Dev pulled down the visor and slid open the small mirror on the back, adjusting it so that he could see his collar. He slid his forefinger in between the skin of his neck and the starched fabric and tugged. His collar felt tighter than normal. After undoing the top glossy black button of his shirt, he stretched out his hands on the steering wheel. He put weight into his palms, pressing them down onto the hard plastic shell, and spread his fingers wide. His fingers—no, his hands, looked big to him, bigger than they had yesterday in any case. He had not been taking his exercise lately—too many cases assigned by the Bureau, too many testaments to collect. He undid the second button in hopes of some relief. But the tightness remained. How could that be? Bringing his hands to his neck, he glided his fingertips over the skin beneath his chin and felt his way down first to his adam’s apple and then to his collarbone. He pressed gently on each to see if that made the sensation better or worse, but doing so did neither. He swallowed and cleared his throat quietly and then loudly, hacking forcefully into a handkerchief he had taken from his jacket pocket. But the feeling remained. It was the most curious thing.
He buttoned up his collar, pushing the black pearls through the small holes of his shirt. His hands then went to the delicate silver pin on his lapel. With his thumbs and his forefingers, he reinforced the backing and made sure that the crest of the Memory Collection Unit—a carrion crow landing in front of a setting sun—was upright and secure. Dev breathed in slowly through his nostrils and held the air in his lungs to the count of four. He was supposed to exhale double: four in, eight out—they taught him that in one of the trainings—but when he got to the fifth count, he let the rest of the air out through his mouth quickly, noisily, his lips flapping together in a quick drum.
He opened the door and stepped out of the car and onto the empty, quiet street. The air was cool and had in it the scent of early autumn. The wind had shifted overnight and now blew over and through the crags, its speed carrying the scent of low tide to the small village to which he was assigned. Dev’s shoes, issued from the Bureau, clicked on the asphalt and then the gravel drive as he made his way slowly to Doris Abernathy’s door. It was a house much like the others on the hidden road: red sandstone, slate roof, stone pillars flanking the old timber door. But unlike the others, whose windows gleamed and front steps swept clean, Doris’ curtains stayed drawn from morning until the darkness of night, and the black wreath on her door, though not indicative of lasting grief on its own, remained. There were other telltale signs that she was struck as well—an overflowing garbage can, weeds in the daffodils, a rain soaked package just outside her door.
As he approached the wooden door of Doris’ house, he bent to pick up the package sitting on its side on the edge of the stoop. The cardboard was soggy, and whatever was inside small but heavy. He cradled the box in his arm and rang the bell. He could hear the muffled chime announcing his presence. A moment passed and then another—perhaps she was not home, and Dev would not have to take Doris’ testament. But there was a sudden movement—a shadow—behind the small, frosted window, and the heavy curtains swayed and fell still behind the glass. A dog barked. Three locks were undone, and the door opened. Doris stood there, a good two heads shorter than Dev. She held a small, white dog back with her foot. “Oh,” she said. “It’s you.”
“Yes, yes, Ms. Abernathy,” Dev said and handed her the package. She took it in her old hands, but did not look. The dog whined and its tail wagged, and Dev bent slightly to hold out his hand to the little pup. “I’m Lt. Dev Singh, from the Memory Collection Unit,” he said as the dog sniffed and then licked Dev’s knuckles. He stood up straight again and took his badge out of his pocket, flipping it open to reveal his photo and credentials. “You should’ve received our correspondence.”
Doris squinted at his identification and then said, “I never got anything.” This may or may not have been true, and Dev saw that the post box was full and overflowing. “Lt. Singh, huh?”
“That’s correct,” he said, stuffing his badge back in his pocket quickly. Doris shifted the package to her other arm, and as she did Dev saw the mourning band tied just above her elbow. Doris must have seen him eyeing it. “I got a right,” she said. “One year.”
“Of course you do,” Dev said gently. He smiled at her and spoke softly. “I’m sure you are aware that is today.”
Doris stared at him, her face still and expressionless. She blinked her eyes, glassy but not wet, and she did not reply.
“It’s the twenty-first of December, Ms. Abernathy,” Dev said.
She squinted her eyes and looked down at the ground. The dog whined behind her. “Huh. So it seems,” she said. “How do you like that?”
“It’s not uncommon to forget.”
“I didn’t forget. Just didn’t realize what day it was.”
“Yes, well, in any case, it happens often. You’d be surprised.”
The dog barked, a tiny yelp that could have meant anything, and Dev and Doris jumped. “Alright, alright Max,” she said and the dog wagged its tail. “He won’t do a thing,” she said. “Least he hasn’t yet.”
“I like dogs,” Dev said. “Never had one myself, though.”
“They make for good company.”
“Yes, I imagine they would.”
“Well, come on in, I suppose,” she said. “I’ll put some tea on.”
She pulled the door open all the way, and Dev entered, closing the door firmly once he was inside. He followed her down the hall, glancing quickly at the hanging art and photos. There were people in some, smiling, heads leaning in close. Landscapes and handwritten notes hung in others crookedly, sloping to the left or the right, the nails holding the frames bending and nearly coming out of the cracked plaster walls. When Dev approached the end of the hall, he saw on his left through a door an unmade bed next to which was a nightstand littered with glasses and bottles of medication. Crumpled paper—newspapers, perhaps—lined the floor next to the bed. Though it was hardly the first time Dev had witnessed such a private display of hopelessness, there was a swell in his chest as if something were in there trying to peek out and see for itself.
Doris turned right and walked through a door into the lounge. All of the houses had doors for each room. The weather, wet and gray most of the year, found its way easily through the cracks and broken seals of the houses in the village. It was not a poor village—or, rather, no poorer than the one Dev himself lived in. But keeping up a house took energy, desire, and Dev did not wish to judge the old woman any more than he had to. In Doris’ lounge, large windows faced the street, two armchairs flanked a fireplace blackened and well used, and a television in the corner was turned on, the sound all the way down. At first glance, it looked no different than any of the others he had been in over the last fifteen years. But Dev’s eyes were keen, trained to spot the anomalies, and he was quick to gather evidence someone else might miss. There, on the table next to the armchair closest to the window, was a half-filled jar of jellybeans sitting on top of a neatly arranged stack of glossy magazines. He looked at the seat of the chair, indented as if someone had just gotten up and left the room. Though he knew the circumstances from the files and reports, he would have been able to deduce the situation even if it was not his job. Two seats, one empty. Things organized as if another person would be right back.
Though Doris had mentioned tea, she did not go into to the kitchen. Instead, she lowered herself slowly down into the other chair, the one closet to Dev. Once settled, she patted her lap and the dog jumped up, circling once and then twice before laying down. Dev watched Doris. He made sure to take note of her hands, knobby and buckled, and the single balled up tissue on the table next to her.
“This should only take a few minutes,” Dev said quietly. He reached into his breast pocket and took out a small black recorder no bigger than his hand. They still did it the old way, on tape, despite the progress that society had seen. There was comfort in pressing the tiny buttons—play, record, rewind—a kind of physical finality to it all. The memories transferred to the tape, and only the tape, invisible on the thin, black material. For just a moment, Dev held it all in his hands, inside of his suit jacket there up against his heart. “I’ve just got to read you the statement from the Bureau and take your testament, and then I’ll be on my way.”
“Would you mind putting the tea on?” Doris asked.
“Oh, yes,” Dev said. “Of course, Ms. Abernathy.”
He put the recorder back in his pocket and went into the kitchen. He filled the kettle with water from the faucet and turned it on. Then he opened the middle cupboard, but instead of tea, he found only one box of wheat cereal and tipped over jar of instant coffee. He stood the jar upright and closed the door. He opened another cupboard to find mouse droppings—just a few—lining the edge of the shelf. While he waited for the water to come to a boil, he took a paper towel from underneath the sink, wet it, and wiped down the shelf. He straightened the items on the shelves—bottles of medication, jam jars opened and half-empty, containers of gravy granules, and a Christmas tin of cookies—and then moved to the next. Doris must have heard all the rummaging for she called from the lounge, “The tea is on the counter.”
“Ah, yes,” Dev said. “I’ve got it now.”
The water in the kettle rumbled and bubbled, and when the steam finally rose out of the spout, Dev flipped the switch to the off position. He poured the hot water slowly into a cup with a G on it, allowing the teabag to soak and settle to the bottom before topping it off. “Milk or sugar?” he called to Doris.
“No,” she said. “Just a splash from the bottle in the drawer below you.”
Dev pulled the drawer out and found a single, unopened bottle of whiskey. He did not recognize the label nor the name, though he himself did not drink much alcohol. She’d been saving this, for how long was anyone’s guess. He uncorked it and poured a small amount into the cup. Holding the string between his fingers, he bobbed the teabag up and down in the cup and watched the water darken. Then, for no reason at all, he poured just a tiny bit more of the whiskey into the cup and carried it slowly back into the lounge, careful not to spill on the cushioned linoleum on his way out of the kitchen. He held his right hand underneath the cup just in case, and when he crossed the kitchen threshold, he saw that the balled up tissue on the small table beside Doris was gone.
Doris had placed a coaster on the table. As Dev bent to place the teacup on it, he saw that the picture on the coaster was of the Bureau’s clock tower. It was a beautiful clock tower—no one could argue otherwise, and Dev, who grew up the Bureau’s care like the other children of resets, had spent many days looking at it out of the home’s window. In fact, if Dev thought hard enough, he could hear the bells that very moment, the deep, reverberating clanging of metal to metal, a reminder that time was indeed passing, even if it didn’t seem like it.
“What about the others?” Doris asked suddenly. She leaned over and inspected her teacup, sniffing quietly the steam that rose from it. She did not look at Dev, nor motion for him to sit in the other chair, and so he remained standing. “Is there always just one of you?”
“One of me? Oh, you mean the resetters? We’re considered separate units,” Dev told her. He clasped his hands together in front of his waist, twirling his thumbs softly. Around and around they went, the soft pad of his finger brushing over the nail again and again.
Doris waved her hand at Dev and then reached for her tea. “I don’t really care who’s who,” she said and took a sip.
“Right,” Dev replied. “Ms. Abernathy, ma’am,” Dev said. “So the statement—”
“Who reported me?” Doris asked. “Was it Roger on the other side of us?” She leaned her head to the right. “Always nosing around.”
“Actually it was your cleaners,” Dev told her. “You brought in your wife’s clothing two months ago.”
She brought her hand to her mouth quickly, her eyes falling to the floor. The dog squirmed, but did not move from her lap.
“Yes,” she said, “You’re right. I must’ve forgotten, I—”
She reached once again for her tea and brought it to her lips. This time the sip was not as small. “I—I didn’t think they’d say anything, I mean we’d been going there for so long, I just thought—”
Dev waited until he was sure Doris was finished speaking. Then, quietly, he said, “There were other signs, too, Ms. Abernathy. You’ve only left the house three times in the last four months. And the weeds—”
“I’ve got arthritis. And who cares if there are weeds?”
“Well, it’s just an indicator, Ms. Abernathy. And you’re correct—that in itself wouldn’t stand on its own, but with the other evidence…it all amounts to it.”
“The cleaners? I just can’t believe it, I really can’t,” she said and shook her head. Her brows creased, her eyes darting trying to put the evidence together herself. But whether or not she recognized her own behaviors as problematic was of no use; whether the cleaners or the grocers or the neighbor who sat looking out the window all day long had reported her, it mattered not.
“Not sure if you knew this, Ms. Abernathy, but the Bureau added preserving artifacts to the list. Not too long ago. Maybe that’s what did it.”
Doris did not say anything at first. Dev stood there, his feet hot in his shoes and the large hand of the clock on the wall in front of him inching toward the hour. “Well,” Doris said eventually, “I see how it might seem. You know, to others who maybe haven’t…but—Lt. Singh, is it? It was just a matter of respect, not like I wasn’t getting on or anything.”
“I’m sure it was,” Dev told her. “Lots of people find themselves in your situation, Ms. Abernathy. Quite understandable. However, the cleaners said—and I have to tell you this directly—” and here Dev read directly from the statement that he had taken out of his pocket, “that you ‘gripped the sleeve of a shirt and would not let go’. Is this true?”
“So what is it to you if it is?”
“Ms. Abernathy, it is simply my job to report—”
She took one last sip of her tea and sat up straight. The dog jumped down from her lap. She rose slowly from her chair, grasping both of the arms with her small hands, pushing herself up into a standing position before bending to pick up the empty teacup. “Think I’ll have a little more,” she said. “Care to join me?”
“Of course, Ms. Abernathy. Whatever you would like.”
Doris went into the kitchen and flicked the switch on the teapot again. Dev heard the opening and closing of cupboard doors, of drawers, the seal of the refrigerator breaking. While he’d done a cursory scan upon entering the lounge, now that Doris was out of the room he could inspect more closely. He wasn’t required to do so— he had all the evidence he needed before he had even left the car. There on the walls were photos, framed and aged by the sun. He walked over to look and saw Doris and what he could only assume was her wife. Their wedding day. Beneath one of the giant trees in the forest, walking sticks in hand. Shoulder to shoulder at a café late at night. In some they were young, but still he recognized Doris. Above the mantle was a small collection of shells, driftwood, tiny bits of sea gems. A jar of layered sand, each section labeled with a date and location directly on the glass.
Doris came back into the lounge carrying a tray carefully. On it, Dev saw the open bottle of whiskey, a small container of milk, a dish stacked high with brown sugar cubes. Wedges of lemon fanned out on a plate. Doris put the tray down on the coffee table but did not move to serve. Instead, she returned to her chair and eased herself down, holding onto the arms the same way she did when she arose, her skin above her knuckles thin and white. When she’d settled back against the worn cushion, she clasped her hands together, curling her old fingers around each other. “I couldn’t just leave the clothes on the floor,” she said as the dog jumped back up on her lap. “That would be disrespectful.”
“Could you not have washed and hung them up yourself?” Dev asked. “Or perhaps a neighbor or a relative could have helped?”
“They still smelled like her. I thought if I got rid of the smell, it’d be easier.”
“Ah, yes. People try all sorts of things. It’s quite understandable, really.”
“I never did pick up the clothes.”
“I know.” Dev spoke softly. “Even if you had, it might not have mattered. No use trying to make sense of it now. May I?” he asked and motioned to the tea on the table.
“By all means,” Doris said.
Dev fixed himself a cup with two sugars and just a splash of milk. How many times had he been there, sipping tea in someone’s lounge, minutes away from a reset? Suddenly the back of his neck was hot, and he nearly spit his tea back in the cup. It was not the first time he’d felt such a thing during a collection—what was this sensation exactly? When he grasped for the word trying to curve his mouth around sorrow and sadness, he could not. They would not come to him. Where they should have been, there at the front of his mind, was instead a small and rusty old lockbox, stored behind a loose piece of paneling near the kitchen wall. He saw it there wedged in between the old wood frames, years of dirt and dust and silt sitting in the cracks and corners where Dev could not reach.
“Want a splash?” Doris asked.
“No. Thank you.” Then just as suddenly as the hot had come on, it vanished. Dev felt the wet dew of sweat along the inside of his collar and at his temples. “Not on the clock.”
“Ah, yes, of course.”
“So tell me,” Dev said and took a sip of tea. “Do you know what you want to donate to the catalogue?”
“I thought I did. Right up until you knocked on my door. But now,” she shook her head, “now I just, I don’t know, there’s just so much and I—”
“It’s alright, Ms. Abernathy. There is no one way, no right way that is, to do any of this. If I can tell you one thing, it is that everyone lands on something different. No better or worse than the others.”
“Just seems so, well, I don’t know. Small.”
“Well, why don’t you tell me what you were thinking, and I’ll tell you if it’s a good one for the catalogue. I’ll record it just in case, but we can always redo it if you’d like. You have a few extra minutes.”
“I see.” She nodded towards the tea tray on the table and held her cup out to Dev. “Fill me up as well?”
Dev placed his own cup, still nearly full, back on the tray. “Of course.” He took the cup from her hands. “Milk and sugar?”
“Just the whisky.”
Dev uncorked the bottle and poured it all, brought it over to Doris. He filled her teacup up halfway, tilting the bottle back and pausing as he asked, “More?”
“Yes, just a splash. Maybe two. Gemma—my wife—was always going on and on.”
Dev handed the cup back to her, and she lifted it to her lips. “ ‘We’ve got to be healthy, Doris,’, that’s what she always said.” Her head was bowed she spoke nearly into the teacup itself. “Exercise, Doris. Stop eating so much candy, Doris. And for what?” Doris looked up at Dev. “Gemma was fit as could be. Didn’t make any difference, though, did it?”
“Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. Hard to say. We’ve all got to go sometime,” Dev said. “Haven’t figured out a way otherwise, have they?”
“No,” she said with a small smile. “You know something? You’re okay, Lt. Singh.”
“I am certainly glad you think so, Ms. Abernathy,” he said. “Now, what was that memory you wished to donate?” He took the small recorder out from his breast pocket once again and without looking, pressed the record button down until it clicked.
She took a sip and set her teacup on the coaster. It covered the face of the clock on the stone tower, hiding the inscription damnatio memorai. “It’s the two of us,” she began. “We’re young—maybe twenty? I’ve forgotten the exact year. Her parents had a cabin on a small lake. Really small. Really just a big pond, I suppose. Had cattails and frogs in the summer from what I remember. We took the boat out—I rowed. It was fall, but that day was cold—real winter-like. It was the afternoon. Late in the afternoon because I remember the sun through the trees low on the horizon. And the water, well, it froze, you see, but just on the top,” Doris said motioning with her hand as if the air beneath her palm were frozen as well. “And it was so clear that you almost couldn’t tell it was ice but for the oar breaking through. Every time I rowed, it cracked. Crack, splash, crack, splash. Well, we went out to the middle of the water and bobbed for a while until Gemma said she was cold. So I rowed us back. And I stared at the back of her head, at her long hair…”
She did not finish speaking. Dev waited a moment, and then said, “I think it’s a good memory, Ms. Abernathy. Just the sort the catalogue needs.”
“But nothing happened. Not really. Don’t you want something bigger? More dramatic?”
“No,” Dev said and released the record button. “This will do just fine. More than fine.” He rewound the tape to the beginning and then held the recorder to his ear and pressed play, making sure that the tape had captured the audio.
“I heard,” Doris said leaning forward in her chair, her hands cradling the teacup, “that some get to keep theirs. You know, if they have money, that sort of thing. It’s not a lot, but I do have some set aside.”
Dev shook his head, his eyes kind and soft. “That is categorically untrue, Ms. Abernathy. I can promise you that. I don’t want you going into this thinking there was some way around it. That’s never good for anyone.”
“Figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask. And you’re sure you can’t let me keep just this one?”
“No,” Dev told her. “It’s best for you, Ms. Abernathy, what we’re doing. You’ll feel better. Things won’t hurt as much. I promise.”
“But I don’t want to. I want to remember. Please,” she whispered, “let me remember.”
Sometimes in Dev’s dreams, he found himself on the front step of a house. It was never the same house in the same neighborhood; sometimes it was a housing block like his own, other times a terrace or a detached cottage like the one he was in now. He knew somehow that inside of the house was a hidden lockbox much like his own, buried or tucked away somewhere that no one would ever think to look. In his hand, he held a bag filled with notebooks the same as the one in his own lockbox. He could feel the weight of the bag through his sleep, pulling and tugging at him. In each dream, the front door opened. He could never see the face of who stood before him, but he felt them reach out and take a notebook from the bag. The tugging stopped, the pulling ceased, and in his sleep came a peace, a lightness that he did not feel, not ever, during his waking hours.
“I can’t,” Dev said. “I understand how you must feel. Rest assured, nearly all feel like this, and what I mean by that is to say you are not alone.”
“Is there nothing else to do? What about the sanitarium?”
“You’ve aged out, Ms. Abernathy. By a few years.”
“Doesn’t seem right, does it?”
“They’ve found the sanitariums aren’t as effective for people of your age group.”
“Seems rather convenient, don’t you think?” she asked.
The bell rang, and the dog jumped down from Doris’ lap. He ran out of the lounge and down the hall to the front door, barking. Doris sat back in her chair and put her empty teacup on the table beside her. She slid a tissue out of her sleeve—the one that had been there on the table when Dev had first arrived. She brought the tissue to one eye and then the next. What else was she to do? “Well,” she said. “You can let them in on the way out.”
“If you want,” Dev said, “I can stay here with you for the reset.”
“Yes, alright. I think I’d like that.”
Doris rose slowly then, careful to steady herself before standing fully upright. “That was some good whisky,” she said as she passed Dev and went to let the resetters in.
He looked around the room. It would be so easy—he had extra tapes in the car arranged neatly in a black case he kept in the trunk. He could record another memory and leave just this one for Doris, hidden somewhere in her lounge for her to find. Perhaps she would be dusting months or years from now and come upon it. Maybe she might pick it up with bent fingers, turn it over in her palm, hold it to her chest and know that it was the pond and her Gemma and the cold autumn’s afternoon.
He heard the front door open, low voices announcing their credentials. He turned his good ear towards the hall to listen, and as he did, he saw the jellybeans. For reasons he could not have named—not then, not ever—he walked over to the jar, took off the lid, and reached in. His fingers touched the smooth, hard candy, and the front door closed. Quickly, he lifted one out of the jar and dropped it into his trouser pocket, quietly placing the lid back on.
Dev heard the hazmat suits swishing in the hall. It grew louder and louder as they brushed up against the hallway walls, their suits unwieldy. He pressed his teeth together hard, and his ears filled with the strain. The resetters came in through the lounge door and nodded in their clear helmets to Dev. He nodded back and said to Doris, who followed behind them, “Here. Have a seat, and we’ll get you situated.”
But Doris did not sit in the chair she had been sitting in. Instead, she walked over to the table where she had placed the package Dev had handed her at the door. She picked the package up and put it underneath her left arm. Then she went over to the other chair—the one that had remained empty—and smoothed the fabric of the seat with her right hand, careful to not fully erase the indentation that was there. She eased herself down, slowly, the resetters surrounding her and taking out their equipment and unravelling the wires. She did not watch them. Instead, she watched her own hands open the package. The tape came off easily, and soon she lifted out of the shredded cardboard a small vase. No, not a vase. An urn. She tossed the empty package to the floor and placed the urn on her lap, balancing it so that when she leaned back and dug her bony fingers into the threadbare fabric, it remained upright and still. The dog jumped up and nestled himself in between her thigh and the arm of the chair. She leaned back and Dev watched her hands, how they pushed down into the batting underneath the upholstery, the tips of her nails white from the pressure. One resetter lifted her hand by the wrist and took her pulse. The other slipped a mask over her face quickly. Dev was always amazed at how fast it all happened, especially when the struck didn’t struggle. He heard the pop of the canister and the hiss of the gas, and as soon as Doris closed her eyes, Dev made to leave.
“Hey,” one of the resetters called after him just as he was about to exit the lounge. “You get everything you need?”
“I did,” said Dev who could not help but think only of his notebook, of Doris’ pond, and the way the ice sounded when the oars broke through.