It was a Wednesday when Julia started to flower, her petals profuse and vibrant as a dahlia. Robert would be briefly disappointed. He had been hoping she might sprout something edible, but the rest of them, at last, would be pleased for her.
Robert, a haughty economics post-grad, his tall, bony frame seemingly strung with wire, had made himself leader of the clique of finance students that had taken over the upper floor, where the bedrooms were spacious with access to the balcony and the showers, during the second week of the lockdown.
Julia had been oblivious to the house politics. Sharing the single ensuite bathroom with six other roommates, sleeping in a narrow bunk bed inches from the popcorn ceiling, had been inconvenient, but she had accepted it as a necessary privation due to the lockdown.
It was the eviction of Marcus, throwing him out into the world they were supposed to be closed off from, that brought the clique and its arbitrary dominion to her attention. The reason for the eviction had been ludicrous, even cruel.
Yelling in the foyer had drawn everyone’s attention. Julia walked all the way from the kitchen in time to see the burlier clique members, Adrian and Thomas, pushing a resisting Marcus through the door, even kicking him until he dropped through the doorway and rolled onto the path. Robert threw two black garbage bags containing his worldly possession after him.
“Why are you doing this? What did he do?” asked Emma, a purple-clad history major.
“Appendicitis,” said Adrian. “The whole time it’s been appendicitis.”
Robert pushed him away, towards the stairs.
“That man,” he said, “was a liar, and is better off in hospital.”
“I wouldn’t want to be in a hospital right now,” said Hugo, another history major. He dressed like a 19th century Austrian about to head into the Alps, in leather and greens and a little hat.
In bed that night, Julia couldn’t help worrying about Marcus. He had been nice, for an engineering student. At least to her. He had complained at breakfast a few days before about a pain in his side. It’s not like appendicitis is contagious. Her side gave a psychosomatic twinge. She thought it was sympathy, or paranoid hypochondria, but in the morning the pain was still there.
It didn’t stop her from doing anything, but whenever her arm brushed her side it was so tender she almost gasped, but kept her response to a low cough, almost a grunt of disbelief.
When she could get into the ensuite and lift her shirt in front of the mirror, there on the right was a patch of deep red skin between her last rib and her hip bone. It was about three inches across and though too sensitive to touch, radiated heat that she could feel. The idea of a hospital during the pandemic frightened her. She didn’t have health insurance. She didn’t have anywhere else to go. Instead of thinking about her eviction she had a cool shower. It helped, for the few minutes she had under the water, head back, drinking all that fell into her open mouth. Was thirst a symptom of appendicitis? Was appendicitis a symptom of diabetes? The comfort was cut short by Emma pounding on the door.
The thirst grew and the pain worsened. No pills she had or could cadge from her roommates helped. Watching tv distracted her. During a group binge of Tiger King the pain increased to the point where she was biting the side of her hand and on the verge of calling an ambulance on her phone. Her thumb was moving from the nine to the first one when, like a bubble bursting, the pain dropped away to an ache. She could touch her side. Where the skin had been red, under its surface, she could feel a firmness, rounded, the size of a lima bean. Oh great, she thought. Cancer.
If it was cancer, it was very aggressive. Within two days the lump was the size of a plum. She couldn’t keep from touching it, as if she wanted to feel it change size. That incessant touching, her hand up under the edge of her shirt, drew Robert’s attention and gained her entry into the clique.
She was in the kitchen stirring a chickpea stew, the best she could do with what was left in the cupboards until the next delivery, the fingers of her right hand running back and forth over the lump, not paying attention to anything, unaware of Robert standing in the doorway until he spoke.
“Is there something wrong with your side?” he said in his resonant voice that rattled inside your head. It made her jump, guilty, and whip her hand out from her shirt.
“No, it’s fine,” she said.
He glided up behind her and grabbed her hips. It was so shocking, so surprising to be touched like that, she froze, long enough for him to slide his hand up her shirt, his fingers gliding softly along the skin of her waist, over the lump, around its edge. He stepped away as she recovered her senses and tried to elbow him, but he was out of range.
“Bring your stuff upstairs after you eat,” he said. “There’s an empty room you can have.”
That is how Julia joined the clique. Her new, private room was nice, though she only slept in it, spending most of her time showering or on the balcony with the others. She was aware a new girl moved in, another corona virus refugee, and took her vacant bunk, but she never learned her name.
It was like living in a health spa. It was quiet. No-one spoke much. They spent their time showering or lounging on the balcony. The weather didn’t matter. The rain, still cold, was as welcome as the sun. On her third day without eating, without the urge to eat, Julia remembered that she had been concerned about cancer.
“It’s not cancer,” said Robert from his deck chair.
She turned and pulled up her shirt. The lump was now the diameter of a grapefruit at its widest, and it tapered to a rounded point that stuck out at an angle from her side.
“Then what is this?” she asked.
“A bud,” he said.
“A bud? Like a flower bud?”
He pulled up his shirt and sticking from his side was a lump like hers, but longer, narrower.
“Is it the corona virus?” she asked.
“Maybe? Maybe it’s another virus. Maybe it’s something else.”
“Maybe it’s a blessing,” said Elise, blonde and one of the finance undergrads. “Isn’t the sun just wonderful?”
Elise was the first to bloom, just two days after that short conversation. They were all on the balcony, in the sun, when she gave a short cry and sat up, pulling her shirt off to reveal yellow petals the size of a hand opening and unfurling, long orange stamens unrolling, the delicate perfume it exuded wafting over the group.
Over the next 24 hours everyone else bloomed, except Julia. Robert’s flower was deep blue, like cornflowers, his petals numerous and narrow as knife blades. Each flower was different, unique as the body it hung from. The guys took to going shirtless, the girls switched to sports bras or crop tops. Everyone rose with the sun, pushed out of bed by their opening buds, and their energy would fade towards sunset as their flowers closed.
Julia did not own active wear, so when at last she blossomed, her petals deep purple striped with white, she had to trim a t-shirt to wear. The calmness she had been feeling since joining the clique deepened into a timelessness. The days, driven by the sun, were languid. She liked to think it was the sweet scent of her flower that attracted the bees. None had visited the balcony until she had stretched out on a chair, her blossom in the sun. They tickled. Everyone looked forward to their visits.
It was on a sunny afternoon, everyone out on their chairs, the humming of bees moving from person to person, that Robert spoke up.
“You know,” he said, “we should share this with the poor souls downstairs.”
Everyone murmured assent. Julia felt like she was glowing with happiness.
“We should share it with the world,” she said.