By then, the very thought of getting out of bed makes me feel dizzy. I set my phone aside and close my eyes, letting sleep rush up to swallow me like a well reaching up, up, up around me as I drop through it.
It’s not a peaceful sleep, but a cold, glitching kind, where dreams and sentences start over, again and again, interrupting themselves before they can get off the ground. I toss in bed, waking long enough to register how cold I am, how uncomfortable both the bed and my body have become, only to tumble back into restless dreams.
I dream about a giant black cat with hungry eyes. It chases me in circles until it’s too hard to breathe, too hard to keep going, and then it pounces, jolting me awake for a few fitful seconds, only to start again the moment I shut my eyes.
I should go to the doctor, I think on occasion, but I’m sure I’m unable to sit up.
I don’t eat. I don’t drink. I don’t even get up to pee.
The day spins past until I open my eyes to the yellowy-gold light of sunset glaring off my bedroom window, and when I blink, it’s changed to a deep periwinkle, and there’s a pounding in my head so real it makes a thumping sound that sends shock waves through my body.
I roll over, pull a pillow over my face, but that doesn’t stop it.
It’s getting louder. It starts to sound like my name, the way that sounds sometimes transform into music when you’re so tired you’re half dreaming.
Poppy! Poppy! Poppy, are you home?
My phone clatters on the bedside table, vibrating. I ignore it, let it ring out. It starts again, and after that, a third time, so I roll over and try to read the screen despite the way the world seems to be melting, like a swirl of duo-toned ice creams twirling around each other.
There are dozens of messages from ALEXANDER THE GREATEST, but the last one reads, I’m here! Let me in!
The words have no meaning. I’m too confused to build a context for them, too cold to care. He’s calling me again, but I’m not sure I can speak. My throat feels too tight.
The pounding starts again, the voice calling my name, and the fog lifts just enough for all the pieces to snap together into perfect clarity.
“Alex,” I mumble.
“Poppy! Are you in there?” he’s shouting on the other side of the door.
I’m dreaming again, which is the only reason I think I can make it to the door. I’m dreaming again, which means that probably, when I do get to the door and pull it open, that huge black cat will be there waiting, Sarah Torval riding it like a horse.
But maybe not. Maybe it will just be Alex, and I can pull him inside and—
“Poppy, please let me know you’re okay!” he says on the other side of the door, and I slide off the bed, taking the linen-covered duvet with me. I sweep it around my shoulders and drag myself to the door on legs that feel weak and watery.
I fumble over the lock, finally get it switched, and the door swings open as if by magic, because that’s how dreams work.
Only when I see him standing on the other side of the door, hand still resting on its knob, beat-up suitcase behind him, I’m not so sure it’s a dream anymore.
“Oh, god, Poppy,” he says, stepping in and examining me, the cool back of his hand pressing to my clammy forehead. “You’re burning up.”
“You’re in Norway,” I manage in a raspy whisper.
“I’m definitely not.” He drags his bag inside and closes the door. “When was the last time you took ibuprofen?”
I shake my head.
“Nothing?” he says. “Shit, Poppy, you were supposed to go to the doctor.”
“I didn’t know how to.” It sounds so pathetic. I’m twenty-six years old with a full-time job and health insurance, and an apartment and student loan bills, and I live alone in New York City, but there are just some things you don’t want to have to do on your own.
“It’s okay,” Alex says, pulling me gently into him. “Let’s get you back in bed and see if we can get rid of the fever.”
“I have to pee,” I say tearfully, then admit, “I may have already peed myself.”
“Okay,” he says. “Go pee. I’ll find you some clean clothes.”
“Should I shower?” I ask, because apparently I’m helpless. I need someone to tell me exactly what to do like my mom used to do when I stayed home from middle school watching Cartoon Network all day long, doing nothing for myself until she told me to.
“I’m not sure,” he says. “I’ll Google it. For now just pee.”
It takes way too much effort to get into the bathroom. I drop the blankets just outside it and pee with the door open, shivering the whole time but comforted by the sound of Alex moving around in my apartment. Quietly opening drawers. Clicking on the gas stove top, moving the teakettle onto it.
He comes to check on me when he’s finished with whatever he’s doing, and I’m still sitting on the toilet with my sleep shorts around my ankles.
“I think you’re okay to shower if you want to,” he says, and starts the water up. “Maybe don’t wash your hair. I don’t know if that’s a real thing, but Grandma Betty swears that wet hair makes you sick. Are you sure you won’t fall down or anything?”
“If it’s fast I’ll be okay,” I say, suddenly aware of how sticky I feel. I am almost positive I wet myself. Later this will probably be humiliating, but right now I don’t think anything could embarrass me. I’m just so relieved to have him here.
He looks uncertain for a second. “Just go ahead and get in. I’ll stay close by, and if you feel like it’s getting to be too much, just tell me, okay?” He turns away from me while I force myself onto my feet and strip out of my pajamas. I climb into the hot water and pull the curtain closed, shuddering as the water hits me.