Chuck’s challenge this week: Infocomm Inventory. This one really called to me because I enjoyed the heck out of these games back when I was a young’un. That said, squeezing eight items from a grab bag into a single story of only 2000 words is not an easy task.
My list of items was: a crucifix, a jade figurine, a soccer ball, an ionic diffusion rasp (!), a veil, a coin, a pearl necklace, a manuscript, and Chaos (capital letters included). That’s right, one of my items was CHAOS.
Anyway, another dark one, and my apologies if it doesn’t hold together as well as I thought it did — I have been on some pretty serious painkillers for the past forty-eight hours. They may have affected my judgment and / or creativity and / or ability to tell if what I’m writing is any good or utter crap.
Avery won the figurine in a poker game with a haggard-looking man who clearly had more money than he knew what to do with. His exhausted eyes peered out over an unshaven face, his never-before-worn Armani suit draped around him as if it had been made for a man two sizes bigger than he, and he had smelled strangely like blood and musk. When Avery called his bluff with a low straight, he could have sworn he’d seen the man smile for half a second as Avery collected his winnings. The figurine was an afterthought to the hundreds of dollars in cash he’d pocketed.
The day following, his mother had died. A week later, his high school girlfriend had called to rekindle their relationship. A few days after that, a promotion at work. Driving home the same night, he totaled his car when he saw a shadowy figure dart out into the road in front of him. Then, all in one night, Avery won ten thousand dollars on a scratch-off ticket, and beat a man within an inch of his life in the alley behind a bar over a silly squabble over a misplaced beer. He began to think the jade figurine might be something more than it appeared.
The sweat trickling down Avery’s back has nothing to do with the oppressive heat. He passes the back of his hand across his feverish brow — his hand is icy, sodden; it doesn’t feel like his own — and he removes the bandanna tied around his temples. It’s thick with sweat and patterned with salt lines. He wrings it out and slips it back over his forehead, ignoring the whispered voices, the shapes dancing just outside of his vision. He’s dehydrated and dizzy, but he’s here, and that gives him hope.
At the end of the street by an alley, a pack of kids run barefoot through the dust, kicking a soccer ball and shouting. He waves to them and they scatter, except for one string bean of a boy who meanders over to him with innocent curiosity in his eyes. Avery smiles at him and digs half a candy bar out of his satchel. It’s pure mush, but the boy’s eyes light up and he gobbles it while Avery watches. Then Avery takes the artifact out of his pocket — a tiny, grey-green wolf, smooth and gleaming in the last rays of the setting sun — and holds it out toward the boy between thumb and forefinger. “Recognize this?”
The boy doesn’t speak, but when he looks up from his candy bar and sees the jade figurine, his face freezes. He looks at Avery in sudden terror, then he bolts, his cries of terror echoing in the empty street.
Avery shuffles down the street to the shop and pounds on the door with his fist. A shingle hangs over the door, but its lettering has long been effaced by dust and sunlight. He pounds again.
A withered voice shouts from inside. “Closed!”
But Avery bangs again. He hears footsteps inside, sees the curtain over the window set in the door pulled back, sees a bloodshot, rheumy eye. He holds up the figurine; the eye grows wide and disappears behind the curtain, and he hears the sound of bolts being thrown, chains being undone. The door creaks open and a bent old woman behind a filmy black veil lurches in the doorway. “You have payment?”
Avery produces a tarnished coin in the likeness of a skull and flips it to her. Up until this moment he’s been sure that the toothless man in that bar just across the border was pulling his leg, leading him into some tourist trap scam, but he sees now that it was worth it buying a beer from him. She examines it, pockets it, beckons him inside.
The shop is a cabinet of curiosities: on one wall hang all manner of crucifixes, some simple crosses, others in horrifying colored detail; in a case near the back are pearl necklaces and strands of gold and silver with pendants of sapphire and diamond and ruby; on a shelf opposite the wall are skeletal fingers grasping twisted talismans of wood and ebony. The smell of sage and embers and dust assails his nostrils.
She leads him through the shop to a back room lit only by stubby black candles at a table. offers him a stool on one side, helping herself to the one opposite.
Avery sets the grey-green jade wolf on the table, interlocks his fingers, and waits. She studies the wolf, studies him, and finally speaks in heavily accented, halting English. “What you want?”
“You know what this is.”
She eyes him gravely, but says nothing.
She shakes her head. “You are marked.”
“Marked with what?”
Avery laughs, but the noise dies in his throat. “Is that what this wolf is?”
“The wolf is just a vessel. The Chaos is in you now.”
“What does that mean?”
She stands up and begins to look around the room, collecting objects from shelves and jars and boxes: leaves, powders, bones. “It burns inside. And you burn with it.”
The fever. “Can you cure me?”
She has made a little pile on a workbench. One by one, the ingredients go into a bowl to be pulverized with a tiny hammer. “No.”
Her answer is so offhanded, so simple and so lacking in concern, that he thinks she’s kidding, but she isn’t. It dawns on him, and he slams his satchel onto the table in fury. “What am I doing here, then? Why would they send me to you?” He pulls a manuscript from his bag, dog-eared and covered in highlighting and hastily-scribbled notes: the stories that had led him here, compiled from the notes of grief-stricken loved ones who had succumbed to whatever disease this Chaos was.
“No cure,” she says, swirling the mixture around in the tiny bowl. The powder has the color and the smell of the deep, slumbering earth. “Trade.” She holds her hand out to Avery, palm up, asking for his hand. He holds it out to her and before he can react, she’s sliced his palm with a tiny concealed knife. His blood drips into the bowl and stains the powder to an angry blackish red. Satisfied, she mixes the powder one last time, humming and mumbling to herself. His hand throbs as he wraps it in his sweat-soaked bandanna.
“What does that mean?” Avery is aware, suddenly, of the ache in his bones, the half-formed hallucinations floating in at the edges of his vision, as if the aroma of the powder, the old woman’s murmured chant, were a loudspeaker for the whisper of his condition.
Working with a practiced skill that suggests speed but not hurry, the woman produces a tiny finger-sized velvet bag from under the counter and tips the contents of the bowl into it. They sift like ash, a fine red haze hanging in the air after she’s finished. “The man who gave you that wolf gave you the Chaos with it. You feel it. The fire inside, the voices all around, the shapes that you see but don’t see. It can’t be cured. It’s an old magic, older than the earth.” She draws the strings on the bag, cinching it tightly closed, and tosses it onto the table in front of Avery.
“So this is…” he eyes the bag like a dead rat that might at any minute come back to life and attack in a flurry of teeth and tail.
“If you wish to be rid of the Chaos, you must provide it with another host. A bit of powder in the eyes of another will rid you of the affliction forever.”
Avery laughs, a joyless sound. “Just like that? Blow some powder in somebody’s eyes and my life is back to normal?”
Her gaze smolders with judgment and reproach. “Normal but for knowing what you’ve done.”
“It could be anybody?”
A grim nod from the old woman. “Friend, foe. Old man on his deathbed. Squalling babe in the cradle. Next man you see in the street.” Her eyes gleam. “The question you must ask is, who would you inflict this upon?”
Avery leaves the shack, clutching the powder in a sweaty hand.
Stacy itches absently at the track marks on her arm. She mounts the stairs to the ramshackle house with the fearless oblivion of a junkie in need of a fix. Inside, past the scorched walls of the kitchen (remnant of the fire a week ago) and the new flatscreen television (bought with the five hundred dollars cash found in a hollow of a tree) she finds him sprawled on a soiled mattress, smelly blankets wrapped tightly around him as he shudders like a man freezing in the damp summer heat. The room is lit only by the staticky glow from the televisionas it plays some science fiction program. A man in silver pajamas is shouting at another man in gold pajamas about his ionic diffusion rasp being out of commission for the third day in a row. The haggard man laughs suddenly, forcefully — the harsh laugh of a lunatic.
She approaches him too quickly, too eagerly.
“Hey, I heard you had –”
He leaps upon her in a frenzy, a coiled snake snaring a hapless mouse. He tackles her and pins her to the ground with strength that his ragged frame shouldn’t support. “Who told you?”
Stacy should be panicking, but she’s too strung out. She laughs instead. “Just some guys, man. Do you have it?”
He releases her shoulders and slides off, huddling once more in the corner. “Are you sure you want it?”
“Shit, yeah, I want it.”
He holds up a tiny, finger-sized velvet bag, drawstring pulled tight. “This isn’t like anything you’ve tried. There’s no second hit. No coming down.”
Stacy licks her lips hungrily. “What’s it called?”
He cocks his head to the side and his eyes dance, as if he’s watching ghosts swirling all around her. His free hand flits to his ear and he winces in momentary pain, then he locks into her with eerie calm and focus. “Chaos.”
“What do you want for it?” She doesn’t have money, but she has other means.
The grizzled man only shakes his head. “First one’s free.” He stretches out his arm and dangles the bag in front of her, like a hypnotist with a gold watch.
Something in her tells her this is wrong, but she can’t take her eyes off the little shimmering bag. She nods her head and snatches the bag from his outstretched fingers. It’s hard to tell in the dim, grungy light of the place, but it almost looks like he smiles as she does.
She opens the bag, sniffs at the red-black powder within, dips her fingers in. It smells like the slumbering earth. She turns to him in frenzy, sweat breaking on her forehead, uncontrollable freakish smile breaking across her lips. “What do I do? Snort it? Inject it?”
Avery shakes his head at her, sadly, almost regretfully. He can almost taste his normal life. He wonders how he’ll feel after she leaves with his disease. “Just rub a little bit into your eyes.”