Sonia was staring at his hands. She had read somewhere that people who were going to wake up used their hands a lot more. It was a sign that the neurons were firing in his brain… or something. While she had yet to see any real movement, she had taken the time to memorize the creases of his knuckles and the halos his rings formed above his pointer and middle fingers. His fingernails were growing a little too long. She would have to bring her clippers with her tomorrow.
It was strange, really. Though it all felt like some distant dream, there Tanaka was right in front of her. Even so, no matter how real he was, was what they experienced together, something that could be considered real? When she first woke up, the memories all came in fragments. She remembered him muttering strange incantations, calling her his “Dark Queen.” She couldn’t help laughing, remembering him announcing to everyone that he was the “Dark Lord,” all the while his pet hamsters kept popping their chubby faces in and out of his scarf. She should have been thankful. Not everyone remembered even nearly as much as she did, and there was a chance he wouldn’t remember her at all.
At that moment, something else came back to her. She sat up straight, eyes wide as she dug through a pocket in her petticoat. When she pulled it out of her pocket, she leaned forward and tucked it beneath his hand. It was a stuffed hamster. It looked like it had come straight from a cartoon, but it was still cute. She watched his hand, her bottom lip trembling as she waited for a reaction. A few seconds went by, though it felt like an hour, and nothing happened. All remained as it had before, except now Tanaka was lifelessly palming a stuffed hamster.
Sonia reluctantly leaned back into her chair, eyes still suspiciously watching his hand. As she watched his fingers, hers thrummed endlessly on the soft leather cover of her journal. Underneath that was a worn copy of Snow White. Both of which she had carried with her since the day she woke up. Waking up seemed so long ago. It didn’t feel real. More like a dream within a dream.
She remembered feeling cold. People were hovering over her, some she recognized. Some she didn’t. There were a lot of voices, too, though she didn’t remember any of those. She didn’t move for a long time, except to stretch her fingers. Her skin felt uncomfortable like it was the wrong size. It was tighter than it had been before. All she wanted was to climb out of it.
First, it was the people, then the voices, but the worst part was the hands. After a while, people must have gotten tired of waiting. They pawed her too-tight skin, and they burned her with their hands. She opened her mouth to scream, but she couldn’t seem to find her voice. Maybe her skin had squeezed it out of her. Perhaps she had never had one, to begin with. The hands took her to a shower where they hosed her down and rubbed sweet-smelling soap against what skin was showing. They hadn’t even taken the time to take off her clothes.
She remembered there not being a single mirror in the bathroom. Later, when she began her required meetings with the Ultimate Psychiatrist, she asked him why there weren’t mirrors in the bathrooms. He told her it was to prevent shock. The ones who woke up often forgot they weren’t the same age as what their avatars portrayed. It was something they didn’t want to risk. So, no mirrors. For two weeks, before she was allowed back into the general public, she had no clue what she looked like. Every once in a while, she’d catch a glimpse. The reflection on a table, in a window, or in a glass, but it was always distorted.
Sonia sat, remembering it all, unconsciously gripping her books until her knuckles were sore. She released them to flex her fingers and found she’d left an impression on the cover of her journal. A perfect copy of her palm was now pressed into the top half of the cover. She smiled before flipping it open to the first page. The Ultimate Psychiatrist had recommended that she should keep a journal. It had been such a hassle in the beginning, but now the weight was familiar. Days one through fourteen of the journal were chaotic. Some pages were single lines of thought or even just a question. There were some poems and short snippets of memories she had dreamed of the night before. Then, on day fifteen, when she was allowed back into the sleeping chambers where she had once woken up, it all started back on day one.
On that day one, which was actually day fifteen, she wrote about someone who was comatose. It was her first journal entry about him, and she had been writing letters to him every day since. Sonia flipped to day sixteen in her journal and read it over again. She liked to think that even if he couldn’t hear her speak that maybe he could read her mind and see what she was writing to him, but that was just a fantasy. Even so, Sonia silently sent him a thought, begging him to wake up. Then, she kept reading. She read about his hamsters and glanced mournfully at the stuffed hamster under Tanaka’s palm. She really hoped he had forgotten about them. They had died long ago, but they were still very much alive in the virtual world. She had hoped the feeling of the fur would trigger something, and he would wake up, but it didn’t seem to work.
With a sigh, she shut her journal back and set it underneath her chair. She would write today’s entry before she left, but first, she had to read Tanaka some Snow White. She flipped open the old text to the first page. There was an illustration of a castle with trimmed hedges and beautiful ivy hanging from the balcony, taking over the walls. It didn’t remind her of her home, and that was probably why she liked it. There was a tiny smudge over the balcony ledge. It was perhaps a bird, but time and many hands had rubbed it from the page. She had found the book in the Ultimate Psychiatrist’s library. Most of the books were apparently from a small library that had been burnt down during the tragedy. There had been considerable efforts to save as many books as possible, but from the looks of the Psychiatrist’s collection, it wasn’t going well.
Even so, most of the book was intact, and it was one of the few not burned and relatively dry. Sonia read the first few words slowly and carefully, trying to get a feel for how they sounded in the silence of the room. Sonia waited for them to echo back to her, then began to read more firmly. She made it to the third or fourth page before one of the capsules began to beep. Sonia’s gaze shot up, hoping it was his, but his hands were still. People began rushing in, breaking the silent cornucopia she had built for herself and Tanaka. Someone was waking up, but it wasn’t him.