Gothic Bite Magazine is now opening their gates to all authors who would enjoy sharing their work with the public. We welcome all writers, from the enthusiasts to the professionals.
This week, we are sharing the fantastic work of our author and writer Francis J. Burns. Enjoy the obscure story and words!
Gothic Bite Magazine Presents
THE DEEP DARK
by: Francis J. Burns
The deep dark had come, that time between two and four a.m., when most of the world can be found clutched in the bowels of sleep. A heavy mist slithered in from the sea. Saint Theresa of the Blessed Heart Hospital was hushed. Roan settled further into his chair as he read, fleeing from the creeping chill. Beside him, Selena rested. Her breathing was slow, even, comforting in its regularity. He glanced at her every so often when the clacking of shoes on tile stirred him from his book. In the cavernous silence, the pages whispered with each turning. The story, lifted from his favorite video game series, captivated him.
When the tapping of footsteps came again, they were almost deafening as they reverberated through the long hallways. He looked up, sharply, as the nurse passed the open door. Then, his eyes turned to Selena. He took in her raven hair as it spread across the pillow, the olive tone of her pixie’s face marred by deep purple bruises, and the cast that lay across her chest, rising and falling with every breath. With a single glance, it all came rushing back to him.
Their last fight had nearly finished them. Without the illusion of tension from his novel, guilt swept in, chased by the sounds of her sobs and the slamming of the door. Exhausted, he hadn’t cared that he was being a jackass, that maybe he could be the bad guy on this one. He’d told himself she’d be back. It wasn’t like this hadn’t happened before. But, when the Highway Patrol called, his heart had stopped. You weren’t supposed to hear things like “There’s been an accident… Your wife’s in the hospital… It’s touch and go…”
Running a hand through his greasy hair, he closed the book. He barely remembered the phone slipping from his grasp to clatter onto the table, or rushing across rain-slicked streets to be at her side. Nor, could he remember the last time he’d eaten. But, the pounding in his head told him that it must have been a long time ago. Setting the book on the small bedside table, he examined the cover. A splatter of gore behind several rotting corpses, beneath the title: Zombie Dawn 6. It had been an unbelievable stroke of luck that the gift shop had the newest installment in stock. Stable, or not, there was no way he would’ve left Selena’s side after they brought her out of surgery. Besides, he’d counted every hole in the drop ceiling, and every blemish on the plaster of her cast, twice. Standing, he stretched, yawned.
“You are now leaving the world of survival horror,” he murmured.
He took her hand in his, caressed it with his thumb. Leaning close, he kissed her plum colored lips, nuzzled the tip of her nose with his own and whispered, “I’m sorry”.
Standing over her, he thanked God she was alive. He thanked Him profusely that he was given another day, another year, perhaps an entire lifetime to apologize. Finally, his stomach voiced its protest, and he relinquished her hand.
Walking stiffly, he shambled out into the dim corridor. With the fluorescents lowered for the night, the nurse’s station was an island of light in the stark gloom. He moved toward it, looking for the duty nurse. There had to be some food around here, somewhere. He found her, engrossed in her own novel, Journey into the Forest of Madness, under the harsh glare of a desk lamp. A petite, brunette, her skin glowed slightly in the reflected light, she wore floral patterned scrubs. Her name badge said, Rita. She glanced up at his approach and smiled.
“What brings you down our dark hallway?”
She chuckled. “You won’t find any nuts, or berries here.”
“I had my eye on a bigger prize, the rare, and elusive, cheeseburger.”
Her face puckered in an adorable frown.
“Unfortunately, cheeseburgers only appear once a day, here. They are, indeed, the rarest prize of all.”
“Seriously, though, the cafeteria is closed.”
His stomach growled, again.
She raised an eyebrow. “Sounds serious. Should I call a doctor.”
He smiled. “Only if he can open the caf.”
She shook her head. “Not even the doctors are that powerful, here.”
“You are in luck, however, adventurer, for I know of a secret garden where you may find the equally elusive, though somewhat less satisfying, ham and cheddar on white bread.”
He laughed, again. “Hey, I’ll take what I can get.”
She stood, walking around the desk into the corridor. A full head shorter than him, Rita was about the same height as Selena. He shook off the thought as she pointed to a door, nestled in shadow, at the end of the hallway, illuminated only by the sickly glow of an exit sign.
“Go through that door, down the stairs, two floors, to the basement. Make a left and go until the hallway ends, then make another left. It’ll be past the elevators in the fabled clearing known as Breakroom.”
She slipped back into her seat and smiled up at him. “Good luck, adventurer. May the god’s grant you favor.”
He bowed his head, a fist over his heart, held it for a beat before bursting into laughter. Rita was already chuckling and shaking her head. He glanced back into Selena’s room.
“Scoot. I’ll take care of your girl.”
He offered a genuine smile of thanks, and set off.
Alone with his thoughts again, his mind settled onto a well-worn track. The front door had opened onto a table set for a romantic dinner. But, the candles had burned low, and the serving dishes were covered in foil. He could still feel the keys in his hand, hear them jingle as she turned to him. The look on her face had left nothing to the imagination. He’d hid behind the old excuses. The set needed to be ready in two days. Art department is a 24 hour day. He’d been so concerned about rule #1, he’d forgotten the golden rule. After all, what good did it do to cover your ass when you pissed off your wife? Roan stood in the pool of pallid light at the end of the hall, blew out a harsh breath. Exasperated, he shoved the door open.
The stairwell was dirty. Dust covered the rough metal. The walls were painted with grimy handprints. A bucket of filthy water and a mangy rag sat abandoned by the door. They smelled faintly of mildew and used disinfectant. Roan could easily imagine some poor schmuck in the puke green of the hospital janitorial staff scrubbing away at the accumulated grunge. Despite this tragically comic image, he was still reminded of another hallway, in another hospital, one made of pixels. He could even hear the sinister score as he descended.
His boots echoed, maddeningly, on the metal staircase, rippling down the long shaft to the bottom in time to the pounding in his head. Quickening his pace, he tried to escape the tightening in his chest. As he neared the bottom, the accumulated filth seemed to have taken on the hue of old blood. Part of him was exhilarated. This was the same strange, panicky sensation he experienced in front of the T.V., the lights snuffed, controller clutched in clammy hands.
As he reached the basement landing, the tension in his chest eased with the dying echoes of his footfalls. Regardless, he was ready to leave this grim chamber behind. More filthy handprints marred the door’s finish near the handle. The years had turned the stark hospital white to the color of pus. He hesitated before gripping the tarnished metal. Something unutterable surely awaited him beyond this portal. His breath caught for a second, he hesitated. Then, his stomach growled. Roan snarled, shook his head. He was being silly. Selena was waiting for him. Taking a firm grip on the handle, he wrenched open the door and stepped into the basement proper.
The door clicked shut behind him and Roan shivered, rubbing the fresh gooseflesh on his arms. A weight seemed to settle over him, pushing against his chest. Heavy machinery throbbed with a deep basso rumbling that was nearly inaudible. Here the landscape was much the same as what he’d left behind. A sickly yellow covered walls heavy with dirt. This place was such a stark contrast to the pristine upper floors. It was likely the schmuck who scrubbed the walls had to start at the top every day and never got this far. Fewer of the fluorescent banks were lit, and the strange half-light was nearly maddening as the subterranean corridor stretched before him. In the gloomy distance, he could make out the turn Rita had promised. He clung to this buoy of saneness in the ocean of idiocy his musings had become. He snorted. The things you think about skulking through dimly lit hallways on your way to get crappy snacks out of overpriced vending machines.
“Good luck, adventurer, indeed.”
He made is way over the drab tile. After several steps, he became aware of strange shuffling noises. Wet sounds, they conjured up images of rancid flesh and limbs that only half remembered how to move, faded in and out as he progressed. It was then he noticed the sign above one of the doors. MORGUE. Faded, the print had run a little so that he was again reminded of blood. His breath hitched. His heart swelled to bursting. An odd tension stole over him accompanied by a savage lightheadedness. He berated himself, shaking his head. This was getting ridiculous.
A couple more steps and the shuffling came again. Louder. Closer. There’s NO SUCH THING as zombies. The voice of reason in his head was firm, but a part of him was determined to ignore it. He found himself inching closer to the decrepit, swinging door beneath the sign. Beyond it, he was certain to find a room full of dead bodies. What in God’s name are you doing?!?Some dreadful compulsion moved him. Leaning forward he was able to peek into the cloudy observation window.
Shadows danced on the wall opposite him, amorphous shapes moving in menacing patterns. Some looked vaguely human. Others were twisted, malformed and monstrous. A dull crash fractured the silence. The light began to sway. It held him with the same hypnotic rhythm of a strobe. For several heartbeats he was unaware that a part the darkness was creeping toward him. The shade crossed the grimy glass, and he almost bolted. But he refused to be overwhelmed by foolishness. Reason spoke again in his mind. Too little sleep and too much going on, that’s all. You gotta quit reading those horror books, man.Deliberately, he turned away, continuing forward at a pace some might describe as brisk.
Each step echoed on the hard tile. The deep basso rumbling had settled into his bones. Above, an erratic fluorescent flickered and buzzed. He felt goosebumps ripple back to life along his arms as he reached the first turn. Standing at the head of a T, he looked forward and back along the dim passage. In the gloom, like trails of ichor, the smears came to resemble handprints more and more. Ahead, a loaded gurney stood alone along an expanse of wall, the white sheet rising and falling against the contours of a body. He shrank from it as he passed, clinging to the opposite side. The rolling bed seemed to shake as he moved closer. Beside it now, he stared at the vague outline of a corpse. Blood roared in his ears. This is not happening. This is not a corpse. All of this is the product of an overactive imagination, lack of food, and sleep depr–
An arm slipped from the thin mattress with a sound like autumn leaves scraping across concrete. He jumped.
Boneless, it flopped and dangled, as if reaching for him. Electricity coursed through him. A shotgun blast filled his ears and static consumed his vision. His heart beat a staccato tune in his chest and his hands clenched into fists. For a moment, the urge to flee was nearly overwhelming. He stood for a bit, struggling to catch his breath, and stared at the yellowed flesh of that arm.
Realization came, a splash of icy water on his face. This thing could not possibly be real. The flesh was yellow. But, not the yellow of age or rot, more like the color of a banana popsicle. A seam ran along the inner arm from the wrist to end somewhere beneath the sheet, and the fingernails were molded. He threw back the covering to reveal the gaping mouth of a CPR dummy.
He snorted, sagged against the wall. Feeling all kinds of foolish, he whipped the sheet back up over the dummy’s head. This was ridiculous. He needed to get a hold of himself. What the hell was going on? After a moment, he realized it was because Selena wasn’t there. She’d always been the anchor, keeping him grounded when his imagination wanted to sweep him away. When reason spoke in his mind, it was her voice that it used. She was so much a part of him. Until now, he’d never realized how important she was to his ability to function as a normal person. The image of Tom Cruise saying “you complete me” surged into his mind and he wanted to puke. Jesus, this is pathetic.
Again, the empty maw that was his stomach demanded attention and he pressed forward on his trek. Shadows clustered ahead and to his left, a break in the immeasurable expanse of pus colored, ichor splashed walls that had become his world. As he moved closer, he could see an ancient, dusty sign hung from an elaborate wrought-iron hook. SAINT THERESA, OF THE BLESSED HEART CREDIT UNION had been emblazoned on it. The letters had faded, begun to peel from the aged shingle. Man, I’d like to have a bank right downstairs at work. No more waiting in line, or worrying about wrapping late. He smiled, thinking pleasant thoughts, now and remembering a particular Friday he and Selena had been racing to the bank, hoping to squeak in before the guard locked up, so they could catch the latest crap horror movie.
“She’s so good to me.”
At the recess, among the clustered shadows, he came upon a set of glass double doors. They peered in on a stygian sea. The shadows shifted, seemed to ebb and flow, to pool in various depths. It was almost like coming to a cold spot in the ocean. He caught sight of his reflection in the glass, warped against the miasma of darkness, and gritted his teeth, determined not to let fantasy get the better of him. As he passed, he caught movement from the corner of his eye. Whipping his head back, he froze. The abyss beyond the portal stared back at him. It seemed to roil, like waves in a storm – random and violent. He moved a little, tested the pattern of the reflection. It wasn’t the same. There’s something fucking in there, man. What the hell is this place?Unable to wrench his eyes from those twisting shadows, he willed his feet to move. When the gore covered walls were again all he could see, he broke into a trot.
The thrum of heavy machinery had burrowed under his skin, was making his teeth rattle, or maybe that was just the anxiety? He wasn’t sure. Though, he did know he couldn’t sit the night on an empty stomach and he’d passed the point of no return. Such an odd saying, that. In literal terms, it meant only that you had traveled beyond the halfway point, and it would take longer to travel the way you’d come than press forward. But, there was something so much more ominous about it. He rounded the last corner and relief washed over him in heady waves. More of the fluorescent tubes were lit. The walls seemed brighter, though not quite white, and were bare of troubling smears. On his left the flat expanse was broken by the metal framing of an elevator door. Above it, a red LED told him the elevator was on the 10th floor. As he passed, it didn’t change. Hopefully, it wasn’t stuck there.
Beyond the elevator, the corridor opened into a broad square, before narrowing once more, twenty feet later, and trailing into darkness. Gleaming dully in the gloom, a pair of vending machines stood side by side. Opposite them were a handful of tables and chairs. He’d found the fabled clearing known as Breakroom, now, to search for the elusive “Ham and cheddar on white bread”. He rushed to the machines, fumbling for his wallet. Mostly empty, the machines offered little to fill the maw in his belly. He selected the largest sandwich. Sadly, it was little bigger than the $5 bill he’d slid into the machine. A bag of Fritos and a couple of Dr. Peppers made up the rest of his $10 prize.
With an uneasy glance at the amorphous darkness behind, he made his way back down the hallway to the elevator. Pressing the button for the elevator, he stepped back to lean against the wall. Under the brighter light, away from deceptive smears of dirt, he began to rationalize what he had seen at the bank. Nothing but a trick of the light, man. The dark, the black, does that, you know?The LED above the door dropped inexorably. Sweat trickled between his shoulder blades, down his back.
From his right, in the shadows beyond the vending machines a soft whisper stretched toward him. He came away from the wall with a start. A small rectangular sign was posted next to the elevator. An arrow next to the legend BOILER ROOM pointed toward the vending machines, the dusky corridor, and the noise. He desperately wanted to believe the sound was just escaping air, had just about convinced himself, when it came again. It was followed by a strange rubbing, like stiff paper on tile. His heart leapt into his throat, and all of a sudden, he needed to pee so bad it hurt. Roan steadied himself on the brushed aluminum frame and willed the blood red lights to form a B.
He squeezed his eyes shut, not daring to look. But, as the adrenaline pounded through his system, his hearing kicked into overdrive. It was something akin to braille. Every nuance of sound had its own texture. In that second, another low moan sounded, followed by the dry brushing. Beneath that, nearly inaudible, a viscous crunching birthed, fully grown, the image of rotting corpses in his mind, like flesh starved maggots feeding on the remnants of his composure. Clenching the sandwich and chips in one hand, the bottles of soda in the other, he pounded the call button. Still unable to open his eyes, the shuffling things in the murky corridor seemed to inch forward with an odd shuffling gait. Finally, the bell dinged, and the elevator door slid open with the gratifying hiss of well-oiled tracks. Oh sweet Jesus, thank You. He ran inside, pounding the door close and fourth floor buttons simultaneously, begging the doors to shut.
With another sibilant hiss, the doors closed. His soles sunk into the tacky carpet, and he felt the jostle as the mechanism kicked in. Letting out a long breath, he glanced at his surroundings, willed himself to absorb the mundanity. Faux — though fake would have been the more appropriate word — wood-panels, separated by brushed aluminum beams, emergency call box, handicap rails around the perimeter. Everything was as it should be. There was nothing in the darkness. The corpse on the stretcher had been a CPR dummy. The noises wafting from that unlit hallway were perfectly explainable. Maybe he would even ask Rita about them when he got back to his floor. He scoffed. Yeah, sure, and she’ll say, ‘nothing intrepid adventurer, just several zombies, the shambling corpses of the unwary seekers of the sandwich’.
Wiping sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, he blew out a harsh breath. God, but he missed Selena. The witty banter he’d shared with Rita was so much like the early exchanges with Selena, before money and work had gotten in the way. It had been so easy to think she would always be there. For the thousandth time, he wished he could apologize to her, take her in his arms and make it okay. He’d been wrong. That was nothing new. But, telling her, saying it out loud, after having made it through this accident, the shock of that might just kill her. He snorted a laugh as the elevator thudded to a stop.
The bell dinged, and the door opened on hell. What the fuck? I really am in a fucking game! JesusFuckingChristwhatthefuckisgoingonhere? He stepped out of the elevator into a world stained crimson. A strobe pulsed spasmodically. Every door was shut tight, though most, if not all, had been, at least, partially open when he left. Clutching his food in numb hands, he realized Selena’s room was still several corridors away. He sprinted across the tile. She didn’t know. She never read the books, never played the games. Roan was certain something terrible was going to happen to her. Some unutterable horror conjured by this nightmare would unzip her guts as she slept off the anesthesia. I just figured all this shit out. I am not losing her now. We still have an anniversary to celebrate.
Roan ran full tilt past empty nurse’s stations. The only sound was the slap of his work boots on tile. He careened around the corner into the proper corridor. Another strobe pulsed, this one languid, and somehow menacing. Dear God pleaseletherbeokay… From nowhere and everywhere the soft, whispered moan came again, at once both pained and frustrated. A hunched form lurched toward him, silhouetted by the strobe. It staggered in time with the moans. He skidded to a halt, heart trip-hammering in his throat, chest tight. Staring at the gibbous shape, his mind supplied the image of a butcher knife, or scalpel, dangling from a limp arm. Mind suddenly clear, he tossed his food on the counter beside him, next to Rita’s copy of Journey into the Forest of Madness, loosened his shoulders and cracked his neck. No more running.
Abruptly, the strobe died. The crimson replaced by the harsh glare of the hospital fluorescents. Rita blinked at him from behind the pile of dirty bed linens in her arms. He offered a lopsided grin as his chest heaved.
“There’s, uh, no running in the hospital.”
Roan barked a laugh. She flashed an uncertain smile.
“What was that?”
Uncertainty disappeared and the smile bloomed full. He noticed she was very pretty when she smiled.
“The hell you say.”
She laughed. “Yeah, I know. It’s pretty freaky. I just about peed my pants the first time they had one of those.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“The veteran nurses like to mess with the noobs. They conveniently forgot to mention it to me.”
Roan shook his head. “Remind me never to haze the interns again.”
Something occurred to him. “But, there was no sound, what’s the point?”
“They don’t like to disturb the patients on these floors, and the hospital staff knows what to do. We pretty much just run a drill and try not to annoy anybody.”
“Well, that was pretty damned annoying.”
She laughed again, and he heard something sweet and wonderful in it. He remembered when Selena’s laughter had sounded like that, looked forward to trying to rouse the sound from its slumber in her. Then, Rita noticed his treasure lying on her desk.
“I see you found the fabled clearing and returned with the ham and cheddar on white. Were you leaving that as an offering? I think your princess is in another castle.”
He laughed, now, too. When he caught his breath, his headache threatened to return.
“You guys got any Tylenol?”
“I have some in my purse. I can grab it for you after I dump these.” She gestured with the sheets. “But, I’m not supposed to give medicine to non-patients, so you didn’t get it from me.”
Roan pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Your secret is safe with me.”
He grabbed his food and headed back to Selena’s room.
Roan slumped into the stiff hospital chair beside the bed and thought there was never a more comfortable place to be. The last of the adrenaline faded and he started to tremble. He watched Selena breath and waited for the reaction to subside. Rita ambled in with the pills.”
“One healing draught, coming right up.”
He grinned, tossed them back with a gulp of Dr. Pepper. As she turned to leave, something occurred to him.
“How come you weren’t taking part in the drill”.
Suddenly bashful, she looked at the floor.
“I got sucked into my book, and was behind on my rounds. One of my patients had soiled the bed, so I had to change the sheets.”
“Don’t you guys have people for that?”
She shrugged. “Our C.N.A. called out, and the hospital is understaffed, so more work for me.”
He shook his head. “That’s sucks.”
“And the doors?”
“They close automatically. Supposedly, they’re fire proof, or something. Anyway, they all need to be opened again. Until next time, adventurer.” She turned and headed out.
Alone with Selena, he sat thinking how much she was going to laugh at him when he told her of his quest for the elusive ham and cheddar on white. He smiled. She could laugh at him all she wanted, as long as she did it for the next sixty years, or so. Chewing thoughtfully, he mulled over his trek to the vending machines. Retracing his steps, he chuckled. He was definitely being stupid. Taking the last bite of sandwich, he tossed the plastic wrapping into the little round waste can at the foot of the bed. Two points! He killed the second bottle of soda in a single swallow and tossed it into the can, as well. It was then that he glanced at his book, the novelization of a video game, the world of survival horror. Reaching for it, he paused. Changing his mind, he slid his chair closer to the bed, settled deeper, as if to escape the creeping chill, took Selena’s hand in his, and pulled his flannel over himself.
Deep in the bowels of the hospital, behind twin glass doors, the stygian sea roiled. And, something moved in the dark…