This morning, I got a letter which said I was too far behind on my payments, and that I had been enlisted for a Scrub.
I lost my job a month ago. I’d pumped the last of my savings into making my payments, but when I couldn’t find work and my money ran out, I got the letter. The letter was typed on a single sheet of thick expensive looking paper with a seal embossed at the bottom. I held it up to the light and saw the watermark running under the text.
I sit in the kitchen and read the whole thing through twice before the words started to come together and make sense; missed payments, premiums, deductions, debt, unfortunate circumstances, contract, solution. These words jumped out as if emboldened; it was the final one that set my teeth on edge and my heart racing loudly in my ears. It suddenly seemed as if the light shifted as I read each individual letter- “Scrub.”
How could five letters fill me with such dread?
I had managed to avoid it for twenty five years. But somehow, now, I had been commissioned. The solution to my debt problems was in a case that was currently being prepared for shipping.
I call the number at the bottom of the letter and speak as calmly as I can manage as I relay what I want, to at least ten automated menus, each one seemingly designed to make me as irritated as possible. The system designed so that when I finally get to speak to someone, they would have no recourse other than to terminate the call because of my poor attitude.
When I am finally put through to a real person I try to explain in a quavering voice that it’s not in my constitution to do a Scrub, that I am a good person. The calm, friendly voice at the other end of the line tells me in their most customer friendly and scripted, I am pretending to empathise with you voice, that since I don’t have a job or any savings left, that there are only two options left. Scrub or be Scrubbed, as per the conditions of the agreement I signed up to. I explain that I think I might be pregnant, but it falls on deaf, but friendly ears.
I beg, then I cry. Finally, I tell the voice that if I am assigned to be Scrubbed, I wouldn’t last ten minutes and that the person doing the Scrub would have that on their conscience for the rest of their lives. We talk in circles, following the same pattern until I am worn out and just hang up, defeated.
A few minutes later my phone buzzes to notify me that I have received an encrypted email. I have to verify who I am by the retinal sensor on my handset. The email is tracking information for my hardware. Once it arrives, I have forty eight hours to complete my contract.
At the bottom of the email is a tick box that says I agree to the terms and conditions of the scrub, but nowhere does it actually lay out the terms and conditions of this process. There is a number to call, so I can once again navigate the rough sea of automated services with white knuckled rage again should I wish.
I am nearly out of food. The fridge is empty except for the smell of ozone and a few leaves of salad frozen to the back wall. My cupboards contain dry pasta and a couple sachets of soup in a flavour I dislike.
I call a friend from my old job and they ask how I’ve been. I want to tell them what has happened, what I am now contractually obligated to do. But if I do, I invalidate my terms and conditions and I go into the roll of names to be scrubbed. So instead, I cry down the phone to them and after a few minutes of incomprehensible sobbing they awkwardly hang up.
I can’t stand the thought of seeing the news or watching anymore real time reality shows. So, I go upstairs and pretend to read a book; each word blurs into a meaningless river of black text amongst a sea of off-white. The book is old, a gift of loosely held, yellowing pages from my mother a long time ago. I guess I could sell it, but it’s not worth much.
I drink myself into a stupor and I drift in and out of a sleep that is filled with bad dreams. I am hiding in my house and the house is slowly shrinking, constricting around me, like the coils of a vast snake. Long enough for me to realise the inevitability of the process, but fast enough to catch me before I can escape.
I’m not dumb. I get the metaphor my brain is rudely hitting me with.
When I wake up I find that the contract has been accepted and that I am absolved of guilt for doing this by virtue of not being able to remember the act.
There is a knock at my door and when I an open the door, an official looking person smiles at me grimly and takes my fingerprints. He hands me an innocuous looking package and leaves. My phone makes a cheerful sound as I receive a message telling me that I now have forty eight hours to make good on my agreement. I apologise out of habit and shut the door.
I can’t bear the idea of unwrapping the box, rifling through pink polystyrene peanuts and finding a face, a folder and a gun. I sit and stare at it on my kitchen counter top, sending its oily shadow across the fake marble, like it’s leaking. I can feel the weight of each accumulated moment slowly building, as what little time I have winds down.
I start to try and make myself hate them, the person in the folder. It’s their fault they put themselves in this position. They deserve it. They must deserve it. Probably some rapist in a state that has run out of room for rapists in their prisons. Definitely a womaniser, maybe someone like my dad.
Spurred on by the mounting pressure of each passing second bringing with it the weight of the last, I cave and slit the box open with a kitchen knife. I hesitate for a second and then I reach into the pink guts of the box. I feel something inside me let go and I watch myself from outside of my body as I reach in and pull out the folder.
It’s a manila folder with Confidential stamped across the cover in scarlet ink. It’s not very thick; I guess it will just have their address and some basic background information on the person to be scrubbed.
My heart is hammering in my chest as I flip the first page of the folder and see you there.
I sigh. I can’t hate you.
The photograph is a standard face shot, you are squinting a little from the flash, which has forced your thick, brown eyebrows together – not enough for them to meet, but enough to make you look slightly sad. You have deep hazel coloured eyes, and dark hair that is at the point of starting to turn grey. You are clean shaven, have a prominent chin, almost too much chin, but I can’t hate you for having a strong jawline. I can see the top of the charcoal suit and a tie, which is the sort of pale blue that makes you think of glaciers, or a winter morning.
Your lips have a sad downturn like you knew that you would meet me someday and I would be the bearer of your bad news and a bullet.
I turn the page, and there is another photo of you. You look tall in this one; I don’t think you knew you are being photographed because you are pulling a slightly goofy face, but there is a hint of smile. I get to know you for the next hour or so.
You are a whole country away, hundreds of miles east. A one-way bus ticket is tucked into the manilla folder, along with a small envelope which holds some crisp bank notes; for misc. expenses, the enclosed piece of paper explains. It’s not a lot, but it’s more money than I’ve seen in two weeks.
I look into the box and pushed tight between two pieces of tightly moulded foam is a small black gun, the magazine and three bullets.
I take them out and turn the box upside down on the counter top, a small manual for the gun rides a pale pink wave of polystyrene out into the cool counter top.
I read through it with one hand holding the gun in the other. When I pick it up, (deceptively weighty) the firing mechanism unlocks. The manual tells me that the gun has been biometrically locked for my use only. It goes on to say that clause 127 of the contract I signed states clearly that, the signatory cannot provide pecuniary recompense for, or request assistance from any other party in the completion of the Scrub. Contravention of any of the clauses in the contract could result in the invalidation and termination of the contract and the application of penalties.
I follow the instructions in the manual and gingerly press the bullets into the magazine and slide it into the bottom of the gun. I push the firing mode into safety and I put the thing down. Holding it makes my skin tingle and my hands sweat.
I look at the clock. I exist now in the purgatorial state of waiting, until I can climb aboard the bus with the deadly contents of the box stuffed inside a cheap backpack.
Will you know that I am coming for you? That a pale, twenty five year old woman with unkempt hair, bags under her eyes, and debts she can no longer pay off, is coming to shoot you in front of your family. Will you see it in my eyes before I pull the gun on you? Will you run?
I put the gun (now loaded) back in its case, and stuff it, along with the folder, cash, and some spare clothes into my backpack. I leave the apartment with my backpack hanging from a single shoulder and walk towards the pale sun, and out of my neighbourhood towards the bus station. It’s cold and my breath trails behind me like gun smoke.
I leave the house with my backpack hanging from a single shoulder and walk towards the pale sun and out of my neighbourhood towards the bus station. It’s cold and my breath trails behind me like gun smoke.
At the bus station I buy a weak coffee at a stand manned by a rotund Italian man and wait on the bus as it slowly fills with people. When it finally moves off, we crawl through the city exchanging passengers, young for old, black for white, male for female.
The dense flow of traffic eases off as we roll through the suburbs past neat rows of houses with their well kept lawns and children running for the school bus with heavy bags slung across their backs.
Cars pass; people going to work to pay their bills, so they don’t have to do this. It’s strangely nice to have a purpose for being awake at this time instead of just stress and insomnia. I feel like I am existing purely in the moment; it doesn’t matter about bills or routine, or any of that stuff.
The coffee is only half full and cold. I balance it on my legs as I pull the folder out of my bag. The man next to me closes his eyes and pretends to be asleep.
I angle myself so that no-one can read the file and I flip through the pages again. I say your name in my head over and over again. In my mind, I play out the scene of where we meet and how it will go down; I will walk up to you and you will sneer at me. I will pull the gun out, push it up into your ribs. I’ll pull the trigger and you will die. I will leave the weapon at the scene so the police will know it’s a legitimate scrub and I will be debt free for twelve months. In my mind, I am sure I will do it.
I trace a finger around your features; eyes that have never met mine. Are you a better person than me? Do you deserve to live more than me? It doesn’t matter, because I want to live and I can’t run. You don’t look poor in this picture, but maybe your circumstances have changed. How much money do you owe?
I imagine another scene, where you answer your door and smile at me, and we sit in your kitchen and talk. The whole thing is just a big misunderstanding. See, you recently split up with your wife, (who cheated on you for some unfathomable reason.) You haven’t been in town long; maybe some of the bills got sent to the old address, and you didn’t get the messages because you got a new phone too. So I ring up the company and they tell me to stand down. They say that money that you just put into the account has cleared and that means that I don’t have to go through with it. I apologise to you, and you tell me that it’s okay because these things happen and maybe if I let you put my number into your phone, we could meet up under better circumstance and get a drink or something?
The bus judders to a stop and my coffee falls on the floor and a dirty brown wave washes under the seats the seats in front. I quickly back-heel the empty cup under the chair and carry on reading as passengers look around for the culprit. The morning cold has turned into staccato threads of rain now and it taps at the glass drawing my eye to the city’s disjointed and jagged skyline, where I see distant curtains of rain touching down.
It’s going to be a long bus journey. I try and get some sleep, but I dream of the coils again, trapping me and crushing me. So instead I stay awake, through the morning and afternoon; the bus, in turns weaving through cities and suburbs and highways, that stretch long, and flat, and grey. Evening comes and pale violet creeps across the horizon. When the passenger lights go out, my eyelids finally feel heavy enough to sleep, but it’s too late. Like so many other things.
My stop comes as we roll into an quiet town. I jam the folder into my pack and leave the bus. It’s still raining lightly. I hurry into the shelter offered by a squat, brown office block, and consider my options. I could just go and see you now. I know where you are. I know your schedule. I know you’ll be at home. I could just go and get it over with.
I see a few bric-a-brac stores, a discount clothing store and a small diner across the road, Shelly’s Place the bright sign buzzing outside says. I count out some change in my hand and I’ve got enough for another coffee and some food. I’ve got a headache now and it pounds against the inside of my eyes, and makes me grind my teeth
I walk over and take a quick look inside through the window at the half empty place. There’s a man reading a book and staring out the window. He looks at me briefly and then goes back to his novel.
The bell above the door jingles as I walk in and the man reading the book looks up at me with wide eyes.
I slide into the window seat behind an old couple, and look out as the occasional car sloshes past in the rain.
The place is alive with voices, laughter, and the endless sounds of cooking; plates being stacked or collected, hissing bacon, and the steam from the coffee machine making the air near the ceiling thick with fog. The smells sets my stomach off and soon my mouth is watering. I crave the entire menu, bacon and pancakes and whatever else is on the damn laminated thing.
The old man laughs and stretches a liver spotted hand across the table, and squeezes the old lady’s. She is not wearing a wedding ring. Perhaps this is a geriatric tryst. I smile at the idea.
A woman, presumably Shelly, approaches me with an electronic pad in hand.
“And what can I get you today, miss?” She smiles, but behind the bad veneer, I can see that she hates me. The lips curl upwards revealing lipstick on her nicotine-yellow incisors, in a shade similar to blood. Her crow’s feet tells me of impatience and years of bitchy looks cast from across a room.
I order a coffee and a stack of pancakes with bacon and she disappears, leaving me to stare out of the misted window. I fan away condensation with the palm of my hand so I can see outside. The rain has mostly stopped, but far away I spy the driftwood-grey shapes of pregnant clouds coming this way.
I feel sick at the thought of what is coming, but when my food comes I vacuum it down with a speed I didn’t think I was capable of.
My food comes, and for a blissful few minutes, satisfying my hunger is all that matters. The food doesn’t last as long as I want it to. I clean the plate, and settle back in my seat with a heavy sigh.
I close my eyes and concentrate on the warmth of the cup pressed into my palms; these are my favourite moments, sated and alone in a place filled with people. My thoughts are gone for a few moments.
The mood is broken by the door opening, the jangle of the bell above it, and the sudden rush of frigid, foreign air. It’s closely followed by the screaming of a baby, and the fussing of its parents.
Do you have kids? God, I hope you don’t. I try to memorise your features, so I don’t have to give the game away too soon by referring to a picture of you before I shoot you. The kind eyes and easy brow. Laughter, but also sadness there. I try and lock the image of you in my minds eye. Will you open the door for me or will it be someone else? Will I have to ask for you by name?
I think I will recognise your face. I think I do recognise your face in a different context. Who are you to me, and I to you? Soon to be knitted together in violent cause and effect, like a double helix. So many subtle confluences of events and circumstances dancing in the ether waiting to be tied to an inevitable outcome.
I wrack my brain trying to think of it, have we slept together? No. Definitely not, I would remember that. Go to school together? No, I am pretty sure of that. Maybe we met some time in the past, maybe I served you, and maybe you were rude to me in a line somewhere. Maybe, I’ll just try and cling on to that.
The coffee tastes burnt and the child doesn’t stop screaming. I decide that being cold and wet outside is better situation than warm and annoyed.
I pull my rain-damp coat back on. Water runs down the back of my neck and I shudder. I shoulder my bag, and leave what amounts to the last of my money on the table.
The air is freezing and it sharpens me up again. The pain in my head has eased a little. It’s mid-day; I really need to get a move on. I thread my other arm through the strap and pull them both tighter; this is my serious walking set up.
It takes me about forty minutes, and I am on your street. Do you know about me? I can turn around and run if I wanted to, but then I would be in your position.
Another thirty seconds and I am at your house. I tell myself that this isn’t actually going to happen.
Five seconds and I am at your door.
I place the backpack on the floor between my feet and retrieve the pistol. I hold the deadly thing in my sweaty grip, the trigger engages with a small, cheerful beep. I press your doorbell.
Noises in your house, your wife? Your cleaner? You? Are you a kind or a good man or are you a bad man? I guess it doesn’t matter.
I level the gun to about your stomach height. You are going to be my first and I wonder who I will be afterwards.
I could turn away now, but I just let the moment play out until I know it is too late. I have no choice.
There is movement behind the frosted strips of glass.
I clear my throat and remember to smile.