“Have you ever wanted to turn back time? Relive your childhood? Remember when things were better than they are now?” Sara Miller, the eighteen-year-old from Pennsylvania, read on a poster on the wall at the Metro station. Sara was attending her freshman year of college at Saint John’s University just outside of New York City. Being about half-way through her first semester, she was feeling quite homesick. She longed for things that were familiar to her, her yellow Labrador, the smell of her mom cooking chicken noodle soup, or the nickname she had as a child.
The ad was for a company called Memo Industries. Its name, as well as the poster had a futuristic aesthetic to it. Colored bright pink and baby blue accompanied by an image of a grassy landscape, the poster was broken up by metallic colored wording. “Call 1-800-636-7333 for more details!”
Throughout her ride, Sara thought about the advertisement, unsure of how she felt. She was aware of the horror stories of New York City, the same stories her family told her before moving. They all involved tragedy: a disappearance, a child abduction, or a sexual assault at a party ― and these events only occurred because “The Big Apple is bad news.”
Sara did know she wanted to feel better. She missed feeling carefree and her grandmother who passed almost a year earlier. She desperately wanted a brownie sundae from her favorite ice cream shop that recently burned to the ground. In the past, those sundaes were the cure to her sadness. She decided to put the number in her phone, uncertain if she would be dialing it or not.
After about a week, things got worse for Sara. Her boyfriend of three years broke up with her, claiming she was too needy since her move away from home. Her mother had discovered she had been diagnosed with an obscure illness and would have to undergo treatment. This type of hopelessness was a feeling Sara knew all too well. She knew college would be difficult and adjusting to a new place would be even harder. She did, however, expect at least some good to come out of uprooting her life to begin bettering it.
She thought about the advertisement she saw earlier in the month and remembered the number was still stored in her phone. “Turn back time,” she thought. She was still undecided about how the advertisement made her feel ― was she more confused or was this the sign of hope she needed? She decided she would call the number to find out exactly what Memo Industries’ true intentions were. She dialed and waited for an answer.
The phone rang. A woman picked up. “Hello, Memo Industries, how may I assist you today?”
Sara was unsure of who she would speak with. She told the woman about the ad she saw at the Metro station, and the woman told her she would put her on hold while she transferred her to a representative.
Suddenly, a man’s voice appeared on the other line ― “Memo Industries, how may we help you today?”
Taken aback by this, Sara answered ― “I saw your companies add at the train station. I’m interested, but what exactly does this involve?”
The man identified himself as Michael, one of the inventors of the company. He then gave Sara a myriad of information, attempting to put Sara’s mind at ease. He explained to her that Memo Industries was a virtual reality company, and their goal was to improve the lives of others by offering an opportunity to “travel back” to the past. He explained that their software was in its trial phase, and if she paid a small fee, she could become one of the company’s exclusive participants. First, however, he would have to meet with Sara to hear her story and see if she would be a good fit for its testing phase. He then gave her their website address and walked her through her its contents. After he finished, Michael asked Sara a seemingly harmless but very influential question.
“Would you like to schedule an appointment to meet with me?” He questioned, then continued to explain. “From this conversation I feel your experiences would more than match our expectations. I do have to inform you that if you decline, you will not be reconsidered if your mind changes. So, what do you say?”
In mere seconds, thousands of thoughts raged through Sara’s mind. Unable to process things clearly, and feeling a bit pressured, Sara uttered out “Sure!” without realizing exactly just what she had done.
Michael let out a slight chuckle, then asked “So why don’t we set up that appointment now?” Sara agreed, and the two arranged to meet at the company’s headquarters on the Monday of the next week. Michael gave her the address, and as quickly as it began, the conversation was over.
As the week went on, things began to look up for Sara. She did well on an exam she thought she would fail, joined a new club, and even met a new guy she thought she could be interested in. She felt silly for making the phone call to Memo Industries earlier in the week; things did not seem so bad now. Now a new conflict arose in Sara’s heart: should she meet Michael at the company headquarters on Monday, or let it go and hope for the best?
Sara thought about it over the weekend. When Sunday night finally arrived, she was back into the same funk, now from contemplating the meeting. She finally decided to confide in her roommate Maddie on Monday morning, the day she was set to meet with Michael at Memo Industries. She and Maddie had met on move in day a few months prior, and she and Sara did not speak much. Their relationship was little more than acquaintances, occasionally going grocery shopping to fill their small dorm fridge.
Sara told her about how she had been feeling, and about the ad at the Metro station. Maddie offered her a solution: she could attend her meeting with Michael and see how it transpired. Maddie would call to check in, making sure she was safe. If Sara didn’t answer, or didn’t sound right, she would know to get help. Sara was content with this, deciding she could have the best of both worlds. She felt better having disclosed to Maddie and shortly after, Sara left for her meeting.
The train ride to Memo Industries felt eternal to Sara. She tried to drown out her anxiety with some of her favorite music. She connected her headphones to her iPhone, and began to play “Touch of Grey” by The Grateful Dead. The train was crowded and filled with unfamiliar faces. It was growing dark, being that it was almost evening. Almost magically, another advertisement for Memo Industries caught Sara’s eye. This time the poster was deep red and bright yellow, filled with autumn leaves. The text was still a futuristic metallic, standing out from the background. “Return to your childhood with Michael! Call 1-800-636-7333.” Almost simultaneously, the train conductor announced they had reached her stop. Sara got off the train and stepped into an unknown subway station, uncertain of what her night would hold.
✽ ✽ ✽
When Sara first set eyes on Memo Industries she was stunned. The building was magnificent. “This place is the size of five skyscrapers combined,” she thought to herself. It was made entirely of stainless steel, with large glass windows and doors. It looked almost as if it was a skyscraper. She was also unsure of how a building of this magnitude was built almost instantaneously with no news coverage. She felt her thoughts overwhelming her. Just as she began contemplating turning around a man appeared from the shadows, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Sara, is that you? It is so nice to finally meet you.” A tall, thin man with sleek grey hair presented himself to Sara. He had thick, square glasses and his smile was gleaming with bright white teeth. “I’m Michael, the one you spoke with over the phone.”
Unable to turn back, Sara decided to embrace the experience she might have. She felt she was prepared for what was in store. She had just shared her location with her roommate and had her number on speed dial. She was uncertain as to why Michael knew her identity without her introducing herself, but she did not think it was enough to be overly anxious about. “Hi Michael, should we get started?” Sara nervously asked.
At this, Michael agreed and the two made their way into the Memo Industries headquarters building. The inside of the building was as Sara expected, as shiny and futuristic as its outer shell. Although she was nervous, a sense of excitement came over Sara. She felt she was in good hands with Michael. There was something about his disposition she trusted.
“So Sara, we are going to fill out some paperwork; just waivers and documents of that nature. Next, we will take what we call a persona quiz, and then the experiment will begin.”
Sara snapped back to reality from her thoughts as Michael started talking. She agreed that would be fine, and the two made their way back to an office to begin the process.
Michael handed Sara a stack of paperwork that she thought could have weighed ten pounds. He said he would paraphrase most of it to save some time, “You probably would not want to read all of that anyway!” Michael stated almost jokingly.
Sara laughed in agreement as she was never proficient in legalities. Form by form, Michael gave Sara a general idea of what the documents involved, and afterward Sara would sign them without question. This went along until a phrase in capital letters and bolded print caught her eye.
Sara knew what a non-disclosure agreement was. She learned about them through a short segment on the news recently. She wondered why this seemingly harmless procedure would require her to sign an agreement of this kind, but ultimately, she decided not to say anything, and waited for Michael’s explanation as to why this document was presented to her. His answer did not put her mind at ease.
“This is a document that states you cannot discuss what you experienced here with anyone. If you were to say anything about what you witnessed here at Memo Industries, it would be a breach of contract. We would have to take legal measures in that instance.”
Sara questioned this, wondering why this would be necessary. If they were truly helping people, wouldn’t they want others to talk about it? This was explained away by Michael almost nonchalantly.
“This is an exclusive treatment… and it is also at its experimental stage. We wouldn’t want to get any bad publicity should anything go wrong. Michael paused for a moment then continued. “But we are confident in what we are doing here at Memo.”
This made sense to Sara, and although she still had an eerie feeling, she signed the document.
“We’re ready to begin now. Follow me to the treatment room, one of my assistants, Jane, will be helping you from here. Good luck with everything!” Michael uttered. He led her down a long hallway to a smaller white room that reminded her of the doctor’s office. Michael instructed Sara to wait there until his assistant arrived to give her the persona quiz, collect information, and perform the virtual reality treatment on her. In a few minutes, the door opened and Jane entered the room.
The assistant, Jane, had long dark hair and was extremely friendly. She asked Sara a number of questions: where she grew up, what she missed most, and her favorite things. She also asked her to show her any photos of important memories if she had any. She then explained to Sara that her responses to the questions would be used to tailor her virtual reality experience so she could truly feel like she was traveling back in time. Sara would have to wear a large black headset, which reminded her of the sunglasses her aunt was ordered to wear after she had her cataracts removed. The headset would be connected to a computer with software that would allow visuals to be experienced the way they were in real life. The headset contained earphones for sound. They would also play a short sound at the beginning that would trick her brain into entering the false reality. Medication would be administered to sedate her to ensure she would not be distracted by the outside world. Additionally, she was to wear what looked like a pair of black cloth gloves and a pair of socks, which Jane explained would allow for her movements to be lifelike in the virtual reality. Sara agreed to this and felt much more comfortable at Memo Industries with Michael away and Jane accompanying her, making sure she understood the process.
Once the quiz and explanation were over, it was time for the actual procedure to commence. Jane slipped the heavy, dark headset over Sara’s eyes and connected it into the computer system. Jane explained she could control the computer using something resembling an iPad, and that she would be observing Sara’s procedure in the next room. As Sara adjusted the headset on her head, Jane dropped a pill in a cup of water and let it dissolve. She gave it to Sara to drink and stepped out of the room.
Now Sara was alone for the first time since she arrived at Memo Industries. Just as the system began to start up, she realized she never got a check in call from her roommate. While she was slightly worried, she tried to push the thought out of her mind. She felt safe and truly doubted her roommate Maddie would have taken action if she wasn’t. Sara began to feel the effects of the sedative and a high-pitched ringing noise played through the headset. Images began to appear on the screen. Almost immediately, Sara knew where she was― she was walking into her grandmother’s house.
Sara couldn’t believe how realistic virtual reality was. She felt as if everything she was really happening; feeling the subtle movements she was making allowing her to walk in the virtual reality. With the video Sara showed Memo Industries, they were able to recreate everything about her grandmother’s house, including the overbearing cigarette smell and carpets colored pea green. Sara ran into her grandmother’s arms and hugged her. As she did this, she began to cry.
“What’s wrong Tootsie,” she asked gently. Tootsie was a nickname Sara’s grandmother had given her when she was born. It had been roughly a year since the last time someone had called her that.
“I just missed you Grammy,” Sara replied somberly.
“Missed me? I didn’t go anywhere honey,” her grandmother uttered, confused. “Go get yourself an ice cream. That always makes you feel better.”
Sara decided to do this, knowing that, of course, her grandmother knew her best. She walked down the street and stopped in amazement; her favorite ice cream parlor was still there.
Throughout the day, Sara explored more of this virtual reality. She was able to do her favorite things and see her favorite people. Memo Industries included even the most obscure details of Sara’s life in Pennsylvania. She played fetch with her dog and met her old friends for lunch ― including the ones who had passed on in years prior. She wanted to have all the time in the world to spend in this reality, feeling truly happy for the first time in years. She almost wished she didn’t have to leave.
✽ ✽ ✽
And she never did. What Sara didn’t know, of course, was that a form she signed, one Michael paraphrased, consented to staying in her virtual reality for ten years ― completely unaware of how much time had passed. The purpose was test the program’s long-term effects, and the premise of bringing happiness to its patients was a rouse to entice vulnerable clientele. When Sara woke up, she was 28 years old, with no idea of how much she had truly missed out on. Unemployed and unenrolled in school, Sara had accumulated debt due to her student loans and unpaid bills. In the moment Sara found out what had become of her life, she was more miserable than ever. How big of a mistake “turning back time” truly was.
FICTION BY Maria DiBuo