It started as a low hum or buzzing in my left ear. Not really annoying, but there all the time. I was sitting in class when I first noticed it. I thought maybe I was getting a cold or an ear infection. After class I went to Student Heath to have my ears checked, but they said they were clear – no inflammation.
The semester continued on, as did the buzzing. It sounded like white noise – that undetermined static you hear on the radio between stations. The noise was louder in larger lecture halls, and more subdued in my dorm room. But it was always there, whenever I was inside. Surprisingly, I didn’t hear it when I was walking to class, or otherwise out of doors. Curious. If it was something wrong with my ears, why did it go away when I was outside?
Finals came. I was sitting in my engineering final, fuming over one formula I couldn’t remember, when a voice, clear as day, said “Theta, try theta.” I looked around. Everyone’s heads were down, with a variety of expressions ranging from confidence to concentration to confusion. But no one had the look of talking out loud. No one looking at me to see if I’d heard. I looked at the problem again, this time with theta in the mix, and the formula came to me easily. I guessed it was just my subconscious reminding me of things I’d studied but forgotten.
I turned my exam in, confident that I’d gotten the theta problem correct, along with most of the rest of it. “Good job,” someone whispered in my ear. Again, no one looked like the whisperer. There was no one close enough to whisper in my ear.
I made my way back to the dorm and up to my room. I tossed my books on the desk and my jacket on the floor, then plopped down on the bed, feeling the stress of the exam melt away. “Good job,” I heard again. This time I was sure someone was speaking to me, and equally sure I was completely alone. “Um, thanks,” I replied. “Who’s there?” I asked.
“Me,” the voice answered.
“Who are you?” I asked, starting to worry about my sanity. I was having a conversation with the voice inside my head.
“I’m room 501A,” the voice answered.
I sat up, shook my head, pulled on my ears, knocked my head with the palm of my hand a few times.
“Who?” I asked again.
“Room 501A,” the voice replied. 501A was my dorm room.
“You really should do some laundry. You’re almost out of underwear and socks.” The voice continued
All I could say was “Huh?” I was sure I was losing my sanity, hearing voices. I looked in my top dresser drawer and saw only one pair of socks and two pairs of underwear. How did the voice know?
I wasn’t about to quibble with disembodied voices. I gathered my dirty clothes and a handful of quarters and headed down the hall to the laundry room. I filled the washer, added some soap, and put the quarters in the slot. Then another voice perked up, “Don’t forget the fabric softener.”
I looked around. The room was empty and so was the hall outside. None of the machines were running. I could find no source for the voice. I lifted the lid of the washer and added the fabric softener.
“Come back in an hour,” the laundry voice directed.
“I’m sorry about Dave,” The dorm room voice said when I got back.
“Why? What’s wrong?” I asked.
“He’s not coming back next semester. He won’t be passing this term and he’s already on academic probation, so he’s going to have to take a semester off.” The voice was more knowledgeable than I on the status of my roommate.
“Who are you?” I asked again. “How do you know this?”
“I’m the walls of room 501A. I see and hear everything that goes on in here. Dave was talking to his parents a couple nights ago, while you were out. He broke the bad news to them then.”
Wait a minute. “If walls could talk…” The walls were talking – to me! The voice at the exam, in the laundry room, and here in my dorm room.
My room and I had an interesting conversation while I waited for my laundry to finish. I learned about the past residents of 501A – the pot dealer, the cheerleader, the geeks, and the frat boys. Room 501A had seen and heard a lot in the 30 years since the dorm had been built.
Laundry finished, it was time for dinner. I pulled on my jacket and headed across campus to the dining hall. “Avoid the spaghetti,” the cafeteria voice told me. “The sauce is off.”
“Thanks,” I murmured as I helped myself to a fried chicken patty and some mashed potatoes.
“Take some vegetables, too,” said the cafeteria voice, sounding just a little like my mother. I Iooked over the offerings and decided the broccoli looked the least overcooked.
I sat down at a table with some friends – Joe, another engineer, Tony, computer science, and Jake, physics and music. Jake, I noticed, had the spaghetti. We talked about how our finals were going, what papers and projects were still due, just the general end-of-semester griping. After dinner, we were going to go study, but Jake said he wasn’t feeling well. Joe and Tony were headed to the lab, so I was on my own.
After spending the evening in the library, I went back to 501A mentally exhausted, but still physically keyed up. I stripped down to my skivvies then stretched out on the floor for 50 sit-ups and 25 push-ups – a little light exercise burned off some of the study stress. Dave was still out and might be out all night again. I climbed into bed and turned out the light.
“Good night, 501A,” I murmured.
“Good night, Tom,” the room whispered back.
– Laura McGinnis
After a forty-year career in technology, Laura is enjoying her retirement and has found a new love in writing. Her stories delve into the “what-ifs” of life. Her work can be found online at mrswoonsocket.wordpress.com.