There was that little windowless room under the staircase, the one they
imagined turning into an office or library but then decided it would be
a good room for the new baby, when the new baby came. “It’s a bit dank,”
she said. “You’re a bit dank,” he answered. But the room did need work.
It was musty, at best; and at worst… who knew?
They sure didn’t. They were new to country houses. Neither of them had
imagined they would live in the country. As a couple, they’d always been
attached to the idea of their exciting, romantic, and chronically
underemployed urban lives—the restaurants and subways and
celebrity-sightings, the overpriced rents and the limitless
possibilities. City life was a centerpiece of their identity, at least
whenever they met strangers or were forced into reunions with relatives
in their faraway hometowns. “Oooh,” these people would say. “I’ve always
wanted to live in the city!”—though if they’d meant it, then they
wouldn’t still be living in their sad little town, would they?
So it surprised them both when they decided to move upstate, just like
it surprised them when the bank told them they were approved for the
mortgage—and the next thing they knew, they lived in an old farmhouse
in a snowbelt town no one had heard of.
The other big surprise was the new baby.
The wallpaper in the room was water-stained and the color of sour milk.
They peeled it off in great sheets, like skin, and she wrapped one
around herself like an old dress. “I’m vintage!” That’s when he saw the
backside of it was covered in black mold.
They could see now, it was everywhere—the wallpaper and the walls,
too, a fresco of black spores throughout the drywall. They decided then
and there that, for the sake of the new baby, she should leave the room
and he would do the work of tearing it all down, saturating the walls
with bleach and tearing out the rot.
“How much is there?” she asked. “How deep does it go? Is it in the other
Who knew? But for the sake of the new baby, he would do whatever needed
to be done.
She was showing by then. They’d given up on the idea of putting the new
baby in that dank little room, so while he was downstairs learning how
to take out and replace drywall, she was upstairs turning a corner of
their bedroom into a new nursery. They saw one another less and less
those days. He scrubbed and bleached and swore as he uncovered more of
it, the black mold, creeping through the walls into the kitchen, into
the living room. He poured bleach everywhere, and the smell of it hung
acrid in the air. He wore gloves and goggles and a mask, but still he
coughed from the smell, still it burned his eyes and cracked his skin,
and from upstairs, she coughed too.
Then he found mold in the dining room. “How much is there?” she asked,
but he just shook his head. “Did we make a mistake?” she asked, but he
couldn’t answer that, either.
The baby was kicking now, but not much—the doctor said “feebly,” and
she choked a little when she heard that word. They drove home from the
appointment without speaking. The house by now was pocked with holes,
exposing the skeleton of framing lumber underneath. “Are we killing our
baby?” she whispered. He picked up the hammer he’d been using on the
wallboards and bashed seven aimless new holes in the drywall. “What are
we supposed to do?” he screamed, and started sobbing.
That’s when she saw—was it a trick of the light?—speckled on his
wrists and hands: black mold.
It was growing on him, too.
How had she not seen it before? It was everywhere—his arms and neck,
his cheeks, his forehead—colonies of it, growing in thick patches. He
was covered in mold.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, and she swatted him away. “Don’t touch me!”
But it was too late. All these weeks, he had been touching her. All
these weeks, they had been sharing the sofa, sharing the ice cream
spoon, sharing the bed. She shuddered and took a breath and then thought
about the air, heavy with spores, every breath drawing them deeper into
“What’s wrong?” he asked again, but she didn’t hear him. Was it growing
on her, too? Was it growing inside her? Was it growing inside the new
baby? She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. She rushed to the hall
mirror; she needed to see for herself. But she already knew. She already
knew. She had known all along.