Apples and Regret and Wasted Time

The city is damp tonight.

I move quietly through the side streets, keeping out of sight. I lean against the brick walls and brace my hand on sticky metal bins when I feel my balance falter. My temple hurts where someone landed a punch. Blood is slowly spreading through the fabric of my shirt on my left side. Too slowly to be dangerous, I think.

I was too careless tonight. Distracted. I shouldn't have accepted this job.

Being back in the city is messing with my head.

I remember the road clearly, and it doesn't take long to reach the building. The house seems to be waiting for me—red tiles and dirty once-white plaster—squatting low and quiet in the night. I approach it from the back, where the drain pipes are, where there's no lamplights. It's easy, hauling myself up the wall and climbing in through the window. I pause, crouched on the windowsill, listening. He's not at home. I wonder if he leaves it half-open for the same reason he did years ago. I wonder if he still expects me to come back one night. I would have called him a fool for it, the usual soft-hearted wimp. Except... here I am. The soft-hearted wimp has a point.

I tiptoe through the cold living room, barely sparing a glance. Still a mess. Still no pictures.

I slip out of my ruined clothes and let them fall in a heavy, soggy heap on the bathroom floor. Mud and blood stain the white tiles, begin to seep in the stupid blue rug. I don't wonder whether he will mind. I'm quite sure he will.

The wound on my side is little more than a long scratch. It will stop bleeding soon. I press my fingertips to it, follow its path from above my hipbone to just below my ribcage. I was distracted, yes, but my reflexes didn't disappoint. Still, I can hardly believe I let one of them land such a close hit.

I check my face in the mirror. There is blood encrusting my eyebrow, where the skin split open. It dried in a trail down my cheek. The side of my jaw is darkening already; that will hurt tomorrow. My hair is plastered with mud. I grimace as I rip off the strap and try to untangle the soiled locks, feeling them fall damp and sticky all over my back.

The tub is surrounded by a ridiculous plastic curtain with ducks and palm trees, way too transparent. I was half-hoping he might have gotten a real shower at some point, but I guess I can't afford to be choosy. I turn the handle and wait for the water to warm up.

I press my hand to the left side of my chest. Under the taut muscle, I can feel my heart beating at an almost normal rhythm, working through the last traces of adrenalin.

When I step under the hot spray, it's the closest to bliss I've been in a long time. My strained muscles relax; the aches from the recent fight seem to fade, attenuated by the warmth. I rake my fingers through my hair, combing it back, pressing down on my scalp. I work through the tangles, feeling the hot water wash away mud and sweat. I have no qualms about stealing his shampoo. I take my time, lathering and rinsing, until my hair falls down my back in a heavy, drenched—but clean—black curtain.

The city is messing with my head. That's the only possible explanation of why I don't hear the key in the main door, the click of the lock. I don't even hear the footsteps until the shower curtain is pushed to the side and cool air is wafting over my wet skin, making me shiver.

As I turn my head and find him staring at me, I vaguely consider I should have just rinsed instead of rinsing and repeating.