The high-pitched scratch of chalk assaulted DeMarcus’ ears as Mr. Wainright finished writing the quote on the blackboard.
“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”
DeMarcus was well acquainted with fear. His education on the subject began with the first steps of his life. Though his understanding was shallow in theory, life in the Bronx provided depth in experience. Sleep was elusive without the echo of gunshots off the crowded stacks of high-rises and sirens fading into the night. Silence always struck a much deeper note of fear in the concrete jungle.
By sixteen it was clear that fear was the driving force behind most of what he saw each day at Herbert H. Lehman High School. Some feared going home at night or not living to see thirty. Some feared being poor forever. Most were just afraid of being seen as weak. It was a monster with a thousand heads, but only one heart.
Mr. Wainright turned to the class and began the lesson as he rubbed his hands together, cleaning them of dust.
“Can anyone tell me who this quote is attributed to?”
FDR’s name popped into DeMarcus’ mind. He didn’t have to look up to know that no one would raise a hand even though he was sure he was not the only one who knew the correct answer.
In the seat behind him, Javon whispered under his breath, “And some crazy white boy from Texas with a rifle and good aim.”
DeMarcus stifled a laugh. His best friend was clearly not one of those who knew the answer, but he could always be counted on for a good laugh.
“Besides, the real lesson in fear will be tonight.”
DeMarcus fought the reflex to turn around and look to see if it was just another joke. He tried to brush the statement off, but as Mr. Wainright continued his lecture on the effects of fear during the Great Depression, the thought captured more of his attention.
As soon as the bell rang DeMarcus twisted around in seat.
“What’s up man?”
Javon was putting his notebook in the backpack at his feet and didn’t look up when he spoke.
“Not here. Meet me at courts after school.”
“Not here? What’s going on?”
Javon finally looked up and DeMarcus saw a wicked smile playing on his face.
“Just meet me at the courts, aight.”
They both stood for a second searching the others eyes for something. Javon broke the deadlock first. Without another word he slung his backpack over his shoulder and walked out.
Classes became a blur for DeMarcus until the last bell sounded. His mind searched for an answer, but only found more questions.
Pickup games had already started when he walked through the gate of the chain-link fence. A group of older players were getting hustled by some of the regulars and DeMarcus sat down, grateful for the distraction.
The rattle of the fence broke DeMarcus’ concentration. He turned to see Javon sliding down the fence to sit next to him. Fear hovered at the edge of every thought in DeMarcus’ mind, but he knew that showing it was not an option.
The two watched the game end without a word. Another group quickly formed to take on the winners. The game offered the perfect excuse to avoid eye contact. DeMarcus fought the urge to start asking questions. Javon was stubborn and the only way he would do this was his way.
“It’s your turn and I’m callin’ it.”
“That’s what this is about? You had me scared man!”
Javon continued to watch the game with a smirk. He was playing it up and DeMarcus began to get a little nervous.
“So what is it? What’s the call?”
“It’s an easy one. All you gotta do get a picture of a basement.”
“That’s the call? Done. Which one?
The warm air that radiated from the concrete beneath DeMarcus suddenly felt cold. DeMarcus knew Javon was waiting for a big reaction. He refused to show any of the emotions that swirled in the pit of his stomach.
“Tonight. Meet you there at 11.”
Javon shot another wide smile at DeMarcus before springing to his feet, grabbing his backpack, and trotting off.
DeMarcus leaned his head back against the fence and tried to get a hold of his thoughts. They had never talked about what would happen if one of them could not complete a call in their game of dares because pride would never let that happen. But he never thought Riverside would be an option.
Riverside Hospital was over 80 years old. Whoever owned the abandoned building had put a fence around it with signs warning trespassers, but they were a waste of money. Not even bums ventured into former mental hospital. Every story about why it shut down was different, but they all shared two things in common. Bad things happened inside. Very bad things. And it all started in the basement.
By 10:30, DeMarcus was almost relieved to face his fear instead of just anticipating it. Javon nodded a greeting as he approached and led him around to back.
“I know a place where you can slide through the fence.”
The lights from the neighborhood could not pierce the darkness that surrounded the building. Trash hid among the weeds that clothed the grounds of the old hospital.
Javon stopped and pulled at the fencing, creating a gap that DeMarcus would have to crawl through.
“I want a picture that shows you made it all the way down into the basement. It’s gotta have a sign or somethin’.”
“I know the call.”
DeMarcus pushed the dry weeds aside and crawled through the fence. His heart raced inside his chest as he picked his way through the yard.
As he drew closer, he could see a faint outline of something extending from the building. The ground was littered with surprises, slowing his progress, but soon the outline materialized into a large portico with stairs.
Climbing the stairs stirred the dust that had lay untouched for years. Glass sparkled in the dark from the shattered windows that had once filled the doors. The skeletons of rusted metal mesh still clung to each opening.
DeMarcus checked the doors and was surprised to find one open. He pulled out his phone and used it as a flashlight before he crossed the threshold. Black and white tiles brought flashes of horror movies. Each step he took echoed down darkened hallways.
The light from his phone was only bright enough to push the darkness back a few feet in front of him. Slowly, he ventured deeper down the main corridor until he found a single cage elevator.
The idea that this ancient piece of machinery might still work even if the building had power was just enough to make him yank the gate open and look inside. A panel to his right held 6 buttons. Each button was embossed with number, except the bottom one. An old English-styled black “B” floated in the middle of the white button.
DeMarcus switched his phone to his camera and took a picture of the button. He felt drawn to it. Without knowing why he reached out to feel the cold surface. The letter was flush with the button, giving it a smooth surface. As his finger played over the button, he felt it sink into it’s casing.
The shudder of the elevator froze DeMarcus. The gears screeched like a banshee as the cage shook causing him to reach out and grab a rail. By the time he regained his balance it was too late to get off.
The cage rattled as it dropped further and further into the tunnel. DeMarcus looked at his phone to see if he could call for help, and watched as the last bar disappeared to be replaced by the “no signal” icon.
A cold sweat dotted his forehead as the ride into the depths continued. DeMarcus could not tell how fast the elevator was dropping, but he knew that he should have reached the basement long ago. With each minute that passed his breath grew more rapid.
A squeal escaped from high above as a cage door slid up from the elevator’s opening. The sound of the elevator was replaced by soft murmurs as the ride settled to a stop.
DeMarcus held his phone up to the darkness, but could not anything past the gate that closed off the room behind it. The pounding of his heart throbbed in his ears.
The more he tried to convince himself that the whispers he heard were just his imagination the louder they grew. Frantically, he pushed button after button, but the elevator had given the last of its life on this ride to Hell.
To be continued….
Copyright © 2012 Adam Drake