SPOILER ALERT!!! The following scene may contain spoilers for Annihilation, book five of The Fringe. Please do not continue if you have not finished the series.
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It’s been two and a half years since I talked to my parents, and it’s been more than two months since I sat in the same room with them.
Immediately after they entered their virtual hiatus, I visited them almost every day. I didn’t read to them or tell them about my day. I would just sit there wondering what they were doing in the virtual space.
Since I joined Health and Rehab, our visits have become shorter and less frequent. For one thing, I was busier than ever, but I also started to feel detached — almost as if I was sitting vigil for someone else’s parents.
They seemed paler, thinner, and somehow deflated — not the critical, energetic “doers” I remembered.
When we reach the long tunnel leading to the laboratories, I stop and give Caleb’s hand a squeeze. He returns the pressure and cocks his head to give me a bracing smile.
I don’t know why I’m hesitating. This is nothing compared to what Caleb has been through.
Just two days ago, he sat beside his parents’ bedsides as they sucked in their last dying breaths. He was still pale and drawn from the virus, but he was getting better — whereas his parents had been in a downward spiral for days.
He’s taken their deaths surprisingly well. He isn’t weepy or bitter that Progressive Research denied his parents the treatment that could have saved their lives. It just isn’t in his nature.
Caleb genuinely believes that the doctors in Progressive Research were looking out for the greater good — or maybe that’s just what he tells himself so that he doesn’t go insane.
The tunnel leading to my parents’ room seems absurdly long. We pass a dozen smaller labs and observation rooms before we reach the solid steel door at the very end.
Because of all the high-tech equipment used to keep my parents in hypnagogia, Health and Rehab personnel need special clearance to get into the room.
I swipe my key card through the reader, and the light blinks green as the door unlocks. I turn the handle and push it open, and I’m greeted by a strong artificial plastic-y odor.
The room is dim, but I can just make out the shapes of my mom and dad splayed spread-eagled in what look like robotic spider webs. They’re dressed in identical periwinkle blue suits with wires and sensors imbedded in the fabric that regulate and monitor their core body temperature. Since their bodies are at rest, the robotic slings are designed to move them continuously and stimulate their muscles to prevent pressure sores and atrophy.
A bundle of flexible wires and tubes snake out from under their caps, twisting and untwisting as their slings rotate. Some of the wires are sending electrical impulses straight to their brains, while the others are gathering information and recording it for Progressive Research. They’re both hooked up to feeding tubes, and it gives me a shiver to imagine that they’re sick.
My mother’s hair is cut so short that it barely tickles her jaw. Her face is clean and free of makeup, and her sparse bob is held close to her scalp with netting.
Dad’s hair looks the same as it always has: neat and simple and cut close to the head. He’s not wearing his glasses, which makes him seem like a stranger.
As I stare at them lying there completely motionless, I can’t help but think that I’m a stranger to them. No matter how hard I tried to follow our plan, I’m a much different person than I was two years ago.
A soft knock at the door makes me jump, and two nurses appear to unhook my parents from the machines. They move quietly and respectfully — as if I’m getting ready to say goodbye — by the somber mood is broken by the frantic beep of machines and quiet rip of stick-on sensors.
As the rotating slings come to a standstill, I help the nurses lower them into two twin beds. They’re going to need some time to recover, and the doctors of Progressive Research will want a few days to monitor their health.
Once the tubes and hairnets are gone, my parents look more like themselves. But even though I know they’re going to make it out of this, I still have a strange ache inside me that says nothing will ever be the same.
The nurses whisper that it will take a few minutes for them to come to, and they disappear to give me some privacy. Caleb drapes his arm around my shoulders, and we both wait with bated breath for my parents to wake up.
Finally, my mom makes a soft sound in the back of her throat. At first I think I imagined it, but then she moves her head slowly from side to side. My dad’s nose twitches comically, and he jerks his head to the side as if he felt a tickle.
Slowly, painstakingly, my mother coughs and peels her eyes open.
She drinks in the room in a fog of fatigue, and then her eyes shift over to me. A soft smile flickers across her features, and I feel myself return it easily. She looks weak, but she’s back.
As my dad coughs and shifts in bed, my mom tries to say something. Her voice is hoarse and cracked, so I whip around to find a pitcher of water.
My heart is pounding, and my palms are sweaty, but my mom’s first word was unmistakable. She said “Sawyer.”