Clean To The Bone
By: Steve Carr

Plastic bags filled with trash crumpled under Grace's steel–toed boots. Cooked by the summer sun, the stench of rancid meat, soiled diapers, and rotten fruit and vegetables, wafted up in fog–like waves from the mounds of garbage. Large rats scurried among the piles of tin cans and Styrofoam fast– food containers. Grace poked at clothing and cardboard boxes with the cane she had tipped with a six inch nail, turning those things over that she thought might be salvageable or contain something of use. The burlap sack she carried on her back was almost full and weighed heavily on her sweat–soaked back. Nearing the edge of the hills of garbage, she stopped, untied the dirty, red bandanna from around her head, and wiped the sweat from her face. She glanced up at the twilight sky streaked with narrow bands of deep red, as if it had been clawed and bloodied. She re–tied the bandanna around her neck, leaned on the cane, and took one last look around. It was then that she noticed a cardboard box the size of two shoe boxes sticking up between two garbage bags. The lid of the box was sealed with a strip of bright yellow tape.

She lifted the cane to her shoulder and trod through the trash until she was close enough to the box to prod it with her boot. No sound came from inside it, but by the way it moved when pushed, it obviously wasn't empty. She bent down, pulled the box out, placed it on top of a plastic bag, and looked for markings on the box, but found none. When the horn sounded that alerted anyone inside the dump that the gates would be closed in fifteen minutes, she put the box inside the burlap sack and left the dump just as the sky turned black with night.

She quickly walked along the narrow back streets tapping the tip of her cane on the litter–strewn sidewalks, occasionally igniting sparks as the nail struck the concrete. Many of the tenement apartment buildings she passed had been deserted. Where doors and windows weren't covered with sheets of plywood, the dark interiors of the buildings seen through broken glass and open doorways were filled with shadows. A block from where she lived, Prickles, and her fellow The Daggers gang member, Sassy, stepped out from behind a "Lots for Sale" billboard standing in front of one of the buildings.

"Where ya goin', Gracie?" Prickles asked, standing in front of Grace.

Grace eyed the young woman from head to toe. Prickles wore a dark blue leather jacket with the crossed knives insignia of The Daggers gang on its front, tight jeans, and pink sneakers. She had the tattoo of a rattlesnake that wound around her neck.

"I'm going home," Grace said. She attempted to step around Prickles, but was blocked by Sassy.

"You sure are in a hurry," Sassy said. She was dressed just like Prickles, only her clothes seemed too small for her hefty frame.

Grace looked at the hairline scar across Sassy's face. The memory of the girl when she was little and played hopscotch in the school yard flashed through her mind. "Don't you two have anything better to do?" she said, glancing from one to the other.

Prickles walked around her, thumping the burlap sack with her fist. "What would be better than saying hello to my school's old janitor?"

"That was ten years ago, but even then you had a mean streak," Grace said. "You girls should be trying to make something of your lives."

"One day I want to be a garbage–picker just like you," Sassy said. Contemptuously she spat on the ground. "You think you can teach us?"

Prickles stepped to Sassy's side and leaned her elbow on Sassy's shoulder. "We could teach Gracie something, like how to take a bath," she said. She pinched her nose. "You stink, old woman."

Sassy let out a series of rapid–fire chortles. "She ain't all that old," she said. "But you're right. She smells just like the dump."

Prickles leaned forward, putting her face inches from Grace's. "From now on stay off of this street. This street belongs to The Daggers and we don't want you on it. You make it stink even more than it already does. If we catch you on it again, we're going to cut you up. You understand, Gracie?"

Grace locked eyes with Prickles. "Yes, I understand," she said icily.

Prickles and Sassy stepped aside and Grace walked past them. She turned the corner and a half block later entered the alley that led to where she lived. The backsides of the abandoned buildings that lined both sides of the alley cast off sauna–like heat stored up from the midsummer day. She reached the metal folding door to the garage she lived in, looked up and down the alley, and then lifted the door. The creaking of its rusty parts reverberated in the alley. She stepped into the garage, placed the sack on the floor, and then turned on the battery operated camping lantern she kept by the door. She scanned the mounds of dirty clothes, water–damaged books, broken small kitchen appliances, filthy toys, and plastic dishware that lay on the floor, and watched as hordes of mice scattered from sight. She then pulled down the door.

She sat on the Army cot covered with a tattered quilt that she slept on and took off her boots. In her dirty socks she got up and went to the burlap sack, opened it, and took out the sealed box. She placed it on a rickety table and peeled off the tape. Inside were four shampoo bottle–sized tin cans encased in bubble wrap. She lifted out one of the bottles and removed the wrapping. The words "Body Cleanser: A & M Research" was printed on one side of the can in large red letters. There were no other markings on the can.

She turned it over in her hands several times, examining it, and then shook it. The movement inside the can was sluggish. She unscrewed the cap and put her nose to the bottle. There was the slight scent of alcohol and an even fainter aroma of other chemicals Grace couldn't identify, which given her years as a janitor and house cleaner, surprised her. She was about to pour some of the liquid into the palm of her hand when there was a banging on the garage door.

"Grace, if you're in there, you have get out of there by morning." It was Gerald Price, the real estate manager for the several blocks of buildings that were to be razed and the land sold off.

Grace went to the door, and standing next to it, said, "Why?"

"Because I said so," he said. "City inspectors are coming through here tomorrow and I don't want squatters anywhere on these properties."

"I'll stay away during the day and come back tomorrow night," she said.

"No," he shouted. "I want you out. You and your trash is attracting more vermin than live in these buildings already."

"Please, I have nowhere else to go. This is my home," Grace said, pleadingly.

He slammed his fist against the door. "I said get out."

Grace stood at the door for several minutes and not hearing anything more from Gerald, she poured a few drops of the liquid in her hand. It was light green and gelatinous, but expanded once it touched her skin, running over the sides of her hand and through her fingers. Her hand tingled, pleasantly, as if it was being tickled. In moments the liquid evaporated. She stared at her hand. The skin glowed like it had just been scrubbed, with all traces of dirt, and even some of the wrinkles, gone. She tilted her head back, closed her eyes, and poured the liquid on her face. When the tingling stopped, she opened her eyes, walked to the cracked full length mirror leaning in a corner and gazed at her face. It was as clean as if she had stood in a hot shower and scrubbed it with soap, and she looked years younger than her fifty–eight years. She removed her sweatshirt, tossed it aside, and poured the remainder of the contents of the can on the top of her head, letting the liquid cleanse the dirt and oil from her gray hair. When the cleanser evaporated, she ran her fingers through her hair that had turned thicker and silkier. She stared at her reflection in the mirror, marveling at the luster in her hair.

She ran to the box with the cans of cleanser, took out the remaining three cans, unwrapped them, and returned to the mirror carrying the cans in her arms. She set them aside as she removed all of her clothing. To enjoy the sensation that the cleanser afforded her, she slowly poured each can over her body, and giggled as the cleanser removed the sweat, dirt, and wrinkles, before it evaporated. She stood in front of the mirror for several minutes admiring her immaculate skin and youthful new body. Accompanying her new look was a feeling of vitality and strength she hadn't felt in years.

She turned from the mirror and went to a large mound of clothing and dug through it looking for clothes that would pass for being clean. Finding a pair of jeans her size and a hooded gray sweatshirt just a little too large, she put them on, put on her boots, picked up her cane, and left the garage. A full moon had risen in the night sky, illuminating the alleyway, but darkening the shadows in the recesses of the buildings. Once she reached the street she turned the corner and kept close to the front of the tenement buildings, and out of sight, as she made her way to where she was going.

Two blocks later she stopped in front of what had once been a small grocery store. On the plywood covering the door and window was the crossed knives of The Daggers gang. She put her ear to the door and smiled when she heard voices coming from inside the store. She rapped on the plywood with her cane. There was some shuffling about inside, and then the door opened.

Grace stood in the open doorway, tightly holding onto the cane.

Trey Mahorn, the second–in–command of The Daggers glared at her. "Who are you?" he asked with a sneer that displayed his yellow teeth.

"I've come to clean house" Grace said. She then raised her cane and thrust the nail in between his eyes and then pulled it out.

He stood absolutely still for a moment, staring at her, as if he was unaware of what had just happened to him, and then he fell backwards, hitting the floor with a loud thud.

The other three gang members who were present, Prickles, Sassy, and Hoyt, the leader of The Daggers, remained in place for several moments, each with a stunned expression on their face.

"It's that janitor–bitch," Prickles said at last, her surprise registering in the high pitch of her voice.

"I'll take care of her," Sassy said as she pulled her knife from her belt, and charged towards Grace.

Grace stood firm, preparing for the onslaught of the hefty young woman who was coming at her with an expression of rage on her face. As Grace raised her cane, she tried to get the image out of her head of Sassy as the little girl who liked to wear ribbons on her pigtails. As Sassy raised the knife, preparing to stab her, Grace plunged the nail into Sassy's chest. Sassy let out a squeal of pain, stepped back, and dropped the knife. She put her hands over the wound that spurted blood between her fingers and fell on the floor.

Hoyt leapt over Sassy and ran at Grace, knocking her out onto the sidewalk before she had time to react. Her cane fell out of her hands and tumbled into the gutter. He jumped on her, straddling her chest, and put the tip of his knife against her cheek. "I'm going to carve you a new face," he said as made a thin, jagged cut across her cheek.

Prickles came out of the store, her hands covered with Sassy's blood. "Let me do that," she said, her voice a mixture of venom and glee.

As Hoyt got off of Grace, her movement was rapid and her aim precise; she kicked him between the legs with the end of her steel tipped boot. He let out a scream of pain and fell to his knees. She took the knife from his hand, stood up, and locked eyes with Prickles who had hesitated, unable to fathom Grace's agility.

"What happened to you?" Prickles stammered.

"I did just what you always told me to do," Grace said. "I cleaned up."

As if suddenly remembering that she intended to kill Grace, Prickles let out an angry scream, and holding the knife aimed at Grace, ran at her.

Grace stepped aside and sliced the blade of the knife she was holding across the tattoo on Prickles' neck. Prickles dropped her knife and fell on the sidewalk, grasping her neck as blood gushed from her carotid artery.

Grace picked up Prickles' knife and walked over to Hoyt who was on his knees, his hands over his privates, tears from the pain trickling down his face. "Now it's me who's cleaning what's left of the neighborhood," she said. She plunged both knives into his chest. He died instantly, with his eyes open.

Grace retrieved her cane, and suddenly feeling very weak, made her way back to the garage. By the time she got inside she was overcome with exhaustion. She laid down on the cot and fell into a deep sleep.

#

Startled by a nightmare, Grace awoke at pre–dawn. She thought the slime she felt under her body was just an imagined leftover from the nightmare until she ran her hands across her breasts and torso and realized her skin was gone and it was now the bloody pool of epidermis she was lying in. She shrieked and then jumped up from the cot. Her bones felt like they had turned to jello and she collapsed to her knees. In the dim light she saw in the mirror she had also shed her hair, fingernails, and toenails. Her exposed muscles, tendons and cartilage was dark gray. Only the whites of her eyes and her green iris' retained their natural color. Unable to stand, she lay on her stomach and slowly slithered across the floor trying to adjust to the shock of what had happened to her while also learning how her new body worked. Her muscles felt strong but she thought of her bones as being like the science class experiment where chicken bones are soaked in vinegar for several days making them soft and rubbery. When a mouse ran in front of her, she reached out and snatched it, and then put it in her mouth and ate it.

She crawled to the door, pushed it up enough to crawl out beneath it, and slid on her belly to the middle of the alley. In the balmy early morning air she looked in every direction, in search of something, but not certain what. She locked her gaze on a manhole cover sitting halfway over a sewer and then slowly used what little strength she had in her arms to propel herself to it. She peered into the sewer's darkness and inhaled the stench.

She dropped into the sewer and lying in the fetid water, she had one thought. Home at last.

The End

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