The following is a first draft of the prologue from my novel, tentatively titled Among the Dead.
Glass breaking. Daniel’s heart pounding in his ears. His knuckles wrapped in an old shirt. Large shards land inside the building on concrete, breaking and dividing. A deep gulp of breath.
The night air sweeps around Daniel and makes him shiver. He looks over his shoulder to the street, lit dim yellow in the lamp light. Did anyone hear? No. Just the trees swaying and staring, silent. The porch, also empty and dark. Leaves blow around his feet and against the walls and down the steps to the sidewalk. He looks back to the broken window. All black on the inside, so deep it could swallow a man. It could swallow a boy with ease.
Daniel reaches through the hole in the glass with his wrapped hand. He is ready for something to touch him, to grab his wrist. Nothing does. The air inside is still, undisturbed. He feels the doorknob. He turns the lock, then the knob. The door pops open and gives him a start. The house lets out a musty sigh through the open doorway and wraps Daniel in stagnant rot that mixes with the cool clean night air but does not dissipate. It hangs around him like a sheer curtain.
He steps inside, slow and easy. I’m gonna punch Tommy in his stupid face, he thinks. He fumbles for the flashlight in his pocket. Christ, if Mom and Dad knew where I was. He doesn’t allow the thought to finish.
The place is huge. He can tell from the way the crunch of the debris sounds beneath his feet. Daniel imagines the depth of the place and shivers again. He lets out a pitiful squeak that the massive building repeats back to him a tenth of a second later. Sweat is running into his eyes.
He fumbles in his pocket for the flashlight. He can’t take another step in the dark. He might walk into something. Someone. Someone standing quiet in the dark who he can’t see, but who can see him without effort. Someone whose eyes have had a hundred years to adjust to the dark. It’s always dark in here, even during the day. Daniel is breathing fast as he pulls the flashlight from his pocket and clicks it on. He swings the beam in frantic sweeps.
A chair. An overturned table. A wheelchair, rusty and still. Paper, leaves, dirt, broken glass. Nobody. Stillness. This is the lobby. It is tall. There’s a reception desk. There are chairs scattered all around. They go with the tables, most of which are still standing. Some of the chairs are against the walls.
Daniel hates hospitals. He wonders how he let Tommy talk him into this. He remembers his manhood being called into question. He is only 14, but he can’t start losing bets this early. Mom and Dad will get over it.
He looks over his shoulder. The door is closed. He doesn’t remember closing it. The only light falls in a dim square under the grimy window. It is brighter below the jagged circle he knocked out with his wrapped fist. Nothing else is lit.
Something moves. A rat’s skitter across the floor. Paper swishes and slides. Daniel’s chest tingles and his breathing stops. He swings the flashlight in the direction of the noise.
“Rats,” he says aloud. The sound of his own voice gives him a chill that raises goosebumps on his arms and tightens the muscles in his back.
He takes a step forward. Another. He drags himself deeper into the dark. He shines his light upward and sees three stories of railed walkways above him. His light does not touch the ceiling. Dust and bugs become points of light in the sweep of the beam. It is calming. His breathing slows. His heart begins to settle back into its regular rhythm.
Another sound, a clawed skitter, close. His muscles clench and he freezes, but he doesn’t panic. It’s a rat. He’s got one at home in a cage. It’s named Fuzzball. Rats aren’t scary. He moves the beam of the flashlight over the ground in the direction of the noise. He wants to see the thing. He wants to be sure he’s right.
A sneaker against the far wall next to a door leading off into the deep nameless dark. A white sneaker. A child’s shoe, untied. He pauses the light on the shoe, curious.
The shoe moves. The dingy white leg that Daniel has mistaken for a bit of painted door trim carries the shoe around the corner, through the door and into the black. Daniel’s scream falls out of him. His own legs betray him, launch him backward without giving his eyes a chance to look. His balance gives way and his arms flail. He throws the flashlight. It lands two feet to his right. He lands hard on his tailbone, and the pain brings lucidity.
Is there a kid in here? Yeah, he thinks. It’s a kid, or it’s the god damned devil. He has seen horror movies.
But ghosts aren’t real.
Daniel knows that. Deep down in his chest he knows it. They aren’t real because if they are, then there is something under my bed. There is something in my closet, and my Dad can’t do a damn thing about it. No, that isn’t true. Ghosts are just stories. There’s nothing in the dark that we don’t bring with us.
If ghosts aren’t real, then there’s a kid in here in the dark. Daniel clenches his fist. If he could see his knuckles, they would be white as paper.
“Hello?” he asks the dark, and says a silent, involuntary prayer that there be no response. His wish comes true. “I’m not gonna hurt you,” he says and bites down on his tongue. If you don’t want an answer, shut up, he thinks.
There is a distant sobbing. He’s lost.
No he isn’t, Daniel answers himself. He’s going to eat your soul.
This is stupid. Either I’m going to go after the kid, or I’m not, he thinks. This is a simple choice. If there is a kid lost in the dark in this massive building without a flashlight, he could get hurt. He could fall down some rotted hole and die. That could happen in just a few seconds. He’s scared to death, sprinting blind down unfamiliar corridors. Daniel didn’t help that any, surprising him like that.
Daniel pictures himself leaving, running to the door and swinging it open and sprinting out into the night. Where would he go? The police station. Gasping for breath, he barks his story in snipets to the officer on duty under the old fluorescent tubes. The cop puts him in the back of a car and drive to the hospital. After a thorough search they find some 6 year old kid dead, lying still in the basement below a hole in the rotted floor boards. Daniel watches from the back seat of the cop car as the cop carries the ashen little boy out, limp, eyes staring. This is his fault. The dead boy looks like his brother.
“Put on your big boy pants,” Daniel says into the darkness. He reaches for the the flashlight and shines it into the black doorway.
There’s the sobbing again. Quiet. Terrified. Daniel’s legs are shaking as he stands. I can do this, he thinks.
“Hello?” he asks the dark. Now all he wants is for the boy to answer, to run out of the darkness and into his arms. He will scoop the kid up and run for the front door. They’ll be out on the street under the yellow lamp, fresh air all around them and away from all this suffocating black. “Hey, kid!” he yells. The sobs sound more frantic, further away.
Daniel steps through the doorway and into a black corridor. Follow the crying. Left. He swings the flashlight. There’s an old gurney; the sheets are dingy, covered in dust and something black. Another wheelchair. More paper. How much damn paper does a place like this go through? The walls are close. His footsteps don’t echo. “Kid!” he yells. No answer. Just crying. “I know you’re scared!” Daniel yells. “I am, too! Just stay where you are and I can come get you!” He can hear the voice moving further away. He wipes the sweat off of his forehead with a shaking hand.
At the end of the corridor, he takes a right. More paper. Endless paper. There’s a breeze. It’s hot. That doesn’t seem right. The paper starts to move. Daniel realizes he can’t hear the sobbing anymore. “Where are you?” Daniel yells ahead. Nothing. His voice sounds desperate, stretched. The paper is coming off the ground. Daniel’s shirt flutters. Warm sweat is in his eyes. He blinks against the sting of it. He listens. He can’t tell if the crying has stopped or if the sound of the fluttering paper and his own beating heart has drowned it.
This place is too big, he thinks. Finding one little kid in here in the dark alone is like finding a specific sheet of paper among the carpet of it that covers all the floors here. If he’s not going to make noise, I can’t find him.
Daniel turns back. The paper is swirling in the hot wind that smells like breath. It rises around him, fluttering like white bats in the beam of the flashlight. Daniel runs. The pages slap him in the face, brush past his arms, his legs, his stomach. The edge of a page cuts him. His arm stings like fire. Again on his face, his right cheek just under his eye. Daniel is panicking. Hot tears mix with the sweat on his face. He weeps and screams, wordless. The flashlight falls from his hand and he knows he cannot stop to get it. The paper is attacking him. He has lost count of the cuts. He runs blind. He turns a corner into blackness. He has outrun the last bit of glow from the flashlight. It doesn’t matter, because he knows where he is. He just turned left. There should be a wheelchair, then a gurney, then a doorway to the right. He rests his shoulder against the wall on his right and walks.
He cries quietly. His cuts ache. Every muscle in his body shakes. His teeth chatter, so he clenches his jaw. The paper on the floor remains still. He thinks of his Mom and Dad at home, sleeping. They don’t know he’s out. If they do, they have no idea where he is.
There’s the wheelchair. He kicks it with his right foot and stops when he hears it squeak. He runs his hand along the rubber wheel. Up the chrome frame to the plastic handle. There’s something cloth in the seat. Something else that feels like room temperature meat. Daniel’s hand recoils. The hairs on his arm stand on end and he feels a brush of air. He imagines the meat-thing reaching for him, swiping at his arm with whatever it has that passes for a hand.
Daniel is running. He is gasping for breath and bounding sightless down the corridor. He is not screaming. He can’t anymore. The blood in his veins is screaming for him, pumping so hard and so loud that he can barely hear his own footsteps.
There’s the gurney. He slams into it broadside and tumbles over it as it falls. There is a clatter of metal and he feels the dry mattress below him. The cloud of dust kicked up by the fall surrounds his face, choking him. He gags, coughs, spits and drags in air that burns in his raw throat. His leg hurts, and there is no time to think about it. He jumps to his feet. There is a warm trickle on his right arm that he hopes is his blood. Don’t stop. He runs a blind sprint.
He is not touching the wall.
The thought hits him like the gurney did and has nearly the same effect. He stops running. The doorway would have been to his right. Did he pass it? In all this black, there is no way to see it. He would have to feel it. Stupid, he thinks. He is not breathing. He reminds himself to start again, and breath comes in ragged gasps.
Between those gasps, the kid is crying. Daniel tries and fails to remember when the sobs started up again, but he hears them now. They’re coming from his left. He holds his hands out in front of him and gropes in that direction. The wall is smooth and dry. He slides his hands along it to the left and feels nothing but more wall. There are occasional gaps in the paint that expose the sheetrock. He can feel the cries receding to his right. He moves in that direction and his hands feel a line. A bit of trim stands out from the wall. Beyond it is space. Another doorway, gaping and unseen. He can feel air coming through, cool and dry and sour with wet dust.
“Hey, kid,” he says. He isn’t yelling now. “Hey, are you in here?”
The sobbing does not pause, and Daniel can hear it louder now that he is standing in the middle of the doorway. Clenching teeth and fists, he takes a step in and falls. His right foot makes contact with nothing but air. He tumbles, twisting and flailing in the air until pain explodes in his elbow when it hits the lip of a stair. He rolls downward. His head makes a baseball bat crack on another step. His back falls across two steps and the wind rushes from his lungs in an audible wheeze.
He skids to a stop on what he assumes is the floor. It is colder than the stairs, and he is laying on his back full-sprawl. He moves his legs. Check. His arms. Check. He turns his head from side to side. His back and head are on fire. His right shoulder is either broken or so bruised that it won’t move. He rolls to his left and stands. His legs nearly buckle. Pain in both knees flares like a bottle rocket. He stands full. He is crying, but he is silent. Hot tears make a path through the matted dirt and blood he can feel on his cheeks.
This basement is silent and cold. The sobbing has stopped. There is a whisper in the darkness. Daniel can not make out the words. He hopes it is a trick of his imagination, but he knows better. He takes a blind step.
“Hello?” he asks. His voice cracks.
Something brushes his leg. It is like a bat wing, dry and cool and fleeting. Daniel makes a sound like he is about to vomit. A surprised gag.
“Who is that?”
Another touch. Slower. Daniel can feel the fingers on the hand spread as they swipe downward on his right arm. He recoils and the pain in his shoulder sizzles.
“Stop,” he says. He is shaking.
“What are you saying?” Daniel screams forward into the dark.
Cold, gentle hands slide around his ankles, around his arms, his waist. One finds his mouth and covers it before he can scream. Daniel’s eyes push forward in their sockets. He feels a warmth in his pants as his bladder lets go.
He feels breath against his ear. The whisper is close, now.
“Let us heal you,” it says.