I walk down the rain-soaked streets, taking to care to avoid the throngs of homeless people on either side. At least there are no cars to worry about- the limited supplies of gasoline, all the oil, goes to the armies now.

I trudge along, with no destination, with only some sort of innate, incomprehensible urge propelling me. It's not as if I have much else-we're a long way from the 'obesity epidemic' of a few years back, and my five- hundred-calorie-a-day diet doesn't give me enough energy for very much gratuitous movement.

Nonetheless, I feel like walking, and walk I will. Never mind from whence the urges come. I shove my white hands, with their peeling, decrepit skin, into the pockets of my tattered coat. As I pass corpses with too-familiar faces; lying by the roadside like the Somali famine victims of two decades ago, I'm reminded that I've got a while left. Before what? Death-but death is hardly acknowledged anymore-as anything less than an escape from the hell we've created.

Seven years of death. A millennium of peace. Who would not want to believe- and I cannot say I'm unbeliever. Yet, for all that I've endured, I cannot bring myself to commit. There are escapes-not from this world, but of it-minor consolations-poisons to counteract poisons. Not unlike Victorian medicine.

A nervous hand gropes its way into my coat pocket, withdrawing a shabby- looking paper package. Another comparison to khat-crazy Somalia-we haven't got money enough to buy, nor land to grow, anything resembling food, but there are drugs aplenty. The government gave up on trying to control the drugs some time back-they give them out now, if you can believe that. You-

You, my past self, the dreamer of dreams-the one dared think you'd overcome this hell-what, did you think your will was strong enough?

If it had been, you would held on him for your dear life-for your dear soul-

Both of them. You know what he meant to you-even and especially concerning Him. Out of the whole race you so scorned, he was only one who made you realize salvation's true desirability.

You loved them both-you could have spent eternity in their company.

What made you turn away?

The cigarette won't light properly. I throw it to the wayside in disgust. An eager hand grasps it immediately. The scraping sound of fingernails against the concrete makes me ill.

I walk on blindly in a vain effort to escape this place of horror.

Finally, here I am. The darkened streets feed into this-what remains of this once-great city's financial district. The bright lights disturb me. I'm used to the constant power outages of the residential areas.

There a few people out shopping. Shopping. Such a disgusting concept anymore. Everyone knows what it means-if you can actually buy and sell-

My forehead and hand remain unbranded-by either side.

The streets are still beautiful, somehow-the atmosphere is comparatively cheery enough to seem nearly festive. My idle mind wonders what I look like in the bright lights-even in my half-dead state, I still possess an unwieldy amount of female vanity.

I used to be quite pretty once. Not like an entertainer, not like a whore- but nice. Clean enough. A quiet sort of prettiness-gray, subtle, cold. Like the fog-or is it pollution?-that hovers mistily, just above the streetlamps.

There are couples milling about-yes, even now. Well, they did marry and were given in marriage the first time this happened-till the moment before the sky fell.

They also died. I wonder about these the most-was it better, to die an ordinary death then, or to go down in the apocalyptic catastrophe, unquestionably a sinner?

Should I just kill myself now?

The thought is tempting. Too tempting. I wander down the streets, considering this option. I pass a number of lighted windows of my way- though fluorescent bulbs give an impression of cold sterility, in this world, they almost seem warm.

One lit window catches my attention-I cannot initially understand why. It belongs to an older building-I remember, there was a coffee shop there once- long ago, when I was still young. There's a crowd of people in there now- lovely, clean people such as I have not seen in years -I cannot tell what they are doing from here, but one profile catches my eye, even among the rest. No.

No. He-he must be dead. He could not have survived in this world. Does he- He sees me.

It is improbable. I stand in the light, staring at the beauty of his face while mentally assessing my own ugliness. The Army jacket, the whore-length skirt, the cheap, garish makeup.

His face is also unmarked. As if it could ever be otherwise-

I lunge towards the door. He comes out, meeting me with an embrace. Eternity could not obscure our strange, nameless familiarity with each other.

At least, that's what I once believed.

He looks so beautiful-too clean, pure, for me touch. I shrink back to the shadows; the truth hitting me like a stone felling a heretic.

Did I expect otherwise? Did I ever once imagine him damned? I knew-

I try to speak, but only stammer. Giving up prematurely, I look into the building behind him. Strangely, it is now empty-and lit only with a few handmade candles.

He pulls me inside. His mouth forms a slight upward curve, yet his eyes are as dark as the world I come from. "I thought you dead."

"So did I-you, I mean."

"Are you-no, no."He smoothes my hair away from my pale brow, inspecting the tight-stretched skin carefully. He moves his hands down to my sleeves, which he promptly rolls up, exposing my colorless, emaciated arms. They are turned about with an expert gentleness. His eyes flick away momentarily, when I see them again they are glimmering strangely in the candles' flickering light.

"So you didn't give in." He looks at me, a furtive, prying look as if he can read my fate in my heavy-lidded, bloodshot eyes.


Because I knew better. Because I thought I could win my way to heaven on the weight of my deeds-or undeeds-alone.

Because I loved you-and Him-though I neglected you both. Because I was obsessed

with the two of you-every hour. I knew you both were watching-mourning-over my every sin.

"Because.you knew-you know-you know exactly why." Tears I could not bring myself to cry since the last I saw him suddenly spill out now-over myself, over him-I notice his the anachronistic fineness of his clothing as I weep into it, and wonder if this, too, is part of the illusion. Perhaps this is merely a dream-the product of madness. Perhaps I've died-but is this heaven or is this hell?

He reaches out to hold me, soothe me to a lesser state of hysteria. He brings me close to his warm body. I cling to him tightly, without meaning to. He feels like life itself-and I am so dead.

"Are you saved?", he whispers into my matted hair, and I realize I'm not. I'm reminded, suddenly, of when my cousin asked me these same words. A year ago, before he disappeared into a forced labor camp.

I draw back, not to answer him, but the other One whose presence has become suddenly tangible.

That's when the first bomb falls. Suddenly unaware of the two of them, I run from the room. People have gathered outside. I ask what is happening, and a young, marked woman looks up at me, indifferently incredulous at my blindness. "We're watching this world destroy itself." I follow her next glance, as she tilts her head to the sky. The explosions must be a hundred miles away, but I can feel the heat melting the paint on my face.

I rush back inside as the first shock wave hits. I see him, looking out of the window as I'm thrown to the ground. I cry out in pain but he does not answer me. Only when I lift my head and see the crumpled pile of his clothes on the floor, do I know. I rush towards them as the second bomb falls, burying my face in them, absorbing what scent and warmth of him remains. I know now, truly, that I am alone-they both left at the moment I'd finally realized how far I'd fallen.

Note-Based on a dream I had last night-I pray not on my future.