She swam with swift, confident strokes through a murky green sea. It drifted on the water. A white plastic bag, a piece of human garbage tossed into the ocean. She plunged her hand into the wave.
It grabbed hold of her arm. It did not hurt, sting or burn. But the sheer physicality of it surprised her, as though the sea itself was shaking her hand in ecstatic, violent greeting.
She kicked back to shore.
“Jellyfish,” she said to her father between gulps of air. “A jellyfish stung me.”
She described the suspect: White and cloudy, big as a basketball, floating on top of a wave.
They turned to look at the water. What did they expect to see? What punishment could they possible mete out?
“We could eat it,” her brother said.
Eat it? The ghostly tentacles would wriggle in her stomach.
“You might need to pee on this.” Her father inspected the red pinpricks forming on her arm.
“I’ll do it!” Her brother’s hand shot up in the air and her stomach curdled. What would it take to pee up her own arm?
“Vinegar,” her father said. His face was placid as he turned her arm left and right. “Go get that squeezee bottle from the fish and chips,” he said to her brother.
The boy sprinted back, kicking up tiny bullets of sand that studded their backs.
A man in shorts ambled over.
“The white ones?” He shrugged. “Common as fleas here. She’ll be fine.”
This bored dismissal from a complete stranger diminished her. This could be an emergency, a freak accident requiring a dramatic helicopter rescue!
Her brother jogged back with a maroon bottle in hand. Her father dribbled a bit of the liquid on her wrist. It did not feel better or worse.
“Ah, what the hell,” he said and squirted half the bottle on her arm.
In a few hours, the red tracks bubbled into white-capped blisters. The itching was unbearable, burning through layers of skin. She was not vomiting, though. Her breathing was clear and calm. No fever and her heartbeat was stubbornly steady.
There would be no helicopter rush to the hospital. Just a grisly fascination with the volcanic pustules erupting from her skin.
“Toxins rising to the surface,“ her brother said from the back of the car like a meteorologist tracking a dangerous storm. “Presenting cloudy white. Alien-like ectoplasm.”
“Shut. Up.” she said.
“Subject appears increasingly agitated.”
“I said: Shut up!”
“Keep it down,” their father said from the driver’s seat. “Or you’re both out.”
They were quiet for a time, staring out the windows. Her skin throbbed with the need to be scratched. She sat on her hands to keep from flying into a nail-tearing frenzy.
“You’re leaking,” her brother said, after a while.
She looked down. One of the blisters had popped, oozing a clear yellow liquid.
“Would you look at that,” their dad said once they were home.
She had her arm extended under the glare of the desk lamp. Her brother gripped a magnifying glass and peered at the watering blisters.
“Jellyfish are immortal,” their father said, flipping through a photo book of marine life. “Some of them, anyway. They re-aggregate their cells, aging backwards into polyps. Baby jellies. Then they grow back into a near exact copy of the adult jellyfish.”
“So gross,” her brother said, prodding at one of her tiny boils with a fresh cotton swab. “So cool.”
‘Re-aggregate’ was a new word to her and she struggled to grasp the meaning.
“Cellular transdifferentiation.” Their dad flipped the book around. “Isn’t nature amazing?”
A majestic purple Man’o’War sprawled across the page, its tentacles trailing in the black water.
How old was it? A hundred years? A thousand? A million? Were jellyfish cells now swimming in her bloodstream? Would they ‘re-aggregate’ her body into something different, strange and novel?
She had punched it in the gut, right in its ocean home. What arrogance to mistake this incredible creature for a flimsy plastic bag! Changing her cell structure seemed a permissible punishment.
“Vinegar,” her father said. “Can neutralize the venom.”
“So, I’m not going to die?” She asked.
“Not today, hun.”
Now, the red weals on her left arm itch and burn like a thousand fire ants marching under her skin.
“Ringworm?” Her husband asks. She shakes her head. “Allergies? Never had anything like this?”
“No.” She runs the tap over her arm. “It’s a weird symptom. But it’s the virus. I know it.”
“Then go see a doctor already.”
She gives no reply, just lets the cool water give her some relief.
It takes her two weeks to make the call, after several nights of sifting through symptoms online: Evaporating taste and smell. Frostbitten toes. Skyrocketing fever. Oxygen-starved lungs.
The doctor wears a white hazmat suit quartered by impermeable blue seams. With a practiced twist, he turns her arm left then right to inspect the spreading colony of welts.
“Fever?” he asks.
She shakes her head.
She doesn’t know how to articulate the unshakeable feeling that baby jellies are waking up inside her. Decades-old polyps nosing for a foothold to re-aggregate her cells and claim her at last.
“Hives,” The doctor concludes. He scribbles down a prescription while a tall nurse with a heavy hand steps in and sinks a shot of steroids into her backside.
“Don’t I need to take the test?” She says, “For the virus?”
“Why?” The doctor says. “No fever. No shortness of breath.”
“Then I’m fine? I’m in the clear?”
“Take the medicine,” he says with a wave of his hand. ”Come back if it gets worse.”
How does she explain the rippling laughter of ghostly white arms swimming inside her?
When she gets home, her husband watches as she swabs a tissue soaked in alcohol over her phone.
“So, in your expert medical opinion,” he finally says. “Are we going to die?”
“Yes,” she says. “But not today.”