I live in a small southern town rich in Civil War history
... almost too rich for me at times.
Besides the typical talk of the south rising again, you can also hear the locals whispering about something else that is going on in my sleepy southern town, something dark and unsettling, something that still lurks amidst the quaint antebellum homes and the multitude of historical sites - most of which are amazingly beautiful.
Some, though - some aren't so amazing.
There are many old, dilapidated buildings that are still standing... unrestored and useless. One such building on Dock Street is what was once known as "Seaman's Home." During the war it was used to house the sick and injured seamen who would come to town to find sanctuary. It was also used as an army hospital for most of the Civil War - Confederate General Hospital #4 - with the exception of the months of September through December, in the year 1862.
It was then that yellow fever ran rampant in the city... and when this occurred, the building was used to house sick civilians. People with yellow fever were brought there to spend their last days. To suffer and die. And so much intense pain was experienced in that building that it's said you can still hear screams and moans and anguished cries emanating from the place at night... so much so, in fact, that most people avoid that entire area of town like the plague.
Except for one local girl who let her curiosity get the best of her.
She shouldn't have been in that part of town and she knew it. It was early in the morning as Kierna walked down a deserted street in a bad section of town. But something had drawn her there. She'd gone out with her friends that night, but couldn't enjoy herself. There was a constant uneasiness that lingered inside her all evening - she couldn't place it. As the night had drawn to a close and her friends filed into a cab thirty minutes beforehand, Kierna shut the door on them and said she was going to walk home. They'd looked at her as though she were crazy, but she didn't feel as though she had any choice.
She had to find whatever it was that was tugging at her insides, drawing her in...
She walked along furtively, turning down a random alley for no apparent reason... and then she saw it - the old abandoned Civil War hospital. She'd passed that building a thousand times previously and had never once given it a second thought. But at this particular moment, for reasons she could not fathom, she was suddenly dying to go inside.
After a moment's hesitation, she mustered all of her courage and made her way into the dark, lifeless, cold building. There were no windows, no doors. It had basically been reduced to a pile of bricks in the vague shape of a building. She stepped carefully, quietly. Squinting, she let her eyes adjust to the intense darkness. Small streams of light seeped in through the window holes from the street lamps that lined the alley. Kierna had no idea what she was doing in that building, what had drawn her there. She knew, though, without a doubt, that she was on the right track.
She could feel it.
Kierna tiptoed softly, her skin lined with goosebumps, her heart racing. A glimmer of light a few feet away from her suddenly caught her eye - light from one of the street lamps was dancing off of a metallic object that was laying on the ground. She walked over gingerly and looked down at the object. It looked like a medal of some sort, possibly the type the military would give out. After reaching down and retrieving it, she stood upright again and looked around wildly. She was no longer in the dark, vacant, lifeless building. Suddenly, daylight shone in through window panes and she was amidst the hustle and bustle of an active military hospital. She wheeled around in wide-eyed amazement. She couldn't believe what she was seeing. And then... the sounds and smells hit her all at once.
Death screams - like she'd never heard before. And the smells - the overpowering odor of putrid, rotting flesh.
Kierna felt as though she were going to vomit - but suddenly her attention turned towards a man being brought in on a military gurney. Two attendants lifted him from the gurney and placed him on a nearby bed. The man was wearing a uniform... a military uniform... a Confederate soldier's uniform. And she suddenly wondered if they were doing the Civil War re-enactments here in town this weekend... but no, this soldier was real, this soldier was actually lying there in front of her, moaning and shivering.
Kierna slowly walked over to his bed. As she looked over him, she noticed his uniform was stained down the front with a black substance, so black that it resembled tar. And his skin was a bright, flaming red. He was both sweating through his uniform and shivering. Kierna grabbed a blanket from the bottom of the bed and spread it over the soldier. "Can I get you anything?" she asked him, after he had stopped moaning for a second, long enough to glance over at her.
She drew back a bit; he had a wild-eyed look that startled her momentarily.
The soldier stared vacantly at Kierna for several seconds, finally looking down at his uniform. His fingers began to fumble around on the left side of his jacket, until he finally withdrew an object from his pocket and slipped it into Kierna's hand. She opened her hand slowly... and saw the medal... the same medal she'd picked up only minutes earlier in the abandoned hospital.
She looked back down at the soldier... and he suddenly spasmed, jerked upwards and began shaking violently, screaming at the top of his lungs. Kierna took several steps back and watched in horror as a military doctor and a nurse rushed to the soldier's bedside. They worked over him furiously for a moments... and then Kierna heard the doctor say to the nurse that it was too late, that his symptoms were too advanced... he was going to die.
Kierna continued to back up, shaking her head in shocked disbelief, until she finally backed into a wall. She hit it so hard, she nearly knocked the wind from her lungs. She closed her eyes.. and took a deep breath... and when she finally reopened them, she was back in the cold, lifeless, abandoned building. The intense darkness had returned and she was again alone.
Shaking her head and looking around, Kierna reflected briefly on what had just occurred... it had been the most intense, lifelike "daydream" of her life. She'd never experienced anything like it before. And she knew suddenly, right then, that she should leave. She should find a phone, call a cab, and go the hell home. But, still, she couldn't force herself to move from the spot. She wasn't done here - not yet - and somehow she knew it. She knew she was supposed to keep looking, looking... keep looking for... what? She didn't know.
But she knew she had to find it.
She pushed herself away from the brick wall she'd been leaning against, and walked forward into the dim, central alcove. Again, she tiptoed... quietly... into the heavy darkness. This time, though, she headed towards the center of the room, away from the light seeping in through the perimeter windows. Quite suddenly, she ran into a large object. She clasped her fingers around what felt like cold metal. It felt like wrought-iron... much like that found on the headboard of an antique bed. She ran her fingertips lightly over the cool metal...
Suddenly she heard a crash in the corner of the room.
Kierna blinked twice, her mouth going dry, and she turned her head quickly to the right, in the direction from which the noise had emanated...
"Who's there?" she cried out - but no one answered.
Kierna looked around and let her eyes slowly adjust to the unsettling darkness. After a few seconds she began to realize that she was no longer in the abandoned hospital... it was still very dark, but there were small flickers of lantern light glowing all around her.
She stood frozen for a moment, her heart pounding... and again she summoned her courage and continued walking across the room in the general direction of the noise she had just heard.
"Hello? Who's there?" she cried out once more - but again no one answered.
As she got closer to the corner of the pitch-black room, she heard a slight whimpering... a muffled sound, like that of a young child, crying. And as she approached the sound, her suspicions proved correct. Hunched in the corner, curled up in a ball, was a young boy, sobbing.
"Sweetheart," Kierna whispered, as stooped to her knees, settling down right in front of him. "What's wrong?"
"My ma...." was all the boy could manage through his sobs as he looked up at her.
"Where is your mama?" Kierna asked, stroking his hair.
"She...she...she's gone!" the boy cried out, bursting into tears again.
Kierna quickly pulled the boy towards her and rocked him back and forth, back and forth, soothing him as he clutched her tightly and sobbed desperately against her chest.
"What happened to your mama, honey?" she said gently.
After a few sniffles, and a clearing of his throat, he said, "The yeller death got her."
"You know, that yeller fever that everyone's gittin'. My ma got it and now she's gone."
"Ain't you heared of it?"
"Well, yes, in history class," Kierna responded. "But that was in 1862 during the Civil War."
"Lady...it IS 1862."
Kierna looked down at the boy, then pulled him against her and looked around. What the hell? Was she in the year 1862? But why? How? What had driven her to the abandoned hospital that night? Why was she suddenly transported to the year 1862? What the hell was going on here?
The young boy sobbed quietly against her chest for a few moments, then drew back.
"Wait," he said, "is your name Kierna?"
"Yes - but how did you know that?" Kierna finally replied, her heart rising in her throat.
"I was supposed to give you something. Wait here." The boy jumped up quickly and disappeared into the darkness.
What was she doing here, Kierna wondered out loud. How did this child know her name? What did he have for her? She felt weary, all of a sudden - disoriented, And. losing her bearings, she felt herself sliding down, down, coming to rest on the damp, cool floor and with her back resting against the adjacent wall, waiting for the boy to return.
She was so confused, yet she knew this was exactly where she was supposed to be, at this precise moment.
Something had made her go to the abandoned hospital... and she felt certain that her destiny was somehow awaiting her...
The boy suddenly ran back into the room, and sat down Indian-style in front of her.
"Here," he said, holding out his hand, breathless.
Kierna reached out with her right hand, took the object, and brought it up close to her face so she could get a good look at it. She began to examine it in the soft glow of the opaque lantern light. It was a ring - a hammered sterling silver band. And she recognized it right away. It was the ring her mother had given her when Kierna had graduated from college. Her mother had told her then, that it had been in their family for generations. And Kierna had never gone one second of her life without wearing that ring, since the moment she'd received it.
She looked down at the ring finger on her right hand now, though - and the ring wasn't there.
"Who told you to give me this ring?" she suddenly barked at the boy.
"There was a woman in the bed next to ma's," he said meekly, alarmed by her sudden intensity. "She looked a lot like you; I think you's is prolly kin. She said once I meet Kierna, I was supposed to give her that thar ring. And you's Kierna, ain't you?"
"Yes, I'm Kierna."
"Well, then, that-thar's your ring."
"Can you show me the lady that gave you the ring? Is she still here?"
"She wasn't near as sick as mama this mornin'...she's prolly still in bed. She has the yeller death, too." The boy jumped deftly to his feet.
"Can you take me to her?" Kierna asked, as she stood up in front of the boy and smoothed the wrinkles from her dress.
"Sure thing, lady," he said, making a motion with his hand for her to follow him.
Kierna followed closely behind the boy. Her mind raced as she tried to come to grips with what was happening. They walked briskly down the quiet hallway, past scores of empty rooms. Her mind raced through all the likely possibilities. She kept telling herself that this had to be a dream... but it was too real. She could feel the boy's tears clinging to her skin. She could smell the foul smells that she'd smelled before, when she had stood near the dying soldier's bedside.
And now, the closer they got to the patient ward, the louder the moans and screams became.
This was very, very real. The screams of agony increased with every step they took, the moaning and sounds of vomiting and pain almost more than she could take.
But she knew she couldn't stop now.
She had to find out who the woman was who wanted to give her this ring... HER ring.
Finally the boy stopped in front of a tall, oak door and grabbed the brass handle. "She was in here this mornin'," he said, pulling the door wide open and walking in without hesitation.
Kierna followed close behind. Once inside, she stopped and looked around. The room had eight beds in it. The beds were made of white wrought iron - just like the bed frame she'd run her fingers across in the old abandoned building. She began to look around the room and take stock of who was there. A couple of patients were asleep, most of them were groaning, and one woman in the corner was screaming...
"Oh no," said the boy, "she got worse."
"Where is she?" Kierna asked him urgently, unable to see through the cloying darkness.
"She's over there," the boy cried out, pointing at a corner of the room, in the direction of a disheveled, huddled form.
Kierna and the boy moved forward again. And as she and the boy drew closer to the figure huddled in the dark corner of the room, Kierna saw the face of a woman who looked to be about her own age. She could see the woman shaking from where they were standing... and every few seconds the woman would let out a wild, strangled scream.
"Stay here," Kierna said to the boy.
"But, I wanna see if...."
"Stay here," Kierna repeated sternly, grabbing the boy's arm and squeezing it for effect.
The boy pouted and crossed his arms, but obeyed. He stood near the doorway and watched as Kierna walked directly to the side of the screaming woman, who was hunched in the corner with her arms clasped over her head, face down on the floor.
Finally drawing within a few feet of the woman, Kierna knelt down on her knees in front of her and looked her over from head to toe.
The woman's dress was stained... stained with that same, black-tar vomit, just like the dying soldier had had on his uniform. The woman's skin was bright red as well. And she was shaking and moaning and screaming... just as the soldier had been. Kierna suddenly remembered that the doctor had said that he was too far advanced, that he was going to die. And she then realized that the same had to be true for this unfortunate young woman before her right now.
"Miss?" Kierna whispered, lowering her head in the darkness, her mouth right next to the dying woman's ear.
The woman didn't move. She let out another ferocious scream instead... her face still buried against the floor underneath her arms.
Her shaking increased.
"Miss?" Kierna cried out frantically. "My name is Kierna and I have the ring you wanted to give to me. Why did you want me to have it? Who are you?"
Suddenly the woman stopped screaming. And her shaking began to subside. And slowly, very slowly, she pulled her spindly arms away from the back of her neck... lifted her head... and looked up at Kierna...
Kierna let out a scream and jumped back. She landed flat on her butt with her arms outstretched behind her. And as she stared, wide-eyed, at the woman's face before her, she froze - unable to move.
The woman she was looking at WAS her. Kierna was staring at herself. And it was like staring into a mirror - only the reflection that emanated from it was death.
And without warning, the woman suddenly lunged forward and put her hand on Kierna's leg.
Instantly, Kierna felt sick...very sick... horribly sick... and she felt sicker with each passing second.
Kierna closed her eyes and prayed. When she reopened them, she realized that she was now sitting where the woman had been.
It was now SHE who was hunched in the corner of the darkened room.
The other Kierna was gone. And the new Kierna felt chill and fever... her entire body began to ache like she had never experienced inher life before. Her insides began to burn. Her skin reddened with a rush of flame and the black vomit she'd witnessed previously was now coming from inside of her, gushing forth in torrents as she gasped and tried to cry out for help...
She couldn't breathe. She felt faint. Her vision became blurry.
She let out a blood-curdling scream.... and the room began to spin before her fading eyes...
Seconds later, a doctor rushed to her side and scooped her up from the ground, laying her on a wrought-iron bed.
He examined her mouth and nose for a few seconds, felt for a pulse, and then shook his head at the nurse. "It's too late."
They found Kierna's body two days later, cold and lifeless, stretched across the wrought-iron bed in the center of the old abandoned hospital on the corner of Dock Street. And the next day the headline of the local paper blared, "WOMAN DIES MYSTERIOUSLY OF UNKNOWN CAUSE".
But it wasn't so mysterious. The answers were right there inside that hospital - but no one dared to look.
Can't say I blame them.
Whenever I go past that building now, I walk on the other side of the street.
But sometimes... sometimes out of the corner of my eye I will catch a fleeting glimpse of a woman lurking inside that old brick building... peering out at me from the darkened, glassless windows... and it is at that moment that I, too, muster all of my courage, and stiffen my resolve, and somehow find the strength to resist the urge to cross that street, and enter that old brick building on Dock Street, and find out who is waiting for me inside...