This is Part 1 of my “No Sleep” series. My previous story, “The Lake,” sets the mood for this series.
Back when I was in college, I worked for a help desk where I did computer support. I didn’t deal with network hardware or anything of the like, but I did whatever my bosses told me to do, which sometimes including taking inventory of equipment I didn’t normally deal with. Taking inventory of computer equipment was boring and tedious, but there was one thing that I did enjoy taking inventory of: the network equipment in the telecom closets.
The telecom closets were small rooms where racks of noisy networking equipment was kept. The rooms had to be secured to maintain the integrity of the networks in the various dorms, so access was extremely limited. Stupid people, especially stupid college kids, would undoubtedly steal, destroy, or otherwise mess with the equipment if it wasn’t kept under lock and key.
One thing about the dorms on our campus is that most of them were very old. 10 of the 12 dorms predated telecom closets altogether, so small rooms were either repurposed, or larger rooms were partitioned to make a suitable area for the network equipment to reside.
It was a Friday during the first month of summer when I got a request from one of my bosses to check out a serial number on one of the switches in a telecom closet in Faye Hall. Normally, that dorm would be crawling with girls, as it was the largest of the girls dormitories, but since it was summer, there were only administrative and maintenance staff in the building, most of which were on the 1st floor of the 7 floor building.
My coworker John and I decided to walk over to Faye Hall after lunch to take care of my boss’ request. We shot the shit on the way there, joking about something that had happened earlier that day and generally taking our time walking.
“What floor is the telecom closet on?” John asked as we got closer.
“There’s 3 of them in Faye,” I said. “One on the 1st floor, one on the 3rd floor, and one on the 6th floor. I’m not sure which one the switch is in.”
I’d been in all of the telecom closets in every dorm on campus except for the very newest dorm, which actually had real, dedicated telecom closets from the beginning, since it was only 3 years old. The closets in Faye, on the other hand, were old, unused rooms, and were probably the largest of any of the closets. I wasn’t sure why such relatively large rooms had been dedicated to telecom equipment, to be honest. The one rack took up maybe 2 feet by 3 feet in the 15 by 10 foot room, but who was I to question university building structure decisions? I was just a lowly student worker.
“Do you at least have a guess?” John asked. He’d never been in a telecom closet before, even though he’d been to Faye Hall hundreds of times to fix computer problems.
“Probably the one on the 3rd floor. We can start there, then the one on 6, then the one on the 1st floor.”
We swiped our ID cards by the scanner on the door to the lobby and flashed our technician badges to the lady behind the front desk, even though she barely seemed to care that we were there. Typically, if a guy could enter that building without a girl’s assistance when there were no girls currently staying in the building, the dorm managers couldn’t have cared less who came and went.
“Let’s take the stairs,” I said. “They come out right by the telecom closet.”
The building was about 50 years old, so the elevators were added as an afterthought in the 90’s. There were off on the west wing in the only place they could manage to fit them that required minimal destruction and remodeling. The stairwells were hella creepy, though. They were windowless, narrow, and the lighting was pathetic. The entire place was an echo chamber too. Any sounds you heard could’ve been from above or below any distance away, and you could never pinpoint the location of the sound without a visual of the source. If you were on the second floor, you could only see up half a flight of stairs. If there was someone rounding the corner right there between the 3rd and 2nd floor, you’d never know exactly where they were until they were right on top of you. Sometimes when I was alone, I’d take the elevator just so I didn’t have to be in there by myself, but since I was with John, I didn’t give it much thought.
We swiped our IDs at the card access point in the stairwell and emerged on the third floor just a short walk away from the telecom closet. There was a kitchen area right there, then a closet behind it that required ID card access, and then the telecom closet was through that closet behind a door that required an old fashioned key to open. The closet didn’t have any windows or lights, and while the telecom closet didn’t have any windows, it did have an old fluorescent light in it. Without that light, it would’ve been eerily dark in there, considering the only other source of light was from the closet next to it that was already dark and void of any light fixtures.
As we approached the door to the closet, I could already hear the whirring of the fans on the network hardware. From far away, it was a gentle drone, but once you got in the closet, it was pretty loud.
After we swiped ourselves into the first closet, I took the telecom keyring out of my pocket and looked the individual keys for the one marked “FAYE.” There was one key that opened all of the closets in the entire building, so even though there were 12 keys on the ring, it was easy to find the right one. I took the old, dull key and inserted it into the lock. It clicked, I turned the door handle, and we were met with a rush of hot air, darkness, and the now much more audible whirring noise of the fans.
I flipped the light switch, and the overhead fluorescent light flickered on, but pulsed black and dim white light.
“I guess they don’t change these lights too often,” I said.
“Wow, it’s kind of warm in here,” John said.
“This equipment gets a little hot.”
John looked around while I checked on the switch. I began swinging the keys around on my finger and whistling, as if I were a security guard or something.
“What’s this wall for?” John asked.
As I said before, the room was about 15 by 10, but on the right side of the room, there was a cinder block wall that went up about 7 feet, leaving about a 3 foot gap between the top of the wall and the ceiling. Another 2 feet beyond that wall was the original wall. I had always assumed the room had been partitioned off incorrectly or that there was a door leading to that small section somewhere, and that the door just wasn’t visible beyond the cinder block wall.
“I dunno,” I said, walking toward him as he admired the barrier. I should’ve been paying attention to where I was walking, though. I was always so careful, especially in places where I’d be more prone to accidents, but in that sudden lapse of judgment, my foot landed on something small and round, and I felt my legs fly out from under me. The keyring that was on my finger flew off, as if I’d practically thrown it, and I landed with a thud on the dusty linoleum floor next to the iron pipe that had tripped me.
“Dude! Are you okay?” John asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, trying to stifle the embarrassment of falling. John extended a hand to me, and I rose to my feet, taking pause to dust the ass of my jeans off.
“Where’d the keys go?” I asked.
“I dunno. I thought I heard them land behind me.”
We took a quick look around, but the keys were nowhere to be found.
“You don’t think they went behind the wall…do you?” John said.
“Shit,” I said, realizing that the dark space behind that wall was the only place in the room we hadn’t combed over.
“How can we even get back there to look?” he asked.
“I am super claustrophobic. I’m definitely not going back there.”
“You’re such a baby,” John said. “I’ll do it, just help me get a chair or something to get over the wall.”
“Did you hear something?” I asked.
“Yeah, a bunch of noisy-ass fans,” John said. He was probably right. The fans did make weird noises sometimes.
I walked out to the kitchen and grabbed a chair. On my way back in the telecom closet, I kicked the doorstop under the door so it wouldn’t close on us. Without having the keys, it would suck if the door closed.
I put the chair in front of the wall, and John climbed up on it with his old smartphone in his hand. It didn’t have a flashlight on it, but he opened up a blank white screen on it, which cast off a decent amount of light. The chair created just enough lift for John to be able to hoist himself to the edge and look over the top of the wall.
“See anything?” I asked. He moved his phone around, trying to inspect the closed-off space.
“No, there’s not enough light back here. Looks empty, though.”
“Crap. Man, we have to find those keys,” I said.
“Chill man. I’ll climb over the wall and look. Go grab another chair and we’ll throw it over there so I can climb back out.”
“How will we get the chair out after?” I asked.
“I think those keys will be missed a lot more than an old chair will.”
He had a point. I went back in the kitchen and grabbed another chair. I noticed in passing that it had grown a little dark outside. There was no rain in the forecast, and it had been beautiful just 20 or so minutes ago, so that struck me as odd.
“Here.” I handed the chair to John, who carefully lifted it up out of my hands, guided it over the wall and down as far as his arms would reach, and then dropped it.
“Be back in a jiffy,” he said, pulling himself up and over the wall. I climbed onto the chair on my side of the wall and hoisted myself up over the edge so I could watch what he was doing and finally see what was back there myself.
“I sure hope the keys are back here. My phone is almost dead.”
I couldn’t really see anything, so I got down and leaned against the wall, hopeful that John would soon find the keys so we could get out of there.
The door had closed. I don’t know how, but it had, and as a result, the room was even darker than it was before.
“What the hell was that?” John asked.
“The door somehow closed.”
“Oh,” he said, unfazed. “Hey, what’s this?”
“There’s some sort of small corridor back here,” he said. My interest was immediately piqued. I got back on the chair and hoisted myself up to look over the wall again. John was kneeling at the far end of the tiny space with his phone out in front of him, looking down the corridor that neither of us had seen before. It was only a few feet high, so it’s no wonder that it had blended into the darkness.
“I think it might be an old air conditioning vent,” John said. Back then, I didn’t give it a second thought, but now, recalling the events of that day, I stop and wonder if that building even had central air conditioning when it was erected so many years ago.
“Okay, I definitely heard something that time, and it wasn’t the fans,” I said.
“Yeah…I heard it too,” John said, his voice showing the first and slightest hint of fear.
“Dude, this is really freaking me out. Forget that corridor or vent or whatever it is, and hurry up and find the keys so I can at least open the door.”
“What do you mean? Why can’t you open the door?” he asked.
“The door locks from both sides. We’re locked in here until we either find the keys or call someone to get us with the spare keys,” I said.
“There it is again!”
“I think…I think it’s coming from in here,” he said, still looking down the corridor.
“Well, do you see-”
“JESUS CHRIST!” he screamed, practically jumping up and running to the opposite wall. As he stumbled backward, he tripped over the chair, and one of the legs broke right off. “SHIT! Get me out of here!”
“SOMETHING IS IN THAT FUCKING CORRIDOR!”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“There’s a thing…in there!” he stuttered. “I saw its eyes!”
“Stop playing around, dude. It’s not funny,” I said.
“I’M NOT FUCKING JOKING!”
It was the loudest the noise had been yet, and that’s when I realized that the noise wasn’t getting louder; rather, it was getting closer.
And that’s when I started freaking out.
“The chair!” I screamed. “Shove the chair down the corridor!”
John didn’t hesitate. He grabbed the broken chair and stuffed it down the down the corridor legs first.
“GET ME OUT OF HERE!” he screamed again. I got down off of my chair and lifted it up.
“I’m throwing this chair over! Catch it so it doesn’t break!”
I lifted it and tossed it as carefully as I could. I heard it fall and crash into the ground on the other side, but miraculously, it didn’t break. Moments later, John came climbing over the wall. He didn’t hesitate for a second at the 7 foot drop.
“Dude, what the hell is back there?!”
“I have no idea, but we have to get the hell out of here!” he said. I pulled out my phone to call a coworker, but there was no signal. We were inside of a tall building in a super enclosed room. We may as well have been in an elevator.
“There’s no signal in here!” I cried. John pulled out his phone in hopes that since he had a different cell carrier that maybe he’d have a signal, but he never got to find out, because as soon as he pulled his phone out of his pocket, the battery died.
“Shit!” he said.
The chairs on the other side of the wall had obviously just been smashed together or against the wall or something.
“HOLY SHIT!” we both screamed.
We were definitely not alone in that room.
We had to get out of there, but with the keys lost and our cell phones being of no help, we were at a loss.
“How the hell are we going to get out of here?!” John whispered frantically, as if the thing on the other side of the wall didn’t already know we were there.
“Wait, I’ve got it!”
I immediately reached over to the rack and began pulling network cables out of the switches until every last one lay on the ground.
“Why the hell did you do that?” John asked.
“I’ll explain later,” I said, looking around the floor. “Ah, there it is!” I’d finally spied the pipe that had tripped me earlier – the root of all this mess. We backed against the farthest wall, myself holding the pipe in front of me, and John just standing there, shaking. I was probably shaking too, but having that pipe in my hands made me feel at least a little better.
A few moments of silence passed, and then John had to go and open his mouth.
“What if it can climb?”
I stood there, letting those words echo in my ears. It was such an innocent phrase, but in this context, it was the most terrifying thing I’d ever heard.
The light overhead flickered.
“No…not now. No…” I whispered.
SCRATCH SCRATCH SCRATCH SCRATCH
It sounded like a huge dog scratching against a door. Over and over and over. We sat there for at least 20 minutes, though it felt like hours, listening to the scratching from the other side of the wall. I was so thankful for the droning of the fans, because if I had to hear that scratching noise in dead silence, I probably would’ve gone a step beyond crazy. We’d already screamed our lungs out, but there was no one around to hear us. It seemed like there was nothing left to do but wait for whatever was on the other side of the wall to get us.
A few more minutes passed, and John finally lost it. He turned to the corner and started crying, while I just stood there, my hands numb from gripping the pipe, staring at the top of that cinder block wall.
Suddenly, the scratching stopped. My first instinct was to be relieved, but then…I saw the silhoutte appear over the wall. It hadn’t stopped scratching at the wall because it had given up; it had stopped scratching because it had succeeded.
I saw, just for a second, the eyes that John had seen earlier when it was still in the corridor. They were human-like, but had the eeriness of a cat’s.
And then, as if things couldn’t get any worse, the old fluorescent lights finally gave out, leaving us in completely pitch black darkness. That was it. I knew right then that in mere seconds, whatever that thing was would be at my throat. I wanted to say something brave like, “It’s been a pleasure working with you, John,” or “I’m not going down without a fight,” but I was so scared that I couldn’t even open my mouth. I think I might’ve meekly swung the pipe around in front of me, but I honestly don’t remember for sure.
Then, the door opened. Light flooded the room. I’d never been so happy before to see a door open.
But…the thing. It was gone. How had it disappeared?
“What’s going on in here?” a large man walked into the room. I immediately recognized him from the few times I’d worked with him before. He was a network administrator with the university’s Office of Information Services.
I don’t know how I’d thought of it in that mental state, but I’d remembered that the network guys had a tool to see when a switch went offline. When I pulled all of the cables out of the switch, I was hoping they’d get an alert and come check it out, and much to my amazement, it had worked.
John and I walked out of that room terrified, but unharmed. The network guy thought we were crazy, but I didn’t blame him. Maybe we were crazy, but as we were walking out of the room, I stepped in a puddle of water that definitely hadn’t been there before. I only barely noticed it was there because my next step was slippery, and I only mention it in this retelling of the story because I find it strange after the fact that water had somehow appeared out of nowhere.
We never did find the keys.