The Boy Down The Hall

By Zoë Crowest

I remember feeling vulnerable on my first day of University. Miles away from where I grew up, surrounded by new faces. I didn’t even know the local area code. But it was also liberating to be anonymous. My past could be anything I wanted it to be; no one saw me through informed eyes, and greetings were refreshingly empty.

I watched excitable students travel back and forth between their family car and Halls of Residence, systematically unloading hordes of treasured possessions and colorful attire. Mothers teary, fathers beaming.

“Are your parents coming back with the rest of your stuff?” my neighbor openly marveled at the modest suitcase by my feet. It wasn’t even full.

‘Yeah,’ I lied.

I noticed the boy down the hall long after he’d seen me.

He instantly looked at me differently, though I never knew why. At one point I considered us old souls, repeatedly meeting in various lives. Was there a purpose? Perhaps it’s best not to think about it.

We were inseparable.

We navigated tertiary education as if playing a computer game. Steering ourselves along a predetermined route that was marginally flexible through limited options. We occasionally became self-destructive through boredom and curiosity before continuing our quest of compliance.

“I didn’t come here for a degree,” he said one lunchtime, as he stared into the distance. His green eyes held a knowledge that was out of my grasp, but I never stopped reaching for it.

We once spent two days in his darkened room fervently discussing a dent in the corridor wall. Unashamedly disregarding time in favor of determining its significance. The concave feature was the result of a previous student’s rage upon receiving back a failed Dissertation. Their magnum opus, our obsession.

By contrast, we often communicated without words. Sitting opposite each other in seminars, we acknowledged mutual thoughts with subtle glances, simultaneously delving into the psyche of our peers whilst they dissected Milton’s pandemonium.

Graduating with youthful hope, we were determined to be distinct and desperate to avoid drudgery.

We traveled.

University of Life, we labeled it. Anything to make time inconsequential.

It was an extension of our educational journey wrapped in different scenery. Characters came and went, stories bored and delighted. We spent several months watching a middle-aged hostel manager clutching to the memory of his adolescence, unaware his participation was only encouraged by travelers wanting to mock him. We particularly enjoyed knowing the worst offenders were unwittingly being given an insight into their own futures.

Midway through our intended journey, we grew tired of tours and well-trodden paths.

Is it naïve to seek something new? Arrogant to assume you’ll find something better?

It’s what ruined us.

The idea of being together in one of the most remote settings was romantic. The reality was not. Philosophical musings were useless when confronted by the immediate need to survive.

At one point we were kept apart for days, not knowing if the other had escaped.

I think the eighth night of isolation was the worst. My mind, starved of anything substantial to reflect upon, loudly protested whilst I tried to sleep. It was as if a radio commentary was turned up to full volume in an adjacent apartment – blaring voices lacking clarity. There were no windows in the room I was confined to, but I watched sunsets through a gap in the wooden slats. Those transient moments provided me with lasting beauty.

Eventually we were reunited, but initial comradery in the face of adversity quickly turned to self-preservation and astringent thoughts. A damaging crack. Upon reflection, it seems obvious that primitive instinct would overrule rational thought in such an intensely stressful situation. I still feel ashamed. I don’t know if it’s from realizing we couldn’t transcend human nature, or from guilt.

Shortly afterwards we realized an opportunity, thanks to our captor’s complacency and alcohol-infused blood. It was risky, but we didn’t know if we’d get another chance. We were also conscious that the other voices had recently ceased calling for help.

It was the only way out, wasn’t it?

Our connection was solidified following the ordeal. Forever bound by tragedy, regret, deception. All of which were accentuated when we were celebrated by the media as survivors. People readily believed luck was on our side, that karma’s existence was finally proven.

We never spoke of what truly happened.

In the immediate aftermath we were addicted to each other, reliant on the need to be understood. To outsiders it was endearing, to us it was necessity.

Occasionally I attempted to extract his analysis on why we were never suspected. It disappointed me. Whether that was because it prohibited us from talking truthfully or because our creativity couldn’t be recognized was unclear to me. Nevertheless, he wouldn’t discuss it.

After two years of fading in and out of consciousness, we identified our compulsive behaviors as coping mechanisms conveniently imprisoning our minds. Subsequent months of excruciating clarity prompted us to lament knowing days had the power to eclipse years. Our foundation should have been unbreakable.

Finally admitting defeat, we begrudgingly agreed upon directions that ensured we’d stay apart indefinitely. We hoped it would make it easier to forget.

With each new employment I enjoy being far away from my previous colleagues, surrounded by new faces. It is liberating to be anonymous. My past can be anything I want it to be; no one sees me through informed eyes, and greetings are refreshingly empty.

I still search everywhere for a subtle glance from the boy down the hall, though.

Musepaper Story Prize #57

Zoë Crowest lives in Australia but is originally from the UK. She turned her hand to creative writing towards the end of 2019, and has been short listed and long listed in a few flash fiction competitions. Aside from writing, she enjoys competing in various sports with her dogs, Monty and Otis.

* This is the author’s first literary award. *
* This is the author’s first work to appear in print. *

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