Myrtle admitted there was a problem when she hadn’t seen another person for one hundred days.
Distracted by pressing matters at home, it had taken her several weeks to notice anything had changed. The dolls needed dusting and combing. The stacks of magazines needed straightening and cataloguing. And the quilt for her beloved dog Juffers would never get done if she didn’t get the pattern worked out. So it’s not like she had spare time to keep track of the happenings outside her window.
Eventually, though, one couldn’t help but take note. Week after week of no people is hard to miss. Not that Myrtle blamed anyone for staying inside. Society was a cruel bitch that she’d sworn off years ago. Wandering around in the world was just plain foolery. She chalked it up to people wising up and following her lead.
After two full months, she stood at her street-facing window with pudgy fingers gripping fat hips. A heavy, brown cotton dress hung from thick and sloped shoulders, the same one she wore every single day. A mane of coarse gray hair caped her shoulders. She chewed on cracked lips and frowned as she scanned the empty street.
“Much more of this, Juffers, and we’ll have to turn on the radio. Not yet though.” She pulled the curtains shut and moved toward the kitchen, large insects skittering across the floor as she walked. She bent to grab two cans from their middling supply, opened them, and poured the soup into a bowl for herself and the wet, gray slop into another for the dog. She sat at the kitchen table and ate slowly, staring at the peeling papered wall beside the unused fridge. When finished, she looked and saw that Juffers had not eaten his food.
“Still not eating, my love?”
She got rid of the dog’s food and entered the living room. She grabbed a notebook of lined paper titled Magazine Directory and observed the two dozen stacks that rose from floor to ceiling. She approached one, laid gentle fingers on the edges, and stared into the stack for a long, long while. Finally she yawned, set the notebook down, and plodded to the bedroom.
“Here Juffers,” she rasped. She laid down and was soon snoring. Bulky chunks of sour breath escaped chaotically. The dog did not come.
Two weeks later, the electricity stopped working. The fans stopped turning and the house grew hot. Myrtle’s skin became slick and her dress dampened with sour sweat. She tried the handheld radio, but the batteries had corroded. She filled every container she had with drinking water, including the never-used bathtub. A few days later the water stopped too.
After another two weeks, it had been ninety days. She looked to the small remaining stack of cans.
“Ten more days, Juffers. Then I go out.”
She poked at a large, reddening growth on her neck and winced. Then she served Juffers his slop and ate her soup. Later, when she went to throw away the cans, she saw again that he had not touched his food. She frowned and licked her lower lip.
Soon after, she wove through stacks of magazines and sat at the sewing table. She stared, unmoving, at an incomplete sketch of the quilt until the sun was set. Then she stood and wobbled to the bed, brushing clusters of little red bugs from the sheets. Sinking into the mattress, she called again for Juffers, but he did not come.
When day one hundred arrived, Myrtle grabbed her keys, unbolted the door, and stood with her hand on the knob.
“Be back soon, Juffers. Don’t you go thinking I’m nervous or anything. Just need to get more food.”
She sighed hoarsely and opened the door, stepping into the muggy heat of the day.
Apart from her tri-annual outings to the market, and a rare trip to the fabric store, Myrtle didn’t bother step one foot outside. What was the point in canoodling with the evils of society? She saw those young sluts who worked at the market. They cupped hands over their faces when she walked by, definitely snickering at her while she filled one cart with soup, another with dog food, and a third with toilet paper and magazines. They watched her wrestle with the carts and whispered to one another like she was a folk tale come to life. Whoever checked her out always seemed on the verge of being sick. Those whores could burn for all she cared.
Now, driving the streets, she saw no signs of human life. A few starving cats wandered the roads and observed her car with great interest. But the people were gone. All of them.
She drove for half an hour, checking every major area in her small town. Parking lots sat empty, businesses stood locked up. Only trash occupied the streets and walkways.
Several blocks at the center of town had been taped off, and she turned the car around and hurried away. The air tasted sour there. A shiver of curiosity crawled down her sweaty thighs.
This was a problem, all right. Would the store have any food? How would she heat the house in the winter? Who would she go see when the growth on her neck got too big?
Myrtle steered the station wagon to the market and parked. When she approached the automatic doors, they didn’t open. She stood, slowly waving her arms up and down, but they wouldn’t trigger.
A line of grocery carts sat off to the left. She pulled one from its row and rammed it into the glass door several times, grunting with effort. Nothing.
“Damned sluts locked this place up tight.”
She looked for anything to throw. Her eyes settled on a loose brick near the base of the outside wall. She snatched it and returned to the entry. She held the brick above her head with both hands, great sacks of flesh swaying below her elbows. She gritted her teeth and threw it, shattered glass cascading to the ground.
Well-pleased, she nodded and stepped carefully into the store. She filled three carts: one with soup, another with dog food, and a third with jugs of water and some trash bags. She sacrificed the magazines for trash bags with great regret, purely out of necessity now that the toilet wouldn’t flush. She balanced toilet paper on top of each cart, but not as much as she would need. Something had to give, the car only had so much space.
By the time Myrtle loaded the station wagon and drove home, she was plain bushed. Unloading herself from the car, she saw a piece of paper tacked to the front door that she hadn’t noticed when she left. She staggered to the door and ripped the handwritten note from its pin.
We knocked and yelled but you didn’t answer. There’s been an event – we don’t really know what it was – at the center of town, and the air is poisoned. DO NOT go into town. Wear a mask if you have one and get away from here as soon as you can.
It was dated for a hundred and one days prior.
A memory bubbled to the surface: Loud knocks on the door which sent her scurrying into the bedroom. When they started yelling for her to answer, she laid down and pulled pillows over her ears. She dozed off after they left. When she awoke, she exorcised the memory and banished it, maintaining the brittle foundation of ignorance on which her life precariously balanced.
“Oh dear oh dear oh dear,” she said now. She entered the house and stood in the landing. Panic descended.
“Juffers!? What should I do!?” She paced around the living room, fists clenched and long, chipped fingernails cutting into her palms. Her vision landed on the plans for Juffer’s quilt that hadn’t progressed for many months, and humiliation stung her like a bee.
“Oh! You worthless bitch!” She grabbed at her hair and pulled. She scrunched her eyes shut and gnashed her teeth. Her chest shook with sobs. In a state of hysteria, she bumped into a stack of magazines with her full force.
“No!” she cried, watching it slowly tip. It leaned and fell, crashing into another stack, which crashed into another and another. The cacophony of tumbling magazines roared through the house.
“Juffers! Watch out!” She buried her face in her hands, rooted in place.
When the noise stopped, she raised her gaze, mouth agape. The floor was covered with fallen stacks. Several cases of dolls had been smashed and scattered.
Suddenly the growth on her neck burned and cramped. She brought fingers to her throat and was horrified that it had grown two-fold. She laid a palm on it and found that it was warm, almost hot.
Her eyes found a new red welt on her forearm. Extending her arm, she saw another in the crook of her elbow and another on her wrist. She looked closer and swore she could see them growing, the red swollen circles grabbing more chunks of skin with each passing second. Frightened, she looked to her other arm and saw several more. Frantic breaths heaved in and out and she unbuttoned her dress with trembling fingers. She stripped it off and looked down at her expansive flesh. Dozens of new, red lumps swelled all over her skin. Fresh pain throbbed from each.
Her breaths quickened into a rapid, hyperventilating pace. She thumped down onto her knees. “Nononono,” she groaned, eyes frantic. She clawed at her cheeks and called for the dog again and again.
Then, abruptly, her breath caught. The tears stopped. The finality of her situation landed with a heavy internal thud. She stared into empty space.
In a way, this was what she’d always wanted. To be relieved of the world. But another, deeper part of her felt something else. Something crushing. Something dreadful. The waste and filth of her life settled upon her.
She crawled, nearly naked, over the piles of magazines to the kitchen.
“One more supper, Juffers.” She grabbed the last remaining cans of food – the others remained in the car – and set out their meals on the floor. She sat and ate. When finished, she looked to the dog’s bowl. Then, as she had twice per day for the last two years, she grabbed the bowl and gulped down the dog’s slop as well. Her lips were sticky with gravy and her cheeks wet with tears when she finished.
She paused and pressed her hand to her neck again. It was growing unthinkably fast. The pain bore deeply into her and seemed to touch her spine. Her head felt like it would split. The other welts across her body grew and joined together. The skin around her eyes swelled.
She looked at the rubber bin under the sink where Juffers had been sealed since his death. She screamed and kicked at it. She kicked again, and again. She jarred the lid loose, and it slid off and onto the floor.
The sharp, infecting smell of Juffers invaded her senses. She smelled him, tasted him. Her eyes burned. She rose to her feet and clapped a hand over her nose and mouth.
Gagging, she looked at the front door, but what lay beyond was not an option. She considered the living room but couldn’t bear the shame of it all. She opened the door to the garage and lumbered inside. Something on the floor tripped her. She pitched forward and landed in a massive pile of opened cans, each lined with moldy resin, each tossed into the garage over the course of several years. Dozens of rats flurried around her, under her, on her. She turned over with massive effort and lay on the pile, rats exploring their new offering. She stared through swollen slits at the cobwebbed rafters above.
The bulge on her neck was now engulfing her jaw and collarbone, expanding like a balloon. A searing pain shot down her spine and she could barely move. Her fingers twitched and her shallow breaths slowed to a crawl. She could feel her body swelling, pulsing, warming, leaving.
“Juffers,” she croaked. “Here boy.”
Myrtle’s departure was well attended to, but the dog did not come.
Austin J. Fowler is an aspiring writer from Seattle, WA. He began writing on his couch in 2020, and quickly fell in love. He appreciates dark fiction of all sorts, and aspires to evoke an array of emotions in his work. “Myrtle” is his first published piece. He is a nonprofit manager and a proud husband and father.