Emily wanted to be home. The glaring fluorescent light in the hallway hurt her eyes and the sudden scent of bleach struck her as an exercise in futility; nothing would ever truly clean the years of embedded shit and dirt, piss and mold, the years of pain, of loss, of silence. Damn him, she thought, approaching the door again. Emily felt for her key; first in the left pocket, pushing through the torn hole at the corner, then in the right, hesitating for a second as she touched the Raven. Caleb often asked her if she thought about using the gun. Sometimes she lied and said yes; sometimes she lied and said no. Some nights, she searched the streets of lower Bath, the Raven clenched in her hand, thinking: One bullet. It would be enough.

Intrigued by Russian roulette, Caleb insisted on loading the pistol with one shot. Every once in a while, he’d demand that Emily give him the gun and he’d point the Raven at the soft spot above his ear, taking his chances. She didn’t know where he got it but it wasn’t new; the chrome was faded and the wooden handle was dented. He’d told her that it was formally known as the Raven .25 caliber semi-automatic pistol. Emily liked the name of it, the Raven. It fit in her pocket, in the palm of her hand.

She placed the key in the lock and felt something shift, but the door refused to open. Emily pressed her shoulder against the hard brass knocker. The bolts were still locked. She knocked tentatively, staring at the door, once painted white, now peeling from the top left corner to reveal the hope of the last color.

She couldn’t stay in the hallway. The lock on the entry door had been broken for months and the addicts and vagrants came in for warmth, they came hungry with need. During the night, when she knew they were walking through the building, she’d crawl close to Caleb in bed, though he offered no comfort. She hated night. Afraid and alone, she would listen to the irregularity of her breath and wait for the first signs of day. She heard a rush of swift movement, the sound of a door opening. Emily froze.

6C stood at the open door, holding a baseball bat at his side. “What the fuck are you doing?” The man looked from right to left, his face was worn brown leather marked hard with age and time. They had never spoken except for the curt and polite nod in passing. He’d moved into 6C in September.

What the fuck was she doing? Emily fingered her pocket and lied: her boyfriend had locked up for the night and she forgot her key.
“Ah, shit,” he replied, “Come on in. Call your boyfriend and get his ass up. I heard some of those fuckers in the hallway just a few minutes ago.”

“It’s okay; I was just stopping by. I’m meeting a friend and it’s so cold… and I … I forgot my gloves.” Emily didn’t know if she was fooling the man; his wizened face seemed to peer right through her. For all she knew, 6C had heard them fighting earlier. The walls in the apartment house were stereotypically thin.

“Stay there,” he said, shutting the door.

Emily looked wistfully at the door to the apartment. Caleb was the one who lived there; his name was on the mailbox and the monthly checks for rent.

The door to 6C opened as abruptly as it had shut. The man looked out again but was not holding the baseball bat; he was holding a scarf and gloves. “I’m sure the gloves will be too big – but they’ll keep you warm enough. Take the scarf too. Your coat… the scarf will help a little.”

Emily wavered, unprepared for his generosity. She felt tears threaten to betray her coolness, the mask that set on her features more firmly each year. The man pushed the items into her hands.
“Thank you,” she whispered.

“Be safe. Come home soon.”

Home. The word lingered in her mind like a shadow. She used to have a home. When she was a child, she grew up in a house by the ocean. At night, the water rose and flooded the floorboards. She never dreamed; she swam through the sea, glittering scales. When she woke, she always found sand in the corners of her room and traces of salt on her pillow.

Emily pulled the scarf around her neck. It was soft and warm and smelled like toast. She pulled on the gloves; they were way too big. She thought about leaving them by 6C’s door, but reasoned that the man had given them to her, and she wouldn’t want someone else to take them, so she stuffed the gloves into her pockets, along with her hands.

She hurried down the stairwell; it would be safer outside, in the streets. At the first floor landing, she noticed two women sitting against the wall, their eyes red and angry. As she passed them, she felt something brush her leg as one of them whispered hoarsely “What you got, white girl?” She nearly broke into a run.

In the few years she had lived with Caleb, she had tried to persuade him to move. She didn’t like being a minority in the building, on the streets of the neighborhood. She hated herself for thinking it an issue at all, but it was and she couldn’t do anything about it. She couldn’t change the color of her skin, though she would have, if that was what it took to belong to something, somewhere.

Emily walked outside into the cold night air. Snow was just beginning to fall; it was the kind of snow she had always loved, the kind that melted as soon as it touched her skin. The streets were empty, the world quiet. Emily crossed the street.

Caleb wouldn’t leave because the rent was cheap. Of course it’s cheap, Emily would counter; the apartment house was an old tenement; poverty and depravation were as part of the building as the brick and mortar.

“Then leave,” he’d say, always returning to those two words that held such power over her.

She’d met him at the bar where she worked part-time. The Spiral had a venue, a minor one, but one nevertheless. Caleb’s band played there every once in a while. He was a drummer. He liked to hit things. He liked to hit – not all the time, just… sometimes, she thought, as she brushed her lip absently with her finger to see if the swelling had gone down. She didn’t even think about how she looked when she saw 6C. She peered into one of the storefront windows and almost didn’t recognize herself.

Emily stopped at her reflection, barely able to reconcile the image before her. Her lip was still swollen and her eyes were large and dark. Emily’s hair was cut severely, bleached a coarse and dull blonde. Her hair used to shine around her head like a halo; her mother had called it spun gold, as if she were a princess in one of those fairy tales she read to her at bedtime. She closed her eyes, remembering the way her mother had brushed her long silky hair when she was a child.

She could almost feel the touch of the brush on her scalp when she was jolted; a hand grabbed the back of her head and her eyes flew open. In the window, she saw a man behind her. Quickly, she reached into her pockets and found 6C’s gloves blocking her access to the contents within.

“Didn’t think I’d find anyone out here tonight.” The man laughed harshly, “But ladies have to work, right?”

Emily’s eyes widened. “I’m… I’m not –”

The man smiled broadly, “I wasn’t going to pay for it anyway.” His smile snapped shut as he tightened his grasp on the back of Emily’s head and lead her forward on the street towards the alley. With her right hand, she reached into her pocket and let the glove fall to the ground. She searched the hole and clasped her hand on the Raven.

Emily held the gun in her pocket and jerked quickly and awkwardly away from the man. He was still holding the back of her head, her hair entwined with his thumb and forefinger. She moved her head violently away from him and felt a stab of pain as she broke free from his grip. The man’s face distorted with anger.

“Crazy bitch.” He said, dropping her disentangled hair on the sidewalk. He hit her across the cheek, then the side of the jaw. She turned mid-swing and his fist caught her eye; she staggered at the force of the blow. Emily tore her hand from her pocket and shakily pointed the gun at his face.

Emily tried to steady the Raven. He looked at her hand, then into her eyes. Her right eye was inflamed and tearing; her left eye was implacable. The man’s countenance changed from anger to indifference. He laughed dryly.

“You know how to use that, little girl?”

Emily didn’t answer him, her left eye bore into his. She had waited to pull the trigger all these years, maybe all her life; she would not hesitate now. He shrugged and backed away, crossing the street slowly. He stood in front of the apartment house where 6C asked her in, where Caleb locked her out. Emily didn’t move, her arm holding the Raven remained outstretched. Only after the man walked through the entry and the door shut did her arm fall, defeated, broken.

She was shaking. The back of her head was raw. She felt completely sober. Why did she take the last of the heroin? It had only made Caleb angry, the way she always made father angry. If only she was good, if only she wouldn’t cry, if only she’d waited for him, he’d have finished it and then made arrangements to score. He didn’t want to hurt her; at night, in the terrible night, he said he loved her. She didn’t think. She just didn’t think about anything, anymore.

Emily usually went to The Spiral when Caleb kicked her out, to give him some time to cool down. But she had already gone to The Spiral earlier; she couldn’t go back. She looked across the street, realizing that she could leave at that moment; there was nothing to return for. She hated that building, falling apart and rotting from the inside out; it wasn’t her home. It never was.

Home. The word lingered in her mind like a shadow. She used to have a home. When Emily was a child, she grew up in a house by the forest. At night, the roots of the trees lifted the floorboards. She never dreamed; she crouched on the ground, growing fur. When she woke, she always found dirt in the corners of her room and crushed leaves on her pillow.

Emily adjusted the scarf around her, carefully covering the back of her head. She made her way up the street in the falling snow. It was beginning to stick, the street spilled with bleach. For a moment, she breathed in the idea that a world could change, that it could be cleansed, that it was possible to begin anew. She turned her face towards the dark starless sky, the flurries thickening and storming around her. Another long night, and she was tired, so tired. She walked on heavily; wondering if each endless step would take her to the break of day. The Raven felt light and safe in her hand. One bullet, she thought. It would be enough.

Originally published in Tales from the Moonlit Path.


One response to “Bleach

  • fivereflections

    Bleach and the character Emily was truly one of the most beautiful modern stories I have read! While I was reading, I swear I could feel Emily’s warm moist breath against my face.

    For years I read older novels and short stories – Anton Chekhov being one of my favorite short story authors – and Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Wolfe – the list is endless.

    Have you ever read Harold Robbins (1916-1997)? some of his books are still being published by ghostwriters based on his notes and unfinished stories…

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