It was just another night in the center.
I was sitting in my office working away. We had had a baker’s dozen more consults come in at least and it had already been a long day. I had six hours to go in my usual sixteen hour Monday shift. I was tired, but I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I could blow the joint at midnight.
Now, working alone in a big building at night has its advantages. Like working night shift in a hospital, evenings at the center bring a kind of calm that only health care workers know. The phones don’t ring quite as much. Nobody stops by your office door to chat. You can even leave your door open while you work, because nobody is there to overhear your conversations with patients on screen. It’s nice and still and conducive to thought and productivity.
But, there are also things that go bump in the night.
Like any building, my mental health center has its own special creaks and groans and shifts and settling during the quiet hours that no 8:30 to 5:00 worker even notices. The vacuum shift when the air conditioning clicks on, causing a door to be sucked shut on its own. The little air freshener canister holder in the bathroom next to my office, that decides to just unhinge itself and drop down with a loud boiiiiing at odd times on weekends. You know, the noises that a building makes when it stretches at night, thinking that none of its people are there to hear it adjust itself on its foundations.
I’m used to these eerie little noises, having done this telepsychiatry job for three and a half years now and being quite comfortable with the psychiatrist-as-monk role.
Sometimes I’m startled by something new. Like last night. (shudder)
Like I said, there I was, another night in the old cockpit, staring at a high def screen and typing my fingers to the bone when I heard it. Conversation. Two, maybe three people. Funny, that, as I had heard no one come in from the back entrance and nobody had stopped by my hallway to announce their presence, our long-established weekend and holiday tradition when folks came in to do chart work or make phone calls and they knew I was working that day.
But there is was, loud enough to hear but not loud enough to be distinct. A conversation between what sounded like two women. (shudder) I get chills just thinking about it even as I type this.
Who the heck can that be? Why didn’t they come to tell me they were there?
I got up out of my chair, went to the doorway, stuck my head out the door into the hallway, and listened.
Scenes from Ghostbusters flashed through my head. Yes, it was clearly, but not clearly, a conversation. Mumble, mumble, drone, drone, ha ha ha, mumble mumble mumble ha ha ha.
And then, just as quickly as it had come, it stopped. Just stopped. They were gone. No people. No talking. No conversation. No ha ha ha. No sound of doors opening or closing. I ventured out into the hallway, timidly putting one foot in front of the other and thinking at the same time how silly I was being.
“I’m alone in this building. I’ve been alone in this building all day long.”
Are you now?
“It’s Memorial Day weekend. No self-respecting state worker in their right mind is going to set foot in a state office on Memorial Day holiday.”
That’s the point, isn’t it, Old Sport?
“Oh, stop it with the Gatsby references, already.”
I can do whatever I want.
I shook my head and cleared the 1920s cobwebs and flapper dust. There was nobody here. Empty conference room. Empty hallway. Empty outer hallway. Back exit securely closed and electronically locked.
Who you gonna call?
“Oh, stop it.”
I went back to my desk, sat down, and got back to work.
Thirty minutes later, they were back. Mumble mumble HA HA HA mumble buzz buzz mumble HA HA HA.
Okay, this was creeping me out. Maybe this working by yourself for sixteen hours at a time is not such a good idea after all. What was that William Hurt movie? The one about being in a tank and sensory deprivation?
HA HA HA HA HA HA HA
“I’m glad you think it’s funny. I don’t think it’s so funny.”
Welcome to the Hotel California, where you can check out but you can never leave.
“Okay. Get a grip, cowboy. You’re a doctor. There are no people here with you. There must be a rational explanation for this. No one came in. You didn’t hear the familiar loud crash of the self-closing door in the outer hallway. Get up and investigate this and put your mind at ease. You’ve got five hours more to work.”
I got up, stepped back into the hallway, turned to my right and gingerly, quietly, stealthily tiptoed down the carpeted tunnel to the corner, peered around it to the left, and saw…
Nothing. No green slime. No Stay Puft marshmallow man.
I went back into the outer hallway, looking to my left, then to my right into the semi-darkness. Straining to see the exit way down the hall to my right, the sodium-lit parking lot beyond.
I turned, re-entered the Executive Wing, and retraced my steps. Then, I heard it. Muffled, but there. Voices. At least two. Female.
Ha ha ha mumble mumble mumble.
Were they in my office? I would not be ambushed. I would not go down without a fight. I would stand for timid psychiatrists everywhere. I would fight bravely if it came to that.
I passed by my colleague’s office, a little glass-walled fishbowl of a place on the corner, with its own separate setup of dual high def monitors and computers. Inside, the monitors glowed. And inside, the voices laughed again.
I went back to my own office, sat down in front of the monitor, and waited. My heart rate was rapidly descending from the 140 range. In two minutes, the call came.
“Dr. Smith? Hi! We thought we’d never get you. We tried to call in twice, but we kept getting Aiken 2 instead of Aiken 1 and it was just a dark, empty office. We couldn’t figure out how to get to yours. We were just chatting away, laughing about how we couldn’t figure this thing out and get it to turn off. Ha ha ha ha.”
“I know,” I said. “I know. No problem. I wondered when I was going to hear from you.”
I settled back in my chair for the rest of my shift.
Just another night in the center.
Across the hall, an air freshener can dropped down spontaneously from its holder.