Here's my contribution to our little horrorfest. I haven't written fiction in over 20 years, and it probably shows, so all critiques are welcome. Enjoy.
Men with Knives
Anna’s great-grandmother lay completely still, her face compressed into a pained scowl, eyes closed, voice varying between a near-sob, a whisper, and defiance. “No no no no. No,” she kept saying. Anna didn’t know what to do. She was relieving her mother, who was clinically exhausted from weeks of bedside vigils. It was 11:12 PM, really too late for a 16-year-old, but Anna was the only child of an only child, and her father hadn’t been around since she was six, so she and her mother had little choice. They had left her great-grandmother alone many times during her roughly two-month hospital stay, but over the last several weeks she had become much frailer and far more delusional. Plus, they had begun to sense that the nurses were simply done with them, ready to see this one off and let someone else’s relative while away their remaining hours with a bedpan and Jell-O. Thus they more or less stayed with Momma (they both called her this) around the clock, alternating day and night shifts every few days. Only her mother’s job as an Accounts Specialist at the hospital allowed such an arrangement – 24-hour visitation was only permitted for parents with newborns, but the hospital administrator liked Anna’s mother and knew that her grandmother was dying, so he made the exception. Anna often wished he hadn’t.
Anna found she could usually sleep okay despite Momma’s fitful moaning, even in a hard, reclinable hospital chair, but not tonight. She was fidgety, like something indistinct was bothering her. And Momma was definitely bothering her. Her moaning was often wordless and elusive, but tonight it seemed more intense and focused, as if she were moaning about something specific.
“Shhhh, Momma,” Anna whispered. “It’s just a bad dream. It’s OK. Just go back to sleep.”
Momma groaned and said, “No. No.” Then in that urgent whisper again, almost like she was scolding someone without wanting others to hear, she said, “No. No sir. No.”
“Momma, shhhh. No one’s here but me. It’s just me and you.”
Momma groaned, and her features seemed to relax a bit. Then she opened her eyes. She was lying flat on her back, face to the ceiling, and after a beat she looked over at Anna, her brow furrowed in concern. As she looked at Anna, her eyes narrowed in panicky recognition, and then she looked jerkily around the room without lifting her head, her brittle, unwashed hair making a whishk noise against the stiff hospital pillow case.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Momma said slowly. “Not safe…not safe here…Anna.”
This surprised Anna – at her most lucid, Momma often confused Anna with Eleanor, a friend from Momma’s childhood. Mostly she just didn’t seem to recognize Anna at all.
“Don’t say that, Momma,” Anna replied. “It’s very safe here. It’s a hospital.”
Momma searched the room for several more seconds and then looked at Anna with encroaching terror. “There are men,” she said intently. “Here. There are men here.”
Anna snuffled a laugh. “At the hospital? Yes, Momma. Your doctor’s a man. You remember? Doctor Garr-“
“There are men here,” Momma interrupted. “There are men here. They have knives.” She was looking at Anna in real terror now. “They have knives.” Slowly, with emphasis, she continued, “They are in the chairs. They have knives. It’s not safe…here.”
Anna knew that Momma hadn’t been in an operating room in nearly a year and hadn’t had any procedure more serious than a bedsore treatment in months. “What men are you talking about? Doctor Garrison? One of the nurses?”
Momma kept looking at her, wide-eyed and scared, and for a few seconds Anna just looked back. Then Momma searched the room again, only her small head moving, and returned her eyes to Anna as she whispered, “There are men here. They have knives.”
Anna sighed, letting a bit of exasperation slip out. She thought for a moment, staring at the tan corduroy window curtain, and began looking for the remote control with the nurse’s call button. “I’m just gonna ask Miss Frankie if you need some medicine or something. Where’s the remote?” Momma only stared at her. “Shoot,” Anna said, gingerly lifting Momma’s blankets as she looked for the remote. Not seeing it (she didn’t search long – Momma’s bony body bothered her), she looked at the wall behind Momma’s bed to trace the cord and saw it just beyond Momma’s left shoulder, running down toward the floor. She pulled herself out of the chair and started to walk around the foot of Momma’s bed.
“Don’t go,” Momma whispered. “Don’t go…Anna.”
“I’m not, Momma. I’m just looking for something,” she said as she got around the bed. The remote was on the floor; Anna took two steps and knelt to pick it up. As she did so, a chill blossomed in her spine, and every fine hair on the back of her body crept upwards. It was a familiar sensation – one she sometimes felt at night after a scary movie, especially if she was alone in the house – but much, much stronger. The feeling intensified fast, as though the chill were enveloping her entire body and the hairs were literally trying to crawl up her back. Her ears began to ring and the ringing kept rising louder and louder until it approached a scream. Anna had frozen, still on one knee, eyes glued on the remote. What the fuck? she thought and almost said, and as the sensation became unbearable, she stood up quickly without grabbing the remote and whirled around to her right, scraping her wrist and thigh on the nightstand, involuntarily folding her arms and grabbing her biceps, rubbing them as she looked around the room, breathing rapidly through her mouth, her pulse impossibly fast.
Anna looked toward the wall-mounted TV and darkened entryway, not focusing on anything other than the chill and the ringing, which were less intense but not gone. She was light-headed from standing up so quickly, made worse by the continuing sensation. She was scared she might faint and closed her eyes, breathing deeply to try and regain control of herself. After perhaps twenty seconds, the sensation began to ebb, and after ten more, she felt centered enough to pick up the remote. She held onto the bedrail and bent over at the waist to grasp it, not wanting to risk kneeling again. When she righted herself, she pressed the red “CALL” button and waited for a response. None came. She tried it again but got nothing.
“Is this thing broke, Momma?” Her voice was unsteady. She looked down. Momma had drifted off to sleep again, the papery skin of her brow still furrowed.
Anna exhaled through her nose, mouth set, put the remote on the nightstand, and started walking toward the door. “I’ll be right back, Momma.” As she approached the door, she paused to look back over her shoulder. Momma’s withered frame formed a small ridge in the middle of the bed, just below her tiny head and cinched, sleeping face. Everything in its right place. Weird, weird, thought Anna.
She closed the door quietly behind her and walked down to the nurse’s station. The nurse named Renata sat staring intently at a computer screen, chin in her left hand, index finger over her mouth.
“Hey. Where’s Miss Frankie?” Anna said. She was still unnerved from the last few moments and did not like Renata anyway, so she sounded annoyed, but Renata barely acknowledged her at all, let alone notice her temperament.
“Went home,” Renata said from behind her finger, eyes never leaving the screen.
Anna waited for an offer of help. Receiving none, she replied, “Well, Momma’s acting weird, kinda talking out of her head. Is it time for her to have some medicine or something?”
Renata said something indecipherable behind her finger. “What?” Anna said.
“Weird how?” Renata said, only slightly more clearly.
“Like I said, she was talking out of her head, talking about it’s not safe here, men have knives, and et cetera.”
“Was talking?” Renata replied, large eyes looking at Anna now, eyebrows raised, left hand still in place as though her head would pitch forward helplessly without it.
“Well, she was asleep when I left the room just now,” Anna said, knowing what was coming.
Renata shrugged and smiled patronizingly. “Probably OK, then. Folks in her condition have episodes like that. She’s not due for meds til 6. Can’t give her extra unless she gets violent.”
Anna put her hands in her hoodie’s pockets and sighed, angry but helpless. After a beat, she turned to her right and went back to Momma’s room, then stopped and turned around again. “Momma’s remote’s broken,” Anna said brusquely. Renata was back in position, studying her screen. After several barren seconds (during which time Anna thought You’re such a bitch), Renata said, “We’ll tell the engineer” without looking away. Anna turned and kept walking, knowing she was raised to say “Thanks” no matter what but not giving a damn.
At first Anna thought she was in the wrong room. She hadn’t bothered to get up and turn off the overhead lights earlier when she was trying to go to sleep, but this room was dark. Moonlight and the glow from the parking lot lights seeped in as a light-blue border around the heavy curtains. Anna saw the figure of a person seated in one of the chairs near the window and started to whisper an apology for entering the wrong room. Then she looked at the bed, and there was enough bluish light for her to recognize Momma’s form on the bed and enough hallway light to see her own satchel slumped against the chair where she had just been sitting. Anna frowned.
“Hello?” Anna said. “Who-“
Before she could get out another word, the figure in the chair raised its face, a lumpy, misshapen face so white it faintly glowed around eyes like small black dots. Anna’s own eyes bulged at the sight, and the sensation from a few minutes before returned with terrible ferocity. Her pulse spiked so suddenly she was sure her heart had burst, her skin crawled in every direction at once, and the ringing in her ears sounded like the hiss of a cat amplified a hundredfold. Anna was sure the noise was coming from the face, even though it had no discernible mouth. Then she saw a glint of metal low on the shadowed figure’s blackness, and she screamed.
With no idea she was doing it, she whipped around and ran, slipping and falling on the shiny hospital tile but regaining her feet quickly on pure panic alone. She sprinted and slammed palms-first into the nurse’s stand. Renata, who had been standing and leaning over the counter looking toward Momma’s room, jerked backward at the sound of Anna’s voice.
“HELP!!! SOMETHING’S IN THERE!!! HELP!!!”
In a nanosecond, Renata snatched up the phone and slapped four numbers, breathed through her nose rapidly while waiting, and then said firmly, “Kenneth, emergency, room 303, hurry.” Then she hung up and dashed around the nurse-station counter toward Anna. “What is it?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know!” Anna sobbed. Her hands involuntarily came up to her mouth and she sprayed them with spittle as she watched Renata run into Momma’s room. She knew she should follow but simply could not make her legs move. I’m paralyzed, she thought idiotically and nearly cackled. Then she realized she should have heard something by now, but she forced herself to hold her breath and found there was no sound of any kind apart from the residual ringing in her ears. The hospital itself was silent.
Several very long moments elapsed during which Anna tried in vain to will herself to do something, anything. Finally, she managed to say “Renata? What is it?” Silence. “Renata? What’s in there?” Silence. Didn’t she call the security guard? Anna thought. Where is he?
Without actually knowing she was going to do it, Anna started walking carefully toward Momma’s room. She was terrified to the point of catatonia but now suddenly couldn’t stop herself from moving forward or even understand how she was moving at all. And yet, a wily part of her consciousness tried to poke through, tried to say You were seeing things, there’s nothing in there, the lights are on, Renata’s looking Momma and the room over, she just didn’t hear you call out. She tried to hold onto this idea and literally whimpered with the effort, so buffeted and frenetic was her mental state, as she kept padding toward the room. When she got close, she didn’t stop and peek in but just kept moving forward until she was facing in through the open door and could see inside.
The room was full of figures like the one she had seen moments ago. A host of bulbous white faces rose up before her, pairs of dark eyes staring cold as space, countless glints of metal winking against the black mass. The exploding heart, the spasming nervous system, the hiss-scream in her ears all returned, and for a long moment the combined sensations were so overwhelming Anna felt like her entire being was wrenching itself apart.
And then she was in the room, swallowed by the blackness, the spasm and the screaming somehow louder, her entire body rigid but trembling, not moving of its own will but being pulled and tossed, her eyes and mouth stretched to ludicrous sizes in purest shock. Her field of vision saw nothing but blackness and those nearly glowing faces, devoid of features, spread all over what she thought had been Momma’s hospital room. Anna’s mind was scraped bare by her fear; no thoughts flickered across, no coherent messages fired, only the involuntary reception of her surroundings, as if the blackness and the faces were crowding out everything else. Yet even this idea – Where is my mind? – eventually shuddered forth, and she slowly began to cogitate again. Even as the screaming hiss continued, even as she felt adrenaline blasting through and urging her flight, she formed centering thoughts: Where’s Momma? Where’s the nurse? What the hell IS this? And then the memory of glinting metal appeared, summoning Momma’s words from before: There are men here. They have knives.
For the first time since she came into the room (how long? she frantically wondered), Anna focused her eyes, looking for metal, knives, but also evidence of the hospital room: the bed, the chairs (the men! she thought, panic rising, there are men in the chairs, Momma had said), the curtains, the faint blue light. Nothing to indicate the hospital room. But beneath the white faces, she could indeed see glints of metal, thin white horizontal flashes whose ominous flickering made her notice her pulse, which felt like a mallet pounding the inside of her breastbone over and over. I can’t do this, she thought suddenly, and she began to cry, an awful, plaintive wail that shocked her in part because she’d forgotten about the concept of sound at all save for the screaming. As she did so, the metallic flickering came closer, in near her abdomen. “No, no, no, stop it!” she sobbed, “Go away! FUCK YOU!,” though this last came out as “fug you.” “FUCK YOU! LEAVE US ALONE! GODDAMMIT FUCK YOU GO AWAY!,” and then Anna just screamed wordlessly, long and loud and high, until the blackness consumed her fully, and she lost consciousness.
Anna’s eyes slipped open. She had been semi-dreaming for what seemed like days, floating in a featureless gray mist, feeling cold but otherwise placid. Awake now, she simply stared at the ceiling, and her first thought was There are men in the chairs they have knives. She gasped and sat up in a panic, looking around desperately, wincing at the pain in her body. She was alone in a hospital room. The door was closed. There were chairs and a wall-mounted TV and heavy curtains around which faint blue light shone, but nothing seemed amiss. She still wore her hoodie, jeans, and sneakers, and her dull brown hair, though mussed and badly in need of shampoo, was still in a ponytail. Her mouth tasted doughy and stale, and she ached all over, especially in her abdomen (from screaming, she thought blankly). Everything was silent.
After several minutes of sitting still and blinking, letting her mind gather itself, Anna cleared her throat and said “Hey.” Her throat was shredded and hurt badly, but she kept going. “Hey. Anybody there? Renata?” Silence. “Anybody?” It occurred to her to look for the nurse’s call button. She instinctively looked over her left shoulder and down, and there it was on the floor, cord running out of the wall. The sight of it summoned a wash of memories, most unnervingly her attempt to pick up the remote in Momma’s room and what happened when she tried. Momma, Anna thought. She knew she had to find Momma and find out what was going on, but she wasn’t ready yet. She eased back down into a reclined position on the bed, and for a poignant instant she realized that the only thing she wanted to do was put her head on the pillow, curl up, and go back to sleep, no matter what had happened or was still to come. Instead, she rolled on her left shoulder and reached down with her right arm to get the remote, the right half of her body off the bed, her senses anticipating something terrible. Nothing came. She plucked the remote off the floor and rotated back into a sitting position, her legs rising off the bed slightly to account for the weight shift, much to her abdomen’s displeasure.
Anna pushed the red button, not remembering if it was supposed to have a corresponding light of some sort. It didn’t, and she heard nothing, though she felt sure she’d have heard some sort of buzz or ding given the hospital’s preternatural silence. She pushed it again – nothing. Anna opened her hand and let the remote slip onto the bed. It landed near the bed’s edge and fell, clacking heavily to the floor.
Anna sighed through her nostrils, looked around the room, and swung her legs off the bed to her left. She put weight on her feet tentatively, knowing her legs would be rubbery. She stood there for a few seconds, rubbing her palms on her thighs as if to massage her legs back to full strength. There was a leaden feeling inside her chest that she knew was fear, but she started walking anyway. When she got near the end of the bed, she stopped involuntarily. Not aware she was going to do it, she stepped to her left toward the window and reached up to part the heavy curtains but found she had no desire to look outside. She merely stood there for several minutes, rubbing the curtain’s rough ridges, thinking of little besides how the fabric felt under her fingers. In the back of her mind, she knew she should be thinking of Momma, of escape, of just what in the fuck those black shapes and white faces were, but it was as if her mind was in full retreat, literally running away from anything but these curtains.
Anna stood there stroking the fabric for nearly fifteen full minutes, her mind an almost total blank and thus the fifteen minutes elapsing in what felt like a blink or two of her eyes. Then, suddenly, she let her hand fall toward her right leg, lightly slapping the curtains as they fell. And then just as suddenly she grabbed the curtain with her left hand and pulled it roughly to the left. The curtain rings did not slide well, so the top of the curtain stayed mostly in place while the curtain’s right edge cut a diagonal line across the now-exposed window.
She appeared to be on the third floor, and the window looked out upon the intersection of Grassley Avenue, which ran right-to-left across her field of vision, and Sullivan Street, which formed a “T” with Grassley just outside her window, meaning her view looked down Sullivan Street as it progressed into the distance. Streetlights, parked cars, stillness, a light border of condensation around the window. Everything in its right place, she thought.
And then she saw it: a broad black figure standing at the corner of the two streets, down and to the right in her field of view. Its back was turned to her, and she stood there frozen as every hair on her body tried to move. Close the curtain close the curtain! her inner voice said, but she felt encased in stone, physically incapable of movement. The figure began to turn, and as its white face came into view, that awful hissing scream returned to Anna’s ears. The face was looking straight up at her. Its black form rippled with what might have been the movement of an arm, and Anna saw the thick blade of a knife reflecting the street lamps’ glow.
Anna suddenly threw the curtain closed to her right and staggered backwards. “Shit! Shit!” she said, high-pitched and near hysteria. She covered her face with her hands and breathed deeply through her mouth, and in the silence that followed she heard the door click open behind her. She whirled around to her right in time to see the door slam open as a dark shape sailed into the room. Anna screamed involuntarily and jerked away from the shape with panicky speed, fleeing into the corner of the room and pushing unthinkingly against the converged walls as if she meant to plow through them. The shape landed where she’d been standing with a squishy, sickening thud, and she saw numerous dark blobs seemingly hang in the air in front of her before they hit her face, hoodie, hands, and jeans. Some of what hit her face landed on the left corner of her mouth and splashed in. It was blood. She spit instinctively and pushed open the curtain to her right in one spastic maneuver.
With the outside lamplight filtering in she could see that the shape was a body and that it was shiny with moisture. It appeared to be a black man in dark clothing, though how much of this darkness was the clothing and how much was apparent moisture she couldn’t tell. He lay completely still and did not seem to be breathing. His eyes and mouth were wide open.
Anna was crouched in the corner of the room and simply stared at him, stunned into silence and nearly devoid of thought. She stared at his face unblinkingly for several minutes before her eyes crept around to the rest of his body. His head was near her and his legs were straight out toward the door, feet pointing at 10 and 2. His left arm was bent at the elbow, and his left hand sat thumb down on the left side of his chest. It was a strange position. His right arm lay splayed to his right, palm looking up at the ceiling, fingers slightly curled and partially under the hospital bed. Then Anna saw that part of the darkness of his figure was on the floor around him, and she realized at once that it was blood and that this was also why his clothing shone with wetness. She instinctively looked at the wall to her left and saw dark drops and gobs of blood there, so much that she was shocked she hadn’t seen it already. “Oh God,” she murmured. She looked back at the figure and understood in a flash that he was the security guard Renata had called......when? How long had it been since she’d been in Momma’s room (Momma) and seen something in the room (there are men they have knives) and run out to tell Renata? She couldn’t begin to imagine, could not even mentally approach the concept. Where is my mind? she thought desperately.
With a start, Anna remembered the figure outside the window, and, never taking her eyes off the guard, she pushed up with her hands to try and stand. Her hands and sneakers pushed against wetness and she slipped several times, but eventually she managed to get her knees underneath herself and rise, muscles aching everywhere. She turned to her right and touched the curtain and was struck with déjà vu, briefly reliving and reseeing the meditative period from before, but this time she didn’t hesitate. She pushed the curtain open to her left and steeled herself as she approached the window.
There was no broad, black figure on the corner like before, but even in the split second of relief this afforded, her peripheral vision caught two figures to her left, and she turned her head in that direction. These weren’t black masses or men with knives. They were smaller, and reclined. One lay on its right side, half on the sidewalk and half in the street, and the other lay face down fully in the street, just right of center. Both had large dark splotches on their bodies and larger dark spots around their bodies, all of it, Anna knew, blood. The one on the left was slight and barefoot and in a drab hospital gown, the one on the right larger in mauve-pink scrubs and pale shoes. It was Momma and Renata.
Anna let out a wheezing groan and spun to her left to run, but she forgot about the guard, and she stepped on his right arm, which rolled meatily beneath her left foot and spun it up into the air, sending her palms- and chest-first onto the guard’s shins and feet. She shrieked and rolled off of him to her right. The front of her body was soaked; the guard was sopping wet with blood. She kept scrabbling to get away and had just begun to sense that she was about to slam into a chair when instead she squelched into the sensation again. It was as strong as an electrical field: her skin felt like it was burning, her heart threatened to physically pound itself into her throat, and her ears filled with that screeching static hiss. "Fuck," Anna croaked in shock and pain, and then in a flash she knew it. The darkness was just inches from her. She looked up into a bulbous, faintly glowing white face and realized that she had fallen into one of the figures, a figure in a chair. There are men in the chairs, she thought wildly. And as she stared dumbstruck at the face, she saw the glinting metal of a knife raise up from her right, but instead of moving aggressively or poising for a stab, the knife kept moving toward the face with the knife tip pointed toward where a mouth would be. And the knife did not stop moving. It plunged into the white face and began moving in a circle, blobs of thick, dark blood oozing around the knife blade and out of the newly forming mouth, shockingly deep red against the ghastly face. Anna was transfixed to the point of transcendence, aware of nothing except for that white shape and its coming red rictus, now spread across the lower third of the face, a phantasmagorically large black hole, jagged with tattered bits of white flesh and great gobs of blood. Then the knife moved away and the face began to descend upon her, the gashed and profane lips seeming to move on their own, slithering as if in anticipation. Anna screamed hysterically and managed to get her right knee under herself, pushing up to strike at the face and mouth. But it was no use. Her arms slammed into the mouth up to her elbows, and even as she screamed louder and tried to pull away Anna’s whole body was devoured, crushed wetly into much too small a space despite the mouth's relative enormousness, her entire consciousness winking out, consumed by darkness.