The Remembrance Engine
The Remembrance Engine
The Remembrance Engine
Black Hole Failed
The Remembrance Engine
by Elad Haber
The Remembrance Engine
by Elad Haber
There was a string of endings that year that began my decline into madness. First, my father died and, like God flicking a top, my world spun into chaos.
Drugs help soften the blow. After the government began decriminalizing drugs, enterprising dealers and innovative junkies experimented with volatile chemical cocktails. They likened themselves to the early explorers of the American continent: They searched for new horizons, new places to go, and new ways to imbue.
I got my chems from underground drug dens set up below the subway. These were like competing stores in a mall. Once down in the depths, there were flashy signs and pretty girls with tight skirts. They called out for my attention by jumping in front of me, bust-first, but I dodged them and found my favorite spot.
Inside, billowing fabric hid the walls and masked the sewer stench. Long couches arranged in star shapes had a few lounging ladies, smoking. Occasionally a man in a suit would be passed out. Go further into the den and you’ll find its master, hidden in shadow. This place was ruled by a large black man in jeans and a vest that showed his muscles. His chair was custom-made, adorned with his namesakes twisted and curled into each other to form the legs and the arms. He went by the name Snake.
“You again.” His voice had a deep rumble. As he spoke, he spat out of the side of his mouth. A long-legged girl draped on his throne shifted to avoid the projectile. “Third time this week.”
Snake smiled, but his words were also caked in judgment. In the shadows, I could make out his security. Huge guys with crew cuts and silhouette of rifles hidden in their trench coats.
I swallowed my prideful protest and nodded, “Yes, sir. It’s been a tough month.” My father had been in the ground for only a few weeks at this point. I kept his bible, always with him in those few last months, perched on my desk at home, a constant reminder.
Snake moved one of his muscled hands to squeeze the ass of the long-legged girl by his side. She wore heavy makeup like a geisha. “Angel here will hook you up. Give the man a discount. He’s our new best customer.”
I followed the girl’s ass to one of the bed-like couches in the far corner of the room. Each of the beds were connected via a series of wires and pumps to a repository at the heart of the star. The repository was a metal cylinder about the size of a beer keg. Inside was a mixture of chemicals that were unique to Snake and this establishment. I liked to imagine that he had a team of chemists working in a clean room next door with white doctor smocks and clipboards and computers.
Angel laid me down on the bed and stretched out my arms and legs. Like a flirtatious nurse, she ran her finger up my arm till she found a suitable vein. She punctured it with a needle she kept in her fingernail and inserted the chem tube into my body.
The high was immediate. It’s important not to fall asleep; otherwise you won’t get your money’s worth. It’s equally important to stay alert, to focus on something physical in the world. I tried to find Angel in the sudden haze around me, but she was already gone. There was a candle nearby. It may have been tiny, a tea light, but from my sudden extreme senses, it looked massive, like a building on fire. I stared at the flickering colors and imagined myself inside that flame. I wasn’t burning or dying, just living like that, constantly surrounded by fire. I could cook hamburgers with my eyes, but if I tried to shake someone’s hand, I would burn them.
My mind rattled around like this for a long time. I didn’t think about my father. Time was impossible to parse, but I could feel when the high was subsiding. Most people hate this part, they much prefer the beginning when everything is weird and twisted and you feel so light inside, if you jumped into the air, you would float into space. But me, I liked the come down. I could feel my real self waking up while most of myself was somewhere nebulous. That was the sweet spot. One foot in, one foot out.
* * *
I met a girl. Not one of Snake's painted ladies, but another customer. We lay down at almost the same time in two adjacent beds. She smiled at me. She had strands of purple and pink in her black hair, thick black eyeliner, and a deep red hue on her lips.
She whispered to me, "Hey, you believe in God?"
I started to answer.
"Don't answer that!” she snapped. “It was a trick question. If anyone asks you that, you say, ‘None of your fucking business!' or-" here she took on a druggie intonation and massaged her veins, "'I only believe in this stuff.'"
“Okay,” I said. She was funny. I liked that.
She said her name was Dess, as in You-Know-Who-Dess.
The rest of the night was a blur. In the morning, I woke in an unfamiliar bed with a snoring girl by my side. She was naked and facedown and on her back was a stylized version of Noah’s Ark. Animals with thin smiles on their faces running out into the world, free of the confines of the ark. There were monkeys and elephants and hippos, all of them colorful and beautiful. I traced the lines of a Zebra with my finger.
Dess stirred and woke. She smiled at me.
“I don’t remember much,“ I confessed. “What happened? Did we, uh, have sex?”
“Ouch,” she said with a grin. She got up, revealing more tattoos down her legs. She slapped her ass and set the long legs of a giraffe dancing. “I think you’d remember.”
I’m not so sure.
* * *
I lost my job (because business hours are for squares) and my high-rise apartment.
I found a tiny apartment in a building full of older single guys, mostly divorcees. The rent wasn’t much at all because it was the ugliest building in the city. I wrangled a custodial job at the Port Authority. They drug test, but you could buy clean piss across the street in an alley behind the deli.
It wasn’t so bad. You’re invisible in gray overalls behind a trash can on wheels. Nobody bothers you, not even supervisors. I liked it. Sometimes I’d find crumpled dollars on the floor. Everything went into my pocket and then, in the evenings, into my arm.
I was a fixture at Snake’s. I even had my own couch, special just for me. Snake got out of his throne to show it to me. He said, “This,” in that bass vibrato that seemed to shake the room, “is all you, my man.” He clasped me on my shoulder in a gesture of friendship and comradery. Later, one of his girls gave me a handjob at the tail end of a high.
The chemicals that filled my body were different than any drug I experienced in my youth. They bonded with my white and red blood cells to create a new colored blood. Maybe green? I felt like if I sliced my wrist, a rainbow would emerge. And it wouldn’t hurt. My body would heal itself because nothing could hurt me.
I wasn’t the only one experiencing a change.
The Chem Craze, as coined by the evening news, spread like wildfire throughout the city. Violent clashes between dealers made the headlines daily. The rich set up private dens in converted penthouses. Restaurants became fronts, food in the front, chems in the back. I heard you could rent a limo with a working delivery system inside. They would drive you around the city while you flew through imaginary skies.
At the lower end of the spectrum, I saw the remnants of poor people drudge through the Port Authority to and from various seedy joints with chem bars in walk-in freezers and locked bathrooms. There seemed to be fewer people in the streets. The subways were deserted even in the middle of the day. Emptying trashcans across the massive complex, I saw people slumped over on benches and asleep on the floor. These weren’t your average vagrants and bums, but young people in designer clothes and guys in suits using their briefcases as pillows.
Access to the underground was part of my new job. I had keys to those hidden access paths at the end of subway platforms and maps of the various underground layers beneath the city. I found a better way to Snake’s place. No longer did I have to go through the chem mall with the pushers screaming for my attention. I simply opened a series of doors, first through the active train tunnels, then through the abandoned older system, and finally to one of the sewer tunnels. From there it was just a ten minute jog through the darkness to Snake’s.
I used a flashlight to avoid any major hazards along the way. I felt the excitement of my night at Snake’s already coursing through my Vulcan-colored blood. I was almost running, but then I stopped suddenly, my senses alert at the sound of a footstep.
“Hey,” said a familiar voice.
The voice emerged from the darkness. I shone my flashlight towards it.
It was Dess. She wore a tight black jumpsuit. Her hair looked unwashed and there were smudges of darkness on her skin and a faint odor of the sewer on her. She may have lived down here, homeless or, like me, she spent way too much time in the chem dens.
“I thought I’d find you here,” she said. She sidled up close to me and cupped my ass. “Miss me?”
I couldn’t remember when I had seen her last. “Sure,” I said. “On your way to Snake’s?”
“Actually,” she said, “no. I’m heading somewhere else. Someplace new.”
“Different. Way different.”
I looked into her eyes. She had that smoky-eye look where the eyeliner was thick as a picture frame. Inside the black border, her eyes were white as the cleanest teeth.
“Can I come?” I asked.
* * *
The first thing I thought when I saw it: It’s so clean. Everything in this city is so dirty. Even when something isn’t caked with dust, it’s black from grease or red from rust. This thing was immaculate. Polished silver, windows as clear as can be, even the steel bolts shone a little in the light. It stretched back into the gloom, car after identical car. Like cleaning it was the hobby of a team of OCD janitors.
“It’s a train,” I said to Dess.
“Um, yeah. Duh.” She shook her head and walked towards it.
We were in an aboveground station, somewhere in the wilds. I could hear the lazy sounds of an active river, boat horns and seagulls and the gentle crashing of waves. The station looked like it had been abandoned for decades. The windows were broken and the steel beams above were exposed. On the ground was construction debris, as if this place had been used as a warehouse and then forgotten.
Off in the farthest corner was the restored train. Where there was once a number or a letter was just a blank circle. The first few cars, with the clear windows, looked deserted. The last few had their windows tinted.
“Come on,” she said, pulling at my arm. She helped me launch myself up a cinderblock step onto the train. Inside was as clean as the outside looked. The metal bars and chairs gleamed. The floor was almost reflective.
“This way,” she said, leading me on.
We walked through the train, sliding open the doors between cars. I expected to hear the whoosh of movement every time we stepped between the cars, but there was only the silence of an ancient space. Finally, we reached a car with one of the tinted windows.
The smell of incense hit me first. Multiple varieties, stinking like a dorm room. There were a lot of people crowded into the train car, but they made almost no noise. No one talked above a whisper. Many looked to be sleeping. Dess tip-toed over them, holding onto the beams for support. I followed as best as I could, but I stepped on some fingers and almost hit a girl with my knee. When I tried to say sorry, it was as if the whole carload of people startled and quickly tried to drown me out with "Shhh!"s.
"Sorry," I said again, quieter this time.
I didn't see any chem cylinders or anyone looking like they were truly tripping. It just looked like a bunch of hippie kids on a train. I got nervous that there weren’t any chems at the end of this journey, and my excitement from the tunnel seemed far away.
We reached the end of the crowded car without any major injury. I was preparing some choice words to say to my guide when she disappeared into the next car. I followed.
The car looked like a snow-covered forest. There were potted plants on the benches and Astroturf on the floor. Everything was covered in that fake Christmas snow they sell in places like Florida. There was a teenager in the center of the car flicking tiny paper snowflakes into the air and some well-placed fans pushing them through the interior.
I found Dess sitting crosslegged on the floor near a huddle of bodies. They were moving slowly around each other. I couldn't tell if they were having sex or just playing a silent game of twister. I couldn't count the number of people, they were just a collection of arms and legs and hair.
Dess gestured with a nod for me to join her, which I did. I couldn’t look away from the bacchanalia happening a few feet away. Occasionally I would glimpse a male's body, but I found I could focus on the female parts and it made for a pretty good show.
Finally, a head appeared. A woman's face emerged from the backdrop of bodies. She had long white hair and youthful features. She saw Dess and her face brightened. Using some force, she separated herself from the clutch of bodies and stood in front of us, naked and hairless. Dess rose to her feet and so did I, towering a good foot above them.
"Welcome back, dearie," she said to Dess, her voice all sugary and sweet. I could almost taste it like rosewater in the air. "I see you've brought a new friend."
Dess smiled and nodded. "He was on his way to Snake's."
"Ahhh," she said as if that said everything about me. She extended a hand, palm up as if in offering. "My name is Eve," and then she winked at me, "although that's not my real name."
I clasped her hand in mine, not sure if I should shake it or kiss it. Instead I just held it tight for a few seconds. I said, "You can call me Adam."
"Perfect," said Eve as two more people emerged from the circle of bodies and produced a purple robe from somewhere on the floor. They draped the robe on top of Eve's body and tightened it without her help. Then they disappeared back into the menagerie.
I couldn't help myself any longer. "What exactly is going on around here?" I asked her.
Eve started back towards the front of the car. Dess and I followed. She had an expression of sincere joy on her face, as if she was looking at a miracle.
"We offer a different kind of experience than what you're used to, Adam," said Eve as she caught one of the tiny paper snowflakes in her hand and studied it. She put the paper snowflake to her lips, kissed it, and then let it loose into the fake windstream of the train car. "When did you start using chems?"
I said nothing.
"It's okay," Eve continued. "You have nothing to be ashamed of. Not here. We understand what makes people partake in chems. We've all been there." Here she gestured at the crowded car behind us. "You want to forget. Right?"
"And have you forgotten?"
I hesitated. "I don't understand."
"The thing you were trying to forget. Did it work? Have you forgotten it?"
I thought about my father. It had been months now that he was gone, but images of his face, his withered body in a hospital bed came to me quickly. His voice over the phone. His words, "I'm dying," repeated over and over again. The frantic last-minute flight arrangements. The phone call on the way to the airport. The guilt.
"No," I told Eve.
I sat down, a sudden weariness in my body. Eve sat next to me, her lithe arms draped on my shoulders. "Of course," she whispered. "You can never forget something that hurt you." Her breath was hot in my ear. "There is a better way."
"Would you show me?" I asked.
Eve pulled away and sat up straight. "Kiss me," she said.
Dess, sitting on the floor near us, leaped to her feet. "It's okay," she said. "Watch." She leaned into Eve and kissed her lips. It wasn't a long kiss. At the end of it, Dess licked her lips. Her eyes clouded and she almost lost her footing. The kid from the floor with the paper snowflakes was there in a flash to catch her and ease her onto the floor. He grinned at me.
"Your turn," said Eve.
I leaned in for a kiss. I thought, is this woman an angel? Is her blood mixed with chems? It was just the lipstick, I realized, as she used no tongue on our short kiss.
Immediately, I was caught in a memory. I was a child, bundled up, outside on a chilly morning. Trees were arranged in rows for as far as I could see. Sunlight-drenched red apples, dozens per tree, hung only a short grab away. There were step stools and ladders everywhere. I felt a comforting squeeze as my father lifted me to grab an apple. I laughed and so did he.
It was a sound I hadn’t heard in so long. It seemed to echo in that make-believe apple grove, a constant laughing loop.
When I snapped out of my high, I was in a pile of bodies in the first tinted car. I recalled other images: my father teaching me how to drive, watching movies on the couch, a football game in the freezing cold. But most of all, that laugh. I felt like if I could go back to that place, I would grab that laugh and hold onto it.
I’d never let go.
* * *
If my brain was a seesaw, it would be dizzy by now.
I became a regular at Eve’s, but I still visited Snake’s. I would remember during the week and then forget on the weekends. I was like an artist obsessing over a canvas, painting images and then scrubbing them out, or a writer reworking drafts endlessly until the words become meaningless.
At work, I could just barely push my garbage can around. I moved in the slow meandering gait of the elderly or the apathetic. I only perked up in the evenings, on my way to the chem lounges.
One night, after sneaking through my secret custodial passageways, I found myself in the sewers, not sure which direction to go. Snake’s was to the right and down another floor and Eve’s was to the left and up an incline to the surface. I couldn’t remember the day of the week or what I did yesterday. I lingered too long in the spot.
“Hey,” said a deep voice from behind me.
Snake emerged from the darkness with some of his people, not the painted ladies from his den, but big guys like him. Security. They surrounded me. Snake towered over me.
“Where are you going?” he asked me.
“Your place, of course,” I said. “I ... I seem to have forgot the way.”
“Right,” he said, distracted. He looked closely at my shoulder. He reached out in what seemed like a friendly gesture, but then slapped my shoulder hard. A white powder flew off my Port Authority uniform. It wasn’t dandruff, unfortunately.
“I know where you been, brother,” said Snake. Two of his guys grabbed my uniform and lifted me up like I was nothing. Snake spat at the floor and said, “That bitch been poaching my customers now for too long. Take me to her.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I pleaded. “I’m loyal to you.”
The guys dropped me. My knees hit the floor. Snake grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. “Bullshit. Now take me to her.” I felt a pressure on the back of my head and the click of a gun.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
I led them down through a series of tunnels to the inclined gangway and the abandoned station. I thought about leading them in the wrong directions, but I was too scared. I was a coward.
In the derelict station, Snake’s guys pulled out automatic rifles that had been hidden in their clothes. I stepped back into the shadows while they circled the stationary train.
Dess and I had coined a nickname for the train. We tried to come up with something majestic, like what you would name a castle or a spaceship. We settled on The Remembrance Engine because it sounded like a ride at a theme park.
Snake stood in front of the train like a boxer assessing his opponent. With only a nod of his head, his guys started firing rounds into the train. It sounded like a massive drill boring into the earth. The sound filled the old station and shook the construction equipment. When the drill subsided, I breathed a sigh of relief. But then the guys reloaded their rifles and started firing again.
I ducked behind some palettes and pressed my palms to my ears until it was over.
After a few minutes of silence, I found the courage to step out of hiding. Snake was staring at the train. He whispered to himself, “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” He then looked at me, winked, and led his guys away.
The train looked like Swiss cheese that had been roasted. Smoke poured out of the hundreds of holes. There was a crackling of fire from inside. I couldn’t hear any human sounds. I needed to see what I had done.
I used the cinderblock to hoist myself onto the train. It buckled a bit at my intrusion. The floor, once so immaculate, was littered with broken glass and splintered metal. I walked through the cars and braced myself before entering the first tinted car.
It was empty. I’d never seen it empty before. They must have gotten tipped off. I rushed through the car to Eve’s wonderland, hoping to see the same thing. But I was disappointed.
The fake snow was covered in blood. Wisps of paper snowflakes still flew around the room from the one working fan. There were bodies strewn on the floor in startled positions like roadkill. I avoided stepping on them. I found Dess face-down on the metal floor. I reached down to check for a pulse like I’d seen on TV, but I couldn’t find one. I shrunk back like she was made of fire.
I saw Eve in her purple robe on top of some of her people, like she had been trying to protect them. Her lips still sparkled, but her skin was pale and she was bleeding from her chest.
I sat down next to her and held her chin in my fingers. I reached in to kiss those heavily chem-coated lips. Normally, she would stop after a moment or two, but I kept the kiss going, the chems pouring into my mouth and flushing through my system like aggravated caffeine.
I pulled back, panting. The world shuddered as the train started moving. I could feel it dislodge from its resting place and it was suddenly flying through subway tunnels, picking up speed, then out into the surface. It rose above the tracks and flew into the air towards the sky.
And it never stopped.