Mnemonic Lake || Eoin Butler Thornton


©Daily Mail

Mnemonic Lake

by Eoin Butler Thornton

There’s a different sound from a man-made lake. My ears strain to identify it as I sit by the edge of the reservoir, but they come up short. All they can make out is the low hum of the repurposed oil tankers receding into the distance, having dumped their once precious cargo in the desert basin. As soon as the trucks are gone beyond earshot I close my eyes and listen again. Still, there is nothing. No gust of wind, or quiet lapping on the sands. No birdsong, no fish breaking the lake’s surface. There is no picnic nearby, no children skipping stones, no ball being kicked or sand castles being built. There is only a still, mercury-silver pool of congealed liquid, sitting patiently in the sands, waiting.


I met Sarah initially on a dating app. I remember she had this picture of herself holding the boob of some statue in Paris with this goofy smile on her face that I thought was funny. She also had this flowing salt-and-pepper hair which she wore with pride. It was unusual for a 25-year-old to start going grey, but it suited her and drew me to her right away. I think that first date was the one I had been most nervous of at the time. I had been struggling with my anxiety and to say I was highly strung would be an understatement. I did two shots before the date and when I met her at the table I just kept drinking. I think she had a gin and tonic and then switched to water when it was clear I was a mess. After our food got taken away and my slurring had become difficult to ignore, she made an excuse and left. I gave her enough time to head off before staggering around the corner to my apartment and curling up in bed.

About seven or eight months later I was in the basement venue of this pub up town. I promised a friend I would go to listen to his open mic, but it seemed maybe I had got the dates wrong. While I was trying to figure it out I went over to the small bar in the corner, ordered a drink and leaned back against the counter, looking over at the tiny stage. As I was standing there, a woman walked over from around the corner and ordered a drink at the bar next to me. I heard her blurt out an enthusiastic ‘Oh hi!’ to someone beside me, but when I looked over I realised she was looking right at me. It was Sarah.

“Oh hey!" I replied, “What are you doing here?"

She gave me this kind of playful, condescending look.

“Oh, you know, just trying to get some study done… What do you think? I’m here for the music!"

I laughed and nodded, turning back to look at the stage for a beat before leaning over to her to find we were simultaneously, loudly whispering the exact same words: “Too bad they suck!" Our eyes widened, we turned, pointing at each other and both shouted:


We laughed and I offered to pay for her drink. She rolled her eyes at me and said she’d only accept it if it meant I’d go easier on the drink myself. I smiled—it was a fair jab. We chatted a little and after an hour we found we were still standing by that bar in the corner. I had never met someone I found it so easy to talk to. The venue closed up early when the music finished and so we found ourselves walking over to a late bar across town. I remember how both of us were humming with excitement. The following morning we walked up town together for breakfast, joking about how I fucked up our first date. We were a natural fit.


Sarah, it turned out, was unusually brash and unpredictable. Maybe I should’ve guessed after how she approached me that second night. She made these impulsive decisions over the years that drove me crazy—buying tickets to a gig or a theme park, pulling me away from work to go to a new exhibit or join a local hike. She once booked a trip to Peru without consulting me and I got angry, but to be fair I probably never would have seen the Nazca lines if it weren’t for that decision.

It took a long time for her to open up to me about it. Her mom had passed away before we met, which I knew, but Sarah said that she had suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s and that by the time she passed away, there was no recognition left in her eyes for her family. I thought then of Sarah’s now even greyer salt and pepper hair that I had always admired, and I realised that Sarah was just scared. She had watched as her mother faded away and she was convinced she would suffer some kind of similar fate. It haunted her, and it explained why she was so reckless—the future, in her mind, was a dead end. So then, when she told me she volunteered for this new memory programme, I found it hard to be surprised.


I park my car between some orange rocks behind the hill and hike up over it to get there. I thought there would have been more security, but in reality there is nothing but a paltry chain fence, without even some barbed wire on top. They really don’t care anymore. I sit down on the fine sand at the edge, fold my arms around my knees and stare off at the dust kicked up by the trucks far off in the heat-distorted horizon. I think about what I came here for. I shift my weight for a second and the small shelf of sand under my heel gives way. My foot slips down to the surface of the lake and the thick meniscus seems for a second to reach out and kiss my skin—

Patrick tore open the package to find the first copy of the book he had worked on with his dad. He held the book in his hands as his eyes misted up. It had been weeks since the funeral and he wasn’t sure if the tears would ever come.


I can remember the arguments we had after I found out. Tears, fists pounding tabletops to dust, ceramic bowls blossoming into smithereens in slow motion against the kitchen wall. I play those moments back the most because of how vivid they are, how I can smell the air there, and remember her cheeks flushed red. She had this way of arguing with her face like I had never seen before knowing her. It was a performance for her, a display. Her brow would furrow before exploding out in indignance, her eyes would form a narrow focus, her mouth was scathing and loud. Her nostrils flared. Her jaw tensed. She was unique in that in anger her facial expressions became her primary language, and she would actually tie her hair back when we fought so that I could better see how disgusted she was with me. And it worked. The meticulous detail of every expression she ever made when we fought is now seared into me.

There was a desperation in that argument for both of us. She had made her mind up and wanted me to understand why. I couldn’t accept her decision. She spat these questions at me. How dare you talk over me? Take away my agency? Tell me what to do with my own body and mind? I remember thinking she was being so unreasonable, but in hindsight I think I just didn’t comprehend the effect her mother’s illness had on her life. I pleaded for her to understand that I was just terrified of losing her, that neither of us knew what the impact of this new experiment would be. She wouldn’t hear it. Eventually, exhausted, we both collapsed on the couch. She let me put my arms around her, but she didn’t react. Instead she just stared, unblinking, at the floor while tears migrated down her cheeks.


I had to admit later that the initial pitch had been very promising. Complete memory capture and replication. Storage in a secure facility where they could be retrieved and re-lived. For people who wanted to maintain a memory without distortion, who wanted to make sure a moment was never forgotten, or who were facing old age, dementia, or death, this was a very enticing proposition. It had been in the news for weeks and Sarah had been chosen as one of the programme’s first participants. I felt like I couldn’t stop her, and at a certain point I realised that all I had to do was trade away her fear for my own. I figured that maybe made it worthwhile.

I remember the silence in the car when I drove her out to the facility. The hurt and sadness from our fight loomed over us. I know she felt it too, but she was adamant that she wanted to go ahead with it and so we just stayed quiet on the journey. I walked her into reception but I wasn’t allowed to go further than that, so I held her and promised with a soft laugh that we could get burritos on the way back home and that I’d be waiting just outside for her.

I sat in the car and watched the raindrops race down the window pane, waiting for her to come back out. After a few hours, once it was dark, I noticed a security guard in a rain jacket with a flashlight walking around to each of the cars and knocking on windows. Obviously he was talking to the loved ones of all the other volunteers. Panic bloomed in my chest. I tried three times to open the car door before my body obeyed. I sprinted across the tarmac to the guard but he heard me coming and turned to face me with a comforting expression.

“It’s okay, it’s okay. Don’t worry.” he said. “I’m just doing the rounds, checking on people. The procedure is taking a bit longer and people really should go home instead of staying here.”

I took in his words and faltered for a second, processing. Eventually I took his false comfort and left, but that moment is always the one that sticks with me. Maybe at that stage I still could have saved her.


The lake looks as if it holds water, but on closer inspection it’s a bit thicker. It’s  almost like a kind of silvery-clear glue. It has this odd movement to it as well, not random like the ripples on a pond, but shifting lightly every now and then under the surface, as though it moves by choice. I circle it for a while, convincing myself that I have found the right pool, and preparing myself for what I came here to do. As I walk my foot splashes down in a small rivulet that I hadn’t spotted—

Gina held her newborn against her bare chest. They were both exhausted and were nodding off to sleep as the nurses looked on. Okay, one of them said, maybe time to put her back in the cot? Gina held her daughter close and felt like she would never let go.


We still don’t know what happened that night. Call it corporate intrigue, malfeasance, conspiracy, I don’t know, but the headlines broke the following morning before I got up and by the time I looked at my phone I could tell something was wrong. 

Ultimately the truth never fully came out. All we were told was that the participants had died. After the initial denial, tears, anger, and in some cases broken noses of the facility staff, we then found out from reporters who had gone undercover that many of the volunteers not only died but suffered in agony before they passed. Of the first hundred participants, seventy three of them were fried as soon as the machines were turned on. They say the remaining twenty seven spent up to an hour screaming until their hearts gave out. After all these years, I still don’t know which group Sarah was in.

I’ll never understand how the company didn’t collapse there and then. The following weeks were full of press conferences, declarations of open investigations, firings of middle management, promises to do better... and eventually assurances that the kinks had been worked out. After all, it wasn’t a total loss, they said, the memories had been extracted. They held onto the bodies of those first hundred victims for ‘research’ for days before returning them to the families. Afterwards they announced that the families of the deceased would be given free access to their loved ones’ memories for life and before long there was a full scale PR campaign in the works. Images of grieving families started appearing in the news. They were dipping their hands into vats of clear liquid in company facilities, experiencing these extracted memories through tactile transmission, as designed, and ‘healing’ their grief by remembering their lost loved ones collectively. I think the company’s stock price actually saw a bump after those images came out.


I get up and start to walk along the edge of the lake to see if I can find a good spot. There are little swirls and pools that have gathered and congealed in the artificial sand, and as my bare foot splashes through them I am hit with another flash—

Isabella watched her daughter laugh with her friends in her blue dress and tiara for her quinceañera. She couldn’t stop looking at her baby. She was a beautiful young woman now.


In the end, after nearly a half decade of grieving and waiting for something to happen, the company’s CEO was found naked in the same bed as a minor. After that there was no coming back. The company, largely held together by the CEO’s public persona, folded under the pressure and scrutiny. Investors ran scared, the board turned hostile and within weeks the whole company was liquidated and sold off piecemeal. Without the capital to continue running these memory facilities, the entire operation was shut down. The memories were decanted into large tank trucks and dumped into man-made reservoirs.

I had set up camp in the woods along the road near the facility where they murdered Sarah. I made diligent notes of every tanker truck that drove in there and wrote down every single one of their serial numbers and registration plates. They had been ordered to get this memory liquid out to somewhere in the desert where it wouldn’t seep into the water table of some nearby population centre. If I wanted access I would have to be fast. I followed them into the desert and watched for the particular pools where my trucks went. If this had been any other time I would have been more afraid of security, but the company was bust and these truck drivers were on their last day of work. I stayed out of their way, and they pretended not to see me.


I find a spot I like the look of and I undress, stripping off every piece of clothing I wear. I think about all of those years that Sarah’s memories were held hostage by those monsters. They wouldn’t charge me for access, no, but they would ask me to rehabilitate their public image, to pose for pictures and look tearful but grateful. I’m at least glad I never did that. Now, though, things are different. Now I can finally seek those memories out. Now I can be close to Sarah again.

Without further thought I take one step, then two, and before I know it I am submerged.

HoYeon held her first dog close and as his final breaths grew ragged she sobbed—

Alex tried on a dress for the first time and felt empowered—

Séamas twisted his ankle with the finish line in sight and Roy helped him up to limp to the end with him—

The memories were designed to be experienced through a light touch, but my body is submerged now and I’m drowning in it. Every stroke of my arms through the liquid is a new symphony of life with hundreds of voices and perspectives and experiences reaching out to me in a deluge and demanding my skin and my attention. Under the weight of them my body is slowly pulled under.

Munwi got a callback from her agent. She had been cast in the pilot and would be shooting in the spring—

Kevin scored his first goal in a national match and spotted his dad cheering—

Sarah took him on his first roller coaster and laughed so hard at his high pitched scream—

There she is. I caught a brief glimpse of her. The cascade of experience is still flowing through me, but in it I feel a glimmer of the familiar, for just a split second. I can feel my lungs bursting and I watch as the last few bubbles of air escape my chest, floating away up to the surface above. My vision grows dark and I begin to wonder whether the images are coming from the memories around me, or from the ones within?

Sarah had just got her licence and drove me out to the lake for a picnic. She had liked the shirt I wore that day—

And finally, I wonder, did it matter?

Sarah fl w home to surprise me on my birthd -

S  ah bro   t me  ome to   et her dad-

Sar   tied b  k he       so I co  d see h r f  e-

   rah t    bac    r hair s  I   uld    e   er  ac -

S r  h


Eoin Butler Thornton lives in Galway City, Ireland. He is a writer and arts worker with an interest in unexplored mythology, folklore and fantasy. He is a current student of the MA in Creative Writing at University of Limerick.

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