Mom never thought her work would follow her home.
I’ve always found hospitals to be creepy. To me, they’re little more than big, sterile, fluorescent-light labyrinths where people go to die.
As the son of a doctor, I’ve had reason to visit them more than most.
St Judes is an old hospital, located on the outskirts of our town. Originally just a converted manor house, the rest of the site grew over the years. The original house is still there, standing ominous and empty for longer than I’ve been alive. I can see it peering down toward me as I chain my bike outside the ER department.
Halloween. An old, abandoned hospital ward. It’s a recipe for every bad ghost story ever told.
Luckily for me, my mother works in the main hospital building, a good deal more modern and significantly less creepy than its predecessor.
I walk through the ER quickly, nodding to a few familiar faces. Mom has worked at St Judes for six years so a lot of the staff know me to see.
I exit the elevator on the sixth floor and make my way toward the nurse's station. The corridor is wide and bright, yet somehow still stuffy. The strong undercurrent of bleach fills my nostrils. The background noise is constant; harried doctors and nurses talking in quick, clipped tones, the rumble of endless trolleys and every so often, the sobs of someone in grief.
Between me and you, I’m actually a bit of a wuss. But, like I said, I’ve been around hospitals as long as I can remember. At some stage the sights and sounds become second nature. The joys of being a single child to a medical professional.
Mom has always worked hard to provide for the two of us. She was married at twenty one, had a child at twenty two and was widowed before she was twenty four. Dad had been the free spirited type, until he wrapped his motorbike around a lamppost.
Since then it’s mostly been Mom and me. Looking back, I’m not quite sure how she managed with a kid, a recently deceased husband and med school.
To her credit, Mom didn’t just succeed, she flourished. At thirty eight she is now a successful senior doctor. Not that her success didn’t come without hard work and putting herself second.
When I was a kid I spent a lot of time between my Grandparents house and the hospitals childcare facility.
We can both proudly say that our relationship never suffered for it. Endless night shifts and missed Birthday parties were a fact of life but I never held it against her. How could I? In my eyes, Mom is one step down from a Saint.
Halloween was for us, something we always did together. By my early teens, trick and treating had lost its appeal but mom and me always do something to mark the occasion. Usually a scary movie and a ton of candy. This is the first Halloween that I remember her having to work. I think she was more disappointed about it than I was. Hence, why I’m down at St Judes on Halloween night.
“Miles,” Mom, dressed in dark green scrubs, beams as she looks up from the desk at the nursing station.
“Hi mom,” I wave.
My friends always take great pleasure in telling me how ‘cool’, my mother is. Kids can be cruel but it’s mostly good humoured. Apparently, I should take it as a compliment that other guys find my mom attractive.
She’s a tall, athletic woman who somehow finds the time to run 15 miles a week. Her skin is warm and tanned, evidence of our European heritage. Chestnut brown hair falls to just above her shoulder and her dark eyes crinkle with her smile as I approach.
Mom taps the face of her watch. It’s a chunky stainless steel Brietling chronograph clasped tightly to her left wrist. Senior doctors are well paid but mom is frugal for the most part. Our house and her car are both modest. Mom dresses well and enjoys dining out but I have never known her to splurge money. The watch is her only luxury buy.
“Late?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
“Later than you said,” Mom replies in mock seriousness. “But I’ve got good news, I’m knocking off in ten minutes.”
“Mm-hmm,” Mom nods. “That’s not all. Got a surprise for you.” She reaches down below her desk and produces a flashlight.
“Oh,” I say flatly. “You shouldn’t have.”
She swats at me. “I told Dr Jacobi about our little Halloween tradition. He’s given us permission to go and have a look in Ward seven.”
Behind Mom, the Senior Nurse, Angela, hoots in surprise. “Ward seven. The pair of you must be touched in the head.” Angela is at least sixty, has seven grandchildren and absolutely no thoughts of retirement. Everyone loves Angela.
“It’s the ward next to this one,” Mom explains. “Closed down for a few years now.”
“Why?” I ask, already picturing the ghost of a crazed killer roaming the darkened corridors, the blood of his victims dripping from the end of his axe.
“Budget cuts,” Mom replies, giving the boring reason. “But it’s kept in good condition in case the hospital ever needs the space.”
“It’s also haunted,” Angela replies matter-of-factly.
Mom holds up the flashlight. “Sort of the point,” she says, a spark of excitement in her eye.
“You’ve seen ghosts there?” I ask Angela.
“Been working at this place damn near forty years, honey. Not much I haven’t seen. Ward seven was always a bit strange though, even when it was open.”
“Cool,” I say, trying my best to stay as nonchalant as possible.
“Ghosts can’t hurt you, honey,” Angela says kindly, noticing my discomfort. “They’re just lost souls.” She turns to mom, “Doesn’t mean I’d go chasing them either, Hannah. Going after stuff you have no idea about.”
Mom nods solemnly until Angela turns away before winking at me. I do my best to hide my grin. Mom’s good mood is infectious.
I hang around the nurse’s station, waiting for mom to finish off writing up a couple of patient charts. She looks up at me as she hands the last one to Angela. “Ready?”
I nod, picking up the flashlight as mom lifts a set of keys that had been sitting at the desk. She leads the way through the ward. It’s just shy of 10 pm and the ward grows quieter the further we move from the nursing station.
The door that separates ward seven from the ward where mom works is locked. She fishes the set of keys from the pocket of her scrubs.
A shiver creeps down my spine and I turn to find us being watched intently by a young girl. I reach out and touch Mom’s arm. She looks behind her and gives a small gasp before laughing. “Oh honey,” she says to the girl. “You scared us.”
The girl couldn’t be anymore than five. She’s dressed weird; an old fashioned long-sleeved red dress and black leggings. Her dark hair is cut short at the sides but is thick on top with a long fringe.
She says nothing. Mom takes a step towards her and the girl takes off, disappearing around the corner.
Mom laughs. I don’t.
“I thought visiting hours were over?”
“Hmm?” Mom is concentrating on the lock. “Oh, we allow some people to extend visiting hours if they have a relative about to cr-um, I mean, about to pass.” She gives a small yelp of success as the lock finally opens. Being the gentleman that I am, I allow mom to lead the way. She shuts the door behind me and re-locks it.
“What are you doing?”
“Dr Jacobi was clear that I needed to lock the door when we were in here. He doesn’t want any patients to wander in.”
“Or creepy little girls.”
Mom’s laugh seems absurdly loud in the darkened corridor. I wince. She points with the flashlight. “C’mon.”
Ward seven is not quite what I was expecting. It’s deserted, obviously, but everything is neat and orderly. Empty beds sit waiting in each room. I had anticipated overturned chairs, leaking pipes and patient records littering the floor.
Not to say the place isn’t creepy. The darkness is oppressive, reaching out to envelope us and being beaten back by the bright light in mom’s hand. I stick close to mom. You know, to keep her safe.
“You believe in this stuff?” I ask her. “Ghosts?”
“Not really,” she admits. “Every hospital I ever worked in has at least one ghost story. St Judes has quite a few, but I’ve never seen anything.”
Like mom, I’m not a believer in ghosts either but that doesn’t mean I’m not thoroughly on edge as we creep along the corridor. It’s hard not to be, the darkness presses around us and the utter stillness of everything around us is stifling. The bright lights of the other ward are only a few feet and one locked door away but it might as well be another world.
The slamming of of a door in the corridor ahead of us sounds like a gunshot in the silence of the ward. We both jump as one as Mom’s hand reaches out to my arm. Her grip is surprisingly strong.
Neither of us move. Mom keeps the flashlight pointed ahead but there’s nothing there. My heart is pounding in my chest and my legs feel as though they are weighed down by lead.
I hear mom take a steadying breath. “Just the wind.” She tries to laugh it off but her voice is somewhat shaky. “Cleaners are in here once a week,” she says, more certainly. “Must have left a window open.”
I’m not sure if she’s trying to reassure me or herself.
I shiver. The ward is cold. I hadn’t noticed it before. I try to reason that it makes sense, after all, the hospital is not going to spend money heating an unused ward. Then again, It was a mild fall night when I cycled to the hospital. Half an hour later and the cool air is piercing through my sweater.
My hand brushes mom’s arm. I can clearly feel the good pimples on her skin. Her medical scrubs are a good deal less warm than my sweater and jean combo.
Her hand falls across my chest. We stop as one and listen. Footfalls. Soft but unmistakable.
Halloween, a tour of an abandoned ward, the little girl. If I’m the victim of an elaborate trick, my mother is about to go down in folklore. “You can stop now,” I whisper.
Mom’s silence tells me there’s no trick here.
“Who’s there?” she asks, her voice now thick with trepidation.
The footfalls grow louder. The flashlight is pointed at our feet. Somehow, against every fiber of my being, I reach across and lift mom’s wrist to point the flashlight up.
The girl who had surprised us in the corridor now stands before us, her blank expression fixed on mom and me.
I’m frozen in place, unable to move. Something approaching a whimper escapes from my lips.
Mom turns to run and trips over my foot. I hear her land hard on the floor, gasping as the air is knocked out of her. The flashlight goes spinning along the ground, throwing up random shapes and shadows.
It snaps me from my reverie. I reach for mom, grabbing a hand and pulling her with me as I begin to run.
We reach the door in seconds. An eternity crawls by as mom fumbles with the lock. I don’t dare to look around, expecting the see the girl standing behind us.
Mom gives a gasp of sheer relief as she gets the door open and we spill into the welcoming light of the neighbouring ward.
I’m breathing hard as mom re-locks the door with shaking hands. She slides down against it once she is sure it is securely shut.
We take a moment, catching our breath. I try to process what we have just seen. We had ran from a small child. A child that had somehow passed through a locked door and was wandering an abandoned hospital ward.
Mom is pale. I know I’m not much better. I offer her my hand, helping her to her feet and we walk in silence back to the nurse’s station.
Angela looks up at us and can see something isn’t right. “You two look like you’ve seen a ghos-oh…” She trails off.
I fill in Angela as best I can; the little girl, the slamming door, the cold air.
“Sounds like Sophie,” she says as I finish.
“Sophie?” Mom asks, the color slowly returning to her cheeks.
“Little Sophie,” Angela smiles sadly. “Story goes she came in with her mom one night, complaining of fever. She was dead by the next morning. Bacterial meningitis. Now her spirit walks about the wards, looking for her mother to take her home.”
“And that’s what we saw?” Mom asks.
Angela sighs, looking over the rims of her glasses at mom. “It’s just a story, Hannah.”
“Have other people have seen her?” I ask.
“Maybe,” Angela shrugs. “I know some people have claimed to have heard a child crying over on that ward or shouting for its mother.”
I try to suppress a cold shiver.
Angela looks between the two us of sympathetically. “Could be you just imagined it.”
Mom shakes her head emphatically, “We saw it”
“Mind has a habit of seeing what it wants to,” says Angela
“But we both saw the same thing,” I say. “Right?”
Mom nods. “Little girl, red dress.”
Angela tuts, “I told you to be careful. You’re chasing after something we don’t know about. Anyone else know you were planning to head over to ward seven?”
“Just Doctor Jacobi and he isn’t the type to play pranks,” Mom replies, sensing where Angela was going next. She looks down and taps the face of her Breitling, “My watch stopped.”
You took a heavy fall back there,” I say. “Might have broke it.”
“I’d hope it was built a bit sturdier than that.”
“You’ve had it for years.”
“And it cost a few thousand dollars. They’re made to last.” Mom shakes her head, running a hand through her hair. “I think,” she says finally, “We’re going to go home.”
That sounds like the best plan I’ve heard all evening. I want nothing more than to be out of St Judes. It’ll damn sure be a while before I come back.
Mom grabs her bag and leads me to her car. My bike can wait until the morning; I have absolutely no desire to cycle home by myself. Mom is obviously of a similar mind, preferring to leave without changing out of her scrubs.
By the time we reach the car, our mood has lightened significantly. “It’ll be some story to tell your grandfather on Sunday,” Mom says.
“My favorite part was when you fell over,” I laugh.
“Oh? Not when you jumped ten feet in the air when that door slammed closed?” We both chuckle as the tension ebbs away. “So, movie and popcorn? I know it’s late but I want to keep some traditions alive. I don’t think ghost hunting will be one of them.”
“Sounds like a plan.” I reply. “Can I make one suggestion though?”
“Not a horror?” Mom says, reading my mind.
“Got it in one,” I say, leaning back into the seat.
Mom glances at her watch, “Hey, it’s working again. Isn’t that the strangest thing? Must have been the fall.”
“Told ya,” I say, trying to keep the smugness from my voice as I watch the scenery roll by. We’re back in the suburbs by now and the trick and treaters are long gone.
Once home we make a beeline straight for the kitchen. As mom goes to grab a large glass bowl from the cupboard, I fetch the popcorn. She gives an exasperated sigh, shaking her left wrist. “Watch has stopped again. Jewellers first thing in the morning.”
She turns toward me, holding the bowl out for me only to stop in her tracks.
A look of utter shock is frozen on her face.
The bowl slips from her fingers, shattering on the tiled floor. I watch in horror as mom’s eyes roll back into her head and her knees buckle. I jump forward but am too late to catch her as she slumps to the ground.
“Mom?” Panicking, I crouch down beside her. “Mom!” I shake her hard on the shoulder but receive no response. She’s out cold.
Trying to keep calm I prop her up against me and place two fingers against the side of her neck, just like she had taught me. I almost sag in relief as I find a strong pulse.
“Momma?” The voice is soft, childlike.
I feel my blood chill and my stomach turn to water.
I look up just enough to see the girl from the hospital in front of us.
Sophie had come home.