I get the phone call at 2 a.m. Not an abnormal event in my line of work, but annoying nonetheless. Unfortunately, people don’t seem to understand the concept of “sleep” when crime is involved.
I roll over and slowly emerge from my nest of blankets. My clothes are rumpled from sleep and my socks are slightly damp, but otherwise I feel presentable. As I walk out the door, I grab a banana from the bowl sitting on the floor by my shoes.
It’s a twenty-minute drive to the police station from my apartment. No one is out this early in the morning, so it takes me ten. The board room is a somber gray enclosure with a long table in the center. The faces of the police match the room tonight. None of them make eye contact with me as I enter – not like that’s expected. Usually when the police have to call for me, something terrible has happened.
And tonight something terrible has happened.
A class of twenty eighth graders and their teacher decided to do a lock-in – according to the principal, she claimed they would be “discussing high school and all of its complexities in a non-school related environment.” The night started off uneventfully, but around midnight the police station received a call from one of the classrooms in the school – a classroom that was reportedly empty. The line was silent, and it was dismissed as a prank call. Fifteen minutes later came another call. Silence. At 12:30 came the third and final call, highlighted by screaming children and the teacher crying into the phone. Police sped to the school to find no evidence that there was anyone there that night.
Thus, the 2 a.m. call waking me up. My job is to come in and investigate when the police don’t know what else to do.
I rush out to my car and speed over to the school to join the people already there. I don’t even need to show my ID to the officers to enter the building – they know who I am and what I’m here to do. No one follows me in.
I run my fingers over the pendant hanging from my neck, its stony grooves worn smooth from years of wear. My eyes flicker shut. The only sounds in the building are my steps reverberating through the halls, creating a sort of barrier of familiarity around my person. I am here, right now, in this space. These are my footsteps, my companions as I walk without other people. Who was here before me…?
My feet lead me to a classroom. The door is slightly ajar. Echoes of laughter reverberate through my skull, and conversations hushed with excitement. Students chattering with one another and a singsong feminine voice attempting to govern some of the more chaotic dialogue. Then something passes into the room. A swoosh, ominous in sound and likely in appearance as well. If it even appeared to them…
I can feel its malice and its pleasure, and the sheer terror from the students and their teacher. She cries as she dials the phone, and stern police voices briefly slice through her hysteria before the thing cuts the line. And takes the teacher. Then a student.
Within minutes everyone in the classroom is gone.
But where did it take them?
The visage of the ghost passes through the door, through me, and trails down the hallway. I am led to a janitorial closet near the center of the school. When opened, it looks as one would expect.
I dread what will come next, what I might find. But I know it’s a necessity, if these innocents ever want a chance of returning. I grip my pendant and mentally push aside the veil separating myself from whatever is in this closet.
Before me stretches a seemingly endless hallway. Evenly spaced doors line the walls, their numbers counting down, evens on the right and odds on the left. Between each pair of doors is a light fixture – most are flickering, but there is enough light to see that the hall stretches on for some distance. I step forward, and my feet hardly make a sound on the plush carpeting.
My world becomes a catacomb of flickering hopes and thick desperation.
I’m not sure how long I walk before I see the door at the end of the hallway, another closet. A menacing silence grasps at my heart and squeezes my lungs. Smoky trails of fear swirl around me, looping around my arms and brushing weakly at my skin. This is the place. The door is unlocked, and swings open noiselessly.
Inside the closet is a forest clearing. A breeze ruffles my hair, carrying with it the crisp smell of evergreens. It is perfectly circular in appearance, the trees surrounding it protectively, as if to keep something out. To my left is a lake, clear blue, with small waves stirring up on its surface from the wind. It seems as if there might be something in the lake… but my gaze is drawn to the figure next to the lake. The spirit.
It is tall and slender, its body black and smoky with a smooth white head perched atop narrow shoulders. It’s hunching over, looking into the water. Despite its difficulty appearing tangible, it almost looks to be a man.
I step into the grass, taking care not to make noise.
The head slowly turns in my direction. It is simultaneously comical and horrifying that its face looks like a child’s drawing on an egg. The shaky red circles that serve as its eyes are strangely acute. The smiling lips stretching across its face could have been painted in blood or scribbled in crayon. It has no depth, no definition, but feels as if it could devour me whole.
It lifts an arm and the water from the lake rises, keeping its shape. I can’t help but gasp as I see the bodies floating just under the surface, frozen mid-drown, however the air bubbles streaming from their desperate mouths are still moving. It looks as if there’s a fuse leading to each body, and by the look on the spirit’s face I know that once the last bubble pops they will be gone forever. My brain races through my options, through possible motives. What is it trying to do? An idea flickers into my head.
“I know you’re scared, and I know you feel like you need to satisfy yourself,” I yell across the field to the spirit. A gust of wind swallows my voice. I know the spirit is listening. “I think that you’re still scared from when you died. You drowned, didn’t you?” Subconscious images of grasping arms and bubbles trailing away and a feeling deep, overwhelming nothingness threaten to overwhelm me. “You’re scared of never having enough.” The wind grows stronger, knocking at my knees and threatening to push me over. Never having enough of what?
“bbbbuuu….bbbllless…. go pop…..bbbbuuuuu…..” its voice projects over the wind. A child’s voice. The bodies in the lake sink deeper into the whatever abyss lies at the bottom. Living children, and their teacher who was trying her best to make them feel cared for. Then it hits me.
“Did somebody drown you?”
Everything goes still.
Then everything explodes.
An unearthly shriek emanates from the trees, the sky, the ground, and the wind whips around my ankles, dragging me towards the figure by the lake. I flip onto my stomach and claw desperately at the earth, but it’s become concrete and there’s no place to grab and my fingers are being scraped raw. The spirit is standing over me, unrealistically massive for a child. Its eyes are dripping waxy red residue. It is so full of hatred. So full of fear. So full of loneliness.
My body trembles with fear as my lungs gasp for air. A liquid cold fills my chest and seeps into my very core. I cannot breathe. Who would do something so terrible to a child?
On a whim, I lunge forward, towards the twisted and dark shadow of a child neglected too long. My arms splay out as I topple into its body, then quickly encircle it, wrapping it in an embrace.
“I am so sorry,” I whisper into smoke.
“And if it means anything, I love you.” My voice quavers into nothingness. I hear the crash of the lake returning to its shores and then silence.
I awake to the sounds of wailing – sirens and people alike. My back is pressed against the hard surface of a stretcher, pinned down by restraints as I’m hoisted into an ambulance.
“Wait!” I manage to gasp before I’m entirely in the vehicle. “Please, let me go. I’m fine, I promise.”
They tell me they found me passed out on the floor, I wasn’t breathing, it looks like I might have sustained injuries to my head. I plead, but they won’t listen. I can’t go to the hospital. There are too many dead there.
A familiar face appears to my right.
“Please, tell them I’m fine. I can’t go with them.” The face of the police chief crinkles with uncertainty, but he waves at the medics to let me go. He asks me if I’m sure as I rise shakily from the stretcher. I joke that I have never once gone to the hospital after finishing a case and I won’t start now. He forces a laugh, but I can tell he’s not convinced. I tell him that I just need to get home and rest. That it was nice seeing him, but I hope it won’t happen again soon.
We hug goodbye and I walk away. My arms still burn with the freezing cold of the spirit’s body against my bare skin.