It started when I was stepping out of the room.
Not that it matters. Knowing where it began is definitely not worth half-a-buck when you don’t know where it’s going to end, and I was totally blank on that. Nonetheless, I welcomed this piece of knowledge. I welcomed it because without it, I would have nothing.
I exited the room for the seventh time. My roommate joined me outside a minute later. Brad was now going to say, Damn, I left my keys inside. I knew this because I had heard him say the exact same thing six times before. Brad didn’t know he was stuck in a time-loop. I guess only I knew that. Brad also didn’t know that one way or another, his six-foot-two, hundred-and-eighty pound body was going to be a bloody, lifeless mass in less than ten minutes. We all died, one way or another, but Brad always died first, and Brad’s death was the bloodiest. There was some constancy in all iterations. Some order in all chaos.
“Damn, I left my keys inside.”
I held the door as he ran inside. As he finally extracted the key from an appallingly cluttered desk, I said, “Oh, and don’t forget your umbrella.”
The first three times I exited the room, Brad had run back into the room twice – once because he forgot his key, and then once again because he had forgotten his umbrella on the bed. The fourth time on, I started reminding him of it. The first time I pointed his forgotten umbrella out, I was sure something would change. That maybe the fourth time would be the last time I exited this room, because I had disturbed the timeline very significantly. But nothing changed. Brad died when something sharp, I think it was a jagged piece of rock from the collapsing wall, flew out due to the explosion and struck his throat.
The fifth time, I tried to change more things. I locked the room door myself, I persuaded others to go down a different staircase, I stopped for a drink at the water-cooler. Nothing. No change. Brad died again, the first of us to go, stabbed I-don’t-know-how-many-times after the others went mad.
All this is very hard to digest. Because, you see, I am a man of science. I scoff when I see Roland Emmerich movies, I read Roger Penrose in my free time, I doodle the equation of continuity when I am bored, and I enter heated religious debates with a pro-evolution stance. I find it impossible to accept that I was caught in the equivalent of a Stephen King story where he imagines hell to be an endless repetition of your worst nightmare. I find it impossible to accept that I am stuck in a time-loop where people I know die, kill and go mad.
I would have pondered over this for longer, but in the seventh cycle, something changed.
We walked down the corridor. Two doors down and on the right, lived Andrew Clough, a brilliant pure physics researcher who would hear a strange whistle and lose his mind to a murderous rage in another seven minutes. He would take his pocket Swiss knife out from his bag, and he would kill (at least, try to kill) all those around him before the explosion takes his life. Andrew Clough and his three other roommates, four more puppets of this variety loving time-loop would all go mad before dying in the explosion. None of them was even remotely aware of that, though. Right now, their life was a breeze; right now the biggest problem any of them seemed to have was the large dark-brown stain on Erik Rasmussen’s lab coat. Even as I knocked their door, and shouted about running late (a pointless exercise, I know), I braced myself for Mikael’s inevitable guttural laugh. It’s definitely not chocolate, he was going to say, before he followed it up with a poop joke.
I didn’t hear the poop joke, though.
Because right about the time the joke was being delivered, my attention was on something else. Something that I hadn’t noticed the first six times.
It was a red door. That alone was sufficient to draw my attention away from the usual topics of discussion. There were no red doors in this residential complex. Rooms had white doors. Pantries had blue ones, a couple of maintenance doorways had green ones with large yellow signs on them. But there simply were NO red doors here. I turned around and asked, “Hey, what’s that red door doing there?”
“Which one?” Brad asked, puzzled.
I turned back with a jerk, trying to find it, and it wasn’t there. Two floors down, in the opposite wing, right in the middle of the corridor. I had imagined a red door there, because apparently the world wasn’t weird enough being stuck in a time-loop which only one person could notice. Except I hadn’t imagined it. Not one bit. And sure enough, once Brad and the others were done expressing their surprise at me having imagined one, I turned around and it was back. I wondered if I should point it out again, then decided against it.
When I had exited the room the second time, I had this strong feeling of déjà vu. It grew as I moved along the wall, and I was neck deep in it by the time I had knocked at Clough’s door. By the time we had moved down the stairs, the feeling had changed. It was no longer déjà vu. It was the pure, sheer horror of knowing that the nightmare I thought I had last night had come true. When I exited the third time, I had seen Brad die twice, both times differently, and yet I knew I was stuck in some sort of a time loop. I was horrified that Brad didn’t know, or that no one else seemed to know either. The entire residential complex seemed to have no one else present except the six of us. Five of us died or went mad every fifteen minutes just so the sixth one could reach the origin of the madness again and again. I wanted to talk about this to Brad, to ask for help. The third time, I almost did. I almost told him that he was stuck in a time-loop, and that he was going to die in ten minutes, and then again in another ten minutes, and so wouldn’t he please suspend disbelief and ignorance, and help me. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.
I couldn’t bring myself to share the reality of the situation with Brad, because I knew this wasn’t the real Brad. There was a real Brad somewhere – who knew me, who was my friend, who would help me even if I told him I had seen little green men walking in circles around their flying saucer, but that somewhere wasn’t here. There weren’t too many real things in this universe I was in. Brad, Clough, Mikael… these people were like puppets; whatever objects I saw in my short walk from my room down to the entrance hall where the explosion happens were props; this complex itself, in fact, was a set where a carefully scripted unreality repeated. I was the real guy in an unreal world, stranger in a strange land, the funny guy who unwittingly stumbles into a movie shoot and becomes horrified because he thinks the fiction around him is fact. And Brad was a puppet. He couldn’t understand. He couldn’t see. Just like he couldn’t see the red door.
I don’t know how I know this. Maybe when I stepped out of the room and my reality shifted, I automatically developed some perspective. It’s like a prisoner being water-boarded. Put a cloth around his head and plunge the man into ice-cold water without any prior warning, and he never gasps in surprise. His air-ways are sealed shut, almost as if he knew without knowing. His brain won’t let him take that huge breath which would fill his lungs with water and end it all. It would prefer that the torture continued. Does that really happen? Has anyone ever died of surprise water-boarding? I am going to assume not.
Fact of the matter: I needed to get to the door. Less thought, more action. But even as I designed an excuse to turn back, I knew that thought had won this bout. The six of us had just finished climbing down four floors and were making our way past the entrance hall to the exit. Before I could even roughly calculate the time and distance and tell myself that I could not possibly make it, Clough spoke the ‘signal words’. Every single time, in all the last iterations, the madness started as soon as Clough was done speaking that one single sentence, Why is this place…
“…so fucking empty?” Clough finished and immediately the whine began.
It was like listening to the sharpest, shrillest whistle you can imagine. As if the human ear had suddenly developed the potential to hear the sound a dog-whistle makes, and the human mind was lagging in trying to perceive it. It was like a thousand long-nailed women scratching the blackboard together. It was the most horrible sound you ever heard. It was a sound which could drive anyone mad.
I clamped my ears shut, one finger in each lobe and started walking backwards, away from the bloodshed that was going to begin soon. Clough had stopped moving like a human. He now shifted on his feet, like a Zombie with one good leg, he grunted and scratched his ears, pulling out bloodied fingers. Mikael screeched, as Erik collapsed in an epileptic fit.
Raphael, the fourth resident of the Clough room was staring blankly at his backpack, which was lying on the ground. His face showed no expression, and yet he had his own hair in a vice-like grip, pulling at them until they tore, coming apart in his hands in clumps. He retrieved his laptop from the backpack, a 6-pound Dell XPS15, moved to Brad, who was kneeling down on his knees, not moving at all, and brought the laptop down on his head with all the force he could muster. Brad’s blonde head cracked open with a sickening crunch and blood spurted. Madness danced in Raphael’s eyes, and I could see he was bleeding from all orifices. His ears, his nose, his mouth, even his eyes. The tears of blood came faster as he raised the broken laptop again, to finish what he’d started. I could see a bent piece of metal protruding from the frame. I did not want to see it hit Brad, maybe in the neck, and end his life for the seventh time.
I did not want to see Mikael go down on Erik with the pointy edge of the emergency hammer. I did not want to see Andrew Clough taking his Swiss knife out and stabbing himself, smiling a possessed smile as he did it. As if he enjoyed the pain. I did not want to see any of this. You see, right about now, I wanted the explosion. I wanted the madness, the killing, to end. I wanted the sound gone.
Six times, I had seen the explosion, and even in the seventh iteration, I don’t know what caused it. I guessed then, that I would never know. It always started with a weird rumbling sound, a sound that thankfully drowned the godforsaken whistle. And then the rumble would grow out, and it would transition into an explosion. It is difficult to say when the exact transition would happen, when the rumble would become a shockwave which would open all the pores of your skin and give you the impossible experience of air hitting you like an actual physical blow. You would think it was an explosion – things should end really fast – blam! And you are gone. But this was different.
The blast always started somewhere in a ground floor corridor on the right. It progressed like a terrifying wave of fire that tore things apart, cracking the pillars that held up the ledge and the floors above one by one, and slowly, like a movie being screened at a very high frame-rate, the walls holding up the floors would collapse. And only then would you notice (no matter how many times you had seen it before) that this wasn’t the only area where the flames had progressed. The blast was now everywhere. Debris flew outwards from collapsing walls. The shockwaves scattered you and your murderous posse like bowling pins, and then finally the fire, the astonishing, impossible heat of the explosion was upon you. The most horrific thing was the smell, the smell of the roasting flesh, the smell of metal melting, the smell of so many things already turned to ash.
Inside my mind was a strange sort of calm. It’s a unique feeling, the resigned acceptance of a form of death. You had been there and died that way. Six times already. You just let the flame engulf you. You just let the heat take over, you just embraced the faint glow beyond your closed eyelids until once more, you heard the…
I exited the room for the eighth time. Things had changed this time, though. This time I knew what could end the loop. This time I would go to the red door, and I would enter the room, and I would pull the switch and everything would become normal. I might just die once more, probably. But the ninth exit would resume reality. Cats have nine lives, don’t they? It almost made sense.
“Damn, I left my keys inside.” Brad said for the eighth time.
“Hey Brad, I just remembered something I need to take care of.” I said, and started running in the direction of the opposite wing.
“We’re already late!” he shouted from behind me.
“You guys carry on! And don’t forget your umbrella!” I shouted without turning back. I was running hard and I had lost all the little breath my excitement would allow me by the time I was in the opposite wing. The stairs to this wing were on the other end, and I had to cross the corridor, climb down four flights of stairs and cross back to the middle of the corridor there to reach the door. As I started down the upper corridor I could see that Brad had already reached Clough’s room, and that they were all standing outside. I could see Clough shake his head animatedly and say something. I swear I heard it. I was at least a hundred metres away, separated from the group by a large clearing which had a lawn and a large noisy fountain, right below the wing I was running in, but I swear I heard it.
“Why is this place so fucking empty?”
Immediately the whine came, so intense, it stopped me in my tracks, bringing me down on my knees, my hands clasped on both my ears. I heard the rumble drown out the whine, and the floor I was kneeling on caving beneath my knees. Somewhere, by now, Brad was already dead. He had to be because I saw myself dying in a few seconds. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t supposed to happen. This was too soon. And then a more terrifying thought. Maybe the door doesn’t want me to find it. The door or whoever’s behind it. Maybe they don’t want the door to ever…
There was a rumble. I waited for the shockwave to come.
Ninth time. I needed to think this through. I needed to reach the red door. I needed to make sure that Clough doesn’t say the signal words too soon. Instead of doing what I did the last time, I decided to make a run for the red door AFTER I had climbed down the two floors, on the right side of the room. That would give me some more time. I wondered what I could do. The staircase we used normally was just beside our room. If I could prevent the group from walking down that staircase, the only option left would be to cross over and use the staircase of the opposite wing.
I went in to the room behind Brad who was rummaging the contents of his desk again, searching for his keys. I opened my cupboard and retrieved a large bottle of olive oil that Brad used to dress his specialty salads.
“What the hell are you taking that out for?” Brad asked.
“Just had a flash. I think this one’s expired,” I replied. “Damn, the light in this room is never enough,” I said trying my best to pull off a fake-squint. I walked out of the room, hoping against hope that this ruse was as convincing as I needed it to be. Outside, near the entry to the staircase, a sad excuse for fire-fighting was lying where it had always been – two red buckets, filled with sand. I took both the buckets as quickly as I could, tipping them over pouring the sand over in the space before the steps. As I finished with the second bucket, I shouted, “Hey Brad, don’t forget the umbrella.”
“Oh, hey, thanks, man!” came the reply from inside. I quickly placed a bucket at one end of the area that the sand was now covering, and just as Brad exited the room, I made a show of staring at the sand in surprise. The job was quick, but good. The sand was all over the clearing and the bucket lay on the opposite side, like a prankster’s job left half-done in a hurry.
“What the fuck? What happened here?” Brad asked.
“No clue,” I said casually. Now for the second trick. “By the way, this one’s gone,” I said holding the bottle up. I flipped it in the air, trying to make it seem as casual as I could, and then missed. The bottle, a mostly full 1 litre bottle of olive oil fell on the floor, a little distance from the both of us, and shattered. The oil spread, mixing with the sand and leaving behind a disgusting pool of muddy substance in its path.
“Damn it!” I shouted in mock frustration, even as Brad stared on. I turned to face him, “We better get going, man. Looks like we’ll have to use the other staircase.”
“No kidding,” Brad muttered sarcastically. I ignored his jibe. My goal had been accomplished.
Despite the delay, Clough and his roommates took their time to join us. Mikael even delivered the poop joke, for the eighth time. Even as he did, I stole a glance at the red door. It was there. At the same place. Waiting.
After much grunting and protests on the part of Clough who actually observed the mess trying to judge the risk of jumping across the clearing and landing directly on the steps without spoiling his shoes, we finally decided to climb down the staircase in the opposite wing. As we climbed down the two floors, I broke free from the group and ran! I avoided their stunned glances, and Brad’s shouts as I ran. I ran with all my might, my skin tingling, my heart thumping like the hooves of a medieval warhorse. As I neared the door, I heard Clough speak. Again, the distance was too much – I was just about halfway down the corridor, closing in on the door – and I was running at breakneck pace. It was impossible, but I heard him perfectly.
“What the hell is wrong with him?” he asked, “and why is this place…”
My hand clasped on the door-knob….
“… so fucking…”
Click! The door knob turned, miraculously.
I ran in and slammed the door behind me.
To be continued…