After Midnight (short story)

Carlo Raneer clocked in for the late night shift, slid his timecard back into its slot, and took the elevator one floor down to the hospital basement, the doors sliding open after a loud ping

Stepping into the hallway, he turned right, and casually began making his way towards the old metal desk that was situated against the concrete wall at the end of the corridor.  The front of the reception station faced the elevator doors, and behind the desk were double wooden threshold doors that led into the catacombs of the basement.

The elevator was one of two means of access into the underground room, but the only one that he ever used.  At the end of the hallway beyond the doors was a stairwell that led up to the lobby; however, doctors and their lab assistants were the only personnel authorized to use that entry because it led directly into the examination area.  Carlo was perfectly fine with that rule because going beyond the wooden doors for any reason made him extremely uncomfortable.

Visitors to the security area were required to check in with the guard on duty and sign an activity log stating the reason for their visit.  Other than the doctors who were assigned to the area, paramedics, orderlies specifically assigned for delivery, and security staff, absolutely no one was allowed beyond the double doors.  If reports from the lab or any other department of the hospital were delivered, the sealed envelopes were placed in the plastic bin on the desk and delivered to the doctors by security staff.  Rarely did he receive any incoming documents on the night shift.  Lab technicians that performed the testing required by the doctors in his area usually clocked out by six.

Carlo sighed heavily as he slowly approached the desk where he would be posted overnight.  The clicking of his heels against the tiled floor echoed off the acoustical stone walls, confirming how utterly alone and secluded he would be for the next eight hours.  Visitors to the area after midnight was unusual, unless a new arrival was brought in.  Even then, the visit would only last long enough for the orderly to wheel them into the holding area where they’d be held until the next doctor reported for duty, and then back upstairs the orderly would go with his or her empty stretcher.

Generally, he didn’t mind the silence and absence of visitors while working nights because it gave him the opportunity to study and prepare for his finals, which were coming up in a couple of weeks.  Receiving the same level of quietness and solitude was a rarity at home.  Between his wife wanting to talk and tell him about the events of her day and the kids running around playing and being noisy, it was practically a waste of time to even open a book or turn on his computer.  But tonight he was pissed because he’d been called in to work on his night off to cover for that slacker dimwit, Morris Crews.  He couldn’t understand why management kept the guy on the payroll since he missed more hours than he put in.  He figured it must be because it wasn’t easy finding a person who was willing to work there, especially at night, and the company probably thought it beneficial to hang on to what employees they did have, even if one of them happened to be about as worthless as a tin penny.

“Evening, Mac,” he said, greeting the elderly gentleman who had worked the four to twelve shift.  “How’s it going?”

“Quiet,” Mac replied with a slight grin.  “What are you doing here?” he asked, looking at his watch.  “Nearly an hour early, too.  I thought it was your night off.”

“It was,” Carlo answered.  “And now it’s not.”

“Let me guess,” Mac said, looking up over his glasses.  “Morris called in again.”

“You got it.”

“Reckon how long he’ll be allowed to keep doing that before the higher ups get tired of it and give him the axe?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Carlo answered.  “Anything going on that I need to know about?”

“Nope,” Mac replied.  “Like I said, it’s been quiet.”

“Good,” Carlo said, taking the keyring from Mac and clipping it onto his belt.  “Let’s hope it stays that way.”

“Want me to stick around until my shift officially ends?”

“No need for that, Mac.  You go on home.”

Carlo watched as his eighty-year-old co-worker hobbled down the hallway, appreciating that an elderly man was more willing to work extra hours than a man sixty years younger than him.

“Have a good one, Carlo,” Mac called before stepping inside the elevator.

Being a night watchman wasn’t really a bad job and there was certainly no danger involved like there would be if he were a police officer or firefighter.  The hours were satisfactory, and the pay was comparable to that of any daytime position, maybe even slightly higher when the shift differential was factored in.  It certainly wasn’t his idea of a dream job, but the money he made, coupled with his wife’s income, paid the bills and put food on the table.

After nearly four years of working nights, he was looking forward to finishing school and finding a better paying job with hours that allowed him to be able to spend time with his family at night and on the weekends, and to be able to share in birthday and holiday celebrations for a change. 

He’d never worked a job before that was even remotely close to what he did now, and to be honest, there’d been a few times when he’d gotten spooked being alone in the basement, especially when he heard strange noises that caused him to glance over his shoulder just to make sure no one was peering through the glass panels on the doors behind him.  But whenever he found himself dwelling on where he was, he forced himself to recall happy and cheerful events, ones that made him smile.  The births of his two children, the look on his young son’s face when he’d finally agreed to let him have a puppy.  He knew that he was safe down there, and with only one way into the area by visitors, he could always see who was getting off the elevator.  And in the event that he ever did require assistance, the police department was only a phone call away.

Not that he was complaining because God knows he needed the job, but sometimes he wondered why his services were needed at all.  It wasn’t as if any of his charges were going anywhere.  At the risk of sounding arrogant, he thought it could be said with certainty that not everyone was cut out for his job, and it certainly wasn’t for the faint-hearted.  The security that he provided wasn’t the same as that in banks and malls.  He didn’t carry a gun or a taser, and the only items attached to his service belt that could be used as weapons were his night stick and police type flashlight.  Either one was capable of inflicting serious injury if he struck someone hard enough.  So far, he’d never been in a combative situation.  He considered his position to be more of a night custodian, a warm body that was present to answer incoming calls, log new intakes, and to dissuade horny hospital staff from coming down there to feed their urges and desires by indulging in the act of getting some private, late night nookie.  Most nights, he was able to get in a couple of cat naps when sleepiness overtook him.  It wasn’t easy staying awake all night long with nothing to do except sit.

Carlo unzipped his black carrying case and removed his laptop, put his bagged dinner in a desk drawer, and turned on the small black and white portable television that he kept on the desk.  To produce a viewable picture required adjusting and readjusting the rabbit ears antenna for several minutes.  Some nights, the reception was adequate, with little to no interference, and at other times, all he got were horizontal, squiggly lines no matter how long he toyed with the antenna.  Fortunately, tonight was a good night.  The picture on the screen was somewhat snowy, but still clear enough to watch.

Carlo pulled the rolling chair up to the desk, preparing to sit down and log in to his computer when the elevator doors swooshed open.

Standing upright, he gazed down the hallway, expecting an orderly to step out with a stretcher in tow.

After several seconds had elapsed and no one came into view, Carlo dismissed the incident, passing it off as the elevator being summoned up from one of the floors above.

Situated in the corner across the hall from the elevator was a large, round security mirror, positioned in a manner that allowed him to see inside the chamber, but not into any of the corners.  Also reflected in the mirror were the two wooden doors behind the reception desk that offered a view through the glass panels of the corridor beyond.  Carlo glanced behind him, giving the hallway a quick scan.  To his relief, all four of the doors were closed.

Carlo sat down and leaned back in his chair, propping his feet up on the corner of the desk as he browsed through a muscle car magazine, imagining the day when he might finally become the owner of one of the classic beauties that he’d dreamt about having since being a teenager.  What he should do was log onto his school’s website and study, but the local station was airing a Sanford and Son marathon, and at the moment, he preferred laughing to reading.  If he began his shift by staring at the computer screen for hours, it’d make it more difficult than usual to stay awake throughout the long and boring night.  Besides, he had the next eight hours to himself.  Making up for lost time would be a breeze.

As Fred grabbed his chest and proclaimed to be having “the big one”, the elevator doors swished open again, and like the time before, no one exited.

“What the hell?” Carlo muttered, rising from his chair.  “Is someone down there?  Step out of the elevator and show yourself.”

The doors closed, the green lit arrow on the chrome plate above showing that the elevator was ascending.

Carlo sat back down, picked up the phone, and punched in the number to maintenance. 

“This is Carlo Raneer,” he said.  “Down in the basement.  Has anyone reported a problem with the elevator?  No?  When you get a minute, can you please check it out.  Twice now, the doors have opened and closed down here but there wasn’t anyone inside.  I appreciate it.  Thanks,” he finished.

Immediately upon returning the receiver to the cradle, the phone rang.

“Damn, that was fast,” he said as he answered it.  “Morgue, Carlo speaking.”

The loud crackling and sizzling noises emitting through the handset were so fierce that Carlo was forced to hold the receiver at a distance.  When the shrill noises finally subsided, he cautiously returned the handset to his ear.  “Hello?  This is Carlo speaking, is anyone there?”

Several moments of silence, then a man’s raspy voice said, “Tick tock, tick tock, the witching hour is near; tick tock, watch the clock, for your end time is near.”

“Excuse me?  Who is this?”

The line clicked, then came the droning buzz of the dial tone.

“Damn kids,” he said, hanging up.

Carlo spun around in his chair when he heard a loud clanging noise in one of the back rooms.  It sounded like metal hitting the tiled floor, as if someone had dropped an instrument or a pan.  Stepping up to the glass, he peered inside but didn’t see anyone; and all of the doors remained closed.  Mac hadn’t informed him that one of the doctor’s was on duty, but that didn’t mean that one wasn’t.  They could have used the stairwell and might very well be at work in one of those rooms, but in order to ascertain if that were true, he’d need to enter the area and check all the doors, and that was a measure he didn’t intend to take unless doing so became absolutely necessary.  For now, he wasn’t going to worry about it.  If there was a doctor in one of the rooms, he’d find out soon enough.  In the meantime, he’d remain at his station and watch television.  If he heard anything else strange coming from the autopsy area, then he’d go and check it out.

The large clock on the wall beside his desk read eleven-thirty p.m.  He’d only been there for a little over half an hour, but it suddenly felt like he’d already worked a full shift.

Simultaneously, the elevator doors sprang open at the exact moment that the phone began to ring.  He didn’t know whether to answer it or go and inspect the elevator to see if someone was hiding in a corner, believing themselves to be hilarious by playing tricks on him.  The thought of flipping on the emergency stop button crossed his mind, then quickly faded once he thought about the chaos that would ensue if he did.  Not to mention that it was against the law and he had no desire to go to jail.

Hesitant to answer, Carlo stared down at the phone as if it were a foreign object that he’d never seen before, his eyes locked on the keypad as the shrillness of the ringing filled the small reception area.

If he didn’t answer, the damn thing would probably ring off the hook and drive him nuts.  Besides, his duties did include taking incoming calls.

The elevator doors closed as he picked up the phone.

“Morgue, Carlo speaking.”

After midnight has fallen, the dead will come calling; be on alert and take heed, for on your substance, they will feed.”  It was the same voice as before, but it wasn’t familiar to him at all.  He supposed it could be that dumbass Morris or maybe even Carl, his best friend since childhood, calling and disguising their voices as a practical joke to try and scare him.  Both of them should know him well enough to know that he didn’t frighten that easily.  If he did, he could have never taken a job there in the first place.

“Who the hell is this?” Carlo shouted.  “Morris, is this you and your idea of a stupid prank?  If so, it’s not funny!  So help me, God, if I find out it’s you doing this, I’ll make you regret the day you were born!  And another thing.  If you’ve got time to play on the phone, then you can get your ass to work where it belongs and let me go home to my wife and kids!”

A grating, scratchy sound emanated from the receiver, reminding Carlo of the sound his old and worn vinyl records made when played with a damaged or broken needle.

Abruptly, an ear-piercing, hawk-like screech sounded in his ear, followed by dead silence.

Carlo slammed the phone down and rose from his seat behind the desk.  To say that the two calls had scared him would be an over statement, but he was a bit rattled by them.  Not so much the calls themselves as the words that were spoken.  And the tone that the caller used had a threatening quality about it, as if he were being warned of an approaching and imminent danger.

“Shit!” he spat when a clanking noise sounded from one of the back rooms.  Cautiously stepping up to the glass windows, he peered through and immediately noticed that the door to the storage room was now slightly ajar, and that could have only happened if there was someone inside the room because the doors locked automatically when shut and couldn’t be opened from the outside without a key.  Sticking his head inside the door, he called out, “Hello?  Is anyone back there?  Dr. Traynor?  Dr. Everett?”

One of the doctors or autopsy aides had to be back there because doors didn’t open by themselves.  Nor did instruments or other equipment tumble to the floor without human assistance.  And if by using that logic, then why weren’t they answering him?  Surely they heard him calling out.

“Dr. Traynor?” he shouted, his voice sounding hollow in the empty hallway.  “Dr. Everett?”

Unlike the occurrences with the elevator, he couldn’t ignore this disturbance.  The bodies lying on the tables in those rooms had families and loved ones, and it was his responsibility to ensure that there were no intruders or tricksters in any of the rooms who weren’t authorized to be there.  God forbid someone should break in and do something stupid to mar or damage one of the bodies on a dare from their juvenile delinquent friends.  He’d have a hell of a lot of explaining to do if something that awful happened on his watch.

Reluctantly, he pushed the right side door all the way open and set the foot lock to keep the door from closing and isolating him in an area that literally made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.  Having to go beyond the doors was the one part of his job that he absolutely hated, but after the phone calls and the events with the elevator, he disliked it even more tonight.  His heart hammered in his chest as he crept slowly down the hall, not knowing why in the hell he was so unnerved because he was smart enough to know that dead people couldn’t hurt him.  “No,” he whispered.  “But they can damn sure make me hurt myself, especially if I see one of them move or hear a groan.”

He considered inspecting the room with the slightly opened door first, but decided on checking the closed rooms, telling himself that the opened door could very well be a decoy, a tactic used to draw him in there while the prankster snuck up on him from behind.  If someone did do that to him in his current state of mind, he would undoubtedly need a clean change of shorts because he’d definitely shit himself.  As he neared the first door on the left, directly across the hallway from the storage area, he imagined himself being on Let’s Make A Deal, faced with having to make the right choice to reveal his grand prize.  Will it be door number one?  Door number two?  Or door number three?  None of them, you dumb shit!  You should have gone with the room that has the opened door! 

Of course, it was possible that one of the staff was hiding in the linen closet, using their cell phone to place the prank calls.  Carlo dismissed that idea nearly as fast as he’d thought of it, knowing that Mac would have alerted him about anyone else being on the premises.  Unless he was in on the joke, too, and was hiding with the rest of them laughing his ass off.

Carlo slowly turned the knob and opened the door of the autopsy room, using his flashlight to look around.  The strong odor of alcohol, bleach, and disinfectant were overwhelming and nauseating.  Both of the autopsy tables were empty.  The floor was clear of litter with no pans or instruments spilled, nothing appeared to be disturbed, and no one was hiding behind the door or anywhere else in the room.  Closing it, he walked across the hallway where the door to the storage units stood ajar, but no light was on.  All of the freezer doors were closed, as they should be.  And there was no way in hell he was going inside the room to open any of them, because if he slid one of the steel beds out and a body happened to sit up or fall off the slab, he’d drop dead of a heart attack and end up on one of the tables in the next room.  The second door on the left was the holding room where bodies were stored until autopsies could be performed.  There were four gurneys with sheet-covered bodies, their toe tags exposed.  Lying on the floor next to the counter was a steel, bedpan looking gadget, but he had no idea what it was or what it was used for.  The sound he’d heard could have been caused by it falling from the counter, but he wasn’t going to drive himself crazy trying to figure out how that happened.  He considered picking it up and returning it to its place but thought it best not to touch anything.  Other than the dead bodies and him, the room was empty.

The fourth and last door was what was referred to as the decomp room, where already decomposing bodies were kept.  Not only did he not want to go inside, but he also had no intentions of doing so.  He’d heard stories about the smells in there and how the odor clung to fabrics and how it took hundreds of washes to get rid of the stench, and if that failed, then the clothes had to be burned.

“Anyone in there?” he called out as he knocked on the door. 

Satisfied that he was alone, he began making his way back to his desk.

It wasn’t often that he had to go into any of the rooms, but every time he had, the experience had been unsettling.  This time seemed eerier than usual, probably because of the ominous phone calls he’d received.  Eager to leave the area, he hurried down the corridor, released the foot lock and closed the door behind him. 

“Get a grip, man,” he said aloud, the echo of his own voice startling him.  “It’s nothing but a prank.  A bunch of dumbass kids thinking they’re being funny.”

The second hands of the wall clock ticked away the time, keeping rhythm with the rapid beating of his thumping heart.

Eleven forty-five.

Tick tock, watch the clock.

What the hell did that even mean?  If it was true that a watched pot never boils, did that mean that keeping one’s eyes on a clock stopped the time from advancing?  “Stupid reasoning,” he muttered.  Water would begin to boil whether anyone was watching it or not as long as the burner beneath the pot was turned on.  And midnight would eventually fall regardless of whether he stared at the clock or not.

When midnight has fallen, the dead will come calling.

Creepy, but impossible.  Once you’re dead, you’re dead, and there is no coming back.

Only fifteen minutes left until the stroke of midnight.  What was going to happen when the clock struck twelve?  “Nothing, that’s what,” he said, trying to keep his imagination from getting the best of him while he was alone inside of an underground morgue because if he did, there was no telling what his mind might conjure up.  “Stop being so paranoid.”

The elevator doors opened, startling Carlo to the point that he banged his kneecap on the metal desk drawer.  “Son of a bitch!” he exclaimed, grabbing onto his throbbing knee.  “That’s gonna leave a bruise!” 

“Got a present for you, Carlo,” the orderly said as he wheeled out a stretcher carrying a black body bag.  “Adult male.  DOA from a drug overdose.  Sign here, please,” he said, passing Carlo a clipboard before signing Carlo’s log.

“You know where to put him,” Carlo said, forgoing a courtesy escort to the holding room.  “Here’s the key.”

“You okay, man?”

“Yes, why?”

“You look a little spooked, kind of pale.  Guess I would, too, if I had to stay down here for long.  You’re better than me, man,” the orderly said, shaking his head.  “No way I could do it.”

“I’m fine,” he said, his nervous tone mocking his lie.  “Just have a lot on my mind tonight.”

Carlo held the door open and watched as the orderly wheeled the stretcher the short way to the holding room.  Within minutes, he reemerged with an empty stretcher and shut the door behind him.

“Thanks,” Carlo said as the orderly returned his key.

“No problem.  Have a good one,” he said as he entered the elevator, again leaving Carlo all alone in the secluded vault of death.

Midnight came and went without any further calls, and the elevator doors hadn’t mysteriously opened and closed since the orderly left.  Carlo shook his head, disappointed for allowing himself to be so alarmed over such an absurd situation that he knew was nothing more than a sick, practical joke.  It was likely someone who found it hilarious to call a morgue and scare the living shit out of whoever happened to be working.  As a young kid, he’d done something similar himself, so he knew it was possible.  Is your refrigerator running?  You’d better go catch it.  Do you have Prince Albert in a can?  Then you’d better let him out.  But he’d certainly never considered making threatening calls to anyone, and if he found out that either Carl or Morris was behind the disgusting prank, there’d be hell to pay for either of them.

Carlo nervously glanced up at the clock when the phone rang at five minutes past midnight.  With a feeling somewhere between fear and dread, he snatched the receiver from the cradle.  “Look here, you little punk,” he shouted.  “I’ve had enough of your silly games and if you don’t stop calling, I’m phoning the police!”

Midnight has passed, they’re alive at last; go take a look and see, they’re all awake; it’s you they want to play with, your soul they’re going to take.”  Those sinister words, followed by the evilest laugh he’d ever heard, sent chills down Carlo’s spine, reigniting his angst.

As he slammed the receiver back into its cradle, he caught movement from the corner of his eye, certain that he’d seen a shadow in the hallway beyond the door.

Carlo gasped as he peered through the glass panels and saw that the door to the autopsy room was standing wide open.  “What the hell?” he breathed.  He’d watched the orderly take the new arrival straight to the holding room, so he knew he hadn’t opened the door, and he’d made sure it was secure when he’d exited earlier.  And since he was the only person there, who in the hell had opened it?

Carlo stared down the hallway towards the elevator, seriously considering making a run for it, hightailing it out of there and never looking back.

“You idiot,” he huffed, scolding himself.  “There’s no one here but you and the dead, and the dead don’t get up and walk around.  And they sure as hell don’t unlock and open doors.”

He swallowed the golf ball sized lump that’d risen in his throat as he quietly pushed open the door and set the foot lock again.  Removing the night stick from its loop, he slowly began tip-toeing down the corridor.  “You win,” he called out.  “If your goal was to scare the shit out of me, you’ve succeeded.  It’s over now.  You’ve had your fun.  It’s time to stop, so you can come on out now.”

Carlo braced himself as he waited for Morris or Mac to spring from one of the rooms while yelling, “Gotcha!”

He would have been pissed about it but would have eventually gotten over the adolescent prank.  In fact, he preferred that it had been a joke instead of the hard truth that he was on the verge of facing.

Although the door to autopsy was open and lit, he didn’t see anyone inside the room.

At the holding room door, he gently turned the knob and opened it slightly, putting an ear to the crack to listen…and froze in sheer horror when he heard the distinct sound of a zipper being unfastened.

Swiftly throwing the door wide open, he reached inside and turned on the light.  His breath caught in his throat when he saw that all of the gurneys were empty, the sheets once covering dead bodies lying in heaps on the floor.  The zipper fly on the black body bag that had arrived only minutes before was halfway down.  Carlo watched in shock and horror as an ashen-colored hand slithered through the opening while the zipper continued to descend.

From inside the autopsy room, he heard the unmistakable sound of shuffling feet, grunts, groans, and moaning, and the distinctive clinking sound of metal against metal, the tinny clatter of dropping a bullet onto a tin platter – or the careful arrangement of surgical instruments being neatly placed atop a metal tray or tabletop.

His heart was now a jackhammer inside his chest as he stood outside the door, his legs shaky and as heavy as lead.  He wanted to run away, but his feet were glued to the floor with an invisible adhesive that prevented him from being able to make a dash for the exit. 

Behind him, the door to the storage room sprang open, and as Carlo stood frozen in place by the force and depth of a fear he’d never experienced before, he gaped in horror at the naked elderly woman holding open the door of the autopsy room, a Y-shaped, black-stitched incision that began beneath each shoulder and ended just above her navel.  From behind, both of Carlo’s arms were gripped tightly by several cold hands and pinned to his sides as he was forcefully shoved in the direction of the autopsy room. 

Inside, the examination table was encircled by the dead, their bare bodies pale, their milky eyes colorless and unblinking.  At the head of the stainless steel table was a rubber headrest that he hadn’t noticed earlier when he’d inspected the room.

Carlo opened his mouth to scream but produced nothing more than the pitiful mewl of a newborn kitten.  Even if he could’ve screamed, there was no one there to hear him, no one who could help him.

He was alone in a basement filled with the reanimated bodies of the dead.

He struggled against the multitudes of hands grasping at him, stripping off his clothes and forcing him down onto the table, holding him by his arms and legs so that he couldn’t move or escape.

When he saw the shiny silver blade of the scalpel poised above his chest, the scream that had been trapped inside his throat finally found its way out.

The elevator doors slid open, but no one disembarked.

At the security desk, laughter erupted from the TV audience when Aunt Esther called Fred a fish-eyed fool, and the ringing telephone went unanswered.

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