*Art by Abbyka*
By Leslie D. Soule
Two years ago, when her boyfriend James had broken up with her, Corrine felt like she’d been poisoned. His words still echoed in her ears – “I just can’t make you happy. It’s like you’ve become something…dark.”
Corrine was convinced that James had his eyes on another woman. She had gone through his e-mails, looking for traces of something sinister, something she knew lay hidden beneath the surface. “There’s no one else,” he’d told her. “You’re the only woman I could ever love.”
Don’t think about it, she told herself. He’s not coming back or changing his mind. You’ve got to move on. Now she worked as a cashier at the new hardware store in town. It opened up recently, and she requested to work in the garden area. She enjoyed working around plants instead of being stuck inside with so many people walking around, crowding the world wherever she went. It was enough to drive a person mad. All she could think about was her need for space. Retail service demanded that she personally deal with rude customers and overinflated egos – people who would demand answers and services NOW!
She began to harbor a deep loathing for all humanity and its capitalistic dreams. In the down times when there were no customers, she’d pull out the thick garden reference book from under the counter and leaf through its pages, watching for the red asterisk that would mark a plant as poisonous. All parts of the oleander plant were toxic. Don’t people know that? Why does it line innumerable city roads? I know why – because it’s such a pretty flowering plant. She pulled an old battered photo of her sister from her wallet and snarled to see the smiling face and good looks plastered there. “It’s the same way with humans. People only care about you if you’re pretty.”
Corrine was the “black sheep” of her family, the oddball that never cared much for playing soccer or talking on the phone for hours the way her sisters did. She had always felt like an outcast, and she had an odd birthmark above her upper lip, as well – one that kept any potential love interests well away. No one was in the garden department now. Corrine walked over to the clearance shelf, where sad, scrawny, under-watered plants lingered and she grasped one of the little jasper colored plastic pots. Holding it close to her chest, she imagined the little plant blossoming back to life.
Then she set the plant down and returned to work. Employees can’t purchase anything until the end of their shifts, she reminded herself. She flipped through the pages enough to learn that with some plants, only certain parts were poisonous. With others, all parts were toxic. Oleander lined the back of Corrine’s garden she planted out in the back of her little house. Her home hadn’t been much more of a shack when she’d gotten it, but it was hers by an inheritance from her grandfather. It still needed a world of repair. Just in front of the oleander was a row of foxglove, a flower that attracted hummingbirds. It was a plant with long, slender flowers of a delicate pinkish lavender and spots issuing out of their ends. It was such a pretty flower – and every part of it was poisonous. Just ahead of the foxgloves sat a row of azaleas. She bought them on clearance because they were half-dead, and she’d hoped to be able to revive them. In Corrine’s garden, they thrived. Given preferential treatment in its own raised container away from the main garden, was a pretty bluish purple flower. It was called Monk’s Hood or Wolfsbane – terrifying names for a beautiful flower, beautiful names for a terrifying poison.
Corrine understood plants. At least, she thought she did. Plants were easier to get a handle on than humans. Plants don’t live by deadlines, don’t go insane if they have to wait five minutes for something, don’t have to be subject to the whims of self-serving administrators who don’t understand the systems they rule. Working retail had made Corrine intensely cynical. The world had such potential, but somewhere along the way on the trail of violence and sugar-filled television dreams, everything had gone horribly wrong. So she tended her garden of death and suffering. Belladonna blushed on stalks amongst four o’ clocks whose roots and seeds held the tender kiss of poison. After one particularly bad day at work, Corrine began preparing a special blend of tea.
Those azaleas were fairly decorative plants, and she wondered how many people knew that the leaves were toxic both to humans and animals. She sauntered out to the garden to pick some fresh flower heads and leaves with which to make her tea. After all, though non-poisonous, chamomile tea is made from the dried flower heads of the chamomile flower. So why should a poison tea be any different? She set the basket of flowers and leaves on the counter and pulled out a food dehydrator that her mother had given her. An impulse buy, her mother had seen it on a late-night info-mercial a few years back. Corrine placed the ingredients on the stackable drying racks of the dehydrator and plugged it in. She slept uneasily that night as strange and unwelcome thoughts floated through her head to haunt her. She wasn’t ultimately to blame for the sinister thought of poisoning tea. The idea went back at least as far as the time of the ancient Greeks and that terrible day when Socrates was sentenced to drink a cup of tea spiked with deadly hemlock for supposedly “corrupting the youth” of Athens. Corrine looked up that foul plant in the garden reference book – she wanted to cast her gaze upon the plant responsible for the death of a great philosopher, and was shocked to discover that hemlock looked like wild parsley. According to the map, it thrived in many parts of the city, spreading like wildfire.
Corrine found that she could carefully pull tea bags apart and empty the flimsy strainer paper bag of its contents. She refilled them with her own mixture, which was a potent blend of dried bits from each of the poisonous plants in her garden. She stapled the tea bags shut and they looked good as new. She set to work printing up brightly-colored cards to staple a tea bag inside of. She had learned valuable sales tactics from her retail experience. Customers were more apt to pick up packages with inviting images and words, despite whatever secrets the contents might hold. She printed cards with a picture of a frolicking kitten on the front, pawing at the air, with an image of a tea cup right next to it. It was on a bright pink background, and using a simple photo editing program, added in friendly letters at the top, the words “Herbal Tea Blend.” Of course, she included no identifying information on the card. That would seal her own fate. Instead, she typed a friendly message for the inside. Corrine tried to make the message as sickeningly superficial and hocus-pocus false as possible. “Enjoy a homemade savory blend of refreshing herbs to awaken your senses and soothe your spirit.” She had scribbled down a few other lines and then crossed them out. She stepped back and admired her work from a distance. Yes, I am a talented poisoner.
Poisoning was a subtle art, and one of the most common methods was to poison food. Corrine recalled flipping through a catalog of medieval weapons, only to come across a poisoner’s ring for sale. The ring looked like a normal piece of jewelry, but the stone would flip up to reveal a tiny hidden compartment just large enough for a lethal dose. With the ring, poison could be discreetly added to an enemy’s drink. One of Corrine’s favorite theatrical scenes was the final act of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” where the king tries to kill prince Hamlet by contaminating a goblet of wine, dropping in a poison-covered pearl.
Corrine stapled one of her tea bags into a card. The finished product was quite lovely to look at, really. A thought came to Corrine then and she wondered what would happen if she were caught. No, I’ll be safe enough. There is no identifying information on the cards. She contented herself with these thoughts and in the morning, stuffed five cards into her purse and took them to work with her. She’d keep them in her apron pocket until a particularly rude customer came in. That way she’d give the bad ones what was coming to them. For the first couple hours of her shift, this tactic didn’t work. Of course not – who would want a card and tea bag a cashier just pulled out of their apron pocket? Soon it became time for Corrine’s break and she stopped by the cafe’ at the other end of the parking lot, to grab a bite to eat.
She purchased a scone and an iced latte from a smiling young man behind the counter, who offered Corrine a sample of the cafe’s new tea. He looks so much like James, Corrine thought. An upwelling of suppressed emotion rendered her temporarily mute with shock. She took the little card with a tea bag inside in total disbelief. What is he doing here? No, that can’t be him, silly. And…Is someone else using the same tactic that I am? That’s impossible. No way. “Calm down, calm down,” she repeated to herself in a mantra as she glanced at her arm and saw goose bumps.
Corrine began walking back through the parking lot, and she spotted her supervisor. “Hey Vince!” she called, with a smile on her face, hoping she didn’t look too suspicious.
She walked back into the store and made a beeline for the employee restroom. A hard knot sunk to the bottom of her stomach, reminding her of times when she’d had too much vodka. It was the feeling she got right before puking. She started into a sprint. Then she shoved the restroom door hard as she entered like a meteor breaking into the atmosphere. The door thudded against the wall as she snatched a sink basin with both hands, arms muscles suddenly taut. She breathed heavily and gazed into the mirror, into the depths of her hazel eyes. Get a grip.
“Are you okay?” asked her co-worker Vanessa, who entered and set a comforting hand on Corrine’s shoulder. “You don’t look so good.”
“Yeah,” Corrine lied. “I’m alright. I…think it’s just all the dust in this place.”
“You got allergies?”
Corrine shuffled over to the break room at the other end of the hall, by the janitor’s closet. Look normal. Tears welled up in her eyes and she stopped in mid-stride, waiting for them to subside as she took deep breaths and tried to calm her frazzled nerves. What do you do when love makes you so crazy that you poison yourself and then poison other people?
She took the poison tea bags she’d made from her apron pocket and tossed them into the trash can.
Corrine kept a mug in her locker so she could just bring tea bags with her to work and make some hot tea in the break room during cold mornings. It’s just tea, and that guy…he wasn’t James. It was all just in my mind. Geez, people must think I’m crazy. She pulled out her mug, filled it with water and tossed it in the microwave for a minute and a half. When it was done, she let the bag, that the young man had given her, steep for a minute before tossing it out. The water was now a rich brown – the color of regular tea. Corrine sat down and took a sip. She only had about a minute left before she had to get back to work. But at that moment just after the tea hit her lips and cascaded down her throat, she knew that something was wrong. She had been poisoned.