It was a shit gig and Carson knew it, but it couldn’t be helped. It seemed that no one was interested in hiring someone in their eighties nowadays. Never mind that he still had all of his faculties and was fit as a fiddle. Granted, maybe it was a fiddle with just three strings, but that was two more than most. It also didn’t seem to matter that he wasn’t talking to himself, drooling the hours away in some home or that he could hold a conversation for more than ten seconds without having to check a smart phone.
Carson heard Derrick, his boss, coming in downstairs. A few moments later, he heard the footfalls on the steps and knew the weasel would be making an appearance any moment, and the peace and quiet would be shattered.
“Knock, knock,” Derrick said, “Daddy’s home.”
He said the same joke every night and it was as tired and worn out as the man’s god awful hair piece. He looked ridiculous and couldn’t help but be an asshole. After all, the kid was young enough to be his great grandson and born during the first Clinton administration for Chrissakes. What the hell could he possibly know?
“How are things going for you this fine evening Carson?”
Honestly, he was tired, dead tired, but he wasn’t about to tell the idiot that. He didn’t sleep much at all anymore, no matter what he tried. The clock would tick the hours by one by one and he’d still be awake staring at the ceiling. If he happened to nod off, it didn’t last long, things whispering and reaching.
“They’re going, just like they always are. I’m still here farting dust and you’re still showing up every night smelling it. You know, I think sometimes you just show up to work to see if I’m dead in this chair.”
That seemed to fluster Derrick.
“That’s not true at all. I fully expect you to outlive all of us here Carson. Do you ever take a day off?”
“I did for about a decade when I retired, but it didn’t take. I had to find something to do or I’d lose my crackers. Besides, I’m not one for sleeping much these days.”
His grandmother once told him when he was a little boy that she didn’t sleep much either. When he spent nights at her house, she’d pace all night, her slippers shuffling along the hardwood floors. She told him it was because all the people on the other side were constantly scratching at the door and it was wearing thin. Sometimes, she’d said, you could hear them whisper too, which is why she played music most of the time. When it was too quiet those voices were clearer.
Carson wasn’t sure if he believed her or not, but he knew his grandmother was bat-shit crazy toward the end. He sure hoped he didn’t go out like that. It wasn’t like he was hearing voices or anything, but those things his grandmother told him still lingered at the back of his mind.
He didn’t answer, not wanting to tempt the things from his dreams. It was bad enough they didn’t stay put and surprised him from time to time, lurking in the cellar or whispering to him on the phone.
“No, no, nothing like that. Don’t have much need for dreaming at my age. Nobody does. I’ve already seen it all and done it all.”
“That it is.”
“Seems like there’s probably a thing or two you haven’t done yet. I mean in this great wide world where anything is possible, there are always things coming you didn’t even think of.”
“You don’t say?” Carson asked, making sure his keys were secure at his belt, not really paying all that much attention to Derrick.
“Well, yeah, I mean what about sky diving?”
“Shut up. Really?”
“Yeah, except when I jumped out of planes people were shooting at me, you know, in the war. After that, how much fun can just jumping out of an airplane be?”
Derrick was quiet, just staring at him, an odd expression on his face. Carson took that as his cue.
“Going to make the rounds.”
“Sounds good Carson. When you get back I’m going to go out for some coffee. We’re out.”
He didn’t answer, just saluted to indicate he understood. Standing up, having to wait a moment for the dizziness to pass, just like he always did, Carson picked up his flashlight and stepped out of the control booth on the second floor. Shutting the door, the sound echoing throughout the art museum, Carson walked down the hallway to the main display room.
It didn’t matter how old he was, Carson didn’t like wandering through the place when it was completely dark. Maybe it was from watching too many Twilight Zones or reading too many Weird Tales comics as a kid, but something about it made him a little uneasy. The shadows sometimes seemed a little thicker than they should be in certain places. It made him wonder if something was crouched there salivating at the thought of sucking on his bones.
Why did he do that to himself? Now, he’d probably not be able to sleep at all with that thought bouncing around in his head. Wonderful.
Turning on his flashlight, he directed the beam into the corner behind a marble bust of an artist whose name he couldn’t pronounce. His dusty heart lurched awkwardly for a beat or two as a section of darkness leapt away and seemed to vaporize into other shadows around him.
The beam cut through the darkness as he looked for the movement, but he never found it again. He had to wait a few moments to get his breathing under control, hating that he was old. It was just a damned shadow for crying out loud.
“Carson, this is Derrick, over.”
The static of his radio broke through the darkness in a squawk of sound, his heart skipping a beat.
Wouldn’t that be perfect? Death by static.
The walkie-talkie was another thing he hated about the job. Why did that idiot need to say it was Derrick? Who else would be radioing him? He always had to add his name at the end of the transmission as if there was someone else here in the building using the walkie-talkies.
“What’s up Derrick?”
“Please use proper protocol, over.”
Dear God, take me now.
“Sure thing,” Carson said, pausing while counting to three, knowing it was driving Derrick nuts on the other end, before adding, “Over.”
Derrick cleared his throat, obviously irritated before saying, “One of the sensors in the main gallery tripped. What’s your location? Over.”
“I’m just getting ready to enter the main gallery, over.”
“You see anything up there? Over.”
Didn’t the idiot think that if he did, he’d call down to him? It wasn’t like anything ever happened while they were on rounds. They didn’t have invaluable pieces of art in the museum, if anything they had all the leftover crap that no other gallery wanted.
“Maybe it’s another mouse.”
He almost told Derrick to use proper protocol, but decided he just wanted to finish his rounds so he could go pop a squat at his desk and relax.
“Could be, I guess. Nothing’s been getting into the food in the office though. I’ll keep my eyes peeled. Over.”
“Roger that. Over.” Derrick said, as he crunched a mouthful of what Carson guessed were Frito’s.
“Over and out,” Carson said, sliding the walkie back into the holster on his belt, wondering what he did wrong in a past life to be saddled with Derrick every night.
Despite his misgivings about his boss, he knew he had a job to do. He stood still a moment and listened. Sounds always seemed to stretch out and get lost in the big rooms, but he listened anyway. Not hearing anything, Carson walked into the main gallery, his footfalls echoing. The ceiling somewhere high above him was lost in the darkness, the massive tapestry always a little unsettling.
“Catherine, how are you this evening?” Carson asked, without bothering to look above him. He knew she was there.
The plaque beneath it read ‘Foster and Melnyx battle below Catherine.’ It showed a warrior climbing across a jumble of uneven rocks, with rats at his heels, rising to fight the slithering creature crawling ahead of him. Above them was the beautiful Catherine, a princess, gazing across the vast rolling hills of her kingdom, oblivious to what was happening below her. When the early morning sun moved through the room and Catherine’s face caught the light, he thought she resembled his beautiful late wife Doreen.
At night, however, he didn’t like to look, because the faces sometimes became twisted with shadow and the eyes seemed to linger on him a bit longer than he liked.
Twenty minutes later, he walked into the guard booth, putting his flashlight on the desk and sitting down.
“So, no mouse?”
He shook his head.
Carson shrugged, hands on the armrests of his chair. He needed a nap.
“I hope we don’t need to have the system recalibrated. I filled out the incident report already and logged it.”
Opening his thermos, Carson poured a cup of tea and sipped it.
“Carson, you okay if I go make that coffee run?”
Nodding, he said, “Sure.”
Carson rubbed his temples and closed his eyes as he heard Derrick leave the guard booth. Carson suspected that it wasn’t just coffee Derrick was going to go get, but he kept those thoughts to himself. He caught bits of quiet conversation while Derrick was on the phone in the booth and he sometimes caught a whiff of cheap smelling perfume. It wasn’t any of his business and honestly he didn’t care. There was a time when he was just as careless and selfish as Derrick was.
A beep sounded from the console in front of him and he opened his eyes. Another sensor tripped. It was from the main gallery room. He flipped a couple of switches and a picture jumped on the screen in front of him. Adjusting his glasses across the bridge of his nose, Carson tried to figure out what could’ve tripped the sensor. The picture was so grainy, he could hardly tell the difference between the bust sculpture and the floor, but he did think something was moving across the floor.
“What the hell,” he said aloud and almost scared himself with the sound of his own voice.
He adjusted the contrast a bit, flashing back to a time when he had done the same thing on an ancient black and white Zenith so he could watch the ballgame when he was a kid.
The floor became clearer on the monitor and it was obvious that things were moving on the floor. Frowning, he messed with the knobs again and realized Derrick was right. They did have a mouse, or more correctly, mice, dozens of them moving across the floor.
He looked around to see if Derrick was coming back yet, but he was nowhere in sight. Carson stood up a little too fast, his vision graying out a bit, making him stumble into the edge of the console, the usual wave of dizziness taking him by surprise.
“Dammit!” Carson yelled, more at himself than anything else.
He grabbed the flashlight and wandered out of the office, heading toward the main gallery. Shining the beam into the gallery, he didn’t see anything moving across the floor. He blinked, wondering if he’d somehow scared them away. Maybe they’d heard him approaching.
But, there were so many. Where’d they go?
He opened the panel just outside the gallery’s entrance and flipped on the lights, the large room exploding with light. He blinked against it, squinting, looking for the mice, but he didn’t see any.
He stepped into the room and, after making sure there were no mice, Carson looked up at the tapestry and his breath caught in his throat. Catherine was looking at him now instead of out across her kingdom. She looked even more like Doreen from this angle. His heart felt like it was being squeezed, the sensations moving through him so strange.
Carson thought Foster looked as if he were closer to the beast, his sword now raised above his head ready to strike instead of at his side. What held his attention though was below Foster, scurrying over the rocks. It was the wave of rats. They didn’t seem to be racing toward Foster, but instead, away from him toward the bottom of the tapestry.
He immediately thought about Aunt Meg and wondered if the walls of his brain had finally softened enough that they were collapsing, folding ever inward. Carson looked at his hands and flexed his fingers, waiting for them to turn into a flipper or something equally strange.
The sharp yelp of static from his radio made his heart skip.
“Carson what are you doing down there?”
Taking a deep breath, trying to get himself together, he took his walkie-talkie out.
“Thought I saw something on the monitor and came down to check it out. There’s nothing here though.”
“Sensor trip again?”
He didn’t answer, hand on his hip, walkie held loosely in his hand.
“I’ll be down in a sec.”
He didn’t bother to answer, slipping the walkie-talkie into the holster and sat down on one of the artsy-fartsy looking benches that were far too small to hold up more than one person’s butt at a time. Carson could still feel Catherine’s eyes on him. He didn’t dare look up at her.
Derrick came into the main gallery.
“You’re okay, right?”
He looked at him like he was crazy.
“Sorry,” Derrick said, catching Carson’s frown.
“I’m fine. I saw something on the monitor and came down to check, like I already told you.”
“Okay, don’t get worked up about it.”
“I’m not crazy.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“You all but asked me what I thought I saw, not what I saw. There’s a world of difference between those two things.”
“So, tell me what the monitor showed.”
Carson looked up at the rats in the tapestry.
“Do you see anything wrong with the tapestry?” He pointed to Foster and Catherine.
“Other than Catherine needs a little less clothes?”
Derrick’s smile disappeared in the wake of Carson’s glare.
“Carson, come on, man I’m trying to lighten the mood here.”
“So, you don’t see anything different?”
He knew there was no coming back from what he was about to say. Derrick would either think he was nuts or drunk, but he didn’t have a choice.
“Anything different about the way they’re posed or what’s in the tapestry.”
“Different? I don’t know what you’re getting at.”
“Do you see the rats toward the bottom edge, beneath Foster’s feet?”
“And Catherine is looking at us?” Carson asked, without bothering to look up at the tapestry.
“Right, she is.”
“The rats weren’t there, they were running toward Foster’s legs, and she used to look out over her kingdom.”
“Kingdom?” Derrick asked, laughing uneasily.
“Do you remember that or not?”
“What are you talking about? Of course not. I never look at the crap hanging on the walls. All this dumb art crap is boring.”
“I think you should come back to the office and sit down awhile.”
“Because I’m older than dirt and might crumble to pieces?”
“No, no, I just think maybe you should let me take the next couple of rounds, okay?”
In all the time he’d worked there, Derrick had never offered to do that.
Must have him spooked.
The shadows seemed to be whispering to him, but he didn’t want to listen. They would only make things worse. Once inside the guard booth, Carson sat down heavily in his chair. He ran a hand across the crown of his head a few times before putting the flashlight down on the console.
Maybe there was a reason nobody hired people his age.
“Do you think it’s a sensor acting up? We haven’t had any go bad in a while,” Derrick said.
Carson didn’t want to tell him what he really thought was going on.
“I don’t know maybe.”
“What did you see on the monitor?”
“There were things moving on the floor.”
Derrick put his feet on the floor and went to the monitor, cueing up the main gallery feed.
Looking at the Monitor, he could feel Derrick watching him intently. The grainy picture did look like things were moving across the floor, but it wasn’t as defined as it had been earlier.
“Sort of. I know the monitor’s a piece of crap, but I saw things moving around. It was clearer than that picture.”
Derrick looked between Carson and the monitor. He didn’t say anything and didn’t have to. Carson knew the score.
“I’m going to make my rounds. I have fresh coffee over there in the bag if you want any.”
Derrick left the booth a few moments later, leaving Carson alone with his thoughts. He closed his eyes, not wanting to look at the monitor, but eventually he had to. The tapestry was wavering back and forth and as he watched, he could see the rats dropping from it to the ground in a steady drip and then scurry across the floor.
He picked up the walkie-talkie and then thought better of it. Standing up, he waited for the dizziness to pass and then walked back to the main gallery.
Throat dry, and heart skipping a little too quickly inside his chest, he came to the entry archway for the gallery. He stopped before going inside, Foster no longer driving his sword into the creature, instead lying dead on the rocks with what looked to be dozens of bite marks across his exposed skin.
“Catherine, what is going on?”
He forced himself to look at her and it was Doreen, he was sure of it. It was no longer just her likeness, but really her in the regal gown standing on the balcony. She pointed to the other side of the room, her mouth open to try and warn him.
When he looked, the rats swarmed toward him. He stumbled and bumped into the bench, losing his balance for a moment. They still closed on him, ravenous. Carson reached for one of the display cases, but missed and fell hard to the floor under the tapestry.
The rats swarmed over his body and began nipping. He tried desperately to fight them off, hitting a few with his flashlight, calling out for Derrick, but it was no use. They gnawed away at his skin and began to burrow deeper.
Closing his eyes, his struggles growing weaker, he suddenly wished for nothing but to be in Doreen’s arms again, feeling her next to him. He longed for her whisper, for her warm breath against his bare neck, to smell her after soaking in the tub. The fur rubbing against his skin, and the gnashing of teeth were far away, as he felt her silken nightgown in his hands, body pressing against him, he smiled, comforted, that sweet scent carrying him.
Derrick was shaken. He’d never seen anything like it. He couldn’t explain it, the police asking the same questions over and over again. He kept looking behind him, his eyes wide, fear boiling away inside.
Sitting on the ridiculously small patron bench, he looked at Carson lying on his side, dozens of tiny tears in his uniform, bite marks across his body. That was chilling, but what disturbed him even more was the tapestry.
It was different.
Foster was dead, his body chewed up just like Carson’s was, the rats having made quick work of him, their swarm long gone. That was frightening enough, but what he couldn’t wrap his head around was the fact that Catherine wasn’t in the tapestry anymore, she was on the floor beside Carson. She was a silken cut-out. Her arms reached for him, touching him, as if in a comforting hug, the fabric arms wrapped around the small of his back. Her lips were against his forehead.
He couldn’t explain any of it. Derrick couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t a blonde anymore either. She had fiery red hair, cascading over her shoulders. How was that possible? How could any of this have happened? Was he losing it like Carson?
He shivered at that thought.
All of it swirled around in his mind, but the nagging question, the one that kept needling the edges of his heart was, where were the rats?