I know they are coming. I can hear them, a sound, something in the background, like the winter wind, blowing outside the window of my mind; their constant whispers, their incessant scheming, their plans to make me stay with them. They keep telling me how no one will believe in my gift; they never have before. But the ghosts are whispering today about Forest Hills, a sanitarium that claims to understand people like me who suffer from my condition. They assure me, Forest Hills cannot help me, but if I just talk to them, I will feel better. They tell me I need them, and they need me.
The doctor on the phone tells me I need to come down to Forest Hills Sanitarium, one of the oldest and most respected facilities of its kind in Salem, Massachusetts. Founded by Malcolm Forest, he explains, it’s across from the Hillcrest cemetery, a beautiful view the patients found restful. The presence of the cemetery quells those who might wish to mock or otherwise speak ill of the residents. He tells me there is something about Hillcrest that keeps people civil. He says he doesn’t truly understand it but the effect has been a balm to everyone who lives there. I’ve had my own experience with the place already, but his words were…comforting. Something I knew too little of in my exile.
The ghosts flicker in and out of sight as I pack my bags. My room at the hotel has been my home for over eight years or was it ten, since my wife and child…
I need my laudanum. Where is it? Just a spoonful or two should be enough; I find a seat for a moment and the chatter of spirits fades.
Yes, he assures me they would be able to help. They have a full-time staff, some of the best clinicians available. He bragged about a new technique called “electrical therapy” which had been enjoying great success with many of their more severe patients. He lets me know I probably won’t be one of those. I am relieved. Even now electricity strikes me as a bit dangerous. It hasn’t stopped them from lighting the streets or some people’s homes with it. I have at least one ghost, Harold, who claims to have died by its light-giving hand.
There he is now. He is timely and arrives around three o’clock every day, waxing on about how wonderful electricity is and how it will be everywhere one day, mark his words, people will use electricity for everything, light, heat, moving things and machines of complexities unimaginable.
He probably died from all of the crazy prognosticating he did, rather than paying attention to his job. Harold looks up from his ranting about electricity and stares right at me. He seems different today. Then I remember it’s the anniversary of his death. He looks at me and his eyes pierce my soul. He reaches out and touches my chest. In my haze, I just sit there as his icy hand reaches out and I feel the strange tingle starting at my chest and filling my limbs. Surely it’s just the laudanum numbing me.
He floats closer to me and I can see the street behind him as if I was there, then a traffic accident behind him, I see a cable fall and land on his shoulder. His hand grabs me, reaching into my chest, over my heart and then he screams, a sound which fills me with dread. Then I feel the surge, the electricity in my body, my heart flutters; I scream in unison until I fall to the ground unconscious, smoking.
When I wake it’s quiet. Harold is gone. And so are the others, they probably grew weary of waiting for me to awaken. For a time I knew no sleep, now the periods of sleep have grown longer and deeper, some say it’s the laudanum, but I cannot, no, I will not stop its use, no matter how terrible it may make me feel, for it is only with it, do I, for a time, have peace. This moment feels different, I feel larger than myself, transcendent even as if I can see something, am aware of something I did not know before. A deep breath, I feel calm and centered. I hurry while the feeling lasts.
I make the most of this silent period by finishing the packing of my meager belongings. I have a moment of nostalgia about the place as I pack up my writing, paper, quills, and ink. I have until a few years ago sold a few penny dreadfuls to supplement my living working at the Salem Register, a daily paper whose readership has grown both in popularity and scope during my time there.
Mr. Arthur Penrose, my employer has been very generous with his help and I am indebted to his kindness. He aided me at my lowest point. I wish I could talk to him now, but I know if I don’t hurry when they return I shall lose my will to head to Forest Hills and instead slip into madness. Forgive me Arthur, when I am well, I shall return to help you as you have helped me.
My secret passion of writing and Arthur’s printing at night, of my penny dreadfuls, has allowed me to amass the funds I will be using to stay at the sanitarium. The residents of Salem may have a history of hunting witches, but they also seem to have a penchant for reading about them too. My latest work, Flying Potion was a wildly successful, if hidden pleasure partaken of by many of the locals who outwardly decry my work while secretly buying it.
I close the door behind me, leaving a letter for my landlady; of all the people in my life, she will be missed the least. Surly, short-tempered, ill-mannered but fortunate enough to have her rich husband die and leave her this hotel. Rumors abound regarding his death; only I know the truth and he tells me over and over how she poisoned his absinthe, his secret sin, with the petals of flowers most dire, the flavor was masked by the absinthe and covered her evil deed.
Even he only discovered this after his death, when he refused to leave his home to journey to the great beyond; his hatred of her transcended life and death. Even in death, he could not be free of her. Mayhap there is love in that hate as well. Few emotions stir such contrary feelings.
He haunts her and me, her for his death, me for being able to hear him as he bemoans his fate. He stands just outside her door. I can see him, waiting for her to leave for the evening repast. I shall not miss either of them.
His awareness focused on her, he does not see me leave and placing the last rent I shall ever pay in a tray by the door along with a key worn smooth with my use. I am free; my last obligations made or ignored.
The streets were hard cobbles, and I could hear the sounds of perambulators and horses in equal measure. The evening was brisk, cold, and unpleasant. It matched my mood perfectly. I kept a quick pace, reminding me of my days in the military, so long ago when I was young; idealistically believing I could change the world.
I think my cynicism had finally caught up to me like getting older did. A little at a time, in a creeping fashion, challenging me, relieving me of my youth, my hopes and in great and terrible moments, my dreams of love, of family, of self. I was a shadow of that boy, so bold, so fearless. I huddled in my long coat, my lanky body made lean by hunger, by fear, by a lack of interest in life. They found me again; maybe because I was already so close to being dead.
I saw them mingling with the living. Lovers walking arm in arm. A macabre dance, one dead, one living, both subsisting on the memories of their lives together, whispering about what they planned to do with their futures. I brought my sleeve to my mouth as I passed them in the street. I stifled a gasp as they both looked at me, almost knowing that I intruded into their private moment. I sucked in the cold evening air and rushed past them. They forgot me momentarily, returned to their conversation. The living shook their heads, the dead equally disapproved of the display.
Police chased criminals into traffic, bakers plied their craft, aromatic whispers of delicious confections wafted through the streets, turning heads living and deceased, both hungry for the moments the bread retrieved from their broken hearts and broken lives.
A shadow swept through the streets, overlooking everyone. The living shudder, not sure of what they felt. The dead stopped moving, dropped and cowered until it passed; the Consumption; the specter of Death in our times. The specter paused — kissed two passersby on the lips gently, each heading in a different direction. Both stopped to meet a group and the specter became two shadows that fell upon each group.
When the specter left, all of their shadows left with him. All save one. A hearty fellow, strong and fit, he was the only one who cast a shadow in the evening light. No one noticed except me. The specter passed me and put his finger to his lips, shushing me before moving away through the crowd. I would have been speechless in any event.
What would I tell them? You are all doomed? The specter of Death has stolen your lives whilst you caroused and made merry? I think not. If I weren’t already on my way to a sanitarium they would certainly be trying to carry me there, apace.
Fear of consumption still swept the city after several recent outbreaks. The slightest cough brought hooded looks as eyes turned toward the offender. Everyone lost someone during the last two years. Their agonies, families wailing as loved one died and children were lost haunted my days and their deaths railing against the unfairness of it all, my nights.
As I approached the edge of town, black crows laughed at me as I turned up the road toward Forest Hills. I had always known it to be there, and remembered as a child, sneaking to see it and the people who would be taken here. My friends and I saw these unfortunates, sometimes raving mad, screaming at the top of their lungs, other times quietly drooling in the care of a physician. We noted when we got close, it was hard to tell the caretakers from the cared for, as the glint of madness seemed just as bright in all their eyes.
As we got older, we stopped coming. It was the cemetery. Right next door to the sanitarium, its eerie graves grew to be a much more terrifying place as we learned about the restless dead; tales told to us by our friends and families of children who went missing if they tarried too long there after dark. And as some of our family members found themselves as residents of Hillcrest cemetery, we considered the place less and less a refuge from our parents and guardians. But Forest Hills maintained its mystique as a place of damaged people and the madmen who cared for them.
I would make one more trip there as a young man before vowing to never come back. I took my wife there after the death of our daughter. I watched her die at the age of six, a shadow of herself. Her mother, my dearest Diedra could not, nay would not, leave her side for days at a time. I sat with her when I could take her mother to her bed. Our daughter, Martha was a child we had not expected to be able to have. Diedra had been barren for the first ten years of our marriage. We were deeply in love and our inability to have children sat poorly with us even as we struggled to maintain our relationship during those early years.
And then, a miracle, she was with child; I never saw her more happy, more radiant. The magic of being with child always seemed an exaggeration to me, hyperbole spoken by women to keep them cheerful during the hardships of childbirth, but Diedra truly was alive, more so than she had ever been in all the time I knew her. I cherish those days knowing what was to follow.
Martha was born on time and Diedra was inseparable from the child. She doted on her and for most of Martha’s childhood; no one could have ever said a child was better loved. But one night, that same night, Diedra and Martha returned from the market. They went together and when they came back to the house, they had a stranger with them. They did not see him. I was not even sure I saw him. As he came in with them, he shushed me, his finger to his lips and I was dumbstruck, unable to speak.
They talked about the market, her bird-like chirping in syncopation with her mother’s musical voice, he stood in the corner of the house watching with glittering eyes; a stare hungry with anticipation. I closed my eyes for a moment and when I reopened them, he was gone. Only his chill remained. That night Martha developed a cough we at first thought was just a summer cold and that it would be gone as swiftly as it came. But that wasn’t true. That same cough came to many of my neighbors soon after.
After a time, no one left home, many because they couldn’t, the rest didn’t dare. We huddled in the dark waiting and hoping to not hear another wail in the distance. Sometimes a day or even two would pass. No matter their distance I could hear the dying passing into that final night. I woke from dreams, dripping sweat and going to my daughter’s room to see my wife sitting with her.
He came for her nearly six months later. She appeared to get better briefly and could talk but never maintained any strength. We could see it was only a matter of time. Every second was precious. During those final days, the two of them were bound together and for a moment I could see them in a way I had never before. They were truly one single being stretched between two lives. Martha lived because Diedra had willed her into existence.
When Martha died He was at my door. The same strange man, in a black suit this time and a long overcoat and hat. He knocked politely. I knew who it was before he knocked. His footfalls echoed along the street and he made several stops before he came to our house. I heard the cries of fathers mourning their sons and mothers their daughters. Children collectively screamed for parents who would never answer their calls. He was dutiful and spared no one. Nor listened to any impassioned pleas. I lived on the last house on the street. I counted his steps. They resounded like thunder in my head. I answered the door.
Diedra came to my daughter’s door. Martha had slipped back into a fever and was hot and sweating. Her coughing released blood and the gurgling in her chest returned this time worse than ever. Her agony was apparent. Diedra looked as if she would bar his way.
He took off his hat and coat and helped Diedra to a chair. The look on her face spoke of her resignation. He touched her head and went into Martha’s room. I followed.
A terrible cough racked her, she sat up in bed and heaving… blood flew everywhere. He never appeared to rush and as he came to her side at the bed he eased his hand behind her back and propped her up. As soon as he touched her, her coughing stopped and her breathing eased. Her eyes opened and they were clear and bright for the first time in days. She reached out to me. I took her hand, covered in her dark blood in the candle-lit room and held her for those last seconds. He let her go and she fell back to the bed.
We walked out the door, I was covered in blood, he impeccably clean and his face composed, no emotion could be seen. Diedra released a sound, I had heard far too often in these last days. A gut wrenching sound, which brought tears unbidden to my eyes and then she slumped over from her chair. He reached out to her and I interposed myself between him and her, catching her in my arms. Her sobs were quiet things as if all the sound she could make had already been made.
He turned to look at me and his look spoke to me. Give her to me.
Never, I replied my eyes burning with hatred of what He was and what he had done.
She will still come to me. She is broken now, his outstretched hand said.
Then I will mend her. Get out. I put my back to him
He slowly, ruefully, put his hat and coat on. As he walked out he looked back once more. A glint of emotion, for only a second, shone there. He turned his collar up and strode off into the night, leaving the door open, allowing a cold, ill wind to sweep away what was left of both Martha and Diedra, that night.
Diedra neither ate nor slept in the days after Martha’s passing. She lay in bed, barely mobile, barely conscious. She would even soil herself and I cleaned her as best I could. I made food for her, she did not eat. I talked to her. She did not speak, nor even acknowledge my presence. I would leave to work, finding her right where I left her upon my return. I would do this for nearly a year before the murmurings of the town became a hideous roar of disapproval. Living in her filth they would say, barely sane they would say, a madwoman to come murder them in their sleep they would say.
I did not dignify their ranting but I knew if she did not eat beyond the tiny morsels she took to sustain her, she would soon perish. The last night she was with me, I prepared everything she had ever loved, packed it and cleaned and dressed her. She was little more than a marionette, standing there in our house, following my voice, barely any life in her at all. I explained I would be taking her to Forest Hills. I told her it was best for her. They would be able to care for her, feed her, and keep her clean all day long. This was what I had been told and I believed them. That morning we shuffled our way up the hill, surrounding by a spring morning after a long and harsh winter. I hoped this would soothe her somehow but she could not see it.
They took her in, the place was drab but clean. The other clients were well cared for and while there was the occasional shout, no one seemed ill-treated, as I had heard in gossip from many of the townsfolk. I would come to see her on occasion but she seemed not to know me any more than the staff that tended her and after two years, I vowed never to see her or this place again. As I walked from the sanitarium, I looked into the cemetery and for the first time noticed the sounds coming from it. I had always heard them but only recently realized where they were coming from.
That day and every day after it for fifteen years has been a living hell.
The dead spoke to me now all the time, telling me of their troubles, of the in-laws, of their displeasure with how they were buried, or what they would have done better if they had lived, or about the specter and his black suit, and what they would do if they ever had the chance to confront him. This constant chatter drove me slowly mad. I tried ignoring it, I tried talking with them, I bargained with them, and I pleaded with them. I became an addict to drown them out, using laudanum at night between leaving my job and dawn before I returned to my work.
I made my peace with them until now. Once I got to Forest Hills and their electroshock therapy, I would be free of their incessant nattering and would again know blessed silence, the silence of the grave. Yes, graves before I knew of the restless dead.
Imagine my shock when I reached the top of the incline to find Forest Hills in ruins. From the looks of it, a fire had taken place. But why hadn’t I heard of it? The remains of the building looked as if it were nearly a decade ago. But it simply couldn’t be the case. The cemetery next door also seemed to have suffered from the ravages of time, overgrown, with both weeds and ivy growing over the tombstones. The evening sun was nearly setting and I could see the town from the hilltop, the blood red light colored the otherwise drab buildings of Salem.
I suddenly realized I did not hear anything. No cries, no tales of woe, nothing. I looked back at the sanitarium and it was restored to its former glory. He stood in the doorway. She was with him.
Welcome to Forest Hills. You will have plenty of work to do here, Speaker. He held out his hand and his welcome was clear to me. Diedra taking both his hand and mine ushered me into the door. I saw Martha running down the corridor to me and she leaped into my arms. He closed the door behind us and I could swear I heard the sounds of a great fire somewhere in the distance. The light from the fire filled the frame of the door as he ushered us away into the darkness. (3,759 words)
My Restless Dead© Thaddeus Howze 2012, All Rights Reserved