Caught in an Escher

A short story:
(Based on an actual dream – so yes, a bit strange.)

It suddenly occurred to her that there were no other women around. She was so used to women being outnumbered by men in the technical field she hadn’t noticed the other girls had left. The room was slightly wobbling before her and she took another sip of the cheap concoction of soda and rum one of the guys had offered her. She was surrounded by devious smiles, and before her inner red flag could urge her out the door, one of the boys grabbed her arm and pulled her into a forced dance. The other guys laughed and she felt caught in a game where she was nothing but an object of entertainment.

She had trouble making sense of the situation. Just earlier that day, the same boys had treated her with respect, giving her shy glances and feeling privileged at any opportunity to come to her aid. They were all taking the same course of certifications, and the spontaneous student party seemed like a fun invitation, but she never suspected that she would become the party.

He swung her around and cradled her tight in his arms. She could feel his wet breath on the back of her neck, and to the audience’s delight, he started to raise her shirt, exposing her abdomen. When his hands continued to cup her bra, something finally snapped within her and she stomped his foot with her heal. He released her in a howl and she flew out the door while the boys were still preoccupied with laughter. She ran all the way to her room and stood to pant in terror as the boys’ mocking smiles flashed before her mind.

The next morning class was awkward, and the boys’ eyes circumvent hers in shame as they delivered discrete apologies. She didn’t feel like joining any of her classmates for lunch that day but walked over to the main building by herself. Although the campus wasn’t far from the city outskirts, it was surrounded by farmland. The campus itself had been converted from a huge Victorian-era plantation once employing hundreds. The main building was several stories tall, and the cafeteria occupied most of the first floor. Despite its size, she had trouble finding a place to sit, so she joined a line of people winding itself up a staircase to the second floor where more space had been made available due to a special event.

She was still carrying anxiety from the previous night and soon lost her patience for the slow-moving crowd. I’ll sit anywhere, she thought, and made a detour on the first landing and headed towards a hallway in the opposite direction. The hallway only took her to another flight of stairs, so she headed further up. The staircase, however, didn’t lead to a third floor but continued to what must be the fourth, and then to another hallway. She started feeling apprehensive when the hallway took her to yet another flight of stairs. She started to go back down and once again ended up in a hallway on the third floor which took her back in the same direction as the last staircase, even though she didn’t remember it stopping at a third floor.  She walked back up to the fourth floor and confirmed that she had indeed walked in a loop, so she continued once again but chose to walk all the way up to the top fifth floor this time.

Another short hallway on the fifth floor lead to yet another, but there was hope – she saw light filtering through the otherwise unlit interior. Her sight was temporarily blinded before her eyes adjusted to the bright sunshine breaking through the tall multi-paned windows of a study. She was immediately struck by the many curious items cluttering the room: an old sextant, a dusty Cuban cigar case, vinyl records, CD’s, leather-bound books, shiny soft covers, an old cassette player, an antique stereoscope…  She jumped when he spoke to her, and items flew off the lunch tray she was still carrying.
“I’ve been here for a very long time,” he said casually as if it was supposed to make sense somehow.
She turned to face a young man, and his appearance was almost as mixed up in time as the rest of the study’s content. She couldn’t help but stare, immobilized by her own lack of comprehension.
“Welcome to my quarters,” the young man continued as he swung his arm in a gesture to introduce her to the place. It was the fact that he seemed so nervous around her that she relaxed a bit. Still, she stood there for an awkward moment until the gentleman offered to take her tray. Once he managed to find a place for it he quickly cleared a carved velvet armchair and offered her a seat, but she was too distracted by the curious artifacts of the room.

She turned about in the center of the room with her eyes scanning walls and shelves with great interest. The young man studied her patiently, then apologized in shame:
“I’m so sorry I brought you here.”
“Brought me here?” she finally spoke to him and it made him smile.
“Yes, you see, I can never leave, but I can have things brought here.” He paused before continuing, “And things I bring here never leave.” He motioned to the clutter of items and waited for her to make a connection. She didn’t, because it didn’t make sense. She questioned his sanity and thought it best to just play along until she found a friendly opportunity to depart.

While she played her part and treated his every suggestion as completely sensible, he felt encouraged to introduce the rest of his lair. By reason she should have felt an inner alarm, warning her to get out and away, but the young man was too sweet, courteous, and so happy in her company, she felt sympathetic.

The study included a narrow spiral staircase that continued to an upper level, and then another and she made a mental note to look for it on the outside of the building because she couldn’t remember having seen a tower before. On the uppermost level he was anxious to show her the view, and as she bent forward to look out the aging window panes she was struck by the beauty of the fields sprawled beneath. Everything looked more vibrant from the view of the tower. The green fields and the blue sky bathed in sunlight, and she could spot the bright colors of what people wore with such clarity, even if they seemed so far away. Yet, it was so quiet up in the tower, it felt as if everything below was a world apart.

“That’s where I first saw you,” he said.
She turned to look at him, astounded. He looked a bit hesitant, not sure how to proceed. He combed his long unruly brown locks back and scratched the short stubs that lined his jaw and motioned to a back corner of the room. It was filled with computer monitors and a messy desk cluttered with digital equipment. Then he continued, again as if it ought to make sense to her:
“Then I followed you from there.”
“Followed me from here?” she answered as a great follow-up to her first comment.
“Wait, let me show you,” he said and went to turn everything on.

As the monitors lit up with views from the many security cameras on campus, so did her comprehension, right before a chill went up her spine. He had followed her activity on camera? It was time to leave. She felt an urgency to get out and away from her stalker’s lair before something turned the situation into something more sinister. She recalled how perfectly decent guys had just turned predatory the night before and knew she had a naïve side to consider. Her stalker didn’t notice her sense of alarm and continued:
“It’s when I saw this that I felt the need to bring you here.”
She turned in response and there it was, the scene from the night before, caught on video. She felt nauseous, but he continued explaining:
“You got away that time, but things could turn worse during a second opportunity. The most sensible men can turn into sexual predators when egging each other on under the influence. It starts as a game and quickly escalates with each step of mutual encouragement. They feel justified under communal approval.”

She just stared at him, ready to flee. Her stalker was warning her? Was he unaware of his own predatory nature? Movie horror scenes flashed before her mind. Surely there were mutilated bodies hidden behind the walls, or maybe he had a stuffed corpse of a mother speaking to him from his split personality, urging him to kill her. He seemed so sweet and innocent he was bound to have a dark and disturbing side.

She slowly stepped back towards the staircase, watching him carefully before turning to descend. Her limbs felt stiff and her head dizzy, but she knew she had to get away. He stepped up to the staircase and looked down at her.
“You can’t get away from here!”
She looked back up at him. He said it with such great concern, and his warm brown eyes looked at her so lovingly, it convinced her to rebel against her naïve self with even greater determination. She picked up her pace when he followed her.
“I don’t want to scare you, but I have been stuck here for a long time. Nothing leaves, nothing changes, trust me. I haven’t aged since I walked into this room in 1865.” His voice was pleading.  Why she wondered. If she couldn’t leave, why did he try to stop her?
“I just don’t want you to go into shock like I first did when I discovered the truth about this place,” he answered as if he had read her thoughts. “We can be happy here, you and I.”
Now she knew he was insane. She glanced at him before descending the second spiral staircase. He looked at her as if he really was starving from human companionship. There was not a doubt in her mind that he believed his own delusion.

Just as she was about to exit the study into the hallway, he grabbed her tray and pleaded:
“Please, don’t forget your lunch. I mean no harm, really. I will keep my distance. I’ll let you adjust and we can get to know each other slowly. It’s not so bad being stuck here. It’s comfortable and safe. You will never have to worry about anything ever again.”
She looked at him with pity, not fear, before she headed towards the hallway beyond and its many stairways.

Her emotional confusion made the maddening descent worse. There was no logic to the architectural layout and she felt as if she was endlessly trapped in an Escher drawing on a path to nowhere but eternal impossibilities.

When she finally made it down to the cafeteria she was hit with a wave of sound and activity so contrasting she lost her balance. She grabbed the last newel and slid down to a sitting. The crowd she’d intended to escape imposed on her space once again. Nothing seemed real or made sense anymore. After a few recovering breaths she ran outside and circled the large five-story building, but saw no tower. As confusing as the Escher stairs were, she tried to recount her steps. No, there had to be a tower. This led her to question everything, including the intent of her tower host. The only ill intent had been in her own interpretation, right?

She turned her head involuntarily at the holler of her classmates, among them her predatory dance partner as they crossed the field to get back to class. No, that reality was stranger than anything she was ready to face. She ran back into the main building and started to look for security cameras and found one. She looked straight into the camera and knew she was looking straight into his eyes, and she voiced a silent, “I’m coming back”. And then she started the ascent back into Escher’s staircase.

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