If you thought your job was tough...
12 Cent Smear
“Stupid stain,” Ana hissed, working up another layer of suds. The brush’s smooth wooden handle ground against her palm as she pushed into the floor with increased ferocity.
The stick-it note on the wall above her glared down mockingly with the words, ‘Kindly remove this last stain. Then enjoy your night off.’ It flapped gently in the air-conditioned breeze, as if it had nothing better to do with its time but watch her tireless labor.
“How did this even get here?” Ana muttered, hosing down the crimson mark with a bottle of dish soap. She glanced around the room, hunting for facts to fuel her ire. “There are no windows or paintings in this corner, absolutely no reason why someone would be passing by here in the first place with food in hand. This is a studio, not a dining room.”
Still, an ocean of suds and a quick rinse later revealed no change in the dark red mark on the hardwood floor.
Ana sighed in fatigue, then stood up, hands clutching her lower back. In all her years at the cleaning agency, she’d never met a stain like this.
She stepped aside and examined it in the studio’s pale yellow light. If anything, the mark looked more vibrant after her aggressive assault. Fresh. Slick. How was that even possible?
“Need some help?”
Ana jumped and spun, muffling a yelp of surprise as her right hand leapt over her mouth. Her left hand pulled free her bottle of disinfectant, pointing it instinctively.
A man hovered by the open door. He held his hands up in a defensive posture, shoulders relaxed. Dark stains covered his overalls, but the glare of the studio lights, centered on Ana’s position, kept his face from view.
“Um, I surrender,” He said, biting back a laugh. “Please, whatever you do, don’t clean me to death. I’m Derek, by the way.”
Ana felt her cheeks warm with shame at her response, she pocketed the bottle. “I’m sorry,” She apologized,
“It’s been a long day and this is my last job. I’m Ana. You work for the Maestro too?”
“Don’t we all?” Derek said, still chuckling. He stepped close enough for her to make out a mechanic’s tunic and a few tools still lingering in his pockets. Something bulbous protruded from his brow, like one of those flashlights you strapped to your head. But he stood with his face just outside the light’s reach. “You sure it’s one you want to finish? I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you finished it tomorrow.”
“I like to see things through to the end,” Ana explained, patting her well-stocked apron.
“I’m serious,” Derek insisted sincerely. “You look tired. Go home.”
“That’s not what they pay me for.” Ana replied, matter-of-factly.
“Sometimes, I don’t think people pay enough for the jobs they want done,” Derek grumbled, scratching the back of his head. “Like fifteen dollars an hour to remove that mark on the floor.”
“It’s better than no pay at all.” Ana countered. “My kids have to eat.”
Derek sighed, folding his arms. “Well, I wish you’d have taken my advice. This isn’t a fifteen dollar an hour job, in my opinion.”
Ana shrugged, “I’ll take what I can get.”
“Yes, the Maestro does prefer women with dedication. It makes for a better show. I’m sure he’ll make some restitution to your children as well. He’s not completely heartless.”
“What?” Ana said, pursing her lips nervously. Something didn’t feel right, but she couldn’t discern any concrete reasons for her unease. “What do you mean?”
“The smear,” Derek said, pointing at the floor behind her and then at the desk beneath the lamp. He ducked under the light and pulled open the door, revealing the polished shine of a new camera’s lens. “The Maestro likes to watch maids try and get that stain out. He’s trying to catch something on film he’s never seen before.”
“Like one of those reality shows?” Ana asked, drying her hands with a towel. She sniffed and winced at the sudden scent of something foul. “Let me guess, you can’t get that mess up, can you? It’s a trick."
“You could say that,” Derek said. “Once you get the stain freshened up, the Maestro knows I’ll come. It’s my stain, after all. It’s all that’s left of me. I can’t let it disappear. Maestro’s tried to catch me on tape for a while now, but it never works.”
“Catch you on tape?” A single realization connected the facts together in her conscious mind, but the conclusion wasn’t quite—real. “W-where?”
“Yes?” Derek said, standing alongside the lamp now. Direct light soaked his overalls. The dark colors covering those threads weren’t black, they were dark brown, almost—crimson.
“W-where’s your shadow?” Ana squeaked.
Derek stepped forwards. The wooden handle of a hunting knife protruded from his head. Reaching up, he pulled it free with a sickening squish. The studio light passed through him, illuminating the stains covering his overalls and hands. Crimson.
“Maestro can’t understand why I don’t show up on film.” Derek admitted, his grip on the knife tightening. “I don’t know either. All I know is, I have to keep my blood fresh. It’s all that’s left of me.”
Words left Anna as she backed up, her sneakers slipping on the suds beneath her. She fell back, her head thumping hard against the rough plaster of the drywall. Derek advanced.
She fumbled with trembling hands, trying to separate reality from fiction. Pain and flecks of dry wall coated her skull, bogging down her faculties with useless information.
Derek stood over her, knife raised. He smelled like decaying meat mixed with sewage. “Like I said, fifteen dollars an hour isn’t enough. This will only take thirty seconds. Think of it. In the Maestro’s eyes, you’re only worth about twelve cents. At least in mine, you’re part of my art. After all, until the next one comes, you’ll be the one keeping my stain fresh.”
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