This is the continuation of the story The Poison Shop but I hope it will stand up pretty well on its own as well.
The Poisoned Child
I cannot die.
Blessing or curse, it is who I am now. My life stands like an iron spike driven into the rock, while countless souls tumble around me like grains of sand driven by the waves. They stay for a moment until the next wave crashes in; they are gone in an instant, but I am always left.
But I am not the only one.
I wake up in the poison shop to find that I have been dead for a little over eight hours. The poison I used was powerful and now my body is stiff and painful. Shop Tender gives me a look of I-told-you-so as I put the syringe on the counter and shuffle away.
I find Terc in her library, halfway through a stack of Chinese literature books. Each of us spends our sleepless, deathless existence in a different way. I poison myself to find the last shreds of that other world of dreams; Terc studies. She looks up at me with eyes that have been tired for centuries.
“I was at the poison shop,” I say. She waits for the news. “I glimpsed the future. Really,” I add, at the doubting twist of her mouth. “I saw the calendar.”
She slips me a patient smile, then turns back to her page of dense Chinese script. “You can’t trust your perceptions in that state. It’s dangerous to go down that rabbit hole of either trying to prevent the future or confirm it. Remember Ram.”
“I know,” I say. “I’m not going to go like Ram. But still . . . I saw a girl lying in the hall of an orphanage. She was poisoned. It seemed significant.”
“But you don’t know the name or any specific information,” she says, with assurance. I shake my head. “It was a dream, Shah. Nothing more.”
“I know. Still . . . how many orphanages in this city have iron gates in front of them?”
She gives a noise of annoyance but then closes her eyes. I see her eyes moving back and forth under her papery lids as she counts. “Only two that I know of,” she says. “Draw out what you saw and I can tell you which one it is. They are different styles.”
I smile but she just shakes her head, telling me it won’t be worth it. For a split second, the image of hot-blooded, passionate Terc invades my mind: Terc as she was before the fatigue of interminable time bore her down. The memories and their intertwined sensations blaze for a moment in my mind, but as always I push them down. I make myself forget.
St. Benedict of Nursia’s Home for Orphaned Children. It is the next day and I am standing outside the very gates that I saw in my death-vision. The sight fills my mind with an insane elation. In my vision, I had walked through the gates, but here in real life, I ring the bell and it clangs unpleasantly. A moment later, a matron appears at the door. She is the woman I saw in my vision, standing over the child and screaming. She comes to the gate but doesn’t open it.
“I am looking for a child, a girl.”
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t know, but I would know her face if I saw it. Can I come in and look at the children, or even at pictures?”
Her face is a wall, refusal so evident that she does not even need to voice the words.
“Please,” I say, holding her eye and silently beseeching her to come around to my way of thinking. “She is someone important to me. I just need a few minutes.”
“I’ll let you look at pictures,” she says after a moment, opening the gate. “Come this way.” I can be very persuasive if I want to be.
Mother Cecilia—for this is how she introduces herself—leads me to her office and around behind her mahogany desk, an island of luxury in the ascetically bare surroundings. Soon, pictures of thin, unsmiling children are flitting across the computer screen. After a hundred or more—Terc would have known exactly—they end.
“She’s not there,” I say. “Are these all the children in the orphanage?”
Her clumsy attempts to mask her expression tell me everything. “Please show me the others,” I say.
“There is only one other,” she says finally and opens up another folder. A moment later, the picture of the poisoned girl appears on the screen and I nod in confirmation. “What do you know of Theresa?” she asks.
“I know she is possibly in trouble,” I say. “How old is she?”
“She’s ten,” Mother Cecilia says. Why must people lie, especially when they are terrible at it?
I take a chance. “She is not ten,” I say. “She is much older than that, isn’t she?”
Her face flushes. “Who are you really?”
Later, I cannot remember exactly what I say. My lies are not memorable, but they are wonderfully effective in the moment. I play on the fact that Theresa is in danger and that I am—somehow—her only hope. “You must help me,” I say in closing, emphasizing the must. “How old is she really?”
I lie much better than Mother Cecilia. She nods. “I do not know how old she is, but they say she came here in 1840, just after the orphanage opened. At that time, the records say she looked about seven or so. If she ages, it is extremely slowly. We view her as a miracle. People come to pray over her. Some claim she can prolong the lives of others as well.”
So, she is one of us, I think. And a child, no less. I had not known there were any children. My vision was indeed significant. At my request, Mother Cecilia fetches all the records on Theresa.
“It says that her mother’s name was Harriet Velmann,” Mother Cecilia says. Then, “Sir, are you okay?”
“I apologize, I suddenly got dizzy. That never happens to me.” None of it is a lie, nor is the reason for my sudden reaction, a truth that is more unbelievable than any lie I could have told her. I knew Harriet Velmann once, when her tiny grain of sand was whirling momentarily through time past me. Oh, how I knew her, in that desperate, hopeless way when we fight against the inevitable.
And now I know why my vision is significant, because poor, orphaned, soon-to-die Theresa is my daughter.
(to be continued soon)