Among the Stars – by Mary Johnson

Among the Stars

by Mary Johnson

 

The first thing she saw was a ceiling. It was gray, so pale it was almost white, and seemed to be made of metal. There was something hard under her body, and a light blue sheet over her. She heard the hiss and murmur of machinery.

She blinked and swallowed. Her mouth felt dry; so did her eyes. She swallowed again and said, “Arnold? Is anyone there?”

A tall man smiled down at her. “Doctor Singh? She’s awake,” he said.

Then a woman’s face appeared, dark like the man’s. Both wore blue caps and coats. “How are you feeling?” the woman asked. She had a lilting accent.

“Fine. I’m fine. Is Arnold there?”

“Who is Arnold?”

“My husband. Arnold’s my husband. Am I out of surgery?”

“No.” The woman’s voice was soothing. “You did not need surgery. We simply gave you an injection.”

“I don’t remember. I don’t remember that. The doctor said it was inoperable, but Arnold said there had to be something they could do. Where is he?”

The doctor hushed her. “Don’t think of these things. You’re doing very well. Are you hungry?”

She thought for a moment. Then she shook her head. “No, but I’m thirsty. May I have some water?”

“Of course.” The man appeared with a small clear cup. “Can you sit up? We’ll raise the bed.”

An engine hummed, and the bed pushed at her till she was half-sitting. The man held the cup to her lips, and she drank eagerly. “Would you like more?” he murmured, and she nodded. Another cup appeared at her lips, and she swallowed the water. “Good. You’re still not hungry?”

“No.”

“Good. The doctor says you should not try to eat. We will try that when you wake again.”

“Where’s Arnold?” she mumbled.

Where am I, she thought. But there was no answer.

 

#

The dark man and woman were standing next to her when she woke again. “Let’s get you on your feet,” the woman said. “I’d like to see you walk a bit.” Once again, she heard a faint hum from the bed, and found herself sitting up. “We’ll help you. We don’t expect you to take more than a few steps. Then you can rest. Can you swing your legs over the side of the bed?”

She tried to obey. Her legs felt like sticks of wood, as though they didn’t belong to her, but she was able to move them. The man stood at her side to support her. She stood. “It feels like pins and needles!” she exclaimed. “I don’t know if I can move.”

“The pins and needles are a good sign. We’ve been moving your legs for you since we treated your tumor, but that shows you can feel them. There is no nerve damage. Can you walk?”

Obediently, she slid one foot forward, then the other. “Try to lift them,” the man murmured in her ear, so she tried. She made it to the door of her room. By then, her legs felt heavy and she was strangely breathless.

“Good! That’s very good. We are going to continue with passive therapy twice a day, and we want you to keep walking, a little further each time.”

“I’m exhausted,” she said. “Where’s Arnold?”

“You asked that before. You said Arnold was your husband. Can you remember his full name?”

“Of course! Arnold Heller. Haven’t you heard of him?”

The doctor shook her head. “I’m afraid not. But we will certainly search for information about your family. The more you can tell us, the easier that will be. Please don’t worry. Try to rest now.”

#

How could she rest when she was so worried? But her body seemed very weak and tired, and when she wasn’t lying on her back, she was doing some sort of physical therapy or test. Always, there were the metal walls and floor and ceiling. Always, there was the faint hum of machinery. Always, there were questions, hers and theirs. Sometimes the questions were spoken.

“Your husband was Arnold Heller? Did you have other family?”

Did? What was with the past tense?

“Yes, of course! We have children. Arnie’s three, and Michelle is just one. Where are they? Where are my babies?”

“We’ll try to find out,” the nurse said, his voice soothing. “You’ve been asleep for a very long time.”

“How long?”

“We’ll try to find out,” he repeated. She stared. Why did he look so solemn, and why couldn’t he just answer her? But before she could ask another question, he asked, “Can you remember your name?”

“My name? P-Pearl. Pearl Heller.”

“Did you have a different name before you married?”

At that, she hesitated. All the other questions had been easy: she was American, she was twenty-eight years old, her parents were dead, and her husband was Arnold Heller. She’d been a daughter, a wife, a mother. But who was she? After a long moment, it came to her. “Fletcher. Pearl Fletcher. How long have I been asleep?”

“We don’t know yet. We’ll try to find out.”

 

#

It was strange that she was so tired if she’d been asleep for days or months. The next time they took her for a walk, she managed to ask some questions. “Where am I?” she said to the nurse walking beside her. “And what’s your name again?”

The nurse looked grave. “My name is Marcus Santos. You can just call me Marcus.”

“Thank you. But where am I?”

“Dr. Singh and the captain will talk to you when we get back to sick bay.”

“Sick bay? Are we on a ship?”

Marcus nodded. “We are aboard the Scholastica. We’re a ship of exploration and discovery.”

“Oh.” It must be a very big ship, Pearl thought. It traveled so smoothly; she couldn’t feel the ocean waves at all. “When will we come to land?” she asked.

“Not till next month. Here we are.”

#

The doctor was waiting for her, along with a tall woman with broad shoulders, full lips, and tightly curling hair cut close to her head.  She was brown-skinned, like Marcus and Dr. Singh, but then, Pearl had noticed that most of the people on this ship were various shades of brown. The strange woman clearly wasn’t a doctor or nurse, because she wasn’t wearing blue. Instead, she had a lovely red scarf draped over one shoulder.

Both women stood up when Pearl came into the room. “Ms. Heller,” the doctor said, “can you tell me what year it is?”

“Of course. It’s 2017.”

“I see. Will you sit down, please?”

Pearl obeyed, and the doctor poured water into a glass, staring at her gravely. The tall woman said, “I am Captain Sands.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Pearl whispered, and held out her hand. After a pause, the captain took it and shook it. Then she licked her lips and continued, “The year is 2517. You are aboard a spaceship. We discovered you floating in space in a cryogenic capsule.”

“In a–what?”

“A cryogenic capsule. You had been frozen.”

“No. Oh, no,” Pearl said, shaking her head. “I was going in for surgery. The first two doctors said the tumor was inoperable, but Arnold said we’d get a third opinion. He said,” her voice dropped. “He said he wouldn’t let me die.”

“Did he?” The captain had a deep, warm voice, like velvet. “Well, you’re alive now.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know that.” Pearl could hear her own voice rising. “If I’m alive, where’s my husband? Where are my children?”

The doctor stood and pressed the glass of water into Pearl’s hand, saying, “Drink this, please.”

In the past year, Pearl had grown accustomed to obeying doctors. Before that, she’d done what Arnold had wanted, and before that, she’d obeyed her parents. She took the glass and sipped from it. Her hand was shaking, and the water tasted a little too sweet. “Is there something in here?” she asked.

“Just a mild relaxant. Please drink it.”

“No.” To her own shock, Pearl snapped her wrist so the water went splashing out of the glass toward the doctor. But she had already taken a couple of swallows. She could feel her muscles softening. She sobbed aloud, just once, and asked again, “Where are my children? Where are they?” The glass slipped out of her hand and bounced on the carpeted floor. Then she saw the captain shaking her head at the doctor. Next came a soft hissing sound and darkness.

 

#

Both women were by her bedside when she woke again, along with the nurse, Marcus. “Good morning, Pearl. Do you remember our last conversation?” the captain said.

“Yes.” Pearl turned her head away and closed her eyes.

“Can you sit up?” This time it was the doctor who spoke.

“I have a headache,” Pearl mumbled, but she sat.

“I think we may have some good news for you,” the captain said. “We began researching your family history, and it seems your son and daughter both married. You have descendants on Mars colony.”

“Mars. Why should they care about me?” Pearl’s voice was flat. What she meant, but couldn’t manage to say, was, why should I care about them?  “They don’t know me. They don’t know my children. Everyone I ever knew is dead.”

“We can get in touch with them, if you like. Please think about it.”

 

#

She did think about it in the days that followed, while she worked at her physical therapy and all the other tasks the doctor wanted her to do. The only thought that came to her, over and over, was the one she’d spoken aloud: her children were dead. She could not stop mourning them.

Little Arnie had just entered the nuts-about-dinosaurs stage. He loved going to the natural history museum and pointing out everything there to anyone who would listen. She could hear him saying, “Look, Mommy, that’s a ‘ceraptops. He used to fight with T Rex!”

“Who won?”

“T Rex! He ate him!”

Pearl smiled. “Are you sure? He doesn’t look like anyone ate him.”

“Yes! T Rex always wins.”

“So who’s your favorite dino?”

“T Rex! Oh, look, that’s a terasaur!” He was too little to pronounce all the difficult names, but he already knew everything about dinosaurs. He’d tell the whole museum all about the lives and habits of the flying monsters, while Michelle gurgled and waved at her brother from her stroller. Such bright, happy children.

And now they were dead. Dead and buried and turned to dust. She would never see them again.

#

She kept thinking of Arnold, too. He’d loved science fiction. On the shows he watched, starship crews had uniforms and ranks and strict schedules. The Scholastica wasn’t like that. It was like nothing she’d ever imagined. Here, people moved to a soft sound of bells, and there were snatches of song and laughter.  Of course, the doctors and nurses had their blue coats and caps, but otherwise, there was no uniform, except that everyone wore black shirts and skirts or leggings or trousers. They had soft black shoes or slippers or sandals; some went barefoot. The only mark of rank was a long, bright square of cloth. Some were red, others yellow or green or blue. People wore their scarves differently, tied at the neck and flowing down their backs, or over one shoulder, or round their waists as a sort of skirt. They had one knot, or two, or three. Marcus, like some of the men and women, wore his scarf as a sort of sarong, tied round his chest and falling to just above his knees.

He took her on a tour of the ship when she was strong enough, showing her the library, the gymnasiums, the cafes. “And this is my favorite place. Our oxygen well. It’s right in the center of the ship, and anyone can come here when they’re off duty,” he said, walking through a double door.  Pearl gasped as the warmth and humidity hit her. She was in a greenhouse. A palm tree rose toward the ceiling in front of her, and there were bright purple and yellow flowers everywhere. It was lovely, she had to admit, but she didn’t feel drawn to go back when she was pronounced fit to walk around the ship on her own.

No, the place that drew her was a common room with a view of the stars. You could stare out the small, oval portholes and watch them streaming by in streaks of red and blue and white and gold. The stars reminded her of her husband.

He’d been more than twenty years older than she, and he sometimes talked about his death. “I’ll be up there,” he’d told her, peering through his telescope. “Take a look! I’ll be right up there among the stars and you’ll always be able to see me.” She smiled, because that was what he seemed to want her to do. “I’ll look for you,” she promised. “But that won’t be for a long time. Not for years and years. I don’t want you to die!”

“Hey, sweetie,” Arnold hugged her from behind. “I bet, years from now, we won’t have to die. Just think of the progress we’ve made in the past century alone! If I get cancer or something like that, I’m going to get frozen. They can thaw me out when they have a cure.”

“Ugh!” Pearl said. She couldn’t see that being frozen was any better than being dead. “Don’t talk like that! You’re not going to get cancer.”

She’d been right. Arnold hadn’t gotten cancer. She had. Inoperable cancer of the brain. And she’d been frozen. Had he done it, too? Was his body, still encased in ice, floating somewhere out there among the stars?

It might be. She remembered now how they’d gone to his lawyer together and signed living wills. It seemed like a good thing at the time. “This way we’ll be able to decide for each other if either of us gets very sick.”

“But you won’t get very sick. I know I won’t! Not any time soon,” Pearl said.

“Sure, of course not! You’re young and healthy, and I try to be. But you never know. Remember, sweetheart, if I ever get too sick for them to operate, I want the cryogenic option. I’ve written it down. I want that for you, as well. We can both live in a glorious future!”

“What does that mean?” Pearl thought their future, watching the children grow up, would be glorious enough. She didn’t want more. But Arnold was a dreamer. That was one of the things she loved him for, after all. So she didn’t argue very hard. She signed the form.

Now she wished she hadn’t. It just wasn’t right, this cryogenic option.

 

#

That was what she thought of when she stood at the porthole in the center of the common room and stared at the rainbows of stars flashing by. She was in outer space, far beyond her own solar system, and her babies were dead. Her husband was dead. Why was she alive? She spoke the thought aloud: “I should be dead.”

A voice spoke behind her. “Your life is a gift. You may not throw that gift back in the giver’s face.”

Pearl jumped. She’d thought herself alone, but the doctor had come up behind her. Pearl felt herself shaking. Was she afraid? No, she realized with something like surprise. She was angry. “I didn’t want this!” she shouted. “No one asked me if I wanted this! You should have left me alone!” Pearl swung an awkward slap at the doctor, who caught her wrist and held it. “You should have let me die! I’d rather be dead! Let me go!”

Doctor Singh dropped her wrist. “I must defend myself if you hit me again. It’s all right to be angry. I understand. But don’t hit me again.”

“I’m sorry,” Pearl gasped. “But I–”

“You just want to hit someone? Who are you angry with?”

“I–you! I’m angry at you! You should have left me alone!”

“All right. I understand,” the doctor repeated.

“No. You don’t. You can’t. You can’t possibly understand. Leave me alone!” Pearl whirled away and stared out the porthole. The stars blurred and streaked into swirling lines. She heard quiet footsteps, then silence. Then the sound of the door sliding open. “Miz. Fletcher? May I speak with you?”

Pearl kept staring out at the stars. “It’s Mrs. I’m Mrs. Heller.”

“I apologize. We keep our own names when we marry.”

“We don’t. I didn’t. What do you want?” Pearl turned. The captain stood just within the doorway, staring at her gravely.

“Doctor Singh is deeply concerned about you,” the captain said.

“Well, good for her. Let her be concerned. She should have left me alone. Why didn’t you leave me alone?”

The captain took a deep breath and crossed the room to stand next to Pearl. For a moment, she looked out at the stars. Without turning, she said, “Let me try to explain. We are a ship of exploration and discovery. When we saw your capsule, we didn’t know what it was. We brought it aboard to find out. When we saw it contained a human being, and that she might be alive, we naturally tried to rescue you. Life is a great gift; it’s precious. We are bound to try to serve life. Had we known your wishes, we might have left you alone. But we didn’t know.”

“Okay. You do now. Can’t that doctor give me an injection or something?”

“Let me be clear. You are asking if Doctor Singh will kill you.” Pearl was silent. She hadn’t actually thought of it that way. “She is a doctor. She’s taken the Hippocratic oath. She will not kill a healthy patient,” the captain said.

“But my babies are dead. They’re dead! Why am I alive?” To her shock, Pearl began wailing aloud. Ugly, loud sobs came up from her gut and shook her whole body. Captain Sands embraced her, and Pearl clung to the older woman as she might have clung to a tree in a flood. The captain stroked her the way she used to stroke little Arnie after one of his tantrums when he was overtired. Pearl sobbed and sobbed.

“That’s good. That’s good. Let it all out,” the captain said. Pearl leaned on the taller woman. She wasn’t sure she could stand without the captain’s support. “It’s hard. I know. It’s hard to lose someone you love,” the captain whispered in her ear.

At last, Pearl managed to stand on her own. She wiped her eyes with the palm of her hand. “I’m sorry. I got your beautiful scarf all wet.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. It’s only a scarf. You’re a human being. You good now?”

“I think so.” Pearl wasn’t sure; she wasn’t sure what “good” even meant in this new world. After a moment, she asked the captain, “Do you have children?”

“Two. A boy and a girl, like you. But they’re grown now, off studying. My boy wants to be a monk, but I think he’ll change his mind. I can’t see him as a monk.” The captain looked straight into Pearl’s face. “I know it’s the wrong way round. It’s hard. But we all lose our children someday.”

“But–”

“When you went in for surgery, didn’t you think you might die?”

Pearl paused. “Yes. I did. I was afraid I might never see Arnie and Michelle again. But that’s different.”

“Is it?”

“Yes. Yes, it is.”

“Okay. I can see that. I’d hate it if my son and daughter died before me.” The captain sighed. For a moment, she stood next to Pearl, staring out at the stars.  Then she said, “We’ll be entering the solar system within seven more solar days. We were on our way back when we found you. We’ll be stopping at Europa colony and Mars colony before we get to Terra. Have you thought about what you’ll do?”

Pearl shook her head.

“All right,” Captain Sands said, and laid one hand on Pearl’s shoulder. “You’ve got time. One thing I wanted to tell you. You’ve got a great-great-great-great granddaughter on Mars colony. She’s a grandmother now herself, and she’d love to see you. Her name is Michelle.”

“Michelle,” Pearl said softly. And then she was in tears again, but this time they were silent and peaceful tears. She let them run down her face and stared out at the kaleidoscope of stars. A bell chimed. When she dried her eyes and turned round, the captain was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

#

Nine days later, the Scholastica stopped at Europa colony. Pearl had been thinking hard. What would it be like if she were told she could meet an ancestor of hers from the 16th century? What on earth could they even talk about? “I don’t know what I can do for her,” she murmured aloud. She was in the sickbay, being checked after more physical therapy.

“Who?” Dr. Singh asked.

“This woman, Michelle. She doesn’t know me.”

“But she wants to know you. Isn’t that right?”

But what do I want? Pearl thought to herself. All her life, she’d done what other people had expected of her. Now she was alone. What did she want?

“You said you didn’t know what you could do for Michelle Forrest. Maybe you don’t have to do anything for her. Maybe she wants to do something for you.”

Pearl didn’t answer. “Right. You’re doing very well; pulse and blood pressure normal. You’re free to go,” Dr. Singh said, and Pearl slid off the examining table and walked back to the common room with the view of the stars.

Mars colony. She thought of that when she looked out the central porthole. She thought of the doctor’s words. Wouldn’t she have enjoyed showing her life to her 16th century ancestress? TV and handheld telephones, hot showers, the children playing on their iPads, cars and trains and everything else that was so familiar to her, but that would have seemed like marvels to a woman from five hundred years in the past? She was sure she would.

But who was she, Pearl Fletcher Heller? She’d always defined herself by her family. She had been a daughter, a wife, a mother. Now she was none of those things. Who was she, herself?

She walked back to the infirmary and said to Dr. Singh, “May I speak to the captain, please?”

“Yes, of course.” The doctor pressed a button. A moment later, there was a chime, and the door slid open. Captain Sands said, “You wanted to see me?”

“Yes.” Pearl licked her lips, which had gone very dry. After a long pause, she said, “I wondered–I wanted to ask. Do you think my husband could be out there? Floating in space, the way I was?”

“It’s possible.”

“And my children?”

The captain said nothing, merely shaking her head.

“I think I want–I want to know. To find out what happened to them.”

“We can help you look for records. There would be documents.”

Pearl sighed. “Okay. Good. I’d like to do that. But first, I think I’d like to go to Mars.”

“You’re quite sure?” The captain looked at her gravely.

“Of course not. How can I be sure of anything? But this woman wants to meet me. That’s a place to start, isn’t it?”

Captain Sands inclined her head. “Yes. I think you’re right. It is a place to start.

#

The captain, Dr. Singh, and Marcus all embraced her when she prepared to board the shuttle for Mars colony. “We’ll be back here in a month’s time,” Captain Sands told her. “If you wish, you can board again and journey with us. You will always have a home here.”

“Thank you,”

“I will do what I can to find out what happened to your husband and children. Michelle Forrest can also help you research. “Doctor Singh added, “We will see you soon. Be patient with yourself. You’ve been very brave.”

Brave? She’d never thought of herself as brave.

“Vaya con Dios,” Marcus said when he hugged her. Go with God. She wasn’t so sure she believed in God, but she appreciated his good wishes. For the first time, it occurred to her that he was handsome and kind. Would he miss her when she got on that shuttle?

She would miss him. She’d miss all of them. The Scholastica had begun to feel like home, but she wasn’t actually part of the crew. She needed to find a life. Maybe she would find it on Mars colony.

She squared her shoulders and walked through the hatchway into the shuttle.

# # #

I are a writer

Mary Johnson will always be grateful to her family for nurturing her love of story. Her father read her Lewis and Tolkien, her mother introduced her to the Greek myths, and she played endless games of make-believe with her sisters and brother. Her sisters are still among her first and best readers. Mary’s been published in “Mythic Circle”, in the “Westchester Review”, and now, for the second time, in Sick Lit.  You can find some of her other writing at her author page, where she welcomes comments and discussion. Visit her online at http://mjohnsonstories.net/, or at http://maryj59.wordpress.com/

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Imagined Futures – Photography from Jason Jackson

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These images come from an ongoing project called Imagined Futures.
I’m interested in how the act of photographing something can remove it from its context, allowing it to become re-imagined as a scene from a dystopia. So, a mannequin in a Berlin shop window, an anti-Trump protest, a car-park, people on the street at night, and graffiti in a Bristol back lane and the gate to my local park all somehow become part of possible, imagined future worlds.
# # #
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 Jason Jackson takes photographs. He also writes short fiction and poetry. In a busy life he hopes to get better at all three.

Museum Girl – by Stacey Longenberger

Museum Girl

 

It’s like an old movie projector has switched on.

Soundless; blurry images of family and friends at birthday parties, Christmases, BBQ’s.  Nameless faces with funny hair and even funnier clothes waving at the camera.  Babies eating wrapping paper, mushing cakes.  Children jumping with joy over a gift.  Soccer games, dance recitals, school concerts, proms, graduations.  One image after another.  Just clips of everyday life.  Colorful but silent.

Then a faint whisper.  “She moved her head.”

Cold.  Why am I so cold?  What is that beeping?  That high pitched frantic beeping right by my ear.  What is that? 

“Her heart rate is racing.  How did this happen?”

“She’s been asleep for ages, how do I know?”

Two men are talking in harsh whispers.   Perhaps they’re trying not to disturb me but it’s too late.  What is that beeping?  It’s really annoying.  Am I in a hospital?

“Get Dr. Kelley!”

Yup, I’m in a hospital.  Why am I in a hospital and why do I feel frozen? I think my eyelids are frozen shut.  I can’t open my eyes!  “Her heart rate is still climbing.”  My heart?  I don’t feel my heart.  Wouldn’t I feel heart palpitations?  What has happened to me?  Why am I in the hospital?

“Dr. Kelley, It’s a miracle!  She’s woken up!”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes, sir.  Her neuro and cardiovascular monitors are going crazy.”

“Turn down the Vytronics machine.  We need to thaw her out.”

What is he talking about?

“Give her 220mg of Thiopental.  She needs to be sedated or the pain will be excruciating.”

Excruciating?  Why?  What’s happening to me? 

“Oh, Olivia.  I’ve dreamed of this day.”

The projector is back on.  I see a man’s face.  His smile is luminous.  He’s standing in front of a large canvas with brilliant colors.  An old woman now with a toothless grin sits before a birthday cake.  The man again on a beach.  Then the facade of a church.  A dog. A statue.  The man by an easel. His clothes covered in paint.  The images keep coming only to linger for a second and blur into the next until they fade to black.

Voices.  I hear voices.  “What’s her heart rate?”  “Eighty, sir.”  “Blood pressure?”  “One-ten over seventy.”  “Blood oxygen level?”  “Ninety-eight percent, sir.”  “Beautiful.  She’s coming along beautifully.”  Who’s coming along beautifully?  Me?  There are other noises around me.  A dull buzz of activity and whispers.  And light.  There is so much light behind my eyes.  I can feel a warmth that I want to embrace but can’t.  Touch.  Someone touched me.  Who is that?  There it is again.  More touches.  What is happening?  “Olivia.  Wake up and greet the world beautiful girl.”  Olivia.  That’s me.  I’m Olivia.  I open my eyes.  “Who are you?”  My question is addressed with loud whoops and clapping.  Noise.  So much noise.

People are shouting “it’s a miracle,” “amazing,” “astonishing,” and, “congratulations!”

I slowly look around and take in my surroundings.  I seem to be lying on a bed and there are a group of people to my right laughing and crying with happiness.  They’re hugging each other and staring at me with awe.  I don’t recognize one face amongst them.  I turn to my left and cannot believe my eyes.  Approximately four feet from where I lie is what looks like a clear, thick window.  Beyond that are movie theater rope partitions corralling possibly hundreds of people and they are all looking at me with amazement.  Their hand gestures and faces tell me they are making noise but I can’t hear them.  On the far wall behind them are paintings.  Large, beautiful canvases displayed on clean charcoal walls.  I recognize a Cezanne.  I turn my head back to the right and ask “Where am I?”  A man gently approaches and says “Oh, Olivia, Olivia, Olivia, it is such a pleasure to hear your voice.  Such a beautiful sound.”  This is the man I asked a minute ago who he was.  He has a kind face and is looking at me with so much love that I must know who he is.

But I don’t.

Do I have amnesia?

“I am Dr. Kelley, Olivia.  I have been taking care of you for a while now and I am so pleased to meet you.”

“For a while?  How long have I been here?  Is this a hospital?”

“No, we’re in a museum and we’ll tell you all you need to know in due time.   Right now I need to know how you feel.”

“How I feel?  I’m feeling freaked out right now, Doc.  Why am I in a museum?  Who are all these people?  Why are they staring at me?”

“That will all be explained but I need to know how you feel physically.  Any aches or pains, soreness or numbness, pins and needles, dizziness?”

I take a second to self-evaluate.  I shake my head, no.  “Can you wiggle your toes?”  Good question. I give it a try and yes, I can wiggle my toes.  “How about your fingers now?”  I move my fingers but when I try to lift my arms to bring my hands up, I realize my wrists are restrained.  Dr. Kelly must have noticed because he calls for someone to remove my restraints.  “I’m so sorry, Olivia, but we didn’t know just what state you would wake up in.  We had to protect you from yourself.  Just in case.”

The restraints are removed and I slowly raise my arms up and down wiggling my fingers the whole time.  “Excellent,” says Dr. Kelley.  “We’ve had physical therapists working with you every day and it seems to have done the trick.”  I just stare at him.  I have no words right now.  I turn my head toward the crowd to my left and they all start waving, and smiling, and jumping for my attention.  I’m like an animal in a zoo.  Towards the front of the crowd, a child is holding up what looks like a poster sized iPad with “Welcome Back” written in a child’s handwriting on the screen.  There are flowers and hearts and rainbows all around the words.  The colors are so pure.  That device must have cost a fortune.

Welcome Back?  Where did I go?

I suddenly feel very tired. I also want to cry but I don’t cry in front of people.  Especially strangers and I am surrounded by strangers.  Not one face is familiar.  As I stare out at the crowd they start to fade away.  The glass window is slowly tinting until it is a black wall and I can no longer see the people.

“I think that’s enough for now.  Let’s close the exhibit for the rest of the day.”  Those words aren’t directed at me.  Dr. Kelley is giving directions to the group to my right.  I now notice they are all wearing lab coats.  My eyes are so heavy now that I can’t keep them open.  I wonder where I’ll wake up next time.

I am in my house.  It’s a mess as usual.  I’m walking through the rooms stepping over clothing, books, boxes from Amazon. Someday I’ll clean this up.  I’m carrying two coffees.  Both black.  One is in my favorite mug that I made in college.  I go out the back door.  The air is crisp but the sun is bright.  It’s the perfect fall morning.  Across the overgrown lawn I walk to our studio.  A converted two car garage, it’s our sanctuary.  I kick the door lightly with my foot and wait a beat until the door opens slowly to the outside.  First I see a tan hand with blotches of paint then a muscular forearm and then that smiling face.  Paul.

Paul.  I force open my eyes.  “Paul!”

“She’s awake!”

“Where’s Paul?”  I’m trying to sit up, but they have me restrained again.

“Please.  Take these things off.  Please.  I want to see my husband.  He’s probably worried about me.  Please.”

A young woman is just looking at me.  Her expression changes from wonderment to sympathy to a mask lacking any emotion.  “Dr. Kelley will be in momentarily.”  I suppose that was meant to appease me.  “I don’t care about Dr. Kelley.  I want my husband.  Paul.  Go get him.  Tell him I’m awake.  To hell with Dr. Kelley.”  She just ignores me and keeps staring.  “Boo!” I yell as I quickly raise my head and it startles her but doesn’t deter her gaze.  “What are you staring at?  You’re being terribly rude.”  Yelling now, I command, “Go get my husband!”

Dr. Kelley walks into the room.  “Good morning, Olivia!  How are you feeling today?”

I ignore his question.  “I was just telling Nurse Ratched here to get my husband.”

He looks at me quizzically. “She is not a nurse.”  He turns to the woman, “Why does she think your name is Ratched?”

“I don’t know.  Perhaps it’s a reference from her time.”  They speak like I’m an inanimate object and then both turn to stare at me.  I stare right back.  We have quite the contest until Dr. Kelley losses by saying, “This is Dr. Lona, my protégé.”  I look to her and with a sarcastic bent proclaim, “It’s so lovely to meet you.”

Dr. Kelley continues, “Dr. Lona has been helping me oversee your care for the past few years now and has done an exceptional job.”  Dr. Lona seems to blush as she nods her head in gratitude at his statement.

I, however, am startled by his statement.  He must have misspoken.

“Excuse me, years you say? She’s been caring for me for years?”

Both doctors look sheepish, as if something was said that shouldn’t have been.  Dr. Kelley tries to pass it off as unimportant, “Oh we’ll talk about that all later.  For now we need to get you up and moving.  We have a big day ahead of us.”  Dr. Kelley turns away, gestures, and a group of people walk in.  Three women and two men all in lab coats surround my bed.  One of the women sets to work removing my restraints.  One of the men then walks to the wall by the door they entered from and starts tapping on a screen.  It registers now that I am in the same place I woke up in before and the wall to the left of me is still black.  A noise from above grabs my attention and I peer up to see a robotic arm of some sort drop from the ceiling.  It looks like a small camera in the shape of one of my vacuum attachments.  It sweeps over me in one rapid movement and then retreats again to the ceiling.  A second later a detached voice announces, “All vitals are stable.”

“Excellent!”  That’s Dr. Kelley again.  “Now, let’s get her up.”

I have been mute since the pronouncement of a “big day,” but as I watch all these people reach for me seemingly to get me up, I start screaming.  Screaming from the very core of my being.  Deep, angry screams.  I have reached my breaking point and I want answers.

“Don’t touch me!  I want to know right now who all of you are, where are we, why am I here and Where. Is. My. Husband?!”

I go to sit up, because I just realized that I can, and the room spins.  Hands to my head I lie back down and take deep breaths.  The room is silent except for my heavy breathing.  They are all just staring at me.  Again I am an animal in a zoo.  Then I notice Dr. Kelley and Dr. Lona whispering to each other.  That makes me nervous.  I slowly start to sit up again and the spinning isn’t so bad.  I hear gasps at my movement.  I need to remain calm and appear rational or they’ll drug me again.  Now that I am sitting up I can feel a port of some sort in my back.

“Please.  Please.  I need answers.  Put yourselves in my place.  Wouldn’t you want answers?”

This seems to bewilder them as if their ever being in my place would defy logic.

I can actually see the cogs turning by their expressions.  As they mull over my plea to their humanity, I look around the room.  It’s an utterly stark white space and I immediately loathe every square inch.  Except for the now black window, the space is so white that it appears seamless.  You can hardly tell where the floor and ceiling end and the walls begin.  It’s like being inside a white bubble.

“Are we in a bubble?”

That seems to break their meditation.

Dr. Lona is the one to respond, “We are in a bubble of sort within a museum.  We are here as part of a performance art exhibit.

Dr. Kelley continues with, “Now that is all that we are at liberty to tell you right now.  Cooperate with us and very soon you will have all the information you need.  Now what we need is for you to be a good girl and allow us to help you.”

He says this with a smile on his face and I want to smack it right off him.  My first instinct is to rip into him for his condescending words but I know as much as I hate this man, I need him.  I’ll have to find Paul on my own and I have to get out of here to do it.

Then something occurs to me, “Can I have my cell phone please?”  All the Coats look at each other with amused smiles.  Dr. Lona responds with “Your cell phone won’t help you here.”  “No I have Verizon.  I usually get great reception.  May I have it please?”  Again the amused but confused stares.  Stay calm, stay calm, stay calm.  I chant this to myself while I stay focused on my breathing.  Dr. Kelley claps his hands, “okay that’s enough of that.  Let’s get you up.”  He leads the way over toward me and the rest of the Coats follow.

I’m incredibly frightened but continue my chant as they reach for me.  I cringe from their touch but they are not deterred.  Within seconds my feet touch the immaculate floor.  I’m being held up by two Coats with one under each arm.  I look down and see their feet next to my bare ones.  I notice that someone has given me a fabulous pedicure and that their shoes are rather odd.  Must be European or something.  “Can you take a step?” the Coat under my right arm asks.  I look at his face for the first time.  He has very interesting facial hair in that he has lines shaved into his beard.  Three stripes on each cheek and no mustache.  The beard is closely shaved and ends at his jaw line.  “Vanilla Ice used to do that to his eyebrows.”  Striped beard just looks at me confused.  I clear my throat, look to my feet and take a step.  And then another and another.  I go to lift my arms from the Coat’s clutches and, after a gesture of approval from Dr. Kelley, they allow it but remain by my side.  I take a few steps and feel good if just a little bit stiff.  Nothing a good yoga class couldn’t help.  Paul will help me.  We always do yoga together.  Thoughts of Paul make me want to cry but I will not cry in front of these people.  Stay calm, stay calm, stay calm.  My mantra for today.

After a few more independent steps I stop and look at them.  “Remarkable.  You are an absolute miracle and I must say I’m feeling awfully proud.  Like a father watching his child take her first steps.”  Again I want to smack Dr. Kelley across his smug face but I don’t.  I just follow my mantra and stay silent.  For the first time I take a good look at him.  At all of them.  They are all very well groomed.  The colors of their hair appear natural but incredibly vibrant.  Like HD hair.  No grey, no frizz.  Their skin is flawless and luminous but appear free of makeup.  Even the women.  No makeup just natural flawless beauty.  Their clothing under their lab coats is peculiar.  Very tailored and perhaps seamless though I’m not close enough to confirm that.  I look down at my own clothing aware of it for the first time.  I’m in a snowy white form fitting bodysuit.  I can’t identify a seam or stitch anywhere.  I run my hands down my torso and the hand of the fabric is like nothing I’ve ever felt before.  It must be some amazing silk, cashmere, cotton blend or something.  I wonder if L.L. Bean carries this.

The Coats have all been patient.  Just watching me take everything in.  “Now Olivia, you’ve already met me of course and Dr. Lona but let me introduce you to rest of your team.”  He gestures to the two Coats who helped me walk.  He says Striped Beard’s name is Dr. Dax and the woman is Dr. Beckett.  “They’ve been in charge of your physical therapy and are the main reason you are able to walk today.”  He looks at me expectantly.  I guess this is where I’m supposed to say thank you.  “Thanks.”

They both smile and nod while Dr.  Beckett also chimes in with, “You are very welcome.  It’s been fascinating.  We’ve learned so much.”

“Well, good for you,” is my response.  Perhaps not the most gracious but I really don’t care.

“Next over here we have Cheryl who is your massage therapist and Daniel and Tracey who are in charge of your grooming and personal hygiene.”

I smile and start to say thank you when they all gasp.  “Her first smile!  Oh, how beautiful!” exclaims Daniel.  He does a little clap bouncing thing and both him and Cheryl are beaming with delight.  “Yes, yes, she truly is beautiful but we need to get moving now.  The exhibit will open shortly.”

“Of course, Dr. Kelley.” Daniel moves to a wall where a screen appears at his approach.  He taps a few times and walks away.  The screen fades away.  You would never know one was there.  This place is pretty high tech.  Now the door opens and two men in white seamless jumpsuits (similar to mine but with a baggier industrial-like fit) walk in carrying a large white chair.  They set it down and pick up the bed I had been lying on and walk out. A second later they return with a white table.  They move both the chair and table close to the black window in the center of the room.  They leave and return for a third time with an easel, a canvas, and a box full of paint and art supplies.  At these items it is my turn to gasp.  I recognize that easel.  It’s mine.  My parents bought it for me when I got into art school.

“Why do you have my easel?”

“Oh good, you remember,” says Dr. Lona.  “We weren’t sure how your memories of such things would be.”

“Of course I remember.  Now, why do you have it?”

“We have a lot of your property here at the museum.  It’s all part of the exhibition.  Speaking of which, it’s going to open any minute.  Daniel, do you have her clothing?”

“Yes, right here, Dr. Lona.”  In his hands are a folded stack of clothes.  He places them on the table.  “Do you remember these?” he asks me as he holds up my favorite yellow sweatshirt and then my favorite beat up Levi’s.

“Yes, of course.”

“Would you like to put them on?”

Yes, yes I do. Tears return to my eyes as I see my clothes.  Maybe this means I’m on my way out of here.  It seems like they have to get to work at whatever exhibit they’re talking about anyway.  I walk over to Daniel and eagerly retrieve my clothes.  “Where can I change?”

“Oh sugar, we’ve all seen it all.  Don’t be shy.”

“No, I would like privacy please.  Where can I change?”  Daniel frowns with compassion, but Dr. Kelley speaks, “We cannot give you privacy.  You will change here and please do so quickly.  We are running out of time.”

“I don’t care about your time constraints, Dr.  Kelley, I want privacy.”  My cool is slowly becoming unraveled.  Dr. Kelley and Dr. Lona share a look that makes me nervous.  The “she’s not cooperating again” look.  “Okay, okay.”  I turn my back so then at least I don’t have to see them but quickly realize I don’t know how to take this bodysuit off.  There aren’t any buttons, zippers, velcro, nothing.   Then Daniel throws a tip over my shoulder, “You just pull at the neck and it will open down the front.”  I do as instructed and amazingly, the fabric splits down the middle.  Kind of a shame though. The fabric is so beautiful.  As if reading my mind, Daniel tells me, “The fibers have memory and will mend themselves after you step out.”

I step out and hold up the bodysuit by the shoulders and right before my eyes the fibers mesh back together.  “Quickly, please.”  Dr. Kelley breaks my amazement.  I slowly fold up the bodysuit and place it on the table.  Then I reach for my clothing and find my favorite comfy bra and cotton thong.  I bought them at Target so long ago it’s embarrassing but they are so comfortable.  I put them on, enjoying the waves of frustration I feel coming from Dr. Kelley.  Then my jeans and sweatshirt.  I’m looking for socks and shoes when Dr. Lona asks, “You like to paint bare foot, don’t you?”

“Yes, usually, but I need shoes to walk out of here.”

“You’re not walking out of here.”

“I don’t understand.  Don’t you all have to get to work on some exhibit or something?”

“Olivia, you are the exhibit.”  With that the black window changes to clear and reveals a mob of people.

Just like the last time, I can see the mob’s excitement but not hear it.  There are several of those poster iPad signs.  I walk towards the glass and their excitement grows.  I can see now that they’re not iPads after all.  At least not a kind I’ve ever seen.  They’re flexible.  Actually being waved and waving with the movement and the colors are as vivid as any I’ve ever applied to canvas.  I’m right up to the glass now.  I put my hands up to touch it.  It’s cold and hard and it anchors me.  What I’m seeing is so surreal.

“Welcome Back, Olivia!”

“Happy Re-Birthday, Olivia!”

And then the most confusing of them all, “Welcome to 2517!”

I’m sweating. I feel light-headed and nauseous.

“Are they a part of the exhibit also?”  I point to the crowd.  I’m wondering if we’re all being filmed or something.  Is there another crowd somewhere else watching all of us?  It’s all so bizarre but there must be a rational explanation.

Dr. Kelley shakes his head, “No, Olivia.  What Dr. Lona said is true.  You are the exhibit.  We are in the Art & Science Museum of North America.  You personify the beauty that is created when art and science combine.  You are incredibly famous and all these people are here to see you because you woke up.”

“I woke up.”

They all nod.  I turn my back on them and stare back out at the people.  One little girl is waving at me so fervently that I have to wave back.  When I do the crowd goes crazy.  My vision is getting blurry.  I’m sweating so much that my clothes are sticking to me.  My hands are back up on the cold glass and I lean my forehead on it but that doesn’t help.

I know I’m going down.

I’m back on the bed.  At least I think I am.  I don’t want to open my eyes yet.  I hear whispers, but can’t make out what they’re saying and nor do I care.  Maybe if I keep my eyes closed long enough I’ll sink into oblivion and away from this nightmare.

“She’s waking up.”

Crap.  How did they know?

“You gave us quite the scare there, Olivia.”

I don’t answer.  If I ignore them maybe they’ll go away.  Someone pulls my left eyelid back and I flinch at the sudden intrusion of light.  I rock my head and raise my hands to ward off the prodding fingers.

“Leave me alone.  Please, just leave me alone.  I just want to go home.  I just want to see Paul.  I don’t understand why this is happening to me.”  I can’t hold back the tears anymore.  I cry quietly rolling into the fetal position.  I am so lonely and confused.  No one touches me.  No one says anything but I know they are there.  Watching.  Observing.  Analyzing.  I can feel the heavy gaze of their judgment.

Time passes.  I don’t know how much but I’m empty of tears.  I feel as if I’m drifting off to sleep and I am thankful.  At least in my dreams I can be home.  I can be with Paul.

“Olivia, I think it’s time for us to talk.  We underestimated how disturbing this all would be for you.  You displayed minimal brain activity all through your coma so we assumed that if you ever woke up, we would be dealing with a woman of minimal mental competence.”

I don’t respond.  I just want to sleep.  I just want my dreams.  Remarkably, they take the hint.  Dr. Kelley ushers the team out but not before he lets me know they will be back tomorrow.

I’m driving our Jeep.  Paul drank too much otherwise he would be driving.  He hates when I drive.  He’s passed out in the passenger seat with his head resting against the window.  I’m singing along to John Mellencamp and driving up the dark, narrow, winding road toward our neighborhood.  There is a glow at the top of the hill we’re climbing; mere seconds later, headlights are speeding right toward us.

I have no time to react before the horrifying noise leads to blackness.

I awake with a scream.

What was that?  Were we in an accident?  Is that what happened?  Is Paul dead?  My heart is pounding and I start crying again.  That must be why he’s not here.

The door opens and Dr. Lona walks in.  “Hello Olivia.  Are you alright?  Did you have a bad dream?”

I sit up to face her.  “Paul is dead, isn’t he?”

Her usual mask turns sympathetic and she slowly nods her head.  My comprehension is slow but her expression doesn’t change.  Paul is dead.  My cries explode into wails.  Hands to my head, I violently shake it, incredulous with grief.  “No!  Nooo!  That can’t be true!  He said he would never leave me!  My parents left me!  He said he never would!  Nooooo!”  My screams echo through the otherwise silent room.  My body is shaking with the grief; the pain.  Tears and snot are streaming down my face.  “I’ll give you some time.”  From her tone I can tell she’s uncomfortable.

She leaves the room where my heart has been ripped out and now taints the immaculate floor.

I must have cried myself to sleep.  My hair is being smoothed in a soothing, rhythmic motion and it brings some comfort.  My mother used to do that to me as a child.  I just lie still and try to focus on the gentle touch.  I pretend the hand belongs to my mother, my guardian angel, and she’s come to help me understand all this.

A few minutes pass and I hear Dr. Kelley’s voice ask, “Is she awake?”  The hand startles and then withdraws.

“Yes.”

So Dr. Lona is my angel.

“Has she spoken?”

“No.  Dr. Kelley, I would like to be the one to explain the situation to Olivia.  I think she might respond better if it’s one on one, woman to woman.”

There’s silence for a few beats before he responds with, “Very well then.  You will be observed however; so choose your words carefully.”

A few seconds later I hear, “He’s gone now.  Please open your eyes.”

I don’t.  I’m not ready to face the music yet.  A few moments pass.

“Olivia, please open your eyes.  I have a lot to tell you and much of it is rather complicated so I need to know you are truly hearing me.”

I don’t want to truly hear her.  Now that I know about Paul, I have no interest in what she has to say.

“Olivia, I have a letter for you from Paul.”

My eyes fly open and I quickly sit up.  “I thought that would get your attention.”

”Let me see it,” I say while holding out my hand.

“I need to explain some things first.  This letter won’t make sense unless I do.”

I nod in response and then say, “Okay, go ahead.”

“On January 1st, 2017, you and Paul were in a car accident.  The woman in the car that hit you was drunk, had a fight with her boyfriend, got in her car and drove off.  It was a head-on collision.  She died instantly.  You and Paul both sustained terrible, life-threatening injuries.  You fell into a coma.  Paul eventually gained consciousness and after many surgeries and hundreds of hours of physical therapy was healthy and strong enough to leave the hospital.”

I go to say something but she holds up her hand to stop me.  “I will explain.  He was able to leave but he hardly ever left your side.  He just sat at the side of your bed and talked to you, read to you, sang to you.  Friends and family encouraged him to try and get on with his life but he wouldn’t hear it.  He was your advocate and oversaw every part of your care.  He spoke to doctor after doctor, researcher after researcher, looking for a way to wake you up.  Your injuries healed but you kept sleeping.  By then he was almost ruined financially.  Paying for your care and his medical bills was crippling.  He had to start working again so he brought his art supplies into your hospital room.  You were his muse and he painted you over and over again.  He would post his work on social media and write about you to help raise money for your care.  Then a journalist for the New York Times wrote an article about you two and you both became famous.  It was such a romantic love story and the world loved it.  You both became recognized globally as talented artists and Paul was able to sell both of your works.  A film documentary followed that won an Oscar.  After that, money wasn’t an issue.  Everyone capable of investing in art wanted to own a piece of either yours or Paul’s work.  Through all this he hardly left your side.  If he had to be away it was never for more than a day or two.  This went on for years…….”

At this I held up my hand.  “Please stop for a moment.  This is all a lot to take in.”  My head is spinning.  I just want to run away; but where would I go?

“How many years?” I ask.

“We’re about three years into the story.”

Three years?

“I have so much more to tell you.  Are you ready?”

I’m not but I nod anyway.

“In 2021, Paul partnered with a doctor he became very friendly with to create a foundation that funds research dedicated to helping coma victims.  They would have dinners that cost thousands of dollars a plate and auction off your artwork, his own, and others donated by artists looking to make a name for themselves.  Work with the foundation kept Paul very busy and he wasn’t able to be with you as frequently.  By 2025 he was only coming on Sundays.  But he would still talk to you and read and sing.  He would always tell you how much he loved you and missed you and would beg you to open your eyes.  But in 2026, his relationship with his partner, Dr. Drizell, changed and they became romantically involved.  Once that became public knowledge……”

I tune her out.  Romantically involved. 

She announced that like she was announcing the weather.  If there was anything left of my heart, it has now gone up in smoke.  Smoke is going to rise up my esophagus and out my nostrils.  The image makes me giggle and Dr. Lona stops talking.  My giggle escalates to full on laughter.

“You said he was dead.  Which is it?  Is he dead or did he leave me for another woman?”  The idea of either one is so absurd it’s funny.  Morbidly funny.

“Both.”

My laughing stops and tears prick my eyes.

“As I was saying,” Dr. Lona continues, “the public was outraged.  They didn’t care that you had been in a coma for nine years and showed no sign of coming out of it, they wanted the love story.  But Paul had lost hope and Dr. Drizell seemed to hasten that for him.  She herself was a brilliant neurologist and you had been studied by the best in the world.  None of them were optimistic that you were ever going to wake up.  Then when Dr. Drizell became pregnant, he legally signed your care over to the foundation and him and Dr. Drizell left the country.  They lived in relative isolation in Sweden for 20 years, raising two children, before they were both killed in a car accident.”  She stops and stares at me.  It’s like she just tied that story up with a neat bow.  So matter of fact.  “Karma can be a real bitch,” she says and smiles.

Am I supposed to be happy that he died in a car accident in Sweden with his mistress?  My emotions can’t move that fast.  He is, or was, the love of my life.  The tears are just streaming down my face as I stare back at her.

I feel an overwhelming weight of sadness that literally pushes me to fall forward.  I almost hit the floor but Dr. Lona catches me.  “Whoa, are you alright?  I know it’s a lot to take in but we have a lot more to go over.”

“I’m done.  I don’t want to hear anymore.  Just give me the letter and get out.”

I’m sitting on the bed again with my hand out ready for the letter.  She sits back down and looks away as she says, “Unfortunately, I can’t do that.  I have been directed to give you the complete story.  You need to hear it and accept it so that we can move on with the exhibit.”

“The exhibit!” I yell.  “Screw the exhibit!  I don’t care about or even wish to be a part of any exhibit!”

“I’m sorry, Olivia, but you don’t have a choice.”

“Of course I have a choice!  I’m a human being and an American citizen.  I have rights!”

“The United States of America, as you remember it, no longer exists.”

I look at her in utter disbelief.

“Please just let me continue.  When Paul signed your care over to the Foundation he also stepped down as the head of the Foundation.  The new head was a brilliant man though he lacked a lot in the way of scruples.  His name was Dr. Lyle and he basically sold you to science.  He teamed up with a company that was researching the science of Cryonics.  This company was looking to unlock the key to immortality through freezing.  For years while you slept, they experimented on animals but when it was time to experiment on a human being, you were offered up.  You were frozen at the age of fifty-five and haven’t aged a day since.”

Fifty-five?  That can’t be right.

“I’m 35.”

Dr. Lona sighs in frustration at my lack of comprehension.

“You were 35 when you were in the car accident.  You were in a coma for twenty years before you were put on the Vytronics machine.”

She pauses and stares at me perhaps to let that sink in.

“What year is it now?”

She continues to stare.  She looks torn like she’s not sure if she should tell me.

“Just tell me!”

She jumps from the rage in my voice then sighs.

“Olivia, I will tell you but what you need to focus on is how important you are.  You, Olivia, are an absolute miracle cherished and loved by millions of people.”

“I don’t care.  I never asked for any of this.  What year is it?”

“Today is June 24th, 2517. You’ve been asleep and frozen for five hundred years.”

She says this with a smile and tears in her eyes.  She reaches forward and places her hand on mine and looks at me like a mother would her child.  I pull my hand away and start laughing again because she must be either joking or out of her mind.

“2517?  You can’t be serious?  2517, ha, ha, ha, ha !  Are we in space?  Is this museum on Mars?  Ha, ha, ha,ha….”

She gives me a hurtful look that morphs to very serious.  “No, we are on Earth but my sister lives on a new development station just a few hundred miles from Mars.  Not my cup of tea though.”

She’s straight faced and business-like.  The doctor is back in.  “Now that you know the year, here is the rest of what I am charged with telling you: The Olivia Phoenix Foundation still exists and the head of the board is Dr. Kelley.  He has been the head of the board and your legal guardian for the past eighty years.  For twenty of the past eighty you have been on permanent exhibit here at the museum.  Your awakening has created a scientific marvel; and it’s brought an exciting, revelatory element to the exhibit. And the Foundation’s board as well as the museum’s board are overjoyed about all the possibilities.”

“The possibilities,” I repeat.

“Oh yes, Olivia.  The possibilities.”

# # #

Sick Lit Photo

Stacey Longenberger is a south shore Long Island girl, born and bred.  She left a career in fashion to stay home with her three kids and doesn’t regret it one bit.  Stacey loves to read and when she’s not reading, she’s creating a story in her head.  Every now and then, she writes one down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Leaf – by Susan Richardson

 

The Leaf

 

 

She woke up pissed off, with a pounding headache and the smell of disaster lingering in the air. It was her least favorite thing, waking up; it was just one kind of darkness leading to another, obscure shapes hiding in the shadows.  She kept her eyes closed as long as possible, trying to fall back to sleep, but it was useless.  She sat up, reached for her white cane and opened her eyes. The light was so bright, she recoiled from the assault of it.

 

She could barely breathe. What was happening? She hadn’t seen anything in years. Her first thought was that she must be dead; she had a way of veering toward the darker conclusions, and didn’t people say that you see a white light when you die? She held up her hand to block the glare, just in case it had actually been real, and opened her eyes again. She could see the details of her hand, light coursing between her fingers. Curiously, she touched her palm, fascinated by how smooth it looked.  She didn’t feel dead.

 

She tried to sit up, but her head was heavy and her limbs felt dormant.  Perhaps she was still asleep, and this was all just a dream.  She remembered taking a sleeping pill that felt a little different from the other pills in the bottle, but it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.  She started to panic, mind racing, and jumped to her feet, searching in vain for the pill bottle. She felt her heart slamming against the wall of her chest and knew she was definitely awake. What the hell was going on?

 

She made her way cautiously around the bed and forced herself to pull her eyes away from the floor. The walls were saturated with what she imagined was sunlight, giving an otherworldly glow to the room, golden hues jumping out at her from every surface. She could feel herself starting to relax.  Her joints were loosening and her body felt better than it had in years. Her step was light and her breath easy. It was like she was 30 years old again, instead of her actual 50.  She stood for a moment, taking in the new sensations of color and movement, then turned to explore.

 

The door to her bedroom seemed to glow brighter than anything else in the room, as if it were beckoning her.  She had to see what was on the other side.  She reached the door in three graceful strides, but she couldn’t open it; there was no knob.  She pushed against it with her hands, but it didn’t budge.  She knocked on it lightly, and a glass bowl appeared in front of her, floating in the air; inside the bowl was an emerald green key. She picked it up; it was weightless and pleasantly cool to the touch.  She placed it delicately in the palm of her hand and it transformed into a leaf. She had never seen anything so green. The leaf began to sparkle and hum, as if it were made of something magic, newly forged and waiting for her touch.  She was transfixed, her eyes following an intricately woven map of veins gliding across the surface of the leaf as it melded with the flesh of her hand.

 

A tapping sound, like raindrops against a window, pulled her from her reverie.  She had always loved the rain. She looked up at the door, certain it must be raining on the other side.  The door had changed; the wood had become glass with a bright green leaf etched into the center.  She pressed her palm into the grooves and the glass became rain. With eyes wide open, she stepped through the curtain of crystalline drops.

 

What had been a dry and withering landscape was now lush and bathed in color.  She took it all in with her eyes; hillsides covered in trees with leaves that kissed the sky, and flowers that stood 5 feet tall, bursting with deep violet and red petals.  There were streams with water so clear, she could see the shimmering scales of fish that frolicked in the soft current. She felt what she thought could only be joy and sprang into motion, running through the grass, her bare feet brushed by the velvety blades.  Nothing was familiar, not even her own heart.  It was if she’d been asleep her whole life.

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Susan Richardson is living, writing and going blind in Hollywood. She was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa in 2002 and much of her work focuses on her relationship to the world as a partially sighted woman. In addition to poetry and short-fiction, she writes a blog called “Stories from the Edge of Blindness”.

 

 

 

 

 

SLM Interviews The Writer, Amanda McLeod – (Heads up – She’s Savvy and A Damn Good Writer)

Interview with the Writer 

Sick Lit Magazine: How long have you known , deep down, that you’re a writer?

Amanda McLeod: I always loved to read, and could read well before I started school. English was always my favourite subject and right through school I just adored reading and writing.
I ended up with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in English, but was just a little too scared at that point to try and make a career of it. Later, I tried again – starting an editing course – but I had to move in the middle of the course, and external study wasn’t available so I had to withdraw. After my first child was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, I started studying child development and education so I could be the best advocate for him that I could be. This set me on another path for a while, supporting and advocating for children with additional needs. As I studied though, I found a passion for children’s literacy. The way young children are spellbound by books, and how beneficial reading is for children, really resonated with me. I studied writing children’s picture books – they’re much more complex and nuanced than they seem on the surface!- and have written a number of manuscripts. This led me to question why I shouldn’t keep going, and write the kind of literary fiction I loved so much in school (and still do, to this day). I sent out two pieces. One of them was rejected pretty quickly, which was really deflating. But I read it over again and I knew it was good. I believed in it. I just had to find it the right home – it needed someone who wouldn’t shy away from the grittiness of it. And that’s when I heard about an editor named Kelly, who ran a magazine called Sick Lit, which published material others would shy away from. I read some Sick Lit content and it felt like it might fit. Turns out, it did. The feedback I got from Sick Lit staff made me feel like I could back myself. So I dove in, and started writing and submitting in earnest. Recently I’ve had an opportunity to exercise my journalistic skills, which has been both challenging and enjoyable. I’ve ended up coming full circle, back to the reading and writing I’ve loved for so long – it just took me a while to get here.
SLM:  What inspires you as a writer?
AM: A lot of my work stems from asking questions like ‘what if…’ and ‘what about…’. These flights of fancy can take me in unexpected directions. 
The piece ‘Remains’ is a great example. When I first read your prompt, I wasn’t sure it was for me. I haven’t written or read very much science fiction. But I let the concept of ‘future’ sit there in my mind and incubate for a while. What might the future be like? It depends who you ask. I pondered today’s forward thinkers. People are planning for the colonisation of Mars. Space flight is coming closer to being a reality for everyday people. People will soon be leaving Earth, many permanently. Plenty of people have speculated about how intergalactic travel might look in the future. I started wondering, ‘what about everything that gets left behind?’ If in the future (and this is becoming increasingly likely) Earth can no longer support humanity, what might be left? Life almost always finds a way. If all the humans upped and left the planet, how might life change? 
And what if something, or someone got left behind? What if someone refused to go? How might it feel to wake up and find that the universe had moved on without you? Those were the seeds of thought from which ‘Remains’ grew.
SLM:  Tell me one thing that scares you and excites you all at the same time.
AM: Sharing my work with the world! It’s exciting to think that others might read my words and engage in deep thought or lively discussion as a result, as I have with the words of so many others. But it’s also terrifying to take something you’ve worked so hard to create, and share it with strangers. 
SLM: Name one of the WORST experiences you’ve had as an up-and-coming writer; I.e., submission disasters, strong personalities, etc.
AM: I’ve been focusing really hard this year on paring back. For a long time I was multitasking to the point of ridiculousness, and it was draining. I started really cutting back on everything – stuff, engagements, responsibilities – so I could dig deep and make real, substantial time for the things in life that truly bring me joy. And I really notice it now when that overwhelm starts to creep back in – because I start making really careless errors. The worst was a competition entry I sent, rushing to beat the deadline when I decided what I’d written was good enough to enter, and promptly submitting the wrong file because I was trying to balance too many tasks at once.
SLM:  Favorite book. Or books. And go!
AM: Take a seat, we could be here a while… I have a beautiful illustrated collection of Jane Austen’s work that my husband tracked down for me. I had a copy of Bryce Courtenay’s ‘The Power Of One’ that I read and read until it fell apart, and each individual page was loose inside the cover. I have a book by Norma Johnston called ‘The Potter’s Wheel’ that I have dragged to every house I’ve ever lived in – it resonated with me when I was younger and I’ve kept it with me ever since. More recently, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood really got me thinking and sparked a lot of intense conversations, which is something I believe books should do. And a marvellous book called ‘All Cats Have Aspergers’ by Kathy Hoopmann holds a special place in my heart. 
SLM: Is there a novel in the works for Amanda McLeod? If so, tell us about it. And then send it to me so I can mark it up and encourage the hell out of you!
AM: There is a novel! It’s in the super early stages of development. I’ve written about three chapters. I’ve got it planned out, but structuring it will be challenging – the protagonist is unravelling a family secret that only came to light after her mother’s death. There are two people who know the whole truth, and one has just passed away. I need to make sure that it peels like an onion, and as the layers come away, new meaning to old events becomes clear. I’d be honoured for you to read it Kelly, when I get more of it written! There are also a number of children’s picture book manuscripts I’m working on, and a series for early readers. Children who love books grow into adults who love books and sparking that passion for literacy early is something I really feel strongly about and want to be a part of.
SLM: I got over 200 rejections before my book was finally published in 2016. I still take rejection to heart and sometimes react very poorly. How do you deal?
AM: Nothing rips the base out of your gut like a rejection, does it? The disappointment still stings me every time. Depending on the situation, I think I react differently. If it’s a straight up ‘no thanks’ and nothing else, I go back over my list and remember all the pieces I had published that were initially rejected. Just because they weren’t right for one publication, doesn’t mean they won’t be great for another one. I cast a critical eye over my work again – have I missed something? – and then just keep looking for the right home. If I get feedback with the rejection, I look at it as an opportunity to improve it, and hone my skills. Another great consolation is to look at acceptance rates. A lot of them are really low – I figure a 5% acceptance rate means 19 rejections for every acceptance. And finally, I tell myself that the sting is because of how much I value my work. 
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Amanda McLeod Headshot
Amanda McLeod is a writer and artist, currently based on the east coast of Australia. Her fiction has appeared in Sick Lit Magazine, The Scarlet Leaf Review, OJAL: Open Journal Of Arts And Letters, and elsewhere. She enjoys good coffee, rainy nights, being outside, and almost anything to do with cheese. Her plans for the future include finishing her novel and publishing a children’s book.

Remains – by Amanda McLeod

Remains

The first time I woke up after, I headed out to the well like I did every morning. I was surprised to find the well full of stars. You couldn’t drink stars when I went to sleep. The stars were in the sky then. But the world is different now.

Now, the sky is filled with other things I don’t recognise; and around those things smaller things wheel and skim like the insects used to around the porch light at night. I still put the light on each night. I don’t know why. I haven’t seen anyone since I woke up. Where everyone went is a mystery, but I suspect it has something to do with the things in the sky.

I still am not sure how it happened. I went to sleep, then woke up, just as I always do, only I woke up to this instead of the world I was expecting. I’m not sure how much time passed while I was asleep but the forest had come back which suggests several hundred years. The house still stood, though somewhat rickety, and the concrete well remained, full of stars instead of water. Although time has clearly marched on without me, I feel as though I have gone back in it rather than forward.

Plants have reclaimed much of what was taken from them, and in turn animals have followed. I suspect, given my solitude and the strange happenings in the sky, that this planet was left to heal itself. It has done a spectacular job, and what anomalies I have noticed, such as the well of stars, are not unpleasant. As to myself being the only person here, I was already old when I went to sleep and I had no family and few friends. I believe I was simply overlooked.

My daily existence is as simple now as it was before. I wake in the morning and go to the well, where I draw the stars I need for my day. Then I set about the routine of staying alive; fixing and repairing, growing and nurturing, harvesting and storing. I try to learn from the unknown mistakes of a past that passed me by. I make myself part of this place, a strand in the web rather than an apex predator. When I am out foraging, I sometimes see animals. Some I know, and some are slightly foreign, as evolution slowly works its magic. By unspoken treaty we live in harmony; both they and I neither fear nor are feared.

I am unsure whether anyone knows I am here. I would like to believe those things in the sky are aware of my presence. Should they come for me, however, I do not believe I would go. The universe out there feels too big. The familiar strangeness of this place is comforting. Should it ever come to that, I will tell them politely that I wish to stay here, and I will advise them to leave this world alone, as it finds new ways to heal old wounds. If they return, they will need to bring with them a different way of knowing, lest this become a circle. Perhaps it will happen while I am alive, perhaps never. Either way, I will spend my last days in this wild beautiful place, drinking from my well of stars.

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Amanda McLeod Headshot

**Amanda wrote this piece of fiction for SLM’s writing prompt for 2017: You wake up 500 years in the future. Describe what you see, hear, smell, and how the passage of time has changed your surroundings. Be creative. Be different. Be daring.**

Amanda McLeod is a writer and artist, currently based on the east coast of Australia. Her fiction has appeared in Sick Lit Magazine, The Scarlet Leaf Review, OJAL: Open Journal Of Arts And Letters, and elsewhere. She enjoys good coffee, rainy nights, being outside, and almost anything to do with cheese. Her plans for the future include finishing her novel and publishing a children’s book.