Episode 14 – Breakthrough

**contains some strong language**

I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to get here. I just became so carried away with the first few months of the study that I chose to forget about the end. You know how it ended, but I’ve kept a lot of things to myself about that time.

Over the last few months my guilt has been growing like poison ivy, expanding until you can’t see anything else. You see I always knew there might be a connection, but ever since investigating who funded our study, remembering those last few months, last few cases, it’s become harder to deny the association.

So, I’ll start at the beginning of that sequence of events. Today, I’ll to tell you about the last medium we recruited to the study. It wasn’t intentional like the others had been, nor was it voluntary on their part. But their arrival marked the beginning of the end for me.

We’re jumping forward about two years from the other stories, but don’t worry, I still intend to tell everything that happened in between. We’d all grown to understand each other, to accept each other, and by that stage I was almost fond of Strother’s quirks. Almost.

My PhD thesis was coming along nicely, the light was on at the end of the tunnel, my time left on the study was short, and most importantly I’d managed to hide for nearly 3 years, all in plain sight. I was blissful in my ignorance that my past mistakes would come to haunt me.

The asylums of Victorian Britain still stand proudly in some corners of the country. Some have been renovated into other things, others pulled down so we can pretend to forget about our brutal misunderstanding of mental illness, and some, the occasional few, are left as monuments to it. As places where photographers go to capture the timeless essence of decay, of nature claiming back what is hers.

Unbelievably there are people who own them. Usually private individuals who once had a shiny plan which time has corroded into nothing. Sometimes these people get lucky and developers buy them, whilst to others they become a standing testament on how not to spend their money. Due to privacy reasons I can’t tell you who the owner was, or even the name of the building. From here on I’ll simply refer to it as the asylum.

The owner, who had bought it about 20 years previously, had been wanting to sell it for some time but had no offers. However, as soon as Strother told us about the request I knew why. This asylum had a reputation, as most abandoned buildings do, of being haunted. By this I mean so haunted TV series have stayed the night there. There’s an epidemic of witness accounts and stories attached to it of screaming, laughing, getting grabbed by an invisible force, being pushed, crying, you name it and someone’s probably reported it. Due to this kind of interest, the current owner had been unable to sell it. So, they wanted proof, once and for all, that there was nothing inside.

My opinion about places like this is that one or two accounts may be true, but the rest are usually fevered imaginations. It’s true in life that people only see things the way they want to, and haunted buildings are no different.

The email from the owner did sound more like a command than a request. They were willing to part with a considerable amount of money to get us to investigate, under the condition that we found nothing. On accepting, Strother refused the money and kept the right to report what he found to be true, whether haunted or not.

By this point in the study we’d found no proof of the paranormal. None of the ghosts, poltergeists, loops, wraiths, omens, or overseers I’d seen in the near 3 years on the study had ever been caught on any kind of device. Don’t worry, I’ll explain what an overseer is at some point. To the rest of the team this would just be another instance where there were no ghosts to be found, but to me there was endless possibility.

I’d been to my fair share of abandoned buildings, that’s why I ended up at the police station a few times when I was younger, but it’d been quite a while since I’d last stepped foot into one. There are very rarely hundreds of ghosts in the same place. From these stories you might think the world is full of ghosts, enough for there to be one per home, or one in every old building, but it’s not really like that. I only tell you about the places we went to that were haunted because there’s not usually story in the ones which weren’t.

One weekend in late winter or early spring, it’s always hard to tell in Scotland, we packed our things into the van and set off to the abandoned asylum. As had become my ritual I sat in the van on the way and read up on the building. It was a regular, if you’ll excuse the pun, haunt for photographers and there were hundreds of pictures online of variously touched up photos of both inside and outside the Gothic building. It looked more mansion than asylum, with long windows, turrets at each corner, and arches for doorways, along with decorative carved faces of what I could only assume were beings from folklore. This style of architecture was very popular when it was built in the 1850s to house the so-called “lunatics”. Obviously, this tended to include people with a varying range of mental illness. Those with depression would be treated the same as those with schizophrenia. If I lived back then I shudder to think if I’d be put into one.

Due to its reputation, and the state of the inside, most of the pictures gave it a sense of isolation. An eerie place no one dared go near in the dark. The asylum, after many name changes over the decades, had been closed to the public in the 60s and had changed hands a few times until the current owner. The pictures of the wards and empty staircases looked like something from a film set. The paint was peeling from the walls until it resembled the scaly back of a reptile, the floor was covered in debris from the bits of ceiling that had fallen off, shards of glass from the decimated windows and dead leaves that had blown in during the cold autumn. The most poignant detail to me was that there were still a few beds in the wards, stripped down to the frame and springs, but they painted a grim picture nonetheless.

I had mixed feelings about the asylum on the drive and after my research. There was no reason for it to be haunted, and yet there was every reason. How much misery had happened inside? What terrible events would be so strong that they would resonate down the centuries? What tormented souls were denied peace in death when they’d had none in life?

Even now, visiting places like that fills me with an inexplicable sense of dread. Most of the time it’s pretty mundane, just an empty building, but others…well, they’re for another time.

As we pulled up to the main entrance I admit to being awed by the asylum. If you looked past the boarded-up windows, the graffiti, and nature growing out of every crack, it was a magnificent building. It stretched 3 floors and sprawled out like a stately home. Perhaps overshadowing the magnificence was the unmissable sense of abandonment and decay. The sandstone was tinged with dark green and black, the cream paint on the archway was now a gruesome shade of grey, and the doors, once meant to appear welcoming, were shut with a heavy-duty padlock and chain, a few curse words scrawled with spray paint.

There was a man there to greet us. He introduced himself as Malcolm. He worked for the current owner as some kind of property manager, and so had a key to the lock. I could tell he was reluctant to go up the steps to the entrance, and I don’t think the mountain of litter and pigeon shite did much to entice him. He was friendly and chatted away quite the thing, but our attention was captured by another car pulling up and parking beside the van. At first, I thought it might be the owner come to greet us in person, or perhaps someone from a local newspaper investigating the activity at the abandoned asylum on a slow news day.

A young lad stepped from the car, in his late twenties at the time, yet he had something about him that felt older, a sense of knowledge that he inexplicably permeated like perfume. He took one swooping glance at the building as if committing the entire thing to memory, then came and joined us.

We all looked around at each other, confused and waiting for him to explain. But he never did. He was more interested in the building and its charms than any of us. It took Malcolm to introduce the lad as Ewan Brodie, a medium. I swear I heard the rest of the team’s internal groans as if they had uttered them aloud. Remember, by this point we hadn’t found any evidence of the supernatural and this included mediums. Each one we’d recruited to the study showed no sign of their abilities being down to anything more than chance.

I tended to share their opinion by this point. After 3 years of willing another person like me into existence and facing disappointment each time, I’d become jaded and began to think there was no one else like me. This Ewan Brodie would just be another name to add to the list.

I thought Strother would protest the medium’s presence, especially since we weren’t told there’d be someone else in the asylum with us, but mysteriously he kept his silence. Ewan didn’t seem keen to talk with us and he said the bare minimum when Ken attempted some small talk. In all honesty, my first impression was that he was too big for his boots, but that shows you how much I’d changed in the 3 years of my PhD.

After Malcolm had removed the lock and chain from the door, he left and told us to call him back when we’d finished. Ewan wasted no time in going inside, and Strother didn’t appear to mind that he wasn’t first through the door. Instead we began to remove the equipment from the van.

It was a bit gloomy in the entrance to the asylum, but that’s because there weren’t any windows, and the ones on the ground floor had all been boarded up. So we could see where we were stepping we had to use torches. As in the pictures I’d seen online the ground was littered in debris from the building and rubbish from where people had squatted or had a weird night out in an abandoned asylum. Ewan was nowhere in sight, so the rest of us just carried on.

By this time setting up had become a streamlined process. Strother hardly ever had to tell us where to put anything because we instinctively knew. Ken and I were setting up in what looked as though it used to be a consultation room when he admitted to me he didn’t expect Ewan to be so young. I asked him what he meant. It turns out that Ewan Brodie was thought to be one of the few genuine mediums in existence. He was very discerning about what he worked on and styled himself as a medium by referral. His name was passed around by word of mouth only, and he hardly ever took on the requests he was sent.

I’d met plenty of mediums, and none were as high and mighty as him. But all of them were fake. Was this how the real ones acted? Or had he just accrued such a high reputation that he could afford to appear picky? I admit I’d never heard of him, but apparently Strother had sent him an invitation to be a part of the study and received no reply.

Ewan Brodie was a bit of an enigma in psychological circles and hardly anyone had seen him in person. I could see the glint of excitement in Ken’s eye as he told me all he knew. If any professional medium was genuine, then I think the entire team thought he’d be it.

We continued setting up, systematically moving from the ground floor upwards. It was difficult not to let the stories and my imagination spook me when I was on my own. There’s something about abandoned buildings that penetrates logic. It was cold, damp, and I shuddered every time I saw an abandoned bed or wheelchair. I wasn’t the only one, Steph yelped in fright when a pigeon flew out of the room she’d gone into, and the noise echoed like a distant scream.

I slinked my way up the stairs, avoiding the pieces of plaster and wood that had fallen. The light streamed in from the window, cracked and broken but uncovered. On the first floor the decay was more obvious but had a strange delicacy to it, almost like a spiders’ web glistens in the sun. Where the darkness cast a gloomy shadow on the ground floor, upstairs was illuminated, and if you looked hard enough you could see its glory days.

The building surrounded a courtyard, so there were only two ways to go, left or right. Holding the box in my arms I stepped towards the window which looked down on the forest the courtyard had become. Everything was engulfed by green, the small saplings that had been planted before it had closed had grown into full blown trees that towered above the asylum walls. It was hard to see any resemblance to what it’d been before.

Out of the corner of my eye, or perhaps my better sense, I felt something brush past me. Immediately I looked down the hallway after it, just managing to see a tiny wisp of something drift into one of the rooms. It wasn’t anything I recognised, but I’d definitely seen something.

Someone cleared their throat behind me and I don’t exaggerate when I say I jumped a foot in the air, nearly dropping the box of equipment. I spun around to see Ewan Brodie standing there, looking in the same direction I’d been. He stared at me for a few seconds, almost narrowing his eyes in scrutiny before a ghost of a smile crossed his face.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Sarah”, I replied.

“You work for Dr Strother?” he inquired.

I nodded slowly, still bewildered from my earlier shock. I saw the small smile again, only briefly, before it disappeared. He then asked me if I’d seen something. I became quite good at answering that question over the years. I shook my head in confusion and said no, I didn’t think so. He just nodded, but I thought there was something about his expression that didn’t believe me.

We went our separate ways and caught glimpses of each other intermittently. Every time I felt scrutinised, inspected. It was hard to ignore but made easier with the equipment. It took hours to set everything up on every floor, but it meant I had a good look at the entire building.

I experienced more flashes of spirits, or what I assumed to be spirits. They were more like will-o-the-wisps, small pockets of shadow or light before they disappeared. Every time I saw one, Ewan wasn’t far behind, and I began to get the feeling that he was more genuine than any medium I’d ever met before.

It was after I’d finished setting up one of the last boxes of equipment and began to head towards the stairs that I saw a woman, a human. It didn’t startle me as it should’ve but did surprise me. Was she another medium the owner had called in? Was she an associate of Ewan’s? She was standing very still, almost statue-esque, and when she noticed me she turned to face me with the blankest look I’d ever been given.

“Excuse me, I don’t think you can be in here”, I called to her.

I was sure she’d heard me, I could still hear the echo of my voice on the walls, but she never listened. The expression on her face became darker, as if a shadow had engulfed it. Honestly, it was the expression I’d seen on murderer’s faces before they killed someone. I became frightened then. I’ve said before, people scare me more than ghosts do because ghosts can’t really do any harm. I was alone in the corridor with this strange woman who ignited my sense of dread. The way she looked at me, pinning me with a dead stare I’d never been on the receiving end of. When she began to move towards me, I would’ve screamed if I’d had the chance.

She was down the hall one moment, and then by the time I blinked she’d closed half the distance. The way she flitted in my direction wasn’t human. Every time I blinked she’d be closer until she passed straight through me. In all the years since I’ve never felt anything like that. It was cold, painful, vengeful, angry and frightened simultaneously. My blood felt like it was freezing, my organs seizing up as if gripped by a terrible frost. As she moved through me she took my essence with her, and without it I crumpled to the floor like a wet towel.

I can’t express to you how horrible it was, I can never find the right words, but it’s stayed with me all these years. I don’t know how long I was on the floor, amongst the dirt and rubble before I realised Ewan was at my side. His appearance shocked me into action, and I began to drag myself from the ground.

“You saw her, didn’t you?” he asked.

“Saw who?” I replied, hearing the quiver to my voice.

He appeared irritated by my denial but then said that he and I were the same, and that he knew I could see what he could. I adamantly denied any knowledge of it and pretended I’d stumbled over some plaster. Again, he didn’t seem convinced.

Present Day

This is going to sound crazy. Well, I suppose we’re already on that train anyway. I was in the bank this morning and whilst waiting in the queue I saw this couple. At least, they were meant to be a couple but something was just…off. Not the ghost kind – no, I can understand that, this was something else, something more instinctual. They were holding hands, standing together, but there was nothing relaxed or at ease about their posture, their expressions. I’m not an expert at relationships but that didn’t look right.

I thought nothing else of it until as I was driving home, I saw the same couple in the car behind mine. This could all just be a huge coincidence, the world’s a big place with lots of people, but I think you know by now that coincidences in my life are never what they seem.

Perhaps I’m just paranoid. With releasing these statements, trying to find the director of Inverlewis and the break-in of Strother’s family home I do feel more on edge than usual. (chuckling weakly) I mean why would someone follow me? I’m not anyone important. Alice Strother said only the TV was taken, and they’d certainly left the place in a mess. But break-ins happen all the time.

(Sighs) it’s probably just stress, all this storytelling dredging up bad memories and guilt. Maybe I’ll take a break soon, from all of this, from the past. I’ve been so caught up in finding answers everything else has skittered away. I don’t know how many more brick walls I can keep running up against in this quest of mine.

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