Girl on the Third Floor

Some places are as haunted as our pasts.

Paul Crenshaw | Mad Creek Books| May 2019 | 25 minutes (4,980 words)

 

The upper floors of the Nyberg Building are locked and deserted now, but her ghost is said to live there still. It is not hard to imagine a ghost filtering down the long hall and disappearing into the distance, although I do not know if she walks through walls or simply appears and stands looking sad and lost, perhaps trying to find someone to help her.

The Nyberg is part of the Human Development Center, a cluster of buildings whose construction began in 1910, in the hills of Arkansas, as a tuberculosis sanatorium, which was later converted, in the 1970s, to a home for the developmentally disabled. Those who live near the Center, or have worked there, tell tales of phantom lights in the buildings at night, strange noises, and pockets of cold on the upper floors. Almost nothing is known of the girl’s origins, not her name or age or when she lived there, not the reason people began to believe in her ghost in the first place. Yet the stories of her persist, stories I heard as a child living in a rented house on the grounds of the Center, only a short walk from the Nyberg. Paranormal groups have visited over the years and left toys for the girl: a writing tablet with the word Hello and a smiley face drawn on it; a once-white teddy bear that has grown brown with dust; a stuffed tiger missing one eye. In the late ‘70s the building was cleared of asbestos, and the ceilings are open to rafters and pipes. Electrical cords hang down like vines, or vipers. The halls drip with heat. Dust hangs in the air, coats the floors and windows. On the higher floors dead birds line the hallways like stones, having been unable to find their way out once they got in. In this way they are like the tuberculosis patients, many of whom called the Nyberg their final home. Their presence lingers. It is hard to breathe inside the building, and though I know it is the dust and heat, I imagine tuberculosis hanging like the motes in shafts of light or the spirits of those who once lived here. There are more than a dozen other buildings among the pines at the Human Development Center, most of them boarded over now. If there are such things as ghosts, they would come here. I tell myself I do not believe in ghosts, but the Nyberg is a strange, sad place.

* * *

I came in mid-summer, driving south from Booneville through a browned pasture, across an orange river, and up a winding hill where the road curved around ridges that looked out on other hills blue with distance. Past a final curve the Center rose through a forest of pine. From far away the buildings looked bone-white, but up close were nearer the color of old dirt. Bradford pears lined the sidewalks. The manicured lawn, and the dorm-like buildings among the rows of pines, looked more like a college campus than an old sanatorium.

I had not come to look for ghosts, except for the ones I already knew. My mother worked here for most of her adult life, and for three years we lived in one of the small houses on the grounds. That was just after my parents divorced, and the house seemed empty without my father there. Every morning my brother and I walked through the long shadows thrown by the buildings to catch the school bus, and every afternoon crossed back again, avoiding the residents, whose strange faces and various afflictions unnerved us. Many of them had speech impediments, and could not form words correctly, so it often seemed they were grunting, or yelling. Some nights, when all the buildings turned dark and the voices of the grunting or yelling residents drifted over the grounds, my brother and I crept out of our house and slipped through the trees to climb the water towers or crawl through broken windows into abandoned buildings. We sneaked into the old chapel and the fire station and peered into the steam tunnels that ran beneath the buildings.

Until today, I had not been back in twenty years.

Nor had I ever been on the upper floors of the Nyberg, though as a boy I walked in its shadow every morning for three years and saw it lit up at night from my bedroom window. Even after we moved back into the town below the hill I would watch it rise from the mountaintop. For over twenty years, until I left Arkansas for North Carolina, it was a part of the landscape, an indelible reminder of the past. I could not look at it without some memory filtering in.

I had not come to look for ghosts, except for the ones I already knew.

The first tuberculosis sanatorium opened in Poland in 1863. About twenty years later the Saranac Lake, New York, sanatorium became the first North American facility. In the early 1900s, the dry climate of Arizona drew many suffering from tuberculosis, among them several Arkansas state senators who petitioned the state for money to build the sanatorium. While wintering in Arizona to “take the cure,” as it was called, they realized few people in their home state had the means to travel to Arizona.

Construction began in 1910, after Act 378 approved the establishment of the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium, and the town of Booneville donated 970 acres atop Potts Hill. At first there was only a twenty-four-bed hospital along with a few outbuildings, but the sanatorium grew with the spread of the disease. For the next thirty years, new buildings were added, including a dairy farm, employee cottages, and a water-treatment facility so that the sanatorium could run self-sufficiently.

The prescribed treatment for tuberculosis was rest and food. The pines and clear air were thought to be an expedient for cure, but during the ’20s and ’30s doctors began experimenting with treatments. They collapsed patients’ lungs and filled the cavity with Ping-Pong balls to give the lungs a rest. The phrenic nerve — the long cord that connects the spinal column to the diaphragm — was removed from some patients. There was a farm on the grounds that raised guinea pigs for drug testing.

When the Nyberg Building was completed in 1941, a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was one of the largest tuberculosis hospitals in the world. The Nyberg held an X-ray laboratory, infirmary, morgue, and 501 patient rooms. It was a tenth of a mile long and fifty feet wide, standing among the surrounding pine trees like an undiscovered city or an old monument carved to forgotten gods. Years of water damage have stained the sandstone bricks, and the granite etching over the doors has faded to a color closer to white than gray.

I parked and got out and craned my neck up at the building. It looked more like a prison than a hospital. I wondered how many of the people who had lived there over the years had thought that same thing. There are bars on the windows of the fifth floor, where criminals with tuberculosis were housed. Some of the rooms are made entirely of glass, designed such that the prisoners could be watched at all times. Those doors were locked from the outside.

* * *

Although I could find no evidence of who the girl was or how old she had been, I imagine her to be ten or eleven, about the age my younger daughter is now, about the age I was when I lived there. I picture her with brown hair, glasses, a way of looking out of the corners of her eyes as she twirls a strand of hair around her finger. Old newspaper reports and patient journals provide a way to reconstruct how she might have arrived there and what it must have been like to become trapped in such a place, in such a way.

It would have started with a cough, a dry rattle that shook her shoulders and made her parents exchange worried looks, until the day she began to cough blood. They lived on a dusty road in the middle of soy fields in the middle of the state in the middle of the country and one day a long black car pulled up in front of the house amid a cloud of dust that settled on the long rows of crops. A nurse got out. The girl’s mother stood in the doorway. Her father, unable to watch it happen, went out the back door and through the rows of crops, not looking back, not seeing his only daughter put in the black car with the nurse’s hands in the small of her back to guide her. He did not see the door shut, or the car pull away.

The windows were down and the hot air rushed in as they drove through the fields. When they turned onto the highway the droning engine put her to sleep. When she woke they were somewhere she had never been. She saw the buildings and the pines and asked where they were, how long she would be here, when she could go home. The nurse said to hush now, her voice softer than her face. She rubbed the girl’s back and told her it would be all right.

The car drove through the pine trees in alternating shadow. Far down the mountain she could see an orange river, cow pastures spreading out in the distance, a town beyond the pastures. The pines stirred in the wind. Crickets were out in midday, their noise echoing among the pines. The car stopped in front of the Nyberg Building, still shiny and new. Inside, it was cool and dark. The nurse led her to a room on the third floor so small she could hardly turn around in it. A cracked washbasin sat on a nightstand beside a bed with iron springs and a thin mattress stained in places. A window looked out on other buildings. She sat down on the bed and waited.

* * *

The first floor of the Nyberg had been rebuilt, I saw as I opened the doors. The tile floors were buffed and polished. Modern air conditioners hummed and dripped condensation. Wasps hovered outside the windows. The offices on the first floor were full of light, and cool after the summer heat.

I stood in a doorway for a few minutes until a woman at a desk noticed me. I told her who I was and why I was there and she picked up the phone and a man with a set of keys appeared a few minutes later. He told me his name and that he had worked there for close to thirty years. It turned out he had known my mother. Whether he agreed to take me on the tour because of that, or because it was a common request here, I didn’t know.

It would have started with a cough, a dry rattle that shook her shoulders and made her parents exchange worried looks, until the day she began to cough blood.

From the first floor to the second we traveled fifty years into the past. Old movie posters from the ’40s and ’50s lined the wall in the stairwell, famous faces staring at us with eyes bright and happy, at odds with the feel of the place. The stairwell was gloomy, the light stained by the dirty window. There was no electricity, only the distant sounds of the building settling.

At the second-floor landing he pulled out the key ring again and unlocked the door and held it open for me. The sun came through a window at each end of the long hallway so that it seemed the hall disappeared into sunlight, like the tunnel reported by people who have near-death experiences. The floors had once been black and white in diamond patterns, but now all the tiles looked gray, hazed with time. Our feet left prints behind us. All the rooms were small, half the size of a college-dorm room, wide enough only for one or two narrow beds. Paint curled from the walls like dead skin. The baseboards had fallen away and the heat emanated from the walls and it was easy to believe theories of places becoming haunted by what they had once held within them.


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On the third floor I saw the toys as we stepped out of the stairwell. The teddy bear sat atop a radiator. The writing pad — one of the plastic toy kinds which you can wipe with a hand to remove what you have a written — leaned against the wall. The toys were only a few years old, at odds with the antiquity of the place. The last patients here left in 1973, after antibiotics had virtually wiped out tuberculosis. The buildings were handed over to the State Board of Mental Retardation and the sanatorium was reborn as the Human Development Center. The upper floors of the Nyberg were closed then, and the rooms have not been occupied since.

When I asked about the toys my guide told me what he knew of the little girl, which wasn’t much, other than that people over the years had begun to believe in her existence. Strange lights seen at night were attributed to her, as were ghostly noises people heard. There had been a children’s ward in the building, and though he did not know the number of children who had died here or even if she had been a patient, I suspect the idea of a child’s ghost walking the long halls began in an era of sadness and continues to this day. He told me there were always rumors here, stories of ghosts, of things that could not be explained. But perhaps there are always rumors, stories, histories of any place where people suffered and died, any place where days were measured in increments as tiny as breaths, and years passed as slowly as the sun moved across the floors of the small rooms.

When I asked him if he believed in ghosts he shook his head. He told me the lights people saw in the upper floors were the flashlights of the maintenance men performing safety checks, or searching for a forgotten piece of equipment (much of the place serves as storage now). He said the noises were nothing more than wind through the gaps in the roof or the cracks in a window or simply an old building settling and ticking like a warm house late at night while everyone is trying to sleep.

When I asked him if he believed the ghost of a girl lived here, he deflected the question by telling me several paranormal groups had toured the place recently with cameras and EVP equipment and lights and other electronic devices. They didn’t find anything, he said.

When I asked why they were let in, he shrugged. “What’s it going to hurt?” he said.

As we walked the length of the third floor I saw other toys: a small boat, colored pencils and paper, sidewalk chalk. I suppose those who left the writing utensils wanted the girl to prove her existence somehow, which isn’t much different than what I was doing. In the new paranormal shows on TV, groups wander the halls of old asylums or prisons or houses where murders have taken place or people have died of strange causes. They shout things like “Show yourself,” and “Are you here?” and “Do you want to hurt me?” They never ask “Are you okay?” or “Do you want to go home?”

* * *

There are other ghosts at the Center.

When I lived there the voices of the residents would drift through the buildings and down the hill on summer evenings, our windows open to catch the breeze, and more than once I woke sure that someone had been watching me through the window. My mother told me sometimes the residents got out at night and wandered through the trees, trying to find their way home, wherever they had been before they came here, and sometimes they got lost and had to call out for help.

The row of houses where I once lived is mostly deserted now, and the houses themselves have turned to ghosts. A few had always stood empty as people moved from one part of their life to the next, but now leaves gather on the porches in fall and winter and the yards are strewn with pine needles. The houses are old, and fewer people work at the Center, and even fewer of those who do wish to live on the Center grounds in houses almost as run-down as the boarded-over buildings. Doors to the crawl spaces beneath the houses hang open, and the front steps slant askew. There are no cars out front of most of the houses, no bicycles in the front yard. The windows are dusty and hazy, and some are broken, with dark stars punched into them. They have taken on the abandoned look houses acquire after standing empty for a time.

From the first floor to the second we traveled fifty years into the past.

Across a narrow road from the houses, carved stones among the pine trees mark the resting places of dead pets. When the houses were all occupied, children chased each other through the pines and hid and sought each other under the porches and in the crawl spaces and sometimes crossed the road solemnly to bury goldfish and hamsters and kittens hit by cars. Deep in the woods a small dam spans a narrow creek. The pool at the bottom of the dam is filled with old coins people have tossed in over the years, closing their eyes and wishing they were somewhere else, where the old buildings did not loom over them at night. The pine trees hold old names carved in wood and thickened now with sap, like bugs trapped in amber.

Other ghosts, the state senators who petitioned the state for money to build the sanatorium, live in the faded pictures that line the hallway on the first floor of the Nyberg. The buildings carry their names carved in stone. It is a policy of the institution that no building bear the name of a living person. Leo Nyberg, after whom the largest building is named, died of tuberculosis four months before it was completed.

* * *

According to the pamphlet Tuberculosis or Consumption: Its Prevention and Treatment, printed in 1925 by the Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium, this would have been her day:

She woke at seven, drank a glass of hot water and sponged herself off, then walked up the hill to the commons building for breakfast. I like to think she sat with others her age, and I like to think they talked about boys sitting at a table nearby or dresses or dolls or anything girls like to talk about that isn’t death and disease and the feeling of being trapped.

After breakfast they rested until first lunch at ten. Lunch consisted of milk and eggs, an old treatment used since the eleventh century to combat the emaciation that often accompanies tuberculosis. After first lunch she rested again until second lunch, two hours later. They rested in the hope that the tubercles would not spread, and that the lungs would wall off the offending areas and fight them, and they ate so much to give the body the strength to do the fighting.

After second lunch they rested outdoors. I prefer to think of children running and chasing one another, but the rules specified the rest was to be lying down, or reclining in special chairs. At six they ate again, then another hour of rest, then more food, then bed. I imagine her sitting long hours with her elbows on the windowsill, looking out at the pines, the hills receding into the distance.

In spring the storms came. Water ran down the window, and she flinched each time thunder rumbled. The air smelled of burnt ozone from the lightning strikes, and the town below the hill seemed underwater, as if the seas had risen once again and swallowed up the world and only those atop the mountain still lived.

In summer the heat grew fierce. She lay sweating on her bed in the mornings, counting the cracks in the ceiling, listening to the flies drone in the corners of the room. When she slept she dreamed of the house, the long rows of crops, her father’s footsteps moving across the sagging floors, but when she opened her eyes it was the nurse’s shoes on the tile floor that she heard.

In fall she watched the leaves change colors on the trees like fire creeping down the mountainside. Her parents were not allowed to visit. The sanatorium was a treatment center, but also a place to segregate carriers of the disease. Some children did not see their parents for years. I can only imagine the cool mornings while mist rose from the river, the almost warm afternoons with the wind stirring the pines and clouds racing overhead. The season slowly changed to winter. Leaves scuttled along the ground in the wind. The skies turned from blue to gray. Still no one came. The dark arrived early. With the cold weather her cough grew fierce. She spent hours bent over the washbasin dredging up blood from her lungs, while white spots swam behind her eyes and the world outside the window blurred and distorted.

When I lived there the voices of the residents would drift through the buildings and down the hill on summer evenings, and more than once I woke sure that someone had been watching me through the window.

Every morning she was woken by the nurse’s shoes going down the hall. During the day she sat in her room and watched the same rectangle of sky outside the wired windows. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other children like her, with some plague growing inside them that kept them confined here, and I am sure they whispered to each other across the halls or put their heads close together as they sat outside in the warm afternoon, worried about what the future held for them. Perhaps they found something to laugh about as they called to one another down the vents that connected room to room, or wrote notes to one another in the margins of the books they read to pass the time. But mostly I imagine them watching the shadows of the sun move across the floor as the morning passed on, then watching the shadows the other way as night fell. They sat and tried not to stir the lungs as the moon and the stars came out and the sunlight on the floor through the window turned silver and the crickets grew so loud they could not hear. The girl wondered when her father would come for her, when she could go home. Her lungs grew worse. Her clothes grew red with spots of blood, small dots of darkness spraying from her when she coughed. When she breathed she could hear her lungs like dry bones clacking against one another.

One afternoon the nurses came down the hallway shutting the doors. The girl sat up in her bed, hoping they were coming for her. The doors closed one by one, reverberating like tombs, and when they stopped closing she lay on her stomach and peered beneath her door. In a few minutes a gurney with a squeaky wheel wobbled down the hall and stopped in front of one of the rooms. A doctor’s black shoes went past. She heard a pen click, and muffled voices giving the date and time. When the gurney came back it did not squeak, weighted down with the body. She could not tell who it was, and would not find out until dinner came and they could look around to see who was not with them any longer.

* * *

As we toured the fourth and fifth floors, I kept thinking of her. I imagined one of my own daughters wandering the halls here. I imagined not being able to see her, imagined knowing she was locked away with disease clawing at her lungs.

And sometimes, since my return to North Carolina, I have imagined myself stuck in the Nyberg, walking each way down the long halls, past the empty rooms stacked one upon another, the doorways like eyes. I have imagined myself looking into each room, wondering where everyone has gone, much like how in memory, even now, I still wander through the house we lived in, still hear the voices floating on the summer air, ghosting through the buildings at night. There’s a feeling an empty house has. Ours seemed to reverberate with space as we walked through that first time, our footsteps loud on the wood floors. I trailed a hand along the wall. My mother tried to be strong. The house was cold and empty and foreign. Alien, as if the ghosts of the last tenants still hovered there, and ours were somewhere in hiding, perhaps back in the house we had once lived in with my father. Now I wonder if the girl ever felt like that. Some days it seemed I did nothing but sit in my room. Sometimes it seems all we ever did was wait: for my father to come back; for us to move away from where we were; to start the next part of our lives.

* * *

I don’t know how many times she heard the doors closing, although I do know the nurses closed the doors when someone died. Keeping spirits high was part of the treatment plan, and seeing bodies carted out would have reminded patients of what might happen to them.

I don’t know how long she lived there, or why the belief in her ghost remains, although I suspect the ghost is a collective symbol, created out of the loss of what once walked the halls. There was not one girl but many, hundreds or thousands, and conjuring her ghost is a way to contain all the grief gathered in such a place.

Perhaps she lived there so long she forgot the house, the dusty road, her mother’s face, her father’s hands. Perhaps she could not recall them at all except for grainy pictures, like a memory of a dream. Perhaps she went through long periods of remission, and hope grew in her heart that one day she could breathe again, that she could rise from her bed and run down the long hallway and out into the sunlight and through the shadows of the pines trees, all the way down the hill and away. Or perhaps one day she realized she would never leave.

I don’t know her name, or how long she has been roaming the halls.

I do know an estimated seventy thousand people came through the gates at the foot of the hill, though I do not know how many never left. The mortality rate of tuberculosis in the early 1900s was close to 30 percent. After the invention of antibiotics in the late 1940s, it fell to 10 percent, then even lower as antibiotics got better, as we learned more about treatment and prevention, but the outcome is too dreary to calculate.

Conventional paranormal wisdom tells us that ghosts are spirits trapped on this plane of existence, unable to find their way out. There were thousands of people who never found their way out of the Nyberg Building. Thousands who died there, who one day could not draw breath into their lungs and lay gasping and choking until the end. Are their spirits still in the Nyberg, entombed within the walls? And the ones who did make it out — do they ever return, either in body or memory or spirit? Do they find themselves waking from dreams of this place? Or am I the only other one, like the girl, wandering the halls and searching for something lost?

* * *

A few months after the last tuberculosis patients left the sanatorium, it became known locally as the Children’s Colony because the first developmentally disabled residents to arrive were children. That was in 1973, a year after I was born. We moved there in 1980 and were sometimes woken by those strange calls in the night. There were rumors of ghosts even back then, but we dismissed them because the real ghosts of our lives were enough to deal with.

The people who were confined there in my time carried out a sentence imposed by random genes, some imperfection in the DNA, whatever forces caused them to be the way they were. The tuberculosis patients must have felt the same thing, wondering why the wheel had spun in such a way.

Back in the conditioned air of the first floor, I shook my guide’s hand. He told me to come back and he would take me through the old dormitories, the ancient chapel, the boiler room. I told him I would, and I meant it. What I didn’t tell him was that I have never quite left. That might be too akin to saying I believe in ghosts, in things I can’t see or hear or touch. But I want to believe that the girl on the third floor is as real as the stained sandstone of the crumbling buildings and the distant memories I have of living there, staring out the window and wondering where we were and how we had come to be there. If the girl is real, then we share the same past in the same place, with a similar hope for leaving it, and I can indulge the notion that we are all trapped by place and circumstance and random forces beyond our control, forever looking back with the sad silly sense that if we could just understand the tragic world we survived as children we could somehow be better adults, and our lives would fall into the neat categories we have created for them. It’s not a perfect idea, but one I believed in driving down the hill as the Nyberg Building stood silent in the rearview mirror.

***

Paul Crenshaw’s work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Oxford American, Tin House, North American Review, and Brevity.

Excerpted from This One Will Hurt You, by Paul Crenshaw. Copyright © 2019 by Paul Crenshaw. Reprinted by permission of Crenshaw and Mad Creek Books.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath