This is a story I wrote for Every Photo Tells – it was their episode 115, and you can listen to it here. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, it is a podcast where they post a photo every month, and invite folks to write short stories around it. Then Katharina and Mick read it and podcast it.
I saw this picture, and knew I had to write a ghost story for it. I’d been toying with the idea of writing a story about Lance when he was just starting out as a ghost hunter for a while, and it just all fell together. Since he’s one of the main characters in Into Thin Air, which comes out tomorrow (squee!), I thought I’d bring this back. Also, it’s Halloween tomorrow, and what better time to give a ghost story?
Without further ado, here you go.
Every Photo Tells:
What’s Past is not Always Past
“Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Lance sighed, even as he squinted into the darkness within the building. “As opposed to what?” he asked, shining his flashlight down the hall. “It’s a good place to hunt for evidence, Gwen. That’s what we’ve been looking for.”
“It’s also a good place to fall and break a leg,” Gwen said, but she followed him through the open doorway readily enough. Gwen liked to worry about everything. By now, Lance was used to her grumbling.
“Just don’t fall,” he said, as she came up beside him. Her flashlight beam joined his, highlighting the hallway.
Not really a hallway, he corrected himself. More like an elongated entryway, spreading out from what must have been the admissions desk. The building had originally been a home, then it had briefly been an exclusive “retirement” home in the 1970s before being abruptly abandoned. No fire, no high-profile death or suicide, no malpractice – just sent the patients to other homes and shut its doors one day.
“This place was pretty exclusive, right?” Gwen said, playing her flashlight over walls suspiciously devoid of graffiti. Lance could still make out the faint impressions where paintings must have hung.
“Yeah. Dr. Miller catered to the Hollywood set,” he said, after the silence had stretched for a bit. “Mostly his wife’s friends.”
“Cordelia Stanton, the sixties’ starlet.” Gwen had read the files too. “Injured in a freak accident on the set of her last movie that severed her right leg at the knee.”
Lance nodded. “She went into a deep depression, so he renovated the house into a hospital and populated it with her friends.”
“I think I would have preferred a spa, in her spot. With a pool.”
“There are three pools, actually.” Lance dug into his backpack and pulled out a copy of the floor plans he’d gotten from the library. He spread the pages out on the marble tiles as Gwen knelt beside him. “Warm indoor, private lap indoor pool, also warm, one would assume, and an outdoor pool overlooking the ocean. Cordelia was an avid swimmer, even after she lost her leg.”
A crash from somewhere deep in the abandoned building had them both on their feet, peering into the darkness. If Lance hadn’t known the building was empty, he would have sworn someone had thrown someone else against a wall. Or a desk, or something.
Nothing else moved – time crept, as both Lance and Gwen strained their ears to hear anything. Nothing. They were alone.
“Well. That was interesting,” Gwen said. She looked at her watch. “It’s still only 5 pm. This place really is rocking.”
“I can’t wait to see what it’s like when the sun actually goes down,” Lance said, kneeling back down and running his fingers over the floor plans. “Let’s figure out where we want to go. I don’t think splitting up would be a good idea.”
“No, me neither.” Gwen knelt beside him, playing her flashlight over the floor plans. “But I think we definitely need to hit the private lap pool. Isn’t Cordelia supposed to be haunting it?”
“She and her husband vanished after the place closed,” Lance confirmed. “No more credit card payments, no nothing. They just vanished.”
“And you think they died here,” she guessed.
Lance shrugged. “It’s as good a theory as any,” he said, reaching into the backpack again. He handed her one of the two video cameras they’d brought with them. “Do you have the digital recorders?”
“Yes.” Gwen reached into her backpack and pulled six silver digital recorders out. “Where do you want to put them?”
He frowned as he considered the floor plans. “Keep two for us to use as we walk,” he said finally. “We’ll leave one at Cordelia’s pool, one here,” and he stabbed a finger on what had once been a grand ball room.
“Are you planning on hitting the basement?” Gwen asked.
“We probably should,” Lance said, nodding. “We can leave one there as well.”
“Which leaves one more.”
Lance looked at the floor plans, but nothing leapt out at him. That was the problem with a location like this – they had no idea where the activity was. No one had ever investigated the old hospital, which boggled his mind. After all, it was a perfect location. Something, or someone, had kept them away. “We’ll hold it and if we find a place with a lot of activity, we’ll set it up,” he said finally.
“Sounds good,” Gwen said, pulling a roll of masking tape and a pen from her bag. She labeled the recorders in her neat handwriting, then handed him two of them.
He stuffed them into his pockets and said, “Now, let’s go–“
Another crash cut him off, and both their heads snapped up. “Same area?” Gwen asked.
“I think so,” Lance said. “What the hell could be causing that?”
“Meth-addicted squirrels?” When Lance stared at her, she shrugged. “It’s possible. Not probable, but possible.”
“You are the weirdest person I’ve ever met,” he said, and rolled up the floor plans.
“That’s why you like me.” Gwen slung her bag back onto her shoulders and picked up her camera. “Ready?”
Lance finished stowing the plans, picked up his own camera, and took a look outside through the door they’d come in. It had been bright sunshine when they’d come in, less than ten minutes ago; now, the late afternoon sunshine was muted, as if clouds had rolled in.
“Ready,” he said, flipping to the nightvision setting on his camera. The old building was dark as night inside. The windows had been boarded up long ago, when it was abandoned. “Let’s go this way.”
As they made their way deeper into the old hospital, heading towards the grand ballroom, they came across other evidence that the building had been suddenly abandoned. One room looked like the patient had just stepped out, except for the thick dust that carpeted everything. The bed was even made, and there was a small table with a gooseneck lamp on it, the light trained down onto a small wingback chair. Another held old monitors, still plugged into wall sockets.
“This place is seriously creepy,” Gwen commented, shining her flashlight over a bookcase full of dusty tomes in what looked like an office or a study. “They didn’t take anything, did they?”
“Not anything that didn’t belong to the patients.” Lance wandered over to the bookcase. “These look ancient.”
Gwen started to answer, then paused. He looked back over his shoulder at her, but neither of them were moving. Which meant that the footsteps coming down the hallway were either another person, or the evidence they were hoping to find.
Moving very slowly and trying not to make a sound, Lance fished one of the digital recorders out of his pocket and turned it on. He and Gwen stared at each other as the footsteps (boots, with hard heels, his mind whispered) come closer. Were they about to be tossed out on their ears?
The door they had come in was still open. Without moving her feet much, Gwen twisted her body so her camera was facing the door.
“What are you seeing?” Lance hissed. His torso wouldn’t let him turn as completely around as she could.
“Not a damn thing,” she whispered back. The footsteps went right by the open door, and continued on down the hall.
“Let’s go!” Lance bolted out of the room, Gwen hot on his heels. The footsteps were ahead of them, not hurrying, but not going slow. And they saw…nothing. No form, no figures, no people. Just footsteps.
And then, as they burst into what was obviously the grand ballroom, the footsteps stopped. Lance and Gwen stopped, more than a bit confused and at the same time, exhilarated.
“Tell me you got that on the recorder,” she said, and when Lance held up the recorder, the red light still blinking, she whooped triumphantly. “Evidence!”
“The cameras should have caught it too,” he reminded her.
“Now what?” Gwen swung her camera around in a wide arc, looking at the remains of the grand ballroom.
“Let’s leave the recorder in here.” Lance imitated her, looking to see what they could find to leave the recorder on. There was a large dust-cloth covered object in the far corner, which turned out to be a piano when he peeked. “We’ll come back later and collect it on the way out.”
“Sounds good.” She wandered through the room, looking at the bare marble walls. “Can you imagine what this place looked like when it was open?” She began to waltz to music only she could hear, twirling over the floor with an invisible partner.
“No,” Lance admitted, watching her twirl around, one hand outstretched as if it held a skirt. “You’re such a girl sometimes, Gwen.”
“Bite me,” she said, continuing to twirl. “Trust me, some day you will be happy I’m a girl.”
“I didn’t say it was a bad thing,” he said, grinning. “It just surprises me sometimes. You seem to enjoy being a tomboy.”
Gwen stopped in the middle of the room and trained her camera on him. “The two are not mutually exclusive.” She started to say something else, but stopped as they both heard the footsteps again.
Definitely men’s footsteps, Lance thought, looking around to see where they were coming from. Gwen pointed to an open doorway across from both of them. He nodded, training his camera on the door as she filmed him, so they could document that neither of them were moving as the footsteps approached them.
And then his shoulders sagged a bit in disappointment as an older man came into his view.
“I thought I heard voices,” the man said, walking into the ballroom. Gwen and Lance both sighed and walked over to him. “May I ask what you are doing here?”
“We’re paranormal investigators. We thought this place was abandoned.” Lance pulled one of their brand-new business cards and handed it to him. “I’m Lance, this is Gwen. Are you the caretaker?”
The man looked at the card with interest, then laughed softly and tucked it into his breast pocket. “Yes, I suppose you could call me that.” His face crinkled into a mass of amused wrinkles. “Why would you come here to investigate?”
“Because we were curious.” Gwen shrugged. “It’s an abandoned hospital, with a mysterious past. We figured it must be haunted.”
“Good thought.” The man nodded. “I don’t blame you. Have you caught anything?”
“Well, we thought we did, but it might have just been you,” Lance said, and they told him about the footsteps.
“This old place has a lot of ghosts, my boy, but they may not come out for you,” the caretaker said. “Would you like a tour?”
“Yes, please!” Lance could hardly believe his own ears. “Do you mind if we tape it?”
“Not at all.”
The caretaker (who said his name was Charles) proved to be an amazing tour guide. He took them all over, and agreed to let them leave the digital recorders for the night, but he refused to let them stay. “The house is not really in a good condition where I would feel comfortable with that,” he said, and although Lance didn’t see any evidence of disrepair, he didn’t push the point. Especially given where he was about to take them.
“This was the private quarters for Dr. Miller and his wife,” Charles said, opening a large wooden door. “It’s almost a separate wing.”
“Wow,” Gwen whispered, as they walked in. “It’s like it’s still being lived in.”
Unlike the rest of the hospital, these rooms had open windows, and a fresh breeze, with just the faintest hint of spring chill, touched their faces. There was a fire burning in the brick fireplace in the mammoth living room, and there was no dust anywhere.
“Do you live here now?” Gwen asked Charles.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s the only part of the building I usually go in, though. I leave the rest to memories.” He turned to Lance. “I haven’t changed anything since the Doctor and Mrs. Miller, as we knew her, left.”
“You knew them?” Lance asked, not believing their luck.
“Oh yes. I was an orderly here at the hospital.” Charles smiled. “Why else would they have asked me to stay?”
“What happened, Charles? Why did they leave?” Gwen asked. “No one seems to know, but something had to happen.”
“Not necessarily,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s just time to close things down. We’re too enamored of the bad things in life, I think, so we assume there was a bad ending to everything. Sometimes, there is just an end.”
“But it was so sudden,” Gwen protested, as Lance filmed them. “The papers said they just closed the doors and moved the patients out!”
“That’s because that’s what people wanted to hear,” Charles said. “In reality, there was no real removal. We just stopped accepting folks.” He looked out the window. “We weren’t a real hospital, you know. More like a spa, to be honest. As the patients left, we let them know that they couldn’t come back.”
“But we saw medical equipment!” Lance said. “Monitors, and things like that.”
“Yes, some of our patients were in fragile health,” Charles said, nodding his head. “Dr. Miller was an excellent general practitioner, and he and the nurses and we orderlies had our patients’ care well in hand. But they were never here to stay long. The average stay was about three months – long enough to rest, not long enough to get on Mrs. Miller’s nerves.”
“Did anyone die here?” Gwen asked.
“Yes,” Charles said. “But not violently. There were…” He paused, obviously looking back through his memories. “Six, that I remember. Three were terminal cancer patients who asked to hospice here. One was a freak accident, and two others succumbed to illness while here. That was it.”
“What was the accident?” Lance said.
“One of Mrs. Miller’s brothers, Nathan, died here when he fell off the cliff. He’d been out walking and strayed too close to the edge. It crumbled underneath his feet. His body washed up on a beach about six miles away two days later. Mrs. Miller was inconsolable for about a year.”
“Wow.” Gwen shook her head. “And it was just an accident.”
“Yes. We’d all been warned about the cliff edge. After that, Dr. Miller had a fence put up.” Charles looked at his watch. “Dear me, it’s getting late. Come, children, I need to get you out before 9 p.m.”
“Why?” Lance asked, as they followed him out into the darkened halls and back to the front door they’d come in a few hours before.
“Because those are the rules,” Charles said, as he ushered them outside. “No visitors after 9 p.m. Now, you can come back tomorrow after 10 a.m. to get your recorders.”
“Thank you,” Gwen said, smiling at the older man. “This has been wonderful. And thank you for letting us leave the recorders.”
“Yes, thank you,” Lance added. “Do you want to know if we find any evidence?”
“If you wish,” Charles said, and he smiled back at them. “Good night.”
The two watched the heavy door close, and Lance sighed as they heard the unmistakable click of a lock.
“Well, that was weird,” Gwen said, turning her camera off and stowing it in her backpack. “Why didn’t you mention there was a caretaker?”
“Because I didn’t know,” Lance said. “No one ever said there was.” He stowed his camera as well. “Oh well, let’s go back and look at these tomorrow, when we have the recorders too. Pizza?”
“Sounds good to me.”
The next morning dawned bright and cool, with a fresh breeze. Gwen had to work, so Lance took himself back to the abandoned hospital to get the recorders. He wondered if Charles would let him look around a bit more, since it was now daylight.
Soft smells of daffodils and growing grass tickled his nose as he walked up the driveway towards the hospital. It was good to be outside again in the spring, he thought. Winter is always so dreary.
Lance climbed up the front steps, wondering if it would be open. I hope so, he thought. I doubt the bell works, and there’s no way Charles will hear me banging.
The front door was open, though. He pushed his way through and then paused, looking at the door itself.
Charles had locked it last night. He and Gwen had both heard the latch click. But the door he now held in his hand had no latch.
Staring at the door, at the broken lock, Lance felt a frisson of…something sneak down his back. Coincidence, he thought, letting the door shut. Just coincidence.
The dust was still thick on the floor, but he could see the footprints from the night before: his sneakers, and Gwen’s moccasins. That was it.
Two sets. Not three.
His mind spinning, Lance went down the dimly-lit hall towards the grand ballroom. There, sitting on the covered grand piano, was all four digital recorders they had left in the hospital, lined up in order.
“And there was no one there?” Gwen asked later, when Lance told her what he’d found.
“No one,” Lance confirmed. “Not to mention the fact that I went over to the county clerk’s office. There is no caretaker. The estate has been abandoned for over thirty years.”
“Then who did we interview?” Gwen demanded.
Lance laid a newspaper article on the table. “I did find this.”
She picked up the article, which included a picture of the old man they’d talked to, his arm around a smiling older woman. “Dr. Charles Miller and Cordelia Stanton-Miller, at her niece Jennifer’s wedding,” she read out loud, then looked up at him. “We interviewed a ghost?”
“I’m not sure,” Lance said. “I want to see those tapes.”
They watched the films in silence. Everything was there, everything they remembered – except the man that they had interviewed. Throughout all of them, Gwen talked as if she was holding a conversation…with thin air.
“He was there,” Gwen said at the end of it. “He was there.”
“Something was there,” Lance said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “I’m just not sure what.”
“So now what?” she demanded.
“Now, we figure out what that something was.”
- (writing/updates/personal) Good intentions rarely survive the first fight
- (writing) Publish day!