Glass crunches beneath Meg’s new white sneakers. She jumps. The sound is sharper and louder in the abandoned halls.
Meg looks down. She moves her shoe; angry cracks spider-web across the surface of a broken mirror. In the shards, her eyebrows knit together. When she shines her flashlight down, the light fractures and illuminates the dilapidated plaster walls. Meg notices a round table covered in long-dead chrysanthemums. Dazzled, she doesn’t see the undulating shadow that creeps behind her along the forgotten stairwell.
Her adventure began as a dare; a Rite. Ethan, Mike, and Meg’s older brother, Jesse, promised she could come with them to Olivia Larson’s party on Halloween. Being invited to a Grade 12 party—especially as a lowly Freshman—was like winning the lottery. Meg would become high school royalty, but first, she would need to spend a night in the Sanatorium.
Armed with a flashlight, a bundled sleeping bag, her cellphone, and an extra battery pack, Meg pokes around the old tuberculosis facility, Valley Acres Sanatorium. She grew up hearing stories about the haunted wards and the gruesome deaths that took place here. Urban legends about experimental treatments in the hospital wing, lunatic doctors housed in cabins on the edge of the property, and a body chute built into the morgue. Old tunnels connect each building like the bowels of a giant monster.
Meg opens a pair of splintered French doors. Beyond is a balcony that overlooks the courtyard. Imagination inspires her. She can almost see the wicker wheelchairs positioned in a circle around the balcony. Patients with hollow eyes and sunken cheeks are forced to sit with blankets across their laps until the sickness claims them. Meg shudders. She wants to go back inside, to find a corner to sleep, but when she takes a step back, her body rejecting the sad memory before her, she steps into something hard.
That wasn’t there before, she thinks.
The solid thing that Meg has backed into might be a chest. Frozen, her own blood thrumming in her ears, Meg feels the rise and fall of breath. There’s an intimacy in standing this close to someone, and when the initial attack of fear passes, Meg hopes that it will be Ethan when she turns around. Ethan, with his easy smile and paint-stained fingers. She wants to kiss him. The unmistakable sensation of those artist’s hands gripping her shoulders sends a delicious thrill through Meg. She smiles. A cold cheek presses against hers.
“You should not be here alone.”
The voice is throaty. Not Ethan. Meg’s smile evaporates. She looks down. The hands resting on her shoulders are grey; the fingernails black and decaying.
Meg’s jaw unhinges. Her scream echoes across the courtyard. She spins.
The room is still large and empty. With shaking hands, Meg pulls out her cell phone. She’s not sure if she plans on calling Jesse or starting an IG Live. The backlight on the phone glows against her face for a split second, then blinks out. Dead.
Meg fumbles to pull the battery pack from her bag. She plugs in the charger. The device turns on, and Meg begins to dial her brother. Suddenly, the smell of compost—of rot—fills the large room. The odour is so oppressive that Meg gags. She abandons the phone call. Then turns on her camera.
He’s there. He’s always been there. He’s never been able to leave. Meg begins to video the darkroom, and he descends on her again. His black nails and withering hands reach out to her as though she belongs to him. Instinct forces her backward. She tries to run.
The balcony banister is gone in parts. There’s nothing to stop her fall. Her foot meets the air in panic. Then she goes down.
At first, Meg thinks that she’s been swaddled in her sleeping bag. Morning sunshine colours her closed eyelids red and orange. Then, she hears the beeping. It’s not morning at all. She opens her eyes and is blinded by the hanging fluorescent lights.
Someone squeezes her hand. Bile rises in her throat. Whose hand is wrapped around her own? She doesn’t look.
Jesse appears above her. His face is twisted in worry. His mouth opens, and she can tell that he’s saying something, but the words don’t make sense. “You’ve had an episode. You’ll be alright. You have to be alright. I’m so sorry.”
Everything comes back into focus in a crescendo of hospital chaos. A doctor pushes Jesse off of Meg. “Can you tell us about the bruises on your shoulders, Megan?”
She can’t speak. The doctor turns to Jesse. “Do you know anything about these bruises?”
Darkness creeps into the edge of her vision. A long beep echoes around her.
“She’s flatlining. Get him out of here!”
Meg holds her hand up to the light. She technically died. Ethan, Mike, and Jesse found her after they heard her scream. She had some kind of seizure; she fell from the balcony. Her mother cried when the doctor explained that during the hospital rush, Meg flat-lined twice.
Dying isn’t all bad. For one, Meg has been reborn; reincarnated as a girl who couldn’t care two wits about going to Olivia Larson’s Halloween party. More importantly, Ethan came to visit her in the hospital. He gave her a twisted bracelet that he claimed to have made from golden wire. The bangle rests against her wrist bone; the fake-gold glinting in the sun.
Meg settles back on her hospital pillows. Balloons and flowers cover every surface. A dried chrysanthemum drifts onto the waffle blanket across Meg’s lap.
He wasn’t able to leave. For years he was trapped at the Valley Acres Sanatorium. Held prisoner by that dark place where he had experienced real horror during his lifetime. Then Meg came along, with her white sneakers, and somehow she set him free.
In the reflection of the hospital window, she sees him. He stands at the foot of her bed. He holds a bouquet of dead flowers. The heart rate monitor beside Meg’s head begins beeping. She wants to scream, to cry, but she’s trapped.
A nurse runs into her room. Meg looks at her with wide eyes. The nurse rubs a gentle hand against Meg’s forehead. “What’s wrong dear? What’s happened?”
“He brought me flowers.”