Archive

Tag Archives: Hallucinations

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’m sure I’m not the first one to make this observation, but doesn’t it just freak anyone else out how much trust we put in strangers on a day to day basis. Hell, even walking down the street, in a way you’re trusting everyone you pass to not just flip out and kill you. You’re trusting the people who serve you food not to poison it, the people driving on the road not to collide with you at 100 miles an hour. Crazy ain’t it? Enjoy

Playtime

By Ben Pienaar

 

When he started, the kids were colourful and interesting and funny; they made him see the world a different way. It was one of the reasons he decided to become a kindergarten teacher – that and it was easy, and he was good with kids. At first.

After two years he realised that all the kids were essentially the same. They weren’t individual and interesting – the kids in his second year were just like the kids in his first year: they said the same kinds of things, laughed at the same things, acted the same. The ones with dumbass or abusive parents beat up the others, or were teased by them – sometimes both, but even that stopped being interesting after a while.

As far as teaching went, there were only so many times that you could teach the alphabet and finger paint before you started to get bored. He wasn’t teaching them anyway – he was supervising them, end of story: making sure the parents didn’t have to deal for eight hours, and if something happened to them it wouldn’t be their fault, for once.

It was only a matter of time before he started conducting a few experiments. It began innocently enough: he’d leave the grounds for a while and watch from a distance, see what developed. The kind of things kids got up to when they thought no one was watching was incredible. He managed to avoid serious mishaps by turning up at the right time – although he only did that if it was a kid whose parents would actually care. If it was one of the others…

The Kindergarten was across the road from the primary school, on its own in a little park. There was a sandpit and miniature jungle gym surrounded by tall green bars, adjoining a large classroom full of art equipment and worksheets. He would sneak around into the surrounding park and watch them from behind a tree.

The longer he left them, the wilder they got; the more like animals. They’d exclude a few, and those few would gang up and fight the others, for land: the sandpit or jungle gym or the corner with the hopscotch. Everything escalated. One kicked sand in the other’s eyes; the other retaliated with a plastic spade. The first got his friends and threw sticks; the other got her friends and threw rocks.

The colours drained from them like a pencil sketch doused in water. They were not cute and innocent. Just black and white, mean spirited animals. Rats.

They were his rats, though, and they never disobeyed him. Everything he asked them to do was fun – like the time he brought in a batch of acid and gave them each a tab with their lunch. That was wild. He spent a couple months giving them a different drug every Monday. LSD, Marijuana, cocaine. He could have killed any one of them, and any cop with two brain cells would have seen who was to blame… but they were resilient little bastards.

That was back in his six or seventh year teaching. After that surge of creativity, he’d fallen into a black slump and hadn’t recovered. He started bringing a gun to school. None of the kids or parents ever saw it, of course, and it wasn’t loaded. He’d take it with him when he went out to the park and hide in the trees, pointing it at the kids and pulling the trigger. Hearing that frustrating, dry click.

It got more interesting when he put bullets in it and did the same thing, taking aim and seeing how far he dared to squeeze the trigger. That was a rush, that was almost real, and it kept him going a little while longer.

He had grown to hate them, in his long years. His view of them as bright, capricious children had changed to one of hateful malevolent rats, and his view of himself and his life had changed just as dramatically. The world had lost its colour and become bleak. He’d never got on with people, but now he despised them, and he despised himself too.

When it was time for arts and crafts he sat with the gun in his desk drawer, loaded with the safety off. He thought about how incredibly easy it would be to completely change the course of his own life and countless others. Hell, with a few swift movements and a keen eye he could change the history of the country. Make worldwide news, even. There’d be memorials and candlelit vigils, and why? All because one man moved his arm, stood up, and pulled a little lever a few times.

He’d seen them playing with guns, too. Not real ones, but sticks that looked like guns in their mind’s eye. They’d pull an imaginary trigger and scream Pow! At each other and the victims would dutifully fall down – or, more usually, they’d instigate an intense argument about who shot first and whether or not they should really die.

They didn’t have a clue. They should see real killing; real death and war. See what happened to their goddamned innocence then! See if they were so damned cute then! They should get a good shot of real life, about what the real world was like. God damn! now that would be teaching them. Keep a bullet for himself and who cared what happened afterwards?

Sometimes he opened his drawer and pulled out his gun and thought about it, hard. He was discreet, but a few times he thought he caught a couple of the boys looking at him when he did it, thinking something. Did they know what he was thinking?

‘Alright! Playtime!’ He shouted, because the sight of them scribbling mindlessly on messy scraps of paper was already too much to bear. He considered getting hold of some heroin for next week. The classroom erupted in noise and cheers and they abandoned papers and crayons in favour of flying projectiles and wild screaming.

He left them that way for a while and went out into the park, though for once he didn’t spy on them or conduct an experiment. Even that had lost its charm for him. He stood in bright sunlight, but his mind was overcast and stormy. He saw his life failing, spiralling down, becoming blacker and blacker.

He remembered himself as a rat – child, just like them, and realised they would all become him. He was them, and they were him, and just like that he decided suicide wasn’t enough. This despair was bigger than one person. This darkness was worldwide. He nodded and went inside.

The kids were all over the place, playing with their miniature stick/guns and falling down, not realising they were about to see just what real murder was like. At last he’d be able to show them that, teach them something for once. He sat down behind his desk and watched them jump and crawl and run and shout POW at each other. He smiled, imagining what would happen if he fired his gun at one of them and it just went POW. That would be funny.

One of them dove over a table and crawled around his desk, using it for cover. He was laughing hysterically and calling out taunts. ‘No fair, no fair!’ one of the others called out. ‘You can’t use the teacher’s desk!’

‘Yes I can!’ he yelled back. ‘I can use your desk, Mr. Gallby?’

‘Yes,’ he said, without looking down.

‘SEE?’

He pulled open his top desk drawer, his eye on little Mary, who was pulling another girl’s hair and giggling. She’d be the first to go. He reached into the drawer, felt only a few papers and pencils. Reached a bit deeper and felt the back. The gun was gone.

‘Hey mister Gillby, wanna play?’ The rat hiding beside his desk stuck his head around and looked at him. ‘I found your gun, but if you play I get to use it, okay?’

He stared at the boy, expressionless. He tried to think of the best response. Give it back! No, that would never work. Please let me use it? No. In fact, he didn’t know that there was anything he could to do –

‘Mr. Gilby’s playing now!’ the rat shouted, standing up and raising the gun. He turned to face Mr. Gilby, grinning mischievously, some cruel trick playing behind his eyes. He raised the gun.

‘Not quick enough, Mr. Gilby! I win!’

POW!

 

 

Yet another dream/altered perceptions story, but this one is pretty extreme. At first I was thinking, man I’d love to be able to do that! but by the time I reached the end, I wasn’t so sure. I still think if they had a pill like this I’d try it out every now and again, but the thought of it scares me.

 

Final Days

 

By Ben Pienaar

 

Six months, they gave him. His final days hung over him like a great dark weight that he could not shake, but somehow, whenever Keith saw him he was smiling. The old man had been working on something for years in his retirement, and Keith suspected this was the cause of his odd exuberance, but he hadn’t said a word about it, yet.

Yesterday, only about a week after he’d been properly conscious following the heart attack, and six days since he was told about his condition, he’d seemed downright excited. Today, he was no different. He looked up from the book he was reading, Narnia, and grinned. That was one thing he had done plenty – read. There was a pile of books by his bedside, and he was still demanding as many as he could get from his family and friends whenever they came to visit.

‘Keith! How are you? Did you bring them?’

‘Yes, Grandpa.’ He lifted the bag in his right hand with difficulty – it contained every one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books ever written.

‘Excellent. Good, good, just leave it there with the others.’

‘Are you sure? You really think you’re going to get through all these before they let you go?’

‘I might be here for a month, maybe two! At one or two books a day, I’ll easily get through it. Besides, once I’m up I’ll need a few to tide me over while I find a good library.’

‘Right, I mean, yeah.’ He wanted to say something, to urge his grandfather to do something instead of just sitting around all day. He knew that if he only had six months to live he’d do everything under the sun in as little time as possible and keep going till he dropped. But he saw the glee in his grandfather’s eyes and decided there was no point.

‘How’re your mother and father, eh? Still good?’

‘Still good.’

‘And school’s over?’

‘Yeah, just finished my finals.’

‘Ah, yes. So the partying will begin?’ He smiled, and Keith couldn’t help but smile back, marvelling at the old man’s vitality, even now.

But there was something bothering him, and all of a sudden the smile disappeared from his face and he craned his neck at the door behind Keith, into the hallway bustling with nurses and visitors.

‘Do me a favour, will you? Shut that door.’

Keith shut it, and when he turned back his grandfather had propped himself up in his bed. He looked horribly sick, although he was recovering from the initial damage. His skin was pallid and there were dark circles under his eyes as though he hadn’t slept at all for days. The eyes, though – they were bright.

‘Listen, come closer, boy. I’ve decided to let you in on a secret.’ He gestured and Keith came over uncertainly to sit on the end of the bed.

‘I need you to listen very carefully, now, and try not to think of me as a crazy, senile old bastard, okay?’

‘I’d never think of you like -’

‘Alright, alright, I know, but I just want you to realise that what I’m going to tell you is very important and also very unbelievable. You understand?’

‘Yeah, I guess.’

‘Right. You might have heard I was working on something in my retirement. Pottering around in the kitchen, some might have said. Dabbling with chemistry sets or whatever. Just because I’m old your par… Some people forget I used to be a chemist. Anyway, to cut a very long story short, I was trying to develop something very specific from the beginning. And before my heart attack, I finished the final product. In fact… You might not know this, Keith, but the discovery was partly responsible for triggering my attack.’

‘What?’

‘I mean, I was so shocked that it actually worked! I was exhilarated beyond belief, and then suddenly I felt that pain in my chest. It was quite horrible. In a way, I’m incredibly lucky – both because I survived the attack and because I made my first batch of keys with six months to spare. Six whole months, Keith, just imagine the possibilities!’

‘I, wait, what do you mean keys? What are keys?’

The old man was fired up now, his right hand grasping Keith’s arm with wiry strength and his voice harsh with excitement.

‘The keys to the doors of perception! Well, specifically one door, by which I mean time. You understand?’

Keith opened his mouth to reply but his grandfather was already talking again.

‘Never mind that. Let me give you the bottom line. Time is a perception, correct? It is a state of mind, nothing more than a sense, like sight or hearing or touch. Come on, you’ve finished high school, you should know this.’

Keith nodded. He dismissed his initial thought that his grandfather was mad. Someone had just put crack in his drip, that was all.

‘So, just as they have drugs to alter our perception of touch, and smell, and sight, why can’t I make one that alters ones perception of time?’

‘I don’t…’

‘But then I thought, that isn’t enough. All that would mean is I’d blunder around in super slow motion – the world would be horribly boring, wouldn’t it? So I needed something else. Some drug or something that would allow me to really travel during this time. But of course we already have that, don’t we?’

‘We do?’

‘Imagination, of course! Dreams! But that’s still not good enough. Dreaming is fine, but one can still have nightmares. No, you need control. What I really needed was an imagination enhancing drug. Something to make me see what was in my mind’s eye with perfect clarity. Something that would make me dream, and yet give me complete control of everything , like a lucid dream, but a very real one, you see. Enhanced imagination.’

He was beginning to think he did see, but it was all fantasy, surely. Even the great Dr. Algernon Hoxner, founder of Hoxner Pharmaceuticals, couldn’t do that. Keith had come close to failing his Chemistry exam, but he knew the line between dreams and reality.

But there was such conviction in his eye, such pure, intelligent, honesty. True or not, he certainly believed in it.

‘You want to believe, I can see you do.’

Keith smiled and shifted on the bed. ‘I dunno, Grandpa. It sounds pretty crazy.’

‘Of course it does! It’s off the wall ridiculous. But here’s the real kicker, boy: I did it. I finished the drug, and it’s better than I ever could have hoped. A million times better.’

‘You already took it?’

He nodded.

‘What was it like?’

When his grandfather smiled, his whole face broke out in wrinkles like a piece of newspaper being crumpled.

‘You want to know the whole story, boy? Everything that happened?’

‘Yes!’

‘I can’t tell it to you. It would take too long. But I can tell you this. The ratio of the effect my drug has on time – reality verses perception. You want to know? One thousand to one.’

He sat back, waiting for a reaction. It took a minute for the number to fully register in Keith’s mind, and when it did his mouth fell open. ‘You mean…’

‘That’s right. Once I take the drug and fall asleep, every second in reality is worth one thousand in my mind. And here’s something else. Each pill lasts eight hours! A night’s sleep! The doctor’s will think I’m just sleeping! They won’t have a clue.’

‘Grandpa, but that’s, I mean this is impossible! Does that mean…’

‘Yes, yes, and yes. But Keith, before we talk any longer, I need you to do something for me. It’s incredibly important. ‘

‘What is it?’

‘I still need to try out one more experiment before I can be sure of it working. There was a problem with the last one, you see. My imagination was good, fantastic in fact, but I discovered something even better: memory. It’s so much clearer, so real that it’s almost exactly like living! And there was something even better than that. My memories of the books I’d read. In my mind, after I took the drug, I could relive – not just remember but relive – every book I’d ever read, in incredible detail. At least, that’s my theory. I’m not entirely sure, I haven’t been reading much for so long, so much of it was faded and foggy. I need a retrial with something fresh.’

‘You want me to get your pills for you, is that it?’

‘Yes.’ He sat up and let go of Keith’s arm, looking concerned for the first time, but still breathless with excitement. ‘And there’s something else. You must promise me you won’t breathe a word of this to your parents. Nothing. Only tell them that I seemed cheerful as ever and that the books are making me happier still. Which, I might add, is perfectly true.’

Keith thought for a minute. Getting drugs for his grandfather. He had no idea what his parents would say about it, but he didn’t think it would be good. But what was the worst that could happen? That his drugs would kill him, six months or so early?

At last, he nodded.

‘Thank God. Alright. I keep them in my bathroom cabinet, the one with the mirror doors, in a container labelled “Calcium supplement”. Oh, and I need you to bring me something else, too. Caffeine tablets, which I keep in a smaller container next to the kettle. That one’s labelled “Artificial Sweetener”.’

‘Grandpa! Really?’ He stared, barely able to believe that his own grandfather was capable of such trickery. He almost laughed.

‘And before you say anything about my heart, I know exactly how much caffeine I can and can’t take, believe me.’

‘Okay. I’ll get it for you tonight, and I’ll be back later.’

‘Excellent, good. You’re a good boy, Keith, a very good boy.’

Keith smiled, and they talked for a little while after that, but he couldn’t remember any of it. He left quickly, because he knew his grandfather wanted more than anything to get back to his reading, and he wanted more than anything to get hold of those pills.

Both the caffeine pills and the ‘keys’, looked exactly the same – just tiny white inconspicuous tablets. The only difference was that the caffeine tablets had a line running down the middle of each one.

Keith snuck out the back door, the same way he’d come, and stopped at home just long enough to yell to his parents that he’d left something behind at the hospital and he was just going down to get it.

‘Never mind the cars, I’ll bike it, I don’t mind!’ he called. He then opened the larger container and slipped a small handful of Keys into his pocket. They wouldn’t be missed, and his grandfather hadn’t exactly said he couldn’t try them, after all.

Algernon looked up as soon as Keith entered the room and set his book aside. He was obviously tired but at the sight of his drugs he sat up straight and his eyes gleamed.

‘You got them! You didn’t take any yourself, did you? You know these are still in the experimental phase. They might be incredibly dangerous.’

‘I didn’t take any, Grandpa.’

He nodded and took the two containers from Keith, who shut the door behind him. Without another word, Algernon took one of the keys dry and then stowed both containers on the floor, hiding them under the mountain of books beside his bed. He winked.

‘I’ll let you know how it goes tomorrow, but you best be going now… There’s a heavy sedative in these things, you know. Only way to get you to sleep fast enough.’ Even as he spoke, his eyelids began to droop. Keith nodded and backed out the door, quietly.

 

He didn’t wait long to take the first key. By the time he got home, his mother was asleep and his father was well on the way, sitting in front of the television with his eyes half closed. He tiptoed upstairs and poured himself a glass of water, which he took to his room, locking the door behind him. His heart was beating wild with excitement now, so much that he couldn’t see how there was any way he’d get to sleep in time. He forced himself to lie down on his back and wait, but after ten minutes of staring at the ceiling he was no calmer.

‘A thousand to one,’ he whispered to himself. He tried to remember all of the books he’d ever read, every day dream and fantasy he’d ever had. Well, never mind that – if the Key really did last eight hours, he’d have eight thousand hours to explore his mind. A year.

 He sat up and grabbed the glass of water and one of the little white pills. He turned it over in his finger, mesmerized. ‘The key to the doors of perception,’ he thought. Before he could chicken out, he dropped the pill into his mouth and downed the water in a few gulps.

He was fast asleep before he could even get under the covers.

 

Algernon’s second experiment went much better. He settled back in bed and waited for the world to grow dark and drift away, the sounds of the hospital becoming muffled and far away.

When he opened his eyes, he was in the great room of doors, a place he was already very familiar with. It was a world of his own construction, a place he’d spent hours deliberately imagining during the day so that it would be all the more real at night. It was a largely unnecessary effort, but it made his worlds organized and easier to navigate, and that was good.

This world was nothing but a mansion of doors. Each room was made out of a different material. The mahogany room held doors of mystery; the stone room doors of adventure; the wood room fantasy. He was in the stone room now, and he turned a slow circle, laughing with joy when he saw the new doors that had arrived. Their destinations were engraved on their flat surfaces. THE HOBBIT, said one. TREASURE ISLAND, said another. There were metal ladders leading up the walls, and little square trapdoors lined the ceiling and the floor. Some of these were movies, but Algernon did not like those much. They paled in comparison to the richness of the other worlds.

He wandered through the other rooms of his mind world, hardly able to believe the realness of the place. No, this was not like a dream at all, he thought. He looked down at his wrinkled hand, and thought until the wrinkles vanished and he was young and strong. He wiggled the fingers and they moved.

There were many more doors in his world, after all the time he’d spent reading and remembering and imagining, but still it wasn’t enough. He wouldn’t have nearly enough time to see it all this one night, but there was so much time to fill up in the next six months. This place had to get much bigger before his time grew near. Even if he had to give up sleep, he would: there was much work to be done.

 

He woke a year later, and for a moment he was thrown with a feeling of disorientation. He sat up in bed and tried to jump out, but his body cried out in agony and he stopped. What madness was this? He thought. Last he remembered he’d been on a pirate ship, sailing away from an island that had nearly taken his life, his bright eyes set on his home town and sea spray raining down on him from the rough water.

No. You are not. You are an old man, sick in your bed, and less than six months to live, now. The thought jarred him horribly and for a moment he sat in bed, shaking and thinking, waves of depression rolling over him. It was only after the nurse had come and gone, commenting on his state (Looking a little better today, Dr. Hoxner, finally slept at last?) that he regained his composure. Not six months to live, he reminded himself, much more than that.

Keith was the last of the usual visitors again, and the moment he walked in the door Algernon knew there was something different about his grandson. He believes me now, he thought.

As soon as the door was closed, Keith turned and raised his eyebrows.

Algernon nodded, grinning, and the boy let out a sigh, almost of relief, before coming to sit down on the bed.

‘It worked, then?’

‘Better than you could have imagined, boy. You wouldn’t believe where I went last night. A year, I was gone, a whole year! Just think, I’ve already lived twice as long as the doctors said I would. And what a life it was, too.’

‘So the books were there? In your mind? How did you find them?’

He laughed. ‘Yes, they worked alright. I’m glad you brought my caffeine, boy, because I’m not going to sleep much from now on. The doctors are letting me out at the end of the week, and you’d better watch out, then. I’m going to read every book ever written.’

And that he did. No sooner had the hospital released him, amazed at his speedy recovery, he was at the library, and the same night he retired in front of his fireplace with a suitcase full of books.

The first night he did not sleep at all, and after that if he allowed himself only the eight hours required for the key to take effect. Soon his behaviour became exceedingly strange, and it was only Keith who caught on to what he was doing while the rest of the family started talking about old age homes.

One day, he went to the local ice cream parlour and tasted every flavour, putting each one in his mouth and savouring it, storing the memory away for later. He spent a fortune on every meal and never ate the same thing twice. He took books everywhere and read every spare second of the day with fanatical fervour, and though it was dangerous for his heart, he went to a theme park once and went on every single ride.

‘He’s just having a… late life crisis,’ Keith overheard his mother telling his father. ‘He doesn’t think he’s done enough in his life and now he’s making up for it. It’s a natural reaction.

‘But it’s not like him at all. I mean, the other day I found out he’d gone swimming in the bay. In the bay, and it’s about three degrees outside. He’s going to kill himself.’

‘Well… Look, I hate to say it, but would it make a huge difference? Let him be, Dan. You don’t know what it’s like to have a time limit on your life.’

There was more after that, but Keith didn’t listen. They weren’t going to get in his way, that was the bottom line. It was important, because Keith wanted to know what was going to happen. He wanted to be close to the old man in his final days, because when it was all over, there was still going to be a bucket of keys, and somewhere else would be the recipe for them.

Algernon, meanwhile, was both racing against time and getting impossibly old. Year after year he spent exploring other worlds. Several nights in a row he was captain of a murderous crew of pirates. For a week he was the questing hobbit, and he felt every terror, pain, love and joy in intimate detail. It wasn’t long before he began to see his time spent asleep as his reality, and daily life as the dream. After all, he only spent a tiny fraction of his life awake, now.

Had he been more aware of the others in his life, he might have noticed that he was beginning to share some characteristics with his grandson. The boy did not behave like a child any more than Algernon behaved like an octogenarian. He seemed to grow bored with life, and now that he was on holiday he spent his days wandering around outside, as if searching for something. The most telling thing, had Algernon thought to look for it, was the look in the boy’s eyes. It was not the look of an eighteen year old, fresh and innocent from school. It was the look of a hard man. A man with sad memories and a violent past. It would have made sense, too, if one took into account that Keith was a big fan of hard boiled mysteries in the style of Raymond Chandler.

At least, he was at first, but two months later his personality changed again, and he was a loud and cheerful boy who had, unbeknownst to his parents, picked up a habit of drinking and smoking.

But Algernon did not notice, lost as he was in his own worlds, and Keith’s parents didn’t see him often, and assumed he was simply at the age where identity is uncertain; he would grow out of it.

Algernon’s situation began to deteriorate as the six months drew to an end. In fact, he didn’t go to hospital until late in the fifth month, and he was certain he was going to outlive the ‘limit’ they’d set for him. Not that he cared either way. He had lived nearly one hundred and fifty years longer than his life expectancy, anyway, which made him – mentally at least – two hundred and thirty, give or take. He had lived many long lives, and though he wasn’t tired of it all yet, he knew that when his final adventure was over, he’d be content.

Keith had done considerably less, since it had become difficult to steal pills from his grandfather without his noticing. Luckily, having spent several years as a professional thief, he knew a trick or two. Nevertheless, when the final days drew near, the two who were now both old men met in the hospital room, completely different people than they had been six months before.

The last days had been painful for Algernon, but thankfully he only spent eighteen hours out of every year able to experience it. Still, when Keith saw him in the hospital bed he was damaged visibly. There was barely an ounce of fat left on his frail bones and his eyes were lined so heavily with dark bruised skin it was as though his pupils stared out from gaping black holes in his face. His grin showed yellow teeth and gums too big, but he grinned wide when he saw Keith.

‘It’s coming to an end, my boy,’ he said when Keith shut the door to the hallway. ‘I doubt I’ll live out the week, you know. Five years, I’d give myself, if you see what I mean.’ He winked.

‘It’s too bad.’ Keith said, honestly sad as he sat down at the end of the bed. He tried to recall the first time he’d done it, the day when Algernon had first told him about the keys, and found he couldn’t. It was so far away – lifetimes ago, like something that happened to another person in another world.

‘No. I don’t think so, to tell the truth. Life should end, and I’ve been lucky: mine has lasted longer than anyone’s should. And I miss your Grandma. I’d very much like to see her again soon. Not only that, but I have the luxury of planning my own end, and what a plan it is.’ He chuckled.

Keith nodded, a small smile playing on his lips. He might have said that he understood, but he realised how wrong that would sound coming from the lips of a boy. He had to remind himself he was only eighteen yet: his whole life was ahead of him. The thought exhausted him.

‘You mean you know what story you’re going to go to, in the end?’

‘Know it? Ha! Look at this.’ From his bedside table he lifted a pile of pages, hundreds of them, scrawled on both sides in tiny handwritten letters. He handed it to Keith.

‘The great adventures of Algernon Hoxner,’ Keith read aloud, smiling as he caught on.

‘You wrote your own life!’

Algernon laughed. ‘Oh, you wouldn’t believe it. I finished this morning, and I tell you I almost had a heart attack. Riveting stuff, Keith. You could sell a million copies once I’m gone, I wouldn’t be surprised.’

‘But when you’re… When you’re in it, won’t you know how it ends?’

‘No, no! Living something you wrote is just as good as living something you read. Only even more real, if you can believe it. I know, I already tried with a few short stories. You get all the way in. When you enter a story, you forget who you really are, except every now and again for a fleeting memory.’

Keith nodded and handed the manuscript back. It was a huge thing. He wondered what kind of mad adventures his grandfather had written for himself.

‘I need you to do one thing for me, boy,’ Algernon went on.

‘Yes, Grandpa. Of course.’

Algernon shifted himself into an upright position. He fixed and held Keith’s eyes, and for the first time he was troubled by what he saw.

‘I will go into a very deep sleep tomorrow night, and after that I’ll be counting on you for many things. They are very important.

‘The first thing I need you to do is put a loudly ticking clock by my bedside. Insist on it, and make sure everyone knows it cannot be moved. That way I’ll know the time, even in my subconscious, and I’ll know when it is time to enter my final adventure.’

‘Alright.’

‘The second thing is this. In my will, I have stated that you will be the one to unplug my life support, and that it must be done at exactly seven thirty five PM and twenty seconds this Sunday. It doesn’t have to be you, Keith, but the timing must be exact, do you understand?’

‘I… Yes, Grandpa.’

‘Good. Then there is one last thing. I also put in my will that you will have possession of all the contents of my basement. That is where I’ve kept the last stores of my pills and the chemicals and notes I used to make them.’

‘Yes,’ he said, beginning to get excited. At last, here was his chance! He would be responsible for giving the drug to the world, passing on the legacy. The profits would be enormous, but that was only a part of it, and so was the fame. Lives would change. Lifespans would shoot into the thousands of years. Scientists would be able to research in their sleep! It was revolutionary.

‘I’ll do it!’ he said.

‘You will?’ Algernon said. ‘You promise you will destroy everything? Burning would be best, but as long as it is all destroyed, it doesn’t matter.’

‘What?’ Keith spluttered, incredulous. ‘You… You want me to destroy them?’

‘Yes. Every last one. And hear me well, boy, don’t you dare take a single one for yourself, either. Not one.’

‘But Grandpa…’

‘No. These things I’ve made have done well for me, but they will only serve to destroy the rest of the world, if you let them.’

‘But how? They are – I mean they’re capable of so much!’ He struggled to make an argument without letting on that he’d already taken more than a handful himself. Whatever happens, he vowed, he would have to stay on his Grandpa’s side, outwardly, or he might change the will.

‘They are addictive, Keith. And they are false, too. Yes, they are… beyond description. But these are not keys to real doors, you must remember that. The worlds are not real worlds, in the end.’

‘But neither are our dreams. Should we stop dreaming, too?’

‘A long time ago I would have agreed with you. But it is not like dreaming at all. When you wake up from a dream, you still know what is real, you are still able to enjoy your life, to experience your day. But with the keys… Life becomes a pale sketch. People will not react well to this drug. It may even be the worst one of all, because it seems harmless. But it is not. Trust an old man. Promise me, you’ll destroy it all, please.’

Keith looked into his grandfather’s old eyes and felt a wave of guilt, because he knew he couldn’t do what the old man asked – never in a million years. But I can still send him off a happy man, he told himself. I owe him that much, at least.

He reached out and put his hand on his grandfather’s shoulder. ‘Alright,’ he said. ‘I promise you that I will destroy it all, and take no more for myself.’ Because in his many long years of adventures, Keith had learned that the best lies revealed a small truth.

His grandfather relaxed visibly. ‘So you have, then? I suspected.’

Keith looked down and nodded.

‘But if I really must…’

‘You do, I insist.’

‘Then I’ll destroy every last pill and recipe.’

Algernon embraced his grandson for the last time, weak with relief. ‘Thank you,’ he said hoarsely. ‘Thank you.’

 

The following night Dr. Algernon Hoxner took a massive but calculated dose of his secret stash of keys, and then blinked in the unnatural fluorescent light for the last time. As his head fell back onto the soft pillow and shadows crept up into the corner of his visions, he felt only a rush of excitement at the thought of what lay ahead.

 

To his credit, Keith did not plan to release the drug onto the market until at least a few months after his grandfather’s funeral. This was, however, due mainly to the fact that he was only eighteen and not in any position to release a drug on any market. Either way, he never got the chance.

There were a lot of drugs in that basement. It had simply been easier to make large amounts of keys, because even small quantities of chemicals could make a bucket of the things. Consider that a bucket held as many as ten thousand pills, and that Keith could use the recipe to make as many more as he wanted for an absurdly small amount. He had enough for a lifetime.

The family blamed Keith’s slow mental descent on the death of his grandfather – they had been so close, after all. Still, it didn’t seem enough to explain the boy’s apparent depression: sleeping for twelve hours a day, spending every waking minute reading. Nothing escaped him – romance, mystery, science fiction, action, adventure. Oddly, though he’d once been a fan of horror, he now detested it. As for the rest of his life, everything now came a distant second to his obsession.

‘He wants to escape,’ his mother told his father.

‘From what? He doesn’t have six months to live. He’s not an old man.’

That may not have been true on the outside, but no one who met him failed to mention how mature he seemed, how much older than his years he was. Somehow, it never seemed they meant it as a compliment.

Keith moved out of home before he turned nineteen, and eventually moved to a house in the countryside far North of Ireland, in the most isolated spot he could find. He became a librarian, and books were all he spent money on, besides small amounts of food. He spoke to no one, he did nothing, and one day he threw himself from the top of the great cliffs on the north of the island.

He left a note to his family: I am tired, and I’m going to sleep. Pray you never live as long as I have. This he left in a small bag by the cliff top, for by then his house was nothing but ashes in the wind.

He was twenty two.

 

Excerpt from ‘The Great Adventures of Algernon Hoxville’, Volume 5 of 5, Chapter 47 of 47, Page 269 of 269:

 

A long time ago, in a place far, far away, a man lay bleeding on a green field. Minutes ago, the whole place had been alive with smoke and gunfire and screams, but now it was all silent except for the soft wind in the trees. He felt pain, but like his fear, it was a faraway thing – outshone by the feeling of joy, of triumph.

He rolled over and crawled to a lone tree, using the last of his waning strength to prop himself up against the bark. He’d taken a hit in the side. He didn’t know what was in there but he had a pretty good idea it was vital.

‘Captain! Captain Hoxner! Are you okay?’ It was poor young Jimmy. The boy’d been too young to hold a pistol upright but he’d fought all the same, and he was running over now. Algernon closed his eyes and thanked heaven the kid was okay.

He skidded to a stop at his side and his eyes widened when he saw the gaping hole in Algernon’s side.

‘Captain…’

‘I know. Is she coming? Is she on her way?’

‘Yes, she’s coming now.’

He nodded, wincing, and flashed the kid a grin.

She came a few minutes later, a dark haired beauty running through the grass towards him, concern mingled with relief as she saw him.

When she saw his wound, her face fell, but she said nothing.

‘Listen, Jimmy. Take my pistol. It was a gift from my father, and you’re the closest to a son I’ve ever had.’

‘Captain, I can’t. You’ll make it through, I know you will.’

‘It’s Algernon to you, lad. Now listen. We’ve been through a lot, you and I. We’ve saved worlds, destroyed more evil beasts and villains than I can count. You need to keep on where I left off. Do you promise? Remember what I always told you?’

‘Live well. I promise.’

‘Good. I need you to give us a minute, will you boy? Find the othres, make sure they’re okay.’

‘Alright. Thanks for everything, captain.’

With that the boy was gone, and he was left with her. He saw she was barely holding

back tears.

‘I can’t heal you, Alg.’

‘I know. But we had the past five years and a whole lifetime besides. We saved the universe, today, Dolores. Tell me you weren’t happy.’

‘I was, sure I was.’

‘Good. So was I.’

He heard the chime of a clock like an echo on the wind, and he closed his eyes. Death was coming for him soon, and he found he was glad.

‘Just one more kiss to send me off, Dolores,’ he whispered.

And that moment, he felt, lasted forever.

 

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.

%d bloggers like this: