The first time you see plant fibers jack-knifing out of your wrists, you think you’re hallucinating. It wouldn’t be the first time. After your mom died you went a little batshit, started seeing what you thought were ghosts but what were actually just your baby brain electrified by grief. Flower stalk garbage in both your wrists seems like an outgrowth (ha) of that same nonsense.
It doesn’t occur to you that maybe this is actual, physical plant matter. It also doesn’t occur to you that you should tell your aunt you’re hallucinating. You ignore it as best as you can, covering the growths with long sleeves so you don’t have to look at them. You figure you’ll stop seeing them within a couple of days.
They don’t go away. Instead you start seeing them in other parts of your body—green ropey things busting holes in your skin. Your skin stings and screams like it’s supposed to, and you don’t think that’s a hallucination. You wonder if this is some new symptoms of one of your bullshit diseases. Maybe these are your bones turned to pulp by…too much thyroid hormone? You don’t know. It’s not your bones. It’s plant matter, laid out along your veins.
Four days into this you’re in the clubroom with Ishigaki and your entire body is lit up with itching. He is laughing at something Mizuta said—something about a gameshow you don’t watch. Apparently, one of the contestants trains hamsters to detect whether or not someone is in love. This is stupid and you’re glad you think it’s stupid because if you thought it was funny, you’d end up laughing in front of Ishigaki. You can do this, but not because you’re actually amused. Only if it’s calculated, for a purpose. Fucking hell your skin hurts.
You take off your school shoes to swap them for your cycling shoes. Thorny plant flesh is visible through your threadbare socks. You shove your feet into your shoes, heart pounding in your throat at the thought that Ishigaki might see. You don’t give a fuck about Mizuta, but you guess it would probably be better if he didn’t see, either.
“Everyone else is already practicing,” you hiss, hobbling over to Ishigaki and Mizuta, who leaning against the lockers, still wearing their school uniforms. “Quit talking about stupid crap and get dressed.”
“Yes sir!” shouts Mizuta, saluting you for no goddamn reason. You expect and cultivate this level of obedience, but it’s exhausting to watch it actually happen.
Ishigaki smiles, and thanks you for reminding him to get going. “Since I’m captain it really should be me who’s paying attention to this sort of thing. Sorry!”
You scowl at him, crack your neck to set him on edge, and walk out of the clubroom. Get your bike, and try not to think about how annoyingly reasonable and nice Ishigaki is being. The fuck is his deal, responding to your intimidation tactics with pleasantries and smiles? It makes you feel like shit. You don’t deserve to have someone like that speak to you.
Once on your bike your legs start seizing in protest. Flowerstalks screaming at you for daring to try and use your body when they’re trying to consume it. You grit your teeth, bear with it as long as you can, but after twenty minutes your muscles are twitching and sparking with pain.
You don’t remember parking your bike by the side of the road. You don’t remember sitting down, head between your knees and taking heaving breaths. But there you are. Breath scraping through your lungs and cold sweat slithering down your neck. You feel someone looming over you and you want to swing your fist straight up and clock them in the face.
“You okay, Midousuji-kun?” It’s Ishigaki, bending down to check you over. You flash to standing over your unconscious mother, no idea who to call or how to help her. Ishigaki’s features are relaxed, he thinks he can help you. He’s an idiot.
You lift yourself up, wincing at what feels like thorns digging into your bones. “Fine,” you say, brushing unidentified yellow debris from your bike shorts. “Stop staring at me like you want to fuck me, it’s gross.”
Ishigaki laughs and your cheeks flame. You don’t actually blush because you’ve trained yourself not to, but you feel a million little pulsing suns in your face.
You bare your teeth, hiss. Like you do. Ishigaki asks if you think you need to see the school nurse, or if you need help getting home. “Of course not,” you say. “Don’t you have better things to do than hover over me like an idiot?”
“I’m team captain, so it’s my responsibility to make sure everyone on my team is okay.” Ishigaki is still, impossibly, smiling.
You pick up your bike. Tell him to get out of your way so you can get back to practicing. Ishigaki asks if you’re sure you’re up for it, and you tell him that you are. He says fine, you can keep practicing, but he’s going to keep an eye on you to make sure you’re alright.
The idea of anyone being this concerned about you, even on a professional level, is literally nauseating. When Ishigaki leaves you alone, you find yourself spitting up onto the side of the road. Mixed in with the bile and drool you find rose petals. Deep pink, like you think the flesh in your throat must be.
You don’t remember eating flowers.
You have never eaten flowers in your life.
You bury the evidence under a pile of leaves, get back on your bike and ride home without telling anyone. Your legs are still hollering at you but you are great at ignoring pain. Halfway home you have to stop to spit up another explosion of petals—this time, it’s enough to curl a fist around. No one’s on the street so you don’t bother hiding it. Just hack it up.
At home, you whip out your phone and google coughing up flowers, and flower stalks in leg. You think you’re going to come up with aesthetic art blogs and maybe an article or two about psychosis or LSD use.
Instead you find an entry from the World Health Organization explaining Hanahaki Disease, also known as Flower Sickness.
Symptoms vary, but in the first stages they generally include plant material growing from the limbs and digits. In later stages, plant matter begins growing internally. Organ function can be impeded by plant matter obstruction, and all body parts can be damaged by the growths.
The true cause is not known, but according to folklore, it occurs as a result of unrequited love, and can be cured when said love is requited. Some studies suggest that the stress of unrequited love lowers the immune system, leaving the victim open to infection. Many scientists believe that this is not a full explanation—unrequited love is not the only thing to cause lowered immunity, and lowered immunity should result in a variety of infections, not just this one. The true cause is currently being debated.
Treatment includes growth removal, medications that you’ve never heard of, and chemotherapy/radiation in severe cases. Because they’re uncontrolled growths. Which is cancer. Your mom had cancer.
There’s also psychotherapy to help encourage the sufferer to either declare their love or come to terms with the fact that it won’t happen.
Folklore says the second thing won’t work, but folklore is questionable. This whole thing is questionable. The only thing that isn’t questionable is that you are, literally and physically and visibly, barfing up flowers.
Oh, and one more very important thing. You are not in love.
“Do we want to cover The Smiths or Morrissey’s solo stuff?” Ishigaki asks.
“We should do one of each,” you say, flicking a bit of pollen fluff from your sweater. “That way I can show the progression of his musical career when I write the bio part.”
You have one class with Ishigaki and it’s music class. The groups aren’t determined by grade so much as musical experience. The class is advanced. You got in because of your encyclopedic knowledge of musical history. Ishigaki got in because he can sing and play guitar. You have no musical abilities whatsoever, but you could talk about Morrissey for an hour if you had someone to listen to you.
You’re paired with Ishigaki on a project. The teacher doesn’t say why, but you’re pretty sure it’s because no one else can tolerate you. You’re quiet in class, but your bike club reputation, combined with your hulking body and bulging eyes, make you a pariah.
So it’s Ishigaki who has to endure your Morrissey obsession. You’re doing the easy part—writing about your favorite topic other than biking. Ishigaki is the one actually playing and recording the songs, something you’re incapable of doing.
You don’t like having to rely on another person. You’re glad that Ishigaki asks you what you want him to play and doesn’t try to take over. You tell him that your favorite song is November Spawned a Monster, and Ishigaki says he likes that song too, and he’ll play it.
Suddenly, you're annoyed that he’s being so agreeable. You don’t want him to just do what you say. Mindless obedience is the same as ignoring you. And you don’t want him to. You don’t know why, because you hate him.
The flower stalks in your legs shift angrily. You feel something bust through the skin in your knees, and you hiss, biting down on your lip to stop yourself from screaming.
“Are you okay?” asks Ishigaki. The fact that he cares is absurd. You tell him he’s gross and you hate how predictable you are, but you don’t know what else to say besides no, and you’re not going to do that. Ishigaki lifts an eyebrow, shakes his head and change the subject.
“Do we want to do a faithful cover, or change the genre?” he asks. “I found this album called Mexrissey that does Spanish covers that are influenced by mariachi and other Mexican music. I’ve been wanting to do something like that for a while now, but with Puerto Rican music instead. Maybe salsa, or reggaetón, or something older like bomba y plena. I don’t know. How does that sound to you?”
You hadn’t considered doing anything like that, but you have to admit, it sounds cool as hell. “I don’t know…” you say. “How creative do you think Sato-sensei will let us be?”
“I’m sure she’d love it if we put our own spin on it. Plus, it’d make my mom happy. She’s been kinda down about the fact that my sister and I don't have much connection to our Puerto Rican heritage here in Kyoto. Doing a project like this would make her feel better.”
You are all about making moms feel better. It’s the only thing you care about more than biking and Morrissey. Most teenagers don't give a shit about their mothers. Don't appreciate that they’re alive and putting up with their shit. You feel something else burst through your kneecap, and this time it’s pushing visibly against your pant leg. Ishigaki doesn’t look down, and you tamp it down easily. It's fluffy, flowery bullshit, and your whole leg is alight with pain.
“Are you sure you're okay?” asks Ishigaki, frowning with concern. “You look like you have a headache or something. Do you need to to go to the nurse?”
You're fine and you need him to shut up because his ridiculous caring about you is making it worse. He doesn’t actually care about you, of course, he just cares about people, as a general category. He wants everyone happy and fed and not hurting. It’s not you. You are not special. You are nothing.
Your knee is fucking killing you.
Ishigaki digs a bottle of pills out of his bag. “Here’s some painkillers if you need them,” he says. “I take them for migraines and I’m not if they’ll work on regular headaches, but they’re probably fine?”
You snatch them, wanting to drown what you’re feeling in literally anything that’s offered to you. You need Ishigaki to stop being nice, to stop making you like him and making you hurt.
You need to say something to make him be mean to you, but your knee hurts too much to let your mind work. Besides, now you’re thinking about your mother and thinking about how she thought you were good. She wouldn’t approve of you desperately scanning your brain for the best way to hurt Ishigaki. She’d be ashamed of you, and you’re ashamed of yourself and holy shit your fucking knee.
“You’re a worthless piece of shit and everyone hates you,” you whisper. Knowing it lacks your usually acidity, that it’s pointless to say and he doesn’t even hear you. It makes you feel better, a little.
Ishigaki asks what you said. You don’t repeat yourself. Instead you say, “thanks for the pills.”
Later, in the bathroom, you roll down your pants and see that your knee is bright with blood. The plant matter busting through your knees has torn the flesh apart. Thank fuck the blood is seeping onto black pants or you’d have to worry about someone noticing. Ishigaki noticing. The stalks have erupted into flowers. You clean up the blood and rip the petals off, biting your lip to keep yourself from screaming.
You power through the rest of the day, then bike home wincing with every rotation of your pedals. You skip practice because you know seeing Ishigaki will just make it worse.
You don’t know why it’ll make it worse, just that it will. You are not in love with him.
At home, you’re checking the reblogs on the video you posted of yourself lurching around to Sorry by Justin Beiber in your bedroom, when you get a text from Ishigaki. It says:
missed you at practice today. (｡T ω T｡) hope everything’s ok. let me know if ur having any problems.
You shudder, your stomach knotting up because you know he has to say this to you. He doesn’t actually care about how you are, nobody does. He just has to account for everyone because until the school year ends, he’s the captain. Most likely, he had a much better time without you there.
All Ishigaki wants is to have fun with his friends, and you ruin that. What you want is to win, and you don’t give a shit if it’s fun or not.
You text him back:
I’m fine. I’ll be back tomorrow. Hope you didn’t slack off with me being gone.
we kinda did (⁄ ⁄>⁄ ▽ ⁄<⁄ ⁄) with the interhigh being over it’s kinda hard to keep focused. we biked for like an hour then left to get takoyaki. you should come next time!
I have no interest in hanging out with the pathetic losers on our team. Half of them will be gone next year anyway, including you.
kk that’s fine, but you’re always welcome if you change your mind. the takoyaki on that place by the bus stop is sooooo good! ( ˘▽˘)っ♨
You want to throw your phone across the room because how dare he be so kind to you? You are deliberately being an asshole, while doesn’t he react as if you’re an asshole? Why is he just spewing endless streams of nice nice nice?
You have to make him stop. It’s killing you, literally. You feel flowers plugging your throat.
Don’t hold your breath. I’d rather set myself on fire and get stabbed in the chest with a rusty knife than spend even one minute hanging out with you.
Ishigaki responds with a crying cat emoji, and you really do throw your phone across the room.
In the kitchen chopping cabbage for okonomiyaki, you ask your uncle how a person knows when they’re in love. Your voice is flattened with congestion—your body has elected to be allergic to the pollen it’s creating, which is great. Your uncle doesn’t want to answer the question. He shifts uncomfortably, looks into the pan of half-cooked bacon instead of at your face. He never looks at your face.
You twist your neck, vertebrae creaking. Your uncle sighs. He knows he has no rational basis for fearing you. Your creepy face and your looming body and your fucked up smile aren’t your fault. You’re a child. Your eyes bulge because you have Grave’s Disease, and you move like a contortionist because of Ehlers-Danlos. You’re a sick child and your mother is dead. He should be sorry for you. He is. He’s a good uncle, a good man, who gives pity where pity is due.
“Why do you ask?” he says, flipping the bacon to keep it from burning. “Is there a girl you like at school?”
“No. I don’t like girls.”
This statement is the best you can do. You don’t want to say you’re gay because that implies that you feel attraction of any kind, to anyone, and you don’t. You won’t. But if you did, you’d probably feel it for a boy.
Not for any particular reason, certainly not because of Ishigaki. Possibly because you are so utterly disgusted by the concept of love that you could only ever feel it for a being as repulsive as you. Possibly because you’re just gay and you don’t goddamn need to overanalyze it. But you can’t be gay because being gay requires desire, which, again, you do not have.
Your uncle is blinking confusedly at you as he pats the bacon dry of grease. He is wondering at the contortions of your lips as you work this bullshit out in your head.
“You don’t like girls? Dunno if that means you like boys or you’re just a late bloomer, but you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. Pass me the bonito flakes?”
You do, and he accepts them, nodding. Your snarl with irritation because your question isn’t getting answered, but you can’t bring yourself to actually ask it again.
After scratching the back of his balding head for a few minutes your uncle says, “how do you know you’re in love? That’s…a hard question. One that requires a lot of thought.”
“Does it? Aren’t you in love with Aunt Naoko? Why exactly would this question be difficult for a married man? Do you not love your wife anymore? What the hell is wrong with you? You disgust—”
You stop, slam your mouth closed with such force that it rattles your teeth. You’re not supposed to do this to your uncle. He isn’t your bike minion, he isn’t anyone you have to manipulate if you want to win. To beat your uncle, you need to make sure he isn’t afraid of you. Otherwise he’ll throw you out with the other garbage.
“Wow, Akira, that’s…harsh? Are you feeling okay, kiddo?” He laughs nervously, strokes the back of his neck. “Of course I love my wife. It’s just that we’ve been together so long, it’s hard to remember the moment when I knew I loved her. I’m not sure there was ever one specific moment. Love is more gradual. You start getting to know someone, you find stuff you have in common…” He grins, blush creeping across his face. He slops some oil into a newly heated pan.
“Can you love someone you have nothing in common with?” you ask, scratching the roots buried in the back of your knee.
“I’m sure that you’ve noticed that your aunt and I have our differences. For example, she’s the kind of person who sets a goal and achieves it. She doesn’t worry about what might go wrong, she just does the thing. I can’t make decisions without writing pro/con lists for days. It’s caused friction, sure, but I admire and need her decisiveness. She admires and needs my cautiousness.” Your uncle lets the cabbage patties slide into the sizzling oil.
You nod. You say you’re going to your room for a bit. You have homework.
“I thought you said you’d finished?”
“There’s something I forgot.”
You scuttle off to your bedroom, deep sea dive under your covers, and convulse with what would be sobs if you were capable of crying. You don’t even know what the hell you’re half-crying about. Maybe it’s that you’re beginning to realize why your heart thuds at the thought of Ishigaki. Maybe it’s that the thudding is painful.
You feel another bloom burst through your thigh and have to muffle a howl into your pillow. You don’t love Ishigaki. You can’t. If you do, this floral tumor parasite will strangle you from the inside. If you do, your only protection, your cruelty, will be gone.
And yet, when Ishigaki calls you during dinner, you tell your aunt and uncle that you have to take the call. They have no objections, in fact they seem almost happy.
“What do you want?” you snap. “Why are you calling me? Haven’t you ever heard of texting? What is this, the 1980’s?”
“I’m pretty sure people were still calling each other long after the 80’s, Midousuji-kun.” Ishigaki laughs, a high, bright sound that sets your teeth on edge. “I did try texting you, but you didn’t answer.”
“What is so important that it couldn’t wait until Monday?”
“We have to work on our project over the weekend, don't we? It’s due next week, so if we wait until Monday, we won’t have time.”
“We’ve already divided up our duties. You’re not helping me write, and I’m not helping you perform, so what else is there to talk about?”
“I want you to hear the cover I’m working on! Plus it’s easier for me to work when other people are around. If I’m on my own I get distracted. You’re always really focused and determined, so I think it’ll help me out if you’re around.”
“What, so now I’m stuck with babysitting duties? Take some Ritalin and do your fucking work.”
“I don’t have a Ritalin prescription! I was on Vyvanse for a little bit but it gave me panic attacks so I had to stop taking it. Not that I don’t still have panic attacks because I totally do, but…wow, that was off topic. Forget I said that. Anyway, can you come over tomorrow?”
“Come over? You’ve got to be kidding me.” You dig your fingernails into the bloody hellscape that used to be your knee. “Why would I waste my time helping a loser like you? All I have to do is get my own work done.”
“Technically, no, you’re responsible for all of it. If half the project is missing, so is half of your grade. I’m not saying I won’t do it if you won’t come over, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to manipulate you. Stay home if that’s what you want. But you are very much responsible for the work I do, and vice versa.”
“Why the hell would you want me over at your gross house anyway? If I were you, I’d want to stay as far away from me as possible. Like, am I nice to you? Am I in any way pleasant to be around?”
You hear Ishigaki’s throat clearing, as if he’s about to speak. “No,” you say. “I’m not. You’d be much happier if I got cancer and died a slow, painful death. Actually, you’d love that. I bet when you hit up the shrines last year that’s what you prayed for. I’m right, aren’t I?”
Ishigaki swallows. It’s so loud it sounds like a bomb going off, not something human. Time slows to a stagger. Finally, Ishigaki says, “I don’t know why you’d say something like that? I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. I’ll admit that sometimes talking to you can be kind of challenging, right now for example, but I do like you. And even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t wish that you had cancer. My mom had cancer, so I know how awful it is, and I wouldn’t wish that kind of suffering on anyone, no matter how I felt about them.”
This news hits you like a punch in the throat. Your face crumples, and you press your fists into your eyes to stave off crying. This is your something in common. This is your love. Your mothers had cancer. Your mother and his.
You find yourself saying, “I’m sorry that happened to your family.” You don’t know how you managed to choke out something kind, and you aren’t glad you did, but Ishigaki is.
“Thank you,” he says. You picture his hand over his heart, though this likely does not describe his body language in any way. “Really, that means a lot.”
“Whatever,” you scoff. You consider hanging up on him, then flushing your phone down the toilet to make sure that he can’t ever contact you again.
“So,” says Ishigaki. “Can you come over any time this weekend?”
You find yourself agreeing to go there Saturday at 2 PM. You are an idiot.
Ishigaki is waiting for you with a plate of homemade cookies.
“My mom helped me make them,” he says. “I’m still learning, so I’m not sure how they turned out, but hopefully my mom’s advice saved them from being inedible garbage.”
You don’t want to eat Ishigaki’s cookies, you want to eat his mother’s cookies, because his mother had cancer and so his mother is your mother and you want to eat your mother’s cookies even though your mother rarely baked. But also, you do want to eat Ishigaki’s cookies. Despite yourself, you like that he did something nice for you.
You inhale two cookies in one bite, then proclaim them disgusting. Ishigaki laughs, as if what you said was somehow funny and not the same stupid goddamn thing you always say.
“Your mom survived cancer?” you ask, sitting on the couch and wondering how you can take up both more and less space simultaneously.
“Oh, yeah. She had it before I was born. It was…uterine cancer, I think? She had to have her uterus removed. She was pretty sad about it.”
“Wait, what? Her uterus was removed, and then she had you? How does that make any sense? Are you sure you’re not mixing up your timeline?”
You hope that he is. You want him to have endured watching his mother suffer, like you did. You’d thought you had that in common. Your guts twist, you want shared pain, connection, this is severance and it hurts.
“Oh, no. My other mom is the one who actually gave birth to me. I definitely remember the timeline.”
Alright. Gay parents. That indicates, at least, that he wouldn’t be repulsed by the idea of a boy lusting after him. Disinterested maybe, but not enraged, not violent. You don’t care about this. You have nothing in common now that you know his life is not infused with suffering the way yours is. You don’t love him and you don’t want him to love you.
You grunt, shrug. Ask Ishigaki what he’s thinking about for the project while wolfing down another fistful of cookies.
“Well, you said your favorite song was November Spawned a Monster, right? Should we work with that one?”
Holy fucking shit of course not. You hadn’t thought it through when you suggested it, but you can’t handle those lyrics spilling from Ishigaki’s perfect mouth.
A hostage to kindness and the wheels underneath her.
You can walk, this is not you entirely, but you are a hostage to kindness because without kindness your aunt and your uncle would have thrown you out on the street when your mother died. No one had to take you in. They could have left you to die. You were ugly and crippled and grieving and strange. Without kindness you’d have no food, none of the medication you need to keep your Ehlers-Danlos joints from dislocating, your Grave’s thyroid from exploding, and now these flowers.
You can’t survive without kindness and for this you are shivering with shame. You hate this fucking song.
Sleep and dream of love, because it’s the closest you’ll have to love. Poor twisted child. So ugly, so ugly.
This is you. You are ugly ugly ugly and if Ishigaki sings these words you’ll know that he agrees.
And if the lights were out could you even bear to kiss her full on the mouth, or anywhere?
Of course not of course not of course not you are a monster and nobody can bear you. Flowers are fermenting in your gut and you feel sick.
“Not that song,” you say, shaking your head, swallowing the bile bubbling in the back of your throat. “Something else.”
“Okay, sure. How about Bigmouth Strikes again?”
Laughing while nauseous is difficult, but you pull it off. With lyrics like
Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking
When I said I'd like to smash every tooth in your head
I’ve got no right to take my place in the human race
the song suits every word you’ve ever said to Ishigaki. The only thing that’s different is you’d never call him sweetness, not even if your ankles and wrists were tied to horses that would run away and rip your limbs off if you didn’t. Like Morrissey, your emotions are cruel, small, and self-centered, but unlike him you aren’t beautiful about it.
Then again, what’s more beautiful that flowers laid out along your bones, waiting to burst from your flesh? Isn’t that some gorgeous Victorian bullshit? You read once that Victorians thought tuberculosis was sexy, despite the fact that it’s a bacterial lung infection that chews up your lungs like aphids chewing a leaf. You have leaves chewing you now, and supposedly it’s because you’re in love.
So when a handful of crushed wet flower pushes through the small of your back, making your eyes water with pain, ripping through blood and muscle and fat and skin, you wonder if Ishigaki would think it was beautiful past all that blood.
He doesn’t see it. Your shirt is black because you knew this might happen, so he doesn’t notice any blood. He’s used to you making weird faces and hissing, and so he doesn’t ask you if something’s wrong.
He says, “so how about a reggaetón version of Bigmouth Strikes Again?”
You tell him you don’t know much about the genre. This is not true. You say that you can’t imagine what such a mashup would sound like. This is true.
“Okay…well, if you’ve heard anything, you’ve probably heard Daddy Yankee. He did Gasolina—let me play it for you, I’m sure you’ve heard it someplace before.”
You have. While it’s not like the song is going to be playing in the local convenience store, you’re constantly on the Internet. You came across it randomly. You definitely did not look up reggaetón the first time Ishigaki mentioned it, and listen to the first twenty songs that you found. Gasolina is most certainly not on your workout playlist.
Ishigaki pulls out his phone and turns on the song. Once the chorus hits, Ishigaki starts jerking harshly from side to side, pointing at the invisible viewer for emphasis.. “A ella le gusta la gasolina!” he shouts.
Without thinking, you spout the backup line “dame mas gasolina!” while gyrating your nonexistent hips, arms thrust into the air.
When Ishigaki looks at you you’re expecting mockery, but he just grins and continues, “Ella prende las turbinas,no discrimina, no se pierde ni un party de marquesina, se acicala hasta pa la esquina! Luce tan bien que hasta la sombra le combina, asesina, me domina!” all while rhythmically loping side to side. At some point he puts on a white snapback that would look like Daddy Yankee’s if it didn’t have a Badtz Maru embroidered on the front.
“I don’t think I’m getting the dance right,” he says, laughing. “Plus the video is mostly like..dudes in riot gear running around” He sits on his bed, swings his hat to the side. “So yeah, that’s…an example of reggaetón. Want to go for it?”
“Again, I’m just writing the bio. But sure.” You shrug, sitting down next to him because knees are objecting big time to your impromptu dance. You edge away, the closeness makes your flora swell and shake. You choke out, “do you have all the instruments you’re going to need? And can you play them on your own?”
“Not exactly, no, but I have a guitar, and I can borrow a keyboard from the school. I can program the keyboard to simulate the drum stuff. It’s not gonna be perfect but it’ll be good enough.”
You nod. He starts talking about the arrangement he wants to do on the guitar and this time you really have no idea what he’s talking about, but you like listening to him speak. You like seeing his ability to be enthusiastic about something he can’t do perfectly.
This trait, applied to biking, makes you furious, but in this context it seems appropriately joyful.
You love him. He will never love you because he loves everything. He is light and he is kindness and you should be living on your own underground. He will love you because you exist, but not because you are you.
At first, you feel this in the tightness of your throat, the plugging of your nose, the pressure behind your eyes that isn’t thyroxine but tears.
But then, rapidly and alarmingly, you feel it in your chest. By now you recognize this feeling. It’s some noxious bloom, slamming against the inside of your ribs. As you feel them crack, your lips part against your will in a strangled shriek. Now Ishigaki notices a problem. He hops off his bed and hunches down so you’re looking down at him.
“Are you okay?” he asks, eyes wide with fear. He grabs your shoulders, then pulls back, realizing belatedly that it probably isn’t a great idea to touch someone who is hurt in a way he can’t identify.
Next the skin begins to split. There’s a sound like dry paper tearing, like wet paper becoming pulp in your hands. Then, the crunching of bones. You watch bug-eyed with horror as full-fledged thorny roses unfold from the gaping wounds in your chest. You see them unfolding in your too-thin shirt. Ishigaki sees it too.
“What is that?” he asks, pointing at the growth with a shaky finger. “Do you have a cat in your shirt or something?”
You try to answer but when you open your mouth you vomit bloody petals, thorns that scrape your tongue, and spitty, congealed pollen. Ishigaki backs up to avoid being hit, stands up straight and says he’s going to go get his mother. “She’ll be able to help. Just hang on, okay? You’ll be okay.”
You throw off your shirt because it no longer fits, and lay back on Ishigaki’s pillows, panting and dribbling blood onto his mint green sheets. You try rolling over to see if it’ll hurt less, but all you do is shake loose a cloud of yellow petals and yellow pollen. You sneeze, shaking your broken ribs and forcing another scream of pain.
Ishigaki’s mother appears. She is a chubby Puerto Rican woman with her wavy, graying hair pulled into a ponytail. You wonder if this is the one who had cancer. You hope it is. You want help from the one whose body betrayed her by seeding growths it wasn’t supposed to. “That’s…that’s confusing,” she says, hands on her hips as she surveys your destroyed body. “Flowers? Kotarou, do you know what’s going on here?”
“I don’t know, I just know he looks like he’s in pain. Should we call an ambulance or something?”
“Yes, probably. Do you have any idea how to get in touch with his parents?”
“No…Midousuji-kun, could you give me your phone? I can probably find your parents in there. Or you can call them, if you can talk.”
How fucking stupid it is that you’ve broken your ribs and lacerated your chest over someone who doesn’t even know that you don’t have parents. Your mother died of cancer and whoever your dad was left before you were born. You never told Ishigaki this. He doesn’t know the most basic things about you, or you about him, and yet you love him, you’re going to hospital over him?
Ishigaki’s mother calls an ambulance while Ishigaki calls your aunt. They speculate about what’s happening, theories ranging from you planted flowers in your chest like a fucking maniac, to these are some bizarre looking space tumors. Neither one of them mention flower sickness. Probably, they’ve never heard of it.
You don’t want an ambulance—money is tight at home, and you don’t want to spend another night laying awake listening to your aunt and uncle argue about how much you cost and why they had to take you in in the first place and why didn’t they just put you in foster care like everybody said they should?
You’re fine. It’s just a couple of broken ribs. You could bike like this, once you pop an ibuprofen and spend an hour or so with a heating pad. But you can’t speak without groaning, and the ambulance arrives before you pull yourself together.
Ishigaki asks to ride with you to the hospital. His mother agrees, and says that she’ll go too. You have no idea why the hell this is necessary. You can take care of your own shit. Who cares if you hurt so bad you can barely speak, who cares that your breaths are crackling and rustling with new blooms in your lungs?
Apparently, the paramedics do, because they load you into the ambulance without question. The movement jostles your limbs, dislocates something, but just now you’re struggling too much with breathing to care.
You hear Ishigaki’s mother talking to your aunt on the phone. You feel fuzzy and disconnected from your senses, so you're not sure what either of them say. You think that you hear fear in your aunt’s voice, maybe anger, but you could be wrong. You feel the ambulance stop and jolt through traffic, you feel Ishigaki’s hand closing over yours, but you see nothing, hear nothing, and soon you don’t feel anything at all.
When you wake up, you focus your aching, twitching eyes on the most gruesome goddamn thing you’ve ever seen.
On the table next to your hospital bed is a clear, glass vase. In that vase you see flowers. The bottoms of the stems are clipped clean. You can’t smell the blood because you’re still congested from the pollen hurricane, but you know it’s there. Those flowers aren’t a well-meaning yet useless get-well gift. Those flowers are plucked from your body. Roses, lavender, lilacs, and as the final fuck-you, a huge sunflower. You remember this one bursting out of your chest like your life is Alien and you’re John Hurt. Sunflowers. Perfect. Yellow is the color of your personal hell.
You have no expectation of dignity, so you’re not surprised by the presence of the flowers, but you’re not exactly happy about it either. You try to force yourself upright to get rid of them, but your progress is halted by the presence of a heavy bandage. You wince at the pain of movement, biting your tongue and hissing. After two more attempts, you give up and fall back onto the mound of white pillows behind you. All energy has left your body, and you’re in no mood to pretend you’re okay.
Some distant part of you had hoped to find Ishigaki at your bedside, but no one is there and you're not surprised. Ishigaki and his mother probably went home once they’d done their civic duty and made sure you didn’t die. Your aunt or your uncle probably showed up to take care of insurance stuff and then bailed. Despite the fact that you sat by your mother’s bed for hours while she slept off surgery, you don’t expect that kind of dedication directed toward you. Especially not from Ishigaki. This is reasonable and you’re not crying about it. Your eyes are just watering because of the pollen.
After forty minutes of breathing through pain, you get bored enough to jab the call button. You remember pressing it to summon a nurse when your mom coughed blood onto the sunflower-patterned scarf you’d bought her for her birthday. Not the same button, you aren’t in your mother’s old room, but the same set-up.
Minutes late you’re greeted by a woman whose wide, leering grin reminds you of Mizuta. You distrust her immediately. A clipboard is pressed against her lavender cardigan, and her messy brown hair is held back by a chipped, rhinestone coated hair clip. Shadowing her is a nurse dressed in hospital scrubs. Her hips are enormous and her eyes are too far apart. You don’t trust her, either.
“Hello there, Akira-kun,” says Lavender Cardigan. “How are you feeling?” While she’s asking you inane questions, the nurse is adjusting your IV and popping a thermometer into your mouth. You’re not sure how they expect you to answer the question. You want to headbutt Lavender Cardigan in the chest for calling you Akira without permission. You barely even let your aunt call you that.
Once the nurse has her numbers, your mouth is free. When you speak, you hack up a cloud of pollen. Lavender Sweater steps back, and the nurse offers you a cloth to wipe your mouth with.
“Akira-kun, I’m here to talk to you about your condition.” Lavender Sweater sits on the side of your bed. You scowl, twist your head to the side. You didn’t give her permission to touch your bed. She smiles harder, looks down at her clipboard. “Do you know what your official diagnosis is?” she asks.
“I’d have to be the world’s stupidest asshole not to know what I have,” you say with a snort. “Pretty sure there’s only one disease that makes you grow flowers out of your chest. Also, stop calling me Akira or I will jump out the fucking window.”
“Language!” she yelps, placing a hand to her heart in mock shock. “Anyway, what you say is true…but do you know what causes it?” Her leering grin turns simpering. Her downturned eyes crinkle with sympathy.
You bare your teeth, shrink back. Take a deep crackling breath and try to face the conversation like a human instead of a panicking dog. You say that, as far as you know, there isn’t a definitive cause.
“There actually is. While science hasn’t confirmed it completely, there’s a lot of evidence to support the idea that it’s caused by unrequited love.”
“So you’re telling me that I’m supposed to believe this? That because of some gross worthless hormone-induced feeling I allegedly have, I magically became some kind of plant monster?” You sigh, fling your head back, ignoring the pain that slams through your neck when you do. “Sure Doc, that makes perfect sense.”
“Oh, I’m not a doctor,” says Lavender Cardigan.
“Of course you’re not.”
“I’m actually a licensed therapist. My name is Kawabe Michiko, but you can call me Mimi.” She tries to make eye contact as she says this, so you shut your eyes.
“I’d rather call you Kawabe-san, if that’s alright with you.”
“Whatever makes you feel comfortable…should I call you Midousuji-kun?”
“That’s exactly what you should call me.” You cross your arms.
“Okay Midousuji-kun. If you don't mind, I’d like to talk to you about the cause of your condition. Who are you feeling unrequited love for?”
“How the hell is that any of your business?” You look up at the nurse, who nodding vaguely in agreement, but she doesn’t do anything to help you. “I’m sure you can help me without me having to tell you who it is. You wouldn’t even know who they are anyway, unless you spend a lot of time lurking around Kyoto Fushimi. You probably do, you’ve got a real creepy vibe to you.” You stop talking, hack up a lump of congealed pollen. Thankfully, this time you catch it in the cloth the nurse gave you.
“I don’t need personal information about them, I just need you to acknowledge who they are, so we can take steps to move forward.”
“We’re not doing anything. It’s me who has to ‘move forward’, not you. Assuming of course I’m actually in love or whatever, which I’m not.”
“Things will progress a lot more smoothly if you can be honest about your feelings, Midousuji-kun.”
Kawabe-san’s grin is so obnoxious that looking at it makes your stomach lurch. Her teeth are stained with frosted lipstick, and there’s a popcorn hull stuck in her gums.
“Alright. You need to brush your goddamn teeth. How’s that for honest feelings?”
“You know that isn't what I mean, Midosuji-kun.”
“What do I have to say to get you to leave me alone?”
“For now, you simply need to acknowledge that you’re in love with someone. You don’t have to tell me who they are, or anything else that you don’t want to tell me, but you have to admit that this is how you feel.” She pats your hand, and you snatch it away from her. She continues her ridiculous wailing. “Otherwise,” she says, “there’s no hope of healing your condition.”
“Well, then, I guess I’m just going to have to die of flowers exploding out of my asshole, because I’m not in love with anyone.” You shrug, shaking loose a few sunflower petals from behind your ears.
“I wish you could be more in touch with your emotions,” she says, shoulders slumped in an exaggerated sigh. “It would help you so much.”
Finally, the nurse steps in and says the first reasonable thing anyone other than you has said so far.
“You know, he did just wake up from major surgery. I think it’s maybe a bit unreasonable to expect a teenage boy to suddenly get in touch with his emotions in that state. He’s got enough painkillers in his system that I’m surprised he’s forming sentences.” She jerks a thumb toward your IV pole. “How about we let him get some sleep, and you can pick back up on your emotional interrogation later?”
“I’d hardly call it an interrogation.” She blows a loose strand of hair away from her face. “I don’t think that’s really fair…but alright, you’re the nurse. Midousuji-kun, we’ll revisit this once you’ve had some rest.”
“Eat my entire ass,” you say. The nurse throws back her oversized head and laughs.
You try opening your eyes, but they’re gummed up with what feels like tree sap. You have to scrape off the gunk and physically pry your eyes open. Once you finally do, it takes a while to force your vision into focus.
Your focus lands on Ishigaki, who is sitting in a grey plastic chair near your bedside. His hair is, for once, not gelled into submission. He’s wearing a color block t-shirt with an ice cream cone on it. The rings under his eyes are crow-dark, and though he is smiling, it looks forced. He looks like he’s been up all night worrying. About you? Was he worrying about you?
“Oh, good, you’re awake.” Now the smile looks genuine. You almost smile back, but you restrain yourself. You know your smile is terrifying. You don’t want your genuine attempt at connection met with fear.
“Yeah..how long have I been asleep for?”
“I don’t know if you woke up while I was gone, but you got to the hospital three days ago. How are you feeling?”
You say this because it’s what your mother always said post-surgery. She was fine, even though they’d just removed a former kidney that was now mostly cancer. She’d have to be on dialysis for the rest of her life, but she was fine. She’d been sliced open, literally, but she was fine. For you, she was fine. You don’t know if she wanted to protect you, or if she, like you, simply couldn’t admit to weakness.
“I kind of doubt that,” says Ishigaki. “That was a really involved surgery. I think it took almost a whole day for them to get everything out. I can’t imagine you’re not exhausted.”
“Well, yeah, of course. Obviously. I had a lot of shit wrong with me before this though, so it’s not a big deal.”
“I don’t know what you had going on before this, but this is major, Midousuji-kun. You could have died.”
“People die all the time. An air conditioner could have fallen on you on your way here. You could have gotten hit by a car. I don’t know what your point is.”
Ishigaki laughs. Picks up your hand, which is tinged green from…what? Chlorophyll? You almost snatch your hand back, and then you don’t.
“They’re saying you’re going to need chemotherapy. Basically, they’re treating the flowers like tumors…which seems strange to me, because they’re actually beautiful. Not like tumors at all. I asked the doctors to save them. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Oh, so that grotesque mockery of my pain is your fault, then.”
“I…I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you’d see it that way. I just thought they were beautiful.” Ishigaki scratches the back of his neck. “Flower Sickness is romantic. I’m not saying it’s good, but there’s something lovely about suffering for love, isn’t there?”
“Of course there fucking isn’t,” you spit.
You hate that he said this, and you also love it. Your mother used to say that about giving birth to you. It hurt like hell, but wasn’t there something wonderful about sacrificing your body to meet the love of your life, your child? You’d had no idea what she was talking about, just said you wished she hadn’t been in pain.
And you? You’ve always secretly cherished your pain. Biking hurt you badly—your knees would dislocate themselves because your joints are incompetent bastards, and your muscles would get torn to shreds from overuse. You paid for victories with agony, and you were proud to do that.
But love, romantic love? For someone who sees beauty in your nearly dying for his sake? Fuck that.
You’re about to tell him to get out of your room, but before you can speak his head is down, and he’s spitting out an apology.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” he tells you. “I was just trying to put a positive spin on the whole ordeal, but I really shouldn’t have. And I shouldn’t have put the flowers in your room without asking how you felt about it. That was weird. It just…it made me happy to think about you being in love. You’re so closed off emotionally, so alone all the time, and it’s sad.”
“Cool, so you pity me!” You laugh, dislodging another clump of pollen. “That is not gross at all and I feel totally respected by you right now. Thank you so much.”
“No, not pity. I don’t pity you. Actually, I admire you a lot. If not for you, we’d never have made it as far as we did during the Interhigh. None of us knew how to push ourselves to do our best, before you. Seriously, you changed my life.”
“Your life seems pretty much the same to me.”
“It’s totally changed! My grades went up. I’m biking every day now when I used to do it like three times a week. Also, I’m really getting into music, more than just what I need for class. I’ve been writing my own songs, and honestly, I’m killing it on the guitar. I’m not bragging, just telling you the truth.”
“Okay, great. What does any of that have to do with me? I didn’t tell you to do any of that. I didn’t care what you did as long as as you stopped being lazy long enough to let me win the Interhigh.”
“See, before you, I was okay with being mediocre. I just wanted to hang out with my friends and have fun. Because of your influence, I actually care about putting effort into things and succeeding.”
“Okay, so I terrified you into being a joyless drone with no friends like me. What a great influence I’ve been.”
“I have friends. That’s part of my point. This…this flower sickness…you could have easily avoided it, if you could have just allowed yourself a little more human connection.”
You groan, grinding your aching head back into your throne of pillows. “You think that’s easy? You know human connection is a two-way street, right? Have you seen me? Have you spoken to me? Have you experienced me in any way whatsoever? What kind of human connection could a freak like me possibly make?”
“You’ve made one with me.” Ishigaki takes your hand, rubs the lines on your palm with his sweaty thumb. You shrink back, reflexively call him gross. He tells you he’s serious. “Really. I’ve seen you. I’ve spoken to you. I’ve experienced you in several ways, and I want more. Honestly, I…” He shakes his head. “No, I can’t get in the way.”
“Of what?” you ask, scraping pollen out of your collar bone. “Right now I’m either going to learn to shoot vines out of my hands like a knock-off superhero, or I’m going to die. There’s nothing to get in the way of.”
“You’re in love with someone, right? You don’t have to settle for dying. You could actually ask them out and see what they say. If you tell me who it is, I might even be able to help you.”
You roll your eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You really don’t know?”
“Is it Mizuta?” Ishigaki’s face looks utterly serious. You burst out laughing, which makes your surgical wounds scream in protest. Your eyes cross with pain, and you end up gasping for breath instead of cackling. Ishigaki reaches over and rubs your back until you get your air back. You have no idea how he ever worked up the nerve to touch you without knowing if you’d like it, or if you’d bite.
“N-no,” you wheeze. “It’s not Mizuta. Who says I’m in love with anyone? You do know that there’s no proof that that’s the cause, right? A lot of doctors think it’s a parasite. Not that that’s entirely dissimilar from love, of course.”
“Maybe it isn’t caused by love. I don’t know, Midousuji-kun, I’m not a doctor. But if you are in love, it doesn’t hurt to do something about it, right? Even if it’s a parasite, and you’re going to die no matter what, don’t you want to make what’s left of your life more enjoyable?”
“Not unless you’re in love with him!”
“Are you in love with Mizuta?”
“No! I just thought it might be him since he’s the person on our team that you talk to most besides…”
“Besides me.” Ishigaki crosses his arms, and purses his lips. After a long pause he finally asks, “is it me?”
“Of course it’s you!” Shouting this triggers a coughing fit, which hurts your lungs. Mucus-sticky petals attach to your chin, so you wipe them off with the cloth the nurse gave you earlier. “God, you really are stupid.”
The instant the words leave your mouth you start looking for a way to take it back. Before you can figure out how, Ishigaki stuffs the words back in with his lips. He’s pressing his lips to yours, wrapping his arms around your shoulders and moving carelessly enough to risk dislodging your IVs. You kiss back, praying you won’t puke flower viscera into his trusting mouth. Then you elbow him off of you.
“You’re just doing this because you think if you don’t I’ll die. It isn’t real.”
“That’s not true,” he says, wiping his lips on the back of his wrist. “Why would I do that? It wouldn’t help you—doesn’t the other person have to love you back for real?”
“I doubt it. This isn’t magic, Ishigaki-kun. It’s not a fairy tale. It’s my body’s response to…probably a parasite, but if it is love, it’s my body responding to me feeling unloved. If you somehow tricked me into thinking it were real, do you think my cells are going to know the difference?”
“So, conversely, if it’s real but you don’t believe me, you won’t get any better?” Ishigaki sighs. “I guess I’m going to have to think harder about how to convince you that I’m serious. I love you, Midousuji-kun. I really do.”
“We’ve spent what…2-3 hours together outside of music class and the bike team? You don’t love me. You don’t know me.”
“If that’s the criteria, then you don’t love me either. You’ve spent exactly as much time with me as I’ve spent with you. You don’t know me! I have a cousin named Epiphanio who lives in Los Angeles and self-identifies as a brony, did you know that? The first time I played Pokemon, I accidentally used my Master Ball on a Raticate and I cried.” He puts his hands on his thighs, and leans forward.
“And I’m intersex!” he shouts. “Did you know that? I’m intersex and I can probably get pregnant and it’s a huge, huge part my life and personal history, but you didn’t know that because we don’t know each other well enough. Yet. But you love me so much it nearly killed you. So why can’t I love you, too?”
You don’t know what to say. On the one hand, his outburst underscores just how ridiculous your feelings are. He’s right—you know very little about him and therefore you have no basis for loving him. But you do. You do. You love him and it hurts worse than anything you’ve ever felt before.
Ishigaki wraps his arms around your shoulders again, this time taking greater care to avoid the IVs. He kisses you, left hand cupping your cheek. Tilting your neck to meet him hurts, but you kiss him back.
You picture vines shooting out of your arms and binding him to you, but nothing like that happens. Instead you just cling to him with your arms. You kiss each other in tiny spurts for several reasons—you can’t believe he’s willing to kiss you, you’re too exhausted and in too much pain for anything intense, you’ve never kissed anyone before and don’t know how, and finally, your plant monster status is still stopping you from breathing through your nose.
And so it isn’t a soul-melting lovefest. You bump noses and his teeth gets caught on your lower lip. You don’t know what you’re supposed to be feeling, or if what you do feel is enough to lift your flower sickness. You do know that you want to keep kissing him, that your chest feels warm and his hands are warm, that this is good.
“Are you cured?” asks Ishigaki, eyes shining like they’re being lit up by the moon. It’s hospital halogen, but you find it beautiful nonetheless.
“I don’t know,” you say. You don’t feel flowers stirring in your lungs, but you know better than to believe in the better outcome.
“Okay,” says Ishigaki, face pressed into the curve of your neck. “I hope it worked. Even if it didn’t, I still love you.”
You shut your eyes, tilt your head so your ear is pressed against his temple. Your mouth says, “that’s gross” but your mind and heart are saying “I love you too” and you’re pretty sure that Ishigaki hears the true translation.
You are not cured. Not exactly. This isn’t a fairytale.
You do not magically regain your strength the instant you accept that Ishigaki loves you. Your broken ribs and your surgical wounds are unaffected by your feelings. The pollen trapped in your sinuses will take months to flush away. You basically have plant cancer and you have to go through chemo and radiation treatment. Ishigaki thinks this is overkill, but you don’t. Anecdotal evidence isn’t enough to prove that Flower Sickness is actually caused by unrequited love, and you’re not about to forgo treatment for some pseudoscientific bullshit. You already know that love can’t cure disease. If it could, your mother would have survived.
So you get your treatment. You lose your hair and you vomit furiously and you lose twenty pounds you can’t afford. You take the rest of the school year off, get pneumonia twice thanks to your chemo-trashed immune system. You suffer, you scream, you cry, you feel closer to your mother. Your aunt won’t look at you because this is, sort of, what it looked like when she lost her sister. Sometimes you let Ishigaki help you, other times you tell him to fuck off. He lugs his guitar and the keyboard from school to your bedside, and he plays that reggaetón version of Big Mouth Strikes Again. He also plays a salsa version of Girlfriend in a Coma too, and you like it because you like the darker humor of this Ishigaki. He is sweetness and he is light, but he’s also someone who would play a song about wanting to kill one’s comatose girlfriend to you as you lay helpless in your hospital bed.
You stop producing plant matter. You gain the weight back, and grow back your hair. You cut it into a mohawk. Ishigaki gets a mohawk, too. You’re on five different medications, on a schedule, careful about interactions with caffeine. You avoid triggering new growths by staying out of the sun. Lavender Cardigan says that your treatment plan should include regular make-out sessions with Ishigaki. You call her an idiot but you do make out with him, a lot. She tells you to be more open with your feelings, and you don’t tell her that you will, but you do try, just a little, with Ishigaki.
You are not cured. Flower Sickness is a chronic illness. You could relapse, easily. But you’re not sprouting flowers anymore, except in the window boxes you and Ishigaki buy together to grow in his bedroom. You hope your new relationship lasts. If it doesn’t, you’d like to think that you’d fall in love again and tell the person before you explode in floral fanfare. You also have the option of never falling in love again, and that is a comfort in its own way.
But, you think, things will probably work out with Ishigaki. Long enough, at least, for your body to forget how to generate plant cells.