So, there’s this feeling I get sometimes. It happens when I’m going somewhere and there’s something evil, something fundamentally wrong about what’s in the area. I didn’t realize what it was for the longest time. It could be pretty light, like a tingling pressure on my skin. I run into that regularly enough. I don’t know, but I guess that if someone’s around it, it kind of brushes off on them and then fades as it gets further away from the source. It’s sort of like walking by a bad smell, only metaphysical or something, I don’t even know if that’s the right word.
But then, there are times when it’s… really bad. It’s like there’s dark, tingling oil on my skin, covering me in this dark, greasy feeling. It makes everything seem visually darker, too, like a cheap pair of sunglasses. Those are the ones that really scare me. It’s a marker of something very, very wrong. I always run into it when I’m tangling with a demon, but it also comes up in the area of something very wrong happening, like a stain on the place. It can also come out of human cruelty.
I think those are the worst. People who forget, or don’t care, that what they’re doing is to other people, and they just want to exert their will, whether it’s pain, it’s fear, it’s coercion. It’s the kind of thing that tries to make a self-sustaining type of thing. Enough of this comes together and it pushes people into making dark decisions, which feeds itself. A person who would never cheat on their spouse finds him or herself going back to the same place to do it regularly, for example. The guilt, the shame and the disgust stack up, and then drive them to do it again. I know, you think it sounds like some weird aura sensing thing, but it’s real. Not only that, but there are occasions it fills me with such revulsion and disgust that I really want nothing more than to pull my gun and just start unloading.
The worst part about all this? It can sneak up on you, growing by small degrees until you look around and suddenly everything is cast in sepia tone. That’s when the shock of realization hits you. Well, except I lied to you; that’s not the worst. The worst is when it hits you out of nowhere, like a skunk spraying, and suddenly, it’s just everywhere.
Today was a skunk kind of day.
I had gotten a call because a family had suffered a loss. Now, this isn’t necessarily the strangest thing. People want answers and they want to make sense of things that have happened. I’ve worked these before, and a grieving family searching for answers oftentimes just come up with one of those unfortunate things that happened. But, they pay me to come in and check, and I do. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that something could have happened that could have been prevented, or there’s something fishy going on.
I had pulled up at a hospital and didn’t notice anything at first. It was a dreary, overcast day. It threatened time and again to rain, but only spit a bit here and there. I got out of my old Crown Victoria surplus cruiser and walked to the trunk. I pulled a few items out of my travel case, a big silver metal box that fit into the brackets in the trunk. With a quiet sigh, I put my pistol into its case and left the case in the box. I didn’t like leaving my FN Five-Seven when there was the possibility of supernatural chicanery, but hospitals get really twitchy about firearms on the premises, even with a personal carry permit. So, I left it behind. I loaded up the several pockets of my field jacket with other various little items that might be useful, stuck a notepad and pen in with them, and pulled on my patrol cap before heading in.
Hospitals are a strange place for me. I don’t know the statistics, but people go there to get well, and they go there to die. I wish I knew what the split was, but I don’t. Instead, they’re these strangely antiseptic places with bright lighting and muted voices. Everything seems to be in contrast. People sit in waiting rooms waiting for news, good and bad. They come in sick, hoping to get well, or come in sick and end up passing away. The whole thing makes my skin tingle with the mix of emotions from patients and their families and the quiet, professional detachment of the staff.
I had a room number, so I made my way down the hallways to the elevators, following one of those helpful little lines they put in the floor. I like the idea, so you know where you’re going, but everyone walks with their head down avoiding eye contact. The precursor to the smartphone, I guess. I got into an empty elevator and thought about what I knew from the call.
At first, nothing had seemed out of the ordinary. Sure, the hospital had lost more patients than usual, but the law of averages would dictate you’d have good months and bad months and everything would meet in the middle. But, the strange thing was, apparently there had been a spike in the SIDS cases as well. Healthy babies that were getting ready to go home didn’t make it through that last night before they left. Put all of that together, and, well, I wasn’t happy about the possibilities. There was a chance of having a human doing all of this, but usually people who operate this way have a specific pattern. The infants were one pattern, but they weren’t the only one, and they weren’t the first pattern. The spike in patient deaths before that was the first pattern. I just didn’t know what that pattern was yet.
The Kellers were a nice couple. They lived just outside of town. They had a four bedroom house and had gotten the nursery all set up. They had done everything right. Well, that’s what Mr. Keller’s brother had told me. The other Mr. Keller, the father’s brother, had called me on their behalf, which is something that gets me looking sideways at something, but it was probably because they couldn’t bear to do it themselves. I’d suspect Uncle Keller if he didn’t live in the next state and only called me because he knew the right people to reach me.
I knocked on the door and a soft reply was all the answer I got. I opened the door and stepped into a dark room. They were both sitting on the bed, holding some printed pictures and a phone, looking at pictures of their little one. I felt terrible. These people were obviously grieving, and I was intruding. But then again, I’d been asked in. They looked up at me, and I could see the pain on their faces. Their eyes were sunken, faces tear-stained and all the energy just seemed gone out of them. I talked to them for a few minutes and left them alone. I needed to know a few things, and didn’t want to make it harder on them. I’d tell you more about it, but honestly, as short and terse as it was, it’d be uncomfortable for both us.
This left me some time to walk the halls with my thoughts. And that’s when I noticed it. It had snuck up on me. The bright lights of a hospital were dull and shadows seemed to cast every direction. My skin seemed to tingle and it was like I could almost taste some sort of grease hanging in the air.
I needed to find out something very specific. Was this a case of the atmosphere growing like some sort of psychic mold, or was it being directed? There was only one way to find out, so I headed for the hospital chapel.
Here’s the thing about sanctuaries and holy ground. It isn’t that dark creatures can’t enter them. It’s that they don’t want to. Holy ground of some form or another is uncomfortable for most of them, because it reminds them of goodness that they’ve forsaken. For as much as dark entities revel in their darkness, reminding them of goodness they’ve given up is something they’d rather not face. It’s like that ex you have that there was nothing wrong with. You don’t know why you broke up, you don’t know what caused it, but now, you feel guilty about it because in hindsight, there was absolutely nothing wrong with them. So you avoid them, at all costs, because of it what it makes you feel. That’s the best analogy I’ve got. If you don’t like it, you come up with one.
This hospital was not a nonprofit entity, like a baptist or catholic hospital or anything like that, but they did have a chapel. So, I made my way there, following the little gold stripe. When I hit the door, I walked in and there were two people inside. One had her head down and hands clasped, and another was staring blankly at the stain glass behind the pulpit. The window was lit from behind by one of those soft, sunlight-imitating bulbs, which lit this image of Jesus standing at a door a knocking.
“Oh,” I muttered after barging in. “Sorry about that, I’ll try to be quiet.”
The woman praying looked at me and nodded to me while the man in the room just kept staring. I made my way to one of the short little pews and sat down. I took some deep breaths and closed my eyes. “Lord,” I said to myself, “please, show me what I need to see here. Let me help your children.” I opened my eyes and took another deep breath. Then I started paying attention to all the little things.
In here, the tingling on my skin, the oily taste in my mouth began to ebb away. It was like they were being washed away with a damp washcloth. Things were starting to even out, and the colors were brighter. Especially the stain glass window. It seemed vibrantly alive. I understood why the man was staring at it.
That thought turned my head. He was still sitting there, eyes forward, barely blinking. His hands were on his lap, and he had a crushed little prayer manual in one hand. They were in a rack by the door, and it looked like he’d grabbed one and crushed it. Now his hands were loose. I felt a very definite need to go talk to him. I’ve learned not to ignore those urgings. So, I moved over to the pew he was sitting in and made myself comfortable on the opposite end.
“It’s kind of nice, isn’t it?” I asked him, looking at the window myself. I turned my eyes to him for a second.
His head shook briefly and he blinked very quickly, then rubbed his eyes. “What?”
“The window. It’s nice. I prefer real sunlight on things like that, but the light behind it seems to do a pretty good job.” I had returned my gaze to the window.
“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “I just… Never mind.”
“You sound like you have something you need to get off your chest,” I said, turning to look at him.
“Yeah, well,” he started.
“It’s okay if you want to talk it out,” I told him quietly. “You don’t know me, I don’t know you, no judgement, just someone willing to listen.”
“Yeah,” he said again. He was young, maybe mid twenties. He had a buzz haircut and his eyes looked deep set, like he hadn’t slept. He was clean shaven, seemed to be pretty fit. I put some pieces together and decided to take a gamble.
“You military?” I asked him.
“Army,” he said. “Infantry. Just got back from doing a tour in the sandbox.”
I nodded. “I’m going to make a guess then. Got home and someone close to you got sick or hurt?”
“Yeah.” He wasn’t being rude, he was just trying to sort through what was probably a mountain of feelings. “I came home last month, and my sister got really sick. She was in here for some sort of infection. She was getting better, too, until this morning. They were going to discharge her, and she started getting bad again. Really fast.” I just sat there and listened. He was verbally processing a lot, and I wasn’t going to stop him. “I just… I came in here because I needed to go somewhere else. But I don’t feel like I ought to be here.”
“I think this place is here for that reason,” I replied softly. “So, I guess you kinda should be here, right?”
He turned to me, his face hardening as he spoke. “I don’t know. I mean, I was deployed for more than a year. I saw friends of mine go down to IED’s, get shot, all that. I come home and my sister, she’s one of the sweetest people on the planet, she’s so sick she can’t stand up and they don’t think she’s going to make it to tomorrow.” I nodded slowly, thinking I knew where he was going. “I’m here, trying to figure it out, because if there is a God, why would this happen? She’s one of the best people I know. My buddies were good guys. She’s dying, they’re gone. And… and…” he trailed off as he tried to get a handle on his feelings again.
“And there are terrible people out there that are fine,” I finished. “Charles Manson is still alive in prison, and your sister might die.” I had heard variations of this before. “How could a good and loving God let that happen? That’s what you’re wondering, right? Not in those words, exactly, but am I close?” He’d closed his eyes, but he nodded to me. “Yeah, I know. I know. I’ve seen terrible things, too. I’m a private investigator, and I’ve seen some terrible things. But I realized something years ago; I don’t know if it will help, but I’ll share it with you if you’d like.”
He took a few deep breaths himself, shuddering as he did, before he looked up at me. “Go on.”
“This world isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” I said. “It’s a result of free will. God created it one way, and gave us free will, so we broke it. We have the free will to be bad people, or good people or whatever, and so, that’s where so much evil in the world comes from. Bad things happen to good people because the world is broken and doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.” I put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, I don’t know if that will help, but…”
Wait a second. Oh, good Lord, I’m dense, sometimes. “Hang on, your sister… what room is she in?”
“Uh,” he looked at me, clearly confused. Let’s be honest, some stranger starts talking theology with you and then suddenly goes wide-eyed and asking specific questions about your family member, I’d be confused myself. “Room 204,” he said.
I got up and dashed out of the room.
204 was two floors down, so I went for the stairs. I cleared them two and a time while pawing through my pockets. If I could get there… The fact that the atmosphere wasn’t in the chapel meant that this wasn’t just an atmosphere thing. This was being directed by something that didn’t go into the chapel. This was something thinking. I burst through the doors at a dead sprint and around the corner. Everyone looked at me like I was a madman, but no one tried to stop me. I turned, opened room 204 and went in, shutting the door behind me.
The woman was laying on the bed, eyes closed, breathing labored. The machines next to her had red lines and numbers I didn’t pay attention to. I took her hand and gently placed a little globe of glass in her hand. Inside was suspended a mustard seed. “Dear God,” I prayed, closing my hands around hers, “please watch this child. She’s under attack. May Your mighty hands protect her while I do Your work and find the cause.” I closed her fingers around the little globe and looked up. It was dark in here, and the lights were on and the windows were open.
“What do you think you’re doing?” came a question from behind me. I turned and a middle aged man with thinning hair, scrubs and a white doctor’s coat was glaring at me over the clipboard in his hands. “Get out of here, she’s got an infection!”
I started to leave when one thought hit me: I had closed the door. The room had been empty. I hadn’t heard the door open. I did a quick draw, pulling a little LED flashlight out of my pocket and pointing it at the man. “Lord, show me the truth,” I intoned. A friend of mine had etched the words “Luke 1:79” into the steel around the lense. To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. Instead of illuminating the man standing there, the pure white beam instead showed his features cast in shadows, with tendrils of darkness leading off of him into the air around him.
The thing turned and went out the door. Well, through the door. I hate that. So, I burst back out of the room and down the hallway, looking even more like a crazy man, running after a doctor-looking guy in a field coat with a flashlight in my hand. The thing took corners entirely too well, but didn’t start just running through walls. If it was incorporeal, then it could just drop through the floor and be done, but it wasn’t. It was running up and down hallways. It came to an elevator and stopped, looked at the lights, and as I closed on it, it took off again, going for the stairs.
Why did it stop at the elevator? Why was it running down hallways when it went through a door?
It went through that door, too, and I busted through like a madman. It was going down the stairs, not running, but instead kind of like it was floating straight down an inclined plane. So, I opted to try and outdo it. I leapt, trying to clear the flights in one go and gain ground. The first flight, I nearly put my head into the concrete wall, just barely catching myself. So, the next flight, I leaned down, grabbed the handrails and slung my legs forward. I landed better that way, and kept doing it to catch up. We hit the ground floor and the chase was back on, only I was much closer.
This time, it took some angled turns that went screaming past the cafeteria. This was fun, because I had to dodge through people, again, looking like a crazy person chasing a doctor. I figured I only had a couple of minutes before security got involved. The thing turned another corner and I saw the sign overhead indicating it was the loading dock. If this thing got outside, it would be able to jump to a new location and do this whole mess over again. But I couldn’t think of a way to stop it.
Until it hit the double doors at the end of the hall with the bright exit sign over head and those big, flat panels on the doors that show the alarm will go off if you go through. This long stretch of hallway didn’t have other doors, not near the end of the hall. One side was the exterior wall and the other was the cafeteria kitchen. It came to those doors and stopped dead in its tracks. And then I got it.
This thing wasn’t a demon, not really. It was a sentient growth of the despair in the hospital. The despair came out of not just the people passing away, but from the people who worked here, too. It was basically a baby despair spirit, but it was smart enough to mimic doctors and nurses because it grew from them, too. It knew that it had to go through doorways, up and down steps, wait on elevators, but it didn’t know that it didn’t have to. And it was confined in the hospital because it didn’t know how to leave. The despair was here, in this place, and since it was anchored to the place, so was this thing.
So, what to do? I couldn’t banish it back to where it came from. This was where it came from. If I tried to obliterate it, it would just come back, or a new one would grow in its place. Typically, though, if a place had developed something like this, it wouldn’t develop a new one if one already existed…
From one pocket, I pulled out a long, slender chain with a little cross-inscribed padlock on it. “In the name of the Lord God Almighty,” I almost growled, “I cast you out. I cast you away from here, to be bound away to the dark places until the the last day.”
I took a few long steps forward and the thing came at me. One of those tendrils of darkness lashed out and hit me and I felt a crushing weakness flow through my body. I felt nausea, I felt pain and I felt anguish flood through me in a cascade of directed malice. I stumbled forward, trying to keep my feet. I had the chain in my hand, but almost felt too weak to even keep my grip. I could feel the darkness flow through me, ebbing away at me, trying to kill me. I looked up and saw the evil glee in the things eyes. “Good bye,” it whispered out in a raspy, almost giggling tone.
“Yeah,” I managed to croak through strangled breath, “and piss off.” I pitched forward, collapsing on the ground, and slapped the chain on the foot of the creature. The chain glowed for a moment and then seemed to come alive, wrapping along the thing’s ankle. The creature’s eyes went wide and it began to shudder. It seemed to be sucked into the chain, like a vacuum cleaner pulling in smoke, and then, the whole thing, chain, lock and creature, vanished in a twinkle of light.
Well, okay. That was done, but I still probably had security coming after me. I pulled myself across the floor and managed to lever myself up against the wall. Carefully, I managed to get to my feet and make a stumbling walk to the nearest stairwell. I labored my way up the steps, trying to shake off the aftermath of what that thing had done to me. And, miracle of miracles, I made back to the chapel. I wasn’t sure how exactly, I managed it, but I found myself sitting in one of the pews. The lady from before was still sitting in the same seat, head bowed in prayer. The young man I’d been talking to had left, so it was quiet. I sat there, breathing hard, trying to shake off the trauma and hoping I wouldn’t need to be checked into the hospital. That would have been fairly awkward.
I’d been sitting there for all of two minutes when the door slammed open. It shocked me so badly, I fell out of the pew I was sitting in. Cut me a break, alright? It had been a hectic fifteen minutes. But, there in the door, was the young man from earlier. He walked up to me, grabbed me by the shoulders and hugged me.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“Uh,” I said, “you’re welcome, you’re welcome, you’re welcome.”
He pushed back from me, hands still on my shoulders. “She’s getting better!”
“Your sister, right?”
“Yes, she’s getting better. Almost like someone flipped on a light switch.”
“Oh,” I said slowly, “that’s great news.”
“She told me you were there.”
“Uh,” I said. The rollercoaster hadn’t stopped yet, it seemed.
“She said you left her this,” he said, holding up the little glass globe. “What is it?”
“Mustard seed,” I said. “That’s the prescribed size of faith. Or something.”
He looked at it for a moment, then up at me. He seemed to hesitate in the middle of his joy. “Can… Can I keep it?”
I smiled tiredly. “Never meant for anything else,” I said. “Go on, your sister still needs you.”
He hugged me again in a big, military, rib-creaking hug before he left. I slumped back down on the pew with a sigh. I’d have to stay put for a while until I could go back to the Kellers. I took a moment and laid my head back. I was going to be exhausted as soon as all this was over. I thought about that thing being a growth of the despair here, trying to cultivate it. And how it could come back. Something had to be done about that.
And I felt like I was being watched. I opened my eyes and lifted my head.
The woman who had been praying smiled. Her dark skin seemed to shine in the light from the window. “You did it.”
I blinked a few times. “I did?”
“Yes,” she said, still smiling. “I’m the one that had the Kellers contact you. I’ve heard of you. Been in here praying since you arrived.”
“Oh.” See, I wasn’t used to being, I don’t know, renowned or anything. “Well, I guess you knew something was up?”
“I suspected something was up. This place didn’t feel right. I’m the chaplain here.”
I smiled. “You were right. There was enough here that the place started to… it doesn’t matter. You were right.” I paused for a moment, trying to find my words. “Listen, there’s a lot of work to be done here, by someone that knows the place. There’s too much despair, too much depression. It’s going to be a lot of work, or else this thing will come back.” I looked her dead in the eyes, and was met with a warm, caring gaze. “Are you up for it?”
“Come on,” she said. “We’ll go see the Kellers, then we’ll settle your bill.”
I got up, slowly, tiredness already starting to gnaw at me. “Whatever you say,” I said. “It’s your hospital.”
“It is now. Thank you.”