Author’s Note: Please enjoy this piece of short fiction — my first official foray into the horror genre. Is “Memento Mori” a ghost story or a tale of psychological horror? That, dear reader, is for you to decide!
Jake couldn’t believe his luck. After years of sending in applications and enduring rejection after rejection, he had finally landed a job at the Museum of Natural History; a place he had dreamed about working at since childhood. Now, granted, it wasn’t a full-time gig or anything like that. He was basically a paid intern for the Fall semester. His salary would be just barely enough to cover his train fare into the city and help him pay what bills he did have while still living at home with his parents. But hey, a job is a job. He had his foot in the door and that’s all that mattered.
Jake had studied anthropology in college, a decision he sometimes regretted. Anthropology didn’t have a lot of job opportunities for those who decided not to pursue a PhD. But, luckily, the Department of Anthropology at the Museum was looking for interns to help with the grunt work that the curators were too busy to deal with. Jake had leapt at the chance.
Jake was walking down the gloomy main corridor of the Anthropology Department with Michelle, his supervisor in the Biological Anthropology Laboratory. She was about his age, maybe slightly older, with curly chestnut hair and skin the color of creamed coffee. She had a slightly musical voice and a friendly personality. Jake had taken a liking to her almost immediately. Right now, she was giving him a quick run-down of the history of the Anthropology Department.
“We’re located in one of the oldest sections of the Museum,” she said, gesturing to the chipping paint on the walls and the cracked green floor tiles. “This area hasn’t been renovated in a long time.”
Jake nodded, still processing the reality that he was actually here! Working in the Museum! They made a right turn and went down a similar corridor lined with sturdy-looking, wooden cabinets with glass doors, but the glass had brown paper behind it, blocking a view of whatever was stored in them.
“What’s in those cabinets?” he asked.
“That’s where we store most of our human skeletal collection,” Michelle explained. “There used to be an unobstructed view through the glass, but it was decided that putting the paper there was more respectful.”
“That makes sense, I guess,” Jake replied thoughtfully.
“There’s pretty much every bone of the human body represented in these cabinets,” Michelle continued, “Except for skulls. That’s where we’re headed now, the cranial collection, or what we like to call ‘The Skull Room.’”
They turned another sharp corner and came to a set of heavy, wooden double doors. There was an electronic card-reader just to the right of the door frame. Michelle held up her ID badge to this and after a high-pitched beep, pulled open one of the doors with an effort.
“Here we are,” she said. “The Skull Room.”
They walked into a large, dimly lit space with a high ceiling of about two stories. The floor was lined with the same faded and cracked green tiles as the hallway. Directly ahead and towards the rear of the room was a large metal desk piled high with towers of unsorted papers and various oddments.
“That’s where the collections manager usually works,” Michelle explained. “Normally you’d be under his supervision, but he’s out this week. I don’t think it should be a problem to get you started now.”
The left wall was lined with windows, but heavy blinds limited the amount of daylight coming in, contributing to the eerie gloom. To the right and taking up most of the space were rows of metal shelves, similar to library stacks. A rickety-looking, metal spiral staircase led to a second floor, like a loft, that contained more stacks. The shelves were lined with plain, brown cardboard boxes, about the width of shoeboxes but deeper. Each box was marked with an identifying catalog number written in red pencil.
Michelle took down one of the boxes and placed it on a workbench along the opposite wall. The cardboard was covered in a thick layer of dust; clearly it had not been opened in years. She gingerly removed the top and reached inside.
She pulled out a human skull. Despite the fact that Jake had known what the box contained; he couldn’t prevent a cold chill from running up his spine. He shivered involuntarily. He hoped Michelle hadn’t noticed.
Memento mori. The words flashed through Jake’s mind. Latin for “Remember, you will die.” He had read somewhere that Medieval monks used to meditate on the phrase, keeping in mind their own mortality. Some even went to the extent of keeping a human skull on their desk so that the reminder would always be before them.
Michelle seemed unperturbed.
“There are thousands of skulls like this in the collections,” she said. “Your job over the next few weeks will be to create a complete inventory of all of them. I have some paper and a clipboard for you here. Note the specimen number, which is on the side of the box, and the geographical location where the skull was collected. There should be a tag in each box with that information. Also, write a brief description of the condition of each specimen – that tends to be of varying quality. Not all our crania are as handsome as this guy here,” she said, hefting the skull in her hands. “He seems to be in pretty good shape. But there are a lot of others in very poor condition.”
“Where did all these skulls come from?” Jake asked, sweeping his gaze about the collections with wonder and more than a little unease.
“Most of them were collected by Museum anthropologists over the decades,” Michelle answered. “Back a hundred years ago, ethnologists and archaeologists were, shall we say, much less scrupulous about where they sourced their specimens. As you’ll see, many of these crania come from indigenous populations all over the world, from here in North America and elsewhere – Africa, Asia, the Pacific islands. In those days, anthropology was little better than grave robbing. Gross, I know. There are also a lot of specimens that were donated to the museum a long while back from some eccentric aristocrat whose hobby was collecting skulls. Not the whole skeleton – just the skulls. Weird. Anyway, I’ll leave you to it. No rush, by the way. Like I said, you’ll be at this for the next few weeks. I’ll be in my office just down the hall. Text me if you need anything.”
Jake thanked her as she left the room and closed the double doors with a heavy thud.
Memento mori. The words slithered through his brain again. He shook his head and took a deep breath of dank, stuffy air, hoping to clear his mind. At this he was less than successful. The room had an uncanny feeling. Despite the fact that he was clearly alone, Jake had the inexplicable feeling that someone or something was watching him.
Get a grip, he thought. There’s no one here. You’re just creeped out by all these skulls. After all, they used to be living, breathing people. People with lives, loved ones, dreams….
Memento mori. Jake shuddered.
“I know what I need,” he said aloud with an effort, “some music to distract me.” He took his smartphone and earbuds out of the pocket of his jeans and listened to some loud contemporary rock as he got to work.
An hour passed as Jake made his way through his playlist and inventoried skulls. After a while he became frustrated. He began to notice discrepancies between the information he was recording on his notepaper and the actual data attending each specimen. Small errors could lead to big complications later. He took out his earbuds.
I’m getting too distracted, he thought. I can’t afford to make stupid mistakes or get sloppy on the first day of my internship. Besides, I don’t want to waste juice on my phone.
He had noticed that the battery life on his crummy old smartphone was already down by half since he started listening to music, and he left his charger in his backpack in Michelle’s office. He thought briefly about going back to get it but decided to leave it be. He’d have plenty of juice left so long as he didn’t surf the internet or use any energy-hogging apps. He put the phone down on the counter in front of him and got back to work. He retrieved another box and recorded the relevant information. He peered at the skull inside. This one had come from South America and was an odd shape. It was elongated posteriorly, almost conical, like one of those “alien skulls” you saw on conspiracy documentaries aired by the History Channel. Clearly this person had undergone cranial deformation in their youth. A baby’s skull bones take a long time to fully fuse and in some cultures head wrappings are used to mold a child’s skull to a particular shape.
Jake whirled around. He could have sworn he heard a voice from somewhere in the room, speaking the words that had been circling through his mind for the last couple of hours. Could someone have entered the collections room unnoticed while he had his earbuds in?
“Hello?” No one answered. Jake reproached himself.
You’re imagining things now, he thought. He returned to his task with a shake of his head.
Another hour passed. It was almost noon. Jake’s stomach began to rumble. The shelf he was currently working through had many skulls that were in incredibly poor condition. Several were broken, smashed completely. Many were missing most or all of their teeth. Some were covered with patches of soil and thin, stringy roots, as if they had been freshly disinterred from their graves.
There is was again! A voice – Jake was sure of it this time.
“Hello?!” he called out. “Who’s there?” Silence. He went up and down the aisles of shelving and found no one. On a hunch, he carefully ascended the old spiral staircase to check the stacks on the second floor. Again, nothing to be found but the rows and rows of the dead. Jake swore under his breath.
“You’re losing it,” he said. As he slowly returned to the ground floor, he tried to rationalize what he was experiencing.
Like Michelle said, this is a very old building, he thought. There must be all kinds of water pipes and things like that make odd sounds that are amplified by the acoustic properties of a big, empty room like this.
It was a reasonable enough explanation, but Jake hadn’t entirely managed to convince himself.
I was certain I heard a voice…. Jake’s stomach growled again.
“Maybe that’s what I heard!” He laughed and walked back to the long counter. “I’ll just inventory a few more specimens and then break for lunch,” he said. “Maybe an empty stomach is what’s really getting to me.”
The condition of the specimens just kept getting worse. A few were sticky to the touch. Jake wasn’t sure what the substance was, but it was probably organic. Maybe even all that remained of human flesh…. Jake was repulsed by the idea and nearly retched. He put one a skull back at its box and looked at his hands. His fingertips were dusted by a black, sticky substance.
“Gross! Michelle should have given me gloves. Forget lunch!” His appetite was thoroughly spoiled.
There is was again! No, he had to be imagining things. It was this place, and all these skulls! He was letting the emptiness and silence and the presence of death cloud his mind. He stomped over to a small washbasin at the far side of the room, turned on the faucet and scrubbed his hands clean. He felt the watchfulness he had sensed earlier grow. He spun around and glared at the room before him.
No! It’s just my imagination. I won’t be scared stupid by a room of old skulls! What would Michelle think if she found out?
Jake defiantly took another box down from the shelves. Many of the skulls in this area of the collection appeared to have been donated by the eccentric skull enthusiast that Michelle had mentioned. These crania often had bizarre morphologies, rare pathologies, or had been modified or decorated in some way. Several had been painted with abstract designs that resembled tribal tattoos or had been etched or inscribed with words in various languages.
As Jake worked, he kept looking over his shoulder, as if expecting to see someone there. He still felt like he was being watched. He reproached himself and continued with his task, but the unsettling feeling never abated. Indeed, it got worse. He tried to distract himself, but his thoughts kept inexplicably returning to musings about his own death and of death in general. He tried to shoo the morbid imaginings away but found it hard to focus on anything else.
Memento mori. Remember you will die.
This time he couldn’t be sure whether the words had come from his own head or a whispered voice from somewhere in the room. He began to shiver uncontrollably. Was the room getting colder? Or was that too a product of his overactive imagination? He took several deep breaths and tried with little success to calm his mind. At least he stopped shaking.
He walked slowly to the shelves and removed the next box. It was heavier than the others.
Wow, Jake thought. This guy must have had a big head. He tried to chuckle at his own lame joke but felt only emptiness and depression.
“STOP IT!” Jake yelled, nearly dropping the box as he spun on his heel and looked desperately around the room for the source of the whispering. His eyes were wide with desperation and terror. Again, no one and nothing to be seen. Only Jake and the thousands of skulls.
Shame and embarrassment flooded him. He hoped no one outside in the hall had overheard his outburst. He didn’t want to gain a reputation as some kind of nut case on his first day.
My first day. He had to see this through. Damn the voices! He would continue on. He wouldn’t disappoint Michelle. He wouldn’t blow his one chance to finally work at this museum. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. The rest of his life was at stake.
Slowly, with tremendous effort, he made his way across the room and placed the heavy box on the countertop. He stared at it for some time. Minutes maybe. The room seemed to grow deathly quiet. He removed the lid….
There were the words, written in a flowing script in bright red ink across the broad forehead of the skull. Jake gasped and dropped the lid to the floor. He stepped back a pace or two and nearly tripped over a metal folding chair behind him. His eyes were wide with astonishment and horror. His mouth hung open, but no words escaped.
Memento mori. Memento mori. Memento mori.
The whispering voices seemed to come from all around him. Jake whipped his head around searching for someone, anyone else in the room. Did a shadow just duck into that aisle of shelving? He raced to the spot. Of course, there was no one.
Memento mori. Memento mori. Memento mori. MEMENTO MORI.
The voices were getting louder. Jake had had enough. He bolted for the door, his sneakers pounding across the faded green tiles. He grasped the door handle and turned. Nothing. The door wouldn’t budge. He pulled, he pushed. Nothing. He was locked in!
Panic set in. Jake dashed for back across the room to where he had left his phone. He could text Michelle. She could let him out. The voices continued their ceaseless mantra. Jake tried to wake his smartphone but to his horror a red battery symbol flashed across the screen before it went black. He pressed the power button desperately again and again. Nothing. The phone was dead.
MEMENTO MORI. MEMENTO MORI. MEMENTO MORI.
Jake thought he was going insane. His hands gripped the sides of the countertop as his body shivered and shook uncontrollably. He could barely think. He only knew one thing: He was trapped in this room alone with the skulls and the voices. Would he be trapped overnight here? Would he die here?
MEMENTO MORI. MEMENTO MORI. MEMENTO—
The door opened and Michelle stepped into the room as if nothing was wrong.
“Hey. I thought I’d check up on you and see how you were doing. It’s almost time for – Are you alright?” A look of concern past across her face. Jake realized that he was still shivering. He put his hand to his forehead and sighed in relief. His palm came back wet; he had been sweating.
“I tried the door a minute ago and it wouldn’t open,” He managed with an effort. “I was locked in. I tried to text you, but my phone died. I guess… I guess I had a little bit of a panic attack.”
“Oh gosh! I’m so sorry,” Michelle said sympathetically. “I didn’t know this door locked from the inside. Well, I wouldn’t worry about enduring anymore excitement today. I was just coming to tell you that it’s almost four o’clock. You’ve been in here all afternoon! Time flies, huh?”
“Yeah…” Jake said, his breathing finally returning to normal. Should he tell her what else happened in here? Would she think he was some kind of nut? “I heard some strange noises in here too.”
Michelle nodded. “Yep, this old building makes creepy sounds from time to time. It’s enough to drive you crazy, right?” She laughed.
“Right,” Jake said, putting on the best imitation of a smile he could manage.
They left the Skull Room and walked down the hall towards Michelle’s office.
“Good work today,” she said. “We’ll pick up where you left off tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, Jake thought. Could he even manage it? Whether the voices were his imagination or not, he wasn’t sure he could endure even another hour, another minute in that room. What could he do?
Suddenly it hit him, like a revelation. Memento mori – remember you will die. He knew what he had to do, something he hadn’t done in years. He prayed.
…And may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
©2020 Thomas J. Salerno. All rights reserved.