In a few minutes, the machine would warm up again, and his mother would come back to life. In the meantime he was alone in the dark with his thoughts. He didn’t like that. He didn’t like this whole process, but it was worth it for the moment when he saw her again.
He removed the headset. Objects slowly differentiated themselves in the darkness. He saw the moonlight bending itself along the contours of the couch, a diffuse silver spreading out evenly over the matte surface of a nail file, a few stars opening in the small window in front of him. The ice cubes had already melted in his glass. The whiskey was lukewarm.
“Stan?” A familiar voice said inside his headset. “Stan, are you there?”
“I’m here, Ma,” Stan said.
“Where are you? I can’t see you. Can you put your headset on?”
Stan sighed and placed the goggles over his eyes. His mother’s familiar face was in front of him, perplexed, and then suddenly smiling, her eyes focusing on his face.
“There you are!” she sang. “I knew you would come back for me.”
“I always come back for you, Ma.”
She had just opened her mouth to speak when the screen went red. White capital letters flashed on the screen: “INCOMING CALL – MELISSA – URGENT.”
“Melissa, you can’t make all of your calls urgent,” Stan said as he picked up the phone.
“You haven’t left that room in three days,” she said. “I know you’re not working in there.”
Stan sighed and took the headphone away from his ear. He could hear the small, tinny sound of Melissa lecturing him as he rubbed his eyes. He could also hear her muffled voice coming from the other side of the door.
“I’ll come out in five minutes,” he said, without putting the phone back to his ear. “Will that make you happy?”
“No. Come out here now.”
In the living room, his mother’s shell was staring into space. Her eyes were glossy and vacant. Nurse Ross was pressing the oxygen mask to her face.
“She’s having some trouble breathing,” Nurse Ross said in a monotone, but Melissa’s eyes were wild. Stan looked between Melissa and his mother’s shell.
“She doesn’t recognize me,” he said weakly. The shell’s eyes followed him as he walked towards her. He knelt down in front of her and held her hand. It felt incredibly small and delicate, like bones wrapped in tissue paper.
“Ma,” he said, “Ma. Can you hear me? It’s your son Stanley.”
She struggled to speak, gasping for breath. Nurse Ross tightened the strap around the oxygen mask, as her mouth opened and closed, like a fish’s.
“Who are you?” a thin, reedy voice asked from behind the mask.
Stan stood up and walked away. He pitied the being trapped inside his mother’s body. It didn’t know who it was, where it was or its reason for living. It was almost certainly in pain. Sometimes he wanted to smash its head in with a rock and end its misery–but he could never kill anything that looked so much like his mother. He walked to Melissa and hugged her for almost a minute.
“How long can we go on like this?” he asked. Melissa dropped her eyes from his.
When Stan returned to the dark room, a tinny, familiar voice called for him from the headset. He put it on and saw his mother’s worried face. Her eyes–her real eyes–met his.
“Where did you go, Stan?” she asked. “I was looking for you.”
“I’m here now, Ma,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”
“I have to worry. I’m a mother, after all. Worry is my middle name.”
She giggled. He put his hands on her shoulders.
“I’ll never leave you, Ma,” he said. “You know that, right? No matter what happens.”
“You had better not,” she said. Her eyes twinkled, just like they used to. Stan hugged her and pulled her close to him, but he felt only empty air in his arms.