The Demon Mother of Oak Knoll
Previously published in the 2018 edition of the literary and arts annual Between These Shores.
Dmitri and his brother dug the cave out of a hollow in a sandstone rock formation and camouflaged the entry with a tan curtain; they bricked over the floor, and reinforced the walls with brick and cement and sheet metal. Most of the materials were salvaged from the crumbling hospital, a frequent host to hobos and packs of teenagers. The hospital grounds were sorely wanting as a place of security or permanence, but staking camp just outside wasn’t such a bad idea, in this place where no one cared to look. It was one of the last undeveloped places in the East Bay, so Dmitri could live here undisturbed. They hadn’t the resources to afford an assisted living place, and his illness had proven too much for the barbaric public hospitals to which Dmitri over the years had been a frequent visitor.
When they first finished with the cave, Dmitri watched his brother drive away with a harsh, tearing sensation in his heart. He looked forward to Jack coming back to visit him, and he did, often, bringing with him supplies and taking with him Dmitri’s accumulated waste, though over time the two of them had less and less to share with each other. Dmitri knew that Jack was ashamed of him, but he also knew there was nothing he could do about it, not with his illness the way it was. His brother’s feelings were just another cross he had to bear.
The hospital had been abandoned for years. In all truth it scared Dmitri, and he kept away from it. But Dmitri’s cave was fine. It was quiet and safe. It became his home, a real home. He had a mattress and a box spring, a bookshelf, a hot plate, even a generator. Over the months he fell into a reasonable contentedness. He spent his time reading books and enjoying the view, the sunshine, the quiet. Sometimes he left his hillside to scour the wealthy surrounding neighborhoods for food. He grew vegetables, potatoes and tomatoes in a plot of dirt nearby, and lived on the food Jack brought him. It wouldn’t have been hard to sound the depths of his howling loneliness, but he didn’t do that very often. His mind softened as he found less and less to think about. His illness, or at least the savage paranoia he felt in the company of society, abated. Eventually he lost track of how long he had been there. Dmitri sometimes felt sorry for himself, a victim of circumstance, but then again why should he be a victim? He didn’t need anything else, and anything else didn’t need him. Except maybe his brother, but Dmitri came not to think about him too often either. Life had been hard on both of them, but there was no doubt Jack had been the lucky one.
And so it goes that one warm spring day, while Dmitri was pulling potatoes from his patch, within shouting distance of I-580, to whose gasoline stink he’d become completely inured, that he felt a twinge in his spine. He stood up and arched his back, stretched his shoulders, cricked his neck and noticed, blinking out of the corner of his eye, a peculiar thing: a brown creature that had flitted away into the trees.
Dmitri shook his head, wiped his natty blond hair back from his forehead.
The blur had had a head, arms, legs; it was small; had it been a boy? If it was a boy it hadn’t been wearing clothes. A naked, wild boy? Up here in the hills? Dmitri had been so sure he was the only one. The weeds and grasses and branches were still shaking where it had disappeared.
It had been fast and quiet, though Dmitri thought he could hear it rustling through the trees and bushes as it escaped.
He resolved to catch it and find out what it was doing here.
He set down his bucket.
He tied his shoes, then scuttled down the hill after the blur, the balls and heels of his feet gripping expertly to the imperfections in the hillside he knew so well.
But damn had that blur been fast!
He followed the sounds, and also a set of tracks, small human footprints indeed, which led him to the rusted cyclone fence, crowned with triple strings of barbed wire, that surrounded the hospital.
The boy was nowhere to be seen.
The ground on the other side of the fence was scattered with splintered wood, crumbled blocks of concrete and shards of broken glass. The windows of the compound were a patchwork of rotted boards and jagged holes. Incoherent graffiti covered its walls, which at one time might have been an unassuming tan and blue, but was now awash with years of accumulated chaos.
Dmitri was reminded why he hated this place. He kept his little patch of land clean, healthy, and out of sight. The hospital was so ugly, so barren and savage. How many wasted hours had been spent creating, maintaining, and then ruthlessly abandoning this hellscape? After so many years of neglect, the place was surely haunted.
Did the brown boy live here? Perhaps. If so, he was not a creature of the same mold as Dmitri, and yet he must be every bit as skilled in solitary survival and the evasion of society.
After a moment, Dmitri heard the scuffling footsteps around the corner of the building closest to himself.
Before he climbed the fence, he realized that the little voice inside of him, which he usually knew better than to ignore, was shouting “CAUTION! CAUTION! UNKNOWN!” It was warning him that he was about to leave his security. An important part of him was afraid. But that didn’t make any sense, did it? That was just his illness, his paranoia, getting the better of him. Here was a chance to find a real live person like himself. Shouldn’t he take that chance?
There was a point in the barbed were that had been severed and pulled to the side. Dmitri climbed here, brought his feet up to follow, swung his legs over one after the other, jumped and landed. He lunged forward and moved into a low and wolf-like run, slowly rising, and his shoes on the pavement echoed such that anyone else on the hospital grounds would have been able to find him. He was very exposed, actually. His cave was far away. He should move quickly, get this over with as soon as he could.
Around the building’s corner he found a row of loading docks shut with sheet metal doors. The one closest to Dmitri had a cement ramp leading up to it, and on this ramp, pushed up against the metal door, was a refrigerator, door-less, rusted and broken into a bouquet of orange-black coiled springs. A milk crate was pushed up against it, forming a makeshift staircase. On the second floor, above the refrigerator, was a broken window with only blackness behind it. There was stillness all around him as he came up on the refrigerator and milk crate, which the boy had surely used to make his escape. It came to Dmitri that there were no sounds at all save his own, not even the hollow wind and metal rush of I-580.
He climbed the milk crate and the refrigerator and ducked through the window.
On the other side it was the smell that struck him first: the dirty, rusty dust of disintegrating trash and metal. The scent of peeling paint and asbestos clogged his nostrils and made his eyes water. Sunlight filtered through the cracked boards covering the windows, illuminating well enough an empty and polluted hallway, a battlefield of litter and demolished doorways.
Dmitri stood up and put his hand over his nose and mouth to combat the smell. He squinted as he stared and he saw the boy, materializing out of the dusty light, still and silent at the far end of the hallway.
He was very young, couldn’t have been older than eight. He was small and brown, absolutely still, staring with beautiful liquid black eyes, and he was naked except for a pair of ragged olive shorts. He wasn’t even wearing shoes. How could he walk around here barefoot?
Dmitri opened his mouth and croaked out “Hello!” then he hiccupped and covered his mouth. He had hardly been able to hear his own voice, it had been so long since he had used it. He coughed, reddened.
He looked at the boy and the boy looked right back at him. Something about the way the boy was standing there intensified the confused, animalistic fear in the back of Dmitri’s mind.
Dmitri swallowed, and geared himself up to try again:
“Kid!” Dmitri managed, his soft, phlegmy voice bouncing down the corridor. “Who are you? Do you live here?”
The kid didn’t answer.
Curiosity drew Dmitri forward. He began to walk down the hallway, but when he was maybe 15 yards away the boy disappeared through a nearby doorway like one of those old shutter-stop film characters, there one second gone the next.
Dmitri ran after him, but when he reached where the boy had been it was almost pitch black on the other side of the doorway. Dmitri stopped and it was probably a good thing that he did. On the other side of the door was a stairway, and the boy’s pitter-patter footsteps were already receding down them.
Dmitri vaulted after him, taking the stairs two at a time, gripping the railing with one hand, leaping, holding tight and barely keeping his balance. The force of his feet striking the concrete through the paper thin soles of his shoes became increasingly painful, meanwhile the footsteps below were a constant and rapid staccato: impossible, to be barefoot and to run so painlessly fast.
The stairs turned maybe four times.
The pattering feet were interrupted by another door banging open against a wall.
Dmitri reached the landing where the stairs ended and he found a still-swinging door leading to more stairs, a passage to what must have been the hospital’s basement, or whatever a place like this calls the space below ground.
The pitter-patter feet skittered further into the echoes.
Was this really happening? Was he dreaming? He’d dreamt crazy before, but this didn’t make any sense at all. If his brother were here right now, or if Dmitri were telling him about this some time, that he’d discovered a small, wild boy living in the basement of the abandoned Oak Knoll Hospital, his brother wouldn’t have believed him. Not for a second. He would have taken it as further proof that Dmitri had crossed into unreality, that he would invent stories to make himself feel better, to manufacture company in his world of exile. No one could live down there, in the dark. It was simply uninhabitable.
But it was true. He had seen that boy. He could hear him even now. This was actually happening, and it was only strange that it was happening here. And why should Dmitri feel afraid? It wasn’t like there was anything down there that could do worse than the world and his own mind had done to him already.
There was another sound from down the stairs — a dark creaking, another door, worn and heavy-hinged, swinging open and then closing shut. A very different door from what he had heard before.
With another deep breath, Dmitri started down the stairs. He walked slower now, and held tightly to the railing, because it really was pitch black, and very cold, though the air was less polluted than it had been on the second floor.
The stairs turned a corner and terminated, and Dmitri’s thin-soled shoes found smooth, midnight cold floor. Strangely enough, there was light down here, some blue gleaming in the walls. He could make out a hallway, much like that on the second floor, only wider, and dotted with shapes on either side that might have been coffins or hospital gurneys.
And then, again, there was the boy, waiting, a dark shadow in outline — slim, silent, his head of scruffy hair a blurred period atop his stalk-like body.
Dmitri walked down the hallway.
This time the boy didn’t run away. This time, eventually, he let Dmitri reach him, and when Dmitri drew close enough the little boy took his hand. The boy’s hand was warm. Dmitri fell instantly awash in gratitude at the human contact — it was a real person indeed. He had come to find Dmitri. Maybe he needed company too.
“Little boy, what are you doing down here?” Dmitri asked.
The boy started to pull him down the corridor.
“Where are we?” Dmitri asked.
There was no answer.
“Come on, say something. Where are we?”
This was a long corridor, must have been longer than the hospital grounds. It just kept on going.
“You live here?” he asked.
But still the boy didn’t answer. Maybe he couldn’t talk.
They were coming to the end of the hall, to a set of double doors with dark porthole windows in them.
Dmitri shook his head to break the illusion, but the door was still there. The boy stopped at the door, looked over his shoulder at Dmitri, seemed to look him up and down, to appraise him, and then opened the door. A dull burnt orange light washed the hall. The boy was facing back towards Dmitri and smiling now, as if he were just a little kid like any other. He was beautiful and there was understanding in his eyes, but also hunger and fury, a flame that Dmitri recognized, that of living absolutely untamed. This was not a boy of any society. This was a boy of the underworld. He had taken Dmitri somewhere that no normal human being had ever been before, and, as the door swung closed behind him (Dmitri hadn’t even been aware that he’d walked across the threshold) and there was a sound of a lock catching, Dmitri realized what had happened. Then he knew, this was no boy looking for company: a boy with eyes like that had no need for company. He had only need for prey. And for Dmitri, with the closing of the door, there would be no turning back.
The lair that Dmitri found about him was strange and certainly no part of any hospital he had ever seen. Its walls were coated with drapes and throes of obsequious luxury: cushioned furniture and opulent rugs crowded its floors. The room was wide and circular. While at first it appeared deserted, slowly it came to life, and then there were people all around, swarms of them, oozing out from behind the curtains and between the cushions like ants, and they drew together as they approached Dmitri. Their eyes, Dmitri saw, from one to the next, were like the boy’s: black, angry and unappeased.
Dmitri licked his lips and shivered; he hugged his arms about his chest and rubbed his hands against his forearms. In the back of his mind a numb, distant, and somehow resigned terror built.
The boy backed away from him, back to his people, with the same smile and without a hint of apology. Then he raised his arm and pointed upwards, towards the ceiling.
Dmitri did not follow his instruction at first. He couldn’t help but feel a little angry at how simply he’d been fooled.
But there was no point in being petulant or trying to make it personal, from this little boy who couldn’t have been more than eight. Dmitri had been caught: lured away from his safety and captured like a piece of game. His life was no longer in his own hands. So he took a moment to let this sink in, and for that moment he had never felt saner in his life. Whatever happened next, at least it would be real and definite, decisive, and human.
He craned his neck and followed the boy’s pointing finger upwards, and maybe he had gone completely crazy, but more likely it didn’t matter. The thing he saw descending on him was not what a normal person would see. It was bigger, scarier, yet more beautiful than any mundane lifeform you would see whilst driving to work or taking your kids to the movies. It was a monster, the mother and keeper of this furious place. But it didn’t matter what Dmitri thought he saw. It didn’t matter that it didn’t look like anything he’d ever seen before. What mattered was that Dmitri would never see the cozy, dirty walls of his cave again. He was done. Finished. He’d found something to end his days, and he would never see his brother again. But at least maybe, if he did, the two of them would finally have something to talk about.