I put on my VR glove. Its touch sensors will let me interact with the elements of this place not only by vision but also by feel. Then I push open the virtual door, relishing the sense of how heavy it is, how it resists giving way.
On its other side, next to an IV pole, is an ICU bed.
Bathed in unreal sunlight that streams in through a window, the bed is bare. Its air mattress platform, designed for pressure relief, has been stripped off. Soiled bedsheets are draped over a hamper in the corner of the space. This virtual model hasn’t yet been upgraded to include smell. Now that’s a relief.
I touch the bed, feel its corner bumpers, its castors. Strangely, it seems to have been stopped in the middle of performing its innovative tilting process, known to help turn the patient gently, minimizing physical effort. The plastic side rails have been dropped. There are no readout graphs on the overhead screens. No blinking lights, no beeps.
Just an eerie silence.
“So? Where’s Vlad?” I demand, doing my best to contain a growing sense of disappointment. “I thought we’re about to see him.”
“So did I,” says Michael.
“I was told he passed away quietly.”
“No fair. He can’t do that to me!”
Of all the possible things I feared might happen, this—to me—is the most dreadful. In my book, a criminal must meet his just punishment. How did Vlad manage to escape it? How brazen of him to die before telling me the name of his goon, the one who beat me senseless and who can now remain at large. The thug knows where Ma lives, so he can lay a trap for me there—but I have no clue about his whereabouts.
That’s not how things were supposed to happen.
Greatly annoyed, I grab the cellphone from Michael and with a click, put an abrupt end to the phantom environment. “I drove us here all the way from LA after a sleepless night, for that?”
The hospital bed vanishes—poof!—into thin air, followed by the fluid med containers that hang from the IV pole, followed by the pole itself, followed by a last flash, shooting across a fading impression of its hooks.
Michael reaches for me. “Wait.”
I slap the cellphone into his palm. “There’s nothing to wait for, now.”
“Ash, wait, there’s more—”
“You don’t get it, Michael, do you? I’m so angry. I can’t even begin to tell you how angry I am.”
“Don’t you sweetheart me. How dare Vlad find a way out of my life without leaving me a hint of how I can put it back together?”
Michael tries to block my way, but my anguish makes me push him aside. I storm out of his garage and stomp across the street. The homeless, still probing through emptied garbage bags, glance at me from the corners of their eyes, as if to assess the threat I may pose to them.
Meanwhile, shots ring in the distance. I ignore them. Probably police forces sent to quell some riots.
Then, a single shot blasts out, this one at close range.
I run back to Michael just as he begins to collapse. My heart skips a beat as his head hits the blue cement floor, his shoulder smearing it red.
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