I haven’t told this story before because I’m not really sure how to tell it. To this day I still don’t understand what happened, or how something as unremarkable as a brightly lit exit sign could lead to a missing girl and me – as the last person to see her alive.
AMU was your average college campus. It was large but not quite sprawling – not great for when you were running late to class, but by no means unmanageable to travel on foot. It had all the hallmarks of a college that was trying its best. It boasted a large library with lots of books and computers, a clean and busy student center, and a long-touted list of notable professors and alumni.
Unfortunately, the dorms were about as crappy as your average underfunded state school: so, pretty crappy. Renfield, the dorm I lived in, was a perfect example. The carpets were worn thin over a hard cement flooring. The bathrooms were almost but never quite clean enough to feel comfortable. The beds were lumpy, and the underlying smell of must persisted in the halls.
It wasn’t my first choice to live there, really. My scholarship was paying for my room and board, and I couldn’t exactly decline as a broke college student. But still, I didn’t spend a lot of time in Renfield if I could help it. My friends Shelly and Liza were always letting me hang out and crash at their apartment, which was a few blocks off campus.
The night of the party – the night Anna went missing – was a Saturday.
Shelly and Liza were just having a few people over, friends and classmates, who sometimes brought their own friends as well. There was music and alcohol, but no one was really getting wasted.
I arrived a little late to the party. When I got there, Shelly and Liza were chatting with their boyfriends, and I didn’t feel like being the fifth-wheel. But then Michael, a classmate of mine from Chemistry class, caught my eye.
“Maddie, over here,” he said, waving me over.
He was sitting on the couch, talking with a girl I didn’t know. She had dark brown hair and was wearing a casual blue dress.
Michael introduced us, then said to her, “Anna, did you know Maddie lives in Renfield Dorm too? The only senior still in on-campus housing, I bet.”
I didn’t recognize Anna from around the dorm, but I guess that wasn’t surprising. I wasn’t the most social or active in Resident Life activities.
“So how do you like Renfield?” I asked Anna. “Home sweet home, right?”
Anna didn’t seem to be listening. “My drink tastes funny,” she said, staring down into her plastic cup. When she finally did look back up at us, she seemed glassy-eyed and listless.
“I can get you a new one,” offered Michael, standing up from his place on the couch. He headed over to the kitchen across from us. Anna watched him go, then turned to me.
“He’s been getting my drinks all night,” she said quietly.
I felt myself get anxious. Michael was only in one of my classes, and I didn’t know him that well. Was Anna implying what I thought she was? Did she know him any better than I did?
“Maybe you shouldn’t drink anything else,” I said, taking her cup away from her and setting it down on the coffee table.
“Ugh, yeah. Maybe.”
Anna turned pale when Michael returned with another drink. She looked at him, then at me. “I’m sorry, I – I don’t feel good,” she said. And then she got up and bolted for the bathroom.
Michael squinted in her direction. “Lightweight,” he joked. “Do you want this?” he asked, offering me the new cup.
I shook my head and left him without a word. I went to stand in the hallway and waited for Anna to come out of the bathroom. I could hear retching noises from beyond the door. It sounded awful, and it took so long that a line for the restroom started to form.
“Man, someone got wasted here?” asked one of the guys in line. “This is practically a tea party.”
My friend Liza had also wandered over. “Everything okay over here?”
“Do you know a girl named Anna?” I asked. “I think she’s sick in there.”
Liza shook her head. “I don’t think so. But let me see what I can do,” she said.
Liza knocked on the bathroom door. “Um, Anna? Are you okay? It’s just, if you need longer, it’s fine but…there is a line out here.”
We heard the sound of the toilet flushing, and then Anna finally stepped back out into the hall.
“Sorry,” she said to the crowd. “I – I really didn’t drink that much…I don’t know what happened.”
Her eyes flitted to me for a moment, and I knew we were thinking the same thing.
“I, I think I should probably go back to campus.”
“I’ll go with you,” I offered immediately. I had only just arrived at the party, but no way in hell was I going to let this girl go anywhere alone.
We walked back through the living room together. Michael was nowhere in sight. I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or not. I was scared, but also angry, and the notion of confronting him – even without evidence – was heavy on my mind.
Anna and I headed out the door. As we walked towards campus, I shot Liza a quick text. If that Michael guy is still around, make sure he isn’t alone with any girls.
Liza texted back immediately: Is everything okay?! Did he do something?
Not sure if he did anything to Anna’s drink. Just keep an eye out.
Anna and I had almost made it to the edge of campus by the time Liza texted me back. Asked around. Sounds like Michael left before you guys did.
Good, I replied. Let’s make sure he isn’t invited over anymore.
Liza of course agreed, and I told her I’d text her when we were back at Renfield.
Then I turned my attention to Anna, who was walking slowly beside me.
“Feel any better?” I asked her.
She shrugged. “A little,” she said.
“So, um, do you know Shelly or Liza? I’ve never seen you around.”
“Shelly has a class with my boyfriend, Logan,” replied Anna. “He was supposed to come too, but his little brother was in a car accident tonight. He had to rush off to the hospital, but he said I should go to the party without him…”
“Oh. Do you know if Logan’s brother is going to be okay?”
“Well, he’s pretty scratched up, but sounds like he’ll be fine.”
“That’s good,” I said, and then awkward silence fell around us.
The air was cold as we walked, and all in all I was pretty relieved when we got back to the dorm. It was deserted when we got there, which wasn’t really that unusual. A lot of the students loved any chance to leave our old building. Plus, way better parties could be found across campus.
We took the elevator up. I hit the number four button as usual, but Anna had been so quiet that I totally forgot to ask where her room was. She must have spaced out, too. It wasn’t until we stepped out into my hall when she realized it.
“Oh,” said Anna. “I’m actually on the third floor.”
But the elevator door had already closed behind us.
Anna shrugged it off. “It’s cool, I’ll just take the stairs down.”
I didn’t think much of it. I probably would have taken the stairs too. It would definitely be faster than waiting for the clunky old elevators.
The door to the stairwell was at the far end of the hall, opposite us. We had made it halfway down, to where my room was, when Anna suddenly went completely still. Her eyes were wide as she stared down the hall. I felt a chill go through me without knowing why.
“Anna? Are you okay?”
She was rigid as a board, her eyes fixated ahead of her. “That’s a very bright sign,” she said. Her voice was strange, dreamy almost. All I could think was maybe she still had alcohol – or worse – in her system.
Still, I followed her gaze.
There was, in fact, an exit sign at the end of the hall, right by the stairwell door. It was one of those old-fashioned signs – long and vertical, the word EXIT spelled with each letter beneath the previous. And it was strangely bright. Luminescent in the dark hallway. I’d never noticed it before, or if I had, I’d never given it any thought. I mean, there wasn’t much to think about. It was still just a sign.
“It wants me,” Anna whispered. I repressed a shiver. I had no idea what she was talking about, and I suddenly felt very unsettled. I just wanted to be back in my room, and I wanted Anna to get to bed too.
“Anna,” I said sharply. I touched her arm. Her skin was cold and clammy. When I placed my hand on her, though, she seemed to come back to herself.
She shook it off. “Sorry,” she said. “Must be tired.”
I relaxed. “Yeah, same.”
We said goodnight to each other. She started walking down the hall, and I watched her from the corner of my eye as I unlocked my door. She was walking straight and moving steadily. I was relieved. Anna just needed to get to bed and sleep it off. Later, though, I would replay the sight of her walking away from me over and over. I would remember the unnatural stiffness of each step, the rigidness of her every move.
But at the time, I didn’t notice. I was tired. I got into my room and went to bed.
By the next day, a good night sleep had put Anna out of my mind. I did homework at the library for awhile, got lunch at the food court, and watched some TV. I hadn’t seen Anna around Renfield, but I had never seen her around much before, anyway. It wasn’t until the phone call I got that night that I started to worry.
Shelly called me and asked if I knew whether Anna had made it back okay.
“Yeah,” I told her. “Well, she made it to my room, but took the stairs down to the third floor.”
“Oh,” Shelly said, sounding concerned. “Well, my friend Logan – Anna’s boyfriend – just texted me. He said he tried calling Anna to ask how the party went, but she hasn’t picked up all day.”
I felt slightly uneasy, but it wasn’t exactly panic at that point. I didn’t know what Logan and Anna’s relationship was like, or how likely it was that she might ghost him either on purpose or by accident. I ran the theory by Shelly. “Maybe she’s just got a ton of homework, or her phone died?”
“Well, he went to her room, too. No one answered.”
“Does she have a roommate?”
“No. Single room, like you.”
At that point, I really didn’t know what else to say. It didn’t seem likely to me that something bad had happened. Anna only had to go down one floor to her room. Plus, college kids are always running around, busy and somewhat self-absorbed with whatever they need to do.
“Shell, I’m sure she’s okay,” I said. “But I’ll keep an eye out for her. Let me know if Logan hears back?”
“Okay, thanks Maddie.”
Even though I tried to convince myself that Anna was fine, I had trouble sleeping that night. I couldn’t help thinking about Michael, disappearing from the party sometime before us. You always hear about terrible things happening to women on college campuses, and I felt really sick at the possibilities.
The next day I went and found Anna’s room before leaving for my first class. I knocked and waited. Nothing. Maybe she had an earlier class than me, maybe she did a caffeine run…maybe.
I was unfocused as hell for the next two days. I kept finding reasons to check floor three and ask around about Anna. No one had seen her. I knocked on her door several more times during various hours. Nothing.
On Thursday, the police arrived at the dormitory. Logan had finally broken down and called Anna’s parents. They hadn’t heard from their daughter either. It wasn’t like her, they said. She was close to her mother, and even more so with her kid sister, and she frequently called just to chat. The cops had also heard from Shelly that I was the last person with Anna on Saturday. That’s how I found myself talking to Officer Hernandez and Officer Reynolds, just outside my dorm room.
The two policemen had me run through the story of how we’d walked back to Renfield. No, we didn’t run into anyone on the way. No, I hadn’t felt like anyone was following us. I told them a little about the party, Michael, and how Anna had mentioned that her drink tasted funny.
The officers exchanged dark looks with each other. “But you didn’t see Michael after the party?” asked Officer Reynolds.
I shook my head. “No, I would have remembered.”
“And where was the last place you actually saw Anna?”
“In my hall, going to the stairwell. She was acting a little…weird.”
“Just, she was talking about how bright the exit sign was,” I said, nodding down the hall towards the sign. I noticed that it didn’t seem as bright as it had been that Saturday. I wondered if we’d imagined it. “It was like she was sleep-talking or something?” I continued. “But then she snapped out of it, and she was fine, and she went downstairs.”
Officer Hernandez wrote something down on his notepad. “We’ll ask her family if she has any history of blackouts or sleepwalking, to be safe.”
He was saying it more to his partner than to me, but I still felt guilty. Had Anna really not been okay? Was it my fault that I let her go off alone?
Officer Reynolds went to go check out the stairwell while I waited with his partner. That was the one thing I hadn’t done on my own. For some reason, I couldn’t force myself to check the stairs, even though that was the last place I’d seen Anna go. Something about it just made me feel sick.
When Reynolds returned, his face was grim. I felt my stomach clench.
“We need to tape off the stairwell and call the crime scene unit. Madison, you’re going to have to come with us. We need your statement officially on the record.”
The next few hours were hell. I went over my story again and again down at the police station. They treated me decently enough, but I was really freaked out. What had they found? No one would tell me for those first two hours, until they finally caved to my desperate pleas to know what was happening.
“Okay, Madison,” said Hernandez. “It sounds like you’ve told us what you could. But we need something else from you. It might be…difficult. We need you to identify an article of clothing.”
An icy chill swept through me. I managed to nod.
They brought in a plastic evidence bag. Inside was a familiar blue dress. It looked as if it had been ripped in places, and there were dark stains all over it.
“Yes,” I choked out. “That’s what she was wearing. Is Anna – ?” I couldn’t finish the question.
“We don’t know,” Hernandez replied. “It was just the dress.”
The police asked if I had anywhere else to sleep for the night. I told them I was going to stay at Shelly and Liza’s as long as they’d let me. I’d start chipping in for rent if I had to, but I could honestly say that I never wanted to go back to Renfield. Just the thought of my dorm made me queasy. Unfortunately, I had to go get my stuff. I needed my computer, my textbooks, some clothes for sure.
They decided to send me in a police car back to the dorm. As we were walking out of the station, Michael was escorted in by another officer and a well-dressed man who I assumed might be a lawyer, or maybe Michael’s father. Michael looked pale and solemn. Our eyes met as we passed, and I fought off a shiver. His eyes looked so much emptier than I had ever seen or imagined possible.
The police dropped me off at the front door of Renfield, and I took the elevator up. The door to the stairs at the end of my hall was now sealed with yellow Do Not Enter tape. The exit sign looked as it had when I showed the officers. Dim, unremarkable. I ignored it and went to my room.
Getting all my stuff together took way longer than I thought it would. I packed up most of my clothes and toiletries. I stuffed my books and laptop into my backpack and did some cleaning. It took so long that dinner time came and went. I was hungry and tired, but I kept going. Shelly was going to pick me up at the dorm at nine o’clock and I wanted to be ready. Finally, at around eight thirty, I was good to go. I figured I’d have just enough time to get a snack from the vending machines on the first floor. Just something quick and then I could haul my crap down to the lobby and wait.
I stepped out of my room. It was eerily quiet. I wondered if the other girls on my floor were making similar arrangements – moving to different dorms or apartments out of fear. The news of Anna’s disappearance and that there might have been foul play involved had spread like wildfire.
I couldn’t help but look towards the stairwell again. Something had changed. The exit sign was back to glowing, radiant in the dim hallway. The red letters stood stark against the white background. The rays of light extended past the border of the sign, lighting up the neighboring walls with an ethereal glow.
I felt a shift in myself, like the reins of my mind had been given over to someone or something else. I had had no intention of going that direction, but suddenly I could think of nothing but that sign, that door.
It wants me. It was a whisper in my mind, an echo. It wants me. I knew it as surely as I knew anything. My feet were suddenly moving forward of their own accord. I had no control, like a puppet on strings. The light of the exit sign blurred in my vision as I approached it. There was still a part of my brain that was screaming to be heard. What are you doing, what are you doing? Don’t go!
I couldn’t control my legs, my hammering heart, any of it. I reached the door. My hand began to tear off the yellow caution tape. It fluttered to the floor. I watched, out of body, as my fingers turned the cold knob. The door pushed open and I stepped inside.
Immediately I knew that things were wrong, that this was not the stairwell as I had ever seen it. The dull grey steps and security lights were gone, or at least impossible to see. Everything was pitch black, the deepest and most complete black I had ever known.
The door slammed shut behind me. I snapped back into control of my mind, but that just meant that panic was suddenly taking hold. I immediately turned back to the door – or where the door should have been. My hand reached out and found nothing. No wall, no door, no handle. Complete nothingness.
I was freezing and alone in darkness. Or at least, so I thought. From somewhere to my left came a slithery, silky, awful voice. “Come here.”
Though I couldn’t see anything at all, I ran like hell away from that terrible command. I tried to scream for help but fear had stolen my voice. My feet were hitting solid ground as I ran, but I had no idea how much progress I was making or where I could possibly be going.
An amused, lilting whisper: “Wrong waaay.”
Somehow it was closer than it had been before. I felt something scratch painfully against my back, ripping through my shirt and at least one layer of skin. A claw, whatever it was had claws! I ignored the pain and ran faster.
The voice started to sing, a sick little lullaby. “Like a moth to flame, they see my sign — and oh, how they come for dinner time.”
Suddenly I heard a woman’s scream. “Maddie! Maddie!”
It could only be one person. Was Anna really still alive? Had she been trapped in this empty place, and was I trapped now too? I ran towards her voice.
My eyes were starting to adjust. I could see a hunched shadow just ahead of me. It was Anna! Her long dark hair was covering her face as she sobbed into her hands. I went to reach for her, but some primal instinct stopped me.
The dress. She was wearing the same blue dress as that Saturday night. The same dress I knew damn well was torn and bloody in an evidence bag far from here.
The creature must have read my mind. It stopped fake crying and looked up at me. The sight was a horror – Anna’s face covered in bloody gash marks, inhuman yellow eyes burning in their sockets. It smiled with rotten teeth. “Oopsie, you caught me,” it said. “She was delicious, you know, will you be as sweet to me?”
I knew there was no use in running. This thing was accustomed to the darkness. It had laid a trap like a spider spins a web. All I could do was fight, and probably lose. It reached for me at the same time I made a move. I went for its face, using my long nails to slash at the creature’s yellow eyes.
The thing, it hadn’t expected a struggle. It screeched dreadfully and I felt a moment of triumph just before its claws wrapped around my throat. I was lifted off my feet. I could smell its fetid breath as it brought its rotting teeth closer to my face.
Suddenly there was a sound, far away but distinct – a door creaking open. Light flooded through the space and the creature holding me gave a hiss before dissolving out of sight.
I was back in the stairwell, crumpled on the landing halfway between floor three and four. The security lights flickered and hummed around me.
“Hey! You’re not supposed to be down here!”
I looked up. There was a police officer standing in the doorframe of the fourth floor hallway.
“Hey, are you okay?” His annoyance had turned to concern.
I was shivering. I pushed myself up and ran towards the officer. He moved aside to let me back into the hallway. Everything looked so normal. How desperately I wanted to believe that maybe stress had caused me to crack, that maybe I had been dreaming but–
“Your back is bleeding,” said the policeman.
All my hopes of temporary insanity were dashed. I could feel the pain as he mentioned it, the scratch marks that had torn through fabric and skin alike.
I turned around. The door that had been missing was there, plain and obvious. The exit sign, however, was not. It was gone, gone, as if it never existed.
How could that be possible?
I thought of Anna’s face, gashed and devoured. I thought of Michael being interrogated for this grisly, inhuman crime. The exit sign had been a trap of evil, of something so other that I knew I could never explain it without being thought crazy.
The sign was gone, Anna was gone, as was everything I thought I knew about the world around me.
All that remained was the creature’s song, playing in my nightmares ever since.
“Like a moth to flame, they see my sign – and oh, how they come for dinner time.”