For Mae Dover, making it to her sixteenth year was a struggle. With hair as flat and greasy as oil, skin so vascular and pale it's almost translucent, and a downturned nose which makes her resemble a curlew or an ibis, she's never been popular. This has never bothered her, though. She's always preferred her own company.
Mae grew up in a rural town with her parents and older brother. They weren't particularly affectionate people and mostly kept to themselves. When needed they regarded each other with polite and familial chatter, but otherwise favoured silent indifference. When they did interact publicly, it was careful and rehearsed, and only for the purpose of furthering their community standing. The neighbours noticed this strange dynamic, and it did bother them, but no one ever commented on it. Though reserved, they were kind and agreeable people, and seemed harmless.
This changed three years ago, when her brother dropped out of school and got a job at a local ranch. Their parents were shocked, but his employers were rich and well liked, so they accepted it. There, he discovered he liked horses more than women, and after his boss caught him behind the stables with his prize-winning mare, the rest of the town discovered it as well. Fearing for the tattered remains of the reputation she had worked painstakingly hard to build, her mother became a jittery mess of knitting needles and radical conservative ideals.
'Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.' She would quote in a quiet lull, smiling to herself while sowing the hem of a dress level with Mae's ankles. Her nervous shaking led her to constantly nick her daughter, leaving a cluster of pin prick scars on her limbs like miniature constellations. Mae never complained though, standing obediently as her mother worked.
After each quote Mae muttered a quiet 'amen', earning an approving nod. Her mother then helped her off the chair and tied her hair back in a bun taut against her skull. Determined to prove she hadn't been responsible for her son's perversions, she focused all her attentions on Mae and the preservation of her purity.
Eventually the stress became too much, and she hanged herself in an abandoned tin shed. Her body wasn't found until weeks later when the summer heat was at its peak, filling the town with the most horrendous, rotten stench. Mae couldn't deny the relief she felt, especially when her father enrolled her in a city school, where no one knew her name. She was in her own apartment by the day after the funeral.
Someone drops into the chair beside her, and she glances up briefly to see who it is. Phoebe Clover – sharp bones wrapped in tight black fabric, gaudy pink lipstick, blond wire hair from cheap bleaching, and eyes framed by lashes like spiders' legs. Her face is long like a horse's, and her body is too. She's the kind of beauty even her brother would look twice at. Sitting beside Mae can't be anything more than a calculated move to make her herself appear more desirable, but still she plasters on a plastic smile and holds out a bag of liquorice bullets. When Mae doesn't react, she shrugs and dips her long fingers, pink flecked nails chewed down to the skin, into the bag.
'It's Mae, isn't it?' Phoebe asks, voice laced with honey and a slight lisp left over from years wearing braces.
'Yes,' she replies, sighing. She can't concentrate with someone's staring at her. She closes her book and clasps her hands together on the desk. Her fingers are short and covered in thin blue veins, like snakes slithering against her muscles, and her nails are clear and neat. 'Is there something you need?'
'What're you reading?'
Mae shakes her head. 'None of your business.'
For dinner Mae cooks Campanelle pasta in a store-bought cheese sauce. It tastes soggy and bland, like everything else she makes, and like everything else she doesn't mind. Her brother used to make gnocchi with sauce created using tomatoes and spices harvested from their garden. No matter how hard she tried, nothing he made could ever compare, so she doesn't bother anymore. The News plays a story about a local shooting, and she becomes engrossed in thoughts of the devastation and carnage that must have been involved. She wonders if the victims fought back, or if shock and fear took over. She wonders how much the victims bleed, and what a fatal blood loss looks like. She wonders if it was anything like what they show in movies. Then, she wonders what to make for dinner tomorrow night.
Insects bunch together between the books on her shelf, piling on top of each other like baby rodents. A spider size banquet of hair-legs and hard exoskeletons. She pierces a silverfish with the prong of her fork a and watches it squirm until it doesn't anymore. When she slides it off, there's no blood.
'What do your parents do?' Phoebe asks around a mouthful of a greasy pork roll. Oil runs down her makeup slathered chin and she wipes it on the sleeve of her knitted pink sweater.
'I don't know,' Mae replies. Her dad never spoke about work.
'That's weird,' Phoebe laughs, and it's a high-pitch noise like the sort Mae imagines the pig would have made before it was part of her sandwich. 'My father's a dentist.'
'Good for you.'
Mae watches the News while eating a bag of liquorice vines Phoebe gave her. She's been giving her a lot of snacks lately. Mae doesn't know the reason behind it, nor does she care. It all tastes sweet, a sweetness she never knew with her parents and barely knew with her brother, and so long as it doesn't stop she's content.
She found a letter from her brother in the mail that afternoon, and it still sits unopened on the coffee table. She'll deal with it once she finishes eating.
'Could you help me with my English essay?' Phoebe asks, applying cherry scented lips gloss in a compact mirror, coloured a revoltingly bright shade of pink which Mae has come to associate with her companion. 'Heard you got full marks last time.'
She glances at the library clock. Lunch would end soon. 'I can't.'
Phoebe follows her eyes. 'What about if you come over?'
Mae looks at her with wide eyes. 'Are you sure?'
Phoebe smiles. 'Of course, I don't mind. It could be fun.'
Mae briefly wonders if it's normal to invite a random classmate over, and if this is how people make friends. She's never had any friend to visit the home of before, and she didn't particularly need any. She has a large pile of laundry that needs doing, so she doesn't have the time. Then again, she did owe her for the snacks. 'Okay.'
Phoebe claps her hands together and holds them in front of her face, as if praying. 'That's great. I have a dentist appointment period, so can you meet me outside the dental office on Fine Streets after school?'
She reaches the rundown white brick building a bit late, and Phoebe isn't waiting for her. She sits on the poorly painted, white cement steps. The wind blows hard and cold enough to provoke a spiritual shiver, and the clouds fly past as if caught in a strong current. An unusually large click beetle makes its way across the sidewalk and she watches it. She stands back up, planning to grab the beetle and examine it like she often does with the insects in her apartment, but before she can even take a step it crawls over a gutter grate and disappears down the drain. What a stupid creature.
Mae starts walking home when, a few doors away from the dentist office, a girl scream. Curious, she follows the sound to an alleyway near the end of the street. There, she sees Phoebe, face shoved against the bricks and tights around her knees. A man is holding her by her hair and touching her. Each time she cries out, he slams her head into the bricks. Her face is smeared with blood, tears and snot, and her hoarse whimpering reminds Mae of the noises she once heard a hog make when her brother beat it with a slop bucket for getting mud on his favourite shirt. He really wasn't made for ranch work, she muses.
Once the man is finished, he throws her to the concrete and spits on her, before walking past Mae. She doesn't watch him leave, too enraptured by the disgusting display in front of her. Phoebe wipes her face on her sleeve, staining her jumper and getting mucus in her hair. She pulls at her tights, but her hands are too weak and shaky to get them up her thighs. They tear. She slumps against the wall and sobs.
Mae grows tired of the show and leaves. Phoebe's filthy jumper reminds of her she has laundry to do.
Low lights. White walls. A sterile smell, like the hospital after her brother fell out of a tree and the doctor had to glue his skull back together. This is accompanied by the sounds of drills, flowing water, and gut-wrenching screams. Phoebe sits naked on a large grey dentist chair, surrounded by shiny metal trays full of shiny metal medical and beautification tool alike. Her soft stomach and round breasts look pink and sticky. She gives Mae a closed lipped smile and beckons her forwards with a single bloody, nail-bitten finger. Mae obeys, and keeps stepping closer until her shins hit the chair and she can't go any further. Phoebe laughs and dark, coagulated fluid spills out of her mouth like gelatinous puss from an open and infected wound. She picks up a pair of tweezers and leans forward, working them between Mae's lips and taking hold of her lower left incisor, twisting. Cold stinging not stopping until the snap.
Mae wakes up drenched in sweat and with damp underpants.
Phoebe doesn't come to school for the rest of the week, or the one which follows. Mae still goes to the library every lunch time, even if she no longer feels like reading. Phoebe was supposed to meet her there every day, like she had before. She was supposed to bring her food and ask stupid questions and smile around scar stained fingers. This is twice this girl has disrupted her routine.
The second time she approaches the filthy paint-chipped building, it's entirely of her own accord. While she's rarely one to seek out social situations, her irritation and curiosity refuse to fade, so she doesn't see a choice. She doesn't linger outside for long, for some reason the lightning cracks in the pavement and ant trails like city roads don't leave her feeling very safe.
Water stained chairs, looking orange as the fruit and just as sticky, line oatmeal walls. They're filled with bug eyed, ghost faced children, looking from their parents to the door, legs shaking and adrenaline shot like cornered cats. She hovers in front of the dusty white desk of an obese woman wearing bright red lipstick and a hideous floral tunic, making her look round as a soccer ball and old as the game. The woman looks up at her with beady brown eyes and crinkles her nose. She tells Mae, with the harsh and scratchy voice of a life-long smoker, that there are no more appointments left today.
'I'm looking for Phoebe Clover. She said her father works here,' Mae explains.
The lady's frown deepens. 'Did the school send you?'
Mae glances down at her school tie and blazer. 'I'm a concerned friend.'
The woman stands and hobbles over to an open door. 'Wait here,' she says, disappearing down a hallway. After a few moments of nothing but distant mumbles and shuffling clothes, a frantic voice flitters down the hall. The white walls bleed out a tall white figure with brown snow-streaked hair and long bone-thin fingers. He smiles at her with the same softness her mother used to, and she finds it unsettling. His eyes, despite the border of damaged and greying skin, resemble someone else's, too.
'So, you're friends with my daughter?' He asks in a suffocating, cotton voice.
'Yes. Why hasn't she been at school?' Mae asks, avoiding those eyes and focusing on the glint of his plastic-perfect teeth.
His smile widens and strains like linen being pulled across a canvas. 'I'm afraid she's unwell at the moment.'
'She asked me to help her with an essay.'
He jolts in his white medical coat, struck with a lightning bolt of recognition. 'Are you Mae?'
His large forehead creases up like old wrinkled clothes. 'In that case,' his face relaxes back into that parental smile, 'would you like to visit her?'
Mae stands behind Mrs Clover as she hammers on the bathroom door. The house isn't much different to the dentistry – small, white, and reeking of far too much antiseptic. It's as if they think they can wash their problems away if they scrub a little harder. This is especially true for Phoebe, as Mae finds out when Mrs Clover opens the door. A chemical blizzard of Dettol wafts out, and the smell's so strong Mae instinctively throws both her hands over her mouth. A pressure on her back pushes her into the pristine white room and there's a muttered 'good luck' in her ear before the door clicks shut.
Phoebe is naked in the bathtub, curled over herself and looking very small. Mae examines the soft skin of her back, looking grey under the fluorescent light with darkened spots of blue bruising, and the way her ridged spine presses against her skin like chain links. She doesn't notice Mae, so she kneels on the damp tiles and runs a single finger down those sharp contours. Phoebe shivers under her touch and raises her head.
'Hey,' Phoebe says, voice raspy ad face marred by swollen eyes and red rash blotches. Their eyes meet and they reach a silent understanding – Phoebe won't talk about what happened, and Mae won't ask. After all, she already knows.
Mae can't help but think Phoebe doesn't look like herself anymore. This isn't surprising, since the image she has spent weeks cementing into her mind wasn't nearly this colourful. She's like a canvas a stranger stole and painted, and while she may not be able to appreciate the artwork Mae certainly can.
She dips her hand in the bath water. It's cold. That must be why Phoebe looks so grey. Now that Phoebe is sitting up properly Mae's eyes can wander. She thinks of her dream a few nights ago – of the metal and the blood smears and the pull-twist pain of broken teeth and bone – and how it compares to the shaking figure in front of her. They don't look so different now. Phoebe is talking again, but she isn't listening. She starts crying again with the same pig-wail as behind the dentist office, and Mae slips her hand out of the water and reaches for her breast.
Phoebe lurches back, slamming her shoulder into ice cold porcelain, and she decides not to bother. Whatever it was she'd intended to do, had been done. In these cases, it's first in, first served.
When she gets home, Mae thinks about her brother and what he would have done. She knows what he would have done, but what perplexes her is how. She certainly couldn't do it. It's a shame, really. She considers calling him or their father, but it would be useless. They would be useless. She never realised how lonely she was until now. Even the insects have abandoned her, hiding behind books and chairs to avoid a forking.
Something has settled in her stomach and is reaching out. A parasite stretching its hundreds of thin spindly limbs, grabbing everything in can touch and squeezing until it punctures both her organs and its own flesh, black ink blood bleeding into her system and rotting it from the inside out. It hurts, but she doesn't want to stop it. It's nice to feel something that's not superficial.
Any thoughts of Phoebe are shut down at the source. The pain of a benign beast she can handle, but Phoebe angers it and makes the pain so much worse. She wants to know what she's doing to her. Intellectually, she knows about love, sex, rape, assault and everything else that came into play a week ago, and it all interests her, if only because she has no comprehension of it. She'd never experienced sexual arousal of any kind before Phoebe. She hadn't even known she was capable of desiring another human being.
It's announced over the school intercom. Students cry, teachers express sympathy, and Phoebe's friends are herded off by the Chaplin for grief counselling. Nothing is said officially, but after the funeral a rumour spreads claiming it was suicide, and soon after people start talking about the assault too, although not everyone believes it happened.
Throughout all this, Mae is surprised to find she feels nothing beyond minor irritation. Her mother's death had preceded months of alcohol-fuelled tantrums, hyper-possessiveness and occasional manic episodes. It had been anticipated – welcomed even. She'd even gotten a few weeks of peace prior to the discovering of the body and subsequent gossip. This was different. This was sudden, and Mae doesn't like when things happen suddenly. She stops going to school. After a few weeks, her father calls her, wanting to know what's wrong, and she doesn't tell him what happened. It's not that important. He asks her if she got her brother's letter.
She finds it, buried under empty packets of liquorice bullets and raspberry twists she can't seem to throw out, and reads it. He's coming to visit her over the Christmas holidays. This is good news, she tells herself, as she scrunches it into a ball and hurls it at her bug-infested bookshelf. They have so much catching up to do. Maybe he'll even teach her that pasta recipe.
There's a click beetle on her coffee table that she rescued from a gutter grate. She holds her finger out and watches it crawl up into her sleeve.