Steve jumped nearly a foot in the air. “What the hell was that!?” he screeched.
Mr. Jones tried to speak but the words wouldn’t come out. He waved frantically at the startled young man to get away.
Steve dropped the pallet with a huge thud and pulled the jack out as fast as he could. He nearly tripped over himself as he started towards the hallway, jack in hand. A loud thumping started gaining on him with each step closer to the exit. His heart was beating out of his chest.
Steve ran faster and faster, nearly losing the pallet jack in the process. As he closed in on the exit he could feel a hot wind cover his body. All his focus went to the door. Only a few more steps. A hot breath licked the back of his head. The thumping was now a thunderous clapping. One more step.
The door slammed shut just as Steve crossed the exit. The pallet jack clipped the metal frame on the way out, but it too made it out of the room mostly unscathed. Steve collapsed to the floor from the adrenaline. He could barely catch his breath. Then he noticed something even more frightening; his hands were now spotted and wrinkled.
“What the hell?’
He looked up to see Mr. Jones’ skeletal figure standing in front of him. The old man was now more corpse-like than ever. His face was very gaunt like paper-thin skin draped over worn bone.
“Mr. Jones, what’s happening?” Steve struggled to get the words out. His voice was rough and dry.
Mr. Jones didn’t reply. He simply motioned towards the freezer down the hall. Without asking any further questions, Steve returned the pallet jack to the cooler and Mr. Jones locked up. His body felt weak. Mr. Jones was in even worse shape. He could barely walk now.
The two feeble men entered the elevator. The shiny mirrored doors slid closed with a swoosh. That’s when in shocked horror, Steve saw his own reflection.
“I look like an 80-year-old man! What… What happened to me?” With that, his voice gave out and he couldn’t ask anymore question.
Mr. Jones motioned with a shaky hand for him to calm down. Steve thought the old man might collapse at any moment.
The elevator eased down to a stop and the doors opened again. Steve stepped out first—gingerly and at a snail’s pace. As soon as his second foot hit the floor of the first floor hallway, he immediately felt normal again. He turned just in time to see Mr. Jones exit the elevator. The old man suddenly transformed back to his normal, grumpy self.
“Well son, what do you think? Still interested in the job offer?” Mr. Jones said with a coy smile. “And as you probably figured, that last room ages you. So you gotta be quick in there. But as long as you leave in time, you’ll return to normal. But anyway, what do you say? Want the job?”
“Umm…” Steve wasn’t sure what he wanted. The last room scared him more than anything he’d experienced so far. It was the sight of his own old face that worried him most.
“If you need to take a minute to think it over, that’s fine. In fact, if you didn’t I would be kind of worry.” Mr. Jones chuckled like this was a normal day for him. “Just know this. If you would happen to decline, I’ll have to erase your memory of today. And that’s not the most pleasant thing to experience.” Mr. Jones pointed to the emergency fire ax encased in glass on the wall.
“Really?” Steve said in disbelief.
“Oh god no. Why would I?” Mr. Jones laughed long and hard. “It’s not like anyone would believe you anyway. I’m just messing with you.” He laughed again even harder.
Steve felt an immediate sense of relief. “Oh good. But I was gonna accept the job anyway,” he said with a nervous chuckle.
“You sure about that? I’m not trying to talk you out of it, now. I just want to make sure you know what all you’re getting into.” The two men reached the office and Mr. Jones began to unlock it. “There’s a lot of work and the pay’s not that great, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a lot of fun at times.” He motioned Steve into the office.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Steve said as he took a seat. “Before I came here today, I’ve been feeling really out-of-place in my life. Kinda unfulfilled, you know?” Mr. Jones took a seat behind his desk. “But as soon as I got here all of that went away. When I’m here, things just feel… right.”
“Alright then, I’m glad to hear it. Especially after the last new guy ended up… missing.” Mr. Jones stumbled over the last part, wishing he hadn’t brought it up.
“Missing?” A hint of regret started to tickle the back of Steve’s mind.
“Well, yeah. But don’t you worry about him. He was a real asshole. Only lasted a couple of days.” Mr. Jones chose his next words carefully, ‘Then he was just… gone.” Immediately he realized that sounded too ominous and decided it best to follow-up with more detail. “My best guess is that he went up to room seven when he wasn’t supposed to. The dip-stick didn’t like to listen to me. Thought he knew everything. That’s why it’s important for you to do what I say. Understand?
“Yes sir. Got it.” Steve couldn’t help but thinking he might’ve made a mistake in accepting this job.
“Good. Now I hope you were paying attention today. Because that’s more or less the whole job. You might have to do some repairs if the tenants break anything, but that’s about it.” Mr. Jones tossed his ring of keys onto the desk with rattling thud. “That being said, I’m going away for a while starting today. So, you’ll be in charge of the place.”
“What? There’s not somebody else you can call in when you’re gone?” Steve felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. He was in no way ready to take on the job by himself.
“Nope. That’s the reason I’m hiring you as my assistant. To cover so I can actually take some time off from this place.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his wrinkled shirt sleeve. “But don’t worry about it, I won’t be gone for that long. Maybe a couple of weeks, tops.”
“Mr. Jones, what’s happening?”
“A couple of weeks?” Steve yelled, quickly putting his head down to stifle the accidental outburst. “I don’t know about this. What if something goes wrong when you’re gone?” He said meekly to the desk before raising his head back up.
But it was too late. Mr. Jones had vanished while his head was down. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t feel ready for such responsibility. Especially in a place as crazy as this. But then he looked at the keys on the desk. And something just clicked.
He picked up the hefty ring and started to flip through the oddly shaped keys. All unique and vastly different from each other. What mysteries will I find in this building? he thought to himself. Then he started thinking about all the new ideas he had for his comic book.
“Maybe this won’t be such a bad gig after all,” he said out loud—the words drifting off with no one else to hear.
He hooked the ring of keys to his belt, turned out the lights, and walked out of the office. Jingle, jingle, jingle, the keys went as he walked down the hallway of the building he was now in charge of.
Suddenly a flame shot out from underneath the door of room two followed by a high-pitched scream.
“At least I’ll get some cool stories out of this.” Steve casually walked over to the supply closet and grabbed a pair of sunglasses. “Hopefully.”