This is what menstrual blood smells like:
Take a steaming McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish burger patty and grind it into a paste. Submerge it in a brew of sweat, liquid copper and unpasteurised breast milk. Let it steep for an hour or so. Reheat it in a pan, then pour it down your pants.
Notice anything? It’s just chemicals. Basically a metal-laced gumbo. There is nothing truly alien about it, nothing more disgusting than shaking up the bottle of condiments and incongruous edible fluids your friends pass around during Truth or Dare. You don’t even have to drink it.
It’s not that bad when you get used to it, and most girls get used to it.
But leave that mixture alone for a few days, weeks, months, and it begins to congeal and ferment. Those chemicals break down. They get taken over by something new and strange and uniquely horrible.
Taylor remembers the pie chart from science class; she knows that air is composed of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% other gases. There are some fiddly little digits after decimal points, but at this moment she doesn’t concern herself with them. She wonders what percentage of oxygen she is inspiring now, and if it’s higher than the percentage of decomposing gumbo vapour. Her estimates fluctuate as time passes, but remain discouraging.
Like with pain, you don’t die from a smell—you only wish you would.
Taylor decides she should stop thinking about science. She reads herself the poems she’s committed to memory instead.
She reads: If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs/Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues...
She reads: Blood has been harder to dam back than water./Just when we think we have it impounded safe/Behind new barrier walls (and let it chafe!),/It breaks away in some new kind of slaughter.
She reads: In the fell clutch of circumstance/I have not winced nor cried aloud./Under the bludgeonings of chance/My head is bloody, but unbowed.
She reads for what feels like hours, getting lost inside the archives of her own head. Around her the locker constricts, unseen creatures crawling and buzzing in time with her breaths. Her temples pulse and her vision blurs, with tears or perspiration.
And suddenly, the door swings open. A gust of cool air blasts Taylor in the face. She gasps and heaves, taking in greedy gulps, wanting desperately to just collapse—but a besuited woman in a fedora blocks her way.
The woman blots out the lights of the corridor. Her gloved hand holds a baggie of crystalline white powder. She opens it and dumps its contents on the floor. She removes a pair of tweezers from her jacket pocket, reaches over Taylor’s shoulder, and with surgical precision unsticks something white and flappy from the wall. It looks like a pad, barely used, only dirty from brushes with neighbouring products. The woman slips the filthy thing into the empty baggie and turns to leave.
Before she does, the woman meets Taylor’s eyes for the first time. She looks at her watch and makes an annoyed sound. Then she slams the locker door shut, leaving Taylor alone once again in the hot reeking darkness.
“It's nice,” Rebecca said.
“Is that all you can say?” Contessa said, a teasing edge to her voice. “Most brilliant woman in the world: it’s nice?”
Rebecca looked up at Contessa’s face and noticed the tinge of a blush. “It's really, really nice. I love how it's not a straightforward outline. Highlights and shadows—like the Jesus toast.” She leaned forward under the guise of inspecting the patch, then lifted her head. “Except with more of a fade. There are midtones and everything, makes it look three-dimensional. Why is it inverted?”
“I'm going to see it a great deal more than you,” Contessa said, sitting up on the bed. “I might as well see it correctly.”
“It’ll be weird, kissing my own face upside-down.”
Contessa’s blush only deepened, and Rebecca delighted inwardly.
“The spider superhero from that film we watched on Dalet didn’t have too much trouble.”
“Don't talk to me about spiders.” Rebecca gave an exaggerated shudder. “So is it permanent? Wouldn't want you to get distracted, scratching away during a mission.”
To Rebecca’s immense disappointment, Contessa tugged her boyshorts back up over her hips. The image of Alexandria’s visored face was emblazoned on the front of the cotton. It matched the portrait drawn in hair beneath it, in all but colour and orientation.
Contessa’s arms reached around Rebecca’s back, and Rebecca allowed herself to be pulled down on top of the other woman. They lay like that for a while, heartbeat to heartbeat, just appreciating the solid warm presence of each other.
“I gave Legend step-by-step instructions,” Contessa said, her breath hot on Rebecca’s skin. “Then I used Slug to erase his memory of the procedure. With his consent, of course.”
Rebecca Costa-Brown stood in the second cubicle of the second-floor girl’s bathroom at Winslow High.
After any PRT publicity talk, she liked to take the opportunity to gather opinions on the ground. Did the students enjoy her humorous anecdote about the quantity of paperwork? Did they think she was hip? Sure enough, between boys, music and makeup, her assembly was all the kids wanted to talk about. She adjusted her collar and tie, waiting for the topic of discussion to move towards herself.
“She’s so… I don’t know, untouchable.”
Rebecca grinned and puffed out her chest. Chief Director or costumed superheroine, she always did radiate an aura of professionalism.
“Yeah, but she’s like, so fake. You can hear it.”
“Oh my god, yeah. I thought I was the only one.”
“I bet she’s smooth as a Barbie doll down there.”
A chorus of giggling.
Rebecca’s grin dropped away.
This was what the younger generation thought? That she didn’t seem human enough? Normally, she would dismiss this kind of talk as bathroom bants. But Contessa had recently told Rebecca off for nearly blowing her cover, after she'd pulped one too many hands while shaking them. It wasn’t her fault, she’d argued. Sometimes people wanted to do that grab-and-pull dominance game.
Nevertheless, she couldn’t afford to waste Contessa’s time again.
After flushing the toilet, Rebecca fished a sanitary pad from her purse. She kept it not for herself, but in case she needed to show another woman a courtesy. She tore open the wrapper as loudly as she could, which wasn’t very loudly because it was made of flexible plastic. She ripped the tape off and flapped the pad’s wings to compensate. Then, because it would demand too much effort to reproduce the sounds using Foley techniques, she put the pad on normally.
Finishing touches. She took her lipstick out, unscrewed the tube and daubed a little on a scrap of toilet paper. Then she rubbed that scrap on the toilet seat, leaving a conspicuous red smear. The shade was off—too oxygenated—but it would do in a pinch. She left the lipstick-streaked scrap to float in the toilet.
The group of girls chatting outside turned to stare as soon as they saw her leaving the cubicle. She gave them a cordial nod.
“Whoo! Reproductive functions, am I right, ladies?” she said.
They glanced at each other and shifted their weight, nervous. Rebecca smiled wanly, and made a gesture southward to clear up lingering confusion.
“I keep thinking my time’s up and I’m never going to have it again,” she explained, “and then boom, mucho cramps. At least there’s no better reminder that it's all copacetic down there. Uterus, more like youths-r-us.”
She stopped. Behind her, a girl was entering a stall. Her stall.
Preventing the end of the world was Rebecca’s job. Stopping crime, as well as practising kung fu and bullying unpopular teens, was her hobby. Analysing the way people communicated was her passion. She dedicated a fair portion of brain activity to understanding the warp and weft of words in dozens of languages, dissecting dialects, examining every element from sentence structure to diction down to intent. Cells were the building blocks of life, but words were the building blocks of society.
Projections of demographic trends flashed through her mind, and she knew exactly what to say.
“Ayy lmao,” she called, garnering herself the full attention of the group of girls. A delicious frisson ran through her. “Whomst’d’ve the fucc experiences regular human biological processes?”
She raised her hand. No one else did. Probably just shy. She shrugged and spun around to face the door. Due to her earlier ingenuity, she didn't even have to fake the slight waddle as she walked stiffly out of the bathroom. She stood outside, just next to the door, and listened in.
This is okay, she told herself, after a minute had elapsed. It’s just... a caesura. They’re just stunned by my grasp of their slang.
Passing teens looked at her curiously as she flattened her back against the wall. She paid no heed to them.
At last someone inside the girls’ bathroom spoke, in an awed whisper: “She living in 2018 while we all stuck in 2011.”
Rebecca Costa-Brown took a few steps forward, until she was standing in the middle of the corridor and throngs of students were parting around her. The pad crinkled with her movements. She’d have to find another bathroom in this school to dispose of it.
But first, she permitted herself a dab.