“Life is often just an interim between nightmares.”
The comment from the young woman named Martha, no older than 20, took Joyce Butler, 32-year old retail office worker, by surprise as only routine small talk about life, in general, had preceded it. Yes, it being after midnight made it Oct. 31, Halloween, with the office decorated accordingly, but that didn’t mean glumness need be the prevailing mood. It made work more difficult and that’s why they were in the office at 1:45 AM on Halloween. They were there for work because it wasn’t 1950 anymore. It was 1984 and computers were the wave of the future and she, Joyce, being the youngest office worker with any real tenure, was the senior most employee stuck with learning about the damn things. She normally worked first shift but was appointed the sacrificial lamb stuck in a week-long third shift course learning about the computers so she could teach the other office workers what she’d learned when she resumed her place on first shift. Martha was a newly hired employee who would be trained more thoroughly. Computers and young women were apparently both waves of the future. Joyce had been making small talk with Martha but the perplexing comment threw her enough that she struck an incorrect key on her keyboard.
“No, that’s not right,” the young man, also no older than 20, mumbled impatiently. Her company had hired him to teach the two women the “ins and outs” of creating things like spreadsheets on the computer for better office efficiency. He appealed to Joyce as a cold, logical type, the kind of technology person she had little use for, the kind of man that ignored the sunshine of the outside world and all its sensory wonders to spend all his time cooped up with computers and television sets. She didn’t resent or feel superior to such people; they just weren’t her cup of tea.
“You have to press this key here, see?” he said, blandly, leaning over her shoulder and pointing. He felt icy, like the smell of the wintergreen gum he was chewing. Joyce repressed a sarcastic reply and pressed the key as the man went to help the young woman a few seats over. Joyce looked around the office. Fake spider webs hung from the ceiling with fake spiders intermixed. Paper Jack O’Lantern, ghost and witch cut outs adorned the walls. It reeked to her of corporate commonality.
“I can’t wait to go home,” she thought.
Suddenly, the lights flickered, came back on fully then dimmed nearly to darkness. The young man, afraid of losing the progress of the software download, scrambled to Joyce’s computer. Before he could press a key, the lights went out. Though they were in an enclosed, familiar space, the darkness combined with the surroundings made Joyce shudder. The decorations now moved in her mind. The spiders crept along the cobwebs and the witches and ghosts took flight. The young man swore and the young girl held her breath. The only exit was via elevator. If the power stayed off, what would they do?
A minute passed. Lost in darkness, none of them spoke. The sound of machinery coming to life was then heard and the lights came back on. Joyce breathed a sigh of relief. Martha seemed very afraid, the young man very irritated. Moving to the young woman’s computer, he grunted in frustration as it rebooted.
“What kind of place is this?” he growled. “What kind of business is this?”
“I’ve never seen the power go out here,” Joyce said.
“He hates the electricity,” a man’s voice said behind them. Startled, Joyce swung her head to see a janitor who had come in from the warehouse the office was connected to. He wore a typical janitor’s uniform and was holding a mop resting in a wheeled bucket full of dirty water. The young man moved towards him and put his hand out to shake.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m George.”
The janitor, a man with a wizened face and awkwardly groomed white hair held up his hands and said, “Oh, no. Look. You wouldn’t want to get your hands dirty, would you?”
The man felt very odd. Though she’d never seen him before, Joyce, lost in the moment, laughed to herself.
“A man comes out of the dark,” she thought. “Has a ghost visited us on Halloween?”
“I’m sorry if I scared you,” the man said with a chuckle. “My name is Alfred. I’ve been here for a time but my shift is almost over. Well, I guess everything is okay now.”
As he turned to reenter the warehouse, the young man called him back.
“Whoa, whoa there. What did you mean by ‘He likes to play with the electricity?’ Who does?”
“The Electrical Man,” the janitor replied matter-of-factly, as if it were common knowledge. “Surely you know of him?”
The three employees all said they hadn’t. Joyce felt goosebumps. The young lady, clearly very sensitive, shivered.
“His name is William Place. His physical body left this world decades ago when the building down the street was a prison. He was the first man electrocuted. Three tries but he wouldn’t die. Each time the generator had to recharge. His skin had melted by the fourth attempt. The generator exploded and all the lights on the block went out. Some reports said William Place had disappeared when they came back on. So, he hates the electricity, you see, and, when he comes back, he makes all the lights go out.”
“When he comes back?” the young man asked rhetorically. “Are you saying the ghost of William Place haunts this building?”
Alfred smiled. “When the lights flicker, I always think, ‘He's come back to visit.'"
The air in the room felt leaden. A small clock on one of the work stations pinged twice.
“Ooh, that’s for me,” Alfred said. “My time is over now. Goodbye.” With a smile, he steered the wheeled bucket by the mop handle back into the warehouse. The office stayed silent for several seconds before the young man spoke.
“Like I was saying, ‘What kind of business is this?’ How many weirdos do you have around here?”
The question snapped Joyce out of a kind of trance.
“I’ve never seen that man before,” she replied, her voice trailing. Her sense of her frightened mood made her angry. She continued:
“We don’t have ‘weirdos’ around here, George. I’ve never seen the man before but I normally don’t work third shift. He’s just a man that cleans up around here, obviously.”
“I don’t like people with those kinds of stories,” George said with irritation. “I don’t like creeps or creep stories. Life is logical and real. There aren’t any ghosts in it.”
Joyce looked to Martha and saw her trembling.
“Did the man scare you, dear?” Joyce asked.
“I don’t think I’m supposed to be here,” Martha whispered.
“I still wonder what kind of place this is,” George said with contempt.
Joyce angrily brushed off his comment, dug some change out of her purse, rose and approached the young woman, who looked up at her with dancing eyes.
“Here, sweetheart,” Joyce said. “Why don’t you go to the cafeteria and get us some sodas. George, what would you like?”
“Nothing. I don’t drink soda,” he said dryly, staring at her computer screen as he pressed buttons on her keyboard.
“I’ll take a Coca-Cola,” Joyce said tenderly to the young woman. “You get whatever you want.”
With a disconcerted nod, the girl rose and left the room for the cafeteria.
“You could be nice, you know,” Joyce said to George rhetorically. "The man clearly unnerved her,”
“I have no time for nonsense,” he said, still looking at her computer screen and pressing keys. “If she has no nerve, that’s her problem.”
Joyce had had enough of George the computer expert but she resolved to get along until the shift was over. The clock read 2:15 AM. Three hours and forty-five minutes and she would meet the 6 AM morning crew before going home. It couldn’t come fast enough. She looked at the fake spiders. Did one of them just move? The lights began to flicker again.
An ear shattering scream from the cafeteria made her jump. She looked at George, who had also jumped and seemed very irritated he had. Joyce ran towards the cafeteria and froze when she saw Martha sprinting towards her, bathed in a sea of lights flickering like an electrical storm. She barely dodged in time as the girl ran past towards the office and into the warehouse as Joyce followed.
“Martha! Stop!” she shouted uselessly. The warehouse was between the office and the elevator which is where the girl, who proved too fast for Joyce, was running towards. She had nearly reached her destination when the lights went out. Joyce froze again. Largely unfamiliar with the warehouse’s layout, she quickly convinced herself it was folly to run around with the lights off. Deep down, she was terrified. What was happening? Why had the girl screamed?
The lights came back on and Joyce saw she was alone. She whipped her head around looking for the girl then jogged lightly towards the elevator. Nothing. The elevator made a ping sound when opening. Joyce had heard no sound. The warehouse was cavernous. Had Martha gotten confused in the dark? Was she still in the warehouse? Joyce walked back to the office and found George still working at her computer.
“Did Martha come back in here?” she asked. He didn’t answer, as if she wasn’t there.
“Hey, George!” she said, snapping her fingers impatiently. “Did Martha come back through here?”
He turned his attention towards her and said, eyes rolling towards the ceiling, “I think I do know what kind of place this is now.” He nodded to himself and went back to work. For the first time, Joyce felt the surreal nature of the situation. She opened her mouth to speak again but no words formed in her mind. She felt the need to walk up and touch George but didn’t. Where was that janitor? He must have left. He did say his time was almost up. His time was almost up…surely, they…she would have heard the elevator ping but she hadn’t.
Rousing her courage, she resolved to search the warehouse. She took care of the easy things first, a quick look behind the cardboard box crusher and a scan of the assembly lines calling "Martha" at various intervals. Next was the large area with the metal merchandise trees, a dead forest of steel. In the distance, a small light crackled next to an old, dusty unused storage room. The size of the place pressed down upon her. The large swaths of darkness weighed heavily. She stepped towards the storeroom. The light flickered almost imperceptibly. She heard a small rustle. Quickly backpedaling, she fast walked back to the center of the warehouse where the large, industrial lights on the ceiling still shone. She crossed to the design staff’s office. Pausing at the entrance way, she saw the white outline of store mannequins. She tried to call Martha’s name but her throat could only reflexively spasm with no words. Another rustle. One mannequin head seemed to turn. Another smiled. Another took a step…
She stumbled back, took a deep breath then committed to searching the last hidden place. Maybe Martha was hurt and couldn’t speak. Maybe Joyce just wanted to prove to herself nothing supernatural was happening. Maybe she should call for Alfred, too...
Two rows of storage materials, tucked away and dark even when the lights in the rest of the warehouse were on, were last. Used to the office activity of the day shift, the silence and the darkness seemed a tomb, like she’d reached the end of her life and all that awaited was the grave. She took small steps down the first row. Different sizes of merchandise bags stuffed the shelves. A moldy smell caused her to recoil slightly. Yet another rustle in the next row made her freeze. Her heart thudded and her eyes bulged. Her body leaned slightly forward. The industrial lights flickered with a heavy buzzing sound then one of the bulbs exploded. Joyce screamed. She ran out of the warehouse to the office.
Every office light flickered on and off randomly. On and off, on and off, on and off. She called for George but got no reply. The room was empty. She crept towards the cafeteria and bathroom and searched. George had vanished. The horror that she was all alone seized her like a shower of freezing water. Her stomach plunged. Alone. They had all vanished. The flickering lights seemed demonic, like the end of the world. She resisted the urge to slump to the ground. The lights went out again. Her time had come. She knew her time had come! Gripped with energetic terror, she ran as fast as she could through the office into the warehouse then to the elevator room, where the light still shone. In the distance, she saw the office lights go out. The flickering warehouse lights went out one by one. He was coming! The Electrical Man was coming! She slammed her hand against the elevator button then pounded on the closed doors.
“Help! Help!” she shrieked. The light in the room began to flicker, all around nearly pitch black. The light dimmed to its lowest level…
Joyce heard the ping sound and the elevator doors opened. She tumbled in and frantically pushed the button to close the doors. The light in the room went out; only the light in the elevator stayed on. The darkness seeped into the elevator. She wailed uncontrollably, pounding and pounding the first floor button.
The doors shut and the elevator began it’s descent. She grabbed her head with both hands as hard as she could and slumped to the ground. The elevator reached the first floor but the doors didn’t open. The ping never came. The light in the elevator flickered…then went out.
At 6 AM, two of Joyce’s first shift co-workers, surprised she hadn’t met them at the door as planned, turned off the outside alarm and entered the building. They turned on the first floor lights, which shone without a glitch. They walked to the elevator and pressed the button. The door opened with a ping. Into the empty elevator they stepped.