Catmint wakes up to the taste of milk and baking soda. He pushes his tongue against his teeth. Swallows thick, creamy catarrh. It is five oh two. He turns to the right, slips from bed and begins.
First, he lays out Beetle’s pills on a paper napkin. Two brown circles, one large pink oval, and a white capsule filled with soluble red powder. He spaces each of them out with his smallest fingernail. Then, he tiptoes about the bedroom whilst Beetle sleeps, brushing out his hair and clipping it back, slipping into his two-strap sandals, painting his eyelids with a waxy, yellow pigment. He stands on the dresser and cleans inside the Recirculator with his fingers, and then he lifts his filthy hands above his head and closes the bedroom door with his hip.
Outside, he neatens the shoes on the shoe rack, fills the kettle to the third notch, and picks the bloated bits of rice from the sink. The grout between the tiles is cleaned. The living room rug made perpendicular to the living room wall. The showerhead left in a bucket of white vinegar.
He leaves the flat at around seven. The street is crowned with a horizon of laundry. Wires going from window to window draped with paisley sheets and stained underwear, all hanging stagnant in the breezeless air. Catmint stops at the newsagents on the corner for a cut of synth-citric. The woman at the counter holds it out in her hands like a sticky yellow pebble before wrapping it in brown paper. Outside of the shop the radios are beginning to crackle to life. There are speakers jutting out of the walls, attached to lamp posts, on people’s balconies and patios. Several stations garbling over each other. White noise to keep the peace at bay.
Catmint looks up at the pale seven o’clock sky, and for a moment, is convinced he might see a bird. He doesn’t.
There is a library on Via 760 that sells sencha tea. It’s oily and tastes like wet white fish – a poor echo of the original. Beetle hates it, and this is why Catmint doesn’t.
Today, Catmint reads about the Purple Earth Theory. About how if things were different the world would be covered in swathes of purple jungle. It’s an old hypothesis, but it still creeps into their sight, existing in the corner of their periphery – purple leaves and trees and saps.
No one could have predicted the planet’s occurrence. Things could have evolved, devolved, or mutated in ways unimaginable. Part of Catmint wonders whether chlorophyll has played a part in the way things are. The Scab’s clothes, its pavements, its rage.
Catmint feels like a tiny, violet shrub covered in green paint.
When Catmint gets back to the apartment, Beetle isn’t there, and a nausea begins to boil in her throat.
She had gotten home on time. The clock says twenty-six minutes past five, on the fifteenth of November, thirty-eight point two degrees Celsius. She hasn’t lost a minute, not even a second. She checks the clock again. It has barely shifted.
She slips off her sandals and slides them meticulously onto the shoe-rack. She checks the Recirculator, removes the filter, scrapes the brown-black clumps of PM10 into the palm of her hand. The kitchen sink is clean. She kneels on the carpet and checks for stains, crawls to the bathroom and lifts the toilet lid, opens the frosted window, sticks her finger as far as it will go down the drain. There must be something, but Catmint can’t find it, until –
She walks to the cupboard where they keep the vacuum cleaner, and there it is. On the door, hanging on a plastic hook. She reaches out, moves it left and then right, scans across the neat boxes on the page. The calendar. Catmint had forgotten to write when she would be home on the calendar.
She returns to the bathroom and makes sure she is quiet. There’s no need to concern the neighbours with her retching. When she is finished, she flushes and cleans the seat with an antiseptic wipe. The bleach she pours around the basin dribbles slowly to the water, the blue of it absorbing all of Catmint’s attention. It is like a star exploding.
Her legs are shaking. She has thrown up all of the precious sencha tea. It is such a waste. Catmint blinks once, twice, and on the third blink she is on the sofa, knees curled underneath her, without having moved at all.
Beetle gets back an hour later. They stare at Catmint from the doorway for a moment, a plastic bag in their hand. They are wearing a battered black cap and a high-necked shirt. There are no damp blood stains – they must have wrapped their clefts tightly before they left. They give her one of their rare wide-lipped smiles, lifting the bag up to show her.
‘I bought us dinner,’ they say, untying their boots with one hand. ‘Chow mein with extra peas, just how you like.’
‘You hardly ever leave the house,’ Catmint whispers, unable to look Beetle in the eye. ‘Hardly ever. I thought you might hate me.’
‘What?’ Beetle laughs, too loud, a little callous. Catmint is familiar with it. ‘Don’t be stupid. Why would I hate you?’
Catmint decides that she will not have dinner, even if it is her favourite. Even if it will make Beetle angry.
She cannot. It is impossible.
Once, when Catmint was smaller and called something else, their mother had plucked the topmost buttons from their school shirt. The neckline had nearly dipped beyond the wire of their bra, making their breasts some sort of evocative vignette. In the heat of The Scab, Catmint’s slickened skin and soaked school shirt became a tactile exhibition for many of their male classmates – in the lunch hut, they often found themselves yanked by the arm onto somebody’s lap, where they were held and stroked like a cat.
It was then that Catmint first heard her. The woman – the one they could hear screaming underneath their flesh.
She lived in the curvature of their hips, the chicken fat between their thighs, the heavy, pale lard of their waist and stomach. Catmint felt her battering a tantrum each time they washed – unmuffled, howling. She turned their clothes to needles. She kept them up at night. She made sex a painful, nauseating friction.
Catmint had no choice. They had to kill her. Had to suffocate her, squeeze and pinch those shapes, circles and soft angles, had to starve her out. Had to leave the suburb of femininity, strand her there, drown her in sweet tulip tea and chewed up mint leaves. Sometimes they ate a spoonful of coconut oil, just to keep the want at bay.
Catmint knows by now that hunger is the price of masculinity.
Catmint wakes up to the taste of milk and baking soda. He is above the sheets, can feel his body smooth and smooth and smooth against them. There isn’t enough hair on his legs. The lack of friction has him wanting to scream and scrape until he’s gummy with blood, to graft the hair from the shower drain onto his armpits. It’s a disgusting feeling for a disgusting body for a disgusting –
It is five oh five. He turns to the right, slips from the bed and begins.
Today, Catmint goes to a new tea shop on Via 782.
Inside it is filled with plants. Fake, as everything in The Scab is – but they are convincing, and Catmint tries really hard to imagine what they could smell like. There’s a mezzanine, and the tables have paper chrysanthemums, and there’s a glass prism jutting up out of the roof. A speaker is softly playing reggae, which is rare. Many of those songs were lost a long time ago.
Somewhere, a biodigester is breathing. Catmint presses his palms to the edge of the table and waits for the tea he has ordered. It’s an oolong.
The teapot it arrives in is covered in red-painted suns. Catmint lets it steep, lets the steam spiral up from the spout, warm and sweet. He wonders if they rinsed the leaves. He wonders if he’ll be able to taste the chloramines.
The tea comes out a warm golden and strains beautifully. There are no scraps of leaves at the bottom of the cup, no greasy specks on the surface. He doesn’t want to touch it, to disturb the liquor. It sits like pure stained glass. Everything is still – the tea, the planet – until a tram passes raucously overhead, shaking the whole shop.
Catmint brings the cup to his mouth. The steam hits the upper curve of his lip, the narrow canals of his nose. Everything disappears. The heat, hazy, honeyed, is everything. His skin feels like it’s crumbling into a million tiny tea leaves. A herbaceous snow. He tips the cup back and the tea scalds the top of his tongue, floods his mouth and then washes down his throat.
It’s smooth. It tastes of things Catmint has never experienced. Burnt apple wood, peach flesh, milky caramel. There is no underlying chemical flavour, no wet, plastic taste. He pulls the cup away from his mouth and exhales.
He feels like the moon. Like a vibrating, humming insect. Like a large, purple shrub, growing until he fills the room and until he fills the air.
It is perfect, and so he decides he has imagined the whole thing.
Catmint goes back to the apartment feeling sharper than she has in months. She cannot taste anything other than the limpid sweetness of the oolong. The world is not a refraction. And when she unlocks the door, she can see everything with an unusual clarity.
The cat piss colour of the carpet, the monochrome striping of their upholstery. The scent of Beetle throughout the flat, like fennel and antiseptic. The rug – brown, woven – that had been Catmint’s mother’s. Worn and smelling of static. Everything moaning.
Catmint wishes she could scream it all to dust.
Beetle is in the bedroom, cross-legged on the bedspread. They are re-folding Catmint’s laundry into a flat pile of perfect squares.
‘Good, you’re home,’ they say, smoothing out a pair of Catmint’s threadbare knickers. ‘I need you to clean my clefts.’
‘Right.’ Catmint doesn’t dare blink. Time might move. And if time moves, she might lose this new tangibility. Become abstract again, become absurd.
Beetle pauses, looking up from the laundry. They stare at where she stands in the doorway, unmoving. ‘Catmint,’ they snap, loud enough to startle her. ‘Are you even fucking listening to me?’
Catmint nods, the details beginning to blur out. ‘Yes. I’ll go and get the stuff.’
The blue medical bucket is under the sink. Inside of it, the syringe, the isopropyl, and a box of clean bandages and swabs; next to it, the plastic jerry-can full of distilled water. Catmint sets to work sanitising the bucket, filling it with salt and isopropyl, diluting it with the water. By the time she returns to the bedroom, Beetle has already stripped and laid down prone on the bed, fists clenched in anticipation.
Catmint no longer feels visceral disgust at the sight of Beetle’s cleft lung. It has been three years – three years of swabbing, cleaning, wrapping, three years of scrubbing blood and yellow discharge off the bedsheets, three years of waking with a lurch in the middle of the night to check if her partner is still breathing. The mounds of air sacs that grow from Beetle’s splitting skin evoke a deadness in her. The sort of distorted ache that comes with absence.
Beetle’s breath stutters as Catmint places the bucket on a stool by the bed. Her knees sink into the mattress as she straddles Beetle’s hips and quietly inspects their chest. The skin around the edges of the clefts is raw and inflamed. The alveoli that grow from them in small, wet mounds are flattened into indistinguishable, brown clots. Catmint sits back, drawing some of the cleaning solution into a syringe. ‘More of them are dead than last time,’ she murmurs, inserting the tip of the syringe into one of the clefts.
‘I know that, Catmint. You don’t have to –’ They choke on the next word as Catmint begins to plunge the syringe. ‘You cunt! You could give me a warning!’
‘Don’t call me that,’ Catmint says, collecting the run-off with a clean rag. The fluid is an orange pink and filled with small, black clumps. She wipes the blood from the bottom of the syringe and refills it. ‘It’ll be over soon.’
She rinses through the clefts until the water runs mostly clear, and then uses a swab to remove any alveoli that have come loose. Beetle spends the whole process swearing at her through clenched teeth, twitching up at one point to hit her in the sternum. Her skin is thin enough that it will bruise, but it doesn’t hurt. The oolong has worn off. Catmint is not there.
When she is finished, she wraps Beetle’s chest in fresh bandages, and then rolls off them to lay on her side of the bed. Her partner takes a moment to compose themselves, wheezing irregularly until they feel well enough to open their eyes. Catmint can taste milk and baking soda. She pushes her tongue against her teeth. Swallows thick, creamy catarrh. It is six oh –
Beetle pinches the palm of her hand until it goes red. ‘Stop disappearing,’ they breathe, barely. ‘I’m fucking dying over here, and you keep going away.’
‘You’re not dying,’ Catmint says.
‘I am. You know I am.’ They turn to stare up at the ceiling. The emulsion has greyed over time and begun cracking in places. It makes a webbed map of rivers. ‘I hate you and your optimism sometimes.’ A tear slips down the side of Beetle’s cheek, snaking its way through the sweat and oil. ‘Why couldn’t it be you? You’ve lived in this smog longer than me.’
There’s a pause. The air between them grows frigid and stale. They twist to face her, lip quivering. ‘Catmint. I didn’t mean it.’
It is six oh eight. Catmint turns to the right, slips from bed and stands to face the window. She can’t see past the apartment complex opposite, her entire view obscured by pillars of concrete and panes of glass. Their bedroom is a microcosm on top of more microcosms, and those are between even more microcosms, and all of them the same, all of them smelling like rot. Everywhere is a reflection, The Scab just a ceaseless hall of mirrors.
‘Yes, you did,’ she says, and then leaves the bedroom, leaves the apartment, leaves the building and leaves the street.
Catmint is scared of white solar cars. They are covered in dust and dirt and they are usually full of men. If he sees one, he dissolves completely. He becomes a smear on the bumper.
They remind him of fists on cement, of desaturated photographs, of the smell of marijuana. They remind him of being a woman. Of still being a woman in every way that counts.
He wishes he could candy clementine flesh. He wishes he could write on yellow ruled paper. He wishes he could wear expensive brown satin and green embroidery beads. He wishes he could eat mushroom pâté, and wishes he could wish on money spiders. He wishes. Wishes for things The Scab could never have. That he could never have. That were, once, but are not now.
Because Catmint is the shape of a pear and can feel the weight of his breasts even whilst he is asleep. He has starved himself to infertility, but he bleeds bigger and bigger clots in his dreams. He wakes up and he tastes milk and baking soda. He begins, and begins, still.
For a while afterwards, Catmint runs with their eyes closed. The only thing they are aware of is Beetle’s blood on their hands, under their nails, on their dress, mixed with water and isopropyl until it is sticky and cold. It is raining, but that is not enough to wash it away.
They open their eyes again on Via 626. Near The Scab’s telephone spires, which stand tall and green at the mouth of the industrial estates. The lights at the top blink a regular beat, like little red stars that can’t decide whether to set. Catmint has never been this far north before.
They would have to count the numbers on each Via to find their way back. The housing estate is 770 – it must have taken them at least two hours to get here. They don’t have a solar car, and there are no tram lines in sight. Just strings and strings of telephone wires, all criss-crossing overhead.
They don’t know if they can make it. It is such a long, long way, and they are so tired, and so hungry. With each breath they can feel their pelvis pressing against their skin, suddenly so aware of the atrophy, the twigs of their bones. There is a viscous, foul dirt that sits at the bottom of their stomach.
Perhaps they should give up. Climb up one of those rusted green spires, turn themselves into a blinking red star. Float away and never come crashing back.
Beetle might like that.
Catmint shakes their head. Looks left, right, back up at the spires. The viridescent giant bones.
They are so, so hungry.
Time to begin counting, they think. Time to begin, always.
The first thing Catmint sees is the cat piss carpet. The second is Beetle.
Beetle, on top of the carpet.
On the carpet.
And there is blood.
On the carpet.
Catmint stares. She is still holding the keys, and the keys are in the door, and she is by the door and Beetle is on the carpet face down on the carpet bleeding on the carpet. Beetle has gotten up, gone after Catmint, tripped and fallen and ruptured on the carpet. Died on the carpet.
It’s a mess. The vacuum cleaner will not be enough. It will be like when Catmint spilt milk in here, last year. Beetle will grab Catmint by her hair and put her mouth to the ground and make her lick it off the floor. It will taste like milk (blood) and baking soda (blood) and blood and baking soda and blood and blood and –
Catmint falls onto the carpet. Reaches out and places her hands on Beetle’s shoulders. Shakes them. Rigor mortis.
‘Wake up,’ she says. Her voice is raspy. Sounds like thousands of tiny wings flapping. ‘Wake up,’ she says, ‘wake up.’
She rolls Beetle onto their back. There’s blood and foam dried to their chin, and something large and black in their open mouth. Catmint reaches inside and pinches it, and a wet clump of alveoli falls out of their mouth.
It’s cold. This piece of Beetle that Catmint has in her fingers. This piece of Beetle that killed Beetle. It’s cold and wet and she has never been so hungry.
Catmint bends over and screams. Screams so hard she vomits, vomits all over Beetle, all over the carpet. Screams so hard her skin tears into millions of pieces, black, loud, humming, throbbing. Screams into a high-pitched shrill. Screams into a swarm of near a million fleas.
The world is mosaic. Its tiles are purple. The fleas are beginning to seethe.
There are more fleas than space. More hunger than fleas. And there is food, fresh, dead on the carpet.