By Hanlu Hu
“Why does it always rain on me?”
She took off her headphones, looked up and found dark clouds were gathering in the sky. At least they can gather together, she thought. She sighed and looked out to the long queue ahead. One decade after the pandemic, with mutated viruses occasionally bursting out, most people were required to only go out every ten days. If someone broke this rule and snuck out during the 10-day period, the AI clerks in public places would discover immediately and the individual would lose credits (which were important for jobs, housing and any other social activities).
Today was supposed to be her lucky day. Her day out. She had elaborate plans for today: shopping on her favorite blocks, stopping at a café for a break, sunbathing in the park, and a cocktail at the rooftop bar. But she got stuck at the first stop, in this endless queue outside the store. Two people at a time, one meter from each other. She could hardly do window shopping from where she stood, let alone interact with anyone since the world was hiding in masks and umbrellas. Precious hours wasted on queueing. Bravo.
She looked at the reflection of herself in the glass window. Why am I wasting time here? Who am I dressing up for? After all, you can’t expect to go to meetings, schools, parties, even dates in person. When human interactions were reduced to minimum, even dressing up and makeup became ancient rituals. Especially if your friends and family were quarantined on your day out, you might not encounter anyone familiar – just other heavyhearted strangers. The moment she discovered this single day out could be meaningless, she felt more frustrated. The expectations of today that had been building up over the past week had become so heavy that she could hardly stand.
She looked around desperately for a tunnel to escape, a place to rest. Ah, there it is. A charming wooden building sat quietly in the corner, with no one waiting outside. She quickened her pace as if drawn by a magnet. What was this place? The door opened like an old friend holding out her arms. Voilà. She read the welcome sign. A memory museum? The man behind the counter raised his head and greeted her:
“Yes, ma’am. Welcome to the Pandemic Memories Museum.”
The man was in his sixties, with a striped tie and a tux that blended into the retro-style hall.
“This museum was built thirty years ago, designed to preserve the memories of the pandemic generation, and to display them as immersive visual tours for the visitors.”
She was amazed, “You are a real person? I thought the AI clerk was everywhere. And this place is magnificent! How come I’ve never heard about it?”
The curator smiled warmly and showed her the entrance, “What matters now is that you are here. Please, enjoy.”
She smiled back, for the first time in a long while, and made her way to the exhibition hall.
There were multiple holograms displayed in the hall. Children running on the playground under the sun, audiences clapping in theaters, fans cheering in a stadium for the World Cup, lovers cuddling and swaying at a musical festival……
She could feel the laughter, the screaming, the exciting noises, the passion for life. Real life. She took a few steps further and discovered the festival memories section. Her eyes widened. The festivals that only existed in history books! Festivals had long gone in the post pandemic era because countless people had been infected due to festive events. She couldn’t wait to experience this! She picked up the nearest VR glass and was eager to see which festival would come up first.
Dazzling lights. Freezing wind. Even…snow? She blinked twice to make sure she was actually immersed in the virtual reality rather than living in a parallel universe. The ferris wheel brightened the dark night sky and the carousel rang with cheerful laughter. A giant Christmas tree with bells and lights. This must be the Christmas market, she thought excitedly! She almost jumped from joy before she was caught up in a seething mass of arms and legs. There were stalls selling baked apples, crêpes, candles, home-made crafts and red wine. People were gathering together with almost zero distance, chatting, laughing loudly and clinking glasses. Is it real? She reached out to the nearest person, trying to touch her face. But before her finger arrived at its destination, the memory blurred and sped forward to the next scene. This time she was standing in the middle of a crowded street, and gorgeous fireworks were blooming and falling in front of her eyes. Frohes neues Jahr! Bonne Année! She witnessed the crowd shouting happy new year in various languages, whispering their wishes and kissing loved ones in their arms. How stunning! So this was how New Year’s Eve was supposed to be. She wished she could stay here in this moment forever. Not staying at home, not keeping a distance – just celebrating every festival with the world. Face to face. Heart to heart.
She didn’t even notice when the memory replay was over. After a few deep breaths, her heart was still immersed in the joy of festivals and the astonishment of alternate realities. Her thoughts racing, she felt she needed to talk to someone. She rushed to the curator at the counter, gasping, “Sir, are those memories real? Those ones at the festivals, those people and things I saw there, are they real?”
The curator stood up and looked directly into her eyes, “Of course. The Pandemic Memories Museum only stored true memories of people who died of the coronavirus based on their consent. The museum collected these memories and displayed them so that people can study these precious historical materials and remember…”.
She couldn’t believe her ears. Those joyful memories belonged to the young, the old, the lovers, and yet also the dead. All those wishes they made for a brand new year might have never been realized. She stumbled and fled from the museum.
A few drops of cold rain rolled down her face. Salty. She looked up at the sky again. The dark clouds had scattered a little, and a pure ray of sunshine shone down upon the earth. Suddenly, she seemed to hear the laughter, the cheers, the joyful shouts from the crowd again. They seemed to come from above the clouds, thousands of miles away. She held her breath and listened carefully. This time, they seemed to come from the bottom of her heart, echoing inside of her. She would live on with these precious memories, for her own sake and for theirs. “Peace of mind is easy to find, when the time is right…” She put on her headphones, held up her head and walked into the rain.
Photo from Canva database.