60 Years Previously
The only thing that mattered was his survival.
Dark hallways resonated with the sounds of suffering. Doors slammed in the abyss, footsteps boomed off the walls, and tortured moans echoed the pain of their lives. Never before had he heard them this clearly or in such numbers; never had he heard them so angry.
Palming off a cold wall, Professor Bukoski rushed forward. He moved through the corridor by memory alone; in the ground-floor hallway, near the tower in the building’s southern wing. This passage would lead to the rear exit, and a short sprint would get him to the water’s edge. A small row boat was moored to the jetty, its oars stashed under the solitary seat. If he could make it there, perhaps he would escape this nightmare. The waters around the isle were treacherous, but this place had become much more dangerous and he’d take his chances with nature.
He didn’t know the fate of his staff, and nor did he care. They were grown men and women, they could look after themselves. For his surviving patients he cared even less—nothing more than the focus of his experiments, he’d never bothered to learn their names. They were numbers on a chart, scribbles in his diary, the insignificant who were here for his amusement and study. His heartless attitude led to where he now found himself: running for his life, pursued by the torment and horror of a world he’d created.
Ahead, a dim light beckoned, hovering at the far end of a corridor he suspected could stretch for miles. That tiny point of luminescence served to quicken his pace. It had to be the exit bulb above the building’s southern entrance, and his heart pumped with hope. None of the patients had access to this area and the door remained unlocked. With the island completely isolated he never worried about break-ins, and escape was futile for the mentally unstable inmates.
A shadow, cast down by the exit sign, fluttered over the wall. At first he thought it was one of his staff: a nurse, perhaps, sneaking outside for an illicit cigarette. The silhouette faded but another replaced it, and more followed. Sounds came to him, mirroring the clamour pushing at his back: shuffling footfalls of the broken and a cacophony of anguished groans. Shadows from the horde ahead of him twisted in a macabre dance over the walls, but they didn’t reveal themselves. They blocked his escape route. Stabbing terror burned thick in his gut. Professor Bukoski glanced over his shoulder, down the hall from where he’d come, eyes searching the deep pool of darkness behind him. He failed to see them, but the sounds of their frantic approach told him they were there.
They closed in on both sides, trapping him.
“Nie!” he exclaimed in his native Polish.
Unable to leave the building and get to the boat, he changed direction and hurried to the tower’s stairwell that climbed to a viewing balcony four floors above. He pushed through the door, complete darkness in the shaft dispersed by emergency lighting on the walls. Incapable of barring the entrance shut, Professor Bukoski surged ahead, taking the steps two at a time. The short climb up the first flight of stairs exhausted him, sapping the strength from muscles already threatening to seize with fear. He’d had it easy these last few years, secluded and far from the mainland. With the exception of lazy walks in the island’s expansive gardens he’d never partaken in much exercise. He only rested a moment, and then creaking hinges in the gloom below forced him to continue upward.
Two doors greeted him on the first-floor landing but he refused to enter either of them. Nothing lay beyond, only the empty beds of the forgotten where not even their tortured memories bothered to visit. There was no escape that way—and none below, either.
The wretched keening of damned souls billowed up the stairwell like rising clouds of thermal air. He wished for a flashlight, if only to briefly examine the steps below to determine how many pursued him, but knew he’d see nothing. Foolish to dally, a panicked breath wheezed from his lips as he turned from the doors and clambered up the next flight of stairs. Were they corralling him, forcing him to take this route? The thought they might be driving him to where they wanted him almost made his bladder release its contents.
He dreaded what they’d do if they caught him.
Stumbling onto the next landing, he hurried towards the only window built into the tower’s staircase. He pressed his face against the chilled glass and gazed over an unkempt lawn. The grounds sloped to the island’s stony shore, the old wooden pier resembling the belly of a dead whale protruding from the sea. Through night’s gloom he watched white stripes of surf breaking upon the rocks. He couldn’t see the boat from this distance but held fast to the hope that it remained where he’d last seen it. Jumping from this height might break a leg—or both—but if he leaped far enough from the wall he might get lucky and land in one of the bushes flanking the gravel path. To his knowledge the window hadn’t been opened in years but he reached for the handle regardless.
A shadow flickered in the night, passing by the glass. Professor Bukoski drew in a sharp breath, his hand almost touching the frame’s cold handle. Fingernails tapped on the windowpane, scratching over the smooth surface, demanding to be let in.
Dear Lord, they’re outside the walls too!
With his disbelieving stare fixed to the darkness beyond the windowpane, he backed away until his heels caught on the stairs. Losing balance he reached out to steady himself on the wall, almost collapsing in the process. Turning, he lurched up the steps, tears staining his cheeks, face flushed crimson with a combination of effort and fear. His suit jacket slipped from his shoulders, hindering his movement, and he shrugged it off, leaving it to litter the stairwell. As he scrambled higher, he glanced back at deep shadows coiling through the stairwell’s soft emergency lighting. Unseen hands yanked the jacket from the steps and into darkness.
Professor Bukoski whimpered.
The south wing’s third floor had been abandoned almost a decade ago when the last of his patients stored there succumbed to their disease. He’d ordered both doors locked and boarded shut when there were no more subjects to replace those he’d lost. One of the doors shook in its frame as he hauled himself onto the landing.
Are they here too?
Trapped in the ward?
Can they smell me?
Lungs burning, he pushed on up the final flight of stairs, the door behind him rattling with increased intensity.
For so long he’d convinced himself the apparitions were all in his mind, manifested by a guilt he never thought he’d owned. That the voices in night’s darkness were the echoes of nightmares he’d forgotten he had. He’d rationalized the skulking shapes in his peripheral vision were nothing more than fractured light fighting against an approaching storm. He’d ignored it all, had failed to see their wrath escalating from the building’s despair. Not once had he paid them notice as they watched, waiting for their opportunity.
Scrambling into the tower’s main observation room, he staggered across the short space towards the solitary door. Lights on the mainland sparkled in the distance, points in the thick abyss of night taunting him with sanctuary. He pushed at the door and it swung outwards with force, slamming into the tower’s external wall. The chill air seized him, sucked the breath from his lungs. The moisture of storms past made the balcony tiles slick and treacherous, and for a horrifying moment he thought he’d slip under the railing and plummet to the ground. He grabbed the handle and swung the door back into its frame, hoping it would be enough.
Would it hold them?
Could they walk right through it?
Turning from the windows he peered over the balcony’s metal railing. He’d never suffered from vertigo, had been on this platform many times over the years, and when the weather had allowed he’d marvelled at the view out across the ocean. But tonight it seemed so high, the lawn so far below, the depth of night utterly cavernous and unforgiving. Professor Bukoski identified the gravel path following the building’s perimeter, and managed to locate the thin trail that would eventually emerge close to the wooden jetty. Moonlight found a way through the clouds and, for a moment at least, he saw the row boat, faint against the black mass of rippling surf. Yet he could see no way to scale down the tower’s brick wall to reach it.
He smacked his palms against the cold railing and cursed.
Perhaps he could circle around the terrace, find a spot near the roof belonging to the main building and drop down. A fall from this height might lead to injury; a twisted ankle at best, possibly a broken leg, with the distinct possibility his momentum would skip him off the roof tiles and over the guttering. Even if his descent were slowed by intervening objects, a drop from the building’s roof would most likely kill him. Yet what other options did he have from here on the tower at the highest point on the island? Whirling from the view he glanced into the observation area. Nothing moved—a sullen peace had settled over the island, disturbed only briefly by bushes dancing with the wind below. Perhaps they’d halted their chase and turned their attention onto his unfortunate staff who were—in his opinion—as much to blame for their plight as he.
Staring at the door, he considered that maybe he could creep back down the steps and make a quiet escape through the southern lawn.
The door rattled on its hinges. Professor Bukoski lunged forward, intent on holding it closed if he had to. Inside the room the glass crackled and fizzed, windows clouding into an ashen hue of interwoven crystals. Deep grooves scratched through the ice as unseen fingers clawed at the glass. And something else: a spectral mass pressing against the window. Hollow eyes cast a baleful stare from a skeletal face. A rotten jaw yawned wide, and even through the barrier he heard its hungry wail. With a squeal of terror he backed away from the door, his progress only halted when his hips connected with the safety railing.
The balcony’s metal balustrade shook violently—not through his contact or any structural malfunction, but because the others were climbing over it.
Hands slammed into his back, propelling him forward. Professor Bukoski spun, swinging a fist blindly to connect with cold air. As if the night had retaliated, hands smacked him again, full in the chest, and he staggered backwards. In a panic, he grasped the railing, shredding his palm on slivers of rust. Someone—no, something—grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked him backwards, punctuating the effort with a hiss. This time his bladder released, only he barely felt the discomfort.
He went down, his dress shoes slipping out from under him as multiple entities swarmed over him. His shirt ripped; invisible nails and teeth tearing into his skin, streaking his flesh red with blood. An unseen boot smashed into his groin, causing sickness to well in his stomach.
The wind roared louder, in chorus with the howls of his attackers.
His gut lurched at the sensation of being lifted. Clothing twisted and bulged as invisible hands hauled him upwards, raising him like an offering to the cold night. The metal railing clipped his back as they passed him over it, out into thin air.
He screamed in Polish and begged forgiveness in English, but even he knew that mercy would not be granted by the dead.
For the shortest of moments he hung suspended, like the subject of some macabre magic trick. Night’s dense chill wrapped him, its breeze licking ice cold into his wounds. Then they released him.
Tumbling forward, arms and legs flailing, he stared at the tower’s empty balcony as he dropped like a stone. And his only thought was what would happen to all his years of research. Professor Bukoski almost mistook the whistling wind for the laughter of their justice.
He screamed his final breath before gravity slammed him into the earth.