It's the dead of night, and all is quiet on the ward. Outside a cold rain is just beginning to spit down from newly grown thunderheads, the sound of it soft and indistinguishable from that of dry leaves skittering across the parking lot pavement. The clocks all hit four in the morning, and a boy asleep jerks into alertness as thunder rumbles and lightning flickers through the multi-barred window above his face.
The boy's name is unimportant, considering he himself is unsure what it is, or is it was? All that is true is he is awake when his medication should help him sleep quietly through the night. All that matters is he feels as if eyes are watching him in the darkness. He has never felt that way before, as if the shadows were alive and oozing up to smother him. Or, at least, he doesn't remember ever feeling that way.
Unlike his bunk mate, the boy is not restrained to his bed, so he is free to escape the ethereal oppression of the blackness by slipping into the bathroom. He chases away the prickling feeling of eyes on his back with a flood of brilliant, hospital-grade florescent light. Breathing a sigh of relief he runs the faucet briefly, splashing water on his nape and face to wash away the fear-sweat. He cups some more of it into his hands, pouring it into his mouth, but instead of swallowing he immediately spits it out.
His palms must have been sweaty because it is otherwise impossible for tap water to taste so salty. He pulls open the medicine cabinet to find a cup, but instead catches himself staring at his shaving razor. Deep in the back of his mind he knows he has never been one to harm anyone, let alone himself, but something else in him wonders what it would feel like.
Like a marionette with invisible strings the boy watches himself reach out and grip the disposable, generic razor and glide its single blade over the hairs on his arm.
“Do it,” a voice rasps from the dark room beyond the light of the doorway. “You need to do it.”
Lightning flickers through the window, and he can see his co-boarder straining against the bed straps, the muscles in the young man's neck standing out like iron rods. A wild giggle spills from the bound man's throat as darkness envelopes him. Terror grips the boy's heart as he realizes the light of the bathroom is no longer working, and he flees from the darkness as if the shadows or his room mate were capable of pursuing him. He is out the door and down the corridor with frantic pumps of his slim legs, searching for security or an orderly. Anything to quell the fear.
The whole floor seems deserted. Silence fills the space between the walls; silence so great the sound of his bare feet slapping the linoleum reverberates. It feels like he's in the back of a car with the windows rolled down, making the air thud in his ears. Blood pounds in his temples, turning his head into one giant, pulsating ache. He pushes his way through the swinging door of the dining hall so fast the plastic portal cracks against the cinder block wall, the noise of it makes his eardrums feel like they're rupturing.
Though his breath rasps loudly in his throat, he finds that he is oddly no longer afraid. Instead, he is excited; his stomach flutters the same way it might if he were staring down from the first peak of a roller-coaster a second before the drop. The hair on the back of his neck prickles and bristles as he trots around the metal divider of the serving line and into the kitchen beyond. The shadows are everywhere, watching, waiting, and even as he grabs a plastic knife from an open box on the counter he realizes that he could never be out of their sight.
Another swinging door cracks against the wall as he passes through it into the library. He pauses as fear again flutters around his belly like a swarming hive. The library is on the opposite end of the building from the kitchen. He has lost a serious chunk of time. His head is pounding now, a driving beat caused by blood shooting through his cerebellum with wrecking-ball force. It's not really a headache anymore – more like a migraine – and for the barest moment he is glad of the silence as he plops into his favorite leather armchair. It feels like his brain is trying to escape his skull.
Tapping the synthetic utensil against the arm of the chair, the boy stares around at the looming bookcases full of old, familiar friends in their square leather jackets. Curious, he runs the knife against the leather by his left arm, catching it in a slit in the faux cowhide barely the size of his thumbnail. Leaning on his arm, he fiddles with the cut, widening it until he can poke about at the foam padding within. Fascinated, he almost wishes he had turned on a light so he could see if the foam inside is yellow or white or some other shade. The passage of time escapes him as he shifts and digs deeper into the rip, lengthening and deepening it.
Something wet starts to drip onto the floor. Has he cut through a bug, he wonders, or found some secret gel that added comfort to the chair's design? Slicing deeper he starts to feel pressure on his arm and squints in the murky lighting as he moves again in his seat. Another cut, and pins and needles start crawling up his arm, and he can feel warmth trickling down his wrist. Pain and panic follows, and he rushes back out into the hall, the knife snapping against the door frame as he takes off in search of the nurses' station.
Crimson drips, hot and wet, spatter the ground behind him as he sprints down corridor after corridor. Where is everyone? God his head is killing him!
Fumbling through the gloomy, identical passageways, he slams head-and-shoulders first into the fence that surrounds the staircase landing outside the vestibule off the recreation room. Staring up at the shuddering chain link surrounding the stairwell that leads down to the blacktopped exercise area, he realizes that he has lost yet another significantly sized block of time. Panting and wide-eyed, he stares down the steps as sweeping rain soaks him and ripples in the huge puddle that always appears in the courtyard when it pours.
He licks his lips and tastes salty sweat mixed with cool water. Lightning turns the shadows of the basketball hoops and the outer fence topped with barbed wire and overgrown ivy into sharp, twisted shapes. The radiance turns the undulating surface of the puddle, now more a miniature lake, as bright as the noon sun. It burns an afterimage into his retinas of a laughing mouth full of shark's teeth.
Maybe it's the blood-loss, or the after effects of his sleeping medications, or maybe he really is crazier than he believes, but he can swear the shadows are dancing like wild things. Under his frantic onslaught, the safety gate pops open. A zephyr rips it open completely with hurricane force, smashing it against the fence with a sound like glass fracturing. He trips over his own feet as he tries to escape further, and though the concrete steps are slick with rainwater he doesn't slide down them. It feels rather more like murky hands pass him down to the waiting ground below.
Now here he stands, plasma pounding through his ears, head throbbing, and his arm drooling scarlet into the shivering rain-made pool. Around his quaking body the wind whips and wails like a dying, desperate soul. The rumbling, snarling thunder shakes the ground like a sinister brute stalking the manicured grounds. Icy rain slices down from the sky like millions of glass shards. Bolts of lightning twist and churn from dark thunderhead to dark thunderhead like electric liquid, reflecting his hollow-cheeked countenance in the pool he leans over.
His blood sullies the clear water like henna ink, and he reaches out a finger to trace the pattern of it as it swirls. His heart stops as his finger meets resistance. It begins beating again at double-time, nearly leaping out of his chest as something grips his hand and sinks blade-like claws into the skin of his wrist. The fluid in his veins feels like liquid nitrogen as horror chokes him.
Rearing up to scream fruitlessly for help, the lightning reveals a man standing near the farthest basketball hoop. A multi-pocketed and -patched coat, soaked through, rests heavily over his shoulders. Another flash of light shows a weathered, lined face the color of wet terracotta contorted with sorrow.
More sharp knives pierce his skin, and a weight tugs harshly at his arm, so he tears his eyes from the man and casts them back to the water. A screech of shrill, pure horror bursts from his throat. There's a woman sinking claw-like nails into his arm, using him to climb her way out of the puddle. Her skin is as white as paper, and smooth as porcelain, and it is stretched over her skull as though she possesses no muscles at all. His blood slithers down her iridescent hide in rivulets, slipping over her like oil in a nonstick pan.
Bright red lips form into a smile, turning her skull-like rictus almost as beautiful as it is diabolic. The boy's bones feel frozen straight through the marrow as the exquisite pain continues until half of her skeletally thin torso has risen out of the ankle-deep puddle. With sudden inhuman force her hand pushes into his sliced arm, and it feels like she's trying to wear his skin like a glove.
He screams his throat raw as he feels the limb underneath his flesh lengthen and elongate, turning into a tendril that worms its way deep into the cavity of his torso. He cries and shoves fruitlessly at the sinewy bicep above the elbow protruding from under his skin. There's a lover-like caress over every part of his viscera, and he messes himself and gags and chokes and screeches as it twists and churns searchingly within him.
As his hummingbird heart reaches critical speed, her taloned tentacle crushes it as easily as anyone might crumple a bit of paper. His final shriek cuts off abruptly as he convulses once and his body goes limp. He is even more insignificant now than ever.
Her body rises further from the water, or perhaps the whole world accommodates her by lowering itself, until she stands at a full height almost eight feet from bare foot to bare head. Long, dark hair is matted in wet tangles and tiny braids to her pallid cheeks and pointed shoulders. A tattered robe hangs off her emaciated frame, the fabric as viscous as liquid, and a fist-sized opal glitters in its setting at her throat.
The boy, life extinguished, sags in her savage hands like a broken puppet. She turns with him, his feet dangling nearly three feet above the ground – or does the world perhaps turn around her – until the sad-faced man is in sight of her warmly glowing, lava-like eyes. The fond smile she gifts him with might, to another man, be petrifying. She steps forward, and the world makes a nausea-inducing leap to bring the puddle at the base of the hoop before her thin, bare feet.
She says something that, though garbled with wind and rain and silence, might have been something similar to the word 'husband' in a language even time as forgotten. He answers in the same tongue with a word that might, in another place and age and maybe even dimension, be similar to the word 'wife'. Each tips their head to the other, the force of a full bow behind the simple movement.
Visage satisfied, the freakish beauty steps forward, or the world steps back, and she drops like a stone into the water, as if the inch-deep puddle were a bottomless well. It happens with such a jerky speed the heap of flesh still in her grip crashes head first into the pavement, splintering open as only bone can, and splatters gray-pink mush out over the blacktop. His pants from knee to ankle, to say nothing of his shoes, are splotched with the gore.
He frowns at the mess as an orb slowly rolls out of the empty skull and comes to rest beneath the toe of his boot. Void-dark, the sphere seems to be revolving slowly even when at rest, and inside it reflects the galactic twinkles of a shimmering nebula. He scoops it up carefully, checking for cracks only he can see, and he has to peel a capillary off the surface of it before he is satisfied it is unharmed.
It fits in his palm as if intended for it. Cradling his prize against his belly, the man looks down at the twisted corpse splayed on the ground. “I'm sorry,” he rasps sincerely to the disarray of sinew and plasma at his feet. With a soundless sigh he turns, slipping the orb into one of his many pockets. He is gone, vanished from the world, in the space between one thought and the next.
No one knows what to make of the dead young man the nursing supervisor finds in the courtyard the next morning. The police have no inkling of who he is, and the staff of the institution can find no record of him in any of their databases. No one names him, no one claims him, and no amount of modern science can explain his cause of death. The best scientists and investigators in the world bend their will to cracking the mystery left behind, but not one of them can even come close to solving it.
What puzzles them most, though; what causes the most trouble? It's not the mode of his death, or how he got into the hospital in the first place. It isn't his name or where he comes from, or how he got from there to here. What puzzles most is how he died laying in a puddle of salt water, over thousands of miles from the nearest sea.