A Plaguing Conscience

At first she couldn’t quite place it, the odor that greeted her in the morning when she opened her eyes at first light. She didn’t even know what it was when she went downstairs after brushing her teeth– the faint thin smell that blackened the insides of her nostrils with its hidden spike. Like fires she said to herself, but she looked around and couldn’t see any smoke.

Or fish. Dead fish. She thought as she stepped into her car, after kissing her mother on the cheek. But the image of a thousand of fish corpses lying on a cold gray shore didn’t seem to quite capture the smell either.

In the meantime, she turned on the engine and flipped the heat to full blast, making sure the windows were fully rolled to keep out the chill of the morning. Then she set off, not realizing of course, that by sealing herself in the car, she trapped the scent in a warm, moist environment that was so favorable for dirty things to grow in. And indeed, trapped in the car without breeze or ventilation to whisk the smell away, the smell fermented and grew, until it took up the entirety of the car with its invisible body. The warm stinking air surrounded her and breathed nasty car breath on her hands through the heater vents and soon she was overwhelmed by the sneaking odor. She began choking on the nasty scent, coughing it up from her lungs, throat, tongue anywhere the stinging air touched. Thinking quickly, she opened all the car windows, flushing the odor out as white morning fog filed in.

Disgusting. She thought to herself, eyeing her brother’s school sweatshirt on the seat next to her. She tsked-tsked to herself as she wondered if the boy had any sense of personal hygiene at all. He really should wash his clothes once in a while. She reminded herself to reprimand the boy later, although she knew that her chastisement would most likely end with her doing his laundry for him when he maneuvered her into “showing” him how to wash laundry one more time.

With that, she put all thoughts of the nagging smell in the back of her mind, instead turning up the volume to her car radio and singing aloud, her voice humming in her chest and vibrating through her throat in perfect rhythm to the slow beat of the music and slight rocking of the car.

*

Do you smell that? She asked friends at lunch, raising her nose slightly and inhaling the light odor off the air. But they all shook their heads. What are you talking about? I don’t smell anything. Then one of her friends launched into a story about a man who smelt burning rubber that no one else could and died the next day of a brain aneurism. No, its not quite rubber. She said, when her friend had finished telling her story and moved onto examining the bag of peeled carrots in her lunch box. Everyone looked up at her; she had caught them off guard as well. They, too, had been examining various aspects of their lunches–  wondering if the food was edible or if their mothers had been trying to poison them this morning.

Surrounded by a circle of raised eyebrows she attempted to explain herself, her broken sentences doing nothing to clarify her meaning or eradicate her friends’ fears that she might have actually lost it. It is more like skunk. In the road. Or old oranges, covered in… her voice trailed off. Clearly no one else smelled it. She shook her head and resumed her own lunch noticing for the first time how withered and brown her apples were, how stale her bread crusts had become since morning.

By fourth period English she was sick of the haunting smell that dogged her all day long. She asked the teachers in every class if she could go to the restroom, where she would bury her nose in the scent dispensers the school had placed over every toilet. The same scent dispensers that had, until recently, always caused her to recoil when she opened the bathroom door as she was hit by a wave of overly fragranced air. Pink air, as she imagined it. But today she let herself be bathed in the pink waves that undulated over her. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the pungent warped-flower scent, allowing it to fill her nostrils and soak into her brain, providing respite from the deathly odor that plagued her senses all day. In the repulsively sweet air she could rest her mind from the images of rotting limbs and dead animals in the street that too frequently accompanied the thin black odor. In the overwhelmingly pink fragrance she took refuge, until her few moments of peace passed and she forced herself from her perch on top of the toilet seat, out of the thickly smelling bathroom air, and into the real world. Then she would force her tired feet to take her back to class, back to reality, and back to the sickly scent that seemed to await her around every corner.

By the end of the day she was exhausted and not looking forward to locking herself in the car air one more time. But she had to. She nearly gagged– twice– on the drive home, abruptly swerving the car over to the side of the road where she quickly opened the door and drank in the uncontaminated air from outside in large gulps.

Convinced her car was the source of the stench, she promptly cleaned it upon her arrival at her house. She hastily threw her brother’s sweatshirt out onto the lawn, along with other things: a baseball cap, a fistful of pens, an apple core, and old crumped receipts. Out with everything, especially the trash, and in she dove with the vacuum cleaner, as if the tiny suction could do anything to combat the insidious smell. But the smell persisted, even after she had wiped down the entire interior of the car with a Windex soaked rag. Exhausted, she fell back on the lawn and hung her head over her knees in defeat. The car sat in front of her, doors open, insides shining, air overwhelmingly clean smelling, and still the smell persisted.

Where was this smell coming from? She wondered as she moved her hands to her face and rubbed her tired eyes. It wasn’t the sweatshirt. It wasn’t the car. It wasn’t anything her friends could notice. She inhaled deeply. There it was again. She took another deep breath, knowingly sucking the black wisps of air into her chest. There it was, that stench, that rot, that called to mind those eyes, yes, those eyes staring forever more, open and unblinking. The smell that plagued her.  Maybe…

She held her fingers up to her battered nose, and forced herself to inhale, breathing in the treacherous odor into her already blackened and bruised nostrils.

That was it.

Her own hands reeked of sweat, struggle, and of fear flashing in small dark eyes before the inevitable end. Her own fingernails were blackened with blood lined underneath them, blood of a thick muscled body.

She should have known.

Grumbling to herself about her own stupidity, she rose and dragged herself into the house where she proceeded straight to the bathroom to wash her hands. She scrubbed herself free of any traces of stench, blood, and guilt, then dried her hands on one of her mother’s laced towels. Giving her hands another whiff, she left the bathroom, satisfied that the smell would never bother her again, or at least until the next time she decided to do away with a nuisance.

* * * * *

Devon Newhouse is a student who enjoys good cooking and conversation. When faced with an dearth of people, she has been known to make (rather one-sided) conversation with her dogs.  She studies history and enjoys giving her research papers alliterative titles, since she believes that it might make things a little bit easier for whoever is forced to read her (and her classmate’s) work. When she is not studying history, she is making it up—and writing it down in what she likes to call fiction.

Her other Snake-Oil Cure contributions are here.

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