The morning air is cold and sour in landlord Wayne Marshall's nostrils.
He stands on the Crims' porch, heart in his throat. A deep breath then knock, knock, he raps knuckles against the still, the quiet. His teeth chatter. He shudders. Waiting, hands in pockets, three steps from the door, ready should it swing open. Ready for the gaunt height of a man with a crabby disposition. Wayne gathers himself up, prepares himself for the opening of the door.
It doesn't come.
Checking his watch now, two minutes spent waiting, not a sound from within the house. The neighborhood is still, like people are asleep or elsewhere. No cars on the street.
“Mr. Crim! Mrs. Crim! Are you home? It’s your landlord again. I, uh…I’m back for the rent. I was wrong, I need it today and not the end of the week. Mr. Crim? Mrs. Crim?” He hears fear in his own voice. Of what? What am I afraid of? That smell…?
The smell charges from beneath the door and drives at him, making his nostrils flare. His gut clenches.
“Anybody dead in there?” Wayne whispers, his breath dancing in front of him. He checks his watch. Five minutes on the porch is long enough. Keys unsteady into the lock, twist and push. The door opens like he’s said a magic word.
Wayne breathes heavily through his nose, a mistake recognized as he retches, throwing hands over his mouth. His eyes water. He’s managed to repress his gag reflex and he’s gulping dead air.
“Mr. Crim, are you here? Mrs. Crim? Is anyone here? I’m coming in now. It’s me, your landlord. I’m going to leave the door open, okay?” In case I need to jet.
Two steps in puts him among the clutter; clothes, notebooks, dishes, and half-eaten bits of food on plates. There's an inch of stagnant water covering the floor. Basement must be flooded.
To his right, what used to be a living room. To his left, a hallway and a half-open door.
Wayne wades left, following a trail of notebooks. He picks one up, opens it. Full of writing, each page nearly black with ink, each line of writing small and even.
Wayne pushes the door in, the door to the kitchen and has to step back again from a new, stronger version of the smell.
Here, slumped over a notebook, dead, is the vulture of a man. Josiah Crim’s arms lay before him, his dead right hand clutching a pen.
Wayne gives himself a moment to come to terms with his situation, then wades closer to the body, squinting to make out the last of the old man's writing. The lines he reads make his vision swim.
He reads them again, unbelieving.
We have a visitor today. Our landlord, Mr. Marshall. Hello, Mr. Marshall, how are you? We're afraid we're busy today and won’t be able to talk much. I’ll have Marjorie brew you some coffee. Is that all right?
Wayne thinks. Has the old man committed suicide and left in his note a spiteful message, suspecting it would be Wayne who found him? He knows there must be another explanation but one isn't coming to him.
While he stands there, pondering, the hand holding the pencil moves, and the tip of the pencil goes skritch scritch.
Wayne goes cold.
"Mr. Crim? You're not dead?" He looks at the body, trying to see life in it. It's not possible. I've seen roadkill with more vim and vigor.
Finally it occurs to him to lean in to read the page, expecting to see a squiggle, the result of impeccably-timed rigor mortis or similar.
Words had been added to the page. One coffee, coming right up.
Wayne shakes his head; tears well at the corners of his eyes.
“This is insane.”
Wayne wants to jet but something inside him...changes. Everything's all right. Why should he run? He reads the rest of the words on the page.
We're afraid Marjorie is in the bath. Would you go and get her? Swell, Mr. Marshall?
Wayne laughs. “Of course! I'll go and see if I can't find her. The bathroom’s up the stairs, am I right? Your left?” He waits for the dead hand to move, to write a response. It doesn't. Wayne starts up the stairs.
On the way he has a thought— You’re awful jolly for someone who found one of his tenants dead at his kitchen table. Yes, jolly, hard to argue that. He might be the jolliest in history! A right riot in the right circumstances; a card, a firebrand.
At the upper landing, Wayne turns and enters a doorway.
The bathroom—small, cramped.
He’s unaware he’s done it—he’s pushed open the door without a knock, without a yell; he’s barged in. Feeling less jolly by the moment.
Wayne stops. Sniffs. Gags. The smell here is worse than downstairs.
He turns on the light, a yellow flicker exposing yellow linoleum and yellow curtains matted to the sides the bathtub, sealed from the inside. Wayne puts one hand over his mouth and moves forward, other hand in front of him.
He pushes aside the shower curtain and looks into a soup of bodily fluids crusted to the sides of the tub. Marjorie's been dead so long most of the bathwater's evaporated. Her toes, nose and forehead protrude from the sludge.
Wayne lets go of the curtain and wipes his fingers on his jeans. He turns to the bathroom mirror and sees himself smiling. Behind him, in the little mirror, the bathtub. No sludge, no body. In the mirror the bathtub looks pristine.
Wayne turns around. Crim's dead wife Marjorie is still there, still toes up.
“Christ. Everything about this is…” He steps back into the hallway. “Forget about the mirror, get your phone out and call someone.”
Probably the police first, and then possibly someone from Sunshine Cleaning Company. He's dialing in the number, deciding the first words of his phone call, and then there's a splash from the bathtub.
He freezes. Does he want to know? He's already out in the hallway, what if he peeks back in and—
SPLASH! Someone sitting up in the bath.
“No, no no.” Wayne turns around and walks back down the hall. He hears a wet foot on the bathroom floor. Could it be something else? He reaches the stairs.
His eyesight flickers, strobes. He takes the steps two at a time. He's back on the first floor, back in the kitchen looking at the dead man huddled over a notepad on the table.
He doesn’t want to see what the notepad says now, but he’s already leaning forward to read.
Cream and sugar, or do you take it black? Or would you like some tea? Marjorie won't mind preparing you whatever you'd like. Make yourself comfortable.
Wayne's heart is thumping, his body vibrating, his hands shaking. He looks around the kitchen, thinking of the cost of renovations following this. What had grown on the walls, the ceiling? Some kind of mold? He'll have to rustle up some elbow grease, ask high school kids or post an ad.
“Or bulldoze. That might be best.”
The dead man's hand moves. Wayne thinks he's mistaken at first, that he's seeing things, but keeps watching as the pen in the hand glides over the paper, pressing down. Writing.
Here's what it said:
Don't be rude, Marjorie. Say hello to our guest, Mr. Marshall.
Wayne turns around and Marjorie stood there, without a head. Instead, someone or something has driven the shaft of a mop down her neck and through her torso. Her head is the head of a mop. She waves with one withered arm.
“I-I’m sorry to be rude,” Wayne said, “but I'm afraid I must be going.”
The walls around him seem to breathe out, seemed to gasp, and the thing that happened before, the jolly euphoria, came back. For the moment he was happy to stay.
Marjorie nods her mop head and holds out an arm, to the left, to the door beneath the stairs. It's ajar, amid the inches of black muck covering the floor.
The beans, I’m afraid, are in the basement. Marjorie will have to get them for you.
Marjorie walks to the door leading to the basement and pulls it open. The door seems hard to move, obstructed by the inch of slime on the floor, but she's strong and it budges easy. She descends into the water.
Wayne wants to leave, wants no longer any part of this, but his feet won't move.
Soon the head of the mop is all that remains of the visible woman. Then the mop head went under, leaving a bubbling glurp.
“Where's her head, Crim?” He leans forward to read the response, the pen already scratching words into the bottom part of the paper. Soon the dead man's hand would reach the end, and then what? Turn the page?
She got a head off herself. How's that for a joke?
A clique of synapses in Wayne's brain fires, a memory of being himself, something about money, he's here for money. But this is a dream now, isn't it? None of this can be real. Should he try to pull himself forward? Open an eye? Try to wake up?
Why aren't you laughing?, new words on the page read.
The walls seem to breathe out again. A thin dust (or mist?) settles on his skin, in his nostrils, on his eyeballs. It makes him sneeze. It makes him laugh.
He'd wake from a nightmare, but is this a nightmare?
Instead of the dead man's hand turning the page, it seems the page turns itself. Wayne gets down close to look, sees the dust or mold rippling across the table, sees it turning the page. He looks again at Crim, his dead tenant. Covered in the same stuff. It's the stuff doing it, making him write.
The hand moves faster now, the pen scraping the paper. When it reaches the end of its sentence it taps hard, with emphasis. Wayne reads.
It's rude to read over someone's shoulder, Mr. Marshall. You should have a seat. Make yourself comfortable.
Wayne feels his right foot rising up from the floor, bending his knee. It's the dust, it's moving him from beneath, puppeteering him.
He realizes even through this euphoria that reminds him of being in a dream, of being high, that he's in serious trouble. He thinks briefly about what he's done with his life, what he wants to do with it, then wipes the thought aside. He won't make it home.
He feels okay about this.
The stuff makes him walk to the other side of the table, made him sit in a chair, and the walls breathe out. He feels heavy.
Across from him is the open mouth of Mr. Crim, the empty eye sockets, the dead hand.
In front of him, on the table, the dust stuff rearranges itself and forms a new notebook, much like Crim's. Next to this, the dust constructs a pen.
The notebook opens to the first page, and without wanting to, Wayne writes. His hand moves without his moving it, and in someone else's handwriting. The same blocky letters from the other notebooks, the ones inside the door, the one he'd read over Crim's shoulder.
It's a pleasure to meet you, lord of this land. Previous tenants had plenty to say about you, and we’re curious.
"Who are you?" Wayne's mouth, his vocal chords still work, though his throat is dry and feels coated in sand.
Call us Brawn.
Brawn moves Wayne's hand furiously, pushing the Brawn-pen into the Brawn-paper until almost the entire page is filled.
You own this property, which means you collect a tithe from the inhabitants on a recurring basis, is what we've learned. The tithe in exchange for continued inhabitance, not for the upkeep and maintenance and health of the soil in which this property grows. Seems a poor deal for us, but a rich deal for you.
“No, I...I do things. I fix what's broken, I pay for renovations.”
Not what we've learned.
“Okay. I haven't been as good for the Crims, but they're old, they don't use e-mail for God's sake! I collect the rent and I assume things are going well.”
We've learned you filter communications.
Wayne says nothing. He watches the paper in front of him, watches and waits for his hand to write something else.
When we called about the water damage, for example, you ignored us. Look up.
Wayne doesn't want to but Brawn tilts his head back and makes him look at the ceiling. Above him hangs a brown-orange bulge in the white tiled ceiling, bulbous like a spider bite.
The bulge distends and bursts. A rush of water, thick with grime and blood and dirt and Brawn, rains down on him. It lacquers him, it glazes him. Some gets in his mouth. Some gets in his eyes.
His skin itches, waves of heat overtake him, but he can't scratch. Brawn won't let him scratch.
When his vision clears, he can see he's written more.
This land is fine, for a time, but surely there are more neighborhoods, teeming with nutrients, that you are lord of. Would you drive us there?
Wayne feels a wave of relief, but can’t tell if it comes from him or Brawn. Does it matter? He won’t meet his end here. He won’t die like the man across from him.
“Other neighborhoods, yes. I can drive you wherever you want.”
We regret it, but Marjorie has seemingly misplaced the beans.
“That's all right,” Wayne says.
His voice sounds different. Fuzzier.
It seems he can move again. He stands up, feeling strong, feeling proud. He walks out of the kitchen. Behind him the floor disintegrates. Mr. Crim and his kitchen table sink into the water below, reuniting him with his wife’s body in the dark soup.
Wayne steps through the front door, no longer holding the pen or pad of paper. How will Brawn talk to him now?
Like this, they say in his head.
The landlord laughs, then jogs to his car, no longer cold, no longer worried about collecting rent.
They drive out of the empty neighborhood, Wayne choosing the general direction of a nearby suburb where he owns two houses.
Behind them, the neighborhood transforms, houses cold-melting into the earth, cars in garages becoming soil, bodies in beds rotting to powder, and in the place of this constructed habitation grows dark, sinewy trees, connected at the root and by their branches. They grow tall.
Atop one of the trees, like a Christmas ornament, Marjorie Crim's head.
Through her eyes, Brawn surveys their kingdom.