Clean

Short Story
First published with Inter-Disciplinary Press in 2013.

Elaine woke. Light and steam glowed around the bottom of the bathroom door. He was already in the shower: she had slept too late. She threw on her robe and tied the sash. Heading for the hall, she stopped before the doorway and ran her hands over her hair: bushy, tangled. Darting to the dresser mirror, she snatched up her brush. The shower stopped. In less than 5 minutes: shaved, dressed, out the door. Elaine raked the brush through her knots, snapping them apart against wire teeth. The shower door clicked shut. Her brush became ensnared and she yanked the handle. There was a ripping and Elaine vaguely noticed red as she set the brush back in its place.

Speeding down the hall, she saw Anna’s light was on in her bedroom. “What’s she doing up now? She doesn’t get up until 7.” Elaine stopped. Knocked. “Anna?” She poised her hand over the knob. “Anna? What are you doing in there?” Waiting 5 seconds, she opened the door.

“Mom!” Anna turned away, fumbling with her bra clasp.

“Oh, Anna, let me help you.” Elaine moved forward, reaching to fit the clasps together.

“No! Get out!” Anna stamped at her, smashing her mother’s toe beneath her heel.

“Fine! You can make your own breakfast and lunch today.” Elaine sniffed. “I was just checking to see if you were all right. You’re hardly ever up before 7.”

Anna scoffed. “It’s already 10 after.”

Elaine heard the bathroom door open. Disappearing into the hall, she flew down the stairs, slapping the hardwood with the balls of her feet. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.”

She whipped the kitchen lights on. Automatic movements: his breakfast and lunch, ready in 3 minutes. Anna’s footsteps upstairs. She would be down in 8 minutes.

Anna’s door screeched open. “Mom! Where’s my jersey? We have a track meet today, remember?”

She had forgotten. The uniform was in the laundry room, dirty and crumpled on the floor with the rest of Anna’s clothes. Elaine imagined the sweat stains and caked deodorant, the stale, dry, fruity perfume. She raced to the laundry room.

Crisp scents of eucalyptus and lavender washed through her passages: cool, fresh. She pulled a beaded lamp chain above her head and a 40-watt bulb illuminated the washer and dryer. The light was candle-like, but better: no smoke or wax. Elaine rolled the balls of the cord between her fingers, pressing them under her nails, staring at the pile of clothes. Releasing the cord she scooped the pile into the washer, scanning the dials. The water was on cold/cold. Horrified, Elaine flicked it back to hot/hot. “Who could’ve done that?” She narrowed her eyes and poured ¼ cup liquid detergent into the water. She leaned over the rising steam, closed her eyes and ran her hands under the water, smoothing burning liquid over skin and muscle. Opening her eyes, an armpit stain on Anna’s jersey stretched before her. Scalding water was creeping up, but it wouldn’t be submerged for at least another minute. Maybe more. Elaine gripped the jersey between swelling hands and rubbed. The slick cloth slid back and forth, but when she pulled it apart to observe the state of clean, nothing had changed. “It’s because there’s no friction,” she muttered. Scratching it, her index nail peeled from the skin. “Ouch!” Elaine brought her finger to her mouth and sucked. Chemical soap trickled down her throat. She stared at the stain as she probed the cut with her tongue. This mess needs bleach. She poured in ½ cup. “Yes, that’s exactly what it needs.”

“Who are you talking to?”

Elaine started, dropping the open bottle in the washer. “God, Anna! You should announce yourself. You nearly gave me a heart attack.”

Anna stepped into the room. “So, where’s my jersey? Is it ready?”

Elaine was thinking of the bleach bleeding over the clothes. “Yes. Well, no.” She clutched her hair. “I’m washing it now.”

“Oh my God. What happened to your head?”

The bottle would be drained now.

“Mom, hello?” Anna snapped her fingers.

“Don’t you snap at me! I shouldn’t even be doing your laundry.” Elaine rested red hands on her hips. “How many of your friends still have their mother do their laundry?”

Anna sniffed the air. “Have you been using bleach again?” She gazed at her mother’s hands.

Elaine crossed her arms, shoving her hands beneath her breasts. “Well, of course. I had to, Anna. Your clothes are just filthy!”

Anna backed out of the room. “Whatever. I need the jersey before 3 so you’ll have to drop it off at school.” Anna paused. “And fix your hair before you come. You look like a horror-show.”

Elaine ran her hands over her hair. Stinging shot beneath the skin. Her fingers were crimson. She licked the tips: the taste of iron mingled with detergent – like the blood had been washed. But it hadn’t been washed. Grease and body oils had accumulated in her scalp overnight. Innumerable amounts must have fallen into the wound when the skin broke. She might have pushed in more when she touched it. It must be festering. Elaine dashed from the laundry room.

Upstairs, she looked in the bathroom mirror. Half her head was bright red. Staring, Elaine scrubbed her hands. She used a strong liquid soap mixed with pumice as an exfoliant. She dried them and leaning toward the mirror, dipped her fingers into the muck.

Hair and skin were missing. Turning to the side, a ragged strip of blood and flesh extended from the crown of her head to the top of her right ear. She pulled matted hair out of the wound but some strands were still rooted in the thick of it. “Skin could easily grow over these as it heals.” She picked them with her fingernails. Then there’d be ingrown hairs. She yanked them out, taking deeper layers of skin off. “The pus would be endless.” Elaine selected peroxide and rubbing alcohol from the medicine cabinet and tilting her head, poured the peroxide on the gash. She felt faint but kept her head cocked over the sink to catch and rinse the runoff. Then she stripped, grabbed the rubbing alcohol and stepped into the shower.

She turned the water on and cranked the dial within 1/8 inch of the maximum hot water setting. For weeks she had been experimenting with the intensity, increasing the heat minutely. 62 days later she was only short of the limit by a matter of degrees.

She filled her hand with shampoo, also mixed with pumice, and massaged it onto the wound. Scathing water pelted the grains deep inside. Elaine opened the rubbing alcohol and emptied it over her head. Pain brought her to her knees. For 2 minutes she knelt, frozen, withering water lashing her. Slowly regaining movement, Elaine smiled, thinking of how clean her cut must be. She stood and turned the dial completely up for 25 seconds before getting out of the shower.

Wrapping herself in her robe, she walked from the bathroom, skin tingling against the fabric. “Mmm, it’s like shedding a skin.” She looked out of her bedroom window. Trees were still bare, but starting to bud. She grabbed her brush and began working the teeth through her hair. This was Elaine’s favourite time; early spring, when things were fresh. She grimaced as she pulled on the brush. Its pegs were stuck. Trying to free it, she turned toward the dresser mirror. “Unbelievable. This hair has thrown my whole day off.” Elaine dropped the brush and stepped back from a blood red woman staring at her. “Get out of my house….” The woman’s mouth moved as hers did. “Oh my God.” Elaine touched her cheek: she was the woman. She slowly opened her robe, revealing large blisters over flaming skin. “What did I do?” Tears trickled down her face.

The phone rang. Elaine jumped. She wrapped her robe around herself, cinching the belt. She always answered on the second ring. It chimed a second time, but before the doorway she stopped and ran hands over her hair. It seemed more tangled. She struggled not to turn back and comb it out. A third ring. More tears. A fourth ring. With a gasp Elaine ran to the phone in the hall. “White residence, Elaine speaking.”

“Why do you answer like that? People know it’s you. You’re the only one home now.”

Elaine bit the insides of her cheeks. “I assume you’re calling for a favour? That’s a bad way to start, Anna.”

“You sound weird. Is everything all right?”

“Yes, everything’s fine.” Elaine looked at her nails, the cracks in the corners had widened. “But I’m in the middle of something, so what is it you want?”

Anna huffed. “I need my jersey by lunch now. We’re leaving for the meet before last period.”

“What? Why do you need to miss last period for a track meet?” Elaine gazed down the stairs and locked on the kitchen sink full of dirty dishes from making his meals. Her eyes sunk to slits. Normally she would have done them before her shower. She sniffed: onions. “Anna, I’ll be there at 12 sharp. And meet me outside. I don’t want to have to deal with that idiot, Sherry.”

“Fine. Thanks.” She hung up.

Elaine lowered the phone, staring at the dishes. She sneered and set for the stairs. “1, 2.” She crumpled on the third step, pain pulsing through her big toe. Leaning against the banister she lifted her foot. The toe was swollen, skin stretched to burst. “Anna!” Onions pissed across Elaine’s tongue.

She bolted up. “4. 5. 6.” Elaine was punching her feet into the wood as hard as possible. “7. 8. 9.” She felt the skin around her toenail snap and fluid gush out. “10. 11. 12. 13.” Elaine smiled as she walked toward the sink. She turned on the hot water and grabbed the steel wool.

Finished, the kitchen sparkled. But there was still a trace of bleach in the air. She looked at the clock: 11:00am. “It should dissipate by the time they come home….” She grabbed the bottle and sniffed.

Elaine twisted back toward the clock: 11:02am. Oh my God, I have to be at the school by 12. Her hair, an outfit, the uniform, the bleach. “Oh shit! The bleach!” She tore down the hallway to the laundry room. She tugged the beaded chain, cursing the dull light. “Damn it, I can’t see a thing.” Wrenching the washer open Elaine yanked the clothes out and threw them on top the dryer, scanning for Anna’s jersey. “Oh, it’s so much easier to find things when I can see!” She swatted the bulb with a wet t-shirt. It popped and the room went dark, but she found a slick-feeling piece of clothing. “That’s it!” Elaine threw the jersey in a bag and dashed upstairs.

The blood red woman was still behind her dresser mirror. Trembling, Elaine pulled open her makeup drawer and took out foundation and powdered concealer. She spread the foundation thickly over her face, stretching raw skin. But it was necessary. “Anna would make a big deal about this.” She paused and wondered what her husband would think – then started applying powder. Elaine dressed in black slacks and a navy turtle neck. “Sunglasses! Yes, I could wear those too.” They hid half her face. “And with a sun hat, no one will have any idea.” Elaine smiled. “Plus, it would mean not having to tangle with this.” She pinched her knotted hair and the compulsion to reach for the brush surged. The nightstand clock flashed: 11:29am. “No. I have to get going.”

*

Elaine tapped her fingers against the steering wheel. “591. 592. 593.” She sighed, looking at the clock on her dashboard: 12:09pm. “Where is she? I said 12 sharp.” The clock changed to 12:10pm. “That’s it. If I want to serve the turkey tonight it needs to be in the oven in 50 minutes.”

Creeping up to the secretary’s desk, she found it empty. Good! Maybe she’s gone to lunch.

“Uh-oh. Anna must’ve forgotten something.” Elaine cringed as Sherry came strutting through the door carrying a TV dinner. She gave Elaine a knowing look and sat down at her desk. “You know, Ms. White, this is the second time you’ve been here this week.” Sherry stabbed a tiny broccoli with her fork and bit the head off.

“Yes, well, she needs her jersey for the meet today. Would you call her?”

Sherry leaned forward and nibbled the baby broccoli stem. “You really shouldn’t be bringing her things all the time, Elaine. She’ll never learn.”

“Actually, Sherry, I’m in a bit of a hurry so would you call Anna?”

Sherry impaled a baby carrot. “Actually, Elaine, we’re not supposed to call the students down anymore. It disrupts the learning process.” The fork scraped across her teeth.

“Fine. But she still needs this.” Elaine glanced at the clock: 12:16pm. “Sherry, the school can’t keep me from bringing things to my daughter. Now, if you aren’t going to call her, would you at least have the jersey sent to her?”

“I suppose. Just this time though. It’s not my job to cater to the students.” Sherry held out her hand. Elaine lifted the bag. “Mercy!” Sherry jumped back, knocking over her chair. “What happened to your hand?!”

Elaine looked down. Her hands were still blood red, but skin was flayed up around the edges. She turned her palms upward: they were shredded.

Sherry screamed. Elaine looked around, panicked, but no one else was in the office.

“How did you do that?” Sherry whimpered.

Elaine turned her hands over and shoved them in her pockets, still hanging onto the bag. “It’s nothing. Just some dry skin.”

“Dry skin? I don’t think so.” Sherry took a step forward. “You know, you look really pale. I think I should call the nurse.”

A sense of alarm grew in Elaine. Then, Anna came walking down the hall. “Ah! There she is now. I’ll give it to her myself.” She fled the office. “Anna!” Elaine hissed, beckoning with her shoulder, hands cemented in her pockets.

“Mom.” Anna sauntered forward. “Didn’t you get my message? I don’t need it till 3 now.”

Sherry was craning over her desk, glaring. Elaine backed toward the exit. “Anna, goddammit, just take it!”

Anna grabbed the bag. “Whoa, chill. What’s your problem?”

“Nothing. I just hate catering to you all the time.”

“Really? I thought you liked it.” Anna smirked and opened the bag. “What the hell?” She pulled out her jersey top, covered in bleach stains. “Mom! I can’t wear this!”

Elaine gasped. She grabbed at the jersey but Anna caught her by the wrist, squeezing as she looked at her mother’s hand.

“Anna, stop it,” Elaine whispered. “You let go right now!”

“Is everything all right?” They turned, Sherry was striding toward them.

“I knew it.” Anna said, voice cracking. She released her mother’s wrist. “This is beyond….”

“Anna….”

“I’m spending the night at Nicole’s so don’t set a place for me at dinner.” She turned.

“Oh, no you’re not.”

Anna whipped back around, “I am!”

“Ladies! What’s going on here?” Sherry shrilled.

“Anna!” But she was gone.

Sherry was inches away. “Elaine, I’m going to call security if you don’t tell me what the…”

Elaine slapped her. “Fuck off, Sherry.”

*

Sliding her key into the door, she entered the cold, clean smelling house. She went straight to the kitchen and started prepping the turkey. “So what if she isn’t coming home?” Elaine’s hand closed around the steel wool. “It’s not as if she would’ve appreciated the meal anyway. It’ll be just the two of us, having a romantic dinner.”

The phone rang. It rang again. “White residence, Elaine speaking.” There was a click in response. She looked at the caller-ID. It was his work number: he was letting her know he’d be late.

She wasn’t sure why, exactly, but this brought tears. Elaine slumped onto the floor. It was hard and smooth to the touch. Weeping, she stroked it back and forth with cracked fingers and began to count. By 285 she was all dried up. “What to do?” Looking around she noticed a trail of fluid stretching from the bottom of the stairs.

Elaine poured boiling water and bleach into her cleaning bucket. Starting in the kitchen, she began bathing the floors. She worked on hands and knees back toward the laundry room. Light shimmered through the living room blinds, revealing what looked like diamonds strewn across the dark, laundry room floor. Intrigued, she investigated. They weren’t diamonds but pieces of glass, from the burst bulb that morning. “All these messes…. What’s wrong with me?” Elaine placed each shard carefully in the trash.

Finished with the floor, she stood, only to lock her eyes on the damp pile of clothes on top the dryer. “They’ll have to be re-washed.” She put them back in the washer and started the load. Hot water poured out. She bent over and began laundering her hands and arms. A ray of sunlight burst through a crack in the blinds, revealing a woman just like herself in the washer water. But the woman was dark: black. The cycle began to agitate. Elaine leaned closer, her hair touching the surface. She could almost make out the woman’s features when she felt a sharp tug on her head. “No! No!” The taste of bleach splashed down her throat. Her head sunk further until she heard a sweet snap in the back of her neck.

She hovered above her body, lingering for a moment. It didn’t even look like her, down there. It looked like a rag doll: limp, floppy. The washer switched to a soak and her hair floated to the top. Each strand was long and untangled, like a silken blanket, floating supernally in the still water.

1 thought on “Clean”

  1. Amanda Earley said:

    Wow. That was powerful …

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