GHOST STORY by Travis Mushanski
“Daddy, I’m scared.”
“I know, Sugar, I know.” Nate pulled his daughter in and hugged her tight. “There’s nothing to worry about anymore.” He kissed Shelly on her forehead.
“Because you hammered wood over the windows?” Shelly asked meekly.
Nate smiled at her innocence. “Yes, Honey. Nothing is going to get through those windows any time soon.”
“Good,” Shelly said and rested her head on Nate’s chest.
Nate had spent a good part of his day nailing sheets of plywood over the house’s windows, and he had found large spikes to nail the doors shut. Nothing in and nothing out. The house was officially hurricane proof, he had mused to himself after completing the task. Not that there are many hurricanes on the prairies.
Through the cracks in the plywood, he could see shadows growing as the sun began to dip into the horizon. He had lost track of time again. What was time now anyway, he thought. Light and dark.
“Okay, Shell,” he patted her thigh. “Time to move into the bedroom. It’s getting dark out.”
Shelly jumped to her feet and held her hand out for her father. She stared at the boarded windows and bit her bottom lip. For a six year old girl, she was big for her age and in an awkward stage where she had begun to put on weight for a growth spurt that hadn’t come yet.
“Can we keep the lamp on tonight, daddy?”
Nate took her hand and scooped her up onto his hip to hold her tight. You’ll never be too small for me. “I’ll keep it lit for a little longer for you, sweety,” he whispered in her ear. “We have to keep it low, though, okay. Just a glow. It’s just not safe, Shelly.” With his free hand, he grabbed the handle of the antique kerosene lamp and carried both of them to Shelly’s bedroom.
Shelly’s room was unique in that it was the room furthest from the duplex’s two entries. For this simple reason, Nate had chosen her room to transform into a bunker. Like the rest of the house’s windows, he had nailed plywood over the glass, but he also crisscrossed two by fours across the boards and sunk four inch screws deep into the wall’s studs. Shelly also had the only walk in closet in the entire house, a fact that had always driven her mother crazy, and it was this six square foot room that Nate put most of his effort into over the past week.
He had found old camping gear tucked away in the garage that checked off many boxes for the safe room project. He used the foam mattresses to line the walls to create makeshift soundproofing over which he screwed sheets of plywood to secure them in place. He stocked the closet with a pair of purple sleeping bags, a four litre container of collected rainwater, an assorted box of non-perishable foods, including Shelly’s favourite Paw Patrol gummies, and a basic first aid kit that was missing more items than Nate had been happy about. Coleman LED lanterns were kept charged and mounted on the three walls of the walk in.
Nate knew the door itself would be the weakest point of the safe room build and had to take extra precautions to ensure it could withstand any amount of force. He removed the doorknob and lined both sides with three quarter inch plywood, allowing the exterior to run past the door opening so that it would sit flush with the wall. Once pulled tight from the inside, it would be nearly impossible for someone, or thing, to have an easy handhold to pry the door open. Before showing Shelly her secret safe room, he had stolen a pair of cast iron deadbolt locks off of neighbourhood gates and reinstalled them on the inside of the door frame. Three deadbolts secured the door along the opening side of the frame, and to play it safe, Nate also installed one on the top and bottom of the door.
Nate sat Shelly down on the edge of her bed and carefully sat the lantern on the floor in the middle of the room. Its radiant light reflected off the glass beads of Shelly’s chandelier she got as a birthday present earlier that year. Nate carefully dialled the light back to the point where you didn’t have to strain your eyes to see in the dark. The reflected light off the chandelier created a miniature universe on the ceiling.
“Okay, Shell,” Nate began as he closed the bedroom door and slid her dresser in front of it.
“Grab a blanket and come sit on the floor with me, sugar.”
“I guess so,” Shelly replied. She didn’t like the dark. “Can’t we just snuggle in bed?”
“Of course, we can, but I thought we could play a little game tonight.” Nate sat cross legged in from of the glowing lantern.
“What kind of game?” Shelly said with a sudden burst of excitement in her eyes. She slid onto the floor opposite Nate and wrapped herself in My Little Pony blanket.
“Well, I thought it’d be fun to pretend the lantern was a campfire.” He flashed Shelly a smile. “Remember that time we went off camping and cooked s’mores over the fire?” She made a funny face a starred off into the distance, which meant to Nate that she couldn’t remember.
“Well, when your Papa used to take me camping when I was your age, he used to tell us stories over the campfire. How does that sound?”
“What kind of stories?” Shelly asked in a tone that somehow combined boredom with embarrassment.
“Well, it can be whatever you want,” Nate explained. “Superheroes... Unicorns... Papa told great ghost stories.” Thinking of his father telling stories of ghosts and monsters over a campfire brought the aroma of charred elmwood to his senses. It was a lifetime ago, Nate recalled.
“Ghosts are dead people, right, Dad?” Shelly asked as she scooched closer to the lantern. She wrapped her blanket tightly around herself.
“Yes and no, actually.” He reached out and ran his hand through her messy brown hair. “Ghosts are the soul, or essence of a person after they have passed away.” Shelly scrunched her face at this, and Nate added, “Passed away is a nice way to say ‘died.’”
Shelly nodded her head and asked, “But why don’t they just go to Heaven?”
“No one knows for sure, Honey. Some people think they are trapped until they can finish something they couldn’t before they passed away.” Nate sighed and, while staring deep into the lantern’s glow, added, “Some people, like Papa and me, think they stay behind to watch over their loved ones.” A tear rolled down Nate’s cheek, and he wiped it with the back of his hand.
“Is that why Momma’s still out there,” tears began to fill Shelly’s eyes.
Nate reached out and pulled Shelly in for a tight embrace. He wiped her tears away and said, “Ya, I think that’s why. She just loves you too much.” Dam, you’re a tough kid, Nate thought. This shit just isn’t fair.
“I think it’s time for a ghost story.” He kissed her on the forehead. “Don’t you?” he added. She sniffled and nodded her head.
“Good. Now, this is a true story,” he winked at Shelly, which drew out a smile. “It’s about a trip myself, and some of my friends took when we were teenagers. Believe it or not, we liked to pretend to be ghost hunters.”
I tucked my nose into the elbow of my sweater when we first crossed the threshold of the abandoned sanitarium. The stench of decay came first in the form of dust and mildew. The Fort San Sanitarium had fallen into disrepair shortly after its abandonment by the Provincial Government, and despite the effort of the local community, the hundred year old building didn’t have much life left in it.
“Welcome to Fort San,” our twenty something tour guide began. “My name is Sam, and I’m here to give you a quick walkabout before the sun dips beyond the valley hills.” He continued to walk down the narrow hallway without looking back at the five of us trailing behind him. “Have any of you visited the Sanitarium before?” he spun and started walking back to us for answers.
“I came with a couple of friends last summer,” Rachel exclaimed. “I’m kinda the reason...”
“Awesome, four newbies,” Sam cut Rachel off as he spun back around in time to push open a set of double doors. “Our first stop,” he made a sweeping gesture with his arm, “is, of course, our check in slash waiting room!”
The room was no larger than an average size living room. Its green linoleum flooring had been worn down to the concrete below, and a stretch of cracked leather benches screamed not to be sat in. Even though the dust and debris had been left to fester and decay for decades, there was a sort of charm that added to the gravitas of the supposedly haunted Sanitarium. The fluorescent lights seemed to throw me off when we first entered that room: The lights were too dam bright and welcoming, which cast grotesque, sharp angled shadows across the floor.
“Alright, big guy,” Craig squeezed past me. “Some of us would like to see too!”
“Now now,” I chuckled to myself. “I just don’t want the ghost to see your ugly mug and float away in disgust.” I stepped into the room and leaned against the back wall.
“Ah, now you’re a true believer all of a sudden,” Andy said as he strolled in with his arm around his girlfriend Trish. My reaction, a shoulder shrug, was returned with a sly grin from Andy.
“I’ll go check us in, team,” Rachel declared and took off towards the nurse’s station that had been reconfigured into a reception desk.
“Can you imagine sitting right here,” Craig began as he sprawled across one of the leather benches, “waiting for a loved one that would most likely never return for you.” He sighed and stared into the flickering fluorescent lights.
“Sounds like you all have done your homework,” Sam said to the group of us. “It’s only a small minority of people, like yourselves, that know that the Fort San Sanitarium wasn’t an insane asylum.” He paused for a moment to flash us a smile. “While I’m sure the isolation of this place drove a lot of its patients mad, they were actually here to be safely treated for tuberculosis.”
“More like safely locked away to die,” I added smugly.
“Sadly, you aren’t wrong,” Sam said with a nod.
“Okay, we are all good,” Rachel bounced back towards the group. “Looks like we are in Room F3 for the evening,” Rachel said with an eerie sense of glee.
“Ah, cool. The Patient Ward,” he said as a sinister grin grew on his face. “Well, I hope you didn’t plan on getting any sleep tonight.” He gave the receptionist a thumbs up, waved for the group to follow, and wandered off into the darkness of the Sanitarium.
The burnt out incandescent lights in Patient Ward F3 set the ambiance for the evening’s events. Looking like a scene out of an old horror film, the room had a dirty, yellowish filter that spoke of its long years of abandonment. The air was cold and burnt my lungs as I made my first step into the ancient room. There was a stench of decay that filled the room that forced me to take a step back. I clung to the doorframe to fight off a sudden wave of nausea. The sensation passed after a few moments, yet the cold sweat lingered on the back of my neck.
“Your accommodations for this lovely evening are brought to you by the hundreds of men, women, and children that had perished from the scourge of the beast known as tuberculosis. In these same beds,” Sam dramatically walked through the centre of the room and gestured towards the six beds spaced out evenly across each wall. “In these very beds, the patients of the Fort San Sanitarium were consumed by the very disease they came here to be cured of.” He smiled and flung himself onto the bed closest to the entrance, and a bit of dust mushroomed into the air. His voice suddenly grew deep and full of sorrow, and he explained that “If you lay perfectly quite in your bed and listen to the narrowing darkness, they say you can hear Nurse Jane going room to room, patient to patient, doing her best to stop their endless suffering.”
Shattering glass erupted from the ether, forcing us to jump to the middle of the room, grasping our hearts. As terror washed over us, we realized we had all been holding our breath. A chuckle from Sam cut through the tension, and we all burst out laughing. Craig clapped me on the back, and I gave him a quick elbow to the ribs. Trish was doubled over, visibly shaking, trying to catch her breath, and Andy was rubbing her back, trying not to laugh.
Sam jumped to his feet, hummed to himself as he scanned the room. “Well, I gotta say, this place never ceases to amaze me.” He clapped his hands and flashed us a quick smile. “Okay, so before I go, there are two rules that we must insist you follow. Number one, if you have any alcohol, it has to stay in here at all times. If you are a smoker, please smoke in the designated smoking area outside, and if you feel the need to toke up, please come and find me before smoking it in the designated smoking area.” He joined us in a quick laugh and gave us a wink and finger gun.
“Number two, go and do whatever your little heart’s desire, but be safe while you are doing it. This is a hundred year old building, so be careful where you walk. If a room is locked, it’s for your own good, so please don’t try to bash your way in. A few of us will be wandering around to keep an eye out for you all. Should anything happen, the ‘Waiting Room’ is your safe spot. We always have it lit and staffed for your needs.” Sam shrugged his shoulders and added, “With that, I guess I’ll wish you all happy hunting.” Sam took a bow and quietly faded into the darkness of the Sanitarium.
“Awesome. Time to explore! Who’s in?” Craig cried out.
“Heck ya! Let’s do this!” I agreed.
“Cool. Ya, you guys go check the place out, and Trish and I are gonna push a couple of these beds together.” Andy winked at Trish, who rolled her eyes in response.
“Good luck with that, Romeo.” Rachel knelt and gave the bed frame a shake. “Bolted to the ground. When patients get strapped in, you can’t have their beds flipping over mid convulsion.”
“Well, sounds like that’s all the protection we need,” Andy emphasized the word ‘protection’ while wrapping his hands around Trish’s waist.
“Gross!” collectively rang out with a variety of moans.
I followed Craig out of the patient room door, and the moment I crossed the threshold, the darkness drew me into itself with inky black tendrils. My muscles tensed as my body instinctively resisted their oily grasp, yet my body, soul, and consciousness are open to the glowing warmth of the ether. I enter and am instantly transmuted into a being of energy without mass. I am everything and nothing—electricity dances across my vertebrae. I am made whole again: a form in the blackness floating in space. Time flows in jagged pinwheels, creating a kaleidoscope of my soul. A teardrop of tar drips from the ceiling and congeals into the shape of the primordial man. The tar hardens into a crust, disintegrates piece by piece, and I am revealed shuddering naked in the foetal position.
Stars fill the darkness behind my clenched eyes. Footsteps rush towards my crumpled form. Four hands grab hold of my naked body with a vice like force. I’m jerked to my feet, and my body ragdolls in the orderly’s hands. My legs drag along the floor for some time before I open my eyes. I feel like I’m just coming out of surgery as nausea washes over me in waves of slow motion shades of green, blue, and orange.
My neck jerked back as my limp body is tossed haphazardly onto a medical gurney. The two orderlies pin me to my back, and I can feel my wrists and ankles being clamped to the metal rails of the bed. The men took their weight off my chest, and I thrashed about futilely until I fell into a coughing fit. I turn my head and cough vicious blood onto the side of my pillow.
“Now, now, Mr. Harley.” A condescending yet soothing voice broke through the madness. The woman’s voice harmonized a familiar yet unknown tune as she wiped the blood off my face. I turned to find the source of the voice and found a beautiful young nurse eyeing me up and down with deep brown eyes. A single brown curl had fallen across her forehead, and she carefully tucked it beneath her white nurse’s cap.
“You need to remain calm, or you’re going to aggravate your condition.” She reached into the front pocket of her white ward dress and pulled out a small notepad. She read through a few pages, frowned in disappointment, and slipped the notepad back into her dress pocket. “Seems you must have had an allergic reaction to the last round of penicillin we administered. Could explain our recent... episode.”
I twist back and forth, but the straps hold me tight. “What in the name of fuck is going on here? I don’t belong...”
“Now, Mr. Harley, you have to remain calm. You are in the Fort San Sanitarium being treated for tuberculosis.”
“This is madness. I don’t have tuberculosis. The Sanitarium has been closed for twenty years.” My breathing became staggered, and each breath made a gurgling sound. Every subsequent lung contraction brought more pain and pressure to my chest.
“Sir, you’ve been here for six months now,” the nurse explained with disinterest. “And since we have yet to see any progress in your condition, we have decided to move to Pneumothorax therapy.” One of the other orderlies returned to the patient ward pushing a stainless steel cart up to my bed. The objects on the cart were shrouded with a thin white piece of fabric.
“What the hell does that mean? And what the hell is on the cart?” I could feel my heart pounding the inside of my chest cavity like a jackhammer.
“It’s a simple surgical procedure we’ve been performing with great success. Once we have already discussed with you, and you have already signed off on.” She pulled back the white sheet on the cart to reveal a collection of pill bottles, pre-loaded hypodermic needles, scalpels of various sizes, an assortment of saw like instruments, a stainless steel hammer, and a clunky bone saw. “We are going to collapse the lung that has become infected, which intern, allows it to heal without allowing the infection to spread.”
“Wait! Wait!” I screamed in panic. “You can’t do this! I’m not sick! I changed my mind!” I flail around long enough for the burly orderly to return and pin me firmly to the gurney. “You can’t do this...” I weep to myself.
The nurse’s face is the last thing I remember as I felt the needle pierce my arm. “It’s all going to be alright,” repeated continuously as the cold syringe slid into my welcoming vein. The foreign chemicals sear into my system as the nurse forced the plunger down. Just as the world faded back into nothingness, I could vaguely hear a swaggering stomp of feet climbing stairs in the far off distance.
I’m struck with a brilliant light of all gradients of colour. Reaching out to block the radiance source, I stumbled and fell to my knees onto the concrete floor. There is a scream, and a pair of petite hands reach out for my head to cradle my fall. Daddy, you have to get up. I grab the hands to steady myself. I’m back in the Patient Ward. My friends have gathered around, and I’m desperately clinging to Rachel’s wrists.
I’m shaking now and beginning to hyperventilate. “What did you say?” I managed to spit out.
“I said, Nate, you have to get up.” Rachel was staring deep into my eyes, and the worry lines stretching across her forehead matched the concern in her expression.
“What the hell just happened, dude?” Craig asked while he rubbed my back. “Come on, let’s get him up.” Craig reached under one of my arms, and Rachel did the same after a quick nod. My legs were weak, but with their help, I managed to get back to my feet.
“I think I just need to lay down for a bit,” I explain a gesture to one of the medical beds. “We just walked through the doorway, and it felt like the dark sucked me in.” I sat on the edge of the bed I was led to and added, “It was like I was sent to a different place and time.”
“Different place and time?” Rachel questioned.
I rubbed my hand across my face smearing cold, salty sweat into my beard. “Ya, I was a patient in this place. It was like the thirties or forties.” Craig handed me a bottle of water out of his backpack. Bright spots begin to trickle into my vision. “Sorry, guys. Looks like you’re gonna have to explore without me tonight.”
Rachel and Craig look at each other with scrunched up faces. Their confusion was palpable and could be sliced with a scalpel. “Dude,” Rachel reached out and put her hand on my thigh. “We’ve been out exploring the Sanitarium for hours now. You’ve been with us the entire time.”
“No, no, it’s not god damn possible,” I said in disbelief as my chest began to tighten. The spots blur into tunnel vision, and a sharp pain explodes behind my eyes. I let out a groan and slammed the palm of my hands into my eyes to fight off the pressure of the growing migraine. I fell onto my pillow and rolled side to side in agony when, inexplicably, the pain moves to my chest. Suddenly, I’m fighting for every breath I can get. I hug my chest as tight as I can, but my lungs are burning. I turn my head and cough until I splatter the pillow with a mist of blood.
Rachel screamed at the sight of the blood, and I tried to focus my attention on her, but the pain is overwhelming. I’m barely hanging on at the edge of the abyss. “You try to keep him calm, I’m gonna go get help,” Craig rambled over my cries of agony and coughing fits. He takes two steps backward, keeping a steady eye on my twisted face, like it may be the last time before he bolted off into the hallway.
Rachel had me by both shoulders, gently shaking me in an attempt to keep me conscious. “Nate, you gotta stay with me, bud!” The room is growing dark. “Nate, focus on my face. You have to talk to me, bud!” Rachel’s voice echoed into the darkness, reverberating through the patient ward and into the shadows of the Sanitarium. She was a glowing beacon in the dark for only a brief moment before she too is smothered. Darkness descended with only the flickering incandescent lights holding it at bay. The darkness of the room contracts and exhales with a pace that matched my lungs.
My arms and legs are suddenly bound tight to the bed. I frantically thrash against the leather bindings, desperately seeking to be free. Every tug draws the bindings tighter until the only feeling in my hands and feet are pins and needles. I’m able to sit upright, propped on my elbows, and I watch in horror as the darkness swirls into a dense fog. The only light cowers in the centre of the room, hoping to find its salvation clinging to my constrained body.
I then noticed the shadow come streaming into the room from the emptiness of the sanitarium hallway. It was an obelisk of blackness darker than the deepest depths of the patient room’s shadows. It swam spastically towards me across the linoleum floor, absorbing the light as it hungrily progressed. Sweat stung my eyes, and my heart bashed into my chest like a jackhammer. My bulging eyes could see that this was not just a shadow, but as it neared, I could see ripples of tendrils in the inky shadow surface. Thousands of tendrils. Thousands or millions of tendrils swimming, dancing, and clinging to one another in the sticky blackness.
My jaw dropped as I tried to scream, but only horse silence escaped from my lungs. The tendril obelisk reached the edge of my bed and folded upright, nearly touching the ceiling. It hovered over me for a moment, staring at my constrained figure on the bed through its incredible blackness. There was a jarring sound of splintering wood as two arm like appendages broke free of the obelisk. Long, twisting tendrils retracted to resemble human fingers gyrating in the pale flickering light. The top of the obelisk narrowed slightly to give the impression of a head, further developed by the sudden puncturing of two eye holes in the black shadow. The eyes narrowed mischievously as a gnarly grin slashed its way into existence.
The tendrils lashed out towards me, wrapping their way around my neck, arms, and chest. They squeezed and pulsated as they dug into my flesh. Their icy cold touch scorched my flesh. “Shush now, Mr. Harley!” The nurse’s voice came out of the obelisk’s torn face. The thing held out its other tendril arm, which began to vibrate and intertwine with itself to merge into an enormous syringe. Its cyclopean tip bore down slowly towards my forehead spinning drill like to carve its way through my skull. As the syringe began tearing through flesh, the nurse gave one last word of encouragement, “It will all be over soon, Mr. Harley.”
“Daddy! You have to wake up!”
As the fog lifted from Nate’s eyes, there was a thunderous crack on the other side of the bedroom door. Shelly knelt in front of him, shaking his shoulders to snap him back into reality. Her eyes were puffy and red from crying, but the sudden crack of the door caused her to narrow her eyes in terror. Nate reached out to comfort her when the door flung open and crashed into his back.
“Into the closet, Shelly! Go! Go!” Nate growled as he threw all his weight backward into the door.
For a brief moment, the door stood frozen in time, but inevitably, the door began to creep, millimetre by millimetre, open into the room. Every muscle in Nate’s body screamed out as he pushed back into the door with little to no effect. Survival mode took over, and as he slowly slid into the room, he had his vision laser focused towards Shelly rushing into the makeshift panic room. As the closet door slid shut, Nate closed his eyes and bared down on the bedroom door, hoping to give Shelly every second he could.
The oily black tendrils began to flail and grasp madly, seeking anchor points for their host through the widening cracks of the door. Grimy streaks of mud and decay were left at each point that the tendrils struck the door. There was a brief hiss as the tendrils bit into bare flesh on Nate’s arms and neck. They coiled and wrapped around anything that tasted of human flesh, pinning Nate to the door swarming of tendrils. In an instant, he felt their icy cold grip slide around his neck, squeezing blackness into his vision with each pulsation.
Through that blackness, a voice gently called out to him. A voice that he had known once but had become corrupted beyond recognition. The pulsing throb of the tendrils slowed and the pressure loosened from his neck. Nate’s vision returned, and through blurry eyes, he watched as a human arm reached around the door for the warmth of Nate’s face. It was smeared with mud and was grey from death. He tried to pull away, but the tendrils held him firmly in place. A gravelly voice filled with mould and decay whispered his name with loving affection. The dead hand caressed his face, and Nate grimaced while he watched his wife’s wedding band slide through his vision.
The door suddenly shook violently, and the tendrils released Nate to constrict in pain and agony. An insistent shriek erupted at the same moment on the other side of the door, and the thing fell to the hallway floor with a heavy thud. Nate spun away from the door to see the creature’s arm pinned to the oak door with a large butcher’s knife. It went into mad seizures on the floor, but the blade held firm as black ichor trailed down the face of the door. The stench of sulphur, agony, and rot filled the room.
Shelly had been inching backward with her hands covering her ears when Nate pieced together what had happened. She fell to her knees, closed her eyes, and fell sideways into the foetal position. Without a word, he sprang towards his daughter and scooped her up. The black burns on his arms, neck, and chest fired pain through every neuron in his body, yet it was nothing compared to the moment he lost the love of his life. Nothing could be greater than that soul crushing loss. But Shelly was not the love of his life. Shelly was the light of his life, and in every way imaginable, she was his soul incarnate. With her safely in his arms, he dashed through the flailing tendrils into the makeshift panic room, locking the door securely behind them.
Inside the panic room, Nate refused to let Shelly out of his tight embrace. “You saved my life, Shelly,” he said and kissed her on the forehead. The pain from the creature’s tendrils cascaded throughout his body, but the warm embrace from Shelly soothed him to his core. The screams from outside were little more than muffled mutterings, and the thumping and smashing of walls translated only to the subtlest vibrations. “You’re freaking awesome, kid,” Nate whispered into her ear.
“I know, dad,” Shelly said as she trembled in her father’s arms. “I know.”