Brett Petersen Brett Petersen writes because it is more fun than mopping floors and running cash registers. He obtained his B.A. in English from the College of Saint Rose in 2011, and his fictions have appeared in journals such as Polychrome Ink, The Offbeat and Leopardskin & Limes. He is also a cartoonist, drummer and singer/songwriter whose high-functioning autism only adds to his creativity. He lives in Albany New York.
Below is Part 1 of 2 monthly installments for Visitant.
Summoning the Memory Eaters | Part 1
The cardboard trees surrounding Bethlem High School discharge several dozen volts of electricity. The current travels along a fence until it reaches a basketball hoop where it creates a portal. A mealworm the size of a dog wriggles through the portal and plops into a puddle of rainwater. It slurps up the memories of a ninth grade girl who had fallen into the same puddle 2,340 years ago. A tether ball swings in the breeze as the worm slithers along the soil collecting bone fragments, bug carcasses and other detritus with its mucus. It detects the ghosts of bipedal beings who once ran across this field kicking rubber orbs, sweating, breathing, laughing and contemplating their futures. Once upon a time they were nymphs in bloom blessed with countless years ahead of them. The worm senses that things are different now.
The year is 4444 and everything is dead—unless radioactivity counts as life. The worm inflates a nodule on one of its sides. This nodule approximates a sigh. This particular species of extra-dimensional mealworm does not experience emotions like most creatures in its neck of reality. They can imitate empathy if it gets them food. Their diet consists not of other life forms, but of abstractions such as thoughts and memories. To the worms, the haze of melancholy coating this world tastes like a vanilla milkshake with Baileys Irish Cream.
Once every 2,222 years, the worm colony from the dimension-next-door sheds its collective skin and merges with the Perpendicular Line to form the Great Ellipse. To molt, the worms require large amounts of a chemical created through the metabolization of ideas. The best sources of ideas are places where sentient races have had technological breakthroughs followed by mass extinctions. Over several billion years, the worms have evolved the capacity to traverse dimensions in search of these locations.
If the worms do not molt, they will be unable to merge. The Line will reject them if so much as a micron of dead skin remains. Merging is the worms’ best defense against the Inverted Wolf Fang: top predator and guardian of the Vanishing Point at the end of their universe. The worms feed their old skin to the tooth-beings who live in quantum pockets inside their imaginary limbs. The tooth-beings excrete enamel and the worms smear it on their bodies to protect themselves against the Wolf Fang’s gamma rays.
Next time you can’t remember where you put your car keys, consider this: the reason people forget is not because of memory retrieval error. Forgetting is the result of extra-dimensional mealworms from the future eating the memories stored in your ghost. These ghosts contain all of the memories accumulated during their respective bodies’ lifetimes. What happens to your ghost in this era affects your former body retroactively. For instance, if a worm were to take a bite out of the memory of the time you fell off your tricycle and got a boo-boo when you were three, you might misremember various details. Was the trike blue or red? What is a trike anyway? If a memory is consumed entirely, it ceases to be. The worms mean no harm, but if they succeed in devouring every single human memory, it will be as if we never existed.
Ghostly forms blanket the courtyards of Bethlem like the flu inside a hospital in February. The worm devours their memories in a matter of seconds. It will have to return home soon because the time of molting is drawing near. It oozes over a rusted sprinkler jet and onto a plateau of asphalt. Parked in rows, are fleets of yellow sentinels, forever watching the school entrance with unblinking eyes. Perhaps their lids opened and closed long ago. An image of their windshield eyes blinking enters the worm’s field of perception. It has picked up a visual from the ghost of a boy boarding and disembarking the sentinel like a wooden doll on the rails of a cuckoo clock. The worms can see memories as well as eat them, but they make no attempt at interpreting or understanding them. It is simply an evolutionary mechanism, like a bat’s sonar. A bat doesn’t consider an insect’s point of view; all it wants is a tasty snack.
◙ ◙ ◙
2,430 years ago, Bethlem High School was a center for mediocre public education. Students shuffled through sweaty hallways, sat in seats, scribbled, listened and scribbled some more. They attended P.E., ate hollow chicken nuggets, scribbled and listened and went home. No one ever noticed the presence lurking behind the walls: millions of quivering, segmented tubes waiting to burst through and gorge on juicy adolescent reveries.
No one except for me.
When I worked as a substitute teacher’s aide at Bethlem, I came to appreciate too late the beauty of youth that tarnishes with age. Each day, I understood more and more what had been taken from me and what was continuously slipping away. The kids would understand it in due time. As soon as growth stops, decay takes over. Eventually, the whole world would succumb: the walls would crumble and everything would be inundated with doubt, cynicism and worms.
I remember sitting in class with a student on a Monday afternoon. Though his social skills needed a lot of work and some of his behaviors made me cringe, he still had something I didn’t. The teacher wrote math problems on the dry erase board. To me, they looked like random squiggles. I’ll never figure out how I passed the Regents exams when I was in high school. This kid I was supposed to be assisting, who peeled dead skin from his lips in the middle of class, was living far better than I was. He was free in ways he wouldn’t realize it until it was too late and he began to decompose.
He raised his hand and asked to go to the bathroom. I escorted him and waited outside the door. I breathed in the dusty air of the hallways. The tang of fruit-scented shampoo and body spray took me back to my most cherished nightmares.
At that time, I was a recent graduate of St. Vincent’s English program. Every night, I would dream about signing up for a high school class just for the hell of it. Despite the work ethic I had cultivated in college, I would end up failing the class. How and why my dream self decided to enroll in a high school class as a mid twenty-something, I’ll never figure out.
My student exited the bathroom and I walked him back to class.
The teacher managed to squeeze in two-and-a-half more problems before the bell rang. The halls became alive again with teenage laughter and drama.
◙ ◙ ◙
A thousand more worms spawn from the basketball hoop. They’re everywhere now. They’re appearing in other places besides Bethlem: St. Vincent College, Moon Island, Beginnings Preschool, Endings Retirement Home, Gramma’s house, the patch of grass at summer camp where I became aware of death for the first time and even the snow-covered porch where I found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real.
If I were to define my current state, I would say I am a ghost that has retained its self-awareness. I have yet to encounter another like me. Don’t ask me how I got this way. All I know is that this whole thing started 2,430 years ago. It was the last day of school at Bethlem. I had gotten into a verbal altercation with my father who had been a teacher there for thirty years. I ran out of the building and into the woods where I tripped and hit my head on a rock. While I was unconscious, I had a vision of a clock hand spinning and pointing at reversible geese, potpourri qubits and other quantum anomalies. When the hand stopped, it landed on a number that didn’t exist. The number unfolded like a paper crane and became a calendar page marked ‘2222.’ I figured that must’ve been the year I was being sent to.
When I regained consciousness, I was in the same woods, except everything was gray and dusty and the trees were made of cardboard. The air was crackling with radiation and worms were everywhere. I tried to cut one in half, but all that did was split it into two separate worms. After hacking at it for hours, creating a thousand tiny worms, I concluded that they were harmless.
Over the course of a millennium, I figured out how to reach into their heads and extract their ‘thoughts.’ Not only did I learn where they came from, how they ate, survived and reproduced, but I discovered that I was immune to having my memories eaten. It must be, that for a worm, trying to eat the memories of a sentient ghost is like a biting a titanium-plated apple.
► Next installment: March 16th | Part 2