Fourteenth in the dystopian!verse series.
Another Way to Die
She has a lifetime to live in a month, and it will never be enough for both of them.
When: Pre-Ground Zero
It is frightening, almost, they way they slip so easily into a shared life. The mornings are warm and comforting, a soothing lull, so very different from the frenzy of their days. Though she hardly ever wakes next to him, the smell of him lingers on the sheets and in the air around her, and it cushions her from the monsters that wait in the not-quite-distance, like a balm to a wound, or a soaking-bloody bandage.
She does not think of the way the ground beneath her feet is crumbling like the walls of Jericho, or how friends and enemies bring her to her knees. She has one month, and she will not waste it thinking. Thinking will lead to heartbreak and nightmares and ghosts-in-the-dark, and she has enough of those to last her lifetimes. She will not apologise for being selfish, not when she has given herself up in exchange.
Their days are spent together, on the beat-up sofa in his apartment, whiling away the hours with warm cups of black market tea, talking and laughing and skirting around issues. She watches him over the cover of the books she pretends to read, trying to burn the image of him, grease-stained and rumpled, onto the fragile canvas of her memory. He does not question the way she slows and urges him to slow the pace of their lovemaking, drawing out sensations and unsaid emotions and moments into long lines in time. He does not ask her why she avoids the Agency, and he does not ask her why there are twenty-four missed calls from Jack on her comm device.
(Later, he will think that he was subconsciously afraid of her answers, even then.)
But this is now, and she will seize the days that trickle-rush by. She cooks for him, and he does the dishes, and when she does the laundry, he will fold the washed clothes. This is the life she knows they could have had, had they been anyone but themselves. She has never been ungrateful for what they have, but she finds herself wishing, more and more, that a life of simplicity and domesticity and straight-lines-not-circles is theirs.
The pendulum of the clock swings, and it has no mercy for those that attempt to stop it, least of all her. It does not mean she will not try anyway.
She walks the avenues and lanes of London when he leaves for short assignments, when she can pretend that she is like any other person on the street. Winter edges in slowly, subtle hands that strip the sunlight from their world and casts the skies in perennial grey. It is, she thinks, fitting. The birds that once flew overhead, calling and sounding, have fallen silent.
She wanders onto London’s Oxford Street, the shopping haven of the masses. The crowds are thin today, with the cold keeping them at bay. She stands at a cross-junction, waiting for the traffic officer to signal. The air is dry and biting, like a breath of fresh air, or the acrid smell of smoke and fire. She stands shoulder-to-shoulder with several others as they wait, and she wonders what they feel. She breathes and thinks and hopes and dreams like any of them, but she doesn’t feel, not really.
It is like she is trapped in a bubble, and knows that the pop is inevitable. It is like waiting for the other shoe to drop, or for the funeral dirge to begin playing.
She slips off onto a tiny lane full of eclectic shops hawking mysterious wares, and she enters one on impulse. The stop is dim and faintly musty, reminiscent of old libraries or abandoned museums. Ood’s Emporium, the shambling sign behind a dusty counter reads, and she trails a curious hand along the yellowing glass of a display case.
The light tinkling of bells has her looking up, and a greying elderly man with a scraggly beard beams down at her. He gestures for her to come closer to observe the menagerie of paraphernalia, and she does, because she has nothing left to lose.
He folds his hands on the glass case, and looks at her with ancient eyes. “What, my dear, are you looking for?”
“A gift,” she says, and wonders what compels her to respond. “A present. A memory, for someone I –” There is no more time for regrets or non-action, and the words slide off her tongue easily, a not-so-secret given life. “For someone I love.”
“Ah,” he replies, and meanders over to an adjacent counter. He draws the syllable out, like a delicacy to be savoured, or a truth he keeps. “Something special for him, then. You should get him something he doesn’t have.”
She thinks of his self-sufficiency, his solitary lifestyle and lonely apartment, and finds herself at a loss. “But he has everything,” she tells him, and he shakes his head at her, almost in disappointment.
“No one has everything,” he gently chides, and makes a broad gesture. “You will find something here,” he says, and she smiles faintly at his certainty.
The shop is filled with quirky bric-a-brac, oilskin umbrellas and clock hands and combs with no teeth. She wanders over to a wooden display case in the far corner of the room, and finds that it is littered with old books and mismatched cufflinks and dried-out fountain pens. She turns to leave, to tell the shopkeeper that he is wrong, but a glint catches her eye, and she is drawn to a flash of silver, half-buried beneath the remains of discarded pieces of the lives of strangers.
She has to dig a little, but she emerges with an ornately carved silver fob watch, weighty and solid in her palm. The surface is overrun with looping and curling detail, intricate and complex and beautiful, and this, she thinks. This.
There is a sound behind her, and she turns to find the shopkeeper smiling benevolently. She shows him the watch she cradles in her hands, like the baby she can never have, or the promises she cannot keep.
“This,” she tells the elderly man. “This.” She pauses, and traces the patterns of the watch with shaky fingers. Her voice is tremulous when she continues.
“I want to give him time.”
She takes the watch to a metalsmith, and asks to have it engraved. The interior of the watch cover is smooth and unlined, and she wonders if she really wants her inadequate words to taint such perfection. Despite her conflicting thoughts, she hands over a fiver for the engraving.
The metalsmith asks her what she wants written, and so very many words sift through her mind, like ashes or fairy dust. “John ‘Theta’ Smith,” she tells him, and he nods in acknowledgement. She makes it to the doorway of the workshop before she caves, and turns back to the metalsmith.
“Wait,” she says, and the word echoes in the vastness of the space. “I want to add another line.”
He gestures impatiently, and the words catch in her throat before she tugs them out. “One for sorrow, Two for joy – Forever.” He does not comment on her unusual request, but frowns at the mention of forever.
“Are you sure –”
“Please,” she tells him. “Just do it.”
She tries to convince herself that the words are not like scars on unblemished skin.
A month is thirty days, or seven hundred and twenty hours, or forty-three thousand and two hundred minutes. A month is a blink of an eye.
He is not there when she wakes on her last day as herself, and she finds her heart aching at that, even as she knows it is for the better. The pale skin on her flesh is bruised lightly in several places, the result of the passionate, urgent frenzy of the night before, and she traces the marks on her body with careful fingers. It breaks her heart to know that his marks on her will fade, and she thinks that her marks on him have already begun to.
I love you, she had told him, when they were languid and cooled in the aftermath. His hand that had been drawing lazy patterns on the plane of her stomach had stilled for a scant second, and his breath had hitched ever so slightly. He had sent her a jaunty and arrogant smile, and quite right too, he told her.
The forced, glossed-over defensive reflex that are his words tell them both that he has managed to fool no one, but he had sealed her mouth with a soul-branding kiss, and time had been too short for her to dwell on what he would (will) not give her. The bite mark on her neck is the result of his hiding-in-a-fortress, and the hallmark of his escape act. It is fine, she will try to persuade herself, spinning lies that all that matters to her is that he knows, but the three-word, eight-letter reply that hangs unsaid will haunt her long after.
Bring nothing, the brief message she had received the day before reads. She tries to reassure herself that she is alright with that, that this is not killing her slowly, that the things she treasures most are kept close to her heart, like secrets and things-she-will-not-forget. She tells herself many things, none of which she believes.
She dresses slowly, methodically, carefully, like priests preserving a dead body. The mirror in the bathroom has fogged, and she cannot see herself clearly. It hardly matters now.
A scrap of paper lies on the coffee table, a shredded remnant of the blueprints for a new contraption he is tinkering with. It is crumpled and worn, slightly stained and old. She picks it up, and runs it through her fingers, going over and over the wrinkled lines. She promises herself that she will not cry.
A pen is easily found, scattered amidst the junkyard that is his (their) living room. It is half-chewed from his bouts of frenetic brainstorming and detailing, and the ink flows black.
She pens the word with infinite care and none at all, and tells herself that tears do not cause the pressure behind her eyes. The pen whispers across the crinkled paper, looping in an R, curving in a U, rising and falling in an N, and the sound of it is like a cracked bell, or a torn heart.
She knows that he will not doubt her message, and survival is her parting gift to him. They will come after him regardless, she knows, and is aware that they are both existing on borrowed time. But she has borrowed all she can, mortgaged her soul and bartered her life, and now it is up to him. She has done everything she can think of, and she cannot do more.
The clock chimes twelve, a pleasant-sad pealing that echoes throughout the empty house, like a farewell song, or a wordless eulogy. She has to leave. She has to leave now, or she never will.
The door handle is cold and unforgiving under her hand, like recriminating bystanders that whisper-yell traitor, traitor, traitor. It lingers in her mind, bitter and hard.
She opens the door.
Behind her, a cold key lies plangent on the table, next to a Dear John that contains neither of those words.
The sunlight burns her skin.
Part Thirteen - The Secret Life of Daydreams; Part Fifteen - The Sharpest Lives