The air raid siren moaned through the fog. It was the death-song of a whale. It was the cry of a million mourners. Mary’s stomach churned and her skin prickled in gooseflesh.
The town had awoken.
“Steven?” He had to hear it too, he had to.
The hospital remained dark and silent. It sat before her, squat. The building waited. Patient and eternal. The mechanical grind continued its perpetual death march. The corroded cogs and gears squealed against each other.
The siren rose and rose, a whine that reached fever pitch. It couldn’t get any higher than that, yet it went on and on. Mary glanced around at the street, but there was nothing to see. The nebulous grey had inched closer, whirls and whisps. Impenetrable ancient darkness.
For a second, she thought she saw something move in the mist. As all was a swirl, it was difficult to detect what was the fog and what wasn’t. Mary frowned and squinted. Was that the silhouette of a person? They seemed to step forward, into not-quite-view. And then they were gone. Had they slipped away, under the blanket of the cloud?
Beneath the screech of machinery and the wail of the air raid siren, a moan slithered across the ground. Like the dried husks of leaves, a thousand whispers at once. With it came the sounds of disturbance. Soil shifted. Earth churned. Ground moved. Rocks tumbled away. Mary thought she could hear a word there, past the point of understanding. She felt exposed, all alone at the top of the hospital steps. Unable to see what lay around her. Vulnerable.
Mary glanced back at the hospital. It loomed over her shoulder like a square-headed monster. It watched her through darkened eyes. She almost let out a squeal when she saw it, even though it shouldn’t have startled her. Her heart banged its head against the wall of her ribcage. She knew it was there, why did she jump?
There was still no sign of Steve.
She called out to him again. “Ste—” Mary’s words died in her throat as the siren began to drop. Her blood turned to ice in her veins. The sound dropped and dropped and dropped until she could feel it in her bowels.
And with it, the light dimmed.
The bass of the siren reverberated through ground and bone. It was in her feet. It was in her heart. It was in her skull.
The fog snaked closer and its paleness died, elongated shadow fingers reached for her. And behind it, at the periphery of vision…
Things moved in the fog. Low to the ground. No, that wasn’t right — they rose from the ground.
Her heart lodged at the base of her throat. It throbbed and pulsed there. It blocked her airways and stopped her from taking a breath. She tried to scream. The nightmarish shapes twisted and coiled behind the smokescreen of smog. All that escaped her lips was a squeak.
She felt dizzy.
Mary turned and ran for the hospital doors. She didn’t know who they were. She didn’t want to find out alone. “Steven.” It was not a shout. It was a whispered plea that escaped her lips as she slammed into the doors of the hospital.
Steve watched the overturned hospital gurney. It was old and rusted, the metal long-since browned and flaked.
The wheel spun.
But he’d not touched it.
It had squeak-squeak-squeaked, round and round, before he’d figured out what the sound even was. It had sounded like a mouse — a repetitive, mechanical one.
And now he watched it. He wanted to feel scared, but fear would not come. There was only confusion and fuzziness inside his mind. Part of him wanted to reach out and touch the wheel, to stop its rotations. What would happen if he did? Would it stop? Would it pause, only to resume once he’d let go?
Steve knew, on some basal level, that he shouldn’t touch it. It was a rusted wheel for starters, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d gotten a tetanus shot. He watched it go round and round in defiance of the laws of physics. He held his broken arm in place. There was another reason.
He’d later be able to put his finger on it. It was a fear of infection, of spread. Of sticky, inky blackness as it latched onto his skin. Of goo that smothered and covered him.
Steve repressed a shudder. “Get a hold of yourself, man,” he told the empty hallway. He shook his head and forced himself to break his gaze. Steve walked down the corridor away from the gurney and returned to the front desk.
He’d already banged the corroded bell there once. He thought about doing it a second time and then thought better of it. The first time had produced nothing but a muted metal clink and left his hand numb and fuzzy.
No lights were on inside the hospital. There were no sounds, and there weren’t any people. Steve breathed in. The air tasted thick and musty. As if it had undisturbed for a very long time. There lingered a sterile nastiness behind everything. Chemicals and bleach. Something that could never be completely scrubbed away.
As his eyes continued to adjust to the gloom, he noted how the décor seemed off. “By about a hundred years.” He barked a quiet laugh in the silence. It sounded insane.
The front desk was oak. It would have looked rather grand, had it not been in such a state of disrepair. The tiles underfoot were black and white, faded and cracked and soiled and stained. Splintered wooden panels formed the walls from ground to the midway point. Peeled plaster continued from middle to ceiling. There appeared to be signs of water damage and damp, along with dead mosses and rot. Overhead hung naked lights, wires exposed, bulbs dark.
The corridors themselves were a mess. Trashed by years of, in Steve’s guesswork, angst-filled teenagers.
Back in his hometown, there had been a deserted house a quarter of a mile from the high school. Kids went there to bunk off, get loaded, and to do many other things that the adults of their lives disproved of. It had boarded-up windows and a notice of condemnation pinned to the front door. Once inside, you’d find smashed bottles, needles, graffiti, condoms, mattresses, pornographic magazines. The smell of urine permeated everything.
The deserted hospital hallway reminded Steve of that place. But there was something else here, too. Beneath it all. Under the grime and the waste. Behind the squeak-squeak-squeak of the gurney.
The place was also littered with signs of panic and distress.
It was hard for Steve to put his finger on exactly what it was. The overturned trolleys — for there were more than one. The scattered papers, half on the desk, half on the floor. The empty wheelchair, which jutted out of a doorway a few steps away. The bits of stone, plaster and rubble, where sections of the building had crumbled away. The smell of — and this was the word that throbbed in Steve’s mind, like a neon sign — bad. It was a simplistic word, childish even. But that was what his brain insisted on.
“B-A-D. Bad. The kid wins the spelling bee, the crowd goes wild!” Steve grinned at the empty reception desk. The smile soon faded from his face. Why did he feel like something listened to him?
Steve didn’t get the chance to ruminate any further on the exact nature of his unease. His whole world flipped upside down.
An air-raid siren began to whine in the distance.
He frowned. “What?” He spun around towards the entrance. A moment later, a loud bang echoed down the hallway, followed by rapid footsteps.
“STEVE? STEVE, WHERE ARE YOU?” It was Mary, she sounded panicked. “STEVE!”
Something in her voice chilled him straight to his core. His heart leapt up. “Mary? Down here!” He limped towards her voice. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt? What’s going on?”
“There’s people outside. People in the mists.”
Mary came into view. She ran out of the darkness. She looked like hell. The blood on her face had crusted into something black, sweat plastered the hair to her head, and her eyes were wide and wild.
“People? What’s that siren? What’s going on? Did they speak to you?” The questions came all at once and flooded out of his mouth, jammed in a bottleneck.
“I don’t—” The end of Mary’s sentence got lost as both she and Steve screamed in unison.
A nurse ran between them, a baby clutched to her chest. She wore an outdated uniform — white dress buttoned up to the neck, green sleeves, white hat, white shoes. In the glimpse he’d gotten, Steve saw that her skin had cracked, hipped and spiderwebbed. Like damaged porcelain.
He didn’t get a look at the baby.
And then she was gone. She disappeared as she’d arrived, like a wisp of smoke.
A frozen heartbeat thudded between them as they both reeled from what they saw. Incoherent mumbles gasped from their lips.
They had no chance to react. A thunderous explosion rocked the building. The stamp of a thousand footsteps rumbled right outside. They sounded as if they marched up the steps to the hospital. Rubble and dust fell from the ceiling. Mary and Steve shrieked again, swear words thrown up in automatic defence.
The footsteps halted. Mary and Steve exchanged a look of sheer terror.
Mary and Steve’s faces drained of all colour. They both threw themselves to the ground — pure instinct. Over their heads, the air erupted in a hailstorm of bullets. The pair screamed themselves hoarse as they hit the deck. Pain erupted in Steve’s damaged arm as he banged it against the tiled floor. His scream of terror became a wail of agony. Plaster and rubble coated them. Dust got into their mouths and worked its way into their lungs.
The gunfire silenced.
“What the—?” Mary swore.
“Jesus Christ!” Steve cursed the pain in his arm and the insanity of the cacophony.
From down the hall, the door slammed open. Steve released his head from his one good hand and glanced up in time to see the fog begin to roll into the building. “Mary! Mary, we gotta go! Now!”
The stomp of boots filled the corridor. The mists outside now glowed. In the eerie illumination, Steve saw the shadows of feet and legs. They marched and bent and writhed like snakes.
“Hurry!” Steve jumped to his feet. His broken arm swung as if attached by only a thread. He swore. “My Goddamn arm! God! God!”
Mary was at his side. She threw an arm around him. “Come on!”
Steve cast one last frightened glance over his shoulder at their assailants. He saw mists swirl and drift like ghosts. And behind the eddies of fog, an army marched towards them, pale and grey. Dull green uniforms drove a spike of fear through his soul, boots and helmets, rifles and bayonets. The sight of their gasmasks made his heart seize up. For one second, Steve was sure that this was it, he would die of a heart attack right then and there.
And then his heart stammered an uncertain rhythm against the bone of his torso. It hiccupped, it stumbled, and then it resumed.
Steve’s stomach flipped at the sound of that command.
He turned and ran. He allowed Mary to drag him, let her pull him further into the heart of the hospital. He didn’t care where, as long as it was away from that legion of ghosts.
They limped down the ruined hallway. Steve forced himself to not look back at the mists that seeped into the hospital. Even though he wanted to know — needed to know — if he had seen what he thought he had.
Fog soiled with a sickly mustard colour.
25th September 2020
Written for Reedsy’s Weekly Writing Contest