“One. Two. Three. Four. Five.”
Annie’s fingers circled her soapy head over and over. She counted and whispered the numbers quietly, the hot shower water running down her back. She had to make sure she did it correctly.
“Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.”
She closed her eyes. She had to rub shampoo in her hair in that spot exactly twenty-six times. Twenty-six. If she moved her hands or paused, she would have to start all over, and she still had to shampoo the rest of her head and brush her hair and her teeth and make herself breakfast (a yogurt that had to be eaten in exactly eleven spoonfuls and two pieces of bread toasted to perfection and a small glass of orange juice, no pulp, placed on the breakfast table with a clean cloth napkin, and arranged with the yogurt on the right, the toast on a plate in the center, the orange juice behind the plate) and put on her clothes she had picked out last night in the order that she always did it in. And then she would be late, and Chris would be mad because he would be late too (he had to drive her now since they had sold the Civic last month and she couldn’t drive herself.).
“Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen.”
Chris knew how particular she was. He knew that she couldn’t function if she didn’t wake up at exactly 6:22 a.m. during the week, 9:45 on the weekends. He knew that she always had to double- and triple-check that the door was locked, and that before bed if she didn’t set her alarm, then brush her teeth, then take her medication, then turn off the light, then get under the covers, in exactly that order, she had to start over and do it all again.
“Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen.”
Recently, he’d been getting frustrated with her. He would get mad when she would take so long when opening a door, because she had to place each one of her fingers, one by one on the doorknob before turning it. He would sigh in exasperation when she took too long brushing her teeth in the morning (brushing each part of her mouth carefully for twelve seconds, and then placing her toothbrush just so next to her toothpaste and floss), and yelling at her when she took longer to come to bed because she had to double and triple check she locked the door at night. She didn’t understand why he was so angry, and it frightened her.
Something had changed. He used to admire her for her precision, for her tidiness. He loved her for it. While she was getting ready in the morning, he would come up behind her while she was brushing her teeth and put his hands on her hips. “I love you,” he would whisper. “I love you, you know that?”
She would have to start all over but it seemed okay then because he loved her.
And now something was different and he didn’t like it; he didn’t like her. She couldn’t change, and she didn’t understand why he wanted her to.
There was a rapt knock at the door.
Chris’ deep voice boomed through the bathroom. Annie felt the walls shake. She froze and stopped counting, stopped washing her hair. Her arms fell to her side, hands clenched. Her eyes widened.
“Annie, we’re going to be late. Get out of there!”
“No. No no no…” Annie whispered.
It was happening again. She felt a tingle up her spine, down her arm. Something was crawling under her skin, she couldn’t get it, nothing felt right. She had to start over or it wouldn’t go away. She needed exactly twenty-six and she’d only gotten to twenty and nothing would be okay until she got to twenty-six, the tingling wouldn’t go away, she wouldn’t be able to feel, her skin was going to fall off and she would be nothing but her insides and she would be nothing until she counted all the way to twenty-six.
Chris banged on the door with his fist. “Annie, I swear to god,” he shouted. Annie could feel his voice caging her in, the wall of the shower and the curtain were going to fall on her and she was going to die, she was going to die unless she got to twenty-six. “I gotta get in there and get ready too, ya know. Just unlock the door, god dammit.” She had to get to twenty-six.
She closed her eyes and raised her hand to her scalp, her hair still full of soap. The banging on the door of the bathroom continued.