Allyson has been in a coma for the last nine months. What’s worse, she can hear everything the doctors say. She knows they’re keeping her in a coma and that she’s at the mercy of the hospitals First In Human trial. A VR system implanted in her brain for a second chance at life, but Ally doesn’t want to leave her family behind.
Attached to the VR, Ally discovers worlds unlike home. There, she can do whatever she wants. But she misses her parents. Using hacking skills, Ally emails her mom in hopes that she’ll free her. When the emails don’t work, Ally learns to astral project. With help from Harrison, a rabbit-eared boy, they work together to free themselves from Aishwarya, the mad queen of the world. But when Harrison wakes up and doesn’t come for Ally, she’ll split her soul to the brink of death to save herself.
Photo from American McGee’s Alice
“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.
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.”
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.