At night when buildings are still, and those who occupy its offices are gone one person remains, the night watchman. Night watchmen sometimes find very dreary things.
Philip M. Roberts lives in Nashua, New Hampshire and has been published in a variety of publications, such as the Epitaphs anthology,Midnight Echo, and The Horrorzine. A full anthology of Philip’s short stories entitled Passing Through can be found on the Amazon kindle store. More information on his works can be found at www.philipmroberts.com.
The Diseased World
By: Philip M. Roberts
Laurence Compton worked four ten-hour shifts overnight in a thirteen-story office building. He worked with one other man: Shawn Eames, a fairly slow and un-ambitious guy who rarely did his patrols, kept his eyes glued to a small TV they had in the security room, and worked the three days that Laurence didn’t, meaning they never actually saw or spoke to each other, which was just fine by Laurence. But knowing what he did about Shawn, he was surprised to get a phone call late Friday night, his night off, telling him Shawn hadn’t shown up, and Laurence had to come in to cover the shift.
He pulled his car to a stop by the large office building, the only thirteen-story building in the area, its large, glass façade a blemish compared to the smaller, older buildings crowding around its base. There had been plenty of complaints and uproars when someone first started building it, but corporate money did a lot to make those in charge clear the permits, and Laurence figured by the time elections rolled around, people wouldn’t remember their protests had been ignored.
Jack, the security supervisor who didn’t actually known anything about security, apologized to Laurence as he walked through the dark lobby, but he waved the man away, told him it didn’t matter, because it didn’t matter, and all Laurence had lost was a night of movies, maybe getting shit-faced. Of course, he did have a six-pack in the mini-fridge, so all wasn’t lost.
Shawn had apparently shown up to the beginning of his shift the night before, because he’d signed in and entered three patrols into the log, though Laurence doubted that he’d done any patrols. There were cameras, but aside from the guards themselves no one else knew how to use them, so no one bothered to check if they actually patrolled or just wrote it down and got drunk.
Watching the tapes from the night before Laurence saw nothing for the first two patrols, but on the third he saw Shawn actually make a round, walking from image to image, shining his light in empty offices, searching a few desks for some left over snacks he could swipe, grabbing a pack of coffee from a third floor office, and finally stopping in front of the door leading to the basement. The small, black and white image of Shawn looked around, then back to the door, scratching his chin, before opening it and going down.
Laurence pushed back from the desk and the monitors, the room dark beyond their glow, eyes on the door leading to the tenth floor hallway, a smile crawling up his face.
“He went in the basement,” Laurence said aloud, smiling just a bit wider, thinking for the first time that he’d never been in the basement himself. Never had a need to. The office itself didn’t use it, from what he’d been told, so there hadn’t been any need to include it in his patrols, and if his memory served him, the foundation had been part of an old hotel, long closed until this building had come along, leaving the foundation in place. From what he’d heard they hadn’t bothered to do much work with the basement, leaving it as is, and therefore, unused.
The prospect of a trip through the basement offered Laurence an interesting enough task, especially given Shawn’s apparent disappearance, something Laurence couldn’t help but feel a bit glad about, all things considered. He had no issues with the man, nothing beyond the general dislike Laurence had for most people, but Shawn had granted Laurence something different, either intentionally or unintentionally; Laurence didn’t honestly care.
He walked down the well-lit staircase and back to the lobby he’d come from, shoes clicking on the tiled floor, echoing around him, glass doors on all sides showing the parking lot outside. Empty desks were at both sides of the lobby, a few papers strewn across them, and Laurence figured there was a chocolate bar in at least one of the drawers, but thankfully he had more exciting things to do than swipe candy from the day people, moving instead to the offshoot beside the elevators, and the door leading to another staircase and the basement.
These steps weren’t bright white and polished like the ones leading up, but dingy with age, creaking beneath Laurence’s feet as he walked down them. They hadn’t even bothered with lights, but his flashlight offered him enough, let him see the cement walls, the hallway branching to the left, extending the entire length of the building, a few rusted metal doors here or there.
Maybe there was a bum down here, Laurence thought, brushed a cobweb out of his face, and Shawn had stumbled across him, got the wrong end of a knife in him. “Maybe the bum is still here,” Laurence said quietly to himself, smiled wider, basking in the moment.
Life bored him, always had, but Laurence found the majority of unexpected things in life were bad; a person breaking into a home, holding someone up, killing everyone within sight. However, Laurence felt a death by knifing was a hell of a lot more interesting than dying like his father had through twenty years of retirement, sitting in the same home, reading the same books, and watching the same shows until the heart finally gave out.
All around him things creaked and groaned. The tunnel extended far down, so many doors, and stopping in front of one of them Laurence realized it had been moved recently, the rust disturbed. He pulled the thing open enough to peer inside at the large storage room, a few broken pieces of wood and empty bottles scattered about. The more he looked the more he saw that most of the doors had been opened recently, and in his mind he saw Shawn’s long face peering inside each, glancing around him, maybe picking up one of the empty bottles and shattering it against the wall just for kicks.
Then his light caught a fully open door just up ahead. Laurence approached it a bit more cautiously, thinking maybe that disarming a bum with a knife sounded a bit more appealing than getting knifed to death by one, though really he could go either way.
His quiet approach failed when his feet struck a chain on the floor, made it screech loudly against the cement. He knelt down and nudged the chain right in front of the open door; saw the broken lock by it, and another chain still hanging from the door’s handle. He saw Shawn coming to the chained door, curious, glancing about, before slamming the flashlight into the rusted lock until it fell, and as if to confirm the mental narrative, Laurence caught sight of a flashlight rolled against the wall across from the door.
Something shifted inside the room. Laurence picked up Shawn’s light as well, more to use as a weapon should he need to than for the light, and moved quickly in front of the open door, shining his light inside.
Though some part of him had noticed the smell before, it overwhelmed him then, the stink of dirty skin, BO, and maybe something decaying, he couldn’t say. He brought up his hand to block the stench as he took in the figure pulling itself up by the far wall of the room.
The room was the same in structure as the others, but the walls were coated in what almost looked like a thin layer of diseased skin. It looked leathery in quality, parts of it discolored, almost oozing, limited to the confines of the room itself. By the back wall Laurence saw Shawn, the man’s shirt gone, chest sunken in, arms practically bone, his already long hair turned longer by the emaciation, the normal brown changed to dirty white. His face seemed largely spared from the rest of the damage, or perhaps just appeared so because it had always been a bit thin.
He looked around the edges of the room, saw the skin threatening to pour into the hallway, quivering, all of it pulsing with life. When Shawn stepped forward the festering sores on the skin beneath his feet swelled upward, all of it connected to him, Laurence understood.
“Get out of here,” Shawn wheezed, voice thin and watery, gesturing towards Laurence with bony fingers.
“What the hell is this?” Laurence asked, the beam of his light aimed directly at Shawn, showing him all the damage, scrapes and cuts covering the shrunken skin, as if Shawn had tried to claw at something inside him.
“I came down here yesterday,” he said, slumped back against the wall as he spoke, made the skin shudder from his touch. “Just a fluke, was bored, started checking out the doors, and came to this one. Door was locked, broke it open, found a man huddled in the corner, tried to help him, but he screamed at me to kill him, and I felt it already crawling up into me. There was something to the door, something beyond just the lock that sealed it in, and I broke it, and it grabbed me, but I killed the man, watched him get sucked back into the wall like he’d never been there.”
“What is it?” Laurence asked, shining the light around the room.
“I don’t know, but I can feel something inside me, trying to get out, and I can’t keep it contained for much longer. You have to kill me.”
There was a gun in the security room, kept in a box in the drawer, never really intended to be used, but there all the same. In front of him Shawn fell to his knees, grabbed his head with both hands, his teeth grinding together. “Hurry,” he said, and it looked like Shawn’s fingers were sinking into his skull.
Laurence ran from the open door and down the cement hallway with his light flickering wildly across the walls. He felt no fear, he realized, bounding up the stairs and out into the lobby, relishing the moment, exhilarated by it. He’d never fired a gun before, and that seemed to make the whole thing better. His hands didn’t even shake as they got the box out and unlocked it. He calmly loaded the bullets in and stepped back out into the hall.
When he reached the lobby, he understood things were even better than he could’ve imagined, the tiled floor spongy, squirming beneath his feet, making him stop to take in the skin reaching up the walls, clinging to the windows and the doors, the skin growing thicker and more diseased looking as it reached towards one of the elevator doors. It had been pried open. Laurence inched towards it, shined his light at the skin, saw a hole torn in the roof of the elevator car. Somewhere far above the metal cables shifted and screeched, and Laurence could see in his mind Shawn’s shrunken form climbing up it, probably heading towards the security room where he thought Laurence would be.
He left the elevator and returned to the stairs, pausing just briefly as he saw shapes rising up from the skin spread over the floor and walls, shapes like giant eggs, something squirming beneath the surface.
He took the steps two at a time, almost tripped, flashlight in one hand and the gun in the other, until he pushed open the door on the 10th floor and stepped out into the hallway.
The dark shape stood on the far end of the hall. As Shawn moved closer the skin poured from behind him, crawled outward with each step, reaching up the walls, slithering into each doorway. Shawn’s head was hunched low, almost walking on all fours, his skinny fingers brushing across the floor, spreading more of the slick flesh.
Laurence brought up the gun and aimed it as best he could, but he wasn’t ready for the force of the shots, and the gun bucked to the side, two bullets going wide to the right, and the thing that had overtaken Shawn bounded towards him.
The thing leapt through the air at him, but Laurence dodged to the side, falling more than anything else through a side door into a break room. He slid on the floor, scrambled to his feet, and ran as fast as he could out a door across from him into the main offices filled with dark computers, desks cluttered with smiling spouses or children, and papers left over from the days work.
He could hear the thing behind him, hunched so low the desks hid its movements, but the skin spread outward where it went, consumed the desks and chairs it passed by. Laurence backed closer to a window, chest heaving, face covered in sweat, but smiling all the same, still seeing in his mind his father sitting straight faced and alone in a sparsely decorated home when his head finally lurched back and his hand gripped his chest tightly.
The thing darted between two desks, and Laurence fired, nearly hit it, but it was ducking behind another. The whole far wall where he’d come was gone, the undulations of the growing skin masking the thing’s movements, but Laurence had a better feel for the weapon, and didn’t let himself waste what bullets he still had left.
“I don’t have much control left,” Laurence heard faintly, what remained of Shawn full of despair. “Kill it now.”
Then it came, bounding out from beneath a desk, Shawn’s face sunken back into almost nothing, his eyes shriveled within the skull, mouth pulled in so tightly he had only a wrinkly hole dripping with saliva. Laurence fired everything he could, saw three of the bullets hit, one catching the side of the leg and two others tearing through the stomach and chest, slowing it, making it stumble forward with a thick, muffled cry of pain, red pouring down the chest. But it still reached him, hands groping for him. Right before it could touch him he pulled back and cracked it across the face with his flashlight.
The side of the head all but caved in, the whole body crumpling to the floor, chest still moving, but much slower. It began lifting itself up. Before it could finish the arms gave out and it fell.
He didn’t know if there was anything left of Shawn in there, or if whatever had taken him, whatever had been sealed away in that room, was all that remained. Laurence knelt a bit closer and lifted up the flashlight, ready to smash the head into nothing, when he paused, pulled back. All he had were Shawn’s words, and though he couldn’t say if they were true, he had nothing else to work with. If those words were true he suspected all the skin and the eggs this thing had created would die with it. He could already see the skin turning pale; see the small shape of eggs by the far wall sinking in on themselves.
Would it all go away when it died? Would it leave him with the same life it had disrupted, the same life he’d grown tired of long before Shawn walked into that basement and set this thing free?
Laurence dropped the flashlight. He knelt down and pressed his hand against Shawn’s back. Immediately he saw his fingers shrivel up, the sensation crawling up his arm, reaching into his mind, but unlike Shawn, it would find no resistance in Laurence.
He sat back and saw the eggs growing up again, reinvigorated, and he thought about what the expression would be on Jack’s face in the morning, on all of their faces, when they got to work, and saw what had been formed in the night. He didn’t know if any part of his mind would still exist to see or understand it, and that didn’t seem so awful, either way.
None of them would know it, but Laurence considered this a sacrifice, a favor to them and the rest of the world. Life for everyone was about to get a lot more entertaining whether they wanted it or not. He didn’t think anyone would actually thank him, but he figured there would be at least a few people like himself who would smile in some part of their mind when they saw what Laurence had created. With that thought he slumped back against the wall, surrounded by the quickly growing eggs ready to hatch the unknown, no longer hindered in their growth by Shawn’s resistance. Laurence’s shrunken face smiled right before the skin pulled inward.