“Do you have the artifacts?”
“This is pointless,” the woman answers.
“Please,” says her husband. “Mary, please. We’ve come this far. What harm could it do? And it might help.”
“Nothing can help. Don’t you understand that?” Her tone is bitter, hostile words hissed through clenched teeth, but nonetheless she brings out an oversized shoebox and sets it on the table. The attendant removes the lid.
“These were included in the materials provided to our interpreter?”
The husband nods. “Yes. These things, plus the completed forms, along with the photos and videos.”
The attendant fingers a computer tablet, discreetly obscured so its presence in the darkened room is betrayed by only a tiny glow on her fingertip. “I see,” she says, “You supplied almost 200 images and 2 hours of digital video. Excellent. That gives us what we need to invoke the spirit of your child. Having these objects here is just to help you focus.”
She lifts out a knitted blanket.
“This is beautiful. Hand-made?” she asks.
The wife nods. Her tone is cool, but less hostile than before. “By my mother. We hadn’t decided on a name, so she knitted ‘Baby Boy’ along the edge.”
“You obviously have a strong attachment to this,” the attendant says as she hands the blanket to the wife. “Hold on to it.”
Next, she removes a square of folded fabric. It falls open revealing itself to be a tiny t-shirt with a Spider-Man logo. Without a word, she hands it to the father.
“It was his favorite,” he says, his voice strangled with feeling. “We used to play on the swingset, pretending the chains were webs.” His words trail off to a squeak.
“Remember those moments,” says the attendant. “They will strengthen the connection.” One by one, she removes objects from the box and spreads them around the table. A stuffed toy. A few more articles of clothing. A swatch of wallpaper with smiling cartoon animals on Noah’s Ark. Dozens of photographs of the mother and father with an infant, a baby, a toddler—the same happy trio at different stages, each more heart-rendingly beautiful than the last. There is a paper flyer with type in three neat columns.
“What is this?” the attendant asks.
“It’s all the words he knew,” the father answers. “We gave these out at his funeral.”
“What a lovely memorial,” says the attendant. “I understand your boy was not quite three when he passed the previous year. He will be older now, naturally changed from what you remember, but you will recognize him. We guarantee it. Are you ready to begin?”
The father answers. The mother does not. The attendant nods.
“Silence now, please,” she says. “Concentrate on your memories of Jacob, your feelings for him, the joy he brought you—and look into the light.”
The attendant touches her tablet and a circle the size of a manhole cover starts to glow in the center of the table. With a gentle hiss, mist rises from the glow, forming an illuminated cylinder as it ascends.
“What is that?” asks the father.
“It is the medium,” answers the attendant, “Into which we will project. Now, please, be still and silent so as not to disturb it.”
After a few moments, the room goes utterly black. The stillness, the silence, is palpable, as if they have opened a hole in the world and entered the void. In that breathless emptiness, small noises emerge. A shuffle, a patter, the distant-but-unmistakable sound of a child’s laugh. Tiny lights crackle in midair, the red-green-blue flickerings of microscopic fireflies. An image coalesces. Trees swaying in an afternoon breeze, standing watch over a playground bustling with happy children.
One little boy breaks from the pack and runs in circles, arms wide as he banks and swoops. He widens his circle, passing close to the grieving husband and wife sitting in the darkened room, and calls out,
He sets off again, through the sand pit to a curb at the edge. He steps onto it then launches himself, tucking his feet high up before landing with a titanic stomp. He turns full-face toward the couple and gives a satisfied smile of blond, blue-eyed, beatific perfection.
“Jakie!” the mother blurts, less a word than a peal of pure emotion mixed with tears and spittle.
Both parents weep freely.
The child makes his circuit, buzzing them with airplane arms as he circles back to the curb, mounts and jumps again—this time adding a roar as he stomps down.
“I’m a Transformer!” he says proudly.
“Jacob, will you come here, please,” says the attendant in a strong, level voice. The child stomps-and-roars over until he stands life-sized on the table, within a tube of illuminated mist. The mother reaches a trembling hand toward him.
“Stop!” the attendant says sharply. The startled woman pulls back, her quick motion sending a swirl into the mist that distorts Jacob’s face like ripples on a pond. The boy is oblivious to the disturbance.
“Please be still,” repeats the attendant, her voice calm once more. “Do not touch the medium or we will lose the integrity of the image.”
The chastised mother nods, setting her fingertips on the table so her hand resembles a spider ready to pounce. The husband places his palm on her jittery hand, gently pressing it flat.
“How are you doing this?” he asks the attendant.
“Our proprietary laser projection system uses tri-colored beams flickering thousands of times a second, reflecting against water vapor to render a true three-dimensional image.”
“It’s so real,” the father whispers. “And it looks and sounds just like him. But older.”
“We process the photo and video data clients give us with our patented reconstruction software, and our interpreters build interactive digital representations of lost loved ones. We apply aging algorithms to those taken young. We have found the natural continuity of communication development helps reconcile the grieving process.”
“Can I talk to him?” asks the mother.
“Yes,” replies the attendant. “But please remember you have only three minutes.”
“Jakie!” she calls, wasting no time. “Jakie, it’s mommy! Can you hear me?”
“Hi, mommy,” the boy replies.
“I miss you!” she continues, gasping, sobbing. “Mommy misses you so much, baby boy! So very, very much. Are you alright?”
“Don’t cry, mommy,” Jacob says. “I’m OK. It’s really nice here. There’s a big field we play hide-and-seek in. I like to climb the trees. There’s a beach we go to that has caves where we look for treasure. I went with Maria. She’s my friend—” he folds his arms in a huff “—but not my girlfriend.”
Both parents cannot help but laugh.
“And at school, babcia comes and reads stories sometimes.”
“You go to school?” asks the mother.
“Well, of course!” says Jacob, exasperated at the self-evidence of the statement.
“You met my babcia?” the father asks.
Jacob nods. “She’s really nice. I like how she talks, but she smells like soup.”
The father smiles as tears glisten on his face. “That’s my old Polish grandmother. She died years ago, before Jake was born. She would have adored him. How do you know this?”
“We use as much as possible from the background information you provide on personal beliefs and family history,” replies the attendant. “The more detail you give, the deeper the experience our interpreters can build, including the incorporation of additional loves ones such as your grandmother.”
“Can I see her, too?” he asks.
“That would need to be a separate contract,” the attendant says. “I remind you there are less than two minutes remaining in this session.”
The mother’s expression borders on panic.
“Jakie! Jakie!” she calls out, “Mommy misses you! I … I… I love you so much. I want to see you again.”
Jacob starts to spin around, trailing his sneaker tip in the dust to make patterns as he whirls.
“I miss you, too, mommy,” he says, nothing but childish excitement in his voice. “It’s fun here. I wish you could come and see all my stuff. I want to show you paintings I made in school with leaves and real mud! But, oh no! You’ll have to wait!”
“Why?” she breathes.
“Because that’s the bell, silly!” he replies. And, indeed, the sound of a single bell tolls in the distance. Jacob shifts and looks around, revealing a red brick schoolhouse on a rise beyond the playground, a bell glinting golden in the sun as it swings in the tower. He turns to go.
“Wait!” his mother calls out, but as he looks back, she is at a loss – reaching out then pulling back, afraid to touch the shaft of vapor that holds him. Jacob takes a folded paper from his hip pocket.
He opens it, showing a crayon drawing of man, woman, and, child stick-figures walking hand-in-hand over a hill toward a sunset, rendered as a jagged inferno. Jacob sets the drawing on the ground.
“Bye, mommy! Bye, daddy! I love you!” And he runs off to join the flow of children streaming toward the idyllic schoolhouse.
The mother stammers a protest, but the image fades and the room is once more absolute darkness. A few moments later, fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling flood the room in sterile light. The parents and attendant sit at a round table, now revealed as a simple black disc, broken up by the herringbone pattern of speaker grills and light covers embedded into its surface. At the center of the table lies Jacob’s drawing, the smell of crayon wax lingering upon it.
The father picks it up. “It looks like one of his.”
“We interpreted his style from examples you provided, extrapolated for age and development, of course,” says the attendant. “A gift from us to you.”
The father nods. His face, in the new white light, is ashen.
“That was so short,” says the mother. She looks up, her eyes red and swollen, her expression bereft.
“The first encounter we limit to five minutes,” replies the attendant. “That is by policy to help minimize the disorientation the experience can create. This initial session is a service we provide completely free of charge to all clients coping with the loss of a loved one—and many find that session alone therapeutic enough to achieve closure. However, if for any reason you feel your grieving process could be helped by additional sessions, you’ll find multiple plan and payment options, flexible enough to fit any circumstance, detailed in your original contract. This is all, of course, voluntary and you are under no obligation whatsoever.”
The husband and wife embrace, clinging together and sniffling. They say nothing as the attendant waits. The wife looks to her husband, imploring eyes wide. The husband nods.
“Can we—” he begins but stops, unable to voice the longing.
“Of course,” says they attendant. “Let me take you to see one of our counselors.”
They stand and leave the table. The attendant opens a door into a vast waiting room, tastefully appointed with polished wood and potted plants. Dozens of people are seated in the room—young couples, elderly singles, entire extended families—all transfixed by images on crystalline video screens mounted into desktops next to credit card readers.
Matt McHugh was born in suburban Pennsylvania, attended LaSalle University in Philadelphia, and after a few years as a Manhattanite, now calls New Jersey home. His sci-fi novella Radioland was named a 2015 “Indie Star” by Publisher’s Weekly, and his story “The Unfinished Novels of Kilgore Trout” is available on Amazon’s World of Kurt Vonnegut. http://mattmchugh.com