Gaby and I walk across the grass, the grounds of the asylum now pitched in darkness. We slowly begin making our way towards the old hanging tree, our flashlights and lantern off. Its silhouette is highlighted against the brighter sky making finding our way just a matter of dodging thorn bushes and fallen logs. When we get there it’s easy to see why it’s still known as the hanging tree. Torn and shredded lines of rope still hang from the dead, thick branches. They sway in the wind like morbid streamers.
“OK, I guess we look for a placard or something,” I say. Gaby nods and we split up and walk around the tree. The grass is so overgrown I nearly miss it, but after nearly breaking my toe, I find a single grave stone. “Lot 141” it reads in weathered letters. No other identifying marks adorned the damaged stone.
“I found it,” I say to Gaby. She hurries around the tree, and as she does she disappears from view. I hear her scream, and then a rapid fire of .45 gun shots. I run over to where she was and find that the ground has collapsed into a dirt tunnel, clearly not dug by workers in the facility. I try to hop down but it’s too much of a jump. Gaby is nowhere to be seen.
I remember the tunnels dug to go from building to building, and one of them must reach underneath around this area. They could possibly intersect. It was my best hope short of going out to the store and trying to buy climbing equipment at what was now 10:30 at night.
Running back inside the asylum’s main building I dodge over the weakened planks and gaps in the hallway. Caring little for my own safety now, I can think of only that I’ve gotten Gaby killed. I hear the electronic doors screech and lock behind me as I proceed through each one. Finally, I find a maintenance elevator. The platform has been rotted by a leak at the top of the shaft, so I slip my gloves on and climb down the rusting wall mounted ladder to the basement floor.
Switching on my light and aiming the shotgun behind me, I find the tunnel that runs between here and the crematorium building; the closest building to the hanging tree.
I sprint at full speed down the hallway, flashlight bobbing and narrowly illuminating pipes I occasionally have to duck under. I’ve never been much of a sprinter, most of the time I spend working out is for endurance. The packs we carry with the DNR are often heavy and laden with equipment, so it was just practical at the time.
Coming around a slight bend, my feet begin to crunch on gravel littering the cement. My flashlight illuminates a large hole in the wall, crudely chiseled out and apparently dug the rest of the way by bare hands. I jump into the tunnel without hesitation and run. Selfishly enough, I’m not just thinking of her safety, but the possibility I just may have gotten her killed when I promised myself to protect her.
I can hear screams begin to echo from up ahead followed by another gun shot. I’m getting close.
Turning the corner, I’m rendered speechless. The tunnel opens up into the top of an underground cavern, apparently naturally dug. Caskets have been pulled from the earth and split open, the only remains left are broken bones drained of marrow. There has to be hundreds of these caskets down here.
Gaby is at the bottom of the pit, surrounded by pale white creatures slowly closing in on her.
Two of the things already lie dead at her feet. Taking long strides but trying not to make much noise, I move down the earthen ramp to the bottom of the pit where the confrontation is about to take place. Her leg looks broken, but the beings seem to be scared of the pistol. I can see from here that the slide is locked back and empty. It’s only the sheer rage in her eyes that hold the things in place as she darts the empty .45 from advancing creature to creature.
The creatures don’t hear me until the first shotgun blast echoes through the chamber. Up close I can finally get a good look at them. They’re pale and lanky, their skin looks like they’ve never been in the light of day. Their faces are slightly elongated snouts, like someone mixed a human face with a German Shepherd muzzle. They’re covered in rotting civilian clothes and hospital gowns.
They turn their attention towards me and begin to sprint, oblivious to the shotgun. Firing twice more, two more drop to the ground. The remaining three tackle me. Their long pale arms, tipped with claws for digging, catch on my leather jacket and easily tear through. A blast of pain shoots up my right side as I stretch for the shotgun.
The head of the one on top of me explodes like a cantaloupe, a heavy rock taking it’s place like an eerie effigy of one of the creatures. It wobbles for a second and falls, the rock barely missing me. The other two stop and look up.
Gaby is standing on her good leg and has the shotgun. Two booms echo off the earthen walls as the last two of the things drop.
“Thank you, Gaby, thank you,” I say weakly. I can feel the blood loss starting to come into play. “Last time I checked we just saved each other’s lives, so we’re even,” she replies.
Even injured and nervous, she still manages to smile. Gaby keeps the shotgun to use as a crutch, and I reload the .45. Looking around the remainder of the cavern, we locate a small offshoot filled with makeshift benches built from what remains of the caskets.
In front of the pews is a rough, stone alter. Sitting on top is a yellowing book with a rotting cover.
Gaby grabs it and reads aloud, “A Field Guide to North American Paranormal Creatures.” She slips it into her bag and helps me up. “At least we didn’t have to look too far, right Evans?” I groan in agreement.
We make it back to the asylum and all the doors are open again. I don’t remember how, but Gaby gets us an ambulance and the next time I wake up my wounds have been bandaged. I get interviewed by a bored cop who said as long as we didn’t go into the building we weren’t trespassing, and that we should be more careful next time if we decide to go hiking on that ground.
According to Gaby, we were hiking around the grounds when a sinkhole gave way, causing her to break her leg and me to cut myself on the exposed rebar of the damaged tunnel. She pulls a favor from a friend working and gets us put into the same room. As soon as all the doctors and residents are gone, she winks at me and flashes the .45 and the book she stowed in her backpack when we were rescued.
For the first time in months, I sleep easy.