Read the first chapter of Memory Minefield

chapter one: ari

On a strange November afternoon, I woke up with my eyes already opened.

I was sitting on a furry beanbag in my bedroom with an incomplete psychology worksheet on the desk in front of me.

The hippocampus, a brain structure responsible for learning and memory, is located in which part of the brain?

After skimming the four possible answers, I circled B—temporal lobe. Only then did I notice the blood dripping from my fingertips.

With a sharp gasp, I dropped my yellow pencil and extended my right arm to get a clearer view of my wounds. The feeling of warm blood trickling down my palm dissipated as I realized that my nails were simply coated in a pomegranate-colored polish.

Weird. I relaxed my shaky hands, resting them by the worksheet on my desk. I don’t remember painting them.

My eyes widened as I read the name Ari Cortez in the corner of the page.

I don’t remember anything at all.

I sprung from the beanbag, stumbling to face the middle of the bedroom and nearly falling in the process. With heavy breaths, I searched for a dangerous face—for the villain who had made me a stranger in my own body.

But I was alone.

The bed in the corner had a burnt-orange duvet cover peeled back as though someone had been sleeping there a matter of hours ago. Against the opposite wall stood a dresser that matched the mahogany wood of my desk—its drawers half-open, overflowing with warm-colored fabrics.

I took a few steps forward and caught a glimpse of movement through the corner of my eye. My head shot over my left shoulder just in time to catch a stranger’s face staring at me through a window.

At first I assumed that the girl was another person, but when my fingers met with the curly brown hair resting on my shoulders, the girl in the glass reached for her hair too.

It’s not a window. My heart rate settled as I walked toward my reflection, the girl in the glass copying me in sync. It’s a mirror.

Our dark eyes met like we were two separate entities crossing paths, infatuated with the matching patterns of freckles on our faces, yet also afraid of such a strong coincidence.


Although I’d seen the lips of my reflection move, I struggled to believe that the foreign voice had been my own. I pressed my fingers against my hot neck—the skin right under my chin—and spoke again.

“Hello?” I said, louder this time. My vocal cords vibrated in confirmation.

Desperate for something less creepy than this mirror to focus on, I parted from the glass to discover a collage above my desk that I’d been too stunned to notice earlier. A collection of film photos and handwritten quotes had been taped onto the wall with thin strips of decorative tape.

I recognized my own face in the photos. In some I’d even been wearing the same outfit I wore now—brown linen pants, a cream t-shirt, and a golden necklace chain with a seahorse pendant. The faces accompanying mine varied, but it didn’t take long to spot a pattern.

Apart from myself, the only consistent character was a blond girl with wide blue eyes. Her hairstyle changed dramatically from photo to photo—straight to curly, long to short, up to down—but her plaid jacket and sparkly smile never changed.

Stop thanking me. I squinted at the message written on the only photo of us two alone. I’m always here for you.

The message on the photo implied that the girl in the plaid jacket had somehow helped me in the past. Perhaps the necklace I wore also had something to do with her, because my fingers fumbled instinctively for the seahorse pendant that dangled against my shirt.

It’s like I grabbed it out of habit.

I shook my head and let go of the necklace before yanking open the first drawer of my desk. There had to be something hidden in this room that could help me understand why I’d lost my memories.

Inside the drawer I found a short stack of papers marked with scattered numbers, words written so sloppily I could hardly read them, and—in a much higher ratio than the two previously mentioned—lines and lines of endless scribbles. I spread the pages across my desk, grabbed a random page, and brought it toward my nose to study the markings closer.

Looks like a bird’s-eye view of a building.

My eyes jolted to the door as footsteps echoed from another room, heading in my direction. I stumbled left and right, my eyes flying from wall to wall in search of a place to hide—but before I could part from my desk, the footsteps came to a halt.


The door swung open to reveal a woman in a flowing teal dress. Her tender smile loosened my tight grip on the page.

“Did I hear you call?” she asked.

I opened my mouth to speak, but when the woman’s eyes landed on the floor plans spread across my desk, the smile tumbled off her face, and the words got caught in my throat. With every step she took in my direction, the air grew colder. 

“I thought you were done with this, Ari.”

I stumbled away from her, wincing as my back slammed into the wall.

The woman whom I assumed was my mother snatched the page from my grip, and I held my palms out in front of me, lips trembling.

“What…” I stammered, the words struggling to leave my throat. “What happened to me?”

My panic must have been contagious, because her jaw dropped, and the mountainous folds across her forehead settled into flat land.

“Oh no. No, not you too.” The corners of her lips twisted downward into a pout as she said, “You’ve forgotten.”

I couldn’t tell if she was asking a question or making a statement.

“I believe so.” I crossed my stiff arms, an attempt to cloak the defensive guard I still wasn’t wiling to let down completely. “But why?”

My mother glanced at the page in her hand one final time before pulling me away from the wall and into her suffocating embrace.

“We’ll work through this together,” she whispered into my ear, “okay?”

And although working through this—whatever that vague word represented—wasn’t exactly a concern to me, her soft voice eased my stress, and I finally let my guard down. The mystery of why I didn’t remember myself vanished, my confusion morphing into pure curiosity now that I wouldn’t have to solve this alone.

“What did you say I was done with?” I asked.

She stepped away from me and raised her brows.

“I was holding that”—I pointed at the paper in her hand—“and you said you thought I was done with something.”

“Done with procrastinating on your homework to draw these floor plans.” She pulled at one of my curls and released the strand to watch it recoil. “You’ve always dreamed of becoming a structural engineer.”

For a moment I thought I was experiencing nostalgia—that when I was younger, my mother would tug gently at my curls as a form of endearment—but after she gathered the other papers from my desk, I decided that the childhood memory was nothing more than a lie my longing mind had made up for comfort’s sake. The result of a desperate attempt to fill the void that had once held real memories.

“Let’s talk in the living room.” My mother grinned, but I could tell by the unsteadiness of her voice that she was holding herself together for my own sake. “I’ll explain everything, okay?”

I uncrossed my arms, and my lips formed a straight line as she left through the doorway.

Listening to her footsteps echo down the hall, I wondered why she hadn’t left my sketched floor plans behind, especially if those pages had once played a role in my passion for structural engineering. I wondered why the only paper remaining on my desk was the worksheet I had woken up solving.

My eyes wandered to a wrinkled page in the collage on the wall, and for the first time, I spotted something familiar—a quote I remembered by heart.

Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.

“Aristotle,” I whispered without even a moment of thought.

And as I read the quote again, I felt an unexplainable certainty that my mother had lied.

On Sunday, the day after I’d woken up, the television ran all day long to keep my parents and I updated on the latest memory loss case analytics. For three days people of all ages all over the world had been mysteriously waking up with no recollection of whom they were.

And I happened to be one of them.

My mother and father spent hours flipping through albums of my baby photos and sharing funny stories from my past. I knew they were trying to help me understand myself better, but the guilt completely infested me. If anything, my parents were the memory loss victims, not me. They were the ones grieving over the old Ari.

I wish there was something I could do to lift their spirits.

That painful helplessness only intensified when they introduced me to Stella Pierce.

The girl stood in the entryway of our home that evening, a mere cutout of the photos I’d seen of her on my bedroom wall—plaid jacket and all. According to my mother, Stella was my best friend, and she also happened to live right across the street.

Stella ran from the entryway, my father shutting the door behind her as she wrapped me into a hug so tight it rivaled my mother’s. The fabric of her scratchy jacket—still cold from the November air—left me with a desire to experience the chill myself. I hadn’t left the house since I’d woken up, but I was too nervous to ask my parents for permission to. They were still in the realm of strangers, possibly approaching the acquaintance zone.

“Oh, Ari. I’m really, really sorry.” Stella’s long, blond hair made my neck itchy—but she smelled like roses, so that evened out the discomfort. “I’ll tell you everything you need to know. I promise.”

She stepped away from me before I had the chance to hug her back, not that I’d ever felt inclined to.

The four of us sat around the square dining room table that evening, the air dangerously quiet. My parents and I had eaten nothing but packaged crackers and granola bars since I’d woken up, so this was our first proper meal together, and none of us knew how to act.

I made brief eye contact with Stella and my parents before resorting to staring awkwardly at the table, which was a bit too small for us. Our feet nearly ran into each other, and the mismatched plates and platters covered every spot on the tabletop. I pushed my tall glass of lemonade away from the edge, scared of accidentally knocking it over.

My father eventually cleared his throat. “Feel free to dig in.”

I reached for the serving spoon sitting in a white bowl of creamy chicken.

“Some believe that certain people, experiences, or objects might help bring back lost memories,” my father explained as I scooped a helping onto my plate. “I thought we might give sweet lemon chicken a try. It was your all-time favorite.”

My parents glued their eyes to me as I brought a forkful to my lips, waiting for a sign that consuming my favorite food had brought the old Ari back.

Stella cringed as I swallowed my first bite.

“Tastes good,” my father asked, “right?”

I nodded dramatically to convince him that I enjoyed the dry chicken breast smothered in sickeningly-sweet, lemony syrup. But as I stabbed my fork into a second piece of chicken, the glimmer of hope in his eyes faded, and he proceeded to spoon out his own serving.

I counted each painful bite in my head, promising myself to tell my father I was too full to finish after my tenth.

Is he lying to me, or did I actually like this?

Stella had no issue devouring the sweet dish, and I wondered if waking up had somehow messed with the part of my brain responsible for taste.

“Is Ari coming to school tomorrow?” Stella asked my parents, her mouth stuffed with chicken.

My father glanced at my mother before sighing. “I don’t think so.”

School. I swallowed my fourth bite. I haven’t even thought of it.

Stella set her fork down, and by the mere volume of the clink, I could tell she wasn’t satisfied with my father’s response.

“You can’t keep her locked up like this, Mr. C.” Stella crossed her arms. “She’s gonna have to go back to school eventually. Don’t you see that you’re both more afraid than she is?”

I continued choking down my lemon chicken in solitude. Apparently no one wanted my opinion on the matter, but I didn’t mind. If they had asked me whether I felt ready to attend my first day of school, I wouldn’t have known what to tell them.

“Stella, I completely understand what you mean,” my mother said, “but it’s only been one day. Ari needs time to heal, and—and you’re right about being scared. We need time to heal too, okay?”

For the first time today, a smile broke onto Stella’s face—the same smile I had seen countless times in the film photos on my wall.

“Just one day, Mr. and Mrs. C.” Stella pointed a finger in their direction. “That’s all I’m asking. One day, and if it’s too overwhelming, you can homeschool Ari for all I care.”

My father’s posture loosened as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He pointed back at Stella playfully, and I got a sense that he was used to dealing with her challenges. Perhaps the hint of familiarity excited him.

“Deal, but let’s wait a week first,” my father said. “Until then, maybe you can start by showing Ari around town. If she’s feeling up for it, of course.”

Which I’m definitely feeling up for, I wanted to say, but I was far too shy to express my enthusiasm.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long to fulfill my dream of leaving the house. After Stella had returned home from school the following afternoon, she knocked on our front door to invite me on a walk with her.

“Are you feeling up for it?” she asked.

I nodded so hard it left my head sore.

Contrary to what my parents had believed, exploring the outside world wasn’t the least bit overwhelming. I hadn’t lost any knowledge-based memories, so I still knew that benches were for sitting on and that most birds have wings to fly. The information overload they thought I’d experience never came, and instead I found myself in a state of awe.

I wonder if the old Ari loved autumn as much as I do.

Dead leaves decorated the cracked sidewalks of our old town like blotches of red ink, and colorful dogwood trees sprouted from the ground every direction I turned.

Is that snow? I squinted at a white-tipped mountain in the distance.

Stella pointed out all kinds of places, like the historic Pentaware Art Museum and the peaceful McCloud Park. There weren’t too many people out on the sidewalks—perhaps because the overcast sky threatened to rain at any moment—but the strangers who passed us all made the effort to smile. I found myself with a raging curiosity to learn everything I could possibly learn about this charming town I called home.

“And that over there is Damon Academy.” Stella pointed at a brick building to our right. The school logo—a golden raven’s head inside an emerald-green circle—hung on the gable above the front doors. “It’s an all-boys school. They have some of the highest test scores Oregon.”

“That sounds impressive.” I pinched my numb nose to warm it up. As beautiful as the scenery was today, the autumn air sure was brutal.

“Oh, it’s impressive, and they definitely know it.” Stella walked faster, her sneakers crunching against the fallen leaves. “Rule of thumb—never trust a guy from Damon.”

It wasn’t until we entered our neighborhood on the way home when I finally gathered the courage to ask Stella one of the many questions circling through my head.

“On my wall I found a photo of the two of us,” I said. “I think it was you who wrote it. The note said to stop thanking you.”

“Did it really?” Stella asked in a monotone voice.

“Do you know what I was thanking you for?” I looked at her, but she avoided my eyes, staring blankly at the empty road next to us. “It seemed important.”

“Not sure.” Stella shrugged. “I helped you study for an algebra test once, so that might have been it. You’ve always hated math. Not your best subject.”

I frowned at my boots, the memory of the papers I’d found in the drawer of my desk flashing through my mind. I’d nearly forgotten about them.

“But I thought I wanted to be a structural engineer. Doesn’t that require math?”

“An engineer?” Stella finally made eye contact with me, and this time, her smile was genuine. “God, no. Ari, are you kidding me? Music, photography, boring museums—that’s your kind of thing. Not engineering.”

It became clear in that moment that I couldn’t trust anyone but myself to uncover my past. My mother might have lied to me about my dream career, my father might have lied to me about my favorite dish, and Stella might have lied to me about that photo on my wall. The issue was that at least one of them was lying, and there was no way for me to determine who was telling the truth. Perhaps none of them were.

But if I can’t find the old Ari through the people around me, is there any way for me to find her at all?

By the time Stella and I stopped at the front steps to my house, her smile was gone. She wrapped her arms loosely around me, and for the first time since I’d woken up, my eyes watered. Stella had lost her best friend, and she’d spent two days trying to find her.

But I didn’t know if I could help.

Stella could play the role of my best friend, yet it was nothing more than that—a role. We were only actors in a play based on the past.

“Bye, Ari.” There was a tremor in her voice, yet despite her obvious gloominess, I could sense a remnant of hope that I could change—or in this case, revert.

Stella backed away from me and tucked her hands into the pockets of her plaid jacket. She was about to head across the street to her house, but something over my shoulder caught her eye.

“What’s that?”

I scanned the front doorstep but saw nothing out of the ordinary.

“There, that thing.” Stella pointed at a bush to left side of the front steps. “Is that a letter?”

I probably wouldn’t have noticed the envelope tucked in the bush had Stella not pointed it out, and the next few weeks would have been a lot less messy that way. But instead of shrugging away my curiosity, I reached between the frost-coated leaves to retrieve a slightly-damp envelope.

Apart from my name, which had been spelled out across the front in black sticker letters, there was nothing else written on the envelope. No return address—not even a stamp.

Stella joined me by my side. “Who’s it from?”

I paused, hesitating to open it in front of her.

“I wrote it this morning.” The lie slipped from my tongue effortlessly. “It’s a letter for myself. My mother heard on the news that it might work as a possible treatment.”

“Really?” Stella spoke louder than usual, my words rekindling the flame of hope within her that had nearly died out. “Ari, that’s great!”

I sighed. “Doesn’t seem to be working.”

“Well, you never know, so just keep doing what you can. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon?”

I nodded, and Stella parted from my side.

As soon as she crossed the street and entered her house, I ripped the envelope open.

If the letter doesn’t have my address on it, that means the person who wrote it likely delivered it to my house themself.

I pulled out the paper inside to reveal a printed message.

Dear Ari Cortez,

I hope this letter finds you well. I heard news that you’ve lost your memories, which must be a pain. Luckily, I know what you have to do to get them back.

In the Pentaware Art Museum you’ll find a painting titled Seahorse by the deceased artist MLC. Steal the painting during the next full moon, and your memories will return as soon as you leave the building.

This is not a threat, but a kind suggestion. Whether you put this plan into motion or not is up to you, but keep in mind that this is a one-time opportunity for you and you alone. I wish you the best.

I blinked at the page a few times before folding it and stuffing it back into the envelope.

Who would write something like this? And how do they know where I live?

The idea that stealing a painting during a full moon could somehow restore my memories sounded like magic, but then again, who was to say that magic wasn’t responsible for me losing my memories in the first place?

No. I shook my head. That’s impossible.

But as I stared at the distant buildings to my right—where the Pentaware Art Museum was located—my fingers reached for the seahorse pendant pressed against my chest. The cold autumn air left my body shivering, yet my mind felt warm and comforted.

The wind ruffled my curls, and for the first time since I woke up, I smiled.

How bizarre.

Mel Torrefranca

Mel Torrefranca is a novelist from the San Francisco Bay Area, now residing in the jungly mountains of Northern Thailand. Her books feature morally gray characters, bold endings, and a pinch of awkward humor. Mel discovered her passion for writing at the age of seven and published her debut novel Leaving Wishville during high school. She also drinks way too many lattes.