The girl sat, as she always did, in her favourite chair by the window, her back straight and her hands folded in her lap, atop her hospital gown. The afternoon light, diffuse and wan, was a line of white gold that travelled across stray strands of her hair to grace her still features.
Abby Nkeng, the day nurse, greeted her, but the girl continued to stare straight ahead, her milky eyes fixed on a point beyond Abby, beyond the far wall that demarcated the confines of her small, quiet existence.
"Shall I brush your hair?" Abby asked, though a response wouldn’t come, and besides, she'd already begun doing it. The girl's hair was long and full, as devoid of colour as her eyes were empty of life. "I hear you're expecting a visitor today." The man’s real name was well above Abby's level of security clearance, but it was impossible not to recognize him from the television, though he looked much smaller in person, much older. Abby, who’d seen what was left of her family deported, was wise enough not to let on that she knew who he was.
She was good at playing the ignorant foreigner (she had been born and raised in Tower Hamlets) to the point where most believed she was as dull-witted as her sole remaining patient. Officially, the long-term care facility had closed two years ago; unofficially, the lone survivor of the chemical weapons attack that had killed the last democratically elected Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland marked out her remaining days in a small room on the top floor, her name and identity as vanished as her mind.
Abby knew some of the story. They called it the White Death, and normally, it was instantaneous and deadly. The photographs of the bleached corpses had never been seen outside of the Regime's inner circle, though she always pictured them as marble statues, like the girl, frozen in their seats. There had been one first, failed attack, the canister cracking prematurely and killing the terrorist who'd carried it, and one on the PM during a press conference. The girl, fifteen at the time, ought to have been at school, but her father had wanted her to stand in the background with several other teenagers to lend support to the government's newest educational initiative. The ones who died that day were luckier than she was.
The war that followed, with its dirty bombs and its savage reprisals, was no longer spoken about.
The visitor came once a week, when his schedule allowed, and he would take up the plastic chair in the corner and sit across from the girl, and talk to her. Abby would excuse herself, politely, avoiding the man’s gaze, and leave them alone. She didn’t know what the man talked about. She knew only that the girl wouldn’t answer, not this afternoon, and not ever; she was a corpse, kept clean and fed and bearing the markers of the living by the work of Abby’s hands. In the language of the current climate, she was a mental defective, condemned to a second, actual death.
For all that, she was terribly beautiful.
Abby felt a kinship with the girl. She, too, was a carefully guarded exception to the rule. The visitor felt that the girl responded well to her, and so there was a special chip on her identification that she was to ask the soldiers to scan if they stopped her. She had not been herded, like cattle, onto a boat along with the rest of her surviving family. Legally, she was a non-person, but what else but a non-person could serve a ghost?
Just before the visitor was due to arrive, the girl went into a convulsion, tumbling from her chair and jerking on the floor, her bloodless lips foaming. Abby turned her onto her side, and that was when the man stepped through the door.
The girl twisted, vomited, and it caught the tip of the visitor’s loafer.
This is it, Abby thought. This is how I die. He’d never witnessed one of her spells before; he would have her fired from her job, disappeared, crammed onto a leaky boat destined for some African shithole, thrown out the door of an aeroplane gliding above the Atlantic. This glimpse of the horror that lived within the girl’s ivory chrysalis would condemn her to irrelevancy. Abby was a secret keeper, and the secret was writhing on the ground, spluttering and pissing herself, all in front of the man who had singlehandedly ushered in a new era of stability and order, the most powerful man in the entire country.
She didn’t expect him to kneel beside the girl, remove a handkerchief from the pocket of his suit jacket, and clean the frothing corners of her mouth.
She didn’t expect, when he at last looked up at Abby, to see tears in his eyes.
“Will she live?”
Abby nodded, then sensing further explanation was needed, said, “She does this often. It’s…her condition. I’ll get her cleaned up.”
His suit must have cost a year of Abby’s salary, but he nevertheless kept his hand on the girl’s shoulder until her seizure had passed, and helped Abby get her back into the chair afterwards.
“You tell no one,” he said. “You tell fucking no one, do you understand?”
Abby raised a finger to her lips. It seemed she and the girl had both been spared. He wiped moisture from his cheek, and with it, any semblance of human emotion.
It was his cruelties that defined him, but his acts of mercy that would undo him every time.