The problem with stealing other people’s memories is you start to lose the difference between what’s theirs and what’s yours. Luckily, I know how to exploit that-as long as the teachers don’t find out, anyway. Normal after-school jobs are overrated when you have a secret during-school-business.
I flip through a list of cataloged memory files on my mind-uploading app as a line of students snakes away from me, each one wanting to buy a different memory. Charlotte Marion, my partner in crime, doles out numbers as if the students are waiting in line at the deli. Once they receive a number, they disperse across the courtyard and mill about like strangers trying to act normal before they break out in a Flash Mob.
“Can I have the answers to last night’s Organic Chem homework?” The first customer out of thirty lifts a tablet, revealing a mess of stylus-created scribbles on top of complicated math problems.
Charlotte holds out her palm, indicating ten bucks. The girl shifts her weight from foot to foot, skirt swishing around bare legs. A few people watching near us groan while others ready umbrellas in case the wait outlasts the rain. Dark clouds swirl in the washed out sky, turning the mirrored building in front of us into a sheet of gray. Cold and clinical, more like an office building than a high school for science geniuses. Laboratory chic.
Charlotte nudges me in the shoulder until my lips pop open. “Number two!” I yell, tapping my stiletto on the concrete path.
“Wait. I have it.” The customer digs in her purse and presents the money to me instead of Charlotte. I set the wad of bills down on the grated metal bench table and get to work selling the girl someone else’s stolen memory.
As Charlotte shoves the money into her pocket, someone else’s fingers cover my vision. “Guess who.” An excited squeal punctuates the gesture.
“Well, the giggle alone rules out an advancement in robotics. And also someone I’d be friends with.” I pause for dramatic effect, ignoring her scoff. “So I’ll go with Zoey Flint.” I lift one of my best friend’s hands off my face, catching a glimpse of the scar that bulges, pink and angry, on the inside of my wrist. Everyone thinks I tried to commit suicide. I don’t correct them.
“Actually,” Zoey says, tugging on a white cardigan to combat the sudden chill that descends when the skeletal trees perform a macabre dance set to the symphony of the wind, “I heard one some freshman is working on a robotics project that-”
“Don’t distract her.” Charlotte pats the air until Zoey plops on the bench next to me. Gardenia perfume drowns out the acrid scent of oncoming rain. I flip my arm downward, covering the scar. Out of sight, out of mind. Except if you have HiveMind, Version 1.0.
Last year, a student at my school developed the cloud-based mind-uploading app. Every memory gets backed up and synced to the brain instantly, meaning nothing is ever forgotten. No more black outs from a night of drinking. No more study sessions that jumble in the brain right as you stare at the test. No more excuses.
Users are only supposed to be able to access their own files. But I never do what I’m supposed to do.
I bypass the cool graphic interface normal users of HiveMind see and run the hacking program I wrote. It uses a variety of complex algorithms to gain backdoor access to all the files stored in the HiveMind cloud, not just my own.
Zoey crosses her pant-suit covered legs. At our school, you never know when a lecture might turn into an important meeting, so she always tries to be prepared. Not to mention we share a parking lot with the lab techs that work on the floors above the school, who may become our coworkers one day. “I have news! According to the triangular love theory, anyway.”
“I already saw the memory.” I tap my finger against the file descriptions and thumbnail images that pop up when I hack into Teddy Day’s mind. For months, Zoey’s had a ritualistic compulsion to cross her “i’s” with hearts when she thinks of him and an obsessive need to know if he’s thinking of her back. Which means I’ve seen so many of his damn memories, my knowledge extends beyond the banal, like what he eats, and escalates into I-so-did-not-need-to-know-that territory: like what kind of boxers he wears. “Teddy called you last night. Clearly this is the first step to admitting his feelings have progressed beyond the awkward avoiding eye contact phase.”
She sighs happily, not picking up the sarcasm in my voice. After all, he only called her because he had a question about holograms.
I scroll through Teddy’s mind and find his memory of completing last night’s homework. As the resident genius at a school for geniuses, he’s also the only person who doesn’t need to study and the only person who always does. When your spot on the school roster comes from an invitation-only admittance policy and a generous grant supplied by Varga Industries, you tend to only slack off in summer when free time finally fits into your schedule. A brief preview in the software shows Teddy’s view as he works out the answers to the math problems for last night’s homework. I drop the memory into the first customer’s head. She instantly straightens, not even thanking me as her thumb sweeps over the keypad while she ambles away.
“Wait.” Zoey whips her head toward me while a jagged streak of lightening barrels across the distant sky, releasing five hundred megajoules of energy. “Arden! You violated my brain again?” She huffs, shifting her leg out from under her where an imprint of the interwoven grating remains on the pasty skin of her exposed ankle.
“His too.” I bite my inner cheek against the worry that I finally crossed the line. When your last name is emblazoned on the school crest-and the school letterhead-the other students will let you get away with anything. Like stealing their memories. To them, nepotism tips the scale in the immunity hierarchy-it doesn’t matter that I had to undergo the same rigorous application and competition process to earn my place here. They believe an in with me is an in with the school board.
A guy with too much facial hair and not enough social skills approaches once Charlotte texts him to step up to the plate. He gives us a horsey smile with bright white teeth that glisten despite the gloomy sky. “How are you fine ladies this morning? Love that yellow on you, Arden. Really makes your hair stand out.”
I rotate my hand in the air for him to get on with it. It’s never good when people compliment me. It means they’re trying to butter me up.
“Here’s a secret.” He invades my personal space by sitting down on my other side. I scoot closer to Zoey. “I have a rather huge crush on Melody Clarendon,” he says. “I want to get to know her better.”
Time to break out the big guns. “Darwin hypothesized that spoken language evolved due to a need for reciprocal altruism, so-”
“What Arden here means,” Charlotte shoots me a dirty glare from across the table that could only be interpreted as don’t alienate the customers, “Is you should go talk to her.”
He strokes his chin. “I was thinking more like… biblically.”
Zoey’s face squishes like she just bit into a lemon.
“Dude, that’s creepy.” I wave him away with a flick on my wrist. “You know the rules.” I don’t mind violating people’s privacy when it comes to test answers, but I have to draw the line somewhere. No nudity, no revealing of other people’s secrets, and no deleting memories. Though I don’t always stick to the last one.
The next kid in line, Shane Zajek, hurls himself at me. He leans way too close, and I arch my back to tilt away from his apple juice breath. “Okay, this is going to sound weird.”
Charlotte snickers, pushing burnt umber-colored hair behind her ear. The leafless trees surrounding the building sway as though they’re mocking Shane’s jitteriness. Several men in white lab coats hustle from the parking lot to the Varga Industries entrance on the other side of the building.
Shane darts his head around the courtyard and accidentally knocks his Red Sox hat into my forehead. “You can’t tell anyone.”
I draw my finger across my lips. My backup dancers nod.
“Can you tell me if Veronica’s cheating on me?” He straightens and holds out a hundred bucks. I shake my head, but Charlotte plucks it from his fingers.
“Charlotte,” I hiss. Shane jerks toward her.
She shrugs. “He wants the info. He’s willing to pay. I say give it to him.”
I swallow hard. This isn’t a secret, not if you’ve ever seen Veronica at a party. “She is. With Blake.” His face drops and I force the next words out, my eyelashes fluttering closed to avoid catching a glimpse of his pained expression. “And Josh.” I leave off the rest of the names.
His shoulders sink, and I wait for his next line in the pre-written script. “I don’t believe you.” It’s the same thing he always says, a cruel game of déjà vu. “Prove it.”
With robotic muscle memory, I deposit the memories into his brain like I always do. His features fold and crumble until they’re the exact mirror image of his destroyed heart.
I have to look away, focusing instead on the sleek silver silo used by students conducting experiments in renewable energy advancements. “One day, Shane, I hope you’ll dump her and ask me something else.”
“I’ve never asked you to look into this before.” He stumbles backward before turning on his heels and weaving around a study group on his way into the school.
The problem with being able to archive memories is that someone like me can hack in and delete them. “Tomorrow I’m not charging him.” My voice cracks along with my resolve.
Charlotte puckers her thin lips. “You always say that.”
My stomach swirls in sync with the rolling clouds. A blast of thunder booms like a punctuation mark on my frailty. If I want to fund my thesis project myself, I need all the cash I can get.
“What can I help you with?” I ask the petite girl who approaches.
“The answers to-” Her words clip off like they’ve been snipped with scissors.
A hazy white frost seeps over my eyes until each tree winks out of existence. The thunder bangs from inside my skull like it’s using my brains as bongo drums. I turn to Charlotte but there is no Charlotte. There isn’t anything. Just a broad expanse of white nothingness that makes me choke on claustrophobia and inevitability. I try to breathe but something stomps on my lungs and flattens them into paper-thin pancakes. Eternity stretches into full panic.
All of a sudden the world lurches with a violent jerk. The white recedes into the glint of the building, now streaked with dripping rain. Misty drops fall from the sky and blend into my now-damp shirt, which clings to me in a scandalous not-appropriate-for-school-
I blink against the drops sticking to my eyelashes and no doubt massacring my hair. Charlotte holds an umbrella above only her and separates the money into two large piles with her other hand. Jagged black lines strike through every name from her list. The clear tarp I always carry drapes over my laptop and my thighs, preventing me from the telltale embarrassment of crotch wetness. Only a handful of straggles wielding umbrellas remain in the courtyard. Blood whooshes in my ears when the clock on my laptop warns the bell will ring in two minutes instead of twenty.
Lightening slices between two clouds, drenching the sky in neon colors too ethereal to be captured in Photoshop. Heart pounding, I pull the tarp over my face instead of my precious equipment. “Did anything strange just happen?”
Charlotte squints at me, her umbrella wobbling. “What are you talking about?”
I press my palm to my slick forehead where a dull sensation still throbs, barely noticeable, like the hum of a refrigerator at night. Did I black out? Or maybe whiteout is a more accurate term. But that doesn’t explain the rain building enough to soak my shirt.
“People went inside before the bell.” Zoey scuttles up behind me, fumbling with her umbrella as her keys dangle from her hand. She must have run back to her car. “That’s pretty strange.” She hovers next to me and sets the umbrella above the two of us.
Maybe I was daydreaming. But… “What happened to the list of customers?”
Charlotte’s head snaps up again. “Um, you spent fifteen minutes going through it.”
“How’d I go through it so fast?” Without remembering. “And when did it start to rain?”
“A few minutes ago. You okay?” Zoey leans over me, her blond hair draping into my face. “Most of them wanted the same test answers, which made it easy.” She flicks a thick stack of bills as evidence. “The rain tried to intercede but knowledge conquers all, I guess.”
I twist my necklace in my fingers. The cool metal feels like a familiar comfort blanket. My fingertip skims over the tiny engravings etched into the rectangular pendant:
The grooves always remind me of who I am. And what I want to do.
I suck in a deep breath of sea-salty air tinged with an earthy aftertaste and let the heavy pendant drop against my clavicle. Pulling all-nighters on my project is messing with my sanity.
“Heads up.” Zoey points an arm lined with gold bracelets. “I think you’re going to want to take one last customer.” She tacks on a wink.
Across the way, an unfamiliar boy lopes toward us. I squint at him as my brain does a poor job of at emulating Google’s reverse image search. Admittance into Monica Varga High is a tightly controlled operation and no scenario admits a new student four days before our thesis projects are due.
“Who is that?” I jut my chin in the direction of the boy shielding an Oxford covered sleeve over his forehead to combat the pummeling rain.
He brushes beads of water out of his face, revealing sandy hair messy on top of his head, like he wasn’t sure what to do with it this morning. He keeps his face pointed at his feet as if he’s learning to walk for the first time. As he approaches, his features come into focus: thin lips he holds rigidly, eyes that can’t seem to make up their mind between green and blue and golden brown, and a hunched, guarded expression. He’d be cute if only he held himself upright.
“Shut up.” Zoey lets out one loud hyena laugh, sharp and abrupt, and slaps her palm against the metal table, emitting a tinny ding.
Fuzzy caterpillar eyebrows descend over Charlotte’s lids.
“No, really, who is that?”
Zoey plants her palm on my forehead. “Are the cognitive processes of your brain still working?” She swings her head back and forth between me and the boy. “That’s Bash. Object of all your primitive biological urges.”
“Bash who? I’ve never seen him before in my life.”
“Bash Cuomo,” Charlotte says in a doctor-delivering-bad-news voice.
“Arden.” The serious way Zoey utters my name makes my heart thump in my chest. “He’s always been here. Charlotte, cover the girl.” Zoey thrusts her arm in a friendly wave while Charlotte sighs and lifts her umbrella over the table to protect both of us. Zoey ushers Bash under her umbrella. “Hello, Bash.”
They stand shoulder to shoulder, him rigid, her relaxed as if they’ve stood this close countless times before. He blinks at her. “You know who I am?”
“Let me guess, you two hooked up.” She swishes a finger between the two of us. “And now you’re conveniently experiencing motivated forgetting? Nice try.” Zoey pats his shoulder.
Bash’s cheeks turn the same color as my red-stained lips. Panic claws at my throat at all the understanding still beyond my grasp. I cover with the only true way to get answers, by asking a question. “What do you need?”
Bash hesitates. “Apparently there’s a quiz in my first class. Would have been nice to know that.” He laughs to himself. “I heard you could help me cram?” The bell rings a second before thunder conquers it, officially making us all late. His entire body stiffens. “Too late.”
“It’s not too late if you’re with me,” I say. “I can help. Not help you cram, but…” Much to my surprise, I feel my lips curve into the telltale sign of a smile. “Help.”
Zoey squeals but I don’t know why.
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a crumpled piece of paper. His schedule, scribbled on a sheet of office letterhead, as if he had written it only a few minutes ago.
“What’d you do? Forget your schedule?” Zoey shakes her head at him.
Charlotte pounds out a text on her phone, and her distraction causes her umbrella to tilt away from my head. Zoey clears her throat until Charlotte recovers.
I snatch the paper out of Bash’s hand. “Wait. You have BioChem Software Development first period?” My stomach hollows out when he nods. “That’s my class too.”
He shrugs. The wind howls and rustles my dark hair, whipping a few strands into my face that stick to my red lipstick.
Something deep in my core pulses, like a reactor coming to life. First, I black out for fifteen minutes and now I forget about a test? How is that even possible with HiveMind? I never forget anything! I can’t, it’s all backed up and stored in ones and zeroes, accessible from any device with Wi-Fi. “Zo, why didn’t you tell me we had a quiz?” She has BioChem Software Development with the same teacher a few periods later.
Her smile wavers. “Now you’re really scaring me. We studied for it on Sunday.”
I scroll through the files as blood whooshes in my ears, searching for someone, anyone, to steal the memory of studying for the quiz from. Despite letting other people cheat on tests for fun and profit, I avoid it myself. I find Teddy Day’s file again and set a delay on the memory for ten minutes before I drop it into my brain. I’ll study hard for the next one…unless I forget again.
Zoey presses the umbrella handle into Bash’s hand. “While you two have fun with this practical joke, I’m going to the office for a hall pass.” She tugs on Charlotte’s elbow, forcing her to stop texting. The two of them cram under one umbrella as they sprint toward the school.
Bash moves right next to me, body heat radiating off him, and slides the black umbrella over both our heads.
“This’ll only take a sec.” I look for his account on the server, but my search for Bash comes up empty.
He squints at my screen. “It’s Sebastian actually. Sebastian Cuomo. I don’t really know why everyone keeps calling me Bash.”
His name pops up and my custom password generator hacks into his mind with as much ease as everyone else’s. I click on his storage, ready to deposit Teddy’s memory into his mind, but… Sebastian has no memories at all. My arm stiffens.
“What?” Sebastian asks. Another bolt of lightning zings, illuminating the sky and tangling with an echo of thunder.
“Sorry, there’s an error. One sec.” I shut down the program while Sebastian twists his hand-written schedule into a coil. A moment later I reopen HiveMind and navigate to his account. Once again, his brain is empty…except for two files. One of our current conversation and the file of Teddy’s memory I just deposited.
How could anyone seriously have zero memories? How could they even live?
I slam my laptop shut and shove it under my arm. I don’t care about class or the quiz or the way Sebastian and I huddle together under a tiny umbrella, his gait slowing when my heels sink into the wet grass. All I care about is finding out why this boy-who everyone seems to know but me-and I are both missing memories.