There was an old couple who lived in a ramshackle house above Hangman Valley at the end of our street, maybe sixty, seventy years old. We called him Dick and her Donna, collectively the Douchemans — Dick and Donna Doucheman, and their little dog Pepe. Nobody liked them much, the kind of people who gave out dumdums at Halloween and contaminated the neighborhood with their cooking smells — cabbage and stroganoff and lots of hard boiled eggs. Bubba, their daughter, was in college somewhere, or a lady's prison, until she came home for the virus, probably bringing it back to Spokane with her. Broken appliances lined the porch, and crumbling angels and lawn jockeys stood guard in the dirt out front. Whatever the Douchemans were doing inside during those quarantined days and nights, word was they were sitting on about a thousand rolls of toilet paper. Tammy's friend Kipper had seen them at Costco before the virus, hauling out pallets of the stuff. Like they could see into the future — or make it happen.
Dino's mom had made hippie buckets for their family and told my mom about it, as if I was ever going to use one of those things. Each bucket in Dino's bathroom had a lid with a name on it — Mom, Dad, Dino, Diana, Grandma. On top of the toilet tank was a pile of clean rags. Dirty rags were dumped in the buckets to soak in bleach, which Mrs. DeAngelis would run through the washing machine downstairs, contaminating literally everything they owned — which was why Dino kept coming over to use our bathroom.
"No, Dino," Mom kept telling him. "You can't come in. We're distancing."
I didn't get it at first. But then I went over to his house and made the mistake of opening one of those buckets, and I was like, Oh My Jesus Gawd!
Dad had moved what was left of our toilet paper to his and Mom's room, so he could ration it out — ten sheets for me a day, fourteen for Tammy. We were down to maybe two rolls. Dad wouldn't say. And then at dinner Mom was like, "Dana DeAngelis made buckets for her family," all excited about it, but I already knew how horrible it was, and halfway through Mom's explanation, Tammy was like, "What buckets?"
"Sanitary buckets," Mom said.
"What?" Tammy said, finally catching on. "I'm not doing that!"
"Why don't we just use the washing machine," I said, "if we're going to use buckets."
"Watch your mouth," Dad said.
"It's nothing to be ashamed of," Mom said.
"We should get a bidet," Dad said.
"Oh, my God!" Tammy said.
And Mom said, "Just where are we going to get a bidet, Jack — when every bidet in the world has been bought and sold four times over?"
"I hate this family so much," Tammy said, jumping from the table.
"Sit," Dad said.
Tammy stormed away.
Dad half stood.
Mom finished her wine.
Dad grabbed Tammy's plate and scraped the bean slop from it onto his own.
"I'm going for a walk," I said, and Mom said, "After your homework."
"It's not real," I said.
"Of course it's real," she said.
"It's a hoax," I said.
"Alexander," Mom said. "None of this is a hoax. You know that. People are dying."
I kept walking.
"Six feet," Mom called. "No touching."
I grabbed my mask and bolted.
They'd managed to keep us inside for a week, but finally let us out as long as we agreed to their rules. Dino's family didn't do anything, except keep Grandma locked in the attic. I ran over there and Dino came out and we walked toward the ridge trail at the end of our street. Dino had his grandma's lighter and we were going to light stuff on fire and watch the trains rumble through the valley and spy on people trapped in their houses.
There was a roll of thunder somewhere, but nothing to worry about.
"How many times have you used that bucket anyway," I asked as we walked toward the trail, and Dino was like, "Not once, okay? I'm holding it."
The trains were still running, but they weren't hauling toilet paper.
"How long can a person hold it," I wondered.
"I don't know," Dino said. "Two weeks?"
There were lots of people outside, walking after dinner, chatting across the street.
Tammy wasn't allowed outside anymore since she got caught kissing her boyfriend, Timbo.
"It doesn't kill people my age!" she kept screaming.
Dad called Timbo's parents and everyone agreed that Tammy and Timbo were selfish, horrible people.
I told Dino what Tammy had told me about the Douchemans, how they were sitting on a motherlode of toilet paper, maybe two thousand rolls.
"That's bullcrap," Dino said, and I said, "Kipper Kline saw them at Costco."
"No," Dino said. "To keep it for themselves. Everyone has a right to toilet paper."
"Not really," I said. "It's more of a privilege."
"Bullcrap," Dino said.
But he stopped and sort of squatted there on the sidewalk.
"What's the matter?"
He was hunched over his knees, eyes closed, like he was praying.
"My stomach," he said.
He waved me off, his face crinkled in concentration.
It was only a matter of time before I'd be in the same position.
Then his crisis passed.
"You can take off your mask," he said, standing. "Your mom can't see you."
But the neighbors could.
The ones who weren't outside would be watching from inside.
Thunder rumbled far away.
We reached the trail but there were too many people out to light anything on fire.
It started to hail, little balls of ice bouncing off the ground like popcorn, coming down harder and harder, until the ice seemed to explode from the dirt and grass.
We ran toward the Douchemans' house, between the trail and street.
Rain mixed with the hail, the sky turning green, like a tornado was coming to kill us all. We wouldn't have to worry about toilet paper then or coughing or the goddamn unemployment site crashing all day long.
It was too early to be dark, but it was dark.
The Douchemans had a wobbly deck upstairs over a patio below, which we snuck across, toward sliding glass doors. I didn't know what we were going to do. We could smell eggs and onions and vomit and cabbage boiling upstairs. Big drapes were drawn across the patio doors, but there was a space in the middle we'd be able to see through.
Bubba babysat Tammy and me a couple times when we were little — Constance was her real name, Connie — and she had wicked B.O., like the stroganoff the Douchemans ate for dinner.
"It's not her fault," Mom said when we complained. "How would you like to have an odor problem?"
"It literally makes me gag," Tammy said, and Mom said, "I don't know who you are when you talk like that," and Tammy said, "I'm exactly myself!"
"Not the girl I know," Mom said, and Tammy said, "Then you don't know me at all."
Now, I could smell Bubba as we approached the back door.
Dino went into his crouch on the Douchemans' patio, hunched over himself, sort of groaning, a fart escaping, a high pitched whistler.
And another — an airhorn.
I realized it was him I was smelling.
The rain was letting up, but Dino kept crouching.
I approached the doors and looked through the opening in the drapes.
And there they were — the Douchemans, Dick and Donna on the couch, Bubba on the floor at their feet, all of them watching I Dream of Jeannie, while Mrs. Doucheman brushed Bubba's hair. Or no, all of them naked, nudists, Mr. Doucheman reading the newspaper on a lawn chair while Mrs. Doucheman and Bubba played ping pong. Or maybe dissecting a cat in front of a roaring fire, all of them wearing hooded robes.
I remembered how Bubba let us do whatever we wanted when she babysat, eat whatever we wanted, play video games all night long.
Dino farted deeply.
"I gotta get that paper," he whispered.
"Do you think your grandma's gonna die," I said, and Dino said, "If God wants her to."
"My mom said my aunt Betty's sick. No one can see her."
Dino kept crouching, his eyes closed tight.
I looked through the parted drapes. The lights were on in the family room, but no one was there. No one had ever been there. They were eating dinner upstairs.
I slid the door open.
"What are you doing?" Dino hissed.
I walked into the Douchemans' family room.
Pepe started to bark somewhere.
"Anybody home?" I called.
A door swung open, then somebody clomping down the stairs.
"It's Alexander from down the street," I called.
I couldn't tell who was coming toward me.
"Get out of there," Dino said.
But he was standing now, looking in, ready to bolt.
Bubba appeared, then Mr. Doucheman.
"What is it?" Mrs. Doucheman called from upstairs.
"It's Alex," Bubba called. "The neighbor kid. What do you want, hon?"
I turned and Dino was gone.
"Toilet paper," I said, and Mr. Doucheman said, "How much?"
"I don't know," I said. "A hundred rolls?"
"Sixty," Mr. Doucheman said. "Five bags, twelve roll. Two hundred bucks."
"Dmitry," Mrs. Doucheman called. "Neighbor price!"
Mr. Doucheman looked up the stairs and back at me. "One ninety," he said.
Bubba said, "This is all going to be funny some day, huh?"
"Show him the paper," Mr. Doucheman said. "Lock that door."
He went upstairs.
"Follow me," Bubba said. "And take off that ridiculous mask."
I touched the mask. I didn't want to take it off.
"It's useless," Bubba said.
I took it off, but I didn't want to breathe in there.
"My mom," I said, "thinks it's important that we come together in times like these — to support each other," and Bubba said, "Is that what she thinks?"
It looked like any family room, except for the wooden saints and the heavy red drapes and what looked like a beheading sword over the fireplace and who knew what else where they kept the toilet paper. If there was any toilet paper.
"I don't really know what she thinks," I said, and Bubba said, "I'll bet you don't."
I would never forgive Dino for leaving me like that, when I'd been trying to save him.
"Come on," Bubba said. "It's only going to get more expensive."
She smiled and I noticed she was missing a tooth, one of her upper fangs.
I took a step back, shaking my head, then turned and ran as hard as I could, feeling the Douchemans on my trail all the way home.
"Where's your mask?" my mother said when I blasted into the house.
"Jack," she said, "He's been outside without a mask!"
"Alexander," Dad said, lifting himself from the table.
I touched my face where the mask had been, looked at my hands.
"Alexander!" my dad said, my mother said.
I could hardly breathe.
The bean smell was everywhere, filling our entire house. ♦
Samuel Ligon is the author of three novels — Among the Dead and Dreaming, Safe in Heaven Dead and Miller Cane: A True & Exact History (which was serialized in the Inlander) — and two collections of stories, Wonderland and Drift and Swerve. In 2012, Ligon and his wife, Kate Lebo, started Pie & Whiskey — raucous literary events featuring pie, whiskey and readings about those eponymous things — and together they edited a 2017 collection of works called Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter & Booze.