October 2017 Contest Winner
Mikayla Mislak is a young writer. She recently graduated from Ithaca College and was awarded with magna cum laude. She is an editor in chief and writer at Odyssey Online.
Rotting from the Inside
I drove by Lin’s home the first time, believing that my GPS had steered me wrong. It was only during my second drive-by when I realized that the abandoned-looking house wasn’t so abandoned. What’s more, it was Lin’s home. I pulled my car into the tiny gravel driveway and stared at the house that leaned sideways like a sick old man. The white paint was cracked and chipping away. The shutters were either crooked or missing entirely. One of the windows had a long crack in it. Vines choked the side of the house, infecting the wood like a rash. From where I was parked, I could even get a glimpse at the backyard, which was covered in old lawn equipment, trash, and tarp. There even looked like there was a large dog cage, though Lin never mentioned having a dog. The place looked like a specter with decades of agony hanging on its shoulders. Even if someone bothered to cover it with a fresh coat of paint and repair all of the damage, the gloom would still rot the house from the inside out.
I took a breath and got out of my car. Traffic hummed by me. The country road was only a few steps away from the gravel lot. The house across the street was small, but in perfect order. It even had a bit of a charm with its tacky lawn ornaments and wind chimes. I looked around at the other houses that were in my line of sight. All small homes, but none with the same decay that clung to Lin’s house. I glanced back to the broken house, noticing patches on the roof that were missing shingles. In my neighborhood, the neighborhood board would have thrown a fit at a house in such a state. Must been why all the houses in my area looked so similar with their pristine lawns and seasonally appropriate decorations.
I made sure to lock all of my car doors and staggered over the tall weeds, worrying briefly about ticks. When I made it to the cement porch, I saw that one of the two steps was broken. I didn’t trust the second step either, so I stepped directly onto the porch, which was the only thing that seemed halfway sturdy around here.
Once I arrived in front of the door, I knocked loudly, eager to see something safe and familiar. I was rewarded shortly with the round face and dark eyes of my best friend.
“Tracy!” Lin said as she embraced me with a warmth that felt so foreign here. “Come in!”
I walked into the house. The smell of mildew and something rotting immediately pricked at my nostrils and I saw nothing but mess. “This is my humble abode!” Lin gestured grandly. Lin was always a bit of a bouncing ball, going from lunch table to lunch table in the cafeteria, melting everyone with her presence. She was quite popular at school, with everyone really, even the stoners and the geeks thought she was cool. She was so happy all the time, that even when she got hurt, she laughed. Most people didn’t know that about her though, and I was the only one that didn’t laugh along with Lin and everyone else. Honestly, I’m shocked Lin even considered me as a “best friend” when she was friends with people so much more intelligent, athletic, and all around more charming than me. I guess it helps that we’ve been friends since fourth grade. Lin scratched the back of her neck. “I’m sorry it’s so messy. But I did vacuum!” All the vacuuming and dusting in the world would not be able to clean this place. The place was probably riddled with mold, asbestos, lead, or some combination of the three. Not to mention the fact that there was clutter everywhere. I couldn’t even see the clean floors underneath the strange number of children’s toys, storage bins, and boxes of various seasonal decorations that looked like they hadn’t been touched in years. The children’s toys were especially strange considering Lin was an only child, a fact that she frequently complained about. Underneath all that clutter was a boxy old TV with a broken screen, a wooden coffee table, and a grey couch that was also covered in trash. It looked no one had sat on it for years.
Lin took me on a tour through her home, starting first with the kitchen. That rotting smell was definitely coming from in here, although it was anyone’s guess as to what was the culprit. Was it the moldy fruit on the kitchen table? The cold pot of stew on the stove? The overflowing garbage bin? Or the gargantuan pile of dirty dishes in the sink that overflowed onto the counters? “Want some ginger beef stew?”
“I ate before I came here,” I lied, glancing around. It was at this point when some parental figure would have greeted me. Either it was some awkward, but well-meaning father or a warm mother asking about school and friends and if I was dating anyone yet. But there was a palpable emptiness here. “Where are your parents?”
Lin’s body stiffened a bit. “Mom’s at work and so is my father.”
“Do they know that I’m here?” Would my presence alone cause havoc? What would they do to me if they knew I was here? What would they do to her?
“Oh no, if they knew you were here they would kill me.” Normally, when someone said a sentence like that, they would add a chuckle at the end to indicate the hyperbole. But Lin wasn’t laughing. At that moment, I became painfully aware that I was an intruder, and from then on, I made sure not to touch anything, so as not to leave a trace of my presence. The walls seemed to close in just a bit, and every object took on a poisonous edge.
After the kitchen, Lin lead me upstairs. Each step groaned beneath me and I ascended. I tried to step lightly and quickly, anxious that they might break underneath me. Lin’s steps were even lighter. In fact, the steps were completely silent beneath her feet, like she had memorized every creak.
I glanced at the plain white walls and I finally realized what was so odd about them; they were completely devoid of photographs. In my house, every room had at least one photograph, even the bathrooms. Here, there was nothing but cobwebs gathering dust in the corners. It was haunting, in a way, like the only people that lived here were specters that couldn’t be captured by a camera. Then again, even the dead had at least one photograph to remember them by, so it was like the Yu family never existed at all.
I fully expected her to lead me into her room, but instead we ducked into her bathroom, or what should have been a bathroom, but like every room in this house, it was instead used as a storage unit. There was a rack of women’s clothes by the shower, boxes next to the toilet and below the sink. The strangest thing though, was by far the pile of fur coats in the bathtub. Lin plopped herself into the tub and curled into the fur, breathing it in like an old memory. She looked more at home here than she did in the rest of her house.
“No one uses this bathroom,” she said.
“I can see that,” I said. Did I sound rude?
She reached out to me. He fingers flexed like a child that wanted a toy or a treat. “Come join me,” she said. So I did, sliding uncomfortably into her fortress of coats. It was comfy, but I was definitely breaking my own rule about not touching anything. I sank into the fluff. This tub wasn’t really big enough for the two of us and I had never been this close to Lin before. I could smell her coconut shampoo and the ginger in her breath. She snuggled close to me, burying herself in my sweatshirt, shutting her eyes. What did I smell like to her? Awkwardly, I wrapped my arms around her, never before providing such an embrace. I always felt like I was all elbows, and that was never as apparent as it was now. Still, Lin didn’t seem to mind. “This is nice,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, unsure of what else to say.
“I always fall asleep when I’m here.” Her fingers cradled my dingy sweatshirt.
“You sleep here?”
“Isn’t your bed more comfortable?”
She shook her head against me. Her nose brushed against my chest. Her cheek warmed me from the outside in. “Not really. Sometimes, they leave me alone here.”
I never did know what she meant by that, but I could guess, and I didn’t like where my mind went when I did. I flashed back to a time in trig. She was wearing a tank top, which was unusual for her. It looked a little too small for her, and she got in trouble later that day for breaking dress code, but while everyone noticed her bare shoulders and flat stomach, I noticed faint horizontal scars on her upper right arm. These little pale hatch marks looked too neat to be an accident, but I never asked her about them. Sometimes, I wished I did.
We didn’t say anything for a while. In fact, Lin’s slow, soft breathing made me think that she had fallen asleep. She was perfectly at peace. I, on the other hand, was not. My long limbs were cramping up in the little tub. I adjusted myself slowly, trying not to rouse my strange slumbering companion. The process was painfully gradual, like pulling off a bandage. In the process, my foot hit the faucet. I had assumed that since all these coats were in here that the tub no longer functioned, but I was dead wrong. Water didn’t sputter out. Instead, it came shooting with a great big screech, waking Lin with a start. “No, no, no!” she said when she realized what was going on. I scrambled to turn off the faucet, but in my hurry, I turned it the wrong way, causing even more water to gush out. A small puddle was threatening to become a small pool. The coats looked like wet animals and the water was quickly soaking through my jeans. “Turn it off! Turn it off!” Still, I fumbled until Lin shoved me aside and did the job herself. The silence of the room returned, bringing with it a heavy coating of dread. Lin’s body was hunched over and her eyes were wide in shock.
“Oh god, oh god, oh god, they’re going to kill me. Oh god, they’re going to kill me!”
“Well you said they hardly come in here anyways, maybe they won’t notice?”
But she couldn’t hear me. Her fingers were curled behind her ears and she rocked like she was waiting for a beating. It was like she wasn’t in the room at all. Her mind was thrown into some frightening world of her own making. I tried to touch her, comfort her, but she didn’t seem to notice that I was even there. All the while she kept repeating, “They’re going to be so mad. I’m in so much trouble. Oh god, they’re going to kill me!”
This went on for twenty minutes.
Eventually, her cries got softer until they disappeared entirely. Her hands dropped away from her ears and I could see now how wet her face was. Her body ceased its frantic rocking as she sunk somewhere deep within herself. She was a cicada shell, and her spirit had flown away into the night. “You should leave.”
“You sure?” I said, but really, I was thankful for the suggestion. I had wanted to leave the very second I had gotten here. Still, I worried for her. Would she really be alright?
“I’ll be fine,” she said, as if to read my mind. “Just go.”
So I did. I got up and left so easily that it felt like a crime.