“Just watch,” Andrew, the head of hospital security said, “It’s not gonna happen ‘cause you’re here. But seriously: the cameras keep flipping out. And the weird thing is, it only happens at certain times during the day.”
“Like when?” Paul asked. He hoped it was now. He didn’t want to have to come back. The camera system had been put in only two weeks ago, and he hated making service calls on things that had just been installed. Nor did he like the idea of sitting in this cramped office; it reeked of stale snack foods, and he was pretty sure that one of the two sluglike, glorified mall cops that worked there recognized him.
“Right ‘bout now, actually,” said Andrew, pointing at the wall of monitors that were themselves sectioned off into a gridwork of small windows, each one revealing a small black-and-white view of some portion of Johnson Memorial Hospital.
“It usually starts with these down here,” he said. In one of the cameras, a car pulled up alongside a curb in a parking lot. The passenger door opened, and then the camera began to sputter, the feed flashing with bars of solid black or creamy white.
“There it goes,” the other, obviously junior, security guy said ruefully. “Just watch: they’ll go, one at a time. Sometimes they cut out, other times there’s just a patch on the screen that’s all wonky.”
Paul glanced at this second officer, who looked back steadily. Still unsure if this was because the guy recognized him from the news, or if that was just how he looked at people, Paul averted his face. The guy’s hospital i.d. badge read “Nick”. Like his boss Andrew, Nick was big and soft. Up until a year ago, back when he’d been a cop, Paul would have looked upon both of them with disdain. But now, here he was performing a valuable customer service for two guys whose workday consisted of sitting around snacking and staring at monitors before going home to watch television.
“How long has it been doing this?” Paul asked Andrew, trying to keep his mind on the task at hand.
“Ever since it was installed.”
“And when you called the helpline, what did they say?”
“They had no idea,” Nick said, rolling his eyes. “They just gave me your number.”
Paul watched the screens. The parking lot feed now looked alright, but another was acting strange: a quarter-sized dot of random static scrolled across the screen. After the dot moved to a corner and disappeared, all was fine for about thirty seconds, then another feed went berserk more in the vein of the parking lot.
“Alright, I’ll start checking the cameras,” Paul said. “I’m going to call you a few times while I’m out: are you going to be here?”
Andrew grunted, which Paul took as a “yes.”
Paul had a small phone-like gadget containing the layout of the entire jobsite: the placement of the cameras, strings of wire that connecting them, and the junction boxes where these lines came together before feeding back to Andrew and Nick’s lair. He went from place to place, checking wiring and running a small diagnostic app on each one that he could reach with the small collapsible step stool he carted along with him. Every camera looked fine.
He called Andrew.
“Are there any cameras not working now?” he asked.
“Uh…yeah. The one on the second floor, near the ICU, in the main hall.” Paul was annoyed. He’d checked that one an hour ago.
“Alright, I’m going to head that way,” Paul said. He began walking quickly. “Let me know if any of the other cameras start acting up.”
“Okay…but the one you’re goin’ for is fine now. Now it’s the one on the same floor by the elevators.”
Paul was already on his way to the elevators, so when he got there, he punched the “up” button.
“How’s the camera now?” he asked Andrew, who was breathing loudly into the phone.
“Still messed up, dude” he said back, sounding bored and a bit annoyed.
The elevator opened, and Paul stepped in after an older woman being pushed on a wheelchair by a much younger man came out. He stepped into the elevator and pressed “2.”
When he got up there, he stepped out and aside, letting a pair of chatty middle-aged ladies in, followed by a small, solemn-looking boy of perhaps ten.
“Second floor elevator camera’s fine now,” Andrew said as the elevator closed behind Paul.
Paul swore, apologized since he was on the phone with a customer, then turned and punched the “down” button on the nearest elevator. Over the phone, he heard Andrew laugh, and then begin eating something dry and crunchy.
“Now it’s the first floor elevator camera,” Andrew said, this time through a mouthful of food. The door in front of Paul opened, and he stepped in, in his haste nearly colliding with an entire crowd of people, all of them sad-looking and obviously together in a single group. By the time he got in and hit the first floor button, he was told through chomps and smacks that the first floor was now working. Paul swore again, and apologized again, while Andrew laughed some more and then shoveled another handful of feed into his mouth without moving the phone.
“You’re gettin’ your exercise today,” Andrew said as Paul stepped out into the first floor. “Now it’s the camera in the main hall that’s freakin’ out.” Paul began walking in that direction; he could in fact see the camera itself—a small, nondescript black half-sphere that stuck out from the ceiling. He began walking toward it swiftly; by the time he reached it, he had nearly caught up to the two ladies and the younger boy, whom earlier he’d assumed was with the ladies, but was not. Paul opened up the small collapsible stepladder he carried with him, and was about to step up on it when Andrew informed him breathily that that camera was now fine, and now the main lobby feeds were malfunctioning.
Paul closed the stool, and began nearly sprinting towards the main lobby. He was halfway there when he realized there was no way he could check those cameras physically; the ceiling was way too high.
“Let me guess,” Paul said. “The lobby cams are now fine.”
“Uh…yep. Now it’s the stairwell to the parking garage that’s bein’ weird.”
Paul bolted for that, not sure if he could reach those cameras or not. When he crashed through the door, he asked Andrew if the cameras were still off.
“Yeah, they’re screwy all right,” he said. “Oh wait, now they’re fine.”
As Andrew heard this, the sound of a closing door echoed up through the stairwell from below. Paul dropped the stool and began pounding down the stairs.
“How’s the parking garage cameras holding up?” he asked as he ran. He wasn’t a cop anymore, but he was still in good shape.
“Well, now some of those are actin’ funny…” he said more, but Paul did not listen. He opened the door that led to the parking garage, and stepped through in time to see the small boy from the elevator climb into the passenger seat of a sporty-looking blue two-door.
“Garage cameras are fine now,” Andrew said. “This is about the time of day it usually stops.”
Paul went back to the security office. Andrew was now gone, but Nick was still around.
“Do you guys have any man-lifts—like for the maintenance guys to change lightbulbs and stuff with?” he asked Nick, who was busy slugging down a long draught of energy drink.
“We have one, but it’s a pain,” Nick said. “Maintenance guys usually use one of those claw-on-a-pole things.”
Paul sighed. It was already three, and he had a lot of things he was formally required by company policy to do when it came to ongoing systemic problems. Even so, he had another idea that itched in the back of his head.
“When those disturbances start—do they always start with the garage cameras?”
“Yeah, pretty much. I mean, sometimes it’s the main door cameras, but most of the time it’s the garage.”
“And do they start when a car pulls up? I mean, is there a car in the frame when it stops working?”
“Uh…I dunno…that’s…that’s an interesting question,” Nick said, though he’d opened up a browser window on one of the monitors and was scrolling through some kind of chat feed. Then he clicked on another tab, and Paul saw a picture of himself come up on the screen. It was part of a news article. The headline read “Police shoot local teen.” Below his own picture Paul saw the photo of seventeen-year-old Michael McAndless, the boy he’d accidentally shot in a dark hallway. Michael had picked the wrong time to come out of his apartment; Paul had been chasing someone involved in an intentional hit-and-run, and came around the corner just as the unlucky Michael stepped out carrying a phone and ball of keys in one hand. In that adrenaline-filled instant, Paul had put two bullets into the kid.
“Hey, man, is that you?” Nick asked. His tone was of slight awe, as though he were meeting a celebrity.
“Nope,” Paul said.
“Aw man, ’cause it looks kinda like you.”
“Not me,” Paul said, glad that he didn’t have to wear a name tag.
Nick looked disappointed.
Because he had no choice, Paul came back for several days straight, and seemed to be working two jobs at once. One of them was official: he was running diagnostics on each camera, and checking the wiring, wherever it happened to be. The other job was more like the one he’d had before his unfortunate run-in with Michael McAndless. This began next day, when it became undeniable that the camera malfunctions centered around the boy. The kid climbed out of the blue two-door at the same time as the day before, and the cameras began to fizz out.
Paul knew the company’s systems inside and out, and he also knew the guys who’d done the consultations and planning of where to put the cameras, along with the crew who’d installed them. They rarely made mistakes. When there was an issue, usually it stemmed from a manufacturer error in the cameras, or else the client had tried to screw around with them, or they’d been damaged, accidentally or otherwise. Every camera he checked was fine–until the boy walked past them.
After the second day Paul waited in the parking lot, and when the sporty blue 2-door showed up, he called Andrew and asked about the cameras in the lot. Once the kid got out, they began to fritz. The distortions continued up through the stairwell, and towards the ICU, which was plagued with problems for nearly two hours before the glitches proceeded back to the parking lot, where the blue car waited.
The really exasperating part, however, came when the boy neared the ICU, which apparently was where he always went. Paul wasn’t close enough to the kid to get into the same elevator with him, and so he had to wait for the next one. This elevator then broke down between the first and second floors, leaving Paul and an elderly couple stuck for close to twenty minutes. Once maintenance–and Nick, who mainly stood and watched–had freed them from that particular trap, he was stuck running around the ICU, calling Andrew constantly to see which cameras were glitching out. Andrew for his part was clearly growing exasperated, and Paul worried that it was becoming clear to everyone that what he was doing was outside of his employer’s typical protocol, and didn’t make sense. Still, he spent the better part of an hour wandering around the second floor in search of the boy—so much so that the staff were beginning to question him with increasing coldness. All the while, he did not see the kid at all until the cameras near the elevators began to malfunction, and Paul tailed the boy down to the parking garage as before.
Paul knew it wouldn’t do for him to appear unstable at work. He’d gotten this job by blind luck, when the brother of a friend from the force offered to hire him more or less out of pity. All eyes were on him, he well knew, and if he seemed unstable, or got himself fired from the security company, he was well and truly screwed.
And so the next day Paul did his best to seem professional, running the usual diagnostics and doing the usual tests–all of which he was certain were pointless. However in the afternoon he took out a ladder from maintenance, went out to the parking garage, and propped it below one of the cameras. Then he called Andrew and told him to call him back when the main lobby cameras began to freak out. He spent nearly an hour going through the motions of checking the parking area cameras before Andrew called back. Paul ran towards the door that opened up from the stairwell, and found an alcove to stand in. A few seconds later the blue two-door pulled up to the curb. From his vantage point he saw the kid come out of the stairwell and head for the passenger door. Halfway there, though, the kid stopped, then turned to face Paul directly, as though he knew exactly where he would be. The boy smiled and waved, then got in. Paul stepped out from his spot as the car pulled away; he couldn’t get a clear view of who was driving, both because of the angle, and because the windows were tinted. It drove off in no particular hurry, however, which allowed him to read the car’s plates.
That evening, Paul paid a visit to a license plate lookup website, got a name–Bryce Chadderton–and from that, an address. Then he called in sick. The next morning he got up, went through his usual morning routine, and then headed to the hospital. He parked in the garage, and waited for the blue car. It arrived at the usual time, dropping off its one small passenger, and drove off. Paul followed it.
The blue car threaded its way back through town, with Paul always no more than a block behind. His own car was nondescript enough that he didn’t feel too worried about being picked out. In any case, if the driver of the blue car noticed he was being followed, he gave no sign. Instead, he drove without any purpose that Paul could really see, frequently doubling back and heading, in the end, nowhere in particular—he certainly wasn’t going back to the address connected to his license plate, anyway. Instead, he zigzagged around town, stopping at convenience stores. Paul parked somewhat nearby, and at each one he watched as Chadderton, a young man in large reflective sunglasses, got out, went into the store, then came out ten or so minutes later and drove off.
After a few hours of this, Paul lost the blue car. He was less than a hundred yards behind it, with two other vehicles between them, when his quarry turned into the righthand lane, which was turning-only. Paul tried to get in behind him, but there were three other cars between them now, and the light was red. The blue car darted out just as the cross-traffic’s light turned green, and by the time Paul was able to come around the corner, the blue car was long gone. He was disappointed, but had a pretty good idea when and where he’d be able to find the car again, so he picked up some lunch and went back to the hospital. An hour later, the blue car pulled up once again. The boy came out of the stairwell door and got inside. They left, and Paul followed.
This time they headed straight for the address. The place was pretty upscale, tucked away in the wooded hills outside of town. Paul let them get far ahead of him once he was sure where they were going. The blue car was in the driveway when he passed the house. Paul wound further up the road before pulling off and getting out. He walked back down the hill, and stopped when he drew near the house. Rather than go up to the front door, he circled the place, creeping through woods and brush. All the shades and curtains were drawn. When he came back around to the front of the house, however, he could see that the front door was slightly open.
Paul stood there looking at the thin crack of darkness. It seemed like an invitation, and he recalled the boy turning to smile at him as he made his way to the car. The hell with it, Paul thought. If the cameras don’t get straightened out, I’ll lose the job. If they’re somehow screwing with them, I need to know.
He walked across the driveway, up the front porch steps, and to the door. Through the crack came only silence. When he knocked on the door, it swung partly open, revealing a small rectangle of tile surrounded by a sea of thick pile carpeting. Near the door stood a half-dozen plastic grocery-store bags, their tops tied together as though they were waiting to be taken to the trash. Through the filmy white bags he could see what looked like massive numbers of scratch lotto tickets, with the occasional frozen food or takeout container. A faint smell was in the air—a sulfurous, rotten-egg smell.
“Come on in,” said someone from within the house. It was a boy’s voice. “Please close the door.”
Paul did so, stepping first into a rather nice-looking living room; at the far end he could see a wide opening that led to a kitchen. The light was on in there, and he could see part of a large table, at which the boy sat watching him.
Paul closed the door as requested, and walked into the kitchen. As he stepped in, he saw that there was someone else there, seated at a part of the table that he hadn’t been able to see until he entered the room. It was Chadderton, still wearing large reflective sunglasses.
“Have a seat,” the man said, gesturing towards another chair.
“Who are you people?” Paul asked. “And how are you messing with the cameras?”
“Long story,” Chadderton said. “Let’s just say I’ve been looking forward to this for a while.”
“Actually it’s pretty simple,” said the boy. He sounded bored and annoyed—his tone reminded Paul of Andrew, somehow. “Do you know what symbiosis is?”
“That’s like…parasites and stuff, right?” Paul asked. He hadn’t been in biology class for a very long time, and he wasn’t really seeing the relevance.
“Not exactly,” the kid said. “You are confusing genus and species. For our intents and purposes, it’s where two organisms mutually support and sustain each other.”
“Okaaaay,” Paul said, unclear where this was headed.
“He provides me with assistance, and I in turn help him,” the boy continued. “A 10-year-old child can’t just walk around all the time unaccompanied. It raises questions. And walking takes up a lot of energy, especially with these little legs. He gives me rides, and takes me where I can eat.”
“How are you messing with the cameras?” Paul asked. That was really all he wanted to know. He’d dealt with plenty of crazies when he was on the force, and didn’t have much patience them.
The boy glared at him, and for a moment, Paul felt confused. It was as though his eyes and his brain were disconnected somehow, one of them seeing a boy sitting there, while the other picked up something else, though in the end it was a boy he perceived. He was reminded of a visit to a zoo when he was very young. In one glass case there was a large wooden branch covered in brown vines. But then one of the vines flexed slightly, and six-year-old Paul suddenly saw that they were actually snakes; this shock had driven him to tears, and as Paul now sat looking at the boy, it seemed like the child existed in the very thin membrane between being a vine and being something else. It was beginning to give him a headache.
“My kind do not exhibit traits that can be translated electronically,” the boy said. “It’s a side effect, but a useful one, especially here. It wouldn’t do to have lots of footage of a little boy wandering from room to room in an ICU, would it? People might ask questions.”
“Why do you hang around in the ICU?” Paul asked. His head was getting worse by the second, and he was starting to feel a bit confused. The rotten egg smell seemed to be getting stronger.
“To eat,” the boy said. “Not exactly, but that’s the closest to it that you would understand. And you don’t really have a word for what I consume. I’m forbidden from taking or greatly shortening life, particularly life with potential, but when it comes to those who are destined to perish, there’s more than a bit of gray area, and I can draw what I need without upsetting…anything. And in return for this, I repay my friend”—here he gestured to the man in the sunglasses—“with what you would call luck.”
“So…if you’re so lucky, how was I able to find you?”
The boy chuckled. “It would seem you are misunderstanding the situation. You see, good fortune is hard for anyone to come by, but with my help our friend here has a knack for getting or finding what he wants. It falls in his lap, much of the time almost as if by happenstance. And for quite some time now, it would seem, he’s wanted you.”
Paul turned to the man in the sunglasses, who brought up a small handgun from below the edge of the table. It looked to be no more than a .22, but a gun was a gun. With the other hand, he took off the sunglasses, and Paul recognized him.
It was Nathan McAndless, older brother of the late Michael McAndless.
“Hello officer,” Nathan said. “Can’t say it’s nice to see you, but I’m glad you’re here.”
“Look,” Paul said, his temples throbbing now, “what happened to your brother was an accident, and—”
Nathan slammed the glasses down on the table, shattering them and cutting his hand in the process.
“He’s still dead!” he shouted, not noticing the blood pooling between his fingers. “And you’re…what? A security guy? Still got a job, you’re alive, and the rest of us just have to live every day with him gone. That’s not right.”
“So…you’re going to shoot me?” Paul asked. “How’s that going to fix anything? And how do you think you’re gonna get away with it?” His voice seemed distant, and his mouth somehow thick and slow, so that his words had the slightest edge of slur to them.
Nathan’s free hand tightened into a fist. He squeezed several drops of blood from his injured hand and smiled as though this were pleasing.
“The same way we found you,” the boy said. “With more than a bit of luck. And anyway, this isn’t our house. Mr. Chadderton is on an extended vacation, and in a little while, his slightly ruptured gas line is going to blow when the hot water heater comes on. They’ll find bits of your body, which will be a bit of a head-scratcher, but there’s not going to be any trace of us.”
“So can’t you just…wish me dead?” Paul asked.
“It’s luck, not divine power,” the boy said. “You get what you want, but you have to, as you would say, “roll with it.” There are limitations, and some initiative is required at times.”
“Look,” Paul said, turning to Nathan, “you don’t have to do this. It’s not gonna fix anything. Michael will still be dead, and you’ll have blood on your hands. Believe me, that’s not something you want.”
“The heater will come on in roughly fifteen minutes, Nathan” the boy chimed in. “If you must shoot him, do so soon. And not in the head. Do it in the stomach. I want to feed.”
And so Nathan did.
Bio: I’ve knocked around a bit, having lived in Idaho, Massachusetts, Maine, and Utah. Currently though I live in Wyoming with my wife, 4 kids, 5 cats, dog, tortoise, and a revolving cast of fish. To pay the bills and buy animal food, I teach writing at a 2-year college. I’m a longtime fan of the horror genre, and also enjoy running and cooking Indian food. As of now, my children are not allowed to read my stories.