It had been happening for about eighty years, but no one wanted to talk about it. All that could be found out about it was little more than gossip and urban legend.
All the stories spoke of young men who were visiting someone in the hospital. Then, they were gone, vanishing without a living soul seeing them…until their dead bodies were found.
The bodies were always found in the same room, an out-of-the-way little room in the oldest part of the hospital. Once, it and the rooms surrounding it had been a sanitarium for TB and cancer patients. That corner of the building had been selected precisely because it kept those patients out of sight, and their disease separated from the rest of the patients.
How the men got to the room no one knew. They were always found in the same spot, lying either in the bed, or after the room was quietly abandoned, on the floor where it had once stood. There was never a sign that the men had been forced into the room, no drag marks or scuffed show prints. No, it seemed they had walked into the room of their own free will.
What they found there, no one knew, but their twisted faces spoke of the sort of terror that might be felt by the condemned as they enter hell itself.
Then the first security cameras were installed, and the strange tale became positively unworldly. At first, it was grainy images of a shadowy figure walking with the men. Later, as the cameras and their recording technology improved, the images became sharper, showing the form of a beautiful young woman walking with the men. Always the men smiled as they engaged in their silent conversations with the figure, for she was clearly not human. Objects, even people, could be seen through her. How other people could walk past the odd couple without noting them no one ever understood, but it happened many times on the recordings.
In every case, the hospital came up with a convincing story for how these men came to die. Sudden heart failure was an early favorite. Later, it became drugs. But no matter what explanation the hospital put forth, and despite their efforts to keep employees silent about the strange deaths, word got out. Families complained, even after they were silenced in court. Employees, no matter the non-disclosure agreements they might sign, still talked. In modern times, that chatter made its ways onto the Internet, to conspiracy theory sites where it was offered as ‘proof’ of secret government programs to control the human mind. Or as evidence of a secret alien holding facility buried somewhere in the oldest section of the hospital for security purposes.
The theories were as mad as the people who believed them, but I didn’t care. The more I researched, the surer I was that some spirit, some evil presence, was causing the deaths. And with the conviction, I knew I must go to Carswell’s Corner General Hospital. I needed to find the truth of what was going on, and more importantly, to put an end to the deaths.
But what in that hospital could be stranger than me? An undead young man, a spirit trapped on the earthly plane by his regrets at not having lived the life he’d hoped for. I had killed the spirit that had ended my life, but that had not released me. With an existence that seemed likely to be unending, I had decided to give myself a purpose, to try to spare others my fate. What an outside observer might have found almost laughable was me riding a Greyhound bus across the frozen Iowa countryside. But hey, even the undead can panhandle, and bus ticket is easier to afford than a car. Besides, how would I explain my lack of a drivers license to a cop if I got stopped? Somehow, ‘Sorry, officer, but they took my license when I died.’ didn’t sound like an excuse a cop would buy.
Carswell’s Corner was a podunk place in the middle of nowhere, too big to be a village, and too small to be a real city. It didn’t even have a taxi service, forcing me to schlep down often-unshoveled sidewalks through neighborhoods of ticky-tacky houses to reach the hospital. Being undead had one advantage: while the locals huddled inside, struggling to keep warm in the near-zero temperatures, I walked without feeling discomfort in a light coat and tennies.
That appearance was my ‘in’ when I arrived at the hospital. After I offered the excuse of needing a place to warm up, I was allowed to ‘warm up’ in one of the waiting rooms. That I would never warm up again, the helpful nurses could never understand, but I thanked them and took advantage of the opportunity to begin stalking my prey.
An fruitless hour in one waiting room, then I moved to another…and another. My left-over pocket change bought a can of soda. It wasn’t that I needed to drink it, but the familiar experience of sipping it was oddly calming. I could see outside from my most recent perch. The Sun had disappeared from the sky, and the sky was taking on that inky dark appearance you only saw away from big city lights.
That was when I saw her. I had no sense that she had walked into the room, no, it was as if she had appeared out of nowhere. She looked young, hardly more than a teenager, and she wore a loose white dress that hid the shape of her body. Her face was thin, with the emaciated appearance of someone who hadn’t eaten in a very long time, but it was still strikingly beautiful. A perfect oval, framed by a flow of blond hair so light it might almost have been white. Her full red lips stood in stark contrast to gauntness of the rest of her face.
It was her eyes that gave her away. They didn’t to fix on me, they looked through me. Even as she approached my seat, her eyes never met mine.
“You look lonely…would you like some company?”
The feeling that voice brought into even to my dead heart was amazing. I wanted nothing more than to be with this woman. I motioned to the seat next to me, and when she sat down in it, I felt happier than I had ever felt in my life.
“Are you waiting for someone, or are you here to see someone?”
The question broke the voices spell, reminding me of why I was here. “Both actually. I’m waiting for the chance to visit someone. What about you? What brings a beautiful women like you to the hospital? Hopefully nothing serious.”
Her smile was warm and bright, almost enough to make me forget she might be a murderous spirit that had haunted this building for decades. “Oh, I’m a patient here…but I won’t be for long. They’re just keeping me for observation. My sister should be here soon to pick me up.”
I smile at her, doing my best to appear charmed but wondering what part of her story is true, and what part is just to get me to go with her. “Well, I hope your sister arrives soon. I bet she’s just as good looking as you are.”
The smile disappeared, replaced by a serious frown. “As a matter of fact, my sister looks just like me, we’re twins.” Then the smile came back, slier now, almost teasing as her eyes scan me up and down. “Don’t you find it awful chilly here? I do. I’m going back to my room where it’s warm. Do you want to join me?” She leaned close, her mouth near my ear, but there was none of the warmth of a human in her presence. “Maybe we could…warm up together? Would you like that?”
She rises, as do I. I follow her out of the room and down a hall that will take us towards the old part of the hospital.
“I’m glad you wanted to join me, it can be so lonely here.”
I wonder if this is how she entices her victims to their deaths. Did she appear to them as a lonely wanton, willingly offering herself to them to draw them to their doom? I know she expects me to talk to her, so I ask her the question I want the answer to the most. “How long have you been in hospital? Were you sick, or were you injured?”
Her glance at me is sudden and sharp, as if she wonders why I would ask such a question. Then she gives me another sly smile. “You ask a lot of questions, don’t you? I’ve been here a while, but I won’t be here much longer. They’re going to let me out soon.”
So she knows to be wary, to not give away too many details. But is she cautious enough to keep secret the information I need? “Sorry if I pried. Would it be impertinent of me to ask the name of a beautiful woman like you?”
Her smile is sweet, she doesn’t know why I ask. “Alice is my name, Alice Preston. My family has been in Carswell’s Corner since it was founded. Father is on the board that runs this hospital, it’s why I have a lovely room to myself. Come, let’s get there so we can…warm up.”
Alice picks up her pace, threading the confusing maze of corridors with the surety of someone who’s walked them many times. I follow her into the oldest section, down a dimly-lite hall lined with empty rooms. Or so they seem at first. As we progress, I hear coughing and moans, like the people who had died in these rooms still remained in them. Or was I just reliving her memories of this space as we came closer to the room I was now sure she had died in? She stops at a doorway, hands behind her back and her hips swaying slightly. Does she think the display will further spur my desire for her? Another beguiling smile, her most beautiful feature, and she stretches a hand towards the door.
“Here’s my room, let’s go in before someone sees me sneaking you in.”
I enter, and my eyes behold two scenes. The reality of the room is a small, dark box with a sliver of a window giving the only illumination. The walls are covered in peeling paint and the floor looks as if it hasn’t been cleaned in weeks. But as I see this, I see the room as she knew it. In that ghostly image, the window is the same, but the walls are brightly painted and small paintings hang everywhere. A hospital bed of antique design stands facing the window. I pull out my cell and type her name into the web browser while beside me, she whispers.
“Come, let’s get in bed together so we can warm up. You want to do that, don’t you? You don’t want to play with that silly little thing when you have the chance to play with me, would you?”
The browser comes back with a long list of names, so I narrow the search by adding the town name. A shorter list comes back, topped with a link to the local newspapers web site. The link takes me to an old obituary, and I begin to read it out loud.
“Alice Jean Preston died April 14, 1925 of tuberculosis at Carswell’s Corner General Hospital. She is survived by her twin sister Anna Jane Preston, her father…”
“No! I’m not dead! It’s not true, it isn’t! My sister, she promised she’d come get me out…she promised…” The face before me is a shell, skin stretched tight across the skull beneath, the full lips like two thin, pale lines. The hair that had once been a flowing mane is now thin, and the hands that she cradles her cheeks with are more like jointed bones than a living person’s hands. She stares at me, her eyes fill with hatred. “Why would you say such a hateful thing? Why did she promise to come for me and never do it? Why would she steal the only man I ever loved? Why are men so unfaithful, why?” Bony hands frame my face and the hatred in her eyes seems to become a living flame, intent on burning her anger into my soul.
So this is how Alice kills her victims, by letting her anger out, by scaring them to death.
But I am dead already, and after staring into my eyes for a long moment, the malice in Alice’s eyes fades, replaced by bewilderment.
“Why aren’t you dead? All the other men, all those cheating, unfaithful…creatures, every one of them died, as they should. Why aren’t you dead?”
“The dead can’t die again, Alice. I was killed by a vengeful spirit, but I came back to make sure no one else had to suffer my fate. You died here, thinking you had been abandoned by your family. They didn’t abandon you, they were just scared of catching the disease you had.” I look at the screen of my phone and follow the second link my browser had supplied. “On July 23, 1927, Thomas Loweden Preston dedicated the new sanitarium at Carswell’s Corner General Hospital. Named in honor of the daughter he tragically lost to the disease, the Alice Preston Memorial Tuberculosis Clinic is intended to treat patients suffering from the deadly malady…”
I stop speaking as Alice buries her face in her now ghostly hands. Then her face rises, filled with anger again. “But Johnathan…he should never have married Anna, and she should never have tempted him away from me. She wrote me, she told me about their courtship, about their wedding night, about the thing she had taken from me, the only thing I ever wanted.”
“But Alice, how are you punishing either of them by killing young men who’ve done nothing to you. How is tempting them here and killing them justice? Your sister was cruel to you, but was your Johnathan wrong to fall in love with your sister? Would you rather he married you and died of your disease? Is that what you think justice is? Give up your anger, let go of your hatred..or I’ll have to kill you myself.”
“You say I can’t kill you because you’re dead, so how do you think you can kill me?”
She started to laugh, but the sound died in her throat as my fingers wrapped around her throat. Alice’s eyes bulged as her finger tried to move my wrist. She couldn’t, and after a brief struggle, she subsided.
“Alice, I was killed, so I don’t want to kill you or anyone else. Accept your death. Let go of your anger, your obsession with what you wanted, and leave.”
Alice’s form becomes more transparent, and I feel my grip on her become more tentative, less like grasping flesh and more like holding a balloon. Her mouth opens, and like a whisper out of a vast empty room, I hear her ask her final question.
“Will I be free at last?”
“You were always free, Alice. The only thing that held you here was you.”
Alice’s smile is the last thing I, or anyone else, see of her. I wonder what will happen to her next. Will she see heaven? Did hell await her for all the young men she has killed? Or will she have what I hope for some day, the peace of oblivion?
I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. I make my way towards the main part of the hospital and the exit looking at my phone. There are other stories to investigate, and more spirits that are tormenting the living. They are my business in this world now, and my next task awaits me.