These pages took a little longer to re-write than I anticipated but I think I was able to get all of it…oh and there may be mistakes, I’m really just reading, typing and then posting without editing so if you find any I apologize in advance!
I was awake before dawn. With tingling hands half numb from being smooshed between my shoulder and the door handle I fluffed the side of my matted hair and circled my neck slowly, hoping the subtle movement would ease out the stiffness. Yawning deeply I slide into the front seat, pried loose a half-full water bottle caught under the seat and took a long swig rinsing the early morning dryness from my mouth. Still fingering the soreness in my shoulder I gulped another mouthful of water swishing the liquid between my cheeks before starting the car and pulling off.
I drove for about twenty minutes before spotting a towering hotel in the distance. Turning into the parking lot I grabbed toothpaste, a pair of jeans, a wife beater and clean underwear from the duffel bag in my trunk tucking the bundle under my arm. Walking quickly, determined to project the idea I belonged in the hotel’s marble foyer with its large crystal chandeliers and piped in classical music, I squared my shoulders, kept my gaze straight forward and made a bee-line for the women’s restroom pushing my way inside.
The bathroom was blessedly empty. I exhaled brushing my teeth with my finger using the shirt I’d slept in to wash-up quickly in the sink. Ducking into a stall I changed my clothes waddling out in socked feet. I ran my hands through my disheveled hair and considered throwing on some make-up, but settled instead for a quick swipe of clear lip gloss. Bending down I slipped on my chucks tying the laces into double knots before standing to stare in the mirror.
I ran over the planes of my face with scrutiny. Rust tinged brown skin, full lips, eyes dark and hooded so I always looked tipsy in pictures. Cheekbones only bothering to be visible when I smiled. I sighed, briskly gathering my dirty clothes spouting a pep talk into the empty bathroom along the way. “Stop thinking it’s impossible. It’s not impossible. Walk out of this bathroom. Get in your car. Find someone to wipe you so clean you…” I chuckled at the absurdity of the idea. Sara was right but I wasn’t ready to accept that. Not yet. Shaking my head clearing it of doubts I met my dark eyes in the mirror. “Find someone to wipe you so clean you can’t be called. So clean you can forget you were ever Taram and live a gloriously normal boring life.” I smiled awakening cheekbones, ran one last hand over my tightly coiled curls and walked out the door.
My steps were brisk, determined so the jolt of running into him was full and instant, my dirty clothes tumbling in one tangled heap to the shining inlaid floor. I fell bracing my empty palms against the slick hard tiles. He was unshaken like he’d been planning to knock me off my feet, and he was staring at me. I pushed up from the floor gathering my things speaking as my hands corralled the last of my dirty clothes. “Sorry. I wasn’t looking.”
“I know you.”
I looked up sharply. He said it with complete authority and I stared at him absolutely certain I’d never seen this man before in my life. His face broke in a smile and instantly I wanted to like him. I told myself not to. Don’t talk to strangers. I took a step back. Addressing my unasked question he took a step forward. “No you don’t know me but I know you.”
I shook my head trying to move around him. “You have me confused.”
“No,” he paused, “No, but I believe I am confusing you.” He took another step extending his hand. On autopilot I shifted my dirty clothes to my left to shake it. He smiled again and I found my lips were traitors, they curved in response. His voice was deeper than it seemed it should be and smooth like melted caramels. “You can call me Doc, and you are Velma.”
Reflexively I pulled my hand away widening the distance between us. “How do you know my name?”
He laughed then. A full unapologetic sound bouncing off the walls wringing moisture from his eyes. It was a satiating laugh reminding me of my mom’s. I tried to build up anger but the memory of her laughter bubbled up from my stomach guiding my words so they were anything but menacing. “I’m not laughing, this is not funny!”
His boom died down to silent waves contracting his belly pushing his breath out in excited gasps. I stared in disbelief at his boyish blue eyes, perfect square jaw, dark black hair, button down lavender shirt hanging loose over well worn jeans. He was surf-boy Superman handsome. Something he seemed aware of but addressed in an after-thought sort of way, and he was claiming to know me. He knew my name.
In light of recent events every red flag should be waving but I couldn’t will my feet to walk away. Without warning he grabbed my hand pulling me behind him, his words coming out quickly one after another.
“I didn’t mean to laugh you were just so shock-and-awe back there. The look on your face! I just couldn’t hold it in, you being cautious of me!” He stopped walking plopping us down on a soft toile upholstered bench in the lobby. An assortment of tall potted fichus shaded us from the main entrance. A fountain in the foyer gurgled rhythmically ending in small concentric splashes.
I dropped my dirty clothes on the floor turning to look into eyes that instead of blue were a striking peridot green. I felt my eyebrows raise even as I tried to stop them. He brought his index finger up to the side of his temple.
“It’s the eyes right?” he shrugged. “It happens. Normally they try to match whatever I’m wearing. Except for purple. I wear a lot of purple.”
I stared at him trying to determine if I should run, knowing my stupid curiosity had me sitting on this small bench serenaded by a fountain and guarded by a tree. I wanted to hear what else he had to say so I let loose the questions bubbling behind my lips. “What are you? How do you know me?”
He smiled again his face brightening. “I am what you planned to look for. Had a dream you would be coming. Thought I would save you a trip.”
Understanding unfolded lazily inside my head. “You’re a cleaner.”
He stretched his arms above his head. “I’m the cleaner. The one the folks at Essex keep hidden behind their bedtime stories.”
He sat openly letting me regard him with suspicious eyes. Could it really be this easy? This morning I had no plan and now the answer was sitting beside me with a half smile and eyes turning cloudy and grey? He broke the silence.
“It won’t be that easy and I hate when they go grey, it’s my least favorite. Makes me look very Dawn of the Dead.” He frowned lightly. I shook my head finding surprise no longer existed, words escaping my mouth only to confirm information.
“You can read minds.”
He shrugged. “Not everybody’s. Actually I’m surprised it works on you, but then again it probably works because it has to.” He bent over scooping my dirty clothes into the crook of his arm. “Let’s go get some food, I’m hungry. Are you hungry?”
Not waiting for a response he stood walking briskly through the lobby between the silently opening glass doors and into the waiting sunshine.
I was hungry. So I followed.
He was tall with strides lyrical and smooth moving him quickly across the blacktop. Turning right he stopped in front of my car leaning casually against the passenger door waiting for me to let him in. I smirked as he threw my clothes into the trunk before sliding into his seat. There were at least 20 cars in the parking lot.
“Lucky guess?” I said before sliding behind the wheel. He chuckled the sound moving against the air as he fastened his seat belt regarding me with eyes cool and grey. A chill ran through me. He was right they made him appear unanimated, unnatural – like walking death.
Fifteen minutes later we settled into a small orange and brown café bulging with an eclectic mix of people. Neo-soul cats strummed guitars and beat out rhythms on jimbays by the bar. Others escaped into iPods and large hardcover books. Yoga moms with rolled up mats at their feet sipped skinny lattes, split croissants into eights and re-tied perfectly tied ponytails. Couples glossy with hangovers ordered huevos rancheros and potent bloody marys. The smell of eggs and bacon, fresh coffee, maple syrup and buttered bread massaged my stomach adding fire to a hunger I’d been growing since ramen noodles had been my breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Our server loaded our table with gluttonous requests, poached eggs over spicy corned beef hash, banana buckwheat pancakes, house cured sausage and smoked salmon, cantaloupe, fresh brown butter scones and a carafe of dark roast coffee. We ate in silence. Mouthfuls of silky egg and perfectly crisp hash, pillowy pancake and salty savory sausage shoveled in steadily until stomachs appeased we slowed down between sips of coffee and nibbles of melon to regard each other again. He spoke first. “I should start?”
I nodded guiding a petal pink sliver of salmon into my mouth. He nodded in return. “I’ll start. What do you know about cleaners?”
My mouth was full. I shrugged. He sighed pushing his plates away resting his elbows on the exposed table. “Okay. From the beginning then.” He moistened his lips folding his hands under his chin. “If after being marked and completing the initial quarantine it’s discovered a newly cloaked may not have the aptitude for withstanding the riots they are further tested for other attributes. Those chosen to be bleachers are passed on to Saints. It takes five years to master the manipulation of what cannot be seen. Bleachers give up a little part of themselves every time they offer to cleanse someone else. You learn first not to mourn that loss, to not feel it. Regardless of that instilled discipline somehow you almost always miss it.”
He folded a large bite of pancake into his mouth. I was quiet while he chewed waiting for him to continue. He took a sip of coffee, wiped distractedly at a crumb hanging on the side of his mouth before speaking again. “The training is not easy. Many of those working with the Saints request to be cleansed before they’re halfway through, but those who choose to see it to the end do so,” he looked through me with eyes swirling hazel and clear, “well I would say choose to do so for the same reason you choose to do what you do…” he cleared his throat, “did.”
I refilled my coffee emptying the carafe before reaching for the last piece of sausage chewing quietly to not interrupt his story. He blinked his eyes charcoal before continuing. “They work under the direction of appointed trainers. They work and then they die. That is all the Taram or Eirum need ever know about them unless you find yourself needing the assistance of one like me. Me and the two others like me are the maligned privileged secret of the balance. We are born to do this, able to see the mark, able to do what they train to do as easily as you breathe. Seeing a soul, that indescribable palpableness of someone’s truth is my first memory. It is an amazing burden. We are tasked immediately with perfecting our abilities. Those of us with this birthright are the only ones capable of wiping the Taram and Eirum. We are also expressly forbidden to do so. Our talents are used…”
He paused again smiling at the waitress passing our table. She smiled in return, cheeks cherry red and doubled back to the table she’d overlooked delivering glistening tumblers of juice to the couple sitting there. Looking over her shoulder she confirmed she still held Doc’s attention. He winked. She giggled. He offered his charcoal glance a second longer before turning back to me, face boyish and sincere.
“Our talents are used for other things. It’s remarkable what can be accomplished with access to the soul,” he ran a hand through his shining hair, “and that is where we are mandated to stay. It is a birthright prison. One we are taught to regard as a privilege. For most that is enough. For others it is a catalyst for rebellion. They find new and interesting ways to utilize their skills. It is a constant temptation. There are numerous people willing to offer up more than you can imagine for a taste of what we can do – “
“But what about the balance? Don’t you question your actions? Think of yourself and your fate? Wonder when you’ll be marked?” I hadn’t realized I was going to speak until the questions were completely freed from my lips. He looked amused, reached for the carafe to fill his cup and finding it empty reached for my mug instead adding cream and taking a sip before responding.
“We can’t be marked. We live outside the balance. Some speculate we may be manifestations of the balance itself. Perhaps that is what makes it easier to choose to do horrible things, the feeling of being unaccountable. At least it made it easier for me.”
I felt my eyes widening in surprise. He smiled sadly handing back my coffee running his hand along his throat as if coaxing the remaining words from his mouth.
“There are consequences though as there are for everything. Consequences I still pay for, and will continue to pay for,” his exhale was audible, “since I’ve already decided I will do whatever it is you ask.”
I picked at a small piece of melon. “Why would you do that? Offer to help me, risk any sort of consequence to help someone you don’t even know?”
He leaned forward closing the distance between us through a sea of white plates, remnants of pancake and slices of buttered toast. “I know you better than you know yourself. See you more clearly than you’ll ever see yourself. I feel perhaps in not helping you I could face a far greater consequence than what already awaits me.”
We sat in silence. The blushing waitress cleared our plates searching Doc’s face for flirty glances but his navy blue eyes focused steadily on me. I waited until she walked away before breaking the silence surprised at the steadiness of my voice. “You know that I am the Kachina. You know that I will ask to be bleached.”
He nodded. “I do.”
“I don’t know a lot about cleaners, in fact as time goes on I realize I don’t know a lot about anything but I do know that in choosing to help me. Because of who I am. Who I’m supposed to be. Things could be bad. For you.”
He laughed. “No pretty one, things will be bad for you. You are the one running from your destiny. I suspect without warning it will come back and smack you upside your head.”
He was the second man to call me pretty and I could think of no more profound hint of premonition. The first man to call me beautiful had left me with pieces to mend. It seemed this might end in much the same way. I also knew regardless of any rational arguments to be made on either of our parts we were already resigned to what would be our fate.