Estimated reading time — 30 minutes
John sat with his grandmother on the balcony terrace overlooking West Bay Road and the lower Hampshire valley. The lush green fields from springtime were now singed-brown; the lack of rainwater that summer was turning the place into the Mojave Desert. A screaming hawk flew overhead, much like John it was basted and blazed by the sun. The worn complexion on his grandmother’s skin was more noticeable when the two sat beside each other in the sunlight. John lived in Goshen with his mother and father. He’d just finished school for the summer and was interning as a columnist for Gemini Ink. His past two summers he’d spent lifeguarding at the Highland reservoir in Goshen. The pay was satisfactory at best but John was going into his senior year this upcoming autumn and had made no associations for after college. By his second semester of junior year John had switched his major from Environmental Science to Journalism. The National Center for Education statistics states that eighty percent of college students will change their major at least once over the course of their four years. John had managed to triple that number by the end of his junior year.
Finally, one day, John went to visit his guidance counselor for the millionth time asking to switch his college major (yet again). When John walked into her office that day she could not help but chuckle a tiny bit, “You switch majors faster than a politician switches sides at a fundraiser.” She proclaimed.
“Don’t know what I want.” He merely replied.
“Well, let’s start from the beginning.” She suggested, “What are your interests?”
John was baffled by her question, not once had a member of the faculty asked him a question so personal. It was nice to have his opinion be put into consideration for once.
“Well,” he began, “I suppose I love to read. I also enjoy writing. Back in high school I wrote an article to the Daily Reminder regarding Charlie Baker’s administration promoting rehabilitation against the opioid epidemic in the commonwealth. It didn’t make the front-page news but I got a check in the mail the next week for two-hundred & fifty dollars.”
She smiled widely at him and said, “I know just what you need.” She exclaimed.
John stuck with Journalism throughout the rest of junior year (it was the longest he had stuck to one subject since he first went to college) and was even taking a couple summertime courses over break. He knew he wouldn’t be able to graduate on time with the rest of his classmates, but this did not bother him in the least bit.
As for his visit to Applewood retirement community, today’s visit was not of the customary sorts. His grandmother, Patricia, lived alone at Applewood retirement community for nearly two decades. Ever sense John’s father moved away and sense John’s grandfather, Byron Hotz, was struck with a case of Death. On this afternoon, John had brought his note pad and pencil and an old tape recorder he dug out of some boxes in the garage.
John pushed the record button and initiated their conversation, “S-so how did you and granddad first come to Northampton?”
“How did we come to Northampton?” she contemplated the question for a moment or two then replied, “Well, in 1968 it was that old way women use to travel…following their husbands.” She snickered, “We came to the city with nothing but a pocket full of change, a penchant for hard work, and like most people back then, with lofty entrepreneurial dreams of the restaurateur kind. Unfortunately, neither one of us had the culinary skills of Auguste Escoffier nor knew nothing of managing a restaurant so we had to make do with the hand we were dealt. The city was still a very vibrant place even in those days. It was a place with very much integrity (architecturally speaking), yet still there were very few buildings that didn’t have boarded-up second floors. The diversity in those times was also different. The Puerto Rican community was much greater back then than it is today, but due to prejudices the Puerto Rican community was restricted to areas such as Hampshire Heights or Florence Heights. The city itself was still a politically-active community. The streets were usually filled with protestors at city hall who admonished America’s involvement in Vietnam. The police and the citizens clashed against one another repeatedly day-after-day and night-after-night.” She paused for a moment then exhaled with great dissatisfaction, “I can’t remember the first time I heard about the state hospital, most people just called it the ‘Insane asylum’, ‘the cuckoo’s nest’ or ‘the loony bin’. I didn’t know very much before your grandfather started working there just that it was an awful place and that some nefarious acts happened there …”
John remembered when his grandmother first told him about the insane asylum. He was very young at the time and all she said was, “It’s the place where the men in white coats take you away to when you are not feeling so well.” But that was not the way the kids in school described it. John remembered it as the place where the men in white coats came in a truck with no windows, a truck that was charcoal gray. It rolled up onto the curb in front of your house and the men in white coats came and took you away from your family and made you live in a room made of soft, white walls. It was a place that didn’t allow its residents to write home to their families with pencils or pens but instead with Crayola crayons.
She reached over for her cup of tea, which had lost its fresh cloud of vapor and was now being hassled by a horde of fruit flies. She sipped it and then she cleared her throat, “It’s been nearly fifty years since then and I may just be some ol’ spinster but I ain’t senile jus’ yet.” She declared, “But everything your grandfather said was the truth. Make yourself comfortable, John, because this story I am about to tell you will be very long and very disturbing.”
June 23, 1968
The facility resided on 1st Prince St. on top of Hospital Hill on the outskirts of Northampton, Massachusetts. The main building was a looming stone of horror perpetrated on the landscape at the end of the nineteenth century. A very sort of ‘impenetrable’ looking place was the general term people used to describe it. Growing from either side were stonewalls built one by one over the previous hundred years, mostly with federal money that began flowing during the Lyndon Johnson years and just never stopped. The original hospital building, built on the Kirkbride model in an Elizabethan style. The hospital was completed in 1858 and was opened as, “Northampton’s State Lunatic Hospital” but members of the commonwealth found the name to be somewhat pejorative and sometime at the turn of the century renamed it just, “Northampton State Hospital”.
Jutting from one side of the main building was an outdoor corridor forty yards long and spanned twenty feet in width and enclosed in heavy chain link fencing was what the staff at the hospital called, “the Chicken Run”. While all residents at Northampton State Hospital were unwell, there were others who were beyond saving and could not be permitted to roam the courtyard freely like some other patients. The Chicken Run was meant for the mentally ill that were considered to be harmful to themselves and others if given the chance. Each patient who was permitted out onto the Chicken Run received two hours of recreation each day (as long as the weather permitted it). During the colder seasons patients would go five or sometimes six months even without stepping outside of their rooms. Some walked; some jogged, most simply stood out in the open or would rest their backs against the chain link fence looking over the facility grounds often watching the staff and the other patients walk about freely outside the mesh wire. If they were lucky enough the patients would sometimes see deer feeding on the grass on top of the ridge.
Byron Hotz walked alongside Captain Eric Jacque. Jacque was tall, well-built, and symmetrical with a crewcut and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses; he was head of the security staff on the night shift. They walked up a winding stairwell; the paint on the walls was chipped and washed out. At the top of the stairwell was a steel frame door corroded with rust. The building’s edifice was not on par with state regulations as there were no yearly inspections back in those days. Dr. Albert Dukakis was the head physician and superintendent of the facility in those days. The facility’s main building was in dire need of repairs as there had been no additions made since 1912. While Dukakis kept the place afloat he was forced to run an institution that was both understaffed and underfunded. Nevertheless, he managed to keep the place afloat with some spit, baling wire, and nickel-and-dime appropriations from the state legislature. It was an act of ‘see no evil, speak no evil’ which only left the patients of Hospital Hill to suffer in a place that reeks of madness and nightmares (a place where only the insane could survive). Just keep them quiet and keep them sedated on Chlorpromazine. That was pretty much the idea back then.
Captain Jacque took a set of brass keys clipped to his waistband and unlocked the door. The door opened inward revealing a stark and desolate corridor with two columns of panel lights staggered from one end of the hallway to the other. The width of the corridor was large enough for two maybe three normal size people to walk side-by-side (speaking out of perspective of course). Doctors and staff members walked around in white overcoats peering through the iron mesh on the doors. All the doors were the gray of unburnished silver, dull and dotted by years of water corrosion. Normally there would have been some fancy matching knob but instead there was only a shaft of cold and black metal. Byron counted twelve doors on each side of the hallway; the only difference was each one was numbered differently, one bold and fat number on the plain, gray composition of the door’s façade. All the doors were locked from the outside. Byron peeked through the mesh on each door as he walked by; the rooms were small and barren with a mattress on the cold floor and a single blanket for warmth. The screams of horror can be heard through the paper-thin walls. The clear majority of patients he saw lying on the floor or in hospital gurneys and dressed in white gowns. Some had their faces pressed up against the glass of their windows and stared aimlessly into the outside world. It was at that moment that Byron realized why the town’s people referred to this place as “Hell Hall”. It was not a treatment center but a holding facility where society put away God’s neglected children.
“This is a place where people are sent to be forgotten.” Jacque said.
Midway down the corridor was a small panel box with the words inscribed in bright red lettering “Fire Hose” clearly one of the hospital’s obscure methods of treatment. All the windows in the rooms were barred shut from the outside; the glass was opaque from grunge and dust or soot, perhaps. Jacque removed the keys from his waistband and handed them off to Byron. He did not know what to say at first, he felt as if he’d been dealt a bad set of cards. Perhaps, this wasn’t my best idea. He thought.
“Like everyone who comes through here (staff included) you will hate this place in the beginning. Soon after you will grow accustomed to the standard of things around here and then eventually you will come to depend upon this place.”
The way he said that, depend upon this place, it made Byron’s skin creep. Eventually you will come to depend upon this place.
“Welcome to the night shift, Mr. Hotz.” He extended his hand to Byron. Byron shook it, two quick pumps. His hand was dry and grainy. Shaking hands with Jacque was like shaking hands with a fistful of salt. Just then a single fleeting thought crossed Byron’s mind, what have I gotten myself into?
“He came home every morning with a spiteful look on his face. A malign look you might say. It was then I knew that the stories of Hospital Hill were true, that it was a place that if anybody had any choice at all would not go there. I didn’t really know any of this for sure b-but that was the image I had and it was the image most people seemed to have…” said John’s grandmother.
“When did you…when exactly did you begin to notice a change in him?” John asked her as he leaned over the armrest on his chair.
“I think it was sometime after that first month, it started with a patient by the name of August Haskell.”
There was never a dry moment in those days. Patients screamed wildly throughout all hours of the night. Some screamed, others laughed; however, these were not snickers or chuckles but convulsive cackles and guffaws.
One patient whom worried Byron most resided in room five on the third floor. August Haskell, a demented man who bared a striking resemblance to Montgomery Clift. Byron remembered reading in the newspaper one morning two years prior how Montgomery’s body was found by his live-in personal secretary and companion, Lorenzo James. Clift was found lying nude on top of his bed, dead from what the autopsy called “occlusive coronary artery disease.” Perhaps this was him, Byron thought, perhaps the news and the memorial services was just a cover-up story to hide the truth of what really happened to him. The simple fact that all the hooch and nose candy sent him over the edge and put him right here in this Hell hole.
Haskell ogled at Byron through the iron mesh every time he walked by, he licked the brim of his mouth then leered at him with a toothy, shit eating grin like a cymbal monkey’s and a pair of jaundiced eyes. Byron did not falter at the sight of this, at first it bothered him but eventually you become accustomed to it and numb yourself to the oddities of this place. He remained seated in his chair when he was not too busy (which was most of the time) conducting his hourly well-being checks, reading The October Country by Ray Bradbury. Byron was never much of a reader until he became an adult; before then most of his literary time consisted of reading the Fleer’s Funnies which came wrapped around the bubble gum he chewed indefatigably at work. Back before his wife and him moved to Northampton, Byron worked as a corrections officer at Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, Maine. Much like his current job its inhabitants were defiant; the only difference was that nights in Bolduc were mostly quiet, while here on Hospital Hill the screaming never ended. He became fidgety at work and needed some way to engage his time; it wasn’t until his wife brought home a series of books from the library one day for him to read at work. At first the books didn’t appeal to his liking but with enough time he grew attached to them like images to a mirror.
It was sometime after two in the morning when he heard an indistinct sound, a sound that was unusual even in a place such as this. The sound was downgraded to a shy whisper but was rhythmic like fingernails tapping against a chalkboard, but the most peculiar thing was the fact the sound was coming from down the corridor from outside of the rooms. Suddenly something dashed across the hallway. Byron picked up his flashlight and proceeded down the passage, he moved cautiously as the movement was almost human-like. Had one of the patients been able to pick the locks on the doors and using the opportunity of the nightfall to escape? Not that Byron disagreed with the patients, locked away here was truly a living Hell and much like Hell there was punishment, there was torture and a disconcerted need to escape this unforgiving place.
When he came around to the bend in the corridor he pointed the rays of his flashlight down the hall from where the sound originated from then back the other way. When he looked he saw nothing, the corridor was empty and all that was left was the intolerable sound of the wind, which had risen to a near-gale, from outside. Suddenly, from behind him Byron heard screams coming from Haskell’s holding cell and a loud clashing like one hard object hitting another. It was no ordinary scream in itself (even in such a place as this). This was a Wilhelm type of scream like in the Raul Walsh film, “Distant Drums”. Byron rushed back down the corridor to his cell. He peered through the mesh wire on the door, but no sign of Haskell. He shinned the flashlight back and forth finding nothing but a discarded mattress. Against his better judgment he removed the keys from his waistband to unlock the door, he hadn’t familiarized himself yet with all the keys. Finally, after his fourth try he heard the tumblers begin to shift from within. A warm burst of air greeted him upon walking in. The room smelt like the inside of an athletic supporter. There was the lingering sense of unease as he stepped into the darkness. He took five paces in when his foot caught on something; he staggered a few steps forward then caught himself on the far wall. When he looked down at his feet his face was the color of fine, fresh milk. Haskell laid face up to the ceiling; his mouth hinged agape, his eyes wide with distress, his hair stood out, perfectly on end, in a cone. As they say he was as dead as a salmon in a fishmonger’s basket.
“Was there an inquest?” John asked.
“Of course…” his grandmother replied, “Rapid Eye Movement or ‘REM’ for short as they call it. What a load of bull-crap that was! A sleeping disorder in which the hostess physically acts out in response to their dreams, in most cases they behave violently. Forensics found fragments of concrete in the indent on his forehead. The autopsy said that his brain was knocked loose from the connecting tissue, but there were scratch marks all along the back of his neck as if someone…or something was forcing his head into the wall. At first, we thought he did it to himself, but now after what I know I’m not so sure.”
John fondled the idea for a minute then asked, “What happened then?”
She breathed deeply finding her voice for what came next, “August Haskell was dead; they incinerated his body in the old furnace down below the building’s main edifice. These were the guidelines back then; this is what they did to all the ones who were without family. Those with families were often planted in an unmarked grave out behind the building’s court yard where the sun don’t shine. There weren’t very many mourners for them and Dr. Dukakis wasn’t one for spending tax payer’s dollars on sentimental services. There was no money in the budget for ceremonies or any fiddle-faddle of that sort. Meanwhile, people were knocking down the doors on Hospital Hill: paranoids, schizoids, cycloids, catatonics, semi-catatonics, men who grew wings and went to Heaven and Hell in a New York minute, women who burned children’s sex organs off with Bic lighters, alcoholics, pyromaniacs, kleptomaniac, maniac-depressives, and the classical suicidals. We later discovered that a woman just a few weeks before had committed suicide with a bedspring in that same room. Her name was Lauren Hostetler, a junky on the streets who exposed herself to sodomy in exchange for drug money. It was a tough world we lived in. If your head wasn’t bolted on right, you were gonna shake, rattle and roll before you turn thirty. It was a problem we all dealt with in our own ways. We thought (better yet we hoped) that would be the end of the strangeness, but things only worsened from there…”
Byron friended a man by the name of Jarred Tillman, a second member of the security staff at the state hospital who had spent most of his career riding the night train. Unlike all the others who worked security at the malls, jewelry shops and local convenient stores Tillman served six years as a military police officer in the Marine Corps and was deployed to the Yellow Sea during the Korean War.
That evening Byron and Tillman went down into the boiler room beneath the facility’s edifice. In addition to the safe keeping of their patients, maintaining perimeter security was just as much of a priority to Dukakis. Searching for any weak points in the facility’s main building, any sectors or subdivisions in need of repairs was just an excuse for Dukakis to present himself before the state board and preach his propaganda to the state legislature just to receive more money for their budget. But in the end, he was just lining up his pockets with cash to keep his mistress and himself happy. That is what legal practitioners refer to as, “embezzlement”.
Tillman pulled a cord and a single seventy-five-watt bulb cast a sickish yellow glow over the area they stood in. The boiler was mounted on four cement blocks; a long copper-jacketed tank squatted beneath a confusion of pipes and ducts which climbed upward into the shadows and out of sight. Straight ahead was the elevator shaft; heavy, lubricated cables descended to pulleys and a huge grease-clogged motor. In the far-right corner, just at the edge of the light’s reach sat a stack of bundled, banded and boxed papers. Records, or receipts, or invoices, perhaps he thought. Yellowed, flimsy foolscaps spilled out from cardboard boxes, doused in cable grease and gossamer.
“There she is.” Tillman exclaimed, “The heart of this place. She’s old but she still holds.” He said with a wide and unpleasant grin.
A blaring, hissing noise escaped one of the pipes up above, the sound of vapor and steal clashing together all at once sounded almost like a braying mule.
“How old is this place?” Byron asked.
“Older then I care to remember, but I believe about a hundred maybe some hundred-and-ten years old. Why do you ask?”
“Just curious, I suppose.”
“Yes, I suppose most people would have questions when they walk into an environment such as this one. My motto is ‘hear no evil, see no evil’. You’ll live by those philosophies you go home at the end of each day with a smile on your face and a paycheck in the mail.” He chuckled.
Byron could not help but smile at this, “They should put that slogan on a billboard and mount it on the freeway.” He added.
“You’re alright, Byron. You got your head screwed on right. That goes a long way in here.” He said shuffling back to the elevator shaft.
“Hey, Jarred, you mind if I ask you somethin’?”
“Shoot.” He replied.
“You ever get an eerie sort of feeling about this place.”
He looked flummoxed, “What do you mean?”
“You ever see anything odd walking around at night?”
“Not much walking around here in daylight either. The only time most of these people are ambulant is when they get their daily recreation in the Chicken Run.”
“I mean has something caught your eye as being out of place. Like something walking around the facility at night, maybe?”
“Rats.” He said sneering at the term as if the mere taste of the word on his tongue was like chalk. “Damn things are an abomination to the eyes, ears and nose. I can hear them scurrying about in the ducts, vents and ceiling all hours of the night. You know that fat fairy upstairs would scream all the way to Worcester if he had to pay pest control to come in and spray rat poison all up and down the corridors.”
“That’s it, just rats?”
“Well, what else could you mean?”
He considered telling him about the scratch marks on the back of Haskell’s neck and the strange clicking sound he hears running up and down the corridors at night, but then he bit down on the inside of his cheek and decided not to pursue this subject any further.
“Nothing, I suppose it’s all just in my head.”
As they walked away Byron looked back into the impenetrable darkness of that dismal place. If there was ever place that could be compared to Hell, this is it. He thought.
The sound of the furnace echoed back like a knell at a funeral service. Then there was the sound he heard from before, the gentle clicking sound, like fingernails… or perhaps they sounded more like claws.
“At any point did you start to consider the idea that granddad might be…unwell?” John asked tentatively.
She rounded her lips and looked out over the balcony and at the prairie down below, the sheer tension of silence was blanketed by the coughing misfire of a Chrysler engine off somewhere in the distance. She contemplated her answer then replied, “Maybe for a little while I did, but when you have been married for as long as your grandfather and I had been, you start to have some form of insight about each other. You see things others can’t see, you know things, and you pick up on all their little quirks. We got hitched when we were eighteen, the following spring your father was born, and by ‘64 we were landowners and homeowners.”
“Then why did you leave Maine?” he asked.
She didn’t answer his question immediately, her eyes cast down at the floor as sullen red-roes began blooming in her cheeks. In a low, colorless voice she replied, “I can’t remember what our reasons were, but I know now we were wrong to leave. Before then in all the time I knew your grandfather not once did I consider him to be ‘unwell’. He was a loving father, a devoted husband, but more importantly he was a good man…a rational man. That place latched onto him like a parasite.”
“Tell me about his first real encounter…”
September 17th, 1968
1968 remains arguably the most historic year in modern history. It was a year of triumphs and tragedies. The year began with the Tet Offensive in the midst of the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson had signed the civil rights act 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was pronounced dead on April 4th, at 7:01 PM in Memphis, Tennessee. Then just two months after Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The Apollo 8 moon landing was still a few months away, but things were looking better for a little while.
Byron grew accustomed to the ‘norms’ at the hospital, eventually all the bantering and incongruous noises became like pleasurable sounds to his ears. Like birds singing in the tree tops, frogs greeting each other on lily pads, the sighing of a gentle breeze through a pine forest. When patients called out to people who weren’t there, held conversations with total emptiness or began mumbling incoherently to themselves Tillman called it, “acting out the tartar” Byron just thought Tillman meant the patient’s mental delusions and behaviors were brought on by hypertension. To anyone else it was bizarre, but to the employees at the hospital, it was just the usual routine of things. Another patient had committed suicide the night before last; a young schizophrenic, no more than twenty, Samuel Mortimer. Byron remembered the event vividly. He remembered seeing the mob of staff members crowding around the doorway. There came the shrill cry of a woman, Byron pushed his way through the crowd and saw the position the boy’s body was in. He was still alive at the time; his hair was snow-white, his body bounced and writhed around on the floor. Here was a creature older than time masquerading as a boy. He saw two men restrain his wrists as clawed hands beat and twisted and danced in the air. Byron distinctly remembered seeing the boy’s face. He’d clawed out his own eyes; the skin around his eyelids was cut into thin ribbons, blood gouted. Cackling and screeching as he tried reaching for his eyes. It was a scene Byron would not so easily forget. On his wall above his bed was written, “It was more fun in Hell”. The very next night the old woman in the next room over died of an explosive brain embolism. He remembered her lying on the floor; blood dribbled out from her eyes, her ears and her nose. This place was like an animal shelter that housed sick and diseased animals who sat in their cages all day and night waiting to be euthanized.
On this night in September, Byron had himself another scare. One evening they had been laying traps baited with rat poison throughout the facility (a cheap and easy way for Dukakis to keep his pockets full and keep the staff content). Byron went into the workers bathroom afterwards to clean himself off. He wore gloves, a face mask and even eye protection but the idea of touching that toxic parasite killer made his skin crawl. As he pulled the plug and the water started to run out of the sink that was when he heard it. Just as the sounds of the water began to die off Byron heard a distinct voice, one which he had not heard in a very long time. It started off shallow, but then it grew louder. He leaned one ear over the drain and listened closely. It was the voice of his sister, Lydia, who had been taken by polio when she was just eight. He heard his sister down there, she was laughing somewhere down in those pipes, down there in the dark, laughing. His upper lip quivered, he thought maybe he was imagining things. He stared down into that black hole and in a shy whisper asked, “H-hello?” without warning the voice was cut-off. He waited and listened carefully, there was nothing but sheer silence now. He called out once more, “Ly-Lydia, is that you?” Then suddenly a whole slew of voices replied all at once.
“My name is Christopher.”
“My name is Susan.”
“I am Audrey.”
“I am Robert.”
“My name is Judith.”
His knees felt like rubber as the voices called back. He heard Lydia’s voice a second time coming from the drain; only now she was laughing wildly like a crazy person would. A flare of anger surged through him. He yelled down into the drain, “GOD DAMMIT, WHO ARE YOU?! WHAT ARE YOU?!”
All at once the voices in the drain replied as the possessed man in the Book of Matthew said, “Our name is Legion, for we are many.”
Terror flew over him; Byron lost his balance and reeled backwards into the door. With a loud click the door swung wide open and Byron began falling through the air, pin wheeling his arms like a madman. He landed on his rear-end then began to crawl away from the sink. Just as he looked up he discovered Tillman standing over him.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph what’s got your knickers in a twist?” Tillman asked.
“Th-the sink.” Byron said, his skin was as pale as parchment and the appearance on his face was that of a man who has seen the Holy Ghost.
Tillman bewildered by Byron’s panic walked over to the sink and peered down into that dark drain. Then he turned back and said, “Pipes in this building are older than Methuselah. You’ll hear them makin’ strange noises here and again.”
Byron was staggered by his response. You don’t hear them? He wanted to ask but hesitated and knew Tillman would declare him crazy if he started spewing nonsense about hearing voices in the drains. Hearing his late sister’s voice laughing in the dark, they would strap him down to a gurney, lock him up and throw away the key if he considered telling anyone such nonsense.
She peered over at her grandson and saw how taken aback he was by the story thus far. “You must think I’m storyin’ you along, must be thinkin’ I’m as crazy as a bedbug?”
He paused before answering, “I don’t think you’re storyin’ me, and I don’t think you’re crazy. You’re tellin’ the truth, I can see it on your face.” he replied.
“We began to consider the idea of moving back to Maine for a little while after that. My father was a carpenter by trade and offered to take your grandfather under his wing as an apprentice until something more lucrative presented itself. But those plans never came to fruition, eventually we discarded the idea. I don’t know why it just slipped our minds after a little while. I suppose when things became calm again, your grandfather decided to soldier on and hold his position at the hospital.”
“What happened then?” John asked.
“The voices never came back, but that wasn’t then end of the strangeness.”
With the building being so old repairs were customary especially to the night staff; when Dukakis could not hire an additional member to their maintenance department (for unsaid reasons) the responsibility fell upon the night shift to make repairs if needed. The elevator had itself a case of the electrical hiccups. Byron was tasked to go down below and oil the cogs and the runners some more, at least until the morning when the maintenance crew arrived. As he conducted his task, from out of his peripheral vision the stack of records, receipts and invoices beckoned him. Come on over, Byron. They called out to him. Don’t be bashful, give us a read, and see what all the commotion is about. You might find somethin’ interesting. Curiosity is a powerful feeling, it overwhelms the mind and provokes us and conjures up mischievous ideas.
Byron gave into his interest and found himself standing over the stack of invoices asking himself what kind of psychiatric health facility leaves a stack of invoices down here in the darkest corner of its dwelling? The answer to that is no other place, only here. To his unwanted desire Byron began leafing through the piles of records and old papers. He was hunched over the yellowed sheets, his jet-black hair tumbling messily over his forehead; he looked slightly like a lunatic (like another one of the patients). There were some odd things tucked amongst the foolscaps of invoices and records (things that were most disquieting). A letter dated June 5th, 1914, the letter reads…
“To my dear sister,
The institution allows me only to write twice a month. I write to tell you of my time in this place. They only give us a mattress for our rooms which is festering with bedbugs and other things which crawl. The sounds of shrieks and groans haunt me day and night; I fear I will never escape. I am never to leave my cell to see these wretched creatures. I only hear them…”
Byron was taken by the voice of the man in this letter. There was no name and it was not enclosed in an envelope of any sorts. Instead it waits down here, festering in this bottomless pit. He began leafing through other pieces of paper and discovers more writings to loved ones and friends on the outside, letters from patients to their families never to be delivered, but instead discarded and hidden away by the staff. This was not the voice of an insane man; it was the voice of a sound man, a common man, a man with a sister, a man with a family on the outside who waited so long for him to return home.
“Dr. Arlinder is the superintendent here at the sanatorium. He swears me to be of unsound mind, or ‘incurable sickness’ as he calls it and that he may keep me here as long as he deems necessary and I know he will. It is a monstrous crime to put anyone here. I wish you to know some of the atrocities the staff performs as treatment to its patients. Orderlies are instructed by Dr. Arlinder to carry out hydrotherapy. This method entails restraining a patient to a tub filled with scalding hot water in an attempt to calm their minds. Then there is what the staff refers to as ‘The Crate’ in which a hospital bed with railings is placed upside down on top of another bed to form some type of cage. I was kept in this confined space for six days with little food or water as punishment for my unsociable actions. I beg for the Grim Reaper to come and take me, but he does not come.
I am to live out the remainder of my life here simply because of my anxiety and because I could not sleep at night. To inveigle me into this bedlam is an unforgivable sin of mother and father. Keep little Tabitha and Brandon away from here if you can, and never let a child of yours, should you bear any, or yourself come here. It is a place of evil which I cannot escape. Holding on with great efforts…
God be with you,
Byron folded the paper in the palm if his hand and began to feel ill. His face began to turn red, his heart filled with hate, hate which could only find catharsis in burning down this facility along with Dr. Dukakis in it. He placed the paper back into the box and then suddenly there was a strange freezing sensation in his hand. At first the feeling was mild then the stinging cold turned to fire and began lurching through his veins, up his arm and into his brain. It was a pain so intense it locked up all the muscles in his arm. He withdrew his hand from the box and to his discovery what should he find? A rat! A rat had bit the webbing between his thumb and forefinger hard enough to bring blood. He rapt the critter in both hands, it felt like holding something inert, like packed straw or sawdust, except for its aspirating sides. He felt its nappy fur crinkle under his hands, but the feeling was muffled, meager, like someone shot him full of Novocain. His breathing was quick and dry, like the rattle of wind through straw. Byron then dropped the rat hurriedly. It stood on its hindquarters and hissed at him in the most agitated manner. It peered up at him with two small, black eyes like fine beads of oil. In a fit of rage and revulsion Byron brought his left foot up then down on top of it. He heard a loud crunching sound, followed by a wet splat across the floor. Blood and liquefied intestines spurted from beneath his foot and doused his pant leg. He held his wounded hand close to his chest feeling the warm blood mat the thick pelt that grew there. It thrashed around for a minute till finally it stopped moving. He stood on top of it for another minute or so wanting to make sure it was dead and not just playing possum. Finally, he lifted his foot off of the rodent and knew it was dead. Its entrails reduced to porridge, the blood on the floor turned gray like the inside of a pewter dish.
He stared at the wound on his hand and nearly swooned over. Then he heard a faint chirping sound from up above him. He looked up and saw he was being monitored by a whole throng of rats. They lined every crack, every crevasse, and every gap along the wall. They stood side-by-side like silent sentinels. His mouth parted slightly as they stared stolidly down at him. This cannot be happening… he thought. This must be some kind of nightmare. Byron pinched his forearm in an unsuccessful attempt to wake himself from what he believed to be a lurid dream. But he did not find himself lying in bed with his wife; instead he was still down there beneath that grim place up on Hospital Hill. Little by little he began to move away from them, back peddling slowly towards the stairwell. He would not run for the elevator as it was too far, and should it still not be fixed he would be trapped in that steel box with his little acquaintances who witnessed him kill one of their own.
In a split second, Byron turned and dashed for the stairs. His heart was a runaway stamping press in his chest, his eyes wide and his mouth swollen shut with fear. He leaped up the first set of steps, as he bounded a second time his foot caught itself, in that instant he fell forward and hit his head. A hazy feeling flew over him, his field of vision clouded and nearly blackened. A voice rang in both his ears, it was his inner-self yelling at him to get up and keep moving. He sprang onto his feet and bounded forward, he wobbled a bit, striking both walls as he scurried up those steps. When he came to the top he slammed the door shut behind him kicking up clouds of dust with it.
In a sudden sense of relief Byron’s world tilted crazily, came back to level, then just went on moving until it was tilted in the other direction. Every time rational thought came back, panic goosed the hairs on his arms and legs. He ran into the staff bathroom. His stomach contracted so violently that he almost didn’t reach the toilet in time. His head flew forward over into the toilet bowl as chunks of food propelled from his mouth into the porcelain bowl staining it in a creamy chyme. He sank his knees onto the linoleum floor as the last of it dribbled from his lips and his stomach turned over once more. He felt his head singing with a sharp, cutting pain that sliced keenly through his panic.
After Byron cleaned himself and straightened his uniform, he looked at the bite on his hand. The blood was just beginning to clot. He went over to the mirror and inspected his head wound. There was a small gash just above the right temporal lobe; there was some swelling and some ominous discoloration, but he was in no immediate danger. He went to the nurses’ station; it was empty (as anticipated). There were only three medical nurses available for the entire facility on the night shift (another one of Dukakis’s budgeting problems). First, he disinfected the bite wound on his hand with a bottle of peroxide, an irksome sting shot through his arm and up his neck giving him a mild migraine. He closed his eyes and bit down on his lower lip. After the pain washed away he then wrapped it over with an adhesive bandage. Then he tended to the wound on his head with Rawleigh salve and another bandage. Was he going crazy? He began to think, was this place turning him into a demented fool?
Just as Byron closed the cabinet shut from his peripheral vision at the corner of the doorway’s threshold appeared an abhorrent, black shape. He wretched and made a disgusted sound at the sight of the being in the reflection of the glass cabinet; he almost fell backwards. As he turned to where he last saw the obscure figure it vanished out into the corridor. Against his better judgment, Byron pursued it. Following the pitter-patter of what sounded like bare feet running on the cold, concrete floor. He shinned his light down the corridor, he tailed the being from a safe distance, listening to its movements up ahead. Suddenly, it stopped. Byron now on the brink of turning yellow stopped. He waited and listened; he drew his baton from his waistband and held it close to his chest. Maybe it was his mind playing a ruse, just some farce his brain conjured up. Perhaps he was coming down with a fever; perhaps he had contracted rat-bite fever and his head was in a disarray of delusion. Then he realized something he had not heard before in all his time spent there…silence. The corridor was noiseless, no cries, no wails, no cackles, no forms of gibberish carried out into the hallway. It was then he felt concerned beyond all comprehension.
Suddenly, the corridor was an aviary of screaming voices. The voices appeared out of thin air, all around him screeching sounds of dying people rang in his ears drums. All the doors flung wide open. It was like magic. Byron drew back in terror. The lights in all the rooms flickered on in abnormal sequences. In the faint light he saw something standing in the middle of the hallway. It was tall and dark, pitch-black even, as black as obsidian. Its spade clawed hands swayed back and forth at its side. Legs like the trunk of an ancient oak. Feet like sprawling roots with five talons on each foot. Its head… its head had no features, no eyes, no mouth, no snout, no ears or anything, just an empty, swollen black mass. It was something that could never have survived under the eye of the sun, nature would have forbidden it so, but in here nature had taken on a different form.
His mouth was open and rigid, his chalky face gaunt and immobile, his fists clenched with blanched knuckles as his fingernails dug into the palms of his hands. Byron Hotz, who had fallen out of the highest crotch of the pine tree in the backyard of his childhood home in Portland when he was only nine and broke both his arms. Byron Hotz, who had slid down Hathaway Hill in the blackness of nighttime in the middle of a blizzard, Byron Hotz, who was the first to take any dare and brave enough to take on any obstacle ever given to him, was howling out of utter fright at the abomination he saw before him. It trudged forward under the uncertain light, the low tapping sound of its talons drumming against the concrete floor it made with every step, tap-tap-tap. From the being’s vacant face, came a single statement, “It’s longer than a lifetime in here. It’s longer than an eternity in here. For this place is truly a living Hell…”
A huge, tenebrous squeaking sound seemed to appear out of nowhere. Suddenly, from out of the rooms and into the hallway ranks upon ranks of rats flooded the corridor. The whisk and pitter-patter of small feet scurried down the passage. Heaps of their tiny, furry bodies traipsed over his feet. His heart turned to ice. He began to scream, he began screaming against the sound of the wind reaving against the eaves, tearing through the hallway like a shard of glass. From behind him a light appeared; Tillman walked up and with a stone-cold look of horror saw Byron bouncing and writhing on the ground of that desolate hallway. Slashing and clawing at the air as if something were on top of him. The sounds of choked, lunatic cries and cackles radiated from his throat. Other nurses and staff members followed behind and to their discovery saw the twisted look of insanity on Byron’s face.
“Christ on his throne…” Tillman whispered.
The man flailed and thrashed on the floor like a fish on a wharf, screaming in a high-pitched voice, “IT’S LONGER THAN A LIFETIME IN HERE; IT’S LONGER THAN AN ETERNITY IN HERE!” he then laughed a disturbed laugh, it was an insane laughter, the laughter of the incurable, the laughter of a crazy person.
“He lost his vertical hold on life. They deemed him to be crazier than an outhouse rat. That place fed on him like a disease, eating away at him little by little.”
John was struck with silence; he had not asked any questions in over five minutes. He simply listened to his grandmother’s anecdote.
“They locked him up in that very place. I tried hard to get him transferred to McClean’s or Brattleboro where I knew he could get better treatment. I visited him only twice while he was housed there. It was on my second visit when he was of sound mind to recount that final night and the dark thing in the corridor…”
There was a long pause after that, till finally John asked, “What was it?”
She looked upon him with rivers of wrinkles flowing down from the corners of her eyes and a dismal expression, she chose her words carefully, “It was, well…it was a type of force that does not belong in our part of space, the kind that grows and acts and shapes itself by other laws than those that govern our existence. It was something that has no business on this plain, but it finds strength in bad places. Places much like the old asylum up on Hospital Hill. There is a little bit of dark matter in people like Dr. Dukakis, enough to make a devil and a precarious monster out of him.” John merely retorted with a slight nod of the head, as if saying he understood what she meant, but in truth he could not understand and was not sure he would ever understand.
“It was on my bus ride home from Brattleboro that he had hung himself. The article in the newspaper called it a falling accident. It was true that he had taken a fall, but they had neglected to mention that he had fallen from the toilet seat with a bed sheet tied around his neck. I never saw him after that. My attorney wanted to sue the state for not checking on him enough and allowing something to hang himself with, but I just didn’t have the heart for it. I felt somehow guilty that I was not able to save him. It was not long after his death that other advocates spurred to shut down the hospital, and for years I just watched from the sidelines. Until finally a district attorney by the name Steven J. Schwartz vowed to never leave until the hospital was shutdown. It wasn’t until 1993 when the last twelve patients were reallocated elsewhere, it finally closed and the facility was left abandoned. That was pretty much the end of it…”
“What happened to you and my dad afterwards?”
“A year after your father and I were able to sell our condo and moved out into the woods, which was very therapeutic for the both of us and that is where I remained until ’87. For a while I could not go back up Route 66. I felt as if something still lived there, something I couldn’t be near…something demonic of the sorts.” She looked at him and asked, “Still thinkin’ about writing a story about Hospital Hill?”
“Still toying with the idea…” John replied.
“It would take twenty years and no one would read it, because no one would want to read it because no one would want to remember it.” She replied, “But I can’t stop you. No, no matter what I say I cannot. Go ahead and write your story. Your grandma is bushed, I think it’s time you head out and let your old lady rest…But all I ask is one thing of you, John. Can you do that for me?”
“Of course, anything.”
“Do not go up Route 66, do not go up Hospital Hill…” she implored, “Leave it where it lies to fester in its squalor. Evil still survives there…I am tired, so very, very tired…”
Credit: Connor Scott
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