This is where she slept. Here on the seventh floor. This is the attic. It is cold here. It is not heated. The walls are steel. So are the floors and the ceiling. They had it specially made for her. It is not the usual kind of steel. It can stand very high heat. They only had to worry about fire back then. They did not have to worry about anything else. They were very lucky.
She slept on this mattress. They did not make it resistant to fire. They did not need to. It was the only place for her to sleep. It was the same with this blanket. They did not care if she burned it. She never did.
She moved the mattress near this window. This window is very strange. It is waist level. It is an armspan across. It is barely a foot tall. It is covered with steel bars. The glass is far away from the bars. She could never touch the glass. She tried many times. The bars are too close together. She could not fit her hand through.
This is only where she slept. This is not where she lived. She would only come here at night. In the morning they would take her away. Sometimes she would not come back at night. Sometimes she would not come back for days.
They came every morning from spring through fall. In the winter they did not come. She stayed here for weeks. They brought her food and water in the morning and at night. They slid it through this opening in the door. They did not talk to her.
This is where she would kneel. Right here on the mattress. She would be wrapped in her blanket. This room is not heated. She would kneel here all day. She would look out the window. At noon the soldiers would march. At noon she would hold on to these bars. They would be very cold. It would be very bright. She would lean forward as far as she could. She would watch the soldiers march in front of the building. They would march two by two. They would look straight ahead. They would march right down this street. Then they would disappear into this alleyway.
One time it changed. One time a soldier looked up.
This soldier had gray eyes, a very light gray. They were remarkable eyes: not beautiful, but yearning, thirsty, like ashes -- dry and wanting water, aching to be dark and full. His eyes took in the world.
They were the only things remarkable about him. He was not handsome, with the kind of thin face that looked too boyish to be pleasant. Everything about him was boyish. He was too short, had hair made darker than it really was due to the fact he rarely washed it, accepted his training with skittish movements, forever looking away and trying to escape the secret shame that he wanted to go home. He laughed with his bunkmates and tried to please them. He was forgettable.
He never looked anywhere but straight ahead while on march for fear of catching the vice-captain's attention. That morning, however, something had caught the corner of his eye: a blur of milk-pale. Instinct made him lift his head, but he lingered longer than he should have. He was stricken.
The face was warm and white against the dull steel of the building -- high, almost at the roof. Green eyes stood out even from a distance. It was reflex that parted his lips: the beginning of a question.
Their eyes met; and there was a flash of green as she instantly disappeared from sight. The gray-eyed soldier did not have time to react -- already the building was gone. So he kept marching.
She pushed herself flat against the wall. This one right below the window. She pulled her knees into her body. Her hand covered her mouth. She looked at the floor.
Then she stopped holding her breath. She took her hand away from her mouth. She looked over the bottom of the window. Just one eye. The soldiers were gone.
She dropped back down onto the mattress. She stared at this wall. She thought. The soldiers would march tomorrow. She pulled the blanket tight around herself. She did not move when they slid food through her door. She did not move all night.
Two days later, the gray-eyed soldier watched his friend smoke outside the bunk. He stared at the smoke as it rose, faded, and disappeared into the chill night air.
Hey, he said. You know that old building? Down by the ... he gestured, mapping out the route in his mind. Sort of by the end of thirty-first?
What, you mean the warehouse?
No, it's tall, like ten stories. Kind of ... almost behind that old train station.
Oh, the one -- yeah. His friend nodded hastily. I know which one you mean.
Do you know, is it an apartment building or something? asked the gray-eyed soldier.
In that part of the city? Everything's abandoned. His friend took a long drag, and the smoke rolled from his tongue in a solid stream. Why, you wanna live there in your old age?
The gray eyed-soldier chuckled, as was expected of him. Nah, I uh -- I thought I saw someone there. Yesterday and the day before.
His friend examined the glowing ember tip of the cigarette, as though it was a curious oddity. That's why we're not supposed to look around during marches: you start to see things. Ghosts. Suddenly the cigarette seemed to dissatisfy him; he grunted and mashed it into the concrete floor with an air of indifference. I'm going inside.
The gray-eyed soldier stood carefully and followed.
She held the bars tight like this. Her thumbs pressing against her knuckles. She heard the soldiers before she saw them. She moved forward but kept her hands in place. Locked to the bars. Each soldier surged and disappeared. He looked up at her. Her hands tightened but she did not move. She held herself up and looked back.
Then he smiled white. Then he raised one palm fast next to his eyes. He let it fall. A wave.
Her throat moved up and down but she was quiet. No air. She stared. He was leaving. Her breath came in a shudder. She unclenched a hand. She waved just in time.
Then, though he could no longer see her, she smiled back; and slowly she let her head rest against the cold steel of the window bars, eyes bright with joy.
For two weeks the gray-eyed soldier walked past that building, watching for the girl. She was always there against her window, always waiting for him to wave first before she responded; but still he felt something like comfort each time they connected. It had become an event he looked forward to, waving to her: a change -- small, but still a change -- from the drab routine that had been determined for him. Something just his own.
They had begun taking her away again. Every night at eight. She did not struggle anymore; she just let them take her arms and carry her, inject her. Because every morning they brought her back at dawn. She would crawl over to her mattress and push away everything that had happened; at once she would fall into a peaceful, unbroken sleep.
She always awoke before they marched. For two or three hours she would kneel on her mattress, staring out, motionless like the first time. Not thinking. When noon came, when the wave came, she would remain smiling at the window for many minutes after the soldiers were out of sight. Only when she could no longer feel their footsteps did she slide gently to the floor. She would lie there, weeping and retching, until they came for her again.
Lying in his bunk at night, the soldier would trace his remarkable eyes along the dark maze of the ceiling pipes and wonder, idly, who she was. A scientist, maybe, working on a secret project; or a poor townsgirl, living her squalid life with dignity and kindness. Sometimes, when he remembered her paper-white skin, the halo of green light framing her face, he thought that maybe his friend was right -- maybe she was a ghost. But he never spoke another word about her, and he did not wonder for too long. He just kept marching. He just kept watching.
Then, on the fifteenth day, the girl was slumped against the window wall when something awoke her the sound of the locks clicking. She looked at the door, then the window. Confused. But the sun was high; it was almost noon. Her eyes grew wide as she grabbed onto the bars. She refused to look behind her, even though she heard their footsteps on the metal floor. Only when they took her arms did she begin to scream.
They managed to wrench her away from the window, but she pulled and bucked, clawing at their gloved hands. Arched her spine as though she could touch the high ceiling if she wanted it enough. One gripped her chin and jerked her head back, cutting off her scream, making her gasp for air as they pulled her away.
When the door slammed the window cracked. Here along the top.
The first day that the girl was missing, the gray-eyed soldier was puzzled, almost worried. He squinted as they marched by her building, craning his neck just enough to see that her window was dark and bare. When a few days had passed, he stopped looking.
After that, he did wonder sometimes about what had happened to her, but his life now was congested with strict about-faces, combat training, weapons technology. He didn't have time to think about anything else -- may not have wanted to think about anything else. Eventually, it was as though he'd never seen the girl.
He was lying on his bunk one afternoon when his friend came over and slapped his ankle. Look alive, shorty.
Why? The soldier didn't open his eyes. We've still got a half-hour until dinner.
Yeah, well, Adams says he wants you and me for that special assignment he was talking about. We gotta meet him down by the armor hold in fifteen minutes.
The gray-eyed soldier shifted over to look at his friend. Really.
I don't get it either, his friend replied, re-buckling his uniform belt. I guess it's just for us special people.
Yeah, right. The gray-eyed soldier grinned and hopped down from his bunk.
They led her out down this alley. The one where the soldiers marched. It was spring now and warm. The air stroked her face as she walked. She smelled life in it. Love welled up in her throat. But her face never changed. Like the soldiers, led by soldiers, she stared straight ahead.
They marched into the wide street. Shutters opened on both sides and eyes watched her pass.
Now here is where it happened.
Fifty soldiers lined the walls of the armor hold, hands resting on their mechas, waiting for their orders as they avoided each other's eyes. The gray-eyed one looked at the ceiling-high windows, glass made translucent by a thin layer of bronze-colored dust. He tried not to wonder why no one had come.
He knew it was her before he saw her. Something in him twinged, like a violin string cut, at the sound of her mecha booming through the doors.
He saw her then. White and green. High above all the soldiers. Beautiful, his secret. For a moment, as they all stared at her, he felt the pride in him so strong -- it was too much.
Then sheets of fire swept across these walls. The south and the east. The soldiers here began to scream, flames boring through their armor, seizing them like an electric shock. When they fell fire-blackened blood gurgled from their throats. He saw it through a curtain of wavering red. He could not move.
Those not dead leapt into their mechas. Trying to fight back. But he already knew it would not work. He already knew he would die.
So he began to run. Down this corridor, away from her. To the back doors. He pulled at their handles, wrenched against them, began to cry when they did not open. He remembered the soldiers. Death a cessation of convulsions. The metal walls radiated heat. He could feel her coming.
Then he stopped. He turned. He made himself watch her.
The flames crawled against the walls with her, part of her, as she came. Exquisitely laced; red tongues, white souls, they rolled over her skin in ripples and waves. Danced with her. But she was not menacing. She was not sad.
"You know me," he blubbered suddenly. It was useless. He stumbled all over his words. Clumsy and useless as his back hit the double doors and he almost fell. "Please. You know me." But he already knew why that did not matter. He already knew why she was here.
This is what he knew: some men are born to die. Some are touched to be forgotten.