December 15

The Exterminator’s Visit (Part 2)

 

William patted at his coat and pants pockets, hoping he’d remembered to bring business cards.  “I’m an exterminator, like I told you.”

“Talking about my ‘fall’,” Mrs. Finley said, clearly agitated.  “You tell my son I’m perfectly healthy.  I can take care of myself.”

Her son?  From the limited research William had done, Arthur Finley was dead.  He’d lived in the city, inside last week’s blast radius.

“I don’t know anything about your son.”  William couldn’t find his business cards, but perhaps the company letterhead would convince her.  He tore open the envelope, and unfolded the page within.

“Fallout Exterminators” appeared at the top of the letter.  Beside the company name, a cartoon cockroach loomed large over a decimated cityscape.  The client’s name and address appeared beneath, followed by a brief mission statement, then a chart listing available services and rates.

This time, the woman accepted the letter.  She held the page far away from her face, brought it closer then away again.  “After recent terrible events…,” she read aloud, then glanced up.  “What terrible events?”

William was taken aback.  How could she not know?  He glanced across the room at the antique television set.  A power cord curled behind it, the plug flat on the carpet beneath an empty wall outlet.

If he didn’t have the nerve to tell her that her son had died, he certainly didn’t have the nerve to tell her about everybody else.  Instead, William retreated into phrases from his oft-rehearsed sales pitch.  “The vermin in the, uh, surrounding regions have become increasingly resistent to conventional extermination methods.  Our free in-home inspection will help identify any potential dangers.”  He punched the word “free,” hoping it would make the woman more receptive, then added an improvised comment:  “Have you heard any unusual noises recently?  I noticed a damaged window screen outside, which could have allowed pests to enter your lovely home.”

“I might have opened the door to one of them a few minutes ago.”

Ouch.   If William saw other parts of the house, he’d have more details to discuss with her…but Mrs. Finley didn’t seem inclined to allow the free inspection.   He had one final trick, which he prefaced with an awkward grimace and a forearm cradled over his stomach.  “Do you mind if I use your bathroom?”

The request was tough for anyone to deny.  Mrs. Finley rolled her eyes, then offered directions:  “Way you came in, and straight back through the kitchen.  Turn to the left, after a stack of boxes.”

“I’ll find my way,” William said.

Easier said than done.  He lost count after the tenth stack of boxes.

 

#

 

William found himself at the bottom of a stairway.  Fortunately, he’d brought a flashlight — essential in these recent days of power outages — and he aimed the beam upward

The stairs were carpeted in the same flat-worn dark green of the living room floor.  Very little of the carpet was visible here, however:  on either side of the lowest step were waist-high stacks of newspapers and junk mail, with a thin space cleared up the middle—barely room for a single person to pass.  The pattern continued with separate stacks on each step, all the way to the landing half-way between the floors.  The cleared space got tighter at the top, an artistic vanishing point that made the distance seem farther than it actually was.  William decided to test the climb.

He was a combination mountain explorer and archeologist:  each step brought him into higher, thinner air, and carried him back in time.  The papers and receipts on the lowest step were fairly current; part-way up, dates beneath layers of dust slipped into the previous millennium.  He found a copy of Good Life Magazine, which ceased publication in 1988.  At one moment, the uneven walls of paper and junk gave him vertigo.  He reached out to steady himself, the flashlight beam wavering.  A pile of newspapers sunk under his hand, and a musty odor rose with a smoke of dust.

After the threat of gagging passed, he climbed more cautiously to the landing, where the steps continued upward at a different angle.

Except, that passage was blocked.  A similar arrangement of papers had failed to maintain its shape, with the top stacks toppling over and a piece-meal domino effect pushing more pages and junk to the bottom.  He could see the second floor, but there wasn’t a clear path to get there.  It was the old joke about the guy who literally painted himself into a corner:  Mrs. Finley had papered herself into the downstairs rooms.

The smell was worse here — mold and dust and spoiled food; sweat and unwashed clothes and rose-scented perfume.  God knows what other garbage lay festering upstairs.  “Jesus,” he said out loud.

Full-blown hoarding behavior, and it had clearly been going on for many years.  Mrs. Finley was already living in a disaster area — a breeding ground for a full variety of household pests.

He thought about whiskered mammals with sharp teeth; insect legs and fat, segmented bodies; forked tongues and red flashing eyes.  He thought of radioactive fallout soaking into the horrible vermin, transforming them into something even more hideous.

William heard a snap followed by a hiss.  He stood completely still.

Clouds of dust sputtered from the ceiling and rose from moldy stacks of newspaper, and William found himself gagging again.

This job was too big for him.  He didn’t have enough traps or pesticide canisters in the office.  Mrs. Finley didn’t need an exterminator, she needed a bulldozer.

 

#

 

[…continued in December 16 entry…]