‘How much longer?’
The doctor cast a glance at the monitor beside the bed and clumsily rolled down the patient’s lower eyelid.
‘Hard to say exactly, a couple of hours maybe.’
Austin took his wife’s hand, so cold now, the flesh felt rubbery and artificial. He snatched his hand away again and began to softly stroke her hair instead. It felt nicer, her curls bounced softly through his fingertips.
‘You’re still so beautiful,’ he whispered to the figure on the bed, ‘I’ll miss your smile every day.’
The woman on the bed weakly mouthed something but no sound could be heard.
The doctor walked to the other side of the bed and solemnly checked the blood pressure sensors attached to her arm.
Austin continued to gently stroke his wife’s hair, ‘We’ve had some wonderful times together. She’s been a true soul mate. The website’s questionnaire was spot on. She’s perfect for me in every way.’ For a moment his fingers strayed to the curve of her neck but recoiled against the frigid skin.
With immense effort, the woman lifted her head slightly. She looked at Austin imploringly and tried to speak again.
‘It’s okay Laura,’ her husband soothed, ‘I hate seeing her like this Doc, can you raise her volume levels again.’
‘Are you sure? She’s probably going to say the same thing.’
‘I’m sure, I can’t watch her struggling like this.’
The doctor took a small remote control from his pocket, pointed it towards the woman on the bed and pressed a button.
The woman strained forward again. ‘I love you,’ she whispered.
‘Can you turn it up Doc? I can hardly hear her.’ Austin leant forward, ‘I love you too Laura, I’ll miss you so much.’
‘Please give me a little longer then Austin. I’m begging you,’ her shaking voice rasped and caught in her throat, ‘I’m not ready, even a few more months…’
Austin yanked his hand from her hair and raked it through his own, ‘Cut the volume and keep it off. I don’t need this, it’s not fair, the decision’s been made.’
The doctor flicked the switch and the room was quiet once more with only the dull hum of hospital machinery beating its depressing soundtrack in the background.
Austin stood and beckoned the doctor to the corner of the room, ‘Mute her audio feed,’ he said quietly.
The doctor tapped a code into the remote’s touchscreen.
‘Can she hear us?’
The doctor shook his head.
‘Good. I’m really struggling with this, I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t apologise, it can be a highly emotional time.’
‘No, it’s not that. Damn these new regulations. It used to be so much simpler. They showed signs of wear and tear and we switched them off. Now we have to go through this laborious wind-down to respect “their awareness of their own humanity”. The world’s gone mad.’
‘How long were you together?’
‘She’s a twelve-year model and I’ve had her for eleven and a half, so I’ve had my money’s worth.’
The doctor nodded slowly and adjusted the controls beside the monitor, ‘I’m going to begin to slow her ventilation, it’s gradual and painless. What are your plans after wind-down?’
‘I can’t afford a brand-new model unfortunately; the kids are both in uni now. I’ve spoken to the surgeon already. We’ll keep the core structure although I’d like a few tweaks to the outer casing, just a brightening and tightening you know. We’ll keep the majority of the memories, I want to make sure she has the same bond with the kids, I haven’t mentioned the upgrade to them.’
‘No, they won’t notice, Dr Blackmore’s brilliant.’
‘Once she’s been reconditioned I’ll keep her on a six-year cycle until the kids finish uni and settle into their own lives. I’ve asked him to make her a bit less feisty too, I used to love her passion but at my age I just want an easy life. And I don’t want a dog lover this time. It was okay when the kids were little, but I don’t need something yapping around my ankles when I come home. By the end of her cycle, I’ll have hit retirement and I should be able to afford a complete renew, top of the range.’
‘That seems reasonable, shall I reconnect the audio feed and you can say your goodbyes. The light’s flickering slightly in her left iris, I think it will be less than an hour.’
‘Yes, go on, let’s get it over with. If it only takes an hour, I can make the soccer tonight then pick her up tomorrow morning.’
Bracing himself, Austin sat and took his wife’s hand again, it was even colder now.
‘Don’t worry my darling, I’m right beside you. Let go my beautiful angel. I’ll remember you always.’
Jo Withers writes micro-fiction, poetry, short stories and novels according to her current attention span. She regularly contributes to 50 Word Stories, won the 2017 Story for Children Prize at The Caterpillar and her middle-grade science-fiction novel, 5 Simple Steps to Saving Planet Earth, was published in 2018.