To call Karl Sheldrake easy on the eyes would be like declaring the Atlantic ocean as ‘kind of damp.' He had an impish grin that seemed to promise untold mischief, a blonde head of hair that on sunny days made it seem like he had a halo. He always had a little bit of stubble which I always wondered if it would tickle should he kiss me.
I say all of this in past tense because that is no longer the case. Karl’s blonde hair is beginning to turn grey; his stubble that he had once perfectly maintained to give him a rugged appearance is now growing out and makes him looked ragged and haggard. That boyish grin has been wiped from his face by an experience, which I am about to share with you.
A little background information first. Karl is a firefighter for the Dundalk Fire Department in Maryland. They had a rotating roster and at the end of every month he would end up working the twelve-hour shifts from midnight to noon on the weekend with a few other guys. It is a tradition of theirs that at the end of those shifts, they would swing by the bar and have a couple of drinks to wind down. As the bartender of the establishment, I would sometimes give them a pitcher of beer on the house to express my thanks.
I won’t lie, I had a crush on Karl. I would always swing by their table and chat with them when they were in. There was some light flirting and banter but nothing serious. In fact, throughout all of our conversations we’ve had over the months, we kept it light and casual. That is, until a few days ago.
It started like their usual ritual. They came in a little after noon on Sunday and had a few drinks. I came over and tried to strike up a conversation with Karl, but he was unusually reserved. They had a few pitchers between them and most headed out, except for Karl. He stayed behind and kept drinking; and drinking, and drinking. He ordered shot after shot. I eventually cut him off when I caught him with his head on the bar, trying to raise the shot glass to his mouth while keeping his head down.
It spiraled downwards from there. I had to take his keys from him as he tried to leave. By then it was about six o’clock and I was getting ready to leave when I saw him leaning up against the wheel of his car waiting to sober up enough to drive home. I decided I couldn’t leave him in that condition and offered to take him to my apartment to sleep it off.
Looking back, I would have never made that offer if I knew what was coming next or what he was about to tell me.
Let me be perfectly blunt here. I had no intention of taking advantage of Karl while he was shit-faced. I merely wanted to do him this favor and then when he sobered up, I would ask him to repay the favor by taking me out somewhere. Things didn’t go that way.
I had to stop twice on the ride home so he could throw up off the side of the road. Back at my place he broke down as I was cooking him something to eat so he wouldn’t feel completely like shit the next morning. I had never really seen a grown man cry before. My father got teary-eyed when I shipped off to college, but this was a whole other beast. He wept uncontrollably, sobs wracking his body. I turned off the stove and sat down next to him on the couch and held him as he cried. It took a few minutes for him to get control of himself.
I asked him what was wrong and once that question was spoken, his words spilled out of him like sick. I’ll try to write it as best as I can remember. He couldn’t stop, even though I asked him to; begged him to.
Karl Sheldrake’s Story
We had been called to a fire in an apartment complex. Apparently someone on a lower floor had left a hot plate on that had started this entire mess. The shoddy insulation that had been installed by the cheapskate landlord fed the fire. By the time we arrived, an entire wing of the three-story building had been consumed. The building had been quickly evacuated and now all that remained was to try and contain the fire while evacuating civilians.
We had three men operating the hose and radio and we sent a five-man crew into the building to assist in evacuation. I was part of the evacuation crew along with Guy, Stephen Bull, Sandich (Pete), and Jesse Graves. The building had all but been evacuated except for a few stragglers. We went from room to room in our fire-retardant gear with our particulate filters and made sure no one was trapped. We were in the process of clearing the first floor when we got the radio message.
Apparently one of the guys remembered getting a low priority call earlier in the night. He decided to leave it for the next crew, as he didn’t want to rouse us to deal with a report of a ‘strange smell,’ but he had remembered that this was the same address. He would have brushed it off as irrelevant had it not been how they described the smell. They said it smelled like ammonia.
One byproduct from the methamphetamine cooking process is anhydrous ammonia. It distinctly smells like piss (which contains ammonia) and is often misidentified as urine. Suffice it to say, the dangers of a meth lab going up in flames was enough to shift our focus and priorities. Stephen split the current group and sent Guy and me to investigate the source while they continued sweeping the lower floors.
We moved up the stairwell with smoke coming through our filters. They used activated charcoal as a particulate filter, but time and exposure had reduced their effectiveness. The chief, being miserly, decided to hold off until the masks were completely useless before petitioning for more funding. They still worked to some degree, but it wasn’t reassuring to smell the smoke and know that the fire could be licking at your feet any second.
I tried to calm myself by focusing on the beating of my heart. It was a trick that helped me keep a cool and level head. I would feel the steady beat of my heart and knew that even if my mind was harried, my body was not. Ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump. In a calmer state of mind, I caught up with Guy and we went up to the third floor.
The third floor doorknob wasn’t hot to the touch so it was safe to open. Guy and I moved through the hallways to where the report of the smell was. It became evident where the smell had come from. The stench of ammonia was overpowering and it was coming from room 311. We pounded on the door, but we got no response. Guy smiled; he was relatively new to the job and the prospect of axing a door sounded like a dream to him. I nodded and his grin grew so wide that I thought his face would crack.
Guy unfastened the axe from his back and lined up his strike. It took three hacks to make a hole wide enough for me to stick my hand through and unlock the door. The door swung open to reveal a small one-bedroom apartment. The smell of ammonia was overpowering. The once white carpet was stained a sickly straw-color. The furniture had chew marks on it and there were a series of bowls around the main room.
From the looks of it, this person had at least seven pets. As we stepped into the room, we became aware of two things. The first was the faint smell of rotten eggs mixed in with the smell of ammonia. Guy confirmed my suspicion.
“A gas leak?”
I nodded in agreement. There were no eggs in the fridge and the smell was too diffuse. Luckily we had shut off the gas upon arriving at the scene and the ventilation system had dispersed the gas throughout the building. There was little threat of ignition, but it wasn’t that smell that put me on edge. It was the other odor that set the hairs on the back of my neck on end. It was the smell of decay and it was coming from the bedroom.
We approached the door. I could tell that Guy was extremely nervous. He rubbed the back of his neck and he shifted his weight onto each foot, as if too nervous to stand still. He wasn’t sure what would be in that room. I knew, but that didn’t make it any easier. We would likely find a woman who had succumbed to gas inhalation and died.
The door swung open to reveal a darkened room. I could see a form on the bed, but I couldn’t make it out clearly. My hand rubbed along the wall, looking for a light switch. I found it and flicked it on. The single bulb flickered and for a second; I thought it would die in the socket, but it persevered and illuminated the room. I wish it hadn’t.
She must have died in her bed surrounded by all her animals. They were curled up with her, not for warmth, but companionship. Whether they stayed with her until their end, or only returned, as their end approached didn’t matter much. They were all dead and laid around or on her body. It would have been a heart-breaking scene if it weren’t so grotesque. We were silent as we took in the sickening scene.
Her stomach had become tumescent. The July heat had turned this apartment into a sweltering oven. The heat sped up the process of putrefaction. She had likely died a few days ago and had already entered the stage of active decay. There was no way to be certain, but she looked like she was middle aged. Decomposition had already taken its toll on their bodies. Their tissues had already begun to break down and liquefy. This gave them the sickly appearance of having been fused together.
Her pets had fared no better. In all, I counted ten animals on the bed, ranging from cats to small and larger breeds of dogs. The smallest being a Yorkshire Terrier and the largest a Great Dane. One Calico looked as if it had died mid-hiss and the dogs’ lips were drawn back in the rictus of a snarl as if opposing their cruel chimerical combination. The smell was atrocious, but luckily for us, her stomach hadn’t ruptured, which typically housed the worst of the decomposition smell.
Guy stood there, staring transfixed at the twisted tableau laid before us. I sympathized with him. I remembered my first 10-54. An obese man had suffered a heart attack in the bathroom. He died under the spray of the shower while bathing himself. He had been like that for a few days, body being hit with alternating hot and cold water, turning him into a viscous and putrescent soupy mess. Suffice it to say, investigating reports of dead bodies was the worst part of the job.
Guy overcame his disgust and he reached for the radio. As cold as it was to say, we could deal with removing the bodies later, right now we had a fire to worry about. Guy keyed the radio to report in when it happened, the mass on the bed shifted. At first I thought it was due to gas being displaced; giving the appearance of movement. That assumption was thrown out the window when one of her pale arms lifted up into the air.
Both of us stepped forward. I didn’t understand how the woman could have survived, but she apparently had. I asked if she was all right. (It was a stupid thing to ask looking back on it.) She gave no verbal response, but instead rolled onto her side. She fell off the bed and took the mass of dead flesh with her as tissue breakdown had fused it to her flesh. They landed in a tangled mess with a sickening squelching splat and the sound of her skeletal system snapping under the weight of all her pets.
I felt an innate pull to run up to this woman and help untangle her from the pile of putrescent pets, but something kept me back. I don’t know if it was revulsion or fear that I would hurt her in the process. All I know is that it was my hesitation that saved my life. What had once been a woman and her pets was no longer. They were something else entirely.
She began to drag herself towards us, burbling and bloated with decomposition. The slimy sheen reflected sickly off the single bulb that lit the room. I wanted to step away, but I couldn’t move. I was rendered paralyzed under her gaze. It wasn’t some effect of the thing. It was pure revulsion that froze me. My eyes were enslaved to the abhorrent abortion.
She continued pulling herself towards me; her pets were now writhing in the midst of the amalgamation. Dogs’ jaws snapped and a pink froth dribbled from their masticating maws. The cats clawed out into the air with rigor mortis-locked limbs as if trying to ensnare us and draw us in. The woman’s head lolled back and forth in this mass of rotting flesh.
It burbled, “Gah, gah, gah…” as if she was trying to formulate some long-forgotten sentiment.
Each creature on this modern day chimera moved independent of the woman and gave off the appearance of a twisted throng of death that had been galvanized by an electrical current. I could only stare mesmerized at this macabre mass as it slowly dragged itself towards me, leaving a trail of rot behind her. I willed my fingers to reach back and draw my axe, but they were like stone. I could only watch.
She was now feet away from me and I could smell the decay emanating from her. I wanted to scream, but this monstrosity robbed me of my voice. I wanted to run, but my legs were frozen. My hand slowly crept to the handle of my axe, afraid to startle whatever this thing was. I could hear my heart pounding in my head. One of the cats gave a low-pitched yowl as if warning me away. My fingertips scraped the hilt of the handle. Her bloated and gelatinous hand clawed into the fabric of my gear and I panicked.
I felt my heart skip a beat in my chest.
The thing’s contact with me broke Guy out of his daze. As she pulled me towards the amalgamation, he grabbed his axe and buried the blade into the woman’s head. Her head gave way like a rotten melon and split open, weeping sickly gray. The mass writhed independently, but as if it were communing with the wounded woman. It didn’t stop.
I jerked my leg free and watched in disgust as the skin on her hand sloughed off. I stepped away from the monstrous melded mound. The cruel chimera twisted and changed positions, ripping open its joined flesh. A viscous brown fluid spilled out of the wound and filled the air with a repugnant stench. Guy was closer to the thing and got a face-full of the smell of fermented feces and built-up decay. He threw up in his mask and was forced to loosen it or obscure his vision. He dry-heaved and retched as the thing began to move towards him, oblivious to its grievous wound.
Now it was my turn to help Guy. I grabbed the back of his gear and pulled him towards the door. He gagged and groaned as his body had a visceral response to the stench. I pulled him out of the bedroom and into the now smokey living room. I let him fall to his knees to purge his stomach. I slammed the door shut just as the cruel chimera reached the threshold. I pressed my weight against the door as the twisted throng began to claw at it with paws and broken fingers.
At this point, Guy had finished explosively voiding his stomach and was able to re-affix his mask. We grabbed the woman’s couch and pulled it in front of the door just as the wood began to splinter. It was at this moment, standing with only a few inches of wood between us and the most horrific thing I had ever witnessed, that we got the call. The civilians had been evacuated and the insulation proved to be too good a source for the fire. This was a lost cause; the building was being evacuated.
We left the apartment behind with the thing clawing at the door. I could hear her burbling, baying, and hissing as we left her apartment behind. The third floor was now filled with smoke and I could barely see where we were going. I was terrified that we would run into that monstrosity again. I tried to calm myself and focus on my heartbeat, but it was too irregular and fast-paced to calm me. Instead, it only made me more nervous.
We re-grouped with the others and spoke nothing of what we encountered on the third floor. I want to say it was because I knew it sounded crazy, but the real reason was fear. I was afraid they would want to go up and try to help her. They wouldn’t understand that she was beyond help.
Guy and I said nothing on the ride back to the station. The last I saw him; he was staring at the medallion of St. Florian he had around his neck. My friend fled that day. He didn’t say anything to anyone. He didn’t even return to the firehouse to get the gear that he left behind. He just left. He didn’t leave any message and to be honest, the thought of interacting with him and being forced to recall that experience made my stomach roil.
I haven’t told anyone this. I mean, who would believe me? At worst, they would assume that the woman had still been alive and in dire need of help when we trapped her inside the bedroom. If you could have seen that abomination, you would know how ridiculous a thought like that was. They were dead, but they weren’t. Their bodies had broken down and fused together. They each were autonomous, but had a common goal.
The goal was simple, basic. The woman must have been so lonely in her life. Eating by herself, with only the company of her pets. So withdrawn from the world that she thought she could only find acceptance in an animal’s affection. Carrying on a conversation with someone unable to respond, to reassure. I think that’s what she wanted from us; company, someone to be by her side, literally.
Karl Sheldrake did the only thing someone could do when reliving a traumatic experience; he withdrew into himself and sobbed inconsolably. I held him for a few moments before he passed out. I laid him down and went to bed myself. As outlandish as it seemed, the fact that he was so disturbed by the event made me believe him. The next morning was awkward, but he gave no indication that he recalled last night’s story. Maybe that was for the better. If he did, and he tried to talk to me, I would have had to tell him.
The week of that apartment fire, the bar had another group under its roof. The restoration services would clean up the fire damages in an attempt to keep the city looking beautiful. They were in a day after Sheldrake’s encounter. They also had a tradition. Every time they had to survey and clean up a building when there were no bodies recovered, they would come in and commemorate the victory with a couple of pitchers.
They were celebrating.
Written by EmpyrealInvective