With the exception of the rotting fruit and blood-stained cobblestones, one could say that the marketplace had not much changed in the previous few weeks. Rather, since the Incident, as the Doctor had been calling it both in his own mind, and to the other residents on rare speaking occasions. No one quite knew what to refer to it as, nor did they much care to think about the time before. Not that he blamed a single one of them, of course. He, too, preferred to think of his life as if it had not existed a moment ago. Living in the present was the way of the sane man. Unfortunately, he was the sort to ever be consumed by thoughts of the looming and assuredly torturous tomorrow.
Still, he managed his daily affairs rather well, considering his anxieties. He had hardly any excuse to leave his room at the inn, which was almost entirely vacated, and he was rarely called upon by his remaining patients, the number of which seemed to dwindle each day. In the weeks following the Incident, fewer and fewer people saw any value in a man with his skill set. He was already considered a relic.
“What’s a relic, love?” The old woman’s voice jolted him. He must have been muttering to himself again, a habit he had only recently acquired, but now appeared to be as natural a state as breathing.
He sighed, waving her off. “Nothing, darling.” He had quite taken to calling everyone darling. It was far easier than names, and it made the old woman smile. She would always let out the same sound, something that once could have been mistaken for a giggle, but now was too harsh and breathy to be anything but a wheeze. Perhaps a cough, on her stronger days. It used to make him chuckle, filling him with something akin to pride. Today, it made him nauseous.
He half-heartedly attempted a grin, and whether it was out of naivety or pity, she accepted it. She reached into the pocket of her dress and pulled out the most grand, exquisite peach he had ever laid eyes on. He had said it yesterday and the day before, but today he was certain. Bursting with color and delighting in a peculiar, uncommon innocence, this was, without a doubt, the perfect piece of fruit. The old woman knew it as well as he did.
“Do you know where I get the peaches, my love?”
Her voice was disgusting. Grating. It wore on his nerves like sandpaper. But he wanted the peach. He needed that peach, and he would never see it again if he didn’t listen to her stupid, little voice. So the Doctor bit his tongue until it bled. He forced a smile and swallowed the blood, and he listened to the old woman tell him the same story she had told him every day since the Incident. He pretended to care as he once had done, prepared the praise she never tired of, and suppressed a shiver every time she croaked out, “my love”.
She droned on about the old peach tree, an admittedly impressive specimen that was hidden away in the thick of the woodland. It had to be far from the prying eyes of the violent townsfolk who were, themselves, decaying, and whose rot spread to everything they touched. They took to the putrid fruit left on the cracked stands like flies, relishing the worm-eaten spoils. There were a select few who would hesitantly pick around the maggots and mold, desperately searching for a mere lick of something sweet. When he had the capacity for compassion, he had begged them not to. But those days were long past, and he doubted he would ever see them again.
The Doctor hastily stuffed a hand in his pocket and pulled out one of his last needles and a handful of silk thread. The coins they once exchanged were of no use to anyone in this new world, and looking back, they seemed rather an archaic sort of trade. This was far more effective. Someone in the old woman’s family, the granddaughter, he believed, had sustained a rather nasty cut on her recent journey to the lovely peach tree. It needed stitching, and he needed food. Gods, he needed the food.
He stared longingly, desperately at the peach in the old woman’s wrinkled hands, hands that were entirely too rough to be grasping such a delicate thing. If she held it any longer, he feared it might bruise. He didn’t want a bruised peach. He wanted the fruit as it was, absolutely perfect and rightfully his.
She unraveled the thread that had caught round his trembling fingers, tucking it beneath her dress. He swallowed the dry lump that had formed in his throat. Finally.
The peach seemed to sigh as it touched his aching fingers, settling peacefully into the palm of his hand. He cradled the little thing as tears formed in his eyes. He would protect it. It would never know the carelessness of the world.
He smiled at the old woman, shedding his ill will like a second skin. Grateful for the shred of normalcy, he bowed his head just so, as he would in the presence of a Lady. “Thank you, my darling,” he sighed, his voice like a satisfied purr. “You’re a gift.” She hacked out that cough that was meant to be a giggle and leaned in to kiss his cheek. He could smell her rotting teeth, but he didn’t mind so much. He had the peach. His peach. And all was well.
The shriek of a nearby man interrupted the old woman’s goodbye, which the Doctor considered to be rather rude, even in the state of all things. Annoyed by the sudden howl, he turned on his heel to reprimand the man, but there was no use. As he continued to scream in anguish, the Doctor fell silent, and all memory of the words he had ever spoken, or hoped to speak again disappeared from thought. His mind was utterly consumed by the ship on the horizon.
It had been days since the last. He had nearly forgotten the ship, just as it had forgotten them, the few residents left behind in their small, abandoned village. It passed them with such indifference, and the Doctor was sure it was this sort of stunning apathy that was responsible for all the death and horror in the world. One could tolerate its existence, if they had a strong enough will. The mind, however, had no choice but to shatter at that which was both a glimmer of hope and a sickening reminder of the passivity and detachment that had brought them to their knees.
The ship came with an unspoken promise, and when it became clear that it had no intention of staying true to its word, the town itself descended, all at once, into madness. It did not spare the children, who clawed at their own faces with broken, muddied nails. It did not spare the women, whose roars echoed above the crashing waves, and it did not spare the men, who crawled into the sea and begged for reprieve. The ship had returned to them a strength, a resolve they had long been denied, only to strip it away the moment they had grasped it.
The Doctor looked on, observing the collapse of sanity, and all he could think of was his little peach, still balanced carefully in the palm of his hand. It no longer seemed the perfect thing it was moments before. It twitched with anxiety and drained itself of all hope. He couldn’t be blamed, of course, but there was no denying that it was as mad as all the others now. There was only one thing for it.
He sighed, exhausted by the thought of all the rotten things he had to rid himself of. He turned away from the cruelty of the passing ship and crushed the wretched fruit between his fingers.
“Tomorrow,” he muttered, his lips against its lifeless remains, his voice filled with a bitter sort of sorrow. “Tomorrow, my darling, you will be perfect.”