The Cost of Wonder
by Leah Cypess
Read by Alethea Kontis
Listen to the audio version
I'll keep this one, I thought, that day at the fair, as the sunset cut a sharp line across the
sky. Gina's laughter rose in a crescendo of delighted giggles, and life seemed absolutely perfect: a
sparkling gift of wonder and joy.
I could never afford a memory like this, but I wasn't buying this one. I had made it, and it
was mine, and I wanted it to last forever.
I'm not going to sell this day.
But even as I thought it, I was calculating, trying to guess just how much it was worth. I
had known today would be magical; I had dressed Gina for the part, in a little denim dress and
matching hat, both of which I'd bought with my earnings from last week's trip to the playground.
The hat flattened but didn't tame her curls, and her round face was stretched by her smile. She
squealed again as soap bubbles filled the air, trying to catch them with tiny, uncoordinated half-jumps, unaware of the iridescent globes settling all over her arms.
My heart swelled with a joy so potent it almost hurt, and I swore it again: I'll keep this
day for myself.
But the next morning Gina woke up sobbing, with a temperature so high she was hot to
the touch. I had to beg the doctor to let me bring her in. He was busy, but he relented; I always
paid on time.
It was, as I had feared, strep throat. I looked at the antibiotics prescription, which included
the price, and knew the day at the fair was already gone.
I never got black-market meds for Gina, and the official pharmacy wouldn't dispense
without payment, even though they knew I was good for it. The sale of memories was technically
illegal--despite the memory clinic's large storefront and numerous billboard advertisements--so
the pharmacists had to look away, pretend they didn't know how mothers in this town got the
money to buy their children's medicine.
So I had to bring a still-sick Gina with me to do the memory transfer. I got lucky; she fell
asleep on the bus, and remained slumped over in the stroller as I filled out a quick description of
Clara, the receptionist, raised her eyebrows. "Was it as good as it sounds?"
"Yes," I said, and the memory came back to me: the way Gina had thrown her head back
when I twirled her around, her large dark eyes bright and dancing, my smile stretching as wide as
hers. Already, it felt less real and vivid than when it had been happening. Eventually, the details
would blur and vanish, the feelings would fade. Ten years from now, I would recall it only if I saw
a picture--and what I would remember wouldn't be the real thing, anyhow; it would be
fragmentary and unsure.
All I was doing today was speeding up that process. Yet my voice came out thick. "It's
going to be worth a lot."
"Definitely." Clara clicked her tongue at her ancient computer and jabbed a button.
"Especially because it was at the fair. Buyers love 'multicultural experiences,' "--she gave it air
quotes--"especially the American women."
Once, back when she had first started working here, Clara had wondered out loud why
those women didn't have children of their own, instead of fulfilling their maternal needs with
purchased memories. All the mothers in the clinic had looked at each other and laughed.
Gina stirred and muttered in the stroller, and I knew it was only a matter of time before
she woke up howling. I said, "Can you squeeze me in today? I'll take cash on transfer."
"Are you sure? If the memory's as good as you say, you'll get more if you wait for a full
"If I could afford to wait, I wouldn't be here," I snapped. And it was true; I would be
selfishly holding onto that memory until it was gone, and neither Gina nor I would have gained
anything from it.
Making Memories Last, said one of the more outdated signs on the clinic's door. The
procedure had been invented as a way for people to keep their own memories, transferring them
into a form that could be replayed over and over in their minds. Because the problem had been the
same, even then: memories didn't last. They passed, they eluded the mind's attempts to hold them,
they faded and then they vanished.
But medicine, a nice apartment, school and books and comfort . . . those things lasted. It
was a good deal, for me and for Gina.
Clara's eyes narrowed. I softened my voice. "Please? She's miserable. And we'll all be
miserable if she wakes up before I'm done."
Clara hesitated, then shrugged. "All right. I can get you in."
The procedure took ten minutes, and the sales rep who eyeballed the memory was
generous. I left with enough money not just for the medicine, but for a trip out of the city next
Maybe we would go to the beach again. Have a day just as fun as yesterday had been.
Maybe this time, I would keep it for myself.
I hadn't forgotten the day at the fair. It just felt vague, distant, like it had happened to
someone else. Like it had happened ten years ago. Which, eventually, would have been true no
matter what. No moment, no matter how perfect, stretched into eternity. And I knew, deep down,
that I would end up passing the heartbreakingly perfect ones off to someone else. Trading them
for things that lasted, rather than letting them vanish into the relentless stream of time.
It was, really, a good deal.
I turned in the direction of the bus stop just as Gina woke up and began wailing. A pacifier
didn't help, and neither did her bottle. When I gave in and offered her a lollipop, she threw it so
hard it landed in the street and was immediately pulverized by a passing car. Which made her
shriek louder, suddenly deciding she wanted the lollipop after all.
In the end, I pushed the stroller along the sidewalk with her screaming and thrashing in it,
enduring the startled, scornful looks from everyone I passed. When the bus came, the driver
winced and slid her eyes away from me, like she would throw me off if she could. I hurried to the
back before she had too much time to think about it, the folded-up stroller under one arm, Gina's
thrashing, sweaty body in the other.
Halfway there, she hit me, and I almost dropped her. If not for the watching eyes, I would
have slapped her.
Why don't they have children of their own, indeed.
There was a one-hour wait at the pharmacy. By the time I got my hands on the medicine, I
was so desperate I tried to give Gina the first dose right there in the drug aisle. She shut her
mouth and turned her head, and a syringe-full of expensive, sticky redness sprayed all over my
"That's not going to accomplish anything," observed the pharmacist, a middle-aged man
with a painstaking comb-over. "You need to calm her down first."
"Thank you," I said, through gritted teeth.
Gina did fall asleep on the bus ride home, which gave me the chance to finally catch my
breath--even though it meant I would have to wake her to give her the medicine, a thought so
exhausting I decided to pretend it wasn't true. I looked out the smeared window as the bus rattled
through the street, just in time to catch a billboard: Memories Can Last Forever.
As if that was always a good thing.
When I got home, the first thing I did was call my mother. I was that desperate.
Mom showed up, irritably but dutifully, half an hour later. Together, we woke Gina, pried
her mouth open, and tilted her head back. "Aim the medicine at her cheek," my mother snapped,
"not straight down her throat," and, "Did you notice when she started getting sick?" and "This is
why you need to stop letting her suck her thumb."
Gina, to my vast relief, fell right back asleep after swallowing the medicine. But I didn't
get to go to bed, because Mom was still there. She wanted dinner, and of course I made it for her;
she had, after all, come over to help. Our relationship was a series of trades, all overshadowed by
my ultimate, unpay-able debt: the fact that she had given up everything for me, and I could never
pay that back.
She always said she had done it for love. Which meant that once, she had truly loved me.
Normally I held tightly to that belief, but on days like today, when I had gone to the clinic, I tried
not to think about it too hard.
"I can't even count the times I held you down for medicine," she said, as she watched me
stir the pot. There was an odd note in her voice--neither fondness nor anger, but a sort of
emptiness that fell between them. "Once, you threw up all over a silk shirt your dad had bought
me. Blue, with designs of golden chains. It was only the second time I had worn it. I never got the
"I'm sorry," I said.
"We were supposed to go dancing that night. It was the last time we would have gone. I
didn't know that yet, of course."
I bent my head, the familiar sadness suffused with relief. Our grief over my father was one
of the few things we genuinely shared.
"Do you remember what you traded for that medicine?" I asked.
Mom blinked. "What?"
"You were selling memories by then, weren't you? What memory did you sell?"
She waved a hand irritably. "There were so many. I have no idea."
"Did you ever not want to? "
"Honestly," she said impatiently. "What does it matter? Even if I hadn't sold them, I
wouldn't remember them by now."
"You remember the shirt," I pointed out.
"That was different."
"Yeah." I turned off the flame. "Mom, can you hang out here for a little bit? The food is
done, and I'll be back soon. There's a new bin of ice cream in the freezer, if you want dessert."
I left the instant her head inclined in a nod, before she had a chance to let me know how
much I owed her for this one.
The clinic only had a skeleton crew at night, but I got lucky; Clara was on duty, and so
was Dan, who was always generous with his evals and who also had a crush on me. Neither of
them, I knew, would be averse to making a little extra money on the side. After all, this was
technically an illegal operation to begin with.
On the negative side, Dan wasn't the sharpest of the techs. I had to go over my request
three times before he understood what I was asking.
"You want to pay me to take your memories?" he said finally.
"Just the bad ones. The ones that won't sell." I was clutching my wallet so tightly that my
fingers had gone bloodless. "You have ways of discarding them, right? Like last year, after that
kennel incident, when kids-playing-with-dogs went out of fashion . . ."
"Yeah, it's not hard to dump them. But you can do that yourself, can't you? Just don't
think about them, and they'll fade away."
If Dan had been smarter, I might have tried to explain. Instead, I said, "I don't want to
wait. Do you want my money, or not?"
When I got home, my mother had fallen asleep--on my bed, naturally--so I stretched out
on the couch, shifting until nothing was poking me. I didn't like sleeping apart from Gina, but hey;
she'd probably wake up in the middle of the night, and it would be Mom's job to take care of that.
She would probably do a better job of it than I would.
Mom loved Gina more than she loved me, something I had always been grateful for. So
grateful that I had never, before, stopped to wonder why. It wasn't like she was a typical
grandmother, who enjoyed the good parts of Gina but got to hand her back when she was stinky
or difficult. I'd had Gina alone, and I'd always had to lean on my mother.
But with Gina, my mother had all the memories. The good and the bad, the laughs and the
tantrums, the first smile along with the first throw-up. Playgrounds and doctor visits, street fairs
and supermarkets, smiles and screams.
They don't fade away, I could have told Dan. They sink in. They dissolve into you, not out
Imagining his blank confusion, I fell asleep.
The next morning, I woke to utter silence and the smell of coffee. I glanced into the
kitchen, but my mother was there alone, glancing through some catalogues while sipping from my
favorite mug. I backed away before she could see me and went into Gina's room.
Gina was awake, lying on her side with her thumb in her mouth, curled around her favorite
blanket. She twisted to look at me and smiled, bright-eyed and cheerful, as if yesterday's misery
had never been.
The medicine was working.
I smiled back, and waited. For a second, the emptiness frightened me. Then the love came,
and my heart expanded, warmly and painfully.
A little more slowly--a little less intensely--than yesterday?
No. I didn't think so.
Though I also wasn't sure how I would have been able to tell if it was.
Gina sat up and held out her arms. I scooped her out of the crib, burying my face briefly in
her soft, sweaty neck. She giggled, and I kissed her before putting her on the changing table. Her
diaper had soaked through her clothes, but otherwise she was fine.
Today, we would go to the beach. I would make sand castles with her, and hold her tight
against me as we waded through the waves, where she would scream in terror and delight and
wrap her arms around my neck. I would hold a seashell to her ear, and watch her eyes go wide
with wonder, and I'd deal with the temper tantrum when we had to leave. A whole new day, a
whole new memory.
This one, for sure, I was going to keep.