The Late Shift

For most people, working the late shift is frustrating. For me, it’s simply weird. We don’t do our usual mailroom tasks on the late shift, because there are very few people in the building and no new mail at night. Instead, one person each Friday must sit in front of a large metal door they call the War Door (in what I hope is an attempt to be funny) and ensure that it is not opened. From either side.Until last week, I had never worked the night shift as I had yet to draw the short straw (literally – we draw straws to see who will work the shift). My luck finally ran out and I prepared myself for working through the night by napping during my lunch break.

When the 5 o’clock growl came from the secret sub-basement and everyone else grabbed their stuff to quietly flee the building, I walked up the two flights of stairs to the Door Level and sat in the old wooden rocking chair with my back to the door (per the hieroglyph-based instructions in the Late Shift Operator’s Manual). I waited for an hour, and when I was certain no one was coming around to check on me, I got up and began to explore the War Room.

The door was a single, solid slab of dull, dark gray metal. It had what appeared to be claw marks and large dents in it, but they only served to make it look that much more substantial and strong. It was set into a normal looking wall made of sheetrock painted white. Nothing else was on that wall. On the opposite side of the room, there was a small desk with what appeared to be a ham radio and some form of oscilloscope. I picked up the headphones and put them on, listening to the static and the distant sound of beeping. I stood there for some time, feeling like there might be some kind of pattern to the sounds, but never quite able to work it out. Finally, I set the headphones down and continued my exploration.

On the wall to the right of the radio station someone had hung hundreds of maps with thumbtacks. Some maps were obvious: the world, America, New York, Idaho, the former Soviet Union when it was the Soviet Union. Others were not so obvious and I had to look for some kind of legend. Some were for places I had never heard of: Guerron’s Moonbase 5, Alpha Seven Three, The Land of Phylo, Azanrah, Milwaukee-Two. Long threads of color yarn — mostly red and yellow, but some green and blue mixed in as well — were stretched from pin points on some maps to pin points on others. I spent some time tracing the criss-cross of yarn strands and trying to get some idea of what it all meant.

After a while, I was startled to hear a faint voice calling out. I looked around the dark room. There were only two doors: the one from the stairwell and the War Door. I walked over, with some trepidation, and leaned in toward the War Door. The voice was not coming from there. Instead, I realized it was on the opposite side of the room, where the radio station was.

I picked up the headphones and listened again. This time, among the static and rhythmic beeping, I could hear a man’s voice speaking softly.

“Hello? Is anyone on this frequency? This is Team Gamma. Please, if someone is there, give us a signal of some sort.”

I spotted an old microphone on the table and examined it. There was a button on the base of the microphone and, out of sheer curiosity, I pressed the button. It glowed a dim red and there was a slight sound of feedback in the headphones.

“Hello? Uh, can you hear me?”

A blast of static was followed by the excited tones of the voice. “Yes! Yes, we can hear you! Who are you? Where are you?”

“My name is Jeremy and I’m at the Apparent Progress headquarters, in the War Room.”

“Perfect!” The man shouted. “You must open the door! Let us out of here!”

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I turned to face the War Door. I had one job on the night shift and that was to keep that door closed. There was an entire week of training for this. And it was pretty much just someone repeatedly asking us to open the door while we refused. But yet, it was so much different now. Now that someone I didn’t know, who wasn’t standing next to me in a neon yellow biohazard suit, was asking me to open the door to let them through…

“I can’t.” I said apologetically.

There was a long, heart-wrenching silence.

“What do you mean?” The voice finally asked. It was dripping with despair.

“I’m not allowed to open the door.”

“But you must! We’ve been trapped in here for so long!”

“Listen, I’ll stay on the line with you until someone shows up in the morning. Someone who has the authority to open the door. But I don’t. I can’t.”

“Please!” The voice shouted. “You must! Find someone with the authority. Call the President if you must! He knows of our missing expedition and he will authorize you. Call Truman!”

See, these are the moments when my brain legitimately doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Moments that are so ridiculous, and yet so commonplace in here. I sighed, as has become my standard response.

“President Truman?” I asked. “You want me to call President Truman?”

“Yes!”

“Because he was President when you went in to wherever you are?”

“Yes!”

“Because it was some time between 1945 and 1953 when you went in there.”

“1948, yes! Wait, why? What year is it now? Did you say 1953?”

“Would that shock you?” I asked. “If it were 1953?”

“It’s hard to measure time here, but our best estimate has been six months. So, yes, sir, that would be hard to fathom.” The voice replied.

In my years in the mailroom, I’ve learned there are two ways to deal with people who are unstuck from time. First, you can break the news to them in the most blunt and direct way possible. Like ripping off a band-aid and throwing cold water in their face for an added shock. Or, if you suspect you won’t be able to unstick them any time in the near future, you can hide this fact, save their sanity and be able to fall asleep at night. I chose the latter. I’m a coward.

“I guess it is hard to tell time there, because it is 1949.” I said. “About ten months after you went in.”

“Gosh, that’s troubling.”

I smiled to myself. “Yes, it is. Very much so.”

I chatted with the Captain of Team Gamma for about another fifteen minutes. Finally, the static seemed to drown out his voice to the point that I could no longer hear him. He had warned me that this was probably going to be the case. It seemed that they could only raise us when their… whatever their place or time or dimension should be called is closer to our place or time or dimension. There seems to be some kind of elliptical orbit or something. I don’t know, I’m just repeating what he said.

Anyway, the rest of the night shift passed without any other incident and when I was relieved of my duty by three heavily armed guards in gas masks, I returned to the mailroom, grabbed G775n and the two of us went home for a much deserved Saturday nap.

(photo by Phillips Academy Archives and Special Collections on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0))

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