When they tore from the hospital, fleeing panic-stricken from the encroaching darkness, when they unplugged the oxygen and tucked screaming infants under their arms, they slammed, locked, and boarded the doors. In the sick rooms and long empty hallways they left only terrible, echoing silence. And Ainsley.
She stood on her toes, clinging to the rough-hewn wood that blocked her path. A twisted nail protruding from the haphazard blockade of busted furniture and broken planks scratched the back of her hand and drew blood. “Marta! Mother Marta!” Ainsley held up her injured hand for the woman on the other side of the windowed door to peek through the crevice from her place. Ainsley glimpsed the gold-brown eye, wet with tears, through the cracks in the wood.
“Yes, yes, girl,” Mother Marta called. “I am sorry! Believe me! I am so, so sorry! Some day, I will come back to you! Stay inside, Ainsley. Stay inside no matter what!” Tears dampened the bloodied collar of her disheveled habit.
She wasn’t opening the door. Ainsley’s heart iced over and then thundered through her veins. She screeched and pounded her fists on the boards. “Let me out! Where are you going! Let me out!”
She could see the nun’s dark form retreating now, away from the building’s bright fluorescent lights, into the growing dark.
Ainsley screamed. She screamed until the rage and fear blinded her and the mucus and tears choked her into quiet sobs. She slid down onto the cool vinyl floor and wiped her face on the back of her sleeve. At least Mother Marta was not here to scold her for that. The thought made Ainsley’s shoulders shudder with another sob, but she had exhausted herself and couldn’t cry anymore. Instead, she lay there for a long time and stared out into the emptiness.
She listened for any voice, any sound, of anyone left. She whimpered. Waited.
Silence. No beeps, no alarms. No buzzing chatter. Not even a groan. The silence reached down the halls and clawed into her chest, taking hold there. Alone.
Ainsley wasn’t sure how long she lay there in that silence watching the last rays of light fade into fiery crimson and then purple and black. Her arms and legs ached, and her skin started to itch unpleasantly. A light cough escaped her lips, and the sound reverberated down the abandoned hall.
She dragged herself to her feet, wobbling a little from exhaustion. Her sneakers seemed to pull her down, and when she picked them up to take a step, they seemed to stick to the floor.
The lights were still on, at least.
She inched forward, chilled by the quiet. Breathing in and wiping her face again, Ainsley started forward to search. She would look in every room and under every bed. Surely someone else had been left behind.
She found corpses. Some still warm. Those too sick to escape—their machines had gone quiet. No beeping, no suck and squeeze of air through the endless tangled tubes draping like morbid decorations over their beds. The wires lay like ripped umbilical cords, strewn in the blood across the floor. Some of the others had pillows covering their faces. Ainsley did not disturb them.
She followed the blood.
She knew where they kept them all this time. In the past, straining from her bed to peek out the window, she had caught glimpses of the ones they had wheeled out to burn. Ollie had said their blood boiled black in the flames. But Ollie had left with Mother Marta.
Now, wandering the austere corridors, Ainsley smelled the charred flesh. The smoke. She traced the blood, splattered and muddied with ash, spread along in scattered shoe prints. The ties dragged from her sneakers and wove labyrinths in the dark, wet red.
Mother Marta and the others had boarded this door too, closing up the whole wing before setting the fires to try to burn out the last of the sickness. She wouldn’t be able to see them after all.
A wail pierced the heavy silence. A cry from the other side of the door.
At once, Ainsley raced to find something, anything to break down the door. She scrambled up and down the hall and eventually settled on a discarded hammer. She began attacking the barrier between her and whatever made that cry. Hurriedly, she pried at each nail, yanked and shoved and kicked and screamed again. The wailing intensified.
“Hello?” she shouted as she worked. “Hello? Are you there? Hello! Please!”
She cracked at the wood with the back of the hammer and felt the sweat soak her back. Too long. Whoever it was would suffocate from the smoke before she could reach them. They would abandon her, too. They would die or escape and run out into the night through a broken window, leaving her alone again.
“I’m coming! Just hang on! I’m coming!” Ainsley screamed with every swing of the hammer.
At last, she broke through. She kicked open the doors. Hot choking ash and a storm of smoke.
Something small and black wriggled on the ground. Ainsley screeched and jumped back. Then it wailed again.
“A baby?” She scooped it up and tucked it against her chest. She tried her best to shield it from the smoke, coughing again. The baby cried shrilly. It clung to her. Ainsley raced back through the door away from the scorched hall. Away from the charred bodies and the ash and smoke and embers. She kicked the door shut again, shoved a wheeled bed toward it, and ran.
On the other end of the hospital, once more sitting beneath the door that Mother Marta had run through, Ainsley wrapped the naked infant in a striped blanket and cradled it in her arms. “Shh, shh,” she cooed at it. She cleaned the little face with a wet washcloth, gently scrubbing away the soot and grime.
The tiny thing was unharmed as far as Ainsley could tell. No burns. No bruises even. “I’m here now,” she said, remembering what Mother Marta told the little ones in the room next to Ainsley’s when she checked on them at night. “Everything’s alright, angel.”
The baby had finally stopped crying. It closed its eyes and cuddled against Ainsley’s shoulder. She kissed the top of its head. “You’re not alone,” she promised.
Ainsley didn’t remember falling asleep, still cradling the baby, but she remembered when she woke to the crack of the wood and the spray of shattered glass, and she instinctively tucked the baby deeper into her embrace to protect it.
The door opened. Just a fracture. Dark spilled in.
Long white arms reached through the blackness, pitch black night that had consumed everything, toward Ainsley and the baby. Ainsley jerked away, but a sickle claw caught her arm, needling through skin and muscle and bone. The pain ripped through her, too intense. She collapsed, losing her vision momentarily and stumbling. Darkness reached for her, but she caught her footing and the adrenaline found her instead. She recovered from the pain, threw every speck of effort into making her body move–and started to run.
The clawed hand still held the baby.
Ainsley stopped when she realized the child was no longer in her arms. She breathed in her fear and the cold wash of horror as she glimpsed the hand that held the squirming babe. On the other side of the door, standing there in the dark, stood something that resembled a man.
The silhouette of a man. But its shape was all wrong. Its body too tall, its limbs too long. It was grotesque…but strangely alluring, and its eyes seethed a liquid light that burned into her and sucked her closer. Ainsley found herself drawn to it in the same way she was drawn to the horror in Mother Marta’s features when she spoke of the closed-off wing, or when she snapped at Ainsley for asking to see the bodies burned, and the breathtaking terror when she told Mother Marta she had admitted to brushing her fingers against the dripping ooze that seeped beneath the door marked with ash.
“Stop!” Ainsley commanded the creature, though it did not move. It held the baby still. It tucked the child into the crook of its arm and then—almost lovingly— against its chest. Ainsley’s voice was a hesitant squeak. She tried louder, “Give…give me back the baby and go.”
“This child is ours.” Its voice was the sickening sweet pitch of sugared death.
“Then…” Ainsley started, unsure of what she said but believing in the pulsing depths of her heart that she would not be left alone. “Then am I not, too?”
The creature blinked its moon-white eyes at her.
“Mother Marta said I’m infected,” she said quickly. “With the thirst plague.” She glanced at the baby in the too-long arms. Wrapped so snugly in the blanket, held against the hollow chest in the night. The baby was unharmed. No wounds. A giggle erupted from its little pink mouth, and a trickle of greasy liquid. Ainsley told the creature hurriedly, “Mother Marta–she said she would come back for me, but I had to stay here for now because I’m infected.”
The creature tilted its head.
“I’m sick,” she explained further, panic rising. It simply hadn’t heard her. It didn’t understand. She clutched her injured arm where the creature had struck her. She felt hot blood flooding over her hand. She told the creature, “They left me. They left me because I’m sick with the plague.”
The creature considered. A black tongue extended slowly from between sharp teeth and slipped across its own claw to taste Ainsley’s blood.
Ainsley said again, so sure, “It’s the plague.”
The creature said simply, “It’s not.” It turned toward the night.
Ainsley reached toward him suddenly, demanding, “Wait! Wait, wait!”
The creature examined her for a moment. He studied the small cut on the back of her hand. The blood clotted bright red.
Ainsley scrambled to get out, to get past it, to not be left alone again in this place.
The door closed. She punched the wood, driving splinters into her hand. She watched the creature carrying the baby away into the night. Alone again.
Lisa Rose is a long-time educator turned emerging author. Her short story “Snow Globe” won Best in Fiction in a SJ Center for Literary Arts writing challenge, and her nonfiction has been published by ScaryMommy. Lisa has an MA in English Literature and works as an academic copy editor. She lurks between the trees in the PNW. You can connect with Lisa on Twitter (@WordsRose) and her Website (www.writeroseediting.com).
TDS: What was your inspiration for writing this piece?
Lisa Rose: This piece started when I read a prompt about abandoned places. A few of my writer friends and I decided to write some short pieces based on this idea. We also made a rule of no abandoned houses to challenge us away from cliches, too. I started thinking about the wider concept of abandonment and what that could encompass. I tried to weave a few levels of abandonment into this story. Fear of abandonment is one of those visceral universally human fears and perfect for horror. From the beginning, if we find ourselves abandoned, we cannot survive. What does it mean to be abandoned by your friends or family or anyone, especially when you need them most? What does it mean for your physical and psychological survival? Hospitals are a common setting in horror for good reason since they are so often a place of life and death.
TDS: What was the writing process you used when creating this story?
Lisa Rose: I like to look at images for inspiration when I am still shaping my story. I throw some words into an image search to get a feel and mood for what I might want. “Abandoned hospital,” “creepy hospital,” “empty hallway horror,” etc. After that, my process is usually the same no matter what I write. Do a mini outline of sorts that gives me a big picture to focus on, draft as much as possible in one sitting, and then go back and edit, edit, edit. I used to teach essay writing, and I’ve worked as an editor for several years—I think my approach is kind of mechanical, but it works for me. The hard part for this story was figuring out the end and keeping it focused. I was excited by the possibilities of the setting and had to reign it in.
TDS: Who influenced you as a writer?
Lisa Rose: I was born in the 80s, so I was fortunate to have a plethora of spooky media to consume. I read a ton of YA and middle grade fantasy (e.g. Tamora Pierce) growing up, but I’ve also always had that relatively darker side, and again I feel lucky to have been able to grow up consuming Anne Rice, Tim Burton, Jhonen Vasque, Courage the Cowardly Dog, etc. I was probably channeling some Silent Hill and Resident Evil vibes in this piece too. I also have degrees in English Literature, so I can’t discount the Romantics. I’m frequently inspired by and look up to contemporary authors like Hailey Piper, Sylvia Moreno Garcia, Erica LaRocca, Cassandra Khaw, and many authors whose work I read in anthologies and magazines.
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