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I’d been working reclamation for a little over a year. We called it reclamation, but that’s a euphemism for ‘throwing away crazy people’s shit’. I work for CLK, one of the largest property owners in the Southeast. Chuck L “Chuckles” Langtry bought hundreds of distressed properties for pennies on the dollar during the recession, and built an empire renting them back to the same poor people the banks had just evicted.
I started working there after my sister kicked me out. Before she died, our mother had made me promise to make good grades in school, and made my sister, Carla, promise to let me stay with her so long as I did. College didn’t agree with me; I could pick up the facts just fine, but put a sheet of paper in front of me and call it a test, and my mind would become a complete blank. I made it through two years of community college, but I just couldn’t handle my Junior year. Carla seemed relieved, sitting there at Mom’s old, scarred kitchen table, telling me that I had to go. I couch-surfed for a few weeks, and found the reclamation job sheerly through luck. Trenton, a friend who was a part-time bartender, told me a tale of his cousin, who got bit by a rat at work.
“You seen ‘Hoarders’?” Trenton asked. “Barry goes into those hoarder houses, where they’s got like forty dead cats and jars of piss and shit, and he cleans it all out. It pays pretty big money. Except they was rats in the last one, and a rat bit him. So he had to get a bunch of shots, tetniss, friggin’ rabies, like twenty shots in his ass or sump’n. Worker’s Comp paid for it all, but when he got back to work the place chitchatted him, for ‘not wearing appropriate safety gear.’” A few careful questions later and I had the name of the company. Barry’s manager, now my manager, hired me on the spot. I had dressed in nice slacks and an Oxford shirt — the only nice clothes I owned. I think he smelled my desperation; the pay was truly lousy. “You’re gonna mess up them britches, boy,” he said. “You start today.”
People are filthy. I’m no neat-freak, but the way some of these people live is worse than animals in pens. Years worth of dishes stacked in sinks, counters, the floor. Junkie needles, rusted tips stuck everywhere, waiting to snag an arm or a hand. Toilets clogged months or even years past, covered in newspapers, shat upon, and re-covered in layer after layer of shit and newspaper until it made a kind of fecal papier-mâché. I’m dead serious about my safety gear. Trenton’s cousin was an idiot; you don’t go into these places without a lot of something between you and everything else.
Most of the houses I worked in weren’t disaster zones; they were just houses that, for some reason, usually foreclosure, had sat empty for a long time. Houses aren’t made to sit empty. A tiny problem that would be instantly noticed and repaired by an occupant, like a dripping faucet, a bit of missing weather-stripping around a door, or an animal scratching around in the attic, would turn into a full-blown disaster after six months of neglect. I would back up a dump truck to a house, and my partner and I would haul out broken furniture, cracked toilets, sodden carpet, ruined drywall. The people who lived in those houses usually left when they didn’t want to leave, and some left mad. I had seen entire plumbing stacks filled with concrete, wiring pulled from walls, and fixtures smashed with hammers. My partner on one job, Hank, opened a kitchen cabinet, only to discover it was full of baby raccoons. Mama Raccoon tried to eat Hank’s face. Some days were luckier than others, though. In one place, I realized the strange odor I had been smelling was kerosene, only a moment before I triggered a tripwire that some meth-head had strung across the hallway. The cops said the whole place was rigged — the tripwire, and several others, had been tied to crude nail-filled claymores, and pipe bombs were wired into the light switches. Since then, I always cut power to a place first thing, and I always smelled the air.
The air told me something was wrong with the Kelling house. At first glance, from the street, the house seemed small, a modest bungalow, shrouded by trees and overgrown shrubs. When we backed the truck down the cramped, curving drive, I could see the house was very large, verging towards mansion. It appeared to have three distinct wings. Three floors rose over the porch, the topmost crowned with a row of small windows. I had just forced my way through the large, heavy front door with a pry-bar, past no less than three deadbolts. The air was warm, and wet, like the exhalation from the mouth of a carnivore. “Fuck, that stinks!” cried Jacob, my partner for the job. He was nineteen, stood about six foot three, weighed about three hundred pounds, and had a rosy child’s face framed by ringlets of curly blonde hair. He looked like a giant, oversized baby, belly straining against his rip-proof environment suit. This was his first real job. I doubted I would see him after Friday.
“Put your respirator on,” I said, pulling mine into place. “Stinks like mold in there. You don’t want any of that shit in your lungs.” I pushed the front door open, and stepped into the hallway. The heat inside the house was oppressive. It was early October, cool outside, so the heater must have been running. Daylight from beyond the low-slung front porch showed a hallway packed floor to ceiling with stacks of papers, with only a narrow path between them. Grey dust, or mold, coated everything, piled into small drifts in the corners, and floated in the sunlight. “Great, a hoarder house.”
“Like on TV?” Jacob asked.
“Yeah, like on TV.” I flicked on my flashlight. “Be really careful near these stacks. If you bump into one, the whole pile can fall on you.” Jacob had been watching long-legged centipedes scurry for cover from the beam of his light. He gave a nervous laugh, and shrank back from the stacks of papers. Jacob reached for the old two-button style light switch near the front door. I blocked his hand. “No, use your light. There’s no telling how bad the wiring is in this place.” I motioned at the papers. “I don’t want to be stuck in here with a fire.” We made our way farther down the hallway, between the teetering stacks of dust-covered and cobwebbed papers. The light faded as the Kelling house swallowed us.
Jacob and I entered what once would have been a grand foyer off the front hallway. Our lights picked out beautiful woodwork, and glinted off an elaborate chandelier hanging three stories overhead. Dust-covered shelves lined the walls, floor to the ceilings high overhead, each crammed to overflowing with junk and papers. Galaxies of dust swirled in the thick air, disturbed by our intrusion. In the gloom, the room was dizzying; the mind recoiled from so many details, from having to track and account for so many things. Jacob’s respirator whistled faster and faster. I lay a hand on his shoulder. “Calm down, man. Breathe.”
“Sorry. It’s just … so much.” His eyes were shocked huge behind his face mask.
“We need to find the main breaker panel and cut the power. We only have until Friday to haul all this shit out. From the looks of it, we’ll be living here until then.” Stepping over scattered papers, I walked through an archway into a new hallway opposite the entry hallway. This one was more narrow, and only had crudely-assembled wooden shelves on one side. I checked each door along the way. “These old houses, the panel’s in the kitchen half the time.”
The kitchen was as bad as I had feared. The food hadn’t simply rotted; it had disintegrated and merged into a sheet of decaying matter that glued the layers of plates and dishes into a near-solid mat. A mottled Amana refrigerator, once yellow, or even white, slumped in a corner like a murder victim, its door open to display ancient, furred food crushed beneath broken wire shelves. Every level surface had been stacked with dishes, as if whoever had brought them into the kitchen had dropped them off, expecting them to be cleaned by a servant who was no longer there, or who had never been. Jacob and I picked our way across and around the heaps that may have been tables or chairs, our lights aimed at the walls where we hoped to find a breaker panel. We found none. “And the other half of the time?” Jacob asked, though the resignation in his voice meant he knew the answer.
“Yeah, it’s in the basement.” The other door leading out of the kitchen was stuck firm. Even Jacob, who had nearly a hundred pounds on me, couldn’t get it to shift in its frame. We backtracked to the foyer. “Look, we have to split up. You take this hallway, and I’ll take the other one. You walk the right-side edge the whole time.” I punched his arm. “Hear me? Right side the whole time. I’m following the left side. I need to make sure you’re checking every wall in every single room. This is a big house, there’s trash all over, and it’s dark. We’ve already burned two hours, and we only have until the end of the week. We don’t have time to waste checking the same room twice. If you find it, text me. Got your phone on you? Turned up loud?” He nodded. “Got signal?”
“Yeah, man. I’m not an idiot.”
“I know,” I said, even though I was pretty sure he was an idiot. “Langtry doesn’t give a shit how big this house is. He wants it cleaned out by the end of the week. If we do a good job, haul a bunch of loads, he’ll give us a bonus.” He’d give me a bonus. Jacob would get a pat on the back, and he wouldn’t show up to work on Monday morning. “Let’s go. Keep that mask on.” As Jacob stumbled down his hallway, clumsy in his environmental suit, motes of grey dust sparkled in his flashlight beam, until the darkness closed upon him.
An hour later, I had to admit that I was lost. I was furious. It was a big house, and yes, there was trash everywhere, and yes, it was dark, but it was still just a house. I had spotted a promising doorway at the end of a hallway, but the hallway was blocked by an impenetrable stack of furniture and, oddly, garden implements. I backtracked to a narrow, spiral staircase, and climbed up. My plan was to go up one floor, go down the length of an upper hallway, and find a way down on the other side. At the top of the staircase was another long hallway, but this one was empty of both trash and doorways. Grey mold, or dust, lay thick across carpet that might have once been red. I walked the length of the hallway without finding another staircase. Instead, the hallway turned sharply left. The first door on the right was slightly open. I pushed the door open, and walked into a dusty, but otherwise clean bedroom. Large bay windows looked down upon the driveway. I could see the front of the truck. Except I was too high up. Somehow, instead of climbing up one floor, I had climbed to the topmost level of the house.
When my phone rang, I nearly wet myself. “Yeah?” I said.
“I… zzz … own … here,” Jacob said. The connection was terrible.
“I can’t hear you. Move towards a window.”
“… all … go … me …”
I looked at my phone. “Call feature: Call Failed.” I’m not sure how that’s a feature. I sent him a text. “Meet at truck.”
I was hot, thirsty, and I really had to pee, so I was ready to kick down a door and climb out a window just to get to the truck. I left the bedroom, thinking to retrace my steps. After that, I’m not sure what happened. I’d always felt like I had a good sense of direction, especially inside a building, but the Kelling house was different. I know I went left out of the bedroom, then right down the long, empty hallway, and down the spiral staircase. But when I reached the bottom, the pile of rakes and garden shears shoved through decaying chests of drawers was missing. It seemed to be the same hallway, at first. I hurried down to the end of the hallway, towards what I had earlier thought must be the door to the basement. I hauled the door open, but instead, the room was stuffed nearly full of dolls. I backtracked again, opening doors. Another was piled high with books. A brief look revealed them all to be molded, water-swollen paperback romance novels. Not one had a breaker panel on the wall. Worse, the windows in each room had been boarded up, then painted. After the third room, I noticed the carpet pattern in the hallway, only sparsely visible beneath mouldering papers and dust, had changed from a red grid to green with yellow flowers. I checked my phone again: no signal, and no texts. I tried calling Jacob anyway, but of course the call didn’t go through.
I started walking back to find the spiral staircase. Preoccupied as I was, I nearly missed the door to the basement. It was made to look like the walls of the hallway in which I stood, with dark wood trim and covered in yellowing plaster lathe. As I walked past, I noticed something near the floor — a light? The door opened easily, to reveal a short set of wooden stairs, dimly lit by an ancient, naked incandescent bulb. The steps ended at another door. This door was not wood, but metal, and was much larger. A wheel was set in the center of the door. I turned the wheel, and pulled open the hatch. Hot air, hot enough to feel through the Tyvek of my suit, rushed past me. Brilliant white-blue light spilled around the edges of the doorway, blinding my gloom-accustomed eyes. I hissed involuntarily, shading my eyes from the harshness of the glare. After my eyes adjusted, I stepped through the doorway onto a white-painted metal landing. A long series of white metal steps descended from the platform. The walls, also white, were spotlessly clean, as were the floor and steps. My phone dinged, and vibrated. It claimed it had a bar’s worth of signal. Three missed calls, all from Jacob. Several texts.
“Where r u?” “Not funny” “I QUIT” “jk u at truck?”
I called Jacob. The call connected, but it went to voicemail. I texted him, “Found basement. Meet you at truck” and hit Send. In the dry stillness of the stairwell, I could have sworn I heard the text tone sound off in the distance. Floodlights glared overhead as I climbed down the steps to the sterile white basement floor. There was no dirt, no dust. Row upon row of steel shelves silently receded into the brightly lit, immaculate distance. The shelves gleamed under the lights, and on each shelf lay dozens of white cardboard boxes.
I picked a box near me. A small, elegantly hand-printed label was affixed to the front. “623,” I read aloud. The box was light, but something was inside. I removed the lid. Inside the box lay a woman’s dress, a pink fabric that was polyester, or maybe acrylic. Under it were a pair of buckled pink shoes, and a purse. “Maybe someone really likes to play dress-up,” I said to myself, as I replaced the box upon the shelf. Deep down, I didn’t believe it. Deep down, I needed to leave. Right then. But I didn’t.
I heard a ping, loud and echoing against the concrete and steel. Jacob’s phone, reminding him of my text. I looked around, but did not see him in the bright, cavernous room. I walked towards where I thought I had heard the sound, and picked up another box. “898”. Mens white dress slacks, pink shirt, white sport coat, loafers. Black Ray-Ban glasses. A wallet. I flipped open the wallet, but it was empty. In the corner of the box, I noticed a gold ring. A wedding band. Though the room was swelteringly hot, I was suddenly cold. I put the lid back on the box, and the box back on the shelf. The humming was louder here, more of a throb, so I continued my way down the corridor of shelves towards its source.
At a certain point, the shelves emptied of boxes, their steel racks gleaming in the floods. At the far corner of the room, taking up nearly the entire wall, crouched an enormous furnace. No, it was an oven. Its surface, vast and black iron, was studded with rivets. Across its dark face were five large doors, and in those doors were portholes, and in those portholes fire danced and played. Next to the oven was a cart. It was small, and steel, and very clean. On the cart was a single white box. Its label read “1248”. The box pinged, loudly. I opened its lid. Inside, it held a respirator, a Tyvek environment suit, and Jacob’s phone.
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