Angelica finds herself in the nexus of several intersecting red corridors. Everything is red: the walls, the stucco ceiling, the trim, the plush carpets. Each corridor recedes into the far distance and is studded with doors spaced at irregular distances apart, and each door has above it a tubular fluorescent bulb. But the bulbs are not lit, exactly. Instead they flash on and off. First one will light up and go out, and as it goes out its nearest neighbour to one side lights up. The effect is of many signals travelling in long waves up and down each corridor, waves that bend around corners and sweep back up again, crossing over Angelica’s head as she stands there, wearing a dress she can’t remember buying in a royal blue colour she never would have chosen, finding herself able to perceive some regularity in the movement of the lights, but a regularity that affords no power to predict which way the waves will travel next. Somehow, this modicum of organization is more sinister than chaos. Under the lights the red walls are dim, flickeringly alive.
“Hello?” she says. The corridors look empty, but each recedes around a corner. Anyone could be standing just out of sight. She walks under waves of light in a direction randomly chosen and pauses at the next intersection. Her footsteps make no noise on the thick carpet. There is no one.
Turning a corner, moving quickly, another corner and another. If she turns right and right and right again, shouldn’t she be moving towards where she started? The corridors are all uniform. Her shoes, which are patent leather with straps that—she realizes as she looks at them—bite into the soft skin on the tops of her feet through sheer white socks with a ruffle at the ankle, have left no discernible depressions on the carpet.
The last thing Angelica remembers is—it was something, someplace other than this. There is a buzzing in her chest as though she swallowed a nest of hornets, and, lower down, an ambiguous fluttering as though she has to pee, but not quite. Her body is heavy with fatigue. She thinks of nothing but feels an overwhelming need to get out of these red corridors with their lights flickering in their organized but unpredictable way. Perhaps if she can find somewhere to sleep, she will dream of a better place than this.
She is running, has been running around the corridors perhaps in circles—or squares, really. She stops and opens the nearest door, breathing heavily, with a visceral weariness suffusing her limbs.
The door opens into a perfectly, jarringly normal-looking living room, albeit one that is a little dated with 1970s décor. Soft yellow lamplight illuminates a square set of walls which could be white or dusty rose, it’s hard to tell. There are no windows. The carpet inside is a beige colour that verges on brown, and in the middle of the room there is a sofa with a maroon floral print on a soft beige background of velvet. On the sofa sit two people, a man and a woman who appear to be in their late thirties, who, in the instant after the door opens, are sitting with impeccable posture and space for another whole person between them, watching a game show with upbeat music at a low volume on a large floor model TV encased in dark wood. The man wears a wool sweater in a green reminiscent of billiards and pressed pants in a rich milk chocolate colour. The woman wears a dress whose colour seems to shift as she breathes, a pearlescent blue pink purple white. Both of them are wearing shoes with feet evenly spaced on the shag rug that lies underneath the sofa and on top of the carpet, the rug the same colour as the corridors. It looks like a large puddle of dried blood underneath them. Both heads turn in perfect unison towards Angelica, who is frozen on the threshold, her hand still on the doorknob.
“What is she doing here?” the man says. “Did you invite her?”
“No,” the woman says. “Of course not. You’d think she would know better than to show her face around here.”
Both of them continue to stare at her as they speak, quite calmly. They act as if they know her. This act makes her uncertain of her certainty that she has never seen either before.
“I think you might have me mistaken for someone else,” she says. “I’m lost—”
“No!” the man shouts. As he shouts, he rises and moves towards Angelica. “You’re not welcome here! Get out, get out, get out!”
Angelica moves quickly backwards into the corridor as the man advances with his eyebrows drawn together. He slams the door in her face so quickly it almost closes on her hand. The whole time, the woman looks calmly on, still seated.
The corridor is even more sinister after the soft yellow lamps on the pale walls. The fluorescents continue their flashing as Angelica moves away from the door, trailing a few fingers along the wall for some kind of balance. Although they look dry the walls feel sticky and somewhat soft under her fingers, like a breathing thing. When she draws her hand away, the fingertips are shiny with a slick substance which she wipes on the skirt of her dress.
She moves several doors down and tries another room. This room looks sunlit and has warm, honey-coloured wood flooring. The air inside smells like dust and skin lotion. There are thick curtains parted on a far wall, framing the source of the sunlight, although when Angelica looks closely she can see there is no actual window, merely a large square bulb. A creaking sound draws her gaze to the far corner where an old woman sits knitting in a rocking chair. The chair creaks on the floor as it rocks. The woman is frail-looking, hunched and birdlike, made to look even smaller by the flesh-toned mass of what seems like a scarf blooming up from her needles and spilling over her lap like something ejected from her body, down to the floor, where it collects in folds like wrinkles that reach nearly to Angelica’s square-toed shoes.
The woman’s eyes are set deep into her skeletal face as though they are spying from a hidden location, her flesh thin enough to show veins. She is deeply wrinkled in a way that makes her appear carved from a solid material. The skin around her eyes and forehead is pulled taut by a pristine chignon. She stares at Angelica, her knitting needles flying.
“Hello,” Angelica says from the doorway. “I’m wondering if you could help me. I’m lost.”
“Lost?” the old woman says. “Lost? Lost? Come in or get out, but don’t be lost!” She throws her head back and cackles, she howls, shaking in her creaking chair. Her fingers never miss a stitch even as she convulses. Angelica waits for the old woman to stop laughing. She waits and waits. She counts to ten after an unknown amount of time has already gone by. The woman cackles until she becomes breathless, after which she wheezes. The sound makes Angelica feel, eventually, as though she was on the precipice of some cliff face and only just realized it when her shoe nudged a pebble over the drop. Behind the laughter she hears the sound of the pebble’s long fall. Slowly she backs out of the room into the corridor and closes the door.
Her throat goes tight with a welling up of tears. One can only withstand being overwhelmed for so long.
A few doors down is a pleasant-looking room carpeted in a calm blue and wallpapered with a print of letters and shapes. A boy of five or six sits on the floor in the centre of the room, playing with an assortment of figurines. He registers her presence with a sideways glance, and looks back to his toys.
“Have you come to play with me?” he says.
Angelica steps into the room.
“Close the door,” he says. “It’s not good to leave it open.”
This boy is unlikely to be of much help, but at least he’s being nice to her. She has a feeling about closed doors, though, how sometimes once a door is closed it’s more energy to open it again than to stay inside, even if you’d rather be elsewhere. Angelica pushes the door mostly closed, until just before the latch clicks into place, just in case. She moves to kneel next to him on the floor. What a relief to sit down.
“What are we playing?” she says.
The boy sets his toys down. Angelica surveys them on the carpet: a soldier, a doctor, one Barbie, and a monstrous creature of some kind, a hulking mass of a creature with reptile-skinned shoulders twice the breadth of the soldier’s.
“Are they a family?” Angelica says.
The boy turns to face her, kneeling with his hands on his knees in an official manner. His cheeks are round and rosy as peaches, and his expression is stern in a way that makes Angelica smile. She is relieved. A little bit of make believe will be relaxing, and then maybe she won’t be so tired.
He says, “Take off your dress.”
She feels her face stop smiling. “Pardon me?”
“That’s the game. If you want to play, take off your dress. Then I’ll take off my shorts, and we’ll squish together. It’s called House.”
She draws back from him as much as she can without toppling over, her chest of hornets buzzing again. “I don’t think that’s an appropriate game for little boys,” she says. She shakes her head no for emphasis.
The little boy’s face wrinkles in disgust, and he leans forward on his hands to twist himself away from her, back to face his toys. “What good are you then?” he says.
Angelica does nothing for a moment, suspended. She watches him resume his game. He takes up the monster figurine and mashes it on top of the Barbie, whose own dress he hikes up, covering her face. The soldier and doctor figurines are arranged as observers.
She stands, smoothing her skirt, and backs away from the boy, making sure to keep an eye on him even as she chastises herself for her wariness—he’s just a little boy. As she pulls the door open a waft of air pushes in from the corridor. The boy’s head snaps around to look at her. His face raisins into indignation. “Hey!” he says. “You can’t—”
She closes the door with a click. In the dim corridor once again, she is overcome with fatigue. It isn’t sleepiness, but deeper, a heaviness in the bones, so profound that carrying her own weight is a trial. All she wants is a safe place to lie down. It occurs to her that maybe this is also all she wanted before wanting it now. It’s hard to remember.
She moves as though wading through wet cement, opening doors. In one room the same man and woman from the first room are shouting at one another in a small and grimy kitchen. In another room, the same boy, but older, is prodding an inert cat Angelica hopes is merely sleeping. In another the old woman is knitting in the bath, the same scarf-like thing bulging over the tub’s rim and massed in folds on the tiles, steam billowing from the door and stealing Angelica’s breath. In another the man and woman are naked together on the carpet, at the foot of a Christmas tree, while the boy looks on from halfway up the stairs.
She opens door after door, growing heavier and heavier, but every room is occupied. She can feel tears welling up from somewhere deep, a well previously untapped.
Finally, she opens a door into a dark room where nothing seems to be happening. She listens, but there is no sound. The door opens onto a staircase that leads down into the dark. The first few steps are unevenly lit by the corridor’s flickering waves of light, but the bottom of the staircase is not visible. How far down could it go? At any rate, it doesn’t seem that anyone else is down there.
Just as she allows herself the first glimmer of relief, having found a place to herself that is only hers, a small voice travels up the stairs. “Hello?” It is small as in far away, but deep, almost inhumanly so. A small, faraway voice belonging to something large in the dark. “Is somebody there?” it says.
Angelica is so bone weary. Her heartbeats, even, feel half-hearted. “Yes,” she says. Her throat constricts with the tears that remain at the ready.
“Would you like to join me?” the voice says.
Angelica swallows around the lump of tears in her throat. She cannot face another disappointment. “Are you one of the other people?” she asks.
“No,” the voice says. “I’m different. More … understanding than the others.”
The tease of relief flutters in Angelica’s chest. The voice relaxes her tense limbs. It makes her feel somehow less heavy, as in the body’s first giving-way stage of sleep. She feels herself sway a little in the doorway.
“It can be hard sometimes to find a quiet place around here,” the voice says.
“I just want to find a place to lie down,” she says. “Can I sleep down there?”
“Oh, yes,” the voice says. “As long as you wish.”
A surplus of tears escapes Angelica’s eyes, brought up from the deepest well. Relief. “Okay,” she says. “Here I come.”
She closes the door behind her, shutting out the strange light from the corridors, and feels her way down the stairs.
Nicole C. White is a Canadian writer and research associate at the University of Northern British Columbia. Her short fiction has appeared previously in upstreet magazine.