Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
I hope that this letter finds you well. I’ve missed you greatly during the entire time away from you, but these past weeks have been especially difficult. While we were busy pushing from Normandy it was easier to keep my mind occupied on other things. Now that the Germans have left France, however, I’ve had a lot more time to myself and, as always, my thoughts have turned to you.
I have good news or bad news, depending on how you look at things. As you’re an optimist by nature, a very glass half full kind of woman, I’ll give you the positive spin first. You and I are going to be reunited sooner that we thought. I’ll be shipping off to the good ol’ US of A within the next few weeks.
No matter how optimistic you are, however, you’re also a realist, so here’s the bad news. The reason that I’ll be coming home to you so early is because I have been injured.
Now, there’s no need for worry, as I’m going to be fine. Once the bullets stopped flying in France, my unit had been assigned to deliver cargo to Évian-les-Bains. You’ve always been more of a scholar than I am, so you may be familiar with the town. I had never heard of it before.
There were only three large crates, so Mark Johnston and I volunteered to make the delivery. I’ve written to you about him before. He’s the soldier in my platoon that has a wife and young son in Kansas. All of my fellow soldiers are brothers, but he’s one of the few that I can honestly say is a friend.
The round trip between Paris and Évian-les-Bains would take a few days, and we figured that the fresh mountain air would do us some good. We never spoke about it, but I think we both were feeling that we needed to get out of Paris, even if only for a little while.
When you see pictures of Paris in books, it looks like this grand place. You can practically feel the magic in the air right through the page. It conjures up images of long walks along the Seine River, or maybe ascending to the top of the Eiffel Tower to look out on the lights of the city. You and I even talked about visiting it someday after we’re married.
I think that’s how the city once was, and maybe it will be like that again. In the here and now, though, the magic is gone. The Nazis did all that they could to stomp out the spirits of the people that live there. They never fully could, but you can tell that the occupation left its mark in more ways than just those damn red and black banners hanging from buildings. The enchantment and wonder of the city is gone for now, replaced with an iron resolve and a righteous fury. The longer I stayed there, the more that I could feel the violation Paris had suffered through, if that makes any sense.
Is it any wonder that Johnston and I jumped on the opportunity to run a shipment through the countryside? It was supposed to be a simple delivery. As everyone in the world knows, though, there’s nothing simple about this war.
I don’t remember the moment that the truck’s rear tire struck the mine. It must have been left over from the German retreat, or maybe it had been planted by the French resistance when the Nazis were using that particular road. Whatever the case, the explosion flipped the truck completely over and sent us off the road.
I only know this because it was told to me later. I remember sitting in the passenger seat while Johnston drove, idly flipping through a Captain Marvel comic book that I had traded a small bottle of half-drunk whiskey to a private for. I’m not much for comic books, but there was something about it that made me feel like… I don’t know. It made me feel like I was holding a piece of home in my hands, I suppose.
After that, my next memory is slowly waking up. I was lying on something soft, and my body felt oddly cold. Instinctively I tried to sit up, but the worst pain I’ve ever felt went through my body like electricity. It felt like someone was forcefully pushing down on me while trying to set me ablaze.
I shook my head in an effort to clear it. I hadn’t even opened my eyes yet and I was already feeling dizzy.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a woman’s voice politely but firmly told me to calm down. As I managed to get my eyes open and squinted against the bright light, she went on to explain that I had been in a mine explosion and to assure me that I was going to be okay.
My vision returned to normal after a few minutes and I was able to look up at the speaker. She was dressed in the white uniform of a nurse, with red curls peeking out from under her hat and freckles dotting her nose. She smiled down at me kindly and told me that her name was Ruth.
I tried sitting up again, but it had the same result as before. Ruth informed me that I had suffered a fractured sternum when my chest had impacted with the front portion of the transport truck. It sounded serious, but she told me that I just needed rest and it would heal naturally. Normally ice would have been put on my chest to help with the swelling and lessen the pain. There wasn’t any access to ice, however, so she was using rags soaked in cool water instead.
Along with the fractured sternum, I had suffered a painful bump on the head and a sprained ankle. I had managed to escape in surprisingly good condition, all things considered.
Johnston hadn’t been so lucky. He was lying in the bed next to me, unconscious and his body wrapped in bandages. Every so often I could hear a gasp as he sucked in air. The gasps sounded wet, like they were filled with water. The nurse told me that they hoped that he would recover soon, but I could tell by the tone of her voice that she wasn’t hopeful.
Over the next few hours, Ruth sat and talked with me. Well, she did most of the talking. Even getting a few words out made my chest hurt, so I mostly just sat there and listened.
She told me that we were in an old château known by the local people as Chateau des Espirits. It had been the home of a wealthy but eccentric landowner who had died at the beginning of the war. He hadn’t had any children or family, so the mansion was converted into a temporary hospital. Most of the doctors and nurses were French, but Ruth was a volunteer with the Red Cross that had been sent to assist due to the place being woefully understaffed.
She eventually left my side to tend to other patients. As I stared up at the ceiling, a stray thought entered my head, and despite my condition I found myself smiling. It was a crooked sort of smile. Can you imagine, Margaret? Here I was, relaxing in a fancy château in the French Alps, and I couldn’t even get out of bed to enjoy a moment of it.
I have to admit that I tried not to look at Johnston. Every time I glanced in his direction I felt an awful stab of guilt. I had survived the explosion and would be back on my feet soon. Meanwhile, he was fighting for his life. It wasn’t fair. Even though I kept my eyes off of him, I could still hear him wheezing and drawing in those wet breaths.
Evening came, and Ruth returned to help me eat my dinner. It wasn’t much of a meal, just broth and small bits of potato, but I was so hungry that it felt like a banquet. When I had finished, she changed out the rags with freshly soaked ones and put the used ones in a small bucket.
Have you ever experienced the kind of moment where it feels like the very air in the room has changed, Margaret? That was what I experienced once Ruth finished her tasks. Her entire demeanor went from warm and friendly to something much more serious. The smile was gone from her face, and her eyes were uncertain.
What wasn’t uncertain was her firm instructions that, even if I found myself able to get up, I must not leave the room during the night. I pressed her as to why, of course, but she simply shook her head and turned to leave. Ignoring the pain, I grabbed her wrist and asked once more. She hesitated before gently removing her hand from my weak grip.
“Monsieur Gangly marche dans les couloirs,” she said quietly in French before leaving the room and firmly closing the two large doors behind her.
Mr. Gangly walks the halls.
I stared after her for quite a while. To say that I was confused would be an understatement. I was fairly sure that I had understood her correctly, but as you’re well aware I’ve never had much of a head for languages. It wasn’t hard to convince myself that my poor French simply wasn’t up to the task of properly translating her statement. With that settled in my mind, I quickly drifted off to sleep.
My hand just started shaking so badly that I needed to take a few seconds to steady it. You and I have known each other since we were small children. We started school together. You know me better than anyone else, and I’m still afraid of what you’re going to think of me when I tell you what came next.
You’re going to think I’ve lost my mind. I don’t see how anyone could think otherwise. I swear to you, Margaret, I’m not mad, and what I’m about to tell you in the honest to God truth. I need you to believe me. No one else ever will, but you’re the one person that has to.
I don’t know what time it was when I woke up. The room was dark and still. I knew immediately that something was wrong. I had the same feeling in my stomach that I had gotten during lulls in battles throughout the war. Sometimes the guns would go silent, and an eerie silence would fall over everything. Instead of being happy for the reprieve, you start to feel sick to your stomach because you know that something even worse than what you just went through is about to happen.
That was the same feeling I was having as I laid in the darkness. Something was about to happen. I was so sure of it that I ignored the pain and forced myself up onto my elbows in an attempt to look around.
I couldn’t stay in the position for more than a few seconds before I collapsed back down onto the bed. Less than a heartbeat after I had done so, I heard a soft click as the room’s doors began to swing open. I craned my neck as best as I could and turned my eyes towards the sound.
There was just enough light coming in through the windows for me to see the figure enter the room, but not enough that I was able to make out many details. It was well over eight feet tall, and it had to duck under the top of the doorway to enter the room. It was wearing a black flowing robe that covered most of its features. As it came forward it stayed hunched over. It moved with an odd gait, swaying slighting back and forth as it walked. Even though it was the largest creature I had ever seen, it made barely any noise as it moved across the wood floor towards the beds, like it had very little weight to it.
I knew immediately that this giant wasn’t human. I know how that sounds, Margaret. This is why I’m afraid that you’re going to think that I’ve been driven mad by the war. If you do indeed love me as you say that you do, though, I need you to take what I’m saying at face value and put aside your skepticism until you finish my story.
Because of the creature’s size, it only took a few steps for it to reach the foot of Johnston’s bed. It was starting to lean over him when I closed my eyes as tightly as I could. As I write this I can feel the shame rising in me. This… thing was going to do God knows what to a man that was closer to me than my own family, and there I was, keeping my eyes clenched shut like a frightened child trying to hide from a shadow on his bedroom wall. What kind of a friend, what kind of a man, does that make me?
I laid as still as I could for what seemed like hours, but all that I heard was silence. Curiosity started to win out over the fear. I slowly opened my eyes.
The creature was still looming over Johnston, but it was completely motionless. Its arms were extended towards his face. The robe’s sleeves were pulled back enough that I could see the limbs. In the dim moonlight they looked almost white, so white that it was like a single drop of blood had never run through their veins. They were also extremely thin. No, that’s not the right word for it. They looked emaciated.
Its hands were attached to the arms at a slightly odd angle. I had seen something similar before, when a private had dislocated his hand from his wrist in a bad fall. Its fingers were long and bony, and they reached out towards Johnston’s face.
The hood of the robe was up over its head, and at the angle I was seeing the creature from its face was completely blocked off from view. It was hard to tell in the dark, but I got the impression that the head was too large for the body. The width wasn’t proportionate with the arms and legs. Everything about the creature was wrong, and I felt a sense of revulsion as I watched it.
Johnston coughed once. The creature pulled back slightly, but when he didn’t make another sound it drew closer once again. It reached out with one finger and touched him lightly on the forehead. He made a soft choking noise but remained unconscious.
The finger moved down his face, tracing down the nose, across the lips, and over the chin. It stopped when its tip was touching Johnston’s neck. The man’s entire body had stiffened as if the creature was sending a live current through him.
I wanted to yell out to him, to warn him about what was happening. My mouth remained closed. I was already trying to justify my lack of action to myself. There was no pointing in letting the creature know that I was watching when Johnston was too injured to hear me anyway. That was what I told myself over and over again.
The truth is that I was paralyzed by fear. In the moment that my friend needed me most, I proved myself to be a coward.
The creature’s hand opened, and it wrapped its fingers around Johnston’s neck. He whimpered quietly. The whimpering soon turned into gagging as the fingers closed tightly. I tried to will myself to somehow intervene, fear and fractured sternum be damned. Instead, I just laid there watching.
The figure held up one finger on its other hand and placed its point between Johnston’s clavicles. It lingered there for a moment before pushing down harder. The finger sank into and through the skin. He started to thrash, but the creature simply held him by the throat as if it was no effort at all.
The finger slowly started to make its way down his chest. Skin, muscle, and bone all parted as if it was being cut with the sharpest of surgeon instruments. When it reached the top of his stomach area it withdrew. Blood covered it, and droplets dripped down onto the man’s body.
What came next has played over and over in my head ever since. The creature reached into the hole in Johnston’s chest and pulled the opening wider. The snapping of bone filled the air as his ribs were easily separated. The arm jerked slightly to one side, and a moment later the hand rose out of the open chest cavity holding a misshapen lump.
Johnston stopped thrashing.
I must have made a sound, because the creature turned its head towards me. The hood still covered its face, but I knew that it was watching me closely. Instead of closing my eyes, however, I looked right back at it. It wasn’t some act of bravery or defiance. I was just too scared to think of anything else to do.
It moved to the side of my bed. The gory mass it had taken from Johnston’s chest was still clutched in its right hand. I couldn’t see exactly what the object was. I was and still am thankful for that.
The creature regarded me for a long moment before reaching up with its free hand and slowly pulling back the hood. I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out. I was stricken voiceless by fear. It was all that I could do to simply keep breathing.
Instead of being rounded, its head was elongated, with malformed protrusions sticking out of the back. It was hairless, and like its arms the flesh was pale to the point of nearly being translucent. It looked at me with lidless eyes, the pupils locked on me so intently that they appeared to be vibrating.
The creature’s face was vaguely human. The best way that I can describe it is that it looked like a person whose skin had been pulled back so tightly that it had begun to tear off of the skull. The large teeth and gums were exposed in a hideous grin, one so large that it ran past the mouth towards the back of the elongated head to show the bone beyond.
It tilted its head slightly. I wasn’t looking at just some hideous monster. Its eyes stared at me with intelligence.
It opened its mouth slightly as it regarded me. Just beyond the first row of human-like but oversized teeth was a second row of them. These were smaller and spaced wider apart. Its thick black tongue sloshed around back and forth in its thick saliva.
“Gute nacht, Herr Lewis,” the creature said in a raspy voice, the words coming out as if it was exhaling them rather than speaking them.
With that, the creature turned and left the room the same way it had come in, closing the doors behind it.
I must have passed out. The next thing I knew, I was regaining consciousness in a room filled with sunlight. I quickly looked over to my right at Johnston’s bed. The spot that the bed had once occupied was empty.
Ruth came in a few minutes later. I demanded to know what had happened to Johnston, and she told me that he had died from his wounds a few hours earlier. I knew that she was lying, of course. I had seen the creature tear him open and end his life. I continued to press her, and as I did so I so she grew more and more uncomfortable. She repeatedly tried to tell me that I must have dreamed the entire thing.
I became more and more agitated, and finally she relented. She leaned in as if she was telling me something that needed to stay between the two of us even though we were the only ones in the otherwise empty room. Every so often she would glance over her shoulder at the doors as she spoke.
She told me that Johnston’s body had been taken down to the makeshift morgue to be disposed of. When I started to object, she shook her head firmly and told me to remain quiet. The official record would say that the body was incinerated due to concerns of a possible disease. That way no one would know about the damage the creature had caused to his body.
No one but me.
She warned me not to let anyone else know that I had seen the creature, which she again referred to as Mr. Gangly. The few outside the hospital staff that had tried to tell others what they had seen had all died under mysterious circumstances. I needed to remain silent for my own safety.
At first I refused, but something in the way that she was looking at me made me stop. I got the feeling that she wasn’t just looking out for my safety, but also her own. I began to understand that her current position at the château wasn’t entirely voluntary.
Still trying to wrap my mind around everything that I had seen and that she was telling me, I questioned her about Mr. Gangly. What was it? How long had it been at the château? Why had it killed Johnston? The questions spilled out of me as if they would never end.
Ruth didn’t have any solid answers to give me. All of the doctors and nurses at the hospital seemed to have a different theory. Some said that Mr. Gangly was an experiment that had been conducted by German scientists during the occupation. Others said it was actually a German scientist itself, one that had done things to himself for some unknown reason and was still conducting experiments on the patients in this new grotesque form. She had been told by one doctor that he believed it was a demon that had been summoned by Nazi occultists.
I mulled it over. Mr. Gangly had spoken to me in German. Hesitantly, not sure that I really wanted to know the answer, I asked how it had known my name.
Ruth looked surprised and regarded me curiously. As she opened her mouth to speak, the doors opened and a pair of soldiers entered the room. They told me that I was being transferred to a hospital in Paris immediately.
And that’s where I’m writing to you from now, Margaret. I’m sitting at a small table in a private room of one of the dozens of medical facilities in Paris. It’s been dark for some time, but I can still hear the sounds of talking and laughing coming up from the streets through my open window.
Medically I’m doing much better. My fractured sternum is almost fully healed, and I only have slight discomfort from it when I move around.
Mentally, I’m not really sure how I’m doing. I have trouble sleeping at night, and during the day I feel like I’m walking through a dream. Sometimes I think about how I failed Johnston and feel a mixture of remorse and anger, and other times I realize that I haven’t thought about him in a while and for some reason that makes me even more angry.
There are times that I debate with myself whether I should write Johnston’s wife and tell her what really happened to her husband. Each time I decide not to. Even if I could figure out how to begin to describe Mr. Gangly and what it had done to him, how could her knowing the truth be of any comfort to her?
I’m scheduled to ship out for the United States two weeks from Tuesday. As I come to the end of this letter, however, I realize that I can’t come back home to you yet. Even if you somehow found a way to forgive my cowardice, I would never be able to.
God help me, I have to go back to Château des Espirits, where Mr. Gangly walks the halls.
I love you, Margaret, and I’m sorry.
Corporal Peter Lewis, United States Army
October 14, 1944
Credit : Tim Sprague
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