Copyright Neils Christensen

Small Snatches of Life from Before

By Steve Toase

Hannah sat staring at the thirty smooth, haematite pebbles balanced on the teacher’s desk. Her mouth felt clammy and tasted of peppermint from the RNA spray.

Miss Stenson pushed her chair back and walked over to the window, the beads of the pull-cord sliding through her gloved fingers as she pulled the blinds shut. Shadows moved across the room like ravens crowding roadkill.

“So here we are again class CT11. Memorial Day,” she said, walking across to the classroom door and turning the key. “Doesn’t a week just fly by?”

Hannah half listened, too busy staring intently at the small, spherical grave stones. They were supposed to be identical. That way you experienced a different memory every week. Unless you were clever and observant and attentive. Hannah was all these things.

Miss Stenson was back behind her desk, hands folded, bulging eyes scanning her students.

If she concentrated, Hannah could still feel traces of the memory from the previous week — the sun on her bare shoulders and the brush of confetti on her face. Her bridegroom’s suited arm against the bare skin of hers and his kiss tasting slightly of whiskey. The cheers of the family surrounding them as they walked through the park to the long white car.

She let herself drift back into the room as Miss Stenson went through the weekly introduction, explaining how as they were now 17 it was their responsibility to keep alive the memories of those who didn’t survive. How it was important that the memories were selected at random so the pain of remembrance was shared. But there was no pain for Hannah, because she was clever and attentive and observant.

“So class,” Miss Stenson said, clapping her hands together. “We will proceed as we do every week, with the highest achieving student from the previous week choosing the first grave stone.”

Hannah could almost taste the champagne on her tongue, and the light-headedness that built with every mouthful. After the first few times with the memory she researched what the liquid was, with the bubbles and tang of alcohol.

Miss Stenson extended her hand. Hannah pushed her chair back, ignoring the groans from her classmates. Their resentment and gossip in the rec hall was nothing. This was too important to her for their petty opinions to matter.

Walking between the desks was her only opportunity to examine the stones. After each memorial day lesson they were meant to be cleaned, any distinguishing marks removed. Miss Stenson was never as thorough as the guidelines told her to be. Hannah was observant.

Hannah ran her tongue over her lips, the greasy smear of lipstick, two shades lighter than the grave stones, bitter after the peppermint foam. Second in, third row back. She could see the ghost of her mouth on the surface from the previous week. Smiling at her teacher, Hannah reached out and picked up the grave stone, the metallic surface cold to the touch.

She sat back at her desk, turning the sphere over in her hands until the rest of the class had all made their selections.

“You all know the procedure. I will play the tune of memoriam,” Miss Stenson said, reaching under her desk for the old metallic tape player. “Then you will all place your selected stones in your mouths.”

Each of them held their individual memory, solidified from the life of Caroline Tracer. Some were good, some bad. All significant. Small snatches of life from before.

Frozen notes of a piano echoed out of hidden speakers, the tune scratchy and discordant. The music came to an end, and as one, all the pupils placed the pebbles in their mouths, the RNA foam releasing the information from the coded DNA on the surface. Hannah smiled. Already she could almost smell the blossoms falling like snow and getting caught in her veil. She knew what to expect. Hannah was clever and attentive and observant.

As the memory unraveled, Hannah knew something was wrong. The body she was in was scaled and scarred, the stomach bloated and empty. In the corner of the room, something like a pile of clothes moaned. She was glad the person who’s memory had Hannah caged didn’t want to look any closer. Outside the window, black gales streaked the glass. Bending down, she picked up a plastic bag, cheap with some kind of logo on the side, stuffed to splitting with cans of food.

The pile of clothes in the corner choked and shifted. Hannah tried to spit out the grave stone, guessing what lay outside the door, but the trismus inducer embedded in the mineral locked her jaw tight.

In the corridor her host walked on bodies unrecognisable under the streaks of dust. Each footstep caught on moist, ragged clothes. Hannah tried to block out the sound of crunching, but these weren’t her ears to block. The nausea though? That she could lay claim to. Pausing at the end of the corridor she turned and stared at the apartment door one last time, her host peering at the address to make sure she never forgot. 42 Ascendance Towers. Tears streaked down her cheeks and her host stepped out into the street.

The grave stone fell from Hannah’s mouth to the desk and the memory faded. She sat staring at the pebble as one by one her classmates filed past her returning their grave stones to the front of the room. Miss Stenson reached over, smiling to herself and took the stone back, placing it in the tray, ready to go back in the cupboard until the next memorial day. She left the classroom, turning off the lights as she went, leaving Hannah sitting in darkness.

~~~~~

Hannah soon found the building, the streaked, hollow concrete still standing as a reminder. All the doors had rotted long ago. She walked down the corridor counting the flats until she stood outside number 42. Running her nail down the plastic seal, Hannah stepped inside the single room. The pile of clothes was gone, but glass and crockery broke underfoot. Just being in the room made her feel sick, the memory starting to play again. As much hers now as her host’s. She crouched, holding her stomach tight.

In the corner something pulsed, a reflections cube still catching images from the linked citizen’s life. Hannah walked across, covering the screen with her hand and holding the object in the air, ready to smash it against the damp walls. Then paused. One by one she moved her fingers and gazed at the screen. The first captures showed a young girl playing on the lawn outside the tower block. The next few cycled through different scenes from an idyllic childhood in the small flat, until the girl turned nine and the black dust hit. From then on the photos were all of refugee stations and hospital beds. Hannah recognised Miss Stenson by her gloved hands and bulging eyes, standing outside her teaching college. She closed her eyes and in the memory that wasn’t hers the pile of clothes twitched one last time.

~~~~~

~~~~~

Steve lives in North Yorkshire, England and occasionally Munich, Germany. His stories tend towards the unsettling and unreal, dealing with revenge, loss, faery, chess playing bears and ancient gods. In his writing Steve explores the places where other worlds seep into ours.

His work has appeared in publications such as Cabinet de Fees’ Scheherezade’s Bequest, Pantheon Magazine, Innsmouth Magazine, Jabberwocky Magazine, Sein und Werden, Cafe Irreal, streetcake magazine, Weaponizer and nthPosition. His story Call Out has recently been selected for the Best Horror Of The Year Anthology 6.

To read more of Steve’s work please visit www.stevetoase.co.uk www.facebook.com/stevetoase1

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