Alone in my tent, staccato kisses flick down the back of my neck, whispering heat and moisture against my skin. It happens and then it’s over and, searching for the lips I know aren’t here, I wonder if it did happen. I think of Cade and wish he had taken off work to come backpacking with me.
But Cade is at home and something has left a wet residue on my nape.
I start to rotate in my sleeping bag, to look behind me. A tingle at the base of my spine hints that I may not want to know. I turn back around before I see or don’t see anything.
My hand finds the lingering sensation on my neck and comes back damp. Rubbing my fingers together, it is not saliva on their tips but, instead, some kind of purple-gray phlegm. Viscous and thick, it holds on to my thumb when I pull it away from my forefinger, snapping apart only when they are spread wide.
Outside, all around me, are birds and raindrops. Their music is so insistent that dawn cannot help but rise, cloudy and slick as it is. I lay in the near-light with wet that is not rain on my neck and fingers and close my eyes again, tell myself to listen harder. Birds. Raindrops. A curious little mammal that investigates the perimeter of my camp, rustling on the earth. Breathing wind that rushes in and is sucked back out, like this clearing is the maw of the mountain.
But none of that is inside of my tent. Here, it is my own breath, hot and steady and concentrated. I listen, listen, but there is nothing else. Several minutes of nothing else. More light sinks in.
I shift around in my sleeping bag, ignoring the quiver of my spine, and whatever has been with me in its still silence, whatever kissed my neck, surges out through the already unzipped door of the tent. The flap smacks against the outer wall and stays open so I can see what isn’t there.
I tell myself to breathe deeply. I tell myself to think.
I am days from the car, even if I hike through the nights. The thought speeds my pulse when, just for a moment, I can’t remember where I parked. But, it only lasts a moment. A quarter mile from the trailhead, an aspen grove off to the left. I know where it is and I need to get there. I need to leave.
All day, I follow the trail toward that goal. I don’t make camp again until the moon has been up for hours and my feet are screaming.
This morning, the kisses are not short, crisp pecks. They amble and suck, a tongue flicking out every so often to lick. I wake to this and it is not unpleasant but I pull away, unable to stop myself. The kissing does not come back though the place it had been yearns for it.
I feel mucus, much more this time, creeping down my neck, toward my sleeping bag. I do not want it to get there. I also do not want to move.
Again, I listen and again, there is only myself to hear. I wait, longer than I waited last time, not wanting to startle whatever it is.
I’d been too quick, too anxious. I feel that energy now, radiating not just at the base of my spine anymore but inching further up my sacrum. It wraps around my pelvic bone and sinks into the collagen and calcium.
I wish again for the comfort of Cade. I try to imagine his voice, whispering that I’m okay, but the only voice inside me is my own and even it sounds wrong.
There is a faint smell that I think must be coming from the mucus tracking down my baby hairs, closer to the ground. The sour and sweetness of rotting fruit. The musk of decayed leaves. The vitality of something aged still clinging to life.
The wet is about to reach my bag when I finally turn over, my hand cupping my neck to catch the slick before it can land. I move slowly so I don’t surprise whatever it is in my tent but it makes no difference. Just like last time, it bolts out, into the trees, and is gone before I can steal a glimpse.
Unzipping myself from the warmth of my cocoon with one hand, the other covered in lavender slime, I step out from the false security of my shelter. The ground is wet and I know it rained again last night, though the sun glares down now. I wipe my hand on a tree. The ooze scrapes off but its odor endures. I scour the grass and mud for prints of any kind, my bare feet careful not to disturb what may be, but is not, there.
Tonight, I’m sitting by the fire, holding my hands above the flames like marshmallows at the ends of sticks, waiting for them to puff and toast but hopefully not catch fire, when my pelvic bone and tailbone begin to prickle. The sensation stays low and travels upward, stops in my lumbar spine. I imagine the vertebrae stacked on top of one another, clack-clacking together to create the buzz I feel.
It’s nearby, I know, but it does not touch me.
I stay still, hands growing so hot it’s as though they’ll melt. I turn them over so their backs are to the blaze but it’s too late. I see I have a rash of tiny blisters. They are toasted marshmallows, perfectly golden and just beginning to bubble. The outer layer would shed right off if I pulled, leaving a fresh dermis of white.
Maybe, at least, my hands won’t smell like the phlegm that coated them this morning. Slowly, I raise them and sniff. The odor is the same but with hints of smoke and inflammation.
Without turning to face whatever is behind me, I say, “I’ve burned my hands.”
I wait for a reply but none comes.
I say again, “I’ve burned my hands.”
Still, the bones at the center of my body tremble and whine. It is how I know there is still that something behind me. I don’t know how close or far but I am certain of its presence.
“I’ve burned my hands,” I say. “I have to turn around to get my water.”
I turn. I see no movement, I hear nothing but the tingling within me goes away. My body mewls for it to return.
On the trail, the sun rising to noon, something grabs the seat of my pants and yanks me to the ground. I fall straight down onto my tailbone. At first, there is pain but then, there is the now-familiar tingle, spreading from that center line of my lower back and up nearly to my ribcage. Crawling downward to the tops of my femurs. I hadn’t realized the emptiness inside of me until this moment, full as I am with this other sensation.
I whip my head, searching all directions, but see no sign of life or other. When I stand, I reach around to cradle my coccyx and the bandages that cover my palms come back covered in a purplish-gray powder.
Spinning in a slow circle, I call out, “Hello?”
The movement helps the hurt of my tailbone to fade. I keep spinning, call again. “Hello!”
A shiver in the trees. I stop spinning and stare at the space. I don’t see anything but plants and dirt and rock yet I’m certain I heard a sound. My breath is steady and shallow, my heart throbs.
“Cade?” I try. “Cade!”
If I look away from this spot, whatever it is will have a chance to flee a fourth time without ever being seen.
A kiss under my ear, brief but hard, makes me flinch. I don’t have to touch that place on my throat to know it is coated with faint purple residue. So close to my nostrils, the smell chokes.
Home. Warm and freshly showered and safe at home. I curl under the covers to soak in their comfort, my wet hair sticking to my naked back. I sneeze and think that I should take some vitamin C and blow-dry my hair in case I’m getting a cold but am already dozing.
A fierce hum in my bones, every bone, even my skull, has me kicking the blankets away, careful not to use my hands, jumping to my feat.
The front door lock churns and pops. Cade is home from work.
“Becca?” he calls.
I wonder who he is talking to, jealousy bundling inside of me, before I remember that I am Becca. That I’ve always been Becca. Becca is my name.
His footsteps come down the hall.
“One second, one second,” I laugh. “Let me get some clothes on!”
He is smiling when he enters.
“Never,” he says, grabbing me by the waist and kissing my lips.
I am enthusiastic until his mouth finds my throat. His saliva is turning thick on my skin. I recoil. My hand goes to where he kissed me and comes away slightly damp but clean.
What’s wrong?” He takes a step back. “Oh my god, Becca. Your hands.”
“They’re not so bad,” I say, dropping them by my sides. “Accidentally burned them. Held them too close to the fire for too long, I guess.”
“How did you even do that?”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Do you need to me to-”
“They’re fine, okay?”
His concern hasn’t been assuaged but he says, “Okay. Well, how was the rest of your trip?”
“It was pretty good. Rained.”
“Anything exciting? See many animals?”
“Oh, just the usual.”
I smile and climb back under the sheets, pull them tight around me with my damaged hands even though it hurts.
Cade slides into bed with me. I spoon him, the curve of my body wrapping around the length of his. As we begin to fall asleep, I give a light kiss on the back of his neck.
This morning, I am too sick to go to work. My boss is angry. I’ve just taken several days off for a backpacking trip and now I expect an extra day of vacation? I try to explain that there is something wrong with my bones, that I’ll probably have to make Cade take me to a doctor because there’s something wrong with my bones.
Cade sits beside me, rubbing his thumb across the fresh bandages covering my palms, as I agree to bring a doctors note tomorrow.
“Do you want to go to the doctor now?” he asks when I hang up. “I can tell work I’ll be late.”
“No, no,” I say. “I’ll call Dr. Danielson, see if they can fit me in on your lunch break. Is that okay?”
He says it is and tells me to rest and feel better. He’ll be back to pick me up at lunchtime.
Lying on the couch, I sense the clatter of my bones calm to a buzz as soon as the lock latches and Cade’s steps disappear. He will come back to take me to the doctor. I love him, I think, but I do not want him to come back and take me to the doctor.
I sleep again and wake with terrible breath. I am too hot. I stand up and that helps. I move towards the door, raise my arm as though I’ll open it, and feel relief.
look at my hands and wonder if they need to see a doctor too. How bad are marshmallow burns, anyway? I raise one to my mouth, breathe into it, and sniff deeply. The air from my lungs is sour and sweet and musky.
I cuddle in bed with Cade after telling him I’m too sick to have sex tonight. The doctor is worried that it’s something I was exposed to in the woods.
They took some blood to run tests but had trouble slurping it into the syringe. It looked viscid and the color was wrong, like it was dying. Like I was dying. The nurse recommended I drink lots of water.
Snuggled up to me now, Cade says, “I’m worried about you. I don’t understand what’s wrong. How can you feel your bones at all?”
“I don’t know.”
“Becca, did something happen while you were camping?”
“Did something happen while you were camping?”
“Just some weird dreams. But dreams don’t make you sick, right?”
“What kind of dreams?”
I can’t tell him what happened. I can’t tell him that they weren’t dreams.
Instead, I say, “I would wake up and you’d be kissing my neck. But when I turned around, you’d be gone.”
“Oh,” he says, giving a small smile. “That sounds more sad than weird.”
“I need to sleep.”
“Do you want to brush your teeth first?”
When I don’t respond, he pulls me closer and brushes my hair with his fingers. I don’t tell him how unbearable it is.
“Who’s Becca?” I murmur, remembering what he’d called me.
This morning, I call in sick to work again. My boss threatens to fire me at first but changes his mind after I tell him whatever I have is mysterious and might be contagious. I must really be desperate, he figures, if I’m pulling shit like this.
Cade goes to his own job at my insistence. He wanted to stay and be with me but I need him to be gone, to give my bones a rest. They almost ache with the constant buzzing and shaking. I ask Cade if he can hear it but he can’t.
As soon as he leaves, I go to the bathroom and brush my teeth, scrape my tongue. Floss. Rinse with mouth wash until my gums are raw. It makes no difference. Pressing my finger to the inside of my cheek, it comes out covered in purplish-gray saliva. A stranger who looks like me stares back from the mirror.
I rush to my car and speed to the wilderness area I’d been camping in two nights ago. I go to a different trailhead. It is not a parking lot but a dirt clearing off a backroad big enough to fit maybe three vehicles. Cautiously, I step out.
I am shoved to the ground, two solid objects punching into my back. I land on my hands and knees. Several blisters pop and start to stain their bandages not-red.
I don’t need to turn around. I don’t need to reach to my shoulder blades to feel where something pushed me. I know what did this. It hurt me again.
“I thought you wanted me to come back,” I say into the earth. “I couldn’t stay away. I had to come back. I thought you wanted me to come back.”
Another thump comes down onto my back, flattening me with a puff of dust, brown mingled with lavender.
I’d thought wrong.
I start to cry.
“Then what do you want?”
Stillness and silence. I cannot stop the sticky tears.
“What are you?”
A kiss on my nape. A kiss on the tip of my left ring finger. I settle into my internal hum.
It takes me hours to find my way back home.
In bed, the stars flickering through the window, Cade asks if there is anything he can do to help me.
“I’m scared,” I tell him.
“I’m scared too,” he says. “But we should get the tests back tomorrow and hopefully they’ll have good news. And if they don’t, at least we can make a plan. Do something that’ll make you better.”
I want to shake my head but I can’t make myself move. “They won’t find anything wrong with me.”
“What do you mean, honey? They might.”
“They won’t. It’s the dreams.”
“Becca, no. It’s like you said, dreams don’t make people sick.”
“Right,” I say, “You’re right.”
I ask him to make love to me, tell him I want to feel close to him. I need his intimacy.
The slick between my legs is the wrong color, the wrong odor, the wrong texture. I knew it would be. Cade stops, afraid of what this means.
“We need to go to the doctor,” he says. “Right now.”
“No. No, please. I’m fine. I’ll be fine. But right now, I need this. I need you.”
“Becca, I can’t.”
I climb on top of him and his eyes are anxious but he does not stop me.
I wonder if his spine is starting to tingle.
This morning, Cade is concerned that he’s caught my bug. He lingers with me in bed, deciding if he should go to work or not, if it might be infectious.
I say nothing, just let him talk, and curl like a cat against his chest. His body is warm. I tilt my head up and kiss his throat, wiping away the wet before he has a chance to notice. He smiles at me. I can feel my insides.
“Don’t go to work,” I tell him after he has quieted. “Call out for tomorrow, too.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. I think we should go camping.”
“That’s ridiculous. We’re already sick, that won’t help anything.”
“It will, I promise. I felt great the whole time I was out there. Fresh air is always a good thing.” He doesn’t respond so I resort to, “Please?”
“No, honey, I don’t think so. But I’ll stay with you instead of going to work. It’ll be good to rest.”
“We can rest in a tent. Please, let’s go.”
I grab his hand and squeeze, claw my nails into his palm.
“Okay,” he says, “Okay. We can go.”
My bones tell me this is good. This is right.
We lie in our individual sleeping bags beside each other and Cade rolls around and around, trying to get comfortable. I imagine his spine is a guitar string that I’ve plucked, keep plucking. Out here, it must be miserable for him.
My bones are finally at rest. My body feels heavy but at least it is quiet.
“Becca, I need to go home,” he whimpers.
“Sleep. You just need to sleep,” I say. “I’m going to go sit by the fire a while. You sleep.”
I know he’ll never be able to rest with me in the tent. I touch the back of his neck as I step into the night. The fire is out and I circle it once, twice, before deciding to give Cade even more space, even more relief.
In the trees, my footfalls weave with the other sounds of the night — trees cracking in the breeze, animals skittering around the floor, a tiny brook bubbling nearby. Larger things that used to scare me when I came to camp alone must prowl here too, but now I know they aren’t the only things to be afraid of.
Still, some beasts will kill me no matter how unappealing my taste. It’s only once they get inside that they realize what they’re ripping in to.
I trip in the darkness, catch my myself on a tree, opening the scabs on my hands and popping a few more blisters. I wouldn’t call what begins to stain the bandages blood but I have no other word for it. I am bleeding.
And then my bones start again. Something — that something — is here with me. I close my eyes and wait for the kiss. It comes, this time, on my cheek and I know not to open my eyes. The thing takes my hand, not worrying about the ooze coming from it, and begins to lead me somewhere I do not see.
I wake in a cocoon. It is wrapped all around me and my body is melting into lavender-
I can breathe, can feel that I am not—I don’t want. I have—awareness and thought.
I have thoughts. I have awareness—patience.
I have kisses. So many kisses.
I do not hum or buzz or vibrate or tingle or tickle. Only lavender breathing. And thoughts. Awareness. Patience. Kisses.
This morning, I crawl into the tent beside the man, his back to me. It might be the next morning but it has probably been days since I entered my chrysalis, hours since I emerged. He is still here, in these mountains, his bones doing what bones do and his heart waiting for me to return.
reach out to touch him, to wrap my limb around him and across his chest, to pull him against me. But I stop myself, lie an inch away from him, and extend just my head to kiss the nape of his neck. He stirs and I know he is awake. I keep on kissing.
He tastes like salt and meat, blood rising to the surface of his skin like a blush to meet my mouth. It is hot against my tongue.
The instant he begins to turn toward me, I flee, panic filling my lungs, and am gone in an instant. My body flying through the trees, I hurtle into the figure that had given me all of those kisses. It is here, right in front of me, no longer hiding. I thought I would be afraid but it is not a fearsome creature.
I see it clearly. It looks like me — a body of pale, cloudy powder filled with the same shade of liquid.
Somewhere far from here, the man shouts an incomprehensible word.