Chessy catches the ridiculous eight-foot purple foam ball that her grandson Stefan has thrown down to her from his precarious perch up on the little red biplane that circles twenty feet above.
She steps back to throw the ball up to him and accidentally bumps into the line of cartoon goggle-eyed octopuses dancing behind her on the evergreen grass. This is Stefan’s world. He’s six, and boy does it show. Chessy wonders (and not for the first time) how much of this oversaturated, gaudy aesthetic is what Stefan actually likes, or if it’s mostly what options the platform gave him or what he learned watching videos online. Goodness, she hopes he has better taste than this.
Clearing herself of the inconvenient octopuses, she gets ready to hurl the ball back up, but of course now she can’t see Stefan. The biplane is still circling overhead (as it always is and presumably always will be), so he must have jumped off it. Or Erica may have pulled his patch off and he’s back in the real world with his family, being picky about dinner or doing homework or glued to a tablet. Which is fine, except that Chessy has asked Erica multiple times (so many times) to always give them a minute to say goodbye first. Erica knows full well why this matters. Chessy starts rehearsing in her head the mild diatribe she’s going to give her daughter the next time she sees her.
Ah, no diatribe needed. There Stefan is, hunting with Mariana through the long grass for Olly, who may very well win this round of hide and seek. Not gone after all. Good.
Chessy tosses the ball to the side and sits down on the grass to rest. She’s tired. But then she’s always tired now, lying there in her hospital bed back in the real world, getting older every day. Eighty-six years now. Or was it eighty-seven? She stopped caring fifty-odd years ago when Mama died, and then stopped caring even more when Frank passed.
With the grandkids busy for a few minutes, she takes a break and opens her real eyes. Late afternoon, warm sun rays shining through the blinds. Blessedly alone, with no nurse in the room, though surely it won’t take long before they return.
Her real arms ache from a jungle of IVs. She should just pull them out and skedaddle on out of here, she thinks. Then she remembers with a start that she’s footless: they sliced off her left foot earlier in the week, for reasons that made sense at the time but have since blurred and smudged in her memory. She’s not sure she’s ever going to get used to being an amputee. Incomplete. Though on second thought that’s how she’s felt all these years anyway, after Mama and Frank; this is just one more step in that direction. Which is a metaphor she is now determined to stop using.
Chessy wonders how much more of this she has to endure. Frank’s been gone seven years this coming March, and she doesn’t know why she’s still here. The extra time with her children and grandchildren is usually worth it, yes, but she wants to move on.
She closes her eyes and returns to Stefan’s virtual reality world, where she’s young again, out of pain, and completely footful. Walking! Running! Pleasant lies.
Stefan and Mariana and Olly are sitting in a circle in the grass playing some silly game that involves slapping hands and knees. The kind of game that she’d have to bow out of in the real world because of fragility.
“Grandma is back,” Stefan says without looking up. “Olly said you died.”
“That’s not what I said,” Olly insists. He punches Stefan lightly. Or maybe that’s part of the game. She can’t tell.
Chessy sits next to Olly and tousles his hair, which is in dire need of a cut. “It’s okay. The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Not catching the reference (which seems to be more and more the story of her life as she gets older), they ignore that, broaden the circle, and make room for her. The next half hour is full of random soft slaps and, later, frantic duck duck goose. Even with a younger VR body she feels like she can barely keep up with it all. But it is good.
“Mom says it’s time for dinner,” Mariana suddenly says. “We have to go. Bye, Grandma.” She and Stefan are in a later timezone on the east side of the country. Olly decides to leave too, even though he’s on the west coast and his family eats late anyway.
After a round of nourishing hugs and goodbyes, all three kids vanish in a cloud of sparkles, leaving a whiff of peppermint behind them.
Standing there near the dancing octopuses, Chessy is hit by a not entirely unexpected wave of grief. Mama’s gone, and she didn’t ever get to say goodbye to her. In spite of Chessy’s attempt to think of something — anything — else, the memories begin once again to autoplay in her mind’s eye. Working on her French homework at uni, curled up in a library carrel. The phone call from Papa, ignored. The second call, also ignored. (It’s a library, after all.) The fateful text. Frantically cramming her textbook into her backpack and accidentally dropping it on the floor with a very loud thud. Jogging outside and calling Papa back. Collapsing quietly on the grass, then having to shoo away a handful of concerned students. Later, seeing Mama’s urn at the funeral and collapsing again, this time wracked by sobs.
Chessy still can’t remember what her last words to Mama were, or when they were, or what they were about. She very much remembers that she had another missed call an hour or so before Papa’s that she ignored for the same reason, a call that was from Mama, a call she wishes desperately that she had answered even if she’d gotten shushed.
She sees her imagined version of what happened to Mama in that self-driving car. The cement truck, the avoided pedestrian family. She wonders again how long Mama lay there before passing. Whether she was in much pain. Whether she thought about Chessy at all.
Hush, Chessy tells herself. That was all long ago. A different life. Mama might not have gotten to see Chessy’s children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren with her own eyes, but maybe she’s been able to watch from where she is. And even if her end was painful, surely by now Mama is no longer hurting.
Chessy opens her eyes and wipes away the tear that’s streaking down her face. A nurse is quietly closing the door on his way out. The pain in her left leg has gotten worse, like someone is scraping the marrow out of her bones. She briefly considers pressing the button for more medication, but it’s cheaper and faster to just jump back into VR, where the patch overrides her real-body nerve input with its simulated sensations, so she closes her eyes again.
She’s about to hop out to the overworld to pick a less childish world when she sees a flash of white moving in the distance, through the long grass. It looks like it might be a person. Which is a problem: there shouldn’t be anyone still here — it’s a sandbox world, locked down to just Stefan and those he invites. Erica said not three days ago that she and Dmitri had checked the user access list recently and it just had their family, the cousins, and Chessy.
She isn’t about to let some creepy stranger prey on her grandson. Metaphorical hackles raised, she pursues. Periodically she jumps ten feet into the air (ah, Stefan’s world) to check her bearings.
The stranger is sitting, leaning back against a solitary spindly tree with marshmallows instead of leaves.
The stranger isn’t a stranger after all. It’s Mama.
She’s wearing an angelic white robe made out of what looks like linen. Her hair has gone white. It looks good on her. She’s watching Chessy with a warm expression on her face, like she’s been looking forward to this reunion for a long time.
Chessy is not prepared for this. Confused, she bites her finger and tries to hold back tears. Mama shouldn’t be here. It doesn’t make sense. Did Stefan program her in as an NPC? How would a six year old even know how to do that? Even if he asked the AI to do it, where would it get reference material to train on? This is impossible.
Maybe it’s a glitch and her brain is interpreting something else as Mama. That’s entirely possible, she thinks, though she’s also very much not an expert in VR.
“Hello, Chessy,” Mama says.
That sure blows up the dam. Chessy stands there like a glitchy NPC herself, shaking, sobbing, unsure whether this is real and what real even means.
“Been a while, hasn’t it.” Mama pats the grass beside her for Chessy to join her.
She stays where she is. “How? Are you…? I don’t understand.”
“I believe I’m real, yes,” Mama says with a laugh that Chessy has missed so, so much. “I don’t know how, exactly. But here I am. I don’t know how long I can stay.”
Chessy decides that even if she’s just dreaming this, it feels like Mama and that’s good enough. She plops herself down next to her and they hug. Oh how she’s grateful for this VR body, because this kind of a twisting hug would be murder on her real back.
They talk about life after the accident, about Frank, about the kids and grandkids and great-grandkids. Even a little bit about Papa, though neither of them want to dwell there for long. Decades to catch up on. The conversation meanders through Chessy’s advanced age and imminent passage, too. It’s the kind of long, fulfilling conversation she’s been having with Mama in her head for years.
A glowing notification orb shows up at the edge of Chessy’s field of view. It’s the nurse telling her she needs to come back. She ignores it. Another orb appears, flashing more urgently this time. She begins to worry that the nurse might pull the patch off her neck.
“Mama,” she says, holding her mother’s hand — still familiar, even after all these years. “I have to go. If I don’t, maybe we won’t get to say goodbye, and I can’t do that again.”
Mama’s eyes get crinkly. “There’s no goodbye this time. You’re coming with me.”
Surprised, Chessy opens her eyes to commotion and pain. The hospital room is full of people and swishes back and forth like she’s on a boat. The monitor is making startling, screeching noises. Something bad is happening. She closes her eyes again and returns to the tree in Stefan’s peaceful world.
Mama is still there. She’s standing, reaching her hand out to Chessy.
“Wait,” Chessy says. If she goes now, she’s leaving Erica and Stefan and Mariana and Olly and the others without saying goodbye, doing the same thing Mama did to her.
“There’s no time.”
“Maybe I can leave something for them,” she says, trying to think. It’s getting harder. The sloshiness of the real world is seeping into this one. There’s supposed to be a way she can pull a new object into this world and write on it, but she’s tapping her tongue all over her mouth and still can’t find it. She kneels, grabs a stick, and tries to scrape some letters out of the dirt. But the ground is hard as diamond.
Mama touches her shoulder. “We have to go now.” She extends her hand.
Shuddering with a panicked sadness, Chessy stands up. This is what she’s wanted for years, ever since Frank’s heart attack, but now that the moment is here, she finds herself wanting to stay — at least long enough to say goodbye. She doesn’t want to leave the same wound behind. But she’s old, where Mama was not, and she’s in a hospital where her children in all likelihood expect her to pass at any moment. Oh, how she wishes they could be gathered round her, the way one ought to die.
But Mama appears to be right. Stefan’s world is quaking violently now, chunks of sky falling and causing volcanic eruptions when they hit the ground. It won’t be long before one lands in their vicinity, and who knows what will happen then.
Chessy takes a deep, shaky breath. She whispers an apologetic goodbye to those she loves and hopes they feel it, somehow.
She takes Mama’s hand and the world shifts.