They set you down in an old dentist’s chair, yellow stuffing clumping around the strips of duct tape that catch on the holes in your jeans. Then they apply blue jelly, cold and clammy, to your temples, massaging it against your skin with two fingers each. Your hair has already been buzzed short so the gloppy mess won’t muss into anything. It is, apparently, impossible to wash out. While they fiddle with their instruments—just out of your periphery, but you can hear something whirring that fills your mouth with a metallic taste, saliva bunching behind your wisdom teeth—a woman with blond hair, wearing a lab coat so tight you’re shocked she can breathe, explains the process, as if you care about glucocorticoid scaling and amygdala blanching. She produces a multi-colored clay model brain and points at different lobes, tapping what looks like a dyed-blue earpiece, the kind that hooks around the top and buries itself in the ear canal, identifying it as the hippocampus. The machinery, she tells you, will mostly mine through there, the lasers and microscopic winches rewiring the pathways that send memory from short-term to long-term.
“That way,” she says, “if you somehow keep thinking about him, you won’t form new memories. This would be pretty pointless otherwise.”
You nod and fake a smile while another high-pitched gear-crunch noise blares up behind you. The female scientist leans forward and grabs your knee. “You’re going to be fine. You’re going to be great after this.”
Then they slide a cold metal helmet over your head, something that feels like it’s from World War One, and you only realize that the spots that were smeared with goop are numb when you feel a slight poke there, as something inside each edge of the helmet pinches at your skin. You look at the scientist, staring at her dead in the eyes, but she just smiles, her red lips parting to reveal a pink tongue and bleached teeth. She says nothing, but she lets her hand inch up your leg, and you wonder if she’s read your profile, knows the circumstances of your being here.
As if you have a choice, you think, considering that the alternative to having your memories plucked out like wayward hairs, sanded off of your transverse section and pre-frontal lobe like grated cheese, is imprisonment for how long? No, thank you, you think as she tightens her grip on your leg and you see her loving stare twitch for just a moment and you realize her glow and caressing hand and soothing voice are a mask she’s painted on in thick, convincing strokes, designed to lull you into a bit of comfort, as if these people throwing switches and pushing buttons and causing a ringing hum to dash through your ears in a pitchy wheedle are able to separate science from subject, process from prisoner. As if they don’t care that they are about to give a free pass to the kind of person they must surely whisper about with disgust, a kind they’d rather bash over the head or fix with a bullet to the brain.
You feel a strange tingling in the back of your throat, as if someone is tickling you with a feather. You try to cough but everything is numb; when you look down, you can see that the scientist’s hand is still there on your leg—close to your crotch now, her thumb in danger of greeting the lump of your groin—but you can’t feel it. Even the swarthy material of your jeans doesn’t weigh on your legs, as if a layer of air has been pumped between skin and fabric.
“Mining the lateral ventricle now,” a voice calls from behind you. You want to move your head, but you have forgotten how. A silent moment passes before the voice says, “Lateral ventricle complete. Moving to the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex.”
You feel a fuzziness hovering somewhere behind your eyes, and you realize you can no longer remember his name. The face is there, the one whose cheek you smashed with your knuckles only once, but that was enough to send him reeling out the door sobbing. You still remember the vivid sight of him peering out from the crowd at your hearing. His face when you first kissed him, the shock etched on his forehead, then the relaxation, the submission as you turned him around and pushed against him, lowered the band of his boxer shorts with your middle finger.
“Rhinal sulcus clear,” the voice says.
The woman releases her grip on your thigh (you don’t feel it; you’ve been staring down at her hand, the claw that could so easily tear through your shitty threadbare jeans, draw blood without so much as a flinch) and stands.
More comes dislodged: his face is gone now, and you can barely remember the feeling of sliding inside his mouth, him on his knees, the look on his face pained. The tone of your voice as you ordered him around, the slouch of his shoulders as he handed you beers. It’s all coming undone. Where did you meet?
“Perirhinal cortex clear. Are we hitting the parahippocampal cortex on this one?”
“Yeah,” the woman says, staring at you. “Orders are for a full mine.”
You scramble to cling to something: the shape of his nose, the silkiness of his young biceps, the lilt of his voice. Whoever he is. Someone you met once, you’re sure. You don’t know who, or why, or what, only that something in you wants to fight against what’s being done to you. Even though you know you’re here because of something deeply wrong, some sin you’ve committed, you cannot remember what it is.
From behind you, the flutter of papers: the woman takes a manila folder that bobs from somewhere and opens it, holding a black and white photograph in front of you: a close up of a young man, seventeen or twenty, smiling and tilting his head toward the camera. Nice teeth, thick hair bushy in the front and short on the sides. Caverns for dimples.
“Do you recognize him?”
She looks over your shoulder.
“No amygdala activity. Hippocampus is awake but the memory-chain reaction is dark.”
She nods, both at the person behind you and then toward you.
You feel a slithering retraction at your temples, like someone is pulling a Band-Aid off, but this sensation goes deeper, some leeching thing being suckered away from you, and suddenly the helmet rises off of your head and your skull is pierced with a splitting pain like someone is cracking open your bones.
“Oh yes,” the woman in front of you says, her lips curling into a bovine sneer. “There will be some pain for the next week or so.”
You reach up and press your hands to your head, momentarily forgetting about the blue sludge they smeared on you, and your fingers go numb. You aren’t sure what you feel inside; a swelling, dotty freeze gathers in your brain when you try to remember what has been taken away, scooped out like a helping of mint ice cream. That you have committed a wrong, caused hurt: all of that remains, but the details are gone, flushed away.
“You’re free to go,” the woman says, flourishing toward the door. Her face is blank, lip twitching at the edges where age lines have started creasing themselves next to her mouth.
She laughs, a mirthless, smoky sound. “We haven’t extracted those memories. You know your address.”
You nod and stand, don’t bother telling her that’s not what you mean. As you walk past her, you gather the smell of citrus that emanates from her skin. Someone once smelled like that, and you can almost feel your brain hop-skipping to sort out who it was.
Outside, the sun glares. You wonder where to go. Nothing feels like it belongs to you anymore, and although you remember that this removal, the scooping out of your memories, was meant to be the bargain, the erasure has left you cold. While the light beats down on you and sweat beads through your skin, you feel a chill, the newly bored holes in your body draining you of what made you whole and human.
Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many other places. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri. He has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was recently nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016.