Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
The building was old. It had been a factory of some sort one hundred, maybe one hundred fifty years ago. Its sturdy brick and steel construction had weathered the years well enough, and after so very long sitting abandoned, forgotten on the edges of the city, it was reclaimed by a well—to—do family as a new, innovative home. Had they chosen another building all would have been well, they would have renovated, remodeled, cleaned, and renewed the old structure into a showplace of their creativity and affluence. But they chose this building. They saw its bones and thought it strong; which it was, they saw its skin and thought it beautiful; which it was, they saw its broken windows, its empty halls, its shattered floors, and thought it empty. It was not.
As the construction began, scars of days gone by showed themselves here and there. Half done graffiti and shaky tag marks covered the first floor and basement of the building’s interior; disguising the rotting plaster and piss stained floors in garish paint. But all that was easily wiped away with hammer and chisel. The building’s innards were laid bare, wires and pipes were torn away, and then sewn back through the bones to meet the demands of this modern family. Simple, smooth, this was easy, and a good first step. The old wood was cleaned and scraped and finished fresh. The worst of it, the oldest wood that still bore black scars from long cooled fire, was stripped away and replaced anew. And as new skin was stretched over the old bones, as the walls were plied with plaster and paint, work on the upper floors began. Then too began the accidents. First blood was spilled in a careless mistake; the workman forgot to guard against the long rusted nails and twisted wire of the old building’s guts. A finger was the price of his carelessness. A needle and thread and a series of shots would put things to right and he would work again, though not in this building. He refused to return, but there were other workmen and they worked on.
Three months to the day after renovation had begun, all was going well. No more accidents, no more problems, discounting the two workmen who had simply not shown up for work one day. That happens in construction though. Nothing to be concerned about, even if they had left a few tools lying about the second floor from the previous night. Besides, the bottom floors were ready. There was ample room for the modern family to live comfortably as work continued on the second, third and fourth floors. So the family moved in. Hurriedly setting furniture where once offices and great machines had been. They claimed their place in the old building, and it became their home. Had this been another building all would have been well.
From the first night the children dreamed—dreams of fire and hunger. Before the first week was out the mother fretted over sounds in the dark, sounds from above like whispers in the cold space beyond the ceiling. As the days passed and the family staggered through the nights, they began to fear something wasn’t right about their new home. And so it was little surprise to any of them the day the workman screamed and fell from the second story window. It was early in the evening, as the family sat for dinner that the scream echoed out. Then the crash of glass and more screams as the man fell. There were three men on the job just then. He was the last in the building. He had lagged behind the others who were already packing their trucks to head home in order to finish with the plaster on the last of the walls in a corner room. The family and the men outside all heard the scream, that terrible howl and the crash of the window giving way, and that scream that went on and on as the workman fell to the ground below. The men outside turned to see the workman hit the ground and hear the cracking of his bones and the sudden, hollow ending of his scream. Both would later swear that the workman seemed to struggle as he fell to the ground, not to protect himself from the fall, but to turn himself as if to see the window he’d only just fallen from, arms raised not to protect his head as anyone would, but to cover his ears. Broken bones and blood met those who ran to the fallen man’s aid. Even as they reached him as his wet wheezing breath faded away, his face contorted in fear, his neck twisted at an impossible angle, his wide eyes were still focused on the window above.
That night was long and sleepless. Even after the police and ambulance had left, the noises were there. From time to time someone would move across the floor above, the sound of whispers or a faint and lilting cry would echo as if from a great distance. But there were no dreams of fire and hunger. There were no dreams. None in the family slept that night, and in the morning the parents fought. It was long past time for something to be done. Someone had to be called who could prove what they all already knew and fix it. But as much as the father feared the whispers in the dark, he was even more afraid of other whispers; whispers in the board room, whispers at the club. He would have no part of spirits and psychics. They would not play their games in his house. Work on the upper floors was put on hold. The family struggled on. The noises seemed to fade then, there were no more whispers for a while, no more movement from the dark above the ceiling… for a while. A few weeks later, as the dreams began to fade, and the family began to believe it had all just been in their too vivid imaginations, it happened.
Early one morning the youngest child, a boy of eight years, climbed the forbidden stairway to the second floor. Afterwards he could not say what had brought him to do it. He could not say why he took the matches with him. Nor could he say what had possessed him to pile the rags on the wide, second floor landing and set them alight. He only remembered screaming. He screamed as the fire licked up his legs. And he screamed as the whispers began then spun and turned like the flames themselves until the whispers were screams every bit as loud as his own. The father found his boy, screaming at the bottom of the stairs, screaming as the fire seared his legs, screaming and staring up at the fire that rolled up the walls on the wide landing above.
The boy lived. He would bear scars for the rest of his life, and he would not speak for more than a year. The building was little harmed, only cosmetic damage to the second floor said the firemen. Perfectly safe to return to. But the family did not return. Instead they reached out to those who might understand. They sought someone, anyone willing to hear their stories and try to help them. And they found someone. Several someone’s actually. A small group of men and women who hunted that which should not be hunted. These men and women wanted to find, to see and touch something deeper than the lives they lived, the familiar, sane places everyone pretended were real. They had found and dealt with such things before of course. They assured the family they had experience. They knew what they were doing. And had this been any other building they would have been well prepared to deal with what awaited them.
The investigators came to the building with the mother and eldest daughter. They wandered through in the early morning light. The basement and first floor, though empty now, still almost felt of home, but the faint smell of charred wood and burnt flesh somehow still hung in the air. The wide second floor landing bore blackened, scorched walls. Peeling paint and ashen plaster greeted them as they climbed the stairs, but otherwise little of interest could be found. The third and even the fourth floor above were still roughly done and showed more promise, so the investigators set their tools and traps there. Then they waited for night to come. They waited for the dark time to come. And it did.
As the sun settled on the horizon the whispers began. At first they came only to the ears of the most sensitive of the investigators, a man of some forty-five years. He looked and seemed distinguished with his salt and pepper hair and smart suit. He declared the building home to a troubled spirit, something long lost and angry at its passing. It was strong, he said, and full of pain and hunger for life. But it could be well healed and peace could be brought. And so the distinguished man set to work. But it did not go well for him. Nor did it go well for many others in the group. The whispers came, and other sounds too pressed through the night. Footsteps and scraping and a thump here and there gave way to headaches and nose bleeds. Then the fall down the third floor steps. On through the night little things happened to the investigators. One by one they had to leave the building. A twisted ankle, a bloodied nose, a migraine, a dizzy spell. Gradually all were taken ill save three; the distinguished man, a young minister, and a dark skinned, tech savvy college boy. It was decided that this spirit, this angry thing that claimed the building would be best settled in the light of day. So the three began to strike their equipment, to roll up the cables and shut down the cameras. The distinguished man, having battled all evening the attention of the dead thing he named the doer of dark deeds, retired to the first floor to rest and wait, and discuss the possibilities with the mother and eldest daughter. The young minister and the college boy were left to remove the last of the equipment from the upper floors. They moved as quickly as they could through the dark, their woefully inadequate flashlights giving precious little protection from the dark, and none at all from what resided within it.
They stood together on the wide second floor landing. The college boy was twisting up a last length of cable. The young minister packing away a small camera wasn’t watching him, and so couldn’t warn him of the ripple in the charred wall behind. Both were so busy in their growing rush to leave the building that neither noticed the walls begin to glisten wetly. They didn’t see the faint tinge of purple and red begin to seep into the blackened plaster. They didn’t see the slow bulge and sway of wood and blistered paint. So busy they were in their work, they saw nothing. But the smell, it was the smell that brought their attention to the wall. They’d grown used to the charred scent of the fire damaged walls around them, but this was different. It smelled of scorched wood and plaster, yes, but under that it smelled of rot. The smell of burnt plaster became the smell of flesh, half burnt flesh left to rot in the ruins of a fire gutted tomb. It smelled of fire and pain and fear and hate. They both turned their eyes to one another then, and it was this turning that allowed the young minister to see the wall behind the college boy suddenly split and let forth arms; blackened skin tearing and crackling even as they reached for the boy’s back. Eyes widened in shock, the young minister cried out a wordless warning, the boy spun in time to be caught about the throat and was lifted weightlessly into the air.
One rotting, charred arm held him by his throat and another grasped the college boy’s right arm. With his left arm the boy frantically slapped at the hand at his throat, managing only to tear away strips and chunks of brittle puss laden flesh but not loosen its strangling hold. Somewhere below, the distinguished man jumped up with a start. The dead thing was acting. He felt it move and roll through the world. It was stronger by far then he’d ever imagined. The sense of it was huge and terrible. The distinguished man wanted to warn his friends, to call them down and get out of the building he now knew was so very, very dangerous. He opened his mouth to shout, to yell, to scream for them to run. But all that came was a confused whisper, “Four arms?” Then the pangs of hunger tore through his gut doubling him over and stealing his breath away. He knew then, in the feverish pit of his mind, that this was no single soul. This was no lost and angry ghost, but a horde of dead and starving things. The truth of his misunderstanding shattered his last reserves of strength and he dropped to his knees, tears falling from his eyes.
The minister watched as his friend was lifted into the soured air. He watched with terrible fascination as more hands tore from the glistening putrid wall and clawed at his flailing, dying friend. The sheer impossibility of the moment crashed into the simple terror of its actuality and ignited a spark in the young minister. He breathed in deep the stench of the hallway. The thick, awful smell that surrounded him poured into his lungs as he took up the small cross at his throat and began to call upon all that is holy to beat back the horrors that held his friend. But the words never came. For as the young and valiant minister turned to confront the depths of the evil before him the black charred wall behind him erupted in arms. In that moment of his proven faith he was snatched back against the seeping, gory wall. Dead, cracking fingers seized onto his hair, snagged at his arms, clamped hard on his limbs and tore at his clothes. He would have screamed then, but the fingers bore into his mouth, burnt nails and fetid flesh tearing the voice from him even as they tore the sinews from his bones. He could not scream, but screams there were. Tormented, harrowed screams of the dead split the darkness. The pain and fear became palpable things to the living below. Worse than this though were the howls of unimaginable hunger that sounded above all else.
The young minister stood naked and cold. He was confused. There was pain. He remembered pain and fear, but in that moment he could not remember why he had been afraid, or what had caused him pain. Then, in a flash, he knew. He was dead. He was free of the clawing hands and gnashing teeth. He was free in his death and he should flee. But that moment of hesitation was too long. The hungry dead do not easily give up their spoils. As they suffer, so should all. From the walls that were they, from the broken, twisted, hating soul of the building they had become after the horrible fire that had claimed their bodies, the dead reached forth and claimed the young minister’s spirit for their own. Yanked back, slammed into the wall of roiling starving souls, the minister was taken in. His soul, his faith, all that he was, was overcome. There was nothing left but pain, anger, and hunger. Oh the hunger. It was terrible and complete. The hunger was, had been and would always be. It was eternal and insatiable. There was suffering, and fury, and ravenousness—and there was flesh. And in that flesh there was the last vestige of a dying life. What was left of the young minister cried out. His screams fell in with all the rest and he bit into the one thing that might bring him relief. The flesh was cool now, but it still flickered with life. It was soft beneath his dead teeth, sweet beneath his hunger. He tore and took, and then he saw. The flesh he ate, the body he tore, the life he was stealing was his very own. He screamed then. Not in anger, or hunger, but in anguish. He screamed in sorrow for all that he had been, and all he could have been, and all that he had become. His screams rolled out. It shook the walls, it shook the building, it shook the dead from their hunger, and even the dead wondered at the depths of his despair. But only for a moment. And then came the hunger. And as the hunger came crashing back upon the dead, what was left of the minister knew that he was lost. And as hope like everything else fell before the hunger of the dead, he, and all that he was, was lost and forgotten.
Credit To – S. Fillhart
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