This, they said, was where they would begin their family, but with the paperwork complete, they braced first for repairs. Given that the house was nearly a century old, they weren’t surprised to find strong odors. The previous owners had grown into senility in those rooms, and the wife had died in one. The carpets were stained, the padding reeking of mildew or urine. The cupboards were packed with forgotten food, and the laundry room overpowered them with a chemical stench. They aired that room as best they could, but just when it seemed bearable, a new smell took over. This was a rotten smell that reminded them of wilderness and decay. For days the smell grew stronger, then weakened, and finally disappeared. In its wake, they found the room full of flies, more each day, until the walls and ceiling were black with inky movement, a living wallpaper. They gave up swatting and turned to fly paper, and then an industrial vacuum. They were relieved at how easily the flies let themselves be sucked away, so slow and stupid. Weeks later, they emptied the vacuum’s enormous drum into a dumpster and were surprised again by the sheer volume of flies. What had happened, they decided, was that some squirrel or raccoon, or maybe something larger, had died beneath the floorboards, and a host of pregnant flies had laid their eggs in that rotting carcass. The stench is long gone now, replaced by the more pleasant smell of fabric softener, but they don’t like to go into that room when they can avoid it, and they sometimes allow their laundry to go unwashed for weeks at a time. At night, lying at the far reaches of their conjugal bed, the couple listens to the sounds of the old, achy house. They pretend to be asleep, while below them they imagine a network of tunnels, busy with rodent life.
Their daughter was very small at birth. The nervous nurses shook with fear as they weighed her and swaddled her and said not to worry. The nurses didn’t seem to believe what they said when they said that in time the small thing would grow plenty. But everyone hoped very hard that she would grow. And she did, in time. She got bigger and bigger and bigger until she blotted out the sun and ruined everything.
The Sleeper Agent
The young agent’s handler gave him only spare instruction. He was to hide in plain sight in an enemy village far from the front lines. He would assume the role of a simple man who knew little more than his simple work. He was to wait for word from his handler and make no disruption until that word came. So he did as he was told, apprenticing himself to a machinist who specialized in farm equipment, keeping old tractors running smoothly when others might have sold them for scrap. He completed menial, repetitive tasks without complaint. He learned everything he could about the work at hand and in time developed a sense for engines that at first rivaled and then surpassed the machinist himself. Eventually, the machinist retired and left a thriving business to the agent, who was by then, as everyone knew, the more capable of the two. Now fully settled, the agent found a wife and started a family and took up gardening and model airplane assembly. In his later years, when a child or grandchild asked how he came to live here, in this part of the country, he said only that there had been a war once, far away, but that he couldn’t remember the details.
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