The hospital sat back from the road behind a wrought-iron fence enmeshed in kudzu. Ivy led nature’s assault on architecture’s abandoned outpost, shattered windows paying homage to the efforts of the infiltrators – squirrels, rats, birds aplenty, all making sure that the edifice would be rotted out and hollow when it crumbled.
“What was this place?” Barrington asked as they hopped down from the Chevy floor mat draped over the spikes on the gate.
“A hospital,” Ann said. Her jeans had torn a snag over the fence and he watched her twisting her body in the moonlight, trying to finger the spot where night air tickled her skin.
“It doesn’t look like a hospital,” he said. The bricks sat heavy and gray, like a Lego castle come to life writ large. Narrow panes of glass stood far back in thin windows, spaced around the U-shaped building with the cold efficiency of monotony.
“It was a reformatory school until the Great Depression,” Gabe said, the last over the gate, stashing the floor mat in a bush. “When they couldn’t pay their bills, the state took it over into a children’s hospital.”
“Eesh. Still creepy.” Ann shivered.
“Oh, come on.”
Barry led them along the battered, fractured concrete walkway. Shivering waves rippled around them in the moonlight as a breeze caught the tasseled tops of the wild grass.
The doors gave way with a dusty snap – the metal locking pins at the top and bottom of the jamb breaking free of the splintered wood – and swung out onto the stone landing. Dust rose in gentle clouds, kicked up by the disturbance at the door and the scurrying feet of small nocturnal vermin. Their lights flicked on and illuminated the receptionist’s desk.
A squat semicircle of cinderblocks someone shellacked over into a medicinal off-white. A few panes of glass still hung from the slats between desk and ceiling, but even under three coats of heavy paint Gabe could still see the holes where thick mesh gratings had surrounded whoever sat behind the desk.
Balloons and fields of grass with cows and smiling woodland animals danced painted across the front of the imposing station. He was struck by an old Lon Chaney quote and shivered.
There was nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight, and, he realized, nothing comforting about a hospital by flashlight.
Barry gave Ann a little brush of his hand across the tear on her thigh and she squealed at him and slapped his hand away.
“Cut that out, will you?” She hissed. Barry held his hand to his mouth and let out a stage whimper.
“You want to explore out back? See if there’s a nice moonlit clearing?”
“Hey Gabe!” He turned to Ann. “Barry and I are going to go see if the old garden out back is still there.”
“You aren’t getting lost in here,” he said.
“No problem.” Barry pointed down a long hallway behind the receptionist’s desk. “It’s a straight shot.” They could see a small square of pale moonlight inset at the far end.
“Okay,” he sighed. “Meet back here in an hour, though, all right? I don’t want someone on their way home from graveyard shift to see us hopping the fence.”
The two waved assent and set off. Gabe pulled off a glove with his teeth and rubbed his eyes. Christ, if only he’d bothered to get his license over the summer, he wouldn’t've had to bring them along just to get a ride.
He turned right down the hallway, coming after a long dusty walk to another set of doors – larger, dogged at the top and bottom with heavy hasps, and made of solid oak at least two inches thick.
Ann fell into the middle of the glade, pulling Barry down after her as she rolled. He let himself get dragged down on top of her and sent sprawling in the moonlit grass. The ground beneath their entwined bodies was cool and dry, cushioning their movements. She squirmed a bit as blades of grass tickled her through the rip in her jeans.
All around them cicadas and crickets chirped, small animals nestled, and green vines continued their assiduous choking of simple wooden crosses, white paint swallowed up in the darkened underbrush.
The residence hall depressed Gabe just as much as he had imagined it would. Some of the doors hung loose, ajar out into the corridor, while others lay shut tight and latched from the outside. Gabe took a look through a small window, chiding himself as he cupped the light to the glass for half-expecting to see a child’s skeleton contorted on the floor, rats scuttling about the ribcage like a jungle gym.
Instead just a metal frame for a cot, a sink, and a ring of poles that once held curtains around a toilet. Changing this place into a hospital had just meant swapping out the grilles on the window for the screen around the loo.
He kept on walking – he remembered seeing what looked like an open room on the end of the hall coming over the fence. The rooms around him blended into a repeating pattern as the small box of light at the end of the hallway grew larger, and it wasn’t until he flicked the light off for a second and looked behind him that he realized just how many people must have been housed here.
The room at the end had probably been an exercise room at some point, although he doubted they could have fit more than a fraction of the floor in here at a time. From the bay window he could see the highway distant, and wondered what the sight of so many cars, horses, and people going by free and happy must have felt like for those trapped here.
Several plastic chairs stood against the walls; an empty book-case, a rotted, mildewed couch he kept well clear of, and a child’s writing desk. Gabe circled around a free-standing chess ‘n checkers board to search the desk and found nothing but dust and scraps of chewed paper.
Gabe gave the gameboard a quick once-over – little more than a box on a stand, the top inlaid with scrap squares of black and white shower-tile. It looked as if one of the guards or doctors had made it in a garage workshop.
He pulled open one of the drawers, hoping for the sight of some amateur hand-carved rooks, and found a wad of gum, two broken pencils, and an obscene proposition carved into the wooden bottom with helpful visual aids. The drawer on the other side held the same, the message reduced to a simple and comical “What the fuck are you looking at?” above a pair of cartoon googly eyes.
Gabe sighed and closed the drawer, and jumped back when a fluttery mass fell down from beneath the table to land with a soft whump in the dust at his feet. He flashed the light down and saw a folded-up sheaf of paper tied once around the middle with an old shoelace. Checking underneath the chessboard, he saw a small patch of dark wood where the bundle of papers had been wedged in between the two drawers.
Taking it to the window and sitting down, he started to untie, unfold, and read the dusty pages.
Ann and Barry lay together, looking up at the moon and stars. Sweat had soaked into their clothes and they huddled together against the chill. Gone were the soft nighttime noises of the surrounding tangle. It was a serene, idyllic silence.
“Did you feel the earth move?” Barry asked.
“You ass,” Ann pulled away to punch him in the shoulder, “are you saying I’m fat?”
He grinned and pulled her closer.
Off in the brush, beneath the vine-choked crosses, the earth moved.
Thick, blocky lettering scrawled across the first sheet of heavy construction paper. They had written the date in the upper right, winter of nineteen-thirty.
“I’m still stuck in this stupid joint – some good-damn Christmas this is. They don’t tell us dates but I seen the ministrators putting up decorations. If I could change things I’d go back n stop me from stealing that jacket.
Ain’t worth this – I guess that’s their point n all. Still ain’t fair though – no justice in this. This the sorta thing I’d write onna walls but I ain’t bout to stay here longer on that account. Maybe the next kid finds this put in another sheet, sayn what he’s about.
“Bobby ‘Bigger’ Conroy, age thirteen or thereabouts.”
Gabe shuffled through the brittle stack. He held dozens of these, from scraps with just a crude name and a date to two or three pages of tight, precise lettering covering both sides of the paper to the very edges.
The stack of children’s messages had somehow continued through the transition to a hospital. He wondered – had one of the reform school kids come back as an adult, as a patient or as staff? Or had the letters remained hidden through the construction and redecorating only for some sick kid to find them and carry on the tradition? Gabe set aside Bobby Conroy’s introduction and started reading through the rest of the pile.
A boy named Daniel Ferrari had written a short goodbye to a friend who’d been released. That made him smile a bit – it was good to know that some of the boys had gotten their lives together again.
The last entry caught his eye – this was the two pages of dense cursive dated from forty-nine, the most recent of the lot. The year the hospital closed, if he remembered correctly. He thanked the rigid wartime curricula for the neat, legible handwriting – he could only decipher his own cursive through heavy use of context and guesswork.
“I wonder how many of the children who wrote in here are still alive,” it began, and he blinked at the morbid wonderment in a young girl’s curtsying script, “not many, I’d suppose. After all, people die in hospitals all the time and the reformatory boys, well, they didn’t have anybody on the outside – that’s why they wound up here. Some of the graves looked at least twenty five years old. Some of them looked fresh.”
Gabe set the rest of the pages aside and adjusted the light to shine on the last entry. No name on this one.
“Jeanna and I were out back in the garden. I should have been in bed resting, but it was a beautiful day so the doctors let me wheel Jeanna outside. She wanted to listen to the birds, feel the wind, smell the flowers. Our windows don’t open that wide. One of the nurses took us down and made sure that we were all right, then she went back to her rounds.
“There weren’t any wildflowers in the garden yet, but Jeanna said that she could see them from her window in a little clearing in the woods not far distant. She really wanted them, and there was no way she could get them herself, so I told her to wait there (I felt bad at that, as if she could do anything else) while I went over and looked for them.
“They were deeper in the trees than I had thought – not far away; I could still hear Jeanna singing and talking to herself, but I couldn’t see the hospital through the leaves and branches. I picked bouquets of daffodils, spring crocuses, even a few strands of flowering honeysuckle. I turned the corner around a tree and saw white crosses. Scores of them. A hundred even, maybe more. Row after row, column by column.
“The ones in the back were faded and covered in vines of half-hidden in tall weeds. The last couple up front had patches of bare earth in front of them with a short fuzz of grass. I counted nine across and twenty or more back.”
He set it down and rubbed his eyes. This was the last of the entries, and the sick shriveling in his gut said there was a reason for that. Setting aside the first page, he turned to the second.
“Jeanna was calling to me then so I hurried back. It wasn’t until she thanked me for the flowers that I realized I still had them in my hand. I had forgotten all about them. She asked me what was the matter, and I told her that I just felt a little bit tired, that the walk had taken it out of me. Jeanna apologized for my having to exert myself so – she wasn’t being sarcastic or lying, she really was. That made me feel almost as bad as before.
“I didn’t tell anyone about it – how could I? – and I think that Jeanna must have just thought that I was still recovering. Until I found these papers, though. Not all of them left notes, or were even mentioned, but enough – more than enough. There was the legend of Jimmy Tell, who escaped from the reformatory but was eaten by a bear. Chucky Wilson, who killed himself one cold night and whose body was hustled out by morning.”
“Others were just mentioned as missing – released, but no one knows to whom, or paroled, but they were the rudest, rowdiest of the lot, or simply vanished.
“Nobody has vanished from the hospital, but they don’t need to, you know. People – children – die here all the time, and nobody bats an eyelash at it. That’s the nature of the beast.
“I don’t know who, or what, is doing this. Maybe an old guard now an orderly or a janitor, maybe an administrator kept over from the reform school. Maybe – and for this reason I dare not ask aloud – the graves are the building’s tradition, the adults’ tradition, handed down from one set of hands to another, each adding their own contribution, just like the bundle of papers this will soon be a part of.”
There was a short break in the text here, an extra half-line of spacing, and when it resumed the letters were a bit looser, shakier, a bit more rushed – or frightened.
“I can feel something, whether unease growing in me from the sight of the graves, or some unconscious sense of someone watching me. I arranged to call my parents and told them that I felt fine, and looked forward ever so much to coming home. Thus, if I don’t, I hope they will become suspicious. I can hardly tell them the flat truth of what I saw.
“I can’t say where that feeling just came from – I don’t know. It has occurred to me that the other children from the hospital must have had parents too. Why are they buried out back? Why not at home? Some of the graves are new enough to be filled since the hospital has been here, so why?”
The last line was chilling, and the worst thing to Gabe’s eyes was the sudden crispness to the words.
“I’ll put this with the others at two when we take our air, and then tonight, I will go out and find the graves again.”
The empty building settled down around his shoulders like a heavy wet towel. As he put the papers away into his jacket pocket, he glanced this way and that at the walls around him, floating red balloons and rainbows on the cold, sterile cinderblock.
His watch glinted in the moonlight and he started. A good deal more than an hour had passed since he’d left Ann and Barry.
On his way back down the hall, he paused at a window to look and listen. The car was still in place, hidden in the bushes on the other side of the fence. No lights shone in its interior, and no voices called his name. No sounds could be heard, in fact, except for a far off rustle of wind and the phlegmatic drafts through the corridors.
Gabe sprinted the last stretch down the hallway to arrive at the receptionist’s desk panting and wheezing. When he caught his breath and stood up from his knees, the hallway towards the back of the building loomed in front of him like an open mine shaft.
The path Ann and Barry had taken stretched out through the grass in front of him like a phosphorescent wake, the pale undersides of the blades turning their faces to catch the night sky. He jogged along the path calling out their names, winding his way through the trees until the grass gave way to low shrubs and saplings.
Here he flicked his flashlight on again, peering for any hint of their passage – scuffed leaves, snapped branches. Ahead, his light picked out a sliver of pale blue among a patch of short grass in a small clearing.
Barry’s jacket. Gabe picked it up, feeling the slight damp that had managed to seep into the corduroy, and saw the tunnel of turned leaves and twigs leading off into the woods. He dropped the jacket and ran after the trail calling their names again, louder.
After only a couple dozen yards, the trail vanished, if it had been there to begin with. Gabe took one glance back to the clearing and started walking in slow circles. His feet sank into the loamy ground a few inches with every other stride, and then his other foot caught on something.
Gabe turned the light to his feet and saw a single cross, two scraps of packing crate nailed together, flecks of white paint shiny under the halogen bulb. He looked to his left, and his right, then to his front and rear. Rows and columns of crosses were laid out around him in ordered ranks. He could see no trace of Ann or Barry.
The ground beneath his feet settled. He quick-stepped back and felt an unpleasant tremor run through his center, gut to gonads, when he saw that he’d been standing, turning in place on top of a freshly turned grave.
There was just enough time to form the question of why – how – the ground could still be so loose and heaped before a slight bulge appeared up between his feet and his mind started screaming, and his balls shrunk up like a turtle into his stomach.
Another pulse of dirt, and a small hand broke the surface, shedding damp clots of dirt. The hole spread as something sat up, earth falling away like afterbirth to reveal the decayed corpse of a child. Gabe stepped back and spun the light to see the floor of the forest opening up around him. Dozens of bodies pulled themselves up out of the ground.
Some had been buried for decades – they looked like cooked turkey skin stretched over armature wire – and some were just ugly tanned bones barely held together. Others – the ones closest to him – were puffed up with decay, flesh hanging like so much greasy meat from their naked arms and legs. Gabe stepped back until he ran into a tree, light shivering in his hand.
A grimy hand grabbed at the cuff of his jeans as he noticed that all of the children were walking, crawling, dragging themselves straight towards him.
Gabe’s throat erupted in a choking scream as he flailed his leg. The corpse’s grip broke on one swing, and the next sent the tip of his size ten Converse into its sternum with a rotten crack like plunging through a crust of ice into a mud puddle. The trees around him were smooth and wide, impossible to climb, and everywhere he turned the light, black eyes in sagging faces returned his gaze.
Deep down inside, something civilized went snap. He rushed three steps to the next nearest child and sent his toes up under its chin. There was a crack of whiplash as the skull bounced back to hang forward, spine shattered, and now he was smashing the barrel of the flashlight into the side of a girl’s skull where a small root from a hungering tree still stuck up out of her flesh.
Her eyeball went like a ketchup packet beneath a car tire, painting red-gray lines up his arm onto his chest. The only sounds were his panting breaths, occasional screams as he struck out, and the crackle of brush as hundreds more of them came towards him.
He kicked his foot through a ribcage that gave like waterlogged cardboard and tripped as it caught, sending him sliding from his feet atop meat and claws of bone grasping from all directions.
Gabe rolled and thrashed, flinging the corpses, crushing some underneath into mangled piles of ooze and bone. The lens to his flashlight shattered on a femur and he was in the dark, pale shadows of moonlight falling across the faces and gaping skulls around him.
He felt his sanity inch back, threatening to flee at any second if he allowed himself to realize or admit what was happening.
He pulled himself to his hands and knees. A dirt-filled mouth clamped down on his left arm and he smashed the skull behind it. A cry of pain escaped his lips as he followed through into his elbow with the battered metal tube. Struggling to keep his balance and falling into trees as he ran, Gabe made for the looming blackness of the hospital. He crashed through the doors, crushing an infant’s corpse against the cinderblocks and leaving a long black smear as he slid forward leaning into the wall. Still-grabbing arms and fragments of torso fell off of him as he careened down the passageway.
“Where the fuck is that floor mat?”
“For the fifth time, I have no idea.”
Barry and Ann tramped around in the brush by the fence, casting their flashlights this way and that. On the other side – just a few yards away – the car stood cold and dark.
“I didn’t see where Gabe put it,” Barry continued, “and since he’s not here right nor, I don’t think asking me is going to help anything.”
“Besides,” he said, patting his side, “he can’t leave without the keys, so he’ll have to show up – oh, fuck.”
“What is it now?”
He smacked his head with his free hand and grimaced.
“The keys, in my jacket. I must have left it out back.”
“Frankly,” she said, “that’s fucking fantastic.”
They sighed and turned back to the old hospital. They made it halfway up the front walk when Gabe burst out of the doors. Ann shrieked and jumped at Barry, arms latching on to him.
By the time Gabe was halfway down the steps, she realized it was him and relaxed.
By the time she could see him, at the bottom of the steps, she had started screaming again, Barry too.
Bio: I have had stories published in Sybil’s Garage #6 and Bull Spec #4, as well as online at places such as Cosmos and Pseudopod.
My story “Neap Tide” was a storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story of 2009, and another story of mine, “About 77 Degrees, West of Nassau”, received an Honorable Mention in Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 2.