01 Feb MILK
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with milk.
We all had that phase, right? Where there was a food or drink we just couldn’t get enough of and wanted it morning, noon and night. That was me with milk. I could drink it by the gallon. My parents didn’t mind, they would rather I wanted something healthy like that to quench my thirst than be constantly after soda or one of those concentrate drinks full of sugar that you had to add water to.
I could make myself sick sometimes, drinking too much, too fast. But didn’t every kid? Hell, even adults can have too much of a good thing and make themselves ill for it. It was never enough to put me off though, no amount of aching bellies could separate me from my beloved milk. Nothing could.
Or so I thought.
See, our kitchen was pretty small or at least it was too small to fit in the gigantic fridge (and freezer) my parents had. So it was kept in the basement instead.
One summer when I was around sixteen, my parents decided I was old enough to stay at home alone whilst they took off on a second honeymoon or something. I didn’t mind, at that age I would rather have stayed at home with my friends than been a third wheel to my parents as they tried to rekindle the romance. Besides, if I needed another my grandparents lived right across the street. Yeah, my family was the kind who didn’t stray far from their roots.
It was uneventful as you might expect: I had friends over and we played video games, pigged out on takeout and that was about it beyond my taking care of the house duties.
Until the third week.
The house was old so creaks and groans and other ‘unexplained’ noises were something I was used to and easily brushed aside. This one night, however, I had just come back up from the basement – the door to which lay in our kitchen – with a glass of milk, ready to crawl up the stairs and settle into bed for the night when an unusual banging came from the room I’d just left.
I tried to brush it off as just the ancient stairs airing their complaints after I’d trampled up them, but there was something so off about it. In my sixteen years of living in that house I’d never heard anything like it. I figured it might’ve been a wild animal, maybe a raccoon or opossum that had somehow got in during the day. Being a typical teen, that was not something I wanted to deal with late at night, so I simply locked the basement door to prevent it getting up into the main house and went to bed.
Morning came and I tentatively went down into the basement to check for any signs of a wild animal, and beyond the few cobwebs to be expected even in a furnished basement like our own, there was nothing, so I decided it really had just been one of the many noises of our old house, got my usual glass of milk and headed back up the stairs.
That night, the noise returned. This time I was sure it wasn’t simply random creaking, because it started up at the exact same time right before I headed up to my room for the night. The only difference was I hadn’t been down to the basement yet so it definitely was not the result of me stepping on some well-worn floorboards.
Being the not particularly brave teen I was, I bolted out of the house and across to my grandparents. Fortunately they were still awake and my grandfather was a bull of a man not to be messed with. He marched over with his shotgun to investigate, only to come back a half hour later claiming he couldn’t find anything or anyone. He reasoned, like me, that it was maybe a raccoon and was hiding in a nook or cranny somewhere down there, and had locked the place up to stop it getting out much as I had done the previous night.
I stayed at my grandparents from that point on, going back into the house during the day to take care of any chores and play on my Nintendo for a couple of hours. I didn’t go back down into the basement, opting to eat and drink at my grandparents’ home too.
About a week before my parents got back there was a summer storm that caused a power outage. It lasted a couple of days but gave me all the more reason to spend the remaining time my parents were away at my grandparents.
When I returned one morning to open up the curtains I noticed a foul smell spreading throughout the house. Knowing the power had been out I assumed the heavy, pungent odour was coming from the food in the fridge and freezer that had begun to go bad. The thought of dealing with it was unpleasant but it wasn’t something I wanted my parents to come home to. I didn’t want to deal with the cleanup and my grandparents would be out of town for the night visiting my great-uncle and I didn’t much fancy having to clear out rotting food alone.
So I did what any bone-idle teenager would do and left it. Sprayed some air freshener and dealt with it for the day, choosing to eat dry cereal and drink water rather than going down to the basement and be overwhelmed by the stretch seeping out of it.
That night was particularly hot – even for summer – and so I ended up turning the AC on. The cool air spreading through the house was a relief as I went to sleep, but it was soon a decision I was regretting.
I woke up at around four in the morning to find the air of the house thick and muggy, it was worse than when I had gone to bed. Worse still, was the stench so strong I could taste it in my mouth. It was sweet and sour all at the same time, mixed with the sulphuric smell of rotting eggs and something my adolescent brain could only describe as someone having missed the toilet.
I thought about a time when I was younger, when my dad had accidentally unplugged the fridge and none of us had noticed until the milk had gone off. I could remember that smell as I gagged and hurried into the upstairs bathroom, kneeling before the toilet as my stomach threatened to empty itself. It was sweet and bitter like this smell, with something acidic I’ve never known how to explain, and I could remember the thick, chunky sludge the milk had become, none of this helped me as the scent that filled the house seemed to flood into every pore of my body. I could smell it on my clothes, it was so strong my eyes watered and with one final, heavy flip, my stomach heaved and I vomited.
How could the smell have gotten so bad in just a few hours?
It was only when I was cleaning myself up at the sink that I noticed the air vents weren’t pushing out any soothing, cool air. Knowing that I obviously hadn’t turned it off as I had been sleeping, I assumed the system was still messed up after the power outage. I couldn’t stay in that house with that heat and that smell and so, dressed only in my underwear, I hurried over to my grandparents and, once again, spent the night there.
When they arrived in the morning I explained the situation to them. Neither were pleased I hadn’t taken care of the rotting food the day before, but agreed to help before it could get any worse.
‘Worse’ would be an understatement for the odour that smacked us in the face. My grandmother couldn’t even make it into the house, she was an ashen white and bent over the table on the porch, gagging. Even my grandfather lost his hardened composure upon setting foot into the house, having brought a tissue out of his pocket to cover his nose and mouth.
“Stay here,” he told me, a clear command even if his words had been a little muffled. I, of course, didn’t listen to him – because it made no sense to me for him to make me stay out and have him clean up all the mess – and once I heard the basement door open I cut through the house to the kitchen.
I can only describe walking into that kitchen as having your face millimetres from an oven door when it’s opened and the wave of heat knocks you off your feet. It was that, but only the smell. I could hear my grandfather retching and coughing as he descended the stairs, and I myself was soon doing the same as I made my way to the basement door with tears forming in my eyes.
Now my grandfather was a hard man, but I had never heard him swear until that moment. And it was as if he was making up for a lifetime of never saying a bad word with the string of curses leaving him. This urged me on through the heated murk of stench that made traversing the stairs a grinding task.
I wish I had listened to my grandfather when he told me to stay with my grandma.
He tried to urge me back up before I saw anything but it was much too late for that.
The noises I’d heard from the basement weren’t from the house settling, nor were they from an animal.
They were from a human.
A human now rotting in the summer heat and half-hanging out of an air vent. Now I knew why they’d stopped working, and how the smell had permeated the whole house so quickly. It also explained why neither me or my grandfather had found anything upon investigating the basement- they’d been in the vents. The fact a person had somehow gotten into my home was chilling enough, to see them as the first dead body in my life was worse. Death is a part of nature, but a disgusting part when the usual human ways of dealing with it aren’t in practice.
A body rots quickly in heat, and their corpse was hanging in such a way I’m sure that if it had been left another day or two the body would’ve snapped in half. Fluids leaked down the walls: congealed blood, dirty brown liquid I didn’t want to think about, and the worst of it- something thick, white and pus-like that reminded me of that sour milk.
The smell of death clings to everything, and even after the body was removed, all furniture from down there tossed out and the basement professionally fumigated, it still lingered. I threw out the clothes I’d been wearing that day, no matter how many times they were washed it was still there. I couldn’t go down to the basement, it still hit me like a truck each time I so much as passed the door. Even my parents who were fortunate enough to still be gone during the worst of it couldn’t deal with it. They moved to the street over and from what my grandparents have told us, whenever someone new moves in they always complain about the smell.
We never did figure out how they got in, the police believed there must have been some open window I missed one day and I’m inclined to agree. They were homeless, looking for food and shelter, something I can’t hold against them. I almost feel guilty in a way. The noises they made sneaking around the basement at night drove me away to my grandparents. Maybe if I’d stayed I would’ve heard them call or help – if they had called for it at all – when they’d got stuck in the vent. Maybe they’d still be alive. I don’t know.
What I do know is from that day on, I couldn’t drink milk. The smell of even fresh milk would bring the reek of death back to me, like it had just been trapped and waiting somewhere at the back of my nose. The sight of it reminded me of those fluids seeping down our basement walls.
When I was a kid I loved milk, now I hate it.