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Night Watch

The bat entered without permission, an accidental intrusion.  Thomas lay awake, turned stiffly on his left side, arm extended, his hand an empty cup that cradled the space where the curve of a woman’s neck would be if he had a lover or a wife.  Ordinarily, he would have been six hours into his shift as the night guard at Wilkes, Beacon & Lewis, but this night he lay in bed waiting for the sun to rise so he could sleep.

Thomas listened.  He understood how light can trick the eyes, coaxing the mind to see what isn’t there and then concealing what is.  In the dark, sight is as useless to a man as a pair of gloved hands to a sculptor, sheathed and clumsy and unable to discern what hides under the skin of a shadow or a stone.

The bat swooped and turned in the four-cornered room, looping with the swift precision of a pilot.  His eyes closed, Thomas traced the bat’s course, the approach and receding flutter muted by the soft whir of the ceiling fan, until he could imagine the air itself was marked with a glowing line.  He waited.

When you work the night shift, he told himself, the quiet hum of empty rooms conspires to make you dull, so Thomas resisted habit, choosing a new course for his rounds each hour.  By ten o’clock, hardly anyone remained in the building.  Legal assistants dotted the firm’s sprawling library, nocturnal creatures bent over thick books until 2:00 or 3:00 AM, shirtsleeves pushed high on their pale forearms.  Unless they had car trouble or forgot a key, they ignored him, their eyes red-rimmed and glossy.

The night before, Thomas had found the south stairwell door ajar, a splinter of light marking the dark carpet.  He pulled the door closed, its metal tongue making a soft click as it latched.  Entering the suite of offices, Wilkes and Beacon on the left, Lewis on the right, Thomas had heard a soft bump and a muffled cough down the hall.

The bat circled again.  It swept low across the bed and then ascended to the far corner near the window.  Thomas imagined its fleshy wings, stretched by bones thin as hangers at the edge of a silk garment.  If he swung at it with a broom, he could knock the creature to the floor, easily crushing the narrow body with the heel of his boot.  If he wanted to, he could end it now.

A carpeted hall stretched from the law library to the fifth floor conference room.  Thomas had walked the length of the hall, his shoes making slight depressions in the plush weave.  Footprints, he thought, that disappear overnight.  Around the corner, where black granite replaced the carpet, water pooled under a drinking fountain, and Thomas stepped in the puddle. His rubber sole squeaked.  Something tumbled in the break room, just ahead and to the right, and a wash of light flooded the room like his own kitchen when he opened the refrigerator for milk.  Stepping out of the shadows, he discovered a vagrant in the room, packages of food torn open on the table.  Thomas raised his hand, the gesture of a school crossing-guard instructing drivers to stop.  The woman gaped, her mouth a jagged Oh.  Clutching the cans of soda in her hands, she flew from the room, arms spread in clumsy, panicked flight.

How could she have known that what he had meant when he chased her down the staircase, yelling, “Stop! You can’t get out,” was “you can’t escape without my help”?  How could she have known that he would have unlocked the door and held it open so she could slip back out, still hungry and too thin for the heavy coat folded like brown wings under her elbows?  Before he could reach her, the woman swooped across the marble lobby, her arms extended and the coat opening behind her like a sail, and crashed into the heavy doors.  She cried out and fainted, leaving blood on the glass.

As the bat circled again, caught in the loop of its chosen captivity, Thomas raised his bedroom window and pulled the screen to the floor.  Warm air slipped past him, the evening’s held breath exhaled.  Go, he whispered.  Stepping away from the window, Thomas pressed himself against the white wall of his bedroom.  Believing it had heard him and understood, he waited for the creature to sense the opening and slip out, untouched and invisible against the dark sky.

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