The screams of the damned penetrated his tortured mind. Black smoke choked him, stinging his eyes until scalding tears left tracks through his grimy skin. Gasping for oxygen only caused him to inhale more of the smoke until his throat was raw, as though Satan’s talons were gripping it. He stumbled blindly on. He could hear the fire crackling nearby, but the fiery threat remained invisible. Like a nightmare hiding just beyond the veil of consciousness. Glass shattered around him as windows exploded like souls fleeing their hosts. A place once so familiar was now a terrifying labyrinth of darkness and smoke, each corridor leading to death. More screams pierced the gloom. Somebody crashed into him and he plummeted down the stairs, falling deeper into the abyss. Here, the heat was intense, suffocating. His broken body fought for breath as the fire caressed his skin.
I wrenched my hand from the headstone and opened my eyes. Rain danced on my skin, kissing my face and bouncing off the gravestone.
My fingers traced the weathered letters of his name. I closed my eyes. He lay curled up on the burning stairs, his lungs filled with deadly smoke as the fire consumed his body. Screaming and sobbing failed to drown the fire’s roar as it raced through the corridors, its need for life insatiable.
I lowered my hand. The clouds wept invisible tears for another life lost. I scanned the graveyard; every grave was old and forgotten. I walked among them, my black trilby hat keeping the rain from my pale grey eyes. As I passed the headstones, my hands remained by my sides. Today, I didn’t crave death. They could keep their play of horrors.
The ground was soft beneath my bare feet, my toes sinking into the slick mud, the grass pricking my frigid skin. I was careful not to step on any of the graves. Time had merged them with the ground like one plague pit and nobody cared enough to stop it. Least of all me. Smoke embraced the graves. The headstones and the black skeleton of a tree were the only objects visible.
I reached a black and silver Rover P4 and ran my fingers over its sleek body. Rain drops bounced off its glistening paint. My feet crunched on the wet gravel. Sixty years ago there had been a well-tended grass and flower patch in the centre of the drive. Now it was overgrown with trees. I glanced back towards the graves. They were shrouded by the smoke, but I could still see the skeletal tree.
The chapel stood forlorn in the distance. Phantom organ music haunted the graveyard. A large stone asylum rose majestically to greet me. It couldn’t decide whether it was brown or grey. Two large gargoyles guarded either side of the double oak doors. Above the door was a worn stone sign that used to proudly declare “Ravens Retreat.” I ascended the wide steps, flanked by peeling wrought iron. Decades ago, flowers had separated the steps into two stairways. Now they had been combined. I walked up another three steps and pushed the left door. It creaked open, revealing darkness.
The lights flickered and sizzled. The dark wooden floor gleamed in the meagre light. I ran my toes over it, liking the smoothness against my skin. A grand staircase to my left beckoned and I obeyed, my hand gliding up the banister. The stairs creaked. I stopped. The lights continued to flicker. The front door opened slowly, the old iron hinges protesting. It slammed shut. I scanned the hall.
I was alone.
I hurried down and slid the bolt locks in place. A door upstairs closed, keys jangling as it was locked.
I shivered and continued upstairs. Squeaking wheels echoed along the corridor. I turned the corner, but saw nothing. The squeaking stopped. I edged forward, fingertips brushing the brown and white tiles on the walls. Squeak, squeak, squeak. I stopped. So did the noise. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, an old wheelchair sat in the middle of the corridor. I looked around but I was alone. The wheelchair trundled towards me. I stepped aside to let it pass. As it reached me, it vanished.
I made my way to the master bedroom. The black four-poster bed stood in the red room. Thick black curtains danced in the breeze. I crossed to the window and shut it. I didn’t remember opening it. I stared out over the graveyard, the graves almost invisible beneath the smoke’s cold cloak.
Downstairs another door slammed. Running footsteps on the stairs. I tensed. A door banged. I snuck from the room and heard the sound of running water. Edging a short way down the corridor, I hesitated at the bathroom door, gripping the cool handle. The gushing water was taunting me. I tried the doorknob. The door swung open. The shower was running. I leaned over the bath and switched it off. As I reached the door, the tap squeaked as it switched back on. I turned it off then gripped it.
I would not lose this fight.
I released the tap and left the room, waiting outside the door. Nothing. A smile played on my lips as I returned to my bedroom. I sat on the bed and removed my hat, tossing it towards the throne on the other side of the room. It landed on one of the tall sides and spun around before coming to a rest. Music started. Muse’s ‘Hysteria’ blared through the asylum, shattering the silence. I closed my eyes. The music grew louder. I covered my ears, my ear drums pounding. I shot off the bed, ran down the landing, flung open one of the doors and entered another bedroom. It was almost barren, painted grey with a single metal bed and a bedside cabinet. There used to be two other beds in here. They wouldn’t allow the male staff to sleep two to a room. I guess if the patients couldn’t control themselves, why should the staff?
The radio looked out of place on the cabinet. I switched it off. It immediately turned back on.
A figure huddled in the corner of the room, rocking back and forth and whimpering. Footsteps echoed through the room and a young male attendant entered, dressed in black. Trousers, waistcoat and a coat, which only had the top brass button done up. The collar of a white shirt peeked out. His peaked hat was askew.
“You shouldn’t be in here, John. These are the staff’s quarters.” The key chain from his pocket clanked. They looked more like prison warders than attendants.
“Get away from me!” John shoved him over then bolted from the room.
He swiftly rose and shadowed him. They ran down the corridor towards the end wall. They ran straight through it and disappeared.
Leaving me alone with the asylum’s memory.
I heard a car approaching. I hurried downstairs. I slid back the bolt and opened the door. An old bright green Beetle parked beside the Rover. I watched a young man exiting the car carrying a rucksack. He peered through the Rover’s windows. He seemed to sense me watching him because he whirled around, startled. I closed the door. The gravel betrayed his footsteps. His knock echoed around the asylum. I waited then opened it.
I looked past him to the falling rain. His Beetle was the only source of colour in the dismal surroundings. The driveway stretched on forever, the black gates barely visible in the gloom. Just inside the gates, a grey building, newer than this one, was partially concealed by a hedge. A light shone in the downstairs window. I hadn’t switched it on.
Thunder rumbled in the bowels of the clouds. Lightning flashed once like a dying bulb. I heard a flap of wings as a raven landed on one of the gargoyles. The lantern above it had gone out. The raven cawed a warning, its round black eyes fixated on this stranger. It shook its wet feathers then took flight, its wings beating the air. From the roof, another raven answered, sparking a fierce debate with the ravens guarding the tree. I listened, but their plotting remained a secret. Inside the asylum I heard footsteps in the corridor upstairs. The wood creaked. Footsteps ran down the stairs and I shivered.
“I’m here for the tour,” the stranger spoke, looking past me. “I’m from the paper. Mason Strider. We spoke on the phone. Thank you for fitting me in at such short notice.”
I read his ID card. He was twenty-five, two years older than me. He adjusted his rucksack, his clothes soaking.
“You’re not on my list. And we’ve never spoken. I didn’t invite you.”
“Is it alright if I come in? I need to sort my equipment out. It’s freezing out here.”
I opened the door further and allowed him to enter. He surveyed the hall uneasily. A door up ahead opened and I gestured for him to follow me through it, into the dining room. A long table stood in the centre with ten chairs surrounding it. He placed his rucksack on the table and unzipped it. The chair to my right scraped back. I seated myself at the head of the table, watching him empty his bag: a digital voice recorder, camera, a video camera, notebook, pen and a torch. A nurse dragged the voice recorder towards her. I reached out and stopped it. Mason looked alarmed then laughed.
“That was good. Did you use magnets?” He checked under the table.
“I know you claim this place is haunted.” He was looking at the empty chair to my right.
“I didn’t use magnets.” I resented his accusing tone.
“You can save the tricks for the tour. You don’t have to entertain me.”
“For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who doubt, no proof is enough.”
I watched him intently and released the DVR. It stayed put. Upstairs a floorboard groaned. Mason glanced up. A door shut. Keys locked it.
“You live alone?” He asked.
“The living don’t stay here very long.”
I stood up and closed the black curtains, blocking out the light. Mason began writing in his notebook. After a few minutes, he asked if I had anything to drink. I fetched him some water then retreated to my seat. He asked how to spell my name so I took his notebook and pen, making him jump. I wrote Phineas Soul on his page and handed it back. I watched a lady collect a bowl from the other end of the table and carry it behind me into the kitchen. The door opened and closed soundlessly, swallowing her into its silence.
“When my editor told me he wanted me to write a piece on Soul Searching, I thought he meant inner peace rubbish, not a ghost hunting tour. When does it start?”
I exhaled deeply. “One hour.”
“When was this place built?”
“Building started in 1844. It opened 1848. It was the only asylum for North Wales. Before, patients were sent to England. Which wasn’t helpful since most of them couldn’t speak English.”
The overhead lights flickered. Mason blinked as they came on. Voices. Whispering. He crossed to the door and opened it. The hall was deserted. He closed it and returned to the table. The kitchen door opened. Faint sweeping footsteps passed behind him. He jumped at the noise of cutlery being dropped on the table. He glanced at the end of the table. Empty.
First impressions – the asylum is huge and creepy. Lights flicker, there seems to be someone else in the house. Footsteps, doors opening and closing, standard stuff, the DVR moved but I didn’t see any magnets. Thought I heard whispering. There’re strange noises like someone preparing the table for dinner, could be a recording. Tour is in 1 hr but there seems to be no preparation.
I watched Mason write. The nurse at the end of the table was laying cutlery in front of the chairs. Dinnertime in the house of wolves. Mason glanced up as the lights flickered then died. Sighing, I opened the curtains. The rain was reflected on the table in large drops. I could feel the storm as though it was brewing in my mind. The thunder comforted me.
“If it wasn’t raining, I’d take you to see the graveyard,” I murmured. “It’s very beautiful.”
He glanced out the window. “You have a graveyard! It’s not an ancient Indian burial ground is it?”
“This is North Wales, not America.”
“Who supposedly haunts this place? The people in the graveyard?”
“Everyone who died in this asylum.”
“I was told there’s a poltergeist.”
I could see the staff and patients but not the poltergeist he referred to. Maybe some things weren’t meant to be seen.
“He’s not a poltergeist. He’s an unwanted guest who refuses to leave.”
Running footsteps upstairs. Somewhere in the asylum’s twisted heart, someone screamed.