Shippensburg Sacristans

January 20, 2009
By
The weekend Ali and I schlepped ourselves out to Shippensburg University was unusually hot for May. Somehow, in the hustle and bustle of our packing, we had forgotten to account for the sweltering weather and we arrived on campus without a fan for our room. As a result, we had spent the past two days of our four-day adventure seeking out the islands of air-conditioning spread out across the grounds.

Today, the third day, was an aberration from the norm. Instead of waking up just in time to miss breakfast and then heading off to the mall to do some shopping, we were up with the sun and preparing to compete in our races. The soulful melodies of Frank Sinatra were drifting through the room, due in part to our annoyance at the gangsta-rap music blasting in the hallways. Not that we didn’t appreciate ganstsa-rap, but it has its place and time.

Unfortunately, the combination of Frank Sinatra and gangsta-rap was not exactly conducive to a relaxing environment. After a while, Ali and I gave up on our pseudo-meditation and resigned ourselves to preparing for the track meet. Ali, because she was the organized member of our duo, knew exactly where her uniform was. I, on the other hand, spent a long moment standing in considerable confusion, wondering at the disappearance of my own attire. Eventually, Ali located my uniform, submerged in the melted ice of our cooler.

After a pregnant pause, I moved forward to fish the uniform out of the artic waters. In an odd way, the garment reminded me of the road kill I often glimpsed along the roads by my house; certainly it was equally dilapidated and pathetic looking. For a moment, I was speechless; Ali, however, was not. She was quite happy filling my temporary silence with rather pointed comments towards my intelligence.

By now, because Ali and I roomed on the fifth floor of the dorm, I had ridden up and down the buildings elevator at least two dozen times. In that moment of stress, what can only be explained as divine inspiration prompted me to remember the list of the rules that hung on every level of the building. Somewhere toward the bottom of the list were the rules about using the washer and dryer in the basement.

My salvation in sight, I quickly rushed out of the room and into the hallway. As the elevator doors clanged shut before me, I experienced a brief flash of foreboding; the movement was disturbingly similar to Dante’s description the jaws of hell. The journey down to the basement was markedly different from those rides I had taken with Ali. I was aware of every jolt and jiggle as the carriage made its slow way downward. After what seemed like an eternitythe elevator spit me out in the cold and dank of the basement.

Looking around, I got the feeling that the students of Shippensburg did not spend much time in the lowest level of the building. A single light bulb cast its muted glow over the cement hallway before fading off into inscrutable darkness, and the steady drip of water could be heard echoing in the distance. I started tentatively forward by following shriveled signs pointing the way to the washers and dryers. After a few moments, I became aware of a new sound echoing through the hall, a high pitched squeak which grated against my already tense nerves. Ignoring the turn indicated on the signs, I followed the noise to a corner of the hallway even darker than most. From my current position, I cast a shadow across my own line of vision, and was only able to make out the slightest movement on the ground before me. Stepping to the side, I allowed what little light remained in the corridor to fall on the floor, and to my horror I was clearly able to perceive the tattered remnants of an antique track uniform. I turned away in disgust, trying not to consider how long that uniform had been lying in the dark. Unfortunately, my movements were not quick enough to prevent me from seeing a white rat emerging from the bundle of rags.

Quashing my increasing trepidation, I all but ran back to my previous path and into the marginally brighter room of washers and driers. I threw my clothing into the dryer, forced the coins into the slot, and spent the half-hour of drying time sitting cross-legged on top of an adjacent washing machine, with my back to the wall.
The eventual harsh cacophony of the drier buzzer wakened me from the state of hyper-consciousness I had slipped into. Startled, I practically fell from my lofty perch and onto the cold stone floor. I quickly brushed myself off and grabbed my garments out of the dryer before beginning my hasty trek back to the elevator and salvation. In the dark hallway once more, I tried my best to ignore the echoes drifting my way: a rhythmical thump, as though the hallway was a living thing with a beating heart. Arriving at the elevator, I gave into my fears and frantically pushed the call button. No response came from the mechanisms, no signals lighted at my touch, and the shaft did not echo with the dull clanks of the descending machinery. I waited. Seconds melted into minutes, and still the elevator did not come. A sigh escaped my lips as I realized my situation -- I was stuck in the basement.
The atmosphere suddenly became much more sinister, and the air developed an oppressive quality, as though I was standing in a heavy fog. I started walking slowly down the hallway, wracking my brain for an escape. Eventually, after I had gone quite a way, I remembered that the building must have an emergency stairway somewhere nearby. Unfortunately, I had no idea where.
Still, I did the best I could to create a mental map of the building, and then set off in the most promising direction. All too soon,I began to notice an increased noise level in the hallway, as though I was disturbing the basement creatures who resided on that lower plane. Shadows darted behind my back, and the dim glow of the occasional light bulb was hardly enough to chase away my fears. I began making turns in desperation, no longer sure of my destination, but simply trying to escape the figures that were not of my imagination.
Before long I was completely disoriented. The shadows stalking me had taken form, and I quickly recognized their true nature -- janitors. At the familiar sight of custodial workers, I relaxed. The janitors were advancing more slowly now, but all too soon the first of their number had stepped into the light. Dimly glowing, the singular hanging bulb in the hall cast a terrifying shadow of the emaciated frame of the custodian. Blue veins stretched weirdly over his face, and the two pinpricks of light that were his eyes shined red in the dark. Revulsion choked me, and the sheet of terror settled back over me to rest heavily on my shoulders. Wary, I began to move away. The faster I walked, the tighter the web around me was drawn. My animal instincts kicked in so that in a brief moment of clarity I recognized my mistake; I was being herded. Overwhelmed by panic, I flew down the hallways at full tilt and burst through the first doors I saw.
White light engulfed me, and for an instant I was overwhelmed by the absolute safety conveyed by the steady murmur of voices and the acidic smell of coffee that drifted warmly over me. In a brief moment of weakness, I closed my eyes to the world. Then, the tone of the voices shifted. What had been a gentle wave of sound upon my entrance became the crashing hurricane. Chairs were pushed back as the patrons of the room rose to their feet. Horrified, I opened my eyes. I had stumbled into some dilapidated lounge, and unknowingly entered the den of janitors. Choking on my terror, I backed slowly away from those cadaverous shapes closest to me. My eyes were pulled away from the leering faces surrounding me to the creaking of the same doors that I had entered through. My pursuers were joining us. Perhaps, I wondered, surveying their emaciated frames, perhaps I was to provide the main course in their unholy feast.
Surrounded by janitors, with only one exit in sight, I almost gave up hope. Those cannibals closest to the door were drawing nearer to me, and I was sliding ever so slightly backwards in kind. Directly behind me I heard a jarring crash. My nerves, up till now, had been balanced on a thin precipice, and that abrupt noise was enough to send me over the edge. Screaming, I spun around to witness my newest foe, only to catch a glimpse of a ramshackle mop shuddering on the floor. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, and a plan took form almost instantaneously in my head. With a shout of rage, I dove to the floor and grabbed the mop. With deadly precision, I gripped my new weapon as if it were a lance, and jousted my way through the janitors and out the door. The den lay behind me in shambles; janitors were strewn across the floor like bowling pins, and I was running down the hallway towards my freedom.
My foes were not so easily defeated, though, and they were quickly on their feet behind me. Stumbling forward, my last reserves of strength and mental stability almost spent, I turned a corner to a dead end. I could hear the janitors closing in behind me, their anger at my escape palpable through the dense air. Before me lay a set of double doors, and behind me lay a horde of angry janitors. Gritting my teeth, I pushed onward, and, luckily, upward -- I had found the stairs.
As I ran upward, I could feel the clammy breath of the janitors at my back, but before me I glimpsed sunlight. Suddenly, I was pulled down by a tremendous pain in my ankle. I turned back in fear to see the long, dirty nails of a decrepit old man digging into my shin. Terrified, I kicked back with my free leg. When my foot connected with the face of my capture, I felt a sickening kind of crunch and knew with pleasure that I had broken his nose. Screaming, the janitor released me. Blood poured from my wound as pushed through the final set of doors. My pursuers fell back in agony as the sunlight burned their skin, and their screams echoed through the hallway I was quickly deserting.
Torn and battered, I stumbled into the atrium on the ground floor of the dorm. I had only taken a few steps when Ali and my coaches entered the room. Ali was regarding me with mild disgust, and she turned to me and asked, with the same disdain that permeated all of our interactions, “What took you so long?”





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