Julia Cholerton – A Maze of Lost Souls

The pungent smell of raw meat is really getting to me. I attempt to avert my gaze from the clear display shelves filled with bright red blood-soaked clumps of dead animals, but it isn’t worth the effort. Every time I glance away I can still picture the horrid image crystal clear in my mind. I try taking smaller breaths to lessen the smell but it doesn’t work. The poignant fumes have taken over my mind. I feel as if I will be sick any second. 

A butcher’s shop is no place for a vegetarian. While passing by the storefront, I had been so attracted by the eye-catching sign in the window advertising “ASTORIA UNDERGROUND GHOST TOUR” that I had neglected to notice that the dreary building I was entering was full of odious animal carcasses. 

The room is rather crowded, which only adds to my discomfort. Standing next to me is my best friend, Brooke. We both attend the University of Oregon in Eugene, but we are spending winter break in Seaside, a humble beach town on the coast. We’re taking a day trip to Astoria to shop for Christmas presents, which is how we stumbled upon the ghost tour. Besides us, there are six other reticent customers in the store, all waiting for the tour to begin. I hadn’t actually seen any of them enter the shop. I was so focused on the grotesque display before me that I must have missed it. 

I feel the acute sting of someone pinching my arm, and glance up with disorientation written across my face. 

“What,” I say stupidly.

“You spaced out again. I asked you where you wanted to go for dinner,” Brooke informs me, her eyes filled with mock judgement. After the 11 years that we have known each other, she’s used to me doing this. I spend more time in my own head than anywhere else, which has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. 

“I don’t know,” I respond. “Italian? I would kill for some fettuccine alfredo.”

She is about to reply when her voice is cut off by a soft soprano tone. 

“Is everyone here for the 5 o’clock ghost tour?” A short, red-headed woman covered in a long coat and clunky jewelry asks. Her voice is chilling. The moment I hear it I become unsettled, though I don’t quite know why. There’s something about the way she talks that feels…ancient.

“My name is Marian,” she continues after we gather nearer to her. “I have owned this butcher shop and the rooms underneath it for almost 20 years. I noticed that this place was haunted rather soon after I bought it—when peculiar incidents occurred in the basement, which I’ll tell you about on the tour. For now, everybody gather your belongings together, and I’ll lead you down to the underground. Watch your step—the stairs are steep.” However lofty her voice is, she does make a decent tour guide. 

Marian leads us to the back of the store and slowly opens a creaking weathered door. Behind it is a precipitous staircase made of flimsy wooden planks that would give any bare-foot person heaps of sharp-tipped splinters.

Slowly our group creeps down the rotting stairs into a room devoid of light. I press my arm against the frigid cement wall to keep myself from toppling down the decaying wooden planks into the emptiness below. The scent soon changes from uncooked meat to damp and musty, which is not necessarily a bad smell. At least not after the intolerable oder of the shop above. 

The basement is almost pitch black. The one beam of light comes from a crack underneath the door to the shop, illuminating the very top of the stairs. The rest of the space is a void. It doesn’t take long for me to realize that sunlight has never touched these walls.

Our group filters through the darkness until we are standing in a line. I hear a click, and suddenly the room is flooded with a faint light. The room is much smaller than I thought it would be, but there are doorways leading to other segments of the underground. Gray walls rife with water damage surround me, as I stare at the center of the room where the only visible furniture lies: a lonely desk. There is no chair accompanying it, and no office supplies on top. It’s just a rather large desk made of damaged rotting wood. Marian stands in front of the desk, flashlight in her hand. 

“Welcome to the underground,” she half-whispers in that same sly voice. “This room used to be my office, before the ghosts started to disturb my work. My first day running the store, I arrived early to organize this room, only for it to be completely destroyed the next morning. This was the first indication that perhaps I was not alone.” She walks around to the opposite side of the desk and opens the top drawer, which is full of petite objects that look like TV remotes. With an air of grace, she hands each of us one of the items. 

“The item I have just given you all is called an EMF detector, short for Electro-Magnetic Field detector. If a ghost or anything paranormal approaches you during the tour, the small bulbs at the top will light up.”

I stare down at the minute remote I hold in my hand. The first two lights hesitantly flicker on and off. On and off. On and off. 

“If you all want to follow me, we will begin our tour,” Marian says, starting toward an empty doorway. Brooke gives me a slight push, so that I’m the first to follow Marian into the abyss. I turn my head slightly to stick out my tongue at her, before I am whisked away into the mysteries of the underground. 

The only areas of the room I can see are those illuminated by the flashlights. The rest of the room is clouded in a hazy darkness. I step slowly across the floor, my mind bothered by a slight anticipation. The one noise to be heard is the muted breathing of the other tourists. Slowly that sound melts away as I disappear into the more comfortable realm in my head. It is peaceful here. Gentle. Safe. 

“AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!” 

The sudden noise yanks me out of my tranquil abyss. I let out a scream of absolute terror as I leap towards the far side of the room and grab Brooke’s shoulder. She is shaking slightly, and it takes me a moment to realize that she’s laughing. 

“Doofus,” she spits out through her giggles. I look over toward the source of the noise to see a large animatronic clown emitting a Disney villain-style evil laugh. 

“As you can see,” Marian says. “We haven’t removed all of our Halloween decorations yet. She has a microscopic smirk on her face. I feel a flush of embarrassment as the world laughs at me in unison. Whatever. She has no right to judge. What crazy person still has their Halloween decorations up in December?

Marian leads us past the maniacal clown and through another empty doorway into a cramped rectangular room that seems to have once been a kitchen. Half of the room is covered with a dusty unfinished counter, with various metal buckets underneath, filled with wooden spoons, pastry cutters, and other decrepit cooking supplies. On the center of the counter is a photo album, and a framed drawing of a somewhat familiar woman with a small boy wrapped in her arms. 

“Welcome to Abigail’s kitchen,” Marian says in that same lofty voice. “The woman who lives here, Abigail, died in 1934. When she was alive, she housed here with her son, James. She worked at a yarn manufacturing company not far from here, and died of influenza when she was 52. Abigail was one of the first ghosts to start alerting me to her presence. She would roll balls of yarn through the underground, leaving trails to damage that she had done. Once I followed a trail of yarn to find about five pounds of glass smashed into pieces. I later found that all of the windows in the butcher shop had been shattered. Abigail must have destroyed them and brought the glass to the basement.” She gestures to the drawing. “This drawing was done by a man named Peter Bennet who also lives in the underground. Next to it is a yearbook from what we assume to be Abigail’s high school, though we’re not quite sure which one is her.”

The group disperses around the room to explore. I pick up the photo album, which is much smaller than modern yearbooks. The cover’s edges have worn with age. With care, I open the book to see pages and pages of black and white photos. Each one showcases a single unsmiling teenager. My mind is alive with contemplation as I turn the flimsy pages. Something doesn’t seem…right…about these pictures. The people in them seem more than unhappy. They seem cursed. 

It isn’t long before Marian leads the group into the next room. We have only an hour, and there is a lot to explore. The chamber is significantly dirtier and more complex than the previous ones. Old wooden building materials cover the floor, drowning in waves of settled dust. The room splits off into multiple dark hallways that lead to unseen alcoves. It is a maze of lost souls. 

The group again gathers around Marian, who is gesturing to a dusty black and white portrait of an unsmiling bearded man. 

“This is Peter Bennet. He was an artist who lived here in the underground around the same time as Abigail. He was a heavy drinker, and died after drunkenly walking out into a street in downtown Astoria and being trampled by an automobile. After his death he returned here, and multiple guests have reported hearing his drunken shouts.”

I have to say this story freaks me out a bit. A regular ghost is scary enough. I don’t want to cross paths with an angry drunken one. 

We disperse around the room to look at the various artifacts and broken structures. My gaze is caught by one of the hallways leading off from the main room. Marian’s flashlight doesn’t reach this place. It is so dark it is impossible to see what lies in the space beyond. It could be completely empty, or it could be filled with old objects and wooden planks like the rest of the underground. There is no way of knowing. I am about to turn away when I become transfixed. There is something moving in the darkness. It shimmers—but it isn’t quite…light. It’s something different. Something usually unseen. After a second it disappears, and I notice a source of light that isn’t Marian’s flashlight. For most of the tour, the first two lights on the EMF reader have been flickering on and off, but now all five are blaring. A silent alarm. My breathing slows. I can hear my own heartbeat ringing in my ears as the shimmer in the hallway reappears and starts to move closer. I try to back up, but my feet are rooted to the floor. It isn’t my shock that’s keeping them there. Something, or someone has a hold on them. The shimmer moves closer and closer, a slow march. I try to scream but nothing comes out. Closer. Closer. Closer. 

“Caroline,” I am yanked out of my frozen state by Brooke, who has an expectant look on her face. “Let’s go. We’re gonna see the dark room next.”

I nod slightly but immediately focus my attention back on the hallway. There is nothing there. My EMF reader has gone almost dark, except for those two lights flickering on and off. 

“You okay?” Brooke asks, looking a bit concerned. 

“Yeah,” I mutter unconvincingly, and follow her down another hallway into the abyss. 

Marian stands waiting for us in front of another empty doorway, leading to a completely empty and compact room. 

“This is the dark room,” she says with an aura of mystery surrounding her voice. “More sightings have been reported in this room than any other on the tour. Reports include shadowy figures, hanging bodies, and severed limbs.”

My body is still shaking from the figure in the hallway, and these gruesome descriptions don’t help. 

“It was your imagination,” I say inside my head. “It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real.”

Brooke grips my arm and pulls me into the dark room against my will, a look of pure chaos on her face. She deals with fear a bit differently than I do. 

All at once I am overwhelmed with a feeling I have never felt. A heaviness—a darkness. The kind I thought only existed in books. Suddenly my mind is underwater. My sense of hearing completely disappears only to be replaced by a rushing sound like the kind you hear while riding in a car with the windows down. The darkness isn’t just in my sight anymore. I can feel it. It has entrapped me. A curse has befallen me. 

As soon as it starts, it stops. The rushing noise is replaced by the sound of my own breathing. My vision comes back into focus, and I realize that I have left the darkroom. I’m standing at least 10 feet away from the doorway, and I don’t remember how I arrived there. Brooke is next to me, and it’s the first time I have ever seen her look truly scared. Whatever that feeling was, she felt it too. 

“Wha…what…what was that?” She stutters, looking at me with pure terror in her eyes. I can do nothing but stare back at her with that same expression. I am speechless. My thoughts only say one thing: we need to leave. 

We don’t get the chance. Marian glances at our looks of terror with a smirk on her face and within seconds she has ushered our group into another room. 

This room has electricity. There is a lone light hanging from the ceiling with several red and black wires coming out of it. The small area illuminated by the light only unsettles me more. There is a lone chair in the center of the room, with a torn light pink cushion resting on it. Behind the chair is a pile of dolls. As if this tour wasn’t already creepy enough. Most are porcelain, with a few modern-day baby dolls sprinkled throughout. Most are missing limbs. Too many are missing heads. I make the decision that Marian is crazy. If I owned a haunted underground, I wouldn’t stuff it full with laughing clowns and creepy dolls. I wonder if this woman has seen any horror movies at all. 

“This is what we call the ghost room.” A new wave of confidence has entered Marian’s voice, almost like something in this room has given her a burst of energy. She gestures towards the ceiling. “This ceiling hatch leads to the butcher shop, but many years ago, before Abigail and Peter lived here, it led to a bar. The owner of this bar was—as we would call it today—a serial killer. He would get people drunk, and push them through the hatch into this room. Often his victims would break a leg during the fall, and would be left down here until they died. Approximately 43 people were killed before the bar-owner was caught, and it is believed that they still live down here today.” 

My already beating heart beats faster. I had come here hoping to have some fun, but something wasn’t right. It was too real. The figure in the hallway and the feeling in the dark room weren’t fake. I have to leave. Something is stopping me. Again, my feet are rooted to the floor by an external force and I know at this moment that I am lucky to still be alive. 

“In the middle of the room is what we call the ghost chair,” Marian continues. “It is believed to be the most haunted object in all of the underground. You can try sitting in it—the suspense is wonderful.”

I have no intention of sitting in that chair, but my feet begin to move without my permission. Something has taken control of my body. Something is moving me against my will. 

The moment I sit down my mind is flooded with that same feeling I got in the dark room. A heaviness weighs on my shoulders. A rushing fills my ears. Again, I am cursed. Within seconds I stand up, this time of my own free will, and I am able to take a few steps backward before my body is stopped again by some power that isn’t my own. 

The others in the room take their turns sitting in the chair. Except for Brooke, everyone else in the group is unfazed. Not a hint of fear or discomfort comes close to creeping across their faces. When it is Brooke’s turn, she steps slowly toward the chair as if she is fighting to walk away. She sits for a few seconds before jumping up and walking over to stand next to me. Whatever is happening to me is happening to her too, and there is nothing we can do to help each other. 

After everyone has taken a turn in the chair, Marian speaks again. 

“As this is the last room on the tour, you are free to split up and explore individually. We find that the ghosts are more willing to present themselves when there is less human presence in a single area.”

At first I wonder if I will be able to obey her directions. My feet are stuck to the floor. I can’t move a muscle, but as Marian releases the group, the force on my ankles dissipates and I find myself able to walk. My breathing slows down and loses its heaviness, and I begin to wonder if it was all a part of my imagination. Maybe I wasn’t cursed. Maybe there were no ghosts. Maybe my feet were never held in place. Maybe it was all in my head. After all, most things were. A wave of assurance collapses over me as I steady my thoughts, and walk with Brooke to explore the underground separate from the group. We stride through dark empty corridors laughing and whispering. Both of us seem to have forgotten the chilling events from earlier, when we reach a destination that is all too familiar to me. The darkest hallway in all of the underground. The place which had previously been completely empty, except for a lightless shimmer. 

My breathing is heavy again as I remember the events that had taken place here only 20 minutes ago. I shake the thoughts out of my head. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. The shimmer had been a figment of my imagination. That, I was smart enough to know. 

Attempting to distract myself from my own mind, I silently sneak up behind Brooke and poke her in between her shoulder blades. She lets out a yelp and turns around in a surge of terror. When all she sees is me standing behind her and laughing she reaches out and gives me a harmless shove. I push her back, and soon we have forgotten everything about the ghost tour. We are wrestling and laughing with each other like nothing bad has ever happened. Until we’re not. 

I’m bent over laughing when it happens. A rush of cold air overwhelms me and I immediately stand upright. It is when I look up that I realize that the shimmer in the hallway wasn’t in my head. None of it was in my head. 

Standing in front of me is the outline of a girl around the age of eight. She is formed of the same shimmery material I saw earlier. It is visible in the darkness, but isn’t light. The girl has mid-length curly hair with a colorless bow tied in it. She is wearing a 19th century style dress, which might have been colorful once, but is now the same shade as the rest of her: a translucent milky white. 

I am frozen for a second before I let out an ear-piercing scream and dart down the hallway, Brooke close behind me. 

I am running and running and suddenly I find myself out of breath. I keel over in the hallway leading to the ghost room, and turn to Brooke as I catch my breath. Her face is pale, her eyes wide with terror. She has seen the same things I have, and this time I know I’m not imagining it. 

We look at each other in silence. There are no words to describe this present feeling of fear. 

A movement to my left catches my eye. A ball of hot pink yarn is rolling down the hallway towards the ghost room, leaving a long string behind it as it travels. 

I know I shouldn’t move, but my curiosity overtakes my intelligence, and I grab Brooke’s hand as together we follow the yarn to the ghost room. 

With every step I take, my EMF reader glows brighter. I am blind to it’s flashing lights. I cannot stop myself from walking down the hallway—my trance is unbroken. The ball of yarn inches slowly towards the door with Brooke and I close behind in an unbroken trance. I am unsure whether I am moving by my own free will or under the control of someone else, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change my fate. 

With a sharp intake of breath, I turn to my left and enter the ghost room. 

I feel prepared for anything when I enter the room but what I see still sends shivers up my spine. The room looks almost exactly the same as it did the last time I was in here, with one tremendous difference. 

The ghost chair is occupied. 

Sitting in it is an old man, with the same translucent, pasty complexion as the young girl in the hallway. He has a scraggly beard traveling down his neck and wears old-fashioned torn and dirty clothing. I recognize him immediately from a portrait I had seen less than an hour ago. This is Peter Bennet. 

I am again frozen in my place. Only one thought moves through my mind. There is no denying it. It’s real. It’s all real. 

Slowly Peter raises his head, gradually transferring his gaze from the floor to Brooke and I. 

“GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!!!” He yells, startling me out of my skin. 

“HOW DARE YOU!!! LEAVE, LEAVE, LEAVE!!!” His voice shakes the floor and echoes around the room with a shout of rage. 

Suddenly he stands from the ghost chair and bolts toward us, his steps thumping against the concrete floor. 

Brooke instinctively backs up and trips into the small ancient closet that used to be a bathroom outside of the ghost room. With a slam that echoes around the entire underground, the door closes. 

Brooke screams and screams. The door shakes and rocks as she pounds on it, but it doesn’t open. I am about to run and help her, when Peter turns on me. 

I run in the other direction, back down the hallway towards the dark room. I attempt to move past it and back into the butcher shop, but I am cornered before I can make the effort. Surrounding me now are the other tourists exploring the underground, except now they are different. Each one has a blue haze surrounding them, similar to one possessed by the little girl I had seen in the hallway. 

They weren’t friendly, modern tourists anymore either. Instead of the vacation clothing they had previously been wearing, every tourist was now draped in old fashioned trousers, tunics, and heavy boots. 

One thing made sense to me as they begin to surround me and force me to re-enter the dark room. They were never really tourists. 

I scream with indignance as I am forced into the room, but it is no use. Within seconds, I am surrounded in darkness and again overwhelmed with a feeling of unbearable heaviness. I turn around as my eyes adjust to the darkness, and immediately wish I hadn’t. Behind me in corner in the dark room is a pale and bloodless corpse hanging from the ceiling. Another scream escapes my throat as I run towards the exit, but I cannot escape. The former tourists are surrounding the door, preventing any sort of departure. 

I am now so petrified with fear that I cannot make another noise, but the underground is in no way silent. Peter Bennet can be heard muttering in the other room, his voice quieted but his words no less intense. As the former tourists sweep delicately but forcefully across the floor, a slight rush of wind causes a sweeping noise. Worst of all are Brooke’s screams. She is still pounding at the door, attempting to break out from the inescapable prison. Peter Bennet raises his whispers to a shout again, and within seconds, Brooke’s screams go silent. The worst thought clouds my head before I shoot back with optimism: she’s escaped. She has to have escaped. She’s going to find help now. I can’t bear to think of the obvious fact that this might not be true. 

I hold back sobs as the tourist ghosts begin to clear a path. The path is not for me. Instead, Marian walks down the center, with the same blue haze surrounding her. Only now, I recognize her as someone else. Her makeup has been washed away and she is wearing different clothing: a nineteenth century dress with heavy brown boots. I recognize who she really is at that moment, from a drawing she herself had shown to me. 

“Abigail,” I say out loud to her, as she approaches where I stand. She smiles maliciously and lays her hand on my shoulder, causing a sharp shiver to travel down my spine. She leans down, and whispers in my ear. 

“I am going to kill you,” she says, a phrase that finally fits her soft and ghostly voice. I am too frozen to say anything. “You should have left this ghost tour when you had the chance,” she continues to whisper. “Although, before you die you should know that there never was a ghost tour at all—only us.”

A wave of realization crashes upon me. How I had never seen any of the other tourists enter the shop. How none of them ever spoke. How Marian, Abigail now, had seemed off putting to me the moment I had stepped in the room. How nobody else on the street seemed to notice the sign that said “ghost tour.” How nobody else seemed to notice that the butcher shop was even there. 

Abigail reaches into her pocket. For what, I will never find out. I bolt before she has a chance to reveal it, darting down the path that the ghosts have cleared. They snarl and chase after me, but I am too fast. I race to the bathroom door and throw it open, thinking to reunite with my best friend, and instead being subject to a horrible site. 

Brooke is lying crumpled on the floor, dead. A trickle of blood is spilling from her head, and the warm breath that usually fogs up her glasses in cold spaces is nowhere to be seen. With one last ray of hope I fall to the ground, and place my hand on her wrist, praying that I would feel a slight pulse. There is nothing. Her wrist is cold and flimsy. She is gone. 

I let out a pure sob of sadness. My best friend, the person who I had grown up with, my roommate, the person who was truly more of a sister than a friend, is dead. I am too filled with grief to notice the ghosts surrounding me. 

I am brought back from my haze of emotions by a sharp pain in my back. Abigail stands behind me, a knife dripping a red liquid in her hand. She says something, a smirk on her face, but I can’t hear her. I am lonely and broken as the last waves of life flood from my body.

To my surprise, in a few moments I can breathe again. The world looks different now. There are no ghosts. No pain. I stand up slowly and stumble across the floor, not even noticing that I am leaving my body behind me. 

Suddenly the basement is filled with light. In rush a dozen emergency workers and paramedics with bright flashlights and medical tools, talking in words that I can’t seem to process. I bolt to the other side of the basement. I sit on the floor that once seemed cold, but now has no temperature at all. A movement to my right causes me to turn my head. Brooke sits down next to me, but she is not hurt anymore. There is no blood spilling from her forehead. She is surrounded by a blue aura, and it only takes me a few moments to realize that I am too. 

We huddle together, both not saying a word as the paramedics remove our bodies from the scene. They are still talking, to each other and into various hand-held radios, but for whatever reason I cannot hear them. Soon they clear the scene, and all that is left is darkness. 

I am silent. The world is silent. A figure appears before me…a familiar figure. A little girl in a Victorian dress stands before me, holding out her hand. With no hesitancy, I take it, and the only sound I can hear is the faint rush of wind as I fade away into nothing. Nothing at all. 

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