“She liked playing in the snow. Then the smoke got to her.” The man standing over the empty cot intoned each syllable with a thick voice. His mustache drooped. “Darla was a precious child, even when she started coughing.” He struggled to keep his emotions in check. “And then we brought her here.”
Everyone else in the room gave the visitor the space he needed. Aaron decided not to. “So, you loved her then?”
The man opened his mouth in shock at the frail boy in the neighboring cot who dared interrupt his soliloquy. “Of course!”
“So why’d she have to die alone?” Aaron refused to turn away from the man.
He stuttered. He closed his mouth. He answered, “I had to work.”
“Your work more important than the girl?”
“Her name was Darla,” the man insisted.
“Of course it was. I’ve been here about a month now. The girl was here longer.” Aaron coughed. Usually his lungs were better in the mornings. “I’ve never seen you here. My sister visits every day.”
“She must be a good worker,” the man responded dryly.
“She works every day. She visits me after her shift. She stinks of sweat and dust, but she visits.” Aaron coughed again.
“I don’t have time for this.”
“You have time to fake sympathy.”
The man clamped his mouth shut. His lips quivered.
Aaron rolled over. “I’m going to die soon. I don’t have time for fakes. None of us do. Stop wasting our air.”
He sound of the man’s boots scuffing the stone floor receded as he left.
Aaron rolled back. He looked at that empty cot.
He refused to cry.
Read more of the world of Snow and Smoke here.
Read the previous story, Separation, here.
Read the next story, Societies Meet, here.