So, I know you're all wondering how it ends. To be honest, for a while, I wondered myself. But then, like most things that are worth anything, the idea came to me. And of course, the man who started it all, my bestie Josh, was the inspiration for the perfect conclusion.
Oh, and by the way, many of these pictures were taken by one of my dearest friends, Jodie Andrefski. I want to thank her for allowing me to use them. She's not only a very talented writer, but an amazing photographer as well. Thanks J. I love you~ sent from my iHeart.
So here it is. Hope you like it as much I do. It's been fun. Love you all.
The Memory Project: The Conclusion
By Carey Torgesen
I looked at the man standing before me. He wore a black brimmed hat, his hair was salt and pepper, with just fringes of bangs peeking out from under the dark fabric. He also donned a crisp, black suit, with the white shirt contrasting against the lapel and cuffs. It was a strange outfit to be wearing at this time of night, in the summer, in the middle of a small town like ours. I was sure he must be roasting like a ham on Easter Sunday.
Jesse stretched his arm around my waist, holding me so my back was close to his chest. I felt safe.
“D? What’s that for?” I asked.
“Donald. Agent Donald. Nice to meet you.” He held out his hand. I leaned forward, and took his hand firmly in mine. The moment our hands touched, a shock of electricity zapped me. I snapped my hand back. “Did you feel that?” With his arm still around me, Jesse held me tighter.
“Yes. Of course I did. It’s the same feeling I get when I hold the suitcase. Pardon me, but can I come in and sit down? I’ve traveled far searching for you, and I’d like to sit down with you and talk.”
Part of me hesitated. If I invited this…Agent Donald in, I would have to explain to my mom who he was and why he was here. I’d have to explain the suitcase, where we found it, the fact that we entered a house we should have never entered. I’d have to tell her about the scrapbook and pictures and what happened to me, and the fact was I could hardly understand it myself let alone explain it to another person. But, the other part of me, the one that was eager to invite him in, wanted answers. Relief washed over me because at his admission of the shock while we touched, I understood at once I wasn’t crazy. There were reasons for all these strange occurrences. And I was only an invite away to having all my questions answered.
I smiled and nodded. “Certainly, sir. Please, come in.” I stepped aside, Jesse mirroring my movements.
Before getting to the top of the porch, Agent Donald turned around toward a black car he parked down a ways in the driveway. The window was down halfway, enough for me to see someone was in there, observing this entire exchange. The man in the car nodded and the window rolled up.
“Who’s that?” Jesse asked.
“Oh, that’s Dr. Canterbury. He’s an old friend. We go way back.” Agent Donald smirked, then walked past us into the house.
Tonight, I was thankful that my sister had gone over to her friend’s house. We’d always been very different, Sam and I. Where I thought about books, swimming, and school, she’d be off having manis, shopping, and gossip. So she never would’ve listened to any of this with any real sense of belief. The four of us, my mom, Jesse, Agent Donald and I, sat at the round kitchen table, four glasses of sweet tea in front of us. I ran my finger around the rim of my glass, stopping only every so often to meet Agent Donald’s eyes as I explained everything that had happened this afternoon to my mother.
Her eyes bounced back and forth from Agent Donald to Jesse and then to me. She hunched over the table, her shoulders tense, and played with the end of one of the red and white gingham cloth napkins.
“So, this suitcase…this is what you’ve come for?” my mom asked.
“Yes,” Agent Donald replied, “ and no.” He gave me the strangest look, a mix of sorrow and fascination filled his eyes.
“What do you mean 'yes and no'? What kind of doublespeak answer is that?” Jesse said, glaring at Agent Donald.
“Well, that’s what I need to talk to you about.” Agent Donald picked up his tea, swirled it around and took a large gulp. “This is fantastic tea, Ms. Hamilton.”
My mom pressed her lips in a forced smile.
I sat quietly, listening to Agent Donald’s soft voice, the occasional tinkling of the ice against the glasses as people sipped from them, and my own heartbeat which thudded in anxiety.
“Well, the suitcase is part of what I’ve come for. About sixty years or so ago, I worked for the government. Top secret. I was a part of the administration that began the CIA. We created a new division, the NSA. I worked with an elite group of people, scientists,engineers, mathematicians. We were all working together on some high level assignments. Things that, to this day, I still can’t really talk about. Suffice it to say, some of that work had to do with time manipulation.” He paused and looked straight at me.
“Time manipulation? So, you’re telling me you studied time travel.” There was no way this guy was legit. He had to be some nut job.
“Not exactly. What I worked on did indeed have a time traveling element, but not exactly as you know it to be.”
Jesse balled his hand into a fist, and tapped his knuckles on the table. His mouth tightened.
“So explain it then.”
“Like I said, I can’t explain everything. Some of it would get me into deep trouble, some of it you wouldn't understand.”
“Try us,” Jesse insisted.
“Ok. Here goes,” Agent Donald adjusted his tie, and settled in his chair, folding his hands gently on the table. “A long time ago, as I said, a little girl went missing. I won’t get into the specifics of the case, but what I will say is that no one heard from her for a long time. Five years to be exact. Then she was found.” He paused and glanced around at all of us, probably trying to gauge our reactions.
“And,” Jesse said, pushing Agent Donald to finish.
“And the crazy thing was, she was the same age as when she had gone missing. Ten years old. We gathered some of the best minds in the world, gave them the case files, and working together we figured out what happened. How she could be missing for five years, yet be sitting there before us, unchanged. To put it simply, she was from another dimension. It’s called String Theory.”
“I know about that. It’s quantum physics stuff. Carl Sagan and Hawking shit.”
“Jesse! Watch your mouth, young man,” my mom scolded.
“Sorry, Ms. Hamilton.”
“Yeah, except it had been discovered before Hawking. He just popularized it, made it known. Now it's fodder for every science fiction story written. But they don’t have it quite right. The thing is, this girl was switched with the other one. Except, when we sent the girl back to her own dimension, the one from this one…never came back. So, since then I’ve been searching for her. Because, I think somehow, her disappearance was my fault. I made a grave error back then.” He lowered his eyes, and his brows furrowed. “I did something I shouldn’t have.”
“What?” I insisted.
“Part of the investigation, part of why the girl went missing, was somehow linked to a suitcase. THE suitcase. The one you have.”
“I don’t understand. How's the suitcase and the girl connected?”
“The girl was an anomaly. When her father was researching the time space continuum, he sent the suitcase into alternate dimensions. Somehow, the girl accidentally went with it.”
“Okay, I may be missing something, but the suitcase is here, we found it and brought it home. The girl is not with the suitcase.” I shook my head. This made no sense. Even though Agent Donald was speaking, nothing he was saying was making any sense. The more he talked, the less I understood. How did this have anything to do with all the weird things that happened since we found the suitcase and the scrapbook?
Agent Donald sat straight up. The color suddenly drained from his face, and his dropped his hands to his side. “I told you I did something. After the investigation into the girl’s disappearance closed, I took the suitcase home. I was supposed to leave it in the care of the Truman administration, and instead, I felt I needed to protect it. And I knew somehow that I can’t explain, that eventually, the girl and the suitcase would find each other. But when the NSA found out I kept it, I ran. I buried the suitcase in random locations. But then at times, I would come back to the location I'd buried it, and it would be missing. I’d go back to the location daily, and eventually, sometimes after days, sometimes months, one time a year, it would be back, in the same location. Almost the same as I’d left it.
“After the third or fourth time this happened, I started to notice a pattern. Intense electric storms. Strange weather patterns. All would occur right before the suitcase went missing, then again right before it would reappear. It was as if the very fabric of time and space was opening up.
“When I would look in the suitcase, there'd be objects inside that weren't there before. Then, I noticed the scrapbook. And the pictures. And as it jumped back and forth through varying dimensions, new pictures would appear. I started to catalog them. Organize them by some sort of system.”
“Things they loved. Things they lost. Things from other places.” The air in my lungs thinned. I inhaled deeply. The titles from the pages.
“Right. That’s them.” Agent Donald leaned his elbows on the table, settling his chin on his hands. “Thing was, it was like the suitcase was…looking for this girl. Trying to get through to the places and strings of time, the alternate realities, to find the girl it left with.”
I leaned back and tucked a few strands of hair behind my ear. “Okay, so let me get this straight. The suitcase came from another reality--you call it. And it took the girl with it. Now it wants to find the girl. Why? Why would it care?”
“Because, it wants to go back.”
“It wants to go back where?”
“To the reality it belongs in. But to get there, it must go back with the girl.”
“I'm so confused.” I put my head in my hands, and whimpered. “I don’t know why you even bothered telling this whole story. You could have just asked for the suitcase, I would've given it to you, and three hours of our lives wouldn't have been lost. Tell you what, sir, I’ll go get the stupid suitcase, give it to you, you can bury it or what the hell ever, and it can find the girl and everyone will be happy.”
“You aren’t understanding, Miss Hamilton. It has found the girl.”
It was as if the air had been sucked out of the kitchen. The tension was palpable.
“What the hell?” Jesse asked.
Agent Donald pulled out a picture from inside his jacket and slid it across the table, in front of me. Picking the picture up, I gasped when I saw the image. It looked exactly like me as a child. Maybe ten years old. Except it was in black and white, and the clothes I, the girl, wore, a light colored frilly dress, looked like something out of JC Penney circa 1950.
“It looks like me, but it isn’t me.” I shook my head.
My mom took the picture and examined it. “This, looks like you. But it can’t be.” She flipped the photo over. “A date stamp. April 14, 1950. This isn’t you.” She tossed the photo back on the table.
“Well, actually, it is, Ms. Hamilton. You see, your daughter, this one here, is not Natalie Hamilton. Her real name is Anna Robinson. That’s the name of the little girl in the picture. The little girl who went missing.”
“That’s insane!” Jesse stood up, bumping into the table, making my tea slop over the edge of my glass. “I think it’s time for you to leave.” He pushed his chest out, taking a step toward Agent Donald.
“Now just wait. Let me explain.”
“I think you’ve done enough explaining for the evening. I think you should go.” Jesse crossed his arms.
Agent Donald got up, but his manner remained calm. “Please son.”
“Jesse, let him finish. We’ve listened this long. We can entertain his silly story a little bit longer.” Jesse shot me a look, nodded his head, and looked back at Agent Donald, letting his arms fall back to his sides.
“Fine, finish.” Jesse sat back down, scooted his chair back from the table and leaned back in his chair, his long legs stretched out and crossed in front of him.
“Just hear me out and open your minds. What I’m going to say is, well, it’s damn hard to believe, but it’s true. Say every decision we make, spawns a new dimension. A new reality. Every one leads to a new "you" who made that decision and lives with the outcome. Turn left at the stop sign or turn right. In that moment, time splits and you actually live out both decisions. One in which you turn left and one in which you turn right. One makes you late to work, so you get fired. One puts you on a collision course with a truck. You get severely injured. But with string theory and alternate universes, both are true."
"It's like Schrodinger's Cat," Jesse said.
Agent Donald's jaw dropped.
"What? I read science fiction?" Jesse shrugged.Agent Donald nodded and continued. "See, the thing is Natalie, this picture is you. You are Anna. And you went missing a long time ago, you never returned. But here's the part that's going to test your beliefs. Anna Robinson in this dimension is here. But she’s seventy-three. It’s YOU who doesn't belong here. You belong back in 1956. Where you'd be Anna Robinson from the case in 1950. The one that never came back.”
I narrowed my eyes, glaring at the man in the suit across from me. “But then how come I’m not ten? You said Anna before didn’t age?”
“There’s a lot I still have to ask you. A lot we need to talk about. And a lot I still don’t know. All I can tell you is you did two things I never expected. One, you jumped time. Which means so did the suitcase. And two, you aged. Although I would guess you came into this reality when you were ten, took on Natalie’s identity, and lived her six years here, all the while the suitcase has been trying to find you.”
“Wouldn’t I know she wasn’t my daughter? Where is Natalie then? And why does she look just like her?” My mom sat stiffly at the table, her face pinched in disbelief.
“This is bullshit,” Jesse muttered under his breath. He ran a hand through his hair, shook his head, then slammed his hand palm down on the table. My mom and I flinched at the noise.
Agent Donald sat calmly. He leaned over, reaching into his brown satchel on the floor. He pulled some papers from inside, unfolded them, and handed them to my mother.
My mother’s face fell as she scanned the papers. Tears welled in her eyes. “What the hell is this?”
“It’s a death certificate. And an autopsy report. Your youngest daughter died six years ago. In a tragic car accident. Along with your husband. It was just Sam and you left. Then you found Anna. Or should I say, Anna found you. You needed her. She needed you. The mind is an incredible thing. And it deals with loss differently. No one can say how one will handle a traumatic event such as losing both child and husband. But you replaced your Natalie with Anna.”
“And Sam?” I asked. “How would Sam not know?”
“I can’t tell you. Maybe your mom convinced her. Maybe at first, she was trying to make sense of it herself and the more your mom believed it, the more Sam did too. This whole thing has no easy answers. Like I said, I don’t even know all the details yet.”
“You’re some kind of con-man and asshole. You really should get out of here.” Jesse fumed. His face reddened and his jaw clenched.
But the more Agent Donald talked, the more I believed what he was saying. It wasn’t possible, but at the same time, when I tried to recall my life before the age of ten, it just wasn’t there. I had no real memory of it. I pushed myself from the table and I bolted upstairs. I kicked open the door so it bounced off my bedroom wall and closed behind me.
I put my hand on the suitcase, and a tidal wave of memories flooded me. I was on a doorstep. There was a flash of light. I felt lost. A Truman speech on the radio. My mom and my dad and I, at a church sermon with my uncle. It all came back. That was me. That was my life.
“My name is Anna Robinson,” I whispered.
Another hour was spent with Agent Donald explaining how this all happened. He found old family photos of the real Natalie. Agent Donald called her my doppelganger--someone unrelated who looked almost identical to me. And from what I saw of Natalie, her and I at ten, were practically identical twins.
My mother’s memories came back too. She sobbed hysterically. I imagined having to confront and accept your child’s death would have to be the single worst thing that could happen to a woman.
We all sat in the living room. I sat right next to Jesse. With my head resting on is shoulder, he held my hand. My mom and Agent Donald sat across from us, each in their own wing-back chair.
“So now what?” I asked.
“Now, we let the suitcase take us back.”
Taking my head from Jesse’s shoulder, I asked, “But what if I don’t want to go back?”
“You have to, Anna. You don’t belong here.”
I gripped Jesse’s hand harder. I didn’t want to leave. I loved Jesse. I loved my mom. And even if she wasn’t really my mom, she was the only one I knew. Although, along with the flood of memories came the emotions I had for my family back home. And I knew as much as I would miss my mom here, I missed my mom and dad back home, too.
“Can’t I stay, just a little bit longer?”
Agent Donald shook his head. “It’s just going to make it harder. And those episodes you’ve been having, they’re going to get worse, the longer you stay. You’re breaking down. If you stayed, eventually…you’d fade away. It’s basic physics. Matter can’t occupy the same place at the same time. And you and this reality’s Anna Robinson are occupying both the same space and time. I can give you a week, but no more. And if any more fainting episodes occur, you need to call me.” He pulled out a card from his satchel and gave it to my mom. “It’s imperative we don’t let anything happen to you, got it?”
I nodded. Jesse placed his arm around my shoulders, his thumb caressing the curve of my neck.
Jesse and I were inseparable the next few days. I wanted to spend as much time as I could with him. When I wasn’t down at the swimming hole or at his house, I was with Sam and my mom, just trying to squeeze what little time out of the week as I could.
The world around me cascaded in black and white almost half of the time, now. I hardly noticed the constant pulses of electricity that coursed through me on a regular basis. Memories would come to me through dreams, sometimes nightmares.
Two lives merged in my sleep. One with the people I loved dearly, and one with phantoms of people I knew existed, but seemed so detached from.
Agent Donald stood on the front porch, black suit still impeccably crisp, manner still completely formal, as if he hadn’t just singlehandedly ripped my life to shreds. “You ready, Anna?”
The name still made me shudder. Although it was my name, it didn’t feel right. I suppose that was something I’d get used to. I hoped. I nodded and turned around to face my mom, Jesse and Sam. Tears filled my eyes.
“Mom,” I wrapped my arms around her waist, and held my head to her chest, the thumping of her heart echoing my own. She kissed me on the top of my head.
“I have something for you. Something to remind you of me.” From the front pocket of her dress, she pulled out a string of pearls. It was the necklace she always wore on special occasions. It had come from her mother. “This is for you. Keep it. I love you, honey.” And she tipped my head up and kissed me gently on the cheek. I hugged her again.
I took a step toward Sam. My sister of six years. We’d fought and called each other names. We’d laugh about it all later and talk about how we’d be when we were older. She too, had tears in her eyes. She’d taken the news pretty hard, harder than I’d expected. But she also was incredibly strong about it. Armed with the same evidence Agent Donald had given her, my mom had explained everything to Sam.
“Hey sis, I’m gonna miss you.” She took my hands in hers and squeezed, then let them go.
I wiped away a stray tear which rolled down my cheek and pursed my lips. “I’m gonna miss you too. Take care of everyone.” I looked over at Jesse, who met my eyes then turned away.
“I will. Take care, you,” Sam said and she embraced me.
I stood in front of Jesse. This one would be the hardest. None of these people could be replaced, but Jesse most of all. He was my best friend. The one I told everything to. He knew everything about me, sometimes even more than I knew about myself.
“Jess,” I whispered. I could barely look at him. I’d never seen him so quiet, so crumbled.
His mouth quivered, jaw muscles tense. He took a deep breath and looked at me, his red rimmed eyes, still so brown and beautiful, broke my heart.
“I love you, Jesse. I always will.” I barely got the words out before I started to sob. He folded me in his arms, and swayed with me back and forth, his face buried in my hair. From his shaking, I could tell he was crying.
He pulled his face away, tipped my chin so for one last time could gaze into each other’s eyes. “I love you. Natalie Hamilton.” Saying my name, the one I had worn for so long like a favorite pair of jeans, felt comfortable and right. It was as if he defied all time and space, announcing to the universe that no matter what it said, I was his Natalie. And that would never change.
We kissed in that moment. Our lips were frenzied, his hands holding me ever closer to him. The taste of salt from our tears lingered on our tongues. I clasped the back of his neck, never wanting the kiss to end. My whole life with him was in that kiss: the way Jesse made me laugh, the playful teasing back and forth, the walks in the grass with him, swaying together on his hammock under the shade of the old oak tree, kicking knees under the card table as our moms gossiped, racing to the swimming hole, the endless summers catching fireflies and toasting marshmallows over a camp fire, and our first kiss on the day we found the suitcase. All those memories colliding in one cataclysmic kiss.
As we parted, our breathing heavy, we became all too aware we were not alone. I glanced around, and noticed Agent Donald was down by the graveled driveway, my mom and Sam sitting off to the side on the porch swing. I smiled and looked back up at Jesse.
“I don’t have anything to give you,” Jesse said, his lips turned down.
“You’ve given me everything I need.” I brushed his cheek with my hand and managed a smile. “Bye, Jesse.” I had to make it quick. I couldn’t stay there any longer. If I did, I may just stay forever. And if I did that, I’d be dead anyway. Better to leave a good memory, even if it wasn’t exactly a happy one.
I stepped slowly down each stair, closer to Agent Donald. Closer to the suitcase. I gripped my mom’s pearls in my hand.
It was true what she said. Memories are like pearls. Delicate, lovely, and lasting. And though to others, it may well be that the imperfections decrease their value, but to me, it’s what makes them unique and gives them character. In fact, those imperfections helped to shape and mold that single pearl, and therefore, the pearl would not even be there if not for them.
I walked up to Agent Donald. With one hand holding the suitcase, he held out the other to me. I took one look back. Jesse stood at the top of the stairs, hands at his sides, face blank, tears falling down his cheeks. My mom and Sam were still on the swing, hugging each other. My mom waved.
Large rain drops began to fall. A charge of electricity filled the air. Somewhere in the distance, thunder rolled.
I turned back to Agent Donald and nodded. I took his hand. Energy and heat shot through me for the last time. There was a flash of light. And then we were gone.