Sweat poured down my arms with each step. No amount of tree coverage will save you from the humidity. Focused on my footing, a tree branch smacked me across my right cheek. I immediately became aware of the difference between my right and left cheek muscles, like when you get a filling in one tooth and can’t stop running your tongue along it.

I couldn’t focus on hiking. The area where the branch hit me began to itch. I had no mirror, no phone, no way to inspect it. I ran my finger over my cheek. A clear puss covered the tip of my finger.

I kept hiking, trying to put the scratch behind me. My shoulders stung from the heavy pack I carried. My pinky toes felt like there were no boots nor socks between them and the rocks because I cut my nails too short the night before.

My head began to feel light. I figured I was getting dehydrated. I stopped next to a fallen tree and set my pack down. I took a generous swig from my bottle, not thinking about the seven-mile stretch ahead of me with no streams or springs. Even though the water was warm from the sun, it was still refreshing.

With my mind off forward progress, my thoughts returned solely to the scratch on my cheek. It was taut, like when you’re winking, except I wasn’t winking. I dug my first-aid kit out of my pack. I tore open the small packet of disinfectant, squeezed it onto my finger, and rubbed it into the wound, grunting from the sting. I tore off the backing of a self-adhesive bandage and stuck it to my face. Moments later, the adhesive agent gave and the bandage dangled off. I smoothed it over again, but it wouldn’t stay put. Not wanting to condemn another bandage to the same wasted fate, I put my pack back on and continued to follow the trail with no covering on the wound.

The burning feeling didn’t lessen from the disinfectant—it intensified. I held my hand close to my cheek, and the radiant heat felt like a lighter set at the wrong angle when the flame catches your thumb for a brief moment. I twisted my arm back and slipped out my water bottle. I unscrewed the cap and poured the last of my water onto my face to try to wash the wound and cool it off, but it only made it worse. The disinfectant washed away, and I screamed at the pain from the water in the wound.

I started counting to ten and starting back at one while I hiked onward. I sang the song stuck in my head out loud. I thought about people and places I hadn’t thought of in years. I thought about my family. I thought about the separation. I thought about every single stupid thing I’ve done in my life. But none of it took my attention away from the scratch on my cheek.

Sweat ran down my face and into the wound. The salt was the worst.

Unaware of my actions, I began to scratch the wound. Slowly at first. A brief moment of relief would arise, but then the burning itch returned. So I scratched faster. And harder. I glanced at my right index finger. It was covered in blood. I thought it was sweat running down my face, but I looked down, and the area of my shirt covering my collarbone was covered in blood, too.

I did my best to resist the itch, but I couldn’t. I scratched at it like a dog digging a hole in the backyard. Scratching the itch caused the burning to go away, at least for a moment here and there. Pretty soon my entire hand was covered in blood. Flecks of skin started to come off. I tugged at one piece and it came off just as easy as the bandage, about the same size too. I pulled at it slowly, the air and sweat against my exposed face were far worse than the itch. Then, frustrated, I ripped it off, and that was the last thing I remember before waking up.

The nurse told me two hikers found me passed out and called for emergency rescue. I haven’t seen my face and the damage done by the scratch from the tree branch. The doctor told me it would take a couple months for the pain to go away but that there would be scarring.

My face is covered in bandages. I want nothing more than to tear them off and itch the scratch on my right cheek.

Collected in Brief Moments of Life