“I’m going to go walk around a bit,” said Tom.
I grunted in acknowledgment before taking a sip of coffee. Behind me, I heard Tom open the office door and close it behind him. Alone in the dark now, I observed Tom’s progress on the monitor in front of me. As he marched down the hall, a white box popped up around him—the security system’s motion detector. At the end of the corridor he disappeared into the stairwell, and I could barely hear the echoes of his footsteps as he descended. A second later he reappeared on a different frame, the beam of his flashlight blown out on the IR display and outlined in its own white rectangle.
I picked up my radio and pressed the button. “Any life down there?”
“Negative, Cap,” came the crackly reply.
Never is, I thought. Although, to be fair, we’d only been on the job for a week. It was an old school that had been closed for decades. The town had recently decided to fix it up and turn it into a museum, and we were the night guards. So far, it’d been a quiet job. Well, except for that incident two nights ago with the cat. Still had claw marks on my hands.
I cast a lazy glance over the monitor, affirming zero activity in any of the frames, before returning my attention to more important matters: texting my girlfriend, Rachel. She worked nights at a twenty-four hour grocery, so our schedules matched up nicely. They were usually stricter about phone use at her store, but tonight must’ve been slow because she was replying with quick regularity.
My radio hissed, startling me into hitting send mid-message. Rachel would be very confused right about now. I picked up the radio.
“Got any plans for this weekend?” Tom asked.
“Doing a barbecue with my parents,” I answered. “Going to introduce them to Rachel for the first time.”
“Good luck with that.”
I was about to return to my phone when something caught my eye. One of the frames on the monitor had come to life, a small box jumping around the room. As hard as I looked, though, I couldn’t see anything inside the white border that would cause the system to react.
“Can you head over to room 106?”
“On my way. What is it, another cat?”
I chuckled. “I don’t know. Probably nothing. It’s too dark for me to see anything from up here.”
In the lower-rightmost frame, Tom began making his way through the school. I kept watching 106, near the center of the monitor. The white box was making a slow circle of the room. I leaned close to the screen, closer than was probably healthy, but I couldn’t make out anything except the usual pixilation artifacts.
When Tom entered the 106 frame, the motion detector picked up on him immediately, outlining him in a white rectangle. The original box, however, quickly disappeared.
“See anything in there?” I asked.
Tom walked around a bit, shining his flashlight into all the corners, then said, “Nope. Not a thing. Wait…”
The beam of Tom’s light swept to a corner at the very back of the room. 106 was being used as storage, and my view was obscured by a stack of crates. When he was about five feet from the stack, Tom stopped. He stared straight ahead with his back to me, not moving.
Then he turned his light off.
“What is it, Tom?” I radioed.
On the monitor, he continued to look at the corner. Whatever held his attention was behind the crates, so I couldn’t see it. Then, slowly, Tom turned around. He looked straight into the camera, and my heart crept into my throat.
He was crying.
They weren’t hysterical tears. They trickled from his eyes in a lazy cascade, but those eyes! I’d seen that look before in children who’d just learned that Santa wasn’t real, but to see it on a grown man was heartbreaking.
No, I thought quickly. This is just a prank. Tom had told me once that he’d been in the theater club in high school. He was a pretty good actor, and a good joker. “Alright, kill the waterworks. Is anything down there or not?”
Tom continued staring into the camera. He looked like he was trying to say something, but of course I couldn’t hear him.
“Use your radio, Tom.”
But he didn’t. He went on babbling, his face melting with tears. He glanced over his shoulder, back at the corner with the crates. He stood transfixed for a second, then slowly laid face-down on the floor.
“Tom, what are you doing? Tom—enough of this.” I shoved my radio into my belt, grabbed a flashlight from the desk, and stormed out of the office. I wasn’t sure if Tom was fooling around or not, but either way it seemed the only thing to do was head down to 106 myself.
The security office was always buzzing with the sound of electronics, and by comparison the rest of the school was dead. I clomped down the stairwell, through empty halls, and past darkened classrooms. The areas that had been converted into museum displays were full of mannequins. On more than one occasion those displays had given me a scare, but now they just irritated me. My footsteps reverberated through the building, bouncing back as if I was being followed. I had the annoying thought of all the mannequins I passed lining up behind me and parading in my wake.
By the time I reached 106, I was certain this was all a joke on Tom’s part. It was a slow night, and he wanted to spice things up. Well, I’d spice him up when I confronted him, that was for sure.
I opened the door to 106 and stepped inside. “Alright Tom, joke’s over—”
The room was empty, save for its usual collection of storage crates. I shone my light at the center of the floor where Tom had lain down, but nothing was there.
“You in here?” I called. When I got no answer, my anger reached its peak. Forget it. I’m not playing along. I wasn’t too worried about finding Tom. There were enough cameras in the building that most of the rooms and hallways were covered. I’d just return to the office and wait for him to show up.
When I got back, there was a text waiting for me. It was Rachel, wondering why I hadn’t responded to her last several messages. I shot her back a quick reply, then began scanning the monitor for any sign of Tom. It would be easy to spot him. The system’s sensors would outline him the moment he tried to move.
When the white box appeared, though, it wasn’t Tom. It was down in room 106, but there was no sign of Tom anywhere. No sign of anything, actually. The white box zig-zagged drunkenly across the room, then disappeared through the door.
My eyes jumped to the next frame, the one watching the corridor outside 106. The box was there, drifting down the hall. Still nothing that could’ve triggered it. No Tom. No cat. Nothing. My brow furrowed. I tracked the activity from frame to frame. The box eventually reached the stairwell, then I lost it. No cameras on the stairs.
I realized I had my face pressed against the monitor, and sat back in my seat. My phone buzzed, and I nearly yelped. Rachel again: What’s going on?
My fingers were shaking as I wrote back, Just looking into something. Going silent for a while.
My eyes were now glued to the frame overlooking the hallway outside the office. Whatever was out there, it would show up soon. The security office was on the third floor.
A heavy, resonating bang came from outside. I recognized it immediately: a footstep, amplified and echoed by the concrete and metal of the stairwell. It was followed by another, and another. They were heavy. Usually, you could barely hear when someone was going up or down, but this sounded like someone dropping anvils.
They got louder as they moved up the stairs, then, abruptly, they stopped. I threw a glance over my shoulder at the office door, then back again to the screen. I could see the stairwell door, and I waited for it to open. Nothing happened. I must have sat there for at least a minute, waiting, and then—
The box didn’t reappear by the stairs like I was expecting. Instead, it popped up halfway down the hall. It hovered there a moment, then proceeded slowly toward…toward me.
The third floor hall was better lit than the rest of the school at night. On the monitor, the pixilation wasn’t as bad, but still I could find no reason for the motion detector to go off. I watched it until it was too close for the camera to pick up, then I turned in my chair and fixed my eyes on the office door.
I jumped to my feet, inadvertently knocking my phone off the desk as I did. The door shuddered. Something on the other side began scratching, fiddling with the handle. A second bang. My skull wanted to implode from the noise. It was impossible! There was nothing out there!
The doorknob turned, gently, and the door swung open.
A sob escaped me as I faced it. There was no hope; I understood that now. I felt foolish for being scared of mannequins in the dark. Until now, I hadn’t even known fear. I started crying. Crying like a baby. Help me, please, someone help me! I’d never felt so alone. Without Tom, I was the only one in the building. Me and the mannequins downstairs and this…this thing, this—this wasn’t how I wanted it to end! Then I remembered my phone. With a shaking hand, I retrieved it from the floor while it patiently watched. My fingers struggled to type out the message, but I finally hit send: help me.
Then I put the phone in my pocket, and obediently lay down on the floor.