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This short story written in Mr. Todd Benedict's Creative Writing class is a story of a female journalist who takes a trip to an abandoned asylum.

Ashley Ratliff

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The Blanks

I could hear the leaves and branches of the trees collide into each other from the aggressive wind. The wind whistled in my ear as I kept running through the woods. I heard the laughs, and screams behind me. I refused to look back. I heard the keys of the piano still being bashed on. I still refused to look back. The further I ran, the more distant the sound got. I had began to get tired, so I stopped. I took my oxfords off my bruised feet and noticed that I had blisters forming on my toes and ankles. I didn’t want to run anymore, so I started to climb the tree I had been resting on. An isolated branch caught onto my dress and embed a hole. I felt the chill of the air travel through the hole, raising the goosebumps on my skin. I continued climbing higher until I got to a big branch I could lay on. As I layed there for few minutes, I noticed all the sounds faded away. I fell asleep.

. . .

“Gramma!” I heard a sweet, soft voice yell. “Wake up Gramma, you’re having a nightmare! Wake up, wake up!” I opened my eyes and could see the blurry shadow of my grandchild, Lissa. “Hand gramma her glasses sweetheart.” I said, attempting to sound enlightened that I was just woken up. Lissa just turned 17. She stays with me during the weekends while my daughter, Mary, and son-in-law, Joe, work. On Sundays, we all meet up for church and have lunch afterwards.

I’m a 74 year old women, born in 1942 in Centralia, Pennsylvania. Today, Centralia is a near ghost town, with maybe 10 people living there. But when I was born, there was close to 2,500 people. Centralia once thrived in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. That is until 1962 when the fire happened. The town was becoming abandoned more and more each year until the 1980’s and 90’s when everyone really left. I miss my home. I had many great childhood memories there. Although I don’t miss bad memories. The ones I wish I could forget. The ones that left me haunted. It all had to do with my newly-found fear back then. Fear controls the human mind more than any other emotion. When something scares us, our brains shut out all content feelings and replaces it with anxiety. Now, I don’t get scared easily. At least, this is what I thought back 53 years ago.

It was my third year at Pennsylvania State University, 1963. At 21, I thought I knew it all. College was hard but I felt more myself there than in the years before. High school was a blur. Not because I stayed out late and partied, but more of I worked hard. I actually graduated high school as the Valedictorian.  I never did any drugs or drink any alcohol; which I would say are the “fun” things most of my fellow classmates indulged in. Like I said, I only studied and worked to save up for college. I dreamt of being the head journalist of the New York Times. Partying never interested me when I had so much to work up to. All my hard work payed off because I never spent a dime for college. I got the full-ride scholarship to Penn State, so I ended up spending my money that I saved up for a trip that my professor encouraged me to go on.

. . .

“Elanor,  if you write a splendid story on Hembrige Asylum, I will give you an excellent recommendation to New York Times.” Professor Bell said to me. I admire this professor, mainly because he knows how to teach correctly. His British accent was another great attribute.

“Sir, if I’m not mistaken, this place has been closed for a little over a decade. This surely, is not story worthy. There will be nothing to create a story on. Could you suggest another place to write about?” I asked him with hope. I just heard this place was not to be visited.

“Hembridge or nothing, Elanor.”

“Professor, I don’t know how comfortable I will be traveling to this place. It’s been reclaimed by nature and the woods are supposedly haunted.” I said, trying to sound frightened.

“You are not scared of anything. I have witnessed much braveness out of you, I believe this is the right story for you.” He paused for a moment and walked over to his desk. “Look at these.” He said. He began to show me newspapers from 1952 from when this place was shut down. “Every year, I send a student down to write because each story is completely different. I love reading each story and seeing the differences.”

I looked at him and I knew he knew I wasn’t going to say no because I really wanted that recommendation. “Alright, I’ll go. Just as long as someone comes with.”

“I’ll go with you.” Professor Bell said. This took me by surprise.

“Well alright then, I planned on going this Friday and coming back on Sunday. I also planned on taking the train.”

“What time shall we leave?

“I’d like to leave around 4.”

“I’ll meet you there.”

. . .

I finally got up out of bed and found Lissa looking through my old photographs. She always loves looking through my wedding photos and her mom’s baby photos. Lissa always told me that she wanted to grow up in my era of growing up. She loved the 50’s and 60’s. The book she had in her hands was the book of pictures I have always told her she is forbidden to see. I saw tears working their way down her cheek, and her hands start to shake. I stood behind her waiting for her to start yelling my name to question what the pictures were. She turned around and jumped a little out of fear.

“I didn’t see you there Gramma.” She wiped her tears. “What are these pictures?”

“You were never supposed to see those. I haven’t looked at that book in decades.”

“I know it has to do with when you had to write that story, can you tell me everything? You only told me the beginning.” Lissa asked me hoping I will actually tell her.

“Alright my dear, I think I’ve waited long enough to tell you the rest.” Lissa nodded her head to show me she was ready to hear. She grabbed her favorite blanket off the shelf and cuddled up on the couch across from my chair. I got comfortable in my chair. She loved “story time”. I did too, so I hoped it would be easy to tell. Looking through the pictures, I could feel each moment of that night resurface in my memory. I asked myself, why have the photos shown up now?

. . .

I got to the train station and saw Professor Bell waiting there for me. It was 4:00PM on the dot. He was carrying one, small suitcase. It was a bit chilly out since it was fall, so he wore a navy blue trench coat, with black buttons. The weather must not have phased him because his coat was un-buttoned.

“You made it.” He said, with a slight smirk on his face.

“Well, I wouldn’t skip it of course.” I responded. “Shall we buy the tickets?”

“Already bought two tickets.” He looked at his hand watch. “The train leaves in about 15 minutes to be exact.”

“Thank you Professor, I could have bought my own ticket. ” I said showing my gratitude.

“Ahh, it’s no problem at all.” He said. We both sat down on the bench waiting for the train. It arrived exactly 15 minutes later as he said, and we got on. He chose the last seats in the back. I sat across from him. We would arrive in 4 hours, according to the ticket. Professor just sat in his seat, with his legs crossed over each other. I took out a book and started to read.

“What book are you reading?” Professor asked curiously.

“Fahrenheit 451” I said, annoyed that he was interrupting my reading. I looked up from the pages after finishing my last paragraph. “Written in 1953. It’s about the future. I wonder if the world will turn into a world without books. They’re banned in this book. The people don’t know about history or anything.”

“I’ve read it. It’s quite the read.”

“Sure is.” I said. That was the last thing he said to me. The rest of train ride was quiet, not one word came out of him. I read until the last page of my book and had arrived to the place at the same time.

We both walked off the train to see the sign ‘WELCOME TO CENTRALIA’.

“Home.” I whispered to myself.

“Did you say ‘home’?” Professor asked me, sounding disgusted.

“Yeah, I grew up here my whole life. I left three years ago and haven’t been back here since.” I could feel the gulp in my throat start to form that is meant to warn me I was going to cry. “My mother died in the fire last year. I wasn’t able to come see her before she died. She was my only family left.”

“Elanor, I’m sorry. If I would have known I would never have suggested – ”

I cut off his sentence, “It’s okay. Hembridge Asylum is a few miles out from town.” We got into a taxi to take us out to the closest road to the asylum. Driving through the now burning Centralia was horrific. I never wanted to come back here. I just stayed silent until we got out of the town and into the woods. The taxi driver dropped us off at the cutoff. To get to the asylum, it was on us to hike through the woods.

“Should be north of us now.” I said to Professor Bell. I made sure to study a map before coming just to know of any main roads near us. There was only the one, singular road.  The woods was made of massive trees that have been growing for hundreds of years. My first thought was that they were perfect “climbing trees.” Although, I was not dressed for the occasion. I wore a dress with my brand new oxfords I had bought. Both not suitable for hiking. My hair was put into one single braid just so that it would stay out of my face. Looking over at Professor, I could tell he must have gotten cold because I noticed his buttons were buttoned up.

“I’m going to take pictures if that’s okay?” I asked Professor. He nodded. I knew he wouldn’t mind, but wanted to ask just in case. I just bought the camera before coming on this trip. It was a new polaroid. Just to test it out, I began to capture some scenes of the woods. The polaroid printed just fine. I put my camera away so I could focus more on not tripping on the branches and rocks while hiking. An hour later, we reached the Hembridge Asylum.

“Well, this is more creepier than I remembered.” Professor whispered. “Follow me.”

I followed him to the front of the property. The sun was setting at just the right time, so I took a picture. Vines, weeds, and all other sorts of nature inundated the whole building. The sunset allowed the water drops of last nights rain to sparkle on the leaves on and around the building. It was beautiful, really.  All the windows were shattered and the front door was wide open. I wasn’t scared at that moment, only embracing the beauty of the outside of the building. I took more and more picures.

“You coming?” Professor asked. I looked up at him from the camera. He must really be eager to go inside. I didn’t care all that much about the inside after seeing the outside. But I knew it was dark and the woods was bound to become creepy, so I walked towards him and into the building first. He followed me into the building. I started taking pictures of everything. I rummaged through every drawer, shelf, or box there was. Not much I found other than old medical documents and strange medical instruments.

“Why did this place shut down again?” I asked Professor.

“One of the patients went on, we could say, a murder rampage. He killed 29 people. 12 being nurses and 17 being patients. The rest of the 12 patients escaped and still haven’t been found.” Professor said, calmly. I thought to myself, he must be the fearless one here because just that clip of a story sent chills down my spine.

“Horrifying.” I said.

I took out a notepad and started writing about all my observations. I started off with the hike here, and then went into detail about the outside of the building with the sunset. I began writing about my rummaging. An hour or two into writing, I realized I was sitting somewhere I did not orginally sit to write. A completely different room. I put my journal back into my bag and walked out of the room I was in. My first thought was how in hell did I get here.

“Professor?” I asked aloud. Confused. No answer. I called a few more times, getting louder each time.  Still no answer. I asked myself “What do I do?” over and over again in my mind. I looked through my bag searching for my flashlight, and to my surprise found nothing that belongs to me. Not even my journal that I just put back in there. I slowly tip-toed my way down the hallway of closed doors and flickering lights. At the end of the hallway, I saw the stairs to the entrance floor. Carefully, one half-broken stair at a time, I ran down the stairs. Each step I took was accompanied by a creak sound. I jump off the last step and called out for Professor a few more times. I glance back up at the stairs that all of sudden were no longer broken. The walls were a perfect, bright white again. I turn around and see the formerly open entrance door was closed. And every window was no longer shattered.

“BELL!” a angry voice yelled, “Get over here!”

Instantly, I was scared, confused, but intrigued. It was only me and Professor here, no one else should be.  I heard footsteps behind me, so I turned around just as Professor Bell walked right through my body, as if I was nonexistent. Although, he wasn’t the professor I remember, he was about 20 years younger.

“Sorry, Miss, I was helping one of the patients.”

“You’re here to write about this place to give a good review so we can help more mental patients sir, not to nurse them!” a woman yelled at him.

“Help them?” he asked angrily, “All I’ve seen here is horrible treatment. Do not tell me you help them. I helped that lady get back into her bed safely, so she can rest. All I’ve ever seen you do is force them into places they don’t want to be and force them to take pills not meant for them. If anything, Miss, you’re the one making these people sick from mental illness.” Professor said to the woman, looking straight into her eyes so she knew he was serious. She was furious.

“That’s it. Come with me.” the women said. He followed her. I realized I was just a ghost, not in reality but in whatever this demention is, so I followed as well. The woman walked up the stairs into the hallway I just came down. The hallway looked nothing like it did five minutes ago. Everything was new just like downstairs. The both of them walked into the room that I found myself in when I was writing. I walked in and she was reading his notebook.

“I’m taking this. You can say goodbye to  your writings, your life, and your mind. If we let your story get out of what we really do here, we’ll never see another patient again” the woman said.

“You are killing people! This isn’t right! Someone needs to help them out of misery!” Professor yelled. The woman began to laugh hystercally. I walked out of the room and watch from the hallway.

“Oh, and if you don’t quit your retaliation against our facility, you will be next.” She walked out of the room and locked Professor in there. I couldn’t do anything to help. It was horrible. He couldn’t hear or see me, I felt helpless. I followed the woman to see her next move. She was doing everything that Professor accused her of doing. Every single patient looked miserable. On my own, I started looking through drawers again. In one of them, I found my camera. In another I found all my other belongings. I’m glad no one was near, because I wondered if they could see the drawers opening. I started taking pictures of everything in the house. I didn’t look at any of the photographs, I just left them nearby to dry. I planned to pick them all up later on. It became night time, I fell asleep in one of the sofas I had layed on.

I woke up and everything was still new. I’ve been questioning it the whole time, the only good thing about this strange thing was that it was easier to distinguish what and where everything is.  I found a desk of pencils and paper. I write on a note to give to Professor:

 

A future you will see, is because of me

You can’t thank me now, but you can in twenty

You don’t know my name, but I will find a way

To let you escape, to meet me one day.

-E

 

I’ve always loved writing poetry. It’s my favorite way to let a message through. I walked up stairs and slipped the note underneath his door. Professor saw it and walked over to it. he looked through his little window covered in bars to make sure no one could see. As he read it, he started to cry. It was tears of joy because he knew he could have hope.

The next few days, I spend investigating the building. The best escape routes. Everyday at 12:00 the patients would eat lunch in the mainroom. I noticed some of the patients were normal, probably taken there unwillingly. I felt sorry for them. Then there was the real mental ill people, the murderers, rapists, and the ones who hear voices. There was always a women who played the piano all the time, beautifully actually. One man stood out from all of the other patients. I studied him for an entire day. I learned his schedule and life there in the asylum. He liked to whisper to himself “I can’t do that. They’ll kill me.” Over and over again. It finally connected in my mind that he must be the murderer of the 29 people that Professor was talking about. I found a perfect escape route scheduled at 12 when all the patients are at lunch. I wrote it all out on a piece of paper and slipped in under Professors door.

The next day, I wake up to hearing gunshots and screams. I run to the mainroom and see 11 nurses and 10 patients dead. Every nurse but the woman yelling at Professor earlier was dead. In another room I hear the piano playing. This was that same patient who always played the piano and had to be forced off. Luckily for her, all but one nurse was dead so she could play as much piano as she wanted. I hear one more gunshot and run towards the sound. I find the last nurse  there, dead. I thought, who was doing this? Why were they doing this? And did Professor escape? I grabbed my bag and went around, collecting all my pictures I had taken, still not really looking at them. The piano was still playing.

All of a sudden, a patient ran up to me and screamed bloody murder “HELP US!” Professor Bell came running behind her, drenched in blood with a gun pointing at her. Shot right in the back, the patient fell to the ground. Life was taken away from her, and not from the patient I originally suspected as the murderer, but from Professor Bell. I was petrified now, because if that patient could see me, so could Professor. I ran out the front door. I could hear the loudest screams and the piano still playing.

. . .

“This is horrifying that you had to live through this Gramma. And confusing.” Lissa said to me after telling her everything. “How did the building become new again? What happened after you fell asleep in the tree you climbed and slept in?” Lissa asked.

“Let me finish dear.” I said to her.

. . .

I woke up and Professor Bell was at the bottom of tree waiting. He was himself, he was his actual age.

“Professor, it was you who killed all those people. You’re one of the twelve patients that escaped. How could you not tell me this? How could you kill all those patients?” I yelled down to him. I wasn’t coming down that tree.

“It was you. It was you that sent me that poem only with the letter E saying who it was from. Every year, I send another student with a name starting with E to see who tells the truth in the story. Everyone of you has experience the memory of the building at it’s few opening years. Everything new. But no one has come back to me and said to me the truth. They weren’t the ones who saved me. You were. I killed those 17 patients because I was putting them out of their misery. There was no hope for them. They are better off in Heaven then they were at that asylum. I killed those 12 nurses for doing all the horrible things they did to make those patients worse, and for killing patients. They deserved their deaths. The twelve who escaped, had hope. They were normal like me, forced into being a patient. You gave me a plan to escape, but I planned my own escape. I’ve been living my life for the past twenty years, waiting to finally meet the person who gave me hope after being terrified that I would be stuck in that place for life. Thank you, E. Thank you Elanor.” Professor said. On his knees, he started to cry.

“I was terrified. This place will haunt my dreams. I witnessed murder. I saw dead bodies everywhere. I was in some dream dimension. You are very welcome to give you hope, but you still shouldn’t have killed those people. Even if they did deserve it, or if it was better for them.” I hopped out of the tree, and left. I never looked back. I took the next train out to New York where I planned to finish my last year at college, start my career, and raise a family. I knew this memory would replay in my mind for the rest of my life. So leaving and moving on was the best option.

On the train, I took out the pictures and put them all in a book. I noticed that all the pictures showed the memories. They showed the beautiful building, the murderer, the dead bodies, and everything else I never wanted to see again. I never took most of them. A stranger sitting across from me asked,  “Why are you framing blank photograph’s Miss?” I looked up at her confused. “You surely don’t know what your talking-” I stopped as I looked at the pictures. “They were printed out of my polaroid. What happened to my pictures? I was just looking at them.” I whispered, trying to make sure the stranger couldn’t hear very well. The pictures were gray. Blank.

I arrived in New York, ready to move on from what happened. I put my pictures away for good, promising myself I would not look at them ever again.

 

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