BY LIISA KOVALA
Copyright is held by the author.
FROM A distance, it looked like any other institution, but as we waded through the overgrown grasses I felt strangely drawn to the abandoned building. Graffiti was scrawled like tattoos across the exterior, hollow windows stared blankly down at us, and the front door gaped open, ready to swallow intruders into its desolate interior.
“That would make a great shot,” Sarah said, handing me the camera bag as we crossed the threshold of the old Burwash correctional facility. It had been Sarah’s idea to explore the prison for our final photography assignment, and looking around, I realized she was right. It was the perfect juxtaposition between beauty and decay. I breathed in the musty dampness, like sweat emanating from the walls, and stepped carefully to avoid the grimy puddles on the floor as I took shot after shot, trying to capture the magical play of light and shadows against the desolate setting.
One after the next, empty cells joined the long spine-like corridor, allowing the remains of daylight to seep into the otherwise gloomy space. I looked for the right angle to snap the symmetrical patterns of light on the broken tiles. Sarah ran her fingers along the peeling skin of old paint, watching as it floated like ash to the floor. Above, cracks in the ceiling revealed the bones of the structure: steel beams rotting from years of exposure.
“It’s kinda creepy,” I said, as I changed my lens. “If only these walls could talk, I’m sure they would have stories to tell.”
“Yeah, I can’t imagine what it was like.”
I turned to take a picture of Sarah. She smiled at the camera. The light was perfect and I managed to capture her reflection in the shallow pool of water on the floor.
Sarah and I explored the sprawling dead carcass of a building, following the veins of its hallways and climbing through a window to stand on the flat roof. We surveyed the overgrown fields and the dense bush in the distance. It felt like we were ages from anywhere.
As darkness fell, we took a few more photographs, then lit our small camper stove and set up our sleeping bags in one of the cells. We weren’t the first explorers to stay the night. Names and dates covered the walls and old beer cans littered a corner. Cigarette butts were crushed into the tiles and emitted a putrid stink.
“Better get some sleep,” Sarah said, turning in her sleeping bag. “Not worried about ghosts, are you?”
“Nah, it’s the same at night as in the day,” I said. “Nothing to fear.”
Sarah fell asleep before I could even say goodnight. I had a harder time. I tried to relax, but the whole place seemed alive. The wind picked up and wailed through the open window frames. Creaks and groans echoed through the passageways. I had only my cellphone and a small flashlight to ward off the night. Finally, despite the strange sounds, I must have slept.
Sometime in the early morning, I startled awake. My heart was racing. The walls of the cell seemed to expand and contract with my lungs. I glanced at Sarah. Still sleeping.
Calm down, I told myself. Just a dream. By now, I was wide awake. It was as good a time as any to find a bathroom, or at least an empty cell. After relieving myself, I turned back toward our room. The corridor seemed longer than before as I passed cell after empty cell.
I heard footsteps. “Sarah?” She must be wondering where I am. I called out to her again, but there was no answer. The footsteps retreated.
As I turned the corner, I felt the ground rumble below my feet. A section of concrete came crumbling down. Above me the ceiling gave way. I tried to shield my head with my arms, but before I knew it, I was trapped below the debris, dust filling my nostrils, and pain shooting up my leg. I choked on the thick air as I tried to call for help. In my panic, I thought I felt someone’s callused hands covering my mouth, stopping my screams. Then, all was black.
When I finally opened my eyes, I could see Sarah pulling bricks and concrete off my body. I touched my temple to feel the sticky ooze of blood dripping down my forehead.
“You okay?” she asked, worry clouding her eyes.
“My leg hurts,” I said. “I thought I heard you in the hall. I followed you here.”
“I didn’t hear a thing last night. When you were gone this morning, I checked every room. I was scared to death. You could have been killed under this rubble.”
Sarah helped me up. We gathered our meagre camping gear and checked our camera, before leaving the prison. I took a deep breath of fresh air, thankful to be out of that suffocating space, as Sarah helped me hobble across the field. I looked back briefly at the soundless prison walls. If they had secrets, they weren’t sharing with anyone. I shuddered to think the accident could have kept me a prisoner there for a long time. Maybe forever.
A few days later, Sarah and I examined the photographs we’d taken. Each one reminded me of the rot and decay, the stench and debris of decades gone by.
“Wait,” Sarah said. “Zoom in.” She pointed at the photograph I’d taken of her in the corridor.
I zoomed into her reflection and turned it 180 degrees. There was Sarah’s smiling face. On closer inspection, I could see the outline of another figure looming behind her. A man dressed in a prisoner’s uniform hovered over Sarah’s shoulder. And then I realized that he was looking at the camera. I shuddered. He was staring at me.