Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

By Caelyn Shaner

I close my eyes and let the world around me melt away. Even the darkness hiding behind my lids, sheltered by thin and unextraordinary lashes, seeps out of my field of vision like a tub whose plug has been pulled, water leaking from its container and slipping down the drain like it was never there at all. In its place burns a bright, unearthly white. It doesn’t glow so much as it sears my retinas, as if I had soaked my eyeballs in bleach. My skin stings, as I imagine it being scrubbed raw and doused in disinfectant. A scorching vapor claws its way into my nose, my mouth, and down my throat, leaving my lungs charred and blistered; breathing deeply, I inhale the mist of sanitizing spray.

“Next!” the robust woman hollers, shattering my concentration.

The white, sterile paradise around me splinters apart and escapes down the drain, lost to the sewers of my mind. A toothy Cheshire grin stretches her thin lips over her crooked chompers. Her eyes are too small for her pocked, lumpy face; their deadened emptiness threaten to swallow me like a void. My stomach churns at the crumbs from her lunch resting like ornaments on her half-exposed cleavage.

“Here you are, sweetie!” the troll woman greets me, her syrupy voice sickly, thickly sweet with a sour aftertaste.

My knees lock, my feet grinding to a halt against the scummy tile; the noise of the rubber skidding on the floor sends out a desperate shriek of panic. I think to run, to flee from the line of other patients all unhappily waiting their turn. I know, however, that the orderlies’ eyes are pinned to me. And I know that if I am caught skipping this part of my daily routine – and there is no doubt they will catch me – then I will not be permitted to prepare my own meal tonight at dinner, hand-washing every bit of produce and cooking everything longer than I was taught to in order to kill anything living in it. A special privilege awarded to me by my therapist until I “improve”  to his standards. I never seem to improve, though, and I can sense his growing frustration in our weekly sessions.

The force of the orderly’s hand hits me directly between the shoulder blades. He is quicker to shove me tonight; his patience must also be growing thin from my lack of improvement, from my persistent behavior, from our daily scuffles. He doesn’t wait as long as usual to intervene now as I stop just shy of the window. He is stronger than I am, as always, and with only his hand he easily overpowers my resistance. My torso leans forward suddenly and precariously, my locked knees buckling, and my firmly planted feet stuttering across the tile. My forearm slams into the outcropping corner of the counter at the window and I yelp out from the unexpected pain, “No!”

Affording me no time to nurse my fresh wound, he grabs the little paper cup from the ogre-like nurse at the window and shoves it in my hand, then forces my hand toward my mouth. I fight not to swallow the chalky pills, gratefully gagging on them without water.

It’s then that he reaches for the water cup on the counter. I stare at it, gripped in my reluctant fist as I involuntarily raise it to my lips. Bubbles dot the top layer, shifting across the surface and popping only to be replaced, new soldiers to fill in the ranks of the fallen. They almost appear to squirm inside the liquid, wriggling like tiny little insects. Crawling up the sides of the paper walls, their struggling bodies fighting to the surface for air. Legs extending from their round bodies, antennae rising from their bug-eyed little faces. They stare at me from the container. How long until they escape, climbing over the lip and up my arm?

A single drop falls from the rim and lands on my thumb.

The scream bursts from my lungs, loud and piercing. I feel hands grasping at me, rough, almost violent; so many orderlies have appeared out of nowhere all at once. But they can’t protect me; it’s too late. The commotion has sent the water splashing from the paper cup; it covers me, sending the mites with it. Little legs creep along my skin, tickling my flesh in a horrific way. Sharp teeth bite into me, making me cry out in pain and terror. They begin to burrow into my flesh, ripping open my skin to make a home inside the meat. I can practically feel them laying eggs, ensuring their existence lasts long after their hard little exoskeletons have decayed in my muscle tissue.

I buck and kick vigorously to free myself from the orderlies holding me back. I can see my target, my cure just down the hallway.

In my struggle, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window glass and wail in agonized, hysterical revulsion. A spider the size of a child’s fist stretches its long, gangly leg out of the corner of my mouth and pulls itself off my tongue and onto my chin. I watch as ants begin to file out of my ears in a single line, then side by side, then explode in a barrage of tiny black monsters. As I sob – great, fat tears now streaming from my eyes – thin, white, diseased-looking worms slither out from under my lids. They slip down my cheeks inside my tears like they’re on a waterslide, followed by their comrades, which grow bigger with every new addition.

My balled fists and flailing feet connect, and suddenly I crash to the floor, undeterred by my captors. In a fit of desperation, I rush away, unbalanced but still able to elude their restraining hands. Eternal seconds pass, filthy insects tearing into me, ripping apart my flesh selfishly and ruthlessly. Throwing myself against the wheeled cart, I push the resident maid out of my way. I battle with the cap on the bottle I’ve snatched, so acutely aware of my limited timeframe. It twists off with a little scraping pop sound. My mouth is open before I’ve finished lifting the bottle. I pour it from its surprisingly wide opening; it washes over my face, down my chin, drenching my clothes and coating my skin. I swallow quickly again and again, not giving myself to really taste it.

The bottle is ripped from my shaking hands. I don’t have time to fend them off before I collapse to the floor, vomit gushing past my lips unrepentantly. I’m lost in it, in the stench, the taste, the fiery pain, the disgust, the fear. I’m don’t recall an end to the vomit before I pass out. But it’s not blackness that greets me as my lids fall heavily over my eyes. It’s white all around, nothing but blinding white.

Clean, scorching white.

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