Darek Chambers looked up the stairwell.
For no particular reason, he had walked down to the first floor to begin with, and now he stared up at the square spiral that stretched to the dark, dingy reaches of the fourth floor. Ever since the first time Mom had taken him here, even before the divorce, he had been utterly fascinated with Courthouse West. That fascination had grown on him in the year or so since, and now he looked forward to every visit— though not for the same reason everyone else assumed.
Let the good doctor think whatever he wanted; the real reason for Darek’s excitement haunted and tantalized him from above.
During a couple of his sessions with Dr Evans, he had asked him about the place, and he had learned some very interesting things indeed. When it was first built, Courthouse West was originally a hospital. Later, after a newer hospital was built downtown, it became Courthouse West, and these days the building was used by a variety of public and mental health organizations. Some remnants of the old hospital could still be found, like the colored flaps above each door. All of them were set on hinges, and different colored flaps could be put out to signify different purposes. Though most of them were kept flat against the wall these days, Darek thought it would be cool if everybody actually used them.
The building was built into the side of a hill, so that one had a ground-level entrance— complete with a grand stairway leading up to a waiting room on the second floor, whose rails he and his little sister liked to slide down— and this side was a basement level. He had just escaped from that waiting room while Mom was in the lavatory (which his mind always made quirky connections with the word “laboratory”) and Claire was still in her session with Dr Evans, so now he was free to explore the building as he pleased. As his eyes again followed the angular twists of stairs and landings, he felt that sense of mystery he got sometimes (and sometimes got lost in) that he just didn't have the words to describe.
Still lost in his childish sense of wonder, he started up the stairs. The first and second floors saw a lot of use, and even the third floor had some offices and such, so the steps were clean and well-lit. But beyond the third floor landing, the lighting was minimal, and the steps were dusty and dingy, as if even the janitor didn’t bother to go up there. Darek climbed on, drawing a toy laser gun out of his jacket pocket, a quixotically fierce and determined expression coming over his face.
Time to step into the Unknown…
A few months ago, Dr Evans had taken him to the fourth floor, probably to humor him. He had quickly discovered that Darek was more interested in that empty level than he was in anything he had to say while they were up there, and he hadn’t taken Darek up since. Instead of satisfying Darek’s curiosity, their brief session on the fourth floor had only aroused it. He had been up here before, but now he would get to see it through different eyes now that he was all alone.
Through the eyes of a nine-year-old.
Dr Evans had gotten permission from Maintenance, and borrowed a key, which he used to “unlock” the fourth floor button of the elevator. Darek, of course, had tried his own experiments, and discovered, much to his disappointment, that the elevator only went to the third floor if you didn’t have the key. On the other side of the building there was an old-fashioned elevator, complete with the accordioning iron gate. But he found that, even though this elevator went all the way to the top, the outside door on that level was locked. Naturally, he had tried the stairs (at both ends) and discovered that those, too, were barred against him.
At least until last week.
The double doors at the landing were chained together with a padlock, or at least they were supposed to be. Only he had noticed, while playing on the stairs one afternoon, that the chains weren’t locked together anymore. But before he could go in, his mom had called him back downstairs for his appointment. Since then, he had been hoping against hope that no one had noticed the locks.
Now that he stood before the doors again, there would be no one to stop him this time. No one called him away as he pushed the door open and stepped into the dark, dusty hallway. No one would intervene this time, as he stood on the threshold of another world.
Darek was always wandering off into other worlds, much to his elders’ consternation, and everyone, from his mom to his teachers, kept telling him to stay in the real world. He sort of knew what they meant, but the “real” world was boring. And he wasn’t so sure if they knew what he meant, either. As he stood in the doorway, gazing down one side of the hall, then the other, he remembered what his Aunt Veronica, who often babysat them while Mom was at work, always said about lost things.
It had become a running family joke that anything that got lost ended up in the Twilight Zone.
And Darek believed it. Even things that he lost in his own home seemed to vanish without a trace. Most of them he had never seen since. (Mom often used the story to try to make them quit bothering her about things they couldn’t find, but it didn’t work; it just made Darek even more determined, not just to find the item, but also to find the Twilight Zone.) He reached for the light switch, only to discover that it didn’t work. In that moment, he hesitated, remembering how spooky this place had looked when he came up here with Dr Evans, and he almost turned back.
Instead, he raised his laser pistol and ventured off into the unknown. He prowled up and down the deserted hallway, peering into drab, empty rooms with greyish, no-color walls and cobwebs in every corner. The paint was peeling off the walls in places, and there were exposed wires and pipes and missing ceiling panels. He wondered, and not for the first time, why they didn’t just fix the place up and use it— it would be fun to have a fourth floor.
The view from up here was all he’d hoped it would be, he discovered as he entered one of the rooms and looked out the window. From up here, he could see the playground across the street; the next time he could talk Dr Evans into talking to him over there, he could look up at the windows on the top floor and know that he had been up there. There was something about viewing things from above that Darek never tired of. He looked out at the neighborhood beyond, and up at the sky.
And was surprised at how dim and overcast it had become, clouding up like it was going to rain. When they had come in earlier, it was still a bright and sunny October day, part of what Mom called an Indian Summer, with the unspoken promise of good trick-or-treating weather this weekend. He wondered if he had only imagined dust-laced rays of sunlight flooding in through the windows as he was exploring only moments ago. In such sharp contrast to the gloom that shrouded this level, even on the sunniest of days. It was like waking up in a place out of a dream.
He clutched his laser gun tighter, looking about the room and seeing it in an entirely different light than he had only moments before. Now he wasn’t so sure why he had been so excited about coming up here earlier. The quiet, and the realization that he couldn’t hear anything from downstairs. Somehow he was sure that this was what the Twilight Zone was like.
The home of all the scary things he had seen on TV when he was little. Where all the things people lose end up.
His gaze turned back to the window, and it scared him almost to panic to see how normal everything out there looked. In the Real World. While he was stuck in the Twilight Zone. In that moment, he feared that somehow the door to the stairs would disappear, and he would be trapped up here forever...
When he saw a car drive by on the street below, it calmed him. To remind him that this wasn’t the Twilight Zone. That there were people right below him, and he was being silly.
That he had gotten carried away, just as Mom always said he did.
Still, he wasn’t as thrilled as he had been a few minutes ago. Being up here had lost its charm. Yet part of him already knew this was something to remember, that he would be haunted by this place for the rest of his days. His own personal legend.
Like many things, he didn’t know how he knew, he just did.
As he stepped out into the hallway again and headed back to the stairs, he happened to glance down the hall and see the L-turn that led to the other wing of the building. They say curiosity killed the cat, but no hard and fast law seems to apply to little boys. Laser pistol in hand, Darek decided to see what was around the corner before leaving this place, one last adventure in the Lost Level of Courthouse West. The Unknown compelled him, as it always did.
On an odd compulsion, he leaned against the wall and edged toward the corner, imagining that he was in an enemy headquarters, and he was about to ambush the guards. He peered cautiously around the corner, half expecting to see guards, but of course it was just another empty hallway, not much different from the last one. Save that it was somehow darker here.
When he heard an indistinct noise, he just about jumped out of his skin. Purely on reflex, he actually jumped out from the corner and started firing down the corridor. The barrel lit up with strobe flashes of red and orange, and from somewhere in the depths of its plastic casing came cheap electronic sound effects that had always sounded cheesy to him compared to the shots he heard in his mind.
Darek stood there for a moment, picturing laser beams piercing the walls and doors, until that electronic chirping sound began to make him feel ridiculous. After another moment, he eased off the trigger and both the light show and the sound effects cut out. Of course, there were no Imperial Stormtroopers. No Decepticons. No Ruskies. The hallway wasn’t the least bit devastated by his attacks, and he was left just standing there aiming a toy pistol down an abandoned hallway.
Feeling sheepish, and at the same time more than a little scared, he tried to figure out why he had started so bad. Or if he had even really heard what he thought he had. Or if his imagination had run away with him again. Everyone, everyone, told him that he had an overactive imagination. But to him it always seemed so real, and he was always disappointed when it turned out to have been all in his head.
Sometimes, though, he wondered if the grownups knew what they were talking about.
He told himself that this was an old building, and (at least according to the lore of Grownups) old buildings always made weird noises. To prove it to himself, he decided to put this hall to the test. Still pointing the gun out ahead of him, as if to ward off attack, he started toward the end of the hall. He was scared, but he was also mad about being scared. Imagining that he held a real laser gun, he resolved not to go back until he had seen what was behind the door at the end of the hallway. Telling himself with every step that there was no such thing as haunted houses, no such thing.
Emboldened by each step, though he wasn't quite sure what he was trying to prove to himself, he also felt a nagging suspense as well. His pace quickened as he neared the far end of the hall, as if he could keep anything spooky from happening if he could just get there before it could happen. All the same, he was deeply relieved to get to the last door.
Darek tried to open the door, but it was locked. He kicked the door, feeling the tension escape him in a burst of frustration. He hated locked doors.
As he turned and stalked back down the hall, he happened to glance inside of the rooms, and saw something small lying on the floor in the doorways. The strange part was that he knew what it was even before he got a good look at it. Even as he reached down for it, he dropped the toy gun.
It crashed to the floor, the tip of the barrel shattering into tiny plastic shards.
Darek hardly noticed as he picked up the worn leather batting glove that he already knew was a right-hander. Even as he undid the velcro, he remembered how he had found it on the playground a couple years ago. It had a logo with the face of a tiger on the broad velcro strap, and he had fallen in love with it at first sight. He used to wear it everywhere, just one more thing to annoy his mom.
He was only six back then, but as he looked at it now, he wondered where it had been all this time. He couldn’t remember exactly when he lost it, but he still thought about it from time to time. When it was brand new, it must have been blue and white, but now the leather was faded to a dirty off-white. (Of course, he had always seen it as blue-and-silver, and granting him superpowers.) Experimentally, he put it on, noticing that it fit him better than it had back then, but it was still a bit too big.
He slapped the strap in place and clenched his fist, as if he would never take it off again. (Though Mom would probably have something to say about that idea, like trying to get him to take off his winter “power gloves” and chasing Claire around the house with them when she first bought them.) More than ever, he couldn’t help thinking about Aunt Veronica’s joke about how everything that got lost ended up in the Twilight Zone. Naturally, he was glad to have his old “Power Glove” back, but he was also curious, and more than a little spooked about what it was doing here.
He had just made up his mind to leave— to not press his luck in this place was that proving weirder than he ever would have guessed— and think about it in a place that wasn’t so eerie, when a dim glint of light on the far side of the room caught his eye.
Lying in the doorway on the far side of the room was a ring. Darek rushed over, practically pouncing on it. And a ring of keys fell out of his jacket pocket, but he hardly noticed in his excitement.
It was a cheap ring, with a fake emerald set in it. Of course, even a year ago, no one could convince him it was fake. To him, it was an ancient treasure he had found while exploring the ruins of a lost city. (A box of junk at a yard sale.) Unfortunately, he and Claire always fought over it, so he always hid it from her. One day, he hid it just a little too well, and even he couldn’t find it. He had searched all of his best hiding places, but he was never able to find it again.
He set it on his index finger (Mom was no more able to talk him into wearing it on his ring finger than she was able to make him see that the stone was fake. That, and it was the only finger it would stay on anyway.), wondering if he hadn’t found his lost treasure in a lost city for real this time. He knew these were once his, and not someone else’s, and had been lost for a long time.
And again he thought of the Twilight Zone, for a moment he was sure he was just imagining all this, and he felt a strange disappointment at the idea of losing his long-lost stuff. At the idea of his mysterious triumph being nothing more than a daydream.
He was about to pick up his keychain, full of old keys he had gathered to explore a haunted mansion, when he saw yet another item in a doorway on the far side of the that room.
As he neared this door, he saw that the lumped and folded mass on the floor was a denim jacket, and his heart leaped at the intuitive knowledge of what it was. He picked up the dark blue jacket, remembering how excited he had been when Dad brought it back with him from a business trip. He wore it whenever the weather was warm enough. So of course he was wearing it the morning of the last day of school last year. It was a hot, sunny day, a perfect first day for a summer vacation, and so he completely forgot it because it was so hot out. Naturally, he remembered later, but the Twilight Zone had already claimed it; Mom took him back to the school later, and neither the secretary nor the custodian could find it.
He had been so bummed out that Dad couldn't help going out and buying him a new one. Taking off his jacket and switching, he found he even liked the way his old jacket fit better, the way it felt on him. And it was then that he found himself wondering what Mom and Claire were going to think when they saw these things. For a moment he was afraid they would think he had stolen them from up here, but then he remembered that this jacket had his name written on the tag, which made it really weird for him because he had proof that it was his.
It seemed almost too good to be true.
Darek looked expectantly at the far end of the room, wondering what other long-lost treasure he would stumble upon next. On the other side of the room, the door was closed. He noted, with an inexplicable apprehension, that it was a big white door, and that the room he was in was darker and dingier than the last, having no windows. And wondered what it would be like to be up here after dark.
He shuddered for a moment in spite of himself. Still his curiosity overwhelmed him, and he decided that he would see what was behind the door. Then, he promised himself, he would leave.
Darek turned the knob and opened the door.
* * * *
Jillian Chambers (as she had kept her ex’s last name so as to avoid making her children’s lives anymore complicated than they already were) stood in the entrance to the dark hallway, Dr Evans a few paces down the hall.
“I don’t get it,” muttered Dr Evans, “That door is always supposed to be locked.”
There was something about his tone that Jill didn’t find very reassuring. Claire’s session with Dr Evans had ended while she was still in the restroom. Even then, she had had a very strange, ominous feeling that had prompted her to get back to the waiting room as quickly as she could. And there was Claire, playing on the railing of the big stairway.
But no sign of Darek.
This time she didn't give him a chance to be late for his session. Acting on a dread premonition, she had grabbed Evans and set out searching the building. After turning up nothing on the other three levels, they had turned to the deserted fourth floor, which was causing her a tremendous amount of anxiety that she just couldn’t quite pin down.
For some reason, all she could think of was her sister’s stupid Twilight Zone superstition, and she cursed Veronica for even showing her son all those books about mysterious phenomena.
“Darek!” she called once again, knowing that if he would just answer, her nightmare would be over.
“I don’t know…” muttered Dr Evans as he looked around, “Maybe he wandered outside or something…” Though he didn’t sound as if he believed that himself, remembering the look of utter fixation in Darek’s eyes when he saw this place. “He could be over at the playg—”
“Hey! Look what I found!” called Claire from around the corner.
Jill was right on it, and she felt her sense of suspense crank up another notch.
Lying on the floor in one of the doorways was Darek’s toy pistol. There was something about the shattered barrel that really set her nerves on edge. Because now she knew her son had been up here. Still, she couldn’t figure out why his being up here bothered her so much. It was old and abandoned, but Evans had assured her several times that there was nothing particularly dangerous up here.
“Darek!” she shouted again, the worry building up in her like the stormy clouds that had gathered outside. “Darek Thomas Chambers! You come out right now! This isn’t funny!… If you don’t come out right now, you’re grounded until after Halloween!”
And Courthouse West only answered her threats and pleas with mocking silence.
“I found his keys!” called Claire. She had wandered into the grimy, spooky-looking room only because the grownups were around; otherwise she would never set foot in a creepy place like this. And she recognized the keys all too easily. After all, Darek had been going on and on about his stupid keys, and his stupid haunted house, all month.
Jill looked up from her son’s broken toy to see her daughter standing in front of a closet. As she walked across the room, she tried to figure out why this was stressing her out so much. At last she stood in front of the closet, telling herself over and over that Darek merely had a hole in his pocket, that was all.
“I guess he was up here… but this just doesn’t make sense,” Dr Evans commented as he looked at the broken pistol; he knew it was one of Darek’s favorite toys, and it bothered him to see it, and his “haunted mansion” keys just lying on the floor like that.
As abandoned as this entire level.
Though, for all his concern, Evans couldn’t be nearly as upset as Jill. This just wasn’t right. What could possibly be so interesting about this closet?
But all she could think of was her sister and her damned Twilight Zone, and somehow she knew, as only a mother truly can, that she would never see her Darek again.
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Chapter notes: the fourth floor
Chapter end notes: -October 13 - 24, 2003; 4/28/09
This one was entered in a Writing Challenge, but not on the main board, rather at a spin-off board another member was trying to start, dedicated to the horror genre in general. It didn’t do so well, only fifth or sixth place out of the stories posted there.
The whole premise of this story was based on a real place I had been to as kid, a real abandoned fourth floor. I’ve always had a fascination with abandoned places, so few of them as I’ve gotten to see in my life. I was reminded of this place when I worked for a few months as a custodian at another building with an abandoned wing of its own. I worked the graveyard shift, so I got to have lots of spooky thoughts about this place. At the same time, I couldn’t summon the nerve to write about it while I was still working there, so it waited until I didn’t work there anymore. Both places are moods and images I try to conjure up in my mind when I’m writing spooky stuff.
-Standing backwards, Scoot.