I awoke slapping my leg in a frenzy, trying desperately to kill whatever had pinched or bitten or stung or otherwise assaulted me as I slept. My eyes were greeted by the pitch-blackness that my rented basement had to offer, and even my hand on my thigh held no answers to where the pain had come from. Mau shifted and let out a sigh, brushing her feline tail against my face as if to say, “It’s okay, mom, just go back to sleep.”
I couldn’t sleep, though. To be honest, I hadn’t slept (not really) for weeks. Living underground so close to a lake, my days and nights were spent surrounded by insects and arachnids and everything in between. Bugs. Bugs that bugged me so much that I would rather be at work fixing a buggy program than at home doing anything. I considered getting a cot set up in the warehouse, tucked behind a pallet of bug spray. I would be safe there.
Trying to convince myself there was nothing in my bed, I lay my head back down and resigned that the cat was right. It was okay. I just needed to go back to sleep. A tickle on my neck contradicted this lie, and I sprung out of the bed immediately, swatting at my neck and hair and chest and arms like a crazy person. I felt like a crazy person. Maybe I was. Even so, I would be a crazy person who killed that damn spider or ant or centipede or nothing.
Even in the darkness, I knew my surroundings. I consistently managed to avoid ever bashing my leg against the computer table that was set up in front of my bed, always escaping the self-imposed enclosure through the narrow path at the foot of the bed. Rushing to the door, I slapped my free hand against the wall as the other continued its frantic search for the intruder. Blindly, I lifted the hand, knowing that it had to hit a light-switch sometime, and was assaulted with a bright light before my brain even registered the feel of the switch on my palm.
Mau sat on the floor staring up at me, her gold-green eyes narrowed as her tail twitched irritably. Her face said, “Okay, I’m up, and I’m here for you,” but her tail said, “This shit again, really?”
The carpet in front of my bedroom door was littered with the corpses of centipedes. Most people don’t know, but there are two types that live in Northern Illinois: the long curlicue ones that die in a pretty spiral of decorative legs and hard black shell, and the thick terrifying ones with legs like a spider’s and an orange and black striped body that, to me, seems straight out of a nightmare. The former, thankfully, was what I dealt with most often, and I had been living with them by the swarms. There was no door or barrier they couldn’t get through, though they tended to at least avoid my bed and clothes and didn’t bite or sting (unlike the aforementioned nightmare-centipedes, which went wherever they wanted whenever they wanted and stung anything that moved).
I had, admittedly, stopped cleaning up their bodies. It gets to a point when you’re vacuuming twice a day that you start to wonder if leaving their corpses will deter their kin from swarming anymore. Like a crunchy centipede graveyard that I would carefully step over each day in a desperate attempt to pretend they weren’t there, their bodies would serve as a warning to the other brainless insects to please please please just leave me alone. I wondered, at times, how terrifying a monster I would seem to the bugs, if only their thoughts ran so deep. This graveyard of murder and symbol of death left there only out of my own fear that these harmless things might never leave me alone. Was that really how I lived my life?
I lifted the forgiving leg of my thin pajamas and checked my thigh for marks. A small red dot in exactly the place where the pain had started sent a shiver through my whole body. Something was in my bed. Something was in my pants. I shook both legs, and my cat stood to back up, away from the crazy person and whatever might come flying out of my pants. Nothing did. I ran a hand through my hair, still tingling from the feeling that at any moment I could find a spider or an ant or a centipede boldly going where no bug had gone before. Again.
I couldn’t stay there anymore. I told myself this every day. Everyone did. It’s so easy to tell someone or to tell yourself, “You need to move,” but that statement never takes into account the cost, the effort, the time, the motivation…all of which I was lacking. I had plenty of reasons to leave. The swarm – yes, they swarmed – of centipedes from the moment I approached my basement door was not reason enough. The spiders that multiplied and coated every subtle curve on my car, every door handle, every mirror, every windshield wiper, were not enough to make me go. The crazy lady who rented to me, her fence-hopping floor-pissing constantly-barking Shih Tzu (who had turned both the yard and half of my basement into a shit-zoo) was not enough to make me leave.
What could motivate me, if not for all of that?
Some time after this incident, this repeat offense on my sleep and my sanity, it rained while I was at work. That summer had been wet and miserable in more ways than one, but this rain was a torrential downpour the likes of which I’d only seen during monsoon season in the time I spent in Arizona. I drove home from work that night knowing there would be water on the floor, on my boxes, and probably on the towels I would want to use to clean it all up. I had no idea, no idea at all, the extent of the damage I would walk into.
I took the three steps down to the sliding glass door that opened into my basement. At least, I told myself, there were no bugs. At the bottom of those steps where the centipedes normally swarmed, there was a useless drain that was clogged with corpses and leaves and sticks. The water came up to the top of the last step, well above the bottom of the sliding glass door. I planned my entrance carefully in the dark, holding my flashlight between my teeth as I dug through the mud and grass in the yard to seek anything suitable to brush away the debris.
My hands gripped instinctively around the first stick they found, but it wasn’t long or sturdy enough to do much more than poke at the water. After three failures, I found one that would suit my purposes, and quickly set to brushing away whatever blocked the drain. I wish I could say I was calm through all of this, but (my temper being what it is) I was angry. Angry that I lived with someone who did nothing for a living and didn’t even have the courtesy to make sure that her property was in order. Angry that I had worked twelve hour shifts for days only to come home and spend another hour trying to get through my door. Angry that I hadn’t just left the first moment that I realized that this place was a nightmare.
The stick was great, really it was: I don’t want to belittle its usefulness or its effort in this story. It was a trooper and it did its best, but ultimately it made no difference in the end. For every clump of blockage I was able to move, three more were sucked into its place by the motion of the water trying desperately to get out of my way. There was no safe way inside, and I knew this. I stepped over the gap, placing my shoe on the edge of the plastic door-frame and hoping to whatever god existed that I didn’t break the damn thing with my weight. Holding my breath, I slid the door open quickly, jumping inside of the basement before slamming it closed behind me. The walls shook, but I had made it inside. Into my pitch-black prison of bugs and spiders and dog-shit and…
So much water.
It didn’t matter that I’d opened the door and managed to only let a small flood in.
It didn’t matter that I’d spent the last hour trying to clear out the path.
It didn’t matter that I’d been smart enough to place towels in between the rooms the last time it flooded, in case it happened again.
None of that mattered as I heard the sloshing of my already-wet feet as I hurried across the room to the light switch. From what little control I had over the flashlight in my mouth, I could already see (but refused to believe) the mess I had walked into. I was afraid to turn the light on. Despite the knowledge that I could very well have electrocuted myself just by flipping the switch, the real fear was in seeing the damage that was done. What was worse was that it was still raining.
I could just go to bed. No manner of flooding could have possibly gotten that far into the basement, all the way to my room, all the way up the bed. I could just sleep, and not deal with it, pretend I didn’t notice, and just be miserable in the morning. I was so tired. The night before had been another night of bugs and disappointed glares from my cat, and I just wanted to sleep and pretend that none of this was happening.
I turned on the light.
The good news (though it didn’t feel so good at the time) is that I didn’t die. No wave of electricity came to set me free from the mess that now assaulted all of my senses. As the light came on, the only thing I felt was the last shred of hope leaving.
So much water.
My centipede graveyard floated around me, little black spirals of bone and legs twisting in the water as I disturbed their peaceful rest with every step. The towels at the rooms’ edges were just wet messes of cloth beneath the water, and I rushed to the door of my room to check on Mau. Never mind my electronics. Never mind my computers and the consoles and the television. Never mind my clothes. Never mind the bed. I should have known by the fact that she didn’t rush to the glass door when she heard my car pull up that something was wrong, and now I panicked as I stood at the cracked door that led to even more darkness, wondering if I even wanted to know.
I won’t mess with your feelings here, or lead you to believe anything happened to her. That cat is my world, my daughter, and my best friend. She’s smarter than most of the people I know, and obviously smarter than I. When I walked into the carpeted room that had now gone a darker shade of ugly tan, she sat atop my dresser with a wide-eyed expression that said, “Oh my god, mom, make it stop.” I rushed over to her, hearing the squish of every step I took into the room, and for the first and only time ever she jumped into my arms. I pet her to comfort her, trying not to show her how much I was freaking out as I looked around the room and started making a mental list of all of the things I needed to do.
With all of the assumptions I’d made that night, there was one that I was right about: the top of the bed was dry. Only the top. I placed her down there, and immediately set to unplugging everything and picking up the things off the floor that were at the top of my priorities: the soaking wet towels, my computers, my consoles. The room looked so dry, but every squishy step I took reminded me that it was only getting wetter the longer the sea of corpses in the rest of the basement existed.
I stuffed the corpse-coated towels in the drier, then retrieved the hanging towels from the bathroom. Somehow, even those were wet, and I touched a hand to the wall to find that it, too, was soaked. I hurried to the bedroom closet, all the while Mau watching me with eyes that begged me to calm down, but I couldn’t anymore. I pulled anything dry and cotton from the hangers, tearing off spider-webs that had been formed during my hours at work that day, and tossed the clothes into the water at the doorway, soaking up whatever I could with whatever I could for however long it would last.
Everything that went down on the floor got stuffed into the drier when a load was done, and everything in the drier immediately went down on the floor. I had bunched up a large rug in front of the doorway to at least slow the advance of more water, and even that got replaced with dry towels after a while. This cycle continued for hours, way past my bedtime, until all of the water in the basement had been soaked up save for a few stray puddles that I just couldn’t get myself to consider a threat compared to the task that awaited me in the carpeted room.
Once the hard floors were dry, and there was (I thought) no more water going into my bedroom, I started on trying to dry the carpet with the same process. It was futile. It didn’t take me long to realize this, and the moment I did, I stopped. I stopped trying to clean it, stopped trying to make it better, stopped trying to fix something that couldn’t be fixed. I stopped making excuses for the lady upstairs, for the bugs that kept me from sleeping, for the water that came through the walls and the door and the ceiling. I stopped everything. I took off my shoes on the dry-ish floor outside of my bedroom doorway and let my toes squish and crunch on the centipede-corpse-covered-water-soaked carpet as I went to my bed. I brushed the black spirals of legs and exoskeleton off of my feet, squashed a spider that was walking across my pillow, and lay down to sleep as if everything were alright.
I want to make something clear at this point, because this is very important: I did not give up early. No matter how much more I had tried to dry that carpet, it wouldn’t have made a difference. The only way to get the water out of that room would have been to tear up the carpet and pray to whatever god there might be that the walls held up despite the insulation and wood of the inner walls being soaked. I know I haven’t set a very good impression of my motivation with this story, but when I saw that water, I have never been more driven to get my horrible bug-infested life back on the dry-track.
You would think that this would be enough. This would be my breaking point, my end of the line, the fifty-thousand pound straw that broke the camel’s back. When I went to bed that night, I wasn’t angry anymore. I was just done. I was so tired, so depressed in my dark spider cave, and so tired of fighting with what seemed like the inevitable downpour of misfortune and chaos.
I slept through the whole night. If something bit me, I didn’t care. If something crawled on my head, I let it plant its flag and name that section of scalp after itself. If something terrible had happened, I wouldn’t have known or cared or responded. When I awoke to my alarm, I could taste the water in the air, still. I could feel the wet at the top of my pillow where the cloth had touched the damp wall all night long. I could see my cat still hadn’t left the bed. I could hear the lady upstairs complaining to someone about all of the rain from the day before. I could smell…
So much mold.
I didn’t go to work. I honestly don’t remember anymore if I called out or just conveniently happened to have the day off. I spent the day looking for ways out of that place, and trying to ignore the mild burn that had started in my throat and in my lungs that I knew would only get worse. For all of the time I had spent secretly wishing this place would kill me so I didn’t have to live in it anymore, I was acutely aware that, this time, it very much could.
Sadly, it almost did. I wish I could say I was gone within the week. I wish I could tell you that I applied for an apartment and was accepted immediately, that I got my things out of there and never looked back. I wish the world was that easy to maneuver, but instead I spent another two months waiting for any apartment complex anywhere to say, “You are good enough.” In that time, I never stopped being sick. I came down with a horrible cough that made talking and even breathing more than a task: simple communication was a gift. Granted, it peaked at the beginning and slowly got better, but it never really got better. And I do mean never. I still have a chronic cough that feels like, at any moment, I could get sick all over again. I still wake up feeling like things are crawling on me, even though I’ve yet to see a bug in this place. I still hear the rain outside and want to check the windows and the doors and the walls and my cat and make sure that we’re not going to drown.
Everything we experience in life, good or bad, stays with us forever in some subtle (and some not-so-subtle) way. It may fade, it may get better, but it might never get better.
I have many bright sides now. I have more hope. I have lights and dryness and I can breathe again. Despite my breaking point, though, and the weight of the terror that can be found in knowing that your own floors and walls are trying to kill you, there is an even brighter side. In all the time I spent surrounding myself with corpses to keep out the innocent swarms that simply wanted the warmth my room had to offer, I can walk into my house without stepping over a graveyard. I can take a deep breath without fearing what I might inhale. I can look at my feet and at the path I am walking and know, without a doubt, that the road is clear, and I won’t be stepping on a carpet soaked in bad memories. I can turn on the light and no longer be afraid of what I’m going to see.
That prison, I’m free of. That freedom has shown me how possible it is to tear down the walls that are soaked from a storm, and rebuild a life where those walls are just words, now, that detail a nightmare that I finally awoke from.