The girl lay between blades of grass and rays of light. Her figure had never belonged anywhere but in the field, under a sky paler than usual. Silhouetted factories and consumed buildings playful crept up towards the horizon. They were infinitely far away; she could have run towards them and still not reached that degraded world. But she had no desire to reach the degraded world. She had no desire to reach anything. She felt content with lying there, her eyes half-closed and her mouth in the shape of a raspberry. The grass that touched her bare arms and legs swayed lethargically. At times, her hands would close with a faux strength and trap some blades of grass. She had no energy to rip them, but she could not know because she did not try. The world about her remained still, and she imitated it. Grass was such a rare and precious element, as was that pseudo-sunlight that tickled her warmly. She coughed a bit. With every cough her back arched ever so slightly. The greenery swayed more erratically. The coughs became stronger, her hands clutched at the grass beneath, but not with enough force to rip it. The sky darkened to a more natural shade. A voice caressed her arm, saying something inaudible. Her hands grabbed at the grass with more emotion than before. Her back arched significantly with every cough. The girl’s hands and feet became darker, blacker, and the blackness extended to her limbs. The voice touched her again, this time speaking in a more audible tone. You’ll be fine, dear, you’ll be fine. For some seconds she stopped coughing; the blackness on her skin became darker. Then the coughing started again, more violently than before. She rolled to her side, holding her stomach. Few drops of blood came out from her mouth with every cough. The voice tried to hold her, to touch her physically. Yet it failed, because it was a voice; something unsubstantial, bodiless. Please, hold on, I’ll help you. It sounded desperate. The silhouettes around her became closer, almost tangible. The girl continued coughing, covering her mouth with a coal hand which soon became scarlet. She tried to rip away blades of grass, but for as much as she tugged they would not budge. No! Don’t die! I can save you, just, please, hold on… The voice wept in her ears, and its messages repeated themselves, continuously, eternally…
“’Xcuse me sir, may I see ye travelin’ permit?”
“Sir, I need to see ye travelin’ permit.”
“Wake up, I need ye travelin’ permit!”
The question had to be repeated thrice and a muscular hand had to shake him before Favien woke up. At first he thought that the acidic taste in his mouth was a leftover from the nightmare, then he realized that it was the effect of a long hunger on his salivary glands. The ticket inspector glared at him impatiently. Favien sat up straight, wincing slightly because of his muscles’ refusal to cooperate. The young man opened the bag by his side and produced a sheet of beige paper. The inspector grabbed it without words and glanced at the words and numbers. He raised a curious eyebrow.
“Ya got on at Murtinario? Must be awful far away from ‘ome.” The inspector smiled with something that resembled sympathy. Favien opened his mouth, he wanted to clarify that he had no home, but his throat was too dry and his mouth too tired to speak properly. He limited himself to nodding. The inspector glanced about the empty wagon, then sat next to Favien with no real awareness of personal space. Favien glanced at the No smoking sign and then at the cigarette the inspector was lighting.
The box was pushed towards him.
“No thank you, I don’t smoke.”
The words had to be forced from his mouth; Favien thought thoroughly about each one. He had been on that train for over two days. He had no money for food, but the water bottle he had brought with him was still half-full. He drank the minimum necessary to survive because he did not know how much longer he would lie on that train; he did now know where he would stop. “Where ya goin’?”
“Dunno.” Favien wanted to keep on talking, but his throat refused to produce any more sounds. He wanted to fall back asleep, but the memory of the nightmare was still too vivid and terrifying. Besides, he wanted to ask the inspector where and how far away the terminal was.
“Where does this train stop?” The young adult grabbed a plastic water bottle from his bag and drank a single sip, making the water travel around his mouth before swallowing. His throat still burned. The inspector continued smoking.
“It still has about three stops left, then it reaches…” He paused and blew smoke from his nostrils. Favien drew his arid lips back in disgust at the smell. “Someplace. Ya know Greylake? Some’here close by. It’ll take another day t’reach though.”
“I can wait.”
When Favien reached the Terminal, the first rays of dawn were merely an hour away. A different ticket inspector woke him up roughly. When later thinking about his face, Favien could only recall the man’s left eye, or more precisely, the lack of one. It reminded him of someone he wished to forget, but of someone he had helped in the past nonetheless. When the train stopped Favien grabbed his rucksack, slung it diagonally across his chest, and falteringly stood up. The train remained still, but his legs were shaky and forced him to sit down once more. The wagon was still empty, and the only illuminations outside were squalid lamps. Favien bit his lip and tried again, slowly, keeping one hand on the seat. He felt an acidic burning in his joints, and had to shut his eyes to pretend the pain was not there. The second trial succeeded, and he stood, without holding onto anything. The position had become unnatural by then, and the young adult stood completely immobile for some seconds, just contemplating the manner in which blood flowed towards his legs.
Like an enchantment that is broken, a sharp pain pushed him back onto the seat. Favien had regained control over that complex machine that is the human body, and then lost it, in mere seconds. The wagon was completely empty, and the first rays of sunshine were due in less than an hour. Wisely prioritizing his journey over the pain in his joints, Favien made a final effort to stand up. It worked. No time was wasted thereafter, and he rapidly adjusted a long grey scarf (which he had been using as a pillow before) over his nose and mouth. Some strands of lengthy brown hair remained tangled in the cotton, but Favien’s mind was focused on the ache of his stomach. He had not been able to eat anything in days. Eating anything in Murtinario had been far too risky, the contamination had spread onto everything.
By the time Favien had stepped out of the train, the lamps had already stopped illuminating the open station. The government had to cut down spending in any way possible – those were hard times for everyone – and thus decided to turn off all streetlights before natural sunlight could start doing its job. Therefore, for approximately forty minutes before sunrise, the so-called “dark districts” lived up to their name. Some trains had lamps that shone dully and somewhat lit the terminal. Favien glanced at them, fascinated as a moth is to a flame. Then a stronger light, bright and white caught his attention. He turned his eyes towards it lethargically, and after squinting, could distinguish a child figure holding a flashlight. The creature walked towards him, and Favien noticed rips and poor mends in her clothing. She shone the light at Favien’s eyes and he shut them instinctively. Then he heard a high-pitched, cruel laugh and the light was redirected towards a nearby train.
“You a traveler? You look weird. Sick.”
Favien’s mouth opened under the stuffy scarf, but his throat was too dry to allow him to speak. The girl breathed a mocking half-chuckle and walked towards a mutilated bench. The flashlight was placed strategically on a trash can, pointing at it. Two small hands picked up a lone brick with admirable strength and smashed it onto the wooden planks, effectively breaking off a part of the rotting material. She continued the process until part of the metallic skeleton that had held the planks together had been exposed, and done that, she proceeded to hit its base with the same brick until a cylindrical piece of the metal broke off. She held it triumphantly.
“They pay well for this stuff ‘ere. Real well.”
A yell followed, and an older man with another flashlight appeared on the scene. “Kid, get outta here!”
He swung the flashlight towards her threateningly, almost as if it were a weapon. The child spat menacingly on the ground and scurried off, with considerable agility despite holding the heavy metal cylinder in one hand and flashlight in the other. She screamed a rude word at the man before disappearing into the darkness. The man (by his uniform Favien reasoned he held considerable authority) sighed and stared at the blackness that had engulfed the girl. He spoke without looking at anything in particular.
“These damn thieves… Wish I could just shoot them. Don’t care if they’re kids. We used to have a fence around the station. It was a good wire fence, but these rats just broke it.” He shone the flashlight at what remained of the bench and continued speaking. “Of course the administration is going to blame this on me. Who else? After the cuts to the light they still expect us to catch those thugs. As if we were some damn bats or something.”
Throughout the monologue Favien had been standing with the stillness of a column. The pain in his knees had either subsided or become normal, he could not know. Being in the background was a new sensation to him, as Favien had grown too accustomed to living life as the center of attention, the celestial body whose gravitational field attracted other bodies. The older man imprecated once more, then shone the flashlight towards a brick structure, and was swallowed by the shadows as he walked towards it. Favien wondered if he had so much as noticed the traveler’s presence. No, traveler was inaccurate. He should have been defined an emigrant: he could not go back to Murtinario.
The first rays of dawn crept up indolently from behind a series of crumbling buildings. Favien had been sitting on a stool under the watchful gaze of a closed window and looked towards the yellowing sky. In Murtinario the sky had always been some form or another of ash, and in the Greylake periphery it was not bright by any means, but at least colors were somewhat distinguishable. Favien could see yellow stripes extending from behind the decaying architecture. He had forgotten how regenerating the day was, how comforting it was to take something – anything – for granted. The sun rose and set, regardless of the world it shone on.
The man sat still and closed his eyes, feeling those warm rays brushing against his skin. For the first time since the nightmare on the train, Favien had allowed his imagination to breathe. Memories from the train ride and his first hour in the slums of Greylake took a clear form. Time seemed to slow down, to swirl around him like air. Favien recalled the faces of the two ticket inspectors, the man with the flashlight, and the girl at the station. The latter especially, as he realized that her face had been vividly imprinted on his mind. He only realized then that the child he had seen stealing a piece of metal from a bench resembled another being, one he wished to avoid thinking about: the girl from the nightmare. Woman. Girl. Favien had to correct himself twice. She had died the day before her eighteenth birthday, lying alone on a beige mattress, with both hands folded on that spot where her heart had ceased to beat.
The sun was already relatively high up in the sky, and the shadows cast by the buildings slithered back towards them pathetically. Favien opened his eyes to disperse the pall image. A knot had started to form in his throat, and he hurriedly opened his rucksack to take out the bottle of water. Favien drank what was left and instantly felt the liquid trickling down his esophagus. His hunger had not subsided in the slightest, but was forgotten when the scream reached Favien’s ears.
It was a shrill scream, much like the sound an animal that falls into a trap produces. The streets were deserted at that hour, which only augmented the impact of the cry as it reverberated through the scenery. Favien had instinctively turned his head towards the origin. Mere seconds passed until a second scream, as piercing as the first, reached him and convinced him to stand up. Dark eyes stared intently at the deserted street, and Favien’s suspects were confirmed when a figure came walking in his direction. She was a mature woman, her body and features hard to distinguish given the distance; Favien paid no attention to her, but rather, to the shape in her arms. She half-carried, half-dragged a boy, no more than eleven in age, drenched in a dark scarlet liquid that had smeared onto her clothing as well. He hung lifelessly from her arms, a doll with a face twisted by pain. His breathing came in rapid spasm and was usually accompanied by drops of blood.
“My son was shot!”
The woman screamed once more, frantically looking around in desperation. Her arms trembled from a mixture of effort and terror t its purest form.
“I’m a doctor.”
Favien’s voice cracked audibly but sounded resolute nonetheless. The urge to do what he did was something that ran as deep as the wiring in his brain, it was no more than a reflex. Favien could feel his heartbeat accelerating, as if it understood that all energy had to be devoted to the dying child. The rusty and broken machine acted on its own accord, accustomed, by then, to sceneries similar to the one presented then. Favien approached the woman and in a matter of seconds they were both hurriedly marching towards her abode: a possibility of final resting location or place of rebirth.
The house was small and cramped, squished between two equally modest homes. The woman hauled the body on the bare kitchen table and then broke down in what Favien could only think of as the lament of the hopeless. She had muttered some things on the journey, something about the station, about her only son, about telling him to not go, about stealing scraps of metal. Favien had not been listening, because his mind had started running a standard procedure as soon as he had set eyes on the boy. He assembled the pieces of information he had: shot in some unknown place an unspecified amount of time ago, had bled to unconsciousness, and if Favien had to make an estimate, he would have said that the child had lost over fifteen percent of his blood.
There was no time to waste. As soon as his limp physique was placed on the wooden table, Favien noticed that the red had smeared all over him, giving the impression that what lied before him was more of a slab of meat than a human. The source was the boy’s left brachium, and the liquid steadily flowed out from it. Favien lucidly remembered everything his father had thought him and everything he had himself read. Some half-memories, airy and insubstantial like dreams, came to him, but he was fast in brushing them off; he had a life to save. Favien drew back the child’s sleeve as to reveal the entry wound. He examined the arm, but there was no exit wound; the bullet was still in his body. He opened his mouth to ask for (or more accurately, order) a towel. The boy’s mother complied in seconds, and Favien wasted no time in folding the material into a thick square. He then proceeded to place it on the hole, applying pressure to stop the bleeding. Favien had to re-examine the case. His original estimate of the blood lost, the fifteen percent figure, was grossly exaggerated. The child had lost maybe ten percent, and had fainted not because of the class I hemorrhage, but likely because of shock and fear. Favien had the habit of over-estimating his cases; on the other hand, his father used to underestimate them. That had been one of the sources of disagreement between them. Focus. Favien stopped thinking about his father. No point thinking about him, he had to save a life.
The doctor continued pressing the towel to the wound for ten minutes, then, never removing his palm from the spot, raised the arm enough so that it would be higher than the heart. Favien could feel his own arms trembling slightly. He had to resist. The boy's eyes opened slowly and he opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. His mother rushed to his side and held his head lovingly, passing her fingers through the oily locks of his hair. Favien continued pressing the towel to the bullet wound until the bleeding had, for the most part, ceased. The brachial artery had not been severed, much to Favien's relief. He turned towards the woman and with a breathy whisper asked for a scarf. She promptly scurried off. The boy watched her disappear in a poorly illuminated corridor and then turned to Favien, staring at the doctor with a fearful yet grateful stare. Favien wanted to think of him as a body, as an inanimate object, rather than a person. That had been his father's first medical teaching, don't think of the person behind the wound, and throughout his pre-adolescence and adolescence he had followed the rule with a religious devotion. Only when his father died did Favien start focusing on the living and thinking. The woman returned with a scarf. Favien pressed the towel against the bullet wound with the heel of his hand one last time, to assert that the bleeding had relaxed. The whole situation had been exaggerated, he reflected, the wound was never life-threatening. At least not immediately. The lack of swelling presented the relief that no bones had been injured, there was no noticeable internal bleeding. Most importantly, he was going to live.
The child had fallen into a tranquil slumber, accompanied by a relaxed breathing. The improvised pressure bandage on his arms absorbed the blood flow; eventually it would reach a definite halt. Tears steadily rolled down the mother's face until there were none left. She looked at Favien through reddened eyes.
“Y-y-you saved h-his life... How c-can I thank y-y-you...?”
The scarf that had at one point covered most of his face was wrapped around his neck. On his forehead small pearls of perspiration had formed, and with every unwilling twitching of his muscles they rolled down his nose and his eyes. Favien felt himself slowly slipping out of control in regards to his body, as if all life had been completely drained. Is this an end, he wondered half-consciously. The shot boy would survive. The thief girl had survived. The train station warden would continue shooting. What else could be taken for granted in that unjust, decrepit world? The sun rose every day, and with it came the comfort of continuation. Its light shone on the Dawnless. The mother tenderly kissed her son's forehead.
“Please, s-stay over for breakfast. You must be hungry, kind d-doctor. It's the least I can do...”
Favien's body had been pushed to the limit – beyond the limit – and exhaustion seeped through his skin. The young doctor's lips curved in a ghastly smile, he breathed a faint murmur of gratitude through closed eyes. He had been unable to save Murtinario, his father, and the girl with the raspberry lips. The boy had been saved, and at the time it was all that mattered. With a final smile, Favien’s knees gave way under him. He fainted, collapsed on the floor and fell into a profound, dreamless sleep.