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It’s Not the Cough That Carries You Off



Estimated reading time — 13 minutes

I have little memory from before the accident. I know some friends and I, who are amateur ghost hunters, were looking into a supposedly haunted hotel in the city. They had opted not to pursue this particular case, but I took it upon myself to ‘go rogue’. I only know this, because that’s what I was told.

Apparently, I had fallen down a flight of stairs that led from the lobby to the second floor. The hotel I visited that day was no longer in operation, since the fire that consumed the building had killed the majority of its occupants.

Gerald, a tall and thin African American man with a trimmed beard and long, braided hair, told me it wasn’t very smart of me to enter, considering the notice on the front door indicating the place was condemned. He seemed a friendly sort, though I had no recollection of the apparent decade we had been friends.

Nathan, the short and stocky, shaggy brown haired caucasian who was with him, mentioned that they had recommended against entering the building, but I had ignored their warnings. He appeared irritated by my apparent actions, and essentially told me it was my own fault I found myself laying in a hospital bed.

It would seem we had discussed this case for some time, ultimately deciding it was far too dangerous to enter. From what Nathan said, I had been particularly stubborn about this one, and went ahead without them by my side. When they realized what I had done, they rushed to the dilapidated building to find me at the foot of the stairs, bleeding and broken.

Upon visiting the restroom to wash my face, I stared blankly at my reflection. I did not recognize my own face. The man who stared back at me appeared to be in his mid to late twenties. He had curly dark hair, which hung down to his shoulders, a dark complexion, and appeared to have an athletic build.

I raised my eyebrows, and he raised his to match. I opened my mouth wide, which he also copied. I turned my head to the right, while he turned his to the left, just as a reflection should. Still, I did not know this man who mimicked my movements, though there was something familiar about him. I think I had seen him before, but not like this.

“You alright in there?” Gerald called out from the other side of the door, snapping my attention away from the stranger in the bathroom.

“Yes. I’m ok,” I replied in a voice that was as foreign to me as the face in the mirror.

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I was released from the hospital later the following day, with my left leg in a cast, as I had broken my shin in three places. The crutches made walking easy enough, but my lower back had significant swelling, which caused even more pain due to my tightly wrapped, cracked ribs.

My left elbow was also bruised a good bit, but it didn’t bring me nearly as much pain as my ribs and back. Still, the doctor prescribed me some pretty powerful, and truly delightfully feeling pain medication, which at least helped distract me from my misery a little.

I was recommended to look into a psychiatrist to aid in my memory loss, as my head had not received considerable enough damage to have logically caused it. Whether it was something psychosomatic, or representative of some other underlying mental issue, was beyond the emergency room doctor’s knowledge. He did refer me to a neurologist in addition to urging me to consider psychiatric assistance.

I had also developed quite the aggravating cough, likely due to the swelling caused by the injuries to my ribcage. It didn’t feel like a sick type of cough. It wasn’t particularly phleogmy or moist, but neither was it dry. It was unlike any type of cough I had ever experienced, though my lack of memory could not prove otherwise. It still felt unfamiliar, if that makes any sense.

Still, it did cause me to buckle in pain every time I began to wheeze and splutter. Whether under the influence of my medication or not, I was in a constant degree of pain, and my cough only made that worse.

“It’s not the cough that carries you off…” a familiar voice called out in the back of my head, though I could not locate the memory of who spoke the words.

Gerald suggested that I invite some alcohol to my pill party, which struck me as strange at first. For some reason, I did not see myself as old enough to purchase such beverages, though the information next to the unfamiliar face on my driver’s license showed that I was twenty-seven years of age.

Though I had no recollection of Gerald and Nathan, I found myself growing quite fond of them the more time I spent in their company. Nathan had quite the dry sense of humor, and often wore quite the serious expression on his face, but he was a friendly sort otherwise. Gerald was an energetic and outgoing individual, who would go to great lengths to make us laugh, which unfortunately caused me to buckle and hack more.

On occasion, they would reference times gone by that I could not recall. I found it mildly upsetting after another month passed by since my visit to the emergency room, and I still had not regained even a hint of my memory, but my friends insisted on bringing up past events to aid in the recollection of my history.

Nathan suggested that I was different, somehow, to which I replied I had no basis for comparison. He chuckled and told me I would never talk like that, but I had no answers to give. I was as confused by my mental state as they were.

Regardless of the troubling aspects in my day to day life, I took things in stride as much as I was able to. I agreed to assist my friends in their endeavors, and I even began to enjoy the process of researching the many claimed hauntings of the world around us.

It wasn’t until around six months since my spill from the stairs of the condemned building, that I began to experience my own strange occurances. The doorman stood just outside the apartment building in which I lived. I had gone in and out of the front door many times over the months after my accident, but I had never seen him before.

He was a very tall and slender man, with a gaunt face and incredibly pale skin. The outfit he wore appeared more akin to something from another time. It was a red velvet, double breasted suit, with gold trim and buttons. The jacket was short, only coming down to his waistline, and the hat he wore resembled a flat bowler hat without a brim.

Though the clothes he wore looked as though they had been precisely tailored to fit, they were also quite tattered and worn. There were small tears in a variety of places, along with scorch marks across the chest, arms and legs. They were clean, all things considered, but still somewhat dirty. It was as though they had been tossed into a sooty fireplace immediately after being dry cleaned.

“It’s time to come home, sir,” he said in an unsettlingly deep voice and proper English accent.

Though he stood beside the entry to my apartment building, he did not gesture to the front door, but to another that stood to the left of him. The fact that I had never noticed this secondary entrance puzzled me just as much as the man next to it.

I chose to pay no attention to the strange individual, and make my way through the entryway I had intended on. I turned back to gaze back at the man as I entered, but he appeared unphased by my ignoring him. He still stood in place, gesturing to the foreign door, acknowledging none of the other passers by.

That night, I was awakened from my sleep by the scent of something burning. As soon as my eyes sprung open, I could not contain the cough that had plagued me of late, as the smoke that formed beneath my door took hold in my throat, causing the regular spluttering to grow far more aggravated and sore.

I rolled out of my bed and buckled over as the violent cough threatened to drop me to my knees. I wheezed and grabbed at my side while I made my way to the exit of my bedroom. I outstretched my arm and placed my palm against the door. I quickly pulled back my hand as the burning wood instantly scorched my flesh.

I continued to hack in between strained breaths while staring down at the swollen skin of my palm. As I gazed upon my hand, the flesh began to bubble and pop. Blood streamed between my fingers, while the flesh melted and dripped to the floor.

I screamed out in horror while I stared at the bare muscle tissue that continued to steam and pull apart, revealing the bone behind it. My eyes were pulled away from my disintegrating appendage when the door gave way. The inferno raged on beyond the now open doorway.

A lone individual stood in the center of the blaze, holding his hands out towards me. The doorman then waved his limbs back into the fire, before swatting against it, directing it straight at me.

The flames reached out at me, and I felt the sharpened talons of the blistering fire wrap it’s tendrils around my arms and legs. As I felt my flesh fall away from my bones, my eyes flew open, awakening me from the vivid nightmare that left me spluttering and retching onto the floor beside my bed.

I made a rudimentary inspection of the apartment that still felt very foreign to me, to find nothing out of place that I could tell. I still smelled smoke drifting into my nasal cavities, but I found no evidence of anything burning. I even walked out into the hallway, holding my hand in front of my mouth in an attempt to muffle the hacking cough.

“It’s not the cough that carries you off…” the voice called out again from my subconscious.

Once I was satisfied that my paranoia was no more than the result of the unsettlingly vivid dream, I attempted to lay back down. It took me some time to regain my grip on sleep, as my cough was far more aggravated than it had been during the night’s first try, but I drifted off eventually.

I’m not entirely sure why I did not mention the encounter with the unusual doorman to my friends, especially since it would be far more to their expertise than my own. The city houses many strange individuals, so perhaps this one was no different from the random strangers muttering to themselves in the subway. The more I let my mind wander to thoughts of this man, the more my sputtering cough burned my throat.

Though my injuries from my fall had healed, the cough remained, as did my memory loss. Maybe this is the nature of psychosomatic symptoms. The neurologist I was referred to could find nothing physically wrong with me. He backed up the emergency room doctor’s recommendation to talk to a psychiatrist.

The shrink, as Gerald called him, advised some breathing techniques and meditation to assist in the relief of my ailments, but they were not very effective. Since psychological help required talking about the issues that plague the patient, my inability to recall anything before my accident made it difficult to make any sort of progress, but I would still visit him once every two weeks.

That would be the second time I saw the tall man in the gold lined, velvet suit. Though the taxi cab dropped me off in front of the office, I did not see the doorman from a distance as I approached the building. It wasn’t until I was reaching out to push the door open that I heard his cold, deep voice from my left again.

“It really is time you came home, sir,” he said, gesturing to the newly manifested entryway to the side the one I initially sought out.

This time I stopped, and took the time to glance at the entrance he requested that I pass through. It was a large, red door with intricate filigree around the border. It had a large, tarnished gold lever to gain entry to whatever lay behind it, which looked quite ornate, and likely uncomfortable to grip one’s hand around.

“If you would be so kind,” he remarked as I stared into his sunken, hollow eyes, both of which were quite large, and a glossy black.

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Once again, I chose not to speak to the individual who towered over me as though I were a child. I simply reached out to push through the door to the office of my psychiatrist, whom I planned to confide in about my recent hallucinations, in between my hacking coughs.

By the time the doctor called me back into his office, I had dramatically shifted my outlook on sharing anything about the doorman. Perhaps I was concerned about my hallucinations inspiring my doctor to have me committed. Maybe I simply couldn’t force myself to speak the words out loud. Either way, I chose to remain silent on the topic.

As the days went on, I was visited by the tall man in the gold lined, velvet suit more and more. He stood outside every building I walked into. Wherever there was a door I intended to enter, he stood beside it, with the other door next to him. Even in my apartment. When I would head for my bathroom, he was there. Should I seek entry to my bedroom, his deep voice would beckon to me.

Each time I ignored him, my cough would practically buckle me to the floor while I gasped for oxygen. I lost count of how many times I had seen his gaunt and lifeless face by the time I decided to begin researching the hotel that had led me to my current state.

I’m sure I had looked into the abandoned building before, but I wouldn’t know where to find anything I had already looked up. Gerald and Nathan had coached me on using the computer in my apartment, but I still found it quite awkward to operate.

As my friends had demonstrated, I clicked the arrow over the Google chrome icon. From there, I was able to type in my search request, which pulled up several links to information on the building’s history.

According to the website I settled on, the hotel was constructed in the early twentieth century. It was nineteen fifty-seven when the fire consumed several of the higher floors, leading to the death of twenty-three people, including a variety of businessmen, women and children.

Ten years or so after the fire, the building was purchased by a wealthy individual, who already owned several other such structures. He had much of the old place fixed up, and it would go on to house many more temporary residents until it was once more consumed by flames in early two thousand thirteen.

Over the decades the second iteration of the hotel ran, many guests would speak of strange sounds and unusual events having taken place within the walls of their rooms. Everything from spectral figures walking the hallways, to random objects floating from one place to another were reported, though nothing ever left any trace of evidence.

It would appear that I was not the first supernatural investigator to step foot into the building, but my predecessors had done their detective work while the doors were still open to the public. Regardless, no proof of anything paranormal was ever found, or never reported anyway.

While I absentmindedly panned down through the images of the victims who were lost in both of the blazes that closed the doors to the hotel, I felt my back stiffen as the cursor traced over a face that appeared far more familiar than it should have.

I clicked on the image to expand the black and white photograph of a family who died in the first fire that raged through the hallways of the deceased hotel. I had a vivid recollection of the mother, father and child that stood side by side in the ancient photograph.

The woman was very pretty, with dark curly hair, a very pleasant, wide smile, and a polka dot dress that hung past her knees. The man had short, light hair that looked to be greased high and tight. He wore a suit that had a dark shaded collar that contrasted with the rest of the lighter jacket.

The boy looked to be maybe twelve, or so. He wore dark jeans and a white t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His hair looked to be the same style as his father’s, but the color of his mother. I stared at the picture for some time, not coughing once while it entranced me. I knew these people. I was certain of that.

I finally broke my gaze away from the eerie old photograph of the long since dead, and I continued to pan through the images, until another familiar face caught my attention. The doorman wore a much happier expression as he stood proudly beside the door that led into the hotel.

He was a good head taller than the short and stocky balding man in the business suit to the side of him, but he did not appear the giant I have seen him as recently. His bright eyes looked far less malicious combined with the friendly smile he wore.

Another fit of sputtering coughs distracted me from the image, causing me to fall from my chair to the floor. I gripped one hand around my burning and scratchy throat, while the other assisted my knees in preventing me from planting my face to the carpet.

“It’s not the cough that carries you off….”

“It’s the coffin they carry you off in,” I replied to the voice in my head, completing the phrase my father used to say, ending the invading hack.

A sudden clarity awakened inside me, and I knew what I had to do. I would return to the hotel one last time. Fortunately, I would not have to travel far to get there.

“Are you ready to come home, sir,” the doorman asked from behind where I still knelt.

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I got to my feet and turned to face him. He stood to the right of the red door that was now erected in the center of the living room. The smile on his face combined with the compassion in his darkened eyes, as his outstretched arm gestured to the entrance back to where I belonged.

“I’m ready,” I replied, stepping out from inside the body I had taken possession of so many months before.

I hadn’t meant you any harm. I honestly didn’t even know I was capable of such a thing. When you tumbled down the staircase after seeing me standing there, I didn’t know what to do. It was not my intention to frighten you, but it had been so long since I saw anyone outside of the others who still dwell behind those charred walls.

I glided down to where you lay, and reached out my spectral arms in an attempt to help. Somehow, I found myself staring up through your eyes, as my memories faded into the black. Had I known what I had done, I may have been able to escape sooner, but I was so lost. Our now shared eyelids closed, and I fell into the darkness.

I was only a boy when the fire raged through the third floor room I stayed on with my parents. We were all so excited about visiting the city for the very first time. We had never seen such wonders in the little town I was born into.

My father took me to see my first real life ball game the day before the smoke choked the life from us in our sleep. Was it that smoke that caused me to cough so violently? Perhaps I had simply dwelt too long in a body that was not made for me. I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore.

As the doorman pulled the door open to reveal my loving parents’ smiling faces staring back at me, I asked for just a few more moments before I returned. I had hijacked your life. It’s only fair that I leave a message to explain.

Though it scared me to climb into your skin once more, I hoped that my newfound awareness would grant me the ability to hold onto myself this time.

I was unsure how it happened the first time, so I just lay down within your body as it lay unconscious on the floor next to the desk. I held onto myself much stronger than I had the last time as I guided the borrowed fingers across the keyboard that still felt strange to use.

The doorman waited patiently while I typed out these words, as he knew I would come with him this time.

Please forgive me for this. I truly meant you no harm, nor was I aware this was even possible. If you could say goodbye to Gerald and Nathan for me, I would very much appreciate that. They truly are wonderful people. I suspect I shall miss them.

Please continue your research into the paranormal. I think it’s safe to say that you’re on the right track. I will be going now. My family is awaiting my return. Farewell, my friend.

When I woke up, sitting at my desk, it took me a moment to notice the text on my computer screen. I couldn’t remember a damn thing since going into the old building. It took me a while to get my bearings.

It seems like I have a lot to catch up on, but I’m really curious to see what my friends think about all this. I’m not entirely sure what to even say to them, but it looks like I’ve been out of it for quite a while.

Take from this what you will, but I have no other answer for why the last God knows how many months are a complete blank. I was always the skeptic of my trio of paranormal investigators, but there was just something about that old hotel that got under my skin. Quite literally, it seems.

I ain’t gonna lie, I’m very tempted to drag my ass back to the dilapidated building, but it feels like that was some piss poor decision making the last time. I wonder if the guys would be interested in looking into it more, knowing what I know now.

I’ll tell you one thing, though: If I do go back, I sure as shit ain’t climbing the stairs!

Credit : William Rayne

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