My phone beeped, loud and continuous, defying the pillow wrapped around my head as a sound barrier. It took a good long moment and a lot of groaning to untangle myself from the blanket burrito I’d rolled into during the night before I was able to snatch up the phone and jabbed at the off button. The only reason I didn’t slam it into the far wall of the bedroom as punishment for waking me up at the crack of an hour before dawn was I couldn’t afford to replace it. Even with the extra five hundred bucks in my pocket this month.
Once I was free of my comfortable, fluffy prison, I stumbled to the bathroom to answer nature’s call and wash my face. As I towel dried my face, leaving nasty black smudges of mascara and eye liner on the white cloth that Dodge would no doubt lecture me about later, – always take your makeup off before bed, girls – I spied two little pill bottles on the counter where I’d left them the night before.
I held them up so that the dim light coming from above illuminated their labels. One had a brightly coloured label, making me think that the vitamins contained within were, in actual fact, aimed toward children to make them more exciting. Certainly, the fact that they were chewable would be a plus for children. But they had been given to me with the expectation that I would take them, so take them I did, popping one in my mouth as I set it aside and considered the other bottle.
By comparison, it was a blank canvas; plain white with black, Times New Roman font, but I it was a welcome relief for my groggy, hung over eyes as I squinted to re-read the instructions so that I didn’t accidentally overdose and die right here on the bathroom floor.
‘For improved concentrations’
Phrased like that it made me think that they’d just given me some souped up Ritalin.
‘Take one pill every four hours. Do not exceed six pills in a twenty-four hour period.
WARNING! Side effect may include: Swollen extremities, Headaches, Twitching, Heightened Self Awareness, Out of Body Experiences, Early Onset Alzheimer’s, Memory Loss, Club Foot, Loss of Taste, and Decreased Life Expectancy.’
I blinked a few times, thinking I’d read that wrong, but when I looked back down at the list it still ended in “decreased life expectancy.” How exactly was I supposed to check for something like that? It wasn’t like I had a glowing battery symbol somewhere on me, like a laptop, that I could monitor. As far as I could tell, the only way I would know for certain that my life expectancy had been decreased was if I suddenly dropped dead.
I shrugged that dilemma off and swallowed a pill with a cupped handful of water before taming my morning afro with an army of soldiers otherwise known as bobby pins, and then returned to my bedroom in search of my little used running shorts. I’d bought them almost a year ago on sale and so far the only time I’d actually worn them was Halloween last year when I’d dressed up as the jogger that found the body. Dodge had rolled his eyes, adamant that it was not a costume, but had eventually backed down when I typed ‘costume’ into Google Definition and it told me that a costume was a style of dress, including accessories and hairdos, especially that particular to a nation, region, group or historical period.
Speaking of Dodge, he was already in the kitchen when I emerged in last year’s Halloween costume. His usual borders-on-OCD neat hair was slightly mussed, unhelped by the hand he was continually running through it as he stared at the screen of my laptop.
“Ready to go?” I hopped onto the table beside the computer and swiped his half full mug of coffee only realizing that it was stone cold mid way through guzzling it down. In the next second I was across the kitchen, spitting the last mouthful into the sink and watching it drain down the hole in a brownish sludge.
“I’ve been ready for a while,” he assured me without taking his eyes off the screen. “Just waiting for you.
Dodge sounded off this morning. Maybe it was the fact that on a normal day I didn’t usually encounter him until at least eight a.m., after his run. But he was definitely less perky. And were those bags under his eyes? Surely I was seeing things. The man had never sported under eye bags in all the years I’d known him.
“Have you slept?” I asked. He made weak protests as I slowly and deliberately pushed the lid of the computer closed, but didn’t answer. “Dodge,” I insisted. “Have. You. Slept?”
“Couldn’t,” he replied, meeting my eyes with a glazed look in his own. “Had to watch Thor. Then I tried to find the big boss. He doesn’t exist. No sign of anyone we don’t already know about in relation to Walk Safe Security. The man is a ghost.”
“We can skip the jog this morning,” I suggested. I allowed just a little bit of hope to creep into my heart as I watched him run a hand through his hair once more, causing a tuft at the crown of his head to stick straight up. It reminded me of a cockatoo. “You should probably sleep.”
“Sleep is for fat people,” he snapped. There he goes, calling me fat again. The insults never end with him. “Start stretching,” he commanded.
And so, I did.
I’d been through the routine before. Dodge would show off his flexibility while I attempted to replicate his actions, but I had always failed in the past. It was like there was a force field around my toes that extended half way up my shins. I hadn’t touched them without bending my knees since eighth grade. It wasn’t that I was out of shape; it was that I was inflexible. I’d always longed to be a cheerleader, but between my low success rate of walking without incident and inability to bend, even the try out sign-up sheet laughed at me when I walked by.
Dodge, scoffed down a banana, tossed back a pill from his little bottle and promptly proceeded into a toe touch. I watched, hating him all over again for his athleticism and then followed suit. When I bent over today, my arms just kept going until, with a startled cry leaping from my lips, my fingertips connected with the toe of my shoe.
“Omigod!” I squealed in delight. “Dodge, look! I’m doing it! I’m touching my toes!”
“You’re kidding.” Dodge straightened, from his own stretch to stare open mouthed down at me as I craned my neck to make sure he was looking. “That’s really weird!” he exclaimed, coming closer to examine the connection between my fingers and toes. “I always thought your extremities were like magnets, but the same poles, so they rebel each other. Can you change a magnet’s polarity? Because I think you just did.”
I wiggled my butt, taking his words as a compliment to my new achievement.
“You can stand up again, right?” he asked, concerned.
I gave him a hateful glare, straightening in one swift movement. “Of course I can.”
“I was just checking,” he defended, grabbing his elbow and pulling it behind his head. “You were down there a long time, I was kinda hoping you wouldn’t be able to get up again so we could have one of those embarrassing trips to the emergency room people always talk about. I could have grabbed my phone and filmed the whole thing and we could have gone on Australia’s Funniest Home Videos.”
“I was just savouring the moment,” I assured him, copying every stretch he performed with an ease I had never before known. It was like my limbs had turned to rubber and I had all these props supporting me. I even did the superman pose without falling on my face, much to Dodge’s frustration.
He barely spoke a word to me as we set out on his usual course, but that could have been because he was so far ahead of me. It seemed that while my inflexibility and balance had fixed itself this morning, my ability to run had not.
Don’t get me wrong, my form was great. Better than it had ever been. But I was puffed after about five minutes, and at the end of the hour long ‘jog’ my jogger’s costume was drenched in sweat and the curls that had escaped from the pins were plastered to my face.
I was on my back, spread eagle on the grassy knoll beside the running track at the local high school where we had ended up at some point during the hour long jog. My eyes were closed as I attempted to stop the world from spinning with my mind, but I could still hear Dodge’s padded footfalls as he came around the track. Again. I’d given up five minutes ago, under the impression that it was better to quit while I was behind. Approximately seven laps behind to be exact. He was a machine. I knew he was good, I’d watched his football practices for long enough, but I never thought he could go like this. He was barely even out of breath when he’d passed me the last time.
Admitting defeat, I slowly sat up to watch Dodge run himself into the ground. Hopefully. As I reached for my drink bottle which I had discarded a few feet away in my uncaring exhaustion, I caught sight of a group of three stick thin, bottle blondes in spandex workout gear stretching with great vigour as Dodge made another pass. As soon as they were certain they were out of his direct line of vision, however, their efforts became almost as low as mine.
It was clear they were disgruntled by the lack of appreciation on Dodge’s behalf. One threw a vague gesture in my direction, saying loudly, “It’s no use, Justine; he’s obviously with the sweat bucket over there.”
I wasn’t sure how to react to that. For one, they’d insulted my appearance, and I should be angry about that. But on the other hand, they were trying to catch the attention of a gay man, which was amusing six ways to Sunday, but I wasn’t surprised. Everywhere we went, Dodge and I were either assumed to be a couple, so girls would send hateful glares in my direction the entire time, or the same girls would throw themselves at Dodge, each bidding to be his new girlfriend.
The first port of call in such a situation was always to spout off a random reject line.
Second was to make out like I was actually his girlfriend, which sometimes included actual making out, despite how gross if felt for both of us. We’d been best friends for over fifteen years, and although I could appreciate his lean physique and movie star good looks, I thought of him more as the big brother I never had than a potential partner. Even if he was straight, I’d have a hard time thinking of him in a romantic way. I knew too many intricate details about his life. The romance would have been squashed out by a major case of TMI – Too Much Information.
If that didn’t work, which it usually didn’t, his skill in physical flirting avoidance came into play.
That’s how he got his nickname, actually. Right up until college, Dodge had always just been Roger, but after a series of night out in Sophomore year, our friends had dubbed him Dodge after his uncanny ability to dodge women’s hands no matter how quickly they shot out to grab a... limb. And they always went for the limb.
On his next lap, Dodge had slowed his pace to an easy jog, which only encouraged the airheads. En masse, they made their way out onto the track, matching his pace as they surrounded him, giggling and flipping their ridiculously high pony tails. They stayed with him for a few laps, jockeying for positions every once in a while as they all flirted obviously with him, casting glances over their shoulders at me.
From Dodge’s hand gestures I could tell he was trying to convince him that he really wasn’t even remotely interested in them. I imagined him picking from his unusually long list of reject lines:
I’m not interested in a relationship right now.
You’re not my type.
I like men.
No, really, I’m gay.
I can’t marry outside my religion, are you paleoplathic?
I would love to, but my doctor say I have to wait six weeks after taking my medication so I’m not contagious anymore.
Why stop at a date? Let’s go get married now!
I’m sure my mother would approve of you.
I have no genitals.
Those were just a few of the frequently used ones. It’s surprising how many times that marriage line has backfired on him. Drunk girls. Always so eager to get hitched. Luckily for them, Dodge was never intoxicated enough to agree to such a thing. He maintained a minimum fifty percent control on his body and mind at all times.
I sipped from my water, wishing it were coffee, or a nice bubble bath that I could relax back in as they came around again. The girls, who had been keeping up with him, were beginning to lag behind, clumped together in what I imagined to be a meeting of two thirds of a mind. They held their position, behind one of the world’s most impressive male asses, whispering animatedly to each other for another for another lap, but abruptly changed directions as they approached the bench they had left their purses on.
It appeared Dodge had finally bested them with his award winning lines. As I watched, he rolled his shoulders, glanced to the retreating women and picked up the pace once more. I studied his actions carefully, something about the way he kept slightly twisting his torso as he ran. He passed me three more times, his form degrading witch each as he spent more time irritating his neck than he did pumping his arms. I thought maybe he was being plagued by mosquitoes until he finally stumbled off the track, landing on the grass beside me with a small, “Oof.”
That’s when I noticed the rash, creeping angry and red up his neck. He scratched hard, leaving scary claw marks as he gulped down the water I handed him.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked, staring as the harsh marks seemed to welt before my eyes.
“What?” he asked, apparently unaware of what his neck was up to.
“The rash,” I said. I reached out a hand to run my fingers gently along the raised bumps. “It looks really bad.”
Dodge shrugged in that no-big-deal kind of way he does when he catches the football from halfway down the field. “My lotion sometimes reacts badly to sweat.”
“It’s clearly itchy,”
He began slapping the back of his neck, as if attempting to kill small insects that were crawling there. “What gave it away?” he said sarcastically.
“Okay, Itchy McScratcher,” I said. “No need to snap. I was just trying to help.” After a thoughtful pause I added, “We should get you home. Cold showers help rashes, right?”
“You’re thinking of erections, Bea,” he said. “And for the record, that’s a myth anyway. The cascading water serves to stimu-.”
I held up a hand, my face screwed up. “You don’t need to finish that sentence,” I assured him. “I get the picture. But I’m pretty sure a cold shower would sooth the itch at least a little.”
“So long as you don’t try any of your crazy aunt’s remedies on it,” Dodge agreed, jumping to his feet and offering me a hand. “Think you can make it back to the apartment?” he asked.
“Of course I can,” I said. “And no offense, but I don’t really wanna touch you in case you’re contagious.”
He rolled his eyes, and , before I could move, grabbed me by the forearms and hauled me to my feet. “It’s just a reaction to my lotion,” he reiterated.
I rifled through the hall closet, everything from my missing odd socks, to the DVD I’d hidden from Dodge after he’d watched it fifteen times in two weeks, to a half eaten candy cane I didn’t recognise entered my hand, eager to be found. Everything, except what I was looking for.
As soon as we’d made it back to the apartment building I had insisted that Dodge, who had been scratching the entire journey home and on the verge of actually taking a layer of skin off, take a cold shower and I would put some tea tree oil on it to soothe it once he’d washed off any irritants that may be clinging to his skin. Of course, that plan would be a whole lot more effective if I could actually find the tea tree oil.
I know we had some left over from winter when Doge likes to use it in one of those diffusers so that his nose didn’t get stuffy. And it came in handy when we both got head lice from babysitting his sister’s demon spawn. But the probably was, neither Dodge nor I were very consistent with putting items back where we found them. Most of the essential oils – of which we had a rather extensive collection, not that I knew what they were used for – were kept in a small drawer in the kitchen, right beside the junk drawer (which reminds me, I should check the junk drawer next, just in case). However, when I’d rifled through the assortment, carefully reading each and every label, it was not there.
It could be anywhere.
I’d just stuck my head in to examine the back corner of the cupboard under the sink when a high pitched scream sounded from the bathroom, startling me into cracking the back of my head on a protruding pipe, letting out a cry of my own. I backed slowly and carefully out of the cupboard and raced down the hall, managing to cop a wall corner to the hip as a rounded the corner. With one hand on my head and the other rubbing my hip, I somehow managed to use my foot to open the bathroom door without giving in to the gravity pulling me backwards.
Don’t ask me what I’d been expecting when I barged in like a superhero, but what I was confronted with was definitely not it. I the middle of our small bathroom stood Dodge, naked as the day he was born, and that’s just filthy. I mean, we didn’t actively hide our bodies from each other, that would just be more trouble than it was worth, but seeing his... everything, was not high on my list of priorities. The only way I could describe how seeing his junk made me feel would be to liken it to seeing ones father in the nude. You just don’t need that kind of imagery in your memory bank. But I could push pas that, because every inch of his body was covered by the same crimson rash that had been creeping up his neck. It was even starting to blister in places.
“Oh. My. God,” I breathed, my hands dropping to my sides as in the next instant my own pain was completely forgotten.
“It’s everywhere,” he wailed mournfully, staring down at his own body.
I took a moment to examine the everywhere he referred to, noting that his hands were stiffly clawed and held away from his body in what appeared to be a very tense and deliberate position. “Oookay,” I said slowly, taking a single step backwards. “You need to get in the shower pronto. Cold water. As cold as you can stand it. I’ll get back to looking for the tea tree oil. Put on some underwear and come out to the living room when you’ve finished scrubbing very gently and I’ll help you apply it.”
Dodge nodded in a stiff motion, and began fiddling with the knobs, moving in such a way that no to skin surfaces touched or rubbed. I could only imagine the pain he was going through.
“Try my dresser for the oil,” he called over his shoulder, his voice sounding off.
“Are you crying?” I asked cautiously, making sure I was a safe distance away.
“I wish I wasn’t,” he admitted. “It feels like my face is on fire.”
Without another word, I slipped out, pulling the door closed after me and made my way to Dodge’s bedroom, the only immaculately neat area in the house, and that was largely because I rarely dared to venture inside and mess with his stuff. Rarely, not never. Sometimes it was necessary, like on the first of April when I was obligated to set up a hilarious prank, such as glad wrapping his chest of drawers. At this point in time, though, pranking was the last thing on my mind.
Well, maybe not the last. The temptation was too great for me to NOT flip his sock drawer upside down. But that was all I did, I swear. And then I got straight on to palming through his bottles of lotion and hair products until I got to the tea tree oil, hidden at the back behind an industrial sized can of hairspray. I stared at the tiny bottle for a long moment, wondering if the miniscule amount of liquid within could possibly coat his rash entirely, or if we’d be forced to pick and choose the worst places for now and either find something else to put on it or I’d have to run to the store for some more.
A few minutes later, Dodge and I met in the living room, me still in my damp jogging clothes and he in nothing more than a pair of white briefs. On the coffee table, I’d laid out an assortment of cotton balls, cotton buds, tissues and some gauze bandages I’d found in the junk drawer.
“This is awkward,” I said, before I could think about what was coming out my mouth.
“Push it aside,” Dodge snapped. “I’m in great discomfort and you have to help me.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Have to?” I asked, incredulously.
“Please?” he requested. “I can’t do it myself. It hurts to move.”
With a roll of my eyes, I got to work, soaking a cotton ball in the oil and dabbing it all over his arms, his chest, his thighs. It took an couple more cotton balls, but I finally managed to stretch the small amount into a thin layer across his skin. I’d covered everywhere except his crotch and his face. I was hesitant to put such a potent substance on an area I knew for a fact was extremely sensitive.
“How does it look?” Dodge asked tensely when I paused for a long moment, considering what to do about his face. “Is it going away?”
I stood back to take him, travelling my gaze over every rippling muscle. My eyes widened at what I saw, though. Whereas his muscles usually rippled as he moved, now they seemed to be doing so as he stood stock still. Maybe he was working hard at not scratching still.
Was that his muscles? Or was it his skin. Dear God, his skin was bubbling before my very eyes, turning from the mild colour of a tomato to the vibrant hue of a red crayon.
“It looks... um...” I couldn’t look him in the eye. My gaze was unable to detach from the fine film starting to ooze out of a particularly nasty cluster of blisters on the side of his ribs. “It definitely looks like it’s doing... something?” I said honestly, accidentally phrasing it as a question.
His head dropped to stare at his chest and another shockingly shrill scream left his lips. “Bea!” he cried, flapping his hands at the mess that was his chest.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” I yelled the question at him as he continued to produce girly squeals. “Surely you can feel that.”
“YES!” he shrieked, now hopping from foot to foot in a retarded version of the I’ve Gotta Pee dance. “I thought the added pain meant it was working. Isn’t that how these things work?”
“That’s for disinfectant on a cut or graze, Dodge,” I pointed out, my panic ramping up as he scratched at his chest frantically. “Pain and stinging when putting stuff like tea tree oil on is usually a bad sign!”
He sprinted from the room, faster, if that was even possible, than he had run around the track just an hour ago and moments later, I heard water hitting tile as the shower was turned on again.
In his absence, I allowed myself the small liberty of falling apart. My knees gave way and I landed with a soft thwump on the coffee table, next to the discarded cotton balls. “Omigod,” I whimpered. “OMG. Holy crap! I may have just melted my best friend’s skin off!”
“It won’t stop!” Dodge’s voice carried easily down the hall to me as he shouted at the top of his lungs.
And suddenly, I found the humour in the situation. Dodge, who was always so particular about what he put on his skin and in his body, who took great care in making himself presentable, was covered in an ugly red rash that only seemed to be getting worse.
The shower shut off again, and I dashed to my room for my phone, logging on to the internet as I made my way back to the bathroom where Dodge was apparently digging through the cabinet. I leaned against the wall beside the closed door, waiting for the banging to die down.
“So I just Googled rashes and tea tree oil,” I stated after a full minute of silence had stretched out between us. “Wiki-How says you shouldn’t apply it to large areas of skin when it’s undiluted because it can trigger skin irritation and allergic reactions.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” he growled. The door swung open and in the next second Dodge stood ten inches away, towering over me just like the bullies used to in high school. Thankfully, he had a towel slung around his hips; otherwise our positions would have been extremely awkward. The thick layer of what I was really hoping was moisturiser or lotion, however, was starting to make me feel rather uncomfortable. “You couldn’t have looked it up before you covered my body with it?” he raged, his hair flopping forward into his face.
“I wasn’t thinking,” I admitted. “Did the shower and –,” I gestured to the white, creamy substance slathered in the thick layer across his chest. “That’s lotion, right? It is helping?”
Dodge’s eyes narrowed on my face, clearly annoyed with me, but said nothing.
“Ooh-kay,” I said slowly. In an attempt to escape the bubble of wrath that he was extending over the pair of us, I slid along the wall until I could take a few protective steps away. I was going to need them if my instincts were correct about the topic I was about to bring up. “You remember that embarrassing trip to the Emergency Room you mentioned earlier?” I prompted.
“Don’t even think about it,” he seethed. “This is not funny.”
“Dodge,” I said, raising an eyebrow at him. “You squealed like a little girl. It’s a pity I didn’t grab my phone earlier. Can you imagine how popular I’d be with your football buddies if I showed up with a clip of you freaking out like a twelve year old girl who just heard the Justin Beiber died?” The prospect was so amusing, that I actually let out a small chuckle, backing away a little more.
“Bea,” he warned.
“Alas,” I mourned. “I cannot. We should really get you to a medical expert of some kind, though.”
“I don’t need to go to the ER,” he assured me, but his tone sounded more like he meant, “I can’t go to the ER looking like this.”
I held up my phone, suggestively. “I at least need to get a few pictures,” I told him. “To document the rash. This is the worst I’ve ever seen you and I need something to make me feel better next time I get a pimple.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“Bea, this isn’t funny.”
Quick as a flash, I’d snapped off three photos before he had a chance to react.
“I will murder you in your sleep,” he threatened.
“I love you too,” I called over my shoulder as I sprinted for the front door. The tension in his body was so tight that I thought he might actually snap and attack me. There was no way I was going to wait around for that to happen. I grabbed my keys out of the bowl in the hall and was in the parking lot in no time at all, Dodge’s angry bellows echoing after me. I would make it up to him by going to the chemist and getting expert advice on what we should do about the rash. I even had visuals to aid in accurate results!