The Hollow Man
Jonathan McDonald - November 11 2001
Matt stared at his computer screen. Thousands of multi-colored pixels stood before him, all lined up the way they were supposed to. A faint whine came from the light tan box on his desk. He imagined, in his convoluted mind, that all of the pixels stood up in protest and rearranged themselves, in whatever order they wanted to be. No more taking orders from the Central Processing Facility. They would take control, and present a picture more to their liking. Maybe a tropical bird, or the volumnous wasteland of the Arizona desert. Anything besides The Company's Second Quarterly Financial Report. But the pixels cared little about what they accomplished. They simply took orders without question, without ambition, without dreams. Matt clicked on the "Print" button. The printer obeyed without complaint.
"Lookin' good, Matt!" his boss enthused as he shuffled through the printed pages.
"Yeah," Matt said with much less enthusiasm.
"The people upstairs are going to be smiling favorably on us after they see this," The boss said. "Hey, we might even be moving up in the very near future! One day, we're going to make it to the top. I hear they have a great view up there."
The boss's balding head gleamed under the light of a fluorescent bulb.
"I'll bet," Matt pretended to agree as he shuffled back to his work station.
Matt couldn't understand how his boss could retain any semblance of ambition in this place. Forty hours a week working on financial reports was not what Matt had in mind when he graduated from college. None of his brothers had finished college, and only one of them had even started. He had been so glad to get out of the bottomless pit that was his home, that he had jumped at the first opportunity to leave. It was a second-rate college, to be sure, but he had gotten a degree in computers, which he was putting to good use by typing in numbers on the keypad.
"I'll run these by Mary, and then we'll put the presentation together," his boss said. "Make something snazy with PowerPoint that'll wow the bigwigs upstairs." His boss showed some teeth with his huge grin.
"PowerPoint," Matt said. "I can do that." Hell, he could write a program that would calculate pi to a million decimals if he wanted to.
"Excellent! Good work, Matthew," the boss said. "Remember, 'What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.' Keep up the good work."
Matt hated the way that his boss got his philosophy from motivational posters. He tried to be cynical about the whole situation, but he just couldn't muster the effort required. Back when he was in college, Matt had dreams about what he was going to do, and where he was going to go. He had a purpose and drive. But then he was only able to find a low-paying, entry-level job doing data entry at a large, monolithic corporation. He didn't even know what the company did, except that it gave him a paycheck for doing very little work. For a while, Matt thought this was funny. He would crack jokes about how he was ripping the company off with his lack of work. Then he began to lose interest in making any attempts to leave or move up. That was when he got cynical. He started buying Dilbert books, and demotivational posters to snicker at. Soon after, he got promoted to the Financial Department. Slowly the cynicism left him, and there was nothing left but monotony.
The clock on the wall above Gerald's desk slowly turned. Gerald always smelled like onions. Each second seemed like ten, and the staccato movements of the second hand became hypnotic. Ever so slowly the hour hand reached a large stylized 4. He stood up, grabbed his worn jacket his mother had bought him for Christmas last year, and walked off the sleep in his legs.
The drive home was the same as it had been yesterday, and for countless days before that. Rush hour was never kind on the highways, but Matt had long since lost any desire to become angry at other drivers, though they often got angry at him. He turned on the same radio station he listened to every day on the way back from work. Britney Spears gushed out about needing love and somebody to hold her. Matt didn't care. He couldn't even be cynical about that, anymore. Matt wished very much that he could become depressed. At least then something would be different.
After forty minutes of honking and gas fumes and fingers, Matt finally pulled into the parking lot in his apartment complex. He didn't bother to turn the radio off before taking out the keys. There was no point in giving himself more work than necessary in the morning. Outside his apartment door, the mail box was empty. Probably Karen had taken it upon herself to relieve him of the trouble. Matt opened the door, and Karen was on the couch in front of the television. She didn't usually get off work before he did, but today was somewhat special.
"Hey, babe," she said. "Happy birthday." She gave him a smile and patted the cushion next to her, inviting him to sit down.
"Thanks. So what's the plan tonight?"
"I've got a little surprise for you," she said, still with a smile on her face. "Something to shake things up a little."
"Good," Matt said. "I could use a little excitement."
Karen had moved in with him shortly after The Company promoted him. She had gotten tired of living with her mom, especially since her parents had split up while she was away at college. Matt had considered marriage a couple of times, but after a while, he stopped caring about it, and Karen never brought the subject up.
"What's on?" Matt asked.
"Seinfeld," Karen answered. "The episode with the Junior Mints."
"That's a good one," Matt said as he gazed through the television. "When do we take off? Or are we staying in tonight?"
"No, we're taking off," Karen said with a wry grin on her face. "We're leaving once Seinfeld is over. Giving traffic a chance to clear up a bit."
The wind blew through Matt's hair as the two of them drove north up the Californian highway. The weather was pleasant, a good seventy degrees, or so. He glanced at Karen as the sun began to set, silhouetted behind her head. He tried to forget that he had to be at work at eight o'clock sharp the next morning.
"So," Matt asked, "when are you going to tell me where we're going?"
"If you must know, we're going to a haunted town," Karen replied without taking her eyes off the road.
"A haunted town, you say? Like a ghost town?"
"Not exactly," Karen reached down to turn off the radio, which was singing about never leaving your lover. "Supposedly there are plenty of ghosts, but lots of living people, too. They just live with the ghosts."
"A ghost town in California. Does it have any dance clubs?"
"Not that I know of. My friend Jen drove through the place once, and she said she saw all sorts of weird crap in the place. Vampires, spooks, zombies, weird monsters with horns."
"Are you sure she didn't drive through on Halloween?" Matt quipped.
"We'll see, won't we?" Karen smiled at him. That smile was the only thing Matt had going for him anymore. He watched her chestnut-brown hair fly in every direction in the wind. He reached out and stroked her hair, as if his fingers could make it stay in place. Matt didn't know why Karen stayed with him, though he imagined it was because she also didn't have the motivation to look for anything better. Matt liked having her around. He could at least pretend that his life had meaning when she was there with him. Some day he might care enough to look for somebody better, but she would do for now.
"Well, this sure looks like an exciting place," Matt lied as they walked down a street with nice-looking houses on the left. The sun had just set as they got out of the car, which was parked in a 7-Eleven lot.
"I think there's a cemetary over this way," Karen said. "I saw it when we came in."
The street curved to the right as they walked. They passed three more houses, and saw an entrance to a large graveyard. The grass inside was a grayish-green, and seemed to match the color of the tombstones well.
"McCarthur Memorial Cemetary, eh?" Matt observed. "This has to be the third graveyard we've seen since we got in town."
"I guess the goblins get a lot of people at night," Karen said as she stepped through the cemetary's open gate.
The sky became darker as they walked through the cemetary. Bright reds and oranges faded into melancholy blues and purples, and slowly a number of stars popped out into the night. Matt watched the sky as Karen led them through the grave stones. She read of the names of the deceased as they walked past each one.
"Melinda Parker, 1967 to 1984. Frederick Wall, 1974 to 1997. Clive Jenkins, 1994 to 1998. Leonard O'Connor, 1953 to 1982. Joyce Summers, 1958 to 2001. Kelli Huse, 1974 to 1999," the list went on.
After twenty minutes of Karen's monotone reading, the two came upon a large crypt marked Miller.
"The front door is open," Matt said.
"Why would anybody leave the door of a crypt open?" Karen said. A touch of concern was in her voice.
"I dunno. Wanna take a look inside?" Matt said as he walked towards the crypt door. Karen stayed where she was.
"I'm not so sure about this, Matt," Karen said. She looked around into the growing darkness. The shadows around them seemed to be taking on a life of their own. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. Let's go back to the car." She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.
"Well, I came here to see some ghosts, and I would think that a graveyard would be the best place to find some." Matt pulled the door open and looked in. It was dark and musty. One of the concrete coffin lids seemed to be slid open. "Now this is interesting."
"What is it?" The tension in Karen's voice was becoming stronger. The last remnants of the sunset had vanished, and all was dark under a starlit sky. Matt pulled out the flashlight he had taken out of the glove compartment and shone the light into the crypt. The coffin was definitely open. He stepped inside, out of Karen's view.
"I really don't think this is a good idea, Matt." Karen listened to every sound and watched every shadow, expecting something to jump out at her at any moment. Matt walked out of the crypt, shining the flashlight in her face. She held up her hands to shield herself from the onslaught of flashlight beams.
"Well, if you ask me, somebody woke up in their coffin, and opened the door from the inside," Matt said. "This one coffin in there is totally empty, and the lid's open."
"Yeah right, Sherlock," Karen said. The nervousness in her voice was growing again. "You want to go zombie hunting, or something? Let's get out of here. This place gives me the creeps. It's way too quiet here."
"Of course it's quiet. It's full of dead people."
"Ohh!" Karen squealed as she looked past Matt's shoulder.
"What?" Matt said as he wheeled around, shining the flashlight into the darkness.
"I saw something moving past those trees."
"I don't see anything. Are you sure you weren't seeing things?"
"No, I saw somebody chasing someone else."
"Let's check it out, then." Matt started walking the way Karen saw the shapes. He'd be damned if he didn't find some excitement tonight.
Karen had little desire to walk that way, but it was preferable to standing alone in the shadows. She walked fast to catch up with Matt, who was already past the trees at the top of a small slope, looking at the cemetary without the flashlight on.
"I think I saw those guys running," he whispered to her when she got up close to him. "They ran to the bottom of the hill and behind that crypt over there." Matt grabbed Karen's hand and looked into her eyes. They gleamed softly. "Let's check it out."
Before Karen could protest, Matt was running down the hill with her in tow. They came down the hill and snuck around the crypt, hoping to see where the moving figures had gone. The space behind the crypt was almost pitch-black. Matt squinted into the darkness and was about the pull out his flashlight, when suddenly a figure leaped out of the shadows.
"Whoa!" the figure exclaimed.
Karen drew in a sudden breath and tried to scream, but couldn't.
Matt felt himself being knocked to the ground as the figure tripped over him. He pulled out his flashlight and clicked it on to see the face of his attacker. The young man trying to pull himself up from the ground was about Matt's age, with dark hair and wearing a brown jacket and blue jeans.
"Sorry 'bout that," the man said as he helped Matt to his feet. "Have you seen a guy about my height, with a bumpy face and pointy teeth, run by?"
"Um, no, I don't think so," Matt said. He noticed that the man was carrying a short wooden stick in his left hand. "What's that for?"
"Oh, this?" The man waved the stick in the air. One end looked very sharp. "Oh, just playing fetch with the dog is all." The man broke out into a ridiculous grin and chuckled.
"Uh huh," Matt said, looking at the stick increduously.
"Well, I'd better get back looking for my dog. I mean, bumpy man." The man chuckled nervously. He looked at the two of them for a second and then suddenly turned and ran into the darkness.
"That was odd," Matt said.
"Let's get the hell out of here, Matt," Karen said. She hadn't said anything since the man ran into them. "I'm going to have a heart attack if we stay here any longer."
The scream was Karen's. The startling voice had come from behind a tree close to the crypt. Matt waved the flashlight in the direction of the voice. For a second he thought that he saw a horribly disfigured face, and yellow eyes. He caught his breath, but then saw that the face looked perfectly normal, with what looked like blue eyes. The face and eyes belonged to a man dressed in a neat black suit, though it was stained with dirt.
"Heh heh. Sorry about that, kids," the man said as he walked out from behind the tree. "Just having myself a little fun, there." The man was in his early forties, probably.
"Geez," Karen panted behind Matt. She was leaning on a tombstone, catching her breath. "I swear I'm going to die here."
"Well hello there, little lady," said the man, who had just noticed Karen's presence. "Aren't you just the most delicious little thing I've ever met." He walked closer as Matt put his arm around Karen. The man didn't seem to notice Matt's presence any longer. "How would you like to come back to my place tonight?" The man licked his lips perversely.
"Bite me," Karen spit at him.
"Drop dead," Matt added.
The two started walking away from the man in the general direction of the cemetary entrance.
"Hey, where are you going?" the man yelled at them. "I just want to get to know you better."
They ran up the hill towards the crypt with the empty coffin, looking behind to see if the man was following. He had vanished into the night. They walked just past the crypt when suddenly a figure appeared in their path. It was the man with the dirty suit.
"I don't think you understand me," the man said, "you just need to get to know me better." In the darkness, it seemed to Matt that the man's eyes became a yellow fire, and that his face became distorted in some demonic rage. For the first time in many months, Matt suddenly felt alive. He could feel the blood pumping through his body, and every muscle in his body became tense. And in that moment of pure adrenaline and awareness, he realized that he really didn't want to die. So he ran.
"Matt!" Karen's scream shot past him as he bolted in the first direction his feet happened upon. He ran past tombstones, more than he could count. He ran past crypts and menacing trees. The waning moon indifferently looked down upon his flight. Suddenly he ran up to an empty grave, recently dug and ready to accept its cargo. Matt only kept himself from falling in by grabbing the tombstone at the grave's head. He fell on his knees at the edge of the seemingly bottomless pit and listened to the silence. The shadows were alive and watching. He would have run if he knew which way to go, but he had long since lost any sense of direction. He stood up slowly, still grasping the cold, hard grave marker. A hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him around.
The man with the dirty suit looked at him as a hungry man looks at a steak. Matt tried to run or fight back, but his body was paralyzed by the yellow eyes. The man opened his mouth, which was stained with blood, and bared his sharp fangs.
"Midnight snack," the man growled in a low voice.
"Vamp-kabob!" a perky voice from behind the man quipped.
Instantly, a sharp object protruded from the man's chest. His yellow eyes stared into Matt's, as if asking "why?" Then, all at once, the man crumbled into a shower of dust and dispersed onto the ground. Behind where the man once stood was a short, thin blond girl, holding a sharpened stick not unlike the one held by the man Matt had collided with earlier.
"Another job well done," the girl said with a smile. "Last vamp of the night, and now for some quality time with Mr. Pillow." She looked at Matt, "You'd better get home before you run into anything else that might take a bite out of you," she said as she walked off into the night.
A silent breeze swept through the trees, and Matt felt empty once again.
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