If you've watched this space for a while, you know that a few Halloweens back, we 'fessed up to one of the slightly more embarrassing secrets in our life: that for most of The Observer's 20s, Yours Truly and his brother looked for Things That Go Bump in the Night all over the state. We tried to be as skeptical as possible, always with an eye toward the 10,000 ways the human mind can fool itself. What we found during those years was a lot of people so determined to find an escape hatch to mortality that they wished settling floor joists into an Etherworld, just out of reach from mortal hands. That was mostly it.
There are, however, moments from those days that still trouble us. This is one: We promised the folks who run the place that we won't say the name, but you can probably figure it out without too much detective work: a massive, abandoned hospital, perched on a windswept mountain like Frankenstein's castle. Six stories, the ceilings collapsing, open doors like haunted eyes in the dark. There is a feeling there. It cooks out of the walls like radiation: the feeling of being, at all times, watched.
We had been there all night in the chilly dark, tromping up and down the stairwells by flashlight, walking the long wards. It was approaching 3 a.m., and facing a long drive back to Little Rock with nothing holding us upright but float-a-pistol truck stop coffee, we decided to pack it in.
First, we had to climb up and retrieve two motion-detecting trail cameras on tripods that we'd left monitoring the end of a hallway where we'd heard there was ... something. We came up the stairs, turned, then started the long trudge through the dark to the cameras.
At the end of each hallway there was a large window — a dim yellow rectangle, lit by the streetlights outside. We were 150 feet away from the end of the hallway when our brother stopped. Only after The Observer strained to see what he was seeing did we notice that, framed in the light from the window, there was the shape of a man. It was, of course, impossible. The spot where it stood was directly in the path of two game cameras with automatic shutters, cameras that would fire a three-shot photo burst if you even breathed on them. But standing there it was. We turned out our flashlights, and stood there in the dark, letting our eyes adjust, staring across the no-man's-land between us.
There have been death-defying moments in The Observer's life, scary moments. But that was the only moment when Yours Truly was outright terrified. Summoning every bit of our inner Fred and Velma, we began inching toward it. As we approached, it began bobbing up and down visibly, almost anxiously. We were 50 feet away when it just ... dissipated, like murky water going down a drain, a shadow that collapsed and swirled into the doorway on its immediate left, defying those hair-trigger cameras yet again.
We stood there in the dark, trying to get our heads around what we'd just seen. "I guess it's gone," our brother said. The moment he said that, a person — the shadow of a person, the shade of a person — leaned out from the OTHER side of the hallway, a head and shoulder blocking the light for a moment, peering out as if to say hello. Then, like a half-glimpsed creature receding back into murky water, whatever it was retreated back into the darkness.
At that point, it was either flee, abandoning several hundred dollars' worth of equipment, or stay long enough to retrieve it. We went with the latter, posthaste. In the frenzied grabbing of cameras — which worked just fine once we were in front of them — we noticed that the end of the hallway was so cold we could see our breath.
The Observer still doesn't know what to think about that one, children. The Brothers Grim have discussed that moment many times over the years, trying to find a rational way to explain what we saw. But we can't. It still haunts The Observer in the dark, especially now that we are getting older: What did we see? What waits there, at the end of that hallway? They are questions that are often on our mind, especially in late October.