Up until that moment, I would have killed to get myself inside a video game. Jake used to say computers tell the same kinds of truths that books do, if people could only understand them. But he lay cold and voiceless on his hospital bed, his hand leaden within mine as an address grew stale in the chemical air.
“Miss West?” A silhouette rose in the doorway, a glare catching on rectangular lenses before the face became clear in the fluorescent lights. His pale skin bent over a narrow skull, sharp angles carving shadows from his cheeks and under his eyes.
“Can I help you?”
“I heard about your brother.” There were condolences in his voice, but his eyes remained bright. “It must be very difficult.”
“Can I help you?” My tone hardened. The man’s eyebrows twitched.
“I believe so,” he said. Stepping into the room, the man placed a large black leather briefcase on the chair where my sister had sat the night before staring with bloodshot eyes until I made her leave. She hadn’t slept in two days.
He popped the lid open. Still holding onto Jake, I half stood up but sank back as I recognized the object cradled in the man’s arms.
“Do you know what this is?”
It was a helmet, about the size of a soccer ball, made of gleaming blue-tinted silver. A glass visor covered the top half of the front, while the bottom was left open for the mouth and neck. Perfectly cordless, compact, and inexplicably real.
“How can you have one?” I breathed.
“Miss West, you have experienced a tragic shock. My name is John Jaggers,” he tapped a silver, rectangular badge pinned to his breast pocket, “and I work for an institution interested in providing more effective therapy for patients of depression or the residual effects of a trauma. I would like to make you an offer.” My eyes darted to his hands as he raised the helmet.
“What do you mean?”
“Immersive therapy, but created to counteract teenage psychological conditions. If you agree, you will be able to enter a virtual world, one that would help you return to your former self.”
He bent his head, indicating the helmet.
“Take it,” he said. “Both hands.”
Before I could think, I’d let go of Jake’s hand and the helmet rolled into the crooks of my elbows, balancing against my chest, the letters of V-Sphere shining from the etched metal at the base of the helmet’s neck. A real virtual reality console, so close it trembled at my fluttering heartbeat.
“Of course not, we will have to talk with your guardian in order to decide your best course of action. But that does not mean you cannot take a look.”
The cool metal tingled against my bare skin of my arms.
“What kind of therapy would it be?” I tried to trace the “S” but my finger wouldn’t listen to my brain. Served me right for not eating since yesterday morning.
“A game.” Jaggers seated himself in a chair next to his briefcase. “An open-world adventure game.”
My eyes slid to Jake.
“Even if I needed therapy, I don’t need it now. I have other responsibilities.”
“He’s not gone, Miss West.” Jaggers leaned forward.
“What do you know?” I let out my breath. “I’m sorry, I just—“
“You are not well, Miss West.”
“But there are plenty of people who need therapy more, especially something as extensive as a virtual world.”
“The more participants, the better we can understand how best to improve and implement the system.”
“But why someone like me? I’m just the sibling of a patient here.”
“I am merely doing the rounds.” A smile curved on Jaggers’ lips. “You are one of many who are receiving my proposal, and I believe your potential benefit from this therapy is very high.” He rose and relieved my aching arms of the V-Sphere. But the absence was heavy.
“When—when would I start, if I did participate?” I couldn’t concentrate with the emptiness in my hands.
“As soon as you have the consent of your guardian.” His briefcase clicked closed. “You may contact me by phone at your earliest convenience. Also—“ A business card appeared under my nose, and I followed the sleeve back up to Jaggers’ eyes. His eyebrows had sunk to merge with the top line of his glasses. “It would be wise to keep this private. I hope we understand each other, Miss West?”
I accepted the card—black and white minimalist—and watched the briefcase pause at the door.
“I will await your call.”
I didn’t look up to watch him leave. Instead, I returned to Jake.
It had been three days, and already his carefully-trimmed beard had begun to curl from his chin, his hair—dark, like mine, but spiraling in tight rings—messy, clouding his forehead like a bad dream. In elementary school, teachers knew me as Jake’s younger sister and while wandering our suburban downtown, his friends would come up to me to ask if I had an older brother.
“Is this even real?” I asked him, or the machine at his side, or the tubes, or the needles. I plucked at the edges of the stiff business card.
“Sadie?” My sister’s frame appeared in the doorway. With her large black leather purse slung over her shoulder and her hair pinned up so that the looping brown curls dangled above her neck, she looked remarkably put-together. I hadn’t brushed my hair since…
Pushing myself to my feet, I wrapped her in a hug. She squeezed me, nodding into my shoulder.
“Nothing, he’s stable, but not much else.”
“You should go home and rest.”
“I’m fine,” I said, pulling away and smiling.
“You could smell better.”
“I can’t be that bad.”
“Go on, it’s my turn.”
“No, Sadie,” she held up her hand, “for now, it’s just the two of us. I need you rested, and healthy, and…ready.” Her fingers covered her mouth, holding something back before she cleared her throat and said, “Go on. I’ll call if there are any changes.”
I nodded, biting back any further argument. The business card itched in my hand.
“Hey, Bea?” I began. She had settled by Jake and her strong, piano hand rested on his. She did not look up.
“What’s the matter?”
“Never mind,” I said. Crumpling the business card, I tossed it in the trash by the door and walked out.
Jaggers leaned against the wall of the hallway and, when I noticed him, he smirked.
“I can’t accept your offer,” I said. “We have too much to deal with at the moment, and I don’t need therapy.” Not yet.
“I see,” he said. “I will discuss it with your sister myself, just to be sure.”
“No, really,” I held my ground between him and the door, “you don’t need to.”
“I believe I must.” With his free hand, Jaggers eased me to the side and stepped past.
“I won’t do it,” I shot at his back. “It’s my choice.”
“Rather, it is for your guardian, Beatrice West, to decide. She will want what is best for you.” Jaggers tilted his head to the side so his face was profiled against the endless stretch of hospital hallway beyond him. “And what is best for you may be what is best for many.”
“What do you mean?”
His smirk returned, but he merely shrugged and slipped into Jake’s room. I almost followed him, but it was too late. Clenching my fists, I stuffed them in my jacket pockets only to pull back with a hiss of pain. A thin line of blood burned between the knuckles of my right hand, and reaching in more gingerly this time, I withdrew a small rectangle of paper. A black and white, minimalist business card. Under the name—simply “Jaggers”—and phone number, and to the right of the nondescript logo, a quotation burned back up at me like a dare:
It’s just a game, after all.