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Authors: Pete Hautman

The Forgetting Machine

BOOK: The Forgetting Machine
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May you never forget what is worth remembering, nor ever remember what is best forgotten.

—an Irish blessing

1

Dead Trees

I found my dad in his study with his nose in a book made out of dead trees. Dad can be embarrassingly retro at times. A
lot
of the times, actually. Like every day. I mean, who reads
paper
books anymore?

Dad has more paper books than he has hairs on his head. Not that he has that many hairs anymore. But still . . . a lot of books. His entire study is lined with the nasty papery things.

He was reading something called
The Island of Dr. Moreau
. I wondered why a doctor would want to live on an island, but I'd learned to never ask my father about
any
book
ever
—a simple polite inquiry was likely to turn into a fifteen-minute lecture.

I took a deep breath and said, “Dad, why is our town called Flinkwater?”

He frowned and shrugged. “Because of the
flink
in the
water
?”

“Dad!”

“Maybe flink is some sort of fish, Ginger. I wouldn't know.” One of my father's many quirks is that he hates fish. He won't even eat a tuna sandwich.

“There's no such word as ‘flink,'” I said. “I looked it up.”

He sighed and closed the book over his index finger to keep his place. If he'd been reading on his tablet, he wouldn't have that problem.

“Why do you ask, Ginger?”

“It's for this stupid school report.”

“Maybe the town was founded by somebody named Flinkwater.” He shrugged. “I really couldn't say.”

“But . . . you're supposed know everything!”

“Apparently I don't,” he said.

“Isn't your finger getting squished?”

“A little bit,” he said, flipping open the book to ease the pressure.

“How come you don't just read on your tab?”

In my not-so-humble opinion, a proper book should be represented by an icon on a screen. Printing books on paper is as primitive as wearing animal skins or recording music on a plastic disk. Paper books won't let you make the font bigger or smaller, they aren't illuminated, and there's no search function. Also, they take up a lot of space, and they are heavy, unsanitary, unsightly, and noisy—the sound of someone flipping through those dry, whispery pages sets my teeth on edge.

“Studies have shown that reading paper books results in greater memory retention,” he said.


I
don't have any problem remembering,” I said.

“Well, I certainly do. I didn't grow up with e-books. When I was your age, we were still reading on stone tablets.”

“Dad!”

He laughed. “Okay, we did have e-books, but they were pretty primitive. Anyway, I'm not taking any chances, what with all the forgetting going on these days.”

“All what forgetting?” I asked.

“Several of our people at ACPOD have been experiencing abnormal memory loss,” he said. “It's become an epidemic. Just yesterday one of our engineers asked me my name, and he's been working with me for the past ten years.”

ACPOD, in case you've been living under a rock for your entire life, is the world's largest manufacturer of Articulated Computerized Peripheral Devices. If you own a robot, it probably came from Flinkwater, Iowa. My parents—along with half the adult population of Flinkwater—work at ACPOD.

“Fortunately, one of our neuroprosthetics experts, Ernie Rausch, has developed an experimental memorization technique that is quite remarkable. He gave me a demonstration, and I now know all fourteen hundred lines of Longfellow's poem ‘Evangeline.'”

“That's a lot of lines,” I said. “How did you do it?”

“The funny thing is, I don't remember! One minute I was in the neuroprosthetics lab, and the next thing I knew I was back at my desk with my head full of Longfellow. And I couldn't remember my ACPOD password.”

“It's Mom's maiden name backward, plus the first seven digits of pi,” I said.

He gave me a sharp look. “How do you know that?”

I pointed at the sticky note on the corner of his computer display, where he had written
KNUF3.141592
—not exactly the best way to keep your secret password secret.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “Like I said, my memory has been playing tricks on me.”

“And you think reading books printed on pulverized wood pulp is the answer?”

“I guess I just prefer
real
books,” he said.

I like books too. But I read them on my tablet. Like a normal person.

“Think of all the trees they had to cut down to make the paper,” I said.

“Yes, but how many
prehistoric
trees do you think it took to make the crude oil used to make the plastic case for your tablet?”

“Oil doesn't come from trees,” I said. “It comes from hundred-million-year-old algae.”

He laughed. “Apparently that ‘stupid school' is teaching you something. As for the origin of Flinkwater, your mother has lived here her whole life. Ask her.”

  •  •  •  

Before I go on—and I
can
go on—I should introduce myself.

Presenting the fabulous Guinevere Crump—recently turned fourteen, speller of difficult words, defender of helpless animals, fiancée of the smartest boy in the universe, problem solver extraordinaire, revolutionary rabble-rouser, social-justice crusader, and ravishing red-haired beauty—at your service. You may call me Ginger, or on formal occasions, Your Majesty.

So there. I'm glad we got that out of the way.

  •  •  •  

“Ask your father,” said my mother.

“He told me to ask
you
! Your family has been here forever, right? You can't answer a simple question?”

She shot me her glittery, narrow-eyed witch queen look. “Ginger, if it's so simple, why do you ask?”

My mother doesn't scare me. Usually. But she tries.

“It's for school.”

“Look it up.”

“I tried,” I said. Which wasn't completely true. Actually, I'd thought it would be easier to just ask. My mistake. “Do you even
know
?”

“Of course I
know
. I've lived here my entire life. But I'm sure you can figure it out on your own.”

“I'm trying to figure it out by asking you.”

“Ginger, I'm not going to do your homework for you. I'm busy.” She went back to her oh-so-important task: trying to reprogram our DustBot swarm by stabbing at the DustBot control module with her red-nailed fingers. She didn't think the bots were doing a good enough job sucking Barney's cat hair off the carpet. It's Barney's fault. He keeps flipping the bots onto their backs, leaving them to buzz and spin around until somebody turns them right side up.

She might have better luck reprogramming the cat.

“If I get an F, it'll be your fault,” I said.

She lowered the control module and gave me a look that was supposed to freeze the blood in my veins. I countered with my wide-eyed-innocent look. It was a mother-daughter standoff.

“Ask your school librarian,” she said after a moment.

“Mom, it's Saturday. No school. And next week we get off Monday and Tuesday for teachers' conferences. And my report is due Wednesday.”

She arched one precisely plucked eyebrow. “Then you'll just have to go to Flinkwater Memorial.”

I was afraid she'd say that.

2

The Stacks

Being the headquarters of ACPOD, Flinkwater is home to a large number of robots. We have more robots than we do humans. Many of the bots, of course, are the little DustBots that keep our houses clean. There are also lawn bots, messenger bots, information bots, and dozens of other specialized robots. But most of Flinkwater's bots work at ACPOD, where they are used to make even more robots.

Flinkwater Memorial Library is one of the few places in town that has no robots whatsoever. I would be forced to deal with a live human being—in this case, the Pformidable Pfleuger.

Ms. Olivia Pfleuger rules the library from behind a wooden counter so high I could rest my chin on it. Both she and the counter have been there since the dawn of time, or possibly before. From her perch she can see into every corner of the library. Her eyeglasses are as thick as my thumb, but she misses nothing, and she has a memory like an ACPOD server.

As I entered her lair, she peered down at me and said, “Ginger Crump.”

She made it sound like an insult. I admit that Crump is not the most elegant and flattering last name in the world, but I'm stuck with it on account of my parents. You might wonder why my mother didn't keep her maiden name when she married my father. It might have to do with the fact that before they got married her name was Amanda
Funk
, which is even worse than Crump.

“I have not forgotten you, Ms. Crump,” said the Pformidable Pfleuger.

“I'm sorry,” I said.

“Harrumph,” she replied.

The Pformidable Pfleuger was referring to the Gum Incident of eight years ago when she caught me sticking a wad of bubble gum to the underside of a chair during a read-aloud event. I was just saving the gum for later, but Ms. Pfleuger didn't see it that way. You'd have thought I'd burned the place down, the way she yelled at me.

I pointed at my open mouth. “Look, no gum.”

“Harrumph,” she said again.

“I have a question,” I said.

“You will find your answer here,” she said, waving a thick-fingered hand at the thousands of books lining the walls and stacked on the shelves.

A large sign on the wall above the shelves read
COMPUTER-FREE ZONE
. Unlike most libraries, Flinkwater Memorial had no computers. It was completely different from the Flinkwater
County
Library in Halibut, which had about forty computer terminals, and no paper books at all. But Flinkwater Memorial, like Ms. Pfleuger herself, was a holdover from the previous millennium—strictly dead trees. Most of the people who went there were old people like my father, people nostalgic for outdated technologies. At the moment there were two men and one woman, all gray-haired and wrinkly, sitting on those uncomfortable wooden library chairs reading furiously.

BOOK: The Forgetting Machine
10.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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