“It’s right across the street from that nuthouse, Arcane Institute,” Lou said with a grin.
“Oh, come on,” Mario said, rolling his eyes. “I know you’re trying to give me the creeps with this whole thing, but that’s laying it on a bit thick, don’t you think?”
“No, I’m serious,” Lou said, practically laughing. “Way back when, Arcane was just a regular hospital, not a nuthouse. When World War II broke out, the hospital had all these houses built so the doctors and nurses could live close by just in case of an emergency—like an air attack, or something. After Arcane became a nuthouse, they used the village for halfway houses for the patients who were mostly okay, but still needed some supervision.”
“Uh-huh,” Mario said as Lou’s tires bumped onto the gravel behind a thick row of tall pine trees, which hid the view of their car from the main road.
“What do you think those are for, then?” Lou asked and pointed out his window. Mario leaned over and looked where Lou was pointing. He saw several tall, metal structures, no wider than a tree—and at the very top were large bullhorns: air raid sirens. A chill rode down his spine.
“Those were either for airstrike warnings,” Lou said, “or if one of the nutballs escaped.”
The boys got out of the car and looked around. The village was years abandoned, and contained more than fifty one-story houses in various states of disrepair. The lawns were overgrown, with some of the patches as tall as the boys’ chests. While some of the houses looked like a stiff breeze would send them collapsing into dust, some houses looked eerily brand new, as if they had just been built.
The village’s design was fairly simplistic: a single, U-shaped road etched through the place, beginning at the main road and reaching the far end of the village before curving and leading back out to the main road again. Only now both entrances were chained, forbidding trespassers.
Lou turned back to the main road. Cars hardly ever passed by at this time of day—the area was quite rural and didn’t receive much traffic. He could scarcely see the wooden sign for Arcane Psychiatric Institute across the street. The hospital itself was set back deep in the woods—the structure itself could not be seen from the road.
“Ready?” Lou asked and took out his camera. “I haven’t been to the back of the place yet. Let’s go there.”
“Fine,” Mario said. His heart was beginning to rapidly beat already, and he didn’t know why. Was it the fear of the place? Or the rush of getting caught? Maybe both? He wasn’t sure.
“Watch out for ticks,” Lou said matter-of-factly. “Stay out of the grass when you can help it.”
“Great,” Mario muttered.
“And watch out for snakes, too,” Lou said, his eyes on the ground as they walked.
“Anything else?” Mario asked.
“Bigfoot,” Lou said and the two boys laughed, though Mario’s was uneasy. He stole a cursory glance back to the car, which became more and more obscured by the sea of high grass as the boys walked deeper into the village.
Mario glanced at each house. Some of their front doors hung agape, long forced open by other adventurous kids. Many of the windows were boarded shut, and those that weren’t had been shattered by vandals, bad weather, or time itself. One of the houses they passed even had its entire front wall missing, and they could see right into the living room, where a soiled couch sat covered in plaster that had chipped off the ceiling.
“That house right there,” Lou said, pointing to the wall-less structure, “has a bag of groceries sitting in the kitchen. The cabinets are open, too. It’s like someone was in the middle of putting their groceries away when they just fled the place.”
“Why?” Mario asked. “What drove all these people away? Was it a toxic spill or something?”
“No one knows,” Lou answered. “Or will talk about it, anyway.”
Another chill fell down Mario’s spine.
“Cops ever catch you in here?” Mario asked.
“I got caught once,” Lou said. “That’s why I always bring my camera with me. Cops huff and puff until you explain you’re a photography student and you just want to take some pictures. After that they leave you alone.”
The boys didn’t say anything else until they made it to the back of the village. One house in particular caught Mario’s attention—the one at which Lou stared intensely, his camera slung around his neck. The front door was closed tight, and every window was boarded.
“This is the one,” Lou said.
“Why this one?” Mario asked.
“Just look at it,” Lou said. “No one’s ever been in this one. See the padlock on the front door?”
Mario looked and he saw the lock—rusted from years of rain. But it still looked to be intact.
“I want to see what one of these houses looks like—the way it was left all those years ago,” Lou said.
And with that, Lou began walking through the tall grass toward the front door.
“What about the ticks and snakes?” Mario asked, desperate to find a reason not to follow his friend to the ominous house. Being in the village was creepy enough, but something about that house in particular he found especially unnerving.
Lou ignored Mario’s question and made it to the front door. He jiggled the padlock and saw that it was still very sturdy. He raised a foot and kicked against the door. Hard. The sound echoed off the other houses and the hot, darkening sky above, but otherwise did not give.
Lou kicked again and again, finally managing to knock a hole through the ancient but sturdy wood. He kicked at the hole, making it bigger and bigger until it was big enough to fit through.
He turned back with a gleam in his eye.
“Comin’ in?” he teased.
Going inside that house was the last thing in the world Mario wanted to do, but with a sigh of surrender, he made his way over to the front door and followed his friend through the new hole.
The house smelled like every kind of foul odor Mario had ever experienced. Garbage, decay, waste, chemicals—it all rolled into one and had the power to knock the both of them back a step.
“Ugh,” Mario groaned. “Thanks for bringing me here, by the way.”
“We’ll get used to the smell,” Lou said, his hand over his nose. “I hope so, anyway.”
He walked over to a door and pulled it open. Inside was a large box filled with dolls and teddy bears, puzzles and games.
“Guess whoever lived here had kids,” Mario began. “And what kinda freak, fresh out of the nuthouse, has kids, huh?” he wryly asked, insinuating Lou’s stories about the place were nonsense.
“What makes you think it was a kid playing with this stuff?” Lou countered. “And not a mental patient?”
Mario felt fear all over again. He suddenly envisioned someone with a shaved head and hospital scrubs sitting in the middle of the living room and playing with a doll, or a fire engine. He pictured their eyes as vacant and lifeless…and completely black.
Mario suddenly sensed something behind him. He felt air puff against his back and heard the whisper of movement. He whipped around and saw something duck around a corner and vanish into another room. He heard something else, then. Something squeaky. The springs of a mattress.
“Lou, let’s get out of here,” Mario said. “I swear I just heard something.”
“You’re crazy,” Lou said, dismissively. He raised his camera to snap a photo of the toy box. “We had to kick our way in here. No way anyone else was inside. Maybe a raccoon, but definitely not a person. They would’ve starved to death long ago.”
Mario heard another noise. And it wasn’t the squeak of a mattress this time. It was a thud, good and loud.
“That I heard,” Lou said, his eyes darting to Mario’s with sudden fear.
“Come on, let’s go,” Mario said, already making his way to the front door.
“I want to see what it is,” Lou said and crept over to the small hallway where the thud had sounded.
“You’re crazy, I’m getting out of here,” Mario said. “Come on, just leave it. I don’t care what it’s in there. I just want to be far away from it.”
“I see a bedroom door,” Lou said. “It’s closed. I’m going to kick open the door and take a quick photo, and then we’re booking it out of here. “
“Why the hell would you do that?” Mario demanded, his whisper threatening to turn into an angry yell.
Lou ignored the question and proceeded down the hallway. Soon he disappeared entirely from view, but Mario could hear the floorboards squeak with each of Lou’s footsteps.
“Lou, you moron,” Mario muttered to himself. He remained huddled by the front door, waiting for a sign to either come to Lou’s rescue or to get the hell out of there. He heard Lou’s footsteps stop momentarily.
“Get ready to run!” Lou yelled and Mario heard him kick the door open, followed by the sound of his camera taking a photo. The small hallway momentarily filled with white light from the flash and then Lou began screaming.
“Run!” he bellowed, and Mario did. He ducked right out the hole in the front door, out into the sudden darkness of the night. He ran into the high grass and tripped, landing face-first in dead vegetation. He quickly pulled himself off the ground and began running to the car again.
In the darkness Mario turned back and could barely see Lou run through the hole in the front door, his camera grasped in his hand, following. Once Mario saw that he had made it safely out of the house, he turned his attention back to the car and ran at full speed. Making it there, he nearly slid across the hood to the passenger side. He threw open the car door and collapsed into the seat.
“Come on, come on!” Mario urged his friend. When he heard the driver’s side door open, Mario leaned his head back against his seat and shut his eyes, trying to catch his breath. The smell of the house was still embedded in his nostrils and he nearly gagged again. He wondered if the smell would ever go away.
“You suck for bringing me here,” Mario said finally and looked at Lou to see if he was okay.
A decrepit, masticated human-shaped thing wearing torn and tattered hospital scrubs sat before him. Dark gray hair covered almost every inch of its face and was splashed with Lou’s blood. His eyes weren’t pure black like Mario had earlier envisioned; no, they were instead pure white—caused by living in the darkness of the house for all those years.
The thing lifted the camera to Mario’s face and took a photo, the flash blinding him.
“New toy,” said the thing, its voice sounding like it had been scraped with sandpaper.
Mario made it halfway out of the car before the thing’s long fingernails pierced his back and clenched his spine, snapping it in half with one effortless tug.