Lullaby, and Goodnight
A/N: This story was written for the Lunar Chronicles Fanfiction Contest, leading up to the release of Winter (which I have yet to read!). I was pretty proud of my entry (no, it didn't win) so I thought I'd post it here causewhynot. This takes place during the events of Cinder. Please review!
"Fly away gently, with a song in your heart
Go now, little bird, and greet the new day
The sun is all aglow as the dawn bids away
The night shadows that try to keep us apart…"
The girl's eyelids remain closed and as still as marble. No quirk of the lips, no twitch of the hands. I wait for a response, my hand loosely encircling hers, but she lies as still as death, save for the uncertain rise and fall of her chest. The song fades like a chill mist and I sigh.
"Won't you tell me your name?" I say quietly, not expecting a response. I release her hand onto the green brocade blanket and stand, pushing my basket to the next bedside. The girl, whom I call Emerald in lieu of not knowing her real name, entered Stage Four not too long ago, which means I'll need to check on her again soon. I'd rather she died with a song by her side than the sobs and moans around us.
The treads of med droids squeak against concrete as they move down the long rows of beds distributing food and water. My hands shake with effort as I prop up Jade's pillows and help her sip water. She slips almost immediately back to sleep, so I hum only a few bars before smoothing her hair and moving on. The air of the quarantine is thick and fetid with the heat, but I've somehow grown used to the smell. There ought to be a silly song about that — perhaps "The Girl Without a Nose." I could sing that one to the children.
One of those children tries to sit up at my approach. "Swapan-jie. I mean, Mei."
I tuck the tattered blanket around him more securely and smile despite the sharp pain that blooms in my chest and does not fade. "Shun. What song would you like?" I run a hand over his sweat-dampened hair and he shivers, though a fire burns beneath his skin.
"Ring around the rosy." His blue-tinged fingers touch my wrist and I suppress a shiver.
"With all of the verses?" I made up at least ten more when the third child requested the song.
Shun nods, and I begin to sing. By the time I reach the end of the fifth verse his eyelids have fluttered shut and his breathing is shallow. I finish the tenth verse and his chest has fallen still. My throat burns but I sing the first few verses again to cover the sound of the death rattle. Then I fall silent, looking at him, though a med droid will be along at any moment. "Sleep well, Shun," I whisper, and lean down to kiss his forehead.
I don't cry anymore, though when my parents died I thought my body would never run out of tears, as if a river behind my eyes had burst through a dam. Now my eyes are dry and I can smile for each person, imagining the loves, friendships, and triumphs of their lives now left behind. I never sing of death or loneliness but of quiet peace, love, and laughter. Few people talk to me but I almost prefer it that way. I'm no good with my own words, only those given to me by others. So I sing and sometimes tell stories, and hope that this gift of music that my aunties gave me is giving these people more comfort and warmth than they would have otherwise received.
It's the least I can do: stand up, keep moving, and offer songs to the dying. We're all going to die one day, as Dad often reminded me when I was younger and overwhelmed with rage at the unfairness of my diagnosis. "Why me?" is a question that will drive you crazy faster than you can blink, so instead I learned to ask "Why not me?" When Mom and Dad were sent to the quarantine, I left a note for my aunties and followed my parents. After so many years of comforting me through my illness, I couldn't bear to let them go alone. My days are numbered anyway.
There's a flurry of movement by the warehouse entrance, and I turn to see a girl my age skidding to a halt by Emerald's bedside. I frown, trying to shove down the rising tide of pain pooling in my limbs. If she had letumosis she'd be crying, or screaming, or catatonic; it used to terrify me when new patients would arrive. Only this girl seems frantic as she leans over Emerald and reaches into the pocket of her cargo pants, saying something too quietly for me to hear. I want to call out and tell her that Emerald is too far gone to hear her, but I'm loath to interrupt these precious few last moments. The only company for the plague victims here is a terminally ill fifteen-year-old who's too shy to do much more than sing to them, let alone get to know or love them. And that's only if I can make it to each bedside, for often the deaths come all at once, in great waves.
I miss my three aunties with a sudden fierceness that pierces straight through my chest, and I wish… I wish… But no, I made my decision. I left my note, and I turned off my portscreen. Yet what I wouldn't give to see their faces one last time.
Out of the corner of my eye I notice a med droid wheeling towards the new girl — I'll call her Asha, after my favorite teahouse — and Emerald. "Oh no, you don't," I mutter under my breath. I grab its sensor and direct it towards the bed to my left.
Let them have a few moments together, I tell the droid silently.
"Peony. Peony, please!"
So Emerald's real name is Peony… What a beautiful name.
"Dammit. Dammit. Peony!"
Asha buries her face against Peony's neck and I close my eyes as my vision blurs. A tangle of feelings crowds my chest, making it difficult to breathe, though I try to unravel each one like a thread from my drop spindle. Dismay, at my sudden superfluousness. Fierce longing for my aunties, the only family left to me in the world. Jealousy, that Peony has Asha. Echoes of remembered anger, the bargains I made with God, or the universe; the clouded days of despair. Renewed grief for my parents, for Shun, for Peony, and for all who have wasted away from this monstrous plague. Grief for myself, tinged with fear. Because for all that I've known that I would die before my sixteenth birthday, I'm still afraid of death.
I'm sorry, I tell Asha silently, who pounds the mattress with her fist. Peony's only sleeping – that's what Mom and Dad would say. That's all dying is, really. Only no more pain, no more nightmares.
A med droid snuck past while I was watching Asha and is now attempting to remove Peony's ID chip. I cringe, but Asha grabs the droid's scalpel and shoves it back into its sensor, shattering glass everywhere. I take a step forward but the droid is already on the ground, electronic beeping and whirring silenced. I stand frozen as Asha bends over Peony and removes her chip manually. I look away before I get sick. People sit up in bed, staring, and I wonder how long it will take for everyone to calm down again.
Asha moves to another bedside — Sunto's — and I creep closer, hardly daring to breathe. If she hasn't noticed me yet, I don't want to startle her. She holds something to Sunto's lips, and then sprints away, out of the quarantine.
I dart forward and barely catch the small vial as it slips through Sunto's fingers. "Here," I murmur, tipping the liquid down his throat. "Let's not waste her gift to you." Sunto blinks at me in a daze, then swallows. I help him to lie back down and then sing him to sleep, though my feet are suddenly itching with anxiety to go turn on my portscreen. I resist it, checking with each person who seems disturbed by Asha's sudden appearance and departure, but when it seems that all is calm I can bear it no longer. Asha has lit a fire in my chest, and nothing save contacting my aunties will quench it. With the little time I have left I can still say goodbye: tell them how much I love them, maybe even establish a vid-link to see their adoring, cheerful faces once more.
Trudging across the quarantine takes forever, and my breath wheezes in and out sharply as I dig my portscreen out of my bag, tucked in the corner where I sleep. I power it on, almost lightheaded with anticipation, but there are already comms waiting for me. I tap the most recent one.
COMM RECEIVED FROM NEW BEIJING DISTRICT 31, LETUMOSIS QUARANTINE. PARI FATEMAH, FAHMIDA, AND MRIDULA PRONOUNCED DEAD FROM LETUMOSIS AT 2:14 ON 16 AUG 126 T.E.
I flick to the one behind it, stunned.
COMM RECEIVED… PARI FATEMAH, FAHMIDA, AND MRIDULA ENTERED FOURTH STAGE LETUMOSIS AT 23:56 ON 15 AUG 126 T.E.
Behind that one: THIRD STAGE… SECOND STAGE… UNDER QUARANTINE. My aunties were quarantined the day after I left home.
I try to suck in a breath but my lungs have evacuated, screaming, from my chest.
They weren't supposed to be sick.
They weren't supposed to die before me.
I let them die alone.
Asha's grief-stricken face passes before my eyes and I squeeze them shut, the pain pouring out of my chest as if a gaping abyss has opened up inside it.
What am I doing here?
The weight of symptoms I've been fighting all day slams into my body. I drop the portscreen and fall to my knees. The screen shatters. Gone, gone, gone. My aunties are dead and gone.
Time passes in a haze. Night has fallen by the time I can stand, but my mind is three feet removed from my body.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
A stranger wipes a girl's face and offers her water. A stranger strokes a woman's greying hair and closes her wide and blankly staring eyes, then pulls her blanket up to cover her face. A stranger inhabits my body and moves it for me, but has no breath to sing for the dead woman.
It may have been minutes or hours before I realize that my hands are shaking again as I lay them on a boy's cool forehead. I've unknowingly circled back to Sunto, who sits up abruptly.
"Whoa there, Sunto," I murmur through numb lips. My knees buckle and I sink onto the edge of his mattress, black spots flitting across my vision. I'm so tired, my mind rebelling at the thought of settling back into my body, that I almost miss what he's saying.
"Mei," he says, his voice stronger than I've ever heard it. "Mei, I'm feeling better." He pulls my basket towards him to dig out an apple. He bites into it, and chewing, says, "I really liked your songs. They made me happy."
I stare at him, at the subtle color that has returned to his cheeks and the light that's come back into his eyes, and I feel something in my chest break off and fall away, leaving me weightless.
A med droid rolls over, extending a needle to draw some of Sunto's blood. I pull my hand back to move it out of the way and prick my finger on the needle's tip. A single bead of blood wells up.
I stare at it, then at Sunto, but my vision blurs and darkens. My body seizes up, and I finally acknowledge what it's been trying to tell me all day. Yet somehow, knowing that my mom, my dad, and my aunties are waiting for me, I'm no longer afraid.