From Below

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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From Below

Gallagher hated visiting places like this, but it was part of the job.

Patient welfare was a critical issue, not just from a healthcare point of view but also politically. There was no room for another scandal, and those whose problems were related to mental rather than physical health were perhaps the most vulnerable of all. And so Gallagher’s life consisted of a great deal of driving, and a great deal of talking to surly and borderline-accusatory staff, and a great deal of meeting people who depressed the hell out of him.

This was the Bay View Hospital, formerly the Bay View Sanitarium, and it took almost three hours to get there from Glasgow; most of it up a long and winding road through the Cairngorms with sharp bend ahead warning signs so frequently- and evenly-spaced that they should probably be combined with the roadside lighting. His schedule required visiting Bay View once every six months, or by arrangement if there was a significant or unusual intake procedure. This visit was the latter kind, but when Bay View was concerned, even the routine visits were routine in name only.

Never going to get used to it, Gallagher told himself, openly grimacing as he hurried across the cobbled courtyard towards the dilapidated main entrance. It was a hellish place, straight out of the nineteenth century, and its drab walls almost echoed with the screams of all the inmates of previous eras. It had improved vastly since those dark times, of course, now being a contemporary — if not quite modern — residential hospital for treatment of difficult or intractable psychological disorders, but its past hung heavily upon its weathered stones. Gallagher was of the opinion that the whole thing should be bulldozed and replaced with, well, almost anything else at all. But there was no money for that, and it was a small miracle that the facility even still existed.

Steeling himself, he went in through the front doors and nodded to the receptionist, whose name was Helen something-or-other.

“Hello again,” he said, knowing that the haggard-faced woman recognised him, but also knowing that she would insist on seeing his full credentials every time. It was not only legally mandated and procedurally required, but also wilfully obstructionist; the trifecta of bureaucratic sociopaths everywhere. Gallagher thought that Helen was only a handful of slender diagnostic criteria from being detained in the place herself, or at least she would be if there was any justice in the world.

But there isn’t, he thought, as he produced his professional identification, confirmatory government ID, and the visit authorisation for this particular trip. Helen made quite a production of scrutinising it all, and Gallagher willed his pulse to settle back down. It would do no good at all, and indeed would do significant future harm, if she knew she could get a rise out of him. After what must have been a full couple of minutes of silence, she nodded in disappointment, returned his documents by placing them only just within his reach on the counter, and slid a visitor’s pass across the battered surface.

Gallagher thanked her, and then in a burst of spite that surprised him, he breezily asked if she’d done something new with her hair, not bothering to wait for an answer as he went to the nearby staircase and began the climb to the first floor. There was another reception there, this one with a security window, and the doors to either side were electronically locked. The orderly waiting there indicated the east wing, buzzed him through with the usual warnings, and Gallagher made his way deeper inside the grim institution.

The call had come three days ago, and he had been dreading the trip ever since, but Gallagher had to admit that he was interested in the case. A fairly wealthy and well thought-of widow named Ms. Creelman, reputed to be of entirely sound mind and completely in possession of her faculties, had presented herself at the door of the town police station in her nightgown, robe, and slippers, on a thankfully dry and warm night at almost midnight. She had been initially uncommunicative and the receiving officers suspected intoxication, but as she gradually became more aware of her surroundings they realised that she was instead badly frightened. She had proven incapable of returning home under her own recognisance, and after further evaluation, she’d been temporarily committed to Bay View for a period of assessment.

Gallagher reached the relevant door, and found it open, which wasn’t unusual at this time of day. He had hoped to be long gone before nightfall, when the oppressive blackness of Loch whatever-it-was-called seemed to close in upon the windows, but it was already getting quite late in the afternoon and the light was fading quickly. He looked into the room, and saw the usual sparse furnishings, all securely bolted down. The bed was visible from the door, of course, and thus from the small viewing window set into it. There was also a chest of three drawers, a desk or vanity, and an armchair which was turned mostly away from where he stood, facing the window and the deep blue water stretching away below it.

He knocked, but there was no response from the woman sitting in the armchair, nor had he expected one. Gallagher walked into the room, at first unsure where to place himself. Remaining standing could be seen as intimidating, but sitting on the bed seemed presumptuous, and too much of an invasion. He wished there was another chair. He was about to go back out into the corridor to seek an orderly and ask for one, when the widow Creelman spoke.

“Do sit down, then,” she said.

Gallagher flinched, immediately chastising himself for it, but she had startled him. He glanced instinctively at the door, which was still reassuringly open and nearby, and then he forced a smile onto his face even though the room’s occupant was still staring out at the water.

“Thank you,” he said, sitting down on the neatly-made bed as primly as a nun on a pew. “How are you feeling today?”

“You’re not one of the doctors here,” Creelman said, instead of answering him. It wasn’t a question, and her tone was steady and clear.

“No,” Gallagher replied. “It’s my job to check that your needs are being met, and to ensure you get the best quality of care.”

Creelman waved her hand in a dismissive gesture, still without looking at him, as if the quality of care she was receiving was an irrelevance. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I won’t be here for very long.”

Gallagher’s brow creased. “I hope that’s the case too,” he replied. “But what makes you say that?”

“They’ll be here soon enough,” Creelman said. There was a resigned quality to her words, a feeling of certainty and acceptance. Gallagher wondered if she had family coming to see her, but there had been no mention of relatives or next-of-kin on the intake documentation.

“Who’ll be here?” he asked gently, and now Creelman turned to meet his gaze.

There could be no question at all of her sanity. Her voice was resonant, and her eyes shone with intelligence and education. She was perfectly poised, albeit with a vague air of shame at being found in such a place, and there was a strength to her that spoke of enduring much throughout her life, and all with quiet dignity. Gallagher quickly checked the paperwork he held, and found that she was sixty-three, but she could have passed for being years younger.

“The answer to that question is likely to make you want to keep me here,” Creelman replied, “and you’re most welcome to try. But I rather think I’ll be gone by morning. They came to the house, you see, and they’ll come here too. Them from below.”

Gallagher knew that the woman’s house was on the shoreline, less than twenty miles north of here, and that she lived alone. Had there been an intruder, perhaps? But the police report included mention of officers going to check on her property and finding nothing untoward.

“Who are these people you’re talking about?” Gallagher asked again. “You’re perfectly safe here, I promise you.”

Creelman was looking back out of the window, the sun now low in the distance, making a gleaming trail on the dark water, and she glanced at him again briefly. The look was one of pity, if anything.

“You’ll see,” she said quietly, and her next words made the fine hairs on his forearms stand on end. “They’re here.”

Gallagher followed her gaze, at first squinting against the sunset and the glare it made upon the surface of the loch. The waters were rough, and golden above black. He was about to say something to her — he didn’t know what, but perhaps a word of reassurance — when he frowned again as his eyes adjusted to the light.

Trails on the surface, he thought. Boats? Much too small. Too fast.

More and more, just shapes, coming closer, but then one of them broke the surface.

He saw.

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