Specific Nothings From a Treetop Café

brown trees on green grass field during daytime

by Patrick Hurley

He always had an otiose memory. For as long as he could remember, he couldn’t really remember.  He seemed only able to recall details that indicated nothing of significant value or occasion. He could remember the color of a piece of food stuck in a tooth, say, or the speck of brown in the iris of a delivery boy’s eye. He couldn’t remember names, never recall a face, only immeasurable and seemingly irrelevant details could switch on his hippocampus. He is currently sitting at the window of a cafe that sits atop a tall tree at the end of Main Street. The Treetop, as it is known to the locals, is a converted treehouse made entirely of glass. It is said to have originally been built as a military fort two centuries earlier. The exact details are not at all clear. It’s also rumored to have been built by an eccentric millionaire in the 1930s to impress a Hollywood starlet. Whatever its genesis, the Treetop is a magical place. From a distance it looks like a giant Christmas ornament. It dangles near the top of an oversized beech tree, a lit up glass bulb with tiny figures lurking about inside. You have to climb a ladder up the massive trunk, then traverse a series of staircases which are built into the protracted branches, until, at last, you reach the entrance which sits over three stories above the ground. The door to the Treetop is located at the base of the structure, and once inside, patrons are instantly wowed by the floor to ceiling windows that circle the massive main room providing a 360-degree view of the entire town.  The Treetop serves coffee and tea, but classy tea of the high British variety, complete with trays of finger sandwiches and petit fours all smoothly covered in shiny pastel frostings, pinks and greens and yellows like miniature square Easter eggs. They used to serve liquor, but a dozen or so drunken falls led the owners to change their business model, and The Treetop has since become a trendy hangout for teetotalers and writers and readers alike.

C.L. finds himself sitting at a corner table, firmly wedged between two windows, sipping a chamomile and honey. He’s been coming to the Treetop for as long as he can remember, and as far as he knows, he has always come alone. He’s been alone for as long as he can remember. Ever since the love of his life died. Carole, his childhood sweetheart and constant companion, had drowned in front of him when they were both eighteen. Ever since, a kind of inertia had settled upon him. He finds no joy in life, only comfort in what he assumes is his daily routine. As if by rote, he goes about his days with no deviance, and no hope of any future. Life continues around him, but he has been stuck in the deepest of despairs, in the sorriest of sorrows ever since Carole was lost to the sea.  He doesn’t know anyone, and so asks for nothing of them. He doesn’t work, he steals what he needs from affluent enough people not to notice. He squats wherever he can, and he cannot care about anyone or anything. Poor C.L. is all his mother would ever say about him until the day she died of a broken heart. Neither of his parents had seen him after Carole’s death. His father never spoke of him again, and to this day lives in a rocking chair in an old folk’s home where he is mostly ignored, fed only enough to keep him from starving to death. As for C.L., he hasn’t been interested in anything for so long, that the passing of years is no different to him than the blink of an eye. The owner of the Treetop has been taking pity on him and never charges him for his chamomile and honey, which is the only thing C.L. drinks.

Which brings me to his odd memory. When he was a child, his mother thought the odd details he could remember was the sign of a disorder. And their family doctor agreed. It must be some kind of head trauma, the doctor said, he must have been injured. His mother swore that he was never injured as a child, and she was precisely the kind of helicopter parent that would surely have noticed. Perhaps it happened in the womb, then, the doctor said, calling into question the very womanhood that C.L’s mother held as the only thing of value she possessed. She never recovered from the good doctor’s casual suggestion that her womb could have been inhospitable, even violent. When C.L. was ten years old, he started to exhibit signs of being antisocial, and again the doctor entered the picture. It could be a brain tumor, he said, and C.L.’s mother, at just the words fainted dead away. After dozens and dozens of tests, the doctor finally concluded that brain tumors can sometimes be impossible to locate. He wanted to open up C.L.’s brain and “explore,” and in her fitful fear, C.L.’s mother agreed. In a strange twist of fate, the doctor died of an aneurism the day of the operation, and it was only after hours and hours that C.L. finally got up and left the hospital when the nurses promptly forgot to tell him his doctor was dead.

C.L. was always the person you forgot was in the room. People looked past him all the time. After he left the hospital that day,  he never got another brain test again. His memory still proves to be bizarre. He tries to stick to routines, so as to minimize the need to recall specific details about things that he just can’t seem to remember. His chamomile and honey, for instance, is only his regular drink because it’s the first item on the menu, and he can’t remember anything past it. He also can’t remember if he likes tea or coffee or both or neither. He actually doesn’t like chamomile and honey. It’s like someone spat into a cup of potpourri and then boiled it. He is often commiserating with himself about the dreadful flavor between egregious sips.  And so, he remembers only what seems like random details. Carole’s death, on the other hand, and the romance they shared, he can remember every minute of. Every tiny nuanced detail seems to stick to his brain like rice to sushi, a fate worse than death, if only he could forget her. He saw it as a cosmic reckoning.  As if the experience of the loss that he was doomed to relive day after day was some kind of punishment from god or whatever god might be. For it was true that nearly every waking moment of his life he was lost in some thought of Carole. Why was his memory so perfect of her, and so faulty with everything else? He had memorized every part of her, every patch of skin, every strand of hair. He hadn’t tried to, it just happened. He often considered that given the chance, he could recreate her entirely. If he were an artist, say, a sculptor or painter, he could make her likeness in a kind of verisimilitude unseen in most representational art.  But alas, another burden of his was the he in fact had no talent whatsoever for anything.  He was the personification of tap water. Plain, flavorless, as common a thing as exists in the civilized world. He also often hopes that the doctor who never showed up that day was right, he has a brain tumor and so he’ll surely drop dead soon.

The tree branches, just outside the window creak as C.L. feels the gentle sway of The Treetop in the morning breeze. At least, he thinks it’s morning.  He pulls the unbuttoned cardigan he’s wearing closer to his chest to warm up, and then slips his hands into the pockets. His left hand immediately feels the sharp edge of a business card. That’s odd, he thinks, but of course he has no memory of anyone giving him a business card. He pulls out the card, and it’s a deep emerald green colored card with only one word written on it, LETHE in all caps. And because of his unusual inability to retain useful details, the only memory the card issues forth is the image of a man with a mustache. Not helpful, he thinks, for surely, there are many men with mustaches who have no attachment to this card whatsoever. It’s less than ideal evidence to pursue, not that he had any interest in pursuit of any kind. Oh well, just as well.  He puts the card on the table in front of him, face up, and he stares at the letters. He doesn’t know what the word Lethe means. He’s pretty certain it’s not a real word, but he doesn’t really have a good reason to believe this, he calls it a hunch. His hunches are almost always wrong, but that has never slowed him down from readily believing them. Like most humans, he was not gifted in the art of estimation. And, as previously stated, he has quite given up the idea that he will pursue the meaning of this strange card or its owner, who may or may not be a man with a mustache.

Just then, as if by some cosmic force, a man with a mustache is suddenly standing in front of him.  C.L. looks up and wants to be struck by the coincidence, but promptly forgets that he was in fact just thinking about a man with a mustache, and then, as if he conjured one, voila! Here one stands. But no, he just stares awkwardly because he’s already forgotten, and so the irony, or the coincidence, depending on your cosmic outlook, is entirely lost on him. Luckily, the man in the mustache speaks first.

“Mr. Dodson, I presume.” The man with the mustache removes his rather squarish hat from his rather roundish head and nods at C.L. who continues staring blankly back at him. The fact that the man knows his name does not startle C.L. for he has had many encounters with people who seem to know him, people whom he has either forgotten entirely, or just never bothered to remember in the first place.

“You’re a rather slippery fellow, aren’t you?” the man says playfully as he motions to the empty chair next to C.L. “Do you mind?”  The man holds the back of the chair waiting for C.L. to give him permission to sit.  C.L., having not socialized for as long as he could remember, isn’t quite sure what to do, but he eventually nods, granting the man access to the chair. The man with the mustache smiles and sits. He takes a moment to take in his rather odd surroundings. After all, how often does one find himself in a glass bulb dangling from a tree branch? The man with the mustache is immediately struck by the incredible view and the sound he makes conveys as much, a kind of approving moan.

“Mmm, impressive,” the man with the mustache scans the scenery and nods approvingly.

“I suppose you want to know who I am,” the man says, and C.L. doesn’t really have an opinion one way or the other.

“I work for an organization that helped eradicate the terrible government program known as the EROS Project,” the man deliberately pauses, he stares at C.L. to see if the word Eros strikes any familiar chords.  “Does that name ring any bells?” Of course it doesn’t. C.L. doesn’t have normal human bells, if he has any bells at all. Suddenly, he is caught in the memory of something. A scent. Lavender, maybe jasmine.  Then without thinking he blurts out, “Eros means love.”  The man with the mustache smiles. C.L. is uncomfortable and keeps talking, “I must have known that before…” he realizes he can’t trust a total stranger in a treetop café who has appeared out of nowhere with an ominous mustache. “Before what?” the man asks almost menacingly. C.L. isn’t sure how to interpret the man’s tone.

“Did something happen to you,” the man asks gently. C.L. is ready to change the subject, “How do you know who I am?”  He asks more curtly that he’d intended, and he immediately drops eye contact and stares at the lace tablecloth, the green LETHE card staring at him.

“Did you give me this card?” C.L. asks as he picks up the card to show the man. The man just smiles.

“I need you to listen to me very carefully,” the man whispers and leans in close to C.L. The rest of the Treetop seems to go silent and still. The man continues, “Something happened to you when you were eighteen, something you were not supposed to know about.” There’s a gravity to his voice, pulling C.L. into orbit, and suddenly he feels something akin to aggravation.  The man continues to speak in a low monotone, “you were one of the test subjects in the EROS project. A pilot experiment aimed at rehabilitation, but something went terribly, terribly wrong.”

“Rehabilitation?” C.L. interrupts, “from what?”  The man leans back, his face kind of drenched in pity.

“We met briefly one night before the Eros Project was shut down, at the Highland facility,” the man says, “I gave you my card and told you to find me when you got out.” C.L. does not remember this. He looks at the card on the table, and before he can stop himself, “what’s Lethe mean?”  The man smiles and corrects him, “it’s pronounced Leethee, it’s Greek.”

“Do I speak Greek?”

“Do you know how old you are?” the man asks. C.L. almost scoffs at such an insulting question, but the truth is he doesn’t know. He hasn’t really paid attention to any of the days limping by him. Since Carole died, he has not marked the passage of time. Under the heavy weather of years, monotony and routine have become their own dimension, their own kind of eternity.  

“What does Lethe mean? In Greek?” C.L. asks, and he’s becoming somewhat impatient.

“Before I can help you,” the man says, disregarding C.L.’s question, “you need to tell me what happened. I can only help you if I know what happened.” This sounds to C.L. like he wants to know about Carole, and that’s not a subject he wants to broach with a total stranger.

“I can help you, if you tell me,” the man says, and C.L. suddenly feels threatened. Help me? He wants to say. Help me with what? Who does this man think he is? This man with a preposterous mustache

“Was it a death?” the man asks, “it’s usually a death.”

Usually?

“If you don’t tell me, we’ll never be able to move forward.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“You must have had some tragic event that has changed the course of your whole life. Now, what was it? Was it someone you loved?”  The man with the mustache is growing frustrated, which in turn is making C.L. grow frustrated.

“I loved her more than anything,” C.L.’s voice cracks, he hadn’t intended it to. His face quivers, he didn’t know how to stop it. He hasn’t spoken of her out loud. Not to anyone. Not since that day.

“She died,” the man with the mustache says, and C.L. closes his eyes and nods and says, “I think I did too.”

“How did she die?”

“She…drowned. On her eighteenth birthday.”

“How?”

“What do you mean how? In the water!”

“Where was she?”

“We were taking a boat to the island.”

“What island?”

“I can’t remember the name of it.”

“What body of water?”

“What kind of a question is that?”

“Was it a lake, a river?”

“A river? There’s no island on a river! It was the ocean.”

The man with the mustache stares at C.L. “the ocean?” he asks. “Yes,” C.L. says sharply, “the ocean.” 

“Why were you at the ocean?”

“It was her birthday. We went to the beach all the time growing up. It was our favorite place.”

“You grew up in St. Louis.”

“So?”

“What beach do you think you went to?”

C.L. is about to answer, when he realizes he doesn’t have one. No, he thinks, no, this is not right. He does remember everything about his time with Carole, how are these little details missing? He closes his eyes, and as he so often does, he loses the outside world to the sound of the tide, and the warmth of the sun and the sharp joy that is Carole’s laugh.

 When he opens his eyes, he and Carole are on the beach. They are alone. It’s midday on a perfect day, the sky is painted Egyptian blue, and not a single cloud to be seen. It’s suddenly too perfect. As he describes it out loud, he hears the artifice, like when a child makes up a lie in the heat of a moment, and it’s as see through as the pristine glass of The Treetop. He keeps describing it, nonetheless. The water sparkles in the sunlight, all deep blues and greens, and the crashing waves are as effervescent as champagne. The sand sparkles like crushed cream-colored diamonds, and perfect palm trees with cellophane fronds sway in the just right breeze. Nostalgia is one thing, and he’s not prone to it, but this feels more like treacle. It must be that memory is sweetened by tragedy. He sees Carole laughing. Something funny was always just happening, or had just happened. Her laugh was music.  He feels her hand, soft and warm. Her smile hits his chest with a tinge of something otherworldly. She is perfect. Too perfect. All this is out of a book, a fairy tale. All he can think is that he’s made it perfect to hide the awful, awful ending. He pulls her perfect hand to his face to kiss it gently. He closes his eyes, the smell of something sweet and brackish, a sweat and sand and sea and something soft, lavender.  He opens his eyes, and smiles. Her lotion smells like lavender. Her hand goes cold. She jumps to her feet. The boat’s waiting, she says,  last one there, she says, come on slow-poke. The sky darkens, the sea dulls, and the novelty of summer becomes the sleet grey of winter. Clouds appear, a chill in the air, the sand feels like broken glass on his feet as they rush toward the dock. She doesn’t turn to look at him, which is different, he thinks. She’s supposed to turn her head and smile at me, as I try to catch her.  The memory suddenly moves backwards. She’s running toward him, with her back to him, and he’s backwardly running away. They fall onto their blanket, he’s kissing her hand, his eyes close. Darkness.

He opens his eyes. The diner they used to sneak away to for chocolate malts and French fries, how unoriginal, he thinks. The lacquered tabletops and plush red booths reminded him of something from a time long lost, but not his own. He can’t taste the ice cream, but he can feel the cold like mushy ice cubes freezing the roof of his mouth. The ketchup on the fries is like mucous, no flavor just a thick, viscous gel. The music in the background indeterminate, like a million melodies of a million mediocre musicians. And they, sitting as if posing for some sentimental artist hoping to recapture his own youth through his subjects, shoulder to shoulder, sipping from the same fountain glass. He can hear her the sound of her, but no words. What did she say that day? Whatever day of the hundreds of days this was? Was it all of them? Was his mind melding every individual moment into this mess of abstract nothingness. What did she say? Do you love me? Will you run away with me?  What would you do without me? The absence of her was as big in his mind as if the sun stopped rising suddenly. How, he thought,  do people get over it. Do your eyes really adjust to that kind of darkness? He was lost in the curse of memory, but in what was now a washed and anodyne medley of nothing specific.  But the pain attached to it was so great that the searing heat in his chest was a permanent fixture to his days.

And then, he’s back at the beach, that last day, with the grey of a dropsical sky descending upon them as heavy as a lid. He chased Carole to the dock, where a few boats were tied. Carole jumped into one of the smaller ones, gloating that she was the victor of the race.  C.L. untied the boat from the dock, raised the sail, and off they went toward the drooping rays of the sun. They sat on the bow of the boat, with their feet dangling in the warm water, his arm around her, as they eyed the horizon hoping to catch the sun slowly drip into the sea. But the sky had turned dingy, the sea beneath them sloshing against the boat like dirty dishwater. The sunset was not to be, but that only proved an exciting challenge. Carole had a plan, god knows why. One of her virtues, he thought, was her spontaneous love of life. She stood up, resolutely readying herself for a dive off of the boat.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Would you save me if I started to drown?” she said with that grin on her face that implied more than mischief. That grin that kept him up nights.

“Of course, I would,” he responded belligerently.

“Prove it.” She said as she removed her shirt and plopped into the water like a stone. C.L. didn’t panic, he didn’t think much of it in fact. This was Carole. This was what she did. He got a little nervous when she started to swim away from the boat, but was calmed by her singing “Come Sail Away” at the top of her voice.

“Okay, that’s far enough,” he said leaning over the edge of the boat and waving her back in. He was still smiling as she dunked her head underwater, and splayed her legs into the air. He was still smiling when the whistling wind whistled a decibel higher. He was still smiling as the water started rocking the boat more and more.  He stopped smiling when he lost footing and slipped and fell. When he hit the ground, he heard thunder, and panic found him almost immediately. He could hear Carole laughing as he pulled himself to his feet. He could hear Carole laughing as he turned toward her, but it started to rain, and he couldn’t see her anymore. He could still hear Carole laughing as he threw the lifeline off the port side, and the wind carried it to starboard, and it landed with a splash on the opposite side of the boat. He thought Carole was laughing at the sight of the wind carrying the little inner-tube like a kite. And at some point, when he still thought she was laughing, it must have been that her laughter had turned to a panicked scream. He reeled in the life preserver. More rain, more thunder and now lightning. He couldn’t eye her in the water he didn’t know where to throw it. His heart was racing, he was screaming her name over and over again. He doesn’t know if it was the sound of nature, of the rain and the water hitting the boat, but soon the wind would take her screams, dissolve them into one high pitched wail.  Nature at her worst, a furious howl. The rain was falling in sheets so thick that it blinded him. He couldn’t even see the water now, save for the buckets of it that were pouring into the boat at his feet. The waves were intensifying quickly enough to nearly capsize him, and he held on. Why had he held on? Why didn’t he jump in after her? He never stopped screaming her name. Somehow he’s still there, still holding onto the small boat, and still screaming her name into the unforgiving blue-black Agony that had taken his only reason for living. When the storm relented and the dark world grew calm and silent and cold around him, he slid to the bottom of the boat, his eyes cast heavenward at the waning moon, and he drifted off into the night, hoping he would never be heard from again.

“When did you get back to shore?” he hears the man say, though his eyes are closed, and it seems like a trick question.

“What does it matter?”

“Do you have any memory of the Eros project?” the man asks. C.L. doesn’t care, and he shakes his head slowly to give the answer and the impression that he’s not interested in wherever this is going.

“Do you remember a Dr. White?”

“Why won’t you just leave me alone?”

“They really did a number on you.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

The man with the mustache nods quickly, and then reaches down into a small valise next to his legs on the ground, and pulls out a brown file. He opens the file and takes out a small bunch of papers. He rifles quickly through the packet of papers until he finds the page he’s looking for, sets in on the table, takes a breath and reads, “the subject has trouble discerning right from wrong. He often shows no guilt or remorse for his behavior. He lies and manipulates for his own gain. Both his mother and father have expressed worries bout his intense apathy.”  C.L. shakes his head again, and turns away from the man. He looks out the window, and stares at the thick brown tree branches, totally devoid of all life, cracked and useless, he thinks.  And then the smell again. It’s definitely lavender. The man with the mustache turns the page and scans it until he finds and reads the following, “Dr. White, your assigned psychiatrist, suggested that you were a prime candidate for the EROS project and you and your parents all signed the release. Is this your signature?” He shows C.L. a form with his signature on it, it’s definitely his signature, and C.L. tries to remember anything he can about EROS, or Dr. White. He comes up with nothing,

“Why don’t I remember any of that?” C.L., for the first time in a long time is curious. “What is the EROS Project?” The man takes the file back, closes it and sets in back in the valise. He then folds his hands on the table, and smiles. “The EROS project,” he begins, “was a government project meant to eliminate violent crime.”  The man pauses, C.L. reaches in his brain for something familiar, but it’s not there. The man continues, “test subjects, such as yourself, were given an experimental treatment that would serve as a kind of preventive medicine.”

“What do you mean,” C.L. starts, swallows slowly, and finishes, “such as myself?” The man waits a moment, and then reaches back to the valise and grabs a different folder. He holds the folder to his chest as he speaks, “It was a two-day procedure, developed by an army scientist, who specialized in a certain kind of combat training. He called it Wonderland.”

“Why Wonderland?”

“Because,” the man says, “it creates a fantastical alternative to reality.”

“So it’s brainwashing?”

“The scientist, along with dr. White, started using the technique to worked with terrorists to de-indoctrinate them if you will. He discovered a rather severe treatment that the government deemed worthy of trials on non-criminals. But on those who showed a high capacity for psychopathy. The Wonderland project soon became EROS.” When the man stopped talking, he started looking through the folder. C.L. was completely dumbfounded, he was pretty sure that this man had just told him that he is a psychopath. The man pulls a sheet of paper from the folder and reads it, “Empathy Rehabilitation Operating System, or EROS is a memory implantation meant to change the chemicals of the defunct brain in an effort to restore empathy.” The man looks up at C.L. who is shocked but riveted, so he keeps reading, “test subject M,” he motions to C.L. to let him know that’s him, “has been diagnosed by Dr. White with antisocial behavior and narcissistic personality disorder.  He also shows aptitude for cruelty, his mother brought him to Dr. White after she discovered that he had buried their cat alive.” The man looks up at C.L. once again. This time, C.L. is in total disbelief. His face gives away that he knows none of this, and he’s horrified to hear it.

“I buried a cat alive?” he asks in a broken whisper. “No, that can’t be. I would remember that.” The man quickly looks back down on the page and scans it for more information “How could I not remember that? Why would I do that? What are you telling me this for?!” C.L. slams his hands on the table, startling everyone in The Treetop, the man included. C.L.’s eyes scan the room and everyone is looking at him, after a long awkward silence, the man goes back to reading and the room goes back to normal.

“A young neighbor girl told your mother what you’d done. She said that you made her watch. That you forced her to watch as you put the cat into a plastic grocery bag, tied it, and then dug a hole in your back yard to-“  C.L. snaps “That’s enough!” He tries not to raise his voice, so as not to garner any attention, “I don’t want to hear anymore.”

“The young girl, the neighbor-“

“I said I don’t want to hear anymore.”

“Her name was Carole.”

C.L. sits upright and back into his chair, his eyes are wide. He slowly starts shaking his head, “no,” he whispers.

“She was very young,” the man says as C.L. continues to shake his head more and more vigorously. “No,” he says. a little louder.

“You must have been thinking about her when they…installed the memories.” C.L. can feel tears welling, the inside corners of his eyes feel hot, and he can’t quite catch his breath. He is still shaking his head, “No,” he says, “No, none of this makes any sense.”

“I know. Believe me, I do. You’re the not the first patient of Dr. White’s that I’ve found.”

“I don’t-what do you mean installed the memories?” C.L. has stopped shaking his head, and glares at the man waiting for a response. The man doesn’t know how to sugarcoat it, so he says it plainly, “Carole. Your memories of her. They’re not real. Carole doesn’t exist.”  In the silence that seemed to be punctuated, C.L. tries to imagine what this man’s motives could be for such an elaborate and cruel lie.

“I know this must be shocking,” the man says, “I do. But I promise you, that we at Lethe can help you.”

“Why should I believe you?” C.L. says, and his voice has an eerie calm to it. “Why should I believe a total stranger when he tells me that the only person I have ever loved is a figment of my imagination?”

“She’s not a figment, she’s proof.”

“Proof?”

“Yes.”

“Of what?”

“Your ability to love.” They both stare neither sure what to say next.

“My ability to love?”

“True sociopaths do not harbor the kinds of feelings you have for Carole. It’s awful, but the government thought if they could get psychopaths to love and lose someone then they could prevent them from killing others. Because they would know how it feels. That is the essence of empathy. When you think about it it’s a frighteningly small detail that stops people from murdering each other in the streets. I for one don’t sleep very well knowing the line between life and death is so fucking small.”

“They thought I was going to kill someone?” C.L. tries to remember anything he can, but all he gets are random details, specific nothings, and Carole. “Why can’t I remember anything but her?”

“One of the side effects of EROS is memory loss and dysfunction. The only real memories some subjects were able to retain were the false ones. Other memories tended to be reduced to strange and seemingly random details. The system does quite a number on your brain. But that’s where Lethe comes in.”

C.L. can’t imagine participating in anything this man is peddling. “You must think I’m crazy,” he says, “you must think I’m a fucking crazy person, if you think I’m just going to believe you.”

“We can get rid of the memories of Carole,” The man says as matter-of-factly as if he’d just ordered toast. “The government has approved and fast-tracked our extraction modality. We offer Legal and Ethical Targeted History Extraction, either real or artificial. PTSD is soon going to be a thing of the past. It is a state secret, of course, so I’m afraid now that I’ve told you, you don’t have a choice in the matter. The CIA is running LEHTE, and we can’t let any civilians have any knowledge of it.”

“I won’t remember anyway,” C.L. says, and he knows it true, which gives him some comfort. “I won’t remember any of this.

“Yes,” the man agrees, “but that’s not a chance we’re willing to take.” 

“Or you can just shoot me. I won’t resist.”

“I’m afraid not.”

C.L shakes his head calmly and takes a deep breath. “I’m not losing her again.”

“You won’t know that you ever knew her, because you didn’t. You can start your life all over.”

“But I’m a psychopath!”

“No, I told you, you were most likely misdiagnosed.”

“And that’s a chance you are willing to take?” C.L. is certain he’s got him on a technicality. “I barely have the will to live,” he says, “If you take her away from me, I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know who I would be. I’ll be nothing. I’ll be even less nothing than this? What’s less than this?”

“We’ll create a perfect environment, you’ll feel completely safe,” the man says to reassure him, “and then we’ll explain everything as we extract the memories. The only downside is you will have to relive her death. We don’t know how to remove it without targeting it completely and that means, you have to experience it. But then it will be gone.”

“Did you not hear me? I’m nothing without it,” C.L. says with more pity than he thought he possessed.

“Well, that’s the thing about trauma,” the man says, “it usually defines us.”

Then the man leans in to make his selling point, “I’m offering you the chance to literally wake up tomorrow and be free of pain. Yes, you may be a sociopath. That’s not for us to decide. Without your actions, we can’t just assume you to be. You have to have some say in your own life. That’s what free will is. Now, I don’t normally do this, but I can see that you are desperately wounded by the loss of this woman, fictional though she may be, so, I will walk away from here and let you carry on in your agony,  if you can give me one good reason why you should want to live with the memory of such pain.” The man sits back, fairly certain that his argument was a solid one. C.L. doesn’t know what he’s going to say, but he knows he’s going to say it. “Because,” he begins slowly, “I’d rather sit in this Treetop in implacable pain knowing I was loved. It may be that I can’t move. The world may hurt too much. But there is no world at all if you take her away from me. You can’t have her.”

“She’s not real.”

“She’s real enough.”

“And what if you remember this? What if you remember she’s not real?”

“I won’t. As soon as you leave, all of this goes with you. That’s how it works.”

The man looks at C.L. with a mistrustful glance, “how do you know that?” he asks.

“How do I know what?”

“How do you know you won’t remember this? How do you know how your memory loss works?”

“I don’t…I don’t understand.” C.L. says and he quickly becomes frightened. The man with the mustache stands up, and puts the hat back on his head and stands looming large over the small table C.L. is sitting at.

“How do you explain this café?” the man asks in a parental tone suggesting he already knows the answer. “What are you doing here, C.L.?”

“I’m having tea,” C.L. says, and he wants to sound certain, but it comes across weakly, though not as weak as the tea, he notices, as he begrudgingly swallows a big slug of it.

“And how did you get up here? C.L.?” The man stares down at him waiting for his response. C.L. closes his eyes, and he knows. And his heart sinks into the brine of his own despair. He feels the Treetop swaying in the breeze. He hears the murmuring of life around him. He sees Carole’s face, younger than he remembered, and he cannot recall where or how. One more time, he thinks, just one more time. And he opens his eyes and the world has gone white. And he knows the answer, “I climbed the stairs,” he says, and that’s that.