My friends and I used to break into old, run-down places and explore. This was back before people were videotaping their own explorations and getting ad-revenue from their YouTube channels. Back before cell phones, even. We’d go wherever we wanted without much concern for the consequences if we were caught. All of us were still under 18 and Kim’s mom was a police officer, so even if we did get in a little trouble, we were fairly confident it’d be taken care of.
Michael was the one who usually made the decisions about where we should go. He suggested we check out an abandoned institution about an hour out of town. A few weeks earlier, after he got out of work, he told me he made a quick trip over there just to see if he could get in. Once he did, he only spent a couple minutes walking around before he got the creeps. Still, he knew it was exactly the type of place we’d always talked about wanting to explore.
It’d been defunct for a few decades by the time we knew about it, and every door was locked and the windows had been boarded up. Well, every window on the first couple floors. A tree, which was probably only a few feet tall when the crews went around locking the place up, had grown tremendously in the following tens of years. It was nearly effortless for the four of us to scale the branches and crawl through the window Michael had broken when he’d done his cursory scouting of the place. A couple minutes later, we were standing in a filthy, dust-coated file room.
Kim really didn’t like how many spiderwebs were hanging off pretty much everything. I can’t say I was much of a fan either, but my excitement to explore that creepy place overrode my mild arachnophobia. Still, this was southern Florida; we have some enormous spiders down here. I preferred to not get one on me.
We opened the door of the file room and found ourselves in a long hallway. None of us were sure what the function of the building had been, and from what we’d seen so far, it was still anyone’s guess. We took a left down the dimly-lit hall, grateful for the high-powered flashlights Michael suggested we bring after seeing how dark the place was on his first trip.
Placed on the floor in front of each room along the hall was its corresponding key. The doors had small windows in them, and we peered through. It looked like they were basic rooms; a toilet, a bed, a small desk. Little else. The beds were pretty small; I wondered if they were for children. We gave each room a quick glance and determined there was nothing particularly noteworthy inside, so we moved on.
At the end of the hall, there was a door leading to the staircase. We propped it open and went into the pitch-black stairwell. The steps leading up ended at a door that was locked. No key was nearby that could’ve opened it. Heading down, though, after many failed attempts at accessing the lower floors, we finally found a door that actually opened. Here’s the problem: as soon as we pulled it open, the door we’d propped open slammed shut from what we assumed was the air pressure of the other one opening. No one freaked out or anything; we knew we could get out from a window or something pretty easily from the lower floors. Still, having no known and obvious way out was somewhat unsettling.
When we stepped through the door and shone our flashlights around the room, we realized we’d passed the first floor and were in the basement. I wondered aloud what kind of place doesn’t label the fucking floors in their stairwell, but no one really cared about my complaint. We were all wondering how we’d get out if there were no windows around.
From what we could see with our three flashlights, since Kim’s had died, the basement was enormous. It was one large room and was filled with junk that we assumed had populated the floors above. Desks, file cabinets, coat racks, and all that stuff. Darryl suggested we split up and look for a way out, but Michael and Kim quickly shot down that idea. I’m pretty sure they were getting scared. I didn’t want to say anything, but they weren’t the only ones. I don’t know why Darryl was so confident. He was usually the one who chickened out at the first sign of trouble. I was grateful for his strength, though. It felt good to have someone who could lead us, even if he didn’t know where he was going.
We wandered through all the junk in an attempt to find a way out of there. There was a loud banging sound. Kim realized what it was before any of us and whispered, “was that the door?” Murmurs of “fuck” variations through our small group. No one was ready to panic, though. Not yet. The basement had to have been the size of a football field. We came to an agreement to pair off and go in opposite directions. We’d yell if we found anything.
Kim and Darryl went one way, I went with Michael in the other. We’d agreed to travel with only one flashlight. Michael and I didn’t come right out and say it, but we figured Kim would be better off with her group having two.
We spent a slow ten minutes walking through the old furniture until deciding to turn back and follow the wall. The room was even bigger than we’d realized. From outside, the building was about as long as we’d expected the basement to be; approximately that of a football field. In fact, the basement must have been many times larger. Michael said it probably connected with all the other buildings on the property, which meant it could’ve been almost a quarter mile in each direction. I hoped that wouldn’t be the case. The flashlights wouldn’t last that long and the last thing I wanted to do is deal with complete blackness. I knew I’d panic.
As we progressed, we started seeing doors. They were all locked, though. No keys, no windows. Michael yelled to Darryl and Kim and asked if they’d found anything. His voice didn’t echo. It almost sounded as if it stopped right in front of his face; like he was standing in front of a wall. We heard no response from our friends.
Our flashlight was growing noticeably dimmer. I thought its intensity had been diminishing for the last couple minutes, but I’d done my best to put it out of my mind. But there was no denying it now. Michael had picked up his pace, forcing me to rush to catch up to his long-legged stride. I yelled for the others, hearing my own voice die inches in front of my mouth. I could hear Michael breathing quickly. Was he sobbing? He was too far ahead for me to see any tears and I was almost jogging to catch up. We kept on for what felt like ten minutes. How had we not run into the others yet? Michael stopped dead in his tracks and I skidded to a stop to avoid bumping into him. There was a right turn down a narrow passage. At the very, very end, barely illuminated by the still-dimming light, was a metal ladder.
Michael ran and I did my best to follow. The light was almost useless. We reached the end and both grasped the ladder and Michael shone the lamp upward. Whatever had been there, maybe a hatch, maybe just an opening to another floor, was nothing but concrete ceiling. He yelled, “fuck!” The word sounded like it was coming from underwater.
The flashlight strobed weakly. He turned around and shone it around the narrow corridor. A few feet in front of us, on the right, was a door. “Let’s try that,” he told me. We’d given up trying the doors we’d run by after all of them were locked. I was surprised he wanted to bother, but in our hopelessness, we walked over and I tried the knob. It opened. I walked in as Michael shone the sputtering flashlight in front of him. The room was small and empty. Almost empty. In the corner, there was a lump. “Holy shit,” I exclaimed, and ran toward it. Right as our flashlight died, I grabbed what I’d seen for that brief moment. It was another flashlight. I couldn’t believe our luck, despite being terrified of the stygian blackness enveloping us.
I fumbled for the switch and flipped it upward. Michael stood in the doorway. The light was strong and unwavering. Only then did I register the hideous smell of the room, somehow obscured by my earlier panic. I shone the light around the tiny, filthy area. Nothing. I turned around and pointed it at the lump behind where I saw the flashlight. Sitting in the corner was a corpse, its flesh swollen with putrefaction. Gray eyes pushed out of its thick and unrecognizable purple face. Its distended tongue bulged from lips that looked like a circle of rotting slugs. Worms fed. I retched. The corpse was wearing green cargo shorts and a Buccaneers jersey, both of which had been soaked through with greasy fluid.
Green cargo shorts and a Buccaneers jersey. I whirled around and looked at Michael, who was still standing in the doorway. Green cargo shorts and a Buccaneers jersey. I muttered something I can’t remember. He dropped the dead flashlight and took two steps toward me. I screamed and stumbled backward, falling into the cadaver. I felt its swollen body burst under my weight. Soft, jellylike material clung to my back, neck, butt, and arms. The smell was incomprehensible. Flies buzzed angrily in my ears as I struggled to my feet and tried to keep the flashlight shining on the person, the thing, I’d been walking with.
The brilliant white of the lamp illuminated its face again. It hadn’t moved any further after those first steps. It stared through me at the corner where Michael’s destroyed body sat. Neither of us moved. Then its lower eyelids drooped. It almost looked like it was having a stroke, only on on both sides of its face. The skin continued to fall, lower, and lower, exposing the musculature underneath. The eyes burst from their sockets and hung down, swinging on their optic nerves. Then its mouth moved. I was paralyzed by abject terror.
The mouth opened wider and wider, the jawbone snapping and popping as it shattered in protest of the constant force. The lower mandible hung flaccidly from its cheeks, connected only by skin. From its throat, something white began to drip. Then pour. Then flood. Repulsive, milky liquid gouted from the gaping hole in its throat. It splashed on the ground, soaking my feet and shins and knees. It was so slick; so warm; a perverse shower of liquid body heat that reminded me of semen and amniotic fluid.
The thing grabbed both sides of my head. I dropped the flashlight and it shone, uselessly, against the wall before blinking out, destroyed by the gushing fluid. In utter blackness, I felt incomprehensibly strong hands and arms pull me toward its mouth. My forehead touched the flood. I was pulled in, further and further. I gasped and aspirated the fluid. As I choked and coughed, more of it filled my lungs. I knew I was about to die. The blackness disappeared.
I awoke to a flashlight being shone in my face. Darryl was yelling my name while Kim screamed unintelligible blather beginning and ending with the word “Michael.” Darryl hauled me to my feet and practically carried me down the hall, across the expansive basement, and through the area they’d explored. Kim ran behind us, sobbing. I vomited milky bile as we went, coating Darryl’s arm, who gave no sign of noticing or caring. I have no idea how far we went, but I remember seeing daylight creeping around the beam of his flashlight. Over time, the flashlight became increasingly useless and he dropped it. We moved on and on. I was eventually able to run on my own and I followed them, cluelessly. But before I knew anything, we were outside. I passed out.
I was in the hospital for days that passed in a haze of incomprehension. Gradually, I regained some semblance of consciousness. Inquisitiveness followed. Michael, I was told, was dead. I’d found his body. They assumed the shock of seeing my dead friend induced some temporary hysteria which caused me to desecrate the corpse. But still, no one knew what had happened to him. The fact his body looked like it had been dead for three weeks eliminated me from being a suspect in his death, but no one could explain how he’d gotten to such a state of decomposition. Not only his three friends, but his parents and coworkers, could verify they’d spoken and interacted with him every day up until he was found.
I haven’t said anything about what happened with the Michael-shaped creature after the body was found. I also didn’t mention Michael had scouted out the place three weeks before we visited. I just wanted to believe I hallucinated the whole thing, but that didn’t explain the unidentifiable organic fluid they found all over me, some of which which had dried in glutinous clumps that could only be removed by excising chunks of my skin. Twenty years later, every time I finger the scar tissue of the old excisions, I can still taste the stuff on my mouth and pouring down the back of my throat. Whenever I sit back in a chair, I expect it to burst like the body of the friend I once loved. And every time I get within 20 miles of the abandoned institution, I can hear Michael screaming for me to come back and help him.