Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
At first, the drinking days were fast, fun and filled with hilarity. Booze & pot were cheap and so were musical performances at venues and other places. Parties were easy to find too. Crashers were even welcomed as long as they weren’t empty handed grifters and scrubs. The economy was fine, jobs were a plenty and none of us had spouses or children back then. In the nineties we didn’t have internet access or smart phones; not even regular cellular phones. I think a handful of us had pagers. We relied on word of mouth, zines or fliers for the scoop on social events.
It was rare to be all dressed up with no destination on a weekend night in Northern Virginia. We were just a short drive from the nation’s capital. Killing the third to last beer of the last 12 pack of ale, Eddy asked “…And what about a strip club?!!” with an audible slur in his loud, over bearing speech. “Don’t you guys wanna see some naked chicks??!!!” I rolled my eyes and looked over at Jason who had a similar reaction. As appealing as the idea sounded, we’d spent the majority of our weekend spending cash already. We had no idea of what was going down that night or where the rest of the gang was. Remember, no cell phones. If you got left behind, that was that. You were stuck at home. If you were lucky someone would call and let you in on where the action was.
We didn’t even have enough money for one of our sorry asses to get a lap dance and Eddy was talking about painting the town red. Eddy, my kid brother, was acting like a moron. But, that’s how 19 year olds act when they drink too much. Jason was his same age but somehow managed to keep his cool better than Eddy. I was two years older than the both of them making me the only one legal to buy booze. We didn’t have a clue. What we did have was twenty-six bucks, a Honda civic with a full tank of gas and the motivation to keep things rolling. We weren’t about to call it a night just yet.
“Nando,” Jason said to me, “it’s 12:00 o’clock and no one’s called. If we leave now I can get us across the border and at a check out counter well before 2:00. I’m sure if something’s going down the boys will leave us a message on the answering machine.” Jason was right. I don’t know how it is now. But, back then any place in Virginia that sold liquor was legally obligated to lock up their booze at midnight. Alcohol sales between midnight and 6:00 a.m. were strictly prohibited. However, Maryland sold booze until 2:00 a.m. I can’t count how many times we did 90 miles per hour or faster across that Woodrow Wilson Bridge, over the Potomac River, and into the state of Maryland just for a 12 pack and some cheap ghetto wine. A fly by night, last minute beer run sounded like it could be enjoyable. Finally, someone was starting to make some sense.
I laced up my docs and brought a mag light, in case of road rage. I concealed it in the inside pocket of my bomber jacket and made for the car. Eddy threw on his chucks and his hoodie and grabbed his mag light too. Before we knew it we were in Jason’s civic jumping on 495 with Baltimore’s very own Gut Instinct blaring through the Kenwood tape deck. Hardcore isn’t the same these days.
It was both the journey as well as the destination that were both so exhilarating to us. At the end of the line were containers full of that ice cold, gut warming, magical elixir that would make us feel woozy and take us God knows where. Drinking was our favorite pastime followed all too closely by the social deviance that came with it. Vandalism, petty theft, street scuffles and other forms of criminal mischief paired with public intoxication were always shits and giggles all around. The background music was hardcore punk. We didn’t have a care in the world and fuck you if you weren’t one of us.
Traffic was dead, a cool night air settled in and the bridge was in sight. We were almost there. We were making good time so I made Jason slow down lest we get pulled over. Aside from driving a little drunk, which was easy to talk your way out of back then, we had nothing illegal on us; no drugs, no weapons, no explosives. As long as we didn’t speed we’d be in the clear. Jason knew of a spot and we took an exit just a few miles into Prince George’s County, Maryland. We always made our night time, Maryland beer runs quick. We stuck together and tried not to draw attention to ourselves.
As quiet as we were people still stared when we entered the liquor store. We said nothing. We grabbed two 12-packs of Killians and three 40 ounce bottles of Crazy Horse malt liquor before making our way to the check out line. It was while we were in line that Eddy spotted a copy of a local rag with a story about an abandoned hospital vandalized by local youths. It wasn’t my first time hearing about the abandoned Glendale Hospital in Bowie, MD. I’d been there once with some punks from Richmond. The place was intense. Dozens of vacant, rotting buildings of older architectural style scattered the property with a network of underground tunnels, mostly flooded, connecting the above ground structures. We got high and played tag that time.
As I told Jason and Eddy about it I could see how stoked they were getting. “How do we get there?,” asked Jason. We had booze, motivation and somewhere to be. I felt optimistic about the evening’s improvisational adventure unfolding.
The increase in vegetation and further collapse of the hospital wards enhanced the experience. The eerie resemblance to the backdrop of a sci-fi horror film or comic was uncanny and thrilling. We immediately regressed in our delight and played as children on a jungle gym. The mag lights came in handy for there actual intended purpose. After a half hour of running the grounds and scouting the perimeters we were ready to brave the rusty cages. We entered with caution.
The damp air wreaked of mold, oxidation, pigeon shit, spray paint and god knows what else. There were glass shards with bits of Brillo scattered about and freshly spray painted tags on the walls. We were on land that previous visitors, ones possibly with worse intentions than our’s, had claimed. We should have left but we pressed onward.
After half an hour of not coming into contact with other humans we let our guards down. We found dormitories, labs, a morgue, journals and magazines. We discovered underground passages that connected above ground structures. Jason almost fell into an empty elevator shaft. We climbed up and onto the roofs of several of the largest buildings. The network of hallways, tunnels and chambers was amazing. Then the thrill & drunkenness both began to subside. The harsh reality was that our “playground” was a place where people were quarantined for incurable diseases and left to die. These barren walls and drab colors were the last home they knew before they retired to an early grave. It was a hard thought that led to our decision to go find the civic and head for the bridge. It really should have been that simple.
Leaving the hospital we heard foot steps, voices and that unmistakable static filled, feed back on a hand held radio. We ducked out behind an entry way , shut off our mag lights and kept quiet. We knew exactly how to go about situations like this. No words needed to be exchanged. We all knew what to do. We kept quiet and kept our cool and simply waited for the cops to go away. Those 8 minutes went by as slow as an hour. That’s how long 8 minutes seem when you’re standing in the pitch black with your kid brother and your friend, not uttering a peep and hoping you won’t spend the night in county jail.
Following the trail that brought us in, we gradually sneaked our way to the civic. Thankfully, it had not been discovered and towed by police patrolling the area. Impound fees were beyond our budget and we were in the middle of no where. It was just past 3:30 a.m. We’d had our fill and were ready for bed. Sweaty and smelly we plopped our soggy asses into the tiny, Japanese hatch back. We lit some smokes, cracked some brews and headed for the bridge. Who would have thought such a poorly planned night could go from being a total bust to being such an event? With the windows down and music on we made for the freeway mistakenly convinced that the peak of our adventure was well behind us. We laughed at the patrol trailer on our way out.
The fatigue and the alcohol probably had a lot to do with our getting lost. Getting lost was what led to the arguments that followed. Each of us arrogantly proclaimed his own righteousness insisting that the predicament was surely the fault of the other two parties. It was ridiculous. At some point Jason pulled over at a truck stop and got directions back to 495. Thanks to the full tank we started out with and the fuel efficiency of his ride we had plenty of juice to get us back on track. We were so far off the grid it was pathetic! Once we knew we had the right directions we apologized to one another and laughed about how far from home we were.
Jason got drowsy but was coherent enough to co-pilot the trip. Eddy was drooling on the back seat with his eyes closed. I took the helm and followed my friend’s directions to our home in Fairfax, Virginia. At some point we ended up on a winding, desolate stretch of freeway. To this day I cannot remember what route we were on. Two lanes went one way and two lanes the opposite on a road almost completely devoid of light save for that provided by the moon and the stars. It was almost 4:30 in the morning
How true it is, as they say, that it is darkest before the dawn. The headlights piercing the pitch black ahead reminded me of our mag lights leading our way through that maze of decay just a few hours prior. What a night we’d had! Jason had given me the last of the directions and closed his eyes to pass out. It was many miles but few turns to get us back to 495 so I took the sole responsibility of our return navigation.
As the front, left fender of the car seemingly devoured the dotted lines on the road I could see the tree lines on either side of the car in my peripheral vision. I glided down the right lane. Ever so gradually the tree line in my left peripheral vision faded from sight into an abysmal blackness. It was as if someone had draped the left side of the civic with a giant, black curtain blocking out everything to the left of the vehicle from sight. I winced, blinked and shook my head attributing it to the onset of extreme fatigue. “Jason, wake the fuck up! JASON!” He groaned some swear words. “Look, dude, I’m nodding the fuck out. You gotta take the wheel.”
As that last sentence came out of my mouth I felt my pulse race and my stomach rise to my throat. Although I did not fully comprehend what was happening, I got the undeniable feeling in my gut that something was seriously wrong. The dark mass was quite clearly a large moving object, a vehicle perhaps, with no headlights, marker lights or tail lights, no lights at all! It mysteriously navigated the twists and turns as effortlessly as if it were daylight out. All the while it kept pace with the civic, staying dangerously close to our left.
“What the hell is it, man?! What the fuck?!!” Jason’s sweaty back was pressed against the inside of the front, passenger door while he outwardly panicked. He’d awakened to a state of perplexity and terror that exceeded my own. I tried to outrun the dark mass. I got the little hatchback up to 114 miles per hour and the dark mass didn’t skip a beat. When I slammed on my brakes it slowed down as well. It was almost as if it was an extension of our own vehicle. I couldn’t shake him for the life of me. Eddy, by now was fully awake. Unlike Jason, he was so full of fear he had fallen dead silent. My panic gave way to anger.”Brace yourselves! HOLD ONTO SOMETHING!” I shouted at my two passengers as I attempted to side swipe the object. That, too, was of no use as it turned in direct response to the civic.
I shouted and cursed through my open window. Just then a light came on. It was my mag light. Jason was shining it on the object. Once we realized it was, in fact, a big, black car, Jason attempted to blind the driver with the mag light to get him to leave us alone. “Take that, motherfucker!,” we shouted as we laughed and cheered, pleased with ourselves and our childish antic. When the all the lights of our unwanted neighboring vehicle, including the interior dome light, simultaneously came on, our laughter fell silent.
The pilot and the passenger of the mammoth sized, vintage hearse that taunted us mercilessly were virtually identical. Their grotesque appearance forced Jason to retreat with the mag light. The interior dome light of the hearse revealed the silhouette of two, large individuals that both looked putrid. I literally mean they looked like animatronic cadavers. They looked as though they could be almost 7 feet tall standing. The driver’s hands were so huge they made the steering wheel look small. Between glancing forwards at the road ahead and staring at the ghastly scene beside me I took in what I could. I tried to tell myself they were wearing masks but the rancid appearance of their facial flesh matched the necrotic hue and texture of the driver’s hands. Both were clad in out dated, formal attire.
In spite of the lights on their vehicle being activated, the precision of their navigation was still a mystery; both figures had their gazes fixed on us, and not the road ahead, while somehow managing to make the necessary maneuvers to avoid a collision. Once again, as a last ditch effort Jason aimed the mag light beam at the driver’s face to make him go away.”OH MY GOD! OH MY FUCKING GOD!” I didn’t know what had just happened but Jason was losing his shit. “What is it, man?! What happened?!!” I yelled. Eddy spoke up,”Don’t look, Nando, don’t look. Don’t speed up, don’t slow down, just keep your eyes straight ahead and keep driving.”
This whole thing sounds so absurd when I talk to people about it nowadays. It truly doesn’t do any of the experience any justice at all. We didn’t mention the hearse incident for years. On the night of Eddy’s bachelor party Jason and I were somehow able to find humor in the memory but Eddy was not. The very mention of the incident almost ruined the event. We never brought it up in front of him again. Jason and I too eventually got married and started families. A distance grew between us but somehow we managed to maintain a friendship. We laugh about the whole thing and decided it was all part of some prank intended to keep us away from the area.
It makes things easier for us. But, it doesn’t explain a lot. Someone once told me that what is seen cannot be unseen. I don’t have many regrets in my life but I regret looking. Eddy was firm when he told me to face forward and keep driving; to not look at the hearse to my left. My curiosity got the better of me. The flash light revealed unsettling features that I still can’t make sense of. Both pilot and passenger were in a total state of decay. Their mouths and eyes, wide open, lacked any sign of human resemblance. The mouths had no teeth or tongues. The eyes were empty, cavernous pits of darkened meat. When I gazed into their faces I instantly felt an indescribable emptiness wallow up inside of me. It was the lowest low I’d ever felt in my entire life. That’s the best way to describe it. The very sight of their faces seemed to draw any kind of positive energy I had inside of me right out. To call the incident traumatic would be a huge understatement.
But Jason and I force a laugh when the story comes up. We say it was a hoax even though it doesn’t adequately explain what we experienced. It doesn’t even make sense of their speedy get away. After I saw their “faces” we began to approach a stretch of highway lined with street lights. Once again, I tried to outrun the abominations that followed. I got the civic up to 120 miles per hour this time. But, the hearse began to pass. In fact, it accelerated to such an awesome extent, it dwindled our 120 mile per hour travel speed to a seeming stand still, leaving us as if we were stopped at a traffic light.
As it did so the engine and electronics inexplicably gave out in the civic and we began to slow to a stop. As our vehicle decelerated we could see the hearse continue to race forward up ahead. We watched each street light it passed flicker uncontrollably before completely powering down. Then it vanished from our sight.
We still insist on telling ourselves it was a show of sorts; a ploy on the part of locals to keep trouble makers at bay; a way to scare off hooligans and trespassers. It doesn’t add up but it works for us. It makes it easier to sleep at night.