Poison was first published in the Red Rock Review, Number 42, in the Summer of 2018.
It is a beautiful day in early summer. A light breeze blows down the river canyon where we hike. Myself, Pabst, Steve, Eric, and my two brothers all carry light packs. It is only a day hike. The sun shines downward but we only sweat lightly. The river is small but swift. The canyon is steep and dotted with basalt outcroppings, sagebrush, and juniper trees. It is an environ that is pleasing to my eyes, the environ I was born in. The sights, sounds, and smells are all of home.
We come upon a small pine glade along the edge of the river. Inside it is shaded, hidden from the outside world. Each step crunches downward through years of fallen needles, a soft carpet of tiny daggers which muffle all sounds as we move through it. Dust motes float on shafts of light which have broken through the branches from the sky above. Small pixies lazily flying in the warm summer air. It is a strange place, a stifling place. We all get quiet as we walk through it. The glade has the same feeling as a church, the feeling that one must be silent and respectful while one is within.
In the center of the pine glade we find an old picnic table, its paint peeled off in great strips. Wisps of sunlight from above create patches of light around it. On top lays the remains of a long abandoned picnic. An old falling apart wicker basket, a large old rusty thermos which once held ice tea, old metal plates and utensils which have been picked clean by insects, rotted paper wrappings, and what appears to the be the remains of watermelon which has collapsed in on itself. All is covered in dust, mold, and mildew. It is a strange scene to behold. You can almost hear the happy laughter of the bygone picnic which was once held here.
Strangest of all is the large wooden cup set near the middle. The cup is nearly a foot high and carved into the shape of a grinning tiki mask. It is filled to the brim with water, the slow accumulation of rain falling through the trees. Unlike everything else on the table the cup is not covered in dust or cobwebs, it appears clean and new as though it was just set there the day before.
I don’t know what comes over me. A strange sensation and need overcomes me and I reach forward and flick the top of the tiki cup with my finger. A few droplets of water slop over the side and fall, splashing on the dusty tabletop below. A shape lashes forward, knocking pieces of forgotten picnic out of its way. I feel a sudden sting on my wrist. All of us jump away from the table as the shape coils back, hissing, ready to strike again. Two snakes writhe against each other in the center of the table, their bodies coiling and uncoiling, making it difficult to tell where one snake ends and the other begins. Their dry scaly skin rustles as they rub against one another. They hiss in anger, at each other and at the intruders to the glade. Both snakes have their tails jammed into the same knothole on the table, trapping both together in a permanent embrace.
I stare at the snakes intently, trying to make out their colors and markings in the dim light. My heart is pounding. Please god no. Flashes of white belly and then the dark brown and the gray of their tops. Patterns of diamonds spread downward across their backs. Rattlesnakes! The certainty drives a deep fear into me. I take a few deep breaths, try to get my heart to slow its heavy rhythm. I look at my wrist and see the small gash near the blue veins that track just below the surface. It does not appear to be a bad bite, but there is no reason to take the chance.
“We have to go.” The others look from the snakes to me, shock and puzzlement in their eye. “We have to go. I’ve been bitten.”
One by one the bulbs light over their heads and the reasoning behind my words sink in. Steve is the first to talk. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Yeah, it's really just a scratch. But we should probably get it checked out.”
My older brother turns and starts walking. “Let's go then. The car isn’t that far.”
We leave the glade and hike another half mile down the canyon. I try to keep my breathing deep, long, and even. Try to keep my heart from beating too fast. My brothers and friends give me shit the entire walk. Trying to make me mad. Their words do nothing, but the fact that they’re trying to make me have a strong reaction at the one time I need to remain completely calm makes me angry. Why are they being such assholes? I suppress it and ignore it. I tell myself to remain calm, to not let them get to me. I do my best. I look down at the gash again. It’s not bad. It isn’t even swelling. So why do I still feel so worried?
We reach the car and get in, my older brother behind the steering wheel. We pull out of the parking lot and start the drive home. My eyes watch the passing landscape and my mind wanders. Who put the tiki cup in the glade? How did the snakes get their tails caught in the knothole? What is going on?
The change is abrupt. Like the flipping of a television channel. One second I’m in the car. The next I’m in a Shakespearean throne room. Torches and lamps flicker along the wall. Lords, ladies, jesters, soldiers, and peasants all wait for their chance to talk to the fat king who sits on the throne in the center. His face is jowly and pale beneath a wispy beard. His fat shoulders are covered in soft furs and gold chains hang around his neck. His great belly bulges out against his tunic, hiding his lap and codpiece beneath its fold. His fat fingers are covered in rings. His legs, encased in tights, are skinny and bony, in sharp contrast with the rest of him. The fat king stares out at the world through pig like eyes. He cannot see me. I can feel that I am not physically there. It is just a vision.
Two assassins come forward and give their report to the king. They tell him how they have slain the hero that was the king’s nemesis and that the hero will never challenge the king’s authority again. The king chortles and laughs at the news, his great belly shaking, and then demands to know how the deed was done. The assassins hand the king a golden chalice and then begin a soliloquy about poison and how cleverly they got the hero to consume it. The fat king sits and listens and raises the cup to his lips to take a drink.
The assassins and the entire court fall into a shocked silence. The fat stupid king demands to know what is wrong. Nobody can find the words to answer him. The king’s neck begins to convulse and he looks confused. He puts the chalice down and stands up and begins walking back and forth. He stops and raises his hand, tries to speak, but nothing comes out. The entire court watches in stunned disbelief. No one tries to raise a finger to help the fat stupid king who can’t figure out what is happening. He tries one last time to speak, and then drops over dead.
Another abrupt change. I am back in the car and we are pulling up at my parents’ house. None of it is real. I shake my head and concentrate on the task at hand. We have to hurry, the nearest clinic is still half an hour drive away. We get out of the car and rush to tell my parents what has happened. The house is crowded, my parents’ entire network of extended family and friends in one place to have a celebration. There is a momentary point of panic. My wrist still has not swelled and I feel foolish for causing such a ruckus over nothing. I feel eerily calm, wishing that we could just get done with it already so I could continue with my day. Nothing is going to happen, it will just be an interesting story to tell people later.
There is a momentary time of confusion as people debate on who should accompany me to see the doctor. A group of us slip out as the debate continues. We don’t have time for this. We all get into my parent’s SUV. Me, my mom, Eric, my dad’s cousin’s wife, and Pabst behind the wheel. He turns on the engine and mashes the accelerator to the floor, throwing gravel as he pulls out of the driveway. I look at my wrist again, the small gash barely breaking the skin. I don’t feel entirely connected to the moment. I don’t feel like I’m entirely there.
When I look up again I do not see the rural setting of my boyhood home. I see the SUV darting in and out of traffic, passing cars on both the left and right as it moves down the expressway in a heavily urban setting. Tall buildings blot out large parts of the sky. Roadways and exits surround us on all sides. Pabst misses the exit he wanted to take. It moves below us, separated by a downward sloping cement embankment. There is no time to wait, no time to try again. “Hang on,” I hear Pabst yell and then he jerks the wheel, sending the SUV down over the side. Cars honk their horns and angry faces appear in all the surrounding windshields, but with another jerk of the wheel we are right where we need to be, speeding down the exit to the hospital.
There is a bridge ahead, a bridge with no river below it. Crossing guards close and the bridge begins to slowly rise in front of us. Pabst guns the engine of the SUV and crashes through the crossing guard. Pabst has his foot to the floor, the pedal to the metal. The SUV moves farther and farther up an ever steepening incline. I wrestle to get on my seatbelt. Everyone in the car is screaming except for me. My heart is pounding but I am silent. I do not feel like I am actually there. I am unafraid. I know that nothing bad is going to happen. My heart is at first beating rapidly, but it slows as I become less of an actor in the play around me, and more of spectator.
We are nearly at the top when the bridge hits 90 degrees. The SUV, its wheels still spinning, begins to fall back to the earth below. People continue to scream all around me, but it is all in slow motion. The various random loose items that can be found in all cars hang in the air around me. I watch in captivated interest as we fall, the action unfolding around me at a tenth of normal speed. I feel as though I am weightless, as though I could unhook my seatbelt, open the car door, and float away.
I do not remember the crash. One moment we are hanging in the air. The next we are all piling out of the ruined car and climbing over a railing and a steep embankment to the street below. Nobody seems to be hurt. The moment of unreality ends. I am again part of the action, I am no longer just watching. We don’t run, running will just spread the poison, if there is any, through my body faster. We keep up a brisk walk. As we round the first block we hear three gunshots in the distance. My mother looks worried but the rest of us ignore it and keep moving.
We move onto a sidewalk covered with scaffolding to keep the construction above from falling onto the people below. The sidewalk is crowded, lots of people walking this way and that and small two person tables, all occupied, lining the wall. I walk at a quickened pace, but my footsteps are uneven. I feel like I am drunk, my motor skills slowly going to hell. With each step the feeling becomes stronger. My entire body feels off balance. I keep pressing myself forward.
The sidewalk becomes more crowded and I am forced to push my way through. I don’t see any of the people that we’re in the SUV with me. More and more people start appearing in baby blue tracksuits. They are all younger black men, wearing white dew rags. My brain instantly snaps in a picture of a gang, shooting up the streets. I slow down, not willing to push and antagonize these men. My mind snaps back to the gunshots we heard when we left the car. My eyes fall back onto the wound on my wrist. How long has it been? How long do I have?
I feel as though I am driving my body via remote control from a long distance away. Commands from the brain to my limbs are scattered and unsure. I can feel my worry rising as I lose more and more control of my ability to walk a straight line. Everything moves around me in a blur, the details becoming less succinct and definite. I pass by one of the tables. A small white blonde girl with glasses sits at it in the same baby blue track suit as the gang bangers. I overhear her explain to somebody that their church group is here to help the poor and clean graffiti. That they are always getting confused for a gang. I don’t hear the rest but I feel a wave of guilt pass over me for my earlier assumptions.
The scaffolding and sidewalk end and the crowds disperse. I feel myself fall forward onto my hands and knees. I am not sure if I fall because I truly lost my balance or if I do it for dramatic affect, a cry for help to the people around me. I feel someone lift me up and turn my head to see my mother. We hustle across the now eerily empty streets, her arm around me helping to support me. I don’t feel like I can move forward on my own anymore. I feel worried, but I am still not afraid. Everything will turn out alright.
My mother's voice is quiet and easily swallowed by the empty urban setting around us. “Your father and I have been watching a lot of TV shows online.”
“You're better now than you were. I didn’t think you could get her back before, but now maybe I think you can.”
“What?” My mother keeps looking forward and hustling me on, my clumsy legs barely supporting my own weight. It is as though she didn’t say anything at all. I feel like I should say something.
“My friend gave me the password for her account. I’ll give it to you when we get home. Then you can watch all the shows you want.”
My mother looks confused but smiles at me. “That would be nice.”
I look up and realize I’m not sure where we are. The streets are empty. Great columns of concrete hold the freeway over our heads.
“Hey idgets, you walked right past it.” My mother and I turn and see Eric running down the street to a nearby door behind us. Everyone else from the car is a little ways behind him, hustling to catch up. Our conversation has distracted us. We walked right past the hospital.
We hurry back and walk through the hospital doors. The waiting room is full and busy looking. Everyone stops what they are doing and looks up when we barge in. My mother takes the lead.
Two men in white coats rush forward and throw my arms over their shoulders. They half carry, half drag me through a pair of swinging doors. We go into a room and they lay me onto the cold tiled floor. The room is not a hospital room. It looks like a dispensary. Shelves of bottled medications line the walls. The doctors working on me look like they could be brothers. They both look like the actor Bryan Cranston. One has a full head of hair and looks like the dad from the popular comedy show. One is bald and has a goatee and looks like the science teacher who makes meth from the popular drama. The people who rode in the SUV with me all come in and line up out of the way against the wall. They watch intently but their faces betray no emotion. Everything feels unreal, as though I’m not really there. It’s as though I’ve fallen deeper into my body and everything happening is from a farther distance away. The doctors work feverishly.
“Check his glands,” yells the bald one. They both even sound like Bryan Cranston.
“Hook up that draining tube,” snaps the full head of hair one. I raise the wrist to try and show them my wound but they push my arm back down. The bald one cuts off my right pant leg with a scalpel and shoves a large needle into my leg above my knee. Liquid begins to flow through a rubber tube attached to the needle, out of my field of vision. The one with a full head of hair keeps popping tiny pills off a sheet of plastic and putting them in my mouth where they dissolve. They taste bitter. I can feel my throat start to tighten. It becomes harder to draw in breaths. My hand tries to grip the arm of the doctor with hair.
The doctor with no hair looks at my mother. “Has he been hallucinating?”
The two doctors look at each other, mirrored worried expressions.
The one with hair has a look on his face like he’s trying to solve a rubik's cube. “What about dialysis?”
Breathing becomes harder. Each breath only brings in half as much air. I can feel gurgling in my lungs with every breath. Orange colored spittle comes from my mouth with every exhale. I struggle, trying to breath harder to get enough air. A larger amount of orange colored liquid comes out of my mouth, splattering my front and the hand of the doctor with hair who continues to shove the little pills into my mouth. Panic. I shake his arm in desperation. The doctor with hair leans in close. For a moment I wonder if he’s going to give me mouth to mouth. I feel myself instinctively recoil away.
“You need to stay calm. We’re doing everything we can for you. You need to stay calm.”
I look into his eyes and I know. I know that I’m not going to live. I’m going to die here on this dispensary floor. My right leg jerks upward toward the ceiling, liquid continues to flow through the tube. The bald doctor pushes it back down. Breathing becomes harder and harder. I’m choking, suffocating. I begin to panic. My arms begin to flail but the doctor with hair holds them down. My eyes rove the room and land on my mother. I try to speak but I cannot. There is so much I want to say. So many messages that I wanted to leave if this happened. I was never meant to die like this.
I am laying in bed at home. Warm and safe underneath my covers. Protectively cocooned by layers of blankets. Not asleep, but not awake. Mid-morning light brightens the curtains which cover the window and keep the room in shadows which shift imperceptibly as the sun heaves its way across the sky. I see none of these things, but I can feel all of them. I’m laying on the cold dispensary floor. Choking. Desperate. Scared. Watching those standing around me who can do nothing to help. I can feel myself slipping away as my supply of oxygen is cut off. I can feel my brain begin to slow. Each ragged breath helps less and less. I am in both places at the same time. I am in my bedroom and on the dispensary floor. It’s a strange and disconcerting feeling. I am in both worlds but not entirely part of either. This is not the way I want to die. I am not dying. There is so much I still need to say. I still have time to do so. What is happening? What is going on?
I am trapped. I don’t know what to do. I feel comfortable and safe at the same time as I feel panicky and scared, my mind slowing shutting down into emptiness. Each ragged gurgling breath becomes harder and harder, bringing in less and less air. I can feel myself lying on my bed. Desperately gulping in long deep breaths. They do nothing to help me on the icy cold dispensary floor. My heartbeat is rapid. I can feel my blood in every artery, vein, and capillary. My cells are vibrating in their terror. I stare at my mother through a long tunnel of darkness. The light above her flickers. My chest aches and my lungs burn. I feel one last thought, one last popping synapse. I wish....I wish....and then nothing. My mind and body lurches. I feel a warm comfort envelope me, shadowy darkness all around me. The feeling of the cold dispensary floor and the sounds of those around me disappear. It’s gone. It’s all gone.