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Dirty Little Secret
As soon as she sees the hallway light flick on, Erin rolls over in bed, pulling her freshly-washed sheets over her face. Leaving a small opening for her ear, she strains her neck, listening for her mother’s foot steps. Hearing the muffled thuds draw closer to her open door, her heart beats faster, and she holds her breath. She pauses upon entering Erin’s room, taking a deep breath as she observes her surroundings. How does she do it? she thinks to herself, shaking her head in disbelief. In her other three children’s rooms, she practically has to shovel her way in, through heaps of clothes, toys, and blankets. But not Erin. Her room shows sheer perfection compared to those of her siblings- everything neatly in place. Erin’s oak dresser gleams in the spot that the hallway light hits it, no doubt polished only hours earlier. Her matching desk lines up next to it, and holds matching plastic cups containing paperclips, pencil lead, erasers, and thumbtacks, respectively. Erin’s bed lies in the opposite side of the room, accompanied only by a quaint bedside table. Even with Erin under it, her white comforter still looks crisp, and freshly ironed. The rest of the room is bare; the bleach-white walls are still a little unsettling to Erin’s mother. Erin shifts her position slightly, hoping to catch her mother’s attention. Erin begins to sweat under her many layers, growing more and more nervous in her mother’s presence. Her movement startles her mother, snapping her out of her trance. She sighs, tilting her head, as she gazes over at Erin. She walks over slowly, and stands over her oldest daughter. Stroking Erin’s hair, she leans down and plants a small kiss on Erin’s cheek, whispering “good night, honey.” As soon as her mother’s lips touch her cheek, Erin’s body stiffens, and her fists clench. “Awe, you must be cold,” her mother says to herself and returns a few moments later with a blanket from Conner’s room, carefully lying it on Erin. All better, she says to herself with satisfaction, turning on her heel to leave her room. Oh my God, Erin thinks, as she shoves some of her freshly-washed sheets into her mouth to keep her from screaming. Her legs twist up painfully, her back arching at an uncomfortable angle. How could she do that? Ohmigod, I’m going to die. She thinks to herself, as she visualizes all of the sickly germs crawling all over the blanket which now lies on top of her. There are probably diseases all over it, she thinks, tiny bacteria and lice are probably intertwined all throughout the disgusting blanket. And now, all of these nasty things would be crawling all over Erin. As soon as she sees the hallway light turns off, she springs out of bed, throwing the blanket off of her. She strips the rest of her sheets off of her bed hurriedly, wadding them into a condensed pile. Making sure the blanket is deeply buried in the pile, Erin picks up the heap between her two thumbs and index fingers, running on her tiptoes to the laundry room down the hall. Throwing the sheets into the laundry machine, she quickly reaches for the detergent resting on the shelf above. Her hands shake as she pours in three generous scoops before slamming on the machine. Breathing heavily as she enters her room, she heads straight for her bedside table, jostling open the lone drawer. Her eyes widen with shock as she stares at the empty spot where her bottle of hand sanitizer should lie. Without closing the drawer, she rushes into the bathroom, and stands over the sink. Opening the medicine cabinet, her eyes rest on the neat rows of Dial disinfectant soap that fill the cabinet, a reassuring sight. She grabs one of the soaps, while she slams the door shut, and rips off the wrapping. As she begins to scrub, she looks up, staring at her frantic face in the mirror. As she studies her worried eyes, she thinks back to that day only a few years ago, the one that haunts her each day.
Erin hated hospitals. Even visiting her new born siblings made her skin crawl, which is why she felt so uncomfortable standing next to her grandmother’s hospital bed that day. She was only nine at the time, but still vividly remembered that visit. She visited daily with her mother, just like she had been every day for the last two weeks. Her mother watched from a chair as she nursed Erin’s younger brother, Conner. All that she told Erin was that “Grammy is very sick,” but Erin knew what was really wrong. One day, when her mother was sleeping, Erin looked at her grandma’s chart, and read the word “lung cancer.” When she looked it up in her school library, she couldn’t understand most of what it said, but she did comprehend that it was a disease that attacked your body. This scared her, and she made up her mind that that she would never let something like that to happen to her. So, whenever they entered her grandma’s room, Erin watched her mother lean over and kiss Grammy hello, while Erin just stared, at a safe five feet distance.
She glanced over at her mother, noticing that she was beginning to nod off with Conner in her arms. Erin sighed, rubbing her back; she wished that there were more seats in this tiny room. Then, suddenly, Granny violently grasped the side rail of her bed, resulting in a slight clang. Erin’s head whipped around, staring at her grandma. Her brittle hands hovered up above her, beckoning Erin to her. Erin nervously glanced back at her mother, but received no reassuring look from her. Biting her lip, Erin took a slight step forward, towards the bed.
“What is it?” she asked, her voice shaking. “Do you need something?”
No answer. Her grandma continued to wave her over, her movements becoming more and more frantic. Erin could feel her face growing hot, and she gripped the side of her jeans tightly, taking one more step. She could see Grammy’s eyes growing larger and larger, so Erin reluctantly took yet another step forward. She was sweating now, practically standing over her grandmother’s bed.
“Yes?” she asked, in a quaint whisper.
Grammy opened her mouth to speak, but instead, reached up and grabbed Erin’s shoulders, pulling her down to her level. She whispered, “I love you E-Bee. Be a good girl,” and kissed Erin on the cheek. Grammy released Erin, causing her to stagger backwards, bumping into a table. A few seconds later, the machine next to Grammy’s bed began to beep loudly, waking her mother. As her mother rushed over the Grammy, Erin could feel her eyes welling up and slowly began to back out of the room. As she reached the doorway, she was bumped by a nurse, followed by three others, all dashing into Grammy’s room. After the nurses had passed, Erin turned, and began to sprint down the florescent hallway. As she found a bathroom, she skidded to a stop, throwing her body desperately against the thick, wooden door. She ran to the sink and quickly whipped off her paisley jumper and matching leggings. Turing the sink on, she filled her small hands with soap and began to scrub. She knew what was happening to her grandma in the other room, but that is not what was going through her mind. All Erin could think about was Grammy’s germs running all over her, waiting to attack her body.
An unwrapped bar of soap falls from the medicine cabinet, hitting Erin’s wrist, jerking her from her trance. Her eyes take a moment to adjust again, registering her surroundings. She immediately thinks back to the disgusting blanket, remembering why she is in her bathroom. She sighs, continuing to viciously scrub, and trying to push the remnants of that memory of that day from her head. Unfortunately, the blanket touched her whole body, and Erin wasn’t even finished washing her hands. Her lips purse tightly together, knowing that she will be up for many more hours cleaning rest of her body- section by section.
By the time the alarm rings at 5:30 a.m., Erin is already sitting up in bed, eyes glazed and body stiff. Her body jerks, startled by the loud noise in her silent bedroom. After finishing her cleaning regimen the night before, Erin re-made her bed with the freshly washed sheets that she threw in the dryer. Just as she was about to fall asleep, Erin remembered the dreaded event that was to come tomorrow, and sleep the rest of the night became nonexistent.
Reaching over calmly, she presses down the button, letting out a small sigh as the noise disappears.
“Erin! Are you up?!” an assertive voice shouts from downstairs.
“Uhh…yeah,” Erin responds, a slight quiver in her tone.
“Okay, sounds good!” responds her mother, enthusiastically.
Swinging her body around, Erin places her two feet on the taupe-colored carpeting that covers her bedroom floor. She rolls her head back, letting out a small moan as she thinks of the day ahead of her. Taking a deep breath, she raises her body up, and heads to the bathroom. After twisting on the shower knob, Erin peeks behind the door, checking for towels. She brushes her hand against the three forest green towels hanging on the wooden pegs. The first is slightly damp; clearly it has already been used. The middle towel contains a small blood stain in the corner, no doubt from her sister, who was always cutting herself shaving. And the third towel is full of small white hairs, indicating that was used to wipe her dog off. Her nose wrinkles, and she heads to the linen closet outside of the bathroom door, grabbing two newly washed towels, setting them neatly next to the shower. By this time, steam is forming, so she quickly and carefully slips off her nightgown and hops in the shower. After thoroughly shampooing her hair, she reaches for a fresh loofa and lathers it with Dove disinfectant soap. She begins to scrub. And scrub. And scrub harder. And harder. By the time that she is satisfied, Erin has made sure to wash each part of her body, at least twice. After rinsing off, she turns the water off, and stares down, examining her wet body. She notices various crimson rashes all over her limbs- spots from where she dug her loofa too deeply into her skin. A slight smile spreads across her glistening face, and she grabs the fresh towels, beginning to dry off. Once wrapped securely in her thick towels, she quickly jostles open the bathroom door and tip-toes swiftly back into her bedroom, making sure not to touch anything. Upon entering the room, she instantly slips on some clean socks, which are waiting for her, along with the rest of her outfit next to her toy chest. Following the socks, she speedily dresses the rest of her body: cotton Haines underwear, corduroy pants, sports bra, and thick, long oatmeal turtleneck, which she tucks in neatly to her pants. She finishes off the look with an oversized navy wool sweater. The sleeves are just long enough to cover her dainty hands. Erin pulls her wavy, auburn hair back into a tight bun, neatly aligned with her ears. Looking at her self in the long, lengthy mirror, her head tilts slightly, studying her reflection. She gives a tiny nod of approval, fills her hands with the hand sanitizer tucked neatly in her pocket, and begins her descent downstairs.
As she enters the kitchen, Erin is instantly overwhelmed with the morning sun, shining in through the various windows that cover the kitchen. The table, counter, and navy and white plaid rug each contain various sunlight spots, dancing all over their surface. Her mother is planted in the middle of the room, wearing a loose ponytail, with various strands of hair hanging down; no doubt the same hair style from the previous night. Her Christmas pajama pants stick out of the bottom of her worn, faded, mint-green robe, and her feel hold thick, fuzzy socks. A pile of various foods fill the counter, each individually packaged in a clear, plastic bag. Four brown lunch bags line the edge of the granite counter, each with its own name written sloppily in black Sharpie: Erin, Ariel, Conner, and Joey. Her mom finishes the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that she is working on, and tosses it into Conner’s bag. Next, she hustles over to the fridge, selects four Granny Smith apples, and carries them over to the sink. Erin lets out a small sigh, satisfied to see her mother wash each thoroughly, but can’t help but wonder if her mother’s hands had been washed recently. This small doubt nags at her as she walks into the kitchen and greets her mother with a good morning. She responds back quickly, barely taking time to look up before starting to cut up the four apples before her. As Erin beings to place her books and folders neatly into her backpack, she glances over again at her mother, only to be stunned by a truly horrific sight. As her mother transfers the cut up apples from the cutting board to the plastic bag, she drops one slice onto the counter, with a slight plop. Without even hesitating, she swoops up the apple, and places it into the plastic bag containing the other slices, and drops it into Erin’s lunch bag. Erin’s mouth drops open in horror; her eyes widen.
“What are you doing?” she asks, her voice quivering.
Her mother looks up, confused, until she recognizes the expression written on Erin’s shocked face.
“Wha…oh Erin, please don’t, not this morning.” Her mom pleads.
“I can’t eat that now!” Erin shouts frantically.
“Fine,” her mother states, rolling her eyes. “We’ll give these to Joey,” and begins the switch her apple slices with his.
“No!” her mother freezes, looking up at her daughter with bewilderment.
“How do I know you didn’t drop those ones too and fill them with germs?” she says, a sharp edge to her shaky voice.
Her mother opens her mouth to protest, but sees the tears about to spill out of Erin’s eyes and nods silently, leaning over to throw away the contaminated bag. As she glances up at the clock over the sink, she gasps, spinning around.
“E, we have to go!” she says energetically, “We don’t want you to be late!”
Her mother rushes back to laundry room, slips on her lime-green crocs, and grabs the keys. Erin follows, walking briskly towards the garage door. Before exiting, she pulls her pocket hand sanitizer out of her pants, and begins rubbing her hands down, thoughts of angst swimming in her mind.
Erin’s leg bounces up and down the entire ride as she looks out the window, trying not to think about the event that she had been fretting about all morning.
“Well you must be excited, huh?” her mother asks, looking over at Erin with a wide grin plastered on her face. Erin can only nod, her gaze fixed on a tree outside.
“No, really, it’s a huge honor!” she says, rubbing Erin’s shoulder.
“Yeah…” Erin mumbles, managing a tiny, fake smile to satisfy her beaming mother. But while her mother probably thought of receiving the “Student of the Month” award in front of her peers, enjoying a catered breakfast, and meeting new people, all that Erin could think about was how contaminated the food must be, how many people’s hands she will have to shake, and all of her sickly, and no doubt dirty classmates.
“Well, here we are,” her mother says, and leans to Erin, kissing her on the cheek.
Wincing, Erin manages a, “Thanks, see you after school,” and leaps out of the car, and begins to walk towards the front door. After a few steps, she glances back, making sure that her mother has pulled away. Reaching into her sweater pocket, she pulls out her package of disinfectant wipes, and begins to wipe her cheek. She scrubs harshly in the spot that her mother kissed her, determined to rid her face of any germs it now may carry. After she is satisfied, she pulls out another empty bag, and places the used wipe into it, tightly sealing the top. She wouldn’t dare go near a disgusting public garbage can. Gross. Using her sweater sleeve to cover her jittery hand, she pulls open the main door, entering the building. Her heart instantly beings to race, realizing that she is just seconds away from the event. Heading towards the auditorium, she takes long, deep breaths, whispering to herself, “You’re fine. It won’t even be that long, just relax.” As she gets closer to door, her stomach begins doing summersaults, and her fists tighten, turning her knuckles white. I can’t do this, I can’t do this, keeps going though her mind, as her heart hits harder and harder against her chest. She thinks of all of the other events like this she has missed, school dances, family camping, sleepovers with her friends, even her Grammy’s funeral. Rounding the corner, she takes one final deep breath, straightening herself up, plastering a look of determination on her face. Almost there, almost there, she whispers to herself, in between deep breaths. Only a few steps away from the entrance, Erin spots a man coming from the other direction, walking briskly towards the auditorium doors. He pauses before entering, his nostrils flaring. His head jerks back, and then quickly forward as he lets out a loud AHHH-CHOO!, catching his sneeze in his hands. Sniffling, he adjusts his tie, grasps the silver handles and lets himself into auditorium. Erin pauses, mid step, gaping at what she just saw. She wants to take another stride forward, but can’t seem to bring her body to do so. Salty tears well up in her eyes, and she bites her lip, her chin quivering. As the tears begin to pour down, she turns slowly, and then begins running towards an empty classroom, a place to hide until school starts.