The door pushed open and startled Jimmy, bringing him up from his knees. Patricia stood there, a curious expression that quickly turned to relief. Jimmy smiled back and took a short step toward her. She threw her arm out and reeled him in for an embrace.
She was no longer in her suit which gave Jimmy a full view of the sickening nub she now sported. She seemed to be oblivious to its grotesque nature as if her arm was still there, but to him it was a reminder of the disgusting scar that had bubbled over his side. A reminder that he would return home anything but perfect.
“We did it,” she said quietly, the helmet taking her words and amplifying them. He felt her squeeze harder, causing him to gasp and strain away. She was fast to pick up on it and let go. “Are you alright?”
The honest concern on her face prevented him from snapping back with sarcasm. He pressed the sensor at his neck and removed the helmet. “I will be.”
She took the helmet from him and flung it inside. Before following her, Jimmy glanced back.
An empty seat met him.
“We may have to put the suits back on,” said Patricia, “but for now I’d rather get acquainted.” She raised her nub and wiggled it around. She strained her face but forced out a smile.
He smiled back, making sure his face did not betray his disgust.
He undid his suit and pulled himself out of it. Patricia picked up on his injured shoulder and tried to help him as much as one extra arm could. He nearly fell as he pulled out of his still bleeding foot. They bandaged it up tight and moved on to his shoulder.
After a couple of painful blows, the arm popped back into place, leaving him with an extremely uncomfortable but soon to be useable arm. As he sat catching his breath, he began to watch his companion. There was an excitement in her that could not be missed. An excitement he was jealous over.
She had watched hundreds of people die and would return home a disfigured abomination yet she knew that she would be welcomed back with open arms. No matter what, she could be confident that her place at home would never be revoked.
Jimmy had revoked his own a long time ago.
Staring at Patricia as she worked on the system reminded him of that. He had fought for his life, tooth and nail, and won. He had proven yet again that he was a survivor and would survive anything, but there was absolutely nothing for him to survive for. He was returning to a life filled with empty goals and memories. In the end, he may as well have accomplished nothing. He had survived for the sake of living.
He felt his hand squeezed and found Patricia’s gorgeously aged face looking back at him. He wasn’t sure how long he had been spaced out for but it had been long enough for her to notice.
“Where’d you go?” she said.
She looked so tired, so ready to rest, yet the excitement in her, the knowledge of what she had won back kept her going. He smiled at her, his hand squeezing back while his head tilted just enough to dissuade her from pressing on.
“We’ll be here a while,” she said, smiling back. “After everything, I think I deserve at least a little more.”
He bit the inside of his cheek as he looked away. A long silence held over them.
“Two people died because of me,” said Jimmy. “People that deserved to live more than I do. I keep building images to convince myself there was nothing I could have done but all they needed was for me to reach out to them.”
He shook his head. In Patricia’s eyes he knew it would look like someone unable to deal with the guilt of it all, but he found himself absent of any. Not on the surface at least.
But that was nothing anyone needed to know. Baby steps.
“They just needed a hand,” he said.
“And you think your hand would have been the right one?” said Patricia. Jimmy nodded without looking at her. He could feel her watching him, carefully observing his expressions as if judging his true character. “It likely was.”
Her words were cold and from one second to the next he felt them cut into him. He blinked a few times as he processed them and looked at her. It was the reaction she had wanted. She had baited him back.
He felt uneasy. If he was being manipulated through a conversation, it meant she had already learned his behavior. It meant she could see straight through his words, straight through the show he had put on for her.
Yet her eyes revealed no judgement, no scorn, no disgust. Only concern as if she were fighting with her own thoughts to make sure she did not say the wrong thing.
“Most of the time there are plenty of things we can do to change an outcome but we tend to see it after, or we become too scared to take action in the moment,” she continued. “You probably could have saved them both, but you didn’t. And that’s okay.”
He felt as if she were tugging at his strings. “Is it?”
“We all die James. Some young and in accidents, others old and in bed. You don’t need to feel guilty for the sake of everyone else.”
He furrowed his brows and watched her. He felt like a cornered animal, ready to bite. She smiled warmly and he felt himself growing easy. “There’s varying degrees of empathy. My family seem to hold most of mine, but there’s times where not even they receive it.”
His first instinct was to deny, but he could tell she found nothing about him unnatural. “What made you think I deserved it?” he asked.
“You don’t,” she said. “You’re a selfish piece of shit.” She held her stern expression until she broke out into laughter and contaminated Jimmy. “If I’ll be honest, I did it for me. Nothing special about it. You were alive when no one else was. I was tired of being alone.”
“And yet I’m the selfish one,” said Jimmy.
“I’m glad I didn’t let you go kill yourself, though,” she said softly as she squeezed his hand.
“I…” he stammered as he thought it over. He stared at her hand over his, her thumb gently rubbing over his skin. It felt foreign. An intimate touch that he knew was in no way sexual. He would return home to what he had left behind. Everything the same, but it did not mean he was forced to keep it that way. He squeezed back. “Me too. My son doesn’t deserve to be without a dad just yet.”
“Well fuck you too,” laughed Patricia as she let go of his hand and slapped it. She turned for him and checked the controls. “Will you go see them?”
“I’ll have to eventually,” he said.
“It’s good to be aware of other’s flaws,” said Patricia before turning to look him directly in the eyes, “but it’s better to be aware of your own.”
Jimmy was all too aware of his own, but it felt safer to cover them up and pretend there were none. He ran his fingers over his boiled scar. “Do you think your family will care about your arm?”
She looked down at it. “You mean my husband?” she laughed. “Probably less than I will. It’s just an arm and there’s always prosthetics.”
Jimmy fell silent and stared off into a corner of the pod. He knew they would put him on temporary leave, maybe even force him to talk to a shrink again. He would return to normal and find himself at peak performance as soon as they let him back. Like a robot with a mission.
“Jimmy,” said Patricia. It was jarring to hear her say his name like that. “This may sound strange, and you’re allowed to say no, but my family will want to meet you.”
He watched her for a moment, a part of him telling him he was being duped while the other fought hard against showing joy. “I don’t think I’m the type of person you want around them.”
“Maybe not,” she said, “but you saved me when you could have just left me. We can swallow some bad behavior.”
“I just needed you to operate this thing,” he winked.
“Oh, I’m sure that’s what it was,” she chuckled.
He took Zoe’s unit from the bag, his mind fighting the urge to tell Patricia to return for Nee at the sight of it. He knew he couldn’t. Not only because of how he would appear to Patricia but because he couldn’t waste their fuel returning. They needed it if they would make it high enough to the surface.
He wouldn’t let her go, though. No, he would get Nee back. He would find a way.
“Aida, are you there?” said Jimmy into Zoe’s unit.
There was a rich silence as he awaited her response.
“We’re here,” said Aida, finally.
“We’re on our way to you.”
The residue of cheering came through the speaker. “That’s great James! We’ll have a team ready to get you wherever you surface.”
“We’ll need them to come some ways down for us. We had some…issues with fueling.”
“We can do that. Anything else?”
“Some medical attention would be nice,” said Patricia, reaching over to press the sensor.
“Of course Dr. Watts,” said Aida. “Should we notify your families that you’re safe? I can have them transported as well if you’d like.”
Patricia’s eyes watched Jimmy expectantly. He could feel his skin beginning to flush.
“You don’t have to do anything,” said Patricia to him.
He wanted to say yes but the thought of them being there when he surfaced made him anxious. He had grown accustomed to the distance between each other. They would be expected to show emotion in front of the crowds. Emotion that they likely did not feel, but they had never been ones to displease the crowds. Jimmy wasn’t sure he would be able to do it himself, but that wasn’t the part that worried him most.
“James?” came Aida’s voice.
There was a chance they would not even come. He ran the tips of his fingers over his newly formed scar.