I sat on the steps of my cousin’s front porch, enjoying the light breeze and cool evening air. The setting sun had turned the sky gold and dyed the clouds the color of raspberry sorbet. I could hear crickets chirping and a pack of coyotes howling in the distance. Fireflies had begun to emerge and I occasionally spotted one flashing as it flew among the tall grass surrounding the yard. The floorboards creaked as Victoria walked out and sat down next to me.
“So, how’ve you been?” she asked.
“Pretty good, actually. What about you?” I said.
“Well, to be perfectly honest, things aren’t going too great right now,” she sighed. “I’ve been getting a lot of those nightmares lately. I think it’s just stress. I’ve been pretty busy lately.
I frowned. “Have you talked to anyone about it?”
“Nah, I don’t want to bug anyone. I’m not losing too much sleep over it.”
“You have circles under your eyes.”
She shrugged. “Alright, so I might be losing a little sleep. They’re just a bit more vivid than usual. Like I said, stress. There’s the normal stuff, just wandering around the old hospital or whatever it is, looking for Nathan and calling his name and all that. At first, the only real difference was that he started calling back,” she said. Something about that made me uncomfortable. Maybe it was how clearly I could picture it in my head, right down to the sound of his voice.
“It keeps going?” I asked.
“Yeah. And it gets weirder, too. I end up in a hallway that looks like it’s sunken into the ground. I can still hear him, so I try to follow the sound of his voice, but I can’t figure out what direction it’s coming from. Every time I think I’m on the right track, it turns out I’m going the wrong way. Just when I start to wonder if I’ll ever find him, it actually sounds like I’m getting closer. I get so close I can hear him right around the corner!
“And then I wake up in a cold sweat, and I’m lying as stiff as a board. I can’t remember what it is that keeps scaring me so bad. Once I calm down, though, I’m just so mad that I can never actually get around the damn corner. It kind of makes me want to go back and look again. Just one more time, you know?”
“To the hospital?” I said, alarmed.
She looked almost sheepish. “Well, yeah. Just to tell myself he’s really gone, I guess. Sometimes when I go over to Mom and Dad’s, I still half expect him to sit down at the table with us. You could say it’d be for closure.” I was startled by the idea, but I tried to hide it. “I’ve been thinking about going down this week.”
“Who is going with you?”
“No one. Everyone is busy, and it will be a while before I have another chance to go out of town.”
I knew she was serious.
“Victoria, I don’t think that’s such a good idea. You can’t just drive out in the middle of nowhere on your own, it’s too dangerous.”
“Well, I guess you could come along if we went tomorrow,” she said uncertainly.
“I don’t know…”
“Look, it’s okay if you don’t want to go. I’ll be fine on my own, but you need to be sure about this. You can’t tell me it never gets to you. You’ve told me yourself that you still think about him too. Maybe going back won’t do you any good, but I need to look for him again. Then I can finally tell myself he ain’t coming back.”
I considered what she said. She was right. I still thought about him a lot, but the idea of going back filled me with dread. I had been with Nathan when he disappeared.
When we were teenagers, we liked to explore old buildings outside of town. We had spent weeks planning our exploration of an abandoned hospital a couple of hours away. We were planning on going camping near the site and everything. We were so excited.
I couldn’t remember much about the trip, but the moment I realized he was missing was as clear as day. He called me over to check out something he found interesting near a flight of stairs, I don’t remember what. I went up the stairs, thinking he was behind me, then realized he wasn’t. And that was the last time I saw him. I wandered through the building for hours calling his name, but there was no sign of him anywhere. When I realized there was nowhere left to look, I called the police in tears.
I remembered the hours and days spent talking to the police, and the weeks and months waiting late at night for my parents to come back from another search party. I had never really searched for him myself, I had dreaded the very idea of going back to the hospital.
I thought about what might have happened if I had gone. What if I would have been the one to find him? Maybe I should go with Victoria. I owed it to Nathan to look for him one more time. Hesitantly, I nodded to Victoria. I didn’t need to say anything. She leaned over and hugged me tightly. “Thank you for doing this, Maisie.”
Getting into a boarded-up building was not as hard as I would have thought. Victoria just gave one of the boards a little tug, trying to decide whether or not we should try using her screwdriver, and it came off. It felt almost too easy. It was like the building wanted us to enter it the way a venus fly trap hopes a fly will land inside its jaws. The hallway we had entered was dimly lit despite the sunlight sneaking in through cracks between the boards on the windows lining the narrow hallway. I tried to relax by focusing on the sound of birds singing in the surrounding forest.
“Let’s go,” Victoria said and strode down the hall. She walked briskly. She was standing up straight with her shoulders back, but she had sounded uneasy. I quickly followed, not wanting to fall behind and lose track of her. We wandered around with no particular destination in mind, and as we walked I began to feel more uncomfortable. You know that feeling when someone gets close to you, and you can’t see them, but you know they’re there? It was like that, but when I turned around I didn’t see anything. I tried to convince myself it was because of the various animals living in the building. I could hear them scurrying around inside the walls and gnawing on things.
As we wandered further into the building, the sounds of surrounding wildlife became fainter, and the oppressive feeling grew. Soon our footsteps were the only sound. I wanted to strike up a conversation with Victoria, but I couldn’t bring myself to break the silence.
Victoria picked up a pebble and began fidgeting with it as we resumed walking. It reminded me of the time we had to hide in her bathroom during a tornado. She had pulled off a piece of toilet paper and ended up ripping it to shreds while we huddled together and listened to the roaring wind outside.
I saw something move out of the corner of my eye and turned sharply. Nothing was there. I was certain I had seen something. I searched for somewhere it could have gone. There was one room nearby that the thing could have ducked into, but its door was closed. It didn’t move an inch no matter how hard I tried to get it open. There was nowhere else the thing could have gone as far as I could tell. It should have still been in the hallway with us.
“What’s wrong?” Victoria asked. Her body tensed and her eyes darted around.
I hesitated before saying, “I must have seen a rat or something. It startled me.” My lie wasn’t very convincing, but we continued. I thought I saw the thing moving at the edge of my vision a few more times, but I couldn’t be sure. This did nothing to alleviate my growing paranoia. My palms began to sweat, and I turned to look over my shoulder every few minutes or so. I was mentally debating whether or not we should just throw in the towel when Victoria stopped suddenly.
We were standing in front of a flight of stairs that went both up and down. Victoria looked at me. I just pointed at the stairs and nodded. This was the last place I had seen him. I suddenly felt an ache in my chest and my heart sank. Maybe I shouldn’t have come back. Dwelling on what had happened wouldn't bring Nathan back. I half expected to see him waiting for me by the stairs, but of course, he was nowhere to be seen. I could still hear him in my head enthusiastically telling me about the hospital’s history as we explored.
I vaguely noticed Victoria wandering over to the flight of stairs, but I didn’t pay much attention until she stumbled. The sound of her falling down the stairs was so much louder with the silence surrounding us. I heard the crunch when she landed at the bottom all too clearly and rushed down the stairs after her as quickly as I could without falling myself. It was pitch dark in the basement. I frantically dug in my backpack in search of my flashlight. I found it and turned it on but immediately wished I hadn’t. Victoria was lying motionless. Her right leg sat at an awkward angle, and so did her head.
I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that I needed to do something to help her, but I stayed where I was. I was waiting for her to sit up and laugh it off while she checked herself over for injuries, the way she always had when she got hurt playing football with the neighbor boys. Victoria did not get up. Instead, she stared blankly at the ceiling.
Maybe she was in shock? I slowly kneeled beside her and began checking for her pulse. I was not surprised when I didn’t find it, but the confirmation was what set me over the edge. The tears that had been welling up in my eyes overflowed and began dripping down my face like water from a leaky faucet. They started flowing faster. My throat felt like it was closing up, and my breaths came in shaky gasps. I sat in the dark helplessly as my emotions took over.
I suddenly decided that I needed to call 911. I didn’t know what paramedics could do, but I was convinced they could help her. Maybe they can find her pulse. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that they couldn’t, but tried to ignore that thought. I pulled my phone out of my pocket. No service.
I wandered through the room with the vague goal of finding something to use as a splint for Victoria’s leg, just in case. My flashlight dimmed and I walked without looking where I was going. I didn’t notice that the floor in the back of the room had caved in until I was already falling through the hole. My flashlight landed nearby, and I scrambled to pick it up. My hands were shaking, but I still held it like it was the only thing keeping me from falling further.
I tried to take a few deep breaths and figure out where I was. It looked like I was in a hallway in part of the building that had sunken into the ground. That must have been where the hole in the floor above me came from. There was barely any paint left on the walls, and dust flew through the air. The floor was more dirt and clay than tile. I could hear water running somewhere nearby. A strong rotting smell filled the space. I held part of my shirt over my nose, but the stench still made me nauseous.
Something moved out of the corner of my eye again. I waved my flashlight around wildly. I still didn’t see anything, but this time I heard something. A strange rasping sound echoed through the halls. I decided that if a corpse could laugh, that was what it would sound like. I wanted to call for help or try to climb out, but I was paralyzed by fear. The sound still echoed around me. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from.
I unfroze when I heard a yell from somewhere nearby. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, or even their gender, but they were scared. I couldn’t stand there and not do anything. I sprinted down the hall in the direction I heard the voice. The laughter continued and I looked over my shoulder frantically, but nothing was there. I could go left or right. I heard another yell, it sounded like it was coming from the left hall.
I ran in that direction, nearly getting to the end of the hall, but then a scream pierced the air and I stopped dead. It had come from the opposite direction. I felt sick. I must have gone the wrong way. What if they need help and I don’t get there in time? I bolted back the way I came, occasionally stumbling over the uneven ground. I reached the end of the right hallway. I could go straight or turn right again.
“Where are you?” I yelled.
“Here!” the person said. At least, I thought that was what they said. It was coming from the right hall. I wasted no time following the sound. As I was running I felt a weird sense of hope. Maybe it was Nathan. Getting to the person was a matter of life or death.
I was reaching the end of the hall. There was only one way to turn. I heard a scream from around the corner. I turned sharply, and I was nearly knocked off balance by my momentum. Nothing was there. I looked around in confusion and panic. I didn’t see anything but a dead end. A yell came from the opposite direction. My flashlight began to flicker and I prayed it wouldn’t go out, as I tried to follow the sound.
I heard more yelling from the direction I was going, but then I heard another shriek from behind me. Something moved at the edge of my vision and I ran forwards. Now I was screaming too. My flashlight stopped flickering and I could see where I was going.
I turned right. That hall went on for a while. Then I turned left, I went down a flight of stairs and the smell was even worse. Left, right, right, left, right again. I had to get away. My own saliva threatened to choke me. Pain in my side restricted my breathing, and my blood pounded in my ears. My light started flickering again and I fell. My left ankle was twisted badly, but I got back up and staggered forwards anyway.
My breathing was labored. I was going to be sick. I wasn’t following the shouts and screams anymore. They echoed off the walls, all coming from different directions. Some of the noises sounded more animalistic than human. I needed to keep going. There was no sign of that thing near me, but I knew better. It was everywhere. I heard Victoria calling for help. I ignored her cries. They weren't really hers. I couldn’t keep going. I fell, and this time I was too exhausted to get up. I got to my knees and tried to crawl forwards. I felt its breath on the back of my neck. My entire body was tense, I didn’t make a sound as tears streamed down my face.
I forced myself to stand back up and try to get away. I staggered around another corner and into a dead end. I didn’t turn around as I heard footsteps coming closer. They stopped right behind me. I could feel its breath again. We both knew I didn’t have anywhere to go. “Why didn’t you come here sooner?” Nathan’s voice said.