The bell tinkled suddenly and unexpectedly as Melissa stumbled through the door. First, she looked down at the basket in her hands, which appeared to be full of clothes. She seemed to be in a launderette. The room wasn't huge. The left wall of the room consisted entirely of big, heavy-duty, almost industrial-sized washing machines. In the middle of the room, there was a single column of dryers placed back to back. At the rear of the room stood a small wooden table, barely visible in the dim light. Left to the door that Melissa had come in, the room extended back out towards the street in a sort of reverse alcove, with big, thin single glazed windows. Below the windows, simple wooden benches lined the wall. On one of those, an old person, dressed in somewhat shaggy clothes, was slumped over backwards. They were leaning against the window behind them, seemingly asleep, snoring gently, their salt-and-pepper facial hair just visible in the faint light.
Melissa felt very disoriented. She looked back through the door window into the street outside. It appeared to be late, with the sun having gone down hours ago, leaving the street lit by only a pair of streetlights, placed a few meters apart, on opposite sides of the road. A light drizzle was starting to come down outside. Melissa looked down once more and noticed that she was wearing a summery, brown, knee-length linen dress. The dress felt pleasant on her skin, and she liked the look of it, even though she had never seen it before.
After her eyes slowly adjusted to the weak but reassuringly warm light in the room, she saw a big ginger cat lying on top of one of the dryers. She uneasily gripped the laundry basket with one hand, supporting the other side with her hip. Brushing her lightly curling, light brown hair over her shoulder, she approached the cat.
The cat lazily opened its eyes as she came close but made no attempt to move away. After the cat sniffed her hand for a short while, Melissa scratched the cat behind the ears. It too closed its eyes again in delight and purred just loud enough to be heard over the low, comforting hum of the washing machines and the drizzle outside.
"You can put your basket on that table there if you want."
Melissa turned around. The person that had been sleeping on the benches was now slumped forward, leaning on their knees. Their bald head reflected the light coming from the ceiling as they stared at their feet.
"Who are you?"
"Don't you recognize me, child?" Their voice was low and husky. When they looked up, Melissa stared into their silver-grey eyes for the first time. There was unnatural exhaustion in them. Their face, covered in wrinkles, smiled reassuringly. There was, however, a hint of apprehensiveness beneath their smile that Melissa couldn't quite place.
"Are you God?" she asked. They grunted, stood up slowly and walked over to Melissa and also gave the cat a few scratches behind the ear. "In a way. I'm the one you think of when you think of God, but I'm not all people seem to say I am," they said in the same slow, deep raspy voice.
Melissa looked down again at the laundry she was carrying. She didn't recognize any of the clothes. Some were worn threadbare, some looked new but had various rips and tears, most of them were stained with some unfamiliar liquid and lined with dust.
"Am I dead?"
"You could say that."
"Do I have to wash these?"
"Only if you want to, but a lot of people find it comforting to do so. You can just put them into the machine that's free over there." They motioned vaguely towards the wall of laundry machines, where one of them appeared to be empty. "There should be some laundry detergent and some softener on the floor there that you can use."
Melissa gripped the laundry basket again and walked over to the one empty machine. Conveniently, the free one was at eye level. She opened the door to check if the last person had accidentally left any clothes in there, mostly out of habit. She started to stuff the clothes into the machine, putting the basket on one of the dryers behind her when it was empty. When she looked down, she saw a box of laundry detergent and a bottle next to it with a laundry softener. She grabbed them and put a decent amount of both into the drum of the machine. After clicking the door shut, she looked around but didn't see a console or coin slot. There was just a big red button. After she pressed it, the machine sprang into life, joining into a harmony of rumbling with the others. After a second, she turned around and faced the other person again.
"What should I call you?"
"You can call me Jacob if you like."
Melissah squinted at them. "That's my father's name."
Melissah scowled. "No," she said curtly.
"You don't deserve his name," Melissa hissed at them. "He was there for me when I needed him; you were not. Calling you by his name doesn't feel fair to him."
"Even though he would have loved it if he knew you'd speak to me through his name?"
"Don't try to punch below the belt."
"What would you call me then?"
Melissa paused for a bit, then said "Mathew," in a somewhat shaky voice.
Mathew raised an eyebrow. "Your uncle's name?"
"If you're intent on using a name from my family, you can have his. I never had much respect for him in my heart either, so it seems appropriate."
Mathew sighed. "Do you really have that much contempt for me, child?"
"I guess that's to be expected."
"You say that like I'm an unreasonable toddler."
"I don't mean it like that, you know that."
"Do I? Do I really? All I've ever heard from you is what other people have told me. I tried to talk to you, tried to 'look for you' as people kept telling me. I prayed, I begged, but when I needed you, I couldn't find you."
"I've always been there; you just didn't see it."
"And what good was that then?!" Melissa yelled. "What good was it for you to be there if I couldn't even tell? I needed you. When Dad died, when I came out to my friends, when those people at school nearly drove me to suicide. I tried to look for you in the ways that I could, and I found nothing. I heard nothing except a deafening silence. If you knew me so well, if you are so good, if you know so much, how come you never managed to talk to me in a way that I could understand?"
"I said I'm not all people make me up to be"
"That's a pathetic excuse."
"DON'T. Don't you dare call me by that name. That's not who I am anymore." Tears were starting to well in her eyes. She buried her face in her hand and turned her back towards Mathew.
"I'm sorry," Mathew said in a shaky voice. "What can I do to make it up to you?"
Melissa turned back around and stared at him.
"Are you serious? You're just asking how you can make up a lifetime of loneliness to me? Like you've accidentally said, I look fatter than my sister? I have no idea how to even answer that question."
Even though the washing machines hummed along, as they had just a second ago, there hung a dense, almost suffocating silence between the two.
"Just tell me why," Melissa said eventually, " Why am I like this? Why does someone calling me by that name make me feel so horrible? Why do I have so much empathy that I feel sick to my stomach when I see homeless people I've never met before that I can't help? Why do I seek out people that I know will suck every last ounce of energy out of me if I let them get close? Why do I feel like... Why did you make me like this?"
Mathew walked towards the window and started outside as they leaned against it. "Because I fucked up. I fucked things up in the beginning, and I've been trying to fix them ever since. I don't have much direct influence, so I put people like you on the world in an attempt to save others. I keep hoping that one of you can show them a new way, to offer them some comfort."
"Even though that meant putting someone in a situation where you knew they would get hurt?"
"Don't you think that is a noble existence?"
"I am not your scapegoat Mathew. Just because you fucked up doesn't mean you can use me as a pawn to fix it; I don't believe in a morality like that."
"Even though you're literally talking to God right now?"
"Especially because I'm talking to 'God' right now. There are no two ways about it; you using whatever power you had turned out pretty fucked up. So either you don't know how to handle it, or you willfully created situations like that. Either way, you're not fit to wield that kind of power in my eyes. Unless you can explain to me why things are the way they are, why they couldn't have been different, I will never respect you."
"Don't you think that's a little harsh?"
"Welcome to my existence. As far as I'm concerned, you play by the same rules as me."
"I don't know what you want from me."
"Neither do I. I wanted something from you back then, but it's too late for that now. I don't know if that's something that even can be repaired. Not with the snap of a finger anyway. Otherwise, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
There was another long and heavy silence that descended on them like a cloud of the thickest smoke ever seen. Even though it was pierced by the rumbling of the machines and the light tapping of the rain on the large, slightly steamed window, it felt so strong that Melissa felt like it was slowly choking her.
"So, what now? Are you gonna leave?"
"I don't know, Mathew, this is all a lot to take in. Part of me just wants to get away from absolutely everything, but how would I do that? I have no idea what's going on, where I am, what will happen if I do. Fuck..."
"Maybe I wasn't there for you then, but maybe you can let me be there for you know? Talk to me Melissa, I promise I'll listen. Please..."
"I don't know..."
She walked over once more to the ginger cat still lying on top of one of the dryers. It looked at her with knowing eyes. As she scratched it behind the ears, it closed them and started gently purring into the night next to the machines that were washing people's dirty laundry.