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Excerpt for Head Case by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Published by Evernight Teen ® at Smashwords


www.evernightteen.com




Copyright© 2018 Niki Cluff



ISBN: 978-1-77339-789-4


Cover Artist: Jay Aheer


Editor: Audrey Bobak




ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.


This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.







DEDICATION


To Mom and Dad, who said I should,

Dustin who said I could,

and Kerry Blair who insisted I would.


HEAD CASE


Niki Cluff


Copyright © 2018


Chapter One


“I wish that I had a better prognosis for you, but these are the facts.”

In my mind, my lip curls into a snarl, but the movements don’t show on my face. They can’t. It’s like I’m a wax figure in a museum and I hate it.

He speaks as though he truly regrets the information he’s about to give, but the tone of his voice tells me otherwise. He lacks the sincerity and empathy that someone about to alter another person’s entire life needs. That their only child may never wake up. I’ve never seen his face, but I don’t have to. I’ve learned to read people’s tones. Especially his. There is very little he cares about.

I am the child who will never wake up.

“Are you saying she’s going to be like this forever?” Mom’s voice trembles. I try not to imagine her reaching up to wipe tears gathering in her eyes. Feel a burning behind my own that won’t come to fruition. I wish that I could comfort her as I struggle to move my arms and fingers toward her, but I can’t. I’m stuck in my own mind. Plus, I’m curious to hear his response because I know his little secret and I can’t tell anyone. I’ve tried.

Move, damn it.

Doctor Zain clears his throat. “There is no way of knowing. Our tests prove there is brain functionality. Which is good. It isn’t just a stem. By all counts, Allyson should have woken up months ago, but here we are. Whatever is keeping her in the coma simply won’t let her go.”

Anger boils beneath the surface of my skin. I know the words coming out of his mouth aren’t entirely true. He and the CEO have spent months discussing me and the ways that they can use and abuse my insurance. All because they won’t let me wake up.

Darkness.

My eyes are shut. With my eyes closed, I can’t see the doctor or the hospital room. I can’t see my parents’ faces. Nine months that I’ve been confined to the corners of my own mind. When I first came in, I managed to open my eyes long enough to see the sterile white walls, bright lights, and puke-green curtains that divided the room into threes. After that, a cooling sensation flowed through the veins of my left arm and my eyes, heavy with the weight of sleep, closed again. I haven’t been able to open them since.

“What does this mean?” Dad asks. His voice is tight, a grunt thick with tears. He’s crying too. I swallow back a lump, one of the only movements I can manage. But without an Adam’s apple, no one notices the small shift in the muscles of my throat. They aren’t paying enough attention. The backs of my eyes are on fire, but I know tears won’t come. I’m cried out.

“It means that until she wakes up, she’s stuck on life support, sort of. She is breathing on her own. Most of the machines are here to monitor her in case she does wake up,” Doctor Zain says. His voice holds a shrug. This is no big deal to him.

Why should it be? It’s not his sorry butt lying in a hospital bed day after day.

Mom sobs. It’s a howling sound and I imagine her clinging to Dad in a struggle to stay upright. My mind works that way now. Visions of what life must be like instead of what life is. Being in a coma is a lot like suffering from sleep paralysis. Sometimes I’m awake and alert. I can hear and see everything in my mind's eye. But I can’t move. I don’t scream even though my voice shouts in my head as loud as my lungs can manage. Every muscle in my body burns as I struggle to make them work, but they’re so heavy. No matter how hard I try, I can’t lift my arms or legs. I can’t even make my fingers work. Not even a pinky.

Other days, a wrinkled hag sits in the corner of the room. Her eyes are dark, empty. She’s haggard like death has taken her more than once. Some days she hovers over my bed. She wants me to come with her. Beckons me to follow, but I won’t. I don’t like the idea of where her world ends. It sends a tremor through my entire body and I’m paralyzed with fear as I watch her. Waiting.

I’m terrified to die.

“What are our options?” Mom asks. Someone blows their nose. My heart wrenches. If I could just get some part of my body to do something. The worst feeling in the world is knowing that what once worked doesn’t any longer.

I hear fingernails brushing against stubble. It’s funny the noises you notice when you can’t see. I’ve never paid much attention to the scratchy noise of nails against the start of a beard. Or the way metal scrapes against tile flooring. Wheels that get stuck on equipment and drag along the surface while the others creak along. Or the way someone shuffles their feet when they walk, but I do now.

“Well, we have a new program for people suffering from the same affliction as your daughter. It’s a trial program, but it offers your daughter the best chance for a decent quality of life in her current condition,” Doctor Zain says.

Something touches my foot, tickling it, but I can’t move away from the sensation no matter how hard I try. I groan inwardly. Doctor Zain likes to touch with his cold, clammy hands. Bile rises in my throat.

“How does it work?” Mom asks. Her voice is nearby, close to my head. I want to reach out and touch her. Feel the warmth of her skin and the comfort only a mom can give.

There’s a pause and my chest tightens with anxiety. I want to know as much as they do.

“We’ll go into her brain and surgically implant a chip at the base of her skull where the stem is. There, she’ll have all the sensory functions that connect to the stem. We’ll wire the chip into her brain, manipulating her visual and memory portions,” Doctor Zain says. His tone is matter-of-fact.

I want to know if I’ll lose any of my hair. Not that it matters. No one comes to see me anymore.

“How will you implant the chip?” Mom runs her fingers through the locks of hair that hang around my neck and shoulders. I wonder if she’s thinking the same thing I am. How much hair am I going to lose? The thought sends a thrill of fear down my spine.

“Endoscopic surgery. We’ll enter the brain through a small hole and with the use of cameras, implant the chip. It’s the least invasive when it comes to the brain,” he says, hand on my foot again. I beg my brain to shift my foot away, but nothing happens. “Don’t worry. She’ll keep most of her hair.” He chuckles.

Mom breathes a sigh of relief.

“How dangerous is this surgery? What are the chances of death?” Dad asks, his voice gruff.

Doctor Zain clears his throat. “There is always the risk of death in any surgery. Cancer patients with brain tumors receive this surgery most often and the survival rate is incredibly high. The danger outweighs the type of life she’ll be living here.”

He’s well-versed in all the right things to say. Almost robotic. Like he’s studied these answers, memorized them.

“She isn’t living a life,” Mom says. I want to nod and agree with her. Hearing the nurses gossip and discuss patient treatment isn’t exciting. Period.

“How much does it cost?” Dad asks. Always money minded.

My parents don’t have a lot of money. Dad works as a 9-1-1 operator and Mom delivers early morning newspapers, giving her the opportunity to stay home and care for me even though I’m seventeen-years-old. Dad’s job comes with decent benefits with the City of Prescott. Mom’s money helps us to go and do what we want instead of worrying about money. Things I don’t have to worry about now since I can’t wrap my hands around dollar bills or physical objects any longer. I thought having a Dooney & Bourke purse and a hoard of the latest console games were the most important things in the world, but now I can’t touch them even if I could afford them. Useless.

“Your insurance is willing to cover the cost. We’ve already checked with them.”

Of course they have.

“We have some paperwork here for you to read on the trial. It’s a voluntary program and the virtual worlds are still in development, but we’ll be able to track her brain and her thoughts through the system. She’ll be able to travel wherever she wishes in her own mind.”

Sounds too good to be true. According to Dad, when it sounds like heaven, it probably isn’t.

“Can we have some time to discuss our options?” Dad asks. I try to picture him with his dark hair salt and peppering with age. He stands taller than Mom by at least three inches. I get my hazel eyes from him. I can’t make out his face anymore though. His features are blurry. Beside him, I picture Mom. Petite, sandy blonde hair. Her features are messed up too. Seeing them as indistinct blurs hurts my heart. I’m don’t want to lose them.

Something taps my foot again. It’s cold and hard. Smooth like metal. I try to wiggle my foot, anything to alert them to my discomfort. Nothing.

“Of course. Go to lunch. There is plenty of time to make the decision,” Doctor Zain says. Feet shuffle around the room. Mom’s wearing heels. I hear their tap as she walks, her stride shorter than Dad’s and Doctor Zain’s. Dad’s heavy footfalls tell me he’s wearing work boots. Helping someone in the church with yardwork, I assume. He drags one of his feet a bit when he walks. Doctor Zain’s feet barely make a sound. Light quick shuffles.

A nurse comes by and checks the tubing in my arm. She smells floral like she’s wearing rose petals all over her body. Nurse Nora. She seems to be my primary nurse.

“Did they approve?” she asks. The soft Latin lilt to her voice carries across the empty room over the beeping of my machinery. I imagine her to be short, lean, with dark hair and eyes and deeply tanned skin.

I’ve never seen her in real life.

“They will. Call over and have one of the OR rooms prepped,” Doctor Zain says even though my parents haven’t approved of the procedure. His voice brims with overconfidence.

High heels crash against the tile floor. I know the sound. The heels belong to the CEO of the hospital. Her steps are hard, fast. In a hurry. “Well?” Her voice is tough, raspy. She’s come from a bad side of town and worked hard to become what she is. Or at least that’s how I imagine her. A tough woman with dark skin and hair pulled into a low, tight bun.

“You’ve taken quite the interest in this patient. People roaming the halls are starting to talk about how they’ve met the hospital CEO,” Doctor Zain says.

“You know how important this is for the future of the hospital. We need this clinic trial,” she says, her voice stern. “Imagine what a program like this could mean for our sponsors.”

“They’re reading over the information now. They’ll approve the procedure. I have no doubt,” Doctor Zain says. “There isn’t another option other than to let her lie here until she wakes up.” He chuckles, knowing that as long as they control my meds, I won’t.

A hand falls on my foot again. His thumb moves over the arch of my foot, sending a tickling sensation through my body, but I don’t want to laugh. I want to retch. The skin is still cold and clammy but smooth. He never warms his hands before touching my skin. I’m sleeping, so I must not be able to feel differences in temperature.

“This will be good for the hospital. Every day she sits in here on life support, it costs us thousands of dollars. But putting her in a pod and charging insurance to keep her alive will make us millions,” the CEO says. She’s come to my room a handful of times to discuss my condition. Mostly to discuss money and the costs of my care. Order unnecessary procedures to charge to insurance.

I don’t care for her. She’s caused more needles in my arms and radiation through my body than I ever needed.

“Grant money. Research.” His voice takes on a knowing tone. “Does anyone really care what their value of life becomes if their brain is the only thing left functioning?”

The CEO snickers. “Does it matter? We can’t prove that she isn’t floating around in there somewhere. People want what’s best for their families. Give them a better quality of life. That’s what this is. Her brain shows activity, right?”

If they only knew how much brain activity was going on.

“More than I would expect from someone in her condition. It’s possible she’s listening to everything we’re saying right now,” Doctor Zain says.

The room falls into silence.

“As long as we keep her medically induced, we keep pocketing money to keep her brain playing video games. Who cares what happens after that?” The CEO and Doctor Zain chuckle. Their footsteps grow faint as they leave the room.

Another snarl enters my mind. I hate them, doctors who hold more control than they should.

I care. But no one asks me. It’s like I’m not even a person anymore. Just an object for them to manipulate and use. I’ve never been the type of person who punched walls. Not a throw-your-controller-at-the-TV-screen kind of anger. I’m a pillow screamer, but right now I’d like to plant a fist in both of their faces. Faces I can’t picture or imagine myself hitting because I have no idea what either of them looks like. Blurry faces aren’t satisfying.

It doesn’t occur to them that I want to see my family again. I’ve missed most of my junior year of high school. I haven’t had the chance to go on my first date. My friends stopped visiting me months ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve missed prom and homecoming. There is so much left in life that I want to do. Go to college, eat the macarons my parents will never buy, travel to Tokyo.

I’m scared I will die in here alone.

Mom and Dad come back a couple hours later. They smell of French fries and burgers. I miss the taste of fast food. My mouth waters and my stomach rumbles, but I don’t know if it’s real or in my head. I don’t eat now. My nutrients come from the IV attached to my left arm. Someone sits on the edge of my bed. The bed doesn’t dip much, and I can tell it’s Mom. She places a hand on my own. Her fingers are chilled like she’s been out in crisp winter air, but soft. I miss the touch of her skin. The warmth of a hug. People don’t want to touch someone who appears dead. I struggle to touch her back, but the heaviness of my body never alleviates.

“Do you have any more questions for me?” Doctor Zain asks. It takes him a few minutes to walk into the room after my parents arrive.

“Where will her mind go?” Mom asks. Her voice wavers.

A lump catches in my throat. Don’t do this. I’m right here.

They’re letting me go. I’m crushed by the idea and how quick they came to the decision and relieved at the same time. Tears gather in my eyes. Don’t they want me to come back to them? What will happen when I’m left in this world? Will they forget me? Oh sure, they’ll visit for a time, but what happens when they grow old or tired of making the trek to the hospital?

I’m screaming in my mind. The old woman in the corner chuckles. I shoot her a dirty look. The first time I haven’t been paralyzed by her gaze.

“We have programs set up. Schools for them to continue their education and such. It may be better schooling than she’s receiving now,” Doctor Zain says with a light laugh. It doesn’t ease the mood. “The top programmers in the world have been working on this First in Human trial.”

Someone swallows.

They’re keeping me here. Please. Don’t let them take me.

“How do you know what will happen once she’s plugged in?” Dad asks. His voice trembles. This hasn’t been an easy decision.

I want to know the same thing since I don’t get a say in the decisions that are being made about my own body. The idea intrigues me just enough. I don’t want to spend any more time in the hospital alone. My thoughts are dangerous here.

Doctor Zain clears his throat. “That’s the point of the study. We’ve been given equipment and a chance to analyze what the mind does. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and your daughter is the perfect candidate. Her brain is active enough that we can collect real data. Valuable data.”

“Will it help others?” Mom pats my hand, her voice soft.

“More than you know. It will give us a chance to learn how the brain functions. We don’t get opportunities like this often. She’ll be providing us with invaluable data. This could save terminal lives.”

Smart. Appealing to Mom’s good nature. She’s an organ donor. Doctor Zain discussed the idea with her before. They’re conniving. Feeling out my parents for what they will and won’t approve of before bringing up their ideas. Frustration and anger nags at me. I hate them for manipulating my parents. Abusing their power. And no one stops them. Because they’re doctors. A need in this life. People want to live forever.

“And if she never wakes up?” Dad asks. His voice quivers.

My nostrils flare. They’re using you. They’ve put me on some sort of medicine that keeps me asleep. Wake me up!

“We hope that she will still have a quality of life equivalent to what she would experience in the real world. With virtual reality becoming more advanced, she’ll be able to live out a life. There are others that are part of the trial. She won’t be alone.”

There are others? They’ve trapped more people in VR worlds?

“Without her body,” Mom says. Her sadness fills me with despair. I want to cry, but the tears in my eyes don’t fall. I know she’s thinking of all the things they’ll be missing. My graduation. Getting married. Grandkids. Things I’ve thought about missing.

Doctor Zain pauses a moment. All I hear is breathing. What are they doing?

“Is it better for her to have a life without her body? Or to lie here day after day in the dark?” Doctor Zain asks.

I stop the angry ranting and sobbing in my mind and contemplate his words. Which is worse right now? I’m immobile. I spend my days listening to the whoosh of the ventilator and the beep of my heart rate monitor. The drip of the IV that they change out a couple times of day. Nurse gossip about patients in the next rooms, or stories of traumas in the ER. Which residents are the most attractive? Who drank who under the table on their day off? What new restaurant are they going to try? I’ve only experienced VR a couple of times before, but it wasn’t real enough for me to want to live a life as an avatar in some fictional world.

Is that a life? What does it mean to live? I know it’s not lying here in the dark day after day.

After he utters those words to Mom, opens the what-ifs of life and what it means, I know he’s won. Truth be told, I’d like to experience the virtual world he’s talking about. Anything would be better than the terrifying old hag or the endless darkness. After nine months, I’m ready to get out of my own head. Some days I don’t like my own thoughts. They’re disturbing in ways I never imagined.

“I think it would be for the best, dear,” Dad says. His voice is soft, almost defeated.

My heart deflates.

The edge of the bed rises again. Mom’s stood up. She’s leaving me. They’re leaving me. Is this what I want?

Sort of. I don’t want to be in the hospital anymore. But I don’t want to lose my family. Everything I know and have worked so hard for. I have dreams of hacking security systems and developing my own video games. Digging up dinosaur bones in the Badlands of Montana like Doctor Grant in Jurassic Park. Can those things happen in the VR worlds?

“She’ll be helping others with her condition,” he continues. Tremors in his voice make me sob in my own mind again. This is goodbye. I’m fighting to move any part of my body. Anything. A finger. A toe. Something to let them know that I’m still here, that I don’t want this. Not really. That the hospital is keeping me here. The VR worlds sound exciting, but am I ready to give up everything I’ve known, everything I love for it? I don’t know.

Don’t do this. Don’t leave me.

Mom’s hand leaves mine. “You’re right. I know this is for the best. She won’t be alone.” She pauses, her voice cracking. “Will we be able to come visit her?”

“Absolutely. Here is the phone number to call and schedule visits,” Doctor Zain says.

“Schedule visits?” Dad asks. His voice holds some disbelief.

“It takes some time to disconnect them from the virtual reality system. We want them to be able to focus on their families when they come to visit,” Doctor Zain says.

It’s the beginning of the end for me. How long before I’m forgotten? Am I okay with being left behind?

“How long does it take to detach? Will it mess with her brain?” Dad asks. His rough hand takes mine. A 9-1-1 operator shouldn’t have such rough calloused skin, but Dad doesn’t like to sit idle.

“It takes some time to draw their mind from the system back into the present. It’s not healthy to detach them a lot, but it’s good to not let them forget what they’re leaving behind,” Doctor Zain says.

How many times has he said those words only to have the family never come back?

It’s a crushing blow. He’s basically telling them they shouldn’t come see me.

“Ally-cat? If you can hear us, we’re doing this because we believe it is what’s best for you,” Dad says.

A wet drop hits my arm. Dad’s crying. He never cries. A wave of emotions I can’t place, fear, sadness, hurt, anger, excitement, pass through me.

Don’t leave me. Don’t go.

Mom’s hand caresses my cheek. I want to nuzzle into her touch. To be that little child she’d clutch close and push the bangs away from my eyes. “We want you to have a good life.” She leans in close to my ear and a puff of her breath brushes against my skin. “But please come back to us.”

Don’t let them keep me here.

You have to let them go.

And those are the last things I remember them saying.


Chapter Two


Lights shift across my eyelids. It changes my vision from darkness to a reddish orange and back again. The only other time the light fluctuates comes at night when the nurses try to make the busy hospital appear dark. They can’t remove the ever-present beeping sounds, and the noises of oxygen breathing alongside me, so I can get enough air. An anxious tightness fills my chest. Wheels clatter against tiles and my body sways back and forth with the movements. I don’t know what’s about to happen. Not for sure, even though I heard Doctor Zain’s explanation. My stomach tangles in knots.

They’re moving me.

Will they knock me out before performing whatever operation they’re about to do? Or do they think I’m without feeling? They don’t feel the need to explain their procedures to me the way they would my parents if they were here, or to me if I were awake.

Because I’m in a coma. I don’t need to know what they’re doing to me. My eyes roll beneath their lids. The orderlies and nurses can’t see, but I know.

Before I can fret too much, the smell of alcohol greets my nose, blending with the plastic scents of the oxygen I’m being fed, and a burning sensation pricks my arm. My mind clears and drifts into a dream. It’s a restless dream, or as restless as one can be without the ability to move on their own. Dark thoughts and shadows that have seeped into my mind over time. Things I wish I didn’t think, but I’m depressed enough to know that if I were awake, I may be in the hospital for different reasons.

My brain is foggy when I come to. I’m filled with pain at the base of my skull, but I have no way of letting the nurse know. I wonder if they had to shave my long hair even though they said they wouldn’t. I can’t reach up to feel. What type of scar will be left behind? I’m vain enough that I don’t want a large visible scar.

“Is everything hooked up?” Doctor Zain asks.

There is an answer somewhere, but I can’t hear past the buzzing in my ears. I’m groggy and confused. Rattling wheels clapping over door jams fill the gaps between speaking.

“Push her in and dope her up,” Doctor Zain says.

Wheels clatter against metal and darkness covers my eyelids again. I don’t need my eyes open to know I’m in a tight space. The air around me chills, but not uncomfortably. Small goosebumps rise on my skin. A door clicks. My heart thumps wildly in my chest, my lungs constricting, making it difficult to breathe. I don’t want to be in this tiny space.

More chill passes through my veins. The small space whirrs and beeps. An IV drip, drip, drips, and the whoosh of a ventilator pushes plastic air around me. I’m drowsy again, the fogging in my brain never clearing in the first place. My mind wanders.

Lights flicker to life. It hurts my eyes and I put my hand up to shade against the brilliance. I don’t know if it’s the brightness of the white room or the fact that I’m seeing for the first time in nine months that’s causing me to squint. The room is barren outside of a thin, dark wood podium in the center. A cursory glance of the white tile floor reveals my feet. Or what I think are my feet. They’re sort of pasty white, but my skin is always that color, even in the summer. My brain instructs my left foot to move. It lifts inches off the ground. The sensations are familiar, yet completely new. I didn’t expect to be so strong after lying prone for so long. In my mind, I imagine myself to be weak, thin, and frail.

Ice-cold flooring greets my feet as I walk toward the podium. Goosebumps rise on my arms and legs except for the places where there are large healing skin grafts. I shiver. There are no bandages on my skin, but I’m still wearing the hospital gown. In this room, the grafts appear to be nothing more than scars. I don’t know what they look like in real life.

It’s too cold in the room, but I’m grateful to feel any sensations at all. At the top of the wood podium sits a tablet. It’s a bigger model than the one I have at home and white to match the room. I press the button on the side and wait for the screen to fire up. There are no logos or data service providers that appear as it comes to life.

“Welcome, Allyson,” it says in a broken robotic female voice that reminds me of Siri.

The tablet speaks. It’s nice to have something talk directly to me rather than about me. I just wish my first interaction had been with another human, and not a machine. I guess beggars can’t be choosers in these worlds.

“Um … hello.” My voice cracks from disuse. Something I didn’t expect in a virtual world. Avatars are supposed to be perfect, customized. Not wearing hospital gowns and covered in injury scars.

“Welcome to your simulated world. Would you like to play the tutorial?” she asks.

I open my mouth, ready to respond, then pause. I’m an avid gamer. When I’m not doing homework or reading, I’m playing video games or hacking systems. Normally, I would play the tutorial and learn the controls before heading out into the world to slay ancient beasts, bokoblin, or orcs, but this world feels so real. Playing a tutorial for life sounds strange.

“Would you like to play the tutorial?” she asks again in her broken robot tones.

“Yes,” I say. This is a game. I need to treat it as such. I can’t get lost in this world and forget about what exists beyond virtual reality. My parents, my home. As freeing as being in the virtual world may be, I don’t want to lose my real life and be trapped here forever.

I won’t die here alone. I won’t.

“Welcome to Your Room.” The screen displays the game name written in block letters that resemble pieces of furniture. “Using the controls, place furniture, move walls, and design your own home. Achieve goals in the story mode or continue in sandbox mode. The choice is yours. Designs are limitless.”

The screen flashes again and a start button appears beneath the logo. I pick up the tablet stylus and press the flashing letters.

“Tutorial Goal One. Build a Wall.”

I purse my lips and watch bubbles with scrolling words explain in text and voice how to build walls. It shows buttons, little thumbnails that indicate various controls and textures along with a blank page that looks like a piece of paper. Lines appear on the screen that resemble architectural drawings of buildings. Floorplans.

“Like The Sims, but without all the colors,” I say, taking every available moment to use my voice that I can. Who knows how long I’ll have it. I’ve grown accustomed to talking to myself in my own head.

I press the rest of the tutorial buttons. It shows how to add doors, windows, fireplaces, furniture, and more until the house is complete. When the tutorials finish, the screen becomes a blank piece of paper again.

“How fun. I get to design architecture all day,” I groan. This doesn’t sound like endless worlds that I could experience or better schooling than I received at home. I don’t want to design buildings for a living. I want to hack security systems, design video games. Maybe even dig up dinosaur bones. None of the things that will be useful here.

There isn’t anything else for me to do, so I take a seat in the corner where the wall and the floor meet. The room is no longer cold, or hot, but pleasant the longer I’m in it. The hardness of the tiled wall and floor isn’t pleasurable, but I enjoy the sensation of sitting anyway. I’ve been in a mediocre bed for far too long. I press on the wall icon and set to work designing my dream house. The walls flicker like a system glitch. Where they were once white, now the emerald green of the grass and pale blue of the sky fill the area. Outside, chunks of wood, plaster, and insulation drop from the sky to the ground with a loud thud in pieces as they form the rectangles of wall pieces. My jaw drops.

I take tentative steps toward the outside. When I meet the edge of the room where the wall should be, I pause. There isn’t anyone in the room with me, but I don’t want to walk into the wall anyway. They’re watching, right? It’s how they’re learning from me. I don’t want to be the idiot that walks into a wall on her first day in the VR. I hold out my left hand, stylus between my thumb and palm. My hand hits crisp morning air instead of the wall. I open my mouth again in surprise.

“Wow,” I breathe. I take a tentative step outside.

The blades of grass are lush and damp. Every sensation is doubled. The cooling wetness as the morning dew soaks into my hospital gown. Shocking pierces from the not-as-soft-as-I-thought-it-would-be patches of crabgrass mixes with the soft grasses I want to roll around in. I haven’t felt anything in nine months. Now I feel everything at once. Sensory overload. The walls are finished with a coat of drywall, the texture bumpy against my palm. Plain and simple, waiting for paint and other décor. The air around me smells of fresh-cut grass, recent rain, and sawdust. I tap on the screen and add more walls, designing rooms, floors, and a roof.

The ground shakes a little as the walls appear. I dance out of the way as the rooms grow, square off, curve, and form other spaces to create the perfect house. My dream house. Bigger than the house my parents own, a mansion movie stars would be jealous of. A place I’d never live in otherwise. I’d always wanted a rounded tower-like room in my future home. Like the Victorian homes off of Mount Vernon Street in Prescott. A family room. A living space. Game room. Things we didn’t have in my parents’ house.

Pretty soon, I’m sitting in the middle of a living space. The walls are colorless, the floor is nothing more than particle board, but it’s a house. Not just a floor plan. I press on the paint tab, a button with the picture of a paint can, and select colors for the walls, a pale-eggshell color with wood accent walls, add flooring, windows, doors, fireplaces, and a staircase. I jump as the flooring slides into place, landing on its surface, and it throws me onto my rump as it shoots forward. I let out a painful yelp and rub my tailbone. The windows, floor-to-ceiling rectangles every few feet, and a gray stone fireplace drop into place with loud thuds that shake the walls and rattle the window panes once they’re in place. What was once a drawing on my tablet now looks like a model home ready for prospective buyers to walk through.

“Wow.” I hate how my voice sounds like Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday, Mr. President, but I’m in that much awe. The house is big. My parents’ home barely skirts twelve hundred square feet. This house is more than double with two stories. A mansion that belongs in the Hollywood Hills.

“Would you like to add furniture?” the Siri-like voice asks.

“Furniture. Right,” I say, dancing around the room that I designated as my game room. I mean, if I have to live alone in a virtual world, I may as well live like a celebrity. And with all the video games I love to play, Legend of Zelda, Shadows of Mordor, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I need the perfect gaming room with all the systems and equipment available.

New icons appear on the screen, broken into groups of chairs, tables, appliances, or into sets by room type. I start sifting through living room furniture, placing recliners and sofas in various areas. I gravitate toward dark cherry-colored furniture and deep-brown leathers. Maroon bed sheets and paintings of foxes, horses, and wolves decorate the walls. I continue tapping icons and moving from room to room until every space has TVs, computers, video games, and all the essentials. I place a different clock in every area of the house. I’ve always been a collector of watches and clocks, and in this house, there are no rules or limits. The house is everything I could have ever dreamed. The door is round like a hobbit hole, the inside structures made of wood and designed like something off Lord of the Rings. It’s an eclectic mix of every fandom I enjoy from Sailor Moon to Harry Potter.

By the time I finish the house and all the décor, the backyard includes a massive swimming pool. I’ve placed all the other toys and gadgets I could possibly need outdoors the way I would have when I have a cheat code in the original Sims. I buy everything even if my character probably won’t use it. I’m exhausted. I’ve got everything from a bbq and a smoker to a firepit. A scuba diving tank that resembles an aquarium, trampoline, and even a wine press to make my own bottles of wine I’ll probably never drink.

I head to the kitchen, noting the tick-tock of the clocks I’ve placed in every room of the house. Silence surrounds me. I don’t like being alone. Even when my parents left me home alone, there was always music playing or the TV blaring just so I could hear the sound of other voices. At home, the click of dog paws followed me through every room. I don’t know that I’ve truly been left alone.

The kitchen is a large space with black and white tiles that remind me of a fifties diner and hickory wood cabinets that line a side of the room and form an island in the center. Shiny black granite swirled with gold and rust colors serve as counters over the cabinets. Several windows and a sliding glass door allow fading light from the sunset outside to filter into the room, warming the space. The lights flicker on on their own as the sun slides down to who knows where. Every cabinet I open is full of any food I could possibly think of. The refrigerator is stocked as well. I don’t know much about cooking. Mom didn’t have the chance to teach me. But I placed a cookbook with a stand on the counter, along with other shiny black cooking appliances. I flip open the pages and set to work cooking dinner.

It’s weird living in a house alone, the kitchen echoing the sounds of closing cabinets and cooking utensils. On a normal night when I’d come home from school, Mom would be in the kitchen making dinner. The house would smell of fresh-cut herbs from her raised bed gardens and sharp onions that stung my eyes. Green and red were always her favorites, the red unpleasant and strong no matter how much she sweat them out. Mom took culinary courses before she met Dad. She’d aspired to be a chef in her younger years, but when I came along, her life changed. I never had the chance to glean cooking knowledge from her. Tears well up in my eyes.

“From the onions,” I tell myself.

I wonder what she’s cooking for dinner now. My stomach rumbles at the thought. I don’t want to resort to making ramen or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Easy foods. How difficult can cooking be?

After setting off the smoke alarms twice, I growl, opening the windows in the kitchen and resort to cooking a boxed pizza with a frown. Cooking is going to take some practice and time. It’s not like other games where you put the ingredients together and something fantastic and delicious is born. If this game was anything like The Sims, then I could probably hire someone to cook me food, but I don’t want to give up. Either way, I use the exhaust fan under the microwave to clear the smoke out of the room. It roars to life, drowning out the sound of the ticking clocks.

Once the oven beeps, I pull out the pizza, wishing that I’d placed a woodfire oven in the room and set it on the counter to cool. I close the windows and turn off the exhaust fan. The room still smells of burnt crusty food, but the smoke has cleared, and the scent isn’t terribly annoying. I cut the bacon and black olive pizza with a wheel cutter and place it on a plate with painted images of cartoon foxes on the surface. My stomach reminds me that I haven’t tasted real food in months, the pain almost unbearable. I head upstairs and settle into bed for the night, adjusting the hospital gown. I’ll take a shower later. I’ve placed bookcases in every room of the house and each contains different books from every genre and age group. I select a new novel, one that recently came out, but I hadn’t had a chance to purchase yet, and settle into bed surrounded by lush pillows and a heavy down comforter.

It’s strange how in my mind I know none of this is real, yet it feels like I’m building a life anyway. I guess this was the point of hooking me up to the VR.

****

I wake up with the sudden painful urge to pee.

The sensation catches me off guard at first. A full bladder pushing my stomach out a bit in an unpleasant way. If someone saw me in real life, they’d ask if I were pregnant. In the hospital, I’m hooked to a catheter. I don’t feel the need to pee. It just happens, so when the sensation hits in the middle of the night, I’m confused. I sit up in bed, shoving the book off my chest and rub my eyes with a yawn. It’s three AM according to the clock on the nightstand. None of the furniture matches, though I tried to keep it all in the same period group and color schemes. This game isn’t advanced enough to provide period pieces and matching sets.

I roll out of bed, pushing heavy covers off my feet. My hospital gown bunched around my stomach during the night, revealing more skin grafts, and I shove it back into place. I hadn’t taken the time to change before I fell asleep while reading. My brain had too much to process, but now that I realize I still look like I belong in a hospital with a slight breeze along my backside, I take the time to change into a proper pair of pajamas. Opposite the bed is a large armoire made of dark cherry wood. One that I secretly hope will take me to Narnia when I open the doors, but I’m greeted by clothing of all colors, shapes, and all in my size. Much like the full cabinets in the kitchen. I pull out a warm pant set made of flannel or fleece. I’m not sure which.

After washing my hands, I leave the room with a whiff of the floral-scented candles and air fresheners. The lights turn off on their own and I glance around the room, no longer tired. The sky outside is dark without a moon, even though there is moonlight filtering through the blinds and heavy curtains I’d placed around their sills.

I head into the room beside mine. The space I designed to be the office. The light turns on of its own accord. I take a cursory glance at the bookshelf even though the book I pushed off my chest sits on the bed, but nothing catches my eye. I know that if I pick up a book, I’ll sit and read until the sun comes up. I should be sleeping. Mom would tell me to sleep. I haven’t had a regular sleeping pattern in months and I don’t want to screw myself up now.

A computer sits on the desk. It’s a small, sleek model, black with a wireless keyboard. I turn it on and take a seat in the over-cushioned office chair. It’s comfortable. Something I could see myself sitting in for hours while I get lost in games like Overwatch and Bioshock. The computer beeps and whirrs as it comes to life. I don’t know what I’m looking for. A game is going to keep me up as much as a book would, but I can’t think of anything else to do since I’m more awake than tired. Mom’s voice gripes at me in the back of my mind, go to sleep, you need rest, it isn’t good for your brain to stay up playing video games. In a lot of ways, being alone in a house is the same as being stuck in my own mind. I can hear everything from a dripping faucet to the ticking of the wall clocks around me. Lots of me talking to myself or imagining Mom’s voice. I miss the sounds of a dog’s toenails clicking on the tile. I wonder if there is a way to get a pet in this world.


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