The Lethe was plastic, white. It bore the black logo of Mnemoprises and a large yellow caution sticker that warned ebayers and Chinatown chopshop owners that it was illegal to use without proper company-granted certification. None of them listened, of course. The list of warnings was seemingly endless, but Xiu knew that most of the threats were empty. Permanent neurological damage. Wasn’t that what the machine was for?
She operated out of a small room in the back of a tourist dump, and every day she had to brush past curtains of t-shirts (“3 for $10!” the handwritten sign informed) and “Vacation souvenir’s!!!” (punctuation intact). The store had belonged to her father, and his father before him, and now it belonged to her brother. As the oldest, it should have gone to her, but they were a traditional family. A woman couldn’t be trusted to run the business. This didn’t bother Xiu, who made more money from one appointment than her brother made in a week. They were different businesses, tourist dumps and memory holes. People paid more to forget than to remember.
Her appointment book that day was filled with the usual: witnesses who didn’t want to take the stand, thieves who didn’t want to know where their money came from in case the feds mindmined them. She was an expert, though she lacked the certificate Mnemoprises offered. The man who had sold her the Lethe had taught her the subtleties of memory. Her first appointment wanted to forget a night in Atlantic City, where he’d gambled away half of his child’s college fund. “I’m going to claim I was robbed,” he told her. Implausible, but it wasn’t Xiu’s job to question. She used the device like a surgeon, precise and cool as a sharp scalpel. There was no collateral damage.
The second was a love story, a woman whose husband had left her for a history teacher. A male history teacher, no less. “How could I have known?” she sobbed. Again, the scalpel.
The last client, the one at the end of the day, was a woman with straight brown hair and a child in tow. He couldn’t have been older than eight. Xiu motioned to the chair in front of the Lethe, but the woman nudged the boy forward. He sat on the stool. His eyes were red and he sniffed, rubbing his nose on the sleeve of his sweatshirt and leaving a sparkling line of mucus. Xiu gestured the woman back into the tourist dump.
“I don’t do this on kids,” she said.
“It’s nothing bad,” the woman told her. “He just needs someone to help. I’ll pay well.”
Xiu needed to be paid well. “What’s the case?”
“It’s my husband’s father,” she said. “His grandfather. They were very close.”
Xiu frowned and tugged at the hem of her shirt, suddenly nervous. “He died,” she said. It was more of a statement than a question.
Xiu considered this, silently weighing her options. “His mind is still growing,”
“He’s been crying for months.”
“He misses his grandfather. It’s natural.”
“It’s not natural to cry for months.”
Her fingers knotted around the elastic hem. “And you need him wiped. Everything.”
“Can’t you just make him forget that he’s dead?”
“If he knows he had a grandfather, he’ll wonder where that grandfather went. Wiping’s the only solution.”
The woman was silent for a long time. Slowly, she reached into her purse and withdrew a thick envelope. Only cash had value here. Xiu accepted it with a subtle bow of her head. “He’ll regret this,” she warned. “Never knowing his grandfather.”
“He won’t know to regret it,” the woman told her. Somehow, the woman knew more about this procedure than she did.
Xiu led her back into the room and sat down opposite the boy, whose eyes were dark and pink from endless rubbing. “Give me your hand,” she said, and placed his small palm against the larger palm outline on the Lethe. Xiu turned on the machine and it hummed to life, ready to swallow the past.