On an evening in late October, I was rushing through campus amid the fast-descending darkness of autumn twilight, eyes down and headphones in. I was heading towards Moffitt Library, when suddenly, a hand flashed out from the darkness to grasp my shoulder. Startled, I looked up into the face of Becca Huntingdon, an old friend I had not seen in some time.
“Beet!” she exclaimed. It was an old nickname, a transformation of B.T. — Berkeley time, a moniker I’d earned freshman year for my once-unfailing lateness to class, parties, meetings and most everything else. “Is that really you?”
I smiled, pleased to see her. We had once spent a good deal of time together — playing music with our friends, hiking, eating out, smoking — but now we lived far apart. This and incompatible schedules had precipitated the kind of drifting unfortunately common between college friends. “Yeah, it’s really me. How are you, Becca?”
“I barely recognized you. It’s been ages,” she declared, studying me. She frowned. “Like, a year. I’m all right. How are you? What the hell have you been up to, dude?”
“Um, the usual — school.” An acute sense of awkwardness rose in me. “You know.”
“Yeah.” Her frown deepened. “Are you still majoring in music?” Her lips twitched briefly into a smile. “We should go to a show soon! I miss doing that.”
“I was minoring in music, actually. Was. Yeah.” I shifted the weight of my backpack from one shoulder to the other. “I was a poli-sci major, actually, but I’m just doing Haas now.”
She laughed in disbelief. “No! Beet in Haas?” The frown swiftly returned. “What is the world coming to?”
“Who knows?” I chuckled humorlessly. I was beginning to resent the look of concern blooming on her face. What did she see in me that so utterly perturbed her? The grim set of her features shone strangely in the half-light, imbuing the entire scene with an unnerving quality of dreaminess. Was I merely imagining the harshness of her regard, or had something about our meeting or my appearance genuinely startled her? My hair was shorter than when I’d last seen her. She had expressed surprise that I had chosen Haas. Was that all? I assumed she was still doing something impractical — I mean, we’d met in a philosophy class.
“Anyway, Bec …” I coughed. “I have a midterm and a problem set due Monday, so I’m going to go work. But it was great running into you — really.”
“Totally,” she replied, her brows still annoyingly knit. And then, squeezing my arm: “Let’s hang out soon, all right? I mean it. I miss you.”
She turned reluctantly and left. I watched her cross a stone bridge spanning the narrow part of the creek and then disappear up the path toward Bancroft Way.
I put my headphones back in and moved on toward Moffitt.
It was a Thursday night. The library was half-full, almost everyone plugged into computers or phones, every eye intently on screens and books. The air was suffocatingly hot. I came to my favorite desk in a corner of the second-deepest level of Main Stacks and sat down to work.
The hours passed quickly, the hushed quiet punctuated only by the subdued music of pages turning and keys clacking. Occasionally, I raised my eyes from my notes to observe my peers. A dark-haired boy at the desk in front of mine scrolled aimlessly through Facebook. Near the door at the end of the corridor, someone in black, business-like attire stood, staring into space. At my right, a round-faced girl with a nose ring was falling asleep and jerking herself awake, again and again, over “The Wealth of Nations.”
At 1:30 a.m., almost everyone had gone. A few minutes later, I gathered my things and left.
The following evening found me at the same desk, a cup of black coffee getting cold at my elbow. I stared at a list of business terms I was meant to know and understand, my head aching. “Collateralization.” “Futurist.” “Aspirational market.”
My phone began vibrating insistently from in my bag. I extracted it; the name and face of Andrew Cabrera glowed brightly on the screen. Fucking Andrew. I silenced the call and let it ring, annoyed; I had told him I’d be busy tonight. He was one of my best friends and had entreated me earlier in the day to attend a “countdown to Halloween” party at his fraternity tonight — theme: “Warlocks ’n’ Tube Socks — but I (thought I) had excused myself by citing the business midterm and the problem set. I looked down at the page. “Marginal productivity.” “Commoditization.”
The phone emitted two sullen buzzes. A text from Andrew:
“can u please just come.”
I moved to put it back down when another came through:
“it’s friday night loser. i promise it’s fun please come”
My heart twitched. It was Friday. What was I doing in the library? I, who’d once finished every assignment in the hours immediately before it was due. I, who’d once been nicknamed Berkeley Time, who’d rolled joints to make envious the most seasoned stoners, who’d plucked at my guitar among friends in fields and forests in scenes wrenched directly from some poet’s rose-colored pastoral dream.
I looked around the room. It was nearly empty. A knot of international students sat several tables away, arguing in heated whispers in a language I didn’t quite recognize. Slightly nearer, a thin boy in a gray hoodie typed furiously on his laptop, eyes wide and jaw clenched so tightly I feared he might grind his teeth clean away. Behind the stacks closest to me stood a tall person dressed professionally in black, staring through a gap in the books, directly, it appeared, at me.
I looked behind me. No one was there. I turned back and waved uncertainly. I thought the person looked vaguely familiar. Were they the friend of a friend, perhaps? Or had they been in that music theory DeCal I took freshman year? They did not return my wave, and I looked quickly away, face burning. They must have been looking for someone else after all.
My phone was buzzing again: Andrew Cabrera. I slashed my thumb across the screen and, into it, barked as quietly as I could, “What, idiot?”
“Dude!” He sounded halfway to drunk. The party roared in the background, hundreds of voices colliding all at once beneath the healthy bass of some terrible EDM remix of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” “Get. Your ass. Here.”
“I’m in the library,” I whispered, the fight beginning to go out of me. I glanced at my watch. It was barely 11. If I left now …
“And I’ll bet it’s fuckin’ packed!” he yelled furiously. “No! It’s not! Because everyone is out! Because lately, you’re the only one lame enough to go to the library on Friday night!”
“There are people here,” I shot back defensively. “In fact, I just waved …” But I looked up, and the familiar stranger in business attire was gone. I glanced around the room, wondering if they’d finally found the person they had been looking for — but there was no one in the room but the international students, who had resolved their argument and now sat placidly doing calculus.
“You waved to who?” Andrew slurred. “The imaginary friend that your fun-deprived business brain made up?” A glass bottle shattered against concrete on his end. “One second.” He held the phone away from his ear and snarled, “Hey, watch it!” Another pause. “Becca’s even here! I think she was hoping you’d get to hang out. She’s kind of worried about you.”
My hand tightened around the phone. Had Becca really said as much to Andrew? Had our bizarre, awkward encounter yesterday truly worried her? My desire to go to the party slid away instantly.
“Why, because I’m a fucking sellout?” I seethed. The international students were watching me in silence. “Because I decided I wanted to actually be a good student instead of fucking around all the time?”
“Come on,” Andrew protested. “You’re really being—”
“I’m working, all right? Have fun.”
I ended the call, turned off my phone and dropped it into the abyss of my backpack. For 10 minutes, I stared at the list of terms, too angry to refocus. The international students began to gather their things and leave, chattering in low voices in what I was at last able to identify as Farsi.
Another half hour passed. I stared still uselessly at the terms and pulled out the problem set, but I was instead thinking about something one of the teachers in my music theory DeCal had said during the introduction to the course. “Music is math. Music is language. Music is art. It’s magic.” It’s magic. How I had listened to those words wide-eyed! How I had loved them. Somewhere in an old journal, the sentences were written and, beneath them, “statement of purpose.”
Why had I thought of it? The DeCal. And that because of the stranger.
I had been sure I knew the stranger among the books. Had they sincerely not recognized me? Or were they just the sort of person who preferred to ignore vague acquaintances after the term of their active association ended? I was guilty of such behavior myself, wasn’t I? Particularly at UC Berkeley, where it was all too easy to avoid eye contact amid the vast sea of students.
I wrote my name at the top of my problem set and gazed at the first question. The silence rang in my ears; the fluorescent lights blazed flat and white across the ceiling to the exit. I sat for five more minutes and then stood and left, overcome by a sudden, puzzling sense that, despite the plain emptiness of the room, I was not alone.
The next evening found me in the same place yet again, wondering if I had merely blinked and imagined the boring, blank day that had passed in the past 24 hours. All was the same. The surgical glare of the fluorescent lights, the problem set I could not begin, the midterm looming, the coffee — black and cold and unappealing — shoved to the corner of the desk.
Becca had texted me four times after I’d turned my phone off.
“you know i don’t think you’re a “sellout” beet. you just looked unhappy the other night and obviously i’m gonna assume it has something to do with you not really doing music anymore because i know how much you loved it!!”
A few minutes later:
“and please don’t be mad at andrew he just misses you”
“like I do”
The fourth message was a lone emoji: a round, yellow face, wailing and screwed up with great pathos.
I’d read the messages and left them unanswered, deciding the inevitable emotional exhaustion of having a serious conversation with either of them should wait until I had successfully leapt over the academic hurdles at hand. But here I was, incapable of working, squinting while under the effort of keeping my eyes open. I’d slept little in the past several weeks, relying on a combination of coffee, 5-hour Energy, and the occasional amphetamine to buffet me through the storm of stress at hand. But it was late, and the neglected coffee was too bitter even to gulp down without tasting.
It was almost 1 a.m. again. Tonight there was no one in sight, but all the same, I’d returned to my favorite desk in the obscure corner. There was a muffled hum in the air — of the lights, maybe, or a generator deep in the walls. It rumbled on ceaselessly, a single, steady note, comforting, somehow, a lullaby …
When I jerked awake some time later, I felt the unnerving disorientation that accompanies not knowing how much time has passed. With a swell of dull panic, an old fear raised its hackles — one of being locked in somewhere at night, alone, the keepers of the place ignorant of someone trapped within. But the hands of my watch calmly pointed to 1:13 a.m. — more than 45 minutes left till closing.
For a moment, I breathed, but then another, more sinister fear reared its head in my stomach. It was the same I had suffered the night before: an inexplicable awareness of another person in the room. I swiveled right in my chair — looking at the surrounding tables, down the corridor and through the stacks — but found no one.
And then I looked left, across the mezzanine, to find the cause of the pricking of my thumbs. At the balustrade stood the person I had waved to yesterday. They stood perfectly motionless in the same black professional clothing they’d worn before. They carried no bag, no book; they had nothing at all with them or near them to demonstrate they were there for any purpose at all, in fact, but to stare at me the way they did.
“Hello?” I cried. They neither replied nor broke their gaze. I knew now that they had not, in fact, been in a class with me — I knew that I had never, in this life, met them at all. And yet I was nonetheless as certain as before that I knew them.
“Hello?” I yelled again, dread rising like bile in my throat. “Do you want something?”
Still, they did not respond or look away. For a moment, we remained frozen like that, the room suffocating and soundless. The hum that had put me to sleep had disappeared. The silence was palpable, painful; it pressed oppressively against my eardrums. The person went on staring at me with an expressionlessness that served only to intensify my mounting terror. I stared back, transfixed, incapable of deciding how to proceed.
Ultimately, they broke the deadlock. They turned abruptly away and began walking with unmistakable purpose along the balustrade toward where I sat.
With violently shaking hands, I immediately stuffed all my things into my bag, shot out of my seat and threw the whole of my weight against the nearest door. I strode blindly past endless rows of shelves, ignorant of the direction in which I was moving; my only objective was to put as much distance between myself and my pursuer as I possibly could. I did not look over my shoulder to confirm they were still there. I did not need to. I knew that they were following me with the same certitude with which I knew the day of the week.
I went through a door at right, then at left, unseeing, unthinking. Only when I finally passed a map did I see that I had descended to the lowest level. A wave of panicked nausea rolled over me, but I forced myself to keep moving, searching desperately for the way out. I could not differentiate between one long stretch of reference books and another; I did not know if the corridors I followed led me closer to or farther from the exit. I was still lost — hopelessly lost! And behind me — growing louder out of the silence — the terrible, unhurried footfalls of the stranger.
I was prepared to stand and fight, and had even begun desperately considering what I could use as a weapon with which to defend myself when I caught sight of my salvation: a sign bearing an arrow pointing left beneath those bold, blessed letters — TO MOFFITT.
I broke into a run, the air I inhaled in great, relieved gasps growing progressively cooler as I approached the exit. At the sight of the bored student receptionist, I emitted a wild cry of gratitude; in the deserted depths of the library, I had been momentarily convinced that my stalker and I were the only two people left in the world. The receptionist glanced suspiciously at me and then resumed perusing a Web page that appeared to be some variation of a list of the best horror films of all time.
I briefly considered asking the receptionist to call campus security, but to what end? The stranger had not broken any law; they had not really harassed me or enacted even the barest semblance of a threat. They had only looked at me.
Weak-kneed, I raised a hand in acknowledgment to the receptionist and stepped outside. The air was cold, refreshing. In the safety of open space, the campus library looming old and elegant in the darkness before me, my terror suddenly seemed ridiculous.
I walked home energetically, light-footed, further comforted by the familiarity of the city as I went. This quirky college town was my beloved home and had been for years now; what danger could befall me in the library, of all places? I had fallen asleep, woken up foggy-headed and succumbed to the worst instincts of my imagination. The stranger looked like someone I knew, nothing more; they were surely hard of hearing, which explained their lack of response to my calls. I felt almost guilty, under the beaming street lamps of Bancroft Way and then College Avenue. Perhaps they had had something to ask me, and I had run from them as if from a monster.
In bed later, I was less sure. If it had all been a laughable misunderstanding, how could I explain the chilling directness of the stranger’s gaze? Or their muteness as they had pursued me? What explanation could I find for the fact of seeing them twice in the same place, empty handed and disinterested, it seemed, in everything but me?
Sunday dawned, clear and beautiful. In the early morning, I picked up my long-neglected guitar and fiddled with a handful of chord progressions that I’d composed in snatches over the summer, but my fingers were clumsy. Leaden. Moreover, the guitar was out of tune, and for the first time since I was 13, I could not — despite half an hour of anxious adjusting — tune it by ear. I re-placed the instrument in its designated shady corner of the room and left, ignoring the way it somehow seemed to gaze mournfully after me.
I allowed myself to spend the day working at an outdoor table at Caffe Strada, mentally insisting that 10 hours of work in a distracting environment would be just as productive as half that time in a silent one. But as the time sped relentlessly by and my progress moved only by inches, it became apparent that I would be earning two zeroes instead of two essential passing grades.
As if by some black magic, the day had melted away to 10 p.m. Strada would close in two hours, though almost every table in the familiar yellow-lit place was still occupied, the air still full of laughter, chatter, friendly argument. I couldn’t stay. Where, then, could I work? My apartment was dismally lonely and devoid of any surface on which to work but the floor.
Would I return to Main Stacks? Could I justify not returning to it? Never returning to it? Hardly. It was one of the only places I regularly studied that was open past midnight. I had a favorite desk there. And in any case, it was relatively early on a Sunday night during midterm season. Surely there would be other students there in abundance; the person I’d encountered the previous two nights wouldn’t dare harass me in front of such a sizable audience. And besides, had I not decided last night that there hadn’t even been anything tangible to fear?
Largely as a test of my own courage, I gathered my things and departed Strada for Main Stacks. As I crossed Sproul Plaza, I found a lovely eeriness in the campus at night: the marble buildings like abandoned temples, gleaming white and huge in the moonlight; the gaping blackness down certain tree-lined lanes; the nighttime stillness, broken only by the occasional whir of wheels as a cyclist glided swiftly past, homebound.
The library was as populated as I had hoped, but my favorite corner desk was nonetheless blessedly unoccupied. With renewed purpose, I worked diligently on the problem set for two hours, finished it and then turned again to studying for the business midterm. After 15 minutes of doing so, I was losing stamina and regretting that I’d bought nothing at Strada but yogurt and hot chocolate. Perhaps if I took a power nap and set a timer on my phone to wake myself in 20 minutes, I would be capable of refocusing. Yes, yes, if I Googled it, there would be studies corroborating the healing power of the catnap. I’d read an article — what was the magazine? …
I was sitting at a conference table with my parents, Becca, Andrew and several straight-backed businesspeople in suits, whose faces remained anonymous and peripheral in my vision.
“Beet,” Becca was saying solemnly. “We’re going to have to let you go.”
“Don’t call me that,” I snapped. I hated that name. I wasn’t Berkeley Time anymore. I had made sacrifices to that end — huge ones, impossible ones. Didn’t they see that? I was motivated now, and punctual. What had it all been for? How could they fire me?
“You don’t really know anything,” Andrew said apologetically. “I mean, you can’t even tune a guitar, dude.”
“Honey,” my mom cut in, frowning. “Do you even know what you’re doing here?”
I stared at their pitying faces, bewildered. “What do you mean, Mom?” My parents and my friends exchanged looks. “Mom, what do you mean?”
“What are you doing here?” my father asked. His voice was strangely distorted, as if it came from far away or underwater. “What are you doing here?”
I could only look frantically around the table.
“You don’t know, do you?” The question came from one of the blurry-faced businesspeople at my left. I squeezed my eyes shut. I knew the voice as I knew the face.
“Beet,” it whispered, an icy cold hand closing gently over my shoulder. “Wake up.”
My face was stuck to the unyielding cover of my textbook. I glanced at my watch. It was almost 2 a.m. What had happened to my alarm? I picked up my phone; the screen was a lifeless black and remained so, even when I held the power button for 30 seconds. Had it spontaneously broken?
“Great,” I muttered, angry at myself. Like last night, I was the only student who remained; silently, I cursed my peers for so apathetically allowing one of their number to nearly snooze, unaware, through closing.
Worse still, my stomach was knotted again with senseless fear. With concentrated care, I steadily packed my things and stood to leave. Each of my footsteps echoed noisily through the otherwise perfect silence. I was afraid, very afraid, and further disconcerted by my reasonless cowardice, this irrational apprehension. Tonight, at least, I would not get lost like a decapitated chicken. I walked purposefully toward that 8-by-10 beacon: TO MOFFITT.
I turned left, ready to feel the comforting coolness of outside air, but I did not come upon the uncomfortable gray study tables, did not see the series of small rectangular rooms that preceded the reception desk and the printing center.
In their place was a corridor of bookshelves like the ones I had been lost in the night before, but … it was impossible, grotesque. It stretched on and on to infinity, to a point of fluorescent brightness on the horizon. My mouth moved to scream, but the air had gone from my lungs. I was dreaming, still dreaming. In a moment, my alarm would sound and I would awaken, sweating, in the library I had just left, for how — how? …
An icy hand closed gently around my shoulder, so tangible and so familiar that I knew I did not dream now and thought I had not been dreaming before. I turned to face, at long last, the one who had stalked me to this nightmarish end.
The thing’s features were sunken, its skin of a deep pallor, the half-smile it wore wolfish and awful. Its suit hung like a cage on its hunched body; the collar of its neat, white shirt squeezed at its neck like a noose. It looked old, impossibly old, for if it were human indeed, it could not have been more than 30. There was no glint of life in its eyes. It was the shell of a person, a zombie that was at once horrific and terribly, terribly sad.
And this hated phantom, this well-dressed scarecrow … was me.