She walked down the darkened street, waiting to die. All that was left to decide was whether she would do it the hard way, or the easy way.
The hard way was already working at her, spreading over her skin and eating into her face, her arms, her legs, her feet. The tiny gem-like parasites resembled nothing so much as lovely jewels set into her skin, but their beauty hid their hunger — desperate to feast on her cells, they spread quickly, replacing healthy epidermis with their offspring. Soon she would be covered with them; they would cover her eyelids, stop up her ears, creep into her mouth.
It was already getting difficult to walk; the few gems that had found their way to the soles of her feet made each step feel as though she had hard pebbles in her shoes.
The nurse practitioner at the clinic had checked her insurance status (none) and financial resources (few) and had shaken her head. There was a vaccine that worked about 50 percent of the time, the nurse told her, but it was extremely expensive and rare; nearly impossible to obtain even if you had the funds.
“Overseas?” she asked without much hope.
“Nobody will let you in,” said the nurse. “Not now that you’re infected. Sorry.”
After that, the nurse gave her painkillers, and carefully instructed her about how many to take and how to avoid an overdose — all the time looking into her eyes to make sure she understood.
The overdose was the easy way.
Now, outside the clinic, her phone buzzed with come-ons from services that claimed to have cures and promised access to vaccines in return for a lifetime of servitude. She shut off her notifications, stared at her phone, and in a moment of rage, threw it to the sidewalk and crushed it with her heel. And left it, with the rest of her life, shattered and useless.
Then she just walked. The streets were dark and wet; neon from the few storefronts that were still open bounced off the sidewalks and reflected in the gems covering her cheeks and forehead, sending stray rays of color vibrating into her eyes. Perhaps, she thought, if I keep walking, I’ll be killed by a mugger for my “jewelry.” Perhaps that will be best. For some reason she found the idea humorous. Perhaps I’d be eulogized in the newspapers as a tragic victim. Perhaps one or two people would read it, and for a moment, I’d be known. There would be at least that.
She crossed the street and, suddenly feeling incredibly tired, sat down on the curb. Neon signs flickered around her, people passed her by. She should, she knew, get up and go home. Fatigue, the nurse had told her, was a bad sign; the gems were hungry, and her body was expending its energy to feed them. “You have to keep eating, if you can,” said the nurse, “for as long as you can, to keep your sugar levels up.”
Screw my sugar levels, she thought.
She sat on the curb, her arms wrapped around her knees, and rested her head on her knees. Around her, she heard occasional footsteps pass her on the cold night pavement; they formed the background music to what remained of her life. The gems in her cheeks pressed against her arms, impressing their shapes into her skin.
“Fly me to the moon,” somebody sang in a soft whisper. “Let me play among the stars.”
She raised her head. A person, of indeterminate gender and age, knelt before her, wearing a loose black garment. The robe had no adornment, but it didn’t need any; their face, neck and hands were covered with sparkling gems; bright red and blue jewels flashed through their white hair, and something in their eyes shone emerald.
“Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars,” they sang. “In other words, hold my hand.”
They held out a hand, deeply encrusted with tiny white pearls, black onyx, blue sapphire. In the hand was a single perfect rose, dew sparkling in its petals. She stared at the flower, enchanted — she’d never seen anything so beautiful.
“Fill my heart with song and let me sing forever more,” the beautiful creature sang. “You are all I long for, all I worship and adore.” They extended the rose to her, and she slowly, carefully, put out her gemmed hand, took the flower and stared into it.
And with a single, last, grateful breath, lost herself in its beauty forever.