Compulsion

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Authors: Hope Sullivan McMickle
into big issues.  Charlie, it seemed, could pry a door open to a library, but she’d never seen him muster up the wherewithal to run a vacuum, load the dishwasher, scrub the grout in the shower, or dust behind the electrical outlet covers. 
    It had shocked her when he had called her in late Spring, wanting to know if she’d like to spend some time in Maine together.  They’d had an amicable divorce – after all, it wasn’t a lack of love that drove them apart, it was a pervasive difference in cleaning standards at issue – and because she was lonely, she had agreed.  He’d driven up from the apartment he’d been renting in Rochester, and she met him at the cabin. 
    By then, almost all the major networks had been out, but they were able to pick up an NPR station out of Bangor for a couple of weeks until it, too, abruptly ceased transmissions.  Despite a rigorous hygiene and cleaning protocol widely promoted across the nation by the CDC – which gratified her to no end in its resemblance to the more comprehensive and comforting routine she had already developed – deaths had reached pandemic proportions and the National Guard was burning bodies at landfills.  Soon the only ones left on the streets were the Rotters, lurching and staggering about in their desire to feed, the looters, and some ragtag military units.  After a couple of weeks, the looters and the soldiers were gone. 
    Charlie had been with her when she saw the Rot up close for the first time.  They’d been walking along Echo Lake, Charlie carrying a large tackle box and three fishing poles, Leah carrying a hamper containing an old quilt, bottles of cool water, and peanut butter sandwiches with marmalade, when a sudden thrashing in the undergrowth beside the path startled her.  It was all she could do not to scream when a hand, gray-black with rot and decay, blood caked under its fingernails, snaked out of the brambles.  The fingers twisted and groped in the dirt and pine needles on the ground, making a scratching sound that she still heard in nightmares. 
    Charlie’s voice came from far away, telling her to back away, to come on, move , but she stood staring at the hand in morbid fascination as more of the putrid arm emerged and reached toward her.  When it locked around her ankle, she did scream.  Screamed herself hoarse as Charlie beat at the hand and arm, pulling her back, prying its fingers from her flesh – snapping them away one by one like small, dried twigs.  The arm ripped itself away from its host body and thrashed toward them; Charlie kicked it into the lake with a grunt and a string of obscenities.  It floated for a moment; a blackened island of decay marring the rippling blue water, then disappeared. 
    The body it had been attached to burst out of the underbrush as Charlie wrapped his arms around her waist and slung her further down the path.  Something was wrong with the corpse, but it took a moment for the absence to register as it lurched toward them.  The corpse was missing its head.  In its place was a puffy ball of spores perched on a neck from which the flesh was peeling away in macabre streamers of gray-green decay.  Leah could just make out under the layer of black rot covering most of the torso a colorful tattoo – a skull in a jester’s cap, smoking a cigar and flying the finger.
    Charlie gave her another shove – something she would have resented under other circumstances – but somehow it got her legs moving.  She glanced back to see her ex-husband smashing the Rotter’s spore-encrusted head into the ground with a large rock.  He’d pulled his t-shirt up over his nose and mouth to avoid inhaling any of the mold.  The spores floated up into the air around them, borne on a gentle breeze, drifting away as the body it had animated struggled, then ceased moving.  She had always detested filth; cleaning had always been her compulsion.  But the Rotters took things to a whole new horrific

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