When the Light is Gone
by Phoenix Stern
For one fleeting moment upon glimpsing the building, I wonder if it
will be the
place I die.
The sunlight is cold today, sneering down at the centuries-old hospital
over me, high and forbidding. After years of emptiness, of serving only
as museums for curious people desiring a glimpse into the life of the
insane, these former lunatic asylums have been opening again, taking in
the waves of deranged souls that flooded society after debts soared,
the ocean overflowed, and the sun set fire to the world. Now, it seems
I have come to join their ranks.
The entryway is dark and desolate, with ragged tapestries sagging off
the walls and a torn carpet leading the way down the hall. The walls
are rusty and chipped, the place smells dank, and the damp air presses
against my chest with a heavy hand. This entire building seems dismal
My hands are chained behind me so tightly I can’t move them. Two men
flank me on either side, dressed all in black and no doubt heavily
armed. They push me roughly down the hall. They laugh when I stumble.
“Welcome to your new home,” one taunts, prodding me in the back.
“You’ll have lots of fun here, you will.”
“Ha!” another guard barks. To his comrades, he mutters, “Let’s see how
long it takes him to go mad.”
This maze of hallways seems to branch on forever. Every turn we make
leads us down darker and more ominous corridors. I see, ahead of me, a
shattered heap of something in the dim light; it almost
resembles—there, a hand! I recoil in shock and disgust, but the guards
only glance down and keep striding onward.
We arrive at a cramped cell that reeks of piss and rotting vomit, and
they shove me in, slamming the door shut with a clang that rattles me.
I hit my elbow hard on the way down, and a groan rips its way out of my
mouth. The guards are already retreating back down the hallway. “Good
luck,” one calls back unconcernedly. The rest laugh to themselves.
I am still gasping with pain when I look up and see the eyes staring
back at me.
There are five of them, all suffering through varying degrees of
insanity. A man who babbles incoherently to himself, day after day, not
seeming to notice or care if anyone is listening. An older man with
long, ragged hair and fingers like claws, who leers evilly at me with
bloodshot eyes. A woman whose eyes are only angry red holes, staring
blankly without seeing. A young man, hardly more than a boy, with ugly
scars crawling all over his body. A dark-haired girl who sits rocking
in a corner, knees hugged to her chest, ignoring the world.
They welcome me to their cell.
It is tiny and uncomfortably cramped. There are no windows, no ways to
escape, and the walls link arms around us. Through steel bars, we catch
glimpses of the hallway beyond—a hallway just as dreary as the cell
itself. Peeling paint crumples toward the floor, defeated, and rusty
red stains creep up the walls.
There is no sunlight here to greet us upon waking, no birds humming
sweet melodies in our ears, no twinkling stars to herald the night.
There is only the gloom lurking over our shoulders, the despair peeping
around the door, the constant chill pressing in from all sides. It
seems awfully crowded here, stuffy and confining, and every day I gaze
upon the faces of the mentally insane, knowing I can’t possibly belong
with them, that there is no way I am that far gone.
“Just for a little while,” the doctor had said, features molded into an
encouraging expression. “Everyone’s going slightly mad these days, you
know, what with the stress and all…nothing to worry about.” But his
eyes seemed scared as he looked at me, as if he saw some horror in me
that I couldn’t, and I wonder if that is what caused me to be brought
here in chains.
Either way, I want to get out. This can’t be my home. The girl
I left behind—she haunts my dreams. I think of her laugh, a chain of
golden bells ringing; her sweet, lilting voice calling my name; the
sadness in her face when she pleaded with me to find help. I came
here for her. Days are dull, lonely, monotonous; nights are even
worse. Night is when the noises echo down the halls, shrieks and groans
and high-pitched, maniacal laughter. Night is when chills creep down my
back and shivers flutter across my spine. Night is when the shadows on
the walls morph into demons, fangs bared, claws extended, hot breath
damp on my neck.
Night is when the whispers start.
7 October It is worse here than I thought.
The place was not built to accommodate the thousands that fill these
halls. The doctors here resort to crude methods to treat the lot of
us—in my wanderings of the building I have seen a man strapped down for
so long that his skin has started growing over the leather, people
twisted around each other in cages and chained together, white-coated
doctors cutting into patients whose faces contort in agony. Bodies lie
piled in remote hallways, and blank-eyed inmates sit slumped against
the walls, neglected and forlorn, staring at nothing. There are new
corpses every day.
I see writing on the walls, quivering words painted with shaking hands.
“THE END IS NOW,” proclaims one wall. “wE’Re All gOIng To HeLL,” sings
another. The whispers in my mind grow eager; they mumble in low tones,
a softly muttering crowd, words faint and incomprehensible.
I swear this place will make me go mad.
Tonight, I am woken by screams.
The rocking girl is crying, fighting the air. Her hands swat
desperately at invisible terrors. Her eyes are wide open, glazed with
It takes only a moment for the guards to explode into the cell, arms
raised, eyes ablaze. They wrench the girl to her feet and drag her
toward the door. She swings at them, and one raises his hand. She melts
silently to the floor, blood trickling from her temple.
I recognize the guard as the one who mocked me the first day, so long
ago, and my eyes seek out his. They are a pale, livid blue, pulsing
with rage, set deep into an impassive face.
“Why?” I gasp.
His stone features turn to me.
“How could you be so heartless?”
His eyes narrow into ice chips, daggers driving through me. “You have
to be in this world,” he spits, and I can’t tell if he means this
asylum or the entire wretched world as a whole, but what I do know is
that the scarred boy cuts himself half to death every night believing
he is somehow infected, and that the babbling man speaks after all,
because one night he straightened up and screamed, “No!” with such
clarity that it chilled me. I know that he went on for hours, pleading
into the darkness, voice shattered, ragged. “Come back! Help me…don’t
What I do know is that we are all human. And we are all broken.
It’s getting worse.
In the daytime now, too, the whispers consume my mind. I hear them
rambling on and on, tearing their way through my brain.
They tell me to lash out.
They tell me to fight.
They tell me to hurt someone, to grab the blind woman and wrap my hands
around her neck, to let my fury loose at the man who stares at me, to
scream and yell and rage against this place I’ve been thrown into, this
nightmare come alive.
They tell me I will revel at the sight of blood.
They are becoming harder and harder to resist.
Got into an accident today
I would be lying if I said I didn’t know what made me do it it was the
devils in my head I’m sure. The babbling man from my cell was jabbering
his nonsense incessantly into my ear—wouldn’t leave I was growing more
and more annoyed I turned to tell him to shut it and for a moment it
was a demon staring back at me
I panicked snatched his arm and slammed him against the wall. The
voices told me get him and I listened. I couldn’t help myself I struck
him over and over until guards had to wrestle me off. They threw me to
the ground beat me half-senseless and dragged me back to my cell. I
kicked and yelled the entire way but it was futile—they slammed the
door on me, hard, and I felt the echo in my bones.
“You’re dead if you do that again!” they shouted.
“Go to hell!” I screamed at their retreating backs. I screamed until my
throat felt raw and the entire time the taste of my blood was in my
mouth and the man’s blood was on my hands.
I don’t think I would recognize myself in a mirror. My hair has gotten
so long my fingernails also and I occupy myself by sharpening them into
points this is very amusing I think. They look like the claws that the
monsters on the walls have—ha!
They are coming for me, the demons. They crawl through the walls,
leering at me; they peel out of the shadows and lunge for my face. In
the day, they lurk just out of sight; at night they come and curl up
beside me, eyes glowing.They blot out the light—they are the
darkness—the wavering forms coming closer and closer—
“—here to see you,” a guard says. Almost immediately the voices flare
up hissing hit him kick him hard make him bleed make him suffer.
The desire to hurt him rises like vomit in my throat but I am very good
I grit my teeth and swallow it down; I satisfy myself instead by
digging my nails into my palms so hard they break my skin. Pinpricks of
pain explode across my hands. They lead me down the hallways past
broken cells broken people bloody handprints on the walls. Then we turn
a corner into a room on fire.
I recoil, hissing and clawing at the light, already feeling the flames
burn through my—it is only the lamps, their yellow glow flickering like
tongues licking the walls. In the middle of the room is a table and two
chairs and on one of them sits…
She looks up and I choke on a gasp. I try to cry out What are you doing
here but it comes out an incomprehensible babble. She says a word I
assume to be my name but I can’t be sure anymore, I can’t be sure
Time tiptoes to a halt and I stand there, frozen. A thousand memories
flash through my mind and sweep me into a world far away from this one,
a world where golden sunshine kisses my hair and flowery breezes tap my
shoulder and I hold this girl’s hand.
I remember this
I remember and I want to hold her again I would kiss her if I still
She steps forward, reaches out, touches my face. There are glittering
dewdrops in her eyes. She whispers do you remember me
I glance behind her and see the demons crowding the walls.
Black, hulking shapes rise up higher and higher until they tower over
me growing claws and fangs and their shadowy faces are a twisted
pattern of color—red white red as their eyes flash scarlet and their
teeth glint white and liquid crimson drips from their lips.
I clench my teeth hard whisper to myself hold it hold it hold it.
The girl looks terrified. She stands staring silently at me and her
eyes overflow and sorrow cascades down her face. My heart bleeds for
her even as a raging beast claws inside me, sharp and furious. Stabbing
pain wrenches through my chest and I know:
I am fighting a losing battle with myself.
The demons lunge forward at the same time I do, lashing out with all
the strength I have. Her scream pierces the air. She doesn’t even try
to fight back. Maniacal, echoing laughter fills the chamber, high and
chilling. Through this haze one thought rings true and it is this: you
loved this girl. My mind stumbles over the word and I choke on it as I
try to form it with my tongue:
love love love love love love
Somehow I am yanked away from the girl
dragged down the hall knees scraping the ground
a resounding clang—my vision goes dark
I am left screaming What does that mean?
I am alone.
I huddle petrified in corners as monsters fill the room, clawing at me
tearing me apart—I arch my back in throes of agony that feel all too
My hands are shaking
My breath comes hard and fast
what is happening to me what is happening why must it be like this
no way out of this place no way to escape it is inside me
i am scared
i don’t want to—
there is a new inmate down the hall
Scruffy beard twinkling eyes he seems decently sane
one night i find myself standing in front of his cell don’t know how i
got there he
said he killed someone and got thrown in here for it
shame pools in his eyes
his voice is a low murmur he says he feels…regret?
…I almost know what that means
my days are like pearls
he lives with murder sitting on his shoulder yet he can still smile
what do you do i ask him panicked what do you do when the
light is gone
Then you look for the light inside you he says
i am shaking
blurry haze tears drip a solid hand on my shoulder—
Look for the light inside you
a blank stretch of wall i am faced with my eye
is swollen my arms torn fingers dripping blood
this place i always knew this place was a prison always knew it was
only home for the insane the ones too far gone to mind
fingers tremble against the wall in lines of quivering red i scrawl:
this living hell is no home of mine
i open my eyes light they
are flooded with light, light golden beaming into the
room i haven’t seen sunlight in months it seems— i am
blinded it fills my vision leaping up crashing and stars
around m y h e a d—somehow i am out in the hallway
all alone where are the others am i the only one?
legs they carry me up!— up!—up! unchallenged the entire way and
now with up floating again blue and
c o l d flinging itself against my face cool and sharp here the light
is more and more and closer still i reach for the
sky—there! the light! the light!
look for the light inside you he said and i think—i think it
must be this—
now i reach higher!— higher!—higher! it is too far—too far—i leap
stumble running and
lungeforthelight—i fly i am so free—almost there!—i see it!
i see it!
© 2018 Phoenix Stern
Bio: Phoenix is an alien from another planet who enjoys all
things dark. In fact, not a single one of their stories has turned out
happy. Phoenix spends their spare time reading, frantically scribbling
down story ideas, and wasting hours upon hours of time online.
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