From its reception building, you’d think Meadowside Lodge was a hotel rather than a storage facility – the walls are painted sunshine yellow, the chairs are plush and comfortable, and there are always fresh flowers on the desk. It’s those little extras that make Meadowside stand out from the usual cryo-sheds. That, and the fact they never complain about how often you want to thaw someone out.
It’s not that they’re irresponsible; Doctor Adil fully explained the consequences to me, and I know every time I visit it’s hastening my father’s deterioration. But I’m getting old myself now, and fast running out of both time and money. When I’m dead or destitute, whichever comes first, Meadowside will quietly pull the plug and that will be the end of it anyway. So I might as well make the most of it while I can.
Doctor Adil watches me come in, and smiles. ‘Hello, Ms Rossi.’
The name means nothing to her, of course. It doesn’t to anyone, any more. We were headline news once, but that was a long time ago.
‘We’ve got Curtis ready for you,’ she says, and nods towards the big French doors. ‘We thought we’d take him to the garden, since it’s so nice out.’
‘Thank you,’ I say, and stroke the leaves of the tall fern by her desk. You wouldn’t know, to look at it, that it’s not real. ‘How is he?’
Doctor Adil purses her lips, as if considering the question, but she answers the same way she always does: ‘There’s always some disorientation, but I’m sure he’ll enjoy seeing you. It helps, to remember the good times.’
I let the plastic leaf go and it bounces back into place. ‘Yes, it does.’
The Meadowside grounds are as well-kept as the rest of it. Apple trees, vivid green lawns, wide wooden benches with gold plaques memorialising generous patrons. It’s all quite beautiful.
My father’s wheelchair has been placed by the pond, next to one of the benches. I sit, and we both watch the fat, brightly-coloured carp glide around in the clear water. It’s a complicated ballet they perform, but if you watch long enough you’ll notice the pattern start to repeat. Assuming you can remember that far back, of course. Cryo isn’t good for the short-term memory at the best of times, and every awakening shreds it that little bit more.
But short-term memories aren’t what I’m interested in.
My father looks at me with clouded eyes, and I pat his hand. ‘My name is Lydia. Do you know who I am?’
‘Of course,’ he says quickly, with a confident voice and a big smile. But just like the plants, the fish and the smell of fresh-baked buns, it’s all for show. For keeping up appearances. He always thought that was very important.
‘I’m your daughter,’ I tell him.
He’d approve of this place, if he could appreciate it properly. The order, the neatness, the routines. Once upon a time, that kind of thing had mattered to him. It mattered a great deal.
‘Your name is Curtis Rossi, and you’re my father. My mother’s name was Marian Rossi. Do you remember her? Marian?’
‘Of course,’ he says, but this time his eyes flicker and I think he’s telling the truth.
I open my bag and take out one of the photos of my mother. I had the picture enhanced and printed on old-style glossy paper, and it’s beautiful. The shot was taken on her wedding day, and she’s radiant.
‘This is Marian. Your wife.’ I put it in his lap. ‘Remember?’
He picks it up. His fingers are twisted and awkward from having been broken so many times, and it shakes in his hands. ‘Marian,’ he says.
‘That’s right. This was from the day you got married. Do you remember that day, Curtis? Your wedding day?’
His lips move, but he doesn’t speak.
I take out more photos, from birthday parties and day trips and holidays. In all of them, she’s smiling. My beautiful, warm-hearted mother. A wonderful woman who loved her husband, her daughter and her life.
But not order. Not neatness, routines and keeping up appearances. She didn’t love those. Not enough for my father, anyway.
The final photo I give him was taken by the police. In this one, she doesn’t look radiant. She doesn’t look beautiful. She doesn’t even look human.
‘This is Marian,’ I say. ‘My mother. This was from the day you killed her. Do you remember that day, Curtis?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘No, no, no.’ But his eyes darken, and I know he’s lying.
‘You killed her,’ I say. ‘You lost your temper with her because she had friends you didn’t like and opinions you didn’t agree with. Because she wanted to be a person, not a doll for you to play with. You lost your temper, you beat her, and you killed her.’
He shakes his head, but his neck bows as if the weight of memory is settling on it. He winces.
‘You’ve paid for what you did,’ I continue. ‘In society’s eyes, at least. You went to prison, Curtis, do you remember? You went to prison for a long time. They hurt you badly, there. You suffered a great deal. I visited you every week, to make sure you were still suffering.’
His ravaged hands flutter and the photo drops. A high-pitched whining noise comes from his throat as he leans forward. The sun catches the scars, makes them shine silver.
He has a lot of scars, but the one that opened his throat is the biggest. Meadowside offered to remove it as part of the package, but I declined to purchase that particular extension. I had to make some economies, after all.
‘Marian’s been dead for over fifty years,’ I say. ‘And you’ve been dead for five. But I still visit you, Dad. Every week.’
A round, furry bumblebee floats over the pond, its hum sonorous and hypnotic. The carp take their places once more.
My father wraps his arms around his scrawny chest, his breath hitching and his gaze turning inward. I say his name, and he responds with a blank look. He’s already forgetting what’s just happened.
But it’s okay. He won’t remember sitting here in the sun, watching the fish – that’s probably already gone. But being in prison? Being tortured? That’s all in long-term storage. And cryo doesn’t do any harm to that part of the brain at all.
I put the photos back in my bag and return to the reception building. The spike in his heart rate will have set off the alarms, and a couple of orderlies run past me towards the pond. Looks like Chris and Jean-Paul, on duty today. Good. They aren’t the most gentle of the Meadowside staff.
I smile at Doctor Adil, who’s hanging up some new pictures on the walls. Bright, sunshine-filled pictures.
‘Did you have a nice visit with your father, Ms Rossi?’ she says.
‘Yes, thank you.’
‘Good,’ she says, but she frowns and casts a slightly worried look out the French doors.
‘I think I’d better settle the bill today,’ I say.
Instantly, she focuses back on me and turns up the wattage of her smile. ‘Of course,’ she says, and scans my chip. ‘Thank you very much.’
Normally, she ends this exchange with ‘See you next week,’ but we both saw the credit balance on the chip. She gives me a nod instead. ‘Goodbye, Ms Rossi.’
I return the nod. ‘Goodbye.’
I take one last look around, trying to commit it all to memory so that I can take it with me: the sunshine-filled room, the scent of flowers in the air, the sound of screaming from the gardens. Because as Doctor Adil always says, it helps to remember the good times.
Author Bio: Michelle Ann King was born in East London and now lives in Essex. She writes mainly SF, dark fantasy and horror–probably due to a childhood spent reading Stephen King and watching zombie films. Two collections of her short stories are available now, and she is currently at work on a novel. Find more details at www.transientcactus.co.uk