You stand at the edge of the porch, leaning over the rail as you exhale a cloud of smoke into the thick Louisiana air. It hangs in suspended animation, clouding your view of the boggy bayou. A warm tear slips from the corner of your eye and cools as it carves a shallow canyon through your makeup like an unyielding river through sandstone.
Most days your job doesn’t get to you. You shut off that part of yourself that cares about anything—your family, your life, your beliefs. Those things don’t exist here. You have learned to check your humanity at the door.
But some days you come unprepared.
With the back of your hand, you dry your cheek before snuffing out the cigarette against the weather-beaten rail. Your boss spits your name like a curse word, reminding you that you’re on the clock. He tells you to cry on your own time. You’ve imagined a thousand scenarios where you tell him off and quit, but you don’t live in a world where you can afford to put your money where your mouth is, so you swallow your words and keep your cash.
The screen door screams as you pull it open and snap on a pair of rubber gloves. “Where do you want to me to start?” You stand before him with your hands defiantly on your hips, silently daring him to give you flak, but when faced with your steely gaze, he wilts like a cut flower beneath a heating vent. Cowards often do.
He promptly averts his eyes and scurries past. “You take the bedroom. I’ll get the bathroom and kitchen.”
Of course. He leaves you to scrub blood and haul linens soaked in bodily fluids while he disposes of takeout boxes and mops boot tracks. But when payday comes, his check will dwarf yours. Life isn’t fair. For some less than others, you think with guilt as you stare at the handmade suncatcher that hangs from the kitchen window, its tinfoil caming and multi-hued saran wrap twisting light into vibrant patterns across the formica countertop like a stain glass window over a pulpit.
With a box of trash bags under one arm, you awkwardly tote a bucket of cleaning supplies down the hall, setting it at your feet as you inhale a deep breath and push your respiratory mask into place. Once upon a time, you didn’t know to cover your face right away, but now all you smell is rot and decay in everything. Even when you sleep, bleach and blood seep into your dreams. The mask helps to put layers between you and death.
Peeling unicorn stickers chase each other across the door around a little girl’s name drawn in purple crayon. But rusty red fingerprints have carelessly smeared through the letters, destroying any bit of magic that may have once existed. For the briefest of moments, your hand hesitates on the knob as you turn it. The click is deafening.
The door slowly swings open and you sink your teeth into your tongue until the taste of blood fills your mouth. You brace for impact, knowing that this image will violently slam into your chest leaving its permanent impression. You look any way.
In many ways, it’s ordinary. Pink walls, delicate lace curtains, a doll house with tiny furniture. But innocence flinches, cowering in the corner as it seeks safety from an evil that permeates from the heart of the room. It’s a darkness so black that it snuffs out the light in a single defined moment.
A ruined comforter dotted with shiny stars and crescent moons lies wadded in a ball on a bed where no child will ever sleep again. A deep furrow forms between your brow and you beat back your heartache as you absorb the nightmare. Against your will, it becomes a part of you.
Porcelain faces with perfect curls and hand-tailored gowns encircle the room on a shelf high above. They watch from their perches like angels in a cloudless sky, their glass eyes gleaming with the knowledge of what they have seen. You often think how fortunate it is that, while each object holds a story, it can’t be told without a mouthpiece. You’re thinking that now as you try to avoid their gazes.
Pulling an oversized trash bag from the box, you throw yourself into your work, hoisting the cumbersome blood-encrusted blanket into the bag. Constant motion keeps you from focusing too long on any one aspect, stops you from collecting the pieces and forming a narrative. You’ll do that later while you’re lying in bed, unable to sleep as you stare blankly at the ceiling.
Next you remove the stained sheets, the pillow where she dreamt of her future, the tiny articles of clothing scattered across the shag rug. One by one, you collect items and place them into bags, hauling them to plastic barrels which act as a sarcophagus for traumatic memories. Tears gloss over your vision as you scrub the walls where small nails have gouged ravines through soft pink paint. It’s as if your fingers are touching hers. You stifle a sob and scrub harder.
After hours of effort, you lay the past to rest as the room leaves behind the little girl who once sat at the tiny table with her dolls, feeding them from plastic spoons while singing about her wonder of the stars.
But no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to leave her behind.
When you’re sure your boss isn’t looking, you pocket a small, porcelain unicorn, careful not to crush it as you carry your supplies back to the van and call it a day. The ride home is quiet. You don’t turn on the radio, preferring the chirp of cicadas as you drive down the long, dirt road toward your trailer. Years ago, you made a rule not to listen to music on days like these. Some of your favorite songs had been ruined because they danced too close to death.
You open your screen door, which squeals just like hers, and flick on the lamp. Kicking off your shoes, you head toward the bathroom and start the shower. Your clothing peels down your skin, and its as if your soul is being flayed—every day another layer. You can still feel her blood on your fingers, even though you wore gloves. Of course it’s all in your head, but as the scalding water pours over your body, you still scrub your skin raw.
In the dim light of your room, you stand motionless before your cluttered dresser, staring at the clusters of tiny knickknacks and baubles belonging to people you’ve never met—an homage to the lost. You reverently place the delicate unicorn next to the others and light a candle.
Your eyes meet your vulnerable and broken reflection above the flickering flame—a remnant of the person you used to be—and you promise yourself for the hundredth time that there is still good in the world.
You blow out the candle.