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Chapter 36

Im going to die here.

Im going to die because Cyrus White has no real knowledge about the human body, and because in the end-as he told me in the beginning-he doesnt really care if I survive or not.

Three days ago, as best I can remember, my feet began to burn. Around the same time, my hands and face began to tingle. I wrote this off to the heroin, but the symptoms didnt abate between fixes. They got steadily worse. Two days ago, when I sat on the commode, the underside of my thighs began to burn. I tried to ignore the stinging pain, but after thirty seconds I had to stand up. A half hour later, I tried again. Same result. My skin couldnt tolerate the pressure of the toilet seat without intense pain. Thats when the paradox hit me: I was mainlining a powerful painkiller, yet I was feeling pain.

That night, my chin went numb and stayed that way. Then the hair on my head began standing up in different places, like a fear reaction-only I wasnt afraid. This erection of small groups of hairs coincided with the onset of shooting sensations in my face, much like electrical shocks. They werent acutely painful, but they were icy cold and they left numbness in their wake. By morning I had to sit on the commode to urinate, because I got dizzy trying to stand. I couldnt stay seated long enough to finish, so I squatted over the bowl like a girl in a nasty bathroom.

What the hell was happening to me?

If I stood erect for any length of time, my hands would grow painfully heavy, as though overfilling with blood. When I held them up to my face, I was shocked to see that my palms were dark red with a bluish cast. Only by holding my hands above my head could I get the blood to drain out of them.

Cyrus and Blue thought I was crazy to be afraid, that I was freaking out over normal drug effects. I prayed they were right, but the next time I sat on the john, the tip of my penis began to sting so badly that I had to roll onto the floor. It took several minutes for the pain to ease. When I examined myself, I saw that the tip of my penis was blue. Though the skin eventually pinked again, two tiny black pinpoints remained.

Dead tissue.

My extremities werent getting enough blood. As the symptoms worsened, I began to experiment. Every time I stood erect, blood gathered in my feet and hands until they ached and pounded. The veins around my ankles bulged with pressure. Sitting on the john caused the blood in my torso to collect in my abdomen, and also in the only extremity attached to my abdomen. After a few hours of experimenting, I realized what was happening. My extremities were getting adequate arterial flow; the problem was my veins. They werent carrying away the deoxygenated blood fast enough.

Something was interfering with my venous circulation.

Cyrus quickly tired of hearing me catalog my symptoms. When I showed him my red hands and bulging veins, he shrugged and returned his attention to Das Boot. He muttered that hed never seen heroin cause problems like that, or at least not so quickly. Plus, he assured me, the batch he was using on me was exceptionally pure.

I told him I was probably having an allergic reaction of some kind. An immune reaction, possibly. Something in the heroin was causing inflammation in my blood vessels-probably an adulterant used to cut the drug. Cyrus told me to shut up and let him watch his movie. It was usually best to let him alone, but panic had begun gnawing at my brain. When your skin starts to die before your eyes, your common sense gets a little out of whack.

My plea to be spared further doses of heroin produced exactly the opposite result. When the sound of Cyruss little blowtorch filled the room, I scrambled into the corner and put up my fists. Cyrus called in Blue and another guy and ordered them to hold me down, then began prepping the dose. I marshaled my fear and tried to channel it into strength. Something in the heroin was killing me, and one more dose might finish the job. But I was no match for Blue and his companion. Cyrus was still laughing when he popped the needle into my vein.

I screamed in rage and terror, but within ten seconds the Jesus Dust performed its magic. A rush of warmth bathed my soul, and my health concerns suddenly seemed rather academic in nature. The shooting pains in my face became interesting events, like lightning bolts across a summer sky. The black pinpoints of flesh on my penis became decorative tattoos, aboriginal art that some unknown artist had added to my manhood during my sleep. But hours later, as I began to come down, I knew Id been right about having a reaction to something in the powder.

Whenever I changed position, I felt tidal shifts of blood in my body. When I laid down, my stomach would pound for two or three minutes-not my heart, but my abdominal aorta. When I tried to stand, consciousness flickered, my face went numb, and the inside of my left thigh would throb. My femoral artery was trying desperately to shunt adequate blood through a system crippled by clogged veins. Cyrus laughed as I wavered on my feet, assuming I was still stoned.

I knew then that if I didnt get out of the factory, I would die in it. I had to find a way out. That, or a way to kill Cyrus and Blue.

I curled into my sleeping bag and waited for them to leave.

Hours later, after Cyrus and Blue disappeared on a run, I struggled to my feet and began to inventory the lab. Despite my pain and fear, I quickly discovered a reason for hope. I didnt know much about battery production, but I knew a lot more than Cyrus and his crew. The lab contained quite a few leftover parts and other materials-materials that knowledgeable men would not have left lying around. There were boxes of lead plates stacked against one wall, and also rolls of electrical wire. The cart Id seen when I first awakened in the lab had a trickle-type battery charger sitting on it.

I forced myself to stay calm and proceed methodically.

Ten minutes later, I found two glass bottles among some plastic ones containing floor cleaner. When I removed their cork stoppers, I smelled nothing, but I had a feeling that the cloudy liquid in the bottom of one of the bottles wasnt water. To test it, I dropped a bit of wire I found on the floor into the bottle.

The wire began to steam. Five minutes later, it was gone.

Sulfuric acid.

The presence of acid in the lab was no big surprise. Its one of the two main components of lead-acid batteries-the main product of the Triton Battery Company. But how could the acid help me? If I flung it into Cyruss eyes, it would cause intense pain, but it wouldnt stop him from shooting me. Strong acid could burn through the metal lock on the door, but a cursory examination revealed dead bolts in addition to the lock in the doorknob. To eat through those bolts, Id have to slosh acid through the narrow crack again and again. I didnt have enough acid to do that, and even if I did, someone outside might notice what I was doing. In the end I used the acid to further my exploration of the lab.

The bank of cabinets that Cyrus used for a TV stand had padlocks on its doors. If the cabinets were locked, I reasoned, there must be something worth protecting inside them. The question was, did they contain something Triton Battery wanted to protect? Or something Cyrus had stashed here? I held the glass bottle over the padlock and carefully dripped sulfuric acid on the curved metal shackle of the lock. The metal hissed and bubbled. It took eight minutes to eat through the shackle. When it was done, I pried the lock from the doors and pulled the cabinet open.

Inside were several lead-acid batteries stacked in a metal frame. The batteries appeared to be wired together in series. Their presence in this room was a violation of federal environmental law on the storage of hazardous materials, but as Quentin Avery would know, such laws are honored more in the breach than the observance. Even the thought of law made me laugh, so comically irrelevant was it to my quest for survival. But what about the batteries? Could they be of use? At first, I thought not. After all, they would be dead after two years in storage. But then I remembered the battery charger on the cart. If the batteries still contained their lead plates and acid, they could be charged. I popped the cell caps off two batteries on top of the array and found fluid inside.

Trying not to get ahead of myself, I sat on the edge of Cyruss recliner and stared at the batteries. I felt like Id gone to sleep and awakened in an episode of MacGyver. Only I didnt have MacGyvers knowledge of all things mechanical. I had, however, spent a summer working in this plant. On the loading dock, its true, but Id talked to a lot of people in other jobs. Something tickled the back of my brain. What? Batteries could be dangerous, of course. Everyone who worked at Triton Battery knew that. But it wasnt the acid that was dangerous, as most people thought. Acid could burn you, but it couldnt explode. It wasnt even flammable. No, the explosive danger came from hydrogen.

Every rechargeable battery in the world produces hydrogen gas. Usually its produced in small amounts that remain sealed in the battery case. But because of its light molecular weight, hydrogen is more prone to leak than any other gas. Hydrogen is what kills people who get careless when jumping off the dead battery in their car. If they connect the negative jumper cable to the dead battery rather than elsewhere on their car, they create a spark above the battery. And if hydrogen is present- boom-its lead plates through the skull and a corrosive acid bath.

There were warning signs all over the Triton plant when I worked here.BEWARE! HYDROGEN GAS IS INVISIBLE. I remember a safety guy walking slowly through the loading dock with a straw broom, trying to detect a hydrogen fire. In open air, hydrogen burns almost invisibly, giving off only a faint blue light. The old black guys on the dock called that straw broom the Witches Broom.

As I stared at the batteries, the excitement in my chest grew swiftly, but with it came fear. Id wanted a weapon, and Id found one. But that weapon was not controllable. It was the kind of weapon that could only be used by someone with nothing to lose. Someone who was going to die anyway. As I searched for some other way out of the lab, a realization hit me with nauseating certainty: You have no alternative. You can wait to die here, or you can kill yourself trying to get out.

That was twelve hours ago.

For the past eleven hours, Ive lain on my sleeping bag in a worsening state of heroin withdrawal. Cyrus and Blue left the works for me this time-substituting a book of matches for the blowtorch-a merciful gesture in their minds, a salve for the burgeoning junkie. But I cant use that white powder to ease the aching hunger in my jaw muscles and back. The blood pounding like a second heart in my abdomen tells me that. If my veins continue to become inflamed, I could stroke out or go into cardiac arrest. A more immediate risk might be kidney failure. Thats a common cause of death in people with malignant high blood pressure, which is what my condition resembles.

My plan is simple-simple and insanely dangerous. It was Cyruss TV sitting on the cabinets that inspired it. I perched on Cyruss recliner and worked it out in my head. The heavy battery array could remain inside the cabinet. I would take the trickle charger from the cart and put it inside the cabinet with the batteries, then connect it to the first battery in the series. Then I would remove the cell caps from the batteries. As the batteries charged, hydrogen gas released by the lead plates would bubble steadily upward through the acid in the cells. The closed cabinet would serve to confine the gas. And confined hydrogen gas is basically a bomb.

All I needed was a fuse.

I found my fuse in less than a minute. Near the back of the soapstone countertop was a hole for electrical cords to pass through. Farther down the counter, above the next cabinet, was another hole. Both were sealed with rubber gaskets, but the gaskets popped out easily. The hole nearest the TV would be my fuse. Lighting it at the proper time would be the hard part, but I resolved to deal with one problem at a time.

In my weakened physical state, it took me half an hour to manhandle the charger off its cart and into the cabinet. I shivered as I connected the leads to the first battery, fearing that the cabinet might already contain free hydrogen. When the leads were connected successfully, I popped the caps off the battery cells and shut the cabinet doors.

The last step was to prep the TV for Cyrus. This trick I learned in seventh grade, by watching a friend of mine blow the schools fuses from our study hall. His technique was simple. Hed take a paper clip, straighten it out, then wrap the wire around both prongs of the electrical plug on the box fan at the back of the classroom. Then hed shut his eyes and jam the plug into the socket. Blue sparks would shoot from the wall, and the lights would go out all over St. Stephens.

If Im lucky, Cyrus will do the same thing for me.

Ive spent eleven hours pondering everything that could possibly go wrong. Hydrogen is invisible, as the Triton signs warned me long ago. If Cyrus stays gone too long, the gas will build to a lethal concentration, and Ill suffocate in here. For that reason, I cant let myself fall asleep. Then theres the paper clip. I found a whole box of them in one of the lab drawers. They looked like they were made of metal, but what if theyre made of some nonconducting material? A research lab might use something like that.

And then of course theres Cyrus himself: an unpredictable factor if ever there was one. The moment I hear him unlocking the dead bolts, Ill have to jump up and pull the rubber gasket out of the hole in the countertop. That will allow the trapped hydrogen to vent through the hole. But to ignite that gas, Cyrus will have to insert the jerry-rigged TV plug into the outlet above the countertop. What if he finds the unplugged TV cord suspicious? What if he simply gives me a once-over and leaves again, as hes done a couple of times before? What if, what if, what if?

The wait is killing me. Literally.

Time is a big fucking razor blade scraping across the universe,Cyrus told me. No past or future-just now. Maybe hes right-I think I actually read something like that somewhere. But right now I feel like hes wrong. Time is a river, and I can swim backward in it as effortlessly as I please. Sometimes, even when I dont want to think about the past, it floods over me anyway, a liquid wall of memory and emotion that sweeps away everything in its path. Lying on this sleeping bag, my skin itching, my muscles aching, my mouth dry as sand, I try not to let sadness overwhelm me as pictures of my wife float through my head, my wife before the cancer got her. I see her giving birth to Annie, screaming in agony and then smiling in exhaustion. Sarah is gone now, of course, but Annie remains. For a while I wonder if Sarah has appeared to me because I will soon join her. Thats just fear, I conclude. Think about Annie. Annies still alive. Annie still needs you

As I repeat this mantra over and over, a new emotion is born within me-strangely enough, for the first time. Its hatred. Not a generalized hatred, but a highly specific animus directed at one man: Cyrus White. Because of Cyrus, I lie helpless in a locked room, drifting slowly but steadily toward death. Because of Cyrus, my daughter might have to grow up without her father. And she has already done without her mother for too long.

Up until now, I have excused Cyrus in my head. He hasnt tortured me as he has supposedly done to others; he has promised me life. Did Cyrus create himself? No, said my guilt. Cyrus is a product of the town we created. But lying here now, I reject that idea utterly. Cyrus had choices-more than a lot of people less fortunate than he. He made it out of this town. He served in the military. Yet despite this chance to rise above his disadvantages, he chose evil over good. And not once, but again and again. Images of the dead and injured fill my mind. Kate Townsend. Sonny Cross. Chris Vogel. The Catholic kid in the hospital, Mike Pinella. Paul and Janet Wilson.Cyrus may not be directly responsible for all of them, but he happily feeds the beast that took their lives. And the next time he walks through that door, I will devote every atom of my being to killing him.

Im nearly asleep when I hear the click.

I tell my body to move, but it doesnt respond. Im lying on the surface of Jupiter, with twice the gravity of Earth sucking at my bones.

As the first dead bolt clicks open, I roll over and struggle to my feet. My belly pounds with terrifying pressure as I stagger over to the counter and pull the rubber gasket out of the countertop.

Im only halfway back to my bag when Cyrus opens the door.

What the fuck? he says. Look at this junkie motherfucker!

Trying to turn toward him, I collapse on my sleeping bag.

What the hell are you doing? he asks me. You mainline that whole bag or something?

I groan in mock agony, but I dont have to fake it much. The pains shooting across my face feel like someones pinching me with pliers.

Anger twists Cyruss face when he looks at the countertop. What the fuck? This place is a mess!

Im sick, I grunt, twisting my sleeping bag around me. Im sorry.

You sorry, all right. He walks into the room and stops. Motherfucker! You been up in my Pringles?

I was hungry.

Junkie motherfucker! I shoulda killed yo ass in the beginning.

I writhe on the sleeping bag, then straighten out on my stomach. Ill be all right soon. I justI dont know. I close my eyes and lie still. Right now hydrogen gas is rising through the hole in the counter in an invisible column.

I got to get out of this place, Cyrus mutters. Got that old nigger in the guardhouse talking my ear off, and back here I got your nasty ass. Im gonna lock you in a broom closet in the plant or something. Shit.

Witches Broom,I whisper.

What?

I dont reply.

Hey, Blue! Cyrus yells. Shoot this motherfucker up. Shut him up for a while.

Heavy footsteps sound in the lab, then soft creaks as Cyrus sits in the Naugahyde recliner.

Shit,he curses. My TV dont work!

Probably the remote, says Blue, moving toward me with the blowtorch.

Cyrus gets up and walks somewhere. I want to look, but I dont.

No, he says, slapping plastic. Its broken, man.

Plugged in? asks Blue.

The big man kneels beside me and picks up the baggie and the spoon.

Thats it! This stoned motherfucker done got into my Pringlesand unplugged my TV. If it was me on that syringe, Id waste his ass.

Blue starts cooking the heroin. You aint gonna fight me this time?

No. The tiny roar of the blowtorch floods my system with adrenaline. If the hydrogen escaping from the cabinet fills this room fast enough, well all die before Cyrus even picks up the TV plug. I groan and roll onto my side so I can watch Cyrus.

He has the plug in his hand. Hes holding it near the electrical socket, but hes stopped to say something to Blue.

You know why he aint fighting you? Cause the rush is worth the pain.

Cyrus grins, then pushes the plug into the socket.

Theres no flame, not even a flash, but that side of the testing lab moves to this side without visibly traveling the space between. My plan was to shelter under my sleeping bag, but everything happened too fast. Now Blues elephantine body lies across my head and torso, and its not moving. Someone is screaming, but its not Blue. I touch my mouth to see if its me.

Its not.

With colossal effort, I roll Blue off me and look to my right.

Cyrus is writhing on the floor, screaming gibberish and clawing at his eyes. His entire body is peppered with bloody wounds. Shrapnel wounds, I realize, fragments of the lead plates in the batteries. They exploded out of the cabinet at supersonic speed and sliced through everything in their path.

Thats what killed Blue. The top of his head is gone, as though someone put it partway into a guillotine. When I glance at his lower body, I see that my own legs are bleeding from several wounds. I retch, but theres nothing in my stomach.

The shrill ring of a fire alarm sounds over Cyruss shrieks. Theres no fire that I can see, but the explosion obviously triggered something. The custodian in the guardhouse is bound to investigate. Unsure of my legs, I flatten my palms on the floor and struggle to my feet. My legs are shaking badly, but they seem able to support my weight.

The lab door is standing open, but it may not be the only one between me and freedom. I try not to look at Cyruss face as I bend and take his keys from the ring on his belt loop. His jerking torso is almost too much to take. The acid blown out of the batteries has vaporized the cotton of his T-shirt and is now eating into his skin. Cyrus claws at my wrist as I lift the keys, but I yank my hand away and hurry to the door.

His screams follow me down the tiled corridor outside. Im not familiar with this part of the plant. I have no idea where to go. Pausing by the door at the far end of the corridor, I try to recall anything I can.

Hey! someone yells. Cyrus? Blue? What happened in there?

Wavering on my feet, I move to the side of the door and flatten my back against the wall. The door bursts open, and a black man in a blue uniform runs through it, making for the lab. As he enters it, I leave by the door he just came through.

Now Im in a much larger room; the ceiling is thirty feet over my head. The production line. The fire alarm is louder here. I see light, a streetlight shining through a high window. Low down on that wall is another door, and its standing open. I walk toward it, stumbling the last few yards. My pants are soaked with blood; Im leaving a trail of it behind me.

When I clear the door, new sirens cut through the shrill scream of the fire alarm. I fall to my knees, but I keep moving. I have to get clear of the factory. The custodian could shoot me just to cover his ass, then blame my death on Cyrus.

I smell the river now-its only five hundred yards to the west-and kudzu, too, the greenest smell in the world. As I crawl forward, red light flashes crazily on the walls of the buildings around me. I force myself to my feet and hold my hands high in the air. A fire truck careens around a huge building on my left and bears down on me. I wave my arms frantically, but I dont have the energy to maintain my balance, and I fall.

I hear a door slam, then nothing.


Chapter 35 | Turning Angel | Chapter 37