76 Draper Street was an old triple decker built just about on top of Mount Ida, a few blocks from Fields Corner. The kind they built by the tens of thousands before the war when they needed a place to dump a half-million Irish in a hurry.
The first time I made a trip out there was two years ago, in the fall. Some time in late September we had the first really cold night of the year, and the tenants on the third floor turned on the heat for the first time. When that furnace fired up the smell that came through the vents was bad enough they cut the heat and threw all the windows open, freezing-fucking-cold weather notwithstanding. By the time I'd gotten there the wind had been blowing in off the top of the hill all night and the better part of a morning and it still reeked so bad it made me gag.
This sorta thing happened sometimes, the combustion chamber had a pilot light going all the time and inside was warm and dark and seemingly very safe, the perfect place for a cat to have her kittens or a raccoon to take a nap, if someone had left the door open. The pilot light gave off enough carbon monoxide to kill them inside of ten minutes though, and they'd putrefy in there. When someone fired up the burners the rotted meat and burning hair and all the maggots and shit and corpse juice fuming up at once was bad enough I'd seen some people move out the same day.
Either way, it was a pain in the ass but a relatively simple fix. Just scrape out whatever was left of the corpse, close the vents and crank it up to max until it stops smoking.
I gave the apartment a once-over, making sure it wasn’t a poisoned rat in the vents, then I left out the back, down three flights of old narrow stairs to the little plywood door that led to the cellar, small enough you had to stoop down and turn sideways a little to fit through.
It was dark enough past the threshold I couldn't see the fourth step down. I looked for a light switch. On the inside wall were three big, red heavy-duty emergency cutoffs for the three furnaces and nothing else. I'd just have to feel around down there.
The foundation was made of granite, little chunks of it mortared together and very uneven so you felt like you were walking on the side of a hill. Hard to keep your footing in the dark. I could just about make out the steps but past that I had to walk with my hands in front of me.
I couldn’t see anything for a while. Nothing but afterimages pulsing on my retinas. There was one in particular, the outline of a long, thin man, stooped over against the rafters, and it seemed to turn to face me as I shuffled through the cellar. It vanished after a minute when my eyes finally tuned in to the dark and I saw the black shapes of the furnaces. They were old, heavy cast-iron things in the shape of people with their backs turned, squatting over something precious in their hands.
The first two furnaces were spitting hot. You could just hear the roar of the fires inside. I edged past them and went on to the third one, all the way in the back. I felt around a bit for the door and was surprised to find it slammed shut. The handle was jammed in place too, I had to lean in and rip at it to get it unlatched, then I planted my feet and strained at the door while the thick rusted hinges squealed and it swung stiffly open. I put on a pair of heavy rubber gloves.
There was something there alright. I felt the stubbly bits of singed hair, skin that was stiff like cardboard, soft dead organs that were swelling up in its belly, and if I listened closely I could hear maggots, hundreds and thousands of tiny white worms wriggling through the eyes, the mouth, down the throat, in the ears, the crotch. I read once that flies laid eggs in all the openings first, so the larvae wouldn't have to eat through the skin. I pulled out a trash bag and tugged on a leg.
The smell came then. It hit me like a blackjack, all at once and full in the face. Old meat, shit, burning hair, the harsh ammonia stench of sour piss, liquefaction, oil fumes and rancid fat. I retched at it, turned my head away and started to scrape this thing into the bag. It was stuck to the burners in some parts, real thick sticky soot where the fat had burned, and I had to cut and rip at it with my electrician's pliers.
Once it was in I turned back to the stairs and started to drag this thing with me. It was a raccoon or something, a real big bastard too. I could've carried it on my back but the thought didn't appeal to me. The smell was just the kind of smell that would seep right through a trash bag, no matter how thick it was, ruin your clothes and make you stink like a cadaver for a week. There was no washing it off.
I got a real uneasy feeling coming back to the stairs. The kind you can only get walking with your back to a dark, confined space. I don't scare easy, but I'd gone six months in Helmand with a .50 cal on my back and I knew the feeling when something was watching you. The electric tingle across the nape of your neck, the absolute certainty that something can see you and you can’t see it.
The bag was heavy, didn't drag too easily, and I certainly didn't wanna tear it open, so I just picked it up a few inches and hobbled my way towards the stairs while I tried to blank out and ignore the feeling of eyes probing at me in the dark.
By the time I'd gotten to the first step my heart was throbbing and the tips of my fingers and toes had gone numb. The weather that day was cold and clear, wind like a razor, and I could hear it moaning through the cracks. As much as I told myself it was the wind though, I couldn't shake the feeling that something was breathing down my neck. Steady waves of warm, damp air.
I hauled the bag up one step, then took a step with it, hauled it to the next step, the next one, the next one. Halfway there, when I heard the bottom step creak behind me. I jumped so high I nearly cracked my skull on the ceiling, hauled the bag up with both hands and sprinted up the rest of the way. Just as I got to the top the bag caught a nail that ripped a long gash across the bottom and the raccoon spilled out down the stairs.
I was out of the cellar now, my heart pounding like a sledgehammer and sweat pouring down my face, but suddenly calm now that I wasn't down there anymore, and already feeling like an idiot, when I looked where I’d dumped the raccoon.
On the steps was a tiny shriveled rag doll-looking thing, naked and contorted and impossibly limp. A dead girl, with dry leathery skin of the most blinding whiteness and deep mottled purple where the blood had set, split open in places so it looked like an overcooked sausage. Her hair burned off to the scalp, and shriveled little eyes opened wide in dull horror stared up where I stood in the doorway. Sticky, black, syrupy blood had seeped out of her nose, her eyes, her mouth, her crotch, and a thick yellow pus oozed out of her. Below her, in the absolute darkness at the base of the stairs, the first step creaked. Then the second one.
Written by toadvine