Tuesday, January 7, 2014

"Drywall and Wiring"

"I need to step out for a second, it'll only be a minute."

The lab coordinator, my boss, had merely given a cheery "Okay" and left me to my business, peering through her glasses at the glass pipette she was using to draw up the ammonium hydroxide for her test. The fume hood hummed softly and the flask sonicator buzzed like a cicada as I left the laboratory, walking through the rows of delicate instrumentation. An aged Gas Chromatograph whirred as it ran its samples; the steady heartbeat of the HPLC machine pulsed as pressurized liquid ran through its tubing. That is the thing about a laboratory - nobody realizes how noisy it really is, how even voices are contained and echo inside the cream-colored walls.

This is what I heard every day at work, what I came to every morning and what served as a soundtrack for the samples of milk I tested. It was present even as I wandered into the hallway leading to the front office. It wasn't a big laboratory building by any means, with a single building and just three departments - microbiology, chemistry, and the specialized milk chemistry laboratory, all consisting of maybe two rooms each and all connected directly to each other via hallway. And in this hallway was the lunchroom, to the right, and two bathrooms, to the left. This was my destination.

I knocked on the door of the first bathroom, then, finding it occupied, proceeded to the second. The door shut and locked behind me with a soft click, and I went about my business.

I was about midway through washing my hands when I looked up at the other door, a holdover from when the lab was merged from two adjacent buildings into one. The door was aged somewhat, its wooden door frame well-worn and its silver-tinged hinges beginning to rust, but otherwise a fairly average door, with a small metal grating at the bottom for ventilation and a smooth, silver, orb-like handle. I had never opened it, assuming it was glued shut or something, and never asked about it, since I figured it likely probably just contained drywall and wiring anyway. But as a scientist, (and as someone with a curious mind in general), I wasn't satisfied with assumptions. Even if I knew there was probably nothing but a closet behind it, I wanted to see for myself. So, drying my hands with paper towel and shutting off the sink, I walked over to the door.

My first surprise was that the knob actually turned at all. I'd been sure it was totally unable to move, and yet it swung open just fine.

My second surprise was that the hallway I'd just entered from was behind it.

Confusion marred my brow as I peered into the hallway. Wasn't this where I just came from? Was there more to the building I didn't know about, and the hallway simply appeared to mirror the other one? There was more space to the front of the building, after all, space I'd never been inside let alone seen. Maybe this lead to additional storage, although I thought it was a pretty weird place to put a door leading to it. Why had I never been asked to obtain supplies from this area of the building before? To be honest, it was strange, and more than a bit unnerving...

I threw my reservations aside and wandered into the hallway, the door closing behind me with a soft click. I was instantly bewildered to notice the door to the lunchroom in front of me, still closed, still with a box of doughnuts setting on the table visible through the window. As I looked down the hallway to my right, I saw the chemistry lab, and to my left, the front office. Nothing hummed, nothing whirred, and nothing buzzed.

I blinked in confusion and looked again. Wasn't this where I had just come from? But it couldn't be, the hallway to the labs was through the other door in the bathroom! Was this an additional, adjacent laboratory to my own? If so, where was everyone?

"Rick?" I asked, calling for my coworkers as I wandered down the cream-colored hallway towards the milk lab. "Alicia? Rob? Anyone?" I gained no response, and felt chills creep down my spine. Where was everyone? For that matter, why couldn't I hear talking, or instrumentation working, or even the simple hum of the fluorescent bulbs above my head? It was completely quiet, unnervingly so. The kind of quiet that made one feel very alone, and very watched, all at once.

I entered the chemistry lab and immediately felt as if I'd stepped into a foreign world. The room wasn't oriented the same way - the boss' office, normally off to the right, was now off to the left, and the door to the milk lab now resided to my right. It was like the room had been totally flipped. Even the benches where the HPLC, Gas Chromatograph, and Karl Fisher Titrators rested was flipped, mirror-image style. It was like walking into a reflection. And nothing was making any noise, at all, despite everything being plugged in. This concerned me, because if the instruments weren't running it could mean they'd been turned off, or it could mean a power failure - and both could mean invalidated test results. I quickly checked the bench of instruments, but all were running properly - the HPLC pumped its liquid medium, the titrators mixed their fluids, and the Gas Chromatograph silently injected itself with samples as its green prep light blinked. But no sound came from any of them, nothing but pure, utter silence.

Creeped out, I walked around the bench, back the way I came, but as I did, I took one look at the outlets behind it and stopped.

Nothing was plugged in. Not only that, there weren't any cords running from any of the instruments at all.

The Gas Chromatograph's green prep light continued to blink.

I nervously proceeded to the milk lab, finding once again that the room had been mirrored from the one I knew - the fume hoods now were off to the right, and the counter with the sonicator was to the left. Despite everything being on, nothing made sound, and nobody was there. My forgotten flasks rested in the fume hood as before, but otherwise it was as if the entire lab had been abandoned. Maybe everyone was in the back?

I walked through the silent laboratory and towards the back doorway, which I knew lead to the room with our scales and NMR instrument. But as I reached the door, I saw that everything inside was black, as if the lights had been turned off. That was odd, why was it pitch black in broad daylight? There was a window in that room, surely it would have been lit up by the sunlight since it was already noon. I tried to open the door, but to no avail - the door was completely stuck. Confused, I turned around - and nearly jumped out of my skin. My flasks were sitting on the countertop, still corked as if waiting for me to shake them. But that was impossible, I'd left them in the fume hood and nobody was supposed to touch anyone else's tests while they were running! Besides that, there was nobody in here... so who had moved them?

Unnerved, I decided it was probably best to find my boss and try to figure out what was going on. This was certainly not normal, and it was creeping me out. I left the milk lab, the door shutting noiselessly behind me, and walked down the hallway towards the front office.

Only, there was no front office. In fact, there wasn't a microbiology lab, front office, or even a second bathroom. There was only a dead end, a single cream-colored wall barring off that area - along with the only door out of the building.

I broke into a cold sweat. Was this some sort of weird nightmare? I was sure I'd driven here this morning... but was I positive I was really awake? I pinched myself to be sure, and jolted back. No, this was real... and as I ran my hand along the smooth, cream-colored wall, I realized that this couldn't be a dream...

I ran towards my boss' office in the back of the chemistry lab, and furiously began pounding on the closed door. "Tracey!" I cried, bewildered and hoping for some answer from my boss. "Tracey, it's me, Jennifer, are you there?" No answer. I tried to open the door, but it was locked. I pressed my ear to the door to listen for any sign of life, but the sound I heard... the noise... it... It sounded like tinfoil being crushed and glass being broken. It sounded like destruction. And it was getting louder by the second.

I looked up again in horror and backed away from the cream-colored wall. No office. No front door. Nobody, nowhere to go... I was trapped. I didn't know by what, and I didn't know why, but this was clearly not my workplace and I had to get out of here, immediately.

I ran towards the bathroom as if possessed, flinging the door open and shutting it behind me. The crunching noise followed me, I could hear it outside of where the lunchroom door used to be, I could hear it behind me, all around me...

I slammed the door noiselessly shut behind me and ran towards the other door. I have to get out. This is a nightmare, this isn't real, I have to get out!

My hand grabbed the smooth, silver doorknob and turned, the door flinging open.

There was nothing behind it. No hallway, nowhere to turn. Only drywall, interspersed with old wiring.

I laughed coldly.

The crunching behind me started to sound like grinding, like chewing. I backed against the white wall where the other door had once been, unable to stop the tears flowing down my face as I sunk onto the floor. The walls began to crackle and the mirror over the sink shattered. The door began to slowly rot.

And all I could see in front of me, as the room began to implode around me, was a doorway that lead to nothing. Nothing but drywall and wiring.

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