“Do not go gentle into that good night, … / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” —Dylan Thomas
The church is silent. Small. A scattering of colored shards, though she supposes that’s what happens when stained-glass windows are shattered. Bibles are flung halfway across the nave, pages ripped, soiled. Graffiti:
YOUR GOD WILL NOT PROTECT YOU
A few pews are upturned, denting dusty carpet—a shelter for the kids who take refuge here, but only at night. Never during the day, with sunlight filtered through the painting of St. Lucy, looking down on the building’s apse.
Suddenly, a shadow, just at the edge of her vision. There’s nothing but the vague outline of a form—curved hips, tight coils of dark hair—, but it’s a form she recognizes. “How come I never hear you when you sneak up on me?”
“Practice,” Tabietha says, “makes perfect. You have to learn to blend in.”
“I hate to break it to you,” says Blaire, gesturing at her wheelchair, “but I’m pretty sure that’s impossible in my case.”
Tabietha scoffs. It sounds vaguely sacrilegious. “When did you become such a defeatist?”
She shrugs a shoulder. Or, at the very least, she tries to. “The world’s ending, Tabi.” “Just our little corner of it.”
Footfalls. Clothing rustles against a pew, and Blaire turns from the pulpit. It gleams in the late-afternoon sun—auburn, chestnut, a hint of carmine—, the only thing in the church deemed worthy of preservation. That, and St. Lucy, venerated for her martyrdom.
“So,” Tabietha says, sliding into a pew. The word is sharp, razor-edged; a breath escapes her. Like popping a balloon. “Why here?”
“You don’t even believe in God.”
“I believe in a god,” Blaire says. “I just don’t know if I believe in this one.”
Tabietha quirks a brow.
“Catholicism doesn’t do it for you?”
“I wouldn’t say that.” She almost feels like she should apologize. “There’s a lot to be said for saints. And Catholic churches are always nice to look at.”
There is silence for a long while. Tabietha shifts, and the sound echoes, bouncing off the walls, the vaulted ceiling.
“You’re going to do it, aren’t you.” It’s not so much an accusation as it is an affirmation. Something nameless, but buoyant, fills her—a kind of knowing. Liquid, golden warmth.
“I knew it.” The woman’s voice sharpens imperceptibly. The edge of a dulled knife, glinting through the air. It pops the balloon, again, but this time, there’s no relief. Only discomfort. A slow hissing. “You were always going to do it, weren’t you?”
She’s not sure she can deny that. Not in good conscience, anyway, and she’s trying to be truthful. “I don’t have a choice.” Her voice is small. “It’s this or–”
“Don’t say death.”
“That’s what it is, and you know it.”
“They might not take you,” Tabietha offers, after a moment. “I mean, people have been setting up… safe houses, or whatever the hell they’re called. Or we could leave. We could just pick up and– and–”
“And what?” “I don’t know!” Tabietha makes a sound, deep in the recesses of her throat; it sounds vaguely like a groan.
Another sacrilegious sound. “I don’t know, but there has to be something.”
And, just like that, the nameless solidifies—collapsing in on itself, leaving a scar in its wake. Something claws at her insides, the vase of her throat, yanking fistfuls of air from her lungs. When she speaks, her words come in punctures. Quiet, desperate gasps. “You think I’d be doing this if there was an alternative?”
Tabietha doesn’t reply. Instead, she pushes herself to her feet, and the sudden expulsion of energy is almost too much for Blaire to handle. “I’ve heard rumors,” she starts, only to stop. Her eyes flick from Blaire to something in the distance. “I’ve heard rumors of people… getting out.”
Blaire stares at her, unblinking. “Of the country?”
Tabietha nods. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’m not saying it’s a great choice,” she says, “but it’s a choice. Right? Which is what you want. You want a choice.”
She huffs out a breath. There’s a throbbing behind her eyes, just beneath her brows. “I’m not going to let you smuggle me out of the country.”
“Because it’s dangerous?” The words stick to the roof of her mouth—gummy, thick, entirely impassable. “Because I don’t want to leave? Because– I mean, even if they did manage to get me across the border, where would I go? What would I do? Who would–” Brush my teeth, dress me, put me to bed every night, but she doesn’t say that. “There are too many variables,” she says, finally.
Tabietha sighs, shifting her weight from foot to foot. Then, she steps forward, crouching, and the woman’s hands are on her legs—warm, heavy, encompassing the entirety of her kneecaps. It’s a familiar touch, and the knowledge angers her. She fights the urge to rear back, to skitter away, like some kind of frightened animal.
“You don’t even know if the operation will work,” says Tabietha.
“The doctors are optimistic.”
And, just like that, the softness monsters. Grows an army of talons, hooking into her skin. “Don’t call them that.”
“That’s what they are.”
Tabietha shakes her head. “They’re–”
“Rebels,” says Blaire. The word perches on the tip of her tongue, swinging its legs. “But that doesn’t change anything.”
“It should!” Tabietha’s palms turn inward, skimming skin, squeezing. They leave faint red marks. “It won’t be at a regular hospital. It won’t even be at a regular facility, with– with machines and medicine and, like, the stuff they use to sterilize everything. They’ll probably do it in the basement of a warehouse somewhere, on the outskirts of the city, near the drainage pipes with the rats and the– the trash–”
“I know all that.”
“Okay!” Her brows draw together, jagged lines—dark, angry birds.
“Because I’m tired.” The words come out in a rush of air, one after another, a string of near-profanities. “Those people are gonna me throw me in a warehouse somewhere, and we’ll all be packed in, like– like sardines, and I’ll starve to death, probably, and it’s all because I–” she presses the heels of her hands to her thighs, harder, harder– “can’t walk, and no one’s doing anything to stop it, which says–” A lot, she wants to say, but doesn’t. She’s not looking for guilt. “And I’m just– I’m tired of defending my own humanity, you know? And, sure, maybe the operation will fail, but at least I’ll have done something. Something permanent, because it’s not like leaving the country is gonna do anything, not in the long run. And if it works–”
If it works. She can hardly envision that, what it would be like—mostly because she’s always refused that luxury, that longing for a kinder world. But the image is there, lingering, like something from a dream. She’ll close her eyes, and the weight will be gone, and it’s like she’s never stopped running. Like movement is a part of her, that missing rib, a fluidity of body.
Her lashes flutter. If it works, like something from a dream. But the dream is just that—a dream. A quiet horizon, fingers stained with the blood of a peach.
“If it works,” she says, quietly, “I’ll be free.”
Silence, again. In the distance, a shattering—glass, probably, from the sounds of it. A window, or a door, or maybe something worse. The soft murmur of voices. Shouts. There must be soldiers nearby. She thinks, dimly, of moving, but the thought leaves as quickly as it’d come. They won’t hurt her here. Her, or Tabietha. It’s why she’d chosen this place, a house of worship, as protected as it is reviled.
Tabietha sighs, sitting back on her haunches. Her hands follow, and the spaces they leave behind are just as violent, if not more so. For the first time, the emptiness of the church—the pews, the pulpit—strikes her as something to mourn. Grief shuffles through the door, a dark creature, its back hunched in silent prayer.
“What if you die?” Tabietha asks.
“Then I die.”
A pause. Then, “I don’t want you to.”
“I don’t want me to, either.” Something blurs her vision, and she blinks, scrunching her nose. “But it’s my choice, Tabi, and I choose to choose.”
Tabietha stares at her hands, at her hands turning fists. After a moment, she presses her lips together, and Blaire sees that for what it is: surrender.
“I can’t be there,” she says, finally. “I can’t watch you–”
“It’s not.” She won’t meet Blaire’s eyes. “I should be there.”
“I don’t want you there,” she says, because it’s true. “I don’t want anyone there. I’ll never go through with it if you’re–” Begging me not to.
“You need to learn to be more selfish.” Tabietha lifts her head, and there’s… something. The beginnings of a smile—fractured, pieced together, like the painting of St. Lucy on the stained-glass window. Her stomach tightens, loosens, releases a breath.
“I’ll get right on that.”
“I could teach you,” offers Tabietha.
“Fair enough.” Another pause. “When’s the operation?”
“Tomorrow.” She hasn’t admitted it aloud before. Her lungs seize, a trapdoor swinging shut, dousing her in a thick black.
“Seven in the morning.”
“So this really was just a courtesy call.”
“My choice,” she says, but the refrain doesn’t necessarily ring true anymore. She would never choose this—not in any life, any world. “I’ll be okay, Tabi.” A lie. She wonders, dimly, if the god of this place will strike her down. A pillar of salt, or maybe it’s fire.
“We’ll see.” Tabietha smiles. The mirage shimmers, bucking beneath the weight of reality. Still, she appreciates the attempt. At the end of the world, you cling to the familiar, and this moment—Tabietha, shattering glass, the scythe of grief—is as familiar to her as her patterns of breathing. “I won’t say goodbye.”
She exhales. “I’ll see you soon?”
“That’s better.” Tabietha stands. Her hands flounder, filleting the air. “I’ll see you soon.”
Above, Saint Lucy. Hands folded, eyes a drop of solemnity.
Tabietha comes anyway.
“Just to see you off,” she says, shifting her weight from foot to foot. A lie, but Blaire has always been able to see through to her truths. Oftentimes, they are one and the same.
“I still don’t want you to be there for the actual… thing.” She can’t say the word, like they’re still in the church, her body—the steps she takes to preserve that body, even if it’s apocalyptic, a violent epilogue—a kind of sin.
“I just want to make sure you get there safely.”
Another lie. But at the end of the world, no one really cares much about truths. It’s all irrelevant in the light of eternity—or, she supposes, the absence of.
They leave at dawn—the sun blurring the horizon; the sky stained violet, satin. The clinic is only a few blocks away, but there are patrols everywhere; their shadows bob against the walls, headless, vaguely gruesome. An appropriate backdrop, considering the graffiti:
THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES
FEAR IS USED TO CONTROL YOU
WE ARE DYING HERE
The city feels strangely penitent, especially at this hour, in the shadowy noose of curfew.
Tabietha leads them through alleyways, thoroughfares, abandoned cul-de-sacs. Apartments line the streets. Some of the windows are shattered, and Blaire skirts the shards of glass, keeping to the curb. Tabietha points out a pile of rubble, occasionally, or a license plate; the carcass of a rodent, the body of a scorched car, the remnants of a sneaker…
The neighborhood’s abandoned, but she still feels like they’re drawing attention to themselves. Their presence echoes, gorging on the stillness.
Every once in a while, they pass through a watery halo. Streetlights flicker. Her shadow looms. Blaire sees grief again, a stake in its hand. Her head sits atop it, disembodied, floating. Death foretold. By the time they reach the clinic—a small building: squat, with boarded-up windows—, she’s named it Bliss.
The door sits ajar. Tabietha nudges it with the toe of a boot, peering inside. Too dark to see anything, but Blaire recognizes the building from before the war started, before the world ended. But even that’s a lie—the war is always starting, the world always ending. And the two of them, trapped, like insects in amber, mouths stretched impossibly wide.
A kind of horror, Blaire thinks. The worst kind.
A siren goes off, and she startles. A raid, probably. But Tabietha lifts a hand—wait—, and after a moment, the sound fades. The air shudders, leaving them breathless, uncertain.
“I should go,” she says. “They’ll be waiting for me, and I don’t want to accidentally screw up their schedule for the day–”
“I doubt it’s as complicated as all that.” And there’s something there: a smile, like the one in the church. They’re both trying so hard. But it always comes back to St. Lucy, to I won’t say goodbye, to I’ll see you soon.
I’ll see you soon. That, too, is a lie—the war, starting; the world, ending. If only she could rely on death. But in its place, Bliss, with its cowled hood, and its dark, beady eyes.
“You’ll be fine,” Tabietha says.
Another siren. The soldiers are moving away. Relief trickles through her, if only for Tabietha’s sake.
“I’ll be fine,” echoes Blaire, aware of the lie. Surely god will strike her down, now. And perhaps that’d be a better fate—at least there is certainty in the pyre.
When she steps through the entrance, she wonders, dimly, if this is what it’s like to surrender to the flames.
Conversations swell, deflate. A baby screams, somewhere, and a mother—frantic, fearful—shushes him, a stream of you’re fines and it’s okays and mama’s not gonna let you out of her sights. The words echo, bounce, against damp, darkly-stained surfaces, filling the room with ghostly sounds.
She wonders, dimly, just how far underground they are. If passersby can hear the screams, or if that veil has yet to be torn.
From down the hall, a sound. The creaking of a door. She lifts her head, just in time to see… a nurse. Or a doctor. Or maybe both. His eyes are kind, skin puckering at the corners, but there’s still a sharpness to him—a restlessness, like the building is incapable of containing him.
“Blaire Taylor?” His voice is soft. Sunny, and she is reminded of Tabietha—that warm, golden feeling, spooling inside her.
She nods. Once, twice, three times.
“I’m Jacen. Jacen Rand.” He doesn’t offer her his hand, and for that, she is grateful. “I’ll be performing your operation today.”
The question sounds before she can stop it. “Are you a doctor?”
His lips quirk—upwards, upwards, until he’s smiling again. A strange sight, really, amidst all this ruin.
“I got my Bachelor’s at Yale, did my residency at Johns Hopkins. I was in the process of getting my PhD when–” He stops, frowns. “Well, you know.”
“I was afraid you’d be some sort of…” She doesn’t know how to say it. What words to use. “Novice, I guess.”
The baby screams, again.
“I wouldn’t risk your life,” he says, and the weight of it—of his words—surprises her.
She nods, again. Pressing the heel of her hand against her controller, she clicks her chair into gear, following the man down the hallway.
The clinic is larger than she’d first thought it was. A network of corridors surrounds the main building; hallways branch again and again, curving in on themselves, leading to side rooms and closets and small, cramped offices. It’s an impressive layout, undercut by the overwhelming sense of abandonment—disrepair, decay. The cement floors are cracked in places, filling the tunnels with thin, spidery fractures, and the plywood sheets that serve as interior walls lilt to one side. There is an unmistakable stench of piss. And, always, the echoes: footsteps; the jackhammer of a baby’s wail; low, grueling moans.
She passes another patient, lying passively on an examination table. Gnarled hands rest on the woman’s stomach, cradling her sternum. Blaire’s eyes flick to sharp, exposed wrist-bones. Spindly legs, bent at the knee. Another one of her people, forced underground. No better than a burrowing creature.
He leads her to a side room, not unlike the one she’d just seen. An examination table is pressed against the far wall, with overhead lights, suspended by copper-plated wire, blinking overhead. Cabinets take up what little space remains, with tubes and cords trailing across the tiled floor. Her chair slows to a stop; in the absence of its motor, sounds, like machines beeping. It takes her a moment to find the source, but once she does, she finds herself unable to look away. A cart, with one of its wheels rusted to the point of uselessness. Gauze, sterilized needles, a handful of syringes. The workspace is cluttered, disorganized, but clearly sanitized; unlike the rest of the facility, the room smells strangely clinical.
“I know it doesn’t look like much,” Jacen says. His eyes are on her—heavy, but not unwelcome. “But we have what we need.”
They’ll probably do it in the basement of a warehouse somewhere, on the outskirts of the city, near the drainage pipes with the rats…
She takes a breath. And another, and another, until she can feel—or, at the very least, imagine—the apprehension slipping away. She inches into the room, skirting the edge of the cart. “Where did you get all this stuff?” She recognizes some of it: oximeter probes, oxygen masks, a defibrillator. All obsolete, as far as she knows. “No one sells it anymore. Government regulations.”
He crosses the threshold, rummaging through one of the cabinet drawers. “Not everyone agrees with them, though, or abides by them.” A pause. After a moment, he withdraws his hands, sheathed in skin-tight gloves. “We have… suppliers. And when they can’t slip us something, for whatever reason, we– well, we take things into our own hands.” Another pause. “For the good of the people.”
“You don’t sound like you believe that.”
“I know what’s right,” he says, shrugging a shoulder. “And I fight like hell for it.”
“But what if–” She sighs, curling her fingers against her palms. “What if you’re wrong? What if we’re wrong?”
“How do you know?”
There is silence for a long moment. His back is turned to her, but she still manages to glimpse a pile of equipment: scalpels, a bottle full of clear liquid, something she wishes she didn’t recognize. They clatter against the countertop, filling the room with a fragile shattering sound. Like the world breaking in two.
Finally, “There’s something a rabbi said. ‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.’ And it’s… how I view all–” he gestures to their surroundings with a flick of a wrist– “this. I may not agree with everything the Resistance does, but that doesn’t mean I can just– stand to one side, watch people die. Not when there’s something I can do about it.” He sighs, and the sound is ragged, weary. It fills the room. “We may be politically wrong, but we are morally right. And that’s what matters.” A quiet rasping, like the breath has become a ribbon, twisting violently in the air. “That’s all that matters.”
He turns, then, and the look on his face is ancient. It grizzles him.
“I’ll be replacing your malfunctioning neurons with neurons grown here, in our lab. They should slowly begin to override the corrupted strands of your DNA and, with time, will return your motor skills to normal levels of functioning. The process can take up to two years, and isn’t always permanent, so we may need to revisit the procedure at a later date.
“Of course, there can be… complications. The procedure is incredibly invasive, and has been known to cause both hemorrhages and stroke, as well as minor brain damage. We take steps to prevent that, but…” He trails off. Blaire swallows, pressing rosy half-moons into the flab of her thighs. “I’m assuming you know all this.”
She nods, again, because it feels like the only thing she knows how to do.
“Right. Of course you do. I don’t know why you wouldn’t.” He presses his lips together, squinting at her, and there’s something akin to pity– no, grief– in his gaze. Maybe both. He feels sorry for her, but for the first time in all her life, she doesn’t feel the need to refuse it—the worst of all gifts, like a punch to the gut. “I’ve done a dozen of these, and nearly every single one of my patients has walked out of here. And by ‘walked’ I mean–”
“Nearly?” The word bubbles forth, frothing, lashing out at empty air.
“We have an eighty percent success rate,” he says, and his voice is soft– too soft– infuriatingly soft. Her thumbnail sinks into her skin. A dull pain, throbbing, just out of reach. “Which is actually pretty impressive, considering the experimental nature of the–”
She knows all this. “I know all this.”
“Okay.” And again, that softness, a blade between her ribs. In another world, it’d be something kinder, like a blade of wet grass. Her nostrils fill with the scent—imagined, but no less real. “Okay.” Pushing himself off the counter, he crouches in front of her, arms hanging. Dangling. “We don’t have to do this, Blaire.”
Something clenches inside her. “I know.”
You’re not the one with your life on the line. “I’m not going to die.”
Now that she seems him like this, up close, vulnerable, she realizes: the softness was always there, lurking. A small, silent shadow. She wants to press her palms to his face, smearing that thick black all over him, monstering what remains.
“We could smuggle you out,” he says, slowly. Measuredly. Taking his time. “We’ve done it before, and not just for people like– for people who are–”
“Say it.” Her voice is taut. A thin red thread.
“Disabled,” he sighs, ducking his head. She doesn’t understand why so many people fear that word, like they’ll summon her if they speak it. “I’m just saying it’s an option.”
“I know it’s an option,” says Blaire, “and I don’t care. I want–” To walk, to live my life without fear, to be free. “I’ve made my choice, and I’m not going to change my mind, so you may as well just–” Get on with it, she wants to say, but can’t. Her throat constricts. “Please.”
He stares at the floor for a long while. She fights the urge to twist the knife: I know there are other doctors here, so if you won’t do it, I’ll just find someone else. Eventually, though, he lifts his head, and she recognizes the look on his face. The same look on Tabietha’s face, but softened. Blurred, maybe, around the edges. “Do you want to stay in your chair?”
“Okay.” His hand envelops her knee for a quick moment, squeezing once, a gentle reminder. “Give me a minute to get the anesthesia ready.”
It doesn’t take him long. In another world, she would’ve slipped from the room while his back was turned—whether out of defiance or cowardice, she doesn’t know. But there is no other world. There is only this, her fear, sharper than it’s ever been. Every time she tries to hold it, to subdue it, it slips from her grasp. A glittering white fish.
Something whirrs to life. A machine, probably, or a computer. Jacen turns, gripping a mask. “Ready?”
No. But yes. But she’ll never be, but she has to be–
Her lips part. “Yes.”
He steps forward, pressing the mask to her face, and it engulfs her—one large swallow, straps pressed against her temples. Moments later, white smoke, and her fingers twitch against her thighs, tracing the contour of those forgotten half-moons. She takes a breath, swallows. Sickly sweet. A fall of flower petals.
“Count back from ten for me, will you?” Jacen’s voice, softer than it’s ever been. She can barely see him through the haze, stark against the light of the room. “Ten. Nine…”
Eight, she thinks, and says it aloud. “Seven…”
She doesn’t want to die. But it is this or death. This, or–
“Don’t stop counting, Blaire. Six…”
This is better, she thinks. Better than death.
And then, she sees it. Bliss, again—hunched, swollen. She stands in the doorway, talons clutching her body, clutching her. Three, two…