I used to work for a marketing firm located in the Back Bay section of Boston. It was a small company, but large enough that we operated on an entire floor of the building we rented, and that I was not familiar with everyone else who worked there. I started in 2007 as part of their web-based media team. For those of you who don’t know anything about the marketing business, it’s very client-driven. A team of producers sell our services to companies, often a little overzealously, and the designers and developers typically have to work like slaves to meet the producers’ promises. This can mean late nights, which means taking a cab home because the commuter rail has shut down. It also means coming in on weekends and working late then too.
It was November of 2008, and we had a big promotional site being developed for a rather important client. I’m not at liberty to give out the details surrounding the project, but it’s not relevant to this story anyway. What’s relevant is that the client was pushy, as most are, and the site was complex, so I ended up having to come in on a Saturday and work late into the evening to have something ready to present by Monday. If you’ve ever worked in an office on the weekend, you know just how different and isolated it can feel. There were other people at first, ambitious or merely driven, doing their thing, but never did our paths cross.
The office was organized in patches of cubicles. We developers tend to be a little off kilter, goofy, prone to coming in wearing t-shirts and faded jeans. The higher ups put us in the back corner so that tours with potential clients could avoid having to explain us and our appearance to them. The corner just happened to be facing the alleyway between our building and the next one. The back row of cubicles eventually got replaced with an aesthetically pleasing row of glassed-in offices for the director of the web-based media team and some selected subordinates, but at the time of this tale. there was only her dark office and a row of grungy cubicles where said subordinates vied for leg room with piping and windows looking out at the brick facade of the adjoining structure. The lighting in our section was often dim. My coworkers liked to loosen any fluorescents that flickered rather than request a change of bulb. My own cubicle was on the far side of the area from the beautiful brick vista, smack dab in a corner with a set of shelves. I only warranted half the space of a regular cubicle because I was the newest member of the team. Seated at my computer, a radiator warming my toes and my back to the rest of the office, I worked on the site.
It was a little after midday when the producer called me to check on the status of the project. The nice producers came in and stuck around to show their support when you had to come in on weekends. Sometimes they’d go pick up lunch or dinner to reduce your downtime. The not-so nice ones called and encouraged you while they went shopping or played golf. Things were going well, and I told her as much. While she began droning on about a list of features I should remember to have implemented, I heard a noise behind me. It sounded like chains rattling, which I thought was an unusual sound for someone to be making, which is why I got up after finishing the conversation and went into the kitchen area to investigate. The kitchen separated our section from the graphic designer group, and was at the end of a large open hall that had several meeting rooms attached before ending on the other side at the lobby with the front desk and elevator. There was an old freight elevator right by the kitchen side of the hall, but we usually avoided using it because of its tendency to break down. There was nobody in the kitchen, but as I turned to look down the hall toward the front desk, I saw the door to the freight elevator coming to a close. At the same moment it closed completely, I spotted a coworker heading for the lobby elevator. They turned at the sound of the freight elevator door shutting, saw me, and waved.
“Don’t forget to turn on the security alarm before you leave,” he said.
“Am I the last one here?” I asked. He nodded and headed for the elevator. When I got back to my desk, the phone was off the hook. I chalked it up at the time to me being forgetful, but I wonder now if it was something else. The line was making that noise you hear when you’ve left it off the hook for too long, so I hung it up and went back to work.
It got dark out and I still wasn’t done, so I called my wife to tell her I would be working late and to go ahead and eat without me. As I hung up the phone, I heard a creaking sound, like door hinges. I was feeling a little creeped out by being all alone, so I got up and went back to the kitchen area to see if someone had come in. If they had, and I left before them, I wouldn’t want to activate the alarm. Between the cubicles and the kitchen is a very tight hallway, which is where the restrooms are found. As I passed it, I saw the men’s room door coming to a close, like I had just missed someone going in. I waited in that spot for about five minutes, trying to look nonchalant about standing around, like I was trying to do something instead of just watching to see the person come back out. Finally, feeling increasingly anxious, I walked down the dark hall and slowly opened the men’s room door with the planned excuse of, “What the hell, I had to go and this is the bathroom.”
The bathroom wasn’t just empty, it was pitch black. The lights had been out since I came in that morning, and nobody had turned them on. Walking into pitch black unexpectedly like that can really put you in a state, let me tell you. Suddenly being blind when you were able to see just a moment ago. It was like the air got sucked out of me. HHHHUUUPPP and I realized I was holding my breath because everything was dead silent and my ears had sensitized in the hope of catching even the slightest sound. I stood there a second and then turned on my heel and got out of the restroom back into the hallway where I clutched the wall like I was afraid it was going to fall away and leave me back in that infinite blackness. I wasn’t even thinking about whether anyone else was watching me at that point.
I couldn’t tell you why I was scared at the time, I just was. I did not like being alone in that office. I knew that right outside was a brightly lit city, but somehow it all seemed really far away. The T station was a block away. I could run to it and be home in a couple hours, but then I’d have to explain to the producer that I wasn’t done the site because I got scared, and she was sure to tell everyone else and I’d be laughed out of the office.
I flipped the light switch to the restroom there in the hall and went back in. The men’s room was about the size of two of our cubicles and even grungier than the alley back behind the office. There were two stalls, a pair of urinals and a trio of sinks with a wall-length mirror. I hated the urinals because one was right by the door and I felt like people passing by could see in while I went. The other was made for a midget. Even though I was alone, I went and sat down in the stall. I also just felt the need to sit and relax a moment.
I was just beginning to relax when I heard the door creak again, followed by footsteps on the tiles. I was relieved by the sound, because it meant I wasn’t alone. Someone else had come in, and all that sudden fear was just me being irrational. I cleared my throat, a tradition I do sort of to say “this stall is occupied.” The moment I made the sound, the footsteps stopped. I suddenly felt a little anxious again. I cleared my throat a little less obviously, to make it seem less like an introduction and more like I just had a bit of congestion. The footsteps suddenly began to get closer. When it sounded like they were right outside my stall, they came to a stop. I got really tense and leaned down to look at the person’s shoes.
There weren’t any.
At that moment, I got goosebumps on my arms and my heart rose up into my throat. My stomach was doing cartwheels, but I went about the routine of finishing up, flushing and opening the stall door. The room was empty. I went over to the sink and began washing my hands, constantly looking over my shoulder and around the room in the mirror. I went to the hand dryer and started it up and was rubbing my hands together when I heard another sound right behind me. I could see in the reflective chrome of the dryer nozzle… the other stall door was shut where before it had been wide open. At that point, I didn’t care whether my hands were wet or not, I wiped them on my pants and turned for the door out of that room. The whole space felt smaller, more confined, and as I walked past the stalls, I heard the click of the lock and the stall door started swinging open as if to greet me. I didn’t look in, I didn’t want to see even if there was somebody there, I just ran the last few feet, yanked the door open as hard as I could and bolted down the dark hall back to the safety of my computer.
When I got back to the desk, my phone was off the hook again. I could hear someone speaking even before I picked it up. I put it to my ear and listened.
“At the tone, it will be 7:43.”
I held the phone there, listening for the mentioned tone. I turned and watched the hallway I had just come from, though from my desk I couldn’t see down it. There were no other sounds except the hiss of the radiator and the computer fan. The recorded voice played again, but this time it was different. It sounded like one of those old cassette tape players when you only held the play button halfway down. It was deeper and slower and I did not feel any comfort in it anymore.
“At the tone, it will be 7:43.”
I hung up. At that point, I decided that I did not want to be there anymore, and I didn’t care if I got laughed at later for it. I grabbed my satchel and saved my work. Just as I told Windows to shutdown, the phone rang. Instinctively, I picked it up, figuring it was the producer calling. I’d just tell her I’d come in tomorrow and finish it, that’s what I’d do.
“At the tone, it will be 7:45.” said the voice. I hung up and pulled the cord out. The phone at the desk next to mine rang. I ignored it and grabbed my shit to get the fuck out of there. I decided as I walked that my best course of action was to go into the kitchen, walk the long hallway to the front desk and wait for the elevator. Then I remembered that I had to set the alarm. The alarm pad was past the elevator, around a corner, back by the executive offices. Not a big problem, I thought. As I walked past the dark hall toward the kitchen, I looked down it just to make myself feel better.
The door to the men’s room was wide open.
Worse, it was pitch black inside again, but I realized as I stopped and looked that I had never turned it off. The linchpin in my horror came when the door suddenly began to slowly shut, as if it had been waiting for me as an audience before doing so. I turned away and went into the kitchen, trying not to think about the fact that the men’s room was just on the other side of the wall from the hallway I was about to go down. I looked down the hall at the front desk and the elevator out of there and it never seemed so far away before. I took a step, and from behind came another sound that sent shivers down my spine: the crash bar on the fire escape being pushed. I turned 180 degrees. The fire escape was located right next to the director’s office, and was just about two rows of cubicles away from the kitchen area. As I watched, the door to the fire stairs down the back of the building swung slowly open into darkness. I turned back toward the hall and ran. The sound of a ding indicated the arrival of the freight elevator, and as I passed it, its doors slowly began to open, just like the stall door in the bathroom. I heard the sound of rattling chains from inside, but I did not look.
I was running. Running for that front desk. Running for the elevator down to the lobby. When I got there, I slammed into the wall between the elevator doors and punched at the down button desperately. I turned back to look where I came from. Every time I do, I think of Lot’s wife in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. You never fucking look back. Ever.
The back area of the office was bathed in blackness. I could not see it at all. There was some light coming into the kitchen from the developer area, but even as I stood there watching, it seemed to fade and become dark. I looked at the elevator floor indicator and prayed that the approaching car was brightly illuminated. 2… 3… 4… The ding of its arrival was beautiful. The doors opened to a well-lit salvation. I scrambled into the elevator and frantically hammered at the ground floor button. As the doors slowly started closing, I watched the encroaching darkness seem to swallow the office. When the car reached the ground floor, I was squashed down into the corner, terrified that it would at any moment fill the compartment and eat me. I bolted through the lobby and out onto the street where I promptly threw up, grossing out a passing cyclist who yelled words of encouragement as he continued down the street.
I did not return to the office the next day. I told the producer I had gotten violently sick, and she talked the client into extending the deadline. I got chastised for forgetting to set the alarm, but no harm was done. Three months later, they reorganized the back area of the office, built the subordinates’ offices, tore down a wall between our section and the kitchen and set the cubicles up in a more standard format, moving me away from my little corner by the dark hallway. I never went down that hallway again. In the remaining year that I was there, if I had to go, I walked down to the front desk and took the elevator down a floor where there was a public access restroom. Much bigger, much cleaner, much brighter, and far less haunted.