The Cactus Blossom Thieves
I. The Excavation
Simone surveyed what remained of the stranger’s garden, panting. Beneath the dim streetlight, aloe plants fanned out in varying states of rot. Wilted sunflowers towered over wild golden calla lilies, puddles of red lantana spilled into squared beds of verbena and pink-spotted begonia. Packs of dutiful mites scurried along the surface purples—all colors muted by the dead of night. Simone kicked loose soil over the divot and dashed to the meeting corner, the flickering streetlight. No sign of Tom.
Damp earth and drying sweat followed her like heavy guilt. She peered left, right. Nothing. The four pads of Prickly Pear cactus unspooled from her bare hands, dangling from the knobby root. Its microscopic spines ravaged her fingers’ webs.
Suddenly, Simone heard the Durango cough around the bend. Tom stopped in front of her, reached across the center console and opened the passenger-side door, stifling his own cough. The cab reeked of mildew, stale tobacco, dormant chemicals. As Simone stepped in, she steadied her breath. Discarded the fury and blame before speaking.
“Here.” She handed Tom the cactus bulk. “Duct tape?”
Tom leaned back, balancing the cactus root in one hand, spines ready to impale his wrist, and rummaging through the backseat with the other.
“Stop,” Simone said. “I’ll find it.”
Tom came up with the silver roll.
Simone affixed two strips to her skin and ripped out the spines.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” Tom asked.
The dry air stood still. The Durango idled.
“Should’ve worn your gloves,” he insisted in his weak timbre.
“Just hold that for a second, okay? Let’s go.” Simone muttered.
“Do you want me to hold this, or go?”
“Fuck, Tom, go.”
The Durango shuddered once, then accelerated down the suburban street and around a dark corner. Between Simone’s legs a half-empty Clorox jug and a sealed 5-gallon white drum rattled with the road. She wrenched it open. Her nostrils, eyes and skin burned in a flash hypnosis inside a fog of noxious vapor and herbs. She took the cactus from Tom’s hand, a knife from her pocket.
In four quick hacks, Simone separated the four connected pads and laid three atop the center console. A million years, a million years of evolution and you only offer six more months, she thought. Then, from the top of each pad, she plucked the blossoms—satin red petals, electric yellow pollen, sprays of mellow orange, a stray beetle—and floated them into the drum, buoyant as lily pads upon the cloudy chemical surface. One by one, Simone then pressed the long spines between her thumb and the broad side of the blade, snapping upward, clearing the rind enough to shave it away. Wet pink fruit gleamed in the passing streetlights. Simone licked the blade—warm melon, white pepper. Finally, she tore the fruit with her bare hands and dropped the pieces into the drum. The blossoms sank.
Simone slipped her shirt through the crack of her window. The snapped spines sprinkled into the gutter. As they drove through the outskirts of this strange city, new money’s appalling primary hues passed in overwhelming sameness. Tin roofs and sod lawns buried long-forgotten land like dead dogs and power lines. With every jasmine-lined fence, Simone remembered that she wasn’t supposed to be here. Wasn’t supposed to access this part of the city. This neighborhood had been erected far from downtown specifically to keep her away. She wanted to drop her ragged shirt out of the window. Out of spite. To remind the sheltered residents that a far more malicious, desolate world was closer than they thought. But it was her last shirt and Simone could sense Tom’s concern, so she pulled it back inside. After all, if this was going to work, she needed to fortify Tom’s trust in her, not break it.
II. The Tenderloin
“Well, will it work?” Tom asked, alarmed.
“I don’t know. Only promise was a long drive.”
“The fuck, Simone?”
It was late and they were both tired, sunburnt. A light flickered from the kitchen door of a Vietnamese restaurant far down the alleyway. Simone adjusted her pillow atop the bare mattress.
“You’re kidding,” Tom leaned against the back of the front seat, leafing through the colorful pages of snarling cacti, a topographic map and a crude recipe.
“It could be suicide.”
She’d considered that.
“Look at me,” Tom said.
Simone sat up against the passenger side seat. Tom’s round face was broad and worn with years of scattered meals, bay winds. His thick neck hugged his chin. His forearm tendons pulled taut as a ranch hand’s. But his waning bulk was a betrayal—he appeared fed even as he starved. He dropped the pages.
“I ain’t sick,” he muttered.
“You got a better idea?”
Simone shrugged. His bright green eyes turned greyer every second.
“So, what?” Tom blinked. “We just beg for travel money, drive halfway across the country and hope for the best? That it?”
“We have the money.” Simone toed the mattress seam.
Hidden deep within the springs were six years of pan-handled savings. $216.73. Once they hit $300, they promised to ride for Mexico.
Simone took Tom’s wrist. “It won’t help to deny it, Tom. We don’t talk about it, but we,” Simone paused, “You have to accept it.”
Tom’s face flushed.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Tom’s anger deflated. He seemed to shrink before Simone’s eyes.
“Okay,” he said. “We’ll go.”
And, as if for the first time, Simone noticed how brittle his wrists had become. How fast the virus had spread.
III. The Recipe
Simone took the pages from Tom’s sleeping pockmarked chest and held them to hers. Though weightless, they crushed her. Under the weight of remembering and forgetting the man beside her, she yearned for the old Tom. The Tom she felt safe with, protected by, furious over. The Tom whose animosity had steered them into and out of love and hate, care and carelessness. She missed the rage in him that allowed the rage in her. But their symbiosis had grown parasitic. As Tom’s temper degraded into meek anxiety, Simone’s sharpened. He didn’t have the energy to argue against going and, in her pride, Simone hadn’t considered staying.
Texas was the only choice—no job meant no insurance meant no hospitals meant no treatment meant it was only a matter of time. While Tom had just come around to this, the urgency hit Simone like a mallet to the skull weeks ago.
While Tom had assumed Simone was out canvassing her route each day—Union Square to Dolores Park and back—she’d in fact been scouring San Francisco’s public library. At first, she cowered beneath the towering shelves like an impostor running amuck within the academic landscape. She leafed through medical texts, self-help volumes, cautionary memoirs, homeopathic trade magazines, unsure of where to start. Then, one afternoon, a librarian noticed Simone fiddling with a computer mouse.
“Do you have a library card?” The woman asked, wrists crossed over her wide hips, hazel eyes warm behind wireframes.
“You’ll need it to get online.”
The librarian’s thin fingers moved like fluttering wings across the keys, then she clicked through a few screens before standing to give Simone her seat at the blinking cursor.
“Go ahead,” the librarian motioned. “Type anything you want.”
Simone hunched over the keyboard until the librarian left. Then, Simone searched Tom’s symptoms in a dutiful flurry. Bloated throat. Fatigue. Toe inflammation. Simone pushed her nose to the screen. Weight loss. Night sweats. Images matched Tom’s chest pocks, neck lesions.
“Miss,” the librarian appeared again.
“How much?” Simone asked, spotting a white card beside the mouse.
“It’s free.” The librarian nodded and turned away.
Rattled with possibility and fear, Simone sat back. From that moment on, Tom’s prognosis became her obsession.
The next day, Simone swiped her card into the same computer. She scoured medical websites, holistic treatment diagrams, diagnostic comparisons, over-the-counter prescriptions, patient anecdotes, professional guidance, on and on, deeper and deeper, until she found her way into the unregulated, overstuffed support forums. There, she stayed.
She rifled through weeks, months, years of archives for any insights, morsels. She’d send notes to invisible users who’d lost or were living with infected partners and discover solace in their colorless responses, shared traumas, condolences, minced affection. Often, Simone’s eyes would well with despair and instead of digesting full posts, skimmed them for keywords. Corrective. Voluntary. Involuntary. Restorative. Cure. Cheap.
Each day, she worked the library’s golf pencils down to nubs, scrawling notes onto free paper because printing was a quarter a page. And each day, she’d return with a few blank sheets in order to record Tom’s daily pains, track severities, fluctuations, surprises, flagrancies. At night, she hid her research beneath the passenger seat. In the morning, she’d start again.
Soon though, her own fatigue set in. Her notes grew cryptic, her mind disheveled, time unstructured. Weeks washed together. While Tom continued to do his part in front of some downtown department store, Simone was still searching for a plan, a sign, an answer—a real, tangible solution to show Tom that they needed to—and could—act.
Then, one morning in late July, Simone found it. Deep within the archives of a forum called Getting Help, Moving On, a post caught her eye:
TITLE: This is not a cure, but…
TIME: 03:28AM, 13 August 2005
If you’re here, I’m sorry. I’m proud of you and I’m sorry. You’ve taken a big step just by acknowledging this thing, so if you leave with one takeaway let it be this: solace starts with understanding. Don’t forget that.
TL; DR: Found homeopathic viral therapy in Austin, TX (recipe below). No proof it will work for you, but it extended my partner’s life.
Now, about a year ago, my partner contracted the virus and died, as all who contract it will. But about a year before she left us, I found this post in another forum that struck me like this one might have struck you. OP (@AyurvedaATX) shared an experimental remedy that he claimed curbed his principal symptoms. The chronic fatigue, inflammation, you know the rest. He said it even strengthened his morning appetite. Two cups a day. Immediately, I showed my partner. Cheap? Effective? Natural? Both unemployed at the time, we couldn’t afford the overpriced trifecta—Novacore, Panprex, Edrolac. Plus, we had the time. So, that very night, we gathered belongings and hit the road. Somewhere in Appalachia a little hope crept in. We reached Austin in two days and began collecting ingredients. We slept in the car.
Look. Before I provide details, I must re-emphasize two facts.
1) This is not a cure. The virus is fatal in 100% of cases. Likewise, no two bodies react the same way to treatments, natural or not. So, if you try this, please monitor the effects and—though I hate to say it—expect the worst.
2) This requires Austin-native Opuntia Engelmannii (Prickly Pear). The uprooted varietal found in your local garden center, or those scattered elsewhere around the states will not suffice. OP detailed his journey across Texas and his systematic elimination of other cacti species, which I will save you from. But, ultimately, he discovered that only Austin’s Prickly Pear netted even semi-desirable results. He said, and I quote: “The alkaline and clay deposits that comprise the city’s specific soil-sand-pumice land fuses with saliva from local bee and insect populations to create a potent wellspring of immuno-efficacy via the Opuntia Engelmannii’s vibrant blossoms, filaments and fruit. It is Ayurveda incarnate. It is natural magic.” You get the idea.
Thing is: timing is everything. The blossoms flower for only 24-hours, and only at summer’s end. And these are essential to the solution. If you’ve gotten this far, I’ve collected OP’s recipe and instructions for you below.
- 4 gallons water
- 4 cups Opuntia Engelmannii fruit, mashed
- 4 Opuntia Engelmannii blossoms
- 1/2 gallon bleach
- 1/2 cup hydrogen peroxide
- 1/2 cup orange juice, pulp
- 1/2 cup hydrochloric acid
- 12 oz milk thistle
- 12 oz activated charcoal
- 8 inches raw ginger root, snapped
Directions: Mix ingredients together. Seal into five-gallon container. Ferment for five days. On day five, open container and skim away surface film. Dispose of it. Let solution sit for another day. Begin intake.
Intake Regiment: One cup in AM. One cup in PM.
That’s it. No more, no less. For us, five gallons lasted four months. My partner’s life extended six months beyond expectancy. I do not know if this was due to our hope or OP’s solution.
Simone noticed she’d been holding her breath. The sheer quantity of things impressed her—five gallons, four months, six months extended life. She shivered with a sense of unfamiliar optimism, then scrolled down the thread.
A comment appeared with two detailed reference photos of the Prickly Pear. One close-up showed a blossoming pad poking from a sunny garden bed. The other captured a large thicket of cacti, thirty or forty pads growing wild in a rigid tumble, overtaking a residential walkway. Simone studied the Prickly Pear’s every spine, curve and blossom, describing each element under her breath before putting pencil to page.
But after a few rough lines, Simone abandoned the sketch. She paid two dollars to print the full-color photos and a small map of the southwest. She wormed a route through the desert with the pencil’s dull nub. She prepared her plan and held the folder tight to her chest as she returned to the Durango. It was time to share everything with Tom.
IV. The Overpass
Austin’s downtown lights glowed in the hazy August night. The distant skyline wound up, down and out of sight in a shimmering highway blur. Simone turned to Tom. He lit a cigarette and relaxed into the drive. Four knotted fingers tapped along the steering wheel, pinky-to-index, pinky-to-index. She watched her own hand float through the smoke toward Tom’s lips, as if the digits didn’t belong to her at all. She took the cigarette and rested her head against the rattling window. Bumps and potholes shook ash onto her shirt. She didn’t care. The highway was home. She spent her adult years surviving, clawing, scraping what she could muster—but in the passenger seat, she vanished. Away from Tom, reality, expectations, responsibility. She was free. She returned the cigarette to Tom’s lips and nestled into her seat. Simone’s half-moon eyes hung heavy. Reflective exit signs popped into vision and passed.
Then Tom negotiated the Durango around a soft highway curve with too much speed. Simone straightened, shouted. Under a fenced-off overpass, hordes of homeless men and women slept in discarded television boxes, dismantled crates and the dust. Bicycle parts and abandoned rebar propped up blue tarps. Rusted cans and bottles littered the road. Tom ran over something and Simone heard a loud pop. A group of men approached the slowing car, but Tom didn’t stop.
He blew through a series of red lights.
“What are you doing? Didn’t you hear that?”
Tom pulled his body closer to the wheel. The dashboard blinked 3:03, 3:03. Tom turned up the radio. A stringy guitar and a voice like rain. Simone cut it off again. “Will you stop,” Simone growled. But the Durango humped along.
Tom veered off the main road, glossy with sleeping boutiques and glass-walled cafés.
Simone lurched forward as Tom slammed the brakes, smashing her forehead against the glove compartment.
The Durango idled. Simone remained folded at the waist. A warm streak ran down her forehead, blood dripped onto her knee. Her temples throbbed. The skin around her eyes tightened. Within seconds, her left eye was sealed shut. Tom’s fingernails tapped along the bare steel roof, feeling for the light.
“I’m—I’m sorry.” Tom started.
The smell of piss and feces wafted toward Simone. She wanted to scream at his stuttering incompetence, his very impermanence, but couldn’t muster the strength herself. She opened the door and rolled out.
Simone lay silent in the cool asphalt, then stood. She spat into the hem of her shirt and dabbed her forehead, unable to discern blood from grime, physical pain from mental anguish.
You succubus, she hissed to herself. Simone turned the guilt and pity upon herself. She had it all wrong. Simone thought that she’d become this doting partner because that’s what you do for someone you love, someone who loves you back. But she merely owed him. Her concern, research, plan—this entire trip—was all just reparation for the security he offered her so long ago. His car: a home. His savings: an escape. His vision: a shared future. She wanted to give him that security, too. That hope. But now all of that meant nothing. She’d succeeded only in sucking the remaining life from Tom—dragging him here, against his will, to make herself feel useful. She must’ve been walking.
Simone turned around. She wanted to see Tom chasing after her. She wanted to apologize as he approached. But she found only grey smoke rising from the jarred hood of the lop-sided Durango. The dusty yellow headlights peering through her like cursed eyes.
She swung Tom’s door open and winced at the rush of chemical vapor. Her skull ached. A deafening ring in her ear. Inside, the Clorox jug lay capsized between Tom’s thighs, emptying onto his blown-out sneakers. His fingers were still looped through the handle.
Simone shook his face and patted his cheeks. Harsh bleach droplets splashed from his lips onto her own. Then, Simone stopped. She checked his eyes. No trace of green remained.
John Nicholson is an Austin-based writer. Born beneath New Jersey’s Walt Whitman Bridge, he has made many moves before landing in Texas. His work has appeared in Pinyon Review, Digging Through the Fat, and is forthcoming in Drunk Monkeys.