1. Fear Never Dies by Lady_Dementia
The Beast Wars ended; the planet moved on. But what should have remained buried and forgotten has been unearthed, and now fear whispers from the shadows…
Disclaimer: Yeah, Hasbro still owns the Beast Wars, and I still own the plot. I’ll take what I can get. *shrugs* Anyway, as far as I know, Marine Hills, Ohio, is just a place I made up. Ignore the tinkering I did with geology concepts. If anyone can’t figure out who exactly this fanfic deals with, e-mail me. This is the most subtle character-based fanfic I’ve ever written, and I don’t feel like spoiling it.
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* * * * *
In the summer of 1971, the town of Marine Hills slept beside the limestone hills that had given it its name, and on the outskirts of the small town lay the Marine Hills Geology Museum. In the 1940’s, Sid Keppleton had laid the foundations for the two-story building with all the love and enthusiasm he had for the ground on which it stood, and he still had that love, although the youthful enthusiasm was gone. Now in his sixties, he could commonly be found in his office trying to make ends meet.
Neither the museum nor the geology dig nearby were ever very popular, but both stayed in business because of the fact that the entire basement of the museum was open to geology students for a moderate annual fee. The Ohio state universities had it on their recommended lists for practice sites, and during the summer the students would trickle in. They would visit the Marine Hills’ dig, root around for interesting bits and pieces of old rock mineral, and then take it back to the museum and practice classification, labeling, and displaying of their finds. Sid, strapped for cash to keep his museum open and knowing that the students could have been him 50 years ago, allowed the students free rein.
The frail, blue-haired old woman who organized the displays for the Marine Hills Geology Museum knew what Sid knew because he had told her, and she agreed with him. A retired school teacher at 72, Jean Actan had the patience born of old age and widowhood. So when the students proudly came to her with their bits and pieces of dated limestone and the rare intact fossil shell (that she had seen a dozen times before), she hid her sigh and arranged the rocks somewhere inside one of the building’s display cases. The only ones who ever really looked at the displays were the classes of young children that were dragged there by their teachers on field trips, so what did it matter if the displays were all rather boring and repetitive?
Some days, Jean wondered why she even bothered to stay in her job. True, she was retired and her home was lonely without her husband to keep her company, but her job was nothing more than to supervise the placement of graduate students’ rocks. Every day she brought her lunch from home, spent her time in the basement or around the display cases on the first and second floor, and then went back home to sit in her small cottage and make her lunch for the next day.
She was, she decided, in a rut, and with the briskness of a born teacher, she set her sights on getting out of it. What she needed was activity, but her options were limited. Sid had hired a friend of his to be the museum janitor, but the tough old man was a veteran of the Vietnam War. Jarod Tatley wasn’t exactly right in the head any more, and Jean knew that he’d be upset if she tried to help him clean, even with the best intentions. He just wouldn’t understand.
The same went for Kevin, Jarod’s younger brother. He had come out of the war with rattled nerves, but the routine of guiding school children around the museum had soothed him into something resembling normal. Jean knew from previous experience that joining him would only make him nervous, however, and she dismissed the idea.
That left helping one of the two security guards, but she wasn’t cut out for that kind of work. No matter what the younger generation of girls was doing, she couldn’t possibly handle a gun! Besides, the night security guard, Brad Herke, was shy to the point of stammering around her despite her age. It made her smile that a 57 year old man wouldn’t meet her eyes, but it made working with him awkward. Sid’s older brother had passed away peacefully in his sleep two years ago, and Rick Shatlin had taken his place as the daytime security guard. At 28, he was the youngest person on the museum staff, but his infectious grin and invitations to family dinners had forestalled any resentment toward him. Still, Jean couldn’t help but feel a pang of grief every time she saw him. Every other male on the staff was a bachelor, but he was married, and the gold band on his finger reminded her of what she had lost…
Jean sighed as she spotted another university student waiting to pounce on her with his collection of rocks. “Maybe I’ll make a special display this week,” she muttered, smiling as the young man started in her direction.
* * * * *
When friends and family were asked to describe Kimi Timberdad, they usually laughed and said she was very ‘modern.’ The word commonly used by everyone else was ‘obsessed.’
It wasn’t that Kimi hadn’t tried to be normal. Her mother had wanted her to be a nurse, after all, so she had originally gone off to college with that in mind. When she had gotten to college, however, she had discovered the true love of her life. She couldn’t have told anyone why she had chosen to take the class, but she had walked into Geology 101 at 9 AM one Monday morning and was bedazzled. At 19, Kimi had fallen for the wonderful world of…rocks. Despite the fact that the department was dominated by men who frowned at the sight of a woman raising her hand in their classes, Kimi was going to major in geology, and she couldn’t stop talking about it for a minute.
Her parents were somewhat baffled by their daughter’s choice, but the constant barrage of ‘One Thousand And One Things Kimi Loves About Rocks’ that happened whenever she opened her mouth convinced them that nothing short of a landslide was going to change her mind on the subject. And even then she’d probably try to tell them what rocks had fallen on her and why erosion and gravity had caused the landslide.
So her mother had transferred her hopes for nursing to her youngest daughter, and Kimi’s father had looked at her straight-A science grades and paid the annual fee to the Marine Hills Geology Museum, where she quickly became a recognizable feature in the basement. Sid tended to treat her like the daughter he’d never had instead of another student, but she found that attitude preferable to the contempt most of her professors directed toward her.
But as the sun began to set behind the Marine Hills, other people’s attitudes were the last thing on Kimi Timberdad’s mind. She was at the Marine Hills dig surrounded by ROCKS. The knees of her overalls were ragged from shifting around on the ground, her nails had grit underneath them, and she had dusty streaks on her face from where she’d wiped the sweat away with dirty shirt sleeves, but she was in her element. The box beside her had two prime samples of fossiliferous limestone that she was going to take home and add to her personal collection, but at the moment she was more interested in the ultra-thin layer of shale at her fingertips.
Shale? Hmm…the huge limestone deposit underneath Ohio was an indication of the shallow tropical sea that had covered the area in the past. Marine lifeforms had died and become part of the sediment on the sea floor, resulting in beautifully preserved fossil shells like the ones she had already pried out of the ground today. Slate was the result of deeper water than what limestone came from because of the lack of oxygen in the water. Well, technically slate could form in any depth of water that lacked oxygen. But, really, what would cause an anoxic shallow sea? The only thing Kimi could think of that could possibly have caused the oxygen in a tropical sea to sudden disappear came from an educational program she had seen on TV, and the very thought made her giggle.
Yeah, you know all those explosions they had 4 million years ago. You have to keep an eye out for fish with arsenals.
Still smiling from the idea, Kimi, carefully broke off a hand-sized piece of the shale with her rock hammer and weighed it in her hand. Odd…it was heavier that it should be for such a thin layer…and what was that glint in it? The dark stone had a funny sheen to it that wasn’t natural, and she frowned as she studied it with her hand lens. Were there flecks of mica in it? But this was the wrong type of rock for that. What could it possibly be?
Kimi looked up suddenly, the back of her neck crawling. “Hello?” The hillside was quiet; no one answered her tentative call. The sun was barely visible above the horizon now, and the woman shivered, feeling inexplicably nervous. “Hello?” she called again. She could have sworn that someone was watching her.
After a long minute of waiting, however, she turned her attention back to the rock in her hands. “Unnaturally heavy, with a metallic sheen and sharp edges.” She rubbed her forefinger and thumb together, ruefully reminding herself to be more careful when grabbing rock samples. There was nice little cut on her thumb. “I’d say you’re gabbro,” she scolded the rock, “except that you’re in the wrong area. So what are you?” Flipping the rock over, she studied the edge that had caught her finger.
The hair on the back of her neck was rising again, but she resisted the urge to look around again. The hillside was silent, the light was fading, and there was something wrong with this rock. If someone was watching her, they could watch her look at the rock.
Her frown returned with a vengeance, and she let out a sharp cry of rage as she licked her fingertip and used it to rub at the dusty surface. Green glass winked at her, catching the last light of the sun, and her anger drove her unease into the back of her mind. “Those—those IDIOTS!” she snarled, her face going red with anger. “They tricked me! Trash!” She threw the fake stone to the ground, where it glittered as if it were mocking her. “Metal and glass! Morons! Jerks!”
She didn’t know how the other students had known she’d be working here today, or how they’d managed to bury the fake stone so convincingly. Heck, she didn’t even know how they’d managed to make a bunch of trash look so much like shale, but she wouldn’t put it past them to do it just to irritate her. They probably were waiting for her to burst into the Geology Museum with her ‘find,’ waiting to laugh when they revealed that they’d planted the so-called rock.
“Oooooh, when I get my HANDS on them!” Kimi hissed, picking up her tools and tossing them into her box. Then she promptly took them back out and put them away with the care they deserved. Just because a bunch of chauvinistic males had played a prank on her was no excuse to mistreat anything. “Idiots,” she muttered once more as she picked up the box. “Don’t they have better things to do with their time?”
…wait a minute. If they had set this up, would they have stayed around to watch her?
Her nervousness returned full-force, and she clutched the box to her chest defensively as she glanced up the hillside. The spot between her shoulder blades was crawling, burning with intensity of someone’s gaze. Oh, God, they wouldn’t do anything else to her, would they? What if they got mad that she hadn’t fallen for their trick completely? They…they wouldn’t hurt her..?
Her eyes returned to the dark rock on the ground, practically invisible in the growing darkness. Green glass winked at her, and she found herself reaching down to pick it up before she could think. “They can’t scare me,” she forced out, trying to calm her breathing. “You can’t scare me!” she shouted at the shadows. They seemed to spread as she watched, and she shuddered. “You hear me, boys? I’m not afraid!” But her voice was shaking, and she could hear it quaver when it echoed back to her.
There was a sound, just a tiny sound, and her eyes widened as she realized that the entire hillside was completely silent except for that breathy murmur. No birds chirped, no small animals made a sound, nothing. Everything was being swallowed by the approaching night, and she gulped as the voice that wasn’t a voice teased at the edge of her hearing, not quite there enough to listen to the words. She would have blamed the wind rustling through the leaves…except that there wasn’t any wind. The hillside was frozen in ominous silence broken only by the irregular, quiet rasp, and Kimi stared up the slope as the shadows crept toward her as slowly as a stalking cat.
She took a step back, looked at the metal ‘rock’ in her hand, and hesitated. Maybe if she showed it to Jean or Sid, they might do something about the other students harassing her. Maybe if she took it with her, whoever was on the hill with her might leave her alone. Maybe if she left right now, she’d be able to hear something besides the pounding of her heart in her ears.
Kimi took her time putting the fake rock into her box, making her movements dignified instead of hasty. She wouldn’t show any fear to the stupid college guys who were trying to frighten her, nope, not her. Turning on her heel, she marched down the hill toward where she’d left the beat-up old Chevy truck her dad had let her borrow for the day. She could feel the eyes on her back, but she kept her shoulders straight and her head up as she walked. The glass embedded in the fake shale turned and scattered the little light there was as her steps grew more unsteady, and she found herself watching it, trying to convince herself that she was just being paranoid and failing.
She was watching the ‘rock’, not the ground, when she stepped in the hole. “YEEEEEAAGH!” Kimi screamed as she tripped, sending her box tumbling and twisting her ankle. Her tools and the two limestone samples scattered into the darkness, but the young woman curled around her ankle, tears of fear and pain streaming down her face as she prodded at the sore joint. “Oh God, oh sweet, merciful Jesus, why is this happening to me? Why?” she cried softly, her frightened panting making it sound like she was sobbing when she gave up on her ankle and dragged herself to her box. She could barely make its rough wooden sides out against the night, but she grabbed it and desperately groped for her things. There was her hammer, and that felt like her chisel, and the fake rock had just given her another cut on her palm, and oh God but that didn’t look like just a shadow back there, it was too dark to be just a shadow!
When had it gotten so dark? Was she just being paranoid? But there was someone out there, she could hear him whispering so low that her heart was drowning him out, but what was he doing? Why wasn’t he helping her? What was happening?
Staggering to her feet, Kimi left the rest of her things on the ground and hugged the box to her chest. She could come back in the morning and get the rest, but she had to get out of here NOW. It hurt to walk, but she limped as fast as she could, shying away from shadows that were too dark to just be the normal night’s gloom. The truck, she’d be safe if she just got to the truck—and she was never, EVER staying in the Marine Hills until dark again—and the truck was right there, she’d be safe now…
Kimi threw the box into the bed of the pick-up and jerked the driver’s side door open quickly, hauling herself into the truck. She slammed the door behind her and locked it, then leaned over and locked the passenger side door, too. Shaking, knuckles white as she clenched her hands on the steering wheel, the young woman stared out the window at the darkness outside. She didn’t see anything, but she could still feel those eyes out there, watching her, waiting…waiting for something. The back of her neck was crawling and the sides of her overalls were wet with sweat. She probably looked a mess, but she didn’t reach for the rearview mirror to check because the fear suddenly gripped her, shook her, choked her—
--the fear that if she looked into the rearview mirror, she’d see someone behind her, in the bed of the pick-up.
Instead, she freed one hand from the wheel to turn the key in the ignition…only to have her fingers close on air where there should have been a key. Her stomach rose, then plunged violently. No, no, no! There had to be a reasonable explanation for the missing key! Kimi clenched her eyes closed, fighting her fear and the pain from her throbbing ankle. She had to think, had to remember what she’d done with the key, except that her heart was beating so fast she felt faint and she couldn’t think, couldn’t remember. Oh God, she hadn’t put the key in her box, had she? It could be anywhere on the hillside now, or in the bed of the pick-up, and either way she’d have to get out into the night again, have to face those eyes that were burning a hole into her. Please don’t make her turn around and look into the bed of the truck, please God, please!
Tears were squeezing out from underneath her eyelids, mixing with the sweat from her forehead and merging with the blood from where she’d bitten through her lip. Sobbing with panic, she banged her head against the steering wheel. The key! Think! Where was it?! Her mind flashed back to when she’d left the house, key in hand, driven to the Geology Museum to say hello to Sid, and then driven out here to the Marine Hills. She’d been looking for fossils to add to her collection, and she’d been thinking about them as she’d gotten out of the truck and PUT THE KEY--!
Kimi shoved her hand underneath herself, fingers wriggling frantically until she felt something cool and hard with her pinkie. She grabbed it with the relief a falling climber grabs a rope with.
A moment later the pick-up roared to life, and her ankle protested as she pressed the gas pedal. Her heart immediately began to slow down as the truck’s headlights picked up the road ahead. It was over, and she could calm down. She even managed to laugh a little at herself. Seeing people in shadows! It had probably just been the other college students, if anyone at all. Chuckling, Kimi shook her head and concentrated on driving. Nineteen years old and still seeing the monster in the closet. How silly!
It only took twenty minutes of self-directed laughter before she dared look in the rear view mirror. She didn’t see anything. “See?” she whispered to herself. “No one’s there. I’m just tired, and it’s dark out, that’s all.”
It was the sensible, reasonable answer. So why didn’t she believe it?
* * * * *
It was the third time today that she’d had to deal with a student bringing her something like this. “It’s not a rock,” Jean patiently explained to the baffled first-semester geology student. She got their type all the time; out for the extra credit hours and a display in the museum, but lacking the experience and interest to pull it off. “It’s a chunk of plastic, probably from the landfill. You need to read your textbook.” She smiled to take the sting out of the words.
The kid grinned back, ashamed. “Yeah, well…yeah. I’ll work on it. But, ya know, um, why isn’t it a rock?” He took the hunk of dirt-covered plastic back and rapped it with his knuckles. “I mean, it’s hard, ain’t it?”
“ISN’T it. Proper English, please.” Jean reflected that sometimes questions never changed. Third time today that she’d explained this, too. “It’s in your textbook,” she said instead of answering directly. “Just look it up.”
“Aw, maaaaaan...” He heaved a sigh and trudged off, plastic in hand, and Jean could only smile after him. Dealing with his kind was frustrating, yet somehow endearing.
And then there were the ones like a breath of fresh air in this stale old museum. “How are you today, Ki—what happened to your foot?!” Jean gasped as she turned around. It had taken her a while to get used to the idea of a girl like Kimi wearing men’s trousers, but she had adjusted to the new generation’s ideas fairly quickly. Now it was the sight of the splint strapped around the lower leg of Kimi’s overalls that shocked her. “Oh, you poor dear. Sit down, sit down!”
Kimi let herself be guided into the nearest chair, smiling up at the older woman gratefully. “I was out at the hills yesterday and slipped in the dark,” she explained, rubbing at her leg with her free hand. “I stepped in a hole and twisted my foot something awful.”
“What in Heaven’s name were you doing out there in the dark?” Jean fussed. “Girls these days! What is the world coming to? There could be somebody out there just waiting for a young lady to go wandering without anyone around to help.” She noticed the brown paper bag in Kimi’s hand and frowned slightly. “Let me take your lunch, dear. It’ll free your hands up.”
“No!” The young woman blushed when Jean seemed taken aback by her abrupt outburst. “I-I’m sorry. I meant that this isn’t my lunch. This is why I was out late last night.” She upended the bag over her hand and shook out the dark rock, which sparkled under the sunlight streaming in from the museum’s tall windows. “I thought it could be a layer of shale, but see…” She turned it over to reveal the green glass. “It’s just trash that somebody buried out where I was working. I think it was a group of the other students; you know, the ones who are always bothering me about going home to cook and clean like a good little woman?”
“Can I see it?” Kimi surrendered the fake rock to the old woman, and Jean pulled her reading glasses down on the bridge of her nose so she could look over them. “Well, you’re right. It’s definitely not a rock. Is that metal?”
“I think so.”
“It’s very heavy. Why would they play a prank like this on you? You obviously saw through it right away.” Unlike some of the others, Kimi could spot a rock a mile away.
“I think,” she hesitated and rubbed at her sprained ankle. “I think that they wanted to scare me. There was SOMEONE out there last night, watching me.”
Jean’s brow furrowed, and she looked down at Kimi over the rock she was still holding. “Now, don’t rush your judgment on the other students. It could have been one of the hillbillies. The town’s had problems with them bothering anyone who goes out there.”
“Not for a couple years.”
She nodded and absently ran a finger along the green glass embedded in the ‘rock.’ “I would have thought that they’ve outgrown that sort of thing, but apparently not. Are you okay? Did they frighten you?”
Kimi’s voice lower with embarrassment and remembered fear. “I was so scared…”
“You poor soul.” Jean patted her on the shoulder. “Why don’t you go downstairs and settle into one of the labs before anyone else gets here today?” Kimi grinned happily. That was just the thing to calm her down, and her enthusiasm made the older woman laugh. “Off you go.” A green flash of light made her look down and remember the fake rock in her hand. The glass had caught the sunlight, and it triggered an idea in Jean’s mind. “Oh, and Kimi?”
She had levered herself back onto her feet. “Hmm? Yes, Mz. Actan?”
“Jean, please.” She smiled. “Would you mind if I kept this? I suddenly have an idea for another display.”
“Really?” Kimi glanced at the piece of metal and glass that had caused her so much trouble and suppressed the urge to shiver. “To be honest, I’ll be happy if I never have to see it again. It just reminds me of last night.”
“Well, thank you anyway, dear.”
* * * * *
Sid Keppleton’s office was located on the second story of the Geology Museum, at the end of a short hall. The thick wooden door opened to reveal a tall, curtainless window behind a huge mahogany desk the museum owner had inherited from his father. An equally archaic stained-glass lamp sat on one corner of the aged piece of furniture, but it still had its original light bulbs in it. Sid would explain to anyone who asked why he hardly ever turned it on that he preferred the two fluorescent lights on the ceiling to the lamp. He found the colored shadows it cast to be distracting, but he liked how it looked too much to get rid of it.
Besides, it was an electricity hog, and he had a hard enough time paying the bills for the museum without adding to the cost.
That was, as always, the issue he was wrestling with when Jean stopped in to talk with him. “We really don’t have the funds to do that with,” he told her regretfully when she explained her idea. “It sounds good, but we just don’t have the cash. Is there any way you could make do with what you have already?”
Jean frowned thoughtfully and rearranged her hands in her lap. “The only thing I really need money for is a new glass display case, but I supposed I could move the Riley collection down to the first floor’s cases and use the space up here. Will that be alright with you?”
His brow furrowed as he tapped a pen against his open palm. The Riley collection was one of the truly professional rock collections the museum had. Moving it down to the first floor would probably be a wise move even if the cases weren’t needed. “Why not? In fact, maybe it’s time we did a little house cleaning around here. There are so many student exhibits that we could weed through them for the best ones to keep. How does that sound?”
Jean’s frown turned into a grateful smile. “Sid, that is just what I’ve been meaning to do. Do you want me to look through everything and let you approve what I want to get rid of, or..?”
He waved a hand. “I trust your judgment, Jean! Tell you what.” He leaned forward. “If you have doubts about any of the displays, go ahead and talk to me. It’ll be nice to have a break from all this paperwork.”
“I’ll do that. Do you know if Jarod would be willing to rearrange some of the cases for me? I’m afraid that I’m not as young as I used to be.” She looked down at her frail, veined hands ruefully. “Some of the heavier rocks may give me trouble as well.”
“Ah…age does catch up with all of us.” His smile was sympathetic. Neither of them were as young as they had been once. “I’m sure Jarod will be happy to come in early this week to help you. He usually starts cleaning about a half an hour before we close, but if I ask him to come in a couple hours beforehand, say, around 5 o’clock? Would that work?”
Jean thought for a moment, mentally rearranging the museum in her mind. “I think that will be wonderful,” she said finally. “Can the museum afford it?”
“A janitor’s salary is less than a new glass case.” Or janitorial supplies, but Jean didn’t need to worry about the museum’s finances. They exchanged a few more words of pleasantries before the elderly lady left the office with the holy fire of her profession in her eyes. A retired teacher who still relished teaching was a powerful force, and Sid was glad that Jean was on the museum’s staff. He tried not to think about the guilty fact that he had hired her to be in charge of the displays because she had agreed to the shamefully low salary he had offered. She was a great woman even if she was all the museum could afford.
Sighing, Sid turned back to the bills scattered across the desk. The current batch was his constant worry—janitorial expenses. Jarod was frugal to the point where Sid had to wonder if the man was purchasing toilet paper and hand soap off the black market, but the expenses were as continuous and necessary as the electricity bill. About the only thing Sid could shave off of next month’s bill would be the bi-weekly wax coat that Jarod applied to the floors, but the dark, reflective tiles would soon look dull and worn if he stopped. Something in the museum owner cried out against letting his pride and joy look any more run-down than he had to.
That left Sid searching for other ways to pay the bills, and he sighed again as he paged through the stack. There had to be something…
He twisted around abruptly in his seat, staring out the window at the Marine Hills. They were picturesque in the sunlight of early afternoon, but Sid couldn’t shake the feeling that they hadn’t been the only sight he would have seen if he’d turned around a moment ago. Someone would have been there, behind him--
Frown lines deepened on his face as he turned back to the bills. What an odd thought, really. After all, it was a second story window, and no one could possibly be watching him through it.
* * * * *
Word spread quickly among the few staff members of the museum, and Jean found that Rick and Kevin were willing to help her whenever they could. The daytime security guard could only stop for a few minutes on each of his rounds, but those minutes were often enough that Jean wasn’t delayed by anything for very long. Anything she couldn’t lift, she simply asked Rick to lift for her when he came by, and Kevin always kept an eye on what room she was currently rearranging so he could guide the school tours around it.
The more Jean worked, the more cheerful she became. It was amazing how many memories could be recalled just by looking through thirty years of rock collections! When Jarod came in at 5 PM, he sometimes could find out where she was working just by following the laughter as she remembered the previous years’ groups of students that had worked in the basement and insisted that their work was special and new. Rick might stop and listen in for a while, smiling at the old woman’s stories, but when the janitor arrived he would go back to making rounds.
It wasn’t that he thought that someone would really try and steal something, or that someone was trying to get into the museum without paying, but he was being paid to walk around and make sure that nothing happened. Occasionally a couple school children would tag along with him, asking questions about his gun; had he ever used it, what kind was it, could they see it…
With a warm smile, he’d stop and answer their questions, although he never let them touch his gun. Instead, he’d take it out of its holster at his side and, making sure the safety was on, show it to them. They were always so impressed, and he had to suppress laughter. One of the only things the state government had given to the Geology Museum had been a pair of handguns for the security guards, and while he appreciated not having to buy his own, he knew that Sid would have preferred funding. Still, it wasn’t like Rick had ever used it for more than practice, so he bought his own bullets and spared Sid that expense.
Between the tours and Jean’s work, Rick strolled through the museum lazily, content to watch the sunlight stream through the windows and glitter on the floor and glass display cases. It wasn’t exciting, glamorous work, but between him and his wife’s job at the local bank, they made ends meet. Their little girl was known by practically everyone in town; a precocious seven year old, she ran errands for her mother when she wasn’t in school. It made Rick proud that his little girl had already decided that the Geology Museum was the best place ever, and that she wanted to be a geology teacher when she grew up.
On the third day of Jean’s rearranging, Jarod came in early and Rick continued on his rounds through the museum. There were a couple families here today, bored and curious, but they were on the first floor with Kevin while Rick had decided to take a look at Jean’s new display up on the second floor. It wasn’t impressive or flashy, but he found himself interested as he read over some of the material. He had to grin. Apparently the confusion among the college students had finally gotten to her; the exhibit focused on what made a rock a rock. The text was in bright colors posted above examples of what were NOT rocks: chunks of plastic, clods of dirt, bricks, and one dark, flat piece of metal with some green glass embedded in it that would have fooled him if it hadn’t been labeled as fake.
Now, the question was if any of the college students would bother to look at her display before coming to her with their so-called rocks…
Rick laughed out loud at the thought, then cut himself off with a quick glance around. Had he heard someone else laughing at him? He didn’t want to look like an idiot, laughing at nothing, but there was no one else in the room with him. The second floor wasn’t divided up into smaller rooms like the first floor. Except for Sid’s office, it was just one open space with glass cases along the walls and in the center. Nowhere for anyone to hide—
--unless they were behind one of the cases. But that was ridiculous! He had probably just heard someone laughing downstairs. That would explain why it had been so soft. He had barely been able to hear it. Strange how quickly he had leaped to conclusions about the person laughing AT him, though. The laughter had seemed so…cruel—no, that didn’t make any sense at all. He was just hearing something from downstairs. Why would anyone be up here laughing at him, anyway?
He shook his head and muttered to himself, but he walked around the room casually, telling himself that he really wasn’t looking behind the display cases. He really wasn’t.
A sudden scream of terror sent him running for the stairs, however, puzzlement forgotten as he took the steps two at a time with one hand on the railing and the other unclipping the holster flap keeping his gun safely at his side. He didn’t have it drawn when he stopped on the last step, but his fingers were curled around it. Its cold metal gave him a sense of authority, and he stepped out of the stairwell’s doorway as calmly as if the situation were already under control.
Kevin was talking with a man who was holding a frightened little boy in his arms. Someone who was probably the man’s wife was fluttering around him, trying to sooth the crying child, and the others in the room were clustered beside them. Jean and Jarod entered the room from the other side as Rick strode toward the group.
“What happened?” he asked briskly, trying to project the image of a security guard who could handle anything.
“Is anyone hurt?” Jean asked at the same time, eyes on the sobbing boy.
The boy’s father seemed slightly embarrassed, but he covered it by being gruffly polite. “Oh, no ma’am. Everyone’s fine.” He patted his son’s back and looked over at Rick. “Sorry to bother you all, but Bill saw something that scared him. You know how kids are…”
Kevin was frowning. “He said he saw—how did he put it?” He gave the man a puzzled look. “A monster in the floor?” He shook his head and smiled at the little boy, who immediately burrowed his face into his father’s shoulder. “We don’t have any monsters in the floor around here, Bill. Jarod here would mop them right up!” The janitor touched a few fingers to his forehead in salute, but the boy didn’t look up.
Rick clipped his holster again as unobtrusively as he could. “Well, I think we’ve scared away any monsters that could be around here, in any case. How about everyone head up to the second floor and we take a look at the gemstone collections?” They were poor quality gemstones, but they had enough sparkle in them to distract little kids. From the way the poor tyke had screeched, distraction was needed! “I’ll make sure that there’ll be no monsters upstairs,” he added when Bill peeked at him through the fistful of his dad’s shirt he held. “See?” He patted his pistol holster. “No monster’s gonna get in the floors on MY watch.”
The other family had already moved on at the promise of gemstones, and Kevin had excused himself quietly to go with them. Jarod was looking at the floor quizzically as Rick and Jean coaxed the little boy into calming down, aided by his mother and father. Nobody gave the janitor any thought as they headed for the staircase.
By that time Bill had insisted on his dad setting him back on his feet. He only looked to be about five years old, but he looked older when he gave Rick a stubborn scowl. “Wasn’t a mo’ster in the floor.”
He smiled back at the child. “I know there wasn’t a monster, Bill.”
“No!” The boy stomped his foot on the step he was standing on. “No! WAS a mo’ster.”
Rick and the boy’s father gave each other long-suffering looks. “Where was he?” Bill’s dad sighed.
Bill grabbed his mother’s skirt and hid himself in the folds. “Lookin’ over me,” his voice said from among the fabric.
They thought that over. “Was someone standing behind him?” Rick asked in a low voice. “He probably just saw their reflection looking over his shoulder, then. Jarod keeps the tiles clean enough.”
The other man shook his head. “We was all on the other side of the case. He’s a good kid, most the time. Just imagining things, I guess.”
“Maybe he just wanted attention,” Rick suggested, well versed in the stunts kids pulled to get attention. His daughter had done similar things.
* * * * *
The man stared at the ceiling.
He listened to the sounds of feet moving around above his head. It was a safe, secure sound that should have soothed him, but he was troubled. Jarod knew that he wasn’t quite right anymore. He didn’t need a doctor to tell him that he didn’t react the same as everyone else, and he knew that there was something wrong with how he thought on some days. He couldn’t do anything about it, though, so he had stopped getting upset about the bizarre things that happened in his head. He tried his best to work around it. Most of the time, he could. The routine of cleaning the museum kept him on track during the times that he knew his mind was a little off.
But he had been coming in early, breaking the routine, to help Jean, and as he listened to the sound of people moving on the second floor, he also thought about himself. It didn’t SEEM like anything was wrong today. He was seeing clearly, with no quick flashes of memory at the edges of his vision. He hadn’t mistaken the bushes outside for jungle when he looked out the windows. He heard footsteps clearly, but he knew that they were from upstairs, not from the enemy sneaking up through the underbrush. There weren’t any of the usual symptoms that signaled his past creeping into the present, but obviously something was wrong with him today.
Well, no reason to get upset over it. He knew it wasn’t a normal reaction, but really, he was used to seeing things. A thought struggled through his brain, trying to link this to what had just happened with the little boy, and Jarod waited patiently. He only shrugged when the thought became bogged down; he was used to that, too, and it would come to him when it came to him. He might as well sweep while he was waiting.
Jarod gave the floor one last look before he walked toward the broom closet, and his brow knit with a mild look of confusion. It was funny that he didn’t remember seeing anything like that in Vietnam, but who knew what his subconscious was digging up…
The janitor turned away. A moment later, the reflection faded, leaving only sunlight shining on the dark tile.
* * * * *
Sunset could be seen outside the west windows. The families had left earlier, but Jarod had started cleaning already. Jean knew that bothering him to help her for a while longer would only make him nervous, so she decided to work on her own. Most of the heavy lifting had been finished before the little boy’s scream had interrupted them, in any case. Kevin and Rick had stopped in Sid’s office to chat and talk about the commotion, but she didn’t want to dwell on it. A child getting scared by a monster in the tiles? She had heard of weirder things in her years as a teacher, but she had to admit that she couldn’t name one at the moment.
The elderly lady leaned over one of the empty glass cases she was working on and tried to shine the bottom corner. Oh, her back was going to hate her in the morning! Maybe she should get one of the college students to do this for her…no, they were all busy working in the basement. Not nearly as many as usual, however; there had been complaints of some of the students playing pranks on the others after dark. No names had been named, and nobody had been hurt thankfully, but the poor victims of the pranks had been rattled. Apparently nothing worse than some tricks with lights and suspicious noises had been happening, but as Kimi had pointed out, after dark in that old basement, when the lights start flickering and it feels like someone’s breathing down your neck…
Jean shivered sympathetically. Yes, she could understand why the students had begun to leave before dark. The museum was only thirty years old, but down in the basement it felt like a hundred years had passed. Jarod tried to keep everything clean, but the students kept hauling in more dirt. It made the place looked aged when there was a fine layer of dust everywhere. That, plus the unsteady fluorescent lights, made the place seem gloomy when the sun set and there wasn’t any light coming in through the narrow windows set high in the walls.
The last of the streaks disappeared, and Jean straightened up with a pained groan. Her back was hating her NOW. Well, just one more corner, and then she could start putting the Gainstal collection into it. Lovely geodes. A stunning example of crystal colors. Mr. Gainstal had been such a nice man to donate them.
Still thinking about geodes and Mr. Gainstal, Jean gave the sunset an appreciative glance before turning her back to it and bending over the display case with her rag. Years’ worth of dust was stubbornly wedged in the corner, and she had to twist uncomfortably to dig at it. “Come out, you devil’s own dust bunny,” she demanded under her breath. She tossed her head to get the hair not caught in her bun out of her face, and her glasses came loose and fell to the bottom of the case. “Bother!” she huffed, freeing one hand to reach for the offending lenses.
--and she froze, her hand resting on her glasses and eyes wide as she stared at the pane of glass in front of her eyes. Made faintly mirror-like by the light of the setting sun at her back, it faithfully reflected the window, her frightened eyes, and what was between the two. Without her reading glasses, she couldn’t make out details. The part of her not trying to curl up and tremble with fear was glad for that favor.
Her neck cracked, protesting the painful angle she twisted it into as she flung up her head. Her back would never forgive the way she turned, still bent over, to confront…the window.
Jean squinted, blinked, then squinted again. Slowly, knees going weak with relief, she straightened up and started to laugh. Her giggles were almost hysterical, but she clamped her bottom lip between her teeth until she couldn’t hear the shrill edge to her voice any longer.
The noise lured Jarod into looking into the room. “Everything alright, Mz. Actan?” he asked, looking around with a slight air of puzzlement for why she’d be standing in front of an empty display case and laughing her head off.
Her hand only shook a little when she waved it at him. “I thought for a minute I was seeing Bill’s monster!” she told him with a smile. “Imagine that! Seeing monsters at MY age!”
The self-deprecating words brought a grin to the janitor’s face, but the tiniest bit of confusion lingered. He gave the room a closer look even as he grinned. “Ya got to watch out for them rock monsters,” he said, and Jean smothered another giggle. “Do you want me to take care of the rest of them cases?” he asked, nodding at the rag Jean had abandoned in the display case.
She hesitated. “Would you? I want to go talk with Sid about the lighting down in the basement, but this needs to get done…”
“Not a problem, ma’am,” Jarod assured her. Starting early had left him with free time, and he knew what her back was like. Better that he work on it than the poor woman.
“Jean,” she corrected. “You’ve known me for years, Jarod, and it’s far too formal of you to keep calling me ‘Mz. Actan’ all the time.”
He ducked his head and blushed. “Uh, well, yeah, I guess. Jus’ seemed impolite.”
Jean shook her head at him, then winced and touched a hand to the back of her neck. She was going to hurt even worse in the morning, but right now it was quite painful enough. “Then I’ll leave you to it, I suppose,” she said with cheerfulness forced against the twinge of pain.
“Don’t forget your glasses,” Jarod told her, spotting her spectacles inside the display case.
“Oh, thank you.” She had completely forgotten about them! Jean scolded herself for the lapse in memory as she picked them up and started to put them back on. “You know how much trouble I have reading without thes—“ Her words cut off as her breath caught in her chest.
Jarod hadn’t noticed the lapse. He had turned around to retrieve the broom he’d left leaning against the wall. “Wouldn’t want you to lose them, right?”
Jean swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry with fear as she stared helplessly at what was reflected in the lenses held only inches from her eyes. God help her--hadn’t Jarod seen? How could he have not seen?
It was right behind her!
The janitor gave her a quick smile, but his dustpan fell with a clatter before he could turn around fully. “Right, Jean?”
Her hand was so unsteady she almost poked herself in the eye as she lowered her arm to her side, glasses clutched in a death grip. “Right.” Did that voice belong to her? Surely not. It wasn’t shaking like the rest of her was. “I’ll just go talk to Sid, now.” The smile was automatic as he moved out of the doorway to let her through. “Thank you, Jarod.”
Jarod nodded. “Not a problem,” he repeated. A thought struggled to form as he headed for the glass case Jean had been cleaning. Something about the little boy and Jean. Something important.
Ah, well. If it was important, it’d come up later.
* * * * *
Jean was surprised and glad when she opened the door to Sid’s office to find the room bathed in colored light. Surprised because Sid rarely turned on the stained-glass lamp on his desk; glad because he wouldn’t notice how pale she was with so many colors on her.
“Jean!” Sid gestured at the seat across from him. “Sit, sit. You’ve been working all day.”
“Thank you,” she murmured, sinking into the comfortable padding. She managed to control her weak knees enough that it didn’t look like a collapse, but she could feel the question in Sid’s eyes. “I think I’ve been working too hard, Sid. I’d like to go home early, but I still need to close up the basement—“
“Kevin and Rick can take care of that before they leave,” Sid interrupted her. He knew what old age was doing to him, and he didn’t like the look on Jean’s face. Maybe it was just overwork, but he was concerned about her. “You go ahead and get on home, Jean. Take a couple days off if you need it. I’m not in any hurry to get the displays done.”
She started to protest out of habit, but then she just nodded. “I think…I might do that, Sid.”
That more than anything confirmed his worrying. Jean had dedication, and if she was tired enough to miss a few days, then she needed those days. “Go home, Jean,” he said kindly.
A shaky smile answered him. “Thank you, Sid.”
* * * * *
“You’d think no one swept down here, what with all this dust,” Rick called up the stairs to Kevin.
The older man chuckled as he tromped downward to join the day shift guard. “Don’t say that to Jarod, or he’ll spend all of tomorrow trying to chase the college kids off so he can mop.”
“Yeah, he probably would. So, you want to take that hall or this one?”
“I’ll take the one on the right. They’re both the same, anyway.”
“Nah. There’s a bathroom on this side.”
Kevin rolled his eyes. “Huge difference there.”
“With college kids, bathrooms can make all the difference.”
The two men split apart, going down their chosen halls to check the storage rooms and labs on either side for lingering students to kick out. The first three rooms only confirmed Rick’s amused opinion on the college kids who hung around during the day; drawers had been left pulled open, the lights were on, and trash from bag lunches were laying on the counters. With an exasperated sigh, he cleaned up the mess and turned off the lights. In the next room, he turned on the lights to find that one of them had burned out, and he made a mental note to tell Jarod. The old fluorescent lights were unreliable but cheaper than installing more modern lighting.
When he had closed the door to that room behind him, he paused. The hall was silent, the only motion around coming from a dying bulb that sputtered erratically. He couldn’t even hear Kevin’s footsteps. It seemed like the old basement absorbed the sounds of his own footsteps until he walked in an ominous quiet that oozed around him. A shiver ran up his spine with cold feet.
He stopped at the next door and looked down at his right hand. Somehow it had crept up and was playing with the flap of his gun holster. He stiffened his resolve and forced it away to close around the door handle instead. The students’ prank war was starting to get on his nerves, too. He had started patrolling down here more often, keeping an eye on the kids, and there were times like this, when the shadows seemed deeper than they should be…
Stupid kids with their stupid pranks.
The door jerked open with a savage twist of his hand, and Rick stomped in. His hand fumbled in the dark until he found the light switch, and he groaned when he could see. Somebody had been very eager to leave tonight. Rock samples were scattered on the tables, and it looked like a glass something or other had been dropped on the floor and not cleaned up. He didn’t know what it was, but he could probably be safe in assuming that it had been the museum’s property.
Grumbling about how college was supposed to make them more mature, not less, Rick got to work. Glass crunched as he carefully placed the shards in a nearby wastebasket, and he almost reacted. Almost. But he restrained himself and kept picking up as if he hadn’t heard the soft laughter underneath the glass crashing. That same God damned mocking laughter he’d earlier. So it hadn’t been his imagination after all. It must have been some college brat all along, and now the idiot was hiding in the basement. Heck, he’d probably made the mess here and was laughing at Rick for having to clean it up. Well, this time he’d catch the fool. Nobody was going to laugh at HIM.
He straightened up and casually put the trashcan back in its corner. The laughter had quieted when the glass had ceased to cover it, so soft that Rick had to strain to hear it. It hovered at the edge of his hearing, but he could tell where it was coming from. Out in the hall. He’d follow that cruel sound, hunt it down, make the little snot pay for messing with the museum. Make him pay for putting him on edge like this.
Rick found that his hand had a firm grip on his pistol, and this time he shrugged. Why not? It’d serve the kid right to get the crap scared out of him, and having a security guard waving a gun under his nose would certainly do that. Slowly, making sure that the sound wouldn’t carry to the kid out in the hall, he unclipped the flap of his holster and drew out his handgun. Just as slowly, he eased over to the door and pressed against the wall next to it.
“Here I come,” he breathed.
He could have sworn the laughter got louder…and more sinister.
* * * * *
Kevin wasn’t sure what to make of what he was seeing. He knew he got nervous easily, though, so he took a deep breath and told himself to calm down. It was just dust. Between the students and the unsteady lights, of course he what he was seeing didn’t make sense. Maybe a draft had gone down the hall and played around with the footsteps left behind by the students? No, he’d seen too many things just like this during the War. The marks were faint, but there. Not this small, and certainly not inside a building before, but it was too perfect to be an accident or even a prank.
Therefore, it couldn’t be real. Couldn’t POSSIBLY be real.
His nerves tingled anxiously despite what he told them, however, and Kevin ended up pressed against the wall of the hallway. It was logically impossible, but his nerves rarely listened to logic. They had been trained in Vietnam, and they knew that sometimes logic didn’t matter when you were trying to stay alive. He had seen what those machines did, and he had no wish to end up like some of his buddies. Friendly fire wasn’t…
But who in God’s name would be able to fit a tank in the basement?!
As quietly as he could, he slid out of his shoes and socks. He left them on the floor, rolled up his slacks so they wouldn’t catch on his heels, and moved down the hall on bare feet that made no sound. The tracks rolled ahead, and he had to wonder why no one had heard it. Someone would have said something if they had, and Sid hadn’t mentioned anything like this to him.
Up ahead, the tracks turned ponderously toward one of the doors lining the hall. They turned…and disappeared. It couldn’t be real. He HAD to be seeing things. There was no way a tank could backtrack perfectly in its own tracks, and tanks, even tanks that couldn’t logically exist in the first place, didn’t just disappear. He opened the door cautiously despite the part of him that insisted he was getting worked up over nothing. Nothing but the dim light from the moon lit the lab, and shades had been pulled on most of the windows. Somehow the scarce light made the room even creepier than if it had been well lit.
Unease skittered along his nerves. Forcing himself to a semblance of calm, he examined the floor and found nothing but an unbroken expanse of dusty tile that dulled the moonlight. Not a student’s shoe had left a mark on the floor. For all Kevin knew, the room had never been used.
But he peered into the shadows suspiciously, looking for…what? Who could be in here without leaving a sign on the floor? The dust was ever-present in the basement, but it settled when the students left at night. In theory, someone could have stayed and waited here in this room, waiting for the door to open…waiting in the shadows…
With a snort at his own stupidity, Kevin flicked the lightswitch, flooding the room with artificial light that banished the shadows to the corners. He gave the place another look and shook his head. Nerves, that was all. His older brother had warned him that sometimes he might see things that weren’t really there, and wouldn’t Jarod know? He turned the lights out and dragged the door after him as he turned to go back into the hall, giving the room one last glance as he went.
His nerves caught fire.
His eyes took a moment to adjust to the dark again, but they stood out starkly even in the dim moonlight from the windows. They hadn’t been there a minute ago. There was no way he could have missed them. He had been looking RIGHT AT the floor, and the dust hadn’t been disturbed. The draft from closing the door couldn’t have caused them, he hadn’t caused them, but there they were.
Two footprints. Right in the middle of the room.
Massive, inhuman. Monstrous.
Kevin tried to pretend that his hand wasn’t shaking as he turned on the lights again. When his vision cleared, he stared at the floor. The dust wasn’t as obvious as it was under moonlight alone, but it was visible.
There was nothing there.
He felt sick as he turned the lights off. His vision adjusted. He clenched his teeth against a scream.
Three footprints. It had taken a step toward the door. A giant stride with a monster’s huge feet.
The lights came on. Nothing. Deep breath. Off again.
Kevin slammed the door closed and ran for the stairs.
* * * * *
He rolled along the wall and out into the hallway, arms extending until his gun pointed along the hall. “Freeze, punk!” Rick snarled as he aimed—at no one? “What in the--?!”
Someone made a break across the end of the hall, heading for the staircase.
Rick cursed and pelted after him, fury at his own fear filling his vision with red. When he caught that little brat, he was going to beat the living shit out of him! “Get back here!” he roared, holding his gun ready as he ran. “I’m gonna kill you!”
He skidded to a stop at the bottom of the steps and aimed for the door at the top. The kid had closed it behind him, but that wasn’t going to stop him, oh no. He took the stairs at a run and tried the knob. Locked. He pounded on the wood with the hilt of his pistol. “Open the door!” Baring his teeth in a feral smile, he stood on the next step down and pointing the gun at the lock. “Open it, or I’m gonna shoot it out and tear your—“
The voice was muffled by the door, but Rick blanched. His trigger finger loosed with a spasm, and he felt his gut wrench with terror as he realized how close he had been to shooting the door—and the man standing on the other side of it. Hastily flipping the safety on, he had his pistol back in its holster by the time Kevin had the door unlocked.
“Why the heck did you lock me down there?!” he demanded, hoping the anger would cover up his subtle reclipping of the holster’s flap. “Was that YOU laughing at me the whole time?”
Kevin shut the door again quickly and shook his head. “What are you talking about? Laughing? All I know is that someone was shouting that they were gonna kill me, and I saw—“
“That was me shouting, and it wasn’t at you,” Rick interrupted, and he ran a hand through his sweat-damp hair impatiently. “There’s some damn kid running around down there. I heard him earlier, and he left a mess in one of the rooms. I don’t know how he got past me, but he’s got to be down there still.” The last words were said in almost a growl, and the security guard turned to pace a few steps. “I’ll tell Brad he’s down there and have him hold the brat until morning. It shouldn’t be that hard to find him now that we know he’s down there.”
The older man started to open his mouth to describe what he’d seen, but he couldn’t do it. He knew his mind hadn’t coped with the War very well, but he hadn’t thought he was as bad as his older brother. It wasn’t that unlikely that he was, though. He’d just have to learn to deal with it.
And he’d ask Jarod to start sweeping the basement more often. He’d tell him that his sinuses were having trouble with the dust down there.
Yeah. That sounded good.
* * * * *
Enough was enough.
Sid slid his chair back from the desk and gave the bills scattered before him a bitter look. He wouldn’t let them close his museum. He’d sell his belongings, first.
His eye caught on one of those belongings that he’d be happy to sell. As much as he liked how the stained-glass lamp looked, trying to read by its light had given him a headache that only made his mood worse. Of all the days for the ceiling light to burn out, it had to be this one. He gave the useless fluorescent light a betrayed look. Jarod was out of fluorescent tubes, but he’d promised to get some more by the end of the week.
That left him trying to read bills by colored light, and Sid had decided that he’d had enough for tonight. It had been a stressful day, what with the little boy making a scene, the bills, and the lights. He was ready to go home.
Reaching for his suit coat, he turned off the lamp and immediately realized his mistake as he opened the desk drawer to get his keys. The moonlight coming in through the huge window behind him wasn’t enough to see into the drawer. He didn’t really want to turn on that darn lamp again, so he tried to rummage around blindly. When that didn’t work, he got the bright idea to get out of his seat and stop blocking the moonlight. It worked. A glint of metal guided his hand, and his fingers closed around his keys.
Then the cool white light was replaced by the dark of night again.
He thought absently that a cloud must have passed over the moon, but as he shrugged into his suit coat he looked out the window. A night sky full of stars and a half-full moon met his eyes. Not a cloud in sight.
Not really thinking about it, he started to walk around his desk, heading for the door. There was enough moonlight that he could get there without turning on that accursed lamp. He paused with his hand on the doorknob, brow furrowing with thought. Lamp, lamp, what was it he had to remember about the lamp…ah! Electric bill! He had to drop it off at the post office in the morning! It should be the top paper on his desk, so no problem—
He took one step back toward the desk and frowned. The window showed a clear sky, but his desk was in shadow. He took another step, and his frown deepened. There was plenty of moonlight in the rest of the room, so why..?
Keeping his stride steady, he walked to his desk and fumbled for the top paper. In the end, he just grabbed the whole stack. He could sort it out when he got home. It wasn’t the first time he’d brought paperwork home—but he was trying not to think about how dark the room was, wasn’t he? It was strange, and he’d had a stressful day, and it was time to go before something weird happened.
Sid looked between his desk and the moon one last time, shaking his head with confusion, before he turned around. A half-formed thought made him look down at the carpet.
His desk wasn’t the only thing in shadow.
Papers slid from slack hands, and his heart pounded in a suddenly tight chest. His shoulders hunched as fear made the blood drain from his head so fast he felt dizzy. He cast a look over his shoulder that was so fast it was almost a convulsion, but it confirmed what he had seen earlier. There was no one there, blocking the moonlight. Eyes wild, he snapped his head back around to stare at the form silhouetted by pale white light.
Nothing moved. Not Sid, frozen with the terror a mouse feels before a cat. Not the shadow on the carpet. Ever so slowly, however, the hands the man held so tensely at his side began to shiver. Ever so slowly, as his gibbering mind took it all in. It was huge, monstrous. He couldn’t see what its legs were like, but he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to see if that misshapen torso walked on two legs like a man.
And ever so slowly, even as it shook, his hand was reaching for the lamp at his elbow.
It was his imagination. Just a shadow. Nothing but a shadow.
A trick of the light and his mind.
He could see it breathing.
Colored light spilled across the desk and floor, shattering the dark, and Sid closed his eyes and whispered a prayer. His heart dropped into his stomach and sat there like a rock. The foul sweat of utter terror dried on him as he stood there before his desk and gathered his courage. He didn’t know how long he stood there, but eventually he bent down and picked up his papers, touching the carpet as little as possible. The feeling of cold dread didn’t lessen, and it chilled him to the bone as he stood up again.
He forced his eyes away from the floor and looked at the lamp. He couldn’t afford to add more to the electricity bill. He really couldn’t.
But he couldn’t turn it off.
* * * * *
Brad Herke loved nighttime. He had never been afraid of the dark as a child, and now as an adult he found it as reassuring as many found it frightening. The darkness hid him. The night was his time, and no one bothered him during these precious hours spent guarding the museum.
At night, the Marine Hills Geology Museum was HIS.
As he stood at the door to the basement, Brad felt a burning anger. He had heard the whispers during the last couple nights. He had heard them, and he had dismissed them as the groaning of an old building settling. Now he knew better, and it made him mad. How long had this been going on? Did some student, some KID, really think that he could get away with his stupid stunts here? Did he? Well, Brad would teach him otherwise. At night, the museum was his, and he didn’t share his territory with anyone who didn’t belong, and especially not with some bastard of a prankster.
The lock clicked as he closed the door behind himself, and he aimed his flashlight down the stairs. He didn’t turn on the lights, relying on his flashlight instead. Let the kid stumble around in the dark. “Come out, come out, wherever you are” he growled. “I know you’re here, kid. Make things easier on yourself and just give up.” His boots seemed to create echoes as he descended, and the light from his flashlight bobbed. There wasn’t any response to his baiting. “I locked the door, kid. You aren’t going anywhere.”
When he reached the bottom, he swept the ground with the light. Well, no help there. Too many footprints had disturbed the light coating of dust on the tiles. It looked like he’d just have to search him out. “Where are ya, kid?” he muttered, pointing the flashlight down each of the hallways in turn. All it showed was rows of closed doors, and Brad resigned himself to playing the kid’s game of hide and seek. He started down the right-hand hall. When he caught the brat--
Something teased at the edge of his hearing. A whisper.
The flashlight whipped around to point down the other hall, and this time it showed a dark crack where one of the doors had eased open. Brad grinned, and he sprinted down the hall to shove it open all the way. “Gotch-uh?”
The grin twisted into a grimace as his flashlight turned up nothing but a storage room. Glass glittered and metal gleamed, but there was nobody here.
From behind him came barely audible laughter. He pursued it swiftly, closing the door again before he ran back the way he’d come and down the other hall. Another door was cracked open, and Brad kicked it open, shining his flashlight inside. Nobody! Spitting a curse, he turned and opened the door to the room across the hall in case the kid had hid there after opening the opposite door. Nobody again, but he could hear him, he could hear him whispering…
“Where are you?!” he shouted, bursting out of the room and back toward the stairs, then down the other hall. “I know you’re here, kid! You can’t hide from me forever!” Another room, another look inside, another trick; it all added to the blazing fury building inside him. “When I catch you—“ Whispering, fading away like the kid was running down the other hall, and Brad sprinted, trying to catch him, “—I’m going to hang you with your own guts! I’ll carve you up!” Another empty room, a glass beaker falling from the counter with the force of the kick he gave to the door, shattering on the floor even as he turned away, pursuing a taunting breath of sound. “How long do you think you can run, huh, kid?! How long?!” When had he taken his gun out of its holster? He didn’t care. All he cared about was the voice he could barely hear as it led him around, mocked him with words he couldn’t quite make out as it flitted from room to room. “I can run as long as you can, kid! And when I catch up to you, I’ll make you wish you’d never started with me!”
Whispers surrounding him, just ahead of his flashlight, just out of sight in the shadows, tormenting him, driving him mad, and Brad screamed curses, his gun clenched so tightly in his hand that the muscles were cramping. And still the whispers, the kid—or was it a kid? A devil, a fiend—mocking him, driving away his nighttime peace until it wasn’t even a memory. The dark became his enemy, full of laughter and whispering. Running him around in circles until his heart threatened to beat free of his ribcage, and he couldn’t breath around it, couldn’t hear around the blood pounding in his ears. His legs gave out, spilling him out on the floor of yet another empty room. His vision filled with the black, and he let go of the flashlight to clutch at his chest. It rolled away across the room, sending beams of light all around until it finally came to rest facing a wall, and he couldn’t gasp in enough air to tell the whisperer what he’d do to him when he got his hands on him. All he could do was wave the gun his hand still held in a shaky grip.
But then, while he lay helplessly, unable to get the strength to get up off the floor, the shadows gathered. He watched them deepen around him, dark within dark, and all he felt was anger. Pure, undiluted anger. They had taken away his peace, violated his domain. He hated them, oh how he hated them. He hated everything.
In the silence of the shadows, glaring balefully at the flashlight that failed to hold them back, Brad heard the whispering…
And he listened.
* * * * *
In the morning, Brad’s car was out in the parking lot, and Rick grinned. He was here bright and early, but he was sure Brad wouldn’t mind. He wanted to see the kid who’d caused so much trouble. Brad must have had fun catching him! By now the kid would be ready to answer a few questions about what the heck he thought he’d been doing.
Juggling his lunch and his keys, he managed to open the front doors to the building and slip inside. He didn’t lock them again. The museum wouldn’t open for a couple more hours yet, but he knew that Sid would get here soon. The man practically lived here, after all.
“Brad?” Rick put his lunch in the back room on the first floor and raised an eyebrow. Brad’s lunch lay on the table, uneaten. Had the kid caused that much trouble? Maybe the old timer had just forgotten to eat in the excitement. He couldn’t any previous attempted break-ins at the museum (what were they going to steal? A geode?), so the novelty might have prompted the night guard to stay with the kid all night. In that case, he just had to find where they were. “Brad?” he called again.
There wasn’t any sign of them on the first floor, but he tried the knob of the basement door out of habit on his way to the second floor staircase. It was locked.
Rick stared at it for a moment. Why would it still be..? Oh. Brad had probably locked it to keep the kid from getting out when his back was turned. Pretty clever. “Brad? Are you down there?” he called as he unlocked the door. He propped it open with the block of granite sitting near the wall for that purpose and started down the stairs. “Hey, did you catch the kid?”
* * * * *
Sid was parking his car next to Brad’s when he heard it.
A single gunshot.
He was running toward the museum door when he heard the second shot. He was inside the museum and searching frantically for the source when he heard the third, the fourth, and the fifth. They guided him to the open basement door. He could only stare down the staircase in horror.
Brad Herke stood above a twitching, bloody man. Five bullet holes made a dotted line from the middle of the man’s stomach up to the beginning of his sternum, their precise placement blurred by the blood-soaked shirt that slid across slick skin as Rick jerked in agonized helplessness, coughing up blood instead of a scream. The dying man stared straight into a smoking gun barrel, and more blood welled up his throat as he tried to ask the question riding the crest of his pain.
“WHY?!” Sid roared, and Brad’s hand jerked, firing the last bullet into the tile instead of into Rick’s forehead. “God damn you to Hell, you sick son of a bitch!” the museum owner bellowed, grief and rage curling his hands into fists. “Why?!”
Mad eyes turned up toward him, and blood-spattered lips peeled away from his teeth. The expression on Brad’s face was too crazed to be called a smile, but there wasn’t enough anger in it for it to be a snarl. He saw another victim, and it was good. He hated them, how he hated them all. He had chased them all night, screaming himself hoarse and crashing into whatever got in his way as he hunted them down. And when he had to rest, collapsing to his knees on the hard tile, the shadows had spoken so softly, filled with so much understanding, and he knew that he’d catch them eventually. Somewhere in the night his sanity had slipped away, stolen by the whisperer, and now he had caught his prey.
Rick could vaguely make out the man standing over him launching himself up the stairs, but he knew his murderer had been stopped too late. Had that been Sid who had saved him from that final bullet? It didn’t matter. Six bullets or five, they were his ending. The pain had punched him in the stomach as he’d taken the last step, and he hadn’t even been able to cry out against the agony.
Why? Why here, why now? He wasn’t ready to die yet. He had a life to live, a wife to go home to, a little girl to be proud of. He couldn’t die yet, but denying the inevitable didn’t stop the gush of fluid from the holes drilled into him. His lips moved with a sad denial, but all that came out was a river of blood. He could feel it enter his lungs, drowning him, killing him.
He could feel his limbs twitch and shudder, the futile protest of a dying body, and the pain was becoming so distant. Somewhere past the curtain of darkness falling over his eyes, he could hear the sounds of fighting. God, be with his baby girl. Be with his wife. He didn’t want to die.
At the top of the stairs, Sid brought the granite doorstop down on Brad’s head. Silence suddenly reigned, broken only by his ragged breathing that turned to sobbing as he stumbled toward the basement door.
But the last thing Rick heard was triumphant laughter.
* * * * *
Days later, Sid sat down heavily in his chair and looked down at the bills on his desk. Despite the sunlight filling the room, the lamp still cast colors on the papers, but he didn’t care. They seemed like nothing now. The somber black suit he wore was a pitiful representation of the grief he felt. The funeral he had just attended had been a terrible affair. The new widow had broken down, and her daughter hadn’t understood what was happening. She kept asking everyone where her father was. Rick had been young and friendly; there had been a lot of mourners. It had been heartbreaking to see her go from person to person, asking them if they knew where her father was.
The grief was twofold for the few staff members of the museum. They had worked with Rick and Brad for years, and they had lost both men in a single morning. The doorstop Sid had used to stop the night guard from killing him had done something permanent to Brad’s head. When he’d regained consciousness, he’d only been able to move his left arm and foot, and although his eyes were open, there was no one there. With the evidence clear before them, the police chief had privately told Sid that the case would be closed soon and Brad placed in an insane asylum. It didn’t take any of the grief away.
Burying his face in his hands, Sid felt his life falling down around him. Right before the funeral, Jarod had called and told him that his younger brother had suffered a nervous breakdown. From the calm way the janitor had explained it, Kevin seemed to be coping, but he hadn’t been at the funeral. And Jean…
His head jerked up, and he blinked in surprise at the door. Reddened eyes met his own, and Jean sniffed, a wad of Kleenex in her hand. She was still dressed in the black dress she’d worn to the funeral. “What…” He cleared his throat and tried again, and this time he didn’t sound so rusty. “What are you doing here, Jean?”
It came out sharper than he’d intended, and the elderly woman flinched. “I just c-couldn’t face going home alone,” she said, her voice wavering a bit as a tear crept down her wrinkled cheek.
Sid hesitated only a minute before standing up and walking around his desk. It might not have been proper behavior for a man and a woman of their age, but sometimes mutual grief could outweigh society’s demands. She let him wrap his arms around her, resting her head under his chin, and let herself cry. And, holding her, he didn’t feel so helpless anymore.
They rocked together for what seemed like hours, sharing their grief and lessening it with the sharing. It hurt whenever someone was lost, but to lose someone so close and so young hurt all the more. The betrayal they felt at what Brad had done would never go away, merely fade with time, but it would fade. Life would go on, and they knew it.
Jean pulled away from him, not enough that she was outside his arms, but enough that she could push her glasses up onto her forehead and mop her eyes. He looked down at her kindly, opening his mouth to ask her if she’d be alright—
--when her glasses caught the sunlight behind him, and he stiffened as he saw the reflection of—
--she turned to ice in his arms as she moved her wad of tissues to her other eye and saw the shadow on the floor. A shadow that didn’t belong to a man, but to a—
His arms tightened, and she buried her face in his coat gladly. As if the watcher couldn’t see her if she couldn’t see it. “What are we going to do?” she quavered, and there was fear mixed in with the grief in her voice.
He knew that fear. He felt it, too. But by unspoken agreement, neither said anything out loud about it. “Whatever we can.” Sid lowered his head until he could hide his eyes in her hair. “I love this place, and I won’t leave it. Nothing,” he carefully didn’t specify what, “is going to make me close its doors.”
And standing there, holding each other and feeling unseen eyes burn into them, they decided what they were going to do.
* * * * *
In 1990, the sprawling city of Marine Hills, Ohio, became a battlefield in one of the Decepticons’ plans. The Autobots tried their best not to harm any humans in the fight, but some casualties happened despite their care. By the time Megatron finally called a retreat, three humans and one dog lay crushed by a burning building. One of the bodies belonged to an old man named Sid Keppleton, who had owned a museum near the center of the city. It had once been at the edge of town, but the city had grown. The city would miss him, or so the mayor told Beachcomber.
The Autobot had become interested in this particular dead man when he’d found out the museum Sid had owned was a geology museum. When he discovered that Sid’s death had left the place without an owner or funds, Beachcomber convinced Optimus Prime to get the local government to claim it as city property instead of closing it. Then, happy that humankind would continue to learn about the planet they lived on, Beachcomber went on with the war.
The city assigned a new staff to the Geology Museum, headed by Ben Zuiderveen. Everyone but the janitor from the old crew had died before Sid had.
The new museum curator thought about that as he leaned back in the old leather chair and looked out the window at the city sprawled out over the Marine Hills. The sun had set while he’d been looking through the books, but he’d turned on the ceiling light earlier. Fluorescent lighting mixed with the nearly-full moon rising over the horizon.
Strange things happened in this museum, but Ben wasn’t worried. The murder of Rick Shatlin had happened almost 20 years ago, and apparently his murderer had just snapped with no explanation. It happened sometimes. The rumor about Kevin Tatley was obviously one of those things that got blown out of proportion. It happened a lot with old buildings. The man’s heart attack had been one of those really painful ones, which would explain any sort of position they’d found him in. Heck, he might have even been running to call an ambulance. It didn’t make sense that he’d been running FROM anything, after all.
From what he could tell, from then on, only three people had worked in the museum: Jean Actan, Kevin’s older brother Jarod, and the owner himself. Jean had died soon after, cowering in a corner away from something no one else could see, and until Sid’s untimely death it had just been the two men. No wonder the place was so shabby. Of course, through looking through the finance books he thought it was a wonder that it had stayed in business at all. Sid had been keeping the place open with money scraped out of wherever he could find it, and Ben was grudgingly impressed. The business tricks Sid had used after the 1970’s murder had earned him a reputation as eccentric, but Ben could see how some of them really did cut costs. He’d have to ask the janitor where he’d managed to find supplies at such a low cost…
A knock came at the door.
“Speak of the devil,” Ben muttered. “Come in!” he called.
An old man shuffled through the door. “Sir,” he greeted the much younger man behind the desk.
“Jarod, please!” he exclaimed cheerfully. “Call me Ben. How’re you doing today?”
“Fine,” Jarod said gruffly.
He waited for something more, but the old man had plainly finished speaking. Stupid old coot. “Well, I thought I’d just tell you that things are going to be changing around here. I’m sure you’ve met Neal?” A flicker of Jarod’s eyes told him that he had. “He’ll be helping you out from now on. Why don’t you help him out? Show him the ropes?” He smiled his professional smile, the smile that said he knew exactly what he was doing and he expected his orders to be followed.
Jarod just shrugged. “Sure. That all?”
Ben pitied Neal. He’d have to work with the old geezer. He should have been retired years ago. “That’s all for now,” he agreed.
The old man turned to leave, but then he seemed to remember something. He reached into his pocket and drew out a folded envelope. Shuffling forward, he put it on the desk next to the antique stained-glass lamp. “Almost forgot. Sid wrote this for you.”
His eyebrows shot up. “For me?”
A sad smile crossed Jarod’s wrinkled face. “For whoever took over after him. That’s you, right?”
Well, technically the city council, but he had to admit that he was curious as he eyed the letter. “Right.”
Jarod nodded with satisfaction and turned to go again. This time he paused and pointed at the lamp. “Did the bulb burn out again?”
Ben looked away from the envelope. “Hmm? What? The lamp? No, I just turned it off. How long has it been on?” He hadn’t thought about it, but it was probably old enough to be a fire hazard.
The old man gave him a blank look. “Oh, I don’t know. Twenty years?” He turned to shuffle toward the door without even noticing the stunned look Ben was giving him. “Didn’t ever turn it off. He hated that thing for forever, and then one day he just decided to keep it on…” The door closed, cutting off Jarod’s distracted mumbling.
He blinked at the door for a long moment, then shook his head and looked at the lamp. Never turned it off, huh? His opinion of Sid was dropping by the minute, but maybe there was something in the letter…
Tearing it open eagerly, he took out the single piece of paper folded inside and spread it out on the desk. Spidery writing covered it, the same handwriting that had carefully recorded every expense in the museum’s finance books. Sid’s handwriting, and as Ben read it, his skin began to crawl. He tried to laugh it off, but there was a pressure between his shoulder blades like someone was watching him. No matter how many times he glanced behind himself, there was never anyone there.
The letter said:
“Dear Sir or Madam,
First I would like to thank you for keeping the Marine Hills Geology Museum open. I built this place, and I hope you have the same love for it that I did. It was my life and, I’m afraid, probably my death. I watched my friends and employees fall one by one here, and I would be surprised if I was any different.
For you see, the rumors were true. I’m sure that you came to this job ready to discard all of the things you heard, if you heard anything at all, and I tell you now not to. There is truth beneath all tales; you simply have to find it. You are young and fresh, and you must think I’m a doddering old fool to tell you this. I don’t ask that you believe me. I ask that you listen.
In 1971, the museum lost both its security guards, one to murder, one to insanity that led to that murder. I never hired anyone to replace them, and it wasn’t from sentiment. We had really never needed guards, and I couldn’t justify bringing more people into this place than were already here. One of the few things Brad ever recovered enough to say before he died was “can’t you hear the shadows whispering?” The psychologist who told me this was baffled. We understood, however.
Do you wonder why the museum always closes at sunset? Do you wonder why the college students downstairs are asked to keep the basement doors open all the time? Do you wonder why Jarod sweeps all the time but the floors are so dull? If you ask around, I’m sure you’ll hear tales about things that have happened in this old building. Children see monsters in the floor, looking over their shoulders. Men and women scream in fright when the lights go out in the labs. After dark, no matter how many lights are on, the shadows grow larger than they should be. They creep across the floor and up the walls, and if you listen, you’ll find that Brad’s question makes sense. Can’t you hear them whispering?
Listen to me: this isn’t the raving of an old man. I’ve never spoken about it before. All of us here understood why I started closing the museum early. Jean never asked me before telling the students to keep the doors open. I have no idea when Jarod decided to stop waxing the floors, but I’m glad that he did. It was hard to blame it on overactive imaginations when an entire class of schoolchildren had hysterics over a monster reflected in the tiles.
We never had to say anything about it because we all heard the whispering, we all felt its eyes on us. We knew it was watching us. But you’re new, and you think that I was mad. I don’t ask that you believe me—you’ll find out on your own what I can barely put into words even after all these years. Do you feel it? Can you hear it? If you haven’t yet, just wait until after dark. I warn you to keep to the same closing time. If you have the money, carpet the floors. Check on your employees often, and try not to let them work alone.
There are more things I could tell you, but you’ll figure them out on your own. Ask Jarod if you need to know anything. His mind hasn’t been the same since the Vietnam War, but he’ll help you if you give him enough time. Take care, and may you fare better than those of us who’ve gone before you.”
(And scrawled hastily at the bottom of the letter, like Sid had only remembered it at the last minute:)
“One more thing: the lamp on the desk. Never turn it off.
The shadows can do more than whisper.”
He hadn’t realized that he’d hunched forward over the desk until he reached the end of the letter and sat back with a sigh. His eyes darted into the corners of the office, and he squirmed his shoulder blades against the chair back. Despite his efforts, a cold shiver went up his back. Sid had obviously been crazy, Ben told himself. The museum was haunted, right, sure, tell him another one.
Funny. When had it gotten so quiet? There was a street right outside the window, and surely there was traffic on it. Why didn’t he hear any cars? He could see headlights when he looked out the window, but an eerie silence filled the room.
“Eerie. Sure,” he snorted. “Geez, Ben. You’re letting the old guy’s fairy tale go to your head. Next thing you know, you’ll be seeing monsters in the floor and hearing things. What was that guy on, anyway? They were all nuts!” That decided, he turned back around and pushed the letter off to the side so he could get back to the finance books.
Above him, the ceiling light began to flicker, clearly on its last legs. He squinted up at it.
“Well, shoot.” He’d have to get Neal in here to fix it tomorrow. There really wasn’t a lot of light in this room without it, but he could use the lamp on the desk for now. Between that and moonlight, he could finish this book and be ready to start a new one in the morning. The lamp really was a pretty antique, and he admired the stained glass as he fumbled for the switch to turn it on. His gaze slid past it to the floor, and he absently wondered if the museum could afford new carpeting for the office at least. The stuff had to be as old as the building, and—
His thoughts slid to a halt as the flickering ceiling light lost its battle with the moon. For an instant, Ben saw terror in the darkness.
Then his seeking fingers found the switch, and colored light spilled from the lamp, blotting out the shadows. The man let his arm thump down onto the desk, still outstretched. In his mind’s eye, he looked at what he’d just seen and tried to scoff. Stupid old man, leaving a letter like that. Between that and working too hard, Ben was going to call it a night. He didn’t need this crap.
Putting away his work neatly, Ben grumbled to himself about Sid passing on his nightmares. What kind of sick geezer had that guy been, anyway? He didn’t believe it for a second, and all he needed was a good night’s sleep to rid himself of the crazy guy’s tale. He stuffed the letter into one of the desk drawers. It might make better reading during the day sometime, not now, when he had to make an effort not to glance behind himself for the source of the malevolent glare he was sure someone was directing at his back.
He started whistling. He didn’t believe anything the letter said. He hadn’t heard anything. It was just a dark and lonely night, and he needed a little music to wake himself up. Yeah. That was all.
He didn’t believe it.
Not for a second.
But the lamp was still on when the door closed behind him.
* * * * *
Somewhere in the Marine Hills Geology Museum, safe in a display case, green glass glittered. If anyone had been listening, they would strain to hear the voice. It was there, barely at the edge of hearing, little more than a breath of a whisper.
It was laughing.