Buried deep within the woods of New Hampshire stood the dilapidated remains of what had once been a home for the deranged and mentally ill. The owner of the establishment claimed a financial burden led to its eventual closure around 1910, and while society had crept ever closer to its forgotten walls, a four mile block of undeveloped forest still hid it from the world.
Nathan and Lance Kearsley emerged from the thick forest of tall pine trees to stand before this relic, its thirty front windows peering vacantly at their approach. The dirt road that had once led to the structure had long succumbed to the elements, and neither had been prepared for the two-mile hike they’d been forced to endure, their faces red and their legs sore.
In the early morning sunlight they stood to stare at the faded brown wood, at the portion of the roof that had caved in on the three-story structure, most of its windows shattered.
“What are the odds it’s even going to be here anymore,” Lance asked his brother, his disagreement well known and often repeated even before this excursion.
“Probably won’t be, but what harm is there in checking?” Nathan shot back tersely.
As they approached the building Lance slipped the gun from his waist, eyeing the open windows along the first floor.
Neither had planned for the hike, but they had known they’d have a large, empty building to explore, and both removed their flashlights and let the beams illuminate the front hallway. Directly across from them they could see what might’ve once been a welcome area, a few shattered chairs strewn over the floor.
The light from the open windows lit only the smallest part of the building, the size of the structure enough to ensure they had only their own, artificial light to guide them.
Nathan didn’t appear to hesitate at all before delving deeper into the building, not even armed, Lance mused. A sense of youth came to Lance then, feeling like the children the two had once been, Nathan never shy about seeking out various dark holes to dig his way through, his younger brother Lance always just a few steps behind him.
They trudged down a long hallway of floating cobwebs, musty air, and large cracks running through concrete walls, until they caught sight of the office up ahead. Piles of folders and papers were still scattered across tables, the paper yellowed and dust covered. Most of the cabinets were all but rusted shut, but a few solid tugs wrenched a few of them open enough for Nathan to kneel down and sort through the papers.
“I think I might’ve found something,” Nathan called out excitedly. “Says here room three fourteen.”
“Third floor?” Lance asked.
“This place looks like its barely standing as it is.” He pointed his flashlight at the bloated, water stained plaster on the ceiling. “I wouldn’t trust the stairs.”
Nathan moved closer, his face softening, shifting, Lance knew, into the almost parent he had become when their parents had been stolen from them at such an early age, and Nathan alone had been left to raise the both of them in their journey in and out of constant foster homes. “It took us three months to find out about this place. If we don’t check then what was the point?”
“Took you three months,” he said, received only a stern frown in return. Lance didn’t argue further only because he knew the futility of it. “I think I saw some stairs near the front,” he relented.
Before reaching the end of the long hallway back to the front they both paused at the sound of a large crash to their right. Just behind them they could see the partially open door where the echo repeated itself. Nathan moved forward and pulled it open.
Lance inched close enough to see the cement stairs leading down into darkness too deep for their flashlights to fully penetrate. Something else was done there as well, he knew, and could see the tension in his brother for the first time. The footsteps were clear, but they weren’t necessarily coming closer. They had a random quality to them, like a drunken man pacing aimlessly.
Tense silence followed them until they stood in the faint sunlight from the front windows, the staircase leading up just to their left, and Nathan whispered, “Guess it’s a good thing you brought the gun.”
Lance couldn’t help but smile at the statement, as close as Nathan ever got to admitting he’d been wrong.
The aged, wooden steps looked thick enough to support their weight, and didn’t bend downward when Nathan started up them. Both used the handrail to steady themselves as they ascended into the dark, dusty air. The day outside hadn’t been hot, but inside the archaic structure Lance felt the sweat beading, the stink of decay clogging his nose.
On the third floor they passed over frayed carpet that might’ve once been red, down constant rows of closed doors, until they finally stopped before the back wall and the door to room 314, the name Albert Kearsley directly beneath it.
The room contained the remains of a bed, a desk along the wall, and a single broken chair. Two pictures were taped to the wall, but both were too faded to see in the limited lighting they had provided by the grungy window across from them. Nathan immediately knelt before the desk and started pulling open the drawers.
“Finally,” he said, and removed the old notebook, held it up for Lance to see, before flipping through its pages.
“How much can you read?” Lance asked, attention on the hallway they’d passed through, unable, even in the moment of the find, to care about it or the past it represented.
“A lot of it is faded, but I think I can make out a few names. God, just looking at all these pages, who knows how long it took him to put it together?” He looked over at Lance, smiling, holding the next and largest link he’d been searching for in his attempt to study their genealogy, a quest he’d first conjured over fifteen years prior while the two huddled together in a stranger’s home, their own past beyond their parents all but a mystery. Lance had followed behind as Nathan eventually traced their lineage to Albert and learned about his own obsession over a hundred years ago with the very same thing. They’d heard of his eventual end in this very building just before both the institute closed, and Albert passed away, his possessions never removed due to lack of interest.
A sharp crack of wood brought both of them to attention. Lance stepped out of the room and shined his light down the dark hall of closed doors, but he couldn’t even see as far as the staircase.
“It’s an old structure,” Nathan whispered beside him, but before the words were finished they could hear shuffling feet, the dry wheeze of aged breathing, until the faint image of the man became visible on the far end of the flashlight’s beam. He stopped there, barely seen, long hair obscuring most of his face. They could see the dirty rags on his body, the odd coloration to his hands held tightly by his side. He took another step forward, body hunched, movements jerky, erratic, and he stopped again, but they could see his head rise, Lance’s gun rising with it.
A thick, throaty sound preceded the man’s words, his voice unaccustomed to speech. “Finally came for it, did ya?” he whispered, the words just barely heard, and Nathan glanced down at the old notebook in his hand, confused.
“Couldn’t be referring to this,” he said to his brother.
“We don’t want any trouble from you,” Lance yelled back, flashlight and gun held close to each other, aimed at the man.
“It’s mine now,” the man said, voice growing louder. “Can’t have it. I need it. Not yours to take.”
“I don’t know what you’re referring to,” Nathan said, “but we don’t have any interest in taking anything from you.”
“He’s,” Lance began, but couldn’t finish the words before the man started running towards them, his long hair flying back from his face, revealing the deformed nature of his eyes, of his mouth, the image only partially glimpsed in the shifting beam of the flashlight and the bursts of gunshots echoing through the narrow hallway.
Lance couldn’t say how many bullets the bum took, his chest exploding red as he struck the carpet with a brief spasm before going still. “You had to,” Nathan was saying, but Lance didn’t hear, because he understood it somehow wasn’t over even before the bum lurched upward, pausing on his feet, allowing both beams of light to hold him for those first few seconds.
It appeared to Lance that the skin around the man’s eyes had been torn open, the flesh split apart, and while the eyes themselves weren’t actually larger, they were so discolored they blended with the raw skin around them. Two protrusions grew from the man’s face, one on the side of his forehead, and the other out of his right cheek. The skin was pulled taut around them, stretching out the skin on the rest of his face, adding even more to the deformed image.
His body appeared to be no better, more long protrusions attempting to tear out of him, a few of them visible through the hole in his ragged shirt where the bullet had struck. Lance could see the red, gaping holes, but the man showed no sign of pain, smiling at them instead, both blood and saliva streaming down the side of his cracked lips.
“It’s made me too strong for that,” he whispered.
The man moved before Lance could fire. Strong hands grabbed hold of his shirt, pulled him closer to the warped face, and then thrust him backwards, towards the wall, some part of him aware of the cracking wood as his body passed through it. The sunlight blinded him, senses overloaded by the swirling colors, the rush of air against his body.
He almost passed out when he struck, though not because of any severe pain. Rather his mind assumed his own death, and came close to delivering unconsciousness in its place, but the thought of his brother kept him alert, made him pull himself up from the thick grass he’d landed in.
Up above he saw the hole he had torn. “Nathan!” he screamed to the building, voice rolling through the forest, but his brother didn’t answer him. His first step let him know the extent of his injuries. His back and neck felt sore, face etched with tiny cuts, but otherwise he felt nothing life threatening, the wood having been so aged it gave way easily enough to spare him serious harm.
Before he could reach the entrance the new reality he found himself in asserted itself, reminding him what he’d seen, what he’d watched the creature live through. The thing wasn’t human, or at least it didn’t fit Lance’s concept of what a human was, but his mind didn’t stumble over the information. His entire life had been built around quickly adjusting to the rapid changes each day might bring him.
Perhaps the creature had already killed Nathan, a thought Lance found he couldn’t fathom, Nathan the only constant his life had ever known.
Even before reaching the entrance he heard the crash of a door slamming open, heard the scuffling of feet up ahead, somewhere in the darkness. He had the choice between journeying back up or assuming the creature had taken his brother into the lower depths. All he knew for certain was that the thing had hurried into the basement, and so Lance ran to the open door, hoping he hadn’t chosen the wrong path. Though he felt the same fear he had before when staring into the darkness his flashlight couldn’t fully dispel, the thought of Nathan being dragged by that creature down the steps drove him on.
He emerged into a large room with four doors, dried leaves scattered about beside rusted tools, broken down furniture, and other assorted objects. One door had been torn from the hinges, probably quite some time ago, and through it the same sound of movement drifted to him, showed him his path. He once again found himself moving through a hall of constant doors, but now they were closer together, a window on each showing him the padded cells within. Rusted light fixtures hung so low they nearly struck his head. The beam of his light swung wildly across the darkness as he ran.
Up ahead his light fixed on a closed door, larger than the others, the flicker of firelight visible beneath it. His run slowed, face slick, mouth dry, and stomach coiled tightly. Numb fingers reached towards the handle, but paused right before touching it, aware of the presence somewhere in the darkness behind him, but not in time.
Thin fingers tipped with long nails grabbed hold of his shirt, yanked him so hard the flashlight clattered to the floor a second before he struck the ground himself, the gun thankfully still in his grip.
In the faint glow of the fallen light he saw the deformed face moving towards him, mouth opening wider than it should’ve been able to, literally tearing bloody holes in the skin. Two shots tore into the man’s chest before the fist almost dislocated Lance’s jaw.
“Not yours to take,” the man screamed with a warped voice, eyes growing wider as a fist came down again, tore loose a flap of skin on Lance’s forehead. His left eye clamped shut when the blood poured into it, but he could still see well enough to bring up the gun, something the man no longer feared, grabbing hold of Lance’s throat rather than tear the gun away from him.
One bullet clipped the side of the man’s head, detonating his right eye, while the other seared away most of the neck. The boney fingers at Lance’s throat immediately loosened. He heard the change in the bum’s breathing, the pain in the cry he emitted as he stumbled back.
Three more bullets, Lance thought as he pulled himself upright. The bum tried to crawl away from him, towards the large metal door, fingernails tearing off at the forced he used to pull himself forward. Lance could see the spasms of both pain and tears in the man’s body. He aimed the gun carefully before putting a single bullet into the man’s spine.
Still the man moved, legs dead weight as his arms groped forward. Lance moved around him to pick up the flashlight, shine it in the bum’s bloody, weeping face, a long string of red mucus pouring from his nose, mixing with the wet remains of what had once been an eye.
“Where’s my brother,” he whispered, unable to speak any louder his throat burned so badly.
The bum didn’t appear to listen, still groping uselessly forward, deformed face contorted into a look of desperation. “Just another bite,” he gurgled. “He’ll bring me back. Need another bite. One more bite.”
Lance glanced over his shoulder at the closed door before rising up and turning towards it. He should’ve dealt with the bum first, he knew, put a final bullet through the head, but something else made him pull open the thick door. Behind him the bum continued to mumble, lost to the world, no longer seeing anything as Lance stepped into the dimly lit boiler room, a small campfire near the door the only source of light.
A broken furnace comprised the bulk of the wall in front of him, but the room continued deeper, around the rusted metal, his flashlight running slowly over the spider webs, the dead, mutilated rats, until finally ending on a massive hole torn through what had once been a bricked over wall.
Even before reaching the hole the hint of whispers began to echo through his mind, to drive him onward, his flashlight’s narrow beam the only thing letting him see through the shattered brick wall.
His hand, along with the flashlight, fell to his side. He didn’t want to shine it directly at the thing glistening at the bottom of a long, dirt ramp. He thought this thing might’ve once been larger, but the destruction to it was clear, its flesh cut away, still wet and pulsing organs quivering with only vague life.
Perhaps the bum had once thought it just another odd animal of some sort. Had he tried to kill it first before cutting off portions to eat? Lance doubted he’d ever know, nor did he want to know, not even willing to shine his light directly at it, to confirm anything about the abomination before him. The thought of Nathan made him turn from the room with wide, dead eyes, the arguments from their youth returning, only now Nathan wasn’t around to tell Lance he was wrong to ignore the past and the mysteries of life.
He realized as well the whispers had ended along with whatever drove him to glance at the monstrosity. He felt as if it had reached out to him, only to dislike what it had found, and left him to go on his way.
Closer to the boiler he found rows of kerosene bottles. He took a few of them with him when he returned to the injured bum, still groping uselessly for the door, only a few inches of progress made. “Just another,” the bum wheezed, and Lance wondered how long this man had been here, devouring his bizarre food, body warping more and more with every meal.
He emptied one of the bottles over the man, smiled fiercely at the man’s flailing, but he didn’t light a fire just yet, moving past the bum instead, out of the darkness of the basement, and up those stairs towards Albert’s room.
Though brutal, Lance honestly believed his brother’s death had been swift. Blood splashed the walls near Albert’s room, Nathan’s entire chest all but torn open, his lifeless eyes still staring blankly at the ceiling, the blood splattered book in his grip. Even if Lance had gone up the stairs first Nathan would’ve been dead, and he took a bit of comfort in this fact. Lance forced himself to look directly into Nathan’s eyes before reaching down to pick up the book.
He left his brother that way, descending to the front hallway, seeing for just a second the place as it might’ve once been, its walls clean, a man sitting behind the counter as Albert stepped through the door for the first time, unaware his future relatives would stand in the very same spot, that one of them would die, just as he had died, within these walls.
Lance doused the walls with kerosene before holding his lighter to Albert’s book and setting it aflame. He hurried from the quickly growing flames, across the thick grass, only pausing when he’d reached the outer wall of trees. He waited to see the smoke billow through the windows, to see the flames crawl up the aged wood; maybe listen for the final cries of what had once been a man. He didn’t hear anything but the crackle of burning wood.
Would the fires put an end to whatever existed in the bowels of the structure? Had it been there on the day Albert checked in, or had no one known of its existence until the man stumbled across it?
Those were questions Nathan would’ve surely asked, and done his best to answer. Lance turned away from the pyre and started the long journey back to his car.
By Philip Roberts
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