fiction by Emily Kellogg

He checked the time. He was late. He paced the living room. She would be angry. He thought about the pleading look in her eyes, the slump of her spine, the sucking noise she made biting dead skin off of her lips. The room was warm. He shuddered.

He scraped well-kept nails over the red bumps of his eczema. Flakes of skin fell to the floor, settling into the off-white carpet. He watched with disgust before pulling himself into the kitchen. He had to stop scratching. He couldn’t stop itching.

He inspected the kitchen wallpaper through square-cut spectacles, observing the dust that paled the red of the roses and the green of the stems. He stretched his hand towards the wall, catching himself before making contact. He really should remove the layer of grime from the shabby kitchen. He longed for the Swiffer in the closet.

He checked the time. He was late.

He reached for the dish soap and squeezed a dab of the slimy pink stuff on his fingers. He washed away the last hour’s filth, starting at the fingertips and working a soapy lather up to his wrists. His skin was raw and the soap stung. He turned off the water and dabbed at his hands with a wad of paper towels. He glanced at the white dishtowel hanging over the sink, shuddered, and flicked off the lights.

The beds were made. His sister wouldn’t be home this weekend, so there was no chance of her mussing the perfectly tucked sheets. There were no dishes in the sink, but his parents would be home soon. He should leave before his father turned on the lights and drank a glass of water before rinsing out its insides for dust.

He hesitated in front of the back door. The houses on this block were identical, distinguished only by cheerful numbers painted on each mailbox in forest green. In the dark, he sometimes worried he would stumble into the wrong house, that he would blindly fumble through a kitchen and up carpeted stairs only to discover a stranger drooling on unfamiliar sheets.

He pulled on his black pea coat. One of the buttons was loose. He hoped he didn’t lose it. This was a nice coat. He wrapped a light grey scarf around his neck. In the dim, he couldn’t see the spot where she’d stained it with red lipstick. The memory left him uneasy.

He pulled on a pair of black leather gloves. It was cold outside, and the trip to her apartment would take at least an hour. A seam was ripping, and the tan lining was visible through black stitching. His eczema chafed against the fabric.

He pulled open the back door. He rocked back and forth on the stoop.

He checked the time. He was late. She would be angry. He thought about her fingers twisting into each other, knuckles cracking. Sometimes she chewed on her tobacco-stained nails. He shook the image out of his head.

He stepped into the cool November night. He locked the door behind him. He checked the lock. He hesitated. He checked the lock again. He turned and walked down his street, counting identical bay windows. He only once turned back to make sure the door was locked and all of the lights were out.

He passed trash cans neatly lined against the curb and windows framing flickering TVs. He walked faster. He passed unruly lawns, swing-sets, and a broken basketball hoop. He turned the corner and propelled past boarded-up storefronts, a deli, and a gleaming McDonald’s.

He paused at the entrance to the subway.

He descended the stairs. He felt uneasy. His nose itched. He couldn’t scratch it, so he scrunched it up several times in a quick succession. He stared at the glistening metal of the subway turnstiles. He swiped his Metropass and thought of everything the turnstile had ever touched. He shuddered.

The train slid into the station, and he was overwhelmed by a hot breeze carrying the scent of burnt plastic and oil. He edged past the crowd of commuters, grateful for the wiry limbs that allowed him to tower over the hot, wet breaths of the crowd.

He ducked into the car and studied the ads coating the walls. He gazed longingly at the image of a beautiful redhead cradling a baby. She looked so peaceful and so kind. Her breasts looked so supple and so warm. She implored him to turn to Jesus in times of crisis. She told him only the Light of Christ would ease his pain.

I’m sorry, he thought, shaking his head. I’m agnostic.

He looked down at the grime smeared across the floor by countless feet. Behind him someone sneezed, and he leapt forward. The train came to an abrupt stop, and he lost his balance mid-jump. He hurtled downwards, his gloved hands extended. And then he was on the ground, with only his forearms to protect his face from the grit. He looked around at bare hands with peeling cuticles and dirt-encrusted shoes. He smelled ripe sweat and stale smoke. His pulse was in his ears, in his hands, in his shoulders. His skin felt sticky and hot. Paralyzed, he suddenly couldn’t remember if he’d locked the door on the way out, or if he’d washed the dishes, or if he’d made the beds.

He was so late. Would she be angry? Would she be all right? Was he all right? He coughed every night, falling asleep just before sunrise, and he was tired and his body shook, and he didn’t eat, because he couldn’t eat. And his lower back ached, and he had to move out of his parents’ house soon, but he had no job, and she loved him so much. And he would die soon, he knew, because he was tired, so tired, but he could never, ever sleep. And he needed health insurance, and the beds were always unmade, and the Swiffer needed replacing, and his mother had a cold, and she, well, he was late, and she was angry.

And there they all were, coughing and sneezing all around him when all he’d wanted was to stay in his room and watch dust fall before vacuuming it back up again.

She never wore gloves, and she never took the vitamins he’d given her, and she didn’t even own a vacuum. And maybe he was wrong, and maybe she was right and maybe it made no difference if the bed was unmade, but if that were true, how would he ever feel safe enough to fall asleep before dawn?

The train started moving again and someone offered him a hand. He ignored it and scrambled to his feet, his breath laboured. His skin itched, and he was struck with the desire to rip off every inch of it that had ever been touched. He imagined himself in his clean shower, the water scalding hot, burning away the dirt. And he thought about the fun times he’d had cruising in Tim’s car, and the laughs he’d had in that bar last night with Jake. He liked to laugh, maybe he could laugh now. He should laugh now. He’d fallen. It was funny. And so he tried. He tried very hard to laugh. A barking cough came out of his mouth instead. He shuddered.

He emerged from the subway into the cold air. Downtown was so dirty. The air was rife with the honks of horns, screams of streetcar brakes, and howls of laughter. He was getting closer. He passed crumbling student housing and quiet smokers with glowing eyes. He passed dingy pizza shops and convenience stores with dusty displays.

He was at her building. The door was unlocked.

He walked inside and marched up the stairs. He skirted a narrow hallway, dodging spider webs and peeling paint, getting closer and closer to his prize.

In high school they’d called him a bubble boy. They taunted him until he cried, telling him that he could never be touched. But he knew better now. He knew now that he shouldn’t be touched. Because he was better, cleaner, purer. Nothing would touch him. He would keep himself safe and warm. He would keep his chafed hands clean and his body free of toxins.

He knocked on her door, his chest swelling with pride.

She smiled and embraced him, groping at the buttons of his pea coat and untying his grey scarf with trembling fingers. She pressed her chapped lips against his, tickling him with the tip of her tongue. She reached her naked hands into his curly hair, drawing him closer, drawing him in.

He looked past her to the sink full of dirty dishes and shuddered.

EMILY KELLOGG is a Toronto-based writer and amateur tap dancer. Her writing has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Monterey County Weekly, Shameless, and The Huffington Post. She is the founding editor of the feminist witch zine, The Grimoire.