I’m naked and putting on clothes, separated from Joshua by only by a wall. I love you, wall. What a good wall. I toss myself so hard into bed the mattress squeaks, and it’s the last thing I hear.
I WAKE UP in a volcano. “No! No!”
“I’m not poisoning you. Quit squirming.” Joshua’s hand is behind my neck as he presses two pills onto my tongue. I swallow water and then he lowers me flat.
“My mother always gave me lemonade. And she’d sit with me. Whenever I woke up, she’d still be there. Did yours?” I sound like I’m five years old.
“My parents were too busy on shift looking after other sick people to do that stuff for me.”
“Yep, except me.” An edge in his voice denotes a sore topic.
I feel his hand on my forehead, fingers light and stiff. “Let’s do a temperature check.”
“I feel so fucking stupid.” My voice is garbled due to the thermometer he’s put into my mouth. He must have bought it, because I don’t own one. I’m currently inside a moment destined to become the most cringe-worthy memory of my life.
“You’ll never let me live this down.” That’s what I try to say. Thanks to the thermometer it comes out like I’ve got a head injury.
“Sure I will. Don’t chew the thermometer,” he replies quietly, taking it out of my mouth.
“We don’t want you to get over one hundred four.” In the low evening light, his eyes are darkened navy as he assesses me almost clinically, before smoothing his hand over my forehead again, softly, not checking my temperature. My pillow is adjusted a little. His eyes are not the man I know.
“Okay. Please stay for a minute. But you can leave if you want.”
“Lucy, I’ll stay.”
When I eventually dream, it’s about Joshua sitting on the edge of my mattress, watching me sleep.
I’m vomiting. Joshua Templeman is holding a large Tupperware container under my face—the one I usually carry cakes to work in. I can smell the sweet-plastic residue of icing and eggs. I throw up more. His wrist is holding up my limp head, my hair gathered in his fist.
“This is so disgusting,” I groan in between heaves. “I’m so—I’m so—”
“Shh,” he replies and I fall asleep, shuddering and gasping, while he wipes my face with something cold and damp.
The clock says 1:08 A.M. when I sit upright again. A wet compress falls into my lap. I jerk in fright at the weight on the bed next to me.
“It’s me,” Joshua says. He’s sitting against my headboard with his thumb in a Smurf price guidebook. He’s got no shoes on and his socked feet are casually crossed at the ankles. The other books have been stacked neatly on my dresser.
“I’m so cold,” I chatter. I put my hand into my hair; it’s still damp from my shower. He shakes his head. “You have a fever. It’s getting worse.”
“No, cold,” I argue. I stumble into the bathroom, leaving the door ajar. I pee, flush, and then realize how unladylike I was. Oh, well. He’s seen and heard almost everything now. There’s nothing left to do but fake my own death and start a new life.
I use my finger to rub some toothpaste on my tongue. Gag. Repeat.
I hear cotton unfurling, the snap of elastic, and the creak of mattress, and through the crack in the door I watch him put fresh sheets on the bed. I’m a soggy, disgusting mess, but I still manage to watch his bent-over backside.
“How You Doing?” He looks at me under his arm and hauls the last corner of the sheet into place. My lucky mattress is being manhandled.
“Oh, just fine. How You Doing?” I fall into bed, and claw the blankets up onto me. The mattress depresses heavily beside me and his hand is on my forehead.
“Ah, that’s nice.”
His hand feels like the sort of temperature I should be striving for. Everything we do is tit for tat, so I raise my hands up and put them on his forehead.
“Okay.” He is amused.
I’m touching my colleague Joshua on the face. I’m dreaming. I’ll wake up on the bus with him sneering at the trail of drool on my chin. But a minute ticks by, and I don’t.
I slide my hands down, over sandpaper grit on his jaw, remembering how he cradled my face in the elevator. No one has ever held me like that. I open my eyes and I could swear he shivers. I touch his pulse. It touches me back.
I have my hands on his throat now, and I remember how badly I wanted to strangle him once. I spread my hands lightly around his neck, just to check the fit, and he narrows one eye.
“Go ahead,” he tells me. “Do it.”
His throat is way too big for my tiny hands. I feel a tension shimmering through him, a tightening in his body. There’s a sound in his throat.
I’m hurting him. Maybe I’m strangling him to death right now. Color is sweeping up his neck. When he pins me with his eyes, I know something’s coming. I am not prepared when it happens.
The world explodes apart as he begins to laugh.
He’s the same person I stare at every weekday but lit up. He’s plugged into the mains and electric. Humor and light radiate from him, making his colors glow like stained glass. Brown, gold, blue, white. It’s a crime I’ve never seen these smile lines before. His mouth is in an easy curve, perfect teeth and a faint dimple bracketing each corner.
Each laugh gusts from him in a husky, breathless rush, something he can no longer hold in, and it’s as addictive to me as the taste of his mouth or the smell of his skin. His amazing laugh is something I need now.
If I’d ever thought he was good-looking before, in passing or noticed in irritation, I never knew the full story. When Josh smiles, he is blinding. My heart is pounding and I frantically catalog this moment in the half-light. It’s the only one I’ll get, while delirious with fever.
If only I could hold on to this moment. I already feel the sadness that will hollow me out when it ends. I want to tell him, Don’t leave yet. My fingers must be flexing, because he laughs until the mattress is shaking beneath us. A diamond wet sparkle of light in the corner of his eye is a bullet to my heart. I’ll be able to replay this beautiful, impossible moment in my memory when I’m a hundred years old.
“Go ahead, kill me, Shortcake,” he gasps, wiping his eye with his hand. “You know you want to.”
“So bad,” I tell him, like he once told me. I’ve got a tightening in my own throat and I can barely get the words out. “So bad, you have no idea.”
MY PAJAMAS ARE soaked with sweat when I jolt awake and there is a third person in my bedroom. A man I’ve never seen before. I begin screaming like an injured monkey.
“Calm down,” Josh says into my ear. I scramble into his lap and press my face into his collar bone, huffing his cedar scent so hard I probably suck out his ghost. I’m about to be taken to a scary medical facility, away from the safety of my bed and these arms.
“Don’t let them, Josh! I’ll get better!”
“I’m a doctor, Lucy. How long and what symptoms?” The man puts on some gloves.
“She wasn’t one hundred percent this morning. High color, distracted, and she got worse throughout the day. Visibly sweaty since lunchtime, and she didn’t eat. Vomiting at five P.M.”
“And then?” The doctor continues to select things from his case, lining them on the end of my bed. I watch suspiciously.
“Delirious by eight. Trying to strangle me with her bare hands by one thirty. Burning up closer to one hundred four, and now she’s one hundred five point six.”
I squeeze my eyes shut when the unfamiliar rubber hands feel the glands in my throat. Josh rubs my arms soothingly. I’m sitting between his thighs now, feeling his solid weight behind my shoulder blades. My own human armchair. The doctor presses his fingertips into my abdomen and I make crying sounds. My top is peeled up a few inches.
“What in the hell happened here?” They both simultaneously let out a sympathetic hiss of breath.
“We had a paintball day at work. Even my back isn’t as bad as this.” Josh’s fingers stroke the skin and I sweat even more. “Poor Shortcake,” he says in my ear. There’s no sarcasm.
“Have you eaten out at any restaurants?”
I wrack my brains. “Thai takeout for dinner. Not today. Yesterday maybe.”
When the man frowns it’s so familiar. “Food poisoning is a possibility.”
“Could be a virus,” Josh argues. “The time frame is a little long.”
“If you’re so capable of diagnosing her, why even call me?”
They begin bickering about my symptoms. To my ears, they sound like guys talking about sports, and the city’s current viruses are the teams. I watch them through slitted eyes. I didn’t even know doctors would do house calls, especially at two thirty-nine in the morning. He’s midthirties, tall, dark haired, blue eyed. He’s clearly thrown a jacket over his pajamas.
“You’re good-looking,” I tell the doctor. My lost filter should be a secondary diagnosis.
“Wow, she must really be delirious,” Josh says acridly, wrapping his arm across my collarbones. The squeeze renders me immobile.
“Funny, he’s usually called the good-looking one.” The doctor says it wryly as he searches in a kit bag at the foot of the bed. “Oh, calm down, Josh.”
“You’re his BROTHER,” I say in childlike wonder when the rusted cogs in my brain clunk into place. “I thought he was an experiment gone wrong.”
They look at each other and Josh’s brother laughs. “She’s so cute.”
“She’s . . .” I feel Josh shake his head. He adjusts me a little against his chest, and my fevered brain interprets it as a snuggle.
“I’m pathetic. He tells me constantly. What’s your name?”
“Patrick Templeman. Holy shit. You’re the actual Dr. Templeman.”