The Thing in the Corridor

It was the perfect horror-movie setup.  We were a gaggle of teenagers (repressed nerds, blondes, token minorities and all) going to explore the abandoned building on the hill.  Nicole claimed it used to be a military hospital. It did seem like the kind of place where tormented souls would lurk.  We walked to it through the dark swishing meadow.  Big moths fluttered up from the oak trees and flocked to the yellow wedges of light carved by our flashlights.  The twelve of us formed a tight knot.

The building was concrete, with rebar beams exposed like ribs and a patchy roof of cedar planks.  Two stories, courtyard in the middle.  All the doors had been torn out, so it was easy to get inside.  Broken glass snapped under our hiking boots. Rust crackled.  We tiptoed from room to room, tittering.  Once in a while a barn owl hooted, and we’d all scream and scramble, pushing each other against the wall, our headlamps strobing in panicked red.

Nicole wanted to play hide-and-go-seek.

“It’ll be epic,” she said, flicking a dreadlock over her shoulder.  “We came all the way here after all.” Nicole had a certain charisma. We usually did what she said.

“I don’t know.” I looked around—dark stains crept up the walls.

“Don’t worry,” she said.  “I’m black, so if this was a movie I’d die first.” Everyone laughed nervously.

“Yeah,” I said. “But I’m blonde, so I’ll die second.” A crescendo of wind over the roof dislodged a few paint flakes.  They whirled down, silhouetted against the walls, and we shivered.

“Okay.  Compromise.  How about pairs?”

We factioned off, and I was with Jonah.  We were friends on Facebook, but I didn’t know anything about him apart from rumors.  That he lived with his redneck dad at the edge of the subdivisions.  Was a Seventh Day Adventist and had a basement full of canned food for the apocalypse.  Quit the baseball team after making out with Matt Schofield, the starting pitcher.  We smiled and shrugged at each other.

Jonah and I scampered through the courtyard as Nicole and her partner counted to forty-five.  We paused before going up the stairs—coming down in a hurry would be hard—but we did.  On the second floor, we went through two rooms and into a sort of closet.

Bare pipes lined one wall.  The floor was plushy with moss. Rain had been coming through the roof, and tiny sprigs of green grew from the cracks.  I could hear the other group moving below. “Nice,” I said, and closed the door halfway.

Moonlight soaked in from a hole in the roof.  I sat down and crossed my legs.  Jonah followed suit.  Our flashlights lay in our laps, shooting low beams to the adjacent wall.

The quiet was suffocating.  Seconds dawdled like children reluctant to put on their shoes.  In the dark, the pull of another human was psychedelically strong.  Nothing sexual, or even romantic – it was something more primal, with a metallic edge and a gooey center. “You scared?” I asked Jonah.

“If I was here alone I’d shit myself.  But it’s all right in pairs.”

“Mm.”  Footsteps came up the staircase, went into the next room over.  I dropped my voice to a voice-flavored breath.  “Me too.”

The footsteps went back down the staircase. I let my shoulders down.  When I held up my flashlight, I could see the particles of steam that was my breath.

The footsteps grew fainter and fainter.

“I’ve got a chocolate bar,” I said.  “Wanna share?”

“Sounds dank.”  I extracted it from my pocket and stripped it open with a surgical exactness.  Even so, the crinkle reverberated around the room.  I snapped it down the middle and offered him half.

“Mm.”  He scooted an inch closer to accept it. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”  It was milk chocolate with almonds, my favorite.

We munched our chocolate.   A fat beetle bumbled across the cement.  I placed a crumb of chocolate in front of it.

Jonah nudged it with his ring finger. “Do bugs like chocolate?”

“Everyone does.” Sure enough, the beetle waggled his feelers at it and took a nibble.

“Oh my God.  He’s eating it. That’s freaky.”  Jonah chuckled.  “Kind of cute, though.”

We lapsed back into the quiet. I noticed graffiti on one wall, for the first time. Puffy letters I couldn’t read.

“Have you explored old buildings before?” I asked.

“Not really. Wait—never mind.”

“Never mind what?”  I took a bite of the chocolate.  The cold had made it waxy, so I let it soften on the tip of my tongue.  “It’s okay. I haven’t either.  I mean, I once snuck into my elementary school gym after hours, but that’s about it.”

“Yeah. I haven’t done something like this before, but I used to have dreams about place like this when I was little, I guess…”

My pelvic bones were being ground into the concrete, so I shifted my weight and our legs ended up touching.  My fleece pants were charged with a faint static.

Screams. We both bristled, hunkering against the wall. Then they dissolved into laughter and a chorus of found you!’s—we were okay again.

“Fuck.”

“That scared me.”

There was a warmth, dull but definite, where our legs were touching.  It was so rare to share body heat without a truckload of connotations.

“So. That dream you used to have.  What was it like?”

“Oh God.  It’s been so long.  But it’s weird, I remember everything.  I was in a long corridor.  Old green paint. An infinite number of rooms on either side, but they’re locked and I don’t have a key.  I’m being chased by something.  I don’t turn around, so I have no idea what it is, but I can hear these slurping noises.  I know that if I was able to get into one of the rooms it couldn’t follow me, but I don’t have a key.  So I just run, but it gets harder and harder till it catches me and I wake up.”

“Woah,” I said.  “When I was a kid, my worst dreams were just about dump-trucks.”

“Dump-trucks?”

“I know—it sounds stupid, right? I had this recurring dream where an evil raccoon was going to dump a load of garbage on me.”
“Actually that sounds pretty terrifying.”

“Really?  You think so?”
“I know little boys are supposed to love trucks, but they always seemed too big and gnashy. I hated them.”

“Huh. I hate them too.”

Screams.  Giggles.  I-found-you’s.  You-got-us’s coming from the floor below.  Only three more groups left to find.

My flashlight flickered. “We better save what’s left of the battery. Is it okay if I put it out?”

Jonah yawned.  “Fine by me.”

“Tension’s kind of tiring,” I said.

“You got that right.”

“Lap pillow?”

“I’d be down.”  He rested his head in my lap, I leaned back on the wall. He winked off his flashlight, submerging us in the darkness.

I rotated my hips so we were comfortable and let my shoulders drop. Syncing my breaths with his, the starlight held us.  The only thing tethering us was the damp concrete under my butt.

I counted the number of times air entered and left my lungs.

The found ones talked below.  They were blurred and echoey, like cracked recordings of people talking.

Hello? I asked the world.  I was not awake.  I tried my voice, and it was in my head, not my throat.  Scenery pixelated around me like a photo on the web, gaining definition as it loaded.

I was in the hallway.  We were in the hallway. Jonah and I faced each other. The doorways on either side had noble rounded tops.  The ceiling was ten or twelve feet up, and valuted, interspersed with garish florescent lights that didn’t match the architecture.  Plaster crumbled from under the festering pea-soup colored paint.  The floor was something you’d expect to see at a laundromat, a checkerboard of black and dingy white.  No windows, but the doors on either side of us were numbered.  113 on the right, 114 on the left.

“We’re here,” I said.

“Nothing’s changed…”  Jonah tried door 113.  It wouldn’t budge. His voice sounded like it was coming from underwater.

“So,” I said, scuffing my muddy boots against the wall.  “Where’s your monster?”

Speak of the Devil, my Grandmother had always said, and he will come.  I heard a dull gargle from behind me, followed by a trickling.  A mass of something liquid was gathering.  I didn’t turn around, but I imagined it was the color of the ocean at night, black tinged with midnight purple or murky green.  It was viscous and intestinal.  Noises that vibrated through the floor.

I yanked at 114.  No luck.

We both ran.  My lungs felt like sponge cake, saturated with dark mildew.  The drooling noise grew.

I was numb with adrenaline. I ran.  We passed 125, 130.  The corridor showed no sign of coming to an end, and our lead was slowing.  Jonah paused at door 132, wrenched the handle. No luck.  We ran on, the oozing was a pulsing typhoon now, suckling at the walls so they seemed to recede.  It was close enough that I could feel its wet aura, and we were exhausted.

I grabbed Jonah by the collar.  I squared my posture, made eye contact.  He knew.

We pulled into a bear hug, not in defeat but in defiance, and every synapse of our bodies roared.  My arms locked over his shoulder blades, heat from our sweating torsos merged. The hangnails at my nailbeds stood on end, my intestines momentarily stopped their gurgling, my spine reticulated like a serpent.

And so we became the Thing.  We weren’t strong, but we had an inexorable thirst to not be alone.  For the Thing, that thirst was fuel. We became huge and dark and oozing—two consciousnesses into one, then ten into one as the mice from the holes in the walls, then a hundred into one as the spiders in the corners, a thousand into one as the bacteria from under the tiles, a million into one as the virus in the air were sucked in.  We saw ourselves, our separate selves, running down the hallway.  And we chased ourselves past 133, 157, 200, 299.  Finally we reached the end of the corridor, at 344.  We stopped.  We saw ourselves with fawn-eyes, trembling and barely breathing.  We squeezed every drop of being out of ourselves, writing us out like an old dishrag.  We were the togetherness, the mob of every revolution, every lynching, every church ceremony.  We were terrifying.

Something small and cold was itching inside us.  We retched, it prickled and poked, and with some effort we coughed it up.  It was a copper key, the old kind, tarnished with a fleur de lis design on the handle.

The lights buzzed like a distant crowd, cheering.  The key was slick with saliva.  Good enough, it said.  You can let go now.  The tiny organisms left first, receding into the walls and whistling back on the air.  Then the rats and mice from the rooms on either side, then the invertebrates, and finally Jonah and I.  Each of us returned to our separate existence, sharing just space and time.

I bent over and picked up the key.  The saliva was hot, which should have grossed me out, but instead I felt a deep stillness.  Jonah guided my hand into the lock.  We let ourselves into room 300.  Inside, it was where we had been before: concrete floor, moss, graffiti, holes in the roof and night above.  We entered the empty closet, sat against opposite walls, smiled and shrugged. Nothing had to be said.

The jump-scare, if you could call it that, barged through the door with flashlights and yelling and adolescent sweat.  Startled awake by the noise, we accepted hugs and frightened anger in a daze. Necks stiff from the nap.  Why hadn’t we come out when the game was over?  Didn’t we hear their yelling?

Jonah yawned.  “Sorry.  Fell asleep.”

“In this place?  How?”

“Wasn’t scary together.”

I yawned, stood up and dusted off the seat of my pants.  We went out, past the door and the copper key-in-lock, down the stairs, together into the night.