Michelle’s last memory of Erika played back in her mind like a damaged tape. Damaged and arbitrarily recut out of sequence. Each replay delivered a new sequence, perpetually confounding the proper order of events if not also their meaning and context.
She knew she was home for her first spring break from college, Erika was just out of rehab, or some similar kind of treatment, and it was after 11:00 PM. Yet she always remembered the last part first.
Michelle woke up the following afternoon. There was a yellow envelope on her desk with her name on it in Sharpie and a skull design that Erika would draw on any surface. Holding it in both hands she already knew what it was.
“Here,” she said to her brother. “Take it.”
“What is it?”
“Something I— … Something Erika found last night. I don’t want it.”
“That hospital by 22.”
“The one near Sante Fe Tavern? You went there with Bag Lady?” he said taking the envelope. “She didn’t try to kill you, did she?”
“Do you want it or not?”
Her brother opened the envelope and examined the picture. His eyes widened.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Ah come on; it’ll be a neat dorm poster I bet.”
“Whatever,” she said as she shut his door behind her.
Brett ventured toward the faint glow that throbbed from the den, where he saw his older sister in a familiar state, splayed on the couch before the television, one which she’d held without error since she returned home. A stack of Blockbuster DVD cases was placed on the end table in such a careless fashion that the slightest draught could send them tumbling to the carpet. Brett took them in his hands, assembling them more neatly and examining each title.
“Disturbing Behavior, Wolf Creek, Saw II, I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer, Human Centipede.”
Michelle nodded indifferently.
“Which one is this?”
“Darkness Falls,” she said, and pointed to the opened case on the floor before the DVD player.
“Funny how things work out.”
“I remember pretty clearly you interrupting Evil Dead to tell me that the only people who like these movies are dickless man-babies who refuse to grow up. I think it was Christmas break. 2005.”
“Must’ve been pretty savage for you to remember it so vividly.”
Brett snickered bitterly.
“But turns out being a dickless man-baby isn’t so bad.”
“Only these movies are far worse than what I watched.”
“I’m on a learning curve. Do you need something? I’m a little preoccupied”
“Only to tell you I’m going to Starbucks to study.”
“So I’m taking the car.”
“But Mom’s 10-speed is in the garage.”
“I know you’re going through … a thing … of some sort. But it would do you some good …” he stammered and cleared his throat, “it would do you some good to get out for a bit. Get some air. Otherwise I think you’ll just sink into the couch at this point.”
“Well if that’s the case then you’ll have everything to yourself again.”
Brett chose not to acknowledge the flagrant self-pity and made his way to the stairs. In a more defeated tone told her, “I’ll be back in a few hours.”
Michelle gave a limp wave he likely did not see.
Brett’s continued resentment of Michelle’s return had instilled in Michelle a continued feeling of having newly arrived, but only now did it occur to her that the leaves were changing, the air was smoky, the wind stung in the cheek, and pumpkins and gourds were lying on doorsteps. She had showed up unannounced the month before with only a roller case and a very substandard explanation for an extended Labor Day. The event planning firm that employed her as an administrative assistant did not need her assistance in administrating much of anything. And her studio in Park Slope, to say nothing of most of the objects she put in it, no longer suited her. Officially she was “housesitting” while her mother traversed the western United States, enjoying the fruits of retirement. Though unofficially she was herself in a state of retirement.
Michelle ruminated on the idea of being ingested by the worn tan faux-leather couch. That would have given her some comfort at 19. Only now she was 29.
Erika struggled to widen a gap in a chain-link fence knotted with vines.
“My arms are getting tired, Erika,” Michelle whined, holding the flashlight, shivering in her JV field hockey sweatshirt, regretting having turned down watching any of her girlfriends faceplant on the mechanical bull as they undoubtedly were to help Erika achieve her long-held dream of breaking-and-entering into a condemned building.
“Sorry,” Erika grunted back as she pulled out a reem of vines. “Explorer Forum only said that this was a security blind spot. It was pretty vague on the rest of the details.”
“But they’d seen the place, right?”
“Well, if the pictures don’t match the inside, then we’ll know,” she paused to pull the fence further out.
“Kinda makes it more fun.”
“When did this place close?”.
“1980 … 1981, maybe.”
“Before we were born.”
“And it will outlive us.” She pulled another vine out and faced Michelle, catching her breath. “When we’re gone, when all this,” she gestured outward presumably to all of civilization, “is gone … this will remain. This will be our ancient ruins. This and Sears, I guess. And Arby’s.”
In all her time in New York, Michelle had never received more unsolicited epithets than in the space of time she was lodged between incoming and outgoing rush hour commuters on the stairs of the Brooklyn-bound train. She had not realized the sheer variety of style and timbre in “Pick a lane, you dumb bitch” before that moment. The courtesy one receives when trying not break their neck lugging a box of their official belongings.
Before she could even rest herself against the wall on the platform for a moment, her Blackberry was abuzz. After digging it out from within her now useless desk contents, she audibly and dramatically growled at the message: “can u plz come back to office? u forgot to turn in ur blackberry. thx Aimee @ hr”
Michelle looked around for any sign of commiseration at her anguish but found only a platform full of commuters similarly fixated on their own devices. She considered doing what the message politely demanded of her, as if she was still employed, but was stopped in that thought by the appearance of the one human that did seem to acknowledge her: a burly, unkempt older man, clearly homeless, his thick hair in a hopeless matted tangle, his cheeks smudged with soot, and whose odor became more putrid, almost corpse-like, the closer he approached. His gait was agonizingly slow at that. Michelle braced for another unwanted intervention into her space, and for money that she now very dearly needed. But the man said nothing, and passed by her as if she was a bad car accident. His mouth was agape in a vacant smile, that were it not for the four of his remaining yellow teeth emitted no indication that anything but darkness was inside of him.
And while time had felt elastic in that moment, he passed her, and went seemingly onto better things. Until he moved in front of a woman in a dark blue pantsuit 10 feet or so away from Michelle, who as if in a spasm swung her handbag at the man’s head, immediately knocking him down on the platform. Though of notably smaller build than the man, she was able to pin him down, straddle him, and press both hands on his mouth. The man struggled but appeared more inconvenienced than alarmed.
“I can’t let it out,” the woman said through grit teeth. “I can’t let it out.” Her face darted around the station, everyone on the Brooklyn platform cleared from her, everyone on the Manhattan platform gawked from afar. “Night sickness! HE’S GOT NIGHT SICKNESS,” she screamed out as if she was alerting her fellow commuters to a commonplace notion. This continued until a male cop, a female MTA employee, and a male civilian in a fleece and loafers, converged to attempt to pull her off the man. Her strength was not any less subdued by this force, and Michelle could swear that she nearly knocked the cop onto the tracks just swinging her arm at him. They got the better of her when she stood up and appeared to want to gouge the man’s eye out with her stiletto heel.
“Don’t let him go!” she yelled. “He’ll darken us. He’ll darken everything.”
Michelle had never understood what was meant by “blood-curdling” screams until she heard that woman’s inner-torment reverberate into her veins. The three held her until the next train arrived, where they shoved her into the nearest car. “Walk it off lady,” the MTA employee advised as the door closed. As it passed by Michelle, the woman was no less calmed, banging at the window like a captured animal.
Everyone moved on as if nothing had transpired. Except for the homeless man, still lying on the platform, his head craned back at Michelle, laughing.
When she arrived at her apartment, she resolved to get her affairs in order. The first matter being to toss the Blackberry into the East River.
With only a night sky over them and a single flashlight beam ahead of them, Erika led Michelle through a campus of disused, boarded up, heavily marked buildings. In that darkened state they hardly feel built, but natural. Curious rock formations, an earth-made labyrinth.
Erika had less trouble entering the side door an anonymous stranger on the internet had told her to enter. They walked through an auditorium, an exercise area, a hall of classrooms with some hand-shaped cutouts still tacked over the chalkboards, a games and recreation area with a busted TV hanging from the wall and dust-covered folding chairs scattered in disarray.
“Yeah … yeah, they weren’t kidding,” Erika mused to no one in particular.
Michelle had only seen the Blackstone Sanctuary for the Infirm from the road on the way to some lesser amusement. From the several hundred-foot distance it was hard to grasp the immensity of the hospital’s sprawl. Sitting a mile out of town, on a 145-acre island cut out of the earth by three roads linking the area’s major highways, Blackstone was one of New Jersey’s largest centers for the treatment of tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments, many of their patients being children. Since the ‘80s, though, the complex was a husk, battered and decrepit. At a certain time of day, when the sun shone down on it, the full scale of the decay was revealed like a grand exhibition. Michelle remembered being not especially pleased to see it on the few occasions she was cognizant of it. For Erika, who Michelle thought had a talent far above anyone else in New Jersey for finding the uncanny in the most mundane of spaces, it was a fixation.
Michelle hunched over her plate of leftover macaroni and cheese, sloshing her fork in a downward-spiral motion to mix the very hot parts at the edge with the very cold parts in the center. At that moment she had escaped her earthly identity of a self-exiled urban woman into a Father of Lies in yoga pants, preparing to transfer to additional toil the souls entwined and writhing beneath her in molten damnation. For that is what the microwave had rendered what was a mass of congealed fat and rubbery carbohydrates in the refrigerator. The searing heat of those souls did much to disabuse her of that fantasy. Her view from the kitchen table did the rest.
Erika’s house had eluded her gaze since she came home; or rather she had not allowed herself to consider it much. After all, the house was never much to look at. The wood panels were painted a pale blue, but the acquired grime rendered it a sickly, ashen grey. The brick work had faded from a fresh red to brittle pinks and browns. Some had simply fallen out of place, suggesting the rest could come crashing down in with them at any moment. The only lawn furniture was a folding chair in the middle of a concrete patio, from which Erika’s mother, draped in muumuus of indistinguishable floral patterns, smoked and stared up as if lost in some meditative trance. Possibly considering the state of the uncleaned gutters. It was lived-in, but not strictly livable.
Yet it was also an appropriate habitat for someone who painted her nails black with sharpie, dyed her hair red with Kool Aid, wore jeans with legs many sizes wider than her waist, and who wore long-sleeves regardless of season, under a short signifying a grammatically improper band. Shabby, dark, and awkward. It was a stable presence at the top her and Michelle’s streets where they waited together for the bus.
Michelle had no exact word for the nature of their interactions, rooted in and largely limited to their residential proximity. On school grounds, even in classes they sometimes shared, they were virtual strangers. Michelle and her friends referred to Erika and her friends as “the whippits,” for the trail of the little cannisters of the inhalant they reliably left in their wake wherever they gathered. Erika specifically was “Bag Lady” for her constant presence at the end of checkout counters at ShopRite. If Erika had any name for Michelle’s neater crowd, she was never told. Erika never seemed very interested in others, which could account for a self-centered aloofness, only that Erika never exhibited it with her before school. Michelle credited Erika for instilling her early smoking habit, offering her drags of her cigarette with a neighborly lack of transactional solicitation that she could not refuse. Their conversations, when they happened, were loose and unburdened by herd expectations. In those moments Michelle thought that must be what it was like to be an adult in the best sense. This would disappoint her in time.
“I can’t wait to get my license,” Michelle said, taking a drag of Erika’s cigarette and handing it back to her. “But I think if I could drive to school, I wouldn’t actually stop. I’d keep going till I couldn’t go anywhere else.”
“Where would you go?” Erika asked.
“I don’t know, the East Village? That’s where it ends, right?”
“You could cross the bridge into Brooklyn.”
Michelle chuckled. “Brooklyn?”
“I had a great uncle who lived there. Never met him, but he was a taxi driver,” Erika took a drag, dabbed out the ashes and passed the cigarette back to her.
“Cool,” Michelle paused to take another drag. “Where would you go if you could go anywhere?”
“Well, I’d have to take more shifts to buy a car.”
“I think you’d have to carry over into another location to get more shifts.”
Erika laughed with such force she coughed up some phlegm.
“I’d also have to pass the written test one of these days.”
“Okay so if you had all those things taken care of …”
“Well,” she turned her backpack around to her front to take out a creased copy of Weird New Jersey. She turned to one of its pages. “I’d want to go here.”
Michelle leaned in and scrutinized where she was pointing. “The Devil’s Road? Where’s that?”
“Somewhere in Bergen.”
She looked at the accompanying photo: a narrow, black triangular opening between overgrown shrubbery, and scattered with discarded beer cans and fast-food containers at its entrance.
“I think it led to an old sewage treatment plant or something. If you stand just outside the entrance of the road, right under the blinking street lamp, and at 12:34 in the morning, you’ll hear the wails of the children.”
“The disappeared children.”
“Uh … taken somehow. By a secret cult.” She took a long drag and stubbed the cigarette with her Vans. “Sacrificed and all that. And if you stand on the road—past the light—you can see one of the children. Faintly. I’m told.”
“Who told you?”
“Some guy on Explorer’s Forum.”
“And you think you’ll find something if you go?”
“Something there is better than the nothing that’s here.”
Michelle could not wrap her mind around the logic of practicing child sacrifice at a sewage treatment plant. But Erika’s enthusiasm was singular. It seemed more like a power of projection. If a place looked grave enough or felt unseemly enough, it fired Erika’s mind, no matter how functional that place’s purpose used to be. The Overbrook asylum was as near to them as anything else in those magazines, and bore a much darker glamor than Blackstone’s tubercular colony, but Erika seemed especially awed by Blackstone.
Michelle wondered what Erika would have made of her own house, now unmistakably deserted sometime in the seven years she’d lived in Brooklyn, if not before that. The windows were boarded up. The grass, yellow and spiky, had overgrown and formed a perfect wall against her own property. Indeed, the two-story house, almost a glorified cottage, was dwarfed by the increasing number of mass-produced remodels surrounding it. It was doubtless a bane to anyone who cared deeply about property values, which was everyone. But Michelle also relished the added irony of it. In time, Erika’s cherished hotspots would disappear. Blackstone was bulldozed to make way for an office park and a luxury gym. Overbrook would probably be condos in due time, and even the Sears became a megachurch. The golden age Erika hoped to be memorialized by these ruins had been done over in uncompromising plastic.
There was Erika, Maglite in-hand, in the room with all the filing cabinets. All various shades of green, so far as she could tell then and now, though most were darkened by rust, some were knocked over, some were piled on top of each other, as if graffiti artists were using them to tag high walls. Their contents spilled all over the floor, as if an explosion had occurred, revealing relevant data on patients long ago dead, either in that location or, she hoped, after discharge and entirely unrelated to why they are on file in the first place.
Brett returned home at dusk expecting Michelle to be in the same position as she was when he’d left, assuming his prediction of her being subsumed into the furniture had not come to pass. To his surprise, however, she was back at the kitchen table, still looking out through the sliding glass door onto Erika’s darkened, overgrown property. When Brett approached the table, he saw laid before her the group photo of the Blackstone nurses Erika had gifted to Michelle against her wishes.
“Where’d you find that?” Brett asked.
“In the crawl space in the basement.”
“What was it doing there?”
“Clearly you put it there, I was looking for your cigarettes.”
“That was your stash space if I remember correctly,” he said as he rifled through the fridge. “Why would I hide my smokes where you can find them? Where’s the mac and cheese?”
Brett let a “fuck” out under his breath, took out a water bottle, and took a seat at the table. “So what, you’re taking up smoking again. Is that how you’re coping?”
“I was thinking about it.”
“Most people just go to therapy.”
“I put my therapist in self-storage with everything else.”
Brett took a long swig of his water and thought for a moment. “What …“
Michelle’s eyes darted nervously to Brett’s causing him to shift his wording more delicately.
“What brought you here? Really.”
Michelle sank in her chair and stared coldly at Brett as if to transmit a clear, sharp memory from her consciousness to his. It didn’t work.
“Well …” he said breaking his gaze, and appeared to drop the matter.
“When did that happen,” Michelle motioned outside.
“Bag Lady’s house? One day it was basically normal-looking. Then at some point it wasn’t.”
Michelle looked absently at the photo.
“No one really noticed when she just stopped coming around. I thought maybe you’d know.”
“I didn’t have a psychic connection with her,” Michelle said with a hint of defensiveness.
“As far as I can recall, you might have been the only person she actually talked to. Have you seen her talking to anyone else, even in her peer group?”
“How do you know I was the only one she talked to; you were never around.”
“I remember seeing both of you chatting it up in the back yard.”
“I don’t remember that happening.”
“I’m just telling you what I saw.”
“You’re my caseworker now?”
“How could you forget so much about your friend?”
“And I didn’t forget about Erika. I just put her out of my mind.”
“What are you going to do with that?” Brett motioned at the photo.
“I didn’t even know this was still here. I have no interest in it.”
“Maybe they are interested in you.”
“That’s not funny,” she got up from her chair and took the photo under her arm. “Where did you keep your cigarettes?” she said standing at the kitchen entrance. “Just out of curiosity.”
“I think last time I taped them inside my bottom desk drawer.”
Erika smiled like a dad holding a widemouthed bass at a lake, only she was emerging from a corridor ensconced in darkness save her pale gaunt face, white long john sleeves, the faint red of her ShopRite t-shirt, and her hands holding a dusty leatherbound book about the size of one of their high school yearbooks.
“So do you like people?” the teenager working the checkout register asked Michelle, standing stiffly at the bagging station.
“Y’know, what are your feelings on the human race? Do you want to push it collectively into the ocean or are you fine with it?”
“I never thought about it. Maybe in certain moods.”
“Fair,” the teen said, not listening very intently. “It’s just that it helps for this kind of job. To not like people very much.”
“You’ll be less disappointed.”
Michelle thought this was wise if not especially hard-earned counsel from a girl in a nose ring and racoon eyeliner, and whose acne took on a viral aspect under ShopRite’s fluorescent lighting.
“But you don’t need to worry about it too much on the vampire shift. We don’t expect much from anybody, and they don’t expect much from us. And everyone who is here … belongs here, even Doug.”
Doug had been surveilling Michelle throughout her first night shift from the customer service counter. Michelle sensed he was younger than she was a good margin, though it was hard to tell. His face was boyish with smooth, swollen cheeks, but offset by a baldpate and an ill-managed stubble on his chin. He was like a boy trying to will himself into middle-age. If things looked a little too relaxed for his liking he would walk at a sustained, almost charging pace, an intense presence somewhat reduced by his pleated Dockers, and monitor Michelle directly.
“You’re double-bagging, right?”
Michelle nodded in affirmation.
“It’s our policy to double-bag even if they don’t ask.”
“I think she knows, Doug.”
“Keep an eye on her, Brianna,” Doug decreed solemnly and returned to his post confident that what little chaos he could prevent had been kept at bay.
“I don’t know if he’s an actual demon,” Brianna wondered, “or if he’d just really enjoy Hell if he ever went there. I’m not even sure which would be more interesting.”
The “vampire shift” did not merely signify the span of time between 4:00 PM and 10:30 PM that Michelle had been assigned by the general manager to work in the store for three days out of the week, but also a sort of grace period for the less valued customers to be served by the less valued employees.
She recalled sitting across from the general manager in his office as he inspected her application like an untranslated sacred text, muttering observations about her as if she was not present. “Administrative assistant … takes direction well.” He did not ask uncomfortable questions pertaining to her pivot from white collar city work to hourly wage suburban work. He only glanced at her with a rapidity that looked at first like a reflexive twitch. “I don’t want to sound un-PC or anything, but please wash your hair before coming onto the premises.” He went into the corner filing cabinet and took out a label-maker. “Now is that ‘Michelle’ with one ‘L’ or two? You wrote it both ways.”
Brianna took out a cannister of Altoids from her apron and held it out to Michelle.
“Not my flavor.”
Brianna helped herself and swirled it around her mouth.
“You’ll get the hang of it. Pretty soon you’ll start having dreams about the place. This one dream I had I kept getting the same old woman and she kept buying Pepto Bismol. Only it was shaped like other products …”
Michelle forced a chuckle and turned to look out the front window. The orange twilight had all but faded, leaving a black reflection of the storefront for her to look at. Brianna was still talking and didn’t notice that there was a woman waiting at their checkout. But when Michelle turned to alert her, it was apparent that the woman was only in the reflection. Her face was distorted, but her white nurse uniform was unmistakable.
“… like rotisserie chicken-shaped Pepto Bismol. Stuff like that.”
Erika and Michelle found an office in the main administrative building where they laid the book on the desk to examine its contents. In it were names of patients, with their admission dates, their release dates, notes on their symptoms or condition, and whether they died in treatment.
“It’s a ledger,” Erika said.
“Look at how young some of these people are. I can’t imagine having to keep track of this.”
“Yeah.” Erika took a more leisurely scan of the office and spotted something of interest in the corner. “Here we go.” She approached it and picked it up. “Check it out,” she said handing Michelle the object. It was a photo of the nursing staff from the early half of the 20th century. All dressed in white, with prim hairdos, and severe expressions. “Take it.”
“Take the picture?”
“Yeah, as a souvenir.”
Michelle looked down at it more closely and winced. “I don’t know, it doesn’t feel right.”
“It’s no big deal.”
“I know … I just … I went with you, I’m here, I don’t want to do much more than that.”
There was a tense pause between them. Erika was holding the flashlight upward against her face that shaded her eyes and mouth in darkness.
“Fine, I just thought it’d be cool.” She took the photo back and put it in her bag. “Maybe I can auction it or something.”
Michelle sat at the edge of her bed holding the group photo of the nurses, looking at it more intently than she ever had since it was left to her. Though she did not know what she was hoping to find by doing so. The more she looked at it, the more benign it seemed, as it was designed to be. In the decayed complex from which the photo was removed, the expressions of the women took on an eerie aura that, under the natural lighting of her bedroom, looked professional. It felt wrong to fall into Erika’s habit of imposing the sinister on what was merely sober. A necessary sobriety for the task of treating people with what used to be a dreadful disease.
She hoped that whatever she saw in the store window’s reflection the night before had appeared to her by some error. Its intentions, she reasoned, had been scrambled and only gave unease by some inference or unchecked prejudice on her part. Haunting is a matter of perspective. There were plenty of photos hanging at the edge of her own mirror that had more apparitional merit than some healthcare workers, some of whom were probably not even dead.
For some reason she never thought to remove the youthful photos. It being easier to, in Michelle’s words, put it out of her mind, and let things fade at their own pace. It almost worked. Looking at them for the first time in over a decade gave her the feeling of having broken into someone else’s room. She was a voyeur of her own past. The significance of the bond she had with Jenn, Lacey, Helene, and, she wanted to say, Emma had since left her. She pulled one photo down that was taken during the senior trip at Dorney Park. She and the other girls were shot linking arms around their waists before the Steel Force ride, and wearing matching pink “Class of 2002” t-shirts. Michelle cringed at the gesture, as matching commemorative t-shirts were not provided for the rest of the class. If any of these girls, let alone her younger self, had appeared in the store she would have dove headfirst through the window.
Michelle felt a distance from that version of herself yet also fell into a state of brooding to which that version of herself was often prone and which only had one remedy.
Michelle dug into the bottom drawer of her desk and found her Walkman in what seemed like passable condition. The Used CD left inside of it was not ideal but it was her only viable option so far as she was willing to go in relitigating her forsaken taste for her atmospheric needs.
The afternoon was chill and gray as she set on foot down the pristine row of her neighborhood. This, too, she could only consider at a distance, as a guest or a charity case or some other indentured object whose privilege was of being there rather than living there. Though inwardly she always felt more entitled to that environment than she would ever admit. She could imagine herself returning to it properly, like a good citizen does, with a mortgage, and improving upon its past errors of taste and maybe even morals. Passing these houses, they took on the shape of zoo cages. She could peer into the wide front window of each house, most of which were fitted with wall-mounted televisions that blasted the searing colors of cable news, and find plenty to deride and judge with the superior air of a pornography viewer.
But coming to one such “cage” she noticed it had undergone a significant remodeling that was as unusual in its downward aesthetic direction as it was by its rapidity. She better remembered the three-story plaster house painted a soft yellow, with Spanish tiles on the roof, and decorative light fixtures edging the backyard patio. She had not known its occupants, but understood the house to be no less lively than its neighbors. Maybe more so given its elaborate Halloween display, with a Styrofoam cemetery, an inflatable ghost, and an inflatable Dracula. Only now, all evidence of festivity or habitation had been entirely undone. The yellow paint was now a faded grey, the windows were either broken or boarded up, the grass was rough and unruly. Only the home model remained the same. Otherwise it was a near-exact replica of Erika’s house, yet achieved in a far shorter time span.
Michelle turned off her music. A breeze rustled dead leaves across the pavement. Children yelped and laughed in all directions. Life had not just stopped at this location, but had been removed. And yet it had no effect upon the surrounding ambiance. It was as if this one section of town had been torn out and taped over by something new and worse, but made to seem utterly mundane, even natural, like a rotted tree no one notices for years. Michelle wanted to take a closer look, and even felt compelled, like something was taking her by the shoulders, but her inner logic, the very impulse that kept her from thinking more of these realities of existence than required, had not fully failed her. But the more she considered the house, the less benign it seemed.
Erika placed the ledger book into her trunk. “Thanks for giving me a hand,” she remembered her saying with an extra touch of earnestness. “Let’s hit the diner. My treat.”
It was still dark when Michelle awoke in the den. The only light sources came from the digital clock on the wall reading 3:17 AM and the glow coming in from the high window, a faint but still intrusive brightness emanating from somewhere in the backyard. She emerged into the kitchen; the light was brighter through the slits of the blinds covering the sliding glass door.
When she split two of them apart, she saw that a floodlight on Erika’s house had turned on, beaming a perfect circle onto her former neighbor’s ragged grass. At its center stood a figure that Michelle could not make out, shrouded as a silhouette. But the broom-like shape, slender at the top and wide at the bottom, was familiar enough. It was standing in complete stillness, like a figurine. Though obscure, Michelle took the figure to be looking in her direction, waiting for her, specifically, to come out, to meet or to follow.
A layer of frost had accumulated on the deck. Careful not to slip, shivering under the ShopRite uniform she forgot to take off after her shift, she approached the figure, which was resolute both in its frozen, shadowed state.
“Hello?” Michelle whispered, seeking to deny the figure’s obvious personhood for as long as her reason could sustain it.
As she neared the edge where her yard met Erika’s, the figure should have been coming into clearer view, but it retained its abysmal aspect, and as Michelle moved into the overgrown grass, the figure moved out of the light and toward the house in a glide, as if it was not touching the ground.
“Wait,” Michelle said, “don’t go.”
But it went, and Michelle could do nothing else but to go after it. She touched the back wall of the house and found an open door to continue her pursuit.
She had never seen the inside of Erika’s house, but Michelle was certain that it was nothing like the long, tiled hallways of the Blackstone Sanctuary. Yet that is where she seemed to be, only it had returned to its original functional state. Everything was clean and habitable and the hallways were adequately lighted. Not that they seemed to go anywhere. Each turn Michelle made just led to a new, longer passage. Doors did not open and she found not a single patient or staff member. She heard the echo of footsteps clacking, but they came from all directions, as if the shoe-wearer could walk through walls or be in two places at once.
Michelle started to panic and began to run through the increasingly labyrinthine corridors that served no apparent purpose but to trap her. She was lost, in her work uniform no less, with no possibility of escape.
She came to an exchange that led out into several additional hallways. She dizzied herself trying to make what was surely to be a futile decision only to be stopped by the screech of static coming from the one hallway with no light whatever. With better judgment suspended for the duration, she charged into the blackness. The static became louder and she ran deeper. Soon there was evidence of light. A white outline of a door from which the noise was emanating. She opened it to find an office, or in any case a wooden desk and chair under a flickering florescent light in a room painted green. On the desk was an intercom and a book she’d seen before: the ledger book Erika had taken from the hospital.
Standing before the desk she turned the book toward her and opened. But rather than the entries of admitted patients she expected to find, she found only one entry repeated in every column, page after page, in elegant cursive: “You did fine.” Michelle was engrossed flipping the pages, reading and rereading Erika’s last words to her, when the intercom jolted her out of.
“Do you want to come with?” the voice said under a howl of feedback. “Do you want to see inside?”
Michelle looked back down at the book and saw drops of a black, inky fluid accumulating on the paper. She looked up to determine its source, and found the burly bearded man she saw accosted on the subway platform standing inches from her face on the other side of the desk, greeting her with that familiar, unsettling smile oozing the dark fluid. She let out a shriek that resounded back out into the corridors she ran through to get to that moment.
Michelle woke up back at the den in daylight and gasping as if a boot was pressing on her throat.
Erika sat across from Michelle at the diner, sipping weak black coffee and picking at a plate of disco fries with a tremor in her hands. Her hospital bracelet slipped out from under her sleeve.
“It’s funny that you just got out of the hospital only to go into another one,” Michelle said.
She didn’t remember her response.
Michelle came home from her shift with the urge to watch The Last Exorcism, purely for research purposes. A notion had crystalized in her mind on her bike ride home that an exorcism was going to place the following afternoon, in the middle of Starbucks, and she was to play a significant part. Though the assignment of roles as to who was possessed and who was exorcising was less clear to her. She only knew that Jenn’s appearance hours before at her checkout station had an occult air around it. Or anyway it felt very contrived.
The high-pitched astonishment in Jenn’s voice as she looked up from unloading her shopping cart onto the conveyer belt, the musical intonation of her name, “Mich-elle? Is that really you?” carried the sound of rehearsal, possibly on the drive over. Word had likely gotten out that Michelle was back in town and Jenn, who had never left, was bound to hear about it. The feigned surprise was unnecessary even if it, at least in Jenn’s mind, was more polite. Still, Jenn’s ingratiating charm, conveying an easy friendliness that was more charitable than social, had not lost its potency, and when Jenn inquired if Michelle had time to spare tomorrow “for coffee and to catch up” though everything, at least in Michelle’s mind, seemed pretty self-explanatory, she could not say no.
The exorcism analogy was difficult to sustain in her mind as she considered it. It was rather the feeling of release that most fixated her. This forcible expulsion of a burden or of being freed from bondage. Each applied equally and respectively to Michelle and Jenn. Though Michelle never saw fit to say it, she always thought Jenn was a loser. She was a curious specimen, an obvious extrovert who was best suited to enclosure. Anything that taxed her comprehensive limitations or that was beyond her immediate control could not excite much interest in her. She was a fount of energy, the driving force and focal point of their clique yet inert in almost every other human respect. Michelle pictured a lever: Jenn who was incurious on one end, Erika who was infinitely curious about nothing on the other, and she the fulcrum on which they pivoted, having lost the capacity to learn anything new long ago. Pop culture had no lessons to impart beside the fact that characters trapped in exorcism narratives hardly ever reached the end of it entirely unharmed. Release came at a steep price. Michelle despaired at having to face the horror of the ordinary.
It had rained in the morning and Michelle biked cautiously around puddles and over slick pavement. The sky had not cleared and cast a dismal coating upon everything she passed. Thought it was not to such an extent that it could camouflage the increase of homes, and even business properties, that resembled Erika’s in its neglect and silence. A trend in living had captivated the town. Trends of all kinds move at a pace and by a logic that no individual witness to them can easily grasp. It is only clear that they are intent to perpetuate widely and any single gesture of resistance is both pointless and deviant.
Michelle spotted Jenn in the far corner of the Starbucks, sipping from a steaming latte, wearing a sweater with a Jack o’ Lantern in the center, her hair restrained in a tight ponytail, and staring down at an iPad. Her relaxed nature and her prim appearance bore a strong contrast, one Jenn herself could not help but react to nonverbally when drawn up from her screen, to Michelle’s disheveled appearance of straggly hair, damp tennis shoes, and her ever present employment apron. Nevertheless, Jenn rose to embrace her like the old friend that she still was, at least in spirit.
“Are you working today?” she asked noting Michelle’s attire.
“No,” Michelle said meekly as she sat down.
“Oh … well, I didn’t know what to get you so I just got what I got. We’re matching!” she said handing her the latte. “I hope it’s still warm.”
Michelle took a small sip. “It’s fine, thank you.”
“I have to say it was a surprise to run into you yesterday. But I did hear through the grapevine that you were around. I didn’t think it was permanently.” Jenn stopped herself in that thought, having over-assumed. “Or, I guess, for an extended time?”
“I can’t say exactly at the moment.”
“Well, I think it’s nice you came back.”
The one thing Michelle always had over Jenn was that she knew Jenn at her least ideal. The Jenn that she knew was prone to vomiting like her life depended on it. Vomiting by the dumpsters of the Sante Fe Tavern after several ill-gained shots and a session with the mechanical bull. Vomiting behind the bleachers at the homecoming game. Vomiting in Terry Greco’s parent’s bidet. Vomiting into the jousting arena at Medieval Times. If Michelle hadn’t known any better, and of course she did not, she’d think Jenn had something of a drinking problem. And yet any evidence of that past appeared entirely expunged from this version she was now facing, whose comportment embodied every broad characteristic of “adult” she’d formed from childhood. She was pleasant and curious; a little patronizing but with a generous, patient spirit. The kind of spirit one might gain from having two children, Jayma (age four) and Preston (age two), whose images she showed Michelle on the iPad she cradled very much as she would a baby.
“I’m not keeping them from you, am I?”
“Oh no, they’re with my mom … who says hi, by the way.”
A vague version of the Jenn she knew appeared soon enough, in her anodyne inquiries into New York life; or rather into life in Midtown and the financial district, of which Michelle went out of her way to understand as little as possible. It always amazed her privately how people she met in New York and people she knew in New Jersey each saw the other either as being on distant planets with utterly backwards conceptions of physics and social custom or has each possessing different versions of the same highly repulsive disease. Jenn, however, boasted a special kind of sheltering that made her seem better suited to Ohio, a tourist in what was ostensibly her own home. Michelle fell into a kind of fugue state gesturing affirmations at Jenn’s various conveyances of selfhood: her large ugly house that looked more like two houses fused together, her husband’s Taco Bell franchise ownership, her dream vacation to Hawaii, and other details she was boiling in her tepid verbal soup. Until one comment snapped her out of it.
“You know what I hadn’t thought about in ages? Erika Knight.”
Michelle sipped her now-cold latte and mumbled something.
“The Bag Lady. Jeez, what were we thinking? I guess you sort of reminded me … if that makes sense.”
“You had some interactions with her, right?”
“A few. We kind of lost touch.”
Jenn’s cheery expression shifted downward to one more skeptical. “So it seems.”
“I don’t really know what happened to her. Do you?”
“Well, not really. I’d always heard she’d run away or moved out. I’d heard some people say she OD’d on something. But that was just the safe assumption.” Jenn’s face turned grave a she looked out the window, but finding nothing uplifting, turned her gaze back to Michelle with a smile that was at best serviceable. “I guess we didn’t treat her very well … Erika.”
“Why do we always do that?”
“Why do we always admit those things long after they happened, and especially when someone is dead?”
“I never said for cert—”
“It’s like an easy out. Like debt forgiveness for forgiveness.”
Whatever remaining charity Jenn had for her friend had been vaporized in that instant and her look settled on a chiseled severity.
“And so what is all this?” Jenn said, gesturing her arm in a circle around Michelle. “Is this you paying your debt? Leaving your career in flames? Spending all your time with a new generation of paint thinner addicts?”
“I’m not spending all my time with them,” Michelle protested, having felt that her solitary movie marathons and the intrusions of the otherworldly upon her space had been unfairly overlooked.
“You know I could never put my finger on you for the longest time. Then I went to FDU and majored in psychology, and learned about this thing called compartmentalization. And suddenly it was all clear. You like putting things in their own containers and keeping them very separate. I guess that’s how you cope. It made it hurt less when I stopped hearing from you after freshman year. Or when my wedding invitation went unanswered. Or my Facebook friend request.” Jenn choked up and stopped herself again. “I really wanted not to bring this up.”
Jenn held a finger to her while she composed herself. “Maybe in a couple of years none of this is going to matter. Maybe this is just a late-20s thing.”
Michelle felt a weight drop in her chest upon realizing that the truth of Jenn’s observation was almost certain.
Outside the Starbucks, Jenn waited, draped in a bright yellow raincoat and matching goulashes, as Michelle unlocked her bike.
“I can give you a ride,” Jenn noncommittally suggested. “I can probably make space in the jeep.”
“That’s okay.” Michelle removed the lock and approached to receive a parting hug.
“It was good to see you … really,” Jenn said with a slight but meaningful smile.
“You know, wherever you’re going, I hope it’s right where you need to be.”
“Is that on your wall at home?”
“No … it’s just something people say when they have nothing else to say to someone.”
Michelle rode home absently wondering who the demons they each let loose in the Starbucks would latch onto next, and if they would be just as merciless.
Erika drove her back home. Nothing was said between them. Michelle leaned into her window in the driveway of her house.
“You’ll be okay? You don’t need anything?”
Erika looked at her, her face still earnest but blighted of the bright sense of accomplishment of an hour before. “You did fine.” She rolled up her window and drove away.
“Have any dreams about this place yet?” Brianna asked Michelle as they sat on the floor of the frozen foods section.
“In a matter of speaking,” Michelle replied, looking above Brianna as a nurse’s reflection pulsed in and out of view in the frozen peas right behind her.
“One time I had a dream where I left this place, but the music came with me,” Brianna gestured above to the speakers blaring a limited playlist of contemporary easy listening. “Like it followed me wherever I went. Even if there wasn’t a speaker to play it. Like it was in the air. Can you imagine a Train song playing and refusing to leave you alone? Like it’s stalking you.”
“Actually, I kind of can.”
“It’s so fucked, right?”
They chuckled at each other.
“What the hell are you two doing?” Doug asked charging toward them. “Get back to the register.”
Brianna groaned petulantly and rolled her eyes. “It’s 10 after 10, Doug. No one’s coming in here except depressed bachelors, armed robbers, and old people who are sundowning. If anyone’s coming here, they are the least-essential people on earth, and they’re almost certainly not coming here to supply themselves.”
“What are they coming here for since you know so much?”
“I don’t know, to exist?”
Doug shook his head. “That doesn’t change anything.”
“I know it doesn’t,” Michelle flatly added. “But you can still join us.”
“What?” Doug said, the walls of his defenses, for once, crumbling to earth.
“Have a seat.” Brianna slapped the floor.
Doug put his back against a freezer door and slid down to the floor next to Michelle.
“What if someone wants,” he looked back quickly, “what if someone wants breakfast sausages?”
“That’s not our adversity to overcome,” Brianna said.
Doug sat with his legs outstretched like a discarded mannequin. His head darted in all directions to find something to focus on. He, too, looked above Brianna and pointed.
“Ah, frozen carrots are 40 per—”
Michelle waved her arm to lower his. “Just … be in the moment.”
Doug stilled himself but could not suppress his natural fidgetiness for not even 30 seconds.
“Nope,” he said rising up. “Screw the moment. I gotta keep moving.”
They both looked nonplussed as their superior speed-walked back to his comfort zone. At one time Michelle could pity Doug in that blandly snobbish way she could pity anyone else she could not bring herself to respect. Now she envied his ability to find solace in claustrophobia. Doug, she thought, was worse than Jenn. Even the town was too much world for him.
“Where does Doug live?” Michelle asked Brianna.
“I’m not sure. A condo maybe. Though I had a dream he was living with his mom. And that I was his mom.”
Michelle laughed so loud the whole store must have heard it.
Michelle peered through the sliding glass door that led out to her back deck, where the back of Erika’s house, on the adjacent street, could be seen through the still-leafless trees. She’d never been inside of it but always presumed the top left window, the one whose shade was always drawn down, was hers. And it was on as she looked at it that night. A figure crossed past it. Then it went dark. She got a Mountain Dew from the fridge and turned on Cinemax in the den.
She held up her can in the general direction of Erika’s house. “Spring break,” she droned. “No rules.”
Michelle knelt before the object hunched over in the couch of the den and considered at first that a prank had been pulled on her overnight. The object was equal in size and in figure to Brett. It bore his clothing style and his facial features. Though the face had notable differences. Prominent wrinkles had appeared under the eyes and at the side of the mouth. The flesh was coarse and pallid. The eyes themselves had been removed and replaced with only a stark blackness. The mouth was agape with the same condition, free of teeth and tongue and all that followed.
Brett had no aptitude for pranks or humor. There was no other evidence of him in the house. His phone was on his night table. His car was in the driveway. She held the object’s hand in hers, feeling its cold clamminess, its limp muscles, its collapsed veins, and was forced to conclude that this was her brother, in a lifeless state, a literal shell of his former self; but not, she hesitated to accept, dead. She sat up against the television and ran through the scores of dead relatives she had seen: some great aunts and uncles, two of her grandparents, her father, and tried to place Brett’s condition against theirs and found it unequal. This seemed an entirely distinct condition brought about by an unnatural process. The body presented itself not as having been killed or deteriorated by any disease, however rapidly, but rather that it had been abandoned, foreclosed on, evacuated. It was more akin to the derelict condition of the houses around town than any corpse. We don’t mourn what is simply left behind, and Michelle could not bring herself to do so here.
Standing in the front yard, she saw that the trend that began so modestly before had now become ubiquitous to the point of being total. Every home on her street was entirely deserted and disused, as if they had not been lived in for decades. In that moment she realized that she had just left her own home for the last time. So took to the street without bothering to look back.
The condition was no different in the rest of the town. Everything had been abandoned, boarded up, broken down, layered in ashen decay. She presumed that everyone else was inside in the same condition as Brett’s. Walking down the middle of the road she felt neither the urge to call out nor the urge to investigate more closely. She only kept moving to the place where anything made sense anymore, even as she knew that the ShopRite would not be spared. It may have, in some covert way like the carrier of the virus, been the seed of the phenomenon. In any case she was not going inside, choosing instead to sit upon a row of shopping carts in the middle of the parking lot. The day was clear and mild, but carried with it a feeling of airlessness. The natural atmosphere was hanging on by threads, waiting for permission to give out, once a task was complete.
Michelle looked out at the expanse of the shopping center and found evidence of movement. A figure was approaching her at a casually paced gait. The whiteness of its attire was clear enough. The nurse had finally decided to materialize, to make herself fully dimensional. She was walking straight in Michelle’s direction before she stopped 10 feet before her. It was not quite what Michelle had expected, but it was familiar. The woman was as she was in the photo: stern, professional, sober, but not menacing. Her face bore no distinguishing characteristics of a phantasm or something that was otherwise dead. She was a person, albeit a person from another time.
“I don’t think we’re open for business,” Michelle said drolly.
The nurse did not speak, but held her arm out directing Michelle to follow her. And Michelle complied, being taken back up the road and out of town. Though it had been the afternoon when they met, Michelle noticed that a darkness was covering the path they had already walked in as unnatural a succession as any of the preceding events. It was evident where the nurse was leading her, pictures of the same ground being covered a decade before, under complete darkness and from the passenger seat of a rickety used car, came to her in flashes.
Soon she was led through two stone columns that served as the main street entrance to the Blackstone Sanctuary, which along with the rest of the sprawling complex had reappeared as it was erected more than a century before. While the entire town was falling silent and emptying out, this structure was returning to its original glory. As the nurse led her to the high point of the property, just before the administrative building, Michelle looked back from where she came and nothing, just absolute darkness, not even the far-off lights of the city or the highways. As she stood on the only source of light in the foreseeable expanse, she had a strange thought, that New Jersey had darkened, and spread itself beyond its legal territory.
The nurse approached Michelle and delicately placed her hands on her shoulders to turn her away from what was no more and faced her towards the front steps of administration. Walking up the steps, Michelle looked back one more time to see the last remnants of the nurse dissolving into the darkness herself, and for the first time that day, or in many days, she was saddened.
The interior was as pristine and as empty as it was when she dreamed it. But the urge to be frantic had subsided, having given way to an acceptance that there was not better place to be, at least in comparison to literally anywhere else. She walked up to the front desk and rang the bell, whose tone resounded down every corridor like concentric circles of water. In a moment the clacking of shoes could be heard, but more focused and determinate this time. Michelle backed away from the desk and saw a new woman approaching from one of the hallways.
She was not nurse as such. She was wearing a white lab coat over a red dress. Her hair was done up in the same neat vintage style. She was carrying the ledger-book in her arms. Though her composure was more assured and authoritative than the awkward shuffle Michelle was more accustomed to, not to mention the lack of hygiene and traditional makeup, the woman bore the exact likeness of Erika. It was as if she had not aged from the moment she was last seen at 20.
“Hello, Michelle,” the woman said.
Michelle said nothing.
“Welcome to the Blackstone Sanctuary. You’ll be taken good care of here.”
Michelle stammered momentarily then asked “Am I sick? Do I need help?”
The woman smiled with an unnerving sweetness Michelle had only seen Erika smile once before.
“There’s no sickness here.”
“Peanut M&Ms, Mountain Dew, Pringles. I don’t know if anyone’s told you, but Healthy Choice isn’t all that healthy.”
“Do you do this to every customer?”
“Only preferred customers.”
“Do I get a discount?”
“Only Excellent Customers get a discount. And they don’t exist.”
“So you’re off to a rip-roaring spring break.”
“Uh … yeah. I was originally supposed to go to Florida, but that … uh … didn’t happen.”
“Not really. Jenn and others are going back to Sante Fe, but I’d really rather not. It already feels old. So you’re mobile now?”
“Have you gone out to Bergen yet?”
“The haunted sewage plant or whatever.”
“Ah, nah. I lost interest.”
“But … I was thinking of going a little closer to home. You know what I’m talking about?”
“Yeah. I looked into it and found a way good way in.”
“Yeah, should be interesting. Hey, do you want to come with? Do you want to see inside?”
“I don’t know, it doesn’t sound exactly safe.”
“Spring break in Florida does?”
“How long do you think it will be?”
“20 minutes. Enough to get some cool stuff.”
“You know what? Sure.”
“Awesome, I get off in 20, I’ll swing by your place right after.”