Sometimes a moment can last forever without taking any time at all.
Maria did not move. She didn't blink. The other girl- the one whose face she did not quite recognize, the one who was holding a real weapon, the one who currently held Maria's life in her hands- had not yet moved. She hadn't yet responded. Maybe...maybe I can still get out of this! Maybe she's thinking about it! Yeah, Maria, that whole talking thing might have worked out for you. I mean...maybe she knows who I am! Like...everyone should, I am me after all, and there's no good reason for her to kill me, anyway, right? Yeah, no reason at all, maybe we can talk, maybe we can be allies or whatever, maybe she can help me find the boys...then there'd be, like, six of us! We'd be unstoppable...maybe...
Her mind rushed a mile a minute, yet all was perfectly silent but the rustling leaves in the trees.
All was still.
Her mind hardly had time to process the movement of the other girl's arms-
The beginnings of movement towards her-
The glint in her eye-
Maria knew. She knew. Her body just refused to react to it. Her legs seemed incapable of movement, her feet glued tight to the ground below her- somehow she took comfort in that, that ground, supporting her as it was. Her vocal cords seemed to have shut themselves down- that seemed like a blessing too. She didn't want anyone to hear her scream. It would have been...pathetic. She didn't want anyone hearing her like that.
Mostly, she didn't want Leon to have to see that.
She had no defense. Her 'weapon', a Survival of the Fittest commemorative postcard, lay useless in her backpack. Her makeshift weapon- her flashlight- was likewise not on hand. Her fists were laughably useless- Maria had no upper body strength whatsoever. Besides, her arms lay useless at her sides, as paralyzed as the rest of her. She did not move.
Not one inch.
This was, it seemed, her time.
Maria was not a fighter. Her mind's means of defense were not to fight back, or run away. Instead she closed her eyes and retreated elsewhere, stretching that moment into a motionless eternity.
That last moment would be forever.
In that mind, in that moment-
It was a whirlwind, an infinite whirlwind which she found herself inside, in which little made sense, little conceded to take a shape or recognizable form.
Maria had braced herself within that whirlwind. She was ready. She was- dare she think it?- willing. This was it.
This was it.
Part of the whirlwind coalesced. Those colors, those sounds were beginning to take a form, a shape that she knew all too well, a shape that she didn't know if she wanted to see. She couldn't see him, now. She couldn't do this. Didn't she want to say goodbye?
Wasn't that what she wanted to do? Wasn't this who she'd wanted to see?
Not now- not like this, she couldn't-
His voice was stronger than it had ever been.
It was not an image of the boy as he was in life- it was the picture a little girl held, would always hold, of her big brother.
"I brought you something, Maria. Don't be scared, okay? I'm here."
In reality, Maria's eyes remained closed, but within this infinite moment her eyes opened as she laid her eyes one last time upon the face of her beloved Leon.
And in his arms, Regala.
She reached forward and took her doll, stroking its long hair. It was a comforting feeling. She hugged it towards her and noticed its hat was wet. Then she realized that was because she was crying.
She looked at Leon, and realized he was crying too.
"Are you ready, Maria?"
"No," she answered automatically. He laughed a laugh that didn't reach his eyes.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, and then it was the pain in his voice that scared her the most. "I can't protect you forever."
And then, pain.
Pain. Maria felt it before she saw the spray of blood, before she'd even opened her eyes and saw the girl directly before her, before she was ready to take it all in. She felt it screaming on the side of her neck, stealing the breath from her, her own heart pumping her blood out of her in a steady spray, her every nerve screaming at her to do something-
Yet she was still paralyzed.
I'm going to die. I'm really going to die. I'm dying. I...
Something that remained of her ego came back to reassure her.
Everyone's gonna be so upset. Me! Maria Santiago, dead! How can anyone go on without me? Shame everyone loves me so much...right...?
She shook that away. The brink of death was no time to recover from a lifelong delusion.
She noticed the ground slipping away from her feet. This bothered her- so many seconds, hours, years ago that solid ground had been her greatest comfort, and now it was betraying her. Her feet were moving, too. This was strange. So many years ago those feet were glued to the ground. Why were they moving now?
After the whirlwind ended, Maria's thoughts dripped slow as molasses, as the world around her slowed down to match her speed.
A span of time, a fraction of a second in reality, yet another infinity in Maria's mind, passed as her legs gave out underneath her, and her head hit the ground.
Something cracked. Maria didn't notice.
"This can't be happening."
Leon Santiago's head was in his hands as he stared at his television. He was alone. His family had gone off to work, to school, to those places where people tended to go. They knew where Maria was, and they knew, they said, nothing can be done. There was nothing to do but wait, watch, listen, hope, pray. That most of all. Pray. He had prayed long and hard, more than he had ever prayed in his life, all for her. All for his little sister- all for the defenseless little girl that he'd sent on her way those days ago. Sent away with nothing more than a "good night" and a- he winced at the memory- a "whatever you think is best".
His Maria was gone. Forever. He knew that the moment his mother got that call, the congratulations, your daughter is on Survival of the Fittest! call. Maria wasn't strong, she wasn't all that smart, and she was all alone. She didn't have her friends, she didn't have her family- she didn't even have her best friend. Her favorite doll, her Regala.
Leon cursed himself over and over for letting her leave without it. But it wasn't like he could have known.
He tore at his hair with his hands. Why isn't anyone doing anything?! Why? Why is this allowed to happen? Kids are dying, and they're just...nothing...
There's nothing I can do...
Leon turned from the screen, tears streaming from his eyes freely now. He couldn't watch this.
He was powerless. Helpless. Pathetic. Weak.
He let the tears fall.
Maria spent those last minutes listening. Not to the sound of the rustling leaves, or to the sound of her own lifeblood escaping her, or to the sound of her last, gasping breaths. She listened to her own song, whispering quietly in her head. Her favorite song.
The melody echoed quietly in the recesses of her mind, as it seemed to empty itself, slowly but surely...
I've heard there was a secret chord, that David played, and it pleased the Lord, but you don't really care for music, do you?...
She was done. Finished. She had become incredibly aware of her own beating heart, aware that the beats seemed to be slowing, that she was weakening, that there wasn't much left for her to suffer through. That the pain was fading, that everything was fading, her vision, her sight...
I never really thought about dying much before this...Mommy and Daddy said I'd go to heaven if I was good...have I been good?
She tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne, and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah...
I don't know...what have I done wrong? A lot, I guess...I used to get in trouble a lot, but the nuns never said I was going to hell...they said that to some of the other kids. Does that mean I've been doing good enough? Does that mean there's something good waiting for me after this?
Blood dripped, slowly. Red, so much red. Her eyes were still open, somehow, She tried to focus on the empty sky.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch- love is not a victory march, it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah...
I...don't think I've done anything that wrong...
Her thoughts were dripping again, moving slowly, as they reached their conclusion.
I...didn't kill anybody...thou shalt not kill...I didn't...I was good...didn't hurt nobody...
I...I'm not a sinner....I'm...I'm good...
"So...I guess...I'm going to heaven after all..."
The words escaped her lips in a whisper. She smiled the tiniest of smiles.
Leon turned his head back to the screen, shocked. To hear his sister's voice one more time...that was a gift. And the words she said...
"Maria...of c-course...of course..."
He smiled a tiny smile. She was...so brave.
Maria listened to her heartbeats. Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Each sound was precious, and fleeting.
And remember when I moved in you...
Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Ba-dum.
The holy dove was moving too...
And every breath we drew...
She exhaled, and there was nothing left but darkness.
RANK 257TH [MARIA SANTIAGO] - DEAD