My dad died. That’s not really what this is about, but it’s important to note because that’s how I found it. We weren’t on the best of terms the last few years, we both said some things we couldn’t take back and him finally kicking the bucket is the only real reason I drove four hours north to the crappy little apartment where he’d been staying. His landlord called me and said if I didn’t show up to clear it out all the junk was going in the dumpster out back.
I was pretty sure the old man probably had a few boxes of my vintage baseball cards squirreled away just to spite me. That’s what the last few years seemed to be about, spiting me — refusing to just die and be done with it so we could move on. Bastard was almost 98 when he finally croaked and if he didn’t have a bunch of stuff from when I was a kid I could’ve just forgotten about him, let the landlord toss his shit. It was his last good jab, I guess. I could almost see him, cigar clamped between chapped lips: “That’ll teach ya, boy. Have fun wasting your weekend to dig through my trash.”
And yeah, most of it was trash. I never did find my baseball cards — fuckin’ figures — but what I did find was an old, moldy trunk with a heavy combination lock on the latches.
See, the thing is, the lock looked pretty new. But the trunk wasn’t. And it was shoved way, way in the back of one of the old man’s closets. Like he didn’t want anyone to find it. I guess, in that way, he had tried to do me a favor.
What else are you supposed to do when you find something like that? Something someone else tried to hide from you? It’s human nature, man, there’s no getting around it.
I tried every combination I could think of — his birthday, his and mom’s anniversary, the day he retired — but nothing worked. (I didn’t bother with any dates important to me; I knew better than to hope for that.) Until I had this weird, weird feeling. And I tried the day he died: October 21, 2015.
The combination lock clicked open. I opened the trunk and out wafted the smell of what can only be described as , a moldering wet smell like an old untended library.
Inside were stacks upon stacks of papers. Some were loose, some were tied with old strips of leather or string. Towards the bottom, there were bound notebooks. A quick glance at the corners of the documents showed scrawled dates, starting with June 10, 1902.
I didn’t know much about Gramps. Nothing, really. He died three years before I was born, winter of 1953. My old man wouldn’t talk about him, it didn’t make much sense to me as a kid but as I got older and we had our own falling out I understood. When I thought about him, I called him Gramps, because that’s what I would’ve called him if I knew him when he was alive.
One look at these papers, though, and I knew they were from Gramps, even before I saw his looping signature at the end of each entry. George Andrew Ryland. My Gramps.
I’m going to read them, all of them, over 50 years of his logs as a janitor at the Highville State Asylum For The Incurable Insane. I don’t know why he kept them, but I do know this: there was a reason they were locked in that trunk in the back of the closet.
50 years is a long time to keep logs of your daily work, so I’ve started pulling the most important pieces. What I think are the most important pieces, anyway. Maybe there’s nothing here, maybe there’s nothing I can do. Maybe I’m groping in the dark for answers that don’t exist. But it’s too late to turn back now.
June 10, 1902
I have been hired on at the Highville State Asylum For The Incurable Insane. It is a simple job, I will be mopping floors and cleaning up after the invalids, but it is a job nonetheless. There is still some construction to be done but I expect to be working by late summer.
This is the best I could’ve hoped for, I suppose.
August 29, 1902
The first 100 patients arrived today by rail. Drooling, snarling, some of them crying. I overheard Dr. Bowen telling some of the orderlies that they expect to increase that number sevenfold over the coming year. It is hard to believe there are that many cases of insanity in the world, let alone the state.
From what I hear, a lot of them come from the poorhouses. Or families that can’t bear the burden anymore. It makes me physically ill to be in this place, see the twisted faces behind barred windows in locked doors, but if I want to make Mary my wife I need to start squirreling away money for a ring, a wedding, a home.
I will work hard and try to ignore the sounds of the screams.
October 13, 1902
The hospital is filling to the brim with the insane. Patients have been made to sleep six to a room when the comfortable capacity is two. I cannot complain, it keeps my work steady, but I suspect it has more to do with Dr. Bowen receiving extra assistance from the state.
Today, at lunch, a few orderlies cracked open the skull of a patient who wouldn’t stop barking at his meal. They claim it was an accident but I saw it all. They just wanted him to stop barking.
Dr. Bowen has arranged with the police that they will not be charged.
October 30, 1902
A new woman was turned over to the hospital’s “care” this morning. Her name is Clara and she was driven to madness by the mother of the man she desired. The nurses were gossiping about it, saying that she’s a witch. Nonsense. She’s a beautiful woman with a broken mind, that’s all.
The advantage of being a janitor is that no one notices when you’re around, listening. It’s as though the mop and broom make me invisible.
November 3, 1902
Clara sings to herself in her room. Her cell, rather. She combs her long, dark hair with her fingers. This is all she does, all day long. I have changed my route to pass her room more often. The sound of her voice is enchanting.
I have not told Mary about this new patient. It is none of her concern.
Dr. Bowen plans to introduce her to hydrotherapy. An extreme method, but viable. As I said, she’s beautiful, but she’s here for a reason.
How does one bring themselves to murder a child? An infant, no less? There is something deeply wrong with her.
December 14, 1902
More bars have been added to the doors, the windows. Dr. Bowen says it is for the safety of the patients but I’ve learned by now he lies when it suits him. Just last week, a nurse had the hat snatched straight off her head by a woman in the throes of hysteria. She put up quite a fuss. I think if there were less patients stuffed into small rooms there would be less incidents like this one. Or the “accident” in the dining hall.
A patient broke another’s jaw during Thanksgiving dinner by swinging a food tray at his face. The way the rest of them laughed at the blood…
Clara didn’t laugh. She continued eating as though nothing had happened at all.
December 28, 1902
I surprised Mary with a proposal after the holiday. She was delighted, even though the ring was a meager thing. I expected to feel more but it’s almost as though there is something… missing.
Clara stopped singing. She seems to know when I am nearby. She wraps her pale, slender fingers around the bars and stares at me as I pass. Her dark eyes haunt me.
She has been asking the nurses about her baby.
January 2, 1903
Today, Clara spoke to me for the first time. Her voice is as lovely as she is, sweet and clear, like a bell ringing.
She asked me to do something… unspeakable. To put it into words is too hard. And yet I cannot stop thinking about it. It feels like something has crawled into my head and curled up inside my skull.
I am afraid to go to work tomorrow.
I’ve still got a lot to go through. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I’m trying to hunt down the next entry. Turns out some of the pages got scattered, out of order. I’m starting to wonder if that was done on purpose.
One thing is for sure: I’ve got to find out what Clara asked Gramps to do.
It took some doing but I got the pages back in order, at least for the next few months or so. Gramps wrote a lot. Like, a real lot.
In case you were wondering, I took the trunk home with me. Most everything else I tossed. It made me sad to see the old man’s stuff surrounding his shitty apartment, all of it moldy or falling apart or stinking faintly of urine. Yeah, we didn’t end things on a good note, but I could’ve stepped up. Been the bigger man. Paid him a visit every now and then. But no. I left him to die in that sad, smelly place.
Didn’t get the security deposit back, either.
Anyway. The logs. There’s so many pages here, it’ll take forever to go through all of them. But I promised I would. I just have to take it slowly, piece by piece, so I don’t miss anything… important.
January 5, 1903
I have managed to avoid Clara’s piercing gaze for the last few days. I still have to pass her room but I keep my eyes to the ground and push the mop and ignore the allure of her voice.
Because yes, she has been talking to me, more and more each day. And only to me. She doesn’t ask about her baby anymore because one of the nurses finally broke, snapped at her that her baby was dead by her own hand, its brain driven through with a needle and the body burnt as she stood over the fire cackling. I overheard this from the hallway the day after Clara made her mad request.
I knew better than to look, lest she capture me with her eyes again, but I kept my ears sharp and listened as Clara protested she’d never do such a thing, it must have been the mother of her lover, the woman was a witch and the only reason she was locked away in this place. The nurse snidely told her everyone knew Clara was a baby-killer and that her good looks didn’t hide the evil inside. She said everyone knew Clara was the real witch.
Through the bars, Clara hocked back and spit in her face.
She will be subjected to electroshock therapy for the next month. The nurse has since been reassigned.
January 13, 1903
Clara continues to talk to me as I clean the floor outside her room. Her voice is a little weaker, a little softer since the electroshock therapy sessions. But still so beautiful. So lovely.
The things she says, though, with that voice… they are not so beautiful. They are not lovely.
I find I can keep the feeling out of my head, the snaky slithery feeling of something setting up shop in my brain, if I don’t look at her. I find I can almost forget the things she asks of me.
January 15, 1903
Mary has been asking me when we will get married. Where we will live. When we will have our own house. Her questions in that tinny, whiny tone set my teeth on edge. I have told her, through forced smiles, that we can marry in the spring when the flowers begin to bloom. That silences her… for a few days at a time.
Today there was nearly a riot in the dining hall. That place seems to be a hotbed of violence, all of the patients in an enclosed space, the sound of chewing and swallowing appearing to drive certain ones to mad action. Or maybe they’re just sick of the food.
That was my poor attempt at a joke. I find it hard to see the humor in things these days. Perhaps it’s the winter weather keeping my spirit heavy.
(I do not think that is the case.)
January 20, 1903
I overheard Clara’s electroshock therapy session yesterday. It felt like a cold fist squeezing my heart when I heard her screams, followed by the gurgly-wet sound that most patients make after the first big jolt of electricity through their brains. I tried to tell myself it was justice after what she drove through her own infant’s brain but it didn’t make the fist release its hold on me.
At least, for today, she has been quiet.
February 4, 1903
Mary wants to have a family. A large one. I am afraid to. What is stronger than a mother’s love for her own child? Nothing, I would imagine, and yet mothers are capable of unspeakable things. Clara is proof of that. Beautiful, haunting Clara.
She has stopped speaking to me for now. I believe the electroshock therapy has deadened something inside her. That is the way of it — they go into that room and come out… different.
I cannot use the word ‘better.’ It would not feel right.
February 11, 1903
I am trying to remember what Clara asked of me and I cannot remember. I cannot remember. It was not that long ago. Why can I not remember? My own mind is playing tricks on me.
I wish I could take a leave from my position to clear my head but Mary is insisting on an April wedding and I must do as she asks if I wish to keep her quiet.
To think, I once loved the sound of her voice.
What is happening to me? Oh, god, I am frightened.
February 14, 1903
Dr. Bowen pulled me aside today. Strange, as he has barely acknowledged my existence since my arrival last summer. Perhaps I am not so invisible after all.
He asked if Patient 402 had been speaking with me. Asking me for things.
I told him no, sir, Patient 402 has never spoken with me. She keeps to herself, especially since her most recent bout of “treatments.” I hoped he caught the disdain in my voice but I doubt he did.
He seemed distant, distracted. When I answered he nodded, his eyes locked on something beyond me. Clara’s room.
Dr. Bowen said this was good, very good, and slipped me three dollar bills. For my silence, I suppose. And who would I tell about this exchange? Mary? I tell nothing of my work to Mary. If she is to be my wife, she will know enough not to ask of my work. This is a man’s business.
I chanced a look in Clara’s room after that, however. I don’t know why. I felt I had to.
She was combing her long, dark hair with her fingers, as I’ve seen many times before. Not singing. Just sitting there in silence. Her temples have a purple, bruised look to them. I felt if I touched them, they would be tender, almost feverish, like touching a fresh burn.
Suddenly all I could think of was touching her skin. But not her temples.
I hurried away from her room, scared and excited, my breath coming in short quick gasps.
She didn’t even look at me this time.
February 15, 1903
Dr. Bowen spent an hour in Clara’s room today.
I waited outside and dug my fingers into my palms until I drew blood.
February 16, 1903
When I was sure no nurses would be making their rounds, I went to the window of Clara’s room. I wanted to be sure she was okay. That’s what I told myself.
She was dragging her slender fingers through her hair. She was singing again.
She turned towards me, dark eyes glittering like black diamonds, and smiled.
She asked me to bring her a child.
I wouldn’t, of course, I would never do such a thing, but I have spent the entire evening tapping my feet, jingling the change in my pocket, staring at the flames in the fireplace. Trying to think of anything but the children I know in town, which ones are left unattended. Which ones wouldn’t be missed.
God help me.
I don’t understand. I don’t understand any of this. But I know this much: I can’t stop here.
I’ll come back when I find the next parts. The ones that connect. There’s so much here, I could dive ahead into the future but I feel like I’m meant to follow the straight line, the direct path of Gramps’ life at the asylum. In a way, it feels eerily like how Gramps describes his own journey down the proverbial rabbit hole. Like I’m getting lost and found at the same time.
There’s more here. I can it.
This doesn’t make sense.
If I believe what’s written here, if I believe that Gramps is telling the truth and not a raving lunatic, then… god, Gramps, what did you do?
February 19, 1903
I have managed to silence the whispers in my head, whispers of children and bringing them to Clara, with liquor. Mary can sense something is wrong but when I try to tell her my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth like clay.
She has not come to the door to watch me in the hallways but that is a small comfort. I can feel her eyes on me anyway. I know, somehow, that she can see me at all times.
Yesterday I asked the one of the nurses who gossiped about Clara upon her arrival what had truly driven her to do the things she is said to have done. She told me the mother of Clara’s lover was determined to drive her son out of “the vile temptress’s arms.” She forbid them from marrying and threatened to place a hex on Clara for dallying with her son. They carried on in secret.
Until Clara began seeing things, strange things. She claimed at night, her lover’s mother was peering into her window — on the second floor of the farmhouse. Sometimes she woke to a heavy weight on her chest; she said this was “Old Scratch” himself, pushing the air out of her lungs and cackling madly. There were moments in town where she’d spot something in the distance, point, and begin shrieking inconsolably even though there was nothing to be seen.
Soon enough, her lover tired of the madness and his mother succeeded in driving them apart. But by then, Clara was with child.
At this, the nurse gave pause. The next part, we all know.
What I did not know was that Clara swore, even as they dragged her screaming away from the bonfire where the body of her infant son burned to ash, that it was Old Scratch who’d done it. It was Satan who had killed her baby.
But it is the work of witches to sacrifice children to Satan! He does not take them, they are given freely.
I wonder if, perhaps, her lover’s mother unleashed something she could no longer control, all in the name of reclaiming her son.
We live in dark times. Anything is possible.
February 28, 1903
Clara had a particularly bad hydrotherapy session several days ago. Dr. Bowen ordered to have her… flushed with ice-cold water. This went on for almost an hour before she fainted dead away.
Since then, my head has cleared. I do not think of taking children or Clara combing her fingers through her hair as she sings. Today, I was even able to chance a look into her cell.
There is nothing behind her dark eyes now. They are windows into an empty room.
I will make Mary my wife on the first warm day of spring. She will be beautiful and she will be mine and we will begin our family.
April 17, 1903
All has been well. Not much to report. Dr. Bowen ordered construction of a modest zoo last month and had animals of all kinds brought to the hospital. The horses seem to be a favorite of the patients. They have a soothing effect on them.
There have been no incidents in the dining hall or anywhere else. The number of patients is still too high for my tastes, it still feels crowded and cramped but it’s almost as if spring has brought on an eerie sort of calmness.
Mary suspects she is with child. I am frightened to become a father but excited all at once.
Clara remains the same.
April 20, 1903
I spotted Dr. Bowen leaving Clara’s room again yesterday. I am beginning to suspect he spends far more time there than I originally thought. The idea no longer infuriates me but I don’t think it’s something Dr. Bowen would want me to know. There is a reason she is one of the only patients who doesn’t share a cell.
It is unseasonably warm and the animals in the zoo — as well as the patients in the hospital — are restless, full of activity. The calmness I felt just days ago has faded away only to be replaced by an electric sort of crackling in the air. It feels like the moment during a thunderstorm just before lightning strikes.
Mary laughs when I speak this way. She says I think too much.
April 25, 1903
I was mopping today when I looked up and saw Clara, slender fingers wrapped around the bars of her cell, grinning at me. Her dark hair hung in her face. Now there something behind her eyes — it is terrifying to behold.
She asked me, again, to bring her a child.
It was like the serpent living in my head had never left at all, only slithered away to bide its time before sinking its teeth deep into my brain. Even as my shaking hand writes these words I can barely think of anything but going into town, finding the first unattended brat I see and bringing it to the asylum. Security is lax at night, Dr. Bowen lets the bars do the work and it is remarkably effective but I know where they keep the keys. I could unlock her cell, give her the child, then take her in my arms, run my fingers through that long dark hair, thrust myself inside her…
It will soon be me in that hospital, I fear, if I cannot banish the demons from my thoughts.
I’m interjecting to note that the next few pages aren’t dated — it’s just the phrase “God help me” scribbled over and over. Two, maybe three hundred times.
April 28, 1903
I have not given in. I will not bring her a child. I will not. I will not. I will not.
May 2, 1903
How have I not seen it before now? Have I really been that blind, that caught up in the trappings of my silly little life?
She has been waiting. Getting stronger. It was all an act, the blank stares, the empty-room feel of her eyes. She is much more cunning than I ever imagined.
I finally saw the truth today. When I passed her room and didn’t see Clara’s face in the window, something deep and undeniable made me go to the door and look. She was sitting on her bed, singing, but she was not combing her long dark hair with her fingers. She was stroking her belly through her hospital-issued canvas gown.
Like Mary, Clara is with child too.
May 9, 1903
I am so frightened. Oh God. I am going to do something awful. I am trying so hard to keep her out of my thoughts but the serpent has sunk its fangs so deeply into my mind I worry it will never leave.
I went to her room when I was sure Dr. Bowen was busy and there would be no chance of running into him. Clara was waiting for me at the door, her beautiful pale face peering through the window. She radiates with a healthy glow she did not have upon arrival.
She told me the terrible thing I will do for her. She said it so calmly, so serenely, that when I first heard the words I felt a deep ache in my soul that I must wait to perform the task — and at the same time I was sick with terror.
She told me I will bring her a child. She did not ask: she told me. And she told me when I would do it.
At least there is time before Mary gives birth. There is time to find a way to stop this.
May 14, 1903
I am saved. Thank you, Lord in Heaven, thank you.
Last night, Clara escaped her cell. Somehow, she found the keys to the other cells in her block. She released all the patients in her wing and lead them to the forest on the edge of the grounds.
They found the lot of them hanging dead from the trees this morning.
She is gone and her cell is empty and
June 23, 1903
It is a pleasant summer. Mary is well. Dr. Bowen spends most of his time in his office.
My mind is clear, like the skies. The fangs are gone. Thank you, Lord.
August 14, 1903
Something happened to the animals in the zoo. They were found this morning, dead in their pens. All of them. No signs of violence — it is as though they all simply… stopped living.
Dr. Bowen is displeased.
August 15, 1903
Last night, Clara came back.
God help me.
Can I believe this? Any of this? Because I know, there’s a lot more to read, there’s a chance something else might’ve happened, but…
But all I can think about is the old man. He was born in 1918, not 1903.
And as far as I knew, he never had any siblings.
I’m sorry if there are typos in this. I’m a little drunk. It’s funny, you know, I said I tossed most of the old man’s stuff, and that’s true. But I found his secret stash of vintage scotch in an old milk crate covered with newspapers and I brought that along. Figures he’d hide something like that from me, the only real treasure in his whole dump of a place.
I guess he tried to hide the journals, too.
Anyway. I only made it a few more entries before I started hitting the bottle. Just like Gramps after Clara asked him to bring her a child… the first time. Must run in the family.
I know what you must be thinking. I’m making all this up. Or, at worst, it’s real and Gramps was just crazy. That he belonged in that asylum with the rest of them. But there’s just this… I have as I read. It feels so authentic. So raw. Those pages of ‘God help me’ that Gramps scrawled over and over again… you can practically taste the desperation.
And there’s something else, too. But before I tell you that, take a look at what Gramps wrote after he claimed that Clara came back.
August 20, 1903
It was a dream. Surely, it was but a dream. Clara’s suicide has weighed heavily on me and resulted in a fever dream of sorts.
I have been telling myself this for nearly a week. I will continue to tell myself this.
It was but a dream.
August 23, 1903
God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you allowing this demon to torment me so?
Last night, Clara tapped on the pane of my bedroom window with her long, slender fingers. Her face still glows with that healthy aura she had in her final days in the asylum but she is as pale as the moon in the sky.
I told her to go away. I climbed out of bed, careful not to wake Mary in her delicate state, and hissed at the window for Clara to leave us be.
Outside, hovering eye-to-eye with me as I begged her from the second floor of my modest home, Clara smiled.
She told me, again, I would bring her a child.
I opened my mouth to tell her to go back to hell where she came from and instead asked her when.
She pointed one long, slender finger at my sleeping wife. When she is ready, she whispered.
I pleaded with her. I said I would do anything she asked. I would find a child in town, a vagrant, someone who wouldn’t be missed. I asked her through my tears to reconsider.
Clara shook her head.
Anything, I begged. I will do anything.
She shook her head, back and forth, a simple patient gesture: no.
Behind me, I thought I heard Mary stirring. I turned, saw her motionless, and looked back to the window. Clara had lifted it, somehow, and seized me by the face, pressing her full lips to mine, diving her tongue deep inside my mouth.
It was as though my body was on fire. Without thinking I lifted my hands to rake them through her long dark hair but she pulled away at the last second, just before my fingertips could touch it. It looked like black silk shimmering in the moonlight.
When she is ready, Clara repeated, and then she was gone.
I woke with a start back in bed. I was… in a manly way. Mary was sleeping soundly beside me.
At first, I believed it had all been a dream. I wanted so badly to believe it was another dream.
Then I saw the curtains waving in the breeze.
I have begun to dread the birth of my child.
August 27, 1903
Dr. Bowen is anxious, jittery. He appears to have not slept in several days. I believed it was due to the disappearance of a female patient from the second floor east wing but I heard him mumbling to himself as I mopped outside his office. Mumbling about how it was impossible, utterly impossible.
I cannot pretend I do not know what he means.
September 19, 1903
I have not seen Clara in quite some time. Perhaps it was a dream after all. Perhaps I was sleepwalking, opened the window in my slumber. Perhaps Dr. Bowen has been mumbling about something else entirely.
The patient from the second floor east wing, Anne-Marie, has still not been found.
Mary is well and hopes to give birth before winter. I cannot shake the blanket of uneasiness that falls over me when I consider this but I try to remember: perhaps it was a dream after all.
November 11, 1903
Anne-Marie has been found. I wish I could say she was found unharmed.
A patient from the east wing broke down crying before an electroshock therapy session. He begged the doctors to hold off, to not put the device on his head, if they would stop he would tell them where Anne-Marie was.
Dr. Bowen was angry but, with four other nurses in the room, had no choice but to call in the local sheriff. The patient led them to the forest at the edge of the grounds where they found a fairly freshly-dug grave. And again to another part of the forest, to another grave. And again to five more graves.
The patient sobbed as he told them he had never wanted to hurt Anne-Marie. It was just that she was the easiest, the closest, the one he had access to. But the witch wouldn’t stop. She gave him the keys, she told him what to do. She said she needed something.
I was mopping the lobby when I heard all this as they took him away in a straightjacket. He was raving, eyes wild, insisting that he had the proof, just check his cell, it was hidden inside his pillow. What the witch wanted. Check his pillow, the proof was there.
While Dr. Bowen was dealing with the police, I snuck away to the second floor east wing. I went to the patient’s cell, which had been cleared out after the ruckus that occurred when he was taken away. I ran my hand along the pillow and found a slit in the pillowcase.
Inside, shoved amongst the cheap filling, were seven human teeth.
I do not know what to make of this.
November 15, 1903
I have been thinking — why the forest? Why would the patient bury Anne-Marie in the same place that Clara led all those other patients to hang themselves? What use would Clara possibly have use for human teeth?
I wish I could ask the apprehended patient but he has already been… dealt with. And now he is beyond reach.
November 19, 1903
Dr. Bowen has closed his office door and rarely comes out. When I do catch glimpses of him, his face is pale and drawn. Dark circles hang beneath his eyes. The nurses gossip, say that he is worried the hospital will face fines after Anne-Marie’s murder.
I think he can hear the tapping on his window at night as well.
December 2, 1903
Mary has given birth to a girl! A beautiful baby girl. She is so lovely, so small. I would do anything to keep her safe. Her birth has ignited a fire inside me that cannot be put out. Of this, I am sure.
I will keep Ruth safe. With my life. One look into those eyes as blue as a summer sky and I know I am powerless to do anything but that: keep this beautiful creature safe.
December 11, 1903
Children are going missing in town. Mostly children who worked in factories, snatched on their way to or from their daily shifts. At first I was frightened but I paid close attention to my comings and goings. Asked Mary to do the same. I found no gaps in my memory, no unusual black spots. Mary showed no signs of suspicion.
Ruth is thriving. Mary, she remains weak from the birth, but I have no doubt she will recover.
December 30, 1903
1904 is upon us. Last year at this time Dr. Bowen gave a rousing speech about the asylum’s impending success, how it would stand as a monument to modern medicine and reform. This year he wished us a happy new year in barely-heard mutters and retreated to his office. He looks worse than ever. I could’ve sworn on his way out of the dining hall he looked at me. And he looked… guilty.
January 2, 1904
Ruth has been missing for two days. Mary is inconsolable.
I told the police, upon her disappearance, to speak with Dr. Bowen. I was convinced — — that it was he who had taken her. Whether it was under Clara’s spell or of his own accord, I was absolutely it was Dr. Bowen.
And then they told me. He had been found hanging in his office before the skeleton crew shut up the asylum for the new year. He left no note.
Now I am not sure what to think. And, what’s more, I am frightened of what I think.
Ruth, my little Ruth, she’s gone and I couldn’t protect her and what’s more, I am suddenly worried, so worried that I know who took her after all.
Gramps. Gramps, is this what I think it means? God, I never had an aunt so I can’t help but think…
I’ve already finished one of the old man’s bottles of scotch. Isn’t that funny? Thought he could hide them from me, the bastard.
And I guess that’s why I can tell you now. What I wanted to tell you before but couldn’t. One of the reasons I can’t dismiss Gramps’s journal as pure bullshit. Part of it is the feeling, but another part? Another big part that I can’t deny, as much as I’d like to?
Every night for the past few nights, there’s been a noise at my window. Specifically, tapping.
I’m too scared to look.
Okay. Okay. I’ve sobered up after a week-long binge. It’s the only way to ignore the tapping at the window during the night, you see? But then I realized there’s more, there’s so much more to be told here, and maybe if I read farther I’ll find an answer. I’ll find a solution. Maybe Gramps made Clara go away.
There’s a chance, right? That Gramps could make her go away?
I’ll warn you up front, a lot of 1904 is scattered and piecemeal. I feel like maybe Gramps went on a leave of absence, or whatever they called it back then. But then, it makes sense. Once you read what I’ve read.
January 13, 1904
The authorities have been of no use. No use! If I am forced to see them shrug again, excusing Ruth’s disappearance with the rest of the children, I swear…
Ruth was not a vagrant! She was not an unwanted creature crawling the streets! She was
I have returned to my duties following the holiday but my work is slipshod. If Dr. Bowen were here he would have pulled me into his office to be sternly disciplined yet Dr. Bowen is not here because he took the coward’s way out.
I am strong. I will not go to the window again. Let her tap all she wants with those long, slender fingers.
I will not go to the window again.
January 26, 1904
The hospital has been appointed a new director. Dr. Derry seems to be a kinder man than Dr. Bowen. At the very least, a rounder one. There are rumors he seeks to remove all restraints from the beds, all bars from the windows.
He is a kind man. I do not know if he is a wise man.
February 3, 1904
No sign of Ruth.
Mary is gray, silent.
I found some clothes shoved beneath our bed yesterday when looking for my work boots. A jumble of shirts, pants, undergarments. They stank of smoke.
February 5, 1904
Our child is dead.
I do not know this from the police. I do not know this from Mary. I know this in my heart. Ruth is dead and has been since the new year. Clara whispered it to me from the window last night.
I did not go to it but she opened it anyway.
She whispered to me, trying to get me to come to her, telling me the wicked things she’d do to me if I did. But her mistake was leading with that knowledge: She spoke it almost as if it was a present for me, a gift, something to ease my mind. Instead, it froze me in bed and I never once looked towards the window.
Clara said this is a good thing, a fine thing, because Mary and I could simply make her another.
The babe I held in my arms for less than a month is dead and gone and I do not know how to tell my wife without seeming like the one who has done the deed himself.
February 6, 1904
I did not have to wait long. Clara, it seems, works quickly. Especially when she has men all over town doing her bidding, bringing her children, bringing her teeth.
The police arrived at Highville and asked me to come with them, only briefly. They lead me — without much surprise — to the edge of the woods where Clara and her band of merry mad had hung themselves. Where Anne-Marie had been found in pieces.
They showed me the massive pile of ash and bone. It had, clearly, stopped smoldering some time ago. It was cool. But you could still make out the shapes in the piles of black dust: the curve of a skull, the length of a femur. All so small. So very, very small.
Ruth is not in there, I told them. All the others, the missing unwanted things, they may be in there but Ruth is not and all the while I knew I was speaking lies.
They presented me with the blanket she’d been wrapped in the night she disappeared.
She may not be, a gray-faced officer told me, but this was found at the base of the remains. It was the only item of clothing recovered. Almost as if it had been placed there.
We’re sorry, he told me.
So am I. I’m very, very sorry.
Because that pile of ash? It smelled so awfully familiar…
March 24, 1904
I have not felt well as of late.
Dr. Derry has allowed me some time to recover.
Mary has spent her days weeping. I am worried she will have nothing left in her, that she will cry out all she has and simply crumple into ash from the strain.
Ash. It’s all I seem to think of these days. Its scent fills my nostrils. My mouth seems to be full of it. When I wake, sometimes I brush madly at my skin, terrified that I’ve been coated as I sleep in a blanket of burnt human remains.
Clara has not been to my window. That is, at least, a comfort.
March 28, 1904
Though the chalky-dark taste of ash still remains in my mouth I have returned to work. It has been a pleasant surprise to see the effect Dr. Derry has had on Highville! When once his methods seemed soft, weak, they have proven to actually improve the conditions of the patients.
In my time away, I hardly recognize the hospital. The dining hall, without mandatory straightjackets and force-feeding to certain inmates, has become a much calmer place. When not confined to their beds in their cells, some of the patients I remember to be the most violent actually entertain themselves by looking out the windows, talking softly to their cellmates. For the moment, shock therapy is being put on hold.
Perhaps this change was what the institution needed.
Or, perhaps, Clara is satisfied. For now.
April 5, 1904
All has been well. While I still carry a heavy heart, ash no longer seems to cover my existence in an unending fall. I suspect it will be some time before I am ready to fully let go of the idea of my daughter but, when I think of it, she was so brief for this world. Dandelion wisps through my fingers, blown away on a wish. Something so delicate, so impossible, that it’s almost as if she never existed at all.
Clara, however, refuses to let go. She rocks what’s left of Ruth’s swaddling clothes at least once a day, humming, smelling them.
How funny. Did I write Clara there? The ink is too wet to correct with smudging. I meant Mary, of course.
I have not thought of Clara in some time.
April 8, 1904
Mary has been acting strangely. She touches me often. She acts… unladylike. I am not sure I care for this shift in behavior but I remind myself, she has been through the unimaginable. She has had her heart ripped from her in a way I cannot understand.
Yet, the way she paws at me… I am becoming uneasy.
April 12, 1904
This is not the woman I married.
This past evening, Mary woke me in the middle of the night, touching me between the legs, growling hungrily into my ear. Before I knew it she tried to mount me and I tossed her off — easily, as she is a small woman and I a man of fair-enough size — and saw her hit her head against the wall of our bedroom.
She began to cry and asked why I wouldn’t give her a child.
It was only then I noticed the window was open.
April 13, 1904
I have affixed a lock to the windowsill of our bedroom window, easily enough. I also attached a small string of bells to said lock, in case anyone inside the room should try to open it themselves.
This is all I can think of to do. I do not know how to defeat a witch and clearly, thus far, have been unsuccessful.
But I can keep her away from my wife.
April 21, 1904
Dr. Derry was nearly strangled by a patient during a routine cell check. The man reached through the now bar-less windows and seized the round little doctor by the throat. Luckily, I was nearby and intervened.
Dr. Derry does not want to admit this as a defeat. Nor did Dr. Bowen, with the zoo, but we never got any new animals, did we?
That electric-air crackle is back. The sense of lightning in the atmosphere.
And… I have begun to dream of her.
To say much more would be dangerous.
May 1, 1904
The witch has tricked me again.
I should have known by now. She gathered what she needed before. The children, the teeth, the ash. She can get what she needs and she does.
Though it pains me to write this, I know I must record my experiences for any of this to make sense. I must be straightforward. Honest. Truthful.
Last night, as I dreamt, Clara came to the window. She came through it, opening it without even the slightest tinkle of bells, and floated to me in bed.
She descended upon me. Her mouth tasted like heaven. Her long dark hair, which I could finally touch, was like the softest silk I’d ever imagined.
She moved her body like water.
It was the growling in my ear that woke me.
Mary, it was Mary atop me, on me in a way she had never been before. My sweet, demure, kind Mary, bucking away like some sort of demon.
I am but a man. I had no chance.
When it was all over, she smiled at me. Satisfied. Told me this was not the first time — and would not be the last.
I am not safe even in sleep.
God help me.
I’m not any clearer on what this means than you are. But you’re hooked too, right? You’re following every word, just like I am, and what’s worse is that you’re not hearing the tapping on your windows yet. You’re not waking up in the middle of the night, convinced someone has been touching you… only to find out you’re alone.
But the first night you wake up and that window is full-on
Oh yeah, you’ll change your mind, that much is for sure. Because we’re far from done here. I still have Do you have any idea what can happen in that period of time?
So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to the old man’s scotch for a little while.
Bear with me here. I know you’ve been waiting. Me, I’ve been sorting through Gramps’ personal logs to make sure I didn’t miss anything but there’s a big jump here. The last entry I shared was from May of 1904 and even though I’ve been through the rest of it two, three times, I can’t find any entries until March of 1906. That’s a gap of almost two years. It’s driving me nuts (pun not intended, ha-fucking-ha) that I don’t know what happened in that stretch but I’ll do my best to pull what I can from what I have.
The weird thing, the thing, is that since I’ve been reviewing — you know, just looking at dates, not actually reading the logs — the tapping has stopped.
Maybe I should just burn the logs. Stop reading them altogether and send them up in a blaze of glory in the back yard. Wouldn’t take that long.
I’ll think about it. In the meantime, here’s what happened next, as far as I can figure out.
March 14, 1906
It is approaching the year mark of Esther’s disappearance. I have little to say on the matter.
At least the witch let me hold my daughter a bit longer that time.
March 18, 1906
Mary is growing sullen, testy, like a spoiled brat not getting her way. The nightly indiscretions that ebb and flow have become more frequent as of late, yet there are no signs that Mary is carrying a child. Clara herself watches from the window with a similar expression of frustration.
Perhaps this means I can be free. Free of her clutches. Free of the tapping, the sweet whispered words, the demon that used to be my wife bucking away with wild abandon as I lay beneath her, defeated.
At least work at the asylum is steady. Dr. Derry has things running like a well-oiled machine. I feel he has made some real progress with some of the patients.
April 2, 1906
I have worked at the asylum long enough to know when something is about to happen. When the electric shock-crackle sends my skin prickling, makes my eyes hot in my head.
Clara is angry, I think. Her plot is failing. She is growing weak without a fresh child, delivered straight into her arms like a gift on Christmas Day. This means she will reach out to someone new, the way she did when she ordered the dismemberment of Anne-Marie, the way she used Dr. Bowen to get what she needed.
She has become dependent on me and now I am no good to her and now something is about to happen.
April 4, 1906
The hospital is being put on a temporary lockdown. The state is in the process of selecting a new head doctor while the bars and restraints are reinstated.
Last night, on a routine round of the west wing, several formerly docile patients cornered Dr. Derry in their room and tore him to pieces. I heard his screams from halls away.
It is rumored the patients were consuming his flesh but that is yet to be proven.
All five of them have been dealt with. I will keep my head down and wait to be called back to work. It is all I know these days.
April 19, 1906
Mary seems to be returning to normal, to the sweet, kind woman I married. It is like watching one of the patients at the asylum recover from shock therapy. She began by sitting on her bed like a catatonic, not speaking, staring straight ahead. Then, slowly, she returned to the things she once enjoyed that I have been forced to take over from her: preparing meals in the evening, tidying the house, hanging the laundry on the line to dry.
Yesterday, I even heard her singing. It was not the wordless songs of the witch, but a hymn from church.
I am hopeful.
April 27, 1906
The new head doctor is a thin, severe man called Dr. Wickers. He took one look at the reinstated bars and restraints, sneered, then demanded that they be doubled in both number and strength.
He spent the first afternoon on the grounds by standing at the edge of the dining hall, eyes scanning every patient with an almost alarming sharpness. At the first sign of disobedience, he snapped his fingers and sent an orderly to seize a patient that had dared to slap another patient’s hands away from her food tray.
Said patient, a woman in her fifties who had succumbed to a crippling case of hysteria, was escorted from her seat to Dr. Wickers. The orderly forced her to her knees at the doctor’s feet. She had already begun to cry.
Dr. Wickers announced, above the lunchtime noise, that the patient was being cited for disorderly conduct. At the sound of his voice the other patients quieted (mostly) and he waited for the following silence to add the conditions: hydrotherapy. Cold. 30 minutes. The patient began to wail but she was taken away like a light bag of laundry.
It was hard to tell how many of the patients truly understood what had just happened but it was easy to see they were afraid.
May 3, 1906
Mary seems more herself than ever. Just a slight cough. If it progresses I will send her to a doctor but I think it’s merely a case of sickness brought on by the damp spring weather.
Dr. Wickers is as far from Dr. Derry as one could imagine. Yet he, too, has imposed a manner of peace at the asylum. This peace is one born of fear. Even I have had moments where I worried a slick spot in the hall from my mop may warrant an afternoon in the electroshock room.
May 7, 1906
Mary’s coughing woke me last night. The first thing my eyes caught on was Clara at the window.
She was smiling. Combing her hair with her fingers. When she saw me looking, her smile widened. She placed the pads of two fingers to her full lips, then to the windowpane. She waved.
I do not know if it was a hello or a goodbye.
May 21, 1906
A deadly cough has begun to spread through the patients in the asylum. Even some of the orderlies and nurses have picked it up. Dr. Wickers has brought on a physician who specializes in the disease called ‘tuberculosis.’
I feel… fine. No symptoms to speak of.
Mary coughs often. She tried to hide her handkerchief from me but as she slept I crept from bed to inspect the stash she keeps in her drawer. They are all spotted with blood.
June 17, 1906
It has taken me some time to return to these records.
Mary is dying. I begged Dr. Wickers to let his specialist examine my wife and he relented (at the cost of half a month’s pay) only for me to learn what I already suspected and feared: Mary is dying.
Tuberculosis. The disease that’s rampaging through our fair state. It’s taken out nearly a quarter of our patients already. It works fast and has no cure. It is obvious what this means for Mary.
I have spent what time I can by her side. I stroke her hand, wipe the sweat from her brow. She says she can see Ruth and Esther. She insists, between fever dreams, that they are happy and waiting for her.
I know she was not herself for a time but I cannot bear to be without her.
June 23, 1906
Mary is at peace at last. We buried her at the family plot. I made sure she had the swaddling from both Ruth and Esther with her when we put her in the ground.
Towards the end she made little sense. But, just before she died, Mary grasped my wrist with a surprising strength and squeezed. It felt as though she were cracking my very bones but she pulled me close, so close our noses touched. Through chapped, dry lips she whispered that this was no accident. No stroke of fate.
It was the clearest I’d seen her in a month. I asked her, begged her, what she meant.
The witch, she said, and then she was gone.
I am still mad with grief from the loss of my wife — the purest, most gentle woman I’ve ever known — but I am terrified for what this may mean. Was Clara responsible for this? For Mary’s death? For the infection of the hospital?
But why? For what reason would she do this, other than to simply cause chaos?
I fear it is a punishment.
September 1, 1906
It is beginning to make sense.
Not entirely. But somewhat. Because, in the wake of the tuberculosis epidemic that left almost half the asylum vacant, Dr. Wickers (who escaped the disease unscathed by not returning to the hospital until the sickness had been dealt with) has opened the doors of the asylum to an entirely new group of patients.
This week, the children’s wing was unveiled.
I have not seen Clara in some time, but I believe right now, she is smiling.
September 20, 1906
They are pouring in like lice at a poorhouse. Children whose parents cannot afford them, children without parents to speak of, children who have lost their functions (or perhaps never had them to begin with) and are simply unwanted.
It is like a trough from which Clara can feast.
None of them have gone missing. Yet.
I want to run, with Mary in the ground I want to leave this place and this asylum and this suffocating hopelessness. In fact, I was ready to go until yesterday, all but had my bags packed when I spotted the girl in the market. The one with the beautiful red hair.
Such lovely, vibrant red hair. The color of summer roses and rich wine. She saw me looking and she smiled and for the first time I felt the same tug at my heart that I have since only felt with Mary.
I want to run but I want to learn her name so I can say it, over and over.
I feel as though I am being bewitched in a different way. She is so beautiful and I have only glimpsed her for but a moment.
Perhaps I should stay… just long enough to learn her name.
I’m sure you know, just like I do (even without reading farther) that Gramps stayed.
Just like you know I can’t burn these papers.
So sit tight. I won’t be so long this time. I’ve sort of outlined the years in reviewing them, and I have an idea of what we’re in for, length-wise. I think I’ve been able to isolate the important parts.
And all I can say right now is I hope my theory is wrong. That I’ll go to bed without any tapping. Without any whispering. Because if I’m right?
Clara will be back tonight.
That’s it. Enough with the pleasantries. You’re not here to help me, you’re just watching from afar as the nightmare unfolds. Fuck you.
Are you wondering what’s taken me so long? Oh, I had such news last time, didn’t I? Expecting a kid with a Tinder hookup! Waking up in the middle of the night with my windows wide open! Waiting for the long-dead witch who haunted my Gramps to stop being coy and just do whatever she was planning to do already!
I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. It’s mine, I think. For finding these logs. For reading them. For sharing them with you.
I was wrong, by the way, about how many years’ worth of entries there are. When they started in 1902 and ended the year Gramps died, 1953, I assumed he wrote the whole time. He didn’t. There are gaps, breaks, blank pages. Nonsensical gibberish, crude drawings. And then there’s what I found under the lid of the trunk.
But I’ll get to that. I’ll get to all of it in time, I’m afraid. I just don’t know how much time I have left.
November 17, 1918
Oh, God, I am losing time again. Black spots in my memory. Entire portions of my day-to-day life, erased. Escaped through my fingers like fine grains of sand.
It is of some comfort that Lucy and Charles remain unharmed. I have spent many nights sleeping on a blanket in the kitchen so Lucy may lock the bedroom door. My back is worse for the wear but my family is safe and that, that is something.
Dr. Wickers speaks to no one. He moves from hall to hall, from room to room, like a silent phantom. His shirts bled for a while but they do not bleed anymore. I cannot tell if this is a good sign or a bad one.
Every night I go to bed with the same manic, repetitive prayer, like a hymn: I will not go to the window. I will not go to the window.
I will not go to the window.
December 21, 1918
Have I neglected these records for nearly a month? I could have sworn I was updating them regularly. Are there pages missing? I do not know, I do not know anything anymore.
Last night, I awoke to find myself standing at the edge of the wood where Clara and the patients hung themselves.
It is a far distance from my home and I was not wearing shoes. I do not know where I was before the wood, but my hair and clothing stunk of ash.
January 13, 1919
The children’s ward is still under the shrewd eye of Dr. Wickers. It is as though he is attempting to make a point. To whom, I cannot deny. He is a stronger man than I am.
I believe I am still leaving the house at night but I can no longer recall any of it. My only clue remains the occasional stink of ash that follows me like a a plague I cannot escape. Lucy wants me to return to our bed but I am too terrified I will let the witch in and my son will be taken from me like so many before him.
My family. I must protect my family at all costs.
I have begun to form a plan.
January 24, 1919
Dr. Wickers was found at his residence today after he did not arrive for work at the asylum. His throat had been cut nearly from ear to ear. Some valuables and money appeared to be missing. It is being considered a robbery gone wrong, most likely one of the drifters who arrived after the new year.
Without him, the children’s ward will go back to its regular lax security. Without him, the witch will stop coming for me.
It was difficult but it needed done. I cannot let her destroy my family again.
And I can no longer bear the smell of ash.
January 31, 1919
A replacement for Dr. Wickers is being desperately sought. I wonder how long the next head of Highville will last before meeting his bloody end? Ha! Ha!
I feel as though I have lost something and gained it all at once. I can return to bed with my wife, I can trust that my son sleeps safely, and yet… and yet…
The witch continues to take from me. It is as though a part of my very soul vanished at the same moment the light vanished from Dr. Wicker’s wide, disbelieving eyes.
It is time to step away from these logs. For now, all is well, and I have begun to suspect that there is power in words — that perhaps writing everything down is giving Clara strength somehow, or at the least, taking strength from me.
I will place them in a trunk beneath the bed and that will be that. The nightmare is over because I simply must believe it so.
So here’s another break. Years. Years go by, the old man grows up and there’s just the occasional gibberish I mentioned, drawings, some things that look like maps? Marked with x’s but no explanation.
I don’t know what happened during those years and I’m almost relieved to not know. And then, this.
May 16, 1953
Charlie, my dear boy. I do not know how you will react when receive this unpleasant gift but I have arranged for it to be delivered in 10 years’ time. I do not want to ruin your life, but what I have written here and in the past are things you need to know. You are a young man yet, you have so much ahead of you. And yet…
You will hate me for this. You will hate me for what I have done and what I have told you. I tried so desperately to protect you, and in doing so I know I pushed you away. Perhaps you already hate me.
I had hoped my coldness would send you away sooner. My cruelty towards you in recent years has not been something I wanted to do, rather something I to do. To save you. Yet for years, you clung to me, attempted to keep me in your life regardless of the terrible father I became. Your mother believed it was old age, “a case of the grumps” she always told you, becaus