The Cleansing

From a distance, she was certainly a pretty young mom. Dark hair, slim figure. The little girl holding her hand was an adorable miniature version of her. They stood at the edge of the curb waiting to cross the busy street. The woman pressed the walk button impatiently twice more. That’s good. That’s very good. And then she did something that was delightfully unexpected. She reached down and brushed the soft, brown curls from her daughter’s sweet face. Her long fingers easily caught the strands and pulled them away from those small and perfect rosy lips. Pow!

Bettina’s right eye was closed tight, her right hand formed a gun that aimed directly at the precious pair. It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be so much more rewarding when she made her fantasy a reality. After all, the plan had to be perfect before she would dare to execute it. Until then, she would have to settle for daydreaming. She turned to her left just in time to catch a middle-aged man shoving a quarter into the parking meter that governed his car. Another one down.

The idea had first come to her after one of her solo movie outings—she liked to go by herself because companions inevitably offered annoying running commentary. She was washing her hands in the theater bathroom. She took her
time, letting the lather do its work, all the while watching a stream of women exit without even glancing in the direction of the soap. The scene in the men’s room had to be a thousand times worse! She must have stood in front of that sink for ten long minutes considering how easy it is to spread filth. How many times had she rested her hands on a banister in a public stairwell, then absentmindedly stroked the corners of her mouth? Or pushed open the door to her office building and rubbed her eye without a thought? That was the day Bettina started focusing—no, obsessing over germs.

Germs were ubiquitous, tainting her hand with every person’s she shook, contaminating the fork the bus boy placed to the left of her plate, sullying the doorknob of her own apartment.

The odious microbes were everywhere.

It became difficult to sleep at night. She would lie in bed wondering how many millions of microorganisms were clinging to her linens. And so it became necessary to change the sheets daily, but soon that wasn’t sufficient. The minuscule life forms were assaulting her innocent body, so she bathed each night before she retired, and the next morning when she rose. The ritual expanded to five, and eventually, up to ten times each day. She was regularly late for work and began to take two-hour lunch breaks so she could run home to cleanse herself. Her skin had started to flake from the desiccating soap. Her eyes perpetually carried dark circles beneath them from a lack of sleep. Shaving was added to her daily routine because it minimized the places where germs could grab hold. She had even elected to cut her amber hair as short as was socially acceptable to limit the debris that could cling to her.

The compulsiveness spread like the germs themselves, from her bedroom to the rest of her studio apartment. In the evenings when she returned home from her job as a telephone company customer service representative, she spent several hours vacuuming her beige deep-pile carpet and scrubbing her white Formica counters. It was difficult to keep up with the pace of the germs, but Bettina fought them off diligently, despite her growing fatigue.

She saw her extreme exhaustion as a blessing in disguise because she had an inkling that, without it, she would never have been given her vision.

It was 3:36 a.m. She remembered because she had just looked at the clock after showering for the second time that night. The lamp next to her germ-laden bed cast a dirty yellow glow on the polluted walls. She picked up the remote control and pressed the power button in hopes of finding an infomercial that would lull her back to sleep. The television answered her command without hesitation as Bettina became engrossed in the remote laying her right hand. How many times had she hit those buttons without thinking of disinfecting them? That remote had to be the most unhygienic thing in her home! Her gaze wandered over to the phone on her nightstand, the unclean casing taunting her. Its buttons had a menacing gray goop collecting at their edges.

She scurried for the disinfectant. As she cleaned every button in her house, the idea began to formulate.

People were filthy—that was the one pure truth she knew. They were disinterested in cleanliness. They were not invested in the virtues of hygiene. Apparently, the threat of sickness was not enough to motivate anyone. The world would continue to be a dangerous place as long as people were not sufficiently punished for their mistakes. And that’s when it hit her. What made the thought so perfect was the principle of exponential growth: If one button in her own home could transfer so many germs, she could only guess what a button in a public place could accomplish. One person would touch the contaminated button, then touch the door handle of the grocery store as he entered. Five people would touch that very handle and carry the resident germs on to other places. Thanks to the revolting habits of the human race, Bettina had her solution. She thought of it as poetic justice.

She spent the next few months researching viruses and toxins. She combed the Center for Disease Control’s Web site for information. She went to the library and scrutinized as many texts as she could find. The Anarchist Cookbook found a home on her bedside table. It was the bomb-making bible, and it seemed like a good place to start.

It turned out that a bomb, while relatively simple to make, was not her style. Too conspicuous. And breaking into top-secret military facilities wasn’t a skill on her resume, which meant bioengineered viruses were out of the question. A shame, really, because Bettina knew that was the easiest answer. The Ebola virus was another obvious solution, but where would she find it, and how would she collect and transport it without risking her own life? Another impractical option. And so she was left with toxins. It took her a while to come up with something readily available. After all, plutonium didn’t grow on trees. Her challenge was to pinpoint a method that was easy to come by. Something she could buy on the street.

She had television to thank for her brainstorm.

Bettina had been watching a documentary on the rainforests of the Amazon, when her answer appeared on the screen, tiny, blue and beautiful. According to the haughty British narrator, the poison arrow frog could secrete enough toxin to kill 2,200 people, despite its small size of less than two inches. Dendrobatidae. The Latin name rolled easily off her brain if not her tongue.

As she explored her idea, the small amphibians seemed the perfect way to fight the grimy human race. And as weaponry went, they were perfectly inconspicuous and surprisingly affordable. She could buy two for a mere one hundred dollars, and she could breed them to perpetuate her plan. It occurred to her that, eventually, she might be able to produce enough poison to save the entire world from itself!

She ordered her precious cargo over the Internet, as her little blue angels of death weren’t available at her friendly neighborhood pet shop. By the time they arrived, she had learned exactly how to handle them—never with bare hands. She had plenty of sturdy leaves available to lift the small, bright frogs so she wouldn’t endanger herself with their poison. She had mastered the art of collecting their precious toxin. She delicately brushed a cotton swab across their clammy skin and placed it safely inside a piece of Tupperware, which she stored inside the refrigerator.

The newest members of her family, her adopted babies, were named Manson and Borden. She stuck to Charlie and Liz when company was around, which wasn’t often. She sang to them and read to them. She actually began to love them. For three weeks she felt heady with joy. Then the unthinkable happened.

Manson and Borden croaked.

Bettina was heartbroken. Tears made a trail down her pale cheeks. She had lost her children and her progress all at once. She had been so close, but now the solution that had seemed so right suddenly showed its fragility. If their lives were so delicate, buying more frogs was not very practical. The death rate would make amassing their poison a never-ending process, and her budget wouldn’t sustain such a plan. True, she already had an assembly of swabs waiting patiently in the refrigerator, but the stockpile didn’t seem deadly enough. Although she was no scientist, she had learned a lot about toxins in her quest to wipe the earth clean. By now she knew the difference between a dosage that was lethal and one that would merely make a victim sick. What she had gathered would be enough to kill a few small children, which was good in that children were certainly grubby. But doing away with only few wouldn’t mean much progress. Besides, to a festering adult, that same amount of toxin would manifest itself in a way similar to food poisoning, and that was simply unacceptable. After all, her goal was to purify the planet, not cover it in vomit.

She would have to find a new way.

As she mulled over her goal, she had to bring herself down to Earth a bit. A success story would mean being realistic. She wasn’t going to change the world overnight. She was one person. But her parents always told her she could do anything she set her mind to, and she knew in her heart it was true.

Bettina’s ambition was noble, really. She wasn’t crazy. She was an ordinary, logical person simply trying to train people to be more hygienic. A mysterious epidemic, even a small, localized one, might just make the world take notice. Hopefully people would become more vigilant in the face of a plague and begin washing their foul and sordid hands. Her work could take a lifetime, but it would be her legacy, her contribution that would live on long after she was gone.

Joan of Arc knew the stakes, and so did she: If a few lives had to be sacrificed for the cause, so be it.

It was during one of her routine excursions to her local home improvement store where she discovered the answer, right there in the garden section. She had just brushed past Jane, a mildly bothersome but completely harmless woman who annoyingly referred to herself as Bettina’s “work buddy.” Jane was browsing through the shovels, peeking nosily around the aisle at her. Bettina pretended not to see her as stood amid the fertilizers, where she could almost feel the microscopic airborne particles of dirt seeping through their plastic bags, into her nares. The smell was sickening, but not as much like excrement as she would have thought—more like body odor mixed with mud. That’s when it came to her.

In her extensive research of toxins, she had come across quite a bit of material on Organo-Phosphates. This nifty little compound attacked the nervous system, keeping the brain from communicating with the rest of the body. It was a tricky mixture that manifested itself through muscular paralysis and, with enough exposure, death by asphyxiation. Bettina remembered reading one opinion from a medical professional…

Organo-Phosphates are so toxic to the nervous system and brain tissue, they should be illegal to manufacture or to sell. Every year there are hundreds of cases of death and severe neurological damage among farmers who use these products and either are unaware of the risk or choose to ignore it … Every year there are firefighters, rescue personnel, and onlookers seriously injured and killed at the scene of fertilizer storage facilities and retailers.

Fertilizer. It was so ironic! The very filth responsible for contributing so many germs to the world would be the redeemer of it. An inspired smile spread across Bettina’s face, reaching her twinkling hazel eyes.

Getting those heavy bags into her apartment would be a tall order. The idea of contamination alone was quite a threat! It was fertilizer, after all. But for the sake of the greater good, she had to temporarily relax her passionate relationship with cleanliness. Still, she would be careful. Whether the public knew it or not, Bettina was keenly aware: This stuff contained some deadly ingredients.

She began by emptying her walk-in closet, a generous space. This decision meant her clothes would be displaced for the time being, but she solved the problem by buying a freestanding clothing rack and keeping it in the corner of her bedroom. Her sweaters and jeans found a home in a few large cardboard boxes she crammed under her bed.

With a few simple adjustments, her closet became a well-ordered workroom. She lined the carpets with sturdy plastic tarps and affixed them to the walls, too. She created a secure area that would be sure to keep the nasties quarantined. In the corner, within easy reach, was a sterilized garbage can lined with the most hefty trash bags she could find. Sure, they were more expensive than the other brands, but Bettina didn’t feel comfortable taking chances with this kind of thing. An array of dainty paintbrushes and small Tupperware containers made neat rows on the built-in shelving. She had stockpiled all the necessary items so she could throw away anything that was contaminated each time she did her work.

Even with Bettina’s limited finances, the operation was off to a great start. Three large boxes of trash bags, fifty paintbrushes, thirty Tupperware containers, four dozen sets of medical rubber gloves and sixty painter’s masks were arranged neatly in her headquarters, ready to go.

On the day she moved the fertilizer into her home, she donned a painter’s mask and a pair of thick rubber gloves. In this quantity these bags were lethal, and she wasn’t taking any chances. After six hours of heavy lifting and disgusting sweating, the bags were stacked neatly in the heart of Bettina’s closet, and her workshop was complete.

Afterwards she agreed to have dinner with Jane, her co-worker. Jane had managed to become a part of Bettina’s life only because Bettina had learned the Happy Birthday Rule from her. The rule stated that when washing your hands, to ensure you’ve lathered for a full fifteen seconds (which was just long enough for the soap to do its work) you should sing the Happy Birthday song. Bettina reasoned that if Jane was spreading even a little bit of the cleanliness gospel, she must be worth something. Besides, Bettina needed a break from the intensity of her secret life, and so the pair met at Blue Ribbon.

It was a simple restaurant with sandwiches and a perfect score on the health inspection notice posted at the front door. It was never crowded because Blue Ribbon had a well-earned reputation of mediocrity. That meant Bettina would be able to have her pick of tables. She was sure to arrive first so she could do just that. She chose a spot that was sufficiently removed from the bathrooms and as far away from the kitchen as possible. If she had to eat in a place where the cooking was out of her control, she would need to keep herself blissfully ignorant of the preparation process. As she washed down the table with a napkin and some hand sanitizer she produced from her purse, Bettina tried to calm herself by imagining the kitchen staff in a spotlessly clean environment, arranging each meal with the care and sterility of a surgeon.

When Jane arrived she didn’t go immediately to the bathroom to wash the germs from the restaurant’s front door handle off her hands. Instead she hugged a cringing Bettina who focused on controlling her breathing during the unbearable contamination. They sat facing each other, and Bettina tried to smile while Jane placed her fetid mitts on the table and started fiddling with her silverware. Jane’s benign questions about Bettina’s job and her love life were like television static, and Bettina tried to answer as if she were listening. The word hypocrite danced in Bettina’s head as she homed in on a ridge of grime lodged beneath Jane’s right ring finger. That’s when she noticed the rest of Jane’s fingers. They donned the same blackened ridge. Happy Birthday indeed!

Bettina asked the waiter for a new fork after noticing a dried fleck of food. She figured Jane would have to excuse herself to wash her hands before they were served. But as Bettina’s turkey club sandwich was placed before her, it was clear there would be no such activity. She watched Jane’s tainted hands pick up her tuna melt. It would be easy enough to correct Jane’s egregious behavior by simply sterilizing herself once she got home, but that wouldn’t be a permanent solution. Her mother had always told her when choosing between the tough road and the easy road, the tough road was always the right one.

A sense of purpose settled upon Bettina as she realized what she had to do.

Jane had agreed to come back to Bettina’s apartment after dinner to see some photographs Bettina had taken during her last vacation to Victoria Falls. The twosome settled on the freshly steam-cleaned couch with a pinstriped photo album. As Jane oohed and ahhed over the boring photographs, Bettina started to put her plan into action.

Her first move was to offer Jane a hot cocoa with a little poison arrow frog toxin smeared invisibly along the rim of the mug. As the minutes ticked on, Jane remained unfazed and continued with her spirited chatter. Bettina could only conclude the toxin was too old and had lost its punch.

Unfortunately, this was going to have to get messy.

Bettina excused herself and went into the kitchen to hunt for a cleaver. As she searched, Jane jabbered on about her most recent date with Jeffrey from Accounting. Although her voice gave nothing away, Bettina could hear Jane growing louder, but still, she continued to rummage through drawers. She didn’t look up quickly enough to see the chloroform-soaked rag coming at her.

The next thing she felt was a hand was batting roughly at her cheek, and it didn’t feel good. She wanted to push it away, but Bettina was beneath a load of a thousand boulders. She didn’t have the strength to lift her hand, much less awaken. It was the whispered threat of getting her mouth stuffed with gravel that motivated her to open her eyes.

Jane stood before her. They were in a dark cave. No, it wasn’t a cave. It was a basement. A filthy basement, the kind no one had bothered to visit in fifty years. The walls were made haphazardly of fieldstone and the smell of mold hung in her nostrils. Bettina shuddered. This had to be a nightmare. She couldn’t imagine anything more horrifying. More dirty.

And there stood harmless, annoying Jane fishing a large vial of what looked like dirt from her pocket. She unscrewed the container and began to sprinkle the contents into Bettina’s hair.

What Bettina saw coming out of that vial wasn’t flakes of soil, it was festering globs of waste. And what she felt wasn’t the gentle shower of bits of earth, it was a vicious attack of decaying flesh and filth. Words failed her, but a primal scream slipped from her lips. Jane wasn’t phased. Quite simply, with the sweetest smile on her face, Jane explained that she was making the world a better place. And she was starting with Bettina.

She had been watching Bettina for quite some time. She knew of Bettina’s grand plans to wipe the earth clean. Although she hadn’t figured out all the details, she knew about Bettina’s fertilizer scheme. And while she liked the idea of fertilizer bolstering humanity’s genetic resistance to germs, she most certainly didn’t agree with Bettina’s cavalier use of it. If Bettina had her way, if people were terrorized into being fanatically clean, Jane assured her that the super bugs would wipe out the entire planet.

Between the hand sanitizer industry and the misuse of antibiotics, microbes were rapidly becoming the biggest threat on Earth, Jane explained. Every time somebody slathered their hands with alcohol-laden goop, each time a doctor arbitrarily administered amoxicillin, microorganisms edged closer to super bug status. A status that couldn’t be fought and couldn’t be undone.

Yes, she admitted, after the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s, the face of medicine changed. And it was true that classrooms with hand sanitizer dispensers had twenty percent fewer absentee days due to illness than those without. But the defenses people were wielding against the microscopic world would surely backfire over time, and that left only one thing to do.

Jane continued. Patiently, proudly, she described her plan to systematically toughen the human gene pool by introducing filth wherever she could. Sure, it would probably result in more than a few casualties, but she thought of herself as a modern-day Joan of Arc. She was working for the greater good.

Soon, when people realized the benefits of exposing themselves to more germs, they would follow her lead and actually ingest microbes in any form possible. Jane herself had been eating a nightly ration of dirt that she collected from her front yard. For the first couple of weeks, she vomited after each serving. But after that stopped, she started to notice a change. Throughout cold and flu season, she had not once washed her hands, and she had never gotten sick—not even when Jeffrey from Accounting had slept over with a horrendous cold. She had even kept the same sheets on her bed for the next several weeks just to be sure her body had ample time to contract any dwelling illness.

In fact, Jane had even tried ingesting poisons in increasing amounts to armor herself against all the pollution that was infiltrating the air. So far, she was up to two ounces of kitchen cleanser per day.

Bettina’s ears felt like they were on fire. Her skin prickled at the thought of the germs that must be coursing over Jane’s body. How long must it have been since Jane had showered? Now that she looked back, an offensive odor mixed with perfume always seemed to accompany Jane. Bettina had assumed the stink was just the world around her, but now that she thought about it, that distinct stench was always hanging around whenever Jane made the scene.

Jane tenderly stroked the side of Bettina’s face as if she were her pet cat. Don’t worry, she said softly. I’ll take care of you, she cooed. And with that, she held a mirror up so Bettina could see what she had become.

Her eyes were the only thing visible beneath the black sheath of mud that caked her entire face. A lone tear cut its way through the muck, making a vain attempt at washing away the enemy. Her mouth screwed up, forming a grotesque mask, and as she began to cry, her gleaming white teeth appeared, making a shocking contrast. She looked down at her body. Her clothes were gone, but she wasn’t naked. Like her face, her entire body was slathered with sludge.

As if feeding an infant, Jane gingerly offered a spoonful of gritty soil to Bettina. With a cunning smile on her lips, Jane’s voice echoed in the darkness: Welcome to my war.

The Cleansing

NOLAlphabet

New Orleans, United States

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