"During the dead of winter, when I was just
nine years old, my mother took me to
Saint Benedict's Community Hospital, just outside of Evanston, Illinois. My grandfather Arthur had smoked his entire adult life and had been battling lung cancer for over a year. On top of that, he suffered a stroke which paralyzed his left side. His doctors told my mother he only had a short time left. She wanted me to say goodbye to the gentle, and kind man I'd always loved and admired.
"Saint Benedict's had been around for decades, maybe the oldest hospital in Illinois. Everything about it appeared dark, bare, and lifeless. We hurried through what seemed like an endless maze of lobbies and corridors. Even at my young age, it occurred to me that perhaps Grandpa had been banished to the remotest part of the hospital as if, for some reason, the staff wanted to keep him hidden.
"My mother ushered me to Grandpa's room, but to my surprise, she wouldn't go inside. I couldn't understand her actions at the time, but later on I realized if she had cried in front of me, it would have made a difficult situation even worse. 'Don't be frightened, Andy,' she advised me. 'Just be cheerful and try not to get upset. You can visit your grandpa for as long as you like. I'll be waiting for you right here in the hallway.'
"As I inched into the room, I felt frightened and abandoned, and I didn't know what to expect. There were two beds, but the one nearest the window was empty and had been stripped to the mattress. The air reeked of bleach, antiseptic, and what I can only describe as the scent of death. The steady drone of a respirator resonated throughout the room. A heart monitor beeped apathetically. Two green, oxygen tanks stood in a corner like a pair of sentries. A metal bed pan and a plastic urinal lay half-hidden under the bed.
"I hadn't seen Grandpa Art for at least a month. He'd looked healthy enough back then, but as I approached, I barely recognized him. He'd lost the majority of his hair and his face had shriveled into a skull-like mask. His chest and arms had deteriorated into skin and bones. His eyes were closed, and at first I thought maybe he'd died and the staff hadn't discovered him yet. 'Grandpa, ' I whispered. My voice sounded weak and, I have to admit, pretty scared. 'Are ya sleeping, Grandpa?' He moaned, blinked, and his pale blue eyes shot open. I'd never seen him look so confused and anxious. He watched me as I inched closer. There was no recognition in his eyes, just a bewildered expression and, perhaps, some pain, too.
"Before I could say anything else, he peered toward the far corner of the room. His anxiety and confusion escalated into what appeared to be a deep-seated fear. Struggling to sit up, he uttered some grunts and groans that barely sounded human.
"I looked to the area he'd been staring at. The window drapes had been drawn. Dingy towels were neatly stacked on a green cloth chair. But that was it. There was nothing else in the room with us.
"I shrugged my shoulders and turned back to my grandfather. I'll never forget his terrified reaction. I could have sworn he was about to drop dead, right then and there. He lifted his arm and pointed at the same corner. I cleared my throat and murmured, 'I don't see anything, Grandpa.'
"He picked up a pencil and a pad of paper. I leaned forward and watched as he struggled for what seemed like forever, scribbling. When he finished he handed me the pad. His hands were trembling, and I realized this simple task had drained him completely. He'd jotted down just one word, a name or a term, I had no idea which . . . but in time it would become something I would fear and dread.
"That was all he had written on the paper.
"I don't know how Grandpa managed to survive for full three days after that. I later realized he must have lived those final hours in constant fear. After we left the hospital, I told my mother what Grandpa had written. She explained that ever since he'd started taking pain medications, he'd been seeing all kinds of bizarre things. 'It was only his imagination,' she assured me. 'As you already know, Andy, there are no such things as gargoyles.' Even though the experience gave me a variety of nightmares, after a month or so, I came to accept my mother's explanation.
"My life went on and somehow I forgot the incident . . . or at least, that's what I thought. I attended Catholic high school, graduated from college and, eventually, embarked on a long and successful career in law. By my late twenties I was working for the Cook County Public Defenders' Office. There were times, I have to admit, that I felt uncomfortable defending clients who were sometimes guilty of horrendous crimes. Deep inside I couldn't help but feel empathy for their victims. But it was my chosen career and I had taken an oath, so I defended my clients—guilty or not—to the best of my abilities.
"By that time I had married my college sweetheart, Shelia, and we were raising two wonderful children, Denise and Andy, Jr. For my thirty-fifth birthday, Shelia surprised me with an awesome Harley XR-750 motorcycle.
"One night, about three years later, I drove my bike home from a friend's bachelor party. By the time I reached Villa Park, it was late and the streets were slick and deserted. I was almost home when something ran across the street in front of me. I hit the brake, swerved, and crashed into the back of a parked car. I flew over the vehicle and landed on the sidewalk. I lost consciousness, but probably not for long. If I hadn't been wearing a helmet, I'm sure I would have been killed instantly.
"When I tried standing, a bolt of pain knocked me back down. That's when I discovered my shattered left ankle. It was a struggle, but when I raised my pants leg, I found lots of blood and exposed bone. I felt trapped and didn't know what to do. When I checked my jacket for my cell phone, I realized I'd lost it during the accident.
"I don't know how I did it, but somehow I managed not to lose consciousness again. I clutched my ankle, cried for help, and gazed through the bare trees at the moon. That's when I spotted something perched in the branches that I couldn't make out. It was much too large to be an owl or a hawk. At first it just sat motionless, halfway up the tree. I couldn't see its eyes, but I knew it was watching me. Whatever it was, it looked sinister, reptilian, and most of all . . . predatorial.
"The last time I had seen my grandfather suddenly returned to me. When I inched backward, the creature advanced into the moonlight . . . like it was stalking me. I don't know what else to call it, but it had to be a gargoyle, a beast that, of course, wasn't supposed to exist.
“I had always thought they were just some fairy tale dreamed up by a bunch of religious fanatics during the Dark Ages. I'd seen drawings of gargoyles in books years ago and I couldn't deny the resemblance. The creature appeared to be roughly two feet tall. Its body looked emaciated, and I could make out its boney ribcage and arms. It also had pointed ears, leather-like wings, and horns on its brow. Its movements seemed sluggish and deliberate. In spite of the full moon, it was just too dark to see its face.
"Lying on that frozen sidewalk, staring at that creature, I didn't think I could ever tear my eyes away. Maybe it was because of my grandfather's strange reaction. But as I watched, I realized what it wanted . . . or I should say . . . what it had come for. Like I said, I grew up Catholic, and I believe in heaven and hell. I know it sounds crazy, but I felt certain it was waiting for me to die . . . so it could snatch my soul . . . and take it to damnation.
"I don't know how long I lay there, staring at that creature, waiting for it to climb down . . . or since it had wings . . . fly down. My sense of time must have shut off completely. I guess fear does that. Fear and all the pain I was going through. But, after a while, I heard someone rush up from behind, accompanied by a man's husky voice. 'Hey, mister, are you all right?'
"Somehow, I managed to tear my eyes away from the creature and turn around. A bearded man hurried over and knelt by my side. I realized he was a homeless person simply by his clothing. He kept asking me if I was okay and what had happened. But, right about then, I couldn't understand any of his questions. I raised my arm and told him to look into the trees. He searched for some time and finally said, 'I can't see anything, mister. There's nothing there.'
"Again I looked to the spot. An icy breeze stirred the branches. Of course, the creature had vanished, just as it had done with my grandfather.
"The next morning I woke up in a hospital bed. Not Saint Benedict's, but another, newer facility. A nurse, taking my blood pressure, asked me a lot of questions. I can't recall what happened after that, probably because I blacked out.
"The next thing I knew, Shelia stood over me. She was smiling, but I saw the concern in her eyes. It's strange, but I felt no joy in seeing her, because I kept looking for the creature.
"I told her about the accident and what I had seen in the trees. She smiled, nodded, and never said another thing about it. Perhaps it was stupid of me, but I never mentioned the creature again. That's because I know Shelia. She thought all my pain and trauma had brought on a hallucination . . . just as my mother had said about my grandfather.
"I had been admitted to Saint Joseph's hospital, not far from Villa Park. I stayed there for eight days. My ankle had taken a severe beating and the doctors performed two separate surgeries, one to repair the damage and a second to insert a metal rod to support the ankle. "After my discharge, I sold the Harley. Riding it just wasn't worth the risk. And I never saw the homeless man again. I wish I had because I wanted to thank him. If he hadn't come along, I don't know what would have happened.
"My life went on and I tried to put the incident behind me. Twenty-three years have gone by, and during that time, I left the Public Defenders' Office. I wanted to do something positive for the community and was accepted as an assistant district attorney. Denise and Andy Jr. grew up and moved away. Denise married about ten years ago. A year later, Sheila and I became grandparents. My senior years crept closer. Unfortunately, so did my own mortality. In my mind, it's more than a matter of death staring me in the face. I often think about my grandfather and what he wrote on that paper. Most of all, I keep remembering what I saw in the trees that night so many years before.
"A month ago I had another surgery on my ankle. It was something I had put off for years. My old injury never fully healed. At first the pain would come on after I'd been standing or walking too long. I had always limped since the accident, but after ten years, I had to use a cane. But still the pain kept increasing. I would be sitting or sleeping and when I moved my ankle the wrong way, it felt like a bolt of lightning shooting through me. I missed time at work and had to take stronger pain killers. My doctor insisted on another surgery to remove the rod and reset my ankle. But I kept refusing. I didn't want to take any chances, even though the surgery was, for the most part, considered minor. I wasn't about to put my life on the line. No matter what the chances, I did not want to see that creature again.
"After years of dealing with pain and missing work, I couldn't put the surgery off any longer. It was either go under the knife or lose my ability to walk. I was told I'd be in a wheelchair for three weeks and then I'd have to use a walker and crutches for three more weeks. Plus I'd have to undergo two months of physical therapy, depending on how extensive the surgery proved to be.
"The District Attorneys' Office made arrangements for me to consult on a variety of cases while I recuperated. Shelia and the kids promised to be extremely supportive throughout the process. Everything fell into place. All I had to do was follow my doctor's advice.
"The surgery went well and I returned home after only a day. It all seemed so uneventful. All my procrastination and fears turned out to be for nothing. I still had post-surgical pain, but that was considered normal. We were all confident I would fully recover.
"Then, three weeks after my surgery, I started having pain in my lower, right chest. At first it wasn't so bad, but as the days passed, the intensity increased. Sheila drove me to my doctor's office to request a prescription for some muscle relaxers, since the pain killers were no longer effective. Right away my doctor seemed to know what was wrong. His nurse kept looking at me as if I were a dead man walking. After failing a pulmonary test, I found myself in an ambulance. Being stuck in a wheelchair without a whole lot of physical activity had caused blood clots and pneumonia to collect in both my lungs. In short, I nearly died. To my horror I was admitted to the nearest hospital . . . Saint Benedict's Community.
"I wasn't in the emergency room for long, but perhaps I should have been. Sheila was with me the entire time. After a few hours, several blood tests, and a CAT SCAN, I was transferred to a private room. To my relief Saint Benedict's had been so thoroughly remodeled that I couldn't recognize a thing. No more cold, bare, lifeless walls and floors. The place appeared completely modernized, and for some strange reason, that reassured me.
"Later that night after Sheila had left, the pain returned, this time in my lower left chest. The staff kept injecting morphine into my IV, which had no effect whatsoever. Finally, they tried Dilauded, a derivative of morphine. From the IV in my arm, I felt a warm sensation travel throughout my body. Before I knew it, the pain disappeared.
"I woke up a few hours after that. My room was dark and looked deserted. I couldn't see or hear any staff in the hallway. I felt grateful the pain had left, but I was feeling drained and somewhat groggy.
"When I glanced at the top of a large wooden cabinet opposite me, something on top gradually came into focus. Although it was dark, I knew what it had to be. After all those long years, the creature had returned. It sat motionless, not budging an inch. It seemed to be waiting patiently, biding its time. I could barely make out its outline, but after some time I could see a pair of wings and horns. A few seconds later a long, slender tail slipped off the cabinet.
"All right, I told myself, you're dreaming, or maybe those pain killers are making you crazy. After all . . . a gargoyle? Something that never existed?
"While I was trying to convince myself I was hallucinating, the creature leaped off the cabinet, disappeared for what seemed forever, then climbed onto the foot of the bed. My breath caught in my throat. My heart nearly stopped. A horrible coldness penetrated my body. I could see its face . . . its horns, its yellow-green eyes, and a large mouth loaded with razor-sharp teeth.
"Somehow I broke out of my stupor . . . or trance . . . or whatever it was that paralyzed me. I pressed the call button repeatedly, looking back and forth between the creature and the hallway. The staff had left the door halfway open. I could hear an alarm ringing from the nursing station. I spotted a second gargoyle perched on the back of a chair, and a third one had emerged through the wall by the window.
"The creature at the foot of the bed appeared to be sizing me up. It licked the drool from its mouth and slowly crept forward. My heart pounded. I was sweating and shivering at the same time. I could see its skeletal face and the hungry expression in its eyes. The heavy weight on my legs kept inching forward. My throat tightened, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't yell for help. As the thing closed in, I heard footsteps and two staff members rushed into the room.
"For a minute everything spun around. My nurse and an older man . . . I later discovered was some type of attendant . . . stood over me. By the time I pointed at the foot of my bed, the creature had vanished.
"I must have blacked out, because the next thing I knew, daylight shone through my window. I shot up and glanced around. The IV nearly flew out of my arm. I was alone and everything looked perfectly normal. Somehow, that did little to comfort me. I felt weak, dizzy, and my bladder was about to burst. I was sick and tired of using the urinal and needed some help to the bathroom. I pressed the call button. The male attendant from the night before stepped into the room and assisted me. He was a polite, gray-haired man who spoke with a heavy, Jamaican accent. His ID badge merely read 'Blake.'
"After he had helped me back to bed, Blake informed me my breakfast was on the way. I told him I wasn't hungry. When he started to leave, I asked him if he'd seen anything strange when he came into my room the night before. Blake stared at me for the longest time. His eyes looked unusually red and their expression appeared tense and extremely guarded. 'Like what?' he finally asked.
"I sat up and watched for a reaction. 'Something strange,' I whispered. 'Something evil.'
"Blake had been standing over me with his eyes betraying his caution. He stepped back and glanced at the foot of the bed, exactly where one of the creatures had been. 'No,' he paused and turned away. 'I saw nothing.'
“And without another word, he left. I stayed in that hospital for the rest of the week, recuperating. During that entire time, I never saw Blake again."
Andy took a wary breath and peered at Doctor Marsden, sitting behind his office desk. "I've been a lawyer for over thirty years and I know a few things when it comes to people. I know when they're telling the truth and when they're lying. Blake was lying. He saw something that night. I'm sure he saw those creatures."
Sitting in his oversized, wingback chair, Doctor Marsden glanced from his notes to his watch. Andy had never seen anyone take so many notes. "Well, Mister McGrath, we're out of time for today, but I would like to meet with you again. Say next Monday? Same time?"
Andy frowned and shook his head. "No offense, but I'd rather not. Like I said, this is a onetime visit. I don't need regular appointments, or a psychiatrist. I promised Sheila I'd see you for some input and nothing more."
The doctor closed his notebook and cleared his throat. "Well, if you insist. I don't want to force you, but therapy is nothing to be ashamed of . . ."
"I'm not ashamed," Andy shot back. "I just don't need it. All I want is your opinion."
Doctor Marsden's features darkened. "My opinion?"
"That's right. Just tell me what you think. Sure, I'd been given a lot of pain meds that last time, just like my grandfather. But what about when I saw the creature in the trees . . . just as clearly as I'm seeing you now? I didn't have any pain medications then . . . so don't tell me I'm crazy. You're a doctor. Do me a favor . . . and be upfront."
Marsden nodded and removed his glasses. He'd been twirling a rather expensive-looking pen in his hand. "Very well. I don't like just coming out and telling a client what I think, but since you insist, I'll make an exception."
The room fell into an awkward silence. Andy and Doctor Marsden stared at each other.
"Have you ever heard the phrase, 'the power of suggestion'?"
Andy nodded. "Sure. Are your referring to my grandfather?"
"Yes, of course. I'm sure it wasn't intentional, but he planted the suggestion when you were at a very impressionable age. Then, later, under a similar, life-threatening circumstance, the suggestion manifested itself . . . both when you had the accident, then years later at the hospital."
Andy exhaled. "I thought you'd say something like that."
Doctor Marsden stood and stepped around his desk. "What else could it be? Believe me, the power of suggestion is an extremely powerful force. Between your grandfather planting the idea and all those medications during your last hospitalization, personally, I doubt your cognitive abilities stood a chance. It's nothing to be ashamed of . . ."
Andy shot to his feet. "I'm not ashamed, goddamn it! Why is it that my surgeon, my wife, and, now, even you . . . won't consider the possibility that such creatures exist?"
Again, Marsden, glanced at his watch. "Because they don't exist. The entire concept . . . I'm sorry to say . . . is extremely strange and farfetched."
Andy rolled his eyes. "Okay, I get it. I asked for your opinion and you told me. Thank you for trying to help." He limped across the office and shook Marsden's hand. "I'm fully aware that the idea of gargoyles lurking around in the shadows sounds ludicrous. People will never believe in such creatures because we can't see them . . . at least not until it's too late." He swallowed and released Marsden's hand. "Nice meeting you."
"Likewise. Take care of yourself. And if you ever want to schedule another appointment, just notify Margaret, my secretary."
Andy stepped out of the office. Sheila sat in an otherwise empty waiting room, tinkering with her smart phone. When she spotted her husband, she stood and handed him his cane. At least he had progressed from the cumbersome wheelchair and walker. Hopefully, in two more weeks he would lose the cane, this time for good.
"Well?" she asked.
He took her arm. "I'll tell you about it later. Let's go have some dinner first."
Doctor Marsden wiped his forehead. He'd been feeling out of sorts for several hours. He turned off his computer and monitor. It had grown dark outside and this was his second consecutive ten hour day. He thought about dinner and decided he wasn't hungry. He would drive home, read the latest edition of the Wall Street Journal then call it a night.
When Marsden stood, a sharp jolt pierced the left side of his chest. He doubled over and leaned against the desk. The pain traveled to his shoulder then inched down his arm. Everything grew blurry; he could barely see. He started to call for Margaret but recalled she had already left. He turned, reached for his office phone, and collapsed. His head struck the corner of the desk. Landing face-down, he clutched his chest. The pain had grown unbearable. He braced himself and turned onto his side.
Three winged creatures with horns, claws, and sharp teeth crept toward him. They drooled profusely and licked their lips. They looked exactly the way Andy McGrath had described them―emaciated, intimidating, and most of all, predatorial.
Marsden searched his pockets for his cell phone but remembered he had left it in his jacket. The pain was just too great; he could barely move. He would never be able to reach it.
The psychiatrist tried calling for help, but the effort only increased his pain. No! This can't be! It's just not possible!
The office lights flickered and died. Only the desk lamp lit the room. Several more creatures appeared, at least a dozen in all. They were emerging from the floor, walls, and ceiling. The office grew darker. They formed a wide circle around Marsden. Their eyes burned a murky yellow-green. While he lay quivering, trying to catch his breath, they tightened the circle.
I have to get up! I have to get out of here!
The creatures closed in. They stood on Marsden's legs, stomach, and chest. Shrieking and salivating, they poked and prodded him. He couldn't breathe. He thought his heart was about to explode.
One of the creatures reached into Marsden's chest. The pain tripled. The doctor's eyes rolled back into his head. Everything darkened to a murky gray.
The gargoyle on Marsden's chest clutched something in its hands. Howling in unison, the surrounding creatures took to the air―then vanished completely.
Marsden's breathing came to a halt. His heart followed. One final thought lingered in his mind as he saw himself plunge down a fiery tunnel.
We can't see them . . . a distant voice uttered . . . at least not until it's too late.