WORMWOOD ~ BY D.H. NEVINS: CHAPTER 4
I awoke slowly, my head throbbing, to a suffocating silence that was so complete it seemed palpable. There was nothing to be heard, nothing at all. The thick, tomblike quiet reminded me of something…
I tasted bile in my throat as the memories flooded back, seizing my heart with terror. Hellish images of crashing trees, splitting earth, and lava spewing hot ash into thunderous skies screamed through my head, threatening to burst it apart. But it couldn’t really have happened, a part of my mind broke in, attempting rational thought. I was dreaming; it was just an awful nightmare.
Venturing to open my eyes minutely, I saw the textured bark of a pine tree floating in the fuzzy haze of my vision. I blinked to clear my eyes, only to confirm that a tree trunk was directly in front of my inert head, and I would see nothing else unless I moved. But the terror lingered from my dreams, and even though I needed to ascertain that my world was still unbroken, I was afraid to move. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, forcing myself to be rational. “Get a grip, Michaels,” I muttered, opening my eyes again.
Listening carefully and detecting no sounds, I cautiously inched my head off the ground. I could feel that there was a thick coating of something encrusting my temple and the side of my face as I peeled myself away from the leaves and packed earth—but I hardly had the attention for it. Determining the safety of my immediate surroundings took precedence over all else.
Peeking around the tree, relief flooded through my body. There appeared to be nothing amiss. Columns of beautiful, firmly grounded tree trunks stretched off into a blur of tranquil green. The forest appeared peaceful and its floor intact. Perhaps I just fell and hit my head, I thought, and my imagined ordeal was a result of the trauma.
Sitting up, I sucked in my breath as twinges of pain shot through my aching limbs and torso, and I touched my sticky temple in wonder. I couldn’t fathom what had happened, and worked to recall what had caused my fall as I prodded at the thickened coating of blood that had congealed down my cheek. It was no wonder my head pounded so painfully. As confused as I currently was between nightmares and reality, I was uncertain exactly how I had hit my head. And stranger still, if I had simply had a nightmare, why did my entire body feel so battered? I shuddered with a feeling of foreboding as I sat in the oppressive stillness. Knowing that I was missing some integral piece of information, I very slowly turned to look behind me.
My breath caught. I gazed disbelievingly onto the flat grounds of Lookout Peak, shocked that I was actually there and not somewhere in the woods below. I was near the far western edge of the observation cliffs, sitting a few paces into the forest that stood sentinel around the cleared area of the lookout site. No way, I thought, panicked. If I’m at Lookout, then that means... that means I ran up here when… when… I stopped, unable to make myself form the thoughts. There was nothing for it but to see for myself. Turning my body a fraction more, I was again thwarted in my attempts to view my surroundings. I was sitting in a slight depression and an enormous mass of exposed rock obstructed my view of the landscape below the cliffs, tormenting me with its concealed knowledge.
I crept toward the cliff’s edge, my heart in my throat, hoping desperately that I was nothing more than paranoid, deluded by my vivid imaginings. Yet even as I neared it, my hopes crumbled and drifted away; mirroring the black ash that fell around the look out, drifting toward the earth like tainted snow. My nose was assaulted by the sharp stink of sulfur, prefacing the view that awaited me. I knew what I would see. I stood to face it, and taking a steadying breath, I forced myself to step out from behind the protection of the shielding rock.
The unobstructed view was horrific. Shock ripped through my body as I gazed out over a land of pure devastation, and I saw a world that was completely different from what I had known before. It was a world that didn’t fit, which was surreal in its terrifying strangeness.
Stay focused and get the hell out of here, I told myself firmly as I felt my knees weaken at the sight. I will not fall apart... I will not… I reached blindly for the solidity of the rock beside me, numbly gazing at the cooling lava, blackening over the torn, exposed earth. Fallen, broken matchstick trees lay scattered and jumbled for as far as the eye could see, far outnumbering the forlorn trees that were left standing here and there—like a few remaining soldiers wading through fields of the dead. Lakes, whose locations I knew intimately, were simply gone, in some cases replaced by new protuberances of exposed rock. There were some new lakes—large, silty and debris-laden—that occupied areas which were never before under water. And surrounding everything was the eerie stillness, like I was the last living thing around for miles…
The next memory smashed into me full-force: Tiamat. Tiamat was here…
Spinning around, I nervously scanned the area for any danger. I didn’t know if Tiamat was a threat to me; couldn’t even fathom what he was doing here, or why my stomach lurched when I remembered him standing over the destruction—if that’s what you could call what he was doing—in those moments before I blacked out. I cautiously checked the cliff area, which appeared to be deserted, and moved on to search the campsite.
I didn’t need to go far. There, under the shattered cliffs at the opposite end of the site, lay Tiamat. Immense piles of sand, that I was certain were not there before, surrounded and partially overlapped his prone body. Scattered amid the sand were numerous vicious-looking rocks; any of which could have killed me as I stood there earlier. Remembering the terrifying crash of the rocks collapsing overhead, I realized Tiamat must have pushed me out of the way, only to be struck down as he saved me.
Never in my life had I been so conflicted. For ten years, I had hoped desperately to see Tiamat again, had thought that I would give anything in the world for a reunion … but I was grossly wrong. Not only did the park—and who knows what else—now lay in ruins, I feared terribly for Tiamat. And now, I was also afraid of him. What was it he was doing when I surprised him today?
Concern for Tiamat tore at me, clawing angrily at my trepidation, but I wouldn’t move. Something was wrong with this scene. Great holes were gouged out of the looming cliff face, but where were the boulders that should have fallen? Why was there only this inexplicable sand mixed with some rather large rocks?
Unable to come up with any plausible explanations, and as the strange piles of sand seemed to be presently harmless, I shifted my focus to the still body that lay among them. I didn’t know if he would be a danger to me, but because he risked his life to save mine, I owed him. I knew that I must, at the very least, determine if he was okay. I bypassed my apprehensions as I crept toward Tiamat, my body tense and ready for flight.
He lay on his stomach; his motionless, blood-stained face was toward me, with his left arm flung out beside him. His arm was certainly broken, the skin bulging grotesquely just below the elbow. He looked dreadful, but I was relieved to see that he was breathing evenly and deeply, as though immersed in a restful sleep.
I kneeled down beside him and looked at his tranquil face. He hadn’t changed at all since I last saw him ten years ago. His face was still smooth and the lines of his nose and chin held the same note of elegance, like a typical subject one would see in a renaissance painting. Marring the impression, dried blood from a gash on the side of his head had left numerous crisscrossed red trails covering the upper part of his face, creating a gruesome masquerade visage.
“Tiamat…” I said hesitantly.
His eyes fluttered, but remained closed.
“Tiamat, it’s me. It’s Kali,” I said, noticing his face flicker at my name. “You’ve been hurt. I’m just going to…”
Tiamat’s eyes flew open, stabbing with their blue intensity. “Don’t touch me!” he cried suddenly, attempting to raise his head.
“It’s okay, I won’t touch you yet. Not if you don’t want me to,” I said soothingly. “I’m a trained guide, remember? Yours wouldn’t be the first injury I’ve treated.”
He relaxed and closed his eyes again, as though his body wasn’t quite ready to keep them open. “Kali, as I told you when we last saw each other, I do not doubt your abilities,” he said softly. “Am I bleeding much?” he asked after a pause, opening his eyes a crack.
“From what I can see, you’re only bleeding from this cut on your head here,” I said as I thoughtlessly reached toward him.
In a flash, he was up on his knees and right arm, scrabbling backward in an attempt to get away from me. But the instant he put weight on his left arm, he roared and fell over in agony. He pressed his forehead into the dirt with a moan of pain.
I was baffled by his behavior, but stayed where I was so as to alarm him no further. It was incredibly strange: shouldn’t I be backing away from him and not the other way around? Unable to help, I impotently watched him struggle into a sitting position as he cradled his left arm. He watched me warily.
“Kali,” he began, gritting his teeth and breathing hard from obvious pain, “you must not touch me when I am bleeding. Please, promise me you won’t.”
I stared at him blankly. “When you’re bleeding? But … why not?”
“Please trust me in this. Will you promise me?”
I was quiet for a moment as I thought over his request. I disliked making promises. The future has a habit of planting landmines when you least expect them, and giving your word always seems to end with that nasty click under your foot; it really limits your options. “Is it just that I shouldn’t touch your blood?” I queried.
“But not that I shouldn’t touch you?
“Not when I am bleeding.”
“What if I just promised to never purposely come into contact with your blood?”
He appeared to ponder this, looking pale. “Alright, Kali. Will you give me your word then? Promise me you will never touch it.”
“Okay, Tiamat. I’ll never purposely touch your blood. I swear it.” I paused. “Do you have Aids?” I blurted tactlessly.
“No,” he said. “My blood is far worse than that.”
I blinked. Was he joking?
“Are you badly hurt?” he asked me, scrutinizing my probably haggard appearance, my own head caked and crusted from a wound above the temple.
“Mostly bruises, I think.” I touched my head gingerly. “I’m pretty sure this isn’t deep, and the bleeding has stopped. Like yours, from what I can see.”
He touched his own head roughly, and inspected his hand afterward. Appearing satisfied with what he saw, Tiamat stood, staggering a little, and started off toward the woods. “There is a creek in the woods here,” he said, turning to me. “I will return shortly, after I have washed this off.” He indicated the blood on his head, and began to stride off.
Unwilling to be left behind under the current circumstances, I immediately jumped up and followed him. We walked to the little brook that gurgled happily through the woods before it plunged off the cliff into the devastation below. A sick parallel to my life, I thought bitterly, stooping down beside Tiamat to wash my face.
He leveled a look at me.
“Oh, right. Not downstream,” I said, trying to look apologetic as I jumped up and walked numerous paces upstream of him.
As I washed, I surreptitiously watched Tiamat struggle to clean the blood from his face and head. A sheen of sweat appeared on his paling neck, and he froze, his jaw tightly clenched, every time he jarred his left arm. He was swaying noticeably by the time he finished, and fresh blood was lightly trickling down his face again.
Using my pocket knife, I quickly cut a strip of fabric off the bottom of my shirt. I gave it a fast rinse in the brook, and wrung it out as I passed it to him. I couldn’t stand to see him attempt to wash his face again; he would certainly pass out from the effort.
“Just press this to your head to stop the bleeding,” I said. “In a moment you’ll be able to splash off the last of the blood from your face.”
Taking the cloth, he leaned up against a sturdy poplar that grew on the moist creek bank. A look of warmth spread out across his features when he looked up at me. “Thank you, Kali,” he said, pressing the fabric to his head and closing his eyes.
Tenderly feeling my own gashed head, I was pleased to find that the cut had not reopened. I must have been a little gentler cleaning it out than Tiamat had been when scrubbing his wound. Careful not to be too close, I chose to sit on the smooth wood of an old fallen tree that lay a few paces across from him.
“You should let me splint your arm,” I told him, knowing it would be a long time before we could get anyone else to look at it, given the situation. “Once your head stops bleeding, of course,” I added hastily.
“I would be much obliged,” he replied warily, giving me a weak smile, “though I must admit that I am not looking forward to it.”
I smiled at him. “I’ll go easy on you. But I’ll need to do it soon,” I said, nodding toward his arm. “It’s starting to swell, and I’ll have trouble setting the bone if we wait.”
Despite needing ties for the splint, he refused to let me cut my clothing more, sending me back to his camp for some rope. I hurried to gather the other supplies I’d need on my way back, and managed to return in a few short minutes.
He was patiently holding his arm up as I had instructed him, to discourage further swelling, and he watched me in silence as I set out my materials: smooth, sturdy sticks for the splint, moss to pack in for cushioning, and short lengths of rope to hold it all together. I was relieved to see that the bleeding on his head had stopped, and he no longer held the cloth to it. Additionally, all traces of blood had again been rinsed from his face and he looked much recovered in the short time I was away. Under normal circumstances, I would have been almost happy.
Yet despite the calming nature of having something purposeful to do, my hands shook. It had been impossible to ignore the view of the devastated landscape when I entered Tiamat’s camp, and it was with great difficulty that I suppressed the panic that was bubbling up inside me. I clenched my hands together and tried to focus.
“This is going to hurt, Tiamat,” I warned him, wiping my shaking hands on my pants. “But it will be easier if you try to keep your arm relaxed.”
He nodded and leaned his head back against the tree, waiting for me to begin.
After shaking my hands out in an attempt to ease the tremors, I reached over and firmly grasped his injured limb, perhaps a little rougher than I should have. Immediately, bizarre ripples of some kind of energy shot savagely through my hands, burning fiercely up my arms. I threw down his injured forearm, leaping away from him in panic.
“Augh!” he grunted in pain, cradling the offending limb. “You certainly have an interesting way to set bones, Kali. And I apologize about the shock; I should have warned you,” he added.
“What? What do you mean, you ‘apologize about the shock?’” I sputtered, the bubbling panic beginning to well over. “What the hell is going on here anyway? None of this can be happening! It can’t! And your arm… your arm shocked me! No, keep it elevated, damn it! It will swell!” I glared at Tiamat as he raised his injured arm again, his expression guarded. “What’s happening, Tiamat?” I demanded again, taking in his tight-lipped expression. “I’m losing my mind here and you won’t even say anything!”
I stared at him, waiting for him to elaborate on the strange shock that most certainly originated from his arm… waiting for him to elaborate on anything. But after a long, drawn-out silence and no change to his guarded expression, I had to resign myself to the fact that I wasn’t likely to get any further at this moment.
“Fine!” I huffed. “But at least tell me this. If I touch you again, will I get zapped?”
“You will feel it, but I will not shock you again,” he promised. “I was taken by surprise before. You have a very firm grip,” he said with mock injury.
Annoyed, I crouched down beside Tiamat again, resolving to get some serious answers from him in the very near future. However, despite my anxiety, curiosity won over, and I hesitantly reached out to touch his skin. Gently this time, I ran my fingers along his broken limb as tingling pins and needles undulated through my hands and crept up the skin of my arms. Feeling carefully for the broken ulna bone, I braced my hands on either side of it and began to pull apart slowly.
Letting out a yelp, Tiamat suddenly writhed. He flung himself on top of me, pinning me down as he stretched his arm high in the air, far away from my grasp. “Ow,” he said, as his lips twisted into a surprised, sheepish smile. “Contrary to what you obviously believe, I do have an aversion to pain. Is it not possible for you to be gentle?”
That did it. I had no patience for this crap today. “Maybe I’m just not a gentle person. Deal with it.” Taking him with me, I rolled and pinned him in return, surprised by how heavy he was. “Oh, just hold still, Tiamat!” I scolded, scrambling to sit on his chest as I restrained his upper left arm with my hands. I used my left leg to immobilize his uninjured right arm, though he had stopped struggling for the moment. In fact, he looked amused by my response. That only annoyed me further. I continued to hold him down as I finally set the bone, the strange energy that emanated from him crawling like armies of ants all over my skin. Only my irritation with Tiamat—fueled by my occasionally stubborn nature—kept me from leaping up and smacking the creeping sensation away from my flesh.
Looking for my splinting materials, I realized with frustration that they were still over by the tree, where I first attempted to set his arm. They were maddeningly just beyond my reach, and although I shifted my position backward and stretched as far as I could, I was unable to put my hand on them. I would have to release Tiamat if I was going to splint his arm. “Stay put,” I told him sternly, flicking a glance at his face.
I stopped, puzzled. Tiamat wore the strangest expression, which smoothly shifted back to that infuriating look of amusement. He slowly raised one eyebrow at me, taking in my current position on top of him.
It only took me a moment.
All at once, in one mortifying flash, I understood the source of his amusement. In my efforts to reach the splints, I had shifted myself much lower down on his body, and was currently straddling Tiamat in a rather compromising position.
Jumping up quickly, I could feel my blush blazing into a beacon of my embarrassment. I was completely at a loss: how the hell do I save face after this? I simply stood over him, struggling to find something to say that would help me bounce back from my humiliating blunder.
“Was that okay?” I asked him stupidly. “Um… your arm, I mean. I didn’t hurt you too much?”
He looked at me, his mouth twitching, and took a deep breath before answering. “Actually, it was quite bearable after all,” he said with an obvious effort to keep his voice even. “Especially that end part...” He snapped his mouth shut before finishing, looking like he was going to burst from the effort of holding in his laughter. Shutting his eyes tight, his shoulders shook while his face turned red with concentrated suppression. I watched in exasperation, waiting for this rather uncomfortable moment to pass. I had to wait a long time.
Finally, as Tiamat’s amusement began to subside and I, at long last, finished putting on his splint—a little more roughly than was strictly necessary—I knew that the time had come for some answers.
We exchanged a long look and, without waiting for him to follow, I stalked off to a place I had in mind, a little upstream. Here the creek widened and deepened into a small pool before it swirled out and continued on its merry way. I had always found this place soothing, and I had need of its calming affects now. I sat on the edge of a large rock, which jutted out over the pool, and took off my shoes and socks mechanically. Plunging my toes deep down under the water, I watched them a moment as I worked to steady my breathing. The cool water flowing around my feet was bracing, helping me anchor my hold on reality—a grasp which seemed to be getting more and more tremulous as the day went on.
I looked up to see that he was there, as I knew he would be, standing silently on the other side of the wide pool, his strange blue eyes thoughtful as they locked with mine.
“I think we should talk,” I began.
“Yes,” he agreed softly. “But weigh your questions carefully, Kali. I am afraid my answers will bring you no comfort.”
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