Freshmen don't get to choose their dorm rooms. There are a few that are set aside specifically for freshmen: the small rooms, the ones with awkward angles, the ones farthest from the Dining Hall. But when the entering class is larger than usual, some of the rooms usually reserved for upperclassmen are opened up. If you're lucky, you could get one of the best rooms available.
I had a large class. And I got lucky.
My room wasn't huge, especially for sharing with a roommate, but it was on the top floor, right by the Bell Tower. It had a soaring ceiling, with windows nearly as tall. The first thing I did was shove the provided armchair (1960's orange and hard as concrete) up against those windows. When I was satisfactorily perched (far too uncomfortable for lounging), I leaned on the window and gazed out over my kingdom. The room overlooked a private courtyard, filled with silver-green crabgrass and purple burdock. Just visible through the undergrowth were the brick steps and a wrought-iron bench. There was something magical about it, like looking into Mary and Dickon's secret garden; an overgrown and under cared-for spot of earth, just on the verge of becoming something beautiful.
My roommate and I had very little in common. She was a ballerina; I had two left feet. She had hair halfway down to the small of her back, and knew how to take care of it. I was in that stage of coming-out when you chop off your hair and dress in plaid. We danced around each other, me half-butch and her half-homophobic and both of us new and unsure of ourselves. We did share two things, though. We both loved our room. And we were both born at midnight.
That last probably wouldn't mean much to most people. There's something unpalatable about being born in the literal middle of the night. It makes your birthday almost as difficult to count as February twenty-ninth. The time of your birth doesn't really matter when you're born at a more reasonable hour. But a midnight birth is a cause for conversation. And speculation. And superstition.
There's a reason midnight is called The Witching Hour.
It didn't happen until the third week of classes. We were settled into routine: get up (my roommate at the break of dawn, myself as late as possible), go to class (physics for her, poetry for me), do homework (her: the hour after it was assigned, me: the day before it was due) and head to bed (promptly at eight for my roommate, considerably later for myself). I liked to spend as much time as possible in our room, sitting near the window, avoiding my homework, watching the weeds in the courtyard grow.
I didn't miss the look of relief when I finally went home for an overnight.
Nor did I miss the sagging eyes and general lethargy when I returned.
"Are you okay?"
We hadn't spoken beyond the most necessary of comments (Don't lock the door, I'll be out late; Please stop making such a ruckus when I'm trying to sleep) for almost a week. She looked once at the door, then collapsed on her bed.
"You look exhausted. Did something happen?"
"You know how I was born at midnight?"
I decided to blame the non sequitur on her obvious lack of sleep.
"Do you know that superstition about it?"
That people who are born at midnight have an affinity for the supernatural. That we can see ghosts.
My roommate moved to a different building the next day.
I had the room to myself now. It was amazing. There certainly weren't any other freshman with a single, let alone one that was meant to be a double. I spent as much time in my room as possible. The weather was finally starting to turn, giving the wind outside my window a bite. I relished watching the geese flying south, curled up in the armchair (now lined with the ex-roommate's provided pillow, and thus much more comfortable), sipping tea and reading novels. The room was always filled with sunshine. The white walls mirrored the light, sending it bouncing into even the darkest corners. I took down my posters. I repositioned everything, so that no matter where I was or what I was doing, I could see the autumn-blue sky, and the geese, and the drying grasses in the courtyard. I became a bit antisocial. There was something so inherently peaceful about the room; it wasn't meant to house rowdy students. It was meant to be enjoyed alone.
But I wasn't alone.
I bathed in the sunshine and solitude for another two weeks, uninterrupted. I had started sneaking my food back up to my room, spending as little time as possible out with everyone else. Wherever I went, the silence of the room stayed with me. I couldn't bear all the noise. The longer I was away, the more desperate I became to return to that silence. Stepping through the door was like entering a church. The silence was a sanctuary.
It started with sounds. Just scratching at first. I thought it was mice; the building was certainly old enough to house its own families. I was disappointed at the end to the quiet, but I tried to put on a brave face. After all, you can't blame a mouse for entering your sanctuary. I considered telling an RA, but the thought of maintenance invading my room, with traps or pesticides or some other ungodly devices was unbearable. So I tried to ignore it, figuring it was my own disappointment making it louder and louder every night.
Then came the snapping sound. The scratching would go on for several minutes, and then there would be a pause, just long enough to think it was all over for the night. And then the snap. It was metallic, almost.
That one I couldn't blame on mice. But some sort of bird, maybe? That late at night, anyone's head could be a little fuddled. Easy enough to place a sound from outside in the room. Even if it was getting louder every night. Even if it was happening right next to me.
During the day, the room was just as serene as ever. I basked in the sunlight, spending hours watching out the window, ignoring the ever-increasing pile of overdue classwork. Down in the courtyard, the grass had turned to straw. The burdock was browning, drying out to spread its seed.
That night came the footsteps. Heavy heels, precisely pacing across the floor. They would stop in front of the window, only for the clacking and scratching to start up. And then the footsteps would continue, forging a path through the room until dawn.
It was getting harder to ignore. Purposeful oblivion never lasts long. And the lack of sleep was getting to me. I went to bed earlier and earlier, hoping for some rest before midnight. Exhaustion was a shroud, blurring everything around me. When I wasn't in class, I curled up in the armchair, wrapping the light around me like a blanket. Sometimes I would drift off, but I was always awake before I could start dreaming. I never slept long enough to dream anymore.
Instead, I watched the courtyard. The burdock was completely dead now, prickly seeds begging for someone, anyone, to walk by and help them spread. A crop of milkweed was growing in a corner. One lone Monarch butterfly settled on a stalk. I watched it spread and close its wings until the sun started sinking. Then I went to bed.
The footsteps started almost immediately. Clack, Clack, pause, Clack. Precise and purposeful. They stopped near the window, and then the scratching started up. It was hours too early; the dregs of the sunset still clawed at the window. I could make out wispy clouds, edges illuminated in the dusk. And then I couldn't.
Because she was blocking them.
Soft brown curls tumbled down to her shoulders, set off perfectly by her coral lipstick. Her dress was knee-length, cinched at the waist with a thin white belt. In one hand she held a fountain pen, nib dark with ink; in the other, she toyed with a silver cigarette case. She stared at me, expression blank but undeniable. Then she huffed, twirled, and vigorously applied pen to paper, leaning over a desk that wasn't there. Her lips moved as she wrote, but I couldn't make out what she was saying. As suddenly as she had appeared, all her myriad noises had stopped. No clacking, no scratching. My ears were ringing in the unexpected silence. She stabbed her pen at the missing paper, hard enough to snap it in two. One half dropped to the floor, vanishing as it fell. She threw the other half at the window. The cigarette case followed it. Then an inkpot, visible only as long as it was in her hand, and a blotter, and a glass paperweight, and a heavy black desk-lamp. Last was the chair.
Glass shattered as it hit the window, glittering shrapnel scattering across the room.
And sound came back with a whoomph. She screamed and the glass tinkled, skittering across the floor. I shrank back in my bed, covering my face with my blanket, trying to shut her out. The scream went on and on, rising to an impossible crescendo.
And stopped mid-note.
Shaking, I peeled back the blanket. The room was empty. She was gone. The sun was gone, finally hidden behind the horizon. Moonlight sparkled on the shattered glass.
In the morning, I dragged my quilt over to the armchair. The broken window provided an uninterrupted view of the courtyard. The milkweed has already died, pods split, oozing cotton viscera. The Monarch wasn't alone anymore. I watched butterflies gorge themselves for hours.
Sometime mid-afternoon, the R.A. knocked on my door. It wasn't locked. When I didn't answer, she just came in.
"Lisa said she heard glass breaking last night," she said, "Kelly heard it, too."
I didn't answer. I didn't need to. She glanced at the broken window, the glass I'd clumsily swept into a corner.
She chewed her lip, hesitant, then asked, "Were you born at midnight?"