If you could erase your painful memories, would you?
Cleanaway 3000: Make your regrets disappear.
After weeks of build-up, the machine that would answer so many people’s prayers would finally be released at midnight tonight. Isaac fixed his tie in front of the mirror, swept his short hair back into some semblance of control, and picked up his briefcase. Glaring at his reflection, he told it in no uncertain terms that he didn’t need the Cleanaway 3000.
As he walked out the front door, Isaac glanced at the framed picture on the wall. A young girl smiled serenely from behind the glass. Isaac grimaced weakly back and rubbed a hand through his hair, undoing his morning’s efforts. “Bye, Clara.” His voice sounded quiet and strained, and Isaac realised they were the first words he had uttered all morning. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Have a good day, sweetheart.” The girl in the frame didn’t answer him, of course, and Isaac took a deep breath before heading outside and hopping in his car.
In for six, hold for six, out for six. That’s what the psychologist had told him. Dutifully breathing deeply and relaxing his mind, Isaac turned the key in the ignition. Success! The hum of the electric vehicle was certainly less traumatic than the rumble of his old petrol engine which would send him into a panic the moment he started the vehicle.
As he left the driveway, Isaac suppressed the flash of a car careening off the highway and into a ditch. As he drove along the road, he curbed the urge to flinch as a car on the other side crossed dangerously close to his lane. By the time Isaac got to work, his nerves were jittery, but he was doing well, all things considering. For years he hadn’t been able to drive or even get into a vehicle because of his PTSD. But he was getting there. He was getting better. He certainly didn’t need the Cleanaway 3000.
Work that day was worse than usual. His performance review with the supervisor, which Isaac had prepared meticulously for, had been a disaster. All of his notes had been there in front of him, and yet Brad’s smug smile had put him off and he had stuttered and blundered all the way through the important meeting. Bloody Brad. He was a decade younger than Isaac and had worked at the office for barely five years, and yet he was the anointed one. He got every promotion and every pay-rise. Isaac wanted to remind Brad’s overly cheery face that he was the one who had trained Brad when he had first arrived. But of course, it didn’t matter, did it? Brad had joined the Boss’s Boy’s Club for those-who-traded-their-souls-for-the-company. While official knock-off-time was 5 pm, those in the BBC would brag about how many hours they worked each week as if that somehow proved their dedication to their job. Perhaps, thought Isaac, they simply needed to work more quickly and take fewer coffee breaks.
The boss didn’t see it that way, and everyone knew that employees who went home before 7 pm never received raises. And every Friday night the BBC would gather together and drink until 2 am and work out who was getting the next promotion. It was no wonder that Isaac was still on the lowest rung of the company — he had never been a part of that scene. Already in a committed relationship when he began working at the office, he thought his duty was to be a good husband; after all, Alice would get cross if he wasn’t home for tea. And then Clara had come along. Clara…
Sitting at his desk, Isac felt like he was suffocating. He put his head in his hands and the little jingle from the holoscreen crept into his mind.
Do you want to put your worries in the past? (Yes, yes!)
Do you wish you could forget when you came last? (Oh, yes!)
Isaac rubbed his hands wearily over his face. He didn’t need the Cleanaway 3000, he was getting better every day. Besides, Alice would never have let him buy it. At $1499, that money could be used for so many better things. But thinking of Alice made Isaac’s eyes water and his jaw clench in anger. Why should he care what Alice would say? She wasn’t around anymore to tell him what he could and couldn’t do. She had made that very clear.
Do you long for your regrets to disappear? (Heck, yes!)
Then get the…. Cleanaway. Cleanaway. Cleanaway 3000.
Isaac hummed the last few bars of the jingle and was rewarded with a confused look from the guy sitting at the desk opposite him. He realised that he didn’t even know the man’s name.
Maybe he did need the Cleanaway 3000.
As soon as the thought entered his mind, the day seemed to get a little brighter. Isaac’s fingers tingled with excitement. He accessed his spam folder in his emails and read over the whole ad. It sounded perfect. “Leave your worries behind. Dissolve the past.” Hell, yes.
When the clock struck 5 pm, Isaac was the first out the door, prompting a disapproving look from Brad. But Isaac didn’t care — he had places to be. The Cleanaway 3000 wouldn’t be released until midnight, but, as he thought, there was already a line all the way down the pavement. Some people had clearly camped there all day, and they were much better prepared than him; they had tents and blankets and seats. Isaac hadn’t even brought any food — a fact firmly brought to his attention by the discomfort in his stomach.
He could see a little taco vending machine on the opposite side of the road, so Isaac ducked quickly across and scanned the chip in his wrist so the $5.99 would be deducted from his account. While he waited for the steaming hot taco to emerge from the machine, Isaac glanced nervously back across at the line along the pavement. In the few minutes it had taken him to park his car, walk across the road and buy some dinner, the line had grown even longer. He wondered how many Cleanaway 3000 machines the shop would have in stock. What if they ran out? The thought made his stomach clench in a different way. Now that he had made the decision to purchase the machine, Isaac didn’t think he could stand going home empty-handed.
Re-joining the ever-lengthening line with his dinner clasped firmly in his hand, the hours ticked slowly by. Isaac passed the time by watching movies on his phone. By placing the device face-up on the ground, the characters popped up out of his screen in all of their three-dimensional glory. An older couple in front of him turned around to watch. They seemed so happy there, snuggling together. Isaac wondered what use they could possibly have with the Cleanaway 3000.
At 11.59, the line of people was agitating like cattle at the slaughterhouse. Somebody behind him shoved him hard in the back and Isaac found himself crushed against the nice old couple.
“Sorry,” he said, but they both just smiled at him.
“And what do you need the Cleanaway 3000 for, deary?” the old lady asked. If anyone else had dared to call him “deary,” Issac would have cringed, but the old lady said it in such a loving manner that he didn’t really mind. She reminded him of his mother. But thinking about his mother brought about flashes of that lonely road and the car in the ditch. He quickly pushed the thoughts away.
Isaac shrugged. “My life is shit.”
The old lady chuckled. “Everyone’s lives are shit. The Cleanaway won’t change that.” Isaac just looked at her. It was odd to hear a nice little old granny swearing. “Frankie and I tried so hard to have a child.” She patted her husband’s arm softly. “We suffered miscarriage after miscarriage. Finally, God granted us a miracle — a little daughter. Do you have any kids, dear?”
Isaac nodded, and then shook his head. He shrugged. “I did.”
The old lady misunderstood. “I’m so sorry for your loss. We also lost our daughter. It was the swine flu.”
Isaac didn’t have the heart to explain that Clara wasn’t dead, but that his ex-wife had been granted full custody and left the country. Now he never got to see his daughter, or even talk to her on the phone. Aside from the photo on the wall and the memories in his mind, it was as though she had never existed.
There was a commotion at the front of the line and people started to move forward. It was quicker than Isaac expected; each person scanned their wrist and was rewarded with a box about the size of his briefcase. The couple in front of him grasped their box and hurried off into the darkness without a backwards glance. Isaac figured that after years of carrying those painful memories around, they would want to erase them as quickly as possible. And then Isaac received his box, and he was surprised at how light it was. “Make your regrets disappear,” it promised in a large, red font. Isaac grinned — he just knew that the Cleanaway 3000 was going to solve all of his problems.
Isaac didn’t glance at the framed photograph as he entered his house. Instead, he sat down on the couch in the lounge-room and ripped the box open. There was a USB, some wires, sticky pads and an instruction manual. Isaac found that he was shaking.
He plugged the USB into his laptop and it immediately began to flash blue. A dialogue box opened on his computer.
Install: Cleanaway 3000 software? YES / NO
Isaac clicked yes, and the program began to download onto his laptop. He took this time to quickly glance through the instruction manual. It seemed easy enough. He attached the sticky pads to his temples and enabled the Bluetooth capability on his laptop. Then he clicked ‘RUN.’
There was a slight vibration through the pads on his temples, but after a moment of surprise, he decided that it wasn’t overly unpleasant. Then a folder appeared in the program window on his laptop. It was labelled isaac.mem. He double clicked on the folder and was rewarded with two dozen or so sub-folders. Each one finished with the suffix isaac.mem. There was alice-isaac.mem. work-isaac.mem. mum-isaac.mem. It was this last one that he clicked on.
Scrolling quickly through the files, Isaac smiled at most of them. But then he found the file he was looking for and the smile froze on his face. mum-death-isaac.mem. Isaac remembered how he had screamed when the car had swerved onto their side of the road. Of the way his stomach had leapt upwards when their car had rolled over and over and over until it had finally settled upside-down in a ditch. Of hanging upside-down and looking across at the driver’s seat and seeing the blood dripping through his mother’s long hair and pooling on the roof of the car.
He didn’t hesitate. Execute: delete mum-death-isaac.mem. Are you sure? YES / NO.
Isaac clicked the yes button and the pads on his temples vibrated. He took a long breath in through his nose. He wasn’t just imagining it — he really did feel lighter.
Then he navigated to work-isaac.mem and found the recent performance review debacle. He certainly had no interest in retaining that memory.
Execute: delete performance-review-work-isaac.mem. Are you sure? YES / NO.
He quickly clicked yes again, then navigated back to the main screen and double clicked on the folder labelled alice-isaac.mem. There were hundreds of memory files in the folder — testament to the fifteen years they had been together. But which ones should he delete? alice-divorce-isaac.mem? Definitely. What about alice-custody-battle-isaac.mem? Absolutely. With each deletion, Isaac felt himself leaving his worries behind, just like the slogan promised. But deleting each individual file was taking too long and he rubbed one hand across his chin. He needed a quicker method. Isaac highlighted the entire folder.
Execute: delete 12856 files in alice-isaac.mem. Are you sure? YES / NO.
Isaac barely hesitated before clicking yes.
Sitting back on his couch, Isaac felt more relaxed than he had in months. Now there was only one folder of memories that was causing him any sense of disquiet. For a long time, he stared at the folder. At the one labelled clara-isaac.mem. Clara… He glanced over at the face looking out from the glass on the wall. He wasn’t sure how he had a daughter, he just knew that it was true — and he also knew that he hadn’t seen her in two years. That he likely wouldn’t see her ever again. That she basically didn’t exist.
This time Isaac took a while to decide what to do. He walked over to the photo on the wall and noticed the way her eyes were looking at something — or someone — past the camera. He had some pleasant memories of Clara, of pushing her on a swing. Of going on a picnic. There was someone else there with them too, but he couldn’t quite figure out who it was. He could remember Clara’s second birthday party. She’d had a tantrum when she couldn’t blow out the candles. He smiled, removing the frame from the wall. He slid the photo out from behind the glass and kissed it softly. There was no point holding onto memories that would never again become reality and which caused him so much pain.
“Goodbye, Clara.” He ripped the photo in half and tossed it into the bin under the sink.
Then he returned to the couch and double clicked on the folder.
Execute: delete 5786 files in clara-isaac.mem. Are you sure? YES / NO.
* * *
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Alanah Andrews grew up with a boiling mud-pool in her backyard, so it is no wonder that she loves reading and writing speculative fiction. She is the author of Beyond: A Short Story Collection of twisted tales, ghosts, murder and ‘beyond.’ She also has a YA dysopian novel coming out in August 2018.