Welcome to Barium
You have reached the heaviest place on earth, a fine, upstanding building filled with exploding women and good intentions, bordered by courageous trees. Please be alert, the third-floor residents like to throw things out the window. It smells because that’s what happens when you put InsideOut women and UpsideDown women under the same roof. They expand and contract, poke into corners, stretch into the floor. They get squished against each other, rupture and bleed, overflow and dry up. They have a tendency to ignite because that is the elemental nature of exploding women. They love to dance and clap their hands.
Rubber Band Girls and Super Queens
"So where were you yesterday?"
Rudra is a popular repeat customer, an original Rubber Band Girl who spends her time expanding, contracting, and escaping. Just a few weeks ago, she was crowned Super Queen after conclusively proving that she will expand and contract until she finally snaps.
Rudra doesn’t mind drinking your abandoned coffee even though it’s been sitting there for the last hour and is covered in red ants. She stirs it with her finger. You wonder if the ants aren’t biting her or perhaps she doesn’t feel them.
"Do you think you are very beautiful?" she asks. Last Saturday, Rudra insisted that you were very beautiful but Super Queens have a set of rules that are subject to change without notice. "I don’t think you’re beautiful," she continues. "I see arrogance all over your face. And your mouth is crooked. You’re not beautiful at all."
You wish Rudra was on the third floor instead of here. You wish she was so pumped up with meds that her hands dangled uselessly in her lap and her mouth hung open. She smiles at you and takes a sip of coffee. You watch as the ants swarm around her lips and wonder if they aren’t biting her or perhaps she just doesn’t feel them.
Dr. J.J. Shiv Shankar wears his black silk shirt to work because he wants everyone to know that he’s a Dancing Machine. He likes it when he walks in and the girls smile appreciatively and sing, "Jai Jai Shiva Shankar, Kaanta Lage Na Kankar." It gives him a chance to wiggle his thin hips in the reception area. He is resourceful and likes to Try New Things—especially anything involving free samples. His crowning achievement is the blue tablets that made all the exploding women walk backwards. "It was very clear," he tells you, "that they wanted to move forward. But for some reason, they kept walking backwards, even though they had their arms outstretched like they really wanted to move forward."
There Once Was a Girl Named
The phone rings. You pick it up because you’re the only one here and you’re bored.
"There’s a crazy person at the Chepet bus stand."
"Ma’am, we can only help if it’s a woman—"
"Yes! Yes, she’s a woman and she’s spitting at people and lifting up her sari and she’s got worms crawling out of her arm and she’s spitting—"
"Is she violent?"
"She’s spitting! For God’s sake, she spat on my foot, she—"
"Do you know how long she’s been there?"
"I don’t know, can’t you come? Can’t you take her?"
"Do you think you could stay near her, just till we get there?"
"What if she spits at me again?"
An hour later, a girl like a broken stick is having the maggots removed from her arm. You start another file as you wipe spit from your jeans.
"Didn’t say," says the attendant girl with light brown eyes.
"Where she’s from?"
"Didn’t say. She didn’t say anything. Let’s name her something, how about Reshma? Just for now, R-E-"
"We’ll call her Minnal."
"Minnal? Minnal… okay, Reshma Minnal then."
"Okay…" says the attendant, even though she doesn’t think much of the name Minnal.
Hi Everybody! My Name’s Marcus!
Marcus came from America last week, filled with enthusiasm and a backpack bursting with bottled water. Nobody is sure why he is here but he has a Power Point Presentation and a file folder. He was given a rousing welcome when he arrived and will be given a rousing farewell when he leaves. Marcus is not as enthusiastic as he was on arrival because it’s So Damn Hot. His skin is peeling and he’s had two cases of food poisoning. Worst of all, somebody, most likely Rudra, stole all his water bottles. Today, however, Marcus has a Plan. He is going to get Organized, create Modules and have Something Done by the end of the day.
"So, is there a computer I could use around here?" he asks.
"There’s this one," you say, stifling a yawn.
"Great, could I—"
"It shuts down every five minutes though."
"We don’t know."
Marcus is only momentarily deterred. He grins and shows you his very white, very straight teeth.
"Why don’t you let me try anyway, I’m good with computers."
You move but don’t get up. Marcus can have the computer, but not the chair. You put your head down, pretending to catch up on some much-needed sleep while Rudra quietly stations herself behind Marcus. She is fascinated by his blonde hair and by the way his skin turns pink when he goes out in the sun. You count off the seconds with small taps on your fingers, hear the telltale beep and open one eye to see Marcus staring in disbelief at the screen.
"What the—" he says and you notice Rudra smile because his words sounded exactly like otha, the Tamil word for fuck.
"Fuck," says Rudra with a bright smile and Marcus turns to her.
"Hey!" says Marcus.
"Fuck!" says Rudra.
"Yeah, what the hell, eh?" he says pointing at the computer.
"Fucking dog!" says Rudra. "Fucking Marcus!"
"Yeah, Marcus wants to know what the hell is going on with the computer, eh, Rood-rah?"
"You fucking prostitute’s son!" she says, clapping her hands enthusiastically.
"What the hell, eh? What the hell?" says Marcus, grinning and clapping his hands along with her. Rudra starts shouting otha repeatedly at the top of her lungs and has to be physically removed. You breathe a sigh of relief because you were on the verge of wetting yourself.
"What happened? We were just—oh for Christ’s sake!" says Marcus as the computer beeps quietly and reboots.
We’ll Send You a Postcard When We Get There
It is Wednesday afternoon in an obscenely expensive coffee house near the heart of the city. Dr. J.J. is buying you and Marcus lattes because Marcus didn’t believe lattes existed in Chennai.
"It’s alright. Not like the ones in New York. You should have a latte in New York," he says.
"I’ll do that the next time I go there," you say, and Dr. J.J. smirks into his Madras filter coffee. "Guess who took off yesterday?"
"Nope. The Maggot Girl."
You remember how she shuffled her feet and spat viciously if you came too close, and wonder if she will get maggots again.
"She has a name," you say.
Marcus looks up from his latte. "You’re right, Min… nie… Ray… man… Mini Ray…" his pink brow knits deeply in thought. You think of what happens to broken girls whose eyes cannot focus and who pee on their feet, watching it run down their toes onto the floor. Marcus slams his hand down on the table, making Dr. J.J drop his phone. "It was Krishna. Mini Krishna."
Two days later news arrives that the Maggot Girl has been found naked and dead by the side of the highway. When you open her file you finally remember her name.
You sit in a corner, practicing how to breathe—inhale, exhale, inhale. Exhale. It’s been two weeks since Rudra the Super Queen made her trimillionth escape. Minnal Reshma has been cremated and Marcus was given a plastic replica of the Taj Mahal as a farewell present. They fade like faces in a burning photograph and you think that maybe it’s the weight around here that makes people sink. You feel a thickening spread over your blood vessels, your lungs, your bones. You wish you could remember what Minnal’s hands looked like, whether her ears were pierced. You wish you could remember the color of Marcus’ hair. You wish that maggots would stay out of people’s arms and that everyone knew how to close their mouths.
You walk over to the window and stick your head out as far as you can. You Inhale. You Exhale.
Kuzhali Manickavel lives in a small temple town on the coast of South India and shares her living space with a cursed mango tree and a rhinoceros beetle in a shot glass. Her work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Edifice Wrecked, Shimmer, Flashfiction.net, Defenestration and is forthcoming at Ghoti.