Chapter 1 of A Dash of Murder by Teresa Trent
One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
I looked up at the window of the crumbling abandoned hospital, and for just a second, I saw it. Filmy and fleeting, it seemed to find me in the midst of the suffocating heat.
“Mom, hurry up. We just need to identify any fungi or lichens, and then I have enough information for my merit badge.” My seven-year-old son, Zach, turned his back on me as he waded through the overgrown field of weeds climbing nearly to his blue-jean-clad waist.
The back of my neck prickled even though I was sweating in the afternoon heat. Late October may designate fall in many parts of the country, but in South Texas, it’s still summer. My eyes scanned the second story of the dilapidated building and I felt a strangely unwelcome chill. Was someone up there? The gray windows with mismatched glass shards resembled razor-sharp teeth. At second glance, they seemed empty now.
We were standing in front of the Johnson Tuberculosis Hospital, empty and shuttered for the last forty years. So many souls had passed through here – it felt as if a part of them lingered. The hospital opened in the 1920s, providing therapy and rest from the ills of tuberculosis. Now the faded brick and shattered windows were merely a lonely reminder of its importance long ago.
At the sound of my name, I looked around to see Danny, my twenty-four-year-old cousin with Down syndrome, running across the front lawn of the hospital, the weeds swishing at his ankles. He held a Scout book, the pages now flapping at his side.
“Betsy,” Danny said, “at the job, my friend Ellie said it’s cold where her grandma is. Why isn’t it cold here? Why, Betsy?”
Danny’s “job” was doing general clean-up work at our local fast food restaurant. I picked him up from work today to help out my Aunt Maggie. A pleasant aroma of French fries was still about him.
“Because we live in Texas, and Ellie’s grandma lives up north somewhere.”
I turned around to see Zach standing dangerously close to a plant with three leaves, which meant either poison ivy or poison oak. When my only child decided to work on his plant science merit badge for his Texas Scout Achievement, he could have chosen the required 100´ x 100´ plot of land anywhere. I don't know why we had to look at weeds in front of this falling-down, ancient building.
This property had been neglected for years, and was now overgrown by prickle poppies, buffalo burrs, pigweed and devil’s horn. I slapped at a mosquito. The temperature was in the 90s, as it had been for the last three months, and it seemed the heat and humidity would never end. We were just a few days from Halloween and still sweating.
“Ooh, Mom. I just found a broomweed.” Zach pointed to a yellow flower in a patch of weeds.
“Good, the witches can use that on Halloween,” I said.
Danny laughed. “There is no such thing as witches, Betsy. No witches, no monsters and no ghosts!”
I nodded in agreement, and pulled at my blouse to unstick it from my body. Again, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I focused back up at the window of the old hospital. Were we not alone? Was someone walking around in there?
“Zach, do you see anybody up in that window?”
Zach looked up, squinting his brown eyes in the ray of sun aimed at us. I waited as he scanned each window in the crumbling building. A bird squawked behind us, piercing the quiet. Zach looked back at me with a scowl. “No.” He returned to his clipboard.
Danny put his hands together around his mouth and shouted at the empty building. “Hello? Hello? Anybody home?”
I blew out an exasperated sigh. “Okay. Must be the heat.”
I have to admit, I stayed indoors as much as possible during the summer months, especially when it felt like this. Why go out and sweat when I could be inside with the air conditioning humming and the computer glowing?
My Aunt Maggie would say the thing in the window was an apparition of some type, or a residual haunting of someone who lived or worked at the hospital. Ghost hunting had become one of her hobbies after my uncle Jeeter died. She was a card-carrying member of the Pecan Bayou Paranormal Society, which consisted of Maggie, Howard Gunther and Birdie Bryant.
Birdie was a snowbird and would probably show up around Thanksgiving and stay in Pecan Bayou until Memorial Day. It was too bad she wouldn’t be around for the upcoming Halloween weekend. Maggie and Howard sorely needed her for the biggest project their group had ever tackled. I especially would have liked to see her, as I was the one who was volunteered to take her place.
I turned from the building to see Zach, who was holding his clipboard to his chest. He looked up at me, eyebrow raised.
“What are you looking at?”
“I don’t know. I thought I saw something.”
“Like what?” He was beginning to pick up on my anxiety. I was being silly, and I knew my slight discomfort could turn into a giant fear in Zach. I needed to lighten the mood. A smile spread across my face, reassuring him all was well.
“Like … ghosts!” I wailed, and chased him and Danny around the patch of spindly greenery. They both giggled and shrieked as they ran through the tall weeds and flying insects. The sound seemed to echo against the aging bricks and decaying structure. Zach ran with wild abandon and hoisted himself up to a three-foot-high brick wall that had served as an enclosure for a courtyard.
“You can’t get me!” he taunted, standing on the top of the wall.
“Zach, you better get down from there!” Danny yelled from the other side of the field. “You’ll break your …”
Zach twisted his little body around to see his cousin. It was then that he fell backwards onto the concrete courtyard behind the wall, and I heard a sickening, snapping sound.