's 2020 Horror Write-off:

Saint Elagabalus Institute for Esoteric Conditions

Submitted by Neil Riggs

I spent years at the hospital.

I was so hopeful when the doctor first came for me. I’ve lost so much of what I had, what I was, before that. I must have had a life once, parents, family… But that feels so long ago, what fragments I can remember feel far away, like a half-remembered dream. I do have memories of hospital beds, of tubes in my veins, of the hum of machinery in sterile rooms. I remember pain, coiled around my bones, my lungs, my heart. When the doctor came, he spoke of his special hospital, the Saint Elagabalus Institute for Esoteric Conditions, and I thought, for one long, brilliant moment, that they could fix me.

Maybe they did.

Papers were signed, goodbyes spoken, and I was carried away, first by car, then by train, and finally along winding mountain roads, to the Institute. At some point, I became aware that the shining, brilliant doctor who had approached me, who had told me of this place, who was my escort… that he didn’t seem to be breathing.

The institute loomed grand and majestic. It was a beautiful building, on the outside, from what little I saw. The insides spiraled and wound like a bag of snakes, or a rat-king’s tail; twisted and tangled and haphazardly interwoven, tied into knots. The halls were clean, the beds well made by orderlies who seldom spoke, and the ground patrolled by doctors who were always silent.

The staff was not unkind, nor were they always gentle. Nurses and orderlies would speak in rapid, hushed whispers of the diseases transmitted in dreams, of worms in the soul, of the hateful light and its nine routes of infestation. None of these conditions could be cured, but they believed they could be managed, studied, contained… and, perhaps, someday conquered.

They never told me what caused my ailment, they never gave me a name for my condition. I spent years within the Institute, chained to its beds, wandering its grounds, spending months on end confined to its lightless recesses, or wandering for weeks in gardens where the moon never set, and masked orderlies followed my every step.

But mostly, I remember the mirrors.

There was a hall for mirror therapy, and another hall for those no longer allowed reflections.

Sometimes I would see those without reflections, out in the gardens or in the common areas. They seemed less substantial than others, as though something important was no longer quite there. They assured me it wasn’t painful, that they hardly missed their reflections, that such things were burdensome, and best done without. They asked me how they looked, and there was always something faintly desperate, hidden in their voices, when the question arose. And it always came up.

I don’t know what the mirror therapy was supposed to do. I remember going there once. The orderlies shackled my wrists and elbows before they escorted me, down the winding halls and corridors, to a locked wing of the hospital. I remember those doors were secured with heavy chains, wrapped around large iron rings embedded into the doors, walls, floor, and ceiling. One of the only guards I saw in the entire Institute was stationed there, a pistol at his waist and a silvered halberd leaning within arm’s reach.

“We must take precaution with reflections,” he told me, as he unfastened the door’s heavy chains.

There were two hallways in the Mirror Wing. The orderlies told me not to look down the other hall as they guided me down the left one. They told me nothing else. Our footfalls echoed obscenely in that place.

I was brought to a door and told to step in. It led to a spherical room, every surface adorned with mirrors. It felt like the inside of an insect’s eye, every foot an angled facet of shining glass, forming something like a dome around me. I heard the door shut behind me, and when I turned to look I found the portal vanished. There was nothing else in the room, only the mirrors, only me.

No one said anything. I had no instructions. I just stood there, watching.

I don’t know where the light came from. The room was illuminated, but cast no shadows. It took me a moment to realize something was wrong. I had seen mirrors placed against mirrors before, cascading into a skewed not-quite-infinity. But there, every single mirror had a single reflection. Just me, dressed in a white linen hospital gown, my arms and legs shackled.

I waited. When nothing happened, I wandered. At first I paced around the circle, but my path grew longer, wider, and I didn’t run into any wall. I walked, in spirals and straight lines and long winding paths, and I never found an end to the room.

I spoke to myself. I watched my reflections. None of them replied. Time dragged one, and my reflections grew tired, the darkness beneath their eyes growing deeper, their posture sagging and their gowns growing wrinkled. I sat down, and then I laid myself upon the mirrored floor. I saw my reflections shift to look at me, and I did too. They all looked different, I realized, as exhaustion began to creep into my eyes, as keeping them open grew arduous. The comb of their hair, the style of hospital gown, the presence or absence of scars, jewelry, the color of a single eye… there was something subtly different about each and every single one. They began to murmur amongst each other, whispering from facet to facet as I fell into sleep.

I awoke when the orderlies picked me up, unlocking my shackles. We were already outside the mirror room. I felt awful, wounded, as though I was bleeding through untouched skin. The anteroom I found myself within contained cushioned chairs festooned with straps and buckles, hanging apertures of lenses and mirrored glass. Something was dripping from the edges of the lowermost arms.

The orderlies helped me onto my feet. It took me a moment to regain my balance, and another to realize the strange sensation felt like some profound emptiness inside of me.

As we left, I risked a question. “What is down that other hallway?”

They looked to the left hall. One said nothing; the officials of the Institute were not in the habit of explaining themselves. But the other one spoke.

“Some patients have infections, illnesses that anchor to the reflection. We can excise these, but they must be stored. We keep them in mirrors, locked in this hall. Don’t worry; your reflection can’t harm you. At least not for now. The test results looked promising.”

I suppose they were. I was one of the lucky patients; I was never drawn to the surgery of the strings, never given to the meticulous attentions of the resident fatumologist, nor called again to the mirror therapy and its sharp panes of shining glass. And, one day, they let me go.

The Institute is always with me, always in my thoughts, in my dreams. Some days I can almost forget that place. But, sooner or later, I’m always reminded.

I feel, somehow, less real than I remember being. I can be a person, for a while, hold down a job and friends and something like a life for a few months at a time… but then I begin to notice things. I begin to find cracks in panes of reflective glass, and then I find messages carved into shards of mirrors hidden in my pockets, by drawers, and my bed. And then I move on.

I try not to look at mirrors too long. I still have my reflection, but sometimes I see her move before I do.