Broken light was coming from somewhere off to my left, sending bolts of agony into my exhausted brain. Cheap Venetian blinds. I seemed to be sitting down. That was okay. Something big, square and hard in front of me. Desk. Stretch of empty floor beyond that. I could deal with empty. Then a row of desks. Students in chairs, writing. The word “classroom” surfed across the pain in my skull, with the word “exam” right behind it.
Tired, but the pain brought some degree of clarity. Gaps, there were gaps in my memory. I thought I had been in the Trask Center, though right now I didn’t know why. Had I recovered, then blacked out later in a lecture hall? Did they hold a test with me still sprawled in a chair at the front of the room? The attempt to remember set off another round of explosions in my head. Okay, Matt, let’s not do that again...just look around.
Beyond the first row of chairs was another, and beyond that another, and beyond that another...I had to stop counting where the rows were blurring into one another in the distance. Something odd about that. Didn’t recall a class like that at Harkness. Must be AbPsych. They always taught AbPsych in big lecture halls, everyone took it as a gut to fill their Social Sciences requirement. I remembered drowsing off in Professor Harte’s lectures myself, back when I still slept.
The name “Harte” swam around the word “insomnia” in my mind for a moment, before the two ideas were swept apart.
Still, this room didn’t seem like any that I remembered at Harkness. It was more like a grade school classroom that had been stretched out lengthwise to make room for another ten thousand students. There was even an apple on the teacher’s desk. Ugh, food, no. Water, yes, I could use a drink of water.
I knocked over the chair I was sitting on when I stood. The students in the front row didn’t even look up as I clumsily replaced it. They looked like they were having trouble with the test. Not AbPsych then. So many brows knotted in tight creases, sweat on foreheads, hands rigidly clutching pencils, pens...and one guy using a crayon. There was something written on the blackboard: “Lead him unto us, that we might know him.”
I made my way to the door, as quietly as I could.
As I was leaving, one of the students in the front row flickered for a moment. Then there was a different person in the chair. A mistimed reel change, I thought, someone needed to sync the projectors. Wait, not a movie. The flickering was happening every so often here and there throughout the room.
I’d probably been drinking, right? Hangover, dehydration, it all made sense. Sort of. What I needed was water.
I wandered out to the hall. Drab, dull, boring. Didn’t recognize it; could have been any academic building in the world. High durability flooring, gray metal lockers, harsh fluorescent lighting, no taste. Functional and uninspired. I felt pieces of my brain shutting down to protect themselves against the banality.
I surprised myself by yawning suddenly and hugely, something I hadn’t done in a long while. You don’t realize how really amazingly good it can feel until you haven’t for weeks on end.
Spaced along the hall were other classroom doors. Wait, had there been a second door leading out of the room where I started? They weren’t far enough apart for them to lead to different rooms. I looked through the window of the next door down the hall. It should have been a view of the chairs maybe seven or eight rows back from the desk at which I woke up.
Instead, I saw the front of another classroom identical to the one I had just left, right down to the teacher’s chair pushed back at an awkward angle. Tilting my head, I could see that this room also extended row after row into the distance, well beyond the next door down the hall.
I forgot about finding a water fountain, and walked along to the next door. Again, the front of a classroom, same orientation, same sun shining in through Venetian blinds on the far side, same chair pushed back from the desk, same apple on the table. Quietly, I opened the door and entered the room. I expected to be challenged by one of the students, but they kept their heads down, not giving any sign that they knew or cared that I was there. I took the apple off the desk -- no response. No response as I left the room and closed the door behind me.
This was all very wrong, but I felt compelled to complete the absurd circle. I walked back up the hall to the original door, and looked inside. The apple on that desk was gone as well. I backed away, skin crawling. I looked through the window of the door across the hall from the first one...and there was the room again, except extending in the opposite direction to maintain the same orientation to the door. Same appleless desk. And the same sunlight slanting in a lazy afternoon fashion through the blinds on the far side of the room.
The sun was shining into opposite sides of the building at the same time.
The compounded impossibilities finally made their way to somewhere in my brain that could think, because the next thing I knew, I was sliding down against a bank of lockers in shock, whacking my head against a combination lock in the process. Wincing at the new pain, crouched on the floor, I thought that whatever drugged-out fantasy I was in, at least I knew I wasn’t asleep.
The word “dreaming” surfaced in my mind, grabbed hold of the words “Harte” and “insomnia,” and began treading water and signaling for help.
All the missing pieces fell into place at once.
I slapped my face, willing myself to wake up, but all it did was amplify my headache from a dull throb to a full Keith Moon drum solo. It seemed like I was awake as I was going to get. But if I wasn’t dreaming, what was this place?
I looked back into the ubiquitous classroom. The students continued to flicker in and out. I went in and stood in front of a guy in the front row, the one using a purple crayon to write his exam.
“Can I talk to you for a minute?”
He continued scrawling. I clamped my hand over the hand with the crayon. Touching him felt like a memory of physical contact, like déjà vu without the overlapping present sensation. I snatched my hand back.
The student looked up at me in anguish. “Go away, I have to finish this. No one told me the test was today!” He picked up the crayon and kept writing.
“Why are you using a crayon?” I asked.
“No one told me the test was today, it’s all I have with me.”
“Why don’t you borrow one from your friend here?” I took a pencil off of the desk of the next student over and handed it to him. The guy with the crayon looked at me as if I’d pulled it out of my ear. “I’m sure he won’t mind.”
“Where did you get that?” he said, snatching the pencil from my hand. “Now I can finish!”
I blinked. Could he not see the person sitting right next to him? They seemed totally indifferent to me, and to one another...maybe they all thought they were alone here?
I was about to ask, when the former crayon artist slammed his pencil down, and, with a brief look of triumph, disappeared in a flicker, leaving the stub of purple wax spinning on the desktop. I picked up the crayon; as I did, a new student, this time a girl, appeared in the chair.
I pocketed the crayon, and started looking for a way out.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 5.2]