Her knees burned, her spine pinched, and beads of sweat stung her eyes even worse than the scent of the vinegar. From her neck hung a golden chain with a small photo frame, also dripping with perspiration, so covered in grime that the face in the photo was invisible. But the grout on the floor was finally clean, white as the smile of a politician who had just gotten away with something.
Rosa stood, placing her hand against the sink to steady herself as the blood rushed from her head into her tingling thighs. Her eyes buzzed, blurred the bathroom, which was already fading in the pink evening sky. She shook her head, splashed cold water on her face, and gathered the sponge, rag, and vinegar into the cabinet below the sink.
Something caught her eye, a glass jar, hidden between a jug of ammonia and a plastic bag whose entire purpose seemed to be to hold other plastic bags. Her joints begged her to leave the bathroom, to go home and rest, but her curiosity won out. She was not proud of the habit, but she could not resist looking through cabinets and drawers, not snooping or invading, but exploring, learning the intimate details of the people who owned the double garages and pool-filled backyards that she cleaned and groomed.
Rosa held the glass jar up in the dusky light. It was filled with candle wax, and had a stubby black wick. There was a faded picture on its side, labeled Forest Rain. And over this label was handwritten ink, the words ‘peanut butter.’
Rosa’s eyebrows, still grimy from an entire day of scrubbing, bent curiously. The candle jar did not contain peanut butter, in fact, nothing in his house contained peanut butter, Dr. Rudyal had warned Rosa multiple times when he had first hired her, that if a single peanut or anything that even touched one entered his house, he would choke on his own swelling throat.
Rosa unscrewed the glass lid of the candle. Nothing happened. The candle wax didn’t smell like anything. Not peanut butter, and certainly not anything like the label Forest Rain.
Rosa thought back. Several weeks ago, she had seen a shelf full of candles in Dr. Rudyal’s home office downstairs, all of them shrink-wrapped and unopened. She had even once made a joke about the number of candles he owned, and he had become very flustered, telling Rosa he paid her to clean, not talk.
She reached in her pocket, pulled out a lighter. She glanced towards the bathroom door, which was locked and closed. Then she lit the candle.
Rosa inhaled, the smell of not just peanut butter, but a rich peanut butter cheese cake flowing through the bathroom, into her nose. She bit and chewed, it was as if pieces of nutty chocolate were sliding down her throat.
She started, and blew out the candle. The peanut butter smell vanished, and the candle wax itself was almost entirely gone. She had never seen a candle burn through wax so quickly.
“Rosa?” It was the doctor’s voice again. Rosa stuffed the candle into her pocket, made sure the rest of the bathroom was tidy, and walked down a polished wood spiral staircase.
“It’s getting late, and I have a dinner appointment. Would you be able to come back a different time to finish?” Dr. Rudyal said. There was also a young woman, blonde and airy, sitting on the living room couch. She made a brief eye contact with Rosa, reached for a candle jar on the coffee table, and quickly stashed it in her purse.
“Sure. I’ll come back tomorrow,” Rosa said, forcing herself not to stare at the woman, who muttered a goodbye to the Doctor while leaving through the front door.
Rosa herself headed towards the door when her phone buzzed with a text from Marcia. “Carlos and the kids loved your cheesecake. Thank you!”
Included was a photo of a cheesecake, medium brown, topped with chocolate and peanuts. Rosa stared in disbelief, as a dim memory of baking the cheesecake over the weekend came back to her. Why was that recollection so dim? It had been this past Saturday, and yet… the only memory of anything to do with that cake had been in the upstairs bathroom, lighting that Forest Rain candle.
“Can I help you? Is the door not working?” Dr. Rudyal asked, approaching her.
Rosa turned to him, and gathered her courage. “Peanut butter cheesecake.”
His face twitched. “Sounds delicious. Unfortunately, I’m allergic.”
“No, I… I baked a peanut butter cheesecake over the weekend. But I’m having trouble remembering it. It’s not dementia, is it?”
Rosa laughed, and the doctor grimaced. “Hope not.”
“I hope not, too. It’d be hard to do cleaning while being treated for memory loss.”
The Doctor seemed like he was about to say something, then his eyes crawled down her body, into the circular bugle in her pocket.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“It’s nothing,” Rosa said quickly, reaching for the door.
Rudyal stepped forward, grabbed the doorknob before she could. “Give it to me,” he hissed.
Rosa didn’t move, and Dr. Rudyal forced his fingers in her pocket, pulling out the candle.
“Where did you get—?” he read the handwritten label. “Why did you take this?”
Rosa still hadn’t recovered from the shock of him grabbing her pocket. “I— why does it smell like peanut butter? And why don’t I remember baking my peanut butter cheesecake just last Saturday?”
The Doctor gripped the candle tightly.
“Well? You hate peanut butter?”
“No. I’m allergic to it. But I love it,” Dr. Rudyal said.
“How do you… how do you know you love it? You said if you even go near it you’ll die.”
“Literal peanut butter, yes. The memory of it can’t hurt me.”
“The memory…? Why does lighting that candle smell like my cheesecake?”
The doctor stared at the candle. “Almost empty,” he grumbled. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a hundred dollar bill.
“Take this. Don’t tell anyone about the candle. Go home, make another cheesecake. Then eat a slice. Then come back tomorrow.”
“Will I remember eating it?” Rosa asked, as the Doctor pressed the bill into her hand.
“No. But I will.”
“Tell me what’s in those candles. In your office. And the one that the woman took before she left. They trigger memories, don’t they? Of peanut butter?”
Dr. Rudyal laughed bitterly. “They don’t trigger— they are memories! And not just of peanut butter. Anything you want to remember. Your own memories. Other people’s memories. Vacations, dead pets. Better sex. Nostalgia.” He inhaled.
“Where do you get memories from?” Rosa asked. “The cheesecake… that was my memory, right? You took my memory because… because you can’t eat real peanut butter without dying, so—”
“I’m sorry,” Rudyal said. “It was just that one. I won’t steal any more of your memories, I promise. But if you want…” he shook the glass candle. “I’ll buy your memories from you.”
“I’m not giving you my memories.”
“What about other people’s? You clean a lot of houses. Access to a lot of people. It’s not hard to lift a memory, I can show you.”
“No.” Rosa threw the hundred dollar bill at him. “I’m… no. And I’m not cleaning for you anymore. I’m not going to tell anyone, but… just let me leave.”
“I’ll make a deal,” Rudyal said. “You gather memories for me, and I’ll get you the memories you want.”
“I don’t want… what memories do I want?”
“Anything. Surely there’s something, a vacation, a childhood pet—“
“Can you get memories of people?” Rosa held up her necklace, flashing a photo of a young boy with dark hair and a white smile. “Can you bring back people?”
Dr. Rudyal peered at the necklace. “Certainly. Do we have a deal?”
Rosa left the house, walked past the row of houses with double garages and swimming pools without even seeing them. All she could see was the photo in her necklace, and she could almost already the boy’s laughter, thick and rich as the peanut butter she had promised to eat for Dr. Rudyal.