Some nights I worked late. I didn’t have a family, so no one would miss me. I developed a bit of a reputation for it, in fact, winning employee of the month and the nickname “The Office Bat”.
I liked working nights. The quiet helped me focus, and it ensured a healthy annual raise. The only thing I didn’t like was having to get up every fifteen minutes to trigger the motion-activated lights. They were a money-saving decision by management a couple years ago, but to me they were just an interruption. I’d be hammering away at my keyboard, being productive, and suddenly the office would go completely dark. The sensor was down the hall and around a corner, so I’d have to leave my chair, walk all the way down in the dark, then all the way back, and by the time I was at my desk again my concentration would be broken.
That particular night, I was preparing a report that was due the next morning. Things had been kind of crazy during the day, between some equipment failures and a pointless going-away party for one of my coworkers, so I was forced to stay really late, even by my standards. I was the only one left in the building; even the janitor had gone home. I’d watched his car pull out of the parking lot from my office window. Everything was quiet, just as I liked it. Now I could really focus.
Except for those stupid lights.
Fifteen minutes, like clockwork. No warning. A brief moment of confusion, and I’m sitting in front of a glowing rectangle of spreadsheets surrounded by black. In my mind I always knew exactly what had happened, but it usually took my body a few seconds to catch up. For a moment I wondered if I really needed to turn the lights back on. My computer screen was all the illumination I needed, wasn’t it? But the harsh, razor contrast between light and dark made my eyes burn, so I slid my chair back and stood—
And the lights came back on.
At first I was grateful I wouldn’t have to make the full trek to the sensor and back. With normal lighting restored I sat back down and quickly returned to work. Focus. That’s why I work nights, so I can focus. No distractions. It was probably just the janitor.
In response, my mind showed me a short movie clip: a pair of red taillights streaking out of the parking lot.
Maybe he forgot something and had to come back. I couldn’t let it bother me. Accustomed as I was to late hours, my head was getting heavy, and my report had to be done before I left. Still, as I once more applied my fingers to the keyboard, I glanced out my window at the parking lot.
My car, alone. Clickety-clack went the keyboard.
When events repeated themselves fifteen minutes later, I intentionally waited out the darkness. It took a little longer than before, but the lights eventually came on again without my help. I shrugged and tried to get back to work, but my fingers wouldn’t function. I was the only one in the building. Frequent glances out the window confirmed this. But something was turning the lights back on, and last I checked office equipment didn’t move around on its own.
The thought of a copier machine sliding across the floor was comical at first, but the image got stuck between the folds of my brain and became twisted in its attempts to free itself. The focus I’d possessed before was broken, replaced by a new, fearful obsession. Who else is in here with me?
I got up from my chair and made the walk. Down the hall, past rows of cubicles, around the corner where the vending machines hummed. There on the wall was the sensor. I stopped just outside its range so I wouldn’t reset its timer. The place was busy enough during the day that the lights never went off, thanks largely to the presence of the vending machines and lazy coworkers who couldn’t seem to function without an endless supply of junk food. But now it was just me, and I wasn’t going to move a muscle, not until I saw what was triggering the sensor. If it turned out to be the copier, I’d swear off working nights for a month.
When the lights did go off, my first instinct was to flail my arms. I kept them in check, however. Instead I waited, listening for footsteps.
But I didn’t hear footsteps. I heard something dragging over the office carpet. Crap, it is the copier! The dragging came from the opposite end of the hall, moving toward the sensor. Any moment now I’d see it. Any…moment…
I threw my hands over my eyes and kept them there. I didn’t want to see what was triggering the motion sensor. I didn’t want to know what was making that unbearable dragging sound, what was filling the hall with a sensation of crushing dread. It wasn’t a person, because a person would’ve acknowledged my presence by now—even in the dark there was enough light from the vending machines to see just a tiny bit.
The alien glow of fluorescents crept in around my fingers, and I knew it was over. My hands fell to my sides. I was alone in the hallway. The motion sensor hung there on the wall, its faceless surface mocking me. There’s no one here! And then I had to use the restroom.
The bathroom lights flickered on as I opened the door; they had their own sensor next to the paper towels. By now I wasn’t sure if I’d rather just go with the lights off. The dark made things tricky, but the green-tinted fluorescents were starting to get to me. I staggered into one of the stalls. The metal walls made me feel safer somehow. I shut the door, sat down, and—
I knew the bathroom lights were on a shorter timer than the ones for the office, but I didn’t think it was that short. The only explanation I could think of was that I’d dozed off. I instinctively waved my arms, but the stall door obscured the sensor, and it remained dark.
I couldn’t make myself get up. There was an awful buzzing in my head. I couldn’t remember if I’d locked the stall. I wondered if it mattered.
Then I heard the bathroom door open, and suddenly it mattered a lot.
The lights came back reluctantly. I saw that I hadn’t locked my stall, and quickly rectified that. I felt glued to the toilet seat. There was no way of telling if anyone was out there, short of the obvious, but I wasn’t about to open my stall to look. It was just like in the hallway earlier when I couldn’t take my hands away from my face. I could not open that door.
Something moved outside. A scuff against the tile floor. One of the stalls farther down from mine slammed shut.
Maybe there is someone here, and they just had to go—
SLAM! SLAM! It was moving down the row, attacking each door in turn. SLAM! SLAM! Mine was next. There was that scuffing sound again, a pause as if something was drawing a deep breath, then—
The lights went out again. I sat perfectly still, my eyes wide in the darkness. I could feel something on the other side of my door staring back at me through the metal. I could hear something giggle, high-pitched like a woman—no, not a woman, a child. It was a mean laugh, a knowing laugh, a laugh that seemed to say, “I know where you are. Now I have you.”
The bathroom door opened and closed, and the repressive feeling left me. I sprang to my feet and burst out of the stall. I was so done with this. I just needed to grab my coat from my desk, then I could get out of there.
The office was dark. The path between the bathrooms and my desk didn’t take me by the motion sensor, but I knew the way well enough and was in too much of a hurry to make a detour. I reached my desk, and there I paused for just a second.
My chair was spinning, as if someone had just left it. My mind teased me with a giggly sound byte, but I shut it out and snatched my coat from the edge of my desk. From there it was a short sprint down the hall, past the vending machines and the motion sensor, to the exit.
I made it as far as the vending machines before stopping. Something wasn’t right. It was still dark, but I was well within range of the sensor. I waved my arms but nothing happened. I took a few steps closer and tried again. Still nothing. It was like something was blocking me.
Against my better judgment, I took a couple more steps and reached out my hand. The sensor was right there! I couldn’t see it because of the darkness, but I knew it was there. Why wasn’t it working?
My hand bumped into something. It wasn’t the cool roughness of drywall, nor the cool smoothness of the plastic sensor. It was the cool softness of chilled skin.
That was the end for me. The end of curiosity, the end of reason. I ran with the echo of childish laughter pursuing me, and never went back.