22. Fever

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"Hold him down."

Ash's cross dangled over my face. I was crucified to the carpet, my outstretched arms pinned at the wrists by Billy and Nip.

"Get off me, you bitch. You dike, you cunt. Get off! Get off!"

"So, you can talk."

She spread apart my leather jacket, her hips locked to mine. My torn and bloodied undershirt was soaked through with sweat. I flung my head side to side, shaking droplets from my hair.

"Let me go, let me go, leave me alone."

Ash held up a tiny pair of scissors. Scabs twined up her forearms like tree roots. "Hold still."

I twisted and squirmed as she cut my shirt open from the bottom. When she reached my sternum, I heard Nip exhale.

"Oh man, oh man."

Ash dropped the scissors and ripped my shirt open the rest of the way with her hands. The scratches on my chest and stomach were covered in a soft yeasty crust, and the crust was leaking. Oozing.

"He's fucked," said Billy.

"Shut up."

Ash reached aside. She twisted the cap off a black bottle. Then she turned the bottle upside down over me. The liquid frothed as it hit my skin. A scream caught in my throat and threatened to tear my neck inside out.

"Don't waste it," said Billy. "We only have one more bottle."

"I know." Ash stopped pouring. "Shit. Shit. You two hold on. I'm going to get something for those scabs. They're just in the way."

The bubbles were still seething when Ash hauled a sloshing bucket up the ladder.

"Is that our drinking water?" Billy said.

"Yes, asshole. Yes, it is."

Ash sat back down on top of me. She pulled a soapy kitchen sponge from the bucket and wrung it out. "Joel. I'm going to use the rough side. It'll be faster. I'm sorry."

She started scrubbing.

"Stop," I gasped. "Stop, stop."

She kept scrubbing.

When the last wet scab had been peeled off, Ash picked up the bottle of hydrogen peroxide one more time and dumped it over my raw, weepy torso.

There's a tiny lever on the loft's oval window. Pull the lever, and the window swings open like a submarine hatch. Doing that during the day meant inviting in the fog, which blew in fresh after sunrise and thickened until nightfall, when it finally began to lessen. That became our twilight, that time of stillness as the stars trickled into view, just as the red darkness of morning became our dawn. Every twilight Ash or Nip would pull the lever and wipe off the outside of the window with a kitchen rag, so I could look out at the world from the loft. I never asked for it, but I never asked for a lot of things they did for me.

I was lying on my side after my sponge bath, watching the moon play hide and seek behind the fog, when their voices drifted up from downstairs.

"It's bad."

"He needs a doctor."

"We all need a doctor."

"I mean, he really—"

"Billy knows exactly what you mean. He's just being a dick."

"Joel calls you all that shit, and I'm being a dick."

"Joel isn't Joel right now."

"Joel hasn't been Joel since you-know-who. What the hell happened there anyway? She's black-out on the couch when we leave, and a couple hours later the house is burning down with her inside it. And then the radio, you all heard it, that was her on there with all the others. She was calling his name."

A heavy silence.

"My mom," said Nip.

"What about your mom?"

"She's a nurse down at Sawtooth."

"Well, problem fucking solved. Call her over. I'm sure she'll be happy to swing by."

"Stuff it," said Ash.

Nip continued. "She works pediatrics, you know. Those kids, it's a warzone. They're always getting her sick. Strep, flu, sinus infections, you name it. She gets it all every year. Well. It might be nothing. And this is all still assuming I even have a house anymore—"

Billy groaned.

"What?"

"When you jack off, does your dick take this long to get to a point?"

"Jerk."

"Fag."

Ash talked over them. "Your mom gets sick, Nip, and then what?"

"Then she gets a prescription filled. But antibiotics make her even more sick. It's her stomach, see. She's got my grandpa's stomach—he eats even a little bit of Mexican or Italian and he yarks it all back up. So my mom, she hardly ever finishes a course. She tries, but she just can't—and then the bottle stays sitting in her medicine cabinet forever."

"How many bottles?"Ash said eagerly.

"I don't know."

"What kind?"

"All of them, I think."

A long pause.

Billy laughed. "You can't seriously be thinking of going out there."

"Tomorrow night. If Joel hasn't cooled off by tomorrow night, we leave as soon as the fog clears."

I wasn't cooler the next night. I was freezing.

I rolled over, shivering, and left a damp silhouette of myself on the carpet. My body was a collection of spasms, all except for my legs, which didn't move a bit but ached worse than ever. Downstairs the others were talking again. Their voices were too low, or my chattering teeth were too loud, for me to make out what they said. The loft smelled of sweat and urine and shit. Outside, wind stirred the fog like a cannibal's stew.

Light spilled up through the trapdoor and painted a bright rectangle on the ceiling.

Ash emerged with Colossus. She was wearing a coat, a pair of blue jeans, and shoes. My eyes stopped on the shoes. She hadn't worn anything on her feet since we'd come here . . . how long ago? I turned my head. On the wall behind the radio were tallies drawn in black marker. Two groups, five marks a piece, plus three extra. Thirteen days. We had been in the house, and I had been in the loft, for thirteen days.

Ash picked up the bucket next to my feet, wrinkled her nose, and walked to the window. After she finished dumping its foul contents out into the woods, she pulled the drum stool over to my head and took a seat.

"Open your mouth."

I didn't, so she plugged my nose until my mouth opened itself and then she poured water down my throat. It was so cool that it made me feel, for a second, as hot as I actually was.

"Nip and I are going to get medicine. Billy is staying here to watch over you."

That almost made me laugh, even then.

"We'll be back soon. You—you—don't you dare—"

Ash jerked abruptly from the stool and walked past me to the trapdoor. I watched her go until she was gone. She looked hazy, like a mirage, like a ghost girl.


____ ____

Author's Note:

Thank you for reading! If you're enjoying Poor Things, please consider hitting the vote button—it will help other readers find the story. Comments are always appreciated, too. Seriously, I love them.

Coming up on Wednesday, Joel's fever deepens and Billy . . . well, Billy doesn't make for a very good caretaker.

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