Fran Shiner fingered the scar on her face. The unevenness
under her skin reminded her of loss and pain. She reached out and gently
caressed the face of the boy on the bed, careful not to disturb the tube
protruding from his mouth. His head was covered with bandages from recent
Oh, Danny, she thought. I am so sorry.
He did not react to her touch, moving only to the rhythm of the machine that kept him breathing. Danny's coma lingered into the sixth week after the accident. Tears formed in Fran's eyes.
The machines beeped constantly in their effort to keep the boy alive. The smell of disinfectant and bleach inflamed her nostrils and watered her eyes. Beneath the smells of disinfectant lurked the smell of decay and death. Fran ignored the last smell. She would not let Danny die. Without Steven, she thought, Danny's all I've got. Fran stroked her son's cheek and smiled through her tears. In the back of her mind, the sounds of crashing metal and breaking glass tortured her constantly. The accident never left her. Her hand left her son's face and found her own. The scar reminded her that she was responsible for Steven's death and Danny's condition.
The neurologists said the 12-year-old boy would never recover anything near normal function. Danny may never awaken from his coma. Dr. Dudley suggested that Fran institutionalize him. Fran lost her husband in the accident. She refused to lose Danny. Doctor Kersey offered little more hope.
"Without some sort of intervention," Kersey said in the interview last week, "I'm afraid there is nothing we can do. He's young, so the ability of youth to bounce back from a catastrophic illness could be in our favor."
"He'll beat this," Fran responded with more conviction than she felt.
"He's a strong boy." Kersey nodded, rubbing his bald head. For a moment, he stared out of the window to the office and drummed lightly on his ample stomach. Fran, lost in her thoughts, failed to notice the silence. She failed to notice a lot of things since the accident.
She relived the horror daily, almost hourly. Danny and Steven laughing and joking with each other while she drove. Headlights appeared, moving recklessly down the road. The lights found her car and straightened, but not into its own lane - into hers. Danny and Steven laughed, unaware that in a few more seconds, Steve would be dead and Danny unresponsive for the next six weeks.
Time slowed. She remembered screaming. Steven turned around, but the car was on them. Fran swerved. The other car matched her movement. She heard screeching tires, smashinging glass, and felt pain.
Fran woke trapped in the car. She turned her head toward Steven. His face and arms were bloody tissue. That can't be Steven, she thought. But she knew Steven died in the mangled vehicle. Fran knew she would never feel the touch of his hand on her face. For some reason, she could not feel anything. The shock of the accident and the condition of her husband drained everything from her. Then she remembered. Danny.
She could not turn to check her son. Uncertainty brought her back to the reality of the moment. Where was Danny? She called to him. Danny did not respond. She yelled for her son. She yelled for the next 30 minutes until someone cut her out of the car and told her that her son lived. Fran stared at the mass of tissue that was once her husband's face. Emotion bubbled underneath her relief that Danny lived. Before she understood, tears and rage burst through the veneer of shock. A high shrill voice shrieked in horror at what had happened to Steve. Uncontrollably sobbing, Fran screamed at the unfairness. Someone grabbed her and forced her onto a stretcher. They tied her down. She yelled for Danny. The paramedics tried to soothe her. Fran felt a stick in her left arm. After a short while, the screaming stopped on the outside. Five weeks later, she still screamed inwardly at her loss. She realized that she was crying, head in hands, in Doctor Kersey's office.
Kersey cleared his throat.
"There is an experimental treatment," he began, cautiously. "There has been limited success in Europe, but we don't really know why."
Fran's attention focused on Kersey's words.
"I can't guarantee that we'll get any response out of Danny."
"Is it surgery?" Fran leaned forward. Do it, damn it, she thought. Don't even ask me. Just bring my boy back. She hid the excitement as best she could, which was not very well.
"Mrs. Shiner, I don't want to give you any false hope," Kersey said. He sighed. "I'm really not looking for this to do anything, but it's worth a try."
"What is it?" Irritation seeped into her voice.
"We've been contacted by neuroscientists at Virtual Technologies," he said. "They want to see if an induced hallucination can activate something deep in the brain. They cannot say for sure that anything will happen. In most cases, nothing does."
"Does this require surgery?" Fran felt the pain of her surgery every day. Not all pain is physical. Involuntarily her right hand went to the scar on her face.
"Wire is implanted into the prefrontal cortex and then hooked into a computer system," Kersey said. He leaned forward. "You would be hooked into the network with him. Your performance on a battery of tests will decide whether they go ahead with the project." He let her absorb his last statement. "They want to know if you are psychologically ready for this."
"Set it up," she said. Fran left the office.
Two days later, Fran underwent a multitude of written and verbal tests. Most held no significance to her, but she tried to answer all the questions honestly. In the verbal portions, she responded as she had been instructed. After a few hours, she met with Kersey.
"Doctors Richardson and Josephs said you reacted within the normal range on all the tests," Kersey told her. Fran smiled. "Richardson was concerned about the measure of guilt you feel in the death of your husband and in the injuries to Danny."
Concern showed on her face. "Isn't that understandable, Doctor Kersey? I was driving at the time of the accident," she said, hastily. "The police said I could not avoid the drunk driver, but I was driving."
Kersey nodded. "Richardson was not concerned enough to put off the procedure. Thursday morning, I'll take Danny to surgery and place the probe. By Monday, we plan to induce the hallucination."
She stroked Danny's face, softly. In a short while, you'll see Mama again, baby. Danny did not respond to her. Fran knew it would work. Danny would respond to his mother. She knew Kersey, Richardson, and Josephs counted on the maternal factor in their experiment.
"Mrs. Shiner, we're ready to begin," Richardson said from the doorway. She turned around and saw the lanky man walking toward her. In his hands he carried a helmet and face mask for the virtual trip she would take. She gave Danny's hand a squeeze and stood.
"Where would you like me to sit?"
"At the bedside will be fine," Richardson said. "Doctor Josephs will be in an adjoining room, monitoring the interaction. You won't be able to see him, but he will be hooked into the same network as Danny and yourself."
Fran nodded that she understood. She began to visualize the program selected for the encounter, an ocean scene at sunrise. She felt the morning would be appropriate for a new beginning for Danny and herself. Richardson handed her the face mask and helmet and went to the head of Danny's bed. He attached a lead to a small wire that extended from under the bandages on Danny's head. He checked the connection and smiled. Richardson helped her don the helmet and face mask.
"In a few minutes, the procedure will begin," he whispered to her. "I want you to relax and clear your mind of all thoughts."
Fran took a deep breath and practiced the breathing exercises the VTI doctors had taught her. Her stomach churned with fear of failure and the uncertainty of success. After a couple of moments, images began to float in her mind. She heard waves lapping at a sandy shore. The odor of the ocean filled her nostrils. In the distance, she heard gulls screeching to each other in a fight for food. The images cleared.
She stood on a beach. Hot sand slightly burned the soles of her feet. She tried to let the scene engulf her. She walked along the shore line. Ahead of her, she saw a figure sitting in the sand. Danny. She felt a lightness in her head and chest. She ran toward him and called his name. The boy turned to her and smiled. Fran let out a laugh and ran closer. Danny's face began to change. Fran's concern turned to horror as pieces of skin began to slough off his face and fall to the beach. Blood appeared where the skin fell from his face. Still, Danny smiled. Skin fell away until his face and arms were a raw mass of tissue.
Fran heard a scream far away from her. It took her a couple of minutes to realize it was her voice she heard. The mutilated face of her son smiled at her. "Mama," he said. The scene went blank. She breathed quickly and heavily. Oh my God, she thought. That was not real. I did that.
"Mrs. Shiner," she heard a disembodied voice call to her. "Are you all right?" She recognized Richardson.
"Doctor Richardson, don't call off the test," she responded, hastily. "I did not see what I thought I saw. That was my fear. Give me a second and let's start again."
"What did you see?"
"Didn't Doctor Joseph see it?"
"No, he said he saw you running away from the image of your son," Richardson replied. "And then you just started screaming."
Fran explained her horrible vision. Richardson did not say anything else for a few minutes. She sat in the darkness of the face mask trying to banish the image in her mind.
"Yes, Doctor Richardson."
"It might be a good idea to stop for the day and try again tomorrow," he said.
"No," she yelled. "I know what happened and it won't happen again."
Richardson was silent for a few minutes, but finally agreed.
Fran was back on the beach. She could hear the waves and feel the sand. She turned around slowly putting her back to the sun. Danny lay on a blanket facing the ocean. His head propped against a pillow. The breathing tube Fran saw daily did not protrude from his mouth. Danny's hair was long and flowed in the ocean breeze. She walked to him and sat beside him, staring at the waves.
"Danny," she said, turning slightly to look at him. "Mama's here." For a moment, Danny did not react. Then, she saw the slightest of movement. The eyes fluttered open. In a weak voice, he spoke.
"Mama, what happened?" He glanced around without moving. "Daddy was here a moment ago."
"Oh, Danny," she said. She reached down and put her arms around him. She felt his arms encircle her neck. "I thought I'd lost you forever."
"It's all right, mama," Danny said. "Daddy's been with me, but he said he had to leave and you would be here for me."
Fran smiled. If there was a way to survive death to comfort his son, Steven would have done it. For 15 years, Steven embodied the perfect husband. He had loved Fran without question. Every thought, every action considered her. Fran took first priority in his life. Steven's needs became secondary. And when Danny came, Steven dropped to third and never complained. Not once. God, how I miss him. Fran thought she could smell after shave in the air. She saw footprints leading away from the blanket down the beach. She wanted to follow them. She wanted to feel Steve's touch, just once more. But her son needed her more. Danny reached out, grabbing his mother's sleeve. Fran bundled him in her arms.
"Don't leave me, Mama," Danny said, weakly. "Please don't ever leave me."
"I won't, Son. I promise Mama will always be there with you." She held him for a long time until she faded into nothingness.
Fran awoke with a start. She was lying on a couch in Doctor Kersey's office. She looked around and saw three men staring at her.
"How do you feel, Mrs. Shiner?" She looked at Kersey, confused.
"How did I get here?"
"You passed out in the chair and we carried you," Richardson answered. He did not smile. "What did you see, Mrs. Shiner?"
"Why, I saw Danny, of course," she said. "He responded to me. He talked to me and hugged me. He begged me not to leave him." The three men stared silently at her. "What?"
Doctor Josephs stroked a sparse beard. "Mrs. Shiner, your son never responded to you. There was no change in his brain waves. The image of Danny on the beach never moved, never spoke."
"But you're wrong," she said, her voice rising toward hysteria. "I felt him. I touched him. He responded to me."
Doctor Josephs shook his head. "I am sorry, Mrs. Shiner. I am very sorry."
"But I didn't make it up," she screamed. "I was there. You don't know."
"Mrs. Shiner," Richardson spoke to her, softly, forcing her to calm. "The object of the experiment was to induce a hallucination in Danny, to make his brain respond. All we succeeded in doing today was inducing you to hallucinate, probably guided by your guilt and grief. I'm sorry."
Fran panicked. No, they can't take him away from me, she thought. I've got him back. "Can we try again?"
"I don't think that would be a good idea," Kersey said. He rubbed his bald head. "I don't think it's worth the risk for you." Kersey grabbed a pen on his desk and scribbled on a notepad. "I'd like for you to call this number. They can help you with the guilt and depression."
"I'm not crazy," Fran protested, softly. "I know Danny responded to me. I know he did. I'm his mother. I'd know."
"I'm very sorry, Mrs. Shiner," Richardson said. "The second image was the same as the first, except it fed on your hopes instead of your fears. Both images were only in your mind."
Fran said nothing. Oh, Danny. Tears flowed down her face. She asked to sit with her son. The doctors stood, trying to mask the pity they felt for her. Fran could see it though. They think I'm crazy, she thought. I'm not crazy. Danny did respond to me.
She walked into the room. Danny lay where he had lain for the last six weeks. The machines beeped their insistence that the boy should live. Disinfectant and bleach assaulted her nostrils. A hint of decay crept into the smell. She banished the thought of decay. Danny responded to me. Fran sat beside him and carefully stroked his face.
Please, don't leave me, mama, she heard him say to her.
"I'll never leave you, Danny," she whispered in answer to his plea. She saw the beginnings of a smile on his face. Maybe no one else could see it, but she could. She caressed his face with her palm. Danny did not respond.
x x x
Terry Bramlett and his wife Brenda claim Ridgeland, Mississippi as home because that is where their bed happens to be located. He has written two novels. Formidable Enemy is available from Electric Works Publishing. The second, The Elfland Affair, is scheduled for a 2001 release date with Starlight Writers Publications.