Under Their Skin

After a half-hearted suicide attempt 15 year-old Amelia Whitewater finds herself in Sunnygrove Wellness Center, a psychiatric institution where memories never truly die and dreams become nightmares, nightmares which seem to leak into real life. This shows one of Amelia's involuntary escapades into the past--or a surreal, distorted version of it.

 The room Keisha and Amelia shared, like most of the Juvenile Ward and perhaps the entire facility, had been decorated to distract from the fact that it was a hospital, and a crazy hospital at that.

It resembled a cozy bedroom with earthy tones and soft lighting, but what it was could never be pushed from awareness. There were no curtains except for a privacy curtain, no actual lamps; just fluorescent bars above their beds which cast a warm amber glow. There was a bookshelf, a tallboy, two small nightstands, and a barred window, further betraying the illusion of home and comfort. The mirror in the bathroom was an unbreakable glass.

Amelia sat in bed running the day's events over and over in her mind, analyzing it with as much objectivity as her volatile emotions would allow. But always her attention veered off somewhere else, toward strangeness and the reality. Two wildly different universes had collided, and there was no going back.

She couldn't believe she was here, couldn't believe it had come to this. She had been in control up until this point, and both the setting and the people who worked and stayed here were reinforcing that awful notion of helplessness, of being lost and somehow...defective. She had problems, but she wasn't a nutcase. Their repeated insistence that she stay here wasn't just an inconvenience or an embarrassment to her family and herself, it was plain scary.

She had to get out, but if she seemed desperate, they might keep her even longer. “Be cool and play along,” Nathan had said, and in a roundabout way so had Dr. Schrader, but right now it seemed as difficult as mountain climbing without a safety harness. One slip-up and down you go.

Keisha opened one eye as Amelia got up and headed toward the door. “Where are you going?”

To give Nate back his notebook.”

Did he give it to you?”

No,” Amelia admitted. “He forgot it in the lunchroom. I didn't want him to lose it, so I picked it up.”

How nice of you. Be careful not to get grabbed by any goons,” she smiled faintly, but the look in her sharp, bi-colored gaze was serious. Then she rolled over, pulling the covers over her head, and sighed, a soft, feathery sound like restless birds in rafters.  After seeing Keisha's temper, her vehement refusal to be controlled, and her general high-energy nature, this subdued state brought on by sedatives and the day's activity seemed wrong. She liked Keisha and admired her strong will, even if the girl's violent tendencies were frightening.

If I don't come back, call in the cavalry,” Amelia joked, and her roommate didn't reply.

She hesitated for a good thirty seconds but finally opened the door and peeked out into the hallway. It was empty; not a nurse or orderly in sight.

The door fell shut behind her with a whisper-click.

She headed several doors down, keeping watch over her shoulders, paranoid someone would find her out of her room after bed time. The notebook felt too heavy in her hands, not because of its weight but because of who it belonged to. There was something in Nathan that mirrored her; it struck a chord, and while his playful doodles were far from anything you'd expect to find in the notebook of a mental patient, they told a story she could relate with all too well.

Except a few in the back, which were a bit on the creepy side. Curious by nature, Amelia felt bad about peeking, even though he had offered to show her some of it earlier.

Besides, Nathan wasn't supposed to be here. He wasn't mental, at least not more than the average person.

Heck, he's the sanest person I've met in a while.

When she finally got to Nathan's door, it was wide open and no one was inside. The beds were made, lights bright. The bars on the window, combined with the room's homey appearance, made it look like a plush little prison, which once you thought about it, was exactly what Sunnygrove was.

Maybe they had him moved. Check some more rooms. The worst they can do is reprimand you. Who cares about demerits? You're not in Kindergarten anymore.

Amelia's stomach twisted at the prospect of getting caught, though she didn't know why. There was really nothing intrinsically wrong with leaving the room for the purpose of giving someone a lost belonging, but there was something wrong with this place, with the people in it, and not just the patients.

Or maybe its me. Its always me, isn't it?

She cast out that thought, and took another hard look at the room, as if some hidden detail would change everything.

There was suddenly a flickering sound, then a whir, and every light in the vicinity went out.

The blackness was so complete one could have convinced themselves they had been transported to a submarine navigating the Mariana trench, far from humanity or warmth, surrounded by overwhelming pressure which could crush you in an instant if not kept out by layers of steel, the only light produced by the baiting bioluminescence of lurking horrors.

Inarticulate childish fear took hold, and though she could see nothing, she felt changes being made, sensed something lurking on the fringes of awareness, begging to be understood.

She didn't know how long she stood there motionless, but soon a certainty took hold; she wasn't in the hallway anymore, and the floor under her feet was merely a phantom sensation. In a few moments she would drop, sink into an abyss, cease to exist. It was a ridiculous thought, but the rush of fear it gave her was too intense to ignore.

What happened?” She called out into the gloom, and her voice sounded muffled. “Hey!”

With an insectile buzz, the lights returned, and Amelia blinked in confusion.

Everything was different. The walls were no longer beige, no longer decorated with posters and framed photographs, but bare and off-white, vaguely sepia toned from lamps on a ceiling dangling much lower now than before. The black and white checkered linoleum had been replaced by smooth dark wood.

She turned around. The room was different too.

It looked old, with a goose neck lamp sitting on a battered metal table, a rusty cot without a mattress, peeling yellow paint, and where there had once been a window there was now empty wall. The floors were stained with something foul-smelling, littered with trash; a mottled pencil which looked like it had been chewed in half, strips of bloody gauze, and a newspaper almost entirely obscured by its own smeared wet ink.

But...that isn't ink, that's--

No no no no...

Amelia whipped around to look for the world she had come from, for a reality check to bring her back to waking life.

She scurried out of the room, head swinging left and right. In either direction down the long, narrow hall, darkness reigned, relieved only by those few dim overhead lights. Sweat popped on her back and temples and her heart began to pound, not fast but hard, like a hammer colliding with a door, slowly breaking it down. There was no one here but she knew it wouldn't be deserted for long.

Dr. Wolf's cheery reminder during group therapy echoed back to her, but now it held an ominous quality. Maybe it had always been there, underneath, and she hadn't noticed it.

Remember, everyone, its a no-no to be caught outside your room past a certain hour. It compromises patient safety and will result in a demerit on your name chart, just like school. Too many demerits and you will be sent to a more secure part of the ward, or another ward entirely.

I'm in a different ward, that's for sure. But how the hell did this happen?

The silence was deafening enough but when the music began to play, Amelia jumped.

She didn't recognize what it was until Frank Sinatra's voice echoed through these altered halls, hitting Amelia with a sense of surreal nostalgia, as if she had been here before.

I've got you under my skin, I've got you so deep in the heart of me. So deep you're really a part of me. I've got you under my skin.”

She remembered someone in her music class back in fifth grade had done a project on Frank Sinatra. She forgot his name but he always had messy blond hair and glasses and a passion for eras before his time.

He had documented with care all of Sinatra's early struggles, his rejection from serving in WW2 for being “neurotic” and “unsuitable from a psychiatric standpoint”, his effort to be seen against the backdrop of early starlets and singers, to stave off the despair insisting and insisting no matter where he was in life.  He continued on to become a great success despite his shortcomings, and some people hated him for that.

I tried so not to give in. I said to myself this affair never will go so well. But why should I try to resist, when, baby, I know so well. I've got you under my skin.”

Amelia stood indecisive in the hallway, mesmerized by the music, and by memory.

I'd sacrifice anything come what might for the sake of having you near. In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night and repeats, repeats in my ear. Don't you know, little fool, you never can win?”

This was supposed to be romantic, a classic swinging love song from a time people either never knew or yearned to return to. But here and now Old Blue Eye's signature song took on a keenly sinister aspect, the lyrics like a threat or a promise, simultaneously captivating and disquieting.

His voice was changing. It was growing deeper, slower, as though someone was messing with the pitch and tempo, fiddling around with the needle on a record player.

Use your mentality, wake up to reality. But each time that I do just the thought of you makes me stop before I begin. I've got you under my skin.”

The musical interlude moved a cog in her memory. She knew where this was from. This song was produced in 1956, around the height of Sinatra's popularity. Amidst trumpeting trombones and saxophones and the milk-smooth croon of the singer, fear entered stage right.

The song was so wrong now, distorted, no longer Sinatra's but a deep, demonic lullaby with only a vague resemblance to what it was before. It blasted even louder from the speakers.

What's happening?

I just love Frank Sinatra.” Amelia flinched and looked all around, but there was no one there. The lamps above swung like slow dancers.

Don't you?” The voice was male, tired and creaky, like a door that hadn't been oiled in years.

Yeah,” she found herself saying, unnerved but wondering where this was going. “He had quite a legacy.”

Had?” Whoever it was sounded genuinely confused. “He's still there singin' up a storm up in Vegas. You act like he's dead.”

Amelia hugged herself, breath cycling through her lungs but not as easily as before. She could feel herself growing cold. It wasn't on the outside; the air was stuffy, but this inner chill was a realization that the train to reality wasn't just delayed, it had been thrown off its tracks and left to burn in a ditch.

Please don't say burn. Its not polite, not worldly, there was a fire here, a fire, a fire!

And despite attempts to pass it off as a dream, or better yet, a drug-induced hallucination (drugs you didn't take, snapped a thought), it felt way too real.

What's wrong?” said the disembodied voice. “You look troubled. I mean; who wouldn't be?”

Where.... are you?” Amelia's voice came out barely above a whisper, but he must have heard over the music, because he said, “Not sure. Every time I try to figure it out, they change things around. You too?”

I'm...I'm a little lost. I left my room a few seconds ago, but then the lights turned off and now I'm here.”

The man gasped. A wheezy, sickly sound. “You mean, you left after bedtime? We're not allowed to leave our rooms. Why weren't you seen by a nurse or God forbid, that Head Doctor? Last time he found ol' Larry wandering, he gave him what for. He fried him like bacon.”

I just wanted to check on my friend Nate. He left his notebook in the lunchroom and I wanted to give it back to him.” Amelia wondered why she was telling him this, then continued, “Sir, can you tell me what year it is? What day?”

I don't know. Time just melts together here. They keep it this way to make us into what they want us to be. I hate this place.” His voice broke toward the end, as if he were about to cry.

The distorted song was reaching a crescendo now. The shrieking saxophone sounded like demented laughter, or maybe there was laughter in there somewhere, somehow added by whatever force had taken over in the dark.

Amelia's hackles were raised but she had to find the source of the voice, a confirmation that she wasn't just talking to an imaginary presence, to herself. She dashed around the corner where it seemed to be coming from, and saw no one. Just the seemingly endless stretch into architectural infinity, and shadows that waited, pulsing and shifting at the attention.

You have to show yourself. Oh, oh sh*t, I feel like I'm going insane!

You're not the only one, sweetheart,” said another voice, somehow beneath the man's creaky whine while still part of it, as if two people were trying to talk over one another. “But its bad to use that kind of language. They can punish you for being bad. I've seen it happen. Its none too pleasant, I assure you.”

In periphery, something dripped down the wall beside her. She jumped away to see long trails of a thick black liquid seeping from the cracks in the ceiling.

Again remembering the hand that had showed itself to all of them in the day room, how it emerged from the ceiling as easily as if stippling had the consistency of water, how it had never once been stained by surrounding muck, brought another wave of numbing terror washing over, threatening to engulf her.

Please, just tell me what's going on. Where the hell am I?”

Not just trails now, torrents. The walls had sprung a leak and they were bleeding ink, or maybe blood. It streamed to the floor and gathered in puddles.

Amelia backed away, not wanting to get any of it on her socked feet, and the unseen man said, “I told you! They are always watching us, making sure we're afraid, making sure we won't misbehave. They've got us under their skin.”

Just let me see you. I know there's someone else there.” Her voice sounded as though it were registering underwater, and Amelia wondered, truly wondered, what it was she was drowning in.

Okay, okay, if you insist.”

Just as it had emerged from the ceiling, now it came from the wall, like a ghost yet tangible, somehow alive. From the waterfall of ebony liquid stretched that same clean, elegant, clawed hand, and along with it a forearm, a slim but well-muscled shoulder, squeezing from impossible spaces, another voice coming from it.

It was smooth, masculine, commanding but gentle, would have been comforting if it had originated from a human being, but its soothing tone only made it worse.

You have to run. I'm on your side, but you really should run, and when you get back, don't tell them what you saw. Play like its normal, like its nothing out of the ordinary to see--”

A shriek. He or it was interrupted by the shriek of another monstrous phantom, from the hallway to the right of where Amelia stood. There was something painfully familiar about it, but too shrill, too hoarse, too loud, to resonate from human lungs.

The panic wouldn't stay for this conversation any longer. Amelia zoomed down the hallway, taking sharp turns to outsmart the terrible something she knew was pursuing her.

On the way she dared to look inside rooms, and what she saw there sent shock through her body like an electric current. If only they had been empty, if only they hadn't been bearing those nightmare faces like a poisonous flower opening its bloom to drink in the moon's pure light.  Amelia couldn't begin to describe some of them except a combination of emaciation, filth, and injury, or figures similar to the thing in the wall, but others....others weren't even close to human.

The lights died.

Amelia stopped, and everything went silent. Sinatra's warped voice no longer permeated the halls, and neither did that of the invisible patient.

Too dark to see them coming. They'll have you before you can run. Can't hear them, either. They have quiet little cat's feet, just like you, Ammy.

She was hyperventilating. Her heart was beating so fast and heavy she was surprised it didn't punch its way through her chest. This complete darkness, just like before, carried a sense of movement, of everything at once being torn apart and put back together with dazzling, impossible speed, speed neither the eye or the mind would be able to accept.

Maybe that's why the lights went out; because its the only way this place can work its twisted magic; when no one is directly observing it.

Don't concern yourself with figuring this out just yet, sweetheart,” said that calm voice from beside, no, above her, no doubt dangling from some dripping pool on the ceiling. She wanted to bolt but couldn't move an inch, couldn't even breathe. Paralyzed. Caught.

I'm going to die.

No, you're not, silly.” A hand began to stroke her shoulder; cold, slender fingers, terminating in those sharp, inhuman nails that could probably rend flesh with ease if they wanted to. But for now they were just lightly dragging across her skin.

There was no warm breath as he whispered in her ear, no warmth at all. Just cold. Unknowable. “You'll learn to live again soon.”

Move, dammit! Run! Move!

She had always wondered why people sometimes froze, slack-jawed and glassy-eyed, in the face of mortal danger, why they stood there and allowed the threat to get closer when by all means they should be bolting as fast as they could. Why did the deer stand mesmerized by the blinding twin beacons of a car's headlights? Was death that tempting, or did it simply not know any better?

Amelia knew better, and that was why she could not move.

He was in her head, seeing the most private thoughts and nuances flickering in and out like fireflies, and that was what rooted her to the spot, a connection too strange to name, connection with a monster from a nightmare, or from another world terrifyingly real.

You're so blind in the dark, sweetheart, but you know what? Sometimes the darkness doesn't blind you. Sometimes it makes you see. As hard as it is, try to look a little deeper. You won't like what you see, but understanding the method to this madness might just save you.”

After giving her shoulder a brisk, almost consoling pat, the hand withdrew. The paralysis faded as abruptly as if someone had turned off a switch.

Amelia found the strength to draw in a ragged breath, and screamed.

The lights came back on. Shadows still crept too close for comfort like a pack of carrion eaters awaiting their chance, but she saw lights on at the end of the hallway, the same hallway she had been in before reality flipped away, and part of her nagged in an effort to reign in the fear, that this was corny and easy to expect, only it wasn't. It wasn't, and any moment now the doors would fly open, and things would come out, and Amelia ran right into two young nurses waiting in the light.

Oh, god, help me! I just...saw...something...t-they're....” She cursed herself for not being able to form a coherent sentence, but terror pinched her throat, clouded her reasoning.

Honey, what's wrong?” A nurse with wavy blond hair asked, her blue eyes wide and concerned, yet also with a layer of grim caution. Her poise suggested she was ready for the worst, even from a small waif of a girl who had never struck out at anyone but herself.

What did you see?” The other nurse was short and plump, with a matronly appearance, brown hair, a sweet freckled face and brown eyes. “Why are you out of your room so late? Did you have a bad dream?”

Poor thing,” the blond said, resting a hand on Amelia's shoulder. “Just simmer down, okay? Relax. Nothing's going to get you.”

The nurses seemed just as frightened as she was and held her until she could calm down.

She was back. Wherever she had been just a few moments ago, she was back where the light of reason shone. The walls depicted sea shores, animals at rest and at play, and they weren't bleeding black blood.

Surely the hand which had emerged from the ceiling in the day room had only been a hallucination. If Amelia had been the only one who'd seen it, she could have accepted that, but Nathan had seen it too, and Keisha, and a few others.

Even remembering the way the fingers twitched made her shudder.

Surely the whole experience in the hall had been a hallucination, but this didn't change how it felt. Amelia wanted out of here now more than ever, because she sensed things were about to get much worse.

The End

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