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Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


From his TV-room recliner, Bob's skin bristled at the sound of Ellie scouring her kitchen tiles with a stiff brush. The reproachful sound of her scrubs and sighs always found him no matter where he fled in their tiny home.


"A castle would be too small," he muttered.


A commercial came on and he was hungry, but getting more food meant going to the kitchen and possibly interacting with his wife, so he stayed. He contented himself by prying the single pretzel off his sweatshirt and pushing it around with his tongue until the salt was gone and it was soggy enough to mash without chewing.


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


"Dear God, woman …"


Against his will, he counted with the beat: always three-two-three scrubs with the palm-sized brush, followed by the interminable pause, like water-drip torture, as she sprinkled more cleanser onto the tiles while he waited for the noise to start again:


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


Depending what Bob had done, Ellie would continue her slow crawl across the kitchen floor far into the night, refusing to join him in their bed, letting him gauge her rebuke by the luster of the tiles the next morning.


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


"Give it a rest, will you?" he bellowed from the far room. "I went to the job interview, all right? Nothing for it but waiting now."


The silence continued. He lifted the TV remote, poised to watch the pre-game chatter when Ellie's voice broke through, more grating even than the brush:


"I don't see why my sister can't stay with us!" she snapped.


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


So that's it, Bob thought. The sister.


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


Defiant, Bob turned up the TV, though he knew it was pointless. Even with the snakelike hiss of her scrubbing masked by the game-of-the-week replays, he still knew she was scrubbing, still felt the harsh bristles of her brush vibrating through the tiles, across the wooden floor planks of their moldy bungalow, and up the base of his extra-wide recliner.


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


The vibrations traveled the house like ants, crawling through the metal supports of his chair and up his spine, knocking at the base of his skull. As the imagined ant jaws chewed at him, the voices of the TV pundits merged into buzzing like flies over carrion, insistent and meaningless.


"For Christ's sake, woman! There's a game on!"


He lifted his beer from the recliner's built-in cupholder. It was warm to the touch and he smiled, remembering his BIG IDEA to patent a refrigerated recliner cupholder. How hard could it be? It amazed him how stupid people were that nobody'd thought of it befo—


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


"Damn it!" Now, what had he been thinking? He sipped his warm, flat beer. It was mostly gone—if only there was a way to keep it cold …


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


"For the love of God, it's clean!" he yelled. "Clean! Clean! Clean!"


Silence. Then came the sound of her palm thwacking the base of the nearly empty cleanser can. Silence, silence, silen—


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


"Jesus wept," Bob whimpered. Then he yelled, "I don't see why Ora has to stay here!" The yelling was to pretend he hadn't just surrendered, but he had.


A commercial was on, so he took back command of his life by thumbing the remote to another channel, pausing on a nature show where he suddenly found himself staring as if into a mirror. The screen showed close-ups of a pod of stranded whales. Trapped by the falling tide, the animals were slowly suffocating under the weight of their own bodies and bad choices. Wedged tight in his chair, Bob's own chest grew heavy as he watched them gasping for breath, their great power useless on land, days of grace forever behind them.


The camera narrowed its gaze and as one of the black giants turned it massive eye toward him, Bob heard its voice in his mind: "And what led you here, friend?"


The beer then slipped from Bob's hand as he watched a gull land on the great beast and drive its beak into the animal's back—


"No!" he shouted.


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


"Agh!"


Bob's leapt from his chair as he felt the strikes of his wife's scourging up and down his back, over his arms, poking into his skull and he twisted in every way to escape as the gull-who-was-Ellie plunged its gaff-like beak into him again and again, pulling out his liver, his kidneys, his racing heart—


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


Bob shrieked and ran for the kitchen, desperate to stop the sound of his own erasure, to stop the rub of bristles on his skin, rip the barb from his back, plug up the whisking from his ears—


"Stop it, woman! Stop it now!"


"What are you on about?" Ellie hissed, looking up from the floor on all fours as her panicked husband in his tracksuit, looking like an over-stuffed trash bag, rounded the corner, slipped on the wet kitchen floor, and his three hundred pounds of blubber flew through the air above her—


"My floor!" she yelled. "It's clean—"


Her head slammed down hard on the tiles as Bob landed on her.


Squish.


* * *


Bob woke in darkness. The floor beneath him was clammy and wet, and he realized he was lying in the kitchen. The light from the TV bounced into the room, creating an eerie scene. Turning his head, he saw Ellie beside him, slumped forward with her back against the cabinet under the sink, her scrub brush silent and still. She was also very still.


Bob rocked his aching body back and forth until he managed to throw a leg over to turn himself onto his stomach. Straining every muscle, he flopped toward his wife. A dark bruise blotted her entire forehead and dried blood had caked over both of her nostrils. He reached out a hand to touch her but stopped, fearing she might be cold, not wanting to know what he'd done.


"Ellie?"


Her eyes popped open, inches from his own.


"Gyaah!" he screamed.


She stared blankly.


"Ellie? Ellie are you—"


Her eyes flicked to the brush on the floor. She snatched it up and held it before her face, looked at Bob, then back at the brush, then down to the kitchen floor.


"Ellie?"


"Clean," she said.


"What?"


"Clean, clean." She held up the brush, then slowly rolled forward onto her hands and knees, her brush clutched like miser's gold.


"Ellie?"


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


She paused. Bob counted.


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


Bob pulled himself up by the counter and staggered from the room.


* * *


Through the night, Bob listened from bed as Ellie scrubbed the tiles. After a time, he crept back and turned up the television, hoping its noise would drown out the constant swishing, now punctuated with her occasional moan—he could only call it a moan—of "Clean … clean!"


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


Bob crept back to bed and pulled the covers up high.


* * *


He awoke alone in silence. Tip-toeing to the TV room, he peeked around the entrance to the kitchen and found Ellie stretched out asleep on the floor. Her brush lay beside her, its bristles worn down to nubs. The pattern on the kitchen tiles was now scrubbed completely away in places. If she kept it up, she'd soon be down to the wood. Steadying himself with a hand on the counter, he picked up the brush and retreated to the bathroom for pain killers for the spasms in his back.


Putting three tablets in one hand, he turned on the faucet with the other, then bent to sip from the tap. When he straightened up, the mirror showed Ellie's face at his shoulder.


"Gyaah!" he sputtered, nearly choking on the aspirin and water in his throat. As he bent coughing into the sink, he heard her moaning again:


"Clean … clean!" she said


He turned and saw no recognition in her eyes.


"Clean!" she said again.


Her eyes fell upon his toothbrush that lay on the sink. She snatched it up with snakelike speed and fell to her knees beside the toilet …


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


Bob pressed himself against the wall to slip around her, then fled the room.


* * *


Throughout that whole day, Ellie resisted Bob's best efforts at communication as she moved from room to room cleaning all before her. He fixed a brunch of cold cereal, then retreated to his chair and television, if only to avoid the white tornado of his wife.


The TV remote was broken—perhaps he'd landed on it after his leap into the air—and the TV was stuck on the same channel of all-animal programming. He tried changing it manually, but couldn't find anything like a knob on the new TV, so he just got another beer, lowered his aching body into his chair, and watched whatever came on. He was halfway through the second program when Ellie crawled into the room, rubbing the carpet with her brush as she continued her moans in a voice like rusty hinges, "Clean! Clean!"


Bob flinched, thinking he'd be in for it for the two beer cans lying at his feet, but Ellie merely scooped them into the folds of her nightgown and continued her swishing back and forth across the room without additional comment.


He had half on eye on the TV and half on her when the show about barnyard anomalies came on and gave him his revelation: The program showed a farmer in Kentucky who'd been culling his chickens, beheading them on a chopping block. While loading the carcasses into his pick-up, one headless hen got up and started strutting around.


"It was the darnedest thing," the farmer told the cameras. "She had no eyes, no ears, no brain to speak of, but she hadn't really changed. Her chickenness was the same. Same strut, same animal habits. I wanted to see what would happen, so I poured grain and water down her throat every day. She lasted almost a month, just like before, strolling the yard like she owned it and scratching up dust clouds to stay clean—"


"Clean! Clean!"


"Jesus, Ellie! Don't sneak up on a man like that," Bob said, but Ellie paid him no mind, keeping on like before. She hadn't really changed. Her shrewishness was the same. Same strut, same animal habits …


"Clean! Clean!"


Bob looked back and forth between the TV and his wife three times. Then his face cracked into a wide and beautiful smile.


* * *


Bob fed Ellie that night with a funnel, mixing up two of the diet shakes she'd bought for him and then tipping back her head back enough for gravity to do its work.


Finished, he waited until 10, when the barnyard show would appear again in the channel's rotation. He re-watched it for confirmation of what he'd learned, then heaved himself off to bed. He heard his wife's cracking knees and the whisk of swish-swish-swishing through the rooms of the house, but her animal noises no longer had the power to upset him.


He did, however, make sure to lock the bedroom door.


* * *


After feeding her the next morning, he assessed his own needs and realized a beer run was in order. But what to do with Ellie? He couldn't have her wandering through the house, or—God help him—wandering their rural road in her filthy nightgown. He had to keep her fed and out of sight until the bruise on her forehead faded and he could claim deniability. It wouldn't do for anyone to ask about that bruise.


He settled on the scheme of presenting her with her own toothbrush and then locking her in the garage. Leading her in there was simple enough, then he padlocked the door shut and made good his escape, returning fully stocked to find her no worse for wear and—more exciting—no better.


"Come on out," he clucked at her, dangling a new, soft-bristled kitchen brush from his fingers in front of her to lead her from the garage to the kitchen again.


"Clean! Clean!"


"That's right, Ellie. 'Clean, clean!'"


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


It wasn't exactly heaven, but he only had to put up with it until the bruises faded, then he could claim she "suddenly" developed trouble.


* * *


"Clean! Clean!"


"Jesus! Get off me!" Bob shouted as Ellie appeared beside his bed the next morning, rubbing the replacement brush down his freckled forearm. "Nutty old bat! Keep off me."


He wondered how she'd gotten in, but then saw the bruise looked better than before. He guessed another three more days would do it.


"You want to clean?" he said to her, putting his face right up to hers. "You go ahead. Three days from now, it's loony bin time for you."


"Clean?"


"Clean, clean," said Bob.


* * *


That afternoon, Bob found himself tiring of re-watching the same animal shows. Entering the kitchen, he saw that Ellie had collected and filled multiple bags of trash. He bent to inspect one and realized it contained his socks and underwear.


"What the …"


Another trash bag contained his shoes.


"Now really …" He stooped to pick up the bag and suddenly felt another twinge in his spine. "Oh God! Oh, that hurts! Ellie? Ellie? Help me to the bath."


His wife shuffled into the doorway in her shredding nightgown, staring at him curiously.


"Go start the bath. Bath salts, you know? For my back?"


She dropped the armload of his shirts she'd been carrying onto the floor and raised her brush to scrub his forearm.


"No! Not that! The tub, help me to the tub."


"Clean? Clean?"


"Yeah, 'clean, clean.' That's right. Help me."


Ellie allowed Bob to flop an arm over her shoulder for support and then helped him stay on his feet as he walked inch by painful inch toward the bathroom.


"That's right, Ellie. Right here. Can you run the water?"


"Clean? Clean?"


"The water, woman! Turn on the water!"


Evidently Ellie retained enough upper brain function to recognize his orders and enough rote muscle memory to pour the bag of eucalyptus salts into the narrow basin of the tub. Bob slipped off his crusty sweats and stepped into the hot water.


"Ooh, that feels good."


He held onto the edge as he lowered himself, wiggling to squeeze his bulk into the too-narrow basin as he displaced the three inches of accumulated water and the tub threatened to overflow. Satisfied, he looked up at his wife, who was rubbing the mirror with the edge of her nightgown to clean it, revealing her legs. He saw she'd soiled herself and realized he was going to have to clean her up, too, before calling the authorities or her sister. But that unpleasantness could wait.


"Stop that, Ellie. Go and get your brush. 'Clean, clean,' Okay?"


"Clean? Clean?"


"Yeah. Go. Go find your brush and 'clean, clean.' Got it? Brushy brush? Cleany clean? Okie-doke? Git!"


She left him, and he settled in, relaxing as the bath salts banished his aches and pains like sins at confession.


This is living, he thought and drifted off to sleep …


* * *


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


"Wha …?" Bob woke suddenly, alone in the dark, thrashing his arms in panic.


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


The water had leaked out, the tub was cold, and only the empty night lurked outside the bathroom window.


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


"Oh God … you stupid woman …"


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


Ellie was in the hall. What was she scrubbing now? It sounded different …


"The walls?"


Would the soft-bristled brush mark the paint? Could he hide it in case there were questions? He gripped the sides of the tub to hoist himself out, but pain shot through his back and he couldn't get out. He wriggled his legs, his head, tried to flex his great waxy buttocks but without success. The last of the water had formed a vacuum, locking him in the tub. He would never get out without help. Perhaps Ellie was worth keeping around after all …


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


The sounds drew closer.


"Honey?" he called. Silence. He waited. Waited as he had for years in his chair for the water-drip torture, for the gnawing ant sounds of her scrubbing to begin each day. But he heard a different sound, the slow plodding sound of her house slippers slapping the floor as she came down the hall. And one other new sound. It was harsher, raspier, grating, sounding as if she were pressing her brush into the wall with all her might and plowing swirls in the drywall …


"Ellie?" he said, his voice cracking. "Honey punkins? Can you help your daddy up?"


He craned his neck toward the creak and the crack of expanding light as the door slowly opened, the lamp in the hall backlighting her in her stained robe and matter hair as she shuffled into the bathroom. He crinkled his nose in disgust at the sour smell of her, worrying for just a second—had he seen a twinkling in her eye?


"I'm stuck, hon."


"Clean? Clean?"


"Yes, damn it! I'm clean! 'Clean, clean.' Now help me up!"


She turned toward him and he saw it. It wasn't the replacement brush he'd bought her. Now she held a wire brush from the garage—the stiff-bristled, metal brush he used to whisk the rust off old tools before oiling them. Its steel bristles were coated in the white dust of drywall she'd gouged off the walls on her trek down the hall.


"Clean? Clean?" she said.


"Uh, no … No, no. I'm clean now. I'm cle-ean," he said, his voice cracking. "Just help me out; okay, love? Help me up … I, oh God, Ellie, no! HELP ME!"


Bob knew how this ended. He'd seen the gull land on the great beached whale, felt the bird's mindless jab as it plunged and replunged its beak into the helpless giant's flesh. Bob saw the freckles on his arms, his nipples, the hair under his navel, thought of his moles, his nose, ears, lips and other protuberances (yes, God, even that), knowing that before she stopped scrubbing—if she ever did—they would all be gone. By the time her sister came to investigate, no one would be interested in the fading bruise on Ellie's forehead; they'd all be too busy trying to figure out what that mass was in the bathtub …


"Ellie?" Bob asked.


Swish-swish-swish. Swish-swish. Swish-swish-swish …


"Clean?"


"NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!"



Copyright © 2018 Zakariah Johnson.

Zakariah Johnson is the cross-genre editor @FoldedWord and shelters in place in southern New Hampshire and on Twitter @Pteratorn. His crime fiction and poetry have appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Yellow Mama, Switchblade Magazine, and more, with his debut novel currently in the pipeline.

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