's 2013 Horror Write-off:

" Rice "

Submitted by Miranda Johansson

The task of cleaning out my brother's apartment falls on me.

Ostensibly, this is because my mother and father can't bear to do it. I guess that might even be true, but it definitely isn't the entire reason. More likely, my parents see themselves as being above taking the trip out to the slum where my brother lived, above climbing the reeking stairs of his graying apartment building, above setting foot in the paltry home of their fuck-up son.

I hate that I've started thinking about him in the past tense, by the way. "Where my brother lived." We don't know for sure that he's dead, after all. He's gone on long trips without telling anyone in the past.

The truth is he's been gone for a very long time. Long enough that my parents and his landlord agree unanimously: it's time to let someone else rent his apartment. But first, of course, someone has to clean it out, and apparently I am the woman for the job.

He lived lives in a bad part of town. Out of the two of us, he's always been the less talented, the less successful. That's the reason why he's had to live out here in the first place, among the rejects and the junkies. I don't know if he's ever done drugs himself. I don't think he has, but that's more of a gut feeling than anything. In any case, if he's never tried, he's definitely unique in his neighborhood.

If he'd ever asked, I would've taken him in without hesitation, but I think it irked him that he should have to depend on his baby sister. That, or the thought that I could help just never struck him.

I let myself into my brother's apartment.

It's an oppressive place, every window hung with curtains. Except they aren't curtains, I realize at a second glance, but blankets, hanging off nails that have been driven deep into the walls. The sunlight penetrating them as best it can turns a dull, slightly sepia color that makes me think of antique photographs. The stale air does nothing to dispel this elderly impression.

There is stuff, far too much stuff for such a cramped living space, piled up against the walls. At first glance, it's all trash. My brother has never been a paragon of normalcy, of course, but his mental state had been deteriorating for a few months before he disappeared. I didn't want to realize it then, but now that he's nowhere to be found, I admit the truth to myself.

Take one of the last conversations I had with him before his disappearance, for example. He called me because he'd had an epiphany. "I realized something," he said over the phone, and I instantly recognized that dangerous brand of fervor in his voice. "I realized something. When you shower you put all this stuff on your body, right? Shampoo and soap and stuff. Chemical stuff."

I stayed quiet, letting him speak. "Well, you ever gotten shampoo in your eyes? I did, you see, that's when I realized. It stings like a motherfucker, because of all the chemicals. Dangerous. And I realized, I don't want all that unnatural shit on my skin, or, like, on my scalp that close to my brain."

I might have interrupted him, soothed him out of his crazy fit, only all of a sudden I couldn't be fucked to. I was suddenly very weary of my brother and his strangeness, so I said nothing. He was only too happy to fill the silence. "And you know how your fingers get all pruny after a long shower? Like you're getting old. Like the water is washing the life out of you. It kinda makes sense, you know? Who knows what the government puts in that water? I don't need that. I don't need to stand in the shower every morning and get my energy sapped so I can die early. Fuck that."

Before he hung up, he left me with this portentous line: "I'll find some other way to keep clean." I feel strange thinking about it, now. What if I'd said something? If I'd said the right thing, would that have altered his downward trajectory? I don't know.

I pull the blankets down to let the daylight in. Once I'm done, the atmosphere in the apartment is certainly a few degrees more bearable, though the cleaning is still unpleasant work. There's the trash, not to mention the unchecked dust and grime. And cockroaches too I never did like them, and once or twice I jerk back and swear as they skitter over my bare hands.

The kitchen is the strangest part.

It doesn't take the longest to clean far from it. In fact, in stark contrast to the other parts of the apartment, my brother's kitchen is surprisingly well-kept. Just like everywhere else, every surface there is coated in a layer of dust, but it could honestly have been far worse. It's like my brother went out of his way to keep this part of the apartment clean and orderly, while he was still around.

Well, there is one feature of the kitchen that is as messy as anything in the apartment. The sink.

It's home to a veritable mountain of dirty dishes, which spill out over its edge onto the edge of the stainless-steel countertop, yet still the teetering pile manages to almost touch the bottom of the cabinet above. The dishes are mostly soiled pots, though there are plates here and there, and knives and forks and spoons.

At first I am just aghast at the thought of having to clean all those dishes. Then I realize that something is strange, though it makes so little sense that it takes a while for me to spot it: I can find no sign anywhere on the mound of cooking utensils and soiled tableware that any other food has been prepared or eaten except rice.

When I open the first cabinet, I brace myself for all manner of rotten foodstuffs, fungal infestations, unchecked pest populations...

But there's just... rice.

I open cabinet after cabinet. All of them are stuffed with big, off-brand bags of rice, the cheap kind where one bag lasts more or less forever only my brother has crammed every available storage space in his kitchen with them. Some of them are opened, half-empty and spilling what remains of their bellies' contents out onto the shelves. Most of them are still unbroken.

It's the same in the fridge and the freezer, both unplugged. Stuffed into every drawer, bags of rice.

Considering the fact that I'm cleaning out my AWOL brother's apartment, my life is not currently the picture of normality. Still, this is somehow so... quaintly outlandish, enough that I have to lean with my ass against the tabletop for a while, just processing the weirdness of the situation. All around me, the cabinets gape dumbly, square mouths stuffed with rice.

I wonder why my brother did this. I ponder the possibility of take-out perhaps he ordered food as often as he could afford and ate rice the rest of the time. Perhaps rice was all he knew how to cook. I honestly don't know, but I do know that my brother does not have the tidiest of apartments, yet I've seen no sign of any take-out boxes.

So, what? All he ate was rice? Was this part of some insane new scheme of his? His words echo in my head: "I'll find some other way to keep clean."

After a while, I shake my head. I have work to do.

I turn to the sink, thinking I might as well clean the dishes and get it over with. But the first pot I grab from atop the mountain is filled to the brim with murky brown water, and when I shift the pot it comes slopping coldly all over my hand. For some reason that makes me shudder.

Not as bad as when I pour the water out, though. I have to be kind of clever about it, because the sink is so congested, but at last I manage to find an opening where I hope the water will be able to trickle down into the pipes. I tip the pot over, and watch in horror as bloated kernels of leftover boiled rice come slipping over its lip like nightcrawlers, appearing out of the depths of the opaque water.

They adhere to the sink, to the other dishes, to the pot I'm holding... to my fingers. The pot clatters to the countertop and I shake my hands, a piteous moan issuing from my throat. I thought the cockroaches were bad, but they're nothing compared to this. I don't know what's prompted this reaction, but when my hands are finally free of rice and I stand eyeing the now white-speckled lip of the sink, I know that I'm not going to clean those dishes.

I come back the next day with a trash bag which I drop them gingerly into, taking excessive care not to come into contact with any of the old cooked rice again. I'm suddenly thankful that I'm cleaning out the apartment alone, so no-one can see me acting like this.

I'm being silly. I know I am.

Once I get rid of the bag of dishes, cleaning out the rest of the apartment feels like a breeze. I don't mind the cockroaches anymore.

My brother's bedroom is as cluttered as the rest of the apartment put together, but the great drifts of stuff are all piled at the far end of the room; on the desk, in the bed, up against the wall. I throw it all out indiscriminately, feeling less and less inclined to sift through the garbage to see if there's anything worth saving.

The carpet dominates the bedroom. It's weirdly ornate, though definitely cheap-looking, like a knock-off replica of a Persian rug. It's also too big for the small room, wrinkling into folds up against the walls. Not exactly the most tasteful of choices, but I don't spare it much thought. My brother probably got a good deal on it and didn't consider the size issue at the time.

I've been working steadily at this apartment for a good couple of weeks now, despite its small size. With that in mind, I decide I'll probably leave the carpet for the next tenant to worry about my gas prices are mounting up anyway, with all the drives to the dump I've had to make. Besides, it's a free carpet. What are they going to complain about?

Except... something about it catches my eye. A white spot that seems out of place in the pattern. And now that I've noticed the first one, I can see more and more.

I know that it's rice before I even kneel down, of course. But it's when I do that my knee connects with the floor with a weirdly hollow thump, muted by the carpet but noticeable all the same.

My curiosity gets the best of me. I flick back the half of the carpet that isn't held in place by the bed and the desk and am greeted by a surreal sight. Around the edges of the room, the floor is the same featureless vinyl as the rest of the apartment, but towards the center, it has been removed entirely, replaced with rough wooden planks laid over the resulting hole.

I can do nothing but stare for a moment, my neck prickling.

The planks are speckled with white as well.

For a minute, I can't find it in me to move. I know only too well what I'll see when I shift those planks. This is where my brother has disappeared to, and I'm going to be the one to find his corpse.

Except, as it turns out, things are not quite so simple.

When I move a few of the boards aside and let the light from the window into the cramped space below, this is what I find: a huge pile of rice, and, lying in it, what I first take to be the leathery, desiccated body of my brother. But...

I'm still attempting to find my voice and scream when the thing opens one shrivelled eyelid and peers at me. Slowly, slowly, its chest expands as it takes a long-overdue breath, and it rasps: "Hey, sis."

The strength has gone out of my legs. For a horrible second I'm almost about to topple over and fall into the hole. Instead, I sink to my knees once more, transfixed by the outlandish scene before me.

I speak his name, more like a question than anything. More like a prayer.

Long minutes pass before that ascetic chest balloons with another breath, and my brother speaks again, his voice quiet, quiet. "I... had to get... clean. Too many... germs in the... air, in every... breath."

He is naked, but the fact hardly registers. There's none of the discomfort one might usually associate with seeing a family member naked, because he hardly even looks like a human anymore. He looks like beef jerky. As I stare down at him, I flash absurdly on a mental image of a salt shaker.

Except it's not that absurd, is it? I've seen it in any number of restaurants they put rice in their salt, because it absorbs moisture. That's what my brother has done, on a bigger and far more bizarre scale: some sort of homebrew self-mummification. I can see kernels of rice in his nostrils, in the corners of his eyes, spilling from his leathery ears. I can see his skin wriggling sluggishly as the stuff squirms through his veins.

A shaky half-laugh, half-sob issues from my mouth and I think my brother attempts to smile at me, atrophied muscles pulling weakly at the corner of his mouth.

He speaks again, though it seems to be such an effort to him. "Put the... rug back... when you go... will you?"