O love, aren't you tired yet?
Summary: As she waits for death in pre-apocalyptic California, an old woman tells a nurse her impossible life story. But her caretaker has an impossible secret of his own.
Characters: Janeway, Mestral
Disclaimer: Paramount/CBS own the rights to the Star Trek universe and its characters, which I am borrowing without permission or intent to profit.
Seaside Village Assisted Living
Avila Beach, California
Vermilion sky melts into the ocean, purpling like a bruise, and the darkness rouses you from your daydreams.
“Time for supper,” you announce to the woman in the chair. She doesn’t respond – you weren’t expecting her to – so you wheel her in a slow half-circle, like dancing, away from the dusk and the sea and the stars that encroach through the window.
She eats with care, sparingly, folding tiny bits of meat between her furrowed lips, and you sing to yourself while you wait for her to finish. You have listened to the tune so many times that it seems like a part of you.
“The sea so deep and blind,” you hum, half under your breath. “The sun, the wild regret.”
After she has eaten, you will tidy the kitchen and help her bathe and dress for bed. Then you will sit with her awhile in the front room near the window, where she can see the stars come out. You’ll talk a little, but mostly you’ll listen.
Someone should listen to the things she has to say, and she has nobody else.
Her children don’t visit her anymore. They’ve scattered: her son to the east coast, her daughter across oceans. She has grandchildren she hasn’t seen since they were teenagers.
Her husband is dead.
Some evenings she talks about him. His loyalty and the way he loved her, and his broad shoulders and his smile, and his kindness. How he had once been frightening, a man of conflict and violence, but she had never been frightened of him.
Their years of travel, the adventures they’d had and the people they had loved and lost.
The times they had escaped death together, and the one time he could not.
A virus, she says sometimes, her laugh dry and aching. Of all things. He survived the loss of his entire world three times over only to die in a primitive hospital, tubes down his throat, shrouded in plastic and all alone.
He died thirty years ago, but sometimes she misses him so much she can hardly speak at all.
You swipe a hand to switch off the telescreen. It shows nothing these days but bad news, anyway.
War is coming. Has never ended, really, only gone into hibernation and woken again. When you remark on it to your patient, she chuckles darkly.
This will be a war like no other, she predicts. You have no idea. Nobody does.
You refrain from telling her that you have known war, too, and hardship.
Instead you put on some music – soft and sad – and she hums along to it in her husky, quavering voice as you prepare her soup and bring it to the table.
“A cross on every hill,” you mouth the words with her, with the music. “So many graves to fill.”
It will be a terrible war, she says. But afterwards, everything will change. Good things will come.
You have lived in many places. You were born to the desert and your chosen home was nestled in patchwork fields and mountains. You have travelled to walled and gilded cities, shanty towns, dry plains of red dirt. You have tried to learn from people, though you still don’t truly understand them.
You have seen so much, and now you are tired.
Now you live by the sea, and you don’t think you will ever want to leave.
In this place, this waiting room for death, your mind is the quietest it’s ever been. The people around you are stripped to their barest, truest selves, and even those who are turbulent with emotion – fear, remorse, loneliness – even they comfort you. You can be yourself here. Or something like it.
Some of them mistake you for a grandson, or a long dead husband or brother, and they talk to you about people and places and things that once happened, as if you already know them.
Some of them weep and confess their sins – small, sharp hurts – and ask you for forgiveness, which you always give them.
Some of them accept you without question. They tell you things. Things that matter to them, or mattered.
Even when the things they say don’t make any sense, can’t possibly be true, you believe them.
She tells you things that can’t possibly be true.
Once I was a captain, she says in a voice made of whiskey and dust. I commanded a silver starship, and we flew faster than you can imagine, through stars you’ve never seen.
You observe her papery skin, her eyes that are grey as the sea in winter, the still-sharp jut of her jaw, and you imagine her younger, straighter. You picture her in an unfamiliar uniform on the bridge of an impossibly advanced ship.
“Tell me,” you invite, and she says:
Once I was a starship captain, and I had a crew I loved like family. And even though I stranded them far from home – even though I decided all of us would stay – they loved me too. We saw war and hardship and incredible things, and then I lost them all.
She says: I lost everyone but him, and then I lost him too.
Music plays beneath the silence between you, and she’s gone in her memory again. You wonder if she’s dreaming of the people she loved, imagining another fate for them and for herself. Imagining different choices, different vows. Another life.
You wonder what would have become of your life if you had made a different choice, all those years ago. If you hadn’t decided to stay.
You should go to Montana, she says. Wait there. Good things will come.
But when you ask her why, and what is coming, she won’t say.
She is sitting in her chair by the window, and you bring her a cup of tea on a tray.
“Good evening captain,” you greet her. You call her captain sometimes, when you want her to tell you more stories, or when you want to make her smile.
Usually, when speaking to the other residents, you put cheer in your voice, false and bright. But she prefers that you don’t.
She sips from her cup, thin fingers trembling with age as she places it back on the saucer.
You remind me of someone I used to know, she says, and her eyes are not filmy with memories as they lock on yours. You remind me of an old friend.
There is something about the way she’s looking at you that makes you want to tell her who you really are, where you really come from, but you’ve spent too long keeping secrets. You can’t share them, not even here and now. Not even with her.
“Tell me about your friend,” you invite instead.
But her eyes grow dull.
What does it matter? she says. I’ll never see him again.
You buried a patient today: a man, wizened and tired. He’d been growing quieter for weeks, his thoughts turning inward. You knew his time was coming soon.
When you return from delivering the body, your thoughts consumed with blood and soil and faith, the captain is waiting for you in her chair by the window.
My time will come soon, too, she says as you settle the blanket across her knees.
You murmur something useless and soothing, which she ignores.
She says: When he was ill, before he went away to die, my husband made me a vow. He said that we’d meet again in the next life.
“These words you can’t forget,” sings the dark voice she likes to listen to. “Your vow, your holy place.”
She says: He told me this should be a comfort to me, and that I shouldn’t rush to be with him in death. He said I should live. And I have lived. But now I’m so tired, and I’m ready to die.
You have learned politeness and platitudes over the years. “Perhaps your husband was right, and you will be together again,” you offer, and she smiles.
I was a scientist, she says. I never believed in an afterlife. But now I have faith.
You wonder if your mind will go with age. If you’ll sit in a chair by a window and talk of starships and incredible things nobody has ever seen.
You wonder how you will keep your secrets then.
Maybe by then it won’t matter. Maybe they’ll write you off as a senile old man, or maybe war will come and nobody will care what secrets you tell.
You wish, more than anything, that you could go home.
She says: All I ever wanted was to go home.
You can’t tell if she’s lucid, so you simply ask, “And did you?”
She is silent for a long time, and then she answers: In a manner of speaking. But it cost me everything.
You know how that feels.
Hold on, she urges you, fingers weak but gripping yours. Hold on for a few more years, and your people will come. Hold on until you can go home.
You make soothing sounds, and pat her hand, and help her to her room. You tidy the kitchen and take a cup of herbal tea with you to sit by the window.
“The sea so deep and blind,” sings the low, dark voice from the music player, “where still the sun must set, and time itself unwind…”
She is old and her mind is clouded. She cannot possibly know the future.
She can’t possibly know who you really are.
The sun sinks below the ocean, scattering vermilion and purple and bronze across the water. Your eyes trick you into seeing the shimmer of a transporter beam. You imagine your people materialising: tall, straight-backed, angular people who know nothing of human love, or humour, or failings.
Everyone you ever loved is gone, long gone, and everyone you ever knew thinks you gone, too. There will be no rescue, and yet you dream of it, and hope, and home.
You wonder if you should go to Montana and wait, and hope.
But the truth is that someday, probably soon, just like Kathryn Janeway, you will sit in a chair by a window with a rug over your knees, gazing across the water as you wait for a miracle that will never come.