“I have spiders inside my body,” she explained, though I could not tell whether she understood that she was speaking in metaphor. She clearly appreciated that there was something wrong with her, something our language was not well-equipped enough accurately to define, but which was adequately communicated by her choice of imagery.
We had met here at the bus stop a few moments earlier as she glared at no one in particular, a brief stream of expletives swallowed by the passing traffic. Whilst fumbling in her bag she looked over at me, sitting placidly as I waited, and explained her mood. The clerk at the shop where she had bought the morning’s alcohol had told her she looked tired. It was true enough, but there was no reason to say it. I rose to stand with her.
Her skin was too dry, her unkempt hair worn out, but there was still a vibrant energy behind her wild eyes. I suspected it may only have arrived after she opened the bottle in the brown paper bag. She kicked wildly into the air, causing the passing pedestrians to give her a wider berth. I let her vent, another ineffectual string of profanities about the clerk, until she slammed a hand hard into the glass of the bus stop.
“Careful,” I advised firmly, looking her in the eye.
She paused, then resumed rummaging through her bag, withdrawing the pack of cigarettes for which she had been searching earlier. She offered me one and seemed a little disappointed when I declined, but the expression vanished after a few long drags.
“You’re cute, you know?” she told me, as I ignored the exhaled smoke swirling around my clothes. “Do you want to see what it does,” she asked eventually, her voice tinged with sadness, “having spiders?”
Without waiting for me to answer, she began to roll up her sleeve. Her forearm was mostly skin and bone but I noticed there were none of the needle track marks I had almost expected to see. With her elbow exposed, she showed me an open wound, though it looked fresh and not too serious. I imagined she had caught her arm on a metal door-frame. I briefly considered encouraging her to have it checked but there seemed little point.
“This is me,” I indicated towards the arriving bus, which slowed to a halt, “look, don’t let one person ruin the rest of your day, okay?”
I boarded and waved my card across the reader with a cursory nod to the driver, a youngish woman with several piercings, who smiled back. Her hair was almost as dishevelled as the woman at the bus stop, though it was pulled back into a ponytail and she was evidently capable of comfortably holding down this job. After all, she did not have spiders inside her body.
I glanced over the half full lower deck before heading upstairs. It was virtually empty. Alone, towards the far end, was a scrawny boy dressed in clothes too big for him: a white shirt with sleeves spilling over his hands, thick-knotted tie, an ill-fitting jacket, and trousers frayed at the ends where they slipped beneath his shoes. His expression was lost, weary.
The snake inside my body stirred, coiling itself around my heart and squeezing gently. I smiled at the boy and he returned the gesture immediately, overly eager. Corruptible. I knew what was coming and so did the snake. It tightened its grip.