CJ Hastings stared at the door to Mai Li’s room. He’d been staring at it five times a day for the past ten days. He stared at it when he came upstairs to shower in the morning, before he went to school, when he came home, while Mom made supper and before he went to bed. A couple times he’d come up to stare at it when he woke up in the middle of the night from the nightmare that was always the same.
Mom walked up behind him and put her hand on his shoulder. She waited a few minutes before saying, “Are you as scared as I am?”
CJ shook his head. He hadn’t had an answer for her for the ten days that had passed since she’d been injected with nanomachines that were supposed to reconstruct her brain. This morning he said, “More. Way, way more.”
Mom stepped around in front of him and lifted his chin up. She didn’t have to lift up as much as she had last year. Maybe he was finally going to be normal for a thirteen-year-old finally. She said, “What’s that mean?”
He shrugged. She scowled and said, “The shrink said we’ve got to talk about this or we’ll go crazy.”
He shrugged again but added, “She’s not gonna be the Mai Li we know, Mom.”
Mom nodded and turned away, releasing him. “I know.” She took a deep breath, held it and let it go. “Wasn’t that the point?”
Mom smiled faintly. “Remember, ‘no more yeah, buts’”
He smiled, too. “She’ll be better, right?”
Mom nodded. “They’ll be here later today to bring her out.” Mai Li had been in a chemically induced coma so that the nanomachines could not only reconstruct her neural pathways, but also map out her damaged brain for research. “I’ll be by to pick you up from school early.”
“Are you going to work?”
“No. I took a…a…paternity leave for the next three months. I’ll be able to stay home with Mai Li while she’s…” she stopped, unable to find the word.
“…changing?” CJ said.
Mom nodded, patted his shoulder and said, “You’d better get going. I don’t want you to miss your bus.”
He nodded slowly then said suddenly, “Mom, I’m been having a dream about Mai Li.”
Frowning, Mom came back to him. “What kind of dreams?”
“Not ‘dreams’. Just one dream. Four times.”
“Didn’t you tell the psychologist?”
He shook his head. “It was too weird.”
“What was the dream about?”
“Mai Li,” he paused, frowning. It was such a weird dream. Another reason he didn’t tell the psychologist was that he didn’t want her to laugh at him. He took a deep breath and said in a rush, “In my dream, I’m standing outside Mai Li’s door and it opens suddenly. She’s standing there, dressed like a model or something. It’s like it’s her but not her. She looks like other people, only she looks like Mai Li, too. She stares at me for a second then smiles, reaches out, takes my hands and we start waltzing together. Through the house, to the front door – it’s wide open for some reason, and there’s no screen door on it – and right out on to the steps. Then there’s photographers and camera people and news reporters and webanchors and everything. Mai Li stops dancing, lets go of my hands, steps back and then points at me and starts laughing. Everybody laughs with her. Then she leans real close and says to me, ‘I don’t need you any more, baby brother. Go away.’” He was trembling and he hadn’t been able to keep the tears from leaking out of his eyes. He blinked fast and squeezed the bridge of his nose, sniffling. Looking up, he saw that Mom wasn’t even looking at him. She was patting his shoulder, but she was looking down the hallway, to the front door that they’d waltzed out in his nightmare.
She took a shuddering breath, patted him one last time and said, “Well, you’d better get going to school.”
CJ blinked a half dozen times then sprinted past her to the front door. He stopped.
Mom called from back in the house, “She’s always going to need you, Christopher. No matter who she becomes after this, she’s always going to need you.”
He ran out the door to catch his bus.