Cherise’s high heeled boots clicked more heavily than usual against the marble tile of the Avalon View Luxury Apartments’ lobby, as she was weighted down by several bags of groceries. She wasn’t accustomed to doing her own food shopping, but the service she normally used had recently been prioritizing clients who were either housebound or immunocompromised, leaving her high and dry. Ordering online proved hit or miss at best, and eventually, she accepted that if she wanted her groceries on time and to order, she would have to do it herself.
Unfortunately, that didn’t work out either. The long lines at both the entrance and the cashiers kept her well behind schedule, and the various supply shortages and rationing left her shopping list once again incomplete. By the time she got back to her building she was exhausted and frustrated, and sorely hoped that the earlier maintenance to the elevators had been finished so she wouldn't have to drag her meager yet hard-won haul up seven flights of stairs.
Across the lobby, she spotted a single elevator with its doors opened to a golden Art Deco interior, a surprising upgrade from the faux wood panelling it had had before. Standing at its threshold was a smiling, handsome young man dressed in a deep crimson uniform with gold accents. He looked like a doorman or bellhop straight out of the 1920s, the only visible anachronism being a face shield clipped to the brim of his cap. He waved her over with a hand clad in an immaculate white glove, assuring her that the elevator was fully operational.
“Evening Ma’am. Needing a lift? I’m James, and I’ll be your Lift Attendant today,” he greeted cheerfully.
“Lift Attendant?” Cherise asked with a bemused smirk.
“Yes Ma’am; Mr. Chamberlin is employing us at all his properties now,” James explained. “We eliminate public contact with the controls and enforce physical distancing while adding a bit of old-fashioned class and personal service to the experience. If you’ll kindly take your place in one of the marked corners Ma’am, I can have you upstairs in a jiffy.”
Cherise stepped into the elevator, noting with no small amount of delight that it was illuminated by a miniature chandelier. Three of its corners were each marked with unusually ornate silver decals, politely indicating where passengers should stand to maintain a safe distance from each other.
“Eighth floor please, James,” she instructed as she set her bags down on the floor around her. He took his place next to an elaborate brass control box, covered in switches and dials and indicator lights, with a large lever sitting on top. He flipped a few switches and turned a few knobs, and when he finally seemed satisfied, he pushed a button to close the doors.
“Going up,” he announced, pushing the lever forward and initiating a smooth ascent.
“That’s quite a contraption,” Cherise commented, eyeing it with a hint of derision. “What’s it need to be so complicated for?”
“It’s a bit of kludge Ma’am – tech from different eras all cobbled together – but it gets the job done,” James replied while keeping his gaze focused intently on the readouts, the blinking indicator lights dimly illuminating his unblinking eyes. “And here we are. Would you like some assistance carrying your bags to your suite?”
Nowhere in the elevator did it actually say they were on the eighth floor, but when the doors slid open the hallway looked as familiar as ever, so she decided to trust his judgement.
“Not tonight James, thank you. Perhaps another time when I’m better prepared to receive company,” she smiled subtly, picking up her bags and heading into the hall. “I look forward to seeing you around the building young man.”
“The feeling’s mutual Ma’am. You have yourself a fantastique evening” he beamed, tipping his hat as the doors slid shut.
Cherise rounded the corner and set the bags down again by what she thought was her door as she inserted her keys into the lock, only for the door to stubbornly refuse to open. She frowned, pulling out the key to make sure it was the correct one. When she saw that it was, she tried again, only for the door to remain locked. Had James dropped her off on the wrong floor after all? Her first thought was to check the room number, only to see that the small bronze placard beneath the peephole was completely blank. She furrowed her brow in confusion, turning her head to check the door across the hall. It too bore a completely blank placard.
It didn’t make any sense. She wondered if it was some sort of maintenance error or perhaps some petty spree of vandalism. But if her apartment key wouldn’t work, that meant that she was either on the wrong floor or that the super intendant had changed the lock.
Groaning in frustration, and with burdensome bags of groceries still in tow, she spun around to head back to the elevators in the hopes of finding out what floor she was on. When she turned the corner, she came to a dead stop, her frustration quickly morphing into fear at the impossible sight before her.
Where the elevator lobby should have been, there was instead another hallway, a perfect duplicate of the hallway she had just come from, and a hallway that by all logic shouldn’t have existed. Even if she was on the wrong floor, the hall would have to be stretching out onto Paladin Street, and elevators couldn’t just disappear. Setting her groceries on the ground, she sprinted off down the hall to see what was on the other end.
“Hello! Is anyone here? I think I’m lost!” she shouted as she ran, knocking on doors as she went. Not only did she receive no response, but every room she went by was deathly quiet. She could hear no voices or electronic media or humming appliances in any of them, as if they were all completely vacant.
When she reached the intersection at the end, what she found was another identical hallway, with the same number of apartments, with no address numbers on their doors. At the end of that was another hallway, and another, and another, and then she realized she hadn’t yet returned to her groceries. The halls all joined at ninety-degree angles, so logically there could only be four – but logically the dimensions and location of the building wouldn't permit such a layout in the first place. She immediately began to backtrack, and sure enough, once she had gone back five halls, she found her groceries sitting exactly where she left them. She reached into her purse to grab her phone, only to find that it had no Wi-Fi and no network connection. She dialled 911 again and again, but never got a signal.
As the dread in her stomach slowly grew and she felt a sudden spell of vertigo start to set in, she chose to sit down before she fell down. Breathing deeply, she forced herself to focus on analyzing the situation at hand. Somehow, she had stumbled into a series of hallways with no windows or exits, no connection to the outside world, and whose physical dimensions didn’t appear to conform to her understanding of reality. It seemed surreal, and yet she was certain she wasn’t dreaming. If nothing else, the fact the groceries remained where she had placed them proved this place obeyed some kind of internal consistency. She did her best to stay calm, reminding herself that she had supplies and thus plenty of time to figure something out.
Standing up and taking a Sharpie out of her purse, she marked an X on the wall just above where she had set her groceries. Taking off her heels and picking up a bag of groceries to take with her, she set off to map the hall system, numbering each intersection and pointing her way back to her base.
After an hour, she had numbered her 100th hallway. In each hall, she would shout out at least once, and try at least one random door to see if it opened. No one ever answered, and no door ever budged. No matter how far she went, she never came back upon any of the markings she had left, assuring her that in spite of their immaculate monotony, each hallway was unique. Each was unique, yet identical unless she did something to change it, and devoid of anything that could be of any potential use to her.
This was disheartening, as she had hoped to come across a fire extinguisher or any other blunt, heavy object that she might use to bludgeon the doors or walls with. She was considering accessing water through one of the pipes in the wall, but so far the labyrinth had given no sign that it even held running water. In the full hour she had been wandering the hallways, she’d heard no noise other than those she'd made herself. No pipes, no air vents, nothing.
The silence was starting to get to her. She couldn’t remember being anywhere that was so still for so long. It was horrid enough being lost in an impossibly distorted version of her own apartment building, but feeling like she was the only living thing in such a seemingly vast space was unnerving, to say the least.
Accepting that she wouldn’t find anything no matter how far she trekked on for, she relieved herself on the carpet and then headed back for her base camp.
When she got back to the apartment which she had first mistaken as her own, she took a large can of tomato sauce from her groceries and tried to knock the door handle off with it. The can dented and deformed and eventually broke open, spilling all over her hands and the floor, but the door handle didn’t show so much as a scuff. Whatever this place was, it seemed its matter was every bit as unearthly as its space was. Seemingly infinite and indestructible, the was no conceivable means of escape.
Cleaning off her hands as best she could with the materials she had, she moved her base camp down far enough so that she couldn’t smell the tomato sauce – even though she could still smell it on herself - and did her best to sleep on the floor.
As she struggled to fall asleep, she gave some thought to what could actually be happening to her. It all seemed real, even if it was impossible, and dreams were usually far less coherent and consistent than this place was. But if it was real, that meant that she wasn’t anywhere in her reality. The phrase non-Euclidean geometry popped into her head, as a (technically inaccurate) descriptor for spaces that didn’t conform to known geometric models. At first, she didn’t understand how she could have just waltz into a non-Euclidean space, but quickly remember the newly remodelled elevator, its peculiar control box, and James. She had completely forgotten about that until now, the strangeness and desperation of her situation having been quite a distraction. But now that she thought about it, it couldn’t have been a coincidence. It still sounded crazy though – someone converting her apartment building’s elevator into some sort of space bending contraption, just to dump her into endlessly repeating halls? There seemed no point to it at all.
Eventually, she did fall asleep, and when she awoke nothing had changed. Her phone was her only means of knowing any time had passed at all. She morbidly wondered if she could conserve the battery long enough for her to die of thirst.
After eating some of her perishable groceries, she set off to explore in the opposite direction as she had the following day. Again, she numbered each hallway; one hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four. Somewhere around five hundred, the combination of exhaustion, hopelessness, and lack of sensory stimulation took their toll and she broke out into a frenzy of screaming and banging on the doors as she ran through the halls, eventually collapsing into a sobbing mess.
She stayed like that for a while, unsure of what else to do, until the unbearable silence was finally broken by the sound of faint music. Perking her head up, she had to strain to hear it, but it was there. It sounded like it was coming through a door around the corner.
"Hey! Hey!" she shouted, leaping to her feet and breaking into a desperate sprint. As she drew closer, she could recognize the music as Frank Sinatra singing ‘That’s Life’ on vinyl. When she rounded the corner, it was apparent the music was coming from the door at the end of the hall. She ran towards it with such fervour she nearly crashed into it. Unlike all the other thousands of doors she had walked past over the last few hours, this door had a number on its placard; Room 101, to be exact. It was further differentiated by a shiny brass door knocker with ‘The Darlings’ engraved upon it.
“Hello! Hello! Is anyone in there? I need help!” Cherise pleaded as she banged with the knocker with her right hand and pounded on the door with her left. The music kept playing, but the feeling of hope was kindled within her at the sound of someone getting up from a chair and walking towards the door. She heard a deadbolt click, and then the door opened as far as the chain lock would allow for. Through the slightly ajar door, Cherise saw a young woman with onyx black hair and baby blue eyes. She was wearing a vintage 1950’s dress and had her hair in curled pigtails, which at any other time Cherise surely would have found at least a little strange, but now she was just overwhelmed with relief at having found another human being.
“What’s going on out here?” the young woman asked, her tone one of timid confusion.
"Oh my god, thank you so much!" Cherise sobbed, her voice cracking as she did so. "I’ve been trapped in these hallways since last night! They’ve been just going on forever and none of the doors will open and you’re the only other person I’ve found since I got here!”
“Oh… kay,” the young woman said, her voice filled with uncertainty. “I’m going to let you in so that you can calm down, and we’ll try to work out what’s going on. Alright?”
“Yes, whatever you want! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Cherise agreed eagerly. The woman obviously didn’t believe her story, which was fine with her. At the moment, she was no longer sure she hadn’t just had some kind of psychotic breakdown. The door closed just enough for the woman to unlock it, then opened fully.
“I’m Mary, by the way,” she introduced herself as she led Cherise to the sofa.
“Cherise,” she answered as she sat down.
“Alright Cherise, I’m just going to make a phone call, and then I’ll get you some tea and we can talk? How does that sound?” Mary smiled.
“Lovely, thank you,” Cherise nodded. Mary walked across the room, and Cherise heard the unmistakable sound of a rotary phone being dialled. She was surprised that someone who looked to be right in the grey zone between Millennial and Zoomer would even know how to operate such a device, let alone own one. When she combined that oddity with Mary’s dress, the décor of the room, and Frank Sinatra still singing away on what was obviously a genuine 1950’s record player, panic began to rise again in Cherise as an odd thought entered her mind. A crazy thought, but no crazier than being trapped in an endlessly repeating set of halls. She began frantically looking around the room for anything modern or something with a date on it. She spied a 1950’s style pin-up calendar on the back of the door, which – to her great relief – clearly said 2020 right next to the month.
She sighed at the realization that this girl was just very dedicated to her decorating theme. For extra confirmation, she pulled out her phone to see if she could finally get a signal, and sure enough, there was a notification alerting her to the fact that password encrypted Wi-Fi was available. There was still no cell signal, however, and that was definitely strange. She couldn't remember ever not having any reception in the building before. She glanced towards the open balcony doors to check on the weather for some possible explanation, which is when another unsettling realization struck her; the room number had been 101, and yet they clearly weren’t on the ground floor.
“Hello darling. Yes, of course it’s Mary. How many other girls have this phone number? Uh-huh. Did she now?” Mary spoke into the phone receiver, cheerfully at first, but her voice taking on a noticeable edge as her eyes darted up towards Cherise. “Her name wouldn’t have happened to be Cherise by any chance, now would it? Because she’s here right now, darling. I found her pounding at our front door, scared out of her wits, and reeking of urine and tomato sauce of all things. What on Earth did you do to her? Wrong Floor? That’s all you have to say?”
When Mary turned her back, Cherise rose from her seat and crept over to the balcony in the hopes of finding a fire escape. She was too scared to try the halls again, but it was becoming clear that not all was right with Mary’s apartment either. But when she looked out over the balcony, all she saw was a Kaleidoscope effect of blue sky, white clouds, and myriad reflections of herself all staring out with the same shocked and horrified expression on their faces.
"Sorry about the sky, ducky. Maybe you should have come when I was 'better prepared to receive company'," Mary said vehemently as she angrily stirred some sugar into her tea. Cherise turned around slowly, staring at the insidiously benign-looking woman across from her in confounded terror, unsure even how to react.
“What… is this place?” she managed at last.
"Room 101," she replied nonchalantly, casually sipping her tea. "You're reasonably well-read, aren't you ducky? You know what's in Room 101, right?" Mary smirked as Cherise bolted for the door, desperate for the halls she had longed to escape only moments ago.
To Cherise's surprise, the door actually opened, except now the once-grand hallway looked to be suffering from a century's worth of neglect and decay, covered in cobwebs and lit only by flickering lights that threaten to give out at any moment. This hallway also went on forever, with no turns or end in sight. As she ran, she could hear the doors creak open as she passed, but she didn’t dare to look back to see what was emerging from those once inaccessible rooms. Over the pounding of her own heart and footfalls, she barely noticed that Frank Sinatra was still crooning away as loudly as ever.
She screamed as she felt the ragged carpet being pulled out from under her, throwing her to the ground. She spun around to see Mary dragging the carpet towards her, an enormous meat cleaver clenched in her psychotically grinning mouth, and an assortment of other suddenly terrifying kitchen knifes held in the sash of her dress.
Cherise rolled off the carpet and into the adjacent room, slamming the door shut and bolting the lock. It splintered and shook as Mary appeared to be using her meat cleaver as an axe to break through it. Cherise crab-walked away from it as she sobbed, desperately looking around for anything that she could use to fend off her attacker. She shrieked when she realized she was right in front of a rotting skeleton slumped up against the wall, a handgun pointed at its chin and a large exit wound at the top of its skull.
She grabbed the gun with so much force that the corpse’s hand disintegrated into tiny phalanges and metacarpals. With a trembling grip, she pointed the gun at the door, not knowing if it was loaded or would still fire even if it was.
Mary thwacked and thwacked and thwacked until the door burst into shards. Cherise pulled the trigger, and the gun successfully fired. She fired again and again, getting off a total of eight rounds before the gun began clicking impotently. Shaking, her ears ringing and her vision clouded with gun smoke, she slowly lowered the gun to assess the damage. She expected to see the bullet-ridden corpse of her enemy lying in the hallway, but found no sign of Mary.
She took a few tentative steps out into the hall, looking each way, only to find it deserted, but did notice a few splotches of blood leading away from her. Mary was still well enough to retreat, it seemed, but she was injured, and that at least bought Cherise some time. She turned around to search the apartment for anything else that might be of use, and saw a smiling and unharmed Mary blocking her way.
“Boo!” she shouted as she brought the meat cleaver down on her skull.
“Mary Darling, could you come here a moment please,” James asked, a hint of displeasure in his voice.
“Yes, James Darling?” Mary asked, appearing from behind him the instant she was summoned, her hands innocently folded behind her back.
“Would you kindly explain this?” James requested, gesturing to Cherise’s mutilated corpse sprawled out on the lobby floor. The meat cleaver to the head hadn’t quite done her in, and it looked like Mary had taken her time finishing her off.
“Oh, right,” Mary hung her head in shame. “I’m sorry darling, I know I should have waited for you.”
“Then why didn’t you? The rule is that when one of us lures a new plaything back home, we let them wander until we’re both here and decide on what to do with them,” James reminded her sternly.
“But she started to break before you got back, and it’s no fun playing with broken toys,” Mary explained. “So, I let her into the safe room, just to see if I could fix her up a bit before you got home. But I didn’t know how much longer you’d be so I thought I’d better call you and tell you to hurry back and… that’s when you said that she had been flirting with you.”
“I said she might have been flirting with me, and I was mostly teasing,” James said with a shake of his head.
“You can’t tease me about that. You know how jealous I get,” Mary said with gritted teeth.
“Fine, fine. Mea culpa. Did you at least make it sporting?”
“Of course, darling. I brought a knife to a gunfight. How much more sporting could I have made it?”
“Just the one knife? That doesn’t sound like you at all,” James smirked, and then frowned as he considered the implications. “And was it just her you killed? What about all the other playthings I picked up in the elevator?”
“Well… you know how I get. Blood in the water, and all that,” she replied, hanging her head and kicking her shoes.
“So, there are none left for me?” James asked as he threw his hands up in exasperation. “Mary Darling, if I didn’t know any better, sometimes I’d swear you were a complete sociopath.”
Written by The Vesper's Bell