The Things We Remember

By Peter L. Johnson




Dr Keating nodded. "Was that your idea, or the suggestion of the duty psychiatrist?"

Billy didnít answer straight away. Instead he took another look around the room. Very nice. Everything was tasteful. Nothing jarred. A very soothing room. Cream rugs, pale green walls and white ceiling. Nothing harsh. The windows he found particularly interesting. The view of the city was spectacular. Impressive. Especially since this office was in the centre of the building. Plasma windows. The images were recorded somewhere else. Maybe from one of the higher floors. Maybe from another building. He answered the question, hoping she was just a little annoyed by the delay.

"No, it was my idea. The duty shrink was on another call."

Dr Keating sat opposite him. There was no desk between them, only a small coffee table. Oak. Nice, like everything else. Dr Keatingís desk was in the corner. Also oak; also nice. Off to his left was a couch. Billy was sitting. Good for him. The couch looked more comfortable than the chair he was in; but he wouldnít be suggesting a change. He continued.

"Some lunatic over at the Powell Building had doused himself with gasoline and was threatening to turn himself into Mr Crispy. Unhappy employee, or maybe just wanting to protest about the price of gas." Billy gave a short laugh. Dr Keating didnít say anything.

"Took Ďem two hours to talk him round. By then," he shrugged, "it was a bit late for Josh."

The expression on Dr Keatingís face didnít change: pleasant, non-threatening, listening. Heíd seen something similar in the morgue. Heíd like a little more expression out of her. Heíd just used Joshís name, and it hurt. Heíd not shown it, but it had. She was the shrink, she should know that.

"Arenít you going to take any notes?"

She motioned to the corner with the desk. Above it Billy saw the camera: small, unobtrusive, but not hidden.

"We are recording. As per standard NYPD policy. Iím sorry, I thought you had been made aware of this."

He had. And he told her so.

"Just forgot, thatís all." Billy sat very straight, squared his shoulders, and looked straight into her eyes.

"There is no need to worry, William. The Ö"

"Billy," he interrupted her. "Itís Billy."

She maintained her composure. But he had surprised her with the anger in his voice. He had surprised himself.

"Of course. Billy, the recording is confidential. Only myself and the Departmentís Chief Psychiatrist can view it. Has that been Ö"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he interrupted. "Itís OK. I was told."

He took a deep breath. She was not the enemy. She had a job to do. She was just doing it.

"Sorry. Itís just after last night. All the reports to fill out. Didnít get much sleep." He shrugged. "And I donít like being here."

At this, at least, she smiled.

"No-one does, Billy. But this is just routine. We need to deal with last night, so that you get back to work."

Billy forced a smile. "OK. Thatís all Iím after." He rubbed his eyes. Breathed deeply again. "Why donít I just tell it. Like it happened."

She nodded, and Billy told her.

I get the call at 1:56am; about halfway through the shift. It was a quiet night. Me and Alan, thatís my partner, are outside some guyís hospital room. A city official that thinks heís important. So two cops stay outside his room while heís in for tests. Iíd never heard of him.

So, I get the call: thereís some guy on the roof. They think itís suspicious and one of us should investigate. I say Iíll go. Alan doesnít care. So I go.

I take the elevator to the 24th floor, then the stairs to the roof. Whoever he is, he hasnít turned the lights on. But that doesnít matter. Thereís so many lights in the city that even 25 stories up thereís enough light to get around. No wonder we canít see the stars.

I take out the gun, but not the flashlight. Like I said, I can see well enough. Itís a big hospital, so itís a big roof. Thereís a lot of shit up there: ariels, vent shafts, a satellite dish or two.

Took me a while to locate him. I was looking in, towards the middle of building. Thinking heíd be hiding behind something. He wasnít. I saw him when I scanned the outer edge. Heís standing at the south end, up on the ledge. Heís very still. Just standing there looking down. Now Iím no psychiatrist, but I figure I know what the guyís got on his mind. I ring it in to HQ. They tell me the shrinkís busy with the Mr Crispy wannabe over at Powell. So, Iím on my own. Great.

"Just keep him talking," they tell me.

I knew that much. But not much else. Although I do know you donít want to startle a jumper. So I call out and identify myself, Officer Johnson, and I approach slowly. Circling around to his right so he can see me easily.

Heís watching me come. Skinny guy in jeans, jacket and sneakers. I canít make out colours. Oh, and heís got a cap on. Middle of the night and heís got a cap on. Knicks cap. Thereís enough light to see that. Iíve got one myself.

As I get closer I see heís just a kid. Turns out he was sixteen. At the time, I figured a little younger.

When I get close enough I ask him: "whatís your name, son?"

Heís takes a while. Looks me over. Iíve not come too close, and he seems OK.

"What would you like?" he asks. "First name only? First name and surname? Or full name?"

Odd response. But, jumping off buildings at two in the morning is an odd thing to do. So Iím not too surprised.

Iíd left the radio on send. So even if that shrink isnít around to help, if they get his full name maybe they can track down his parents. That might help.

"Why donít make it the full name."

"Sure," he said, "I remember that." He gave me little smile. Like he was having some private joke. Then he straightens himself up.

"Joshua Alexander Smith."

Then he turns to me. Puts his arms out by his side and gives a little bow.

"Thatís me. But you can just call me Josh. What do I call you?"

"You can call me Billy."

He nodded. "Itís going to be a short acquaintance, Billy. Sorry."

I didnít buy into that. Just tried to get him into a conversation.

"Where you from, Josh?"

He told me, Chelsea. Sixth Avenue. Building number Ö. I should know that. But, I canít remember it. Would you believe that? I canít remember it.

You forget the little things. Especially if your not concentrating on them. I wasnít really worried about his address just then Ė I knew it was being recorded and someone would be trying to trace his parents. What I was focussing on was how he was talking and what he was doing. But Ö I forget the number.

OK. So I make some inane comment about it being nice in Chelsea. And it is. Itís really nice out there. Iíll never live there. You might. But not me. Anyway, so I ask him why would he want to be here in the middle of the night.

He looked at me like Iím stupid. We both knew why he was there. He sighed.

"This is where it started, this is where it ends."

Just keep Ďem talking, they tell you. And it sounds simple enough. But when they say things like that, it can be hard to know what to say next.

"So, you were born here?"

He nodded. "Yes. And this is where I was made."

OK. Now Iím lost. I didnít know where to go with that; so, I changed the subject.

"Knicks fan?" I asked.

He smiled. Almost laughed, I think. Then he looked straight down. And I think he might be going to jump. Iím ready to make a dash and try and grab him. But he looks back at me.

"Sit down, Billy. Please. Just on the ledge there. I think you want to talk. And I think Iíd like to talk. Just for a little while."

So I sit. And we talk Knicks. Now, I love the Knicks. And I thought I knew a lot about them. But this kid knew everything. He remembered seasons, games, quarters, plays, shots. He remembered things Iíd half forgotten; things I had totally forgotten; and things I could never have remembered.

But talking to him was hard. The conversation was so slow. He remembered everything. But it came back to him slowly. It wasnít that noticeable at first. But after 10 minutes you felt something wasnít right. It was like talking with a stutterer. You want to finish their sentences. But with this kid, you didnít know what he was going to say. So you had to wait for him.

He noticed. I doubt he could see it on my face. Maybe it was in my voice. I donít know. It was nice to talk to him. But it became hard. Eventually he stopped talking and looked down. We were right above the main entrance. It was well lit. He was picking a spot. I changed the subject back to where we started.

"So you were born here?"

"Yeah." He nodded. Still looking down. He shuffled his feet. Balanced himself. I wasnít close enough.

"What did you mean by you were made here?"

I didnít know where that was going to take me. I had no idea what he meant. But I thought it might get his attention. It did. You know, I think he felt sorry for me. He knew what I was trying to do. I think he didnít want me to feel bad. He was a nice kid; he really was.

He looked over to me. He noticed Iíd slid a few feet closer and he waved me back. When he was happy with the distance he spoke.

"Theyíre pioneers here. Just ask them. Lotís of research; you know, really cutting edge stuff. Theyíre also not beyond a little commercial gain from their work."

There was a lot of bitterness in his voice. Teenagers can be like that. But they usually reserve it for their parents and teachers. Not major hospitals.

"My parents," he went on, "are not poor." The anger left his voice, but there was a lot of hurt to replace it.

"They wanted the best for me."

He choked up there. Had to stop. Gave me a chance to reflect on how stupid I was. Took me a while to remember the word. It had been 10 years or more since theyíd stopped it. Enhancement, theyíd called it. I remember theyíd even advertised: Enhance your childís future. Seems they enhanced Josh right out of his.

I had an earpiece in. Very small and cordless so I donít think Josh knew I was hooked up. Not that it mattered. It stayed silent the whole time. The idiot with the matches was keeping them busy.

"Memory?" I asked.

Josh nodded. He lifted his head and looked to where the stars should have been. That was good. I felt better when he wasnít looking down. He sniffed. Pulled out a tissue, wiped his nose and tossed the tissue over the edge. It drifted down, but he didnít watch it.

"How old are you, Billy?" he asked.

Keep Ďem talking. So I tell him.

"Twenty six. How about you?"

"Sixteen today. Being a bit dramatic, arenít I? Doing this on my birthday."

He looks over to me. Straight at me. And in what light Iíve got, I can see the wetness on his cheeks.

"I remember every birthday, Billy. But not like you do. You probably remember gifts. You remember parties. The friends you had over. But I bet you donít remember every friend. I bet you donít remember what they were wearing, or the order in which the candles were lit, or the way the smoke curled after you blew them out."

He shuddered. I thought he might fall and I started to get up.

"No. Iím OK. Sit down."

I hadnít actually got up. But I had managed to steal a few inches closer.

"You donít understand?"

I shook my head. He shook his.

"Why is that so bad? Is that what you want to know, Billy?"

Keep Ďem talking. So I said I did. And the truth is, I did want to know.

He looked over the edge and smiled. There was a little to much joy in that smile. I thought I was about to lose him. But he wasnít ready.

"Do you remember your first kiss?"

He asked the strangest questions. But I answered.

"Of course. Angela Edwards. Pretty little blonde. We were 14, and it was at my friendís birthday party. His fifteenth, I think."

He gave a little laugh.

"I beat you by a year, Billy. For some reason Iíve stored that as a fact. Itís in there with my name, address, telephone number. All that shit. ĎJosh had his first kiss at 13í. I donít know who, but I can find out."

He was quiet for a moment. You could see the concentration. Then a faint smile.

"Redhead. Not that pretty. She smells a little of Ö. What is that? Rum? Scotch? Scotch. Weíd been drinking. My house. Daytime. Clock says 1:14. Mom and Dad must have been at work. Summer holidays, I guess. Sheís close. Two others in the room: one boy, one girl. Redhead leans over to me. I tilt my head to the right. Lips touch. Mine are dry. Whoa, sheís done this before. Her right hand holds on behind my head. I have no idea how long we should keep doing this. Then, her hand moves away, and Ö she moves away. Kiss over. She giggles. Wipes her mouth. The boy on my left whoops Ďway to goí. The girl claps twice."

He shakes himself out of it.

"I recognise the three of them," he says. "The redhead was Suzie Stewart; the boy, Tony Adams, heís my best friend; the other girl was Julie Armstrong." He sighed.

"I still know Tony and Julie. I guess Suzie moved away. I donít know her anymore."

It should have been a happy memory. But it brought him no joy.

"So you remember everything?"

"Yeah. If I saw it, if I heard it, smelt or touched it, then I remember it." he said. And he shuffled along the ledge, putting another two feet between us. "Every moment of my life. Not a second lost." He paused. "You know my favourite memories? From before I was born. Theyíre dark, hazy and Ö," he searched for the right word, "Ö sketchy." He looked at me. "I think theyíre close to what memory is for you. I remember bits and pieces. A jostle here, a loud noise there. Mom was still doing aerobics late in pregnancy. I think I liked the music."

Before he was born. Iím on the roof in the middle of the night talking to this kid about his memories from the womb. I could have done with some help. Like an idiot, I just kept talking. Delaying it or bringing it closer. Iím not sure which.

"So, itís like Ö a movie?" I asked.

Josh nodded. "Yeah, like a movie. The doctors here refer to it as a Ďreal timeí memory."

I didnít get what he meant.

"Real time? What does that Ö "

He got a little frustrated here. I could hear it in his voice. I wonder how many times heíd had to explain this. But it passed quickly. "What it means is thereís no Ďfast forwardí. I remember things at normal speed. Like it was when they happened. I can select where I come into the memory. But then Iíve got to watch it all."

It would have been a good time to change the subject. But I didnít have another one.

"Why is Ö"

Again he interrupted.

"Why is that so bad?" He shook his head, then asked me another question.

"Do you remember your last shit, Billy?"

I thought about it. Didnít think I should answer, but was going to anyway, then he continued.

"I remember my last one, my first one, and every one in between. Iím in no hurry to recall those memories. But I know theyíre there. Next time I feel the need, those memories will come back."

He looked down over the edge, and then quickly across to me. He wanted me to understand. I think he liked me.

"They did their job brilliantly, Billy. My memories are called up all the time. For reference, I guess. When Iím on the bus, I get memories of other bus trips. When I eat breakfast, I get my last breakfast, or the one before, or some breakfast I had years ago thatís like the one Iím having. It doesnít come with an off button. It doesnít come with fast forward. I just keep getting it all."

He was breathing heavy. Looking down again. He was moving his body slightly. Shifting his weight. Keeping his balance. He was gathering himself. I eased to my feet. He saw the movement.

"Coming to try and save me, Billy?"

"I donít want you to jump."

He stopped shuffling, and was still. "You still donít understand, do you?"

I shook my head. I didnít.

"Itís the boredom, Billy. The utter, total boredom."

I had nothing to say. I just didnít understand.

"I spend my life watching a movie Iíve already seen. And, for the most part, itís a dull show. I havenít had a bad life. But interesting things donít happen often. Thereís only one first kiss. One or two great moments in little league. Not even that many great Knicks games. And, there are so many trips to the bathroom, meals the same as ones before, conversations with your parents that are about nothing Ö"

I edged a little closer.

He was crying again. The earpiece still gave me nothing.

He looked at me, for the last time. I knew it was the last time, but I hadnít closed the gap enough.

"Billy, youíre a memory now. A nice one. Thank you. But please, never think of yourself as the last memory I ever made. Think instead, Iím the first thing he ever forgot."

I tried. God I tried. I covered those few yards in no time. But Ö I reached for something that wasnít there. I watched him fall the whole way. On some floors there were lights on in the hospital. Heíd pass through that light, then into long periods of shadow. But I saw him all the way. In the light Ö out the light. Light Ö shadow Ö light Ö shadow Ö light.

Then I realized heíd stopped falling. Funny. It didnít register straight off that heíd hit the ground. I just thought, heís stopped falling.

"So, thatís it. Thatís what happened last night."

Dr Keating looked at him appraisingly. Billy looked at his watch, and shook his head, as if what he saw was unthinkable.

"Billy?"

"It took me nearly twenty minutes to tell you that story."

"Donít worry about the time," she said. "You have a full hour session, and if needed Ö."

Billy looked up at her. The movement was so quick she gave a little start. Billy didnít notice.

"Thatís not what I mean. I checked the records. From the time I let HQ know the guy on the roof was a jumper, to the time I reported that heíd jumped was 36 minutes. Thirty six. Not, 19 or 18, but 36. And it was only last night."

Dr Keating looked blankly at him. Billy stood and began pacing.

"Iíve already forgotten nearly half of it," he said. "In less than a day. Tomorrow Iíll tell it in 15 minutes, next week in 10, and in a year Ö," he stopped pacing and shrugged his shoulders, "probably tell the whole thing in 5 minutes and think I havenít left anything out."

Billy returned to his chair, and sat quietly for a few seconds staring blankly at the floor.

"Except," he said, looking up at Dr Keating, "the fall. As Josh fell. Into the light, Ö into the shadow, light Ö shadow Ö light Ö shadow Ö light, Ö and he stops." Billy curled his lips into a smile, but his eyes stared at her without focus. "I think Iíll always remember that in real time."

The End

Copyright © 2004 by Peter L. Johnson

Peter Johnson is an engineer or an economist, it all depends on which day you catch him. In his spare time -- when not coaching his kids basketball teams -- he writes.

E-mail: prime@bigpond.net.au

URL:


Visit Aphelion's Lettercolumn and voice your opinion of this story.

Return to the Aphelion main page.