The smell didn’t come from Kim’s dirty carpets, or from the stacks of moldy magazines, or even from the ashtrays full of Salem butts scattered around the house. Those were smells of neglect. This was a fouler, more active smell, and I realized when Kim’s aunt Eleanor pushed past me with an armful of clean clothes that it came from her. I could almost feel the particles of rotten air getting lodged in my nasal passages, scraping the back of my throat. I could taste it.
On the kitchen floor, Kim used a butter knife to scrape caked food from between the tiles. I poured some extra Pine-Sol on her coffee table to try to mask the smell. It was something like burned hair, something like crushed insects.
Kim looked up at me as she dumped the crumbs into the trash. Her hair was slipping out of her ponytail. Without her makeup, the lines around her eyes betrayed that she wasn’t much younger than me.
“Thanks for helping me clean, Leah,” she said. “I already feel better.”
“We’ve still got a long way to go,” I told her.
Even with the three of us, it would take at least the whole day to even put a dent in Kim’s perpetual mess.
“I know,” she said, “But I’m ready for a change. I’m not going to slide back this time.”
I finished wiping the coffee table and picked up a stack of mail from the floor. One of the postmark dates was three years old.
Eleanor emerged from the bedroom, the smell with her.
“Where you keep your socks?” she asked.
Kim looked confused, as though the question had never occurred to her before.
“Just find an empty drawer,” Kim said.
Wherever Eleanor was, I tried to be in the opposite part of the house. By the end of the day I found myself shut in the bathroom, scraping dried toothpaste from the sink.
Seeing Kim out in the small town bars you wouldn’t guess her house looked like this. She always had a new sequin shirt or dress with flowing sleeves from the downtown tourist shops, and she usually smelled of cigarettes and dollar store perfume. I met Kim at Karaoke six months ago. She sang sad country songs with a voice that put everyone else in the karaoke queue to shame. She was the only real friend I’d made since I moved to the mountains. My mom had just died. The move was a desperate attempt to not have to take care of anyone for awhile.
Kim knocked on the bathroom door.
“Aunt Eleanor’s leaving.”
I frowned at the streaked mirror. Did she expect me to come out and give the old woman a hug goodbye? I gulped a breath of relatively fresh air, then opened the bathroom door and took one step out. I glimpsed her at the front door.
“Nice to meet you, Eleanor,” I said.
She lifted a hand but didn’t turn to me. I stepped back into the bathroom and discovered something sticky on my shoe. My sole was covered in purple goo. I sat on the edge of the bathtub. It wasn’t gum. Jelly, maybe? I sniffed it and recoiled when I found it had the same smell as Eleanor. I ran the shoe under the tub faucet, scrubbed it with shampoo. I wedged it in the towel rack to dry.
In the corner by the bathroom door, I noticed a small purple ball, the same color as what had smeared on my shoe. I picked it up with a square of toilet paper. It reminded me of a fish egg, but the size of a marble. I took it out to Kim.
“Do you know what this is?”
She pulled her head out from under the bed, dust bunnies stuck to her hair.
“Some kind of mold?” she said.
That, it certainly was not. Whatever it was, I took it back to the bathroom and flushed it.
The first time I had seen Eleanor was during my first week in the mountains. There were no Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s up here, so I found the tiny health food store, which doubled as a metaphysical gift shop. Crystals and dream catchers hung over the cashier’s station; statues of Krishna sat in between boxes of quinoa and gluten-free crackers.
I passed Eleanor in the dairy substitutes aisle. She was shorter than me and had a manly sort of face. I smiled politely, but she didn’t smile back. Instead, her face seemed to darken. Not in metaphorical way. Her skin faded to a grayish brown. Her teeth and eyes warped as if some demon were bending them from behind a mask. I stopped in the aisle and let her pass. I rubbed my eyes and decided the Cashew Chicken I’d had for lunch must have had MSG in it.
She’d left the store by the time I took my basket up to the cashier. He was white-haired and apron-clad, and he’d lit a bundle of sage incense and was sweeping it around the store.
He thumbed toward the door Eleanor had just exited.
“She sometimes leaves things behind.”
He swept the smudge stick over the cash register. I picked one from the impulse display and added it to my basket.
“Good idea,” he said.
I bought it because the smell reminded me of my mom. We’d moved a lot when I was a kid, and in each new house she’d burn sage and sweep it through the rooms the same way the cashier did to his store. She insisted on doing this before any boxes or furniture came in. She might have told me why. If so, I forgot a long time ago.
After I left Kim’s house, I pulled the sage out of the kitchen drawer where it had been for six months. When I bought it, I’d thought I might sweep it around my house like my mother, even though the furniture had been moved in, the boxes all unpacked. But I never did it. Now I could use it as an excuse to get rid of the smell of Eleanor, which had lingered with me on the drive home. I couldn’t find a lighter so I turned on the stove and used that flame to light the sage.
The smoke curled toward the ceiling, and I tried to think of my mom they way I remembered her when I was a kid, as a young woman in a yellow dress, with dark hair to her waist. But I saw her instead as the gray-haired lady in a stained t-shirt, the one I had to help to the bathroom.
I walked around my one-bedroom cabin, letting the smoke drift and hover in a gray line along my path. I took a shower, then did all my dishes and took out the trash. Maybe because I didn’t want to be like Kim. Maybe because Mom had always yelled at me for little things like that.
Kim called me while I was cooking dinner.
“Leah,” she said. She sounded panicked. “Something scratched me.”
I stirred my spaghetti noodles.
“What are you talking about?”
“Scratches, I’ve got scratches all over my arms, and I don’t know where they came from.”
I assumed she’d had an allergic reaction to one of the cleaning products. There goes that new leaf, I thought.
“Jesus,” she said. Her voice was distant, like she had dropped the phone.
“Kim, are you still there?”
There were scuffling sounds and a string of curses. Then her voice, clearer.
“I think I might have stirred something up by cleaning today.”
“Like bugs or something?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Or something.”
“Do you need me to come over?” I asked, hoping she’d say no.
I turned the stove off and left my half-cooked pasta soaking in the pan.
Kim dabbed Neosporin on five red scratches, shallow, but several inches long.
“What did you do to yourself?”
“I’m telling you, we stirred something up while we were cleaning.”
“Like what, a raccoon?”
“No, like— this is an old house, you know?”
Kim finished tending her wounds. She left the cap off the tube on the kitchen table. I picked it up and screwed it back on, then took it into the bathroom.
“So you think you’re getting attacked by ghosts, is that it?”
I closed the bathroom cabinet.
I ran back to the kitchen. She swatted at her own torso, looking like a dog chasing its own tail.
“There’s something in my shirt, there’s something—”
She pulled the shirt over her head and threw it to the floor. She stood in her bra with her back to me.
I watched as a long red scratch appeared on her back. It stretched at a diagonal from just below her bra line to her right hip. Her hands flew to it and she cried out in pain.
I had an extra shirt in the back seat of my car. Kim put it on and sat biting her nails. I drove down the mountain roads, heading for town. It was dusk. A pair of deer trotted across the road.
“We’ll go to the store and get some pest repellant and some mousetraps,” I said. “And some sage. And if whatever attacked you is still there, then, I don’t know. You can come stay at my place.”
Kim might have nodded, or it might just have been her ripping a cuticle with her teeth. I didn’t really have the room for her to stay, I think we both knew that, but I was already coming up with ways to make do.
So much for not taking care of anyone for awhile.
Really, I’d been taking care of Kim since I met her. I didn’t count the rides home from the bar, but I did count the lunches I’d bought and the money I’d lent, and the time I’d noticed a man slipping something into her drink. I counted the cleaning, which she’d asked me to help her with after she watched something on TV about hoarders and realized she was only a few steps away from that.
When my mom was younger she would have said friends shouldn’t keep track. That was back when she left extra bowls of food out for the stray cats, back when she sewed her own dresses and grew tomatoes in a window box. Near the end my mother would have said don’t let people take advantage of you. Keep an actual list if you have to.
“Aunt Eleanor might know what the scratches are from,” Kim said.
“How would she know?”
“They look the same as scratches she had a few years ago. I just remembered. I asked her about them back then, but she just covered them up.”
“Can you call her?”
“She doesn’t have a phone.”
She pointed at an intersection. The street sign was hidden by tree branches.
“This is where she lives. We should stop and ask her.”
It was Sunday and every retail store in town closed in half an hour; if we were going to get anything the stop at Eleanor’s needed to be fast. I almost drove straight through, but Kim said it again.
“Here, turn here.”
I turned. She guided me to a plain blue house.
“Let’s be quick, okay?” I said.
Kim slammed the passenger door and ran up the porch steps. I lagged a few paces behind. Kim knocked.
A minute passed. She knocked again.
I was on the verge of saying we should go when the door creaked open. The smell poured down the steps. Eleanor peered out.
On her shoulder sat a creature like a deformed bat. Leather wings folded across a naked rat-like body. Black talons gripped Eleanor’s shoulder. Its head moved in the same motions hers did. A steady pan when she first opened the door, slow nods when Kim began to speak. What I thought at first was the creature’s tail was actually stuck into the skin at the back of her neck.
“Kim, what is that thing?” I asked.
She looked at the sky and to the sides of the porch.
“What’s what thing?” she said.
“Kim, let’s go.”
I pulled at the back of her borrowed shirt. She protested. I nearly made her fall down the stairs so I let go and backed away. Kim apologized to Eleanor about me. The creature turned toward me, its eyes like sickly green marbles. Eleanor’s head turned too, her eyes still on Kim like her head was being pulled against her will. Then her face darkened the way it had in the health food store, a shadow that revealed all the decay in her skin. Kim saw the change too, I could tell by her sudden expletive.
Eleanor took a step forward. I turned and ran to the car. Kim followed. I pulled out of the driveway without checking for deer or traffic.
My car beeped, the passenger seatbelt light blinking. Kim sat with her knees up into her chest.
I tried to label the monster, but nothing quite fit. It made no sense that I could see the thing on Eleanor’s shoulder and Kim couldn’t. Because of the sage, maybe? Because of what I had stepped on in Kim’s bathroom?
This wasn’t the first time I had seen something others didn’t, though.
Once, when we were moving between cities, Mom and I stopped at a roadside historical point, some ruins of an old fort. We wandered through the barracks, pointing at men who slept on cots in full uniform. Inside the mess hall a thin chef in a stained apron stirred a pot and tipped his head to us. Out in the field the military band played their trumpets. When we came around to the gift shop, Mom bought a chunk of turquoise from their gemstone bin.
“Those are some great re-enactors you’ve got in there,” she said to the cashier. “Very believable.”
“What re-enactors?” the cashier said.
We assumed she was joking, and left laughing. But when we walked back outside, the clouds rolled away from the sun and we watched the trumpeters disappear in the sunlight.
Back in the car, Mom rolled the piece of turquoise around in her hand.
“You saw them?” she asked.
I nodded. I was scared.
“Just because someone else can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” she said.
I hadn’t thought of that memory in decades.
The drug store was closed, the pesticides and mousetraps locked behind the glass door. By the time we got to the health food store, the lights were already turned off, but the door was open. Kim stayed in the car with a cigarette. I didn’t have the heart to ask her not to smoke in my car.
The cashier didn’t seem to think emergency sage was a strange request.
“Does this stuff actually work?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “It drives out the darkness.”
“Let’s say I had something less abstract than ‘darkness.'”
“Ah,” he said. “Sometimes.”
Back at Kim’s, she didn’t want to get out of the car. She pointed at one of the scratches on her arm.
“We should just burn the place down,” she said.
“That’s not the answer,” I said. “And I had a house burn down once. I can tell you it’s not what you want.”
This wasn’t entirely true. My mom always kept a candle lit on a small wooden platform, and one time she’d left the window open and the curtains blew into the flame. We managed to put out the fire, but the smell of smoke and the shriek of the alarm had been enough to give me a glimpse of the loss we had almost suffered. I laid in bed that night making an inventory of what I would try to save (my favorite teddy bear, Mom’s guitar, a few books) and what I would leave to the fire (the TV, most of my clothes). She kept the candle lit, even after, but she moved it away from the window. Like the sage, the candle was something I took for granted and never asked her to explain.
I held up the sage to Kim. It seemed a weak defense, just an herb I could have picked from the side of the road, but I didn’t know what else to do.
“Do you believe this will work?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“Neither do I. Let’s go.”
The smell had grown faint, but it was there, under the cigarette ash and Pine-Sol. I turned on every light in the small house. In her kitchen drawer I found nothing stronger than a flimsy steak knife with a splintery wooden handle, so I took that. She refused to let go of my arm. She held onto my sleeve the way I used to hang onto my mother’s long skirts when we were in a crowd. Kim had no shortage of lighters. I lit the sage, let it flame for a second and then blew it out. Smoke swirled into my eyes.
Kim clutched me while I inched across her kitchen. I tried to remember if there had been any ritual to the way my mom spread the sage smoke, any particular gesture or method. I felt like there should be some invocation to chant, but I knew none. We moved into the bedroom.
When we reached her dresser, a pain hit my ankle. I limped, nearly dropping the sage in confusion. My ankle bled, the sock torn in a clean slash.
I waved the smoke toward the dresser. It seemed such a desperate, stupid act that I had to stop myself from running out the door, leaving Kim, leaving the mountains. The state, maybe. I held my ground.
She let go of my shirt and ran for the bedroom door. I watched a black clawed hand reach out from under the bed. She fell. That time I did drop the sage. Kim scrambled through the hallway and I followed.
She was by the coffee table when the thing sprang on her. She stopped suddenly, on her hands and knees, paralyzed in the act of standing up. It retracted its wings, folding them across its furless body. It climbed toward her shoulder. This one was smaller than Eleanor’s. It probed the back of her neck with its tail.
I grabbed the stack of magazines from the coffee table and swatted the creature. It landed upside down, thin legs reaching and twisting. Kim moved again. Before it could flip itself over, I dropped the magazines. They landed on top of the creature, then started to slide apart. I pressed a knee onto a glossy cover and stabbed underneath the magazines with the steak knife. The smell was overwhelming.
Kim crawled away and covered her face with her shirt. I went back for the sage. It had burned a small hole in the bedroom carpet.
Just as I picked it up, Kim screamed.
Two of them now, flapping around her head. She tripped over the coffee table. They seemed to be fighting over her. I rushed toward them with the knife in one hand and the sage in the other, but then stopped short, not sure what to do.
One of the creatures flapped into the line of sage smoke. Its wings slowed. It dropped to the floor and crawled, sluggishly. I pushed the knife into its side. The blade broke off. The creature screeched, but kept crawling.
The other one, now without competition, dug its claws into Kim’s shoulder. Again, she froze. I grabbed a lighter from the floor and lit the whole bundle of sage on fire. The creature’s tail had nearly found its hold on the back of her neck. I blew out the flame, urging the cloud of smoke toward the creature. It slumped off of her shoulder, bounced off the coffee table and landed on the floor.
Something scratched my leg. The other one. It crawled up my leg, claws ripping my jeans. The knife blade still stuck out of its side. I kicked in panic, but it climbed higher. I swiped the sage at it. The bundle was almost gone. Heat singed my fingertips. I swiped again and the creature dropped off. I kicked it toward the other one. They spasmed pathetically, crawling like poisoned wasps. I picked up one end of Kim’s coffee table and turned it over on top of them.
Kim and I stood there looking at each other, waiting for the next attack. I expected a swarm. Creatures crawling out of the faucets, bursting out of the couch cushions. But it didn’t come.
Kim knelt down and peeled the sticky mess of magazines apart.
“Gross,” she said.
She scooped the dead creatures into a trash bag and carried them outside. I took the last bit of sage and walked around, blowing the smoke into all the dark corners of Kim’s house. I found several more of those purple eggs like the one I’d stepped on. They disappeared when the sage smoke touched them.
Kim stayed at my place that night. She slept on my loveseat, her feet hanging off the end, a thin blanket all I could offer.
I stared at the ceiling and thought about my mom. How graceful she used to be, when she’d dance in the kitchen and sing folk songs I never heard anyone else sing. How many things she had known but hadn’t taught me.
I felt a tingling on my shoulder and slapped violently at it, finding nothing but raised hair.
Sarena Ulibarri’s fiction has recently appeared in Lightspeed, The First Line, Birkensnake and elsewhere.