20 July 2008

The Night Shift

The Night Shift was originally written as my entry for a writing competition on nightmares. It didn’t win but after I reworked it a little I’m rather pleased with it. It is purposefully over-written in places as a homage of sorts to gory films such as The Evil Dead; which seem to relish those extra grizzly details. Enjoy!

Henry Carter had never remembered his dreams before he started working the night watch at Declan and Moray, an engineering firm that had opened the year before. Maybe it was the way the couregated steel roof moaned in the breeze, or the shadows he caught out of the corner of his eye as he walked the empty halls. He often heard the sound of his footsteps continue after he stopped walking, but he knew it must be just an echo. There was never anyone else walking the corridors at such a late hour, that was for certain.

The dreams would often start out different but the ending would always be the same. He could be dreaming about lying on the beach, enjoying the sun like he had on his last holiday abroad; or perhaps scoring the winning goal for his football team, taking them to championship victory – a fantasy that was a personal favourite. However the dream started there would always come that unearthly howl; a pained cry, slow and mournful. It cut through him, stabbing at his heart, sending a wave of cold fear running down his spine.

He would look around for the source of this wretched sound, finding nothing. As he searched the light would fade until darkness enveloped him. He would reach for the torch that hung from the belt of his uniform and as he scanned his surroundings he would realise that he was walking the halls of Declan and Moray, just as he would do on any other night at work.

This particular night was no exception and as Henry dreamed of thwarting the efforts of the world's greatest cat burglar, who had the misfortune of trying to steal the Crown Jewels while Henry was on guard duty, he heard that low, ethereal howl. His heart began to beat faster; the burglar slipped from his usually vice-like grip as all his strength failed him. Unable to stop himself, he looked around for the source of that ghastly noise but once again it was nowhere to be seen.

The world faded into darkness, replaced by the hot, sticky air he knew so well. He wiped his sweaty palms on his stiff, blue shirt that clung to his back, now slick with sweat. He took a deep breath of the sickly sweet air and breathed out slowly, but it did not calm him. He knew what was coming next.

Henry scanned the hallway with his torch as he walked the halls. No matter which way he chose to go, he knew he would end up in the same place. Unlike in the real world, all routes in this nightmare realm lead to the boiler room. He could hear the low hum of the ancient boiler up ahead and as he neared the old brown door his steps faltered. He slowed his pace but he could not stop himself from going on.

The doorknob was cool to the touch but slipped through his damp grip. He wiped his hand on the leg of his trousers and grabbed the knob once more. With a clunk that echoed along the deathly silent corridor, the knob turned and the door slid open.

The air in the boiler room was hot and wet. Henry struggled to breathe, each breath coating his throat with droplets of a warm, sweet-smelling liquid. He knew it was not water but he dared not think what else it could be.

The room was bathed in a deep red glow that seeped in from cracks in the mammoth tank dominating the far wall. Shadows swam slowly across the walls of the room as whatever lurked within the giant vessel twisted and turned.

A low moaning came from close behind. Henry turned around slowly and found himself staring into the glassy eyes of a hideous mockery of himself. The creature's yellowed skin hung loosely from its shrivelled form and its tangled hair clung to its scalp in matted tufts.

It raised a meatless hand, one nailless finger outstretched, and emitted an inhuman howl as it hobbled forward; each step accompanied by the crunch of old, dry bones grinding together.

Henry shuddered and forced back the urge to vomit as the stench of the creature clawed at his senses. He stumbled backward, unable to tear his eyes from the wretched being than continued to shamble toward him.

He pressed up against the boiler. Its molten surface seared him. He screamed, and tore himself away.

Inside the broken vessel something hissed. It threw itself at the sides of its container, rending the metal. The cracks opened, the steel plates buckling under the onslaught.

Henry glanced at the tank, then back at the creature that was now almost on top of him. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. His pulse raced, his whole body shook with terror. Streams of sweat flowed down his face, stinging his eyes and coating his tongue. He moaned with terror.

A wispy tendril slithered through one of the cracks in the boiler, shifting to and fro in the air, searching blindly. It found Henry's arm and coiled around it before he could react. Its touch was cold and firm. He tried to shake it off but its grip was too strong.

The decaying wretch grabbed his other arm and pulled. The thing inside the boiler pulled back, gripping ever more tightly to his arm. Henry's fingers went numb, his arm grew cold as the blood flow stopped. He cried out, part in pain, part in terror, and struggled to break free. The grip of the monsters was too powerful, he could not get loose.

'Get off!' he cried. 'Let me go!'

He kicked wildly at the corpse-like thing, striking it on the calf. Dry bone snapped under the force of his attack. The creature fell but its grip on his arm did not wane. With a dry pop, its shoulders dislocated, snapped and came away from its body. With a howl of bleak despair the creature sank into a mass of decaying parts, its withered arms falling to the ground beside it.

The tendrils around Henry's arm pulled with renewed vigour. He struggled but he could not overcome their might. They dragged him toward the boiler, its split sides opening like the dread maw of some ancient beast as its prey grew ever closer.

Inside, undulating in a sea of piercing light and heat, lurked a being of such hideous form that when Henry looked upon it, he thought he might go insane. He screamed and kicked at the tendrils that wound their way from inside the boiler as they dragged him toward his doom, and as panic overcame him, the world faded to merciful darkness.

Henry awoke screaming and flailing his arms. His hair and clothes clung to his skin. His body glistened with cold sweat. He had fallen asleep in the old chair he always sat in while eating his sandwiches on his mid-shift break.

He sat forward, resting his arms on his knees and breathing deeply, trying to regain his composure. He ran a sweaty hand through his sodden hair and sighed. What did the dream mean? What was the creature that lurked in the boiler? It had almost got him that time.

He stood up and headed to the canteen to get a drink.

The corridors seemed more cold and unwelcoming now. His footsteps echoed through the empty air. He listened intently for any sign of extra footsteps like the ones in his dream, but there were none.

The canteen was quiet save for the low hum of the vending machines, basking in their neon glow. He rummaged in his pockets for some change, fed the slot and pushed for a Coke. The thump of the machine, which always reminded him of hitting a strike at bowling, echoed around the large room. He opened the can and drained it in one. The cool liquid radiated through his body, waking him up and chasing away the foul memories.

He laughed, embarrassed by himself. How could he let such a stupid thing as a dream get him so worked up?

'Henry, you old bugger, you need help,' he told himself.

As he walked out of the canteen and along the winding corridors it seemed that the lights began to dim. The shadows moved as if some unseen companion was walking the halls with him and darkness crept in from all sides. Soon he found himself fumbling for his torch. He scanned the hallway before him, looking for the door to the maintenance room so he could check the circuit breakers.

His footsteps echoed along the corridor, but now there were more echoes than footfalls. He stopped, but the sound of footsteps continued. He looked around. There was no one else there.

From somewhere behind him came an unearthly howl.

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