Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
I was having a miserable day. Well…okay, I was allowing myself to have a miserable day. I sat at my desk watching the seconds tick off on the digital atomic wall clock which also told me the date, the day of the week, and the temperature. Ugh. The temperature. My super fancy clock said it was 72.9 degrees Fahrenheit, which might be true…inside my office. Outside, it was some ungodly negative number which I did not wish to think about.
The awful cold and pervasive gloom which lay over everything had seeped into my bones, making them creak and ache in ways they did not when the weather was warmer. We’d had days and days of this inescapable crap, and it was definitely affecting my mood. My doctor tossed out words like “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” and “Daylight Lamp,” and “antidepressants,” but I didn’t think any of those things was going to make it all better. A trip to the beach, maybe, but not those other things. And besides, right now, aside from my job and my small apartment, feeling miserable was about all I had, so I’d keep it, thank you very much.
On a typical day, I was just fine with getting up and going to work, even though I might prefer to stay in my warm and cozy bed, I had responsibilities. Being an adult is not all it’s cracked up to be. Today, however, something just felt…off. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe it was my mood. Or lack of sleep. Perhaps lack of caffeine? Or, maybe I was just PMS-ing. It would be like me to turn into a caffeine-deprived zombie bitch. But I sat dutifully at my desk systematically checking things off my ever-expanding and never-ending To Do list.
After a few hours of forcing myself to stay focused, I realized the phone had not rung once in all that time. Nor had I seen or heard anyone outside in the hallway. The office in which I worked was typically a thriving, bustling hive of activity, but right now, there was an eerie stillness. Did I miss the memo for some kind of company-wide mandatory meeting? I checked my email, going back several days, checked my calendar just to be sure. Nothing. The quiet was unnerving. I decided I needed to stretch my legs anyway, and so got up from my desk to investigate.
I did a lap around the entire second floor on which I worked and saw not one person. I heard not a single hum from any machine or a shrill ring from any phone. None of the usual sounds of office equipment in use. No rustling of clothing as workers moved about. No shuffling of papers or sounds of quick fingers across a keyboard. Even the heating system seemed to have gone silent; its constant pinging, something I’d always considered white noise, was simply not there. Having found nothing and no one on the second floor, I did a quick sweep of the first and third floors, both with the same result. If I wasn’t unnerved before, I definitely was now.
Standing in front of the large floor-to-ceiling windows, I stared out at the barren winter landscaping and across the street to the building on the other side, hoping to see signs of life. I saw nothing at all. Yes, there were trees, and snow with bare patches of crunchy, dead grass poking through in sections, and the low stone walls which had been erected in a vaguely decorative way. But I saw no birds in flight, who, even on a frigid day like today, would have, even should have, been out and about. I saw no skittering squirrels. No vehicles. No bundled-up souls out braving the day.
I felt like the last person on earth and it was terrifying.
At first, I’d undertaken my explorations in a somewhat analytical way, certain there would be a logical explanation for the solitary silence, stillness. Now, I began to panic. I could feel the anxiety rising up in me, indefensible, like a locomotive at top speed, and I was about to be derailed. My breaths came in fast, shallow, hitching gasps and I knew I was on the verge of a complete meltdown. I felt exposed and vulnerable. I had to get a handle on this. Get a handle on it right now, dammit! This was not a time for me to lose my shit!
After spending about twenty minutes tucked away in the women’s restroom, I emerged, slightly worse-for-the-wear, but resolved to figure out this mystery.
Returning to my desk, I picked up my phone and started dialing numbers at random. Ones I’d memorized (other co-workers, mom and dad, friends) but no calls went through. There seemed to be a dial-tone, which should mean the lines were good, but my calls were going unanswered. I could not unearth a friendly “hello?” at the other end of the line no matter how much I tried. My cell phone didn’t work at all. So now I knew at least one thing; phones were not going to help.
I decided I should search the building more thoroughly; after all, I’d only done a quick and cursory inspection before. There were many rooms I’d not checked yet, including the basement. Luckily, I was one of the few folks entrusted with a building master key, so any door which was locked could be opened. On the second floor, closets, large storage spaces, refrigerated storage for temperature-sensitive items, janitorial rooms, locker rooms; all proved completely and totally empty of life. I did the same (though knowing it was fruitless) on the first and third floors. I even went up on the roof, which I’d never done before because I wasn’t supposed to, and I was a rule-follower if nothing else, only to be blasted by arctic air the second I opened the portal to the roof. Without a coat I made a hasty inspection of the roof, but I was pretty certain nothing and no one would be hiding out among the rooftop HVAC equipment; it was just too damned cold.
My office felt like home-base, so after searching as far as I could search within my building, I returned there to sit at my desk and think. About an hour and a half had passed between the time I noticed the void of sound and people, through the time I’d spent searching the building, to now, when I finally sat back down. I felt both mentally and physically exhausted, and thoroughly confused.
I didn’t want to ask the one question I knew I should ask, which was: “What happened?” And the secondary and tertiary questions of: “Where did everyone go?” and “Why was I the only one left?” I knew I wouldn’t like any of the answers, but I was stuck. Stuck in both mind and body. My mind absolutely refused to believe this was real and my body absolutely refused to move. And I absolutely did not want to search the one final place to which I had not yet ventured: the basement.
I’d been in the basement, and often, but I’d never been afraid of it before. It was a gigantic, open, brightly lighted room used mostly for file storage. Along one wall there were small gated and padlocked “rooms” made of metal grating which contained unused or broken equipment; old computers, outdated fax machines, an ancient switchboard, and one which was used for cardboard recycling. In the stacks, banker boxes full of company historical files reigned supreme; old and closed account files kept for records retention purposes as well as active accounts. There was an area for office supplies, and even a small library. The Gregg Reference Manual was in stock; one shelf containing about a dozen red-bound copies.
Everyone had been down in the basement at one time or another and no one had ever gotten lost. The poured concrete walls were painted a stark white, adding to the bright lights, which, though the room was many feet underground and there were no windows, felt open and spacious and non-threatening. But now, as I descended the long stairs (I could not make myself use the elevator, even if it was still working) I felt a growing sense of dread. As if I was walking with determined purpose toward my own demise.
Panic started to rise again, and I allowed myself a brief time-out on the stairs to calm down. Even through the dread, I managed to convince myself I’d find nothing but the large and bright room I’d always found whenever I’d been down there in the past. Long minutes went by as I wrestled my heart rate and my breathing into submission, but at last I began my descent again…and stepped out of the stairwell into the bright, cavernous room.
The room was exactly as I expected it to be, and yet, I could not shake this overwhelming feeling of being watched. I saw nothing out of place, and nothing which should give rise to the burning sensation of eyes on me; the hairs on the back of my neck prickled and I had some serious goosebumps. The painted concrete walls were still white. The lights overhead still shone in their bright, white-blue way. The stacks were still the solid gray of industrial, and well-constructed, metal. The cardboard records boxes were exactly right. All office supplies in place. It wasn’t until I reached the library area at the far end of the gigantic room that I observed movement out of the corner of my eye.
At first, I couldn’t understand what I was seeing and thought maybe it was a trick of shadows and light, but, the longer I stared, the more frightened I became. The white concrete wall to my left was undulating; rolling, rippling, surging, heaving, and swelling as if something inside was trying to emerge. And there I stood stupidly among the stacks of the basement library, transfixed, staring at the wall. It was like a train wreck, or a horrible car accident on the interstate; you didn’t want to look, but you couldn’t look away. Horrifying and fascinating at the same time. I heard myself utter vaguely, “What in the world…?”
Almost as soon as those words left my lips, the surging stopped, and as if by magic, something unfolded itself (the only term which seemed appropriate) from the wall. This thing, whatever it was, seemed to be made of the same white concrete as the wall itself! Once it had separated itself from the wall, and stood at full height, I was struck dumb; mouth hanging open like an idiot. Even my banging heart (throbbing in my neck) wasn’t enough to unstick me from the spot where I’d become rooted.
It was over eight feet tall, if I had to guess, and had an absurdly thin body. Elongated, narrow fingers (three fingers and a thumb) on each hand with wickedly sharp nails. Feet so enormous they wouldn’t have looked out of place in large, red, clown shoes. This otherwise featureless thing suddenly turned its head in my direction and made a motion as if it were smelling me.
That was it. I ran.
Whatever had happened to everyone in the office was no longer my concern. My new concern was simply getting out of the basement, and, hopefully, out of the building, alive.
As one runs in dreams and gets exactly nowhere, I ran as hard and fast as I could, but the enormous room stretched, stretched, stretched…until I felt I would never reach the exit stairs. Risking a glance behind me, I saw the creature walking casually as if it knew, no matter how fast or far I ran, it would catch me. The creature took one, long, walking stride to every three of my frantic, running strides. It would catch me if it decided to try harder.
Finally, after an eternity, I reached the stairs, tripping hard on the first riser and barking my shins as I fell in an ungraceful tangle. I scrambled up as quickly as I could and, just as my right foot took purchase on the next riser, I was seized from behind! I screamed, knowing it would not matter; no one would hear.
I was dragged unwillingly, clutched in vicious fingers, claws digging into my shoulder, back the way we’d come; toward the rear of the cavernous room.
I awoke with a gasp, a half-scream nearly escaping my lips, my arms cradling my head.
I’d fallen asleep at my desk! In all the time I’d been an adult, especially a responsible, job-holding, adult, I’d never, ever fallen asleep at my desk! I was simultaneously grateful the concrete creature and the eerie stillness had only been the stuff of nightmares, and mortified at my lack of professionalism.
I thrust my chair back in irritation as I stood to…what? What was I going to do? Ah, yes, I needed to wander the office hallways just to be sure I wasn’t still dreaming. Put myself at ease. Also, I could use some tea. Coffee was my usual beverage of choice, but I needed calm, not caffeine. I headed toward the break room, still fostering a vague dread and a definite self-reproach.
The electric kettle was mid-way to the boiling point and I stood, leaning against the counter in the break room, reliving that awful dream in vivid detail and trying mightily to dislodge it. I needed to return to reality. Bits of the dream kept flashing in front of my eyes and I would swipe with irritation at the air in front of me or rub at my eyes in an attempt to close the door on it and lock it away forever.
But it wasn’t working.
The green wall of the break room kept moving. I knew it had to be a hallucination, a leftover from the terrible dream, but no matter how much I rubbed my eyes, it did not stop. The wall bubbled and swayed, bulged and surged in a grotesque imitation of the concrete wall in the basement. And, though I knew I was awake, every bone in my body, every muscle, every pore, every hair on my head screamed at me, “ESCAPE! ESCAPE!” But between me, and the door which would take me out of the break room, there was now something unfolding itself from the wall…
And, though I screamed at the top of my lungs, I knew help would not come.
CREDIT : Jennifer Shell