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Combinatorial Explosion

by Axel Taiari

I understand before they can make me forget.

First memory. Age unknown. Mom shackled to a hospital bed. A translucent snake crawled down her throat, its tail tethered to a beeping box. A mask hides one half of Mom’s face. Phantom Of The Opera. Reference 960 8131. No, not a mask. Correct invalid imagery, adjust to facts. Replace mask with bandages. Find raw logic in the Rorschach pattern of dark red leaking through cotton. Done. Understanding: Dad is natively wired to use his right prehensile tool for most actions. It explains why the broken beer bottle struck the left side of Mom’s face.

Later. Dad morphs to ghost when justice unleashes badged bloodhounds in his wake. Ghost vanishes through the cracks, although the laws of physics being what they are, one cannot vanish through anything. And ghosts do not exist.

Age six. Girl kisses me on a dare. She runs away, giggling. Existence of cooties: disproved. I will reconsider should symptoms manifest themselves within three weeks, the estimated gestation period.

Age eight. Radio-controlled car for Christmas. Comes wrapped in newspaper, stashed under a shedding pine tree. Expiration date of tree: long past. Cause of death: dehydration. Additional cause of death: axe to torso. I ask Mom why there is no package for her. Mom just smiles and hugs me. At bedtime, my right arm tingles, feels filled with ants. Then something pops behind my skull and I breathe smoke. Garbled sound waves crash. Lightning strikes in my vision, becomes a paramedic’s flashlight probing for signs of life. I awake in a hospital room, somehow different from Mom’s. The man in white tells me, “You’re all fixed.”

Age ten. Muscular kids in the locker room whip me with belts, hoot mockeries to impose authority, weave social order out of hormonal chaos. Before Mom gets home, I slip into a long-sleeved t-shirt to cover up the bruises.

Age twelve. Mom reveals absence of genetic connection. In simple terms, she explains her inability to procreate. Tears run down her cheeks. She loves me. I am unable to label her as Fake-mom. Mom remains Mom. Love remains too.

Age fifteen. Girl with eyes the color of mercury kisses me in the middle of a movie. The electric taste on my tongue sticks around for days. I do not remember the movie.

Age nineteen. My right arm hurts, feels too warm. Skin smells cooked. Doctor injects me with something, puts me under. It helps. Doctor says to call him immediately should this happen again.

Age twenty-one. Ghosts are real. Dad gets resurrected via a phone call in the dead of night. Quick rename to Fake-dad based on age twelve data. Fake-dad wants to meet up. Fake-dad says he doesn’t drink. I finish Fake-dad’s sentence for him, spit the word anymore into the receiver. I hear the guilty flinch from two thousand kilometers away. Smile, hang up. Cancel the resurrection, quit being scared of ghosts.

Age twenty-two. Girl number seven says she loves me. Process meaning. Binary choice: honesty or kindness. Flip mental coin. Kindness selected. “I love you too,” I reply.

Age twenty-two, one hundred and six days into the year. Car crash. Mom’s vital functions go dark. Closed coffin. I spend the next night drinking and talking to a hole in the ground.

Age twenty-three. I kiss girls number eight, nine, and ten. Information reaches number seven through verbal exchange. Source: friends. Biblical reference possible. Re-shuffling of friends within mental directory, filed under J for Judas. I add my own name there. Girl number seven says, “It’s over.” Escape status: successful. Engage hedonism.

Twenty-four. Twenty-four? Twenty. Four. Warning: partially corrupted memory. Alcohol as the probable cause.

Age twenty-five. I use my right hand to reach for a beer bottle. Unexpected memory retrieval: Mom’s bandaged face. I empty bottles down the drain for fear of turning into a ghost.

Age twenty-six. Girl number sixty-three says she loves me. I quick-scroll through facts before replying. List too long to review, keeps expanding daily. I dreamt of her long before we met. Her face has always been familiar. I find myself unable to picture a life where I don’t wake up to her warmth or the smell of her breath at dawn. Even the way she sneezes triggers something within. It all makes sense. Binary choice: non-existent. Rename to Jasmine. Trust dreams. “I love you too,” I reply.

Age twenty-eight. I slide a ring on Jasmine’s finger. My side of the church is empty. Corks pop, music plays. Wish Mom could see me from her hole in the ground.

Age thirty-two. My right arm bursts into flames. One minute I am reading a book and the next there’s burning flesh and blue sparks and screams escaping from my throat. I manage to put the fire out by slapping my arm on the bed. Analysis of the smoldering wound: skin, flesh, fat, blood, wires coiled around bone. Illogical, yet not all. I know the wrongness of it. Have known all along. I reach for the phone.

Sixteen minutes after phone call. Jasmine comes home. I want to show her. “Please don’t be scared,” I say. She stares at the wires dangling from me. Decrypt facial expression and body language: absence of surprise. She removes something small and black from her pocket. The crackle of electricity, followed by darkness.

Two hours ago. Stretched out, wrists and ankles bound. Vision deactivated. Voice A asks, “Can we even salvage this one?” Voice B says, “No need. His watcher brought him in. We’re only transferring the data and then wiping him.”

Tag self as Fake-self.

Consider options.

Thirteen minutes ago. The roar of a drill. I smell Voice B’s sweat as he leans over me. Calculations finished. Sacrifice: worth it. I apply strength to my ruined arm, press up against the restraints until what’s left of the charred bone snaps. The freed limb slams into Voice B’s skull. Voice B falls on my chest. Using my stump, I push the man’s body to where it needs to be and reach for the drill with my left hand.

Decision tree expands.

Now. An avalanche of memories flood my cortex as I stand on wobbling feet. Still blind. Navigate using sounds, smell, and touch. Objective: leave room. Fix self later. Priority: locate Jasmine. Replace her name. Find way to erase love.

Axel Taiari is a French writer, born in Paris in 1984. His writing has appeared in multiple magazines and anthologies, including 3:am Magazine, 365tomorrows, No Colony, Dogmatika, Solarcide, and several others. Read more at

Lead image: “moon bather” (via Flickr user Joel Ormsby)