They came for our water.
They asked for two centimeters off the top of our oceans. In exchange, everyone would receive a gift.
The world united in its disagreement. If they’d pointed a weapon at us, we’d have complied. But they asked, so we debated.
We nearly fought — but voted instead. The yeses won out. Above all else, I surmised, we wanted the gift.
They took only what they said they’d take and not a drop more. On their way out, a peaceful voice spoke into everyone’s mind. “In sixty seconds, you will sleep for three. Stop your machines.”
I fluffed the pillows on my couch, stared at the TV broadcasting the giant ship in the sky, and waited.
Then I slept — for exactly three seconds.
Ten thousand four hundred fifteen people died in the moments following the sleep. I knew the number because I knew each of their names. Why hadn’t people just pulled over?
Anger surged within me. What kind of gift…
I heard my neighbor Phil crying. Over the years he’d suffered the losses of his parents, two brothers, and a newborn daughter. I’d known about his daughter but the others I’d discovered during the sleep.
I stepped out into a sunny day, walked down my porch steps, and approached. He’d pierced the ground with his gardening shears, laid his arm across the handles, and buried his face. Tears fell onto the grass.
“I’m so sorry, Phil.” I said what I thought I should.
He looked up at me, his face a mask of anguish. “Oh, Jessica. What’s happened?” He extended a gloved hand. I held it in mine and patted it. Poor Phil. He’d had a rough life, and thanks to the gift, I remembered every minute of it.
But why was he crying? His own memories were nothing new.
Ms. Atkinson approached us. She was a kindly old neighbor who wasn’t very social on an individual level but was always on time for our yearly block party. She’d sit on her ancient, scraggly lawn chair and watch the kids play, the men barbeque, and the women gossip.
She’d lived through the Holocaust. She was very young at the time and no longer remembered much, but I did — now. Every horrifying moment was in my memory as if I’d been the one screaming for my parents.
Phil wiped his nose with his arm. “Ms. Atkinson. Jean. I had no idea.”
Oh. That’s why he was crying. Her memories.
She tucked in her dress and sat on Phil’s perfectly manicured lawn. “I don’t speak of it. Happened several lifetimes ago.”
“Not for me it didn’t,” said Phil.
I nodded in agreement.
“I’m so sorry for your losses, Phil.”
Phil’s face screwed up, but he seemed to push his rising emotions down. “You remember little Rebecca?”
Jean placed a wrinkled hand on Phil’s shoulder. “We do, because you do. She was a good girl.”
Phil sniffed. “Remember how paranoid Marcie and I were after Sandy was born that she too would pass in the night?”
I laughed. “You each pulled twelve hour shifts, watching her every minute.”
“Now she’s in college.” Phil cracked a proud smile.
“She loves you very much,” I said, because I knew.
Phil stared at me and frowned. There was nothing hidden between us. He and Jean Atkinson knew me as I knew them, as I knew all seven billion people on the planet.
Jean glared at me.
The gift, as it was given, were the shared memories and experiences of all humanity for all of humanity. The gift didn’t bestow others’ abilities or talents; it shared where we’d been, who we’d loved, who we’d lost.
And what we’d done.
To their credit, Jean and Phil remained in my presence. They were good neighbors.
Perhaps that was a part of the gift, being able to see others’ pasts without going mad. Or perhaps humanity had a greater level of acceptance than I gave us credit for. Hopefully.
Phil retracted his hand from mine.
Humankind had been permanently and irrevocably changed. We should’ve said no.
What was missing from the gift was motivation — the why we’d acted upon the choices we’d made.
That’s why Phil and Jean were staring at me like I was a monster. They didn’t know how long and how valiantly I’d struggled with my decision.
I couldn’t stop the cold sweat. I couldn’t slow my heartbeat. They knew, which meant everyone knew.
One of them still had to ask.
I waited. I debated if I would tell them. Probably. I mean, I still had to live next to them.
“Honey.” Jean braved the question. “Why’d you do it?”
Dustin Adams is a U.S. Customs broker and currently owns his own brokerage business. He writes in the wee hours of the morning, in the dark, when no one else can see.