By Rachel Kolar
They were going to have the fight again.
Brian stood outside the door of the apartment, hand hovering over the knob, trying to ignore the lingering pain at his temples where the student loan officer had removed the neural probes. He didn't want to go inside. As soon as he went inside, he'd have to tell Danielle how much money they still owed, and then they'd have the fight again.
Don't be so sarcastic this time, he reminded himself; then he took a deep breath and opened the door.
His wife was sitting at her easel by the window, stippling something in green. Her head jerked up as he came in, and she wiped her hands on her ratty smock. "How did it go?"
He kissed her forehead, trying to ignore the knots in his stomach. "Good. The memories scanned in fine, and the loan officer said U Maryland would unlock my transcripts and send my journals and stuff from junior year in a week or two."
Danielle nodded, but he could feel her body tensing. She knows. She knows I don't remember meeting her yet. If I did, I would have mentioned it right away. "What about us?"
"I remember seeing you. We both knocked out our science requirement with—"
She pulled back, eyes bright. "Did we talk?"
And here it starts. He might not be able to remember their past, but he knew the next few minutes of their future well enough:
"Eleven thousand dollars? How can we get that with a teacher's aide paycheck? We can barely even pay rent."
"I'd be pulling in more if you knew how to budget. I'm not the one who got our educations foreclosed."
Sometimes she'd blame him for not helping her to budget, but usually she'd start yammering about her art. "At least I'm doing something to get us out of it. My last painting made—"
"—almost as much as you spent on the oils!"
"You asshole. It made a lot more than that. And buyers can tell when my art doesn't involve professional-quality materials."
"Can the toilet tell when your shit doesn't involve Whole Foods?"
"We'd be able to afford to eat right if you went into a career that made any goddamn money!"
Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to push the memories aside. "No, we didn't talk. I thought you were gorgeous, but I was too scared to—oh, honey, don't."
"No, no, it's fine, it's just—" She scrubbed furiously at her eyes. "How much more?"
Her face fell, and he tried to cut her off before the fight got started. "But I took a lot of my education courses junior year. I can't get my teaching certificate back until they unlock my whole transcript, but I'm so close that somebody might hire me provisionally. And your art's been selling so well this year! Another year of you working like this..."
Danielle's mouth pressed into a thin slash. Without a word, she pushed past him and out the door, slamming it behind her.
Brian stared after her, too stunned to follow. This was new. Usually they had the fight until she locked herself into her studio, and when she emerged that night they'd pretend nothing had happened. Maybe they'd skipped straight to that part this time. He considered going about his business as usual, acting normal whenever she came home...but no, Danielle got bad enough when they fought. God only knew how she'd get if it stayed bottled up. He got a beer from the fridge, picked up a pile of quizzes to grade, and waited.
By the time Danielle's key turned in the lock, it was almost midnight. Brian, who had been dozing on the recliner, snapped awake and scrambled to gather his thoughts. Non-confrontational, that's the trick, don't get her back up.
Danielle stepped in and almost dropped the key when she saw him. "Brian! I—I thought you'd be in bed."
"If I was smart, I would be. I'm going to need an IV of coffee just to make it to work without falling asleep." Shit! Non-confrontational. He moved to the couch and patted the seat next to him. "C'mon, Dani. Talk to me."
She didn't move. "I—I shouldn't keep you up. Can we talk in the morning?"
"I'll be busy getting ready for work in the morning. It might as well be now." She was shifting her weight from foot to foot now, as if preparing to run. "Dani, honey, what's wrong?"
"Hey." He crossed to the door and wrapped his arms around her. She flinched away for a moment before her hands crept tentatively around his waist. He pulled her closer, inhaling the clean, soapy scent of her skin.
He pulled back. "You showered while you were out?"
"I went to the gym. You know, endorphins."
"I went to Caroline's after. I was still mad. We did the whole eating brownies and watching crappy comedies thing."
He wanted to believe her. He also wasn't stupid. His stomach twisted. Oh God, who is he, who is he, who is he...
He wanted to shout at her, to demand she tell him the truth—but what if he was wrong? She couldn't be cheating, not his Dani, not his girl. She wouldn't do this.
Or would she? Had she cheated on him during their senior year? Had she cheated with him, and this was karma? It might all have been there from the start. He'd known her before the foreclosure, but she was a stranger now.
"Brian? I can't breathe."
"Oh!" He stepped back, his arms aching from holding her so tightly. His fingers had left white prints on her shoulders. He didn't know whether he hoped they'd bruise. "It, um, it sounds like you had a long night. Let's talk about this later."
She hesitated. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I stormed out like that."
Danielle apologizing. Something was definitely wrong. "Let's go to bed," was all he could say. As he slid between the sheets later and she curled up beside him, warm and soft and smelling too clean, he thought, Let me be wrong, let me be wrong, let me be wrong.
Google had over fourteen million hits for "how to tell if your wife is cheating," mostly hawking spy software far beyond Brian's price range. Even the sites that actually gave advice were close to useless. If Danielle had come home with hickeys on her neck, Brian thought sourly as he stared at the five hundredth screen of crap, he wouldn't need to wonder.
He tried some of the better ideas, but the results were mixed. "Accidentally" taking her cell phone instead of his hadn't turned up anything incriminating, and whenever he called her she always had some plausible excuse for not picking up. Feigning doctor's appointments to take off work and follow her had seemed promising at first; it was mostly just sitting in the apartment parking lot and watching her paint, but twice she had gone to a run-down dance club on Route 40 called "Dreamz." This was it, Brian had thought with a growing sense of vindicated rage, but there had been no lover in sight. The first time she came out alone, and the second time she came out with a dark-haired college girl—oh, God, she's bi, she was in Pride Alliance, and we just don't remember—but they drove away in separate directions.
But after almost a month of trying, he found something that might work. One of Danielle's countless indulgences had been insisting that they treat themselves to a night out every Friday—no, not Subway, a real night out. She had been doing less of that lately. Brian had hoped it was because she valued their memories more than ahi tuna steaks, but it might be because she had some sugar daddy taking her out instead. If she didn't accept a date night, she was almost certainly cheating.
But she surprised him. "That sounds great," she said, running a hand through his hair. "I haven't wanted to say anything because money's so tight, but we haven't done dinner and a movie in ages."
"Yeah," Brian said. "Maybe we should do something cheap."
The corners of her mouth tightened. "Sure," she said in that too-bright voice that meant "hell no."
"Or we could treat ourselves," Brian said, resigned.
It was an extravagance—but a nice extravagance. It was only Bertucci's, but even so, he couldn't remember the last time they'd been to a place with a waiter and a wine list.
"What brought this on, anyway?" Danielle asked, spearing a piece of asparagus and prosciutto from the antipasto platter.
"I just..." Brian faltered, then grabbed for the first thing that came to mind. "I've been so bummed about us not starting to date junior year, you know? I figure we could get depressed about it, or we could start dating now."
She grinned. "I like that idea. Let's do Friday dinners again."
He grinned back, feeling a little of the tension ease away. It was true, anyway. They needed dates. If he wasn't wrong, if she was cheating, she remembered how she met the guy. She remembered that new relationship high, the one where he could do no wrong, and every time he touched her, it was like electricity. She remembered her first time with him, before sex started falling into routines. Sheremembered. He had to make her feel that with him, too, even if it wasn't really new at all.
The theater was only a few blocks away, and it was a perfect spring evening, so they strolled over, arm in arm. They looked over the options and picked a mockumentary that had gotten good reviews, and had been standing in line for about five minutes when Brian noticed the kid.
He was mid-twenties, maybe a little younger, out for the night with three of his buddies. He was looking at Danielle. That was nothing in itself—guys looked at Danielle; she was a beautiful woman—but there was something in the kid's face that Brian didn't like, the way his eyes crawled over her skin and under her blouse. The kid nudged his buddies and pointed at Danielle, and they gave her cool, appraising looks before one of them said something that made the others laugh.
Danielle was talking, but he'd lost track of the conversation. He glared at the kid. The kid smirked back.
He didn't look at her. He had the childish sense that if he broke eye contact with this little shit, he'd lose. "Button your sweater, Dani."
"Why—" She trailed off. She must have followed his gaze. The kid's eyes slid over her one more time before he turned back to his group. Something else that he said made them explode with laughter. "They're just stupid kids." Danielle's voice was tight.
He turned back to her. Her eyes were on the floor. "Hey." He touched her cheek, and she looked at him. "Do you want me to do something macho?"
"No." No smile. "No, forget it. Let's just watch the movie, OK?"
The movie was funny, and by the time it was over, Brian had almost forgotten the creep. He put his hand on her knee as they watched, and she didn't move it away.
But when they got home, she told him how tired she was. "It's been a long day. Maybe dinner and a movie was too ambitious."
Alarms blared in Brian's head, and a barrage of images flashed through his mind of what she'd really been doing all day to wear herself out. He doesn't even need to take her on dates, he's just that good...stop it, you're being an idiot, stop it...
"Brian? Hey, I'm sorry, I'm just tired, OK?"
"OK," he said, his good feelings from the day completely evaporated. "Sure."
When he was leaving work the next Monday, Danielle texted him to let him know she was with a buyer.
Brian stared at the phone for a long moment. A buyer. Maybe she really was with a buyer. Maybe not. He didn't know, and if he didn't find out, he was going to go crazy. He had to go to Dreamz and see if she was there. Maybe it was nothing, but it was the only lead he had.
At three in the afternoon, Dreamz was a pathetic sight—fewer than a dozen cars in the lot, no loud music or colored lights, nothing to separate it from the countless other sleazy Route 40 bars and strip clubs. Brian scanned the parking lot for Danielle's sedan, not sure whether he hoped to see it or not.
It was there. Parked in the back, but it was there.
Brian stepped out of his car, took a deep breath, and pushed open the peeling blue door to Dreamz.
If anything, it was even sadder on the inside than on the outside. The dance floor was empty; the speakers were playing some godawful thing that sounded like a metal remix of "She Blinded Me With Science"; four sulky-looking men were scattered around the room drinking beer, and two college-aged girls sat in a corner with highball glasses. Danielle was nowhere to be seen.
"...I mean, oh my God, I might have to buy that one back!" one of the girls was saying, her voice too loud in the near-empty room. The other barked out a forced laugh, her eyes tracking Brian as he came through the door. He gave her a nod, wondering why she looked familiar...
Of course. Her hair was dyed red, and she was wearing more makeup, but it was the girl who'd left the bar with Danielle before.
Her eyes had already snapped away from Brian; she was now staring into her highball glass, answering her friend in monosyllables. The other girl was droning away, not noticing that the redhead was paying more attention to the drink than the conversation.
Brian fumbled through possible ways to approach a pair of girls in a seedy club without looking like a pervert, then decided it was impossible. No guts, no glory. He stepped forward. "Excuse me..."
The redhead hunched lower in her seat and stared at the table. The other girl, a skinny blonde with a pixie cut, twisted around to face him. "Yeah?"
"I'm, um...I'm looking for a woman." He stopped himself from saying "my wife." If these girls knew what Danielle was up to, they might also try to cover for her. "Danielle Shipley. She—"
"What for?" the blonde asked.
Brian floundered. "I—I was supposed to meet her here—"
"Are you, like, a cop?"
"A—no. Why does that matter?"
"No! I'm not a cop!" A frantic voice started yammering in the back of his head: what is she doing, what is she doing, oh God...
"They don't have to tell you when you ask." The redhead's voice was dull. "That's an urban legend."
"Yeah, but I don't think they get all nervy, either. They're professionals." The blonde gave him a sympathetic smile. "First time?"
Brian had no idea what she was talking about, but he knew what answer would lead him to Danielle. "Yeah. That obvious?"
"Uh-huh. Don't worry, it gets easier. Allie was scared stiff the first time I brought her." She nodded toward the redhead, who ran her fingers along the rim of her glass and said nothing.
"Yeah. Yeah, sure." Stripping. Danielle's a stripper. This isn't a dance club, it's a strip club.
"So are you buying or selling?" the blonde asked.
"Buying?" Brian's voice sounded faint in his ears. The word "prostitution" rose in the back of his head, and he forced it away.
"Sure. Did Danielle tell you where to go?" When he shook his head, the blonde frowned. "I'm not sure where she is right now...
"I saw her." Allie's voice was flat. "C'mon." She pushed out of her chair and walked through a back door, not looking to see whether Brian was following her. Brian had to dive through the door in order to keep it from closing between them.
She led him down a flight of concrete stairs, pausing in front of a fire door. "Danielle's nice."
Allie shrugged. "We don't talk much. A little. But she's nice." She pushed the door open. Brian expected dim lighting and dancing poles, and was surprised to see a well-lit, carpeted hallway lined with numbered doors. It looked more like a motel or dormitory than anything else.
"You should wait for her in the office, I guess," Allie said. She started to turn into the first door to their left, but Brian didn't follow. He could hear sounds coming from down the hall. A woman was moaning, another screaming. It did sound like a brothel. Danielle...
Allie half-opened the door, closed it, and turned back to Brian with a little shrug. "Still working. Wait in—"
Brian pushed past her and stalked down the hall, listening for Danielle's voice.
He ignored her. He could hear voices behind most of the doors, crying out or talking in husky tones, but none of them sounded like Danielle.
“Um...look, if you do any weird shit, I didn't bring you here, OK?" Dimly, he heard the fire door slam. It didn't matter. He kept moving. Behind one door, three people were talking in voices too low for him to make out; he grabbed the knob only to find it locked, and as he jiggled it, the voices rose in surprise.
"Dude, we're not done yet!"
They were all men. Brian released the knob and kept moving. A woman laughed, deep and throaty, behind one door. A whip cracked behind another. Brian's ears were burning. Just two doors left; was she in some orgy behind one of them, had he missed her?
And then he skidded to an abrupt halt as he heard a voice from the last door on the right.
"—told me last time it'd be double if I did that."
Danielle. It was Danielle.
"Did I? Well, I suppose you earned extra—you took it like a pro. Lie back."
Brian wrenched the doorknob so hard he thought he would tear it loose. He was expecting it to be locked, and nearly fell over when it opened under his hand. He stumbled, caught himself, and straightened.
Danielle lay on something that looked like an operating table, wearing a filmy black corset and nothing else. A familiar-looking device, some kind of computer terminal, sat just behind her head. A balding man in slacks and a polo shirt leaned over her, his hands at her temples, and another man in his late twenties sat in a chair in the corner, flipping through a magazine.
The balding man turned as Brian came in. "Sit down and wait your turn," he said. Danielle's eyes were closed, and a probe was affixed to her left temple. The man held another probe at her right.
"Dani," Brian said.
Danielle's eyes flew open, and she sat up. The probe ripped free from her left temple, and she flinched. "Brian?What are you—"
"What the hell is going on?"
"I—I'm getting—I mean..." She twisted her hands in her lap. "We needed money."
"And if you want to get it, you need to sell the goods," the balding man said irritably. "Lie back. Do you want brain damage?"
"Mr. Harris, can you get Nate first? I need—I need to talk to—" Danielle's knuckles were white.
"Fine. But if you go out in the hall, don't talk too loudly. No one wants to buy memories with you two shouting in the background."
Danielle rose from the table, grimacing. The younger man rose and headed for the table, giving her arm a squeeze as she passed.
A dull red lump of rage tightened Brian's throat. "Don't touch her."
The young man started, then snorted a laugh. "It's a little late for that, buddy—"
Brian didn't realize he'd raised his fist until Danielle grabbed it. "Brian, don't." Her voice was dull. She bent and scooped something from the corner—her clothes, Brian saw—then stepped past him into the hall.
He closed the door and turned toward her. She was staring at the floor, shifting her weight from foot to foot. "Let's get out of here. Come on."
"No." She shook her head, eyes locked on his feet. "I can't leave yet. I can't."
"Danielle, it's over. It's done. Whatever you were doing here—"
"No. It's not over." She raised her eyes, jaw clenched. "I'm not leaving until he takes my memory."
"Of what? Dani, what are you doing?" Even as he asked, he realized he didn't want to know. He never wanted her to answer him. Never.
But after hesitating a moment, she sighed and leaned against a wall, her eyes fixing on the ceiling. "It's... it's like porn, I guess. People who need money, we come here and we...we do...things...and Harris sells the memories. But the money's good, I can buy back your senior year after—"
"You do things." Brian's voice sounded faint in his ears. "What things?"
"I don't know. I honestly don't. I mean, I know I fake it because I only get acting fees from appearing in the guys' memories and not royalties from sales on my own, but that's it. Some of the sellers, the men especially, they like to buy back copies of the memories so they know, but not me. I—it's hard enough having the hints. Seeing what I'm wearing when he takes the probes out. Remembering who was in the room when I walked in, and talking through a basic script. Feeling the sore spots..."
"Sore spots." Brian could feel his hands shaking.
Danielle finally met his gaze. She reached out and touched his face. "Hey. It's OK. It's not—it's not so bad, really. I can't remember it, so it didn't happen, you know?"
It didn't happen. It didn't happen. We can't remember meeting, so it didn't happen. "Dani...God, Dani, you didn't have to do this. You—"
"I did." She straightened to face him full on. "I'm the reason we're in this mess, Brian, you've made that plenty clear—"
“—and there's no way we were going to get out of it, not with your salary and me selling three or four pieces a year. We'd never make enough. We'd never be able to get your transcripts unlocked, we'd never have a house or kids or any of it, we'd never remember how we met or even get any of the stuff we wrote down about it, and you expected me to sit around painting trees?"
"You could have talked to me. We could have figured something out."
"We could have yelled at each other, you mean." Her eyes darted away from his face again. "It doesn't matter anymore. Let me just sell this last memory and we'll finally be above water, and we can remember. That's what counts, right?"
He wanted to say no, that what mattered was who they were now. He wanted to say yes, that maybe if he'd remembered something crucial about her he would have known this was coming. He wanted to say that he'd never be above water, not now. But he didn't know which he wanted to say more, so he said nothing.
After a moment, she said, "I'll meet you at home, OK? Go ahead and make an appointment with the loan officers." She hesitated, then kissed his cheek. "I love you."
"Yeah." He watched her go back into the room, then made his way back toward the car.
They had enough. They finally had enough. He'd make the appointment, and as soon as the end of the week, he might remember talking to Danielle, giving her a nervous first kiss, making love to her for the first time...
It'd be double if I did that.
You took it like a pro.
It didn't happen.
It didn't happen.
It didn't happen.
Brian drove home to wait for his wife, trying not to wonder what she'd forgotten.
About the Author
Rachel Kolar is a graduate of Kenyon College whose work has appeared in Leading Edge, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Tales of the Talisman, and The Colored Lens. She, her husband, and their two children live in the Baltimore/Washington area. When not writing speculative fiction or changing diapers, she enjoys playing complicated board games, hiking, and getting far too excited about Halloween.
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