Clean (A Short Story)

 THE WATER SLAPPED his hands, the chill of it sending tiny tremors of shock throughout his system.  Dread clearly evident in his eyes, he reached haltingly toward the soap, where it sat on the sink in a barely perceptible depression.  A seeming eternity ago, it was held in a small plastic dish.

Had to get rid of it.

It was harder to pick up from the dish.

Taut face lined with anxiety, his arm seemed to slow of its own volition as it neared the soap, not wanting to move any closer.

After all, he was nearly touching the sink.

The miscegenation of will and desperation propelled his shaky hand onward, though.  Yet it seemed like a long time before he managed to embed the chewed-back nail of his index finger into the slick flesh on top of the soap.

Watch the sink … !

As he gingerly moved the soap back, his ragged fingernail – the only hold he had over it – dug down further in an effort to provide better purchase over the lubricious cake.

Despite this slipperiness, a small vacuum between the part of the sink the soap rested on and its concave underside resisted the pull of his finger.

The digit shook as he applied a stronger pressure, his breath audible in his nostrils with the strain, as – with a start and a sucking noise – the soap came free.

Instinctively, he thrust a thumb under the falling bar before it could slip into the basin.

Too hard to pick back up from in there.

Touch any part of the sink itself … the basin …

… then the whole thing’s dirty.

I’d never get clean.

Not myself as well as the sink!

Have to try the shower.

Or the sink downstairs in the kitchen.

Not the laundry, though (dirty clothes in there).

But … I have to eat!

What if I dirtied the kitchen sink?

Couldn’t use it, then!

Whole kitchen’d be contaminated

Unsure of how much longer he could maintain the crab-like grip, he eased the soap further back from the walls of the basin.

Oh … thank Christ!

From his right elbow, ruptured chunks of skin slowly leaked blood in viscous droplets over the scars and scabs of previous efforts, though he barely noticed.

Besides … how else am I expected to turn the tap on?

It’s not like I can turn it on with my hands like a normal person!

If my dirty hands touch the tap, then the tap is dirty.

What would happen once I had clean hands and wanted to turn it off?

How could I do that without dirtying my hands again?

Only other way I can figure out how to turn it on is by bashing at it with my elbows.

Sure, the edges of the tap are sharp – they’re metal!

Wish they were rounded edges.

But the bleeding soon stops.

And … at least it keeps the tap clean.

He also barely noticed the stinging that the sweat breaking out on his body inspired in those wounds.

Clutching the soap more securely with both hands, holding it out before him like communion wine, he counted to twenty, then moved back towards the basin.

It wasn’t too long before he had the water running over hands and soap both.

He gently moved the soap around in his hands.

Again and again.

Ten times.

Twenty times.

Thirty …

Hoping for enough of a lather …

Can’t risk finding out I haven’t lathered enough and have to start again.

I’d have to put the soap back and start from the beginning.

Can’t manage that.

Not again!

Forty …

Fifty …

The bathroom was claustrophobic. Although he was standing next to the window, it was closed.

And how can I be expected to open it now?

The slightest of breezes caused by the running water as it displaced the air from the basin into his face was not enough to stop the sweat gathering on his forehead, probing its way into his eyes.  Blinking furiously was all he could do to forestall the stinging blurring of vision it created.  Beyond that, he could only try to put up with it.  He would like to have thought he’d resolved himself to ‘putting up with it’ all by now.  But he knew it was all out of his … hands.

After all, I can’t really be expected to actually wipe sweat from my face, now, can I?

Not until my hands’re clean.

Remarkably, the ‘feeling’ came … almost an intuition.

It told him – without words – that he’d lathered enough.

He closed his eyes, tilted his head back slightly, grateful that this part of his ordeal was over.

Even though he had a long way to go, he was, at least, that much closer to finishing.

He then focused again on the task before him.

A slip in concentration and he would have to start all over.

Who knows if I touched the sink while I wasn’t paying attention?

Dirtied it?

Transferred grime from my hands to the sink?

It’d be dirty, then.

Too dirty to use if (when) I need it later.

What would happen then?

Thus – monitoring every movement with fierce concentration – he once again maneuvered the soap into a pincer-like grip, then moved his arm over towards the edge of the sink.  He lowered the soap gingerly towards the edge, and – with the greatest of trepidation – just as it touched …

… he let it go.

The soap slid to the edge of the sink and rolled.

No … !

The edge spun around, arcing out over the chasm of basin opening out under it, and … at the last second …

… fell back into its original position and was still.

Oh, God!

The breath he didn’t even know he’d been holding until that moment escaped in an explosive sigh.

Relief was short-lived, however.  The cleaning – the interminable cleaning – had to continue.

Doctors couldn’t wash their hands any cleaner than this before an operation, God damn it!

Despairing, he folded each hand over the other – again and again – making sure the entire surface of them was well-lathered.

Then, he began the ‘scrubbing’.

Mentally dividing his hands into sections, he used the palm of the left hand as the ‘washer’ and moved it over the ‘designated’ area of his right hand – at the moment, from the knuckle of the thumb to the wrist joint – then back again.

Back and forth.

Back and forth.

Back …

… and forth.

Again …

… and again.

… eight … nine … ten.

That was ten, right?

Wasn’t it?


That was ten times, surely.

He quickly exhaled.

Ten … yes.

Four more lots of ten on this part, then.

Fifty all told for the thumb.

Then the fingers.

The back of the hand.

Damn!  Not friggin’ lactic acid build-up already!

He gritted his teeth to continue.

He had to finish.

He had no alternative.

No choice whatsoever.

Blessedly, the ‘feeling’ came again. The instinct.

That part of his hand was finally clean!

Thank God!

Careful … !

Next bit.

One … two … three … four …

… five … six … seven …

… seven?

Did I count seven then, or not?

Can’t remember!

Must have!

I know how to count to ten, for God’s sake!

Must have!

Can’t risk it.

Better go back.

Start from one.

Never be clean.

Focusing ferociously, he bit his bottom lip as he continued.

… seven!




His eyes widened.


His teeth audibly ground against one another.


His breath came in cadence with the mental count of the washing – short, sharp bursts laced with the faint sound of numbers.


His shoulders slumped as he realized with sweet relief that that part of his hand was nearly done.


Oh … thank God!

Okay … other ‘segments’ to go, now.

C’mon … sooner you do ‘em, the sooner you’re done.

Edge of the thumb, now.

C’mon … you can do it.

You have to.

You … wait!

Oh … no … oh … shit!

Tears threatened to well up in his eyes, but he forced them back.  It helped so little to cry anymore.  It provided no release.  Besides, the sweat dripping from his forehead into his eyes was like crying, anyway.

He’d leaned forward too much, the wide, billowing edge of the right sleeve of his T-shirt brushing against the lathered thumb ‘segment’.

Is the shirt dirty?


Had to be!

What if I had dirty hands throughout the day?

Wiped my forehead with my hands to get the sweat off?

(I sweat so much these days).

My hands would’ve contaminated my forehead.

My forehead would’ve contaminated my sweat.

What if sweat dripped from my forehead onto my sleeve?

That’d mean my shirt was dirty.

And if my shirt touched my hands …

Now he had to clean the whole area of his thumb again … and God only knew what he was going to do about his shirt!


So long as my hands get clean and they don’t touch anything dirty after that, it’s okay.

Just keep ‘em away from my shirt … my body.

Don’t scratch any itches, wipe my nose, brush sweat out of my eyes, run my fingers through my hair …

If my sweat is contaminated, then so be it.

But … so long as my hands’re clean … it’ll be fine.

But … what if his hand – the one the ‘shirt had touched’ – was ‘dirty’ now?


That hand is still dirty.

Haven’t finished washing it yet.

Haven’t got to that ‘segment’ yet.

Shaking his head, desperately wishing he could do otherwise …

… he began washing again.

Was it a sense of ritual that was missing?  Is this why he was counting, counting … why his hands had to be clean?  The questions raced along alternating tracks in his brain, threatening to distract him from his task.

Twenty fucking minutes I’ve been standing here!  Twenty fucking minutes!

God how I hate having to go to the toilet!

Sitting around, holding it off until my bladder threatens to explode!

Then when I actually go, afterwards I have to wash my fucking hands like this again!

Can’t go like a normal person, ohh, no!

Wash my hands normally!


As happened so often, he lost track of his counting …

A tiny sound of despair dredged from deep within his soul escaped through his lips.

Curiously, blessed peace seemed to steal over him for a second, then.  No despair – no thoughts whatsoever – as he stared, blankly, unseeing, into the mirror.

It was a nirvana he wasn’t allowed time to recognize, however.  He gave a start as though electrically shocked, and felt the anxiety crowd in upon him once more.

God damn it!

Do something!

Keep going, or you’ll never get your fucking hands clean!

Back to the beginning, then.

Carefully rubbing his hands together to increase the lather, being wary not to accidentally brush against the sides of the basin – or the tap, or the top of the sink, or his shirt – he again mentally divided his hands into sections, and again began ‘scrubbing’.

One.  Two.  Three.  Four.

Five.  Six.  Seven.

Eight.  Nine.  Ten!

He exhaled.

One section down.

Same again on the next section …

That’s two down.

Next section …

His face blanked, his mind absorbed in its terrible ritual, part of him could nevertheless hear his neighbour’s car pulling into the driveway as she arrived home from work, even through the closed window of the bathroom.  He’d only ever seen her once (through a crack in the curtain of his lounge room).  She was about twenty, and very attractive.

For about the millionth time, he wondered if she was single.


Any relationship with her (with anybody for that matter) is out of the question!

How could she (or anybody) go for someone like me?

Someone who has to compulsively wash his bloody hands all the time?

Among all the other weird shit I do …

Absently, some part of his mind focused on the sound of her radio as it blurted out the day’s news.  The volume increased as she opened the car door to unlatch her front gate before driving into her yard, and he could hear the announcer mention something about the water in the area.

Probably something to do with all the rain we’ve had lately.

Wish I could fly in rain.

Like ‘Superman’, or something.

Wouldn’t have to touch anything if I could fly.

Fly through the rain.

Water all around me, then.

All around me.

Making me clean.

The newscast was about blue-green algae in one of the dams supplying water to the area. There was a brief mention about a build-up in the level of the algae.

What … ?

Microorganisms rendering the water unfit for human use.

Oh, God …

… what if the water’s dirty?

Copyright © 2006 by David Scott Aubrey

All Rights Reserved
2,162 Words

This short story is a work of fiction.  Any and all names, characters and/or incidents are either products of my imagination or are used fictitiously.  Where any such resemblance may exist to actual persons (living or dead), actual events or locales, it is purely coincidental.

Please don’t assume that my characters speak for me or carry my own opinions on various matters in any way, shape or form (though some might – you never can tell).