01 Feb I Clean Crime Scenes and Hoarder Houses for a Living Part 1
I’m a Hazmat cleaner in a very specific niche. Basically, I clean hoarder houses, as well as family homes after traumatic deaths. It’s a necessary job. First, imagine the worst thing that could possibly happen to you. Like being a parent whose teenager just shot herself, or the survivor of a murder-suicide. Then imagine going home after the reports are filed and the detectives are done, and having to scrub your loved one’s dried brains off the walls.
That’s where I come in.
It’s surprisingly easy to acclimate to corpses and gore. Depending on the situation, bloodstains can be hard to deal with, only because they’re always in context: the spatter on the children’s Spongebob quilt, the smears across the cheerfully rustic kitchen, the violent spray over family portraits. The stark evidence of violence over the normal trappings of a family home can be disturbing. But even that gets easier over time.
The hardest part is the smell. Sweet and almost gooey, with undertones of vomit and fetid swamp, sweat and unwashed skin. The stench strengthens and weakens seemingly on a whim. Sometimes I swear it moves, drifting across a room or directly overhead, or lunging forward to swallow me.
But the rest really doesn’t bug me anymore. Even mattresses dripping with decomposition juice get unremarkable after a while.
Now a couple days ago, I was assigned to a suicide house. The victim was a middle-aged lady with hoarding issues. She lived alone. Her much-older brother lived in a nursing home. She called him like clockwork once a week. Suddenly, she stopped calling. Four weeks passed, and he was frantic. He has dementia and other issues. His sister was his only family, the only one other than the parish priest who ever came to visit, so he felt her absence keenly.
By the time his caretakers finally called in a welfare check, his sister had been dead for at least three weeks.
It was pretty ghastly, as advanced decomposition tends to be. The one good thing I can say is at least it’s been a cold spring out here. Low temperatures alleviate the stench somewhat.
The house is a neat, narrow little two-story with a slightly overgrown yard and a tiny grove of apple trees out back. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Inside was another story.
It’s hard to describe bad hoarder situations. Entire rooms are overwhelmed with literal mountains of trash. Clothes and stuffed animals, books and papers, cheap gas station figurines, cat litter, dead animals, old electronics…the list is endless, and somehow it all looks the same. Just a morass of garbage and forgotten belongings steadily claiming the house from its human occupant.
This lady was no different. Treacherous slopes made from old newspapers and books filled every corner. Christmas trees, stuffed animals, dishes, garbage, pillows, and so much more filled out the rest, claustrophobic, filthy, and foul-smelling.
As cleaners, we typically just throw everything away. The filth and biohazard issues make donation impossible. If we find something valuable – jewelry, antiques, and so on – we set it aside for the estate. For the most part, though, these belongings are worth less than the trash bags we put them in.
Again – this lady was no different.
It took two days to clear a path to the back of the house and three days to actually empty out the rooms. It took a full day to clear the stairs, which, for some reason, were literally coated with dried vegetation and what looked like a metric ton of table salt. According to real estate information (which we always dredge up before entering a home), the second level had two bedrooms and an office.
This is where things suddenly got weird.
The bedrooms were immaculately clean, which was impossible; the entire stairwell had been packed floor to ceiling with garbage. There was no way this lady would have been able to clean up here. Even if she’d been climbing through a window every day, the entire situation defied hoarder behavior.
Ignoring a sudden case of the creeps, I inspected each bedroom. While thoroughly permeated with the stench of the lady’s recently removed corpse, they were utterly spotless. The paint on the walls even glistened.
The office was more like it: stuffed from floor to ceiling with dead plants, specimen cases, and paintings. About a dozen taxidermy animals sat in a neat row, facing the wall. It wasn’t as filthy as the downstairs by any means, but it was much more in line with my expectations.
Due to the smell, most of the stuff – cool as it was – couldn’t be salvaged. There’s just no reliable way to get three weeks of steadily worsening corpse stench out of household belongings. Even so, I took a good look at most of it. I’m an amateur zoologist. Thought I was going to be Steve Irwin when I grew up, majored in biology and everything.
So this is where it all gets awfully strange.
First, the specimen cases. These are the small glass displays, usually around 12×12, that people use to pin dead bugs and blossoms. You know, like butterflies and beetles?
Now, these things were definitely bugs, but they weren’t normal. For example, one was a coppery caterpillar with a flat, almost humanoid face. Pinkish skin, wrinkles, eyelids sinking down into empty sockets and everything. Another was this arachnid thing with a bluish, crablike body and a single desiccated eye peering up from the thorax. Yet another looked underdeveloped, almost fetal. It had wrinkled sage-colored flesh and long ears that reminded me of a basset hound.
At this point, I was pretty sure I’d stumbled on some eccentric lady’s collection of gag gifts.
The taxidermy animals made the joke theory a lot harder to believe. The first one I saw was this tiny, sloe-eyed thing with beautiful features corrupted by unnatural proportions. The second was basically a giant, lacquered anemone with what must have been a thousand rot-rimmed holes boring through the tentacles. The worst looked like a person, with a frozen, open-mouthed smile that spread to its ears and five glassy eyes arching over the upper lip.
By this point, I felt paranoid, even frightened. This wasn’t right. None of this was right. A typical hoarder house on the first floor blocked off from a pristine, empty second floor? And what were these things? Sophisticated fakes? Somebody’s forgotten art installation?
But how did these things get up here? And how were they all so clean?
Because I was no longer sure if these items qualified as garbage, I carefully sorted and stacked everything. Then I got started on the walls.
Paintings cluttered every inch, literally fitting together like puzzle pieces. Most were more or less unremarkable, if cool-looking – lots of surreal landscapes and stylized creatures, which are catnip to my fantasy-loving self – but one painting in particular trapped my attention and wouldn’t let it go.
About seven feet tall and maybe three feet wide, it dominated the room. Rendered in a hundred shades of green and black and grey, it depicted a misty, primeval forest drenched in moonlight. Luminescent flowers sprouted along upraised tangles of tree roots. A tall, forbidding figure peered through the trees, half-cloaked in soft darkness. No features, but the suggestion of strength was clear in its broad shoulders and long, sinewy limbs. A curtain of hair reflected the moonlight. I couldn’t discern the color; the shadows were too deep, the lines and hues of the figure too indistinct to even begin to guess.
After a few minutes, I realized all the hair on my arms was standing on end. With a huge, cathartic shudder, I spun around and pretended to survey the room. Or rather, pretended I wasn’t afraid.
As I stood there trying to mentally reset, a draft swept the room. Wet, cool, almost inviting, and – after the endless odor of human rot – beautifully sweet.
Trying to remember when I’d opened the window, I turned.
For a long, mesmerizing minute, I couldn’t understand what I was seeing.
That enormous painting had come to life.
Tendrils of strange leaves swayed in that chilly, fresh wind. The glowing flowers bobbed, flattening slightly against the roots as the wind buffeted them. Somewhere deep in that unearthly landscape, a high, atonal song sounded. Wordless and open-throated, I imagined it echoing off icy peaks and down below in low, swampy valleys. It made me think of forests and mountains, wild rivers and endless plains. The only thing I couldn’t picture was the creature singing the song.
The figure stood silently. Only its hair moved, rippling in the wind like a banner.
Then it took a long, sure-footed step forward. Moonlight glanced off its face, illuminating an impossible sharp cheekbone and a dark, cavernous eye.
I tripped down the stairs, falling flat on my face at the landing, then scrabbled up and ran out of the house. I don’t even think I locked the door.
I know I shouldn’t go back. I don’t know what that thing in the painting is is. Honestly I’m not even convinced it’s real.
But the thing is, I want to go back. Not because I’m fearless – far, far from it – but because I want to know more. I’m not the only one, am I? I mean, how do you look at this stuff and not ask what, why, or how? How do you not want to cross the threshold into that painting and see what’s there?
I don’t know. Part of me definitely wants to call in sick for the next month. But part of me wants to go back. Maybe even tonight. Like I said, I don’t think I locked the door. I won’t necessarily go upstairs or anything. I’d just be making sure the place is secure.
Before I go – if I go at all – has anyone encountered something like this? Do any of those taxidermy creatures ring a bell? I know it’s a shot in the dark, but if you have any ideas, I’d like to hear them.