Rena Jacobs had been offered the job via email, which wasn’t unusual.
People were often embarrassed to be associated with a hoarder house, even if they weren’t the hoarder responsible, and they liked to put as much distance between them and the house in question as possible.
Rena understood the impulse. Cleaning other people’s houses wasn’t exactly the career she’d envisioned for herself. But an art history degree doesn’t go very far in a small town, and when the owner of the gallery where she worked had died, she’d found herself with few prospects. After maxing out her credit cards, and discovering that any job she was qualified for was already being done by unpaid interns from the local university, she’d narrowed her options to medical transcription or becoming a career barrista.
And then one day as she was channel surfing, she came upon a reality show about hoarders. It was perversely fascinating and Rena found herself sucked in. At the end of the episode, a team of specialty cleaners had been brought in to bring order out of chaos. There’d been a phone number to call for people who needed “help with a “situation,” and when Rena had called, she’d found herself on the phone with John T. Macallan, who was more than happy to talk to her about franchise opportunities with KLEEN LIVING.
There were two different divisions to Kleen Living, one serviced the hoarder market, the other providing crime scene cleanup, which sounded interesting but not practical since the town she lived in averaged one murder a year.
So hoarder cleanup it was.
Rena found a Hazmat suit on Amazon.com for $1700.
She didn’t have that kind of money so she sold her car for $300 more than its Bluebook value and used the extra to buy the supplies she needed to sterilize and deodorize, and otherwise make the spaces habitable again.
She made a deal with her cousin Dan to use his pick-up truck to get herself and her equipment to her gigs and paid him a percentage of her earnings until she could buy a truck of her own.
Which was three months later. She was so busy that she took on help. Her helpers never stayed very long. Most of them got depressed by the mess in the houses-- their stratified layers of garbage, and bodies of dead cats, and piles of human crap, both literal and figurative.
It didn’t bother Rena that much. She’d never been a clean freak, the money was damn good and she could make her own hours and work alone if she wanted to. Most jobs were straightforward. Like the most recent one she’d been offered. The occupant of a rented house had disappeared and left behind a place so choked with filth it uninhabitable. Rena normally had her nephew video her jobs so the property owners had a record of what was in the house and an accurate inventory of the contents.
For this job the client had made it clear that photo documentation, sorting of contents, and recovery of valuables and sentimental items would not be necessary. Get rid of it all, the message had said. We want to rent it out by the first of the month.
The house was in a neighborhood filled with unoccupied houses. Rena knew that squatters were a problem there, and a house that was empty too long was a powerful temptation. She figured it would be a quick in and out and directed the client to the payment button on her website since she asked for a 50 percent down payment from all new clients.
She was paid by PayPal within the hour.
Two days later, Rena pulled up in front of what must have been a splendid example of a NW Modern home back when it was built. Somebody had been keeping the lawn mowed, but it was overgrown with the plants she always called “mutant dandelions,” plate-sized things with thorny leaves. There was a note on the door: Had to deal with a family emergency. Go on in. Close the door behind you when you leave.
Rena sighed and pushed the door open, putting her shoulder into it to move the wall of stuff that was pressing against it from the other side.
She took one step inside of the house and gagged despite the respirator she was wearing. She’d once been in a house where a woman had turned her living room into a giant litter box for her 17 cats. This smelled worse.
She’d once worked in a house where the electricity had been turned off and 30 pounds of deer meat had been left to rot in the refrigerator.
This smelled worse.
She’d once cleaned a place where every available sink, basin, toilet bowl, and tub had been filled with water and left to percolate into something swamp-like and primordial.
This smelled much, much worse, and the smell reminded Rena of something she’d smelled in the past, but she couldn’t put her finger on what.
She’d been in the house an hour when she found the previous occupant, or what was left of her—bloody bones and torn shreds of clothing.
She managed not to vomit, but the very real possibility that there was a rat’s nest somewhere in the near vicinity freaked her out.
And then she heard a noise that sounded a lot too big to be a rat.
She looked around for something she could use as a weapon and realized the only thing in reach was a decomposing box filled with a lifetime supply of Reader’s Digest magazines. Do they even publish that anymore, she wondered and then all rational thought was driven from her mind as what she had thought was a pile of rags and dog hair moved.
And then stood up. And then walked toward her with its mouth wide open.
Her last living thought was, this isn’t a hoarder house, it’s a mouse trap.