A Medium for Ghosts
by Joe Howsin
You’re working late. The office is dark and empty. You look around at the rows of swivel chairs, thin computers, and knick-knacks resting upon narrow metallic desks; identical little families of objects stretch into the distance.
You’re thinking that there should be a hum–every computer is on standby–but there’s nothing, even the keyboard sounds maddeningly soft as you type in the twilight. The office is silent, and you are cold.
You pull out your phone. The world, its history, and all its people flash before your eyes in an instant. You swallow two pain killers without water, they scrape against your throat in protest. You look back up at your computer screen. You’ve been ordered to create a spreadsheet by tomorrow. Presumably, it’s important to someone.
You think about how lonely the office feels, how familiar. You find, to your surprise, that you don’t mind. Suddenly you remember a news story you skimmed an hour ago (or was it only a few minutes?). A fresh tragedy in the world, nothing unusual about that, especially lately. Still, it sticks in your mind, and certain elements seem uncomfortably familiar.
You wake up with a sharp, involuntary cry. You must’ve fallen asleep at your desk. The little bricks in your Excel pyramid gleam at you. Good. The computer didn’t fall asleep as you did. Your work is safe. At that moment, your small bastion of light is swallowed by the pacing darkness stalking the rest of the office. The computer screen is black. You click the mouse once, twice, one thousand times. You tap keys at random, gently at first, like waking a sleeping baby, then you bash them violently in frustration and panic. You furiously press the monitor buttons. Your own face gazes back at you from the dead screen. You feel sick. There must have been a power cut.
You check your phone but can only summon another monochrome image of your own face on the dead screen. It had 80% charge a moment ago. Power cut? You look outside and see the windows of other office blocks lit up like rows of rectangular stars. You wave your digital watch in front of your face but it too is dead. In the gloom you rummage around inside your desk drawer, the sliding metal runner sounds like a wave sweeping onto a desolate beach.
Inside you find an old watch with hands and a face, it was your grandfather’s. The soft leather strap hugs your wrist. The watch face kisses your ear, and whispers tick, tick, tick, assuring you that everything is alright. The time dictated by the hands is probably wrong, but that isn’t the watch’s fault. It’s yours. The watch face says midnight.
You get up and walk along the checkerboard pattern of desks without making a sound. You make your way to the elevator, but it doesn’t heed your call. You turn away and open the door leading to the stairwell.
Inside, the stairs climb and fall in a blocky spiral, left leading up, right leading down. But there is a man. He’s leaning against the handrail right in front of you, looking down. You open your mouth to call out to him, but before you can make a sound, he is already facing you, although you didn’t see him turn. He’s in his twenties and dressed in the latest fashion. His hair is short at the sides, but longer and styled with product in the middle. He is handsome, chiselled but soft, without the merest hint of obscuring stubble. He glowers at you, a smirk scarring his lovely face, his eyes narrowed in exaggerated fury. It is difficult for you to meet his gaze, but when you do you can see that his eyes are milky white throughout. He raises his arms to his shoulders, his palms facing you, his fingers spread out wide. He paces in front of you like a bear in a cage. A bright rectangle of light, like a blank doorway, frames and follows him as he moves. His clothing, his hair, and his skin is a dull, colourless grey.
You stare at the figure for some time as he aggressively leers at you, pacing constantly, but he comes no closer. He stops abruptly, blocking the stairs leading to the street below, and his smirk melts into a pained grimace. You wonder what you should do, what you could do. The grey man visibly collects himself and, with what seems like a tremendous effort, he opens his mouth wide like a snake. From between his teeth a piercing scream emanates: except, it isn’t a scream at all. No individual voice can be isolated in the cacophony. Your eardrums strain at the sound, your senses and nerves are overrun. The flood of stimulus drowns your mind like water forces its way into desperate lungs. In an attempt to escape you sprint upstairs. You climb higher and higher, yet the noise follows you. It blasts directly into your ears no matter how far you run from the man’s gaping mouth. After sprinting up the entire stairwell, you burst into the cold night air of the rooftop. The noise stops, and you lose consciousness as blood runs in rivers down each side of your face: your only source of warmth as a cold wind howls and nips at your cheeks.
You awake to a needling gale that pricks and pinches your skin. You scramble to check your face, but the blood is gone. You snap your fingers next to your ears to find that you hear clearly and without pain. Perhaps it was a dream. You stand up and look out beyond the rooftop. There are no stars in the sky, but there are innumerable twinkling lights in the city below. You survey the landscape for a minute in near serenity until you notice, you’re casting a thick, dark shadow. You turn and see another long rectangle of light, just like before, suspended in the air and illuminating the rooftop like a godly obelisk. You see a silhouette standing within the light.
At first, you’re afraid that the grey man has found you, that soon he’ll scream at you again, but then you notice the silhouette’s slow, slender movements. Its arms swing loosely to one side, then the other. The movement is strange but beautiful and captivating, it lulls you into a dream until reality washes over you with another blast of cold wind. You realise the figure is moving towards you. Slowly, features appear within the dark outline, and you realise it is a woman. Her petticoat frock gleams and shimmers as she moves: she is a kaleidoscope of reds, greens, blues, indigoes and violets, each one intermingling and giving way to the next in an impossible procession of beauty. Terror rises as you become dimly aware that you can’t move, you can’t look away. You can barely even feel your own terror like it’s being transmitted to you from some distant star. The woman’s pendulous dance brings her ever closer until you’re almost touching. Staring now into her face, you can see a rictus smile tearing her face nearly in half. Her sharp eyes plead at you beneath lashes that look stiff and heavy as tree branches. Her face is contorted into a bizarre mask mixing joviality and pain.
The bright woman rears upwards like an animal about to howl. She gazes up at the starless sky and opens her mouth wide. But instead of doubling the grey man’s hideous screech, there is no sound at all. She rears upwards again, her hands contracted into harsh claws and screams, but no sound pierces the silence between you. Her anguish is palpable as her throat and lungs and tongue strain to give life to the howl inside. She looks to you in despair, for still the night is cold and quiet and dark. As she continues to scream silently, the rectangle of light spews forth and swallows her greedily, until not a single shred of her outline is visible within the blinding light. Your eyes follow as it glides towards the edge of the roof, it hangs there for a moment, before toppling over the side, disappearing into the false stars below.
You wake up some time later. You sense, rather than see, that dawn is approaching. Your cheeks are wet with tears. Slowly, you wind your way back down the stairwell, past the floor of your office, past the spot where the grey man once stood, until you reach the ground floor. The lobby is devoid of life. Mere feet away from the front doors, you’re surprised to see another rectangle of light. But this one is different from the others, it’s duller and smaller. Within it you see two children, a girl and a boy: they could be siblings. Their faces are expressionless, their eyes and mouths clamped shut as though weighted down by lead. You fall to your knees as they advance towards you. The bright light follows closely behind. Just before they embrace your withered body, the light swallows you whole.