I’ve avoided showering by using the sonic cleaners, but after this long, even I can’t stand myself. The sonics do a good enough job, but there’s still nothing like plain, old-fashioned water for cleansing, for washing away life’s detritus. My skin is dry and flaking. I’ve taken to wearing a wig to hide my greasy hair. And let’s face it, I stink.
No one’s been rude — or is it brave? — enough to say anything yet, but I’ve noticed the sideways glances and the wrinkled noses.
So here I am, ready to face my personal shower demons, come hell or high water — pun intended. My wig gets thrown in the locker with my clothes. The bathrobe is soft-syn, moisture wicking, light as air. The hallway to the showering chambers looks at least fifteen meters long. My paper sandals slap the flooring, echoing like a prisoner’s last walk.
I can do this. No biggie, Irene. Just a shower. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.
The attendant doesn’t look up from the computer screen, just holds her hand out for my ID tag. She gives it a quick swipe, rubs a finger against her lips while waiting for the stats to pop up. “Wow! You’ve banked eleven minutes of water?” She gazes off for a second, clearly imagining herself in a long, luxurious shower. Her expression turns regretful. “I can’t let you have that much all at once,” she says with a sad little shake of her head.
“Five minutes.” She taps the numbers into the terminal, scans my tag again. “Enjoy.”
“I, um, don’t think I need that long.”
She cocks her head to study me. Clearly I’m some sort of idiot. Polaris is still in terraforming stage, and water is a precious commodity. Normal shower time is only a minute every other day. Her nose wrinkles as she gets a whiff of my aroma. She frowns. Glances back down at her screen. Her eyes widen and I see that she’s finally recognized my name. “Whatever you don’t use will be banked,” she says, keeping her gaze locked firmly on her screen.
I remember Dr. Anderson’s mantra. Shame can’t be caught or communicated by looking someone in the eye. Clearly, this gal thinks otherwise. Can’t say that I blame her.
I head for the showers, my feet dragging. The door to the cubicle slides open. The plasteel walls are sterile white. Empty, like me. The large round shower head drops down from the ceiling as its sensors scan my entry.
I start shivering and turn to leave, but then I catch a wave of my own stench. “It’s only a silly shower!” My voice cracks the quiet; threatens to crack my icy façade. I’ve worn the ice like armor for three months now, kept it tight around me, as if it was all that was holding me together. It keeps me from thinking. Keeps me from feeling. Keeps me from remembering.
I let the bathrobe drop to the floor. I stand there, naked, and it all drops away. Shivering, I can’t bring myself to move. I stare at the button that will open the door and release me from this hell. Dr. Anderson told me to breathe deep and slow if this happened. To remember that I can’t keep locking the memories away like a dirty little secret. “It wasn’t,” I whisper on an inhale, “my fault.” Long exhale. Again. And again.
I know the truth. I was the team leader. I should have overruled Kayla and Nate. I should have made them pack up the dredger and get us the hell back to base before the storm hit. So what if we hadn’t made our monthly quota of ore yet? Sure, Kayla and Nate would have missed their little getaway when we had to go back out to finish. At least it wouldn’t have been permanent.
I sink to the floor, pound my fists on my thighs. “It was my fault,” I whisper.
The storm wasn’t your fault, Dr. Anderson’s voice replies. We’ve had this conversation so many times, her responses have programmed themselves into my mind.
“It was my fault we didn’t leave sooner.”
Your only fault was letting your subordinates have a say in your decision. Some people call that democracy.
“A team leader should be a dictator.”
You came back through storms before, didn’t you?
You couldn’t foresee the rain being so heavy it knocked out the shuttle’s sensors.
This was the point in our conversations where I always retreat into my silence, wrapping the ice around me.
Except the silence is choking me. The ice won’t bring them back. Nothing can un-make that day.
I turn the shower on, watching the water fall from the ceiling in a steady stream, mimicking rain, but reminding me only of tears. Tears I haven’t been able to cry. I lie on the floor in a fetal position, remembering.
I lay in the shuttle wreckage in a fetal position. The rain battered and banged on the exterior, seeping in through the cracked viewscreen, puddling underneath me. “Kayla? Nate?”
The silence was heavy and deadly. I crawled to the transmitter, the rain pouring through a hole above me, clogging my eyes, my nose, with its fury. I called for help. But there was no help for Nate or Kayla.
By the time rescue arrived, the shuttle was near flooded. I came close to drowning, close to letting go and joining my team. The official report laid the blame on a faulty sensor. That, and a storm that the weather gear had not predicted to be so fierce.
Maybe someday, I’ll come to believe it.
I crawl under the shower. Water sluices through my hair and down my face. Streams into my eyes, my nose.
It’s like drowning.
My tears mingles with the water, slicking down my face, and flow down the drain.
Pam L. Wallace lives in California. Her stories have appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and Shock Totem. This is her third story published by Every Day Fiction.
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