Everyone has a way of dealing with the world. Dealing with all the bullshit the world throws at you. At least, that's my theory. Some people are nice. They feel better about themselves by being nice to people. Some people are mean. They get angry and turn that anger on other people. Some people keep to themselves. Why get involved, they think. You'll only get hurt. Some people are just smart asses. Me? I keep to myself, with the occasional dose of being a smart ass. The nice people are really rare. I think there used to be more of them, but then Something Happened. I think things were very different before Something Happened. It would explain a lot of things. The buildings, the roads, the cars, the skeletons. The tattered clothes, the fragments of books, the shattered glass. The echos of a thriving world. A busy world. A happy world. A world that was alive.
Now, the world is dying. All the people are dying. The animals are dying. The trees are dying. We're all dying. The people are dead already, inside. I'm dead inside, too. When I was young, I was so full of innocence, and happiness, and hope. But then I grew up. I lost all that, the innocence, and the happiness, and the hope. Maybe that's what growing up is, slowly dying. Slowly realizing that the world is cold, and hard, and cruel, and that no one will ever help you, and nothing will ever change. I feel the loss of hope the most. What was I hoping for? I don't remember. Maybe I thought things would get better. Maybe I thought things weren't that bad. Either way, I was wrong. I know that now. Happiness, too. Why was I happy? How I possibly have been happy? What in the world was there to be happy for? To hope for? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
As I said, people are dying. We're all dying. I don't even know what we're dying of. But we're sick, all of us. None of us can breath well, and no one is very strong. Mostly people stay the same way for years and years. Not getting sicker. Not getting better. Just waiting. But when someone starts to get worse, you can tell right away. First, you lose your appetite. Then your skin starts to turn gray, and you feel weak. Then you start coughing. And then you start seeing things that aren't there. It gets harder and harder to breathe. Until, at last, you die. I've seen it happen too many times. To too many people.
I wonder where the disease came from. Did someone bring it from somewhere? If they did, did they know what they were doing? What if they did it on purpose? But, why? Why would someone do that? What could a world do to deserve this? A slow, drawn out death. What did we do? What could we have done? I wish I knew. But wishing never gets anyone anywhere. It might have once, before Something Happened. But anyway, it won't now.
Maybe I should tell you about myself. I'm Jake. I think. Yes, yes, I'm Jake. Names aren't that important now. But sometimes it feels like that's all I have to call my own. Apart from my clothes. I'm about thirty, probably. At the moment, I'm walking down a gray road, past gray fallen down buildings, on a gray day, in a gray week, in a gray month, during a gray year, in a gray world. Gray, gray, gray, gray, gray, gray. I wrap my jacket more tightly around myself. I think it was blue, once. But now it's gray, too. My pants are gray as well, and they're getting a hole in the knee. Everything's gray. Even my eyes are gray. A clear gray that makes me look noble, but they're still gray. My hair isn't gray; it's a sort of muddy, mousy brown. I heard that people's hair used to turn gray, if they got really old. I've never seen anyone with gray hair. Nobody lives that long. I hear a noise coming from an alley, and, not even bothering to dread what I'll see, I look. A small girl is curled up at the end of the alley, whimpering. She's young, very young. Pale as a cloud, and fragile as a breath of air. Her hair is so pale it's almost white, and her eyes are pale, pale blue.
"Help me…" she whispers, "They're coming for me. They're going to take me away. They're horrible, and scary. Please… Help me…" She starts to cry, the tears running down her face, and the sobs racking her entire, tiny body. She can't be older than seven. She's wearing a smudged shirt, and what was probably jeans once. It's a pitiful sound, her crying. But there is nothing I can do to help. She's getting worse, seeing things, and that means death isn't far away. I can't help. There's nothing I can do.
I don't know what makes me walk down the alley. I don't know what makes me kneel next to the crying cloud-girl. I don't know what makes me scoop her into my arms, cross my legs into a lap, and hug her. I don't know what makes me tell her it will be alright, tell her I've got her, tell her she'll be fine, tell her she's safe now, tell her I'll protect her. I rock her back and forth gently. I stroke her hair, and tell her not to worry. She stops sobbing and huddles in my lap. Why am I doing this? I know how it'll end. I'll sit here, feeling benevolent because of a random act of kindness, and then the tiny cloud-girl will die in my arms. I won't have anywhere to bury her tiny body, so I'll leave it there. And walk away. Feeling worse than ever because she was so young, and so small, and so fragile. That's how it'll go. So, why am I doing it? I can't save her. But I did it anyway, and here I am, comforting a dying girl, trying to save her from a disease that kills everyone in the end. The cloud-girl looks up into my face. Her pale blue eyes stare into my gray eyes. Gray as the sky. Gray as the world. Gray as everything. Except her. Except the cloud-girl. I've seen anyone look less gray than she does. She blinks at me.
"What's your name?" I ask, quietly, as though speaking too loudly could break her.
"I don't know. I don't think I have one." she says, in a high, fluting voice. She pauses. "Will you give me a name?" she asks. I hardly need to think.
"What about Cloud?" I say. It would fit her perfectly.
"Cloud." she repeats, "Cloud. I like my name. What's your name?" She smiles at me.
"I'm Jake." I tell her. She rests her head against my chest. Suddenly, I want to save her. To protect her from everything. From everyone. From the world, if possible. And then it strikes me; I feel like a big brother. Yet, I know that I can't save her. She'll die. I feel a lump in my throat. I hate the sickness. I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate it. Cloud coughs. Then again, and again. Huge coughs that rattle her tiny body. I feel my heart break. She doesn't have much time left. There's no sound in the alley but her labored breathing. She opens her eyes.
"Jake…" she whispers, then her eyes flutter shut. I swallow. At least she'll die in someone's arms. At least she won't die alone. At this thought, I break down and cry. This isn't like me. Normally, I can keep it together, keep a lid on it, even in the face of everything. The tears run down my face, and I can't stop them. My little cloud-girl… Gone… I only just met her, but that doesn't matter. None of it matters. She's gone. I hug Cloud's body. I'm shaking with sobs. But then a voice interrupts me. "Why are you crying, Jake?" Cloud says. She stirs in my arms. She's not dead?! I gasp in surprise and relief.
"I… I thought the sickness'd gotten you." I say. I rub my sleeve across my eyes.
"It almost did." Cloud says, "But I'm stronger than it is." She gets up, out of my lap, and spins around with her arms out, beaming. "See?" she says. I smile back at her. How could she have survived? She's so fragile, and no one else can. It doesn't matter how old you are, how strong or weak you are, it doesn't matter how long you've been lucky enough not to get any worse, the sickness kills you. It just kills you. But Cloud survived it. How? How? I don't know. I just know that something about my little cloud-girl let her fight off the sickness, and she's alive. I get up too, and blink the last of the tears out of my eyes.
Her dirty, torn clothes aren't good enough for her. I wish I could give her something new, and clean to wear. But I can't. I feel so helpless. I walk to the end of the alley, and motion Cloud to follow. She skips beside me as I start walking to my… I don't really think it qualifies as a house. And I think I'd have to be emotionally attached to it to call it a home. It's… where I live. There we go. Cloud skips beside me as I start walking to where I live. It's a shack, constructed out of sheets of metal and a tarp I found. There are some blankets in a corner, and a food stash inside. It leans up against the wall of a skyscraper, too rickety to support it's own weight.
No one ever gets anything real done. No one tries to fix anything, or clear up all the stuff that's everywhere. No one rebuilds anything. I know why. The sickness. Having it, the way everyone does, is like being in a waiting room. You sit there, hoping against hope they won't call your name, but knowing, knowing with more certainty than you've ever known anything, that they will. You don't know when. All you can do is hope and pray for a little more time. Just a bit more. Let it not be today. Please. Not now. Not yet. Please. Not already. Not so soon. Please. Everyone's frozen. Waiting. Waiting. Hoping, wishing to wait a little longer…
Time passes. Gray day follows gray day. But the days are less gray with Cloud. I've begun to notice that the weeds around my shack are less dead looking. The wall of the skyscraper is a little cleaner. I haven't done anything, and I haven't seen Cloud do anything. But I think, somehow, that it's because of her. I feel a tiny flame of hope ignite in my chest. Cloud might just be the one to finally make things change. Maybe even save the world. More time passes. And a little more. I'd tell you how much, but I don't know. Days. Lots of days. But one day, I notice that I'm not hungry. Not hungry at all. My heart skips a beat. The first sign. I'm getting worse. The metaphorical person behind the metaphorical desk in the metaphorical waiting room has gotten up and is walking right towards us, flipping through some metaphorical papers. I don't tell Cloud, she'd just get upset. The next day, when I get up, I feel dizzy, and my knees feel watery. I'm short of breath all day. The metaphorical person looks up from their metaphorical papers, scans the room for a moment, and then makes eye contact with me. The next day, my skin starts to look grayer. The day after that, there's a tightness in my chest, and my throat tickles. A few days later, I start coughing. Cloud has been blissfully unaware until now, but then she notices the coughing, of course.
"Jake!" she says, "You're getting worse. Why didn't you say anything?" she asks, hurt.
"I…" I start, then break off coughing, "I didn't want you to worry."
"Lie down right now." Cloud orders me. I lie down on the pile of rags that passes for a bed. My breath rattles in my chest. Cloud tries to make me as comfortable as possible. Time passes in a blur, and I'm not sure what's happening. It gets harder and harder to breath. Then I start seeing shadows that shouldn't be there. They slowly rise up, menacingly. I resign myself to death. It can't be far away now. The metaphorical person opens their mouth, takes a breath in, and calls out my name.
"Jake!" says Cloud, "No! Don't die! You can't die! I won't let you!" She sobs, "You can't die. You can't…" Each breath is a struggle, and the shadows are clearer now. They stand above me, staring at me. I don't know how shadows can stare, seeing as they don't have any eyes, but they are, nonetheless. I grasp the arms of my metaphorical chair, and slowly, reluctantly, get to my feet. The metaphorical person doesn't smile, or say anything, but turns and walks toward a door. The door. I know it will be the last thing I ever do, if I go through that metaphorical door.
Cloud is crying, and I want to offer some words of comfort. But what could I possibly say? 'Don't worry, Cloud, maybe I won't actually die.' 'Oh, Cloud, don't cry. Even when I gone, you'll still have the shack.' 'Oh, come on, cheer up now, we knew this was going to happen eventually.' There is nothing to say, and so I stay silent. My metaphorical steps are slow and heavy, but my progress towards the metaphorical door is inevitable and relentless. The metaphorical person walks the last few steps toward the door, then holds it open for me. I pry my eyes open. Cloud kneels beside me, tears in her eyes. I open my mouth to say something, but the breath catches in my throat, and I cough violently. Darkness is creeping in at the edges of my vision. What will happen to Cloud? I can't breathe now, and I can't see anything anymore. I feel cold. This must be death…