A dying man records his last days while immersed in an artificial world of virtual reality.
As I sit at the table with a bowl of cereal placed in front of me, I take the spoon and stir the contents around a bit as I try to work up an appetite. I got up around fifteen minutes ago, and my equilibrium continues to deteriorate. When I stood up after getting out of bed, I nearly fell to the floor, and would have if I hadn’t grabbed onto the post in the corner. With deliberate slowness, the dizziness subsides, and after a brief visit to the bathroom, I manage to make my way into the kitchen. Still trying to decide whether or not I can actually eat what sits before me, I glance to my left and look at the calendar that hangs on the south wall. Yesterday was Monday, so today is Tuesday, the 21st.
March 21st is the official beginning of spring, but in the part of the country where I live, that’s pretty meaningless. We typically still have snow on the ground along with sub-freezing temperatures well into the middle of April. To top it off, even when the cold and miserable white stuff finally does melt, it merely gives way to a slightly less-cold rain and a perpetual cloud cover that will hover relentlessly for at least another month. During this time of year, those of us who are not frequent flyers see the sun perhaps once every ten days or so, save for an occasional brief peek when the clouds disperse for approximately thirty seconds. I am particularly finicky about the weather. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not palatable until the temperature is at least seventy-five degrees. It also has to be sunny. Cloudy skies are depressing and serve as a reminder of my predicament. For the past several years, I have counted down the number of days until June 1st. This is when the weather finally becomes nice for a hundred days, give or take. Then the cycle repeats itself, year after year. For nine months the sky will be gray ninety percent of the time and in the rare event that we do see blue, it doesn’t matter, because it’s too cold to be outside, anyway.
My countdown to June is especially meaningful this year. I may not see the latter part of spring. According to the doctors, I have already surpassed their expectations by living this long. Last October, just before Halloween, I was diagnosed with a stage four carcinoma in my brain. The summer before this, I was sitting on my back deck as I often do, sipping a cold can of soda and enjoying the outdoors. Suddenly I developed a headache. At first I didn’t think much about it. Everyone gets headaches from time to time, and there are probably hundreds of causes that would not be considered serious. Despite my taking some over-the-counter ibuprofen, this headache lasted for several hours. Still, I didn’t give it much thought, and continued to take advantage of the precious sunshine. Finally by evening, the headache was gone.
The next morning as I woke up, it returned with a vengeance. My head felt as though it were being squeezed by a gigantic vise. I felt feverish and noticed light beads of sweat as I wiped my forehead with a Kleenex. I could have taken my pulse simply by looking at my wristwatch and counting the beats that throbbed within my head with steady but fast rhythm. For several years, off and on, I had endured the occasional sinus problems and therefore assumed I was once again at the mercy of barometric pressure changes in the atmosphere.
I took some pills specifically designed to combat the pressure brought on by sinusitis to no avail, and so I thought to myself, maybe this is a bad infection that over-the-counter stuff simply won’t break up. I decided to drive to the Urgent Care Center. I didn’t have a regular physician. I never went to doctors unless something was wrong which hadn’t shaken itself loose within a month or so. The person who examined me, a physician’s assistant, agreed that it was probably an acute sinus infection and sent me home with an antibiotic.
For the next two weeks, the headaches persisted, despite my taking the medication as directed. I returned to the Urgent Care Center and told them my problem. This time, a doctor who I assume was the physician assistant’s supervisor referred me to a neurologist, and suggested that perhaps I was suffering from migraines. Within a week, I was in the specialist’s exam room. He told me that to be safe; I should have an MRI performed. My insurance company would cover the expensive procedure and it would probably get to the root of the problem. I had no fear of enclosed spaces, as many do as they lay down on a moving platform, sealed inside a tomb-like device for about an hour, but I was nervous. The fact that they wanted to do an MRI was cause for fear of the worst. If a tumor wasn’t a possibility, the procedure would have never been recommended.
Of course, by now you know that my fears were indeed confirmed. I had a mass in my brain that was approximately the size of a crabapple. It was inoperable. Surgical removal would render me a vegetable hooked up to life-support, and then for only a matter of days. Obviously this was no option. They estimated a life expectancy of three months without treatment. Aggressive doses of toxins into my bloodstream that would travel to the tumor and shrink it moderately would buy perhaps six more months, but with side-effects, such as hair loss, nausea, weakness, and eventually, paralysis. Miraculous procedures depicted in the often-utopian world of television are years away from being perfected and then approved. There were no such options in my case. I was going to die. It was just a matter of when the goose would be cooked. I passed on the chemo option. In the big scheme of things it didn’t really matter. Perhaps if I had sired children or been an important person in the midst of some last gasp of creativity that could bring pleasure to a few, it may have been worth it, but I had nobody to carry my name into the next century. Nobody would inherit the smallest of my traits or mannerisms, nor did I brighten anybody else’s life in any way I could think of. I instead chose to spend my remaining time in a world of virtual reality; a computer-generated calliope of chosen fantasies.
Like movie rentals, virtual reality has become a popular means of entertainment. At the current time, many people rent the equipment necessary to experience this relatively new craze. When big-screen plasma TV’s first became available to the public, they were priced quite high; around six thousand dollars. Similarly, home-based virtual reality setups are quite expensive. I’m certain that ten years from now they will become more affordable. Of course I won’t be around to see this happen, yet I crave the temporary pleasure it provides for me. There is nothing quite like it. A person can experience whatever he or she desires by typing in a chosen time, location, and activity onto a simple computer keyboard. A device that closely resembles a motorcycle helmet with a visor is placed on the person’s head. This in turn has a single cord that can be plugged into the back of any modem. A separate unit resembling an old TV cable box is also plugged in. Although not required, it is strongly recommended that the user either lie down or sit in a comfortable chair. In the dead of winter, a person can type the words, “Cancun,” “Beach,” and “Cocktail,” attach the headgear, push the “Send” button, and be immediately transported to a beautiful beach with glowing white sand in eighty-degree weather and be seated in a lounge chair with a strawberry Margarita in one hand listening to the rhythmic tides of the clear, blue ocean.
I should note that the only virtual reality restrictions on time are the present and the past. The future hasn’t occurred and cannot be chosen. However, a schoolboy who desires to write a detailed, hands-on account of some historical event such as Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the surface of the moon, can type in the keywords and virtually become Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969.
A football fan may desire to experience a great moment such as a Super Bowl victory or become a great athlete such as Walter Payton.
A lover of music may wish to become a prodigy such as Wolfgang Mozart, a mellow crooner such as Perry Como, a rock and roll guitar legend such as Keith Richards, a soulful singer such as Joss Stone, a country superstar such as Tim McGraw, or even a shocking entertainer such as Marilyn Manson.
A timid individual deprived of intimate companionship may wish to fulfill his or her sexual needs without the risk of illegal or medical consequences. However, proof of attaining the age of eighteen years is required if anyone chooses this particular option.
I favor the warm, sunny beach scenarios for the most part. If you share my preference for warm weather, I suspect you would choose as I do. In the times before I became prey to this affliction, I could never understand the people who complained incessantly about the heat and humidity of our pitifully short summers. I think of how quickly they forget the fact that it is cold, gray, and miserable the rest of the year. There are, of course, some, if not many, people who prefer the cold. In fact, a very common attitude among those who dwell in these parts is that a person can always put more layers of clothing on to become warmer while at times when it is too hot, the person can only remove so much, and therefore colder weather is better. As for me, I’d rather have three months of temperatures in the high nineties or low hundreds than seven or eight months of winter. Even before this growth started in my head my basic philosophy was that if palm tress didn’t grow where a person lived, it was too cold, and I will cling to this belief until this malignancy overtakes me and reduces my physical body to a lifeless conglomeration of flesh and bone, destined to decay.
Following my grim diagnosis, I went through the usual stages that a terminally ill patient experiences. In the beginning, I denied that anything with such finality could possibly be happening to me. Millions of people, after all, go through life with often unexplained migraine headaches and simply learn to cope with them. Other than the headaches themselves, I felt fine, physically. I went to a different doctor for a second opinion. However, as you may have guessed by now, I wanted to see if there was any possibility, no matter how remote, that the initial diagnosis was incorrect. Doctors are merely human as we all are and can make mistakes. I gambled some of my savings and lost. My insurance would only cover one MRI per year. The tumor was there, and there wasn’t a damned thing anyone could do about it.
I fell into a deep depression following the second MRI. I was twenty-eight years old and would soon be robbed of life at least half a century prematurely. I would never experience what others usually had when closing in on three decades: an opportunity for advancement in my career, a significant other, a home I could call my own.
Now, as my vision blurs in and out of a distorted haze and my balance has since become severely compromised, the realization is that my life as I’ve known it will be coming to an end soon; perhaps in a matter of days. It strikes home as if an enormous bolt of lightning in an ensuing storm will sever a gigantic oak tree that has faithfully provided shade for centuries. I have but one activity to look forward to and hence choose to spend my remaining time in the artificial world of virtual reality. The terms artificial and reality are antonyms, yet I ask: Does it really matter at this point? In a short time, my heart will stop pumping. I will stop breathing. Electrical activity in my diseased brain will cease. This is not of my choosing, yet a stark reality nonetheless. I must rent the necessary equipment for as long as I am physically able, for it is my sole means of escape. My inevitable fate draws closer as does a specific destination with each blade of grass, each insignificant pebble, which passes beneath a traveler’s feet.
To whom it may Concern: If the equipment has not been returned by the due date, and furthermore all telephone inquiries and/or letters have failed in retrieving said merchandise, then it is likely that you are now at my residence following my passing. I have thoroughly enjoyed the use of your product, and would highly recommend it to those who are uninitiated. I would like to express my thanks and humbly apologize if any late fees have incurred.
Sincerely, William Magnusson
Ron Lewis folded the neatly-typed letter and placed the four sheets of paper onto the table.
“Wow….” was all he could say as he stroked his bearded chin.
Bob Morris, who had been Bill’s next-door neighbor for the past two years, had let him in.
Ron, the technician from Go Anywhere, the local company which provided the virtual reality experience, was quite surprised but still managed to ask the obvious.
“So, this guy knew he didn’t have long, and he contacted you?”
“That’s correct,” answered Bob.
“Bill knew he could go at any time, so a couple of weeks ago he asked me to come to the house every morning and ring the doorbell. If he didn’t answer, then I was to assume that he had passed away and call you guys.”
“And, of course, 911.”
The paramedic truck had arrived at the house about a half hour before Ron, and William Magnusson’s body had already been removed. Bob had identified the corpse, and identification was found in his wallet. The helmet had been placed next to Magnusson’s computer, located on the kitchen table. Ron pondered whether or not it would be in good conscience to dispose of it. He thought of how many individuals must have died while asleep. If someone were to pass away in a hotel, for instance, the management surely wouldn’t replace an entire bed. But what about the mattress, or the sheets? Future clients would be using the helmet, but of course it was required that headgear be disinfected upon each return. He would inform the owners at Go Anywhere and let them decide. The cable to the power source remained plugged into the modem. Ron walked over and disconnected it. He placed the cable cord and power box next to the helmet. A half-eaten bowl of corn flakes sat adjacent to the keyboard. He turned to Bob.
“Thanks for calling, Mr. Morris,” he said, shaking his hand.
“No problem,” Bob replied.
Ron gathered the items from the table and exited the house. As he was loading the equipment into the van parked in the driveway, Bob approached him one last time.
“There’s one more thing I thought you should know,” he said.
“What’s that?” asked Ron.
“When I found Bill, he had the biggest smile on his face that I’d ever seen.”
These words were as captivating as a song that someone couldn’t shake, and on the return trip to the store, Ron kept hearing them over and over again.
The illumination was quite brilliant even through dark sunglasses and a far cry from the dreary skies of the upper Midwest. He shifted his position just enough to reach a beverage perched on the small table next to his chair. As he took a small sip, he noted that the ingredients had been mixed perfectly, although he had no idea who had given it to him. The mating call of a distant seagull briefly interrupted the hypnotic drumming of the ocean’s waves. The radiant heat from the white sand beneath him was comforting.
When he was finished with his drink, Bill got up to take a walk. He had been lying in the lounge chair for an indeterminable amount of time, and wanted to see where else this particular experience would take him. Beautifully-crafted buildings with an unfamiliar style of architecture stood a few dozen yards to his right, yet seemed to be deserted. He continued to walk along the beach, alone but content. The oddly-styled structures were soon replaced by a clump of palm trees. Bill could hear faint traces of music that seemed to be coming from the foliage. As he drew closer to the source, the repetitive melody was like nothing he had ever heard; hauntingly dissonant and beautifully poignant at the same time. He paused for a moment to listen. Suddenly, a recollection came to life with a renewed sense of urgency. I remember that music! Did I dream of it at one time? As he pondered that thought, a group of people appeared on the other side of the palm trees. A beautiful woman dressed in some sort of white silk began to approach while the others looked on. Memories were now returning rapidly. How long had it been? He wondered. Thirty years?
The woman held out her hands and clasped Bill’s. She looked lovingly into his eyes, and said, “Welcome home.”
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|Reviewed by Jerry Engler
|Very interesting and intriguing story here. You went beyond Rod Serling's usual. Good write...Jerry|