I’ve worked here so long, I can’t even remember why I took the job anymore. But nights like this, I imagine it must have been the music.
I came from the city, that much I remember.
The city. Noisy. Not like here. In this stone shed, there are only the cries of coyotes, owls, and their prey. The breath of the stars stirring the trees. Kids try to get in only once in a great while, but aside from that it’s…peaceful. A guy could fall asleep just listening to the crickets.
But I can’t sleep. It’s time to stretch and make the rounds. I don’t have a flashlight—a working one, at any rate. There’s a broken one lying in the corner of the shed, its lens cracked, but I don’t need it. It’s a clear night. Moon is full. And the stars…the stars, the stars!
I pause just outside the guard shack, head thrown back in the breeze. The stars spin above, framed between weighted branches. Nothing like the city. No stars in the city. Here, stars forever, constellations I never thought existed, stretching back as far as I can see, farther even, and some seem to reach down through the leaves—
Let’s not get carried away. I’ve a job to do.
The shed stands at an iron gate in the otherwise solid wall. The stones go all the way around; I’ve walked the entire perimeter a few times now. Never gone inside, though. Have my orders. Keep kids out. Nothing more. Sometimes I stand in front of the gate and look inside. There’s a path, quickly lost in the trees. No idea where it goes. A mansion, maybe? Or maybe there’s nothing. Just a dead-end path into the woods. No one ever told me what I’m supposed to be guarding. Just keep the kids out.
My finger traces the metal gate, feeling the icy texture, the flakes of rust, every little bump and bend. Then my finger hits stone, and I begin the long walk. My hand caresses patches of soft moss. Now and then, flakes of lichen. In some places the trees, pulled down by the weight of their own leaves, obscure the wall completely.
My footsteps fall in time with the rhythm of the insects. At first it sounds like a constant buzz, but there’s a regular throb to it. Something inside the wall shrieks.
I glance at my watch, remember it’s broken. Battery’s dead. Judging by the time frozen on its face, it must’ve died during the interview.
Feels so long ago now. My employer asked if I had any family. I said no, and asked why. He mumbled something about the schedule being hard on those with other obligations.
He asked…other things. It feels like so long ago.
Something interrupts the song of the night. Laughter, frantic shushing. I round a bend in the wall and see them, five of them, with a ladder propped against the stone. They don’t see me. Their eyes are all on the one who’s climbing, nearly to the top, about to throw one leg over the other side.
I stride calmly up behind them. They’re so deaf. They have flashlights, all trained uselessly on the wall or their friend above, so they’re blind to anything outside their cones of light. Once I’m in position, I clear my throat softly.
One of them turns, shining his light over my shoulder, missing me completely.
“Shh,” he urges. The rest follow his gaze.
“Is it him?” one of them asks.
“I don’t know. I thought I heard—”
I take a step to the left, putting myself squarely in the light.
They stare at me for a moment, then the first one runs. The rest are quick to follow—except for the one on top of the wall, who falls over the other side.
There’s a scream. One of the other kids stops and looks back, but a friend grabs his arm, saying, “He’ll be fine, he can get out on his own!”
I wait for the sound of their retreat to fade, wait for their panicked forms to dissolve into the night. Then I knock the ladder away from the wall.
“Guys?” comes a small, pained voice from inside. “Guys, I think my leg’s busted! Are you still there?”
I press my face against the cool stone, reveling in the moldy smell of it. “Follow the wall,” I say.
“Find the gate.”
“Help! Help me!”
I begin making my way back toward the gate. Kid will probably need an ambulance, if he’s telling the truth. There’s a phone in the guard shed I can use.
I walk with my head tilted back, watching and listening. A night bird, startled by my passage, thunders from the branches above. Its repetitive cry echoes in counterpoint to the crickets and frogs and other nameless things. The stars seem so close tonight; I could pull them down, if I wanted. I can practically hear them roaring in the abyss.
At the gate, I peer in. The kid hasn’t shown up yet, but that’s hardly surprising if his leg is broken. I go into the shed and pick up the phone. It’s so coated in grime it sticks to its cradle, and I’m not too surprised when I don’t even get a dial tone. Oh well. He and his friends obviously walked here; they can’t live too far away.
I return to the gate and wait for him to appear. The insects seem to be quieting down. I wonder if that means dawn is close. It’s been such a long night. I guess it would be, my first night shift. Surprisingly, for all my talk earlier of peacefulness, I’m not sleepy at all.
Something hoots close by, then there’s a rustle of leaves and a dark shape blots out the stars. When it’s gone, I try to pick out constellations. Can’t seem to find any, though. Maybe it’s because the night is so clear. More stars than I’m used to seeing, distracting me from the familiar patterns—
“Is anyone there?” calls a distant voice from within the wall. “Please, anyone?”
Some distance down the path, a black form emerges from the trees. It crawls, one leg dragging behind it. A head of lank hair hangs low between the shoulders. It trembles in the path and collapses.
“Over here,” I say, not raising my voice too much. I put a hand to the gate and…it doesn’t open. Of course it would be locked. I don’t see a lock, and I was never given a key. I was only told, what feels like days instead of hours ago, “Don’t go inside. Just keep them out.” I was told other things. Other…things that don’t pertain to the problem at hand.
But is it a problem? As the injured boy shivers in the path, seemingly ignoring my voice, I can’t seem to conjure any sense of urgency. Any iota of caring. He was supposed to stay out. Everyone’s supposed to stay out. Those are the rules, and what are rules without consequences? Mere words. Noise. It requires consequences to turn that noise into music. Music like the bark of a predator in the brush.
The kid stiffens and listens. He’s aware now. He looks this way and that, then pulls himself across the path into the woods on the other side. A new sound has joined the song: quiet sobbing. I can sense the crickets and the birds and the breath of the stars adjusting to fold the new sound into the composition. “Please…someone…help…”
I back away from the gate and return to my seat in the stone shed. I close my eyes and just listen. So peaceful. If I didn’t have a job to do, I could fall asleep.
Fall asleep. To the sigh of the night. To the yapping of coyotes as they pounce and bicker. To the screams of prey torn inside-out. To the chorus of small creatures who watch from safe places. And to the breath of the stars, those alien stars. Such a long night. Such a long, long night. Will I ever sleep again?