“Better Times” (short, ~2500 words)

I love it when a dream gives you inspiration. The words often come so naturally. I dreamt the idea of the Hall of Memories, and this story came of it as soon as I woke up.


 

Better Times

Hammond stretched in the uncomfortable chair and closed his eyes to check the time. Only ten minutes into the service. Why did he agree to this? She was the mother of his son, yes, but they hadn’t had any need to talk, to even acknowledge each other existed, since Robert’s high school graduation. If it hadn’t been for Robert, the last time he talked to that woman would have been over twenty years ago. Even so, ten years came and went since their son’s graduation. He had more ties with the synthetic voice behind the kiosk at the recharge station than he did with Emily.

But Robert insisted. “She was your wife, Dad. And my mother. You could at least acknowledge that.”

He did acknowledge it. He said he was sorry for Robert’s loss and put on a sympathetic face. What more did the kid expect from him? Robert knew they hated each other by the time they split.

He glanced over at his son and saw tears brimming. Couldn’t hold it against the kid, even if he was weeping over the woman who tried to ruin Hammond’s life. Two years in family courts. The house and cars sold off and the money split between them. Child support payments that cut his paychecks in half. And the rumors. Vicious, petty, lies she spread amongst her friends. How long did it take before people stopped believing he raped his own wife? Or beat her? Two things he never did, and never would do. That didn’t stop people he once viewed as friends from believing her, though.

He shook his head. Yes, the divorce was his fault. He’s the one who strayed. But she played her own role in the events. She became more focused on her friends, on social obligations, than her own husband. The last time they had sex was over a year before the divorce started – not from a lack of trying on his part, either. That she felt betrayed when he went elsewhere for it just went to show the depth of her own self-absorption as far as he was concerned.

Robert elbowed him.

“Dad,” he hissed.

Hammond broke from his reverie and noticed everyone standing. He did the same.

“At the conclusion of the benediction, Emily’s family would like to invite all her friends and family to visit the Hall of Memories. For those of you new to the Hall of Memories experience, we must warn you that you may encounter memories that you have a particular emotional connection with. These memories can sometimes trigger strong responses in those who encounter them. To avoid this, we ask you do not touch the exhibits.”

Hammond raised an eyebrow at his son.

“Your mom did that memory thing?”

Robert nodded.

“I can’t imagine doing that.”

“I think it’s a great idea, Dad. It lets your family keep your most cherished moments.”

“It lets people see things you might not want them to see.”

Robert rolled his eyes.

“She gets to choose which memories get saved, Dad. It isn’t like they just ripped her thoughts from her head and put them on display.”

“It’s still creepy.”

Hammond followed Robert into the next room of the large church. The Hall of Memories was based on relatively new technology. Hammond didn’t follow it too closely, but he knew what they said on the news about it. Using technology developed to help restore the memory of those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, the company Forever Ours began offering a service where clients could have their most cherished memories recorded for posterity. The original intention was for these memories to be given to loved ones so they could then experience them as a way of holding on to those they lost. It quickly became vogue amongst the wealthy elite, especially those with egos as large as their bank accounts – like Emily – to put these memories on display at memorial services in what became known as the “Hall of Memories”.

Hammond had not witnessed this ceremony, so he didn’t know if the Hall of Memories at this church was normal or not. The room itself was a large, circular affair that reminded him of a sanitized gymnasium. It was all white, festooned with flower-laden planters along the walls. Natural light shone down through a glass ceiling. Spread out in a semi-circle around the room were pedestals, Hammond guessed at least two dozen, each with something sitting upon it and a small placard explaining the memory.

The first one they came upon was blue baby shoes. The placard read, “The birth of my son.” Hammond let a bittersweet smile cross his lips before moving on.

They circled the room, looking at the various memories. They were exactly what Hammond expected. “My sixteenth birthday”, “When mom died”, etc. Each memory was a simple pedestal with something physical on it that represented that memory. The various mourners would sometimes pause and touch the item, their face going slack for a few seconds before a wistful smile returned. Usually an attendant in suit and tie would quietly whisper something to the person – reminding them to not touch, he surmised.

Janine, Emily’s sister, stood next to the one labeled, “When mom died.” Hammond recognized the item on display – his former mother-in-law’s wedding ring. Janine ran her finger lightly over the ring. Her face gained that same blank expression. Then it twisted into a frown of grief with fresh tears.

“Are they really seeing her memories?” He whispered to Robert.

Robert nodded.

“And you’ve done this already?”

Robert shook his head, “Not with all of them. It’s really intense.”

“What ones?”

Robert looked uncomfortable.

“My birth and first steps.”

“Oh.”

“Dad,” Robert turned.

“Yeah?”

“There’s one here with your name on it. That’s all she did to describe it. I don’t think anyone has used it yet. Well, Aunt Janine probably did – she’s nosy. But she hasn’t said anything.”

Hammond sighed.

“What one?”

“Over there, by the back of the exhibit.”

Hammond’s feet plodded towards the pedestal. Robert was correct. It simply said, “Hammond” on the placard. Beside it was a box of generic, store-brand macaroni and cheese and an egg carton.

“What the hell is this?” He growled.

“I don’t know. I didn’t think I should…you know.”

“Whatever.”

Hammond stared at the pedestal. His mind worked. Macaroni and cheese? Eggs? It made no sense to him. What the hell kind of twisted message was Emily trying to send him from beyond the grave? Couldn’t that woman just leave him be?

“Dad?”

“What?”

“Are you going to…you know?”

“Why?”

“It was important to her. That’s why it’s here.”

“I doubt I’d want to see any memory your mother kept of me, son. No offense.”

“I think she wanted you to see it.”

“Yeah? That doesn’t exactly sell it to me. She also wanted me to die horribly, as I recall.”

“Dad…” There was exasperation in his son’s voice.

“Fine. Just keep your Aunt away from me. I don’t need her involved in this.”

“I will. It will only be a second, anyway. It will probably feel longer, though.”

Hammond glanced over his shoulder at Emily’s sister. Janine was watching him with an expression he couldn’t quite define. Normally, her face showed open hostility towards him. But this time the expression was…curiosity? Maybe even pity?

Christ. What the hell kind of a memory did Emily leave for him to suffer through?

“So I just, like, touch the pedestal or something?”

“Yeah. The memory chip transfers from touch. It’s different for different people. The greater your personal connection to that memory, the more intense the experience is – the easier the transfer is.”

“Right.” Hammond exhaled and reached out. His hand rested on the rough cardboard of the egg carton.

“Nothing’s happening…”

– – – – –

“Jesus Christ, Neenee, let it go. He’s my husband, not yours.”

“He’s not much of a husband, Em,” the voice on the other end of the phone replied. “He’s what? A dishwasher? With no college degree. And you’re pregnant now. How the hell is he going to support you? You guys can barely pay rent.”

“That’s none of your business. We’re fine!”

“Fine? Mom said that last month you had to borrow money for gas and food.”

Emily grimaced. She could feel the baby moving around.

“Ugh. Neenee, it’s not your problem or your business. I need to go. The baby is kicking and I need to lay down.”

“Whatever. Look, I’m not trying to – well, just call me if you need anything.”

Emily slammed the phone down on the kitchen counter and braced herself. Boy, could that kid kick when he wanted to. Stubborn, just like his father. Janine was right, though. She didn’t know how they were going to survive on Hammond’s minimum wage job down at the diner. They could barely afford the rent on the one-bedroom. Food was a luxury. How were they going to get diapers? Pay the medical bills? For Christ’s sake, Robert was due in a month and they still hadn’t managed to find the money to get him a crib.

She needed a break. She sat down on the nearest chair, one of the four mismatched chairs they picked up at a thrift shop for their kitchen table. She rested her hand on the table, the familiar wobble of the unstable thing an unwelcome reminder of their situation. The tears started before she knew she was upset.

She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know how they would make it. She didn’t know what kind of a life they were giving Robert. She didn’t know why she was crying. Her stomach growled.

The phone rang. She took a shuddering breath and answered it.

“Hello?”

“Hey, babe, it’s me. John wants me to work a double today. I’ll be late.”

“O-o-okay.”

There was a pause on the other end.

“You okay?”

“Yeah. Just pregnant stuff.”

“How’s he doing?”

She laughed, a gasping sound, “I think he was Bruce Lee in a past life.”

“That’s my boy!” The pride in his voice carried through the phone line. She smiled.

“Alright. I need to get back to work.”

Her eyes darted around the kitchen.

“Honey?”

“Yeah, babe?”

“Can you bring home something for dinner. We’re out of…well, everything.”

“Okay. Maybe I can snag something from here. Or I’ll stop at the store on the way home and pick something up with whatever I get tipped out with.”

“Okay. That’d be great.”

“I love you, babe. So much.”

A fresh river of tears ran down her face.

“I love you too.”

She held the receiver to her ear for a while after the line went dead, staring at the empty kitchen in the tiny apartment in a city that didn’t care she existed. She lumbered to her feet, the boy rolling around inside her belly, and walked to the ratty couch through a veil of tears. She wanted to watch TV but the cable was cut off months before. Instead, she popped a tape in the VCR and reclined on the couch.

It was dark when the sound of the deadbolt turning woke her up. She could smell Hammond before she saw him – the stink of someone who washed dishes for twelve hours was quite noticeable, especially to the heightened senses of a woman in her third trimester.

“Babe, I’m home.” He called out.

She forced herself to her feet and, in spite of the pungent odor and an intense pressure on a full bladder, walked to greet him with a hug and a kiss.

“I brought home something for dinner.” He said when they broke the kiss.

“I have to pee.” She replied, disengaging from his arms and making her way as fast as she could down the narrow hallway to the even more narrow bathroom.

“I’ll get dinner started,” he called after her. Her stomach was rumbling and she had an intense desire to eat something pickled, but at the moment all she cared about was relieving the pressure.

“Okay.”

When she came back out she found him at the stove. A pot was boiling and beside it a frying pan warmed.

“What are we having?”

He pointed at the counter. A box of store brand macaroni and cheese, a quart of milk, and a dozen eggs sat on the counter.

“Macaroni and cheese and eggs?”

“A feast fit for kings,” he joked.

Her heart sunk. They wouldn’t be able to survive like this.

“Honey…” she whispered.

“Yeah?”

“How are we going to take care of a baby if we can’t even feed ourselves real food?”

He turned slowly.

“We will.”

“How?”

Fresh tears formed in her eyes.

“We will, babe. Whatever it takes.”

He stared at her, his intense blue eyes locking with hers. She could almost believe anything he said when he said it like that. Almost.

“I promise,” he added. “I love you. I will take care of you.”

“Okay,” she whispered. She wanted to say more, but thought better of it. Instead, she sat down at the wobbly table and watched as her husband prepared their feast.

A few minutes later he was plating up runny macaroni and cheese and rubbery eggs. He was a dishwasher, after all, not a cook. She wasn’t going to criticize. He sat a plate in front of her and another at the chair opposite hers. She grabbed her fork.

“Uh uh,” he chided, a smile on his face.

“What?”

He reached into the bag on the counter and produced a single tea light candle and a single bottle of strawberry wine cooler.

She laughed.

“Mon chéri,” he smirked. “Tonight, we dine by candlelight on the finest pasta ninety-nine cents can buy and sip the best strawberry wine cooler fortified with only the purest of injected alcohol and artificial flavors.”

With that, he poured the wine cooler into two plastic drinking cups, placed the lit tea light between them on the table, and turned off the kitchen lights.

“Bon appétit.”

She laughed and took a bite of her meal, all the while staring in wonder at the flickering light playing on the face of the man she loved.

“We’ll be fine.” He said again.

“I know,” she replied. And she believed it.

– – – – –

Hammond staggered back from the display.

“Dad?”

He stared at the box and carton.

“Dad? Are you okay?”

He turned and looked at his son.

“What?”

“Are you okay? You’re crying.”

Hammond quickly wiped the tears from his eyes.

“Yeah. I guess. That was…intense, like you said.”

“What was it?”

Hammond shook his head.

“Better times, I guess.”

“What?”

“Nevermind.”

Why had she held onto that memory? Before he got his degree, before they could afford to buy a house and cars, before their life got good – before they were successful. A few years…five, at the most…after that memory, Emily and Hammond were living in a house that was worth more than the combined estates of their parents. Robert never wanted for anything. They had new friends, new toys, a new life – a better life than they ever imagined.

So why that memory?

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