I have not long been a vagrant, nor will I be much longer. This much has been determined. I continue to run and hide, but it is merely animal instinct at work. The man in me knows it to be futile. My date approaches.
I was an assistant to Dr. William Ernst at the Butler Hospital until several weeks ago. It was respectable work that my uncle and benefactor had found for me, and it passed the hours. During my breaks, I sat in the neglected garden behind the hospital and smoked sitting on a decrepit brick planter in which long-forgotten daylilies and creeping juniper decayed.
And as I smoked, I watched a door in the wall of the hospital.
It was an inconspicuous old door, tucked behind a poorly planted spruce. It showed of long disuse; the base of both the door and its frame were rotten and black with mold. The heavy dun-colored paint chipped away in large flakes along the frame and the door knob was badly rusted. As my internship progressed, the door annoyed me increasingly, like a scab that a young boy won’t cease picking apart. I guessed that it must lead down to some point in the cellar, as I was sure there was no external door in that corner of the building.
Finally, curiosity got the better of me, and I turned the knob, which turned with a gritty feel like sand in the teeth, and the hinges groaned as I pulled it open revealing steep steps down to what I presumed to be an old quarter of the cellar. The wooden steps were old and thin, and the nails had loosened to the point that each step swayed beneath my weight. At the base of the stairs, there was a musty, earthy smell odor like a potting shed. I expected pitch blackness, but found myself facing a room that was dimly lit from several spots along a wall. I must have accessed a working portion of the basement from an old, forgotten entrance, and so I called out to anyone who might be working in the lighted portion, “Hello? Is someone down here?” No one answered.
As my eyes acclimated to the dim light, I could see little windows along the walls up ahead. I could see the end of the long, narrow space now, which appeared to be a hall ending in a closed door. I approached the first of the small windows. The window was at eye level, and square, about the size of my hand with my fingers spread. It lacked glass but was covered instead by a metal grate. The room beyond at first appeared to be unoccupied. There was a small cot with a moth-eaten wool blanket. A little table sat in the corner by the cot, with a small oil lamp from which the light dimly lit the room. I was about to move onto the next window, when I heard a rustling of cloth and a quick, dull thud as of something soft and heavy falling to the floor.
Standing on my tiptoes, I discovered the source of the sound. Lying supine on the floor was a young, beautiful girl, clad in a loose-fitting hospital gown. Her lithe arms were splayed across the floor, and her back was arched up most tetanically. Her head lay at a quite unnatural angle, and the muscles of her neck were visibly tense between the thick curls of raven-black hair. The nails on her hands were terribly overgrown and unkempt, coiling several inches from the tips of her stiff, claw-like fingers. She had the appearance of a body in rigor mortis, but for the troubled heave of her bosom as she gasped periodically. Her eyes were rolled back so that only the whites showed. From her nostrils and the corners of her mouth and eyes, thin trickles of blood could be seen dripping down her fair cheek to the stonework floor.
“Miss? Miss, are you alright?” She gave no response for several moments. Then suddenly, a tremor shuddered her body. It was a rapid and most unnaturally quick convulsion, like the twitch of a cat’s tail while watching a bird from a window. It is impossible for words to convey the horror of this movement. It was as rapid as the flicker of a candle flame, and while her general posture remained mainly unchanged, the violence of the movement brought her young body a few inches off the floor from the waist up. “Help! Is someone there to help?” I called down the hall, but there was no reply. I called again, yelling quite loudly, toward the steps hoping that some attendant on a smoking break might hear me, but oddly I could no longer make out the stairs in the dim light. I tried the door to the cell, but it was locked heavily.
Stepping back from the door, I saw a yellowed, brittle chart record pinned to the wall. Most of it was in an indecipherable script I could not make out, but the header at the top was legible. Her name was there, and a date of admission, which was some time ago. Next, there was a release date; here, the month and day were clear, but there were too many digits in the following number to constitute a sensible year.
As I moved along the hall, the other cells were similar to the first, except that the occupants and corresponding charts varied. Each inmate lay on the cot or floor in apparent spastic paralysis in a loose-fitting, soiled and moth-ridden hospital gown. Like the girl, their tense stillness was every few moments disturbed by a twitch that made the hairs on my neck stand on end. Each chart had an admissions date in the relatively recent past, but the release year was nonsensically long.
At last I came to the door at the end of the hall. A placard on it read “The Treatment Room.” I knocked, but there was no reply. I called “Hello?”, but there was no reply. I turned the knob, but it was locked.
To my left and right, I now saw that similar halls extended in both directions, with the dim light spilling out of square windows in the doors. The oppressive silence was broken only periodically, by the terrible twitching of bodies within their cells. Each hall was long, fading in the dimness to utter blackness, and I wondered how far beyond the foundation of the hospital they must extend, or whether the light played some trick on my sense of perspective.
Then, in the distance, I heard footsteps coming toward me. Despite my desire just moments before for anyone at all to come to my calling, my heart now raced and I felt I must get out of the hall as rapidly as I could. I turned from the door marked Treatment Room, but my right leg would not budge. Looking down, I saw that my shoelaces of my right shoe were shut between the door frame and the Treatment Room door. Had the door opened when I didn’t notice? Could it be that I had been inside and not remember? Strangely, I am still not sure.
The footsteps were closing in on me and in my rising terror, I tore off my shoe and ran down the hall stumbling in my one remaining shoe. I heard the steps picking up speed to match my pace. I ran past many more cells than I remembered having passed, but still could not see the stairs through which I had entered the basement. Fear clouded my reasoning, and when I came upon a cell with a door that was opened by just a crack, I glanced inside with a thought to evading my pursuer. The room, I could see, was unoccupied, and as I pulled the heavy door open to admit me to slip inside, my eyes landed upon the record pinned outside the door. The name listed was my name. There was an admission date too, and it is not many days from now. The release date was not yet filled in.
My fear overwhelmed me, and I stood frozen, as unable to move as in any paralysis I have experienced in dreams. My pursuer was nearly upon me, and it was only with agonizingly painful slowness that I was able to turn my head to meet them.
“Child,” she said scoldingly, and I looked around to see a matronly black nurse with greying hair. “Child, you’re not supposed to be here,” she said simply. “Not today.”
“I’m sorry, mam–” I stuttered. “Which way is out? I know I’m where I shouldn’t be, but I’m lost.”
“You can see the stairs right over there,” she said, pointing out the stairs in the dark down the hall. I turned back to thank her and apologize again, but found myself alone. I thought perhaps she had stepped into the cell beside me to service it, but when I looked inside, it was still empty. Then I ran. I ran up the stairs and out into the garden. I ran to my apartment, and tried barricading myself within for several days, but felt trapped and had to move on. I have since hid at the wharf, in the cemetery, and in alleys among the drunks and derelicts, but I suspect that it is of no use to run or to hide. I cannot forget my date, and it’s soon now, very soon.
Kevin Crisp teaches human anatomy and has published some fifteen science articles and book chapters, mainly on peculiarities of the blood-sucking leeches. When he’s not working with cadavers or leeches, he occasionally finds time to write fiction. His work has also appeared in Frontier Tales and 365 Tomorrows.
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Story illustrations by Steve Santiago.