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Graveyard Shift

Stephen King


  Two A.M., Friday.

  Hall was sitting on the bench by the elevator, the only place on the third floor

  where a working joe could catch a smoke, when Warwick came up. He wasn't happy

  to see Warwick. The foreman wasn't supposed to show up on three during the

  graveyard shift; he was supposed to stay down in his office in the basement

  drinking coffee from the urn that stood on the corner of his desk. Besides, it

  was hot.

  It was the hottest June on record in Gates Falls, and the Orange Crush

  thermometer which was also by the elevator had once rested at 94 degrees at

  three in the morning. God only knew what kind of hellhole the mill was on the

  three-to-eleven shift.

  Hall worked the picker machine, a balky gadget manufactured by a defunct

  Cleveland firm in 1934. He had only been working in the mill since April, which

  meant he was still making minimum $1.78 an hour, which was still all right. No

  wife, no steady girl, no alimony. He was a drifter, and during the last three

  years he had moved on his thumb from Berkeley (college student) to Lake Tahoe

  (busboy) to Galveston (stevedore) to Miami (short-order cook) to Wheeling (taxi

  driver and dishwasher) to Gates Falls, Maine (picker-machine operator). He

  didn't figure on moving again until the snow fell. He was a solitary person and

  he liked the hours from eleven to seven when the blood flow of the big mill was

  at its coolest, not to mention the temperature.

  The only thing he did not like was the rats.

  The third floor was long and deserted, lit only by the sputtering glow of the

  fluorescents. Unlike the other levels of the mill, it was relatively silent and

  unoccupied - at least by the humans. The rats were another matter. The only

  machine on three was the picker; the rest of the floor was storage for the

  ninety-pound bags of fibre which had yet to be sorted by Hall's long

  gear-toothed machine. They were stacked like link sausages in long rows, some of

  them (especially the discontinued meltons and irregular slipes for which there

  were no orders) years old and dirty grey with industrial wastes. They made fine

  nesting places for the rats, huge, fat-bellied creatures with rabid eyes and

  bodies that jumped with lice and vermin.

  Hall had developed a habit of collecting a small arsenal of soft-drink cans from

  the trash barrel during his break. He pegged them at the rats during times when

  work was slow, retrieving them later at his leisure. Only this time Mr Foreman

  had caught him, coming up the stairs instead of using the elevator like the

  sneaky sonofabitch everyone said he was.

  'What are you up to, Hall?'

  'The rats,' Hall said, realizing how lame that must sound now that all the rats

  had snuggled safely back into their houses. 'I peg cans at 'em when I see 'em.'

  Warwick nodded once, briefly. He was a big beefy man with a crew cut. His

  shirtsleeves were rolled up and his tie was pulled down. He looked at Hall

  closely. 'We don't pay you to chuck cans at rats, mister. Not even if you pick

  them up again.'

  'Harry hasn't sent down an order for twenty minutes,' Hall answered, thinking:

  Why couldn't you stay the hell put and drink your coffee? 'I can't run it

  through the picker if I don't have it.'

  Warwick nodded as if the topic no longer interested him.

  'Maybe I'll take a walk up and see Wisconsky,' he said.

  'Five to one he's reading a magazine while the crap piles up in his bins.'

  Hall didn't say anything.

  Warwick suddenly pointed. 'There's one! Get the bastard!'

  Hall fired the Nehi can he had been holding with one whistling, overhand motion.

  The rat, which had been watching him from atop one of the fabric bags with its

  bright buckshot eyes, fled with one faint squeak. Warwick threw back his head

  and laughed as Hall went after the can.

  'I came to see you about something else,' Warwick said.

  'Is that so?'

  'Next week's Fourth of July week.' Hall nodded. The mill would be shut down

  Monday to Saturday - vacation week for men with at least one year's tenure.

  Layoff week for men with less than a year. 'You want to work?'

  Hall shrugged. 'Doing what?'

  'We're going to clean the whole basement level. Nobody's touched it for twelve

  years. Helluva mess. We're going to use hoses.'

  'The town zoning committee getting on the board of directors?'

  Warwick looked steadily at Hall. 'You want it or not? Two an hour, double time

  on the fourth. We're working the graveyard shift because it'll be cooler.'

  Hall calculated. He could clear maybe seventy-five bucks after taxes. Better

  than the goose egg he had been looking forward to.

  'All right.'

  'Report down by the dye house next Monday.'

  Hall watched him as he started back to the stairs. Warwick paused halfway there

  and turned back to look at Hall. 'You used to be a college boy, didn't you?'

  Hall nodded.

  'Okay, college boy, I'm keeping it in mind.'

  He left. Hall sat down and lit another smoke, holding a soda can in one hand and

  watching for the rats. He could just imagine how it would be in the basement -

  the subbasement, actually, a level below the dye house. Damp, dark, full of

  spiders and rotten cloth and ooze from the river

  - and rats. Maybe even bats, the aviators of the rodent family. Gah.

  Hall threw the can hard, then smiled thinly to himself as the faint sound of

  Warwick's voice came down through the overhead ducts, reading Harry Wisconsky

  the riot act.

  Okay, college boy, I'm keeping it in mind.

  He stopped smiling abruptly and butted his smoke. A few moments later Wisconsky

  started to send rough nylon down through the blowers, and Hall went to work. And

  after a while the rats came out and sat atop the bags at the back of the long

  room watching him with their unblinking black eyes. They looked like a jury.

  Eleven P.M., Monday.

  There were about thirty-six men sitting around when Warwick came in wearing a

  pair of old jeans tucked into high rubber boots. Hall had been listening to

  Harry Wisconsky, who was enormously fat, enormously lazy, and enormously gloomy.

  'It's gonna be a mess,' Wisconsky was saying when Mr Foreman came in. 'You wait

  and see, we're all gonna go home blacker'n midnight in Persia.'

  'Okay!' Warwick said. 'We strung sixty lightbulbs down there, so it should be

  bright enough for you to see what you're doing. You guys -' he pointed to a

  bunch of men that had been leaning against the drying spools - 'I want you to

  hook up the hoses over there to the main water conduit by the stairwell. You can

  unroll them down the stairs. We got about eighty yards for each man, and that

  should be plenty. Don't get cute and spray one of your buddies or you'll send

  him to the hospital. They pack wallop.'

  'Somebody'll get hurt,' Wisconsky prophesied sourly. 'Wait and see.'

  'You other guys,' Warwick said pointing to the group that Hall and Wisconsky
br />   were a part of. 'You're the crap crew tonight. You go in pairs with an electric

  wagon for each team. There's old office furniture, bags of cloth, hunks of

  busted machinery, you name it. We're gonna pile it by the airshaft at the west

  end. Anyone who doesn't know how to run a wagon?'

  No one raised a hand. The electric wagons were battery-driven contraptions like

  miniature dump trucks. They developed a nauseating stink after continual use

  that reminded Hall of burning power lines.

  'Okay,' Warwick said. 'We got the basement divided up into sections, and we'll

  be done by Thursday. Friday we'll chain-hoist the crap out. Questions?'

  There were none. Hall studied the foreman's face closely, and he had a sudden

  premonition of a strange thing coming. The idea pleased him. He did not like

  Warwick very much.

  'Fine,' Warwick said. 'Let's get at it.'

  Two A.M., Tuesday.

  Hall was bushed and very tired of listening to Wisconsky's steady patter of

  profane complaints. He wondered if it would do any good to belt Wisconsky. He

  doubted it. It would just give Wisconsky something else to bitch about.

  Hall had known it would be bad, but this was murder. For one thing, he hadn't

  anticipated the smell. The polluted stink of the river, mixed with the odour of

  decaying fabric, rotting masonry, vegetable matter. In the far corner, where

  they had begun, Hall discovered a colony of huge white toadstools poking their

  way up through the shattered cement. His hands had come in contact with them as

  he pulled and yanked at a rusty gear-toothed wheel, and they felt curiously warm

  and bloated, like the flesh of a man afflicted with dropsy.

  The bulbs couldn't banish the twelve-year darkness; it could only push it back a

  little and cast a sickly yellow glow over the whole mess. The place looked like

  the shattered nave of a desecrated church, with its high ceiling and mammoth

  discarded machinery that they would never be able to move, its wet walls

  overgrown with patches of yellow moss, and the atonal choir that was the water

  from the hoses, running in the half-clogged sewer network that eventually

  emptied into the river below the falls.

  And the rats - huge ones that made those on third look like dwarfs. God knew

  what they were eating down here. They were continually overturning boards and

  bags to reveal huge nests of shredded newspaper, watching with atavistic

  loathing as the pups fled into the cracks and crannies, their eyes huge and

  blind with the continuous darkness.

  'Let's stop for a smoke,' Wisconsky said. He sounded out of breath, but Hall had

  no idea why; he had been goldbrickmg all night. Still, it was about that time,

  and they were currently out of sight of everyone else.

  'All right.' He leaned against the edge of the electric wagon and lit up.

  'I never should've let Warwick talk me into this,' Wisconsky said dolefully.

  'This ain't work for a man. But he was mad the other night when he caught me in

  the crapper up on four with my pants up. Christ, was he mad.'

  Hall said nothing. He was thinking about Warwick, and about the rats. Strange,

  how the two things seemed tied together. The rats seemed to have forgotten all

  about men in their long stay under the mill; they were impudent and hardly

  afraid at all. One of them had sat up on its hind legs like a squirrel until

  Hall had got in kicking distance, and then it had launched itself at his boot,

  biting at the leather. Hundreds, maybe thousands. He wondered how many varieties

  of disease they were carrying around in this black sumphole. And Warwick.

  Something about him -

  'I need the money,' Wisconsky said. 'But Christ Jesus, buddy, this ain't no work

  for a man. Those rats.' He looked around fearfully. 'It almost seems like they

  think. You ever wonder how it'd be, if we was little and they were big -' 'Oh,

  shut up,' Hall said.

  Wisconsky looked at him, wounded. 'Say, I'm sorry, buddy. It's just that . . .'

  He trailed off. 'Jesus, this place stinks!' he cried. 'This ain't no kind of

  work for a man!' A spider crawled off the edge of the wagon and scrambled up his

  arm. He brushed it off with a choked sound of disgust.

  'Come on,' Hall said, snuffing his cigarette. 'The faster, the quicker.'

  'I suppose,' Wisconsky said miserably. 'I suppose.'

  Four A.M., Tuesday. Lunchtime.

  Hall and Wisconsky sat with three or four other men, eating their sandwiches

  with black hands that not even the industrial detergent could clean. Hall ate

  looking into the foreman's little glass office. Warwick was drinking coffee and

  eating cold hamburgers with great relish.

  'Ray Upson had to go home,' Charlie Brochu said.

  'He puke?' someone asked. 'I almost did.'

  'Nuh. Ray'd eat cowflop before he'd puke. Rat bit him.' Hall looked up

  thoughtfully from his examination of Warwick. 'Is that so?' he asked.

  'Yeah.' Brochu shook his head. 'I was teaming with him. Goddamndest thing I ever

  saw. Jumped out of a hole in one of those old cloth bags. Must have been big as

  a cat. Grabbed on to his hand and started chewing.'

  'Jee-sus,' one of the men said, looking green.

  'Yeah,' Brochu said. 'Ray screamed just like a woman, and I ain't blamin' him.

  He bled like a pig. Would that thing let go? No sir. I had to belt it three or

  four times with a board before it would. Ray was just about crazy. He stomped it

  until it wasn't nothing but a mess of fur. Damndest thing I ever saw. Warwick

  put a bandage on him and sent him home. Told him to go to the doctor tomorrow.'

  'That was big of the bastard,' somebody said.

  As if he had heard, Warwick got to his feet in his office, stretched, and then

  came to the door. 'Time we got back with it.'

  The men got to their feet slowly, eating up all the time they possibly could

  stowing their dinner jackets, getting cold drinks, buying candy bars. Then they

  started down, heels clanking dispiritedly on the steel grillework of the stair


  Warwick passed Hall, clapping him on the shoulder. 'How's it going, college

  boy?' He didn't wait for an answer.

  'Come on,' Hall said patiently to Wisconsky, who was tying his shoelace. They

  went downstairs.

  Seven A.M., Tuesday.

  Hall and Wisconsky walked out together; it seemed to Hall that he had somehow

  inherited the fat Pole. Wisconsky was almost comically dirty, his fat moon face

  smeared like that of a small boy who has just been thrashed by the town bully.

  There was none of the usual rough banter from the other men, the pulling of

  shirt-tails, the cracks about who was keeping Tony's wife warm between the hours

  of one and four. Nothing but silence and an occasional hawking sound as someone

  spat on the dirty floor.

  'You want a lift?' Wisconsky asked him hesitantly.


  They didn't talk as they rode up Mill Street and crossed the bridge. They

  exchanged only a brief word when Wisconsky dropped him off in front of his


  Hall went directly to the shower, still thinking about Warwick, trying to place

  whatever it was about Mr Foreman that drew him, made him feel that somehow they

  had become tied together.

e slept as soon as his head hit the pillow, but his sleep was broken and

  restless: he dreamed of rats.

  One A.M., Wednesday.

  It was better running the horses.

  They couldn't go in until the crap crews had finished a section, and quite often

  they were done hosing before the next section was clear - which meant time for a

  cigarette. Hall worked the nozzle of one of the long hoses and Wisconsky

  pattered back and forth, unsnagging lengths of the hose, turning the water on

  and off, moving obstructions.

  Warwick was short-tempered because the work was proceeding slowly. They would

  never be done by Thursday, the way things were going.

  Now they were working on a helter-skelter jumble of nineteenth-century office

  equipment that had been piled in one corner - smashed rolltop desks, mouldy

  ledgers, reams of invoices, chairs with broken seats-and it was rat heaven.

  Scores of them squeaked and ran through the dark and crazy passages that

  honeycombed the heap, and after two men were bitten' the others refused to work

  until Warwick sent someone upstairs to get heavy rubberized gloves, the kind

  usually reserved for the dye-house crew, which had to work with acids.

  Hall and Wisconsky were waiting to go in with their hoses when a sandy-haired

  bullneck named Carmichael began howling curses and backing away, slapping at his

  chest with his gloved hands.

  A huge rat with grey-streaked fur and ugly, glaring eyes had bitten into his

  shirt and hung there, squeaking and kicking at Carmichael's belly with its back

  paws. Carmichael finally knocked it away with his fist, but there was a huge

  hole in his shirt, and a thin line of blood trickled from above one nipple. The

  anger faded from his face. He turned away and retched.

  Hall turned the hose on the rat, which was old and moving slowly, a snatch of

  Carmichael's shirt still caught in its jaws. The roaring pressure drove it

  backward against the wall, where it smashed limply.

  Warwick came over, an odd, strained smile on his lips. He clapped Hall on the

  shoulder. 'Damn sight better than throwing cans at the little bastards, huh,

  college boy?'

  'Some little bastard,' Wisconsky said. 'It's a foot long.'

  'Turn that hose over there.' Warwick pointed at the jumble of furniture. 'You

  guys, get out of the way!'

  'With pleasure,' someone muttered.

  Carmichael charged up to Warwick, his face sick and twisted. 'I'm gonna have