Past THE2NDHAND contributor Day is a housewife and mother of two living in Minneapolis, Minn., with at least one accordion. Her poetry has recently appeared in The Oxford American, The Midwest Quarterly, and Coal City Review. She recently co-authored the book Guitar All-in-One for Dummies with guitarist Jim Peterik of the band Survivor.
Kudzu had crept in through the window overnight. Marty opened one bloodshot eye and stared at the thin green tendrils clinging to the wall at the other end of the bedroom. Tiny cracks radiated around the places in the wall where the vine had taken root. “Snake potatoes,” he growled. “Where the hell did you come from?”
He swung his heavy body over the edge of the bed and stood upright, head sluggish in the early morning humidity. His elbows and knees felt swollen, puffy, aching against the promise of more rain. “It’s going to be a big one,” he told his protesting joints as he stumbled to the kitchen. “A real big one,” he warned the house. “It is going to rain for days and days and days.”
Sunlight came in green through the thick curtain of ivy covering the small kitchen window. Marty shook his head in disbelief. “I am moving out of this tropical nightmare,” he swore. “I am moving to a nice, dry desert before this year is up. A nice dry desert with a few wrinkled-up cacti and tiny lizards that stay little and scared of people. No alligators. No snake potato vines. And no summer hurricanes,” he added, glaring at the few dark clouds he could see through the window. A light wind ruffled through the leaves as if in answer.
The morning paper lay in the middle of the rectangular welcome mat outside the front door, wrapped tightly in a clear plastic bag. The newspaper always came wrapped in plastic on days it might rain. Marty bent down and picked up the paper. A thin stream of water ran off the bag and dripped onto his bare feet. He shook the paper out of its bag and spread it out on the kitchen table. A large color photo on the front page detailed a new sinkhole that had appeared about three blocks from Marty’s house. According to the article, the hole had been caused by “tectonic plate activity in the region.” Three houses and a nursing home had been swallowed up by the “tectonic plate activity.” The article had obviously been written by a journalist counting on no one in the area knowing what tectonic plate activity actually was. “Bullshit,” said Marty. “We’re nowhere near a fault line.”
He poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot he’d brewed the night before and put the cup in the microwave. Two large green spots were floating on the oily surface of the coffee. Marty grimaced and clicked the microwave door shut. “This oughta kill ya,” he said to the mold through the glass, setting the microwave timer to five minutes. The spots were still floating in the cup when he pulled it out of the microwave. However, they had faded to a light yellow color and looked more solid than they had before being irradiated. Marty fished the chunks of mold out of the cup with a spoon, dumped some powdered nondairy creamer into the coffee, and took a sip. “Yuck,” he said, setting the cup down on the counter.
It had begun to rain in earnest outside. Marty opened the front door and breathed in deeply, expecting a pleasant rush of cool air, and was greeted instead by the dank, warm breath of a jungle storm. He could hear ducks and anhinga hooting and quacking somewhere nearby, splashing about in the quickly-growing puddles. A frog leaped over the welcome mat and into the house.
“Hey!” Marty shouted. “What the hell are you doing?” The frog had already disappeared into the breakfast mess of the kitchen. Marty closed the front door and stomped back to his coffee, eyes peeled for the frog. “Oh well,” he sighed to himself, not willing to waste his morning digging through the garbage for the frog. “Maybe it’ll take care of the roaches.”
The rain pattered loudly on the tin-shingled roof. He took his coffee cup and headed into the living room. He turned on the television and began an earnest game of channel surfing. Along the bottom of the TV screen scrolled various storm warnings for the area, some of which were accompanied by exclamation points and news-flash beeps. He lay back and stretched out on the couch. The cushions felt uncomfortably damp where his bare skin touched the fabric. He sat back up and ran his palm over the fabric. Sure enough, tiny green circles of mold dotted the furniture like lichen on a boulder. The crushed velvet of the couch felt like toad skin to Marty’s fingers. He withdrew his hand in disgust and jumped off the couch. “Yuck. Yuck, yuck, yuck,” he said. He sat down on the floor, cross-legged, then got back up when his back started cramping.
His eyes fell on a large wadded-up yellow quilt shoved into the space behind the television. He pulled it out, careful not to upset the television set, and held it up to the light, scanning its surface for more mold. It was clean. Relieved, he spread the comforter over the couch and arranged the pillows underneath it to prop his head up. “This’ll do for now,” he said, lying down on the couch once more.
Thin fingers of gray were spreading across the matte white ceiling, starting at a point almost directly over Marty’s head. If he hadn’t been the sole occupant in a one-story house, Marty would have thought the person living in the room above his was having plumbing problems, either a flooded bathtub or toilet. “Guess I should go out and check out the roof when the rain stops,” he muttered.
Out the window, Marty could see the empty space down the street that had been swallowed up by the sinkhole. There was now a small lake where the nursing home had been, another where the apartment complex had been. The television was fading in and out in a regular pulse—static, cartoon, static, cartoon—almost in time with Marty’s own heartbeat. “Augh!” he screamed, throwing a soggy pillow at the television and leaping to his feet. “I can’t take it anymore!” He leaped over to the television and slammed down the power button. The picture flashed and shrank down to a tiny white spot in the center of the screen, quickly flickering out. Marty sat back down on the couch and sighed in relief. “Goddamned thing’s trying to drive me crazy,” he muttered. His headache was fading already. He reached back behind the couch and picked up the book he had been reading the night before. He turned the pages until he found where he had last left off and began reading.
The book type had subtly changed colors overnight. The printed letters had turned from a solid black to a gray-tinged green and blue, with little traces of yellow here and there. Marty stopped reading and squinted at the pages. The paper itself was splotched with tiny green spots and faintly watermarked with large pastel green snowflakes. He sniffed the book experimentally.
“Dammit.” Even the book was molding, molding like the rest of his house, his furniture and his coffee and his ceiling. He put the book down on the floor and stood back up. He could see more of the green snowflakes on the wall next to the couch, some patches so developed that tiny yellow flowers were sprouting out of them. Somewhere in the room, a frog began chirping.
Marty backed slowly out of the room, back into the sanctuary of the kitchen. He found with relief that the sterile environment of the refrigerator had not been breached, that the food in there was still apparently safe to eat. “I’ve just got to start cleaning up more,” he muttered to himself. “I’ve just let things go for too long, and now I’m seeing the consequences.” He drained the cold and murky water out of the sink and blasted the lichen-covered cereal bowls and coffee cups with scalding water and dish soap. He scoured the inside of the moldy coffee pot as well, measuring out fresh coffee and brewing up another pot while he waited for the dishwater to cool to a bearable temperature. He wiped down the countertops and the kitchen table, sloughing off strings of kelp-like ivy and fluorescent kudzu blossoms. He cleaned and scoured and wiped and disinfected until the kitchen looked almost as good as it did when he first moved into the apartment. He even popped open the kitchen window and hacked at the ivy blocking the opening with a steak knife until he could see the sun and into his neighbor’s bathroom window again.
Hours later, he sat down at the kitchen table and surveyed his work. The blue tile on the floor and the wall by the stove were spotless. The black mouth of the stove yawned open, all ash and burnt food scraped clean of its fiberglass surface. Marty had dried everything carefully and completely, making sure there was no single damp spot mold could possibly invade. Anything that was still damp had been lethally bleached. Marty took another sip from his fresh cup of coffee and decided that the trick to making a good cup of coffee must be to brew it just before drinking it, instead of letting it sit out the entire night before.
The rain had not let up. Three cups of coffee later, Marty felt his bladder fill dangerously close to overflowing. He pushed himself away from the spotless kitchen table and made his way to the bathroom. He flicked on the bathroom light and was greeted by a thick mat of green and blooming vines clinging to and completely obscuring the shower curtain. A large lily pad topped by a tightly-closed white bud floated in the toilet. Tiny tendrils of moss filled the sink, spotted with little yellow and purple flowers. The floor was completely carpeted with moist lichen. Marty could feel the tile crumbling and cracking beneath his feet as he walked across the floor, first to the toilet, then back again to the sanctuary of the kitchen. “I can’t clean all that,” he said out loud as he retreated. “How the hell am I supposed to go to the bathroom? There isn’t enough bleach in Florida to take care of this mess!”
The electricity gave out sometime near dusk. Marty watched as it happened, heard the refrigerator purr softly to death and the light of the microwave die out, seconds before he was supposed to rotate his frozen burrito. He held his plastic-wrapped dinner in the palm of his hand and tried to gauge how much of the burrito was frozen and how much was just cold. He could hear the frog in the living room again, could hear that it had somehow been joined by other noisy frogs. He could hear other voices in the apartment as well: something was splashing around in the toilet, while through the closed door leading to his bedroom, he distinctly heard the chittering of bugs or birds fussing with each other. Fingers of mildew appeared at a ridiculous rate and stretched out around the door sills of the kitchen, growing almost as fast as Marty could kill them with his bleach-soaked washcloth. His head was aching from the smell of the chemicals and from the humid, mildew-tinted air; he felt as though he was trapped inside a dirty, empty fishbowl that was contracting at an alarming rate around him.
He lost patience sometime around midnight. It was not getting any cooler in his apartment. There were no soothing night breezes to make his vigilant watch bearable. Flinging his washcloth down on the cracked linoleum, he opened the front door and stepped outside. A tiny breeze blew against him briefly, dying down before the temperature change had a chance to register in his brain.
All around Marty’s house were rolling green hills, vaguely building-shaped. A large, murky-looking lake stretched out from the base of his stairs all the way to where the post office had stood. Something large splashed and disappeared into the lake as Marty descended the staircase, making huge ripples and tiny waves that lapped against his feet when he reached the bottom.
“It’s all gone,” he murmured aloud, squinting incredulously into the darkness, trying to see some glimmer of his old neighborhood, of anything that might classify as civilization at all. For an instant, he thought he saw someone heading toward him, swinging a flashlight about, but another instant revealed the lights to be a swarm of fireflies heading his way. “Hello!” he shouted, hands cupped around his mouth. “Hello! Is anybody there?”
A pair of ibises exploded from the partially-submerged cypress trees off to his left, honking angrily at him as they flew off to a quieter neighborhood. Other things stirred in the dark as well, some not as afraid of him as the birds were.
“Someone’s got to be out there!” Marty tried again. “I can’t be the only human being left here. I just can’t!” He began to back up the stairs, thinking of the sanctuary of his kitchen, when the stairs beneath him gave away. Marty felt himself falling with the stairs, felt his body land in a murky pond that seemed to have no bottom. He struggled for air for a moment before the sinewy bodies that had been waiting so patiently closed in around him, white teeth flashing like lightning against the black leather of their knobby hides.