“Do you think the University Hall clock ever actually worked?” Merv asked.
It was a surprisingly warm day for the end of January. It was snowing, and the flakes came down soft and lazy. This apparent disharmony with the stress and motion of students rushing to class and studying for exams made Merv stop for a moment in front of the Rock.
“I don’t know, you should go up to the clock tower and see. I’m sure if it was ever anything more than decorative, there would be gears and ropes and shit up there,” Luce replied, already walking on to Kresge.
Merv remained gazing up at the clock tower a moment longer before following Luce to their next class.
Weeks passed, and Merv was in the thick of exam season. The days passed in a blur of rotations from the dining hall to the library to her dorm to random empty classrooms. That night, all her favorite study spots in Deering and Main were taken, so she trekked to University Hall hoping that an empty classroom would provide silence and solitude. Its stone exterior but relatively comfortable interior gave it an aesthetically studious atmosphere that made University Hall a good back-up to the libraries. Every room seemed to be occupied by some a cappella group practicing, or a theater student rehearsing lines. By the time Merv reached the fourth floor, the singing was still slightly audible. She was too tired to keep searching, so she barricaded herself in the first empty classroom she found and got to work writing a history paper due at nine a.m. the next morning. It was already midnight.
Her eyes strained against the blue light of the laptop screen. She squeezed them shut for a moment, trying to force out the tiredness that was crowding her brain.
“Thus, it is clear that religion — not just geography — played a crucial role in defining Europe, especially….”
She didn’t know how to finish the sentence, and had been staring at it as the second hand ticked away the minutes. Merv stood up. She needed to walk around and clear her head. She got a drink from the water fountain, but it tasted like calcium and stress. Stretching her neck, she wandered up and down the hall, stopping now and then to look at the plaques outside doors and various posters on the walls.
That’s when she noticed the door by the stairwell, the one in the faculty office hallway. “Maintenance: Attic Access,” read the sign. Merv had never noticed it before because it blended into the wall and numerous doors around it. But, this time the door was ajar. She got closer, seized by the cold claw of curiosity. Merv peeked around the door and felt a frigid current of air envelop her as her eyes tried to penetrate the opaque darkness of the room. A sudden feeling of dread filled her. Almost involuntarily, she turned on her phone flashlight and shone it into the room. Before she could make anything out, the door slammed shut. Merv let out an involuntary yelp and ran back to the safety of the classroom she had claimed.
With shaking fingers she clicked on Luce’s contact info, praying that her friend’s odd sleeping schedule would mean that they were still awake.
“Hey, what’s up.”
Merv let out a sigh of relief.
“Luce you’ve gotta come to University Hall right now. I’m on the fourth floor and I think it’s haunted and I CANNOT leave this room alone with a ghost out there and—”
“Woah, woah, slow down. Haunted? The only thing University is haunted by is students’ failed dreams.”
“I’m not kidding, Luce. The door to the clock tower was open and I started to go in there and then it SLAMMED. Please please just come.”
Merv calculated how long it would take Luce to get to the building, then climb up the four flights of stairs (neither of them had taken an elevator again after their experience in the Plex basement) and find her crouched in room 412. To distract herself, she tried to start writing her paper again, but with every word her mind returned to the strange grip of wrongness that she had felt looking into that room.
When the door opened she nearly fell out of her chair.
“Jesus Christ Luce, you coulda knocked or something.” Merv took a deep breath.
They stood in front of the closed door. It looked as normal as ever, but Merv was shaken with unease.
“Please can we just go?” she whimpered, tugging on Luce’s arm.
“I did not come all the way here in freezing weather just to go back. If there really is a ghost, I want to see it.”
Merv groaned but relented. After all, it had probably just been a draft from the rafters that closed the door, and it was probably just cold because there wasn’t any insulation up there. Luce tried the knob, expecting it to be locked, but the door gave a resounding click and swung open.
Luce shone their flashlight into the darkness and gradually, as if a thick cloud of black dust were being dispersed, it illuminated a rickety spiral staircase. Luce took a step into the room, trying to light up the corners. The floor was coated in a layer of grime that looked as though it hadn’t been disturbed in over a century.
“You’re not really gonna go up there!?” Merv yelped as Luce began climbing the stairs.
“That door is usually locked. This is probably my only chance to see what’s up here. You don’t have to come,” Luce replied, already halfway up the ladder.
Merv fidgeted for a moment, torn between her instincts for self-preservation, her desire to make sure her friend did not get possessed, and a steadily growing curiosity. Just as Luce’s shoes disappeared through the hole in the roof, Merv began to clamber up the staircase, anxious not to be left behind.
When she rejoined Luce, the noise of gears and clock ticking was almost unbearable. The room was filled with hundreds of clocks, of different sizes and styles, each marking time at a different pace. There were small digital alarm clocks, grandfather clocks, huge pendulum clocks hanging from the ceiling, and of course, the interior of the two massive clocks facing the Arch. Every few seconds an alarm went off or a cuckoo came crowing out of its wooden nest.
“What the actual hell?” yelled Merv, hoping Luce could hear her over the din of mechanical whirring.
In response, Luce pointed to the corner of the room, where grandfather clocks and huge sand timers formed a sort of hedge maze. In the center of this jumble was a nebulous, contorting … thing. Not quite solid and not quite air, its form expanded and fell back upon itself, as if swallowing up the space around it. Although it had no discernible features, it suddenly stopped moving, and Luce and Merv knew they had been spotted.
In a split second, the mass expanded to the size of the room, plunging the friends into blackness. Merv reached out and caught hold of Luce’s arm. The noise became deafening, but behind it Merv began to make out words in a pitch so high it hurt her ears.
“Time. Time, time, time. I need more TIME.” The shrieking voice began to force itself into the crowd of clock-ticking. “My paper is due…I need time. Time!”
Merv’s throat stung, and she realized that the voice was her own. The words were torn from her vocal chords and her throat felt like it was being shredded to ribbons. Merv clasped her hands to her neck, frantically trying to stop her own screaming.
Silence. Merv opened her eyes and stared at Luce in confusion. She was lying on her back on the floor of the classroom she had been working in earlier. There were no clocks, no ticking, no weird dark masses.
“Oh good, you’re up,” Luce knelt down. “Well, it was asking for time, right? So I just gave it my watch. And then you sorta passed out and it shrunk back into a lil ball, except those things happened at the same time. Also, sorry, you might have some bruises on your knees, I kinda had to drag you down the staircase. Are you feeling alright?”
Merv sat up and rubbed her forehead.
“Uh. Yeah, I’m fine, just a little dizzy. What the hell was that thing?”
“No clue. A clock monster? The old guardian of University Hall clock tower? Who the fuck knows.”
Merv stood up and began slowly putting her notebooks and papers into her backpack. Despite her seemingly near-death experience, Merv felt surprisingly calm.
“Maybe you were right before. I mean, I know you were joking, but that thing about University being haunted by students’ failed dreams? Maybe that thing is, like, an embodiment of everyone’s stress over time.” They began walking down the stairs.
“Yeah, maybe. All I know is I don’t ever want to get close enough to it again to ask.”
The night was cold but windless, a rare blessing for Evanston. Merv looked up at the clock tower, its face glowing invitingly. The hands remained motionless, stuck at 8:23.
Merv was going to need an extension on that paper.
Thumbnail image by Amaya Mikolič-Berrios