Sorrow pressed Ninni’s chest. Traveled to her abdomen, exacerbated the slight pain that so far was the only sign of her disease. She curled into a ball, and put a pillow over her head, trying to recapture the dream she couldn’t remember.
“This is your last day. Ninni Chang. Wake up. This is your last day. Wake up. Wake up.”
An anthropomorphic alarm clock with a frowning face was scurrying over the vid, shaking an oversized angry finger. Ninni hated the default screeching voice and childish display, but had never bothered to change it. “Okay, enough. Delete and reset,” she said. “Show the morning.”
The clock morphed into a shimmering rising sun in a coral-streaked sky, a beautiful dawn fantasy.
“Dammit. Show the morning, the real one outside.” The vid was defective, with screwed up programming, not that it mattered anymore.
The screen blurred, the audio burped. The display changed to a brown-tinged sky with pallid sunlight. A cityscape of people dressed for work, rushing about on powered unicycles and footboards. Enforcers in black jumpers, beige-suited managers, students with shaved heads and expensively tattered clothes, South American au pairs flaunting rainbow colors. People with places to be, lives to live, hope for the future. Like Ninni, before her world shattered. Before she knew she had cancer.
I’m too young. I don’t want to die. It’s not fair.
The refrain of her life for the past six months, since she was diagnosed and told there was no treatment, that she’d die soon, but not yet. She’d tried to live normally, stay positive, and appreciate the moment. All the therapy crap her counselor talked about. Like she should be oh so happy, even grateful she had time for closure and reflection, to say good-bye.
Not that there was anyone to say good-bye to. Even before her diagnosis, Ninni had problems. And the last two years were her worst ever. First Pablo left, the day after their contract was up. She’d had no idea, almost fainted when he told her.
“Why? Why? Don’t you care that I love you?” Kneeling at his feet, grasping his legs in desperation, not believing what she heard.
“Do you have to be such a drama queen? I’m just not interested anymore. It happens.” Shaking her off, shaking his head, telling her to get a hold of herself.
Rejected and discarded, like their year together meant nothing. Then six months later, she lost her job. Replaced by a robo-nurse, her services no longer needed.
She was unwanted, dated and outmoded. Just like her cancer. Mesothelioma was a twentieth century disease, caused by asbestos. But there was no asbestos anymore. Mesothelioma, cause unknown. Forty years since the last case, her doctor said. A freak diagnosis, that shouldn’t be.
How? When? Where?
No one knew. No one had answers. No one had hope.
She had an abdomen full of cancer, but didn’t feel sick. If it wasn’t for a pre-employment physical that included a full-body scan, for a job she didn’t even want, a glorified baby-sitter at one of the new lux-compounds, she wouldn’t even know. But she did know, and couldn’t pretend otherwise.
This was her last day in the world. She had to make it special, even if she had no idea what to do. Ninni wasn’t sure about anything. Not even what clothes to wear.
Earlier in the week she’d gone on a shopping spree, spent hours at the vid searching maniacally for oversized jerseys, long shirts, and loose pants with drawstring waists. Somber clothes in muted tones, to match her changing body and gloomy mood. When her new wardrobe came she put all her old clothes in the Freebie outside her building. They’d be gone by now. Not that she wanted them back.
“As the cancer grows your abdomen will thicken and fill with fluid,” the doctor said. “There’s no surgery. You’ll be jaundiced from liver damage, have problems with your bladder and bowel. Because your disease was thought to be extinct, there’s no targeted gen-treatment or chemical therapy. And radiation would cause too much damage to vital organs. Once the symptoms start, the tumors will grow quickly. Treatment will be palliative.”
“How long do I have? My thirtieth birthday was last week. I can’t die so young.”
“But how long?”
“I don’t know.”
Ninni put a tranq-patch on her arm, waited for the medicinal calm to take effect. She looked at her new clothes. Even though it was January, the weather would be warm. It was always warm, except when it was hot. She couldn’t decide, didn’t want to decide. Hated the outfits she’s never worn, and, in normal times, would never choose. Ninni had always been thin and wiry. When she wasn’t in uniform, she’d worn brightly colored bodysuits. No more nursing robes, no clingy clothes.
She was going to the Shanti Center, a sanctuary for the sick, to live her final days. The Center’s workmen had emptied her apartment the day before. It was a forced donation, part of the price to live with them, the price of peace. They’d sell what they could, recycle the rest. Not that she’d need furniture or dishes or decorations anymore. Everything would be provided. Everything would be new. Nothing would be hers, except her clothes.
After trying on three outfits, Ninni finally decided on gray pants with the look of silk. The bulky folds of the tie waist made her look thick, but the matching top hid everything. Never mind that she hated the tunic, felt lost inside it. She changed the vid street image to a pre-recorded beach scene. It was one of her favorite streams, a reminder of her Los Angeles childhood, of Saturday outings with her mother. There was the white sand, a group of volleyball players, a big yellow dog joining in.
Ninni hadn’t been to the ocean in years. Even though she was so close to the Pacific, right across the Bay from San Fran in Oakland, just a quick tube ride. It was her last day. What better place to be than the beach? She could sit in the sand, take a walk along the shore. The beach scene expanded, showed two puppies playing in the sand. They were fluffy, black and white, with bright pink tongues.
Dogs weren’t family pets anymore, hadn’t been for years. Not since the canine virus ten years earlier almost wiped out the dog population. Only the very rich could afford a dog now. Or if someone had extra money they could rent a dog by the hour. Otherwise people like Ninni, ordinary people, were reduced to visiting a pet park where they could watch the nannies and their closely guarded poodles chase balls on the artificial turf. No one knew why poodles, of all sizes and colors, didn’t get sick. But there it was. They were the only dogs left. All the others—the golden labs and terriers, the Chihuahuas and German shepherds, the mutts—were gone.
Ninni had fond memories of her childhood dog, a little mix with raccoon eyes and big ears. Biscuit was her best friend all through grammar school, sometimes her only friend. When Biscuit died she’d cried for days. Her mother said they couldn’t get another dog, not with the new food rationing, but Ninni didn’t care. She didn’t want another pet. Biscuit was her one and only. But since this was her last day, she wanted a dog. A dog to take to Ocean Beach, where she could pretend she had a future, and a pup who loved her.
There was a pet store just two blocks from her apartment, near the local Food Pantry. One half of the window display showed vid poodles with tinted fur, replicas of the dogs inside. The other half had real cats, kittens fresh from the breeding farms that were ready for adoption. In the beginning years after the canine virus there was a big demand for cats, particularly the large Coons. But as the economy tightened, owning a cat, although not as expensive as a poodle, became a luxury most folks couldn’t afford.
Ninni still remembered how soft Biscuit’s fur felt, the comfort of cuddling her. Her belly was almost bare, the pale skin warm to the touch. She used to make little yipping sounds. She snored when she slept. To be able to hold a dog again, whatever the cost, would be worth it.
She touched her palm to the store’s security box, waited for the iris scan. Would her ID label her as terminal, a non-person soon to leave the world? Probably not, since the clerk who let her inside was all smiles. He looked her up and down, winked in a flirtatious way. He wasn’t her type, too Anglo, blond and pink-faced.
“A sparkling outfit for a sparkling fem,” he said. “Are you here for the job?”
Ninni shook her head. “I want a dog.”
“I was hoping…”
“Can I see the dogs?”
“Of course you can.” He led her to the poodle area, left her alone to choose.
The dogs were near the back of the store. With their fancy grooming they were more like stuffed animals than living creatures, curled up on plush beds that matched their coats. A few were naturally colored—a large black standard, a small brown, a miniature white. But most were dyed pink, baby blue, lavender, even apple green. There was nothing appealing about the pastel poodles. Poor captive creatures, treated like merchandise, kept in invisible cages. She was ready to walk out, forget the whole thing, when the tiny white dog stood on its hind legs and started dancing. As she walked closer, the dog seemed to look her in the eye, to plead with her. Pick me. Love me. Take me. Take me out.
“She’s a toy. Our only one.”
Ninni didn’t know the clerk was behind her, watching.
“Real popular, Buttermilk is.”
Biscuit and Buttermilk, buttermilk biscuits, her mother’s buttermilk biscuits, Biscuit named for her light-brown coat, a sign, a symbol of happier times. She was meant to rent the dog. She signed the paperwork without reading it, handed her credit disc to the clerk. The tiny poodle was hers for the day, at least until 4:00 pm.
“That’s when we close, because there’s no night person. If you know someone…”
“No. I don’t know anyone.”
“You’ll need the rheostat.” He handed her a small globe. Its smooth plastic surface was red, the same color as the dog’s leash. “The dog’s chipped, for behavioral control.”
“It’s the owner’s doing, not mine. She says customers like the chips.”
“Well, not me.”
“You don’t have to use it. Anyway, the whole thing’s on a 1-10 slow to fast scale. Zero makes her dance. And the red is a knockout button.But you better not use it, not without good reason, there’s a steep penalty if you do.”
The clerk had controlled the dog, made it dance for her. Ninni felt nauseous, she’d had no idea. She felt sorry for Buttermilk, but sorrier for herself. How pathetic. To think the dog wanted to be with her, be that desperate.
Buttermilk looked smaller out of the shop. She was very thin. Her eyes were rheumy. Her nose was dry. Was the dog drugged? Sick? Ninni bent down to pet her, ruffled her soft curly fur. The poodle didn’t respond. Maybe she was incapable of love, with all the manipulation she’d gone through. Still, the dog had a sweet face. Even if Buttermilk wasn’t hers, they could both enjoy the afternoon. Nothing was perfect. Nothing ever would be. Make the best of it, enjoy your time. Therapy thoughts she didn’t believe, but wanted to.
But good as Ninni’s intentions were, her plans were soon ruined. When she got to the tube, she couldn’t take the dog on the train. The Robocop huffed at her, pointed to a large sign. No Poodles, No Cats, No Snakes. People stared and laughed. Like any idiot would know pets weren’t allowed on public transportation. She rushed to the street level, holding Buttermilk in her arms. The dog was shivering. Ninni was sweating. There didn’t seem to be any taxis. Not that she could afford one. There didn’t seem to be anyway to get to the ocean. It was the beach or the dog. She stroked Buttermilk’s head. Waited for a sign, something to show the dog wanted to be with her. Buttermilk just kept shivering. The poodle was panicked, afraid of the outside world.
The pet store clerk didn’t seem surprised by Ninni’s early return. He adjusted Buttermilk’s rheostat to a low number, put her on the same white bed. The dog sighed loudly, closed her eyes.
“Don’t forget about the job,” he said.
Why did he care so much? Where was he when she was looking for work? Before she gave up? Before it was too late? Ninni would’ve liked working in a pet store, taking care of the poodles.
The dog was a disappointment. And in the end, so was the beach. Being alone—watching families picnic with children, lovers on blankets with hands clasped, noisy teenagers with a kickball—made her feel out of place, unwanted.
Ninni couldn’t hide from herself, from what she was. She belonged in the Shanti Center, and couldn’t wait to get there.
For her last meal outside Ninni went to her favorite Chaat Cart. She stood outside in a line with the other customers, inhaled the tamarind and cumin, held out her plate for freshly make pani puri and samosas. She didn’t talk to anyone, just ate her food and left. Hardly a celebratory meal, but all she had the energy for. At seven o’clock she went back to her apartment. Packed her clothes in an expando-tote, and returned her keycard to the night manager. When he wished her good luck, her eyes filled.
The Shanti Center van pulled up at exactly nine o’clock, just like they’d said. The driver was youngish and looked bored. Ninni took the empty seat beside him, in front of three elderly women who’d filled the back. They were sharing a hash pipe. Except for some random giggles, they were quiet.
The driver smelled of tamarind. Maybe he’d eaten at the same food cart as Ninni. Maybe she’d seen him before, admired his long black braid and copper skin. In another world, they could’ve been friends, relatives, even lovers.
He stared at the road, showed no interest in his passengers. Just kept driving until they reached the edge of the city, where he turned onto an old-fashioned road that led to nowhere. To empty spaces. To an incongruous ten story incandescent building surrounded by a force-field fence.
“Here we are,” the driver said.
“What’s with the security?” Ninni asked.
“We’re in the wilds.”
“We’re just east of Oakland.”
“This is where they all come. Feral cats, animals from the old zoo, mind-blown people.”
One of the women in the back leaned forward and touched Ninni’s shoulder. The rings on her fingers were covered with tiny sharp prongs. “He’s right, you know. I heard on the news, there’re wild gangs.”
The Shanti Center residents may’ve been free to leave, but they’d have a hell of a time getting anywhere. Weaponized rings, a gun on the seat Ninni hadn’t even noticed until now, and the van’s electroshocked windows. What else had she missed? What was she getting herself into? A heavily armed and secured Shanti Center would’ve been funny, if it wasn’t so alarming. “You’ll be safe inside,” the driver said.
He took a ramp to an underground garage. Put their baggage on a robo-cart, directed them to an elevator with transparent walls. “First seven are residential floors. Reception’s on the eighth.”
“How come we have to come at night?” the woman with the rings asked. “How come no one told us why?”
Ninni had wondered too. But in the end, it seemed just as easy to enter the Shanti Center at night, as in the day.
“They’ll explain upstairs,” the driver said.
He left them in the elevator. Ninni waited a moment, and then pushed the button for the eighth floor. One of the old ladies, not the talkative one, had gold-tinted hair. She was crying quietly. The other two looked away from her. Like her misery would be catching. All three were very pale, almost corpse-like. Maybe they weren’t that old. Maybe they were just sick. Four women in an elevator; each filled with their own sorrow, together but alone.
The elevator opened to a carpeted reception area. There were soft couches, a vid wall, and a veiled woman in a pale green robe waiting to greet them. The old ladies went first. One by one, maybe forty minutes apart, escorted to a back area. As time went by Ninni’s apprehension turned to exhaustion. The vid was tuned to a new reality show, a much-hyped production that followed a pretty young sex worker twenty-four/seven. Viewers could watch her every move. See her shower, use the toilet, and service her clients. She had fame and fortune, but no privacy. Ninni wondered if she’d do the same if she had the chance. A luxury apartment, expensive vacations, a secure future, a future…
Finally it was her turn. The veiled woman led the way down a tiled hall to a room crowded with medical equipment. Told her to take everything off and gave her a disposal hospital garment.
“The doctor will be here soon.”
When the woman came close, Ninni saw the dark spots on her face. Realized the veil wasn’t for religious reasons. Wondered what kind of plague the woman had survived. Tried to convince herself she couldn’t be contagious.
“It was the New York strain, three years ago,” the woman said. “Just the marks left, no need to worry. That’s not why I’m here.”
Ninni hated that her fear was so obvious.
“Everyone is curious. No one asks. If you need me for anything, later on, my name is Sara.”
“Are you a nurse?”
Sara shook her head. “Just a helper,” she said.
“Can you tell me, I was wondering, why the admissions are at night?”
“I was told it’s easier that way.”
Why would leaving the world behind be easier at night? Sara’s response was a non-answer, just a parroting of what she’d been told.
Ninni undressed, sat on the exam table. So far, the Shanti Center wasn’t what she expected. She’d pictured a beautiful retreat surrounded by greenery. Not an institutional building that was more like a hospital, or prison. Why did she have to talk with a doctor? Why couldn’t she be left alone? Left to die in peace, whether sooner or later?
The doctor looked too old to be working. Her small cap didn’t hide her lack of hair. Her skin was creased with age. “I’m Dr. Diaz,” she said. “It’s just a routine check, nothing to worry about.”
Why did she have to take more tests? There was no treatment, nothing to be done. And they had all her records. Why was she being pushed inside the scanner, punctured with needles, swabbed and sampled?
“Just the chip, and then we’re done,” Dr. Diaz said.
“You signed up for it. So we can monitor your condition.”
Ninni flashed back to her admission interview, all the forms, feeling too upset to concentrate on what she was signing. “What if I don’t want one? Sign a waiver, or something?”
“The chip is mandatory, if you’re to stay with us. Really it’s for the best. You’ll have more independence, but immediate care. ”
The image of Buttermilk dancing flooded Ninni’s mind. She didn’t want to be watched. She didn’t want to be controlled.
“No one said.”
“Ms. Chang, there’s no need for concern. Everyone here is chipped.”
“Not the staff.”
“We have no staff. We’re all sick. Some of us volunteer.”
“They force you to work?”
“We choose to work, as you will.”
Buttermilk standing on her hind legs, dancing…
The dog’s pleading eyes, her red rheostat.
“No, I can’t.”
“Ms. Chang, you’re not making sense. This is a wonderful place, a haven for those in need, for the final days.”
“It’s like a factory, a jail, an asylum with locked walls.”
“The residential floors are beautiful. You’ll have everything you need, and more.”
“No, this isn’t for me.”
“But what will you do? Where will you go?”
“I don’t know, but I’ll find a way. There’s still time for me. Things I can do. I can babysit, become a poodle nanny. Maybe work in a pet store.”
“A pet store? Ms. Chang, you’re sick. And I hate to be blunt, but you’re dying. I know this is hard, but everything was explained to you.”
Ninni remembered when she was diagnosed. How the doctor said he was sorry. The Shanti pamphlet he gave her. But knowing she was dying didn’t mean she felt it, accepted it. “I know. I know I’m dying. But I’m not dying yet. I’m not dying today. I have time.
And even if I don’t, I don’t want to spend my last days here. I want to feel alive, to be in the world for as long as I can.”
“I understand dear. Really I do. No one wants the end to come. But better to plan and be ready.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“I may be old, but I don’t want to die. No more than you. And you’ve already signed up. You have no apartment, no possessions. The Center doesn’t return anything.”
“I don’t care. This place is wrong. You’re wrong. Taking all my stuff, making me think I’d be better off.”
“Well, you’ll have to stay here tonight. I hope you reconsider.”
Dr. Diaz took Ninni back to the reception area. The veiled woman stayed with her until midnight.
“I won’t try to change your mind,” Sara said. “But if you want to talk…”
“No,” Ninni said. “I know what I’m doing.”
Before she left, Sara shut down the vid, dimmed the lights, and locked the entrance. “So you’ll be safe,” she said.
No way out until morning, when the driver would come.
Ninni’s indignation kept her awake. The Shanti Center was a fraud, named for peace and promising a haven, delivering a prison with wired walls, chips and forced labor. She felt totally healthy and completely alive. She belonged in the world.
Instead of the van, the driver had an electric mini-car. He looked older in daylight. His face was stern.
“Where should I drop you?” he asked
“There’s a pet store, near my old apartment,” she said.
Ninni hoped the pain in her stomach was from nerves, and not a bad sign.
“If that’s what you want.”
She hoped she still had time. But better to live as long as she could. However she could. Maybe she’d find peace, real peace. Even love. She was still young. Anything could happen. A wave of fatigue made Ninni close her eyes.
And then they were in city. The air smelled toxic. A bus had stalled in the middle of the road. A man was yelling. She was back in the world.
The driver stopped, but didn’t park. “The pet store,” he said.
The shop wasn’t open yet. The window was dark. Ninni opened the car door, but didn’t get out. What if she was wrong? What would she do?
“Maybe you’re not sure,” the driver said.
For the first time he looked directly at her. His eyes were beautiful, dark and slanted. Ninni’s eyes were lighter, but with the same epicanthic fold. Pablo used to kiss her eyelids, soft little pecks that made her tremble.
Ninni was making a mistake, running from herself, from her condition, afraid to accept her fate, afraid to die. She imagined herself working in the pet store, finding a room to stay in, maybe getting involved with the blond clerk, never telling anyone about her disease, that she was dying, living a lie.
She could barely breathe. She was shivering. Like Buttermilk, when she held the dog in her arms.
“Ms. Chang?” The driver touched her arm.
He still smelled of tamarind.
She wanted him to embrace her, comfort her.
Ninni sighed loudly. She shut the door.
Myra Sherman is a Northern California writer and social worker. Her short story collection, Jailed, was published by Desperanto Press in Dec. 2011. She was a winner/finalist in Glimmer Train’s Best Start 50 contest, the SLS fiction prize, and the Moment-Karma short story award. In addition to Jailed, her fiction and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals such as Ars Medica, 580 Split, Storyglossia and Fifth Wednesday Journal. She has recently completed Green Sky, a literary science fiction novel that explores the effect of catastrophe on the human psyche. More about her writing can be found at http://www.myrasherman.com/