Across the Universe Page 1

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AMY

DADDY SAID, “LET MOM GO FIRST.”

Mom wanted me to go first. I think it was because she was afraid that after they were contained and frozen, I’d walk away, return to life rather than consign myself to that cold, clear box. But Daddy insisted.

“Amy needs to see what it’s like. You go first, let her watch. Then she can go and I’ll be with her. I’ll go last.”

“You go first,” Mom said. “I’ll go last.”

But the long and the short of it is that you have to be naked, and neither of them wanted me to see either of them naked (not like I wanted to see them in all their nude glory, gross), but given the choice, it’d be best for Mom to go first, since we had the same parts and all.

She looked so skinny after she undressed. Her collarbone stood out more; her skin had that rice-paper-thin, over-moisturized consistency old people’s skin has. Her stomach—a part of her she always kept hidden under clothes—sagged in a wrinkly sort of way that made her look even more vulnerable and weak.

The men who worked in the lab seemed uninterested in my mother’s nudity, just as they were impartial to my and my father’s presence. They helped her lie down in the clear cryo box. It would have looked like a coffin, but coffins have pillows and look a lot more comfortable. This looked more like a shoebox.

“It’s cold,” Mom said. Her pale white skin pressed flat against the bottom of the box.

“You won’t feel it,” the first worker grunted. His nametag said ED.

I looked away as the other worker, Hassan, pierced Mom’s skin with the IV needles. One in her left arm, hooked up at the crease of her inner elbow; one in her right hand, protruding from that big vein below her knuckles.

“Relax,” Ed said. It was an order, not a kind suggestion.

Mom bit her lip.

The stuff in the IV bag did not flow like water. It rolled like honey. Hassan squeezed the bag, forcing it down the IV faster. It was sky blue, like the blue of the cornflowers Jason had given me at prom.

My mom hissed in pain. Ed removed a yellow plastic clamp on the empty IV in her elbow. A backflow of bright red blood shot through the IV, pouring into the bag. Mom’s eyes filled with water. The blue goo from the other IV glowed, a soft sparkle of sky shining through my mother’s veins as the goo traveled up her arm.

“Gotta wait for it to hit the heart,” Ed said, glancing at us. Daddy clenched his fists, his eyes boring into my mom. Her eyes were clamped shut, two hot tears dangling on her lashes.

Hassan squeezed the bag of blue goo again. A line of blood trickled from under Mom’s teeth where she was biting her lip.

“This stuff, it’s what makes the freezing work.” Ed spoke in a conversational tone, like a baker talking about how yeast makes bread rise. “Without it, little ice crystals form in the cells and split open the cell walls. This stuff makes the cell walls stronger, see? Ice don’t break ’em.” He glanced down at Mom. “Hurts like a bitch going in, though.”

Her face was pale, and she was lying in that box, and she wasn’t moving at all, as if moving would break her. She already looked dead.

“I wanted you to see this,” Daddy whispered. He didn’t look at me—he was still staring at Mom. He didn’t even blink.

“Why?”

“So you knew before you did it.”

Hassan kept kneading the bag of blue goo. Mom’s eyes rolled up into the back of her head for a minute, and I thought she’d pass out, but she didn’t.

“Almost there,” Ed said, looking at the bag of Mom’s blood. The flow had slowed down.

The only sound was Hassan’s heavy breathing as he rubbed the plastic sides of the bag of goo. And whimpering, soft, like a dying kitten, coming from Mom.

A faint blue glow sparkled in the IV leading from Mom’s elbow.

“Okay, stop,” Ed said. “It’s all in her blood now.”

Hassan pulled the IVs out. Mom let out a crackling sigh.

Daddy pulled me forward. Looking down at Mom reminded me of looking down at Grandma last year at the church, when we all said goodbye and Mom said she was in a better place, but all she meant was that she was dead.

“How is it?” I asked.

“Not bad,” Mom lied. At least she could still speak.

“Can I touch her?” I asked Ed. He shrugged, so I reached out, gripped the fingers of her left hand. They were already ice cold. She didn’t squeeze back.

“Can we get on with it?” Ed asked. He shook a big eyedropper in his hand.

Daddy and I stepped back, but not so far that Mom would think we’d left her in that icy coffin alone. Ed pulled Mom’s eyes open. His fingers were big, calloused, and they looked like rough-hewn logs spreading apart my mom’s paper-thin eyelids. A drop of yellow liquid fell on each green eye. Ed did it quickly—drop, drop—then he sort of pushed her eyes shut. She didn’t open them again.

I guess I looked shocked, because, this time, when Ed glanced up at me, he actually stopped working long enough to give me a comforting smile. “Keeps her from going blind,” he said.

“It’s okay,” Mom said from her shoebox coffin. Even though her eyes were sealed shut, I could hear the tears in her voice.

“Tubes,” Ed said, and Hassan handed him a trio of clear plastic tubes. “Okay, look.” Ed leaned down close to Mom’s face. “I’m gonna put these down your throat. It’s not gonna feel good. Try to act like you’re swallowin’’em.”

Mom nodded and opened her mouth. Ed crammed the tubes down her throat. Mom gagged, a violent motion that started at her belly and worked all the way up to her dry, cracked lips.

I glanced at Daddy. His eyes were cold and hard.

It was a long time before she became still and silent. She kept trying to swallow, the muscles in her neck rearranging themselves to accommodate the tubes. Ed threaded the tubes up through a hole at the top of the shoebox coffin, near Mom’s head. Hassan opened a drawer and pulled out a mess of electrical wires. He stuffed a bundle of brightly colored wires down the first tube, then one long black cable with a small box at the end down the second one, and finally a small rectangular black piece of plastic that looked like a solar panel attached to a fiber-optic string down the last. Hassan plugged all the wires into a little white box that Ed fixed over the hole at the top of what I realized was nothing more than an elaborate packing crate.

“Say goodbye.” I looked up, surprised at the kind voice. Ed had his back to us, typing something into a computer; it was Hassan who spoke. He nodded at me encouragingly.

Daddy had to pull my arm to make me approach Mom. This... this was not the last image of her I wanted. Yellow crusting her eyes, tubes holding wires crammed down her throat, a soft sky-blue sheen pumping through her veins. Daddy kissed her, and Mom smiled a bit around the tubes. I patted her on the shoulder. It was cold too. She gurgled something at me, and I leaned in closer. Three sounds, three spluttering grunts, really. I squeezed Mom’s arm. I knew the words she was trying to get past the tubes were, “I love you.”

“Momma,” I whispered, stroking her paper-soft skin. I’d not called her anything but Mom since I was seven.

“’Kay, that’s it,” Ed said. Daddy’s hand snaked into the crook of my elbow, and he tugged at me gently. I jerked away. He changed tactics and gripped my shoulder, spinning me against his hard, muscled chest in a tight hug, and I didn’t resist this time. Ed and Hassan lifted up what looked like a hospital’s version of a fire hose, and water flecked with sky-blue sparkles filled the shoebox coffin. Mom spluttered when it reached her nose.

“Just breathe it in,” Ed shouted over the sound of rushing liquid. “Just relax.”

A stream of bubbles shot through the blue water, obscuring her face. She shook her head, denying the water the chance to drown her, but a moment later, she gave up. The liquid covered her. Ed turned off the hose and the ripples faded. The water was still. She was still.

Ed and Hassan lowered the shoebox coffin lid over Mom. They pushed the box into the rear wall, and only when they closed it behind a little door on the wall did I notice all the little doors in the wall, like a morgue. They pulled the handle down. A hiss of steam escaped through the door—the flash freezing process was over. One second Mom was there, and the next, everything about her that made her Mom was frozen and stagnant. She was as good as dead for the next three centuries until someone opened that door and woke her up.

“The girl’s next?” Ed asked.

I stepped forward, balling my hands into fists so they wouldn’t shake.

“No,” Daddy said.

Without waiting for Daddy’s response, Ed and Hassan were already preparing another shoebox coffin. They didn’t care whether it was me or him; they were just doing their job.

“What?” I asked Daddy.

“I’m going next. Your mother wouldn’t agree to that—she thought you’d still back down, decide not to come with us. Well, I’m giving you that option. I’m going next. Then, if you’d like to walk away, not be frozen, that’s okay. I’ve told your aunt and uncle. They’re waiting outside; they’ll be there until five. After they freeze me, you can just walk away. Mom and I won’t know, not for centuries, not till we wake up, and if you do decide to live instead of being frozen, we’ll be okay.”

“But, Daddy, I—”

“No. It’s not fair for us to guilt you into this. It’ll be easier for you to make an honest decision if you do it without facing us.”

“But I promised you. I promised Mom.” My voice cracked. My eyes burned painfully, and I squeezed them shut. Two hot trails of tears leaked down my face.

“Doesn’t matter. That’s too big of a promise for us to make you keep. You have to make this choice yourself—if you want to stay here, I understand. I’m giving you a way out.”

“But they don’t need you! You could stay here with me! You’re not even important to the mission—you’re with the military, for Pete’s sake! How is a battlefield analyst supposed to help on a new planet? You could stay here, you could be—”

Daddy shook his head.

“—with me,” I whispered, but there was no point in asking him to stay. His mind was made up. And it wasn’t true, anyway. Daddy was sixth in command, and while that didn’t exactly make him commander in chief, it was still pretty high up. Mom was important too; no one was better at genetic splicing, and they needed her to help develop crops that could grow on the new planet.

I was the only one not needed.

Daddy went behind the curtain and undressed, and when he came out, Ed and Hassan let him use a hand towel to cover himself as he walked to the cryo chamber. They took it away when he lay down, and I forced my eyes to stare at his face, to not make this worse for either of us. But his face radiated pain, a look I had never seen Daddy wear before. It made my insides twist with even more fear, more doubt. I watched them plug the two IVs in. I watched them seal his eyes. I tried to retreat within myself, silence the scream of horror reverberating in my mind, and stand straight with a spine made of iron and a face made of stone. Then Daddy squeezed my hand, once, hard, as they crammed the tubes down his throat, and I crumbled, inside and out.

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