The sink smelled of mold so sour that I was surprised a green cloud didn’t hover over the kitchen. I closed the door behind me and waved a hand in front of my nose, which did little to reconcile the stench. My next thought was that I should leave the backdoor open, however, my cheapskate sensibilities knew how badly the electric bill would skyrocket. Not that we kept the thermostat very high anyway, but it was nineteen degrees outside, the kind of cold that floated around in a hazy mist and left sheets of ice on windshields overnight.
I closed the door, trapping myself in with the odor. I dropped my backpack on the kitchen table and crossed the room to the sink. The microwave’s underbelly light threw a yellow glow over the mound of dishes. I leaned over and peered into it, very put off that I couldn’t even see the stainless steel bottom of the sink basin. Plates, covered in breadcrumbs and dried ketchup, lined the sink. Our entire set of pots was in there, too, each one full of murky water meant to “loosen” the marinara sauce caked to the inside. Bowls of old milk, complete with lonely, soggy Lucky Charms, sat at a cockeyed angle that probably would’ve spilled in the case of a minor earthquake.
My nose turned away from it. Not even my eyes could stand to witness it. A roach scaled a coffee mug and disappeared down into its chasm. My throat lunged forward.
Donatello, my roommate, had the unfortunate luck of occupying the downstairs bedroom, which was right next to the kitchen. His door usually stayed open, but right now it was closed. A rectangle of light shimmered out from under it and glared across the kitchen floor.
“Hey, Donatello?” I called. “Don!”
The door creaked open. “Oh, it’s you,” he said. “How was Florida?”
“It was… good, but…” My words trailed away. “What the hell happened in the sink?”
Donatello peered over my shoulder, his long black hair flapping from side to side as he did so. He lips curled down in grimace. “That’s all Bruster there, buddy.”
“You mean those are all his?”
“Yeah.” He shook his head, pinching his nostrils between his thumb and index finger. “There’s no room to even get under the faucet. I had to wash my dinner plate in the bathtub.”
I returned to the sink without getting too close. I was thinking of the roach. “How did this happen?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Leave the guy here all spring break and he builds a monument to dirty dishes.”
“With dirty dishes.”
Donatello pulled his shirt over his nose. “God, man, that’s foul. I’m shutting my door before that stink ass wafts in here.”
Before I could say anything, the door popped shut. Donatello’s TV turned on, and the funky bass theme of Seinfeld came through the door, muffled.
I went upstairs and tossed my jacket and backpack on the bed, momentarily pausing to admire how clean my room was. The bedspread was always made, wrinkle-free. The desk was clear of any stray pencils or paper. My carpet’s vacuum lines were still present from when I left the week before.
Through the wall, I heard Bruster swearing at his video game, though it was more of an angry grunt that actual words. I imagined the spit flying from between his clenched teeth. I ventured down the hall and pushed his door open with my fingertips.
“Bruster?” I said.
His desk chair spun around. He held the game controller in his chubby hands. He was shirtless, displaying two bulging breasts and a chest covered in squiggly brown hair. The roll of his gut hung over his crotch and rubbed along his thighs.
“Oh, what’s up, Turk?” He pulled the game’s headset off one ear.
“Just got back from the airport, and uh–”
“Who gave you a ride?”
“I had an Uber. But I wanted to ask you… are those your dishes downstairs?”
“Me? Oh, yeah. I meant to wash them before work this morning, but I just didn’t get around to it.”
“Can you wash them tonight?” I asked, eyebrows raised.
He looked longingly at the TV, where his video game was locked on the pause screen. “I can after this match. I definitely will before I go to bed.”
“Okay,” I said, backing away from Bruster’s room, somehow doubting his word. He was infamous for three things: back pimples, uncleanliness, and never doing what he says he’s going to do.
The next morning, it was worse. The dish pile could no longer go vertical – it was too tall for that – so it went horizontal. A circular pan, complete with hard pepperonis and a used pizza cutter, sat on the counter, looming over the edge as if it wanted to fall in the floor. It shoved the coffee pot against the wall, now tucked beneath the cabinets.
Two glasses that once held Pepsi punctuated the pizza pan on either side, followed by a mound of dirty plates on the opposite end of Mount Filth. The blender’s glass interior was foggy and clouded with something brown. A slew of crumbs were jetted across the floor. I scooted the pizza pan to the left, toward the stove, so I could access the coffee pot, but I was cut short. The stovetop was already occupied. Two of its cold burners held grease splattered pans.
I ran a hand through my hair, dumbfounded. Regardless of Donatello’s sleep schedule, I knocked on his door until I heard his mattress creak. He peeled the door open and squinted against the light.
“What?” he asked.
“Look!” I stepped aside and held an arm out to the new recruits in Bruster’s dish army. “Overnight. He did that overnight!”
Donatello was in the middle of a yawn, but he seemed to snap awake when he saw it. “Holy hell.”
“He told me he would do them last night.”
“That’s Bruster for you. Where is he?”
“Asleep.” I stared at the dishes, inspecting them for roaches.
Donatello leaned in. “Last night, I heard him talking to someone down here.”
“I don’t know. There was no one here except you and me. And we stay in our rooms.”
Donatello retreated back into his bedroom’s darkness where he would await the eight-thirty alarm, which signified he needed to make his nine o’clock class.
As I stood there, alone, I thought I heard something in the sink, perhaps the pitter-patter of roach feet. Or perhaps something else.
That night, I came home from a campus screening of The Searchers, an old John Wayne movie that was required for my war and film class. It wasn’t an awful way to spend the evening, especially considering the cute girl from lecture, Madeline Maynard, sat beside me. We exchanged phone numbers, and I even secured a date. She was coming over the following night to watch Star Wars.
I walked into the house and peeled off my coat, which was flaked with bits of snow, not uncommon in the middle of Kentucky March. I imagined that sixty degrees and sunshine would roll in within two or three weeks, which was–
I stopped in my tracks, coat in hand. The color drained from my face. At first, I thought the mountain in the sink had relocated to the kitchen table, but then I realized it was its own entity now. A spread of plates, bowls, cups, and pans overtook the tabletop. Brittle pizza crust was piled like kindling on one plate. Dry queso dip was smeared across another.
I walked into the kitchen and tripped over a bowl left in the floor. My foot twisted into it. My balance fled as I sailed forward, catching myself in the counter, where a variety of dirty pots sat that I had never even seen before. It now occurred to me that there were more dishes than we even owned. The bowl I’d tripped over had been full of chicken broth from soup. It seeped across the laminate floor like a sea of cold urine. My sock was soaked in it.
Bruster pummeled downstairs. He walked down the hall, rubbing his hairy belly with one hand. “What’s all that racket?” he asked. His bare feet clopped along the floor.
“I fell over your stupid bowl.”
“That’s not my bowl. It’s Donatello’s.”
“Donatello wouldn’t leave soup in the floor!”
“No, it’s not his soup. But he technically owns the bowl. I did leave it there though.”
“What?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll clean it.”
“That’s what you said yesterday.”
“I’m going to right after I fix some fettuccini.”
I ended up in the living room, slouched in front of the TV’s blue glow that danced over my lethargic body. Occasionally, I had to turn up the volume against the clatter of dishes in the kitchen. Bruster’s shadow, long and thick, waved back and forth down the narrow hallway between us. At one point though, Bruster’s voice echoed, a faint noise.
I snapped the TV on mute. Silence for only a moment. Bruster whispered something, and the mere sound made me feel cold, sort of like hearing a mumbled fragment of speech when you know you’re alone. Or maybe it was just the TV. Or the wind.
Bruster whispered some more. I had not the courage to ask whom he was talking to, for that would’ve made me apart of the conversation. Dishes rattled.
He came into the living room a short while later with a bowl of fettuccini, white steam rising off it. I imagined it empty, with only the white traces of sauce leftover, a roach making its way across like a commute to work. Bruster shoveled the food into his gulley so fast that if I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought he was training for an eating contest at the county fair. The slimy noodles slithered between his plump lips, draping across his chin like worms. For a moment I thought they were worms, and I looked away, pretending to watch the TV.
Who had he been whispering to?
As soon as one bite went in, he scooped up another and rammed it in close behind. His teeth chomped up and down, a wet noise reminiscent of jumping in mud. White cream dribbled and collected in his stomach hair.
After being unable to watch or listen any longer, I went upstairs for bed. I didn’t look in the kitchen until the following night.
While the dishwasher was full of clean dishes, still damp and warm, the situation elsewhere had grown dire. I could no longer see the counter – or the coffee pot for that matter. The stovetop was buried beneath a sea of dishes, all stacked together and tilted. It looked like the back room of an understaffed restaurant during their busiest day of the year. I put a hand to my forehead, which was warm. Nausea jostled in my gut.
The kitchen table was not only covered in greasy pans and coffee mugs, but so were the chairs. Each chair was being used as a means to hold more filth. Flies buzzed in circles around each sector of the kitchen. Maggots squirmed along the oily innards of every bowl. The smell was staggering.
I stormed to Bruster’s room, but all I found in his desk chair was an empty bag of Doritos. He’d gone out to the bar with some friends.
Back downstairs, I figured I’d inform Donatello if he didn’t already know, though that was just an excuse. I only wanted someone who shared my frustration. And since I hadn’t the nerve to tell an outside party that my house was disgusting, Donatello seemed the only viable option.
But he didn’t answer when I knocked on or called through his door. His car was still outside. I saw it through the backdoor, parked just near the dumpster in our little complex of townhomes. A thick layer of ice was spread across the windshield, telling me he hadn’t left all day. I pressed my ear to his door. No sound. Except for…
I listened close. Whispering? Talking?
I cracked the door open. The kitchen’s brightness fell into the dark bedroom as a long thin rectangle, glimmering off the dishes that were collected on the bed. I gasped. When I threw the door open all the way, I was shocked to see a mound of dishes that covered what was once a somewhat tidy room. Donatello might’ve been in there, but if he was, he was buried. In front of the closet doors was a stack to the ceiling. The floor had turned into a sea of plates and bowls, all of them grotesque. The longer I looked, the worse it got.
When the doorbell rang, I jumped, letting my nerves overtake me for… no reason at all. I slammed the bedroom door shut, telling myself that the only thing to be anxious about was Madeline. I had enough trouble talking to girls as it was, and I didn’t need the kitchen mess (disaster?) making it worse. As I stood near the front door, I wondered if the smell was noticeable.
I broke into a relaxed smile and exhaled, pulling the door back. A sliver of dull streetlight fluttered inside the living room. Madeline stood on the welcome mat, bundled in a black parka and a wool hat. Her small mouse-like face was tucked just beneath it, a smile spread across her lips.
“Boy, are you a sight for sore eyes,” I said.
“Oh? Why’s that?”
I was sweating. Was it because of her or…? “Because of the… I mean the… I’ve been looking forward to this all day. Come on. It’s cold out there.”
She stepped inside and I took her coat. The hallway closet was a thin door between the kitchen and living room, always shrouded in darkness no matter the time of day. But when I opened the door, I knew what I saw right off the bat. There was a muffin tray on the shelf with crusty bits of overcooked batter stuck to the round indentations. A score of roaches spotted me, and then scattered into the wall. I nearly yelped, but I caught myself, turning it into more of a silent gasp.
I decided to drape Madeline’s coat over the couch instead, and she didn’t seem to mind. We watched Star Wars, though I didn’t offer her any good conversation or laughter. Not even my movie knowledge shined through, something I was known for. I kept thinking back to the kitchen.
“Is everything okay?” Madeline asked.
“Okay?” I looked down at her. She was huddled against my shoulder.
“Yeah. You seem… tense or something.”
“Oh no. Everything’s fine here.” I tried to smile, but a bead of sweat rolled from my nose to my upper lip.
Madeline backed away and examined my face. “Why are you sweating so bad? Are you feeling okay?”
“I’m good. Fine. Good.” My smile went away.
“You won’t offend me if you’re sick, Turk. Really.”
“No, that’s not–”
“Is it me? Did I do something?”
She stood. “Then you’re sick. Here, let me get you some water.”
She made her way out of the room, nearly disappearing down the hall before I lunged off the couch. What was I going to do? Forcibly remove her from my kitchen? Hold her down and put her back on the couch? Then I’d look exactly like a rapist. I knew how fragile women were. One weird move and I’d be toast.
“Hey, Madeline, you don’t wanna–”
“Sit down, Turk. You’re not well. Here, let me get you–” She stopped. I heard her stop. Her footsteps abruptly halted. Her shadow was motionless as it stretched down the hallway and spilled across the living room rug.
I sniffled and ran a hand through my hair. “Yeah?”
Her shadow inched forward and then faltered. A great clash erupted in the kitchen, the rattle of broken plates and bowls, not too dissimilar to the earsplitting clang of a waiter dropping a tray of food in a restaurant. Madeline screamed for only a moment before she was cut off.
Eyes wide, I stared away, unable to see around the bend. A stray cup rolled down the hall and stopped when it bumped the front door.
“Madeline?” I called only once.
After a few minutes, I crept forward so the dishes wouldn’t hear me. Hands clenched into warm fists, I leaned around the corner, at first wondering why I saw no light from the kitchen fixture. There were instead only small fragments that broke through from–
The entire passage had been overtaken in dishes. A giant rat scaled the side of it, pausing to glance back at me with its beady eyes. The bowls and cups shifted beneath its weight. Roaches the size of silver dollars clacked around, so big that I heard every step they took.
“Is anybody in there?”
Something whispered back at me, or at least I think it did, though I couldn’t decipher it.
Hunkered down, I moved toward it to see if Madeline was stuck inside, encased like a caveman in ice. I expected the rat to run away from me, but it didn’t. It was the size of a cat, and instead hissed at me.
I put my eye to a small hole in the dish mound, one of the holes where light came through. But when I did, the entire pile clinked. The hair on my arms sprung to attention. I felt the sudden urge to evacuate. Run. Scram. I wasn’t fast enough. As I spun around to make a beeline for the front door, the hallway seemed to stretch a mile long and wave from side to side. The dishes, now casting a gargantuan shadow over my miniscule body, shook as one collective entity. Perhaps even a deity.
The bowls on top tilted over first, spilling a pond of rancid liquid over me. Then came everything else. The pots, pans, plates, bowls, cups, mugs, and all the rest crashed down and buried me under a sea of foulness. Gunk and grease covered me, making it uncomfortable to move in the slightest, for every wiggle put my hands in something new.
I screamed for help. No one heard, as it was nothing more than a faint whisper beneath all the dishes.