You upload the ghost. In a dusty crevice of your brain, half a millimeter of unfolded cerebral cortex, lights flicker. Sparks dance on the tip of your tongue. Memory, memory.
Slice of Chantilly cake, foam icing and strawberries served to you on a pink china plate.
Decommissioned caboose viewed through white gossamer, sun-kissed rust behind black chicken wire.
Suburban sidewalk, and your father, racing six-year-old you and pretending to lose, falling away as you push yourself forward—
And it all comes churning back, those distant times and spaces spreading like warmth through your bones, despite your numb fingers, your white cloud exhalations. Frost on your window in the pre-dawn twilight. You’ve slept for all of two hours, but you’re more awake now than you’ve felt all week.
You feel old for your age. You didn’t used to stare at windows and cry. But then, you didn’t used to have this much trouble falling asleep, even before you started amputating memories. Your childhood, your father. Two weeks ago you returned to his house, now your house, and it stirred something in you. A shadow you hoped would dissipate in time, though it’s already survived for decades.
You look down. Your fingertips feel far away, unreal. Make believe. Imagine 3.5 billion years of evolution, culminating in ten-limbed appendages, manipulators of men and machines. What you touch, you command. Man and, before you, the machine. Press the button. Eject the ghost.
Flashforth. Oblivion now in the dark behind your eyes, but sleep lies just out of reach, even as those five years of yours return to dust.
The sun comes up.
You were young when your brain began taking sleep away from itself. At 40, you threw your body around like a teenager. You would have fit right in with those smooth faces on college campuses, and there were an awful lot of people your age going back for post-postgraduate degrees. Neurosurgeons deconstructing Kafka, Juilliard violinists publishing papers on quantum computing, human brains mirroring the expansion of the universe. Exponential growth. But in your own head, thoughts strained against the walls of your skull, your cognitive capacity like a balloon right before the burst.
All around you, people were making things, too many things, and the thought of starting anything made you too tired to start. First you stopped reading books, then you couldn’t keep up with TV shows, either. Everything was the next big thing, so instead of running on the treadmill, you let yourself fall off. Your favorite artists went on making chart-topping albums, while you made increasingly-long lists of things that never got done.
You’ve been around for eight decades, but you could still pass for 40—the vitamins have gotten so good, you’re barely middle-aged. And there are people twice your age who manage their memories without ghosts. Artists externalizing their thoughts in poems or paintings, freeing up their headspace in the process, happy amnesiacs. Or people like your father, note-takers and spreadsheet-keepers, not a single squandered cell in their brains. Lots of tenacious old men and women lying around on this side of the earth, and some of them still have decent heads on their shoulders.
A Dutchman named Martijn Jansen holds the current world record. He was 19 when he got his first dose of telomerase, and now he’s 197. In all the interviews, he laughs with teeth, a modern-day Dorian Gray or scion of Faust. While aging dictators and billionaires kill and die trying to learn what he knows, Old Martijn doesn’t have much advice for aspiring immortals, only says he eats a lot of salmon. He’ll make it to 200, maybe, or someone else will.
Your father croaked three weeks shy of the big 150.
They found him, like you always knew they would: curled up in his two-story townhouse, surrounded by all his nice things, alone.
Now you own the house and everything in it: antique rocking chairs and crumbling paperbacks, a thousand blankets buried under dust. After his funeral, on the day that would have been his 150th birthday, you mount the brick steps to the second-story door. Your key’s still on your keyring. Open the door, and you find the narrowest of walkways carved out from the walls of stacked cardboard boxes, faded names of produce brands denoting none of their contents.
Your mother, when she was around, had hated it all. Especially the coffee table, a scarred surface of walnut and ring stains, already old when your father was young. If any copy of that table existed elsewhere, it was in a museum.
“These are nice things,” he’d say, whenever she protested. “They don’t make them like this anymore.”
Underneath the table, you find an empty Moleskine journal with mold-speckled pages. You never saw your father write in one before—even the Mead spiral notebooks you used in middle school were too fancy for that man, whose sole hobby was saving money. He did all his writing on scratch paper, made his script microscopic and filled in the margins. He’d use anything but a fresh sheet of paper. In one of his desk drawers now, there’s a six-inch stack of Starbucks napkins, lovingly scrawled to shreds.
At the back of his walk-in closet, under a pile of folded clothes with the tags still attached, there are two more shrink-wrapped Moleskines. You end your first pass through the house, having uncovered some twenty-odd unopened Moleskines—gifts never given. And you’ve barely scratched the surface of the surface.
When your father had had to choose between your mother and the junk, he’d chosen the junk. When you went away for college, he turned your room into another storage room, lived the rest of his life alone with his nice things.
Years 6-10. You woke up to find your father in the living room, an orange bulb burning dimly as he scribbled into the night.
Your father was a thin man with a permanently wrinkled brow, high cheekbones in the early stages of collapse. You’re older now than he was then, though your seven-year-old self thought he was impossibly old. Something distant in his eyes, some faraway gleam, even the rare times when he looked up at you and smiled.
“I can’t remember anything at my damn age,” he said.
He was writing on frill-edged binder paper, but a small stack of those expensive journals sat at one corner of the coffee table. He put down his pen. He’d journaled away enough of his damnage for one evening.
You said nothing as he gathered the stack of journals and stood up, one slick motion.
And then, the dark. Flashforth.
You scramble to eject the ghost, shut off the spinner. Then stare at the device that plays your memories back to you. It looks like the lovechild of a Discman and an iPod, a yo-yo of chrome and glass, covered with your fingerprints. A bundle of electrodes spooled to the edge, something that would have turned heads at the turn of the millennium. It lasts two days on a charge. But you just charged it to 100, so why is the battery empty?
You call Jennie. You’re not sure if you and Jennie are friends—you’re coworkers, but you have nothing in common, except being born in the same century. She has a 24 Hour Fitness membership, as well as a garage full of computers in various states of disassembly. Slender, sturdy woman: dark brown ponytail and temples flecked with gray, and lines around her eyes speaking more to experience than age. Jennie can tell you the name of any machine, how long it’s been running, how much longer it’s got left to go.
“You leave that spinner plugged in overnight?” she says at your apartment the next morning, fierce light in her green eyes.
She dissects the device on your dining room table, unspools the electrodes, lifts the thin chrome shell with the tip of a flathead screwdriver. “Overcharged the battery again,” she says. Deft fingers extract the warped square cell. “Look at how swollen this thing is. Could’ve started a fire.”
She sees the look on your face, adds, “Your ghosts will be fine. Just don’t charge this thing past 90 percent. You hear that beep when it gets to 100, unplug it right away. Temperamental things, these spinners.”
And you should already know all of this because Jennie told you, last time you requested her help, only a couple of months ago. Or was it a year ago? You should have known better.
She waves off your apology. “I’ll put in a new battery for you.”
You offer to buy her lunch, but she doesn’t let you pay for her. She never does.
“Just remember to unplug it next time, yeah?”
Yeah. You’ll try harder to remember.
You had a good memory, before. In school you could name every state capital and recite all 131 lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Birthdays and equations, all of it etched on your heart. You didn’t need to make to-do-lists—you simply got things done.
Now your thoughts walk through cartoon doors, doors nested in buildings you only know from movies without titles. You blank on names, so you’ve been making an extra effort to recall faces. But you can feel a limit being reached, memory almost full. The headaches are getting worse—worse than all those years ago, when you first started seeing a doctor about your damnage. The doctor suggested therapy, then asked if you’d tried depositing to an ECMB. Advice about as helpful as a ten-dollar tarot reading or a yogi’s quote on mindfulness. You needed medical guidance, not another sales pitch for extra-cranial memory banks. Your father would have cussed out the doctor for wasting his time and money, but all you did was grit your teeth as the receptionist took your card for the copay.
You have what they call brain block, which is better than what they call dementia, but just barely. Too many thoughts swarming in your skull, like bullets, ricocheting to the tempo of “Flight of the Bumblebee.” You tried therapy, which didn’t do anything for your damnage at all, so finally you tried a ghost: a little chip of laminated glass, terabytes of your life filed away to make room for your future.
In the dead hours, you strap on the electrodes and you flashback. Your memories return, and they return seamlessly, despite all those early warnings from the cognitive linguists: potential loss of key language faculties, among other things, but all you lost during the transfer process were a few zeros from your bank account.
The first time you deposited to an ECMB, you felt nothing, except maybe lighter. You inhaled anesthetics for three hours, and when you opened your eyes, there was a bottle of Pedialyte and a manilla envelope waiting for you. You opened the envelope in your car and held the contents up to the sun: the translucent poker chip-looking disc, laser-engraved with the year you were born and the year you turned five.
You grasped for the memories, but it was like trying to describe those three hours you spent etherized, shades of emptiness filling the hole in your head. Like a postnatal void. Your baby years ripped from your body: your first ghost.
Such a small thing, and so easy to lose.
You know the boy is real. You watch him grow up, first in washed-out polaroids, then in sharper school picture day prints, brighter colors and truer-to-life shadows. Framed photographs of the boy lining the slab of granite over the fireplace. He gets braces, starts combing back his unruly black hair and gelling it in place. The older he gets, the more plausible his existence. When he is almost a man, when you finally recognize him as yourself, you’re still not sure. Who was this child standing with your parents in front of Cinderella’s Castle? Did you really have all these birthday parties, all these occasions to smile?
Each time you open a photo album, you have questions—questions you can only answer by flashbacking.
You own three extra-cranial memory banks, each containing five of the first fifteen years of your life. You can access them one after another, in any order, though never in parallel. All that wizardry packed under the chrome shell of your spinner, yet you still can’t play back more than one ghost at once.
So you upload five years at a time.
Years 1-5 were easy to part with—you couldn’t recall much of those years to begin with. It was what came after that, that was the problem. The time you forgot your bank PIN code, and they asked you your security questions. What was the name of your first pet? What was your favorite food as a child? Who was your best friend in seventh grade?
Your mind’s eye goes blind without your ghosts. You need those discs to remember what was once unforgettable.
Amputate at-will. It only takes thirty minutes, these days. And it’s gotten very precise, down to the exact day you want excised from your head.
It’s becoming normal, even among the young. You hear a lot of stories about twenty-somethings undergoing the procedure, erasing the taste of a bad breakup. Entire marriages annulled, then amputated, clean break from lives that no longer exist. And stories of career virgins injecting telomerase, consigning last night’s memories to a ghost, fetching a premium for their forever-innocent bodies.
In the early days of extra-cranial memory banking, there were lots of young people, mostly men, shaky with suspicion and eager to prove something, accusing spouses of hiding affairs on their ghosts. Not enough lawyers to go around. Now almost everyone has a sliver of brain stored on a glass disc, and the law’s pretty much stopped chasing down the forgetters. They can’t make you fess up to what you don’t remember doing.
You spend three days each week at the library, most of those hours behind a screen, logging books dropped through a rusty chute into a rusty cart. You call it a job, but it’s more of a sinecure. They could employ a computer in your stead, but the guy who manages your local branch is old-fashioned, wants human eyes on everything. It beats the alternative. The average retirement age being high as it is, with so few jobs to go around, you wouldn’t want to go hunting for work anytime soon.
Jennie does most of the shelving. You sit with her during lunch breaks, though you two don’t have much to talk about, unless there’s any news about ghosts or the company that rents them out.
“Funny business,” she says one day, between bites of falafel, a week after your father’s funeral. “It’s my information, all my memories. But I have to pay them 60 bucks a month just to make sure I don’t lose it.”
The data is yours, but the ghosts are company property—like owning furniture in a leased apartment. If you take an ECMB out of the country, if you so much as scratch the translucent surface, you’ll find yourself paying a hefty fine. When you die or when you stop paying the subscription fee, your ghosts go back to the company, get written over with the next person’s memory dump.
The company says they keep a backup of your ECMB data on a server in Arizona or Texas, somewhere where there’s land and no one’s nosy. They say this copy of your memories is your property, and yours alone to access. They say things about privacy that you know can’t be true, but you’ve already got enough questions keeping you up at night. Start wondering who might still have access to the contents of your cranium postmortem, and you might as well start downing espresso shots at midnight.
But Jennie loves asking questions.
“I mean, if it’s on a ghost, and you don’t own the ghost, then it’s not yours, is it?” she says. “Is it really yours if you can’t make a copy of it? Does copying yourself really count as stealing from yourself?”
Off days, after eight-mile jogs, she works in her garage, computers hooked up to bulky servers that must have cost more than her whole house. Artifacts from her days of IT consulting gigs. For as long as you’ve known her, she’s been trying to hack a particular ghost, unlock the software, wring the data out of that nondescript disc. It’s the one that still holds the memories of her brother, Bennie—Bennie, whose heart failed him suddenly, eight years ago.
Officially, the company won’t let you share ghosts with anyone, even family. But if they allow Jennie to keep paying the subscription for her dead brother’s ECMB data, then wouldn’t they expect her to do something with it? Who’s around to police the thoughts of the dead?
Jennie’s never talked about why she left the tech jobs and landed in this old library, but you suspect it involved a certain negligence of the rules.
Your father didn’t store any memories on a ghost. If he had, you’d have considered paying the monthly fee to keep it. And you know what he would have said to that: “You pay for something more than once, and that’s how they get you.”
You grew up without cable or streaming, without so much as a weekly newspaper. Such was your father’s hatred of subscription services that you never even told him about your three ECMBs. The concept of ghosts made him gag. “Why,” he once asked, “would anyone in their right mind pay thousands of dollars to get themselves lobotomized?”
So you never told your father about your damnage, either.
Wallet, keys, phone. You take these and leave your ghosts at home in a bombproof safe, no need to carry your full weight everywhere you go. And you don’t miss the part that’s missing, the part of you that doesn’t exist without the technology, the part that crowds out the rest of your brain. Still, your talk with Jennie gets you thinking: where do you draw the line between yourself and your silicon? You could sever an arm or a leg, and the limb would stop belonging to you, yes, but you wouldn’t be any less of yourself. Can you say as much about your memories?
Harder and harder, these days, to separate your life from your machines. It’s been gnawing at you, this cyborgian fear, the possibility that you’re not-quite human, that you’ve given up too much of yourself. Cold anxiety. It takes the form of ghosts you can’t see, only feel: a tugging of your shirt collar when you stand before the mirror, and twitches felt in the back of your neck deep in the witching hour. The adhesive of the ghost spinner’s electrodes, pulsing across your skin, though your ghosts and their spinner sit locked away in another room.
You’ll never fall asleep again. Damnit, Jennie.
You haven’t flashbacked in a week, not since Jennie fixed your spinner. Your father’s been gone for a month, but you hear his voice now, and it’s loud: “Whatever you do, make sure you get your money’s worth.”
Years 6-10. The shelf at Barnes and Noble, level with your eight-year-old eyes—you tried to wrestle the book out from under his black puffer jacket. You screeched, told him he should know better, even as he pried your tiny fingers off the bulge.
You half-hoped the employees would catch him, but he kept to corners away from eyes and cameras. Very discreet, your father, and quick to anger. Maybe you were the one who should have known better.
On the drive home, silence. You stopped for ice cream, like the son of any other father. He gave your shoulder a squeeze but looked away from your face.
As you upload the next ghost, the first thing you see isn’t a memory but a reminder: a neural nudge, gentle prompt from the company to renew your subscription. You’d hate to lose all those years you’ve deposited, wouldn’t you?
You blink one eye, then the other, dismissing the nudge.
Years 11-15. You shut the door of your father’s Prius and looked up at the great glowing Target bullseye. Maybe he should go in there and slip some drugs into his pockets, you suggested, nonchalantly—surely if there was one thing worth stealing, it was medicine that would help him stop stealing?
He blew up on you, seized the front of your shirt, and that time you really thought you’d be on the receiving end of his fist. Instead, his knuckles found the hood of his car. And by the end of the afternoon, he’d bought you those noise-canceling headphones you’d asked for—you took the receipt out of his bruised hand.
The previous week, at this same Target, you saw him slip a paperback copy of Never Let Me Go under his sweater. You’d told him about that book. It was your favorite, or it had been, up till then. After you saw what he did, you never read anything by Ishiguro again.
Therapy might have helped your father, but each time you brought it up, he refused for the same reason that he refused medication: any money spent was money wasted. So you practiced ignoring him, instead.
Your mother in the passenger seat, turning to your father as he drove past the Applebee’s, where he didn’t leave a tip. “What are you saving up for?” she said to him. “You want to cover yourself in a blanket of hundred-dollar bills on your deathbed?”
She wouldn’t talk about any of the things he took. Instead, she’d jab him for his inability to spend money. And as you got older, she made more and more of those comments to him in front of you. In hindsight, you’re amazed at how long she put up with him.
You have no siblings. You used to believe your father was saving up in anticipation of a second child. You’d already buried your mother before you understood: she never intended to bring another child into your father’s family. There was money, yes, but not enough laughter to go around.
The first time you confided in anyone about your father’s problem, you were almost 50 years old, and he was 119. Your shrink said to leave him alone. But you still wanted to know if your old man had ever felt a sliver of remorse, if he lived with a guilty conscience. You wanted him to admit to it, every Moleskine notebook and souvenir magnet and faux-leather wallet. You wanted him to apologize to you.
As you return to navigate all the boxes, all the nooks and crannies of your childhood house, you can’t help but wonder if it ever crossed your father’s mind: that one day he’d die, and his son would have no clue what to do with his inheritance.
Toilet paper. Bars of soap. Plastic knives, forks. Two-pound bags of rotten cashews. Tubes of arthritis pain gel from a pharmacy that went bankrupt ages ago. A Tupperware container full of batteries in a dried-up puddle of acid. Wool socks. Nylon track pants. Stainless steel water bottles. A factory-folded tablecloth patterned with sunflowers and brown mold. Wired earbuds. Moleskine notebooks. Ballpoint pens.
You find all these things, unused and unfamiliar, squirreled away in the room that used to be yours. Your father had some sixty years to fill up this room. Generous of him, to leave you some floor space to stand.
He didn’t enjoy stealing, according to your shrink. It was about satisfying the urge to steal, the act of stealing rather than the thing that’s stolen. It wouldn’t be fair to blame your father for his kleptomania.
But there were things you wish you’d asked your father. Was he born with that urge, or was it a response to some irreplaceable loss? Was it after he claimed to have lost a hundred grand, years before you were born, thanks to bad investing advice from Citibank? Or was it much earlier, while he was growing up in the projects—did it start with something as innocuous as a Snickers bar? Was he even aware of himself doing it, the first time he took a nice thing that wasn’t his?
Now he’s gone, and you wish he’d taken his nice things with him.
You see screens in your dreams. You go to your first computer, to a desk in a room with a router, low hum of the flickering cathode-ray tube monitor. Then the computer goes with you, palm-sized phantom limb tethered to a network of ever-expanding human consciousness. And then the computer’s closer still, its moon-bright screen subsuming you so fully that you can’t imagine, much less remember, life without it.
The closer the screens, the harder it is to fall asleep. Melatonin pills did the trick for a few years, but then the screens got brighter, your thoughts noisier, your damnage more severe. You’ve gone camping to reset your circadian clock, seen doctor after doctor, and still you can’t get your brain to stop talking to you at night.
You read about sleep instead of sleeping. How folks in medieval times woke up four hours into the night to chat with neighbors, ponder stars, and make the occasional baby, before returning to sleep until dawn. First sleep, second sleep. Then, somewhere in the 19th century, those hours got compressed, brains rewired by the flicker of city lights and the precision of clockwork—even then, the human body was being reprogrammed by technology.
You try to replicate this biphasic sleep of your ancestors, jolting your body out of unconsciousness after four hours. You try to journal like your father did. But then, lights off, and no second sleep comes. Only your thoughts, your damnage, silent and deafening.
If the void won’t stop talking to you, you might as well answer it.
You swing open your safe door to pull out one of the three discs at random, but in the dark your fingers close around something else. A spindly object, something that lived in the tiny metal box years before you made your first ghost. Something you almost wanted to forget.
Your father, searching maniacally for a pen. Sheets overturned, drawers hanging open, shirts flying out of his closet. You watched him, knowing exactly which pen he was searching for. Knowing it was tucked away in the safe that will eventually contain your ghosts.
The charcoal Lamy Safari fountain pen. 30 dollars, and far from the fanciest item in the boutique shop where you saw him lift it. It came with a single ink cartridge instead of the pricier piston filler, but it was a sleek thing that had a good weight in your hand. It felt like an object that was chosen deliberately, among many options—the sort of thing your father might have given to you as a birthday present.
“Pens like to hide,” he said. When he asked if you’d seen it, his voice was so soft, you were sure that this time he’d snap and strike you.
You shook your head.
He searched and searched, overturning all the contents of the house at least twice.
He shouted at your mother, who shouted right back—it was the most they’d spoken to each other in months.
He requested, in a too-polite voice, that you show him the inside of your safe. But by then you’d already transferred the fountain pen to your locker at school. You wondered if he would eventually track it down there.
You still can’t put into words the impulse that moved your 14-year-old self to steal from your father. Nor can you explain why you went on hiding the pen when you saw how the loss wounded him. Because it did wound him. When he finally stopped thumping around in the attic, when he stopped emptying kitchen cupboards of silverware, your father sat defeated in his living room armchair, looking his age. 84. You saw how badly his hair had thinned, how his body bent under the weight of its own spine.
He took his telomerase twice a day, kept chugging along until, six decades later, the maid found his body slumped in that same armchair.
He went to your high school graduation, drove you to college, called you on your birthdays. He came to your apartment for dinner the first Friday of each month, his arms laden with bags of oranges. And you took them, trying hard not to wonder about whether he had taken them. He was as present and absent as you could have hoped, right up until you waved to his ancient Prius backing out of your driveway, ten days before he passed.
And you still have the pen that was never his, or yours. You’ve never used it.
Some nights with the ghosts in your head, you recognize a pattern of faded flowers or an old-world shade of yellow, some artifact you spotted on a recent excursion to the house. You pull up the memory of the time you raced him, hotshot son leaving his father behind.
You swore you’d never become your father, but doesn’t everyone?
You didn’t see the photo the first time, hidden by all the others on the granite mantel, but now you brush off the dust. You see him chasing the boy down that sidewalk, past the identical houses long since remodeled or demolished. It takes you a beat to realize what’s different about this picture of your father: he’s laughing. It’s the only one where he looks young.
You gather up all the photographs, stack the frames in a box labeled ‘Childhood.’ Fill another box with the scraps of paper and napkins that contain your father’s journal entries, a feast for the attic moths and silverfish. And maybe you’ll never read any of it, but you need to hold on to these small tokens from the house, at least. A part of your past that you can still press your fingertips against.
You’re having lunch with Jennie again when she tells you about the machine that takes up half her garage. Nothing near as fancy as the company’s glass ghosts, but she built it, and she owns it. She’s already managed to copy two full years of her brother’s memories onto her homemade extra-cranial memory bank.
It gives you hope: if a librarian in her garage can start taking back ECMB data from the company, then maybe someday you can live without your own ghosts.
As you’re clocking out, you ask Jennie to come around to the house and look over what your father left behind. It’s a bitter night, but the first in a long while where the cold doesn’t cut through your coat. You saw some flecks of green in the birch trees this morning, and your brain felt less like a burden.
You warn Jennie, but nothing can prepare her for the spectacle of the house. “Damn,” she says, nearly knocking over the overflowing shoe rack. “Was it always like this?”
You nod. And invite her to take what she wants.
Jennie moves quietly through each room, as if her footsteps might disturb the decades. She requests the vintage cherry bookcase, plus a full set of copper pans, good riddance. She’s careful not to touch anything. Then she sees the boxes of your father’s books, all stacked up in the living room, and she can’t resist browsing. Before long, she’s collected a small pile for herself, yellowed computer manuals and fitness guides, the faces on the covers stretched with obsolete grins.
She pulls out a navy Moleskine planner, runs her finger along the shrink-wrapped spine. “Brand new.” She looks up at you, awe and maybe guilt in those green eyes, as she adds the book to her pile. “Where did your father get all this stuff, anyway?”
You pause, the two of you, old folks in your not-so-old bodies. Then Jennie goes on rummaging through your father’s nice things, while you search for an answer you already know.