NO ACCIDENT I
A fat drop of poison hung suspended over the last glass of water in the world. It took forever to fall, but fall it did, rippling jewel-green death into the liquid below. When the water stilled, it looked untouched. Clear and sweet and cold. The girl who had watched its descent stepped deeper into the endless room, her throat aching with thirst. Just a little sip. Just one little sip and she’d never be thirsty again. Both her hands ringed around the icy glass and she opened her eyes to the real world. The dream rolled off her, leaving a bitter taste on her tongue. Her throat still ached for water, an ache that told her the truth:
She was alive, and living things had no luxury of sitting still.
The moonbeams filtering through the window curtains illuminated the dim, vast space around her. Had she really woken, or was this still a dream? She squinted into the distance where shadows deepened and pooled as they always did in the corners of things. Corners meant walls. This wasn’t the endless room of her dream. It was somewhere else, somewhere real. But it was no place that she knew. And more than just her throat ached. Her back, her chest, her stomach, all of her felt bruised and battered.
God, what had happened to her, and where was she?
No answer for the first question came to her, but the second might if she tried to find it. Another look at the giant room and she saw the things that she had missed before. A white screen to the left of her bed and the bottom of it, presumably for privacy. Whitewashed stone walls that rose to a ceiling that seemed as far away as clouds. White marble floors that glinted with the moon’s light. White pillars that stretched up, up, up from that marble like ancient trees bleached by centuries of daylight. Row after row of beds, all of them done up in neat white linens, with neat white bars at the top and bottom of every single one of them. The beds that she could actually see looked empty. She stayed still and listened. No sounds of breathing or the moaning of dream-filled sleep. The swell of silence sang in her ears. She inhaled deeply. There, that scent. Astringent and sharp and too clean, the smell of a hospital or a doctor’s office. But where were all the doctors, the nurses, the patients? How could she be the only person in an entire ward of what seemed to be a very large hospital?
Something was wrong here, deeply wrong, and she was caught in the middle of it. How she knew that she couldn’t say. The knowledge simply fell over her like a shadow that she couldn’t step out of.
Nothing good would happen if she stayed here. Nothing.
Her skin prickled at the truth of that. Panic twisted in her guts and punched the air from her lungs. Heartbeats flooded out the silence. No, nothing good would happen if she stayed. Something terrible had happened to her and she had been left in some strange place. Or perhaps that terrible thing had happened to her here. Either way, she needed to leave. She shifted up, sheets puddling at her waist and the air kissing coldly through her nightgown. Every part of her throbbed in one spot or another. It took a few painful breaths between her teeth before she forced herself up the rest of the way. Now her legs. She needed to get out of bed, needed to go.
She swept her right leg to the edge of the mattress, every muscle in it screaming a protest. Her left leg didn’t move as easily. She took hold of her thigh, ignored the thrumming pain when she pressed her fingers into her flesh through her nightgown, and forced her leg to move. A mistake. Pain roared from her hip to her toes. White stars sparked in her eyes. She cried out, unable to stop herself. This new, fierce, fiery pain outshone the other injuries like a sun swallowing the light of distant galaxies. She stayed locked in place by that overwhelming light until it faded to the edges of her vision. Her knee throbbed, a feeling that spread like ice over a pond through the rest of her leg.
One of her hands shot up from her thigh, reaching for her throat on reflex. Her fingers closed around something that hung on her chest. Whatever it was bit into her palm, a cold, hard thing with an odd shape. She lifted it out, feeling for the first time the chain that hung around her neck. At the end of that chain rested a cylindrical gold pendant inlaid with dark material that she somehow knew was onyx and jet, the jewels of mourning. Now her other hand rose to hold the pendant at its base. Her fingers moved on instinct, at the same time pressing and twisting the black cap at the top of the pendant. The cap came away easily.
Moonlight filled the little cylinder. She stared at it for what seemed ages, then shook out the contents onto her palm, a short, slender vial of silvery liquid that glowed so brightly she clapped her hands around in fear that someone might see. She looked from one end of the ward to the other before she dared peek through her fingers.
Her mouth welled with thirst at the sight of the liquid rolling against the glass. A ghostly taste rose on her tongue, one bittersweet and laced with mint. She uncorked the vial and smelled that very taste. A memory rushed into her
three drops of silver into her mouth filled her with beautiful heat
and she made her choice. She dipped one of her smallest fingers into the liquid, jolting at the unexpected warmth of it. The stuff tasted as expected, and it ran down into her like liquid sunlight. Her pain receded under its brilliance. Before she knew it, her fingers had taken up the cork again. She turned it around on her palm, and stopped when she saw what protruded from the underside of the cork, a tiny length of gold with a hollow at the end that would rest in the liquid when the vial was closed. She hadn’t noticed it in her hurry to open the thing.
Could it really help her, this odd medicine? The first taste had. A little more couldn’t hurt, and she knew the flavor of it. Had to have taken it before. She used the tiny dipper to place two more drops of silver on her tongue. Summer blossomed inside her, chasing away the cold of the ward and her pain and her fear. She could move now, she just knew it.
Too many seconds seemed to pass as she corked the vial and returned it to the pendant. She took several breaths before she grabbed her left leg again. This time there wasn’t the faintest flicker of pain. Her leg moved slowly, stiffly, but move it did. She pressed her feet to a floor so cold that it burned even through the protective blanket of the silvery medicine. Her aching arms pushed her to a stand. She almost smiled in triumph, until her legs buckled. The floor was as hard as it looked, sending shocks through her hands and knees. But she had caught herself from falling flat on her face, and that counted for something.
She bit back a frustrated sob. Her legs couldn’t take her weight, slight as it seemed to be. But if she couldn’t walk, she could still crawl. She slid along the floor like some huge, grotesque infant, her nightclothes trailing on the floor like a shroud. Her hands and wobbly knees soon numbed from the cold marble beneath her. She rounded the end of her bed and lifted her eyes to the ward, searching for a possible exit. Where could it be? Her gaze caught on a large, dark rectangle cut into the long wall opposite the windows behind her, the long wall that she had been facing when she had awoken. Leaving her bed had allowed her to see the rectangle on the other side of the screen.
Doors, those had to be doors. She aimed her body towards them and set off.
Her breath labored as she did the same. Hair hung in her face and clung to her neck; the heavy fringe across her forehead grew hot and damp with perspiration that quickly chilled in the cold air. She counted the rows of beds as she passed through them. The first one against the wall with the doors, the second where she had been, a third one beyond that, then a fourth … Four rows of beds that reached far into the dark ahead of her just like they reached behind her. An expanse as immense as it was empty, and no sign that anyone else had ever been here except for her. That could very well be the truth — it wasn’t as if she remembered other people. But maybe that was better than having company. Awful things could lurk in the dark. Or the day.
A shiver knifed through her, drawing her flesh up with it. She went as fast as she could go. Her right hand slapped a little too loudly against the floor. The smack of it echoing through the ward like a pistol shot. She paused, holding her breath as she listened, tensing at what might come out of the shadows to investigate the new noises in its territory.
Only the sound of her heartbeat flooded her ears. She moved on. Ten more beds until she reached the doors. Nine, eight, seven, the doors clearer now. Six, five, four, her muscles straining even through the effects of the silver medicine. Three, two, one, thank God, they really were doors, huge doors with one half-circle window over each. The glass was stained in places with the images of stars, backlit by distant light outside the ward. She blinked at the unexpected fancifulness in an otherwise stark space, then kept going until she reached her destination.
Warm air hushed through the gap under the doors. Not much warmer than that in the ward, but warm enough to make her frozen fingers tingle with sudden life. She slid one of her hands up the nearest door, then the other. Her body straightened as slowly as an old, rusty hinge as she rose on her knees. She clutched the heavy handle, shuddering at the frigid metal. It creaked a little thanks to her efforts, but nothing more. She grabbed it with her other hand, and then allowed herself a trembling rest against the doors.
The small break proved a mistake. Fatigue crashed down over her, the weight of it crushing her momentum. She yanked feebly on the handle anyway. It had to turn, that was what handles did, they turned and they opened and they let people out, they let them escape.
This one didn’t. She dropped her head, sick with frustration, and didn’t hold back the sob that came to her now.
Light. She blinked rapidly, unable to believe what she saw. Light was leaking under the doors, buttery and warm. Someone was coming. Footsteps raced towards the ward. Her heart slammed against her chest as she stared in stark horror at the growing light. She couldn’t stop staring, she would stare until she was caught, stare until she was dead.
She let go of the handle like it was a live coal. Her legs screamed as she pivoted around on her knees. The bed, she’d have to hide under the nearest bed and not make a sound. She scrambled for it as quickly as she could manage without making noise, without giving herself away, but it wasn’t fast enough. One of the door handles creaked behind her. She stilled, waiting for the door to fall open and the light to reveal all. Waiting for whoever would be standing in that light. She craned her neck until she could just see the doors from the corner of an eye. A sickly-sweet scent rolled through the gap, making her stomach flip with nausea. She knew that smell, somehow.
The handle turned down a quarter of the way to the floor. It flexed back up. Up, down, up, down, up down. The door was locked. It bounced back into its original position, as if the person on the other side had suddenly let go of it. The light wavered, then died. The footsteps scampered away.
As soon as things quieted again, she slipped under the bed. She passed through to the other side and didn’t stop until she got under its neighbor. It wouldn’t hide her from anyone determined to find her, but she could wait here until she was sure that person wouldn’t come back. Then she could look for another exit or something that would unlock those doors.
The gap at the bottom remained dark after a few breaths. She slowly made her way back in that direction, sliding from her hiding place into the open spot between both beds. She sat on the floor, back against the bed whose safety she’d just left, and breathed. It was easier to catch her breath here. Being beneath a bed felt like being buried in a grave. She tilted her head into the mattress, letting it cradle her weary neck.
Light again. This time it glowed not just through the gap, but in the windows above it. Closer and closer, bright and brighter, faster and faster. The footsteps had returned, too. Louder, quicker. She dropped to her stomach, with a grunt of pain as the air whooshed out of her lungs. There was no time to crawl. She rolled towards the bed by the door. The metal frame slammed her square in the spine and across half of her body. Her injuries woke with a renewed vengeance, one that the silvery medicine couldn’t contain. She bit the inside of her lip hard and tasted blood. But it was better than having rolled into the bed frame with her face. Breaking her nose would have made keeping quiet impossible.
The footsteps grew so loud that they overtook the sound of her own breathing. Then they stopped. Another sound came, one jangling and metallic. Keys, those sounded like keys. She plastered a hand over her mouth. The least sound couldn’t escape, not if she was to have a chance at … at something. What could she protect herself with if this person came for her? Just what? Her eyes flicked in the half-dark, searching for something. There, on the table between the beds, a lamp. Dark metal, bronze perhaps. That would be heavy enough to hurt anyone who wanted to hurt her.
Light poured in, a flood of gold that washed away the silver moonlight. The doors had opened. Steady footsteps followed.
Each slam of her heart seemed to give away her position. Her hand clamped down tighter over her mouth, until she felt her teeth through her lips. She still tasted copper on her tongue; she’d bitten herself too hard.
The footsteps headed in the direction of where she’d been sleeping, carrying the light with them. She shifted herself with painful slowness, moving a little faster as the steps grew quieter. Once on her stomach, she started wiggling under the bed. The light glittered in the distance like a village in the night.
Her reprieve didn’t last. The light swiveled suddenly, then started bobbing her way. A cry caught halfway in her throat before she stopped it. The light streaked towards her. She’d been heard. Terror lurched as her stomach did the same. Hide, hide, hide, she needed to hide. Nothing else mattered but hiding.
Footfalls clapped like the thunder of a nearing storm. She got under the bed just in time for her hunter — a man, with those shoes — to race past her hiding spot. Only her eyes moved, tracing his light even as it almost disappeared altogether. It drifted back her way after a moment, as if it were an ember caught on the wind. His footsteps were short and clipped. Agitated, perhaps, that he hadn’t found his quarry. She drew in a long breath through her nose just before he reached her, then held it.
Those black shoes went round the bed, towards the door, and disappeared from sight. The footsteps stopped. The angle of the light shifted, and there was the small rasp of metal on metal. He’d placed his lamp in a wall bracket, surely. (And that sound was another thing she inexplicably knew, familiarity in an unfamiliar world.) But why was he doing that?
Air burned in her lungs. She couldn’t hold her breath much longer. Leave, just leave, leave me and go away, whoever you are. She clamped her eyes shut. Go, damn you.
Her heart jumped into her throat and her eyes flew open. He was coming her way.
No, please, no. She wasn’t here, she wasn’t here, she just wasn’t.
A long silence. Then cloth rustled and leather creaked. The leather of his shoes. He’d moved close enough for her to hear such tiny noises. Her eyes widened so much that they felt as if they might roll straight out of her skull. But she couldn’t look. He’d hear her if she moved as much as a muscle.
The bed shuddered with sudden force. It lifted away from the floor in a single, violent jerk. An enormous crash sounded behind her. She twisted up, tried to get on legs that refused to carry her. Above her loomed a dark figure with a headful of fire and Hell raging behind its back. She gasped out a huge breath, then sucked another one in to scream. The shadow fell upon her before she ever made a sound.