Methven - Day Fifteen - Part One
He looked like something the cat refused to drag in--pupils the size of Frisbees, eyes haunted, hands shaking like a Parkinson's victim.
"Pith! You look like hell, buddy. What the fuck happened to you?"
"Th'lixir," he croaked.
"Gee--the news just gets better and better. Well, come in, already--you look like you need to sit down before you fall down."
Nearly toppling over in the process, he staggered across the room to my bed and collapsed onto it like a discarded marionette.
"Are you okay?"
He shook his head.
I poured him a cupful, then had to help him sit up to drink it.
"That any better?"
He nodded, then lay back on the bed.
"Well, that's nice."
He didn't respond. Instead he simply stared at--or through--the ceiling while his quivering hands beat an audible tattoo against the furs covering the bed.
"Earth to Pith. Come in, Pith. Over."
He sighed--a deep, melancholy sigh--and mumbled something I couldn't quite make out.
He turned his empty stare from the ceiling to me.
"I said, 'Now I know why she laughed.'"
"Well, why don't you let me in on the joke?"
He sighed again and then dragged himself up to sit insecurely perched on the edge of my bed, supported on his shaking hands.
"Th'lixir tastes shitty."
"Why am I not surprised?"
"Took a couple hours b'fore I felt anythin'."
"Wait a second--why don't you start from where you guys left me staring at a bunch of stupid rocks?"
"Not much t'tell. We hiked uphill 'bout half a mile t'a kinda natural chair in th' rocks. Beautiful view from there. I sat down 'n' Mahatna gave me th'lixir."
"You're right. There wasn't much to tell."
"Tol' ya. Anyway, we jus' sat 'n' looked at th' view f'r a couple hours. Then I started feelin' sick."
"And Mahatna left."
"Said, 'I mus' go now. I will return later,' 'n' lef' me there."
I sketched the conversation I'd had with Mahatna what must have been only a few minutes afterward.
"So, what happened then?"
"Got sick as a doggie f'r a while. Then th' hallucinations started."
"Sounds like mescaline."
"Mebbe somethin' like that..'cept I had a terrible headache an' couldn't stop shakin'.."
"Sounds like mescaline cut with arsenic and speed."
"You tellin' this story?"
"Sorry. I was just trying to relate to it."
He passed his hand over his face and nearly fell over in the process, catching himself just in time. He was clearly very weak.
"Listen, you don't have to do this now, buddy. Why don't you let me help you to your room and we can pick this back up after you've had a night's sleep and maybe something to eat?"
Pith shook his head.
"Can't sleep. Prob'ly can't eat. 'M all fucked up, Drew. Damn' 'lixir fucked me all up."
"I'm sure it's just temporary. Like I said, a good night's sleep.."
Pith wearily shook his head.
"Somethin's growin' inside m'head. I c'n feel it."
I flashed on what Læ had said about the Elixir the previous afternoon:
"It will be interesting to see whether it will produce in you the same--for want of a better word--'alteration' as it creates in our Vomisa hosts."
Now it sounded like she'd been talking about something a little more fundamental than mere attitude when she'd referred to the "alteration" the Elixir creates.
"Been havin' nightmares all day--mos'ly about 'Nam. After Mahatna lef' it was..y'ever do dreamies?"
"'Dreamies'? I don't think so. What the hell are 'dreamies'?"
"Dramamine. OD on those fuckers an' y'have conversations with folks who aren't even there--dead folks, folks a thousan' miles away. Only they seem real as..well, real as you, dog."
"Never tried 'em. Doesn't sound like much fun to me."
"Can be. This wasn'. Anyway, after Mahatna lef' it was like I was doin' dreamies with a bad hangover--an' havin' a nervous breakdown at th' same time. I musta talked t'a hunnerd dead guys. Guys I knew in Nam. Guys all shot t'shit, blown up, fucked aroun'--sittin' there with their guts hangin' out, arms an' legs blown off, with their faces blown off--an' all accusin' me of bein' responsible for it!"
Pith's voice had an edge of hysteria in it--an edge I've never heard before in all the years we've known each other.
"An' that wasn' all! Every girl th't dumped me, every bully th't beat me up on th' playgroun'--even m'Mom an' Dad--all of 'em tellin' me what a worthless piece a' shit I am. An' th' whole time my head's splittin', I feel like I got t'puke an' I can't stop this GOD-DAMN SHAKIN'!"
He held out his trembling hands in mute testimony, his expression an uncomfortable blend of rage and fear.
"Hey, relax, buddy. I'm sure it's just temporary. You'll get over it eventually."
He laughed--a short, ugly sound.
"'least I'm not hallucinatin' any more--'least I think I'm not hallucinatin' any more."
"Well, phenomenology is a little out of my usual line, but, yes, you are really sitting here and we are really having this conversation. How's your head?"
"That's what I'm tryin' t'tell ya--m'headache's gettin' worse."
"Well, okay, that's not so good--but look at Mantami. For that matter, look at every Vomisa adult on this whole planet! They've all been through this same thing and I doubt they go around with migraines all the time. They sure as hell don't all have the shakes, either."
"We're not Vomisa."
"Yeah, but--did you ask Mahatna whether they experience the same symptoms when they take the Elixir?"
He shook his head.
"Okay then. Let's not panic until we're sure there's a reason, okay?"
He looked up at me and I was shocked to see a big, fat tear work its way down the left side of his nose.
"I jus' feel so weak an' shitty an'.."
He held up his twitching hands. Now there were tears running down both sides of his nose.
"..an' so fuckin' scared.."
His shaking hands contracted into shaking fists. He closed his eyes as a steady stream of tears squeezed themselves out from under his eyelids and coursed down his grimacing face.
I did something then that I haven't done since we were little kids. I sat down beside Pith, put my arm around him and held him while he cried.
. . .
It took a while before his wracking, helpless sobs turned by fits and starts into mere sniffles and muffled gulps. Meanwhile, I had plenty of time to think about what my friend was going through.
Pith is no crybaby. When he came home from Vietnam with his leg all mangled, the VA docs told him he'd never walk again without crutches.
In less than a year, he'd proved them wrong through a combination of fierce determination and incredibly hard work. He spent hours and hours on his bike, painfully cycling up Grizzly Peak Boulevard to Lawrence Hall and back down three or four times in an afternoon--and this was well before there were such things as mountain bikes. He worked himself out of a wheelchair and back into prime physical condition, because he just wouldn't accept living his life as a cripple.
Now he was looking at the possibility that what the Elixir had done to him was permanent--that he'd spend the rest of his life as a twitching, uncoordinated wreck, barely able to walk under his own power. It was no wonder he was scared. I was scared, too. And, despite my soothing assurances, I was no more confident than he was that the damned Elixir worked the same way for us as it does for the Vomisa.
Hell--they have fur. They're from an entirely different planet than us. They're aliens.
That meant that the thing growing inside Pith's head might be some new flesh that would confer on him the Vomisa Scout powers we both coveted--but, it might just as easily not be, too. It could, instead, be some vicious, fast-growing brain cancer that would steal his self-control and his dignity before it put him in a grave a Universe away from the world of his birth.
And I was the one that got him into this mess. I was the one who was responsible for his predicament.
. . .
Eventually, Pith shrugged himself free of my encircling arm and began using his sleeve to mop his cheeks and wipe his nose. I got up and got myself a cup of water, just to put some distance between us, and spent a minute or so fiddling with the pitcher for good measure. When I turned back around, he was sitting up, supporting himself on his trembling hands again. His eyes were red and still haunted-looking, but they were dry.
"Need some more water?"
He shook his head.
"Okay. So--you said Mahatna promised to return 'later'. What happened when he came back?"
Pith looked down at the floor.
"I stopped hallucinatin' 'bout th' time it started t'get dark. I came to sittin' there in th' same position I was when Mahatna lef'. Thought I was alone, at first. Started gettin' up an' I almos' fell over. Mahatna caught me b'fore I hit th' groun'."
He looked back up at me.
"Little fucker's strong, Drew."
Pith returned his gaze to the floor.
"Put m'arm 'cross his back an' we hobbled down th' mountain t'his cabin, both of us leanin' on his staff. I was dry as dust an' burnin' with fever, so he gave me water an' put a wet rag on m'forehead an' made me lay down f'r a while."
"He asked me what I'd seen when I was hallucinatin'--so I told 'im."
"He tol' me t'get up an' come back t'morrow. Wouldn' answer any questions--jus' shooed me out th' door an' shut it in m'face."
"What an asshole!"
"Nothin' I could do 'bout it. So, I made m'way down th' trail an' wound up here."
"That couldn't have been much fun."
He shrugged again.
"Fell a couple times. Coulda been worse."
That was sounding more like the stoic Pith I was used to. Still, I was furious on his behalf at Mahatna's callousness. I wanted to kick the little bastard square in the ass for treating my friend so badly, even though Pith himself didn't seem particularly upset by it.
"You're a helluva lot more forgiving than I am, buddy."
Pith shrugged a third time.
"Nobody forced me t'take th'lixir. Mahatna didn' ask me--I asked him. An' I bet he treats ever'body th' same way."
"You've seen th' murals in th' big hall. 'Spect they treat strangers any better'n they treat their own blood?"
"No..I guess not."
A long moment of silence went by. I'm not nearly as good at silences as Pith is. As long as I'm awake, I'm only comfortable when I'm doing something--preferably something physical.
"So, is there anything you need? Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Matter a' fact.."
He struggled to get a spasming hand into his pocket. Eventually he succeeded, withdrawing a plastic baggie full of vegetation.
"Th' way I'm shakin', I can't roll for shit. How 'bout y'twist us up a jay?"
. . .
I'm a mere journeyman by comparison with Pith, but I have had more than twenty-five years of practice, so the joint I produced smoked reasonably well. It wasn't the smooth, even cylinder that Pith was capable of, but it didn't run and it didn't go out.
I had to hold it to his lips, but that was no big deal. After we finished it, he had me roll another one and after we finished that he wanted me to roll a third, but I was already way too stoned for that.
"Go see Tong. He'll smoke your ass right under the table."
He shook his head.
"Tong rolls shitty joints--he wastes too much weed."
For some reason, I thought that was hilarious and it sent me off into gales of laughter. That set Pith off and he broke up, too.
We got progressively sillier for the next hour or two, until the high wore off and I began to realize how tired I was.
"Oh, man..I'm beat. You ready to call it a night?"
"Guess so. Might even manage t'get t'sleep."
"You need help getting to your room?"
He shook his head.
"I'll be okay."
He pushed himself to his feet. His hands still shook and he staggered like a drunk, but he was able to maneuver himself to my door under his own power.
"See y' t'morrow, Drew..an' thanks f'r.."
I shook my head.
"Don't mention it, pal. I'll see you in the morning--and we'll go pry some answers out of that little jerk."
He grinned at that.
. . .
I stood in my doorway and watched Pith lurch away down the corridor. It might have been mere wishful thinking, but I thought his tremors were less violent than they'd been a few hours earlier. I knew for a fact that he was feeling a lot better when he left than he had when he knocked on my door and I didn't care whether it was the dope or my company that was responsible.
Pith was going to be all right. He was back in control and that was all that mattered.
I closed the door and thought briefly about completing the journal entry that my friend's arrival had interrupted, but I was way too stoned and it was way too late.
Screw it. I'm going to sleep.
I blew out the lamp, found my way to the bed and soon was lost in dreams.
(Copyright© 1997, 1998 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)