As the moving van pulled away, she stood on the front lawn and pictured the tulips she would plant along the flowerbeds and underneath the windows.
He saw himself hammering together a swing set in the backyard.
They both thought of the extra bedroom to fill in their new house as they walked through the front door, holding hands.
But as soon as the door clicked shut behind them, she noticed a strange smell. It poked out from beneath the expected dust and mildew. If it had a color, she thought, it would be a brownish, mucousy green.
“You’re paranoid,” he joked, reaching a hand under her shirt and tickling her rib cage. She squealed, flashed a finger from her mouth to his ear, then squirmed out of his grasp.
“There’s definitely something rotten in here,” she said and lifted her nose into the air.
Over the next few days, as they stripped away the dirt and mold, the underlying odor grew more prominent.
Soon, he noticed it, too. He thought it came from the kitchen. Maybe sour milk in the refrigerator, a dead mouse behind the stove, or rotting cabbage in the drain trap.
She scrubbed both bathrooms until she saw her reflection in the porcelain. Then she rented a steamer and cleaned all of the carpets. But the problem only got worse. A faint egginess clung to her eyelashes.
For him, the stench curdled into a sickly sweet headache behind his eyes. It would ooze down to his sinuses if he stayed too long in the morning, so he rushed out quickly, showering before the water got hot and knotting his tie on the highway.
He made enough money now that she could stay home, so every day she fought with the odor. After a few hours, it would turn into a faint nausea that she cradled in her stomach. It rocked back and forth throughout the day, so that she was always close to vomiting.
Instead of hanging the curtains, she threw them out, along with the bedding, even though they were wedding gifts and had not come with the house. She washed all of their clothes repeatedly.
“Hey, I think it’s getting better,” he would say, pretending not to hold his breath, as he stepped through the front door after work.
But she was never fooled. “Don’t lie to me.”
She scrubbed the walls until they squished like wet diapers.
The air got thicker with the smell. It settled, bile-like, on the backs of their tongues and burned their throats when they breathed.
She spread his shoes out in the yard and sprayed them with the garden hose. Her own footwear she drove to a remote location and sniffed scientifically until she was sure each pair was safe.
He tried bringing home fresh flowers every day, but they withered quickly in the infectious air. Instead of planting bulbs, she tossed the dried-up petals out of the windows and into the empty flowerbeds.
She did not get around to any of the re-decorating she had planned, so the “Early Spring Green,” “Sunshine,” and “Young Passionfruit” cans of paint sat untouched in the garage along with the train stencils and bunny wallpaper border, which collected equal amounts of dust.
He saw no point in assembling the furniture they’d picked out for the extra bedroom, so it also lay stacked in the garage, flat-packed in cardboard boxes. His toolbox bulged with hammers, nails, screws, but he never opened it.
The fumes wafted into a yolky, sticky shimmer in the air. Nothing was clean or fresh anymore; the odor left a film on the coffee table.
She started wearing her rubber gloves to bed, keeping a spray bottle always on her nightstand. Vicks VapoRub almost blocked the stench, and so he smeared it on his chest every night.
Their love life grew very bleak and so she found a job after all.
Still, every evening and weekend they would both clean and scrub and it never seemed to change except now they fought as they cleaned.
“You did that on purpose.” He accused her of tripping him with the cord to the steamer, which they had purchased.
She yelled when he left appliances in the middle of the floor. “Damn you and your damn refrigerator.”
To escape for a few hours, he would shop for cleaning supplies. Every weekend he drove farther and farther in search of stronger bleaches and sharper scrub brushes.
He started to wonder if the stink was coming from her and then he worried that it was actually himself.
She thought about whether it could be her husband who smelled and then became convinced that it was actually herself.
Eventually they both knew that even if the stench had not started with them, it was a part of them now. Foul vapors poofed from his crotch and from his armpits. A sulfurous mist curled off the end of her long, slinky ponytail.
They stopped fighting as they cleaned. They stopped swearing and pretty much stopped talking to each other altogether. But they scrubbed side-by-side and found a rhythm in their cleaning.
One Sunday they were scrubbing the walls in the extra bedroom. She started to the right of the door and he to the left and they were working their way around to meet across the room. Both of them used the same circular strokes, the same three-squirt, two-wipe pattern.
She felt the hard lump in her stomach tighten and turn over.
The sugary pain behind his eyeballs twisted into something sharp and stabbing.
As they drew closer and closer to whatever was making their lives so miserable, both of them knew, no matter how they labored, they would never find it, never expel it from their lives.
Instead, the stench hovered invisibly between them, holding them together.
Allison Wyss grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, earned an MFA from the University of Maryland, and now lives in Minneapolis. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in [PANK] Magazine, Metazen, Southeast Review, MadHat (The Mad Hatters’ Review), and The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She’s also working hard on a novel. It’s a freaking beast.
Asked what invisible thing she would make visible, she answered, “Every time I leave the house, my keys become invisible. I wish they would stop that.”
Back to Issue 3: Things Unseen