The Big Ideas of 2008

Whispers

Everyone's up. My arms stiffen at my sides. I clench my fists. The voices begin. It's time. You have to go.

From behind my eyelids the morning glows red. The sun warms my face and my skin tingles from the heat. I turn on my back, untangle the sheets around my feet, and open my eyes. White circles and spots dance in front of my eyes. Sunlight, bright and white, streams in from my bedroom window and casts striped patterns across my rumpled comforter. The sweet aroma of pancakes wafts up the stairs, down the hall, and into my room. Plates and glasses clink, morning voices chirp and squawk downstairs. Blurry red digits on my clock-radio read 10:25 a.m.

Everyone's up. My arms stiffen at my sides. I clench my fists. The voices begin. It's time. You have to go. I wind the corner of my purple flowered bed sheet in and out of my fingers. No. I draw up my knees and curl into a ball. You have to go. I press my face into my pillow, shut my eyes, and will back remnants of sleep. Just hold on a little longer. A little longer. I press my legs together and wrap my arms around my chest. Just a little longer. I rock back and forth.

"Little longer, little longer, little longer." Go! I can't do it. I jolt up, swing my legs over the side of my bed, and trip across my cluttered bedroom floor. Don't touch the doorknob. I slide my foot through the crack in the doorway and pull the door open. I hurry down the hall, my stomach in knots. Please God, make it easier. I push open the bathroom door. Light switch dirty. I pull the sleeve of my cotton nightshirt over my hand and nudge the light switch on. I push the bathroom door closed.

The bathroom door shakes.

"Your lunch is getting cold!! What're you doing in there?" My mother's voice vibrates through the door.

"I'm coming!"

"It's 12:30! How long have you been in there?! Come down quickly!!" Her footsteps pound down the stairs.

The white ceramic sink gleams in the dim bathroom light. Warm water rushes out and splashes into my hands. Wash again. I lean over the sink and wash again. Start with the right hand. Splash water over hand to wrist. Wipe top of hand. Wipe palm of hand. Wet in-between fingers. Wash every fingernail. Wash under every fingernail. Now wash left hand. Wipe top of hand. Wipe palm of hand. Wet in-between fingers. Wash fingernails. Wash under fingernails.

I stop. I reach to turn off the tap. You didn't wash your thumbs. You forgot your thumbs. No. I did wash my thumbs. I washed my thumbs. No, you forgot your thumbs. Your thumbs aren't as wet as your other fingers. Look and see. What if I didn't wash my thumbs? What if I didn't and I have dirty thumbs? What if I say my prayers with dirty thumbs? I thrust my hands under the taps and wash again. Right hand, the back, the palms, the fingers, the nails. Left hand, back, palm, fingers, nails. I pause. You didn't do it in the right order. You messed up again. You didn't do it in the right order. But I did. You didn't. I did. You didn't. Right hand, back, palms, fingers, nails. Left hand, back, palms, fingers, nails. Did you wash properly under the nails on your left forefinger? Right hand, back, palms, fingers, nails. Left hand, back, palms, fingers, nails. You didn't wash your right wrist. Do it again. I can't. I can't. Do it again. It's not right if you don't. Do it. The water streams down and rushes into my palms. It spills into the sink and swirls down the drain. I wash again.

"I don't know what she does in there. She leaves the bathroom soaked. Water everywhere." My mother's voice rises. "The bathroom tiles are cracking, the carpets are always wet . . . I just don't know. When she says her prayers she takes two hours instead of ten minutes. Why would you take two hours to pray?"

"I don't know why she takes so long washing or praying. I don't know why she takes so long doing everything. Where is she? Hasn't she come downstairs yet?" My father shuffles in his worn, white leather sandals to the bottom of the stairs. Dirty banister. I pull my sleeve over my hand and grip the banister.

"Where are you?" He calls. "Come down!" I step down the stairs. Skip the third step. It's dirty. I hop over the third step. Don't step on the corner of the last step. It's dirty. I hop over the corner of the last step and slide onto cool kitchen tile. My mother collects plates littered with bread crusts and globs of ketchup, shakes her head, and piles them into the kitchen sink. My father wipes mayonnaise from his moustache. I slide into my chair and pick at a cold french fry.

"So what do you do in there?" He holds a tall, rectangular glass filled with red tomato juice in one hand.

"Nothing." I stare at my glass of milk. It's a short, fat glass with pink flowers painted on the side. Your little cousin drank out of that glass when he came over yesterday. He always forgets to wash his hands after using the bathroom.

"What do you mean nothing? You spend two or three hours in the bathroom each morning doing nothing?"

I inspect my glass for signs of my cousin. Is that a fingerprint there? It looks like it might be your cousin's fingerprint. The cousin that doesn't wash his hands. You can't touch that. It's dirty. It has germs. No! No! It doesn't have germs. It's clean. It's washed. My mother washed it. Is that a fingerprint? It's dirty. Don't touch it. It's clean. It's dirty. It's clean. It's dirty. It's clean. I suck in a deep breath and reach for my glass of milk. I wrap my fingers around the glass, lift it, and press it to my lips. The lukewarm milk splashes on my tongue. Now your fingers are dirty. The dirty glass touched your milk and now it's dirty. The milk touched your lips and your tongue. Your whole mouth is dirty. Wash. Wash before everything else gets dirty. I'm not dirty. You are dirty. Your hands and your mouth must be washed. Wash them. Wash them. I won't. You're wrong. I won't. Wash them. They're dirty. Dirty. I push back my chair, walk to the sink, and nudge the tap handle up with my elbow. I run my fingers under the cold stream of water and cup a handful of water into my mouth. I gargle and spit. Wash your lips. I splash water on my lips. Now wash your hands, you touched your lips. I rinse my hands.

"What are you doing? You're clean." My mother wrings a worn, soggy dishrag into the sink and looks at me, her brows furrowed.

"I'm not hungry." Water drips from my fingertips onto the kitchen floor. I hurry out of the kitchen, up the stairs, and into my room.

The house sleeps. I stand in the dark hallway between the kitchen and the front door checking our appliances. I move from right to left. Toaster oven unplugged. Kitchen tap not dripping. Stovetop one off, stovetop two off, stovetop three off, stovetop four off. I brush my hand over the lock on the front door. Door locked. I look back into the kitchen. Lights off. I turn to climb up the stairs. You didn't check the toaster oven. It might be plugged in. I did check. You didn't. I did. I step onto the stairs. What if it is plugged in? What if it is plugged in and something bad happens during the night?

I turn back to the kitchen. Toaster oven unplugged. I run my hands over the sockets. Toaster oven unplugged. I run my hands over the sockets again to make sure. Unplugged. I finger the grooves of the sockets. Unplugged. I run my hands over the sockets again. One more time to make sure. One more time and you can move on. One more time and it'll be right. I run my hands over the sockets. Unplugged. I turn to the kitchen sink. Not dripping. I wave my hand under the tap. No drips. I trace the mouth of the spout and feel the mesh underneath. No drips. Keep going. Move on. No. Just one more time. Check one more time to make sure. It can't drip. Make sure it doesn't drip. I lean over and stare at the space between the mouth of the tap and the bottom of the sink. Count to fifteen. Count to fifteen to make sure it doesn't drip. I count. No drips. Did you count to 15? You missed a number and only counted to 14. Count to 15. I count again. No drips. I shift over to the stove. I flatten my palm over each of the four stovetop coils. They're off. Do it again. But they're off. Are you sure? Am I sure? What if one is on and something bad happens? I check each of the little orange lights again. I place my hand over the coils again. Off, off, off, off.

I turn and walk quickly to the front door. I run my hand over the lock. It's locked. I turn to the stairs. Check again. No! Just check again. Check one more time and it'll be fine. What if you don't check and it isn't locked? What if something bad happens during the night? Just check. I stamp my foot and cry out. Just check. Just check. Just check. I turn to the door and feel for the lock. It's turned. It's locked. I leap upstairs.

I stand in the doorway of the bathroom. My hands shake. Water drips from my fingers onto the sopping carpet. Water rushes from the tap and crashes into the sink. My father roars. His white cotton undershirt sticks to his chest. Tiny beads of sweat cling to tiny silver chest hairs. He roars. Why do I wash so much? Why do I waste water? Why don't I stop? Why don't I understand? Why do I drive them all crazy? Why do I keep them awake at night with the water running? Why don't I care about anyone but myself? Why why why don't I stop? He grabs a white plastic water jug from the side of the bathtub. He hurls the water jug. The water jug flies past my arm. It hits the tiled wall and tumbles into the bathtub. He slams the bathroom door shut. The room shakes. I stand in the dark and stare at my hands. Get out. Get out. Get out. Hot tears drip from my chin into my hands.

I unfold the prayer rug and smooth it onto my bedroom floor. Is it in the right direction? North East? Towards Mecca? It is. It is. It is. It doesn't matter. I sink onto the rug and stare at my hands. They hurt to touch. The skin burns red. I run my finger over the back of my right hand. I grimace. Like scales. Like sandpaper. And the words come in fits of prayer. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I don't know how to stop. How do I stop? How do I stop? Please, please, please make it better. Make me stop, make me stop, make me stop. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I sit and pray and pray and pray.

The morning glows red from behind my eyelids. I rest my hand on my forehead and lie like a stone in the heat that radiates from the window in waves. I run my tongue over dry, cracked lips and listen to my breath flutter out in short, quick gasps. I twist beneath the covers and tear them from my body. I open my eyes. It's time. You have to go.

_Shoilee Khan is a Toronto-based writer. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph.

22 comments on the article “Whispers”

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Monica

I don't think a story like this points directly at mental illness. That seems like a part in it but to me it's mainly an hauntingly accurate transcription of what someone's thinking. I sometmes wonder what my thought transcripted without a censor might look like on paper.

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