Jude swings shut a chain link gate that suddenly separates the upperclassmen from the lower. He locks the padlock.
“What’re you doing?” Patrick asks.
But we know.
“The same thing you’ll do in a few years,” Jude smirks.
“You can’t leave us here.”
Jude joins the upperclassmen and they walk away without a word. Except laughter.
None of us say anything until Jude, Yuri, and Burt are out of earshot. Lara the exchange student does some hushed whimpering as she paws on Clyde’s shoulder.
It’s Chase who asks the obvious. “What’re we gonna do?”
“You’re tiny,” is her current boyfriend’s response, “try climbing over the gate.”
Chase sizes it up. “And do what? Go get campus security?”
Nobody has an answer.
Part of me is fine with the prospect of getting expelled. Seeing Clyde make new friends, and wondering where he is every Friday night. I’ve already been half-goaded by the nerves in my stomach to calling home and asking if three weeks is enough college for now. If we both get expelled, we both go back to Rockford, and it forces the issue. Or he’ll find a new school and I won’t be able to coincidence my way into continued proximity. I’ll have to reintroduce me to myself. Me minus Clyde.
“What are we going to do?” Lara emphasizes we and directs it at Clyde. You and me. The future.
Clyde’s voice is calm: “Well, like the man said, sometimes the gates decide for you.” He doesn’t wait for a majority vote, but sets off down the hallway. I follow, then the rest.
“At least–” Patrick starts.
He’s interrupted by all the lights cutting off soundlessly, simultaneously.
Clyde has this ghost story he’s always telling about a nun named Sister Theresa who woke up every morning to find her rosary in pieces. She was a resident of Maria Linden, the convent behind Clyde’s childhood home in Rockford, Illinois. You’re supposed to think it’s your typical exorcism story, but the rosary was given to her by a guard at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud, where she used to do prison ministry. The prison’s history is really strange. Its giant wall was mined from a quarry within the prison yard back in the 1880s, killing lots of the inmates via granite dust in the process. That’s why Clyde chose St. John’s University, a small liberal arts school just north of St. Cloud. Research for his story. The story made him famous around high school bonfires, but he has yet to unleash it on his new campus. When he does, he’ll begin with his trademark opener, “I’m going to tell you the scariest story I know.”
I have this scary story where I am a plain, unspectacular girl who used to program my walks between classes in high school to intercept Clyde’s. And who has now followed him to school in rural Minnesota despite the fact that I’m not his girlfriend. So far he seems content to chalk it up to a coincidence, and I’m fine with biding my time since we’re only three weeks in. We have four years to go, and he has nowhere to hide.
Somehow Lara and Erin had become separated from the group. They had already dropped through a trap door, descended an interminable spiral staircase, and waded through a cavernous grotto—but they were back in a normal tunnel again. Probably somewhere beneath Alcuin Library, they’d decided. They could see a shape up ahead in the tunnel, a box that carved the tunnel’s passage into an inverted L. An upright piano, they realized, dropping their guard.
Lara pulled out the bench and sat. But when she brought her hands down on the first chord, it produced the sound of an orchestra, singers.
“The trio from Der Rosenkavalier,” she explained. “Clyde’s favorite piece of music.”
Three voices writhed and swelled, but Erin could only understand the Marschallin’s German: I made a vow to love him rightly, as a good woman should. I promised even to love the love he bore another.
“Clyde doesn’t like you,” Erin told Lara. “He only likes himself.”
“Maybe not yet. But he will.”
There stands the boy, and here stand I. And with his newfound love this day he will have happiness such as a man thinks is the best the world can give.
“I’m not the Marschallin, and this isn’t a love triangle.”
Since Erin wasn’t going to do it, apparently, Lara slammed the lid of the piano on her own hand, silencing the opera.
“If it’s not a triangle, what shape is it?”
Erin considered. “Well, it’s three-dimensional.” She motioned to the vast system of lightless tunnels. “It’s more like this.”
“Fuck,” Chase puts it into word.
The upperclassmen had given us two flashlights total—Patrick has one and I have one. They light up the tunnel feebly before flickering and going out.
Patrick smacks his hand against the side of his flashlight. “Double fuck.”
“Does anyone have a phone with a flashlight?” I ask.
“How about a flashlight without a phone?” Clyde lights the tunnel with one then two then three powerful beams. He hands one of the seven-inch Maglites to Lara and one to Chase and zero to me.
“How come yours work?” Patrick asks Clyde.
“Because I bought them and put batteries in them.”
Imagine my narration now through flitting circles that fleetingly turn the unknown into the known. We pass a few more intersections, but none that offer more than one option.
“Why’d you get mixed up with jerkoffs like that?” Chase asks Patrick.
“I didn’t. I got mixed up with jerkoffs like my brothers. And I didn’t have much of a choice about that.”
Clyde lives in the larger of the two freshman dorms, St. Thomas Hall, a slab of concrete chiseled into habitability by the mad genius of Marcel Breuer. I enter the dorm at the basement level, and it feels like the tunneling has already begun. Here is a history of un-air-conditioned reek, the booming aggression of everyone’s homogenously eclectic tastes in music, the sense of looming disaster and heartbreak and fucking. It’s unthinkable that a giant from my high school nostalgia is beginning to hollow a life into this hovel. This hellhole of industrial carpet and flickering fluorescents.
But I open his door, and there he is. Here is his hollowed, hallowed space. He has risked his pith by bringing it into Tommy Hall, but he grins up at me from his tidy desk and says “Hey Erin,” and I’m sure he’ll be okay. I wish away our new friends, these interlopers already assembled for tonight’s quest: Lara and Patrick and Patrick’s future ex-girlfriend Chase. In particular, I worry about why Lara was on campus before me. Probably playing piano duets with Clyde in the practice rooms.
Sister Teresa and her haunted rosary isn’t the only ghost story in Clyde’s repertoire, and he’s already assimilated more local lore than most students pick up in four years. Currently, Lara is pretending that his rendition of Murro the Bear—who, back in the 30s became the only school mascot to ever maul a student—is making her hesitant to proceed with our plans to explore the tunnels beneath the surface of St. John’s.
“To this day…” she shakes her head gravely. “To this day.”
Clyde improvises. Murro had once been the mascot for St. John’s, right? Right. And what do mascots love? Lara follows Clyde’s eyes down to her red SJU sweatshirt and grins. School spirit. School spirit will protect her. School spirit will protect us all.
Somehow Clyde and Lara had become separated from the group.
“Oh no, Clyde. We’ve somehow become separated from the group.” She took off her sweatshirt and pawed his shoulder. “What are we going to do?”
She was interrupted by a growl. She whirled around, interrogating the darkness with a trembling beam. Around the corner shuffled the kind of black a flashlight can only reveal, not banish. The black fur of a black bear. For a moment, its anatomy was unclear; it was just sleek, faceless, amorphous destruction shuffling their way, its fur greasy and independently roiling in this light. Then the white of its teeth snapped every other body part into focus, gave it a sense of direction and intent. A bear is the only animal that can combine voraciousness with boredom.
“Don’t run,” Clyde said, but he was already running. He quickly passed Lara.
“Clyde–” she gasped, trying to run faster but lagging behind. At least the bear didn’t appear to be joining the race, thank God.
Clyde’s running motion lit their path in spastic flashes, and his attention was dominated more by where he was running from than where he was running to. And so he was almost on top of the second bear before he saw it was there. As he skidded to a halt, the bear stood on its hind legs and roared. Clyde turned and ran back a few steps until he met Lara.
“Running’s not gonna work,” he said. Suddenly the bears broke into a lumber, and the two flashlights frantically alternated directions.
Lara was crying. “Clyde, I want you to know that I love you.”
He smiled and brushed her cheek. “This is going to make a really great story.”
Just as the bears were converging on them, Clyde jumped and grabbed onto a water pipe that ran the length of the ceiling. Lara screamed as the bears tore into her, and Clyde crawled away upside down, using the tunnel’s guts like a spider web.
“Shh,” Clyde silences them, stopping our forward motion.
I can hear it. We can all hear it. Static. A voice. Indiscernible words through a walkie-talkie.
“Maybe they’re coming to see why the lights went out,” Patrick whispers.
Clyde motions for us all to continue following him. Ahead in the tunnel is a figure.
Two of the flashlight beams go out. “Stop,” Chase stage-whispers. “Turn off your flashlight, Clyde. We have to turn around.”
Clyde doesn’t say anything. Nor does he turn off his flashlight.
“I’m not getting kicked out of school.”
“There’s nothing behind us but a locked gate,” I point out.
“Stick with me and you’ll be fine,” Clyde tells the group.
“I’ve already heard that tonight.”
Even though we continue to follow Clyde, the other flashlights don’t have the courage to switch back on. We get close enough to identify the figure as a human seated in an office chair, facing away from us.
Clyde starts walking faster and stops trying to be quiet. I can sense the others wanting to call out to him, conflicted over cross-purposes. Lara and Patrick, who had stolen Chase’s flashlight, switch on their beams. We catch up with Clyde just as he’s reaching the figure.
He puts his hand on the figure’s shoulder and spins it to face us. It’s a blow-up sex doll dressed as a Life Safety officer, its mouth an alarmed and alarming O. In its lap is the walkie-talkie.
“Can you guys give me a minute?” Clyde jokes, unzipping his pants.
Lara laughs exaggeratedly.
A voice on the walkie cackles to life. Jude. “Sorry about the flashlights, suckas. I recommend taking the next right.”
Chase picks up the walkie. “Listen up you creeps…”
“You have to push the button.”
“Listen up you creeps…” she trails off.
“Is that all you have?” Lara asks.
“You forgot to say ‘over.’"
“It doesn’t matter,” Clyde says. “Come on.”
Somehow Chase and Patrick had become separated from the group. They turned off their flashlights, sat down in the tunnel, and waited for more interesting people to include them in a story again.
We set out, heading towards the western edge of campus, past the pottery studio and the power plant. We cross County Road 159 and find the mouth of a forest path that runs alongside the road.
“Jude,” Patrick calls out.
Three figures emerge from the darkness, one of them short and pudgy, one of them tall and skinny, and one of them just right. Short/pudgy flashes a flashlight beam three times. He steps forward and shakes Patrick’s hand. “That’s Morse code for where the fuck were you.”
Introductions go around. Jude and Yuri (tall/skinny) are both seniors and are members of a notorious, ragtag, cheerleading troupe on campus called the Rat Pack. Facepainted and adorned in picaresques of red, white, and blue, they descend upon football games by rappelling down the side of the Palestra. But they’re dressed normal tonight. It turns out that the third guy (just right) is just drunk, and his name is Burt.
“It’s nice of you to take us with you,” I say, but it’s also an inquiry.
“Well, Erin, when we were freshmen, some handsome and kind-hearted upperclassmen showed us around the tunnels. And we hope you’ll pay it forward in a few years.”
“Did you bring flashlights?” Yuri asks.
“No worries,” Jude says. “We’ve got some extras.”
According to Jude, the power plant is “the only way in or out” of the tunnels, but as we peek through the branches and discuss our mission, I’m getting a little skeptical that such a famous passageway to such an off-limits playground would go unlocked and unmonitored. But then we’re running, scrambling over a giant mound of coal. Drunk Burt has no problem with it, but Chase slips and falls on her stomach, blacking her clothes and hands. She finds her antics hilarious; we find her laughter alarming—and we shush her with utmost urgency. Past the coal pile, some steps take us up to a brown metal door with a small window and a sign that reads AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. Deciding that’s us, we push open the door and enter a stairwell of concrete and cinderblock. Down we go, and another door that tells us not to do what we immediately proceed to do grants us entrance into the tunnels. I hadn’t taken the time to form a mental picture, so my mind had half-assed the image of something a man-sized mole would have burrowed. Instead, it’s like a very long and narrow basement, I’d guess five feet by eight feet, with concrete walls, a concrete floor, and a concrete ceiling. It’s lit by infrequent caged bulbs. Pipes and corralled wires run overhead. It’s alternately silent and echoey.
The door closes behind us, and Chase mistakes this for funny too.
“Sorry,” Patrick apologizes. “She laughs when her phone rings.”
“It’s okay,” Jude says, and we start walking. “We should be in the clear now.”
Chase is trying hard to figure out if Patrick had insulted her. “Where do the tunnels go?”
“Everywhere, honey. Every building in the school is connected. In the winter you’ll see these random paths of melted snow. It’s from the heat in the tunnels.”
Left, Clyde motions.
“They said to go right,” Chase mentions.
“Who said that,” Clyde asks, “the blow up doll in the cop outfit, or the school mascots who abandoned us in a tunnel system with dead flashlights?”
“They’re just fucking with us,” Patrick argues. “They’ll lead us out of here once they’ve had their fun.”
“If we go to the right”—Clyde points with his flashlight—“then yes they’re fucking with us. If we go to the left, then we’re fucking with them.”
Clyde keeps walking, and we keep following. We come to a fork in the tunnels, our first non-ninety-degree angle, and Clyde leads us to the right without stopping to think about it.
“Anyone have some gold thread?” Chase breaks the silence. “Or bread crumbs.”
“We should turn around. We don’t know what’s down this way.”
“We don’t know what’s the other way either,” I remind them. “Maybe Teddy Ruxpin in hotpants.”
This gets a laugh from Clyde and perhaps a scowl from Lara, and I’m fine if we die down here.
“Patrick, just cuz you don’t know where you’re going doesn’t mean nobody does.”
“What does that mean?”
Clyde’s flashlight illuminates a brown metal door, unmarked.
“Probably locked,” Patrick says.
“It’s not locked,” Clyde counters.
“How do you know?”
“Because I unlocked it.”
Clyde reaches out, but the knob doesn’t turn.
Somehow Clyde and Erin had become separated from the group.
“There’s no reason I should be nursing this monster,” Erin said to him.
“A monk died in the construction of the Great Hall. Fell from a scaffold,” Clyde said.
“I’m better than you,” she said to him.
“The monk’s mother sought restitution from the abbot,” he said.
“I’ve tried to describe you on paper, but its blankness resists being filled,” she said to him. “You are something that has turned entirely in on itself. An ouroborous. Every breath and every word is self-sucking.”
“The abbot turned her away without even an apology,” Clyde said.
“You’re attractive enough,” she said to him. “You’ll look fifteen until you’re forty. You wear your interests like plumage. But that’s not it.”
“On the way home, her carriage turned over into a nearby lake,” he said.
Erin said to him: “Some part of me decided on you without consulting my brain. In defiance of my brain. It’s not my heart, but in my stomach.”
“During the Great Hall’s dedication, a crack formed down the center aisle,” Clyde said.
“So I will scour myself of personality,” she said to him. “Empty myself out. And two parasites won’t argue about which one isn’t.”
“To this day, on dry nights you can sometimes see wet footprints.”
The light bulbs space themselves more sparsely the deeper we go. I hear a hesitant Lara approach Jude, asking, “Do you know Murro?”
“Is it true school spirit will protect against Murro?”
Jude sneers. “Murro doesn’t give a shit about school spirit. It just makes him angry. He was killed because of a Johnnie.”
“Oh,” is all Lara can muster.
“That red sweatshirt might as well be a red cape,” Jude explains, “for the bull that is Murro.”
“Bear,” she corrects him.
“You’re fraternizing with two members of the Rat Pack, the mascots who replaced Murro,” Yuri adds. “You’re fucked.”
“Patrick, you’re a Gaffke, right?” Jude changes the subject, leaving Lara to her ruminations.
“Number six of six.”
“And you’ve all gone to St. John’s, right?”
“Well, not Peter. He’s the black sheep of the family.” Pause. “And by black, I mean stupid.”
“That sounds a little racist,” Chase tsks.
Patrick laughed. “I know.”
Patrick was in my first icebreaker group during orientation. Look around, the emcee commanded, these will be your friends FOR LIFE!
But I’m not sure I can really tsk, since my my brain has been failing to completely fend off nationality-based insults. Not knowing any Spanish stereotypes, I’ve just been using Hispanic ones.
“You’re just like your brother Paul,” Jude says, and I see Yuri and Drunk Burt exchange a look. They drop to the back of the group. “You know, it was Paul and his friends who took me tunneling for the first time.”
“Really? Paul never mentioned tunneling.”
“We have a sort of understanding.”
“So, let’s get this straight.” Another high school bonfire. “You’re making one of the biggest decisions of your life based on a desire to accumulate more details for your ghost story?”
“It’s not about getting more details,” Clyde countered. “Or it’s not just about that. It’s about being there—at the locus where it all started. Know what my favorite part of every horror film is?”
Random. “When somebody messes with something they shouldn’t and then something terrible happens to them?” I joke-warned.
“Research.” I never thought this word could so light up a person’s eyes. “Three-quarters of the way through the movie, the main characters have to figure out the root of what’s wrong, the history. They’re up all night with coffee, there’s microfiche, important information is highlighted or circled as much for our benefit as theirs.”
“My experience with research has been more tedious than cinematic.”
“For the next four years I’m going to be living in a horror film research montage.”
Clyde tries the knob again and again and pretty soon you could call it a jiggle. He pulls at the door. He pulls while jiggling.
Clyde shines his flashlight down the hall and takes a dozen brisk steps before reversing his path, almost colliding with the rest of us. He returns to the door and tries the handle again.
“I said ‘Umm–’”
“Listen,” Clyde interrupts. “Can’t you hear the insipid thump of reggae bass?”
It’s almost sub-audible, but the tunnel carries the sound like a resonance chamber, like we’re stuck in the body of a giant stringed instrument.
“Get Up, Stand Up,” Patrick begins to sway. “I was just listening to that song on loop earlier.”
“You know that brown door right across the hall from you? The door that’s always locked.”
Patrick looks confused. “Maybe…”
“Well there’s a door. This door. And I unlocked it like two hours ago.”
Clyde pulls a piece of paper from his back pocket and unfolds it. All of us lean in to look over his shoulder.
“How’d you get the map?” Chase asks.
Holding his flashlight between his neck and his shoulder, he traces his finger over the map from the power plant to our current location. “This is what I do.”
“I had it all planned. We get out, they get caught. My roommate’s uncle is the head of Life Safety.”
“I bought the man a sandwich.”
“You’ll get them kicked out of school.”
“The first thing Life Safety does when they catch someone is see whether they’re paying their bills. Then they check their GPAs. Those three dudes, believe it or not, are on the Dean’s List.”
“I hope everyone’s paid their bills, cuz we don’t have GPAs yet.”
“You think they were smart enough to lock the door after you?”
“Not a chance.”
Clyde shakes his head. “I bought them sandwiches too. It’s something…” he trails off and begins walking.
Fun facts about “The Link”: 1. The busses are operated by (by which I mean driven by) CSB/SJU students. 2. They’re a forum so conducive to puking after a night at Sal’s or the La that the penalties for doing so are extreme. 3. According to male friends, the bumpy roads and poor suspension combine to give them boners in the morning on the way to classes at St. Ben’s. 4. The earliest bus from SJU on weekends is known as the “Bus of Shame” due to the implied reason a bleary-eyed, sweat-pantsed Bennie would be at St. John’s so early in the morning. The first bus carrying Johnnies from St. Ben’s does not confer the same indignity (because of all the high-fiving going on, and the boners). Johnny Rapists, we call them and laugh.
As I’m not wasted and I’m not a dude and I’m not on my way from sex, none of these concerns are foremost in my mind. Most of the students on the bus seem to be freshmen who, like me, are still reeling from our first few weeks of “freedom,” and the Life Safety officer (also a student) stationed on the bus during times of imminent douchiness has both ears perked to detect sounds of demure retching through the constant abuse being slurred down upon him. Even though it’s Friday night, I’d rather be curled into a ball still trying to recover from a week of freshman orientation’s forced chipperness.
Their light moves with them, and their noise (Chase: “Maybe we should go back to the doll”), and soon I’m overtaken by the irreducible darkness. I don’t have to do anything for it to move upon me. All I have to do is stand there and not walk. It hurts to leave Clyde unmonitored, and I have no excuse planned for when they ask me why.
But at least this is something. It is adrenaline and fear and excitement. It is groping beneath the skin of Minnesota. The electricity of panic. All of these things in him instead of his smirking self-assurance. In him because of me.
He would have shared his famous ghost story with them. We would be back in Patrick’s shitty Xanadu drinking Gluek, and Clyde would bask in our astonishment at his foresight. “Why’d you let us get so freaked out?” Guzzle, slurp, smack of lips. “I did you a favor. Being scared reminds you you’re alive.” Then he would wait until the perfect moment and deliver his first line. The scariest story he’s ever heard. It would be disseminated, diluted. It would no longer be our thing.
I have separated myself from the group. I will walk until the concrete’s cool porousness abrades the skin on my fingertips. The weight of an entire campus is on me, and I’m already suspicious that college is very stupid. But I’m not worried; I’ve been down in this tunnel for years.
I wonder how long it will be before this resonance chamber carries my name back to me, how long it will take before they notice I’m gone. Before they realize there’s something down here with them.