“Give that to me, you fucking idiot,” Wahrmer said.
He dropped to his knees and snatched the scrub brush from me. White, foamy suds hopped from the bristles as he pressed down so hard I could hear the plastic scratching against the tile.
“You hear that? That means you’re doing it right.”
He tossed me a raised eyebrow, as if expecting me to signal comprehension of his condescending instruction.
I gave a nod, which was more than he deserved for what he could have conveyed with a simple request. But since I’d arrived at St. Augustine weeks earlier to start my new job, I’d learned that Wahrmer was anything but subtle. He was an asshole. The first thing he’d said to me was, “This is fucked. What kind of useless cursed are you gonna be? And we have to pay you same as the others?”
They didn’t pay me the same. They paid me a lot less. Being a laborer with one hand is about as useful as being a sperm donor with one nut.
Regardless of my rate, Wahrmer was a fucking ass for making such a fuss, especially in front of the other staff. But people like Wahrmer didn’t consider my kind to be people. We weren’t just lower than people. We were a threat to them. We were a disease that should have been extinct but had to be tolerated. So he could go on being as much of an asshole as he wanted, and I just had to take it.
I was a cursed.
When I was eight, my dad was possessed by a demon. Demons were a disease. The darkness, as we sometimes called them. That’s how they came—in billows of black smoke. They were ethereal creatures who hunted for hosts so they could unleash their terror on helpless victims. Pain fed them. Misery brought them delight. They possessed people’s minds, took over their bodies, and forced them to commit heinous atrocities against others.
Like my dad did to my family.
Those who fell under the control of a demon were called infected. Sometimes, when an infected attacked someone, the demon left behind a mark—a spider web patch of purple and blue veins. It could show up on any part of the body. Be any size. Mine was on my shoulder.
Those who had this mark were called “cursed.” The United Cursed and Infected Security (UCIS), the organization responsible for handling cursed and infected regulations, said the mark was like a dog pissing on a tree. Marking its territory. Only dogs mark shit to keep other dogs away. Demons marked humans to signal to other demons that the marked were ideal candidates for infection. These marks also acted as an easy gateway for other demons to enter through, essentially priming us for infection. This made us incredibly appealing targets for demons and incredibly dangerous to the rest of the population.
To decrease our chances of becoming infected, we were forced to register and handed over to the state to work as slaves. That’s not what the UCIS said they were doing. It sounded far more noble when it came from one of their spokespersons. They were just keeping an eye on us. For our own good. For society’s good. By monitoring us, our odds of becoming infected significantly decreased. Demons liked to choose easy hosts they could inflict the most damage upon, but because we were monitored, despite our vulnerability, we became less desirable targets for them—presumably because they knew that the moment they infected us, we’d be reported and dealt with. That’s right. Bad as I had it as a cursed, at least I got to live. All discovered infecteds were put to death.
This approach was how the Assembly, a government-appointed committee in charge of minimizing the demon threat, had ridded the US of the surge of the nineties, when my dad was infected. Since their regulations and the imposed segregation, there had been far fewer infections. This was used to justify continued oppression of my kind.
I’d been working in schools since I’d been booted from the system to ensure I didn’t pollute the rest of society. I wasn’t sure how we offered less of a threat cleaning the schools than we would have if we were sitting in the classes with the other guys, but I always figured it had more to do with controlling us than weeding us from the rest of the population.
Wahrmer handed me the scrub brush, eyeing the sewn-up end of my long-sleeved shirt. I’d learned to sew for just that purpose. I couldn’t sew much else to save my life, but I could, fairly easily, sew the end of a sleeve. No one wanted to see that stump. No one wanted to know how disfigured my body was. Not even me.
As Wahrmer eyed it, I wondered if he was feeling bad for me or just pissed that I wasn’t able to be a better worker because of my handicap. Regardless, I didn’t like him hovering around my work, assessing it, scrutinizing it. I was a good worker. I’d been doing it long enough and employed by enough different people to know that. No good could come from this kind of scrutiny. Even if I was doing everything right, it was easy to find fault—to question a moment spent too long on one spot, to notice a tiny speck that was somehow missed, to judge a sigh that seemed to be disapproval for the work itself. He just needed to get the fuck out of here before he pissed me off. Last thing I needed was a write-up.
I continued scrubbing, acting as if he wasn’t there. It was the only way to get through these sorts of inspections.
Wahrmer prided himself in ensuring that his staff was fully prepped to tend to all the prissy boys who were carted off to this prestigious Catholic academy, St. Augustine. I wasn’t sure if Wahrmer’s salary depended upon performance, or if he just enjoyed being the head of the bottom tier of the school… and of humanity. I assumed it was the latter. After all, when you were as low in the pecking order as a guy like Wahrmer, it must’ve been nice to know there was still someone even lower.
He hunched over me, his thick, chubby arms looking sleek in the oversized navy custodian polo he’d tucked in, accentuating his bloated, taut belly.
Just keep scrubbing.
Eventually, he abandoned my post. Probably went to check on some other staff member, who he’d likely harass as much—if not more—than he had me.
My arm was starting to get sore. Not because the work was particularly difficult, but because when I was being inspected by Wahrmer, I had to work twenty times harder than any normal person. There was a tendency for employers to think that handicapped guys like me were incapable of performing as well as the others. Hence, the pay dock. I had to prove them wrong.
My sore arm was a good excuse for a rest. I hopped up and headed to the faucet. Setting the scrub brush on the counter, I ran my arm through warm water. The heat soothed the burn beneath my flesh.
My eye fixed on the running water to prevent an accidental glance in the mirror before me. I didn’t want to see it. I never wanted to see it. For the most part, any notice of my reflection was an accident. An occupational hazard.
It wasn’t just about seeing the flesh-colored patch that covered my gnarly eye. Or the sewn-up sleeve. I didn’t want to look at them, of course. They were disgusting reminders of how misshapen and undesirable I was. But the missing eye and hand evoked something far worse than extreme dissatisfaction with my hideous appearance. They evoked cruel, horrifying memories. Memories of what my dad had done.
I could never really avoid that reflection. Even as my eye looked elsewhere, my thoughts dwelt on the moments when I had to look at my reflection… or when I inadvertently caught a glimpse of myself. That dark wave of hair, glistening with silver strands. The lonely brown eye, resting in a gray half-moon that suggested how tired and worn I always felt. Pronounced brown scars where the other eye had been. White flesh that I could only compare to a familiar shade I saw when I had the opportunity to beat out some stress. A cross wrapped in a purple ribbon, the regulation tattoo, etched along my jugular to broadcast my cursed status to the world.
Those images, vividly frozen in my memory, stirred the unsettled darkness, nudging my eye toward the glass. They called to me, bidding me to pay it a visit.
As I became increasingly aware of my ignored reflection, I shut off the water. I walked over to my cart—a bulky assortment of bottles, rags, scrub brushes. There had to be enough cleaning supplies to last most households a few years. I slid a dry rag out of a plastic bin on the bottom shelf, wedged between a few rolls of paper towels and toilet paper. Passing back across the bathroom, I slid my hand under the automatic dryers.
My flesh became waves and ripples. I stared at the spectacle, letting it soothe my thoughts. It was a habit I’d gotten into. I’d never had automatic dryers at any of the other schools I’d worked at, so it was a bit of a novelty. I had to keep my one eye on the door to make sure Wahrmer didn’t burst in and catch my moment of paradise. The rag was my cover. If he did come in, I would just act like I was scrubbing the dryer down, and it would seem as if I’d set it off by mistake. Over my many years of working under similar dictators, I’d picked up a few tricks to cover my slacking.
I slid the sore part of my forearm under the heat. It was like wrapping it in a warm washcloth. Rearing my head back, I sighed.
It was a silly thing, but as I felt that rush across my flesh, as I became enchanted by the movement of my skin, for just a moment, I transported from where I was to a quieter place.