There was a sapling growing out of Bobby's arm. He pulled up his blue flannel sleeve to show me the inch-tall aspen sprouting from between the black hair on his arms. The tree looked about a year old in miniature with sparse flake-like leaves and white bark. We sat on the living room couch in the few minutes between our work shifts. Bobby worked as a bus driver and I usually had evening shifts at the hospital. We'd been roommates since our college years.
I found myself reaching for the growth without giving it much thought—the earth of his arm was disturbing but the tree itself was mesmerizing. His left hand caught my wrist before I could reach it.
"It might be contagious," he said.
If not for the accordion lines in his thick, dark eyebrows, I would've laughed aloud. Instead I humored him. "I have a great immune system."
I looked up at his face, his green eyes reluctant as he acquiesced. He released my hand and I ran my finger over the sapling. When smoothed together, the tiny leaves were like wax paper, the bark rough. I pressed gently and as the wood flexed, Bobby's dark skin pulled tight around it.
"Weird," I said.
Sweat beaded at his forehead. "I don't know what to do about it."
"Have you tried pulling it out? Cutting it?" I asked, imagining a difficult mole in its place.
He looked alarmed at my suggestion, and then shook his head. "It bleeds, Caroline."
"So does a mole," I said and shrugged. I wasn't overly concerned about this strange growth. I'd learned a long time ago that 'strange' was always a temporary label. Something was only miraculous until we learned more about the phenomenon.
I'd lived in the same town in Eastern Maine my whole life. I was born in the same tiny hospital I began to work at when I turned thirty, to a mother who had never stepped outside of our hometown. When I was a child she told me that she was not a migratory animal and so she would never leave. "You don't leave a place that sustains you," she'd tell me. It took me years to recognize the emotion in her voice—bitterness—and much longer to learn the cause.
As a child, I took her views to heart. I thought that we made homes in the places we went daily, like the burrow system of a badger. Our apartment was a nest of decorative throws and trinkets. I thought of our favorite breakfast and lunch spot, Mary's Morning, as another burrow with its curved, low ceiling and plush booth seating. The old movie theater, the elementary school in trailers, the fishing museum—we had our singular routes to them all and I thought of them as extensions of the burrow system that was home.
I took to leaving small things in each place—to find out how long parts of me remained. Three days later, would my shoelace still be under the booth cushion my mom and I sat at last at Mary's Morning? Did they clean behind the glass case of fishing hooks or would my extra jacket button still be there when my mom went to the fishing museum to volunteer the following weekend?
My mom didn't notice this habit until I tried to leave an earring behind in school when I was eight. She picked me up from school and noticed my one empty ear. When she asked me if I'd lost it, I couldn't lie quick enough. So, she sent me back in to remove it from behind the hamster cage.
I tried to convince Bobby to come to the hospital with me, but as soon as I'd suggested it, he rolled back down his sleeve. He was stone once he'd made up his mind—something that I found more and more reassuring as we'd grown up. But after trying to calm him, I ran late for work.
By the time I took the first patient back, it was almost 4:30. After taking his blood pressure, I scanned the computer to discuss his ailments. The patient, a man in his early forties with little hair and a wide stance, had simply listed "foot pain."
Under the bright white lights, the man's skin looked gray. He shifted his gaze from me to the surrounding salmon walls to the counter sink and tongue depressors. Then, swallowing visibly, he bent over to take off his loose boots. Before I could say anything, his right foot was bare except for a patch of green on the top of his foot—like a bright green rash.
I bent over to inspect it and realized that there were tiny leaves extending from tiny trees. No more than a quarter inch tall each, there must've been five or six saplings covering his foot.
The man was still speaking as I looked at his foot. I was so surprised, I missed half of what he'd said. "I tried nail clippers and it was agony. My wife near feinted from all the blood. But I can't work like this," he said, anguish in his voice.
Despite my fascination with the forest growing on his foot, I nodded sympathetically and called for the doctor. She arrived, and I left, wishing that I could stay as they discussed a course of action. Surgery, no doubt. Send the growth off for studies of course. Maybe she would even invite a specialist here to determine how this had happened.
After the patient left, Dr. Craig pulled me aside. "He isn't the first."
I raised my eyebrow, waiting. I didn't want to give Bobby away.
"We could be quarantined," she said, her eyes and mouth severe. We could all lie, she's said. We could all hide the truth. It's just an oddity—what a commotion for an oddity. And the rest of our lives were waiting to be lived.
I imagined our small town growing with news anchors, scientists, and random, curious people, and I imagined the decay that follows such transformations. We wouldn't outlive a scandal. "Maybe not," I answered.
Dr. Craig's face did not soften as she smiled, but I knew the way pleasure looked on her face—she was too intense to ever be soft.
"And everyone agrees?" I asked.
"That there's nothing to talk about," she said, and her hand briefly squeezed around my wrist before she walked away.
Bobby was similar to my mom. Stubborn, self-possessed, quiet. Except that he thought there was divine meaning in everything. Nothing phased him as he walked the halls of high school, as he wandered from job to job. When he settled into a bus driving routine after a couple years of community college, I asked him if that's what he really wanted from life. I had just found out that I'd been accepted into the nursing program, and I thought he was wasting his time.
"I'm right where I'm supposed to be," he'd said.
I'd scowled at him, willing him to look at me so that he could see my frustration. But he grabbed some popcorn and walked into the living room, leaving me to my condescension.
Later, I would think back to my arrogance, my selfishness, while I went through the program. I didn't believe in faith, or God, but I still thought that my career choice was morally superior. Bobby didn't mind my smugness, he ignored me when I tried to make this superiority apparent without saying the words—describing responsibilities, tests, and the lifesaving techniques I'd learned. It took years for me to see that I'd been foolish. It took me years to see each of us more fully—that I found tests to be a great mediation tool for dealing with people and that Bobby wanted to be a part of the functioning of daily lives. He had purpose, I had fear.
In the late afternoons after Bobby showed me the sapling on his arm, he began to ask me to check his back for other trees. I'd tell him stories from the hospital as we'd step into the bathroom where the light was brightest. I saved the funniest ones to distract him. Then he'd take off his shirt and I'd scour his back for bark and green.
The one on his forearm was growing. The aspen stood proudly at two inches tall, the leaves unfurling above the white bark. He tied it down with string when he went to work every day, but I knew that this was no long-term solution. The skin pulled, and he winced as he dragged his sleeve down.
Two weeks or so into our new routine, I untied the string in the bathroom and messaged his arm. I skipped my hospital stories, concerned about his pain. "People are getting these removed. There's no side effects."
He pulled his arm away and unbuttoned his green shirt. I wondered if the color reminded him of what lay underneath. "Do they come back?"
My eyes flickered to his. The possibility hadn't occurred to me. "Not so far."
The shirt dropped to a puddle at his feet. "I'll think about it."
Taller than me, he tilted down so that I could see the broad expanse of his back. My gaze swept up from his tailbone and to his shoulders and there I spotted something speckled. I leaned forward to get a closer look, not wanting to alarm him, but I'd gone without speaking too long.
"There's something there, isn't there?"
Green spots dotted his shoulders, so tiny I could barely see them. I ran my fingers over his skin to be sure of what I was seeing—they were sprouting. I couldn't put off an answer and for the first time since I'd seen a growth, I was worried. "Yes."
"How many?" he asked, straightening, bracing himself.
I shook my head, forgetting that he couldn't see me. "Too many to count."
Bobby turned around and leaned his head on the door jam. "What's happening to me?"
"I don't know. You should come with me to my next shift. We'll get you in to see a doctor," I told him. If he would just have them removed, his life would go back to normal.
He looked at me and I knew he wasn't convinced.
"It's going to be hard to keep driving with a forest on your back," I teased.
But he was already walking out of the bathroom. He was usually taciturn, but this silence was oppressive. I followed him to the living room where he pulled a chair from the table up to the window. Then he sat down and stared outside.
The back of our apartment complex was set against the woods. Sometimes in the early afternoons, I poured a thermos of coffee and walked just far enough into the trees to not be able to see anything manmade in any direction. But if I were Bobby, I'm not sure I'd want to be looking at a forest.
"It's more than just something you can cut off," he said, not looking up.
"What do you mean?"
"I keep wanting to just sit around."
He nodded and pressed his lips together.
I never met my dad. He wasn't in Maine long. He'd been passing through for seasonal coastal work when he met my mom. I knew little about my parents' relationship, but I knew that my mom found him very attractive. When I was twelve I overheard my mom and aunt talking about whether my aunt's new boyfriend was as pretty as my dad. After that I noticed the way my mom never trusted handsome men.
She liked to call him a lot of things, but never said his name. She called him the monarch. Somedays she said he was a gray whale. Once in passing, he was a hummingbird. I thought these were metaphors that I had yet to decipher. I figured out her meaning when I was seventeen, they were all migratory animals.
Bobby was right. The saplings came back after they'd been surgically removed. The first patient I'd seen returned within a month. He wore no shoes because both feet were covered with an array of miniature trees and thick green moss. When I took him back, I asked if there had been any changes.
His face reddened up to the roots of what was left of his hair. I prompted him with a sympathetic smile.
"I've been doing...odd things lately," he cleared his throat.
"You're having compulsions?" I clarified.
"I don't really know what you'd call it. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I get up and go into the backyard. I stand there and gather dirt around my feet until they're buried, and the trees are poking out. Drives my wife nuts," he finished, looking down at his feet.
I tried to keep my face blank, but I thought about Bobby's lethargy.
When Dr. Craig finished with the patient, I searched for her. I found her in the locker room crying. Even with tears running down her cheeks, she looked sharp and capable. She wore black pants and a blue blouse under her white coat. Her heels and scarf matched the blue. There was no point in offering her sympathy or patting her back, if Dr. Craig was crying, there was a good reason.
"Tell me," I said.
She shook her head. I looked at the loosely knotted scarf around her neck and tried to remember all of the times she'd ever accessorized her outfits when we dated. Maybe jewelry to her brother's wedding. I pulled the scarf off her neck before she could bring up her hands to stop me. A sparse leaved aspen was growing halfway up her neck from her collarbone.
"How long?" I asked.
She dragged the back of her hands across her cheeks. "Three weeks from when I originally had it removed."
I wanted to run out of the room, but I reminded myself to be calm and breathe. I had my methods of questioning, I had my tests. I was still a nurse here too. "Are you having other symptoms?"
Her eyes were shards of granite once she stopped crying. "Sometimes I find myself staring in my mirror at the tree growing on my neck. I'll suddenly snap out of it and realize that I've been there half an hour."
I try to remember follow up questions, but my mind is blank.
"People are coming. Government, scientists. We couldn't keep it quiet. Seventy-five percent of the population has a growth. They're going to quarantine us."
I nod, and then I try to bury my thoughts in a hole for later. I have six and a half hours left of my shift.
The night my mom was diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer's, Bobby cut his evening college classes to be with me. I drank half a bottle of wine before he even made it to our apartment. As soon as he walked through the door, I dragged him to the floor by the window. "She's not going to remember me."
"You don't know what she won't remember," he said, sitting cross legged.
I bobbed back and forth, verging on drunk. I was nineteen and didn't know how to handle alcohol. "She won't know me."
He reached forward to pat my knee and I smacked his hand away.
"Did you hear what I just said?" I asked.
"I said, she won't fucking know me."
"Caroline." He said my name softly, like it was a song, and I hated it.
"How well do you think she knows me now? How well do we fucking know anybody?" I picked up the bottle of wine and drank straight from the glass lip.
"Caroline," he said again.
I ignored him and laid down on the ground to cry. He stood up and went to the kitchen to make shitty instant macaroni and cheese.
We didn't talk much about my mother after that, but he was there after appointments and when I moved her into a facility to care for her.
Entry to and from town was restricted, but locals had come and gone by then. There were studies underway but there wasn't much to do but wait for more information. Removals had stopped—too many people had growths. I watched as a tiny forest grew in across Bobby's back. He wandered around the apartment shirtless, occasionally stopping to stare out the window.
In my bedroom in the early morning hours, I checked my own body for saplings. I was the only person I knew without any. I skimmed my hands over my feet and legs, and then used a hand mirror to look over my back. But there was nothing but skin.
I kept going to the hospital, but Bobby stayed home. Schools were closed as children were distracted by the forests on their feet and kept trying to leave the room. Bobby heard from the kids that they just wanted to go outside. They just wanted to ‘plant their feet.' He said that was the best way he'd heard it put—that was the urge he felt to not move.
"You have to resist. They're working on a cure," I told him, before heading to the hospital.
He didn't respond, and I thought about staying with him. If I left what would happen? Would he give in and become a statue in our apartment, completely unmoving, never speaking? It had happened to our neighbor a few days before. An older woman named Anna, who had saplings from her wrists to shoulders, sat down and didn't ever get back up. The super walked in on her to fix the AC, and she didn't move or respond to his questions. He called the police, but what could they do? She wasn't breaking any kind of law, she wasn't dead, her rent was paid. She just couldn't move.
I went to work despite my concerns about Bobby. I wasn't ready to be his caretaker.
Bobby and I promised that we wouldn't leave Maine when we were fourteen years old. Eighth grade at lunch break, the woods at our back, and the school trailers to the South, we said this was home. We sealed the deal with our one and only kiss. Then we both laughed because we thought a kiss should feel less wet and have more feeling than that.
After, we walked around the playground for the younger kids. It was empty—their lunch ended much earlier. My first memory of him was on this playground, four years before. We were playing tag and I'd stuck my foot out to trip him because I didn't want to be ‘it.' I felt bad when he went down hard, but he didn't cry, or shout out, or react at all really.
Sand covered his hair and he looked up at me. He told me it was ok before I even apologized, and I flicked sand out of his hair.
That's been Bobby ever since. He knew what I was feeling before I did.
When the saplings on Bobby got too heavy, he woke me up after my hospital shift. I heard his shout from down the hall. "Caroline."
I got up and ran to him. I looked over his form in his dim, orange bedroom, the sun striking the eggshell blinds. He was lying in bed wearing shorts with nothing else and I could see green rising up his legs. Small trunks covered his torso and shoulders. And for the first time, I could see sprouts rising up from his cheekbones, plants growing from his lips.
"I can't move," he said. He didn't sound disturbed, or scared. It was a fact for him.
"They're still working on a cure," I told him. But I wasn't sure what that meant anymore. How could one cure a forest?
I thought I saw him smile but the leaves on his lips might've just twisted as the AC turned on. "I may be horizontal until then."
"Does your back hurt?" I asked, thinking about the trees on his shoulders.
"It doesn't right now."
I thought about bedsores and bedpans, pain management and exercises. "I'll turn you once and a while."
"Thank you," he said, his voice growing quieter. His eyelids began to drop.
"Hey, Bobby?" I whispered.
"Why do you think I haven't caught it?"
His lip leaves twitched again, but he didn't say anything. I couldn't tell if he had an answer for me, or not.
Carley Gomez writes: "I am a Cuban-American writer pursuing my PhD in Fiction at the University of Missouri. I have an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My fiction can be found in Passages North, Mid-American Review and The Mud Season Review, and is forthcoming in Storm Cellar and Lake Effect. In 2018, I won a Margery McKinney short fiction award judged by Anne Valente."