Use Cold Water

Submitted for Contest #31 in response to: Write a short story about someone doing laundry.... view prompt

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When my sister left, I thought my first text to her would be something sweet. Something like I miss you or the neighbors ask how you’re doing. Or at least something coherent like I hope classes are going well. I didn’t really think quick hwo do u get bloodstains out f laundry would be my dashed-off missive not twelve hours after we said goodbye. But that’s what I send, half-blinded by senseless tears I don’t want to shed, leaning over the side of my bed as my stomach churns. 

Wish someone else was here. I didn’t expect to be alone. I always thought - my eyes burn again, stupid emotions getting the better of me - I always thought she’d be here when it happened. 

I’ve dug through Lauren’s closet, which is emptier now than I’ve ever seen it, all her best clothes taken away with her, until I found an old pair of black sweatpants. They’re what I’m wearing now as I examine the dark red blood spot on the pair of white shorts. I’ve never done my own laundry before. Lauren and Dad took care of that. There must be something special you’re supposed to do for blood. 

I squeeze my eyes shut. I don’t know what I’m doing; I’ve never known what I’m doing. She was supposed to be here for this. This house wasn’t supposed to go any emptier than it’s already gone. 

Mom came in the door when I was playing with trains on the rug. I saw her enter, watched her thin fingers turn the lock and her pale, sickly face smile at me. Then she turned and called up the stairs. “Lauren, I have a surprise for you!” 

Lauren barreled down the stairs and flung herself into Mom’s arms, nearly knocking her backward. “What took you so long? I was almost bored enough to start playing with Ava.” 

“Be nice to your sister,” Mom scolded. 

Lauren turned and surveyed my train set with a sneer. “She plays with baby toys.” 

I glared back at her and held up one of the train cars as if threatening to throw it. She stuck out her tongue. 

“This is what took me so long,” said Mom, and she reached into a shopping bag and pulled out two patterned t-shirts from Lauren’s favorite store, and a pair of white shorts. I’d seen her circle those clothes in a magazine, heard her sigh over them to her friends. I saw Lauren’s eyes go wide with wonder and disbelief.

“You didn’t!” she squeaked.

“I scraped the money together. You girls deserve nice things every once in a while, even if…”

There were unsaid words in that sentence, there was an involuntary twitch of Mom’s hand toward the knit had that covered her bald head, but Lauren didn’t notice. She had already grabbed the bag, she was already charging back up the stairs to try the shorts and t-shirts on. She’d already lost herself in the glory of having, for once, something expensive to wear.

When Lauren gave these shorts to me, she warned me not to let anything happen to them. She told me that little-sister law stipulated I got to wear everything she outgrew, but that if I ruined these, she’d come after me in my sleep. And now I’ve gone and bled all over them. 

Twelve years old. I’ve been picturing it for over a year, going to the bathroom and seeing that spot of red and knocking on her door, trembling, and when Lauren opened it and saw my face she’d just know and she’d pull me into her arms and tell me you’re a woman, congratulations, and I’d let the warmth of her override my terror at what that meant. She told me when it happened she’d take me out for milkshakes around the corner and I was planning to order a double-stuffed grilled cheese and an absolutely decadent strawberry shake and listen while she told me everything she knew about being grown. 

I was planning to ask her, how do you know it’s coming? How do you prepare so you don’t stain your underwear every time? How often do you take ibuprofen if you get cramps? How bad does it hurt - tell me honestly, tell me really, don’t try to downplay it just because it’s normal to you by now.

I was planning to ask her how do you stand it? Every month for your entire life, how is it not hell? 

She’s the only woman I’ve got, now that Mom’s gone. Dad wouldn’t know how to handle this. He wouldn’t be able to help me even if he wasn’t at work, even if I wasn’t here by myself with my stomach in knots. 

Quick hwo do u get bloodstains out f laundry. She’s off at college with smart people and she’s taking classes on philosophy and tragedy and art and she doesn’t want her stupid baby sister texting her questions like that. What’s wrong with me? 

I should just google it, I think. Should have thought of that first. I pull out my laptop - it feels strange in my lap, too hot. (Am I hot? Is that something that happens too? Why don’t they talk about this in school, why don’t they teach us anything useful - why do they all just assume we get these talks from our mothers -) 

I shake my head. Focus, idiot. I open a new window. 

But am I really going to google how to get bloodstains out of laundry? That makes me sound like an axe murderer. The government’s watching our every move these days, or corporations are watching and can sell our information, or whatever it is. Maybe I should use an anonymous browser. No, that just looks more suspicious. They can probably trace it back to me anyway, can’t they?

A lunatic image seizes me of standing in court, black sweatpants blackened more with blood, and explaining to a scornful judge that I'm not a murderer, I just got my period and didn’t know what I was doing. No, I didn’t have anyone I could ask. No, your honor, I don’t have a mom anymore. 

I type in how to and then lose my nerve. I slam the laptop shut. 

I’m being stupid. Pathetic. I know it, of course I do. I shouldn’t be so helpless, I’m twelve years old and when Lauren was my age she had to deal with Mom and take care of me all at once. She had to play the supportive daughter and the cool big sister and the mother Mom was too sick to play. How do I think she learned to get bloodstains from her shorts? She had to do it by herself. Why am I different? Why am I so needy?

“You’ll be okay, won’t you?” Lauren asked me, when we were lined up at the train station, and she was minutes away from boarding and riding away from me. “You know I won’t be back until Christmas. Train fare’s too expensive. You’ll be okay on your own?” 

I looked away from her. “Of course I will.”

“It doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. You know that too, right?”

Did she think I was stupid? Did she think I hadn’t known this was coming? Did she think I’d expected - even in a tiny portion of my mind, even cut off from logic and reason - that she was going to put off higher education and stay with me through middle and high school, come to my robotics tournaments and take me to see scifi movies and indulge all the stupid little-sister things I’d put her through all my life? “I know.” 

“Ava, come on. Look at me.”

I lifted my eyes briefly and flashed her a smile. “You’re going off to be a grown-up. Don’t let me hold you back.” 

I wasn’t sure if she believed the lie in my smile or not. But what did it matter? Her life wouldn’t wait for me. She didn’t owe me anything. 

If I were her I’d be glad to have me gone.

I slump down the hallway to the bathroom. There’s still blood underneath my fingernails, stains from my frantic attempts to contain the bleeding when I first saw it. The flow is heavier than I thought it’d be. I thought it’d be slow and small. I thought the stain would be a tiny spot, but instead it looks like a murder scene in some cheap detective movie. (Is it always like that? I don’t know, I don’t know.) 

I turn on the sink and scrub beneath my nails; they’re blunt and frayed already, nothing pretty lost. Lauren was the one with pretty nails. I swipe cherry-scented soap over them to banish the unpleasant smell.

This should be a happy time. Shouldn’t it? Isn’t this called a miracle? I’ve never understood why, this cataclysmic event dragging me away from childhood, away from trains and books and scifi movies and toward dresses and boys and babies, but there has to be something that makes it all worth it, right? What was Mom supposed to tell me before she died? I let the last of the red run into the sink drain and wish desperately I could ask her. Wish I could ask anyone without feeling like a fool.

My phone buzzes.

My heart contracts and I snatch it up. I’m expecting a text back from Lauren, probably I’m busy or look it up, I have work or you’d better not have done anything to my old clothes. But it’s not a text. She’s calling me. 

“Why can’t you just be normal?” she shouted, her cheeks red with fury. “Why do you always have to bother me and my friends?” 

“I just wanted to congratulate you! I was happy for you!” I’d wanted to be happy, to be proud she was going somewhere smart and prestigious and so far away, I’d wanted this to be good; why did she always have to be ashamed of me? “Why are you so mean?” 

She scowled. “You think just because other seniors think you’re cute -”

“You’re the only one it bothers when I come up to you in the halls!”

“I just -” She dragged her hands through her hair, like she was exhausted, like this was some sort of ordeal. “I didn’t ask to have a sister, I didn’t ask -”

“Well, soon you won’t!” I screamed at her, and I felt a vicious instinct rise in my throat, something that wanted to tear apart the world at the seams, something that wanted to make her feel as broken and useless as I did. “And I can’t wait for that!” 

I saw the hurt in her eyes, around the anger. It made me feel powerful. That was the worst part of all.  

She wants to FaceTime me. I can’t bear to look at her, not when my eyes are all red and my stomach feels swollen and inflamed and I feel like I might shake apart in a moment. She’s above me now. She’s beyond me. 

I hit the red button on my phone and the buzzing stops. 

Then I curl up against the bathroom’s wall, knees tucked into my chest, and I cry. 

“When is Mom coming home?”

“She’s not coming home, you idiot.”

“Don’t lie to me!” 

“What do you think I’m lying for?” Lauren couldn’t even muster malice in her voice with the last question; her face was crumbled into lines of devastation. I couldn’t muster the defiance to demand another answer.  

It’s the hardest I’ve cried for a long, long time. It’s a kind of crying so hard I can barely breathe in, a kind of crying that’s silent because I can’t make any noise. It’s a kind of crying that gets trapped in my lungs, in my ribs, and flaps desperate wings to escape but can’t get any momentum going. It’s a kind of crying I think might actually make me explode. 

“I want her back. Lauren, isn’t there anything we can do?”

“You think if there was I wouldn’t have already done it?” 

My phone’s buzzing starts back up.

I look up. Lauren’s calling me again.

Better get it over with, I think. I’ll just tell her not to worry about it, that I figured it out and she should go back to hanging with her new friends. I answer the call and let my face come into view, followed a second later by hers.

Her curls are windswept, her breath a little labored, I think; it looks like she’s been running. She doesn’t wait for me to speak. “Did it happen? Did you get it?” 

And all at once I find I can’t. I can’t tell her to leave. I can’t let go of her, no matter how desperately I wish I could. My lip starts trembling, and more tears are leaking from the corners of my eyes, and I nod wordlessly as I struggle to keep myself from sobbing.

And Lauren’s face melts. 

“Ava, honey,” she says. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there.”

“Not your - not your f-fault.” I knuckle tears away from my lashes. “You’re at school. You don’t - don’t have to -”

“I’m here.” She looks at me intently. “I left lecture. What happened? Did it just start this morning?” 

Left lecture? No, no, she isn’t supposed to do that. Not for me. “You should go back. School’s more important than -”

“Oh, shut up.” She rolls her eyes, and oh, she looks exactly the same as she has since we were toddlers. “Of course it isn’t. You’re my little sister and you just got your first period. What kind of sister would I be if I wasn’t here for you with that?”

“But -” the tears are coming faster, the sobs are harder to keep at bay. “But…”

“Tell me what happened.”

I shut my eyes. “I got the blood on your white shorts. The ones - the ones Mom got you.” 

“Oh, honey, is that what you’re worried about?”

I look up again. She doesn’t look angry. She’s got that same look of concern, of patience on her face. I want to hug her so badly I can’t breathe. I want her to hold me. I want her to take me out for milkshakes and give me advice and tell me everything’s going to be okay. 

“I want you here,” I admit, my voice plaintive. “I’m sorry.” 

She doesn’t snap at me. She doesn’t dismiss me, she doesn’t call me pathetic, she doesn’t feed the spiral I’ve been sending myself down. Instead she sighs. The corner of her mouth lifts, a sympathetic gesture, and she settles back - she’s sitting against the wall on the floor somewhere, I realize, just like I am. 

“I know, honey,” she says. “It’s not fair we only have each other.”

“You’re not so bad,” I mumble.

She laughs. “You know I was never great. I never knew how to be the responsible grown-up one.”

“You shouldn’t have had to.” 

“But listen.” She stares me straight in the eyes, through the camera, and I find I don’t want to look away. “Listen. You can ask me for things. Don’t feel like you’re being a burden. I love you, okay? I’ll always love you.” 

And I hate myself for saying it, but it slips out of my mouth anyway. “You promise?”

Her smile is warm. “I promise.” 

I want her to be here. I wanted her to always be down the hallway for me to annoy and plead with and steal from and love. But I do feel a little better, hearing her voice. I do feel a little less close to collapsing.

“You’re going to want to use cold water,” Lauren says. “That’s the most important thing for bloodstains. I’ll walk you through it all, okay?” 

“Do you have time?”

“I have all the time I need.” 

I look down and take a deep breath. The air that comes in this time feels a little clearer, a little more like hope. 

Time marches on. This was going to happen to me eventually, and nothing I do can turn back the clock. Every month for the rest of my life. And I don’t know what it’s going to mean, what it’ll be like years from now when I’m grown up myself. I don’t know where I’ll go from here, in this big empty house with no one but Dad. I don’t know anything. 

But I’m not alone. Maybe that’s what makes it all worth it. 

“I’m ready,” I say, and I stand.

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3 comments

Chizoba Ebunilo
20:33 May 06, 2020

Tears slipped from my eyes, legit. This is so good. I love the flow of your work and how it blends before it arrives at the point you want to make. What I admire most is how you capture the attention of the reader from start to finish with relatable down-to-earth characters. You are an impressive writer Phoebe.

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Adah M.m
20:15 Jul 10, 2020

This is beautifully written and has amazing characters

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Khadija S.
21:57 Apr 14, 2020

This is a very bittersweet story. Good job! My only complaint is I feel a bit confused as to the timeline, the fight with her sister did that happen a while ago? Hours ago? Otherwise good job!

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