River Gum - Chapter SevenPosted by omnipredation on 2007.11.09 at 14:07
Current Location: Home, office.
Current Mood: mischievous
Current Music: NIGHTWISH - 7 Days to the Wolves
And this is where things start getting really strange.
Oh, and in addition, this chapter has the scene that I first imagined that sparked off this entire story. Figures I took this long to get to it. Circumnavigation, me droogies!
Oh, and in addition, this chapter has the scene that I first imagined that sparked off this entire story. Figures I took this long to get to it. Circumnavigation, me droogies!
Previous Chapter SEVEN Eventually Nat wanted to venture outside for fresh air; no matter how pleasant his accommodations, he felt he was neither able to thrive nor hasten his recovery without a bit of sunlight to help him on his way. When he asked his uncle for a house key, Teddy gave it gladly, in addition to his blessing for Nat’s outings. While Teddy kindly offered to accompany him and show him the ground, Nat had insisted on making his first excursion into daylight on his own, and more important, of his own volition. “Just keep to the path if you go out back, and stay well way from the river. The banks are steep; wouldn’t do at all for you to roll in. I’m pretty sure that chair isn’t equipped or approved as a flotation device,” was Teddy’s sage advice. “No, it isn’t, but my mega-powered space foam casts are pretty buoyant. Unfortunately they cause me to float upside-down, and that makes the whole breathing thing mighty challenging,” replied Nat. “I’ll stay away from the river.” “Good lad. Go on and enjoy your sunshine while it lasts. I’ll join you some other time and walk off a few of these cakes,” Teddy said with a pained smile. “You’ve got my bell?” Nat had wadded a tissue inside it but kept it with him most of the time regardless; perhaps it was silly or superstitious to keep the bell further silenced (after all, he knew it made no sound that he could hear,) but he was wary all the same of giving it another shake, deliberately or inadvertently; after all, how would he know if it rang when he moved it form his chair to his bedside? Obviously if Teddy came running, it would be apparent the bell had sounded – so, in a befitting bout of paranoia, Nat had stuffed in the tissue to keep from coming some sort of unarticulated faux pas. Now he pointed to the pocket of his shorts as he replied affirmatively, “I’ve got it.” “Off with you, then,” said Teddy, retreating upstairs to his private rooms. Nat waited to hear his uncle’s door slam, then went to let himself out the kitchen door where there was a ramp that served both his purpose and that of Teddy’s cook, who used the ramp and a dolly to wheel in frozen foodstuffs. Nat leaned over and pushed down the handle and had to execute a quick turn-around and apply his brakes to keep from rolling down the ramp while trying to close and lock the door behind him. When he had succeed, he looped his key around his neck by means of a shoelace he had liberated from a sneaker he could not wear while his feet were in casts. He made sure the key was secure and then let go the wheelchair’s brakes, rolling unchecked down the short ramp and onto the brick path Teddy said was well-tended and would give Nat a wheelchair-friendly place to roam out of doors. He took control before he could run headlong into any of the healthy-looking rosebushes that bordered the path. While Nat had rested and healed, he had never seemed to find himself awake when either of his uncle’s hired helpers were about. He had yet to see Loretta, the girl who did the cooking and cleaning, and he was worried he might run into the gardener, whose name he did not know, and be required to justify his presence in the garden. Hurriedly Nat rolled himself along, hardly sparing a glance for what must be a rather pleasant and well-kept pleasure garden, a place that saw very few visitors for all that it remained in such good order. He admitted to himself that he wanted a peek at the river – just a glimpse, for fear of falling in, as Teddy had suggested, but thereafter he would be quite satisfied to know that it really did exist. Nat was also on the lookout for a good sturdy tree in which he might imagine himself someday building a treehouse like – no, better than his old one. Of course it was a long road yet to recovery, if he would achieve it at all. These thoughts turned round and began to depress him, but Nat had no idea what else he should think on. He could think of his mother (who was apparently putting their draughty, leaky, cat-scented house up for sale) but that would make him angry rather than simply morose. He could think of his dad, but there was still too much to process, and Nat knew he need to approach his memories and his grief with care. With no other recourse, he chose to think about the weather. It was lovely and inoffensive for the moment, unlike his other thoughts. Throwing back his head, Nat drew in several deep and grateful breaths of the fresh air. A cool breeze kept the heat from being unbearable, drying sweat before it had a chance to run down his face. He slowed to a stop and leaned back. He honestly was grateful to be alive, despite or because of everything that had happened; admittedly, he was also lucky to have survived, and with only two broken legs to show for the troubles and lengths the driver of the white truck had gone to in an attempt to wipe his father and himself off the face of the earth. Not that again, Nat scolded himself. Can’t we leave Teddy’s crazy theory to Teddy himself? I don’t need to be running down the road to paranoia and conspiracy. Next it’ll be little green men instead of big white trucks gone mysteriously missing after a bloody incident of manslaughter. If I ever find the driver of that truck – I just might kill him; or maybe I’d hire someone to break both his legs. Nat’s lower lip burnt with pain as he bit it hard. He opened his eyes to look at the sky – and bit his tongue as well. “Dthagh!” he shouted, ducking his head and spitting blood into his palms. Part of him demanded he look again – it was possible he was having an hallucination; they did insist that he take a lot of uncomfortably large pills for the pain… he remembered Teddy counting them carefully, flowing a list Nat’s physician had faxed him. He did not remember ever seeing the sky this shade of lilac in the middle of the afternoon, so he blinked at it a few times and tried to convince himself it was a vivid sunset, rubbing his eyes and even giving his arm a pinch to ensure he was fully awake. To the best of his (possibly hallucinatory) ability to judge, he was indeed quite awake. For anyone else, it may have been a good time to start swearing. For Nat, it was time to assume his family’s madness had finally got a good hold on him. “Wow,” said Nat, giving the sky his full attention. It held it only so long as he thought of it as the only anomaly in his vision; since it wasn’t, his attention shifted accordingly as he began taking stock of the changes in his surroundings, wondering if they really had changed or if what had changed was just the way he viewed them. There is something very, very wrong with my brain chemistry, he mused, and I suppose this is kind of weak for a full-on hallucination, isn’t it? “Not that I’d know or anything…” he whispered without conviction. The path he had been rolling along had been salmon-pink and red brick. It had changed to black, and all that was green before was now rendered in shades of blue. The lilac-lavender sky remained the same lilac-lavender, and many of the flowering bushes and plants that had been pleasing to the eye before the world’s bizarre transformation were now unattractive; flowers had turned the colour of old bruises or blood and their leaves dripped slimy moisture although the air was dry. Many of the plants that had never before had an unfriendly mien now were all a-bristle with thorns, their blue limbs and stems burnt to black in places. When he could muster a cogent thought, Nat realised he should be terrified. He should go back to the house immediately, tell Teddy about this hallucination, and have the man phone the physician, who would hopefully decide that Nat needn’t take quite so many pills, or at least not all of them at once, with or without food. Even when Nat closed his eyes he felt a pressure in his skull, as though someone or something was stepping on his thoughts a second before he thought them, and sitting back down on them a second after. It was terribly uncomfortable. Nat still clung to the hope that he was indeed having a nightmarish episode of some sort, and that there was a simple resolution to be found, even though he searched his mind and knew that something like this had happened to him before – visions of unnatural colours had overtakent his senses before and their pitiless alterations of reality were no stranger to him. Up till now they had come and gone, often as not shifting back to normal within a few eyeblinks. Now they seemed to want to stay, and an appropriate but tempered sense of fear overcame his curiosity and his ordinarily scientific outlook on things. “I can’t be going mad. I’m too young to be going mad like my parents, and this is a reaction to some bad combination of drugs. I’m going to close my eyes and count to twenty and when I wake up, all this will have gone back to looking normal,” said Nat out loud, though his heart was now beating rapidly in his breast and he felt a slow sneaking sense of menace lurking – if he wasn’t imagining it – off to his right. Nat ignored the feeling, perhaps against his better judgement, and closed his eyes decisively. Fierce common colours and their bastard acquaintances swarmed behind his eyelids, and he fought with their ferocity to keep his eyes shut and continue his counting. His hands strayed absently to the brakes of his chair, for his mind felt that he was liable to slip or slide away in his moments of inattention; as he clamped the brakes down on the rubber wheels, still more input flooded in behind the blackness of his shuttered eyes, tempting him to open them. Nat declined the opportunity and steadfastly continued his countdown, tapping his fingers slowly against the armrests of his wheelchair to denote the seconds as they grew and extended and gradually became meaningless. When he judged that he had reached twenty, he opened his eyes and darted his gaze sideways, right and left and back and forth again, discerning nothing out of the ordinary, though the scene was still what he had seen before: black thorny bushes, decayed and dying flowers, dismal pseudo-greenery. He sighed to himself and gripped his brakes, letting go and wheeling along the blackened pathway. A distant rushing and murmuring let hi know he was close to the river his uncle had proscribed, so he proceeded against his own advisement. The path began to slope, and he had to carefully check his descent, rolling along the banks of a small creek, then battling the angle of the river proper as it sought to bring him down into its depths. Nat was by now quite skilled in the ways of his wheels, and kept himself parallel to the body of water as it came finally into view. Now that he saw it, he wasn’t sure it was remarkable at all, other than for its colour. The river was pink, fuschia in its depths but more of a common bubblegum near the banks, which seemed sandy and satisfied in the peculiar light of the lavender sky. Nat stopped himself and stared down, watching the rushing and churning waters with interest. No wonder, he thought, Teddy had warned him to steer clear. The current was steady but looked fairly slow, and the water itself did not seem that deep, but he still did not want to venture any closer. Nat was about to turn and haul himself back up the path when he spotted someone at the river’s edge, ducking down and either drinking of the water or splashing it about curiously for the pleasure of it. As soon as he noticed the person, the person immediately ceased its motions and seemed to notice him as well, staring, studying, probably more thoroughly than Nat was studying it, for he still thought much of this must be some sort of waking dream. “Oy! You there!” shouted the person kneeling in the river. “Yeah,” said Nat weakly. He wasn’t sure exactly how one should reply when hailed by an hallucination. “Who’re you?” it asked as it gave a few nimble skips across the colourless river stones and arrived at the nearer bank, climbing up toward Nat. “I’m Nathaniel. Or Nat,” said Nat. “Oh. And you know Teddy?” said the apparition, shaking water off its hands. Nat noticed that it was a she, not an it, and wearing some sort of elaborate black suit. “He’s my uncle,” said Nat, wondering if he was revealing too much at once. “Then you’ll know me, of course,” said the female thing, giving its oddly shaped black mane a shake as it trod up the ground to stand before Nat. “Actually,” he began, hoping to explain the misunderstanding that his delusion presented him, “I don’t. I haven’t any idea what any of this is.” “Oh,” said the apparition. It stood before Nat in what appeared to be full three-dimensional glory, brow creased as it studied him. “I suppose that won’t do.” “Er, I suppose not. Have you got a name?” he asked her. “Not anymore. I lost it to a warlock a while ago in a poker match. Should’ve known better, really,” she said with a flippant gesture. “I see,” said Nat, though he definitely did not. “Um, this must seem a rather odd question, but, ah, how can you lose your name?” asked Nat. He gazed past the girl at the pink river. There were great white rocks in it that looked rather like slabs of marble, as if someone had rolled building blocks down into the water. “Like anything else. A combination of chance and poor planning,” replied the girl. Nodding, Nat focused on her again. “That would make sense.” “What’s that thing you’re sitting in?” she asked him. “Is it some sort of throne?” She began to circle him, one hand on her hip and the other raised so that its fingers could stroke her chin as she stared at the chair and appeared to think deep thoughts about its function. “It’s a wheelchair, of course,” he replied, wheeling round and paying careful attention to the sloping ground. He decided it was time to head back and tell Teddy he didn’t want to eat another pill ever again if they were going to have this sort of effect on him – never, ever again! “Why do you have to sit in it?” asked the nameless girl curiously. “Because I can’t walk,” Nat said, irritation giving his voice an edge. “I suppose not, with those funny things on your legs. What are they for?” she asked. Nat shut his eyes and pushed himself hard up the path. It was hard going uphill and he was soon out of breath, his shoulders and arms burning. He wanted her to leave him alone, but she was following him easily considering she had two functioning legs and wasn’t pulling her entire weight up the hill with her arms. “Won’t you go away?” he panted at her. “I could. But what are they? I’ve never seen boots like that before.” “They’re casts, not boots, and it’s because I was in an auto wreck and both my legs are broken and trying to heal and while they’re going about that, I definitely don’t think walking on them would be advisable,” he explained in an angry rush. Finally he was on level ground again, so he allowed his chair to coast a bit. The girl followed resolutely. Arguing with her felt rather like arguing with Teddy, who had some sort of smart response for everything, no matter what Nat could muster to counter with. He came up into a small round space of brick and rolled himself under an arbour, as much for rest as for the feeling of shelter it brought despite the fact that climbing ivy now looked like a hungry black monstrous mouthful of thorns. The girl followed him in and seated herself on the white marble bench beside him. “I’m sorry they’re broken. I didn’t know. Have you seen a healer about it?” she asked, “I mean, about them?” “I’ve seen plenty of physicians,” Nat said flatly. “Pfah! Physicians. They’ve got their socks stuffed so far up their backsides it’s a wonder they even know how to get their shiny shoes on their feet. I know physicians! What a horrible compromise. Why haven’t you seen a healer?” she pressed. “Look, physicians are healers. They have medical expertise. They know what they’re doing when they set your legs and hang them in traction for weeks, and they know that putting them in casts helps. I don’t know what you mean by healers, because they did all they could,” Nat said, surprised to feel his well-bitten lower lip being drawn between rows of teeth for another hearty chomp. “It doesn’t matter what they do, because there’s still the possibility that they won’t heal right and I won’t ever be able to walk again. Or run or go down to the river or anything.” “That’s why you should see a healer. They set bones like –” she raised her hand and snapped her middle finger against the pad of her palm with a loud crack, “that.” “Sure. That’s what they say. But they don’t mention hours of costly physical therapy, and the fact that no matter how clever you are, your schoolmates are going to ridicule the life out of you if you can’t walk, and if you’re stuck in a wheelchair,” said Nat with as much patience as he could muster. His hands tightened on the wheels of his chair and he fought the tears that wanted to fall. It wouldn’t be seemly to cry in front of an hallucination, would it? “I don’t know about these schoolmates of yours, but I think that’s just unfair. It sounds like you haven’t seen the right person,” said the girl calmly, as though they were discussing a train schedule. “I don’t know about them either. I don’t want to go back to school, and I don’t want to talk to you any more, so could you please go away? Or can you give me a magic word so I can stop imagining you, and seeing the sky purple and all the plants black and blue and the river pink?” said Nat. It didn’t seem like an unreasonable request. “D’you know what the river’s called?” she asked conversationally. Nat sucked in a few deep breaths through his teeth to fight down fury. What sort of banal question was that – ! “I don’t give a damn,” he said tightly, “and I’m not in the mood to guess.” “Well, that’s fine. You can name it yourself if you like. We all know the river, just like people all know me without a name,” said the girl reasonably, far too calmly. She clasped her hands together, then squeezed them between her knees, her booted feet stuck ankles-outward, heels jabbing into the soil that had wandered onto the brickwork from the planters behind and beneath her bench. “What do you call it, then?” he asked. “It’s bubblegum pink and magenta in the middle and I haven’t a clue as to what I’d call it if you asked me to name it. So tell me what you call it.” “The River Gum,” said the nameless girl, shrugging. “You said it looks like bubblegum. I think it does, too. Like when you first put it in your mouth and it’s sort of a darker pink, then you chew it and blow bubbles and the edges are pale, like the river is. So I called it that when I was little and my grandpa gave me my first piece of bubblegum.” “The River Gum? Are you serious?” asked Nat, but he immediately corrected himself, “Yeah, of course you’re serious. You’re as mad as me and I’m imagining all of this. I’m imagining you. You’re a very friendly and informative hallucination, but you really ought to go now,” he added. But his hallucination reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder. Nat shuddered. “You think you’re imagining me?” “Absolutely,” he replied vehemently, closing his eyes as his emotions finally reached their breaking point and a pair of tears strolled down his cheeks. The warm human hand he felt on his shoulder rubbed once, then patted a few times, reassuring and comforting. When he reopened his eyes, it was to a normal world, with a bright blue sky and scattered clouds, low humidity and a quick breeze that still dried the sweat on his face and arms, just as quickly as it did the tears on his face. “I guess that’s alright,” said the nameless girl, who was still there, though she definitely did not fit in with the bright green arbour blossoming with hibiscus and other colourful and carefully cultivated tropical delights. “I need to go,” said Nat weakly, shrugging her hand off. “Oh. Well, I hope I’ll see you again. You’re quite interesting. I’ve got a friend who might be able to help you with your um, boot-things –” she gestured emptily at the casts on Nat’s legs, chewing her lip and obviously searching for the word he had just used to describe the casts. He sighed. “Casts. Because my legs are broken.” “Yes! I know at least two people who could help,” said the girl eagerly, grinning at him. When she grinned, all he could focus on were her bright eyes and the dimples in her cheeks, and the fact that her damp and raggedly-cut black hair wasn’t really styled so much as thrown back in hopes of keeping it out of her face. It failed and flopped over her forehead. She smiled and hooked the uneven ends behind her ears. “How old are you?” Nat enquired curiously. “Sixteen,” said the girl, rising from the bench and hooking her hands behind her back. “And you were playing poker? And lost your name to a warlock?” he asked. The girl shuffled one booted foot and rocked her gaze skyward, apparently embarrassed to meet Nat’s eyes. “Well… yes.” “Well that’s something,” he replied. “It was a friendly enough game,” she said defiantly, “and not as though he’s that much older than me. He’s eighteen,” she supplied. Nat rolled his eyes and rolled himself as well, out of the arbour and back onto the path, ready to retreat to a normal level of insanity. “Sure. But you still shouldn’t gamble something like a name in a silly card game,” he chided her. “Oh,” she said, as though the idea had only just occurred to her. “Well, um, I guess I’ll see you later then, Nathaniel. Right?” The hope in her voice caused Nat to pause, the grips on his wheels sliding squeakily under his hands as he rolled to a stop again and looked over his shoulder. For what he thought might be an hallucination, he supposed the nameless girl was rather pretty, and quite friendly. Since he had no other friends in this place (exempting uncle Teddy, who was still an uncle and not a friend), he mustered a small smile for her and rolled himself round a quarter turn, the better to get another look at her face. It was really quite lovely, with deep black eyes that stared at him as their brows lowered over them in a frown of concern and pleading. “Yeah,” he said finally. “I’ll see you later.” The girl gave a small laugh, almost but not quite a giggle, and flung up a hand to wave goodbye. Nat heaved a chuckle of his own, and though he didn’t understand her enthusiasm, it was nevertheless contagious. The gravity of his imagination – hallucinations, colours, whatever – had all fled with her smile. Even as he hauled himself back up the ramp to the kitchen door and tugged his key out from under his shirt to let himself in, he couldn’t deny his eagerness to see her again and prove himself wrong. …Or right. Next chapter--->