Esme woke up the next morning, unrested and groggy. She put her feet on the floor and looked towards the dressing table. The jewellery box looked lost without any other possessions around it, but she noticed how the two side mirrors were folded inward and were reflecting four images of the box, each as lonely as the original.
After an hour or so snoozing, she got out of bed, dressed in her tracksuit and trainers and made some tea. She sat on the sofa, mug in her hands and looked towards the opposite wall in her apartment. She noticed how streaky the walls were that needed repainting, the lingering smell of unwashed bedding that infected every room, and the high ceilings that had corners that were dark and immune from capturing any sunlight. She had felt anxious many times before, usually when her mother raised her voice or when Kim and her clique of friends from Maple Street came looking for trouble. She’d spoken to her doctor about it, who had proceeded to give her a lecture on all the bad habits that people do nowadays that invite anxiety. Esme had asked for the quickest fix. The Doctor had taken a few gulps of coffee and recommended that she should breathe deeply and try a meditation routine.
Esme remembered what Darren had last said to her.
Try meditating next to the air con unit. Relax. Clear your thoughts.
She’d read the odd article on Buzzfeed about meditation, but had never gotten around to trying it, but remember some loose points about sitting still and breathing deeply. She sat right back with upright shoulders on the sofa, the same position she took when playing her cello, only her legs dangled down and hovered a centimetre from the floor below. She felt like a child who had never rode a bike before. She breathed in and out, imagining the rhythm of music strokes when tuning in her instrument. Backwards, forwards, backwards, forwards. In, out, in, out. Images of her mother appeared in her mind, but with each barrage of memories, she continued her breathing and melted further into the sofa. She felt a peace as if she were breathing ocean air, the room around her still and quiet. She concentrated on the silence, only broken by the occasional coo of a bird or the clicking of something being switched on in a neighbouring apartment. She noticed that the buzzing sound coming from the air con unit had died down, almost to a halt, replicating the slowness of her breathing. She breathed deeply, purposely elongating each breath to count four seconds, four seconds in, four seconds out. The more she did this, the slower the buzzing sounded, until after a few minutes more, the sound stopped. Esme opened one of her eyes and looked at the air con unit, which immediately started buzzing again.
The slapping sound of footsteps from the balcony made her look round to see Darren standing outside the windows, waving. She went to open the window and greet Darren, but she turned back round to look at the air con unit, which was now buzzing frantically, just like it had since she moved in.
“At last, I thought you’d never get here!” cried Esme. “Thanks for coming. This whole camera lens thing has totally freaked me out.”
“Hey, it’s OK, we’re gonna sort all of this out. Where’s this lens, then?”
“What?” said Darren, clearly disappointed at the lack of mystery to be solved.
“Yeah, it kinda slipped out that I had found it when I saw Sally in the corridor. When I got back, the lens had disappeared.”
“Show me where you found it.”
“It must have been around here on this wall somewhere.”
“Which means there’s probably been someone watching from the other side of this wall.”
“Yes, and I want to know who.”
“I brought this.” Darren swung his rucksack off his shoulders, unzipped the opening and took out a crowbar.
“My mum gave me it before I moved in here. Bought me a whole tool box actually. We’re always buying each other little knick-knacks. She knows I hate DIY, she always seems to know what I need.”
“Great knick-knack from your mum,” joked Esme as she watched Darren grinning as he inspected his crowbar. She suddenly felt a chill and rubbed her arms with her hands to warm up. She looked in the mirror, dragged her hair back and clipped it in place, clasped her fingers, inverted her hands and stretched her arms out as far as she could to click her fingers. “Darren, I have to get out of this place.”
“Then let’s see what we can find.”
Darren climbed over the wall to the empty apartment, then whilst straddling the wall as if he were saddling a horse, held out his hand to hoist Esme up. She looked down beneath her feet through the gate to the ground below her, the same view that she had in the dream. She jumped down onto the other balcony and Darren got the crowbar out of his bag and started prising the door open. After chipping away some of the old wood, the door easily came loose. Esme added her strength by putting her hands on top of Darren’s as they gave a final yank until eventually it flew open, swinging round and smashing against the wall.
“There goes our element of surprise,” laughed Darren.
“I’ve never seen anyone in this apartment. No lights, no sounds, no movement. I’m sure there’s no one living in here.”
“In which case you can go first.”
Esme smiled as Darren bowed and waved his hand towards the door, beckoning Esme to enter as if he were a guardsman. Inside she was surprised to see that the apartment was the same as her own. She had at least expected the decor to be different. She looked around the room. The same layout. Same table and chairs. Same black leather sofa that looked just as worn and cracked as the one in her apartment.
“Jeez, they even have the same shitty ornaments. I guess the owner must have bought a job lot of them and furnished each apartment in the building with the same tat, the cheapskate.”
Esme felt a spasm throughout her body as she approached the sofa. There on the arm, was an exact copy of the book that she was reading, the same tattered old copy that she had brought from her mother’s shelf before leaving.
“That’s not possible.”
“What’s not possible?”
“I’m reading this same book? It’s like the person in this apartment is copying me.” She moved forward to pick it up, curious to find a bookmark and see whereabouts the reader had gotten to. But before she did, she noticed the kitchen to her right. And the utensils. The selection of food. And the pile of washing up.
“This can’t be,” said Esme as she held her hands on her head. “These are my dishes. This is the leftover omelette I made this morning.” She pointed towards the dish and the frying pan, squirming at the thought of touching any of the duplicate dirty dishes.
“Are we still in your apartment?” asked Darren, looking around as if it were a dark cavern, scouring every corner, sometimes moving up to things and extending his neck for a closer look.
“We must be. Everything that I remember from my apartment is here. My books. My kitchen stuff.”
Esme entered the bedroom and saw on the dressing table, standing in solitude on the dresser, her mother’s jewellery box. She moved her hand to pick it up, but somehow, missed. She shook her head to chase her confusion away, pursed her lips before trying again but somehow, missed for a second time.
“Darren, you have to see this! I think there’s something wrong with me.”
Esme gave Darren a demonstration of how she could move her hands through the jewellery box. “It’s not real, look!” She waved her hands through it again, then through the dresser itself. Esme went back to the living room and tried the sofa and the dishes, both proved Esme’s theory correct. Darren tried moving his hand through a few things. He tried to pick up an ornament off the table, kicked the sofa as if it were a football, yet connected only to empty air.
“Everything here in this apartment is fake,” said Esme. She put both hands over her mouth as she continued to look around.
“It’s like a hologram or something. This room has been set up to look exactly like yours. It’s weird as fuck.” Darren walked into the refrigerator and disappeared, then a few seconds later his torso reappeared up out of the cooker top. He moved away from the cooker, looked down to inspect his body and then walked back towards Esme. “It’s like they’ve copy-pasted your apartment.”
Esme felt a hundred pair of eyes ogling at her from the dark corners of the room. Or were they coming from the walls, she couldn’t tell.
“Esme, come have a look at this.” Darren’s voice sounded muffled, as if he had his head inside a cardboard box. She looked around to see his body leaning over the air con unit in the corner. His neck was up against the unit, his body headless, then Esme realised that his head was inside the holographic projection of the air con unit.”
“I can see you,” said Darren.
“Yeah, I’m right here of course.”
“No you don’t understand.” Darren pulled his head out and stood up straight. “I came to have a look at it when I heard the noise. Do you hear the difference? It’s a totally different sound, as if the motor’s going in reverse. When I stuck my head inside, it was like I was watching little movie clips of you. I saw you and Chloe. And you holding the jewellery box. And you sleeping here in the apartment.” His face blushed.
Esme put the back of her hand on Darren’s chest and beckoned him to move aside. She bent forwards as if to head-butt the air con unit until her head was completely immersed inside.
An endless stream of split-second projections flashed before her eyes. Her first day at school, holding her mother’s hand as a small child, the day she met Chloe, playing with the jewellery box, kissing Basketball Craig, his groping hands, the walk on the beach with her mother, that slap on the face, the dream of Sally in her apartment holding the crystal jewellery box, sitting on the balcony, sleeping in the bedroom, the front door latch unlocking and opening, her mother’s funeral. She pulled her head out from the unit, “What the fuck did I just see?”
“Are you OK?” asked Darren as he held his hands on either side of Esme’s shoulders.
“Oh Darren, I just saw so many things. I just saw Chloe. And my mother!”
“Did all those things really happen to you?”
“Yes, they did, well most of them. Some of them can’t have happened yet. But Darren, I just saw the front door open. We should go downstairs and see if it’s true.” Darren said nothing in response to Esme’s suggestion and Esme held her hands over her face and eyes. She fell into his chest and wrapped her arms around him. Darren stood frozen like a soldier before reciprocating the embrace and patting her back softly.
“We have to try the front door again,” said Esme, wiping a tear from her cheek.
“Why? We know that it’s going to be locked still.”
“Maybe, but if Sally is watching us, then at least we’ll be able to confront her about what we now know.”
“I think you’re playing dangerous games. Besides, I just don’t think I’m ready to leave this place even after seeing this. I need to know everything that’s going on first, plus you know, I get to play my games, I don’t have to work, and my mum isn’t on my back all the time.”
“I’m not a coward. I just feel that I ended up here because I wanted it. I’ll push to find a way out when the time is right. There may only be one chance and I don’t think this is it.”
“What do you suggest then?”
“I think we should close the door, go back to our apartments, you read your nice story, I play my video games and wait.”
“Wait for what?” Esme squealed.
“I don’t know, Esme. All I know is that Chloe and I tried many things that didn’t work and sauntering downstairs without a plan feels like it’s going to lead us into the dead end of a maze.”
Esme could feel a volcano erupting in her stomach. Was this because Darren was chickening-out and going back home, or was it the thought of Darren and Chloe working together?
She placed her hands on her hips and stared at him as if to give him an ultimatum. Darren shook his head and without saying anything further, left the apartment by the French windows, his hands and arms dangling by the side of his body. She watched him climb the wall, then used one of the balcony chairs to clamber back over the wall to her apartment.
But she didn’t pick up her book. Instead she immediately went to open her front door, grabbed the door handle and turned it with force, throwing the door open so that it banged against the wall, then jammed a shoe in the gap as she left the apartment. She walked down the stairs, humming loudly and making sure her feet banged on the floorboards as much as possible. She felt confident in herself, but was adamant that the front door would still be locked. When she got there, she looked out through the window to the quad area where a few children were playing on the grass with rainbow coloured toys. Two women dressed in conservative summer outfits sat on a picnic rug holding glasses of fruit punch, laughing with each other and pointing at the children. The sun seemed to shine brighter on this side of the building. She tried the door. It was indeed still locked and Sally was nowhere to be seen.