I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest again this year. My short story “The Graveyard Shift” received an Honorable Mention. Not bad. Not great. At least one of the judges seemed to have liked it. Not enough of them, though. I suppose it is a blessing in disguise, as I am going on a vacation with my wife and son this weekend and would not have much time to write much of anything.
For those of you unfamiliar with the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest, participants are sent prompts (usually, a character, a situation, and a genre) on a Friday night and have seven or eight days to write a 2500 word (not a word more) story. My prompts were ‘A Radio DJ’, ‘Addiction’, and ‘Horror.’ To me, a lot of the point is the fun of having to write on such a tight deadline stories that I really have no other interest in writing. I suppose, to be honest, I would prefer to win the whole contest, sell my story to a film producer, win a Nobel, and make a huge amount of money. Until that happens, though, I will simply enjoy the contest for what it is: an exercise.
Anyway, here is “The Graveyard Shift.”
“The Graveyard Shift”
Synopsis: A radio DJ contemplates starting his new gig all alone in the studio.
“FIVE DJs, two years? Big turnover.”
“Don’t worry, son.” The manager constantly wipes sweat from his face. “Great place to work. Two got spooked by the hours. Other two got earlier shows. It can happen.”
“And the fifth?” No answer. “What happened to him?”
“Her…. Uh…. Started her show one night. Never finished.” He pours them each a shot.
“Picked up and left?” Drinks. Cheap, but warming.
“Left all her stuff.” Drinks. Sweats. “Probably stepped out for a deal or a trick. Maybe just took off. Had issues. Personal. Look. You’re new here. Clean slate. Just do the show. Don’t worry. That’s a strong door. New door. Guard will bring ya up 11:45. Down at 6. Be a bit quiet, but even the rats don’t go above the fifth floor now the bank’s pulled out. Things will get better. Be right where it’s happening.”
* * *
“Good evening from high above downtown. Dave here. New to the 313, hailing from somewhere that beat you in football and baseball last year. I won’t say where; you won’t spit at me at the supermarket. Ha. Ha. Really, I’m new here—love it already. So, welcome to ‘The Graveyard Shift’. Let’s start the evening right, with a selection of some of my favorite songs. Email or text me any requests, and if I like them, I might play them. Here we go: ‘It was fifty years ago today…’”
“…Sergeant Pepper taught his band to play…” Paul sang.
Dave turned the monitor down.
Deep breath. Off to a good start. Off to a start. Who the hell’s awake at this hour, anyway? Not much of anyone. Not me. Barely me. Hmm. Adderall. ‘Little blue’. Will you keep me going? No. Not yet. Not yet. Let’s get into the groove here. Take it slow. New Place. New Job. New Dave.
The phone light flashes. First caller, right off the bat. This is good.
“Hello. Welcome to the Graveyard Shift.”
“Dave? Dave?” A young woman’s voice. Sounds odd. Scared.
“You okay, miss?”
“Dave? Don’t leave me alone! I’m all alone!”
Weirdo. Coed, probably. Prank. No matter.
Feet up, kind of. Can barely lean back in this booth. Look at the clock. 12:02. Half-hour set. Deep Breath. Bored.
Dave hears something, jerks eyes open. Not asleep!
Was that a bump?
“Hello?” Nothing. “Hello?”
The echo of a sound? The echo of an echo of a sound?
He looks around the station. Three rooms. ‘Rooms.’ The booth barely large enough for his chair and the board. A storage closet filled with old CDs, chair, minifridge. Junk. A bathroom smaller than the booth.
Too soon to be hearing things.
A smoke would be better. In the stairwell. Cool air. “Dress light, son. The AC’s been busted forever.” Fresh pack. Heaven!
“Hello down there?”
Ridiculous! Dim shadows, shade, still. Even the bums don’t want to live downtown.
Even the echoes don’t want to come back up.
Grinds the butt out. Kicks it down the stairwell. “Not mine!” should anyone ask. Who would? “Even the rats don’t go above the fifth floor now that the bank’s pulled out.”
Back to the booth. Twenty minutes left. Sets his watch for fifteen. Kicks his legs up. Deep Breath.
* * *
“Ya know ya want it.”
“You know you’re married.”
“Let me touch ya one more time. So fine.”
She feels his hand slide along her waist. His fingers scrabble at her skirt. She does want. Wants.
Wanted. Wanted. No longer. No longer. Why won’t he understand? Someone must. Someone.
“Leave me alone!”
His fingers reach in.
She struggles. “I said….”
* * *
JESUS! Dave snaps to.
No noise but something in the air. A cry? A sob?
No. No noise.
Not true. The alarm is beeping. No music.
Crap! Look at the clock. The set just finished.
* * *
NO calls. “Is anybody out there?” he says to himself, laughs. Starts the next set. Makes it to the bathroom just in time. He leans against the wall as an evening’s worth of coffee splashes against the porcelain.
He feels the fingers on his waist.
“Please don’t touch me.” A whimper.
“It’s all right, baby. Just let me….”
He turns, sprays the bathroom. Sees….
Dozed off. That’s it. While peeing. Ha!
What was that noise?
A door slamming?
Had he forgotten to shut the door? Stupid!
But it is shut. Outside? He kicks open the door. “Ha!”
He looks down. Shadows, shades, stand still in the flickering light.
He goes back to the booth laughing at himself. Outside the window is a skyline devoid of light. Hulking, towering, black shades. A graveyard. A graveyard shift.
* * *
SHE gets up and leaves the booth.
“Stop following me.”
“Come on, baby!” he slurs.
She spins, wanting to see him, wanting Dave to see him, but he is a blur, just beyond sight, grasping, wheedling.
“Don’t follow me in here.”
He stands, a presence, a shadow, a smell, just beyond the door.
“Leave me alone!”
* * *
THE DJ almost falls over in the chair. Catches himself at the last moment.
The phone is ringing.
“Welcome to the Graveyard Shift,” he says, relieved. He looks at the clock and chokes. It is almost 1:00. Jesus! “Welcome to the Graveyard Shift.”
“Don’t leave me alone,” the girl wails. The same caller? Her voice? “Don’t leave me alone! Please understand!”
Slam the phone down. Run commercials, the next set.
Another couple of the little blues. No water? Choke ’em down dry. There’s water in the bathroom. Drink a handful. Some cold water on the back of the neck. Close eyes. Deep breath. There’s a sickly sweet smell of whisky and sweat.
Right behind him.
Who the…? What the…? He swings at the air, at the shadows.
“Hello? Who the hell is here?” Pull it together, Dave!
He turns up the monitor, kicks open the door, steps out to the stairs for another smoke. Air out the place a bit.
He hears someone pounding on a door, looks down the stairwell.
“Open the door!”
No one moving down there.
“Open the God damned door, bitch!”
“Leave me alone!”
They’re in the God-damned studio!
“Ouch! Shit!” His cigarette has burned down to his fingers.
“Who’s there?” Grabs the rusty fire extinguisher from the floor and charges around the corner. “Who the Hell are you?”
No one. Energy-saver light bulbs. Funny shadows. No AC. Not enough sleep. A stale peaty smell hovering just beyond.
Stay awake, Dave. A few more hours. By weekend you’ll be fine. Time for another set, but first a few more little blues. Just a couple more. Just to clear away the cobwebs.
The phone’s ringing.
“Welcome to the Graveyard Shift,” he says, trying to steady his voice.
“Dave!” she says, her voice distant, in a closed space. Dull echoes. Metallic cocoon. “Dave! Don’t leave me alone!”
“Do you understand?”
Rushes to stairs. The door is locked.
Locked? He just….
He looks up and sees the hanging key above the door.
“In an emergency, use the key to get out,” the station manager had told him. “Otherwise, the guard’ll come at six to walk ya down. Just a precaution. Even the rats don’t go above the fifth floor now the bank’s pulled out.”
But he’d gone out to smoke. Hadn’t he? Has the pack right in his pocket.
Back in the booth, smokes in his bag. How many had been in there at the start of his shift?
Jesus! Had he…?
His collar damp. From the water?
The clock reads 12:20.
Jesus. He’d fallen asleep! That was it. His collar was wet with sweat.
Stay awake, Dave. A couple little blue pills. Burn off the fog, the haze, the mist of interrupted sleep.
The phone is ringing. He has to answer. Hates to answer, a dream call echoes just out of thought.
“Welcome to the Graveyard Shift.” He holds his breath.
“Dude! We want some Floyd!”
Thank God! “You got it fella! You all partying?”
“Well, you know. Big blow out at Upsilon O before exams. Keepin’ the buzz on after closing time.”
“Yeah, I hear you.” Turns on the mic. “Good evening from the Graveyard Shift. A request for some of the classics. I’ll be giving you a full set of Floyd to help you get in the mood for that education you don’t need. Girls, head on over to Upsilon O where the boys are lonely, the beer is free, and whatever you may do: think of Dave; it’ll put you in the mood and no one has to know.”
Well, if he can’t smoke on the stairs, the bathroom will have to do. Good timing. Kill two birds. Someone should oil the hinges on the door, he thinks as he washes splash off his hands. He lights a cig and blows smoke at the mirrors and rubs the light burn on his finger. Students. Thank God he wasn’t in school anymore. What kind of lame place closed the bars at midnight?
None. He thinks. None. But those frat boys said….
He glances at his phone.
2:25. Not 12:25. He’d read the numbers wrong.
That explains it.
God! He’d slept for two and a half hours. Thank God those boys woke him up.
Can’t fall asleep.
He chews on a few of his little blues. Killer headache. He’d been dreaming some strange shit. Or hearing things in the glooming quiet of the early, like that echo of the squeaking hinges just now, bringing in the smell of sweat and whisky.
“Ya thought I wouldn’t come in here?” Who’s that?
“What are you doing in here?”
He feels his face slammed into the mirror. Feels the cracked glass cut into his cheek. His head is pulled back. His face. Not his face. Smeared mascara. Blood trickling down her cheeks. Her long hair pulled back by a heavy hand. Can’t see the man’s face, not for the shadows.
Whoever it is slams the face into the mirror again. “Not so pretty now, bitch. Are ya?”
She’s thrown to the floor. Dave tries to pull free, but can’t. The man is too strong.
“Don’t!” he cries, she wails. “Leave me alone!”
Thick fingers tear at her panties. Exploring. Conquering.
Tiles tearing at the knees. Shoes lost. Can’t get a grip, toes slipping in blood.
“Tell me ya want me.”
A blow comes to the back of the head.
Dave is stunned. He opens his mouth to speak and hears her: “Don’t hit me. Don’t. I want you. I want you.”
“Ya know ya do, bitch! Say it again!”
Their face is shoved into the brown-stained toilet.
“I.” Please. “Want.” Please. “You.”
He stabs, tears, pounds into them. Dave feels him. She feels him. They sob. Hands, fingers, nails rip into her breasts, raggedly tearing the flesh.
“Is it good?”
“Is it good, bitch?”
“Wonderful.” Sob. “So good.” Sob. “So.” Sob. “Good.” Sob.
He finishes, goes to wash his hands. Dave curls up in a ball in the corner and closes his eyes.
* * *
She sits in the corner. Curls up small to get as far from the man as she can.
He steps over.
“Please, leave me alone.”
“I will. I’ll leave ya all alone.” His hand touches her throat. Closes around it. Squeezes.
“I’ll leave ya all alone. Far from everyone,” he laughs.
* * *
DAVE lies in the corner, weeping.
How could he have done this? To me? I…. She….
She’s all alone.
Looks up. Through tears sees the vent. Big enough, he decides.
Stands up. Muscles he did not know he had, doesn’t have, hurt.
“I understand!” he calls out, retching.
Hold it together!
His legs have trouble lifting him up. A few more Adderall will help out.
He climbs into the duct. Goes in. Way in.
By the light of a match, he finds her. Dumped in a corner. Simply dumped. Her clothes tossed next to her. Her skin now long dried up, mostly gone. Only shreds. Only the faintest smell. Her hair like straw.
“Don’t leave me alone.” She’s looking at him. Her eyes wide, hoping. “It’s been so long.”
Jesus Christ! Drops the match. All is black.
Deep breath. Hold. It. Together. Another match.
The body lies there. No eyes to look. No tongue to speak.
He can get her out of here if he can find his way out. Which way to go? Jesus! Too many Adderall. Needs some reds to take the edge off. Just a few. He chews them and swallows.
Deep Breaths. Deep Breaths. How to get out of here! Metal everywhere. Every side. Metal. Up down. Metal. Forward back. Metal. Left right. Metal. Heart pounding.
Did I take any reds? He didn’t. Did he? A few more won’t matter.
She takes his hand. “You will stay with me?” Her breath is dust. Her lips dry and cracked against his, her tongue hard, brittle. “I won’t be alone.”
God! God! God! God! Pushes her away. Lunges this way and that. Metal. He slaps at the walls. Metal. Keeps hitting metal.
He falls on the body. Skin crackles, tears. Bones snap.
It’s just a dead body. That’s it. A sad dead body. That’s it.
Light a cigarette. Kill the sickly sweet smell, the taste. Calm down. Did he take some reds? A couple will take the edge off, calm down his stomach, which is killing him. He wants to throw up. Can’t. Stabbing. Stabbing pains. He curls up in a ball and tries to scream.
Jesus! Leave me alone!
“I’ll take care of you,” she says, caressing him, embracing him. “We won’t be alone.” Her fingers explore him, find him. “I’ll take care of you. You know you want me.” She pulls him to her.
* * *
“WELCOME aboard, Jenny.” The manager pours two shots and hands one to her.
“Thanks. Glad to be here, sir. I’ve always wanted to work in radio.”
“Glad we had the opening.”
“Can I ask what happened to the last guy? He was only here a day, I heard.”
“Don’t really know. He disappeared. Word is he had something of a drug problem. Police suspect he went out for a score and, well…. Lot of empty buildings around here. Lot of places to hide a body. Don’t ya worry, though. That’s a strong door. New door. Guard’ll bring ya up 11:45. Come and get ya at 6. Be a bit quiet, but even the rats don’t go above the fifth floor now that the bank’s pulled out. Things will get better. Be right where it’s happening.” Chuckles. “Maybe I’ll drop by. Say ‘hi’.”