Dr. William Taft, Director of the Groveton Psychiatric Hospital and specialist in the treatment of phobias, took a penknife from the top drawer of his desk and stabbed it into a stack of patient files.
He thought that might relieve stress as he pondered his own worst fear. It did not. Retirement loomed just several days ahead, and he was no more comfortable thinking about it than when the Governing Board, six months before, had insisted he plan his departure.
He had reduced his list of options to teaching and writing a book. Neither of those had the appeal of continuing at the hospital, where he had patients and could write case studies. Moreover, bachelor that he was, hours spent at the hospital were enjoyed more than those spent at home.
He stabbed the files again, this time twisting the knife, then withdrew it and threw it across his office.
The files were those of Edna Thomas and Fred Taylor. The Board had cited them as patients who might benefit from a new Director. Both had been at Groveton for over twenty years, and the Board would not agree with William’s opinion that such patients were hopeless.
In mind’s eye he obsessively replayed that meeting. He sat on one side of a rectangular conference table. The five-member Board sat opposite. Lately he embellished the memory by imagining Edna and Fred sitting there, too. Both were in straitjackets, as they needed to be when out of their rooms. Both were laughing at him.
He had long ago accepted failure in dealing with Edna’s hallucinations and Fred’s fear of zombies. As William’s retirement approached, Fred’s case in particular distracted him. A week now into October, William was reminded that Fred’s journey to confinement began on a Halloween night.
Fred was six years old and stood on a porch crowded with other costumed children waiting for a handout of candy. A hard bump from a child next to him made him drop what he already had collected. He looked up, as the offender was tall, and he saw for the first time the face of a zombie.
Fred ran to his waiting father and insisted on going home. He hardly slept at all that night, but over several months, recurring nightmares centering on the zombie became less frequent. There were few intrusive images to remind him of the horror he was forgetting.
That changed a decade later when zombies became pervasive in movie trailers, TV advertisements, and book promotions. The old scare surfaced, and during the day he feared a zombie would be met around every corner. Even a slight jostle in a crowd had him flailing his arms to get away, just as he did on that porch at Halloween.
Having patients directly face their fears was key to effective therapy, or so William thought, until Fred’s working with a sketch artist yielded a drawing of a zombie’s face that did nothing but push Fred farther into his chasm of lunacy.
William found that drawing toward the back of Fred’s file. It was still intact, a trifle damaged by the stabbings. He roughly folded it and shoved it into a jacket pocket, then left his office and headed for the East Wing.
The admin staff was gone. It was late into the evening but not unusual for William to still be there. Briefly stopping at his secretary’s desk, he reached into its Halloween decoration to extract a rubber spider and took it with him.
He was unsteady on his feet. The last twenty-four hours he had not slept at all. It was a self-enforced insomnia, letting him avoid the nightmare of rushing through the hospital to put as much distance between himself and Fred’s room as possible. In that dream, he always turned a corner only to find himself tightly embraced by Edna. His breathing stifled, in desperation he would bite her neck. Then he would wake, but with a lingering taste of blood.
The East Wing’s night attendant was at his desk and pressed the button that unlocked the door to the corridor of patients’ rooms. Preoccupied as the attendant was with the Daily News crossword puzzle, he was oblivious to William’s gaunt expression and trembling hands.
As the door clicked shut behind him, William closed his eyes and allowed himself the image of being back at his desk. He was again stabbing the patient files, but did so with a Bowie knife instead of a penknife. The folders and their contents were quickly in shreds.
That brought a little smile to his face. His grin was dispelled when, opening his eyes, he saw the corridor ahead as the interior of a carnival funhouse, all the walls at odd angles. Struggling against the image, he managed to regain some normal perspective.
His first stop was at the door to Edna’s room. As was the case throughout the corridor, her door was locked from the outside, but it had an opening covered by a steel grid.
Edna was pacing back and forth. Her hair, prematurely gray and uncombed, made her look much older than her forty-eight years. Catching sight of William, she walked towards the door, but in her loose-fitting hospital gown she seemed to be floating toward him.
“Hello, Edna,” he said. “How are you this evening?”
“Better, much better. Look!” She held up her hands, fingers spread. There was no evidence of the terrible habit she once had, chewing the flesh off her fingers to distract herself from the visions.
“I’ve left my closet open all day,” she continued. “I’m leaving it open, so I can see there’s nothing there to worry me. That’s good, isn’t it?”
A year ago, William might have agreed, but now he responded with a question of his own.
“Don’t you remember that thing you once saw under your bed? I think it could be in this hallway every night, looking for your room. Sooner or later, this door won’t keep it from you, won’t keep you from its tentacles and chattering teeth.”
Edna’s eyes widened, her mouth agape as she pressed her face against the grid. She was transfixed, as if staring at something in the hallway. Certainly not at him, but at something.
William left her in that state as he moved two doors down to Fred’s room. He paused briefly at the room between. A murmuring came from within, as the rubber spider that William shoved through the grid aroused the occupant’s latent arachnophobia.
Fred was already at his door. Always nervous, he was straining to peer left and right as if expecting something.
“I heard you talking with Edna,” he said. “Didn’t catch all of it, but kind of scary.”
William smiled. “We had a good conversation. I have something to say to you, too.”
“Yes, yes, of course. What is it?”
“It’s a secret for you. Let me whisper it.” Fred moved a bit closer. William removed the paper from his pocket and unfolded it. He waited a few seconds to heighten Fred’s anticipation, then suddenly shouted, “Trick or treat!”
He slammed the drawing of the zombie’s face against the grid.
Fred screamed. William pulled the sketch away to relish the sight, only to scream himself as the zombie’s face, not Fred’s, glared back at him.
He backed up, crashing into the door opposite. Turning, the zombie was there, too, and the doorknob was rattling.
He rushed back up the corridor, instinct telling him the zombie’s face would be at every grid, if he dared to look. As he passed each door, he was sure he heard the click-clack of its lock opening.
Just beyond Edna’s room, a monstrosity blocked his way and shuffled toward him. It was a coiling mass of tentacles, one large tentacle tipped with chattering teeth. The thing was almost upon him when a din of howling erupted from the nearby rooms.
William shut his eyes, dropped to his knees, and thrust several fingers into his mouth.
He began to chew.
The East Wing quieted down. The night attendant had taken little notice of the commotion. Screams were usual there, especially at night, and he was focused on completing the crossword puzzle. Searching for a five-letter synonym for “maniacal,” he penciled in “crazy.”
It fit perfectly.
Alan Meyrowitz retired in 2005 after a career in computer research. His writing has appeared in California Quarterly, Eclectica, Existere, Front Range Review, Inwood Indiana, Jitter, The Literary Hatchet, The Nassau Review, Shark Reef, Shroud, Spirit’s Tincture, and others.