A is for Absent

Absent:to take or keep (oneself) away: to absent oneself from a meeting.

River liked to drift. Whenever the voices got to loud and the memories of blue threatened to overwhelm her she escaped, going back in her mind to happier times.

At first it was little things, like not answering a question the first couple of times it was asked, or just sitting there, staring at nothing for several minutes at a time. But slowly, over time, it got worse.

She roamed the boat, blank and unresponding, absent from her own mind.

The crew watched as Simon desperately tried any and all medicines, trying to get his sister back.

Sometimes it worked, and River laughed and played with Kaylee, or teased Jayne. But she always slipped away in either a day, or even hours, and she would go back to her zombie state, eating only at Simon's prompting. She never seemed to sleep anymore.

The whole crew of Serenity missed her riddle-filled speeches. They even missed her screaming psychotic fits.

They all tried to help in their own way. Wash would bring River up to the bridge and sit her on his lap like she was a little girl, letting her pretend to fly the ship or play with his precious dinosaurs.

Inara would let River stay in her shuttle, playing with all of her pretty things. She would brush River's hair for hours, and sometimes River would show up in the middle of the night, her hair brush clutched in her hand. Inara never complained when River woke her up, she would just sit her down and start brushing.

Zoe, Mal, and Jayne got together and took out all of their guns. They let River touch the guns she used to steal all the time to play with. For a second her face would light up, her eyes getting a spark of interest as she reached out for the polishing cloth. But then her eyes would dull and her hand would drop to her side. She would stay there for a few more seconds, staring blankly at the forbidden treasure, before she wandered away, her bare feet padding softly on the metal floor.

Book prayed for her night and day, even going so far as to offer her his precious bible for her to 'fix.'

Of all of them, Kaylee tried the hardest, She would spend hours holding the lifeless girl's hand, just talking. She played endless games of jacks, mostly by herself, with River watching and occasionally moving a jack or bouncing the ball. Kaylee counted these times as a win.

Kaylee always made sure to pick up a treat for River whenever they were planet side, whether it was an apple for her to eat or some paint for her to draw with. River reciprocated by following Kaylee around, barely ever leaving her side. Kaylee was the only one besides Simon who could coax food into her, watching as she mechanically chewed the food, not even making a face at the taste of protein like she used to.

Simon seemed to wither away with his sister, turning pale and thin. He ate more and more infrequently, poring over the cortex and old medical textbooks, trying to find a cure.

One day crashing and banging brought the crew flying to River's room, Mal kicking in the locked door. They found her inside the room, covered with paint. The walls of her room were splattered with paint and ink. Glass crunched underfoot as Simon and Mal raced to River, checking her all over for cuts. She just stared up at them blankly, red paint dripping like blood from her forehead.

After that, Mal and Jayne had to lock Simon into his room with a tray of food so that he would eat and sleep. River wasn't allowed to be by herself any more, and from then on she was always accompanied by either Kaylee, Zoe, or Inara. Book and Wash helped out occasionally too.

Even so, one day River managed to escape Inara. Simon was frantic, tearing apart the ship and calling for his sister. They found her in one of the unused guest rooms, standing among the shards of a broken mirror. Simon counted more than twenty separate slices on her hands and feet.

Mal carried River down to the med bay and locked her in, after having Simon and Jayne remove all of the sharp objects and medicine in the room.

Simon stayed with River, making her eat off of the trays the others brought them. River sat there quietly, sometimes stirring as if to do something before she subsided, her hands limply folded in her lap.

Almost two weeks later Book, carrying the breakfast tray, found Simon unconscious on the floor inside of the unlocked med bay. He dropped the tray, breaking the plates and scattering food, and had almost reached him when a scream echoed throughout the ship.

Turning, he ran towards the sound. He found the crew assembled in the cargo bay. There, lying lifeless on the floor, her hands dripping red paint, was River.

Written in red paint was the message:

Where the mind goes,

the body follows. Keep flying.

The screams had come from Kaylee, who was crying into Jayne's shoulder. Inara clutched Mal, and Zoe held Wash. Book slowly crossed himself, then met Mal's eyes, dark in his white face.

"Who's going to tell Simon?" he asked softly.

"You don't have to," said Simon softly. He stood there, white and shaking, a small trickle of blood making his way down his temple.

Slowly, as if he was dream-walking, he crossed to where River lay and, bending down, closed her eyes.

"She was already gone," he said softly, tears beginning to run down his face. Kaylee pulled away from Jayne and went to stand with him. Simon looked up and met Book's eyes.

"She was already absent."