Sara came to work early, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, she had changed her schedule for my sake. She stopped by with the hospital chaplain and asked if Ishkin would like a priest. I had no idea what he might want, but since he had seemed familiar with the Catholic rites when we attended Christmas Mass with Mama Norma, I motioned for her to let the man in. But when the priest asked Ishkin if he had anything to confess, I couldn’t help myself.
“He can’t talk, and he has nothing to confess,” I said. “He’s just a kid. He’s done nothing wrong.”
The priest ignored me and asked Ishkin some stuff about faith in Jesus.
“If your God can’t take pity on him, regardless, you need to leave.”
Sara took me by the arm and led me out of the room.
I went back in as the priest was leaving, and Sara followed a few minutes later. I think she gave the priest a tip, since apparently even God is for sale in the city. Ishkin died half an hour later, with me and Sara each holding one of his hands so he wouldn’t feel like he was leaving this earth alone.
And then—poor Sara, she’s so good to me—I cried on her for a long time, making a mess of her nurse’s smock. She brought me a wet rag for my face and a glass of water to drink, and I was getting myself pulled back together when Vince showed up. I know it’s vain of me, but I’m glad he saw me being brave, and not a mess over one dead kid in a city where dozens die each day.
The three of us sat down to talk.
“I’ll have to send for the morgue,” Sara said. “I’m afraid there will be an extra charge.”
“For what?” I asked. “I get charged extra because the doctors didn’t get him well and he died?”
She looked embarrassed and tried to explain about the various costs and services involved in removing and storing a body, but I wasn’t in a state of mind to care. “Where should I bury him, and how soon can I do it?”
Vince and Sara looked at each other, then Vince took my hand. “There’s a site on the edge of town. It’s a common grave—“
“No. He gets his own. What does that cost?”
“It’s not a matter of money,” Sara explained. “It’s just that there’s no room. The Resource Wars, the Pandemic, the civil wars and all the refugees. . . there’s just no place to bury people separately any more.”
“What about outside the city?”
“Reservation lands,” Vince reminded me. “Unless you can prove tribal membership, forget it.”
“There’s cremation,” Sara said. “But you have to have political connections for that. Too many trees were being brought down from the mountains, and with all the other things we need wood for. . .”
“So you’re saying I have no other option but to let them throw him in a pit with every mangy scavenger that’s come through this place?”
“Unless you have a family plot,” Vince said. “If we had a plot, believe me, we’d let you use it, but we don’t.”
I remembered now that Vince and Sara were orphans. Had they been forced to let their parents be buried in a common trench? Was that their own destination, too? I suddenly felt bad for protesting so much.
“Does either of you have any sort of family buried here?” Sara was saying. “Anyone at all?”
“No.” But now I remembered I did have a family plot. Hell, as Will Channing’s wife, I had two. I glanced at the thin, frail body on the bed. I had given this boy food and shelter, changed my plans for him, spent all my money and endangered my life to earn more. Was I going to have to go back to Valle Redondo for him, too? The day I buried my mother, I had sworn never to return. I didn’t have to do this, did I? Did I owe Ishkin that much?
In death, his face had lost the pained and wizened features of an old man, and he seemed young and at peace again. Poor kid. He hadn’t asked anything of me. He didn’t even like me when I first met him. It was I who had forced my care and protection on him. He had demanded nothing, and I had offered all. Since I had taken responsibility, I owed him this one last thing.
“I have a family plot,” I told Vince and Sara. “If I can get a wagon and the weather stays cold, I can get him there.”
They were skeptical of my plan at first, and tried to talk me out of it, but I wouldn’t budge. Sara sold my city clothes—all but the dress, which I figured might be useful. Vince bought Ishkin’s horse and gear from me, and found me a bargain on a mule and wagon. We stocked the wagon with food for me and the animals, tools, and water. Sara spent the night with one of her nurse friends and let me and Vince have her small apartment, so I finally got my wish to sleep curled up by his side. It wasn’t like sleeping with Will, who could make me feel stronger just by being near, but it was nice, just the same.
I headed out this morning after saying good-bye to Ozone, Speedball, Fausto, Gitana and the others. Vince and Sara drove the mule to the city limits, and then we tied Flecha’s reins to wagon and I took over. I can’t bear long good-byes, but I hugged Vince and Sara by turns, thanking them for everything they had done for me and swearing I would never forget them.
“If you ever come back through here. . .” Sara said.
“But if you do. . .”
“You two will be the first people I look up. You don’t need to wonder about that.”
As I kissed Vince one last time, I felt him drop something into the pocket of my jacket. When I tried to reach for it, he shook his head. Apparently I was to look later. I climbed onto the wagon seat and slapped the reins on the back of the mule. I didn’t say good-bye again or look back. If I did that, I would never get the courage to leave.
I was a few miles down the road before I stopped the mule and reached into my pocket. I fumbled among the lint and other familiar things, until I found something that hadn’t been there before. I pulled it out and examined it. It was a little heart, made of some sort of blue stone I hadn’t ever seen before, and it had a gold loop through the top. Vince must have noticed I was still wearing one of the gold chains he had given me, although I had sewn all the others into the hems of my clothes for safekeeping.
I took off my necklace and slipped the stone onto it. I put it back on and tucked it inside my shirt, then sat there at the side of the road for a long time, too spent for tears, just staring at the winter landscape, wondering why good things like love and friendship had to inevitably turn complicated.
Finally Flecha’s nervous toss of her head and stamp of a hoof brought me back to my senses. I had no business mooning over necklaces, dead boys and hopeless romances. I needed to get to Valle Redondo, where all my real demons were waiting.
I’m settled in for the night now, after paying a fee to one of the Pueblo tribes to use the road through their lands and camp here in the scrubland. I’m enjoying the familiar smell of a cooking fire, and I’m oddly excited to be sleeping outdoors after all those stuffy city rooms. It would be nice to have a traveling companion to share the night watch, but I trust Flecha’s instincts, and mules are sensible creatures, no matter what their reputation may be. I think tomorrow I’ll try to start drawing again, and see if I can make some sense of all the things that happened back there in the city. But tonight, I just need some sleep.
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