James sat in the office, mesmerized by the rhythmic flickering of the overhead light. It was Thursday night. Usually he worked the Monday shift but he’d gotten unlucky this time and drawn the short straw to cover for Charlie, who had come down with the flu. At least it was one night only. He pitied the poor bastard who worked this shift on Saturdays more than anything.
The office sat on the very edge of the complex. In reality it was little more than a shed containing a chair, a desk, and a battered rusty door with a strong lock. From where James sat in the chair, he could see outside through the narrow slit of a window, though there was nothing to see but darkness. Behind him was a humming voltage box, a panel of switches, and the master handle that turned the electric fence on and off. It was his job to make no one came and tampered with the fence, and that the electricity did not go out. Despite the soul-numbing nature of the job and the depressingly low pay, he’d been repeatedly told how important it was. The fence, they’d stressed over and over again, must always remain electrified. Under absolutely no conditions must the power to the fence go out.
No one really knew what the fence was for. It had been there for as long as James could remember, and for as long as his parents could remember. His grandmother liked to claim that she’d been a young girl when they’d first started putting it up, but after the dementia kicked in no one paid much attention to anything she said anymore. She was an incredibly old woman with a squinting, piercing gaze and possessed by a fierce paranoia that kept her constantly looking over her shoulder, grabbing at whoever was closest with long-nailed fingers that stabbed like talons. James had been terrified of her as a kid, and even as a grown man remembering her made her uneasy. What had she seen as a child, he’d occasionally wondered, that had made her that way? But he’d never bothered to ask. All he knew was that for as long as the fence had been there, there’d been someone there to watch it. Apparently in his parents’ earliest years it’d been done by the military, but several decades later all that was left of that proud tradition was James, alone and bored out of his mind.
James’s shift started at ten and ended at five. Usually he brought a book to read, but tonight he had nearly been late to cover Charlie’s shift and had forgotten it in his car. There was no power outlet in the office, so his phone had died a while ago. His watch told him it was nearly three a.m.. He was here alone with only his flashlight, a walkie-talkie labeled “EMERGENCIES ONLY,” and the wan flickering light for at least two more hours.
He rubbed irritably at his tired eyes. He had spent the first few hours texting his girlfriend Melissa — who wasn’t really his girlfriend, but he liked to think of her in that way. They had met online about a month ago, and had gone on a date. Mel was very fit, and had beautiful dark eyes. Her teeth were a little crooked, but that was okay. James liked her very much. She also worked the late shift at a call center on Thursdays, so he had taken to texting her during his shifts. Soon enough, he was sure, she would accept his offer of a second date.
Hey, he’d texted her. How’s your shift going? He liked “hey” as an opener very much. It was casual in a way that “hello” could never quite capture. James was always very careful when texting, because a girl online had once told him that the things he wrote to her were creepy and off-putting, and that was no good at all.
It took a while, but eventually she responded: It’s fine. Tired as usual. And the emoji of the little sleepy face. You?
Tired too, James had written. I don’t have much to do. He’d also typed out And I wish you were here, but changed his mind and deleted it. Perhaps being too forward would scare her off.
That’s too bad, she’d said. I’m actually really busy so I’m gonna go back to work, but have a good night! Capped off with a smiley face. It made James smile to think of it. Mel was kind, and good-looking, and sent him smiley faces in her text messages. Their relationship was progressing better than he ever could have imagined.
James would have liked to spend some time fantasizing about Mel, but according to word of mouth there was a hidden security camera in the office and no angle in which at least part of him couldn’t be seen. He wasn’t sure it was true, but you never knew. There was nothing that scared James more than the thought of accidentally doing something rash and making another mistake. He had learned to be cautious since his last job.
Instead he thought about the nice things they could do on their second date. Maybe this time they could go to a nice restaurant. James would pay, because he was a gentleman. Then they could go get drinks, or go to the theatre — he had never been to the theatre, but he imagined it was the kind of place that would impress a woman. If he was lucky, maybe she would have sex with him. If not, well. There was always the third date.
With a soft pop, the lights overhead went out.
“Shit!” James exclaimed instinctively. It was suddenly pitch-black in the office. The night was damp and overcast, without even the palest sliver of moon. He groped for the flashlight. Something—the walkie-talkie, probably—clattered to the floor before his fingers closed on the heavy steel handle.
With the flashlight on the tiny room became a vast expanse of shadow. James hadn’t been scared of the dark since he was a little kid who used to wet the bed every night in fear, but instinct made his breath shallow and his pulse quicken. He flicked the light switch on and off experimentally. Nothing happened.
Shit, James thought, what should he do? He turned and opened the voltage box. None of the switches had jumped, and the panel was still faintly warm and buzzed to the touch. The fence was still on, then. Reassured, he forced himself to sit down and turn the flashlight off. Who knew how long the battery would last? He only had to wait out the last two hours of his shift.
Without the light on he became acutely aware of how warm it was inside the office. Even on cool nights, the heat radiating from the equipment and wiring coupled with the narrowness of the space made the interior almost stiflingly warm. Normally, James found it quite comfortable. Tonight, however… The moist air made him think of warm breaths, like the feeling of someone gently exhaling onto his skin.
After no more than ten minutes his palms started to sweat. Another five minutes and it felt like every nerve in his body was screaming for release. He couldn’t breathe. The darkness was suffocating him while his eyes bulged and strained to make out shapes in the blackness. Gasping, James switched on the flashlight back on.
That was when he heard the soft sound at the door.
James froze. Were his ears deceiving him? It was as if something were scratching lightly on the wall of the office. The office sat on a bed of gravel near the fence. There was no grass for animals to live in or plants whose leaves and branches could sway in the wind. The closest trees were yards away, behind the fence: enormous, unbowed trees, as if they had been there for thousands of years. Perhaps they had; just looking at them looming above the fence made James uneasy, and gave him the distinct sensation of being watched. But they were only trees, and even ancient trees eventually aged and died. Most likely a broken branch had been caught by the wind and scraped alongside the outside of the building.
Yes, that was it. James forced himself to relax. He was good at being patient and controlling his emotions. It was a skill that had served him well for many years throughout his childhood, and would continue to help him win Mel over. She was sure to say yes if only he pressed her hard enough, just like he would be perfectly fine if he subdued his paranoia and waited out the rest of his shift.
He wiped his sweaty hands on his shirt and breathed slowly in and out. After a minute he felt his heartbeat slow, and he felt much better.
Then he heard it again. A soft scraping noise against the wall, gradually trailing off at the end. As if it were drawing closer.
Fuck, James wondered, am I going crazy?
Very slowly, he picked up the flashlight and turned around. The light it cast on the wall bounced and wobbled erratically in his shaking, clammy grasp.
“W-who’s there?” he asked loudly. Silence. Distinctly, he felt a bead of sweat trail its way down his back. He sat tensed on the edge of the chair, every muscle locked. Again, he forced himself to relax. It was all good. It was fine. He was fine.
He wasn’t surprised when it came again, but his gut leaped like he had taken an unexpected fall. The sound, whatever it was, was closer to the door now, a persistent skrtch skrtch. James was just about convinced it was some kind of animal — a raccoon, perhaps — when, distinctly, there came a sharp rap at the door. Not even a thump, like an animal would make, but a polite, brusque knock. And again: tap. Tap-tap.
James felt a sudden, hot surge of anger overcome his terror, like a lightning strike blazing its way through every nerve and fiber of his body. “Who’s there?” he shouted. His voice didn’t shake at all. “This is private property!” Quickly, he snatched up the walkie-talkie from where it had fallen to the floor, waiting for another knock. The guards working night shift at the main complex would respond immediately if he radioed in for help. The walkie-talkie trembled and bobbed in one tightly clenched fist, the flashlight in the other. Distantly, James imagined the walkie-talkie slipping right out of his sweaty grasp and rocketing through the air, like what inevitably happened whenever someone tried to grab a bar of soap in a cartoon. He choked down what surely would have been a mad giggle had it managed to escape his lungs.
Silence. Every nerve in James’s body felt alive. He wondered if this was what death row inmates must have felt like, waiting for the guard to come take them away for the last time. Unbidden, a memory of a cousin he’d met a few times when he was little resurfaced in his memory. He’d been around eight or nine, already heavy with just barely too much chubbiness to be attributed to lingering baby fat. Victor was a few years older, a stocky and mean pit bull of a boy, down to the distinctive curl of his lip that gave him a semi-permanent sneer. James had admired him immensely. He’d trailed Victor around their shabby little fenced-in backyard like a puppy begging for scraps, eagerly drinking up the other boy’s stories. Victor talked a lot about his older brothers and how they’d drink and smoke and steal. Most of all he talked about one of his eldest brother’s best friends, who was supposedly on death row for murder. “Shit, man,” he’d said with relish, baring his teeth, “that shit’s fucked up, you know? Not that you would care,” he added to James, who remembered being crestfallen, the stab of rejection that still stung just as painfully after all these years. “You’re just a fuckin’ baby, what would you know about murder?”
James had never killed anyone, even though he suspected that Victor had, later. But, staring at the door with the walkie-talkie searing a hole in his trembling hand, he figured this was as close as he’d ever come to waiting for death row.
The silence stretched on. Gradually, the locked muscles in James’s neck and shoulders began to painfully, involuntarily relax. Finally, his hand unclenched and the walkie-talkie clattered loudly to the floor from his nerveless fingers. He groped for the office chair and sat down. For a while, all he could hear were the thrumming reverberations of his own pulse.
That was when he noticed that something was very wrong.
It was too quiet, if he could hear his own heartbeat pounding in his ears. He reached a hand out for the power box on the wall. Though still slightly warm, it lay dead to the touch. Since it lay adjacent to the very prominent master handle, James had always assumed it was one of the power boxes that controlled the fence.
That meant the fence was dead, and James was in huge trouble. You’ll be in deep shit when they catch you! he imagined Victor crowing. Helplessly, he felt another cresting wave of panic rise up in him. This was bad, made worse still by the fact that it would be the third straight job he’d been fired from. He couldn’t afford to lose a job he’d had to grovel and scrape for months to finally get. After the last incident – the humiliation, the accusing stares, the “we don’t tolerate perverse or lecherous behavior in this workplace” talks, the mandatory clinical psychiatric evaluations – he’d sworn that he’d finally, finally get clean. Keep a job for more than a few months at a time, go on dates with women like a regular person. The panic in James’s chest swelled further when he thought of Mel. He was so close with her – if he lost this job, he’d no longer have an excuse to talk to her, and she’d never want to date him if he was unemployed. She’d ask him, in her keenly curious way, why he’d lost his job, and eventually the truth would come out; it always did, sooner or later. He had to keep this job by any means possible. And that meant dealing with whatever – or whoever, as he was now fairly certain – was messing with both him and the fence.
James gritted his teeth, grabbed the flashlight, and, before he could think better of it, unlocked the door and flung it open. The squeal of the rusty, protesting hinges made him jump. In his grimly determined haze, he forgot entirely about the walkie-talkie lying on the floor under the desk.
Outside it was a warm, humid night, but compared to the stiflingly dark heat of the office the faint breeze felt like a cool caress upon his upturned face. Stars winked through the faint cloud cover like someone had taken a tiny knife and made a bunch of random puncture marks – pop pop pop, as Victor would crow gleefully, brandishing one of his frighteningly realistic toy guns at James, who would cower in fear beneath the porch – in the fabric of the murky sky. James stumbled a little on the gravel at the memory, flashlight beam skittering erratically across the ground. He was panting, individual breaths coming hard and fast. He could sense his own fear, a thick coating on his tongue and the rankly sour scent of his own sweat, but the adrenaline won over. He turned away from the office and toward the fence.
James had never been so close to the fence before. Up close and personal, it was enormous: twenty-five or even thirty feet of tightly-laced electrocuted mesh topped with barbed wire and linked by massive steel posts thrusting firmly from the ground at narrow intervals. It seemed to stretch on forever in either direction. He guessed that when the electricity was on properly it would hum like something alive, but right now it seemed eerily still and silent. Behind the fence the massive, ancient forest rose like a cresting tidal wave. The trees, James realized, dwarfed even the fence. Standing before them both he felt immeasurably small, the circle from his flashlight the only light illuminating the sea of darkness before him.
He swung the flashlight beam back and forth, looking for an external power box that someone could have possibly broken into with to cut the power to the fence, but there was nothing. Nothing at all. How could the electricity have gone out if the fence was designed to be impossible to tamper with?
James stooped down to pick up a handful of gravel. Tentatively, he threw a piece at the fence. His throw was weak and it clattered harmlessly to the ground a few feet shy. Summoning all of his strength, he lobbed a second piece. This time it hit one of the mesh links with an audible clink. James hadn’t really been expecting much – a little sizzle or pop of electricity, perhaps – but in the darkness even he could make out the faint spark the rock threw off as it met the fence. Emboldened, James threw a third piece, then a fourth. More sparks. It was a false alarm; the fence was on. He must have been wrong about the power box all along. Thank God, James thought, and threw the remaining handful of gravel right at the fence just to spite it.
James froze where he stood. Were his eyes deceiving him?
A rustling sound came from deep within the forest, as if it was laughing at him.
Perhaps, James realized slowly, he’d made a terrible mistake.
A distinctive creak came from behind him: the wail of a metal door on rusty hinges. He turned around.
Someone was coming out of the office.
Upon first glance, James took the hunched, shuffling form for a vagrant. A drug addict, perhaps, or a homeless person seeking shelter. Instinctively, he turned the full force of the flashlight beam upon the dark figure coming toward him.
It was not a man. It was not anything like a human being at all.
In one of its hands it clenched a bright red handle that, James dimly realized, was all that remained of the master handle, the one that turned off the electricity to the fence. In the glare of the flashlight, the glittering eyes were by far the worst part. As James watched in horror they swiveled wildly and independently in their sockets before focusing on him.
“Thank you,” it said, in a voice like glass crunching underfoot, “for opening the door.”
The flashlight dropped from James’s numb fingers like a stone. His knees buckled, but the impact of the gravel didn’t even sting. He was acutely aware of the feeling of his bladder releasing. As the wetness trickled humiliatingly down his legs and onto the ground, all he could think was, I don’t want to die. Someone help me. I don’t want to die.
The – the thing was coming closer to where James had collapsed. His mind was a ceaseless spiral of fear and panic and fucking Charlie just had to get the fucking flu and oh shit they’re definitely going to fire me fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck I don’t want to die –
It was still saying something, but it was no longer looking at him. James felt a sudden, absurd flare of hope. As it staggered past him he could make out its words clearly for the first time. “Welcome home, welcome home, welcome home…”
Who is it talking to? James wondered, and then he turned his head and saw his first glimpse of the immense dark shapes emerging from the forest, and he screamed.
Image: achiever by garann