By Tim Boiteau | July, 2020
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Your phone dings.
"You have a new memory," it says. "2016 hiking trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains with Kate."
The phone screen darkens, but it takes you a few moments to shift your attention back into the neuroimaging lab, to the computer monitor, to the cursor blinking in the midst of a jumble of code.
You backtrack over the last few minutes of thought, searching for that groove you'd been chugging along in-- the troubleshooting groove. After some mental rejiggering, you're there, and fifteen minutes later, you've solved the issue with the script and have the analysis running.
Stand and stretch. Got five hours before the analysis has finished, before you can look at the fMRI results-- around one in the morning. Should work on a paper in the meantime.
You pad down to the breakroom for coffee. There, after pouring a cup, you catch yourself tearing open a packet of sugar. Stare at it for a few seconds before grasping what's just occurred.
Toss the pack into the trash and sip your coffee bitter.
Amanda, the newly minted PhD from Dr. Chichikov's group-- short blonde hair, 50s retro glasses-- stops by and chats. She hints at getting a late dinner, but waits for you to suggest dining together. When you don't, the conversation stagnates, sinks into awkwardness, and she leaves you tasting an admixture of regret and guilt.
Maybe next time. Still a month before she leaves for her post-doc.
An hour of writing later, you don a sweater and walk out alone to the bar street, at this time of night crawling with drunken students, energized by a melange of cheap beer, fried food, and pop/rap/rock clashing together from warring establishments in tantalizing polyrhythms.
Snag a kung pao tofu burrito from one of the trucks and gobble it down back at your desk, staring at the paragraph of the paper you've been tweaking.
Your phone dings again.
You have a new memory-- 2016 hiking trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains with Kate.
Unlock your phone with the intention of hunting down and shutting off this tormenting app-- stuck repeating the same memory-- but your finger hesitates when the photo album opens.
There she is striking a sarcastic-sexy pose at a roadside panorama that overlooks rolling mountains. Long hair pulled back in a ponytail, oversized sunglasses, gray leggings. Can see the cold on her breath.
Scroll to the next picture. Kate took that one. Overhead view of your yellow hiking shoe next to her purple one. Smell the fragrance of decaying leaves.
"Limoncello and eggplant-- our shoes look delicious!" Her voice sounds as clear in your mind as it did a year ago.
Scroll to the next picture. The iridescent tail of the peacock that had haunted your campsite, trumpeting throughout the night.
Scroll on through selfies, your hiking backside, a granola bar. On and on. Soon forget your purpose of turning off the new memory alerts.
The photos abruptly shift into forest details, the colors vibrant-- lichen-yellowed stone, powdery mushroom cap, faded trail marker on scratchy bark-- images you don't recall having taken. More of Kate's work, stored in the family cloud you two had opened together. Like the shoe and peacock pictures, her life was weird close-ups.
For a year you'd avoided opening this album. Even when her parents had asked you for contributions to the slideshow, you'd lied that the police had confiscated your phone and with it all your pictures of her. You remember everything about that trip, the two of you together every second. Can't think when she would have taken them.
Unless it was before the sunrise--
"Heath?" Amanda is standing at the entrance to your cubicle. In the darkness behind her, somnolent computers fidget. "You feeling okay?"
"Yeah." You put down your phone, try to engage with her, but find yourself distracted.
She eyes the trash scattered over your messy desk. "You didn't get a burrito from that Mexicasian food truck, did you?"
"Let me make you some ginger tea."
"I'm okay. Really. Just looking through some old photos."
"Oh." A pregnant pause. "Well, next time you're eating somewhere I approve of. Deepa suspects she got food poisoning eating one of those burritos."
"I'm calling it a night. What are you working on?"
You glance at the computer screen. "Waiting on an analysis. One of those transactional memory experiments."
"Right. Let others shoulder the burden of remembering."
"Exactly. Hour and a half"-- fingers crossed-- "and I'll know if I've got something publishable. How about I walk you to your car?"
Amanda's quiet during the walk to the parking garage, gazing down at the ground. You try to think of some research topic to discuss, an interesting experiment you'd read about, but can't seem to descend from the mountains. When you reach her Subaru, she looks up and says, "If you ever want to talk about her, I'm here, Heath."
"It's not-- "
"Time for a sylvan recharge. Get away from those brain scans of yours."
"Thanks, Amanda. That's sweet of you. Night."
On your way back from the parking garage, as you navigate by rote through the darkened hallways of the psychology department, your phone dings again.
Ignore it this time.
"Let's get up early. Hike back up here to watch the sunrise."
Focus on your work, Heath. Check your results. Tidy up that paper. Go home, a little X-Box, sleep. Don't think about Kate.
When the analysis finishes, you explore the images. They look pop-open-the-champagne good-- burning brains, fires in all the right places. You're so lost in the results, a few hours steal by, then a rash of yawns reminds you of baser needs than publishing articles.
Shut everything down, sweep the trash off your desk, slip your notebooks into your backpack, check keys, phone--
There's the new memory alert, pictures you'd always assumed she would have taken. Probably what the police had been looking for.
A selfie, her face bathed in rose light-- strange, granulated-- nose piercing sparkling, blue eyes reflecting the sun, the silhouette of another hiker in the background. Then a shot overlooking the steep drop into the valley beneath the Eagle's Wing, down into a shore of craggy rocks among waves of October hickory-- where they found her scuffed eggplant shoes and nothing more.
You slide behind the wheel of your hatchback in the parking garage beneath the glow of the sodium vapor lights. Everything is frozen in amber.
The phone dings.
A new memory.
Hiking trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"What?" you whisper, brow furrowed.
The first photo is split into two tilted halves, gray and black, like a moonscape-- timestamped 4:45 AM, two and a half hours from now.
Must be some cruel joke someone's playing on you.
You go online and remove Kate's device from the cloud.
But as you toss the phone onto the passenger seat-- Ding!-- the screen lights up again.
You stare at it for a moment, then cautiously pick it back up. Another photo. You start to turn it off, but before the Apple icon obliterates everything, you can't help seeing that the photographer is gazing up the cliff towards an overhang-- the Eagle's Wing-- framed by that curious, digitized light from earlier photographs.
Halfway back to your apartment in the Charlotte suburbs, you swerve off the road and screech to a halt in a gas station parking lot. Hands shaking, you look over at the phone in the passenger seat-- illuminated with a new memory so determined to get through it turned the phone back on.
It's just occurred to you what is so special about a time interval of two and a half hours-- it's the driving time from here to the mountains.
What if it's not a joke?
What if Kate's still ...?
It goes against all reason, but it is possible.
What if she survived the fall, had been abducted, chained up in some madman's cellar for the past year, and just recently escaped? Or what if she's been wandering all this time, wounded, amnestic?
She could still be alive.
You pick up the phone.
Study the new image, also of the digitized fire flaring out of the Eagle's Wing, but from another position. Two hours and ten minutes from now. The time gap has collapsed somewhat.
You glance at the fuel gauge. Two hundred fifty miles to empty. More than enough.
Slam the gear stick into drive and floor it, angling towards the interstate.
You're jacked up, clenching the steering wheel.
The phone keeps dinging.
Try to focus on the dark roads, the lines blurring past. Still, the phone beckons. The photographer must have reached the treeline. You can make out skeletal branches across a starry sky, splotches of granulated firelight-- (Maybe it's an image rendering issue.)-- but that's all.
An hour into the drive, you try an experiment-- texting Kate-- but the send fails.
Soon the road sweeps up into an incline. Your hatchback groans with the effort.
Finally it levels out, snaking along the wooded slope.
Slow down, eyes glued to the sinuous white edge.
Around five o'clock you pull into the empty parking lot of the trailhead. In the darkness, you see the silver, starlit hickory and oak forest ridge rising up towards the Eagle's Wing, a distant ink blot standing out against a cloud of particulate fire-- the curious light you'd caught snatches of in the photos. A burning brain projected on the heavens.
Your breath smokes in the frigid air. The wind rustles the dry leaves, almost drowning out the chirping of crickets. Eyeing the gargantuan anomaly, you slip on a jacket and walk around to the rear, where you keep a pack ready for spontaneous trips into the woods-- stove; sleeping bag; tent; flashlight; water; instant coffee, the sweet Starbucks packs for Kate.
You fish out the flashlight, then shut the liftgate-- lightly, afraid to disturb the balance of whatever strange phenomenon is reeling you in. You trot over to the trailhead, illuminate the sign.
Six and a half miles to the Eagle's Wing, uphill, rough and steep towards the end. Even with the darkness slowing you down, you should be able to make it before the sunrise.
The phone dings.
You check the new memory-- the time gap has collapsed even more, just an hour and a half now. A gray, predawn light brightens the images. A wooded path winding up a cliff face into the thick of the poorly rendered fire cloud. You notice there's no signal out here and recollect it had been the same last year.
No way to upload photos.
You set off at a jog, flashlight sweeping over the upcoming ground, seeking out impish stones and roots, but after a few minutes of stumbling, you slow down, panting. Beyond the canopy of stripped branches, the fire cloud sprawls out, a fractured, stained glass ceiling waiting to shatter.
Despite the cold, sweat begins to bead your forehead.
Need to be calm, cool-headed.
You can pinpoint the moment when the cloud descends, when the dullness of the early light undergoes a magical transformation. Your phone, at zero percent battery power, turns on and recharges, full bars, its date confused, the numbers shifting like holograms.
Your surroundings start to glow, to come alive. The sounds become blurred and echoing. The air smells of ozone and electricity.
You're running now, slipping over the fiery terrain. Animal abstractions skitter out of your way, leaving behind evanescent contrails. Crows caw in streams of obsidian.
You begin to recognize markers from the photos, even through the artificial rendering: a lichen-yellowed stone, faded trail marker, the fork where the photographer joined your path from below.
The trees have thinned out. Bald mountains wave out in all directions.
Then your footsteps falter.
Ahead looms the end of the trail, the summit of the Eagle's Wing.
The sun has peaked over the mountains, casting everything in citrine heat maps.
A figure stands at the edge, facing away from you, out towards the sunrise. With the angle of light, it would be difficult to make out the figure-- except that Kate's silhouette is branded into your mind.
You have a new memory. A picture of the sunrise. The time is now.
"I'm here," you whisper, breathless, approaching. "I came." Your voice sounds stretched out, echoing in a feedback loop.
The head turns slightly, streaking like one of those forest animals. You might have been able to discern a twist of a smile but for the sun, but for the quality of the image.
You take a step closer, and your own body seems to streak, to be in multiple places at once. You can't decide if it's the world that is poorly rendered or if it's you.
"Kate, I-I've missed you." The words add into the feedback loop in a confused jumble. Another step.
"I've kept a fire burning for you." The words enter the looping stream of dialogue, and by some trick of synchronization, you hear, "I'm ... a ... fire."
You're close, close enough to touch her, to lean in, to stroke her neck. If she had fallen or been kidnapped or been wandering through the wilderness or been yanked out of the grave, she possesses the same freshness she did last year. Maybe she fell into the fire cloud, has been falling for a year through some limbo, fed by the magical fire, only to be spit out onto the rocks. Maybe, in her mind, she only fell hours ago.
"I'm sorry. I should have come with you-- " You want to say more, but the breath catches in your throat.
You reach around from behind and clasp her hand. The engagement ring bites into your palm.
She leans back into you, nuzzling up into your face.
She raises her right hand, holding the cell phone, its screen cracked, pink case caked in soil. Taps selfie mode. For a moment you only see your pixelated self, splintered, fire-tinted, then the hand adjusts-- and there she is.