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Sally was lying in the tall grass. She was watching the sky. It was blue, mostly; just a few clouds drifted slowly by. A fluffy mother sheep followed by three little lambs.
Sally frowned. What business did they have, strolling about her perfect, endless blue sky? They could go somewhere else and be a happy little family.
She might have gotten up and yelled at them, on a different day, but this day she felt so warm lying in the grass and the sunshine, her joints barely ached, and she did not get up. She took a deep breath instead.
Close by, a bee was buzzing. A slight breeze brushed her skin. Something soft filled her mind, a drowsiness that wasn’t quite peace, but as close to it as she could ever get. Slowly, her eyes slid closed.
Drrrrrhrzr and a clank.
Sally gave a start, sat bolt upright. “You again,” she muttered, glowering angrily at the little waste disposal robot scurrying about nearby. It was the same as always, the one named XI-525, according to the signs on its back.
Sally clenched her teeth. It had no right to be here. This was her spot, this patch of tall grass and wildflowers at a far corner of the park; this was where she had buried her treasures.
But XI-525 couldn’t care less; it turned on its tracks, its clamps searching the grass for garbage. And then it found an empty can. Crunch. It was pushed through the hatch in the robot’s body, where nanites would decompose it, leaving nothing but clean air and harmless molecules. Wasted.
Sally scowled, the darkest, angriest look she could muster, and she would like to think that was why XI-525 hurriedly bustled on to somewhere else.
The droning and the clanks faded. Sally eased herself down to lie in the grass again. But XI-525 had ruined her moment; she felt unsettled, as though she were out of sync with the rest of the world, and the grass, and the sky, and the flowers were pictures in a book she could take no part in. She swallowed hard, her mouth dry. And then she noticed a pain in her stomach.
Was she hungry? She hadn’t had anything to eat today, but surely she had eaten yesterday. Her stomach protested, and suddenly she was not so sure. She sighed. This was a battle she could not win. Her body wouldn’t let her.
Damn body, and damn soup kitchen with its roof, and its empty chairs, and its sole social worker waiting only for her.
Getting there was one thing, entering was quite a different matter. For a long time she stood by the front door, in the shadows under the eaves, watching her own reflection in the glass pane. A slightly hunched figure, dressed in a tattered coat even on this warm summer day, unruly graying hair framing a perpetually sour looking face.
She put her palm against her reflection’s. The glass pane was cool. Her stomach tightened into a painful lump--hunger? Fear? Both, most likely, but it couldn’t be helped. She took a deep breath. Then she pushed open the door and entered.
The room collapsed. She was 12 years old again, 7, 5, forever weeping silently in the dark of the broom closet, having once again done something wrong. Been bad like the potatoes left too long in the crate in the basement.
She clenched her teeth, told her memories to shove it, and blinked back the darkness. The room that appeared was dimly lit by the scant light making it through the windows. There was no one there. Empty rows of tables and chairs, an empty counter. She went to it, the sound of her boots against the worn, yellowish linoleum floor reminiscent of a slow heartbeat.
“Hello,” she called out when she reached the counter.
The walls were looming, the ceiling such a heavy thing. She began sweating. There was a faint smell of stale cabbage on the air that stuck in her throat, making it harder to breathe. She fixed her eyes on the counter, let her finger trace a crack in the wood. Then she called out again.
Had the last of the social workers finally given up on the last of the homeless? She felt like laughing out loud, but there wasn’t air enough in here to do that. She needed to get out.
Perhaps she ran, she wasn’t sure, but she was panting when she got outside, and her pulse was racing. She stumbled a few steps away from the door, out into the grass covered street, out under the sky.
There she stood for a while, laughing hoarsely, and coughing. She would have to find somewhere else to eat, but still...she had won, hadn’t she? There would be no more overbearing smiles, no more gently trying to coax her to accept the so-called help: the counselling, and the flat, which would whisk her away from the world, like Johnny Half-Finger and all the others.
Though only Johnny seemed to be gone completely. She had seen the others occasionally, wearing blank faces and bland clothes, walking in that determined way that told they now had places to go, things to do, like good citizens.
What had happened to Johnny?
He had been a broken man, back when she knew him. His eyes betrayed it, despite the charming smile, the way they always sought the scarred stubs that were his fingers. Every single one of them had been cut off at the middle joint by some crude instrument. A magician unable to perform. He never spoke about it. He gave her his heart, all those years ago. And then he was gone.
Perhaps it wasn’t the social workers who had gotten to him. But who had, then?
“Hello, do you need a ride?” shouted a man’s voice from above.
Sally looked up. A car was hovering above her, sunlight glinting off its blue metallic surface. She squinted, and yelled, “No!”
“You can’t stay here, it won’t be safe,” the man continued, peering down at her from behind an open car window, his eyes small dots in a large, balding head. What a pompous fool to think she needed saving!
And so he did. It was only when the car had become a distant, glinting speck in the sky that she noticed what was wrong. It was the only one. She frowned. And then she looked around. There was nobody down here on the ground either. In fact, when she thought about it, she hadn’t seen a single person on her way over here. Or in the park, not for a few days.
Something cold snaked its way down her spine. She felt like being angry, but she didn’t know with whom, or what, or why, and so she began pacing restlessly.
It was the same wherever she went. Streets empty save for billowing grass. Abandoned concrete buildings. A bead of sweat trickled into her eye, and she began puffing.
In the shadow of a tall office building she paused. One of its window panes was broken. Sheaves of paper were littered on the floor inside, shifting slightly in the wind. And on the billboard at the top of building, huge red letters blinked: EVACUATE CITY.
She bit her lip. That couldn’t be good. Then she caught sight of a newspaper on a desk by the broken window. She reached in and grabbed it.
The headline on the front-page read:
Death is at our Doorstep
She skimmed the text underneath it.
Shadows, they were called, the creatures approaching the city, for want of a better word; darkness was all anyone who had glimpsed them remembered, and how life turned to dust by their touch. And a name whispered: Zormar the Great.
The newspaper dropped from her fingers. Zormar the Great had been Johnny Half-Finger’s stage name.
She remembered him murmuring, once, half asleep, about vengeance, about learning true magic, the kind of magic where his broken hands wouldn’t matter. She had laughed at him.
But he had given her his heart. She still had it. Hadn’t she? Flustering, she began moving again, back to the park.
Where, to her annoyance, XI-525 was circling near her spot again. But she couldn’t pay mind to it now; more important matters were at hand. She dropped down on her knees, and her fingers skimmed across the ground. She had marked the place where she had buried her greatest treasure with a tiny mound and a few round stones, and here it was.
She scraped away dirt, uprooting grass and a handful of chamomile flowers and dandelions, cracking one of her already cracked nails even more, and she cursed under her breath.
All the while, the droning sound of XI-525 seemed to grow louder, as though the robot were deliberately trying to get on her nerves, and she was just about to throw a stone at it when she finally found what she was looking for.
The cereal box she had buried it in was all but dissolved, and light broke through the dirt, like embers glowing through ashes, and she reached down and took hold of Johnny Half-Finger’s heart. It was warm and soft, shivering like a scared little bird, and it was as beautiful as she remembered, a thing of late autumn sunlight, pulsing slowly. Her eyes watered, and her breath caught in her throat as she lifted it up and regarded it, a warm little sun against her blue sky.
It wasn’t his physical heart, she knew that. Those kinds of hearts were nothing but bloody lumps. At the time, she had thought it was his love, she had thought it meant he would come back to her, if he could.
It seemed to her now that had never been the case. He had needed to forget his heart to walk that dark path he had chosen, and if he was returning, it was not for it, or for her.
If she could find a way to give it back to him, though, maybe she could save him, save the city, save the world...
The clamp of XI-525 shot forwards and retracted, and Sally was staring at her empty hands, sore and dirty. She turned her head and saw the light of Johnny Half-Finger’s heart vanish through the hatch in XI-525’s body like yet another piece of garbage. There was a grinding sound.
XI-525 stood frozen. The whole world seemed frozen. Sally sucked in breath, felt like exploding. Then the wind stirred the leaves of a nearby chestnut tree, and in that soughing sound she thought she heard a name whispered. Zormar the Great.
Her heart became cold and still.
XI-525’s dark, glassy eyes met hers. She had never seen it look so...aware before. And helpless. She sighed, her anger dissipating. There were just the two of them, it seemed, in this city, left to die. No one was looking out for either of them.
“Bugger it. We need to get away.” She scrambled to her feet, reached down and grabbed one of XI-525’s clamps. She pulled at it gently, and as she began walking XI-525 followed along.
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