The fingers that extend to touch him are small. The nails are short and ragged. There is gentle pressure and the touch feels sure. He did not expect her to be so composed.
“What kind of question is that?” he asks her. “You think I’m a ghost?”
“It is a good question. May I have your answer?”
“Of course I’m real. You’re touching me. Isn’t that real enough for you?”
“Your voice sounds true, and your arm is solid. But my mind is broken. It is uncertain what you are.”
“What I am is the Commandant of Checkpoint 5. I just want to ask you some questions about where you’ve come from and what you were doing that far out in the salt. It’s routine. For our records.”
“You are not Keff?”
“What the hell is Keff? I’ve told you who I am. Now I need you to co-operate and answer some simple questions. Can you do that?”
“I can answer questions. But first I have the wish to be sure. Are you willing?”
Jas is standing at the end of the bed, watching the exchange with growing interest. The girl is clearly unusual. Maybe sick in the head, but she isn’t stupid. She’s afraid, but she’s determined. Whatever demons she’s at war with, she is brave enough to want to know the truth. Jas decides that she likes this strange patient of hers.
The commandant rolls his eyes to the ceiling. “Am I willing to what?”
“Willing to sing for me.”
At the look on his face Jas tries hard not to smile.
“Why don’t you just answer some simple questions then I can go home and you can go back to sleep and we can all live happily ever after. It’s not that hard. Question one. Name?”
“You will not sing?”
“I will not sing. I know you were alone when the scouts found you. Can you tell me what happened? How did you end up that far east?”
The girl lay down and pulled the light coversheet over her head.
Jas takes pity on the big man. She sits on the bed beside the girl, lifts the sheet. “Honey, he needs to know. Can you tell me your name?”
“I can tell you.”
“Good. Tell me.”
“But you can’t tell him.”
“He needs to know.”
“If he sings, I will know if he is real. If he is real I will tell him my name.”
“Sounds fair enough. Can he sing anything?”
“He can choose. I will listen.”
“Oh no, this has gone far enough.” The Commandant stands, planting his boots firmly as if to reassert his authority.
“I’ll close the curtains. No one will see, and the ward is fairly soundproof,” Jas offers, “I’ll sing with you to get you started, then you can go on by yourself for a bit.
“So, he is willing?” the girl asked.
“I believe he is willing” said Jas, “You are willing, aren’t you?”
“Let’s get it over with.”
“How about Starlight in Your Eyes?”
“Might as well.”
They sang together, the Commandant doing his best not to be too audible. Then Jas left him to it and his voice swelled to fill out the song. It is a sad song, the song of a love lost in war, the fleeting joys, the lasting pain, the ever-present stars. When he came to the end of the last chorus, the girl looked into his eyes. Tears spilled down her face.
“Thank you,” she said, “My name is Sapphire.”
Strange things are happening with tense. Can’t decide what I want to do.