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The man kneeling on the tiled floor scrubbing has been there for three days. He’s been off the plane for four.
He has two bottles on either side of him. The open one is a white plastic jug of bleach, cap beside it. The other, still sealed, is a container of liquid ammonia.
The man watches his wrist torque back and forth, regimental cufflinks gleaming to match the floor. In his hand, the washcloth’s ragged edge brushes the bleach cap, sending it rattling towards the ammonia. He wonders if it would be so terrible to mix them. This is the nineteenth time he’s wondered that in three days.
There are little whispers behind his ears, small ones saying, “No.” There are others, too, saying, “Maybe.” In any case, he hasn’t done it yet.
The suds on the tile beneath his hand reshape into a head, tilted to the side, skin almost translucent, like light through latex gloves. A glint of red from the glass bowl on the counter dribbles a trickle of blood down the face’s slightly-parted lips.
The next tile squelches beneath the washrag, like viscera. The man rubs harder at this one, imagining the pulpy cells bursting, just trying to make that sound, that godawful sound, stop. He wishes the noise would just stop. He’s heard enough of it.
Behind him, gleaming white and soapy, is war, ubiquitous and violent and deafening and terrible, hell with a gun and a cause that's a lie. The soapy-grey cloth becomes a lover's dog tags in his hand, the metal wet and silvery.
Somehow, the bloodstains in his psyche aren’t letting themselves wash out through the medium of kitchen tiles and bleach burns. He caps the bleach, brushes his fingers over the ammonia, sits back on his haunches.
He spins around and leaps to his feet, almost upsetting the dishes of cold food resting on the counter. He shakes the rattling out of his left ear, brushes the ghost sand off his fingers.
“Stop it,” says the girl standing in the doorway. Her eyes flick to the bottles on the ground, and narrow. “Stop it,” she repeats.
“Stop what?” the man asks, hoarse. The girl tosses him a Don’t play me for an idiot look, and crosses the clinical white floor, slipping a little. Her bare feet leave smudges on the floor, and the man remembers how hard it was to maintain sterile medical conditions in a never-ending desert.
There is a tug at his sleeve, and the girl’s nails tap against his cufflinks.
“Come on,” she says, and yanks him against the kitchen, out the open doorway.
The man digs his heels in, resisting. Outside the kitchen is too large. The girl keeps tugging, and she keeps making these little noises, like she’s been in pain for a long time, and is only now letting it out. She tugs him all the way outside, to the emerald green back garden that isn’t home, but is the closest thing he’s going to get for now.
Woodpeckers are drumming against the dark wood of a California oak, and the girl is standing next to him with her arms crossed, still making those choked sounds. It doesn’t sound like the desert.
“I’m angry at you, and I’m sorry about that,” she says, finally. The man doesn’t quite know what to say. “You don’t have to say anything,” she adds. “I mean, I want you to, but it’s fine if you don’t.”
It’s that time of day when the sky is the colour of the word poplin, and grapefruits, and pale-yolked eggs. The man reaches out, and touches the girl’s sleeve.
“Toss the ammonia,” he says, and his voice is less strange in his own ears.