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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

LD-50

Don't drink the water.

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            “It’s kind of a sad story,” T. J. Wylie said to the young couple he was leading around the empty house.  T. J. was a lean, tanned forty-something who smiled a lot and wore an absurd amount of cologne, but he also had a reputation as the best real estate agent in the area.  “Elderly woman, living with her thirty-year-old son.  The son had some kind of mental problem.  The old lady got cancer, and no one knew about it.  All she knew was that she kept getting stomach aches, and of course the son didn’t know any better.  One day the son walked over to the neighbors, and said he couldn’t get his mom to wake up.  The neighbor is a nurse – she ran right over, and couldn’t even get a pulse.  They pronounced her dead on arrival at Colville General.  Massive stomach cancer.”
            Maria Hayward winced at her husband, Jeff, and Jeff said, “Look, T. J., can we move on to another topic?”
            T. J. laughed.  “Oh, yeah.  Sorry.  Some people just want to know what happened in a house they’re thinking of buying.  I guess I shouldn’t be telling you horror stories, right?  Don’t want to talk you out of it.”
            “It wouldn’t,” Maria said, but her voice sounded a little tentative.  “What happened to the son?”
            “Not sure,” T. J. said.  “Probably living with a relative.  But they had no real choice other than selling the house – no way can he live here on his own.  The house sale is being handled by a broker, who is acting on the son’s behalf.”
            The house itself showed no sign of its troubled past.  It had been cleaned until it sparkled.  The carpets showed some sign of wear, but were immaculate.  The midafternoon sun’s rays slanted through the kitchen window, illuminating oak cabinets topped with a spotless faux-marble counter.
            “It’s really a charming place,” Maria said, under her breath, while following T. J. and her husband up the stairs toward the master bedroom on the second floor.
            Jeff nodded.  “It’s ideal.”  He flashed a grin back at his wife, and whispered, “But don’t tell him that.”
            They glanced over the disclosure agreement while standing in the kitchen, reading it by the last bit of ruddy sunlight.  “The only thing of note,” T. J. said, “is that the house is plumbed from a rather antiquated well.  Just about anything else that someone might be concerned about, in terms of structural soundness, has been taken care of.  The brokerage that is handling the sale already had a lot of work done on it, prior to listing it.  The breaker box was rewired, everything brought up to code.  New roof put on.  All the interior plumbing checked.  There’s no water in the basement, any of that kind of stuff.  You’ll want to have your own inspection done, of course, but they really made sure that they had it market-ready before they listed it.  That’s kind of unusual, but you have to admit that it makes it more appealing.  You wouldn’t have to do a damn thing to this house – just walk in and unpack.”
            An hour later, Jeff and Maria had an offer written up.  24 hours later, it was accepted.  As T. J. predicted, the required home inspection turned up nothing of note.  The Health Department checked out the “antiquated well,” found it in good working order, and it was given the thumbs-up.
            Loan papers drawn up, title search performed, and two months later the Haywards were seated at a table with T. J. Wylie, their lawyer, and the sellers’ agent and lawyer.  The previous owner’s son, who was listed as the legal owner of the property, never showed, and had signed all the papers ahead of time.
            The whole closing took a grand total of a half-hour.  T. J. said afterwards that he had never had such a smooth sale in his entire career.
            “I barely earned my commission,” he said, grinning, as he shook Jeff’s and Maria’s hands.
            “Nonsense,” Maria said.  “It was a pleasure working with someone we felt we could trust.  You were worth every penny.”
            T. J. flashed a bright smile at her.  “Well, I’m glad you think so.  I’d hate to think that you weren’t completely satisfied with your purchase.”

            The next two weeks were consumed by unpacking, sorting, decorating, and general settling-in.  All of this took place while Jeff and Maria were still working full time – Jeff as a physician’s assistant, Maria as an elementary school teacher.  But despite the draw on time and energy that day jobs inevitably represent, the last box was finally emptied and broken down, to be added to the stack of flattened cardboard already in the garage.  Life settled down, and it stopped seeming weird to Jeff to take the different route home, past the apartment building where they used to live, and out onto the country road, past the dairy farm and the cornfield, past the house with the covered bridge, and down the long driveway into their own garage.
            All, in fact, would have been very well, had it not been for the fact that it was about that time that the insomnia started.
            Jeff had always been a sound sleeper; he could fall asleep within minutes, and unless awakened by his alarm, easily slept until nine or ten in the morning.  At first, it was subtle – a low-level discomfort, a restlessness in his legs, that kept him shifting his position, left him in a light doze rather than in a deep sleep.
            But it wasn’t just physical unease that disturbed his nights.  His dreams changed, as well.  Before, the content of his sleeping brain had been pretty much what everyone experiences – dreams of being at work, of seeing friends and acquaintances, of sex, of being chased, of falling.  Now, those familiar themes were gone, to be replaced by long dream sequences in which nothing really happened, but that left him agitated and unrefreshed upon awakening, and unable to remember what exactly it was that had disrupted his sleep so profoundly.
            He happened to mention his insomnia to Dr. Preston, one of the three doctors at the practice where Jeff worked, over lunch one day.  Preston seemed sympathetic, but unconcerned.
            “Insomnia is pretty common,” he said, taking a big bite of a roast beef sandwich dripping with mayo.  “If it suddenly crops up, it’s usually associated with changes of other sorts.  You just moved, didn’t you?”
            “Yup.”
            “There you are, then.  That’s stressful, even if it’s good.  So I wouldn’t expect it to persist.  Just be a little careful about what you do before bed – don’t eat a heavy meal and then hit the sack right away, limit alcohol and caffeine, don’t exercise hard right before bed.  I’ve even seen research that indicates that you shouldn’t use a computer or watch TV right before bed – the light stimulates the wakefulness centers in the brain.”
            “I’ll keep an eye on that.”
            “Also, if you can’t sleep, get up.  Beds are for sleeping and sex.  If you’re not doing either one, get up and do something else – then go back to bed when you feel sleepy.”
            “Okay, I’ll give that a try.”
            “But anyway,” Preston said, taking another bite of his sandwich, “it’s probably nothing to be concerned about.  You’ve had a physical in the last year, yes?”
            “Yup.”
            “Nothing alarming?”
            “Nada.”
            “There you are, then.”  He popped the last bite of his sandwich into his mouth.
            “So not nearly as much of a concern as diet-related heart disease, then?” Jeff said, a half-smile on his face.
            Preston wiped the mayo from the corner of his mouth.  “Exactly,” he said.

            He gave all of Preston’s suggestions a solid try that evening.  He gave himself a good four hours between dinner and bedtime, didn’t hit the gym in the evening as he often did, and resisted the temptation to grab a beer as he was reading the newspaper.  He made sure he got laid – that, by itself, had often been sufficient to knock him out for a good eight hours solid.
            It was nowhere near dawn when Jeff rolled over in bed, and opened his eyes.  He could tell just by the way the darkness felt.  He turned his head to the side, and saw that his digital clock stood at 2:39.   “Christ,” he whispered softly, and glanced over at Maria, who was sleeping soundly, the blankets moving slowly to the regular rise and fall of her breathing.  He stretched, tried to get comfortable, closed his eyes – and opened them a minute later.
            After two more abortive attempts to go back to sleep, he pulled the covers back and swung his legs out of bed.  He grabbed his robe from the hook inside his closet, pulled it on, and knotted the belt securely across his belly.  He padded barefoot across the hall and into the upstairs study, where the light of a nearly-full moon slanted in the windows, turning everything a surreal gray-white, leaving sharp-edged shadows on the hardwood floor.
            Without turning the light on, he went over to the window, and looked out across the yard.  The same silvery light turned the front garden into a surreal grayscale landscape, the dew on the grass shimmering like pearls.  Everything was still, sparkling, a million stars glittering in the night sky. 
            Then his eyes caught movement.
            It was down along the driveway, in the shadow of some lilac bushes.  Probably an animal, he thought, and he frowned, squinting, trying to see what it was.  A possum or a raccoon.
            But there was something about the way it moved that seemed distinctly non-mammalian.  He leaned forward until his forehead touched the cool pane of window glass, and then, suddenly, he saw it again.  Something twisted and looped around the two-foot-tall capped wellhead pipe that stood nestled in amongst some lilac bushes that lined the east side of the driveway.  He hadn’t seen it clearly, but it seemed to have a furtive, smooth motion, like the sinuous movement of a snake.  But it was hard to pinpoint.  When he looked directly at it, he couldn’t see anything there; but as soon as his eyes had moved elsewhere, he caught it again. 
            Jeff went to Maria’s desk, where she kept a pair of binoculars – a gift from her father, who was a fanatical birdwatcher, but seldom used because neither Jeff nor Maria cared particularly about birds.  He uncapped the lenses, and held them to his eyes, turning the focus wheel until the tops of the lilac bushes came into focus, and then moving them slowly downward to the wellhead pipe.
            The cap on the pipe was ajar.
            Frowning, he stared at the pipe, thinking at first that it was a trick of the moonlight.  But there was no mistaking it; the metal cap, which he had watched the inspector from the Health Department screw down securely two months ago, was tilted upwards, and the pipe showed a black crescent of shadow near its top where the moonlight couldn’t reach into the opening.
            In the magnified field of view, all he saw was the cylindrical wellhead base, the irregular branches and fallen leaves of the lilacs, the shaggy dew-lined spikes of grass in need of mowing.  Jeff watched for several minutes, scanning the ground beside the wellhead, and saw nothing that corresponded to the motion he’d seen earlier, and nothing that could explain why the well cap was moved.  Finally, he dropped the binoculars to his side.
            Five minutes passed.  There was no further sign of movement, and he gradually convinced himself that he had imagined the whole thing.  Soon, he realized that he was tired again.  “I’ll fix the well cover tomorrow,” he said out loud, and set the binoculars on Maria’s desk.
            He returned to their bedroom, shucked his robe, and slid under the covers.  Maria appeared not to have moved since he’d left, twenty minutes earlier.  He yawned, curled up on his side, and was asleep within minutes.

            Maria’s job started before Jeff’s; she was one of those early-riser types in any case, and Jeff was still mostly asleep when she came in to kiss him goodbye.  He responded to her cheerful, “Have a great day, honey, see you this evening,” with a mumbled and barely understandable, “You too.”  Five minutes later, he heard the front door close.
            It wasn’t until he was showering that he recalled the previous night’s strange events.  Something opened the well cap, he thought, as the well water streamed down his body.  I need to remember to check it before I leave this morning.  How on earth am I going to make sure I don’t forget?
            Much to his surprise, the thought of his odd nighttime experience stuck with him, and he had no difficulty remembering to look at the wellhead, tucked away amongst the lilacs next to the driveway, as he walked out to the garage.  In fact, the whole incident was peculiarly vivid, in contrast to the odd dreams he’d been having since his insomnia began, which faded into nothing upon waking.
            But the cap on the well was firmly in place when he walked past.  He frowned at it, and then reached down and jiggled it.  It moved slightly, shifting against the set screws that held it down, but there was no doubt that it was not only where it should be, it was secured.
            It must have been a dream, he thought, frowning.  But it seemed so real.  He jiggled it one more time, for no particular reason, and then stood up.  Bizarre.  He shrugged, picked up his thermos and lunch box, and headed for his car.
            By the time he got to work, he had put it out of his mind entirely.

            Despite following Dr. Preston’s advice, the insomnia did not abate.
            He tried melatonin.  He tried valerian.  He tried them together.  When those did nothing, he resorted to sleeping tablets, out of desperation.  He fell asleep quickly after taking one, and spent about two hours in a deep, dreamless sleep, but then woke at two AM, unable to sleep but in a mental fog that left him stumbling into walls when he got up to use the bathroom.
            I guess I just have to live with it, he thought miserably the morning after the sleeping tablet episode, as he was drinking a cup of coffee and trying to jumpstart his brain.  It sucks, but I guess it’s just part of aging.  Didn’t think it’d happen this soon, though.
            Maria, fortunately, didn’t seem to be disturbed at all by his restlessness.  She was sympathetic, and reached out and touched his face gently as they were watching television one evening.
            “You just can’t keep your eyelids open, can you?” she said, concern showing in her dark eyes.
            Jeff laughed, a little sheepishly.  “No,” he said.  “But it’s just so goddamn frustrating.  I feel like I could sleep for days, but if I go to bed, I know I’ll be wide awake in a couple of hours.”
            “That sucks,” she said.  “But maybe you should just go with it.  Like Dr. Preston said – don’t just stay in bed.  Get up and do something until you feel sleepy.  Maybe you need to find a nocturnal hobby.  Write the Great American Novel, or something.”
            “I’d be okay with it if it wasn’t for having a day job.  I almost fell asleep at the wheel driving home yesterday.”
            Maria picked up the remote and shut the television off.  “You should just go to bed.  I don’t care if it is eight o’clock.”  She smiled fetchingly.  “And I plan to wear you out a little, first.  That should help.”  She leaned against him, and slid a hand under his shirt.  “You’re not too sleepy for that, are you?”
            He wasn’t.  But like clockwork, he was awake at just before two in the morning, and swore quietly at the digital clock and his own uncooperative body.
            “Sleeping, check,” he muttered, as he sat up in bed.  “Sex, check.  So get up.”  He put his robe on, and left the bedroom, his bare feet making no noise on the hallway carpet as he walked toward the study.
            He sat down at his desk, turned on his computer.  Checked his email, checked Facebook, checked the news.  There was nothing of interest anywhere, nothing to keep his attention for more than five minutes.  He gave an angry push to his chair, and the seat swiveled around, the wheels creaking a little on the hardwood floor.  That was when he saw the binoculars, still sitting where he’d left them on Maria’s desk two weeks earlier.
            He stood, and picked them up.  There was less light now, a waning moon and ragged-edged clouds that were scudding across the sky on gusty winds, but he raised the binoculars to his eyes and panned them over his dark front yard.
            Underneath the lilac bushes, the wellhead cover was ajar again.
            Jeff frowned.  Am I dreaming this?  Like last time? he thought, and then frowned.  Was the last time a dream?
            Again, there was a hint of movement, but with the dim light, all he caught was a momentary ripple of motion that revealed nothing.  He slowly lowered the binoculars from his eyes, and then, with a decisive motion, stood up, left the study, and went downstairs to the living room.
            In an alcove in the foyer was a large flashlight – a necessity in the country, where windstorms often knocked the electricity out, sometimes for hours at a time.  He picked it up, and clicked the switch.  A powerful beam illuminated an oval on the carpet, making every fiber stand out in relief.  He walked back up to the study, and up to the dark rectangle of the window the overlooked the driveway.  Holding the flashlight in one hand and the binoculars in the other, he looked down toward the tangled row of lilac bushes.  He raised the flashlight to the window, and the binoculars to his eyes.
            Jeff half expected that when he looked, the wellhead would be sealed, but it wasn’t.  The metal cap was still askew, its opening showing as a black circle.  The flashlight beam was attenuated by distance, but was strong enough to illuminate the area at least as well as the full moon had the previous time.  He saw the leaf litter at the wellhead’s base, the gnarled branches of the lilacs rising behind it, and could even make out the screws set in the lid.
            There was a sudden movement in his field of view, and he jumped a little.  The light caught on something dark, with a glossy surface like burnished leather.  It was gone as quickly as it had appeared.  He panned the area, trying to move the beam of the light to match the motion of the binoculars, his shaky and unpracticed hands sometimes causing the image in the lenses to disappear into blackness.  After a few moments, there was another movement, and he swiveled the focus wheel, trying to get a better view.  Then his breath caught in his throat.
            There was a something sitting perfectly still in the middle of the field of vision.
            What he was looking at was a little like a centipede.  It had a flattened body, made of many segments, and jointed legs.  But the head was distinctly unlike that of the little brown centipedes that Jeff sometimes saw while weeding the garden or moving firewood.  The front quarters were lifted off the ground, pairs of legs reaching forward like pincers, the hinged neck curved like a swan.  The head was bullet-shaped, smooth, and shining, and there were two large, bulging eyes that had multiple facets.  The light glittered where it caught them, reflecting a spectrum of colors back to Jeff’s eyes.
            The thing was a little over two feet long.
            It was only still for a moment.  With insect-like suddenness, the legs started to move, and the body undulated across the ground and was gone.  Jeff tried to follow it, but it scuttled away into shadow, and the flashlight beam bounced wildly over the ground and lost it.  After a breathless moment, he got control of the flashlight and binoculars, and aimed them both at the wellhead.
            The wellhead cap was back in place.
            “What the fuck?” Jeff breathed.
            He spent fifteen minutes perfectly motionless, looking through the binoculars, the flashlight beam aimed at the wellhead.  Nothing happened.  Finally his shoulder muscles began to ache so badly that he had to lower his arms, and the window returned to a sheet of flat black, whatever was going on outside obscured by the night.
            A half-hour later, he gave up and returned to bed.
            He did not get back to sleep that night.

            When Maria’s alarm went off, he was still lying on his back, the blanket at mid-chest, eyes wide open, arms cupped behind his head.  Maria, on the other hand, was awakened out of a deep sleep.  She moaned with displeasure, stretched and yawned, and with one practiced hand smacked the “off” button on top of the clock.
            Jeff turned to look at his wife as she pulled the blanket back, and swung her legs out of bed.  The slanting rays of the sun were just coming through the window, and as she sat up, they caught the skin on her back, and Jeff gave a little intake of breath, just loud enough that she turned toward him.
            “What’s wrong, hon?” she said, her voice slurred with sleep.
            “You…” he said, and he swallowed.  “You’ve got a rash on your back.”
            She reached back with one hand, and her fingertips brushed her shoulder blade.  “Really?  It doesn’t itch.”
            “It’s huge,” Jeff said.  “I mean, it covers most of your back.  Both sides.  Go look in the mirror.”
            She stood up, frowning, and went into the bathroom.  After a moment, she said, “Huh.”
            “It doesn’t hurt?” he said, loudly, toward the open door.
            “No,” she said.  “Not at all.”
            “So it’s not poison ivy, or something like that.”
            He heard her laugh.  “No.  I think if I ended up lying down in poison ivy, you’d have had something to do with it, and you’d have it, too.”  She returned to the bedroom.  “I wonder how long I’ve had it.”
            “It’s the first I’ve noticed.”
            “Well, my mom’s advice was always that if you get a symptom, either it’ll get worse, or it’ll get better.  If it gets better, cool.  If it gets worse, see a doctor.”
            Jeff gave her a half smile, but he thought, What if it’s something in the water?  Maybe that’s why I can’t sleep, and why Maria has a rash.  Then a more rational thought came to him; C’mon.  What on earth could do both of those things?  They’re completely unrelated.  But the first, frightened mental voice returned with, And the previous owner died of stomach cancer.  And her son had something wrong with him, too.  Maybe it’s the water.
            The bugs in the water.
            But he couldn’t very well tell Maria that.  So she got ready for work, and he kissed her goodbye, and that was that.
            He also filled a plastic bottle with tap water before he left for his own job… and during his break, he looked up phone numbers for water testing services.

            “You had the well checked out when you bought the house, right?” the fresh-faced young woman in the lab jacket said, when Jeff went in four days later to get the results.
            He felt his heart accelerate.  “Yes,” he said.  “Why?  What did you find?”
            “Nothing,” she said with a smile.  “I just wondered why you wanted it tested.”
            “I just…  I just thought, you can’t be too careful.”
            She spread the sheet down in front of him.  There was a long list of chemicals from the familiar to the exotic, and columns of numbers headed “Detected,” “Recommended Maximum,” “Legally Permissible for Municipal Drinking Water,” and “LD-50.”
            “What does LD-50 mean?” Jeff asked.
            “Nothing that’s relevant here,” she said.  “But it’s the dosage, per kilogram of body weight, that would have a fifty-fifty odds of being fatal.  As you can see,” she ran her fingertip down the list, “there’s nothing in your water that even approaches the Recommended Maximum, much less the Legal Maximum.  There’s nothing in your water that we test for that is of concern.”
            “What about things you don’t test for?” Jeff said, before he could stop himself.  That sounded crazy paranoid, he thought.
            But she just laughed.  “Our testing equipment is state-of-the-art.  Maybe there are some obscure toxins that we couldn’t detect, but I can’t imagine what they might be, nor how they could end up in your well water.  As you can see from this list, we test for both organic and inorganic chemicals, as well as biological contaminants like coliform bacteria.  You don’t need to worry.”  She slid the paper toward him.  “I would drink this water without hesitation.  And believe me, I don’t say that to everyone.”

            Maria’s rash worsened.  It gradually spread to her face, and her initial lighthearted comments were replaced by a silence that Jeff knew to be worry.  When the reddened patches became warm, and tender to the touch, she finally broke down and made an appointment to see a doctor.
            The diagnosis of lupus, when it came, was no surprise, but Maria wept as Dr. Sasaki told her about autoimmunity and immunosuppressants and how to manage the symptoms.  Jeff held her hand, feeling a coldness inside, and remembering the centipede-thing disappearing down the wellhead.  Stomach cancer.  Lupus.  Sleep disorders.  Developmental disorders.  What else can it cause?
            “What causes lupus?” he asked suddenly.
            “Well,” Dr. Sasaki said, “the simple answer is, no one knows for sure.  There seem to be some genetic factors, but it doesn’t clearly run in families.  It is associated with other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, but there’s no clear pattern.  The most likely cause is a genetic susceptibility combined with some sort of environmental trigger.”
            “An environmental trigger?  Like something in the water?”
            Both Maria and Dr. Sasaki looked at him, frowning.  “Why do you say that?” the doctor said, turning her pencil in her hand.
            “I… I just thought of it, when you said environmental factors.”
            “Oh.”  She gave him another curious look, and said, “What most researchers mean by environmental factors is something like a pathogen.  It has been established, for example, that some cases of multiple sclerosis are caused by the combination of a gene and a viral infection.  So, it’s possible that this could also be true in the case of lupus.  But if this is the actual etiology, it’s far from proven.”
            “I see,” Jeff said.  “What happens if you kill the pathogen?”
            “You misunderstand me, Mr. Hayward,” Dr. Sasaki said, her voice taking on a tone of slight irritation.  “If this is indeed the true cause of the disease, by the time the symptoms show, the pathogen has long since been eliminated from the system.  It is the body’s immune reaction against the pathogen that causes the disease, not the pathogen itself.”
            “Oh,” Jeff said, and thought, You’re a PA, you should have known that.  But his brain felt fuzzy and unreliable; besides the insomnia, he had been fighting a low-level headache for a day and a half, and his thoughts seemed to zing around in his skull with little volition on his own part.  “I’m sorry if I’m asking dumb questions.”
            Dr. Sasaki’s expression softened.  “No, please don’t worry,” she said.  “There are no stupid questions.  And this is a difficult thing to deal with.  I’m here to help in any way I can.  But remember the good news; this is a manageable condition.  With medication, people with lupus have every expectation of a relatively normal life.”

            That night, despite his fatigue, Jeff didn’t go to bed.
            Maria was exhausted.  Between the emotional distress of the diagnosis, and the side effects of the first round of immunosuppressants, she was off to bed by eight o’clock.  He kissed her goodnight, said, “I’ll be up soon,” and watched as she trudged up the stairs.  There was the sound of the sink running, then the toilet flushing, and then their bedroom door closed.
            He watched the clock for another five minutes.  Then he got up, and went into the kitchen.
            He emptied out the water pitcher in the fridge.  He dumped the ice cube tray, too.  He pulled out a container of vegetable soup that they’d had for dinner the night before, and poured it down the garbage disposal.  After a quick glance through the rest of the contents of the fridge, he closed the door, then went into the garage, and got a case of bottled water.
            He used the first bottle to rinse out the pitcher and the ice tray.  Then he refilled both, using two more bottles, and returned them to their customary places.  He put the remaining bottles in a cabinet, hiding them behind some canned goods, and wondering as he did so why he was being so secretive about the whole thing.
            It’s because you know it’s ridiculous, he thought.  You start hallucinating bugs in the well, and you start connecting dots that have nothing to do with one another.  The woman at the water testing place told you the water was fine.  You’re being ridiculous, and trying to cobble together explanations for things because you can’t stand that there isn’t a connection.
            And what about the bugs? he thought.  You saw the bugs.
            You THINK you saw bugs, came the rational thought.  You are the one who is not only seeing bugs, but imagining that you’re being poisoned by the water.  It’s not toxins in the water; it’s schizophrenia.  Maria isn’t the only one who needs to see a doctor.
            But he went up stairs, into the study, and went to the window.  He set up some books, and an old metal wine-bottle rack, and used some baling wire to hook up the flashlight so that its beam was aimed directly down at the wellhead.  Then he picked up the binoculars, rested his elbows on the windowsill, and sat down to wait.
            By midnight, he had slipped into a light doze, and was awakened by the binoculars, still clutched in his hand, tipping forward and clunking against the window pane.  He jolted awake, and then brought them back up to his eyes.
            The wellhead cap was ajar, and in the circle of faint yellow light projected by the flashlight, there was a shiver of movement.
            It’s back, he thought, feeling his heart accelerating in his chest, feeling the pulse hammering in his head, bringing his headache to new levels.  He winced, and squinted into the binoculars.  He could see, just on the diffuse edge of the flashlight’s beam, a ripple of motion.  Legs, Jeff thought.  Lots of legs.  But then, on the other side of the oval, he saw another quick, sinuous movement, too far away for it to be the same creature.
            There’s more than one of them, he thought.  Of course.  There would have to be.  But how many?  And then he thought, It doesn’t matter.  Tomorrow morning, I’m going to end them.  However many of them there are.
            He watched, fascinated, for nearly an hour.
            The centipedes – he saw that there were at least three, but there may have been more – avoided the light except when they had to enter it.  The flashlight’s beam was pointed directly at the wellhead mouth, and he got a good view of one of them – the thing looked like it was three feet long – curving up and over the edge, and down into the dark cylinder of the well.  To think we were drinking that water, Jeff thought, and shuddered.  Between the headache, and the fatigue, and the memory of the jointed, many-legged body slipping downward into the well, he had to fight down the urge to vomit.  But finally, the flashlight batteries were wearing down, and the beam was getting dimmer, so he shut it off, and set the binoculars down with a thunk.
            Tomorrow, he thought grimly.  Tomorrow, you bastards.

            Maria was too ill to go to work the next day, and Jeff called in sick himself.  He still had the headache, and although he probably could have gone in, he had other plans once the sun came up.  Maria was still sound asleep when the first red light crept over the horizon, and he left the house quietly.  How he would have explained to her what he was doing, if she awoke and saw him, he didn’t know.
            Why aren’t you telling her? he thought, as he went to the garage.  She should know.  If this is real, she should know.  But the pain behind his forehead just increased when he considered telling her what he’d seen, what he thought was happening, why she was ill, why the previous owner had died.  Maybe why he, too, now had insomnia and a headache that seemed to slam against the inside of his skull at every systole, a headache like none he had ever had.
            He went to the garage, and picked up the two five-gallon carboys of pool chlorine that he’d bought at the hardware store, on the same trip when he’d bought the bottled water.  He went out to the wellhead – firmly screwed down, he saw, without any surprise – and pulled a screwdriver out of his pocket.  He undid all three set screws, and pulled the lid up.
            The hinge creaked, as if it hadn’t been moved in a while.
            Jeff unscrewed the lid on the first of the chlorine containers, and with some effort tipped it up and poured its contents into the well.  His nose wrinkled at the smell; a drop of the concentrate hit the pants leg of his jeans, and within minutes bleached it white.  He tossed aside the first container, and then emptied the second one in, as well.
            Then he went to the garden hose mounted on the side of the house, and dragged it over to the wellhead.  He ran the hose down the cylindrical pipe as far as it would go – perhaps twenty feet – and then went back to the house and turned the hose on full blast.
            The pump kicked on as the water began to flow, up the intake pipe into the house, into the pressure tank, out through the side wall into the hose, and back into the well, recirculating the chlorine.  Enough, the man at the hardware store said, to kill damn near anything.
            Certainly enough to kill some centipedes.  Even big ones.
            Jeff went back to the house, and with a sudden pang of alarm, realized that he should tell Maria not to take a shower for a while, not until he had drained the chlorine out of the well and the pressure tank and allowed the whole system to recharge.
            He was just going up the stairs when he heard the weak cry of pain from the bedroom, and the crash as Maria fell.

            Jeff pulled the hose out of the wellhead before the ambulance came, and brought it, still running, to the ditch.  The water spurting out of the hose was gray with churned up silt, and smelled like a YMCA public swimming pool on a bad day.  After leaving the hose running in the ditch, he went back and screwed the wellhead cap on tight.
            I might not be able to use the water for a while, he thought, but it will be worth it.  Maybe once they’re gone, her lupus will disappear.  And my headache.  And the insomnia.  Maybe it will all go away.
            The ambulance ran over the hose, now lying across the driveway, when it pulled in ten minutes later to pick Maria up.  Jeff followed in his car, on the suggestion of the paramedic, who said that otherwise Jeff might get stuck at the hospital with no transportation.  Jeff drove toward Colville General with his thoughts bouncing around erratically.
            That has to have killed the bugs.  They can’t have survived that.  I hope Maria is okay.  The paramedic didn’t seem all that concerned, and he should know, right?  Right.  God, my head hurts.  I wonder how long it will take before the water will be safe to drink?  How will I know?
            The doctors at the hospital said that Maria’s fainting spell was due to anemia, and was probably caused by the combination of the medications and the lupus itself.  He recommended she should be kept overnight for observation, and given a transfusion of erythrocytes and platelets to bring up her blood levels to as close to normal as possible.  The fainting spell and the systemic pain, they said, were common symptoms, nothing to be concerned about over and above the background worry of dealing with the lupus itself.  Adjusting the medications would take time, and the disease itself was notoriously unpredictable.
            Like everything, Jeff thought.  Like a perfect house that has venomous centipedes in the well.  Like toxins that don’t show up in a water test.
            Like this headache that won’t go away.

            On Maria’s urging, he returned home at a little after eight in the evening.
            “You aren’t going to do me any good by staying here all night,” she said.  “I’m feeling better, and all I want to do is sleep.  And heaven knows, you can’t afford to lose more sleep yourself.  Go home, and relax, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
            He didn’t need much urging; his head was still throbbing, and he also wanted to check to see if there was any sign of activity near the wellhead.  He’d been thinking about it all day; thinking about the centipedes, dying in the poisoned water, their bodies sinking to the bottom of the well, disintegrating.
            Gross to think about, he thought, as he drove home, but no worse than what they’ve done to us.  It’s the law of the fucking jungle, that’s what it is.  His expression became grim.  They deserved it.
            He got back just as the last of the light was fading.  He’d turned off the hose that morning, but left it in the ditch, and he could see a path of bleached and dying grass and weeds where the chlorinated water had flowed, into the ditch and away.
            See if they can withstand that, he thought.  I’ll give THEM toxins in the water.
            He picked up the hose, dragged it back to the spigot, and turned it on.  It gurgled once, bucked a little in his hands, and then the water came out, still looking a little silty.  He sniffed it, and got a faint chlorine odor, but nothing like what had come out earlier.
            Good.  The well has recharged.  That should be the end of it, then.
            Jeff went inside, and forced himself to eat some leftover baked chicken that he’d cooked the previous evening.  He was washing up, watching the water running over the dirty dishes, and suddenly froze, his eyes opening wide in horror.
            It isn’t just drinking water.  It’s the dishwasher.  It’s the laundry.  It’s standing in the shower, letting that water coat our skin.  It’s brushing teeth, washing hands, even using the toilet.  We’ve been living with them, ever since we moved in, immersed in them.  No wonder we’re both ill.  Well, they’re dead now.
            I hope.
            Ignoring his fatigue, and the pain in his head, he went up and took up his station in the study.
            When he looked through the binoculars, the complete darkness of a cloudy night made it impossible to see anything.  He rigged up the flashlight again, and only then realized that he’d forgotten to get new batteries.  There was enough remaining juice to create a decent beam of light, down through the glass, and across the driveway.
            And in the pale yellow light, he saw that the wellhead was again open, and there were dozens – hundreds – of the centipedes, flowing over the lilac bushes like a seething waterfall, rippling across the driveway.
            Jeff gave an inarticulate cry, and dropped the binoculars unheeded to the floor, and then ran down the stairs toward the front door.
            “I’ll show you!” he shouted.  “You think that the chlorine was bad?  I’ve got worse!  On to plan B!”  He threw open the front door with a bang, and ran toward the garage, yanked the garage door upwards, and went to a wheelbarrow he’d loaded the previous day.  With a grunt, he lifted the handles, and pushed it, creaking, up the driveway toward the wellhead.
            They began to swarm him long before he got there.  He expected them to bite, but he felt no sharp mandibles pinching him, no stings; just a clatter of legs, a ripple of movement as they ran up his pant legs, a faint scratching on his bare skin.  One came out of the neck of his shirt and scuttled up his face, where it sat for a moment facing him, regarding him with a dry, crystalline gaze.
            Jeff laughed, a manic, desperate sound, and began to rip open the bags of cement powder he’d bought the previous day at the hardware store.
            “Let’s see what you do with this!” he shouted, and began to pour the cement down the wellhead.  The centipedes that were coming out of the opening now were covered with gray powder, but it didn’t seem to slow them down.  He tore open bag after bag, and screamed with triumph as he heard the splashing noise it made as it hit the water below, turned the well water into an ever-thickening sludge.  “You haven’t won!” he shouted, as he dumped the last one in, fell to his knees, felt the creatures cover him as he had covered them.
            He looked down at the wellhead one last time, but then one of the centipedes crossed his eyes like a blindfold, and others plugged his ears, nose, mouth, the only thing that could finally stop his triumphant laughter.
            And that was when the pain in his head, in a fantastic explosion of fireworks, finally and completely ended.

            T. J. Wylie leaned against the hood of his car, watching the young couple eyeing the house with obvious interest.
            “Beautiful place, isn’t it?” he said.
            “Gorgeous,” the young woman said.  “I thought this was just going to be a starter house, from the description, but it’s much more than that.”
            Her husband nodded.  “It’s so well cared-for.”
            “The previous owners didn’t own it long,” T. J. said.  “But the ones before that had it for some years, and really looked after it.  I think you’ll find the interior just as appealing.”
            “Why did the previous owners sell?” the young man said.
            “It’s a really sad story,” T. J. said, with a sunshiny smile, not looking sad at all.  “But I probably shouldn’t go into it.  I don’t want to leave you with the feeling that the house is… macabre.”
            “A ghost story?” the young woman said.  “I love ghost stories!   I’ve always wanted to live in a haunted house.”
            “No, nothing like that,” T. J. said, laughing.  “It’s just the ordinary kind of sad.”
            “What happened?” the husband said.  “It’s better to find out – the neighbors would probably tell us eventually, anyhow.”
            “I guess so,” T. J. admitted.  “The owners were a married couple, no kids.  Nice people, I’ve heard.  She got lupus – you know, what Dr. House always talked about.”
            “That’s bad, isn’t it?” the young man said.
            “Bad, but not usually fatal.  But hers went really quickly.  She became anemic, went into the hospital for a transfusion, and that night had a bad reaction and died.  But the husband never found out about it, because he died before she did.”
            “Oh, my god,” the young woman said.
            T. J. nodded.  “I told you it was sad.  See, the man, he didn’t know it, but he had a brain aneurysm.  You know, a bulge in a blood vessel wall.  It made him kind of lose it – I guess it was pressing on some part of his brain that made him hallucinate, or something.  The people he worked with said he’d been acting kind of paranoid.  And I’m sure the fact of his wife being so sick didn’t help.  So when his wife was in the hospital, he came home, and for some reason poured about ten bags of cement down the well.  Completely ruined it.”  T. J. looked at the house in a thoughtful way.  “He had a stroke afterwards – I guess the strain was just too much for him.  They found him in the driveway, surrounded by empty bags of cement powder.  So he and his wife died on the same day, and neither one had any idea.”
            “Wow,” she said.  “That is so tragic.”
            T. J. smiled.  “Look, I’m sorry I brought it up.  Like you said, though, you might have found out about it from a neighbor, or something, so I’d rather be honest and tell you up front.  Honesty is my policy.”  He gestured toward the driveway.  “And the well was redug – it wouldn’t have been saleable without working plumbing, right?  Works fine.  It’s been tested by the health department.  Nothing but pure, clean water down there.”
            “That’s what counts,” the young man said.
            “Exactly,” T. J. said.  “Want to see the inside?”

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done, Gordon. M.R. James himself would be proud...

    ReplyDelete