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Against the Dying of the Light

The facility is state-of-the-art, all swooping balustrades and huge panes of glass.

Mom’s dozing in her wheelchair, and as the lift rises to the clinic on the thirteenth floor, Alyssa brainstorms how she’ll start her article on the procedure.

She still can’t shake how excited her editor was, how he’d barely apologised when she pointed out they were only getting the insider treatment because of her mom. Part of her still wishes she’d quit, but she’s been a reporter for fifteen years now—she wants this story, loath as she is to admit it.

Besides, the treatment is supposed to work wonders.

“Lyssa, honey?”

“I’m here, Mom,” she says, job forgotten. Mom’s lucid, which is rarer than not these days. “We’re going to see a specialist. Someone who can help you.”

“That’s nice.” There’s a pause that stretches on so long Alyssa wonders if her mother’s gone back to sleep—or if she’s fading again. Then the older woman shifts in the chair. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “For all of this.”

Alyssa reaches down and squeezes her mother’s hand, so frail and thin compared to the one she remembers from her childhood decades before. “We’ll get through this, okay? You and me. Like always.”

• • •

By the time they reach the clinic’s empty waiting room, Mom’s fast asleep. They’re a little early, so Alyssa lets her rest and reads a pamphlet about the procedure while she waits for the nurse on duty to call them back. It echoes what she’s found from her research: a nanoscale mesh that’s injected at the base of the neck to integrate with the brain, recording neuron activity to trace patterns of deterioration and abnormal activity. 

She’s just had time to reflect that even with this surgery they can’t design comfortable waiting room chairs when the nurse—a middle-aged man with dark tousled hair and a smile, calls Mom’s name.

Mom wakes with a jolt. “Where are we?” she asks, voice tremulous.

Alyssa puts a hand on her shoulder. “Mom, it’s okay. We’re going to see a specialist. Remember?”

Mom slaps her hand away in an instant. “Who are you? Where have you taken me?”

“It’s me, Mom. Alyssa. Your daughter. It’s okay—you’re safe.”

“I don’t have a daughter,” her mother snaps, voice rising. “Get away from me!”

“It’s okay, ma’am,” the nurse says, addressing her mother. “We’re here to help you.”

Alyssa wheels her mother towards him, and his smile never wavers. She barely has the power to walk, seeing her mom like this, and she wonders how he can witness this day in and day out and still talk to his patients with that much warmth, that much empathy.

“They’re killing me!” her mother shouts, as he closes the door behind them. “Help! Help!”  

• • •

“It’s not a miracle cure,” the doctor is saying. 

Alyssa closes her eyes, hating the part of her that registers the sensation of tears prickling at her eyelids, that tucks away the words she’ll use to describe this in writing.

“I’m sorry,” he continues, “if someone told you otherwise. The mesh helps maintain neuron structure, but doesn’t reverse degradation—we’re not even sure that’s possible yet. We need more data. More tests.”

Alyssa knew this already, but hadn’t realized how different knowing and hearing could be. How hard.

“I understand.” It’s Mom’s voice. “I hate this. I want it to stop. But you’re saying you can’t.”

“Not yet.”

“Then I’ll give you data,” mom says. “I’ll sign whatever I need to. Hurry up.”

She signs the paper in a few rapid strokes, then sags back in the chair as the doctor fetches the nurse.

“Mom.” Alyssa’s voice breaks. “I—”

“Shh,” her mother whispers. “It’s okay, honey. I’m here. We’re going to get through this together. Like always. Right?” She looks up with a lopsided grin. 

Alyssa bites back a sob, then buries her head in her mother’s shoulder. “Like always,” she promises.

• • •

The procedure itself is easy. 

She holds Mom’s hand—fighting off a weird sense of inverted déjà vu from years and years of childhood vaccines—while the nurse anaesthetises and then injects a needle into the base of her neck. Then it’s over, and after a brief return visit from the doctor explaining what to expect in the next few days—some redness and pain at the injection area, possible headaches, to call immediately if the pain was intense—Alyssa wheels Mom out and down the lift to the lobby.

Mom doesn’t speak the entire time, nor while Alyssa flags a car through the hospital’s network, secures mom’s chair in its passenger side and inputs their home address. As the car smoothly rolls into motion and onto the motorway, she stares out the window at the passing scenery, responding to Alyssa’s questions in a monotone or not at all.

A bad sign? A good one? Alyssa can’t tell. After a while, she puts in her earbuds and queues up some classical. As the familiar sounds start up, she tries to focus on her article: how to strike a balance between empathy and rigor, intimacy and objectivity. More than anything, she wants to make it clear her mother is a victim of dementia without making her seem like she’s an infant, incapable of independent thought.

It’s too much. Part of her is angry, furious, but mostly she’s just exhausted. She leans her head back, closes her eyes. When she opens them again, they’re halfway home. Mom’s still sleeping, the late afternoon light playing across her features, and something about how peaceful she looks reminds Alyssa of the nurse from earlier.

Seeing it, she feels a tension she hadn’t realized she was holding in dissipate. She doesn’t know how things will end up, but she can stay in the present with Mom. Instead of being angry, she can smile at the unknown. She can keep being there, day in and day out. No matter what.

She picks up her work tab and stylus and starts to write.

Stewart C Baker

Stewart C Baker is an academic librarian, speculative fiction writer and poet, and the editor-in-chief of sub-Q Magazine. His fiction has appeared in Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, and Flash Fiction Online, among other places. Stewart was born in England, has lived in South Carolina, Japan, and California (in that order), and currently resides in Oregon with his family­­—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet, where you can find him at http://www.infomancy.net/.

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