The soil was dry and impenetrable in Odessa, TX, on the day that David Howard died. The cause was unexplained. He took his last name and his last remaining eyeball to a grave dug in red sandy loam. Neither his wife nor his glass eye attended the funeral. His beloved niece and his less beloved sister were the only ones there to watch his casket be lowered into the ground, sweating buckets in the August heat and wishing the ceremony would end faster so that they could retreat to the shade and forget the whole ordeal as quickly as possible.
The priest’s heart clearly was not invested in the matter. He rasped prayers with his tongue hanging out like a parched dog. Amelia, the beloved niece, cast a quick, curious glance at her less beloved mother, who was looking relentlessly down at the dust-glazed coffin lid. Her mother did not return the glance, but a pair of thin raised eyebrows below the black lace of a funeral veil revealed equally well her opinion of the coffin’s occupant.
The priest had a gold tie clip that glinted in the sunlight, sending phosphorescent spots spiraling in Amelia’s vision. She reached up with one hand to rub the bright flares out of her eyes. Her mother’s focus broke at the sudden movement and she looked at Amelia with surprise, interpreting her absentminded gesture as an act of wiping away tears. She shook her head slightly in disdain towards her daughter. Then she returned her gaze to the grave, watching the bronze glow of the coffin in the afternoon light. The priest blinked wildly every time a light breeze picked up, eyelids sagging like sheets on a laundry line. His mutterings fell on deaf ears.
When the service was over, the priest was eager to leave the scene, tugging his white clerical collar off on the walk out of the cemetery before he’d even climbed back into his minivan. Neither Amelia nor her mother had lingered long after him. Back at home there was shade and leftover funeral cake, out of place amongst a maze of boxes and deconstructed furniture. David Howard had been reliant on his sister in the way that Odessa’s economy was reliant on the price of oil. In his absence, there was no longer an excuse to stay here, wasting away. The application for a cheap apartment on the outskirts of Baton Rouge was already approved. Nothing left but to pack what few belongings remained and take them far away from family and from the oppressive heat of the arid desert.
“Wonder if Emily knows the funeral’s over,” said Amelia’s mother, dividing the last dregs of a gallon of sweet tea between two plastic Disney princess cups. Amelia glanced up questioningly between bites of cake leftover from the reception. The heat had melted the frosting several hours ago, leaving little red beads of food dye streaked along the paper plate. Amelia’s mother peeled the funeral veil, damp with sweat, from her forehead and twisted it slowly around her fingers.
“Are we dropping by her house to say goodbye before we leave?” Amelia asked, watching an ant crawl along the table’s blunt edge. She placed a dry piece of cake in front of its antennae, trying to coax it to crawl on. When the ant paused questioningly and then started scuttling away in the opposite direction, she brushed both it and the cake crumb off of the table. “I’d like her to have some of this cake. It’s actually quite delicious.”
“We won’t be visiting her,” Amelia’s mother said bluntly. She hadn’t spoken to her sister-in-law in some time, and she didn’t plan to again until after she and her daughter had made the move to Baton Rouge. She wanted several states in between her and Texas before she thought about the house again.
The old house David Howard and his wife had shared made Amelia’s mother feel ill. Mountains of trash bags and blankets and a sheen of mold covering the carpeted floor. Broken pipes seeping liquid onto ceiling corners. A yellowed rotting mass of material ownership. It was no wonder David had died the way he did, coughing and spitting and covered in rashes. If black mold poisoning had not been the cause, surely the suffocating atmosphere of the house alone was enough to kill a person.
Amelia had never been to the house, but she knew it from both her mother and whisperings at school that it was one to avoid. She’d spent countless conversations at lunch tearing away at paper napkins and avoiding eye contact when the subject came up, not wanting to reveal in any way that the disgusting old house on the outskirts of town belonged to her family. Her aunt and uncle had visited plenty, but she’d never seen the inside of their home—knew the location only from brief glances from the passenger seat of her mother’s car as they drove down the road. Her mother’s insistence that she never go inside the house had led to some resentment in the family—an uncle and aunt feeling ostracized by their only remaining relative.
And yet there was a nagging, restless feeling, despite the warnings, despite her mother’s grievances and the horrible goosebumped grin that took over people’s faces at school when they described how they’d snuck up to the porch, peered through the window of the odd “abandoned” house. The moving crew would arrive the day after tomorrow and, the day after that, Odessa would be nothing to her but another dried-up town out west. Aunt Emily and her house would stay behind, to be forgotten with the rest.
* * *
Amelia’s mother made it a habit to fall asleep before seven nearly every night. Amelia left the house immediately after, clutching a slice of leftover funeral cake packed densely into a small Tupperware. The house was several neighborhoods over. Afraid of waking her mother, Amelia had not taken the car. Instead, she’d walked, following the edge of the curb and kicking up dry grass, watching the last orange glow of the sun fade behind the jagged horizon. It took nearly an hour to find what she was looking for. The grid of suburban homes became an indecipherable maze in the dark.
The house, even from the outside, seemed to have melted into a state of reckless self-destruction. The front porch smelled like egg whites and lemonade. The curtains were closed and for a moment Amelia did not move, gripping her little Tupperware of cake. She found herself torn between the doorbell and the commitment of lifting a hand to knock. A spider’s nest was trapped against the bay window, painted with dust and mildew.
Amelia rang the doorbell to no response. The grey floorboards bulged underfoot with water damage. Against her better judgement, she tested the door handle. It was cold to the touch, glinting gold in the streetlamp’s parabolic light. The door opened immediately and softly, a light scraping along the interior carpet.
Something inside smelled too sweet for words, so horribly overpowering that Amelia’s breath caught and she almost ran back down the porch, out into the night until she found her way home. The door was wide open now. She could see inside, and it bore an uncanny resemblance to the observations of her more daring peers who’d claimed to have looked in the window. She’d deemed the claims swollen and false at the time. Amelia stood her ground and stepped one foot inside.
A colony of beetles had gone restless at the sound of the door creaking open, scuttling across the carpet in a uniform line from beneath one of the towering piles of boxes that blocked the window. A wave of humidity rushed towards her from inside the house, pushing stiffly against the cold air outside. The room into which the door opened had clearly once been some sort of living room. But it was entirely impossible to believe that any form of living could be practiced here.
A mountainous tomb of collector’s items, stained blankets, abandoned food, stuffed animals from a childhood long gone. Shipping boxes and crates reminiscent of her own home’s moving mess. Trash bags filled with dark, fleshy masses, all piled to the height of the ceiling. Just barely visible beyond the living room were traces of what might once have been a dining room. The linoleum-tiled kitchen floor, tinted green like a penny caught in the drain, was coated in a dead layer of rotting pizza boxes, expired pierogi, a thick sheen of oil. Detritus of a hazy, shadowed life lived almost entirely in solitude. There were no scavengers here, no mycelium network (besides the unaddressed patch of black mold creeping along the ceiling corners), no open air. A closed ecosystem. A self-perpetuating cycle of undisturbed illness.
Amelia did not let the door close behind her. She felt the cool night air hit her back from outdoors, pulled the collar of her t-shirt over her mouth to block out that inescapable sweet smell and whatever else might have been in the air in this house. There was barely a walkway from the door through the living room. Amelia was careful not to touch anything. Her grip on the Tupperware of cake was so tight that her knuckles went white.
The hallway opened out into the depths of the house, but it was inaccessible. One of the mountains of belongings had seemingly collapsed into the negative space, leaving a sloping pile that scattered out several feet on either side. But amongst the avalanche of things, the hill of hard, solid, tangible objects, was something organic.
Emerging from threadbare cushions, from paper documents, from plastic tchotchkes, from empty bins, from dried flowers and from books and baby clothes and romaine lettuce leaves curled onto themselves in age. A human arm, limply dangling outwards from the depths. The loose hem of a blue long-sleeved nightgown. Veiny wrist led inevitably to the hand, knuckles bulging with early onset arthritis. Clutched gently between five bony fingers, a glass eye with a brown iris staring straight up at Amelia.
The Tupperware of cake hit the floor and sent up a plume of dust. A tattered field mouse pushed its way into the dim light from between folds of crumpled newspaper near the bottom of one of the box mountains. It caught sight of the open door, dragged itself quickly across the carpet, and slipped out into the night.