
“The important thing is, he doesn’t give you all of his memories of the relationship,” said Stacia. “Just the happy ones. The ones from the first two or three months, or maybe four or five if the relationship went on longer. Especially, no memories from the tail end, leading up to the breakup. Not even stuff that seemed happy at the time, because in retrospect it will all seem terrible.”
“Yeah,” Mary said. “But I already remember our relationship, more than I honestly want to. Why would I want his memories of that stuff? I might as well just jam hot needles into my tear ducts.”
“It’s not for you, dumbass.” Stacia slapped Mary’s arm. “It’s for whoever you date next. Your new boyfriend can get implanted with all of Roger’s memories of getting to know you. That way, the new guy can know how you like to be touched in bed, and what your favorite flavor of mycosnuff is. He’ll already know all the awkward details, but it won’t feel like too much too soon, because he’ll have memories of learning it all over a period of months. And the best part is, if he gets Roger’s memories and decides he doesn’t want to date you after all, he can get them removed, as long as it’s within a few days. After seventy-two hours, Roger’s memories become integrated with his own, and then they’re permanent.”
“You’ve thought a lot about this,” Mary said.
“Well, yeah,” Stacia said. “In the unlikely event I date someone for more than a few months ever again, I want him to do a memory download for sure. Think about it: You wouldn’t get a new kina without transferring over your address book and settings and stuff, right?”
“I doubt Roger would want to do that,” Mary said. “I don’t even know if he has any good memories of our time together.”
“That’s why he has to do it now,” Stacia said. “He still has the happy memories, buried somewhere. But every day that passes since the breakup, the happy stuff gets buried deeper and deeper as he convinces himself you never had anything. A week from now, those good times you shared will be beyond the ability of science to retrieve.”
Mary still wasn’t sure, but Stacia gave her the hard sell: “He owes you. All of that time you invested in him, it’s like you put equity into a home. And now that he’s evicted you, he owes it to you to cash out your equity, so you can put it into a new place. That’s all this is.” When she put it like that, the whole thing made sense.
Seeing Roger’s face for the first time since the breakup caused Mary’s brain to make a correction in real-time—fast, but not fast enough to be painless. The instinctive “partner-bond” signal fired in her brain, causing waves of pleasure and comfort. Like a hot bath on a frozen day. And then she had to pull back, as if the hot bath had turned out to be boiling instead. She had to look at Roger’s perfect hazel eyes and breathe in his pine-forest scent… and remember that this was over.
Mary’s whole life was neurochemistry, so she knew that a lot of this sensation was just the chemical battery in her brain, sparking erroneously based on out-of-date information.
They met for lunch, the day after Mary’s conversation with Stacia. Mary had the day off from the makery, and Roger could take a long lunch break at his strategic consulting firm, where he was helping to re-position the troubled rejuvenation sector. (Roger had heard every joke about the rejuvenation industry getting old, a dozen times.) They were eating at the same restaurant where Roger had told her that he needed space: a hand-pulled noodle place where a man stood in the front window pulling noodles, 24/7. Mary had loved this restaurant, which had red lanterns, grease-stained tablecloths, and chewy noodles, but now it was tainted forever.
“I don’t know, Mare,” Roger said, after she explained what she wanted him to do. “I mean, those are private memories. You’re talking about a piece of my identity.
“Even if they could pull out just the memories pertaining to our courtship—which I don’t believe for a second they can, that’s awfully granular—those are still my memories, they’re personal.”
“Oh, come on, Roger,” Mary said. “Don’t be a jerk. I’m not asking for your life story. Just a few months of specific memories, which won’t have any of the context. So they won’t mean the same thing to anyone else that they mean to you. If they do mean anything to you.”
She was starting to sob again—weakling—so she reached for the longest and slimiest noodle in her bowl and slurped it loudly to mask the sound. She gestured for the waiter and demanded a scallion pancake.
“You can’t say that.” Roger’s eyes widened in a way that would have melted her brain when they were together. “You can’t say they mean nothing to me. They mean a lot to me. Those memories are precious to me. Of course they are.”
“I guess not,” Mary said. She had avoided recriminations when he had jilted her. She had taken the bad news with composure, but now this felt like a second jilting. “Obviously, none of this ever meant anything to you. None of it ever mattered at all. Right?”
Mary never knew what Roger had seen in her in the first place, any more than she understood why he had broken up with her, after six years that had seemed happy to her. The whole thing was a mystery, beginning and end.
“Did Stacia put you up to this?” Roger said. “I swear, you two were always like this hive mind. The whole time we were together, I felt like I was dating both of you.”
“Leave Stacia out of this,” Mary said. “This is about you and me.” She stabbed her onion pancake with a single chopstick, skewering and gesturing. “Those memories that you don’t want to share, I bet they’re just memories of you figuring out how to seduce me, so you could use me and get your fill and then throw me aside. You probably treated it just like one of your strategy briefs.”
Roger didn’t know how to respond to that. For a moment, he just held up both hands, like he was about to gesture. Then he let them drop again.
“You want to take my memories,” Roger said. “And give them to some other man. My personal memories, of you. And you don’t see how that’s messed up?”
“I see that you threw me aside, and now you don’t want to give me the one thing that will let me have closure,” Mary said. “You’re probably already dating someone else. Aren’t you?” Roger’s squirming was confirmation enough.
Guilt won. Roger went to the clinic, which was a glorified kiosk just outside the mall that smelled of ozone, and Mary watched the whole time as the neural sensors danced around the three-dimensional map of Roger’s mind, plucking out the specific bits of his past that related to the two of them getting together. She tried to imagine what the machine was getting. Their first meeting at the Bankrupt Daisies concert, their first proper date when it rained and Roger held his jacket over her head, that time they bonded over both hating Jane Austen, the whole weekend they spent naked, his dad’s funeral. It was all becoming a blur to her, but those months would be preserved. Pristine.
At the end, Roger looked exhausted, under the weather. “I have to go lie down,” he said. He handed her a sparkly memory wisp, a silver feather floating in a plexiglas cube. She thanked him several times and even kissed his cheek. The cube fit in her purse, next to her mycosnuff and breathspray. She imagined implanting those memories into hundreds of men, thousands even, so they could all remember falling in love with her. And then that thought scared her with its brazenness, so she banished it. She thanked Roger again, and he said it was nothing.
“Oh my god, can I see it?” Stacia stretched out an elegantly manicured hand. Mary only left her hanging for a moment before plunking down the cube containing her happy early months with Roger. “Wow,” Stacia said, “it’s so light. It weighs almost nothing. It’s Moore’s Law in action, right?”
“I guess so,” Mary said. “Moore’s Law, yeah. Everything gets smaller and smaller, forever.”
Stacia was staring at the little wisp inside the cube, watching it undulate. Mary realized this had been going on for an uncomfortably long time. “It’s so pretty,” Stacia said.
“Yeah,” Mary said. She reached out to take the cube back, but Stacia moved out of reach with a dancer’s grace, so that she didn’t quite seem to be dodging.
They were at the mall, which was a program that lasted approximately forty-five minutes depending on your attention span. With the right lenses inserted and enough smart cookie in your system, you could look at a dozen storefronts per minute, scrolling around you in the spherical chamber with a walkway at its center. Over Mary and Stacia’s heads, palm trees slowly morphed into “futuristic” metal cranes (as in the bird). This mall had gone way downhill.
Stacia and Mary had originally met when they’d escaped from the same dismal party together in sophomore year of college, where they were the only two smeary-eyed malcontents dressed in black, in a galaxy of pink hoopskirts. They’d formed a club: The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick. Mary was an aspiring bio-artist, culturing abstract oozes, while Stacia was a shy pudgy computer-grower, but they shared a deep conviction that ninety-nine percent of everything people cared about was false and revolting, like the fake barf on sale at the magic store in this mall.
They almost went into a hat store that was selling fancy retro bonnets, but then they decided they were bored with hats. “Let’s skip to the food court,” Stacia said. “Wafflecrepes. I’m buying.”
“Can I have my cube back?” Mary didn’t want to sound pushy or needy, or as though she didn’t trust Stacia. The memory wisp flickered as it caught the sparkly light from the kitchenwares store. One of the clerks in the store waved, trying to get their attention with a fancy spatula, then was gone.
“I was wondering if I could maybe borrow it,” Stacia said. “Just for a day or two.” She bit her lip and pulled her shoulders inwards, towards her cleavage in her frilly chemise. “Because I would kind of like to… to copy it.”
“You what?” Mary thought she must have misheard over the mall’s schmaltzy orchestral music. “You want to make a backup or something?”
“No, no, I want it in my head.” Stacia laughed—but it was a nervous, defensive laugh, for a change. “I want to have Roger’s memories in my head. I want those experiences, I want to remember them, like they happened to me. I want to feel what it was like for him. Firsthand.”
Mary found herself backing away from Stacia a bit, until she was almost inside the make-your-own-stuffed-animal store. The mall stopped changing, in response to her proximity to an entrance.
“I never knew… ” Mary’s mind raced, almost as if she’d had a smart-cookie overdose. She felt her heart clapping. “I never knew you felt that way about me. All this time, we’ve been best friends. Nearly ten years now, I never knew you were… you were in love with me.” She made herself stop shrinking away, and come back into Stacia’s orbit.
“Oh Jesus, no.” Stacia laughed, her normal laugh this time. “Is that what you think? My god, no. I’m as straight as they come, you know that. No lesbian inclinations at all. Jesus. I’m sorry to let you down, I love you as a friend. No, I just want to have the memories. I want to know what it’s like.”
“What what’s like?”
“All of it. Falling in love. The start of a long-term relationship. Being a man and falling for a beautiful woman. All of it. I just want to have those experiences in the mix, jumbled up with my real memories. I think it could solve a lot of stuff for me.”
“But… but why Roger and me? Why can’t you just find some random stranger and get his memories? I bet you could buy something on the gray market. Or just ask around. Like you said, everybody’s starting to do this.”
“It wouldn’t be the same. And just think—this will bring us closer together. Any questions you have about Roger, or about the mistakes you make at the start of a relationship, you can just ask me. It’ll be great!”
“Uh… ” Mary had moved far enough away from the door to the teddy-bear store that it had vanished, and now other stores were whipping behind her. She had a dreadful headache, the kind that started at the top of her scalp and traveled all the way down her spine to her sacrum. She could barely see.
“It doesn’t take long. I’ll give it right back to you in a day or so, I promise.”
“No. Please, no,” Mary said. “Please, just give it back to me now.” She was starting to have a nagging suspicion that this had been Stacia’s plan all along, and the real reason Stacia had been so insistent that she ask Roger for this. “Just, please, give it back.”
Stacia nodded. “Okay, that’s how it has to be.” She raised up her hand with the cube in it, as if to hand it back to Mary—and then she turned and ran inside a kina kuniya store, disappearing into its maze of shelves and running out the back exit before Mary could even get her bearings.
Mary was left hyperventilating in a null zone between the mall and the real world, where everything was a whirl of broken advertising images, too fast to make out even with smart cookies.
Mary kept trying to contact Stacia, who had gone off the grid. This was the longest Mary and Stacia had gone without speaking to each other in the past decade. Mary was so freaked out she could barely breathe, imagining Stacia absorbing all the memories of her private moments with Roger, the good times. Making them into a big joke in her head, or worse yet getting ironically sentimental over them. Mary couldn’t sleep or concentrate on anything; she almost let a bad batch through at work.
Stacia waited a few days before bringing the memory wisp back to Mary—the exact amount of time it would take for the memories to become permanent in Stacia’s brain. Then at last, she arranged a meet in a hotel lobby downtown.
Right away, there was something different about Stacia’s body language, a little more of Roger’s old calculated slouch and less of the thrown-back shoulders. Like she’d absorbed a bit of Roger’s personality along with a dose of his memories. Probably that would get submerged over time, but it still startled her when Stacia did that thing with her lower lip that Roger used to do.
“Hey, looking good, babe,” Stacia said. “You’re wearing that belt that I got—I mean, that he got you.” Mary had forgotten that Roger bought her this fake alligator belt.
“I can’t believe you went through with this,” Mary said.
Stacia handed the cube back to Mary. “I’m sorry, babe,” she said. “I know, it was an invasion of privacy, and a terrible thing to do. You know ever since we got out of college I’ve been dating, right? And I’ve made a point of never getting with anyone for more than a few weeks at a stretch. I’m like the world expert at making things happen, but then the juice goes out of them and I get bored and move on. I was realizing that maybe if I knew what was going through a guy’s head when he’s falling for someone, maybe I wouldn’t have to… I don’t know. But I was hanging around Roger the whole time you were with him, he’s the only guy I was always spending time with these past several years, and I realized I never understood him at all.”
Mary had snatched the cube back and stuck it in the deepest crevice of her purse, with two zippers protecting it. Barn door, horse. “I thought that after Roger, the breakup, that nobody could ever hurt me that much again,” she mumbled. “I guess I was pretty dumb. Right? This is way worse. I’m going to have your knife in my back forever.” They were standing in this hotel lobby, surrounded by travelers and people having bar meetings, at noon, having what ought to be a nighttime bar conversation.
“Don’t be like that, babe,” Stacia said. Roger used to call Mary “babe” when they were first dating. He’d stopped a few years in, and that hadn’t seemed significant at the time. “It’s just that memory is one of the main building blocks of identity. And you know, right around the time that you started seeing Roger was when I started to become the person I am now. I wasn’t seeing as much of you at the time, and I felt totally alone. And maybe I don’t like the person I turned into. I just want to remember that time in my life a different way.”
“Now you’re blaming me for your choices?” Mary said. “Like it’s my fault that you started having intimacy issues, because I was in a long-term relationship and you weren’t? Are you even listening to yourself?”
“It’s not about blame, babe,” Stacia said. “I’m just trying to get a different perspective on that time in our lives.”
“Stop calling me babe!” Mary didn’t even care anymore that she was yelling in a public place. A group of people with lanyards and fancy shirts glanced in their direction. “Just, please, stop.”
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.” Stacia didn’t know how to hold herself, what sort of body language to adopt with Mary. “I keep thinking about that nightmare you had two months after you starting dating Roger, the one about an ocean of pure acid washing over everything and melting all the people and buildings. Once you would have told me about that dream, but you told Roger, and he held you so tight he thought he could almost smush you. It was right after his father had just died. He felt so full of grief and protectiveness, he didn’t know what to do with himself. He thought his heart would just give out, pop or something.” Stacia leaned on the back of an armchair. “Then I called, wanting to see if you were up for brunch, and he suddenly just felt annoyed and jealous.”
Then Stacia walked away, doing some weird mixture of her sashay and Roger’s stride.
So now Mary had to avoid all the places she’d ever gone with Roger, plus every place she used to hang out with Stacia. All her other friends kept asking her if she was okay, because they heard there was weirdness with Stacia, but Mary did not feel like explaining. And Stacia kept sending message after message, until Mary blocked her. She started going to the motherboard garden after work, because she’d never gone there before, and watching the tiny motherboards making abstract shapes in the carbon nanofiber beds calmed her.
One day, Mary was sitting in the motherboard garden, trying to stop replaying in her head the story of Roger, Stacia, and their patsy. And she noticed a man over at the other end of the square—at first, he just seemed overcome with emotion at the zen-like simplicity of the place. But then she’d noticed a tremor on one corner of his mouth and some vessels bursting in the opposite eye, and Mary recognized the signs of someone who’d done the wrong combination of neurotransmitters, from when she used to experiment at school. She rushed to his side just as he started to keel over, and kina-ed an ambulance. She rode to the hospital with him, telling the paramedics what counter-toxins he probably needed.
Mary figured she would never hear from that guy, whose name was Dave, again. Most guys would rather forget that they showed weakness in front of a total stranger, right? But Dave got in touch a few days later and asked her out for jerk chicken and plantains.
Dave wasn’t the opposite of Roger or anything—Mary had to resign herself to accepting that she had a Type—but he was shorter and burlier than Roger, with darker skin and a thicker mustache. He worked as an estate planner, in a fancy office in the donut hole downtown, and he was maybe a touch more reserved than Roger. He never made her laugh the way Roger had, but he made her smile.
Mary waited until their fourth date, when she and Dave were already spending a whole weekend together, before telling him about Roger’s memory wisp. “It’s kind of dumb,” she said. “But I figured I ought to mention it, in case you wanted to. I mean, it would be one way to streamline things. You know. You could figure out sooner if you actually want to be in a relationship with me.”
“I’m already in a relationship with you,” Dave said, and she shivered all over, even though they were in a hot tub (naked) together. His ample chest hair glimmered.
“In that case, I’m in a relationship with you as well,” Mary said, leaning upwards and kissing him, while their feet nuzzled.
“You know, I think getting to know each other is the fun part,” Dave said, stretching out in the tub. “The newness, the thrill of discovery. Peeling back the layers. Getting to know someone can be delightful. If it’s the right person.”
Mary nodded. She hadn’t even thought of any of this as something that could be fun. She had been thinking of starting a relationship as like defusing a bomb, or cooking a complicated recipe. “Yeah. Let’s hear it for the slow way.” She raised an invisible glass out of the water, and chinked it with an imaginary glass in Dave’s hand.
“The slow way.” Dave toasted back.
Around the time Mary shoved the memory cube into the trash compactor of the “kitchen” rectangle of her studio apartment, listening to the satisfying crunch of data being fatally compromised, she realized it had been almost two months since she’d spoken to Stacia. Time was, they used to talk almost every day. She had a moment of slow bereavement, like the soil erosion after an old-growth tree is uprooted. She had to bite back the urge to kina Stacia and try to salvage something.
Of course, as soon as Mary destroyed the memory wisp, she regretted it, because the day might come, years from now, when she would desperately need concrete evidence that she had once been loved. That someone could fall in love with her. She had Dave now, and she was currently experiencing the sensation of falling in requited love—but she’d already seen how that turned out. Right?
Mary went dancing with Dave at that new club that was five dayglo rooms with imperfect soundproofing, so the beats bled from dance floor to dance floor, and she was whooping at the unpredictability of the rhythms and the proximity of Dave’s wide torso, when she looked over Dave’s shoulder and saw Stacia swaying towards them with a desperate grin on her face.
“Let’s get out of here,” she breathed in Dave’s ear. She hadn’t told Dave about what Stacia had done, because Mary felt like it was her fault in some way.
A couple days later, Mary and Dave were on the beach, half-dozing in the sun in new swimsuits, and Dave had his hand on her thigh without any fixed intent. Mary saw a shadow only a second before she heard a voice say, “Have you tried two fingertips right behind her kneecap? Just kind of describing a slow, slow circle? It drives her crazy, man.”
Mary stiffened, squinting up at Stacia’s face. She knew at once that the “two fingers behind the kneecap” thing would never turn her on ever again. “Wow,” she said. “You’re really creeping me out.”
“Who is this?” Dave was sitting up and squinting.
“Uh, never mind.” Mary gathered up all their stuff into a bundle, as though fleeing a tidal wave. She seized Dave’s shoulder with both hands and steered him out of there, while Stacia tried to explain that she was just trying to help, and Mary would thank her later, and why was everybody being so judgey? Mary could still hear Stacia behind them all the way back to the transit station, until they finally got lost in the crowd.
When they were alone on the tube, with a safe cushion of strangers all around them, Dave leaned in, one eyebrow raised with gentle humor but a concerned look in his eyes. “You want to tell me what that was about?” he said.
Mary could hardly bring herself to say out loud what Stacia had done, because it made her skin crawl. Dave just shrugged, though, and said that all of the estate planning conferences were having seminars about the emerging problem of parceling out the newly deceased person’s neural map. And the security sector was just starting to freak out about the problem of memory embezzlement. This was the crime of the future. When you put it like that, Mary almost felt trendy.
The next day, Dave and Mary met for sushi and Stacia was there, leaning across the bar so her face was uncomfortably close to theirs and saying things to Dave like, “Promise me you’ll take good care of this one, she’s like a tiger raised in captivity. Fierce, but trusting. Roger used to watch her in the bath. He used to keep waving goodbye long after she couldn’t see him anymore, whenever they parted ways. Roger had a crazy tidal wave of love for her, you have no idea.”
A few days later, Stacia was outside Mary’s apartment building when Dave and Mary came outside, tears scattering across her face. “I just want to know where we went wrong,” Stacia said, and Mary wasn’t sure which “we” Stacia meant. “What happened to us? I thought nobody could ever come between us. What happened? What happened to us? What happened to us? What happened to us?” Mary and Dave had to get in a random taxi just to get away from her.
Mary could see what was going to happen next. Stacia was going to stalk them one too many times, she was going to act just a little too creepy around Dave, and she was going to know too many embarrassing things about Mary. And then Dave would bail, and Mary would topple back into the dating pool. Wings on fire.
Maybe a week passed, and Mary started to relax. And then, when she was walking along the waterfront with Dave, Stacia came running up behind them, arms waving and eyes streaming with tears, wearing a torn skirt and mismatched high-heel shoes.
“I’ve never felt anything like what he felt, when he got together with you,” Stacia said, panting. “I’ll never feel anything like that for myself, firsthand. It was so intense. I can’t even imagine feeling that much love for anyone.” To Dave, she said: “You can’t compete. You might as well go home. She’s already had the great love of her life! Every time I close my eyes, I keep replaying it in my mind. It’s so intense. I wasn’t prepared. He loved her so much, he went half-crazy with love. You’ll never measure up. You’ll always be her second love. A consolation prize. Sorry to be the one to tell you!”
Then she ran away, stumbling over her own shoes.
That night, Mary spent hours staring into the depths of her kitchen trash compactor, where the last shreds of the memory wisp still clung. After a while, the crushing mechanism started to look like faces, or little blades of black grass, because your mind has a nearly limitless ability to see familiar outlines in anything. Mary didn’t cry, but she did heave, more and more violently, halfway between crying and empty-vomiting, until she had to send her kitchen away and summon her bed into the same spot on the wall.
Mary hugged herself in bed all night, staring at the peeling wall opposite. In the morning, she had a nine-tequila hangover, but she also had a moment of clarity: It wasn’t enough to avoid the places she and Roger had gone together. She had to grow up and move on with her life.
She took an extra smart cookie and spent an hour at dawn, sending out résumés for jobs that would actually use her bio-artist skills. And she started surfing apartment listings on her kina, because maybe she could actually live someplace where a sink and bed could coexist. She read up on extreme sports, which had gotten a lot more extreme since smart-cookies gave people superhuman reflexes and concentration. She kept looking for jobs and apartments for hours, until she was almost late for work.
By the time Mary met Dave for dinner (a different hand-pulled noodle place than the one where she got dumped), she was full of news. “I already have a job interview in ten days,” she said, sploshing dumplings. “And I’m thinking of trying base-jumping. I know, this isn’t really like me, but change is healthy. Right?”
“I haven’t known you for long enough to know what’s like you,” Dave said. “I keep being surprised.” He looked around, as if afraid that Stacia would turn up at the next table, with more advice about Mary’s erogenous zones or more declarations that Dave couldn’t compete with Mary’s great lost love. “I’ve never met anyone like you before.”
“Um, yeah,” Mary said. “This has been a weird time in my life. I mean… ”
“You know,” Dave said in his matter-of-fact drawl, “I hate drama. I had a lot of drama when I was in my early twenties, and I just can’t stand it.”
Okay. So this was it. She was giving off too much crazy. She looked like a weirdness magnet, or at least someone with horrible judgment in choosing her friends. So, she was about to be dumped. She deserved to be dumped, truth be told. She had mismanaged her shit.
“This is really hard for me to say,” Dave said.
“I’m listening.” Mary braced herself, hands on elbows. Tried to keep a game face on. She was never going to eat hand-pulled noodles again.
“I know this is really out of line,” Dave said.
Mary felt her insides lose all stability, like she was falling off a skyscraper. But then she also felt a cushion of okayness, deep inside. Like she’d already been through the worst that could possibly happen, and she was still here. Even if Dave broke her heart again, he wouldn’t break her.
“Whatever you have to say,” she told Dave, amazed at her own calm, “just say it.”
“I think your friend is in trouble,” Dave said. “I know it’s none of my business, and you can tell me to butt out. But I think she’s having a psychotic break or something. Yesterday, at the waterfront, she seemed like someone who was coming apart. All that crazy stuff she said about the memories being so intense.”
Mary almost fell out of her chair at the realization that she wasn’t being dumped. Then she took on board what Dave was saying.
“God, you’re right,” she said. “She’s suffering from a neural overload. She can’t integrate those memories, because they’re so different and conflicting. You know, Roger kind of hated Stacia, especially early on. Plus she remembers the intensity of Roger falling for me, but not everything that came after, when we settled into just a normal relationship. Wow. I should have seen this sooner, but I was too busy thinking about how she hurt me.”
“Again, this is none of my business.” Dave raised his hands. “And I know this is her own fault. But… ”
“We ought to help her.” Mary grabbed her purse. “You’re right.”
“Thanks for not being mad at me for speaking out of school.” Dave seemed relieved. She had to pause to kiss him on the lips and embrace him with all her strength, right next to the man pulling noodles with his bare hands.
One time, when Mary and Stacia were still in college, Mary had cooked up a bad batch of prions. They were supposed to induce an hour of amyloid brain-melt, then dissolve harmlessly. But instead, they’d turned Mary and Stacia into basket cases, and when Mary found herself losing the use of language and forgetting how to walk, she’d lunged for the antidote she’d prepared just in case. Mary was fine an hour later, but Stacia had kept shaking and making preverbal chatter, like a giant baby. Mary had stayed with Stacia all night, holding onto her and saying, “It’s okay, I’m here,” until the prions had finally flushed out and Stacia had regained her mind.
This was worse. Stacia was huddled in one corner of her light-box apartment, wearing a bright flamenco-dancer dress that had been beautiful but was now stained and torn. “I can’t,” Stacia said over and over. “I can’t, I can’t.” Her self-actuating eyelashes were flicking tears in all directions.
“I know,” Mary said. “We’re going to help you. There are ways to make some memories seem less vivid. I’ve read about it. We can fix this.”
“I don’t ever want that,” Stacia said. “Roger’s love for you is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever felt. He was right about me, I was jealous. You were perfect together. I was just a stupid useless third wheel. You were amazing.”
“You only think Roger’s love for me was so great, because it’s like a lump your mind can’t digest. It really wasn’t that great, trust me.” Mary felt a weird relief, saying this aloud. “You can’t reconcile Roger’s version of events with yours, and it’s like you’ve given yourself a split personality or something. We’re going to help.”
They got Stacia cleaned up, and strapped her to her bed, which was an actual piece of furniture instead of a module. Mary and Dave debated about taking Stacia to the hospital, but Stacia begged them not to, and Mary had a feeling she could help Stacia better than the E.R. staff could in any case.
“So first you have to go cold turkey on the smart cookies, so your brain goes into withdrawal and your thoughts slow down to a crawl,” Mary said. “Then we slowly work you back up to a normal dose over a four- or five-day period. It’s basically like rebooting your brain. I’m sorry. This is going to hurt a lot.”
“No,” Stacia said. “I can’t. I can’t.”
“You have to,” Mary said. “You have to let go of this. Come on. If anybody knows how to get rid of a guy, it’s you.”
Stacia actually laughed at that, which seemed like a good sign.
Stacia sweated through her clothes and sheets. She went clammy and glass-eyed as her most recent smart cookie wore off. Mary sat with her, calling in sick at work and sitting at Stacia’s bedside even after Dave had to go to his office. And once Stacia’s brain was barely functional and she was gazing into space, Mary started speaking in Stacia’s ear. Telling her the history, the saga of the Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick. Their friendship after college, and how they had stayed friends even after Mary got into a long-term relationship with some guy, whatsisname. Mary dredged up details from some storage locker in the back of her mind, rebuilding Stacia’s true memories to banish the false ones.
“That guy, whatsisname, he’s gone, but we’re still here,” Mary said. “We’re not going anywhere. I haven’t forgiven you, but I’m not going to bail on you either. Hey, remember that time you and I went ice skating and we each twisted an ankle? It was a couple years after I started dating whatsisname. We ate those revolting tofu corndogs until we barfed.” She kept talking until her voice got tired, repeating the same stories with minor variations after a while and obsessing over minor details like the exact color of a stuffed animal they’d had for a week and then lost.
The sun crested over Stacia’s slit of a window and then bobbed again, and darkness reasserted. Mary brushed Stacia’s forehead with the veiny part of the back of her hand, like someone waking a child from a bad dream.
© 2014 by Charlie Jane Anders.
Charlie Jane Anders is managing editor of io9.com and the organizer of the long-running reading series Writers With Drinks. Her novelette “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award and was a finalist for the Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon Awards.