Pandemic

Sep. 10th, 2012 01:54 pm
n3m3sis43: ((FMAB) Huuuughes and Winryyyy)
December 8, 1918


Where the hell is that damned doctor?

I look out the parlor window for the hundredth time, pushing back the heavy green drapes. Rachel spent so many evenings stitching away at those curtains, pretending to scold when I made her laugh so hard her needle slipped. She glowed with pride the night I hung them up.

Outside, it's growing dark, and there's still no sign of old Doc Weems. He should have been here an hour ago. With so many ill, though, perhaps the delay is to be expected.

Back in the bedroom, Rachel's still asleep. The room is getting dim, so I turn on the reading lamp. Its stained glass shade is still chipped from the time she knocked it over. Rachel's always been a little bit clumsy.

Only this morning, her cheeks were rosy with health. Now they are pale and waxen, and her lips have a blue tinge I don't like. Huddled under a pile of blankets, she shivers and murmurs incoherently. I lay a cool cloth over her forehead and sink into the leather chair at her bedside. Pulling out the folded newspaper I've tucked beneath my seat, I read the same headlines over and over.

I hear the sound of the bedclothes shifting and look up. Rachel is sitting up, dark curls rumpled and brown eyes too bright.

"Abel?" Her voice is barely a whisper.

"I'm here, darling," I say, taking her hand.

"I'm so cold," she says, her voice faint.

"I know, Gracie." The old endearment feels awkward now. Everything does.

Rachel opens her mouth to speak again, but a fit of coughing overtakes her. It seems to go on forever; I can do nothing but watch as she struggles for breath. When the paroxysm finally subsides, she's even more ashen than before. Against the deep burgundy of her housecoat, her skin looks almost bloodless.

"It's... it's bad, isn't it?" Her words come in gasps; I watch in horror as she wipes blood from her lips.

"Don't talk," I say, "Rest."

Her eyes are already closed again when I hear the knock. I leap up and run for door. Throwing it open, I usher the doctor inside. Flakes of snow cling to the shoulders of his wool overcoat and his hair is windswept. There are bruised-looking hollows beneath his eyes. It's after seven at night and he's probably been seeing patients non-stop since dawn.

"Good to see you, Abel," he rasps. "Wish it could be under better circumstances."

"Do you want some tea?" I ask, taking his coat. He nods, and I go into the kitchen to make it as he opens his black bag.

I have to search for the aluminum kettle. Rachel's mother bought it for us as a housewarming gift, and that's the last time I remember seeing it. Under normal circumstances, the kitchen is Rachel's domain. By the time I return with the doctor's tea, he's finishing his examination. I hand him the steaming cup and he sips from it with a grateful sigh.

"Can you help her, Doc?" I ask.

The doctor looks away, his shadowed eyes sad. It's all the answer I need.

* * * * *

August 27, 1911


Sighing, I attach the handmade placard to the front of the table. I step back and admire my handiwork. TIMEPIECE REPAIR - BEST PRICES, SATISFACTION GUARANTEED. It's not the most clever slogan, but it will do. Sitting down in the chair behind the table, I take a deep breath, only to gag as the stench of manure fills my nostrils.

Just my luck, getting a table next to the livestock.

Annoyed, I scribble a note - "Back in 1 hour" - and attach it to the sign. There won't be many customers until after the horse races anyway. I set off across the grounds to see the sights.

The stroll does me a world of good. A nice breeze is blowing, and the air is fresh. By the time I reach the front of the park, my mood is much improved. I pause for a moment, enjoying the happy buzz of the people around me and the scent of fried dough.

All of a sudden, something smashes into me from behind. I stumble and pitch forward, eyeglasses falling to the ground. Blind as a bat without my spectacles, I fumble for them in the dirt. As I find them and shove them back onto my nose, I hear a feminine voice from above me. Peering through my now-dusty lenses, I see a young woman's anxious face staring into mine.

"I'm so sorry! I've never been the height of grace, but - " A blush spreads across her cheeks.

"Exactly how tall is Grace?" I ask, dusting myself off and getting to my feet.

She laughs. "Well, I guess about my height..."

"I suppose I'll have to call you Gracie, then." I offer my hand. "Abel Simmons."

"Actually, my name's Rachel Malden." Her hand is tiny but her grip is firm.

"If it's all the same to you, I'll just call you Gracie." Her face turns an even deeper shade of red, but she keeps trying to make conversation.

"Exciting, isn't it?" she asks, eyes shining with enthusiasm. "The first county fair in over a decade!"

"I'm here for business, not pleasure," I tell her. "I'm an inventor, but it doesn't always pay the bills. I've got to take extra work when I can get it." As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I regret them. I've had this conversation countless times, and it never ends well.

"An inventor?" Her eyes light up. "Like Thomas Edison?"

Oh boy, here we go again.

"Well, not exactly like Edison."

"What sorts of things do you invent, then?" she asks. This is where things always start to go awry.

"Well," I hedge, shuffling my foot in the dust. "I'm sort of working on... a time machine." I wait for it. At best, there will be confusion - at worst, laughter and ridicule.

One of these days I'll learn to make up a convincing lie.

"A time machine?" she shrieks.

Here it comes.

"How wonderful!" She claps her hands in childlike excitement. "Can you really do it?"

Well, this has never happened before.

"I'm still in the planning phases," I tell her, "but I believe it can be done."

A voice crackles over the loudspeaker. "ALL PIE CONTEST PARTICIPANTS, PLEASE REPORT FOR JUDGING."

"Oh, I've got to go," Rachel's face falls, but brightens again a moment later. "Say, do you like apple pie?"

"I've been known to eat a slice or two." To tell the truth, I'm not a fan of sweets at all. I'm also not opposed to seeing more of this woman. She may be lacking in the coordination department, but she's not bad-looking. Besides, she actually seems interested in my time machine.

"Splendid! The pie contest is being judged in an hour. Will you still be here?" When she smiles, I revise my opinion of her looks from "not bad" to "beautiful".

"I'm here all day, Gracie," I say. All of a sudden, the thought no longer fills me with dread.

* * * * *

Winter, 2057


The wind whistles as I step out into the street. It must be cold here - the people rushing past me on all sides are dressed in layers of puffy clothing. Though I'm clothed in only a lightweight shirt, I'm drenched in sweat. My head is spinning and I should be in bed, but I can't turn back now.

I won't let this damnable ailment claim me, too - not when I'm so close to finding the cure.

I'm surrounded by enormous structures of glass and steel. Most of them are adorned with enormous flat panels, like the projection screens in the cinema but in living, breathing color. Brilliant patterns caper across them, constantly shifting. The streets, wet with rain, are bathed in the shining hues of the screens.

I'm delirious. This can't be real.

Gritting my teeth against waves of dizziness, I push my invention into a darkened alley nearby. The simple act of moving the time machine saps what little strength I have left, and I have to sit down to catch my breath. Spots dance before my eyes and everything blurs together.

Not now. Not when I'm so close to getting her back.

I bite my tongue hard. The taste of blood fills my mouth and I snap back to reality. After a few moments, I'm able to get to my feet. Stepping out of the alley, I breathe in the cold night air. My head pounds as I contemplate my next move.

"Please make a selection," a metallic voice intones behind me. I jump. Looking over my shoulder, I see a small screen on the side of the nearest building. On its white background is a red cross, along with the words CLINIC MACHINE.

"Well, that's an unbelievable stroke of luck," I mutter to myself.

"Whaddaya mean, compadre?" The gruff voice comes from behind me, and I let out a yelp of surprise. I turn to face a short and scabrous man. Raising his right hand, he spreads his fingers in a strange salute. Though I do my best to mimic his hand gesture, my fingers will not cooperate.

"I'm looking for medication, and lo and behold - a Clinic Machine."

"One on every corner, man. Hardly a miracle." The little man grins, baring long yellow teeth.

Shuddering, I tip him a curt nod and turn back to the machine. The screen now shows a moving illustration of a finger touching a small square. Below that are several options. With a trembling finger, I touch the one for INFLUENZA NANITES.

"Scanning... please stand by," the artificial voice replies. A moment later, I flinch as a loud buzz issues from the Clinic Machine and it speaks in a tone that sounds almost angry. "Error! Credit implant not found!"

Stinging tears of frustration fill my eyes. I beat my fists against the metal surface of the building and howl with rage.

"You're not lookin' so hot, compadre. Why don'cha let ol' Chester help ya out?"

"Can you tell me where to find a credit implant? I'm very ill, and my wife..." The words catch in my swollen throat.

"Tricky, those," Chester says, forehead creasing. "Gotta get the holo-imaging right and all. For that, ya wanna see Big Davey."

He pulls a billfold from his pocket and opens it up. With a small whoosh, it expands into a case the size of a picnic basket. After rummaging inside it for a moment, he holds up a cord with a single metal prong protruding from one end.

"Plug in," he says, "and I'll upload the map for ya."

"Plug what in?"

Chester looks at me as though I've just sprouted horns and a tail. "Y'know what? Never mind," he says. Stepping up to the Clinic Machine himself, he asks, "Whaddaya want?"

"The influenza cure - one for me, and one for Rachel."

"Ya know how to work these?" he asks a moment later, holding out two shiny metal syringes. I shake my head.

"Lemme do it for ya, then. Won't hurt a bit!" A searing pain spreads through my arm. My knees go weak and I clutch at the metal wall for support. By the time I've recovered, he's holding the remaining syringe out to me.

"How can I repay you?" I ask, pocketing it.

"Don't worry about it - we're buds now," Chester cackles, then dissolves into a fit of hacking. "Wacky Weed," he gasps, "Stuff'll kill ya. Want a pinch for the road?"

I shake my head.

"Seeing Potion, then? Visions that can't be beat!"

"No, thank you! I've got to get home to my wife." I'm already backing away toward the alley. In the distance, a klaxon begins to wail.

"Ya better get outta here, compadre," Chester calls after me. "Sounds like the popies're onto ya. Those Clinic Machines, they got silent alarms and all."

* * * * *

December 8, 1918


Restored to health, I step out of the time machine into my own backyard. It's a quiet night, and I hear nothing but the crickets and the crunch of my shoes over the light dusting of snow. Reaching my back door, I slowly turn the knob.

Locked. We never lock the back door.

I fumble in my pocket and pull out my house key. Shivering in only my shirtsleeves, I slide it into the lock. It doesn't turn.

What in the blue blazes?

At last, I climb in through a window - at least that isn't locked. I make my way to the bedroom, heart hammering in my throat. The room is dark and there's a sick smell in the air. I hear the sound of labored breathing.

"Rachel?" She moans but doesn't respond.

But she's alive, and soon I'll have her back for good.

I turn on the yellow-fringed reading lamp. Grateful to see her alive once more, I take in every detail. Her dark curls spread over the pillow and her skin is pale as milk against her dark green nightgown. The only color in her face is the blue cast to her lips.

Tears fill my eyes and my throat closes up. Even near death, she is beautiful.

Fishing the syringe from my pocket, I administer the injection. Rachel stirs for a moment, but her eyes remain closed. If my own experience is any indication, the nanites should begin to take effect in less than half an hour. Somehow, that still feels like an eternity.

I can't just sit here waiting. Looking for a way to pass the time, I go out to the hall. As I consider making a pot of tea, I hear a scratching at the front door. Crossing to the parlor window, I part the gauzy blue curtains and look out.

No sign of a carriage. There's no one out there.

When the scratching continues, I fling open the front door. Crouched before me on the stoop is a large orange cat. With an indignant meow, it brushes past me and disappears into the back of the house.

Ridiculous creature, acting as if it owns the place.

I snort in annoyance, but decide not to chase after the animal. Instead, I go to the kitchen to brew a pot of tea. This time, I remember exactly where the kettle is. Reaching into the cabinet, I pull it out - only to nearly drop it in surprise. Staring at its shiny copper surface, I try to make sense of what I'm seeing.

The tea pot I used on the night Rachel died - it was aluminum, not copper.

My stomach drops into my shoes as the realization hits me. The lamp, the curtains, even Rachel's nightclothes - none of those are right, either. But what does it mean? Did I do something wrong?

It's too late to turn back now. Tea forgotten, I return to the bedroom. My chair no longer sits at Rachel's bedside. Feeling as though my legs might give out at any moment, I sink to the floor. Minutes stretch unbearably as I sit cross-legged, waiting for her to come around.

After what seems like hours, I hear the sighing sound of movement against the sheets. Looking up, I see that Rachel is awake. The orange cat is beside her, and she's stroking its fur. Her eyes meet mine - lucid, but they show no recognition. Confusion and then alarm flit across her features. She gathers her breath as if to scream.

"Gracie, it's all right. It's me, Abel."

"My name is Rachel. Rachel Malden," she says, the fear still in her dark eyes. "Who are you?"

Pandemic

Sep. 10th, 2012 01:54 pm
n3m3sis43: (Default)
December 8, 1918


Where the hell is that damned doctor?

I look out the parlor window for the hundredth time, pushing back the heavy green drapes. Rachel spent so many evenings stitching away at those curtains, pretending to scold when I made her laugh so hard her needle slipped. She glowed with pride the night I hung them up.

Outside, it's growing dark, and there's still no sign of old Doc Weems. He should have been here an hour ago. With so many ill, though, perhaps the delay is to be expected.

Back in the bedroom, Rachel's still asleep. The room is getting dim, so I turn on the reading lamp. Its stained glass shade is still chipped from the time she knocked it over. Rachel's always been a little bit clumsy.

Only this morning, her cheeks were rosy with health. Now they are pale and waxen, and her lips have a blue tinge I don't like. Huddled under a pile of blankets, she shivers and murmurs incoherently. I lay a cool cloth over her forehead and sink into the leather chair at her bedside. Pulling out the folded newspaper I've tucked beneath my seat, I read the same headlines over and over.

I hear the sound of the bedclothes shifting and look up. Rachel is sitting up, dark curls rumpled and brown eyes too bright.

"Abel?" Her voice is barely a whisper.

"I'm here, darling," I say, taking her hand.

"I'm so cold," she says, her voice faint.

"I know, Gracie." The old endearment feels awkward now. Everything does.

Rachel opens her mouth to speak again, but a fit of coughing overtakes her. It seems to go on forever; I can do nothing but watch as she struggles for breath. When the paroxysm finally subsides, she's even more ashen than before. Against the deep burgundy of her housecoat, her skin looks almost bloodless.

"It's... it's bad, isn't it?" Her words come in gasps; I watch in horror as she wipes blood from her lips.

"Don't talk," I say, "Rest."

Her eyes are already closed again when I hear the knock. I leap up and run for door. Throwing it open, I usher the doctor inside. Flakes of snow cling to the shoulders of his wool overcoat and his hair is windswept. There are bruised-looking hollows beneath his eyes. It's after seven at night and he's probably been seeing patients non-stop since dawn.

"Good to see you, Abel," he rasps. "Wish it could be under better circumstances."

"Do you want some tea?" I ask, taking his coat. He nods, and I go into the kitchen to make it as he opens his black bag.

I have to search for the aluminum kettle. Rachel's mother bought it for us as a housewarming gift, and that's the last time I remember seeing it. Under normal circumstances, the kitchen is Rachel's domain. By the time I return with the doctor's tea, he's finishing his examination. I hand him the steaming cup and he sips from it with a grateful sigh.

"Can you help her, Doc?" I ask.

The doctor looks away, his shadowed eyes sad. It's all the answer I need.

* * * * *

August 27, 1911


Sighing, I attach the handmade placard to the front of the table. I step back and admire my handiwork. TIMEPIECE REPAIR - BEST PRICES, SATISFACTION GUARANTEED. It's not the most clever slogan, but it will do. Sitting down in the chair behind the table, I take a deep breath, only to gag as the stench of manure fills my nostrils.

Just my luck, getting a table next to the livestock.

Annoyed, I scribble a note - "Back in 1 hour" - and attach it to the sign. There won't be many customers until after the horse races anyway. I set off across the grounds to see the sights.

The stroll does me a world of good. A nice breeze is blowing, and the air is fresh. By the time I reach the front of the park, my mood is much improved. I pause for a moment, enjoying the happy buzz of the people around me and the scent of fried dough.

All of a sudden, something smashes into me from behind. I stumble and pitch forward, eyeglasses falling to the ground. Blind as a bat without my spectacles, I fumble for them in the dirt. As I find them and shove them back onto my nose, I hear a feminine voice from above me. Peering through my now-dusty lenses, I see a young woman's anxious face staring into mine.

"I'm so sorry! I've never been the height of grace, but - " A blush spreads across her cheeks.

"Exactly how tall is Grace?" I ask, dusting myself off and getting to my feet.

She laughs. "Well, I guess about my height..."

"I suppose I'll have to call you Gracie, then." I offer my hand. "Abel Simmons."

"Actually, my name's Rachel Malden." Her hand is tiny but her grip is firm.

"If it's all the same to you, I'll just call you Gracie." Her face turns an even deeper shade of red, but she keeps trying to make conversation.

"Exciting, isn't it?" she asks, eyes shining with enthusiasm. "The first county fair in over a decade!"

"I'm here for business, not pleasure," I tell her. "I'm an inventor, but it doesn't always pay the bills. I've got to take extra work when I can get it." As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I regret them. I've had this conversation countless times, and it never ends well.

"An inventor?" Her eyes light up. "Like Thomas Edison?"

Oh boy, here we go again.

"Well, not exactly like Edison."

"What sorts of things do you invent, then?" she asks. This is where things always start to go awry.

"Well," I hedge, shuffling my foot in the dust. "I'm sort of working on... a time machine." I wait for it. At best, there will be confusion - at worst, laughter and ridicule.

One of these days I'll learn to make up a convincing lie.

"A time machine?" she shrieks.

Here it comes.

"How wonderful!" She claps her hands in childlike excitement. "Can you really do it?"

Well, this has never happened before.

"I'm still in the planning phases," I tell her, "but I believe it can be done."

A voice crackles over the loudspeaker. "ALL PIE CONTEST PARTICIPANTS, PLEASE REPORT FOR JUDGING."

"Oh, I've got to go," Rachel's face falls, but brightens again a moment later. "Say, do you like apple pie?"

"I've been known to eat a slice or two." To tell the truth, I'm not a fan of sweets at all. I'm also not opposed to seeing more of this woman. She may be lacking in the coordination department, but she's not bad-looking. Besides, she actually seems interested in my time machine.

"Splendid! The pie contest is being judged in an hour. Will you still be here?" When she smiles, I revise my opinion of her looks from "not bad" to "beautiful".

"I'm here all day, Gracie," I say. All of a sudden, the thought no longer fills me with dread.

* * * * *

Winter, 2057


The wind whistles as I step out into the street. It must be cold here - the people rushing past me on all sides are dressed in layers of puffy clothing. Though I'm clothed in only a lightweight shirt, I'm drenched in sweat. My head is spinning and I should be in bed, but I can't turn back now.

I won't let this damnable ailment claim me, too - not when I'm so close to finding the cure.

I'm surrounded by enormous structures of glass and steel. Most of them are adorned with enormous flat panels, like the projection screens in the cinema but in living, breathing color. Brilliant patterns caper across them, constantly shifting. The streets, wet with rain, are bathed in the shining hues of the screens.

I'm delirious. This can't be real.

Gritting my teeth against waves of dizziness, I push my invention into a darkened alley nearby. The simple act of moving the time machine saps what little strength I have left, and I have to sit down to catch my breath. Spots dance before my eyes and everything blurs together.

Not now. Not when I'm so close to getting her back.

I bite my tongue hard. The taste of blood fills my mouth and I snap back to reality. After a few moments, I'm able to get to my feet. Stepping out of the alley, I breathe in the cold night air. My head pounds as I contemplate my next move.

"Please make a selection," a metallic voice intones behind me. I jump. Looking over my shoulder, I see a small screen on the side of the nearest building. On its white background is a red cross, along with the words CLINIC MACHINE.

"Well, that's an unbelievable stroke of luck," I mutter to myself.

"Whaddaya mean, compadre?" The gruff voice comes from behind me, and I let out a yelp of surprise. I turn to face a short and scabrous man. Raising his right hand, he spreads his fingers in a strange salute. Though I do my best to mimic his hand gesture, my fingers will not cooperate.

"I'm looking for medication, and lo and behold - a Clinic Machine."

"One on every corner, man. Hardly a miracle." The little man grins, baring long yellow teeth.

Shuddering, I tip him a curt nod and turn back to the machine. The screen now shows a moving illustration of a finger touching a small square. Below that are several options. With a trembling finger, I touch the one for INFLUENZA NANITES.

"Scanning... please stand by," the artificial voice replies. A moment later, I flinch as a loud buzz issues from the Clinic Machine and it speaks in a tone that sounds almost angry. "Error! Credit implant not found!"

Stinging tears of frustration fill my eyes. I beat my fists against the metal surface of the building and howl with rage.

"You're not lookin' so hot, compadre. Why don'cha let ol' Chester help ya out?"

"Can you tell me where to find a credit implant? I'm very ill, and my wife..." The words catch in my swollen throat.

"Tricky, those," Chester says, forehead creasing. "Gotta get the holo-imaging right and all. For that, ya wanna see Big Davey."

He pulls a billfold from his pocket and opens it up. With a small whoosh, it expands into a case the size of a picnic basket. After rummaging inside it for a moment, he holds up a cord with a single metal prong protruding from one end.

"Plug in," he says, "and I'll upload the map for ya."

"Plug what in?"

Chester looks at me as though I've just sprouted horns and a tail. "Y'know what? Never mind," he says. Stepping up to the Clinic Machine himself, he asks, "Whaddaya want?"

"The influenza cure - one for me, and one for Rachel."

"Ya know how to work these?" he asks a moment later, holding out two shiny metal syringes. I shake my head.

"Lemme do it for ya, then. Won't hurt a bit!" A searing pain spreads through my arm. My knees go weak and I clutch at the metal wall for support. By the time I've recovered, he's holding the remaining syringe out to me.

"How can I repay you?" I ask, pocketing it.

"Don't worry about it - we're buds now," Chester cackles, then dissolves into a fit of hacking. "Wacky Weed," he gasps, "Stuff'll kill ya. Want a pinch for the road?"

I shake my head.

"Seeing Potion, then? Visions that can't be beat!"

"No, thank you! I've got to get home to my wife." I'm already backing away toward the alley. In the distance, a klaxon begins to wail.

"Ya better get outta here, compadre," Chester calls after me. "Sounds like the popies're onto ya. Those Clinic Machines, they got silent alarms and all."

* * * * *

December 8, 1918


Restored to health, I step out of the time machine into my own backyard. It's a quiet night, and I hear nothing but the crickets and the crunch of my shoes over the light dusting of snow. Reaching my back door, I slowly turn the knob.

Locked. We never lock the back door.

I fumble in my pocket and pull out my house key. Shivering in only my shirtsleeves, I slide it into the lock. It doesn't turn.

What in the blue blazes?

At last, I climb in through a window - at least that isn't locked. I make my way to the bedroom, heart hammering in my throat. The room is dark and there's a sick smell in the air. I hear the sound of labored breathing.

"Rachel?" She moans but doesn't respond.

But she's alive, and soon I'll have her back for good.

I turn on the yellow-fringed reading lamp. Grateful to see her alive once more, I take in every detail. Her dark curls spread over the pillow and her skin is pale as milk against her dark green nightgown. The only color in her face is the blue cast to her lips.

Tears fill my eyes and my throat closes up. Even near death, she is beautiful.

Fishing the syringe from my pocket, I administer the injection. Rachel stirs for a moment, but her eyes remain closed. If my own experience is any indication, the nanites should begin to take effect in less than half an hour. Somehow, that still feels like an eternity.

I can't just sit here waiting. Looking for a way to pass the time, I go out to the hall. As I consider making a pot of tea, I hear a scratching at the front door. Crossing to the parlor window, I part the gauzy blue curtains and look out.

No sign of a carriage. There's no one out there.

When the scratching continues, I fling open the front door. Crouched before me on the stoop is a large orange cat. With an indignant meow, it brushes past me and disappears into the back of the house.

Ridiculous creature, acting as if it owns the place.

I snort in annoyance, but decide not to chase after the animal. Instead, I go to the kitchen to brew a pot of tea. This time, I remember exactly where the kettle is. Reaching into the cabinet, I pull it out - only to nearly drop it in surprise. Staring at its shiny copper surface, I try to make sense of what I'm seeing.

The tea pot I used on the night Rachel died - it was aluminum, not copper.

My stomach drops into my shoes as the realization hits me. The lamp, the curtains, even Rachel's nightclothes - none of those are right, either. But what does it mean? Did I do something wrong?

It's too late to turn back now. Tea forgotten, I return to the bedroom. My chair no longer sits at Rachel's bedside. Feeling as though my legs might give out at any moment, I sink to the floor. Minutes stretch unbearably as I sit cross-legged, waiting for her to come around.

After what seems like hours, I hear the sighing sound of movement against the sheets. Looking up, I see that Rachel is awake. The orange cat is beside her, and she's stroking its fur. Her eyes meet mine - lucid, but they show no recognition. Confusion and then alarm flit across her features. She gathers her breath as if to scream.

"Gracie, it's all right. It's me, Abel."

"My name is Rachel. Rachel Malden," she says, the fear still in her dark eyes. "Who are you?"

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