By Victoria Grossack
Victoria Grossack is the author of The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in the Village of Jane Austen's Emma, columnist for Writing-World.com, and co-author of the Tapestry of Bronze series. Also the author of The Meryton Murders: A Mystery Set in the Town of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice.
Cassandra, sitting in the waiting-room, put down the pad she was holding. Even though the story was one of her favorites, she had read it so often that it had lost its ability to transport her into its world.
Hesitating, she crossed the plush carpet and went to the counter of the Clean-Your-Mind Clinic and asked what was taking so long.
"Name?" asked the frowning receptionist. She typed 'Cassandra Bates' and checked her display. The receptionist shook her head. "The money isn't here. Clinic policy: we got to be paid in full before the procedure."
Cassandra brushed a gray curl out of her face and felt her cheeks redden. "I know there was enough money in my account for this." She had been saving a long time for this; she could not bear to wait another day.
The receptionist shrugged her padded shoulders. "Maybe you need to OK it. Check your mail."
Hopeful, Cassandra sat back down and took the receptionist's advice. The woman was right; for such a large sum, the bank did need her to authorize the transfer. She did so, and triumphantly informed the receptionist.
The woman checked again. "Yes, the money's here," she said, smiling and pressing a buzzer. "Dr. Perry will be with you shortly."
The door swung open, and George Perry, balding and affable, ushered Cassandra into the clinic's inner sanctum: a white room containing some chairs and equipment.
"Miss Bates, please, sit down," said Dr. Perry, and they both took seats. He handed her a piece of paper. "We need both electronic and hardcopy confirmation that these are the memories you want deleted."
Cassandra reviewed the sheet of paper. "Yes, that's right."
"You realize, that for no additional charge, we can remove other memories as well. Are you sure you don't want to forget that, ah, incident with Frank?"
Cassandra blushed but she shook her head.
"As you like. Sign here, and press your thumb on the pad."
Cassandra signed the paper and pressed her thumb on the pad. After that he put a helmet with blinking lights on her head, told her to close her eyes and to count to ten.
"Open your eyes, Miss Bates," said the doctor. "We're done."
She opened her eyes. "You're finished?"
"Yes." He gently removed the helmet from her.
"But, I don't feel different." She reached up and smoothed her hair.
"That's normal," said the doctor.
"I mean, I don't feel as if I've forgotten anything. Are you sure that it worked?"
As he put the helmet away, Dr. Perry sighed, as if he had this conversation a thousand times before. "Do you remember what you were trying to forget?"
Cassandra tried to remember, but all she recalled was that she had emptied her bank account for this. She would be eating peanut butter for weeks. "No. No, I don't!"
"If you remembered it, you wouldn't have forgotten it, would you?"
Cassandra's dazed brain tried to follow the thread of this argument. "I suppose."
"Your reaction is common, and that's why we require the money in advance," said Dr. Perry. "Anyway, Miss Bates, the Clean-Your-Mind robot car is waiting to take you home. Thanks for using our services." He opened the door for her, and the receptionist accompanied her to the robot car.
The clinic's robot car was far more luxurious than the one Cassandra usually rented. Evidently she had paid for this, so she should do her best to enjoy it. Yet instead of making use of the bar, she kept wondering what she had paid to forget.
"Paying to forget something is cheating," Cassandra said aloud. "What are we but the sum of our memories?"
"Do you want to change the destination, Miss Bates?" asked the robot car.
"No. No, I'm sorry," she said, and the robot car rolled on, along streets that were reassuringly familiar.
Perhaps she had witnessed a great crime. But in that case wouldn't the government have purchased the memory wipe? And if she had paid to remove some memories, then why on earth did she still remember that horrible time with Frank?
The robot car stopped before her shabby little house. "Welcome home, Miss Bates," said the mechanical voice, as it popped open its door. "Remember to take all your belongings with you."
Cassandra gathered her things and left the car. It remained at the curb until she opened her house door and crossed the threshold; then it sped away. Evidently the responsibility of the Clean-Your-Mind Clinic ended when its clients reached their homes.
Cassandra put away her things. She felt peculiar, out-of-sorts; she decided she needed a cup of tea. She went into the kitchen – everything still seemed familiar – then switched on the kettle. When she turned she saw a ribbon-wrapped box on the kitchen table. Attached to the box was a tag with the words: For Cassandra. They were in her handwriting, even if she did not recall writing them.
What on earth had she given herself? Curious, Cassandra untied the ribbon and removed the lid.
Inside the box were half-a-dozen old books, well-worn but still sturdy. Who read books in this form these days, and why had she prepared herself a box of them? She also found a sheet of paper, again with a message in her own handwriting.
You have always loved the novels of Jane Austen, but she wrote only six before she died. You have read them over and over until the enjoyment they gave you was gone. That is what you paid to forget: Jane Austen's novels.
The kettle clicked off, and Cassandra made herself a cup of tea. She pulled out a book called Pride and Prejudice and settled down to read it again, for the first time.