The sky stretches, blue upon blue, canopy to the bustling beach. The sun descending its arc; hours ticking to mid-afternoon.
In the water, kids splash water at each other, squealing with delight, yelling at their parents to come join them.
A sharp whistle from the lifeguard tower as a boogie-board boy skims outside the buoy-marked swimming area.
Further up the beach, away from the throngs, a group of teenagers throw a frisbee; trick-shots and the ever-present threat of sending it into the waves. Behind them, rocks rise from the beach, toward headland and buildings beyond dune bush and wind-battered trees.
They play alone, these fourteen and fifteen year-olds, ignored by beach-potatoes and squealing kids alike.
* * *
“Come on, Sol!” Zee yells, as she runs backwards to create space for the show. “Go long!”
Though she’s the only girl in this gang of four, Zee doesn’t feel out of place; she’ll give any of them a run for their money, any day of the week. She carries this chip so squarely on her shoulders that she doesn’t ever consider how much they love her, are besotted by her, would walk through walls were she to ask.
Sol crouches to pick up the frisbee, sun shining off his head, shaved as ever; his dark skin dotted with pin-pricks of sweat, glistening against the backdrop of the black rocks.
“Long?” he shouts.
“That’s how she likes it,” Joe chimes in.
“Heard that,” Zee shouts back over her shoulder, “like you’d have any idea!”
Sol looks at Joe, who shrugs away the insult.
Zee has stopped running, now turning, planting her hands on her hips.
“Well?” she yells.
Sol readies himself for the mega-throw, wraps his arm back, skips forwards a couple of steps and, a coiled spring, releases!
The frisbee goes low and fast, spinning past Tommy, looking good until it catches the breeze, oscillating and taking a sharp nose-dive into the sand.
Zee bursts out laughing. The boys can hear it even from here.
“Awesome throw,” Joe brays into the afternoon.
Sol collapses to the ground, face down, pummeling his fists on the sand.
“I mean,” Joe continues, “it was like…”
“Ass,” Tommy chuckles.
“Right!” Joe agrees.
Zee runs to where the frisbee sticks up out of the sand; not even halfway to where she had been waiting.
“Oh man,” she laughs, “that was bad!”
Sol looks up, the sand stuck to his skin, lending him momentary white-face, which carries Joe into another fit of laughter.
“What?” Sol asks, honestly confused.
But Joe can’t speak for the giggles.
“Here’s how it’s done,” Zee brags.
She winds back and then releases the frisbee towards Sol. It flies high above him, with the wind this time and, almost as a unit the three boys turn to watch the soaring disc as it spirals up and up, over the rocks and into the bushes.
There is a still silent moment, then Sol looks back to Zee.
“What did you do that for?” he demands.
Tommy sits down with a thump, stares at his feet. Joe just looks up towards the rocks, his face a mask.
“Whoops,” Zee says, all coy mock-innocence.
Sol takes a step towards her.
“Oh, come on,” he says, “you can’t…”
Zee just smiles.
“We talked about this,” Sol continues, “we decided.”
He begins to wipe the sand from his face in quick swipes.
Zee flutters her eyelids.
“Can’t a girl change her mind?”
Joe turns to look at Zee.
“She does!” he exclaims. “You do, don’t you?”
“It’ll be fun,” Zee shrugs.
“Yeah, right,” Sol scoffs; spits out grit.
“Jimmy was playing you,” Tommy says, without looking up, “you know he was!”
“Right,” Sol agrees.
“Nah,” Zee says, “Jimmy wouldn’t do that. He’s real. We just gotta get there before it gets too dark. Find the way in.”
Sol has no words, and can only stand staring at his friend.
Tommy sits shaking his head.
“OK. I’m in,” Joe says, “Sol?”
Sol considers for a moment, looking at his friends, the distant throngs beyond them before turning to glance up at the rocks; the scrub and buildings, growing dark as the sun dives.
“I guess,” he says.
And with that, Zee is striding past them, heading for the rocks.
“Come on then,” she orders.
Sol and Joe fall in behind her, and they make their way up the rocks.
As they climb, Zee looks back to find Tommy still sitting on the beach, watching them.
“What a surprise,” she hisses under her breath, though there is little anger in her voice.
“Come on, Tommy, you wuss!” she yells.
Tommy looks at them for a moment, then stands and follows, his head hunched low beneath his shoulders.
At the top of the rocks, Zee skips a few paces ahead and regains the frisbee, kissing it in quiet celebration.
“Thanks,” she whispers to the toy, “I knew it would work.”
* * *
Once they are through the scrub, and in amongst the withered trees, the dwindling daylight becomes more apparent, shadows stretch and it’s perceptibly cooler.
Ahead of them, through the scrub bushes, the main building hulks, shadowy, monstrous. It’s brickwork is becoming more clear; cracks and crumbling mortar, fallen gargoyles, abandoned lawn chairs.
They emerge onto the grounds, the grass of the lawn is over-grown. Though it is cut-back on a monthly basis by a landscaping company, weeds colonize the space.
The building is massive from where they stand, looming over them, and Zee stops to look up.
“Shit,” she breathes out, pointing up, “look at those.”
There are heavy-duty bars covering each of the grey windows.
“Keepin’ people out,” Joe says.
“I don’t think so,” Sol says, “more likely to keep people in.”
After a moment, Zee shakes herself slightly.
“All right,” she orders, “let’s go.”
* * *
To the side of the building, a walled garden, fallen to disrepair now, all crumbling pots and lichen statues. Weed-ridden again, yet as they follow the dirt paths to the gazebo in the corner, they catch the mingled scents of lavender, camomile, mint, all of it grown wild and gone to seed.
“Smells good,” Sol says.
Zee leads them around the side of the gazebo.
“Jimmy said it’s just around here,” she says and they arrive at a staircase leading down to a maintenance entrance. She descends, lays her hand on the door.
Sol, Joe and Tommy stare down at her.
“Are you sure?” Sol asks again, though all three of them hang on her answer.
Zee says nothing, just grabs the door knob and gives it a twist. It doesn’t budge, long rusted to immobility.
She looks up at them, scanning for any sign of relief.
“Wait,” she grits her teeth.
She grabs the knob again, squats slightly and then explodes upwards.
There is a hideous, screech of metal working on metal and Sol involuntarily looks around himself to see if they’ve alerted anyone to their presence.
Satisfied that they remain undiscovered, he turns back to find the door open wide enough for them to get in. Zee is already inside, Joe descending the stairs.
“Ow!” Zee yells from inside.
“What?” Joe says, speeding up.
Zee’s head emerges around the door.
“All kinds of shit in here,” she says, “broken glass, needles and shit. Be careful.”
She disappears back inside, followed by Joe.
“You coming, Sol?” Joe shouts, “Ugh, place stinks!”
“Been empty a long time,” Zee says.
“Not quite empty. Right?” Joe laughs, though there’s a note of uncertainty in his voice now.
Back up the stairs, Sol looks at Tommy, whose face glows white in the paling afternoon light.
“You OK, Tommy?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” the other boy says, “I don’t…”
“It’s gonna be all right. There’s nothing here. You know that.”
Tommy shakes his head.
“I don’t think we should.”
“Oh man!” Zee shouts from inside, “you gotta come see this! Unbelievable!”
Tommy takes a step away from the top of the stairs.
“I’m not coming in,” he says.
Sol looks at him.
“You gonna stay here?”
But Tommy shakes his head.
“I’m going. You should too,” he glances back, “it’s getting dark.”
Sol pauses, looks down the steps at the open door, listens to Zee and Joe exploring inside, looks up at the main building towering over the walled garden.
“Nah,” he shakes his head, “someone’s gotta get them home.”
He steps to the stairs.
“You sure?” Tommy asks.
But Sol is descending.
At the open door, he looks back, but Tommy has already gone.
* * *
Inside there’s a small room, fragments of long dead leaves scattered across the floor, blown into the room through the gap beneath the door. In amongst the leaves, broken beer bottles; used syringes. A couple of wooden lawn chairs, long-since broken.
Across the room, a corridor leading deep beneath the gardens. It ends at a right angle about ten yards in; flaking walls reflect the flutter of Zee’s flashlight.
“Zee?” he calls, “Joe?”
“Come on, Sol!” Joe calls back.
Sol turns back, scans the door. There’s a knob and deadbolt. No keyhole. He grabs the knob and pulls the door closed; the screech of rusted hinges is followed by a solid thump.
The entry room immediately plunges to deep gloom.
“What was that?” Zee shouts.
“Nothing,” Sol answers turning glancing back over his shoulder, “just closing the door.”
“Yeah?” Zee laughs “well don’t lock it.”
“Right!” Joe chimes in.
Further down the corridor the distant flashlight has stopped moving. They’re listening for him. Waiting.
Scared, Sol thinks, they both are.
“Of course,” he calls back, “that’d be dumb!”
He waits, watches the corridor. A moment, and then the distant light begins to dance again.
“Oh, man!” Zee exclaims, “look at this! You gotta come see this, Sol!”
Sol watches the corridor then quietly reaches back to the door and slides the deadbolt into the loop on the doorframe.
“On my way,” he calls back, heading into the corridor.
* * *
In this ward, dust lies thick on cracked linoleum, rusting beds and night-stands punctuate the space; dark icebergs in the little remaining sunlight penetrating whitewashed windows. Insipid green paint long cracked and peeling; rashes of eczema, flaking fit to fall.
Sol stands, looking at long-faded daubs of graffiti. Behind him, Zee sits with Joe, whose iPhone screen illuminates an orb of flickering light across his face.
No intruder created this art. Here, a crude dagger is buried in a corpse, nearly to the hilt. Off to one side, two stick people are going at it doggy-style while another, wearing a skirt and hat of some sort, stands over them with a clipboard.
Nurse, Sol thinks.
“She liked to watch,” he whispers to himself.
“Huh?” Zee asks.
Sol shakes himself down and turns back to them.
“Nothing,” he shrugs, “just looking. I thought…”
“I don’t know, it all seems kind of… clichéd, right?”
“You sure this is the place?” Joe asks without looking up from his phone.
“Right,” Zee nods, “here. Jimmy said so.”
“Right! You even listening to me?”
“So this is where the infamous ghost is going to appear?” Sol joins in.
“Yes!” Zee complains, “Jimmy said…”
“And Jimmy’s such a reliable witness,” Sol scoffs, “he’s high nine days out of ten.”
“Not this time,” Zee persists, “he was clean. He… Aw, who cares. It’s a ghost, man! A freakin’ ghost!”
Joe looks up from his phone.
“Yeah, who cares?” he says, “this is the after-life, dude.”
“It’s stupid, is what it is,” Sol smiles.
“You scared?” Zee goes on the attack.
“He is!” Joe chimes in. “He’s freakin’ scared of the after-life!”
Sol sits down, completing a circle with his two friends.
“No,” he says quietly, “I’m not. I just think the here and now is good enough.”
They fall quiet for a moment; evening is darkening to night beyond the windows.
“Wuss,” Zee chuckles.
“Right,” Joe agrees.
Sol leans back on the wall, calm, watching the door to the hall.
* * *
The asylum is silent, massive around them, yet silent.
They sit in a loose circle, each lost in their own world. Joe is close to nodding off.
Moonlight has painted the ward silver, lending tiny harsh shadows to the flaking paint. The graffiti seems somehow more visible in the silvery light.
“Quiet, ain’t it?” Zee whispers.
Sol feels the coldness of the wall on the back of his head. His legs have fallen to sleep slightly from sitting on the hard tiles.
“Yeah,” Joe agrees.
Zee slowly reaches her leg out, places her sneaker on the floor.
“It’s always quiet,” Zee goes on, “before they come.”
“Really?” Joe says without looking up.
“Yesssss,” Zee whispers, in best campfire story-telling fashion.
Her leg shoots forward and her sneaker makes a loud squeal on the tiles.
Joe erupts to his feet, screaming.
Zee brays laughter.
“Holy f… Quite it, Zee! That ain’t funny!”
“You should see your face! Ha!”
“Quit it! Sol, tell her!”
Sol raises his hands, open-palmed; shrugs.
“Probably enough?” he says to Zee.
She looks around them, at the darkened ward, sensing the looming asylum beyond the door to the hall.
“I guess,” she says, “sorry, Joe.”
Joe stays on his feet for a moment, scanning the room, lingering on the whitewashed windows with something approaching hunger. Finally, he sits down.
“Asshole,” he gripes.
“Yeah, whatever,” Zee gripes right back.
Sol stands, stretches the pins and needles out of his legs, walks to the door, puts his ear against the metal.
“You hear something?” Zee asks, suddenly alert.
Sol turns back.
“Nah,” he says, coming back to them, “and I’m not gonna anyway. Jimmy’s full of shit. I just needed to stretch my legs.”
He leans back on the wall and slides down until he is sitting once more, arms resting on his knees.
Sol stares at the hall door while they await Jimmy’s mythical ghost.
* * *
Zee and Joe sleep on the floor, Sol hears their shallow breathing, fights against the sleep that wants to take him. His head droops towards his chest and jerks it back upright.
Something, he thinks.
He nods again, fights against it.
Far off, deeper in the asylum, a near-human howl of anguish.
All three of them snap awake.
“Did you hear that?” Zee whispers, hissing.
“Right!” Joe jumps to his feet, quickly followed by Zee.
“Shh,” Sol hisses, listening. He remains sitting, motionless, hardly even breathing.
“Was it the ghost?” Zee asks, all bravado evaporated.
They scan the room with their flashlights, scanning erratically.
“Where did it come from?” Joe asks. “Where?”
Sol stands now, once again shaking the pins and needles from his legs.
“It was a cat, that’s all,” he says.
“Really?” Joe asks, full of hope.
“Sure,” Zee agrees, glad to have an explanation, “a cat. Right. A cat.”
Another howl, closer.
“That ain’t no cat!” Zee yells.
“It’s a cat,” Sol shrugs, shaking his head.
“Screw you, man!” Joe shouts
The next howl comes from right on other side of the hallway door.
Zee and Joe train their lights on the door.
“It’s in the hall!” Zee yells.
Now, they hear wet footfalls.
“Screw this!” Joe screams, running towards the windows.
Zee turns to Sol, desperate, pleading.
“Come on, man. Let’s go!”
At the window, Joe flips the locks, pushes to slide the window up. It resists, but fear lends him strength; the window squeals open. Joe dives out onto the grass.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts, Zee,” Sol says calmly.
“Come on,” Joe shouts from the window.
“Nope,” Sol shakes his head, determined, “I’m staying.”
He stares at Zee for a long moment, standing firm against her unspoken pleas.
Beyond the hallway door, a loud shriek.
Zee turns and sprints after Joe, diving through the window in one fluid movement.
Sol crosses the room, looks out the window; Zee and Joe are running full pelt back towards the beach.
Sol smiles as he reaches up and closes the window, latching it tight.
He breathes in once and then turns, his face set and strong.
“OK, pussy-cat,” he says, “let’s see what you’re made of.”
He walks to the door, pulls it open and steps through.
* * *
A short hallway leads to another door, the main entrance vestibule beyond, with it’s grandiose stairway, gold flake now peeling to reveal rotting wooden balustrades.
Leaving the door open behind him, Sol steps into the dark hallway, his gaze following the stabbing beam of his flashlight as it scans wall, ceilings, floor.
“Nothing,” he says.
He breathes deeply, calming himself.
Switches off his flashlight.
He stands in the darkness, eyes adjusting. The moonlight coming through the ward windows is but little reflection here in the dark corridor.
The door slams shut behind him, a massive noise in the silence of the empty building.
Sol breathes out.
Now, the air begins to rush around him, this way and that, and the darkness pulses erratically, all purples and reds. The sound is a storm, buffeting his ears, roaring; in amongst it, he hears the howl, that mix of feline and human screeching.
He hears it approaching, braces himself.
Then it is gone. Silence.
The hallway is still in its darkness.
Sol holds the flashlight under his chin, switches it on.
“Boo!” he exclaims, then bursts into a fit of giggles.
Eventually, he falls quiet. Switches off the flashlight.
“Like I said,” he whispers sarcastically, “nothing.”
It only takes a moment before the wind is raging around him again, knocking him back on his heels. He struggles to hold his ground and the wail assaults him, the ebb and flow of the purples and reds more urgent now, heading towards the stroboscopic.
Then it’s gone again.
“Nothing,” Sol says after a moment, “you’re not even here.”
The response is immediate, and tumultuous. Sol is thrown back against the hallway wall, blood streaming from his nose. His eyes close against the onslaught.
The wind escalates; howling, howling.
And the feline screeching in amongst it, slicing through him, but gradually, gradually resolving to a female voice, first incoherent and then coming into focus, yelling with the rhythm of the pulsing purples and reds.
“Not my baby! Not my baby! Not my baby!”
Sol’s eyes open.
“Got you,” he whispers.
Fighting against the wind, he points the flashlight ahead of him. As he flicks it on, the hallway falls to stillness.
At the edge of the flashlight’s beam, a young woman hugs herself tight. Starvation-skinny; barefoot in ragged, dirty hospital scrubs. Her skin is grimy and, though Sol can’t be sure because of the flashlight’s effect, there may be burnt smudges on either side of her forehead.
While one arm hugs tight and defensive across her chest, the other reaches to toy compulsively with her hair. She stairs at the floor directly in front of her; doesn’t seem to notice Sol at all.
“Not my baby,” she whispers over and again, “not my baby.”
Sol steps away from the wall; alert, watching her closely.
Wipes the blood from his nose with the back of his hand.
“Hello,” he says.
She doesn’t respond; he takes a step forward.
Now, she looks up at him. Tears shimmer on her cheeks. She gives a single convulsive sob, pleading.
Sol stops; looks at her for a moment.
“Why are you still here?” he asks.
The woman hugs herself tight, withdrawing into herself.
“My baby,” she moans.
“Your baby’s gone,” Sol says.
Sol can feel the waves of pain coming off the woman, he loosens himself, faces into their pulse; feels the purples and reds blooming within him.
“For a… a very long time,” he breathes.
The woman begins to moan, low in her chest, growing louder; her fingernails tighten into her arms. She looks up at him and he sees anger rip across her faces, twisting her lips and teeth into a snarl. Her arms uncross and her mouth opens wide, wider than it should be able, and she begins to move toward him; raising up and…
“STOP THAT!” Sol yells at her.
She freezes in her tracks, trapped in the unsympathetic glow of the flashlight’s beam.
“Why. Are. You. Still. Here?” Sol asks, uncompromising.
Now Sol takes a step forward.
“She’s gone! There’s no reality for you in this place!”
The woman stares at Sol, her face a mask behind which rage glowers.
He tastes the icy bitterness; for a moment, he is breathing through her nose, tasting her last meal, burning in her rage.
He takes a step forward.
“She’s here,” he says, patting his chest once, firmly.
The woman stares, but there is a question in her eyes.
Sol nods, pats his chest again.
The woman reciprocates, patting her chest lightly.
“Here?” she says.
Sol hits his chest twice, the thump of it is loud in the hallway.
“Here,” he says, “do you feel her?”
She pats her chest, closes her eyes, lets her hand rest for a moment.
“You feel her?” Sol asks.
“Yes,” the woman is hesitant, “yes… I feel her.”
“Yes?” Sol asks.
“She’s here,” the woman says.
She opens her eyes now, looks at Sol.
“She’s here,” she whispers.
Sol drops the flashlight; opens his arms wide.
“Come on,” he encourages her, “it’s fine.”
The woman rubs her chest above the heart.
“She’s with you now.”
“Yes,” the woman sighs.
“Come on,” Sol says, “it’s time to go.”
He takes a step towards the woman, looks her straight in the eyes; he’s not certain quite what he sees there.
She walks into his arms; calm, settled. As he closes his arms around her, resting his chin on her head, she begins to glow, purples and reds giving way to silvers, golds, whites. Sol closes his eyes.
“It’s all right,” he whispers.
“Yes,” she breathes against his shoulder.
Sol inhales deeply and the light flares, obliterating everything for a moment.
“Thank you,” she whispers.
And is gone from his arms.
Darkness and silence rush into the hallway as Sol slumps to the ground, gasping for air. He curls up on the tile floor unsure of whether he will ever be able to stand again.
He wraps his arms around himself.
“My baby,” he whispers, “my baby…”
Slowly, his hand moves to his chest, where it rests over his heart.
He breathes long and slow for a few moments, then slowly stands. Once upright, he gathers his breath again. Exhausted he steps to the door back into the ward, and the grounds beyond its windows.
He turns the doorknob, pushes the door open and steps into the ward.
* * *
They stand, sit, lie on the ground; some rock compulsively, some stare into space, others giggle at some unheard joke. Some of them even seem to be waiting for him.
These ghost patients, all outfitted in those grubby scrubs; too long unwashed.
“Well, all-righty then,” Sol sighs.
At the sound of his voice they all turn to look at him. And, although some continue their ceaseless rocking, several stand and look at him.
Sol breathes in, readies himself.