The September Featured Writer is D.C. Phillips
Please feel free to email D.C. at email@example.com
There he stood alongside the others at their final destination, hundreds of feet underground, clinging to the remnants of a smashed picture frame and a torn photograph. He gripped the broken edges of the frame so tightly that his hands began to bleed. This is how it’s all going to end, he thought. Trapped.
Campbell felt safe when he visited his sister, tucked away on the grounds of the building with its unchanging gray exterior and sun-washed eaves.
The most prominent feature of Carter Heights stood at the heart of the rural town: Carter County Asylum. For years, the building had kept the citizens of Carter Heights safe from the ax murderers, kleptomaniacs, and general loonies that prowled the streets. Or, as some joked, Carter County Asylum kept its residents safe from the general public.
When it was built in the late 1800s as a refuge for traumatized Confederate soldiers, it had been surrounded by nothing more than a dense cover of pine and oak trees. Gradually, more and more transients flocked to this home in the middle of nowhere, filling the need for third-rate doctors, nurses, hospital attendants, clergy, builders, general store clerks, diner waitresses, and used-car salesmen.
The inhabitants of the hospital rarely received visitors. Campbell Jenks, however, tried to make a difference. His older sister Kathy had spent the majority of her life in the institution and for almost twenty years now he had visited faithfully, week in and week out, rain or shine.
Most people found the place to be intimidating, even downright frightening. Campbell pitied the wards of the asylum, and not in a condescending manner. He actually found them to be good company and, in a way, felt he could relate to the poor souls.
This Saturday afternoon began like every other. Campbell entered the Asylum’s sprawling campus through the main gates. Halfway down the long, cobblestone path that led straight down into the heart of the exclusive premises, he encountered a dapper older man, dressed immaculately in a jet black suit and matching tie.
“Why, hello there, young man!” the stranger greeted in an inviting drawl. He had a slight gap between his two front teeth, and he smelled of spearmint. “I really hate to be a nuisance, but might I borrow a quarter for a telephone call? I’d be much obliged.”
Satisfied by his own good deed, Campbell continued in the opposite direction. As he walked on, he fished through his wallet for his most recent ID and an extra quarter. He expected to be stopped, as usual, by the not-so-attentive clerk who kept watch over the grounds from inside a tiny plexiglass booth.
His satisfaction as a good Samaritan was short lived and quickly turned to panic. As he approached the security booth, he noticed an odd, pinkish tint to its usually immaculate window panels. Inside sat the body of the guard.
An emptied hypodermic needle protruded from the man’s neck, causing his head to tilt back and to the side. His cheeks had been sliced just so as to create the perfect, however grotesque, grin. The windows weren’t tinted pink; they were tinted with blood.
Campbell glanced over his shoulder and suppressed a wave of nausea caused by panic. In fright, he began to run down the remaining path toward the main building with its unwelcoming, barred windows. He needed to get help!
He heard an alarm wailing in the distance and his panic increased. Suddenly, institution-robed figures spilled out of the front door and were now milling about the front lawn. His palms began to moisten as he realized he had to run through the escaped inmates. Hands grabbed for him like the beaks of angry crows, latching onto the crisp linen fabric of his shirt wherever they could. He swatted them off and picked up his pace to push through the forming crowd.
Again, he knew he needed to find help. Entering the facility only increased the sense of danger that permeated his mind. The distinct odor of the hospital lobby assaulted his nostrils and, aside from a flickering auxiliary light overhead, all was still. Tiny shards of glass littered the floor and crunched under his feet.
“Hello?” he called out, his voice sounding ragged with fear.
A frail young woman emerged from the shadows behind the reception area. She had tangled blonde curls and swayed back and forth in place like a metronome to an unheard beat. “We have a suitor!” she giggled, staring at a fixed point just above his head. “I’m Grace; I’m sure you’ve seen me in my latest picture, haven’t you?”
Campbell had no time to respond; a husky man in a stained uniform burst through a swinging door just to the left of the reception area. “There’s been a security breach!” the guard cried. “Head through the Quarantine Floor and down to the tunnels, got it?”
“Yeah, underground, to the tunnels. Hurry! We gotta move fast and you gotta remember if you upset one of ‘em, you upset ‘em all. One wrong move and…” His voice trailed. “We gotta go.”
Doors to rooms along the hallway stood open, exposing the inhabitants of the rooms. Only a few inmates remained, the ones who had been restrained and left behind.
“What about my sister, Kathy? Where—?”
“We gotta go now!”
“Who are you?”
“Name’s Sterling. Follow me!”
Campbell stopped in his tracks. “Wait, my sister! I can’t just leave her out here!”
Sterling stopped suddenly and turned. “Look, if you go back out there, you’re toast. Do what you want, but I’m warning you! Leave now!”
Campbell became distracted by a shadow that stepped out behind Sterling. Before he could give a warning, the hulking man’s hands lifted, entangled by the remnants of a pair of torn leather strips, and encircled Sterling’s neck. Sterling gurgled while the mans’ hands tightened around his throat.
Campbell dug into his pocket and withdrew a 3.5-inch pocket knife that had been a gift from his late parents. He took in a deep breath and charged forward, plunging the tiny blade into one of the thick forearms that held Sterling captive. Instantly, the bulky inmate with the wild eyes recoiled, like a turtle snapping back into its shell. The assailant fled.
Sterling sucked in all the air that his lungs could take and rubbed the raw flesh of his neck. “Holy shit,” he wheezed.
“Are you okay?”
“Let’s get outta here!” Sterling shouted.
The next several minutes felt like an eternity as the two navigated a labyrinth of interlocking corridors and intricate passageways. To Campbell, they seemed to be spiraling down, down, down, as if into the bowels of Hell. His mind didn’t have time to process all of the awful, insane things that his eyes had seen; his only objective at the moment was to keep moving at any cost and to avoid contact with any lingering patients.
At long last, they arrived in front of a door marked Authorized Staff Only. Sterling wriggled a key in its lock and passed into the room beyond, carefully bolting the door behind them.
Three worn-looking people cowered in a corner. Sterling quickly introduced Campbell to the group: Tommy, Sterling’s twelve-year-old son; Sandra, a young staff person with a smart bob haircut; and Harry the cook, dressed in an apron and orthopedic shoes. Harry sat in an awkward half-squat against the wall, clutching a saturated, red dishrag against his forearm and wincing.
Sterling grabbed Tommy and pulled him close, whispering undecipherable words into his ear. The boy’s lanky arms covered the bruises that had begun to form around his father’s neck.
Sandra and Harry exchanged a telling glance, followed by a moment of uncomfortable quiet. “She was a sweetheart,” Sandra said.
“Was?” Campbell’s voice cracked.
“Is,” Harry corrected, however unconvincingly. “She’s the biggest sweetheart.”
Sterling commanded their attention. “Listen, everybody. The main thing we gotta do is contact someone outside. As you all know, the County Fair is in town and if we don’t act fast...” Once again, his voice trailed into silence.
Then he continued, “The best thing we can do is move along the length of the building and come up through the East-Wing stairwell into my office. These hallways are sealed air-tight so there’s no way they could’ve gotten down here. Well, yet, anyway. Once we get to the office, we can use the emergency phone line there. Okay?”
“But what if we’re stuck down here? What’re we gonna do then?” Sandra inquired in a frantic tone, Tommy looking on by her side.
Campbell fell into silence as Sterling ushered the group of survivors through the building. They kept a brisk rhythm, one foot in front of the other, never faltering, through the underground maze. Where one passage ended, another began and all they could do was concentrate on their steps to keep from screaming. They were refugees of their own surroundings, restlessly transitioning from one narrow hallway to the next. In these claustrophobic corridors, time was obsolete.
None of them had experienced this kind of adrenaline rush in all of their lives, this sole urge to survive. Campbell figured that Sterling probably regretted ever bringing his son into this place.
“Hello? Please, we’re stuck—”
“Why, hello Officer Sterlin’. Mighty fine weather we’re havin’, ain’t it?”
Campbell’s heart stopped. His body froze. It was the man he gave the quarter to for a phone call.
He watched as Sterling scanned his desk. Sure enough, his family portrait had been desecrated with only a scrap left behind, the frame a mangled mess. “Don’t you dare mess with my family, you hear me?” he seethed, eyes now brimming with tears.
The line went dead.
His stomach lurched when Mary answered the phone, still on speaker for all to hear. “Hello?”
“Hi, Sweetie. Listen, I love you baby. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yeah, Dad. What do you want?”
“I need you to do me a favor, okay? I know I told you not to go out tonight but…”
“Yeah, I know,” Mary interrupted. “I stayed at home on a Saturday while all of my friends went to the Fair, just like you told me.”
“Mary, I just—”
“Look, I’ve gotta go. I think someone is at the door. Bye.”
Again came the dial tone.
D.C. Phillips is the author of Frightful Fables, the tales that leave you screaming for more! He has received praise for his dynamic and darkly ironic style. As a native of Atlanta, Georgia, D.C. cites Southern culture and classic horror as two of his major influences. He is currently hard at work on several projects.