Sheryl Callaghan ran her thumbs over the rough edge of the box perched on her lap. Drawings and pasted photos decorated the outside, inside were some of her daughter’s most treasured belongings: the second place ribbon from her third grade science fair, a certificate of appreciation for volunteering with the special needs class, several shells from a visit to the beach, and various other odds and ends.
The box wasn’t even half full, but nothing else would ever be added to it.
Tears fell freely down Sheryl’s face, catching in the limp and tangled mahogany hair that tumbled over her shoulders.
The words brought her back to the present and she looked up to see one of her best friends, Liam, sitting in the chair next to her hospital bed. His gray eyes were filled with worry and his dirty blond hair disheveled. A screen behind him showed an interview and training for an upcoming contestant on The Tower.
“There’s really nothing left?” Sheryl asked, voice rough from lack of use.
“We saved what we could,” Liam explained. “But by the time we knew what was happening the bank seizure was already well underway. We were able to save things that had no monetary value... for the most part. I managed to bribe one of the crew to look the other way so I could get your original wedding bands and a necklace Jonathan gave you, the one with the sapphires and amethyst, but a supervisor came by and I wasn’t able to get any more of your jewelry.”
Sheryl nodded mutely, still hoping that she’d wake up next to her husband and everything would have been a nightmare.
“We got most of the photo albums, though a few had been destroyed before we arrived. Sasha’s awards and trophies are in storage along with her uniforms, a couple journals and other personal things. Benny’s stuffed monkey and the receiving blanket your aunt crocheted are there too, but he didn’t have as much we could grab. He was just too young to have all those memories.”
Sheryl nodded again. Her head had started to hurt from crying.
She looked up, Liam was worried, she could see it on his face. She caught the sight of a tree outside the window, fresh buds on the branches. “What month is it?”
“It’s the beginning of April.”
Fresh tears streamed down her face. The last thing she remembered before waking up in the hospital was leaving a concert in November.
“It… it was at least quick for them? They didn’t suffer?”
Liam reached out and squeezed her hand. “Jonathan and Sasha were pronounced at the scene. The doctors tried to save Benny, but the nanomachines determined there was too much damage to his organs to repair. He never woke up, so didn’t know any pain.”
“Beautiful, and well attended. Your family was loved by everybody. They were buried together.”
For the first time since waking up Sheryl felt a flash of hope. “They were buried?”
Liam nodded. “An anonymous donor paid for cemetery plots instead of automatic reclamation.”
Liam nodded, and Sheryl felt fresh tears sting her eyes. “I… I can’t even thank them for giving me a chance to say goodbye. Cemetery plots are so expensive too… I… I...”
Liam patted her hand.
“I could never have afforded one…” Sheryl whispered. “Three plots is just insane. Only the wealthy can afford burials.”
“Your story touched somebody.”
“Do you remember that night?”
“I remember the concert, the kids were tired. Benny was getting fussy so we left during intermission."
Sheryl squeezed her eyes and tried to remember. “Cops… something was odd, and I called the police.”
“You prevented a dissident attack.”
Sheryl’s eyes flew open. “I what?”
“According to what we were able to figure out, you spotted a suspicious person, and called police. They were able to keep people in the concert hall until the threat was defused. If you hadn’t left early a lot of people would have died.”
“It’s your voice on the recordings Sher. You saved a lot of lives.”
Liam squeezed her hand.
For several minutes the only sounds in the room were the soft hums of machines, the noise from the hall, and the barked orders of a drill sergeant from the nearly muted screen.
Liam jumped, and touched his right temple. “Yes… I’m here…”
Sheryl smiled softly as her friend accepted the call, and he apologized with a concerned glance.
Liam was obviously listening to whoever had called, “Ok, I’ll be there soon.” He stood as soon as he touched his temple again.
“Still using physical acknowledgements rather than AR controls?” Sheryl asked, a small smile at her friend’s outdated ways.
“Only for voice calls. My secretary has been trying to get me to a virtual cafe for the past several minutes, but I kept refusing the invitation.”
Liam nodded. “I’m so sorry Sher. It’s an emergency. Janice said I have a patient contemplating suicide. I have to go.”
“I understand. You can’t drop everything for me.”
Liam frowned. “I tried to clear my schedule as soon as you woke up. You may not be a patient, but I know better than anybody you’ll need to be able to talk about everything. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Sheryl nodded. “I… I think I need some time anyway. The doctors and nurses didn’t tell me anything, I think they were waiting for you. But... “
Liam reached over and squeezed her hand. “I understand. It’s a lot to take in. Call me if you need, any time, I don’t care. I’ll drop everything.”
Sheryl nodded again.
Liam leaned over and kissed Sheryl’s forehead. “I’m here for you Sher.”
She watched her best friend leave, a man she’d known longer than her, now deceased, husband.
Sheryl returned her attention to the box and stared at it, trying to piece together the tattered ends of her life.
She remembered the concert.
She remembered Benny fussing.
She remembered the rain as Jonathan sat in the front seat of the pod, ready to take control if the weather proved too much for the auto-drive system.
She remembered the explosion, then waking up in the hospital.
Her family was dead, probably as retribution for preventing a dissident attack. It was a common tactic to discourage people from reporting suspicious activity.
She was alone and homeless. The bank had seized the house, and it was thanks to friends that even a few precious memories had been saved.
Sheryl stared at the box in her lap. Every second in the hospital put her further into debt, but she knew she needed rehabilitation after months of being unconscious. Even the best nanomachines couldn’t prevent muscles from weakening.
Liam had told her that she was a hero, but she’d likely spend the rest of her life paying off the cost of her survival.
Bright afternoon light turned orange as the sun sank in the sky. The sounds of training and commentary continued to come from the screen. At some point Sheryl ordered dinner, still too numb to do anything more than simply exist.
Noises, and whispers from the hall. There was a knock at the door, and an attendant walked in with her food. The young woman’s face was ashen.
Sheryl blinked, wondering what about her dinner could scare somebody so badly.
The attendant confirmed Sheryl’s name and order, then bolted from the room.
Sheryl turned her attention to the tray, and that was when she saw the envelope, royal purple with gold leaf text.
You Are A Contestant, it proclaimed in bold lettering.
Sheryl felt her heart stop. She squeezed her eyes shut, and opened them again, positive that the envelope was a figment of her imagination.
It was still there. She reached out with a shaking hand and picked it up.
The envelope, it was the most famous item in the world. Everybody dreamed of getting one, but only fifty-two people a year were so lucky... out of the estimated six billion in the right age and health range. .
She slipped her thumb underneath the flap, which popped open. Her fingers trembled as she pulled the card from inside.
The font on the front was ornate, also in gold leaf. You’ve Been Selected…
Sheryl turned over the card to glance at the back. Curiosity got the better of her and she looked for something that was rumored to exist, but had supposedly never been used.
In small, simple text without the opulence of the front was a simple line. To decline this invitation please contact…
The line was followed by a number. For a moment Sheryl considered calling, would she really be the first if she did? Was there any notoriety in being the first to be selected and refuse?
She took a deep breath, turned the card over again and opened it.
Congratulations! You have been selected as a contestant on the 125th season of The Tower. You have forty-eight hours from receipt of this notification to make arrangements regarding any obligations, at the end of this time you will be transported to Dreams Island for rehabilitation and training.
Should you choose to refuse this invitation please contact the number on the back of the card before the end of your forty-eight hour time period.
Thank You & Congratulations!
-The Tower Production Staff
Sheryl stared for several minutes before a dry laugh escaped her lips. Even if she wanted to refuse she couldn’t. It was the only possible escape from the hospital debt that continued to build by the second. In order to live without that burden, she’d have to risk her life.
She slid the card back into the envelope and opened a menu in her AR panel as she ate. She placed a call to Liam.
“Sher? You ok?”
“Can you come by tonight?” she asked. “I… I received the card.”
“I’ll be right over.”