I rubbed my eyes and looked up from the screen. I often get so sucked into my work as a programmer that I can go hours without looking away from the screen, much less getting up and moving around.
It doesn’t help that I live in a basement apartment and can’t even tell when the day slips down into night. I wandered over to the fridge, flicking on the light as I entered the kitchen. It’s almost embarrassing how much my refrigerator highlights my singleness. The faint smell of weeks-old produce emanated from somewhere in the back. I’ll take care of it later.
Finding nothing edible, I closed the door and looked around the messy counters of my kitchen. Not even a bag of chips. I swore and muttered to myself that it’s no wonder I can’t get a date with a woman. Still stretching my legs, I aimlessly wandered over to my bedroom and, although I didn’t want to, glanced at my reflection in the full-length mirror as I passed by. My stubble had nearly evolved into a verifiable ‘beard.’
Had it really been that long that I’ve been down here?
It got worse when I looked on my bed and saw my phone. I picked it up and the screen ignited into a bouquet of notifications and missed calls. Half were fantasy football, some were news and sports updates. Mom texted twice saying, “Love you,” followed by a “Thinking of you Danny!” There was a missed call from my friend Louis as well as one from an unknown number. I looked again at the missed call from Louis and it said it came yesterday. Is it really after midnight already? I mused. I had sat down to my computer around mid-afternoon.
I yawned and arced my chest up to the ceiling in a catlike stretch. Without looking behind me, I fell backward onto my bed and stared at the ceiling until I drifted off to sleep no more than a minute later.
I awoke feeling rested in the exact same room. Nothing had changed. Not having windows makes me feel like I’m in an underground bunker, or perhaps a circadian-rhythm testing chamber. As my eyes relearned how to focus, I grabbed for my phone beside me on the bed and checked it. The usual flurry of news and updates greeted me, followed by another missed call from the unknown number. I rolled my eyes at the tiny hassle of having to block another spam caller.
My stomach was rumbling. I stood, grabbed my wallet from the dresser and headed for the door of my apartment. After undoing the chain lock and turning the knob, I opened the door into the hallway only to find it completely dark, save a flickering light over the emergency door at the far end of the hall. I pulled out my phone and tapped the flashlight button to make my way to the elevator.
When I had made it halfway down the hallway, there was a piece of paper taped to the silver doors. ‘Out of Service.’
No apology or anything, I muttered to myself as I reached up to my chin. Rather than finding my chin, however, my fingers found a beard nearly an inch long. I was stunned for a moment and figured it must be the morning grog making me think differently. I ran my fingers over the beard a few more times to make sure I wasn’t imagining it. I muttered to myself something about needing to get out more as I guided myself by phone light over to the stairwell.
It was then that something stood out to me.
I live in downtown Chicago on the outer west edge of the city — the third biggest in the country — and I suddenly realized that it was quiet. Alarmingly quiet. There were no sirens or horns blaring on the street just outside, and no yelling from my dysfunctional neighbors. No babies were crying and no teenage drag racers were peeling out.
My phone screen illuminated suddenly, informing me that my phone battery was under ten percent. Of course. That’s what happens when you pass out and don’t plug in your phone.
I approached the stairwell door and pushed the bar. It opened two inches and stopped. Something on the other side was blocking it.
I closed it and tried again. It went two inches and stopped once more. Something just outside the door was blocking it. I shone my light through the crack and looked down. There was something there. I bent down and saw through the two inch slit that it was cloth of some sort. A jacket.
Someone was lying on the floor. Probably some bum who wandered in and fell asleep. The jacket looked familiar. I looked closer and realized it was just like one I had in my own closet.
I shut the door then slammed it into the body on the floor again to wake them up.
I waited. Nothing. No movement.
“Hey!” I yelled through the crack. I was shocked to find how strange the sound of my own voice sounded. My throat felt stopped up by days of inactivity.
I tried to slam the door into the body a few more times with the same result. Nothing. Silence. I let the door glide shut and that’s when my phone died. My eyes hadn’t adjusted, so the world went black for a few seconds before slowly fading back to see in the dim hallway. I could barely see enough to make my way back down the hall to the door of my apartment. Now I was getting mad — at myself, at the bum, at the crappy apartment maintenance.
I grabbed the handle to my apartment but it didn’t turn. It must have locked behind me. I patted my pockets and dread sank in as I realized I had locked myself out of my own apartment. I had a dead phone and no way out of the hallway. I resolved to knock on my neighbor’s door. Christine was perhaps the least friendly elderly woman I had ever met, so the thought of disturbing her at…what time was it? Regardless, she wouldn’t be happy. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever even seen Christine, I only know her through the passive aggressive notes she periodically leaves on my door.
I knocked firmly and waited. Nothing.
I waited at least a minute and knocked again.
Still nothing. Not even the shuffle of movement behind the door. I waited a bit longer and balled my hands into fists as I realized I’d have to knock on a stranger’s door next. My frustration rose.
I went down the hallway to the next door and knocked. Again, silence. After one more round of knocking on the stranger’s door, I decided that my only remaining option was to go out the emergency exit and set off the entire building’s alarm.
I put my hand on the wall and began walking down the hallway. There were six apartments from mine to the elevator, then six more to the emergency exit. It was so dark at this end that something could be on the ground and I’d trip right over it.
With my hand on the wall, I began traipsing down the hall. My hunger was becoming more sharp, and my hands were even starting to shiver a little.
I hadn’t gone ten feet when I heard the knocking. It was coming from the door behind me I had just knocked on. I stopped walking and froze. Seconds passed.
Then someone knocked again. I slowly turned and walked back to the door, confused. When I stood before the entry, I looked down and noticed no light coming under the door.
I jumped when the knocking returned, much louder now that I was directly in front of the door. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I knocked back.
tap tap tap tap
I made sure not to pound too hard so as to come off angry or aggressive.
Then a minute of silence.
I gathered up my courage and turned the knob, not sure what I would find. In the back of my mind I was disappointed in myself for not knowing my neighbors better after living here three years. Surprisingly, the handle turned so I eased it open. The entryway was as dark as the hallway, but no one was there.
I slowly pushed the door open more and still saw no one. And nothing. Just black.
I pushed it until it was all the way open, rubbed my sleepy eyes again and stepped forward through the door. There was no one there, and as I stepped through the door, it closed behind me before I could turn and catch it. I was now in a stranger’s apartment without even knowing who or where they were.
“Hello?” my voice piped up, still sounding strange after hours of disuse. I stepped into the apartment which seemed to have a similar layout to mine. I was in the small front hall which leads to the living room ahead on the right and the kitchen on the left.
I took another step into the apartment and it happened again. Someone was knocking on the wall, only now they were further into the apartment around the corner near the living room.
“H-hello?” I tried again, still with no response. “M-my name is Dan and I got locked out of my apartment…Do you have an iPhone charger I could use?”
With my hand on the wall, I continued slowly into the apartment. It had that faint old-person smell of old objects and stale bodily functions, but I couldn’t see well enough to make out the decor. I came to the end of the short hall and now the kitchen was to my left and the living room to my right.
There was a sound in the kitchen. Some pans rustled and clanked against each other. I jumped and turned my head, but in the pitch blackness I couldn’t make anything out. I reached behind me to the wall where there should have been a light switch. I found it and flipped it up and surprisingly, the lights came on, blinding me for several seconds.
When my eyes had adjusted, I found that the apartment was very similar to mine. No, it was more than similar. It was identical. They even had the same furniture and television as me. Some of the wall decorations were different, but I could have walked into this apartment and mistaken it for my own. I looked in the kitchen and it was empty. It had many of the same pots and pans as mine, but some of the pictures on the refrigerator were different. I walked over to it and examined them more closely. A shiver ran down my spine.
They had photos on their fridge which appeared to be recreations of pictures I had on mine. There was one of some people in front of Mount Rushmore, just like I had on mine, except the people were different. The photo was taken from the same spot, same angle, everything, just with different people.
There was a Save The Date just like one on my fridge, but instead of “Andy and Caroline,” it read “Randy and Carolyn.” The people in the photo looked like my friends with minute changes. Their eyes seemed different — different colors, maybe — and slightly altered haircuts.
My chest jolted when an iPhone on the counter vibrated and lit up. I looked at it and for a second thought it was my own. It had just received a news update, but I glanced at the screen and noticed that it had a few new text messages as well. One was from “Mom,” and it read “Thinking of you Danny.” Then the screen went dark, so I pushed the button to bring it back. I scrolled down past a few more news notifications to the next text, also from “Mom,” which read “Love you.”
I had become so absorbed in looking at the phone I failed to notice that someone had come into the kitchen behind me until they knocked their knuckles on the countertop. My heart jumped into my throat and I instinctively ducked. When I spun around to face the person, my heart nearly stopped. I was looking at myself, only years older. His beard was nearly down to his belt and his eyes had sunken down into his cheekbones. He was at least twenty pounds skinnier than me and had a slight quiver running through his whole body. His shirt was identical to one of my own, only with more wear and holes. He beheld me with confusion through eyes made sad from years of loneliness.
I was completely frozen and he seemed to be the same. I didn’t know what to say.
Then he tried to talk but only glottal gurgles emerged from deep in his throat. It was as if he hadn’t spoken in a decade and his vocal cords had cemented together. Then one of his skinny arms shot toward me and I reeled backward, slamming into the refrigerator. Several of the magnets clattered to the linoleum.
Without thinking, I shoved him into the counter and ran past him back toward the hallway. The older version of me was slower, but he began chasing after me, still making gurgling sounds. I grabbed the handle of the front door and tried to turn it, but it seemed to be locked from the outside.
I suddenly realized why he had been knocking from the inside of the door. He was locked in here.
The other person — the other me — grabbed my shirt and pulled me backward with his old, weak arms. I turned and looked at his face. He didn’t seem to be grabbing me out of anger or aggression, but out of sadness and desperation. He had the look of a prisoner who had been locked up for years without knowing why. His sunken eyes pleaded with me as they searched my face. What were they looking for?
I pushed him away and ran back to the kitchen, looking for anything to break through the door. The only thing I could find was a pan, so I grabbed it by the handle and went back to the front entryway. In a fit of rage, I struck the door knob. Then again. And again.
Eventually it bent and with one more hit, it fell to the floor. I pushed the mechanism out the hole and pulled the door open. The old man had watched me quietly the whole time and now he followed me back into the dark hallway. I looked back at him and noticed how timidly he stepped through the threshold. It was as if he hadn’t left his apartment in years. Or ever.
I decided to go to the next door and knock to see who or what lived there. I walked down the hall with the older me behind me and knocked on the door. This time, I heard movement in the apartment. Footsteps coming to the door.
I still held the pan in my hand and I squeezed it, ready for anything on the other side of the door. The handle jiggled, but again it seemed to be locked from within. Once more, the inhabitant knocked from inside their own door so I turned the knob.
I was shocked to see a familiar face. My own. But this one was different. Rather than being older, it was my face as it was a couple years ago. Beardless and smooth. He looked at us and froze. Confusion and near disgust crossed his face.
“Wh- what?” he muttered, unable to look away from our faces. “Who are you?” he eventually got out.
I went to speak, but had to clear my throat once more as it was stopped up by phlegm. “I don’t know,” I said. “We’ve gotten trapped in this hallway.”
A few minutes later, we had resolved to walk to the emergency exit together. The younger version of myself still had a working phone, so he led us to the far end of the hall. We approached the door and I gingerly pushed the red bar to open the emergency exit. I was prepared for a blaring siren, but to my surprise, no sound or flashing lights came.
We opened the door all the way and rather than an exit of any kind, found a small concrete room. There was a desk directly in front of us with filing cabinets lining every inch of wall space. On the shelves were papers, folders and books haphazardly thrown all about, and at the desk sat a small bald man with his back to us.
The younger version of me stepped forward and addressed the man, “Hey!”
The man at the desk turned around, surprised.
“Who are you?” the younger me demanded.
The small man searched his brain for a response before nervously mumbling, “Oh, I, uhhh. Well, I, uhh.” He stopped talking, stood up, and walked toward us. He wore an untucked button-up shirt and glasses which kept sliding down his oversized nose. “You aren’t supposed to be here,” he chattered. “Oh, you aren’t supposed to be out. Hmmm, oh man, you’re not supposed to be out.”
The younger me and I looked at each other.
“Okay, so you are all…” the small man continued. “You’re all drones. We made you. You’re not who you think.”
My heart sank down to my stomach.
He continued, “You’re workers. We made you to work. You do your jobs on your computers, and…” he drifted off.
“Wait,” the younger me interjected. “You’re saying we’re clones?” He laughed. “I’m not a freaking clone. I got two texts from my mom this morning.” He fished his phone from his pocket and pulled up the messages from his mother.
Before he could read them aloud, I put my hand on his shoulder and told him I received the exact same texts this morning as well.
“So, wait a minute,” the nervous little man said. “How did you get out of your rooms?”
I told him I left like I always did and he shook his head, saying something about maintenance leaving a door unlocked or putting the handle on backward. My mind drifted as the reality of my existence began setting in. Then I remembered something.
“Wait, if this building is full of us clones, who was that in the stairwell?”
“Stairwell?” replied the little man. Then he muttered, almost to himself, “Ahh, we must have lost A469.” He rubbed his chin and then remembered the three of us were still standing before him. “Oh, right. So you see, clones don’t live as long as humans. They are created, we get a few good years of work out of them, and they — uhhh — expire. I’ll have to get that out of the stairway.”
I could see the little man’s mind racing. He suddenly turned back to his computer and clicked and punched in a few commands.
I walked back to my apartment door and turned the knob. After checking the kitchen and finding nothing to eat, I cursed at myself for not having more food in the apartment. I’d have to get it later; I was in a bit of a hurry because I had a lot of work to catch up on.