It started with a pain in her face, like she'd been certain a field lay open before her but she'd been mistaken, and had walked into a wall instead. It was a bruised sort of feeling on her right temple, but there wasn't any bruise, just a throbbing around her right eye that then seemed to throb right in her eye and then to creep its way backward, circling her scalp. The girl kept seeking out mirrors, searching her own face for clues, but nothing was there except the ineffable ache. Then, on the third day, she'd awakened and stumbled to the bathroom, feeling besieged, and when she focused her eyes on the mirror she saw dots. She wasn't sure, at first, if the dots were in her eyes or on her face, and then she lifted a hand to her forehead and sure enough there was something there, little tracks of intermittent specks rising from the surface. But if she closed her eyes she saw them too, dots on top of dots and across from dots, in little colons and periods and other patterns that marched across her vision. Her regular doctor said, "Well, MJ, I think we should get you to a dermatologist. I'll write you something for the pain." The dermatologist had an office across town and an appointment that was supposed to open up at 1:00 but when she got there an electronic billboard in the waiting room scrolled illuminated red points across its surface announcing that the dermatologist was running ninety minutes behind. She watched the billboard for a while but it got confusing, the jumble of its dots and her own, so she closed her eyes and watched only her dots until she heard someone calling her name.
"Herpes zoster," the dermatologist said. When all she did was blink, he said, "Shingles. No doubt about that, but we'll take a little scrape just to be sure." He tilted her chair backwards and had a nurse part her hair while he brought a pointed blade to her scalp. When the dot came off she felt a pang somewhere, not on her head like she'd expected but somewhere inside. He pressed a thick index finger to the place where he'd sliced, spreading something cold and viscous. "It's circling the eyes," the dermatologist said. "Better get that checked." He handed her a prescription and sent her to the emergency room at the eye and ear hospital down the street.
"My sister-in-law's a dermatologist," the ophthalmologist said. She had a little tool kit she pulled from the pocket of her lab coat. It was lined in velvet. She picked through the tools and then adjusted a light beam on her head. "They love to cut. You didn't need a skin culture: it's herpes zoster, all right." The ophthalmologist tilted her chair back even farther than the dermatologist had and then dropped something liquid into the girl's eyes. Then she waited a moment and added more drops. She handed the girl a tissue. She was crying yellow tears. The light on the ophthalmologist's head grew unbearably bright. "Any changes in your vision?" she asked.
The girl said she'd been seeing dots. The ophthalmologist said, "You mean spots," and the girl said, no, they're dots. I think they're arranged in some sort of pattern.
"Hmm-mmm," the ophthalmologist said. She fished a new lens from her tool kit. The girl could see the ophthalmologist's eyelashes, huge and flapping, up against her own vision. "No apparent ocular involvement. But I'd suggest you take this -" she kept her headlamp on while she wrote out the prescription - "It's a tricyclic antidepressant. It'll prevent residual pain once the antivirals have done their work. That first drop I gave you paralyzed your irises a bit. Your pupils will be dilated for a while. You'll probably want sunglasses."
The nurse wanted her to sign a release paper that said she'd been seen, which she felt she had, more or less, but she couldn't take in anything but light, and inside her eyes were jots and tittles, spelling out codes everywhere she looked. She grasped the nurse's pen and scrawled something across the place where she thought her signature should go. She promised she would not be driving home. The world outside the bus was one soft, shapeless glow, but across the window there still marched the dots, like little labels for each of the color blotches outside, though she couldn't understand what the labels meant. While she waited for the prescriptions to fill she walked the apothecary aisles and blinked. The rows she'd once known to contain shampoo, aspirin, mouthwash, mascara were distant to her now, the shelves like lines across a notebook's surface, dotted with words she could not decipher, words that were not exactly foreign but made everything else strange, something it was not before, until she wondered if she even remembered what had been there, what the bottles and potions she'd seen a millions times were all for. She wondered what might go there instead. Then, over the loudspeaker, someone called her name.
She walked the final blocks home, wearing the sunglasses the pharmacist had gathered for her along with the pills: one once a day, one twice, one up to six times as needed. The world was darker now, the dots brighter, though she found it difficult to concentrate with the glasses hugging the wounded place on her temple. She felt as if a bridle had been fastened there, the dots inside her head holding the reins, tugging at her consciousness. Outside her apartment building she recognized a shape that was Ana Luisa. Her hair was up in something high on her head and her wrists were pressed against each other. She was probably sending a message to one of her schoolmates. MJ thought Ana Luisa's fingers were still moving furiously - she heard her bracelets clink - while she spoke.
"Nice shades," she said.
"Nice shades," Ana Claudia echoed. MJ hadn't even noticed her at her mother's feet. She was sitting on a plastic big-wheel. Tricyclic, MJ thought.
I've got shingles, she said. She lifted her glasses.
"Whoa, that don't look like you under there. And that don't look like shingles, either," Ana Luisa said. From the angle of her hairdo, MJ knew she'd glanced up at the rooftops across the street. "That looks like some kinda fucked-up Braille. My abuela could read that shit, if Braille was in Spanish. Does it come in Spanish?"
I don't know, probably, MJ said. I don't think my dots are in Spanish. Though they're in something I can just barely understand, she said. I think they might be trying to rename everything. I think I might need to go take some of these pills and lie down.
"No problema," Ana Luisa said.
"No problema!" said Ana Claudia, and she pushed off on her big wheel. MJ could hear it making that crunchy rolling sound while she felt her way to the building's door. Her pills also made little crunching sounds of different timbres inside plastic bottles inside different paper bags inside the big plastic bag in her hand. She thought the dots on her retinas rolled out to the same beat, competing for her attention. She looked in the mirror: Ana Luisa was right. The dots had become darker, their tracks more pronounced. A script across her face that renamed her, announced she was not what she was before. Her pupils sat expansively in her eyes, dark lakes on a marked but emptied landscape, the tracks on her forehead ending at the edge of the deep. Through her own vision, she knew the dots worked furiously beneath the surface, substituting their own names for the ones that were slipping from her, the things she looked for in the refrigerator, the kitchen drawers, her bedroom closet. She sat still on the couch for a while, letting the dots reconstruct the room; when she tried to watch TV the patterns on the screen were wholly unreadable, overtaken by the only thing she could see, this language that would not let her see anything as she had seen it before. That insisted to her own eyes that she was no longer in the same world she had moved through before. It filled her with dread, just as she thought a virus might, but also with an eerie sense of excitement. She thought she was more than a little out of sorts.
She took one of each pill and went to sleep, dreaming of landscapes she should have known but failed to recognize, and then woke up in the dark with something that felt like a fever breaking and took another of the pills, the one from the dermatologist, she thought. When she woke again it was late into the afternoon. She could see a little better now, and the dots were dimmer, little points of saturation where things joined or broke from each other. In the mirror the dots on her skin were still there but were redder, scabbed. She filled a glass with water and swallowed two more of the pills and took the elevator to the ground floor and sat outside on the stoop. Ana Luisa was still at school, but Ana Claudia was out on her big wheel, riding up and down the sidewalk while her great-grandmother stood inside, at the open first-floor window. MJ watched Ana Claudia roll across her vision, the dots following her faintly, like receding subtitles. She thought they were telling her something about Ana Claudia, maybe, about the place she was going, even though she only rode back and forth, as far as the edges of the brown grass outside their building stretched, as far as the little girl's bisabuela's ears could follow, since the old woman couldn't see her at all. Ana Claudia turned down the path and rode right up to the front door.