Withering Away

by Eric Farrell

Desmond Quinn withers away. Bottle in one hand, spliff the other, a neural transmitter crowning his vacuous head.

All of him will soon be gone. At the current rate the transmitter is scraping his memories, he figures he’ll stay lucid for another week or so.

It starts with a bottle of Heaven Hill, for the fun of it.

Two fingers, a splash of cool water.

Split the cig, spread the tobacco, grind the herb, sprinkle, roll.

Desmond stares at the screen in front of him. Shitass desktop computer, three decades old. Practically all he’s got in the way of physical possessions.

The marketplace comes up. He takes a sip of his bourbon, wincing. Runs a lighter under the tip of his special cig, and takes a drag.

“What do you want today,” he says out loud in his 80-square foot bachelor pad. A little hovel of cheap laminate and drywall.

He’s addressing the folks shopping around on the marketplace. Not that they can actually hear him. They’re rich folk. The kind unseen in public. They live in little bubbles, echo chambers so carefully crafted and curated as to leave no want unbegotten. Folks that make their lives open source. Folks like @Gandolfo.

Antonino Gandolfo lays back, his projector casting a wide view of the marketplace on a blank wall in his austere grotto. The pulsing rush of water cradles him, engulfs him, sooths him.

“Baby, won’t you go ahead and sort by most-viewed. Oh, let’s say in the last 24 hours.”

The AI shuffles the thumbnail photos projected above.

“Sort by Joy,” Gandolfo says, as the memories jump around on the screen.

“Playback the memory titled ‘birth of my best friend’s baby.’ The one near the bottom corner.”

A compilation video begins to play. Mr. Quinn’s POV shows him at one Jared’s baby shower. Shows the first time looking down at the little pudge, the first cradle in uncle Desmond’s hands. The first scrunched face of agony in being held, and the harmless laughter in the background.

The video speeds through the images, switching to the baby girl’s baptism party. Gandolfo sips on the sweet tropical drink his bartender has prepared for him, smiling at the memory. The streamers taped up on the EZ-up tent. The cracked shotgun-style driveway leading back to the garage, the dilapidated door drawn up. The bruised coolers sweating in the midday sun. Dollar General tablecloths, red party cups dotting every surface.

Every memory concerning Jared’s daughter is played back in a flashing preview. The tangibles of the broad memory can’t succinctly be demonstrated in the preliminary marketplace showing.

But Gandolfo is an experienced memory procurer. And he knows this particular fella, this Desmond Quinn. He’s bought a few of his NFT’s before. Every one of his memories have come to life so vividly and carnally. It’s a good bet this collection regarding his friend Jared’s daughter would, too.

Plus it’s another piece of the greater mosaic Gandolfo seeks to build for himself. He needs the satisfaction he figures he could glean from being an uncle.

“Baby, send it.”

“Okay,” a voice says, “the current bidding price for this memory is…”

“It doesn’t matter,” Gandolfo chuckles, money no obstacle whatsoever. “I’ll take the memories.”

By the time Desmond’s sorted himself out, the memories been scraped free from him, and he’s left all splayed out like a sack of shit in his decrepit recliner. He looks down. No drink. Nothing but a roach left, the ashes disappearing into his seat cushion. He shrugs the neural transmitter off, casting it aside.

“How’s your job?” the kind clerk asks him at the bodega down the street. It’s as far as he’s able to make it out these days. His muscles have lost all tone, his conscious all definition. The corner shop’s good for liquor, good for Swishers.

“How’s your life?” the nice old man on the other side of the counter asks.

“How’s your family?”

“I don’t know,” Desmond mumbles. In reality, he just can’t remember.

Two fingers. Same glass. Add another ring of caramelized scum near the rim of his death goblet. Split, spread, sprinkle, spliff, ignite, inhale.

When he has the energy, he can sell as many as five memories a day. The liberating feeling afterward has ceased being a high for him, but at least he’s got a little less in his skull to toss about.

His shitass desktop computer asks him what he wants to do. The marketplace is awaiting, but he’s got nothing actively up for sale. He finds his headset on the flatpack budget coffee table positioned beside his chair, and affixes the nodes to the tiny two-pronged outlets recessed behind his ears.

He raps on his keyboard, the ancient device incapable of voice command. A quick glance at the marketplace shows a spike in sales categorized under “Trauma.”

“I think I have something for you vampires,” Desmond Quinn says, hitting record. He’s been saving a lot of the heavy stuff for last.

It always takes a few days for the brain to parse out the arrival of new memories. The greater context falters, but eventually Gandolfo’s consciousness is able to stitch the new content into his mosaic.

His acute ability to identify the most brilliant and authentic memories has led to flawless conviction in his life.

Gandolfo sips the whipped coconut cream off the top of his cocktail, and studies the bright maraschino cherry imbedded within. A rogue thought intrudes, something about switching from tropical drinks to straight bourbon, but he can’t be bothered right now.

He’s alone in the grotto. Somewhere, beyond the coppice of cherry blossom bonsai, past the stretching lawn of feather grass, in the yawning corridors of his lonely chateau, he could find an actual human being. All those on payroll tending to him, to his pomp, to his guilt, to his monstrosities. They tend to him, but they’re not here for him.

They’ll never console him, never share a beer at a sticky bar with him, never hug him.

“Baby,” he calls out. “Search by seller. The name is… Desmond. Desmond Quinn.”

He sees there’s a freshly uploaded memory. It’s still held in escrow, so it’s with the man on the other end. Categorized trauma, always a risk, but Gandolfo’s been a vampire his entire life. He’s sucked joy, sapped love, satiated seven sins. A little trauma to fiend off of so his heart doesn’t feel so empty won’t hurt anyone. Most sellers on the marketplace are quick to sell these types of memories anyway. Who wouldn’t want to offload trauma?

“Would you like to preview the memory?” the voice asks.

“No,” Antonino Gandolfo says. “I want it. Whatever it is.”

Once the transfer is complete, he remembers his first heartbreak, the time Brenda Salamanca told him it was over on the bluffs overlooking the port. Tears in his face, blurring his vision. He remembers his heart pounding in his chest, and the cold tingle of goosebumps that raised on his skin on the walk back home. The tactile pang of trauma he’s co-opted stings his heart. The AI closes the marketplace, and he sits back in the warm water, wondering if this latest memory has filled the void within him.

Desmond Quinn has disappeared. Two fingers to numb the pain, one more smoke to obfuscate the last of his days away. It’s been a week.

The walls shrink around him. When you’ve removed yourself from society and wholesaled your memories, the world forgets you.

“How’s your job?” the clerk asks, smiling. A little hunched over immigrant behind two inches of bulletproof glass, his suspenders digging into his fading polo.

“How’s your life?”

The last of Desmond’s lot has been sold.

“How’s your family?”

Gandolfo bought it all. Even the cruft of banal daily life. The old timer staring across from him is real. He can smell the old disinfectant used to wipe down the counters, and count the wrinkles in the man’s face.

“How’s your life?” the clerk repeats.

“I don’t know,” Gandolfo says, his voice echoing. When he looks around his grotto, there’s still nobody there.

Eric Farrell is a beer vendor by day, and speculative fiction author by night. His writing credits stem from a career in journalism, where he reported for a host of college, local, and metro newspapers in the Los Angeles area. He has recent fiction in Haven Spec, Unnerving Online, and the Simultaneous Times podcast.


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