“Watch out, Amogh!” Casey alerted in a sudden holler. “It’s coming for you again!”
The dense slab of pressed wood was taking a hasty swipe at Casey’s unsuspecting, defenseless roommate. Door jam or distracted bystander alike, door number 1134 was notorious for landing a thudding blow.
Amogh’s hands were usually full with a stack of anatomy textbooks or a bundle of medical journals. This time, Amogh’s hands were weighed down by canvass bags stuffed with high-sodium and sugar-encrusted vending machine snacks that were meant to pass for Wednesday night’s dinner. All eating establishments on campus, aside from the ransacked cafeteria, had already long been vacated and boarded-up.
Casey’s alarm gave Amogh the mere fraction of a second his twitch muscles needed to sidestep the otherwise direct collision.
“Damn door!” griped Amogh. “The thing wants to take my head right off before I can graduate and get up out of here!”
Casey condoled rubbing a left rib, “Trust me, I feel you, mate. I wonder if this stupid door had it in for the students who were roomed here before us too.”
“Why would we be treated any differently?” questioned Amogh.
Casey chuckled, “Maybe the door has a thing against international students or something.”
Neither Casey nor Amogh fit in swimmingly among the typical students of Hellas College, but it was the transfer from India who stood out on campus with particular blatancy. Amogh liked to think that his distinguishing background made him exotic and interesting, rather than novel and strange.
“Actually, you might be on to something,” replied Amogh as his grimace slowly surrendered to a smirk of his own.
The passageway leading away from the shared dormitory was uncannily desolate and mute. Less than a month prior, the same hallway was congested with raucous students rushing off in every direction. There were students whooshing out of their doors trying to avoid tardy attendance marks. There were students whizzing back to their personal sanctuaries to get on with their real studies of higher education.
The hallway now seemed somehow stretched in distancing length. Every loose floorboard tugged at the ear. Each crack in the casting of the hall wall roped the eye. There were so many doors, the lone students realized simultaneously, yet they were locked out of all but one. As they stood, the doors would remain un-budging for several more weeks to come.
The mass exodus of winter break had resulted in the near-complete abandonment of the international students who were unable to make their own distant return journeys home. On this most particularly dim and frigid winter night, there was only one dorm window throughout the entire Lakeside Residence Hall illuminated with light and warmth. The single sign of life only remained shining on in the night because Casey forgot to hit the light switch on his way out.
The two leftover students made sure to fasten their coats and strangle their necks in plenty of itchy woolen scarfing before leaving the dormitory building to face the winter blizzard.
The gusts seemed to shift with the second. One moment, the tandem expeditioners were pressed forward by veritable shoves at their backs. The next second, the duo was fighting through a headwind that bit at their lips and howled in their ear canals. The whirling snowfall assailed the struggling striders from every which direction at once.
“Don’t slip! Watch that black ice there,” Casey again warned his roomie.
John suspected that the college had extinguished half of the campus light poles in order to budget for the loss in revenue from student lodging and dining expenses.
“Thanks, man! I didn’t even see that patch of ice on the street there.”
Turning his head over his shoulder, Casey shouted backward, “I bet you don’t get much black ice back home.”
As Amogh trudged on to keep pace, he replied with elevated voice, “Not very much. I mean it does get colder in the northern regions of India—we have the Himalayas, after all. But that type of weather doesn’t really reach us down on the coast in Kolkata. Does it get as cold in the U.K. as it does out here in upstate New York?”
“We have a drab winter season that can dip pretty low in temperature as well. But the winters here seem more… imposing than they do back home in Woking.”
Keenly over the last few semesters, Amogh had mentally logged his roommate’s description of the U.K. and the whole of the European continent, a region of the world Amogh had yet had the opportunity to venture. For this reason, Amogh knew quite well that Casey was referring to a town just on the outskirts of the greater London area.
“Do you get black ice in Woking?”
“Some,” Casey shouted in reply.
After a moment of thought that offered a distraction from the bone-chilling winds, Amogh blurted, “Crazy—how many names for frozen precipitation there are in your language. I mean, I’m familiar with snow, sleet, hail, and regular ice. But I’ve never heard of the black ice variety, until now.”
“I think they just call it black ice because it is clear and you can see the black pavement through it. But yes, I think that one of my professors said something about the Native-Americans on the other side of this country having over fifty words for snow.”
“Fifty? How’s that even possible?”
“Beats me, chap.” Along with a visible trail of exhaled breath, Casey floated, “I guess when you are around something so much, you pick up on all the little intricacies. But all this talk of snow and ice is just making me colder. Say, what time did the weather alert say that the storm—the Nor’easter—was to hit these parts?”
Peering up, toward what were merely the outer bands of the looming weather front, Amogh shouted in reply, “Sometime after midnight I think, but I’ll check my phone when we get to the library and I can finally put these bags down.”
Casey noted, “A Nor’easter seems like a particularly American phenomenon. Every once in a while we get hurricanes during the summertime that stray off course in the Atlantic and make their way for our shores, but storms in the middle of winter are very unusual. What’s it you guys get? Typhoons?”
“Cyclones, actually. Basically, we call hurricanes out in the Indian Ocean cyclones. I don’t think there’s all that much of a difference besides that. They’re mainly a summertime occurrence too.”
Finally, Amogh and Casey toppled their way into the atrium of the campus library. The front of the Robert L. Frost Memorial Library featured a face of glass doors. It took some effort to pry one of the entranceways open against the draft that seemed intent to hold the way shut, but Casey was eventually able to break the seal.
To keep their tracks few, both trampers brushed the caked snow off their shoulders and boots on the strategically laid out auxiliary doormats. Their fingertips needed more time for defrosting before either could master enough dexterity to effectively take to the zippers and buttons on their outer coats.
Still bundled up, the two puffy students funneled through the library security gates that were arranged to scan incoming visitors for concealed metallic objects and outgoing patrons for smuggled library property. Immediately past the screening gates stood a campus security post. Sitting upon the elevated desk was a configuration of computer monitors that incessantly flipped through the feeds sent from the various security cameras positioned throughout the campus library. But the screens were left completely unmanned. The chair behind the watchtower was vacant. Having been reduced to a mere skeleton crew, the campus security agent routinely stationed at the library lookout point was out patrolling his extended jurisdiction.
Casey and Amogh next crossed into the heart of the library. The alcove immediately to one side housed a small lounge area arranged with cozy couches, and racks of magazines and novelettes for leisure reading. The computer lab was set up in the compartment on the opposing side of the library hub. Each flanking space was completely soulless.
“You said we’re meeting up with Yi… and Lucia, right?” teased Amogh with a sly grin.
There were in fact a handful of fellow international students sprinkled about the remote campus. Most of the other students on Visa had the benefit of far fewer travel restrictions, or they had family more eager to arrange their return home for the holidays. Some of the other students from abroad who chose to stay put in their temporary country of residence had decided to hunker down in rented apartments and motels across the lake in the nearest town.
To keep the specters of isolation and boredom at bay, a good part of the remaining on-campus students decided to schedule casual study group gatherings. Shorn the pressure of pressing due dates, the students lingered very briefly on conversational topics of an academic nature. Effectively, by this point in the campus shutdown, the study group had already devolved into more of a loosely knit social group. Even so, their semi-regular appointments gave each member reason enough to keep track of the dates on the calendar and the time on the clock.
In response to the mention of the lone female group member, Casey snapped, “Shut up, man!”
“What? We’re the only ones on this side of campus.”
“Inside voices, please” the librarian, turned grouch by her unseasonal work hours, demanded.
“See?” Casey murmured, “You’re apparently making a scene.”
In a cheeky manner, Casey waved at the glaring old woman behind the library service desk as he called out, “Hello, Ms. Gladys! How are you doing on this splendid evening? How are the grandchildren?”
“The library shutdowns down at 6:00 PM, in accordance with winter break hours,” the librarian croaked, ignoring the heckle. “You fellas have about an hour and twenty before I have to ask you to leave. Tell your friends, as well.”
“Why are you messing with poor old Gladys,” whispered Amogh. “Now stop deflecting, already. I can’t believe you still haven’t told Lucia that you like her.”
Casey remained silent as the two waited for the elevator along the back wall of the library to offer a ride up to the student study areas on the third floor of the building.
Only after completely insulating himself within the elevator shaft, Casey sighed, “It’s just a bad time of year to ask a girl out is all.”
“What do you mean?” grilled Amogh.
“Well,” Casey hesitated, “I was going to talk to her, but then we had Thanksgiving break. These Americans, they just got back from break. Now they’re off on another holiday for bloody Christmas. This country is wasting a lot of my time—time that could otherwise be used for getting on with my degree.”
“You’re changing the conversation again, Casey. But what’s with your vendetta against Christmas, anyway? You grew up with Christmas in England. You’re used to the whole deal. Is you being an atheist the problem? Aren’t most Europeans atheistic? They don’t have an issue with a little yuletide cheer. It is weird though, celebrating Santa but leaving out the rest.”
“You’re not exactly a Christian either, Mr. Buddhist. Anyway, yes. My family celebrated the fat, jolly, old elf until I was old enough. Then we kind of just stopped with the theatrics. Not too long after that, dad and mum split up. Then, as soon as I could, I applied for a far-off college that would get me out of the country and away from all of that mess.”
“Gotcha,” Amogh verbally genuflected. “Still, though, you should ask Lucia out before New Year’s Eve. I like the American cliché of having someone to hold to welcome in the New Year—you know, a kiss as the clock strikes midnight?”
“Why don’t you ask her out then,” Casey sardonically countered.
“I know you got a thing for her,” said Amogh. “Besides, I already told you, I have the perfect girl waiting for me back home.”
“Right, mate,” Casey jeered. “You’re mysterious pen-pal, who I’ve never seen actual evidence of.”
“Believe whatever you want!” ardently maintained Amogh.
“I was going to say the same to you.”
As the elevator finally leveled out at the top floor, Casey pined, “It would never work. In a year’s time, Lucia will go back to Mexico City. Not long after that, I’ll be heading back for London.”
“That’s assuming you can actually graduate on time,” Amogh kidded. After adjusting his delivery, it was continued, “Who knows, Casey? It’s a small world.”
The sound of familiar voices led Casey and Amogh through the maze of partitioned desks and freestanding work tables. The sounds soon tuned into intelligible speech.
“I thought America’s ‘Spooky Season’ ended with Halloween. Isn’t Christmas supposed to be about being merry?” Yi contended.
Lucia replied, “Yes, but what I’m saying is that ghost stories are actually a main element of Christmas lore. When Casey gets here—if he ever does—you can ask him about Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.”
Still making his approach, Casey chimed, “I always thought a story of Christmas hauntings was a little quirky myself.”
“Hi, Casey! Hello, Amogh,” exclaimed Lucia as she turned in her seat to welcome the rest of the leftovers group.
“Hey, guys!” Yi added.
“What took you two so long? I was just about to send a search party out after you guys.”
“No kidding,” acknowledged Amogh.
“Well, I actually tried calling Casey—just to make sure everything was alright—but my phone is getting zero service right now.”
One by one, each took a moment to inspect their trusted mobile devices.
“It must be the storm,” Casey concluded. “It has to be interfering with our signals.”
“Do you think the winds messed with the cell tower?” Lucia asked.
Yi reported, “The internet is down on the library desktops too. I just checked before you guys got here.”
“Well,” noted Casey, “I guess we will have to entertain ourselves. What was all of that about Christmas and spooky stories?”
“I’ve had my fill of ghost stories,” Amogh moaned.
“That’s what I was saying,” seconded Yi. “We endured the madness of the American’s October… their Halloween.”
“I admit,” Lucia contributed, “Mexico loves its Día de Los Muertos—the day of the dead. But our holiday is more about honoring loved ones who have passed on and remembering our holy saints. It isn’t really about scares and gore like it is here in the U.S.”
“I can get that,” Yi replied. “Honoring our ancestors is something we do as well in China. “I’m just saying, I never really tied Christmas with ghosts before.”
As Amogh and Casey were busy shedding their coats and pulling up their seats, Lucia filled them in, “The library has been piping in Christmas music all afternoon. We were listening to the thousandth version of the song, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, when we finally noticed the reference to ‘scary ghost stories.’ That’s when I also realized that the story about Scrooge is actually a ghost story too.”
After a moment of consideration, Casey replied, “I think the whole Christmas-ghost thing probably has something to do with the fact that Christmas was actually transposed on the Winter Solstice celebrations of old in an effort to co-opt the pagan’s holiday traditions. I think that the idea of ghosts more easily crossing to the land of the living during the dark nights of winter was a thing to the ancients—at least it was to the Celts of my homeland.”
“You know what?” Amogh nearly shouted. “Didn’t Shakespeare—yes, in his story, Winter Tale, Shakespeare said something like, ‘A sad tale’s best for winter’… his character in the story then says he has a sad story to tell… a story… ‘Of … spirits and goblins.’ What? Was I was the only one who did the bonus reading in Lit class?”
“Over-achiever,” Casey murmured. “Aren’t you pre-med, Amogh?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate some classic literature. Isn’t Shakespeare your compatriot, Casey?”
“Come off it, already.”
“Do you know what I also find weird about American Christmas?” Lucia broached, breaking up the bickering. “The whole idea of that toy Elf everybody puts up on their shelf. The thing is basically a spy that tattles on kids back to the big man in red.”
“Sounds like a custom China might be able to get behind,” Yi joked.
Not knowing exactly how much to laugh at the expense of their friend’s home country, Casey noted, “Why do parents need that elf anyhow? Kids are told that a man—held up all the way at the North Pole—can see them when they’re sleeping and he knows when they’re awake. Sounds a little Orwellian to me. Then there’s the matter of it being the one night of the year you actually want someone to break into your house while you’re sleeping.”
“Alright, alright,” Amogh stepped in. “Let’s not poke holes in the thought of Christmas here. I actually like the American version of Christmas. There is just something in the air around this time of year.”
“You mean, besides that chemical scent we’re all told is Christmas Blend? I bet that the chemicals that they throw together to make those Christmas candles are the same ones they mix in to brew up your scrumptious holiday lattes as well.”
Amogh laughed, “Scrooge junior here means bah, humbug.”
“Christmas is just alright.” Speaking in an exaggerated drop of tone, Casey continued, “Now speaking of ghost stories, did you chaps know that this very spot, here where you chose to set up camp tonight, is actually the very corner of the library where they say that girl committed suicide back in ’99.”
“You’re making that up,” scoffed Amogh.
“So goes the legend. In fact, I heard that she used the cord of her laptop charger to fashion herself a noose. Yes, this very place served as her personal gallows.”
“They had laptops back then?” chuckled Yi.
Ignoring the question, Casey continued, “They say that she was an anxious over-achiever—like Amogh, here—and one day she just got completely consumed by the pressure of finals week. It didn’t help any that her friends said she had come down with the most severe case of the Winter Blues.”
“Que?” curiously inquired Lucia. “Winter Blues?”
Amogh explained, “The official name is Season Affective Disorder, or S.A.D.—ironic, right? Anyway, when the days get darker and the temperatures get colder, people are forced to stay indoors more often. Anyway, the theory is that the lack of vitamin D and outdoor activity makes people more susceptible to depression.” Nudging Casey with his words, Amogh continued, “Winter Blues can also be hard on singles.”
“Actually,” Casey added, “I think that they say that suicide rates spike during this time of the year, from Christmas to Valentine’s Day.”
“Well?” questioned Amogh.
“Now that you mention it,” Yi suddenly announced, “I think that I might have a little of the Winter Blues. “I don’t know about you guys, but I beginning to miss home a little.”
All nodded or voiced a rumbling in the affirmative.
Yi elaborated, “All the legal documentation for leaving and re-entering the U.S. would have been a hassle. Initially, I didn’t think it was really worth it, just to return to my home village for a couple of weeks. But now…”
“I couldn’t really afford the expenses of an international flight to and back from Mexico,” revealed Lucia, in turn. “I was barely able to finish off my payment arrangements for the fall semester before I had to enroll in spring courses.”
Amogh admitted, “At first I thought that I didn’t want to go back to India. I mean I have so many extended family members, and it’s always so crowded in India anyway—especially around Diwali time. But I’m starting to feel a bit homesick too.”
“What’s Diwali?” asked Lucia.
“It’s like India’s festival of lights where we celebrate—”
Just as the group turned all eyes toward Amogh with interest in his account, all went black. There was a perceptible clicking sound. Then a gradually fading hum. Eyes widened and shot back and forth in the complete absence of light.
It took the crew a moment to feel around in the darkness for their phones. As soon as Yi was able to bump into his, he used the glow of his screen to assist the others in locating their own makeshift flashlights.
“What happened?” screeched Lucia.
“I think that was the storm knocking out our power,” Amogh responded after a deep breath.
“I’ve had my fill of ghost stories,”
With the glare of his phone casting a dancing of shadow and light upward from beneath his chin, Casey observed, “I guess. But I thought they said that the storm was to hit after midnight.”
“Yeah,” Amogh verified. “I can’t look up the weather alert now with our internet being down, but I remember the projections indicating that the storm was supposed to pass through our area of the Finger Lakes overnight.”
“Let’s take it easy,” Casey said. “I’m sure the campus has backup energy generators or something. In fact, I bet that we will—”
Almost on command, the emergency lights systems flickered to life. The blackout was no longer total, yet visibility was minimized to a realm of dusk.
“Did anybody hear that?” Amogh demanded as his head nearly snapped completely around.
“None of you heard that? Really? It sounded like—”
Suddenly, the rest of the three students were sprung from their seats in sheer panic. An unexpected burst echoed upward from the ground level beneath their elevated perch. The din of a bulldozing impact resonated throughout, followed by the clinking of shattered glass raining down to the ground.
“What the bloody hell was that?” stammered Casey.