Do I save you this time
Or do I leave you for dead
From the lost personal diary of Dr. John H. Watson.
Sherlock Holmes had an extraordinary relationship with memory. He remembered precisely what he meant to and retained nothing undesired. His mind was like a storage attic - or in his own words, a computer’s hard drive - with each fact, image and experience he deemed worthy of future retrieval stored permanently according to his own highly-efficient filing system. Sometimes it required shuffling through the halls of a vast palace to reach a particularly elusive thought, but everything had its proper place, and nothing went unaccounted for.
Nevertheless, even the most advanced technologies will fail in time - systems crash, clusters corrupt, viruses interfere. And Sherlock’s brain, however impossibly adept, was just as fallible. It didn’t happen often, but when there was a problem his whole being would be engulfed in frustration and anger. If there was one emotion he could never hide, it was disappointment in himself.
Usually this had to do with an unsolved case. But there was one particular incident that has cast such a shadow over one corner of my mind that even I have attempted to delete the memory in my own right. I have never been able, and though I’ve managed to tuck it very far away for many years, every once in awhile a split second of horror flashes across my eyes, and I know that the flame of this thought has not yet died out. And so, as ignoring it clearly has done me no favour, I have decided to finally write it all out. Ever since I met Sherlock Holmes many years ago, writing has become a way for me to gather my thoughts, and I now find it a comfort. The generally positive responses from readers of my published works have only encouraged me further, and it feels second nature to me now to record my experiences. But this account is to be for my eyes only - foolish then to ever put it on paper, I know, but that’s the reason I’m writing it out in longhand this time. There will be this one copy and nothing more, and the journal I intend to burn once my thoughts have been exhausted.
I suppose I’m writing out this nonsense-introduction as a precaution, then. If in recording this I’m making yet another huge mistake in a life of many, and the journal survives... well, to whomever is reading this: please be kind. I have troublesome information, and I wish no ill to come upon the legacy of Sherlock Holmes. My existing published accounts should prove indefinitely that he was a great man, and that I hold nothing but the highest respect for him. This is but an unfortunate happenstance for which I believe no one honestly is to blame, but the memory of which I truly do wish would finally fade away forever.
I arrived home from the grocery store one afternoon to find Sherlock at the window with the violin upon his shoulder. He was neither composing nor reading music, but a terribly sorrowful melody swelled from the strings. If anyone were to accuse the man of having no feeling whatsoever, I would only have to point them to his performance with the violin. More often than not, it revealed more about his heart than his words could ever convey.
For this reason, he tended not to practise long when anyone was around. He played while I was out, or upstairs in bed, but never while I lingered in the sitting-room. Yet today he continued as I put away the groceries, and even still as I sat myself down in an armchair and watched his long arms, silhouetted by the window-light, expertly guiding the bow and coaxing each note into fierce wails and lilting whispers. This impromptu concert lasted a good ten or twelve minutes, and by the time the song drifted away in a timid vibrato my eyes had closed and my consciousness had begun to slip.
“Beautiful,” I said, rousing in time to see him setting the instrument back in its case. “Quite melancholy.”
“Tortured,” he corrected, still facing Baker Street. “You would have heard it in a full orchestral performance. The violin alone doesn’t tell the whole story.”
It was at this moment that I first began to suspect something unusual - this gratuitous opening up on the topic of music. He only ever waxed poetic when there was a heavy weight somewhere on his mind. My weariness only grew as he continued to speak.
“John, do you ever have a memory you can’t quite place?”
I looked up at him with a questioning frown. “What do you mean?”
“A flash of an image, a sudden and violent display of an event or perhaps even a scene witnessed in passing, that bursts into your head, unprovoked, and leaves no evidence of its origin.”
“Well, yeah, once in awhile.” I hesitated, always unsure of his motives in instances like these. “I don’t think much of it, though.”
“There is a precise location for everything in my mind,” he continued, his voice hissing slightly. “Nothing stays there without a mnemonic label; all else gets ejected.”
The ‘Mind Palace’ - the storing and deleting of things from his mental hard drive. This was familiar to me. I gave a small grunt of understanding.
“But I have this memory that doesn’t belong anywhere. It’s incomplete. I don’t understand it.”
This was clearly problematic, but Sherlock was a difficult man to comfort with mere words.
“Then it probably doesn’t mean anything,” I offered, knowing full well that minimising the weight of a concern never worked with him.
“No, John,” he said, the air of the room growing more and more tense as this strange conversation went on. “Don’t you see? Every memory has its place. It’s practically an exact science, intangible though it is. I have perfected the art of memorisation and recollection. Yet here is a rogue thought, wandering through the corridors of my palace, unaccounted for. In a mind such as my own, don’t you see how disturbing this is?”
He turned to me then, and I recoiled slightly as the lamplight washed over his face. His eyes were bloodshot and his skin pallid. The finer hairs about his forehead stuck to the moisture on his brow. His pupils remained dilated though the room was well lit.
I jumped to my feet and seized his arm, pulling back his sleeve. This revealed a guiltily-throbbing vein and a telltale bruise inside the elbow. Sloppy. I glared up at him, more out of shock than anger.
“Sherlock!” I cried, and he turned his head away from me in shame, which in itself hinted at the severity of the situation. Sherlock Holmes was many things, but a humble man he was not.
I had known that cigarettes weren’t his only vice. In fact, he had already succumbed to the old cocaine solution once before, in our time as flatmates thus far. Both the Detective Inspector Lestrade and Mycroft Holmes had acknowledged it to me in brief but explicit terms after the pretentious drugs bust several months back, and though the danger of remission was generally low, I accepted this as a dark spot in Sherlock’s history and knew to keep an eye out for it. The strange thing was - he was so occupied with cases these days that he had no reason to be “bored,” as he diagnosed it so simply, and so this sudden lapse was truly coming as an unpleasant surprise.
But the deed was done, and I could see that my incredulity was chastisement enough. I led him to the couch and he threw himself down ungracefully.
“Tell me about it,” I coaxed, shifting my chair closer.
“What is the date?”
“April the twelfth.”
He shuddered a sigh. “Of course.” Sherlock arranged himself on the sofa, curling his legs up and to the side. Knowing that he preferred to stretch them out over the opposite armrest, this spoke to me as a position of vulnerability. I was learning a thing or two about observation and deduction myself, thanks to him.
“The memory first appeared three years ago,” he said, drawing his fingertips to his lips in that thoughtful posture of his. “An instantaneous vision of black smoke. The setting is wholly obscured by it, so I can’t tell where it occurs, but nothing about it is familiar at all. Just that image, and nothing more. I didn’t think much of it back then, either - I’d tried to place it, failed, and went on with my life.
“The following year, the vision returned. This time it was accompanied by the stench of burning rubber mixed with an acrid chemical odour I haven’t been able to distinguish. The rubber overpowers it, and the memory is so vague I cannot accurately separate each scent. I still didn’t place much importance on this event - I figured I was simply recalling the previous year’s memory and subconsciously adding sensible details. There were also some rather... unsavoury influences in my life at that time, so my thoughts were somewhat unreliable.” The moment’s silence that followed was a sort of eulogy for the demons of his recent past, even as a few of them were still lashing their tongues in mockery.
“Last year I tasted ash and blood in my mouth. I also then realised it was the same day of every year that this memory revived itself, and it truly unnerved me. You had spent last April twelfth at work and the night at your girlfriend’s. By the time you saw me again the next morning, I had taken the steps to delete the memory altogether, having found nothing in an online search for clues as to the significance of the date and deeming the whole thing an irrelevant distraction.” He lifted his mobile phone from his pocket and twiddled it around. “It was all fine for another year. And now you find me today in a state of weakness, as the deletion apparently didn’t take. That in itself would’ve been disturbing enough. I’ve never failed in this way before.”
I shifted in my seat. “So what new detail has been added?” I could tell he no longer wished to discuss it - his mood being terribly erratic, especially as the topic was so personal - but I had to press on at this point. Anything with the power to drive him back into the arms of illicit narcotics was something with which I should be acutely familiar, both as his flatmate and friend.
A hint of moisture formed in the crooks of his eyes, and he visibly struggled to spit the words from his mouth.
“A harsh pitfall in my stomach. An overwhelming sensation of dread and guilt.”
The acid that dripped from his final word told me he found it despicable and frightening. Sherlock Holmes was not a man with guilt on his conscience. Everything he did - both great and terrible - he did with deliberation. Regret he could experience, and even shame more rarely, but guilt indicated a loss of control; an action borne of a submission to the more primal instincts of the id. Though to the outside world he appeared to act rashly at times, Sherlock was the epitome of self-awareness. Every move was always thoroughly calculated.
But one could also say he never forgot anything he didn’t mean to - nor remembered anything he meant to forget. And yet here he was with a half-formed memory, grasping desperately at the edges of his conscious, and a suspicion that at some point in history, he had committed something out of passion and not reason. Presumably to a terrible end, if the eagerness with which he’d doped himself less than an hour earlier was any indication.
I had many questions, but now was not the time. I placed a hand on his forehead - feverishly hot, damp with sweat. I only had to watch the rise and fall of his chest to tell that his pulse was tremblingly quick.
“All right, that’s enough for now,” I said gently. “You’re withdrawing. It’s only making you more anxious. I hope you remember that next time you think drugs will help solve your problems.” He nodded. He knew all of this, of course. It had only been out of an old, old habit that he’d succumbed. One inkling of a loss of control had led to another.
“Is there any more?”
“I only purchased one dose.”
“Good,” I said, and rose to get him a glass of water. As I set it on the end-table next to him, his hand swooped out blindly and softly grabbed at my arm.
“John,” he said, not looking at me. “I’m sorry.”
Sherlock was up and out early the following morning, occupying himself at the St. Bartholomew’s lab. Around midday I joined him at a crime scene at his request, where he carried on with his usual flourish. It was as though nothing were out of the ordinary, and I might have even been convinced - if it weren’t so obvious (to me, by this point in our relationship) that Sherlock was actually making the case more complicated than was necessary. Nearly the instant we’d arrived, the flash of his eyes told me he’d seen everything he needed, yet he sniffed at the evidence a second and third time. It was too simple; he was trying to distract himself.
Eventually, he announced that he would be continuing on alone; that he had a certain resource with whom to consult regarding the case. I was to stay behind and continue assisting Lestrade for the time being. Normally this exclusion from the more interesting legs of the chase irritated me, but for a change I was glad to have a private moment with the Detective Inspector. Once there was a lull in our end of the investigation, I pulled him out of earshot of the other lackeys milling about.
The strange episode from the night before had been on my mind all day. I had begun to form ideas - theories - despite Sherlock’s warning that preemptive opinions of a matter before sufficient facts were gathered were a dangerous habit. They clouded the mind, distracted one from the objective truth - but I was not so clever; I couldn’t help myself. Burning rubber, chemical odour, ash and blood, despair and guilt. It was all exceedingly curious and... romantic, if I dare use such a phrase. Sherlock was such a man of exact science that the idea of a problem so very unscientific, as it appeared, was terribly enthralling. I felt a guilt of my own. I didn’t delight in his angst - no, it tore at my heart to think of his eyes so anguished and wrought with paranoia - but it was impossible to ignore its grossly intriguing nature.
My brain had already considered a million possibilities, all of which I knew he would shoot down immediately. Sherlock clearly didn’t want to speak of it any further in the light of this new day, but I couldn’t let it go. If we ignored it now, it would just reappear in a year’s time, incarnating itself in an even further disturbing manner. I truly believed it would be best to get to the bottom of this strange problem now by digging deeper for an explanation. I hoped I could find some answers in those closest to him.
“You’ve known Sherlock for several years now, right?” I asked, trying but failing to sound casual.
Lestrade shrugged. “Known him, yeah, but never very well. If you want specific details of his past it’s a good chance I know nothing about it.”
“Has he ever been arrested? Or... in an accident?” I mentally wrung my own neck as I spoke. I hadn’t planned out how to go about this tactfully, and tact certainly wasn’t appearing on the spot. I observed a small twitch in Lestrade’s eyebrow.
“He’s been arrested a number of times, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Well, it used to happen more often when he was a bit younger. Drug-related charges, more often than not. I gotta say, I’m proud of him for retaking control of his life; he was in a pretty rough spot there a few years ago.” His voice lowered. “Then again, I think his brother was about to murder him if he’d kept it up. Thanks to Mycroft, his official record is a lot cleaner than his past actually is.”
I felt a bit uneasy being told this rather sensitive bit of information. I supposed it wasn’t the answer to the present mystery, but it certainly shaped things a little differently.
“Accidents?” he continued. “Not as I’m aware of. Unless you count exposing a member of Parliament to the swine flu when he shattered a vial while showing off like a right arse. But if you mean like a... traffic collision? Not in my time. Something wrong?”
He gave me an inquisitive look, as though he’d only then considered the motives behind my question to be dubious. The last thing I’d wanted to do was invite anyone else into the strange truth of this situation, so I attempted to brush it off as simple curiosity.
“No, you just... you know how he is. Doesn’t talk about himself, ever. He’s been quiet lately,” I conceded. “I just wonder what he’s thinking sometimes.”
Lestrade nodded vacantly. “Sherlock Holmes,” he said with an air of both annoyance and laud, “I’ve never met anyone more frustrating in my life, but I’m glad to have him around.”
A foreign chill crept up my spine at that moment - as if we were toasting to his great memory, or composing his epitaph. I grunted in agreement and excused myself for the day, my arm practically aching as it hailed a cab out on the main road.
“You left Lestrade on the field,” said Sherlock that evening. He sat by the window, polishing the body of his violin absently. No traces of rosin or dust muddled the shiny wooden base, but he meticulously swept his cloth over every inch all the same.
“You left me on the field with Lestrade,” I retorted simply, keeping my attention fixed on my computer. Sherlock had commenced a challenge - a mental staring contest, a battle of wits. He did this whenever he wanted to address something unsavoury, but wished to absolve himself of responsibility by tricking me into making the first move.
I didn’t feel like playing that night.
“What if it’s a dream?” I barrelled forward, and he was actually shocked by my candidness.
“Pardon?” I knew he was playing dumb - yes, even he would do that sometimes, when it suited him.
“That memory of yours. Could it be just a dream you’re recalling?”
His expression fell, as though he hadn’t anticipated how upset this inevitable conversation would make him - again, a curious reaction. He sat, unmoving, for a minute or two, before resting the violin across his lap.
“It’s not.” But even he sounded uncertain at his own words.
I was inclined to believe him, nonetheless.
“April twelfth....” I continued. “Is there any other significance to that date? Someone’s birthday? Anniversary? A graduation date?”
Sherlock shook his head as he gazed vaguely into a spot on the rug. “No, nothing. Nothing I can... remember.”
Perhaps he’d deleted it. A quick flit of his eyes toward mine told me he’d already questioned himself similarly. Interrogating him was pointless; no doubt he had been through every possibility he could think of and disproved them all by now. He didn’t need a therapist, and I didn’t make a very good one anyhow - especially as I was so opposed to them myself.
“What about...” I braced myself for the inevitable backlash, “hypnotism?”
Sherlock was actually silent for a moment. But when he did speak, his tone was as expected - incredulous, scoffing. Back to normal, really.
“Hypnotism only works on simpler minds, John. One has to be susceptible - and by that I mean willing - to be mind-controlled. Do you really think I would relinquish command of my brain to someone below me?”
I couldn’t help but turn down the corners of my mouth in a glower. These were the moments when Sherlock’s words scathed the most - when I was trying my best to help, and he gave nothing but abuse in return. I was hardly even a proponent of hypnotism in general, but I had done some research on the subject during my medical studies. I would forever argue in favour of tried and true medicine and surgery, but I could see its validity in certain cases. My sister had even considered it as a cure for her alcoholism a few years before, but she didn’t stick with it long enough for it to have any real effect.
“Hypnotism isn’t mind-control; it’s a practise of extreme relaxation and focus that allows you to speak directly to the subconscious -”
“Furthermore,” he railed onward, ignoring me completely, “there have been so many cases in which so-called ‘recovered memories’ through hypnotism turned out to be nothing more than successfully-implanted subliminal messages by the hypnotist himself, that it would really be an insult to submit my time and energy to the kind of snake oil-peddling ilk as one who calls himself a hypnotist.”
I rubbed at my temples, trying to keep calm in the midst of Sherlock’s petulance. It was a difficult thing to ask of myself at this point.
“All right!” I roared, showing my palms. “I figured - you were out of ideas, so I tried to come up with a couple of my own. If you would kindly recall just how damn upset you were last night, maybe you’d be less quick to push me away right now!”
“You can see why this is difficult for me to discuss,” he said quietly, all traces of irritation suddenly gone from his voice.
“Of course! But you can man up and let me help you, or in a year’s time you can be relapsing again, so distraught that you go back to thinking you can cleanse your mind with poison. We all have weak points, Sherlock. You know I don’t think any less of you for this. So just... don’t be so guarded around me. Please.”
That look appeared on his face, then. He had a few of those, but this time it was the one where a word is dancing on the tip of his tongue but he purses his lips to make sure it doesn’t get out. I’ve always wondered what it was - thank you, or you’re right, John. I’m glad to have you around. It eased my heart to imagine him saying those words. He’d admitted such things before, but they were always so few and far between. I suppose quantity means nothing, though. I wasn’t a dog; I didn’t need constant reassurance. And he showed his appreciation in his own strange ways.
Still, I wondered.
“Perhaps there is something to your idea,” he said at last, and he stood to pace leisurely about the floor. “Talking aloud helps me think, and I suppose one could say that my particular method of organising thoughts requires a sort of ‘auto-hypnosis’. To erase a memory is not a process so simplistic as deleting a file from a hard drive, in fact. I must manipulate my brain into outsmarting itself - my conscious taking control of my subconscious. I’m suggestible to my very self. Hm.” He quirked his head to the side. “I’d never thought of it in that manner, but it quite makes sense.”
It was as though he were reading the contents of a textbook through its closed cover. I always did find his ability to simply understand abstract concepts without much explanation remarkable.
“Are we assuming this is a memory you’d previously deleted, or one that was forgotten by... natural means?” I asked. “Shock, maybe. From the details you’ve provided so far, it sounds like it could’ve been... something traumatic.”
I was glad to see Sherlock back to business, so to speak. It was apparent he was now distancing himself from this bizarre matter and starting to treat it as an objective case.
“I can’t yet say for sure, and I’m loath to assume. However, a failure in my own methods seems unlikely - the annual revelation of details is very telling.”
He looked at me quizzically.
I shrugged. “Maybe there was someone else involved.”
Sherlock frowned, but he didn’t dismiss me this time. The idea of external corruption was certainly ominous, and worth seriously considering. He then sat down at the desk and opened his laptop. “April twelfth still means nothing to me...” he muttered, and I knew he was about to begin a renewed search of significant news stories relating to that date for the past... how many years?
“How old do you think the memory could be?” I asked. “If you have a point of reference, are you... maybe, shorter in height?”
He stopped typing and remained nearly frozen for a minute. At some point he let his lids fall, and I could see his eyes twitching wildly behind them. He sniffed and grimaced. Eventually his right hand jerked forward over the top of the desk. He clenched his fists as he opened his eyes, and I could see that terrible hunger behind his pupils. Suddenly digging through a nearby drawer, I watched as he pulled out a nicotine patch and slapped it onto his forearm.
“See, John,” he said, shaking his head slowly with a somewhat maniacal grin. “This is what I was afraid of. I brought myself back into the memory to gather more details, but I now have no idea if I’ve just planted false information there. I looked down at my feet and they were smaller. But did I make that up?” He growled in frustration and leaned his elbows on the desk, bowing his head and grasping at his hair. I had never seen Sherlock more filled with doubt in my life, and it was a sorry sight indeed. He relied on the perfection of his mind, and, just as with the incident at Baskerville, the possibility of defect was tearing him apart. His arms shook with fear and anger, and his shoulders shuddered as his breathing became irregular.
“All right, we’ll have to go about this differently, then,” I said, trying to sound reassuring. “Can I get you something?”
He didn’t respond, so I took it upon myself to make some tea and gather my own thoughts. When I returned a few minutes later with the tea tray, he hadn’t moved at all.
“Here you go.” I set a cup and saucer beside him and took my own back to my chair. I watched him for a moment as I waited for my drink to cool. At last he raised his head.
“One last question for now,” I said, having waited for him to calm before speaking. He stirred two spoons of sugar into his cup methodically and didn’t look my way. “Which would you rather do - remember this thing fully, or forget it altogether?”
His hand trembled as he lifted the cup to his lips, but his expression had returned to stoic.
There were so many possibilities; I could see why he was anguished. What if someone had somehow tampered with his memories - was he in danger? Or was it something he should forget in order to protect himself? I certainly didn’t know what I would’ve chosen, and -
“I’m not sure.”
- neither did he.
I could tell that if nothing else, he was unbearably curious. Having had a taste of this mystery, he was dying to know the full story. But it undeniably dripped with the threat that he would do well to erase this memory once and for all. The greater problem, however, was figuring out how to go about executing either of these options once he’d made his decision.
I had gone to the library the following morning to do some research on April Twelfths past. Assuming Sherlock wasn’t mistaken that he had been much younger when this event occurred, there was a good chance any significant news about it hadn’t been archived online. I shuffled through endless files of old newspapers. Unemployment at least offered me all the time in the world to chase vague historical events, that - I acknowledged - may very well have not even made the news. I was at a loss as to any other ideas at this point.
Well, I’d had one thought. But I dreaded following through. Sherlock would’ve throttled me. So I pushed on with the research.
Hours passed, and I felt my eyes growing numb. House fires, robberies, political scandals, murders - they were all beginning to run together. I had yet to read a familiar name. This was looking hopeless - there were too many papers and too many years to consider. I’d nearly made it through the 1980s, but maybe I had started too far back? I was tired, and I knew there was a shorter way to the end of this.
Automatically, my hand reached into my pocket and pulled out my mobile phone. My thumbs typed out a brief message and sent it off before my senses could catch up.
Meet for tea?
Barely a moment later, it buzzed with a response. I might have a throttling to contend with.
Oh no, I thought, and I could feel my stomach drop. He already knows. Or he already knows something’s wrong. I should’ve come up with a better cover, but then - there was really no way to contact Mycroft Holmes without suspicion. We weren’t friends. We didn’t meet for tea. We only spoke when there was a problem involving Sherlock, and of course this time was absolutely no different. And the fact that he wanted me to meet him at his private club indicated that he knew (or agreed, or insisted) that by all means, his brother must not be able to follow and eavesdrop.
Sherlock was again off with Scotland Yard that day, but it really was unnerving how keenly he’d know what I was up to at any given moment. It was a reasonable precaution.
I sighed, a knot now churning in my belly. The last thing I wanted to do was betray Sherlock’s trust by consulting with his older brother behind his back, but there was no way I could solve this on my own. I just wasn’t clever enough. The Holmes brothers were clever.
I packed up the periodicals and checked out of the library, and was entirely unsurprised to see a cab waiting conspicuously for me as I stepped out to the street. The driver confirmed my destination without my telling him where to go. Then we rumbled off towards the Diogenes Club.
I wracked my brain for ideas along the way. I’d decided I would still try to maintain an air of ignorance to the truth - I mean, could Mycroft really know exactly what was going on? I never did find out just how closely he monitored his brother’s actions. He could simply be suspicious from my uncharacteristic communication alone, and wouldn’t it be so simple-minded of me to give him the very information he was looking for out of blind assumption! I would play it cool. I could keep a straight face, anyway. That was one of my few talents.
I headed straight back to the Stranger’s Room, where Mycroft was waiting. There was an eerie click of the lock as the door shut behind me. A steaming pot of tea, brewed with perfect timing, sat on a small table between the two chairs in the middle of the room. Mycroft gestured for me to sit opposite.
“So nice to see you, John,” he said, with that patronising smile of his. He filled a cup and handed it over. “What sort of trouble has my dear brother got into this time?”
“Nothing,” I said, willing my voice chipper. “Though I did want to ask you about him.”
I occupied myself with the teacup and spoon for a moment. “It’s silly, really. I was wondering when his birthday is?”
I glanced up to catch a derisive raise of Mycroft’s eyebrow. “Planning a surprise party?”
“Well, you know. I’ve known him for over a year now and he hasn’t mentioned it. I thought it could be a nice gesture whenever-”
“January the sixth,” he interrupted. “Unfortunately you’ve missed it by a few months, but your thoughtfulness is really quite touching. Now, tell me why you’re really here.”
I cautiously made eye contact. It was maddening trying to outwit a Holmes. Impossible, apparently, at least for the likes of me.
“Disappointed the answer wasn’t, oh, two days ago?”
I couldn’t decide if the manner in which he’d said this was sinister or not. I straightened in my seat, resolved not to let him intimidate me.
“Oh, is that date significant?” I said coolly.
The corner of his mouth twitched ever so slightly before it broke into yet another false smile. “Our dear parents’ wedding anniversary, but that’s no concern to you, I’m sure.”
“Ah. Are they doing well?”
“Mummy is as quibbling as always. Father’s soul rests in heaven, as his widow would believe. I prefer to imagine him wandering the countryside. He always did prefer the open air to the city.”
I nodded slowly. An uncomfortable silence followed and we both partook of our drinks.
“Sherlock’s not one for celebration,” Mycroft concluded with a faint squint of his eyes. “Nor for sentiment, as you know. Holidays have always been dreadful. It’s best not to acknowledge that any day is different from the last.”
I drained my cup and set it back on the table with a bit of a clatter. There was no point in continuing this strained façade of a pleasant conversation. “Well, thanks for having me,” I said, arranging myself to leave. Nobody was being fooled here, and I shouldn’t have expected so much. “Guess my plans for a party are out of the question.” I didn’t even care how fake my smile looked.
“Yes, unfortunately, I would advise you to steer clear of such novelties. My brother prefers to maintain a strict level of control over his daily activities, and even a good-natured surprise would not be terribly appreciated. He enjoys the spotlight when it shines upon his accomplishments, not when the focus is on inconsequential details of the past. You would do well to take heed, John.”
Rising to my feet, I gave a curt nod at his warning. “Thanks for the advice,” I said simply. “Take care.”
That evening, I wondered if it had been worth maintaining my painfully thin ruse. Mycroft had obviously seen through it, and though I could at least pretend that I had preserved mine (and Sherlock’s) dignity, I left suspecting that I could have got a lot more out of that meeting if I’d just conceded the truth. Instead, I received a scant amount of barely-useful information and an ominous caution against pursuing this matter of the half-formed memory any further.
It wasn’t good enough.
I knew Sherlock would continue to obsess over it quietly if I didn’t intervene. And I might as well stay involved, because I hated the thought of him driving himself to madness while I did nothing and was nowhere nearby to help.
Furthermore, a direct prohibition from Mycroft Holmes just made me want to get my hands even dirtier. The brothers’ childish relationship had apparently influenced me as well, and I was forever loyal to Sherlock’s team.
I only hoped that I wasn’t, in fact, inadvertently betraying him.
The sitting-room was nearly dark, faintly lit by a single lamp on the mantle. The only sounds to be heard were the hum of the refrigerator, the clank of the radiators and the traffic outside. Sherlock lay stretched out on the couch with his hands clasped upon his chest. I sat in the armchair nearby.
It was two days after my contrived meeting with Mycroft, and the sun had just gone down. Sherlock had made his decision: he wanted to know the truth. And after doing some research of his own, he’d agreed to try a form of hypnotism with my help.
This was actually our second attempt - the previous night he had still been too distracted by his prejudice to concentrate. “I feel ridiculous,” he’d said, shooting upwards from the sofa. “When is the pocket-watch coming out? Don’t you need a greasy moustache and a top hat?” And so I’d left him to steam in his own cynicism and spent the evening at a pub.
He was less agitated tonight, but getting him to turn down his loud ego was always a challenge.
“I can’t relax like this, John. Are you sure I can’t just do this myself?”
It was all I could do to keep from losing my own patience. I didn’t want to be annoyed with him, truly. I could sympathise with his frustration. “Maybe you can. But you’ve been trying - and failing - so far to do this on your own. I’m only going to help guide you. I’ll do my best not to sway your memory. I’m just going to ask questions.” He exhaled loudly through flared nostrils. “You go on talking to me when I’m not here anyway, right? Just... pretend I’m a voice in your head.”
It was all familiar territory for him, I had to imagine. His methods of memorisation and mental organisation were all borne of a self-induced trance of sorts. He’d admitted as much, and, having recently refreshed my knowledge of hypnotism, it was the most fitting explanation I could come up with. Hypnotism wasn’t some spiritual hoax; he already practised it himself - and it did work to certain ends. I just hoped he was comfortable enough around me to let this work too.
“Concentrate on your breathing,” I said softly. “You’re... aware of each breath. Think about nothing but the feel of the cushions beneath you and the air in your lungs.”
I wasn’t entirely confident, I must admit. I felt like everything I might say at this point would only make him less responsive, but I actually noticed that his breathing was beginning to slow. His eyes were still behind their lids. I waited a few more minutes before speaking again.
“Relax your arms.” His fingers slid apart and his arms fell to his sides. It was working.
“You’re at the entrance to your mind palace. You usually rush in, but this time, open the door slowly. Don’t move too fast through its halls. Take your time.” I realised that I had to concentrate on my own breathing just to keep going; I was so uncertain this would work, and so eager to know the outcome that my own subconscious ceased to function properly. An ominous feeling of dread had begun to creep into the back of my mind, but I told myself that I was simply excited. This was a case truly unique among all our many adventures together. The Excavation of the Mind Palace. No, that was an awful title. I couldn’t treat this like our other cases. This was already too personal. I’d never write it down, I’d promised myself then.
“Go to the room in which you keep your childhood self,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “As far back as you’ve recorded, anyhow. How old are you?”
“Three,” he said, his voice queer and cracking slightly.
“How is the family?”
“Mum fusses over Mycroft more than anything. She makes sure he does his homework and that his uniform is smart. Pop wants to spend time with me. He likes to bring me to his father’s farm in the country.” He spoke slowly - very slowly in comparison to his waking monologues, and every so often a word lisped just slightly.
I shivered. This was endlessly fascinating, yet undeniably eerie. I felt guilty, as though I were taking advantage of my friend. He never spoke of his past, his family or their home life. I’d never wanted to intrude. I told myself this was all in the name of helping Sherlock put this mystery to rest. I would be respectful of any secrets that came up...
“Tell me what it’s like as you grow older.”
“I do poorly in school, and they threaten to kick me out. It’s not my fault. Mum is exasperated and doesn’t know how to handle me. I want to learn, but they’re not teaching me anything.” He paused for a moment. “Pop takes me to the library and encourages me to read advanced texts so I stop taking Mycroft’s. He still likes me the best. He thinks I’m fascinating.”
I was surprised to feel the prick of a tear in one eye. Of course his familial relationships wouldn’t have been as simplistic as he was describing just then, but it was incredibly touching to hear him speak so fondly of his father - and that his father felt likewise about him. For a man who had a knack for repelling people, it quite warmed my heart to know that Sherlock’s father was once his biggest fan.
The names he’d used were telling as well - to Sherlock, they were Mum and Pop. In our meeting the other day, Mycroft had been more familiar with Mummy, and far less so with Father. I could already see how these dynamics were taking shape. Observation and deduction again, I ticked off in my head, somewhat proudly.
“How did your father shape your life?”
“He supported my interests when no one else did.”
“And what were they?”
“Exploration. Adventure. Eventually, chemistry.”
I smiled. I tried to picture the senior Mr Holmes, accompanying his younger son to the library and taking down heavy books from the top shelves. I imagined a much smaller Sherlock happily slinging them onto a table and paging through them, wholly rapt, as his father read a light novel nearby. They would go home at the end of the day, and Sherlock would try to impress his older brother with his newfound knowledge, sparking a tussle. Mrs Holmes would chastise her husband for allowing Sherlock to skip school, and look at how responsible Mycroft has been! Perfect grades!
I shook my head suddenly. The relaxing atmosphere was getting to me as well and I apparently found it all too easy to slip into a lucid dream. I mustn’t project, I reminded myself. This was about securing facts.
“How did he support you?” I continued, straightening my posture to keep myself alert.
Sherlock was thankfully still willing to cooperate. “He tried to enroll me in a local college early on, but they wouldn’t allow me for my age. I wasn’t yet a teenager; they said it wasn’t proper. Mum agreed. But I was unhappy at my public school, so I mostly quit going. Pop said as long as I kept up my own learning until I was old enough to enter University, it was fine. We all fought terribly at that time.”
“When your schooling wasn’t the topic of conversation, how did you get along with Mycroft and your Mum?”
“Fine. Mum was proud of me, even though she disapproved. She wished I’d stay on the straight path like Mycroft. He and I would get into rows all the time, but we’d have fun together sometimes.”
I could feel my expression change to awe. The young Holmes brothers must have been a remarkable pair.
“It was a game back then,” Sherlock continued. “I never tired of it. But Mycroft would grow bored and quit. I kept playing on my own.”
As fascinating as this was, I felt like it was time to start digging deeper. Stick to the point at hand, I reminded myself.
“And how was your parents’ relationship? Did they celebrate their anniversary?” I let the words slide carefully off my tongue. I didn’t want them to carry any hint of suspicion or foresight whatsoever.
“On what date?”
Sherlock hesitated visibly, and at once I worried that I’d broken the spell.
“We can skip that question for now,” I said hurriedly. “Tell me more about you and your father.”
“He bought me a chemistry set when I was twelve,” said Sherlock, relaxing anew. “It was for children and below my level of knowledge by that point, but I’d never tried anything practical before. I quickly went through all the recipes it came with. But Pop had many connections, and would provide me with certain ingredients at my request. I eventually set up a miniature lab in a shed at my grandfather’s farm.”
Suddenly, my phone buzzed in my pocket. I scrambled to silence it but paid no mind to its message. The interruption flustered me, however, and I struggled to maintain the rhythm of our exercise.
“Are there any events with your family that... stand out in your mind as especially remarkable?” I tried.
I watched Sherlock frown and say nothing. My questions were perhaps getting to be too vague to be of value, but I was so concerned with making sure I didn’t lead him into creating false memories.
“Um... either happy or sad. Anything special?”
“Mum was ecstatic when Mycroft was admitted to Oxford, but it came as hardly a surprise.”
I glanced around the room and began to wonder if it might be more worthwhile to split this up into multiple sessions, as I was running out of useful ideas. Then my eyes fell to his violin case.
“What about the violin?” I asked, perhaps a bit to eagerly. “When did you begin to play?”
He appeared to hesitate once again, which I found quite curious. Music seemed to fit so seamlessly into his life that I thought for sure this would be an easy topic of conversation for him. Nevertheless, he made only an indefinite sound from the back of his throat.
“What did your father think of it?”
Anguish washed quite suddenly over his face. “He...” Sherlock grimaced and his head jerked slightly to one side. “He... hasn’t... heard me play.”
My phone buzzed again and I slapped at my pocket to quiet it. I’d meant to turn the vibrations off then, but I was so distracted I never followed through. This was a significant development indeed. Perhaps more so than his struggle to voice this detail, his change of verbal tense was quite shocking. His father hasn’t heard him play. Not hadn’t.
“Why not?” I pursued cautiously. “Where is he?”
Sherlock’s chest began to rise and fall rapidly and his breath passed audibly through his teeth. My mind fretted over the suspicion that it was dangerous to continue, but we couldn’t stop just yet. We were on the verge of discovering something, I could sense it.
“He’s... dead.” His voice cracked again in a near sob. “He’s been killed.”
The word how was just upon my lips when a sound made me absolutely jump. My mobile phone rang out at full volume and nearly scared me half to death. I wondered if I’d accidentally turned on the ringer when I’d blindly fumbled with it in my pocket, though it was a suspiciously convenient interruption...
I hastily answered it, my heart pounding furiously beneath my ribcage. At the same time I glanced over at Sherlock and saw that he’d regained consciousness and was shakily pushing himself up in his seat. I ran into the kitchen with the phone to my ear as I warbled a hello?
“John, I wish you’d listened to me,” came Mycroft’s voice on the other end, and I’d never before heard him sound more deadly. “You’re playing with fire. I thought you’d have more sense than that.”
I gasped before blurting out the question I’d aborted just seconds before - “How...?”
“But Sherlock...” I practically whispered his name.
“Leave him for now.”
I ended the call and stepped back into the lounge. I felt as terrible as Sherlock looked - he was hunched over, head dropped upon his bent knees. The back of his shirt was mottled with sweat and though the light was too dim to really tell for certain, he appeared to be trembling.
“Sherlock, I’ll be... I’ll be right back,” I stammered. I wanted so badly to stay with him, but I was truly afraid of what Mycroft could and would do at this point. I couldn’t think straight, so I simply did as I was commanded.
“Just stay here, I’ll be right back.” I hoped my words sounded more assuring to his ears than they did to mine. I didn’t even think to grab a coat before stumbling down the stairs and out the door. A black car was waiting for me, as per Mycroft’s style.
The man himself was waiting for me in the back seat. A privacy window sealed our section of the car off from the driver in the front.
I took a very deep breath.
“What is going on,” I said, and it came out more as a statement than a question, sounding a little too desperate besides.
Mycroft rolled his head once and sighed. “You have been playing a very dangerous game with my dear brother’s mind.”
“Stop with the poetry,” I spat. “He was upset and I wanted to help. I was trying to help.”
“And I appreciate that, John. I don’t doubt your loyalty to Sherlock, but it was sorely misguided this time, I’m afraid.”
“Do go on.”
He paused to gaze out the window for a brief moment. “Sherlock has an extraordinary relationship with memory. He remembers precisely what he means to and retains nothing undesired. It is an innate talent - one that he shares with me. I understand quite fully how his mind works. And I have seen it falter, John, and it’s not a pretty sight.”
A vision of Sherlock’s drug-clouded eyes and waxen pallor came to mind. “I’ve seen a bit of that myself. I don’t disagree.”
“Then perhaps you could appreciate that, in the case of an emergency, certain drastic steps would be taken to protect that brilliant mind of his.”
I pounded my fist onto the side of the door furiously. “I said quit being vague! Just tell me what’s going on!”
I could see that Mycroft was having trouble bringing this inevitable admission to voice, but all I really wanted at this point was to get back to the flat to take care of Sherlock. The longer Mycroft stalled, the farther away we drove, and I had no idea where we were going.
“When my brother was fourteen, there was a terrible accident. As you no doubt have discovered, he was quite close with our father, who spoiled him with all manner of favouritism and allowed him to grow up with no fear of authority whatsoever. Father was easily swayed by my little brother’s charms, and absolved Sherlock’s responsibility to proper schooling at age eleven without so much as the bat of an eye. For nearly three years, he ran wild and practically undisciplined. None but our father found this remotely acceptable.
“Of course he continued to study - learning was nearly always on his mind at that point - but in the process he drove everyone else mad. With no classmates or teachers with whom to discuss his findings, he spouted off his knowledge at any opportunity possible. He’s been an insufferable showoff ever since.”
I clenched my teeth and resisted the urge to once again remind Mycroft to be more succinct with his story.
“As such, when Father openly encouraged him in his scientific interests, our mother insisted he take it to our grandfather’s farm and out of our way. Sherlock then spent two years building a makeshift laboratory in which to play Mad Scientist in a dusty toolshed out in the country. He visited often.
“The problem arose when he grew too creative for his own ignorant good. Having no real mentor to guide him, he took unnecessary risks with his chemical compounds.” Then Mycroft became quiet. “One could argue that Father was... foolish in his own right, for providing such things unquestioningly to a young boy. But I mean not to speak ill of his character.”
I wiped my brow. It was chilly inside the car, yet I couldn’t stop sweating.
“One day - it was April the twelfth - Sherlock wanted to make a show of his findings, and invited our father to observe. I’m sure you can guess at this point what in fact came to pass.”
I bowed my head and said nothing.
“Grandfather had parked a tractor in the shed that morning, and a trail of petrol had splashed upon the floor from its fuel tank. Sherlock’s chemicals ignited a flame, causing a great explosion. My brother was thrown from the shed, but not too badly injured. Our father perished in the ensuing flame.”
My hand rose to my mouth automatically. I hadn’t even imagined anything so dreadful to be the truth.
“Understandably, we were all distraught, but none so badly as Sherlock. He loved our dear father as he’s loved no other ever since, and he felt wholly responsible. He fell into a deep depression, and refused even to speak for months afterward. I actually put my own studies on hold and returned from University to help take care of things for awhile. And when nothing improved, we decided more drastic measures had to be taken.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” I managed to croak.
Mycroft made sure I was looking directly at him before he replied.
“Sherlock and myself.”
A car horn blared from somewhere outside, causing my eyes to sweep toward the window. I let my vision defocus on the red and white lights of the taxis that passed beside us.
“I asked him if he wanted to feel better, and he said no. When I offered to make him forget entirely, he consented.”
“But that’s so unlike him!” I interjected, turning back to Mycroft. “He’d never allow his mind to be tampered with!”
“Wouldn’t he?” challenged Mycroft. “I know you two have grown close, but I’ve known Sherlock for much longer. All his life, you might even say.”
His sarcasm infuriated me in this moment. But he continued before I could protest further.
“At the age of twenty-one, I was already making powerful connections. I inquired of a friend of mine in the field of pharmacy if she could provide me with a particular sort of drug. She introduced me to Lethetroline. To this day, it is only used in special military operations. It grants the ability to remove a particular memory and replace it with something else.”
“So you drugged him and made him forget that awful event and now he’s relapsing...” I concluded monotonously, resting my head against the cool window. Lethetroline - it sounded more like an antipsychotic than an amnesic, I thought ominously. I was feeling a nausea as if from motion sickness and I wanted nothing more than to get out of the car. “Can you please let me go? I have to get back to the flat...”
“Patience, John. You were so curious about the matter before, and you will hear the whole story.” Mycroft had a rather terrifying presence whenever he exerted his power.
“All right. So how do we fix this? Can you... just drug us both now so I can forget too? I’m feeling ill...” Indeed, my vision was beginning to blur and my head spun with vertigo. I couldn’t tell if I’d already been drugged or if this was all from the shock and horror of the truth being revealed to me.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way,” said Mycroft, shaking his head. “Sherlock has been groomed by this formula very carefully; it’s not a simple matter to forcibly rearrange one’s mind.”
“I thought you said he consented!” I cried.
“To the suggestion, yes, but I couldn’t allow him to know the how, or it would never work. It was easy enough to quietly introduce the Lethetroline to his system at his adolescent age. A routine trip to the doctor for an immunisation got the ball rolling, as did booster shots for a couple of years thereafter. Immediately following the first injection, he was presented with the violin. Thus began the process of reshaping this negative memory into a positive activity.”
“So, what - he just doesn’t remember that his father died? Wouldn’t he notice the gap in his memory?”
Mycroft sighed. “It would be impossible and frankly unwise to explain to you the entire methodology behind the procedure, John. I will say that I had to... smooth things out a little. Dampen the emotional connection he’d had with our father. It served to relieve the trauma associated with his sudden disappearance. From there I could work on reassigning his passing to natural causes, as far as Sherlock was concerned.”
“But... you can’t...” I could no longer form complete thoughts, my horror was so great. “But he loved his father, and you’ve taken all of that away from him!” I recalled the impassive manner in which Sherlock had recounted the memories of his loving father - and the wave of raw emotion that overtook him when the truth had suddenly resurfaced.
“And have you observed the reverence with which he plays that music?” Mycroft asked, his eyes glistening. “It is one of the few passions he prefers to keep to himself. He is ever the performer when it comes to science and deduction and crime scenes, but he’d let no-one hear his playing if he could help it. Nearly no-one.”
I felt a tear on my cheek, faint as a feather. But my attention remained fixed on Mycroft, eyes wide, mouth slightly agape. I could barely process all the information I’d just been given - it wasn’t good enough; I was furious.
“But why?” I rasped, barely audible. “I still don’t understand why.” It was too extreme; there had to have been another solution!
“He was at a breaking point, John,” and Mycroft finally sounded defeated. “Believe me when I say I’d tried everything else I could possibly think of. He was irrevocably depressed. I feared for his life. And I couldn’t bear to lose another member of my family. This gave him a second chance, and you can see how he’s come to flourish without the burden of that guilt weighing upon his mind.”
I hung my head, and we rode on in silence a few minutes more.
“So what is this that’s been happening?” I said at last. Though still displeased, I accepted that there was nothing I could do, and that trying to resist the solution Mycroft had carefully designed for his brother would only bring about terrible results. “Why did he start to remember? And what can we do now? Have I... ruined everything?”
“Don’t begin to blame yourself, now. My words were harsh before, but I admit that I could have handled this better from the start. This is my responsibility, in the end, and I should’ve been keener on the situation of late. The fact that he’d begun to relapse three years ago already now...” He shook his head. “It had passed me by completely undetected. Truthfully, I was only alerted to the problem when you contacted me the other day. I should be thanking you.
“What he needs now is a renewed dose of Lethetroline and the appropriate subconscious guidance. Sherlock is currently taking care of the former himself, and I will administer the latter in a timely manner. You will not have to trouble yourself any further.”
But I was quite upon him before he’d finished his last sentence. “What do you mean, ‘Sherlock is taking care of it himself’?” I asked frantically. “I thought he didn’t know about the drug.”
“He doesn’t. But he does have an unfortunate habit of injecting himself with other substances in times of weakness. He will have left the flat shortly after your departure, in search of his supplier. I made arrangements ahead of time for him to receive the Lethetroline tonight instead - though mixed with a milder narcotic, so that he won’t suspect contamination.”
I grabbed the lapels of Mycroft’s coat. “How could you encourage him to keep up the cocaine habit?” I roared murderously. “Were you the one who hooked him in the first place, just so it could be used as a cover for this mind-control drug?”
“John, please - I beg you!” Mycroft said, raising his palms in truce. “You doubt my love for my own brother. I don’t seek to control every aspect of his life, truly. Any interference of mine has been with his best interests in mind. His fall into the arms of street narcotics was the result of a personal crisis after he graduated from University and I played no part in it - this I swear to you. In fact I did my best to get him out of it by steering him towards the Detective Inspector you’ve come to know well yourself.
“I acknowledge that tonight’s tactic was loathsome, but it was the quickest way to get him back on the right path. Again, I blame myself for not having been more astute in the matter all along.”
I fell back into my seat and closed my eyes. I wanted to wake up miraculously to find this had all been a terrible nightmare. But even more than that, I wanted to see that Sherlock was all right - that he was safe, conscious, back to his brilliant and egotistical self. The events of this week had gone from disturbing for Sherlock to traumatising for me. And he would walk away from it blissfully ignorant once again. I was condemned to live on with these harrowing memories. I couldn’t will myself to forget.
“You’re a good man, John,” said Mycroft softly. “I’m grateful you’re a part of my brother’s life. And though he tends not to express such things, he certainly feels the same way. I’m sure that right from the start you knew you’d bit off more than a mouthful when you got involved with Sherlock Holmes, but your loyalty makes me feel like he’s not so much a lost cause after all - that all of this trouble over the years has been worth suffering through. I’m only sorry to have subjected you to these particular demons that should have remained our family’s dark secret. You’re a good man,” he said again. Then he handed me a small pill bottle.
“Take some sedatives tonight so that you don’t lie awake in agony over tonight’s revelations. If you don’t trust me here, then please take your own.”
Just then, the car pulled up to the kerb in front of 221B Baker Street. I simply nodded to Mycroft before letting myself out and bounded up the steps to the flat.
The room was still just dimly lit when I arrived, and had I not known any better, I might have thought Sherlock had never left. He was sprawled upon the couch, fast asleep. I carefully picked up a glass vial and a syringe from the floor next to him. His arm was bruised again. Perhaps it’s a good sign, I thought. He’s sloppy because he’s out of practise. As I held his icy hand in my own, I fervently promised myself I’d make sure he never had a reason to practise again.
Having disposed of the needle and stored the empty vial in the safe box in my room, I tossed a blanket over Sherlock’s gangling form and swallowed two sleeping pills of my own. The gift from Mycroft went straight in with the rubbish. I checked Sherlock’s vitals out of a last precaution, and, satisfied, went to fall into my own bed, where I blissfully slept the whole night through.
And it’s here that the story truly ends, at least from my perspective. The next morning, Sherlock was back in his wits without missing a beat. He never so much as hinted that he retained any knowledge of what had happened that week, so I had no other option than to assume that Mycroft’s drug had gone back into effect. And if he was ever in danger of relapsing again, I never knew about it. Mycroft was not the type to repeat a mistake.
Still, it all weighed heavily on my mind, and the only thing that managed - at least temporarily - to replace it in my thoughts was... well, the terrible event that occurred on the roof of St. Bartholomew’s two months later. After our eventual reunion, as things began to fall back into place, the memories would return to me from time to time. And while I’ve done well to subdue them, keeping such a secret from my best friend - about my best friend - has always been somewhat taxing. I hope that, having now written it down, it can bring me some sense of acceptance and closure at last.
I will say, however, that it instilled in me a profound reverence for Sherlock’s relationship with the violin. He still preferred to keep it a private matter, but every once in awhile - usually around the middle of April - he would allow me to listen in on a passionate performance. And as I’d sit and soak in each languid note, visions of a child smiling up at his father would dance before my eyes. The man, in response, would squeeze the boy’s hand and assure him he was the proudest father in the world.
Your heart is the same stone
Only the river has changed