I wrote this piece as a response to a challenge at a writing website. The challenge was to write about a character who had been poisoned and had only twenty-four hours to live. I mentioned in my blog I would be including one of the reviews I received for this piece on foreshadowing, I will include the review at the end of the piece. (Note: please do not copy/use any part of this story without my permission.)
An Ordinary Day
I would never have believed when I woke up yesterday morning I would be dead only twenty-four hours later. It started out as such an ordinary day. I woke up as soon as the first rays of sun filled the crack between the curtains and bathed the room in a muted light. I’d never been able to sleep once the sun was up, it seemed to be such a waste to me to laze about in bed when the morning awaited me. My brother, Billy, had always been the opposite, he was not a morning person at all. He often berated me for casting open the curtains in our shared bedroom at the crack of dawn when we were younger and would subsequently bury himself under his bed covers so he could get a few more hours sleep.
I wasn’t stupid enough to open the curtains yesterday morning, though. I no longer shared a room with my brother in our family home in country England. Instead, I now lived in a cramped two-storey flat in an obscure part of Australia with my girlfriend, Sarah. Sarah looked so serene as she slept in our shared bed, her pale hair spread out on her pillow, slightly tangled from a restless night. We’d both had a long day the previous day and I felt she was deserving of a good rest. So I crept downstairs to our little kitchenette and made myself a weak black tea. It was just such a normal morning; a morning like every other morning I’d spent in Australia. I pushed open the double doors and carried my tea out onto the landing. I looked out over the Australian countryside as I sipped my tea.
The rest of the day was somewhat of a blur. In hindsight I wish I could have slowed down and taken time to remember the details more clearly, after all it was my last day on Earth. Of course it wasn’t a particularly interesting day, really, just another day on the reserve. We spent the morning wrangling a new male crocodile that had been rescued from some illegal croc hunters. I remember I sustained a nasty claw mark to my left forearm. After a quick bite of lunch in the mess tent, we spent the afternoon routinely delousing and immunising the wallabies on the east side of the reserve.
It really wasn’t until last night I was aware of feeling any different, and even then I thought nothing of it.
“What’s wrong?” Sarah’s freckled forehead creased with worry.
“Nothing,” I replied.
“You look pale,” she said, placing her hands on her hips.
“I’m just tired. It’s been a long day.”
Sarah continued to glare at me, unconvinced, but she let the matter drop.
Maybe she shouldn’t have. Maybe she should have made me admit I had a strange throbbing sensation in the back of my head and that my vision was a little hazy, but she didn’t. Maybe if she had, I wouldn’t have died. Maybe if she’d insisted something was really wrong, my life might have been saved. I don’t blame Sarah though, how could I? She was so beautiful and kind and determined…
Sarah had arrived on the reserve in Australia only two months after me and we hit it off immediately. She was down-to-earth and not afraid to get her hands dirty. At first sight you could be forgiven for thinking she was this delicate and innocent young woman, but she was really very tough. She could belch, fart and wrestle crocs with the best of us men here. Somewhere along the way our friendship led into so much more. I don’t even think I could pinpoint how and when we became a ‘couple’, it just progressed that way.
I loved that girl, more than she ever realised. From her freckled face right down to her earth-worn feet. I was going to propose. I hadn’t bought the ring yet, but I’d been thinking about it a lot. No one even knew, not my brother, not my sister, Jane, not my parents, and especially not Sarah. She will never know.
To think the very last words I spoke to her were a lie. I so badly wanted to turn back time and tell her the truth.
“Yes, Sarah, there is something wrong.”
But once you’re dead, you’re dead; there is no turning back the clock. I told her there was nothing wrong; I lied and then I died. Well there was more to it than that, I suppose. I told her I was just tired and I was going up to have a rest before dinner. I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Sarah was lying next to me asleep. I hadn’t even noticed her coming to bed and I wondered if she’d tried to wake me for dinner.
I stumbled downstairs for a glass of water. My legs barely carried me there. Why am I shaking so much? I wondered. I felt dizzy. Somehow I managed to make it to the sink and fill a glass of water. The cool liquid felt nice running down my throat and I even felt slightly less dizzy after it. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: the floor that is. I felt confused, vaguely even aware of how I had managed to find myself face down on the kitchen tiles. I must have fallen, but to be honest I don’t exactly remember falling. It was as though one minute I was standing at the kitchen sink and the next minute my cheek was pressed up against the cold floor and I had a splitting headache. I tried to push myself up, but my limbs appeared not to be working. I willed my arms and legs to move, but they were resolutely stubborn and refused to budge. I tried to call out to Sarah, but my voice constricted in my throat. Not a sound escaped my lips no matter how hard I tried to scream. What’s happening to me? I asked myself.
As I lay there waiting for the morning, and for Sarah to find me and call for help, I remembered reading an article once about a woman who was poisoned by her sister (over a man of course). At the end of the article was an information box on recognising the signs of poisoning. Drowsiness. Headaches. Dizziness. Weak limbs. I realised then I must have been poisoned. I thought back upon the last twenty-four hours of my life trying to pinpoint when and how it might have happened. (And, by the way, I know what you’re thinking, but you can forget it, Sarah would never poison me, of that I am one hundred per cent certain.)
I wondered whether I had accidentally jabbed myself with one of the needles while immunising the wallabies in the afternoon, but I was sure I would have noticed if I’d pricked myself, and anyway, it wouldn’t have been enough to kill me. Was it food poisoning from the egg salad sandwich at lunch? But Sarah had eaten the same thing and she was fine. The claw mark on my arm, although painful, was no cause for poisoning. But then what else was there? The tea. But I had made it myself. I lay there motionless going over everything in my head, trying to locate the source of my poisoning in my mind.
A glint of sunlight peeked through the kitchen window and bathed the kitchen in a faint golden light. As the kitchen’s features became clearer I could see the broken shards of my glass littering the tiles where I dropped it. Each shard glinted in the morning sun casting little rainbows of light on the white cupboards.
And then I saw it: the cause of my poisoning. It was so small and obscure lying there on the floor. A flicker of a memory materialised in my mind. How could I have forgotten? What was it Sarah said to me?
“I found a rat’s nest down the side of the stove in the kitchen. I think I managed to get rid of them all with some rat bait. Just make sure you check any packages of food before you use them, in case there are any rat droppings in them.”
So it must have been the tea. The droppings must have blended right in with the tea leaves. And there I was only twenty-four hours later lying sprawled out on the kitchen tiles unable to move or speak as my life ebbed away. I’d always imagined I would die while trying to wrangle a particularly fierce crocodile. I’d envisaged myself sustaining a critical blow to the head or being fatally wounded by its sharp claws or teeth. It would have been something exciting that would be talked about and retold until all the facts were obscured. I could not have imagined I would end up dying such a mundane death. Who wants to hear about the man who died from accidentally ingesting rat droppings? No one.
It had started out as such an ordinary day and it had ended with a very ordinary death. As I closed my eyes for the final time I briefly caught a glimpse of Sarah’s freckled legs descending the stairs. The last sound I heard was her voice as it uttered my name, “Charlie?”
Review by Alopex
11th September 2009:
Oh no! Not the tea. Oh my goodness, that is too awful! Gee, a couple of these staff challenge prompts have spawned some very sad stories. 😦 Actually, I can’t say this story is overly sad in tone. Charlie is quite conversational with us, and he isn’t really the self-pitying sort. Still, the idea of it makes me think about sniffing a bit.
I really admire the way you made the cup of tea he drank at the beginning of the day seem so completely ordinary. He didn’t suspect it, I didn’t suspect it, and probably no one suspected it but you! I racked my brains trying to figure out how Charlie could have been poisoned, but that ordinary little cup of tea flew right beneath my radar. I just liked the symmetry of it, mentioning the tea at the beginning and again at the end.
The way you described the effects of the poison on Charlie was quite good as well. It started out innocently enough, with a bit of paleness, a headache, maybe some weakness in the limbs. Maybe he was coming down with the flu or something. Then he needs water and is all weak. Hm, something’s not right, but maybe that flu is just really nasty. And then comes the whopper of a description: the kitchen floor hits him on the face. I loved that description! It’s much more fantastic than saying, “He crashed to the ground” or similar.
I thought Charlie’s thought process after that point was good as well. I really felt how confused and anxious he is, how desperately worried. It’s as if he’s trying to rationalize his way out of the situation too. Also, it was very sad that he figured out what had happened to him, and then Sarah found him just at the moment of his death. (The very last line was probably my least favorite, but the rest of the story I liked so much it hardly seems worth mentioning.)
I love seeing how much your writing has improved from the earliest things you have posted, and even how it has changed since I first started reading your stories.
(Note: the line Alopex refers to at the end has since been removed)