Pilgrimage of a Leper
Chapter 3 of Shiva’s Messenger
Pilgrimage of a Leper
As soon as he had been old enough to fend for himself in the woods, his father had often taken trips on his own, sometimes for up to several months. John had never felt excessively lonely during those periods because he knew his father would always come back. Now his absence was a vacuum and a sense of isolation threatened to pull the air out of his lungs.
Pushing out from the bank, he started the boat’s motor and the sputtering cough of the outboard engine built to a roar. He watched back in sadness as the craft rounded the bend. Then, as suddenly as the view of his boyhood home was gone, so was his pervading melancholy. It was replaced by a growing sense of anticipation. His childhood and schooling were finished and his post-graduate work was ahead.
He transferred his gear up the slope to the hidden pickup truck. Then before driving, he looked at his phony but very convincing identification. The set of ID was painstakingly created around a real person that would have been roughly John’s age, if still alive. It was identity theft but that person didn’t need the name anymore.
The fledgling assassin had training in how to craft up ID but not like this gem. Created by a forger extraordinaire in Toronto, Sam Levi was a man his father considered a dear friend. This set even included a credit card that currently held a positive balance. Bills went to a rented mailbox that Sam handled as part of the expensive service. When he saw the counterfeiter again, John would have to invent a story about his father’s death.
“Maybe I can even squeeze some information about my father from Sam.” The young man glowed at the pleasant thought.
John studied counterfeit driving license and he memorized the date of birth and address. This exercise was one he had practiced with his father many times. The pivotal key wasn’t to just know the information but to become the person. After assuming the persona, his mind would live in a mental compartment housing the personal history he would construct for his character. John gazed at his face in the rearview mirror and allowed the change to fully take hold.
“Hello, Roger Connors,” he grinned and Roger smiled back. He tucked his cards into his wallet, shifted the truck into gear and spun his first wheels in the direction of his new life.
It took over an hour of bouncing on the barely passable dirt track just to get onto the Alaska Highway. From the junction with the Alaska Highway, the first stop along his travels south was the Liard River Hot Springs. Many times, he and his father had stopped there to bathe in the healthy and soothing waters.
“A good healthy soak is exactly what I need to seep out my tensions.” Roger pulled into a parking lot at the entrance to the springs. There were very few vehicles, since it was a weekday and late in the tourist season. Autumn was so close that a few stands of poplar trees had already changed colors.
A grove that was yellow first, when the ones around were still green, was likely all one single organism. Poplars did produce new offspring with pollen and seeds but they also replicated by sending up shoots from the roots. The suckered-up trees were not a new generation. They were simply an addition to the existing plant. The best description would be like they were men cut on a folded paper. Each looks separate but they’re joined at the feet and are all made from the same page.
“Perhaps a family is similarly conjoined amid a thicket of other people—but I have none.” Roger spoke with himself as he strolled boardwalk to the lower springs. His statement didn’t hold a ring of finality so he tried another. “Or I’m looking for one.”
After stripping in the changing room, he put on his shorts. Bathing suits were mandatory when other people were present—as there were today. The natural springs were even better without but the water in the hot pool still felt wonderful. Splashing and soaking, he luxuriated in the relaxing warmth. A two-foot waterfall poured over a weir between two levels of the split pool. With the surge flowing on his neck and shoulders, Roger closed his eyes in utter tranquility and the heat cleansed away his recent sorrows.
“The who and why are only the smallest part of the lesson.” His dad had provided a cheat sheet for those two. I only held the gun steady for him to pull the trigger yet it wasn’t suicidal. Finding morality sufficient to act was the real problem. The father’s ethics acted like a refracting diamond transforming ambient light from a situation into a focused laser beam of murder—but of pure intent.
“That’s why the Kennedy assassination plagued him so.” The inspiration struck. He had a pollution to expunge. “Foulness had raped his inner mechanisms.”
Roger’s relaxed eyes scanned his surroundings with lowered lashes. As an impressionist’s watercolor painted with a thick brush, the forested hills were blurred swatches of orange and green. He pondered the comparison of his relationship to his father with a poplar tree. His genetics were distinct from his dad, like a seed planted and grown but his training had suckered up from his dad’s roots. The pupil yearned for a deeper tap in the sap of his mentor’s knowledge. Not to peek at memories, those would be his reward when due. I need the enabling jewel that let my father retain honor while also being a killer. The water ebbed his strength and wholly relaxed him. He slipped into a state of slumber.
In a vivid dream, the young man saw himself standing behind the fence on the grassy knoll in Dallas. He was in his father’s body with vision through the assassin’s eyes. The assignment was going as smoothly as it had in 1963. With precise movements, he drew his carbine and brought it effortlessly to the ready position. The scope’s crosshairs swiftly panned over the assembled crowd and found the open-topped limousine. He aligned the sight at a precise kill spot on Kennedy’s forehead. Inexplicably, the magnification of his target zoomed so fully that the face filled the viewfinder. Roger squeezed the trigger but the gun wouldn’t fire.
Time slowed to a dirge tempo. Tugging again, the metal appeared to be jammed solid, yet it still jiggled. His own finger was refusing to obey his command. ‘Shoot now!’ His father’s voice screamed in his ear but the sound was slow and distorted as a dragging cassette. ‘This is who and why.’ Oswald opened up with a Gatling gun: his rapid-fire flurry was all over the place, with no apparent hits. Roger tried to take his one shot again but it was to no avail. His finger would move but his brain lacked a key and refused to transmit the command to kill. The limousine drove safely away.
Suddenly in his dream, Roger knew his sniper position was being closely observed. Even immersed in the flow of water, the skin of his neck became goose flesh under the intense scrutiny. Slipping out the dream’s threshold, he felt someone so close to him that a slight movement of warm breath was on his chin.
Roger’s lids flickered and he saw another pair of eyes a scant inch away. They were so near that he couldn’t even focus on them. He jerked alert and his hands went up automatically in defense. His fist struck something soft as his eyes snapped fully open. He found himself looking into the face of a very young girl. Her tears were already welling up and her arms were clutching at her stomach, where he had inadvertently punched her.
“Aeeaaa! Maamaaa,” the girl screamed. Her slightly turned up nose was sprinkled with freckles and wet hair was splayed about her brow. Half of her face had almost disappeared behind the wide mouthed wail and she was missing at least two front teeth. The girl couldn’t have been more than four years old. Turning quickly to find her parents, she slipped on the gravel bottom and stumbled into the arms of the stranger.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Roger tried to console the child that was now clinging to him as the closest person for comfort.
Her mom and dad, having only turned for a moment to fuss with their picnic, heard the scream and rushed towards their daughter. Roger tried to wipe the tears away and smooth her straw blond hair from her face. The girl’s sobs made her also cough.
“I was dozing in the pool.” He explained in a halting voice. The parents were now very close now. “She came up and looked at me so close that it startled me awake.”
“Was geschieht?” The girl’s father missed all but a few words of the apology and responded in his native tongue.
What is happening? Roger translated in his mind and realized that this must be a family of German tourists. He repeated his explanation in their language. Apologizing again in words she could understand, he stood the girl up from his lap and in doing so he noticed her chest and cheeks were covered in angry red pimples. Her sobbing subsided as she pulled away to receive consolation from her parents.
“~I don’t think I hit her hard.” He explained in perfect German. “~It was a reflex action.”
“~Hanna is touchy about everything right now.” The mother was a curvy woman. “~I’m sure it was just a tap but she’s hurting with her Measles and so it was just a reason for her to cry.”
“~I know she does look very closely at people.” The girl’s father added. “~I’ve had her wake me like that.”
“~Join us for some sandwiches.” The woman offered but any refusal would’ve been difficult as she was dragging him by his wrist.
“~I think you’re from the north part of Germany,” the tourist man tried to place the accent, “~perhaps Bremen or Hamburg?”
“~I was born here and only visited there once.” Roger added a new snippet to his character file.
“~Your fluency seems good enough to be your mother tongue.”
“~My mother was German.” A fictitious mom was better, as the ‘Connors’ on his ID wasn’t Germanic. Roger picked the name Helga for his mother, in case asked and an imagination’s picture formed of her looking very similar to Hannah’s. “~We often spoke it at home.”
“~Would you have a pickle?” The woman was more interested in being a good hostess than further inquiries. She offered the jar and her guest pinched one between his thumb and forefinger.
“~Are Measles serious?” Roger casually examined the pickle’s sickly-green skin and the bumps reminded him of Hanna’s affliction. He was aware that it was a childhood disease but hadn’t studied extensively on the subject of medicine.
“~The symptoms are quite mild for young children but can be more serious for adults.” The mother explained as she doled out the luncheon from a large cooler. “~It’s contagious but people catch this disease only once and then they’re immune to it.”
“~It’s good that Hanna has it now. Catching it when she’s older would be worse.” The girl’s father chuckled. “~Some mothers try to expose their children to communicable families to get it over with sooner. It’s like that also with Chicken Pox and the Mumps.”
“~You’ve had them?” The mother expressed concern then her attention turned to Hannah. “~Stop scratching them! We don’t want your pretty face still marked when you grow up.”
“~I think so.” Roger lied. He’d rarely even had any colds. It was doubtful he’d ever had any viral infections any kind. They chatted over lunch but the guest ate slowly. His usual buzzard like appetite turned to that of a wren’s, as he worried about the exposure.
“~I’m going to swim in the upper pond.” Roger really felt a need to rinse off. “~Hannah, I really am sorry for slugging you.”
The access to the other pool was locked. Years ago, there hadn’t been a barrier at all between upper and lower springs. Then a bear attacked a tourist and decapitated a man who went to her rescue. The black bears were vicious around there. Now, the park wardens only opened the gate when close at hand with rifles.
“A barred gate only means privacy beyond.” Roger jumped the fence and climbed to the deeper pond. He stripped before diving in and wished there were some wild blueberries around. His father’s code certainly applied here. Breaking the rules doesn’t necessarily mean wrongfulness. “In fact, it should be illegal to wear aught but skin in this natural place.”
“How could it kill me?” He scrubbed without soap in the hot water and hoped he was young enough still for the disease to be safe. Maybe it was a good thing to catch them now. The man had said some people deliberately exposed their kids but Roger was certain his dad would’ve told him that. Anecdotes of his childhood were not on the top-secret or even the restricted list.
As it was now late afternoon, the young man decided to sleep over in the park. The outlet stream from the upper springs could be measured with a lumberjack’s axe: it had the handle’s width and the bit’s depth. His mattress was comfortable squishy mud. With his body in the warm water and his ear cushioned on a big clod of turf, Roger could sleep without fear of drowning. A few times, he awoke for long enough to roll over. The exposed wet skin got quite chilly, even when the parts underwater were as warm as in a womb.
Roger roused fully in the pre-dawn. As he left the springs, the night’s cold turned the warm moisture-laden air of the springs into a thick fog. Moonlight couldn’t penetrate the mist and his journey to the parking lot was a blind creeping along the walkway’s handrails.
“This stop was enjoyable yet ominous.” Back at his truck, he found an unusual pairing of adjectives were applicable to his springs visit. He cranked his heater to maximum to quell his shuddering. “I should add that it was warm while also being cold”
“Stop being such a baby!” Roger scolded his mirrored image. “Remember when we swam in the springs at forty degrees below zero?”
Having left the Liard River Springs very early, he arrived in the next town south before noon. He’d often been to Fort Nelson with his father on trips for both supplies and fuel. This time Roger’s only need was in a bank’s safe deposit box. Gaining access to the vault room was accomplished with a flash of fake ID, a signature and his power-of-attorney letter. He used a key his father had provided. In a room no larger than a pantry and with hands nearly trembling with anticipation, he opened the long thin metal box.
Five packets held Canadian $100 bills, fifty thousand dollars in total. Another smaller pouch contained U.S. currency equaling $20,000. Several envelopes each contained a brass key and signed but blank attorney forms. Each was for one of several other safe depositories. One bank was in Eastern Canada and the others were in the States. The final item was the prize that checked his breath. It was a letter from his father with a small sheaf of notes.
He stuffed the bundles into his pockets and waistband. His t-shirt covered the flagrant transgression of another inane decree. Although storing cash in bank safety boxes was technically illegal in Canada, it was practically unenforceable. The law was founded on a sound rationale though—the tax department can’t abide storage of cash, where they can’t just reach in and snitch some.
The Alaska Highway flows like a river through the heart of Fort Nelson. Narrow green belts of lawn and trees buffer it from access streets on either side. On a picnic table on the shore of the road, he opened the note from his Dad.
Welcome to your new life. I know I’m speaking now from my grave but I know you well enough to envision the details. My belief is that my end came in the clearing. My last happy day spent with your mother was on a picnic there too. No, don’t even think it! That wasn’t what happened to your mother. If you’re entertaining sorrow, banish it now. My last day was blissful. Your final duty preserved me from any future temptations of ending my own suffering.
Moving on to the business of your inheritance. The other safe deposit boxes also hold minor amounts of currency and other things you may need. The one in Idaho has the most, $500,000.00 in US funds. You also have a numbered Swiss account with two million dollars. Sorry there’s not more but I lost my best source of revenue in 1976. You may have to employ more thrift than I did taking you on all our vacations.
I’m sure you’ve thought seriously about the task I‘ve set out for you. Plan your moves. There’s no schedule. Spend some time just living in the outside world, encountering and interacting with people. I’ll end with a reminder that my confidence in you is as boundless as my pride has always been.
Love as ever from your father
The other papers contained inventory of materials caches and contact information for specialized services. Roger couldn’t imagine anything else he would possibly need. In fact, he couldn’t yet think of uses for most of the resources he’d been given. He smiled and shook his head on his reflection. He wasn’t frittering any time on his solitary trips.
Roger kicked around the dusty streets of Fort Nelson for several extra days and found he liked a small town like this. Really, it was only slightly larger than a village. In larger centers, certain types of people tended to group together. Here, with a smaller population pool, everyone mingled and it was refreshing. Bikers sat in the bar with cowboys. Office clerks could be seen chatting over coffee with oilfield roughnecks. Longtime residents had experience in welcoming newcomers, as there was a constant turnover of new people, with staff relocations and transient workers. Friendly as it was though, this still wasn’t getting him any closer to his objective.
Unless the President visited the northwestern noncontiguous State aboard Recreational Vehicle One, he wasn’t likely to be coming to Fort Nelson. It would be hard to spot him anyways. So many of the numerous other Alaska or Bust RV’s were bedecked with enough bald eagle and stars & stripes regalia to make one with only a presidential seal look downright unpatriotic. After buying a road atlas, Roger drove south but pulled off fifteen minutes later beside a borrow pit.
The dugout was initially created as heavy equipment borrowed clay fill to build the highway roadbed. Yearly rainfall and the snow pack runoff were sufficient to keep the pond filled to overflowing. A two-storey building could likely be submerged but beavers were still greedily trying to gain a few more inches of depth. Their dam was at the outlet stream on the bank furthest from the road. A local anglers club had stocked it with trout and it seemed a nice woodland spot to fish, picnic or swim. Roger stopped only because it was a quiet place to consult the map, mix up another batch of his eight berry health supplement drink and decide where to go next.
“Spend time interacting and living.” Roger paraphrased a part of his father’s written advice. Fort Nelson was too remote to suit his purpose but a temporary stay in a small town would acclimatize him from his wilderness life. The atlas book showed the location of his father’s cabin as a text box with map scale and other cartographer’s information. He traced a fingernail over the map and tapped at a point far down the page from where he was now.
“Creston.” The tiny community was at the extreme south of the province and it seemed geographically suited for his needs. The village was equidistant from either Vancouver or Calgary. It was also close to the U.S. border and the safe box & equipment cache his father had placed in Idaho. With his destination fixed, he sat on a fallen log to enjoy the serenity before pressing onwards.
“A man that terminated his father can’t seem to even kill an already dead president in a dream, much less in reality.” Showing his frustration, Roger misquoted his Dad’s last maxim to better suit his current dilemma. “Ah-choo!” On looking up, he found his loud sneeze had drawn unwelcome attention from the opposite shore.
The same sub-species of black bears found at the hot springs and at his father’s cabin existed here too. It’s never a good idea to take any wild predator lightly but people elsewhere generally think of black bears as being rather docile and easily chased away with a shout. For these bears, a hoot intended to frighten is just translated as dinnertime. He had killed many that had become too familiar with the vicinity of his home and Roger knew their manners or rather the lack of them.
The bear stood glaring menacingly but since there was a body of water in between, the young man wasn’t overly worried about a potential attack. Nevertheless, a refreshing swim was now out of the question.
“How can I overcome my qualms about killing?” Since the bear had interrupted Roger’s thoughts on the matter, he posed the query that boreal Poplars had declined answering. A predator also had a better topical knowledge than a grove of trees since it killed without compunction. The aquatic rodents now swimming safely out of reach had probably lost some of their family to this interloper. The bear doesn’t seem willing to answer either. It looked both ways to determine the shortest way around pond, to dine on a human dish.
“I’ll leave the rest of my sandwich if you tell me.” The human sweetened the offer but he really couldn’t use the bear’s motivation anyways. An omnivore, the bear ate anything from a tasty blueberries in season to an old sock nosed out in a rubbish pile. Roger’s intent wasn’t to devour his presidential prey after the hunt. That’s both cannibalistic and flavorfully of poor taste.
“Nasty!” Roger vocalized his reaction to his last thought and the beast suddenly charged. It took the most direct route.
“What bee is up your butt?” This late in the year it was unlikely for it to be a hornet stinging that ring of exposed skin. Roger was in no great peril. By the time the animal could swim the distance, he would be safely in his pickup truck. Still, initiating an attack from the far side of a body of water was especially aggressive behavior even for this type of black bear.
“Should I shoot it to prevent an attack on the next pond visitor?” Though a rifle in his truck was in handy, Roger decided against the kill. The bear was cantankerous but posed no imminent threat. The minor incident that started by his asking the bear’s advice hadn’t gained an answer. In fact, it underscored his mental impasse. Though he had hunted and killed many animals, it was always for valid reasons. “Even if the president’s head sported a rack with trophy points, it still wouldn’t be enough.”
“I hope the next person here has a can of pepper spray.” The young man backed his vehicle onto the highway. A shot of the bear defense aerosol might convince the marauder to reconsider before charging.
“On second thought, the irritant squirt could just make him twice as mean.” Painful deterrence can cut a double swath and one only needed to look at American foreign policy to effectively illustrate the concept. Assassinating the bear may save a potential victim. Hunting a president, before he could declare an ill-considered war in response to wasp-stung buttocks, could save a death toll that numbered the lives of both soldiers and civilians. This episode with the bear hadn’t solved anything but the visualization of an antlered president charging blindly with a hive on his tail, evoked a chuckle.
‘There’s no schedule’. The small notation in the Fort Nelson letter seemed a trifle but the protégé had long since realized that instructions from his grandmaster always turned out best when followed as if lettered with a stencil. Roger intentionally slowed his pace to drift as if carried on the tide.
“Is employment the only activity around here?” He inquired in a Fort St. John men’s clothing store. The bulk of the sales area was taken up by steel-toed footwear, coveralls and a wide assortment of work related apparel. Tucked away in a forgotten corner, he found some pants without stitched in chainsaw safety pads and a jacket that someone missed sewing reflective tapes onto.
His moderately short drive from Fort St. John to McCloud Lake took all day. It was lengthened by a scrambling climb to the very top of a waterfall near the highway and a foray into the woods to find some blueberries. An invigorating dip in the numbingly cold water was worth the effort but the view that stretched to forever didn’t overlook his future.
Several roadside inns along McCloud Lake were in the fall lull between the tourists of summer and loggers of the winter. He stayed over for a few nights. The body of water was miles long but a return crossing of the width was a nice swim with clothing left on the far shore. Once while nude, he nearly bumped into another black bear but unlike its more northerly cousins, a yell sent this one scampering.
“Clamshells?” Roger examined a find at a small sandy beach. This was fresh water and there were apparently even at least two species of them. The interesting discovery didn’t hold any insight into his mental turmoil but he didn’t have that puzzle in his active thoughts anymore either. That quandary was slowly percolating in the mental background while he concentrated on enjoying himself, despite his coughing and runny nose.
“I should trim back on the swims.” Canadian standing waters held particular appeal for him this late in the year. The sun warmed the surface but the water was bone chilling below. Roger’s skin appreciated the variety of temperatures experienced at once. It was as his night sleeping in the hot spring but not quite so pronounced.
The young man hadn’t known a mother, much less a grandma but he’d been flagrantly flouting almost every piece of matronly health advice ever given. The admonishment was his getting sicker each day. Between bouts of coughing at a tightening congestion, he was feverish and achy.
Today, he went only as far as the small city of Castlegar. A sign on the outskirts called it ‘the best dam city’ for the number of nearby water weirs but Roger’s condition was the worst damn horrible. He should go to a clinic or at least get some medication but that was out of the question. Universal health care didn’t extend to someone with no official status at all: so how was that universal? He made do with over-the-counter remedies but soon felt he was getting more calories from the additives in the pills than from real food that he wasn’t eating much of. His appetite was all but gone.
The sick traveler spent the balance of the day in a public library finding out about the town where he was headed. The reference section included microfiche of the Creston newspaper. Browsing idly through past issues, he focused primarily on front-page items.
“Malpractice results in Nil-practice.” Roger read an interesting headline. He searched both forward and back to track the thread of a story triggered by a sensational trial. Scribbling notes, he delved deeper into the personalities involved and the aftermaths.
Finally, Roger arrived in Creston. He suspected autumn had snuck a lift down in the box of his pick-up but his shivering gave the impression that winter was closing the gap on a fast dogsled. He staggered into a motel room and ran a steaming bath. Within moments, the hot water brought out the same inflamed pox that he’d seen on Hannah at the springs. Even the good nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants in his super berry mixture couldn’t have halted the sickness when he had flouted his well being so flagrantly.
Each angry red sore yearned for a fingernail’s urgent attention but he held back for fear of scarring. They also reminded him that he hadn’t been scratching hard at his itchy question either. Tasking his mental fingers with the perplexity, quelled his physical ones from their desires. As his dizziness spun the bathtub under him, the mission also spiraled in a vortex of thoughts. Then one idea put a stopper in the drain and he struggled out of the now cooled water.
“My father’s written advice was to live among people.” Surely the Kennedy assassin had killed other men first. The son knew so little about his father’s life prior to 1963 or post then for that matter.
“Friedrich Nietzsche said, ‘One cannot fly into flying’, and just now I can’t crawl into staggering.” Roger supported his weak and wobbly knees by creeping his hands along the vanity counter. Then he collapsed the final distance from the bathroom door to the bed. Could that be the illusive possibility? Should the reluctant killer just live normally until he found someone for whom death became?
If he could find the morality in himself to murder a lesser mortal, then he might have the resolve and rationalization to take that to the next plateau. He might have that victim picked already but short of coughing on him, to slay by deadly infection, the young man was in no shape to do much else.
“I’ve been stupidly neglecting my deteriorating health.” The now seriously sick boy took an overdue assessment of his condition and it wasn’t overly optimistic. A Nietzsche quote of more pressing concern said, ‘What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.’ Roger realized he had but one choice to make. This one was critical and it was immediate. Did he want to live or die right now?
To survive, he had to fight back against his illness and his body needed energy to carry the battle. Maybe his physique was already neglected past the point of recovery. It was almost midnight but he hadn’t had a meal in days. Roger struggled into his rumpled clothes and fighting vertigo, he made it to his truck.
Was this yet another drunk? Almost ready to close up shop for the night, Cindy Smart sighed slightly at the tone of the door buzzer. When the door opened slowly, it made that long sound and it usually meant someone intoxicated was entering the convenience store she managed. She watched the young man stagger in.
He didn’t have the expected droopy face. On casual second look as she walked to the front counter, Cindy decided his condition wasn’t alcoholic in nature.
She watched as he steadied himself against her coffee bar. His face was greasy, sweaty and marked with pimples. His long hair was matted to his head and looked like he had last cut it himself with a pair of pinking shears. He wasn’t drunk so he must certainly high on drugs. Cindy made a cautious move to the till. She wanted to be close to her panic alarm button and intended to phone the police as soon as possible after his departure. A stoned person wasn’t safe to be on the streets, for his own sake as well as others.
The boy took a ragged breath. He crossed the entrance aisle to lean on the counter with shuddering hands. Abruptly, his body convulsed and he was wracked by a coughing fit. Most people who hacked in her store had self-imposed emphysema and were there to buy more cigarettes.
“I think I have Measles,” his voice was trembling, “stay away from me if you haven’t had them. I have to find—” He didn’t finish the sentence. The eyes rolled back as he collapsed to the floor.
“The facial blemishing isn’t acne. It does look like Measles.” Cindy rushed around the counter and knelt beside the downed man. Her observations spoken aloud was a habit formed during her prior employment. She placed a hand on his forehead. Any hotter might spark a spontaneous human combustion! His breath was shallow. “The cough sounded like pneumonia.”
His eyes flickered open and Cindy Smart stared into blue. The pupils were neither dilated nor constricted and the C-store clerk surmised the stricken young man wasn’t drunk or on drugs. He really was ill and desperately needed a doctor.
“I’ll call you an ambulance.” She tried to rise.
“No clinics!” He gripped her wrist with strength surprising for his condition. “Please, I think I just need some food.”
“You require urgent medical attention.” From his symptoms and appearance, she wondered if he could be dead by morning.
“I can’t go to a hospital.” He struggled to sit up but she gently forced him back onto the floor.
“Let me guess,” she hummed in mock thought but pursed her lips in disgust, “you’re an American boy and you don’t have private health insurance?” Her flippancy was a bedside manner to put the boy at ease but this was an acute situation.
“Cindy?” Roger looked up at the distinguished looking woman maybe in her early forties. She was at the time of her life when age is only able to creep up if allowed or encouraged to do so. She didn’t smoke or drink and so her appearance could be placed anywhere in at least a 15-year span.
“Stay here for a minute.” His grip had weakened and her wrist pulled away as she stood.
The shopkeeper switched off the ‘open’ sign and locked the door while wondering about the peculiarity that caused him to say her name as if he knew her. She glanced down to see if something on her clothing indicated the name but she knew there was nothing. Perhaps in a delirium he had mentioned the name of a girlfriend? Cindy wasn’t an uncommon name. Whoever he was asking for, there was only Cindy present and that one had to do something. “I may be running a convenience store now but I swore an oath.”
“You’re too big for me to move. Try to stand up and I’ll help.” Cindy roused him with a firm shake. Assisting the young man onto his feet, she walked him to the back of the store. It was another struggle to get up the stairs to her living quarters but despite his weakened state and her small stature, they managed. She put him down onto her bed and was mildly concerned about taking a stranger into her own home—but this was small town Canada, eh?
“You’re right.” She noted palsied shaking in his limbs. “You require nutritious food, vitamins, liquids and meds. Most of all you need a doctor.”
“No,” he insisted weakly, “just you.”
“That’s funny.” She smiled ironically. “I’ll make some chicken soup.”
Cindy propped his head on her lap and helped him to finish the broth. In her Florence Nightingale role, she knew his body required nourishment and rest. His eyelids drooped and he drifted away. While he dozed, she stripped the clothes that reeked of stale sweat.
“I’ll bet you gave the girls a delight when you suntanned in the raw.” While sponging his body clean, Cindy couldn’t help noticing his lean musculature was toned to perfection of function, instead of trained to excess of bulk. His skin was uniformly bronzed and he didn’t have pale flesh where his briefs should have lent modesty. The much lighter color in his armpits contrasted sharply with his exposed limbs and torso. She covered his splayed limbs with damp towels to bring down the fever.
“You may even need more than I’m equipped here to provide.” There was still a slender hope his illness could turn back. She monitored carefully for the critical juncture.
“Father!” A weak coughing jag disturbed him at about three in the morning. At this time, in the wee hours, the body is at its lowest ebb and many natural deaths occur then.
“That’s unusual.” Most badly hurt boys called for their mother. The boy in the motorcycle accident certainly had done that.
“I really should call for an ambulance.” They wouldn’t turn him away, despite his lack of medical insurance: would they? Creston was almost on the border of the United States but this was still Canada. Canadian hospitals didn’t send people out onto the streets to die. Well, maybe now they did. The medical board had shunned her for Americanized legal and financial ideals.
“If your refusing medical aid hadn’t been both lucid and definite, you would be going to the infirmary.” This presented a dilemma. A convenience store obviously didn’t have the equipment needed to keep him alive: she needed oxygen and antibiotics. To leave a patient alone in such a critical condition was a risk but she didn’t have much choice. “You won’t go to the hospital but I can.”
Ventilating equipment was in the emergency room and a supply of medications could be found in the pharmacy. Her practice wasn’t current but Cindy Smart was still fully licensed. She still knew the duty nurses and could inveigle the required items.
“Don’t you die on me while I’m gone.” Cindy wagged a warning finger. Her footsteps traced a staccato blur as she hurried down the stairs. The patient couldn’t hear or heed her final instruction. His oblivious toes were already inching over mortality’s threshold.
John Fitzgerald awoke in a room as silent as a sepulcher. Heaviness gathered in his limbs like liquid lead was pulsing through his veins. That same molten metal in his bloodstream fired his fever beyond the dampers of his internal thermostat. With lungs slowly filling up with fluid, his body now lacked the strength to cough. His longevity was sliding away fast.
I was so unbelievably naive. His father trained him in many ways of protecting himself and keeping himself fit and healthy. With confidence, John could face almost any attacker and stand a very good chance of prevailing. Yet now microbes had overwhelmed his body’s defenses. I’m dying and powerless to prevent it. Of all foreseeable demises, succumbing to a childhood disease was almost last on the most likely list. It was saddening because his life had proved pointless. He whispered voicelessly into the quiet darkness, “I’m sorry, Father.”
Resigned to his inescapably impending death, John felt a new potency. It wasn’t physical but rather the energy of his soul welling up. He allowed his breath to slowly exhale. The movement was only constriction of his lung tissue around a semi-solid mass within. Alveoli were too packed to take in life sustaining oxygen. There was no corresponding inhale.
His chest seemed to expand but it wasn’t with the action of taking a fresh breath. Instead, his soul carried consciousness out of his body while his perspective shifted to look back. The view of his naked and splayed body was through eyes vastly superior to human vision. Cloths covering were transparent to his all-encompassing eyesight and his earthly physique was over-laid by a visualization of his whole life, displayed in one infinitely detailed vista.
It didn’t matter what was done or unfinished because each myriad snippet of his life’s threads fused into a complete cable. A flood of knowledge gleaned from connection with the network of souls, pointed to where answers to every question ever asked could be found. Flickering at the edge of cognition, unseen but absolute, he felt his father’s love unwearyingly waiting. Where is my mother?
Another presence, like a spirit comprised of passion, uncoiled as a snake. Shiva? I’m not a Hindu. When a tendril touched him, he understood. My pilgrimage is finished. His fresh wisdom lent a fervent desire to be born again. The afterlife was a wondrous new avenue to explore but an irresistible earthly errand needed fruition.
A boy’s soul said a wordless prayer to a mother he didn’t know.