Human Habits

by Bree Wernicke in Issue Sixteen, July 2024

It is of vital importance to brush one's teeth, says Maralka, even though there are the horrors. Brush twice a day, waking and going to sleep again. And one mustn't eat an hour beforehand, which is easy the first time because Joni can't eat while sleeping, and come to think of it also easy the second time, because there's not so much food in the high cupboards of their little room that she could spend all day eating it.

You can't eat before because your saliva still has digestion modes, says Maralka, and the combination of salivary acidity plus the abrasion of the toothbrush can compromise your enamel. Enamel is what's on the outside of your teeth, but there's also something called calculus, which is not math but bacteria poop. "It's like how inflammable means that something might catch fire or it might be unable to catch fire," Maralka explains one day, in the middle of brushing.

Joni says, "Calculus is inflammable, but calculus is inflammable."

"Correct," says Maralka, who always understands what Joni's trying to say. She wipes a dribble of toothpaste off Joni's chin. "You're doing so well. Keep brushing."

It's two minutes of brushing each time. Press the button on the toothbrush, and it'll start going brrr. It goes brrr for two minutes every time, though Joni likes to watch the clock closely to see when the rightmost number changes. It's always faster than blinking. But Joni's getting faster too, pressing the button nearly in time with the number changing. When the number changes once that's one minute, and when it changes a second time, her toothbrush turns itself off. Then it's time to spit into the metal sink, rinse the brush, and return it, headfirst, to the UV disinfector cup.

Joni and Maralka do this no matter what noise is happening in their flim-flam high-rise building, or outside it. Sometimes the sky has storms, huge crackling frenzies that keep Maralka inside for days, the air going dry and reddish as a warning that anyone on the bridges swinging between the buildings might get crisped. Sometimes the building has dance parties with music that makes the struts screech and Joni's head ache. And sometimes, there are the horrors.

You cannot ignore flossing, either, says Maralka. Your teeth might look like they're close together, but really there's tiny spaces. Stuff grows there. Like the spaces between the buildings, and the canyons beneath. Everyone worries about the structural integrity of the buildings, but it's a mistake to ignore what grows between them. So Joni wedges bits of floss between her sharp sharp teeth, and hopes never to be troubled with calculus.

One night, there's quick rapping on the door to their room, while Maralka and Joni are in the middle of brushing their teeth. Maralka freezes so fast Joni almost misses it. Then she puts her toothbrush down frothy on the edge of the sink, spits, and goes to the peephole. Joni stays put, as though there's knocks on the door all the time, but she also turns her brush off. They didn't get all the way through, so they'll have to start again together. Then Maralka comes back, jams her toothbrush in her mouth like a weapon, and opens the door.

"Malka-malka!" cries an unfamiliar voice. "How's it poppin'?"

"Can I help you," Maralka says around her toothbrush.

"Yeah, yeah. You busy?"

"Little bit."

Joni leans over, trying to see out the door. It's a windruffled person-shape in feathery black, and its glimmering eyes immediately alight on Joni.

"Is that...almost a child?" it says. There are three mouths it could use, but none of them move.

Maralka looks over, blank-faced, fridge-cool. "That's Joni. Wave hi, Joni."

Joni waves, delighted. Almost a child!

"So yeah." Maralka shrugs. "As you can see. We are in the middle of brushing our teeth."

"Dental hygiene. Rad, rad," says the person-shape. "I gotchu, Malka-malka. Responsibilities abound. What a paragon you are, always so very very..." The three mouths finally open, and all of them make slightly different sounds at the same time: "hue myn," and "hiu ghmen," and (distastefully) "human."

Nothing about this interrupts Maralka's brushing for even a moment. "Thanks."

"Well well, good night!" says the person-shape, already melting back into the outside, becoming featherier and darkly shiny.

"Bye, Crowgeous," says Maralka.

She shuts the door, and locks it, and bolts it. She spits into the sink and rinses her toothbrush, and only then jumps a little to see Joni sitting there, quiet and forgotten. "Oh! Joni! Did you finish your teeth? Did you stop because I stopped? I'm sorry."

"Can we start over together?" Joni tries to say, and it comes out garbled, but Maralka nods very fast, many times.

"Of course," she says. "Of course, we have to."

She picks up her toothbrush, and they start over.

The mundane things are so important for staying human, says Maralka. And it's always easier to do them as a routine, with somebody else, to remind each other why you're doing them. Having Joni to look after helps hold her accountable, says Maralka, and she hopes she's helping Joni relearn how to be human in turn. Joni shouldn't worry about her sharp sharp teeth, or her blurry speech, or the extra bones making lumps and bumps inside her sometimes-skin. All that will sort itself out in time.

Though Maralka goes out sometimes, onto the swaying bridges amidst the thumping music and the things growing between the buildings, she's always safe, and she's always back when it's time to brush. Though there are the horrors, tingling and ambulating and tintinnabulating at the edges, Joni never has to brush without Maralka.

But one night it gets very late before Maralka is back. Joni, sprawled on the carpet over a picture encyclopedia, does not notice the darkness until there is a rap on the door.

Maralka always uses a key.

Joni's very still. There's no party, and there's no storm, so it's the horrors. She watches the clock until the rightmost number changes, and shortly after that, the rapping on the door happens again.

She'll be all right so long as she doesn't open the door.

The number changes a second time. More rapping. There's a noise outside, too, like an upward bloom of breath. It tickles Joni's eardrums from the inside. The number on the clock changes a third time, and a fourth.

"Joni-oni?" calls Maralka's voice, outside the door.

Joni's on her feet before she re-remembers: Maralka always uses a key. And something's fluttering, knocking, slithering—

"Maralka?" Joni calls.

"Yeah, yeah. It's me, it's Malka-malka. Let me in."

In the silence, all four numbers on the clock change at once.

Joni makes her feet stay glued to the floor. They want to move, but they mustn't. She's almost a child again. She can do this. "Maralka, it's late. What should I be doing right now?" It comes out garbled, but Maralka understands her.

The reply comes too fast: "My key, my key, yeah, I forgot it. Silly me!"

"That's not the answer," Joni says, mostly to herself. But she wasn't asking because she didn't know what to do. It's just never occurred to her, before now, that Maralka might not be doing it with her.

It's late, and Joni last ate over an hour ago, and it is of vital importance to brush one's teeth. So even though there are the horrors, Joni turns away from the door, and picks up her toothbrush, and presses its buzzy button.

© 2024 Bree Wernicke

Bree Wernicke

Bree Wernicke is an actor and speculative fiction writer living in Los Angeles. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in Fusion Fragment, Strange Horizons, Baffling, and MetaStellar, among others. When not writing, she invents languages for fun.

Fiction by Bree Wernicke
  • Human Habits