Dex went first into the white mist, beckoning me to follow and film. It was probably too late to appreciate, but I liked the way we had traded on and off lately, like we were both sharing duties and both responsible for the show.
I straggled forward across the wet grass after him while Rebecca planted herself in front of the door, keeping it from closing on us. She gave us the nod to say that she was okay.
Dex joined me at my side. We looked around.
The sanatorium was just as creepy from the outside and especially so from the backyard. The fog that moved in covered everything in a layer of moving gauze while the building glowed from the faint moonlight that penetrated it. I could barely see the playground in front of us, and the structures that did stick out looked like charred, skeletal remains in the mist.
“Well,” he whispered to me, away from the mic, “let’s see if we can contact Elliot or any of the other kids out here.”
“You know I’m not the ghost whisperer,” I hissed at him.
He stared at me steadily before saying, “You don’t give yourself as much credit as you should.”
Then he nudged me in the back and I walked forward, in front of the camera, and looked around me.
“Elliot,” I said, projecting my voice to him and the camera. I walked toward the jungle gym, pausing near the slide. “Elliot, if you can hear us, please give us a sign. We know all about you but would love to talk to you ourselves. We mean you no harm and understand you feel the same.”
We waited, air in our throats, trying to hear anything unusual, for our eyes to pick up anything in the dark.
I tried again, saying I wanted to make contact and that we just wanted to say hello. But whatever trace of Elliot there was, whatever boy was warning me last night to run away and see Rebecca, he didn’t seem to be on the playground.
I looked over at Dex, feeling slightly frustrated. Our next two days were strategic. We all knew we could stay a few extra days if we needed to record more, and that was the original plan, but I insisted we leave the place as soon as we could. Like Gary Oldman, I also wasn’t someone to push my luck. It was now our last show, but the sooner we got out of it, the better it was for us in the long run.
I decided to pretend I wasn’t being filmed and stopped asking anything from our supernatural hosts. I walked toward the edge of the playing field, where potted garden beds turned into scraggly wildflowers and the wildflowers turned into the trees.
I inhaled the dewy breeze, feeling the sharpness sink all the way into my lungs.
That’s when I heard the giggle.
I froze in place and slowly swiveled around. Dex was in the middle of the field, filming me from far away, and beyond that was Rebecca in her vintage coat, still holding the door to the body chute open.
A movement at the playground caught my eye. I squinted, trying to focus on the swings just in time to see one of them swing back and forth by itself.
I gestured to Dex to turn around and film it. I was just about to join him and go over when I heard another giggle from behind me.
I shifted to see a young boy standing beside me.
The scream that wanted to rip out of me was stuck in my throat.
“You’re Jody’s friend,” the boy said, plain as day. Aside from the sickly transparent quality he had, he looked absolutely real, from the shininess of his hair to the freckles across his nose, to the plushness of the toy teddy bear he was holding. The way he held his hat in his other hand reminded me of Oliver Twist asking if he could ‘have some more.’
I swallowed painfully, trying to find my voice. “I met Jody today. You must be Elliot.”
Elliot look at me for a moment, sussing me out, and in that one blinding instance, I was reminded of how fleeting the glimpse between life and death was. He was looking at me like I was real and I was looking at him as if he were the same, and yet we could never really coincide; we never belonged in each other’s world.
“Elliot,” I began, an idea building through me. “Why are you here?”
He stuck out his lower lip in thought. “Why are you here?”
“Do you know where you are?”
“At Sea Crest.”
“Do you know what year it is?”
He began to flicker before me, like the light was going out of him. I started to panic. By now my eyes went over to Dex and I could see him filming me, though being careful about being too obvious and keeping his distance.
“Elliot,” I quickly went on, “what do you want?”
He looked down at the hat in his hands. “I want to see my family. I want to go home.”
“Why don’t you then? Go see them. I’m sure they’d love to see you. You have no reason to be here.”
He was staring past me at the swing set. I glanced at it over my shoulder to still see the swing moving.
“I can’t. Not until she lets me.” His eyes were white-rimmed with fear. I looked at the swing set again and when I turned back, Elliot was gone. I called after him into the forest but only heard the faint rustle of pine needles. The trees suddenly looked as if they wanted to envelop me in their darkness.
I spun around and ran across the field to Dex. “Did you catch all that?” I asked breathlessly.
He gave me a wary smile. “I did. But the camera didn’t,” he said, patting the side of it. “This time it looks like you were talking to yourself. Sorry, kiddo.”
“But you saw it with your own eyes, right? You saw Elliot.”
I nodded, as if that’s all that mattered. In some ways, that was true. As long as I looked sane in Dex’s eyes, I wasn’t doing half bad. I looked at the swing set. “Well, that’s still moving, and from the way Elliot was looking at it, I’m guessing that there is someone there.”
I stalked off toward it, knowing in my heart that it was Shawna on that swing. She was dead, didn’t like me, and I was frightened to death of her, but I had to push that all aside.
“Shawna,” I said carefully as I approached the set, the metal chains glinting in the light of the camera. “Shawna, are you there?”
The swinging slowed down. Then stopped. The gravel underneath the swing began moving, crunching under unseen weight.
It stopped right in front of me.
I held my breath. I felt tiny fingers grasp my one hand and turn it over. What felt like teeth grazed the top of my anchor tattoo.
I gasped and snatched my hand back. The air filled with a girlish, malicious laugh, then a growling, drooling, snapping sound.
I cried out, the noise working its way into my bones, and staggered back into Dex’s grasp.
“I have you,” he said gruffly. He looked out at the playground, at the gravel that kept moving. “Hey, little bitch, you wanna come back and try something with me?”
I kept my wrist to my side and shook my head. “Dex, don’t tempt her.”
His eyes were on fire as he looked at me. “Yeah well, maybe I don’t like it when they keep going after you. This is exactly why we have to end this show.”
“And we are,” I said. “We are.”
He held me close to him, lowering the camera. “I fucking hate it when I’m filming and this shit happens to you. Hate it. Makes me feel so powerless.”
“Jealous of the attention?”
“It’s not funny, Perry,” he said.
I managed a smile. “Well we can stay out here and find out what else they have in store or we can go back inside and try something else.”
“To be honest, I’d rather just go back to our rooms and save the rest for tomorrow,” he admitted. “I have the footage of the swing going by itself, that’s a powerful enough image, especially with this background at night.”
I eyed him closely. “What about me talking to Elliot?”
“That seemed more like a private moment. Even if the cameras don’t pick him up, it’s obvious he’s there. I think it’s better if we keep the kid out of it.”
I nodded, completely besotted with Dex’s protective side.
We turned back to head into the building when we saw Shawna standing between us and the door.
And Rebecca was no longer holding it open.
Dex’s hand tightened around my waist and I heard his breath hitch. He saw her too.
“I asked you to play with me and you never did,” Shawna said in her melodic voice. She pulled at the sides of her plain white dress as if she were trying to look weak. I did not buy it for a second.
“Where’s Rebecca?” I asked.
She gazed at me blankly. “I do not know what you mean.” She took a step forward, the grass looking like dark blades around her white shoes. “Why didn’t you play with me?”
She was addressing me. I licked my lips and said, “You were in my dream.”
“That woman scared me away,” she noted. Her fine eyebrow rose. “Who was she?”
“No one,” I said quickly, even though I could tell Dex was looking at me for an explanation. ”She was just part of my dream.”
“I don’t reckon I liked the way she talked to me,” she said, her voice rising. “She reminds me of the nurses. You do know what they did, don’t you?”
Dex and I both shook our heads. I felt feeble and stupid.
“I think they tried to remove my soul,” Shawna said, her voice becoming deeper, wetter, more guttural. More inhuman. She looked down at her chest where a red stain suddenly appeared on one side and started spreading outward. “I think they succeeded.”
Oh shit. All Dex and I could do was stare at her, at the gaping hole that began to form in her chest, until the fabric of her dress burned away and we were left with a bloody view of her open chest cavity. Her lungs shrank and expanded as if she were breathing.
“Jesus H. Macy,” Dex gasped.
“Look what my father did to me,” she said, her voice back to being breathy and sweet. “He tried to give me new lungs. But it didn’t work.” Her black eyes narrowed into slits. “Perhaps if I had yours.”
She took a step forward with an outstretched hand, her nails looking like claws, and Dex and I stepped back, holding onto each other. She paused then smiled wickedly. “I can always get my creature to get them for me. He would be better at it than I. He owes me for letting him loose.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the building, where the fog was starting to lift. The bad thing was crawling out of an open window and for once we could see it all in its entirety.
I wished I could bleach my eyes out.
The bad thing was just as disturbing as I thought it was when it wasn’t hidden by the shadows. It looked human, except for its black skin that had a sickly sheen to it and its watermelon shaped head. It had no nose, no features, except a razor-toothed slit and ghostly white eyes that protruded from the face. It crawled down the side of the building, moving like a giant spider, reaching forward with stick-thin limbs and extra-long fingers, making a skittering, snapping sound as it moved like a cockroach.
I couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything but stare at the bad thing until it disappeared into the bushes that lined the bottom of the building. I slowly brought my eyes over to Shawna, who was smiling again so broadly I could see her canines.
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