It’ll be my new obsession, she thought as she stared through a wall of tears at her cracked, beet-red hands. She was almost surprised she couldn’t see bone already. Isla Brown had been washing her hands exactly fifty times a day for three hundred and sixty-five days. Tomorrow was the beginning of a new year, which meant that unless she wanted to do this for yet another three hundred and sixty-five days, she had to stop tomorrow. Isla decided such a task couldn’t be done without tricking the voices in her head. Starting tomorrow, I will only wash my hands when I genuinely need to. That way, it will have happened for precisely a year, no more, no less. It’ll be perfect. Orderly. Exactly what I want. Despite her attempt to reconcile why she had to break away from the compulsion, the panic that the next day was bound to bring loomed over her head, casting a shadow over everything she touched. Isla could hardly focus on New Year’s Day at all. First, she had to get through her parents’ famously giant New Year’s Eve celebration.
The breakdown went like this: there would be food there that Isla couldn’t eat unless the clock read a time ending in either a zero or a five. When starting a task such as catching up with an aunt she hadn’t seen in a while, Isla would have to check the time to make sure the minutes were at an even number. This couldn’t be just any clock, either. It would have to be the one on her phone, which meant that she would have to carry it around, which meant oblivious relatives would think she was nothing but a self-absorbed teen with nothing better to do than stare at her phone. There would also be the relatives who would have heard whispers of her slowly going mad yet pretend as if nothing was amiss when they spoke with her. Despite their best efforts to conceal it, the people who knew of the rumors always seemed to possess this curious and somewhat haughty gaze. It was as if they were thinking, I’ve been through more than she has, and I’m not going crazy. So pathetically weak. When it came time to sit down to dinner, Isla’s napkin would have to be folded twice and placed on her right. She would have to move her water glass from the left to the right, and whatever she intended to eat first had to be on the right side of her plate. She would adjust these things at whatever rate was needed to make it so that her first bite took place at a time ending in a zero or a five, preferably a zero. This would all be done as she narrowly avoided the sharp glances of her parents, who had spent the whole night beforehand shutting down rumors regarding the very thing she would be proving.
“Isla? Are you okay?” her sister asked from the doorway. She didn’t know how long she had been staring at her hands or how long Macie had been standing there watching her. Isla tried to respond, but the words got stuck in her chest. After a few seconds, she managed to clear her throat.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m good. Is anyone here yet?”
“Just grandpa. Mom wanted me to tell you.”
“Okay, great, thanks! I’ll be down in a sec.”
Macie nodded, though not at all convinced, before making her way back to the living room. After she dried her hands, Isla would have twenty more rounds to go, but she would save five for the last few minutes before bed in case she needed to rewash them. To prevent herself from dwelling over the party even more, she took out her phone that she had sanitized exactly forty-two minutes before and watched a video she had already seen eighty-six times. In order to finish the forty-fifth round of washing her hands at the exact moment the video ended, Isla had to extend the usual sixty-second process by fourteen seconds. Extending was fine, but shortening was firmly against the rules.
Fifteen minutes and fourteen seconds after Macie had delivered their mother’s message, Isla was ready. She slid on her only trusted pair of gloves and descended the stairs. Everyone was there, just as she had expected. Not two seconds after reaching the ground floor did her great-uncle on her dad’s side pull Isla into an uncomfortably warm embrace that reeked of beer.
“Where have you been, huh? Missed you, kiddo!” He exclaimed, the beer stench growing in intensity.
“Ha, yeah! Me too! Hey, have you seen my sister anywhere?” Isla replied as she gently pushed away.
“Geez, what’s the rush?! Think I saw her back that away, little miss,” he said, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder.
Isla didn’t respond; she just pushed past the large man, eventually spotting her sister laughing with their younger cousins in the corner of the living room.
“Macie, can I talk to you for a second?”
The look in Isla’s eyes made Macie’s smile fall, her gaze darken. The change in her mannerisms was mainly apparent to Isla as the two had gone through this before, and Macie had gotten increasingly graceful at excusing herself.
“Of course! See ya soon, guys. Don’t let the ball drop without me!”
The pair made a beeline for Macie’s room as it was closest.
“What’s up?” Macie asked. Isla could tell she was exhausted, having dealt with this for much longer than she deserved.
“I need to take another shower.”
“You’ve already taken three today, and I know you’re going to take a fourth before bed. Mom and dad would be so angry if you took a fifth.”
“I know, but if I eat dinner like this, I’ll -”
“You’ll what? You never seem to be able to finish that sentence, Isla.”
“It’s not time for me to stop yet.”
“Well, I certainly think it’s time.”
“Macie, please. What if I have an attack in front of everyone?”
“It’s not like everyone doesn’t already know something’s up. Take a few deep breaths and look at the big picture. Your uncle gave you a hug. That’s all. Now I need to get back to our cousins before they come looking for me, okay?”
Isla was alone in Macie’s room for about two minutes, trying to rationalize her situation before she couldn’t breathe. Her panicked gasps rocked her shoulders up and down. The more she tried to stifle the noise, the louder they became. She couldn’t remember how she got to the ground, but she was there, her hair falling over her face and tangling in the carpet. Why was she like this? How could this have happened? She had tried to do everything right in order to avoid this very thing. She could no longer see through the tears in her eyes, and the color of her face was as bright as that of her hands. Isla ripped off her gloves and raked her fingers through her hair. She rocked back and forth, hardly noticing the burn of the carpet on her knees. All she could hear was the sound of her lungs begging for air - sharp, hollow gasps that would send shivers down anyone’s spine.
The door flung open, and there Macie stood - a tall glass of ice water clutched in her hand. She quickly shut it behind her and rushed to Isla’s side. She didn’t say anything, just covered her sister’s hand with her own. Slowly but surely, Isla’s desperate gasps became quieter, more even. Her hands found their way from her hair to the glass on the ground in front of her. The sisters sat up together, and Macie brushed one of many stray locks of hair from Isla’s still-red face. Her eyes were still bleary but calmer now.
“I’m sorry,” Macie finally whispered.
“What could you possibly be sorry for?” Isla asked, truly dumbfounded by her sister’s apology.
“I shouldn’t have left. I didn’t take you seriously enough.”
“It’s hard to take me seriously.”
“That’s true, but just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”
“Honestly, I don’t understand it either, Macie,” she paused before saying, “I’m not going to wash my hands tomorrow, you know.”
“That’s gross,” Macie replied with a smirk.
“You know what I mean!” Isla laughed, shoving Macie away.
“Seriously, though, I believe in you, Isla. And if it turns out you need more time, just remember you aren’t a failure. Not even a little bit.”
Macie rested her head on Isla’s shoulder, and the pair sat in blissful silence together; neither one keeping track of time.