The Cure-All

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction 2016 (Challenge 1, Group 3 -Thriller / frozen river / teacup)



The memory of sun-warmed berries overhanging crisp, bright-rushing water swam languidly in Marie’s mind as she lay shivering against the snow pack, staring out at the solid grey mass of ice before her.

She picked at the edge of the rough cloth covering the gaping gash that lay bare her thighbone, fingers caressing the makeshift bandage that had begun to fuse to the wound, stitching itself down with pus and congealed blood. She caught a whiff of the decay that would eventually kill her.

The bacteria multiplied rapidly, drawing all the warmth her body could muster, her immune system’s pathetic attempt to burn it clear merely providing fuel for their vigorous reproductive efforts.

Her fingers, toes, cheekbones were losing feeling, numb in the growing dusk. Her brain was already frozen.

Like the river.

Like the bones of their mother, buried on the bank since the week after Marie’s birth.

Like the bones of their father, buried in the smouldering remains of their cabin since, on Marie’s insistence, he’d gone back for the cat.

Father had watched her tumble from her bed in the loft, in her haste to escape the billowing smoke.  Watched her impale herself on the wooden spike of the long-broken banister. The banister he had meant to repair for as long as Marie had been alive, its jagged presence once a running joke; the most interesting architectural element in their rough-hewn cabin.

Her screams had roared louder than the flames that licked the walls, caught the curtains.

James was the one who’d thought to grab the backpack of camping supplies, loop his arm across Marie’s chest, and drag her out into the snow, down to the river’s edge, press the wound closed. He pushed hard with his twelve-year-old fingers against the throbbing pulse.

Father staggered after them, staring dumbly.

“Help us, daddy!” James begged. Marie’s fading voice croaked the cat’s name over and over, a desperate chant. Father turned back to the flames, following the trail of spilled blood, over the threshold, blindly seeking whatever might make his daughter whole again.

He did not emerge.

Hours after smoke had ceased to rise from the cabin, James stoked their small campfire, it’s flickering gleam doing little to hold the dark chill at bay. He knew they needed to move from the river bank, needed to journey the several miles down the road to their nearest neighbor, before the chill consumed them.  He repositioned the tin pan filled with snow, nestling it closer to the center of the flames.

When in doubt, his father had always said, a cup of tea will cure all your ills.

“Where’s daddy?” Marie’s whisper sliced through the heavy frozen silence, drawing his eyes up to meet hers for the first time since the flames consumed their lives.

He opened his mouth, but the knot in his throat prevented him from responding. Turning to the backpack, he felt around for the small pouch of tea bags their father always packed on their camping trips, extracted one. Dropped it into the steaming water, spooling out the string by habit, resting the paper tag outside the pan. It quickly caught fire. The flame threaded up the cotton wick and into the water, where it sizzled its tiny death.

As he pulled the enameled blue mug from the pack and scooped out some of the hot brown liquid, a rustling from the woods beyond the house alerted him to the presence of another.

“Who’s there?” He leapt to his feet, his strong, loud voice belied the quivering fear in his guts, a fear that multiplied when he saw the loping figure emerge, all yellow eyes and shaggy fur stretched tight over visible ribs.

It was a wolf, and it was hungry.

For a moment, they stood and observed one another, the wolf’s nostrils twitching at the faded scent of Marie’s blood. Steam curled from the cup still clutched in James’ hands.

“Hyah!” he shouted as he flung the cup at the animal. At the same moment the wolf darted forward, ignoring James and streaking up to Marie, grasping her tiny shoulder in his powerful jaws and making to drag her into the woods.

“Nooo!” James screeched, grabbing the hot pan and whacking the wolf on the snout with a force that bent the thin metal handle. But the wolf would not be discouraged from such a generous meal so deep in winter. Marie’s screams rent the air around them, and she kicked wildly with her non-injured leg.

“No, no, no!” James lunged after them, striking the wolf again and again before using the handle to gouge wildly at its eyes. When he hit his target, he felt the soft flesh give and heard the wolf’s sharp yelp as it dropped its prize and dashed, howling, back into the woods.

Marie’s screams continued, unabated. Fresh, bright-red blood poured from the new wound in her shoulder. The movement had disturbed the scabbing of her leg, and blood poured from that as well. How much blood could she lose? Her eyes were glassy and unfocused.

“Shh, shh, Marie it will be okay. Everything will be okay.” He spoke the lie with conviction. Her scream faded to a sigh, blessed shock overtaking her nervous system and silencing her.

“I have to get you back to the fire,” he whispered, more to himself, as exhaustion threatened to consume him. How much easier would it be to just lie his head down next to hers, to sleep until some responsible adult came along to save them?

But he knew no one would come.

Gently shifting Marie back to her place near the fire, James unbent the handle of the tin pan, now smeared with the blood of both Marie and the wolf. He filled it with snow, and pushed it back into the flames.

When in doubt, his father had always said, a cup of tea will cure all your ills.

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