Originally published in Suspense Magazine, December 2013.
It was still relativity early on Friday night, but one look outside, and one would have thought it was deep into the middle of the night. That’s how our receptionist felt, like she was all alone in the dead of night about to close an office that no one had visited in the past two hours. The thunder storm had something to do with both the heavy sky and the lack of patients; however, now that the storm had eased up there was an eerie back-light to the midnight sky. It was almost worse knowing that there was some light, but that it was completely inaccessible.
She sat behind the desk waiting for the second hand of her watch to surpass the twelve, making it officially seven pm, and time to shut down the office. After ten years of working every shift imaginable, Sophia had developed a system, more like a pattern, of closing the office down. First she’d walk around to the front of the desk and make a right to head down the hallway. She’d finagle the last door on the left just enough so that she could flick the light off, and then wedge the door closed again. Then she’d cross the fall to the last room on the right. This door (as well as every other door in the office) was always opened. She’d walk passed the whiteboard, erasing the silly messages children scribbled on it throughout the day. When she arrived next to the table, Sophia would feel around with her foot until she found the power button. While she was lowering the table, she would stare out the window. On this night, her routine was no different. She watched as the leftover winds from the storm cut through the light radiating from the house. The trees outside of the window were whipping back and forth, leaves were tangling together and being ripped from their branches. There was a shadow of a creature dancing between the falling debris. What! Sophia thought to herself, that can’t be right. There is no one outside. It is only my imagination from this horrible storm that makes me see such incredulous things.
Sophia shook her head, and cut through the western-bar styled swinging doors in to the front examining room. She unplugged the gun, as the doctor called it, and walked around the foot of the table to the other side, where again, she used her foot to find the power button and began lowering the table. It was while the table was taking forever to lower (everyone knew that this table operated slower than the other) that Sophia noticed in her stupid panic, she had left the light on in the second examination room. After she had lowered, and unplugged the table, she restored the rest of the room to order. She returned to the second room to shut off the light. She headed back down the hallway, and walked into the playroom, the only room she had yet to clean up. Upon entering the room and seeing the mess of toys, stickers, and other messes scattered about, Sophia temporarily forgot about the shadowy figure and her silly heebie-jeebies.
Sophia started by picking up the toys, and making a pile with the ones too far destroyed to be saved. She collected all the stickers, wrappers, and chunks of gum and added them to the trash pile. Then she started on the other messes left in pooling piles, lumps too, just plopped about. This would not be like any other night.
She returned to the front desk area, grabbed a pair of yellow rubber gloves, a few different types of cleaning supplies. Breaking her routine now, Sophia made sure the front door was fully closed and locked before returning back to the front desk. She unzipped her designer bag (a steal at a discount store), and removed an old, worn in simple tank top, and a zip-lock baggy. Sophia removed her beloved blazer, as well as her fancy top, and slipped the tank top over her head. She then slid all three of her rings off and into the baggy, accompanied by her two sister pairs of earrings, and her over-the-top bracelet. Today was turning out to be a very atypical day after all; I wonder how it all would have turned out if I had stuck to my usual watch and bangle? After the baggy was properly sealed, her clothes neatly folded and arranged on top of designer bag, Sophia made her way back to the playroom. A stench had already begun forming by the time she returned.
Sophia pulled on her rubber gloves, laid down paper towels on the puddles, hoping to absorb most of the spills, and picked up whatever piles she had been able to. She violently shuddered as she thought of just what she was picking up. After recomposing herself, between the shudder and the office music she had begun to neglect her task at hand, she began to shift through the different cleaners. She settled on a pre-cleaner of sorts for areas where the thicker messes had been. While she waited for the pre-cleaner to set, Sophia went around picking up the sopping paper towels and added them to the garbage pile. She applied pre-cleaner to the still damp spots as well, and as she waited to begin actually removing the spots, she jammed the stained stuffed animals and the abused paper products into a large garbage bag.
The heaviness of the storm was beginning to lift Sophia noticed as she looked out the window. The lighting from the moon must be playing tricks on her, because there again, she was the shimmer of a creature now a distance from the playroom window. She glanced at her wrist as if she had her watch on, and nodded to herself. I really should move a little quicker. Sophia lugged the garbage bag out of the playroom, down the hall, and around the front desk to the basement door. After working somewhere for ten years, one grows to know all of different patterns, systems, and schedules that everything runs on. She carefully removed her yellow rubber gloves, and draped them over the small, plastic office garbage can and opened to the door to the basement. This was the worst part; there was something in this basement that always made her sneeze, but she did her best to hold her breath, and hold back her sneeze. She moved as fast as she could, while maintain her grace, with the heavy garbage bag in tow toward the old-fashioned furnace. Some messes couldn’t be left out overnight; this one, however, could not. The smell would be enough to kill. She hoisted the bag into the furnace and waited until she heard the familiar clicks of the timers. She fastened the door, and headed back upstairs to the front desk. Perfect she thought as she looked at the clock, another 15 minutes before the furnace goes. I should, well, no; I’ll have to be done with my cleaning before then.
Sophia picked up her yellow rubber gloves, and glanced at the front door. Satisfied, she turned around and made her way back to the playroom… after all it appeared to be the way she left it. Once in the playroom, she immediately attacked those stains with such vigor, she was almost unrecognizable. It took more muscle and time that she had anticipated, but the thought of the shadow figure looming about outside, and her own mental ticking of when the furnace should be starting only pushed her to work harder. She had only stopped scrubbing to close the blinds. She had no reason to panic, and there was no time to start now.
When she was satisfied with the job she had done. She quickly reassembled the playroom, gathered her supplies, headed to the basement to add her yellow rubber gloves to the furnace, and returned to the front desk.
As she was finishing re-clasping her over-the-top bracelet when the phone rang; Sophia almost ripped her bracelet off from the shock. She glanced at the office clock; she had taken more time than she had wanted to, technically she should have already been gone. The phone was on its second ring, she had to make a decision as to what to do. Fate stepped in and decided for her, because after the third ring, it stopped. Sophia quickly finished up the last minute tasks to close the office. Her bag was already on her arm when she saw it, closer this time, the shadowy creature almost against the side window. She suppressed a scream, shut the lights, and gracefully fled for the door. She pulled, and realized it was still locked from earlier. She shook her hair out, and composed herself. She had all of her belongings, and had done a thorough job for the evening. All she needed to do was unlock the door, shut the front light, and leave.
No one would know what she did, unless… unless there really was someone or something out there. What if the moon wasn’t playing tricks, what if it wasn’t the wind? What if someone had been outside all along? What if they saw what she did? Stop that. Stop that this instant. People with my condition don’t make mistakes; we don’t leave messes, or overlook anything. We have the greatest gift, and the worst curse, going for us. Breathe Sophia, and open that door with all the poise in the world.
Sophia unlocked and opened the front door, then took a step outside. The trees were still raging war with the wind, but the moon had truly lit the sky. She scoured the property as she calmly turned toward the door to fasten it for the night. There was nothing to be seen. There was no looming shadowy creature, no man, and no monster; there was just her, the moon, and the trees. She double checked the door, and turned to leave the office. She began to walk down the path leading to the back door of the office, when she heard a distinctive noise. She froze.
“Sophia,” a man almost whispered, “there you are” he continued as he put his hand on her arm. She screamed in terror, and almost dropped her designer bag. She caught herself, and looked up into the eyes of the love of her life. He was just standing there, plain as day, as if it wasn’t late at night; as if he didn’t just scare her nearly to death.
“What are you doing here?!” Sophia demanded in a harsh whisper.
“It was storming so I came to give you a lift. I saw you puttering around the front desk, but I kept losing you. How many rooms do you have to clean in there?”
“Only three. Four if you count the front desk.” Sophia said as indifferently as possible.
“Well, I tried, but I couldn’t get your attention. Is there a reason you keep all the damn lights on while you clean up?” Her lover mockingly demanded.
“Yes! I was scared because I kept seeing something creeping about outside” she playfully hit him, “and then, well, the playroom was a mess, all types of waste you don’t want to know about.” She smiled up at him.
“That must have been awful. Is that the room with the blinds closed?”
“Perhaps. I didn’t pay much mind to the blinds”
“Oh, well. Let’s get you home and relaxed, alright?”
“That sounds wonderful, my darling.” She breathed a long sigh of relief.
There had been no monsters after all, just her lover wanting to keep her safe. He had too, if anyone questioned why she was there so late, she was simply waiting around for a ride. Nothing would seem out of sorts. No one would know she murdered a disgusting creature tonight. No one would know how he lied to her, used her, and then tried to humiliate her. How he broke her heart by marrying the town’s gold-digging whore, or that he tried to come back to her tonight when he realized his mistake. No one would know how for a split second she gave into temptation and started falling into his arms before she decided to take his money clip, and stab him in throat. He had thrown her off, but she had weakened him, like so many times before (even if those times had been in different way). She bludgeoned him with a nearby picture encased in a heavy frame. There was no evidence left in the playroom of their last intimate moments together, only a drop or two of blood had missed the pile of stuffed animals, and had been spilled on to the floor (whether it was hers of his, she wasn’t even sure), and most importantly his assorted parts were already burning in the furnace. She had made sure that even in death he would have no fun, no parts to woo another woman ever again. Thankfully, there was an oversized stuffed animal close by so that she could slide the toy under his legs before she used a thick piece of glass to remove the source of his pleasures. There was nothing left of him, of his games, of the pain he caused, nothing… and now, there was nothing between her and the man she truly loved. The man who she would do anything for; the man she was planned to wed in only a few months.