By: Taylor Owens
The first appearance of the mold was random enough. I walked over to the neighbor’s house on Little Marrowbone Road after they had called on me over the landline. I hurried out my front door to go and take a look.
My neighbor, Darlene, led me to her spare bedroom’s closet as soon as I walked in the house. It was clear no one lived in the room with its wood floors mostly all tarnished paired with faded curtains and a dusty, pastel quilt on the bed.
The room smelled strongly of dampness and mold throughout. You almost couldn’t stand it. But even so, I stood at the entrance to the closet looking on at a puffy, beige mold that looked as if it was coming through the wall itself. This weird, mushroom-like mold was the source of the smell, I was certain. The air inside the closet was full of very small particulates floating around the odd-shaped puff.
Darlene looked at me with a confused expression.
“Is it a mushroom?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“I mean, I know the house is old and not in the best shape. It is a country house after all. Surely a mushroom wouldn’t be growing out of the wall, right?”
I nodded, stared at the mold, and decided to stay quiet.
Darlene’s house was in fact old and rundown, similar to the other houses stretched out on the small road. Built on a stone slab, the house always had felt wet and cold every time I had stopped by. There was a wood stove sitting in the corner of the living room that gave off plenty of heat but never fully eradicated the dampness.
I walked away from Darlene and headed back up the hallway, the sight of the floating particulates frightening me about not having a protective mask for my nose and mouth. The light coming in from the windows in the hallway was a comfort after being in the dark, unused room.
My gaze shifted down to the window sills. Each one was filled with lady bugs, both alive and dead. The alive ones still climbed the window glass, while the dead ones lay in piles on the sill. I looked away.
It was obvious Darlene had trouble maintaining the sizable house at the age of 78. After all, it was just her and her adopted son living there. I knew all of her time was consumed by him and his various handicaps: blindness, deafness, diabetes, etc.
She had told me several times the only money she received was Travis’s disability check and her social security, which was minimal due to her only having worked since after her divorce from her ex-husband Blake when she was 40.
They didn’t have much and the house was beginning to show just how seriously they needed help.
“I’m going to call someone to come and take care of the closet,” she told me.
“A good idea.”
While Darlene made a few calls, I sat with her son and worked out a conversation. Travis rarely left the house due to his complete blindness. While his sight was completely gone, he was not yet fully deaf, so he could hear some things.
Our conversation was stunted. He constantly misunderstood me and interrupted with a slight speech impediment when he didn’t realize I was already talking.
He smiled at me the whole time, looking slightly to the right of my face with cloudy eyes. It was sad to look right at his eyes. I remembered him only years before when he was still able to see and only needed glasses and hearing aids and was still able to catch on to conversations. Now his eyes were blank with most of his expressions showing through eyebrow raises.
The conversation had trailed off when Darlene had gotten back to the room. Travis sat very still on the only couch in the room, resting his arm on the armrest and turning his good ear, the right one, towards Darlene to better hear her.
“Everyone I called is booked until next Monday,” she said. “The mold in the closet should be fine as long as I shut the door and open the room’s windows until then.”
I got up from my seat to leave and Darlene thanked me for spending some time visiting with Travis while she made the calls. I told her I would check in with her some time tomorrow.
I walked just two houses down the street to my own. The afternoon felt warm with a cool breeze coming off the nearby creek bed that ran the length of the road.
Mold is very common here, I thought. Especially in these old houses. While mold pervaded in this damp part of the South, I’d never seen any like the oversized chunk attached to Darlene’s closet wall.
As I continued to ponder the strange color and shape, I filled my kettle with water and left it on the stove to boil while I took a seat on my reclaimed couch.
My house was also old and full of used furniture. I, too, did not have a large source of income that led me to live in this area, but, then again, I did not have anyone to look after.
After hearing the sharp whistle of the kettle, I poured myself a cup of hot water that I sipped on while flipping through the five TV channels I got. I settled on a show featuring the demolition and re-building of “dream homes.”
The families who received these great prizes were those with a veteran for a father who had a permanent, immobilizing injury, a son who was in a wheelchair, or a daughter with prosthetic limbs. They were all happy on the screen and that brought my mood up a little.
I woke up the next morning with a start, the empty mug still on my chest and the muted TV still playing. The clock read 12:30 pm so I poured myself a bowl of cereal, resolving to go over to Darlene’s at 1:00.
The autumn day was especially gray with storm clouds appearing in the distance. The air was sticky and heavy with humidity, not the best weather for halting the spread of mold.
I knocked on Darlene’s door and waited for a few minutes while I watched Travis take slow steps, arms outstretched, through the glass. He opened the door for me with a smile and a chipper “gooooooood morning.”
“Mom isn’t feeling great today,” he said while still facing the empty doorway.
“I’m in the living room now,” I yelled.
He shuffled slowly towards me, feeling the edges of shelves and tables with his hands and sides of his legs along the way.
He took up his same seat on the couch and flicked on the TV so he could listen to the news updates. The volume was too loud for me to be in the room. I snuck out of the room and toward Darlene’s door. I knocked twice, paused and then let myself in.
“Tammy,” Darlene hoarsely greeted me.
In two short strides, I was by her bedside. Her face was a pale yellow and she had a slight cough.
“Can I get you anything?” I asked.
“No, no. I’m fine. Travis warmed up some soup for me in the microwave.”
“Has the house been holding up?”
I smelled a faint scent of the moldy, dank smell from the day before then in her bedroom all the way down the hallway.
“I haven’t been able to look, and I didn’t want Travis running his hands on it.”
I knew she could smell the strange odor too. She was worried but almost too sick to show it. I fluffed the pillows behind her head and filled her glass with water while promising to go take a look at it.
I walked slowly down the dark hallway, the smell growing stronger. The sun never came out so the normal light pouring through the windows was absent.
When I reached the room, I saw particulates of varying sizes escaping from the bottom of the door. The smell was terrible, like a foul mushroom had taken over the fridge drawer that was Darlene’s spare bedroom.
A quick turn of the knob and the door swung open. Particles of white and yellow completely filled the space while large mold growths now covered almost every spot on the walls and carpet.
I stared, shocked, until more of the spores started to float out of the doorframe and I slammed the door shut. I ran back down the hall and busted into Darlene’s room.
“The room is completely full of growing mold!” I sputtered. “It has grown to cover the entire room overnight.”
My eyes were wide and my words came out nervously, giving away my fear.
Darlene blinked at me, her face tired and weary from her age and the illness affecting her. Her lack of reaction moved me forward.
“Darlene, I think you and Travis need to get out of the house.”
“And go where?” she whispered quietly.
“My house! A hotel! Just somewhere else because I’m sure the growth of the mold will continue.”
“They said someone will be here for it on Monday.”
“Darlene, please leave with me now.”
“I can’t ask Travis to leave the house right now. He has everything set up so he can find whatever he needs. Being blind makes it so difficult. I know he won’t leave, and I can’t leave him here alone.”
She started to tear up as she looked at me from her pillows. She seemed delirious but I knew that trying to start the conversation of getting out of the house with Travis wouldn’t end with them leaving that day.
“Besides, your house barely has space for you and we can’t afford a hotel,” she whispered. “We’ll wait here until Monday.”
Everything that I saw in that room made me want to force Darlene and Travis out away from the contaminated air, but she was right. And go where? Moving a sick 78-year-old and a disabled person would be more than uncomfortable and I’d only gotten to know them in the last few years. There was only so much I felt I could do and only so much I felt I could interfere with.
I finally nodded at Darlene and promised to make dinner for Travis while I was there.
I handed Travis a plate of mac and cheese from a box and warmed up fajita meat I had found in a bag in the freezer. I moved his hand to each food item on the plate and loudly told him what each were.
He made a noise of approval and stared straight ahead as he rummaged his hands over the food. The news was still playing at great volume on the TV.
I carried another plate down the hall to Darlene but she was already asleep when I got to her bedside. I set the plate on her nightstand in case she woke up and was hungry. Her breathing was slightly labored but she seemed the most comfortable she could be.
Quietly shutting her door, I glanced down the hallway again at the spare room door. Particles were coming from the other side of the door more aggressively now.
Just two days until Monday, I reminded myself. It would be here quickly. I yelled goodbye to Travis from the front door.
“Bye, Tam!” he yelled back with a slight catch. He smiled at his plate.
The next day came and I lazed about well into the afternoon. I had no real plans other than to check on my neighbors again and I had just seen them the night before.
Four o’clock came when I heard a repeated knock on my door until I answered. Mrs. Lane stood on my small doorstep looking completely panicked.
“Oh, Tammy!” she yelled. “Darlene and Travis! The house doesn’t look right, not right at all. I tried to go in but the smell was so putrid I couldn’t do it.”
I shoved my feet into my worn-down slippers and took off with her up the road.
Even nearing the house, I knew the mold had spread uncontrollably. Particles were floating out of open windows and into the street. The course of a single day had been enough for the mold to leech its way to the lady-bug filled windows, so much so that I could see it clinging to the window panes from the outside.
As we rushed toward the front door, I saw the windows didn’t have any more living ladybugs crawling over the glass anymore.