She wasn’t going to the hospital. She wasn’t going to see him.
Their kids thought she was heartless. Doug had said as much. Fine. They were grownups now. It wasn’t her responsibility to keep up a façade for them.
But then Jamie’s eyes fell on the holo-picture above the couch. It had been there so long that she had stopped seeing it. Now she looked at it. It was hard to imagine that she and Robert had ever been that carefree and young, or that the Tucson sun had really been that bright.
And then she closed her eyes and smelled the mesquite trees and the baking asphalt and felt the heat on her skin and the weight of his hand in hers and the huge overpowering hope for their future, the future that now in this cold distant house had already passed.
When she opened her eyes she checked the hospital and saw her name was still on the visitors’ list. Her heart unclenched, just a little. As much as it could on the day her husband was likely to die. She put on her coat, walked out the door and summoned a car.
A nurse with a solid-looking stance bustled down the hallway and positioned herself in front of the door just as Jamie reached it.
“This is Robert Free’s room, isn’t it?” Jamie asked.
The nurse eyed her as if she were a suspiciously-colored loaf of Authenti-Meat. “Are you Amanda?” she demanded.
Jamie took a long breath, no longer able to determine whether the now-familiar emotion filling her chest was anger or sadness. “I’m Jamie.”
“He only wants to talk to Amanda,” the nurse said firmly.
“I’m his wife,” Jamie said, stepped around the nurse, and entered the room.
Everything Doug had tried to prepare her for was true. Her husband, her best friend, lay like a broken thing struggling for breath beneath a white sheet, a bundle of wires linking him to the monitors and the wheezing machines that filled the wall behind him.
“Oh, Robert,” she said softly.
He had been a football player back at ASU where they had met. She had been a former dancer who had just started running marathons, and not the cheerleader type that she had expected him to fall for. But he had fallen for her, and, even more surprising to Jamie, she had fallen for him. After graduation he had served for a few years as a cop, but even years later, when he started spending more time each day on the VR equipment, he had maintained most of his bulk. She had never seen him as thin as he was now.
Her hand shut the door. Her feet carried her to the side of the bed. Her eyes looked down at him. But she herself was still, afraid to speak, afraid to move.
Yet somehow, like all the other people before her who had done equally impossible things, she mustered her strength and spoke. “Do you remember me?” she asked in her lowest voice.
His eyelashes fluttered. His milky eyes found her.
“Amanda?” he said in a rasping voice.
“It’s me.” She swallowed. Louder: “It’s me, Jamie.”
“There’s no Amanda. Amanda’s not here.”
For a long time she only heard his breathing and the noise of the machines.
“They said they were going to find Amanda,” he said at last.
She let out her breath slowly, bit her lip, and sat down in the chair next to his bed.
“Amanda?” he asked again.
She reached out and took his hand, gently, feeling his claw-like fingers curl in her palm. “Yes,” she said. “I’m Amanda, Robert, my love. I’m here for you.”
“I should have seen it. I know what a bio-degeneration bomb looks like.” His hand started shaking. “Don’t leave.”
“I’m here. I’m right here.”
She held his hand until the monitors sounded and the doctors and nurses ran in. By that time he was already dead.
When she finally stood up the head doctor, a tall blonde woman, asked if Amanda had ever arrived. “Is she your daughter?”
“Amanda’s a Virtual Realms character,” Jamie said, smoothing out her skirt.
The doctor froze for a moment. Then she nodded briskly to cover for it. “That happens a lot. When there’s trauma, or people’s memories go. They forget what’s real and what wasn’t. They latch onto what they saw in VR.”
“It happens,” Jamie agreed. She took her purse and strode out into the hall.
Aaron’s stories have been featured in the Riding Light Review, the Chicago Reader, and a dozen other publications. He also designs games, writes comic books and graphic novels and edits books and magazines. Find him online at www.aaronemmel.com.