The following is an excerpt from the upcoming short story The Panacea Box, a tale of physically deformed mutant girl and her sick mother, trying to survive in The Ninth World. The story will be available soon as a free ebook download in formats for most major platforms.
No sooner was the sun starting to break light on the horizon, than it was beaming through Brisbane’s window and squarely onto her eyes. The light was deep yellow, that of a star no longer youthful, but rather one that was beginning a slow, cosmic countdown. To the casual observer this light looked quiet warm, but there was no heat to be gleaned from it these recent days. She rolled to her side, shying away, and found herself clutching at the blankets as if to hunt down and kill any unwanted access the cold had to the body that was underneath.
Only moments passed before she reluctantly gave in, pushing herself up and feeling cool morning air creeping around the bed, enveloping her. She looked at the window, a solid pane of inch-thick, transparent synth that retracted up into the wall. Her mother had been here. She knew it because it was the only reason the window would be open. It was dangerous to leave windows open overnight – Iron Wind had been travelling through the region over the past several months, and it wasn’t safe to leave yourself exposed. Her mother didn’t know better any longer, though.
Brisbane slid over to the side of her bed, working her way out as one hand guided her way to a wheeled chair next to the side. It was one of her few precious artifacts, and it was the one reason she was able to remain truly independent. The chair was worn, used beyond ages that she could contemplate. Her fingers traced the small control panel at the end of the armrest, a smooth glass panel that faded into life at her touch. A series of power tubes were mounted to one side, connected by thick, cloth-wrapped cables. A large motor sat in between the wheels and added considerable weight and balance to the chair.
As she settled in to the leathery padded seat of the chair, her nightshirt pulled back to reveal her legs. Not really legs at all, at least not by any normal sense of the word. Where a normal person would have two long, strong legs, Brisbane had three. They were triple jointed, but horribly underdeveloped and covered in hard, scaley growths that occasionally pulsed and shifted around the surface of her flesh. They were prehensile to a small degree, but were functionally useless for locomotion. One was twitching.
Finally settled, Brisbane touched one of the glowing siguls on the control panel of her chair, and it quietly rolled forward. As she made her way to the window, she noticed that the air this morning, though cool, had a pleasantly fresh and crisp smell about it. A building very distant in the mountains had been putting out smoke these recent months that would blanket the entire area, leaving the air heavy and oily smelling. But not today.
Today was a good day.
She quickly touched a panel next to the window, and it slid shut with a penetrating thud. She turned the chair, and rolled out her door into a short hallway. Their home was simple, with wide halls and little furniture to accommodate Brisbane’s chair. Small, holographic pictures lined the wall of the hallway with the faces of past family members that were ever so subtly breaking into the plane of the hall. They’d stared at nothing. The ceiling was the proud point of the home. The roof, though visibly opaque from the outside, was entirely transparent from the inside. The morning sunlight illuminated the home with a rich orange that reflected through the holograms and almost seemed there enough to grab. Brisbane loved to just sit in the living room during a good rain and watch the water falling towards them, but stopping mid-air as it hit their roof. She liked to pretend she had the power to stop the rain in the air and send it away at her will. In the mornings, dew would collect and bead up on the surface, casting rays and reflections and shadows in every direction. It was beautiful and mesmerizing.
A new smell broke the air as she made it to the end of the hallway though. No longer the surprising smell of a cool morning, now it was a heavier smell, meaty, of something cooking. The smell was quickly followed by the sight of her mother’s back to her as she came around the corner. Rather than the happy feeling she should feel to see her mother preparing breakfast for her, she felt sad. Whatever her mother was cooking, she didn’t know what it could be, because they hadn’t had anything that would genuinely qualify as meat in the home for the better part of a week. On top of that, she counted at least thirteen glasses of water – some on the table, but others on the windowsill, in chairs, on the floor, and anywhere else there was a spot.
Looking ahead to the living room, their furniture had been laid on its back, and a blanket had been laid out in the center of the room with all manner and form of strange oddities gathered and spread out on it. From the looks of it, her mother had been up all night “rearranging.” How she’d managed to move the water purifier – a device so heavy it took two strong men to bring it in – Brisbane was clueless. And this whole time while she surveyed the situation, her mother was humming.
Today was a bad day.
Brisbane’s mother turned to her. She didn’t know what to expect, but she was met with a warm smile that only a mother can give to their child. She had a spoon in one hand, and a some unseemly brown mass in the other.
“Mom, what’s that song you’re singing?” she asked. A harmless question. The answer wasn’t important in and of itself, but how her mother answered would say a lot.
“Yes, you’re so right. But then the fannity man comes by and we know it’s morning, but it’s not… well it’s not… what’s the word? I had it right there and I just can’t make it be. You’re so lucky though, you know? So lucky. And that man, he watches, and I think he’s onto something – into something. But our love is stronger than all that.”
“I know mom, I love you too. Don’t worry about that man, I’ll have a talk with him.”
Her mother gave her a knowing nod, and turned back to the cooktop. Her humming recommenced, a tune that walked the line of unpleasant discordance. Brisbane wanted to pull her mother away and see what she was cooking, but there wasn’t enough room for both of them back there with her chair, so she’d just have to be patient. Her mother had been getting steadily worse over the past six months, and so far there hadn’t been anything that seemed to help. Something had managed to get into her mind, and it was just breaking it down. Brisbane had been hoping desperately it didn’t have anything to do with the smokey air they’d been dealing with lately. Unable to do anything about the cooking, she began moving about the room, collecting glasses and setting them aside on the counter.
Brisbane rolled into the living room space, but quickly discovered that she wasn’t entirely sure how to right all the furniture by herself. She’d have to find a way to get her mother to help, and that would likely prove difficult. For now, she’d pick up the pile of trinkets and baubles from the floor and get them out of the way. Her mother and father used to go looking for these little shinies as a bit of a hobby in their youth. There weren’t many, but what they had was interesting. Some days they would take them down and go over them – where they were found, what they could make them do. It was her second favorite rainy day activity.
As she maneuvered the collection of oddities out of the way, one in particular caught her eye. She’d see these things a hundred times before. Played with them. Handled them. But this one wasn’t familiar. It was a small brass box. The outside was carved and embossed with all manner and form of swirls and shapes, with an etched strip along the bottom front edge. No more than a couple inches deep a twice that long, it’s weight belied its size. She set all the other items aside and reserved this one into the folds of her shirt before wheeling back towards the kitchen.
There was a distinct vibration to the item. It had settled in her shirt, resting against the skin of one tiny thigh. She could feel it humming, and feel a disconcerting cold from it. It was a cold that seemed to ignore the fabric currently surrounding it, and it was a cold less like that of metal, but rather the sort of cold that presents itself simply in the absence of heat. She imagined this must be what cold in outer space feels like. She caught herself staring at it as she bumped into the island in the kitchen. Looking up, she was surprised to see her mother turned and looking at her.
“Mom, where did this come from?” Brisbane asked slowly, somewhat startled. She presented the box and set it on the counter, tapping it with her finger for emphasis. “This. I don’t remember it. Did you find it somewhere?”
Her mother’s brow furrowed. She was concentrating. There was a focus in her eyes like Brisbane hadn’t seen of late, and she could tell that her mother was trying very hard to process the question and present an answer that would satisfy her daughter. Finally, after several seconds, she answered.
“It was… a special thing. A fixer thing. Fixeded. Fixededed. I thought you should play with it, so I washed it with the marble sauces up high.”
Brisbane tried for a moment to decipher what her mother was trying to tell her. Before she knew what has happening, her mother had taken the box into one hand and held it over one of the glasses of water. She slid one delicate finger across the stripe on the bottom, and a fine mist of liquid sprayed out into the water. She sat the box down and picked up the glass.
“Mom! No!” Brisbane yelled, but helpless otherwise to stop her mother from the chair. She had no choice but to watch as her mother drank the water which had turned a dark, swirling grey. Her anxiety was fanned as the box began to let out a soft chime over and over. It wasn’t loud or sharp, just regular. Matching the chime, a small light started to pulse on the top of the box. Her mother sat the glass down and turned back to the stove.
“Brisbane honey, could you grab the tarjik powder from the pantry?” her mother asked, back still turned.
Brisbane sat there, lips slightly parted, a hint of white teeth visible. She tried twice to speak, but before she could move her lips, the words vanished from her tongue. She just sat, and watched. Her mother tasted the horrible looking mass that was cooking in the pan and shuttered, picking up the pan and turning it over into the refuse.
“Oh my, that’s gone horribly spoiled. I’m sorry I didn’t notice before. We should travel into town later and get something nice and fresh. Maybe we can do some nice, steamed fish for your birthday tomorrow. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
Brisbane just sat. She felt all thought pause in her brain and time shutter for a moment as she realized tomorrow was her birthday, but it had been the farthest thing from her mind lately, and surely her mother didn’t – couldn’t – recall that fact. She just watched as her mother cleaned out the pan and started picking up the kitchen as if it was the most natural thing in the world for her to do.
“Well hon, are you just going to sit there and stare or go get dressed? Go, I’ll make a nice fresh breakfast instead,” her mother directed, hands on hips. There was something undeniable to her mother’s eyes. A presence. For the first time in a long while, those eyes weren’t just a mother’s eyes, they were her mother’s eyes.
Before any other thoughts were able to process, Brisbane took up the small, chiming box from the countertop and turned to wheel her way back to her room. The whole way down the hallway, she couldn’t escape the terrifying notion that maybe she was succumbing to the same malady that had been taking over her mother. Or worse, maybe she was the one that had been sick this whole time, and was simply having a moment of clarity. If this is how it felt to lose one’s mind, then maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing after all. That had to be it, almost certainly. All the while, the box chimed, and the color shifted to a pale red color.
Look for the rest of the story coming soon. It will be available for download in the fiction section of the downloads archive.