Lina closed her eyes, clenched her fist, and counted to ten. The person calling her was a messenger and did not need her to blow up. “I’m sorry, Ms. Jameson. Could you repeat that for me, please? He did what?” Maybe she just heard it wrong. She turned up the volume on her com implant with a double click of her teeth.
“Your son forgot to update his grandmother’s VR library. We need him to provide regular updates so she recognises him when he visits her.” Ms. Jameson hesitated. “Is this a bad time, Mrs. Hart? I could call you back later…”
Lina shook her head. “No, it’s OK. It’s just… I wasn’t even aware of the fact that my son had provided you with a VR library for my mother. How long has it been since his last visit?”
“I can look that up for you, Mrs. Hart. One moment please.” Classical music replaced the sound of Ms. Jameson’s voice for a moment. “Uhm… It appears that your son's last visit was three years ago.”
“I beg your pardon?” Lina cleared her throat. Did her voice really sound that shrill? “Sorry. I know that's not your fault. So, he hasn't visited in three years?”
“No, ma’am.” She paused for a few seconds. “It's our policy not to interfere, but it seems you weren't aware of the situation either. We generally disapprove of this approach. Our VR therapy was created to help people suffering from dementia. It can save them from having to live through tragedy time and time again. We can refresh memories so loved ones are recognised when they visit. It’s not meant as a replacement for actual visits. Sadly, it’s not uncommon either.” On the other side of the line, Ms. Jameson sighed. “I’m sorry too, Mrs. Hart. It breaks my heart to see things like this but you're not to blame here.”
“I am, though. He’s my son. She’s my mother. I should have been aware of what was happening.” A tear ran down her cheek, leaving an icy trail on her face in the cold November air as she walked to her car. “Thank you for telling me this. I’ll sort this out as soon as I can. Could you tell her I’ll be a bit late though? She’s got me marked on her calendar and I don’t want her to worry.”
Her car unlocked as she came within range of its sensor and she quickly got in to escape the biting wind. She slammed her fists on the command console. “Flagging nanofucker!”
“Destination not found. Please try again.”
“Damnit. I miss the days when cars didn’t talk back.”
“Destination not found. Please try again.”
Lina sighed. “Rob Hart, Church Street 5.”
“ETA: 20 minutes.”
Lina walked up three steps to a large, antique wooden door. Her eyes drifted over the elaborate carving on the panels as her hand hovered over the doorbell beneath the brass wall plaque. Robert Hart--Rare Antiques. The throbbing in her temples intensified as she looked at the beautiful, priceless door. Her son couldn’t be bothered to make time to visit his grandmother, but he could obviously find the time to look for rare and valuable items. She closed her eyes and pressed the button.
The door swung open and Lina took a deep breath, ready to tear into him. Instead of looking up at her son, she looked down on a mop of tousled, blond hair and blue eyes. “Nana! Daddy didn’t tell us you were coming. We just had breakfast but I think Mummy has some pancakes left. Mummy made them with strawberries.” Jacob turned around and ran for the kitchen. “Mummy, Mummy, Nana’s here. Can she have pancakes, too?”
Lina softly closed the door behind her and followed her grandson into the kitchen. “Hi Carrie. I’m sorry to barge in like this. I really need to talk to Rob.”
Carrie turned away from the counter, a plate heaped with pancakes and strawberries in her hands and a crooked smile on her face. “Oh Lina, please sit down. And don’t worry. You are always welcome here.” She put the plate on the table and went back to the counter. “Black, right?” Carrie returned to the kitchen table carrying two mugs.
The aroma of fresh coffee blended with that of the pancakes, making Lina’s mouth water. “Thank you, Carrie. I forgot to have breakfast this morning. I’m starving and caffeine deprived.” She picked up the fork and knife from the table and cut off a piece of pancake.
“Well, Lina, to be honest, you do that more often than not.” Carrie put her hand on Lina’s arm and gave her a little squeeze before wrapping her hands around her coffee mug. “Eat something first. Then you can tell me what’s bothering you.”
“How do you know something is bothering me?” Lina put the fork down and reached for her coffee mug. A door opened and closed behind her. The patter of little, bare feet formed a strange, syncopated rhythm with heavier, booted feet and the clicking of nails on the tile floor.
Lina managed to put down her coffee mug just in time as a wet nose bumped into her hand. Lina smiled down at the liquid brown eyes that looked up at her. “Hi Bonnie-girl. Did you have a nice walk?” The dog responded by laying a headful of curly hair in her lap.
“Bonnie, no. You’ll get hairs all over Lina’s sweater.” Carrie started to pull the dog away. “Come here, girl.”
“When have I ever minded dog hairs, Carrie? Let her come and have her cuddles.” Lina’s chuckle broke the last bit of tension and her shoulders finally relaxed.
“Hello, Mum.” Rob’s deep voice, so much like his father’s that it caught her off guard every time, raised her hackles all over again.
“Just the person I was coming to see.” She turned around on the kitchen bench and faced her son. Her jaw painfully clamped into a forced smile, she gritted her teeth. “May I speak to you in your office, Rob?”
Lina carefully closed the office door behind her. “How could you?”
Rob turned around to face her. “How could I what, Mum?”
“The nursing home called me. They need you to update your grandmother’s fucking VR library. She needs to recognise you if you ever decide to visit.” Lina sat down in an armchair. Tears burned behind her eyelids as anger receded into grief. “She was always there for you--for us. You know what it was like when your father died. I was a wreck. She kept our family together. Took you to school when I was too depressed to get out of bed. But now that she’s outgrown her usefulness, you abandon her in that nursing home with nothing but a damn VR library.” Lina took a trembling breath. “How long has it been since she’s seen the kids?”
Rob looked down at his feet, saying nothing.
“Rob?” Lina leaned forward, trying to capture her son’s gaze. “Have the kids even met her? Have you taken them to her since Jake was a baby?”
“And watch their hearts break every time their great grandmother forgets them? I don’t think so.” He turned away from her and faced the window.
“So she hasn’t seen them in four years.” Lina blinked furiously. She couldn’t cry now. Where was the anger that had warmed her during the drive here? “She has always been there for us. She lent you the money you needed to start your business. Don’t you remember?”
Lina took a shaky breath and closed her eyes. “It’s my fault too. How did I not know this? I just assumed your visits were at other times than mine. Especially since she talked about you so much. But I guess she was really talking about a VR recording of you.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say, Mum.” His hands clasped behind his back, Rob was the exact image of his father, with broad shoulders and short, dark blonde hair. His father would have faced her though, when speaking to her. “It’s not like she knows the difference. She thinks that I visit her. She doesn’t feel lonely, does she? You said it yourself. She talks about me.”
“She needs you there, Rob.”
Rob raised his hand. “Just a minute, Mum, I need to get this.” He pressed on the indentation behind his right ear to activate his comm implant. “Rob Hart. Who is this? Oh, right, Mr. Nobu. Yes, the roccoco cabinet is reserved for you for two more weeks. Yes, there is another interested party. I’m terribly sorry, but I’ll have to get back to you later this afternoon. I’m afraid you’ve caught me at a bad time. Yes. Thank you. No problem. I’ll call you as soon as I’m free.”
“I’m sorry, Mum.” He turned around but didn’t meet her eyes.
“This VR thing is not a substitute for real-life contact. She needs to see you and your family. Hold her hand, kiss her cheek. Even if you don’t care about it, she does. She needs us, Rob.” Lina stood up and wrapped her arms around herself. “If you can’t find the time to visit her, I’m at least taking the kids over for a visit.”
“What if it hurts too much, Mum?” Was that a tear glistening at the corner of his eye? “It killed me to see how she’d forget me every time. She kept asking me how school was going. Why Kim hadn’t come. I haven’t seen Kim since college, Mum.” His voice trembled and he gasped for air. Her cool, always-in-control son was about to break down into tears. He would hate himself for allowing it to happen.
“Do you think it’s not hard for me? She’s my Mum and she doesn’t know who I am half the time. Cognitive therapy has really helped her, but she still has bad days. I’d never be able to forgive myself for abandoning her, though.” She placed her hand against his cheek for a second before turning towards the door. “It’s up to you to decide what you can live with, Rob. These visits are as much for us as for her. But at least update her damn library. It’s not a substitute for your affection, but it has its uses.” She walked out of his office and kept her shoulders squared until she closed the door behind her.
Lina looked up at the skylight and the trees towering over it. Sunlight filtered through to create a patchwork pattern on the slate grey tiles in front of her. She closed her eyes and let the light warm her, as she so often did before going in to visit her mother. Would she remember Lina’s name this time? Or would she see a stranger come into her room?
“What are we doing here, Nana?” Jacob held onto her right hand as he looked around. The clammy hand of his little sister clung to her left hand. Her eyes were large and round as she looked around the lobby of the nursing home.
“Well, pet, you know that Nana is Daddy’s Mum, don’t you? We’re going to visit my own Mum.” Lina smiled down at her grandchildren and let go of Jacob’s hand for a moment to pull Sophie’s thumb out of her mouth. She kneeled down and hugged them both.
“You have a Mummy, too?” Sophie looked up at her with the pale blue eyes they’d all inherited from her own mother. “I didn’t know that.”
“Of course I have a Mum, poppet. Everyone does. Shall we go meet her?” Lina kissed a sticky, chubby cheek and took their hands as she rose. “We need to follow the yellow arrows. Can you be our guide, Sophie?”
“Daddy, Daddy! Nana took us to meet her Mum and we all went for ice cream.” Jacob let go of her hand and ran up the steps to the front door, where Rob waited for them.
Sophie followed on her chubby legs and hugged her father. “I didn’t even know Nana had a Mummy. But she was really nice. She gave me a kiwi fruit.”
Rob gasped. “A kiwi fruit? Those are our favourite, aren’t they, darling?”
“Yes! Nana keeps them for when you visit, Daddy!” Sophie kissed her father’s cheek before squeezing him again.
Rob fell silent as he looked down at his daughter.
Jacob, never to be outdone by his sister, pulled at Rob’s sleeve. “Can we visit her again, Daddy?”
Rob raised his eyes to meet Lina’s for the first time that day. “I don’t see why not? Perhaps Nana and I can take you next week.” He smiled at her for the first time that day.
“What do you think, Mum?”
Rob’s eyes turned grey and faded as the world contracted into a single point of light.
“Lina? Can you open your eyes for me?” Someone was talking to her. She should probably try to do as she was asked, but her eyes refused to stay open. The light was too strong.
“How does it feel to relive that memory, Lina? Do you still feel guilty?” Why wouldn’t the voice leave her alone?
She swallowed, trying to bring some saliva into her dry mouth. “What… What memory?”
“Your last memory of Rob and the children, of course. They died the next week, on the way to the nursing home, remember?”
“What are you saying? Are they… Are they dead? When did this happen?” Breath rasped through her too-dry throat.
“Doctor, Mrs. Hart is having a hard time coming out of her VR memory recording.” The woman’s voice sounded calm--too calm. Her son and grandchildren were dead. That motherflagging bitch didn’t have any business being calm about it. She was lucky Lina’s hands were restrained or she’d…
“You’re right, Nurse Karr. We need to bring her back more slowly next time.” A man’s voice, equally calm and just as infuriating, appeared to belong to a face hovering next to that of the nurse. Both turned grey as the world contracted to a single point of light.
“Don’t put me back under, you nanofuckers!”
Original image: courtesy of Michal Jarmoluk via Pixabay
This story is my entry into the Can you see the future-challenge by @hardfork-series. I was very excited to see a challenge like this and I had tons of fun writing the story and inventing the expletive.
My curse is derived from a typical slang word from my home country, Belgium. People whoo tend to nitpick and focus on unnecessary detail are called mierenneukers, which freely translates as antfuckers. when we translate that to a more digitally oriented future? Nanofuckers. I think I have a new favourite curse. ;-)
As always, immense thanks go out to the amazing fictioneers of the Writer's Block, for helping me make this story worthwile. I hope I'm not forgetting anyone, but @bex-dk, @rhondak, @tanglebranch, @negativer, @jonknight, @gmuxx, @carolkean, @johnkingwriter, @creatr, @jrswab, @jayna, @thinknzombie, and so, so many others: I couldn't have done this without your help, support, and encouragement. Last, but not least, dear reader, Lina and I would like to thank you for sharing this story with us.
If you would like to read more of my stories, feel free to have a look around on my SteemShelf. Every story I have written so far has found a home there.
The Writer’s Block is a home to writers from every corner of the world, and from every discipline that involves the written word. I consider myself lucky to have found this amazing community. Not only have I found help, support and encouragement there, but I’ve found people who feel the same way I do about writing. I’ve found a second family there. Do you write? Would you love to be a part of a community that can help you learn and improve your writing skill? Our door is always open for kindred spirits. Come and pay us a visit by clicking the link below.