“He’s dead, Miss Kate.” Emily looked at her feet, not happy to deliver bad news.
Horror washed across ’s face. “What?”
“His heart gave out yesterday. His nurse said she crushed on his chest somethin’ awful, but she couldn’t get his ticker started again.”
“She did what to him?” Something about this sounded familiar.
“Says he showed her how to get his heart workin’ again. CP somethin’. She did it three other times and got him goin’, but this time even breathin’ in his mouth didn’t work. Sounds like witchcraft if you ask me. Who ever heard of such a thing? Breathin’ into a corpse.” Emily shivered and scrunched up her face as if she’d swallowed something bitter, then settled in the chair at the foot of the bed while plopped heavily onto her mattress.
With an expression of hopelessness, said, “Did the nurse give you a note for me?”
“No, Miss.” The servant girl returned the note Beth had sent her to deliver.
The modest prosperity that the general store offered to the Anspachs made it possible for Calvin to buy his son a steady supply of laudanum. At first, Ethan had tried to space out his doses, but after the first few days of struggle, he gave up. He no longer allowed Calvin to dose him by the spoonful. Ethan now held the brown glass bottle under the covers in his good hand. Almost hourly, he used his teeth to pull the cork stopper out of the bottle and then swigged its contents until the familiar syrupy slowness enveloped him and his pain retreated.
The first half-pint bottle had lasted two days. The one Ethan now held had been opened that morning and would be gone by sunset. Ethan saw the trap he had entered. The shortness of the relief made the drug irresistible. As he swallowed increasing amounts of it, now seeking more than just respite from pain, Ethan wasn’t sure which he feared more: the pain or the drug.
Halfway into his second week, Ethan nestled in his stupor. He roused only when some external force intruded on him: Doctor Robert’s examinations, Calvin’s insistence that he eat.
Ethan reached under the covers and retrieved the bottle. He yanked out the cork and cocked the familiar shape up to start the flow into his mouth. Nothing came out. Ethan sucked on the neck of the bottle like an infant. A minute passed before he realized he held an empty bottle. He hurled the bottle against the far wall where it chipped the green paint and formed a crater in the plaster. Other fresh white craters dotted the wall.
The elder Anspach shuffled into the bedroom. “Yeah?”
“Billy, you finish that bottle already? That was fresh this mornin’.”
“I need more.”
“Billy, maybe you best slow down. Doc Robert says you’re takin’ too much of that stuff.”
The pain flowed back like an unstoppable tide. Soon his body would shriek with the knowledge that relief was being denied. It would howl in Ethan’s brain. Now that Ethan was able to think again, his thoughts stayed fixated on only this one goal.
Tiny claws of pain snickered along his ribs and up his collar bone. They joined in his left shoulder blade and bit into the marrow. Hot mandibles of a thousand microscopic demons ripped at his nerves, gnawed through muscle. The insistent attack grew and grew. Ethan felt them in there, those hideous little monsters that reveled in bringing him agony. When their assault grew to the point that Ethan could hear their teeth and their claws rattling against his skeleton, he screamed in a rising ululation of horror.
In the kitchen, Ethan’s howl sent a spear though Calvin. He rocked forward out of the chair that he had settled into to bask in the heat of the pot-bellied stove. From a shelf next to the window, he pulled down a squat red pottery jug and yanked out the cork. After a long pull of sippin’ liquor, Calvin threw on his coat and stepped out into the cold for the short walk to the apothecary’s.
The next week became a tug of war. At Doctor Robert’s insistence, Calvin tried to restrict Ethan’s laudanum intake. But Ethan would wheedle, plead, cry, or intimidate to get what he craved. His wounds were healing, but from the racket coming from Calvin’s bedroom, it sounded as if the patient was getting worse.
Ethan wanted the boy to die so he could move on. He wanted the agony to end. He now rattled around inside Billy, looking for some way out. But he found none. Billy’s vigorous teenage body wanted to heal. Ethan began to think of how he might crawl out of bed and find a gun in the house and end this miserable life. But when he tried, the hot magma of pain that erupted in his body slammed him back to the mattress like a beetle crushed under a wagon wheel.