(TW: contains themes of death and dying)
I sat on crinkly paper in the exam room while the blood pressure cuff deflated. This table was not like the others I had sat on before for physicals or blood tests; it was softer and more comfortable, almost like a recliner. Designed for the procedure I was about to do.
Dr. Kristina Abbott pressed her glasses up to the bridge of her nose. “One hundred twenty over sixty,” she said after reading my blood pressure. They always said that like you were supposed to know what the numbers meant.
“So, where is he?” I asked.
“He’s in the next room.”
After graduating from high school, Spencer Adams—my former best friend—enlisted in the military to fight in the Intergalactic War between humanity and the invading Vraxed from the Andromeda Galaxy. The federal government offered soldiers the option to enroll in the ‘Final Sanctuary’ program and listed the people they wanted to see before they died.
If the hospital’s artificial intelligence determined that someone’s life would end regardless of medical intervention, their consciousness was uploaded into the sanctuary program for visitation. From what the nurse told me, Spencer contracted the ultimavirus (UV-47) while fighting on the field and only had a few hours left to live.
What I didn’t understand was why he listed me.
“Why is it called the Final Sanctuary?”
Dr. Abbott swiped through the screens of my digital chart on the overhead display. “Our soldiers sacrificed much to fight for humanity. At Abbott Enterprise, we believe providing them a safe place to say goodbye to their loved ones is the least we can do for their service to our species.”
My cheeks burned when the words 'loved ones' struck my ears. Lucky for me, the blood pressure cuff had been removed.
“How much do you know about the technology?” Dr. Abbott asked.
She hooked me up to monitors, placing cold electrodes on my skin underneath the scratchy hospital gown and gliding an IV needle into my arm.
“We will place you into twilight anesthesia during the procedure,” she said as she clicked a pen to scribble on a clipboard. “You and Spencer will revisit memories you both shared. Your brain will generate half of the image, and he will generate the other half. Based on electrical feedback, our program will fill in the gaps.”
My chest tightened. I didn’t want to share consciousness with Spencer. But if he listed me as a visitor in his will, what choice did I have?
“You might have to explain what’s happening," she said. "You’re going before his father, and the first few minutes can be disorienting. Can you do that?”
“Lean back if you’re ready, Dean.”
As the pressure within my chest swelled, I closed my eyes, forgetting to breathe.
I expected it to feel like a dream, weightless and whimsical. But the world disappeared in fragments around me, first with sight, then sound. I tasted something sweet, like a vanilla cupcake with rainbow sprinkles, and then the world came back to me. But something about it felt wrong.
Instead of the exam room, I stood in the corner of a crowded room of high school teenagers, the air heavy with hormones and all eyes fixed on Olivia Delgado. She was the most popular girl in our class, and as she opened her presents in the living room, Spencer stood beside me with his arms folded over his chest.
This was just a memory. My stomach churned when I remembered this was a visitation, and I’d chosen this memory because it was the first time we felt like real friends. All around us, the scene was unchanged, but his eyes wandered to mine, wide and bewildered.
“Spencer,” I said, my voice scratchy. “You there?”
A heaviness settled on my chest.
“Spencer, this is a visitation.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him we were in the sanctuary program. “We’re in our shared memories. Do you understand?”
He looked around, first to the boy on his left with disheveled red hair and bad acne, then at the girl on my right with mascara like a raccoon.
As if reading my mind, he asked me a question.
“What kind of car does a raccoon drive?”
Cheek dimples greeted me when he smiled. His skin darkened from summer in the sun, and along with the black hair hanging over his forehead, his smile brightened the countenance of his face.
My pulse quickened. “Are you okay?” For someone dying in a hospital bed, he kept a calm demeanor.
“I guess,” he said. “This is Olivia’s fourteenth birthday, right?”
I nodded. “Yeah. At some point, she’s going to storm over here and demand that you act like her boyfriend instead of a creeper in a corner.”
Spencer chuckled, his gray eyes illuminating his face like a lighthouse during a raging sea storm. “She’s one-of-a-kind.”
“Just like the girl from last week.”
“That’s what you always say.”
I averted my gaze as my smile faded. Some habits of friendship were like riding a bike, where you picked up quickly, exactly where you left off, even after years had passed. Our jokes, our rhythms, our everythings. This was the last time I was going to see him, and any other average person would apologize.
“Why am I here, Spencer?”
“You didn’t want to see me?” he asked.
It wasn’t a lie. I wanted to see him, but how could he face me now? Anyone else would have scorned me after what I did.
He tilted his head with a raised eyebrow. “Come on. I want to show you something.”
“Where are we going?”
“Your favorite memory.”
He reached for my hand, and my skin tingled as the surrounding scenery changed.
I had always thought Spencer was handsome. Sometimes, I think I might have actually acted on it; but he was one of those guys who was always dating someone.
As his best friend, I coached him through every girlfriend over the years: Clarissa Hopkins, the demanding head cheerleader; Madeline Meyer, the rich girl who wore him like an accessory; Emma Lane, a mutual acquaintance who cheated on him; and Olivia Delgado, the queen bee who ran the school.
Judging by what the girls told me, Spencer couldn’t stop joking around with them, taking nothing seriously.
I never had that problem.
“Can you get away for an hour?” he asked.
Rain spattered against the pergola. It was a long day: first, the mass, then the burial, and ending at the house.
“I shouldn’t leave my mom alone. And I’m just… not up for hanging out right now.”
His gray eyes pierced beyond the veil, deeper into my soul like no one else could. “We’re not going to hang out. Promise.”
He walked me through the rain into his space rover a minute later. My dad had died a few days earlier—drunk driving. Spencer helped carry the coffin but didn’t stick around afterward, which was for the best.
My mother spent the whole time an absolute wreck, and I stood by her side, staying strong for both of us as she broke down after every “I’m sorry.”
Two cups rested in the cupholder: one with a strawberry limeade (mine) and the other a chocolate milkshake (his). He drove us to the viewing lot overlooking Lake Michigan, then parked. The sky darkened as the thunderstorm raged above us.
My breath hitched, looking back on this memory, amazed at how easy it was to sit in the silence with him as the rain pounded on the roof of his car and the windshield wipers whooshed and whooshed. It was silence between two souls rarer than a simple conversation, something I didn’t share with anyone else.
“We don’t need to talk,” he said. “If all you want to do is sit here and finish your strawberry limeade and then go home, that’s fine.”
I unbuckled my seatbelt, and he did the same, picking up our drinks as we stared at the waves crashing into the rocks along the shore. Lightning illuminated the sky, and thunder roared in my chest. I drained the sugary syrup from my limeade, smiling as the sound of air passed through my straw.
Spencer’s hand reached across the center console, and I grabbed it. A spark of electricity shocked me when our skin touched.
Was this part of the memory, or was I feeling it now? Wouldn’t I have remembered this before?
My hand trembled as I sobbed, pressing my chin into my chest. I pulled away from him, but he held on to me, his firm grasp like an anchor to my wayward ship in the sea. At that moment, he was my strength when I had none left for myself.
After a while, it occurred to me that this was where the memory ended. Spencer held us here, the scene frozen as we watched ourselves from afar.
“This is your favorite memory?” he asked.
I nodded. “You knew exactly what to do. Everyone else just wanted something from me, whether it was a forced smile or some kind of false reassurance that I was okay, even though I wasn’t.”
I swiped at an unexpected tear crawling down my face, the vision of us holding hands suspended in front of me like a painting inside a museum.
“You were different. You were just… there for me.”
He shook his head. “I’m not that smart. I just didn’t know what to say.”
But it was more than that. We were best friends, like two sides of the same coin. He knew me better than anyone else, and for a heart-stopping moment, my mouth slightly parted at a revelation buried deep inside.
Suddenly, we were back inside the memory, and he frowned beside me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Buckle up,” he said, pulling his seatbelt over his chest. “The next one’s going to sting.”
When I woke up, everything around me was blinding white. I sat on the hospital bed while machines hummed beside me. The smell of clean plastic burned my nostrils. My pulse thrummed inside my chest as I oriented myself to the memory, wanting to be anywhere else but here.
“You’re awake,” Spencer said, sitting with his elbows on his knees.
He handed me a cup of water. The cold liquid soothed my dry mouth and throat as I waited in anticipation for what I knew would come next.
“I need to know, Dean. Why were you in the car with my mom?”
I cleared my throat, my eyelids gummy as I fought back the tears. “I’d had too much to drink, and I didn’t want to call my mom because of what happened with my dad. So—”
“You called mine.”
I nodded. “Your mom came as soon as she could. Everything was fine until….”
“Why didn’t you call me instead?”
“Because I knew you were on a date with—”
“I don’t even like her that much! I’ve been waiting for you for five years, Dean. Are you that dense?”
My chest tingled as I remembered two bright headlights that flashed out of nowhere in the torrential rain. The metal sound crunched as thousands of glass shards glinted underneath the moonlight like shimmering stars. And the wailing of sirens in a kaleidoscope of blue, white, and red strobe lights dancing on wet pavement.
He stood from his chair, his hands balled into fists beside him, veins pushing through the skin on his arms. “Because of you, she’s lying in a bed. In a coma.”
The lines around his eyes tightened with a severe expression. He marched towards the door, turning his head over his shoulder to look at me. “I’m enlisting in the military. Need more soldiers in the fight against the Vraxed.”
Even though he hardened his jaw, his gaze was soft.
I pulled us out of the memory.
“That’s not what you said. You told me you were enlisting in the military and never wanted to see me again.”
He shrugged, stuffing his hands in his jean pockets. “I know. I was angry. Didn’t mean it.”
His eyes glistened against the fluorescent lights of the hospital room. “You know how much I love you.”
My mind was numbed with his words. Time and time again, Spencer came to my rescue. He dropped whatever he was doing, immediately responding to my texts or taking my calls, whether on frivolous dates with the week’s girl or even in the middle of essential things like final exams.
Either I was blind to the truth, or I ignored it.
He took my hand in his. “One more stop.”
“Alright,” I said. “It’s your party, after all.”
“And I’ll cry if I want to,” he sang as the smell of alcohol and plastic tubes disappeared.
In the space between our memories, I thought about the first time I saw him in the middle school hallway with a bag slung over his shoulder and longer hair tickling the corner of his eye. Back then, he had pimples like every other greasy teenager. But as he materialized in front of me for the final memory, my mouth slackened.
Why hadn’t I been able to see our potential to be something more?
Spencer was just another person for the longest time until he was the only person.
That is, until he could no longer stand me.
I answered the door, and Spencer stood on the front porch, both of us with one less parent in the world. Months after his mother died, he wore military fatigues and black combat boots while carrying a duffel bag. A buzz cut replaced his signature messy black hair, exposing the sharp features of his face.
I remembered this scene vividly: it was the last time I saw him.
“Got a minute?” he asked.
With a nod, I pulled the door open wide. His footfalls on the hardwood floor were heavy, and he set his bag down beside the sofa before turning to face me.
“They’re deploying me to a battle station on Mars. I leave in a couple of hours.”
If tension was visible, it coated the walls around us like black paint. We stood in silence, my arms folded in front of my chest like an impenetrable shield while he gazed at me with both hands tucked inside his pockets.
My bottom lip trembled as the scene replayed again. I’d never handled pain well.
Why did he bring us back to this moment?
“Spencer, I’m sorry.”
He closed the gap between us, wrapping his arms around me. My thoughts froze, sifting through the archives of my consciousness. He hadn’t hugged me that day. He accepted my apology and just left when it actually happened on Earth.
He was manipulating the memory again, or the sanctuary program was ‘filling in the gaps.’ Perhaps it was... me. Instead of fighting it and pulling us out of the scene, I let it play out.
“I’m sorry, too,” he said.
Tears pricked the corners of my eyes as I buried my face in his chest. “Why are you apologizing? Your mother is dead because of me.”
He sighed, kissing the side of my head. “It’s not your fault some space destroyer ran a red light. I know that now.”
“How can you even speak to me?”
“War does things to you. Changes you. There’s terrible stuff up there, and when I thought about it, what I said to you was wrong. I was young and scared and stupid, listening to the wrong voices, and we both suffered for it.”
Everything became clear to me as warmth filled my chest. His reason for listing me as a final visitor: he needed a place to say the things he wanted to say but couldn’t in the living world.
And if I was being honest, I needed the safety of the sanctuary even more.
“Don’t make the same mistake as me. Thinking there isn’t another choice. There is always another choice. We just have to look for it.”
Small fragments of the walls surrounding us evaporated as pixels turned into darkness. Tears streamed down my face as the sanctuary program ended our session. I wanted more time… no; I needed more time with him.
It all happened so quickly.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, shaking my head into his chest.
“Hey.” He cradled my chin with his fingers. “I’ve forgiven you. After all these years, have you not yet forgiven yourself?”
I tilted my head heavenward and kissed him. Years of unspoken promises were finally fulfilled as his lips moved on mine, leaving us both breathless. No longer a memory, but living in the present as the sanctuary crumbled around us.
Spencer wiped my cheeks with his thumbs, smiling at me with crinkled eyes. “I love you. Sorry I had to die to say it.”
“Me too.” I wiped at my nose, sniffing. “How am I supposed to live without you?”
His hand still cupped my chin as he regarded me intently. The world disappeared around us, and fragments of Spencer’s form faded away, leaving me with one last whisper as my consciousness drifted back to Earth.
“Just focus on breathing. The living comes after.”