“I started the fire.”
A voice broke the silence that filled the room.
Startled, Em knocked over her sealed Nalgene water bottle, which clattered loudly to the floor. Not bothering to pick it up, she rose from her chair, struggling to keep from cursing at the sudden interruption.
“Who’s in here?” she asked. “What fire?”
Quickly, she walked around her desk, meaning to catch whichever boy had snuck downstairs past dorm time. Nobody. The office wasn’t nearly big enough to hide in, it was barely more than a closet stuffed with two desks. Perplexed, Em stepped from the small office and into the large cafeteria in which it was located.
The overhead lights, ancient as they were, hummed steadily overhead. Nobody here either. The tables were folded and stored to the side of the wall on the far end of the room opposite her office with the plastic chairs stacked neatly beside them. The cafeteria was big enough to hold the entire facility, between the staff the residents and the day-school students, there were well over a hundred people, she guessed. And when it was packed away like this for the night, it was almost cavernous. Again, nowhere to hide, she was alone.
A small crew of residential kids had been down here only fifteen minutes earlier, loudly sweeping and mopping as part of chore time. She’d laughed along quietly while doing her work in her office as the crew of teens joked with each other in the next room while they cleaned, occasionally turning the volume up just a bit too loud on the beat-up antique of a boombox that lived in the mop closet whenever a favorite new hip hop song played. Randall, the staff member supervising the clean-up, wasn’t the type to silence the kids – unlike many of the staff there – but Em always loved to hear the kids enjoy themselves, so she had no complaints.
That didn’t mean she didn’t enjoy the silence too, when it came. The gentle hum of the building was usually a soothing song to which she would finish the last of her days paperwork.
Suddenly, standing alone in the large cafeteria searching for a disembodied voice, the silence was oppressive — thick. Em was certain she’d heard the voice speak, just as she was certain she was alone. It had been a boys voice, in the limbo of early puberty – deep but still youthful.
Still hoping it was a prankster trying to startle her, Em walked into the main hallway of the building, walking a few feet to the left then the right, searching for some sign of one of the residents. Seeing nobody, she walked back into the cafeteria and checked that the doors to the pantry and kitchen were securely locked. They were.
She walked slowly back to her office, ears perked for the slightest sound of movement, eyes scanning closely even as she lost hope of finding anyone. Sitting back at her computer, she rubbed her forehead and tried not to think too hard.
She’d heard the stories of the ghosts that haunted this aged building, of course. One of the supervisors who had conducted her tribunal-style job interview had even jokingly asked if ghosts were a deal-breaker. But she always laughed it off whenever it came up, feeling like it was just a running joke. Having been a lifelong skeptic towards anything she couldn’t observe, she’d never once considered that anyone could have been serious.
But here, without warning, she’d begun to feel close to thinking things she simply didn’t want to think. She considered streaming a playlist from her phone to break the silence, but her shaking hands struggled to navigate the touch screen. Her eyes just couldn’t seem to focus on her computer monitor when she attempted to return to the email she’d been drafting.
Giving up, she packed her belongings into her backpack and promised herself she’d come in early the next morning to finish up.