Donovan opened his eyes to the small hospital room. His body had slumped to the side, the hard armrest attempting to pierce his ribs. He groaned and rubbed the sore spot.
Machines beeped, and the soft sounds of footsteps and talking pushed through the darkened window from behind. At the center of the room, lit by a lamp, lay Nini.
Her eyes were still closed, a small green dot glowing at her temple. She was never one to leave the virtual world behind quickly. But Donovan couldn’t really blame her for that.
Her once blonde hair was gone. The skin around her eyes and cheeks and nose had sunk to the bone, discolored, changed from a once rosy white with little brown freckles to a wan yellow.
It was just the two of them in this last stretch, fighting for what everyone else took for granted—time, health, a working body that allowed the pursuit of dreams rather than the prison it had become.
Nini groaned, her soft breaths quickening to pained panting as she struggled out of the virtual world. She twisted around, her skeletal arms pushing at her blankets and blue hospital gown.
“Hey, shhh,” Donovan said. He had moved to her and gently cupped the side of her head as if doing more would break her. “Look at me, Nini. I’m right here. . . . I’m right here.”
Seeing her like this, so completely different from the daughter he knew, desperately clinging to life, broke him a little every day. She didn’t know she was his lifeline. Ever since his wife, Marian, died three years ago, Nini had become his beacon in the darkness.
She was the light to show him the way, to keep him going, to give him purpose. And yet, with each day, the shadows slipped further in. Her light dimmed. The once lively and quirky girl slowly succumbed to the same disease that had stolen Marian from him.
He blinked tears away. Nini couldn’t know how he felt—couldn’t know how incredibly broken he was. He wouldn’t show her that side. He had to be strong, be the pillar she could lean on, the strength to beat this thing that had already claimed thousands of lives.
Nini’s eyes fluttered, showing only the whites. Her breathing wasn’t settling. The machine beeped and beeped, each a fraction faster than the last. Then it began to wail, flashing red light.
Oh, God! He smashed the button to call the doctor, and the door swung open. He twisted around, sputtering something, motioning to the machine.
A male orderly wearing a headset and holding a tray of food had pushed the door open with his back. “Alright, little Nini, I got your favorite apple sauce—”
Donovan shoved past him. The tray clattered to the floor, throwing tan-colored muck across the tiles. “Doctor!” he yelled. “Nurse! We need help in here!”
A woman was already running down the hall with a metal tablet under her arm. Five or six nurses followed. One of the nurses held him back as the others pushed into the small room.
The darkened window to the room cleared just as the machine’s monitor abruptly changed from its horrible spiking lines with each beat of Nini’s heart to something much worse: a solid flat line.
No, no, no. . . .
The woman doctor climbed onto the bed as it lowered. She started compressions as another nurse rolled out a machine. Two compressions a second.
They pulled Nini’s hospital gown open and attached pads. Someone said something, then Nini’s wire-thin body tensed, lifting from the bed, then falling back for the compressions to resume.
The minutes pushed on and on. Every second ticked toward a new state of permanence, an end to a single frail life, a beacon gone dark. It was so sudden. They didn’t get to say goodbye.
No, it’s not over. They’ll bring her back, he thought, he hoped; he held to that single belief because that was the only thing that could happen. Nini was fine. She was strong. They were going to get through this!
The woman doctor stopped her compressions. She wiped a hand across her forehead and then began to dismount from the bed. The machine continued to flash an angry red light.
Donovan pushed back into the room. The nurse tried to stop him, holding his arm and saying something that didn’t register. It was all just noise. Noise that mixed with the machine, whining its single tone that droned on and on.
“Why did you stop! You can’t stop!” he yelled, bumbling forward. His hands were shaking. The world blurred. He couldn’t take another step. The strength wasn’t there. He leaned to the side, and the nurse caught him.
Someone pushed a button. The machine’s tone blipped once, then silence.
The doctor turned. She had that look of helplessness, a look that said there was nothing else they could do, a look that said it was over.
All of the others avoided his frantic stare. A nurse pulled Nini’s hospital gown to cover her frail chest and the many blue and yellow wires, like that mattered anymore. Someone else was affixing something to her head.
The room emptied of air. Everything moved in slow motion. His heart thrashed. His head hurt. She couldn’t be gone. They were going to see the faeries. She wanted to see the faeries . . . she—
Donovan cupped his mouth and turned, retching the little bit he had eaten for dinner onto the floor. The room spun; his mind raced. Before anyone could stop him, he pushed himself to his feet and ran.
He couldn’t be there. Not right then, maybe not ever.
She was . . .