Thetic Anti

📅 Published on May 24, 2021

“Thetic Anti”

Written by Lucretia Vastea
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

ESTIMATED READING TIME — 22 minutes

Rating: 7.50/10. From 2 votes.
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Ugh, my head.

I know bad hangovers. I know hangovers so bad, no cold shower or energy drink can fix them.

I know what taking a punch feels like. I was seventeen when my coach thought me ready to step into the ring. Half an hour later, I was hauled to the emergency room to get fourteen stitches sewn under my left eyelid.

I even know what it feels like to fall from a suspended platform on a three-story building.

But this? This feels like somebody is trying to extract my brain through my mouth. Someone, anyone, please hand me a pain killer. Cyanide or decapitation, I heard both are effective.

Why is this happening?

“Wholly uncared for, we have gathered here today, in a house made by man for none other than himself, to witness the impending doom of Michael and Marie in forsaken matrimony.”

Right… that’s why.

Wait, what?!

It’s only when I feel a touch on my hands, that I remember I’m not just made of cranium and pain.

I open my eyes and wait for the world to adjust – for my world to adjust. And she does: Marie.

If it weren’t for the bitching pain, I’d be more than happy to see Marie first thing when I wake up. Not sporting this expression, though. She looks worried.

“Are you alright?”

The pain is beginning to subside, so a little lie should be fine. But speech, however, is not the first thing on my mind once I see clearly. I look to my right. The sun hasn’t set too long ago, but the gloomy weather swallowed the lingering daylight with the force of winter solstice. Marie and I are in an auditorium of some kind. The windows are huge, but the light is turned off and I can’t see or hear anything beyond the pouring rain and distant thunder outside.

“Baby, what’s wrong?”

Marie squeezes my elbow. I look at her beautiful face and give words another try–

But there’s a pillar of brilliant red to my left which renders me mute anew. I look at the silhouette. She’s young and quite tall. Both her red clergy robe and her long, blonde hair consume what little light is left in this place, and the stink eye she gives me, makes me think she’s the cause of my headache. The only thing that takes pity on my confusion, is mother nature, because a flash of lightning gives me a hand in deciphering my surroundings.

The auditorium is packed. And I know every person in here because they’re all people close to me, Marie, or both of us. Bouquets of dead flowers ornate the walls and the aisle, as do the thick, densely inhabited spiderwebs on the ceiling and in the corners. There’s movement under the putrefying wooden chair Marie’s father sits on, and judging by the shape and appendix, I bet it’s a rat. The lighting subsides, but I can make more sense of where Marie and I are and of what is happening.

I think we’re in a church. It’s filthy and decrepit, and from what I can tell, unfinished.

“Are we getting cold feet, young man?”

The lady in the red cassock looks annoyed and impatient.

“Of course not!”

Marie sounds panicked, and the look she gives me right after blurting that out breaks my heart.

“Right, Michael?”

I go for her hands like an anchor goes for the bottom of the sea and as I do so, I drop something.

“No! We were halfway into our second date when I knew I wanted to marry you! But…”

“But?!” Marie stressed.

“But?” the priestess echoed.

“But… we set the date to October 5th …”

Marie and the priestess share a look.

“…and it’s merely July.”

Marie takes her hands out of mine.

“Stop it. You’re not being funny.”

Murmurs ensue. I look around the church again and see fierce disapproval bubbling amongst our guests.

“Is today… the fifth of October?”

“Yes, dummy, today is our wedding day. Now, can you pull yourself together?” She leans closer. “You’re embarrassing me.”

The rat is now throwing vague shadows over my fiancée’s side of the family by running on a window sill. Marie crouches down to pick up what I had dropped. Dead flowers.

It’s then that I notice Marie is wearing a tux. My tux. The tux I was supposed to get married in, on October 5th. I don’t need to check the lower part of my body to figure out what I am dressed in. These heels are killing me.

The priestess clears her throat and the rat stops in its tracks. It’s on a statue of a screaming woman now, its tail on a breast.

“Shall we proceed?”

Marie shoves the defunct bouquet into my chest, shedding half its petals in the process.

“Yes, we shall.”

Dumbfounded, I hold the flowers under my chin, praying that whoever pulled this elaborate prank, just takes the picture already, and turns on the lights.

“Wholly uncared for, we have gathered here today, in a house made by man for none other than himself, to witness the impending doom of Michael and Marie in forsaken matrimony.”

Marie is tearing up. Judging by the rest of her face, it’s happy tears. What the…

“Michael and Marie recognize that marriage is an important step in man’s plan for its kind. Marriage is not just a demeaning act of abandoning one’s rights into another’s hands, but also a sacrificial offering in the name of love.”

My mom is also tearing up. My dad is offering her his handkerchief and both of them look at Marie and me with so much affection, it’s making me nauseous. I’m sweating in Marie’s wedding dress. She’s gonna laugh her butt off once I wake up and tell her about this weird dream I had.

“You have found what you have searched for in one another. Not to enjoy the entirety of the other’s being, but to fill an emptiness; may you want one another, not for the warmth of their touch, but to avoid the lack of touch; may you embrace one another, not to give comfort, but to receive it. May you succeed in your individual goals through the other and find common ground in the knowledge that life is futile and futility cannot be shared. There is no power to be found in unity, only strength. Yet strength crumbles in time, whereas power does not. Power is transferred. May you form a strong unity, but grow as powerful individuals. If strength is what you seek, find the strength within yourselves to desire power, for divided success is no success at all.”

Ha. And my eighth-grade English teacher said I’m lacking creativity. If this isn’t a creative subconscious, I don’t know what is.

My baby sister’s twin sons, Ben and Alec, walk down the aisle towards us, in robes matching the one the priestess is wearing. The sync in their step is flawless, and they look like perfect little angels, with their sweet smiles and empty eyes. They’re the ring bearers. Marie and I decided against having ring bearers, because my nephews, the real ones, are the most ill-mannered brats our families have ever seen.

As Ben and Alec raise their little chins to look up at us, I realize, the decision of not having ring bearers stuck to my subconscious as well – it’s not rings they’re bearing.

It’s dog collars. Not leather chokers. Dog collars. With chain leashes and everything.

“This is one fucked-up dream…”

Marie laughs, as do the first three rows of people who heard me.

“Yes. A fucked-up dream indeed. I can’t believe this is happening…”

Her face is wet from all the happy crying. Marie took my comment as a compliment and just to test the waters, I strike again.

“You’ve never been uglier and I couldn’t be more miserable.”

There’s a choir of ‘aww’s coming from our crowd of beloved ones. Marie is shaking from head to toe. She closes her eyes and breathes in an attempt at controlling the trails of wetness dripping down her face and into my tux. Even the priestess looks touched.

I don’t know if I’m curious about what happens next or terrified.

“Michael and Marie have chosen to present collars to each other as a token of their promise before man and these witnesses. They are a visible sign of commitment to a worthy opponent and a promise to challenge each other to be better and fight harder every day for the rest of their lives.”

Terrified. I’m definitely terrified.

“Michael, if you intend to marry Marie, please respond to the following with ‘I do’.”

The priestess pauses. Alec and Ben’s arms elevate the cushions bearing the collars in perfect unison, the rest of their bodies frozen like on film photography. And just like on film photography, I can distinguish the details of their faces by which they can be told apart.

“Do you, Michael, give this collar to Marie, as a token of her submission?”

Never.

“I… do?”

“Michael, please put the collar around Marie’s neck.”

I reach for the collar presented by the twin closest to me. There’s a mole on his left nostril, so it has to be Ben. At least, the face is Ben’s. I’m not entirely sure about the rest of him…

I must be taking too long because the ladies in my proximity are getting impatient. The priestess taps her foot and I can sense Marie’s teary elation seeping away. I unbuckle the collar as slowly as I can and look at the two women consecutively, hoping one of them would stop me. The chain attached to the collar is pretty heavy. Its links are clinking against each other and the mere thought of putting that thing around Marie’s neck, makes me want to flee in the mountains.

I do it. I unhook the collar and surround Marie’s neck with it. There’s indignation on her face due to my weariness, but as soon as I buckle her neck in leather, Marie throws her head back, rolling her eyes to the ceiling and beyond, like she’s been injected with euphoria.

Given any other circumstance, I’d find the sight sexy. After tonight, however, consider me officially purged of all S&M curiosities.

“Marie, if you intend to marry Michael, please respond to the following with ‘I do’.”

Marie grabs the other collar and clasps it open like she designed the thing.

“Do you, Marie, give this collar to Michael, as a token of his submission?”

“I do.”

“Marie, please put the collar around Michael’s neck.”

She does and gives my neck a waist.

“I now pronounce you–”

The rat is at my veil, chewing at the lace like it’s made of cheddar.

“–husband and wife. You may now hit each other.”

If anybody witnessed me flinch, they didn’t show it.

“You mean, kiss each other.”

The priestess looks appalled. So does Marie.

“No, she doesn’t,” Marie interferes with grit in her tone.

The sound of the rodent’s constant munching attracted at least half a dozen of its brothers and sisters. Their chewing reverberates within the walls of the church like my dress is the DJ booth.

My now-wife tries again.

“Come on, babe, just like we practiced.”

“Oh, we practiced plenty of physical things. Violence was not one of them.”

Everybody gasps in unison. The panic is rising in my lover. Marie looks at me, then points her eyeballs at the expectant party. She then throws the priestess a smile that’s supposed to mean, ‘I’m fine. This is fine. Everything is going according to plan. Constricted windpipes and aggravated assault are everybody’s ideal wedding.’

Marie gives angry whispering a try.

“Michael.”

She fails miserably. Everybody heard her, including the rats.

Now, Michael.”

Dream or no, I am not hitting anybody. They can all hold their breaths for all I care.

“If you ruin our wedding, I’ll never forgive you.”

My mother-in-law huffs a “told you, honey”.

The priestess lets out a breath of air that must have weighed three pounds or more.

“Young man…” Her hand grabs my naked shoulder, where skin meets peachy ribbon strap.

I freeze. Literally. I once dreamt of jumping in a pile of snow wearing nothing but boxer shorts. Another time, I dreamt my bedroom was on fire, with me in it. Neither time did my subconscious produce a shift in the temperature so disturbingly accurate. The priestess’s hand is cold. My shoulder is cold. I’m cold. Why am I cold? If this isn’t a dream, what the hell is it?!

“…you better think long and hard before you do something you’ll regret for the rest of your days.”

I shake her hand off.

“I don’t need to think long and hard to know that I am doing the right thing. I am marrying this woman and nothing and nobody can make me regret it. However, I won’t hit her. Ever. And if any of you have a problem with that, you’re crazy.”

The crowd gasps anew. This time, accompanied by outraged babble.

Marie looks unsteady on her feet and I reach out to grab her before she collapses.

“Don’t you dare touch me!”

“Ain’t that a paradox.”

The priestess massages her temples.

“We already exchanged ‘I do’s’, Michael! What the hell is going on?!”

“I could ask you the same thing! I do do! I want to marry you, and I want to do it properly, this year, on the 5th of October! I said ‘I do’ to you now, in this weird-ass dream, and I’ll say ‘I do’ to you then! We’ll exchange rings and I’m going to kiss you breathless. What I will not do, however, is hit you. Not now, not then, not ever. I am not hitting anybody on my wedding day, especially not the love of my life!”

“It went great during rehearsal, what has gotten into you?!”

“What has gotten into you? You want me to hit you? And what rehearsal?!”

“We’ll hit each other, it’s not just you!”

“And in what world is that okay?!”

“It’s tradition!”

Safe for the twins, the whole room is buzzing with the high of the drama. Somebody’s phone is recording the scene, adding a little more light to the setting.

“Michael, you are not embarrassing me on my wedding day! Hit me!

“I am not embarrassing you or myself, so no, I will not!”

Marie straightens her back. I know that look. She’s about to give me an ultimatum. ‘Michael, either you get rid of that can on wheels, or I’ll get rid of it for you’; ‘Michael, we’re either going to my mom’s for Christmas, or I’m spending New Years’ without you.’; ‘Michael, either you clean the shed as you promised, or I’m putting your coin collection on eBay.’

“Michael Edison Hopkiss–”

Oh, boy…

“–either you hit me right now, or I’m leaving you.”

I click my tongue. I never click my tongue. Absolutely everything about this feels wrong and that is highly likely because it is. I am an accomplished, intelligent, happy, and healthy man in his prime. I suffer from no mental illness, or any other illness for that matter. I am loved and cherished by a lot of amazing people and am engaged to be married to my best friend of all time.

I should have responded better than this.

“You wouldn’t.”

No sooner did the words leave my mouth, Marie’s nimble fingers pulled the leather strap out of the buckle of her collar.

Wham.

I connect a right hook to my lady’s nose faster than I can realize what I’m doing. Marie’s head snaps backward, her arms in the air.

My mother-in-law mumbles a “could`ve done better”, but everybody else erupts in sounds of endearment.

“Oh, god… oh, god, baby, I am so, so very–”

But Marie regains her balance and beams at me. All pearly whites coated in blood like she just had a live animal for dinner and loved every bite. And then–

Wham.

It’s so powerful and unexpected, I stumble on my heels and fall on my butt, crushing a rat on impact.

The church starts laughing and, to my supreme horror, it doesn’t sound like they’re laughing at me but with me… like I have just done the most adorable thing they’ve ever seen. I have been ready to wake up ever since this dream started, but this is getting ridiculous. I can still feel the shape of Marie’s knuckle between my eyes and for a brief moment, I am glad we didn’t exchange rings.

Marie holds out her hand and I take it, pride be damned in a situation like this.

“Looks like the rat gave me a head start.”

I don’t need to look at my butt to know what the back of the dress looks like. Marie’s tactless sense of humor is one of the many reasons I fell in love with her, but that comment made me shudder.

“Family and friends, thank you for having joined us on this pointless occasion. The ceremony is now complete and the married couple shall retrieve to their chambers to fulfill their marital duties.”

“What?”

Marie takes me by the arm and drags me to the other end of the aisle like she can’t leave quick enough. I lose the heels somewhere between Mr. and Mrs. Jensen and Marie’s high school friends, and it aches me just a little to see no rice thrown over our heads or people standing up to applaud and congratulate us on our union.

“Wait, that’s it?”

Marie stops with her hand on the doorknob to turn and look at me.

“What do you mean?”

“Our ceremony. That took us all of, what, ten minutes?”

Marie rolls her eyes and opens the door, dragging me along what looks like the foyer of a giant mansion. Unlike the room we just left, the foyer is spotless. The chess tiles reflect our figures like we’re walking on water and the statues depicting screaming children look like they’ve never seen a speck of dust since their making. There’s a dark staircase straight ahead, the walls left and right of it disappearing into empty darkness, one that is more likely to promise horrors of solitude than those of unwelcomed company. The wall on the left is enveloped by seemingly never-ending empty shelves whereas the one on the right is covered with empty photo frames. The handrails alongside the stairs glisten with fresh lacquer, as do the posts and pillars.

My now-wife seems oblivious to this.

“Where are we going?”

“Our room, silly. We’re husband and wife now. We have to consummate this marriage.”

“What about the party? What about our guests?”

Marie stops and huffs at me like she does when she’s irritated.

“What party? And what about our guests?”

I’m being stupid for asking questions I know I won’t receive logical answers to. This dream about my wedding is messed up as it is; the last thing I should want to postpone is a little privacy with my partner.

“Well, usually, after the religious ceremony…”

Marie’s eyes go wide.

“You know, after the church part, comes the party.”

Church part? Ew. This is our wedding, you doofus, what the hell should we be in a church for?”

I don’t know how to react to that statement, so I shrug and hope we drop the subject altogether. Marie shakes her head in amusement and proceeds to pull me up the stairs.

“You’ve been acting funny all day today. You get weird when you’re nervous.”

“Rather, I get nervous when stuff gets weird.”

“Whatever the case, it’ll all be over and done with once we’ve consummated the marriage.”

Good. At least some things didn’t change with my bride. Or groom, or whatever it is she has turned into.

Our ascension stops at a landing that dissects the staircase in two.

“This way.”

Marie goes right and I follow her. We climb in silence until we reach a massive door – no corridor, no hallway. Just a door at the end of a hundred-something stairs.

The architect must have lied in their resume.

Marie turns towards me, throws me a smirk, and enters. The musty basement smell hits me like the kiss in front of the altar. We’re back in a filthy room. This one tops the filth with dilapidation. It’s dark, but there’s light coming from outside, shining around shapes of dust particles and cracks in the windows. I don’t need to take a closer look to know that every bright spot on the walls is from torn-off wallpaper, as every dark spot marks a nest of fungus.

I don’t care anymore.

I don’t care about the spider webs, or the dusty floors and dirty windows, nor do I care that none of this is real and I’ll wake up soon to a version of Marie that doesn’t have blood on her gums from a punch I delivered. I don’t care anymore.

Sporting a wedding dress or no, I pounce. I kick the door shut with my naked heel and yank my dream wife towards me, to kiss her. She welcomes it. Good.

We lose clothes on our way to the bed, which is probably why we don’t make it that far. Marie lays down on the bear fur in front of the unlit fireplace. The thing must be housing carpet beetles, but if my bride doesn’t care, why should I?

Marie… I am alone with my better half. Swamps, woods, catacombs, as long as I have my girl by my side, I could lay my head down anywhere. She cups my face and strokes my cheeks with her thumbs. I could never tire of the adoration in her eyes and find myself wondering how the hell did I ever get so lucky…

“I love you…”

And just when I want to say it back to her, she grabs the fireplace poker and jams it in my thigh.

I know pain. I know bad hangovers, I know what taking a punch feels like, and I even know what it feels like to fall from a suspended platform on a three-story building.

But this?

My scream must have stirred all the dust in the room. Marie yanks the fire poker out of my thigh, rolls the two of us so that she’s on top of me, and just as she raises the spike to impale my forehead with it, I push her off with all my power.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”

Marie lands on her back. Time stops for a few moments as my wife takes the hair out of her face, to reveal bewildered eyes.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Wha– what I am doing? You attacked me!”

“Exactly! Why aren’t you attacking back?!”

I freeze.

“You could have thrown ash in my eyes, to blind me! Choked me, hell, even push me face-first into that nasty bear fur!”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold up! What, in the name of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, are you talking about?!”

Marie looks taken aback.

“Who?”

“Why would I want to hurt you?! During the ceremony too, why would we hit each other?! This is insanity!”

“You wanted this!”

Marie gets up on shaky legs. I recognize my boxer briefs and white shirt covering her otherwise naked frame. There’s blood on the hook of the fireplace poker and the mere sight of it makes my thigh burn twice as bad.

“I did this for you! I didn’t want to get married! I told you, I think marriage is a scam! It’s useless and constricting, but you talked me into it!”

Marie throws her arms to her sides like she’s expecting me to run over for a hug.

“I would have had no problem spending the rest of my life being your girlfriend! But you wanted more! You wanted us to be like your sister or your dumbass cousin!”

My brain reboots itself in an attempt at making sense of what she’s spewing. Marie was indeed against the idea of marriage for the longest time, until–

“You didn’t want a bond! You wanted a contract!” she sneers. “A contract, and all the unnecessary bullshit that comes along with making death.”

God, this corset is uncomfortable.

“You mean children.”

Marie blinks twice.

“What?”

“We talked about having children, not… the other thing you just mentioned.”

“What children? Why are you messing with me?!”

“I’m not messing with you! I told you I want kids and I gave you a choice! You chose to stay!”

Marie screams. The cracks in the windows expand just a little. She sprints holding the weapon over her head. I dodge, and right as I do so, I put my feet in the way of hers. Marie trips and the fireplace poker flies into a hard surface.

Marie begins to sob and I’m too smitten to leave her be.

“Baby–”

“I didn’t want to create death with you…”

“Me neither, that sounds awful.”

“Why couldn’t we just love each other? Why wasn’t that enough?”

She looks up at me and the despair on her face breaks my heart.

“Why do you need something else intruding into our love?”

There’s the echo of a distant memory playing on the other side of my eyes. I cook dinner and wait for my love to get home. She does, we eat, she finds the ring in her glass of wine. I ask, and she says no. There are tears. A lot of them. My love goes into our bedroom and starts packing her bags. I stop her. We cry some more and make love on the carpet. We talk until the sunrise covers our skins in colors of warmth. She’s scared. So am I. She loves me and I love her in return – so I ask again.

And she says yes.

We’re far from being perfect, but there is absolutely nothing I would change. This is us. I still don’t get what’s happening, but I repeat my reasoning from back then and hope that it’ll work just as well.

“A child is a wonderful thing.”

Something dark and foreign settles on my love’s face. She looks down and gets up.

I realize I backed away from her only when my back touched the door.

“Death is not a wonderful thing, Michael. Why would you wish that for us?”

I can’t see her face anymore. Her hair is in the way. Even so, while she stands there, all dressed in cold midnight and surrounded by the storm outside, a voice from the depth of my guts tells me, Marie’s line of sight has never been clearer.

Why can’t she just see it my way?

“Death isn’t wonderful, Marie. Life is.”

My bride nods and for some reason, it’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen.

She lunges right as I open the door. My thigh is still burning and it’s interfering with my speed down the stairs. I ignore the pain and am surprised to hear no incoming stomps behind me. I look back and there’s no Marie – until there is, all wild eyes in the doorway, with the fireplace poker in hand.

Marie doesn’t bother with the steps. She leaps and sprints, poker in both arms ready to strike as soon as she’s close enough. This is not my wife. Whoever this is, she is not my lover, so dream or no, this fabrication is not killing me in my sleep today.

I avoid the impact by going up three steps and ducking my head. The poker grazes my knuckles, but that’s nothing compared to the damage it does to its wielder. Marie rolls down the stairs and stops with her head on the landing. The poker went through the side of her neck, where throat meets clavicle.

I think I’m going to be sick. I run to my love and fall on my knees next to her head. There’s blood everywhere.

“This dream is so fucked up…”

The blood flows down the stairs and coats the chess tiles. It climbs up the walls, fills the empty shelves, and invades the empty photo frames.

“Marie, how do I wake up from this?”

Marie coughs out blood.

“Is this guilt?”

She looks like she wants to say something, but the only thing coming out of her mouth is blood.

“Is my subconscious trying to tell me, that we don’t need kids to be happy? That we’re enough for each other?”

Marie tries to speak again.

“Or is it a sign? A bad omen, perhaps? A miscarriage, illness, complications…”

“I w–”

I grab her hand and get closer to her face.

“Yes?”

“I woo…”

“Easy, baby, easy. Try again, please.”

More blood. I put my ear right by her mouth. She doesn’t chuckle, but she doesn’t need to – the smile in her voice is as clear as day.

“I win.”

The back of my head hits the stair railing. I can’t breathe. Marie slipped the chain hanging from my collar through two pillars and uses the newel post as leverage to pull with all her might. I claw at everything. First, at the collar, then at the leash. I kick and thrash and hit my wife as she begged me to mere moments ago. Nothing. Marie’s grip on my leash is as firm as the iron railing she’s killing me against. For a dying woman, she’s as strong as ten living ones.

Thrashing and kicking don’t work, and there’s too little air left in my brain to think of a better way out of this. I look at Marie and try to speak. There’s delirium on her face. Ecstasy, even. She looks insane with happiness, and I realize…

I’ve been wrong. This is no dream. I am truly dying.

This is the real Marie. My real Marie. And I was ready to spend my entire life by her side without suspecting the lengths she’d go to, to get her way.

* * * * * *

Marie woke with a start.

She had lost count of the times she had fallen asleep with her head on the shoulder of Michael’s mother, but Loreen, bless her heart, never complained. She didn’t wake her either. Michael’s mother brought Marie a pillow some weeks ago, but Marie never used it. She either fell asleep sitting down, with her upper half splayed over Michael’s legs or on the shoulders of loved ones who also came to visit. In the three months since the accident, Marie has slept at home a total of five and a half times – the half counts for an attempt at sleeping at home but coming back to the hospital at two in the morning, to sleep by Michael’s side. Doctors and nurses were understanding, so they lent her the key to an employee locker, for her to keep clean clothes and toiletries nearby.

“Are you alright, sweetie?”

Marie bit back her tongue. Of course, she wasn’t alright, but she didn’t have to tell Michael’s mother that.

“I’m fine. What time is it?”

“It’s 4:55.”

“I fell asleep on you again… I’m sorry, Loreen.”

“Oh, hush.”

Loreen pulled Marie close enough to kiss the top of her head.

“You need to sleep in a proper bed, honey. At least when somebody else keeps watch. You know we’ll call in case he wakes up.”

“No.” Marie stood up, bones cracking and popping so loudly, it sounded painful. “I need to be here. If Michael wakes up, I want to be the first thing he sees.”

Michael’s mother felt the urge to get up and hug her, but Marie looked anything but keen on tactile interaction – unless it involved her new sleeping pattern.

“Andrew is supposed to arrive today. Did you hear from him?”

Andrew was Michael’s best friend from college. The two of them studied 3D game development and Andrew had been working overseas for the last couple of years.

Marie started walking in a semicircle around the other woman, to get some blood flowing in her legs.

“Not yet. Last I spoke to him, we had to cut it short due to his workload.”

“Speaking of work, is Serena still covering for you?”

Marie shrugged and Loreen dropped the subject. The quiet, however, didn’t last long.

Inside Michael’s room, an alarm began to roar. Marie stormed inside, Michael’s mother on her heels. Nothing had changed. Everything was still in place: the cover, the oxygen mask, the virtual reality goggles. Michael was as still as a statue, but the machinery he was attached to was blaring like a fire alarm in a skyscraper.

“What’s happening?!”

“Step aside!”

The doctor pulled Marie away from the bed and the nurse who followed him inside ushered both her and Michael’s mother out of the room.

“Is he waking up!?”

The excitement in Loreen’s voice made the nurse wince. Marie caught sight of that micro expression and knew for a fact that, once the doctor comes out of the room, he’ll come bearing bad news. Marie and Loreen held each other as they cried. Ten minutes later, the doctor emerged from the room, with his eyes cast down and holding the virtual reality goggles with both hands.

Marie and Loreen braced themselves.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor began. “I’m afraid there’s nothing more we can do. He’s braindead.”

Loreen clung to Marie as she succumbed to a torrent of anguish. The doctor handed the goggles over to Marie and gave the two women a moment of privacy – a moment they both needed, especially before going through the protocol of turning off the machinery.

“My baby… My baby boy is gone… God, how could you have let this happen? Why Michael?! Why my Michael?!”

Marie raised her head to the ceiling and tried talking herself into keeping it together. She knew that, if she were to break the hug first, Loreen would collapse at her feet.

“Why would you take him from us, God? Why…”

A sob escaped Marie’s lips and she hugged her never-to-be mother-in-law tighter.

“Why, on his wedding day of all days!”

“Loreen–”

Michael’s mother broke the hug and Marie helped her sit back down.

“I’m sorry, Loreen, but I need a breath of fresh air. I’ll be right back.”

Michael’s mother wanted to call after her, but Marie ran down the hallway like she wanted to outrun reality.

Once outside, the chilly October air provided both too much oxygen and too little. Marie thought this must be what drowning feels like. The helplessness of it. Falling against a never-ending membrane that is too light to hold you, yet too strong to let you withstand its pressure. Marie wanted to cry, to scream, to curse… and yet…

“Marie?”

She turned towards the voice. Andrew stopped within ten feet of Marie and just one look at her face told him everything he needed to know. The two of them ran towards each other and hugged in a crying mess of sorrow and despair.

“He died, Drew. He passed away just a few minutes ago.”

Andrew’s entire being shook with remorse. He let go of Marie and buried his face in his hands.

“I should have come sooner! I should have just dropped everything and gotten here weeks ago! Damn it all to Hell!

“It’s alright, Andrew… He was out cold for months. The doctors said this outcome was most likely to happen, but… you know… we hoped.”

Andrew took his hands off his face, rage written all over it.

“Did they catch the bastard who did this?”

Marie flinched.

“No…”

“I swear to you, Marie, if I ever get my hands on that son of a bitch–”

“Stop. Please stop.”

Andrew took pity on her and stopped. They hugged again and cried in silence for a few moments. And it would have been for a few moments longer if Andrew hadn’t felt something hard poking him in his right shoulder blade.

“What is that?”

“Oh. This.”

Marie let go of Andrew and showed him the goggles.

“This was Michael’s baby. There’s a chip inside. He worked on this thing non-stop for the past two years.”

Andrew looked confused.

“Why do you have it?”

“Michael’s surgeon gave me the idea…”

Marie wiped her nose with the sleeve of her shirt.

“After the accident, Michael’s brain was not responding to us. We talked to him all the time. Nothing. But then the doctor asked about what music he likes and things he was passionate about… and I thought about this thing.”

Marie let out a pained laugh.

“God, he loved this device. He said it will revolutionize the gaming world. He worked on it day and night sometimes. There were days in which I brought him dinner in his workroom, just to find it untouched the next day when I brought him breakfast.”

Andrew’s confusion deepened.

“It gave us hope, too, because as soon as I put the goggles on him, his brain responded differently. The doctor said it’s a good sign.”

“So those are the Alter goggles?”

Marie’s eyes wiedened a little. She seemed caught off guard.

“You know about them?”

“Of course. Michael talked about them constantly. Is ‘Thetic Anti’ inside?”

Marie didn’t answer. Andrew took her silence for uncertainty.

“Did he not talk to you about the game he was developing?”

“Um…”

“He wanted to call it ‘Paradox’ first, but that one was taken. ‘Thetic Anti: The World Opposite’. It’s supposed to measure your brain waves and mirror their connotations negatively.”

The temperature wasn’t supposed to drop below ten degrees for another month or so. Marie’s fingertips turned slightly blue around the gaming device.

“I’m not an expert in the field, Andrew. Michael knew this; he didn’t talk to me about it much.”

“So he never told you that he was planning on dropping the development altogether?”

Marie’s ears had gotten red.

“No. He didn’t.”

“Hm. Interesting…”

The cold was relentless all of a sudden. It was the middle of fall, yet Marie began to shiver like they were approaching the arctic circle.

“…last I talked to Michael, he said he created a monster. He said that nobody should ever play ‘Thetic Anti’ because it’s dangerous.”

Marie said nothing, so Andrew thought it only fair to share his last memory of his best friend with the person said friend loved most.

“‘Evil’, he called it.” Andrew chuckled bitterly. “Can you imagine? Michael, an atheist to the core, calling anything evil?”

The shadow of a smile that followed Andrew’s chuckle disappeared instantly. Marie held his gaze for a second too long.

“No, I cannot.”

Marie wasn’t shivering anymore. Andrew, on the other hand, was.

“Quite honestly, Drew, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

And with that, Marie turned around and went back inside the hospital, to see to Loreen and what else needed to be done in preparation for the funeral.

Rating: 7.50/10. From 2 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by Lucretia Vastea
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Lucretia Vastea


Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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