ROSES IN DECEMBER • by Robert Swartwood

“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”
—J.M. Barrie

The question isn’t, can she do it?

She knows she can, just as that every morning her son wakes, she hopes it will be his last. Such thoughts are evil, damnable, inexcusable, but still they enter her mind. Even this morning, as she leaves Daniel snoring in bed and walks into Kyle’s room, she wonders if today will be the day.

He’s still asleep, still off in whatever world his five-year-old mind allows him to view in his dreams. She wonders if he remembers those, but knows he doesn’t. Just as every morning when he awakes, he remembers nothing.

The doctors don’t know what to call it yet. This is the first case they’ve ever encountered. Still, Doctor Thomas calls him lucky: It’s amazing, really—at such a young age, I’m surprised Kyle hasn’t lost it all.

For the past seven months, her son has forgotten nearly everything. The only thing he hasn’t lost is his language acquisition, though when he wakes he’s almost always too scared to say anything. He only looks about his room as if looking at it for the first time. He doesn’t recognize his toys, his books, his yellow blanky, even his own mother and father—and really, ever since they’d received the news, Daniel hasn’t even bothered to see his son that often.

The worst, though, is that Kyle doesn’t even recognize himself.

“I can’t imagine it,” Daniel told her one night in bed after one of their many failed attempts at lovemaking. A candle on the dresser shifted shadows across the wall. “Every day, not knowing who everybody else is around you. Not even knowing who you are. It’s unreal. I couldn’t…”

He didn’t finish the rest; he didn’t have to. She knew exactly what he meant to say.

Another time, after one of their few successful tries at making love, Daniel whispered, “Actually, I do kind of wonder what it’s like. It must be… nice. To not remember every mistake you made. To not remember every nasty thing someone said about you. Or every nasty thing you thought about someone else.”

Maybe, she thought, but what about everything that was good? Every job you did well? Every joke that made you laugh? Every person you had ever loved?

She wonders this now, staring down at her son. She thinks about two nights ago, how she’d attempted something new: keeping Kyle awake into the morning. Her idea was that whatever stole his memory did so during his sleep. But it hadn’t worked, and he slept most of the day and into the night, when he awoke and didn’t recognize anything.

They’ll call it a mercy killing, won’t they? If she were to take a pillow and place it over his face? If she were to push his head down under the water during his bath and keep it there, no matter how much and how hard he struggled?

They’ll understand; she knows they will. Daniel especially.

She keeps watching Kyle. The steady rise and fall of his chest. The drool dried in the corner of his mouth and down on his chin. The soft brown hair on his head.

Closing her eyes, taking a deep breath, she takes a step forward. Pauses. Takes a step back. Opens her eyes again and wonders, Is today the day?

But that isn’t the question, just as can she do it? isn’t the question.

No, the question is simply, can she forget?

Robert Swartwood is the USA Today bestselling author of The Serial Killer’s Wife, The Calling, Man of Wax, and several other novels. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Daily Beast, ChiZine, Space and Time, Postscripts, and PANK. He created the term “hint fiction” and is the editor of Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer. He lives with his wife in Pennsylvania.

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Rate this story:
 average 3.9 stars • 32 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Vicki Doronina

    This is not a Christmas story.

    • Camille Gooderham Campbell

      You’re absolutely right; it’s not. We asked our authors to give us December stories, which includes Christmas as well as other holidays, winter weather, and even the J.M. Barrie quote that begins this story.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    She still wants to sleep with a guy who’s basically abandoned their terrified child?

  • Rose Gardener

    A lot of character thinking packed into a short space without any abstract navel-gazing. Well done! I liked how the ultimate question was directly relevant to the problem which initiated it – forgetting.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    This is also the premise of ’50 First Dates’. I must admit, hubby definitely needed a kick up the rear, and the convenience, story-wise, of the child retaining the ability to speak and understand English needed more than a cursory mention to be credible.

    • MPmcgurty

      I thought of Memento with Guy Pierce (sic?).

  • Such tremendous potential for conflict and character development + so little given = major disappointment..

  • Some interesting neurological propositions here. People with anterograde amnesia lose the capacity to make new memories but that tends to be a minute-by-minute phenomenon, while sleep generally seems to have a role in consolidating memory/learning and organising it. In this ‘new condition’ it looks as though memories successfully consolidate during wakefulness but then the mechanism that should preserve them actually wipes them clean. Well, I’m happy with that idea, so I can focus on the story of desperation and loss that these parents are experiencing.The flatness of tone resonates with me, as does the Daniel’s gradual distancing from his son, and the sense of abandonment by support services while they figure out what this thing is and forget about the family trying to deal with it. I like the fact that the final act of despair is still an argument and one that, as Rose points out, takes us back to the core trauma.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      There’s no indication anywhere in this story, that I can find, that the medical community and ancillary support services have abandoned the parents. And it’s only been seven months since Kyle developed this condition. Yet both parents are ready to wash their hands of him.

      • I think that’s it, there’s no evidence of them at all which could mean they’re not making any impact (and there’s plenty of history showing how services have failed families of people with disabilities), or that this mother feels unsupported which is where I’m getting the *sense* of abandonment. Also, when you give people space, some will tell you about their plans to kill their disabled offspring because they can see no hope for them. That said, this is a story, not a case report so there’s room for both our interpretations and a good many other, no doubt..

  • Carl Steiger

    I know basically nothing about amnesia other that what I get from popular culture, which is suspect, to say the least. So thanks to Suzanne for her input. I will note that the symptoms here are pretty similar to those of the MC in Gene Wolfe’s “Soldier of the Mist” books, minus the visions.

  • S Conroy

    Dark and I thought very well written. What I can’t decide is whether it’s really meant as a mercy killing so the child won’t feel such fear, or whether it’s the mother’s response to the stress of dealing with a child who can’t love her and can’t make her happy. Not knowing this makes it difficult to form a fuller picture of Kyle.

  • Michael Stang

    It is not a wonder why little Kyle doesn’t remember yesterday. The day when mommy took one step forward and two steps back from killing him.

  • Sheila Good

    Oh my, I thought this was incredibly well written. It wasn’t about medicine failing, the parents abandoning their son, or giving up. In my opinion it was about the gut-wrenching loss of connection, fear, helplessness and pain. There is no pain greater than to watch your child suffer, or the fear in their eyes and understand on the most cellular level – there is nothing you (the parent) can do to help or save them. This story is about the darkest of dark moments.

  • John Towler

    A thought-provoking story.
    I agree that the characters were less than savory, but that is what makes them interesting. The reader sees their reaction to Kyle’s condition and then almost reflexively inserts himself/herself into the story and thinks about what he/she would do.
    Frightening idea having to relearn everything from scratch every day, but how much less painful it would be if there was somebody a bit more compassionate there to help, rather than lurking in the shadows contemplating putting a pillow over your face.

  • Well that was pretty dark. And sad. But very well-written and thought provoking. I think parents and non-parents will react very differently to this story. As a parent, I found it hard to read, as my son was once 5 and he had lots of issues at the time. So I can relate somewhat to the plight of the parents.

    Although as someone pointed out, it’s been seven months. That’s it. And the father has already given up and the mother is looking for her relief (it’s certainly not a mercy killing had she done it).

    The last line falls short for me, although it fits the story.

    Thanks for sharing.