A man wakes in an apartment covered with notes.
As usual, it takes the man nearly 30 minutes to panic. By then, he has noticed the signs and notes. His apartment walls are covered with them, hundreds if not thousands of short and not so short messages to him. Somehow he intuits that he wrote every note he sees throughout his tiny studio apartment. Maybe he remembers it. All he knows is he has little concern about who wrote them.
Some of the notes aren’t composed of words; they are an array of pictures rendered with a bold, confident marker. The first picture-only-no-text note the man sees hangs just above the kitchen trash-can. The pictures on that sign convey that he is no longer to put garbage in the black bin in the kitchen. He should burn any trash in his fireplace.
No trash has left the apartment in over 273 years, he reads in a pencil note on the instructive note.
He laughs at the absurdity of the idea; no trash leaving his residence in nearly three centuries. Ha!
He tries to recall going to the dumpsters; he remembers they lay 50 yards to the west, but for the life of him, the man can’t remember when he last took trash there. That’s when it hits him, and he falls against the wall and slides to the floor.
He has no idea who he is.
When he tries to recall his name, he has nothing. His friends’ names? The same. He can’t remember a single detail of his identity or his life.
Luckily for him, there is a note for that.
There are several, but each one is the same message. The duplicate notes are scattered all around the apartment. Somehow the man knows he is reliving the same day over and over again. And whoever wrote these notes to help him navigate his days couldn’t foresee where he would be when he noticed he had no memories.
He stands and reads the note.
THE FIRST NOTE
Don’t panic. You’ve probably noticed you have no memories. They were another thing swept away by the virus.
At least that’s what the doctors told us back in 2043 might happen to the gray-hairs.’
Then you had both a wife and a son. Her name was Wendy. Your son, whom you loved more than life itself, was Christopher.
You buried both of them in the rooftop garden. Your wife died of natural causes in 2088.
Your son died in 2118. He was the same age as your wife, his mother when he passed away. He fretted endlessly about leaving you alone. You squeezed him tight and told him he was free to go.
They lived long and happy lives. Neither of them ever caught the virus.
How do I know all of this? Easy! Because I am YOU!
I (we?) wrote this note to our future self in 2130.
I don’t want to alarm you, but another side-effect the scientists thought might happen to the gray-hairs was that they would live much longer than previous humans. On October 28, 2130 (the day I’m writing this note, by the way), you celebrated your 146th birthday. The face looking back at you from the mirrors looks nothing near that old.
So that’s the good news. Keep it in mind when I tell you your ability to form long-term memories was ruined by the virus. That is why I am putting notes on everything in here; you’re welcome.
Ironically your brain has never been stronger despite not being able to remember new information. You love reading novels and learning languages.
May I suggest you open your laptop (it should be on the mantel in the living room) – your novels are there, as are your language courses.
The man reads War and Peace, learns Mandarin, reads several volumes of poetry in Chinese, and then reads Moby Dick.
He thinks about taking a walk.
He rises from his reading chair, returns his laptop to the mantel, then heads to the end of his long apartment.
When he reaches the front door, his jaw drops.
THE SECOND NOTE
Just inside his front door is a bewildering array of gas masks, bright yellow plastic suits that scream protection from hazardous materials. Each piece of equipment has a wordless instructional placard in its proper usage. At the end of the shelf of protective gear, the man finds a second note to himself.
I had hoped to distract you from going outside today.
Or ever, for that matter.
It’s a bad idea to go outside.
The world on the other side of your front door isn’t the world you remember – when you remember at all.
The virus is still present. The scientists expect it will be around for 500 years. Who knows, you might live long enough to go back outside one day. And while they don’t believe you, a gray-hair can die from it, there are numerous variants of the virus each year.
The man likes this message far less than the first note. He wants to rip the laminated thing down, tear it into shreds, but that would be a cruelty to his tomorrow self. So he leaves it be.
BEHIND THE DRAPES.
A world of carnage, the man thinks. No. That surely must be a practical joke from his wife, Wendy. Or maybe even his son Christopher. It’s weird to think about people one has such an intimate relationship with and yet be unable to recall a single thing about them.
He decides to forego taking a walk – for now.
He wanders through his long dwelling. He’s shocked to find how empty the place feels once he realized there used to be three people living here.
He laughs without feeling when he thinks he still doesn’t know his name. Once Wendy, Christopher, and he lived here.
He steps toward the window; the drapes are still closed, and the afternoon is giving way to early evening.
He grabs the drape string and slides them open quickly before he loses his nerve.
The carnage in the lot below is overwhelming. He glances back inside his sealed space, notices the little wordless note reminding him to shut the drapes at the end of each day.
It’s a good idea. If the man had noticed this carnage before reading the other notes, he would’ve quickly run out of the apartment, searching for survivors.
He looks again at the carnage. He sees at least a dozen desiccated skeletons in the parking spots below, wrecked cars, and an overturned trailer looks like a giant slumbering cat resting peacefully in the snow?
He thinks the cracked parking lot is covered with dirty gray snow, but he notices the outdoor temperature gauge. It’s 53 degrees. It isn’t gray snow; it is ashes, heaps and mounds of ashes. He doesn’t let his mind pick much at the question as to their origin.
He steps back into his living room but not before closing the drapes again as the note suggested.
He returns to his bedroom; his bed lies unmade. He walks to the window, pulls back the drapes.
The gray light washes in. Close behind it are the memories.
The garden, their garden, they used to have such parties there, the three of them. Sometimes some of Wendy’s relatives, less often a client of his, would join them in the patio garden. It wasn’t big, but it was cozy.
Once, it had been a place of light, laughter, and merriment, now it was a picture in grays and dirty whites. Where the roses once bloomed, now there are only mounds of gray ashes.
Once the memories come, he feels overpowered by emotions. He falls back on his bed as the faces of his son and wife fly through his mind.
His son, pulling him by his hand out onto the patio, he still holding the phone, some work call he had taken.
Beneath him, his wife’s face suffused with tension as she drew close.
The two of them beaming smiles when he brought home the Golden Retriever.
The empty, lost look on his son’s face as together they buried Wendy in the garden.
At that point in the crisis, food delivery was automated by drones. You had to have money to afford that service, or you learned how to sustenance farm, or you starved to death. There were a great many options open to Christopher. So he had lived with his father, the two of them alone, for three decades after burying her in the garden.
Then it was just him, still looking like a forty-year-old man, burying his son in a lot next to her’s.
His crying has stopped, but his memories are still, for the moment, returned.
He stands again. He feels weak.
He wanders back to the front door, sees a coin he didn’t notice before, a two-line, nonsense note behind it. It’s a large Morgan silver dollar.
If you’re sure you wish to leave the apartment, flip the coin first.
If it comes up tails, then it is safe to go outside. (Don’t ask me, the scientists worked this one out somehow.)
That made about as much sense as anything else had in this day of his. Was every day like this – would tomorrow be identical to today?
He considers the idea as the coin grows warm in his hand.
Casually he brings his palm up, the coin heads side sits in the exact center. He gently flips the coin over with his left index finger. The other side is a head also, a rigged game. He flips the coin over once more, ensuring both sides are heads.
The coin clatters to the floor. Before it has stopped rolling and spinning, the man is already moving through the door and down the stairs. He generously leaves the gas masks and protective suits for the next occupants of the apartment.