WRITING
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THEOXENIA

by Madeline Jarboe

I had dreamt of him for years. His age seemed to change with mine; as I grew older he did as well. His face I could never quite glimpse or if I did it was forgotten as the light of dawn broke through my foggy memories of dreamt adventures.

I didn't really know what he looked like, but when I saw him in the flesh I knew it was him, the man from my dreams... the man of my dreams.

He barged into the room like a cannonball. The fire in his eyes said nothing could stop him, though it didn't seem to keep the men in hazmat suits from trying. In the end, though, they were just doctors, this man was so much more. He was herculean, perhaps not in body, but in his pure intentions.

I was a captured maiden — at least as long as we're sticking to the analogy. The doctors; evil henchmen. The villain of the piece? How should I know, I'm just a damsel in distress.

My captors quickly fell or fled and I tried to raise myself up from my slump on the operating table. This is where the fairy tale semblance falls apart. Not only was I not as graceful as Sleeping Beauty awakening from her magical slumber, I was hardly cured by my Prince Charming's arrival. I'm pretty sure even if he had planted a big wet one right on my lips I still would have taken that dive off the table and onto the cold tile below. We won't even mention the various tubes and IVs tangling me up as I clumsily scrambled to my hands and knees.

Right. So, fairy tale is out. Perhaps, it's more like a 21st century zombie flick. You know, the ones with the terrible acting. Sorry about the obscure references, my mom used to work at the San Francisco Museum of Film History and practice her spiel on me.

Anyway, enter patient zero. That's me. Okay, so maybe I'm not an undead monster just trying to make a main course of your gray matter, but, to those doctors, I'm a great threat to humanity. Actually, I probably shouldn't even call them doctors, seeing as how they abandoned their Hippocratic Oath trying to kill me and all. Regardless, I have some kind of disease.

It started out as a cyst or what my doctor thought was a cyst. Just a small, teardrop shaped lump under my chin. Then after a few weeks I got these sores on my arms and legs. A few days later something started growing from the sores. I sprouted these tiny green tendrils. I couldn't control them or anything cool like that, they just sort of sat there. Next thing I knew, my doctor was calling me in the middle of the night and telling me to go to Saint Mary's and that they would be waiting to admit me.

I was freaking out. I just figured it was one of those diseases you constantly hear about on the news. They're always saying that the smog and genetically modified food causes these strange outbreaks, and god knows I can't afford to replace the filter on my apartment's rebreather every month like you're supposed to, but I never thought it would be something so serious that I'd need to go to the hospital for it. Those places are like death traps. You hear all kinds of stories. But what was I going to do, ignore doctor's orders? That's a good way to end up in jail... or worse.

So, it didn't take long till the doctors at the hospital had done their tests on my cyst. They claimed it was a new disease and that they'd have to quarantine me. The weird thing was, once I was all locked away in the west wing of the hospital, they pumped me full of anesthesia and, since I was unable to fight back at that point, told me they'd have to kill me for the good of mankind. This seemed like pretty odd behavior, considering they had just said it was a new disease. If it was new then how did they know I had to be done in?

I tried to voice my concern with their plans, but it came out sounding more like a whimpering sob. At this point, I'd remind you I was heavily anesthetized and wish to blame it on that and not a lack of bravery on my part.

I suppose that brings us back to the beginning of our tale. Why do these things always start in the middle, anyway? I guess it's to hook you with the action and love story right out.

There I was, an awkward pile of tubes and wires lying on the floor, hospital gown haphazardly covering my naughtier bits, and looking nothing at all like a zombie. Except maybe the sores on my arms and legs. But I was definitely coherent.

"I love you!" Crap!

"What?" said the man of my dreams.

"Thank you!" I burst out, far too quickly to be convincing. "I said, 'thank you'!" Phew, that was close.

"Oh, that's odd," he said, cooly, "it sounded like you said, 'I lo—'"

"It's the anesthesia," I tugged the IV out of my hand and tossed it aside, "ith making my thongue not work right."

"But you said anesthesia just fine..."

I gave up. "Forget it."

"Listen," the man said and I noticed how perfect his skin looked even under the cheap fluorescent lights of the quarantine room. "Are you Claire? Claire MacDonald?"

"Yes," I lied. Actually, my last name is MacDowel, but I wasn't about to ruin the moment.

"You're in grave danger." His face was completely serious.

"You think?" It's a good thing he's cute... "They were trying to kill me!"

"We have to get you out of here."

"No argument here!" I should have argued, of course. Those doctors may have been trying to kill me but I had no doubt that their fear was genuine. They really did think that this disease of mine was a danger to the world.

Within a few minutes the man from my dreams had me in a wheelchair and was pushing me toward the door he had just burst through to rescue me. "Aren't you wondering who I am?" he asked as I tried to look like a normal patient being pushed by her nurse through the corridor. Did I mention he was wearing a nurses uniform? Must have gotten distracted by the way his hair flowed down and framed his face.

"I—" my voice trailed off. I hadn't really thought about it. It all seemed so natural. He had been saving me in my dreams since I was five years old. "I'm sorry. What's your name?"

"Alexander, but I meant more in a general sense." He grinned down at me wryly. "Don't you wonder why I am rescuing you from certain death?"

Alexander... it sent shivers down my spine. It was perfect. How had I never guessed it in those minutes after waking, still almost able to feel his arms around me, his lips against the nape of my neck? I shook my head trying to focus on his question, hoping that he would take it as grogginess from the drugs.

"Alex, I am—"

"Alexander..." he said in a drawn out but patient way.

"Alexander," I started again, "I am not sure I want to know. No. I'm sure I don't. All that matters is that you are rescuing me."

He tilted his head, his eyes looking confused for a moment, and then smiled, almost playfully. "Claire, you and I haven't long to live, but I think we are going to enjoy our time together." Alexander stopped pushing the wheelchair in front of a storage closet.

"Can you walk?" I pushed myself to my feet and took a few steps, warily. I wasn't as graceful as Snow White in her glass slippers but I wasn't as awkward as the walking dead, either. I turned to look into his big brown eyes and nodded. "Good," he said and opened the closet door, guiding me gently inside. "Wait here."

A few minutes later he returned with a bundle of clothing and shut himself inside the closet with me. In the proximity I suddenly noticed his smell. This was different than the dreams. He had worked up a bit of a sweat fighting off those doctors but it was enticing, almost hypnotic.

"Put these on," he said placing a handful of clothing in my arms. Then I heard the rustle of him starting to take off his nursing scrubs.

"Right here? In front of you?" I felt blood rush into my cheeks.

"It's dark, I can't see you. Besides, I'd look conspicuous out there in the hallway."

"More conspicuous than walking out of a closet with me in a minute?"

I could tell he was grinning as he said, "this is a hospital, I'm sure that's not that uncommon a sight."

I sighed and started changing, at first trying not to touch Alexander, then deciding to touch him after all to tease him as punishment, then wanting to touch him as much as possible to feel that tingling sensation that went through my body at every brush of his skin. Finally, after what seemed like pleasantly torturous hours but must have only been a minute or two, we stepped out of the closet.

My fears turned out to be unnecessary as the corridor remained as empty as it was when we had arrived. "This way," Alexander took my hand and led me along as I tried not to squeeze his hand involuntarily as the waves of electricity ran from my fingertips up my arm.

We exited onto a back alley and any remnant of comparisons to fairy tales or two hundred year old horror films were crushed as my lungs filled with the acrid smoke which passes for air in the city. This was a scene straight out of a Neil Gaiman comic book or a William Gibson novel.

"There's a place we can spend the night, then we'll have to move again." Alexander continued to lead me to a car. The doors opened toward the sky as was the current fashion.

"Wow," I breathed. "You have a car?"

Alexander smiled that cute, playful grin of his again, "I thought you didn't want to know who I am."

"Right!" I hopped into the passenger seat and strapped in.

He drove like a professional, like it was a race. I believe the old expression was, he drove it like he stole it. And maybe he had stolen it. The thought sent another shiver up my spine. The speed was exhilarating, like nothing I had experienced. And then we were there: a small shack on the docks.
I won't give you the details of that night in the little shack on the coast but let's just say that as much as this isn't a fairy tale or zombie film, that night was a romance novel in truth.

And as much as that night was wonderful, the next morning was horrifying. I awoke in Alexander's arms, happier than I had ever been. I rolled over to see if he was awake, maybe to kiss him and let him know how amazing that night had been, but what I saw forced it all from my mind. He was covered in sores, like the ones on my arms and legs, and from each one the green tendrils grew.

I shook him awake and his smile turned to a look of fear, a look which hardly seemed natural juxtaposed with his angular features. "Your face," he whispered, "your neck, your..." he trailed off as he pulled the sheets back to uncover more of my skin. I knew before I looked down what I would see; I was covered in the sores, too.

"We have to go." Alexander's face returned to that calm, determined one I'd seen in the hospital. He got out of bed and began dressing, pausing only briefly when he noticed I wasn't joining him. "Now."

"But where?" I got up from the bed.

"Downtown," he said, giving what I thought was meant to be a reassuring smile. "City center."

I didn't understand. "What's there? Something that will help us?"

His eyes betrayed him, there was pain there, sadness. "It's all we can do. But we must do it." He faked the smile again. "Yesterday you didn't want answers and today you are all questions?"

"No," I said faintly. Then with more resolve, "I'll get dressed. Let's go."

Alexander drove with all the same speed and skill as the previous night but the exhilaration was no longer there. My body felt weak and it was from more than a lack of sleep the night before or the drugs still making their way out of my system. "It will be okay, we'll make it in time," he said reassuringly.

We had to walk the last few blocks, holding hands in the thick crowds who lined the streets. Some people stared at us, the sores now unable to be hidden by long sleeves. Most of the passersby, though, seemed to just drift through the pedestrian lanes not glancing from the back of the person in front of them.

The teardrop cyst under my chin seemed to have grown overnight and was cutting off the air now, I was having trouble breathing and when I managed to get close enough to Alexander to hear I could hear him wheezing as well.

Suddenly, he started pulling me at a wild angle across the other pedestrians, pointing at a rusted old sign on which I could barely make out the word "park". I gasped from the shock of being pulled across the pedestrian lanes illegally as much as from the constriction in my throat. Alexander must have heard and squeezed my hand in reassurance.

We ducked into an alley past the sign and not a moment too soon, as the commotion we had left in our wake had no doubt gotten notice already. The alley was strangely empty and I was having trouble catching my breath.

Alexander turned around to look at me. "Are you okay?" he said, concern in his eyes.

"I'll be fine, I just need a moment."

"There's no time," he said, reaching down to scoop me up and carry me. I wanted to protest but I knew he was right. Something inside me seemed to be pulling me forward, urging me on with a sense of urgency.

Alexander began running and burst out of the alley and onto the next street. Back in the crowds, my head resting on one of Alexander's arms my ankles on the other, even the most oblivious of pedestrians was looking at us.

"Almost there..." I wasn't sure if that was Alexander or me or something else. Everything seemed fuzzy. I think I blacked out.

Next thing I knew I was lying on the ground, cold cement under me and to my side, Alexander. The green tendrils were growing now, pushing out of his skin like limbs.

They are limbs, I thought. It's... it's a plant! How long had it been since someone had seen a plant here, in the city? In the country?

My thoughts were echoed all around me by what I expected were onlookers, though my vision seemed too fogged to see anything but Alexander.

"Were we too late?" I whispered in his ear.

"No," he replied as I watched a viney growth from my arm intertwine with one from his. "We could never survive, but now maybe they can." He looked vaguely out into the fog which engulfed us. After a moment, he closed his eyes.

Then, I closed mine.

Copyright 2018 Madeline Jarboe - All Rights Reserved
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