Agitato hooked the miniblinds with one finger and cracked them just enough to peek outside. Sure enough, those damn kids were out there again. Playing basketball or hooky or doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing. He growled deep in his throat, but since the kids were outside and across the street, they remained unaware of the threat.
He jerked his hand back and let the blinds snap closed again. Something had to be done about those street urchins. Something. And soon.
He closed his eyes and reclined back against the seashell pink bath pillow, stretching his toes out as far as they would reach. They wouldn’t reach all the way to the other end of the jacuzzi, but that was fine. That was just fine. His fingers crept over to the switch for the jets, and the water churned into a whirling maelstrom as he clicked it.
The thunderous waters drowned out the distracting ruckus of those damned neighborhood kids, and Agitato smirked with one corner of his mouth. Peace and quiet. That’s all he needed, all he ever asked for. Lovely, creamy, silky smooth skin, and peace and quiet. That’s it.
His eyelids slipped lower, but suddenly, he realized that he’d forgotten to pick up cherry tomatoes at the grocery store earlier this morning. His head snapped around to the side to have a look at the clock hanging on the north wall. This afternoon, then. It didn’t really matter what time it was, all that matter was the quite serious lack of cherry tomatoes. Severe, even.
He turned the jets off. Curses! Those brats outside were still making godawful noises of merriment. And to top it all off, he’d forgotten to get a fresh towel from the linen closet just outside the bathroom door. He was going to have to dry his body with a used towel. How utterly disgusting.
Everyone at the store would be sure to smell him. They would alienate him in the produce section. He would have to seek out the thrice-damned cherry tomatoes all by himself. Again. This would be yesterday all over again. Just like yesterday, when the thread had worked its way out of the seam of his pants leg and hung there, waving in the wind, for all the world to see.
Agitato briefly considered suicide as an alternative to going out in public. It would be so much easier. But his psychiatrist and his psychologist and his therapist and his counselor all said not to, that it was frowned upon greatly in today’s society. He heaved a long-suffering sigh and drained the jacuzzi.
Yesterday’s towel jeered at him, mocking him for using it twice in a row without washing. Agitato shivered, trying to break free of his compulsion to not wet the hall rug so that he could make his way to the linen closet and get a fresh towel. A fresh towel would be so much better. So much better. Cleaner.
He couldn’t manage it. Maybe next time. He dried his body as roughly as possible, trying to scourge the filthy feeling the towel left on his skin away with pain, but that never worked. Once dry, He threw the towel into the tub to soak up the remainder of the water, hence preventing him from using it again next time, should he happen to forget a fresh towel again. He chuckled at his own cleverness, but quickly scowled again when another squeal of glee drifted in through the window.
Those children. Something must be done about those children.
That evening Agitato enjoyed his cherry tomatoes in the bath, daydreaming of the punishments he would dole out to the neighborhood children when next they disturbed his peace and quiet and silky soft skin.
Phil was an emotional wreck.
He peered out the window for a brief instant before twitching the blinds back into place. No one was going to show. He knew it in his heart. He put out a hand to catch himself on the arm of his favorite easy chair, but missed, and collapsed all the way to the floor. He curled up, hugged his knees to his chest, and began bawling his eyes out.
A knock on the door startled him, and he rose quickly, dashing the tears from his face with the heel of his right hand. When he opened the door, His lips moved, but no sound escaped to welcome his sister and her new husband to his home.
“Hey Phil!” cried his sister Lynette. she took a step into his domain and dropped her purse on the table next to the door before squeezing his ribs ever so tightly. “This is Robert, I’m sure you remember that.” She gestured Robert to come inside as she sidled Phil gently out of the way and softly closed the door.
Robert stuck out a hand. “Nice to finally meet you, buddy.” He smiled broadly, a smile that began to wilt when Phil failed to grasp his hand or even speak at an audible volume.
“Don’t worry, hon,” Lynette patted her husband on his upper arm. “Phil gets a little freaked out when he has company. Why don’t we all go sit down in the living room?” She led the two men into the adjacent room and settled Phil on his easy chair before ushering Robert to one end of the couch. She took the other end.
Phil teased a stray bit of string from the upholstery with his forefinger and thumb, refusing to look up at the invaders on his couch. He suddenly regretted ever buying that couch. If he hadn’t gotten a couch, there would be nowhere for them to sit, and then perhaps they wouldn’t have come at all. They wouldn’t be invading his sanctuary.
When he finally looked up, the couch was gone, and the floor was dusty in the spot where it never was. A single tear followed in the tracks already left on Phil’s face as he realized that he’d done it again.
He’d forgotten that he was an only child.
When I looked in the mirror I was surprised to see how bloodshot my eyes were. I’m pretty sure I slept the night before. Pretty sure. But who really knows anything for sure in this world?
I washed my face and dried it on the faded blue towel that always hung on the circular shower curtain rod above my cracked tub. Six and a half months here, and I’d yet to take a bath in that footed monstrosity. I’d considered it half a dozen times, but whenever I reached to turn the taps on, an image flashed through my mind of the landlord finding me in a puddle of bloody shards when my downstairs neighbors called about their ceiling leaking.
So no baths for me here. I washed my hair in the kitchen sink, and if I really needed a hose down, I went over to a friend’s house with some excuse about the water pressure at home. Nobody cared; I didn’t stink at work or anything.
I took one last hard look at the tub before turning and heading out of the bathroom to get dressed for work. Something was off about it. I don’t know. Maybe something was off about me. I shrugged it off for the thousandth time.
I’d forgotten about the spaghetti sauce I spilled on my jeans last night at dinner. I work on the phone, though, so it doesn’t matter too much what my clothes look like as long as they cover all the parts that people like to be covered. I thought I smelled something off when I slipped the fresh polo over my head, but that could have been anything. I picked it up from the cleaners yesterday on my way home. It had to be fine.
I stuck my head in the bathroom to check on the tub once more before I left. I didn’t know why it was on my mind so much today. I still don’t. Probably never will. It was still the same, same gray cracks crazing the white porcelain coating, same clawed feline toes gripping the black and white tiles. I thought I might be losing it. Pretty close to the truth.
One of the homeless people I pass every morning turned her head to follow me with her eyes as I passed. I usually give her change, but I didn’t have any on me today. I could feel her eyes crawling on my skin, their burning intensity growing with each second her gaze stayed with me. I took the next corner to get out of her sight, not caring that I’d be making myself late to work.
“Do you want to sell that?” A woman in a secondhand shop’s doorway reached out to grab me by the arm. I was momentarily confused until she nodded down to the leather satchel I carried. I shook my head and pulled away from her before she could sink her claws any deeper. The day was getting stranger and stranger as it wore on, and I didn’t know what I could do about it.
I checked over my shoulder to make sure she hadn’t followed me, and the smell I’d caught the barest whiff of when dressing was back, and stronger now. It reminded me of raw meat, but I wouldn’t have put my shirt next to any. I didn’t even buy any yesterday, and I’m fairly certain that the dry cleaning lady is a vegan. I remember seeing her behind the wheel of a Prius with some vegan bumper stickers once.
I reached back to rub my shoulder where my bag was beginning to wear heavy and touched unexpected wetness. I pulled my hand back to have a look, and it was bloody. I stopped, and tried to lift my collar and twist my neck enough to have a look at my own shoulder blade. I didn’t feel any pain, but the blood had to be coming from somewhere.
Underneath my shirt, I didn’t appear to have any wounds at all. I looked up, searching for something, anything, that might have dripped this thick redness on me, but I didn’t see anything unusual. A blind man leaned out of his window on the second floor, but he had nothing in his hand. I supposed he could have dumped a cup of blood and then put the cup down, but what kind of blind man would be able to do such a thing with any kind of accuracy?
He paid no attention to me, anyway. The blind man’s clothes were dirty and disheveled. Maybe he was a squatter. But I was only distracting myself from the bigger question at hand. I reached around again, but my shirt was dry. For now, the smell was gone. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples in small circles, trying to ease the pounding that was beginning in my head. I turned around, giving up on work. My boss would understand.
I gave one more glance at the blind man, but he was gone, disappeared into the apartment to do who knows what, the delicate floral curtain left to flutter languidly in the faint breeze coming down the street.
The secondhand shop was closed when I passed it by for the secondhand time, oddly enough, the woman who accosted me nowhere to be found. The dust and dirt from the street had built up on the stoop so thickly that I doubt I had truly seen her at all.
I felt a sudden sharp pain in my left arm, and when I looked down, the blood was already dripping off my swinging fingertips, spattering into meaningless patterns on the sidewalk both fore and aft of me. I squeezed my eyes tight, then opened them again, and the blood was gone. Heading home may not have been the wisest decision I’ve ever made, but I didn’t want to commit myself to the loony bin just yet, thank you very much.
The homeless woman was missing as well. I didn’t question that; I don’t think I could have dealt with another second of her stare.
I ran up the three flights of stairs to my apartment, key in hand, but my door was ajar when I made it there. I pushed it open with one hand. The place felt empty, but who was I to trust my own instincts anymore? I went straight to the bathroom as if pulled by an invisible string.
I haven’t left the tub in days now, but I’m still afraid to turn the water on.
Peter looks in the mirror; a stranger stares back at him. He reaches toward the face he’s never seen before and opens the medicine cabinet. Two should do it. He takes his medicine and goes back to bed, hoping to wake up in a familiar place.
Anxiety lies on his chest like a giant cat, crushing the breath from his lungs . He has to sit up, gasping for air. His hand shakes as it goes to his throat, half expecting to feel hands here choking his life away, but touches only the smooth bare skin of his own neck.
He counts breaths until he can lie down again and feign sleep for another six hours, until it’s time to get up for the day.
Letty hears Peter stir in his bathroom; she grips her pillow even more tightly, hoping against hope that he gets some rest tonight. She spent too many hours today reassuring him that the stove was off, the doors locked, and they had no appointments.
A phrase catches her mind, distracting her from thoughts of caretaking: secret emergencies. It tastes faintly of long-forgotten familiarity; perhaps something she learned in school. A poem, maybe? But it fits Peter so well, describing him to a T with only two words. Secret emergencies.
His anxiety wasn’t improving with the new medication. Letty remembers a day when they were children, playing together in the backyard that seemed to stretch for miles in every direction. As they ran through a patch of clover, Peter disturbed a bee, and it stung him on the tip of his finger. He clutched it, and they ran home together. Letty found their father, who doctored Peter’s finger.
And that was all. No panic, no days of hiding in his room. They were out playing again that same after noon. What happened to that Peter? Letty wonders, drowsing. He must have had a secret emergency that he never told me about.
In his room, Peter’s breathing slows, and soft snores escape his open mouth, free to wander the still house.
Thanks to poet William Stafford and today’s Listserve submission from Michael Brigham.