Out-of-Body Experiences, Etc.- Part 4
“And you’re sure we’re not going to get arrested for doing this?”
“No one will ever check.” Marie was right: the code hasn’t changed. Miles punches in the sequence of digits Marie texted him, and the gate had clicks open with an electric whir: the only sign of the twenty-first century in the penitentiary, other than the warning lights that lined the walls. “So no, we won’t get arrested.”
“Good. Because then I’d have to explain that to my husband.” Vivian shines her flashlight down the hallway, which is one of the later cell blocks – built in the late 1800s, Miles thinks. The beam of light stipples iron cell bars and creates checkerboard patterns in the dust. “Also, I want to do some exploring in peace.”
“You think this is peaceful?” Like most massage therapists, Miles believes that touch can sometimes communicate more than words. When he places his fingers on these walls, he feels the weight of the prison’s history making the decaying cinderblocks even heavier.
“It’s not peaceful, exactly, but…look at the way the woods are reclaiming this place.” She points to the vines that have poured into one cell through a hole in the ceiling. Ivy clings to the walls next to them. In the sections where storms have blown the roof away, saplings are putting forth roots amid chunks of concrete and metal. “This place closed…what, fifty years ago? And the historical society keeps some of it clean for tourists? What a job. Without them, this would’ve been a forest by now. It would’ve gone back to the way it was before. That’s revitalizing, in a way.”
“Whatever you say,” Miles tells her. This is the most at ease he’s ever seen Vivian, which only makes him feel more awkward as he shifts the weight of his backpack from shoulder to shoulder. Inside the backpack are two plastic glasses and a bottle of wine, should Vivian decide she wants any. When he called her to apologize and ask if she wanted to see him again, he made it clear: this wasn’t a date. Only a chance for them to unburden themselves to each other outside the clean, contained lines of Serenity House. Still, he’d offered to bring wine, and she hadn’t said no.
“I’d bring my children here, if I could,” she says as she rounds a corner. A glowing sign that says EXIT points back the way they came. “All four of them. They’d love it here.”
“Would they.” Miles and Vivian walk in silence for a minute or two until Miles summons up the courage to say, “That’s why I was upset, a few days ago. Because you could be with your children right now, if you chose.”
“And you can’t.”
Vivian shines her flashlight on a faded sign that says REFECTORY. “I’m sorry. I realized it was…insensitive, what I said. But just because you want something to be one way doesn’t mean I would want it to be the same. I usually don’t want what other people want. Can we go in here?” She’s already turning, and the backlight throws the lines of her neck and shoulders into sharp relief.
He nods. Miles already knows that the refectory will be filled with long, low tables, like the cafeteria at Phoebe’s elementary school. The difference here is that each stool is bolted to the ground. At Phoebe’s school, each chair was rearrangeable and made of cheery teal plastic. When he closes his eyes after staring into the flashlight beam, he can almost see a teal afterimage imprinted on his eyelids. “You sound like you’re saying you’re not human. Like you’re some changeling.” He snorts. “Which, I don’t know. Maybe you are.”
She looks him in the eye for the first time that night, and her black pupils seem alien but kind. He knows she’s taking him seriously. “What a place to ask a question like that.”
“Sometimes,” she says, “sometimes…” Vivian grasps for words. Somewhere, out in the cell blocks, a squirrel chitters. “Do you ever feel like you’re living in someone else’s body? Because I do. I look down at my hands and my feet and I think, ‘These don’t belong to me.’”
“Yes, I felt that way after-”
“No, Miles. I don’t mean that I’m confused. Or directionless.” She sees the hurt in his eyes and corrects herself. “Not that grief just means you’re confused. I know it’s more than that. But listen to me. Sometimes I really forget who I am. I get in my car, and I drive, and I’m another person. I’m not Vivian anymore.”
Miles sets his backpack on one of the tables and pulls out the wine. It’s a cabernet sauvignon, one that he pulled from the middle shelves of the corner store in town. One that Marie recommended. “Would you like some?”
“Yes,” she says, and they drink in silence for a moment, admiring the artful way that rust has built up on the joints of the stools. The refectory is a tour stop, so it’s kept mostly clean, but rust and grime have a way of clinging and returning.
“That’s why I’m a massage therapist now, you know,” Miles says, to no one in particular. “I wasn’t, before Phoebe died. I was an accountant. A good one. But afterwards, I needed a way to make sure that people were real. That they weren’t…” He motions at the walls around them. “Ghosts.”
“Ghosts? Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Hard not to, when you’re sitting in a place like this.”
“That’s not an answer.” Vivian jumps to her feet. “There are stories of hauntings, though, aren’t there? I did a little research. Will you show me where the locksmith one happened?”
“Sure. If you’re willing to walk. It’s a few blocks over.” He knows the story Vivian is talking about. Everybody does. Fifty years or so ago, the penitentiary was repurposing one of the old women’s cell blocks into an updated hospital wing. One of the cell doors was jammed so tightly that the staff had to call a locksmith to come pick the lock. The locksmith, who had done plenty of work for the penitentiary before, set to work on the stuck door the next day. But the lock was 140 years old, and opening it without breaking it took time. After several hours spent jimmying various tools into the lock’s narrow, oxidized opening, turning tumblers a millimeter at a time, the locksmith succeeded. As soon as he opened the door, he was flung backwards by a twisting shadow that escaped into the hallway. Faces appeared and disappeared before his eyes, and he could hear screaming and sobbing. After a few minutes, the shadow exhausted itself. The locksmith got up, walked out of the penitentiary without collecting his pay, and refused to ever come back.
The audio tour samples the locksmith’s police interview, which is why Miles still remembers every detail. Even through the static, he could hear the terror in the locksmith’s voice. It was real, it was real, the man gibbered. It was real.
Some of the blocks Miles leads them through are restored, with displays and exhibits lining their walls. Some of them are filled with chunks of rubble from collapsed ceilings or burst pipes. Vivian occasionally stops to inspect the things he lights up with the beam of his flashlight: graffiti, intact furniture, animal droppings, signs. Most of the way there, though, they just talk: normal, easy conversation, as if they were chatting and sipping coffee at the café in Rumsford. She asks him about his other summer clients, and he toys with breaking confidentiality rules by saying things like This one guy always falls asleep and snores, and I’m serious, his snore is louder than a train whistle and One woman brings her own patchouli massage oil, and it smells like shit. He asks her about her kids, and she says, “My oldest, she’s about to go into high school, she’s so bright,” and “My son is so shy, I worry he’ll always have trouble making friends.”
“Here it is,” Miles says when they reach the hallway. It’s the second-oldest cell block, so the doors to each cell are made of thick slabs of wood, almost untouched by the vines and debris.
“It’s easy to see how one of these locks could get jammed,” Vivian murmurs, running her hands over the first door to their left. “The wood is so old…”
“Careful,” he says, and he reaches out to pull her hand away. “Splinters.” As they advance towards the middle of the hallway, their fingers stay loosely entwined: not to flirt, but just to hold each other steady. This block is colder than the others, and Miles feels a nervous flutteriness in his chest. He and Marie had an unspoken agreement not to bring people here, before. “And this is the cell. The one that’s supposed to be haunted.”
Vivian is quiet for so long that he says her name, once, twice.
“It’s happening again,” she says. “That feeling. Of becoming not myself. Ever since I touched that first door, I…” She falters, then reaches out towards the wood with her free hand.
“Wait,” Miles says, but her fingers brush the old oak, and then the air around them splinters into thousands of pieces. The cell door is blown open.
Days later, when he tries to write down what happens next so that he won’t forget, he’ll struggle for words that can describe what he experiences. First, a gust of something – an energy? – that fills the block and forces both of them against the wall. Then a chorus of voices that laugh, that scream, that chatter. Women’s voices. The sounds of an overfilled room. There are faces in the torrent of energy, he realizes, and while most of them aren’t familiar, Miles recognizes features here and there: Marie’s chin, Vivian’s eyes, Phoebe’s nose, Phoebe’s hairline, Phoebe’s everything.
Then Vivian reaches out her hand and the torrent runs through her, into her body, as if she’s a lightning rod conducting bursts of electricity. He watches for as long as he’s able, but her outline seems hazy now, and it hurts his eyes to stare. He shuts them. That’s when he starts to hallucinate. Women in stained aprons walk the halls. Phoebe waves to him behind a locked cell door. Vivian grows wings and flies through the holes in the ceiling. Eventually these things blur together, a slideshow moving so fast it burns itself up, and he stops trying to make sense of it all.