Midnight Watch by Joseph J. O’Donnell

Author Joseph J. O'Donnell

by Author Joseph J. O’Donnell

John Carver was collecting a nice pension from the Army. Single and retired, he took to fishing to pass the days away. He would take trips to fishing holes across the country where his ‘Angling Magazine’ boasted trophy size catches and peaceful surroundings. His pension didn’t quite cover these trips, so he worked three nights a week as a night watchman for a security company.

John was known as a practical joker by some of the co-workers that he shared his nightly watches with. This particular night he literally had a graveyard shift to man. A union grave digger’s strike left a large local cemetery unattended, and waiting graves caused a backlog in coffins that went unburied. The management decided to store the caskets in a large warehouse on the grounds that normally housed the tractors, and digging equipment, used on the premises. They didn’t want any of the coffins vandalized and they wanted to keep temptation out of reach of the pranks the local youths might conjure up.

John had a new co-worker that night, Jim Wilson, who was a nice enough young man, but suffered from learning disabilities. He was slow on the uptake and this security company was only concerned with their employers staying awake and didn’t require that they were high on the academic scale. John saw this as a perfect opportunity to have a little fun.

“Well, Jim, did you ever stand guard in a graveyard before?,” John asked his partner.

“Nope,” Jim replied in a shy but friendly manner.

“Trick is,” John said,” not to get scared by any strange sounds you might hear.”

“What strange sounds?,” Jim asked, with a hushed voice.

“You know,” John said,” any dogs howling, or branches rustling. Those types of things.”

John smiled to himself with the sight of his partner’s uneasiness.

“Well, that’s ok,” Jim said stiffly, “I watch a lot of spooky movies and they don’t bother me none.”

“But this is different,” John said. “This is real.”

“Well than it’s a good thing that we’re working together then,” Jim said.

“Yup,” John said, “we’ll keep an eye out and make sure nothin’ sneaks up on us.” He watched as Jimmy gave a furtive look over his shoulder towards the caskets at the other end of the storage building.

“Why are they in here?” he asked nervously, indicating the caskets.

“Didn’t they tell you?,” John said referring to the dispatches from the main office.

“Nope. They didn’t tell me anything,” Jim replied. “They just told me to come here and report to you.”

“Well there’s a grave digger’s strike,” John explained, “and they don’t want anybody tampering with the corpses until they’ve had a chance to give them a proper Christian burial.”

“Is that why we’re here?” Jimmy inquired .

“Yup”, John answered . “We got to make sure that no one lets the cadavers loose.”

Jimmy was looking really worried now, and John was trying to suppress his laughter at his discomfort.

“Good thing I’m only working till midnight,” Jim said.

“Why only till midnight?,” John replied. Now it was his turn to feel some uneasiness. “I thought you were here till dawn, when I got off.”

“Nope,” Jim said. “I’ve already put in eight hours and the office could only give me four more here. They’re trying to cut down on the overtime.”

“So they’re leaving me on my own after you go?” John said a little more soberly.

“They said that they’re going to pull another guy over here when I leave,” Jim replied .

“Oh, that’s better now,” John said with a slight sigh of relief. “I thought I had to baby sit those bodies by myself all night.”

Relived, John now turned to his previous thoughts of mischief. He decided to have some fun all at Jimmy’s expense. “Well we better make the rounds then,” he declared.

“What do we have to do?” Jim asked.

“Well, we’re not allowed to leave these here by themselves,” John said, indicating the uneven pile of coffins stacked at the other end of the room . “I’ll make the first trip outside and walk the path that circles the graveyard. It should take about twenty minutes. You’d better stay here and watch over things. We do this every hour to protect the place from vandals.”

“Alone?” Jimmy said nervously implying his watch over the warehouse.

“You’re not alone. I’ll just be outside,” John said with a smile. His answer was not lost on Jimmy.

“Ok,” Jimmy said, “good thing I’ve got only four more hours of this.”

John stepped outside but failed to take the full tour of the graveyard. Instead, he circled back and picked up a few acorns from around a tree just outside the building. Methodically he began to pitch them onto the slopped metal roofing, chuckling to himself while imagining Jimmy’s reaction to the sounds above his head. After tiring himself out, John walked a short distance away and made a couple of low howling sounds. Thoroughly amused by his own prank, he walked up the path and lit a cigarette. There had been no smoking signs posted in the building because fuel for the lawn mowers was stalled there, so his patrol not only allowed him some merriment, but gave him a chance to pursue his only vice.

Part way down the path, John heard some voices off to his right amongst the many cemetery headstones. “Who’s there?” he called out suspecting some of the local kids might be hanging out here tonight .

There was no answer, so John took out his flashlight and shone it in the direction where he supposed the sounds came from. He thought he caught a fleeting movement among the stones and called out again, “I asked, who’s there?.”

Again, there was no response and he said, “we’ve got armed guards posted here for the strike, so if anyone had a mind not to get shot, they better skedaddle while they can. I don’t intend to ask any questions first before I have to shoot anyone.”

He thought he heard a muffled chuckle, but he surmised that it my may be just the breeze that was starting to kick up a bit. Pulling his collar up a bit, he decided to start back for the building. “If there were kids out there, I must of scared them off,” he thought to himself. When he re-entered the building, he nearly collided with Jimmy as the latter jumped out of his chair.

Bemused John asked, “What’s the matter? You’re acting as if you saw a ghost or something.”

“Naw,” Jimmy said suppressing his fears, “I just heard some odd noises outside, and I thought it was kids or something.”

“Don’t start running scared on me, Jimmy said,” John chided.

“I wasn’t scared,” Jim said, “I just thought that you were some kids breaking in.”

“Well in that case you shouldn’t worry,” John said consoling him. “Remember, we’re both armed.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” Jim replied, “I wouldn’t want to shoot someone though.”

“We’ll, if it makes you feel any better, I won’t go outside anymore tonight,” John
promised.

“That’s a good idea,” Jim said, “after all, it’s supposed to be the coffins we’re guarding anyway.”
Content with this little prank, it had it’s desire results, John offered to play card with Jimmy so as to soothe his nerves. He felt better not going outside as well. He was a little spooked back there on the path, and was just as happy to stay indoors.

As they sat down to play a game of rummy, Jimmy asked, “How long have those coffins been there?.”

“Just since this morning, when the strike started,” John answered . “Why?”

“I just don’t like the way they’re stacked up like that,” Jimmy said indicating the pile of caskets, which were four high in several areas .

John, looking over behind Jim asked, “Why don’t you like the way they’re stacked?.”
“Well,” Jimmy said, “ if you look at them you’ll see that not all of them have flat tops. Most of them have curved lids.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” John inquired, with a deadpan look.

“Well, you know that stuff that they pump into the body’s veins that keeps them fresh for the funerals?,” Jim said broadening the subject.

“Yeah . You mean formaldehyde, right?” John replied .

“Yup, that’s the stuff,” Jim said. “Well that stuff doesn’t last in your body forever.”

“What are you leading to?,” John asked seriously.

“Well after awhile, the formaldehyde wears out is when the bodies start moving on their own from the contractions.”

“Well, then what has that to do with the coffins and the way they’re piled up?” John replied, worriedly.

“Well being that they’re all uneven, they might start to move around,” Jim said.

Jim got his point across and John’s gaze fell upon the pile of coffins at the other end of the warehouse. Worried now, he asked. “What are we supposed to do then?”

“Nothing, really,” Jim responded, “just try to remember that they’re dead, I guess.”

John was unsettled now. For the next few hours he couldn’t concentrate on the card game. He found himself listening to the wind and watching the other end of the room for any movement.

“Have you gone to the movies lately?” Jimmy asked trying to make small talk to help waste away the night.

“Don’t get much chance,” John said looking over the tops of his cards, his eyes flickering over to the far end of the building.

“There’s a good movie playing at the Plaza,” Jim said.

“What is it?,” John asked .

“Zombie Serenade,” Jim replied. “It’s real spooky. It kind of reminds me of those coffins over there.

“Why?” John said, hoping that Jimmy’s train of though would change soon.

“Well it’s about all these dead people coming back to life, and eating up this whole town full of people,” Jim began to elaborate on the story.

“Let’s change the subject, shall we,” John said sternly, laying down his cards. “It’s bad enough that we have to stay here all night without talking about that kind of crap.”

“I’m sorry, John,” Jim said, with some concern. “I hope I didn’t spook you or anything.”

“No, you didn’t,” he replied. “Let’s just change the subject, though.”

“Wow!”, Jim said, looking at his wristwatch. “Look at what time it is. I should of been out of here ten minutes ago.”

John, now looking at his own watch, saw that it was after midnight. “You want to play just one more hand?,” he asked hastily.

“Can’t,” Jim replied, “I live alone with my mom, and I don’t want to get her worried .”

“Oh,” John said, “well, I’ll walk you to the gate then.”

Jim seeing real concern in partner said, “Ok. I wish my relief was here. I’d feel better for you if he was .”

“Me too,” John replied. “Do you have a ride, or anything?.”

“I just have to walk a few blocks, where I can then catch a bus home,” Jim assured him.
“Ok then. Goodnight,” John said after walking him to the front gates and locking them behind Jimmy.

“Night,” Jim replied, walking away and losing himself in the darkness.

John didn’t like the idea of being alone now. Everything his seemingly dumb partner said about those coffins re-established themselves in his thoughts. Returning to the building, he locked himself inside. He could hear the bushes outside scratching on the window as they rustled in the wind.

The next day at the security company’s office, Jimmy turned in his time card from the previous night. Vinny, the dispatcher, looked at the time card and remarked, “Quite a commotion at the cemetery last night .”

“What happened?,” Jim asked.

“Well your relief was about two hours late,” Vinny said, “and it looks as if your partner, John Carver, nearly scared himself to death.”

With a look of amazement, Jimmy asked again, “What happened?”

“Well your relief had to let himself inside the cemetery.” Vinny explained, “Apparently Carver never heard his car horn. He signaled Caver for about fifteen minutes before he found a little side gate open about a hundred feet past the main gate. After getting inside, he went to his warehouse and saw the strangest sight.”

“What did he see?” Jimmy said prodding the dispatcher on.

“He saw Caver in his chair, pushed all the way back to the wall. He had unloaded his revolver into the coffins at the other end of the building and kept mumbling something about “they’re coming to get me”.”
“Wow,” Jim could only say.

“Yeah, and he looked like hell, too,” Vinny added.

“Really?” Jim said , “how so?.”

“Looked scared out of his wits,” Vinny explained, “they had to take him to the hospital. He was actually in a state of shock.”

“That’s a though break,” Jimmy said with his usual stupid expression.

Vinny noted his look and knew the kid was just a little slow upstairs. He was a good kid though, and he felt a little sorry for him. “Next time we have to guard the graveyard, and your relief doesn’t show up, don’t worry about getting a little overtime. I don’t ever want to have another guard go loony like Carver did.”

“That sounds good to me,” Jimmy said giving Vinny one of his British type salutes. “I’ll be there tonight, I guess.”

“That’s for sure” Vinny said smiling at Jimmy’s funny, but innocent salute.

“Okey, dokey,” he replied as he left the office.

Once outside he turned the corner and walked down the block. “Carver thought he’d tease me because he thought I was retarded. I showed him. I may be slow, but I’m not stupid.”

Whistling merrily, he caught a ride home on the bus.