The Nurse In Red
Staff Sergeant Gary Lam hanged himself from the 4th floor window of St. Ogilvie General Hospital on April 15th, 2011. It took EMTs six minutes to break through the door he’d jammed shut and cut him down. By then, he’d shorn off six out of eight fingernails, digging bloody furrows into his neck, and his face had swollen to the tender consistency and colour of an overripe grape. This was not to mention his tongue - thrust out and nearly severed by an involuntarily clenching jaw, or the stains slicking the bottom half of his hospital gown. You didn’t need a medical license to start unrolling the body bag.
Six minutes is eternity to an asphyxiating man, but during that time the rapidly growing crowd in the parking lot was treated to a second horrifying spectacle. As Gary Lam listed to and fro in the gentle breeze rolling in through the 4th floor window, a woman, a nurse perhaps, was trying and failing to pull him back into the room. Of course, the only thing she thought to pull on was the rope itself, an act that served little but to jerk and hitch the man like some kind of macabre puppet.
In order to truly get Southeast Asian horror, if you’re not already from there, you need to understand that we see our countries very differently from the way you do.
The common perception can be found splashed across countless vlogs and perfectly curated social media pages. Pristine beaches with sprawling golden sands. Turquoise waters, softly churning the virgin grains beneath their frothy curves. Charming street vendors, picture perfect weather, often shared by college graduates intent on “finding themselves” on a gap year.
Not quite my experience.
See, those of us who grew up here don’t remember frolicking on the perfect beaches or going on bar crawls with our attractive friends from the hostel. We remember the heat, for one. Oppressive, ever-present, and coupled with a thick, cloying humidity that sears your eyes and smothers any semblance of rational thought. We also remember old cautionary tales of horrors that follow you home because of a poorly timed, poorly phrased comment.
Things that show up not on your doorstep but on your ceiling. Things that grab your hand as you reach for a light switch, or your ankles when you’re swimming alone. Things that, as the rainforests were replaced by monoliths of glass and steel, weren’t intimidated in the slightest by the advent of modernity.
Maybe that’s why the only time I feel safe writing about this is from an apartment in Los Angeles, several continents away.
The majority of my stories come from the time I spent in the military. While I’ve never personally seen or experienced anything during my service, the fact that we spent our time crawling through rainforest muck in the oldest parts of the country meant I met no shortage of servicemen with their share of supernatural trauma.
Someone who often regaled me with stories was a technical First Sergeant attached to our unit. I can’t remember his name, but he and I spent many nights on guard duty at tower #3, overlooking a lonely moonlit airfield. He was leaning over the guardrail with a cigarette, puffing acrid smoke that I was surreptitiously and futilely trying to waft away, when he told me his first story.
“You know Gary didn’t kill himself, right?”
Gary was a smaller guy, maybe 130lbs soaking wet, and it was undoubtedly a source of his chronic insecurity. Maybe that’s why he was also 130lbs of grade-A dickhead. The 38 year old staff sergeant had a permanent scowl etched into his face as he skulked around the base, and he had his own supernatural ability to conjure busywork for newly inducted servicemen. It was little surprise to find out that he was no patron saint in his personal life, either.
His girlfriend Elena was a high school sweetheart who always knew she could do better but never quite found the courage to be single. She listened, sometimes forlornly, sometimes resentfully, as her friends described whirlwind hookups, blush-inducing trysts, and ridiculous, expensive, gestures lavished upon them by an unending stream of suitors. Then she watched, as her group of friends eventually distilled the perfect man from the chaos of single adult life and settled down for an eternity in paradise. A paradise, she’d come to realise, that she was never going to have.
Very little of this was true, of course. Her friends, like normal human beings, had struggles and inadequacies too. The debilitating depression that dominated most of her life simply made the grass appear greener wherever she looked. But it certainly didn’t help that Gary had none of the qualities her friends gushed about. From her point of view, it looked like the man simply stopped putting in any effort the second they became official. No romantic poems. No surprise anniversary gifts. Just a grey, placid, coexistence in their two-bedroom apartment, a blur of waking-up, going to work, coming home, and falling asleep as they bled their lives away.
Perhaps it was because she felt she had so little that she sought to hold onto the scraps of her relationship with a vice grip. In the final year of their relationship, she’d become possessed with fears of her beau’s potential infidelity. Whether this manifested in nonstop texts he discreetly tried to answer during ops briefings, or her showing up at the guardhouse to verify he was where he said he was, her resentment turned to obsession remarkably and disturbingly quickly.
And she was right. Turns out our Staff Sergeant was more of a doer than a dreamer, because Elena came home one night to find him in bed with a twenty-something from the club, writhing and moving with a passion that she’d never experienced once in her life. The meltdown was historic. An explosion of anger that could rival even Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
She showed up at the camp the next day in a maelstrom of melodrama, clutching the rusted wrought iron gates as she screamed hellfire. The poor MP on duty had to pry the wiry woman off the gate after trying unsuccessfully to cajole her off her bloodied knees. Eventually, swearing revenge at the staff sergeant cowering in his office, she stormed off.
That same day, dressed in all red, she flung herself out the window of their 8th story apartment. In a particularly vengeful twist, she tried to time it right as Gary was coming home from work. Fortunately for him, the site was already a blur of sirens and police tape as he arrived, and by then the grisly, broken display was already covered by a tarp.
Still, the little detail about her choice of clothing did not escape the Staff Sergeant. See, Elena was a Chinese woman, and the colour red holds special significance in her culture. In fact, red is held to a sacred level in traditional chinese culture, to the extent it is splashed everywhere at every opportunity.
Just think of the last Chinese restaurant you’ve been to. This is no surprise, given that it’s often associated with joy, vitality, all wonderful things to ascribe to a living, breathing person. When it comes to death, though, the colour we’re looking for is white - representing resolution, peace and finality. When someone kills themselves while wearing a colour inverting this custom, it is a perversion of sanctity somewhere on par with hanging the cross upside down. The intention behind it was unmistakable - Elena did not intend to shuffle off this mortal coil quite yet. And she certainly wasn’t going to do it alone.
This was a uniquely terrifying prospect to an already guilt-ridden Gary. So much so, that he sought out the help of a Taoist priest the very same day. Taoist priests are renowned for their experience with appeasing or purging the restless undead, and their advice is often treated as gospel by the afflicted. This priest conferred no moral judgment upon hearing the story, but understood the magnitude of the wrath about to be visited on the hapless man. The spirit, said the medium, would roam the earth for 41 days, if she returned at all. If he was able to evade her for that long, her hold over him would cease, and all would be back to normal. But how would he know she was coming?
“You’ll hear her jumping.”
“Jumping?” The image of a dead woman hopping around the apartment was equal parts ridiculous, horrifying, and comical.
“Yes. She won’t be able to bend over, so hide under something. A bed, for example. She can only look for you for so long before she has to move on.” Well, the man had spoken. No point further questioning his advice. Gary left the temple and went home, doubt festering in his mind.
The next month was spent in a feverish haze of fear, grief, and paranoia. The first sergeant remembers Gary flinching at every noise, wide-eyed and sweaty. He retreated from tormenting the soldiers in his outfit, and never wanted to be alone. He spent more and more time on base, surrounded by his coworkers, delaying his inevitable return to that uncharacteristically empty, silent apartment.
But he always had to. And while the cleanup crews did their best, not much could be done about the blood already baked into the asphalt by the unceasing summer heat. Gary always tried his best to avoid looking at the large dark stain in the parking lot right in front of the elevator, or the almost negligible splotches on the walls the cleaners missed. He seemed to notice more and more of them each time he passed by.
“This one’s nasty,” he’d overheard an EMT say, “I’ve never seen a fall this bad.”
He was working on a report at home when he heard a terrible crash in his living room, punctuated by a heavy impact that shook the floor.
Did something get knocked over?
Footsteps? No. These were way too loud, too kinetic, to be footfalls. He rose to check, but growing suspicion stayed his feet.
He thought he heard several secondary impacts, as whatever was falling crumpled to the ground.
He began to shake as his subconscious finally began connecting the dots - disparate clues coalescing into one horrifying certainty:
You’ll hear her jumping.
Stilling his breath as much as possible, he got on the ground, shimmied beneath the bed, and squeezed his eyes shut. The bed wasn’t raised very far off the ground, and he found himself face up, with no room to move except to turn his head left and right.
The bedroom door flew open. Tears flowed freely as he balled his fists and clenched his teeth, fighting to control his rapidly hyperventilating breath.
This one landed right beside his ear. Up close, he could hear it all. Bone splintering. Flesh tearing from the wet impact.
And then all was quiet.
Nobody knows how long he stayed there - frozen in place, eyes shut, barely daring to breathe. Terrified as he was, even the adrenaline roaring in his ears wasn’t designed to last forever. His pulse eventually slowed, and hope cruelly began to rear its head in his mind.
Had she moved on? Was it over? Fearing the worst, he chanced a glance to his left.
When the eyes perceive something the brain refuses to acknowledge, time seems to bend. Everyone’s gone through it to some degree. A breakup text. A positive diagnosis. A gun barrel in the face. The mind is seized by conflicting impulses: one half screaming for action as reptilian instincts of self preservation kick in, the second trying its utmost to deny a reality that has already established a firm, non-negotiable grip. Time slows during this neurological tug-of-war, casting every terrifying detail in stark relief.
The first sergeant found him under the bed during a wellness check when he failed to report the next morning. Gary lunged out from his hiding spot, clutching him like a lifesaver and blubbering out his story in between hitching, gut wrenching screams. The horror he beheld was enough to have him hospitalised for months. In that time, he attempted suicide thrice. The fourth, well. We already know about that one.
You see, the priest had been right. But only in principle. Whatever was staring at him under the bed, through cloudy, lifeless eyes, could never have bent over to leer at him. It was broken in all the wrong places. If she were jumping around the apartment in that absurd pogo-like fashion he’d imagined, the staff sergeant would’ve been entirely, irrefutably safe. The rookie priest just hadn’t considered one thing:
She’d landed on her head.
“Wait. You said he didn’t kill himself? I mean he tried three times - barricaded his door and everything. Maybe he just finally figured it out,” I shifted uncomfortably against the guardhouse.
The first sergeant turned to fix me with a steely look.
“You can’t barricade doors in a mental ward - you think he would’ve been the first to try that? And the last couple times I spoke to him, he didn’t seem suicidal at all. He just really, really didn’t want to be alone.”
I felt the rational part of my brain clicking on overdrive as it fought to deny what the first sergeant was driving at.
“You’re telling me a ghost simultaneously held the door shut, tied a noose around him, and flung his ass out the window? What about the nurse who tried to save him?”
“I’m saying there’s a lot that doesn’t add up. The only person who saw that nurse up close was a Dr. Chakrabarti working the next ward over. Not only did the doctor not recognise this woman, he said she was wearing the widest grin he’d ever seen.”
The sergeant paused, taking a long drag of his cigarette.
“And he sure as hell doesn’t know any nurse that wears red.”