THE INFECTION • by Catherine Collins

The doctor says that water will cause the infection to bloom, and he scrawls something on a blue prescription pad, which he gives to my mother. I’ll need to take two pills a day and stay dry. My mother folds the piece of paper into a careful square, closes it in her wallet, and hugs me, whispering that it’ll be okay, that the flower won’t take root.

I shrug her off and flex my knuckle against the tan wings of the bandage. My blood is an amoeba inching across the cushioned center, and the rose thorn, extracted, lies dead between the doctor’s tweezers. I was so happy when Roger stuffed the roses into my hands.

Days pass and the bandage dries and the edges peel up with black gunk and still my mother won’t allow me to shower. One morning I forget to swallow my round white pills, and when I spoon Cheerios into my mouth they taste of soggy, sweet roses. I pick the last Os from the rim of the bowl with my fingers. I don’t tell my mother anything.

Roger offers to walk me home from school if I’m well again, and I say yes, hoping my voice isn’t shaking with joy. His glance ripples over me, all of me. He smiles big enough to crinkle his eyes and we walk together, twining our fingers, swinging our arms. I don’t ask him why he never called.

Above our heads, gray clouds curl like slinking cats, and I ignore them until the first raindrops smack the sidewalk.

I dart beneath the overhang of the town library, and Roger frowns. The rain pummels the parking lot and puddle-lakes form between cars.

Roger huddles with me for a moment, but then he steps beyond the overhang, rain soaking his shirt, globs of hair gel streaming onto his forehead. He motions for me to follow him, grinning. “Live a little. Free shower.”

I know my wound isn’t healed. I know the rain will seep beneath my bandage and something, perhaps something terrible, will happen. But I know that Roger’s hand will be warm and slippery between my fingers and that if I run, I won’t drink the raindrops alone.

So I run behind Roger, and the water fills my eyes and nose, bleeds through my clothes until even my underwear is wet and clingy. Thunder claps. Our flipflops splash waves of water, and we climb the concrete base of a parking lot lamp and swing around as it flickers. The lightning never hits us. Roger kisses me, soft on the lips, and I whisper, “Thank you for the roses.”

At home, my mother swaddles me in thick towels and phones the doctor’s pager, moaning. I close the door to my room. I’m dry now, and for the first time in days, I feel alive.

When the pain finally blossoms, it’s just a prick in my wrist. Then the prick grows, and I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from crying out. The blood on my tongue tastes like nectar.

I wasn’t planning to call Roger, but I pick up the phone anyway. He answers on the fourth ring and I tell him that it hurts, bad, and he’s supposed to be with me here, now, always. I hear his fingers tapping at a keyboard, and he says, “We’re together when we’re together, babe.” There’s silence, and I sit with the phone pressed to my cheek. I wonder if he can hear the pain whistling through me.

He speaks again. “C’mon, but wasn’t it worth it? It was a great night.” His fingers tap tap tap on the keys, and I remember the thrum of the rain and now, for the first time, I cry. I muffle the sounds in my sleeve. “It was crazy,” I say.

He says, “It’s going to storm again tonight, and I’m going out there.”

“With or without me?”

“Up to you,” he says.

I glance at my hand. The thorn swells beneath my skin like a fleshy shark fin and I can feel the bud forming in my marrow. I’m not sure when it will begin. But I’m not sure I know how to wait alone.

Catherine Collins lives in Central New Jersey with her husband, some hardy plants, and way too many fish. Her work has previously appeared in Strange Horizons and is forthcoming in The Lorelei Signal.

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