by Jacquie Underdown
It felt ominous to be driving back to the hospital. Zoe’s nerves were in tatters. She didn’t know what to expect or what to do once she approached the spirit, let alone what to say.
The car careened up the long hill, and the imposing building loomed in front of them. A painful urgency to turn around and drive home grew inside, making her muscles rigid and her breaths thin.
Theron pulled the car in at the vacant parking lot.
No light touched the darkness here, not even the glow of the moon as it hid behind tarnished clouds.
Asher grabbed torches from her backpack and handed one to Zoe and another to Theron. Zoe took it from her, switched it on. The short arc of light that emanated outwards brought some comfort.
Zoe climbed from the car. Her gaze scattered around the gloom, searching for that one thing that shouldn’t exist in this world of flesh and bones, but only the weathered whitewashed building bordered by gangly trees came to view.
That thought was soothing, though she couldn’t avoid this spirit forever if she wished to gain answers.
Now that she was back in this awful place again, she wondered why she had chosen this man to ask questions of. She should have pestered Nan, someone she loved and who loved her in return. But she wasn’t ready back then. She was ready now, unfortunately.
Asher and Theron joined her; they walked silently toward the grassy area at the front of the hospital where Daniel and Rhianna had bound her up last weekend.
She shone a light upon the tree her legs had been tied to, its trunk arching menacingly over where she had once lain, trapped.
Theron pressed a hand to her lower back. “Are you okay?”
She nodded quickly, though, inside, she wasn’t okay. Her stomach was squirming, and her legs were heavy, trembling structures, barely capable of holding her weight.
This spirit had said that he wanted to screw her mind. What that meant exactly, she had no idea. And she really really didn’t want to find out.
With her torch stretching light out before her, she searched through the darkness. A fine layer of mist swirled to knee level, hindering the view below her feet.
Leaves overhead rustled. Zoe’s heart thudded. Her eyes darted upwards.
A bird-like squeal sliced the night as a bat flapped its wings and took flight.
“Give me a fucking heart attack,” she hissed, throwing her hand to her chest.
Theron chuckled. “Spooked me too.”
Asher started setting up her equipment—a video camera on a tall tripod, sound recording equipment, an electromagnetic frequency metre and a thermal camera.
“I’m ready when you are,” she said when she’d finished, as though Zoe had some magical way of summoning this spirit.
Zoe rolled her eyes, not entirely out of frustration with Asher but because of this whole scenario.
Her heart hadn’t slowed since they’d arrived, and it was giving her a headache. Her mouth was dry.
The not-knowing was the hardest to deal with. What would happen when this spirit showed?
Shivers rattled up her spine.
No backing out now; she’d have to face it.
The coal black night pressed in on her. Claustrophobic. Theron shifted closer and drew her into his arms. “I’m here. I’m not quite sure what I can do, but I’m here.”
She stretched onto tiptoes and kissed his lips. “Thank you.”
The tree overhead rustled and shook. Chattering squawks sounded out as hundreds of bats flapped their wings and launched into the night sky. The wind from their wings swept across her flesh, and a muffled cry sang in the back of her throat.
She buried her head in Theron’s chest. He pulled her against him, shielding her with his arms and body.
When the cacophony of flapping wings and wild squeaks died down, she lifted her head. A swarm of bats flew across the moon-illumed blackness.
Asher laughed. “Nothing like a bit of bat-action to keep us on our toes.” She peered through various lenses one after the other then checked a little device she had set up on the grass. “Nothing showing up here. Can you feel anything, Zoe?”
She stopped and listened to the noises around her. Zoe frowned and shook her head. “Nothing untoward.”
A cool breeze blew up the hill and needled across her skin. It whistled through the tree branches, and they bent and swayed, claws scratching against the hospital windows.
She shivered and sank into Theron’s embrace further, appreciating the comfort he brought her. Though she knew he wouldn’t be able to see, hear, or interact with the spirit, he eased her with his big, strong presence.
A crow cawed in the distance—dissonant against the backdrop of night.
“What’s with the birds here?” she asked, hiding her fear behind frustration.
“Be good if we could go inside,” Asher said.
Zoe faced the building and peered through the big windows clouded by shadows. She couldn’t see anything, but her imagination was running wild.
She’d spent a good part of a year in a psychiatric hospital and knew those places were crawling with ghosts—and none of them was pleasant; they all seemed to possess an insane desperation to escape from not only their circumstances but their minds.
Zoe shook her head hard. “I’m not going in there.”
The device near their feet flashed green and beeped. “We’ve got action,” Asher said.
The closest window in the building rattled and thudded like someone was thumping their fists against it. Zoe whirled to see.
The thumping sounded again. Her muscles tensed, urging her to turn around and race home, but she forced herself to lift her torch and shine it upon the window.
A face of a woman pressed against the glass. Her features were screwed up with desperation, palms hard against the pane. The woman’s mouth hinged open, and she screamed. Shrill. With a trembling hand, Zoe held the torch at the window. The arc of light permeated the shadows.
Another face appeared beside the first woman.
They were both screaming, but she couldn’t understand them.
“What the…” she gasped.
“What is it?” Asher asked.
“The windows. Focus the camera on the windows.” Another face appeared, a smaller girl of twelve or thirteen, screaming like a wounded pig. Zoe staggered backward, dropped the torch. She pressed her hands to her ears.
But the window was still illuminated by the flow of Asher and Theron’s torches. More and more women appeared until a dozen screaming girls, with pale dead eyes and faces contorted in such fear, were lined up along the front window banging and banging with their fists, some with their foreheads. The window vibrated and thudded from the incessant thumping.
Still, the women screamed and cried in chorus, desperately beseeching Zoe to help them, to save them from…from…
Her gaze darted around the darkness searching for him. But he was nowhere to be seen.
Under the dread and shock, an undercurrent of sympathy consumed her for these girls. She had never witnessed such terror, such distraction—it chilled her to wonder why they would be in this state.
But then she recalled how the spirit had menaced her, the malignant darkness that poured from him, the threatening energy molesting her. He would have ensnared these women using the same tactics.
“There are women trapped inside the hospital. I think they’re prisoners.”
Theron marched closer, squinting to see.
Zoe gulped a breath. Mustering all her courage, she whispered, “I have to help them.”
Theron nodded. “I’ll be right beside you.”
Asher said, “I’ll follow with the equipment.”
“What’s the plan?” Theron asked.
The high-pitched screams and calls muddled Zoe’s brain. She couldn’t find a thought, let alone put a plan together. “I’m not sure. I need to get in there.” With hands pressed over her ears again, she groaned, “They’re so loud.”
Theron marched ahead toward the front door. “Let me see if I can find a way in,” he said over his shoulder. He pulled on the handles of the big double doors and rattled them back and forth. Zoe jogged after him.
His warmth chased away some of her fear—if she wanted to keep going, she needed that.
She kept her eyes downcast and veered away from the rattling windows. “Might there be an alarm?”
Theron rattled again. “Wouldn’t think so. Not an old building like this.”
The banging grew louder, the shrieks and cries more desperate. The sounds vibrated through her body, set her teeth on edge. She wanted to scream too, needed to release this sensation of agitation and restlessness the spirits caused. Instead, she gritted her jaw tight and wished this night to be over.
Trying to toss the voices from her ears, she shook her head, but the screams kept coming.
The scent of rot like a dog bone decaying in the sun rose with the next breeze, and she gagged. A coppery blood smell filled her nostrils.
Asher had the cameras set up a short distance away. She strode toward the building with a big rock in her hand.
Zoe opened her mouth to scream no but was too late; Asher pitched the rock through the window. Chiming shards of glass crashed inwards, smashing to the floor.
White clawing hands pushed through the broken window, followed by bodies contorting and clambering to fit through the opening.
I can’t help these women. Not like this.
Zoe’s muscles tensed to run. Her breaths were heaving in her chest as she watched the scene. Desperate dead bodies, dressed in nightgowns and straight jackets, with staring pale-grey eyes, clambered to get through the window.
Zoe screamed as one lady made it, then another and another, and they staggered toward her. No way. No way in hell was she staying around to deal with them. Perhaps if there was only one. Two was even bearable. But twelve frantic, twitching, desperate ghosts screaming at her, hands reaching out as though to claw her flesh away if they got a hold was too much.
Much too much.
She sprinted, pumping her legs as fast as she could to the car. “Theron. The keys!” she yelled as she opened the door and scrambled inside. She slammed the door shut and peered behind her through the back window, watching the ghosts coming closer.
Theron pulled the keys from his pocket, then grabbed the tripod and camera, shoved them under his arm while Asher gathered the other equipment, and they ran to the car. Theron jumped in the driver’s seat while Asher climbed into the back.
“Drive!” Zoe screamed. “DRIVE, NOW!”
The girls were almost upon them. Their decaying stench swamped the car as Theron threw the equipment into the back and started the engine. He reversed, then shifted gear and floored it out of there.
Zoe flopped back against the seat and shook her head. “Coming here was a big mistake.”
“I can’t believe you broke the fucking window,” Theron shouted, looking through the rear view mirror at Asher.
“I did what I had to do. Zoe wanted in, so I created a way in.”
“Bad idea,” Zoe said. “They were frenzied—”
She nodded. “Twelve, maybe more.”
“No wonder you were running.” Theron fiddled with the heater. “Shit, it’s cold in here.”
The temperature in the car had dropped. A cold vapour misted from Zoe’s mouth with each rushed outbreath. Goosebumps spread along her arms.
She knew what all this meant—an inhuman presence was here.
Sensation stirred at the back of her neck like someone was pinching it. All through her veins, a creeping dread surged creating a tight, achy feeling of dread.
Zoe’s gaze flitted around the car. She turned to the back. A man dressed in a white hospital gown sat in the back beside Asher.
His unkempt and oily hair was so black it was shiny, and it hung limply around his ears and neck. His skin was white and mottled with red and pale blue.
When she looked into his eyes—wide, black, and dead—she jumped in her seat and screamed. His mouth twisted into a snarling, mocking smile.
Startled by Zoe’s scream, Theron jerked the wheel, and the car lurched to the left before he quickly corrected his steering.
“What?” he asked, voice deep, words quick.
“He’s here,” she said in a choked, breathless voice.
“In the car?”
She nodded and faced the front.
“Don’t turn away from me,” came an icy voice that moved through her like needles—piercing, painful.
She didn’t want to look at him but was afraid of what he’d do behind her back.
Slowly, stiffly, she turned to face him. Her gaze began at his pale, thickly haired legs and bare feet, and moved upwards to the hospital gown that had splashes of ruby blood in long swathes as though he’d wiped his bloody hands clean on his clothes.
Finally, she found his face again and those dark, staring eyes.
The spirit’s laugh rushed out of him, a bruising sound. “You set my girls free. Now, who am I to play with?”
Like what you read?
You can download After Life from Amazon here
She can see the dead, but that’s the least of her problems...
All Zoe wants is to be normal and feel accepted. But that is an impossible goal for a girl who can see spirits. Maybe if she hides her dead-seeing abilities and pretends to be like any other seventeen-year-old girl, she can, at best, appear to be ordinary. That’s her hope when she moves to a new town for high school, but it all depends on keeping her secrets concealed.
But the dead have different plans, and they expose her for who she truly is. As her reputation around school as the resident freak show grows, her world crumbles. And she soon learns that she can’t trust anyone, living or dead.
When Zoe believes all is lost, the truth is finally revealed—not only about who she is but what she is. She is shown glimpses of a world after life and her place within it. But with this new knowledge, comes responsibility, and she will be forced to make the most painful and difficult decision of her life.
Will Zoe choose the safety and comfort of the human life she knows? Or will she be courageous enough to venture into the world that comes after death? A world that may just hold the answers she has been seeking all along.
Content warning: contains adult language, violence, and suicide.
Download your copy of After Life from Amazon here.