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Artificial Memory

The sun poured through the narrow open window, catching on the specks of dust swirling through the air and laying itself, like a gentle caress, across the opened mouths of a dozen cardboard boxes, where it sunk and disappeared amongst sharp shadows. The last shards of autumn lingered in the warm shadow of the sun, but the wind bit harshly and the coldness seeped across the floorboards as sternly as a freshly propped laptop on bare legs. Judy sat under its glare, dressed in slacks and a tight jumper, one leg curled for warmth, the other stretched out into the sun. She was studying a small box, pale and plastic, turning it so that a tiny metal ball bounced along its surface, rolling haphazardly through the dozens of channels etched into its skin. 


“Hey Grandma,” she called over her shoulder, holding the box out blindly. “What’s in it?” 


On a short coffee table, surrounded by the pulled out draws of a dresser and a dozen scattered knickknacks, taking up the whole of Judy’s laptop screen, an old woman set her knitting aside. Somewhere in her seventies, she had tight, white curls cropped around her ears, and pale, milky eyes rimmed with wrinkles. She was the picture of age, though she wore none of its tiredness. 


“A labyrinth puzzle,” she answered with a satisfied smile. The woman settled back in her rocking chair – a plush, deep mauve seat Judy had seen in an antique store – and resumed her knitting. “Once the ball is in the lock, you turn the centre and it’ll open.”


“What’s inside?” Judy wondered, turning it again, watching the little metal ball dodge around corners. Eyes narrowed, she tilted it, but the ball fell through an open square and dropped three levels down. 


“Oh, it could be anything,” Grandma sighed. “Your mum did like her puzzles. Every Sunday she needed the paper’s crossword or she’d scream the house down.”


“Can you solve it?”


“I can’t even see it, dear.”


Judy staggered upright and picked her way carefully towards the laptop, nudging moth-bitten blankets and old beer cans out of her way. She tossed the cube, letting it spin before her, the ball spinning wildly within it, then set it on the table beside her computer. The glass underneath lit up, pale lasers surrounding the cube, bouncing around the tiny walls like quiet little balls. Her grandmother hummed.


“The path isn’t difficult, but the ball is finicky and there’s damage on the walls. It would take you an hour.”

“And if I use a hammer?”


“Two hours to clean the mess you made.” Her grandma laughed, as gentle as the sunlight but tinny through the laptop speakers. “Do you want me to show you the path?”


“Leave it for now,” Judy decided and tossed the cube into the closest box. Something snapped beneath it, but as Judy dipped to correct it, she spotted an unopened beer just next to it, scooping and opening it in a single, well-practiced shift.


She settled by a new box, chasing the drifting sunlight. When she started – for what felt like the hundredth time – that morning, the sun had been on the far wall, casting straight over her head and leaving warmth everywhere beneath it. Now, it had crept further away, hidden by the roof and eaves and oncoming clouds. It was probably for the best, Judy decided, pulling thick photo album after thick photo album out from the box and settling them in her lap. Even without the light, she could see the dust exploding around her, settling like ash against her hair, joining the streaks of grey in her list of things she pretended not to know about. 


She turned the first cover – gently, creaking, the thick pages clinging to each other, clear film peeling away from its original bindings. Her mother grinned up at her from them, her face burnt and her hair red, completely unlike the golden blonde she’d worn for the last thirty years. It suited her better; suited her youth. Claire grinned up at the camera: stick thin, probably from cigarettes, and reckless the way parents always looked before kids. She wore a pair of shorts that would’ve earned Judy a screaming match at that age and sat perched on the hood of an old, rust yellow car. A man leant next to her, wearing a cowboy hat and a moustache that covered half his cheeks.


“Who’s this?” Judy asked, holding the whole book up to the computer. Grandma hummed, leaning forward again as if she could zoom right in. 


“Looking at your mum’s age and the car, I’d say that’s your Uncle Timothy.”


Judy brought the photo back down, squinting through the blurry edges of the camera at the face beneath the moustache. 


“No way!” She laughed. As far as Judy was concerned, Uncle Tim hadn’t gone a day in his life when he wasn’t wearing a suit. Even as a baby, she pictured him in little bow ties and recycled dress pants dressed down as nappies. But the edges of the face she dimly remembered were there: the hulking nose, the dimpled chin, and that specific curl falling across his brow that she had inherited. 


“Maybe it’s Uncle Alan then,” Grandma mused. “They did look very alike. Why, if you look at their baby photos, the only way you can tell the difference is by which bear they’re holding.”


Uncle Alan had died when Judy was ten but even before that, she didn’t have any memories of him, the handful of times her mother had called him, sat on the barstool in the kitchen and shooing Judy away whenever she got too close to listen. They might’ve been close once, when they were younger and had less keeping them busy, or they might not have been. Her mother hadn’t ever said. But she didn’t say much about Uncle Tim either, and he was still going strong – still traveling the world at seventy-something or other. Judy hadn’t been sure how to even contact him; her mother hadn’t had a phone number or address, or even a next of kin for Judy to trace, and Uncle Tim didn’t have social media – or, if he did, he was lost among all the other Tim Rouses that scattered the globe. 


Her mother didn’t leave much of anything about any of her family. No notes or journals, no address book, just photos without captions. Puzzle boxes for Judy to solve.


She turned the page, studying the next series of photos. Her mum, and friends Judy couldn’t even guess the names of, camping and fishing. A group of boys, half shirtless and the other half sporting wild hairstyles; mohawks and afros and things her mother had hated when Judy brought friends around. Then the album was empty, and she set it behind her on the table, cracking open another album and another beer while she was at it. They were almost ghastly, the photos, like watching an old movie when you know all the actors are dead.


“Scan and enter into the database. Make an archive and search for face matches.”  


 “You won’t get much from those pictures, dear,” Grandma warned her gently. “The resolution’s poor. Cameras just weren’t what they are now.”


“Look anyway, maybe we’ll find one or two names,” Judy said, but it was absent. The latest book was full of wedding photos – her parents dressed in the most expensive clothes they’d ever owned, their faces split with smiles that she knew wouldn’t last. She traced her hands over her mother’s slim silhouette – would that be in a box here too? Packed away out of sight and left to mites and silverfish? Her grandma stood to her side, decades younger, standing straight and strong on her own, arm looped with a man Judy could only guess was her grandfather. 


A shot of her mother’s hands, showing off the rings, three small diamonds tinted blue in the failing sepia light. Where was it now? Her mother had complained in her last years about failing, fat fingers, and arthritis that meant she couldn’t wear her ring, but Judy couldn’t remember the last time she actually saw it. Her mum always wore an anniversary ring, simpler with pale blue stones…


She twisted her own ring, her fingers shaking.


“When was their wedding?” Judy asked, transfixed on the photographs.


“I’m not sure,” Grandma hummed, tapping a knitting needle to her lips. “You were born in twenty-oh-six, in Mount Hewitt Hospital when your mum was thirty-one. By the 2001 census they were living alone together in the same region.”


“Search for wedding announcements in the local paper between those dates. Tag names Keith and Claire O’Donnell.” 


“That may take me a few minutes.”


Judy’s fingers traced over the photo, her eyes fixed on her mum’s, trailing over her dad’s blue tie. 


“Do it,” she said and flipped the page. The bridesmaids were in turquoise, every one of them skinnier than Judy had ever been in her life, starving and laughing together. Aunt Aggie leant against Judy’s dad, accompanied by a man Judy didn’t know. The cake was tall, elaborate, more expensive than Judy could afford.


“I’m afraid there’s no record in the system, dear,” Grandma sighed, resuming her knitting. It was a simple rhythm, repetitive. “Would you like me to broaden my search?”


“Don’t bother,” Judy sighed and shut the album sharply. If they weren’t there, they weren’t done at all. Or the issue hadn’t been uploaded. “Make one up for now and input it into her program.”


Her phone buzzed and she turned off the alarm absently, patting herself down.


“What kind of flowers should I get her?”


“Her wedding bouquet had daisies,” her grandma answered. “As well as white roses and lavender.”


“Order a bunch of chrysanthemums, pick up in twenty minutes, and a smaller bunch of daisies for you.”


“It’s so nice to see you thinking of me,” Grandma said gently. “You’ve always been my favourite grandchild.”


Judy flickered through the tabs on her laptop until her grandmother’s image was replaced with another, younger but no less lined, one. Her mother slept on screen, the image moving slowly with imitated breath. It wasn’t quite the same as the pictures; Judy had done for her mother what she could never have done for herself: removed the dark sunspots from her cheeks and the scars of burnt off moles, lessening the sag around her jaw while she was at it. Now she added the red-copper hair.

“Maybe we won’t fight so much now,” Judy said to her mother’s image. “Grandma, add a tolerance buff to her subroutines and download the Jamie Oliver Collection to her knowledge banks, then sleep all apps. I’ll be home late.”


“I won’t wait up, dear,” Grandma said, still knitting away. Judy’s mother’s image flickered, overrun with numbers and codes, her grandmother hard at work. “Have fun at the cemetery. Give my well wishes to myself and Claire.”


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