Halls of Residents
by JL Flannery
’ve never known a term like this one: no fresher’s parties to gate-crash, no lectures to fall asleep in, the university campus; a ghost town. Each day in lockdown exactly like the last; staring at the same four walls night after night.
The message appeared about a week ago on the window of our shared kitchen. Made entirely of post-it notes, each letter spelt out to the outside world ‘LET US OUT.’ We all had a good laugh about it when it appeared on the news, although no one would claim responsibility for it. My money was on Charles. He was always going on about how university lockdown violated his personal freedoms.
A couple of days later, when the door knocked and I saw Lena through the peephole with her coat on, I assumed she’d come to tell me the heating had broken again. But when I opened the door she was smiling.
‘Have you heard the news yet? We can all go home. Can you believe it? We’ll actually be able to go home for Christmas!’
‘Oh wow! Really? The post-its did the trick then?’
I didn’t know what else to say. I’ve never been great at social interaction and I wouldn’t really call Lena a friend. She was just someone on the same course as me who lived on the same floor. I peered out into the corridor and I could see students all along locking up their doors with their bags packed.
‘If you want a lift anywhere, I can take you. I don’t mind waiting while you pack,’ Lena said.
But my life was different to theirs. There wasn’t much waiting for me at home: just my arsehole stepdad, face reddened with drink. Mum wasn’t much better most of the time. This wasn’t a relationship where one person was abused by the other. They both drank too much and took it in turns to pick a fight. I wasn’t in any hurry to go back to that.
I told Lena, ‘Thanks, but I’ll get the train back.’
‘Well, if you’re sure you’ll be okay?’ she said. ‘What about…you know, the Knight Twins?’
Jessica and Sadie Knight, if you haven’t heard, were freshers who came here. They disappeared from halls about three years ago around Christmas time. They were never found and obviously that’s led to some pretty ridiculous theories about what happened to them. The most popular one is that they’re actually still here, walking the corridors at night. It probably didn’t help the rumours when on Halloween, the freshers from downstairs were running around in the middle of the night banging on people’s doors, scaring the shit out of them.
‘You don’t really believe all that do you?’ I said. But it was clear from the look on her face that she did. ‘Look, thanks for the offer of a lift, but I’ll be fine. Have a great Christmas.’
When she’d gone, I lay on my bed and put my headphones on to block out the noise as everyone shouted goodbyes and slammed doors. I managed to read a chapter or two and by the time I’d finished reading, the third-floor corridor was enveloped in silence.
It didn’t bother me being here alone. In fact, after all those weeks locked up with people you don’t really like, it was a relief to have some peace and quiet, but after studying I was pretty hungry and I thought I’d better see what I could cook from the remainder of the emergency food parcels we’d been provided with.
The strip lighting in the kitchen buzzed and flickered on, and I immediately noticed the window wide open; post it notes still stuck to the glass, flapping in the breeze. Why no one had thought to close it before leaving is anyone’s guess. I suppose we’re all so used to trying to get the air to circulate to stop germs spreading that they’d forgotten it’s not normal to have the windows wide open in November. I slammed it shut and noticed some of the Post-its had fallen to the floor.
Now on the outside, the poster read ‘LET US’ which made no sense at all. As I bent down to pick up the letters making the word ‘OUT’, I saw out the corner of my eye the fridge door wide open, my almond milk lying on its side, the contents dripping all over the floor.
One name came to mind: Charles.
The son of a London banker, I’d only known Charles a few weeks and already I couldn’t help despising him. He’s helped himself to my almond milk time and time again, and he doesn’t even care that I know about it. I mean, who leaves the fridge door wide open after stealing someone else’s milk? I forgot all about the Post-it notes and instead I set about clearing up the mess he’d left, swearing and cursing his name.
Once I’d finished mopping up, I opened up his cupboards, to help myself to something of his. A small but petty act of revenge, I’m sure you’d agree.
Aside from a leftover packet of Supernoodles and a bag of cheese and onion crisps there wasn’t much else in there. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, as they say, so I put the desiccated brick of noodles in hot water and waited for them to untangle in the pan.
There was movement in the corridor outside, like someone had run past the door and for a moment I froze, still. I called out to see who it was, but no one answered. I’d never stolen anything before in my life and I guessed it was just the guilt getting to me.
I went back to my noodles, pouring them into a bowl. Then I put my camera on selfie mode and filmed me crushing the bag of crisps and sprinkling them over the top, the way Salt Bae did when he sprinkled salt on that viral video. I uploaded it to Tik Tok and added a title: Bon Appetit, Charles!
I was so pleased with myself that I went back to my room and switched on the Christmas fairy lights I’d bought, having expected to spend the whole season in quarantine. I closed the curtains to block out the streetlight outside. It was dark but that was what I wanted. With no cinemas open, streaming was the best alternative. I opened Netflix and moved the carousel of choices around; each one automatically playing the trailer.
When the knock at the door came, I nearly jumped out of my skin. It wasn’t the the gentle rapping of someone paying a visit. This was frantic. The next minute, I heard their footsteps running away down the corridor and I realised I definitely wasn’t the only one left behind. The freshers from downstairs couldn’t have gone home either and, unless I did something about it, they were likely to taunt me all night long with their stupid Knock-Door-Run game.
Flinging back my duvet in a rage, I yanked the door open just in time to see the door close at the end of the corridor. I followed them along the corridor and down the stairwell, taking two steps at a time, wishing I’d changed out of my stupid bunny slippers. They were always just ahead of me, never quite close enough to see their faces, but I could make out their silhouettes and hear the beat of their footsteps as they ran away.
By the time I made it to the first floor, they’d disappeared completely. I paused to catch my breath and I noticed how alike the corridor below was to ours: the same corporate artwork on the walls; the same patterned carpet covered in stains from years of students spilling things and puking up; the rooms laid out in the same position along the corridor. I knew the two of them were probably hiding in one of their rooms and given that almost everyone had gone home, I knew it shouldn’t take me too long to seek them out and give them a bollocking.
At the end of the corridor, I saw the strip lights flicker on in a room off to the left. I ran down there as quick as I could, determined to catch them but when I turned into the room, there were no freshers in there.
Instead I found a kitchen identical to the one upstairs. I don’t just mean the wallpaper and furniture was the same. I mean there were post-its on the window flapping in the breeze and a saucepan of noodles sat congealing on the hob. Even the fridge door was wide open, almond milk bleeding out all over the floor.
My head swam and for a moment I thought I might pass out. I swear, it was my kitchen but on the wrong floor. It was like I’d travelled back in time to where I was ten minutes ago. I know how it sounds. It’s impossible, right? But I know what I saw.
Then I really scared myself. What if this wasn’t really happening and it was some fever dream I was trapped in? What if I had caught the virus? I hadn’t got a cough but everyone had heard of friends of friends showing barely any symptoms and still testing positive. I could hear the pounding of my heart as I held my hand to my forehead.
I sat down at the table and told myself to stop being so paranoid. Their post it notes read:
Seeing those words, I’ve never felt so embarrassed and so relieved at the same time. It wasn’t the same message as ours which confirmed I was definitely on another floor. The noodles and spilt milk were just a coincidence, thank god.
Finding the freshers didn’t matter to me anymore. What I needed to do now was go back to bed. I was sure I had a thermometer in my room somewhere. If my temperature was too high, I could try and get a test in the morning.
I walked back to the stairwell and climbed the stairs.
Upwards and upwards.
Upwards and upwards.
Upwards and upwards.
I swear, I didn’t remember there being this many stairs before. It took forever to get there but finally, I made it back to my own floor. I could see my bedroom door open and hear the sound of Netflix trailers still blaring out. I don’t know what made me glance in the kitchen, but I guess it was just playing on my mind.
For my own sanity I had to make sure nothing had changed.
The light was no longer flickering, but other than that everything else was as it should be: an empty pan on the hob, no spilt milk.
But the post its still flapped despite the window being closed shut. I tried to open it, but it was jammed. Outside, the streetlights had disappeared and below was infinite black. The post-its now read:
My stomach twisted up in knots. This time I knew for certain I hadn’t changed it. And it couldn’t possibly be the freshers from downstairs; they wouldn’t have made it up to the floor quick enough without me seeing or hearing them.
Feeling like I might puke, I poured myself a glass of water and gulped it down, trying to think straight but in the twisting of my guts knowing there was another explanation – but it was so ridiculous, I felt sick just thinking about it.
You know, when I heard on the internet about those Knight Twins going missing, I remember thinking how they had sounded just like me. They worked hard. Didn’t socialise much. Came from a poor family. If I was going to find kindred spirits at university; it was them.
And the story was so scary too. No sign of abduction. No messages left for anyone. Their doors had been left unlocked with music playing as if they’d left their rooms for just a moment. It was so uncanny, it’s no wonder there are rumours that Netflix are making a film about them.
Perhaps I’d just been cooped up for too long and all of it: the deja vu of the same corridor and kitchen, the sound of knocking and running past the door; maybe all of it was trying to tell me it was time to leave this place and go outside.
There was nothing stopping me from getting some fresh air anymore so I went back to my room to grab my coat and trainers. I could go for a walk around the block to clear my head. I could get some supplies from the shop for the next couple of days and when I came back I would think about maybe booking a train ticket home for Christmas, convinced I could probably manage a couple of days with family.
This time, I would take the lift rather than the stairs down to the ground floor so it would be easy to tell the difference between floors, as the doors would open up in the foyer of the building. I watched the numbers light up as the lift moved down from 3, 2, 1, 0 and waited for the doors to open. When they did, my stomach dropped: I was back on my own corridor again.
I had been so certain that I’d pushed the right button but I guess I couldn’t have. I closed the doors and tried again, this time making sure I pushed the button for the ground floor. The doors reopened immediately, revealing the same corridor I knew shouldn’t be there.
Heat came over me in a wave, but this time I knew it wasn’t a fever or a virus causing it, it was panic. I didn’t know which floor I was on anymore. Or how I was ever going to get out of this place. The wiring in the lift had to be wrong. It just had to be! I would have to try the stairs again.
Downwards and downwards.
Upwards and upwards.
Still the door opened out onto the same damn corridor.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve climbed those stairs trying to find a way out, but no matter whether I go up or down it’s always the same. The same knocking on the door. Nameless, faceless figures running away down the stairwell. Posts-it flapping in the breeze on the kitchen window. The same torturous sound over and over again.
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