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I KNOW, okay. But I had to do this one, even though it is now my third insane asylum related short story. Besides, I’d argue that the other two (Room for Thought and Scaredy Cat) were both pretty decent stories, and original despite the hackneyed setting. The nature of the asylum can be interpreted in one of two ways, as can Lucy herself. Either way is pretty horrifying, though, so believe what you want. Enjoy!

 

Asylum

By Ben Pienaar

 

Abandoned asylums were considered clichés in general, but Lucy Neil had found that in real life they were quite interesting. Each one was unique, and not just in terms of the layout – they all had their own personalities, their own moods. Some were places of peace, even years after they’d begun to crumble, places with comfortable old chairs and big windows and gardens with ponds. Others were dark and tense, full of twisting corridors and walls so white they seemed to scream at you. Rooms that were empty but dense with the memories of what had happened inside them.

This one was more the latter than the former. She told herself that it was in her head, nothing but a result of knowing exactly what had happened in here. This was one of the older ones – the worst ones were always old – and it had been operational far past time it should have been demolished. Back then, they’d thrown in as many sane people as mad, (at least, they were sane when they came in).

She walked slowly – Lucy was one of those that always did everything slowly, enjoying every moment. She’d come at noon instead of night, so the dark and ominous feel of the place didn’t have so much of a hold on her. She’d come again later in the week at midnight, but that would be with Jim. The front door opened on a long, narrow hallway with walls of heavy stone, and she made her way down, tempted to duck into one of the many rooms branching off on either side. She decided to make a full round of the place until she really got into it. You never knew, sometimes there were squatters or drug addicts, even in the day.

But it was all empty. Empty and safe – there was literally a main road right out at the front door. For some reason, she didn’t feel that good about it. All abandoned asylums were different, sure, but most of them were also the same in a lot of ways. They all had broken windows, there was always tons of graffiti throughout the building, and they were always strewn with trash. She was glad she hadn’t found any squatters here, but it sure seemed strange that there were no signs of squatters ever having been here.

But it was just the mood. The mood of the place always got into her, one way or another, and places like this were worst of all. She put on her business face, tied her hair back so it wouldn’t fall in front of the lens, and started unpacking her tripod.

She snapped a few pictures of the hall, trying to catch the way the shadows crouched in odd corners, as though the broken light hanging from the ceiling was still shining with head aching fluorescence. She found a large tiled room that looked like it had once been a communal shower and bathroom, although it was hard to tell because whatever flimsy concrete had made up the dividing walls had crumbled all over the place, now.

The further down the hall she went, venturing into this room and that one, missing none as she made her way, the less run down it seemed. The crumbled bathroom was the worst she saw, which was strange because she could have sworn she’d glanced into one or two rooms on her initial run through which had been half demolished.

She picked up her tripod at the end of the hall and went up a steep, twisting stairwell to the second of three stories. This one was in even better shape than the first. She turned into the first door on her left and set up in what looked like a patient’s room. For a while, she didn’t take any pictures, but stood and absorbed the mood of the room.

She didn’t like it. It suffocated her. For one thing, the walls were too heavy. They were made of some thick stone or something, barely covered by a thin coat of white paint, that made her wonder how the so many of the walls downstairs had crumbled so easily. These looked good for another hundred years. She knew what they were for, too: to muffle the patient’s screams – the same reason the walls around the place were so tall.

She took a few pictures of the bed and the little bedside table, making sure to zoom out the image so it took into account the door and revealed how cramped the room really was. The window had a large jagged hole in it as though someone had thrown a rock through it and she took a picture of that as well and then placed the camera in front of it so she could take a few of the back garden. It was a paltry, wilted garden. Full of weeds now, but she had a feeling it had looked just the same when the asylum was still running.

Lucy picked up the tripod and kept going, moving systematically through the building. The carpet up here was soft but whole and mostly unstained, while the one downstairs had been full of holes and black blotches of… who knew what. She found two little white switches at the end of the corridor and pressed one of them. To her surprise, the lights in four of the ten rooms came on. She clicked the second switch and the hallway light flickered once and then went off. Aren’t they supposed to cut electricity to these places? She flicked off the lights, folded up her tripod and started back down the hallway for the stairwell that led up to the third floor.

Just before she turned to start up the stairs, she glanced into the first room she’d photographed – the one directly opposite the stairwell, and saw that the door was shut. She hadn’t shut it, had she? No, no she was sure she hadn’t. Only she must have. She’d have heard it, otherwise. Squatter. Must be. Shit, I should have brought Jim.

            But it was better to be sure. If it was a squatter or drug addict or whoever, she’d just look in and get out before they could see the thousand dollar camera around her neck. Better to be sure.

The door opened easily, didn’t even creak, and there was no one inside. Now that she was looking into the room, she realised the closed door hadn’t been the only odd thing: the window wasn’t broken. She knew it had been – she’d taken a picture of the sunlight glinting off the jags in the glass. But it was solid now. And there was something else: the bed had been bare, nothing but a metal frame and a stained mattress when she was last there. Now it was fully made up, complete with a pillow and scratchy grey blanket.

‘Okay, this place is officially creeping me out,’ she spoke aloud. Usually, the sound of her own voice comforted her – it was why she tended to speak rapidly when she was scared, especially when she was by herself – but for some reason that wasn’t the case today. This time it just reminded her how alone she was.

She backed out of the room and closed the door. The sound of cars running by on the highway outside reassured her and she let out a sigh. It was noon, after all; the sun was streaming in from every window. One more floor and that was it, she promised herself. And maybe she wouldn’t come back after all.

She went up the stairs, trying to ignore the way her steps echoed against the concrete walls, and opened the door to the third floor.

The hallway was brightly lit, and when she stepped into it she saw that all of the doors were shut tight, save the one at the far end, which was slightly ajar. For some reason, she felt certain they were all locked, too. Someone coughed from inside one of them.

Lucy stood in the hallway, breathing in short gasps and trying to get herself under control. She’d already been up here, that was the thing. She’d come through here and looked in every room and seen the same kinds of things she’d seen on the first floor: holes in walls, worn carpets, broken windows. Some of these doors hadn’t even been here.

She turned to go back down the stairwell and saw that the door was closed, even though she’d been standing directly in front of it the entire time. She tried to open it, but it was locked. Oh God, what’s going on?

            She heard him before she saw him, a soft footstep on the carpet, and she spun around so fast she almost fell backwards. He put a hand up and took a step back down the hallway. ‘Hey now,’ he said, ‘it’s alright, Lucy.’

‘W… What? Who are you?’

‘My names, Gareth, remember? And she’s Lorraine.’ His eyes flicked over her shoulder and she looked around just long enough to see a woman, middle aged and squint eyed, standing with an overly enthusiastic smile in front of another door. Lucy backed up against the stairwell door. ‘Stop, just hang on. Who the hell are you?’

‘Don’t you remember?’ He looked genuinely hurt. ‘We take care of you. We’ve taken care of you for the last two years.’

‘What? Okay just… Hey, just get back!’ he’d been edging closer, but he stood straight now and put his hands up, as if in surrender. ‘Alright, alright. We just want to help.’

‘I don’t need help. You too!’ she snarled at the old woman, who also retreated a step. Her hands went behind her back but not before Lucy caught a glimpse of the syringe clasped in a well practiced grip between three fingers. ‘Hey! What’s that?’

‘Nothing, dear.’

She spun around and tried to wrench the stairwell door again – maybe it was just jammed – but it wouldn’t budge. The other two stood their ground, and when she turned back around the man was looking at her with something like pity in his eyes. ‘Lucy,’ he said. ‘Please.’

She moved to grab her camera, thinking only that she could throw it at one of them and make a break for the window at the end of the corridor – but when her fingers reached for the strap they closed on nothing. She looked down. Her camera was gone, and so was her tripod. Somehow they’d disappeared in the last few minutes.

‘Okay now, do you see? We don’t want to hurt you,’ he said.

‘What did you do with it? You took my camera! Jim! Jim!’ This last she screamed as the woman finally took her chance and ran for her, syringe brandished in one hand. Her expression was that of someone who was doing an unpleasant, but necessary job.

Lucy threw herself backwards in time to avoid it but the man caught her under the arms and held her up.

‘No! NO! Stop! I’m not from here, I don’t belong here! HELP! HELP MEEEE!’ She kicked and flailed and screamed, but somehow the old woman got the needle past her guard, and she felt something cold shoot along the veins in her arm.

She fought, she fought so hard, but her body betrayed her, her muscles slowed and relaxed. She rested on strong arms, staring at the too bright light on the ceiling, watching the shadows close in on the corners of her vision. ‘Jim…’ she whispered. ‘Help me, Jim.’

But he didn’t come, and soon she was fast asleep.

I like this story. I liked writing it, editing it, and thinking about it. All it is, is a concept. Sure, I got the concept from someone else originally (The nightmare box, by Chuck Palahniuk), but after it had simmered in the back of my mind for long enough it became something totally different, and now it is my own. If you read it properly, the ending should not confuse you too much. Just think about it.

Room for Thought

Henry stared into the room, trying to find something interesting, or at least different about it. But there wasn’t anything, really. In fact it seemed to him the most unremarkable room he’d ever come across.

 Actually, with that solid concrete door, it was more a vault then a room, but what difference did that make – there was nothing in it. It was just a mouldy grey box with the dimensions of a small prison cell.

 ‘I guess it smells pretty bad,’ he said.

 ‘Don’t you notice anything interesting about it?’ Stan nudged him. ‘You don’t find anything strange about this room that makes it different from every other mental asylum or prison ever?’

 ‘How can I? There’s nothing in it.’

 ‘Duh. That’s the difference. There’s nothing in it. No bed, no toilet, no window. Bet you’d be pretty hard pressed to find a prison that harsh, friend.’

 ‘Oh, right.’ He resisted the urge to slap his forehead. ‘Why is that, anyway? I mean I know they were cruel against the crazies back in the day, but a place like this would…

 ‘What? Drive someone crazy?’ Stan laughed.

Henry cringed at the sound of his friend’s laughter. He didn’t like how it echoed down the hallway and mingled with the stale wind that had somehow made it three stories underground. If it wasn’t for the huge crumbling holes in the floors and ceilings of this place, they probably wouldn’t be able to see at all.

 ‘Know what else is missing?’ said Stan, taking a thin black torch from his pocket. He shone it into the room.

 Henry squinted and looked around. The small light was more than enough to illuminate the little room but as far as he could see there was nothing else strange. He shook his head.

 ‘Yeah, took me a long time to get it as well. Last time I came here I just sat out here in the hall, just staring in there and thinking. Like, in awe, you know? At first I was like you, just thinking how ordinary it was, but the more I looked, the more I realised what was missing. See the walls? Totally smooth. Like they were made and then just left there for years and years.’

 ‘That’s not what happened?’ Henry said.

 ‘No. Think about it, Henry. If you were trapped in a tiny room like this, day in, day out, for years on end, you really think you wouldn’t leave a mark? You wouldn’t try to tally the days or carve messages in the cement?’

 ‘With what? Your fingernails?’

 ‘Anything, man. Fingernails, teeth, bone. These guys were crazy to begin with, how nuts are they going to be after a few months in here? Tell you what, I’d do anything to keep from being bored in here. I’d gouge my own eyes out and paint the walls with blood.’

 Henry rolled his eyes. ‘I think you’re being a little melodramatic there, Stan.’

 ‘Whatever, I just think its weird is all. Other asylums I’ve been to had similar rooms to this, most of ‘em with at least a toilet, and their walls were covered in weird scratches and graffiti and whatnot.’

 Henry shrugged, but he knew it was true. Now he thought of it, this room was quite different to anything else he’d seen.

 ‘So what’s the story, then?’ Henry said. ‘Why did you pull me all the way out here to a tiny rock to show me an empty room?’

 Stan grinned and flicked off his torch. ‘Because, buddy. It’s the real deal. It’s the haunted room you’ve been looking for your whole life. Don’t look at me like that. I know what the deal is. You say your little ghost hunting hobby is just a good excuse to travel but I see how amped up you get whenever we find something new, and I see the disappointment in your eyes when we find out it’s a hoax or whatever.’

 Henry snorted. ‘Right.’

 ‘Right. Hey I’m not teasing you. I feel the same man. Hell, why do you think I always come with you to these wacky places. It sure ain’t for the good company.’ He winked and then laughed. Henry cringed again.

 ‘No, seriously, though. I’m like you, I mean I never really believe, you know? Come on, I’m not stupid. But I always kind of hope. Remember when we were in castle… Damn, I forget the name, the one up in Scotland, where the ghost of some woman was meant to wake you up screaming in the middle of the night? Tell me I’m not the only one who was hoping to hear a wailfest.’

 Henry smiled despite himself. ‘I know, Stan, but it’s kid stuff. What are you talking about, the real deal? Why’s it haunted, Stan? Someone get murdered? Tortured? Dismembered?’ He laughed, but Stan was dead serious.

 ‘Look, Henry, I’ve come to this place plenty of times. You know, when I was gathering information, which by the way is really hard to get – you know the locals in the town over there would rather die than mention it. I practically had to live there before I found out about it. Anyway, like I say, I’ve been coming here a lot. But you know what? I’ve never stepped inside that room.’

 ‘What?’ That did seem a little odd. Stan never considered a legend debunked unless he’d gone all the way. He’d said ‘Bloody Mary’, about a thousand times in a thousand different mirrors, he’d lain in bathtubs where bodies were butchered. It wasn’t enough for him to just look, Stan always had to do.

 ‘I know, seems weird, right?’ he went on. ‘But the stories give me the willies man. You know why? Because they’re backed up. It’s not hearsay. Well actually, a lot of it is, but the hearsay is hard to get hold of. I mean, usually people are falling over themselves trying to tell you their little ghost story, right? Everyone’s got a dead grandmother that shows up in their basement or a friend who really swears they saw a headless guy in their bedroom once. But not these people.

 ‘Alright, so they’re superstitious. I’m sure most of them sincerely believe whatever was supposed to have happened in here, that doesn’t really prove anything.’

 Stan put a hand up, nodding. ‘I know, I know,’ he said. ‘So let me get to the hard facts. The real evidence, all researched and compiled by yours truly.’

 Henry was half tempted to jump into the room right then and put an end to the charade. But what kind of a friend would that make him?

 ‘This room here has more victims than anyone knows about. Here’s the kicker, though. It’s the actual room itself that seems to do it. As in, no murders, no tortures, no violence of any kind.’

 ‘You’re losing me, Stan. Make with the data.’

 ‘Alright, alright. I won’t bore you with the history of the asylum itself; it’s not on any Indian burial ground or anything, relax. So guy number one. The original first inmate, thrown into this very room on account of being totally nuts. Extremely violent kind of nuts, by the way. Just as likely to bite your face off as look at you. Attacked everything he saw, including the people that fed him. He goes in here, and stays here for about a hundred years.’

 ‘Really?’

 ‘That’s right. Whenever they had cause to chuck anyone else in there, they just did it. It wasn’t often, but if you were mad enough, you’d end up in here. They didn’t feed them or anything, so I guess you’d die pretty quick. It was just an easy way to get rid of them without outright murdering them. Out of sight, out of mind. Gotta love the old days, huh?’

 ‘That’s pretty horrible, Stan.’

 ‘It is indeed. This place closed down about thirty years after guy number one, though, and then it was just left to rot for seventy, after which some folks came to clean the place up. All that was left in here was dusty bone and a really bad smell.’

 ‘That’s for sure.’

 ‘Now we get to the juicy part. Four guys were employed to clean this particular room. Within a year, three of them had committed suicide and one had gone absolutely insane.’

 Henry laughed, a bit louder than he intended. ‘Okay. You got the records of that?’

 He waited for Stan to shuffle his feet and mention something about not managing to get access, but instead he reached into his big black bag and came out with a scruffy looking yellow file. ‘All in here, buddy,’ he said. ‘They were part of a clean-up project from town, so all their families still live there. These are transcripts of conversations I had with them. Spine chilling stuff, that, but we’ll go through it later. And that last guy? Still alive, up in Dorman County asylum. Won’t get much out of him though.’

 ‘Keep going, Stan.’

 He flashed a grin. ‘Oh I will. Guy number… we’ll say six, but it’s probably more like twenty six. He was a local, so he knew all about it. Him and a bunch of daredevil friends came up here about five years ago. He was doing a paper on the old-school treatments for insanity, figured it might be fun to come down and scare his buddies. Well, he sure scared ‘em alright.

 According to all of them, who by the way told the exact same story, he took three steps into the middle of the room and then froze. He stopped moving and just stood there. When they called his name he turned around. They told him to come back and he did, and then he just stood out here in the hallway and stared at the wall. After that you couldn’t get a word out of him. He sort of followed basic commands at first, like a robot, but by the time they’d all boated back to the mainland he was totally gone. He just sat and stared at nothing. They thought he was crying but it turned out his eyes were watering because he wasn’t blinking anymore.’

 ‘Ah, huh. And where is he now?’

 ‘Dead,’ Stan said. ‘Forgot to eat, eventually forgot to breathe, and four years later his parents couldn’t stand it anymore and told the hospital to take him off the machines.’

 ‘Jesus.’

 ‘It ain’t over, friend. Guy number seven slash twenty-seven. This guy was not a local, exactly, but he lived in Dorman County, so he still got wind of the place. He also happened to be an acquaintance of mine. Okay, don’t give me that look! I’m not saying we were best friends or anything. In all honesty, I had like two conversations with him. I ran into him and found out he went to my college. I was telling him about my – our – little hobby and he started unloading about this tiny island near the coast no one was supposed to know about, and all these little legends I’ve been telling you. Which, as I’ve been discovering, are not legends.’

 ‘Uh, huh. And now he’s…’

 ‘You guessed it. He told me himself, just before he went. In fact, he invited me to come out with him. I would have gone, too, only I thought to myself, if I came to a place like this without you, you’d never forgive me.’

 ‘You just told me you’ve already been here.’

 ‘I know, but it’s different. Before, it was just a story he told me. Then he actually went.’

 ‘And?’

 He hesitated. ‘I… did see him again. Here, as it happens. I’d come down here to see for myself. After spending forever in town figuring things out for myself. He would have arrived here about a few days before me. I know that partly because of when he told me he was planning on going and partly… because of the state of him when I got here.’

 Henry waited, not trusting himself to say anything.

 At length, Stan said: ‘He was about dead when I saw him. I didn’t even recognize him, even though he was staring right at me. He was still standing – that’s something. I tried calling to him but he didn’t come. It was too late. His knees were shaking a little, though they weren’t supporting much weight by then. He looked like a bundle of broomsticks in a sack. His eyes were almost totally covered in dust and dirt.’

 ‘I broke off a big tree branch from outside and used it to hook under his arm. I was too scared to come in myself, see? I mean, would you?’

 Henry didn’t answer. He saw, to his shock, that Stan was shaking, almost too slightly to notice.

 ‘He was still breathing when I pulled him out, but by the time I got him all the way back to town he wasn’t breathing anymore.’

 ‘Stan…’

 Stan shook his head and flashed a grin. ‘Sorry, buddy. Being dramatic, huh? Didn’t even know the guy, really. Only, I wasn’t expecting it. It’s like I said: you don’t expect this stuff to be real. But this is it, man! The real deal. That’s why I brought you here. That’s why I kept coming here. Just in awe. I threw a rat in there the other day, and the same thing happened. Insects, lizards, people, it doesn’t matter. Anything alive just… I don’t know. It’s like it sucks their souls out or something.’

 He took a minute to catch his breath, and stared at Henry with earnest eyes, neither of them saying a word. Then, unable to stop himself any longer, Henry burst out laughing. He put a hand on Stan’s shoulder to support himself.

 ‘Wow, Stan,’ he said, wiping tears from his eyes. ‘I didn’t think you could do it.’

 ‘No, Henry…’

‘Seriously? Oscar material. I mean it was just… You’ve never gone to the effort before, you know? I really appreciate it. Look at this! I’ve got goose bumps!’

 Stan was looking halfway between bemused and worried. ‘Henry, I’m serious, man. I’m not kidding. You want to go up to the morgue? I’ll show you his body.’

 ‘I’m sure you will. I’m sure you’d take me all the way up to Dorman County before you give in. Then I won’t hear the end of it, about how you made me too damn chicken to walk in a little room. Stan the storyteller, right?’

 Now he was looking almost genuinely scared. He was good, Henry thought. He’d never realised how good he was.

 He took a step towards the room and suddenly Stan was gripping him tightly. All the humour was gone from his face and only fear remained.

 ‘Don’t do it, Henry, please. Let’s go, I’m sick of this. I’ll buy you a drink if you leave with me now. I’ll buy you ten drinks. Just… please, man.’

 Henry laughed again. He was scared alright. The temptation to just go with it was immense but… was it really worth the verbal abuse that was sure to rain down on him afterward? Besides, he’d never forgive himself.

 Henry jerked free and took two long strides into the middle of the room. He spun a small circle and stopped facing the doorway. Stan stared back at him from the threshold, white with terror.

 ‘See?’ Henry said. ‘Nothing wrong.’

 Stan’s face changed. The fear disappeared and was replaced by…  what was that? Pure evil. Stan stepped back, grabbed the heavy concrete door and slammed it shut. The sound in the small space was almost deafening. Henry’s heartbeat must have doubled in the space of seconds, but he stayed where he was.

 ‘I’m not afraid, Stan!’ he shouted, trying to forget that strange look he’d seen on his friend’s face a moment before. There was no answer.

 ‘It was good, buddy, don’t get me wrong. Finely executed in every sense. You got me good and proper. Drinks on me.’

 No answer. Ass, Henry thought. He just has to drag it out, doesn’t he?

 After a minute, he went up to the door and felt around for some kind of handle. Of course, there wasn’t one. It was so neatly fit that not even a crack of light from the hallway showed through. He banged on the smooth cement with an open hand. ‘Stan!’ he shouted. He pressed his ear to the door and listened. There was no reply.

 An hour later, there was still no reply, and Henry was sitting in the far corner, wondering when his eyes were going to get used to the dark, and more importantly, when Stan was going to give up on this goddamned sick prank.

 Twelve hours later, his fingernails were ripped and bleeding, he was sweating all over and the heat was beginning to get to him. The air was getting thicker, too. Pretty soon it was going to have the consistency of honey oozing into his lungs.

 A day later, there wasn’t much of the original Henry left at all.

 

 

***

 

Stan stared at his friend in the middle of the room, frozen in place. His mind was almost numb with fear. What have I done? He thought. But there was nothing he could do about that, now.

 Henry was still standing in the middle of the room with that stupid grin on his face. His hands flopped back down to his sides and hung there.

 See, nothing wrong. But there was. Oh, there was plenty wrong, Stan thought. The glint in his eyes was disappearing fast, as though something was being pushed across them. His pupils dilated like pools of ink. His grin began to droop and his mouth fell open. His shoulders slumped.

 Stan stared back at his old friend and began to cry despite himself. He slid down against the stone wall behind him and stayed there with his hands over his eyes for a long time.

 When he couldn’t take it anymore, he headed outside and went to get his tree branch.

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