self portrait of a nail biter
self portrait of a nail biter by Luna

ONE:

There is something awful about the living.
The feeling of it.
Nothing is as bad as watching them, feeling them, live, crawling, twitching under pressure.
Nothing.

Nothing as thrilling, either.

“You getting a taste for it yet?” –and then, as if it wasn’t obvious enough already– “Blood, I mean.”

It was stupid, really. There had been an innocent spill of liquid pooled along the tile beneath the sinks and Deb’s scuffed black slip-ons had done just that, sending her sprawling chin-first into the star-shaped nozzle above the basin.

The pain surged through her jaw in a panic, and Deb recoiled, her stomach bouncing back from the ceramic as she keeled over, hand to her face. For a moment it was too incomprehensible–had it really? all on its own?–and Deb froze, steeled against the inevitable inward groan of bad luck once again. Then she began to sniff out an odd scent in the room, a stickily sweet odor that stung with a hint of perfume alcohol, and began to consider the idea that maybe the spillage had not been so innocent after all, but rather slick greasy and milky-white and sixteen dollars a bottle at the mall’s fragrance haven. Which would explain better…

She spat pathetically into the drain. A hot bubble of gore clung tight to her limp lower lip, and, cheeks burning, she wobbled her chin and swiped desperately with her wrist against the honey.

Roxie Black laughed.

The sound was, in effect, a battering ram against Deb’s already bruised ribs–a ringing reminder that it had happened again, yet again and again and–a hairline fracture in Deb’s stomach popped open quietly, the dusty fragments swam upwards through her throat to claw for oxygen at her mouth, commingling with the blood that had already surfaced. Roxie’s cackle was only half drowned out by the whimpering faucet as Deb took a mouthful under the tap, tasted the pungent copper swell in her mouth, and wished to God she could plunge her whole head under the gush.

She did not, of course. Everything was of course with her. She did not drench herself, of course. She did not lose her head, of course. She did not run Roxie Black through with the handle of the janitor’s spare mop, of course. Instead, she turned off the tap and stared dumbly at the spot where her split lip had sweat in thick, red droplets on the chrome.

“They don’t bleed,” she said very quietly.

“What–?”–but Roxie’s question was cut short by a sudden resurgence of laughter, pushed just past the boundary of honesty so that the word coughed up at the end in a false, deliberate way. “What,” she repeated, solidly now, swallowing her snickers. “What doesn’t.”

Deb answered her with a word. She was sure now that this was the topic of discussion, would’ve sworn her life on it, but Roxie’s face twisted in repulsive surprise at the sound of it.

Eeeugh, god, Debbie!” (throat and chin bobbing together in a gagging motion.) “Please, don’t. No one even remembers anymore. No one’s even thought of it–I tell you, I can’t remember anything that far back.” (liar.) So don’t–don’t–it’s disgusting!”

Debbie did not find Roxie’s horror satisfying in the least. She watched it with a dull, inevitable look hanging from her face, just wanting the entire scene to be over already. After years of similar torture, she was now fully aware of Roxie’s curling mouth, Roxie’s perfect pig-squeals, Roxie’s faraway, sleepy eyes. The shock, like the laughter that had erupted from her wha-a-t?, was fabricated, carefully crafted, all a game, all a game–

“Oh, Debbie, I wish you wouldn’t bring it up again. I just meant–you’re always like biting your lip off.”

A moment’s pause. That was true, despite the blatant duck-and-cover of Roxie’s explanation. Deb did chew on her scab of a mouth an awful lot–during first period, because fractions made her nervous, and third, because the girls in her art class had once been painting a big bloody civil war mural and the neon red paint had somehow found itself splashed obscenely across her jacket, and of course the seat of her chair, and even a bit globbed in a chunk at the ends of her hair (although the last was admittedly Deb’s fault, she had been dumb enough to root for a clean brush somewhere in the jungle of gasping, shrieking girls, all wielding old yoghurt containers full of the paint, splattering it with giddy perversion across the scene–), and in fifth because by then she always had to go to the bathroom, and the lunch period was when Roxie roamed the stalls, and then in gym class, of course, no brainer, and finally in last period because the bell was so achingly close, and she could not wait–absolutely could not wait–for it to ring. She didn’t just bite her lip, either–she chewed on the wall of her cheek, she nibbled her fingernails, she tugged persistently at the pointed calluses beneath these until they split open. It was more than a nervous habit–it was a kind of destructive release, a gasping–and so she was growing accustomed to the taste, although she did not enjoy it, not really, especially when it bloomed out like a Rorschach across her tongue.

            And yet–it was better, anything was–

Deb wadded up a clump of paper towels and spit into these, wiping her mouth. Glancing up, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror, and the bizarre imagery it all drew up–blotting at her swollen chin with those last shreds of dignity, like a lady fixing her lipstick (lipstick that had swiveled far off course and danced uncharted figure eights in red all across her skin,) was so strange and funny that Deb almost laughed in spite of herself.

The humor was lost on Roxie Black (at least the innocent humor that Deb saw) and the icy girl was growing bored and fidgety, her ankle lolling around on its socket, her lips absently (or not so absently) forming the word, turning it over, sucking on it like a tart candy. It was there as dry as sawdust in her throat, and it dragged Deb back from her bemusement into reality. Reluctant. Again.

“You’re disgusting,” is what Deb tried to say as she left, but the first word shriveled away and dissolved, and the letters of the second morphed their sound, so that she simply muttered ecck-skews-mee as she squeezed past Roxie Black towards the door, wet paper towels still held fast by a death grip in her fist. Whatever Roxie tried to echo back in response tumbled into a word, two syllables, and it rang out against the tiles in all its grotesque glory as Debbie left the awful place and dove headfirst into hallway traffic.

She had not heard the bell ring. The faucet had drowned it out.

The word, of course, was maggots.

In fourth grade, Jessica Stone had eaten six of them.

On the morning of March 11th she had donned the tissue-fresh white dress that her mother had bought for her the night before, the dress that was expressly reserved for that evening’s cake celebration–but, oh, please, Jessica had begged–and her mother had given in, with the strict provision of a big bulky wool jumper buttoned over the whole affair. It was to stay buttoned, she had made expressly clear. Jessica might unfasten it for a moment to show her closest friends–with clean hands, of course–but then it was to be hidden right away again. Jessica deemed these momentary flashes–convened in the bathroom, the reveal, the awed coos of the girls, the rapid refastening as if to hide an exposed bit of underwear–to be of inexpressible value, and so she skipped off up the stairs that day with a flash of dreamy white at her knees.

It was her tenth birthday, and Jessica was toting a sealed-fresh box of Little Debbie cakes for her homeroom class. They were the classic geometric kind, chocolate cupcakes with a chain-link line of icing striped across the top and a quarter-sized dollop of whipped white sugar at the center. They were the ideal birthday snack–individually wrapped, big enough to satisfy but small enough for logic–and the taste a perfect teaser for that night’s imminent prize dessert. But Jessica had to wait until after the jangling recitation of the pledge, and after the marco-polo squeaks of morning attendance, and after an elating soiree in the lavatory (more on this soon) to even open the box–and where is your mother, the teacher, Mrs. Chest-something or Whosoever-burg pricked persistently, isn’t she going to help us?no, Jessica responded with only the slightest darkness. She was not available at the moment, as she was not available at any moment between 7:30 AM and 5:30 PM each weekday.

There has been much speculation about the possibility of the whole ordeal being smoothed over had Jessica’s mother been able to attend the ritual. Adults tend to have a depressive effect on children in times of crisis, and typically sweep the afflicted out of harm’s way before there is the opportunity for significant damage to be done. Perhaps if Jessica’s mother had been there, with soothing adultish hands and that mature knowledge of how to court stains (or no–there would not have been stains, as the jumper would have stayed on)–if Jessica’s mother had been there to ensure out of the corner of her eye that the girl was seated, and buttoned up as promised–if Jessica had waited like all the others, unspecified, insignificant, unremarkable–why, even if the same end result had come out, even if that insert-percent-chance had held up, there would not have been so far to fall, and a certain witness might not have held an eternal jealous grudge for the child, and the whole thing could’ve been a fading fluke in the memory of way-too-many-years-ago.

Unfortunately, she did not make it to the school that day.  She had work from eight to five. And, filling her mother’s empty and rather dusty shoes, Jessica took it into her own hands to play the honored part in the tradition.

But first–before we get there–a word about Roxie Black, and about nicknames.

PART II ➞

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April 13, 2013

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