Flash Fiction: The Nightwatchman
Harry opened his eyes with a jerk, the faintest feeling of his head touching his chest cutting through the smoke of a dream. He could not remember what the dream had been about; it was still there, lurking at the back of his mind, but it refused to be pressed into the light. Not that there was much of that: his short nap had created a fog in his mind. His sense felt dulled and his limbs heavy. He blinked and shook his head to rid himself of the confused feeling of returning to consciousness, but it would not go.
Feeling guilty, he forced himself to concentrate on the monitors in front of him. Grainy images of corridors painted a dull green and storage lockers an even duller grey cycled themselves on the screens. White text in the corner gave the cameras’ locations and the red light on the computer bank arranged to the left hand side of the office showed that everything was being recorded. Harry checked the screens more thoroughly than he might usually have done; making sure that everything was as it should be. After a few minutes of watching the cycling images he was satisfied that he had not missed anything when he had been asleep.
He looked up at the clock. It was a new clock with thick, black hands for the minutes and hours and a red hand for the seconds. Harry thought that the red one looked like a stick for swirling cocktails. It moved like one: turning constantly, rotating smoothly. He missed the old clock, which had filled the space between the monitors and the roof much more pleasingly and gave out a satisfying tick and tock as it counted the seconds. The new one was completely silent, and inwardly he cursed it for failing to keep him from sleep. He knew it was not to blame really. He had argued with Jessica, his wife, and had not slept at all. Instead he had lain awake, turning their argument over in his mind.
It was now approaching two in the morning; he was on shift for another four hours or so. He turned in the large swivel chair, then rose and crossed the small room and entered the kitchenette. The clock display on the microwave was a disturbing green light in the darkness and read 12:57. It had never been the right time, so far as Harry remembered, and he did not understand how to set it to the right time. He was normally quite good with that sort of thing, but this microwave didn’t want to comply. It sat there, displaying the wrong time, looking sullen. Harry flicked on the light and approached the kettle. He made a strong cup of coffee, made stronger by the lack of milk in the small fridge. He returned to the monitors, and placed the cup down, watching the steam rise from the liquid’s surface and curl in intricate patterns before dissipating.
He thought about his argument with Jessica. He could not remember what had started it, only that once the spark had been lit it created an explosion that had left him sleeping in the spare room with only a threadbare blanket and cushions from the sofa for a blanket. Even if he had been inclined to sleep, he could not have done so. He was also denied access to the bathroom that connected to their bedroom – they called it an en suite, but it was just the old design of the house, it being the only bathroom in the house. He was, therefore, unable to brush his teeth and that always bothered him. He lay there, angry, running his tongue over his teeth in an effort to clean them which was completely ineffectual and yet quietened that part of his mind. In truth, he thought that it would have been hiding anyway from the pulsating anger he felt. Gradually, as these things do, his anger melted and turned to shame. He’d wandered quietly down the unlit landing to apologise to Jessica, but as soon as he had placed a hand on the doorknob he heard the faint sound of her breathing. She was asleep. Part of him didn’t want to wake her – he could apologise just as well tomorrow morning. The other part, in a sulky voice, admonished her for being able to sleep at all. He returned to his threadbare blanket and turned over their argument. Perhaps she was right, perhaps it was time they started a family. Her determination and desire seemed to cut through all his rationality about their income, the time they could devote to a family, the relative smallness of their house.
Really those arguments didn’t work on Harry either. It wasn’t money or space or time that prevented him from wanting to start a family. They were just covers for the truth he was far too embarrassed, even ashamed, to admit to Jessica. He had watched her around their friends’ children, watched her hold the baby and make cooing noises and so on, but he could never do it. He lacked the easy knack with babies. Sometimes he would be forced to hold one and he would just sit with it, not knowing how to hold it or what to do with it. He told himself that maybe it would be different with his own child, but a part of him could not be completely sure. So he pressed on with his rationality and tried to make the best of it.
Lost in the mire of his own thoughts, it took Harry a moment to register that a dark shape had passed by on one of the monitors to his left. He looked up at it but it was steadfastly showing the same view it had every night for the last three years. Dull green and duller grey. I must have imagined it. A moment later, though, the dark shape appeared on the monitor above, and Harry was forced to admit he hadn’t imagined it. There, in the corridor leading to storage room two, was a figure in a hooded top and cargo trousers. The figure wore boots or heavy shoes but further than that there was nothing Harry could tell; the infra-red cameras gave little enough detail. He picked up his peaked cap and placed it firmly on his head. He retrieved his torch and the truncheon that one of his colleagues, Darren, insisting on calling a non-electric taser. His face twisted into a snarl as he imagined Darren saying those exact words and he tightened his grip on the truncheon. He hoped that he didn’t snarl like that when Darren was around.
Whoever the figure was they had now entered storage room two. The doors to all the storage rooms were left open overnight so that Harry and the others who worked nights could go on their rounds. Harry saw them drop between a two large storage vats where the cameras could not see. He picked up the radio from its charging deck, and checked that he could contact the emergency services with it. He locked the door to the security office, switched on the torch, and headed for storage room two.
On the ground floor, he found a window which had been smashed. Glass littered the floor and a small piece of grey material was hooked on one of the shards left in the window frame. There did not appear to be any blood on the glass or the floor around the area, so whoever it was had got in uninjured. He walked on, keeping a tight grip on his truncheon and sweeping the dark corridor with his torch. He could not be sure that the one he had seen was the only one. His footsteps sounded ghostly in the empty corridors. The beam of the torch only extended a short way and the shadows thrown by the bright white light were in some ways worse than the darkness that closed in behind him as he moved. There was a slight hum to the building from the fans in the cold storage areas on the floor below. He was thankful that he did not have to go down there.
He headed upstairs slowly, not wanting to rush. He wished he had the monitors now so that he could see if the person had moved. His heart was beating loudly in his chest, almost as if he was hammering a warning on his sternum. His breathing seemed loud and his footsteps deafening. Just before he reached the door to storage room two he hesitated for a moment. Come on, he thought, you can do this. Slowly he approached the door and then entered the room.
“I know you’re in here,” he announced to the room, “best to come out now.”
There was no response. He walked further into the room, intending to head for the storage vats he had seen the figure drop down behind, but the view from the floor was much different from the one the camera overhead had. He was not sure which of the storage vats the figure had gone between. He walked down the rows between them, shining the torch into the gaps, readying his truncheon. A little way down the second row he heard a small noise, like a person shifting uncomfortably. It reminded him of the spare room, of fidgeting as he tried to force himself to sleep. He moved towards the sound, trying to listen for it again over the sound of his boots on the stone floor.
Towards the end of the row, he stopped and listened. The noise was coming from behind the next vat, he was sure of it. He took the last two steps as a sort of jump, yelled an incoherent jumble of words, and received a startled yell in return. The person, surprised by Harry’s appearance, scrabbled at the floor, scrambled to their feet and started running. Harry gave chase, twisting this way and that between the storage vats. Damn it, he’s quick! Harry pressed himself to run faster, cursing his argument, cursing the blanket and the bed. Two pairs of heavy footsteps echoed eerily around the room. Ahead of Harry, the figure flung himself forward, propelling himself off surfaces with arms. His movements were wild, almost feral.
The figure turned between two vats close to the door and toppled a set of shelves. Packets of screws and other items tumbled from boxes across Harry’s path. He caught his foot on one of the shelves that had come loose from the frame and fell, truncheon and torch both jolted from his hands. He clutched wildly at nothing as he sprawled forward, felt his fingernails scratch against cloth and then the stone floor knocked the wind out of him. There was another sound, like a sack of potatoes being dropped, and a grunt. The explosion of pain in Harry’s head subsided. His mouth was a little wet; the liquid had a metallic taste. Blood. He felt gingerly with his tongue as he pushed himself up. There did not seem to be any teeth missing. Still got my looks, a deadpan voice said in the recesses of his mind.
In front of him the figure was also on the floor, just beginning to move after the fall. Harry forced himself onto his feet, snatched up his torch, and shone it directly at the figure, pulling back the hood as he did so. He was surprised to see that the figure was not a heavy set man with stubble and narrowed eyes, but a young girl. She was in her early teens, Harry guessed. Her eyes were wide and fear filled; she made no attempt to move. Dark purple rings circled her eyes and her skin was drained of colour, as if she had not slept or eaten properly in days. The clothes she wore hung off her – they were evidently several sizes too big. Her face and hands were smeared with dirt, there were cuts on her knuckles, and her lips were cracked. She was crying.
Harry shone the torch away from her face, cautiously bent down towards her, and offered her his hand to help her up. She hesitated and then reached for it. Her grip was weak, her skin cold and rough. He pulled her to a sitting position, kneeling beside her.
“What’s your name?” he asked her.
“Kara,” she replied, her voice barely more than a whisper.
“Okay,” he said, “it’s okay.”
She threw herself towards him, face buried into his shoulder. He could feel her warm tears soaking through his shirt. Her entire body seemed to convulse with heavy sobs. Instinctively, he folded her into his arms, stroking at her dark and tangled hair. Kara. That’s a nice name.