Image of a spider on a red flower petal.

0. Web

There was no before bugs. Always after, forever. They were stalkers; lovers; crazed, preening parents; their eggs bitten into the side of my face. They danced on my molars and hid in my gums. They echoed my thoughts as I had them, especially the soft ones, forming like cotton between the teeth, and the violent ones, burning at those I hated. Like Rosemary. God, Rosemary was a bitch, and the bugs thought so too. 

And then other times they disagreed. They’d scatter, scratch, consume when my surfaces concaved, when I tried to open myself and give way to the body beneath, the bite on my cheek nearly bursting. 

1. Egg

There’s a story about a spider that lays eggs on a girl’s face. She lives in a poorly kept place of scattered laundry, moldy bread, and curdled milk; wrappers on the many surfaces of her bedroom. Mom said she once saw a bug crawl out of a man’s ear; saw them hop along his torso like crickets in a meadow. He was ill, in disrepair, alone; later, when the hospice staff went to retrieve his things, they found his house piled with newspapers and trash bags. Unkempt, just like the girl. 

Spiders like stink because other bugs do too. They like sweaters and socks. Leave them too long on the floor and, next time you wear them, you’ll get a scattering of welts down your back or arm or along your collarbone.

But I keep my room clean. Mom works for hospice and comes home in blue sheets, undresses before the dryer, and then scrubs the house top to bottom; and when she does this I do too. Bugs, she says. I don’t want any bugs. I keep no wrappers, no bin; I eat only in the kitchen. I never let anything on my floor for more than a few minutes because the floor must be spotless, otherwise cockroaches and ants will come. 

We’re not like your aunt, Mom will joke on these days. 

Mom and my aunt slept with ants and mites in their beds as kids, went to school with the sores down their arms, were avoided by everyone. And one time I went to my aunt’s house and watched them emerge from the seams in the floor by the thousands. Up the walls, in the cabinets. I knew it was because she didn’t clean. Cobwebbed cabinets, expired cans of corn and beans, and in the bathroom, piss-colored grout between hideously pink tiles.  

Sugar ants, aunt called them. Harmless. 

The night before I get the boil, I have the sensation of bugs running over my arms and through my hair. I turn on a light to check but see nothing. I shake my blankets and nothing. I slap my cheeks and pull my hair. And yet they’d managed, somehow, a red bump on my cheek, hot, painful.

Mom says it’s a bug bite. She wipes Neosporin over it and peruses the perpetrator: does it itch (mosquitos)? Does it sting (ants)? Does it burn (spiders)? 

This bite burns. But at what point would a spider have made it into my things? Mom points to the clothes on my floor that morning, and after the Neosporin I run over to tuck them away in my hamper in the closet. You need to be more careful, she tsks. She pulls from the hallway closet a vacuum, and all breakfast before school a hum radiates into the kitchen from my bedroom, tickling my teeth. I press a fingernail into the bite-center and something small pushes back. 

Before we leave for school, mom hauls a load of laundry toward the washer, the same clothes I’d tossed on the floor that morning. 

Can’t be too careful, she says. 

2. Sac

Is that a zit? 

Rosemary smirks across the cafeteria table, inches from my face, pulling herself forward the moment I put down my tray, and our friends nervously glance back and forth between us, pausing a beat on me. 

When the lunch bell rings, Rosemary and I wait outside the other Class B rooms near the lockers for our friends, not saying a word. Then we file to the lunchroom, neatly, me ahead, Rosemary at back, choosing our food from refrigerated walls and hot plates. I get water and yogurt and the other girls get something similar, except Rosemary, who piles her tray with the Meal of the Day (Tuesday: chili cheese dog). We say nothing, even in the checkout line. One of the girls might mention something about another classmate ahead or behind, and we’ll share a laugh; otherwise, nothing. 

But Rosemary, quiet from the winding-up of a comment only funny to her, will wait until the moment we enter the lunchroom to say the biggest, worst thing to me. 

It’s a bug bite, I respond, sitting down lightly and not bothering to look at her reaction. 

I’m pretty sure it’s a zit. 

She laughs. She stretches herself again across the table, bending her neck obnoxiously this way and that so either way her eyes are unavoidable. I’m struck by her face. She’s dewed like she hasn’t showered in a week, like a flower cut down the middle, water seeping from the stems. 

I fight the urge to bite her nose off. I watch her unwaveringly. 

Let me pop it for you.

I hate Rosemary. We used to be friends then quickly weren’t. She wasn’t like the other girls and this annoyed me: she grew fast last summer, a head above myself, and thickened in her legs and chest before any girl our age did. I maybe never would. And the boys tailed behind, chasing after the crumbs she’d leave them, never saying yes but also never saying no. Maybe I hated her for that, too. 

It’s a bug bite.

Even so, she begins again, settling in her seat. The other girls at our table turn to talk to each other, about homework or something, no longer interested, disturbed by the intensity. If it’s a bug bite, you’re dirty. If it’s a zit, you’re still dirty. She takes a finger and combes the mascara under her eyelashes. Rosemary’s mom doesn’t care if she wears makeup, doesn’t stop her before the door to see if her outfits are appropriate for school, like mine. I hate her for that as well. 

My cheek moves. A thousand little feet tap, as if something begins walking around inside me. I stand quickly and rush to the restroom, and Rosemary leaves something in the air for me, maybe for the other girls too, but I can’t hear anything anymore, just the tapping.

In the bathroom mirror I remove my hand. The welt is bigger. Less bug bite and more zit with a head. I frantically wet a paper towel with cold water and wipe down my face. I hold the towel to my cheek for a while and stare at myself, at the rash forming on my forehead and chin, but I feel so far away I can barely register anything. I’m in my body and out of it, at the same time, vibrating loudly.

3. Spiderling

I ask Rosemary to the dance. Get ready at my place and walk down just a little before 7, like we’d always planned when the idea of middle school was a dream in our elementary heads. I say this as we stand ritually in the hallway before Class B near the lockers, casually, and I don’t know why. 

I’ve changed these last few days. My favorite thing to do is ignore people that talk to me, like the other girls when they ask things like what are you doing this weekend? And do you think you’ll go to the dance with anyone? I pretend not to hear them, shrug like I couldn’t be bothered, or say something horrible, unexpected, cleaving the air when I do, and all around me the feeling of bubbles, a thousand little poppings of joy. I’m suddenly bored and itching for everything to end. 

I’m more surprised at Rosemary’s agreeing than my asking. She’s quick to say yes, like she’s been waiting all this time. It changes her a little, and she walks to lunch behind me, taking up space in front of the others, and when we sit down, she’s right next to me, ignoring their glances.

Rosemary arrives after dinner. Mom has gone rogue with the rugs, draping them dripping wet on every imaginal outdoor surface, to rid the house of smells. I hide my dime-sized bite behind a Band-Aid. Mom comes out of the kitchen to say hi, washcloth in gloved-hand, and to reiterate that my room better be clean, nicely, sweetly, gritted through teeth clenched three days in a row. I haven’t cleaned since I got the bite. I’m sick of cleaning, but also, what’s the point? I leave a trash trail to my room, like I’m begging for an infestation, as mom puts it. My cheeks burn and I grab Rosemary’s hand and run to my bedroom, locking the door behind. 

When I turn around Rosemary just stands there, holding her opposite hand over the strap of her duffle bag. I’ve never seen her that way: eyes soft and arms folded and herself withdrawn, wordless. It makes me want to laugh and yell at the same time.

Don’t be so weird, I say, kicking clothes under my bed. 

She puts down her bag and sits at my desk.

We’re quiet for a while. I don’t want to say anything either. My jaw aches from the bite throbbing all day. 

Rosemary goes first, saying, breathily, like she doesn’t want to—should we get ready?

I throw three planned outfits on my bed, all red variants. God, Rosemary says, these’ll look great. I flip my hair over my shoulder, mhm confidently, then ask if she’d like to have one.

Rosemary is poor. Even though she brings a duffle bag for her stay, I know it’s a courtesy, I know there’s nothing inside for the dance—I know Rosemary. Rosemary’s mom doesn’t buy her clothes, just clothes for her older siblings, and Rosemary gets the leftovers. When we were younger, she’d sneak my clothes home with her and then, when she’d return, deny it. These fights ended with mom grabbing me by the arm, saying, she has so much less than you, and then driving to the mall. It became a ritual—leave out clothes I didn’t like, have them taken, go to the mall. 

Not sure these would fit me, she says. 

I forget, somehow, that Rosemary is a woman. I feel the flatness of my chest profoundly, like a slate of granite carved into haphazardly, leaving spots where breasts should go. 

In a moment I’m on my bed looking out the window to the backyard. Mom draws the water from the rugs with her arm in slates, attempting to speed up what would obviously be a long and laborious cleaning spree. I laugh. I’ve got an idea. I pull Rosemary into mom’s room, where clothes wide and long stretch from one end of the room to the next, dresses that bulge at the chest and hips. I pull them out one by one, but the purple-red one especially, where the neckline reaches low. Rosemary can’t help herself, I know, and she’s over them in a second. She picks up one and twirls with it pressed up against her, laughing.

 I’m annoyed. I scratch my face. Not that one, I say. She’s picked up mom’s easter favorite, the one worn when the neighboring kids come over to hunt eggs left all over our yard, the one with pleats for flower-blooming spins, the neckline a frilly trunk. 

I pick up the purple-red and press it against her, a little too forcefully, and when I do I feel a lurching inside, like I might vomit, but at the same time it comes in perceptible waves, and I ignore it. I cock my head like I’ve got nothing better to do than pretend I’m doing this as a favor and that I’m not about to throw up on her. 

This one would look hot, I say. 

I’ve never used that word before. My cheeks burn.

Rosemary isn’t shy showing off the dress. She comes out of the bathroom swinging left to right, spinning, hair up with mom’s clip, and suddenly I’m fixed on the waves of her twirled hair, golden at the edges, and her skin, darkening at angles—under the eyes, under her arms, on her knuckles, and Rosemary spins again, this time landing to face me, hair falling—dark light, black golden, red purple. 

When I open my mouth to say something, to say I hate or I love, a slender black leg steps onto my lip. 

4. Adult

The walk to the school is silent. My house is one block from the school, a five-minute walk. Mom’s still cleaning when we leave, and I make sure to close my door before we do so she thinks we’re still in there. Not that she minds me going to the dance. I just want her to find out badly, to feel shocked when she opens the door and sees no one. 

I say nothing because I can feel bugs in my mouth, I think. But maybe I can’t, or maybe Rosemary saw, and maybe Rosemary thinks I’m a freak. I wait for her to speak first. But she doesn’t. It annoys me. I take a chance and spit and out of my mouth comes saliva–just saliva.

Why are you being so weird?

I’m nervous, she says. It occurs to me that she might be meeting a boy at the dance; a thought that originates from nothing, just a feeling, the way she looks, the way the air parts between us, the way the day slips behind the school just up ahead. When I look over at her she has her arms hugged around her waist and her shoulders curved around her torso and the clip, leaking hair again. She looks beautiful and sad at the same time. A gnawing fills my face and I hide my cheek with my hand. The bite radiates heat, even at a distance. Rosemary looks at me. 

What’s wrong with you

She asks this playfully. But it’s half-hearted. Like she doesn’t want to be caught dead with me—this ugly, flat, slender thing infested with bugs. 

Nothing, I say quickly, spitting again. I press down on the Band-aid. Don’t be such a fucking idiot

Another phrase I haven’t really used before. It feels odd when I let it out, and I want to put it back immediately, in the reserves of my mind where drunks use it to berate the wives they don’t love, parents the kids they didn’t want. I wait for a retort but there isn’t one; Rosemary looks at the ground the whole rest of the way. 

There’s a long line to get into the gymnasium. We wait with our IDs in hand. The fact that they need to card us is dumb; this is a middle school, not a night club, some kid says. And they have one person carding, and he’s only letting in a few kids at a time. Several stand against the entrance to the side, tossed from the line for not having IDs.

All of us, annoyed, bounce asynchronously from one foot to another, carrying the heat on our backs like raincoats, and Rosemary’s hair is now nearly completely out of the clip, but she doesn’t notice. Neither do any of the other guys that glare at her back or turn around several times to look at her. Neither of us are talking still, and I refrain from opening my mouth at all, afraid of what might come out. 

When it’s our turn the man—now recognizable as one of the seventh-grade Class A teachers—asks for IDs. I pull mine out immediately, but Rosemary swats her hands around the dress like she’s shaking off roaches. 

Oh god, she says. I left it in my other outfit. 

I roll my eyes. 

No ID, the teacher says, no entry. 

You fucking know us, I say, using that word again. He looks at me amusedly. Prick, I think, my bite stinging. Prick prick prickprick. I think it a thousand times. He glances away, then back, throwing his arms on his hips, laughing a little. 

No ID, he says again. No entry. 

Rosemary looks at me. She wants me to make a choice in that moment: go in or stay with her. I have no reason to stay with her. She’s always been a nuisance. But I feel compelled. Maybe it’s the way the heat is coming down in curtains, heavy and unavoidable, or maybe it’s the way she looks at me, like a child does a parent. She’s fucked up and so sorry for always needing something. I pull her arm, yank it, really, and we stand against the doors with the others.

Josh, dressed in black, turns to us quickly. Unlike the other guys he’s looking at us both. I cover my cheek. He’s an eighth grader, he says, and has done this before. He’s never even had a school ID and gets in every time. He tells us to wait until the teacher leaves, which he always does when the line dwindles, then disappears. 

After an hour, when the sun has nearly set, an early September sunset—bluey-orange and black—the teacher stands from his chair, picks up his bag, waves at the kids against the door, says careful getting home, then leaves, just like that. And the stranded ID-less kids file inside, one by one, and as I take up a spot between them, it occurs to me that they’re all boys.

I lose Rosemary almost immediately after getting inside. We’re side-by-side with Josh leading, him towering above us both, until we reach the gym, down the steps and hallways, and the lights are off and nothing is visible except bodies. I don’t recognize anyone, not the teachers, if there are any, not the students, and in the scramble of scanning—the gym, the hallway leading to the gym, the steps leading to the entrance, and the bathrooms just perpendicular and a table opposite with refreshments—I lose them both. I think they’ve gone into the dark gym with music, but I don’t know for sure. Kids file down the hallway into the gym and then back out, and I get nauseous watching it all. I can’t stop guessing everyone’s next movements, every single thought and idea and desire. 

At the refreshments table, the light is blinding, and I can barely make out anything. Someone touches my arm and shouts indiscernible words at me. It’s one of the girls. I don’t even recognize her. She’s got a cup of punch pressed to her chest and she’s laughing, and nothing she says reaches me because it’s so loud. Her hair is put up in blonde, curly florets. I pour myself punch and pretend to drink but instead spit, pull the cup away, hold it to the light and look: a gloss hovers on the surface. Saliva.

 Jesus, I say finally. Why are you talking so much? 

She places her hand over her mouth. She’s looking at me like she might laugh or cry. 

Then she leans in close so that I feel her breath paired with the word: Alcohol.

 She points to her cup. Then the punch bowl. I scope: no one’s manning the table—should there be a teacher, a parent?—I swivel: kids line the wall to the gym, all down the hallway, kids I’ve never seen before, girls paired with boys tall and dressed in black, girls who have no idea how to do their makeup, who have done it anyway and look old and young at the same time.

I slam my cup on the table and rush to the bathrooms. Girls, older girls, stand at the mirror fixing lined waterlines, blackening their eyes into bruised circles, and I slip into a stall. My face is on fire. My whole body itches—I pull at the skin on my shoulders, my sternum. Tears cool my vibrating cheeks. I don’t want anyone to hear, but don’t care, and it doesn’t matter: the music is so loud I can’t even hear myself. I slip to the floor. I take a deep breath and close my eyes, press my face against the stall door. 

The girls are talking about eighth grade boys. The eighth-grade boys. They’re high schoolers, one says, her voice rising with a misplaced excitement. They always do this, the other girl says. They think they’re so clever. Cute though, the other girl adds, and they laugh, clink their toiletries, zip their bags, unstick their faux leather purses from the bathroom floor. Feel bad for the younger girls, one of them adds. That’s, like, fucked up. And before they leave: don’t they want to be old?

My phone vibrates. The girls pause, turn around; my coltish legs bend beneath the stall door. I hit end. Then the music deadens: door closed. 

Where are you?

Mom, done cleaning. Rugs spotless. Door open. 

Why are my dresses left out on the bed?

The frilly one, worn at easter, neckline high.

Jesus fucking Christ, mom pings again, so unlike her. What’s gotten into you?

I turn off my phone. 

Two songs. Three songs. I’m still on the floor. Rosemary, so much a woman, and so not, the way she was dressed, hair in pinned tangles and straps slipping from the shoulders. But no: the lights, the music, the compulsion, the heat trapping us, the way the night slipped away, the way the gymnasium unfolded before us, I remember now, so clearly, Josh letting a hand drift to his side, Rosemary awkwardly grabbing it, and me letting them move away, into the gym, the dark, the music; the question, the dress, the IDs, the punch. 

I lift myself over the toilet bowl now, too sick to hold it back, and out of me, blackness. 

0. Web

When I found them, it wasn’t the recognition of their twisted bodies that signaled danger; not Rosemary’s badly clipped hair, not the red-purple dress, imperceptible in the dark, not Josh’s full black outfit and unwieldy grin, not his height, her hunching, his hovering, one leg bent between hers—not recognition, feeling: their weight, hers sinking and his leaning, and by the time I reached them, by the time I pulled him away and slammed him against the gymnasium walls, I could feel the thing on my cheek exhale; the heavy imperceptible taps of their feet and legs, draining the blood from my gums, pulling away the muscles in my jaw; biting and snapping and leaping. I opened my mouth.

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