I knew there was something mysterious about my University from the first time I saw it. But I could never have imagined the nightmare that awaited be behind those cold stone walls.
The University is over four hundred years old: a foreboding complex of Gothic towers and cold stone structures with dark windows like eyes leering down at tens of thousands of students passing through the centuries.
This far north, so deep into the untamed Scottish territories, my University could have existed in another place or another time – the arctic, perhaps, or the days long past when faith trumped reason and punishment was capital.
Our dorms had been somewhat modernized, with tacky carpets and metal bunkbeds, but aside from that most areas in my University looked the same as they had for centuries: rough wooden floorboards, hand-carved desks, and those omnipresent gray walls, smooth and polished on the inside, rough and uneven out where the frigid air had worn them down.
In the nine-month schoolyear, the temperatures in that area never attempted to brush against four degrees Celsius; it wasn’t uncommon to wake up shivering in our dorms and find that six or more feet of snow had fallen in the night.
The closest inkling of civilization near campus was a small village almost a kilometer away. They had a post office, a small tavern, and a two-room market they laughably referred to as a grocery store. A few houses dotted the grassy plains that stretched to the horizon at all angles: people whose parents and grandparents had lived and died in homes their great-grandparents had built. At some point in the last hundred years, someone must have believed there would actually be a town there one day. And maybe there will be. But there wasn’t thirty years ago, and I have to assume there isn’t today.
I first visited my University the month after graduating college. I hadn’t done well, and my grades were a mess – I had spent a considerable portion of my final year drunk, and it never once occurred to me that universities wouldn’t take kindly to my low marks. None of my preferred schools accepted me, if they even bothered reading my applications, and I ended up stuck with an ancient establishment that somehow flew under the radar of Britain’s respect.
My mother and I made a day trip of it, driving up from Manchester and seeing the sights on our way. I watched out the window as England gave way to Scotland, and civilization gave way to wide, open fields and towering hills, green as the day God made them. The sky faded from a hopeful blue to a foreboding white as we drew closer to the edge of the world; in fact, all color seemed to be draining out. The grass went from emerald green to a mossy gray, the distant purple mountains seemed like mere extensions of the oppressive clouds; even the occasional car we passed on the long northern stretch looked like a duller shade of their southern counterparts.
When we reached the University, an uneasy feeling was creeping through my veins. We hadn’t seen another car in hours, and the only civilization we had passed was the aforementioned village, so small that no one had ever bothered to name it. When I thought of university, I pictured a metropolitan extravaganza, learning and loving surrounded by an urban jungle and the kind of experiences I would remember for the rest of my life. I imagined making good friends and bad decisions in a place where human beings weren’t as scarce as sunny days. But this…well, as we stepped out of the car and I felt the cold stare of black windows in stone towers, I didn’t feel excited. I felt uneasy. The world around me was cold, uninviting, everything only a few steps apart from the same shade of gray. The sky, the buildings, the grass: gray, gray, gray.
I made some comment to my mother as we walked to the enrollment office, trying to express my immediately dislike of the place; she dismissed me, of course, and reminded me that if I had done better in college I could have had my pick of universities.
We were shown around campus that day, and my suspicions were confirmed: every inch of the school was as drab as the world outside. I tried to imagine how the dank halls and prisonlike dorms would look filled with students my age, ones who presumably would feel the same as I did. But every time I conjured up an image of teen-agers studying, drinking, bleeding, they were swallowed up by the stone walls and the chill that ran across campus and through the buildings as if they didn’t exist.
The president herself showed us around the dorms, talking to me like she was trying to sell a used car. If I decided to enroll, I thought, it would be in spite of the University’s overall appearance, not because of it. Our three-man tour was interrupted when an assistant of some kind appeared in the stone corridor, out of breath and anxious-looking. She informed the president that there was someone here to see her – actually, I believe what she said was “A new package is about to arrive.” The president thanked her then apologized to us, explaining that she would have to put our tour on hold. She hurried off to attend to her duties, and my mother and I were left to wander the campus alone.
“I don’t want to go here,” I said as we stepped out of the dorm building. I crossed my arms, hoping to find some warmth in the chilly day.
“You haven’t seen all of it,” my mother reminded me. “Let’s finish the tour, then we can decide.” I knew she wasn’t being honest: if by the end of the day I knew I would never want to enroll, she would hit me with the sort of guilt tripping and blackmail that only a mother can conjure up.
We walked around the campus, empty but for a few members of staff hurrying to tie up the last schoolyear and prepare for the next. My fingers were beginning to stiffen in the cold, and a low white fog had descended on the grounds. It was as if an army of spirits had crowded the school to reminisce, to imagine the days when they had breathed and walked the earth as a complete two-part entity. I could almost hear them whisper as we moved through them: a multitude of otherworldly alumni calling to me, some encouraging me to live as they had, others warning me about what was to come.
My mother didn’t try to force conversation as we walked, and for that I was grateful. The campus was silent, with no city noise for a hundred miles, not even a tree to creak in the wind. But without speaking, I was forced to acknowledge the uneasy feeling that we weren’t alone on the empty quad: the sensation of pulsing lifeforce behind me, of eyes on my back that when I glanced behind could only be explained by the black glass of the tower windows.
Round the corner of one tower, we came unexpectedly to the edge of campus. The prickled grass ended where a small dirt parking lot began, accessible by a driveway that looped around into the main artery of the north-south road. Blocking off this driveway was a vehicle that felt even more anachronistic here than the regular cars: an ugly box-shaped ambulance, the sort they’ve now done away with and replaced with the sleeker Mercedes.
My mother and I stopped to stare. The ambulance was received by a few people in suits, including the president and her assistant; they stood there looking nervous as a pair of technicians slid the pram out the back of their truck. I suppose a chill would have run down my spine when I saw the body, but I was already chilled to the bone.
We stood twenty feet away, but the president and her people hadn’t noticed us yet. I’m sure my mother would have preferred to avert her eyes, but she was too shocked to look away.
The body was male: I could tell because of the thick beard and flat chest under a shirt that had been slit open down the middle. But otherwise there wasn’t much to go on as far as personal traits. The man was waterlogged in blood.
I couldn’t tell if the man was alive or simply unconscious. His skull was wrapped in bandages, already soaked through with red. The technicians had attempted to stop the bleeding, but his lifeforce still trickled down his face, clogging up his beard and running onto his chest. Whatever skin wasn’t in its path had already been dyed a crusty copper.
As they set the pram down on its wheels, one of the man’s arms slipped off his chest and hung limply over the edge. Whether he was alive or not, he had lost three of his fingers.
The president turned to direct the technicians as they wheeled his pram towards the nearest building. She froze as she caught sight of us; I stared back, unsure what to feel, unsure how to react. Were we seeing something we weren’t supposed to? Was this some secret that outsiders weren’t meant to know about? Because I hadn’t enrolled yet. I had no obligation to this University. I wouldn’t in intimidated, if that was what she meant to do.
But the president simply directed her assistants to help the technicians and came over to us, forcing a smile. “I’m sorry you had to see that,” she said. “I suppose I should’ve told you to stay and wait for me.”
“What in God’s name was that?” my mother breathed, finding her voice at last. “That man – ”
“He had a bit of an accident,” the president told her. She sounded totally calm, totally in control. “I can imagine how strange this all looks. But I’m sure you noticed it’s a long way to the nearest city. We have a full medical facility here, and several trained doctors. For someone in dire need, it’s a safer bet to bring them here than drive two hours to a hospital.”
My mother and the president went back and forth about this development, and eventually she seemed to accept the given explanation at face value. But her face was still white, her mouth still set in a line as we turned back towards campus to complete our tour.