The bathtub faucet is dripping like a bleeding wound. Its rhythm tracks, one-two,one-two, constant as a heartbeat. In the dingy yellowed light, Ruby shines with sweat, breathing mouthfuls of honey. They are deep into July’s murky underbelly, and still the heating system rattles on, heaving more warmth into the cramped space. It all leeches out of Cora. She retreats further into her several layers of clothing, curled up on the bathroom floor, shudders wracking the empty ribs.
“You’re sure they’re not rotting?” She asks.
Ruby shakes her head. “Your teeth are fine, Cora. They’re normal teeth.”
“But you’re sure? I saw — there’s a dark spot, on that one back there — it’s spreading, I think. Look.” She shoves cold fingers into the mouth, to grasp at a molar, but Ruby catches the hand in her own. Once, Cora would have pulled away on instinct, like touching a hot stove; now, though, she’s gotten used to the way Ruby scalds. The heat cuts straight to the bone, blinding, almost painful. Cora doesn’t move.
“Cora, listen. Nothing’s spreading. There’s nothing to spread. Your teeth are fine.”
“You’re really sure?”
“Yeah. Honest to God.”
The faucet drips. The building gapes, all empty spaces and mismatched angles. They are in its belly. “...It lied to me again.” Cora says, “The Body.”
She and the Body do not get along these days. She and the Body are chained together, a nothing lashed to a something.
Ruby knows. She frowns. “That again, huh?”
Another wave comes, cruel and punishing, twisting inside the Body’s stomach. Cora grips at the abdomen with blunted nails, wrenches its eyes closed. She tells herself she could be anywhere, like this, with the world shut out. Someplace years and years away, in a home that makes sense. A home that isn’t this place, rotting from the inside. A home that isn’t the Body, tearing itself in two.
“It’s lying.” Her voice is ragged. “It told me the teeth were rotting, and the gums were crawling away to nothing. It hurts — hurts here, it won’t let me sleep. The insides are tying themselves up. They’re in knots.”
“You need to eat something.”
Cora blinks the eyes open, stares through the hazy orange light. Ruby isn’t making sense. Cora reaches for the right words to tell her so, but they all get muddied together in the fog. Ruby is a blur of warm colour, blinding heat. The smell scorches the Body’s throat.
“I’m gonna make you something.” Ruby declares, before she stands, and leaves It and Cora alone.
She shuts the world out. In her mind, in the dark, she can almost believe that neither of them are here. They are somewhere else, sometime before — they are walking in the daytime, down the streets, past storm-swollen gutters and monuments of trash. The Body is a brittle old house, its walls thinned out from years of storms; the cold sets in deep. At its side, Ruby burns like a beacon, radiating heat. Cora toes around leylines, steps over cracks, avoids stains on the asphalt; all the while, Ruby kicks pebbles and trash up the sidewalks, her hands shoved haphazardly into the pockets of her old bluejeans. Even here, Ruby speaks in a feverish rush, as if the words are occurring to her all at once and she needs to hurry them out before they die away forever. Cora doesn’t mind; words are coming to her slowly these days. They have just met, out on the steps of the 7-11 where Ruby isn’t allowed to go anymore because of a thrown bottle and a broken nose. Neither of them understand, yet, how wrong things are.
“So, the Body.” Casually, with so much interest. Before Ruby knew any better. “What’s up with it? Why’s it not you anymore?”
Cora gives a feeble shrug. “It just isn’t.”
“How do you know it’s not you?”
“It hurts me for no reason. It changes and lies. It stops me from sleeping...”
“Every time I look.”
“Well. All the skin peels off sometimes.”
Ruby grins crookedly. “Like a lizard?”
“Sure. Or the limbs get too long, or the spine twists up, or some of the bones go away. Sometimes the face rearranges, and it takes me hours to find the right order again. But only I can see it, or else everybody would know. It likes it when it’s just me.”
“Well, now I know. What’s it think of me?”
Cora pauses, gauging the insides for a response. She searches through the systems, one-by-one: circulatory, respiratory, digestive, all in their tangled mess. The Body offers nothing, void and empty. “...Can’t tell yet. We’re not exactly on speaking terms.”
Ruby laughs, kicks the remains of a bird’s nest. “Guess we’ll have to figure it out.”
They walk. Along the trash-bloated river, rising up in a body of mildewed clapboard, there is a house. Cora stands there on the bank, staring into its cracked, vacant eyes. She isn’t sure what she’s looking for — some sign of life, maybe — but it isn’t there.
Ruby doesn’t care to look. Rather, she picks up a crumbling brick and hurls it through a window, glass shattering with a blinding crash.
Cora feels almost betrayed, for a reason she can’t quite place. “Why’d you do that?” She asks. Between them, the air stirs, tousling Ruby’s bright hair; all at once, the smell hits Cora hard enough to make the stomach lurch. Ash, and cinders, and ruin. Ruby smells like a burning building, a walking house on fire.
“Cuz I can.” She says. “Why not? It’s nobody’s home now.”
Cora blinks, says nothing. Ruby kicks an empty beer bottle hard enough to send it reeling into the house’s siding. “I hate this fucking place, anyway. I wish they’d just burn it down and put it out of its goddamn misery. I’m sick of watching it rot.”
The world turns and trudges on. Here, now, from the kitchen, a glass drops and shatters. Ruby curses under her breath, but Cora knows it wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t a threat either. It’s just Ruby, doing what she does to reign in all of the bad things.
The dizziness recedes enough for Cora to stand, so she drags the Body out of the bathroom, avoiding the mirror all the way.
The kitchen is even worse at night. Every angle looks diseased, its objects all watching, waiting. Ruby is standing at the counter, furiously buttering a piece of burnt toast. With her back turned, in her thin tank-top all damp with sweat, Cora can’t help but look; there’s a smattering of scar tissue worming its way across her back and arms, shining dimly in the light from the window.
“You never said what that’s from.”
The unspoken becomes spoken and hangs between them. Every muscle in Ruby’s body tenses, poised to spring, but she doesn’t turn. Doesn’t have to ask.
“They’re burns. From getting burnt.” And then, returning to motion: “It doesn’t matter, anyway. They’re healed now.”
Cora’s voice dips very low. “What happened to it?”
There is violence in that word. Ruby flinches as if struck, and turns all at once. “Me, Cora. Me.” Knuckles gone white around that chipped plate. “My body isn’t some thing that stuff happen to, it’s mine. I control it.”
Cora stands motionless, watching Ruby’s hands shake. There is a sigh, a steadying, as the tremors recede and Ruby softens herself again.
“Here. Sorry it’s burnt. I dunno how I keep doing that.”
She holds out the plate as if it’s an offering; the Body’s stomach writhes, but Cora steels herself. The Body is a haunted place, a hungry, evil place. She cannot, she must not relinquish control.
So she says, “I can’t.”
“Cora, please. You need to eat.”
“Not now. Not that. The Body isn’t allowed.”
“Will you eat anything else, then?”
“Not allowed.” Cora echoes.
Something desperate passes over Ruby’s features, and that heat in her voice overflows again. “For Christ’s sake, I’m not just gonna watch you —” But she catches herself, dampens the
anger with a heavy sigh. There’s no use. The Body doesn’t yield to rage any more than it does to starvation.
Setting the plate on the countertop, Ruby reaches out to take the Body’s face into her hands. The touch of her burns, scalds, straight through the meat and into the marrow. That smoke-smell is everywhere, stinging the lungs, filling the head. Cora leans into it. Ruby hasn’t held the Body this way in a long while.
They stand like that, saying nothing. The apartment’s inner systems continue to work around them, trudging through the processes of life. Cora is looking out from in, and Ruby’s looking back, staring at her through the mess of the Body.
“You’re gonna kill each other, y’know.” Ruby says it out loud for the first time. It feels like a curse.
Cora just shakes the head. “No, no. I won’t let it win.”
Perhaps Ruby wants to say the right things, but the right things have never come easily. Instead, she closes in on the Body’s bones, enveloping it in her heat. Cora goes willingly, head bowed. This house is on fire, but it’s the only place she can sleep.
Hailing from Nova Scotia, Abigail Muise is a lifelong writer currently pursuing an Honours B.A. in English at the University of Ottawa.