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The Night Watchman

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This is a story from way back when I was in graduate school in Nashville. I wasn't one of the fortunate few that got a funded research admission and so I always found myself searching for local part-time opportunities. These were neatly pipelined with other structured internships and life was good for the most part. I lived in a small studio apartment and managed to starve myself into a savings account. The slew of friends around me in class gave me good company, inviting me to movie nights and the odd hiking trips.

Not every job I worked at was great, obviously. Some paid less than others and some had the worst managers. The deceptive world of sales got me convincing old folks into buying overpriced cameras they never needed. Aside from the guilt I caught myself with, I also couldn't really find time during the day to work at remote consumer electronics stores. I was getting more involved in research around my second year and I primarily lived off of free food that was offered during featured seminars and other meetings on campus. So after a good deal of thought, I realized that I needed to find a part-time overnight job. I wasn't sleeping much as a graduate student and so I might as well get paid for it, right?

The next morning, I looked through entries on craigslist and found one that said, "Part Time Over Night Weekend Guard Job (Nashville)," and paid around fifteen dollars an hour. Although I was hoping for a longer lasting job, this sounded like a good catch because I wasn't required to carry arms and I'd be getting nearly 400 dollars for just sitting around at night. Hoping to not lose my spot, I immediately replied to the post giving my name, age and phone number. Around lunch time that day, I got a lazy text message saying, "Meet me at 6pm today. brik building by the bus station".

Downtown, Nashville is a famously serene place compared to other downtown areas in the United States. At least this is the impression I got from mates who used to live there. Excited, I packed up some food and took the bus from campus, reaching just before sunset. I found the apartment building I was looking for, though there was no sign of activity and the front gate was padlocked. It was a humble red brick building that would've probably housed under ten families. I waited by the stairs, eager to get started. After all, I wanted every dollar I could get.

Seemingly an hour later, a withered old lady slowly walked up the road to find me drowning in the well of boredom.

"Are ya here for the job?" she said, almost begging for a response.

"Yeah. What's up with this place?" I said, trying to hide my anger. Clearly the place was dead and nobody was around. There must have been some reason for "guarding" it. She unlocked the door and pushed her way in. I followed her with patience.

The hallway in the first floor seemed cramped. A dusty reception desk stood beside a single dark elevator on the left and a rustic staircase directly in front of me. A locked door presented itself next to a row of mail boxes on the right. "This is your room," she said, struggling to open it.

"There was a bad fire accident here a few weeks back. Some kitchen on the second floor. They closed down this place and the people here left. One guy on the third floor said he'd come by this weekend. William... um... Davis! William Davis. His stuff's still around I think. He hasn't been in Nashville this year. Gone to Germany or France or somethin'... You gotta wait around for him... Help him move if ya like," she smirked.

Fetching a torchlight from her bag, she walked into the dark room. I followed her quietly, reminding myself, "Two nights. 360 dollars." She opened a creaky wooden cupboard on the far corner to find some clothing. She found me a dark blue shirt, a damaged ID tag, a flashlight and some gloves.

Handing me a pair of sealed battery packs, she said, "Use 'em on that lamp... You got a book or somethin you could read?"

I nodded, showing her the enthusiasm of a chronically bored cat. Ostensibly drained by all this, she started walking to the front door. Turning one last time, she handed me a spare set of keys and said, "I'll see ya tomorrow mornin'. Oh and... there's a... mart few blocks down the road I think.. If you wanna eat somethin'.. Alright..."

Left alone, I felt an amalgam of emotions. Just thinking about the reception I got made me livid. She made me wait for more than an hour and didn't even ask for my name. "Well... If you don't like it, leave tomorrow morning and you're still a good 200 dollars better than today," I said out loud. I switched on the desk lamp and positioned myself slowly on the weakly cushioned chair. I pulled out my phone and noticed a fading, crumbling screen looking back at me. I had no confidence that my phone would last the night with only 24% charge remaining.

The cluttered room was dark and the heat from the lamp kept me warm. Within minutes, my eyes adjusted to the blackness. The sharp corners of the surrounding furniture grabbed my attention. The broad window sill to my left hosted a conference of files, clips and dead plants. The dirty, smudged glass functioned as a portal to the bustling streets of downtown. "The night's still young," I thought. Bathing in the tranquility of solitude, I realized the tiredness in my legs. I pulled out my copy of "Mistborn: The Final Empire," and slowly settled down, heaving a sigh of fatigue.

"I need a girlfriend..", I thought to myself. It was almost 1 AM and my depression was setting in. This always happened when I read books. Characters in the fictional world made me both jealous and sad. Misery loves company and I certainly felt miserable. My friends in grad school were mostly engaged or married and here my life felt like a string of pointless jobs. As I lay there contemplating, an indescribable stench presented itself, almost extolling my train of thought. It was as though my brain couldn't decide if it wanted a commanding sneeze or a nauseating vomit, but I immediately stood up and ran to the door.

I brashly pushed the flimsy door open, coughing my way out. There was a man standing in front of me, aghast. He was a strapping middle-aged guy, easily 6 feet tall, wearing a brown leather jacket.

"Ugh.. um... Hi?" I said, filling the air with confusion.

"Hey... Are you the security.. guard?" he said.

"Yeah! Are you... Mr. Davis?", I said, breathing heavily.

He nodded firmly. "So... Mrs. Colton told you about me? I'm here to get my stuff. I've parked my truck down the road," he said.

After a rigid handshake, "Give me a sec... this place stinks..." I said. I walked up to the door and slightly opened it. The repugnant stench was hardly noticeable. Surprised, I turned around and beckoned him to enter. He followed me into the security room. I handed him a flashlight and I picked up the lamp. "We don't have any electricity here. We've got to use the stairs", I said, wearing my gloves.

"That shouldn't be a problem. I only live in the second floor," he declared.

"Second Floor?" I speculated, reviving my memories.

"Alright. Let's go."

We walked up the apparently archaic staircase. Every step caused an intense creak, squeak and groan. Grating dust filled the air and William let out a jarring sneeze. I could swear he shook the whole building. A few steps later, I was startled by a very distinct and clear thump coming from directly above. This was followed soon after by another, much louder THUMP. I looked back at William with complete shock. His face was pale. I could hear my heart beating.

THUMP.... THUMP... THUMP.... THUD THUD THUD THUD

Both of us ran back down the stairs, shaking with terror. "Hello?", I yelled. The crashing sounds escalated.

Both Will and I were pointing our lights at the staircase, breathing heavily. It felt like every "thud" resonated with my thrashing heart. With a sudden crash, a large sofa chair slid down and landed on the side of the stairs. I shrieked with panic and jumped backwards. The crash landing caused a violent dispersion of dust. "God... Dammit!" Will cried with annoyance.

I took a few steps back and tried to calm my senses. I was completely befuddled by the large piece of furniture that fell down the stairs. We waited for the dust to settle. "Do you really want to get your stuff now?" I pleaded.

"I'm already here..." he said. It was almost another twenty minutes before I stopped shaking. I looked at my watch and then at Will. He nodded at me and we decided to walk up. It was getting late and neither of us wanted to be there. We walked up the stairs, one step at a time and reached the second floor. There were four doors in front of us. Two to the right and two to the left.

"Which one's yours?" I asked.

"The last one on the right," he said. The air on the second floor was oppressively muggy compared to the floor below.

We walked swiftly to the end of the hallway. The white door on the right had a rusty badge. "Apartment 204," I said. Will pulled out his key chain and fiddled around until he found the right key. He opened the large door, revealing a wide living room. We walked in together, scanning the surroundings. I was growing flustered by the smell emanating from the room.

"Let's see what we can take," Will stated. I walked up to the end of the living room and pulled up the blinds. I was able to see the empty road below.

"Freedom... soon..." I thought, trying to stay calm. There were a few assorted sofa chairs next to us, all facing a television. A vacuum cleaner, an ironing board and a shoe stand stood on the far corner. 

The carpet on the floor felt rough and sticky. I surveyed the room with my lamp, identifying objects around me. I noticed tonal inconsistencies in the walls. The living room seemed alright but the walls by the front door looked heavily damaged. Distinct tears that looked almost like scratch marks, bedecked the wall leading up to the kitchen. "The accident was just a few weeks back. The walls here seem heavily... damaged... It has to be this apartment..." I thought.

Will was searching through boxes in the closet next to me. The closet looked pristine in comparison to the rest of the house. I walked up to the kitchen, noticing photo magnets on the fridge. The fridge itself was mostly charred and rusty. The magnets were even less colorful. I was looking for a sign. Anything that would give me clues on Will's life here. My eyes darted towards the cabinet door above the sink. There was something unique about this door. The handle looked predominantly unscathed. I opened the door slowly, trying not to make a sound. My eyes sharpened as I observed a photograph stuck on the inside. It was a picture of William, standing on a cliff. I wanted to inquire about this photo but I stopped myself. I saw Will floating past me and into the bedroom on the right. 

"Hah... I might need two trips... This mattress still looks good," he said. I followed his voice and walked in, finding Will staring at a single large king-sized bed. The bed was creamy white with really no sign of use. There was a dressing table to the right, revealing a gathering of perfumes and lotions. Will was searching through drawers trying to find something. I was growing increasingly suspicious. I did not really know who he was and I did not know if someone died here. 

I turned around and walked back into the kitchen. I wanted to find more "artifacts". I must have been drunk, or at least critically hungry because the cabinet looked different. The kitchen was structurally the same but the cabinet had no doors. I was stunned by the complete lack of stock presented by the darkness in front of me. I stood there for a minute, convincing myself I was tired. The longer I stayed there, the more dazed I felt. I was breathing heavily now. I strolled past the sofas and towards Will. I spotted a door opposite the bedroom. The door knob looked stale and felt cold. I pushed open the worn slab of wood. I could swear my heart stopped. Standing there in front of me, was a woman. She was wearing a red sleepshirt and staring right at me. The light from my lamp revealed her burnt face. Her head was severely scalded. Her eyes were certainly dead. She was holding what appeared to be a green detergent bottle on one hand and a kitchen torch on the other. 

LUB DUB LUB DUB LUB DUB  

I heard my heart beating. I felt fear down my spine and I was visibly sweating. I fell to my knees and froze, gasping for breath. I started shivering. I felt an icy grip around my neck and I was gawking at the tiled floor. I couldn't move. I felt suffocated. My eyes closed. 

I suddenly felt roused. I was aware of my surroundings and I caught myself standing. I was staring at Will. He was looking through files in a clearly random trunk. I looked at the tall mirror by the dressing table. "What... am I holding?" I asked myself, altogether horrified. I was sauntering towards Will. I knew I wasn't controlling myself. My face was gravely stinging but I couldn't scream. I raised my left leg and kicked Will in the head. His forehead slammed against the handle on the trunk and he fell flat. I saw myself clumsily pouring a yellowish green liquid from the bottle I was holding. Utterly frightened, I closed my eyes. 

"Aaahhh..." I wailed. Sunlight beamed at me from the left. I looked at my watch. "7:30?!... What the..." I thought. I hopped up quickly. My head hurt and I was standing in a dusty room, wearing a dark blue shirt. I grabbed my bag and walked out. I noticed the musky reception desk in front of me. I was shaking. I felt cold. I pulled out my phone, with extreme consternation. "16% charge," I gasped. I disrupted my bag trying to find the strips of paper Mrs. Colton gave me. My eyes widened with fear. I found a photograph. 

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