Into the elevator again. They were going down. Abby wondered how deep this place was. When the elevator stopped she was ushered through another door and pushed into a leather reclined chair with arm rests that felt like it belonged in the dentist’s office. Abby tasted metal in her mouth. The guard left immediately, and Abby prayed she wouldn’t have to wait very long with the hood on. The instant she finished this plea, someone else came in the room, heels tapping on the floor, and the hood was ripped off again.
“Good afternoon, Abigail.” A pleasant-looking blonde woman was standing in front of her. Abby glanced around, taking in her surroundings. The chair was very much like a dentist’s chair. There was a glass tank on one side of the room with tubes running through it. They snaked across the floor and disappeared, tangled together and running behind the other equipment. There was some kind of switchboard and a countertop on one wall and right next to the dentist’s chair stood an IV stand. Instead of a bag of fluids at the top there was a metal cylinder, like an aerosol tank.
The woman was wearing a navy blue skirt-suit, and looked like someone who should work in an office and be the one to organize birthday parties and boss appreciation days. She was reading a clipboard and nodding occasionally as though agreeing with some invisible person that what she was reading was fascinating.
“Alrighty, Abigail, looks like you didn’t have the brain level necessary for the longevity program so they sent you here instead. Don’t worry; most people don’t have the necessary level, not even me.” The woman giggled.
“What is going on?” Abby asked. The woman was consulting the chart again and seemed not to hear.
“Oops,” the woman said, “looks like he wanted you put under right away for a blind test, I’m not supposed to be talking to you.”
The woman walked to the counter and began preparing a large needle. It looked just like the dentist’s needle. Abby wondered if she really was at the dentist’s, hallucinating on too much laughing gas. Then she felt the handcuffs still chaffing her wrists and dismissed the idea.
The woman came over with the needle and wiped the inside of Abby’s elbow with an alcohol swab.
“Who wanted me put under?” Abby asked.
The woman looked surprised. “Mr. Tesla, of course.”
The needle went in. Cold. People moved and spoke around her in a whirlpool of undefined color and light. A chill started in her right hand and spread up her arm, making its way through her body. Abby drifted into a world of ice as her veins froze and her mind went numb. The tiniest part of herself that was still unfrozen was dreaming, turning the same thoughts over one another like beach glass caught in a wave.
The first novel-length manuscript Abby completed was for her father. She read the ending to him the night before he died, and he smiled for the last time and told her how proud he was. He slipped into unconsciousness soon after, and left this world entirely the next morning. When the doctor gave them the news Abby felt frozen, ice for blood.
Time stops moving when your world is frozen.
Dream after dream. Wave after wave. Beach glass worn smooth and bright.
She felt pain before anything else. A tingling pain in her hand. She couldn’t move. Paralyzed, willing muscles to move that wouldn’t respond. The only thing she could feel was the hand that was now on fire. She wanted to scream but she wasn’t sure where her mouth was.
The pain spread up her arm. She squirmed and her hand moved. Sensation reached her head, thawing out her brain and face. Every nerve in her body had a brain freeze and every muscle screamed.
“Hold on,” a voice said, muffled through the darkness, “Everything’s going to be okay.” The voice was nearly drowned out by the rushing in her ears.
The pain slowly subsided and Abby shifted her leg. A shape at the edge of her vision cleared and sharpened. She turned, her head pounding from the movement.
Xander’s face came into focus, worried. His hair was long around his face.
“Your hair,” she mumbled, her lips still numb.
He smiled and exhaled, touching the side of her face. “Don’t try to talk yet,” he said.
She closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing. Her fingers and toes were still tingling. She tried to think through what had happened but her memories were mixed up. Some of them weren’t memories but dreams.
“What happened?” She finally asked.
“Are you feeling okay?”
“Tell me what happened.” She opened her eyes and focused on his face.
He sighed and bit his lip. “It’s called suspended animation,” he said. “It’s like you’re frozen. Time passes but you don’t age.”
She tried to sit up and a jolt of pain ran through her legs. She gasped.
“Just stay still,” he said. “This will stop soon.”
“How long was I out?” she asked.
She squinted and put a hand to her head. It hurt to think. She took a long moment to let her brain stop spinning and figure out what was happening.
“You don’t age… So, I’m still twenty?”
He nodded. “Kind of, yes.”
“But my sister is… also twenty now.”
He stayed silent, letting her think. Her head was still aching but she felt like she could begin to move. Same age as Elaine. She couldn’t wrap her head around it.
“Are you ready to go see your family?”
They made their way out slowly. There was no one else around. Abby’s legs were weak and she had to lean on Xander to walk. They took the elevator up to ground level.
The base was abandoned. They stepped outside. No personnel, no security, no helicopter. Xander’s car was just outside the building. He had driven in through the gates.
“What happened here?”
He looked away, his face troubled. Shaking his head, he turned back to her. “That’s a story for another day.”
They drove. Abby watched the fields and trees and towns flash past the window. Empty. Three years gone. They were almost home.
“Elaine’s going to be so grown up,” Abby said. “You can change a lot in three years.”
“Abigail,” Xander said seriously. She looked at him. “I know you feel like those years have been stolen from you. And they were stolen; you have every right to be angry about that. Just don’t let it affect the rest of your life.”
“How can it not affect me? I left my family two days ago, but for them I’ve been missing three years.”
The sun was golden, flooding the car. A patch shone on Abby’s leg, warm and real. The most real thing she had experienced in the past few days. Years.
“Abby, my life is… complicated. I’ve had to watch everything I love decay and die. Life is about change. It’s about changing with other people at your side. Together you grow older-” his voice faltered, he took a deep breath, “You reach new phases in life.”
They turned onto Abby’s street.
“Enjoy the rest of the time you have with your family. Three years isn’t eternity.”
She nodded slowly.
He pulled up in front of her house and stopped. She stared at it, nervous. Nothing had changed. The tree they had planted for earth day was a little taller.
She looked back at Xander for the last time. He was staring at her with an unintelligible expression on his face. Concern, friendship, affection, all overwhelmed by a deep sadness.
She started to say something when a noise caught her attention. The front door of the house had slammed. A girl was outside, sitting on the porch swing, arms folded.
“Elaine,” Abby said. She got out of the car and started to walk up the driveway. Elaine saw her coming. She stared, wide eyed, then jumped up, running to meet her sister. They hugged, crying and laughing.
“I knew you weren’t dead,” Elaine said.
Abby looked her sister over. “You haven’t changed,” she said. But she would change, and Abby was going to be there to see it.
They didn’t notice the small black car pull away. A minute later, Abby thought to invite Xander in. She turned. He was gone, as if he had never been there.