Henry never believed the stories. A marketing trick, that’s all they were, meant to lure tourists who wanted to be fooled. That’s what he told the curator, in so many words, during his job interview.
The curator gave Henry a tour of the museum just after closing on Friday night and introduced him to Martha Carnwood. She was a local legend, found buried under the foundation of a ruined cottage deep in the Carn Hill Woods. A few other sets of remains had been found, but Martha was the only one who hadn’t rotted down to the bones. The rumors began almost as soon as she was put on public display in the museum.
Henry believed it was just a self-fulfilling prophecy. If everyone expected her to blink, then amidst all the jostling and camera flashes, someone was sure to imagine they saw her blink. As for the blurry photographic evidence that circulated on the Internet, those were just shadows cast at unnatural angles or reflections off her glass case. Aspiring ghost hunters had been duped by less.
The curator seemed encouraged by Henry’s skepticism—it indicated a level head and strong nerves—and Henry was appointed to the post of night guard. He started his first shift the following Monday.
Henry didn’t visit Martha often that first night. Not that he was scared—he didn’t believe the stories—but walking past a corpse in the dark would unnerve anyone. During his tour the previous week, Henry had thought she looked like an old paper bag, stained, stuffed and dressed, with facial features crudely cut as if by a child. Her eyes, of course, were closed.
Fortunately, Martha was tucked in a dead-end corridor at the back of the museum. There was a service door at the far end, but it was kept locked after hours, so would-be trespassers couldn’t use it. Henry could stroll along the adjoining passage, glance down Martha’s hall if he felt so inclined, and generally pretend she didn’t exist.
But sometime around three a.m., as he was patrolling near Martha’s corridor, Henry thought he heard the service door click shut. He pointed his flashlight toward the end of the hall and saw nothing, but something must have made the noise. Henry strolled down the hall, passing Martha Carnwood, and checked the service door to confirm that it was still locked; it was.
Maybe someone was hiding. A supernatural thrill-seeker hoping to catch a private performance from Martha. Henry swung his flashlight around to search for the intruder. The beam passed over Martha’s display case, and Henry’s heart jumped. For a moment he thought—no, it was just the glare of his flashlight off the glass. Henry wasn’t superstitious. He didn’t believe the rumors.
There were very few places for an intruder to hide. Henry checked them all before deciding the sound must have been the heating system shutting off. He was about to leave when his light once more passed across Martha’s case.
Henry froze. He wanted to move his flashlight, wanted to look away, but Martha held his gaze. Her eyes were closed, as always, and her gash of a mouth spread across her face in a serene smile. Frozen. It wasn’t right. A human body shouldn’t be so still. A statue of marble could get away with it, but not this, with its papery skin and intelligent expression. And those fingers, poking out from frilled sleeves and curling gently against her unmoving chest. Perfectly formed fingers, like a doll’s, only brown and with nails that were yellow and jagged.
Henry tried to focus on those ruined nails and abhorrently perfect fingers. Until he could remove his gaze entirely, he would look at nothing else. Especially not that face; that smiling, lipless mouth; that collapsed nose; those—
Henry choked and stumbled back. No, it was nothing. He’d been staring at her fingers; he hadn’t been looking properly at her face. It was a trick of the poor light, the fancy of a nervous mind, glimpsed—no, imagined—out of the corner of his eye. Her eyes hadn’t, couldn’t—
Henry turned and forced himself not to run from corridor. He maintained a steady gait and didn’t stop until Martha’s passage was out of sight, didn’t stop until he was in the Carn Hill wildlife exhibit, surrounded by stuffed birds and foxes and mice. Dead things still, but friendlier creatures. These didn’t mock mankind’s mortality; at worst they only looked comically out of place, perhaps wearing a bewildered expression of “Wait a moment, this isn’t right; I shouldn’t be here.” Henry allowed the presence of the animals to calm him. These taxidermies were nothing horrible. And that’s all Martha Carnwood was, after all: a natural taxidermy. She just seemed worse because she was human and poorly preserved compared with these well-posed creatures of fur and feathers.
Henry, you’re being ridiculous, he thought. Martha was just a body—an empty body. She couldn’t move, couldn’t blink. Henry knew this. He was a sensible man, not afraid of spooky legends.
Yet as he turned back in the direction of Martha’s corridor, his skin prickled. Those eyelids, like flaps of torn paper, slowly parting to reveal black emptiness—
Henry completed his patrol, making sure to give Martha’s back corner a wide berth. He came to the main lobby and paused by the front doors. The street outside was dark and empty. The world was asleep; only Henry was up and about, disturbing the air during this supreme hour of silence.
Henry pushed on the doors to make sure they were locked; they rattled and echoed through the vast halls of the museum. The sound penetrated the farthest reaches and returned to Henry’s ears like distant footsteps. He was very glad that Martha Carnwood was trapped in her case and couldn’t get up and walk around.
None of that, he thought, reminding himself that he wasn’t a superstitious fellow.
He hesitated a moment more before the doors. He could see his reflection in the glass. He could see the vague, transparent forms of the lobby behind him. He could, just barely, see the dark openings of passages that led to the various exhibits.
And a shadow glided out of sight around a corner.
Henry spun and cast his light around the lobby. “Who’s there?” he called. No one answered. Henry stood and listened. All quiet. But someone is here, he thought.
He marched down the nearest corridor, the one he thought the shadow had vanished through. He passed rows of old farming tools and yellowed documents. He rounded a corner and passed a diorama of the village of Carn Hill, filled with tiny, old-fashioned people going about menial tasks. He rounded another corner and found himself staring down at a dead end, at a single glass case containing a still, dark form.
In her bed, as I left her, thought Henry, and he turned away quickly before his imagination could run wild.
And imagination was all it was, of course. The figure he’d seen in the lobby doors? Imagination. Or perhaps a bird flying outside, its shadowy passage interfering with the reflections, warped by a nervous mind into the shape of a woman stepping through the darkness.
And yet, as Henry returned to the security office for a cup of coffee, he couldn’t shake the impression of footsteps following behind him. He refused to look, insisting, It’s just my own echo. He passed once more through the wildlife exhibit and its widely staring animals. This time they brought him little comfort. Their eyes seemed to him black and empty, and he wished they would close and stay closed until the sun came up.
At the office, he filled his mug to the brim. I must be sleep-deprived, he thought. Maybe the caffeine would set his senses straight.
He sat in a chair and drank his coffee, then poured himself a second cup. As he drank, Henry found himself thinking of the story the curator had told him, of the skeletons that had been dug up around Martha. Why had their flesh rotted away while Martha remained intact? What exactly had the archaeologists unearthed in those deep woods? He imagined their surprise when they first uncovered Martha’s serene, brown face. Had she blinked at them then?
He could imagine it far too well, those eyelids drawing back like tattered paper curtains and revealing an abyssal darkness. Henry could see it, feel himself falling into it.
He sat up with a start. Something crashed and shattered. He looked down and saw his coffee mug in pieces on the floor. Then he looked up at the office door and, without thinking why, hurried over to lock it. There he paused, leaning his weight against the door. He slowly put his ear to its cool surface and listened.
A faint shuffling sound. A scuffing step. Henry held his breath. He felt glued to the door, and his joints were fused like welded iron.
Something touched the other side. A gentle, papery sound, like a hand stroking back and forth. It slid toward the doorknob, then stopped. Henry could hear his heart pounding against his ribs. Icy sweat oozed across his forehead. Something clicked against the other side, then scraped across to where Henry held his ear against the door, and there it sounded a single tap.
Henry threw himself back and collapsed in the chair. He stared at the door with eyes that felt like they were about to fall into his lap. The tapping became a furious scratching. Then, suddenly, it stopped.
Henry panted in his chair, unable to move, unable to blink. The silence in the office grew until Henry could feel it pressing against his skull. He could feel it spreading throughout the museum—the vast, empty museum that Henry alone occupied. There was no one else—but those sounds!
Henry sat there for nearly an hour before thinking to himself, I need to check. He’d been hired to patrol the corridors and guard against intruders. An intruder was all it was, an intruder who was very good at hiding himself, an intruder that delighted in playing pranks on night guards. Well, Henry wouldn’t be pranked. He made himself get out of the chair and walk to the door. He unlocked it, cracked it open, and peered outside.
Police were called to the museum early Tuesday morning. There was no sign of a break-in, and none of the exhibits had been tampered with. The only oddities they found were a broken coffee mug in the security office and a pile of bones in a dead-end corridor, toward the back of the museum, where the corpse of Martha Carnwood smiled at those who came to see her blink.