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The Memory Machine

The Memory Machine

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The Memory Machine

610 pages
4 hours
Sep 7, 2014


The Memory Machine—is a multi-media story about a nonverbal, autistic boy and his grandfather suffering from Alzheimer’s who build a fantastical machine on the family farm in the hopes of bringing back lost memories. Using a digital device and Media-melt technology the story world comes to life in your hands.

Discover, through Anna’s living story and Blue’s nonverbal, imaginative, autistic perspective how a 1950’s comic book revealed the mysterious secrets of their past and changed the collective dreams of their future.
Sep 7, 2014

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The Memory Machine - Denise Chapman Weston

August 12th

Blue was at the apartment door when I came in—rocking, biting himself, shaking uncontrollably. Something’s wrong and my brother knows it.

Blue’s caretaker, Lily is still there and gives me a quick hug. So does my father, although he looks completely lost.

Lily whispers, We haven’t said a word to Blue and made sure he didn’t hear our phone calls. But he knows.

How? I asked, trying not to sound accusatory.

He said his tenth word today—‘Papa.’ He’s been saying it all day: ‘Papa Ow big. Papa 911.

Papa is our grandfather.

Blue did not need to hear anything from dad or Lily. He knows Papa is in trouble—and hurting. That’s what the Ow means.

Papa Ow. Big. Papa! Blue bleats, distraught. In case I don’t already get the message, Blue handed me his journal. Another sign of his distress. My younger brother uses his journals of drawings to communicate only when it’s a major priority to him. Otherwise, they are private. He then offers the vintage comic book. THE comic book. Blue, and Papa have been using this comic book to build something in our family barn. Mom, Blue and I have been spending the summer at Papa’s farm, in rural Illinois. Our parents are divorced, and dad lives in Chicago. We came for a scheduled visit. While we were away, my grandfather had gone missing. The call from my mom was alarming enough, but Blue’s terror is what’s making me freak out. That and the comic book.

Seeing it reminds me of the decision I made to keep this whole ridiculous thing secret. To agree to let my brother, who has enough challenges as it is, spend the entire summer at the farm working on some crazy contraption with my ailing grandfather.

And I’m supposed to be the responsible one. Right now, I’m the guilt-ridden one. What have I done? The secrets I kept could be the very reason my grandfather is now in danger and missing.

My father said, "Blue has already packed his bags. He has drawn image after image of himself going back to the farm. He’s ready."

Despite Blue’s challenges, my brother clearly knows something’s wrong with Papa. I wish I could comfort him. I wish I could put my arms around him, be the reassuring older sister. But like many on the autism spectrum, Blue can’t tolerate being touched. That’s the hardest part for me. I have to remind myself that holding him is about comforting me—not him.

I settled for being calm and clear in an attempt to explain the situation to my brother. Blue, do you know that Papa is not at the farm? That he’s missing and people are looking for him?

Blue nods yes and emits a haunting whimper, unfiltered by socially appropriate rules that shame teenage males who cry.

It’s okay, I assure him. We’ll work together to help Papa: me, you, Mom, Nadra, Akeem, all the people who live near the farm are helping. With that, I turned and faced my father. Are you sure someone didn’t tell him? I can’t help it—I just don’t trust my father when it comes to Blue. This man has no clue how to handle his son. Zero ability to deal with anything beyond his small, depressive world.

My father shook his head. He just knew. As soon as I got the call from your mother…he knew.

I flashed back to this morning. Blue woke up crying and rocking from a nightmare at five a.m., which—we’d find out later—is the exact time my grandfather went missing.

Blue is still crying and rocking.

I get that I’m always interpreting Blue even though my brain is very different from his. Living with him all these years I honestly believe Blue yearns for connection, for words, for communication. It frustrates him that so far, although he can think rationally and understand what’s being said to him, he cannot communicate verbally. He can’t get but nine words out. No, make that ten—apparently he added Papa to his verbal vocabulary in the last twelve hours. The effort to speak out loud consumes him: his mouth battles with his brain to say only two to three words. I think of it like a three-ring circus where every act refuses to cooperate, leaving the ringleader feeling helpless.

I led him to the couch determined to figure out what he needs to say, and he gets that. As I’d hoped, he calmed down immediately, stopped crying. No matter what it costs him, he’s going to communicate. His eyes are alive. His being is engaged. Blue knows more: maybe a lot more—he’s going to do what it takes to help.

I think you have lots of ideas where Papa might be, or what might have happened?

He shook his head yes, rocked gently and looked away.

He took back his journal and comic book, pressed both to his body. Clearly, they have something to do with Blue’s belief that he can help find Papa.

He opened his journal to show me a very detailed drawing of our grandfather looking very sad. I’m guessing this drawing is new. Blue drew our Papa with the saddest expression I’ve ever seen.

Why is Papa sad? I asked gently.

Blue pointed to himself.

He’s sad because of you?

Blue shook his head yes. And then no. This is hard. Then he pointed to the drawing of Papa, then drew a little heart in the corner. Ow.

Papa’s heart hurts for you?

Blue nods no.

Okay, Papa’s heart hurts, I tried again.

Blue’s nod was a sad yes.

Your heart hurts too?


Again, Blue offers me the old and tattered comic book. We’ve estimated it was written over fifty years ago. The only time I had my hands on this book was when I gave it to Blue early in the summer. That day we all agreed to keep it a secret. Ever since, he and Papa carefully guarded it. It’d become the complete focus and mutual obsession of their entire summer. Until now, I believed whatever they were doing in the barn and its connection to the comic was a good thing—but maybe I had it all wrong. I feel like I am going to be sick.

I took a deep breath and gingerly opened the book. It contained beautiful illustrations and just enough text to caption drawings. Frame by frame, it tells a story—a story that speaks for itself, whether or not, like Blue, you can’t read.

You want me to read your secret book? I ventured.

My brother nodded yes.

Will it help us find Papa? I asked, my words mixing with my tears.

The intensity in my brother’s eyes meant I’d interpreted correctly. The answers to what’s happened to our grandfather are in this book.

I checked the cover for the name of the author, or the date it was written. Neither are there, only a title. Only now do I see I’ve gotten the title wrong all this time. I’d thought it was called The Machine. I’d missed a word—the most important word, the key to the story. More importantly, it reveals what Blue and Papa have been secretly building all summer—or more accurately, rebuilding. And it means everything to them.

I’d missed the word Memory.

The book is called The Memory Machine.

Two months before…

I love Google. No consideration of what’s sensitive or offensive in answering your queries. Google doesn’t block information because it’s unsure if you can handle it. Enter anything in the search bar, and poof! Up pops a plethora of possibilities. Search for whatever you want. Google doesn’t ask why or worry why I typed the word guilt in the search bar:

GUILT: n: affective state in which one experiences conflict at having done something that one believes one should not have done (or conversely, having not done something one believes one should have done)

I Googled the word because of something my guidance counselor said a few months before graduation.

Come in, Anna, make yourself comfortable. From her perch across the old wood desk, Mrs. Marx, my high school guidance counselor, produced a practiced smile. This meeting was obligatory. No about-to-graduate high school student could get out of it. As for making myself comfortable? Comfort had left the building well before this afternoon. The knot in my stomach tightened in sync with my white-knuckled clutch of the armchair. My reflection in the mirror behind her was familiar: my brown hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, my mostly-brown hazel eyes stared back at my average-looking self.

Your grades in all your subjects have been superlative, she noted, And I have a letter here from Ms. Terchin, your English teacher, commenting on your excellent writing skills. Have you considered majoring in journalism?

Me. Write? Yeah, right. I bet that’s what you say to all the girls who get As in English.

Mrs. Marx, continued to tiptoe through the minefield of my mundaneness trying to find something worth exploring in our mandatory meeting.

She cleared her throat and exclaimed a bit too energetically, Your extracurricular activity, running track, is a big plus. It’s one of the things colleges look for in an applicant.

Tell me something I don’t know, I groused inwardly.

Which is exactly what she did.

Look, Anna, you are a lot more than simply an A student. You’re not only mature and smart, you’re interesting.

Interesting? Is that PC for weird? I checked the mirror again to make sure my mascara was covering the white eyelashes framing my left eye, a birthmark passed down from the Abbott side of the family for centuries.

Mascara was in place, the girl in the mirror didn’t seem interesting at all. She looked like every other high school senior sitting in this chair—wishing to flee this torture chamber. The sooner, the better.

Mrs. Marx continued, You may have no idea what you want to be…what you want to do with your life. She paused. "But, Anna, whatever you choose, your future is bright and encouraging. A brief hesitation: staring right at me she swooped in with the final zinger, Don’t let guilt rule it."

My eyes widened. My jaw dropped. I may have gasped. In four years, we’d only met when it was obligatory. I barely knew her. So how could she know this about me? It wasn’t some random fact. How could she know one of my deepest secrets? Am I that transparent? At this moment, I hated her.

There’s no high speed Internet on the farm.

My computer is an ancient Mac desktop, a misbehaving crab Apple on its last months before its laid to rest. Toting it wasn’t an option. Social media withdrawal awaited. Honestly I didn’t really mind. I like getting into the swing of summer—literally. By early evening, I’ll be sitting on my favorite, handmade swing hanging from a massive oak tree on our family farm. Who needs digital distractions?

When I closed the Google page, and turned off the computer, a pop-up box wanted to be sure I was ready to shut it down. This might be a handy feature in human brains. What if your brain asked you permission before it shut down instead of simply doing so on its own? Probably would solve most of the problems in life if we all had more control over our brains. My grandfather could press CTRL-ALT-ESCAPE and end his Alzheimer’s. My brother could close out the corrupt programs challenging the software lodged in his autistic mind. My father needs to re-boot and begin living. Mother needs a new motherboard—to stop being a jerk. And my brain? It’d be great if it stopped rotating like the confused rainbow circle on my worn-out Mac.

We have two traditions every summer.

One, we spend our entire summer on the farm—a mega-huge, three-hundred-plus homestead that has been our family for five generations. Two, we stop at a famous diner on our way down to the farm. Famous to us, at least–my mom, me, and Blue.

Three hours into the drive, packed into Mom’s SUV, we are getting close. And Blue knows it.

The place is called the Blue Wind Diner. It’s special for one reason: it’s Blue’s favorite. And mine—mainly because it’s the only place we can stop without worrying too much about Blue’s challenging behavior.

My brother is not being bad on purpose. He’s simply being himself—the best self he can be.

Blue just turned fifteen, and like so many autistic people, his behavior in public places is at best unpredictable. Mom has overseen Blue’s therapy since his diagnosis—a spinning vortex of speech, occupational, and other therapists marching in and out of the house; special schools and mainstream schools (he attends with an aide). Lately there’ve been scheduled public visits’ once a week for training interaction with normal people."

However, eating out is a situation Mom can’t cope with. She’s so uptight about how Blue might act and what others will think, it’s easier to eat at home. That’s what we do. All the time.

The exception is the Blue Wind Diner. Blue looks forward to it big time. If he could verbalize, he’d be the one whining, Are we there yet?

He makes his anticipation obvious in other ways. When we’re about five miles away, the rocking begins. He’ll stop, but only briefly to show me a pretty cool drawing he had done of the Blue Wind Diner’s neon sign.

We’ve barely parked when my brother unbuckles his seat belt and squeals with delight. I’m pretty sure he thinks the diner was named after him. Best of all, Blue is fascinated by the mini jukeboxes stationed at each booth. It’s totally off the charts on his personal happy-meter.

Before we leave the car, my mother twists her head around and recites the rules. No hand flipping or loud voices; inside voices only. Must sit without rocking so as not to disturb others— An abundance of dos and don’ts—which, most likely, never make it to or through his brain.

The kid tries, though. You have to give him that. It takes extreme effort to dial down his autistic behaviors before attempting a public appearance in front of the Normals. I secretly get a kick out of this energy-letting. He looks like one of those windup toys going berzcircus for the first few cycles, then slowing down as we open the diner door. I confess that Mom isn’t the only one concerned about Blue. I always cross my fingers hoping that other diners are tolerant, that no one will complain. I also hope no one was counting on a quiet lunch.

The first sign was not a good one. Booth Two is where we always sit. Today, it’s occupied. I drew a breath in; Mom did the same. But Blue surprises us. He doesn’t let his dependency on consistency curb his enthusiasm about being here. He appears to accept the situation, blows past the hostess, and plops down in Booth Three. Mom and I exhaled as we slipped in beside him.

The hostess, tasked with assigning seating, is not cool with this. She’d been leading us to another booth. The place was not crowded, so I intercepted. In a confidential tone, I explained the situation, adding, He thinks the Blue Wind Diner is named for him.

My bad. Instantly, I regretted that last bit. BLUE!!! my brother shouted at the top of his lungs accompanied by a combination of stunning SFX; hand flipping, screeching and butt-bouncing on the booth seat. The freak-flag had now been officially raised at our table, while the Autism Anthem played in the background. Oh, say can you see! The weird kid at booth three…

Unsurprisingly, we’re the main attraction here, the human equivalent of the blue plate special. Out of habit, I surveyed the customers. As I made eye contact, each one turned away. My personal stare down I call the Guiltinator. It’s amazing how hard The Normals try to mask their I-know-I’m-not-supposed-to-stare-at-the-odd-kid-but-can’t-help-myself. The Guiltinator does the trick. They look away.

Although he’s fifteen, his childlike expressions make him look much younger. I think he is adorable with his wavy blond hair, light blue eyes, and always-in-motion expression-filled face. This opinion is not shared by the customers here. To them, he looks like he could easily ruin their lunch.

My brother’s real name is Montgomery, but Blue is way more fitting. My grandfather gave him that moniker since it’s his favorite color—he’s worn something blue every day since he was a toddler.

Best of all, what you see isn’t what you get. He is the paradox of Blue.

Blue, the color, is different shades of sapphire. Our Blue’s skin is creamy white and freckly. Blue, the mood, could mean melancholy or sad. Our Blue is one of the most joyful souls in the universe. Every inch of him dances, figuratively, to the beat of his inner hum. And he hums all day long. I see a brilliant Blue filled with limitless passion. Others see a boy with severe limitations, struggling with autism—including the hostess reluctantly at our table.

Will you be needing three menus? Tactlessly, Mom responds, No, just two. She takes Blue’s bagged lunch out of her tote. The Blue Wind Diner may be Blue’s favorite place, but actually eating something there is not on mom’s personal menu.

She’s into organics. At a recent Autism Speaks meeting, she learned that organic food might be the magic bullet that’ll rewire her son’s brain and lead him to the Land of the Normals. Today, Blue’s sandwich, on whole wheat bread, is filled with organic turkey and sprouts, carrots, and something that appears to be a tofu cookie. It all sounds—and looks—severely unappetizing. Blue is oblivious. He’s never shown an interest in food. He knows it goes in his mouth and exits the other end.

At this point, the other diners are out-and-out gawking. They’re eyeballing Mom sympathetically. Reactivate the Guiltinator. Not as effective this time. But it could be Mom they are staring at.

I hate to say it, but Mom embarrasses me more than my brother. Blue can’t help his behavior. My mom can—at the very least do something about her appearance. It’s pretty dreadful, not unlike the crumpled brown bag atop the table, which resembles her short and squat body. Her dishwater brown hair is desperately in need of something—at least a brush-through. The dark rings under her eyes could use some cover-up—or better, sleep.

Today she’s stuffed herself into a brown turtleneck tucked into a pair of elastic waist Mom jeans.

The thing is, mom doesn’t care and doesn’t care that you know she doesn’t care. Which is too bad. Under that tangle of hair and bare face, she actually is pretty. Her complexion is smooth if pale, except for the little red bumps that often cover her neck and chest. I call them her worry bumps. She sprouted a new batch in the last five minutes.

At moments like this, I wish she’d made a life for herself outside of caring for Blue. Her smotherhood approach to curing him is over-the-top. As it is, she hasn’t even gone out with her girlfriends, let alone a date since the divorce. Her snooze-button on enjoying life was pressed nearly a decade ago.

Although her son has barely spoken since we got here, mom felt compelled to warn him, Blue, are you using your quiet voice? with her Serious Mom Lemon Face. Because if you’re not, you cannot play the music machine.

Blue’s expression changes from an ecstatic happy grin to that of a retrained puppet in seconds.

Our waitress appears, looking like the loser of a coin toss to get out of serving us.

What would you like to drink? she asks briskly.

Just a cup, please, my mom says politely, whipping special organic bottled water out of her bag.

Coke for me, I pipe up. And we’re ready to order. We better speed this up. I’ll take a turkey club—Mom?

I’ll have the same with no mayo or bacon, Mom shoots me a condemning look.

I revise my order. No bacon for me either. Pork is a no-no when Mom’s around. It’s not for religious or vegetarian reasons—it’s for love. As a girl growing up on the farm, she formed a bond with the hogs. Friends, not food!

Does he want anything? The waitress asks me, reducing Blue to not-a-person-status. He says one of his eight words. Milk."

Before she can write it down, Mom quickly nixes the milk. He’s allergic, she explains.

Funny thing is, he really is allergic to milk. He gets gas that would melt wallpaper. But for some reason, whenever you ask Blue what he wants to drink, he says, Milk.

What’s instantly clear to me: Blue doesn’t care about which booth we’re in, who the waitress is, or whether he gets milk or not. He’s obsessed with one thing: the jukebox.

To Mom, it’s leverage: You have to eat your food first, and then you can touch the machine.

Blue complies. I’m seriously impressed. Every fiber of his being is dying to get to that jukebox. Instead of flipping, flapping, rocking, and/or shrieking, Blue quietly eats his lunch.

That’s great, Mom compliments him. You can touch the jukebox now and play a song. Blue reaches for it, but as if on cue, the waitress appears. With a dismissive wave, she groans, Forget it. The jukeboxes are all broken.


Mom’s reflexes are swift. She grabbed the drinks nearest to Blue knowing his body will jolt up like a spring-loaded cannon. Not because he’s angry or upset the machines are broken. Just the opposite. This is sweet news to my brother. And that’s exactly what Blue screams, SWEET! Another of his eight words. The unwitting waitress has launched the take off countdown to autistic supernova explosion by combining the words machine and broken in one sentence. This could not get any better for Blue. His Blue Wind Diner could be the greatest and most exquisite place on earth—broken machines (emphasis on the plural) and he is the chosen one to fix them all. Whether the owner, waitress or customers know or want this.

There is nothing Blue loves more than fixing machines. For real. And right now, he cannot contain his excitement. He pops up, standing on the booth seat, and whips out the keychain toolkit he always keeps in his pocket and his ever-present notebook. Before anyone can stop him, he begins dismembering the machine.

He’s going to be the Jukebox Hero who brings the music back. He must.

Everyone in the diner, paused. Eyes wide. Mouths open. No one moved. That there’s something wrong with this kid has been obvious from the moment we walked in. This has taken it to another level. "That poor, poor mother of the disabled ‘off-spring" is written all over their faces.

A man from the kitchen was at our table in a heartbeat. His nameplate reads: Steve—General Manager. But the fact that he smells like he’s been marinating in diner grease and wielding a spatula makes him the cook as well.

At the moment, his expression is stuck between terrified and curious. He gulps, Welcome to the Blue Wind. Is something wrong? Anything I can help you with?

Mom answers first. I’m so sorry, she apologizes for her son, I’ll take him out right now. She tosses a twenty-dollar bill on the table. I know the drill: a Bad Behavior rant is on the way.

I know I shouldn’t. I know I’m overstepping my boundaries. I know she’s his Mom—but like Blue and broken machines, I can’t help myself.

Sure, it may relax the nervous customers, but removing Blue is the worst thing possible for him. He’s worked so hard at tamping down his exuberance, at being cooperative. It’s the one thing he looks forward to every year.

Wait, Mom, I put a hand on her arm, Let me try one thing, okay?

She hesitates. Which is all the time I need.

Hey, Blue, I turn to my brother, If you want to fix the machine, you have to be calm, sit down, and let’s ask this nice man’s permission. Besides, how can you fix it if you’re standing on the seat?

Blue quickly sits. All he needed to hear was fix the machine. At the very least, I’d accomplished one thing: I’d lowered the volume on the chaos in his head, and for a few seconds, got him to focus. Blue is not looking at me—which he rarely does, anyway. His eyes were glued to the jukebox, obsessively hoping that his uncontainable impulses did not put this magnificent moment

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