All of the fentanyl is missing. Dr. Lawrence sits before me with her head in her hands. From beyond the curtain behind her, the moans continue.
“I can’t listen anymore.”
So I take her to the garden. When we found the estate there were flowers here, overgrown and unweeded but so, so beautiful. It broke my heart to tear them all out and replace them with more practical plants. We left the jasmine trellis, though, and it makes the night smell sweet.
“I wish I had a cigarette,” says Dr. Lawrence.
“They’re probably all stale by now,” I reply, thinking guiltily of the small cache I keep under my bed. I won’t share them for love or money. They’re too hard to find these days.
“Even a stale one. To be honest, it’s been so long that I don’t know if I could taste the difference.” She would. I do, on the rare occasions that I sneak some into a pack for an away mission. They taste worse each time but it’s better than nothing. We sit in silence, listening to soft night sounds. “What are we going to do? Should we tell the others?”
I stare up at the sky. Ever since the lights turned off the stars have been getting brighter. I swear there used to be fewer. “No. We wait.”
“Doreen can’t wait. And it’s so concentrated, we need to warn whoever-”
“Warn them what? Fuck ‘em.” The wind changes direction and suddenly blows rank from the outhouse. “You’re right about Doreen, though. Other than the drugs, what are we waiting for?”
Dr. Lawrence knows what I’m asking. “She’ll be more lucid now. We should ask her what she wants.”
By the time we get back to the medical suite (previously a library, with the highest shelves still stacked with books), Doreen is screaming. She has left the drug-induced haze of hospice care and is instead lost in agony. It’s hard to tell where Doreen ends and the pain begins. I think we missed the window of lucidity, if it was ever there.
“Ellie,” she sobs when she sees Dr. Lawrence. “Ellie, I’m on fire. You gotta put me out.” She has vomited over the side of her cot. It looks like blood. Dr. Lawrence grabs a cool, wet washcloth and starts cleaning her up. Doreen fights her weakly. “Ellie, why won’t you give me my medicine? Why won’t you make me better?”
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Lawrence gasps. “I’m sorry, Dory, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Listen up, Doreen,” I say sternly. Both women turn to me, momentarily shocked out of their distress. “There are no more drugs. The drugs are gone. You need to choose what happens next.”
Doreen’s eyes dart rat-fast around the room. She begins to babble, “You’re tricking me you just want me to DIE you just want me to stop using the drugs up give them to me you liar you - ”
I let her blow herself out. For all her weakness, it takes a surprisingly long time for the flow of nasty words to end. I don’t recognize the woman on the cot: a grimacing, poisoned husk of flesh is all that’s left.
“There is nothing more we can do for you. It will be worse from here on out. What do you want to happen next?”
Her eyes roll in their sockets. She already looks like a skeleton. “Just kill me. Please, God, just kill me.”
Later, I am unable to sleep because every time I remember this moment she gets more pain-frenzied and less lucid and I fear I have done something wrong. She was earnest, I tell myself, she knew what she was asking for.
The women’s rooms are full of snores and hushed conversations. No one knows the terrible mercy that Dr. Lawrence and I have administered tonight. I sit at the end of my bed, staring at nothing, clenching my fist around the heart-shaped locket that until now has hung around Doreen’s neck. Inside are two pictures. A man I do not recognize, probably her long-gone husband, smiles on one half. On the other pouts her daughter Dana, then a moody teen, now a moody woman. I consider keeping the locket for myself. I have pictures I would like to keep close like that, to hold the people who aren’t here anymore against my chest until I’m not here anymore either. But Dana is still here, and I suppose even she deserves an inheritance.
I prepare myself for a conversation with Dana. If I hadn’t just killed her mother that might be the most unpleasant piece of my night. A talented seamstress with a tongue sharper than a needle, she’s just barely too useful to exile. It helped that she came with Doreen, who everyone else will remember as a loving, motherly presence in the kitchen. I will remember her as she was today: eaten alive by stomach cancer, a writhing, pained thing with no warmth or dignity left to offer.
Dana is not in her bunk. No one has seen her since dinner, and no one knows where she has gone. Maybe she already knows. I return to my bed and resolve to search for her at breakfast.
I’m woken before dawn. Jesse shakes my shoulder roughly and whispers in my ear.
He brings me to one of the mouldering attic rooms, too hot for any decent use except winter clothing storage. Dana lolls against a fluffy pink fiberglass wall. A needle hangs limply from one hand, and beside her is the small black case that went missing from Dr. Lawrence’s office last night. Her eyes are closed, her jaw agape and dribbled with white froth. She will never notice the tiny splinters in her skin.
I want so badly to be angry at Dana. She robbed our doctor of tools, our community of use, her own mother of peace. I want her to be alive and suffer over what she has done. I want to violate our new constitution and make a message out of her. But she is dead, so instead I am sick on my shoes and gather what’s left of the fentanyl. I direct Jesse and the others to dig her a hole next to Doreen’s.
I keep the locket. I’ll use it.
I wait for Dr. Lawrence with the fentanyl and a pack of cigarettes. Doreen is finally quiet in the corner, a sheet draped over her cold body. Dana lies beside her. The locket is hung around my neck. I had a similar one when I was a kid but never got around to putting any pictures inside. I still cried for hours after losing it on a playground. I’ve lost so much since: my clothes, my car, my home. Every piece of jewelry I accumulated in the forty years between losing the locket and the end of the world. But I don’t think I cried as much over those things as I did about my locket. Doreen’s is warm against my chest, like it’s glad to be giving something back to me.
“Good morning,” yawns Dr. Lawrence from the door. She sees the black case before me. “Oh, thank God. Where did you find it?” Then she sees the second body, and all relief is gone. She walks over and yanks back the second sheet, revealing Dana’s bluish face. Then she turns back to me, furious. “Damn it. I told you. I told you we needed to warn them.”
“She knew what she was doing.”
“Clearly she didn’t,” Dr. Lawrence gasps. Her eyes, already puffy from last night’s tears, well up again. “She’s dead.”
“She stole them. She deserved it.”
“She’s an addict! She - ”
“No one’s an addict anymore, not six years later. If she was once, then she knew the risk better than anyone.” Dr. Lawrence pulls the sheet up again. She sits across the table from me, staring dispassionately at the black case.
“We should just throw it away. I don’t even know what it’s good for now.” She’s being ridiculous. She knows better than anyone all the practical purposes a strong opioid can offer.
“It took away her suffering,” I say as gently as I can manage.
“But it couldn’t fix her. I can’t fix people anymore.”
“I wasn’t talking about Doreen.” She stares at me, forgetting her self-pity.
“You need to find something to live for,” she says, finally. “The rest of us aren’t just waiting to die here, you know.”
“I know.” But I don’t mean it. “Anyways, just wanted to bring it back and offer you these.” I hold out the cigarettes to her. She considers them, then gives me a meaningful look.
“No thanks. I quit six years ago.”
When Doreen is buried I place the small picture of her husband in her pocket. I replace it with a picture of mine. I keep the picture of Dana, and I don’t know why.