Chapter 6: Ancient Darkness
To Merfey, the place looked like a ghost itself. An entity from the past now misused and broken. He adjusted the army green duffle bag on his shoulder and took the rolled up issue of real ghost stories from his back pocket. The page was so dog eared and worn that the magazine just about opened to it automatically. He flipped back a few pages until the grainy illustration on the water stained page matched the hulking giant before him.
He pushed his glasses through the gleam of sweat on his nose and wiped his bangs from his forehead. Esther crashed through the bulrushes to his left and Merfey put on his best Garry Moore “Before you stands Marshwood Institution for the Mentally Incapacitated. ‘Home to such fiends as the Nobel Pyromaniac, The Fifth Floor Strangler, and, worst of all: The Blackout Killer. But the worst of the worst was the Butcher of Oak Patch. One of the most bizarre cases ever to be treated behind the walls of Marshwood’.” Merfey swept his hand in front of him after reading the magazine article word for word.
Esther grinned nervously beside him. “She really went ape, huh?”
“Sounds more squirely to me.” Clark broke in on Merfey’s right. He stood square with Marshwood, his hands jammed in the pockets of his blue jeans. He jerked his chin in the direction of the crumbling brick building. “So what’s the big deal? Some lady’s the biggest nut in the booby hatch, don’t mean we gotta spend our Sunday getting soakers to prove it.”
Merfey could feel his shoulders reaching his ears and he tried to breath and relax them. He shifted the gear from his left shoulder to his right. He drew a breath to outline how Clark was wrong on just about every ‘fact’ he had just spewed, but Esther beat him to it.
“What it means Clark, is that there is a good chance of making contact; with so much energy being trapped within one building.”
Clark smacked his gum and eyed the place up. Looked like a great spot to pick up tetanus, but if Esther was going then so was he.”
“If you’re afraid you can always head back.” Merfey said, hoping against hope that Clark would take the offer. Merf and Clark had been close, friends even. The had a blast two summers ago at scout camp earning the construction badge at for their cabin’s scaled down trebuchet. But as high school drew to a close and Clark caught his growth spurt he seemed to outgrow Merfey as well. Esther too, her days were numbered and Merfey was working on a hunch that she had a crush on him too. It wasn’t so much a hunch as it was a hope. Still, Merfey thought It would be all the better if his old friend beat it.
His words seemed to have the opposite effect on Clark, who turned on Merfey at the mention of fear.
“Scared, Me. Of what? Some dusty old loon’s underwear? Aren’t you the one who pissed the bed after Scouter Simmons told his ‘Weeping Willow’ Story?”
Merfey’s eyes fell on the Marsh floor, suddenly interested in what kind of toads he could spot. “That was just a rumor.” he muttered “and I told you, It’s Miles.” he added weakly
“Whatever.” Clark said “let’s go” Playing vanguard and leading the charge towards the derelict mental hospital before them.
Ester gave Merfey’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze as she walked by, shooting him a half smile that sent his heart beating so fast Merfey thought it would pitch him over. He composed himself into what he thought was a cool detached gaze and slid in step behind them.
“Cool man.” he muttered to himself “real cool.”
The institution was a juggernaut. A hulking monolith indicative of a bygone age. The technological wonders that were breakthroughs at the time were already obsolete, but something always remained. Merfey imagined he could see the place pulsating with energy from the specters behind the walls. He felt his legs shaking with anticipation. He tried not to focus on any of the dark windows in the floors above. It was easy to imagine a figure standing there. It was easy for that anticipation to turn to fear. Merfey paced in front of his two friends more so to keep his nerve up than anything.
The small group trudged through the march to the overgrown lawn studded with the bearded white heads of dandelions swaying in the afternoon breeze. They walked past the main entrance, its awning collapsed, canopy shredded from raptor talons as they hunted woodland rodents.
Merfey led them around the back of the building before starting his game show voice again.
“‘Eyewitnesses report strange lights at night on the grounds, some have even sworn to hear voices calling on the wind, but very few have actually ventured beyond the safety of the bulrushes to witness the inner workings of Marshwood for themselves.’ That is until today.” He held Esther’s gaze for as long as he could, waiting for a sign from her. Esther coloured and tucked a loose strand of strawberry blonde hair behind her ear. Looking first at Marshwood, then Merfey.
“What?” she asked, her mouth twisting into an embarrassed smile. “Do I have a bug on my face?” she swatted a hand in front of her. Merfey felt like he was Bogart charming Bacal.
“Some tour Merf, how are we supposed to get in?” Clark said, ruining the illusion.
“Obviously we break in, Clark.” Merfey said. “I just haven’t figured out how yet. See, everyone goes in through the front door. The busted padlock is no secret anymore, but I don’t want to go on the well worn trail. If we are going to make any kind of headway we need to be pioneers.”
Merfey’s eyes searched the wall in front of him as he spoke, his eyes like ping pong balls bouncing around his black rimmed glasses. The brick was crumbling, but looked sturdy enough. He took out real ghost stories again but knew the article didn;t say anything about how to get in, he’d read it about a dozen times. The highest window was at least ten feet above them off a crumbling balcony that looked like it wouldn’t hold Esther, let alone Clark’s bulk.
“A maintenance entrance, shipping door, something.” He muttered, feeling the adventurous hope that burned so bright as he was packing his bag back home beginning to fleet. In its place cold fear was freezing him from the inside out.
“Hey genius is this what you’re after?” Clark called from around the corner. When Merfey caught up to him and Esther and saw what Clark found he flashed his mouth full of metal brace work at both of them. “I could kiss you.” he muttered, though it wasn’t clear who he was talking to.
After rooting around in his bag, Merfey handed Clark a pry bar and pointed to the boarded up window he found.
“Isn’t this technically breaking and entering?” Esther asked.
“Well” Merfey considered “we aren’t the first ones to get in here, so technically if the police want to arrest us they are going to have to arrest everyone who broke in before us” Esther and Clark exchanged a glance and Clark gave a slight shrug before stabbing the pry in between two of the boards. He hoped Esther didn’t try to talk him out of this, he wanted to show off how strong he could be. He strained hard, relying on the muscles developed on the ice rink not to make him look like a chump. Esther was rapt with attention and Clark put it on a little more for her. Let Merf, or Miles, or whatever the hell he wanted to be called now call him out for being afraid. He couldn’t be afraid if he was the one who got them into this dump. Clark let out a groan at the same time a rusty nail did and the board moved an inch away from the window frame. Both sounding like a great bellow in the dry still calmness of the August heat.
Clark worked the pry bar down the length of the board until it was free. By the time he’d done the same to the other two he was dripping sweat. The three boards lay beside the gaping hole he’d created like dry and dead leaves fallen from an autumn oak.
The cavity created was pitch black and the air emanating from it was significantly cooler than the air around them. “Ladies first” Clark offered to Esther with a sweep of his hand. “Oh please.” Esther rolled her eyes, grinning with good humour. Merfey set his gear bag between them, causing Clark to stagger back slightly.
“No one’s going anywhere.” he started “before we test the air quality.” He stuck a device with antennas and a bunch of other metal glinting off of iit into the gaping window frame, his hand swallowed by the sheer blackness of shadow. The device he held jittered and skipped with sound and to Clark it sounded like someone flipping through radio stations too fast.
“Is that really doing anything Merf or what?” He asked as he watched lights on the device flip through red and yellow before settling on green. “I mean where did you get that heap, Roswell?”
“You would be amazed what I can do with a soldering gun and an old stereo.” Merfey smiled a sad smile, his eyes never leaving the device. The instrument lights blazed green and settled on them with a low hum. “It’s clean.” he said
“So let me get this straight.” Clark broke in. “You want us. To follow you in there. To look for ghosts. And you’re going to use a Frankensteined radio to do it?”
“Technology is the way of the future Clark, look at the A-bomb. They say by nineteen-sixty all our homes, our appliances, heck maybe even our cars will be powered by atomic energy.”
“Yeah, they also said the Titanic couldn’t sink.” Clark Muttered. “Who told you that? Crackpot Arnie and his cronies-” Clark snapped his mouth shut but the words were already out.
Merfey recoiled as if he’d been slapped. Behind him Esther shot Clark daggers before taking a step towards Merfey.
“Hey I didn’t mean that-” Clark started forward. “Merf I- I forgot I’m-”
“Forget it.” Merfey cut in, his tone as black as the darkness beyond them. “Why don’t I go first, this was my idea anyway, you two just came along for the ride.” He slipped through the hole before either one could say anything else. Esther only gaped at Clark through the summer haze. A cicada exploded into its heat song from the brush behind her.
“How could you say something like that?” Esther asked in a harsh whisper.
“I forgot ok? Geez, hang a guy why don’t you.”Clark answered. He shut his eyes and counted to ten.
From the hole he disappeared into both Clark and Esther heard the unmistakable sound of Merfey’s converse sneakers landing hard followed by the crash of his gear bag.
“It’s a bit of a drop.” his voice floated up from the blackness of the window.
This isn’t how Clark wanted things with Esther to go, and if she was in a bad mood then everything would be shot. Clark exhaled through his nose slowly before opening his eyes. Trying for his softest tone he held out his hand. “I’m sorry, ok? I haven’t really talked to Merfey since everything happened, I’ll apologize to him.”
“Guys?” Merfey called from below
“Can I help you down?” His speech seemed to work as Esther held tension for a few more beats before her shoulders dropped and her eyes seemed to clear. “Try not to slip again ok? I think he’s been through a lot, his parents too.”
“I know.” Clark said trying to keep his tone steady as Esther placed her hand in his. He thought of the last time he saw Mr. and Mrs. Davis. They looked hollowed out, like a pair of pumpkins carved into jack o'lanterns. They had brave faces, but there was nothing inside them.
Clark couldn't think of much else as he eased Esther into the window, her sleeveless top sliding up to expose some of her stomach. Her drop was much more graceful and he heard the soft tones of Merfey talking to her. By the sounds of it he was playing game show host again.
Clark shook his head before hanging his legs through the window frame and shimmying himself in so he was sitting on the edge. He hoped he didn’t rip his Levis, he’d catch hell from his dad if his folks knew he’d been screwing around here. He also hoped he and Esther could find a dark corner somewhere. The peek he’d had when he helped her down sent his teenage imagination reeling. Clark let out a steadying breath before sliding into his inky descent.