Desperate to travel the world and escape his Midwestern malaise, an underwhelmed man goes to classes each weekend to become certified to teach English in Korea. He dislikes his classmates but not as much as he dislikes the college campus. It's old, antique, and represents everything he hates about the United States' fetish for tradition. But why does he find himself wandering aimlessly into the basement during lunch breaks, and why is his teacher so nervous about students going off by themselves?
A G O O D , O L D P L A C E
THE rain had started early, before the sun had begun to warm the sky, and was falling in dull sheets well into midday. The weather was uncharacteristic of Indianapolis during the peak of May, but would later prove very characteristic of a summer that would break records for its low temperatures and constant storms. The College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences was an atypical location for a course in teaching English abroad, and from the outset the situation reeked of abnormality to the bored man who staked out his seat in the left corner of the square semi-circle made up of three long folding tables. The bored man was tall and thin, a 24 year old graduate student whose khaki shorts and sandals bespoke his taste for a more coastal climate. His unkempt, curly black hair dripped in loose strands around his neck and ears, and a wiry beard girded his jaw, almost but not quite connecting on his upper lip. He had driven up from Richmond, paid $1,200 for tuition, and was spending his nights at the Indianapolis Hostel. Four weekends – nine to five, Saturday and Sunday – and he would be certified by the Oxford Seminars to leave Indiana and spend two – or three or five or ten – years in some shiny East Asian city in Japan or China or hopefully Korea, far away from the orange brick Italianates and rectangular storefronts of rural Indiana. But so far the process had been torturous. Two hours into the seminar he began to dream of its conclusion while the Hoosier sky darkened the Hoosier landscape and drenched the window panes with a constant supply of water.
He was disappointed and a little disgusted by the group that had formed around him after he had been the first to arrive in the darkened classroom at 8:45. There was Andy, a 35-ish hippie with the hair and beard of the Sallman Jesus – a vapid metal head who joked through the exercises, was constantly distracted, and seemed never to have aged past fifteen. And then there was Bonnie, a 60-ish police chaplain whose bulbous body and buldging head resembled a 1950s baby doll. Fierce, arrogant, and overcompensating for her lack of authority as a student, she scolded her classmates, constantly drew awkward attention to her roles as a pastor and a chaplain, and bullied the shier students for not knowing enough about their country’s kitschy history: who Liberace was for instance, an American icon that all patriotic millennials should be able to converse about. There were half a dozen meek female college graduates of average or less-than average looks, most with a modicum of foreign travel experience (“My family went to Rome for a week”; “My youth group spent a weekend in Mexico”; “I was on a safari last year and think that Africa’s really fun”), and there was Chen – a quiet Vietnamese girl who spent her breaks with a boyfriend who slept in the hallway during class – and Lakshmi – a Pakistani-American single mother who had no plans for the future other than to “move someplace and teach kids.”
Worst of all was Bob. Bob was older than Bonnie (who apparently had developed a crush on him), and could barely hear or think straight. He was the bored man’s assigned partner, much to the younger man’s misery. At first Bob was cute: a tottering old fart who had never married and wanted to see the world, particularly “Pwerta Rica,” “Hondurruz,” or his old Army stomping ground in “Koh-ree-yuh.” Bob was small and round with a buzzcut and a leering, unsettling grin, two glassy eyes that were magnified into watery blurs by his prescription lenses, and a sonorous-but-schmaltzy voice marked by a yokel accent from Southern Indiana or Northern Kentucky, the bored man couldn’t remember where. He had all the charisma and personality of a retiree who stumbles through announcing a tee-ball game or a BINGO contest at a decrepit VFW. Only Erin was a break from the mediocrity. She was short but athletic, spry, and witty, with brown-gold skin the same color as her sun-stained hair, and green eyes that gleamed with engagement when someone else was speaking. The bored man liked when she came into the classroom with her hair pulled loosely into a ponytail or knotted into a shiny bun, effortlessly wearing hoodies and track shorts that heightened rather than diminished her figure. She was an Olympic weight trainer even though she – like the half a dozen meek girls with their braces, pimples, and grey complexions – was only 22. Erin was pretty but even she was relatively uninspiring, not being sure whether she would travel abroad or teach English to immigrants. In any case, she sat at the tip of the table across from the bored man, and they rarely interacted. The course was helmed by Kenneth, a soft-spoken world traveler who had apparently settled for living in Indianapolis – a fact which discredited him severely to the bored man who resented anyone who didn’t churn with disgust at the thought of living in a landlocked state past the age of 25. But Kenneth was experienced and a good teacher, so after time the bored man warmed to his style. But nothing could warm the weather on that first day.
The class was held in an antique classroom on the second story of the aforesaid College of Pharmacy, etc. – an old brick building lousy (so the bored man thought) with age – on the campus of one of Indianapolis’ oldest university campuses. The surrounding buildings inspired little more confidence. Some dated to the 1960s, but most reeked of the Edwardian Arts and Crafts style – a combination of medieval and Gothic architecture, with baroque details, heavy black timbers, and ornate geometric flourishes carved into stone set in time-darkened brick and limestone. The bored man resented its age and quietly envisioned wrecking balls and bulldozers crawling over the campus like worms on a corpse, executing the necessary job of worms on a corpse by tearing down that which is spent and useless. Chrome was needed here, he thought. Vast panes of tempered glass, and – if brick there must be – fresh, red bricks outlined in clean, white mortar. He loathed what Erin – in a moment of disappointing sentiment – had referred to as the “graceful ageing” of this outdated monument to men and ideas who had died long ago.
The walls of the College did nothing to help: they were lined with massive group portraits of the graduating classes of decades and centuries past. The “College of Pharmacy Class of 1895, Anno Domini” was browned by time, and stared dully out at him with the eyes of 149 dead men, men wearing sober, depressing faces, whose fanciful facial hair, black frocks, and white cravats reminded him more of tedious melodramas and demented great-grandmothers than the intended sense of legacy. And they marched on: 1905, 1917, 1922, 1936, 1944, 1965, 1978, 1989, 2003. But he couldn’t help feel that the newer, crisper, colored group photos were somehow contaminated – made illegitimate – as if the somber men of 1895 were orchestrating them still. He sensed a connection between the class of 2015 and the 120 year old photograph which was – to use his exact thought – unnatural and out of place, somehow incorrect and wrong, like a great, dead arm was reaching through decades and ensuring the continuance of outmoded traditions. Why have these photos at all? Why not publish them online? He passed them on his march to the bathroom on his break, and it was almost as if he were slipping through the wormhole that would deposit him in a foregone time: faces changed, dulled, faded in color, then lost color altogether, until he was passing under the gaze – not of cheerful girls in pink and yellow blouses with modern haircuts and laughing eyes – but of the sour, bearded men who still seemed to hold a conscious domain over the young college students who unknowingly accepted their guardianship and entered their paternal dominion.
The first break of the first day took place at 10:30. The bored man was the first to escape the classroom, swiftly but discreetly hopping from his chair, slipping around the table, and shuffling into the hallway. He wanted to escape his company, so he opted to float down to the first floor bathroom. No one else followed, and he was able to relieve himself in solitude, away from scatter-brained Andy, bumbling Bob, and preachy Bonnie. Even the bathroom disturbed his sensibilities, however, with its walls lined in octogenarian subway tiles and its pre-war wooden stalls painted in black enamel and stenciled with gold paint. Everything was old, old and misplaced, like a new house filled with antique furniture, or a young man with wrinkled skin and one eye white, glaring and spectral from cataracts. He emptied his bladder and wandered into the hall, up the stairs, and into the classroom. He had been in his chair for three minutes when he looked up and saw the bleeding man. The figure was young, perhaps a year or two younger than him, with cropped hair, blue jeans, and a white crewneck. The t-shirt was, however, slathered in deep maroon stains which were already flaking and hardening into black mats. A sash of deep red ran from his right shoulder to his left elbow, and speckles of brown peppered the material in otherwise dry spots. His face was mangled by a laceration above the eyebrow, with two others – bigger apparently – being muffled by gauze and tape which were already drenched with coffee-colored stains. His cheeks, nose, and eyelids were swollen and black, and his nostrils and teeth were purple with slushy gore. The phantom hovered in the doorway, stumbled into the classroom, and stood in front of Kenneth, who politely walked up to him and shook his hand which was darkened by purple stains which had apparently been vainly scrubbed at with water.
Was he real, then, the shocked man wondered? Kenneth was talking to him, cool as mist, and was pointing and gesturing fluidly as if his joints were oiled and loose. Was there no blood, then? Was it just a trick of the light? The bleeding man nodded to Kenneth, and to the shocked man’s horror, he shuffled into the room, rounded the desks, and sat two chairs away from him. He leaned painfully over the table and winced as he settled into the chair.
“Hhh,” he muttered through clenched teeth. “Ahuz inuh arr ahkdehm ash ighm.” “Hi. I was in a car accident last night.” The concerned man felt his heart slow down as the phantom became flesh. But with that assurance, he became disgusted at yet another awkward classmate. Car accident or no, for God’s sake wash up and get a new shirt! What a gruesome sight. Beck – this was the bleeding man’s name – was allowed to stay in the class because of the circumstance (he had just been released from the hospital, and his jaw was wired shut), and would sit for the rest of the class time lathered in rotting blood. The smell was sweet at first, like wet pennies, but soured as the day passed. The concerned man became annoyed as Beck attracted the attention and sympathy of the girls – Erin in particular – and as his very obvious intelligence and linguistic acumen (in spite of his muffled voice) became tremendously apparent. The Bob leaned over to the annoyed man and grinned stupidly “Boy, if he ain’t clever! I don’t think I’d uh made if here if I’d uh been in a masher like that. Why, when I was in th’ service I seen two cars had a real cruncher out there in Koh-ree-yah. Why the two fellers what were drivin’ were all pulled to chuncks and bits. Couldn’t barely tell that they wuz human. Huh, huh, huh! Well sometimes I ‘spose you just can’t. In the war in Koh-ree-yah I seen quite a lot what yuh’d never ‘spect were human, huh, huh, huh! Burns can do a spell on yuh! You ever been burned, there, pal?” The annoyed man tuned the Bob out and fantasized about the lunch break… then the end of the course… then packing his few necessary possessions into two light suitcases, abandoning the Midwest and flying west to a new, better life in a new, better culture – one where he saw no reminders of the generations which had tried so pathetically to uphold the outdated values of a past era, where no one knew him by the name of his father, his grandfather, his great-great-grandfather.
Kenneth let the class out at one. They had an hour to eat their lunches, and most of the students clustered into groups and headed for the restaurants off campus. The plain girls left together, Chen and Lakshmi and Erin left together. Andy and Beck followed them in Andy’s battered jeep. Bonnie marched off with a militaristic air in the direction of the parking lot, and Bob wandered aimlessly down the hall. The annoyed man scooped up a plastic bag: he had packed his lunch. He was tired of the moldering Pharmacy building and was pleased to see that the rain had let up. With a smile and a sense of glee he wandered into the open air and clipped along the sidewalk towards the picnic area. It is unnecessary to described how he unpacked his lunch on a table under the sky, how he began to eat without noticing the bank of dark vapor slithering in from the northwest, how the rain fell on his lunch while he was engrossed in fantasies of life abroad, and how he rushed to the nearest shelter which was a massive Arts and Crafts academic hall built like a Gothic church. The point is that – clinging to his last two pieces of sushi, and holding a bottle of sparkling water under his armpit – he rushed to the immense oak doors, pried them open, and found himself standing under a titanic ceiling crisscrossed by black, time-worn timbers with long, ill-lit halls extending in two directions, and a tremendous wooden stair case reaching up and down. Its steps were hollowed down into two trails – one ascending, one descending – and the risers were battered by decades of slipping toes, almost as violently as if a ballpeen hammer had been flailing them for hours. The wet man was surprised to find Arthur Something Hall – a name he partially learned on his way out by looking at the medieval script chipped into the stone above the oak doors – was even more aged and redundant than the Pharmacy building. And yet there was something intense about this new edifice, something that shunned ridicule and invited awe. He was no less repulsed by the unnecessary antiquity of the place, but he felt his spite hushed and muffled, like a militant atheist who is comfortable mocking Muslims on television and in malls and shopping centers, but who is stunned to vulnerable silence on walking into the unshaken, lordly halls of the Alhambra, his cultural disgust proven weak and shallow when transplanted from its comfort zone. It was a temple, he felt, to age and time, and he looked sheepishly and longingly at the grey sheets of water that prevented his escape. Sensing a need to sit and close his eyes after such a dreary day, he turned down the hall to the right and almost unconsciously began to explore his foreign environment.
The building seemed entirely deserted. It was summer, and even though the hall was the center of all of the humanities classes, offices, and clubs during the school year, he only saw two office doors ajar, and one light on in a conference room where a white-haired janitor was silently polishing a mocha-colored table with furniture wax. The old man never looked up from his religious devotion to the century-old mahogany, and the outsider walked onward down the hallway. The walls were framed with the same immense timbers – two or three feet square – studded with the grey, battered heads of heavy iron spikes. In between the timbers were spans of thick wainscoting. Wooden carvings – flourishing leaves, intricate scrollwork, geometric designs, and the figures of birds, lions, knights, and peasants – were cut into the wood, with the kind of rustic roughness and obsession with detail that might be expected from a cathedral in Bavaria or Gascony or Bruges. The light emanated from the leaded and stained glass windows and the stripe of fluorescent lights the ribbed the ceiling of each hallway. These lights were on only at the ends of the halls and the central joint were the stairway hosted a landing, lending a pale grey glimmer that barely peeled back the murky shadows which filled each section of hall, intersected only by the blue glow of the few leaded glass windows which appeared at the alcoves formed by the landings.
Silence and loneliness seemed to run down the walls almost physically, as the only sounds he heard were the clap of his footsteps on the marble and limestone halls, and the faint buzz of the lights at the end of each hall. Without thinking about what he was managing, the outsider turned back down the hall, stopped at the landing where a suite of wooden benches lined an alcove which was dominated by an enormous window of stained glass, he turned to mount the age-darkened stairs and ascended to the second story. Here there were no lights, only the icy light which flickered from the windows on the landings. Every door was closed, every room silent. Again he climbed the staircase and entered the third story – the quietest and darkest yet. Only the incessant clatter of water on the panes interrupted the ghastly still. But why did he enjoy it so much? Here he was, surrounded by everything he hated about the United States and the Midwest: a morbid nostalgia, an impractical sentimentality for the past, a servile protectiveness about tradition – and yet he felt somehow drawn to these unpeopled caverns where his personality and ego were tempted to fill and dominate the empty space. But it was no charm that drew him in: even in his drowsy reverie he felt a wrenching hate of this clumsy building, and fantasized about – where did the idea even come from? – buying a lighter and a newspaper and starting a fire in one of the huge trashcans in the bathroom. The timbers would burn for hours and hours before buckling and bringing the stone and bricks down in a shattered black heap. It needed to be removed from society, he thought, but my natural, legal means. It wasn’t his problem anyway, though. In a month he would have a certification from the Oxford Seminars saying that he was licensed to teach English as a second language. A week would probably be all that it would take to get a job teaching stylish, cosmopolitan Korean entrepreneurs how to speak his language. By August he would surely be on a plane to his new culture – one which spurned age and traditions, one which was modern and practical.
When he noticed the form at the end of the hall, his rhapsody was interrupted. It was lumpy and squat like an obese dwarf or a pile of discarded pillows and bedding. The light was so dim that all he could make of it was a shadowy silhouette. He remembered his previous flight of fancy – the bleeding man who was actually a fool named Beck – and he soundlessly turned to walk back down the stairs, wondering why the janitor would have left this pile of bloated trash bags – for so, in the weak silver light they surely seemed to be – out in the unattended hallway. Having the building empty was no excuse to slack on his job. Another feeble retiree who deserved to be canned, he thought. Another old man who is taking advantage of someone’s sentiment and pity. Another old codger who reminded some weak sap of their dead grandpa and finagled his way into a young man’s job, who is now wasting money and time and space. Well, grandpa is dead and can’t come back, he said. And he did say it. In fact, he shook a little and his lungs stung with the sharp inhalation of surprise when he realized he had spoken, for his words thundered in the empty landing and rattled their way down the staircase and into the black basement stories below: We’ll grandpa is dead and can’t come back… Dead and can’t come back… Can’t come back… Come back… Come back… Back…
After lunch – and you will be glad, I’m convinced, to know that the rain lifted enough to keep our explorer dry during his race back to the Pharmacy building – the class reformed and did their work devotedly. Bonnie still lectured the young girls and reminded everyone of her calling, Andy still made weak jokes and referenced his garage band with painful regularity, Beck still mumbled through his teeth to (nearly) universal approval, and Bob – simple, dull Bob – smiled like a goon and answered questions he hadn’t heard with meaningless tangents. When the time came, the bored man happily returned to his hostel, did his homework, and went to sleep after a quick meal of kimchi and ramen. He would dream of leaving the country his parents naively adored, the ground that his grandfather had tilled and harvested, the earth where his great-grandfather’s bones had been digested after their rotten coffin had succumbed to time.
The next day class moved forward easily. The bored man let his classmates rattle off and ramble while he imagined the year to come. They easily filled the time with their enthusiasm, chattering gleefully as Kenneth led them in group activities which the bored man mimed his way through. And what was the jeopardy in miming? Truly? To pass the class he merely needed to be present at every class session and not be outrageously uninvolved. For God’s sake, Bob, who was as unplugged and out of touch as anyone could possibly be while conscious and sober, and he was virtually guaranteed a license as long as he continued to show up. So they talked while our fellow sat and imagined the sparkling skyline of Seoul, and before long it was lunchtime. Andy and Beck followed Erin, Chen, and Lakshmi again. Beck’s face was now a monochromatic rainbow of tones of pink, purple, blue, and black, bulging with lumps and stained pink with blood. His lips were bloated like two engorged leeches, and his laceration was now black and hard, but the girls tripped around him like nurses in a melodrama, and the group set out for a Chinese restaurant where Beck could have soup while his jaw healed. The gaggle of girls absconded in one vehicle, and Bonnie marched off with meaningless purpose down a hallway with Bob shuffling dopily beside her. The bored man took his lunch and went to the picnic table from yesterday.
The rain was floating in and out as if particular cloudbanks were taking watering shifts, but when the bored man arrived at his table, it was damp but under a swathe of blue sky. He ate his sushi in silence, looking up from time to time at the stone archway that had The Arthur Something-or-Other Memorial Hall cut into its streaked surface. It cast a particularly deep shadow when the sun was out, and the ponderous oak doors looked like polished black steel as they lurked under its solemn protection. A few raindrops landed on his hand. He knew that they had been blown from a tree by the touch of a passing wind – he knew this, you understand – but he thought to himself “damn rain’s back. I’d better go inside while I wait it out.” And he dropped his trash in a nearby receptacle as he climbed the worn limestone and pulled open the studded door with an eager wrench.
Today, thought the curious man, I should go downstairs and see what there is down there. The halls were still dim, still soundless, and this time, no tottering pop was shining the woodwork while he gorged on social security. He began down the stairs, but looked up as he set foot on the first landing. The climbing handrails of the three landings above him pointed upward as if suggesting a different direction, ultimately fading in the darkness above like a shout from a distant bystander whose voice is gradually swallowed by increasing distance.
He felt more at peace with the basement when he pushed open its heavy steel door: it was shockingly modern in comparison to the higher levels. But for all of its modernity, it was a complex and disorienting honeycomb of twists, turns, and surprising transformations. Small rooms bloomed into vast floorplans, and open spaces led to cramped hallways that branched into lightless passages. There was a labyrinthine locker room at the bottom of the stairs, which broke into a series of chambers lined with lockers and lit with dark orange bulbs. Beyond this was a breakroom of sorts – open and split up into a variety of areas, nooks, and alcoves, it was illuminated by three vending machines, and the same twilight glow of neon orange lightbulbs. Past this were three hallways which splintered off of the main path, each populated by offices and conference rooms – empty of course. At the end was a locked door which allowed no view of its interior despite a small rectangular window above the handle.
The curious man tried the handle. It refused to yield to his enquiry, and the door remained fixed to its wall. He pressed his face against the thick glass and his eyes strained to identify something behind its surface. As he pressed the skin of his hand into the steel beside the window, he heard or perhaps felt a voice murmur coarsely. He could not say whether it was to him, or whence it came: when recalling it he sometimes thought it came from the opposite end of the hall, sometimes from around the corner of one of the perpendicular passages behind him, sometimes from the other side of the glass, and other times from within his own head. Surely, wherever it came from it was a dull, garbled voice that seemed to have no wind behind it, and what it said was this: “Come my friend, it is a sin to look in there, and you know it.” Windless though it was, the voice was paternal and eerily familiar, like a cheery uncle who has caught his favorite nephew raiding a cookie jar before supper. He felt almost as though a light hand had been laid delicately on his shoulder and a cold, dry cheek had brushed the side of his ear. A surge of hatred burned in his stomach at this chiding, puritanical patronization. Before he had the chance to reason away the hallucination he barked over his shoulder: “Mind your business, you fucking useless old man!” But the sound of his voice and the implication of his talking to himself – especially in so violent a way – filled him with nervous dread, and the anger that he felt to this imagined guardian of tradition melted away into stunned self-consciousness.
He was about to leave the hallway when he felt what he could only described as a fat, sweaty hand on his forefinger, about the level of a toddler. Before he had a chance to process the sensation, a second phrase came to his mind. He didn’t hear it, but he thought it, and the thought was this: “They have no right, you know. They’re just afraid of being forgotten.” Whatever sensation had tugged at his finger was utterly gone, and he would later be convinced that he had caught it on his cargo pocket which was wet from brushing against the wet juniper bushes outside the building, but the idea of the thought, confusing as it was, reinvigorated his resolve to have his will felt.
It was nearly two o’clock, so he wandered up the stairs and into the empty hallways where the electric lights buzzed at each end and dusk pooled in the crevices of the timbers, doorways, and molding. Putting his weight on the oak doors, he entered the courtyard like a sinner leaving a church before confession.
The girls came in first – the room was empty when he came in – followed by Kenneth. They giggled and joked in a knot on the opposite table. Erin came in later, with Beck walking with his right arm hanging behind her left arm, like two snakes poised to intertwine. Andy was next, with Chen and Lakshmi on either side, his Messianic hair knotted back in a ponytail, his face creased with a goony smirk. Chen’s boyfriend lingered outside and faded away into the hall lined with antique class photographs. And then there was Bob, waddling slowly through the door, his round, balding head rocking with each swaying step, a ludicrous smile cut into his flesh like clay pressed by fat fingers. Two o’ clock came, but Bonnie failed to arrive. Kenneth started the class without her, and the day moved on.
During the next break, Kenneth leaned over to Bob.
“Hey, Bob, what happened to Bonnie? Wasn’t she with you at lunch?”
Bob’s head rolled over on his shoulders and his eyes blinked sleepily behind his glasses. The grin wrenched up a notch or two, and his flabby cheeks wiggled as he spoke in a slow, cheery drawl.
“Oh… Bonnie? Why, I dunno… She said she was gunno be behind me, but I didn’t see her at the res’trent.”
“Why… The Bob Evens res’trent. That’s where I told her I’d be getting muh dinner.”
“So you never saw her?”
“Well… no… No, I s’pose she went somewhere else.”
“She’s not here at all.”
“No… No, she isn’t. Why… maybe she went home, do yuh figger?”
And then Kenneth left to call her phone. She didn’t answer, and class started again.
The class ended at its usual time and the students filtered outside into the misty afternoon air. Kenneth stayed behind and pulled out his phone. The bored man looked up at the row of windows that marked their classroom. Kenneth was standing with one arm over his chest, the phone to his ear, facing the grey sky with a frown twisted into his face. The rest of the students hobnobbed and lingered. The bored man quickly made his way across campus to the parking lot. He was halfway there when he realized that he was taking an unnecessarily circuitous route. In fact, he was walking in the opposite direction of the car lot, taking a trail that wound through the campus like a wavy fishhook before changing directions and leading behind the Pharmacy building. In the meantime, it cut across the West Mall – the common green whose picnic tables he had used for his lunches. He was walking past the Arthur Something-Or-Other Memorial Hall. In the dimming light it was silhouetted against the southwest sky, where the sun – muffled though it was in rain and fog – glowed a glassy, neon blue through the shifting planes of cloud. It was monumental against the sky – sepulchral and tomblike. “It really is,” he said slowly to himself, as if being coached in a pledge “…it really is a good, old place. Maybe there’s more to it than it seems.” He looked up and along its stonework, blackened with moss and shaggy with ivy. The Pharmacy building faced it like a younger brother coolly admiring the family favorite. He wondered – and he then wondered why he wondered – if the two communicated to one another. Not literally – perhaps – but figuratively, through tunnels. He knew that the Pharmacy building had a basement. Maybe there was a better way to get to the Hall. It would save him from ever getting wet on his way to lunch. And then he laughed. Since when was that his official lunch spot? He could just as easily eat in the common area on the ground floor of the Pharmacy hall – or even more easily in their classroom. But even as he laughed, his brows grew heavier and he felt his heart quicken its beat. Exactly why, indeed, was it that he felt so urged to spend his time in that nasty old graveyard? It was as if he had woken from a dream that he had been sure was real, only to recognize the truth. A good old place? No, no. It was a building that his grandpa’s father would have studied in, a building that his great uncle would have thought was grand looking, a building that his father would have called quaint or charming. But they were all dead, and so was everything that these old white men – the starchy sires who planned the buildings, taught the classes, and posed for the pictures – stood for. It was a new century – two new centuries, in fact – and a new world. A global world. A nationless world. A connected, viral world that spat on the puritanical patriarchies and ethnocentric nationalism that had purchased every stone and brick and glob of mortar. To hell with it, he thought he said, and he turned around and went back down the trail in the direction of his car.
Bonnie never arrived at her home, the police told him on the phone three days later. Her car was in the parking lot. Her purse was in her car. The keys were missing, and so was the driver. They were calling anyone who might have seen her, and all the bored man could tell them was that she had spoken of driving to a Bob Evens with the dowdy Bob, but had never shown up. This was not new information to them, as Bob himself had been the second one to call the police after Kenneth. Their combined testimonies seemed to be the only useful ones. No one had seen her leave the building – the heroic Beck had been in deep conversation (as deep as one can get with one’s jaw wired shut) with the fawning Erin, Chen had stayed inside with her wilting boyfriend, Lakshmi had been on the phone with her babysitter, and the gaggle of plain girls had been watching Andy play hacky sack, taking turns challenging a true master of the craft. The indifferent man closed his phone. The IPD would be sending a detective to interview him in the morning, but neither he nor the man on the phone expected it would do any good; it was merely a formality. He pictured Bonnie in his mind: her pig eyes, her pig jowls, her misshapen, Kewpie doll body with its bulbous forehead, stubby limbs, and astonishing center of gravity. Then there was her voice – grating and severe like a fire-and-brimstone radio preacher whose hatred of harlots is based in a secret youth filled with rampant fornication – and her condescending attitude towards the younger students. Another dinosaur whose asteroid has come, he thought. Another relic buried under time… Just so. Just so. He had very few conflicting emotions about her disappearance, though it concerned him at times when he realized that he had no doubt that she was dead. In fact, he was freely pleased with her apparent demise, and the only pangs of remorse or guilt that he felt were borne out of a sense of his humanist/atheist devotion to the preservation of life from famine, flood, war, and execution. It was a part of his credo that conflicted with Bonnie’s own severe worldview. Perhaps that was the source of his utter satisfaction with her demolition: a woman who espoused capital punishment, blamed the poor, cheered American imperialism, and snubbed the Palestinian apartheid surely deserved the lot which she had so effortlessly recommended to others. Death. And a horrible one, too.
But that stopped him in the act of eating the plate of gomtang and ramyeon that he was picking at. Horrible? Why horrible? It was as if he had read on his newsfeed that she had been found boiled in turpentine or smothered by corn in a grain elevator, the seed spilling out of her mouth, packed in her nose and ears when they extracted her. After all, she might be perfectly fine, or even if she were dead it might have been the gentle hand of her god, quietly stopping her heart in an act of peaceful euthanasia. He shook the thoughts from his head and readjusted his chopsticks, which had begun to droop in his limp hand.
The days plowed forward like waves tearing away at a sandy cliff. His passport was now ready, and he had the necessary shots, references, and travel arrangements. He had preemptively sent resumes to schools in South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Nepal, Burma, and Bangladesh. He was working on submissions to other employers in Malaysia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Indonesia. And yet his mood darkened with each new opportunity. The more he sent, the less he felt secure about his next adventure. His obsession with the jobs in Seoul seemed tame and ordinary when compared to a life in the mountains of Nepal, which seemed clichéd when considering the wind-torn steppes of Kazakhstan and Mongolia, which felt dull when posed against the hubbub and sheen of Hong Kong. He felt an urge to be released from all boundaries, nationalities, passports, and visas, a need to be everywhere at once, and no where he felt beneath his ambitious spirit. He wondered if his passion for Korea would survive the first six months – if he would not be as bored with their plastic, pop culture before he had even taught a semester. But anyplace was better than Richmond. He had gone to school in Muncie, to grad school in Bloomington, and had worked off and on in Fort Wayne, Jeffersonville, and Lafayette. There was nothing he detested more deeply in his marrow than this place, and even if the farthest he would travel were Florida or California, it must be done. For the salvation of his soul.
Week passed into week. The police were entirely confounded about Bonnie’s disappearance. The cadaver dogs had scoured campus, and the few willing members of her family (she was indeed a decidedly unpopular human being) who cared to devote time to the search had abandoned the search and handed the reins entirely in the hands of the IPD. From time to time the students saw a brace of plain clothes detectives or a cluster of blue-clad men following a German shepherd, but the third weekend came and went, and no Bonnie was ever found.
Beck was in better shape: his jaw was still clenched, but the bandages were gone, and only a few streaks of dark brown showed where the lacerations had been. His right eye was partially swollen – the skin thick and pink – but otherwise he was almost wholly recovered. Erin had begun seeing him outside of class. They held hands and talked about the countries they would like to see – ostensibly as a matter of conversation, but in reality planning their synchronized trip abroad. It sounded as though Italy was their favorite idea – a country that the jealous man thought festered of age, whiteness, and clichés – and the plain girls vicariously mooned over the new couple while Andy diverted all of his bumbling, stoner’s attention to Lakshmi – his efforts to woo Erin and breakup Chen from her boyfriend having equally failed. Bob told the jealous man that he thought Erin was a swell gal – real purty and everything; great legs, too – and that Beck was a sharp feller with a real great head on his shoulders. They were an attractive pair, indeed, but the jealous man resented Bob’s fumbling rhapsody. Under his breath he muttered that he hoped whoever nabbed Bonnie would nab Beck. Erin, too, if she was really that stupid. Bob didn’t seem to hear – Bob indeed heard very, very little – but his eyes sparked and his smile grew serious as his young friend stood and left.
Lunchtime came, and the group scattered. The effortlessly lovely Erin led Beck to her jeep by the hand. Chen and her boyfriend faded down the hall. Andy – with his chiseled beard and flowing hair – walked off with Lakshmi, a redeemed, brown Magdalene to his marijuana-pocketing, metal-head Christ. The gaggle slumped out of the classroom, apparently saddened that all of the men had been scooped up (the jealous man never had much mass appeal), but quietly hopeful that they would someday cease to be alone.
The jealous man left the room with his sack lunch and descended the stairs. Just as he was about to step off the landing onto the first floor, he looked down the stair well at the door which led to the basement. Before he made any decision, he felt the prickle on his neck which heralded a secret anxiety – a tension between instinct and curiosity. He watched it, as if a door could suddenly turn around and address him, and thought about what might be behind it. He remembered the comparatively modern area beneath the Arthur Hall, that medieval-looking eyesore. Maybe there was a 21st century beauty beneath this 19th century beast as well. “It is a sin and you know it.” The voice was again glowing coolly into his ear. It was a memory, that was all, he said under his breath as he shook his head. A memory of a figment of my imagination, he said. This time he barreled past the warning without stopping for fear or doubt, and plunged down the stairs.
The door was old like most of the doors in the two buildings. It was wooden with a glass window in the middle of the top – perhaps a foot square – made up of separate panes held in place by tin bars and solder. But no light came from behind the glass, only the soft red burn of an exit sign around the corner. He entered the basement and went down the hall.
Turning the corner, he found another door, this one more modern with a push-bar and a small slit-window. A light went on when he opened this door, and he saw that a small stair led down into the real basement below. Dusky orange light glowed somewhere in the background. He walked slowly down the steps and peered around the corner. A locker room. Just like the basement below the Arthur Hall. It too was a honeycomb of twists and turns, lit only by a handful of vague, colored bulbs. Remembering the Arthur basement, he easily but cautiously navigated through the lockers, to the break room, the common room, the branching hallways. This basement was identical in almost every way to its brother across the West Mall. Here was a Pepsi vending machine where over there had been a Dr Pepper contraption. Here was a left turn where there he was almost certain there had been a right turn, or a dead end where there had been an office. But overall, the scene was a carbon copy. As he walked through the dim hallways he sensed a struggle between his mind and body: his mind was determined to sleuth out this new territory – territory which had offered nothing in the way of danger in the Arthur Something Hall – but his body was prickling with rebellion against every forced step. He felt his hairs raise every time he looked around a corner. His hands shook on the few occasions that he tried door handles. His feet seemed to wrench backwards from time to time, as if some internal force was attempting to overthrow his cerebral authority, to force the steps back, and to flee. It was true, he had to admit, that he sensed some sort of intelligence down there. Something observant and careful that minded his movements and sleepily ignored them. But, he thought once – and only once – to himself, there really did seem to be a feeling of prowling, and an atmosphere that suggested that at any moment, at any false step or offending sound, there could be a bound and a capture. But he banished these thoughts. The spirit was willing, but the flesh week. If there was anything that he loathed more than boredom, more than the past, more than his upbringing, it was the limitations and foolishness of the body. He wished he could eviscerate himself – smash the cage and free the bird. He knew better than his body – his human brain knew better than his ape brain. And so he moved forward, banishing the anxiety that curdled underneath him like a tea kettle bouncing on the stove, waiting to scream.
At the end of the hallway he found a familiar door. It was unsurprisingly locked, and he once more placed his flesh against its grain. This must communicate to the same room as the other locked door – but from the other side, he thought.
Just as he was pressing his face against the glass of the window – like a child reaching his arm into a tiger’s cage in the dead of a lightless night, hoping to feel fur, and careless of teeth – just as he was arching his eyebrow to let in as much light as that silent room might be able to offer him, and just as he had taken a deep breath, as though staving off breathing for a few seconds would increase his powers to see, his phone whirred in his pocket.
He fell away from the door and pulled out the device. Its searing white glow cast the hallway in the sparkling shine of manufactured moonlight. It was from Kenneth: “Where are you? Class has started.” The terse message seemed to voice Kenneth’s discreet but obvious anxiety about Bonnie’s disappearance. He was a quiet man with a sad and watchful face, and while the bevy of plain girls and the rest of the romantically minded students were too consumed with flirting and gossip to notice, the bored man had seen a shadow fall over Kenneth, like the tense alertness of a seasoned deer who smells men in the woods during mating season. Indeed, Kenneth resembled a protective parent who allows his cubs to frolic and lope in the safety of the den – shielding them from the anxiety that burns in his brain – while his eyes and ears are trained on something unseen just beyond. He was not at peace with Bonnie’s disappearance, and more than suicide, accidental death, or even murder, his senses appeared coiled to receive some horrible explanation that he wouldn’t even consider discussing with his students. All he had imparted was a piece of advice: “It’s probably best if you guys stay in groups or pairs, and I really think you should stay in places where people can see you; don’t do much exploring or wandering off.” The bored man had little patience for Kenneth’s pulsating paranoia.
There in the basement of the Pharmacy Building – or rather, so it seemed, in the tunnel which communicated with the basement across the Mall – the bored man texted back a simple apology and turned around. But as he sent the message, his brain seemed to go dizzy. It suddenly dawned on him: if class has started, then he had been down here for an hour. He looked at the clock: 2:15. An hour and a quarter had gone by. How was this possible, though? He hadn’t even had his lunch. He hadn’t even left the damn building? Or even sat down or taken a little nap. He had only gone down the stairs and walked through this honeycomb of halls and alcoves. Maybe he had been standing at this door longer than he had imagined. He turned and made his way back. As he left the hallway, he thought that the basement was surely the most untended, unnoticed space on the campus. Why else, he grumbled, should the trash go so long without being emptied? He thought this as he passed what – in the twilit dark illuminated only by exit signs – he knew to be a trashcan. It was bulging – swollen and pulpy – with what must be weeks of refuse, and the smell was indescribably foul.
It took him five minutes to regain the classroom with the use of an elevator. It was their last day on campus: next week they would meet at a hotel conference room in downtown Indianapolis. The police were eager to scour the campus (apparently, though they did not elaborate, Bonnie’s loss was not an isolated phenomenon), and were nervous about the group meeting on what amounted to a campus deserted by all but a handful of savvy maintenance workers. The janitors knew their way around the buildings and were in regular communication with one another, but if something insidious was happening on campus, then a group of young out-of-towners who had never even been to the university before were sensible targets for a predator. The next four hours would be the last that the class spent in their little white room on the second story of the Pharmacy Building whose walls were solemnly adorned with the faces of the smiling living and the watchful dead.
Beck and Erin were asked to pay attention on two or three occasions, albeit in Kenneth’s characteristically kind manner. He, like the tittering gaggle, saw little harm in their budding affections. Apparently, over lunch, they had formally decided on teaching in Italy. It also became clear that the two lived in the same suburb of Indianapolis, and that they were seeing one another regularly out of class. Beck’s speech was much more understandable, and his face was almost fully healed. Andy, too, seemed to have made great strides with Lakshmi, who seemed to be whispering more and joking more. The jealous man observed them rub one another’s backs from time to time. Chen’s Vietnamese boyfriend had emerged from the wallpaper, so to speak, and was now sitting in on the class (perhaps a defensive measure against Andy), and was now considered a class favorite, whose thoughtful opinions about learning and teaching language were useful to the otherwise American class. The gaggle of girls had decided to join the same teaching company, and were preemptively offered jobs teaching at the same school in Shanghai. Bob alone had yet to make any progress – personal or professional – in the class. He and the jealous man sat together like the last two picks in a game of kickball. But Bob didn’t care; he didn’t even know where he wanted to go. “Cahstuh Reecuh, or Mexicah, maybe,” he said. His eyes bobbed stupidly in his head – his fat lips spilled over his thick teeth in a senile grin.
The jealous man watched Erin cross her legs so that one brown, sandaled foot bounced softly against Beck’s leg. He realized that he both adored and despised her. He wanted to grab her – either to kiss her mouth or shove her into the ground, he wasn’t sure which. Beck, though, with his heavy jaw and green eyes, was an object of fatal hate. He imagined luring them into the basement, where the darkness flows down the walls and pools on the floor, cut only by muffled red light that seemed to cast more shadow than provide light. He saw them – the bronzed, silky haired athlete following after the plodding invalid, whose limp identified him in the crushing murk. There they were, and there was her voice – a creamy alto – “Beck? Beck, I can’t see anything.” He felt that his point of view was behind something, or around a corner, and then it was moving – slowly and low to the ground. Suddenly, even the blackness was a blur, and he felt air rushing over his face like a man who is running with his eyes closed. Then there was something in his teeth, warm and leathery, but it tore, and then there was a man’s scream, and then a girl’s. He was feeling a man’s arms and chest, looking for something he knew he must find. And he found it. And he ate it. And then he smelled her tropical conditioner and her floral body spray, and he knew that she must also become his. And he was low to the ground again, but now with a sudden jolt he reached forward to grab something he didn’t see but knew to exist in the dark: an ankle. Then he hoisted himself up the calf, soft and shaved, and with his weight he pulled her down, too.
The sound of clapping shocked him awake – or out of his daydream – and he saw that the last presentation of the day had concluded. Now the students were standing and talking. Bob sat, almost sadly, looking at Bonnie’s empty chair, while the others milled in groups.
“Okay, guys,” said Kenneth, “great work today. Remember now that we’ll be at the Hyatt next week – nine in the morning as usual. There’s free parking across the street at the parking garage if you let them know that you’re with Oxford Seminars, so be sure not to pay for anything; we’ll have that covered since this move is unexpected. One last word before we go – and I’m sure this won’t be an issue since this is the last day – “ and here he cast a cool glance at the jealous man, “but the police are still concerned about what happened here with Bonnie, and I hope that you won’t linger on campus or spend much time in places without people around you. Just play it safe. Okay… well that’s it guys. You have a good one and we’ll see you next week at the Hyatt.”
The curious man left without saying anything to his classmates. Andy and Lakshmi disappeared in his tattered jeep. Chen’s boyfriend drove them around the corner in his rented Fiat. The girls left in two batches, some watching Andy with sad eyes, others laughing distractedly at jokes which no one could hear. Bob sauntered down the hallway and was no more. Beck slipped his right hand into the back right pocket of Erin’s jean shorts. The jealous man watched them sashay down the hall passed the silent banks of dead, mustachioed men, who seemed to watch over them protectively as they strolled under their frozen gazes. Something about their white, faded visages tempered the jealous man’s loathing, like the warning glance of reprimand from an observant parent, which chills the mischief of a young bully.
They left together, kissing on the sidewalk, and leaving campus in Erin’s vehicle. The rain had returned, dropping from the sky in full sheets, and her windshield wipers peeled away the water in silver leafs. The jealous man had brought a cheap umbrella with him that day, anticipating the farewell tour that would take place on this final day on the university campus. He went down the hallway with the untied umbrella hanging limply from his hand like a sleeping bat’s wing. With his eyes focused on the ground, he avoided the long-dead sentinels’ gazes. Here again he was passing from one century to another, slowly and methodically, from the bright cheer of the last graduating class, to the muted tones of the sun-faded 1970s, to the silver ambassadors of the 1950s with their black ties and horn-rimmed glasses, to the stern, yellowed eyes peering out at him from the Gilded Age. It was with some disgust and satisfaction that he cleared the class of 1895 and stepped into the stairwell with its blank walls and unaged atmosphere.
The umbrella ballooned to its full stature with a quick jerk of his wrist, and he was protected from the clattering downpour as he walked onto the sidewalk and crossed the West Mall where rivulets were swelling and sloshing down the sidewalks. Kenneth had left uncharacteristically early, otherwise he might have called out to the bored man and shared some of his own experiences – warned him of what he knew and had seen. But he was not, and the curious man was drawn towards the hazy outline of the Arthur Something-or-Other Memorial Hall. Blurred by the deluge, which muted it as effectively as fogged glass, the towers and halls seemed to take on the outline of a crouched figure, head down, body pressed into something, hands supporting it, elbows erect and rising in thick nubs over the prostrate trunk. It was uglier than ever. Uglier than the first day when he had seen it and hated it. Uglier than his grandfather who had died obese, corpulent, and moaning. Uglier than his father who had died emaciated, skeletal, and rattling. Uglier than the cancer that had ravaged the latter, or the pulpy fat which had strangled the former. Uglier than sin and death and lust. And yet he walked on into the splattering haze, and crossed the Mall, and achieved the stone patio, and found shelter under the medieval archway that cast its shadow over the oaken doors. It was, after all, a good, old place, in spite of its dated gloom and repulsive atmosphere of age and history. And a good, old place is worth exploring one last time regardless of how much one might want it to be demolished – its stone ground to powder and its bricks buried under the sea.
Here he dropped the umbrella, laid his backpack aside, and shook the rain out of his sandals. The door was still unlocked. He needed one last look at it all. Just one more stroll through these unpeopled hallways with their silent peace. And with that thought in mind, he opened the door and entered the Hall.
It seemed quieter than his last visit, and yet the crash of the rain against the windows and roof filled the lobby with a clatter like a drumroll being struck on a trashcan wrapped in wool. He looked left and right. The darkness of the storm had leeched away the silver glow of his last few inspections, and other than the fluttery light at the ends of the hall, only a blue, syrupy glow came in through the windows. He thought he saw the old janitor cross from one room into its neighbor across the way – a white-headed man who flitted briefly into the open before being consumed by another task in another room – but realized that neither door was open, and neither room appeared to emit any light. With the dimness deepening, he decided to have one last look at the strange door before he would turn back for his car.
Today there were no half-heard voices – no warnings or encouragements, no admonitions or goadings – but the stairwell sang with the hiss of rain on the exterior, and his head seemed thick with garbled thoughts and smothered whispers. Down the stairs, down to the landing, down to the door. He opened it into the locker room, and crossed into the basement that sprawls under the Hall.
The pleasure of these clandestine explorations had been in their secrecy and his sense of unchallenged individuality which he experienced in the faceless walls of the good old place. It was far from the photographs in the Pharmacy building and far from the fools in his class. He could cast his personality here like a shadow, and stencil his cameo on the wall. But today, in spite of his eagerness to feel that conquest one last time, he had never felt less alone. It was as if a party was being had in every room that he approached. That’s not to say that he heard talking or laughter, in fact he never heard a thing. It was rather like a surprise party, like room after room filled with people who crouched patiently and knelt with anxious excitement, waiting for him to enter and be enveloped. The locker room was particularly rich with unanticipated tension and suspense: at every turn in the shaggy gloom he thought he saw shadows moving about, reaching from benches to lockers, kneeling to touch the top of one foot, raising an arm and rubbing the exposed underarm, some pulling garments off of trunks, others watching the disrobing with discreet glances. Each row of lockers posed a booby trap which might at any moment prove loaded with venom, and each twist in the path presented an opportunity for him to round the corner and walk into the knowing embrace of a patient assailant.
But he cleared the lockers and found himself in the weakly-lit common space – a faculty longue area, he supposed – with its soft-glowing vending machines and silent-but-staring microwaves. The commons was a hub that served to mediate between several hallway branches, which shot out from its sides like spokes. As such, each hall was denoted by a red EXIT sign. The vending machines and the exit signs combined their feeble light to form a matrix of crisscrossing shadows which fell across the floor and shot along the walls like the cords of a spider’s web. For a moment he felt like sitting and drinking in the less claustrophobic space, but something arrested his attention, and inspired the first unanimous concord between his mind and body since he had first begun to haunt these lonely spaces – for the first time, instinct reached out to grab awareness, and the two agreed about what they observed. The idea of Bonnie – her harsh voice, piggish eyes, and cruel nature – had never entirely left the bored man. He had never fully felt her shadow lift from his mind. To put this in a more communicable way, it was never as though someone mentioned her and he thought “Ah, that’s right! Bonnie used to be part of this group and now she is not. I’ve just grown used to her not being here, I suppose.” Rather, it was as though she was perpetually using the bathroom, or out in the hall waiting to come in. He remembered Beck, how at his first appearance he had looked up from his desk to see the bloody image of a man whose gore-plastered head seemed to strike outrage in only his soul. This is almost what he expected – something of that nature, at least: Bonnie staggering through the door holding her head by its bun, sitting calmly beside Bob, and placing the severed member on the table in front of her, twisting it to face this person or that. This was his imagination, however, and as farcically Gothic as a casually decapitated Bonnie was, the Bonnie that he saw in front of him now had none of the melodrama of that far more pleasant spook. The Bonnie that he could see there in the gloom of the basement was a rumpled shade of a human figure, and the very sight of it, silent and watchful, flooded his soul with fire.
It was Bonnie’s figure, fat, squat, and frowning, but the look on its face was not at all healthy to look at in the semi-light of a basement where no one was remotely close enough to answer his calls or share his horror. The expression – or what he could make of it in the dusk – was stripped of self-awareness, of human-ness. It was vulpine and twisted, like a pen sketch which has gone through a washing machine: a distorted, warped, drained version of its original nature, suggesting its design, but deviating so drastically that its original character has been shredded into a barely recognizable caricature. He would not go so far as to say that anything materially about the face was different, but that it was drained of a human spirit – a hopeless metaphor to communicate to any except those who have seen a man lose his mind – and leeched of all sympathy. It was like looking up to see a scant, ragged creature in the woods: your eyes lock, and the two animals are eyeing each other. To look into a human’s eyes is to see motives, fears, origins, and character, but to look into a wild animal’s eyes – one unseasoned by human society – is to see the lack of recognition and mercy which makes it effortless for a wolf to tear the throat from a pregnant woman, or for a bear to maul a blind child. This was the manner of thing which glowered at him from the back wall of the room – somehow remorseless, and instilled with a ghoulish curiosity. Her head tilted watchfully now that their eyes were locked, and he realized – even in the darkness – that they were somehow not the eyes of a person: black, round, and lidless.
Its clothes were tarry and matted around the bowels, and a dark mark glistened under its chin, as if it had been gored under the jaw. It was clear in any case that if human it had been, it could not be expected to live with such hideous injuries. The dark hue of its mottled skin and the retched stench of its putrefaction were enough to lay any doubts to rest. But human beings are at heart optimistic and relational, and the frightened man’s instinct was to appeal to it in light of his obvious disadvantage.
“Bonnie? Bonnie, are you okay? They’re looking for you, Bonnie.”
But the sound of the name meant nothing to it. It didn’t understand the idea of a name, or the idea of language. It only saw a bleating herbivore which backed away with shaky steps. It was time to own its food, and it flew to the floor and scuttled forward with a sudden burst of energy.
Its jaws clacked together smartly, and its lips and tongue slathered against the teeth that were now clenched and glinting. The frightened man felt his stomach lurch as the thing wormed its way towards him in a manner that caused him to make a horrible sound which he had never heard before. But now his body took over from his mind, which was already in the first stages of decay. Half-mad, he lurched forward and dove for the doorway, but the crocodile slithered quicker than he could run, and it was behind him and in front of the exit. With his reason fatally blunted, he now rushed down the hallway in the direction of the locked door. He could hear the flabby skin dragging along the tiled floors – a sound like wet rubber – and the swollen hands smacking thickly in rapid cadence. A sad, low wail, like that of a hungry baby squealed behind him. Bonnie’s mauled body lurched desperately forward, eager to feed on its wonderful prey, but the frightened man’s mind was not entirely dead, yet, and when he saw a fire extinguisher on the wall, he wrenched it from its moorings, and hurled it with all his force into the putrid thing behind him. The stench that filled the air after its back split open from the blow nearly knocked him down, but the corpse stopped in the middle of its stride and lay silent on the floor. Dead or unconscious, he couldn’t tell, but the door was now in front of him, and it was terror more than curiosity that caused him to raise the extinguisher over his head once more to shatter the window. He reached inside, and felt for the bolt. It turned sharply, and the bolt retreated from its socket with a loud clack. He extracted his hand with a jolt, and suddenly a haze lifted from his mind.
It was as though everything was paused, and he looked back at the form on the floor. It was not laying as he had seen it, sprawled in the attitude of a crawling woman, but leaned gently against the wall, with an inflated hand resting on its chest. It was too dark to see if the bloodstains were still there, or the gruesome wound, but the figure now seemed different – still ghastly – but asleep or deflated. He sensed that he had been afforded an opportunity to turn and leave. It was a chance to escape before whatever it was that had been there with him in the basement. A period of grace, a display of forgiveness, a second chance – he could be absolved and return to the surface if he chose to step over the slumped thing behind him and race for the stairwell. But with the return of his sanity, came the return of his Self, and he felt anger fill the void of fear. He remembered the thin hand on his shoulder, the cold voice with the paternal warning, and he cursed it in the same moment that he grasped the handle and depressed it. Whatever was being kept from him was now his, and he wrenched the door from its jambs.
Pale blue light poured into his eyes, and he winced after having lived so long underground. The room that it lit was long and featureless like a perfectly smooth tunnel, or a hollow globe. There was no sense of beginning or ending, but a detectable roundness to the walls which appeared to be imbued with the light. It was like being in an aquarium after dark, with the flashing, undulating blue gleam splashing softly on the black floor and ceiling.
In one sense he was not surprised to see the white faces that surrounded him. Finally, here were the Sentinels – the Watchmen, the Guardians – the silent and staring Old Guard of all of this moldering, redundant history. Black frock coats, white ties, and dark beards which were unquestionably familiar stood motionlessly around him, topped by hollow, dry cheeks and round, wispy-haired scalps. The eyes were not like those in the pictures: rather than staring and bright they were sunken and lost in shadow – perhaps nonexistent, even. But the mixture of light and shade made it impossible to see what glared from beneath the stony, hairless eye ridges. The waxen faces were facing him by the time he walked in, and he had yet to see them move a hair. In fact, he thought, they might be mere dummies or mannequins – maybe effigies for a Halloween party, dated and ghastly in their Victorian garb. There was, however, and inescapable sense of sentience radiating from this silent, sad-faced Old Guard. They didn’t seem to hate him or despise him, but they observed him watchfully, like an audience who brace themselves for a familiar tragedy with a plot they know and characters they pity. One figure, wearing an academic gown which seemed to have faded green with age, had a shaggy beard which was nearly as white as his bleached, bloodless forehead. He was the first to move, taking a step away from the silent crowd and holding his hands perpendicularly to his chest, like a pastor invoking a benediction or a high priest consecrating a sacrifice.
The curious man was not terribly surprised to see them, but he was surprised to see Bob hobble stupidly through the door behind him. There was the asthmatic sound of his breath, there the telltale smell of his cough drops, and there the distinct cadence of his limp. The curious man didn’t understand what was happening now: he didn’t think that the ghosts of the college wanted to harm him. They were revolting to behold – withered and skeletal – but they were not threatening: poised for some nameless event, but not prepared to deliver the blow. He knew that something was coming, some event or person, and he was unsure if he was about to be indoctrinated or ejected. In either case, he loathed Bob for having wandered stupidly into his ceremony, like a little sister who opens the bedroom door when her brother is losing his virginity. He hated the old, worthless man and secretly hoped that whatever had eviscerated and possessed Bonnie would quickly do the same to this waste of air and space. Bob staggered wearily into the blue light and wiped sweat from his bald head with a spotted kerchief. From the side and in this dim light, the curious man thought that Bob resembled the janitor he had seen polishing the table upstairs – the one who had seemed to dart from one closed door to another just an hour before. But it was Bob, not a janitor. Hideously senile Bob. The little man pocketed his kerchief and looked over at his young friend. The smile that he gave him was startlingly unpleasant; the curious man had never noticed how white or long the old man’s teeth were, or how untrimmed and keen his fingernails were.
“The last one did not work well,” he said in an uncharacteristically dry and thin voice.
“We granted you that only because she was closed to us,” said the bearded man in the faded gown. “Now she has been put to peace, and you can no longer count her among your own.”
“What of him?” hissed the Bob.
The sad old man in the faded gown raised his thin hands above his shoulders and bowed his head. As if preparing to participate in a somber and uncomfortable ritual, the other white-faced figures circled the little group and raised their hands over their heads. The light glowed through their membranous skin, outlining the dead bones beneath. The frightened man no longer wanted to be a part of what had been withheld him. He no longer wanted to have access to every nation, city, responsibility, truth, or understanding. There were now doors which he was all right keeping closed, secrets he didn’t need to know, places he didn’t need to dwell. But now the door was fastened, and the circle of silent men had completely enclosed the three figures in the center. The Bob looked eagerly at the grim phantom, like a dog who trusts that it is to be granted the heart of the deer he has helped his master capture. And his face only continued to brighten as the old man looked sternly at his prisoner. A dull hum reverberated from the throats that surrounded them, like a consecrating “om” lifted up to the orchestrating powers of the universe. Slowly the blue light began to grow dimmer and greyer. Shadow lowered from the ceiling and rose from the floor. It became clear, he knew not how, that the darkness above and below him was not a lack of light, but the featureless embodiment of unrestricted time and matter, somehow held at bay by the Sentinels. It was the realm of demented chaos – the realm of the Bob. The past was obliterated there, but so too was the future: it was all crushed and compacted into a terrifying vat of purposeless expanses without points of reference, time, or identity. The Bob began to take energetic strides towards his shivering prey as the Patriarch lifted a prayer to the soaring, lightless spaces above them, and as it faded into the inky shadows, the Bob’s vulpine face was horrible to look upon.
“He has resisted us and intruded unconscionably into the Other Domain. He has spite for his Fathers and animosity for his Fellows. He is beyond our Power. We commend him to you, and turn him over to the Auto-da-Fé with clear consciences and worshipful hearts. Pater misericordiae, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae. Sed libera nos a malo. Amen. Amen.”
The light was snuffed, and his screams were absorbed into illimitable infinity.