This story is part of a series I’m doing on childhood dreams, nightmares, and distorted perceptions of reality. Some of the stories have autobiographical ties, but they are mostly fiction. And some of the stories reflect fiction I was writing at that age. It might help to see how all the stories fit together.
His parents had had the news on as he had passed through the family room on his way to his bedroom. Four years before, seven people had died of cyanide poisoning after taking Tylenol. Even at age five, Jeff had understood what had happened. On this night, the news reported that bottles of Slice were being removed from shelves because someone had called in a cyanide threat.
Jeff brushed his teeth and turned it over in his mind. He liked Slice. It was like Sprite. It was only after he had prayed and climbed into bed that it had occurred to him—he had had a 32-oz Slice at the movie theaters that day while watching Hoosiers with Sean, his friends, and his friends’ dad.
Now, he puts his hands behind his head and stares at the ceiling. It’s dusk outside, and their blinds don’t block out all the light. The ceiling has spray-on texture, and mixed with the white chunks are bits of gold glitter. He stares at them as he ponders.
“Yeah?” says Sean with a yawn.
“Did you get a drink at the movie?”
“No. I got Reese’s Pieces.”
Jeff takes a deep breath in through his nose. “Do you think anyone survives cyanide poisoning?”
“What’s that?” Sean asks.
“Never mind,” says Jeff.
“I’m really tired,” Sean says.
“You can go to sleep,” Jeff says. He wants to say, It might be the last time we ever talk. If I’m dead in the morning, get mom and dad. I love you, bro, but he doesn’t because his mom accuses him of terrorizing Sean all the time, filling his head with stories that give him nightmares.
How do you know if you’ve been poisoned by cyanide? Is there an antidote? Like if you got bit by a rattlesnake? How soon would you need to take it?
He takes another deep breath and feels his lungs expand, then contract. Does he have any symptoms? His throat is itchy, maybe a little sore. Does his stomach hurt? Maybe a little. Is that a headache? He gets them a lot. Yeah, he does feel a bit of a headache. He sniffles. Does your nose run when you’ve had cyanide poisoning?
It was bottles of Slice they were pulling off shelves. He had had a fountain Slice. So maybe he was okay? But how could he know for sure?
The room is growing darker and he is tired and wants to sleep, but he is afraid that he will close his eyes and never reopen them. He could go ask his mother if he’s likely to die, but he can see her face as he opens the hallway sliding door, hear her voice barking, “What are you doing out of bed?” He knows that he will wind up feeling irrational and stupid. But then again, if he could have gotten help to save his life . . . if there’s the smallest chance that he doesn’t wake up, that Sean is the person to find his body . . .
He is sweating, as the room darkens further. Is the sweat from poisoning? His heart is pounding, and yet, he desperately wants to sleep and desperately wants to keep his eyes open. He also wants to know for sure that he is overreacting, but can he bear the look, the anger as soon as he emerges?
He stares at the glitter, thinking . . . and waiting.