Aliyah dropped the firewood she had been collecting from the nearby woods and sighed. It had been a hard day, as usual. Ever since the wars started, she had known nothing but hard days.
Certainly, she wasn’t the only one. Every single one of the people still living in her small town was going through the same situation as her. They had lost most of their families, the city was just a mournful ruin, and its inhabitants looked a bit like ghosts wandering the empty streets as if looking for the ones they had lost.
It was depressing, and it made her wish she could run away, as far away as possible, but she knew she wouldn’t find anything different wherever she went. At least, not on this planet.
“Aliyah, darling, how are you?” Mrs. Swenson, her old neighbor, called to her from her front porch. Despite the freezing wind blowing, the old woman was only wearing a woolen dress that had seen better days.
Letting out a deep sigh, Aliyah picked up the firewood again and walked up to meet the old lady. “You shouldn’t be out here, Mrs. Swenson. It’s too cold,” she scolded her, with a gentle tone.
Like her, Mrs. Swenson had lost all her family during the wars, and she had no one to look after her. Aliyah did her best to keep an eye on her, but with the long hours of work she had, it wasn’t easy.
She gave her a tremulous smile. “I just wanted to make sure you didn’t forget to bring me some of that firewood,” she replied, stepping in and holding the door opened for Aliyah.
“Have I ever?” she asked, smiling. “You should be wearing something a bit warmer than that.”
“I’m not cold. In fact, I have been feeling a bit warm, ever since I got up this morning,” the old lady informed her, taking a seat in the armchair in front of the fire, as she watched Aliyah put away some of the firewood she had brought in.
Worried, Aliyah walked up to where she was and gently touched her forehead, noticing the redness in her cheeks. She had a fever. “Perhaps, you’re coming down with a cold. Do you have any meds left?” she asked, concerned for the old woman’s health.
Mrs. Swenson shook her head. “There’s nothing left. I went down to the hospital last week, and they told me they had nothing they could give me.”
The scarcity of medicines was a tragic reality, and Aliyah knew it very well. She didn’t have any meds at home either, and she doubted any of their neighbors had either. Pulling back her thick, blond braid, she straightened up. “You should take a warm bath. That should be enough to lower your temperature,” she advised. “Meanwhile, I’ll prepare a vegetable soup for you,” she offered.
But the old woman shook her head, rejecting her offer. “Thank you, sweetheart, but you’ve done more than enough for me. You work hard enough in that factory, there’s no need to burden you even more with my silly aches and pains.”
“I don’t mind…” she assured her, but the old woman interrupted her.
“I know you don’t. But I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself,” she insisted. “Have you received any answer back from the agency?” she asked, changing the subject.
Aliyah blushed a bit and looked away, wishing she hadn’t mentioned it to the old lady. “No, not yet. I guess I don’t meet the expectations of the suitors,” she replied, well aware she was no beauty queen.
At almost six-feet-tall, with a rather chubby body, Aliyah was far from the typical model of feminine beauty. Sure, her blond hair and sparkling deep blue eyes weren’t that bad, but most men found her a bit too imposing for their taste, and that wasn’t anything new. Even before the wars, she’d had trouble finding a man able to see beyond her looks.
“Nonsense. I’m sure you’ll get an answer any day now,” the old woman comforted her.
She smiled. The truth was she wasn’t in a hurry. She had sent her application because she had been encouraged by Mrs. Swenson, after a pretty bad week at work. The old woman had even insisted on helping her pay the minimum fee. She wanted a better future for Aliyah, and they both knew that included a one-way ticket off the dying planet.
She guessed that was one of the reasons she wasn’t that eager to get an answer back from the Mail Order Bride Agency. Who would take care of Mrs. Swenson once she was gone? The old lady wouldn’t survive much longer without someone looking after her.
“Of course.” She wiped her hands on her jumpsuit and picked up the rest of the firewood. “I’ll come back later to check on you, alright? Get a warm bath and get something to eat, please,” she asked, with a smile, as she headed to the main door.
“I will, don’t worry and don’t bother coming later. I’ll be fine,” she assured, but they both knew Aliyah would disregard her request.
Aliyah crossed the yard that separated both houses and entered her own house, letting out a deep sigh. Working at a canned fish factory was a nasty job, but it put enough food on her table and some money to cover her other needs. It was rough times for everybody, but at least, she still had a job and a decent roof over her head. Not a lot of people could say that.
She took a quick shower and prepared some vegetable soup for Mrs. Swenson and herself, and after eating her share, she took the rest to the old woman. She was still sitting in the armchair where she had left her, and it was obvious she hadn’t moved.
Worried, Aliyah dropped the bowl she had brought on the table and walked quietly to where she was, not willing to wake her up if she had fallen asleep.
But the minute she reached the old lady, she knew something was wrong. She was too still.
With an iron band wrapped around her chest, she kneeled in front of the old woman and confirmed her worst suspicions – Mrs. Swenson was gone.