This story is by Evelyn Wong and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
A warm languid breeze brushed waves against the shore. High above the water, seagulls cried as they swooped down to snap up tasty treats left by tourists. Olivia Kazi stretched out on her lounge chair, her bikini-clad body perspiring under her sun umbrella. She sighed with content. The long plane ride had been exhausting for her fiftyish body but being outside made it all worthwhile.
“Another mai tai, Ms. Kazi?” A well-muscled arm presented her with a drink. Her eyes ran up the sinewy arm to the bald Adonis, his smile bright against his dark skin.
Tilting her sunglasses down to admire the view, she gave him a coy smile and said, “Why, thank you, Amani.”
“You have an appointment for a massage in about thirty minutes—would you like me to come remind you?” His Caribbean accent sent tremors down her spine.
Olivia took off her sunglasses, sipping her drink. “Yes, but…” her voice trailed off, her eyes lingering on his bare chest before lowering past his well-developed abs. “…only if you’ll join me in it.”
He threw his head back laughing. “You are very naughty, Ms. Kazi.”
She walked two fingers up to his elbow, running her hand up and down his bulging bicep. “You have no idea how naughty I can be, Amani.” She gave him a playful growl.
He chuckled. “I had better get back before my boss gets mad at me.” He crouched next to her chair, his eyes looking deep into hers. “I’ll see if I can sneak away.” He trailed two fingers down her upper arm, leaving goosebumps in their wake.
She tapped him on the nose with a wet finger. “Don’t be late.”
He grinned, rising. “Of course not.” He headed back to the restaurant, Olivia leaning around her lounge to watch his retreat. She imagined what her fingernails could do to the round bottom he displayed in those tight swim trunks. Turning back to the water, she sighed happily. This was the life she had always wanted—no more trailer park, no more dodging collectors, no more pain—everything was perfect and as it should be.
“Is the pressure good for you?” her masseuse asked, digging into her back muscles. A soft sigh escaped her lips and she moaned in response. His strong fingers found all her sore spots, kneading them into submission.
The tent flap lifted, a soft breeze wafting through tickling her bare back. Soft murmurs sounded and she reached back with one arm, her voice singing, “Amani, come here.” Her hands opened and closed around empty air until he caught it, his rough fingertips stroking her open palm.
“Relax, Ms. Kazi, we’ll take care of you.” Two sets of hands dove into her back, massaging her into absolute bliss. Her right arm slipped off the massage table and ran up Amani’s muscular leg, thrilling in his response.
Turning her head to the side to look at Amani, the edges of her vision fizzled with static. Blinking rapidly, the edges tunneling in. Her hand reached out, grasping air. “What’s going on?” she asked, her voice trembling. “Hey, wh-what did you do?” Looking over her shoulder, thick lines of static cut through the white canvas massage tent, emptiness lying beyond. She wrapped her arms around her naked form as the static ate away at her vision. “What’s happening? HEY!” she shouted as the darkness enveloped her.
A monitor showing lines and numbers stood next to a large comfortable chair in the hospital. Olivia’s shrunken form appeared childlike in the seat, a headset and earpiece covering her face. A man in a tailored suit reached over and lifted off the headset, turning to the young woman standing a few feet away. “Do you have any questions about the experience, Rina?”
She nodded. “What did all those numbers mean?” She chewed on her lower lip, glancing at her mother’s frail body. The difference in her health from their last visit two months ago was drastic. “Has the cancer…?”
“That was merely a preview. It wouldn’t have impacted the cancer in any way, unfortunately. The numbers indicate her response to the VR experience, and judging from what I’ve seen here, she experienced immense pleasure from this.” Terran replaced the headset and earpiece into a suitcase lined with black foam. “Our purpose is to help our clients live out the rest of their lives in peace. This isn’t a cure for cancer but when your mother experiences her life through our headsets, it’ll provide her with a more…satisfying ending.”
Rina nodded, exhaling a long breath. “And she would have to live out the rest of her life in VR?”
Terran nodded. “That would be the intention. Our program was created for those in immense pain, letting them enjoy their last few moments.”
She glanced down at her mother, watching a breath struggle its way through her frail body. Closing her eyes, she asked, “A-and the cost?” She held her breath, her stomach clenching. She’d have to speak with her accountant to move some money around just to cover her mother’s medical expenses. If she were to add VR on top, she’d have to think of another way to finance it. Rina massaged her temples. Her entire life consisted of her mother coming to her with her palms outstretched, always needing more. No matter how many times Rina helped her, Olivia would never say ‘thank you’. She always said repeating those words too many times would lessen its power.
Terran picked up his tablet, calculating a few things. Turning it to face Rina, he said, “This would be the entire cost including headset, earpiece, touch-responsive VR gloves, and twenty-four hour support if anything were to go wrong. It also accounts for your mother’s projected life span, according to her doctor.”
Her stomach lurched at the sight. Swallowing hard, she asked, “A-are there any concessions made for people who have late-stage cancer? Or-or payment plans?” She paused. “My mom’s part of the low-income tax bracket…”
He pulled the tablet back, his lips thinning. “I’m afraid not. This is the best experience we can offer people like your mother,” he said. Picking up his bag, he slid the tablet into it. “I’ll let you take some time to consider this. But with the pain your mother is in and her current condition, we do recommend the top tier VR experience.”
Her head bobbed up and down. “Of course. Thank you.”
He gave her a wan smile before heading out of the room, his expensive shoes clicking down the linoleum hallway. Rina pulled up a chair, cradling her mother’s emaciated hand in hers. A sob hitched in her throat. Her skin felt heavy, her head drowning in thoughts about money. Her eyes wandered around the room, two colourful cushions on a nearby sofa catching her eye. She glanced back at her mother, pain imprinted on every inch of her sallow-looking skin.
Her mother’s eyes fluttered open. Licking her cracked lips, she said, “Reenie.” Exhaling a pained breath, she continued, “I want you to…help me.” Her teeth ground together as a hiss of pain shot from her lips. “The cushion…”
She glanced back at the colourful cushions, brightening the drab room. “What are you talking about?” she asked, her voice high and tight.
Olivia gave her daughter a look. “Don’t be…stupid…Reenie.”
Realization gripped her and she shot out of the chair, a flush rising up her neck. “I can’t believe you’d even suggest such a thi—” She pressed a hand to her stomach, the revulsion whirling about inside.
“Remember…the carousel?” Olivia struggled for breath, giving Rina a wistful smile. “You promised…me.”
She froze. The memory unfolded in her mind—the promise she’d made, right after her mother had treated her to the carousel all day. It had been her favourite birthday to date. Rousing herself from the memory, she said, “That-that was for financial help, mom. And I’ve done that. I’ve done it my entire life.” She shook her head, a tear escaping down her cheek. “I never promised this…I would never…”
Olivia’s concave chest heaved with a cough. “Do this…one last thing.”
Her world played out in front of her eyes—life in the trailer park, trying to start a new life for herself, the encompassing dread whenever she saw her mother’s number appear, worrying about her mother’s collectors. She pressed her palms into her eyes. It was too much.
“Please…I need you…” her mother’s reedy voice cut through the chatter in her head, freezing the entire moment.
Rina looked down, surprised to see the cushion in her hands. She stared at it in horror, the thought of what she might have to do sending her stomach reeling. Her arms trembled as the promise tore apart her insides.
“You’re…a good girl, Reenie.” Olivia closed her eyes, her expression peaceful. “Thank you.”