Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.
A Horror Story by Tamara Wilhite
The only thing worse than cleaning out a dead relative’s house is cleaning out a dead hoarder’s house that is related to you.Removing each layer of debris is like peeling back a layer of memories, good and bad, while finding everything from broken toys to moldy clothes to dust and debris. The emotional drain is as bad as the draining physical effort, yet the emotions evoked by the act of cleaning threaten to infect you, paralyze you.
The dust in the house is everywhere, but when you can hardly find the floor for the junk, though that’s to be expected.
I found myself sitting in a closet, emptied just far enough to be suffocating, I’d cleared out a hollow that tried to approach the back wall. I hoped, just hoped, to get to the wall of clothing that was likely untouched but wrapped in protective plastic. I might actually get something from consignment or charity for that. I wanted something for all this work, instead of spending what might be left of my inheritance after selling the house on the cost to empty it and clean it. And hired people might junk everything, not knowing a valuable antique or family heirloom I actually cared about.
The vague paranoia that I had to at least review everything myself I could understand as the start of a hoarder’s instinct, but the hatred of the mess was what held it in check. Two parents, twice as much crap as what the lonely only old people on the Hoarders TV show would have. It was too much, almost.
It was in that mental state that the dust seemed omnipresent, floating in the room behind me as much as layered around the things before me. Vague patterns formed out of the corner of my eye, likely results of air currents that could make it from the clear ceiling around the debris. This house didn’t have dust bunnies, it had warrens of dust bunnies, and maybe a whole ecosystem.
As I cleaned, the dirt fell in clumps and trails. I took armfuls of debris to the dumpster I’d rented, measuring progress by the percentage it was filled up, though that was painfully slow. I breathed easier each time I stepped outside into the gray weather, the clouded sun still warmer and brighter than inside the house.
God, it was depressing. No wonder they’d died so isolated, despite family trying to move them into assisted care. They were embarrassed of the sight, and they were afraid to leave it neglected. No one wanted to live like that, but they couldn’t dare living without it all. The negative emotional energy alone would sap one’s life.
And after I was done with this, I would have my freedom to do what I wanted with my life.
The next days were a boring tedium, but I sensed I was making progress. I didn’t clear one room out to start on the next, but sought to make paths through it. Then, I had the time and leisure to search particular areas on a scavenger hunt for the valuables I hoped to find. Or space to let work men work, as I slowly started to realize.
I started a small pile of valuables by the door, a reminder to myself I would, indeed, one day leave.
The thick layer of gray dust on the floor seemed to grow thicker, thrown up as I walked before settling like thick sand on the floor.
I swore I’d get air filters in here before this stuff choked me.
My old bedroom was, finally stripped of everything except what was left of my childhood. That wasn’t much, just the bed, the desk, an encyclopedia set that predated Google, a PC that belonged in a museum, a drafting table. I was something of a minimalist, my way of rebelling against my parents’ excessive hoarding.
The room was gray and dreary, as if viewed through a depressed person’s lens. The shadows on the walls seemed heavy and almost 3D. I came close to sinking into a reverie of all that was lost before I heard the sound of the truck in the driveway. They’d come to take the latest load of the dumpster. I rushed out to watch. Every haul felt like a victory, and given how depressing this work was, I needed that.
I almost tripped over the four air filters on my way to the door, all huddled around the growing pile of valuables. As I stood unevenly on the concrete outside, the dirt seemed to linger in a haze around the air filters, pulling to and fro, fighting the pull.
My younger brother’s bedroom was cleared. There were more things left in his room; he’d cared to take less than me when he left. I wondered what he planned to do with anything left from the estate, but his only message to me was to mail the legal stuff he needed to sign as necessary and send him half the money when done.
He was afraid to come home, to be infected by the memories and pall and nightmares.
The bathroom was, finally, as clean as I’d always dreamed it would be. Someone would think that was crazy, unless they’d lived here.
I stepped into the hallway from scrubbing the tub, and heard movement down the hall. It was easy to think that some things were slipping and falling, as the supporting objects were carted away.
This wasn’t the sound of a falling stack of books or bundle of clothes falling off a shelf. It was something altogether different but unfamiliar. I turned in that direction, briefly afraid something might be falling on me, though I’d cleared the hall of almost everything but what was at the end.
The pile of crap at the end of the hall was there, but something indistinct was between me and it.
I briefly wondered if it was a ghost of a parent, but it didn’t move or act like that. I wondered separately if it was a result of all the cleaning chemicals in an enclosed space. I started to back away from it, instinctively wanting to run. But the memories of a house to cluttered that I’d twisted my ankles a dozen times kept me from doing so. I was alone here, and there was no one to help me, and my phone was in the car.
I turned to watch where I was going. When I made it to the back door, as sunlight streamed gray through the grime, I turned back. The thick motes of dust swirled like a miniature dust devil, undefined but independent.
I stepped into the sunlight and stripped off the dirty clothes, shaking the dust out of them, not caring if an elderly neighbor saw anything. The dust from my clothes floated on a breeze back into the house.
I sat down in the car, and out of habit from working in downtown, locked the doors for safety. I couldn’t do anything for a while, too unnerved by what had happened.
I had to finish, but had no idea how.
This was getting too depressing, and it was taking too long.
I stood at the door, staring at the shadows on the walls of the living room, where boxes still unopened stood. Part of it felt like a challenge, daring me to take the time and dig through it. Part of it felt like a torturous task, something that would take a lifetime to do.
The stack of valuables by the back door seemed to have grown. There was an incredible temptation to go back in, sort through it, organize it, decide what to keep and what to toss. The dumpster behind me was half full, I could do more today before the next load came.
I stepped inside, and the dust devil started up in a corner. Unsure of what to do, I grabbed a vertical electrostatic air filter that I’d bought and lifted it up. The dirt devil moved toward me. I stepped into the doorway, and it seemed to hover just past the light level. A human-like shadow formed, not the face of a dead family member but something else.
I took five paces outside the door, giving me a long space of sunlight between us. The air filter seemed to tremble as it ran. I put it down. Then I realized that I’d moved so far out that the thing was no longer plugged in. I knocked it over with my foot. The door to the air filter fell off. The filter fell out, and some of the gray grime fell out. It was picked up by a breeze and floated back into the house. As I watched, a cold wave hit me. The hairs on my neck rose up out of fear, but not the hair on my head, for there was no breeze to tousle that.
I sat back down in the car with the locked doors. I could think of what to do about werewolves, vampires and zombies. Ghosts were a weird thing, some just haunting familiar abodes, others possessing things. And there were so many things here, still, despite my efforts.
I went home and took a long hot shower, trying to wash away both the grime and the emotions.
I stood in front of the open door, unwilling to step in. I had my phone in my hand, ready to hit speed dial as necessary.
The dirt flowed in faint rivers now through the house, around the items I’d semi-unpacked, though not making the heirlooms I’d piled up. It splashed like waves up the windows before retreating before sunlight that seemed so much fainter here than out on the road.
Was it trying to protect them from being thrown away? Was it trying to get me to come in and take those things?
What if it wanted me in there to feed on my emotions, my very life force? The coroner’s report had blamed their deaths on a combination of COPD, heart attacks and old age. Could this have killed them, albeit slowly, literally suffocating them as it sucked out their life forces?
That wouldn’t fly with a coroner.
I needed help.
I called the second number in my speed dial, the trash haulers. I said I’d double the pay, if someone just came here right now. I needed help, and I needed it now.
The Mexican crew spoke different Spanish than my bad Castellan Spanish from high school. I asked them to go in, remove debris, throw a lot out, finish this.
After ten minutes, they came pouring out. The house was too dirty, maybe even smoky, for them to work. They could not work, they would not work, in these conditions – and I still had to pay them for coming out.
I paid them, and they left.
When the truck was down the driveway of the properly and pulled onto the asphalt road, the thick smog that had seemed to rise up like smoke settled down. It stopped streaming up like smoke and dissipating through the door. It settled instead in the form of a human shape, standing in the shadows a distance back from the window. Had the dust bunnies evolved into human form? Was a ghost feeding off the emotions this place evoked to take this form out of the detritus of their lives? Was the psychic energy of their mental illnesses turned into this form?
No one believes you without proof.
I tried to get a picture with my phone, but it all looked like shadows and pictures and my reflection on the window.
I wished I could get a neighbor to talk to me, to give me a second opinion. Of the three houses I tried, no one answered the door, though they’d all avoided us for years.
I went home, not sure what to do.
Strains of the song “Sunny Came Home” floated through my mind. The house burned merrily, as I released it all and let it go. The ashes of the house rose up with the smoke, but I took care with a gas mask not to inhale it, kept my distance in the car at the end of the driveway. Forms were made and fell apart in the smoke. To my surprise, no one called the fire department as the house burned. Some of the brass and sculptures and odd items stood out in the remains as the building burned down, tempting me, mocking me. I didn’t take it. I wanted to be free, and that was worth more than anything.
I paid to get the car thoroughly washed just in case the dust had infected it. I even paid to get the car detailed and ran my clothes through a laundry mat. I threw out my dirty shoes and bought a new pair at the dollar store next door, despite the weird looks. They had no idea, and I wasn’t going to talk about it.
I had no idea what to tell the insurance adjuster or estate attorney or any other officials. I tried to tell my brother and only ended up telling him what I did. He simply said, "I understand."
William Thomas from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things! on July 21, 2015:
Hi Tamara Wilhite!
This is a fascinating character study piece. Interestingly, it was the character of the young woman's dead parents (hoarders both) that was revealed, or at least hinted at through the humanization of the house itself and the smoke.
It seems that the smoke was both predictive and eventually actual. That is to say, I thought the smoke acted as a kind of hallucination for the young woman. Then it happened as she torched the house.
Does that mean that the previous vision of smoke was in the way of a wish, a subconscious wish?
Anyway, good job! Voted 'up' and 'interesting.'
Take it easy!