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A Shadow's Song

Anonymous

Guest
Coffee was proof that there was a loving God in the world. Maria hardly considered herself a firm believer, but this she knew to be true. She took a long, exhilarating breath of the life-giving elixir, brewed as dark as the circles under her eyes, and felt renewed.

“I will never love a man as you love that vile sludge,” grinned Fernanda as she set her bag on the worn breakroom tabletop, its surface marred with rings of a thousand cups past. The two were a striking contrast; Fernanda was a young and pretty thing, with her spotless bubblegum scrubs and her painstakingly perfect hair arranged just so. She looked as fresh as the pot of coffee bubbling away on the counter. Meanwhile, the only likeness Maria had with the brew was a shared bitterness. She was old and felt older still, skin and shoulders alike weighed down by her work and her years, and she did not need to see her hair to know the graying strands were frazzled and unkempt.

“You would have to find one first,” Maria retorted, hiding her own smile behind her cup. She had a reputation as a miser to uphold, after all. Fernanda offered an exaggerated look of betrayal.

“My heart bleeds,” the young woman sighed, hands clasped to her chest. “Were this not a hospital, your wounding words would have been the end of me. I pray the Virgin Mary,” she stressed the name, darting a vindictive glance at her elder coworker, “will guide me one day to my other half.”

Maria was far too busy slamming the steaming solvent to reply to the barb. Even oxygen took a backseat to choking down her drink and Fernanda watched with something akin to admiration equally mixed with concern. “Seriously, what sort of a shift am I stepping into here, has it been that rough of a night?”

“World’s going mad,” the older woman replied, the chill in her words counteracting the spreading warmth of the coffee. She moved to pour herself another cup. “The rumors of that overseas disease are causing fear, panic. Mark my words, we’ll see riots before the week is out. We’re almost to World Cup levels of patients.”

“Well, that’s a seven-headed beast,” Fernanda muttered sourly. “This job cuts into my free time as it is. If we get any busier, my social life is going to end up like yours; imaginary.”

“I have friends,” Maria started to object, but the other woman cut in again.

“What you have are patients. They don’t count,” she huffed. “What, do you think the little rubber-thumper in 3A with tuberculosis is your friend? Oh, sure, she’d smile at you. As she was stealing your wallet. It’s what those grubby tribals do.”

Maria frowned, lips pursed disapprovingly. “That’s hardly the attitude a doctor should have, Fernanda. Leave off the Guarani girl.” She took another sip from her fresh mug before continuing. “She’s not in any state to be stealing anything, anyway. I thought we were going to lose her like the others. Her fever only just broke.”

“Good,” Fernanda said with a scowl. “I’ll call the mission and see if they can send someone out here to pick her up. The sooner she’s out of here, the better. We’ll start seeing supplies go missing, otherwise.”

Maria let it go, wise enough - or, at least, old enough - to know when to pick her battles. It wasn’t her job to advocate for the natives or get indignant about the squallor that was their daily lives. Still, her co-worker may have opined about a bleeding heart, but no one else would have accused her of having one. She finished off the last of her coffee, leaving the temporary shelter of the breakroom and back out into the hospital halls for another shift. It wouldn’t be her problem for much longer.

*****

“And that’s where we stand as of today,” the Administrator said, smoothing out his tie as he walked around the gathered crowd of hospital staff. It wasn’t often that he called for floor meetings -his slicked-back hair and business suit looked out of place amongst the exam beds and IVs- but every time he did, he felt the need to be theatrical about it. “Any questions?”

“Just the one,” Maria said, folding her arms across her chest. Her peers turned to look at her, with those who knew her well already starting to smile in expectation. She had a reputation as a firebrand to keep, after all. “Have you gone mad?”

To his credit, the Administrator didn’t lose his composure. “Look, I know you’ve all seen the reports on the news, but I have credible sources who say it’s blown out of proportion. At this time, we have no need to activate our pandemic procedures. It would only frighten away our regular customers from responding to their scheduled appointments.” He fixed Maria with a stare, which she returned coldly. “And I would like to remind you who is in charge of our policy.”

“Yeah, your ‘credible sources’ and their credible income. Or was that the name of your yacht?” There was a low murmur in response to that one, a few of the newer residents shifting uncomfortably in place. The Administrator only gave a humorless smile.

“Always a pleasure, Doctor,” he said, then dropped all pretense of polite conversation. “Get back to work.”

The Administrator’s fancy shoes clacked against the spotless tile floors as he marched away towards his office. The gathered staff dispersed to attend to their regular duties, and the omnipresent din of the hospital returned. The head nurse placed a hand on Maria’s shoulder. “My God, I really thought you two were going to come to blows this time,” she said, a twinkle in her eye. Maria only snorted.

“The hell you did, Ana. You didn’t start taking bets.”

“Only because no one here would bet against you,” said the diminutive latina with a shameless smirk and a shrug. She added conspiratorially, “at least, not where you could hear them.” She chortled at her own joke while clapping the exasperated Maria on the back again. “Don’t think too hard on it. By the way, you have an admirer.”

She followed Ana’s gaze back to the emaciated figure hiding behind an exam curtain and gave a heavy sigh. “The Guarani girl’s been shadowing me ever since she could crawl out of bed. I’ve tried to get her to stay in her room, but I don’t think she understands Portuguese.”

“At least someone found the little beast some clothes,” Ana murmured with a measure of sympathy. “It’s not exactly Carnival around here, she would have attracted some attention. You want me to take her back to her room?”

“No, no,” Maria said with a shake of her head. “I’ve got it. I need you getting word out to the other hospitals and start checking with the staff to see how many people we can call in.”

“Start up the pandemic protocols?” Ana asked, puzzled. “João isn’t going to like you going over his head like that.”

“That’s why we aren’t telling him about it,” the doctor explained. The grin she received in response had far too many teeth.

“Ohh, mutiny! And it isn’t even my birthday,” Ana cooed. “Fine, you take care of the capuchin and I’ll start the revolution against the ruling classes.”

“Don’t get caught,” Maria muttered as the nurse pranced away. She shook her head and walked over to the exam table, where the native girl had been stealing glances from behind the privacy curtain. She was young, not heart-wrenchingly so but certainly the girl still had some growing left to do, unless she’d been even more malnourished than the doctor suspected. She was wearing a hand-me-down shirt in faded blue -Maria’s own- and it hung down long enough that it fit her like a one-piece dress. Beneath the dress she was all skin-and-bones, with long tangled hair and a haunted, empty expression. She was also, the doctor noted with mounting concern, holding a silvered scalpel in her hands.

“No!” Her initial reaction caused the poor girl to jerk back in surprise, almost dropping the tool. Maria forced herself to try again with a little less vehemence. “Nonono, sweetie. That’s a scalpel. That’s dangerous.”

The girl looked down at the blade, then back to the doctor. Maria nodded reassuringly. “Yes, a scalpel.” She held out her hand, prompting, “Can you give it to me?”

Hesitantly, the Guarani girl reached out and set the handle in Maria’s hand. She made a small sigh of relief. Too many of the natives she’d seen had ended their own lives, and she was not about to let it happen on her watch. “Good! Thank you.” She pocketed the scalpel and smiled. “Fernanda’s all worried about stealing, but you’re not a thief, are you? You’re just curious.” The girl didn’t answer, likely she didn’t know how, but Maria kept right on talking. “Well, it’s okay to be curious. I wouldn’t want to stay in that boring old bed, either. Until the mission comes to take you home, you can just keep following me, okay? But you can’t be picking up just anything. Do we have a deal?”

The girl still didn’t respond, but as Maria started making her rounds she found herself with an audience of one. Never too close but never too far away, always hiding in the background and always watching. It was fine, she told herself. It would only be for a few hours, maybe a day at the most. Then it wouldn’t be her problem anymore.

*****

“There’s got to be another explanation,” Fernanda said in a desperate plea. “People have just gone mad, yes? Some sort of rabies mutation, it must be!”

“I saw what I saw,” Ana sobbed. Maria had never seen her friend like this before. Gone was the cheerful exuberance, the devil-may-care attitude. She barely even recognized the broken woman in her arms, a terrified and weeping mess. “They were dead! Dead! A-and .. and they just ..“

“Shh, calm now. The police are handling it. The military, even.” She rubbed Ana’s back, soothingly. “They’ve cordoned off the city, yes? Every district, every neighborhood. Roadblocks everywhere. They’ll keep this thing in check.” She looked around the room, at the faces of her anxious co-workers, meeting the eyes of each in turn. The only one not to break her gaze and stare awkwardly at the floor was the little girl watching from the doorway. Something within her swelled when faced with those big brown eyes. Maria spoke again, with conviction. She had a reputation as a stubborn old goat to keep, after all. “But they can’t do it alone.”

“You want us to stay, don’t you?” Fernanda asked. She gave a nervous laugh. “What, we just .. clock in? We keep working like it’s any other day?”

Maria shook her head. “Not like any other day. Not even like the pandemics we trained for. This is something more,” she struggled for the right word. None measured up. She settled at last on, “dangerous. People get hurt in dangerous situations. They will need us.”

“What about our homes? Our families?” She couldn’t immediately place the voice. One of the younger residents, no doubt.

“I don’t know about you all, but my apartment walls are thinner than the privacy screens here.” She shook her head. “The grounds have strong fences. We can rally here with our families and make this place safe. Maybe even contact the military for support.” She gestured off to the south. “Our facility is on the edge of the city limits. The violence is currently hitting the greatest population centers the hardest. You all heard Ana, downtown is a warzone. People will likely start evacuating the city, which means they will be coming here. We should start looking into shelters for the refugees.”

“What about the Administrator?” One of the nurses asked. Fernanda only scowled in reply.

“A dockworker that’s sweet on me, he said João’s boat is missing from the pier.” Scattered worried voices called out at that, and more than a few indignant ones, but Maria silenced them all with a raised hand.

“We don’t need him!” She called as they settled down. “We don’t need bureaucracy or red tape for what is to come. What we will need is determination .. and the desire to help. I did not devote my life to this profession to turn away those that need me!” The murmurs rose again, still carrying the undercurrent of fear, but now with added resolve. Heads were nodding, people were talking amongst themselves. Making plans.Spreading hope. She met the gaze of the Guarani girl in the doorway again. She wasn’t about to let the hopelessness she saw in those eyes be her problem anymore. Not if she could do something about it. “The Hospital of Divine Providence stays open!”

*****

“The CT scan on your hit-and-run came back,” Fernanda said, grim as the grave. “Massive internal hemorrhage. You were right, the spleen is ruptured.”

If the younger doctor had ever looked pretty and perfect, those days were long behind her. She was as haggard as the rest of the crew; worn down over long shifts and little sleep. The hospital had long since passed World Cup levels of activity, with every bed filled and even the hastily erected shanty-town of tents outside nearing capacity. As Maria predicted, people had arrived in droves as they fled the fighting and confusion in the city proper. Few of them had escaped unscathed.

Some days, she hated being right all the time.

“He’s being prepped?” She asked as she scrubbed. A fresh pair of gloves were waiting for her on the counter already, just as she would find coffee or clean clothes or even reports collected from the other department heads. As much as she’d tried to catch her shadow in the act, the little Guarani girl always had a way of delivering whatever she needed and disappearing as silently as she’d arrived. Even Fernanda hasn’t said so much as an unkind word about their hidden helper in weeks.

“Yes,” her fellow doctor replied as she pinpointed the section on the black-and-white image. “I don’t think we can manage laparoscopic with the level of-”

She was cut off as the door burst open. A man in military fatigues stormed in, barking orders with the air of one accustomed to having them followed. He was tall, dark, and -as confirmed by Fernanda- handsome in a rugged sort of way. “I need a doctor!”

“A little busy, Colonel Souza!” Maria replied through clenched teeth. As much as she appreciated the military’s full support of her growing refuge city of a hospital, the only authority above her in the operating room was the Lord and she made her resentment of the intrusion known. “This is a pre-op, you can’t be in here.”

“There isn’t time!” The colonel’s voice was concerning on a number of levels. Since she’d met the man, she had never known him to be anything other than professional and level-head. It could only mean bad news, but even she hadn’t been able to predict how bad. “The barricades on Protásio Alves and Mariante have fallen, the Red Eyes are hitting the White River district right now!”

Fernanda let out a horrified gasp. Maria’s expression hardened, and she struggled to keep the emotion out of her voice as she asked, “The Hospital of Porto Alegre? What of the shelters at Strength and Light Field?”

“They are evacuating right now, but this is the closest shelter still standing across the river. All of their injured will be coming here. We need your people to coordinate the move.” The doctors shared a look of knowing dread. Their numbers were about to double, and the exodus to their doors would not be a kind one.

“You go,” Maria said, holding up a hand to stifle the immediate rebuttal. “Take Ana and her team with you. The colonel and his men will be there to protect you, and you’ll need every hand you can get to even begin sorting out the mess.”

“But what about the patient?” Fernanda gestured to the doors behind them, to the life hanging in the balance on a sterile steel slab. “What about the surgery? I would be taking your entire-”

“Bah! Am I some feeble grandmother who needs you to hold my hand?” Maria forced as much confidence as she could. She had a reputation as a master surgeon to keep, after all. “Go with the colonel, call it a date if it gets you out of my hospital faster. I’ll finish up here, and by the time you’re back I’ll have the wards ready to admit the priority tags.”

Fernanda did not look wholly convinced, but the insistence of the colonel and the threat of Maria throwing a shoe at her finally sent her on her way. With the specialists. The residents. The nurses. The assistants. It was only her now, and this sorry fool in front of her slowly dying as blood filled his abdominal cavity.

He was counting on her. They all were. She took a deep breath and focused on the job. Just an operation. Like any other of a thousand she’d performed. It was instinctive. Muscle memory. She could practically do this job in her sleep.

“Scalpel,” she said, holding out her hand before realizing her mistake. There-in was the problem to doing the job in one’s sleep; you made stupid mistakes. Like asking an empty room for a tool that… now rested in her hand. She looked down at her hand, at the blade lying there. Then behind her, to the little Guarani girl, face hidden behind a mask but eyes ever watchful.

“You .. can’t be in here, little shadow.” Maria started to say. The girl’s brow narrowed.

“Scalpel,” she echoed, the first word Maria had ever heard from her. It was heavily accented, but it was spoken with such determination that the doctor was momentarily taken aback. It was followed by the same warning, with nearly the same intonation, as she’d given all those weeks before, “Dangerous.”

“You’ve been listening. That’s very nice, but I need to work now.”

“I help.”

“I don’t think-”

“Bonny forceps.” The girl continued, her eyes darting to the tray. She nodded at each tool in turn. “Crile hemostat. Poole suction tube. Deaver retractor.” She turned back to Maria and held her gaze, speaking slowly and deliberately. “Compound curve conventional needle number five sutures. I help.”

“So bright for a shadow,” Maria murmured. The girl had been watching her every waking moment, peering in through glass doors, sitting in the corner during post-op reports. Apparently, she hadn’t just been learning how to change coffee filters. And apparently, that meager amount of assistance wasn’t enough for her anymore. Maria stared into the girl’s eyes. Windows to the soul, some upstart poet once said, but here they were more akin to mirrors.

“ .. You washed up correctly? Yes, yes, of course you did,” she scoffed, then leaned in towards the girl with an air of gravitas. “Listen to me very closely, little shadow. This is no game. This is life .. or death. You will do what I say and only what I say. If you are ever even remotely confused, you ask first. Never assume. If I feel you are at any moment jeopardizing my patient’s life, I will kick you out of this operating room so hard, it will make Neymar blush!”

The Guarani girl moved to the side of the table, waiting so eagerly that if she’d had a tail it would be wagging. Maria wasted no more time and got to work. To her continuing surprise, her shadow proved to be an able assistant, stepping in with suction as directed, delivering the proper tool at the proper time. She never needed more than a single explanation and she never complained or faltered, even as the hours wore on. Maria found herself idly describing tissues and organs as she cut, droning on with the girl listening raptly, as if this were some biology school classroom and her patient merely a giant frog to dissect. It was almost laughable. In better times, she would lose her medical license for what she was doing now. But in better times, the dead wouldn’t be walking and this little girl wouldn’t be helping hold a man’s rib cage open. At least a malpractice lawsuit wasn’t her problem anymore.

*****
“Pneumothorax.”

“P-n-e-u-m-o-t-ó-r-a-x. Air between the parietal and visceral pleura, chest cavity. Shortness of breath, chest pain. Tachycardia, tachypnea, hypoxia. Unilateral decreased breath sounds, dyspnea, unilateral chest rise, or jugular venous distension.” The Guarani girl spoke from rote memory before chugging her coffee. She made a face, shuddering as it went down. She may have gained an appreciation for the drink over the months, but she was no closer to getting a taste for it. She set the cup aside and nodded at Ana. “Easy.”

“Oh ho? Don’t be getting arrogant, little angel. That’s the old bat’s job.” The nurse tapped a finger to her chin as she contemplated. “Mmm, okay. How about .. bird?”

“Mmph.” Her confident expression fell and her brow wrinkled in that one particular way it did when she was struggling for a word that just wasn’t there. Her language skills were growing by leaps and bounds, but certain subjects quite obviously had taken precedence in her mind. “P .. a .. s .. a-r-o? The .. ah, the thing little .. sky living?”

“Close! P-á-s-s-a-r-o. It is an animal that flies in the sky, yes. They remind me of you, you know. They sing beautiful songs and they have wings with many colorful feathers,” Ana smiled, setting a hand to the girl’s head, messing with the elaborate braids. Was it her imagination, or had she grown again? “Like the ones you have in your hair. They’re very pretty. Animal, remember that word. It’s a useful one.”

“Oh! Knowing word. Doctor Fernanda the word using to me many agos.” Ana’s smile faltered, though there wasn’t a trace of insult or resentment in the girl’s voice. She was just reciting a fact, as she always did.

“You’re not an animal, sweetie, the doctor was just .. stressed out. She’s mellowed a bit since meeting that Souza boy. Besides, Fernanda .. didn’t know you then. None of us did.” She planted a kiss on the girl’s forehead and ruffled her hair again, much to the Guarani’s consternation. “How about another word? How about .. your name?”

She went quiet as she tucked long strands of hair back in place. “Shadow,” she said at last. “S-o-m-b-r-a. The thing following. The thing left after. Name is the what I am.”

Ana sighed. “I meant your real name, not what that merciless tyrant calls you.”

“Someone summoned me?” A voice grumbled as it passed the breakroom. She had a reputation as an all-knowing overseer to keep, after all. Maria leaned in through the doorway, eliciting an eager happiness in the self-proclaimed Shadow just as it elicited the exact opposite reaction in Ana. Her dire dread was confirmed only heartbeats later as the Head Doctor continued, “Someone, perhaps, with not enough work to do? We have a brand new batch of wounded from a supply run to the old Sailors district. It went .. poorly. Bring a mop.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ana sighed, dragging herself to her feet. The brief moments of respite were only becoming fewer and farther in-between. Maria glowered at her to get her moving quicker, then turned towards the Guarani girl. The old doctor’s expression brightened, though only those who knew her well might have noticed the difference.

“Shadow, indications for a tourniquet.”

“Life-threatening hemorrhage, amputation, severe damage or mangling of the limbs!” She barked her response like the soldiers the Colonel had left to protect the Hospital of Divine Providence. Maria smiled. It was a small one, but it was there. At this rate, her protege would be running this place one day and the burden of leadership wouldn’t be her problem anymore.

“Good girl. Now .. how would you like to learn how to amputate an arm?”

*****

“Shh.” Maria placed a finger to her lips, nodding to the huddled form of her Shadow curled up in the corner. There were few enough times she got to see the girl at peace like this and it was one of the few comforts she had left. They were not the only two in the room, though the others resting on tables and stretchers and cots were heavily sedated and unlikely to stir for anything less than a passing train. She spoke quietly from her seat on the floor, back against the wall. “We just finished a shift. Don’t wake her.”

“So .. she does sleep,” Fernanda said in surprise, though she kept her voice down as she slid down to sit next to the older woman in the packed exam room. The air was rank with blood, sweat, and bile. With the heavy rationing on water, real showers were a thing of the past. Light filtered through boarded-up windows in dim shafts, providing the only light beyond the small oil lamp flickering away overhead. She spoke again only when she was close enough that her weary murmur could be heard. “Maria .. We can’t keep going like this.”

The two doctors were in hardly better condition than the scores of patients surrounding them. The relentless work, the scant hours of sleep, the months upon months of unending stress had worn them down like old clothing; Threadbare and ragged, patchwork versions of their former selves. Maria herself looked older than her already-considerable years, and when she didn’t answer Fernanda continued on. “Saint Clara .. Mother of God .. even Ernesto Dornelles; all of the other hospitals in the city are gone.” There was a time she would have said those words with the horror they deserved, but now her tone was as lifeless as the hordes in the streets. She continued in the same dull tone. “Carlos told me the push to retake the Botanical Garden district failed. Porto Alegre’s lost. He’s pulling all of his men back to the Central Prison to try and hold the line.” Maria didn’t need to know a thing about strategy to hear the hopelessness in that statement. The city was home to a million and a half residents-turned-monsters, whereas Colonel Souza had five thousand at best. Far fewer, judging by how many uniforms had crossed her table since the disease began. “We’re .. all that’s left.”

Again, Maria said nothing. Fernanda wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know. She’d supervised taking in patients, staff, and refugees that had been sheltering at other medical havens across Porto Alegre as each fell, one at a singular time, to the Red Eye threat. She’d ordered the construction of temporary structures of sticks and tarps that became far more permanent than they had any right to be. She’d directed the overflow of injured into the imaging rooms and morgues when exam rooms were filled far beyond capacity. It wasn’t like the morgue could fulfill its original purpose anymore, and without fuel for their generator the CT scanner was just an over-designed and overly large bed. It wasn’t enough; their preparations, their resources, their efforts. Divine Providence was not enough. They were not enough, and Fernanda’s tone made it plain that she knew it as well. “What do we do?”

It took her several minutes to break the silence. She had a reputation as an optimist to keep, no matter how difficult it was to find hope these days. “We do what we can. We help as many of these people as we can.”

“But how?”

“I want you to find Ana. We need a headcount on how many of our patients are mobile, and how many stretchers or wheelchairs we have.” Maria’s teeth set grimly as she ran the numbers in her head. It was not promising. She shook off the thoughts and continued. “Then go find your boyfriend, I’ll need to speak with him to work up an evacuation plan. If the Colonel can clear a path to the docks and we can scavenge some boats to get the refugees and the walking wounded onto, we can send them upriver to Saint Jose’s in Lajeado. There’s a jungle between us and them. It should be safer.”

If Fernanda wanted to object to the thought of abandoning the hospital that had been their home, their refuge, their sanctuary for so long, she didn’t voice it. She merely nodded numbly and rose to leave. Maria watched her go, conflicted.

“ .. help?” A small voice came from just behind her. If she lived to be a hundred, Maria would never understand how someone could move so silently. She turned to the Guarani girl sitting at her side.

“Nonono, Shadow. Very soon, but not yet. Here,” she said, pulling the girl close so that her head rested on the old woman’s lap. Maria ran her hand over the girl’s braided hair, as if she were petting a cat. “Go back to sleep, my girl.”

“ .. song?” All it took was a matronly look, and she grumbled and then tried again with a proper sentence. “Will you sing to me?”

In spite of everything, Maria still found herself able to smile. Maybe hope wasn’t so hard to find, after all. Shadow’s love of music was well-known amongst the staff, infectious one might say, as she often incited others into impromptu karaoke sessions in those rare moments of downtime. Even curmudgeonly old Maria wasn’t immune to her doe-eyed charms. The doctor hummed softly in the stillness of the exam room, free for a singular moment from the despair just outside her doors. They would leave this place soon, and maybe then the graveyard of Porto Alegre wouldn’t be her problem anymore.

*****

“Get him onto the table!”

The room was a maelstrom of activity, with Maria in the center of it all. Two soldiers were carrying a screaming man between them, practically dragging him to the operating table and leaving a slick trail of blood in their wake.

“Carlos! Carlos, speak to me!” Fernanda was sobbing near-incoherently as she grasped onto her lover’s shoulder.

“Cut the uniform off!” Maria continued shouting orders, her volume matching even the gunfire outside. The two men shared a look, and one dashed back out the door shouldering his rifle while the other stayed to cut away at the torn clothing so heavily matted with blood that its original camouflage coloring couldn’t even be recognized.

“Fernanda, for the love of God, stop blubbering and help get a line in him!” She surveyed the damage as she worked, trying to stem the bleeding from a thousand holes. “What happened?”

“One of the bastards jumped him as he was throwing a grenade,” the soldier explained tersely as the fabric tore under his combat knife. “The Red Eye took just as much fragmentation as the Colonel, but .. “

“Mmph, push that Ketamine, I need him to stop thrashing!” An entire side of her patient was practically hamburger, shredded by shrapnel that was scientifically crafted to do as much damage as it possibly could to flesh and blood. “Hold his arm down!”

“It’s retracted, Maria! I can’t get at the vein! Please!”

The Colonel’s tortured movements had slowed, but it wasn’t from the medication. Too much of his blood already soaked the streets of the city. Maria had known from the first moment, but she had tried anyway. The man deserved at least that much. He deserved someone to refuse to let death take him without a fight. He gave several gurgling gasps as bright-red froth flecked his lips before falling silent, head listing limply to the side with the glassy-eyed stare of death. Fernanda wailed as she hugged him to her breast, soul-wrenching cries that chilled Maria to the core. She took a defeated step backwards and turned away, with the soldier awkwardly following as they stepped outside the room to give the grieving woman a moment.

“ .. what’s your rank, soldier?”

The shell-shocked man swallowed and gave a grim sigh. “I don’t think there’s enough of us left for that to matter. My name is Antônio, ma’am.”

“What about the evacuees, Antônio?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. Our squads split up to cover the streets. The Red Eyes pushed us and they pushed us hard. We were separated and had to fall back. That’s when we ran into your group taking up the rear of the column.” The guilt was clear on his face. “Really wishing the colonel had ordered you as the first one out.”

“I wouldn’t have listened if he had,” she said, gesturing for him to continue.

“Well, you know the rest. The hospital’s still fortified. About the best place to make a stand, maybe buy some time. So here we are. If the rest of my team is still alive, they’ll escort the civvies to the docks.”

Maria thought of everyone who had depended on her. Everyone who had looked to her for guidance. For salvation. She thought of a little girl. “Do you think they will make it?”

“With the numbers out there .. “ He shook his head. “They’d need a miracle, ma’am.”

Maria closed her eyes, hardening her resolve. She had a reputation as a miracle-worker to keep, after all. “What about a distraction?” She said at last. “There’s still some fumes left in the generator. If you can get to that and turn it on, I can activate the PA system.”

“It would draw every Red Eye in the district down on us,” he replied bluntly, the unspoken consequence of that situation clear.

“Yes, Antônio,” Maria said softly. There was nothing else to say. ”Yes, it would.”

Antônio regarded the short old woman with a mournful reverence. “Yes, ma’am. You can count on me and the men. I’ll get the power on. They’ll hold that gate as long as they can.”

“Good boy,” she said as she took his hand in hers and patted it comfortingly. “Thank you.”

With a last regretful look, he pulled away and dashed down the corridor towards the basement. Maria watched him disappear into the dark before turning back to the operating room. “Fernanda, we need to-”

Whatever she was going to say next was forgotten with the sight of her friend lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood, the colonel’s body standing over her with eyes red as the setting sun. He turned towards the door and leapt upon her with a feral howl, knocking Maria to the scuffed tile floor.

She screamed as he clambered over her with his broken body, teeth gnashing as they inched towards her neck despite her struggles. They were a breath away from ripping at her flesh before a ceramic mug shattered against the colonel’s head, followed by a scrawny figure leaping onto his back, dragging him off of the doctor through sheer momentum. Shadow wrapped her legs around his torso, locking her arms around his head like a living cervical collar as he thrashed on the ground for his freedom.

“Scalpel!” The Guarani shrieked as she fought to maintain her hold. “Dangerous!”

Maria scuttled towards the operating room tray table, slipping across trails of blood, her panicked grasping at the table’s supports tilting it over and sending silver tools clattering across the floor. She grabbed a scalpel from the bloody tile and jammed the blade like a knife into the soldier’s temple, through the pterion junction and deep into the brain until he stopped writhing in Shadow’s arms. It took all of her strength to push the dead weight off of the bronze girl, to clutch her daughter like a drowning woman would hold a life preserver.

“Oh, my baby girl,” Maria sobbed, holding her head, looking over her for the slightest injury. “Are you okay? Did he hurt you?” She shook her head only to be drawn into another bone-crushing hug. Maria rocked the child in her arms, crooning, “Why aren’t you with the others, little Shadow? Why aren’t you safe?”

“You weren’t there,” came the muffled response. She pulled away from the embrace to look her mentor in the eye. “I came back for you.”

There was a sound from the operating room floor that drew her attention away from the reunion. Fernanda’s body had begun to twitch where it was lying face-down upon the tile. “Shadow,” Maria said, as she looked to her oldest friend and confidant. “Treatment for a terminal case of oculurubrus?”

“ .. sever the vertebrae at the cervical nerves, between C2 and C3,” came the response, as precise as ever. She looked at Maria in an unspoken question. At her nod, Shadow pulled the scalpel from Colonel Souza and gave Doctor Fernanda the same mercy.

“Good girl,” Maria said hoarsely, accepting the Guarani’s hand to help herself up. The lights above flickered on and the gunfire outside had begun to intensify. Maria began to limp down the hallway, and her Shadow took her place under an arm, supporting her weight. “You are such a wonderful girl. Such a bright girl,” Maria said as they made their way to her office and she eased herself down into a worn and beaten chair. “I have only one more thing to teach you.”

Shadow watched, big brown eyes unblinking.

“Do you know what a promise is?” Maria said, smiling as she blinked away tears. Her daughter shook her head. “It’s very important. It is when you say you will do something, and -no matter what happens- you do it. Do you understand?”

She nodded hesitantly.

“Good. Such a bright girl.” Maria sniffled and rubbed at her nose. “If we don’t get all of the Red Eyes to come here, to look at us, all of those people escaping to the docks will die. I cannot let that happen. That is my promise to myself. They need my help, and I will help them.” Maria took Shadow’s hand in her own, bringing it to her lips. “I need you to promise me .. that you will hide from the Red Eyes. That they will not see you and you will not come out -no matter what- until they are gone. I need you to promise me that you will live. Can you do that for me, Shadow?”

“Shadow means a thing that follows .. or that is not seen .. or that .. is left behind.” She looked at her mentor for the last time. “My name is Kaari'n̥ai.”

Maria half-laughed, half-sobbed as the girl pulled away from her, to stand in the doorway looking smaller and more vulnerable than ever. “It is very nice to meet you, Kaari'n̥ai.”

“I will remember you,” she whispered in return. And then she was gone, and Maria was alone.

She wiped tears from her face and reached for the microphone. At the flick of a switch, there was a reverberating noise from the speakers across the compound. Doctor Maria Santos, Head Surgeon of Porto Alegre’s Hospital of Divine Providence, took a long and trembling breath .. and began to sing. She sang as the hordes descended upon the hospital, as they overwhelmed the last few defenders and battered down the doors shrieking with mindless hunger. She sang as they pushed into the hallways in a flood of flesh so thick that they scrambled overtop of each other like snakes. She sang as they reached for her, for that meant they were here and not hounding the helpless refugees and injured people escaping from the docks.

She sang as they took her. For living was no longer her problem anymore.




"So close your eyes
For that's a lovely way to be
Aware of things your heart alone was meant to see
The fundamental loneliness goes
Whenever two can dream a dream together

You can't deny
Don't try to fight the rising sea
Don't fight the moon the stars above and don't fight me
The fundamental loneliness goes
Whenever two can dream a dream together

When I saw you first the time was half past three
When your eyes met mine it was eternity

By now we know
The wave is on it's way to be
Just catch the wave don't be afraid of loving me
The fundamental loneliness goes
Whenever two can dream a dream together

Together, together
So close your eyes"
 
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