April 8th 2022
Once in awhile when Beth and her mother visited the clinic she would have to have a meeting with the clinic manager. On the days when that happened Beth would be left to mind her own business in the visitors’ ward, under the watchful eye of the ward nurse.
Not that Beth ever did anything that concerned the nurses.
Instead, from the moment Beth entered the ward to the moment it was time to go, she would sit by the metal cocoon filled with colourless liquid that was placed on a gurney, her attention focused on its glass viewing panel, and on the girl encased behind it.
Beth would tell the girl about her week.
“In science class on Thursday, Ms. Williams was teaching us about animals,” Beth said, as she raised a drawing depicting a menagerie of crayon-coloured creatures up to the glass. “My favourite is the albatross.”
The nurse on duty looked up. “Don’t put your hands too close to the pod, dear. It’s negative one hundred and twenty degrees in there, we wouldn’t want your fingers to get stuck on the surface, alright?”
“Okay.” Beth pulled her drawing back from the glass, then said, “I asked Mummy whether I could get a stuffed albatross, but she said to wait for Christmas.”
She pulled a teddy bear out of her knapsack. Miming the bear approaching the glass, she waved its paw.
“Growly says hi.” She turned to the bear. “Say hi to Aunt Vicky, Growly.”
The nurse smiled from behind the desk as she watched the interaction. Most people who had cryonically suspended relatives never visited—and the people who did were usually elderly spouses of equally elderly patients, who would end up either being cryonically suspended also when they themselves fell ill or they pass on shortly after their partner’s internment. The fact that Beth and her mother visited every week was astounding.
Equally astounding, of course, was the fact that Vicky Cooper had been there for twenty-five years. Most individuals who wanted cryonic suspension usually didn’t have the money to be interned for so long—but then again, most individuals who wanted cryonic preservation usually funded themselves out of their own savings—until the money ran out.
But Beth and her mother were consistent with both visiting and payment, and so it was that every Saturday morning without fail, the nurses would wheel Vicky Cooper out from the central chiller, and Beth would sit with her frozen aunt for an hour, chatting, playing, and showing her things.
Her mother’s meetings with the clinic manager were usually short, and once she emerged she would sit with Beth as she interacted with Aunt Vicky for the remainder of the hour until they needed to head out.
“I have to go to work now, baby. I’ll drop you off at Mrs. Jackson’s place today, okay?”
“Say goodbye to Aunt Vicky.”
Beth hopped off the chair and give a small wave. “Bye Aunt Vicky.”
As they left the ward the receptionist gave Beth’s mother a glance.
Her mother spoke. “I’ve already paid.”
The receptionist nodded and turned back to her work.
On the way out Beth asked her mother, “What time will you be home?”
Her mother patted her head. “I’ll be back to tuck you in bed, okay?”
“Okay.” Beth tried to sound neutral.
“And Growly too,” added her mum.
Beth finally smiled.
Usually the meeting with the clinic manager was short—ten minutes and Beth’s mother would be out.
But fifteen minutes had passed and she still hadn’t finished, by which time Beth had long finished telling Vicky about her week and was now showing her how to weave friendship bracelets. As she demonstrated, she chatted mindlessly.
“A friendship bracelet is like the paper wristband they give you at the hospital, except it’s for friends.” She scrunched her forehead. “I don’t really like it there. Whenever I go they always poke me with needles.”
At twenty past, Beth’s mother emerged from the meeting, and Beth paused her performance with Growly to watch her slip in. It seemed to her that these days her mother’s meetings with the clinic staff were more frequent, and her work hours had become longer and longer.
For the last two weeks she hadn’t even gotten home in time to put her and Growly to bed.
As she sat down, Beth resumed her theatrics with renewed vigour, and her mother watched with amusement, smiling and clapping at the appropriate moments. Finally, after finishing and bowing, and after Growly blew kisses to the adoring audience, Beth asked, “What’s going to happen when Aunt Vicky wakes up?”
There was a silence before Beth’s mother replied. “Well, I guess she’d come live with us.”
“But where will she sleep? We don’t even have a couch.”
There was another pause. “Maybe we can get a couch when we move to the new place. Aunt Vicky will definitely not wake up before then.”
Beth furrowed her forehead in concentration. “But our new house has even less space.”
“Well, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind sharing a room with Aunt Vicky, would you?” Looking at Beth’s widened eyes, her mother continued. “I mean, she’s really only eight, after all. She’s literally your age. I’m sure you could get used to it. It’ll be like having a sister. She even looks like you.”
“But Aunt Vicky is your sister.”
Her mother smiled wanly and patted her head. “I’m just teasing you, baby.”
“So you won’t do that?”
“We’ll see.” She said with a smile that quickly faded.
The two of them fell into silence as they quietly inspected Aunt Vicky’s haircut, a horrendous bowl that was in fashion two decades before. Finally Beth asked, “When will she wake up?”
There was an even longer pause. Mother and daughter looked at the girl behind the glass. “The doctors won’t wake her up unless they find a cure for her sickness. She can’t survive unless they find a cure.”
Beth had heard all this before, but she wanted to hear it again. “Why haven’t they found the cure yet?”
Her mother sighed. “It’s a rare genetic disease. The doctors don’t know much about it. But they know that if they hadn’t frozen Aunt Vicky early, they would not have been able to preserve her life.”
“Oh.” Beth thought for a moment, then asked, “how much longer can she stay in there?”
Her mother gave her a long look. “What do you mean?”
Beth gave a confused look. “Like, can she stay in there forever?”
Her mother’s face relaxed. “Oh, I understand.” She patted Beth’s head. “She can stay in there until the doctors find a cure for her.”
Finally her mother checked her phone. “It’s late.” She nudged Beth. “Say goodbye to Aunt Vicky.”
Beth clutched her mother’s hand. “Can’t we stay a bit longer?”
Her mother shook her head. “I’m sorry, baby, but Mummy has to go to work. Now say goodbye to Aunt Vicky and let’s go.”
Beth looked at the tank. “See you Aunt Vicky.”
As they walked out, the receptionist spoke to Beth’s mum. “No pressure to make a decision, but as soon as you decide what you want to do, let us know.”
Her mother nodded.
As they exited the clinic, hand in hand, Beth asked her mother, “What was she talking about?”
Her mother didn’t seem to hear her. Beth looked up.
Her mum looked tired.
Beth sat in the visitor’s ward by herself with Growly dangling by one arm in her tightly clenched fist, a stuffed albatross in the other.
Her eyes slowly followed the second hand around the clock as a lump grew in her throat. Last week her mother had emerged from the clinic office, eyes wet with tears, and she hadn’t said anything for the remaining time before they had to leave.
Finally, she turned to the duty nurse. “Will my mummy be out soon?”
The nurse shook her head. “I’m sorry, Beth, but I’m not really sure when she’ll be done.” She paused. “Do you want me to check?”
Beth shook her head.
She turned to Vicky, and raised her new toy to the glass. “This is Alby.” As she continued, she idly animated the two animals taking a walk. “I don’t really like doctors anymore. They always make Mummy cry. Last Tuesday Dr. Clark made her cry too. She cried all day.”
It was another ten minutes before her mother finally emerged, eyes red but dry, arms hanging by her side. She came over and sat down next to Beth. “Hey baby.” She picked up her daughter’s hand absentmindedly and squeezed it.
“It’s five minutes to ten.”
Her mother gave a thin smile. “It’s alright. I took the day off, remember?”
Beth gave a confused look. “But I thought we were moving next Saturday.”
“I—We are.” Her mother paused. “I just wanted to spend some time with you today.”
Mother and daughter sat for awhile in silence watching Aunt Vicky.
Beth said, “Our new house is very far, isn’t it?”
Her mother nodded. “Yes.”
Beth asked quietly, “Will I have to switch schools?”
Her mother turned to look at her for a moment before she shook her head. “No, you won’t have to.”
Then she stood up, and her hand reached out over the glass, almost touching it.
The duty nurse looked up. “Please be careful not to touch the glass, ma’am.”
Beth’s mother turned to the nurse. “I know. Don’t worry.”
Beth watched for the longest time as her mother stood by her own sister, hand nearly brushing over the glass, as if trying to stroke the girl’s head. Finally, Beth stood up, reached out, and held her mother’s free hand.
Their eyes met.
Beth asked, “Is there enough space in the pod for me too?”
Her mother looked at her for a long time. “Not for both of you, baby.”
They turned to stare at the pod, and as they did, Beth felt her mother’s grip on her hand grow tight. She spoke. “Goodbye, Vicky.”
Turning, she rubbed Beth’s head. “Let’s go.”
As they walked out, Beth looked back.
Already, the duty nurse had stood up, and was plodding slowly towards the pod on the gurney, her mouth a grim line, her face a dark shadow.
Author Bio: Dylan Kwok is a video game designer and author from Singapore. His other work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and The Colored Lens. You can see more of his work on his blog, 64thopinion.com.
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