The Forgotten

December 4, 2016 at 12:00 AM

When hiking alone in my twenty-fifth year in the southwestern barrens of the Newfoundland interior highlands, I found myself lost for three days in which events took place that disturbed me in ways I thought not possible. In those seventy-two hours I wandered aimlessly but not without purpose into what I can only describe as some sort of grand hallucination or a waking fever dream, and the thought of those days in that lost wilderness brings me to tears now as I type these long-repressed words which have plagued me for a lifetime. Forgive my ramblings and my endlessly meandering mind and my thoughts which run too long and too wildly and remember, please, that those same unending images plague me in a way that you could never begin to imagine. Forgive me, reader, as I try to describe the agony that I endured in those days and throughout the sleepless nights since those steps I took into a world best left undisturbed.

A long weekend on holiday from the teaching college seemed to me the perfect opportunity to rediscover places I had visited in my youth with an uncle – my mother’s brother – who had trapped foxes and beavers and mink and the elusive arctic hares which used to run like lightning through those lands. He had taken me on camping trips into the barrens where we walked and talked and fished for trout in cold little pools and sat around small fires brewing tea in apple juice cans. He would tell me stories of his people, the Mi’kmaq, and of how they would hunt the herds of woodland caribou that ran thick as sheep through the unending country in the days before the white man and the moose and the coyote came. He would tell me of the Beothuk, who are now all dead and gone to the last, and whose paths his elders had once shown to him. The same paths they used to tread on their annual migrations from the country to the shores of the sea and beyond. And he told me, if my memory is worth trusting after all these years, of the people that had lived there even before those native folk, whose language and paths and territories and legends and gods were witnessed only by the dead ancestors of our dead ancestors, and of whom there was no living memory other than the rumor that they had once lived in that land. He shared with me the subtle and minimalistic clues of their heritage that he had gathered from his elders, but much of it was unknown to him even in those days because he had been forced into learning by missionaries under the name of the Catholic church at a young age and they had schooled him in English and forbade the uttering of his mother tongue.

From what I was able to gather from him before he passed away in his forties is not enough to fully describe the culture of those people. None of their language or customs were known to him, and of their origins he would simply state that they were of that place – not that they had originated there, but that they had always been there. He did not know what had happened to them, and nor did anyone that he had ever spoken to. It seems to me now that the truest explanation of those people is that they once were there, but now they are not, and any pondering as to why this is the case is so far removed from the time of those folk that it becomes an irrelevant question. Of their territory he was very specific, and from this I gather that they were not a people of great number – possibly existing in one large community or tribe due to a reliance on a localized resource which was in great supply in the region, or perhaps it was the locale of their last stand against some greater outside threat that was beyond their understanding or comprehension and against which they resisted desperately until the speakers of legends forgot that they had ever occupied a place that was not this one. According to my uncle, it was within the barrens that they lived, and it is this area which remains in its state of undeveloped wilderness as I write this sentence.

It was because of this mystery that I was drawn to that region as a child, and I would daydream endlessly about hiking across the expanse in search of some evidence of those people – perhaps the remains of a settlement or burial site. I wanted desperately to know what had happened to them, who they were, and what their relationship with the land was. However, my uncle would always follow the same few paths on our hikes into that country, and if I were ever to implore about some far off location beyond the regular areas explored he would sternly redirect my attention to the current path and express a sometimes extreme anger towards my tendency to stray. Despite his urging and constant arguments about the dangers of being lost in the barrens, my eyes and my thoughts always wandered toward the horizon and the turns not taken.

Finally, this inherent curiosity led me to set foot again into that vast and lonesome place, taking with me a small pack of provisions and a tent to set up in case of rain. It was my plan to set course from the stretch of highway near the Middle Ridge Wilderness Reserve near Bay d’Espoir and trek due west – I would end my hike on the highway near the Annieopsquotch Mountains and hitch a ride to the nearest bus terminal. I set out on the eleventh of October at dawn with the sun at my back and the retreating night ahead of me and grinning to myself as each step brought me farther and farther down the inevitable route that would lead to the rest of my life.

That first day was difficult, as it took time for my body to adjust to the task at hand. Two years of studying at a desk were not the best preparation for my chosen route – which would take at least four days to traverse – but I forced myself onward, draining my water canteen every few hours. At last, I had reached the point of no return, where the last visible signs of human civilization would dip below the horizon. I stopped there and filled my canteen at a small stream, and looked around at the vast and deeply blue sky and felt for the first time in years a sense of just how small I was within this wide and ancient land. I turned for a last look toward the highway in the east, then continued to walk. In the middle of the afternoon I crossed through the remains of a forest that had burned long ago, where bleach-white bones of limbless tree husks stood in stark contrast against the rusty berry bushes that covered the high ground in that time of year. Later, I stumbled on the remains of a campsite – the occupants of which had left dozens of shattered beer bottles strewn across the ground in a wide arc around their fire, as though they had been betting who could throw the farthest. That night I slept beneath the stars in a dry hollow between dwarf fir trees and watched the stars flickering overhead in the inky blackness. I had never felt so alive.

The second day I woke with a start as the little stunted trees around me shook with a thundering of footsteps and I stood up to find my camp surrounded by a small herd of migrating caribou. There were about fifty, and they moved steadily eastward, chewing at the ground and puffing steam from their long muzzles and they had soon passed me by heading into the sunrise. That day I walked slowly, because of the muscles cramping in my legs, but in a few hours I had found my pace again and moved steadily westward into that place, opposite to the journey of the caribou. The land began to change as I carried on, with the springy semi-tundra hardening into a dry and unforgiving soil that resisted any pressure, and if I closed my eyes I could almost convince myself I was walking on asphalt. By noon I came to the edge of a wide valley, carved by glaciers and millennia of erosion into a sloping bowl that stretched nearly to the horizon on the other side. There was a river flowing through it, and I decided that I would rest there. It took until late afternoon for me to come to the river and when I did I was more tired than I could ever remember being. My feet were blistered, my shoulders aching from my pack, and the smell of sweat in my clothes was so strong that I stripped naked and wrung them out in the cold, clear water.

I began to think, then, that my trip was not as well planned as I had thought. I had only just enough food for three days – although I was sure I had packed more – and I hadn’t brought a change of clothes because I thought it would save space. My mood turned sour and I stared angrily at the valley wall before me and made the hasty choice to climb it before setting camp. It would be dark by seven, but I didn’t care – I was so fed up with myself that I just wanted to get the hike over with as fast as possible. I didn’t dare turn back, because if my friends at the college got word that I’d forfeited my great adventure they would never let me hear it out, and despite my bad temper and my sudden impatience, I still longed to see the expanse in it’s entirety. I marched up the hillside, faster than was wise, through the thinning trees and over rocks and under arm-like, scooping branches and around another, larger herd of caribou that flowed toward the river in a flood of fur and antlers. The hours flew by and still I climbed on in my stupidity and it was well after sunset when I stumbled blindly onto the crest of a small hill at the valleys edge and set camp for the night. I ate ravenously and laughed at my own stubbornness and lay in my sleeping roll watching the flames before quickly falling into and deep and exhausted sleep.

I woke in the night to my little fire dying into feeble smoldering coals and struggled out of my sleeping roll, fighting to keep from shuddering in the unbelievably cold air. The temperature had dropped unexpectedly and frost was gathering in the tips of the surrounding vegetation, glowing in the soft blue light cast down by the moon which was waning but as of yet bright enough to illuminate my campsite. My hands were numb, and after struggling to get the fire going again I gave up and fumbled in my pack for the tent. In the minutes it took to set it up, I found myself jumping at small sounds and turning quickly to look over my shoulder. The silence of that hill in the night was staggering, and each movement I made to adjust the tent straps or stamp down a peg or throw my belongings inside it brought an unbearable sensation down upon me, as though I would give myself away – but to whom? At last, I had erected the tiny shelter and pulled myself inside it, head first, and wrapped myself in my sleeping roll to settle once again into a peaceful sleep. It was at this point I realized I had forgotten to tie the tent flap shut. Being as tired as I was, I decided that a small draft would be tolerable, and I tucked myself in doubly against the cold with only my head protruding. I lay there for a while, listening to the sounds of the barrens outside, of the persistent fall breeze rustling against the canvas, of the last few coals sputtering out in the cold, of the movement of caribou in the valley below grunting in the dark.

And the night drew on and I lay there, breathing quietly and watching my breath turn into a moist fog that hung in the tent like the smoke of a doused candle. I listened with increasing intensity to the minute sounds of the world outside, which seemed to be growing more and more sparse as the moments passed. The winds became gentler and less chaotic and after a time they ceased completely and the air hung heavily over the world. In that stillness and absolute silence came the suspicion that there was something moving nearby, outside my little canvas tent. I did not see a shadow cast by the moon against the thin and tightly bound fabric, nor did I hear a noise that would give away the approach of an entity into my small camp. I felt – in that void of sound and light which surrounded me entirely – a change in the air of which I cannot accurately explain.

The very night itself seemed to be drawing in on me, pressing itself into my skin and brushing obscenely against the space near the back of my neck and shoulders, as if to suggest the presence of some invisible form that had wandered unwelcomed into that place and passed through it without noticing my huddled form laying crumpled in fear across its path. I held myself still, reducing my breaths to shallow murmurs, and fought against the hollow pain raising in my stomach, and when the sound of my own low gasps for air became unbearably distracting, I took in a lungful and held it, waiting against hope as cold, stinging sweat oozed into my eyes. I used the last of my faltering willpower to resist the urge to blink, and focused the entirety of my attention on the narrow window left by the unfastened flap of canvas hanging above my feet. I waited.

In all of that vast and empty nothingness out there, I could plainly see some pale thing run past the open end of my tent.

I gasped for air, unable to stop my body from emitting a small shriek of fear, and I lurched forward, plunging my head out through the tent flap and into the night. I stared all around, scanning the hillside for as far as I could see, but there was nothing there. Slowly, quietly, I backed into the tent and tied the flap tightly shut, and buried myself in my sleeping roll, curling into a shaking ball with my knees at my chest and covered myself entirely. I was still laying in that position, still shivering, still drenched in a sticky, waxy sweat when I lifted my face from under the blanket to realize the sun was starting to rise. I exited the tent, slowly at first and then springing wildly around, darting left and right, hoping to confuse any intruder that may be watching and waiting for a chance for surprise attack, but there was only me alone on that hill. I stuffed my tent hastily into my bag and gathered my few possessions and noticed with a sideways glance that my fire coals were still smoking hot as I turned to leave camp, despite the fire having gone out hours ago.

With the morning sun warming my back I started to regain some of my nerve, and within an hour I was convincing myself that what I had seen could be nothing more than a lone animal passing by. Perhaps it was a straggler caribou from the herd in the valley, and perhaps my heightened senses during that moment were a symptom of my being alone for nearly three days. I told myself – out loud, as though to an audience – that there was nothing to be afraid of. Now, I figured, I ought to be at about the halfway point of my hike, but as I examined my small and tattered map, I realized that I must have walked slightly off course, either to the north or south. None of the landmarks that I had expected to see from the map were visible, and the wide valley that I had crossed the previous day didn’t seem to show up at all on paper. I was lost, but what kept me from panicking was that I knew if I kept walking westward I would eventually reach the highway, as long as I kept my head straight and didn’t start going in circles. It would have been possible for me to turn back the way I had come, but something kept me going onward, deeper into those barrens and away from the valley I had crossed.

Here, the landscape had undergone another transition, and where before there were long stretches of rolling hills, now the rises lay low against the earth, and I felt as though I could see an impossible distance in each direction. The graceful topography of the valley had given way to an endless stony plain scattered with enormous erratic boulders that rose as high as houses and rested uneasily on points that suggested they might topple given the slightest amount of pressure. Upon their surfaces were carved crude forms like the dashes of some lost runic language or perhaps the shapes of animals worn away beyond recognition. Upon closer inspection, I decided they must be the weathered markings of windblown sand, nothing more. It made the most sense. The vegetation was reduced to scattered wiry bushes the reddish brown of clotted blood and the lichen grew thick upon the ground. I walked on and shuddered at the bizarre echoing of my own footsteps off those stone giants and did not stop to rest until the moon overtook the sun in the evening sky.

I wasted no time with fires that night. Immediately I set my tent on a growth of green lichen and climbed inside, fastening myself and my few belongings securely within the confines of those canvas walls and wrapped myself tightly in my blanket. Reaching into my pack, I found my rations gone, lost through a rip in the fabric. Only my water canteen and a few curious stones remained. I shut my eyes and prayed for sleep, as I had only gotten a few hours since my first camp. I wanted desperately to feel the embrace of unconsciousness and for the aching in my muscles and stomach to subside. Even a nightmare would be better than this. But sleep did not come, and in the minutes that followed I fell again into that deep sense of dread that I had experienced the night before on the hilltop. A deathly quiet had formed around me, and the sounds of my own body seemed immeasurably loud. I struggled to keep my entire body hidden inside the sleeping roll – it was slightly too small, and my feet or the top of my head or my back kept protruding into the cold air of the tent and in those moments I shuddered and frantically worked to conceal myself again. I knew that nothing could see me inside the tent, but it didn’t matter. I started to wonder if I had left the flap open again, and – too frightened to check and see – I remained in my blanket cocoon, awaiting morning or some terrible end to the silence.

From outside the tent there came a faint rustling noise. I held my breath again, focusing entirely on remaining still and listening, but there was no need. The sound grew louder. It became clear to me that there was somebody or something nearby, and that they were not alone. The rustling grew louder still, and there was a shifting and a scraping of something soft against the stony floor of the night and then a grinding noise, like the crunching of dry gravel beneath a wheel. I grabbed my forearm and pinched hard, hoping to wake myself from the dream, digging in my fingernails and drawing blood, and I did not wake – I was not asleep. Slowly, with a movement I was sure wouldn’t make a sound, I pulled the blanket down from over my face and forced open my eyes.

Outside there was the unmistakable flickering light of a fire, and it flashed and cast silhouettes of grotesque forms which licked and rippled across the canvas and I could not bring myself to look away. They were like naked shapes of men or women, with their unclothed bodies bared against the night and prancing fluidly by the movement of the flame and their own otherworldly dance. And their long, distorted forms wound themselves around me in my tiny cold bed and sucked the breath from my body as they lifted their arms to the night and sang in a tongue that seemed not to come from their mouths but from the very earth itself, and sounded to me nothing like speech at all. And they were not like men or women. From their bodies there came impossible shapes like antlers or tails or branches of trees or the billowing of clouds or the glistening forms of some rotting thing that had once been alive. They swayed with the fire and chanted and transformed and they heard the screams of terror bursting from my own shapeless mouth and approached the tent and then I knew that there was no hope and my eyes filled with sweat and tears and blinded me so I did not see their faces when they came and dragged me away into the horror that waited out there in that cruel and loathsome night.

I woke in the morning with frost in my hair. My tent and my pack were gone, and around me in a perfect circle lay the remains of burnt wood and coals and bones blackened from roasting. I rose and stared around me, my eyes darting from one boulder to the next, expecting to see one of my attackers out there watching me, but there was nothing. I walked in a circle, jumping and clapping hard in an attempt to bring life back to my numb feet and hands – my boots had been taken as well – and all the while staring around in the dim early light. On the ground there was a chunk of burned meat, and with a full day and night’s worth of hunger gnawing at me I picked it up and sunk my teeth into it, hardly chewing before swallowing and tearing off another bite. On the outside the meat was black and hard, but inside the crust it was still red-raw and warm blood dripped down my chin and soaked my clothes and it seemed to tense up when I sunk in my teeth as though the muscle were still alive. I couldn’t stop. I gorged on the strange flesh and when it was gone I licked off my hands and sat on the ground staring up at the orange and violet sky and broke into sobs of joy or relief or despair – I cannot say what it was, for sure.

And I started to walk again, with my back to the sun. After a time there came the sounds of claws or hooves on the ground but I did not turn back to look. I kept walking westward, even when the great stones on either side began to creak and groan as though they would fall and crush my body into nothingness. I did not stop when the chant began again in my wake, and the sky became choked with clouds and the air grew hot and moist like the cavity of a freshly-dead corpse. The smell of meat was in my throat, and I gagged and fell to my knees, but my retching brought up only ash and bile so I got to my feet again. The sounds of the dancing, chanting things followed me in my hysteria throughout that day and the night that followed, out of the hard plain and over fields of yellow grass and through the stinking bog where my bleeding soles turned the water red.

I dared not turn to face them until the next day after I had passed between two toppled mounds of stone that perhaps once had been placed by hand, and it was in that moment when I finally looked behind me and saw that there was nothing there. Sometimes I think that was worse than everything that had happened before.

By noon I had given up and toppled face down onto the ground and lay there waiting to die. I wanted to die. I did not shudder when I heard footsteps approaching or when the shouting started or when the hands closed tightly around my shoulders, turning me onto my back so all I could see was the blinding white light of the sun in my eyes. It was a hunter, staring down at me, shaking me with a look on his face that told me he had thought I was dead. He half-dragged, half-carried me to the roadside, just over a kilometre away, and helped me into the back of his truck where I lost myself in a fit of tears and screaming and insisted that it couldn’t be real. He drove me to the hospital, urging that I have the food and water he pushed in my face, and I thanked him even though I was too tired to eat.

I never told the doctors what I’d seen, because I know they would have surely had me locked away, and perhaps they would have been right to. Perhaps the medication they would have prescribed me might have helped with the nightmares and the hallucinations I’ve had since then, but I’ve always been too afraid to let them examine me. Maybe they’d make the horrors go away, and make me see the nonsense of my fears. Maybe they’d prove my memories to be false. Imaginings. But if they didn’t?

I tell myself that those visions I experienced were figments of my fevered mind brought up by some long-past trauma in my own youth, and that whatever had occurred in those barrens years ago is lost in time. The dead are gone, and the past is past. But is that the truth? In those spaces, uninhabited for countless years, is there not something lingering of the place it once had been, or of the ones who lived there? Could there, perhaps, in some long-forgotten corner of those endless barrens, remain the memory of what had existed there before our time? Like the decay of a shout or cry or laughter that rings on and on but grows increasingly distant and distorted, could it be that a shadow remains hidden away of the life that had been? Those voices that had spoken in tongues unknown may still be ringing, echoing faintly the response of the land to the human voice, or some other voice that had made a sound. Some wisp of thought may still linger in the roots of grasses or the hollows of ancient trees or the dusty, hard spaces between the ground and flattened stones which wait with inconceivable patience to be kicked aside by the toes of some restless intruder who knows not where he walks. And if he stops abruptly and listens – with a sudden vivid sense of his loneliness and the pulsing in his chest and the breath of hot wind against the back of his ragged scalp, and twists around in his sweaty clothes and holds his breath in his throat in a moment of painful and terrible anticipation – does he hear it?

I’d rather believe I’m insane.

Credit: Keith Daniels

Beast

December 3, 2016 at 12:00 AM

“Look, Tony, just get outta town. Let things settle down. I’ve got connections in Iliad, they’ll rent you a place to lie low.”
A phonograph played jazz music, adding a modern ambiance to the otherwise rustic lobby. Tony shook his head and leaned over the hotel counter, slipping a twenty over to the clerk, then wiped the sweat from his forehead, “I ain’t got no choice at the moment. Jim, just do me this one favor. Sign me in under some made up name for a week. That should give me the couple of days I need to get everything in order and pay Big Al the large ones I owe ‘im.”
“Just this once,” Jim scanned the nearly vacant lobby, suspiciously eyeing an intoxicated young couple that loudly staggered through the door. He couldn’t get a good look at the male’s face before the two embraced in a long and drawn out kiss, “I’ll give you the room ain’t no one want to stay in. They say it smells, and some people just walk out in the middle of the night when ain’t no one around.”
“Perfect,” Tony retrieved his small, soft tan leather suitcase. “I won’t forget this.”
“Better not!” Jim tossed him a key, before writing a name down on a ledger, trying to keep his gaze off the curvy dame melting into the embrace of her lover.

Tony took the stairs. His heart pounded with the fear that somewhere out there Big Al’s boys were ransacking his apartment trying to find their query. The old Cirque do Luxe hotel was far enough on the outskirts of Chicago to hide him for a little bit. By the time he reached floor six, his heart calmed to a normal pace. Taking a deep breath, Tony stepped through the door on the stairwell and entered a hallway bearing a brown carpet with jagged diamond-shaped patterns amidst even darker stains of old booze and muddy shoes. His muscles froze at the ding of an elevator followed by laughing. He relaxed again ever so slightly at the sight of the young couple from downstairs stepping off. The woman glanced at him from under her blonde curls and cloche hat before following her lover to the opposite end of the hall. Tony paid them no more attention and stopped in front of his door: Room 616.
A tingling filtered down Tony’s spine as he entered the room and flicked on a light switch. Paranoia took hold, so he quickly shut the door and bolted it from the inside. Here was home… at least for a couple days. It smelled of cigar smoke and some other sweet odor that he could not quite place. Water stains drew circles of dark brown on the ceiling and the wall paper bubbled and rippled in certain places. It wasn’t the Ritz, but it was safety. Tony set his suitcase down on the edge of the bed and undid the buttons of his collar and cuffs, hoping to relieve himself of the humidity that permeated the atmosphere. Soaked in nervous perspiration, Tony pulled on the brass cord under a ceiling fan with gilded edges to get some air. As the blades spun to life, a low gurgling sound filled the air making the bubbles in the wall paper vaguely shudder.
Creak… SWIIIISH!
Tony almost fell over at the sound of the sink’s faucet creaking and the shower curtain flying open.
“Huh… hello?” Tony hesitated on his way to the open bathroom door. “Who’s there?”
When no one replied, he reached a hand around the corner and flipped on a buzzing white light. Still no one… nothing there… not a thing out of place.
KNOCK. KNOCK.
Tony flinched at the sound. To be so shook up by a simple knock was stupid, he knew that, but too often he heard the stories of some poor sucker being hunted down by Big Al’s goons even in the remotest of places. Sensing danger, he looked through the peep hole first, only to find the young couple from earlier. The man’s face was hidden by his fedora, but the woman looked up at the hole and blew a kiss.
“Hey buddy, we saw you enter,” the man called through. “My lady friend and I were lookin’ for an ice bucket. Think you can do us a solid?”
“Sure,” Tony grimaced and undid the bolt, “Just don’t…”
He opened the door no more than a crack when the man with the fedora kicked it in, knocking Tony off his feet. Before he could stagger back up, the blonde put the barrel of a pistol to his forehead, “Hang right there, sweetie. Al sends his regards.”
Her male counterpart took a set of handcuffs from his pocket and dragged Tony over to the bed’s headboard, locking his right wrist to it. In the faded light overhead, Tony spotted a jagged scar extending from the man’s left lip up to the corner of his eye.
“You’re the Shark,” Tony stumbled over his words as his heart quickened to a feverish pace again. “Al’s muscle, right? Hey, I got the money… just…”
“Outta time, an’ outta excuses. Good God, you had to find the one room that feels like the tropics…” the blonde patted him on the head on her way to the bathroom. “Shark, baby. How’s my make-up?”
Shark’s reply was interrupted by a ruffling in the closet followed by the same gurgling as before.
“You meeting someone?” the thug narrowed his eyes, the jagged scar wrinkling in just slightly.
Tony shook his head, fearing to say anything further.
Sticking the key to the cuffs in his pocket, Shark drew a pistol and advanced to the two paneled closet doors.
“He got company?” Shark’s accomplice asked as she dabbed at her face in the mirror.
Shark paid her no attention and leveled the pistol at the center of the closet, then thrust the doors open, almost tearing it from its track on the ceiling. Nothing. Not a thing but wire hangers on a cheap white beam. Shark turned his back and shrugged, “Lousy damn hotel. Walls are so thin that…”
A low rumble came from behind him, stopping him in his place to watch the bubbles in the wall paper ripple again. Quicker than Tony’s eyes could see, something latched onto Shark’s jacket collar. For a brief moment he could have sworn it was a bent piece of wire hanger. The second Shark felt the presence behind him, he tried swiveling around, but some force knocked him off balance and he fell to the floor, sending the gun tumbling across the floor. He gave a startled shout and more wire hangers wrapped around his ankles.
“Holy shit…” Tony skid as far away from the scene as he could and cowered where the bed frame met the wall.
“Teresa!” Shark shouted as one second he felt his body drag across the floor toward the closet, and the next the doors slammed shut along their track.
Gun drawn, Teresa tripped out of the bathroom, “Where is he? What did you do with him, you bastard?”
“I… I didn’t…” was all Tony could stammer, and instead pointed to the closet doors.
She followed his gesture and slowly advanced in the direction of her partner, eyes straight ahead with both hands wrapped around the pistol. A movement came from above, garnering Tony’s attention. With growing horror he watched as the brass cord under the ceiling fan stretched downward on its own.
“Ih… it… the… the…”
“Shut up!” she scolded and paused just long enough for the cord to reach her neckline. Without giving her a chance to resist, the brass chain whipped around her jugular and tightened. Teresa’s eyes bulged as she dropped the weapon and grabbed at the chain. Tony watched helplessly as the ceiling fan spun around with increasing speed, its gilded edges making the fixture appear more like a plane’s propeller. The chain pulled its query upward as Teresa’s hands stretched out uselessly. An even deeper fear took hold the closer her face came to the rotating blades. She managed to utter a gurgled desperate scream a mere second before the spinning blades hit skin.
Tony shielded his eyes and listened to the squishing whiz of the fan as it impossibly sliced through hair, flesh, and muscle. Flecks of liquid sprayed against the right side of his face, followed by the warm sensation of piss running down his pant leg. A few seconds later it was over, and the cord, just as inexplicably, loosened and dropped the faceless body to the floor.
“God… oh God… for fuck’s sake… what the Hell is going on?” Tony cautiously opened his eyes and crawled toward her dropped gun, but found it just out of reach. “This isn’t real… it can’t be real… it can’t be…”
He paused after feeling a slight burning sensation around the wrist bound by the cuff. Liquid dripped down his elbow, causing Tony to look back around. He opened and closed his mouth in silent screams, but his throat muscles locked tight in the throws of fright. Skin from his hand melted away exposing muscle and bone. Around him, Teresa’s blood soaked into the floor and ceiling, then disappeared. The sweet odor grew more pronounced as Tony watched first the flesh of Teresa’s body melt into the carpet, followed by her muscle, hair, and bones. All the while, the bubbles under the wall paper moved up vertically as others were created alongside an increasingly loud gurgling and lurching sound. Each time a bubble reached the ceiling, the air in the pocket escaped, sending out more of the permeating acrid sour stench. Tony tried desperately to stand, but the tingling and burning feeling had made it to his legs, which sloshed with the same fleshy melt of his wrist. Gripped in the throes of fear, his neck muscles clenched so tight that he was unable to scream as bit by bit Tony felt his body melt away in a slow digestion within the belly of the beast.
***
“Housekeeping,” a voice said after a knock on the door. The maid waited a moment, then unlocked the door and stepped through. Curiously, the guests were missing, but three sets of clothes lay folded neatly on the floor beside two guns, and a pair of handcuffs still clung to the bed frame.

Credit: Benjamin Krause

S.S. Yongala

December 2, 2016 at 12:00 AM

The tropical waters were warm, even on a night dive, but Aaron still wore a wetsuit. He switched on the video camera attached to his mask, then pressed the start button on his waterproof wristwatch. 70:00 popped up in black against a staunch grey background, and quickly turned to 69:59, then 69:58, 69:57. The countdown had begun. He pressed the diving mask tight against his face and splashed into the water.

The glow from the waning moon disappeared within seconds, too weak to penetrate the deep waters of the sea. Aaron’s excitement was heightened by the rich darkness. Ghosts were always more active at night.

Time stood still below the water’s surface where darkness expanded endlessly in every direction. Bubbles rose from Aaron’s mask as he exhaled, taking one last look at the bottom of his boat. He shined a flashlight into the void beneath his feet. What he was looking for lay cloaked in darkness, 70 feet below on the seabed, and it was time to start his descent.

Aaron relieved the pressure on his eardrums continuously as he sank into the dark bluish haze. It took only seconds to reach a depth of 40 feet. If he was on target, the deck of the S.S. Yongala should be visible beneath him, but there was only blue in every direction. He swam in small zigzags, waiting for the ghost ship to emerge from the darkness.

Something bumped Aaron’s leg. He dropped the flashlight and turned toward the cold caress to see a dark shadow looming beside him. Wide eyed and frightened he tried to scream, jetting the regulator from his mouth while violently kicking to escape the creature.

As the shadow moved away, Aaron looked into the darkness after it: Behind him, in front, above, below. It could be anywhere. He became aware of a burning in his lungs and the panic increased. Reaching up and over with his right arm, he searched for the regulator, finally bumping his hand against a long hose that he pulled to his lips. Salt water invaded his mouth while he pressed the purge valve before taking a life-giving breath.

Shivering with fear, Aaron retrieved the flashlight from its long cord and pointed it into the gloom. An enormous grouper hovered a few feet away, investigating the invader to its territory. Aaron’s muscles relaxed. Not only was this hulking fish harmless, it was also a sign he was close to the artificial reef created by the wreckage of the Yongala. He followed the slow moving fish, fanning his flashlight back and forth beneath him.

57:18. A chill ran up Aaron’s spine when an enormous shape materialized in the void. The hollow remains of the majestic passenger ship loomed in front of him, concealed in corals and shadow: the gravesite of 122 souls lost at sea over 100 years ago. Aaron checked the full-spectrum camera, EVP recorder, and EMF meter on his belt. The familiar feeling of adrenaline coursed through his veins, driving him on; this was what he came for.

Aaron swam over the coral encrusted skeleton of rusted window frames where tiny silver fish darted in and out of the darkness. He used landmarks along the ship in search of his destination; the aft mast, the engine room, and the galley were all visible before an inky black chasm near the bow appeared in the distance. The entrance to the front cargo hold, site of the only evident bones from the shipwreck. Aaron thrust forward eagerly and entered the forbidden remains of the S.S. Yongala where the wide ocean void was replaced by flaky walls of eroded steel. His hands were steady as he checked the EMF meter. The lights still glowed green; nothing yet.

55:23. Aaron began his sweep of the room. He needed to save at least ten minutes for a safe ascent, and the clock was ticking.
Most of the contents within the cargo hold had long ago turned to sludge. The ground crawled with crustaceans and slithering sea snakes, but no matter how many times Aaron trekked back and forth, he saw no sign of human remains. His search continued so long, he began to worry the reports of bones might be a farce.

He kept his breathing steady while methodically scanning the floor. Just when Aaron made up his mind to quit the cargo hold to search elsewhere, an unnaturally straight object reflected off the beam of light. He drew closer and saw a knob on the end of it. It must be the famed femur bone reported by divers before him. The adrenaline rush returned, and he kicked toward the human remains without hesitation.

Taking advantage of his buoyancy, he hovered several feet over the femur bone while checking his equipment. It would be difficult to discern ghostly voices on an underwater recording, especially over the rumbling of his regulator, but he clicked on the EVP recorder anyway. The EMF meter was still in the green, so he brought the full-spectrum camera to his face.

Aaron took a dozen pictures of the femur bone and its surroundings, then shined the light in every direction to take pictures of the entire cargo hold. The pitch blackness of confinement impeded his flashlight, allowing less illumination than the infinite blue of the open sea. In the darkness, he waited. Ghost hunting was about patience, and he had been to enough haunts without sight or sound of a ghost for hours that he was well practiced in tenacity.

42:28. The EMF lights blinked yellow. Aaron looked around expectantly, excited to get an alarm so quickly, but he was alone. The yellow lights turned back to green.

40:02. A scratching sound reverberated through the water. Aaron could not sense which direction it came from.

36:18. Aaron grew restless. He worried his dangerous descent had been in vain.

32:43. The EMF blipped yellow again, but only for a moment. Twenty minutes left.

The Yongala groaned, its steel frame protesting against the watery grave. It was followed by a childlike cry for help. Aaron’s skin tingled, and he swung the flashlight around, catching nothing but blackness. He stared down at the EMF meter, but it had gone dead. He knocked the side of it with his flashlight, trying to coax it to life. With a burst of radiance, a dozen red pinprick lights flickered in the dark.

Warmth vanished from the water, leaving it icy cold. Aaron saw nothing supernatural with his naked eye, but still snapped dozens of pictures, hoping a glowing human figure or mystical ring of light would show up when he developed the negatives in the darkroom.

24:12. The nauseating sensation of listing from one side to the other seized him. Childish cries for help came from every direction, and Aaron’s blood chilled to the core. Despite his experience, Aaron’s courage faltered. The EMF meter cranked back up, flashing red lights this time. Dread overcame him and he headed for the hole in the deck, looking back one last time toward the abandoned bone.

In the darkness, a pale face wavered like white silk in a breeze. Aaron stopped his ascent and grabbed the camera. This could be irrefutable proof of a haunting, guaranteeing him recognition in the ghost-hunting community.

The face disappeared in seconds, but Aaron hovered near the exit. Now that he was closer to his escape route he felt safe, and decided to stay a few more minutes. The sight of a ghost had reinvigorated him, but the lights on the EMF meter went green and the temperature of the tropical waters warmed.

Shadows moved in the darkness, but when Aaron pointed his flashlight toward each anomaly, he saw only local sea creatures swimming past. A group of spotted manta rays glided overhead, just beyond the gaping hole of the cargo hold, causing a wavering in the still water. Aaron pointed his flashlight on their white undersides, watching the graceful undulation of their wings as they passed.

13:03. Time to leave. Disappointed that ten minutes passed and he had seen no more signs of the supernatural, Aaron took a final look around the cargo hold. He swept the darkness with his flashlight one last time, then conceded his defeat and swam toward the gaping exit above.

Aaron jerked in surprise when light flooded the chamber. The temperature plummeted, and in his shock he missed the exit, hitting his head on the splintering roof. He blinked against the jolt of pain, then saw clearly the cargo hold as it was in 1911, with over a hundred passengers crouched on the floor in fear. The Yongala listed severely, groaning as it swayed side to side. Aaron floated over the scene, an observer over the impossible vision of these doomed passengers, hiding from a storm in the bowels of their ship.
Wails and crying filled his ears, echoing like the hollow sound of waves in a conch shell.

Vertigo ripped through Aaron’s senses. He couldn’t tell whether he was seeing the ghost ship or the real Yongala. Aiming for what he hoped was the exit, Aaron kicked against the freezing water, trying to escape the pleas for help below him. Time was running out. He burst into the warmth of the open sea, and the sight of blue and yellow fish swimming through the gently waving fingers of a white coral brought him back to his senses.

7:20. Back in the open sea, speed was the enemy. He must ascend slowly to avoid the pressure change tearing his lungs to shreds, so he pushed his fears deep inside to be dealt with later. Aaron kicked gently against the water, watching the wreckage of the Yongala disappear beneath his feet. He kept an eye on his depth gauge, fighting the urge to sprint to the surface.

Aaron hovered at 15 feet, his final safety stop, watching the timer to make sure he stayed a full five minutes. His heart had slowed to normal, the world returned to what it should be, and with nothing to occupy him but his thoughts, Aaron’s mood shifted from fear to excitement. All of his equipment was intact, and he felt sure of proving the wreck was haunted.

3:23. With a final farewell to the deep blue beneath his feet, Aaron kicked toward the surface. He looked up, expecting the marquis-shaped underside of his boat to come into view, but instead he saw the pearled, smoky form of a 120 foot ghost ship hovering overhead. His EMF meter shook free of its own accord, floating to his face and reflecting a dozen blinking red lights across his mask.

The phantom Yongala capsized in the calm water, struck by an invisible wave, and descended upon Aaron. Water whirlpooled in an indomitable current, dragging him relentlessly toward the sea floor. The enormous pressure in his chest and ears was crippling, and a rush of cold water accosted him as the ghost ship crashed into its 100 year old remains and disappeared, leaving Aaron alone at the bottom of the ocean.

:22. Aaron sat on the deck of the S.S. Yongala, 65 feet down, breathing his last thin gasp of air. If he rose to the surface, the pressure would tear through the soft tissue of his lungs and he would die in agony alone on his boat. It was better to stay here.

He released the waterproofing clasp on the EVP recorder, flooding its electronic insides with saltwater, then popped open the film canister of his camera. The red sweep-hand of the oxygen tank meter slipped to zero, and behind the plastic shield of his mask, Aaron’s eyes filled with fear. As he looked one last time at the endless expanse of blue overhead, the regulator slipped silently from his mouth.

Credit: Yarn_Spinner

Black Plague

November 18, 2016 at 12:00 AM

I stood where the bronze sand and blue water met, creating a seamless border that extended south for as far as I could see and on the north side disappeared beyond the formidable sandstone cliffs. The Sun on the horizon of the ocean was setting quickly, tinting the water a brilliant gold. Once it dipped out of sight beneath the surface of the sea, two others would remain.

Three brilliant celestial bodies in the sky could not fulfill the void left by our long forgotten centre of the Solar system. I buried my toes in the blistering sand trying not to flinch, blinking hard against the piercing glare that bounced off the water surface.

Each day in this part of the world was equal to two hundred and fifty two earth days. The time was soon approaching now when the temperature would spike beyond tolerable limits and the heat would get strong enough to boil the flesh from our bodies.

I had witnessed two nights and two days in total, this being my third. We were a team of explorers, never staying in one place more than an E-week. The E signifying earth. The campers had their own communities. They were willing to settle and to live with whatever they were blessed with on the spot. We were not.

I scoffed at the idea that some idiot had once referred to the planet as habitable. I started to trudge up the coastline, away from our encampment, the sand getting hotter every second, careful to steer clear of the range of the waves and it’s spray.

This liquid resembled the stuff of life. Every physical trait appeared similar, but we knew better what it was. A lot of sacrifices had been made by the ignorant before we learned better. This sprawling expanse of ocean was not water, but thousands of square miles of vicious acid.

The forty first survivor pod had accidently missed its designated landing spot and instead landed inside the ocean, almost a mile off shore. The steel compartment had not been designed to navigate through water and definitely stood no match against the malevolent acid which ate through it. The pod, along with its two dozen survivors, was chemically disbanded within less than Twenty-four hours.

Scouts had been dispatched almost three E-weeks ago to assess the landscape and consider locations in which we could escape the impending heat wave. I expected them back any E-day now, thus I had taken to spending a lot of time on the beach.

The scorching Suns beat down upon me and I made sure to keep myself hydrated. I was wearing a makeshift turban to prevent heatstroke. The horizon shimmered before my eyes and I considered departing back to the cave for a while to cool down, when suddenly, in the South, a speck became perceptible to my eyes through the rough haze.

I squinted, trying to ascertain whether I was mistaken but it soon became apparent that I wasn’t. There were three distinct specks now and they were growing larger every minute. We had dispatched six scouts to different locations but they were all supposed to meet up at an agreed upon rendezvous zone and return collectively to home base. We had not lost a scout for almost a whole world day, which was two-hundred-and-fifty-two Earth days.

As it was, the sight of only three, instead of six figures rolling down the desert landscape made my heart lodge in my windpipe. I kept standing. the adrenaline in my system would not let me sit. My throat was getting dry and my lips parched beyond belief.

Twenty minutes later, the approaching figures converged and the signal went up. Apparently they had just spotted me. The signal was a green flag, only to be raised in cases of emergency. There was no mistaking that green cloth fluttering in the menacing wind almost two miles away.

There was a moment of hesitation from my end but with a sudden bout of strength, I turned on my heels and sprinted in the opposite direction. They needed help. From what or who, I did not know. I ran as fast as I could, ignoring the jabs of pain as I stepped on small stones and rocks.

Our cave was located in a very discreet opening at the base of the rocky cliffs. The mouth of the cave was completely invisible to those who didn’t know where to look. From there it went down an incline and dipped deep into the ground. Hence it was way cooler than the outside.

It was exceptionally roomy and further in transformed into a labyrinth with many intricate pathways. It was easy to get lost in there, hence our group had carefully marked their path with white arrows.

I broke into the main chamber with my lungs completely devoid of oxygen.

‘They’re back! They’re back!’ I croaked. My voice echoed inside the place that was taller and wider than a cathedral with charcoal black walls.
Every head in the hall turned to face me, with excitement on their faces. There were about fifty people in there.

‘But… something’s wrong. There’s only three. They raised the flag’

The jubilant excitement immediately turned to shock.

“What do you mean?’, said a voice from the throng.

‘Come with me. Quick’

Accompanied by a dozen strong men, we raced back to the beach.

As we got near enough to the arriving party, I witnessed one of them collapse, as if the life had been sucked out of him. The other two didn’t stop to aid their companion but continued limping towards us. I could see now that they were heavily bent and almost on the verge of collapsing themselves.

Within minutes we reached them. But the moment I caught a glimpse of their faces, I froze in my tracks.
Their faces looked like they had been bleached.

‘We are all dead’, whispered the nearest one, in a voice that horrified me.

Credit: Salman Khattak

Sniff

November 9, 2016 at 12:00 AM

(A/N: this is a companion piece to Slum)

I never liked Rustic Gables Skilled Nursing Facility.

Years ago, I worked as an EMT for MediTrans Ambulance Service. We did inter-facility transports, mostly dialysis runs and hospital discharges, so I spent a lot of time around crappy nursing homes. But even with my bar set as low as it was, Rustic Gables SNF still managed to underwhelm.

The four-story building itself put off an air of hostility. Near Sixth and Alvarado in a slummy corner of Westlake, Rustic Gables SNF sat like a diseased tooth – a squat, square, filthy-white structure jutting out of a narrow, uneven parking lot surrounded by a fourteen-foot fence.

Inside, Rustic Gables was, well, exactly how you’d expect. The residents were crammed four to a too-small room. Every August, half the ancient window air units broke down. Their one-and-a-half star rating was on display over the reception desk, and I’m pretty sure they only managed the extra half-star because someone knew how to BS the inspector.

The faceless healthcare conglomerate that owned the place had bought the property from a bank auction. I’d never leave anyone I loved at Rustic Gables SNF.

Rustic Gables burned through nurses like cheap cigarettes. It seemed like every time I approached a nursing station, I was greeted by a different young woman in stained scrubs. Meanwhile, my partner and I would run into ex-Rustic Gables employees everywhere we went – dialysis centers, hospitals, other SNFs.

It was rumored that Rustic Gables was haunted.

Stories were told of eerie voices behind patients’ closed doors. Of strangers seen wandering the halls, of objects moving by themselves, and of staff members somehow teleporting themselves all over the facility without realizing it. I heard more than one tale in which the teller swore they’d seen a nurse walk into a patient’s room, fail to reappear, then be found on the next floor up – swearing she hadn’t been near the patient’s room in hours.

Once, a patient had been killed when a nurse gave her a second dose of Metoprolol, sending her into hypovolemic shock. The guilty nurse swore that she’d spoken to the medical director, in person, and that he’d given her orders for the extra dose. That was obviously bullshit – the medical director had been in his office, miles away, with multiple witnesses. But the nurse was insistent, even after she’d pled guilty to avoid jail time.

I highly doubted that incident was the work of ghosts – a hangover was a more likely culprit. But even the most skeptical of the ex-nurses agreed they’d gotten a bad vibe working at Rustic Gables, especially at night.

*****

In early 2010, my wife Lily told me she’d gotten a job at Rustic Gables SNF. I warned her that everybody who worked there hated the place, and offered to continue paying the lion’s share of our bills until she could find other employment.

“You want me to say ‘fuck you’ to a full-time nursing job with benefits?” she snapped, squishing her mouth into a pissy little bow. “I’m sick of working at Subway. Do you honestly think anyone else is going to offer me anything with no experience?”

She had me there. The oversaturated medical job market of Los Angeles was a tough spot for a recently-graduated Licensed Vocational Nurse, especially in the middle of a recession.

“I get it,” I told her. “But I’m making enough money now. And I don’t think you’re going to like Rustic Gables much. People say it’s haunted, and you hate horror.”

Lily flashed me a condescending, pursed-lip smile. She knew I hated that smile. She was a tiny girl, my wife, barely five feet tall and maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet. Her eyes were opal-shaped and deep-set in her square face. She had long, dark, silky hair. A clump of it fell over an eye.

“But you’re not making enough money, Cyrus,” she chirped, as though I were a retarded kindergartener. “And I’d rather hang out with Casper the Friendly Ghost then ask my dad for money. Again.”

I closed my eyes and counted to ten. She was baiting me. Her parents didn’t like me much, because I didn’t have a college degree and my parents were alcoholic white trash. And her father had loaned us money twice in the last year. Once the previous January, when we signed the lease and had to cough up first and deposit for our microscopic Koreatown one-bedroom, and once in August, when my car broke down.

“Fine, Lil,” I said through clenched teeth. “Do what you want.”

With that, I went to shower and get ready for bed. Our marriage was doomed. We both knew it, but neither of us had the balls to give that final nail in the coffin the mighty whack it needed.

*****

Lily took job. A couple days later, during her second training shift, my partner Rivera and I were sent to Rustic Gables to pick up a patient. A patient who, of course, lived on the first floor – where Lily was stationed.

Our patient was a bed-confined octogenarian going to St. Vincent for a g-tube placement. It should have been a quick, drama-free call, but the nurses didn’t have the paperwork done yet. Lily was being a complete asshole about it – hanging over the shoulder of the charge nurse, smiling her noxious pursed-lip smile as her new friend berated us over the pick-up time (as though it were our fault they didn’t have their shit together).

Rivera went to the ambulance to charge his phone. I’d grit my teeth so hard my skull hurt, and a half-glance at Lily’s haughty profile was enough to propel bolts of pain up my jaw. For the sake professionalism – and my sanity – I walked away.

I wandered to the mismatched front lobby, and there I found a shriveled old woman with dyed orange hair, curled up on a stained couch. A nasal cannula dangled from her face, attached to an oxygen canister on the back of a rickety wheelchair. Her eyes snapped open. When she saw me, her face fell.

“How are you, ma’am?” I asked sweetly. “Do you need help?”

She mumbled something, her voice weak. I hunched beside her and asked her to repeat what she’d said.

“I’m waiting for Scott.”

I looked around. “Is Scott your nurse? I can find him, if you want.”

She shook her head sadly. “He comes here, at night. He talks to me. I’ve gotta stay here or I won’t see him.”

I breathed in, and found that the lobby had a weird smell to it. Kind of rotten, but kind of sweet, like the funk that filled our station when the shared fridge was opened. The orange-haired lady didn’t seem bothered by it, but I was relieved to see Rivera round the corner, paperwork in hand.

I came home after Lily; she pretended to be asleep. The next morning, she was gone before I work up. Perfect situation, I thought. Now we never have to talk.

******

A couple weeks later, my company picked up another dialysis patient out of Rustic Gables SNF. Soon, Rivera and I were sent to get him. On the way in, I spotted the same orange-haired woman, on the same stained couch, still waiting for Scott.

The new dialysis patient, let’s call him Herbert Smith, was seventy-nine and not doing well. He was bed-bound due to the lingering effects of a stroke, half-blind, and atrophied. He looked in my general direction when I called his name, but responded to all further inquiries with incomprehensible muttering.

His room, happily, was on the third floor, which put a whole story between me and Lily. We got him loaded in the ambulance, and after a set of vitals I took advantage of the fifteen-minute drive to Western Dialysis to finish some paperwork. Herbert Smith stared mindlessly ahead, seemingly unaware of my presence.

Then, he mumbled something.

I looked up from my writing. “What’s that, Herbert?” I asked loudly.

“The one-legged man talks to me,” he repeated.

I leaned in. “Who talks to you, Herbert?”

“The Oriental man. The man with one leg. He comes into my room at night.” Herbert’s milky eyes were unfocused, staring vacuously into some point between the road and the ceiling of the ambulance.

“The Oriental man, huh?” I pressed indulgently.

“He’s angry with me,” Herbert continued, speaking to oblivion. “He knows I left him. I wish he’d go away.”

*****

That night, I came home to every light in the apartment on and Lily in the kitchen, making a cup of tea. This was a surprise, as she’d gotten into the habit of feigning sleep. On the rare occasions she’d exchanged a few words with me, she’d done so with a constipated pout, as though my presence was physically painful.

“You’re still awake, Lil?” I asked without thinking. I immediately realized the stupidity of the question, and braced for the sarcastic answer.

But the nasty remark didn’t come. “Yeah,” Lily replied nonchalantly. “I have a headache.”

She looked at me. For the first time in awhile, I didn’t see contempt in her eyes. I realized, all of a sudden, that I no longer remembered how to act around Lily without picking a fight or continuing one. Then I thought of something.

“Lily,” I asked, “the old woman who’s always on the chair by the door, with the bright orange hair and the oxygen. Who is she?”

Lily frowned. “Her name’s Greta, she’s in my station. She’s pretty far gone.”

“I talked to her,” I said. “She said she was waiting for Scott.”

“Oh, I know.” Lily shook her head. “Scott’s not coming. He was Greta’s son. He died of cancer five years ago. There’s pictures of him all around her room.”

This piece of information jolted me. I remembered the look in Greta’s eyes when I’d woken her – pure happiness, then immediate disappointment when she realized I was not, in fact, her long-deceased child. Poor old bird. Dementia’s a bitch.

I’d thought that night was a fluke, as far as my and Lily’s relationship was concerned. Lily, tired and in pain, hadn’t had the energy to antagonize me. But the next night, I came home to her awake, again, and decidedly un-antagonistic. And the next, and the next.

One night, I came home to find her huddled on the couch, shaking, the glow from the muted TV illuminating her tears. My first impulse was to run – I’d long forgotten how to comfort Lily. But I’m not an impulsive person.

What came next was the first honest conversation we’d had in months.

Lily had been on edge for weeks. Work was the problem; her shifts at Rustic Gables had become both physically and mentally unbearable, for reasons she couldn’t justify to herself, let alone anybody else.

“I just… as soon as I walk in, my chest tightens up and I start feeling weak,” she said. “I’m scared of something, but I don’t know what it is. And whenever I’m alone, I hear things. Little noises behind me. But when I turn, there’s nothing there.”

I reiterated that she could leave, that I’d pay the bills, and that I’d known other nurses who’d left because the place was too creepy. But Lily shook her head decisively. She wasn’t batshit. And if she quit after working at Rustic Gables for barely a month, she’d appear flaky.

*****

The next day was Herbert Smith’s dialysis day, and Rivera and I were the crew sent to pick him up.

The young nurse on duty told me he was being showered; we’d have to wait a few minutes. I considered going to find Lily. Then I was drawn to a feature of Herbert Smith’s room I hadn’t noticed. There was a bulletin board on the wall parallel to his bed, and someone had pinned up several old newspaper clippings. I looked closer.

Herbert had been a medic during the Korean War. One article, titled “Wounded Hero Welcomed Home”, described his commendable service. He’d found a young soldier with a chest wound lying on a path. All of a sudden, bullets started flying around them. He pulled the soldier into a ditch, patched him up, and waited with him until they were found by an American platoon.

While Herbert was hailed as a hero, he had regrets about the incident. He’d seen another man, a Korean villager, lying on the ground with a nasty wound in his leg. The man was writhing, but too weak to remove himself from danger. Herbert had been conflicted. But he could still hear gunshots and, following protocol, he stayed put. By the time help arrived, the Korean man had died.

The article included pictures taken by a soldier in the platoon. In one of them, you could just make out the face of the dead Korean in the background. I remembered Herbert’s comments about the ‘Oriental man with one leg.’ The one who he hadn’t gone back for.

As long as I’d known him, Herbert hadn’t looked great. But I was surprised at just how severely his health had deteriorated. His atrophied limbs had become skeletal, his skin was translucent, and he’d lost hair. His cloudy eyes didn’t even flicker as we lifted him from his bed to the gurney.

I drove that day, Rivera sat in the back with Herbert. As we wheeled the old man in, I asked Rivera if he’d said anything strange in the back. Rivera gave me a weird look; he wasn’t aware Herbert could speak at all.

Herbert was completely unresponsive as we placed him in his dialysis chair. He slumped to one side; we propped him up with a pillow. While Rivera chased a tech for a signature, I wrapped the blood pressure cuff attached to the dialysis machine around Herbert’s arm.

Before I knew what was happening, Herbert Smith was clutching my bicep.

I jumped. The old man kept hold, his grip stronger than his spindly fingers should have allowed. His milky-white eyes bored into mine.

“The Oriental man says he’s going to take me with him.”

I wrenched my arm out of his grasp. Herbert went limp and flopped over. I called his name, but his ashen face drooped dumbly and his liquid eyes were dull. Whoever had spoken to me was logged off, signed out, no longer in the building.

Forty-five minutes into dialysis, Herbert violently tore the blood-filled tubes from his arm. The staff attempted to stop the bleeding, but he fought them off with an alarming level of ferocity. It was said that Herbert Smith never looked so peaceful as he had while being carried out by paramedics, already into irreversible shock. He died before they made it to the hospital.

*****

I remained ignorant as this was going on. Rivera and I ran a few more calls. I drove in and out of hospital parking lots, pondering Herbert’s Korean ghost. Later, at around six, I received a text from Lily.

That was hot Cy :)

It was a weird thing to say. I assumed she meant our conversation the night before, responded with a single smiley face, and thought about it all afternoon. For months, I’d wanted Lily gone. I’d fantasized about coming home and discovering she’d moved out. But, when I read that text, I felt a little twinge of the ecstasy she’d inspired in me when we were eighteen and obsessed with each other.

As soon as I walked into our apartment, Lily jumped me. Wordlessly, passionately, we made love on the couch. Her perfume, her red lipstick, her hair tickling my skin was intoxicating. It was instinctive. Animalistic. When we finished, we lay entangled on the couch, strands of her hair still in my mouth.

“That was amazing,” I muttered to her. “I’m so glad we did that.”

“You started it,” she teased, running her hand across my chest. “That was a pretty hot kiss. The charge nurse was pissed, but it was worth it.”

“What’s the charge nurse got to do with anything?” I asked innocently.

Lily pulled away. She sat up. “You came to see me at Rustic Gables. You kissed me. Right in front of the other nurses.”

I went cold. “Lily,” I said, “I didn’t do that. I was at Rustic Gables in the morning, to pick up Mr. Smith, but I didn’t see you at all. I didn’t kiss you.”

She forced a laugh. “Cy, stop fucking joking. Unless you’ve got a twin I don’t know about, you kissed me today. The other nurses all saw.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Lil,” I said. “I was on the third floor for, like, fifteen minutes, then in the ambulance the rest of the day.”

Lily glared. Shoving me out of the way, she grabbed her clothes and stood up.

“Fuck you, Cyrus. You’re a fucking liar.”

With that, she stomped to our bedroom and slammed the door. In the morning, she was gone before I woke up.

The whole thing bothered me. Apparently, Lily had been passionately kissed in front of her co-workers by a guy who looked just like me. I’d long suspected she had undiagnosed bipolar disorder, but I might’ve been wrong. Maybe undiagnosed schizophrenia.

*****

Two days later, Rivera and I were sent for Herbert Smith. The nurse at Rustic Gables told us he was dead.

Rivera went to call dispatch and tell them that, in fact, our services were not needed. I waited with the gurney in the front lobby. Orange-haired Greta was curled up on the couch, presumably still waiting for Scott. Poor lady. I tried to catch her eye, but she was oblivious to my presence. Then I saw tears running down her face.

I would have gone to talk to her if a hand hadn’t jerked my arm. I whirled around, and found myself face-to-face with Lily. Her eyes were puffy and bloodshot. She was pissed.

“There you are,” she snapped. “What the fuck, Cyrus? You’re messing with me now?”

“Lily, what are you talking about?”

“I heard you calling my name,” she said, unable to control the tremble in her voice. “Down the hall. In that fucking creepy voice. Where were you hiding? Under a bed or something?”

“Lily, I didn’t do that. I’ve been here.”

“It was your voice!” Lily insisted. “Saying ‘Lily, come to me.’ I was handing out meds, and I heard you. I’m so sick of your fucking jokes!”

“Lily, I’m…” I started.

“Fuck you, Cyrus. I want a divorce.”

With that, she stomped back to the nurses’ station. I didn’t go after her. I stood there, useless, fuming. All the anger and resentment I’d been nursing for months; the frustration of never, ever being good enough for Lily swirled around me like a tornado. I wanted her dead. I wanted to wrap my fingers around her neck and stare into her protruding eyes until they glazed over.

If Rivera hadn’t come to tell me that we had another call, I’m not sure what I would have done. We spent the rest of the night with one of the respiratory therapists, wedging a 400-pound, ventilator-dependent vegetable onto our gurney and driving him to a crappy post-acute in Sylmar.

As we drove back to station, I saw I had missed two calls from Lily, and that she’d left me a voice message. I ignored it. Even thinking about her jacked my blood pressure.

Lily didn’t come home that night, and I was relieved.

*****

The next morning, I was dismayed to see the address of Rustic Gables flash across our pager. We were picking up a psych patient. An old lady with dementia wigging out, going to the Brotman psychiatric ward.

The name of the patient: Greta. The orange-haired lady in the lobby, always waiting for Scott.

“It started a little after midnight,” the charge nurse told me. “All of a sudden, she was screaming and crying. I’d never heard anything like it. Just this… this anguished, otherworldly wailing.”

“Had she had any change in medications recently?” I asked.

The nurse shook her head. “Her son, Scott, died about five years ago. She was very devoted to him, and she’d been telling some of the nurses that he comes and sees her at night.”

I nodded sympathetically.

“Anyways,” the nurse continued, “last night, she kept on screaming Scott’s name over and over. We got her into bed and gave her a sleeping pill, but it didn’t take. She woke up around three, dragged herself out of bed and into the hallway. We found her pawing at the door of a storage closet.”

They had Greta restrained to the bed – unnecessarily so, I thought, as whatever sedative they’d given her had reduced her to a near-comatose state. We moved her onto the gurney without issue. But in the back of the ambulance, she squirmed around and opened her eyes. She threw a languid look my direction.

“So, Greta,” I said kindly, hoping my voice would keep her quiet, “How are you doing today? Have the nurses been treating you good?”

“Scott came to me,” she said emotionlessly.

The words hit me like a punch. “Let’s not talk about Scott, okay?”

“He was burning,” Greta continued, as though she hadn’t heard me. “His face was melting. He was screaming in pain.”

Tears welled in her eyes. “Then… then it wasn’t Scott anymore. It was this.. this monster. This demon. And he told me that’s what Scott looked like in… in Hell.”

She sobbed. I might have said something comforting; if I did, it had no effect. I don’t remember. In that moment, at that moment, I had never been more disturbed in my entire life.

Greta didn’t speak again. She just cried, tears and snot collecting in her wrinkles. She cried all the way to Brotman, and kept on crying as we waited for her room to be ready. We heard her moans as we pulled our gurney down the sixth-floor hall, until the elevator doors closed.

*****

Lily didn’t come home that night. Days passed; I was given no clue as to her whereabouts. I called a few times, but her phone was off. I should have been concerned that she left so much of her stuff in the apartment. But she had her ID and bank cards, she had plenty of scrubs stowed at her parents’ house in Rosemead, and I assumed no one in her family was fond enough of me to call.

Finally, a week later, Rivera and I were sent back to Rustic Gables.

I don’t remember who or what we were supposed to pick up. We were walking through the little lobby, noticing Greta’s absence, when I felt hands around my waist. Tiny, perfectly-manicured hands. Lily stood behind me, looking happier than she had in a year. Rivera shook his head playfully and told me he’d meet me on the second floor.

When he was gone, Lily took me by the hand and led me away. Towards the back door, which was only ever used by nurses sneaking a smoke. Down a narrow hallway I’d never noticed, which extended to the left of the back door and dead-ended.

“Lil,” I said, “where have you been? I was starting to get worried.”

She stopped pulling and turned around, holding me close. She wrapped her arms around my neck, stood on her tiptoes, and kissed me passionately.

“I’ve been with a friend,” she murmured into my ear. “I miss you, Cyrus.”

She kissed me again, then pulled away and resumed tugging my hand with surprising strength. She stopped in front of a nondescript little closet, across from the janitor’s storage.

“Make love to me, Cyrus,” she breathed, her voice thick and sultry. “I know a special place.”

She reached for the doorknob. As soon as she let go of my hand, my senses came crashing back down to earth.

“Lil,” I said kindly, “I’ve got to pick up a patient. Come home tonight. We’ll talk then.”

She gazed into my eyes with a ‘come hither’ smile. For some reason, this freaked me out. Maybe because her mouth seemed to extend a little too far into her cheeks. Or maybe because, in the six years we’d been a couple, Lily had never once used the phrase “make love to me.” One way or another, my weird radar blipped, and with one more “come home tonight, Lil” I escaped to the elevator.

“Cyrus!” Lily called after me. I didn’t turn around.

On the second floor, I found Rivera talking to a squat Korean woman I recognized as the first floor head nurse, Lily’s supervisor. The nurse glared when she saw me.

“Hey you,” she said gruffly, “you’re Lily’s husband, right?”

I nodded, inviting the catty comment.

“Where has your wife been?” she asked. “Her phone’s dead, she hasn’t shown up for work in a week.”

“Um, she’s here,” I said. “She’s downstairs. I just talked to her.”

The nurse shook her head. “Well, I haven’t seen her all day, and I just left the desk five minutes ago. She hasn’t clocked in since the twelfth.”

I was confused. I told the nurse something, then ran down the stairs to the first floor, dead-set on finding Lily and proving her presence. I’d kissed her, I’d felt her arms around me. So either she was deliberately messing with her boss, or else her boss was crazy.

Or I was crazy.

No one was at the first floor nurses’ desk. I paced the halls, peeking into rooms. Nothing. No Lily. Then I thought of something. She hadn’t clocked in since the twelfth. The twelfth of February. That sounded familiar.

I checked my phone. The last missed call from Lily had occurred on the twelfth of February. That was the day she’d chased me down in the lobby, accused me of calling her name in a “creepy voice,” demanded a divorce.

I saw the voice mail icon, and recalled she had left me a message that day. I dialed my voicemail, deleted a few messages, and then I heard my wife’s voice. Her sobbing, panicked, terrified voice.

“Cyrus!” she breathed. “Cyrus, I know you’re not here, but I keep on hearing your voice. And I saw you again. But it wasn’t you, because your face was all blurry. Then you… you walked into the closet and disappeared. Is this a joke? Please fucking tell me this is a…”

She gasped, and I heard the phone drop. Then a muffled male voice. A voice that sounded terrifyingly familiar, saying something like ‘found you!’

Then I heard another voice. My wife’s voice. Calling my name. But it wasn’t coming from my phone.

“Cyrus! Cyrus!”

I followed the voice. It was coming from the back entrance, from the direction of the closet Lily had tried to drag me into. As I approached, I remembered what I’d been told about old Greta. She’d freaked out, and they’d found her pawing at a closet door. Had it been this door?

I turned the knob. I flicked on the light switch.

I found myself staring at a tiny, dusty storage room seemingly used as a dumping ground for cardboard boxes and broken equipment. The floor was peeling linoleum, and cobwebs hung from two cheap metal shelves. A healthy coating of dust told me this room was rarely accessed by the nursing staff.

I heard it again.

“Cyrus! Cyrus!”

I did a 360, then was hit with the dizzying realization that the voice was coming from under the floor.

Anyone with the IQ of a monkey could tell you I should have bailed. That a disembodied voice calling my name, beneath the floor on the first story of a building, was not a phenomenon I should investigate alone. But, somewhere between my softcore-script conversation with Lily and her gut-churning message on my phone, I stopped thinking logically.

I looked around. No doors, no stairs, and I knew there wasn’t a “basement” button on the elevators. Then I saw it. Under one of the shelves – a trapdoor. And a small black object. I knelt to look.

A Motorola Razr, with a Hello Kitty bauble and a small crack to the bottom left of the screen. Lily’s phone.

This discovery turbo-charged my nervous system. I stood up, grabbed the shelf, and pulled. With a loud VOOM, the metal structure pivoted. I examined the trapdoor. It was latched and fastened with a dusty, rusted lock.

Lily’s voice – louder – floated up from below. “Cyrus! Come find me, Cyrus!”

Using my pocketknife, I easily picked the ancient lock. Then I lifted.

I saw darkness. As my eyes adjusted, I saw stairs. Damp, rotting wooden stairs leading down to some sort of cellar. I breathed in and gagged. The musty, earthy smell was overpowering. It was the smell of a wooden shed after the rain, mixed with the smell of a compost heap, mixed with a smell reminiscent of the family of possums that had gotten trapped under my mother’s mobile home one December, died, and rotted until spring.

“Cyrus!” Lily cried again. This time, she sounded agitated. Scared.

I took a deep breath, then descended.

I proceeded cautiously – cell phone in one hand, pocketknife clutched in the other – step by step. By the pale blue light of my cell screen, I saw the floor was dirt. I made out a dark blotch that must have been a puddle, and I heard faint dripping. The walls were grey cinderblock with black designs painted on them.

Then, my feeble light fell on a woman with blue scrubs and long black hair. Lily.

“Lil!” I cried out. “Lily! What the fuck are you doing….”

“Shhh.” She put her finger to her lips as she approached out of the darkness.

Then I was standing on the earthen floor, and she was close. Close enough for me to see that her features weren’t right. Her eyes were too small. Her nose was too flat.

She took my hands. Her features shifted, blurring in and out of focus. Was it an effect of the light seeping in through the trap door? Were my eyes still adjusting? And why had Lily, of all places, chosen…

And then her mouth was against my mouth.

I couldn’t eat for three days. I felt her warm tongue dissolve in my mouth. Turn cold and dead. Break into icy chunks that tasted like dust and stringed cabbage and rotting fish, expanding in my throat, choking me…

I pulled away, coughing and sputtering and trying to scream. I dropped my phone. As I dry-heaved, I heard Lily’s laughter. Now it sounded distant. Without thinking, I stood up.

My phone had landed in the puddle, creating an inverted spotlight. A body, noose around its neck, hung from the rafters. Immobilized by terror, I was forced to take in every detail.

Blue scrubs. Feet dangling lifelessly. Claw-like hands, plaster-still in rigor mortis. Long black hair. Purple cheeks, open mouth, swollen tongue dripping dark saliva. Bloodshot opal eyes protruding like a demented cartoon character’s, staring into oblivion.

Lily. Dead. Lily.

I don’t know how long I stared at my dead wife hanging from the ceiling before I felt the hand on my shoulder. Jolted from my traumatized paralysis, I turned around.

Illuminated by the light from the open trapdoor, was me.

My mirror image stood in front of me.

While Lily’s doppelgänger had flitted in and out of focus, mine was explicitly, grossly exact in every last detail. The little hairs on my unshaved cheeks. The red pimple on my forehead. The scar at the corner of my eye, from when I “fell off my bike” during one of my second stepfather’s drunken rampages. It’s – my – smile was malicious. Triumphant.

Then it spoke, in a twisted, modulated mockery of my voice.

“Aren’t you going to say ‘thank you?’”

Then it started to melt.

I don’t remember much after that. I heard my own voice screaming – whether it was me or my putrefying doppelganger, I don’t care to find out. There were more voices, women’s voices, women’s screams. Rough hands on me, an arm around my shoulders leading me up, up… then sunlight, then sirens.

*****

Lily had been dead for more than a week. That’s what the police officers told me, the second time I was questioned. The types of questions they were asking, I was sure they were going to pin it on me, especially given the nature of my and Lily’s relationship. But they didn’t.

In the end, they ruled her death a suicide. She’d died by strangulation, though they didn’t know how she’d managed it. She must have found the rope already hanging from the rafters – the cellar was fourteen feet high; there was no way she’d have been able to climb up and tie it herself. Nor could they find the chair or stool she had jumped off.

They didn’t know how she had found the basement. None of the nurses knew the dirt-floored cellar even existed. When the healthcare corporation had bought and gutted the place, they’d left the back of the first floor as it was. No attention had been paid to the sad little closet.

And no one could explain how she’d gotten down into the basement in the first place. There was only one entrance – the trapdoor. The trapdoor I’d found, locked from the outside.

Even with the coroner’s report, the cops had trouble pinning down a timeline. Lily had gone missing on the twelfth, of that the head nurse was adamant. I insisted I had seen her, alive, on the day her body was found. Rivera backed me up.

We weren’t alone.

Another nurse had had a conversation with Lily on the 15th; she remembered the date because it was the day after Valentine’s day. And a patient claimed he hadn’t actually seen Lily, as it had been dark and his eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, but had heard her voice singing him to sleep.

This one was particularly strange, because the night the old man had allegedly been sung to sleep by Lily was a good two weeks after she’d died, and a week after her decomposing body had been recovered. The cops wrote him off as confused. But I’m not so sure.

*****

I left town after Lily’s funeral. My father in Bakersfield, with whom I hadn’t spoken in years, called out of the blue and invited me to stay with him. When the flashbacks stopped and the memories scarred over, I screwed my head back on and went to paramedic school. I found a job, ran the Baker to Vegas stretch for a few years, then decided to take the next step in my career.

I only applied to LA City Fire because it was ultra-competitive and I assumed I’d fail the psychiatric exam. When my new hire packet came in the mail, I picked it up off the porch with trembling hands. I wanted to say no. But LA City was the job a million guys would kill for; and my dad told me he’d knock me out, throw me in the back of his truck, and leave me on the station steps if he had to.

*****

I moved back to Los Angeles in March of this year. I didn’t know anyone; I’d lost touch with all my old friends but Rivera, and Rivera was in New Jersey, burning through his fourth year of medical school. My new partner was a cool guy. He invited me to a barbecue at his church, promising there’d be a lot of people our age.

There wasn’t, but I did meet my new partner’s Uncle Raoul, a retired LAPD officer. We talked, and I learned he’d been one of the cops who’d investigated Lily’s death. He was cool about it; I was never a suspect, he assured me. Suicide was the only logical conclusion.

“Logical conclusion,” he said sarcastically. Then, he asked me what I knew about supernatural phenomena.

I forced a laugh. He didn’t.

He asked if I’d seen the cinderblock walls of the basement, the underground room where Lily was found dead. There had been little black designs, I recalled.

They were faces, he told me.

Faces all over the basement walls. Some were recognizable – Rustic Gables employees, patients, visitors. Some were the faces of people whose pictures were displayed by the patients. Family members, dead friends, celebrities, even the Pope. There were hundreds of them.

And the strangest part was, they couldn’t figure out how the faces had gotten there. Samples were tested; no trace of paint or dye was found. Nothing could wash them away and, in the spots chipped for samples, the faces were redrawn in full within hours.

My face was there. So was Lily’s. And on his third trip down, Raoul found his face.

The owners of Rustic Gables made the unanimous decision to sell the property. When no one bought it, they abandoned it, shipping their 168 residents off to other facilities.

Apparently, they’d had more trouble with the place in the three years since remodeling than it was worth. There had been nine suicides in that time – four patients, five staff members.

Other mysterious deaths, too. One I’d heard about – the woman given an extra dosage of Metoprolol because the “medical director” told her nurse to do so. Another time, a physical therapist found a blind, non-ambulatory patient locked in the staff bathroom, dead, with a pair of bandage shears sticking out of his chest.

And then, there was the building’s history. It had once been Section 8 housing. Raoul had been called there many times when he was a cop, and always got a weird vibe from the place. Other cops insisted the place was haunted.

In 2001, the building nearly burned down. Arson. A 12-year-old boy locked his mother in her bedroom, set the couch on fire, then jumped out a fourth-floor window. Seven people died, including an LAPD officer. Prior to that incident, the kid had been acting bizarrely, claiming to see the ghost of his father, who’d been murdered years before.

Raoul and I parted ways. I drove home. I thought about orange-haired Greta, and I thought about Herbert Smith. She saw her dead son, he saw the man he regretted leaving behind. And Lily and I saw each other. Happier, lustier versions of each other – versions still in love.

The next day, I did some research on doppelgangers. Omens of doom, embodiments of one’s dark side, like Jekyll and Hyde. This led me to The Shadow of Jungian philosophy. One’s Shadow is the manifestation of buried, selfish, evil thoughts. The thoughts you’re not allowed to think, the thoughts you deny.

I thought about what my doppelganger had said: “aren’t you going to say thank you?”

Whatever demon or spirit lived in that basement – it collected faces. It could shape-shift, become the spitting image of any human form it saw, and it knew our desires and our regrets. Our fears. It came to Greta as her son, then used Greta’s love to drive her mad. It recreated the image Herbert Smith saw in his guilty nightmares. I wanted Lily to love me again, but a part of me wanted her gone forever. It gave me both.

*****

I drive by that building sometimes, the former Rustic Gables SNF. The asphalt is cracked now, and the windows are shattered. I wonder if the walls have changed, if there are now more faces – maybe those of transients or addicts who, naively, look to the abandoned structure for shelter.

Sometimes I catch something out of the corner of my eye, through a darkened window. Sometimes it looks like a human face staring back at me. But I never let my gaze linger for long. I fear I’ll see her face, see my mistakes, relive her death and my inadvertent part in it.

And I fear I’ll see my own.

Credit: NickyXX

Creepypasta

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