Most people who have ever worked a night shift will tell you it’s creepy work. You walk up and down the corridors of wherever you are, your instincts working overtime, setting your mind on edge. We’re hardwired to fear the night, a time of helplessness, a time in which we slide down the food chain, our bodies craving rest, our senses ill-equipped to cope with the dark.
For me, it’s never been an issue. To be honest, I kinda like it. The dark. When I do my rounds, I don’t feel that fear, I just feel peace. When I walk the halls at night, I don’t have to deal with people rushing around or jabbering nonsense. No extra responsibilities or requests. No smalltalk, no empty pleasantries. Just the echoing of my own feet on the linoleum bouncing off the walls, the soft sounds of the patients’ breathing as I pass their rooms. Sure, every now and then one of them wakes up in a panic, pretty rare but it happens now and then. All I gotta do then is call the on duty nurse and whoever it is takes care of it. I glide on, finish my rounds, back to the front desk, back to my books.
Some of the chattier nurses complain as I pass their station about being stuck on the night shift. They ask me how can I possibly stand it? Don’t I get bored? Don’t I get sick of being tired throughout the next day? I tell them it doesn’t bother me, I like the quiet.
What I don’t tell them is that it’s the daytime that feels pointless to me.
I don’t have friends to require daylight to spend time with. I don’t have a girlfriend who needs attention. Mom died when I was little, Dad has his new family. Just leaves me. And I don’t mind. You don’t miss what you never had.
I guess I’m what you might call a ‘loner’. I think the nurses pick up on it, they don’t often try to speak to me. The nice ones flash me a smile when they see me, the assholes ignore me. All the same to me to be honest. I always figured they probably wouldn’t think much of me if they got to know me anyway.
All in all, it’s not a bad place to work. Easy money. Not much security required watching over a bunch of old folks on their way out. There’s nothing here really worth stealing; no drugs, no expensive equipment. The patients aren’t even in a state to get out of bed, let alone cause any trouble worth talking about.
At least that’s what I thought.
The first time in fifteen years of work I’d ever felt afraid in the hospice was when they wheeled in Isiah Muldoon.
Now, before I saw Muldoon, I’d seen some disturbing stuff. Dementia patients talking to the walls, old men with cancer riddled brains moaning like ghouls, elderly ladies so emaciated you could shine a flashlight through their stomachs and see the spine on the other side.
None of that had the effect on me that motionless old man on his gurney had.
He was so still. Only way I could tell he was breathing was the machine whirring beside him. But the eyes; wide open, staring out into oblivion in horror as if they had seen the end of it all.
Pretty rare I saw the patients coming in and I guess the nurse thought I was the sensitive type. She caught me staring at him, so she leaned over and told me he had locked-in syndrome. I asked her what that was, all the while compelled to stare at the man pinned to the bed. She said he’d been in for a routine operation and they got the dosage on his meds wrong, poisoned him. His brainstem and the lower part of his brain were severely damaged, the upper part untouched.
Essentially Muldoon was in a waking coma.
As she told me this his eyes began darting around the room like ping pong balls, locked onto mine as they took him past. I tried to avert my gaze but I couldn’t break his glare, it was like he was staring straight into me, to places no one had ever seen. They got him into the bay and drew the curtain. I snapped out of it. Took me a moment to get my thoughts back together.
Just imagine that for a moment. One day you’re healthy and happy, living your life as if nothing can ever go wrong. Then someone flips a switch and you find yourself trapped inside your own body, mind still sharp as it is right now, only you’re unable to move, unable to speak, so damaged even your lungs need help to work, but still completely aware of everything going on around you. No hope of ever being free. Waiting to die.
Despite my fear I couldn’t help feeling for the guy. It’s one thing to have your mind eaten away by the confusion of dementia, it’s another to watch your body decay around you whilst you feel like you’re still together. I asked about Muldoon, his family, friends. The nurses told me his wife had died earlier in the year, no kids. He’d moved to the area recently and didn’t even have an emergency contact. Only reason he had enough for the room was his insurance which was paid for by some organisation.
Looking back I guess my first mistake was feeling some kind of kinship with him.
He didn’t have anyone just like I didn’t have anyone. Plus with him being in his state, I knew I wouldn’t have to make smalltalk with him or listen to any yammering so I figured what could it hurt if I went into his room and talked to him when I was passing.
It felt kind of strange talking to anyone like that, opening a conversation. I wasn’t used to it. At first I spoke about the weather, sports, the news, instantly despising myself each time I felt myself drifting into petty conversation, aborting and cursing myself as I continued my rounds.
But every time I passed he was there waiting. A captive audience, if you will.
I started talking to him about the books I was reading. I’m a big Murakami fan so I told him that, described the plot of the novel I was reading by the author. Told him what I thought of it and what I thought was going to happen. I’d keep him up to date each night I passed and soon got on to more personal topics. I told Muldoon about my family, how my dad was distant and my mom was dead. How no one really liked me but that I didn’t mind. I told him about my life and my dream to one day write a novel. How I slept alone and ate alone. How I really had no one.
All the while during these conversations Muldoon would fix me with his stare. It was hypnotic. I felt like I was pouring myself into him, a trickle opening into a torrent until he would release me and I could go back to my rounds.
Those conversations, if you can really call them that, always left me feeling so tired, dazed, like I’d just awoken from a deep sleep partway through. Each time I told myself that was the last time, yet the next night when I was passing that room, I couldn’t help but go inside, drain some more of myself away.
The night Muldoon spoke was the last night I felt peace.
I was doing the mid-shift rounds at about 3am, as usual. I remember how quiet the building was as I walked. Thinking back, I don’t even recall my shoes making a sound as they hit the floor. It felt like the forest when everything goes utterly silent, how only in the absence of that sound are you aware it was there at all. I drifted to Muldoon’s moonlit room and inside. He was sitting up in his bed. Bolt upright. His eyes fixed on mine, so wide they could have popped from his skull, brilliant white against the darkness around him. He was skinny by then and as I went forward he reached out his skeletal hands, beseeching me closer. It felt wrong but I was not afraid. I felt like a child being carried to bed in a fever, tumbling away from myself and towards the blackness. His jaw unhinged and creaked open. With each pump of the ventilator he rasped out a language that sounded like death gasps. I lowed my head to him like cattle and he clamped onto it with unknown power. I felt his claws dig into the skin, my skull shuddering as he forced his way inside.
The nurse slapped me across the face and I came around to her petrified eyes searching mine. I was standing in the doorway of Muldoon’s room, rooted to the spot. With a wavering voice the nurse asked me what was wrong. She told me I had been screaming.
Terror erupted through me like a geyser.
I blurted out Muldoon’s name, repeated it again and again and again. Aghast I pointed into the darkened room to where my attacker was surely scuttling. The nurse flipped on the light switch and there he was, asleep in his bed, the ventilator gently clicking by his side. I said I didn’t understand, he had attacked me, his hands… The nurse checked the machinery surrounding the withered old man. Told me it all looked normal, nothing had changed.
I didn’t believe it but I couldn’t bring myself to enter the room. I told her we had to check the CCTV footage, each room was fitted with a camera. Some of the other patients were stirring, a couple had made their way into the hall, no doubt disturbed by my apparent scream. The nurse said she needed to tend to them and set about her duty. I made for the security desk.
The bank of monitors glowed before me like mystic windows to the past. I squinted at them, trying to focus my blurred vision. My thoughts still felt groggy as if I’d woken up still drunk from the night before. Not that I drink much, that’s just how it felt. I managed to align my vision for long enough to key in the correct camera. My heart lurched as the sleeping old man manifested on the screen. I rewound the footage until I saw myself and the nurse in the doorway. Kept going. As the time stamp sped backwards, a static version of me remained pinned to the spot in the doorway, staring into the room like some kind of jittery creep. By the time I saw myself reverse away from the room 12 minutes of video had elapsed. 12. The attack had felt over in a flash. Thoughts fogging over again I pressed play and watched myself stroll up to the doorway and pull up to look inside. Then I just stood there, barely moving a muscle but not looking especially strange. Just standing there, taking note of the old man on the bed. At the 11 minute 34 second mark the man on the screen burst into life, nearly shocked me off my chair. He just started screaming, face contorted unlike I’d ever seen myself before. The nurse came into view and I paused the tape.
It had felt so real. But it was impossible. Had I had an aneurysm? Was there a tumour the size of a golf ball in my brain fixing to send me into one of these beds I’ve been walking past for these years? Nausea crept up my throat and I closed my eyes tight. Should probably get one of the docs to take a look at me tomorrow, I figured.
As the acid receded back down my esophagus and the urge to vomit passed, my head began to clear. I decided to check the other camera. The one looking into the room. I flipped over to the correct channel and the old man in the bed appeared on the screen. Rewound to the time I had arrived at his room. Hit play. Instantly it hit me. The eyes. Glowing in the night. Fixed wide on the doorway where I stood out of shot. A shiver crept down my spine as I watched Muldoon, unmoving in that blackness, his eyes never blinking. The time-stamp showed I had started screaming. The eyes flicked closed.
I spent the rest of my shift sitting at the security desk. My thoughts felt cloudy, distant. All I wanted was to go home and sleep.
The first light of dawn came, my shift ended without further incident. I made the automatic commute back to my apartment, climbed the stairs, collapsed into bed and shut my eyes in the hopes that a good rest was all I needed to shake off the strangeness of last night. As I drifted off, it all felt like a half-remembered dream, or like something that had happened to someone else at some other time. Tendrils reached out from the depths and dragged me into sleep.
My eyes flicked open. I was laying in a bed which wasn’t my own in a strange room. I felt uncomfortable but somehow numb. I glanced around, trying to get my bearings. There was the rhythmic sound of machinery beside my head. The place was utterly still, grey. Thin cobwebs hanging about the place. A layer of filth covered everything, making the modern utilitarian furniture look ancient. I attempted to sit up to get a better look but my muscles would not obey. I willed movement with all my might but nothing. Not even a twitch. I was pinned under some great weight, unable to muster so much as a wiggle of my toe.
I realised where I was. It was his bed. Muldoon’s. But why was I here? I had already finished my shift, I had left. I was asleep at home.
Relief washed over me at my revelation. I was asleep! Just a bizarre dream. I lay in the dusty hospice bed convincing myself I would wake up at any moment in my home. I had never had a lucid dream before, had no idea a dream could feel so real. But why had I not woken up? Usually when the dreamer notices he is in a dream, his brain shorts out and he wakes. I was still there, in what felt like real-time.
Something was in the hall.
My body filled with dread, in the absence of all other sensation it became my world. I lay with eyes fixed to the closed door. It was out there, moving towards me. It made no sound, but I could feel it. The pressure in the room increased as it approached, like the room had slipped off the side of the Mariana Trench, drifting down into the blackest parts of the ocean. My eyes felt as though they would burst from my head. I closed them tight to squeeze them back into my skull.
It was at the door. Waiting.
My heart pounded in my chest, shaking my whole body. I knew if whatever it was came in and looked into my eyes, it would ruin me.
The door opened.
I gasped and threw myself off the bed. I kept my eyes closed tight and raised my hands to protect my head from the being. No attack came. Slowly, I opened my eyes and looked around. It was my apartment. No cobwebs, no machinery. No presence creeping up the hall.
Before I could quite register the nausea, vomit exploded from my mouth onto the floor. I rose to get a towel to clean up the mess but my legs went to mush and I collapsed. My entire body felt stiff, like I had just run a marathon. I must have come down with a pretty nasty illness. Flu probably.
I wrenched myself from the floor and staggered into the living room where I had left my phone. It struck me as strange that I was naked, I usually sleep in pyjamas, but that was the least of my worries. It was 6pm, one hour before my shift was to begin. I was starting to feel better but decided I should probably take the night off, the hospice is pretty strict about coming to work if you have something like the flu, too many high-risk patients.
My boss was understanding, told me to see a doctor if my symptoms persisted. I told her I would and hung up, slumped onto the couch. A knock at the door stopped me from drifting off. I groaned. No one ever visited me so it couldn’t be anything important. The person knocked again, polite and cheery. I made my way to the peephole and looked out. It was my neighbour, Mrs Patton. We had never said so much as a hello in the hallway before, I only knew her name from the mail that sometimes mistakenly ended up in my box. What could she possibly want? She looked well enough. I decided against the interaction and was turning to go back to the couch when something slid through the door. A note. If she had some kind of problem she could get lost, now was not the time. I opened the folded paper anyway.
Thank you so much for helping me today, it’s heartening to know I have such a lovely young man for a neighbour. I’ve baked some cookies as thanks, you’ll find them on your doorstep. If you ever need anything, you feel free to pop over the hallway and knock on my door.
Thanks again and God bless.
Great, I thought, not only is the woman across the hall losing her marbles but now I’m involved in her delusions. Should steer clear of her as best I can, that kind of crazy has a way of sucking people in. I screwed the note up and tossed in the direction of the trash. Missed.
I spent the rest of the day feeling totally worn out, though, to be honest it didn’t change how I spent the day compared to most of my other days off. I lounged around the apartment, too tired for video-games, watching the same series on Netflix I had already seen countless times before. I tried to force myself to write a little of my latest novel idea, but as usual I couldn’t find the willpower and just went to the fridge instead. Frozen pizza for dinner again.
Spaced out, I barely even noticed as my conscious started to drift, lulled off gently by the chatter of fake lovers on the TV. I closed my eyes, just for a moment.
I batted my eyes open, must have dozed off. The room was dark around me but smelled dank, rotten. Gradually my vision adjusted to the gloom. My heart sank. I was back in the hospice bed, pinned to it by my own body. The room had changed. Black mould covered everything, seething out from behind the furniture and up the walls. Air thick with spores was pumped into my feeble lungs with each click of the machine beside me. I wanted to cough, to clear my throat but even that was impossible. I tried to wrench myself from the dream, to will myself out of it. Futile.
The machine’s clicks intensified. My heart pounded with the quickening rhythm.
It was coming.
The spores in the air whirled around me with each step outside in the hall. I could hear it now. Each step a thump of some great mass slamming into the ground. The pressure in the room was unbearable, enough to buckle the door in its frame. Its curdling breath billowed through the cracks in the door. I winced my eyes tight. Heard the door scream open on its bent hinges. The thing was in the room, willing me to look at it. It was moving closer. I could smell it now, an ancient thing, rotten moss and dirt. I felt it reach out for me.
I rolled off the couch and onto the floor screaming. Could feel the filth from the room clinging to my skin. I made a blind dash for the door but tripped and sprawled onto the carpet. Lay panting. I was home. Back in my home. I was Thomas. Me.
This was no ordinary illness. Something was severely wrong.
Orange light streamed through the window, my analog clock was no help. 5AM or PM? I checked my phone. PM. I’d slept for almost 10 hours and yet still felt as though I’d been awake for days. I needed a doctor. Medical help. Maybe the nurses at the hospice could offer me some advice. I unlocked my phone to call. An unread message popped onto the screen. I opened it.
great meeting you last night
I dont usually do that kind of thing, Im a nice girl really 😉
call me whenever
No telltale link to some seedy site at the end of the message, no request for money or to follow her on some social media page. Even the number looked legit below the saved contact, Amber.
I decided to ignore it and called the number for the hospice. The head nurse picked up. I told her who it was but before I had the chance to ask her advice she was already thanking me enthusiastically for stopping by with the donuts for the staff, that was really sweet she said. I was dumbfounded. She said she was happy I was feeling so much better, she’d never seen me so perky. She asked how my plans were going for the trip. Trip? The one I had used my favour to book the time off for short notice. I asked her when I had booked this time off. She told me 3 days ago. But wasn’t that a Sunday? No, she said, today is Saturday. I dropped the phone.
That meant 3 days had passed since I had fallen asleep on the couch. I had been asleep for 3 whole days. It couldn’t be. And how had I booked the time off in my sleep? I could hear her asking for me from the floor. I picked up the phone, made an excuse and hung up.
My head was swimming. Or rather sinking. My body felt totally used up. I could have fallen back to sleep right then and there, the only thing keeping my eyes open was the dread pulsing around my body with each heartbeat. I had to find answers. There had to be some kind of clue, some link to what was happening.
I remembered the message on my phone. I called Amber.
Hey you, the sultry voice on the other line said. You don’t play games. I like that. I asked her who she was. There was a pause on the other side. She asked me what I meant. I demanded to know how we met. Amber told me I was being weird. I ignored her, demanded again. She called me a creep, said she guessed she had been wrong about me. Hung up.
I never was much good with women.
I looked around my apartment. Everything was so tidy, no dirty plates or cutlery, no empty takeaway boxes on the floor. Even my magazines and video-games had been neatly put away on the shelf, in alphabetical order. What sick bastard had alphabetised my stuff?
I checked the trash. Vegetable wrappers from the supermarket, all organic. I dashed to the fridge, stocked with fruit, more organic vegetables, some kind of rice with ‘Quinoa’ written on the side. Apricots. Meat from a local butcher. Where was my mustard? Where were my pickles? My hotdogs?
A white hot needle shot behind my eye, so painful I nearly collapsed. Worst migraine of my life. Wincing I checked my phone. Checked the history on the browser. I scrolled past a number of charity websites I had apparently visited over the last 3 days. First time for everything I suppose. There had to be something I was missing. I checked the files. There was 1 recording; PLAYME.mp3. I opened it.
My blood froze as my own voice rang through the tinny speaker. It was me, and yet not, the same pitch and accent, yet somehow more languid, calm.
Hello Thomas. Don’t be startled, I know this all must be very distressing for you. For that, I apologise. It is not my intention to frighten you, but vessels rarely offer as much resistance as you have. You should be proud. I’ll admit, you’re not a prime candidate, but needs must. My current vessel is damaged beyond repair and I must transition soon. Unfortunately for you, amongst the staff in the hospice, your existence is least worthy; you have squandered your chance at finding meaning on this Earth and if you look within yourself, you know this will never change. That is not my doing, it is your own. Sadly, this is the state of most vessels, doomed to be used up and shrivel away without finding any purpose at all. A drop in the ocean, as they say. I want to make the world a better place, Thomas. I want to make something of your vessel. Give it to me. Give in. Rest. Make it easy on yourself as you always have and know that you will be loved, adored by all. They will build statues of you and praise your name. Give yourself to me, Thomas. Sleep.
At that a guttural chanting began emanating from the speaker. Instinctively I hurled the phone into the wall, shattering it into silence. I stood for a moment, exhaustion pulling my eyelids down, adrenaline holding them open.
Something was coming up the stairs. That smell. Decay, ancient dirt. Thudding down the hall. Cobwebs began to form around me, I shook my head and they dissipated. Began to gather again. The thudding reached the door, filling the room with the stench. The apartment itself twisting around me. I ran to the sink and splashed my face with water. The reek wafted away and back in with each cold splash. I was fading. In desperation I went to the toaster, set it, took a deep breath. I jammed my finger into the glowing filament. The toaster exploded, I flew back and onto the ground, more awake than I had ever been in my life.
I lay on the floor panting, looking around. Everything was normal. The only smell now was burnt hair, fragrant compared to what it had replaced.
I had to stay awake. Just long enough for that bastard to die.
I rummaged through my drawers, found the trucker pills I had bought when I started the job. They were still in date. I boiled the kettle, washed down twice the recommended dose of the pills with black coffee.
It’s been 32 hours since I heard myself on the recording. My heart is beating like a jackhammer, I’m so wired I didn’t even recognise my own face in the mirror earlier. I look old. Every time my head drops, I hear that thing outside, getting stronger. Beating on the door and groaning. It wants to be let in. It wants to see me. I think it may be death itself. Maybe it’s whatever Muldoon really is. I don’t know.
Right now I’m doing anything I can to stay awake, to stop myself drifting off. That’s why I’m writing this all out, not even sure if anyone will believe it if they read it.
What else can I do? Call the cops? Yeah right. I’ve considered going to the hospice and killing Muldoon myself, but even when that thing in the hall is keeping quiet, I know it’s out there. I can feel it. It wants me to leave the apartment, it wants me to go to it.
By the time anyone reads this I’ll either be me or I’ll be gone. Not sure how much longer I can hold out. The cobwebs are covering everything now, when the thing outside groans, it sounds fierce, angry. At least I can still move my arms and legs.
Think I’ll watch some more TV, take the last of my trucker pills, maybe another cold shower.
I wish I had written that novel. Heck, it might have even been pretty good.