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The itch bothered her all day at work. During break she took her sock off in the restroom, careful not to let her foot touch the floor, to see if there was a flea in the sock. She turned the sock inside out, examined the inside, shook it real good like shaking the dirt off a small area rug. She scraped her thumbnail along the thin cotton knit to see if there was an invisible thorn or a sticky burr stuck in it. She twisted her body around and down to look at the outside of her leg just above the ankle to inspect the itchy spot and could see only a tiny red dot surrounded by the whitened scratch marks left from raking fingernails across skin. There was no raised welt, but the spot continued to itch all day.
When she got home that night she wrapped a hot water pack around her ankle trying to confuse the nerves and kill the itch. She missed having her mom there to ask. She’d grown up as an only child and lived alone now in the old family home, none of her relatives alive any longer to share the house with her. She wasn’t home enough hours during the day to keep a pet, not even a fish.
She fell asleep on the couch with the hot pack bound to her ankle. She dreamed of the ocean, of floating on the water, sinking beneath the waves, breathing water like air. Her movements in the water were fluid, easy, effortless. Sea creatures kept her company, shifting their manatee and squidish bodies to touch her skin, slipping and sliding next to her, jellies with a touch so soft, so welcoming, buoying her along their backs, gliding with the currents deep beneath the surface.
She was relieved in the morning when the itch was gone. In the shower she scrubbed the area, but the washcloth kept catching on the spot. As she dried off she thought she could feel a sort of roughness, and upon examination discovered a pointy little flap of skin, smaller than a thumbtack. The itch had stopped, and she thought less about it as she dressed. The ocean dream stayed with her; a sort of unnamed yearning bothered her throughout the day more than the irritation of the skin by her ankle.
Pulling on her anklet the next day the sock kept getting caught on the rough spot, so she took some time looking at the spot on her skin, which had grown and now had three little points rather like the tips of artichoke leaves. The three spots sort of overlapped and had a silvery sheen to them. Maybe it was a scab, but she couldn’t remember cutting herself. She’d never seen a scab grow like this.
A day later the spot had grown nearly to the size of her hand. Many new overlapping points of skin took on an iridescence she could see in the dark of night. She called her childhood friend Livvie, who came over to look and said, “Shit, girl, you need to show this to a doctor.” Livvie never bandied words.
“You think I should? I was thinking it might just go away by itself,” said Ari.
“I don’t know. I’ve been through all those broken bones and rashes and childhood illnesses with my siblings and now with my own kids, and I haven’t seen anything like this. Not even like poison oak or chicken pox. No, you gotta go see a doctor,” said Livvie.
Ari made an appointment and was able to be seen the next day. The doctor touched her, which doctors never do any more. She poked at the spot with a sterile tool, and lifted the overlapping sections, looking underneath and in between the points. She got a magnifying glass and bent over Ari’s ankle like a high school sophomore dissecting a frog. She felt the tips of the points with her fingertips through the heavy protective gloves she wore. Finally, she straightened and said, “Well, it doesn’t look like psoriasis or eczema. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’d like you to see a specialist.” The doctor gave her a card with a number for a dermatologist on it and offered to help set the appointment, but Ari told her she had to check her work schedule.
She didn’t check her work schedule and didn’t go back to work after seeing the doctor. Instead she drove across town to a gym with a swimming pool where nobody would know her. She didn’t call the specialist. She had a feeling doctors would not know whatever this was growing on her, growing in her.
As she slipped into the pool amid the old women taking aerobics and the splashing, squealing children, the water embraced her like a dedicated lover. It held her firmly in its grasp, surrounding her with comfort and warmth, accepting her body without question or judgement. She dipped and dove and floated and kicked and waved her arms through the water. She held her breath and dived until she touched the bottom, staying until her lungs burned, then blowing out fully completed paragraphs of bubbles as she let the air out to then bob up and burst through the surface of the pool water like a pumice stone held underneath and then released.
She spent the day in the water and didn’t have one speck of remorse about skipping work, though she’d never skipped work in the past. They’ll just have to get over it this one time, she thought. The dream about the manatees skipped like a flat stone on the surface of her thoughts as her long dark hair clung in waves to her wet skin every time she lifted herself from the water.
She reminisced about how she disliked swimming when she was younger and how she was often jealous of Livvie’s affinity to water and her success on the swim team, even though Ari faithfully cheered her on at every swim meet. In the shower, she could see the spot covered most of her calf now, more pointys than she wanted to count, the iridescence brighter than ever. None of the strangers at the pool mentioned how odd the skin of her leg looked or asked if it was contagious.
She drove to Livvie’s and waited in the car until she got home from work. Livvie had what Ari never did: she was raised in a large loving family, created another for herself with one of those rare good guy husbands making three kids right out of the gate, with a dog, two cats, a guinea pig, and a yard full of chickens, unlike Ari’s solitary existence. She could hear excited noises from the children playing and squabbling and the chickens squawking in the backyard.
She caught Livvie as she pulled into the driveway before she could go into the house. Ari said, “Look at this.” Livvie slid into the front seat next to Ari.
“Didn’t you get my texts? I called you all day. Where were you? Your work said you were sick,” Livvie said.
“You called my work?” Ari asked.
“I wanted to know what the doctor said. Let me see it,” she said. “You didn’t tell me where you were either.”
“The doctor said she had never seen anything like it and recommended a specialist. I haven’t called yet. Today I was at the pool,” Ari said.
“You don’t swim,” Livvie scoffed. Livvie had risen to competitive swimmer status back in the day.
“I do now. Like a dolphin.”
“Let me see that leg.”
Ari lifted her leg and pulled up her long skirt. She hadn’t been able to stand the feeling of pants on her legs for a couple days now. The spot covered most of her lower leg, and had progressed beyond the knee, nearly up to her hip. She thought if she looked at it long enough she could almost see it grow.
Livvie gasped. She stared at Ari’s leg, mesmerized by the shimmering green and gold patches, rainbowing upward from her ankle. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Yesterday it was a couple little pointy spots. Holy fuck, this looks like fish scales.”
“It grew a bit bigger today,” Ari said.
“A bit? Girlfriend, that’s most of your leg. Does it hurt?”
“No,” she said. “Just this vaguely itchy feeling. And I’m not going to work again tomorrow.”
“Wanta keep your job much? But then you don’t know if it’s contagious either. Better be careful calling in sick when you’re not. Unless you can get an appointment with that specialist,” Livvie said. “If that stuff keeps growing at the same rate you might not be able to drive. I’ll take you. Let me know if you can get an appointment. Gotta go inflict control on the horde inside. Sometimes I’m jealous of all the space you have to yourself at your place. I have too many kids and critters. Call me. Don’t ignore this.”
“How can I ignore it? It’s eating up my leg, like it’s inside me.”
When she woke the next morning, she couldn’t move her legs. She managed to roll out of bed and arm-dragged herself to the bathroom to do the first thing she did every morning and propped herself up onto the toilet. Something felt different; she felt relieved but there was nothing in the bowl.
She called Livvie and said, “Do you still have your grandma’s wheelchair?”
“Of course. You know hubbers never lets me get rid of anything.”
“Bring it over now,” she said and rang off.
A few minutes later, Livvie dragged the wheelchair through her front door. Ari was sitting on the floor, still in her nightgown, waiting.
“Take me to the beach,” she said.
“What? You can’t walk! Let me see your leg,” she said.
The scales were everywhere, up both legs, on her feet, webbed together at her thighs and knees and ankles and toes, the green-blue iridescence brighter, like neon. Livvie felt hypnotized and couldn’t take her eyes off the shimmering colors.
“I can’t take you to the beach,” Livvie yelled. “You need to go to the emergency room! Right now!” Livvie wrapped her arms under Ari’s armpits and heaved her into the wheel chair. “Good thing your house has no stairs.”
Livvie shifted her into the front seat of the car and folded the wheelchair into the rear end of the car. “I’m taking you to the ER.”
“No. Take me to the beach.” Ari hardly recognized her own voice, but she knew she couldn’t go to the ER or to work.
The coast was about an hour’s drive. The nearest coast town had a hospital with an emergency room. Livvie headed that direction thinking if Ari saw them driving toward the beach maybe during the drive she could convince Ari to go to the ER in the coast town hospital. Ari didn’t talk much; it seemed as if she napped while Livvie kept up a constant stream of conversation about the importance of Ari’s health and taking care of herself.
The ocean came into view and Ari was suddenly alert. “I can smell the water. Get me to the water,” she said.
Livvie was frightened by Ari’s behavior and the condition of her legs, but this was her best friend from childhood, and she would do anything for her. She drove past the hospital’s ER with a strangled feeling in her gut she couldn’t name. The beach was only a couple blocks away.
Livvie pulled the car into the graveled parking lot for the short strip of beach. The sand was just beyond the gravel, a gentle slope close enough to the water to be firm all the way to the water’s edge.
“Get me out of the car,” Ari’s voice croaked. Livvie loaded her into the wheelchair.
“Water,” Ari said. “Take me to the water.”
Her long nightgown caught on the car seat as Livvie moved her to the wheelchair, revealing Ari’s legs. The scales were everywhere below her waist, her legs and feet webbed solidly together. “Jesus, Ari. This isn’t right. Something is really wrong here. Your legs…,” Livvie said, panicked, knowing her voice sounded as wild as she felt.
“Water,” Ari said.
With a deep breath, Livvie pushed Ari across the hard sand before the wheels could sink too much into the sand. The tide was high, and the water’s edge was close. When they were inches from the water Ari pushed out of the wheelchair with her arms and flung herself into the baby waves breaking on the edges of the shore before Livvie could stop her. She pulled herself further out with her arms and when the water covered her chest, she sighed with relief as the water embraced her, freeing her from the bondage of gravity, her movements once again fluid and graceful. She rolled over in the water, kicking with her sparkling scaled tail to make an arced spray of water droplets, and whispered, “Thank you, Livvie. You are a true friend.”
Ari swam off and disappeared into the ocean. Livvie watched, horrified, calling her name over and over. She ran into the water thrashing this way and that way swimming out as far as she dared, diving under looking for Ari until her eyes burned from the salt.
“No! Ari! You can’t leave! Come back. Come back.” She collapsed on the sand screaming and sobbing, “Arielle.”
Something thin and white surfaced in the water. It floated gracefully toward Livvie until she realized it was Ari’s long nightgown. As the wave receded the gown settled down onto the sand. Wraith-like, the wet white cloth arranged itself at her feet, white sleeves supplicant on the sand stretched out as if to wrap its arms around Livvie.
Story copyright Kate Barber Bradford, 2018
Image by Nsey Benaja, courtesy of Unsplash
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About the Author:
Kate Barber Bradford is Editor in Chief at Hagstone Publishing. Kate has a BA from Pacific University in Creative Writing and English Literature.
Read her blog at https://sassykas.wordpress.com