It was half past four before the man with the unsuitably large briefcase appeared in the hospital room of Jake West, and another five minutes before Sadie West took any notice of him.
“Forgive the intrusion, but might I have a moment?” The man’s silhouette loomed large in the doorway, a glare catching on his rectangular lenses before his face became clear in the fluorescent lights. Pale skin bent over a narrow skull, sharp angles carving shadows from cheeks and under eyes.
“Can I help you?” Sadie West did not glance up from Jake, instead wrapping her sweaty hand more tightly around his limp one.
“I am deeply sorry for your loss,” said the man. The words were measured, rehearsed. “It must be very difficult.”
“Can I help you?” Sadie West’s voice was dead in her throat.
“I believe so,” the man said. Stepping into the room, he placed the extensive black leather briefcase on the chair where Beatrice West had sat the night before, staring with bloodshot eyes until Sadie made her leave. Beatrice had not slept in two days.
The case might have held a basketball or a watermelon, though it was rectangular, and had two golden clasps on either side of a black leather handle. The man flipped these clasps and lifted the lid. Sadie’s grip on Jake loosened as she half-rose to see inside. Light glanced off the object and flew around the room as the man cradled it in his arms.
“Do you know what this is?”
It was a helmet, about the size of a soccer ball, 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?” she breathed.
“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 experiencing depression or the residual effects of a shock. I would like to make you an offer.” Sadie’s eyes darted to his hands as he raised the helmet.
“Immersive therapy designed to counteract psychological conditions. If you agree, you will be able to enter a virtual world, one that would help ease your condition.”
He inclined his head, indicating the helmet. Sadie West stiffened.
“Take it,” he said. “Both hands.”
Before Sadie could object, she’d let go of Jake’s hand and the helmet rolled into the crooks of her elbows, balancing against her chest. The letters of V-Sphere shone from the etched metal at the base of the helmet’s neck. A real virtual reality console, so close it trembled at her fluttering heartbeat.
“You need not decide now. We will meet with your guardian to decide the best course of action. But that does not mean you cannot take a look.”
The cool metal tingled against the bare skin of her arms. She fidgeted, attempting to trace the “S” but her finger wouldn’t stop trembling.
“What kind of therapy would it be?”
“A game.” Jaggers seated himself in a chair next to his briefcase. “An open-world adventure game.”
Sadie’s eyes slid back to Jake.
“I can’t be playing a game right now. I have other responsibilities.”
“He’s not gone, Miss West.”
“Your brother is not gone.”
“What do you know?” But then she gathered herself. “I’m sorry, I just—“
“You are not well.”
“There are plenty of other people who need therapy more, especially something as extensive as a virtual world.”
“The more participants, the better we can understand how to improve and implement the system.”
“But a sibling of a patient? Just a visitor?”
“I am merely doing the rounds.” A smile curved on Jaggers’ lips. “You are one of many receiving my proposal, and I believe your potential benefit from this therapy is high.” He rose and relieved Sadie’s arms of the V-Sphere. But the absence was heavy.
“When—when would I start, if I did participate?”
“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 her nose, and her gaze followed the sleeve back up to Jaggers’ face. 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?”
She accepted the card—black and white minimalist—and watched the briefcase pause at the door.
“I will await your call.”
She did not wait for him leave. Instead, she returned to Jake.
It had been three days: already his carefully-trimmed beard began to curl as it pleased and his hair—dark, like hers, but spiraling in tight rings—clouded his forehead like a bad dream. In elementary school, teachers knew her as Jake’s younger sister and while wandering their suburban downtown, his friends would approach her to ask if she was Jake’s little sister.
“I held a V-Sphere,” she told him, or the machine at his side, or the tubes, or the needles. She plucked at the edges of the stiff business card. “Aren’t you jealous?”
“Sadie?” Her sister’s frame appeared in the doorway. With her beige purse slung over her shoulder and her hair pinned so that the looping brown curls dangled above her neck, she looked remarkably well put-together.
Sadie answered the question in Beatrice’s eyes with a small shake of her head. Beatrice nodded, pulled up a chair and squeezed Sadie’s hand.
“Nothing, but he’s stable.”
“You should go home and rest.”
“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.” She pressed her fingers to her mouth, holding something back before clearing her throat and saying, “Go on. I’ll call if there are any changes.”
Sadie nodded, biting back any further argument. The business card itched in her hand.
“Bea?” she began. Beatrice had settled by Jake and her strong, piano hand rested on his.
“What’s the matter?”
“Never mind.” Crumpling the business card, Sadie West tossed it in the trash by the door and walked out.
Jaggers leaned against the wall of the hallway, smirking at Sadie’s shock as she noticed him.
“Forgive my neglect, but what time might I expect your answer by? Within the week is best.”
“I can’t accept your offer,” Sadie said. “Thank you but I need to be here, and I don’t need therapy.”
“I see,” he said. “I will discuss it with your sister myself, just to be sure.”
“No! Really,” Sadie held her ground between him and the door, “you don’t need to.”
“I believe I must.” With his free hand, Jaggers eased Sadie to the side and stepped past.
“I won’t do it,” she shot at his back. “It’s my choice.”
“On the contrary, 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. Sadie lurched after him, but already he was at Beatrice’s elbow, offering his hand. Clenching her fists, Sadie stuffed them in her jacket pockets only to pull back with a hiss of pain. A thin line of blood burned between the knuckles of her right hand, and reaching in more gingerly this time, she 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 geometric logo, a quotation burned back up at her like a dare:
It’s just a game, after all.