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Ammonia and Bleach

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Mathilda stays at the School for Girls and Boys for almost exactly two years. On the anniversary of Léon’s death she digs Plant out of the ground, carefully fits it into a clay pot, much larger than its predecessor, and leaves. 

 

 

She makes one stop, and one stop only: to Tony's, to politely ask him for the money Leon left her, yes, all of it. He doles it out, grudgingly, and then hesitates. 

"Yes?" she asks expectantly.

"There was one more thing," he says, and leaves her at the table to go to the back room. He returns with a black bag, similar in shape and style to the one Léon always carried around.

"Safekeeping," Tony grunts, and drops it on the table in front of her. She doesn't open it.

"Thank you," she replies, and he shakes his head.

"Are you still in school?"

"Yep," she smiles sweetly.

 


 

She finds a list of phone numbers in the bag from Tony, written in a hand that isn't Léon's but isn't Tony's either. She buys a cheap disposable cell at the corner store near the room she's rented and calls the first number. A man answers in rapid fire Portuguese, and she cocks her head and tries English. 

The man speaks English. He also has connections.

 


 

Mathilda puts an ad in the paper, which as it turns out is a thing cleaners can actually do if you know the right words. Hiding in plain sight, said the man on the phone. He didn't give her a name, but he knew Léon even if he didn't know her, and that was good enough.

CLEANER, reads the ad. ALL JOBS SANS W/C. WHFEM TEEN. CALL NUMBER BELOW.

"White female, teenager? Really?" She'd asked the man. "Do I have to say that part? Why not just let them call me first? I'll never get any clients this way."

"Trust me," he'd said. "People will want a... unique individual. Someone who can pose as a daughter, a little child. Less suspicion this way."

She'd harrumphed, but she puts it in the ad anyway. And sure enough, his advice is sound. Her first client calls not a week after the ad's been posted. She waters the plant, cleans her sunglasses, and slings her bag over her shoulder. Matilda snaps her bubblegum. It's time to get down to business.

 


 

It turns out a fourteen, then fifteen, then sixteen and seventeen year-old girl can do pretty well for herself, even in New York. She makes puppy eyes at women on the streets and makes up sob stories about missing parents when she needs a couch to sleep on, and moves on the next morning. She bribes the clerks at hotels into letting her stay without I.D. When that fails, she crashes at Tony's for a couple nights. He rarely asks questions.

 

 

She takes jobs, loads of them. She's neat and efficient. She's in and out, blends in with the crowds. She takes her payment in cash and causes no problems for the client. She's not yet the best in the business, but her clients would attest that she's certainly getting there. 

She thinks of Léon and Socrates.

In the business she's known as Matt Montana. Mathilda is what her brother called her, what Léon called her. Matt is what her first client called her, and something tingled pleasantly in her brain when he said it.

When she's eighteen she shaves her head. It isn't impulsive, but she didn't really plan it all too much, and she's never cut hair like this before. She trimmed her brother's hair once. He was—

Anyway.

The buzzcut is nice, she thinks, but a client turns down a job shortly afterward once she sends him her photo. "Too distinctive," he says, and she flips off her computer screen.

 


 

When she's twenty-one, her hair grown out again, Matt sits down at the table across from Tony, rakes her finger absentmindedly through the little grains of salt and paper on the tablecloth, and asks, "Did Léon have any family?"

He looks at her like she's crazy. "Family? Why would I know that?"

She shrugs. "I dunno. You knew him longer than I did."

"Yeah," Tony says, and doesn't elaborate. 

She resists the urge to shrug again. "I was just wondering, that's all."

He gives her a long, contemplative look. "Look, I'll... I'll look at his papers, if you want. I have his documents somewhere in the back. Not now, though," he adds, seeing the look on her face. "I'll give you a call."

"Okay," she says. She grabs her bag and moves to go.

"Wait, Mathild—Matt," Tony says. She's suddenly aware of the creases in his face, of how old he is. "You got a place to sleep tonight?"

She smiles blindingly at him. "Of course, Tony."

The heels of her boots clack the tile on the way out.

 


 

She leaves stones on her family's graves. 

 

 

Léon doesn't have a grave.

 


 

One day she finds herself remembering when Léon first figured out how to read. The joy that lit up his face, the way his fingers trembled as he turned the pages of the picture book. Would you let this go to waste?

 

 

She enrolls in night school.

Plant is huge now, big green leaves almost the size of her head. She still rubs off the leaves every morning, and talks to it gently when she waters it. She thinks about making an online dating profile: No kids, no pets, but I do have a large plant owned by my dead kind-of-adopted father.

Night school is nice. She meets a woman her age named Sheila, and one thing leads to another and lo and behold, she's not a virgin any more. Put down roots, the Léon in her head says. So she does.

 


 

Matt is twenty-six when she deactivates her phone number, deletes her work email, and permanently scrubs any mention of her name in the same sentence as the word "cleaner" from the internet. She gets a bigger pot for Plant, and, some might say, turns over a new leaf.

She and Sheila go from "making each other not-virgins" to "actually getting their shit together and going on dates," which is a surprisingly lovely development. She makes up a story about travel and homeschooling, which, while technically true, is the last lie she decides she will ever tell. At least about that part of her life.

Over the course of several years: one thing leads to another. Isn't it funny how these things work? Sheila and Matt rent an apartment. Plant gets a new spot by a new window. Sheila wants to be a therapist, so she doesn't laugh at Matt when the latter murmurs to the plant and massages its leaves. Sheila gets it.

 

 

Léon doesn't have a grave, but Sheila and Matt find a nice smooth rock and place it on the ground under a tree in Central Park. 

 


 

Tony attends the wedding. It has been nearly twenty years since Mathilda lost her family, found a father, and lost him too. 

 

 

A knot loosens inside of her.