Beauty Belongs to the Flowers
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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.”
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.