The Poison Gamble


By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 42
The Fruit's Price

Sunday, December 2, 2700
 

Jake held the boy in his arms, horrified at his own numbness. The trance wouldn't break--it wouldn't break! Jesse's ribs heaved twice a second as his eyes stared blind, barest ruby rim of iris around a pupil black as hope, his mouth agape at the effort to stay alive.
 
"He can't handle the atropine," Lisa said beside him, "but he can't handle the toxin either. I'm afraid to continue treatment, afraid to give it up."
 
"Bojemi's lectures on medicinal trances--did you attend?"
 
"Don did; they conflicted with my Theories of Education course."
 
Suddenly Jake broke into chuckles--horrible, soundless convulsions of the chest and throat that had no more to do with his numbness than the tears sleeking down his cheeks--the unexpected, impossible tears...
 
"Here," he giggled as he handed Jesse over. "Teach him something." He went outside. It twisted like a knife inside him to see Jesse like that, so badly that he clutched his stomach.
 
Deirdre stood on the deck to watch yet another sunset, as she had evening after evening, dropping all responsibilities at this hour. The last light stained her summer-dress red, and a wind tossed her hair and skirt. She turned around at the sound of his approach, her face sick with anxiety for Jesse. The deck's motion made her seem to hover.
 
"The Shandow!" The words tore from him. Everything crystallized as he ran towards her. "It was you! The vision! My God, what have we done?" The meaning broke through as he felt his own face contort with terrors--a warning! And he'd ignored or misunderstood it and all the other warnings, the classroom, the door opening in the cave but like an idiot he'd drunk to hide from that one, and the time on the beach, in his bed, on the cliff--all wrong! He'd gotten it all wrong!
 
"Why didn't you tell me?" Jake screamed, startled at his own hoarseness as if he'd been screaming all along and not known it. He shook the girl where he'd been holding her, up in front of his face, shook her as she screamed too and struggled to break free.
 
"Jake! Jake! Let her go!" Somebody tackled his knees and the pain sent other pains shearing through him, exploded in his head, wrenched his guts, more pain than anyone could bear and remain sane.
 
He yanked Lisa off his legs, flung her and Deirdre both like dolls across the boat. The pain, the pain! "I'm on fiiiiire!" It drove him mad! He shoved both fists through something made of wood, trying to stop it, make something stop it.
 
"Jake, no!" Arms locked around him; he shrugged them off, pounded something else to powder. Glass, maybe.
 
"Fire!" he raged. "Holy stolen fire!" His vision tangled up with the poison, became insane, unbearable. All the wailing in the world wouldn't make the world stop! He lifted a barrel over his head and hurled it at the world.
 
A different, outside pain smashed into his skull to send everything dark with sparkles.
 
"Merrill...Merrill..." That's all Lisa could say through her tears. Merrill staggered a little, leaning on the mop with which he'd brained Jake.
 
"I think you'd better tie him up, but good. Jake's as strong as Don--no, more." For the first time in days Merrill's thoughts had truly begun to clear, like a flood once it pushes out all its debris. His mind adjusted to the toxin even as his body had. His perceptions remained on a higher level, but not so much, not so crazy.
 
"Can you manage?" Lisa asked him. "I've got to see to Deirdre."
 
"Why certainly...I think I can." He reeled over to the rope pile (no longer Don's neat coils) and untangled enough to restrain Jake with.
 
"Relax your muscles, Deirdre; your shoulder's dislocated, but nothing's broken. Here, just a...there, it's in place again. Now let me bind it...there's a good girl." Lisa came back to Merrill, inspected his knots as though Jake did not buck and bellow within them, and then she sat down and cried, just bawled her head off like she could never stop. Merrill put his arms around her.
 
"It's...it's not supposed to go like this...I should have been next...he's out of order, Jake is!" She sobbed and sobbed as if it would do any good. "Do you realize, Merrill, that I am now the only able-bodied person left on this whole damn boat? Do you know what that's like?"
 
"Go ahead, kidita, tell me what it's like." More than ever he understood the strength Lisa had that Deirdre lacked. Deirdre never complained. She left it to others to shelter her; she couldn't see her own limits. "Tell me everything."
 
In the background Don's screams subsided.
 
* * *
 
"Out again, Tom?"
 
"To hunt. We need the meat."
 
"The larder is full. I don't know where I'd put more meat."
 
"Gotta go, Hon. I'll catch you later."
 
"You're not leaving me alone with her again, you can't just..."
 
"Bye."
 
"Tom!"
 
Zanne paid them scant heed, for she had found an entire kingdom in her memories. She had no idea she'd stored away so much detail in some fifteen years of life. Every nodule of a pomegranate that she'd eaten at age five, the placement of each flavor-ruby within the "bones" of the fruit. The words of that poem that she'd tried to write at seven, all the smudges and slips of the charcoal till she crumbled the paper up--and still, the landscapes of ridges on the ball that she had scrunched together. The half-crushed dried-flower bouquet hidden back in a chest, which she'd known belonged to her mother--each brittle spine and ash-frail petal, each shade of gold and rust, each shadow in its complex weave. But more and more the memories that enthralled her most involved her father, the versions of his face in all its complex moods. The father now lost forever to her.
 
Her memory added to his face, year by year, line by line. It came to her, then, the year that had added most of the lines, the month that bleached in that first streak of white which eventually robbed him of all his golden locks: the year and the month when he became the new shaman.
 
Ai, that most terrible of all ordeals--everybody said so. The old shamen led him into the darkness of a doorway, carved into a rock. A musty, unpleasant odor wafted faintly out. Her father had looked so gaunt, mighty in his bones but deathly-beggarly in the remaining rags of life.
 
Zanne had cried out to him, fearing that he'd die like they said her mother did, but people held her back-- rude, meaty hands that didn't understand the fear of death the way she did. They tried to reassure her, insisting that his time of danger had passed; he had no choice now but to live.
 
But they wouldn't let her touch him! They wouldn't let Juliar near her or anyone else except the old shaman, who gave her a pat and a smile. She snatched the man's hand from her head, spitting with rage--she wanted her father, not this relic! She demanded him! Again she lunged for Juliar and again the people restrained her.
 
The older and the younger man went into the hollowed boulder jutting like an intrusion of reality into the man-made world. People pushed bundles of supplies in after, and then they pulled up the thickest slab of wood that Zanne had ever seen in this place of few trees. Prior use had scarred it; it came from the days when things arrived fresh from the outside world. Two men hauled it over to the doorway, positioned it till it hid all the passage down like a patch across a vacant eyesocket--and then they nailed it shut! They sealed her father away from her and he didn't even resist.
 
She had played in the shadow of that boulder a dozen times. It took the space of several houses, it had interesting nooks and ledges. Kids went there to capture lizards. She had not thought of it as hollow, she never thought of anything at all being inside the stone. She had never before realized what a sinister thing intruded on her village.
 
Now, over and over, the faces played before her. Her father had looked weary, bewildered and...terrified. He had terror in him, after they’d told her that all danger had passed.
 
And the old shaman had it, too, she remembered now, hidden behind the smile. His terror walked hand in hand with resignation...and relief? Or something more complex than that? Surely his face came to her now more vividly than she'd seen it that day; she marveled at the reflex that recorded it beyond her own capacity to notice at the time.
 
Now she replayed the faces of her father afterward. She saw what she'd had no gift to see before: awe, shock, guilt. Guilt? Unmistakably. She searched her memory for what the old shaman had looked like afterwards, too, till she realized that he had never come back out.
 
Clues fell together; they wouldn't relent. Juliar's hesitation to touch her, his washing of his hands seven, eight times a day, for years afterwards. "My father killed him," she whispered in horror to the ceiling. "My father killed the old shaman."
 
* * *
 
Night: a shadow that stretched from horizon to horizon, haunted by a mad oracle's howls. Sea like the ink of a devil's contract. Boy-man, poisoned on glory-hunger and grief, sin and shame and power, carried the stiff thing, moving by stumbles and limps, too weak to carry himself, really. Merrill, in his heightened state, gained no comfort from the acclimatization that eased seafaring for other sailors after days. The motion troubled him with uncertainty without relief. The silver points that made each star stabbed down on him from a blackness so deep that he flinched in every step, half certain that he must fall up into it. Below, the boat tossed on silver swirls limned out upon the shifting black. Salt-scent tore his throat like crushed glass. Nothing in the world, looked, smelled or felt hospitable enough to sustain the lives on that one cramped boat.
 
He staggered under his burden, though its lightness would've shocked a soul less weary. But he bore the responsibility while Lisa slept. She'd done too much already, bowed under the weight of his crime. Guilt clung to his heart with child-small hands, crushed him, pulled him down with terrible tonnage. The bundle in his arms felt brittle-stiff within its blanket.
 
"It is not for anyone else to do this," he muttered, even his whisper hoarsened. "Not for anyone else. My responsibility."
 
He reached the gunwale--a few feet traversed through purgatory. He acquiesced. He leaned over the edge, arms and heart full, his head bowed. Then he just let his arms drop.
 
The splash hit him in the face with the chill of judgment. He opened his eyes. The sea showed no acknowledgment of his gift; it had no place in it to remember even such a sacrifice as this. So Merrill cursed it in a snake-hiss of a rasp, but he had long since worn out all potency in curses; they fell apart in the air. Even his own tears tasted no different from the saltwater that had splashed into his face.
 
When his tears exhausted him past standing, he sank against the gunwale and sobbed into the wood. He had grown nearly as stiff as the dead by the time Lisa found him in the morning and helped him back to bed.
 

Monday, December 3, 2700
 

"Don...Don..." Don lay on his back, fascinated by the swirl of dots before his eyes, tiny grey blurs that all pulsed towards a center, swallowed up by it only to begin again at the edges.
 
"Can you hear me?" a voice croaked. He knew the biology behind the vision, about the dead cells that float inside the eye, invisible to the attention though not the retina. People usually saw it only when exhaustion broke down their ability to blank it out.
 
He took in the added burden of the voice made guttural by a swollen throat. "I'm here, Randy." His own voice shocked him, unrecognizable.
 
"It's Lisa...we can't...Deirdre threw her shoulder out again subduing her...can you get up?"
 
"I guess I'll have to."
 
"Good. I'm done in." They all croaked. Don tried not to think about the strain he'd put his own throat through these past few days. He pulled himself up by a chest, then a porthole and then he grabbed things along the way and worked himself out to the top deck, sweating hard.
 
He saw no struggle...no, over there. He hadn't distinguished Lisa's cries from the keening that came from--used to come from Jesse--why did it never matter before that Jesse's voice hadn't changed?
 
There. Don shambled forward like an old man. Merrill sprawled across Lisa's legs, half-conscious himself. Deirdre had locked her legs around Lisa's arms, while her own good arm sought the woman's carotid artery. Deirdre thrashed and snarled nearly as fiercely as the sick one, baring her teeth until she found the pressure-point and Lisa went limp.
 
Rope. Over there. Don fumbled on the knots but forced himself to precision. What did it serve to advance the brain if you stunned it with exhaustion?
 
"My arm, Don. Can you do something?" Deirdre smiled at him through her pain like she'd gone mad--shining eyes, quivering lips.
 
"Sure, love. Come here." He reset and rebound Deirdre's shoulder, looking over at Lisa as his hand followed instinct. Poor girl, all done in like that. Lisa looked emaciated already, before the poison had a chance to work on her. Wearied half to death.
 
Lisa's body heaved with spasms. No rest for the wicked, even in unconsciousness. Don shook Merrill's shoulder; the three boys sort of manhandled Lisa into her cell. On the way Lisa came to and buckled in their arms till they had to leave her half in and half out of her doorway, head down on the steps, stomach draped over the storm-sill. She reviled them for this but they'd heard too many accusations, deserved or otherwise, for it to make any difference.
 
"One moment," Randy said. If that crazy telepath got anywhere near her focus...! Randy stumbled over Lisa's body, winced when her teeth found his ankle, and rummaged in her things till he found her pendant. He threw it out the porthole.
 
Randy stared as it arced in slow-motion. He had acted before he'd realized what he'd done; his hand seemed to have moved without his volition. He heard the splash as the sea took Lisa's most prized possession.
 
The others sat on the deck when Randy finally braved Lisa enough to come out (at least he'd dragged her by the hair down further till she lay horizontal--she should've thanked him.) He limped and left bloody footprints on the deck. He ignored his ankle till he’d fixed them some ration-flour porridge and joined them, bandaging himself while they ate. Then, like the rest, he ate with his fingers out of the pot because no one had washed dishes for days.
 
"Jesse should snap out of it soon, shouldn't he?" Randy asked. "He'll be some help."
 
Don shook his head and pressed a finger to his lips with a glance in Deirdre's direction. Another sunset had begun and she'd dropped her bowl to go over to the rail. Don kept his voice low.
 
"Jesse died last night. Deirdre mustn't know."
 
"She's bound to figure it out sooner or later, Don," Merrill said.
 
"She's the last one. We can keep it from her for a day or two, and by then she won't care. Let's not spoil a thing for her if we can help it; leave her every good thing that she has left."
 
Randy leaned his head back against the bulkhead, closed his eyes and let the weak, stupid tears spill and spill, his throat too sore for one decent sob. "Jesse," he husked, barely audible. "Y'know, I'd always expected him just to be there, sort of a little brother." He wiped his face on his sleeve, but it didn't do any good, the tears didn't stop.
 
"Randy..." Merrill put a hand on his shoulder.
 
"That one time...it had been me, Jesse, Jake and Deirdre, on our first adventure--you know, when we'd run off to see the fireworks at Alonzo Valley. You and Don weren't in on that one, Merrill." He turned red eyes to his friend and quivered out a smile.
 
"We couldn't," Merrill said. "We were miles away, on a different study-track."
 
"You missed a lot--that's when we had our first real encounter with liquor and got so smashed that we couldn't sneak back home."
 
"Yes. I remember. You told me."
 
"So we got scared and hid out the next day on a farm--wound up working for our keep for a whole crazy year." Randy laughed shakily. "I got pretty good as a farm-hand, all things considered. Did you know that?"
 
"I heard you were a regular work-horse."
 
Randy pressed trembling fingers steeple-like together and nibbled the nails a moment, thinking. "Let's see, it happened shortly after initiation for all of us, so we must've been around seven or eight--in theory, at least." He glanced over at the cabin where Jake thrashed and groaned. "Except Jake, of course, had to be older. That delay in his education...you know. And Jesse...good ol’ genius Jesse...well, he must've been younger...Jesse."
 
The tears hit hard again, shaking Randy's whole body. For a long moment he just held Merrill's hand on his shoulder, trying not to sob outright, trying not to hurt his throat any worse. "What escapades we'd been through, Jesse and I!" Somehow when he smiled he cried all the harder. Merrill held his shoulder and said nothing.
 
* * *
 
Ava made not a sound in the dark. She wouldn't take everything; that made it simple. Tom's snoring for once reassured her as she rummaged through the cedar closet.
 
Not this dress; she remembered the promise that he'd made when she'd worn it. And those shoes, leave them behind--she'd never walked beside him in the places that he said she would when he bought her those shoes. The gloves he’d said that he would fill with the spices of Satirk. The hat that she would supposedly wear to the Council of Lobbies. The swimsuit for the resort she'd never seen. It really made a small bundle, the clothes she'd need, the ones without memories tacked on like pricetags that she couldn't afford.
 
She packed up toiletries, leaving behind all the perfumes. Each one held a memory coiled in it like a genie that she would not disturb. She paused over the bottle of sunscreen. For awhile she'd thought that this one promise had come true. He did bring her to this island paradise, just as he'd said, where clothing wouldn't matter, just a little protective oil between her and the sun.
 
A place of peace. An end to aborted adventures.
 
She uncapped the bottle and poured the whole thing down the drain. She wiped the least trace of it off her fingers. She had some money of her own. She'd buy her own sunscreen.
 
It had really gone too far, this marriage. In her youth she had wanted adventure and he gave her words. Now that she consigned herself to aging, all the futures gone to other people, now that she'd grown cold to old dreams and he'd agreed with her, he couldn't even stay true to that.
 
Too late and too much.
 
She paused in the hall beside the guest room. The strange young girl spoke things in her sleep about dreams come true. Poor thing. Young people learned everything the hard way.
 
She wasn't that young anymore. She moved on.
 
Outside the sky stretched over her, as enormous as new possibilities, and the stars made it deeper and deeper still. The foliage rustled in a sea-warmed breeze. It really could've been a paradise. With some other man, who'd made other friends. Let Tom share it with his friends.
 
Her footsteps hushed across the sand to the pier that Tom had built. She could see frailties in its structure already, boards waiting for the first real storm to pry them loose. No, she didn't need this life.
 
At least he had taught her to sail. If she thought back on it, she knew she'd remember the occasion, which vacation that never happened, which venture untried, that would've required this skill of her. She left it forgotten.
 
Could she sail alone? Unquestionably.
 
The wind blew inland so she set the sails accordingly. The sound of ocean lulled away the memory of screams. She wanted to forget that most of all, the final slash to bleed their marriage dead: the way he'd left her to care for that lunatic girl while he hiked and hang-glided, hunted and fished, not even up to the adventure that sought him out.
 
She would never ask how it all turned out. She'd leave him no address, seek nothing more of his company or news about him, for old time's sake or any other reason. What old times in a wasted life? She felt certain that she could forget Tom entirely, if she put her mind to it.
 

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