“You’re fine being here alone at night?” the rasping, cigarette cough of a man asked. When she looked at him, her brain made a vague impression of him that centered around a single word.
Lisa Beth, who wished to never be seen, nodded.
The retiring janitor squinted at her. His face was etched out of some harsh rock you’d find on the side of the road; withered yet unrelenting. He heaved with each breath. The keys clipped to his belt jingled each time he moved and he smelled vaguely of stale coffee and bleach cleaner.
It was the end of the second night. Lisa Beth had been led through the building, along dizzying corridors, as they emptied trash bins and swept floors. The old janitor seemed bitter that he was being replaced by a woman, and she bit back snide remarks each time he showed her how to ring out a mop, or wipe a window.
The trash was in the dumpster; the lights were off. The building was solemn and still. The empty corridors watched them in stern judgment as they walked through, testing each door to make sure they was locked. The building has once been a school–now converted to business offices– and each individual classroom now housed a different small company. Roofing contractors and carpet cleaners and auto insurance and family lawyers — an entire small economy nestled where high schoolers had thrown paper airplanes and shrieked insults at each other. Some of the lockers, stained green, still lined the hallways, but others had their doors ripped off to be sold as scrap, giving the halls a bitten, torn appearance that reminded Lisa Beth of looking down the throat of some awful beast. A dragon, maybe,
“This place is dead at night,” the janitor said, jingling his keys. He was hesitant to hand them over. They had set the security alarm and were standing next to their vehicles. It was midnight. “You’ll be alone. Except for the occasional ghost.” He grinned.
Lisa Beth, who did not like being looked at, held her hand out and took the keys. “That’s fine,” she said.
She bought coffee before her next shift at a small, struggling coffee shop/gas station/convenience store called Eaties. Eaties seemed eager to offer everything; pastries and cigarettes and beer and foaming, sugary coffee drinks.
Lisa Beth wondered if Eaties would be a fixture in this new life of hers. If this job would be too. She’d be the daily regular, slowly building a familiarity with the sullen girl with hideous bangs behind the counter. They would go from warily nodding at each other, to grim smiles, to murmurs of greeting, and eventually, possibly, a lukewarm “how are ya.”
Yes, that would be fine. It would be a step.
When the counter girl took her order, she said to Lisa Beth: “It’ll be a few minutes, what is the name on the order?”
Lisa Beth looked around at the other customers. There were none; there was a lone man in a camo hat buying beer from the gas station side, but no one at the coffee counter. She frowned, but told the woman her name, and paid.
A few minutes later, a styrofoam cup was slammed bitterly onto the counter and “Liza BETH” was etched in dark marker. She stared at the BETH part; it was written in capital letters, the ink welling and dripping down the side.
Lisa BETH lisa BETH emphasis on the BETH say it with your gut say it with a snarl say it like an insult~
The thought snagged on something thorned and unhinged in her and decided to stick around.
By the time she got to work, her fingers had smudged it and her name had been reduced to a black mark. Lisa Beth, who did not enjoy being known, found that pleasing.
There is no one around. Not one single set of eyes to narrow at me. No dismissive turn of the head. Nothing. The only footsteps are my own. I might not even exist.
The relief when, three hours into her shift, she realized she had not seen another human being in quite a while, filled Lisa Beth and made her wear a small smile as she dragged her cart from converted classroom to converted classroom. She could feel a routine setting into place, and each time that it solidified a little more, her anxiety eased. First, she did the trash, propping each door open so she could come back in without having to worry about unlocking it. Then, the dusting. Finally, the floors. In each room, down the line. The same thing. Simple, unchanging repetition. There was nothing to think about; there was nothing to consider. Each motion of her job quickly became mechanical. Some rooms had a quirk; a small kitchenette, a basketball hoop, or a red sofa, like the one inside Crystals Carpets and Upholstery, but the work remained the same.
Lisa Beth enjoyed knowing exactly what to do next, each and every time.
The only issue was the floor itself.
In the hallways it flowed like the scales of some ancient reptile. Green flecks embedded in stained white faux-marble, with swirling patterns of green and yellow and brown. The lights gleamed off the sloppy wax job, making Lisa Beth slightly queasy as she walked over it.
It looks like chives. It looks like sour cream and chives. It looks like the back of a crocodile and sour cream and onion chips, why does it look like that why did it have to look like that~
It bothered her like a scratch on the inside of her mouth might. Sometimes she could forget it, just to have it to reappear in stinging circumstance moments later. She disliked that her mind had attached the tile to the sour cream and onion potato chips. When she was a child, she had taken a liking to them for one summer. They were all she would eat; scavenging the leftover, half-full bags from barbeques and summer birthday parties. Eating her fill until the seasoning and chewed mush overloaded her taste buds and her stomach whined in protest.and she had thrown up vile, mashed potato slime that burned her throat.
It had been almost thirty years since she’d had those chips. Now the floor was sour cream and chives.
She was pushing her cart with one hand, swiping through the music on her phone (she had no social apps, she did not want to be looked at, after all) when she heard a door close somewhere ahead of her.
Lisa Beth froze; she felt caught, somehow. Like a prisoner frozen in the guard’s spotlight.
Silence responded, and continued talking, save for the gentle woosh of the heating ducts as a fresh batch of warm air was pumped throughout the building.
She left the cart in pursuit of the noise.
But every door in her wing was still open. Invitingly so. Each dark doorway watched her with interest as she passed, holding her keys out in front of her like a sword. The hateful chive tile leered up at her as she strode quickly to the end of the hall.
Lisa BETH there is nothing there. See how that fits? There is nothing there, there, there. There, nothing is. Nothing is? Nothing is there.
No one was there.
She rounded the corner, past the set of women’s restrooms, to go down the other hallway. The school layout was that of two capital Hs, interwoven, with a block in the center for restrooms. You could walk around the entirety of it in five minutes, an endless circle she planned on pacing when she finished her work early.
She walked that center loop three times and saw no one.
The green floor churned and swirled.
“I hate you,” Lisa Beth told it.
The ghost in the building was aware, vaguely, that there was someone else around. It had grown used to the old man; he was oblivious and intensitive to the comings and goings of a dead thing. The ghost found it could run, shrieking, down the corridors, its hands raking across the rows of lockers, and the old man would snort and shake his head and continue pushing his broom.
The old man fell asleep in the little office and the ghost stood over him, screaming in his face, sure that the man would feel its incorporeal rage, but no, the old man snored deeply, sleeping with the peace of the absolute.
Nothing makes you feel more dead than when the living fail to notice you.
The ghost, who very much wanted to be seen, was in one of the classroom/offices when it became aware of the woman. It swam to her and corralled itself to a stop directly in front of her, but she did not see it. Instead, she glared down at the floor, her lip curling in disgust.
Frustrated, the ghost dove back down the hallway
and returned to the classroom where it had been weeping in the corner, slamming the door behind it.
The door slammed, the ghost was sure, but when it looked back, the door was still open. A moment later, the woman, with her streaks of grey in her slate-black hair and her stomping black boots, strode past. She glared directly at the ghost as it sat in the corner, but she did not see it.
A while later, distinctly, the ghost heard her say: “I hate you.”
The ghost said her name on the third night.
Again, amidst the sour cream and onions and the chive floor. Again, a door slammed somewhere. Again she chased the sound. Clomp-clomp went her boots as she charged after it. She was determined to see this ghost; Lisa Beth did not wish to be seen, but ghosts were not afforded this luxury. Particularly if they were bothersome, annoying ghosts that would not leave her alone.
She was drinking out of a bottle of water, standing near her cart. The taste of sour cream and onion chips had suddenly struck her; a phantom taste that made her stomach churn. She drank water until it faded, and that was when the door ahead slammed again.
She left the cart and ran to the spot.
All doors open.
A harsh whisper, directly in her ear. It sent ice coursing through her, starting at the top of her head and flooding her with a chill that made it hard to breathe. It wasn’t so much the whisper, or that the ghost knew her name.
It was that the ghost had said “Beth” in the exact way it had been printed and smudged on the coffee cup. It was an echo from her own mind, the way she’d leaned on the “B” and “et” sound, mentally, carving a mental sound bite for herself.
The ghost had taken it and filtered it through that void between worlds. Death dripped down the syllables like honey on the walls of a teacup, filling the gaps with sinister nothingness. How disquieting to hear death with its mouth wrapped around your dear, sweet name.
She looked around for a sign, a shadow, a hint that this thing had some tether to the physical realm, but for the moment, like Lisa Beth, the ghost did not want to be seen.
On another night, indiscernible from the rest of them, she was sitting in the dull little custodial office, squinting at a novel that was not holding her interest.
She heard breathing in the hallway. It approached, waxing loudly as it got closer. A flickering shadow flitted by the open door. The breathing waned as it moved down the hall.
Lisa Beth leaned her head out to look. It had been such a pathetic, human noise she momentarily forgot about the ghost. No ghost had such cloyed, wet breathing. It had to be a person, a slovenly employee shuffling home for the night.
But as always, like Lisa Beth, there was nothing that wanted to be seen.
She leaned back into the office. The ghost bothered her, but not enough. She’d take a thousand screeching spirits if it meant no one was near her. She’d had her fill of the people of this world; with their tearing hands and lascivious tongues. She didn’t even like sitting in the same chair that the old janitor had used; it still smelled of him. She would have to bring her perfume to erase his existence.
The breathing looped back around. She heard it from further away this time; like an engine gurgling underwater. Heulk-kahh. Hurrkk-kahhh.
She closed the book and stood up. She winced at how definitive that felt. When you close a book and stand up, that means you are set upon confronting the wheezing thing in the dark.
Lisa Beth, who wanted to see a ghost, did just that. She stepped onto that foul chive-and-green scale tile and walked briskly after the asthmatic breathing.
Her pace quickened, her footfalls making concise kalump sounds on the floor. The noise rose to a cacophony as she closed in on the breathing; it stopped moving away from her and seemed to stand still. The breathing rested between Smith’s Medical Billing and Haven Building Supply (Logistics office).
Abrupt silence cut through the noise jsut as it was about to overwhelm her. She stood, panting, her own breath now the loudest thing in the building. She glared straight ahead.
Emptiness glared back.
Lisa Beth, who did not want to be seen, but did want to see a ghost, saw nothing.
The ghost, which very much wanted to be seen, pressed its forehead against Lisa Beth’s forehead. It seized the sides of her face and screamed, ghostly spittle flecking onto her nose and cheeks.
Lisa Beth blinked but did not react.
The ghost threatened to gut her. It told her that it’d eat her insides. That it would drag her from room to room, leaving parts of her body in each one. It would savage her until she was pulp but she would finally, finally know that the ghost was here.
Lisa Beth turned on her heel and stomped away. The ghost watched her, sadly.
Her breath hitched once, right before she got back to the janitor’s office. Heulk-kah.
On the night it finally killed her, Lisa Beth, who would finally see that ghost that wanted so dearly to be seen, woke up with the tastes of potato chips in her mouth. Sour cream and onion, clinging to the lining of gums, coating the ridges of her tongue. She scrambled out of bed, gagging, rushing to the bathroom to slurp water from the faucet. She stood there, spitting, over and over, to get the heinous taste out. She caught sight of her pale face and angry eyes in the mirror as she hunched over, glaring at herself, like a creature that lurks in the woods.
At work, the routine started as usual. The breathing and footsteps and door slamming kicked up again. This time she didn’t even bother opening a book; she waited by the janitor door and listened patiently.
The noises increased. She glanced at the clock. 11:09.
In the space of that glance, someone brushed past her. A dark silhouette that darted down the hall.
“Get back here!” she said. She ran after it, her joints popping and creaking as they protested against the hard tile.
The ghost was fast. It sprinted recklessly down the halls, seeming to bounce off the lockers, pinballing back and forth. Lisa Beth took a breath –and tasted those fucking chips again— and put oin a burst of spped.
The ghost reached the square intersection and turned sharply left. As it did so, it cast a livid, white face over its shoulder.
The look froze Lisa Beth, who, as it is well known, did not want to be seen.
She stood utterly still., quite unable to move. The smell and taste and texture of the tile, that green-chive-potato chip floor, filled her mouth. Her nostrils. Her throat. It choked her as her feet cemented to the floor. Her hands clawed at her throat. And of course, she was making that noise.
The ghost, gleeful at finally being seen, ran an entire loop around the school, raking its nails on the lockers, its own heulkl-kahh breath turning up in pitch, sweetening into a laugh. It ran all the way back around to Lisa Beth.
She managed to free herself from the grip or terror, and begin to run. She became a black shadow, sprinting away from the ghost, casting white faced glances over her shoulder as she choked on breath that was not her own.
When the ghost caught her, Lisa Beth would never be seen again.
The former janitor took his job back. It was an easy enough job, he just didn’t like being up so late.
The building was as quiet as ever save for a few doors opening on their own. Occasionally, the vents would make a new noise. Heulk-kahhh.
And he would smell potato chips.