Taya sat at the end of the front row in the lecture hall. The classroom was nearly empty except for Henry and herself. The second week of the fall semester was drawing to a close and their final class of the week had been unceremoniously canceled. They didn’t receive the text until after they’d arrived at an empty lecture hall. It was Henry who had insisted that they used this empty classroom and free time to finish some work.
“We can free up our weekend.” He said.
She agreed, seeing the pragmatism of the idea, albeit reluctantly. Her mind wasn’t on the homework displayed on her computer screen. Her attention was focused instead on the school paper, The Ocelot Bugle, its story covering the strange events that had been happening since the fall semester started. All around campus people told stories about the recent rise in activity from the University's ghosts.
There were several examples. The ghost in the old library was blamed for the sudden power outages in the downstairs computer labs, the librarians theorizing it was in retaliation for moving most of the books to the new library across campus. The ghost in the Art Department basement was blamed for the missing art supplies which inexplicably ended up scattered around the outside bushes. Students leaving their evening classes at Mary Miller Hall swore they could hear the sound of horses clomping around outside.
According to the university police, the blame for these strange events was placed upon the Greek Houses, as a result of rush week.
As a side note, every Greek House took offense at being blamed for that, of all things. The author wrote, getting a chuckle out of Taya.
Continuing to scan the article, the school made assurances that the events could be easily explained. But faculty and staff members were divided and several notable professors vehemently disagreed. The janitors had claimed to see Samuel, the ghost boy reported to haunt the police station, appear physically before them in broad daylight. Dr. Milkenson of the History Department had sworn he’d seen the Union Widow walking up and down the hallway. Others claimed to see less friendly things, like moving shadows.
Taya was fascinated. People spoke often of the things they’d encountered on the college grounds. Ever since the days before it even was a college.
Heatherton is often forgotten about town in the southeast of Texas, rich with history. It was named in honor of Heather Douglas, the wife of town founder George Douglas. From its founding in 1830, in time for the Texas Revolution, its founding couple, George and Heather Douglas, provided support for revolutionary soldiers at Fort King. After the revolution, the small settlement began to thrive and the town grew. When the Civil War reared its ugly head the Douglas family supported the soldiers on the side of the confederacy, save Heather and her favorite son Richard, who staunchly supported the North. Heather and her youngest son, John, were the only ones to survive the war, a noticeable divide between them that lasted until Heather’s passing.
After the war, Heather set about creating a university for the town. She picked an open field where several battles took place, surrounded by old buildings where those great and awful wars left a reminder of their presence. As if doing so would erase those painful memories, Heather set about building the university. What would become the University campus library was once the old hospital. The art building and its two wings were once the cavalry building. The campus police station was once the town's old jail. The giant ebony tree beside it was the infamous hanging tree. It was supposed to represent the towns resilience and its desire to move forward into the new century.
But the past would not be forgotten. Like scars etched deep into the skin, so too were the ghosts of that brief and bloody period of violence in Heatherton’s young history.
The university grounds alone had enough activity to get any eager ghost hunters hot and bothered. In theory. Taya may have believed in the supernatural but never having seen a ghost, on campus or anywhere else, she’d kept a healthy sense of skepticism. She’d known people who made claims to have seen them. Recently it seemed the campuses local ghosts were acting out more than usual, eager for attention. Attention for what and why no one knew. Perhaps it had something to do with the growing darkness, a giant shadow that had loomed over the campus since the semester began, a sign that something was wrong.
Looking back on it, if she had tried to pay a little more attention to what was happening, it might have saved all of them some trouble.
It was growing late and Taya was getting nowhere with her school work. "Henry let's just go. I’d rather just finish my work at home."
Henry, deep in concentration, took a deep breath and exhaled. "OK. Just let me finish these last few paragraphs."
Leaning back into her chair she felt disappointment. Out of all of her classes, she’d been most looking forward to starting her new school year studying at the Astronomy Lab. Heatherton University boasted numerous majors in different branches and more than half the campus had a different building dedicated solely to said major. For Taya, this one was her favorite. With a generous donation made by long-time benefactors, the Riordan family (hence its official title being the Riordan Astronomy Lab) provided a well-furnished, two-story building. It carried an 18.5" refracting telescope and the best part, to Taya at least, was what the student body affectionately referred to as the Trek Lab.
The observational astronomy lab was based on the old Star Trek command center, right down to the color scheme and chairs. Students, teachers, and visitors could tour around the observatory and looking through a double-sided window where the students worked. What was doubly impressive was that it had access to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, to study gravitational waves.
Except things weren't going as Taya had imagined. From the moment she stepped foot into the building something seemed wrong. She got a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach that wouldn't go away. There was a heaviness in the air that made it hard to breathe sometimes. It was always too dark in the hallways and in the classrooms, now especially. Even when all the lights were on, there were shadows everywhere. More than once she had the sensation she was being watched. Taya would swear that she had seen something moving in the darkness, out of the corner of her eye, just out of her peripheral vision. Not that anyone would have believed her.
Well, certain someone would have, she thought sadly.
Taya noticed something was moving toward them out of the corner of her eye. She turned her head, thinking it was another student, but only Henry and herself were here. She rubbed her tired eyes and leaned forward in her chair when she saw something move past her feet on the floor.
"What was that?" She asked.
"Hmm?" Henry hummed in question, too distracted to notice anything.
She was beginning to wonder if there would be an outbreak of rats next. Swiveling to her left to speak with Henry when she paused. She saw a shadow, like a black blot hovering on the wall across from her. She turned around, no one else was here but them. She turned back to look at it but it had disappeared. Taya turned in her seat to look for it. It wasn't on the walls or on the floor. Where had it gone? Could she have imagined it? No, that was too vivid to not be real, Taya thought.
A sudden hush fell over the room. Standing up, she walked around her desk and came to stand in the center of the room. She turned around, saw Henry sitting at his desk, hunched over at his computer. From where she was standing she could also see herself, sitting at her desk. She heard a growl from behind her. Blinking, Taya found herself sitting back in her chair, her mind dizzy. A sudden compulsion to look up made her lift her eyes to the ceiling. A black blob moved from side-to-side like a pacing tiger. She was more curious than afraid at first, uncertain if it was dangerous or not.
The shadow had ceased its pacing right above Taya. She craned her neck as far back as it could go, unable to look away. She became acutely aware of how cold the room had become. A scream tried to escape her mouth but found she had no voice to use. Her mouth opened, defiantly trying to make some sort of noise but she could only release a noiseless gasp. All she could do was to look upwards. The shadow was just a pit of darkness. Like a black hole that would suck her into itself to an unknown, terrible fate. It was as inhuman as anything could be, yet she could sense it was looking at her. It wanted something from her and she was helpless to stop it.
She felt her body pull forward so that her head touched her desk. A series of horrible images invaded her mind and she felt a heavy pressure pushing her down against her back. Violent images flashed in and out of her mind like flashes of lightning. People burning, bodies strewn around the ground like discarded dolls. Taya saw herself on the ground, beaten and helpless. Taya could hear people screaming, the smell of smoke, blood and dead things. She wanted to throw up, to scream, to cry. Henry. He was right beside her and he couldn’t see what was happening.
No. Her mind screamed. No! This isn’t real! Leave me alone!
The shadow was laughing, mocking her. It sounded human. That made it so much worse. That such an inhuman thing could sound so much like a person seemed wrong. Her cheek lay against the desk, a cold hand gripping her neck roughly. Icy fingers digging into her flesh like knives. She felt the cold until all she felt was a numbness envelope her and her thoughts began to slip away...
A feeling of bright hot anger surged through her. She didn't want to be this thing’s victim. It had no right to hurt her. It had no right to do any of this. In her mind, Taya forced herself to get up, stand up and fight back. She closed her eyes, concentrated, focusing her rage to fight against it.
A warmth moved to the rest of her body and the cold had disappeared. She moved her head to the other side and in doing so the images in her mind turned. The invisible figure that had assaulted her mind became visible. What she saw was not what she expected. Standing before her was someone who was very much human. A thirty-something white man with red hair so light it looked nearly blonde, with shining blue eyes wearing an attractive suit. This, she realized, was the shadow that was attacking her. A wave of red hot anger swelled up inside her. That anger burst from her like a wildfire. With a sneer, the man vanished. Only a shadow remained.
Her eyes snapped open at hearing Henry's voice. She lifted her head meeting his gaze. His concern was gentle and quiet. When she felt a warm hand on her forehead she felt herself be pulled back to her body. She took several deep jagged breaths. Her heart was pounding so hard inside her, like a frightened bird trying to escape. She blinked, rubbing the sweat from her forehead and eyes. He looked to the ceiling but saw nothing except the bright fluorescent lights.
"Taya, are you alright?” Henry asked. “You look sick.”
He wasn’t wrong. She ran out of the room and only made it to the nearest trash can in time to vomit up her small dinner, yet it felt like she was throwing up her whole stomach. Henry had followed her, his concern for her palpable. Without a word he pulled back her long black hair and patted her back reassuringly.
"Taya what’s wrong?" He asked gently, the quiver in his voice betraying his fear and concern.
"I'm fine." She lied. She would be once she had left this building far behind her. Taya took a deep breath and exhaled. Suddenly every shadow or dark spot in the building seemed alive and watching her. She wouldn’t stay here another second longer.
"We need to leave." She told him. Henry nodded his agreement. "Yeah. I'll take you home." He helped her up, legs shaking, mouth tasting like vomit and nose burning. She was exhausted and she was afraid. There was nothing that could make her step foot into that classroom again, she couldn’t even bring herself to look inside. Henry had gone back to collect their things. Every second felt like an hour. She couldn’t walk to the car fast enough.
A flash of lightning and then a crash of thunder boomed in front of them.
“A storm’s heading right towards us. Looks like things are going to get pretty nasty.” Henry said aloud, keeping a careful eye on Taya.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could just make out the figure of a person standing at the doorway of the building. It disappeared when she dared to turn and look. Climbing into the car, face pale as chalk, she slammed the door and sank further into the seat.
“Take me home, please.” She begged.
That night she slept with all the lights on. Her dreams were full of terrible things, visions of shadows watching her. Ready to grab her and never let go.
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