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Smoke

Donald had worked the night shift as a custodian at the hospital for three years, and never once felt frightened. Tonight was different. The building had three stories and a basement. It was his job to clean the floors in the hallways of each one. He always started at the top and worked his way down. That way, when he was done, he only had to climb one flight of stairs to get to the exit. As the moon shone through the windows into rooms smelling of antiseptic, he got his mop out of the closet and began his work, whistling softly under his breath.

They turned the lights off in all the parts of the hospital where doctors weren't working at night, but Donald didn't mind the dark. About five minutes after he started cleaning, the fluorescent bulbs overhead switched on. He paid little attention, thinking one of the other employees had forgotten something and come back to get it. The lights turned back off, then on again. Donald looked around. The hallway was empty.

"Hello?" He called. No answer. The lights flickered again. Somewhere far off down the sterile white corridor, someone whistled a slow tune. Donald walked toward the sound, his footsteps echoing loudly off of the blue green walls. The lights continued to flicker, faster and faster. He turned a corner, and saw it. Standing in the light of the now rapidly flashing fluorescent tubes, was a little girl in a filthy white nightgown, holding a porcelain doll by its left leg. She was facing away from Donald, staring at the doorway at the end of the hall. Slowly, she spoke.

"My eyes are burning."

"What?"

"My eyes are burning."

"I'll see if one of the doctors is still here. Just wait." She started to whistle again. Dark red stains had began forming all over her gown. Crimson dripped down onto the floor. The doll fell from her hand, and its head shattered against the tile floor. Donald stepped closer to her. Two wisps of putrid black smoke had began to rise from her face and drift toward the ceiling. Donald reached toward her. There was a sound like the scream of an enraged cat, a flash of flame, and she was gone, leaving behind only the stink of overcooked meat.

Dazed, Donald walked back to where he'd left his mop, and started cleaning again. I fell asleep on the job, he thought. I fell asleep and had a nightmare, but it's alright now, because I'm awake, and in an hour or so, I can go home and rest. It's alright now.

(My eyes are burning.)

He glanced down at the floor, making sure he hadn't missed any spots, and emitted a choked scream. The mop bucket was filled to the brim with blood. After regaining his composure, Donald carried the yellow plastic container to one of the bathrooms and rinsed it out in the sink. As he wrung out the mop, trying to get the red liquid out of it, he stared into mirror.

"You're seeing things." He muttered. "Must be the sleep deprivation. The doctor said working nights wasn't healthy, and he didn't know how right he was. As soon as I'm finished cleaning up this... Whatever it is, I'll put the mop and bucket away, and just go home for the night, take a sick day, get some rest..." While he was speaking, another shape had appeared in the mirror.

It was a man with messy shoulder-length hair and an equally tangled beard, standing just behind Donald's shoulder. He wore a tattered black coat, and stared at the floor as he talked.

"My eyes are burning." He whispered.

"Who are you?" Donald asked, not turning around. When the man answered, he spoke in the voices of many people, all saying the same words at once.

"We are no more than ashes and dust. Fire consumes us, from the inside out." He jerked his head upward, and for a split second Donald saw twin smoldering embers reflected in the mirror, before the man disappeared in a burst of smoke.

Donald put his supplies away quickly, then half ran down the stairs to the door. When he reached the exit, it was locked. He pounded as hard as he could on the glass, calling out for help the whole time, and tried each of his keys in the lock twice, but it refused to budge. Why weren't any of the doctors here? Panting from his efforts, Donald leaned against the wall? He heard footsteps approaching. He turned his head and gazed down the hall. No one there. The direction of the sound changed. It started to become gradually louder and louder. Something whispered.

"My eyes are burning."

Donald sprinted down the hall to the elevator, jumped inside, and slammed his palm against the "door close" button. With a soft hiss, the elevator slid shut, and before he had a chance to press any other buttons, it began moving downward, toward the basement, where the morgue was located. When he realized what was happening, Donald panicked. He pressed every button he could find in an attempt to get out. It didn't work. The elevator doors opened, and Donald's nostrils were flooded with the mixed smells of rubbing alcohol and death.

He stepped out. It slid shut behind him, silently. He frantically pressed the button, over and over again, but the elevator remained closed. The door to the staircase was always closed and locked, to keep patients and visitors from wandering in. There was no turning back. Donald could smell smoke. He stepped a bit further into the basement, walking like a death row inmate toward the execution chamber. There had to be a telephone somewhere down here. However, to get any further, he would have to go through the morgue. He took a deep breath, and yanked open the door. Inside, sheet-covered corpses lay on metal gurneys like slabs of meat.

He moved like a child taking its first steps. He'd been though this room many times before, and never felt frightened. But that was before he started being followed by by hollow, burning people, before the rest of the staff vanished, before the black stench of charred flesh seeped through every hallway and every room. Something had changed this place. Something wrong had happened here, and it would happen again. Once he made it halfway across the room, the lights began to flicker. Donald froze. The body closest to him sat bolt upright.

Like a puppet controlled by a madman, the corpse lurched off of its table and stood in front of Donald, the sheet still draped over it like a child's Halloween costume.

"What do you want?" Donald screamed. It stood perfectly still, unresponsive.

"We want to watch you burn inside." It said, without any kind of emotion. The sheet fell away, and he looked into its eyes. Donald felt a tremendous heat inside his head, smelled blood and smoke... He had to make it stop. Make it stop. Make it stop. Make it stop.

The next morning, a nurse found Donald laying motionless in a pool of blood on the floor of the autopsy room, still clutching the scalpel he'd used to gouge out his own eyes. As two paramedics stuffed him into a body bag, one of them spoke to the other.

"Weird. He's just like the others. How many does that make? Three?"

"Yeah." The other replied. "There was that guy last week, and the little girl before him. Johnson dealt with that one. Said it was the biggest mess he'd ever seen."

"Think it's connected somehow?"

"Don't know." They zipped up the black bag and carried him off. The room reeked of smoke.




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