They say the architect who designed this place made the windows narrow to prevent people jumping out. They say he killed himself by jumping off the roof of another of his creations. They say that’s pretty ironic, isn’t it?
This place is my university residence. It’s one of the newer residences, built at the very top of a hill, a long walk from the main campus. It’s a twisted redbrick monster, erected in the seventies as a monument to bad taste. It doesn’t have the history of the founding hall or the crisp cleanliness of a new residence. It’s forty years ago’s modern.
The interior is a checkerboard drawn freehand, a BF Skinner maze with no cheese at the end. Rooms are in rows of two, max, and from most vantage points you can see four hallways, all at weird angles to each other. Staircases are sometimes near entrances, and sometimes not. The walls are chipped red face-brick and the ceiling a plaster that was once white. The grey floor tiles are stained with decades of spills and throw-up.
It’s a pain to navigate. Every other residence, if you want someone to find your room, you give them a number. Every other residence, you’re on the nth floor, you’re that near or that far, and the important places are easy to find. Every other residence, you’re not still getting lost in the third week of first year.
Coming back after a long day of lectures, I’d taken the wrong turn at the front hall closet, or maybe taken the left staircase instead of the right. Perhaps I’d come in a different entrance, or gone a floor too far. Whatever had happened, I was disoriented and far from any familiar room number.
Standing in front of room 87, I decided to retrace my steps.
Standing in front of room 99, I decided I’d retraced wrong.
Standing in front of room 114, I realised I was hopelessly lost.
Standing in front of room 3, I started to question my sanity.
Mine was room 64. Since my first day in the residence, I had been careful to trace the exact path from the main entrance to my room, distressed by the multitude of turns the subwarden had lead me through when I moved in. I also knew where the bathroom was, but beyond that I dared not venture. I’d been in the common room once, during orientation week, but had no idea how to get there again.
As I stood before room 76, I noticed how quiet the place was. Normally there was plenty of noise in the residence – conversation in the halls and music from the rooms – but at that moment, the only sound I could hear was the buzz of the energy-saving lights. I stood still and strained my ears for even some sound from the outside world, cars, birds, anything. I heard nothing.
I strode to the nearest window, at the end of a short, dead-end hallway. It was long and narrow. Its glass was frosted, which made it difficult to see anything beyond other than vague blues and greens. No sound penetrated.
I stepped away from the window. To my right was the door to room 130, the highest I’d yet seen. The red door loomed over me, its brass number plate a cold, judging eye. Wasn’t I just at room 76? I looked to my right and saw room 129, and to my left was room 128.
I turned from that door and walked into the opposite hallway. There I found rooms 134 to 138. I retraced my steps to the nexus, and found room 127 in the hallway to my left. At the end of this hall I came to a staircase and followed it down to the lower floor. I just had to count down the room numbers to get back to 64.
140 was the first room number I found on this lower floor. Initially I thought it must be mislabelled, but the surrounding rooms were 141 and up. Confused, I returned to the stairs and went down yet another floor.
When I was halfway down the stairs, my shoe snagged against a knobbly bit of step, and I tumbled down the rest of the flight, banging my face and limbs, and landing in a bruised heap at the bottom.
After I had lain a while, the pain dulled, and I picked myself up and looked around. There was something different about this part of the building. The face-brick walls were darker and smoother, and the ceiling a brighter white.
I limped out of the stairwell and looked down the hall. On the doors were simple but distinct rounded shapes that initially appeared to be numerals but weren’t, like symbols that had been rejected from inclusion in the numeric system when it was first created.
Suddenly I could hear laughter from the floor below, followed by the buzz of conversation. I must have chanced upon the common room! I returned to the staircase, which I descended one step at a time, carefully watching my step to prevent any further mishap.
After picking my way down, I found myself staring not into another hallway, but through an open door into the common room. This was a large area festooned with old, ugly couches, upholstered in a mouldy shade of green. Ten or fifteen students melted across the couches, watching a muted soccer game through static on a TV mounted in a corner of the ceiling.
I glanced around for a familiar face, but saw none. I was new and didn’t know many of my res-mates yet.
As I stepped past the door frame and into the room proper, the buzz of conversation stopped. The few heads that had turned to see me were now joined by more and more, until the entire room was looking at me.
“Hi,” I said, my voice sounding reedy. “I’m trying to find my room. It’s number sixty-four. Could anyone give me directions? I’m new here.”
A smattering of laughter greeted my request. I resented them for that. It seemed perfectly reasonable for a newcomer to get lost routinely during the first few weeks in such a large and strange building.
A tall guy stood up from one of the couches and approached me, dragging his feet. He had on a puffy dressing gown the same colour as the couches. I could tell he was one of the subwardens, though not one I remembered meeting. Beneath the shabby dressing gown, he wore a dress shirt and tie and smart black trousers with fuzzy slippers which glided across the threadbare carpet. The slippers were the same colour as the dressing gown and the couches. Maybe they were a set.
When he reached me, he held out a hand, but said nothing. As I shook his hand, it occurred to me that conversation had not resumed since I’d come in. They’d all just stared, occasionally laughing. I thought back to the buzz I’d heard coming down the stairs. I did not recall hearing any clear English words spoken.
The subwarden held our handshake for far too long. His grip tightened.
I tried to extricate my hand from his grip, but it was no use. I looked into the subwarden’s face, and saw a smile stretch across it. He had too many teeth.
An excited chatter arose among the students seated around us, but again, I could not make out any of the words used. It wasn’t any language I could identify. The more I listened, the more I was certain that the sounds they made weren’t conversation at all, just noise that gave the same impression.
The subwarden had still not released his grip. But apart from his smile – now spreading further across his face than should have been physically possible – he made no other move.
The chatter grew louder, and became mixed with laughter. All around me, students opened their mouths too wide. The subwarden would not release my hand.
So I kicked the subwarden in the shin. Hard. Twice.
His grip released, and I staggered back. He fell back onto a couch, and a deep howl rose from his throat. The other occupants joined the howl. I bolted out of the room, slamming the door behind me.
I ran, dashing down hallways, taking left and right turns without heeding where I was going. When I got to a staircase, I scrambled up or stampeded down. The residence molded itself around my exodus, providing me with turn after turn, until I was quite certain I’d gotten as far away from the common room as possible.
I rested my hands on my knees, taking heaving breaths. I had escaped the horrors in the common room. But I was no closer to room 64 and home, and who knew how far I was from the exit.
The doors no longer bore bronze plates with numbers, or provided me with any indication of where I might be. I whispered reassurances to myself. “It’s okay. This is just a dream. All just dream. None of this can be real. Soon I’ll wake up.” I knew that was a lie.
Not sure what else to do, I continued through zig-zagging halls. I passed door after door, all unmarked, one much like another. A few times, I tried knocking, but got no response. Increasingly desperate, I tried the handles, but the doors were all locked. No sounds came from beyond any of them.
The environment was monotonous and unchanging. Or so I thought, until a ringing in my ears made me conscious that my surroundings had grown totally silent. Before, I could hear the low hum of fluorescent lights on the ceiling, but now even these were silent. Silent and gone. I scanned the ceiling for the bulbs, or even empty sockets, but saw only plain white plaster, featureless and unadorned.
Featureless. The ceiling plaster was uncracked. The bricks in the walls were uniform in size and texture, crisscrossed with a grid of perfectly consistent cement. The unnumbered doors were painted an almost cartoonish shade of red. The stairs were no longer gnarled, but perfectly smooth. Everything was featureless. Perfect.
I walked down staircases. I walked up staircases. I tried racing down the building, as if I were fifty storeys up, and I tried racing up the building, as if I were in some deep sub-basement. I never saw the exit, or a window large or clear enough to see out of. I never saw anything but brick walls, wooden doors, and wooden stairs.
Until I saw an open door.
I turned to the opening, expecting it to disappear as soon as I faced it head-on, but it did not. Before me was the interior of a student’s room.
I blinked and rubbed my eyes. But the room remained. What I could see of it was sparsely furnished – a sink at one side, and a desk against the far wall, in line with the door. In front of the desk, a chair, and on the chair, a student, their back towards me.
The student sat unnaturally still. I could see the back of a shaggy brown-haired head and a pair of plaid shoulders beneath it.
“Hello?” I said, my voice discordant in the perfect silence.
The chair creaked. The student turned to face me, resting an elbow on the chair’s back. The mass of wavy brown hair swung around. Without a face.
I stared at a face-shaped expanse of featureless skin. I wished the door had not been open. The skin on the bottom half of the face stretched and rippled, and from it there issued forth a strange, muted roar.
Again, I found myself racing through hallways, zigging up and zagging down, following semicircular twists, passing rows of red painted and thankfully shut doors. I did not hear the faceless thing behind me. I don’t think it tried to follow me. I recalled an emptiness between the chair legs.
With the thud of each foot on tiled floor, I reassured myself that it couldn’t be. I was still here, still whole. I touched my face. Eyes, nose, mouth, all still there.
I continued walking. There were no more staircases. As I walked, everything around me seemed to simplify and dissolve into rectangular shapes of a single colour, more like a flag than a three-dimensional space.
It was all the same until it wasn’t. I turned a corner and skidded to a halt. I had come, at last, to the end of the hallway. But in front of me was not a final red door or a solid brick wall; in front of me was murky blackness.
My legs wobbled and collapsed. I fell sideways, knocking my left shoulder into the wall and the back of my left hand onto the final door.
A sharp pain shot through this hand, and I brought it up to my eyes. Red splinters stuck out of my fingers, blood seeping out around the cuts. I pulled at the splinters with my right hand, but to no avail.
I dropped my hands to my sides and stared into the void. I had reached the end. There was no escape. There was nothing.
But as I stared into the black, it receded before me, growing smaller and farther away. Its place was taken by even brick walls and an even white ceiling, and evenly spaced grey floor tiles. As I watched, the darkness turned and disappeared around a corner.
This was not the end after all. I had only imagined it. With nothing else to do, I picked myself up, ready to continue. The pain in my hand had stopped. I glanced at it, and saw red. Not blood red. Door red.
The splinters had been absorbed. My left hand was whole. It was also the colour and texture of the red door. I attempted to flexed my fingers. They moved stiffly. I gently ran a finger of my right hand across a finger of my left. Wooden.
I walked around the corner to the newly formed hallway and looked down it. There was the darkness again, still retreating.
I looked at my hand. Flesh joined wood at the wrist. As I watched, the wood crept towards the strap of my watch. Oil-like, it spread almost imperceptibly. There was no pain.
Ahead of me, the darkness receded. I looked again at the red wood advancing up my arm. Then I conceived a final, desperate idea. I was not going to let myself be consumed by this place.
I took a deep breath and stared down the void at the end of the hallway. I crouched down in a sprinter’s ready stance and whispered, “Go.” I ran, focusing on the darkness ahead. Not looking down. I didn’t see where my feet left the floor. I hurtled into space.
And I fell.
All around me was nothingness. I was finally free from the white and red and grey. Free from the twists and turns. Free from the faceless things that should not be. Free of everything.
Until I slammed, face-first, into a red wooden surface.
For a long time, I lay, focused on the pain in my body, determined not to let myself accept that I’d returned to the endless corridors. But something was different. I lay on top of a door, the door suspended in empty space. Something cool pressed on my cheek. I rose up on my hands and knees and saw a metal plate. A number was embossed on it. 64.
This number meant something to me. Something from long ago. Something remote and distant. Something important.
I reached into my right pocket and pulled out a key. This key was embossed with the same number as the door. 64.
I stared at the key for a long time before things clicked into place. When they did, I almost tumbled off the door in my excitement. With a shaking hand, I brought the key to the hole embedded in the door handle, and turned it.
The door slipped open. I fell.
I landed on a rough, familiar surface. The carpet of my room.
I sat up and looked around. Everything was as I remembered it. My bed to one side, my desk in the corner, my laptop on my desk, a toothbrush in a cup next to my sink. My door, open.
And beyond the door, the residence. Uneven, weathered face-brick walls. Cracked off-white plaster on the ceiling. Grey tiles with discoloured splotches. Light, beautiful daylight, streaming in from the too-narrow windows.
I pumped my fists in celebration, but my joy ceased when I caught sight of my left: a wooden fist sculpture, painted bright red.