Becky’s whisper jerked Marilyn out of sleep. “It’s under my bed again.”
Marilyn muttered, “Honey, you’re nine years old. Use your flashlight.”
Becky didn’t say anything. Marilyn cocked one eye and didn’t see her daughter. Then she opened the other one. “Really?” she said to the darkened room. “The one night she actually sleeps, and I have to dream her coming in. Damn this house.” It was too soon. The divorce was too fresh. She should have stayed in the a few more months instead of uprooting Becky in the middle of the school year. She jerked the pillows into a new shape, turned over and pulled the blankets tightly around her.
She couldn’t get back to sleep, even though her whole body felt heavy. She kept turning over, looking for the source of the whisper. Finally, she rolled up to sitting and squinted at the clock. 3:25. She fumbled for her glasses and stood.
The carpet squelched underfoot. “What?” She sat back down. She turned on the lamp and gaped at her room. Black. A wide river of black ichor oozed from the open bathroom door. She had to scoot all the way down to the end of the bed to get up without stepping in it a second time. Then, the effort was for nothing, because she had squash one foot down in chunky slime to get close enough to reach inside the bathroom and turn on the light. The toilet was gone. Where it should have been, a hole in the floor spat vile matter two feet into the air before it oozed down silently to the floor. Why didn’t I hear that happen?
When did the odor come? She noticed it now, fetid and fecal, but it seemed like she had already been smelling it. The back of her mouth felt coated. She pulled one arm up over her nose and gagged, then did an about face and retreated, forcing herself to wade through the nasty stream to grab her cell phone. On the way to the hall, she smeared her feet on some dirty laundry in the floor that hadn’t been touched by the disaster, hoping to minimize damage to the rest of the house.
Where was the commode?
She stopped three steps down the hall. Where the hell was the commode? It didn’t just evaporate. She wanted to get downstairs and find the plumber’s number, where it hung on a coupon on her fridge. Did I overlook it? She hadn’t been expecting to use that coupon so soon after moving in, but now she was very glad her real estate agent had given it to her in the packet of papers including her deed and a thousand pages of mortgage information. But how do you overlook the john?
She turned back to her bedroom and picked her way to the bathroom once more. She gagged again putting her foot down into the sludge to look in.
She stared hard at the disgusting spout. The toilet was gone, she concluded once more. Or not gone, really, but under that. The stuff was spewing out of the can itself. What she had taken for a hole in the floor was the pool where the sewage collected before starting its inexorable journey across the room and into the bedroom. As it moved, it blorped in a shushing whisper, a little like a human voice. A little like Becky’s voice. Well, now she knew what woke her up anyway.
I’m just glad I caught it now, before it got out. She tried to shut the bathroom door now, hoping to contain the flow, but this unregulated stream had mass. She couldn’t make it stop. My God I hope my insurance covers this. She tried not to think about the destruction and focused instead on solutions. She needed that plumbers number, and she hoped they had an emergency line.
Marilyn retraced her steps to the hall, stopping again to scrape her feet on dirty clothing that would have to be thrown away. On her way to the stairs, she stopped in front of Becky’s door. She thought it had rattled. She didn’t want to wake her daughter up to this mess But what if she’s up already? What if she heard something I slept through? “Beck? That you?”
No answer, but the door rattled again.
“It’s OK. You can come out, sweetie. Mommy’s potty’s doing something gross.”
The door rattled a third time.
“Becky?” Marilyn turned the handle and felt resistance when she pushed. “Honey, let me in.” Slowly, the door yielded. Paper blew out across Marilyn’s feet. Wadded up receipts and billowing notes. She read the words, “Decree of Divorce” across the top of one page before the door finally opened enough to let her in.
Becky stood on her bed, her body plastered against the wall, her little mouth drawn up into a terrified O.
Becky shook her head hard, and her dark curls flew out around her face. Something dealt Marilyn a sharp blow to the head. She staggered to one side and saw a paperweight hovering a few feet above the ground. She batted it down. She forced the door in a little further, bringing in dim light from the hall. A sea of objects skittered away from that illumination. But half the room was still dark, and the door wouldn’t budge another centimeter.
Becky pointed at the floor, where an army of paperclips struggled against a seething tide of sticky notes. “Beck!” The paperweight flew up and hit her again, and Becky clamped her hands over her own mouth. My voice. It’s responding to my voice.
Marilyn tried to walk to her daughter, but something caught her ankles, entangling her. She couldn’t see it. She jerked her foot free and hopped backwards, then stood breathing. She seized the door again as it started to close on its own. She put a hand to her own mouth, to show her daughter she understood. Where did all of it come from? The sewage in the bathroom, this mess? It’s not mine. None of it mine.
Becky was pointing down again, and now, when Marilyn followed the line of the child’s finger, she saw the thing in the middle, under the heaps of clutter. It was almost transparent, visible more because of the paper and binder clips undulating around it than because of anything of its own. It held the shape of a human body, then it split apart into two bodies, and then melded together again into one. Through its rapid changes, only one thing remained steady. It was reaching with an invisible arm for the place where she had just been standing.
Marilyn backed rapidly out of the room, holding the door open with one arm. This, then, was the thing Becky had seen under her bed, the thing that had vanished in the flashlight’s glare. It couldn’t see, but it could feel and hear. It would grab her if she advanced, and it would hit her if she spoke, but it couldn’t chase her into the light.
She cursed the age of the house that left Beck’s room without an overhead light and swore that the dresser would go right beside the bed so Becky could always get to one from now on. In the meantime, she pantomimed to Becky, an elaborate charade of turning on and aiming a flashlight. But Becky shook her head and pointed again. The flashlight was down in the tangle on the floor.
The paper that had swept by her on the way in caught Marilyn’s eye again. Decree of Divorce. She saw more of it this time. It didn’t say her own name and her ex husband’s. No, it listed the names of the home’s former owners, Lou and Adrian Sturmmond, and in a flash, Marilyn understood. She was fighting the remnants of their vitriolic anger. Had been fighting it since she moved in a week ago without knowing what she struggled against. She had met the wife at the closing. They had exchanged banalities about divorce and its unpleasantness, but Marilyn now thought her own experience must have been tame by comparison. The woman’s statement, “Everything he should have put into our relationship went to his work,” seemed to support the cascading paperwork. Marilyn spared a thought to wonder who refused to plunge the toilet to make it a septic nightmare.
She shook off the understanding to think about her own situation instead. Marilyn gave Becky a thumbs up and a “wait a minute” index finger. She kicked the door hard and yelled, “Hey! Have I got your attention?” She hoped so. She backed down the hall to the light switch, talking all the while. “Becky, as soon as it’s gone, turn on your lamp and shut your door fast.” Then she flipped the hall switch and roared, “I’ m out here you sonofabitch, come and get me.
It happened too fast. One instant, the hall was empty, and the next, a wall of detritus surged towards her. She had intended to wait until the last moment, when it was all out of Becky’s room, and flip the light on and kill it. But now she saw she had miscalculated. There was too much of it. She turned and fled into her own bedroom, splashing instantly into the shit river, which didn’t seem perturbed by light from any source.
The moving wall stopped, quivering just outside the door. It didn’t come forward, but it didn’t shift away from the light, either. At the other end of the hall, she heard a thump and a click.
“Are you OK, baby?” At the sound of her voice, the paperweight flew into the room and fell at once to the floor when she dodged, harmless.
“But you’re OK. You got the door shut. You got the light on.”
“Mama, I’m so scared.”
“Me, too honey. Wait for me. Leave your light on and wait for me.”
Marilyn walked through the sludge to the bed. She climbed up, barely caring about her rank brown footprints. She unlocked her window and opened it, then stepped out onto the roof. Slowly, because the shingles were prickly and her feet were slippery, she walked around to Becky’s side.
“It’s me, honey. Open up.” Becky climbed up onto the bed. The girl forced the window lock open with some difficulty, and then shoved up with all her might. The window edged up only a a few inches, far enough for Marilyn to get her fingers underneath, as well. When she reached out to help, she realized she was still clutching her cell phone.
“Hang on,” she told Becky, with an eye to the closed door behind her daughter. As long as the light was on, she thought it was safe, but how long until the paperwork slithered downstairs and found the circuit breaker box in the basement? Quickly, she dialed 9-1-1. But when the operator came on, she didn’t know what to say. My toilet’s exploding and the ghosts of office supplies past are haunting my hall, please help. So she said, “Fourteen hundred Magnolia Avenue,” then set the phone aside and let the operator talk. They would come. They would find her now, probably could have found her from the cell signal, but she didn’t want to wait that long.
She said, “Let’s stay calm,” very loudly before she reached for the underside of the window. Becky nodded and swallowed, then added her hands to her mother’s. Together, they gripped and heaved. “Good girl,” said Marilyn, as the wood screeched up a little more. “One more time.” They wrenched again, and this time the opening was big enough for Becky to crawl through.
Marilyn drew her daughter in tight as sirens began to wail in the distance. “Good girl,” she whispered again into Becky’s hair. She hoped it was the fire department. She hoped they were coming to her house. She hoped they drove fast. Because she heard another sound, as well, a shushing whisper that told her they might well have to jump if rescue didn’t come quickly.
I gave SAM this prompt: Down where the loss cuts worst.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.