Indoors

by Travis Dahlke

The first place I truly realized that I was being followed by mildew was the third home my family had in Hennequin, Texas. Before, there was the carpet of my childhood bedroom, spongy and sour to bare feet. Then the blackening shower curtain at my uncle’s timeshare in St. Barts that seemed to sicken like a frostbite victim. A summer away from home at 4H camp where, as we slept, splotches came exploring from the ceiling corners. Fuzz aimed right at my bunk. The counselors fired bleach, which only came back to stain their clothes pink.

‘It’s the darnedest thing,’ was all anyone could say.

People claimed the land under the house in Hennequin was cursed out with spirits because a mass shooter grew up there. But it was said also by my Grandpa Higby (who studied at Yale) that rotten walls could make people hallucinate—though how could we all be hallucinating the same thing?

Then Grandpa Higby moved in with us because he couldn’t remember anything, and all day he sat in his chair laughing at soaps. The sad ones. His sickness accelerated at an impossible pace, and he turned black just like that shower curtain.

The hospital told us Higby succumbed from lethal levels of airborne toxins in our home. We left it to the next family.

It found me in the half-finished basement of Harris Benjamin’s house. During seven minutes in heaven, where on the other side of the Sprite bottle threads was Gabby Bernstein from Pre-Calc in her Iron Maiden shirt and invisible braces. We were put in the linen closet where Harris’ family hid things they didn’t want to think about anymore. ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman)’ came deadened from a boombox outside the door. Gabby’s bra stuffing crumpled against me, our gums forming a nervous cinnamon humidity. Then the taste of pennies.

Gabby, who was allergic to cut grass, ran screaming from the closet, spouts of blood running from her eyes and nose. In the dark next to Battleship and Mr. Harris’ scummy old Playboys, the spores whispered:

Good. She’s gone.

They branded me ‘Davey the Antichrist.’ Two schools and one dorm were torn down. Our town’s Burger Palace where I worked drive-thru was condemned by the health inspector. Bryn Capitol, where I interned, was shuttered up. The insurance company where I nearly made partner turned to slime, capped by a state-of-the-art HVAC system for a building I knew had always been marked for death. All diagnosed with ‘irremediable blooms of penicillium breeding with asbestos.’

Alone in my apartment, every power-strip loaded with dehumidifiers, it said:

We don’t want them anyway. You don’t need money.

Was it when I tore all the moss from that albino boulder or when I knocked over that abandoned shack in the woods with triangles drawn on its walls? Did my parents make some bargain over their firstborn? I considered escaping my hex for good, but that’d be giving it what it wants. Inheritance.

Don’t leave us yet, David.

I met Suzanne on the way to CVS to buy the Sprite I’d pair with triple the Benadryl. She had been burned by yellow jackets and needed a spare EpiPen. She was missing a tooth, which made her whistle. We were married inside a year.

Our son, Douglas, was named after a fake president from a movie. We agreed on raising him in Utah, the second driest state to live. You could leave a bag of chips out in the open and they’d never go stale. The neighborhood came pre-made out of a box, with terracotta shingles that would fade gradually at the same rate as us.

It was Christmas when the murders started. First was Maura Studebaker, at the ‘cul’ of our cul-de-sac. It was a reminder that skin was only temporary and we’d crumple if not for having to protect our own children from the knowledge of this. The attacker descended from her wine attic and using a handheld, box vegetable & cheese grater, chaffed Maura Studebaker’s face to the skull. Earlier it had been wrapped under her tree (the grater, not her face). A curfew was instated. We cemented the doors.

Douglas was terrified to be alone. He’d plead with us to stay outside or sleep at friend’s houses.

‘There are noises in the wall,’ he’d say. ‘At night when it’s quiet, I can hear laughter. From the floor.’

‘You’re too old for monsters in floors. We’re safe here.’

Suzanne took it badly. I could smell she was smoking again and trying to hide it. We had to wash Douglas’s bedding once a week. I found our electric whisker in his room. The shingles lost all charm.

It came back. First as veins from the basement, then by storm clouds soaking above our heads. A swamp carpet. Radiator belching out what rot cooked behind the walls. I’d dial the thermostat down, only to find it turned back up in the morning. The neighborhood went dormant. Waiting. We lived coughing in a prison of urine and tobacco. Suzanne’s keys went missing.

‘You leave them out of this, you fuck.’

Silence.

I came home from work early to a Good-Guys Remediation truck in our driveway. Rushing his estimate so he could get out before dark.

‘This is going to cost you,’ he said, motioning to the leafy, black hair. ‘See the saturation here?’ A wolverine’s back. We couldn’t stop prying. Digging into the floor. Fingering living mud. When the drywall was pulled away, we saw it.

A body. Swaddled in green velvet.

The remediator didn’t put down his knife until we were safe on the lawn, away from the liberated bog.

They found Maura’s earrings in what had been the man’s nest. Suzanne’s keys. The coroner report noted it was death by rapid fungal asphyxiation.

The air lost all sharpness. A wasp parting with its stinger. A little kind of goodbye.

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