Rough, scratchy, cold. The small creature skitters over Elise’s shoulder. All too well she knows him, her unwanted best friend. Pupil shrinking in protest, she squints open an eye.
Hello, old friend. Gritting her teeth, she pinches the creature between a merciless thumb and forefinger as it waves its legs and antennae in protest. She flips the blankets off her shoulder; they fall into a little hill of hot, sweaty folds on her bed. Swinging her feet onto the peeling, checkered linoleum, she strides two steps into the kitchen. After flipping a switch, she tosses the creature into the garbage disposal. It crunches a few times, gears whining with the effort, then rumbles to a smooth grind. She turns on the water, splashing it around in the sink basin.
Gathering the water in her sticky, sweaty palms, Elise splashes her face, wincing against the coldness. Dark grey morning clings like a burial shroud to her limbs and eyelids. With a careless hand, she yanks on an off-white cord dangling halfway into the sink basin, swiping away the plastic-paneled, soot-begrimed blinds veiling the window. The glass shines. Danielle must have washed the panes last night.
She leans on the edge of the sink, dismissing the pain of the metal digging into her forearms. She stares out into the rosy skyline, watching pedestrians go back and forth, hurrying, running, going. Somewhere. They are all going somewhere. But she is not. She will not.
Against a backdrop of concrete trees and metal mountains, the streetlights are still on, a tragic glow of false light combating the rising sun. She drops her head into the folds of her arms, exhausted still, shadowed by sleep and pressing dreams.
“Elise?” She neither moves nor answers. Danielle. I’m not going.
“Elise, are you up?” As though in echoing response, the residents above them murmur and clatter about, footsteps rushed and heavy in the ceiling separating them, preparing for a day of work. “Good morning, hon.”
Danielle steps into the kitchen, heralded by the acknowledging squeak of her bedroom door. Her hands are rough with housework but gentle on Elise’s shoulder. “Get dressed, hon. You gotta big day ahead of you.”
Elise is about to protest. But she doesn’t. Reluctantly, she drops her hands from the counter.
Elise stares at herself in the chipped, hazy glass, somewhat rectangular-shaped, that serves as her makeshift mirror. A skinny girl, moon-white face lost in a sea of dark, curly hair, looks back at her. She pulls on her used, beat up jeans, and readjusts the hem of her shirt to fall more naturally. Sighing, she hastily turns away from the mirror.
If it was ten years ago, it would be a different house, all white, spacious, cool. It would be nice clothes, her clothes, lazy days at home, a clean place to sleep, the things she wanted to do. The safe things. Instead of Danielle, it would be her mother. Her own mother.
It isn’t ten years ago, Elise reminds herself sternly, lacing a tattered belt through the loops on her jeans. She can’t bear to look at herself in the mirror anymore. I’m not a child anymore, but does that mean I have to grow up?
She’s eighteen now. Taking an offer from a friend and fellow church member, Danielle says Elise must go to work. It is a small corporation, but doing well presently, and Elise can help clean the offices. It will be a good experience for her, Danielle says. Elise doubts it.
Back in New Jersey, ten years ago, Elise had attended school. Her mother Sofia was thrilled to send her to one of the top schools in the country. But school was torture. The occasional bully, the pushing crowds, some locker room talk. Topics way over her head. It was a common scenario for most, but a difficult time for Elise. That was why her mother kindly removed her from the system and quit her job as a nurse to school her at home. Even then, that had been so painfully challenging. It was simply wearing her down to have to watch her mother falling apart, piece by piece, sanity, health, and role—-why did she have to see it? It made her so much more aware of her father’s absence, as he traveled all over the world as a salesman.
After her mother fell ill—-she always was ill, but her fragile health simply fell apart—-her mother sent her back to school. By then her father had left them both alone in a ratty apartment and a much too small sum of money to live on. Elise spent two and a half years in a poor city high school, having never completed her seventh, eighth, and ninth grade years at home. Jumping into a rough school in the middle of the year was already a challenging thing for any normal child, but for Elise—-a shy, quiet, insecure girl—-it was a death sentence.
She found herself dreading every conversation, flinching when someone came up to her, and fearing every word that passed her lips. All of her sentences were mocked and ridiculed by her classmates. As for the teachers, they weren’t any better. There wasn’t much they could do.
Eventually, after a long, drawn out sickness, her mother passed away last year, leaving Elise alone, her only company Sofia’s caretaker, Danielle. Danielle was her mother’s old childhood friend, the last of her mother’s friends, and the only one who attended Sofia’s hasty funeral besides Elise.
Danielle took Elise under her wing, as the poor orphaned girl had no one else to care for her. Elise dropped out of school, having never been able to graduate. It wasn’t too bad, considering that only ten percent of the students from that school graduated. Even still, she was berated mercilessly as she exited the school that final day.
Elise was never the same after that. She curled in on herself, overcome by fear, unwilling to speak.
The door slams. Elise flinches. Danielle emerges from her bedroom, dressed for work. “It’s gonna be all right, hon,” she encourages in a soft voice, placing a hand on her shoulder. Danielle’s hair is tied up in a green and pink handkerchief. Elise squints. Whoa—-bad color choice.
“All right,” Danielle turns, beckoning with her hand. “I see you’re ready. Don’t worry! You’ll be fine. I know you can do it. Come on, hon.”
Elise follows, her heart hurting. Heavy. Why must you send me back to something like that? Send me back to the places where people call you names and—-why make me do something I don’t want to do?
The subway screams a demonic wail, trailing on, like someone in the clutches of unbearable pain. Shadowy orange light issues from clouded overhead fixtures, bathing the crowds. They undulate on the dark grey-stained platform, dancing to an unheard strain piped into their ears, and theirs alone. But Elise doesn’t share in their key, their rhythm, or their timing. She never has.
Elise feels exposed, vulnerable, and tiny without Danielle leading her. You’ll be fine. That’s all? And she shoves me off here into this underground hell saying to take the R train?
A stout, short suited man carrying a gigantic briefcase bumps into her. She cowers. He profusely apologizes, then quickly dissolves into the crowd. So many people, all going somewhere.
The air is muggy and clingy, laden with sweat and heat. It sticks to her cheeks and lines the inside of her lungs. The tiled walls are impervious to sound and merely bottle up every sentence spoken in the crowded spaces. All right. Where’s the R Train?
Subways, metal robotic snakes, slither in and out, their numbers broadcasting from their fronts in neon lights. Eventually, she finds one, a neon, crimson R tattooed across the front. The doors grate open. No one gets off. A hurried collection of students, distinguished by their bulging backpacks, board. Elise follows behind.
Inside the car, people are jam-packed shoulder to shoulder. Elise shrinks away from the touch of everyone around her. Not much privacy, huh? She closes her eyes shut, breathing in the scent of bodies pressed up around her. The crowd sways as one with the movement of the train.
Get off at Brannaugh Boulevard, hon. Brannaugh. B-R-A-N-N-A-U-G-H. Boulevard—-
Danielle’s instructions replay in Elise’s mind. She pauses at this station, waiting for the chrome doors to slide open. When they do, she hesitates. Mustering up courage, she jumps over the gap between the car and the platform, drawing bemused stares from the myriads of people milling about, no doubt waiting for a delayed train. Elise shrinks inside from their laser-like eyes.
This station is drastically different from the one she arrived from. Immediately she notices the polished mosaics embellishing the walls. Contemporary art, probably done by privileged artists around town. She finds herself in awe of the gigantic scenes, unable to tear her eyes from the elaborate designs. In actuality, she is stalling. Walking into a well-known business and listening to someone talking to her is not her idea of fun.
But then again, sitting at a station all day, albeit a clean one, is not exactly enlightening either. She leaves behind the spotless light grey platform, this one devoid of chewed gum globs, and heads up the corridors. They lead away from the platform like offshoots from a tree branch.
Her footsteps echo on the tiled floor. Unlike the station she came from, the grout is scrubbed clean. The smell of soap and harsh chemicals lingers in her nose; this is a well-kept station. Beyond the curve of the tunnel, light gleams against the tiles. So. Guess this is it?
Hello, Brannaugh Boulevard. Quite glamorous. The slate-grey sidewalks are studded with quartz, gleaming in the summer sunlight like jewelry collections of the affluent. Elise’s eyes are dazzled; she looks away, resting her eyes in the gutter. However, it’s grate shines too. Everything glints and glares in the noon sun. Looking around her, she sees she’s directly in the center of a nest of skyscrapers, pink, blue, and green in the midday light.
In wonder, Elise stares at the surrounding cityscape. It is breathtaking. A gentle breeze stirs her hair, carrying scents of saliva-triggering food from high-rated restaurants. One logo projecting from the side of a multi-story office building causes her heart to begin palpitating frenetically. She sucks in an anxious sip of air. AdamsTech. You’ll find it real easily, hon. It looks like a big rocket with a little thing—-oh, you’ll know. You can’t miss it.
The glass sliding doors whisper shut behind her, clicking closed with a finality that could end the world. Desperation and fear cling to her, and she almost dares to look back. But the silence beckons her.
Elise soaks in the sights around her with an anxious adrenaline. Her feet are a panther’s paws, for the sound of her footsteps is swallowed by the thin carpet, slashed with sunlight filtering through the windows. The front desk is unoccupied. Above its faux-granite counter is a feature wall of clear crystal bordering the AdamsTech logo. The counter is bare, except for a pink Himalayan salt lamp dimly glowing.
Listening carefully, Elise realizes the lobby is not entirely silent. Behind walls and far off in the distance, conversations and busy printers chatter enthusiastically.
“You are Elise?”
The voice paralyzes her limbs to her sides. The voice is not unkind. It is clear and beautiful, with an edge of authority. Elise does not dare to turn. Her head is fixed forward, eyes glued to the feature wall behind the desk. On the counter, the salt lamp pulsates softly.
The speaker reorients herself to face Elise. “You were supposed to be here at nine-thirty,” she says severely in a calm tone. Elise looks up into the blonde hair and sharp green eyes, which once again force her to look back down. Her mouth opens slightly, then closes.
“Perhaps I should introduce myself. I am Chelsea Adams, CEO and President of AdamsTech. I am very pleased to meet you, Elise.” She holds out her right hand, a smooth, tastefully bejeweled one. Tentatively, Elise places her own brown, thin hand into the handshake. It is soft but strong, and Chelsea shakes firmly and confidently. She flips her hair over her shoulder and smiles. Elise can’t help but think, A professional smile. One you might find in a Crest ad.
“I just returned from my lunch break. If you had arrived a minute later or earlier, you would have missed me. Now, the mop closet is over there.” The woman gestures definitively. “I want you to get the bathrooms cleaned and the conference rooms dusted and vacuumed. Please. Thank you, Elise.”
Elise takes a deep breath. One foot. And then the other. Walk, she scolds herself. She finds herself heading towards the mop closet, still thinking about Chelsea. Was she trying to be polite, or did she actually like me?
In their cozy apartment, the smell of food bounces back tenfold in their faces. Elise slouches on her bed, a sulky frown drooping over her face. She orients herself away from the cracked mirror, unable to look at herself. A few feet in front of her is the kitchen, dominated entirely by a table for two. There really is not much room for privacy.
Danielle pauses the banging of pots, scraping of spatulas, and thunking of knives necessary for the creation of dinner. “Elise, don’t tell me your knees are sore from cleaning two bathrooms!” Danielle teases gently. She laughs softly, “Help me in the kitchen, hon.” The noise resumes its reign over the apartment. Reluctantly, Elise drags her body off the mattress and walks the five feet into the kitchen. She does not remove the sulk. The Formica countertop is burned and scorched in some places, peeling to reveal cheap fiberboard. Eventually, she sits at the table and takes the knife, chopping cilantro on a thin, curling plastic cutting board. It stings her nose.
“Set the table, Elise.” Danielle throws the words over her shoulder and raises her eyebrows. The gesture irritates Elise, animosity itching in her heart. “I know, Elise, you’re not used to this. But Chelsea’s a nice lady. Real nice.
Elise yanks open the drawer. It is always the utensil drawer that refuses to cooperate. It opens just enough for her to wedge her fingers through the crack and fish out two forks and two spoons. She rips off two sections of paper towel for napkins and pulls out two plastic mugs from the grease-stained cupboards, filling them with water from the faucet. She plunks them all on the table.
They sit down and Elise zones out while Danielle recites some little mantra to the deity of hers. Then they begin eating. At least, Danielle does.
“Not hungry, Elise? It’s really tasty, hon. You sure? Rice and black beans. With cilantro. Don’t you like that?” Elise can’t even manage a smile. Rice and black beans with cilantro. That’s about what describes it. All the rice is dry—-
“I know, hon.” Danielle pauses her fork. “It’s work bothering you, right? But you’re capable! Hon. Your mother would have wanted it.”
Elise gets up. She pushes her plate away and leaves to sit on her bed. She cannot restrain the tears that roll down her face, clogging her nose, stinging and cold.
Mama was a better cook than Danielle. I still remember how much care she put into the food. I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to go back. I want to go home. Maybe she’d want it.
The mention of her mother sends a cold wash of remembrance over her, settling deep in her chest, in her heart. Tension. Gravity. Darkness.
Danielle sits next to Elise on the bed. Carefully, she puts her arms around Elise’s shuddering form.
“I know, hon.” Her voice feels thin in the dim living room/bedroom. “I miss her too.”
“Good morning, Elise. How are you today?”
Elise drops her head and stares at the carpet, which has a brown and grey pattern to it.
“Well,” Chelsea says, unsure of where to begin. “You did well on the bathrooms yesterday. I would like you to come to my house today and clean. The car is in the garage down below. Come with me.”
I did well? Elise wonders. I guess Danielle was right. I could do it. And Chelsea is a nice lady.
They walk beyond the sliding glass doors and head toward the elevator. Soon, they are on the ground level. Shadows are long, the sky clear, and the air frosty cold. It will be a hot day.
Whispering over the morning road, a gleaming pearl car glides to a stop, its silver trim glimmering in the sunrise. The car’s engine quiets, the light of a wild ride dying in its eyes.
Chelsea immediately leaves Elise’s side and approaches the curb. The dark window of the car rolls down, revealing a young woman in equally dark sunglasses. Her heavily glossed lips reflect the sunlight.
“Hey, how are you, Seah?” the girl inquires cheerfully. She leans halfway out of her window. Something about her makes Elise uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the hair. Just perfectly arranged. Every hair in the right spot. Skin clear and smooth like plastic. A doll.
Chelsea smiles softly and tilts her head. “Fantastic. How was your wedding in Tuscany?”
The girl’s disembodied glossy lips widen, then thin. “Amazing. Stressful, as you would expect, but I had a great wedding coordinator, and it turned out just—-like a dream. A good dream. I feel like I’m complete, now.” She sighs blissfully.
Chelsea shakes her head, blonde waves bouncing. “That is just wonderful! I am so happy for you.” Her voice carries a vibrancy Elise hasn’t noticed before. Something easy and light and—-comfortable.
The girl’s sunglasses tilt, almost imperceptibly. Her words dial down to a lower volume, but Elise can still pick them out. “Who’s your new friend?”
Chelsea manages a half smile. Leaning in closer, she whispers something into the girl’s ear.
The girl leans back, emitting an obnoxious laugh-giggle. “Well, you’ve always been a charitable person, Seah. But this—-”
Another car behind her blasts its horn. “Whoops,” the girl laughs, switching on the engine again, “looks like I’m holding up traffic. See you around.” She glides into a lane, and zooms off around the corner, disappearing from view.
Chelsea touches Elise’s shoulder, in a pressing manner. Through her thin shirt, Elise can feel her icy cold fingers. “Come, we have a schedule.”
Elise walks as fast as she can without snagging her slightly oversized, Nike knockoffs on the abrasive concrete. They make their way under shadows, behind the building, into a private parking garage. It’s dark, echoey, and cool.
Resting in the center of the garage is a gleaming, sleek black car, more impressive than the Sunglasses Girl’s white one. Chelsea unlocks the car remotely with her keys and climbs into the driver’s seat while Elise pulls the handle of the passenger door. It is locked. So, she climbs into the back.
It is a wild, glamorous machine from the outside, but surprisingly tame on the road. Its name contains an intriguing combination of vowels and consonants, but Elise will not dare to say it aloud. I might pronounce it wrong.
Chelsea’s condo is as impressive as a mansion. Elise feels like she does not belong there, almost as if she’s trespassing. The outside is nearly typical but clean and tidy in a thoughtful, opulent way. The muted tans, greys, and whites continue on in the interior, leading towards a calming effect. The hall is simply but tastefully decorated, reminiscent of model homes shown on HGTV. As she walks down the front entrance into the living room, the first thing that meets her eyes is a floor-to-ceiling window taking over one wall, peering out over the river. It glitters in the early morning sun, and its reflected light permeates the living room with warm yellow light. Tucked against one of the two opaque walls are a few couches, covered in a generous amount of designer pillows and throws. A small, modern fireplace adorns the second solid wall. A kitchen leads off the east side of the room, cheery and bright.
“The window needs some polishing, and the floors need vacuuming. Dusting everywhere else. And freshen up the bathrooms, please. There is one on this floor and two upstairs.”
Elise turns. She takes the cleaning supplies from Chelsea’s hands and starts to work on the windows, putting her weight into the polishing cloth.
Elsewhere, in the house, a door shuts with a bang. A cheerful giggle floats down the hall. Genuinely excited. A child’s voice. A little boy, maybe five or six years old, runs into the living room. He is beaming uncontrollably, and Elise can’t help but smile back, just slightly. His hair is the goldest I’ve ever seen. And his eyes. Green. Just like Chelsea’s.
Chelsea grabs him by the shoulder, scolding him harshly. “Leave the cleaning lady alone, Rewan!” She then glances at Elise. “Keep going, now.” Elise reluctantly turns to the window. She watches the ensuing encounter in the window’s reflection. Chelsea’s voice grows a little fainter, as she turns in a different direction.
“Andrew!” A deeper voice answers. “Mr. Morley, I specifically asked you to take him to the park at this time. It was the reason I hired you in the first place.”
“I’m really sorry, Mrs. Adams. I’ll take him right away,” Andrew replies hastily.
“I expected that earlier. Please hurry.”
The boy’s exuberance melts away completely. His nose wrinkles, then his eyes shut closed. His mouth opens. A blubbering cry fills the condo. Doors open, then slam. With each subsequent slam, the cries become more muffled. There’s a pause between the noises, and Elise catches the boy’s last sentence.
“I wanna be wid mommeee!” Slam.
Chelsea’s model-like figure shows up in the glass. Elise turns. Chelsea’s expression is unreadable and cold. “I apologize for the inconvenience. I am sorry about my son interrupting.” She turns on a stiletto and walks down the hall, her voice echoing. “I will be back within five hours. I expect everything cleaned as I asked. If you want anything, you can order some takeout, and when you want to leave, exit out the garage and call a taxi. I will pick up the bill. Thank you, Elise.” The front door clicks shut, and Elise recognizes the sound of a deadbolt scraping closed.
Sighing, she sets to work on the window.
Four hours passed by uneventfully. The window polishing took two and a half hours, due to its large size and Elise’s need for a ladder to assist her. Afterward, the vacuuming wasn’t too difficult, thanks to the cutting edge technology employed by Chelsea’s expensive vacuum cleaner. After eating lunch, which consisted of leftovers scraped up from home, she managed to finish the first two bathrooms and dust the majority of the house. The third bathroom, the luxurious master, required more time due to its immense size.
Elise pauses scrubbing the jet tub to rest her arms. She gets up and walks into the bedroom, and sits down on a bench facing an obscenely large, oval mirror. Unlike the one at home, this one is clear and clean, without a single crack. She stares into her own eyes and face. Elise notes her stringy, curly, dirt-brown hair. Not at all like Chelsea’s or Sunglasses Girl’s meticulously done hair. Looking herself over, she realizes her skin is less pale than before. A blush of pink lies in her cheeks. Maybe it’s a good thing? Elise smirks at herself in the mirror and gets up again. A little bit of guilt stings at her heart for sitting on Chelsea’s bench.
She walks out of the room. Her reflection follows her in the framed mirrors lining the hall. She’s all alone in this house, by herself. It is silent as night.
An open door catches her eye. Wandering, she enters it lazily. A desktop computer, screen still open, greets her cheerily with its shimmering screen. Elise runs her fingers enviously over the silver-chrome trim. She’s only seen something like this in a catalog.
Her fingers surf the screen of their own accord, detached from her brain. She would like to think that, at least. Instinctively, she clicks and selects and winds her way through.
She reads. Her eyes simply fall over the screen, happening to lie on Chelsea’s email account. Most of the correspondences are between business associates. Finally, however, she finds something intriguing to her girlish heart. A series of emails between Chelsea and another man. Zachary Tate. Nice name. The format is drastically different from the emails she read earlier, consisting of short sentences and sloppy, relaxed sign-offs. Chelsea began writing first.
[…and Saturdays won’t work because of Rewan’s therapy…the therapist requires that a parent be present so I can’t just hire a babysitter (usually Andrew Morley, you probably don’t know him, but he’s from church) to take him. I’m always so busy, Zachary. There’s so much to do, with the business, and trying to keep up with visiting friends. My mother’s coming to town next week. Can you be home then? When will you be home next? I miss you. I love you.]
There is a reply. [I’m sorry, Seah baby, but I have to go to Australia next week. About the sales decline, I’m really sorry about that. I don’t know how to help. As for Rewan, say hi to him for me, when you get the chance. When was the last time you saw him, anyway? Or even played with him? I know parenthood isn’t ideal for us since we both decided to pursue our careers. We knew that when we decided to be married. But since you’re closest to him you should see him every once in a while. As for when I’ll be home, I still don’t know. Maybe I’ll be home by Christmas.]
A thump startles Elise and she frantically closes all the windows with a quick click of her fingertips. She slips out of the office, remembering to leave the door open, as it had been before. Ten seconds later she’s purposefully scrubbing the jet tub with renewed strength. Her eyes burn from resting on the digital screen too long.
When Chelsea returns, Elise has just finished cleaning the house.
The next morning, a Friday, Elise returns to the office, knowing there are three hundred more dollars in Danielle’s bank. It gives her an odd sense of purpose, pitching in to help with their food, clothing, and rent. In some way, she knows that part of their shared apartment is hers.
A few days pass, and Elise has grown to like her work. It doesn’t change the fact that she is outside of her comfort zone, or that housecleaning is grueling, but it makes it more tolerable. She knows why she is doing it, and that is enough to make her love it.
The sun still shines with an increasing fervor, and throughout the day an air conditioner works tirelessly to cool the working minds of all in the office building. Summer brings with it a wild happiness, a crazy ecstasy, but as the months drag on and schedules fill up, smiles fade and excitement wanes. July passes, August reigns. In the building, project managers prepare for a new year, but not new sales. Elise listens to all their conversations while cleaning. It looks like this year will be, hopefully, one of redemption. Fishing their floundering, failing products out of the catalogs and perhaps starting anew. It depends on the budget. Time. Deadlines. Staff. The boss, Chelsea.
Elise dusts the receptionist’s desk, carefully lifting the salt lamp and sweeping a duster underneath it, then replacing it. For weeks, the desk has been empty. Elise remembers back to the time, seemingly so long ago, but only a month before, when she had walked in to an empty desk.
The glass sliding doors open and a woman walks through, hair tied up in a green handkerchief, wearing a baggy T-shirt and worn jeans. Danielle takes her home every Friday, now, to buy groceries for the next week.
“Elise, hon, you ready soon?”
Muffled footsteps behind them cause Danielle to turn. Chelsea’s blonde hair gleams in the afternoon sunshine trickling in from the windows beside them. Her arms are full of bulging binders stamped with a red “classified” on the front, back, and spine.
“Chelsea, it’s so nice to see you! I haven’t seen you at church in so long!”
Chelsea’s mouth gives a brief smile. “Hello, Danielle.” She walks quickly, long strides covering the entire lobby quickly. She disappears into the elevator. Instantly a conversation strikes up behind the closing chrome doors, chatty and cheerful and amiable.
Danielle’s mouth opens, then closes. Elise places her duster in the cleaning caddy and replaces it all in the mop closet. She can sense everything around Chelsea. But only innocence from Danielle.
“Well, let’s go, hon.”
The next week Elise climbs into Chelsea’s car. Off to cleaning her house again. At least, just the bathrooms. And for seventy dollars she will definitely take the deal.
Elise feels like something is off when she climbs into the car. She realizes after they drive over the bridge and reach Chelsea’s neighborhood. The car’s inlays are now plastic, the seat imitation leather. She can tell by the feel of the seat clinging to her skin.
As she climbs out of the car, she notices the silver trim is gone. Her eyes study the emblem. It’s different, including the hood ornament. An entirely separate car.
She steps into the house and Chelsea closes the door behind them. Chelsea disappears into the master bedroom. Well, I definitely won’t start on the master bath, Elise muses dryly. She sets to work on the second-floor bathroom. She’s becoming fast at this work, and soon, in no time, she finishes both the second and main.
She puts the finishing touches on the main, replacing decorations and unwrapping a new bar of soap. She turns around and something catches her eye. On the wall opposite the toilet, a tiny picture frame hangs. Elise scrutinizes it. It’s a small photograph of a family, a blonde-haired woman, hair wild in the breeze, a brown-haired man, arms wrapped around her and a laughing little boy. The picture was taken on a beach not far from where she lives now.
The date, printed neatly in pencil on the bottom, is from four years ago. Elise wonders briefly, When was the last time this family was together like this?
Sensing another human being, Elise feels compelled to turn around. She sees Chelsea’s silk-clad back standing in front of one of the mirrors in the hall. Elise, at an angle, can see the mirror too. In it is a face, one that others might see as accomplished, beautiful, and happy. But Elise knows better. Elise doesn’t think like others. She’s never shared others thoughts; their key, their rhythm, or their timing. Elise stares into the mirror behind Chelsea, looking into Chelsea’s eyes, eyes as fiery green as embers, defiant, clear, cold as an empty sea. Beyond her eyes, though, are something else. Emptiness, loneliness, and fear, vulnerable, wanting. Regretting.
It is far too late.
Elise goes to work at AdamsTech and occasionally Chelsea’s house as a cleaning maid every weekday. She’s found purpose and belonging in her work. She finds herself truly enjoying it, and feeling a sense of pride when she and Danielle upgrade to a better apartment closer to Danielle’s workplace.
Even still, however, she finds herself distracted. She daydreams, unable to keep her mind off of the little boy. While dusting, she thinks over the emails Chelsea sent to that man, her husband. She muses over Chelsea while cleaning bathrooms. How is her family now? What choices have brought her here? Is she happy?
It is mid-August, now. By the time summer ends, the little boy begins school, Halloween and Thanksgiving pass by, and Chelsea’s husband will not yet be home. The little boy will struggle to fit in with his new class, and possibly never will. Day after day he will come home to an empty house. No one to tell him to be strong. No one to talk to, except for Andrew Morley, who is a young person himself, still muddling through life, going through the motions. A babysitter, even a full-time nanny, is a cheap substitute for a father never home. Autumn will come and go; Winter ensue. Wrapped presents will be placed under the tree, and the little boy will climb into bed, tucking himself in, no one to kiss him goodnight. And then, only then, when dawn smiles on Christmas day, will Chelsea’s husband be home.
Likely to be gone the next day.
Elise blinks at the stinging in her nose and eyes and begins dusting again, not realizing she stopped. A stern face urges her on between the potted plants in the backless bookshelf between the two rooms. Chelsea. Elise swipes the soft, fuzzy duster over the surface of the engineering textbooks, which are only there for decoration. Faster, hastily, frantically, she finishes the job. She moves on to the vacuum cleaner, hoping madly it will suck away the memories along with the dirt ingrained in the carpet.
A little girl, ten years ago. A little girl with curly brown hair and short stature, quiet and shy and afraid. Day after torturous day of merciless school, merciless teachers, merciless peers. A father absent so often, a mother there but unable to help. Unwilling to help. Drowning in her selfishness.
It was Danielle who helped her, wasn’t it? When her father had left both herself and her mother in a ratty apartment in the outskirts of the city, Danielle was there. When her mother was dying and trapped in the bonds of her addiction, unable to give the motherly support to her daughter, Danielle was there. When her mother had died and Elise was all alone, Danielle was there. When Elise was reclusive and reticent Danielle was there, spurring her on.
And right now, when Elise is shielding herself, cutting herself off from everyone, refusing to speak, slowly killing her own soul, Danielle is here. Loving her.
Elise switches off the television and slides off the couch. She walks over to the bay window in which their small kitchen table is nestled. She presses her face against the clean, cool glass, looking out into the street. A college student walks by, neatly dressed and holding up his head, walking confidently. Countless cars drive by. A mother counsels her children to look both ways before they cross the road. There’s a world out there, and it may be difficult, but it is wide, and there are innumerable opportunities.
There is so much more to life than this: so much more than huddling up in an apartment, content with a job as a maid, spending a life of solitude. There’s so much more than a life of fear and silence. There’s much more.
She will break the chains, the ones placed on her years ago. She will leave behind all of it. Because she doesn’t have to live like this. Because I can. Because I know I can.
If she has the keys to freedom, why not use them? It is a difficult journey, she knows. A painful road. A new adventure. But I am willing.
Elise feels a smile drifting across her face, the first genuine smile in years, the first real smile for herself. She knows there’s more.
Elise moves away from the window. First one hand and then the other. She walks into the kitchen, heart thudding in her chest. The smell of onions caramelizing in the large cast iron pan over the stove urges a growl from her stomach. Danielle prepares dinner, humming while chopping peppers.
The countertop is still Formica, but unscratched and new. The cabinets are unstained by grease, the apartment free of roaches. Something about being clean is so refreshing.
Elise takes a deep breath. It’s shaky, like her confidence. But she makes her choice.
Danielle, surprised, turns around. “Elise?” She smiles and shakes her head at the floor. “I-I mean, yes?”
Elise feels her breath catching in her throat, the strange vibration of words dancing across her vocal chords. Unused for so long…
“Can I say… thank you?”
Danielle sets down her spatula and looks Elise in the eyes, dumbfounded and speechless. “Y-yes,” she musters.
Elise steps forward and puts her arms around Danielle, awkwardly, but it’s a hug nonetheless. “Thank you,” she whispers quietly.
Silence follows, seasoned by the sound of the sizzling pan and the resounding beat of their hearts. Then it is broken by the quiet crying of Danielle. Elise, abashed, stares downward.
“They’re—-they’re happy tears, Elise,” Danielle chokes, quickly wiping them away. “For so long I wanted the best for you. Sofia always did want it, you know. For you to not be so afraid. I’ve always wanted to hear your voice—-Elise, you don’t know how happy I am.”
Elise smiles and looks back up again. I’ll strive to live. I’ll do this—-for you, Mama. For Danielle. For myself.
It’s a clumsy statement, blurted at an inopportune time, but Elise must say it.
“Danielle—-is it okay if I go back to school? A good school—-if we can afford it.”
Danielle’s face breaks into a smile. “Of course.”
It will take time for Elise to become accustomed to life beyond her comfort zone. But she knows it will be rewarding.
There is always a choice. And I will take this choice.