- Victoria -
A few weeks prior...
If there's one thing to remember about this world, it's that it is amazing. I mean... it doesn't even matter what I mean. Just make sure you never forget...
A SUn beats down on my shoulders and I tilt my head to take in the full force of its electric glare. Except for the tattered bandana I wear around my neck, I am only in my underwear. But it doesn't bother me. In fact, it feels so very, very good. I giggle ridiculously and run my hands around my waist.
I am the happiness generator. And I am brimming.
There's laughter at my side and I turn, taking in the glowing form of my Pauly. A grin is plastered drunkenly across his amicable features, his skin fluorescent in the UV; we have only just started. In an hour or two it will crack and burn. But, by then, I will find it funny.
He screams something incomprehensible and I laugh. This kind of joy needs no words.
Pauly wraps an arm around my neck, ruffling my hair. I scream my complaint, giggling more as I try to get away. Easily over six foot, Pauly is the gangliest freak I know. But under the SUns who cares? He is as comfortably nude as I.
"You're disgusting!" I scream, still trying to break free. "I could play the xylophone on these ribs." And I give them a hearty poke, just for good measure.
Pauly sniggers, letting go of my neck so that he can beat his chest like Tarzan. The sight is so ridiculous that my laughter sends me shaking to the floor.
I am lying, of course, he is not disgusting. He might be more or less 2D, he might just be a tiny part of the pale lowlife of humanity. But we all are. And we are all beautiful when the SUns are on. It's hard not to be beautiful when everybody is naked and life is this good. I would take this world back to mine and I would sleep with it. Yes. I would. I would give it a night it would never forget.
I am shameless and I let my eyes rove unchecked over Pauly's disgusting, skeletal, heavenly body. The very thing that would define him in the real world is the only thing that makes him - us- a part of this crowd. His vibrant auburn locks pick up the light, reflecting it off of every single strand. A shining halo of spun gold.
We are all gods in this hall, when the SUns are on.
Ginger gods. Ants in the happiness farm.
"Victoria!" It is loud in here, loud and bright. Everyone gets noisy when they switch on the SUns but I am tuned in to my own name.
I spin, greeting another friend. We are all friends in UV. The girl next to me, the one curled up on the floor, eyes closed and smiling; I do not know her name, I have never seen her before. But she is my friend.
Pauly is still playing the fool as George steps delicately over my blissful new companion and pulls me up from the ground. I laugh again, pointing him out to George as he begins to spin. He will fall over in a minute, dizzy and breathless, he always does.
George smiles, putting out a hand to stop Pauly's glee. The donation hall may stretch out beyond the bound of my vision but it is still ridiculously crowded and Pauly is literally bouncing off of our neighbours. They don't mind - George only wants to greet him. The pair hug briefly before Pauly is off again and George turns his attention back to my smile.
"I love him!" I scream, turning as I point to Pauly who has his arms and his head raised. He is making a spectacular prayer to the technology overhead and it brings a grin to my lips.
George nods and mumbles a reply. I know that he cannot really hear me but I don't care.
He is still talking, though I cannot hear him either, as his arms find their way around my waist. I can feel his smooth, warm skin against my back and I roll my head onto his shoulder. George says something else, pressing his lips onto my neck. I only wish I could hear him.
He pulls me in closer. I'm still giggling, still smiling, though I know I shouldn't want this. As his fingers clutch at my stomach, I wonder if I should be doing something. And then Pauly saves me.
He has his hands on my hips, still screaming ecstatic nonsense as he pulls me away. I join in, George joins in, and it is all going so well until Pauly trips over the girl on the floor. But then we're down there with her, sprawled out on cold concrete. I have my head on Pauly's chest and he ruffles my hair again. Bruises don't matter when the world is this good.
The girl opens her eyes and I wave. It's almost an apology for ruining her sunning. She smiles too, with her bright blue eyes and her delicate features. She is just the sweetest thing.
"What's your name!" I scream over the roar of the crowd, holding out a hand for her to shake.
"Maria!" She replies and, as she takes hold, Pauly grabs my elbow. I start to shake Maria's hand and suddenly he's tugging at my arm, turning the whole thing into a wild dance. I am laughing and Maria's happy little smile is back too.
"I'm Victoria!" I tell her. "And this fool is Pauly... I love him." I add, just for good measure.
"You're very pretty!" Pauly shrieks. They are the first real words he has said and I cannot help but agree.
Maria nods again and points to the scrap of material at my neck. Of course she has noticed it, I am the most fully dressed of everyone here.
With a thump, George is at my side. I keep my head resting gently on Pauly's shoulder but I put an arm around his waist. He gently kisses my temple and eases himself into the conversation. No harm has been done: I may be angry when they switch the SUns off but, right now, I kind of love him too. I even love Maria.
"Where is your family?" He asks.
Maria shrugs. It is not uncommon to lose people in the general euphoria of the UV and she will find them later when the switch off the SUns and everyone is a little more sober.
I turn to Pauly, making some kind of joke about adopting her. She really is so perfectly sweet.
But when I look back, a thin layer of sweat coats her forehead . She is still smiling, of course she is, yet the sight snaps something inside me, something in my sober half.
This isn't quite right.
But, just like that, the warning is buried by happiness and even if I wanted to drag it up, I could not.
"I love meeting new people." Maria trills sweetly as a bead of sweat collects just above her right eyebrow. I am hypnotised by it, entranced by the way the UV makes it sparkle against her pristine skin. She lifts a finger to dash it from her brow and it is only because I am staring so intently that I see the terror as it flashes briefly across her face.
But when she catches my eye, we have already forgotten.
This world is amazing.
"We are friends." I declare matter-of-factly.
Maria grins, displaying perfectly pearly teeth. I intend only to return the sentiment but Pauly is already pushing me toward her and the next thing I know my arms are around her shoulders. I hold her close, relishing the feel of her soft skin beneath my fingers. We are one. We are amazing.
But Maria is clutching at me a little too forcefully. I do not mind, not until she tightens her grip yet further, her delicate little fingers digging into my shoulders. I open my mouth to say something but I cannot, for she is no longer holding me, she is clutching at me, her spine arching beneath my fingertips. Twitching, twisting, every muscle in her fragile body strains against the bone.
I pull away.
She wretches again.
I want to feel something other than happiness, I know I do. I just don't know what it is. Perhaps I am annoyed. But I don't feel annoyed, not at all, she's too wonderful for that. I'm just happy, I can't help but relish the feel of warmth on my skin, of light, of companionship.
"Messy Maria." I admonish, waving a finger. "Don't be sick."
"I can't breathe."
The urgency of her tone catches my attention. I can feel the sudden shock of sobriety. It grasps at me and I snatch back, concentrating so hard that I, too, stop the flow of air from my lungs. But then it is there, a desperate saviour, rushing into my system. I clutch at it, terrified. This toxic happiness is clever. She needs me, I know this, but I could lose myself in a minute.
"Don't bother then." I snigger, abandoning it all. "Be a fish."
No! She is dying and all I can do is laugh.
She certainly looks like a fish, though, gulping desperately for air. Pauly and George are giggling, like tiny girls, and I have her all to myself, my pretty Maria fish.
No, Victoria, save her. I can feel it there, the black of my depression fighting with this UV poison glee. I despise them both, I despise myself, but I always want the darkness to win out.
My breath catches in my throat and I am choking on the battle in my soul. It overwhelms me, consumes me.
This world is just so beautiful, this world is amazing.
Silly Maria fish, the SUns make you smile.
She is so quiet that, for a second, I think I am the one speaking. We both need to be saved, I am drowning in an emotion I have not earned, an emotion that has been hardwired into my biology. But she is drowning on nothing, her tiny body shaking with the effort, clinging onto life by only the barest of fingertips whilst I flounder in this cursed apathy.
Perhaps I should let her die, perhaps it would free her.
Perhaps I should kill myself too, before it is too late.
Pretty, silly Victoria; doesn't she know this world is amazing?
A whimper escapes my lips.
Save her, save her, save her...
Morality has this little voice in my head now. And it is screaming.
Maria's eyes catch mine. She knows what I am trying to do, she knows I am fighting my hardest. For her, I battle my own DNA.
But they are the genetics we share, an affliction she understands.
She knows I am going to lose.
She knows I will let her die.
And we both know I will smile.
But I am not ready, just yet, to abandon my humanity.
The sweat trickles down her forehead as her entire body convulses a third time. Her mouth tears open, a gaping maw, round and red, perfect in her silent scream. She is in agony, I can see it, but there is no breath left in her body for her to share it with the rest of the world.
Oh, my Maria fish, why have you been left with me? Our whole race is broken, what am I supposed to do?
Nothing. Sane or not, there is nothing I can do. I should have noticed her shallow breathing, I should have noticed the way she was twitching. Silly Victoria. Even the fact that she was all lazy on the floor should have given it away.
No! Don't give in.
Help her. She is too young for renal failure. But that is what it always is.
A tear slips down my cheek and this time I feel a true pleasure. Pleasure that is my own. It is still twisted, to smile at this, but a tear means I am feeling something. A tear means I am alive, it means I can care.
I take it as a sign and make the worst decision so far. I lean in, taking her hand in mine. I don't know what causes it but, at her touch, my fleeting sanity is completely stolen.
Her mouth continues to gape comically. Before I know it, I am sniggering, imitating and together we grope breathlessly at the air. I am so hypnotised by the game that I ignore the tiny remnants of the voice. Stupid voice, we are young, we are happy. I lean in, closer and closer, continuing to mock, until eventually our noses touch.
I giggle. And it becomes the moment she chooses to die.
Maria shudders violently in her last moments, her tiny form spasms. Her biology wins over in her final seconds and, as her bones contort under the pressure of her tight muscles, wrapping her inescapably in on herself, she smiles. Maria dies gleefully and behind me Pauly mimics the movement. By the time her eyes roll backwards into her skull, my sanity is completely forgotten and I am playing along as well.
Pauly sniggers. His feet still rest across her waist from his fall and he prods her gently with a toe.
"She's dead." He whispers conspiratorially, like it's some big secret.
I am the happiness generator. And even death makes me smile.
"Shh." I hiss, launching myself from his side and cradling her head in my chest. "She'll hear you."
My words floor Pauly and, as he laughs, he beats the ground with his fists. I grin; it makes me happy, to make him happy.
The tears are streaming down George's cheeks as his laughter consumes his breath.
"She's dead!" He roars, barely managing to choke the words out between his cackling. "And we're not!"
Of course we're not; beautiful, amazing George is an idiot. We're all amazing. This world is so amazing.
I pull her further into my embrace and rest a cheek on the top of her head, squeezing her like a teddy.
"My Maria." I croon. "You're such a pretty fish."
Even with the harsh UV beating against our backs, she has already begun to cool.
"Oh Pauly!" I make a big deal of shivering. "She's so cold!"
Pauly smiles down at me as he stands.
"Ice baby, ice, ice baby!"
He sings more, twirling into the dance. It is not long before he has dragged George up to join him. And then they're off, whirling through the crowds and out of sight.
Her lips are slightly parted, her eyes glazed and, I notice, oddly sunken. In death their charming blue sparkle has become lost. I grunt; silly fish, she is making me all uncomfortable with those empty ribs of hers, digging into my stomach. I mildly consider the fact that I don't really want them touching me now that nothing beats between their delicate cage.
"Oh my Maria." I sigh contentedly. "There's just none of you left!"
For a second I wonder if I should just ditch her and rejoin my fun friends, the breathing ones, but then I decide against it. I love Maria; pretty, dead Maria. And for the rest of my time beneath the bright, orange SUn, I continue to sit with the dead girl, running her red hair through my fingers and smiling.
I am the happiness generator. And I feel nothing.