4861 words (19 minute read)

All the Rot in the Walls

Oren Hobbs covered the house sitting on 20 acres of flat field with a faded, glossy-paper photograph of that same house, taken 60 years earlier. Oren’s toddler self was holding his mother’s hand in the picture. His father’s arm was around her shoulder, feigning their happiness five years before their divorce. They stood among Oren’s grandparents on his father’s side, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and God knows who else. He lowered the picture to see the house in the present.

He was standing at exactly the right angle and distance so that the house appeared the same size and shape as the one in the picture, but the similarities almost ended there. Saying the house was dilapidated would be severe politeness. But, an optimist might say it wasn’t collapsing, at least. A realtor might call it a “fixer-upper,” and that realtor might not be totally lying. Oren was living in it, after all. “Living” might be an overstatement, but he was at least “staying” there. He’d gotten the power and water hooked up to the important parts of the house. He’d tied a mattress to his truck and stuck it in one room, then bought a box of light bulbs, a cheap coffee-maker, a can of Folgers, and a brand-new air conditioner window unit. The window unit wasn’t great, since they were only needed a few weeks out of the year in eastern Washington State, but it worked well enough if he shut all the doors to his “bedroom.”

Oren had just finished driving around the property in his pickup truck. His grandparents died in ’92, and it looked like nobody had been there since. It was a wonder the place hadn’t burned down. A service called Dreams of Flora specializing in large estate grounds maintenance had mowed down the grass as tall as a man a couple of weeks ago, and Oren had promised the office manager that he would consider using them again if he didn’t buy his own equipment. They had breathed the old charm back into the land. He remembered the few trees that still stood on the property. He remembered one particularly big hill he used to roll down when he was a child.

He stopped the truck when he came by the cave nestled in the tree line. The half-assed barrier was still there, doing enough of a job to warn people away, but not actually barring entry. The cave was fairly close to the house, only about an acre away, but he had never explored it and neither had anyone in his family, to his knowledge. He had vague memories of his grandparents saying “the police” had forbidden entry into it, which he now understood to mean that the government had forbidden it. Did that mean the cave wasn’t technically part of the property? He would need to look into that.

Oren smelled the faintest hint of an odor wafting through the air. It came and went in mildly unpleasant waves. He thought it might be coming from the old truck, like something had stuck to the grill and began to cook in the engine’s heat. Or, it might be the shit of some animal nearby, except that it smelled sour and rotten, less like shit and more like a full garbage can in a kitchen that had been there too long. It wasn’t constant, and it wasn’t vile, but it was enough to make Oren want it gone. He put the truck into drive and moved on.

The air conditioning in the old Toyota had failed years ago, and Oren was sweating. It was time to go drink his glass of water he’d placed in front of the window unit’s vents hours ago. A Southerner might cackle at a northerner wilting in 85-degree heat, but he was acclimated to northwest temperatures and this was his limit. It was all relative, he told the imaginary cackling Southerner. Let’s see how fast you close up your schools when you see a flake fall from the sky.

Oren believed he had not ever been a wealthy man, a supposition that many would grumblingly disagree with. He had never really known any sort of hard times financially and his income had always been above average. He might not have been able to afford the house if he’d had to buy it outright, but he could afford to inherit it and spend his retirement fixing it up. His mother had died last year, and she had owned the deed to the house after wresting it from Oren’s father in the divorce. Oren had no children and, despite a dismal real estate market, was able to sell his own house that he had miraculously not lost in his own divorce. He and his ex-wife Margie had never had any children and she had agreed to some lucrative assets in favor of waiving alimony, a proposition that Oren had grumblingly agreed with.

After a night’s sleep on his floor mattress, Oren sat on the steps of his new old house, drinking black coffee from a Styrofoam cup. People would ask him how he could stand a hot drink on a hot day. He never answered them. He had no business with people who did not understand coffee. Oren was waiting for David Bird, an old colleague from when he worked as a draftsman for Grimsby Engineering. Oren would describe David as an “Indian,” even if David himself would take issue with the label. David had been the Grimsby building’s handyman before leaving to start his own contracting business. He had agreed to do a renovation job at a significant discount with three caveats: Oren had to be flexible on what days David worked, David would bring no additional crew from his contracting business, and Oren had to help. Oren was actually looking forward to the last item on the list; there was something attractive about the idea of living in a house he put back together with his own hands.

Even though Oren was waiting, David was not late by any means. In fact, when his truck pulled in, he was a half hour earlier than the agreed-upon 7 a.m. start time.

“Still an early riser, huh?” David said as he got out of his truck, his perfectly white teeth gleaming. Oren marveled at how age had not robbed him of his looks. David’s hair was still black and straight and plentiful. His sunset skin was strong. Oren pushed his thoughts down reflexively. He raised his coffee cup to David, smiling back.

“I thought I’d try to beat you,” David said, approaching the porch. He propped one boot up on the bottom step. “Y’know, shame you a little by pulling up before you’d gotten outside.”

Oren chuckled deep in his throat. “That was a losing game, friend,” he said.

The two spent the half hour before the starting time catching up. Talking about family, divorce, retirement, business—the boring talk that filled Oren with a warmth like his cup of coffee. Anyone who didn’t like small talk didn’t understand people, and Oren had no business with them.

They started with the plumbing. David explained they would then move on to any wiring issues, then to the more cosmetic renovations. He wanted to make sure all the wall-tearing work was done before doing anything else. Oren thought this was a perfectly pragmatic approach.

“What are you gonna do with the land?” David asked during their lunchbreak a few weeks into the work. David had brought sandwiches from a little grocery in town, and Oren had reimbursed him.

“I’m actually not sure,” Oren said. “You couldn’t tell it now, but it used to be a farm. The barn burned down ages ago. The ruins are probably still on the property somewhere, just covered up by the grass.”

“Huh,” said David through a mouth full of ham and mayo.

“I could just let it be. I’ll just have a great view when I wake up for my coffee every morning. Is there a fair or somethin’ here?”

“Nah,” David said, still chewing.

“I could rent it out for that every year. The carnies just bring in everything on a bunch of trucks and power it all with generators. I could make some good money doing that,” Oren said, neglecting his own sandwich.

David swallowed. “You could be the Carnival Man. The kids would love you.”

“That doesn’t sound half bad, actually,” Oren said, laughing. “Retirement brings out the whimsy in a man. Hell, I’d be the first legal carnie!”

David smiled at this, but it was weaker than it had been during the rest of the conversation. They spent the rest of the day mostly silent.

David didn’t come some days. Oren had to wait for him to be available, then paid him by the day. If they worked as hard as they had the day before, though, Oren had no objection to the arrangement. David had made a good living for himself by being a hard worker, Oren thought, not by being handed something for free like a lot of folks in his position.

Besides, there was work to be done other than renovation. It wasn’t exactly an urgent problem. It almost wasn’t a problem at all, except that it was a loose end, an unaccounted-for asset, and Oren had no taste for that. He retrieved his manila folders from the kitchen drawer that currently served in lieu of a desk drawer. He flipped through the papers he’d printed off at the Spokane library, making sure his ducks were in a row before dialing his phone. The bureaucrats were going to try busting his balls. He called the County Commissioner for his district, a woman named Lynn Carriger. He was surprised to find she was in her office, since he was led to believe that being commissioner was a part-time job. Oren thought she sounded black, but had the sense not to say anything.

“Oh, no, I’m retired,” she said. “Honestly, I’m here all the time. All I’d do at home is read and watch TV anyway, so I just do that here.”

“I’m retired, too,” Oren said, strategically chumming it up with her. “It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”

“It is, except I get stir-crazy. I’m always trying to find things to do.”

“Well, that’s actually why I’m calling. I’m renovating a house I inherited—“

“Oh, how wonderful!” the commissioner said, interrupting.

“Yes,” said Oren, wresting control of the conversation back. “But, there’s a cave on property. I’m not sure what I can do with it, or if it’s even technically on my property.”

“Hnnnmmm,” Carriger said, drawing the consonants out. “That’s a little out of my wheelhouse. I think you need to call the National Parks Service. There’s an office in Davenpo-”

“You’re just going to pass the buck?” Oren interrupted her. He put calculated annoyance in his voice. He had anticipated this turn in the conversation—he would have been shocked if it had gone any other way—and had the phrase “pass the buck” locked and loaded, knowing it was venom to a politician.

“Well, no, I—“ Carriger stammered for a second. It wouldn’t be in her nature to fight back, yet, Oren had figured.

“I thought you were going to help me,” he said. “I live in an unincorporated area out in the county, and there’s a cave on that land that is almost certainly government property. I don’t know if it’s dangerous or not. I know you can’t personally come out here and spelunk the thing, but I thought you’d at least be able to get someone on the phone who could!”

Oren’s voice raised as spoke. He finished his monologue at almost shouting volume.

“Sir, there is no need to speak like that to me!” Carriger said, obviously offended. Good, Oren thought. She broke quickly.

“Sorry,” he said, intentionally not sounding sorry. “I guess I’ll start with the Parks service. They’re just going to stonewall me like you, though. God, I hope no kids fall into that hole.”

He hung up without saying goodbye. If someone else had been there with him, they might have tried to comfort Oren because they would have seen a man frustrated by a lack of progress. But, to Oren, the bickering was progress. To him, he had worn them down. He was just retired, that was all, and he didn’t have to do it all damn day if he didn’t want to. He’d pick it up tomorrow or the next day or whenever he felt like it. The battle was just beginning, and he had the rest of his life to fight it.

A stink slipped into his nostrils as he was filing his paperwork in his faux office. He sniffed, trying to track down the source around the baseboards and the sink drains, but the smell escaped. He sniffed his garbage can, an act that almost anyone would have giggled at if he hadn’t been alone. The can stank a little, but it wasn’t the sour milk odor he had inhaled a moment before. He hefted the bag out of the can and out the door, anyway. As he dumped the bag in the can by the road, the smell sneaked up on him again. His head snapped to attention. He could see the cave sitting on the tree-line at the edge of the amorphous property shape.

Oren walked toward it, the big black hole in his reality. The smell grew stronger as he walked toward it, but not by much; it still wasn’t enough to make him feel ill. Oren stopped about 100 feet away from the rusty gates, then stumbled over the rocky ground all the way up to the mouth. He put his hand on the rusty metal barrier and sniffed. The smell was definitely coming from the cave. It was still faint, still not knock-you-on-your-back rank, but Oren was sure the cave was the source. He stood peering into the pitch blackness, unsure what to do about the problem. Unsure if it even was a problem. He was rural, now, and this would not be the only strange thing he smelled over the next 25-odd years.

Motion in the corner of his eye made him turn his head down. A sizeable millipede was gliding along the ground. It crawled under the barrier toward the darkness of the cave. Oren noticed a line of ants crawling after it, then two, then three. Oren jumped away, looking quickly around to make sure he wasn’t still standing in them. He shook his jean cuffs to get rid of any hitchhikers. He wasn’t standing in ants, anymore, but he could still see a parade of other bugs—spiders, grasshoppers, and every disgusting thing God lovingly made in between—making their way toward the darkness of the cave, disappearing in the meridian between the shadow cast by the cave roof and the setting sun. Oren shivered a little and walked back to the truck.

“It’s starting to look like a home,” David said a month later, at the height of June. Both he and Oren were sweating buckets as they put up new drywall.

“That it is,” Oren said back cheerfully, but breathlessly. He was in an A-shirt that did little to hide his aging figure, but he had stopped caring about that weeks ago.

“You get that thing with the county commissioner taken care of?” David asked.

Oren darkened a little, but kept the spirit in his voice. “Not yet. They’ll break.”

“You never were one to just up and do whatever you were told,” David said. “You had to believe it was a good idea, too.”

“Most people just call that stubborn,” Oren said.

“Nah, I don’t think that’s fair. I mean, you are stubborn, but you’re also…”

David stopped to find a word. Oren silently let him.

“…dedicated. And you can’t be swindled or, uh… cajoled? If people wanna just lump all that together into some sorta jab at you, I guess that’s their business. But, it’s bullshit.”

“Well, I appreciate that, David.”

Oren thought David was going to say something in return, but instead he suddenly hooted, “hwoof, what’s that smell?”

Oren’s eyebrows raised, then he smelled it, too. The same rotten milk odor he had smelled in the cave, but stronger now, like the milk was baking in a hot car.

“I think it’s the cave,” Oren said.

“Like, the cave-cave?” David said. “Are you sure?”

“C’mon, let’s go look,” Oren said.

The pair walked to the same place outside the cave that David had been when he watched the insects march into it. The smell was awful. Oren backed away after a minute, but David stood his ground, staring into the cave’s throat.

“What the hell is it?” David asked.

“Hell if I know,” Oren asked. “It’s been getting worse all summer. I’m thinking about throwing a few sticks of dynamite down it and just closing her up. I’m not dealing with this every summer.”

“You can’t just throw dynamite willy-nilly,” said David.

“Why? Is it an environmental thing? Like, an Indian thing?” Oren asked a little breathlessly.

“I’m not a tree-hugger, but I care enough,” David said, annoyed. “And I’m not Indian.”

“Right, Native American,” Oren said, insincerely.

“I’m Spokane.”

“Like, the city?” Oren said.

“Sure. But, also like the tribe,” David said. “If you need to call me something, call me Spokane.”

“Okay, but I’m from Spokane, too,” Oren said condescendingly. “Am I Spokane?”

David scoffed. He put a hand on his forehead and shook his head.

“I’m impressed you got this far into the summer,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Oren said, belligerence crawling into his voice on a thousand little legs.

“Without being a jackass,” David said. He did not say it with the jocular tone he had kept up all summer.

“You are making a big deal outta nothing,” Oren said.

“I’m not a handyman at an engineering firm anymore. I don’t have to nod at smile at people like you anymore.”

David began briskly walking back to the house. The sun was just beginning to set. Oren suddenly felt like he did not want to be near the cave alone, so he began to follow David at a distance. David was fitter and faster than him, though, and he reached the house a good 50 yards ahead of him. David disappeared around the front. A moment later, he yelled.

“What the hell?!”

Oren hurried to see what was happening. An angry stone settled in his stomach. The Indian better not try to scam him. When Oren reached the front of the house, David was pointing at the tires on his truck with his whole hand.

“What?” Oren asked, genuinely confused.

“What the hell?!” he repeated, angrier than before.

Oren kneeled down cautiously to look at the tires, keeping one eye on David. All the tires were flat. There were holes the size of railroad spikes in the rubber. In a few places the rubber was mangled, like it had been ripped out with tremendous force. None of the tears or holes had the cleanness of a knife slash.

“Did you do that?” David said. He sounded like he already had the answer to his question.

“Oh, come on,” Oren said, furious. “It looks like you ran over some glass or something on the way here. When would I have done it, anyway? While you were bein’ a crybaby over by the cave?”

David sucked on his bottom lip. “One of my guys lives nearby. I’ll walk to his place and stay the night. I’ll get a tow out here tomorrow morning, if that’s okay with you.”

“That’s fine,” Oren said.

“And I think you should find another contractor,” David said.

“I think that’s obvious,” Oren said. “Maybe I’ll get someone a little more like me, someone that understands I’m the boss and they’re supposed to nod and smile at guys like me.”

David breathed heavily through his nostrils, but kept his body language non-threatening. He kept his back to Oren and started walking toward the road. More vitriol came up in Oren’s throat, but he didn’t let it past his lips. The lazy Indian was gone, that was all that mattered. Gone back to his reservation, probably. Free land that was given to him by taxpayers like Oren. Where was Oren’s free land? He went inside the house he inherited.

It had been barely sunset when the two went to the cave, and now the day was melting into twilight. It was gorgeous on this land. David let his stress melt away, a trick he’d learned long ago by being a person who looked like the horrifying cartoon on the state’s NFL team logo. He looked in the direction of the cave. It was closer than he thought it would be. He realized he had strayed while daydreaming and was actually walking away from the road. He could smell the cave’s scent. It was still pungent, but now it had a sweet tinge to it that was almost pleasant.

The cave was such a beautiful mystery. Oren would ruin it one day. He would just keep grappling with the Parks service until he got fed up and destroyed it. David followed the odor to the mouth of the cave. The scent still wasn’t fragrant, but it smelled familiar, like the comforting stink of his own dog. Like the sweat of someone in his bed. His head felt foggy. He looked down and saw a lizard crawling toward the cave. There was a brown hare, hopping the same way. And a coyote. And a doe. They all ignored David. He felt an urge to follow them. He fought it with his mind, trying to tear the fog away from his thoughts, but it poured in like smoke into lungs. Millipedes unearthed themselves and crawled up his pant legs, holding on as David’s feet walked on their own across the meridian between twilight and darkness. The scent turned from alluring to wretched as David sobbed quietly. The shadows of the cave melted into the night, and David melted with them.

The next day was the hottest day of the year, according to Oren’s Old Farmer’s Alamanac. Oren felt it beat on him as he made it worse with his first cup of coffee. He sat on his porch and watched the towers haul away David’s truck. He didn’t feel a grain of guilt. He’d remind the Indian who was in charge. He might even give him his job back if he was smart about it. He laughed darkly to himself, trying to find a joke about “Indian giving” he was sure was there somewhere.

“Yeah, fuck you, Bird,” he whispered to himself. This was the third towing company he had called. The first two wanted payment up front, since he wasn’t the owner of the vehicle. He had argued with them, insisting that he bill David Bird’s contracting company, but nobody wanted to do that and wouldn’t budge on the policy. At his wit’s end, he had agreed to pay the third company, but only because they agreed to a discount and he was worried the window of time for his revenge plan was closing.

He took the first sip of his second cup of coffee, his “porch cup,” and spat it out immediately. The cave smell was awful and had grown so strong in the heat that it tainted his coffee. Now the sweaty, milky smell seemed to seep into everything around him, rotting his freshly painted walls.

He would never admit it, not even to himself, but he had not called Lynn Carriger again since the first phone call. The work and the summer heat had taken away his guts. He was at the end of summer with no progress made on even getting information about the cave, much less taking care of the smell. The stench had kept him up at night for a week.

He broke. He obeyed Carriger and called the National Parks Service. A neutered Oren spent the day being passed by bureaucrats from phone to phone, voicemail to voicemail. He listened to hours of hold music. He waited hours more for returned phone messages. Finally, when an Indian man (Oren fumed over the fact that he was not even an American like David, but rather a person—no, a foreigner—from the country of India) tried to tell him he’d have to pay a fee for a records request that would take at least two weeks to fulfill, he shouted, “Why are you there?! Why does an American government have Pakistanis working there?! If you’re gonna steal an American’s job, motherfucker, then you’d think you’d have the decency to be good at it!” He threw the phone across the room and screamed. He didn’t say words, he just screamed loud and long.

Out of the corner of his eye, Oren saw movement. A white millipede’s legs undulated up the door frame. Repulsed, oren flung a McDonald’s cup at it, knocking the millipede down and spilling the splash of flat Diet Coke that had been at the bottom of the cup. Oren, enraged at the intruder, stomped. The millipede crunched satisfyingly underneath the weight of Oren’s heavy work boots.

When Oren’s heartbeat had stopped pounding and his breathing returned to normal, he heard a quiet skittering sound that made his skin prickle. It was coming from the flimsy door frame the now-dead millipede had been crawling on. Oren’s anger resurfaced, and he yanked the weak wood off with his bare hands. The milky smell surged into his nostrils. Underneath where the wood had been were dozens of the white millipedes, burrowing into the walls of his home. Their waving bodies and countless legs made Oren’s heart skip and his stomach lurch. He fought the sickness off with rage and began smashing at them with a piece of loose wood he found leaning against the pantry wall.

When he was satisfied with the damage, Oren tore open the cabinet door that housed the dynamite he had bought from a shady hardware store a month ago, tossed it haphazardly into the back of his truck, and drove the less-than-a-minute-long drive to the cave. He could almost see the stink in the air. He bought the bundle of dynamite with the intention of placing it strategically around the entrance, but now he simply yanked one stick of it out of the truck bed. He stood midways between the barrier and the truck. He would throw the dynamite, and then plug his ears and take cover behind the truck. At worst, he would lose a window or two.

As he moved into position, the air stopped smelling so repulsive for a moment. He had seen on PBS once that the human nose was incredibly adaptable. In a way, the smell was almost familiar. It reminded him of his ex-wife when she would come in from working in the yard, back two houses ago when they were together. Before things became frustrating. The smell seemed almost inviting, almost suggesting that if he pushed past it, something wonderful would be waiting for him.

He shooed the thought away, lit the fuse on the dynamite, and flung it as hard as he could. He underestimated his strength, causing the dynamite’s arc to meet with the cave ceiling and bounce down. The sharp light of the fuse illuminated white, fleshy tubes with uncountable jointed sticks poking out of them, writhing in the shadows.

Oren barely had time to process these shapes. He barely had time to process them darting at uncanny speed towards him. He barely had time to feel their weight on him, or to feel pain as his arms and legs separated from him, or to understand when the rest of him was snatched into the cave. He never heard the dynamite explode, nor felt the rocks crumble down on top of him.

Next Chapter: Of Sand, Part I: The Apartment