illustration by Darryl Knickrehm © 2013
Sam knew Madeline’s flushed cheeks and wide, starry eyes had nothing to do with him. As he walked her home, she stared past him and prattled about how funny her boss had been at dinner. About how nice he looked in that suit. About how he was so great.

Sam knew her boss was great. He was perfect, in fact. He was everything Sam was not. But she didn’t have to go on and on about it. It was their date after all. Even if it had been a company dinner.

They stopped at a crosswalk and waited for the light. He went to kiss her; she turned her head so his lips brushed her cheek.

“I’m going to be laughing about that story he told for days,” she said. “Wasn’t that crazy?”

“I was too embarrassed to notice,” he said. “You clearly had too much to drink. You were flirting with him all night. I understand now why you dressed like that. You obviously wanted to show your boss your boobs.”

Sam regretted the words the moment he said them. They would have to go in the Box.

But the Box and the typewriter were back in his condo. He would have to write the words down, for now, in the little notebook he always carried for just this purpose.

Sam was so focused on scribbling down the words that he didn’t hear what Madeline said in response. When he looked up, Madeline was storming down the street, as fast as she could go in heels. He shrugged. It looked arrogant, he supposed, or just weird, to take notes at a time like that. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was getting his mistake down now, word for word, so the Box could take care of it. So that the Box could make it as if it never had happened.

He felt sorry for people without Boxes. How horrible, to be forced to live with the consequences of every word they spoke.

As soon as he got home to his condo, Sam pulled the case down from the shelf.

He’d tried to clean the typewriter case once years before, soon after he’d found it in his father’s apartment, the day after his father’s funeral. Sam had only been a teenager but the job of clearing out his father’s junk fell to him because no one else in the family would have anything to do with his dad, even after death. The cleaning hadn’t made much difference to the case’s surface, worn in places, coated with grime in others.

He lifted the lid. Inside, there were two worn felt compartments. The smaller compartment held the Box, cheap grey painted metal about the size of a small paperback. He lifted it out. Bits of paper peeked out from under the lid, as if they were trying to get out.

Sam pulled the little typewriter out of the larger compartment. It was gorgeous in gleaming aluminum, the moon-faced keys fanning out into the air. He flipped the little space bar down, checked the ink roller, put a fresh sheet of paper in.

It typed beautifully, so long as Sam provided it with a fresh ink roller from time to time. Unfortunately, no one made rollers for a century-old Blickensderfer 6 anymore. So Sam used rollers from printing calculators. He had stockpiled enough to keep him typing and out of trouble for the rest of his life.

Sam pulled out his notebook and carefully, carefully typed in what he’d said to Madeline. The black rubber typewheel bobbed and dipped. He was a hunt-and-peck typist even on a normal keyboard, and the Blickensderfer’s keys were in odd positions. But he had to use this typewriter. The Box wouldn’t work otherwise.

When Sam had finished, he pulled the sheet out and read it over, twice.

I was too embarrassed to notice. You clearly had too much to drink. You were flirting with him all night. I understand now why you dressed like that. You obviously wanted to show your boss your boobs.

He cringed as he read. But there was no point on dwelling on it. Once he put the words in the Box, nobody remembered that they’d ever been uttered – not even Sam.

With long black scissors he snick-snicked along the grain of the paper, trimming it to the typed words to save space, and then rolled the strip into a little cylinder.

Biting his lip, Sam opened the Box just a crack, quickly and gingerly, as he always did. Merely opening the lid wasn’t enough to free the memories but it was enough to engulf him in a miasma of regret and put a bitter taste in his mouth. He slipped the disc in against tightly packed strips of rolled paper and let the lid drop down.

It wouldn’t quite close. He pressed down on the lid but there were too many memories.

How did that happen? Could he have possibly needed to use it that many times?

There must be some that could come out. Some youthful mistakes – getting the name of a writer or musician wrong in conversation at a party, maybe. An off-color joke or two. Surely there were some he could live with, now that years had passed. At least enough to free up some space.

But which ones? He couldn’t read any of them without taking them out and remembering.

He rooted around a little, pulled out a grimy wad. It looked old.

The memory came back like a punch as he unrolled the strip of paper. He didn’t even need to read the words. He remembered what it had felt like, to make nasty jokes with the cool kids about his teacher’s artificial leg, then to turn to see the teacher – his favorite teacher – standing behind him. He furled up the memory and thrust it back in the Box, deep.

Sam tried another. Instantly, another memory blinked back: The time he’d told his mother he held her responsible for his father’s death. He winced and shoved it back in.

He poured himself a shot of whiskey and decided to grab a few at random, and learn to live with them whatever they were.

Out they came, off the top. Bang, bang, bang, memory upon memory. The pain they caused as they came out was almost physical, in his gut.

He’d quit his job, a few months back. Jesus, what had he been thinking?

He’d got in an argument with his neighbor, said some nasty things, and at the end of it, called his neighbor a fag. He’d never used that word in his life. Or so he had thought.

Apparently, he had broken up with Madeline several times, in ugly ways, even though they’d only been dating a few months.

He pictured Madeline, back in her apartment now, sniffling perhaps over the latest fight, suddenly remembering worse moments as they came out of the Box.

He stared at the Box for a few minutes.

Which course was the least painful for everyone, now?

Sam put the newest regret, his insult to Madeline, carefully down on his writing desk. He stuffed the rest back in and closed the lid.

As the memories themselves faded, he could not forget the thought that flashed across his mind once the lid was closed: Jesus Christ, I’m a bit of an asshole.

Sam paced, and downed his whiskey. He leaned against the condo’s plate-glass seventh-storey window, staring at the city lights.

He’d make room for tonight’s bad memory, but that would be the last. He would do that for Madeline, because he never would have inflicted those words on her if he hadn’t had the option of erasing them.

Sam fished a memory out from the bottom. Before he took his hand out, he told himself, no matter what this is, so long as it’s better than what I said to Madeline, I’ll live with it.

He unrolled it.

You never learn, do you, you little prick? You’re selfish and a coward and I’m ashamed of you.

Sam remembered those words, all right. But he didn’t say them. His father did.

Sam was 14 at the time, on one of his weekend visits to his dad. For once, his dad remembered to pick him up. They went to the park so Sam could shoot hoops and Sam tormented a younger kid, to show off.

His dad yelled, and it hurt. All those years Sam had put up with his dad, had defended him to his mom and to everyone else. That day, however, he saw the truth. He saw his dad was a bastard.

Strangely, right after, Sam forgot his dad’s words entirely. He went back to thinking his dad was just kind of a screw-up with a well-hidden heart of gold.

A few days later, his mom told him his dad had died, and told him he could go to the funeral if he wanted. The next day he’d discovered the Box, in his dad’s place. He’d opened it and found the strip of paper in the bottom, with those words on it. Sam remembered, then, that his dad had said them. Angry tears in his eyes, the younger Sam had thrust the piece of paper back in. And he’d forgotten what it said, again. Instantly.

That was the moment he understood that his father’s typewriter, and the funny Box that went with it, had a special power. That was the moment it began.

Sam smoothed out the strip of paper on his desk.

All these years Sam told himself he used the Box to make himself a better person, the way an artist uses an eraser. Deleting the worst of himself. But he was wrong. He was a walking lie: a man with bits of his own past excised, cut out with long black scissors. He was not the person he thought he was.

You never learn, his dad had said.

Sam left his father’s regret out on the table. His father had been able to cut the worst bits of himself, too. But the parts that were left didn’t add up to much. A man with no regrets and with no strength of character.

Now I’ve got a box full of regrets, Sam thought. The question is: what should I do with it?

"Word for Word" by Kate Heartfield at Waylines Magazine

A woman, walking her dog on the street below, thought for a moment that it was snowing. But no: it was something like confetti, falling from above. Bits of paper, swirling on the air.

© 2013 Kate Heartfield

Kate Heartfield is a newspaper journalist and fiction writer in Ottawa, Canada. Her stories have appeared recently in the science-fiction anthology Blood and Water and online at Black Treacle. Her story “For Sale by Owner” is coming soon from Daily Science Fiction. For more, see or find her on Twitter as @kateheartfield