Month: November 2023

The Memory Exchange

Meghan Lee smiled into the camera, awaiting Dan’s signal to begin and trying not to look too much like the enthusiastic newbie she was. But gah! Her very own segment! She was young. She was pretty. She was on fire!

“You’re go in five, four…” Dan held up three fingers, then two, then pointed at her.

“Hello,” Meghan said, intentionally letting her smile falter somewhat. “This is Meghan Lee reporting to you from Central Park where masses of empty shells are…” Meghan paused, thoughtfully. “Should I go with empty shells or human husks?”

“What?” Dan wasn’t paying attention to her; he had the camera pointed toward a hauntingly lovely young woman with dark hair, bronzed skin, and dull, empty eyes.

“Empty shells or human husks?” Meghan asked impatiently. “I need this first segment to be perfect. Some people are calling them zombies, but–”

“That’s offensive,” Dan replied.

“Exactly, so empty shells or human husks?”

“Have you ever known one?” He looked annoyed, suggesting he had. But he’d been a cameraman a lot longer than she’d been a reporter.

“I talked to some of these yesterday, before I pitched the segment.” Meghan waved vaguely at the people behind her. It hadn’t been precisely these people, although she thought she recognized a white-haired man sitting on a bench, but they’d all had more or less the same things to say: Can you spare some change for the memory exchange?


“My brother ended up like this,” Dan said with a scowl. “Kept trading up his memories for better memories until there was nothing left of him.”

“That’s why we’re doing the segment, to warn people away from disreputable memory brokers.”

Dan scowled again. He never seemed to approve of Meghan, no matter what she did, and he acted like he was at least a decade older than her when in fact, he was barely twenty-five. Maybe he’d gone to a disreputable memory exchange, too, and was remembering what it felt like to be an eighty-year-old man.

The thought made her smile.

“All right, let’s start over.” Meghan stood tall and stared at the camera.

“Go with lost souls,” Dan said as he reset the shot.

“A bit poetic, but…” Meghan shrugged. Maybe. She started rehearsing possible lines in her head as Dan once again cued her to begin.

“Hello, this is Meghan Lee reporting to you from Central Park where the scourge of lost souls continues to grow by the day. These people were once our brothers and sisters, moms and dads, daughters and sons, but now they wander aimlessly on errands not even they comprehend for they have forgotten even that which drives them.”

Meghan stared into the camera for another few heartbeats, then began walking along the path toward the white-haired man she was pretty sure she’d seen yesterday. He was particularly gruesome, and would punctuate her segment nicely.

“Excuse me, sir, may I have your name?”

He looked up at her vaguely, his eyes struggling but finally finding focus on her face. “Do you have some spare change? I’ve run out of memories to exchange.”

“Do you even know your name?”

“It might be Tom. Or Donald. Or Beth.”

“Which memory exchange do you use?”

“Do you have some change?” he asked again.

Meghan had been expecting this. She motioned to Dan to cut the recording while she passed a fistful of bills to the old man, knowing exactly what he would do with them. As soon as he had his cash in hand, he stood up from the bench and began to walk across the park.

Meghan and Dan followed.


I sharpened my hook against my whetstone and cast my line into the inky blackness.

Three tries later, I hooked a star.

I was a novice sky-caster and those slippery points of light liked eluding me. We seemed to have developed a relationship, though; if I practiced with good-natured patience, eventually the stars allowed me to catch them. Then I set them free.

The stars were drawing other casters, as well. Holding a slender casting pole, a boy the age of my young grandson approached me. “You’re not very good at that,” he said, with the innocent bluntness of youth.

His observation didn’t bother me. It was accurate, after all! “I’m sure I’ll get better, in time.” I reeled in my line, accidentally tangling it again. The little star broke free from my hook and sailed back up into the sky. A pang went through my heart—I would have enjoyed admiring its glimmer up close for a moment. How easily some things slipped away from us when we weren’t ready to let them go.

“It got away!” A girl a little older than the boy joined us, holding a banged-up tackle box and gripping another pole. Her eyes seemed hungrier for the stars than the boy’s. Some of us casters needed more wishes and dreams than others. I wondered what dreams she needed, and why.

But I only said, “I’m learning from the experience. I’ll eventually figure it out.” I finished untangling my line and cast again. Glorious stars lay strewn across tonight’s meteor-filled sky, creating a double glory—a sky begging for admiration.

“How can you be learning if you’re doing it wrong?” the girl asked.

“I untangled the line, didn’t I?”


“Aren’t you awfully old to just be learning now?” The girl set down her tackle box next to me, opened it, and chose a hook. The boy rummaged through the box’s contents and selected a hook, too.

They were brother and sister, I guessed. They had the same soulful eyes. I considered my answer to her question, since I was the oldest woman I’d seen casting, so far. “I don’t think it’s a matter of age. It’s about caring about what you’re doing.”

The girl studied her pole as if she hoped it would capture things far bigger and even finer than stars.

A minute later, I caught another star, a tiny, graceful one that perched on the tip of my hook like a finely crafted diamond. “Beautiful.” I gently pulled it in—no tangles this time—and let it rest on my palm so my new companions could see it. We all admired its sparkle, and then I nudged it free of the hook. It flew back up into the sky with a brilliant arc of light, the kind that sends hope into your soul and makes you smile after a dark day.

“You let it go already!” the boy cried in dismay.

“I couldn’t keep it,” I said, my curiosity rising about their method of sky-casting. But I didn’t want to spoil our new friendship with too many questions. “Look how brightly it shines up there. It wouldn’t be content down here with me. In fact, it’s light might go out.”

“But it’s gone….” the boy murmured. “Not everyone can see them when they’re so far away—”

The girl nudged him, and he stopped talking.

“It’s all right,” I said. “We all see differently.”

The girl and boy looked at each other, as if swiftly judging me. Then, she said to me in a low voice, “Mama can’t see the stars anymore. She says she’s going blind. The stars used to make her so happy. Now, she can only see them when they’re up real close. When she can hold them. So, we like bringing them home to her. Then she’s happy…for a little while.”

“I think I understand.” A longtime friend of mine had also lost his sight, and he’d loved the joy of the sky. “That’s a very loving thing for you to do for her.”

The girl glanced down at her tackle box. “Does their light really go out?”

“I’ve never kept a star for that long, but yes, I’m told so.”

“Do you always let them go?”

“Well, I’ve often wanted to keep them,” I admitted, sensing the need to be a co-conspirator. “It’s very tempting, but they’d be lost without their sky. And if everyone took one….” I didn’t need to finish.

“That’s what mama says sometimes.” The boy quietly wiped an eye, then gripped his pole. He tugged at his line, staring up at the sky’s brilliant display. A meteor shot past us. A smile flickered over his face, like a ghost.

Cold Blooded

There was nothing else for it. I pushed myself into the pile of ice that Glen had tipped onto the sidewalk and tried to get comfortable for the night. The weather bureau was predicting sub-zero temperatures overnight and a heavy frost in the morning. There was no chance the ice would melt.

The soothing cold of the ice slowed my heart rate. My worries unwound as cool blood pulsed into my brain with each measured heartbeat.

Being a kitchen hand at a cafe in suburban Canberra wasn’t a great job. I wasn’t sorry that the arse-hat who owned it went broke. I hated schnitzel Tuesday and making fifty bowls of chips a night.

But he had invested in a proper industrial kitchen. And the second-rate chef, Glen, made sure there was a good old-fashioned hierarchy. Being the lowest of the low meant I had to stay late and clean up. When everyone was gone, and after I’d screwed up my eyes and cleaned the hot ovens with hydrochloric acid, I slid into the generous cool room, closed the door, and relaxed in the cold dark.

That apartment sized freezer made it the best job I’d ever had. But it was taken from me that night. The freezer had been turned off and the door had been propped open to slow the buildup of mildew. All the stock that could be sold had been sold. The rest was in a dumpster. Even the ice had been tipped onto the footpath.

My mother used to say that she remembered me trying to climb into the freezers at supermarkets when I was a toddler. Those were the old-style ones where frozen goods were presented to buyers in a frost lined trough filled with cardboard packs of fish filetsfillets and tubs of Neapolitan ice cream.

I complained about being too warm growing up and threw off constricting heavy woolen jumpers in winter at the first chance I got.

After child me begged my mother to let me roll in a pile of hail that had pooled on the footpath on the way to our local shops, I’d never told anyone about what made me happy. I learnt disapproval easily and early.

And as I got older, I also learnt to camouflage my needs, like my teenaged friends with un-obvious desires or frowned upon addictions. Even though I yearned for cold and dreamed of running away to the arctic, I got by in my teens by stealing time in my parents’ chest freezer, the pride of the house, when they went out to dinner.

I never wanted to know why I craved the cold. As far as I was concerned, I was just built that way, and I didn’t care to change. Even if it made a marriage, career, and children impossible.

Ice on a street wasn’t my preferred sleeping place, but the bar had shut quickly, and I couldn’t make other arrangements. I was kind of excited to be sleeping rough again, even if it was only in an inner north suburb of the nation’s Capital. I pushed myself into the ice. It felt even colder than Glen’s cool room. I drifted off into a deep sleep.

I was woken by a sharp prod on my foot, and a high-pitched scream. I felt a hot spot on my left heel. Someone had started to pull on the foot which must have slipped out of my ice bed.

“Don’t do that, we should leave it for the police.”

“But he might still be alive. Maybe we can help.”

There was another hand on my foot. It was pulling down my sock and gently feeling my ankle.

“No, he’s pretty cold. There’s not much we can do. Let’s just call the police.”

I needed to get out of there. I tensed and un-tensed my muscles. I knew from experience that a deep cool sleep could make my movements stilted when I woke up, and I didn’t want to jerk about like Frankenstein’s monster when I first emerged from the ice pile.

My graceful exit from the embrace of my ice bed was greeted by another scream.

“Umm, hi. It’s okay. I was just fooling around, hiding from my mates.” I looked down at my tatty jeans and cheap cotton windcheater. The ice hadn’t melted, so they weren’t soaked with water. No one could believe that someone would sleep out overnight in jeans and a thin top,so it was plausible that I’d only been there a couple of minutes.

A young woman in active wear, with a pink viscose headband and gloves, stared back at me, phone in one hand dog lead in the other. She looked uncertainly at an older woman dressed in a more dignified manner, who was standing just to my left. The dog, a generic brown fluff ball, just sniffed the ice.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” said the older woman. “Your foot was very cold.”

“Nah, I’m fine.”

“So I shouldn’t call the police?” The younger woman was concentrating on the older one, not me. The older woman had gray hair, a thick jumper, long red woolen scarf, and woolen pants. Who has woolen pants anymore? I thought. She took a step towards me and without asking for permission, put her hot hand on my forehead.

“I work at the hospital,” she said, as if that excused anything that she might do next. I twisted away from her hand, and she grimaced.

“You should really see a doctor,” she said, looking me over with light blue eyes. “We could call an ambulance for you.”

“You’re being very kind,” I said. “But I’m really all right. Just a bit of a practical joke. My friends will be along soon looking for me, I expect.” Of course, I had no friends, but I was hoping that the conversation wouldn’t go on long enough for the old duck to find out.

“You’re as cold as ice,” she responded. “I hate the cold. It’s the source of most illness in winter, you know.” I looked at her thick jumper, pants, scarf, and heavy leather boots. I could see that she did indeed hate the cold and was determined to defeat it by any means possible.

I turned to her companion with acrylic cold protection. “Look, I’m really grateful that you are both so concerned for me, but I’ll be alright. I promise.” I started to walk away. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I charted a path that didn’t involve trying to barge past the two women and possibly inflaming their concern for me by brushing a cold limb against their insulated bodies.

I felt a warm and surprisingly strong hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, but I really must insist,” said the older woman. “Narelle, call an ambulance. Young man, if you’re worried about the cost, I’ll pay for the ambulance. But we really need to get you to a doctor. People who let their core temperature drop as low as you have can die, you know.”

At that point, I started to run. I knew I wouldn’t get far before my legs warmed up and cramped. But I didn’t think that I had to go very far to get away from Narelle’s bossy companion. Narelle might have been able to outpace me, but she didn’t really look like she was that interested.

The Cradle

We have a rule: once a kid reaches the age of ten, we don’t use them to spread the fire anymore.

I took my son to the cradle the day after his ninth birthday. Nine is a good age for this. When kids are little, they have no comprehension of how the world works, relying on you for guidance. They trust you. Tell them they’ll be okay, and they’ll believe it. The youngest one we’ve ever used was four, a boy, and he gave me a thumbs-up right before he ran towards the fascists’ checkpoint. A thumbs-up and a trusting smile. I’ll never forget it.

The sacrifices one must make to free our country. I know what history will say about us, but history has a lot to talk about. Sooner or later, we’ll be a footnote against the course-changers like the second world war or the DC Incident.

The DC Incident. I’m using the fascists’ term for it but it’s our term too, we’ve adopted it. The DC Incident.

My son wasn’t afraid. I waited until he was nine because I don’t want him going in completely ignorant. I want him to experience the world the fascists have given us–shape his understanding of our mission. This isn’t an excuse to kill and maim; it’s a fight for freedom.

It’s a fight for our lives.

The fascists maintain a ten mile perimeter around the cradle. Only authorized personnel are allowed through, and authorized personnel include security and scientists. The fascists make grand claims about restoring law and order to our country, but enough cash helps the perimeter guards look the other way. I’ve been coming here for years.

It was the first time for my son. Lanky like me when I was his age, Ryan took after his mother in other respects. He had a curious, determined gaze, and he perched on one knee, overlooking the cradle. His gaze peering back through history to the charred ruins of a once great capital. The DC Incident, indeed.

“Careful,” I said, the air filter deepening my voice. “You don’t want to rip your suit.”

The radiation suits were top of the line, surplus stolen from a truck. There are hot spots all over the country but the cradle is the worst.

“Did you check your geiger?” I asked.

He ignored me for a few moments. Such a contemplative boy. I wondered then if he would go through with it. Little kids are easier to fool, true, but even they have second thoughts. Our primal nature sometimes defies even our trusted authority figures. A five-year-old girl refused to go at the last minute. We feared the opportunity was lost, until I procured a Hershey bar. Kids are still kids, and she annihilated a convoy.

He raised his geiger. “Ten.”

I smiled inside my suit. The filter blessed him with an authoritative voice—a man’s voice. What he could have become. If not for the fascists.

“Can we proceed any further?” I asked.

“No. The cradle’s too dangerous.”

“Good.” I shuffled up beside him, looking out over the cradle. I carried a pack on my shoulders—supplies for both of us—and I pulled out a pair of binoculars. I handed them to him. “Careful, don’t press it on your screen.” I waited for him to get the binos in position. “What do you see?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Ruins.”

“Tell me what the blast center looks like.”

Again, no hesitation. “Dark.”

I didn’t take the binos from him. I’ve seen the cradle so often I dream of it, both what it is now and what it was before the DC Incident. The blast radius isn’t dark, it’s a scar, a black scar on the earth. Outward, some ruins linger. The Washington Monument lost most of its inside like a bomb blast ripping tissue from one’s calf. It tilts to this day over a dry pool, charred and reflecting nothing, and year by year the monument inches towards collapse.

“How many people died that day?” I asked.

“Over 200,000.”

“How many died later?” I took a step towards the cradle and my geiger clicked. “And why?”

“Over 10,000,” Ryan said, still peering through the binos. “Radiation.”

I crouched beside him. The streets leading to the cradle were cracked, hardened puddles of melted asphalt. When the DC Incident occurred, it blinded witnesses for miles.

I pointed towards the wastes. Where the halls of Congress once stood, close to the blast center. Vaporized in seconds and they were the lucky ones. “Do you know why they did it?” I asked.

“Because they’re fascists.”

I smiled again. The simplicity with which a child views the world. Older, wiser…but not jaded. Nine is the perfect age to spread the fire.

“But do you know why?” I gave him no time to answer. “They wanted to blame us.”

“So they’ll be the heroes and we’ll be the bad guys.”

“Yes,” I whispered, my air filter changing my whisper into a growl.

I didn’t ask if he was done. I gave Ryan all the time he needed. It is impossible to understand our fight until you come to the cradle and see for yourself—I should know. I puttered around in my youth, engaging in mischief against the fascists. I thought stealing tires and ammo counted as a strike against them. I had no clue who I was dealing with until I came here, and glimpsed their work for myself.

At last, Ryan lowered the binos and said the words a little kid wouldn’t think to say and in that moment I knew I would never have to bribe him with a Hershey bar.

“I’m ready.”