The hospital corridor was cold. The floor was cold, chilling Terry through his socks, and the walls were cold as he traced his fingertips along them to guide him in the dark. His breath didn’t quite mist in front of him, but there was something icy and chemical tasting in the air that chilled the back of his throat and made his lungs burn. Yes, the hospital was cold. Cold, and dark, and utterly empty.
Except for Terry. And them.
They were difficult to see, even though some of them were enormous. They had a knack for getting behind things, for bending and folding their monstrous shapes so they could be completely obscured by even the smallest or most mundane of objects. A tea trolley, or a table, a lamp, any of them could have harboured one of these impossible creatures. Coats were their favourites, of course, especially white coats like the doctors wore. They could make themselves so completely thin that someone could put on their coat and not even know that they were sharing it with someone, something, else.
But Terry could see them, and they could see Terry.
Terry’s shadow slipped up a wall as he stepped through a patch of moonlight. He could see the outline of his own bare legs, the flapping edges of his surgical gown. Terry hated undercover work. At least the shadow also had his tall, conical hat, and the unmistakable twisted shaft of his wand. Bare legged, shoeless, and bare backside not withstanding, Terry always felt like a wizard when he was wearing his hat.
And a wizard he was, albeit an undercover one.
Reaching an intersection, Terry paused for a moment. The signs overhead made little sense to him. They were covered in long words, jumbles of letters. His father would have known what they meant, but he had vanished long before he had had an opportunity to teach Terry anything as useful as how to read the language of men. Terry wondered what the monsters made of the signs, whether they could read them either. If they could, which one would they follow?
Terry chose the green one, and headed off down the dark corridor. Monsters liked green.
The corridor had a sunny, seaside scene painted on the walls. Crabs the size of men ambled sidewards past children with strange, crude, expressionless faces and blank black eyes. Birds that looked like the letter V lurked, motionless, in a sky ruled by a vast yellow sun. Overhead, the lights had all been removed, leaving only the slowly tarnishing copper connectors and trailing strands of wire. Terry felt like he was creeping underneath the belly of some vast, corrugated slug, its various tendrils and appendages hanging down into his safe, seaside world. He shook is head, tried to purge the image.
That was the problem with being a wizard; sometimes you saw things that weren’t there. On the other hand, sometimes you saw things that really were there, but that were very good at hiding. Sometimes they were so good, it was hard to tell them from the things that really weren’t there at all.
Suddenly, light illuminated the other end of the corridor. It skated up the wall, a pale disc at the end of a flickering beam. It raced closer and, behind it, Terry could see a shape, a shadow, moving closer. The beam of light spread as it moved closer, and Terry noticed footprints on the dusty floor. Footprints with only three toes, spread apart. Footprints that led straight into the wall, into the seaside scene.
The light hit the wall, and Terry realised that one of the children, one of the black eyed featureless children, was missing. The monsters could make themselves flat. Flat enough to hide inside your coat while you were still in it. Flat enough to be a part of a picture on a wall.
Terry raised his wand, his hand trembling. But it was too late. A strong grip closed around his shoulder, and he realised that the shape behind the light hadn’t been alone.
“Mr Johnson, there you are! We’ve been looking all over for you.”
Terry turned around. He thought perhaps he should recognise the young man in the white coat, but he didn’t. He looked at him quizzically. Was he a wizard too? He didn’t have a hat, or a wand, but he wasn’t looking strangely at Terry either. If there was one thing that a wizard expected, it was to be looked at strangely, especially when wearing his wizarding hat.
The shape behind the light transformed in a very non-magical way to include a middle-aged woman in a nurse’s uniform. She look flustered.
“I keep telling them to lock these old wards up if they’re not going to use them,” she said. Terry presumed she was talking to the young man in the coat. “They’re like a magnet for the inmates.”
“Yeah, well, at least we found this one in one piece,” the young man replied. “I don’t think I could cope with finding another one like …”
The young man’s voice trailed off. Terry didn’t know much about people, but he knew what it meant when they said something without saying it. It was, in its way, another breed of monster. The story that didn’t need to be spoken to be told.
“Come on then Mr. Johnson,” said the nurse. “Let’s get you back to bed.”
Terry always found it strange when people called him “Mr. Johnson”. It was his father’s name, an adults name. Of course, when the nurse looked at Terry she didn’t see him as he truly was. All she saw was a frail, old man in a backless surgical gown and insufficiently warm socks for the time of year. Terry had tried many times to cure the ageing curse that he was afflicted with, but to no avail. One of the curses side effects was an enfeeblement of the mind, so much so that sometimes Terry couldn’t remember who had cursed him in the first place.
That was why he concentrated on the monsters. They were simple.
The nurse took Terry by the hand and began to lead him down the dark corridor. The young man followed, and Terry wished he taken the chance to check the man’s coat properly. There could be anything in there with him. Terry considered for a moment warning them, telling them about the monsters and the crabs and the black eyed no-face child who had been hiding on the wall.
Of course, he didn’t. Every wizard knew what happened if you started telling people the truth. Every wizard knew how man treated the people who could see things that weren’t there.
Terry’s hat toppled from his head. He stopped to pick it back up, but the nurse had already dragged him forward. “Don’t worry about your hat,” she said, her voice scolding. “You can make another one tomorrow.”
Terry looked back. A wizard shouldn’t abandon his hat. Down the corridor, in the dark, Terry watched as his hat slowly crumpled, squashed under the unseen foot of a thing that wasn’t there.