After Hours

October 4, 2016 at 12:00 AM

The estimated reading time for this post is 19 minutes, 10 seconds

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My eyelids were heavy and sandy, and they begged me for sleep. The conditions were perfect for it. The overhead lamps in my living room were switched off and the only light came from the TV, which created shadows that shifted across the room as the images on the screen changed. The late news was playing, but the volume was low enough that I could barely hear it. My eyes closed. The news anchor’s voice was a string of inaudible mumbling that lulled me further down into semi-consciousness, until I could no longer hear it at all.

My phone rang. It felt like I’d only slept for five minutes. The program on TV was now the late talk show that comes on after the news. I picked up my phone and realized I had been asleep for almost forty-five minutes. The screen told me it was Mr. Garrett, my boss.

“Hello?” I answered in a groggy voice.

I listened to Mr. Garrett as best I could. In my drowsy state I didn’t register everything he told me, but I did understand that he needed me to go into the office, finish the Meridian proposal, and email it to him as soon as possible.

“I thought we still had a week for that,” I mentioned.

“Something has come up, and we have to get it to them by first thing…” he paused and I assumed he checked his watch to see if it was after midnight, “…today! They want it first thing this morning!”

I sighed, but tried my best not to show my frustration to my boss. “Alright, I’ll go in and finish it.”

“Thanks, David. This means a lot. This Meridian job is huge. We can’t afford to lose it.”

After the call ended I went into the kitchen and began boiling water for instant coffee. I spooned a double-shot of the crystals into my mug before pouring the water on top.

– – – – –

It began raining on my way to the office, and by the time I pulled into the parking lot it was pouring in an absolute deluge. On the drive over I’d wished that my windshield wipers had a speed even faster than the highest setting, which would already break your neck if you tried to follow one of the blades individually. I sat in the car for a few minutes to see if the rain would let up, but it only seemed to get heavier, if that was even possible. I grabbed my access badge off of the passenger’s seat, opened the car door, extended an umbrella, and made a break for it.

The rain came down at such an angle that the umbrella was practically useless. I still got soaked from the shoulders down. I struggled to keep the umbrella upright with my left hand as I fumbled with my badge in my right hand. The door finally clicked open and I stumbled into the dry safety of the office building.

I felt around for the light switch on the wall just inside the door. With a flick, a bank of overhead fluorescent lights came to life, giving the foyer a much more familiar feel. The fixtures emanated a buzzing sound that I’d never noticed before amidst the hustle and bustle of busy work days.

I set my still-unfolded umbrella on the entrance floor and made my way to the elevator. After pressing the “up” arrow there was a loud clunking sound from somewhere far overhead as the motor came to life and spooled up to bring the carriage down to me.

“Sorry to wake you,” I said to the inanimate device as I entered the elevator and pressed the button for the fifth floor. An electronic bell sounded and the doors closed in front of me. As the elevator climbed I could hear the faint rumbling of thunder, which must have been extremely loud for me to be able to detect it from inside a concrete shaft in the center of the building. The carriage jolted and the faint yellow glow of the interior light dimmed then flickered off and back on again.

“Oh please, God – no,” I muttered as thoughts flashed before me of getting stuck inside the elevator in a power outage. My fears were unfounded as the bell chimed again, announcing my arrival at the fifth floor. I’d almost forgotten that I was in the building alone after hours, and I was somewhat startled when the doors slid open to reveal a dark hallway.

I’d never seen it like this before. It seemed to take on a whole new character at night. The only visible light was a red exit sign glowing at the end of the long desolate hallway, its reflection mirrored in the shiny linoleum floor. I made my way down the hall about ten feet until I found the first light switch. The fixtures blinked to life, creating a momentary strobe effect before settling into their humming rhythm. My shoes squeaked down the hallway all the way to the door of the office complex.

I used my badge again to open the door, exposing another room which should have been familiar, but was virtually unrecognizable in the dark. The maze of cubicles came into view after I switched the lights on. I worked my way over to my station and began to boot up my computer. More sounds that were normally inaudible during the day were all-too-obvious in late night solitude – the humming of the refrigerator in the kitchen at the back of the office – the compressor running inside the water fountain in the hallway – the spinning of my computer’s fan and the clicking of its hard drive as it booted up.

With my computer finally ready, I located the Meridian file, opened it and began feverishly completing the proposal – wanting nothing more than to get it sent on its way and go back home to bed. The drumming rain against the glass wall several rows behind me kept me in a zen state, and allowed me to work without breaking my concentration. When I finally finished the file it was 2:53 AM. I saved my work for the final time and opened my email program. As I was selecting Mr. Garrett’s email address from the dropdown, the power went out.

“Oh, for crying out loud!” I exclaimed. I sat in the darkness and waited, knowing that at any moment the backup generator would kick in.

And I waited.

The silence was overpowering – no refrigerator, no water fountain. The rain was the only sound to keep me company. I gave it a couple more minutes before realizing that I was going to have to go and check on the generator. I knew my way around the generator system since I was one of the engineers that oversaw its installation three years ago. It was a large diesel unit with a battery-start whose circuitry was rigged to fire up the engine automatically at the time of power failure. Hopefully, the battery wasn’t dead.

Even though I’d traversed this office every day for the last seven years, doing it in pitch darkness was not as easy as I thought it would be. After running into a couple of the burlap cloth walls, I had the genius epiphany to take out my phone and use its light to navigate. This made it only somewhat easier. The screen light did not radiate as much as I would have liked.

I had just made it into the hallway when I was stopped stiff by a noise to my left. It was faint, but it startled me so much that my pulse rose into my ears. I tilted my head toward the source. The sound was high-pitched and tinny – a tinkling of notes that one would hear in a toddler’s nursery. It was coming from down the hallway. I was going to have to pass by it in order to get to the stairwell and down to the generator in the basement. At this point, not even the exit signs were lit. I pointed the screen of my phone out in front of me and began walking very slowly, trying my best to prevent my shoes from squeaking.

All of the doors in the hall were closed except for one. The only reason I knew that was because lightning flashed, spilling a beam of silver-blue light momentarily into the hallway from the solitary open door. It was about twenty feet ahead on my left. I recognized the room as a storage area that I knew had recently been emptied. The tinkling nursery rhyme song became louder as I approached.

Standing at the threshold I listened as the music notes slowed, the spaces between them stretching until the sound was gone altogether. My breathing was becoming labored and my heartbeat was chaotic – a caged monkey inside my chest. I shone the light of my phone into the room, but it was insufficient to reveal the source of the sound.

After taking two steps into the room lightning struck again. The interior was completely illuminated for the briefest of moments. During that time I saw that in the center of the empty room, placed neatly in the middle of the floor, was an old plastic Fisher Price record player. A wind-up toy that many kids who grew up in my era would be familiar with.

Standing in the dark, I grappled with how this record player could have gotten there, and how it had started playing on its own. Just then the lightning struck again and revealed an empty linoleum floor.

I panicked. I ran haphazardly into the dark hallway, not caring if I careened into the walls. I extended my arms to meet the door leading into the stairwell at the end of the hall, but it seemed to never come. Finally, when my hands made contact with the door’s latching bar, I thrust it open and spilled into the stairwell. My phone barely gave enough light to navigate down to the first landing where I collapsed to the floor, gasping and panting with erratic breathing.

I considered going straight home – just saying “screw it” and leaving without emailing the file. But I knew Mr. Garrett would be extremely displeased with me, possibly to the point of firing me. I rested for an unnumbered amount of minutes before I calmed down enough to get up and head down the rest of the stairs and into the basement.

The corridor in the basement was the deepest of blacks. No light from any source, not even lightning, was able to penetrate the underground hallways. I progressed down the passageway the best I could with the aid of my phone – until its battery died, that is.

After that I had to use my hands to feel my way along the walls until I came to the large wooden double doors that led to the utility room. I unlatched and pushed open the right side door. Once inside, I slowly worked my way to the far right-hand corner of the room and then down a long narrow cinder block corridor.

The block walls were close on each side. My fingers noted the rough texture as I worked my way down the passageway. After a moment I came to a metal door which led to the generator room. I was thankful that it was not locked as I swung it open. I stood motionless, head tilted toward the darkness, and listened for any strange sounds. The only sound was that of the rain beating against the large metal roll-up door on the opposite side of the room. On the other side of that door was an equipment access ramp that angled up to the ground level outside.

I took two steps forward with my arms extended into the darkness. The room was musty and smelled of mechanical greases and oils. Suddenly there was movement in front of me. Something making its way across the floor – scooting or rolling – a constant frictional sound that didn’t stop until the object bumped into another unseen item. My heart was already in my throat again, even though it had just settled back down from my scare upstairs. The object did not move again and I gathered the courage to enter the room further.

I carefully followed the sound of the rain toward the roll-up garage door. Halfway across the room my shoe made contact with the mysterious object that had rolled by. My foot recoiled instinctively and I jumped back in horror. Some exclamatory curses escaped my lips.

The inadvertent kick had caused it to blast across the floor and into the side of what I presumed was the generator, where it rolled backward a bit before it came to a stop. My nerves could not take anymore and I was overwhelmed with the desire to have a light source in the room. I frantically found my way to the roll-up door.

I unlatched both sides and used the overhead chain to manually raise the door. The first four feet inside the room were immediately soaked by the downpour. I had hoped that ample light would enter the room from the outside, but it was very minimal as even the parking lot lights were out. Up the ramp and about a hundred feet away was my parked car.

The rain battered the concrete floor just in front of me and I cursed again after realizing that my umbrella was still in the foyer. I was going to have to make a break for the car. A thorough soaking was inevitable. There was just enough ambient light outside for me to make out the edges of the ramp up to the parking area. I counted to three and dashed into the rain.

Fifteen seconds later I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my car, waterlogged to the point that I could smell the wetness soaking into my upholstery. “All this just to send one stinking email,” I said aloud.

I started the car, turned on the headlights and drove toward the access ramp. Everything in the generator room came into clear view in my headlights when I stopped at the bottom of the ramp. It was a stark contrast to the room’s previous ink-blackness. It almost seemed too well-lit, as details of all kinds were now visible – the soiled concrete floor – the rust on the overhead pipes – the insulation that hung down in tattered strands from the beams above – the mildew on the block walls. And in the middle of the exposed room stood the relatively new and clean generator. A sleeping giant. Even before I exited the car I could see that the automotive battery on the generator had been disabled. Its negative cable hung loosely beside it.

“Now why on earth would someone leave it this way?” I asked myself, frustrated. I made a mental note to speak to the building maintenance supervisor about it. I worked up the courage to dash out of the running car, through the short stretch of pouring rain, and back into the generator room.

Just after getting out of the car, I froze. I hadn’t seen it from behind the wheel, but it was plainly illuminated in my headlights as I stood there in the downpour, soaked to the core. It was the item that had rolled past me, and that I’d later kicked. On the concrete floor next to the generator was a child’s plastic ball, white with a red stripe around its center. Inside the stripe, a ring of blue stars. It swayed back and forth ever-so-slightly in the wind that now entered the room.

I was in such disbelief that I forgot I was standing in the deluge. My hair was slicked tightly against my head. A steady stream of rainwater cascaded over my shoulders, down my back, arms, legs, and filled my already-sloshing shoes. I was afraid to step forward into the dryness. My eyes darted around the room, searching for any other signs of movement. There were none. In an instant of bravery I hurried over to the side of the generator opposite the ball and connected the dangling battery cable.

The circuitry detected the power outage. The diesel engine cranked and sputtered to life. Even though the engine’s muffled exhaust was piped outdoors, the noise was still intense. I flicked a nearby wall switch and fluorescent light filled the room from overhead. When I walked back to the other side of the generator, I looked toward the ball. It was gone.

I rushed back to my car and began backing up the ramp. Once in the parking area, I once again debated going home and forgetting all about sending the email. But I was so close to finishing this project, and I didn’t want to have to come back at the beginning of work hours just to email it. The clock on my dashboard said 3:37, and I planned on going home and going to bed for the rest of the day after I finished this task. There was no way around it. I was going to have to go back inside.

– – – – –

This time I opted for the stairs, flipping on light switches as I ascended each flight. I was slightly out of breath by the time I made it to the fifth floor. The lights that I had turned on before in this area of the building were burning brightly once again. The water fountain buzzed in the hallway. The refrigerator hummed in the office kitchen. My computer displayed a screen that scolded me for not shutting it down properly last time. I hit “enter” to continue the boot-up process. The hard drive ground its gears angrily back at me.

It seemed an eternity before I could take control of the computer. The email program was slow in opening. The clicking of the hard drive did not cease the entire time. I was finally able to attach the file to a brief message. Initially, the words “You owe me one!” concluded the message, but then I thought better of it and backspaced it all out before sending. Once the email was successfully on its way, I shut the computer down properly.

There were footsteps in the hallway just as I was getting up from my desk chair. They were not the usual office footsteps – not high heels or loafers clicking on the linoleum – not heavy workman’s boots trudging down the corridors – but the quick and light footfalls of a small child. Little rubber-soled sneakers bouncing excitedly down the hallway. I could have sworn there was also a giggle whose echo faded back into silence.

Once again my pulse rose and my ears rang with intensity as I attempted to listen. I went to the doorway leading into the hall and cautiously peered toward the exit at the far end without stepping fully into the hallway. The apparition of a small boy, about five or six years old, was just disappearing through the closed exit door.

I stood motionless, frozen with fear. I swallowed hard and felt a bead of sweat forming on my brow. All I could think about was getting out of the building. I wanted to go home, lie down and not come back to this place until it was daylight and filled with the commotion of office life. Without even bothering to turn out the lights or close the office door behind me, I stepped into the hallway and proceeded to the right, opposite of where I’d just seen the ghost boy.

The power had been working steadily for some time now and the lightning appeared to be finished, so I decided to take my chances with the elevator. I pressed the down arrow and waited. The bell sounded and the doors slid open. There in front of me was the boy.

I couldn’t move. He stood directly in the center of the carriage and stared back at me. His appearance was partially translucent, yet he still had a quality that made me think that if I reached out to touch him there would be palpable contact. He was wearing denim overalls with a striped shirt underneath. His sandy blond hair was neatly combed downward in a bowl-cut form. He had a look of immense sadness on his face, and even though his head was tilted slightly toward the ground, his eyes looked up directly into mine.

There was another chime from the elevator bell and the doors closed with the boy still inside. My jaw hung open. I was overcome with an unexplainable feeling of melancholy. Oddly enough, I was not frightened this time. I could sense that he did not want to, or was not able to, harm me. I rushed to the nearby stairwell.

Flight after flight I raced downward, my still-wet clothes clinging tightly to my body. On the way down I kept questioning what was happening. ‘Maybe I’m hallucinating from exhaustion,’ I tried to rationalize.

Once I made it to ground level, I exploded through the door and stood in the foyer. I looked left and right for any sign of the boy. I gasped to catch my breath. My soaked umbrella still lay on its top by the front door, its handle angled skyward like a precisely positioned satellite dish.

The elevator chimed again and I looked toward the doors as they were sliding open. The dim lighting inside the carriage revealed its vacant wood-paneled interior. There was no sign of the boy.

“Screw this insanity,” I mumbled to myself and headed directly to the car, collecting my umbrella on the way out. Inside the car, I plugged my phone into the portable charger. When I was able to boot it up I saw that there was a text message from Mr. Garrett.

“Got ur email. Looks great. Thx!” was all it said.

“I hope you’re happy,” I replied verbally, dripping with sarcasm. I then typed a reply back that simply said, “You’re welcome. I’m going to sleep in today.” After hitting “send” I leaned my head back against the headrest. The remaining rain, much calmer at that point, drummed steadily on the metal roof. I did not intend to fall asleep, but my exhaustion overwhelmed me. The rain lulled me. My sandy eyelids refused to obey my orders to remain open.

– – – – –

A knocking on my driver’s side window startled me awake. Bright sunlight poured in through my windshield, blinding me and causing my head and neck to ache. I looked to my left through foggy eyesight. Mr. Garrett stood there in his usual suit and tie, motioning me to roll down the window. I held up a finger signifying for him to wait a minute, then I inserted my key into the ignition and turned it forward just far enough to power the electronics. The dash clock told me it was 8:17 AM. I pressed the button to lower the window.

“I thought you were going to sleep in?” he asked.

“I think I just did,” was my foggy response.

“Hey, thanks for coming in last night and getting that proposal done. I really appreciate it.”

“Sure, it’s no problem,” I said, still squinting from the sunlight.

“Heck of a storm last night, wasn’t it? I hope it didn’t give you too much trouble”

“Well, you know…” I began, but then changed course, “I managed.”

He nodded then tapped his hand twice on my door. “Go home and get some proper sleep.” He started to walk away, but then stopped himself short and turned back. “Hey David,” he called, “Did you happen to experience anything… weird last night?”

I felt an adrenaline rush in the pit of my stomach. “How do you mean?” I questioned.

“Oh, I don’t know exactly. I’ve just heard rumors from the cleaning and maintenance crews from times when they’ve had to work nights.”

“The power went out,” I said, “and I had to go fix the generator. Someone left the battery cable off.” I didn’t tell him anything else for fear of looking like a nut job.

“That’s it, huh?”

I nodded. He nodded back, then turned and walked toward the office building.

– – – – –

As David’s boss walked across the parking lot, a feeling of dread entered his gut. He was glad that David had not seen anything unusual. He hated having to send David into the office last night, but it was a necessary risk to get the Meridian proposal finished. After the rumors from the maintenance crew started surfacing, he was afraid that he would be found out. But it appeared that his secret was still safe for the time being.

As he walked into the front door and approached the elevator, his mind flashed back to a time twelve years ago when the office building was being expanded. Visions of construction equipment and roped-off hallways filled his thoughts. He remembered how his son had been hired to grate the land for the new addition. It was a chance for a new beginning after his son’s prison time. They had to make it work.

He thought about the little boy that had gone missing from the apartment complex next door – how local officials searched and how the parents pled for weeks on the news for any information that would lead to his return.

He thought about the night that his son had been in an argument with his girlfriend, and decided to go finish leveling the lot late one evening after having had too much to drink. What was his son thinking, operating that bulldozer while drunk?

He thought about his son calling him on the phone that night, inconsolable and frantic, begging for help. “I didn’t mean to do it!” he’d cried, “The boy was just there in front of me all of a sudden!”

Mr. Garrett entered the elevator and the doors closed. He swallowed hard as he remembered the subsequent panic that ensued over the thought of his son going back to prison. He remembered how he’d helped his son cover up the incident.

Tears began to fill his eyes. There were only two people on earth that knew what had happened to that poor little boy. There were only two people that knew that the boy’s final resting place was beneath the concrete floor of the very elevator shaft that Mr. Garrett was occupying at that moment.

He’d felt so much regret over the years. It seemed to mount more and more each day. But he had to protect his son. He just couldn’t let him go back to prison. His forehead broke out in a sweat. Just as he reached for a handkerchief to wipe it, the elevator shuddered to a stop. The lights flickered and went out.

A nervous panic swept over Mr. Garrett. He heard the diesel generator kick on from some distant corridor, and then the lights eased back up. In front of Mr. Garrett was the little boy in the overalls. A little boy that only wanted to play on a dirt mound in a deserted construction site one night. The elevator did not move. Mr. Garrett stumbled backward to the rear of the carriage. His briefcase dropped to the floor spilling papers everywhere. The boy came closer. Mr. Garrett’s throat tightened. His face reddened. He felt a pain in his chest and arm that prevented him from being able to breathe in. The last thing he felt was sweat burning his eyes and dripping down his shirt collar. The elevator jolted and resumed its ascent to the fifth floor.

When the doors opened there were several other inhabitants of the building waiting to take the elevator down. They all shared a synchronized gasp when they saw Mr. Garrett splayed out on the floor with papers all around him.

One lady squealed Mr. Garrett’s name loudly. Then she began yelling about his bad heart. “Call an ambulance!” another man barked as he knelt down next to the boss. Then he searched Mr. Garrett’s neck for a pulse that didn’t come, and he knew it was probably too late.

Credit: moonlit_cove