Why Can’t I Kill Them All?

Her old friends called her Mr. Clean without irony.

It wasn’t as cute when she went through chemo and the bald comparison became uncomfortable. But like all good personal branding it lived on, that is, after she did.

Clean was important. Clean was who she was.

She grew up with dirt, on a farm in Texas. It was not idyllic, it was not simple and for her it was not an existence like a melancholy country song. It scared her, the chaotic biology. It became a trigger to something desperate within her. To control. Control life.

She became emotionally entwined with her chemical allies — Toilet Duck, Scrubbing Bubbles, Mr. Clean — like the tails of the blue people in Avatar entangled with their personal flying space dinosaurs. She became one with them, the soft contours of the plastic bottlenecks resting so naturally in her hand, or the nozzle tip cradled into her forefinger, or the calm of the repeated trigger finger. Clean was a war.

She believed in death. She had faith. Devotion. It was not something you could see, you just needed to believe. Once she sprayed, wiped, scrubbed, and did so again, they were dead. She had killed them all. She was safe. She could not see their bacterial corpses but she was sure, the same way a person knows they are loved with that deep feeling of truth.

It was personal in a way. Bacteria had tried to kill her. She had fought it all off, first with anti-biotics, then chemotherapy. She was a winner. They were losers.

In an effort to balance her intensity and encourage more time for her dwindling friendships, some people close to her felt that she should just compromise, arguing that we needed bacteria and to spend less time worrying. She had no patience for foolish arguments like that, with their dangerous compromises. For her it was simple — bacteria was trying to kill us all. It would be us or them.

She became more and more frustrated with her friends and their new, weird ideas. Like that new term probiotics. “Probiotics”. There were no probiotics when she was growing up, no such political correctness. That word was just a marketing ploy to try to sell things, and worse, to lower people’s defenses and keep them from being scared of what was really happening in the world. It was weakness. Everyone she knew, her few remaining friends, had 100% conviction that bacteria, all of them, were bad.

One day, as she murdered the biological breeders in her kitchen with a Clorox Disinfecting Wipe, she noticed some new writing on the package. It said “Kills 99.999% of Bacteria”.

She stared at the words. At the number.

She pulled out her iPhone, wiped it with a new cloth from the Clorox canister, and touched her fingers lightly to the screen. She thought about a large number, like the number of Muslims in the world. One and a half billion she thought. And if she tried to kill all one and a half billion with a really large Clorox Disinfecting Wipe, she would still leave… 150,000 Muslims alive. A small city worth of mutating, reproducing Muslims. And maybe the survivors would be angry.

Why can’t I kill them all?

Of course by now she was thinking of murdering bacteria and viruses, and not murdering innocent people. But the principle, well, it was the same to her.

Yet this discovery on the Clorox package, the 99.999%, confused her. Her weapons, apparently, according to the package would not kill them all. Would not even kill all the bacteria, much less the viruses, which she noticed were not part of the 99.999% kill guarantee. The package said it killed Cold and Flu viruses, but it did not say how completely and irretrievably dead. Ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent of the viruses would be dead? Since it did not say, Mr. Clean assumed it was less, which became a deeper sadness. A betrayal.

She held the package up to her face and looked sharply down to get the best focus on the small print, hoping for reassurance.

Here, in the testaments of its power, she found renewed faith: Human Coronovirus, Influenza A2 Virus, Staphyloccus aureus, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella enterica, Strepococcus pyrogenes, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Listeria monocytogenes, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Enterobacter aerogenes, Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1, Herpes Simplex Virus Type 2, Influenza A (H1N1) Virus, Respitory Syncytial VirusRotavirus.

The words didn’t matter, and she did not understand them nor really want to. She reveled in the impression, the confidence of complete death. She wanted it simple.

But, soon, her proud satisfaction wilted and doubt descended upon her. She knew her iPhone could reveal how many bacteria there were beyond these notable enemies. She knew there was more truth to be found, and it scared her to challenge her own faith.

She wiped the screen again with another Clorox Disinfecting Wipe, slowly this time and with some hesitation, then wiped harder and then took another cloth and did it again, even harder, scrubbing rapidly back and forth.

She typed “How many kind of bacteria are there?” into the Google search bar, slowly, her fingers moist with residual disinfectant.

A few results down, she saw the number ten. With a little thirty next to it, a little higher. Ten followed by thirty zeros. A nonillion, a word she’d never heard of before. It said scientists believe there are a nonillion bacterial types in the world.

And Clorox Disinfecting Wipes and Scrubbing Bubbles kill… fewer than that. Not all of them.

Yet she smiled. It said “scientists believe”. So, it proved that they didn’t really know, and that her belief was just as valid as theirs. There was hope she was just as right as she knew she was.

When faith wavers, work is a solution. Work occupies the mind, keeps the questions silent and maintains the view of a black and white world, correctly polarized. Working towards a goal — like to kill every damn piece of biology in this room except for herself — was liberating. And working towards a purpose, to live up to the social expectation of being Mr. Clean, fulfilled her soul.

She took out every can and canister, every spray and bottle, buckets and paper towels and mops. Her arsenal. Mr. Clean was upon them, and she would not yield. She felt joy and passion and the self-assurance that comes from perfect belief in her righteousness.

Before long her knees hurt from kneeling all over the floor, her arms sore from wiping back and forth. Her nose hair tingled from invisible bleachy, artificially lemony chemicals suspended in the air of this, the main living room of her house. Her white garbage can was filled with wet balls of paper towels, at least a hundred of them. Intermingled between the wads of paper towels were Swiffer dust cloths full of spindly hairs and dust, and brown stained Wet Jet pads. Laid on top, next to her used plastic gloves, were two empty cans of Scrubbing Bubbles, four empty canisters of Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, and the red nozzle of an empty bottle of Toilet Duck poking over the rim of the garbage can like a curious pet. She stood up, creaking a bit from numb muscles held too long in a crouched position, and surveyed her victory. Surely they were all dead. Yes, perhaps 100% dead just for now, as she had learned that there were no simple solutions, but dead was dead. And Mr. Clean would be back to keep them dead. There could be no compromise with evil.

She reached down to grab the garbage can.

It’s heft caused her to lose her balance through her core and forced her legs and feet, wrapped in hygienic booties, back out from under her, which slipped very easily given the newly slick surface of the tile floor. Her head hit the wooden corner of the staircase, that sharp edge of the last stair, her skull propelled downward by the full weight of her body entangled with invisible gravity.

She lay unconscious there on the very clean floor, which quickly became run over by blood spreading in slow expansion until it’s thin dark layer had become larger than her prostrate body. She would not recover from this, bleeding beyond her body’s ability to maintain its own biology. As she lay there in her living room for some days, her biotics merged with others from the floor, living on the grout and in the unswept corners, forming new families and generations of organisms that would live on in harmony even after her body was discovered three weeks later and her living room was cleaned again with chemicals before reselling the house, a complete cleaning which nevertheless left .001 percent of her biology still alive and growing.

And there was peace.

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