Mold – Jack Owens

“It’s still dark,” she said.
“It looks a little darker today,” he said, looking out the bedroom window. She lay her head back down. “Will you wake up with me?” The street was lined with houses, most of which reflected no light in their mostly blackened rot. The displaced lay strewn about their properties—away but as close as their health would allow. The hardwood creaked beneath his step as he sat on the bed and gazed upon her, pallid and beautiful. His stare the gentlest alarm, she looked back at him in calm.
“Let’s get started.” He said.
“Started? With what?” she asked.
“Well, breakfast I suppose.”
“You mean with the day? I’d like to lay for a while longer.”
“I’m just not feeling so comfortable.”
“But I’m not even awake, not really.”
“I want to check the basement.” Her eyes fell from his gaze.
“Okay,” she said.
“Why won’t you lay down awhile?”
“I just think…well, it’s darker out there.”
“You shouldn’t go alone. Just be with me for now and I’ll join you for breakfast. I’ll at least be on the main level when you go down.” They didn’t lay together for long.
She made breakfast, blocking the sight through the blindless, barred window. Bodies on neighbors’ lawns, feet away from the living, growing into them like clumpy moss. Where the night before there was only sidewalk lay a man torched with his arms stretched toward their house. She volunteered to do all of the cooking this morning.
“How does it look out there?” he asked, looking into his cup.
“Not so great, but not much worse,” she said. “Nothing new.”
“The lawn?”
“Nothing new?”
“Nothing new.” Their lawn was fine. Just outside the grassy perimeter on the sidewalk, the crawler was frozen in ash.
He stood up and paced as she put her body as squarely in front of the kitchen window as she was able. He picked up his coffee and went into the foyer between two doors. One led outside, the other concealed the basement. She watched him become solid and stiff in front of the latter.
“Love?” she said. He sat back down and she took a deep breath. Smoke filled her nostrils, the sizzling pan was making popping, crackling noises. She went to grab it and burned herself, dropping all of it.
“Shit, are you okay?” he asked, already out of his chair and by her side.
“I’m fine, just sit down. I’m fine.” She finished inspecting her reddening palm to find he’d already stood to look out the window. His gaze was suspended upon the ashen mud clump of remains, not yet washed of its skeletal position. She stood with him as he turned to look toward the basement. He returned his eyes to the body before sauntering back to his chair, the dry wood under his step the only sound in the room. The chair squeaked when he leaned back with his coffee. She almost asked him not to lean back in the chair.
The chores started shortly after. Her hands went slowly over pans, the counters, the tops of shelves. She kept an eye on him. It was hypnotic in part because of his meticulous work, sweeping and mopping then toothbrush scrubbing then drying. He wasn’t this way before. He caught her eyes on him separated by two rooms.
“What?” he asked. She just smiled back at him and turned back to her part. When the work on hand and knee was over for him, he stripped naked to put all of his dirtied clothing into a plastic garbage sack. She watched him do so, and gave him a smirk when they looked at each other. He only forced a little laugh.
“Are you done?” he asked.
“No I still have to do the library.” His cheeks filled with a big sigh as he looked at the plastic sack.
“Well, we can do yours later,” he said, walking naked down the hall. She heard the shower turn on. He liked to wash the towel right after using it. She turned back to look out upon the only view they’d had for so long. Where all the houses were homogenous with the same length of cut grass some time ago, they were now wildly overgrown and many rotten, awaiting their cremation.
They sat and read. It was rainy and dark outside, and if it had gotten darker since morning it was indistinct and would be until pitch black night. He put his book down.
“Where are you going?” she asked before he could stand up.
“Just the bathroom,” he said.
“You care if I go in with you?”
“Ok if I have a little privacy?”
“Ok,” she said. “Just the bathroom?” He nodded.
Once he was gone and it was quiet, she noticed a little brightness blanketing the neighborhood, not the muted brightness of an overcast day, but the smoke filtered orange of fire. Down a couple blocks they’d started burning houses, only one so far was emitting its smoke. She watched the column of black smoke escape the clawing flame, seeing another one on the opposite end of town. Then it was a house close enough she could hear spitting flame, just out of sight at the end of their block. She walked backwards looking out the window. The block grew brighter. She walked until she could reach the bathroom doorknob behind, then shut herself in with him.
“What is it?” he asked.
“The fires.”
He finished and walked out, approaching the window while she tailed closely. The exterminator was emerging from the billows of smoke spilling out of the house’s every orifice.
The man walked without word to the basement door and opened it.
“What are you doing!” she yelled at him, and ran herself into the door ripping it out of his hand.
“We need to be sure.”
“We can be sure later.”
“Did you smell that?”
“I didn’t smell anything and neither did you.”
“We don’t know for sure.”
“What if you don’t come back up? Basements smell weird, all of them. What are you going to do if you find it? Have them burn down our house and live on our lawn like one of them?”
“If we stall it’ll be too late. They could eradicate it before it gets any worse.”
“I’m not letting one of them into our home.”
The call like a screaming elk made its way through every house. She went to the front door and held her hand out for him. Out of the peephole she could see the few remaining people like them open their doors as the exterminator stood mid-street, turning to see all. She turned around to see why he hadn’t grabbed her hand yet. He was still standing by the basement door. Outside the exterminator started up their walkway, slowly gliding closer in his long, black uniform. The man and woman stared at each other, eyes threatening one another. She opened the door without him. The exterminator, half up the walkway, leaned to get a better look at them. When it opened wide enough to reveal them both, the man walked forward to join hands with her. They looked into the infected pearlescent reflection of clouds in his wide goggles, morphing as he came closer, inspecting the house from the ground up. The mask looked back at them as he took his steps to the threshold. He leaned past their faces while he looked into the house. They were clenching each other’s hands hard enough to crack a few knuckles, keeping themselves distracted. The ignition on the flamethrower neared the area mat, so she squeezed down even harder, cracking another knuckle on his hand to keep him from reacting. The exterminator brought it back up after a few threads singed. He fixed his gaze back on them, and as they were still, they could hear the faint sound of breathing somewhere behind the mask. He nodded, gliding back to the street. He paused at the burnt skeleton to kick it, collapsing it into a pile of soggy bones, and had it cleaned by the crew in the following fuel truck. The man walked back inside without her as she watched the scared people she never saw anymore hold each other and retreat back into their homes.