Ants congregate around the newest patch of filth on the floor, travelling in a thin file from a crack in the wall above the counter, down the wood and across the linoleum to a discoloured blotch on the carpet beside her bed. Mari approaches them, spray in hand, feeling the stale chips and bread crumbs crunching under her feet, thinking back to the moths in her drawers and the spider's nest she just eradicated in the bathroom, and wonders why she even bothers. Her apartment wasn't clean when she moved in and it hasn't been since, so why even try? It was starting to get dangerously close to an infestation now. The heat must be bringing them out, she reasons, feeling the sweat sticky on her skin like the sunscreen she really should be wearing.
Maybe some tiny insect roommates aren't so bad. No, she thinks, I can't have these things breeding where I sleep. They meet the same fate as the infant spiders.
Delila, a short girl with long, spidery limbs and clothes all the same putrid shade of flamingo pink, meets her outside the building and they catch the bus to school together. The seats on the bus are viscous from numerous unidentifiable spills, just like her carpet.
It's even more suffocatingly hot in school than it was outside, and the sensation makes bile climb up Mari's throat. As they walk Delila prattles on about her perfect, frizz-free hair and what the humidity will do to it.
'What class do we have first up?' Mari asks as they reach their lockers.
'Science. We're working with Sulphur – mixing it with stuff, or whatever. Something boring.'
The classroom, like everywhere else, is hot.
During recess, they eat together in their homeroom. Mari finishes reading their English text, while Delila complains about her homework and flings food at the boys on the adjacent table. Cheeks flushed and hair sticking to foreheads like ink on paper, the class is listless and no one feels very much like eating. This makes the few who are particularly rowdy much more noticeable.
Up in the front corner of the room a group of girls are making a fuss, their obnoxious laughter catching Mari's attention. She stands up and looks over the crowd of heads to the noisiest culprit – a girl she recognises standing over one she does not.
'Leave it,' Delila says, smiling, 'Wren's just playing a joke.'
Mari doesn't respond and just continues watching, hearing Wren's shrill voice grow louder as the other girl doesn't respond. Mari tries to concentrate on her, but still cannot place that head of long, dark hair. She furrows her brows and rounds her desk, despite Delila's protests, and makes her way towards the group.
'What's going on?' she asks.
Wren snorts. 'Nothing, what's going on with you?' She sits on edge of the desk. Mari looks down at Mae, a recent new student, and instantly feels stupid for not recognising her. Mae isn't someone who is easily forgotten, at least appearance-wise. Her pale skin looks almost translucent with the way her cheek bones jut out and thin blue veins bulge along her neck, right cheek and arms. Her face is unremarkable, aside from her pointy nose and slightly hollow cheeks, making her look impish. Her hair is oil – black, shiny and flat against her skin like a dark stain. She's hideous, but in an ethereal kind of way. Like a goblin or faery.
Mae stares at her with dull eyes, making her instantly uncomfortable. Mari forces her eyes back to Wren, but Mae's lingering gaze makes her feel violated.
'Just wondering if you could keep it down, some of us are studying.'
Wren laughs. 'Well that sucks for you. Put some headphones in or something, I'm talking to my friend.'
'Really? Because it doesn't look like she's doing much talking,' Mari says, avoiding the urge to glance at Mae, but still registering her minute nod.
Wren sees it too and rolls her eyes with a huff. Clearly the heat is getting to her too. 'Whatever, girl's a retard anyway,' she says and struts back to her seat, muttering something about people being overly dramatic.
'Thank you,' Mae says, voice scratchy and void of even a hint of gratitude.
Mari nods and slowly makes her way back to her seat, sure there are bones missing from her legs.
'So, what happened?' Delila asks, fiddling with the cap of her drink bottle.
'Huh?' It takes Mari a moment to register her words, heart and muscles vibrating for reasons she can't place. 'Oh, it was just Mae.'
Delila's hands freeze. 'Mae? You didn't, like, talk to her, did you?'
'Yeah,' she replies slowly. What could be wrong with that?
Delila shakes her head, making a crude cross in the air in front of Mari. 'Bless your poor, uninformed soul.'
'Why, what's going on?'
'That girl is cursed.'
The kettle clicks off beside her and she pours the boiling water into a Styrofoam cup. She doesn't feel much like eating, but still forced herself to mount the plastic stool beside the sink and make something. Mari pulls a bowl out of the overhead cupboard, placing it on the chipped, peeling wooden counter. She spills the content of the cup into the bowl. Two minute noodles aren't a nutritious dinner, but she can't bring herself to do any proper cooking. Leaning her elbows on the counter and laying her forehead in her palms, she tries to even out her breathing. She's had a continuous ache in the centre of her abdomen, just below her rib cage, since her last class, and it's been getting worse. She tells herself it's just from stress – that living alone can do this to you. Bile rises in her throat and she ways it down with a mouthful of starch. The weight of the processed mush rips her stomach open and leaves her gripping her chest in a desperate attempt to stay in one piece. She spits a colourful mixture of food, bile and snot into the sink. The pool is yellow, flecked with red that she chooses to ignore.
The cup crashes onto the tiles, spewing chipped porcelain, noodles and hot water everywhere. The ants don't seem to mind.
Mari wakes in the middle of the night to something trying to burrow out of her stomach, like a caged rat. She spreads her arms wide and groans, breathing shallow from pain and the fear that if she breaths in too far she'll end up choking on vomit. She lays there until the building pressure becomes too much and she rolls out of bed, the weight of her own organs moving around making hot tears fall. She slides onto the floor and crawls to the toilet, hands and knees crushing bugs and bread crumbs alike as she goes, where she coughs up bile that comes out feeling like pureed organs. There's more red, and this time she looks at it, floating chunks in the toilet bowl, and shivers. She curls up on the floor and cries herself to sleep.
This is how she wakes up in the morning, and how she stays until the phone rings in the afternoon. She pulls herself up using the basin, and briefly catches sight of her pasty, sweat covered face in the mirror. She looks into her own sunken, black-rimmed eyes and laughs. What a hideous metamorphosis; she should really go to the hospital.
She stumbles into the next room and collapses onto the bed, grappling for the phone on the bedside table.
'Hello,' she croaks.
'Hey, it's Del, you weren't at school today, you alright?' Delila's high voice chirps down the line, making Mari pull the phone away from her ear and grimace. How the hell does she listen to that sound every day?
'I'm okay, just a bit sick.'
'Are you sure? You're breathing really heavy.'
'Actually, could you come over? I feel like total shit, so I'd rather not be alone.' Mari pulls her knees up to her chest. The pressure on her stomach makes the pain worse, but she doesn't feel like stretching out anymore. She just wants to curl up and never move again.
Delila is silent for a few moments. 'Well,' she hesitates, 'I already promised Wren I'd go into town with her and the others, so maybe tomorrow? Sorry.'
Mari sighs. 'Forget it.' She hangs up.
Her head collapses back against the headboard and she considers phoning her neighbours and seeing if someone can bring a bucket over. She doesn't think she can make it back to the toilet. Her thoughts are cut off by a slow, hard knock at her front door.
She sinks her legs down and brushes her toes against the carpet. She waits until the second bout of knocks, sure that the disturber hasn't left, and uses the bedside table to force herself up. Her usually pale legs are taking on a grey hue, and the veins are thicker, looking like long, dark bruises. Where the bruises are there is a numb pressure, making walking even more difficult than it was last night.
She swings the door open and collapses on top of whoever's behind it. The stranger drags her back inside and carefully sits her on the mattress, an arm around her back for support. She catches familiar black hair in the corner of her vision and recognises the voice that starts humming in her ear.
'Mae,' she starts, but is cut off by a gurgling in the back of her throat.
She lifts her head to meet Mae's dull eyes. 'Why? What's happening?'
Mae shrugs and leans her head on Mari's shoulder. 'You'll be fine.'
Mari stares at her, or at least what she can see. Her hair's not as greasy as it looks from a distance, and her arms seem strong, though that may just because she's so weak. Her spine looks bumpy and crooked through the back of her t-shirt, which may account for her always walking with a hunch. She's not that strange, and Mari feels bad for judging her. She doesn't understand why the other girls are so cruel. Then Delila's words resurface.
'Apparently you're cursed,' she mumbles, leaning into the warmth.
Mae chuckles. 'Some people die, and others like to exaggerate.'
Mari shivers, and it's not from sickness. 'Is that why you're here? Am I going to die?'
Mae moves her hands up Mari's back and strokes her hair. 'I don't know.'
She's burning up. The pain increases, her muscles tense and shake and it feels like molten hot rocks from volcanos are moving through her veins, so she curls further into Mae, who keeps petting. Something is pushing against her back from the inside, trying to break through muscles and shatter her spine.
She rips away from Mae and doubles over, forehead smack against her knees. After a night of illness and a day spent dehydrated, each breath is hot and sharp in her throat, and she can't even voice the agony as a tearing erupts from inside and blood starts dripping from her nose. It flows into her mouth and drips onto her bare legs and her eyes shut to block it all out. A bony hand rubs gentle circles on her back and the muscles stretch and writhe in response, skin changing shape under unwavering touch. Her body is changing and every twitch is new and unnatural and wrong.
'It's okay,' a voice whispers from just above her ear. 'I'm right here.'
And it's over. Within seconds something – a thing – climbs through her skin, leaving a massacre of red behind. Mae welcomes it like a proud parent.