Authors: Hope Sullivan McMickle
By Hope Sullivan McMickle
The hot water cascaded over her head, her shoulders, over her body, and she luxuriated in the comforting warmth. She’d been in the shower less than two minutes, but the mirror was fogged up, and the metal surfaces in the tiny bathroom were already slick with beads of condensation. Leah Webb sighed, closed her eyes, and savored one of the small pleasures that remained in her life.
A mug of steaming coffee sat on a shelf in the shower, beside bottles of body wash and shampoo with compelling names and captivating scents. They were brands she never could have afforded, luxuries she never would have spent money on in her old life. But money was no longer an issue. Bleach, however, was.
Fortunately, it was easy to find in reasonably large quantities. Leah stockpiled it, and could smell a sharp tang of it now, a reminder of her morning ritual. Not a day went by that she didn’t pour bleach down all the drains in the cabin, wipe down all the walls, mop the floors, and scrub the windows with the stuff. She even cleaned out the gutters of the cabin once a month, climbing up on the roof and pulling out handfuls of rancid, rotting leaves, pine needles, and other accumulated debris, then dumping a 50/50 solution of bleach and water through the gutters and down spouts. The harsh cleanser was making the flesh of her hands deeply crack and peel, despite liberal use of moisturizers.
The water became less hot and more tepid as she washed her hair – what was left of her hair after she’d taken her ex-husband’s electric clippers to it and shaved it down to a crew-cut. The cabin, which had been their summer home on Hall Quarry Road on Maine’s Mount Desert Island – MDI – as the locals called it – had a small, aged water heater. It produced just enough hot water to meet her cleaning needs if she spaced them throughout the day. Leah gulped her coffee, finished her shower, and turned off the water. She grabbed a towel and dried off, but not before she poured a cup of bleach down the shower drain, into the sink, and in toilet. The porcelain gleamed. Her hands and knuckles ached.
She’d over slept, and the mid-morning sun was already high in the sky by the time she’d finished breakfast and scoured the kitchen. The rooms of the cabin were illuminated with a warm glow of sunshine which did an admirable job of driving the shadows away. Leah loved sunshine, and kept the curtains and blinds in her home open throughout the day to let in as much light and warmth as possible. It also helped her conserve the fuel for the generator she knew she’d need to make it through Maine’s harsh winters. She’d never wintered in the north before, and being a pragmatic Midwestern girl since birth, had been raised to plan for the worst and hope for only slightly better. She’d made it a point to spend some time each day acquiring supplies for the cold season, which was only a couple of months away.
The cabin was on a hillside overlooking Somes Sound. The view from the deck was stunning. Leah paused for a moment before trudging down the steps to the carport behind the cabin where she kept her Jeep. It was good for short trips and even on the twisting, winding roads of Maine, got good gas mileage. Along with her cat McGyver, it was one of the few things she insisted on getting as part of the divorce settlement. She’d had it detailed an hour after Charlie had relinquished the title and the keys, and then she had cleaned it an additional time herself. Commercial cleaning services didn’t seem to have the appreciation for little details, like steam cleaning the seatbelts and trunk. They missed that
Although there was a garage behind the cabin, she kept the Jeep under the carport. It was easier to keep the carport clean; there were too many dark corners and too much damp in the garage, and Leah had a difficult time working up her nerve to go in there. When she did go in the garage for anything longer than a couple of minutes, it was in the suit. The only things she kept in the garage now was an assortment of old furniture, a large supply of firewood, and of course, Charlie, cocooned in layers of thick plastic sheeting and several tarps. Blood and bodily fluids had leached out of the tarps for a while and she’d had to be diligent about cleaning it up, not wanting to permanently stain the concrete floor. Fortunately, Charlie seemed to have dried up by July, and even with the heat and humidity, there was only a light, semi-sweet scent of decay, which was largely masked by the fresh pine boughs that she kept in two large ceramic pots by the door.
Leah spent the next half hour splitting firewood, then carried it into the garage and stacked it neatly beside Charlie. He would have simply tossed it into the wood bin, but he wasn’t in a position to complain about her need for tidiness and stringent organization now. In fact, Charlie hadn’t been able to complain about anything for several months. It was the longest period of time that they’d gotten along throughout their decade-long relationship.
“Watch the house for me, Charles,” Leah muttered with a quick glance in his direction. She really should do something, anything, with him, but despite the turbulence of their relationship in life, she struggled to bid him farewell in death. “I’ve got to go run some errands.” Leah slammed and locked the garage door, and went out to search for gas. And more bleach.
The general store old man Higgins ran was no more than a couple of miles down the road, but Leah went the opposite direction. His store was depleted, anyway. Nothing was on the radio, and so she sang to keep herself company. There were times when she missed Charlie’s companionship. Her life now revolved around a cycle of continuous cleaning and the acquisition of cleaning supplies.
Sittin’ on this barstool, talking like a damn fool, got the twelve o’clock news blues…”
She downshifted abruptly, took the turn onto road 102 fast enough to make the Jeep’s tires squeal in protest, and floored the accelerator.
Is it any wonder I’m not a crazy - is it any wonder I’m sane at all…”
In fact, Leah thought, she’d been wrestling with the concept of sanity for some time now. Considering that her daily routine of cleaning seemed to have gotten a bit out of hand, and of course, there was the minor issue of the dead man in her garage.
She sang until she couldn’t remember more words, and repeated the chorus as she stopped the Jeep in front of the library in Southwest Harbor. The dampness inside the building concerned her - she wasn’t sure how much longer she’d be able to go inside and get books. Books were what helped her get through the dark hours of night. When she wasn’t cleaning.
It was best to make quick work of it. Leah wiped down the steering wheel, gearshift, and dashboard of the jeep with an antiseptic towel from a container of baby wipes she kept under the driver’s seat. As she walked toward the back of the building, she slipped on a disposable mask and a pair of latex gloves. It was Charlie who had forced the back door open for her, a week before he’d died.
Charlie had always been impulsive, careless, with a quick grin, a great sense of humor, and almost no sense of responsibility. He was a charmer, and that was probably what had attracted her most to him when they’d started dating their senior year at Indiana University. They’d gotten along fine when he’d lived in the dorms, and she’d had her own efficiency apartment off campus on 17
Street. It was when they moved in together that she discovered the fundamental philosophical differences between them in terms of household chores, organization, how the labels on canned goods lined up, how to fold socks, minor things like that which eventually grew into big issues. Charlie, it seemed, could pry a door open to a library, but she’d never seen him muster up the wherewithal to run a vacuum, load the dishwasher, scrub the grout in the shower, or dust behind the electrical outlet covers.
It had shocked her when he had called her in late Spring, wanting to know if she’d like to spend some time in Maine together. They’d had an amicable divorce – after all, it wasn’t a lack of love that drove them apart, it was a pervasive difference in cleaning standards at issue – and because she was lonely, she had agreed. He’d driven up from the apartment he’d been renting in Rochester, and she met him at the cabin.
By then, almost all the major networks had been out, but they were able to pick up an NPR station out of Bangor for a couple of weeks until it, too, abruptly ceased transmissions. Despite a rigorous hygiene and cleaning protocol widely promoted across the nation by the CDC – which gratified her to no end in its resemblance to the more comprehensive and comforting routine she had already developed – deaths had reached pandemic proportions and the National Guard was burning bodies at landfills. Soon the only ones left on the streets were the Rotters, lurching and staggering about in their desire to feed, the looters, and some ragtag military units. After a couple of weeks, the looters and the soldiers were gone.
Charlie had been with her when she saw the Rot up close for the first time. They’d been walking along Echo Lake, Charlie carrying a large tackle box and three fishing poles, Leah carrying a hamper containing an old quilt, bottles of cool water, and peanut butter sandwiches with marmalade, when a sudden thrashing in the undergrowth beside the path startled her. It was all she could do not to scream when a hand, gray-black with rot and decay, blood caked under its fingernails, snaked out of the brambles. The fingers twisted and groped in the dirt and pine needles on the ground, making a scratching sound that she still heard in nightmares.
Charlie’s voice came from far away, telling her to back away, to come on,
, but she stood staring at the hand in morbid fascination as more of the putrid arm emerged and reached toward her. When it locked around her ankle, she did scream. Screamed herself hoarse as Charlie beat at the hand and arm, pulling her back, prying its fingers from her flesh – snapping them away one by one like small, dried twigs. The arm ripped itself away from its host body and thrashed toward them; Charlie kicked it into the lake with a grunt and a string of obscenities. It floated for a moment; a blackened island of decay marring the rippling blue water, then disappeared.
The body it had been attached to burst out of the underbrush as Charlie wrapped his arms around her waist and slung her further down the path. Something was wrong with the corpse, but it took a moment for the absence to register as it lurched toward them. The corpse was missing its head. In its place was a puffy ball of spores perched on a neck from which the flesh was peeling away in macabre streamers of gray-green decay. Leah could just make out under the layer of black rot covering most of the torso a colorful tattoo – a skull in a jester’s cap, smoking a cigar and flying the finger.
Charlie gave her another shove – something she would have resented under other circumstances – but somehow it got her legs moving. She glanced back to see her ex-husband smashing the Rotter’s spore-encrusted head into the ground with a large rock. He’d pulled his t-shirt up over his nose and mouth to avoid inhaling any of the mold. The spores floated up into the air around them, borne on a gentle breeze, drifting away as the body it had animated struggled, then ceased moving. She had always detested filth; cleaning had always been her compulsion. But the Rotters took things to a whole new horrific level.
She was in and out of the library in fifteen minutes. Leah carried a plastic grocery sack full of books to the Jeep. She burned the disposable paper mask she’d worn, the gloves, and the plastic bag in the steel trash bin on the street corner, monitoring it carefully to make sure the items were incinerated. As she watched the items burn, she scrubbed down the covers, spines, and edges of the books she taken from the library with Lysol cleaning wipes. A lone seagull limped down the center of the road toward her, struggling to remain upright. It was dying, unable to fly, its wings coated with black mold. Most of the wildlife was dead, having succumbed to the Rot. Bloated, blackened corpses of people – some she knew, most she thankfully didn’t recognize – and small animals littered the sidewalk and streets.
There was blood on the seagull’s beak from where it had been gnawing at itself, trying to end the incessant burning, itching feeling of decomposition. Charlie had raved about that sensation in vivid detail as he lay dying in the garage, festering spots of black mold spreading across his face, obscuring one eye, covering his shoulders in a fuzzy black mantle of death. He begged her to put him out of his misery, but she’d been unable to pull the trigger of the hunting rifle she’d found in a deserted summer house down the road from their cabin. Instead, she sat with him and read to him, periodically spritzing them both with diluted bleach from a spray bottle.
Eventually the black mold ate away his vocal cords and Charlie fell silent. His eyes took on a glassy cast, and sometime later he began staggering around the garage, a thick sludge of blood and gore coating his mouth and chin from his dying, bloody, final exhalations. Before he started to walk, Leah had left the garage, locking it carefully behind her. She returned with fresh resolve, a Hazmat suit, and a tactical shotgun she’d found in an overturned State Trooper’s vehicle on the outskirts of Ellsworth. She pulled the trigger, put him down, then spent the next three days drinking copious amounts of Red Bull and cleaning.