It felt like he had dunked his face in a bowl of ice water. People were sticking his arms and legs with needles. His throat was dry, itchy, but he couldn’t scratch it. He couldn’t find his hands, and then he couldn’t breathe. The world was black. Then it was blindingly white before it was black again.
Someone was saying his name, but they were too far away for him to place the voice. Someone pinched his elbow. He yelled, but they only pinched harder. There was an alarm going off somewhere. Was there a fire? Was he in an ambulance? He had never been in an ambulance before, but that would explain the poking and the needles. The doctors were putting him under for the ride.
And, boy, was he ready for the ride.
Kazuichi didn’t fight like most of them. Sonia mulled this over and over as she watched him relax back into his pod. He woke up, ready to go back to sleep. If she remembered him correctly, that was very surprising. It was unlike him. Though, how well did she really know him? She surmised probably not all that well. The doctors and nurses crowded around him, hands splayed in front of them. They usually had to fight the waking ones. This time they weren’t sure what to do with their hands.
In the end, they just let him sleep it off. Slowly, each doctor and nurse made their way back out of the room, paying no mind to Sonia or Kazuichi. Sonia couldn’t help noting how irresponsible that was, but then she remembered them bathing her with all of her clothes still on, and she was no longer surprised. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to let him wake up alone.
Her eyes trailed back to Tanaka. He was perfectly still, like a porcelain doll. He was a creation based on a person she knew. It wasn’t really him. Not yet, anyway. Before she could bring herself to leave his side, she leaned forward and brushed his knuckles. They were warm. They felt like hope, and that hope bled into her chest and into her cheeks. It was then that another memory rushed back to the forefront of her mind.
‘Sonia, thank you for keeping up with your diary and thank you so much for allowing me the opportunity to read it. I can’t express to you how valuable this is to study how your group reacts to the real world stimuli versus the virtual world.’
She remembered the sweat on her palms and the pain as her heart thrummed loudly in her chest. Blood was rushing so fast through her brain and her ventricles. It was making her light-headed. She tried to answer him out loud, but she couldn’t bring herself to say anything. She settled for a nod, and that seemed efficient enough for the Ultimate Psychiatrist.
‘However, I did notice a sudden… I don’t want to say obsession, but… an odd focus on one of your group members. Do you want to tell me a little about that?’
No. No, Sonia just wanted to throw up. She looked around the room but couldn’t see a trash can anywhere nearby. There was plush, beige carpeting in the room. She was sitting on a maroon-colored couch with flower-embroidered pillows. She really hoped she wouldn’t puke on any of it. The embarrassment would be more than she could handle.
‘I know this must be a sensitive topic for you. I totally understand this need to… watch. To study and to understand what you went through. It’s healthy to empathize with others. But… I must warn you. You, Kazuichi, and select others are special cases. You didn’t die during the original experiment. We knew 100% that you would wake up eventually, of your own free will. It was simply a matter of ‘when?”
Why was he telling her this? Why did this matter? Bile was burning in her chest, and sweat was beading along her forehead and staining the armpits of her shirt. She needed a cold shower and a toilet. She needed a haircut, too. Her hair had grown while she slept, and she could nearly stand on it. It had lost the pastel gold sheen and was much grayer at the ends. It made her feel uncomfortable like she was wearing someone else’s hair on her head.
‘Tanaka, though… we have no way of knowing if he will ever wake up. He could be permanently comatose. It’s good that you are talking to him, and I encourage you to continue to do so, but… I don’t want you to put so much hope into something, and to be disappointed. Even if he were to wake up, there is also a chance he would not be the same person you knew in the simulation. There is just no way to tell.’
‘Hope,’ the Ultimate Psychiatrist had said it like it was a contagious disease. Sonia had a lot of hope. She squeezed Tanaka’s lifeless fingers. Was it really so bad to hope?
It took her a long time to release her hold on his hand, and it took her even longer to leave her seat beside him. When she did, she left all of her books where they were. She would be back as soon as she could.
Kazuichi was two pods away. His beanie was gone, and where it had once been, there were long streaks of black hair, and the pink that remained had faded to baby pink. It made him look so much softer than she remembered. Instinctually, her gaze fell on his hand. It shook and twitched with life. There was a mixture of joy and jealousy in her chest as she watched. It wasn’t something she was used to seeing, and that filled her to the brim with despair. One second more and she would have walked away, but then he opened his eyes, and her gaze met his.
His eyes flicked back and forth, focusing on her left eye, then moving on to her right, then back again. She knew she should call for a doctor, but she couldn’t bring herself to look away. He had gone to sleep with his contacts in. The iris was a familiar bright pink, but the whites surrounding them were lined red with prolonged irritation. It made her want to scratch her own eyes. She’d make sure to request some eye drops for him later.
Silence blanketed the room. The two simply stared at each other, and it was eerily comfortable. Sonia, though, was struggling to find words. She wanted to hear his voice. She hadn’t realized how desperate she was for words until this moment. So long had she sat having one-way conversations with herself, she wanted someone to finally wake up and respond. However, no amount of thinking would conjure the right words. So, she settled.
“Do you remember me?”
“Of course, Ms. Sonia.”
Her eyes burned. Tears were creeping into the corners of her eyes. For what seemed like years, she had desperately waited for that answer. She had wanted to hear those words so badly. Yet, hearing them, she felt more hopeless than she ever had before.
She wanted to hear those words so severely but from someone else.