09 Nov Sniff
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"Sniff"Written by Nicky Exposito (a.k.a. NickyXX)
Estimated reading time — 23 minutes
Publisher’s Note: This is a companion piece to Slum.
I never liked Rustic Gables Skilled Nursing Facility.
Years ago, I worked as an EMT for MediTrans Ambulance Service. We did inter-facility transports, mostly dialysis runs and hospital discharges, so I spent a lot of time around crappy nursing homes. But even with my bar set as low as it was, Rustic Gables SNF still managed to underwhelm.
The four-story building itself put off an air of hostility. Near Sixth and Alvarado in a slummy corner of Westlake, Rustic Gables SNF sat like a diseased tooth – a squat, square, filthy-white structure jutting out of a narrow, uneven parking lot surrounded by a fourteen-foot fence.
Inside, Rustic Gables was, well, exactly how you’d expect. The residents were crammed four to a too-small room. Every August, half the ancient window air units broke down. Their one-and-a-half star rating was on display over the reception desk, and I’m pretty sure they only managed the extra half-star because someone knew how to BS the inspector.
The faceless healthcare conglomerate that owned the place had bought the property from a bank auction. I’d never leave anyone I loved at Rustic Gables SNF.
Rustic Gables burned through nurses like cheap cigarettes. It seemed like every time I approached a nursing station, I was greeted by a different young woman in stained scrubs. Meanwhile, my partner and I would run into ex-Rustic Gables employees everywhere we went – dialysis centers, hospitals, other SNFs.
It was rumored that Rustic Gables was haunted.
Stories were told of eerie voices behind patients’ closed doors. Of strangers seen wandering the halls, of objects moving by themselves, and of staff members somehow teleporting themselves all over the facility without realizing it. I heard more than one tale in which the teller swore they’d seen a nurse walk into a patient’s room, fail to reappear, then be found on the next floor up – swearing she hadn’t been near the patient’s room in hours.
Once, a patient had been killed when a nurse gave her a second dose of Metoprolol, sending her into hypovolemic shock. The guilty nurse swore that she’d spoken to the medical director, in person, and that he’d given her orders for the extra dose. That was obviously bullshit – the medical director had been in his office, miles away, with multiple witnesses. But the nurse was insistent, even after she’d pled guilty to avoid jail time.
I highly doubted that incident was the work of ghosts – a hangover was a more likely culprit. But even the most skeptical of the ex-nurses agreed they’d gotten a bad vibe working at Rustic Gables, especially at night.
In early 2010, my wife Lily told me she’d gotten a job at Rustic Gables SNF. I warned her that everybody who worked there hated the place, and offered to continue paying the lion’s share of our bills until she could find other employment.
“You want me to say ‘fuck you’ to a full-time nursing job with benefits?” she snapped, squishing her mouth into a pissy little bow. “I’m sick of working at Subway. Do you honestly think anyone else is going to offer me anything with no experience?”
She had me there. The oversaturated medical job market of Los Angeles was a tough spot for a recently-graduated Licensed Vocational Nurse, especially in the middle of a recession.
“I get it,” I told her. “But I’m making enough money now. And I don’t think you’re going to like Rustic Gables much. People say it’s haunted, and you hate horror.”
Lily flashed me a condescending, pursed-lip smile. She knew I hated that smile. She was a tiny girl, my wife, barely five feet tall and maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet. Her eyes were opal-shaped and deep-set in her square face. She had long, dark, silky hair. A clump of it fell over an eye.
“But you’re not making enough money, Cyrus,” she chirped, as though I were a retarded kindergartener. “And I’d rather hang out with Casper the Friendly Ghost then ask my dad for money. Again.”
I closed my eyes and counted to ten. She was baiting me. Her parents didn’t like me much, because I didn’t have a college degree and my parents were alcoholic white trash. And her father had loaned us money twice in the last year. Once the previous January, when we signed the lease and had to cough up first and deposit for our microscopic Koreatown one-bedroom, and once in August, when my car broke down.
“Fine, Lil,” I said through clenched teeth. “Do what you want.”
With that, I went to shower and get ready for bed. Our marriage was doomed. We both knew it, but neither of us had the balls to give that final nail in the coffin the mighty whack it needed.
Lily took the job. A couple days later, during her second training shift, my partner Rivera and I were sent to Rustic Gables to pick up a patient. A patient who, of course, lived on the first floor – where Lily was stationed.
Our patient was a bed-confined octogenarian going to St. Vincent for a g-tube placement. It should have been a quick, drama-free call, but the nurses didn’t have the paperwork done yet. Lily was being a complete asshole about it – hanging over the shoulder of the charge nurse, smiling her noxious pursed-lip smile as her new friend berated us over the pick-up time (as though it were our fault they didn’t have their shit together).
Rivera went to the ambulance to charge his phone. I’d grit my teeth so hard my skull hurt, and a half-glance at Lily’s haughty profile was enough to propel bolts of pain up my jaw. For the sake professionalism – and my sanity – I walked away.
I wandered to the mismatched front lobby, and there I found a shriveled old woman with dyed orange hair, curled up on a stained couch. A nasal cannula dangled from her face, attached to an oxygen canister on the back of a rickety wheelchair. Her eyes snapped open. When she saw me, her face fell.
“How are you, ma’am?” I asked sweetly. “Do you need help?”
She mumbled something, her voice weak. I hunched beside her and asked her to repeat what she’d said.
“I’m waiting for Scott.”
I looked around. “Is Scott your nurse? I can find him, if you want.”
She shook her head sadly. “He comes here, at night. He talks to me. I’ve gotta stay here or I won’t see him.”
I breathed in, and found that the lobby had a weird smell to it. Kind of rotten, but kind of sweet, like the funk that filled our station when the shared fridge was opened. The orange-haired lady didn’t seem bothered by it, but I was relieved to see Rivera round the corner, paperwork in hand.
I came home after Lily; she pretended to be asleep. The next morning, she was gone before I work up. Perfect situation, I thought. Now we never have to talk.
A couple weeks later, my company picked up another dialysis patient out of Rustic Gables SNF. Soon, Rivera and I were sent to get him. On the way in, I spotted the same orange-haired woman, on the same stained couch, still waiting for Scott.
The new dialysis patient, let’s call him Herbert Smith, was seventy-nine and not doing well. He was bed-bound due to the lingering effects of a stroke, half-blind, and atrophied. He looked in my general direction when I called his name, but responded to all further inquiries with incomprehensible muttering.
His room, happily, was on the third floor, which put a whole story between me and Lily. We got him loaded in the ambulance, and after a set of vitals I took advantage of the fifteen-minute drive to Western Dialysis to finish some paperwork. Herbert Smith stared mindlessly ahead, seemingly unaware of my presence.
Then, he mumbled something.
I looked up from my writing. “What’s that, Herbert?” I asked loudly.
“The one-legged man talks to me,” he repeated.
I leaned in. “Who talks to you, Herbert?”
“The Oriental man. The man with one leg. He comes into my room at night.” Herbert’s milky eyes were unfocused, staring vacuously into some point between the road and the ceiling of the ambulance.
“The Oriental man, huh?” I pressed indulgently.
“He’s angry with me,” Herbert continued, speaking to oblivion. “He knows I left him. I wish he’d go away.”
That night, I came home to every light in the apartment on and Lily in the kitchen, making a cup of tea. This was a surprise, as she’d gotten into the habit of feigning sleep. On the rare occasions she’d exchanged a few words with me, she’d done so with a constipated pout, as though my presence was physically painful.
“You’re still awake, Lil?” I asked without thinking. I immediately realized the stupidity of the question, and braced for the sarcastic answer.
But the nasty remark didn’t come. “Yeah,” Lily replied nonchalantly. “I have a headache.”
She looked at me. For the first time in awhile, I didn’t see contempt in her eyes. I realized, all of a sudden, that I no longer remembered how to act around Lily without picking a fight or continuing one. Then I thought of something.
“Lily,” I asked, “the old woman who’s always on the chair by the door, with the bright orange hair and the oxygen. Who is she?”
Lily frowned. “Her name’s Greta, she’s in my station. She’s pretty far gone.”
“I talked to her,” I said. “She said she was waiting for Scott.”
“Oh, I know.” Lily shook her head. “Scott’s not coming. He was Greta’s son. He died of cancer five years ago. There are pictures of him all around her room.”
This piece of information jolted me. I remembered the look in Greta’s eyes when I’d woken her – pure happiness, then immediate disappointment when she realized I was not, in fact, her long-deceased child. Poor old bird. Dementia’s a bitch.
I’d thought that night was a fluke, as far as my and Lily’s relationship was concerned. Lily, tired and in pain, hadn’t had the energy to antagonize me. But the next night, I came home to her awake, again, and decidedly un-antagonistic. And the next, and the next.
One night, I came home to find her huddled on the couch, shaking, the glow from the muted TV illuminating her tears. My first impulse was to run – I’d long forgotten how to comfort Lily. But I’m not an impulsive person.
What came next was the first honest conversation we’d had in months.
Lily had been on edge for weeks. Work was the problem; her shifts at Rustic Gables had become both physically and mentally unbearable, for reasons she couldn’t justify to herself, let alone anybody else.
“I just… as soon as I walk in, my chest tightens up and I start feeling weak,” she said. “I’m scared of something, but I don’t know what it is. And whenever I’m alone, I hear things. Little noises behind me. But when I turn, there’s nothing there.”
I reiterated that she could leave, that I’d pay the bills, and that I’d known other nurses who’d left because the place was too creepy. But Lily shook her head decisively. She wasn’t batshit. And if she quit after working at Rustic Gables for barely a month, she’d appear flaky.
The next day was Herbert Smith’s dialysis day, and Rivera and I were the crew sent to pick him up.
The young nurse on duty told me he was being showered; we’d have to wait a few minutes. I considered going to find Lily. Then I was drawn to a feature of Herbert Smith’s room I hadn’t noticed. There was a bulletin board on the wall parallel to his bed, and someone had pinned up several old newspaper clippings. I looked closer.
Herbert had been a medic during the Korean War. One article, titled “Wounded Hero Welcomed Home”, described his commendable service. He’d found a young soldier with a chest wound lying on a path. All of a sudden, bullets started flying around them. He pulled the soldier into a ditch, patched him up, and waited with him until they were found by an American platoon.
While Herbert was hailed as a hero, he had regrets about the incident. He’d seen another man, a Korean villager, lying on the ground with a nasty wound in his leg. The man was writhing, but too weak to remove himself from danger. Herbert had been conflicted. But he could still hear gunshots and, following protocol, he stayed put. By the time help arrived, the Korean man had died.
The article included pictures taken by a soldier in the platoon. In one of them, you could just make out the face of the dead Korean in the background. I remembered Herbert’s comments about the ‘Oriental man with one leg.’ The one who he hadn’t gone back for.
As long as I’d known him, Herbert hadn’t looked great. But I was surprised at just how severely his health had deteriorated. His atrophied limbs had become skeletal, his skin was translucent, and he’d lost hair. His cloudy eyes didn’t even flicker as we lifted him from his bed to the gurney.
I drove that day, Rivera sat in the back with Herbert. As we wheeled the old man in, I asked Rivera if he’d said anything strange in the back. Rivera gave me a weird look; he wasn’t aware Herbert could speak at all.
Herbert was completely unresponsive as we placed him in his dialysis chair. He slumped to one side; we propped him up with a pillow. While Rivera chased a tech for a signature, I wrapped the blood pressure cuff attached to the dialysis machine around Herbert’s arm.
Before I knew what was happening, Herbert Smith was clutching my bicep.
I jumped. The old man kept hold, his grip stronger than his spindly fingers should have allowed. His milky-white eyes bored into mine.
“The Oriental man says he’s going to take me with him.”
I wrenched my arm out of his grasp. Herbert went limp and flopped over. I called his name, but his ashen face drooped dumbly and his liquid eyes were dull. Whoever had spoken to me was logged off, signed out, no longer in the building.
Forty-five minutes into dialysis, Herbert violently tore the blood-filled tubes from his arm. The staff attempted to stop the bleeding, but he fought them off with an alarming level of ferocity. It was said that Herbert Smith never looked so peaceful as he had while being carried out by paramedics, already into irreversible shock. He died before they made it to the hospital.
I remained ignorant as this was going on. Rivera and I ran a few more calls. I drove in and out of hospital parking lots, pondering Herbert’s Korean ghost. Later, at around six, I received a text from Lily.
That was hot Cy :)
It was a weird thing to say. I assumed she meant our conversation the night before, responded with a single smiley face, and thought about it all afternoon. For months, I’d wanted Lily gone. I’d fantasized about coming home and discovering she’d moved out. But, when I read that text, I felt a little twinge of the ecstasy she’d inspired in me when we were eighteen and obsessed with each other.
As soon as I walked into our apartment, Lily jumped me. Wordlessly, passionately, we made love on the couch. Her perfume, her red lipstick, her hair tickling my skin was intoxicating. It was instinctive. Animalistic. When we finished, we lay entangled on the couch, strands of her hair still in my mouth.
“That was amazing,” I muttered to her. “I’m so glad we did that.”
“You started it,” she teased, running her hand across my chest. “That was a pretty hot kiss. The charge nurse was pissed, but it was worth it.”
“What’s the charge nurse got to do with anything?” I asked innocently.
Lily pulled away. She sat up. “You came to see me at Rustic Gables. You kissed me. Right in front of the other nurses.”
I went cold. “Lily,” I said, “I didn’t do that. I was at Rustic Gables in the morning, to pick up Mr. Smith, but I didn’t see you at all. I didn’t kiss you.”
She forced a laugh. “Cy, stop fucking joking. Unless you’ve got a twin I don’t know about, you kissed me today. The other nurses all saw.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Lil,” I said. “I was on the third floor for, like, fifteen minutes, then in the ambulance the rest of the day.”
Lily glared. Shoving me out of the way, she grabbed her clothes and stood up.
“Fuck you, Cyrus. You’re a fucking liar.”
With that, she stomped to our bedroom and slammed the door. In the morning, she was gone before I woke up.
The whole thing bothered me. Apparently, Lily had been passionately kissed in front of her co-workers by a guy who looked just like me. I’d long suspected she had undiagnosed bipolar disorder, but I might’ve been wrong. Maybe undiagnosed schizophrenia.
Two days later, Rivera and I were sent for Herbert Smith. The nurse at Rustic Gables told us he was dead.
Rivera went to call dispatch and tell them that, in fact, our services were not needed. I waited with the gurney in the front lobby. Orange-haired Greta was curled up on the couch, presumably still waiting for Scott. Poor lady. I tried to catch her eye, but she was oblivious to my presence. Then I saw tears running down her face.
I would have gone to talk to her if a hand hadn’t jerked my arm. I whirled around, and found myself face-to-face with Lily. Her eyes were puffy and bloodshot. She was pissed.
“There you are,” she snapped. “What the fuck, Cyrus? You’re messing with me now?”
“Lily, what are you talking about?”
“I heard you calling my name,” she said, unable to control the tremble in her voice. “Down the hall. In that fucking creepy voice. Where were you hiding? Under a bed or something?”
“Lily, I didn’t do that. I’ve been here.”
“It was your voice!” Lily insisted. “Saying ‘Lily, come to me.’ I was handing out meds, and I heard you. I’m so sick of your fucking jokes!”
“Lily, I’m…” I started.
“Fuck you, Cyrus. I want a divorce.”
With that, she stomped back to the nurses’ station. I didn’t go after her. I stood there, useless, fuming. All the anger and resentment I’d been nursing for months; the frustration of never, ever being good enough for Lily swirled around me like a tornado. I wanted her dead. I wanted to wrap my fingers around her neck and stare into her protruding eyes until they glazed over.
If Rivera hadn’t come to tell me that we had another call, I’m not sure what I would have done. We spent the rest of the night with one of the respiratory therapists, wedging a 400-pound, ventilator-dependent vegetable onto our gurney and driving him to a crappy post-acute in Sylmar.
As we drove back to the station, I saw I had missed two calls from Lily, and that she’d left me a voice message. I ignored it. Even thinking about her jacked my blood pressure.
Lily didn’t come home that night, and I was relieved.
The next morning, I was dismayed to see the address of Rustic Gables flash across our pager. We were picking up a psych patient. An old lady with dementia wigging out, going to the Brotman psychiatric ward.
The name of the patient: Greta. The orange-haired lady in the lobby, always waiting for Scott.
“It started a little after midnight,” the charge nurse told me. “All of a sudden, she was screaming and crying. I’d never heard anything like it. Just this… this anguished, otherworldly wailing.”
“Had she had any change in medications recently?” I asked.
The nurse shook her head. “Her son, Scott, died about five years ago. She was very devoted to him, and she’d been telling some of the nurses that he comes and sees her at night.”
I nodded sympathetically.
“Anyways,” the nurse continued, “last night, she kept on screaming Scott’s name over and over. We got her into bed and gave her a sleeping pill, but it didn’t take. She woke up around three, dragged herself out of bed and into the hallway. We found her pawing at the door of a storage closet.”
They had Greta restrained to the bed – unnecessarily so, I thought, as whatever sedative they’d given her had reduced her to a near-comatose state. We moved her onto the gurney without issue. But in the back of the ambulance, she squirmed around and opened her eyes. She threw a languid look my direction.
“So, Greta,” I said kindly, hoping my voice would keep her quiet, “How are you doing today? Have the nurses been treating you good?”
“Scott came to me,” she said emotionlessly.
The words hit me like a punch. “Let’s not talk about Scott, okay?”
“He was burning,” Greta continued, as though she hadn’t heard me. “His face was melting. He was screaming in pain.”
Tears welled in her eyes. “Then… then it wasn’t Scott anymore. It was this.. this monster. This demon. And he told me that’s what Scott looked like in… in Hell.”
She sobbed. I might have said something comforting; if I did, it had no effect. I don’t remember. In that moment, at that moment, I had never been more disturbed in my entire life.
Greta didn’t speak again. She just cried, tears and snot collecting in her wrinkles. She cried all the way to Brotman, and kept on crying as we waited for her room to be ready. We heard her moans as we pulled our gurney down the sixth-floor hall, until the elevator doors closed.
Lily didn’t come home that night. Days passed; I was given no clue as to her whereabouts. I called a few times, but her phone was off. I should have been concerned that she left so much of her stuff in the apartment. But she had her ID and bank cards, she had plenty of scrubs stowed at her parents’ house in Rosemead, and I assumed no one in her family was fond enough of me to call.
Finally, a week later, Rivera and I were sent back to Rustic Gables.
I don’t remember who or what we were supposed to pick up. We were walking through the little lobby, noticing Greta’s absence, when I felt hands around my waist. Tiny, perfectly-manicured hands. Lily stood behind me, looking happier than she had in a year. Rivera shook his head playfully and told me he’d meet me on the second floor.
When he was gone, Lily took me by the hand and led me away. Towards the back door, which was only ever used by nurses sneaking a smoke. Down a narrow hallway I’d never noticed, which extended to the left of the back door and dead-ended.
“Lil,” I said, “where have you been? I was starting to get worried.”
She stopped pulling and turned around, holding me close. She wrapped her arms around my neck, stood on her tiptoes, and kissed me passionately.
“I’ve been with a friend,” she murmured into my ear. “I miss you, Cyrus.”
She kissed me again, then pulled away and resumed tugging my hand with surprising strength. She stopped in front of a nondescript little closet, across from the janitor’s storage.
“Make love to me, Cyrus,” she breathed, her voice thick and sultry. “I know a special place.”
She reached for the doorknob. As soon as she let go of my hand, my senses came crashing back down to earth.
“Lil,” I said kindly, “I’ve got to pick up a patient. Come home tonight. We’ll talk then.”
She gazed into my eyes with a ‘come hither’ smile. For some reason, this freaked me out. Maybe because her mouth seemed to extend a little too far into her cheeks. Or maybe because, in the six years we’d been a couple, Lily had never once used the phrase “make love to me.” One way or another, my weird radar blipped, and with one more “come home tonight, Lil” I escaped to the elevator.
“Cyrus!” Lily called after me. I didn’t turn around.
On the second floor, I found Rivera talking to a squat Korean woman I recognized as the first-floor head nurse, Lily’s supervisor. The nurse glared when she saw me.
“Hey you,” she said gruffly, “you’re Lily’s husband, right?”
I nodded, inviting the catty comment.
“Where has your wife been?” she asked. “Her phone’s dead, she hasn’t shown up for work in a week.”
“Um, she’s here,” I said. “She’s downstairs. I just talked to her.”
The nurse shook her head. “Well, I haven’t seen her all day, and I just left the desk five minutes ago. She hasn’t clocked in since the twelfth.”
I was confused. I told the nurse something, then ran down the stairs to the first floor, dead-set on finding Lily and proving her presence. I’d kissed her, I’d felt her arms around me. So either she was deliberately messing with her boss, or else her boss was crazy.
Or I was crazy.
No one was at the first-floor nurses’ desk. I paced the halls, peeking into rooms. Nothing. No Lily. Then I thought of something. She hadn’t clocked in since the twelfth. The twelfth of February. That sounded familiar.
I checked my phone. The last missed call from Lily had occurred on the twelfth of February. That was the day she’d chased me down in the lobby, accused me of calling her name in a “creepy voice,” demanded a divorce.
I saw the voice mail icon, and recalled she had left me a message that day. I dialed my voicemail, deleted a few messages, and then I heard my wife’s voice. Her sobbing, panicked, terrified voice.
“Cyrus!” she breathed. “Cyrus, I know you’re not here, but I keep on hearing your voice. And I saw you again. But it wasn’t you, because your face was all blurry. Then you… you walked into the closet and disappeared. Is this a joke? Please fucking tell me this is a…”
She gasped, and I heard the phone drop. Then a muffled male voice. A voice that sounded terrifyingly familiar, saying something like ‘found you!’
Then I heard another voice. My wife’s voice. Calling my name. But it wasn’t coming from my phone.
I followed the voice. It was coming from the back entrance, from the direction of the closet Lily had tried to drag me into. As I approached, I remembered what I’d been told about old Greta. She’d freaked out, and they’d found her pawing at a closet door. Had it been this door?
I turned the knob. I flicked on the light switch.
I found myself staring at a tiny, dusty storage room seemingly used as a dumping ground for cardboard boxes and broken equipment. The floor was peeling linoleum, and cobwebs hung from two cheap metal shelves. A healthy coating of dust told me this room was rarely accessed by the nursing staff.
I heard it again.
I did a 360, then was hit with the dizzying realization that the voice was coming from under the floor.
Anyone with the IQ of a monkey could tell you I should have bailed. That a disembodied voice calling my name, beneath the floor on the first story of a building, was not a phenomenon I should investigate alone. But, somewhere between my softcore-script conversation with Lily and her gut-churning message on my phone, I stopped thinking logically.
I looked around. No doors, no stairs, and I knew there wasn’t a “basement” button on the elevators. Then I saw it. Under one of the shelves – a trapdoor. And a small black object. I knelt to look.
A Motorola Razr, with a Hello Kitty bauble and a small crack to the bottom left of the screen. Lily’s phone.
This discovery turbo-charged my nervous system. I stood up, grabbed the shelf, and pulled. With a loud VOOM, the metal structure pivoted. I examined the trapdoor. It was latched and fastened with a dusty, rusted lock.
Lily’s voice – louder – floated up from below. “Cyrus! Come find me, Cyrus!”
Using my pocketknife, I easily picked the ancient lock. Then I lifted.
I saw darkness. As my eyes adjusted, I saw stairs. Damp, rotting wooden stairs leading down to some sort of cellar. I breathed in and gagged. The musty, earthy smell was overpowering. It was the smell of a wooden shed after the rain, mixed with the smell of a compost heap, mixed with a smell reminiscent of the family of possums that had gotten trapped under my mother’s mobile home one December, died, and rotted until spring.
“Cyrus!” Lily cried again. This time, she sounded agitated. Scared.
I took a deep breath, then descended.
I proceeded cautiously – cell phone in one hand, pocketknife clutched in the other – step by step. By the pale blue light of my cell screen, I saw the floor was dirt. I made out a dark blotch that must have been a puddle, and I heard faint dripping. The walls were grey cinderblock with black designs painted on them.
Then, my feeble light fell on a woman with blue scrubs and long black hair. Lily.
“Lil!” I cried out. “Lily! What the fuck are you doing….”
“Shhh.” She put her finger to her lips as she approached out of the darkness.
Then I was standing on the earthen floor, and she was close. Close enough for me to see that her features weren’t right. Her eyes were too small. Her nose was too flat.
She took my hands. Her features shifted, blurring in and out of focus. Was it an effect of the light seeping in through the trap door? Were my eyes still adjusting? And why had Lily, of all places, chosen…
And then her mouth was against my mouth.
I couldn’t eat for three days. I felt her warm tongue dissolve in my mouth. Turn cold and dead. Break into icy chunks that tasted like dust and stringed cabbage and rotting fish, expanding in my throat, choking me…
I pulled away, coughing and sputtering and trying to scream. I dropped my phone. As I dry-heaved, I heard Lily’s laughter. Now it sounded distant. Without thinking, I stood up.
My phone had landed in the puddle, creating an inverted spotlight. A body, noose around its neck, hung from the rafters. Immobilized by terror, I was forced to take in every detail.
Blue scrubs. Feet dangling lifelessly. Claw-like hands, plaster-still in rigor mortis. Long black hair. Purple cheeks, open mouth, swollen tongue dripping dark saliva. Bloodshot opal eyes protruding like a demented cartoon character’s, staring into oblivion.
Lily. Dead. Lily.
I don’t know how long I stared at my dead wife hanging from the ceiling before I felt the hand on my shoulder. Jolted from my traumatized paralysis, I turned around.
Illuminated by the light from the open trapdoor, was me.
My mirror image stood in front of me.
While Lily’s doppelgänger had flitted in and out of focus, mine was explicitly, grossly exact in every last detail. The little hairs on my unshaved cheeks. The red pimple on my forehead. The scar at the corner of my eye, from when I “fell off my bike” during one of my second stepfather’s drunken rampages. It’s – my – smile was malicious. Triumphant.
Then it spoke, in a twisted, modulated mockery of my voice.
“Aren’t you going to say ‘thank you?’”
Then it started to melt.
I don’t remember much after that. I heard my own voice screaming – whether it was me or my putrefying doppelganger, I don’t care to find out. There were more voices, women’s voices, women’s screams. Rough hands on me, an arm around my shoulders leading me up, up… then sunlight, then sirens.
Lily had been dead for more than a week. That’s what the police officers told me, the second time I was questioned. The types of questions they were asking, I was sure they were going to pin it on me, especially given the nature of my and Lily’s relationship. But they didn’t.
In the end, they ruled her death a suicide. She’d died by strangulation, though they didn’t know how she’d managed it. She must have found the rope already hanging from the rafters – the cellar was fourteen feet high; there was no way she’d have been able to climb up and tie it herself. Nor could they find the chair or stool she had jumped off.
They didn’t know how she had found the basement. None of the nurses knew the dirt-floored cellar even existed. When the healthcare corporation had bought and gutted the place, they’d left the back of the first floor as it was. No attention had been paid to the sad little closet.
And no one could explain how she’d gotten down into the basement in the first place. There was only one entrance – the trapdoor. The trapdoor I’d found, locked from the outside.
Even with the coroner’s report, the cops had trouble pinning down a timeline. Lily had gone missing on the twelfth, of that the head nurse was adamant. I insisted I had seen her, alive, on the day her body was found. Rivera backed me up.
We weren’t alone.
Another nurse had had a conversation with Lily on the 15th; she remembered the date because it was the day after Valentine’s day. And a patient claimed he hadn’t actually seen Lily, as it had been dark and his eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, but had heard her voice singing him to sleep.
This one was particularly strange, because the night the old man had allegedly been sung to sleep by Lily was a good two weeks after she’d died, and a week after her decomposing body had been recovered. The cops wrote him off as confused. But I’m not so sure.
I left town after Lily’s funeral. My father in Bakersfield, with whom I hadn’t spoken in years, called out of the blue and invited me to stay with him. When the flashbacks stopped and the memories scarred over, I screwed my head back on and went to paramedic school. I found a job, ran the Baker to Vegas stretch for a few years, then decided to take the next step in my career.
I only applied to LA City Fire because it was ultra-competitive and I assumed I’d fail the psychiatric exam. When my new hire packet came in the mail, I picked it up off the porch with trembling hands. I wanted to say no. But LA City was the job a million guys would kill for; and my dad told me he’d knock me out, throw me in the back of his truck, and leave me on the station steps if he had to.
I moved back to Los Angeles in March of this year. I didn’t know anyone; I’d lost touch with all my old friends but Rivera, and Rivera was in New Jersey, burning through his fourth year of medical school. My new partner was a cool guy. He invited me to a barbecue at his church, promising there’d be a lot of people our age.
There wasn’t, but I did meet my new partner’s Uncle Raoul, a retired LAPD officer. We talked, and I learned he’d been one of the cops who’d investigated Lily’s death. He was cool about it; I was never a suspect, he assured me. Suicide was the only logical conclusion.
“Logical conclusion,” he said sarcastically. Then, he asked me what I knew about supernatural phenomena.
I forced a laugh. He didn’t.
He asked if I’d seen the cinderblock walls of the basement, the underground room where Lily was found dead. There had been little black designs, I recalled.
They were faces, he told me.
Faces all over the basement walls. Some were recognizable – Rustic Gables employees, patients, visitors. Some were the faces of people whose pictures were displayed by the patients. Family members, dead friends, celebrities, even the Pope. There were hundreds of them.
And the strangest part was, they couldn’t figure out how the faces had gotten there. Samples were tested; no trace of paint or dye was found. Nothing could wash them away and, in the spots chipped for samples, the faces were redrawn in full within hours.
My face was there. So was Lily’s. And on his third trip down, Raoul found his face.
The owners of Rustic Gables made the unanimous decision to sell the property. When no one bought it, they abandoned it, shipping their 168 residents off to other facilities.
Apparently, they’d had more trouble with the place in the three years since remodeling than it was worth. There had been nine suicides in that time – four patients, five staff members.
Other mysterious deaths, too. One I’d heard about – the woman given an extra dosage of Metoprolol because the “medical director” told her nurse to do so. Another time, a physical therapist found a blind, non-ambulatory patient locked in the staff bathroom, dead, with a pair of bandage shears sticking out of his chest.
And then, there was the building’s history. It had once been Section 8 housing. Raoul had been called there many times when he was a cop, and always got a weird vibe from the place. Other cops insisted the place was haunted.
In 2001, the building nearly burned down. Arson. A 12-year-old boy locked his mother in her bedroom, set the couch on fire, then jumped out a fourth-floor window. Seven people died, including an LAPD officer. Prior to that incident, the kid had been acting bizarrely, claiming to see the ghost of his father, who’d been murdered years before.
Raoul and I parted ways. I drove home. I thought about orange-haired Greta, and I thought about Herbert Smith. She saw her dead son, he saw the man he regretted leaving behind. And Lily and I saw each other. Happier, lustier versions of each other – versions still in love.
The next day, I did some research on doppelgangers. Omens of doom, embodiments of one’s dark side, like Jekyll and Hyde. This led me to The Shadow of Jungian philosophy. One’s Shadow is the manifestation of buried, selfish, evil thoughts. The thoughts you’re not allowed to think, the thoughts you deny.
I thought about what my doppelganger had said: “aren’t you going to say thank you?”
Whatever demon or spirit lived in that basement – it collected faces. It could shape-shift, become the spitting image of any human form it saw, and it knew our desires and our regrets. Our fears. It came to Greta as her son, then used Greta’s love to drive her mad. It recreated the image Herbert Smith saw in his guilty nightmares. I wanted Lily to love me again, but a part of me wanted her gone forever. It gave me both.
I drive by that building sometimes, the former Rustic Gables SNF. The asphalt is cracked now, and the windows are shattered. I wonder if the walls have changed, if there are now more faces – maybe those of transients or addicts who, naively, look to the abandoned structure for shelter.
Sometimes I catch something out of the corner of my eye, through a darkened window. Sometimes it looks like a human face staring back at me. But I never let my gaze linger for long. I fear I’ll see her face, see my mistakes, relive her death and my inadvertent part in it.
And I fear I’ll see my own.
Credit: Nicky Exposito (a.k.a. NickyXX)
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