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.