Her blood-red eyes are all that are visible through the billowing fog, her gaze penetrating to my very soul. I feel my will drain away as my sense of self drowns in a whirlpool of crimson, the voice that exists only in my mind impossible to resist: Give yourself to me. Obey.
The person calling my name seems far away and I feel like I should be able to recognize them, but I just can’t…
“Morgan wake up!”
My eyes snap open with a start, trading the recurring nightmare of my dreams for that of my reality. The December moon shines bright through my barred window, her beams breaking through the steadily falling snow outside and washing the undecorated walls of my room in pale light. I don’t have a watch, but based on the moon’s position it must be around two; a long way until morning. I know from past experience I won’t be getting back to sleep tonight, not with her waiting for me in my subconscious. The cold seeping through the poorly fitted window frame is enough to be uncomfortable if not life threatening. Pulling my thin blanket more snugly about myself, I wrap my arms about my legs and wait. Sitting in her light, not for the first time I wonder what the moon thinks of all those hidden things that creep and crawl under her shifting gaze, hunting and hiding. Does she know? Does she care?
When day finally breaks, I’m more than ready to get out of these four narrow walls. Impatiently, I sit fidgeting on my bed for the orderly to come by and conduct the headcount, signaling the approach of my relative freedom.
Today is different. Rather than the almost robotic pattern of steps as the lone guard makes his way down the wing, silently checking each room in turn, there are two sets of quick footfalls accompanied by low but strained voices.
“…what I f*****g said.”
“How’d… through the window?”
“…hell should I know…”
“Director’s gonna… pissed.”
One of the orderlies stops briefly to ensure I’m posted on my bed where I’m supposed to be before rapidly continuing down the hall, further conversation lost to my ears. I close my eyes and concentrate, trying to see if I can pick up any stray thoughts from the pair, only managing to get a whiff of frustration, barely masking a sense of very real fear. Something is wrong.
Rather than the five or ten minutes that typically separates the room check from the doors being unlocked, today I’m left waiting for a solid hour before my liberation. Eager to see what I can discover about the nature of the disturbance, I immediately push into the hall past the orderly and join a steady stream of my fellow patients.
Entering the large common room where we spend most of our day, I scan the room looking for Joe. I like Joe Sandoval. He’s been a guest here at the Fallen Leaves Psychiatric Hospital even longer than I have, killed his wife in some kind of a psychotic break when he found out she was cheating on him. Rumor is they tried to rehabilitate him at first, but after he strangled his second therapist in as many months decided it would just be best to keep him in a waking coma.
He’s easy to talk to since the nurses keep him stoned up to his eyeballs, enough that I’m sure he wouldn’t recognize me if they took him off the meds. Even better, the drugs keep his thoughts quiet, unlike most of the residents whose minds are comprised almost solely of waking nightmares. The horrors from their brains disgust me, perhaps only second to some of the thoughts I pick up from the male orderlies.
Today, though, I don’t see him. His normal spot at the table near the far wall where I’d expect him to be sitting slack-jawed and empty-eyed is vacant. Odd. I wonder if Joe’s absence could possibly have anything to do with the disturbance that caused us to be trapped in our rooms this morning. Even now, I can still pick up the sweet stink of fear from where an orderly guards the door. Questions beget questions. I settle into a seat next to Joe’s empty one and focus on trying to screen out the thoughts of the lunatics surrounding me.
Every day at ten o’ clock after breakfast, residents are allowed thirty minutes of outdoor recreation on the hospital’s rather sizeable grounds. Considering everything that has happened today, I expect this morning’s excursion will be interrupted. I’m surprised when the nurses start bringing in winter jackets at the normal time, assisting the less able patients in bundling up.
The December air is frigid on my exposed skin as I move to the outdoors, my breath-taking shape as I exhale. Looking back at the dormitory wing, I’m surprised by what I see. Each room’s exterior is virtually identical, a single small window situated on the south side of the building and protected by a set of steel bars strong enough to frustrate even the most energetic assailant. I know this from personal experience, as I have repeatedly tested my own room’s security. Today though, the uniformity is interrupted, the tough, thick glass of one of the windows on the second floor somehow shattered, the protective fencing twisted violently outward. My mind returns to the s****h of conversation I overheard during the room check. Could someone have broken out of the hospital? Could it have been Joe?
Glancing about to ensure I am unobserved by any of our chaperones, I move closer to the base of the building to further investigate. To my astonishment, there is no glass fallen in the snow resting under the broken window, its untouched whiteness blemished only by my footprints. A shiver runs down my spine, a feeling owing nothing to the brisk winter weather; the window must have been shattered inward.
I doubt most of the patients would have the mental presence to even notice this detail. Similarly, I’m sure that any sane observers would likely arrive at another, acceptable explanation for the discrepency. But I know what lives in the shadows, have seen how very narrow our vision of what ‘real’ truly is, how our world is the barest tip of ice poking out of the water. There are things that dwell beneath it, in the dark and cold. I’ve met some of those things, lost my little sister and best friend to them, was labeled insane when I tried to spread the warning of their existence. God I only wish I was.
I close my eyes and extend my senses to see if I can pick out anything from the broken window. The barest hint of oily darkness clings to the opening like a cobweb, its nature unlike the normal astral muck I routinely swim through from the run-of-the-mill psychotics and deviants interred here; not confirmation of some kind of otherworldly entity, certainly, but far from the reassurance I could have hoped for. I pick up a mental whiff of suspicion and turn to see an orderly frowning at me from where he keeps watch. I move from the spot before he decides to chase me away; there’s nothing more I’d be able to tell from down here anyway.
Before I let my unfortunately all too sane mind run off on thoughts of spooks and goblins, ghostly children and demonic women in white, I decide to take one more chance at finding a clue to Joe’s whereabouts. There is a small stand of ash trees near the eastern wall of the property, a low bench nestled protectively beneath their spreading branches. Many days I’ve spent sitting on that bench with Joe’s comatose form settled next to me, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face as I imagine the life that exists just out of reach on the other side of the high stone wall. If Joe did escape, if he maintained anything resembling his memory, maybe he would have gone there. Maybe there will be a sign. I sigh. Ifs. Maybes. All questions and no answers. Riddles in the dark.
I reach the trees and am disappointed to note the lack of footprints other than my own, the snow as unmarked as the bank beneath the shattered window. I brush off the stone bench and sit down to think, hoping for some flash of inspiration. Final check is at midnight and I was awake from two o’clock on. That leaves a relatively small window of opportunity for something to have happened. Did I hear anything as I shivered on my bunk last night?
As I hunch on the bench wondering, my gaze wanders over the snow. Suddenly, my eye catches on something that causes my attention to snap into focus. It’s a small thing, really, one that I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t taken the time to sit on the bench and stare at the ground. But it’s there, clear as day, two small drops of red marking the snow that my first glance had told me was unbroken. Instinctively I know those two pinpricks are blood, and a pit forms in my stomach as worry settles inside me.
I extend my senses again, this time towards the red snow. Immediately I can tell the blood is from Joe, it tastes like him, the image of rose petals falling gently to the floor that I’ve come to associate with him, unmistakable in its simple beauty. Running through that almost idyllic image is a spike of pain and fear that I haven’t ever felt from him, his psyche typically too dulled by medications to allow such potent emotions. And there’s something else too, the same darkness I felt scraps of clinging to the broken window, now undiluted and wrapped up here in Joe’s essence, cloying and awful.
Abruptly my psychic self is forcefully tugged forward, the raw strength of the strange darkness dragging me in as readily as a fish on the line. Reality shifts, and instead of the blank pale whiteness of new fallen snow, the landscape has transformed into one entirely of red, the sun and sky and trees alike. The shock of the connection causes me to fall to my knees and my arms plunge into frigid pools of crimson to the elbows. I free my hands and hold them in front of me trembling, my hands deeply stained. Blood. The entire world has been transformed into blood. The coppery smell stings the back of my throat and I feel the oatmeal mush I ate in the common room start to work its way back up as I hurriedly try to break the mental connection. I manage, barely, trying to catch my breath as the world snaps back into normalcy, my hands unmarked, the lingering remains of darkness flitting like bursts of static through my consciousness as it dissipates. What happened to you, Joe?
“Where’s your boyfriend, Fontaine?”
Still woozy from my astral trip, I feel a rush of fear run through me. I recognize the voice. It belongs to Calvin Sturgis, a new orderly in the hospital, and a sadistic son of a b***h. I first encountered him maybe two weeks ago, my mental recon returning an image of a young girl, bruised and sobbing, a dark form standing over her. The associated emotion was not anger or drunken rage as I would have expected, but rather sexual excitement. Even without my abilities it would have been too easy to read his intent as he ran his gaze down my body. Since then, I’ve ensured that I’m never alone with him, used my abilities to avoid him as much as possible, but I was too distracted by the reading from Joe’s blood to sense his approach.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about, Sturgis.”
“That’s Mr. Sturgis, you uppity b***h,” he moves a step closer, putting himself in arms reach, “and you know exactly who I’m talking about. The freakshow, Sandoval. He went missing last night, managed to squeeze through his window somehow. Say…”
He reaches down, grabbing my arm and pulling me roughly to my feet.
“You’re gonna be awfully lonely without your comatose buddy. Not sure what a doll like you saw in a brain-dead guy like him anyway.”
I try to pull away.
“Shh, shh, hey it’s ok, don’t worry. I get it, f*****g a corpse can be fun. Tried it myself a time or two,” he chuckles leaning close to whisper in my ear, “I’ve seen the way you look at me, darlin’. And I’ve got good news for you… I’m on guard tonight.”
He smirks as I struggle to pull my arm away from his grasp.
“Ah, ah, don’t go making a scene. Who’re they gonna believe, anyway? You, a f*****g lunatic, or me, the model f*****g citizen? Say something, see what happens to me. I’ll tell you what: nothing. But I’ll make sure you spend a month in solitary, maybe see that they forget to feed you a time or two. Hunger does amazing things to break liars of their nasty, nasty habit.”
He licks his lips.
“By the time you get outta there you’ll be begging me for it. So think about that if you decide to get… fiesty.”
He reaches around and squeezes my a*s, hard.
“See you tonight.”
Sturgis walks back towards the asylum, stopping to talk to another orderly on his way. The pair laugh at a shared joke. Goddammit. As if it isn’t bad enough Joe’s been taken by some otherworldly entity, I’ve got human monsters to deal with too. My thoughts turn to the ash trees spreading above me. The supernatural, at least, I may be able to protect myself against. The rest, I’ll just have to improvise.
It’s not the first time I’ve partially clouded someone’s mind with my abilities, but it’s still a bit of a surprise that I manage to smuggle a pair of foot long ash branches back into the asylum, the orderlies convinced they’ve thoroughly searched me. I’d done some research on the occult prior to being committed and know that religious objects, coupled with appropriate belief, have protective capabilities against things that go bump in the night. And if Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee taught me any lessons at all, it’s that a cross can be made out of two straight pieces of pretty much anything. The fact that I’ve managed to get actual ash wood, commonly heralded for its spook stopping potential, is pure gravy.
I manage to sneak off to my room and stash the sticks under my mattress. I have a feeling I’ll need them tonight. I can’t know for sure, but something tells me that whatever the hell abducted Joe will have felt that probe that sucked me into the strange blood world earlier. And if it can do that, it’ll have my scent. Who knows, even if Cal Sturgis is the only monster I have to fend off tonight, the branches may come in handy.
I spend the rest of the day sitting next to Joe’s vacant spot. The time passes uneventfully, though the stench of mental unease stays constant from the orderlies watching over us. It’s all I can do to keep from smiling. They’re scared because they think a multiple murderer has somehow fallen off his meds and might be hiding somewhere in the hospital. They’d crap themselves if they knew there’s a genuine boogeyman responsible.
Gradually the sun starts its slow descent towards the horizon and the orderlies dish out the evening meal. Sturgis slops a bowl down in front of me.
“Eat up, Fontaine. Gonna need your energy tonight.”
I toss him a saccharine sweet smile and raise the bowl to my lips, downing the stew inside in a few gulps. The thrill of excitement from him as he mentally runs through his planned activities for the evening is easy to pick up. He’s right that I’ll need the strength, just not for what he’s got planned. Sturgis smirks and continues his rounds, leaving me to my thoughts. If the monster doesn’t come for me tonight, it’d be a tactical misstep to reveal I’ve got the ash branches hidden in my room, but dammit if I have the opportunity to shove one of them down his throat, I’ll be sorely tempted to take it.
It’s maybe five minutes later that I realize something is wrong. The world has taken on a strange, spinning motion, my head whirling like it’s hopped on a carnival ride. Sonuvabitch…
I lurch to my feet and stumble to the trash can on the far wall, shoving my fingers as far down my throat as I can. I manage to spew a thin stream of vomit into the can before everything upends completely and I find myself face down on the floor, the tile cool where it presses against my cheek.
“The hell, Morgan?” I recognize the voice, Clem Shepherd, another of the orderlies, “What’s wrong with you?”
“Don’t worry about it, Clem, I got her,” Sturgis’s voice seems to come from a very long way off. “Just a little upset her boyfriend skipped out without her. I’ll get her back to her room.”
He pulls my arm across his shoulder and hauls me to my feet. At this point I’m too out of it to see if anyone else is even paying attention. Sturgis half drags me back down the hall and roughly dumps me on my bed.
“Sorry, darlin’. After our earlier conversation I just wasn’t left with the confidence you were gonna keep that feistiness in check, so I decided to take the edge off. Sleep tight. Don’t you go missing me too much, I’ll be back later once I’m sure we can have a little more privacy. I know you lady-folk have your modesty to think of. See you soon.” I can hear the grin in his voice as he shuts my door, the clicking of the lock carrying a weight of chilling finality. As my vision narrows to a thin tunnel, the world dimming to black, the last thought I have is to wonder which of the monsters will manage get me first.
Unlike the previous night, the drug induced sleep I’m forced into is of the deep and dreamless variety. When I manage to wake up, I’m momentarily confused, my thoughts sluggish, before the memory of my situation sends a shot of adrenaline racing through me, jarring my brain into full consciousness. Trying to move, I find that my limbs are unresponsive, a sick knot appearing in my stomach. The drug must have a paralyzing effect; I can only pray it wears off in time.
And pass time does, though I have nothing to mark it by. The dull numbness of my limbs starts to recede bit by bit, ever so slowly. I begin to hope that I might be able to recover in time to defend myself from whichever predator decides to try their luck when I’m alerted by a sound outside.
Panicked, my eyes flit to the window. The moon again shines through with its pale light watching the world below, tonight unmasked by falling snow. There, from the far side, staring at me as if ripped from my nightmares, a pair of glowing red eyes regards me coldly through the steel bars. I don’t even need to extend my senses to feel the same darkness emanating from the figure that I picked up from Joe’s blood. With ease, the shape takes hold of the bars and almost casually bends them back, away from the window. A long nail scratches down the length of the thick tempered pane, cutting through as easily as fangs through flesh, and with a gentle push the glass falls to the floor of my room, the rubber floor softening the impact. The dark shape glides inward through the opening, floating on the freezing winter air. I struggle to regain any movement, desperate to try and reach the ash branches hidden beneath me.
“Hello, my dear,” his voice is harsh and cold, like nails on a chalkboard, but all the same there is something beneath it that affects me on a primal level, almost sexually. Part of me is drawn to this thing, wants him to take me, to devour me, body and soul.
“I felt you, earlier. A remarkable talent you have. I knew at once I must have you. How lucky for us that visitors are encouraged to call upon patients in hospitals, or our meeting would have been so much more tedious to affect. But, ah, here we are.” My eyes pick up the barest hint of fangs reflected by the moonlight as he smiles. “Please don’t be frightened. Truly, the pleasure is only heightened by the pain.”
He bends over me, jaw yawning open wide, and in that moment I close my eyes and wait for the prick of his teeth upon my throat, knowing my life has come to an end.
That’s when the lock to my room clicks and Cal Sturgis pushes his way through the door.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, darlin’, you wouldn’t believe the evenin’ I had. Your boy Cal has some serious aggression you’re gonna help me work out and… what the f**k?”
Time seems to freeze for a beat, Cal stopped in the doorway, the creature hunched over me. The monster recovers first and roars with anger, leaping at Cal who falls back with a cry. The thing’s claws rip into his chest and cause blood to fly, spattering across the room. The force of its attack throws Cal backwards into the hall and I hear him slam into the far wall with a dull thud. The thing rushes him, but somehow he avoids the killing blow because his screams continue down the hallway as he picks himself up and runs, the creature howling in frustration as it chases after him.
Where I lie on my bunk, the paralytic effects of the drug at last seem to be fully wearing off. My upper body at least is responding marginally, my hand agonizingly stretching towards where the ash stakes are shoved under my mattress. I hear Cal let loose an unintelligible shriek from down near the common room as I finally feel the rough bark of the wood against my palm.
The screams have stopped, replaced by a few quiet moans and soft slurping sounds. I manage to pull myself to a sitting position on my bed, the wood branches held crossed and clutched protectively to my chest. I haven’t been a very active Christian the last couple years, and my faith has surely been tested in light of discovering all the terrible things in the world, demons and humans alike. Will it be enough? God, will it be enough?
Soon, even the moans fallen silent and I know it’s only a matter of time before I find out. The moon continues to pour herself through my broken window, the whisper of a winter breeze accompanying her and ruffling my dark hair. I turn my gaze to her waning pale face with a small, sad smile. She is, perhaps, the only one who will ever know.