“Please,” the woman begged, “please, my daughter, you must help her. Please, help her.”
Must, she said, but the word was hollow and cracked. She wasn’t very old from the looks of her, with thin yellowing skin like old parchment and black caked around her nails and gathered at the corners of her eyes, but the years sit heavy and hard on her face and shoulders. She could be twenty, she could be fifty. She begged and pleaded and pulled at the old man’s sleeve to take him with her, and at a loss, his apprentice followed.
She lived in a run-down building with a door that hung ajar; they all three of them had to duck to get inside. Her actual apartment was the same as her, filthy and tattered, crowded with a group of wide-eyed children that stared wordlessly at the clean strangers that walk into their midst. A man who might have been the woman’s husband sat slumped in the corner with a bottle cradled between his knees, muttering the secrets of the universe to its open mouth.
The sick girl herself was young too, but was harder to tell her age just by looking at her. Like her mother she had lank dark hair and papery skin that sat tightly across her delicate bones, except for the nearly obscene bloat of her belly. The old man took one look at her and gave the smallest shake of his head. There were no medicines that could save this child; whatever combination of disease and hunger had stricken her, she was already too far gone.
Her mother didn’t notice the gesture, though his apprentice did. He stopped a few paces behind and watched the old man talk to the mother, who shook her head and turned her rosary over and over between her fingers as she said again, Please, please, you must help her.
He didn’t listen to what his master said in response, but looked past them and at the young girl again. Her eyes were open and staring at the ceiling. He glanced up briefly as well, but all he saw was tattered plaster, and wide water stains that lighten in lopsided concentric circles outward, overlapping with others until the whole thing was just a mass of sagging material.
When he looked back, though, she was watching him. She had the bluest eyes he’d ever seen, even in all of his years of traveling. It was the same sort of blue of a cloudless summer sky, or the sort of blue that people imagined when they thought of sapphire. They were remarkably clear.
She smiled at him. He looked away at his master and her mother; the mother was sobbing now, clutching at the old man’s fragile wrists like her thin fingers had any sort of strength to them. Please, please, please …
He slipped past them and into the room.
“Hullo,” the girl said. “My name is Annabelle.”
“Hello, Annabelle,” he said. It seemed like the right thing to do. “How are you feeling?”
“Oh, very poorly, thank you and sorry.” Her voice whistled a little when she spoke. When she smiled again he saw there was a gap at the front of her mouth, where one tooth was not quite finished coming in. “Mum was hoping you could do something. Can you?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “The old man is the one who knows how to do anything.” If anything can be done, he doesn’t add. There doesn’t seem to be a need to; the girl didn’t seem to have the same terrible fear as her mother. “I’m still learning.”
“Are you thinking of becoming a doctor? Mum says that doctors can be very rich.”
“Not quite.” He stuck his hands into his pockets, then pulled them out and clasped them behind his back, then stuck them in his pockets again. He rocked his feet from toes to the balls of his heels. “We’re not doctors, but the old man’s been around long enough to learn some things, I guess.”
Please, please, please!
“I wonder what that’s like,” the girl named Annabelle said. Her eyes were half-closed now and her breath was coming a little harder than before. “To be so old that even if you’re not something, you can at least know something about it.”
“I don’t think you’ve got to be very old at all,” he said. “Just observant.”
She smiled. “I could be that,” she said. “Maybe I could become a doctor just by watching, someday.”
“Maybe.” He didn’t know what else to say after that. He wasn’t very used to the dying; he was more familiar with the dead, and they weren’t really much for talking. “Would you like to be a doctor?”
“I would have liked it very much,” Annabelle said. She closed her eyes. “But I don’t think that will happen.”
“You can’t know that for sure,” he said. He didn’t know why he did, either; it slipped out before he could quite stop himself. “Hell, what sort of attitude is that? If you want to be a doctor, you can be one! You can do any damn thing you want! You could even–”
He stopped talking. Annabelle was lying very still and very quiet. Her mother’s voice was the loudest thing in the room now, nearly a wail, an animal whose only cry was the word please.
He turned away. The old man met his eyes and shook his head again.
“I’m sorry,” he said, but there was no real sorrow in his voice — just a firmness that could not be argued with. “It’s too late.”
The woman stared at him for a moment, as if she couldn’t understand. Her head snapped around to her daughter, and then a high strangled noise rose up in her throat; it was like a scream pulled out long and thin, forced through a sieve. She stumbled away from the old man to collapse by the side of the bed, and she sobbed Annabelle, Annabelle, please! and otherwise did not move.
“Come on,” the old man said to him, in a low voice. “We don’t have any more reason to stay.”
His apprentice followed him obediently, and he glanced back only once.
Annabelle was smiling. It was the sort of smile one saw carved on the faces of angels at a church, serene in spite of the strain at the corners of her mouth and across the eggshell curve of her eyelids.
He turned and walked after the old man.
Outside it was sunny and clear, the sun slanting towards late afternoon. A single pale scattering of clouds drifted in the far distance. The day was warm, but he rubbed his fingers together to chafe the chill from them.
“What if we could have helped her,” he said.
“We can’t,” said the old man. “And even if we could, we shouldn’t. There is only one man in the world who could do anything for her now, and you’d best hope he doesn’t hear her mother wailing.”
The apprentice turned to look up at the building. From the ground floor, he couldn’t tell which room had been Annabelle’s. This far away, he couldn’t even hear the sound of her mother wailing, though it had been loud enough to drown out the sound of his own heartbeat when he’d been standing right there.
What if he met her again, he thought, wearing her mother’s skin and with the pentacle mark on her forehead? Would she recognize him? Would she remember her dream?
Would that even matter, at such a time?
He stuck his hands into his pockets and turned away, following his master until the building dropped out of sight.