“Are you the TV people?” the woman asked in a nasally voice, the alabaster jowls of her neck swaying. She reminded me of a Disney villain, which probably wasn’t the impression she was going for. But with her dark brown dress, severe eyebrows that looked like someone made em-dashes above her eyes, and mousy brown hair piled high into a topknot, it was hard not to make the comparison.
“The internet people, yes,” Rebecca corrected her as she came forward up the stairs, dainty hand extended. “I’m Rebecca Sims, the production manager for Experiment in Terror. I was the one emailing you.”
The woman raised her nose in the air, eyeing her carefully. I could tell her focus was fixed on Rebecca’s polished red lips and nails. “I recall.” She shook her hand and then turned her attention to Dex and I. Without realizing it, both he and I had stopped where we stood and were just staring at this terrifying woman. “And who might you be?”
I elbowed Dex to speak first.
He sprung right into it, marching forward and taking the woman’s hand in his. He pumped it hard twice and then asked with that infectious smile of his, “I’m Dex Foray, the only penis involved in the show. And who might you be?”
I sighed. I should have spoken first.
I immediately went up to her, climbing the first two steps and shot her an apologetic grin. “What he’s trying to say is he’s the cameraman and editor. I’m the host, Perry Palomino. Thank you for letting us shoot here, Mrs…?”
She put her hands on her hips and with a frosty expression said, “I’m Ainsley Davenport, the principal of Oceanside. I’m afraid I wasn’t expecting you until later this afternoon.”
Ainsley Davenport. Though it wasn’t Ursula, the name suited her to a tee.
“Sorry,” Dex said, still smiling, which meant he was enjoying himself. “We had to leave our last lodging in a hurry. You know how it is.”
She gave him a dry, steady look that stretched on for seconds. “I see. Well, I have a bit of paperwork and some calls to make so I’m afraid I won’t be much help to you until school is dismissed at three. I can get the nurse to give you a tour and perhaps you can meet with Mrs. McIntosh then. She teaches painting. She’s the one who…started this whole thing.”
At that, she turned around and went back into the building. The three of us looked at each other. Should we follow? Stay here? But before we could debate it out loud, a beanpole of a woman in a loose blouse and white pants stood before us.
“Hi,” she said in a voice so timid and quiet that I found myself leaning forward, trying to catch the words. “I’m Kelly. I’m the school nurse here. It’s nice to meet you all.”
We quickly made our introductions again, Dex being polite this time, then Kelly motioned for us to come inside.
Though the outside of the school looked like it was built hundreds of years ago, the inside, at least on the first floor, looked beautifully refurbished. The floor in the foyer was a shiny grey marble, the walls outfitted with wall sconces and intricate paneling. Ornate light fixtures gleamed from overhead. Though it didn’t look like a hospital, it certainly didn’t look like a school either.
“This is very lovely,” Rebecca said admiringly.
Kelly nodded. She had this way about her that reminded me of a heron. Her movements were slow, lanky and calculated. “Down to our left are the administration offices. It’s a small school, only about a hundred students, so we don’t use all the space on the first floor. But Ms. Davenport made sure that every single corner of the first floor has been remodeled, some say even past its original glory.”
“Is your room down there?” Dex asked. “Rumor has it that it might be our bedroom tonight.”
She nodded again, not meeting his eyes. “If you’d like. It’s a very nice room. Come this way, please.” She started off down the hall, Rebecca’s kitten heels clicking as she followed.
“Oceanside was a very nice school,” Kelly called to us over her shoulder, “before it burnt down, of course. No one knows what caused the fire, but it destroyed absolutely everything. It was very strange and it displaced a lot of children whose parents…well, it’s not for me to say. But we needed a quick substitute.”
We passed by closed office doors with embossed names printed on frosted glass, complete with brass doorknobs. You’d think all this refurbishment and newness would do something to quell that creepy feeling I had, but instead I felt like the fog was following us into the building. I had to keep looking behind me to make sure no one was there.
Kelly came to a stop before an open door. She gave us a small smile, and now that I was closer to her, I could see she had kind green eyes that contrasted vividly with her strawberry blonde hair. “This school is for very gifted children who wish to specialize in the arts. Or whose parents think they should explore their talent. It costs a lot of money to attend here and yet you should have seen the fuss they made when it came to gathering funds to build the new school. Setting up Oceanside here was a no brainer for most people.”
“You don’t seem to agree,” Dex asked astutely.
She raised a brow. “I’d rather not work in an old sanatorium, if that’s what you mean.” She cleared her throat, looking around sheepishly as if she’d be reprimanded for speaking her mind, and then gestured to the room. “This is my office. If you go past the door in there, it opens up into the old nurses’ quarters.”
The first room was nothing more than your normal nurse’s office, though of high sanitary regard with its gleaming floors and sink, tidy shelves, and two single cots with tightly tucked in sheets. The walls were adorned with drawings from what I assumed were the kids, though they looked a million times better than any drawing I ever did. There were charcoal and pastel portraits of Kelly, watercolors of forests, and one portrait of a young boy holding onto a ragged teddy bear, dressed in 1930s garb.
“Every kid here has talent,” Kelly said, catching my eye and then motioning us forward. We stepped through the doorway and looked at our potential dwellings as she flicked on the light. I guess I was expecting something rotten and decrepit but it didn’t look bad at all. It was a little sparse—the children’s drawings didn’t extend this far and the walls were bare. There were four twin beds in a row, each separated by a gauzy curtain that attached to a rod on the ceiling. The beds looked like hotel beds—clean but not plush.
“So this used to be where the nurses slept back in the old days?” Dex asked.
“Half of this floor was like this,” she said, patting the end of one of the beds. “There were five hundred patients here, sometimes more, and at least thirty nurses and administrators. Once people came to this place as staff, they never left.”
“Never?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No. TB was considered the White Plague, you know. They all thought it was highly contagious, and until there was a cure, everyone was stuck. I’m not sure if you noticed, but halfway down the road between here and the town, there’s a small building on the side of the road. It’s hidden by trees so you have to look for it. That used to be the post office. The mail carriers would only come so close to the building for fear of catching the disease.”
“Jesus,” Dex swore. “So if you took a job here, there was a good chance you wouldn’t see your family for a long time.”
“Not until the 50s when the cure was found and the hospital was closed,” she said sadly. “It explains why so many of the nurses killed themselves. Why so many of them…eventually went crazy.”
The skin at the back of my neck puckered. Just great. Not only did we have the potential ghosts of kids who died from TB but also their nurses who went crazy and killed themselves. I started to have one of those “maybe this isn’t a good idea, maybe we should pack up and go home, maybe I should listen to my crazy dead grandmother in my dreams” kind of moments, the ones that either mean nothing or make you regret not trusting your gut.
But then again, if it wasn’t for doing the more interesting option, I would have never met Dex and would have never joined Experiment in Terror. There was something to be said about moving forward in the face of fear. I swallowed down my uneasiness and listened to Kelly.
“Nonetheless,” she went on, “since the whole first floor was redone and the rest of the nurses’ rooms were made into offices, Ms. Davenport kept this as it is to try and keep the flavor of the past. Her words, not mine. You’re more than welcome to stay here though. There’s a bathroom with showers just next door. Sometimes when I’m too tired after work to drive home, I sleep here.”
“Anything strange happen to you?” I asked.
Her eyes grew momentarily large, focused on the door. “Just that.”
We all turned to see what she was looking at. A small orange rubber ball came rolling into the office, bouncing to a stop when it hit the doorframe. It was followed by a few impish giggles that seemed to fade into the air.
I felt an absolute chill blanket me. I looked at Rebecca, my heart racing. “Did you see that?”
She nodded, though to my disappointment she didn’t look the least bit scared. “It’s a ball. Probably one of the kids from here, am I right?”
Kelly smiled at her. “You’re right. He’s from here. Except he’s not one of Oceanside’s students. He was from Sea Crest. And he died in 1932.”
I looked over at Dex and almost smiled. I mean, as creepy as this was, it was almost fun to see the physical evidence of a ghost and especially in front of people who could be described as skeptics. Though when I looked back at Kelly, she was already smiling apologetically.
“I don’t really see much,” she said, as though she knew what I was thinking. Maybe she did. “Just here and there. Nothing terrifying, nothing that makes me want to quit my job. Sometimes I get creeped out, especially if I’m here alone. Sometimes things happen that I can’t explain. But for the most part, I don’t feel any…animosity here. Maybe Brenna will tell you differently, but aside from the never-ending ball game that Elliot plays with his friends, I don’t ever feel uneasy.”
“Elliot?” Dex asked as he walked over to the rubber ball. He picked it up in his hands, looking it over and then smelled it, as if that would tell him something.
“He’s one of the ghosts that Brenna sees. Brenna McIntosh. Some other people report seeing him, too. That drawing in my office of the young boy with the teddy bear? One of the students, Jody Robinson, she drew that. She sees him. I just see glimpses, I get a feeling. But I don’t actually see him.”
“So you mainly stick to the first floor?” Rebecca asked. “Do you ever go upstairs?”
Kelly shook her head rather vehemently. “This is about all that I can handle. I can handle Elliot. I can handle the fact that he apparently has other friends, friends I never see evidence of and I’m happy to keep it that way. But when you go upstairs, things change. Only Brenna goes up there, and Carl, our custodian. I can’t even get halfway up the staircase before I start feeling dizzy. No one goes upstairs.”
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