Scarlet Fever

Simultaneously, she is seven years old dressed in a white sweaty nightie and forty-seven years old covered in sweaty snow pants, a down jacket, and her husband’s blue long johns, the ones with shredded ankles. This can happen when an illness bridges across a lifetime; both sicknesses occur on different planes, different paths, interjecting, interloping, running side-by-side like two rabid foxes eyeing each other, running, salivating.

The scratchy couch, made of a wool/acrylic blend, reaches through the sheets to sandpaper her young skin. With a fever, one would always want 100% cotton sheets, cool and soothing. Later in life, she will realize she is allergic to polyester, which is but one of many reasons for this misery. She has been moved downstairs next to the kitchen, perhaps so her mother does not have to climb the steps to tend to her. Not that she’s tending anyway, the girl is soaked, moaning and being told to hush. She is seven. Hush.

Thinking of seven—when she is forty-seven and has pneumonia—of this itchy nubby couch spattered with peanut butter and crumbs, the high window with the white pressing light and the hope she placed on the light in that window, fix me.

Little girls do not normally visualize themselves as adults, but here she is dripping, picturing water spilling from under the house, blue warm water, knowing her older self is also inside her chest, inside her head, they are together in a fever. She tells this to her mom, Another me is here, but I’m 47. Maybe she tells it to her mom, she’s not sure she has said this out loud and she’s not sure anyone is there, as she can’t see over the back of the couch. To sit up would take concentration, effort. There is no cup of water and she needs a cup of water. Bring me water please, she says to the white window.

Although her lungs know she has pneumonia, her mind doesn’t yet. The heating pad at her back, the down jacket on her top, and her body stuffed into a flannel sleeping bag—all this and shivering should tell her you have pneumonia. An idea of rising and picking up her son from school is running around in her head like a sloppy Ferris wheel that has fallen off its track, from her chin to her forehead, pick up your son pick up your son. Also inside her mind: a little girl in bed, she reaches out and it is herself, bringing water, changing the unbearable sheets on the couch, lifting the hot little girl, holding sips. You can trust me she says. They say it to each other. How can anyone get up and drive?

As if the fence has come down and the water is running out of the yard, her bladder is about to do the same; she can feel how it will roll down her legs, soaking the couch, her hellish nest, but there is no better, help I need to go. No one is answering and where is her mother. Water running out of the house into the yard. Feet on the carpet, so rough, so awful on skin, why isn’t anything soft, ever? There is nowhere to go when nothing is soft. Dizzy and a small hand on the back of the wool couch and a hand on a wood wall, at least that isn’t scratchy, if only she could sleep on a wall. If only a person could sleep standing up or tilt the house. Freezing in the bathroom, it is cold cold cold and if she could only have a blanket and she doesn’t think she can get back to the malevolent couch where she can at least be warm. Mom!

Please, she calls her husband, you have to get our son from school, I can’t. There is a weighty sense of guilt, a guilt as large as the playground; how difficult can it be to drive and retrieve your son, your own child. No water next to her. A girl at seven reaches for the glass and fills it over and over, but still the glass is empty and there is no one to ask for more.

Her father presents to her a fox, made of polyester/acrylic, and she wants to hold it, hug it, but it is another offering her skin can’t bear. I’m 47. Cotton.

Her father stays twenty feet away, across the room by the fireplace.

Did you pick him up from school?

The fireplace without a fire is unfriendly next to her father with his trench coat and his impeccable tie, asking in a faraway voice, What are you talking about, sweetie?

Her mother tosses a green washcloth into his hands, a toss of I’m-done, the same washcloth the girl has been turning over and over on her forehead. She’s been rambling, making stuff up all day.

Barely can she see white over white as she whispers thank you daddy reaching for the fox while her mother tromps out of the room pouting, of all the things I’ve given her, you buy a cheap airport stuffed animal and she loves that.

Her husband says get over it and sticks a cold hand under the down jacket, laughs. He is her rabies-infested untrustworthy fox, grinning with enjoyment from shocking a warm body with his chill. She is too weak to hate him, too tired to explain. Water, she hears water flowing out of the house, down the front steps, but none in her mouth. He fills her cup, brings home their son who kisses her forehead and says You’re hot, get better, Mama, hurry up, I know a new card trick, one with disappearing aces.

The woman brings the feverish girl to her bed to keep each other warm, pressing foreheads together, breathing shallowly while their bodies go about ordering the disorder. This way they can rebuild together. Reinforce the dam while eyelids are burning.

Previously published in the The Chattahoochee Review Fall/Winter 2014. Reprinted here by permission of the author.