I had arranged for Brian to wait with Terry and Lee Ann in the hall lounge during our meeting; since nobody outside the Strangers was likely to recognize him, I figured that would be safe. So he was knocking at our door thirty-seconds after I called him.
The room fell silent when he first walked in. Along with him, I studied their faces, seeing hostility, fear, and confusion. I could almost hear them asking, who is this monster who did this to us? He looked at me, uncertain. I nodded, hoping to give him confidence. We’d discussed the first things he would say, but he was pretty much on his own after that.
I watched him take a breath and let it out slowly. “My name is Brian Harlan,” he said. “I’m sorry. I… really didn’t know what was going to happen. And… when we first found out, well, we were ordered to close up and hide. Obviously, it was… it just made things worse.”
Nobody had interrupted him, but the silence was too perfect. Normally, an audience makes some noises: coughing, shifting positions. When they don’t, it means that they are paying extremely close attention. When you’re working from a script, that’s great – you’ve got them really into the show. When you’re trying to keep them from lynching you, that’s a horse of a different color.
“By now, Marsh has told you that you were mistaken about what we did. Thing is, we knew what you thought because of that article, and we didn’t say anything. I don’t know if you would have felt better if we had, but we probably should have tried.”
“So why didn’t you?” somebody snapped. It was one of the boys who had started arguing near the end of my own talk.
Brian flinched slightly, and looked toward both Luke and me before answering, “Because we were being threatened by the administration that they would cut off our funding if we did,” he admitted. “I don’t know, maybe we could have tried to find money elsewhere, but it’s really hard to walk away from years of work like that.”
“So now you’re screwed, huh?” his challenger asked. “Why the change of heart?”
Brian was starting to remind me of the proverbial deer in the headlights. “Um. I don’t want to sound like I’m claiming to be a hero. The truth is, Marsh finding us sort of forced our hand. My advisor called the administration and told them what had happened, and I didn’t like the deal he worked out with them. So… I’m hoping to come up with something better.”
“And you expect us to help you?” a girl sneered.
If there’d been any place to run, I think he might have tried. “I’m just hoping that you’ll see it in your own best interests to go along with the lawsuit that Mr. Steen is planning, and that that’ll work out better for me, as well.”
“They’ve already agreed to the lawsuit,” I reminded him.
“Then just tell me what I can do to make things better,” he pleaded with the crowd. “I know I messed up. I’m still hoping I can find a way to save my thesis–”
“Over our dead bodies,” somebody muttered.
“Um, excuse me?” Ben said from the back, raising his hand timidly and standing up. Everyone had to turn to look at him, which made them face away from Brian. “I know I haven’t exactly been active with this group…”
Several people assured him that it was OK, that he had had reason to be uncomfortable. As I’d hoped, many of the Strangers seemed to be protective toward him.
“Marsh actually told me… what you guys heard tonight… a few days ago. Um. If it’s true – well, I guess it is true, at least it makes sense and she sort of showed me, well… I was supposed to be this big jock, OK? And she… well, Marsh had it a lot worse and… I felt really bad. Embarrassed, you know? I shouldn’t be showed up by, well…” He wasn’t looking at anybody, but at least he was forcing himself to talk.
“So, I don’t really know who I am. I liked the idea of being the guy I remember being, only… I guess he’s not me. I don’t know if I’m going to like being who I am, but my sister says I used to, and… well, Marsh tried teaching me to the play the guitar like… like I’m supposed to know how, and it did feel almost like my hands knew what they were doing, so anyway… I think we should try. To listen, I mean. And to see if we can be what we used to be, if that’s what we want. This guy messed with us, so I don’t really want to cut him any slack, but if he didn’t do what I thought he did, well, I think he owes us, and I want to know what he plans to do to help.
“I don’t know if I’m making any sense at all, but I think I want to hear what this guy can tell us. Don’t kill him, OK?” His face reddening, he sat down.
I watched the faces of the rest of the Strangers as they turned back to Brian. I’m not saying that they were mollified by any means, but I thought they looked a bit embarrassed over their hostility. The boy who had spoken up earlier certainly sounded calmer. “OK, look,” he told Brian, “we’re not going to assault you or anything, but as Ben says, you owe us. So what are you planning to do?”
“Well,” Brian offered, “did Marsh tell you about our idea to maybe help you guys recover memories?” He got plenty of nods, and hesitated. “Um, well…”
“Tell us what went wrong,” Ian suggested. “What did you expect to happen, and why didn’t it? I’m pretty sure you never warned us about massive memory loss or identity loss.”
“Oh! Well, the experiment, right.” He summarized what he’d told me about discovering that people exposed to their device had come away with new memories that clearly didn’t match reality, and his conclusion that he’d stumbled onto a ‘Many Worlds’ alternate universe. “What we didn’t realize was that younger subjects might have a different response.”
He explained how they’d concluded that the alternate reality must have split off before those of us in the Strangers had been conceived. “As far as we’ve been able to tell, nobody with a group 2 response was born before October 4, 1993.”
“What do you mean by a ‘group 2 response’?” The girl who’d sneered earlier asked, only this time she sounded curious, not hostile.
“OK, let me back up a bit,” Brian said, sounding more comfortable. First of all, I should note that we interviewed everybody – and that includes you guys, although you don’t seem to remember it – immediately after subjecting them to the device, and the responses were fairly consistent – 78% of our subjects were able to find something in their memories either then or in the next week that didn’t match reality – our reality. One thing that was different was that about one in ten had a memory of being the opposite sex. Not all the time – it was easy for them to identify it as a new memory, since they were clearly different in it; still, it was something we hadn’t seen at Rocky Lake. The bigger change, though, was something that happened a couple of weeks later.
“We had two girls come in, a bit confused. They remembered the experiment and remembered that they were supposed to be interviewed, but didn’t remember having done so. Further, they claimed that their appearances had changed, and they were happy about it. One girl said she was thinner than she remembered being, and the other claimed that she looked ‘prettier’ in ways that she couldn’t quite remember. Neither had reported anything of the kind when we’d interviewed them initially.”
“So what happened to them?” another girl asked.
“We spent a fair bit of time interviewing them, and we found some curious things. There were a lot of things that they remembered differently than the first time, and differently than we could verify independently. We asked them about a lot of events that we knew about happening at Piques since we’d gotten here, including the big welcoming program at the start of the school year, and we caught a break. One of the girls told us how she’d developed a bit of a crush on the guitarist who’d opened the program, but I didn’t remember him. I even checked the program the school had put out, but the first act was a duo. As it happened, the other girl had the same memory.”
“But we already know about that,” somebody pointed out.
“We do now. This is how we found out about it. So we decided that their response was different from our initial subjects that we called them ‘group two’ but didn’t know why they had reacted differently. We did find some evidence, though, that their memories had changed since the initial exposure.”
Brian looked uncomfortable. “We have some guesses on that point, but we don’t know yet. We’re working at an empirical level here. Theory will come later. At any rate, when we went back and analyzed our Piques data from earlier, we realized that every subject who reported memories of being different, not just remembering different events, had been born after September of 1993, so we called the rest of those with differing memories, ‘group three.’
“Then we started hearing some alarming things from the administration. Some students had come to them, claiming that we had changed them and disappeared. They were really hazy about exactly what we had done, or who we were, but they remembered doing an experiment and then couldn’t remember where we were. We were ordered to shut down everything and disappear for real, and threatened that if we did not, our grant money would not be paid out, and the College would deny any knowledge of our work.
“They didn’t even give us time to take our equipment with us, and we’d brought that from Rocky Lake. They ordered us not to have any further contact with anyone from Piques, to take down all public accounts like Facebook, Twitter, and so on. But before we were done what little packing they permitted, Luke came in.”
Everyone turned to look at Luke, who gave them an innocent, “who, me?” look in return. This time I could feel the interest intensify as they looked back at Brian, expectantly.
“Unlike the two girls,” he continued, “Luke was not happy about the change, and wanted to know if we could undo it. Well, we’d already had knew that we were going to need to defy the school on the no communications with students thing if we were to get to the bottom of the whole ‘group two’ phenomenon, so we suggested that he start the Strangers in the Mirror and report back to us on certain observations we wanted him to make.”
That started a firestorm. “What? Luke knew?” “This was your idea?” “You knew about us?” “What did he tell you?” A few of the guys actually stood up and took step towards him, but were immediately stopped by the others. I think everybody wanted to know what was coming next.
“And of course, there was that article, which completely mischaracterized the experiment. We did learn of a couple of students whose remembered lives were noticeably different from their real ones, and that group two was a lot larger than we had realized.”
Vicky asked, “So what actually happened? Are you saying that we swapped memories with… with the people in the other universe? That some girl out there no longer remembers dating, um, the guy I thought I’d been dating?”
“I have no reason to believe that we had any impact on the other reality,” Brain said. “And I don’t think you have all of their memories, anyway. Now they could have your memories if the same experiment was done there, but I think in that case, you’d all remember their experiment, which you don’t.
“What I think is going on, is that your lives and those of your counterparts are similar enough that what parts of your memories you retain fit well enough with their memories, that you concluded that those memories were your reality – anything you remember makes enough sense that you’ve constructed them as though they happened to the people you think they are. Even though group three includes a fair number of people with memories of being the opposite sex, those memories are the exception rather than the rule. In fact, we’d figured that the group two response was impossible with cross-gender memories.” He looked over at me. “Then we met Marsh. We haven’t interviewed her in detail yet – and I hope she’ll allow it later – but I suspect that we’d find a lot of similarities between her life and that of her counterpart – more than for most brothers and sisters. Or alternately, that the memory-transfer was a lot more complete in her case. That might do it as well.”
“Wait,” I asked. “So why was I different from group three? Why did I get so many of… of Marshall’s memories?”
“Marsh,” he said, “I just don’t know why. I’m guessing right now that some of you found it easier to assimilate those extra memories than others. Maybe you pulled in more than others, or everybody pulled in a lot and stored them in your brains somewhere and then were able to recover them. I don’t know. I think it’s an interesting problem, and one I wouldn’t mind helping with, but it’s probably way out of my field. But you said that you ‘woke up’ with this boy’s memories in your head over midterm break and that was a lot later than everybody else. It might be that it just took time, but once you’d reached some tipping point, it was just easier to treat your own memories as things that Marshall had experienced.”
“And suppressing my own as not consistent with them?”
“I would guess so. As I said, there’s a lot more work to do, here?”
Ian stood up. “So after all this, how do we get our own memories back? Marsh said something about a psych experiment.”
“Right. We had somebody do some experiments and they were able to help those first two girls recover some of their memories. It is possible that the same techniques will work with you guys. It is also possible that your memories might simply start returning as you encounter more and more things that don’t make sense in light of the memories you have. I don’t know; this wasn’t part of the things I was looking for, but now… I’ll do whatever I can to help you guys, and I know it’s probably not much.”
That was my cue. “How many people can you get into this psych experiment?” I asked. We’d discussed this in advance, so I already knew the answer.
“Right away? Well, I’m pretty sure they’ve got room for two more right now. Not sure they have the resources for more.”
Luke stood up. “OK, folks. Looks as though we need two volunteers. Who wants to be a test subject again, only this time with a guarantee of no untested scientific equipment?”
I would love to have volunteered. I really did want those memories back, but the goal right now was to get the group committed. And as I’d feared, nobody moved, at first. But after a few minutes, Ben put up his hand. “If nobody else is interested… I mean, I won’t push anybody else out…”
“That’s great, Ben,” Luke said. “Anybody else?”
“Vicky,” I whispered, but she turned her face away. I whispered again, “Vicky,” and knelt at her side. “Do it, please. I want you to find good memories, so you’ll feel better about yourself.”
“What if all I have are worse memories?” she whimpered. “What if all I ever dated were creeps.”
“I don’t believe that,” I said watching everybody else. Then a girl did finally put her hand up and claimed the last spot.
“I’m just not ready, Marsh,” Vicky told me.
“OK, we have our volunteers,” Luke said. “We still need to meet with the rest of the group, but I think we’ve made some real progress. Any more questions?”
There didn’t seem to be any, so the meeting broke up.
As people started to leave, I followed Vicky out. “I’m just too confused, Marsh,” she protested. “I just don’t know what to do anymore. As you said, I don’t know who I am anymore, and I’m really afraid to find out. I thought I was learning to like myself; you really helped me there. But now, you’re telling me that the self I was starting to like isn’t me.”
“Vicky, that’s not true. The only you that I know is the one you’ve been since we met for the first time when we thought we already knew each other. I think you’re a lot nicer than the other Vicky, at least based on the way Marshall remembered you.”
“Marshall loved the other me!”
“Yes, yes, you’re right. I just–”
“It’s this me that’s not nice, then.”
“Wait… Vicky, let’s try something else, OK? Tell your roommates about the experiment. I have. Tell them that you don’t remember your own past, or at least that you don’t know how much of what you remember is true. Ask them what you were like before you did it; what they thought of the guys you dated, and so on. OK?”
“What if I don’t like the answers?”
“At least you’ll know the truth.” She looked at me, a look of doubt in her eyes, but she gave me a hug and headed off down the hall.”
I went to the lounge to let Terry and Lee Ann know that the meeting was over; when we got back to our room, Luke, Ian, Brian, and a couple of other guys were left. Ian and Luke seemed to be getting along a bit better, and the conversation between Brian and the others seemed very civil; in fact, the guys seemed to be very interested in what he had to say. By tacit agreement, three of us chose not to interfere, but started tidying up the room around them.
Finally, the conversations started winding down and I introduced everybody. “We want to thank you ladies for letting us borrow your room,” Ian said. “Is it all right if we meet with the rest of the Strangers here tomorrow?”
My roommates agreed, and the meeting the next day went off even easier. Luke and I split the initial speech, with him apologizing up front for having hidden the fact that he’d been in touch with the missing professor. It was pretty clear that the first days attendees had passed on the word to the second group, since there was no surprise when I spoke of the lawsuit or introduced Brian. Everybody signed on pretty quickly.
Vicky called me afterwards. “Looks as though you were right again, Marsh,” she said, sounding a bit happier than I’d heard her in some time. “Mandy and Christine were practically raving about a couple of the boys I’ve dated. So… maybe I’m worth something after all.”
“I always knew you were,” I said.
“Thanks for believing in me. Um, if any spots in that psych treatment thing open up, do you think I could get in? I’d kind of like to know my secret!”
Dad’s negotiations apparently went off without any problems. Shown photos of the old and new labs and videos of the experimenters emptying the old lab, the administration caved and gave us what Dad had hoped for: the scholarships were the least of what they should have done, and with the additional money they provided, the psychology professor, who turned out to be located at a university just twenty minutes away, was able to include three more subjects, and promised to bring more in the following year. We held a lottery for the places, and Vicky got in, but I didn’t – at least this year.
As for my relationship with Jeremy, I really can’t complain. He’s seemed a lot more amused than disconcerted at the things I remember. “So you were how tall?” he’d ask, and I would remember him that I wasn’t, I just had the memories of a boy who was. I made it a point never to mention Marshall’s sexual history, suspecting that if we ever did achieve a sexual relationship of our own, he’d be intimidated at the prospect of somebody a lot more knowledgeable watching him fumble his way toward a satisfactory result. I suppose if it ever came down to it, I could tell him about Marshall’s first and very embarrassing time, but silence has seemed the wisest policy.
I try not to be amused myself at his boyish propensity to exclaim over unique rocks and stones he finds on the ground. He recognizes all of them and explains to me their properties, or how they’re formed, or where appropriate their use as semi-precious stones, and has continued to shower me with his own creations. I’ve struggled with reciprocating; it’s so hard to find things that he wants or needs. I’ve finally realized that my listening to him and learning to appreciate his hobbies and creations is one of the things that makes him the happiest.
His rock collecting led to, or rather was an excuse for a very exciting incident that the two of are going to remember for a long time. It was just after his graduation that he’d come over to have dinner with my family, and even apparently managed to be polite to them when Vicky called me in a panic, and needing to talk right away. The subject turned out to be, to my surprise, her nascent romance with Brian, of all people, and her guilt at enjoying the company of a young man who had caused all of us such grief. I had to remind her that most of the Strangers had managed to, if not forgive him, quite, at least tolerate him, and that if she was happy, that was what really mattered.
When I got back, I discovered that the family had decided that Jeremy and I should go pick up some ice cream, and that given the light and the weather; we should walk to a nearby convenience store and take our time. I certainly had no objections to a romantic walk.
“So what did you guys talk about while I was gone?” I asked as we walked across the field just outside of our development.
“Oh, different things. Where I’m going to live while in business school next year, what I’ll be studying… you… Mostly, you, actually.”
“Well, that’s kind of embarrassing,” I said.
“No, it seems to be one of your parents’ favorite subjects. I know it’s one of mine.”
“Mmhmm,” I smiled. “So where did you decided to live? Have you found a roommate yet? Are you going to have a place for me to stay when I visit…?” Suddenly I realized that I was talking to the air.
“Come look at this,” he said, kneeling on the ground again.
Rolling my eyes, I turned and stretched out my hand to receive his latest find. “I don’t even know how you can see rocks in this…” Then it registered. Him down on one knee, holding out his hand, and in his hand something that sparkled a lot more than any found semi-precious stone had a right to.
I don’t know that I was even aware of conscious thought any more until he asked, “Jennifer Marsha Steen, I am very familiar with gems and precious stones and have never found one as precious as you. Will you marry me?” and I was hugging him and crying. And kissing. And hugging some more.
And then I winked and said, “So, you think this would be a good time for me to start sharing your bed?”
Of course he whispered back, “Wedding night, hon,” but that wasn’t some remote might-be time anymore.
Or so I thought. When we got back to the house and everybody congratulated us (they’d known all along that he was going to ask me) I discovered that my parents and my new fiancé had agreed that we would be having a June wedding – after my graduation, two years hence.
“It makes perfect sense, Babe,” he said, trying to placate me. “I’ll be in school a couple hundred miles away. Then I’ll graduate from B-school when you graduate from Piques and I can look for a job near your Med school.”
“And I have to be celibate for two more years, even when we know that we’re going to be together?”
“But we’ll have the whole rest of our lives together…”
So. It looks as though happily ever after is going to take a bit more work, but considering where I started on that horrible lemon of a morning in the fall, I’d say the lemonade tastes pretty sweet.