RACHEL HELD OUT THE MAP SHE’D PULLED from the Internet, which showed a detailed blueprint of the facility. It was huge, but navigable if you had enough time. The plan was to enter through the cellar door, make our way through the basement storage area, and climb up to the main level, which would bring us to the industrial kitchen. Then, another staircase would lead us to the patient and treatment rooms in the children’s wing.
Rachel and Claire were giddy with excitement as they pried open the basement door with a groaning creak. The Laurelton Police Department had mostly given up securing the place, beyond some cursory CONDEMNED notices, which suited Rachel perfectly; she was itching to write our names on the blackboard inside one of the patient rooms. It bore the names of other thrill-seekers—or idiots, flip a coin—who had dared to spend the night.
Claire was first to walk down the steps. The light on her video camera cast shadows in the basement. I must have looked as freaked out as I felt, because Rachel smiled and promised, again, that everything would be fine. Then she followed Claire.
I walked behind them down to the lowest level of the asylum and felt Jude loop his finger through the belt hole in the back of my jeans. I shivered. The basement was covered in debris, the crumbling brick walls peeled and cracked. Exposed, broken pipes jutted from the ceiling, and evidence of a rat infestation was pronounced. As we walked through the skeletal remains of some kind of shelving system, our lights pierced random columns of steam or fog or something that I tried vainly to avoid.
At the opposite wall of this section of the basement, a full stairway with a rotten wood banister twisted up to the main floor. On the first landing, only five steps up, was a random, high-backed wooden wing chair. It was placed like some kind of eerie sentinel, blocking access to the second floor of the stairs. Snap. The flash on Rachel’s camera went off as she took a picture. I shivered in my coat, and my teeth must have chattered because I heard Claire snort.
“Oh my God, she’s freaking out already and we’re not even in the treatment rooms yet.”
Jude rushed to my defense. “Leave her alone, Claire. It’s freezing down here.”
That shut her up. Rachel pushed the chair out of the way and the sound of it as it scraped against the hard floor set my teeth on edge. We wound our way up the staircase, which groaned under our weight. The climb was steep, the stairs felt loose, and I held my breath the whole way. When we reached the top I almost collapsed with relief. We stood in an enormous pantry now. Claire kicked decades-old insulation and garbage out of her way, careful to avoid the obvious sections of rotting wood floor as she walked through the institutional kitchen and open cafeteria. Snap. Another picture. I felt dizzy as I followed Rachel, and imagined stern-faced nurses and orderlies doling out bland mush to drooling, twitching patients from behind the long counter that stretched from one end of the vast room to the other.
An impossibly large and imposing pulley system announced our entry into the hall that led to the first floor of patient rooms. The levers that controlled it were on the right, the hulking weights that balanced them visible behind the desk of the nurses station. The system’s cables ran up to the ceiling and stretched down the hall, deviating at the entrance of each individual room. Culminating in thousand-pound iron doors. Don’t mess with the pulley system, the website had warned. A kid exploring alone got trapped on the wrong side. His body was found six months later.
Of course, I didn’t need the warning. My father had told me and my brothers plenty of times how dangerous the old building was. Before he switched to criminal law, he’d sued the property owners and the township on behalf of the boy’s family, and he should have won; his files overflowed with evidence. But inexplicably, the jury found against the boy’s family. Maybe they thought the boy should have known better. Maybe they thought the town needed an example.
But all I thought about was what it must have felt like to hear the slam of those doors—to feel the reverberations in the rotting floor, in the walls, as thousands of pounds of iron separated you from the rest of your life. What it must have felt like to know no one was coming for you. What it must have felt like to starve.
Rachel and Claire’s delight reached a higher pitch as we passed the roped cables and levers. Snap. The flash illuminated the cavernous hall. Jude and I walked together behind the two of them, sticking to the middle. Patient rooms flanked us, and I didn’t want to go anywhere near them.
We followed slowly, the beam of Jude’s flashlight bouncing over the walls as we advanced toward the impenetrable black hole that yawned in front of us. When Rachel and Claire disappeared behind a corner I sped up, terrified to lose them in the labyrinthine passageways. But Jude had stopped altogether, and lightly jerked the waistband of my jeans. I turned.
He grinned. “We don’t have to follow them, you know.”
“Thanks, but I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that splitting up is not the best idea.” I started forward again, but he didn’t release me.
“Seriously, there’s nothing to be scared of. It’s just an old building.”
Before I could reply, Jude grabbed my hand and tugged me behind him. His flashlight illuminated the number on the room in front of us. 213.
“Hey,” he whispered, as he pulled me in.
“Hey,” I grumbled.
Jude cocked an eyebrow at me. “You need to take your mind off of this place.” I shrugged and took a step backward. My foot hitched on something, and I fell.