Beauty Belongs to the Flowers

Beauty Belongs to the Flowers

illustration by yuko shimizu

This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.

Matsumoto Miho had seen ten thousand hospital rooms on the feeds, and not one had looked like this. The room did look clean—no cup or chair was out of place—but a proper hospital room, an American hospital room, contained one patient, not four. The patients, even in the Chinese and Indian feeds, did not look like these men. Proper patients were muscular, bandaged or form-fleshed, unblemished save for a few cuts and, most importantly, attractive.

These men appeared skeletal, with heads of wild hair, bodies shiny and shrink-wrapped in quarantine cocoons. Miho couldn’t have picked her father from the group if her mother hadn’t led the way to his bedside. Daily sunlamp therapy made him darker than any lab worker should have been. His withered arms, bruised purple along their lengths, rested at uncomfortable angles. His dry mouth hung open, few teeth remaining in it. His eyes were shut, as if in agony.

“Otōsan,” she whispered.

“Your father is tired,” Miho’s mother said. A cup of barley tea sat by the bed, untouched. Her father could no longer drink, but robot porters brought the cups every four hours.

“Should his sheets be changed?” Miho asked.

“Your father is a special case, because of the quarantine,” Mother said. “His family is not expected to change his sheets. The porters change them when he is taken away for bathing and recontainment. You would understand this if you visited more.”

Miho didn’t want to visit more. It had all happened so fast. A month ago her father had been swimming laps around men ten years his junior at their building’s pool. Then a containment breach in his research lab at the pharmaceutical company had turned him into this. Nanos filled his body, more mobile than any cancer.

“We don’t yet have the technology to stop this,” Dr. Nakamura had said. “We’ve never encountered it before. Matsumoto-san’s organs are slowly shutting down. We could keep him alive with machines, but he doesn’t want that.”

“No, sensei,” Miho’s mother agreed. “My husband does not want that.” It would be an undignified life.

“It is your husband’s wish that we closely monitor his progress in order to develop procedures for the next patient with such a problem.”

“Of course.”

It was just like Father, thinking of himself and his life as nothing but a tool to help others. What had it gotten him? The very machines he’d designed to save the lives of others now offered him death. Miho couldn’t bring herself to touch his atrophied hands. They had once lifted her high onto his big shoulders and bounced her around their home. Those shoulders now stabbed up to form brittle tents in his hospital gown.

They spent the evening there. Miho watched feeds with the volume low and closed her eyes as if resting so her mother wouldn’t see the video strips light up beneath her lids. She used a hack common to schoolchildren and young office workers which turned off the video every time she opened her eyes.

She navigated the feeds through a simple yes/no decision tree with a billion branches, choosing paths by simple brainwave control: a concentrated happy thought for “Yes,” a sad one for “No.” Miho and millions like her performed complex maneuvers with hundreds of lightning-speed decisions that made most adults quake. One respected Indian psychologist worried that the technology created a hyperspeed bipolar generation.

First she caught up on her messages. Tomi would be back from America next week with her maddening friend, Leslie, and would meet her at the high road party. Leslie looked forward to tasting Miho’s latest culinary masterpiece. Ugh. No message from Ichiro. She never expected one, but always checked. Next Miho tried a couple of hospital shows to reinforce the contrast with her surroundings, but couldn’t bear to watch for long. She settled on selling her collection of synthetic flowers piece by piece as she had done for spending money for the last month, periodically glancing up at Aimi’s perfect face in the upper right corner of the marketplace. Why did she keep that posted there?

While her mother spoke to the doctor, Miho studied the posters in the waiting room, captivated by the advertisement for pore sealing treatment. She synced to the ad, and it came alive through her feeds. The face of the girl on the poster enlarged until Miho could see ultra-smooth skin at the microscopic level. Perfect skin can be achieved. Blemishes a thing of the past. Pure plaz smoothness!

If only she could have that for herself. There were no prices. She wanted nothing more than to ask how much it cost, but couldn’t, under the circumstances. Her concern should be for her father today, and for the foreseeable future, but then…pure plaz smoothness. Ichiro might love her again if she didn’t look so plain. His friend, Takumi, told her as much last year. She could even become beautiful.

 

* * *

 

Miho remembered riding a pony at Ichiro’s uncle’s farm at five years of age, holding him tighter than she needed to. She made a game of feigning terror, like she thought was expected of a girl when with a boy. His father, Tanaka-san, led them on foot. The sun moved two of her handspans across the sky as they rode, but in Miho’s memory it seemed like such a short ride. Her head pressed against Ichiro’s rough oxford shirt as she watched the grassy trail bounce below them. She inhaled the heat and the earthy smell of the small, brown horse. When they returned to the stable, Ichiro leapt from the pony and fell hard on one knee. She remembered his quivering lip when he looked to his softhearted father. Miho jumped down to help him up.

“You’re all right,” she said. She kissed him on the cheek like her mother would have kissed her. Little Ichiro’s crinkled face smoothed into wonder and he ran off, amid his father’s soft laughter.

The next month at school, Ichiro found Miho on the playground. “When we get married, my uncle will give us a pony to ride whenever we want,” he told her. “It will be a proper robotic pony that knows how to behave itself.” She had taken their eventual marriage for granted from that day. Through how many kite-flying Aprils? How many school trips and birthday parties? Ten years’ worth, culminating in their first kiss. Trailing off into their last kiss.

 

20 comments
harley goode
1. HarleyG
I've always wanted to do this, but never got the chance before.

FIRST!!!

I'm at work so I haven't read the story yet, but it's first on my list when I get home.
Dave Fried
2. Dave Fried
Effective.

And yet, having read it, I regret deeply that I cannot unread it.
Dave Fried
3. Phishmanr
It's so beautiful and ugly at the same time. It was written so well and that last image...I don't think I'm going to forget it for a long time. Thank you? I think that's the right response. Thank you so much.
Dave Fried
4. TartanCrusader
Thank you Mr Smith, that was delicious! :)
Ethan Glasser-Camp
5. glasserc
Completely agree @3. I can completely identify with the portrayal of being lovesick, and yet that ending.. yikes. But then, maybe that's the point.

BTW, I think "Her biker seemed to like that more the Tomi’s screaming" needs to be "more than Tomi's screaming".

Ethan
Dave Fried
7. KhymChi
Oh wow, that was wonderful. What's amazing is that it is really possible for this reality to be our future. Miho was unbelievable relatable to me as well. Well written. Thank you for sharing
Dave Fried
8. NanLeah
You've captured and presented a future that I have often considered. It's shocking to read it. Miho has been in my awareness on so many levels. Now she's free to be in other's awareness and garner their empathy. Thank you for sharing this story - on so many levels.

Congratulations and Well Done.
Dave Fried
10. GordZ
Loved loved LOVED the central theme, though I felt Miho's story was a bit overshadowed by the setting.
Dave Fried
11. Arlene Rosenberg
I wished it was longer loved it.
LaShawn Wanak
12. LMWanak
Beautiful and disturbing. And so incredibly sad too.
Dave Fried
13. steelrigged
The ending reminds me a little of the final breast-feeding scene in Grapes of Wrath. Not quite sure if I should read the father's self sacrifice for his corporation as a parallel to Miho's self-sacrifice for Ichiro.

Also, I find myself thinking at the end, that Ichiro had every right to be scared of Miho, that kind of single-minded focus is impossible to live up to. I like stories that leave me ambivalent about the characters, though, so I think that's a plus.
Anjela Hills
14. anjelahills
http://healthmantra.co.uk/

I was very encouraged to find this site. I wanted to thank you for this special read. I definitely savored every little bit of it.


Maple Syrup Diet
Wendy Collard
15. bnibbler
The ending was...gross. But the whole question of artifice versus nature, permanent perfection versus fleeting beauty, was well-handled. I like the old man's "Just because it's there longer doesn't mean you appreciate it longer"
@13, I like your point about the father's self-sacrifice mirroring Miho's.
Dave Fried
16. Gauri
How do these authors get publishers like TOR to publish such books??
I'd like to know what exactly did Mr. Smith write in his synopsis that resulted in the sale of his book ?
Did he go through an agent?
Matthew Sanborn Smith
17. MatthewSanbornSmith
@Gauri

I just sent my story in. You don't need to send a synopsis in for a short story, nor do you need an agent. The guidelines can be found here:
http://www.tor.com/page/submissions-guidelines

What you do need is a story that's going to appeal to the editor and a lot of patience. It can take many months for a response. I had no foot in the door. I didn't know anyone at Tor and, in fact, Liz Gorinsky had never read my work before.

Write good stories, and keep sending them out to markets. Eventually, the right editor will read the right story and you'll be published.
Dave Fried
19. robynical
Unnerving, brutal, but lovely - really enjoyed reading this
Dave Fried
20. Camilledel
I always enjoy reading or listening to your stories, just to see where they take me....as always well written. I thought it was kinda sweet & scary. I am trying to fit in the word "fly wheel" but some things just can't be forced.

Thanks for the story and I wish you continued success with your writing.
Dave Fried
21. T.B
The ending reminded me some what of the ending to 'Perfume'. Effective and scary.
Fantastic!

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