Dendrolic, the doctor calls it. A glass capsule inside a glass vial.

“Just one?” I feel relieved. I hate pills, have never swallowed anything before without chewing, but one would be bearable.

The doctor looks at me weirdly, his nose the scrunched up wings of a bat. He hands me the instructions typed on a yellow slip.

Take 2 before breakfast, 1 after lunch, and 1 before bed. Sleep on the back.

“Huh,” I say. “If there’s only one, how am I supposed to take four each day?”

He doesn’t look up from his clipboard where he’s jotting down notes. “Follow the directions. Swallow with a liquid.” He says it with a voice that asks why are you still talking?

I stay quiet, even though the single tablet ringing inside the vial glares at me.

One pill is bearable.

Before bed, I squeeze my eyes shut, throw in the pill, take two gulps of water. The pill slides down my throat, the eye of an eel encased in slippery flesh. Easy. Done. Never again.

I go to put the vial in the kitchen—maybe I’ll use it to store toothpicks—and almost drop it when I see a shiny glass capsule inside.

Oh. Four a day. My throat tightens up, like after a big cry that leaves behind a lump. No toothpicks then, I think. The vial goes in the bathroom.

That night, I am a corpse in my bed, a fresh one before rigor mortis has begun. My spine aches to be relieved of the pressure below it. It craves the gentle slope of my turned body, back to the wall, knees tucked in, fetal position, but I cannot submit. My sleep that night is dreamless.

Morning drags on for hours. Take two in the morning.

What is morning? A word to denote time: early hours of the day or period of grief. Why two in the morning? Does the space between each dose allow the medicine to fester properly?

When my head has finished expelling questions, I empty it and spill a pill inside, then another after it appears in the vial, as if they are nothing but breaths of air. Two gulps of water. Swallow.

The pills, two instead of one, hit my stomach like pebbles breaking the surface of a lake. I imagine them sinking down into acid and squirming around as they dissolve.

Dendrolic. The word rolls off my tongue awkwardly, a broken cog. From Ying’s mouth, the strange term sounds like well-oiled wheels, the strum of a zither.

I come to work with a little plastic baggie, two capsules squirming inside. Dendrolic doesn’t look like the other medications, which are chalky white with numbers indented into their casings. Dendrolic is glass, see-through, bending light to make itself any color, like a chameleon.

I bring two, one for after lunch, the other as a back-up in case I lose the first. If I don’t lose the first—and I rarely do—the second becomes the dose before bed. My life is filled with careful decisions like this, plans from the night before. Existence is just the agreement to do something and the time until it is actually done, repeated on end.

No one I speak to, Ying included, has heard of my medication. Phlegmatic and hypnotic are common. Kinesthetic is lesser known, but Ying takes it.

She pulls up her sleeve to reveal spiraling red whorls crawling around her arms. Kinesthetic is used to treat the petrification of limbs, when humans revert from flesh to stone. The medication saves her from life as a statue, as long as she continues to take it, and leaves blood-red tendrils on her skin. Ying has been swallowing pills since she was 10 years old when her arms first began to harden and flex with unnatural rigidity.

I never went through any physical changes. My arms never grew scales or hardened. My blood has never oozed out of my pores uncontrollably. I don’t know why I’m taking dendrolic. All I was given was a slip of paper and a glass vial.

The pills go down easier now. They don't echo as much when they fall. Take one before bed. Sleep on the back.

Life with pills is not too bad, I think.

A week later, the branches start to grow. They begin as little bumps along my arms, hard and cool to the touch. They run from my wrist to my shoulder, poking through skin, the first shoots of spring distending out of melting snow. The ones at my forearm and shoulder grow fastest and extend the farthest.

I call my doctor, and he recommends a book on pruning trees.

“It looks painful,” Ying says.

“It’s not.” I let her touch one of the branches. Her hand is warm, and I feel its absence when she pulls away.

“Now we match!” Ying beams as she holds up her red-covered arms.

I feel light inside like a summer breeze, my feet untethered to the ground. Life with pills is not too bad.

“What’s that?” She points to the book on my desk.

“It’s about pruning trees. My doctor recommended it.”

Ying thumbs one my branches absentmindedly as she peers down at the open page on choosing shears. I hold back a shiver.

In addition to the book on pruning, I picked up a book about identifying tree species. Since my branches have yet to grow leaves or flowers, it is difficult to tell what plant is growing from my skin. I imagine the flushed white of apple blossoms or the bulbous red of berries decorating the branches like ornaments.

Trees that receive the appropriate pruning measures while they are young will require less corrective pruning as they mature.

The pruning shears are a slender red finch with a fat beak snipping away at bark and bright red grips in a gentle slope.

I cut off another dead twig, let the diseased bark peel off like snakeskin.

Pruning is shaving away the rot to preserve the growth. This is called cleaning. The wood is dirty and needs to be purified of sickness.

Pruning is also cutting off good, healthy branches to maximize potential. This is called thinning. Allow light and air to reach the plant. Reduce weight. Improve structure. Self-preservation requires little thought, but self-betterment requires the sacrifice of even good things.

I thin out the many growths protruding from my shoulders. Some have grown too long, to the point of being a nuisance, so I remove them for convenience. The excess twigs form a crown of black around my sink.

The branches, the thick ones sprouting from my shoulder and forearm that can't be cut without permanent damage, have grown something else instead of leaves: spines, large enough to only prick not stab.

Ying, wary of the thorns, no longer touches so idly. I try trimming them down, but they are sensitive and painful to cut. While the branches are nothing more than dead extensions, like strands of hair, the thorns are a part of my body. I trace each prickly spine with a single finger and feel comforted knowing they can hurt me just as much as I can hurt them.

Swallowing the pills is easier now, but my throat must be tight before it can be loose, loose enough for the capsule to slither its way down. Everyday, the journey from tongue to gut lengthens as if my esophagus is a growing trunk with roots deeply nestled in flesh.

Once the flowers grow, the photos in my book become a mirror of the very branches growing from my skin. Black locust, because of the thorns—short spines at the base of each leaf--and the leaves--flat and round like coins bunched in symmetrical, orderly groups—and the flowers—creamy white racemes of petals.

Robinia pseudoacacia, the false acacia, because the black locust looks like the acacia but is only a pale imitation. A species invasive to the very continent it is native to, depending on the region.

Ying is less ginger with touching the branches now that flowers have bloomed. Winter in spring, she calls them, the bunches of white interwoven with twigs.

Snowfall on a sunny day.

I get the call a few weeks after the flowers appear.

My doctor’s voice is trembling. “I’m sorry. There was a misdiagnosis.”

My throat feels tighter than it’s been in a while.

“The medication you’re taking...i-it was supposed to be hypnotic. Can you come in and pick it up, and I’ll take your current—”

I hang up.

The branches grow faster and longer each day. I buy a new pair of shears, the blades of the first one dulled down from constant trimming. My mornings begin hours earlier now to give me time to thin out the growths, snip away at twigs and dead wood.

I bring Ying one of the branches, a sprig covered in a wreath of white with the thorns meticulously scraped off. She beams, accepting it with a flushed thank you. The next day, the branch rests in a glass of water at the corner of her desk.

I think, lying in my bed, I understand why I have to sleep on my back. Originally, I contrived some symbolic plot. Go to bed a corpse and wake up reborn. Reality is not nearly so poetic or pretentious.

Sleeping on the back evens the branches out, allows them to grow uniformly, and at the same time, suppresses them. Without pressure on them overnight, the branches would fan out uncontrollably, and I’d wake up suffocating under the weight of my own life.

Last night, I went to sleep later than usual after a date with Ying. Too tired to think, I only managed to down a pill before falling into my bed face down and passing out.

If existence is just the agreement to do something and the time until it is actually done, I have broken a promise.

I wake up in the center of a nest. The branches are a gentle weight on my back, surprisingly light despite filling every space of breath around me. They begin as arteries from where they leave my skin and end as capillaries in the corners of my bedroom.

I crawl out of my bed, sending photos and books crashing down with each movement. The shears are useless against these thick growths, and I’m debating whether to call 911 when I reach my bathroom and stop.

Pruning is cutting off good, healthy branches to maximize potential, to pursue self-betterment, but what if you’ve reached the height of what it means to be better? If I’m well, what else must be cut off?

Looking at myself in the mirror, branches fanned out like a hundred limbs, I spot the pods where the flowers once were. Flat, dark, swollen with lumps, like moth cocoons.

I pluck one off and tear it open, but instead of the half-formed body of an insect, there are black seeds inside.

Black locust is an invasive species to the Midwest. The thought comes unbidden. Even that cannot deter me.

Tilting my head back, I spill a seed inside, then another.

Two gulps of water. Swallow.

*This story was an entry to the 2020 Wintermute Spec-Fic Contest and was highly commended by judges for "its lightly surreal details, its theme of bodily transformation, and its botanical descriptions. The storytelling is concise and does exactly what it needs to, and I love the way the narrator ends up choosing for themselves what they want to become - even if the beginning of it was an accident."

Aliza Li is a freshman at Johns Hopkins University, studying writing and cognitive science. Her work has been recognized by Aerie International, Canvas Teen Literary, and the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She spends most of her free time glued to a computer screen or hanging out with friends at a boba shop.