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All the Pretty Stars

Mercy

By Bronson FleetPublished about a year ago 18 min read
1
All the Pretty Stars
Photo by Slava Abramovitch on Unsplash

The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room.

She loved the window best in the nighttime. When the rusted and gray world outside was blanketed by darkness, and she could see all of the orange and yellow stars zooming across the horizon.

She also loved the nighttime for another reason. That was the time when Georgie would visit her. This was his room. She remembered that faintly, though how she came to be here was a mystery to her.

That might have scared other girls, but not her. How could she be afraid of Georgie? She loved him! The way he always said, "How are you, my dear?" When he walked through the door. The way he held her hand as she marveled at the streaking lights outside the window. Even, his smell. Deep Earth minerals and sweat.

She often tottered around the room during her long days of solitude, thinking of that smell and wondering why Georgie always had to be gone for so long. She hated that time, the daytime. When the darkness left and the view outside his window was nothing but rolling hills of black and gray ash.

It was painful, that view. Not just for its unsightliness, but for the intense feeling of loss it instilled in her. It made her feel as though she were starving and looking at the remnants of a great feast. So, she avoided it. It was all part of the morning routine.

****

She awoke, just as the sun was beginning to peak above the horizon, stretched her arms, and looked at the bedside table. There waiting for her was a glass of sickly yellowed water, a handful of deep violet pills, and a stack of freshly laundered clothes.

This was her least favorite part of the day. The yellowed water was bitter as hate, and the pills were too large by half to slide down her throat easily. So, it was her habit to get it over with as quickly as possible.

She grabbed all of them at once and tossed them to the back of her tongue, then, holding her nose, gulped down the glass in one giant swallow.

It crossed her mind, of course, to simply hide the pills beneath her mattress and empty the glass down the sink, but she remembered vaguely a day when she had done just that, and the look on Georgie's face when he discovered one of the pills when it had fallen from its hiding place and onto the floor.

She shuddered at the memory. He had not raised his hand to her. No, nothing like that. Georgie would never. Nor had he yelled at her. Had not spoken even so much as a cross word. The pain then came from the look in his eye. The anguish she saw she had clearly caused him with her subterfuge. And the way he said, "Please. Please, my dear, you must..."

To avoid that look, she would drink a thousand glasses of bitter yellow water, and so her face barely even contorted as the last of the solution ran down her throat.

She dressed quickly and then walked to the far end of the room where stood a long table filled with odds and ends. Tools, stacked plates and cups, a toothbrush, but most of the space was taken up by a wide array of paintbrushes and palettes. Tubes of color comprising every shade the rainbow had to offer. She thumbed through the supplies absently, thinking of how Georgie loved to paint, intermittently looking up at the walls covered by his artwork.

The canvases were large and small and every size in between. Most of them were brimming with picturesque scenes of verdant green. Trees fit to burst they carried so many leaves, and flowers taller than a man surrounding them like organic links in Merlin's chain.

There was one she loved best of all, though according to the rules of modesty, she could never admit it. It depicted a woman, tall and smiling, standing amidst a green background, a wreath of flowers entwined in her silver blonde hair.

The woman was herself, she knew, though she did not remember posing for it. She loved the way Georgie's eye had taken her in, flaws and all. This was no portrait of idealization. No pretense of longing for Aphrodite. It was her, and that was enough. Her long hair cut a little uneven on the right side. Her hazel green eyes set just a little too close. Even her little scar that marred her otherwise smooth left cheek.

She reached up to feel it and was surprised. Instead of soft skin, as she was expecting, she instead felt the soft yet rough touch of a bandage.

What is this? She wondered.

Quickly, she ran to the drawer at her bedside, searching for the mirror she stowed there for the sake of her makeup. She couldn't find it. Bending down, she searched the other drawer, but it was not there either.

For the next half hour she scrambled around the room looking high and low for the small looking glass, but to no avail. She heaved a heavy sigh, conceding at last what must be done.

Steeling her courage, she went to the window and sat down in her chair, squinting at the nearly transparent reflection of herself peering back from within the glass.

It was not a woman she recognized. Firstly, her whole head was wrapped with a white bandage like a mummy's in all ways except for the fact that a gap had been left for her mouth, nose, and eyes. Second, from the little flesh that she could see, she realized the soft skin of the portrait on the wall was either a lie or at the very least outdated. Her skin was black and blue in most places except the tip of her nose. Finally, the bags beneath her eyes seemed large enough that if they were sliced off one could use them as a grocery bag and not want for space. She would have cried then and there at the sight of her own visage except for the fear that only blood could drain from eyes so bloodshot.

She sat, horrified, for what seemed like hours but what the sun would say was only a few minutes. Breathing deeply and shaking, she nodded at her own reflection.

"I have to know," she whispered, then got to work with trembling fingers.

She was methodical in her unwinding. The bone white of the bandage remained pure for six or seven rotations, then began to reveal other colors. First, a pale shade of yellow, nearly the same color as the sunlight shining weakly through the layers of pollution outside the window. A few more circulations and the yellow deepened until it evoked a far-off memory of a cloudless day on a river shore.

The thickness of the wrap continued to grow around her fingers as it reduced from her skull, and the color changed again, this time to brown, like crust on a pie. Her courage began to flag.

I shouldn't. Didn't Georgie tell me not to? She thought about the question, praying that somewhere in her foggy mind she would find just such a memory. At least that would give her an excuse to turn back.

Just as she thought she had found it, the color on the wrap suddenly changed to a dark crimson. Her heart fell deep into her stomach. Fear began to well inside of her like spring water.

What's happened to me? She shouted internally. "What happened to me!" She followed up with but this time out loud.

Without thinking her hand sped up. She was desperate now. Desperate to see. At the same time, she began to wonder about the room. About the view outside her window. About Georgie himself.

Where am I? What is this?

And her hand moved faster, the red, no longer content with its home on the bandage, began running down her arm and onto the floor.

"Georgie!" She shouted, tears beginning to flow. "Georgie! I'm scared, help me!"

Suddenly, a loud, quick, rip echoed dully around the room. She flinched in pain and let out a high scream of agony. Shakily, she held the last of the bandage up to her eyes and saw her prize.

The last bit of the wrap, a few inches or so, was black as the night. Caked with layers of black skin and black blood. In horror, she dropped her hand and spied her reflection in the window.

A stranger stared back at her. Not human, for how could such a thing lay any claim to humanity? The skull was cracked open on the right side from the crown to the temple. Protruding from the fissure grew...something organic, though completely alien. It looked maybe like a grub multiplied in size by three, and it pulsated slightly as if in the middle of digestion.

Her tears stopped flowing, and her heart jumped up from the pit of her stomach, but too quickly, as it continued up and into her throat, cutting off her breath.

"George was sick..." she whispered, the fog of her mind suddenly clearing away like darkness at sunrise.

"There was something in the mine! A sickness..disease! He was sick, and then...I was." She went silent with a sudden realization that rocked her to the core.

"Those aren't stars," she whispered. Her eyes flicked up to the horizon that in a few hours would be filled with bright orange and yellow lights. "Those aren't stars!"

She jumped from the chair, eager now to move, to pack, to do something. She took a step and wobbled. It was too much too fast. Too much clarity in too little time. She took another step and nearly fell. The room began to spin.

I need to lie down, she thought with surprising calm. And then she did, falling to the floor in a boneless heap.

****

George stood at the bedroom door, his head leaning against it. Exhaustion radiated from him like a scent. It was that time again. The best and worst part of his day. She was there beyond the door, but she wasn't really, and that was his fault. He took a deep breath and steeled his heart, then turned the handle.

"How are you, my dear?" He said softly as he passed through the door, then froze, terrified.

She lay on the floor in a heap, her bandages undone and a dried pool of blood haloed around her head.

"Sarah!" He shouted and ran to her. He fell next to her and gathered her up in his arms. "Sarah!" He said again, shaking her softly but urgently. "Wake up, please..."

Her eyes fluttered and he began to breathe again.

"Georgie?" She whispered.

"It's me," he said, smiling through his tears. "What have you done to yourself?"

"What do you mean?" She said hazily. "I was only resting."

"Well let's get you into bed."

"No! I want to watch the stars! Can't we watch the stars, Georgie?"

George wiped a tear away from his eye. "Yes, of course."

He picked her up and carried her to the edge of the bed. "First, I need to wrap your head though, sweetling. And then we need to take the test."

Sarah whined childishly. "Do we have to take the test tonight? It hurts my head."

"Yes, we do. And, if you pass, we can go see the stars up close. Wouldn't you like that?"

Sarah squealed with delight. "Really?"

"Really," George responded and walked to the telephone on the wall. He dialed a number quickly.

"Georgie?" Sarah said from her seat on the bed. She was looking at him with a curious smile.

"Yes, my dear," he said back as the phone began to ring.

"Your name's not Heathrow," she giggled.

George looked down at his dusty work uniform. In big, bold yellow print splayed across his chest was stitched the name 'Heathrow', then just below it in smaller type the words 'Mining Company'.

"Sarah, try and remember, that's who I work for. That's why we're on this forsaken floating rock. Don't you..."

Before he could finish a voice spoke from the other end of the telephone.

"Hello?"

"Hey, it's George. I need you to come by. She's..." he paused, trying to steady his voice as much as possible before he told the lie. "...getting better. I think we can get her cleared for evacuation."

There was a long pause at the other end of the line.

"George...I saw her yesterday. It's just not possible."

"John!" George yelled without intending to. "She's getting better! She's remembering things! Even the swelling is going down. Please, help me."

A sigh.

"I'll be over in twenty minutes, but George, I can't promise anything."

"Thank you!" George said ignoring the last few words and hanging up the phone.

Quickly he strode to the cabinet and grabbed a fresh set of bandages and gauze, then walked to Sarah's side.

"It's time for our test, are you ready?" He asked while beginning his work with the bandages.

Sarah sighed. "Okay Georgie, but only if you take me to see the stars."

George closed his eyes and prayed a silent prayer that he would be doing just that.

****

"Question one," George began. "Can you remember what I always ask you first?"

Sarah's face scrunched with concentration, "I..."

George's spirits dropped, but he made sure the disappointment didn't reach his face. "You remember silly. I always ask you, where did we get married?"

The question rebounded off of Sarah like a tennis ball off of a racket. She stared blankly at him for a long time, then her lips slowly curled into a mischevious smile.

"We're married, Georgie?"

Tears welled in his eyes but he quickly hid them by looking at the floor. She had answered that question correctly only the day before. "Yes, my love. We are. We were married on top of your father's apartment building. All our family was there. We ate steak. A real steak...I'd never had one before, but you had. Remember, you teased me about it."

He looked back up at her. Her eyes were blank.

"Next question. Where are we right now?"

Sarah smiled, "We're in your room!" She responded confidently.

George shook his head. "No, I mean where are we? Where is this room?"

It was Sarah's turn to shake her head. "Don't be silly Georgie, this we're in your room." She patted his shoulder as if to reassure him that that was the correct answer.

"Sarah, please think. Heathrow...Heathrow," he held out the name stitched across his shirt. "My job..."

Sarah shrugged.

"We're on a mining planet!" He said with unexpected sharpness. "It's my job! You begged me to come this time because this planet had trees!"

He waved his hand at the wall behind him. "You wanted to paint them!"

Sarah followed his gesture and looked toward the paintings. "Trees..."

"You'd never seen one before and you wanted to paint them! Remember! We were supposed to be here for three months but then people started getting sick in the mine! I got sick, and then..." He trailed off, his guilt not allowing him to finish. "People started dying, Sarah!"

George took her hand in both of his and squeezed it tightly, speaking as urgently as he thought she could bear. "They're going to leave you here unless you get better! Unless you can remember!"

When he finished, George realized both by the scared look on her face and by his own ragged breath that he had been shouting. He fell silent as they stared at one another.

"Georgie, what's wrong?" She said shakily.

George fell to his knees and kissed her hand. "Nothing, I'm sorry. I'm sorry for everything. For bringing you here. For you being sick instead of me."

She stroked his hair gently. "Can we watch the stars now?"

"They're not stars," he whispered.

"What?"

He smiled at her. "Yes, we can watch the stars. Just one last question."

Sarah nodded, eager to get it over with.

George reached into his pocket and pulled out two small pictures featuring a young boy and an even younger girl. He handed them to her for inspection.

"Who are these? What are their names?"

Sarah looked at the pictures long and hard. At the periphery of her features George could see her struggle. It was clear that somewhere, deep within the murky reservoir that was her mind, these faces still swam, and every once in a while, surfaced.

For the first time that night, Sarah seemed deeply troubled. She handed the pictures back to him and shook her head. There was fear in her eyes.

"I...can't remember, Georgie." She started to cry.

George took the pictures of their two children and stored them in the pocket that would've normally rested just above his heart if that particular organ had not just been ripped from his chest. She had never forgotten them before.

Taking Sarah into his arms he pulled her close, a huddled, defeated creature leaking tears on his shoulder. George would've begun crying then himself if not for the knock at the bedroom door.

Quickly he pushed Sarah up and wiped her face.

"No more tears," he said sternly. "Go to your chair and watch the stars."

Instantly Sarah's face lit up with joy.

"Will you watch them with me?"

"Of course, I will."

Sarah leapt up and planted herself down in front of the window. George stood and walked to the door.

****

"I can't be long, my ship's leaving in less than an hour," John said as he walked through the door. He wore the same dirty mining jumpsuit that George had on except the front left of his chest was adorned with a medical cross done in red, and he carried a small black leather bag that jostled dully with every step.

"It won't be long," George assured him as he fell in to walk by his side. "She's far better than she was yesterday. Those antibiotics you've been having her drink seem to have done the trick, and the painkillers you prescribed took away the headaches. We'll just need a medical clearance from you and we'll all go together."

John sighed and paused at the room's center.

"George..."

George paused as well, just then noticing his companion had stopped moving.

They locked eyes and a significant look passed between them. It was the look of two determined men on the opposite side of a battlefield, A gulf of feeling between them so intense and complex there was nothing else for them but to be enemies.

"The last ships are taking off, John. Tonight's the last night. I need you to examine her," George said, every word of the last sentence a verbal dagger.

"Georgie!" Sarah said excitedly. "You're missing them! Come sit with me!"

George shuddered internally, aware that each "star" his dying wife gazed at in awe was one more evacuation ship they would not be on. Time was running out.

"They won't let her go, George. Even with a med clearance pass, those bandages...her face...do you think they won't see?"

"We can try!"

John sighed, "Yes we could try, and when they find out who cleared her I'll be the one that pays for it. I'll lose my job and my wages...I might even be arrested once we get back Earthside. I have a family too."

"Then we'll forge it! Say I cleared her!"

John shook his head. "There's something else to consider."

George shook his head expectantly and threw up his hands when John did not immediately continue. "What is it?"

The doctor sighed. "Let's say that if by some miracle our ruse worked and we got her on one of those ships. If anyone else got sick, anybody else's husband or wife or child, I would be the one responsible. Their blood would be on my hands. I can't do it, George."

George bit his lip, his rage growing. John stood before him, wilting a bit beneath his dark gaze, but to his credit, he did not turn away except to give a furtive glance toward the bag he carried.

Realization crashed into George like an asteroid strike.

"Why did you come?" George whispered.

John paled just a little. "Because you asked."

"What's in your bag?"

John went white. For a moment, George was sure he would flee, but again the doctor did not turn away. Instead, he reached down and opened the bag's brass clasp, then reached his hand in and pulled free a small orange bottle filled with pills.

"Mercy," he whispered.

"Mercy..." George parroted blankly.

John strode forward and placed a hand lightly on George's shoulder. "You can't save her. Give her peace."

All at once, the bubbling cauldron of rage in George's chest began to boil and then spilled over.

"I CAN'T SAVE HER?" He screamed, but he didn't hear his own words so loud was the howling of his unbound anger. His hands flew up and grabbed John's throat, the black bag and bottle of pills in his hands fell to the floor as he was shoved backward against the wall.

"George!" A voice called from somewhere behind him, but it might as well have been a buzzing fly so consumed was he with rage.

"IT WAS MY FAULT! CAN'T YOU SEE THAT!" George screamed as he pressed against John's windpipe even harder and lifted him off of his feet. John kicked helplessly as his hands scratched desperately at George's.

"GEORGE!" Again the voice called and again he ignored it.

"I SHOULD BE THE ONE! IT CAME FROM THE MINE! WHY ISN'T IT ME? IT SHOULD'VE BEEN ME!"

A hand fell heavily on his shoulder and the voice called out again only this time right beside his ear.

"GEORGE!"

George dropped the doctor and spun around ready to kill. Too late did he realize it was Sarah.

She was flung backward by his shoulder as he spun and, in her weakened state, was unable to maintain her feet. She fell to the floor with a skeletal thud.

Instantly George's outward rage turned inward. You fool! He thought, chastizing himself. He jumped forward and fell to the floor beside his wife.

Carefully, he picked her head up and cradled it in the crook of his elbow.

"I'm sorry," George said desperately. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."

Sarah leaned forward and kissed him then, killing the half formed apolgy. She looked at him, and in her eyes, he could see his wife. Not the woman she had become. Not the woman dying from disease, but the one in the picture hanging on the wall.

"I remember their names," she whispered to him with a sad smile.

Tears filled George's eyes then began to fall sideways down his cheek. "Their names?"

Those two there in your pocket, above your heart. Her hand reached out and touched his chest gently as if maybe their children might feel it even through the vast cold space that separated them.

George tried to speak, but no words would come. In their place flowed more tears.

"It's time, George. It's time to let go, for their sake."

He let out a soft sob. "I can...I can't go. Not without you."

Sarah's eyes glistened wetly in the room's dim light. "You have to," she insisted.

"I won't," he argued back.

She smiled, then lifted the small orange bottle between their faces. Its cap was removed, and it was empty.

It took a moment, but the realization of what his wife had done hit him like a speeding train. He felt his body go limp as a loud, haunting moan escaped his chest.

"No," he said softly to nobody in particular. "No, no, no, no."

Sarah kissed his forehead and shakily released herself from his embrace. George felt himself roll lifelessly to his back as Sarah got to her knees and then, with a grunt, up to her feet.

"How long will it take, John?" He heard Sarah ask. It was only then that he remembered the man was there.

The only sound for a long moment was the gentle shuffle of footsteps as John made his way over to his medical bag. When he bent down to pick it up, the two men's eyes met. George could see fear in them, but there was pity as well.

"Not long, Sarah," he said as he clasped the bag shut and stood.

"Will there be any pain?" George heard his wife ask.

"No. None whatsoever."

With that, John turned to go.

"I'm sorry," George said, and turned his head from his spot on the floor to meet the man's eye. "I'm sorry."

John looked at him with a stern gaze, then nodded, and left the room.

The silence then seemed to press down on him like dirt on a coffin.

"What now?" He asked without looking at her.

She reached down in a silent offer to help him to his feet. "Now you take my hand and we watch the stars."

Finally, he looked at her. At everything she was now, seeing everything she had been, unblemished like her self-portrait hanging on the wall. In a voice layered with all the love he had left to give he said, "Okay, my dear," then reached up and took her hand in his own.

science fiction
1

About the Creator

Bronson Fleet

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  • Mark Gagnonabout a year ago

    A very sad but well written love story.

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