‘The Lost History of You’, Second Place in Fiction

The Lost History of You

by Jeffrey Liao

When the sun rises over the mountains, Addison wakes up to feed the cows. It’s a late summer, heat and dust crumbling in the wrinkles of her palms. The barn creaks under her boots, a rickety thing that she and Liam built when they were barely adults and had just purchased the farm. The Vermont air, dry and thick, steals the oxygen from her lungs. Her gasping breaths and the relentless buzzing of cicadas are the only sounds that can be heard for miles.

The August sun flickers brilliantly in the horizon, casting a warm orange glow over the Vermont hillside. Addison wipes a layer of soot from her coarse hands. She raises a bottle of milk to a calf’s lips, laughing softly as it makes a wet slurping noise. It nudges her chin with its nose, and for a moment, Addison forgets about the fatigue bunched under her eyes or the bills spilling over her mailbox or the stress weighing her mind from raising the land by herself.

She brings her fingers absentmindedly across her left arm, veiny and strong from years of labor. She and Liam had gotten matching tattoos there, a black butterfly with heart-shaped wings. She smiles wistfully at the memory – their playful gazes, giggling about nothing and everything all at once, drunk on whiskey and the recklessness of youth.

They met at the local diner, where Liam worked as a waiter. Both were fifteen, marred by braces and acne and awkwardness. It was Friday – karaoke night – so the diner was especially busy.

Addison was onstage, singing along to “The Chain.” Liam couldn’t help but stare at her as she grinned while performing, revealing a dimple, her honey-hued hair cascading down her shoulders like a waterfall. She threw her hands up as the guitar solo detonated. Keep us together.

After her performance, Addison sat at the bar. Liam stumbled across and stuttered over his words.

“I liked your singing.” He fiddled with his thumbs, concentrating on his notepad. “And I, uh, love that song.”

“Thanks,” Addison said. “Stevie Nicks is one of my favorite artists.”

Liam merely blushed – he, in fact, had never heard of that song or musician before. So he quit trying to spark a conversation with her and took her order. He turned to leave towards the kitchen, but Addison opened her mouth again, hesitating.

“Would you, um, like to sit with me? We can talk about music if you want.”

Perhaps it was because he looked a bit dejected and tired, or perhaps she thought he was cute, in a lanky, fifteen-year-old way. Neither of them understood what compelled Addison to say those words, but that evening, under the silver shadows of moonlight, they shared a salt-grilled batch of fries and a milkshake. They were silent, letting the smooth voice of a woman onstage and the clinking of silverware echo throughout the diner, talking for them. Afterwards, Addison fumbled through her pockets for a tip. Her fingers brushed against the checkered countertop, and later, clasped Liam’s as they danced under the stovetop glow to Stevie Nicks, joking about the strangeness of how they met, holding onto each other for what they promised would be forever.

Now, all Addison has left to hold onto are the cows.

At dusk, the sky is caught halfway between blue and pink, a watercolor mural that Addison watches from her living room window while holding a mug of hot tea in her weary hands. Her wood-paneled cottage nestled in the Norwich hills has a sweeping view of the open countryside, streaks of golden sun tinging the vast green acreage. Her fondest memories are of nights like this. She and Liam would wrap themselves in their favorite mink blanket, put on a slow blues record, and watch the world descend into darkness.

A folder of paperwork is strewn across the coffee table. For weeks, Addison has tried to avoid it. But she can’t manage the farm by herself much longer, and lately it’s been so quiet and lonely, and most of all – most of all – she misses him. There’s a ghost on the farm, haunting her when she sleeps and when she wakes up and all the moments in between. Liam is there — in the closet that smells faintly of his favorite cologne, on the couch they sprawled out on during lazy afternoons to watch TV marathons, in the bed where they cuddled and spent late hours talking about their plans for a wedding, a bigger farm, maybe kids someday.

The National Health and Human Services Agency has left six voicemails on Addison’s phone. She was supposed to sign the papers littering her coffee table two weeks ago to finalize the process. Her hands shake as she takes a pen and signs her name on the dotted lines.

Three months prior, her friend Penny suggested the procedure over the phone. “My cousin Ray – you met him once, bad spine, balding head, you remember? Well, anyway, he used the product for his daughter Angela. She died of a car crash. Only twelve, real unfortunate.” Addison heard the distant drone of shouting in the background. “Sorry, that’s my bitch of a roommate and her boyfriend. They’re always fighting over stupid shit. Anyway, you should try it. Ray says that it’s a God-given miracle. Apparently, she doesn’t even complain when being told to wash the dishes anymore!”

Addison listened intently, knots forming in the pit of her stomach. She wanted to feel horror, disgust even, at the idea of an artificial Liam filling up the hole that his absence left. But the next day, she forced her body to drive the three-hundred-mile distance to New York City, where the agency’s national headquarters was located. On their website, they had promised free tours of the facility and all their products.

“We call it TRP, short for The Resurgence Project. The technology was invented two years ago, when a group of scientists were testing RNA transplants on mice.” A man in a white lab coat gestured at a panoramic screen. An animation of electrocuted mice flashed before Addison’s eyes.

“We extracted the RNA from the shocked mice and injected it into the brains of new mice. Although they didn’t experience any of the physical effects, the new mice recoiled in the same way the old mice did. This led to our discovery of memory transplantation. All we need is a copy of someone’s mRNA code, and the memory genes can be infused into another body as if it experienced the memories themselves.”

Addison and the scientist stopped in front of a long row of mannequins, eerily human-like with hollow eyes and fleshy membranes. “These are basic molds – made from collagen, synthetic fibers, and shark tissue to mimic human skin – that we use for all our patients. Of course, we make individual modifications based on the client’s requests. We infuse the patient’s brain cells – preserved in a chemical chamber to avoid degradation – in an artificial database, code all of his or her memories into the system, and condense it into a portable DNA chip that is placed inside the mold, rendering it sentient. Essentially, we create a resurrected version of the patient. Due to the mold’s radioactive decay, it even ages at the natural rate of humans.”

The rest of the tour passed in a blur. Addison watched testimonials of past customers, saw examples of finished molds, and talked about pricing and customization. She gripped tightly onto the handle of her purse. A sheen of sweat coated her neck.

“You don’t have to make a decision now. But give us a follow-up call in a few weeks.” Addison nodded at the man and weakly returned his smile. “If you decide to go through with this, we have a six-week free trial, so don’t feel any pressure, okay?” The man looked at Addison with a mix of sympathy and familiarity. He probably, she thought, had encountered thousands of Addison’s before her. Men and women with calluses sunken into their foreheads and desperation brimming in their eyes, waiting to be added to the pool of pity.

“Sounds good,” she said. “I’ll let you know.”

Addison sits on the kitchen floor and cuts through the box’s tape, revealing a carefully packaged body that looks identical to Liam. She stares at its translucent pale skin, its dirty blonde hair tousled in loose tufts like that of a golden retriever, its baby blue eyes staring unnervingly back at her. On the bridge of its nose is the crescent-shaped birthmark that Addison kissed every night before going to bed; on its right knee is the scar Liam received from a minor tractor accident; on its left arm is the black butterfly tattoo they got together when they were teenagers.

Addison removes the cord from the box and plugs it into a wall outlet. The instruction manual said that the body needed two hours for complete regeneration, fueled by electrical energy that could be absorbed from a micro-sized slit in his back. She lifts the body out of the box and props it against the wall, its tall, heavy frame crushing her shoulder. She places the paper-thin end of the cord into the slit. Addison doesn’t realize that she’s biting her lip until she tastes the blood.

She had known about Liam’s death before it came. He was suffering from Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare type of cancer that spread from the bones. His family didn’t have a history of the disease, he was only twenty-nine, and the symptoms had been subtle, written off as over-exertion from the farm labor. When they learned about the diagnosis, his tumor had already metastasized. Liam was rushed into treatment. In a matter of days, he became a skeleton: head shaved, bones sharp and swelling, muscles shriveled like raisins. The man Addison loved was no longer present, merely a shadow of his former self. Liam had eyes that crinkled when someone spoke to him; he had a laugh that could brighten even the night with its warmth; he had hands that were stronger than they looked, not limp like two dead things resting on the hospital bed.

The last time Addison had visited him, she saw him cry for the first time. He shielded his eyes, red and raw, from her view.

“Addy, I don’t want…you to look at me,” he whispered, his voice hoarse and feeble. “I don’t want your last memory… of me… to be like this.”

Addison pressed her forehead to Liam’s cheek, letting his tears collect against her skin as he wept silently. She wanted to cry with him, but life had stolen all her grief and pain and replaced it with a bone-aching numbness. When the monitor flat-lined, she crumpled against the wall. But she didn’t sob or beg or scream because she had nothing left to give.

Although the Resurgence Project was founded when Liam was still alive, he and Addison had not discussed it at all in the months leading up to his death. Now, a strange wave of guilt lunges upwards from her chest as the body finishes charging. It places a hand on her shoulder and opens its mouth.

“It’s good to see you again, Addy,” it says.

The next morning, Addison reaches in the cupboard for a box of jasmine tea. In a few hours, one of the cows – Daisy – is scheduled to give birth.

In the first dusting of autumn, the sunrise casts an ocher sheen over the rolling hills and valleys. Light bounces off every surface in the house, immersing the mahogany cabinets of the kitchen in an umber luster. Addison pads across the kitchen tiles barefoot. Liam, as she’s begun to call the body, is still asleep in the guest bedroom.

Last night, they had sat next to each other on the leather couch and watched a rerun of Vertigo, Liam’s favorite movie. The blue flicker of the screen illuminated his face, and Addison saw not her boyfriend but a stranger, something almost unhuman.

“I missed you,” she said. Liam’s arms were folded neatly at his sides. He angled his face mechanically toward Addison.

“I missed you too,” he said. “I know this feels weird now, for both of us. We just need time to start over again.”

Addison nodded, fixated on the screen. Liam would have draped his arm around her back. He would have asked her in a groggy voice to lean her head on his neck like a pillow. He would have propped his feet up on the coffee table, and his hands would be full of popcorn right then instead of resting stiffly like two plastic utensils in his lap.

There was over a decade of lost history, Addison realized, that separated her from the man sitting next to her, and unlike him – this resurrected version of Liam – it could not be brought back to life.

Daisy has a miscarriage. She has been pushing since noon, and still, no calf by dusk. In fact, there’s been no sound of life except for a quiet whimper, a fetus spilling onto the ground.

Addison strokes the underside of Daisy’s belly as she bleeds endlessly into a wooden bucket. She turns Daisy’s face away from the mess of veins and flesh lying in the grass. A wet, unbeating heart.

Addison sighs to the whistle of the wind. She walks to the tool shed, where the shotgun is. The body – Liam – stands against a shelf, reading a book dampened by dog-ears and rain. They have been taking shifts with the birth, and now, both of them have stress lines etched into their temples. He frowns as her knuckles bruise white against the gun’s black handle.

“Addy” – he begins.

“Liam, could you come with me? Daisy’s hardly breathing.” Addison tries to keep the quiver out of her voice. Liam’s eyebrows are bent in thought, and a film of perspiration coats his t-shirt. “She’s bleeding out.”

“I never thought that something like this would happen to us,” Liam says as they walk to the cattle shelter for a supply kit, Daisy’s powerless moans plaguing the air.

“Do you remember when we first bought this place?” Addison gives him a small smile, tinged with nostalgia. “We were so sure that we would fail within the first week and have to beg our parents for more money.”

Liam shrugs. “The farm was always my dream.” He kicks at the dirt. “You were putting up with it because of me, but I know it wasn’t what you wanted.”

Addison doesn’t know how to respond. It was true – as a teenager, she’d had dreams of sitting in a library, hunched over a textbook, studying for final exams at a university. More than anything, she had just wanted to escape. Somewhere – anywhere – away from small town Vermont.

“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I chose this life with you. And we’ve worked so hard to get where we are now.”

The land had come with only a barn, five cows, and a large shack that housed two milking machines. During their first year on the farm, the tasks were infinite. Blisters bloomed like flowers on their hands, which smelled perpetually of fertilizer and cow manure. They shed blood. Tasted the salt of their own sweat. When they sent in their first shipment of milk, Liam lifted Addison by the waist and spun her in circles. He kissed her stomach while she reeled over from laughter. “Mom, Dad, I told you we’d make it!” Liam shouted to the hills, Addison’s chin tucked into his shoulder. He tilted his head to see her one-dimpled smile catch the rays of the afternoon sunlight, her eyes gazing obliviously into the meadows. It was the sort of thing that made him want to cry.

Addison and Liam reach the empty field where Daisy is dying. Addison’s throat starts to hurt. She thinks about Liam’s real body, buried somewhere in a grave.

“I can’t look at her,” she says, turning away from the cow. “I don’t want to shoot her.” “I know.” Liam squeezes her shoulder.

“I – we’ve – raised her since she was a baby. Since we first started the farm.” “Sometimes, the things we love the most can’t stay forever.”

Addison doesn’t meet Liam’s gaze. “I don’t want to let her go.”

 “I know, Addy. I know. But that’s the way life goes.”

Addison holds her breath. Her legs buckle as she shoots Daisy between the eyes.

The red glow of twilight ribbons against the curves of Liam’s body, making it appear as though he’s been wading in a sea of blood. Addison prepares fish from the local market and sets two glasses of water on the dining table.

“It could use a bit more salt,” Liam says, a bone stuck to his teeth. “I guess,” Addison says, rubbing the weariness from her temples.

For the rest of the meal, they eat in relative silence. Liam’s lips angle upward, as if he has something to say but can’t find the words. When he excuses himself from the table and retreats to the living room with a bottle of beer in his hand, Addison feels the urge to grab onto the hem of his grass-stained jeans, to look him in the depth of his seashell-blue eyes and imagine a future with this man, assuring herself that they can erase the brokenness of their past with new memories to hold onto, a fresh chapter to start anew.

She thinks about how Liam would have loved the view outside, the light of the blazing sky illuminating the trees as if the world has caught afire. She imagines him now, wrapping his arms around her stomach and pressing kisses to the nape of her neck.

Liam settles on the couch, kissing not Addison but the lip of his beer bottle. She sits alone, eating her dinner in silence as the sun fades into blackness.