In the metropolis of overload, isolation is King; I’ve decreed. I bask in solitude among trails forged by those like me, long before me, but rarely seen. On rare occasions that we meet I dip my head and press on, away, in silent frustration that I left my red carpet for them. I’m just too polite and they too sweaty. Then, for hours more, I walk alone patting the trunks of satisfied trees that never have to worry about moving at all. There’s so much to gain away from a computer screen, but damned if most can be without their safe space.
I know I am nothing like them. I sit at a distance and scroll through opine feeds where an expert is forged and broken simultaneously. So peculiar, bizarre, how ages slug through history–but give a man a keyboard and unbridled access to the leering eyes of acquaintances, allies, and enemies, and they can recreate the greatest rises and falls in as few as two comments. It’s why the best have speech-writers. It’s why I refuse to get involved.
I assume the thorn bore into me while scrambling up a hill. I rubbed against some weeds, I recall, almost losing balance as dirt and stone loosened. I am unsure if any had thorns. I do know, with clarity, that I kept thinking “rest at the top.” These encouraging words assist me each time I meet the fork of victory and failure. Except for now, I never regarded those words when absent the forest and trails; though I am aware they reside in my actions. If something is to be gained, let it be gained over again.
The little thorn went unnoticed until my soapy hand caught a snag in my left forearm, so tiny it remained invisible under streaming water. Until I washed off, I assumed the rough pass was nothing more than a hitchhiking pebble. But further investigation quickly revealed a protruding, semi-transparent hooked grey thorn, like a cat’s claw, standing at end. When neither tweezers nor pliers proved successful in removal, I looked to the internet in search of answers–of which there were none. When I asked in a hiking forum where I moderate, I was told to “get to a doctor and have them remove it.” I was busy then so instead I dipped into social media and gave time to my babbling stream.
I’ve found that so much of the internet is wasted, spent in desperation trying to regurgitate temporary truths. It’s a contest of anti-individualism, “rest at the bottom.” A petri dish of mediocrity; smoke signals wafted from reactionary flames towards any tribe willing to accept a temporary settler. Until, of course, the tribe comes to realize the smoke danced off the new friend’s scorched home without effort or force, and they seek much more than acceptance. Too many times, in fact, it was the settler who sacrificed to flame and danced, burning everything, all for a moment’s glow. Between the drum circles and war cries I searched for answers about a thorn caught in my forearm to satisfying silence.
I finally got myself to an Urgent Care–great Yelp reviews. The doctor, an attractive older woman with eyes the color of spring, examined my forearm and asked how I felt.
“Fine, I guess.” I was fine, I guess. A little tired, sure, but so much of my night had been spent searching for answers and observing court jesters entertain an unseen king.
She poked and prodded as I turn away, stealing glimpses of her focused eyes and sedulous lips.
“It’s a tough little thing” She demurred, her groomed brows rubbing ends at the ridge of her button nose.
Moments later she penetrated the thick silence between us, “A friend of mine is a botanist. He should at least be able to identify the plant that pricked you.”
I answered politely, but was unsatisfied. I left with the thorn inside my forearm, without answers, and out $120.00. I managed to calm my nerves with frozen pizza, wine, and Netflix. Part of me expected the doctor to call that night, but she did not, leaving me to rub my thumb over the thorn for hours until forming a rash.
At work the next day I missed a call from her; too busy with a client to speak. She told me she’d received word from the botanist. “Please call back to make an appointment,” the message said, “He’ll make sure to be there to take a look.” I admit I hesitated, angry that a challenger would interfere with my time with the doctor.
“She only means to help,” I told myself, “and he is, after all, a coworker. There are rules regarding that.”
Unfortunately we missed each other when returning her call on my lunch break and I was forced to make arrangements with her receptionist. Just to indulge in conversation, I showed my thorn to some girls gossiping in some Spanish dialect.
“I’ve seen that before! It’s just from a prickly bush! Run some hot water over it and it’ll fall right out.”
“Run warm water over it first,” another corrected, “to open the pores. Then you want to rub Vaseline over the skin and thorn. Give it a few seconds and it should come right out with tweezers.”
“Rub Vaseline over it, eh?” I teased.
“No, no.” Another interfered, “Well, yes–about the warm water. But Vaseline’s so greasy. You need Vick’s. My abuela uses it on everything!”
“I don’t mind rubbing some grease on it.” I smirked.
“Ponle Vivaporu!” She acted to the rest of the table, falling beside themselves at relatable words. I rolled down my sleeve and left quietly as they laughed at me, carrying the conversation back into Spanish.
After work I drove directly to Urgent Care and stared at a TV news reporting worldwide garbage fires as white words whizzed past at the bottom. Juicy fruit for the eyes and ears–just enough to get viewers to feel bad about countries they’ve never seen and good about themselves for force-feeling bad in the first place. I was called in after five minutes of speed-reading. Whatever concerns I had evaporated upon meeting the botanist, twice in age of the doctor. He might be able to help, after all.
“Very strange.” He examined. “You are sure this happened while hiking?”
“It’s impossible to tell without film, but this species seems to be a byproduct of thorn and glochid–like a prickly pear cactus. That would explain its difficult removal. Of course, the closest native cactus is at least one hundred miles away.”
The botanist’s open thoughts were examined by the doctor as though they were textbook. I watched her, watching him, warmth radiating my face.
“Did you happen to encounter anything you’re not used to seeing?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary as far as I could tell. Certainly no glochids.” I smiled at the doctor, who was obviously startled by my knowledge. Her perplexion shifted from me back to the botanist with whom I was quickly growing impatient. His hackneyed words were as confused as the look on her adulating face. In that moment I understood that neither could help me. The Yelp reviews were wrong.
“I’m going to speak with some colleagues about this, if you don’t mind. They might be able to shed some more light onto what, exactly, stuck you.”
More? I was not given medication. Fortunately I wasn’t given a bill either, since nothing came from the visit. All-in-all it was a wash. Honestly it was a waste of my time, but my optimism forbids me from viewing life through such a grim lens. I drank myself to sleep that night while looking at images of glochids and rubbing my forearm. The next morning I awoke to a clear forearm–the thorn disappeared.
I scoured the hardwood floors, but no thorn. Under tossed couch cushions I found seven cents, nothing more. Under accent pillows, nothing. The blanket I passed out under. It were as if the thorn never existed, as though nothing happened. With forearm clear and without wound, my thumb was finally free.
“It was Vivaporu, wasn’t it?” She laughed, elated by her own concocted truth.
“Oh, he just wanted the attention.” Another chided.
“Did you ever find out what it was from?” The third asked.
“No, I guess I never will. Just comes with being outdoors so often, I guess. It was either a thorn or a deer tick or a broken bone or something else. I just need to experience things, I can’t worry myself about the dangers.” I shrugged.
Another call vibrated in my pants pocket, but I was busy on my headset with a client unsatisfied with their order. Another vibration, moments later, signaled a voice message. With a moment to spare I ducked my head below the cubicle’s partition and listened.
“How are you feeling?” She sounded genuinely concerned, “Please call to check in and make an appointment. A specialist who can better determine what’s happened thinks he knows how to remove the thorn. Thank you.”
I considered ignoring the message after our last meeting and since the thorn had removed itself, but was moved by her worry. I decided the least I could do was call back.
Again, the receptionist answered and tried taking my message but after some finessing I received her saccharine voice.
“It’s gone.” I opened, choosing to begin with suspense.
“The thorn fell out?” She sounded surprised.
“Well, I guess it did. It isn’t there anymore and my skin is healed.”
She replied with urgency in her voice, “When can you come in?”
I reluctantly made another appointment fully aware of the outcome, determined to deflect another $120.00.
Again I sat and watched words encourage group-think. How long do you think reporters rehearse those faces in the mirror before reporting bad news? I was called shortly.
The specialist was much younger than the botanist; handsome too. Mommy and daddy undoubtedly paid his way through “specialist” school so he could retain the family legacy. I could tell without a word that he was inept; that making this appointment was a poor decision.
“You say it fell out; where was the impact?”
“I know it fell out.” I shook my head towards the doctor, too busy fawning over her young, coiffed specialist friend.
He held my arm steady at the wrist and, using two latexed fingers, grazed my forearm.
“Was this the point of impact?” He stopped just over the cured wound and pressed down, sending sharp pains throughout my arm and into my chest and spine.
“It hasn’t been removed.” His piercing blue eyes met mine, “It bore inside of you.”
He looked puzzled, slowly removing the gloves to buy himself some response time.
“I have to say, this is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. Your skin should not have healed so quickly.”
“I didn’t think much of it,” I responded, “I rarely even get sick.” The doctor seemed unimpressed with the specialist there.
“Getting sick has nothing to do with this.” He shot back. “Whatever latched to your skin is abnormal. Since I cannot see it, I cannot diagnose it.”
“I’m fairly positive it was a glow-chid.”
“Just keep an eye on it.” He said, leaving me with the doctor.
“Look,” I began, “I have been rubbing away at a dumb thorn all day since it happened. I came here hoping for answers and I have now seen two people who aren’t you, aren’t as intelligent as you, and received nothing.” I paused for her to respond, but she said nothing. “It’s all I can think about. I’ve been told I’m nuts. Some Hispanic women called me vivaporu. I’ve been told not to worry, but nothing got rid of the damned thing. Now it’s finally gone, and I’m told it’s not really gone by some jock who hasn’t even seen the thing!”
So patiently, she absorbed each word and reflected upon my concerns. “They called you Vapor Rub?”
“My apologies. You’re right.” She resigned, “Just make sure to take care of yourself. I happen to agree with the specialist…”
“Well that’s no surprise.” I scoffed.
“…that it may still be inside of you. And if it is, it has the potential to release a toxin or cause your body harm. Just practice caution.” She finished.
I left again without a bill.
That goddamned specialist. What should have been a nice night turned into drunken debauchery spent pressing my arm and sending shockwaves throughout my body. The sheer thought of this thorn wreaking havoc millimeters below my skin made it crawl. I stared at a blank TV screen until I passed out and awoke drenched in my own sweat.
I was not in the financial situation to miss a day’s pay, but it was almost impossible picking up the phone to call out. My arm burned to the touch so, without scheduling, I ambled my way back to Urgent Care.
“Oh my god,” She said, eyes beaming at the sight of my corroding arm, “You need to get to the emergency room now.” She raced from the room, leaving me helpless on a sheeted paper without a news ticker or the soothing sounds of worse-world news to help me feel better.
“They’ll be here soon, OK? When did this start pulsing?”
“Last night, I think. The pain was too much to handle–I had to drink.”
“I don’t blame you.” She smiled.
By the time the ambulance arrived I had passed out from pain, but entranced by the doctor’s insistence on my well-being. I woke up in a hospital absorbed again by intense, throbbing pain.
“I have the results from your x-ray.” A different, male doctor said, waiting for me to creep back to consciousness.
“There is more than one thorn inside of you.”
Everything was still blurry, and constant pain made my vision pulse and quake. “What?” I mustered.
“If you take a look here,” He held the film in front of my eyes, “you’ll notice that same hooked shape recurring throughout your body. We believe them to be connected.” He spoke plainly.
“We believe your thorn, once embedded…replicated itself.” The doctor let silence slide between his words, unsure of them himself.
Like the other doctor, he too was much too well-groomed to take his profession seriously. He probably worked four hours a day and paid off a Dean or two getting fancy certificates. The thoughts, all of them, hurt. I couldn’t describe him any longer.
“According to this x-ray, they are interconnected in a way similar to veins. We believe they are…stealing nutrients to strengthen themselves while repeating a replication process similar to osmosis.”
The room cleared at once. “Then get them out of me!”
“It’s not quite that simple.” He scratched his forehead with a pen as though he were an actor, “They are, after all, interconnected.”
This must have been a new word he had just learned.
“I know, it sounds like something out of a bad sci-fi movie. We took a urine sample while you slept and found both a B6 and B12 deficiency. We believe these thorns are the cause.”
I was too panicked and helpless to make sense of anything. He concluded his overdrawn obituary with “more tests will prove the conclusiveness of this hypothesis, and we will work from there.” I had had enough. I agreed to his garbled words until he left, but after nine hours of drug-induced sleep I checked myself out and went home a wreck. I fell asleep to the sound of his words and my doctor’s sincere smile.
Each day I received more phone calls, Urgent Care or the hospital or both, and each night I erased voice messages without listening. I refuse to be anybody’s experiment. The pain, however, only grew. Every nerve-ending, every muscle and bone radiated a shock so extreme it paralyzed. I forced my head off the side of the couch and let drool stain the rug, embarrassed of drowning in my own spit. Let those assholes from work see me now, let’s hear their jokes.
The next morning I woke to vines. On my forearm a laceration stretched my skin and from it a long, leafy growth wrapped around my arm and chest, up my neck and before my mouth. At its tip, a bulb watched me struggle in agonizing pain and terror before blossoming into fuzzy, glowing blue and white petals. For a moment I wondered if I were still asleep, but distinctly felt a force pry my fingers from the phone as the flower nuzzled against my lips. In defense and out of desperation I chomped at a petal, chewed, and swallowed. Again it tickled them, so again I bit. Until each petal was ripped from the bulb. It drooped, defeated, and loosened its grip before rescinding back inside of my arm and binding my skin back together–as though it had never happened.
As I lay making sense of what had just occurred, the pain vanished. Every ailment, every sharp and cracking pain fled my spine, my chest, arm, legs drained into a crevice deep within me. I continued to rest but, after an hour in relief, I picked myself up and again searched for answers on the internet to no avail. Without much else to do, I went into work late but decided to keep the plants to myself. I didn’t need to be made fun of any more than I had. I watched Netflix into the night and sipped wine, never far from thoughts surrounding how I’d come to feel better.
Pain seized me from dreams in the middle of the night. I convulsed as the thorns plotted within me, a mounting agony from veins within that stretched my limbs and held them outright. Their temporary appeasement was meant only for me to understand who was in control—they had the ability to give and take away. They had the ability to restrict or pull me where they needed, how they needed, in order to survive. I faded to unconscious, soaked and crucified on my bed.
If the phone rang, it went to voicemail. How desperately I longed to hear the doctor’s caring voice. Instead I sat in darkness focused on the pain until my skin stretched and tore open to reveal another stem that seduced my lips and granted temporary peace. I chewed between tears, swallowed with hesitance, and regained my hollow strength. Each time my arm split the stem emerged much greener, the petals brighter, crisper to the taste. They were thriving.
At the behest of my leafy overlords, I remained on the couch. When money became tight, the bulbs produced enough vitality to send me off to work each morning and collapse when I came home. With whatever energy left between tortuous misery I posted to social media and began engaging with those I knew I was nothing like. My opinions became theirs; and theirs mine. In the daylight my mouth remained closed unless I received a call from my headset, of which I would speak words not my own, under the careful watch of my master lurking below skin and capable of doling a punishment worse than death. I learned to appreciate the internet wasteland, aware now that it provides the only outlet I have. The only one I will ever again know. Each night I pray for peace, for release, and the thorns silently oblige. I am given my communion. I secretly wish for death but each morning wake again to 9-5 rejuvenation and five or six new notifications disproving links I had posted the day before.