The doorbell rang. With a sigh he got up from the bed, stripped the head-mounted display from his face and opened the door.
A girl, for a few days still on the teenage side of adulthood, greeted him.
“Can I come in?” she asked.
She pointed behind her. “It’s raining.”
He stared out into the grey drizzle. He hadn’t noticed it until now. When he had begun working this morning the sky had been overcast, but the pots with lush cherry tomatoes, chili peppers, sage, basil and other herbs on his balcony dry. “I can lend you an umbrella.”
“Thanks, but first I need to talk to you.”
She took a step forward, but he didn’t move from the door frame. “I won’t just let you inside.”
“Why not?” she asked. She was so close to him that her leg touched his. He saw that her hair and her clothes were darkly wet, smelled the jasmine perfume that wafted from her skin.
“I don’t know who you are.”
Her hand flew to her breast. “You don’t remember me?”
“Let me in so that I can explain,” she said and pushed against him.
He shoved her and she stumbled backwards. A redness crept into her cheeks.
She moved closer and swiftly punched him into the stomach. He fell to the floor and she stepped into the apartment. She pushed him aside and closed the door. He clutched his stomach and glanced up to her. She walked away from him and sat down on a chair, her face inert.
“What do you want?” he asked and slowly got back on his feet.
“Well-” she began. “You really don’t remember me?”
He shook his head. “No, I mean you look awfully familiar, but I can’t connect you to any specific memory.”
“Let me make some tea, then.”
“Delicious,” he said and put the tea cup down. “But I just can’t recall that I ever met you or that anything unusual happened last November.”
Cloudfiltered light fell through the windows onto her face, lingered in her narrowed eyes. “But I hope you understand why I’m here today.”
“That I do, even though I don’t know if I can believe your story.”
She blinked and fished a rectangular cuboid out of her sock and handed it to him. “Try this.”
He looked at the metallic pins. “No.”
“Come on, it’s safe.”
“Anyone can say that.”
“Just plug it into any old computer. I’m sure you have a few lying around.”
“All the same, why would I want to sacrifice one?”
She crushed the cup in her hand and let the shards fall to the floor.
He pushed his glasses back up his nose. “I see.”
The thick tablet slowly copied the data onto its drive. Then it opened and displayed the first file. It was a photo and showed the two of them in a snow flurry.
“This makes it more likely that you’re telling the truth,” he said. “But pictures can be forged, of course.”
He clicked to the next image. And to the next again. There were hundreds of them.
“It’s hard to see why you would forge so many photos. But then again it’s rather unlikely that I wouldn’t remember it if I had come as close to another person as to you.”
“There are many ways to lose one’s memory. It isn’t even that rare.”
“And you’re saying that if I remembered that November day, I wouldn’t hesitate to help you out?”
“Hm. I’m not usually so adventurous.”
“Really? I got a rather different impression of you on that day.”
She moved over and sat down next to him on the couch. He flinched.
“I can’t believe you’re still hesitating,” she said. “It’s not like it’ll cost you anything except a little bit of your time.”
“But why should I take the risk?”
She laughed, loudly but merrily. “You’re good enough, you don’t have to worry.”
“Your optimism is uncalled for.”
She put a hand on his shoulder. “Come on. It’ll be fun.”
Her fingers were tapping a lazy rhythm on his shirt. He looked down. The purple nailpolish was shimmering.
“You think so?” he asked. Her tapping became faster, her nails dug deeper into his skin. “Let me at least sleep on it a night or two.”
“Sure. I’ll cook dinner.”
“You don’t need to stay here, you know?”
“But that wouldn’t be much fun, would it?”
His jaw clenched.
A slap woke him. He sat up with a jolt and switched on the lamp on the nightstand. The woman lay beside him, looked at him with very alert eyes. He blinked. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“It’s time to get up.”
“Why? And what are you even doing in my bed?”
“I don’t like to sleep on couches, they’re too small and too hard.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“I only remembered after lying on the couch for half an hour without being able to sleep.”
“Why the slap?”
“You wouldn’t wake up when I called your name, not even when I shook you. And we need to get going soon if we want to get it done before sunrise.”
“Don’t just assume I want to help you.”
“I’m not assuming that. I’m only assuming that you will help me.”
“You don’t know me that well.”
“I see you still haven’t gotten your memory back.”
They stepped out of the high-rise building. Chilly air sloshed over them. He hastily buttoned up his coat. “This is crazy,” he said and rubbed his eyes.
“I’m talking about me helping you, or is that modernity, too?”
“No, that’s very traditional.”
On a quiet, unlit corner they put on gloves and pulled masks over their heads. Their clothes were dark and heavy. A slight film of perspiration covered his skin. His scalp was beginning to itch.
A short while later they arrived at an iron gate. It was closed firmly but they quickly climbed over it. A winding path took them through an overgrown garden. “Looks deserted,” he said.
“It isn’t. It’s scrupulously arranged to fit their aesthetic tastes.”
“Are you sure they’re not here today?”
“Pretty sure, but we’ll see.”
The windows were dark, fitted with easily excitable sensors.
They went to the back door. A panel, set into and flush with the wall, was glimming bluishly. He looked at it, then tapped on it. An elaborate welcome message spilt over the display. He flicked it aside and a keyboard appeared. “You really don’t know the password?”
“No,” she said. “I told you that’s your job.”
He sighed and pulled a cube out of his bag, it had a rubbery side that he pressed to the panel. Then he typed some commands into the other side. “It may take a while,” he said. “If it can find the password at all.”
She didn’t answer.
He turned around, his hand still pressing against the cube. “Well?”
She was sitting on a low bench, her legs stretched out, her head tilted. She pulled up the fringe of her parka a little, revealing lace stockings above the knee-length combat boots. “We have time.”
“We’re lucky they don’t have surveillance cameras installed,” he said and pulled off his mask as well.
She shrugged. “It’d be strange if they did. They like their privacy. Inside the house and outside.”
“They’re afraid that the footage would leak?”
She let the lamp they had brought shine a bit brighter. “I think they just want some privacy from the security service and from each other.”
“Don’t you want to turn off the lamp?”
“The trees should hide the light and the sky is overcast tonight. We wouldn’t see much without the lamp.”
“I only need to see the display, and that has its own light.”
“But what about me?”
“What about you?”
“It’s boring if I can’t look at you.”
“Just play a game on your handheld.”
“Nothing good has come out this year.”
“Then play something older.”
“I’ve played them already.”
“Hardly all of them.”
“Of course not. Just the good ones.”
He was typing again. “I can’t entertain you. I’ve work to do.”
She switched off the lamp and pulled out a handheld.
“Huh, that was easy,” he said a long while later. “Got the password?”
“Yeah, they shouldn’t have used personal information for it. But I don’t want to complain, it’s all the better for us.”
“What’s the password?”
“You don’t need to know that.”
“You’re a bore.”
“You haven’t exactly been entertaining me, either.”
“Without me you’d still be sleeping alone in your tiny apartment.”
“As I should since it’s the middle of the night.”
The door opened and she got up from the bench. “It’s finally my turn,” she said and entered the house.
He quickly followed her and closed the door behind him. She switched on the lamp. Wan light trickled over the floor. She hurried through the corridor, up the stairs, into a high-ceilinged room. Then she closed the shutters and turned up the lamp.
He glanced around and said. “I’m not sure I should be in here.”
“Neither of us should be here.”
“That’s not what I meant. You’re a woman and you know her. It’s much more improper for a strange man to visit a woman’s room without permission, especially if that room is evidently so private.”
“Don’t worry. You’re not the first strange man in her room.”
“It won’t take long,” she said. “Just wait there. If you’re so demure you don’t have to look at anything.”
He nodded and clasped his hands between his back. Nevertheless his eyes began to wander, they lingered on the desk that was cluttered with trinkets, book piles and loose sheets of paper. Some of the books looked ancient, bearing undecipherable and unhallowed titles. Pieces of Victorian machinery glistened in golden and silver hues. Meanwhile she rummaged through the armoires, hesitating from time to time.
“Have you found it yet?” he asked.
“No. She has so much stuff and she could have hidden it anywhere.” She paused for a minute, the upper part of her body deep in the closet. “Are you getting bored?”
“Well-” he began.
“You aren’t still standing there, are you?” she interrupted him. “You’re shyer than I thought. Just sit down somewhere. On her office chair if you don’t want to touch her bed.”
He did so and picked up the book that lay on the top of the pile closest to him. It was titled ‘De Vermis Mysteriis’. He opened it and began to leaf through it. His lips were twitching, his fingers trembling.
She called him and he quickly got up and went over to her. “Look, I found it,” she said and shoved the object she was holding into his hands.
“Very pretty,” he said and tried to open the oblong, sugilite-studded box but the latch didn’t budge. “How do you open it?”
“I hope she didn’t figure that out. But I think I would have noticed if she did, so I should be safe.” She took the box from him and put it into her bag.
“Is there anything else you need to take back from her?”
“No, that’s all she stole.”
“Then let’s go.”
He set two teacups on the table and poured steaming hibiscus tea into them. “You might as well show me what’s in the box. After all, I helped you out for free today.”
She shrugged and took a sip of tea.
She brushed a loose strain of hair behind her ear and said softly: “It’s embarrassing.”
“I figured that that was the reason why you wanted the box back so badly. But I thought it would be embarrassing if your friend saw it, not if I saw it.”
“To be more precise, it would have been horrible if she had seen it, but it would still be embarrassing if I showed it to you.”
“So you want to leave me wondering for the rest of my life why exactly I broke into that house?”
She shifted on her chair. “No.”
“Damn you.” She put her hand on her breast. “Just listen how fast my heart is pounding.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to cause you any anxiety.”
She picked up the box, her fingers scampered over the top and the bottom, then the lid snapped open. She put the box back on the table and sat back, biting her lower lip.
He leaned forward and took a fan, a letter, a white ring, a handful of tickets and an ivory figurine depicting an arctic fox from the box. “Is this all?”
“All that was in this box, yes.”
“You have other boxes?”
She nodded almost imperceptibly. Then she snatched the letter from his hand. “Wait. I’ll tell you what the meaning of the box is, you don’t need to read the letter.”
“I was in love with her for a long time, but I was never able to tell her. So I collected the tickets from everything we ever did together as keepsakes. Movies, museum visits, amusement parks, zoos and so forth. The ring a friendship ring. I don’t know if she remembers that we ever had them. I haven’t seen her wear hers for years. That’s why I don’t wear mine anymore. I don’t want to give her the impression I’m weird or anything. The figurine is a present from her from a zoo visit. We and a few other girls bought each other figurines. She gave me an arctic fox because, as she told me later, my complexion was so light and because my demeanor reminded her of a fox. I gave her an archaeopterix because it was very glossy and colourful and she liked shiny things so much. The other girls’ figurines I’ve since lost, though. The fan was supposed to be a gift for her. I got it on a trip north, but when I came back I was too shy to actually give it to her. The letter I wrote to her when I realized that I could never get closer to her. I never intended it to be read by anyone else. I wanted to burn it after writing it, as a sort of purification ritual but the letter was so intimate that I couldn’t find the heart to destroy it. So I just kept it and closed it away with the other things.”
“But why would it have been so bad if she’d read it?”
“Well, I was very explicit and how could I have faced her, or she me, after she found out that I-”
“Did she know what was in the box when she took it?”
“No,” she said quickly. “I mean she should have guessed that the box meant a lot to me and that I was in love with her, but I don’t think she connected the two. I’m not even sure she realized that I felt more for her than a friend would.”
The first sunrays of the morning slid through the window into the room, warming his face and getting entangled in her hair.
“What now?” he asked.
“Nothing. Today never happened. She never took my box, I never took it back. No one ut me will ever see the box again. It might as well not exist anymore.”
“Are you sure that she will never mention the box?”
“Very sure. It wouldn’t be like her to do that.” She stood up. “Well, I better go now.”
“Will my memory vanish again?”
“Only God knows.”
“That’s not very helpful.”
She picked up her bag, kissed his forehead and left the apartment.
Silence filled his ears. He opened a window. The air was still cold, despite the myriads of photons that were now rushing through the sky. He smiled and slipped the head-mounted display onto his head. Then he grabbed a translucent drone and threw it out of the window. Its rotors kicked in before it could drop away. It took a minute to stabilize, then it was hovering motionlessly in front of the apartment. He sat down, switched to the drone’s view and let it float downwards.