Estimated reading time — 15 minutes
I was, once upon a time, an architecture student at a university in Middle England. As one task as a part of my grueling studies, we were required to analyse and study our campus library. To complete this, we would survey every tiny detail of the library’s interior. Fire escapes, elevators, lifts, staff rooms, toilets, etc. This exercise was set as an entire month long, but I could already tell in the briefing lecture that the excitement for this task was little to none as I glanced around the lecture hall to see disgruntled faces and exasperated sighs. My friend Emily stared back at me from across the hall, making a face in my direction to confirm she was apprehensive. I certainly didn’t feel any different than my fellow students on that day.
As libraries go, ours was old, dusty and giant. The building was unfortunately bombed in the war, and much of it was left unusable, which lead to the remains of the library being demolished to introduce a modern, slightly hideous refurbishment. It stands as a modern eyesore compared to its neighboring buildings which were perfectly restored to their original 1850 aesthetics. The campus, minus the library, was an inspiring and wonderful place to study, and many of the locals referred to it as “Hogwarts” due to its resemblance.
We were given the library to survey. It is the ugly duckling of the campus and, like my tutor told us in the briefing, “to truly appreciate architecture you must understand its faults”, and this library had many faults. To start with, its connections from each floor made no sense and there was no consistency to the levels. An original staircase which was spared by the bomb which circulated through the building was missing in parts where it would make no sense to remove it, meaning that on certain levels you would be required to walk from one end to the other to find a staircase to the level below, which simply confused people, and myself. Without a floor plan acting as a map, the fresh-faced, excitable first year students, found it virtually impossible to navigate.
I spent the first day of the project making my way through the building with Emily. We were counting fire exits, getting the boring bits out of the way. We knew from the plans that there was a top floor, however, there was no signage at all to suggest where to find it. Typical. Emily had little to no interest in the task and couldn’t be bothered to figure out the way up to the top, so gave me a hug goodbye before skipping off home. I had a huge crush on her, to be honest, and always managed to enjoy the course projects with her by my side. Sometimes I got the impression that she liked me back, but how am I supposed to know that? I wouldn’t be able to tell if she was flirting with me even if she had it written on her forehead.
Nevertheless, I scoured the building to what I assumed was the top floor, which was virtually empty minus a few Masters Students. There was no sign of stairs to the rooftop, and I walked around the top floor for about 20 minutes before I decided to follow the original staircase pattern all the way to the top of the building. I realised that if the staircase still stood, the entrance to the roof would be situated in the North East side of the floor. I eventually found it hidden behind an inconspicuous black door with no handle with an unofficial-looking fire escape sign. I pushed on the door, realising that it would only open if pushed with much force.
Most if not all the students at the university didn’t even know that the building had an elaborately furnished roof terrace with pieces of sculpture and art where the staff went to smoke cigarettes. When I stepped out onto this wooden-clad, modern Japanese-themed garden level, the teachers and directors that were stood with their cigarettes, scowling at me. One teacher was Carly Diaz, a fashion tutor whose wrinkled face suggested she has smoked since the day she left the womb. She stood with her clique of pretentious tutors. They asked me what I was doing there, with a lot of disappointment and anger. I explained the situation, my tutor was called and told that the project would end immediately. Turns out the students weren’t supposed to know about this roof terrace at all. Busted.
Mark Woodhouse was my tutor for 5 years. He was unconventional, and often publicly discussed in the failings of the university which got him into trouble often with the other staff. He took a warming to me, and as a female, it sometimes made me uncomfortable. There were rumours circulating the school that he and Miss Diaz had dated, but she called it off after he became ‘creepy’ and would go out of his way to visit the fashion department under the pretense of washing his many elaborate suits in the large washer/dryers. I realised after a couple of years that Mark admired my tendency to bend the rules of university life and social conventions in a success-driven environment.
When the staff called Mark that day, a meeting was set and the project was cancelled. Apparently, this was the first year that this project was attempted and Mark was accused of manipulating the curriculum and setting this task without full permission from the school board. Mark was suspended, the staff and other course leaders accusing him of conspiring against the other tutors for having, what they referred to as a ‘campus staff recreation space’ where he was not welcome ‘due to disagreements’ .
I felt partially responsible for this, and I harbored a lot of guilt toward what I had done. However, the stress of an Architecture degree soon distracted me. A few months after the roof terrace incident, I awoke to a Facebook friend request from Mark the tutor. I promptly messaged him to say that it would be inappropriate for me to accept the invitation, seeing as I was his student. He brushed this off and proceeded to tell me the information I now know related to his suspension. Mark also told me to continue with the project. He said what I discovered is only the beginning and that he knew I was “capable of revealing the truth” and emailed me several files which he said were the unseen original plans. By this point I was angry, and I pinned Mark as a mad man, obsessed with foiling his fellow staff and using me to get into their heads. For a moment I felt that my discovery of the roof terrace was justified, and that perhaps Mark was completely obsessed with this conflict with the other staff, that he is irresponsible and shouldn’t be allowed to teach. I told him this, and to leave me alone in the future. I blocked him, and spoke to university officials the next day to inform them that he had contacted me. This lead to a full discontinuation of his employment and he was permanently fired.
I went about my studies and worked hard. We were required to write a 5000 word essay on a chosen subject and I picked 19th century public buildings in England. To achieve this, I was required to use many books from the campus library. I hadn’t been to the library since the roof terrace incident, not out of shame, but because I bought a new desktop computer with top specs so that I could work at home. I hated the library, the acoustics were awful and most of the students rejected the one rule of silence. Chatter and laughter would resonate through the entire building due to the central atrium that ran as a void throughout the whole place, other than on the top floor underneath the terrace, which is enclosed.
I was actually able to navigate the building very well. I cursed Mark for teaching me something, believing that he didn’t deserve the credit. I started to spend a lot of time in the library on that quiet top floor with all the grumpy Masters students. However, there was one book in the basement that I needed for a section of my essay, so I set off down the original staircase, feeling the brushed marble under my palms and enjoying the experience over the cop-out of the faulty, mosaic 1970’s elevator lift.
That day, I was in a little bit of a daze. I wasn’t quite concentrating, for lack of sleep, and I had smoked a joint that morning to calm myself down as I struggled with anxiety in my early twenties. Sorry, that’s no excuse for a wake and bake… I was a student, don’t judge. I reached the ground floor, completely forgetting to head off to the basement stairs on the other side of the building. This led me down the original staircase to a section of the basement that was on the opposite side to the book I needed. I was annoyed at myself as the walk from one side of the basement to another was through a labyrinth of archived books that no one uses any more. Dusty, old and to be honest, didn’t smell great. The basement was still intact as it was in the 1800s, and the bookcases were positioned in an odd fashion.
My curiosity, however, increased when I remembered that my essay would probably benefit from investigating this forgotten area of the building. I retrieved my phone from my pocket and opened Notes to jot down any interesting features that I found. When I opened my phone and pondered how I would reach the other side of the building, noticing that the modern version of the library “map” doesn’t include the pathway through the bookcases in the basement. I remembered Mark’s email of the original plans all those months ago, which would include a floor plan of the basement level as it was in 1850.
As I stood there opening the attachments, I started to slowly walk through the bookcases, taking glances around, back at my phone, back up at the bookcases, to try to find my bearings.
Now, I have always had a tendency to talk to myself and I exclaimed calmly,
“I wonder how I get to-?”
I stopped speaking.
As I spoke, the words dropped dead. By that, I mean, well… I’m not sure what I mean. The sound that came out of my mouth didn’t… sound right.
Have you ever been in a place so quiet that sound doesn’t resonate? Imagine the silence of a recording studio, where sound proof padding surrounds you and when you speak, it is almost as if the sound waves reach your ears but no further.
I realised that I had not noticed how far I was walking through the basement, because my footsteps were virtually silent. It made me very uneasy that they weren’t making as loud of a sound as usual, so I started to walk – fast. I almost stomped my feet to achieve a noise from them just to prove a point to my ridiculous self. I walked for… well, I don’t know how long I was walking for. Too long. I was met again and again by yet more rows upon rows of bookshelves stacked full and it just felt like my footsteps got quieter and quieter. I started whistling, the sound again, dropping dead in front of me. Zero amount of sound resonated in the room, even though I know that basement is huge. The bookcases and books must have been padding the room so well that the sound can’t bounce off of anywhere…
After a while I came to my senses and laughed at myself for what I was doing and stood still and closed my eyes, enjoying the silence. It was so incredibly calming, like instant meditation. After about 2 minutes, I glanced back at the original floor plan on my phone to find my way to the part of the basement where there was a touch of civilization, which is where my book was placed. For a moment, I craved the annoying chatter of students on their computers. As I stared down at my phone reading the plan, I realised something. I had no clue where I was. The bookcases were inconsistent and I had walked deeper into the archives. It was dark in there, very dimly lit with small halogen lights scattered on the ceiling, and in places it was completely dark. My claustrophobia started kicking in, but I calmed myself down and tried re-tracing my steps that I took from the staircase.
After a while I realised that I had completely forgotten where I had come from. I had a solution, though. What came to my mind was minecraft, crazily enough. If you have ever played Minecraft, you will know that when exploring a cave and discover that you can’t find your way out, you follow either the right or left wall depending on whether you are going deeper into the cave, or escaping from it. It’s very simple and stops you from getting lost, and the only way that I could keep calm was to follow the bookcases on the right all the way around and eventually I would find myself somewhere significant that I would be able to identify on the plans in front of me.
As I followed the right hand side, I noticed that the clipping of my shoes became completely dead silent, I whistled again and no sound came out at all. I started to feel frightened by this dank, dark place, which no longer felt peaceful, but like a looming labyrinth. When I thought it couldn’t get any worse, my Wi-Fi had cut out and so had my signal – I must have been so far away from the connection now that I couldn’t connect. In a panic I exited the plan to turn my wi-fi, off and on, to no avail. Fortunately, I had saved the PDF to my phone memory beforehand, but I was now left without any connection to upstairs, completely lost in this archive of dust.
I carried on with my plan of sticking to the right, but after another ten minutes I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere. For god sake, I had been an architecture student for years and should be able to read a floor plan! The noise of my fingers touching the phone screen was making me uneasy, as there was little to no noise no matter how violently I tapped it. It put me under so much stress that I couldn’t concentrate and started wildly scrolling around the plan when my finger brushed across and landed on a small piece of text which read “Sub-Basement Floor Plan”.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I wasn’t reading the basement plan at all, this was a plan for the buildings sub-basement, which I didn’t even know existed! I slumped down onto my knees on the floor staring at the screen. It felt as if the ceiling was closing in on me. It felt as if everything was tightening and all I could see in front of me was walls and walls of dirty, dusty, flaking, abandoned pieces of literature followed by deep, menacing darkness. I felt tears welling up in my eyes and in that moment I felt completely trapped.
“This has to be a horrible nightmare,” I exclaimed. I did however, hear my own voice, but extremely quiet and once again it felt as if I had said the words into a sound proof box in front of me. It was so unsettling. I got louder,
“Can anyone hear me?!” I screamed, but I could tell that only someone stood a few feet away would be able to hear me. I started weeping, with my head on my knees.
After a while I realised that I was lying on the floor. I stared up to my right hand side and caught a glimpse of “The Book of the Dead” by E.A Wallis Budge, hanging out of its bookcase. My non-feeling, emotionally strained body took my index finger and slid the book back into place, when I heard a noise. A loud, echoing, resonating sound. I felt like it was coming from underneath me, as if there was a cavern below my feet with how loud the noise was. I even felt slightly as if it were coming from every angle. I placed my ear on the cold, stone ground and heard nothing. I carried on pushing the dusty old book into its slot and heard the noise again, quickly placing my ear back on the floor. I couldn’t perform both things at once, so as I placed my ear on the ground I lifted my body to push in the rest of the book with my foot. When it slotted in all the way, I heard what sounded like a door clicking open, and then slamming against a wall. I stood up, my mouth smiling from the joy of hearing a sound that could have come from civilization, but what did the book have to do with it? A wave of curiosity flowed through me, I picked the book out of its place as quickly as I could, and heard what sounded like the loudest slam of a door I have ever heard in my life. I screamed and jumped and dropped the book to the ground, but I was laughing.
I was starting to go mad down there, and this loud noise was the only salvation from my madness, and laughing was the answer for me in that moment, so I pushed and pulled at the book, trying to figure out where the loud slamming noises were coming from. However, as soon as I got over the initial feeling of hearing realistic noise again, I came back to the reality that I was living. I was using a book to, what I thought was, opening a door… Like in a ridiculous old horror film or something…
“What the hell is this?” I shouted, the sound dropping again like a lead balloon, irritating me.
“Its hell,” I heard, softly spoken into my right ear. I span around, slamming into the bookcase behind me.
And there he was, Mark Woodhouse. His dark bearded face staring at me through the space where the book once sat. I ran around the corner to confront him, but I was met with another row of books. I turned back to the space in the bookcase where he was stood, where he smiled back at me smugly.
“Is this your doing? Get me out of here before I report you!”
“Report me again?” he replied, his face turning from a smile to a malicious frown. With that, he walked away, disappearing from sight. I glanced through the hole in the shelf, but he was swallowed by darkness. I didn’t want to be left alone no matter how much I hated him in that moment.
“Mark, please don’t leave, I’m sorry, please don’t leave!” I screamed through.
I heard a click, and the lights went out. I was surrounded my complete and utter darkness. After about 5 minutes, my eyes started to adjust to the light.
I heard a clink of metal and looked to the left to see Mark’s face in front of me and I screamed in fright, but at the same time, I reached out and touched him, gripping the fabric of his blazer. I let go when he tried to grab my hand when I saw the glimmer of a machete knife in his other hand, resting against his belt buckle. My blood went ice cold.
“What are you doing here?” I said, my voice shaking in fear.
“I like it down here, its quiet” he replied with a smirk that only made even more frightened. I scrunched my face and closed my eyes in disbelief of his arrogance,
“How did you… get in to the library?”
“Why couldn’t I, because you got me fired?” he laughed, “Don’t you get it yet, Sofia? There’s another way out… and another way in.” he told me as he took my hand and raised it, placing his other hand on top of mine, “you should have completed the project, shouldn’t you? You wouldn’t have been lost in here otherwise”.
In that moment, whilst he stared in my eyes I saw him reach into his large blazer pocket and retrieve a piece of folded paper, he let go of me and started to open it, shining a torch on to it from his other hand. I soon realised that this was the real basement floor plan, the floor we were on right now! Bookcases included! The copy was as old and dusty as the books that stood in front and behind us. He handed it to me and asked me to tell him where the entrance was. I stared down at the huge decaying, ripped and stained piece of paper, and then I saw it. The staircase.
“So how do we get out?” he asked with a smirk. I gulped I could see he could sense my fear and anticipation to leave that horrible place.
I pointed silently at the staircase symbol in the west.
“Very good,” he exclaimed, and in that moment a sick gratitude and appreciation for this horrible man raised inside me. My tendency to latch on to those who hurt me was starting to show. I was still crying, terrified, but he was my only lifeline, and I knew that he knew it.
“Now tell me, how do we get there?”
“I don’t… I don’t know” I stuttered out.
He turned the piece of paper around so that it faced me and started to talk. He told me about the history of the building, the basement, The Book of The Dead and some other things… I don’t know, I wasn’t listening to him. I heard that door slamming again and again, each time I would jump and he wouldn’t even flinch. I was staring down at the plan behind watery eyes whilst he spoke. He stopped talking after a long time, I don’t know how long. He took his hand and pointed down at the page, in between two bookcases in the center of the plan.
“You. Are. Here.” He said, slowly.
He hardly had to take a breath in before I snapped out of my state, snatched the plan from his hands and ran in the direction that I knew was toward the stairs. I hardly had to look down at the plan as I rushed to the stairs, I had already analysed the plan in my mind by the time he’d finished talking. It took me a couple of glances down at the paper to confirm which way was I was going. I started to hear my own breath panting and my feet on the ground. My god, it was good to hear it again. I reached the stairs and shouted in joy as I ran my way up, tripping as I went, hitting my knee on a step. I knew I was injured but I didn’t care. I didn’t for one moment look behind me to see if Mark was there. I figured, without the plan he wouldn’t be able to find his way back.
I took a sigh of relief and caught my breath before opening the doors. I placed my hand on the wood, when I heard screaming behind it. I retracted my arm.
“Oh god, what’s going on?” I muttered under my breath. I slowly opened the door.
The library atrium was filled with smoke and as I took a step into the room, I realised that the fire alarm was blaring.
I saw people running, bloodied, broken limbs, students crawling. One of my course mates was decapitated on the floor in front of me. Blood… everywhere on the floor. I stepped out into the center of the atrium, I glanced up through the void of the floors and I saw fire. A large piece of wooden cladding came soaring down in flames, I stepped out of the way in the last minute as I screamed for my life. I knew that a fire exit was only a few feet away and I dashed in that direction.
“Sof! Sofia, please help me!” I heard Emily scream behind me. I turned before I pushed through the fire exit door to see her broken body crawling across the floor. My eyes watered and I stood there, still. I couldn’t… I couldn’t move. I snapped out of my stupor and ran to her. Before I could reach even a foot away, a huge machete came soaring down onto Emily’s head, slicing it in half. Brains spilled out on to the carpet. I stumbled back and fell, seeing Mark’s face above me. His face was covered in blood, burned by the fire and menacing. I realised at this moment, that the whole thing was a trick. The door slamming in the basement… they were explosions…
“Oh God no”, I whispered to myself, realisation flooding through me. Mark stepped toward me as he wiped the knife on his brown suit trousers and laughed. There were dead bodies scattered across the floor behind him, students running for their lives, screaming. There was so much noise from the screams and the roaring fire above, that it almost deafened me. I saw one person fall from the top floor and hit the ground with a crack. I wailed out in shock when I saw that it was Carly Diaz, lying motionless, deformed next to Emily’s limp body. Mark had heard her fall, and turned around to look. He cracked up into horrible, hysterical laughter. He quickly turned to me with the evil grin which is embedded in my mind and through laughter he said these words that I will never forget for as long as I live,
“I lied, Sofia. It was all about the roof terrace”.
Credit: Ruth Zofia Skrytek
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