Life-Stills™ - by Yen Ooi
“Thank you for participating in the clinical trials for Life-Stills™.”
Sia had not combed her hair since it was last washed a week ago and the nurse did her best to remain professional, only wrinkling her nose slightly as she signed Sia in.
Sia shrugged. She was only there because her doctor had forced her to go. Really, she was happier at home, contemplating death.
“Sia Robson. Twenty-five. 32 Chiswick High Road. Is that right?”
Sia nodded this time, looking down at her shoes. Marc had bought them for her, but he was gone now.
“Please go to Meeting Room 3,” the nurse said, pointing at a door not too far away, “Where the introductions will start. Thank you.”
Still looking at her feet, Sia dragged her pair of soiled Onitsuka Tigers along the floor, and headed towards the room she had been shown. She considered heading to the toilets and hanging herself there. Her shoelaces might be strong enough.
There was a hand at her elbow now, nudging her along. She let herself be led and only looked to see who it was once she was safely seated in a corner, away from people. How she despised people after the incident.
It was her doctor, Dr Clare Holloway, who smiled reassuringly at Sia before leaving her to find other patients.
The doors to the room were shut before it was full. There were as many patients as there were doctors and nurses. Not many in all. Sia was glad, as she could remain alone in the corner. She tried to listen to the introductions, but found her attention distracted by the tree outside.
The tree swayed alone and seemed to gesture at Sia to come out. Sia wanted to smile at the tree, but she didn’t know how to; she felt her cheek muscles twitch. She shook her head sadly at the tree, as if it could understand her predicament, and turned to the doctor on stage.
He was talking about Life-Stills™, a new revolutionary mind-drug that would allow patients to re-live a moment in time, through physical feelings. A recent ‘happy’ moment for the patient is determined and scientists take a snapshot of the chemical make-up of the body in that moment, using a strand of the patient’s hair. This chemical make-up is then copied into Life-Stills™ in the form of small circular dissolvable stickers. When placed on the patient’s tongue, the drug acts as a catalyst to bring the body’s chemicals and hormones to the precise state of the selected moment. The patient’s body thus recreates the moment of physical happiness experienced in the snapshot, and will remain in this state for about half an hour before the drug wears off.
Sia had heard this explanation from Clare numerous times. It sounded far-fetched, and frankly, she didn’t care. She’d agreed in her last session with Clare to try the drug, just once, though she was starting to have second thoughts. Clare had suggested she choose her wedding day as the moment to return to, as a way of recapturing the last happy moments before she fell into her depression. In truth, Sia hoped that reliving her wedding day might make her even more depressed and finally give her enough courage to take her own life. It was after all, the day before Marc died.
She looked outside again, but the tree had stopped swaying. It seemed to be throwing a tantrum, looking away.
The six patients were ushered to a desk where their prescriptions of Life-Stills™ were handed to them. They each got six doses and were given the choice to take their first dose at the hospital, or at home, though they would need to have someone with them.
Sia took her strip of stickers and left. She walked past the tree and said sorry to it, but it didn’t reply. She walked home automatically, not thinking about where her feet were taking her.
Her home was a two-bed flat at the end of the high street. It was sparsely furnished, with boxes of wedding gifts still in various stages of unwrapping. They reminded her of Marc, which was painful, but she had thought it would be worse without them around.
Sia went straight to the couch and lay on it. Reaching into her jeans, she pulled out the strip of Life-Stills™. They were still wrapped in the accompanying literature, which she threw on the floor without a second thought. Sia peeled a sticker off the strip and looked at it as it sat on the tip of her index finger. It looked harmless... and useless.
She placed the sticker onto her tongue and felt it start to dissolve. It didn’t taste of anything. Like paper, she thought, closing her eyes. She couldn’t be sure if she had dozed off or not, but when she came to, she felt her body straighten out, her muscles becoming more... confident. Sia opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling, suddenly aware that she no longer felt sad or depressed. She actually felt... happy.
She sat up on the couch and looked around. She would usually cry at the sight of her flat after a nap, but now this thought bemused her. With her posture perfect, her head held high, she turned to look around some more, feeling like a stranger in her own flat. Sighting the strip of Life-Stills™ and its literature strewn on the floor, she recalled what she had just done.
This positive feeling seemed new and strange to her, even though she knew that was absurd. It brought back memories of when she was younger, memories of her graduation, of getting her first job, of meeting Marc, and of course, their wedding day. All the moments in her life when she was confident and happy. Having been given this moment of clarity in her thoughts, Sia tried to remember why she had been so depressed only ten minutes before. Why had she wanted to commit suicide so badly?
Her thoughts drifted to her wedding day, but the memories were patchy. The morning after the wedding, she found Marc in bed with her, cold. His corpse was slightly grey, his eyes open and lifeless. She remembered screaming and trying to close his eyes, but the skin of his eyelids was rigid. The memories flooded her mind, but she felt no emotional register. It was... just a memory.
A memory that she brushed aside easily now, as she got up and went towards the shower. She was very aware of her foul state.
Time passed quickly that afternoon for Sia. After she showered, she started unwrapping and putting away gifts, even drawing up an inventory of items. She kept working, her mind so fully concentrated on the task that she only stopped when her mother arrived.
Sia’s mother, Tonje, having seen Sia in a complete state for nearly a month, was shocked to find her daughter up, showered, and doing household chores. The flat was tidy, and Sia looked pretty and normal.
Both women stared at each other, not knowing what to say. Sia broke the trance by smiling, which only made Tonje cry. They hugged for a long while, still not speaking, before Sia suggested that they go out for dinner. Tonje agreed and placed the groceries that she had brought with her – having planned to cook for her daughter as she had done every night after the incident – into the fridge.
“I can cook that tomorrow, mum. Thanks.”
Tonje was still shaking with relief as they walked out of the flat into the night, heading quietly to Sia’s favourite Italian restaurant across the road. There, Sia explained the concept of Life-Stills™, as her mother nodded in disbelief, while both spooned delicious risottos into their mouths.
Sia woke the next morning thinking about what had happened the previous afternoon. She knew that she was back to being depressed again; tears welled up in her eyes when she thought about how the bed was too big for just her. But now, she had a sense of determination within her. She wanted another dose of Life-Stills™.
She bolted out of her room, into the living room and frantically searched for the strip. Spotting it on the coffee table, she tumbled onto the sofa, grabbing the strip, and plucked a sticker, placing it straight onto her tongue without hesitation. Within moments, she felt the change come about again, quicker this time.
As she sat in the perfect state of confidence, calm, and clarity, Sia considered what she wanted to do that day. She knew that she had to get her life in order.
After a shower and breakfast, Sia pulled out the suitcase in her bedroom, which had remained shut since the wedding. It was packed for the honeymoon, which had never happened. They were supposed to have been on the beach in Seychelles, sipping cocktails and working on their tans for two whole weeks. Marc’s best friend, a travel agent, had helped them to book it, and it was he who had cancelled it that fateful day, and helped her get a full refund for the trip.
Unzipping the case, she found her bikinis, sundresses, a pair of jeans and some light tops. She didn’t care for any of these, as it was now the start of autumn and the weather was getting chilly. She reached for the beautifully packed pouches that kept her toiletries, underwear, and some other bits and bobs. She was surprised at how little she could remember of what was in them.
As she unpacked the items, she organised them into piles based on where they needed to go; bathroom cabinet, wardrobe, laundry bag... it was simple, until she came across a small glass vial. That was when her phone rang.
It was Dr Holloway, checking in. Sia was distracted and wanted to get off the phone, but Clare was adamant that they meet, especially since Sia sounded so much better. Eventually, Sia agreed, if only to get off the phone. They would meet later that afternoon at the clinic.
Returning to the vial, Sia held it between her thumb and index finger, swirling the clear, slightly yellow liquid. What was it for? She couldn’t remember, but she knew she must have used it, since it was half empty. Storing it somewhere safe, Sia tidied up the scattered bits and went to get ready for her meeting with Dr Holloway. Perhaps she could fill in another prescription of Life-Stills™ there.
“You look amazing!” Clare reached out to hug Sia as she stepped into the doctor’s office. “How do you feel?”
Feeling bewildered at the reaction, Sia managed to reply, “Normal, I guess.”
“Who oversaw your first application?”
Sia realised that she hadn’t followed any of the guidelines given, and decided to lie. “Oh, my mum.”
“Great, I’ll make an appointment to chat with Tonje soon.” Clare scribbled and nodded to herself.
Sia didn’t want that to happen, but she couldn’t think of any excuses just yet.
“Do you remember anything more from the incident?”
“Oh, it’s worked really well, hasn’t it? But, listen,” Clare hesitated and leaned forward. “What we need to do, is to face what it was that made you ill in the first place, now that you are starting to feel better. Do you understand? It might be hard, but it’s time. I’m going to have to ask you to try and remember exactly what happened at your wedding. And afterward.” Clare gave Sia a moment to take in the message before asking, “Are you ready?”
“Oh. Of course. That makes sense.”
Clare ushered Sia to a more comfortable chair in the room. Sia’s mind started to drift over all that had happened. She remembered the church. She remembered the beautiful readings by her best friend Adam, who had tried so hard to help her out during those dark days – she had pushed him aside instead, afterward. She remembered the reception, then, and the last night she and Marc had spent together.
“Tell me what you remember, Sia.” Clare sat watching as Sia relayed what she could see; what she was starting to remember.
“I remember the night. Once everyone had left, Marc called for champagne and we sat in the bath together. It was... lovely.” Sia’s mind flashed forward to the next scene that night, after the bath, after they had made love, to when Marc was fast asleep. She remembered now. She remembered taking the glass vial. Meta-cyanide. It was a little fuller then, when she had twisted the top off and put just a few drops on Marc’s lips. He had even smacked his lips together in his sleep, as if he had just tasted something nice.
“It must have been a beautiful night for the both of you,” Clare said, reading the smile.
Sia nodded as she realised that she had planned it all along. Marc had taken out life insurance. If he were to die unexpectedly, in an accident, she would get the flat, as well as nearly two million pounds.
The smile on her lips stretched further.
“Tell me what happened, then.”
“After the bath, we made love like never before. It was special, we were husband and wife. Then, I fell asleep in his arms.” Sia continued smiling. Dr Holloway looked away, slightly embarrassed.
“Do you remember anything else after that?”
Sia shook her head. “No. Nothing happened.” She altered her facial expression for the doctor’s benefit, curling her mouth into a scowl, then a sneer as she shouted, “I woke up to find him dead!”
The room became quiet as Sia opened her eyes and looked into her lap, not trusting herself to look up at the doctor. Clare, concerned that she might have undone any progress, went to Sia to comfort her.
“It’s OK, Clare,” Sia said, still with a tinge of made-up sadness in her voice. “I’m glad I can see clearly now. I think… I think I can slowly learn to move on.”
“That’s great. That’s really great. I’m so glad that we’ve made so much progress, Sia.”
Sia nodded and pretended to put on a brave face.
“If you feel OK, then you won’t need to continue taking Life-Stills™. You can take one once a week at the most, or whenever you feel the depression coming on. Otherwise, the best thing to do is to get your life back on track.”
“I understand. Thanks, Clare.”
The doctor left Sia with a few more bits of advice before letting her go. “Take care, Sia, and well done for your courage. Do let Tonje know that I’ll be in touch soon.”
At home, Sia found herself shaking, and she realised that she was excited. She felt driven to do something, but she wasn’t sure what. She went to the living room and helped herself to one more dose of Life-Stills™, knowing that she wouldn’t be needing them anymore after this.
As the chemicals washed through her body, her plan became clear. She reached for her phone and dialled her mother’s number.
“Mum? What did you do with dad’s insurance money after he died?”
Tonje, glad to hear Sia taking charge of her own life again, told her daughter that most of the money was placed in an old savings account that she’d put in both of their names after Sia had started working part-time in high school.
“That’s really smart, Mum, so it’s an account that we can jointly access, right?”
“Yes, that’s why I picked it. If anything happened to me, you would have full access. And vice versa. The lawyer said that because the account has always been in both our names, you won’t face any inheritance taxes when I’m gone.”
“Wow. I hope I’ll be able to make smart decisions like you did, mum.”
“I’m sure you will. I’m so glad that you’re able to move on, Sia, I just want to see you happy again.”
“Thanks. I know, and I’m sorry that I put you all through so much grief.
Sia’s mind went back to the small glass vial in her bedroom.
“Why don’t you come around for dinner tonight, mum? I think I’m up for cooking.”
Yen started writing as an outlet for her wild imagination, which was instigated by her appetite for books ever since she was young. Having had a vibrant career in music touring, education and project management, Yen put her skills to writing stories since 2008, producing speculative, fantasy and science fiction in various guises. She shares her short stories, poetry and blog on her website yenooi.com. Yen is a member of ALLi, BSFA, and a member and panellist of Worldcon. She shares her home and writing lair in London with her patient husband and two mischievous cats.