By: Isaac James Baker
“It’s not much farther,” Ari said.
“Sure,” Cy laughed. “You said that fifteen minutes ago.”
“Hey!” Marcos shot back. “No one’s makin’ you do this. We’re fine going ahead without you.” He spat a thick wad on the ground and pulled a cigarette out of the pack in his jeans pocket. Pointing the lighter at Cy, he said, “If you don’t like it, go back to the newsroom.”
“C’mon,” Cy said. “I’m not trying to be a pain in the ass. Just anxious to get to this place.”
“We always get where we’re going,” Marcos said. After lighting his cigarette he turned and stomped down the train tracks, kicking at stray rocks and sticks.
Cy clicked his pen and scribbled in his notebook as he walked. Marcos: We always get where we’re going.
As he followed a few dozen steps behind, Cy looked at the canopy of trees above him. After years of neglect — it must’ve been decades since a train had last shaken these tracks — the railroad had ceded ground to poplar trees, dandelion weeds and scruffy thistle bushes. A single sunflower, its face pointed toward the September sun, stuck up defiantly from between two rotted wooden ties.
“Clark Kent over here is a virgin,” Ari said to Marcus. “He’s never been exploring like this before, let alone breaking into an abandoned asylum. He’s a little shaky. Take it easy on him.”
“I’m right here,” Cy said. “I can hear you.” Neither of his guides turned to acknowledge him. “And I’m fine. This is no big deal. I’ve been through a lot worse.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Marcos said. “We haven’t even gotten to the tunnel yet.” As Marcos walked the thick muscles in the back of his neck and shoulders shifted like pistons. “But I’m curious: You ever break federal and state laws while on a story?”
“Not exactly,” Cy jogged a few paces, hustling to keep up. The steel-toed boots Ari told him to buy were digging into his heels, making it painful to walk over the rocks scattered around the tracks. “This might be a first. And I’m not sure about the journalistic ethic of breaking and entering for the sake of a story.”
Marcos laughed loudly. “Ethics? You gotta be kidding me.” He turned his head and blew a cloud of smoke toward Cy. Marcos’ teeth were chipped, cracked and crooked, like old gravestones. “Don’t tell me you seriously think about the ethics of a story before you run out and cover it.”
“I try to,” Cy said.
“A reporter with a conscience?” Marcos threw his hands up in the air like he was praying. “You hear that, Ari?”
“A cop’s reporter, no less,” Ari replied.
“Those are the worst kind,” Marcos mumbled just coherently enough for Cy to hear.
“Maybe,” Cy said, “but I work in Frederick-fucking-Maryland. It’s not exactly a glamorous position.”
“No big stories?” Ari asked, speaking calmly, like he genuinely wanted to know.
“I’ve had my share. It’s a strange place. Small town kind of feel, but some crazy stuff does happen there.”
“Do tell,” Ari said.
“Yeah,” Marcos huffed. “Share your war stories with us.”
“Well, I cover a lot of fatals. I mean fatal wrecks. Cars, motorcycles. Lot of drunks.”
“So you seen a lot of dead people, right?” Marcos asked. “How many?”
Cy didn’t respond — that’s what Marcos wanted. He focused on keeping one foot in front of the other, careful not to catch his boots on a rock or railroad spike. They had been walking for half an hour, and Cy’s feet were killing him. He wondered how a pair of hundred dollar boots could be so horribly painful. His lower back was getting tired too, his backpack weighed down with all the supplies Ari told him to bring: bottles of water, a flashlight, a hooded sweatshirt, high-calorie protein bars.
“You know,” Cy started, “I covered a hunting accident for the first time this year.”
“Yeah?” Ari asked.
“A deer hunter shot another one dead in the woods. He supposedly mistook the other guy for a buck.”
“Fucking idiots,” Marcos said. “Rednecks and deer don’t look nothin’ alike.”
Ari slapped Marcos playfully on the elbow, as if to tell him to tone it down a notch. “What else do you report on?” Ari asked. “Besides, of course, guys who spend their weekends hiking to dilapidated mental institutions.”
“I cover the courts, too. So, that’s cool. You get your pedophiles getting charged, drug dealers getting sentenced.”
“Sounds like Pulitzer Prize quality stuff there,” Marcos said.
Cy had to admit: Marcos was doing a masterful job at getting under his skin. Cy wasn’t particularly proud of his job. After all, he’d studied journalism at NYU. Two years out of college, he still clung to his childhood dreams of becoming a foreign correspondent, reporting on uprisings in countries where the people were dirt poor and crudely armed, following Marines as they blasted their way through the barraged streets of Basra. He began freelancing after school, but ended up waiting tables in West Village yuppie bars to supplement his meager and sporadic paychecks.
Cy got fed up with his inability to catch a break. So he turned his back on New York and, on a whim, took a job as a staff writer with The Frederick News-Post, a small daily paper in a small town smack dab in the center of Maryland. He’d only been to this amoeba-shaped state a few times before taking the job, always passing through it on his way to somewhere else.
It was only a few months before the steady work and the decent paycheck began to numb his body and mind. He didn’t go out much. There were no good music clubs. He had trouble meeting women, only got laid intermittently, and never by women he found particularly attractive. He began to settle into a routine for the first time in his life: perusing farmer’s markets on Saturdays, reading Steven King novels in Starbucks, smoking weed in his kitchen nook. He rarely daydreamed of traveling to Chechnya to follow Muslim rebels or even visiting California’s San Joaquin Valley to do a story on undocumented migrant workers.
His lack of wild and dangerous fantasies scared him. He was getting way too comfortable. He needed a jolt.
So he scrolled the internet for story ideas, Googling “Frederick, Maryland” along with phrases like neo-Nazis, meth houses, Rwandan refugees, mental patients. He needed something that would get him out of his desk chair, off of the reporter’s bench at the Frederick County Court House, out of the central booking waiting room with its scuffed walls and wet dog stench.
One morning, as he was waiting on a call back from the Maryland State Police spokeswoman about a fatal wreck, he stumbled across a website covered in pictures of crumbling rooftops and decrepit plaster walls. In a bright green font against a black background, someone who went by the screen name WalkThroughTheShadow had typed a blog entry about the place. Intrigued, Cy began to read it.
Hope Springs Mental Hospital. Hope Springs? Yeah, right. Hope? Abandon it, ye who enter here. In the 50s, this facility in Frederick County held some of the most dangerous mental patients on the East Coast.
It’s about 75 miles west of Baltimore, but it might as well be another world. Despite the GPS in my car, FearNoEvil and I got lost at least three times driving around on windy roads looking for the abandoned tracks. When we finally spotted the tracks from a road near the riverbed, we thought we were close. We were wrong. Our trip was just beginning.
You’ve got to hike five miles down a rusted train track and trudge through a nearly endless tunnel with no lights before getting there. The tunnel is so long, you start to wonder if you’ll ever get through. And, you wonder, if you do get through: Will this place even exist?
But it does exist, alright, buried deep out of sight, accessible only to those who are curious or nuts enough to seek it out. The first time I saw it I thought it looked like a gray, decaying Oz. But once you reach the facility, it’s all open. No barbed wire, no fences, nothing but sixteen buildings, each in various stages of disrepair.
Cy scrolled down to the bottom of the blog. It was written on August 28, three weeks earlier. The last sentence read: “I can’t wait to go back here in mid-September!” There was a contact link at the bottom of the page. Cy clicked it and an email address popped up.
A week later, Cy was trampling along that same railroad he’d read about in the blog, WalkThroughTheShadow (Ari) and his long-time explorer comrade, FearNoEvil (Marcos), leading the way. The ground rules had been set in their email correspondence, but they discussed the matter again as they hiked down the tracks toward Hope Springs. Ari made Cy promise he would only use their screen names in the article.
“We’re s’posed to take him at his word?” Marcos said as the three of them prepped for the hike by the riverbed. “A reporter’s word is about as good as a whore’s court testimony.”
“I’m gonna take a risk and believe you,” Ari said to Cy. “You look like a guy who keeps his word.”
“Thanks,” Cy said.
Cy also agreed to let Ari and Marcos scroll through his digital SLR camera after the trip just to make sure they couldn’t be identified in any of the shots. Ari, a psychology student, said he had a reputation to uphold. He couldn’t have professors, supervisors or prospective employers knowing his weekend hobby consisted of scaling barbed wire fences and breaking into abandoned asylums and derelict slaughterhouses.
Marcos agreed with Ari, but for slightly different reasons. “I can’t be caught breaking into no federal property,” he told Cy. “Let’s just say there’s things in my past I don’t want catching up with me.”
Cy swallowed his journalistic instinct to push for more information. He pulled the notebook out of his back pocket and scribbled: Marcos = criminal history? Something up. Always looking over his shoulder as we trudge down the tracks. Tattoo of a beautiful woman on his forearm. R.I.P. in big letters below it. Wife? Marcos = widower? An iron cross on his left, Old English script. Prison tat?
“Another rule,” Marcos added. “It’s like they say at state parks: Take nothin’ but pictures. Leave nothin’ but footprints.” The cherry of his cigarette had burned down to the filter. He bent over and brushed the red tip against a rusted rail spike. Wisps of smoke rose into the air. He stuck the crumpled butt into the back pocket of his jeans. “See,” he said, turning to Cy, speaking to him as if he were a disobedient child. “Nothin’ but footprints.”
“Gotcha,” Cy knelt on the rotted wood ties between the tracks, lined his camera up and snapped a few shots of the tracks snaking through the densely wooded area they’d just hiked through. A black squirrel darted across his field of vision, and stopped right before the tracks, twitching its head back and forth like it was looking both ways before crossing. Cy zoomed in on its face and snapped a shot. Nice, he thought. It might even be one for his portfolio.
He slung his camera strap over his shoulder and ran to catch up. “Ari, how did you get into this — this exploring thing?”
“Well, for one of my research papers at Hopkins, I wrote about changes in the mental health field during the 1950s. Came across a picture of Hope Springs in an old medical journal.”
“It was crazy reading about what went on at that place,” Ari said. “So crazy that I had to go see it for myself.”
Ari recited a brief history of Hope Springs, a history Cy had become somewhat familiar with after poking through records in the County Library before the trip.
“This place was built right after World War II. And you couldn’t access it from any public roads. It was the kind of complex that was meant to be kept in the dark, to keep disturbed people out of public view. The only way to get in and out was through this railroad. Now, you’ve got to hike in, like this.”
“So what kind of people were held at Hope Springs?”
“Men who thought they were gods or demons, women who killed their children, a man who kidnapped an eight-year-old and cut her up as a sacrifice to Baal. We’ll definitely stop by his room. Just wait until you get a load of what that guy carved into the wall. You can still see it.”
“Jesus.” Cy scribbled while walking, an art he’d mastered long ago: Patients locked up together, but they were all living in their own worlds, terrifying worlds that existed only in their minds. Dozens of individual universes all centered on one spot. Spice up the philosophical aspect. Readers love that shit.
Some of the patients thought they were gods, others demons. Which were which? At this facility, it wasn’t always easy to tell. Great line.
“No one knows how many people passed through its doors either. The administration building, which housed all the records, burned down in a mysterious fire in 1959.”
“I read that investigators suspected arson,” Cy said.
“Yup,” Ari replied. “But no charges were ever filed. It closed not too long after that, which was a good thing. This place was never about rehabilitation or humane care. It was about locking people up.” He took a swig of water from the canteen attached to his belt loop and smacked his lips. “Institutionalized… for years and years with no idea of whether you’ll get out… Can you imagine?”
WalkThroughTheShadow trudged on, eyes ever on the road in front of him. Hiking with a purpose: to see Hope Springs, to explore what lay behind its crumbling walls. And, just maybe, to learn something about himself.
They walked in silence for several minutes, only the sounds of boots on rock, the whirring of gnats and horseflies, the dull hum of a distant stream.
“How many of these trips have you guys done?” Cy asked.
“Been all around the East Coast, right Marcos?”
“Yep. Even Ohio. Indiana, too.”
“That’s right,” Ari replied. “That old pharmaceutical factory in Gary.”
“That was fuckin’ crazy.”
“All in all, we’ve probably been to about fifty spots together,” Ari explained. “Everything from a dilapidated cement plant near Pittsburgh to an abandoned orphanage in West Virginia.”
More than fifty places, including an abandoned orphanage in West Virginia. Orphanages: places for those who had been abandoned. Buildings now abandoned. Focus on the tragic irony here. Awesome.
“How’d you guys meet?”
“We heard about each other through other explorer friends,” Ari said. “We both checked out a shuttered sausage factory in Baltimore in… What was that? Ninety-eight?”
“Ninety-nine,” Marcos said. “Cuz I’d just gotten out.”
Gotten out? That explains some things now, doesn’t it?
“You guys are serious urban explorers, huh?”
“Urban explorers are what some people call us,” Ari said. “Although, I think it’s kind of a misnomer. You can’t call the place we’re headed urban, not in any real sense of the word.”
“What do you call it then?”
“I don’t know,” Ari said, shrugging. “Marcos?”
“Don’t know either,” Marcos mumbled. He lit another cigarette.
A turkey vulture soared above them, its tough feathers spread out like bony fingers. Cy huffed. It would be hard to write an article about something he couldn’t even name. “Rural exploring?”
Marcos spat out a laugh. “That sounds ridiculous, man.”
Marcos = seems at home on the railroad, like he worked construction. Probably the only kind of job he could ever hold down.
Up ahead Cy saw a large cliff, shards of rock jutting out from its face like compound fractures. The tracks crawled up to the mouth of the mountain and then split right through it. The tunnel carved into the cliff was lined with faded bricks and covered in decades of dried lichen and moss. Gnarled vines stretched over the opening like long clumps of dead hair. Cy shuddered.
Standing at the mouth of the tunnel, Cy felt his chest tighten. He pulled his Mag Lite from his backpack and flicked the button. Nothing. He slapped it against his hand and shook it but it still didn’t turn on. He unscrewed the cap at the base and checked the batteries. Yes, he’d put them in correctly. Cy smacked it again. Nothing. “Shit!”
“What?” asked Marcos.
“Flashlight’s busted. I just fucking bought it yesterday.”
“You went into this trip without testing your light?”
“Testing it? Well…”
“Would you go into battle with an untested weapon?”
“Battle? What the hell are you… Look, it’s a Mag Lite,” Cy said defensively. “They’re supposed to work.”
“Supposed to,” Marcos said, his voice clogged with sarcasm. He grinned at Cy and shook his head.
Cy could tell that Marcos found his misfortune both hilarious and pathetic. The tattooed explorer loved watching him fuck up. He was probably just waiting for Cy to fall through a hole in the roof of a Hope Springs building or trip over some rusted metal rod and tear up his shins. “I’m fine without one,” Cy lied.
Marcos flicked on his flashlight, a bulky yellow one that looked similar to those used by contractors, and stepped into the tunnel. “Follow close behind us. I don’t want to have to haul your ass back to the car if you break your fuckin’ ankle.”
Cy scratched at his eyebrow. As a reporter, he had a naturally thick skin, but this Marcos guy was digging hard. “Prick,” Cy mumbled under his breath, loud enough so that he felt better having said it but not nearly loud enough for Marcos to actually hear.
Ari and Marcos stepped into the darkness together. Cy took a deep breath and nearly choked. His legs shaking, he followed them in.
It was much colder inside the tunnel. He shivered, the hairs on his forearms spiking up. He couldn’t see the walls around him very well, and he was overcome by the feeling that he would barely be able to squeeze through. The dark, pressing anxiety sped up his heart. His lungs tightened and stung with each breath. As he walked, he kept his head tucked in close to his shoulders like he was afraid he’d smack it on the brick ceiling.
He was losing control.
Knowing Marcos would give him hell for it, Cy didn’t dare say anything about the claustrophobia that had plagued him since he was ten, ever since several kids on his block threw him down a storm drain and covered it with trash can lids, locking him in dark muck for hours.
The tunnel was exceptionally long. Cy could barely make out the end of it. All he could see was a white speck like a lone star in the middle of a black expanse. Ari and Marcos’ shot beams of light in front of them that bounced around as they walked. He was on the right, his flashlight emitting a broad scope of light, while Ari’s, on the left, shot out a more focused beam. Through the white slices Cy could see that the air inside the tunnel was filled with dust. Clouds of it puffed up from the ground as his guides trudged ahead of him. It stung his eyes and coated his mouth with grit, forcing him to cough.
“Scared yet?” Marcos’ voice bounced off the tunnel walls and dissipated into the darkness.
“No,” Cy said. “Just looking forward to getting to this place already.”
“It’s all part of the journey,” Ari said.
If it wasn’t pitch dark and he wasn’t about to freak out, Cy would’ve written that quote down. He told himself to remember it for later. “After we get through this tunnel,” Cy called out, his voice shaking, “we’ll be close to Hope Springs, right?”
“It’s just on the other side,” Ari said. “We’ll be there soon.”
Not soon enough, Cy thought. The tunnel reeked of rotting animals and ammonia. The smell singed his nostrils. He accidentally stepped into a puddle of stagnant water that felt like garbage juice beneath his boots. Cy shook his leg, flinging globs of foul-smelling goop onto the ground. For a few seconds, the three men’s boots crunched in unison. Then each broke into his own rhythm, thumping in the dark.
A loud crash ricocheted through the tunnel. Marcos’ flashlight dropped with a crack, and the beam of light shot around before going out. Then, screams.
“Jesus!” Ari shouted. “Marcos!”
Marcos let out a choked cry, followed by deep guttural moans. Cy ran forward to where he had last seen Marcos, following the painful sounds. As he came close, Ari pointed his flashlight toward the ground, where it caught Marcos’ face. The light forced his eyes closed, but the agony was evident on his face: gritted teeth, tears squeezing out of the corners of his eyes, veins in his neck pulsing.
Cy couldn’t see Marcos’ lower body. For a moment, he thought Marcos had been cut in half somehow. Then he realized Marcos had fallen into a hole. A rusted sheet of metal covering a ventilation shaft had given out under his feet, swallowing half of him. Shredded spires of metal had speared his torso. Thick black blood soaked into his shirt, oozed from a shard of metal that had gored him close to the spine. Marcos’ scream only lasted a second or two before his throat gurgled. His head dropped forward and he fell silent.
Ari stuck two fingers underneath Marcos’ neck. “He’s still got a pulse, but he’s passed out from shock.” Ari pointed his flashlight into the vent, and Cy could see that it was about a thirty-foot drop to a cement landing that was covered in a maze of pipes and valves. The only thing keeping Marcos from falling was the metal hunks sticking into his midsection.
“C’mon!” Ari yelled at Cy. “We gotta help him!”
“How? He’s fucking stuck!” Cy could feel his heart rate speeding up, hammering in his chest. “Aren’t you supposed to not move someone when they’re stuck like this?”
“What the fuck do you know?” Ari tried tearing Marcos’ shirt to get a better look at the wounds, but couldn’t. It looked to Cy like the strength in Ari’s arms had been drained.
“We gotta get an ambulance or something,” Cy shouted.
“We can’t just leave him here. And where are we gonna get an ambulance? Look where we are, man!”
“It looks like he’s dead.”
Ari stuck the flashlight in Cy’s face. “Shut the fuck up! You hear me? Don’t you say another fucking word!”
Cy stood and stepped back. He checked his back pocket for his notebook, still stuck tightly. His hands were shaking, badly. He was losing it.
“Here’s what we’ll do.” Ari’s voice shook. “We’ll take off our shirts. Pull him up, use the shirts to stop the bleeding. Carry him back.”
Cy swallowed hard. “I don’t know…”
“We gotta do something!” Ari yelled.
Cy took a deep breath. Slowly, he turned his back on Ari and Marcos. He turned his back on the other end of the tunnel, on Hope Springs, if it even existed out there in some deserted wood.
He no longer wanted any of it. By the dim light from Ari’s flashlight Cy found his way back to the tracks, stepping as quietly as he could with his clunky boots. He stood between the parallel iron rungs and gripped his hands into fists.
“What are you doing?” Ari called out. “You’ve got to help!”
Cy didn’t look back. He put one foot before the other. Again. Then again. Faster now. He was running. He was leaving the pitch tunnel and whatever else was on the other side of it. He was running back to where he came from, to safety.
Ari screamed curses at him, but Cy focused on his breathing, following the beat of his heart as his chest heaved. Fresh air was near. He was almost out of the tunnel. He pushed forward harder, pounding his boots on the ground.
Cy burst out into the daylight. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he ran even faster.
Isaac James Baker has worked as a freelance writer, editor and newspaper reporter, and he is currently finishing up a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University. His first novel, Broken Bones, based on the month he spent in a psychiatric ward, was published earlier this year. He blogs about “Reading, Writing & Wine” and tweets @IsaacJamesBaker.