Set in the glittering art deco world of a century ago, MEM makes one slight alteration to history: a scientist in Montreal discovers a method allowing people to have their memories extracted from their minds, whole and complete. The Mems exist as mirror-images of their source — zombie-like creatures destined to experience that singular memory over and over, until they expire in the cavernous Vault where they are kept.
And then there is Dolores Extract #1, the first Mem capable of creating her own memories. An ageless beauty shrouded in mystery, she is allowed to live on her own, and create her own existence, until one day she is summoned back to the Vault. What happens next is a gorgeously rendered, heart-breaking novel in the vein of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
Bethany Morrow’s debut novel MEM explores profound questions of ownership, and how they relate to identity, memory and history, all in the shadows of Montreal’s now forgotten slave trade. Available May 22nd from The Unnamed Press.
In the Vault, Banker is a title given to scientists. My first was an older gentleman with kind eyes and coal black hair that parted down the center and seemed to swim away in glossy waves. There were lines around his mouth, I thought because he talked so much. Whenever he was in my dormitory, he spoke softly—to a gathering of students, to another Banker. Never to me, not at first. Not until we ventured aboveground together at the behest of the family. Once outside the Vault he seemed more able to see me.
Underground, he always had the glint in his pale eyes—kind and expressive even when he was quiet, never cold—and the stern pressure above his brows. There was also the slight turn of his head; then I knew he was uncomfortable with my looking at him. Uncomfortable with the fact that I could see him at all. That I, unlike his other wards, was aware of his presence. By the time more Dolores extracts had accumulated in the Vault, it had become clear that not only was I an anomaly, but also that my Banker was unsure how to respond to that fact.
From the outside, there was no question that I belonged belowground with the rest of them. The other Dolores Mems and I shared the same face and body, virtually an identical appearance altogether. Our Source aged well back then and the three of us who were there before I left—myself, along with Dolores 2 and 3—were nearly the same age. Nineteen, twenty, and twenty, there was nothing to distinguish us but an almost imperceptible difference in my skin and the chevron-shaped scar on number 3’s right index finger where she’d cut herself on the can opener. She hadn’t done anything, of course; the real Dolores had, before extracting her.
I loved that can opener with the thick, yellow handle and grip. It reminded me of our mother teaching us to cook. She’d taught us to be quite careful with it and I wondered if Dolores’ scar was at all related to why a third Mem existed, though I made certain never to ask. A part of me worried what I might hear about our mother and father if I ever questioned the origin of either Mem. I worried I might learn that something horrible had happened to them, or to a dear friend, or to my kitten, Petunia, and I wanted to remember them all exactly as I did—though my Banker fixated on how I could. How did I recall so much? How did I recall anything beside the reason for my extraction, he would ask sometimes. Never mind that I shouldn’t have been capable of replying, he seemed truly desperate to hear my answer, though it was never satisfactory. I could no more explain the existence of my memories and affections than my Banker could have explained his, but of course he would never be required to.
When I first entered the Dolores room, I had no time to acknowledge the three beds that remained in the same place as when I had left, or the new source of light and color that seemed to emanate from somewhere overhead. My attention immediately fell to the one other Dolores in our dormitory. She lay on her bed with her whole body drawn into a ball, and looked like she’d been recently crying. Or rather, she was depicting a time when our Source had been crying, since the tears didn’t really belong to her.
After being away from the Vault for the better part of two decades, I had no idea how many Dolores extractions had come and gone, or why. Of course, I was still nineteen, as I always will be, but I knew that the real Dolores must be nearly thirty-eight now. To be quite honest, it hadn’t occurred to me until my recall, until another Dolores was there in front of me. In all my years thinking about my Source, in the innumerable nights I’d dreamt of our last moments as one mind or of our solitary moment standing side by side, I never altered her. A real person might have envisioned herself progressing through age, imagining the changes her style and wardrobe, and even her physique would undergo. But frozen in my own age, I kept her there with me. Just as a film preserved a romance while in real life the actors moved on, in my mind, Dolores was ever young because I was. I never considered how she would look at twenty-one or twenty-five or her late-thirties. And so while I presumed that the Dolores on the bed was a recent extraction, I couldn’t say if she’d been lying there a year or a day. After all, I wasn’t entirely sure what thirty- seven looked like, not to the point of accurately assigning it to anyone. The huddled extract may have been thirty-seven or thirty-one, if she wasn’t younger still. What I did know for sure was that she would not last much longer.
The Mem’s skin was dim. Especially where her elbows bent, curving around the legs drawn into her breast, it had already faded from my deep brown to a hollow gray and then cracked. Her eyes were pools of black into which her lashes and brows seemed to be sinking, and the blackness seemed almost to bleed into her once dark skin. Her hair should have been a bright copper, like our mother’s. Instead it was a sour shade of yellow and, while I and the Dolores’ I’d known wore our hair shiny and pressed, this fading extract had a short bob of wispy frizz. I rather liked the hairstyle itself, preferring it and my cloche hats to the long, tiresome styles of my own, bygone year when a woman’s hair was her crowning glory and achievement. What I could not imagine was that my Source would want to be seen with her stylishly short hair in such a state, even if only by Bankers and staff. I couldn’t imagine that her father would be pleased either.
I didn’t speak to the Mem, only proceeded to the farthest bed and deposited my bag. After that I couldn’t decide what to do. If she were anyone else, at least if she were a real person, I could have tried to console her. Even if she’d been a stranger, I’d draw a handkerchief from the purse I usually carried and offer it without question. I’d insist that she keep it, petting her arm and cooing any number of comforting phrases, whether she kept her burdens to herself or fell into my consoling arms.
But she was a Mem. She would not answer me, or else when she did her words would be noticeably out of context. She was trapped in a single moment, whichever had been too unpleasant for the real Dolores to bear. She and every other memory were, quite literally, single-minded, replaying themselves every minute of every hour of the day and then watching their origins at night.
A coldness pricked me in my midsection then and I tried to ignore it. If I succumbed—if I listened to the small voice inside my head reminding me that the latter of those conditions applied to me as well—I may have slipped headlong into an anxiety from which I feared I could not escape, now that I was back. And so I tried also not to notice that the armoire into which I began hanging my clothes had been empty. There was no need for running a warm cloth about the interior, as Camille had done when moving me into my own place in the city. Running my hand along the bottom before setting my bag inside, I felt no mothballs, no wayward string or button. This Dolores would leave nothing, as the ones before had not. It would be as though no one had been here. Only Mems. Only us.
From the doorway, I looked up and down the hall, relieved that I couldn’t see the Vault gate from our dormitory. At either end was another hallway, and for a long time, no one passed by on either side, not even in the distance. There was little sound, unless I closed my eyes and strained to hear something, and even then the clearest sign of life was Dolores’s abbreviated breathing.
Back at my bed, I first sat with my back pressed against the headboard, facing the open door. Until I realized how alike we looked, my knees bent, my legs drawn into my chest and my arms wrapped around them. The coldness pricked me again and I felt my resolve weaken. This was reality. I was not an honorary Banker, as the joke had gone, or the Professor’s beloved assistant. I was, and had always been, their subject. The Vault was where their subjects lived and expired.
It was pitiful the way I had to cover my mouth to keep from sobbing. The tears I couldn’t control; I could only turn away so that the other Dolores didn’t see. I lay down on top of the blankets and pulled them around me. It was just after noon, but I closed my eyes and welcomed the replay of my horrible spawning memory. At least that was only a dream.
I awoke to stillness. It must have been night. The door was closed, the overhead lights put out. There were no windows through which I could see the natural moon, but above each of the three beds, there were colored glass windows behind which lights shone as though to take the moon’s place. They had not been there in 1906 when I was extracted or in the fall of 1907 when I was discharged, neither could they bring a Mem much comfort unless the extract knew the sun and moon existed — and they weren’t aware that anything did.
Something had changed while I slept, I knew without having to be told, but I stayed in bed for a moment, pretending it hadn’t. Avoiding a glance at the now silent Dolores in the other bed, I lay in mine, wrapped in my blanket like a child who swaddled herself. For a moment, I pretended to admire the light made lavender and pink and green by the glass, and had no way to know whether the hour was too unreasonable to find a student or a Banker. But then, I wasn’t certain I had a use for reason anymore. The other Dolores certainly didn’t.
I found someone at a station two halls over, her crisp, white cap pinned notably farther back on her head than it should have been. Something about the woman, the ill-fitting nature of her uniform, or the fact that she didn’t seem to know who I was, made me guess she was new. Or maybe it was simply the music playing too loudly on the radio on her desk.
“Congratulations,” I ventured.
She seemed nervous even before her eyes met mine. “I beg your pardon?” To my disappointment, she turned a knob on her radio and the festive music that felt so out of place in this hall, and yet so welcome, reduced to a whisper.
“I thought you must be new.” When she didn’t answer, I continued, wanting to put her at ease. “There were no nurses here when I left. None that I noticed, at least. I was never sure why they entrusted such work to students, but it seems they’ve finally gotten wise, wouldn’t you say? In any case. Just now I was looking for a Banker.”
“None are available at this hour. I’m sorry,” she said, one hand flitting about the fringe on her forehead while the other turned the knob on her radio to reduce the volume coming from the lovely cone speaker even more. It must have been nervousness at the chatty Mem hovering at her station that kept her from switching it off completely, as the end of the day’s programming had just been announced and the radio now fizzed with white noise.
“It must be midnight then,” I said with a smile that I kept tethered to my lips in an effort to engage her.
The expression seemed to have the opposite effect.
“I listen to CKAC at home,” I continued. “I’ve heard rumors of a new piano program this fall and I hope I won’t have to miss it.”
I stopped myself when her eyes drifted away from me, her discomfort palpable.
“Is something the matter?” she finally asked, exasperated by my presence.
“Oh, no. It’s just that a Dolores has expired.” The friendly smile I’d had plastered to my face now felt strangely inappropriate, and I quickly replaced it with a frown. “And I don’t think I can sleep while she’s there.”
The receiver was nearly shaken from its cradle before she had the phone steadily in hand. Squeezing the black candlestick, she thrust her mouth to the rim of the transmitter, her voice breaking as she spoke to the operator.
Before her call was complete, the nurse asked that I wait outside my dormitory door with the promise that someone was on their way, but it was only so I’d leave her be. I couldn’t blame her for disliking me; feeling out of sorts in front of a Mem must have been infuriating, especially for someone who likely knew who I was, but hadn’t been quite prepared to interact with me. When she, the Banker and another man appeared in the hall, wordlessly passing me to enter my own room, the nurse blithely monitored her clipboard rather than acknowledge me.
“How long ago did she expire?” the Banker asked in a soft voice.
“I called you as soon as I was told,” the nurse answered in an equally soft voice.
Hushed whispers then, as though the nurse could sense the way I pressed myself to the wall at the edge of the door frame, straining to hear them. To hear him.
My face went hot and I drew myself back from eavesdropping, lest he approach the doorway and find me out.
“Miss?” He called once more and I stepped into the opening. “Would you come in, please.”
The nurse swept her hand across her fringe, almost as though saluting.
“Where are you from?” the Banker asked.
My cheeks still felt hot and I could neither meet his pale eyes nor escape the expectancy in hers.
“The 11th of August, 1906,” I said at last. “I saw a man killed on the street, by an automobile.” Pulling back my shoulders and glancing once at the nurse, I continued, “I’m Extract No. 1.”
“Of course,” the Banker replied. “I only had to ask for the record.”
“Of course,” I repeated. If there was a record — and my testimony on it — I should be thorough. “I returned earlier today. Or yesterday, I should say.” At that, he made an acknowledging sound.
“Were you awake when she expired?”
“I don’t know exactly when it occurred. But she was nearly gone when I arrived.”
The nurse’s gaze leapt on me and I stopped short of describing the symptoms of expiration that she should certainly have noticed. If she’d been intimidated by me at the nurse’s station, she now seemed to have settled on disdain. For his part, the Banker exhaled audibly.
“She expired quite quickly for a memory like hers,” he said, speaking as if to himself. “I feel certain the duration has something to do with the condition of the Source.”
I caught at his statement but didn’t speak while he tapped his chin with a ballpoint pen. “But then, she was a reprint. Maybe that’s all it takes.”
While the third silent member of their team lifted the shell in his arms, the nurse placed a long, white bag on the bed, and the expired Mem was placed inside and the bag fastened shut. I’d remained because I hadn’t been excused, though I’d been careful to not appear interested. It was a behavior I’d learned in my years outside the Vault, blending into the background so as to avoid notice. A strategy, I’ve come to believe, that serves real people as well as it serves Mem.
When the silent man transported the Dolores from the room, the Banker spoke again and stopped the nurse as she was preparing to go.
“Has Dolores No. 1 been examined since returning, at least?”
She made a sound, the way one does to put off responding, her fingers strumming through the sheets in her file. “A day nurse would have made the exam.”
“But would the record be there?” My voice didn’t break, though my gaze did when she glanced up at me. “Or do we all share a single file?”
The Banker took a seat on the bed between my own and the one belonging to the recently expired Mem, tapping his chin again. The gesture reminded me of that first cover of The Delineator, of Camille, and of my life outside, all at once. And the memory of that life—that, despite how far away it felt already, it had in fact existed—reminded me that I was underground now. The walls were tightening around me by the moment and I was in the Vault, for any number of bureaucratic reasons, but only one that mattered: because I was not real.
The Banker, coming out of his thoughts, turned to look at me with an unreadable expression. He couldn’t know how the cold in my stomach had turned to revulsion. Mems didn’t warrant funerals, which must have been why no one thought it morbid to search me for signs of expiration immediately after taking another Mem’s shell away.
“They do share a file,” he said, when I felt he might not speak again. “Every Dolores. Except you. Nineteen years later and you are still the only one.”
Excerpted from MEM, copyright © 2018 by Bethany C. Morrow.