They leave flyers in our doors. The flyers tell us that, beginning at nine o’clock Tuesday morning, they are cleaning the roofs and installing bird deterrents over the next few days, and so we need to watch out for falling shingles and bird excrement. The deterrents will prevent flocks of gulls and crows from landing and perching and crapping all day, which turns the apartment buildings into reeking tables of urea and destroys the natural beauty the apartment complex staff works so hard to preserve.
I show the flyer to Olivia, and we agree that we do not need to worry about Tuesday. She will be at work and I will be helping Ben move some furniture out of his aunt’s house, which is embroiled in the foreclosure process. For the rest of the week I’ll be out job hunting, because Olivia told me she’ll kick me out if I don’t start working soon. She can’t afford to pay all the bills. “You’re almost as bad as those birds,” she said, but I don’t think she meant it.
On Tuesday morning I leave the apartment at 7:36, one hour and twenty-four minutes before we are to begin watching out for falling shingles and bird excrement. It is a warm morning. Olivia always kisses me goodbye in the early hours before she goes to work. Her rosy perfume always wakes me up. As I walk to the car I realize she did not kiss me goodbye today.
Ben’s aunt’s house is a twenty-three minute drive from my apartment by way of Leetsdale, Alameda, Colorado and then 12 blocks up 23rd. The neighborhood is replete with large, old, dilapidated houses—mostly late 19th century brownstones and Victorians with rickety balconies and turrets crowned by shingled cupolas. Junk and trash fill many yards. On one lawn is a claw-footed bathtub filled with rebars, some of which still cling to jagged chunks of concrete. The lawn in front of Ben’s aunt’s house, however, is clean, though the grass needs to be mowed and the weeds pulled. From what I remember of the last time I visited this house, years ago, the clean lawn is a façade.
When I pull up I see Ben standing on the sagging porch steps and looking sick to his stomach. I turn off my car and get out.
“You all right?”
Ben shakes his head. “I’m sorry, man. You shouldn’t have to see this.”
He shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”
He turns and walks up the porch stairs. I follow. The floorboards creak beneath us. The front door is large and brown and inset with translucent crystal windows. He pushes the door open.
The smell hits me hard. Cat urine, cat feces, something like wet wool. That’s the best of it. There is an odor like that of a backed-up toilet. There is the reek of rotten meat and rotten fruit. A sour stench like dairy gone bad. My eyes water. I pull my T-shirt collar up over my nose.
“I’m sorry,” Ben says again, leading the way into an open foyer lit by a ceiling globe smeared over with something black. Thirty flies buzz madly around the globe and dart in for a quick taste of the grime. The light must be too hot for landing.
I kick aside milk and egg cartons and shopping bags filled with something soft and crumbly. One bag breaks open, spilling rocks of litter-encrusted cat feces and urine. There are at least twenty of these bags sitting on the floor near the front door.
A grand staircase leads upward into shadows, but my eye goes little farther than the stacks of cigarette packs and cartons, empty beer cans, orange rinds, banana peels, apple cores, egg shells, rusty nails, wadded-up diapers, and yellowed pairs of men’s briefs scattered across the stairs. A hallway leads past the staircase toward the back of the house. A set of windowless French doors is set in the left wall. Ben walks into the living room on our right.
I stand in the front hall for a second, breathing through my T-shirt but still smelling the smorgasbord of odors. The hackles rise on my arms and neck. There is something else here. There is something alive in the house. I look over my shoulder. There is nothing but the open door. I hear the crinkle of a shopping bag. The buzz of flies. The scrape of cardboard on wood. A beer can tips over on the stairs and clatters and rolls down a few steps before stopping against a wadded diaper stained black and brown.
“Close the door!” something growls from the living room. “You’re letting the heat out.”
I shut the front door, then step between bags of cat feces and litter and milk cartons and chaw tins and beer bottles half filled with cigarette butts and murky black liquid to enter the living room. The living room floor is also covered in trash. Beer bottles and cans line the two windowsills and stand guard between bags of cat waste. A large man sits in a ratty chair wrapped in threadbare throws, which are covered in crumbs and tainted with smoke stains and something else. The large man needs to shave. He stares at the floor. His arms rest on the high arms of the chair, and a beer bottle leans precariously in his right hand. His knuckles are dark with hair.
A half-empty box of stale lo mein noodles trembles next to a bag of cat feces sitting by the TV. The TV rests on the floor, its screen still and dark.
“This is George,” Ben tells me, waving his hand dismissively at the large man, but I’m watching the trembling box of Chinese food. “George, this is—”
“You’re Ben’s friend, huh?” George says in a voice graveled with cigarettes and beer. “I didn’t know Ben had friends.”
Something black darts out of the lo mein box and crawls behind the cat bag. The back of my neck tingles.
“Hey,” I say, turning to George. George is still staring at the floor.
“Randy’s in the kitchen, Ben. Randy hates me.” George takes a swig of beer. Antennae protrude from the side of his chair. The antennae move, and a cockroach pokes the rest of his head through the hole. It retreats into the chair when Ben starts to kick through the filth toward the kitchen. “I just don’t understand why you say stuff like that, Randy,” George grumbles as we leave.
Randy is in the kitchen. She looks older than I remember. Her hair is long and black and gray and wiry. Her elfin brow has fallen and squeezed her face into a sad, scrunched-up visage, and her sprightly manner has been evicted in the process.
“Ben,” Randy says. Then she turns to me. “I remember you.”
“Hey, yeah, it’s been a while. How are you?”
Randy nods, stares into space and keeps nodding as though she has forgotten how to stop. She crumples gray paper and wraps up curios and dishes from a glass cabinet built into the wall over the counter. The kitchen lights are off. Sunlight slants in through dusty, grease-caked blinds that partially cover a large, dirty window.
“Didja see George?” Randy says slowly.
“Yeah,” Ben replies. “What do you need us to do, Aunt Randy?”
We stare at her. Her face is gray and lined and pockmarked with moles and faded acne. She laughs. She is missing one of her front teeth. Her gums are dark red and swollen where they meet her canines and extant incisors.
Randy needs us to clean and to carry furniture out onto the lawn. She wants to have a yard sale. She draws a big sign on poster board that reads, “Yard Sail.” When she shows it to George, he says, “Maybe I should just leave, Randy. Up and leave. Should I, Randy?”
Randy does not reply.
It is when we are carrying trash to the dumpster in the alley out back, while George just sits and watches us brush cockroaches and black ants and gnats off our shoes and shirt sleeves, that Ben says, “I wish he would. I hate that guy. I’ve always hated him. He just leeches and leeches off her. I would kill him if I had it in me. This is fucking disgusting.”
“He doesn’t have a job?” I close a carton of putrid milk and listen to the bugs skitter and scrape and flounder inside. I stuff the carton into a trash bag, which writhes and crinkles.
“No. Neither does she. That’s why they can never make their fucking house payments. They’ve been living off his fucking severance and borrowing from his daughter and me and my cousins. We’re not giving them anything anymore. Nikki and I are trying to save for a new house. We’re all sick of… We’re done.”
The rest of the day is a blur of stench and throbbing heat and thrumming flies and screeching mosquitoes, scratches from desk corners and wood staples protruding from couch legs.
When we’re drinking beer on the sagging porch late in the afternoon, when the sun is still high enough that the porch is shaded and a few degrees cooler, Ben says, “Sorry, Auntie, I just can’t pay your bills anymore.”
Randy nods and nods and nods, then smiles her toothy smile. I stare into the blackness between her front teeth and wish I could be somewhere frigid and dark and empty.
A pair of old ladies creep onto the lawn and peruse the Yard Sail. “What a beautiful house,” they say. They buy a claw-footed end table and a stained-glass lamp to go with it.
“Twenty-five,” Randy tells them.
They pay it.
It is the only sale of the day.
George visits me late that night.
Olivia is draped across me, her warm breasts mashed against my side and her dream-laced breath hot on my neck, but I cannot take my eyes off the cockroach on the ceiling.
After two showers I can still smell the stench of the house. They say the strongest memories and emotions are those associated with scents and odors because of the proximity of the rhinencephalon to the limbic system. My brain may be permanently scarred with the odors of the day. I use a coat hanger to remove my rhinencephalon through my nostrils.
A gust of pond-cooled wind rolls through the bedroom window, waking me from my half-dream. The wind carries with it a whiff of bird excrement from the apartment complex rooftops. Olivia rolls over to her side of the bed. The wind does not loose the cockroach from its roost.
I grab my glass of half-empty water from the nightstand and leap to my feet atop the bed, sending the comforter flying. I put the glass over the cockroach and will it to fall in the water and drown.
“Wh… What’s going on?” Olivia mumbles, then falls asleep again.
The cockroach does not fall in the water. The cockroach does not react to the glass cell. I lower the glass. There is no cockroach. I stare at the black oval stain on the ceiling and wonder where it came from.
I go to the kitchen and throw my water glass in the trash—the glass reeks with smells contracted from my breath and skin, or perhaps from close contact with the cockroach that was not a cockroach. I grab another glass from the cabinet, then open the refrigerator to grab the filtered water.
There is something alive in the refrigerator. Aluminum foil crinkles as something works its way through a wrapped-up slice of pizza. The egg carton lid trembles, and I hear legs clicking and sliding on the shells of eggs. The carton of pineapple juice shudders. Grape jelly undulates in its jar. Something black swims in the glass pitcher of raspberry lemonade. My stomach lurches into my throat.
“I heard Ben wants to kill me,” George says behind me.
I spin around and look over the kitchen counter into the living room, where George sits in his great, bug-eaten throne, wrapped in shadows and the deep blue of night. A half-empty beer bottle leans dangerously in his hand.
I close the refrigerator. I can still hear the things burrowing and squishing through our food.
“Ben wants me to leave. Randy wants me to leave too, but she really don’t care because deep down she likes it.”
I slowly step into the living room, afraid that I or George might awaken Olivia. She needs her sleep to function well at work, and she always gets up early.
“How did you get in here?” I ask. I hear clicking footsteps on the roof, as of many things or a single thing with many legs.
“Ben didn’t like it when I came into his house an hour ago. Ben didn’t like it when I bit off Nikki’s tongue.”
“What are you talking about?” I curse myself for not grabbing a knife before I left the kitchen.
“Nikki didn’t like it either, but that didn’t last long. I buried her upside-down.”
The footsteps on the roof cease. There is a cracking, a scraping from the roof. I hear shingles slide off and I think of the bird deterrents they are going to install.
“I sawed Ben’s right leg off. I sawed Ben’s left arm off. Each half of his brain now controls a single limb. This seems fair to me.”
I look over the counter at the knife block. It is empty. The knives must be in the dishwasher. I wonder whether the dishes are clean or dirty.
“Now, what should we do with Olivia?”
“Why are you doing this?” I say, taking a step backwards. The skittering and scraping continue on the roof.
“I do not leave,” George says. “I will always be here.” A six-inch long cockroach emerges from the arm of the chair and skitters up onto George’s beer. It caresses the bottle lip with its antennae as it peers inside. George nods toward the cockroach. “I will survive with them.”
I back slowly into the kitchen.
“I think we’ll slit Olivia down the middle, beginning at the base of her throat. I brought the bone saw I used on Ben. We’ll use that to open Olivia’s rib cage. We’ll continue down her abdomen and into her groin. There will be a lot of blood and a lot of anatomy.”
George reaches over his head to the wall, plants his palms, then flips himself up onto the wall. The chair goes with him—plastered to his rear and back like an insect carapace. His bottle of beer burbles out onto the floor and begins to fizz. From the spill arises the odor of stale urine, and the bubbling brown liquid begins to creep up into the walls. Cockroaches and worms and centipedes and millipedes and elephant beetles swarm in and out of the tunnels in George’s armchair exoskeleton. He looks up at me with black, blazing eyes. “Yes,” he says. “That is what we will do with Olivia.”
I jump blindly into the kitchen to look for a weapon. I slam into the countertop and then spin down to the floor next to the dishwasher.
“Yes, Olivia. Here’s George. George is here.” I hear his voice recede—he is crawling down the hallway toward the bedroom.
I jump to my feet, rush to the knife block on the counter and grab the butcher knife.
When I reach the bedroom I find George on the ceiling. A long tentacle of white mucus stretches from his gaping mouth down to the comforter and slowly slithers closer to Olivia’s peaceful face.
George hears me come in and whips his head around to glower at me. The white tentacle whips across the room at me, knocking the butcher knife out of my hand. The tentacle snaps back, curls down into a dripping orifice in George’s armchair exoskeleton and emerges with a crescent-shaped bone saw.
I duck down beside the bed and grab the aluminum baseball bat I keep for security. When I stand up, George is swinging the bone saw like a pendulum inches above Olivia’s face.
I jump up on the bed and hit George in the back of the head with the baseball bat. He lets out a cry of spit and curdled cream, and I duck as he swings the bone saw blindly through the air. He spins around with a growl. His armchair carapace slams into me, knocking me off the bed and into the oak bookcase in the corner. Books tumble off the shelves and half bury me in the rich smells of paper and dust. Suddenly I see dust everywhere, coating the shelves and the yellowing books and roiling in the air itself.
There comes the whine of ripping metal as George slices through the window screen with his bone saw. The tentacle shoves the saw back into its orifice, then snaps back into George’s mouth like a measuring tape. “I do not leave,” he says as he crawls out the third-story window and into the night. A hundred millipedes, their black segments unnaturally large and round, come twittering along the bedroom floor and stream out through the window after their master.
I listen to the hush of the breeze. Its tides cool the sweat on my brow. I check on Olivia. She is sleeping peacefully.
I close the window.
I do not sleep the rest of the night.
I sop up the saliva and curdled cream George vomited on the floor in front of Olivia’s nightstand.
I use a rag to soak up the beer in the living room carpet.
I find the butcher knife in the corner of the bedroom. I wrap the knife in the beer-soaked rag.
I dump everything in the refrigerator into the trash bag with the rag and the knife and the paper towels saturated with George’s vomit.
It is 4 AM when I take out the trash. I realize it is the first time I’ve taken the trash out in months. Olivia has been doing it all this time. I think she will be happy with me.
When I get back in I hear the shower running—I can’t believe how early she gets up for work. She uses most of the time for her hair and make-up. Her perfume always awakens me, and it reminds me of when my mother would come in to kiss me goodbye before leaving for work, hours before Dad would drive me to school. Mom used lilac perfume. The light outside was black in the winter, deep blue in the summer. I crawl into bed while the shower is still running.
Olivia’s rosy perfume awakens me for a few seconds when she presses her lips, pleasantly sticky and moist with burgundy lipstick and gloss, against my forehead.
“Where did you go?” she asks.
“The wind broke the window screen,” I mumble. “They left the refrigerator open. I threw everything away. Do you want me to bring you lunch?”
“What? Um, no, I’ll just get something…out.”
She is gone.
I pull the comforter and sheets around me. They are warm and smell like Olivia. The light in the window is deep blue.
I spend the day cleaning. The floor, the couch, the chairs, the tabletops. I move furniture so I can clean every hidden inch of the floor. I scrape off the peeled paint and wipe away the brown stain. I paint over the long crack in the living room wall and ceiling. I organize our mail into stacks, then file the stacks into our respective file drawers. I call maintenance over to fix the bedroom window screen. I scrub the tub and sinks and I mop the tile floors in the kitchen and the bathroom. I wash the windows. I polish the doorknobs. I polish my two pairs of shoes and Olivia’s fourteen. I dust bookshelves. I organize the books by genre and then alphabetically by author.
I do all of this because I know that no matter how much time I spend or which cleaning product I use or how much muscle I put into the scouring, I will not be able to clean the black spot from the ceiling, the spot I was certain was a cockroach. It will survive me. Everything else will be clean.
It is 4:42 PM when I finish. Olivia gets home at six. I decide to go for a quick workout at the apartment complex gym before a shower and a jaunt to the grocery store. I smile. Olivia will be happy with me, for once. She will not kick me out when she sees what I have done. And tomorrow I will start looking for a job.
On the walk to the gym I notice a gull, one wing broken and tongue hanging from its orange beak, lying dead on the lawn of the outdoor commons. I look up at the surrounding buildings to see the newly installed bird deterrents. Spikes on the sloped rooftops. Wrought-iron cats crouching. Tin owls perching. Their green eyes stare at me no matter where I stand.
The gulls have gathered on a rooftop where the deterrents have not yet been installed. Quietly they stare at the metal cats and owls, the guardians who will keep the rooftops clean.
I go back to the apartment and return with a trash bag. There’s another one now, a crow, eyes black and empty, still twitching near the dead gull. I look up at the guarded roof and smile in admiration at the false creatures. The deterrent system doesn’t just ward the birds away. It makes them work. It scares them back into living. It doesn’t just deter birds. It kills birds.
Maybe that’s better.
A Colorado native, Ward Crockett is a freelance writer and filmmaker who currently resides in Chicago, IL. His writing has appeared in GUD, Kaleidotrope, OG’s Speculative Fiction, Thieves’ Jargon, Sinister Tales, and Right Hand Pointing. These days he is hard at work finishing up his first feature-length horror film, Night Things. Learn more about his film work at www.LastNightofApril.com.