The bass line throbbed through the dim air. People shrieked with laughter and too many well drinks, and Claire knew she never should have come to the reunion.
Her fingers tugged at the edge of her new purple skirt, despite her attempts to look casual and confident. She’d spent ages agonizing over this outfit, thinking of just the right thing to wear, the perfect thing, and it didn’t matter. It pulled tight when she sat down, and the bright ruffles stood out among all the subdued colors surrounding her–she may well have been in a clown suit. But then, she hadn’t been good at high school even when she was in high school. Some song she hadn’t liked back then blared from the speakers at the front of the gym, and fifteen years vanished as though they’d never been.
Nothing had changed. She couldn’t catch anyone’s gaze, and they talked around her. Earlier in the evening, during the polite, “So what are you doing with yourself these days?” part of the conversations, all she’d gotten were blank stares.
Maybe it would have been different if she’d just gone into the mental hospital with the others. Maybe she’d have been accepted.
Claire felt shame redden her cheeks, and she clutched her hands together so they would stop their infernal twisting.
Maybe Kathleen saw, and perhaps her next words were a gesture of pity. Or cruelty–you couldn’t always tell with the ones who’d been popular.
“Of course, the mental hospital’s been there for years,” she explained to Dan. Dan had gone to another high school. Sherry nodded owlishly, tilting to the right in her plastic folding chair, Dan’s arm around her the only thing keeping her from toppling.
“Yearsh,” she chimed in. Sherry had ignored Claire tonight as well–their former friendship seemed to be just that. Of course, Sherry had gotten farther than the front door. Sherry hadn’t looked at all those broken windows and fled, becoming the class pariah for the rest of the year. Sherry had gone in.
Kathleen’s smile became conspiratorial. “Eastbrook used to run them in Orlando and Tampa and a few other places. There were a lot of rumors that the staff were doing all kinds of things to the patients. Awful stuff, made you sick to even think about it. The company went bankrupt. They got closed down waaay back.”
Her eyes gleamed. “Made the place irresistible to high school students, of course.” She sloshed her cup toward the far end of the room. “Everyone went in their senior year–well, almost everyone. It was like a rite of passage.”
Dan raised an eyebrow. “Oh, come on. I don’t care how long the place was closed. It had to have been fenced. The cops had to know, too–you don’t just let anyone wander around an abandoned hospital.”
Kathleen tried to blow a raspberry, and managed a sloppy exhalation. “Of course it was fenced!” she exclaimed. “But we knew where someone had cut an opening. Everyone knew. The cops went in about once a month to be sure there weren’t any bums living there, but that was it. You just stayed out of the worst sections and it was fine.” She finished her drink and dropped the plastic cup on the table. It hit at an angle, tipped over and rolled off the edge. No one but Claire seemed to notice.
“In fact,” Kathleen said, lurching to her feet, “I bet the opening is still there. Laur, isn’t your cousin a senior here? I bet they’re getting near homecoming weekend. I bet someone is going to go in there tonight.”
Laura blinked at Kathleen. “But–homecoming is this weekend.”
This time, Kathleen’s smile didn’t contain anything like pity. “We should scare the crap out of them–what do you guys say?”
Apparently, Claire’s escape from the asylum had come to an end. She got drawn outside with the others as the group decided how they would make the current year’s visit memorable. Kathleen shepherded them out to her car, where she opened the trunk with an air of triumph.
“Outfits,” she smirked. “I’ve always got extra in my bag. Some of us are going to be dead nurses.” Amidst a general hue and clamor of amusement, the loose greenish clothes were thrown over top of whatever people wore. Kathleen grabbed a flashlight.
Claire found herself tucked into the corner of a truck bed, the rest of them jostling together near the cab. She told herself that she didn’t have anything to prove, and knew that she lied.
Kathleen didn’t stop talking as they sped through town, turned around to speak through the small window in the truck cab. Her plotting and reminders allowed no room for second thoughts or doubts. “Remember to stay out of the TB Ward,” she warned as the truck turned onto the graveled drive. “The floors are rotting through since the roof is so damaged.”
“The second floor has a few rooms full of broken glass,” Sherry piped up. “Mostly the storage areas. But–“ she tittered and hiccupped, “Falling is not recommended.” Her giggle was uneven.
“Lawdy, just cannot find good help these days,” Kathleen retorted, and the other two chuckled.
Claire said nothing. She might not have been there at all. The road curved away into the night. As they slowed, she looked around, recognizing the business park and woods beside the hospital grounds. However, she couldn’t see the asylum at all. Could it be that Kathleen’s memory wasn’t as good as she thought? Muddled by too much punch, maybe she wouldn’t be able to find Eastbrook. Hell, Claire thought, maybe they’d torn the place down. It might not exist anymore, save in the town’s memory. The business park might have grown over it.
The sound of the engine died away. Silence filled the air like smoke. Kathleen got out of the truck and started across the parking lot.
“Wait,” Dan called. “Where are we? This doesn’t look like a hospital.”
Kathleen came back, waving them out of the truck bed with an impatient gesture. “We can’t park there–they won’t expect a thing this way.”
“Good thinking!” Dan said in approval.
Kathleen took charge, her sunset hair dulled by the streetlamps but her attitude unwavering. Her hands flickered in and out of shadow as she gestured at individuals and sketched out the plan. The women would be scattered throughout the first and second floors, looking for rooms and hallways with multiple exits. They would flit in and out, not so much seen as glimpsed. The men would be on the second, third, and fourth floors as the sound crew. They would stay out of sight but generate footsteps, yells, and thuds.
They crossed the lawn at the edge of the parking lot, Claire drifting along in the centre of the group.
As they came up on the fence, part of the mental hospital complex became visible through the trees. “Oh, there it is,” Dan said. Only the corner nearest the industrial park had light cast on it. The remaining wings of the hospital lurked out of sight. The group slipped under the wire lattice and approached.
Claire would have liked to look up and compare the hospital to some old Gothic castle; imposing and majestic, with minarets and implacable stone facing. This building was just ugly; built in the 1950’s for function rather than form. The addition of annexes and wings complicated the structure without adding to its appeal. It squatted above them, peering down like some monstrous child, and they the ants.
“Geez, I didn’t think we were at Hill House,” Dan joked. Some of them chuckled lowly, but most of them just stared up with expressions of unease.
“Let’s go.” Kathleen said, pushing people forward, and she strode across the pavement to the main entrance. The door opened, protesting and grudging, under her hand.
The interior gathered less light than the outside, but they could see the main hallway terminate at a pair of double doors. Debris huddled where the floor met the walls, starting to climb upward in the corners. The pale walls were uneven from the peeling paint, gouges, and graffiti. A pair of darkened fluorescent lights crabbed across the ceiling above them, with a cluster of thin pipes spidering their way alongside.
Without hesitation, Kathleen and Sherry led them through the first door on the left. It opened into a day room. Further away from the industrial park light, the furniture hunkered low with barely visible outlines. Wooden shutters dangled from the broken windows. A door on the far side led to another hallway, which threaded through several sets of double doors before reaching a three-way junction.
Doors to the front and left, a large hallway spoked off to the right. Tucked into the corner between the hallway and the second door was a wooden stairwell. Kathleen had pulled out the flashlight, and the beam darted around the walls like a caged bird.
“We’ll split up here. Sherry and I will stay on the first floor–the rest of you head up. Remember to stay out of the TB ward, and don’t get caught!”
“Wait, we don’t have a light,” one of the women complained.
Dismissive, Kathleen flapped a hand. “Oh, you’ll be fine, just go!”
Before Claire could ask how they would know when to meet again, she was carried along by the rest of the group ascending the rubber-edged stairs. Looking back down, the wooden banister twisted away into darkness.
They paused at the second floor alcove when they all heard the long whine of the front door opening. A faint echo of footsteps came next. The men, with quiet chuckles, headed for the third floor. Claire stood with Laura and another woman for the ten seconds it took them to flee, giggling.
Still and uncertain, Claire stood under the wide arch of the doorway. The hallway before her mirrored the one downstairs; she could follow the other two and move back toward the front of the hospital. That would be the best idea.
She thought it was Kathleen and Sherry’s patent familiarity with the ground floor that made her turn to the door on the right instead. Teenagers would bypass the familiar, if they wanted a scare. Wouldn’t they? Placing one shoe carefully before the other, she moved to the double doors across from the stairwell. Beyond the cracked glass, an unlit hallway faded into some unclear distance. The doors opened without a sound, and she slipped through.
Claire had only the suggestion of light, creeping in from the open doors on one side of the hallway. There was the sense of space around her, high ceilings as in the other areas. The linoleum muted her footsteps. The stuffy air didn’t move. There might have been no one there, though the silence might have been that of someone holding their breath. Waiting. Hiding. Uneasily, she thought that all the silence meant was that there were no broken windows. No broken glass underfoot.
Gaping doors slid by on both sides, the darkness within a more determined barrier than the doors themselves. Some of the rooms caught a bit of light, but she felt her way along the corridor more than seeing her way. A desk reared out of the wall beside her, causing her to shy to the left. When nothing further moved, she let out the breath that cowered in her throat.
The metal doors at the end of the hall had no windows. She ran a cautious hand along their solid shapes until the doorknob pressed into her palm. The door fought her pull, leaned obstinately back, and a prickle of sweat touched the area between her shoulder blades.
Another day room lay beyond the door, thick with dust and heavy air. A precarious pile of chairs blocked the way forward. Claire laid a light hand on the side of the musty pile to gauge height and size, causing part of it to clatter away onto the floor. The reverberations made her jump. Steady, she thought. She’d just created a racket – imagine how much it would scare the teenagers downstairs, given how her heart pounded away at her collarbone.
It was only an abandoned building. There was nothing there. She had nothing to fear here. This was going to make up for that night fifteen years ago, and in a few hours they would all laugh over this together.
Claire mastered her flailing heart. If this way wasn’t clear, she would have to find another. She reversed her path, turning right out of the wooden doors. Another heavy metal door opened onto a glassed-in walkway between wings. It stretched over a courtyard, stripes of shadow falling like outstretched arms over the floor. The additional moonlight meant that she could pick her way around the overturned cart and the abandoned wheelchair. A small plaque on the far side was too faded to read. Where did the door lead?
The new building had lower ceilings. More pipes crawled along overhead, disappearing into the walls. Dark patches grew out from the pipes in some places, and she avoided the floor underneath those areas. A main desk took up most of the center of the room in front of her. Hallways extended to her right and ahead of her. The hallway on the right had windows, the light revealing the ribbons of paint unfurling down the walls. Nothing but closed doors down that way. At the end of the hall she could see another door, leading to what looked like a stairwell. The elongated handle cast an odd shadow.
Her nerves were more than jangling, now, and being on the main floor seemed like a much better idea than staying up here alone. Through the windows, she could see a courtyard. Across the courtyard, she could see the dark holes of the windows. Not enough light passed through for her to be able to distinguish what lay beyond. She had only her senses insisting the openings weren’t empty, something was there, something was there. Her breath came quick and shallow.
The smell rose to greet her as she moved, dust and mildew and something even more unpleasant. It grew stronger as she advanced. The floor creaked as she drifted past blind doorways, covered over by faded graffiti. Was the smell coming from inside one of the rooms? Grimacing, Claire covered her nose and mouth with the sleeve of her uniform. It wasn’t until she had traversed the entire hallway that she got a closer look at the stairwell door handle.
It wasn’t a door handle. The axe was embedded into the door beside the window, and this close she could see the hairline fracture in the glass that this entry had caused.
The floor creaked, just like last time.
Several hallways, even more turns, and at least one flight of stairs later, Claire realized she had no idea where she was. Somewhere on a darkened upper floor, in some hallway, but that exhausted her store of knowledge. Some of the open doors had signs, though she couldn’t see enough to read them. Her heart raced in her chest, a small gibbering thing, and it drove her feet on faster. She’d lost all care for caution.
She just wanted to find the others. Forget this year’s seniors–she wasn’t scaring anyone but herself, and all she wanted was to get out of here. Claire turned a corner, too fast, too fast, and saw cold clean light streaming across the floor ahead. A window. She sped across the distance and she stopped herself on the soft door frame of what used to be a bathroom. The moon bathed her sneakers in light and she could almost feel relieved.
Stepping inside, Claire peered uneasily around. A toilet jutted out of the wall, with a hole in the floor across from it. The walls behind and beside the toilet were ragged, the years and the moisture unkind to the now-peeling layers of paint. She edged past the hole, working her way closer to the window with its metal screen. If she could see out–could see where she was… She stood a better chance of finding the others, and finding her own way out of this place. Some areas had been sort of familiar–but hospitals all looked the same.
As she passed the toilet that she discovered it hadn’t been peeling paint at all. The wall exploded into winged flight as hundreds of moths launched into the room. A few hit her face before she could react. Claire stepped back and away by instinct, hands coming up to shield her, and that was when the floor collapsed and she was gone.
She came to lying on the ground. She had no idea how much time had passed. Groaning, Claire tested each limb to see if she’d broken anything. Strange–she didn’t hurt. She could move. Perhaps the mound of squashy, reeking cushions under her had saved her–what must have been the combined soft bits from all the couches lurking nearby had broken her fall.
Around the pile, she could see a few candle stubs glued to the floor in puddles of their own wax. Someone had spent time there. Apparently not everyone was as terrified as she was–no, as she had been. From now on, it would be had been. She had been inside the asylum now, crept around the corridors and scared herself half to death. Now, she was the same as everyone else.
It shouldn’t matter so much to her. It had been fifteen years, after all. All the same, some small part of her felt triumphant. Let them try to ignore her now!
Some stressed joint made a popping noise as Claire sat up, and she heard a gasp. Her heart leapt into action and thundered away.
A thin, pale boy quivered across the room. His dark eyes were enormous in his white, white face. One of the seniors?
“Tell me you know the way out of here,” she managed through her tightened throat.
He dropped to the floor, one hand coming up to his chest. “I thought you were a ghost!” he squeaked.
Somehow at this, his white face and his staring eyes, and that squeak–she laughed. She couldn’t help it. He gaped at her, and then he laughed too. Sitting among the old furniture, they only egged each other on until they howled, unable to stop. Every time one of them managed to slow down to giggles, the other would laugh anew and it would start again.
Many minutes later, wiping wetness from her eyes, Claire managed to stop. “Okay, okay,” she wheezed. “That’s enough.” She pushed up to an unsteady stand and crossed the room to help the boy up.
He grinned up at her, palm sliding into hers with firm pressure, and that grin nearly set her off again. It was such a relief to actually talk with someone else–it grounded her somehow. In the last five hours she’d spent three being on the outside of everything and two alone and terrified out of her wits. Another person made her real again. God, she liked him, and she didn’t even know his name. They both leaned against the wooden door frame, mindlessly smiling at each other, until she gathered enough force of will to continue.
“Come on,” Claire said. “Let’s blow this pop stand.”
Entering yet another hallway, they turned left. All the metal doors were closed, and the pipes crawled down the walls. The dampness pressed against her nostrils. This must be the basement, Claire thought. Their feet on the cement floor didn’t make much noise. The hallway seemed to run off into nothing but darkness, and unease slithered back up her spine.
To distract herself, Claire asked, “So–what’s your name?”
The boy moved a little ahead of her. “Dylan,” he said, and with him facing away she saw the axe sticking out of his back.
“Do you think it’s this way?” he asked, and went through the doorway on their right before she could answer. The axe wobbled as he walked, though he moved as if unaware of it. She could see the gaping wound underneath. She could see the gore on his shirt.
Looking down at her shattered leg, the bones poking out as she moved so easily down the hallway, she understood that it had been the fall through the floor. The floor in the bathroom had given way beneath her, just as it had fifteen years ago. She just didn’t have any feelings left to hurt.
Glancing again at the retreating back of the boy in front of her, the hallway stretching on into blackness, Claire thought that sometimes the old saw wasn’t true. Sometimes, you can go home again. Sometimes, you never leave.
As a writer, Rachel Unger is a determined optimist. After all, something even more horrifying is lurking just around the next corner–or under the bed. And then there are the nematodes. Her fiction has been published in places like Disturbed Digest, Broadswords and Blasters, Devilfish Review, Polar Borealis, Unfading Daydream, and The Pale Leaves.