It’s the first day of fall! Hooray! To celebrate, here’s a free story to help get you in the mood for the Halloween season.
You think strange thoughts sometimes when you work the night shift. Coming home in the dark late at night, it’s easy to imagine that something in the darkness is out to get you.
If your imagination is like Tina’s, you might think how creepy it would be if the thin, dark gap between the wall and the vending machine at the end of the hall was really a doorway to some otherworldly dimension.
And then you might laugh the thought away as you grab your chips and resist the urge to run back to your apartment.
She was tired when the thought occurred to her, after a long night on her feet at the diner, and it was a nice distraction from worrying about getting mugged on the way home. Or worse.
Tina liked having the machine there. It was her one consolation when her budget had forced her to settle on the tiny basement efficiency. She almost hadn’t been able to afford even that, what with the landlady wanting two month’s rent up front. Thankfully, she’d relented. “Had a lot of trouble with drifters sneaking out without paying their rent,” she’d said, “but I guess you don’t strike me as a drifter.”
Anyway, takeout places were usually closed when her shift ended, and a bag of chips was better than nothing when she felt too tired to cook. She kicked off her shoes and turned on The Late Late Show and munched on her bag of Sun Chips. At least she could pretend those were kind of healthy. When they were all gone, she brushed off the crumbs, crumpled up the bag and headed to bed.
She needed to go grocery shopping. She debated going out for breakfast, but she didn’t feel like getting dressed yet, and decided to get something from the machine. In the hallway, dollar in hand, she stood debating between a Snickers bar or Fig Newtons when she noticed that the dark space at the back seemed a little bit wider. For a fleeting second, she thought about investigating, but shrugged it off. It wasn’t like she’d been paying close attention to the size of the gap. Anyway, so what if it was wider? The vendor had probably stocked it that morning, jostling it in the process.
It was a stupid thing to notice, let alone worry about. She told herself that as she backed toward her apartment, dollar still in hand. She felt like going out for breakfast after all.
Tina jolted awake, her heart pounding. She thought she heard a loud crash. She was just starting to think she’d dreamed it when she heard it again, out in the hall.
She turned on her bedside lamp, then thought better of it and turned it off before fumbling for the can of pepper spray she kept in the drawer. She got out of bed and shuffled quietly toward the door. There it was again. Startled, she froze in place. It was a familiar sound, and as she took deep breaths to slow the pounding in her chest, she tried to place it.
Then it came to her. The high school lunch room. It was the sound that the vending machines used to make when the football players would tip them forward and then let them fall back in place. They’d do that whenever their chips got stuck. Sometimes they’d do it just to see if they could get a free bag.
That’s all the sound was.
Except, nobody who lived in her building was big enough or strong enough to tip that machine. Her neighbors were mostly elderly. Some were women around her age. Maybe it was a visitor. Somebody’s boyfriend, maybe. Or Mrs. Woo, upstairs. She had a son in the Marines. Maybe he was home from Afghanistan. If he was still on Middle Eastern time, that would explain the three a. m. chip craving.
Tina crept softly to the door and peered through the peep hole. She saw a flicker of shadows, and held still, watching. For ten minutes, she watched. But nobody passed her door. They’d have to, to get from the machine to the stairwell.
She checked the chain to make sure it was secure. She double checked the locks. On the way back to bed, she paused, then grabbed a kitchen chair and dragged it over to the door, jamming it under the doorknob.
She saw Mrs. Woo in the laundry room the next day. “How is your son?” she asked.
A haunted look filled the older woman’s eyes. “He’s injured. I only found out this morning. I don’t know details yet. But they say he can come home in three weeks.” A faint smile touched her lips. “He’ll get a purple heart, I suppose.”
Tina stared in shock. “I’m so sorry,” she said when she found her voice. “I hope he pulls through and you find out something soon.”
The older woman nodded. “Thank you.” She went back to folding her clothes. Tina threw the rest of hers in the basket and hurried out of the laundry room. She paused upon seeing the machine at the opposite end of the hall. The gap behind it had definitely widened. She averted her gaze from it and forced herself to walk normally to her door. Her hand trembled and she fumbled her keys. Cursing, she picked them up and got the door unlocked.
As she closed the door behind her, she could have sworn she heard the sound of heavy metal scraping on linoleum.
She was getting home later than usual. Her replacement at the diner was late, so she’d had to stay to cover. Once she finally clocked out, she decided to stay and grab something to eat. It was almost one-thirty by the time she finally got out of there. She had debated volunteering to work a double shift, just so she could stay till morning and avoid having to walk home this late. But she was so tired, and ready to get home and off her feet.
The streets weren’t exactly deserted, but there were few enough people for her to be suspicious of all of them. Being out so late made her extra paranoid. She gripped her can of pepper spray, keeping it ready, and kept glancing over her shoulder. Twice she crossed the street because she didn’t like who she saw behind her. Once, he seemed to follow, and she picked up her pace. It was only a four-block walk, but tonight it felt more like four miles.
When she reached her building, she didn’t waste any time letting herself inside. She shut the door behind her and heard the automatic lock click into place, then leaned her back against the door, panting and laughing a little at herself. All she’d done was get home safe another night, and here she was acting like she’d just outrun a serial killer.
Even so, she gave the door a tug to make sure the lock held, and got her apartment key ready before crossing over to the stairwell that led down to the basement. She hummed to herself as she skipped down the steps, feeling wired up and happy to be alive. At the bottom of the stairs, she froze.
The vending machine at the end of the hall was sitting sideways, facing the wall opposite her apartment door. Like something had swung it open from the end wall like a door. And on the end wall, the vending machine’s shadow was still there, a big, black rectangle of darkness that had been branded onto the wall. It seemed to go beyond the wall, somehow, like if she walked over there she could stick her arm through it.
Behind her, at the top of the stairs, she thought she heard movement. She glanced over her shoulder just long enough to see a flicker of shadow, and then bolted toward her door. As she tried to steady her shaking hands enough to insert the key into the lock, another flicker came from the end of the hall, and the darkness seemed to somehow be reaching for her.
Tina started to chant a one-word prayer: Please. “Please, please, please, please,” she muttered in a thin, high voice, over and over until the key finally slid into the lock. She turned it and pushed the door open, slamming it and locking it behind her.
This time when she leaned her back against the door, her sense of triumph and relief felt more justifiable, albeit short-lived.
Something rammed her door. The thud reverberated through her body, and she screamed and backed away. It rammed it again. It felt like the whole building must have shook. It must be waking her neighbors. It rammed the door again. “Stop it!” she screamed, and waited, tense, her pepper spray feeling useless in her hand.
Whatever it was stopped. Tina debated whether to call the police or reinforce the door with a kitchen chair, then decided to do them both in reverse order. As she took a step toward the chair, she heard the squeak of her mail slot being opened. A dollar slid through it, and fluttered to the floor. When it landed, the deadbolt on her door turned, followed by the doorknob. The door slammed open.
Tina didn’t have time to scream.
Lorena Patton stood by, keys in hand, and waited as the police knocked patiently on the door. She knew how this went. They’d give the tenant a few opportunities to answer the door, then they’d have her open it up and let them in, because the tenant wouldn’t be there. Sure enough, that’s how it went.
Inside, they found all the girl’s things, but no sign of the girl, and no sign of forced entry.
“I don’t understand it,” said the weepy girl in the waitress uniform, the one who’d called the police. “She’s not the type to just not show up to work. And why would she leave without her stuff?”
Because, Lorena thought as the police questioned the girl, it’s a lot harder to sneak out without paying your rent when you’ve got to load all your furniture into a U-Haul. She kept the thought to herself, though. She was disappointed. Not just in the loss of income, but in her own poor judgment. Here she’d thought she’d finally gotten a decent tenant for that damned basement, even waived her two month’s rent rule. Last time she’d ever do that. Girl turned out to be a drifter and a thief, just like all the others.
She was running out of room to keep putting these people’s things in storage. The girl’s stuff wasn’t too bad. Maybe Lorena would just keep it in the apartment and rent it out as furnished. That’d let her charge more. ‘Course, that’d make it easier for people to keep cutting and running in the middle of the night. Maybe she should stop renting the dang place out altogether and just use the apartment for extra storage.
The police finished up, and she locked up behind them, then went to inspect the vending machine at the end of the hall, trying to remember the last time she’d had it stocked. Hardly anyone but the basement tenants ever used it, so it didn’t need to be serviced very often. It seemed like it never ran out of snacks. Hell, she should probably just get rid of the thing. Everything in it was probably past it’s best-by date. Still, Lorena fished a dollar out of her pocket. After the morning she’d had, she deserved a dadgum candy bar.
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