Note: This is written in first person, and sounds a lot like normal blogging me. Though it’s based on true events, it is, obviously, fiction. It was written originally in an attempt at the NoSleep style, part one to a longer story. Perhaps I’ll continue, only time will tell, but I do think it can stand alone.
Saber and Parchment
I met Nick when I was in my final semester at [redacted]. We had an American lit class together, and our mutual love of Poe evolved into love for one another. We moved in together that summer, some might say too quickly, but we knew we were meant to be together. It felt like fate.
Or like a totally manufactured series of events.
Maybe I jumped in head first because I never thought I could have anything normal, and Nick felt like my chance at normal. Up until my last couple years of college, my life had been so full of fucking noise–just this constant background chatter from what I affectionately call the Other Side, like background music that would occasionally crescendo into some horrific experience. But since about my sophomore year everything had gone quiet, and when I met Nick I thought maybe, just maybe, I’d imagined everything in my life up until that point.
Nick was a year older than I, but I finished my degree first as he was balancing school and work to help pay for his degree. Nick’s job was unique: he worked third shift for the university’s emergency facilities department. It was way too easy, and he got paid way too much to do it, even as a student employee, and of course he loved it. Basically, he waited to get alerts that could range from the temperature gauges in the science facilities varying by a degree, to a forced entry through any of the keycard-access-only dorms, and when they came, he would dispatch the right people to handle the issue. The alarms didn’t sound often despite the university being massive, and most of what he handled were drunken students stuck in elevators, or drunken student pulling fire alarms, or drunken students, well, you get the idea. There was always one other employee, a non-student, there as well, so Nick spent the majority of his time writing essays, watching pirated movies, and on rare occasion he’d go “exploring.” It was a sweet gig, and he was going into his fourth year at it when we moved in together.
I was newly graduated with an English degree and no idea what to do with it, but lucky enough to snag an editorial assistant job with a favorite professor of ours, the very professor whose class Nick and I met in. I could work anytime I wanted, so we both ended up living nocturnally that last semester he finished up school.
We lived in a shoddy one bedroom just off campus, but popular housing for students as some of our classmates lived in the same complex, and walking a couple blocks would get us on to university grounds. The school was spread out over hundreds of acres, and though it had its own transit system, it didn’t run at night, and Nick was usually scheduled from 10pm to 6am. His office was in one of the oldest halls on campus so there was very little parking near it, and most parking on campus required a pass that we were too cheap to shell out for anyway. He usually biked there, but when it was raining or particularly freezing, I drove him. I liked the drive, even at 15 miles an hour on old cobbled streets, and more importantly, I liked knowing Nick was safe.
I imagine there are other things like it, but in all the years since, I’ve never quite experienced the silence that is driving through a university campus just before sunrise. Parties ended hours before, classes have yet to start, and exhaustion settles over the grounds like a dense fog. In those moments, the towering halls and copper statues seem like relics from lifetimes ago, and you wonder if anyone will ever return to these ruins after you.
Of course, even in the predawn there are people out, very few, and most unseen–this I know better now than I ever wished to.
Summer passed uneventfully, with Nick taking a couple evening classes, and me getting paid to collect research for Professor White. He was working on a book about magic and folklore in literature with plans to publish in the following year. I was reading through renaissance poetry and romantic gothic novels to find the exact passages he would reference vaguely from memory in his notes, and typing up the information for him throughout the night, then Nick would come home by sunrise, we’d sleep for a few hours, and start our day over again. By fall we were in a pretty good rhythm save for Nick picking up an early morning class twice a week.
Nick’s job was technically high security, but he’d ask me to come eat “lunch” around 1am with him on occasion. I’d bring fast food if his counterpart John was working, and a burger or a couple tacos would keep him quiet about my presence. One night I got a Skype message from Nick–texting didn’t work from his basement office–asking me to come for lunch in the next hour. I hadn’t planned on it, but Nick typed out that he’d found “something awesome” and needed to show me.
I brought some Thai for all three of us, and left the car in a delivery area safe enough for an hour or two. Campus police seemed to like nothing better than to call a tow truck on passless cars, but didn’t start patrolling until around 5am. Nick was waiting for me at the door: his ID was high security and allowed him into most buildings on campus, but mine just gave me special library access, and without cell service down in his office, he wouldn’t know I was there otherwise. The emergency facilities office was a small room in the basement of [redacted] Hall, a largely disused building that had stood on campus in some form or another since its inception. The office had a number of cubicles, two glass-windowed offices for management during normal business hours, and cement block walls painted hastily in hospital white. Monitors lined one wall, most filled with text, one of them displaying a live video of the hall we’d just walked down, and a gentle hum filled the room. That hum let you know everything was fine.
We ate, and Nick told John he was going to take a break. John waved him off and hunched over in his chair, eyes closed. When we were out in the hall, I asked Nick what happened if John fell asleep. “He always does,” he told me, “but he’s never missed an alarm yet.”
Nick took me to the end of the hall where a heavy, fireproof door opened into a dim stairwell with the swipe of his ID. To my surprise, the stairs headed down. I grabbed his arm when the door slammed behind us, echoing into the empty space. “I thought your office was the basement?”
“Sub basement,” he pointed over the railing and winked a blue eye at me.
“Are we allowed down there?”
Nick shrugged and held up his ID, “I guess.”
Another fireproof door sat at the bottom of the stairwell, and through it a sadly-lit hall that was too dark to see its end. I immediately didn’t like it, but Nick insisted I had to see what he found, which he still wasn’t defining for me. He swiped his badge on the second door on the left and turned the handle, “You’re gonna love this.”
A single light shone down from the room’s center. Some old desks were upturned in the corner, but otherwise the space was empty. I looked back at him, and his face immediately fell. “What the hell?” He moved passed me and looked around, but there was nowhere to really search in the small space. “I swear it was right here!”
“What was here?” I gnawed on my lip. Nick was a bad liar, and his surprise seemed pretty genuine.
He walked to the corner with the desks, “This bin…this big rolling bin full of books.” Nick held his arms out to mimic the size, “Like loads of books!”
My heart sort of skipped at the idea of something so large and presumably heavy just vanishing in the middle of the night. “And you’re sure it was this room?”
“I left the light on,” he screwed up his face, gesturing to the fixture above us that had indeed been on when we entered, “I mean, it was right here, and it was huge.”
I wanted to bolt, then calm washed over me as I realized. “Huge, hu?” I went up to him and slipped a finger into his belt, “Like something else?”
His face changed, sort of giving me a stupid grin, “Yeah…” then he shook his head, “But no, seriously. This is weird.”
Now that was weird: he’d never turned down an opportunity to fool around.
Nick moved past me and my advances back out into the hall. From the doorway, I glanced down into the darkness at its far end as he started opening other doors. When my stomach flipped, I tried to convince myself the Thai just wasn’t sitting right, but when I followed him into a different room across the hall, the queasy feeling wouldn’t rescind. Nick was very still, staring at the back wall. Again there was a small pile of desks to his right, but the room was larger, and its most prominent feature was a chain-link fence reaching from floor to ceiling, caging off the back half of the space. The light above where Nick stood shone only slightly beyond the cage, but there beyond the fence was a rolling bin like he’d described.
“That’s it,” he pointed when I came up beside him, “The books I wanted to show you.”
I closed the space between myself and the cage, peering into the bin through the links. It was full to the brim with books, most with tattered covers. They looked like they might have been headed for an incinerator, but they also had some beautiful leather covers and ornate script along their cracked bindings, though it was too dark to make out what they said. I smiled, momentarily forgetting the weirdness of the situation, and searched the fence for an entryway, but there was a padlock on the chain-link door.
“Well, these are cool,” I offered, “It sucks they’re probably going to be destroyed.”
Nick came up next to me and pulled out his flip phone–old, even for those days–and pressed buttons furiously, “That’s not all. I took this to show you in case you couldn’t come by.”
He pulled up a picture, low resolution and shadowed on his tiny screen, but I could tell it was one of the books, lying open on top of the pile. I glanced at the bin again on the other side of the cage, nowhere near close enough for him to have gotten the shot, and what was more, none of the books were open. Looking back at the photo, I could see text on one page, and a drawing on the other, but it was quite blurry.
“Shh!” I cut him off, snapping my head toward the cage. Something there, in the space beyond the light, had moved.
We were both silent, and I stared unblinking beyond the fence. It had been a subtle sound, a gentle sliding of material against itself, but distinct enough in the quiet of the hall’s sub basement to catch my attention. I held my breath standing there, trying to keep my mind from conjuring up all sorts of imagined visions and sounds in the darkness. I saw nothing, I heard nothing, but what I felt to this day I can barely explain. It was a bit like the feeling you might have gotten when you were little, immediately after one of those old tube televisions were turned off. The static is still there, radiating out into the room as it dissipates. I could feel the static of whatever had been there until its energy was gone.
I nudged Nick and gestured to the door. He said nothing, but backed up toward it, both of us still staring into the shadows until we fumbled back out into the hall. My heartbeat quickened as we scurried to the stairwell. Nick swiped his badge and the panel lit up green. As he pulled the door open, I glanced back because, well, I’m a fucking idiot, I guess.
In the blackness of the hall’s end, I saw it. In silhouette only, it stood there, taking up the space of the corridor unlike any human man could, its shoulders too near the ceiling, its chest too broad. It didn’t move to follow, but it stared after us with intent. I didn’t need to see its eyes to know it was looking right into me. And my first and only thought was, Not again.
We thundered up the stairs and let the fire door slam behind us. Nick turned to me to say something, but before he could get a word out I interrupted him. “Don’t go back down there!”
He took a few deep breaths and scratched the back of his neck, “Oh, uh, okay?”
I barely remember lunging forward and grabbing his shirt, but his hands were on my wrists and he tipped his face low to be near mine. “Okay, okay, I promise!”
Nick was a bad liar, but he turned out to be worse at keeping promises.