The shape of the corridor remains boxy as we keep north, but the walls, which were once concrete, are increasingly of stone. I can hear my father's voice, explaining the etymology of the word sarcophagus.
From the Greek meaning flesh-eating… because Greek coffins were made of limestone, which consumed the entire body-everything but the teeth-within forty days.
Gil's lead has grown to twenty feet. Like Charlie, he moves quickly, accustomed to the landscape. Paul's silhouette blinks in and out of the uneven light. His hair is matted against his forehead, tamped down with sweat, and I remember that he's hardly slept in days.
Thirty yards up, we find Gil waiting for us, his eyes shifting from place to place as he shepherds us toward the exit. He's looking for a backup plan. We're taking too long.
I close my eyes, trying to see a map of campus in my thoughts.
Just fifty more feet, Charlie calls to Paul. A hundred at most.
When we arrive below the manhole near Clio, Gil turns to us.
I'll pop the lid and look out. Get ready to run back the way we came. He glances down. I've got 7:29.
He grips the lowest step iron, lifts himself into position, and raises his forearm against the manhole cover. Before applying pressure, he looks over his shoulder and says, Remember, the proctors can't come down here to get us. All they can do is tell us to come out. Stay down and don't say anyone's name. Got it?
The three of us nod.
Gil takes a deep breath, shoves his fist upward, and pivots the cover against his elbow. It cracks open half a foot. He takes a quick inventory— then a voice comes from above.
Don't move! Stay right there!
I can hear Gil hiss, Shit.
Grabbing his shirt, Charlie pulls him back, catching him as he loses his footing.
Go! Over there! Turn your flashlight off!
I stumble into the darkness, pressing Paul in front of me. I try to remember my way.
Stay to the right. Pipes on the left, stay to the right
My shoulder glances the wall and tears my shirt. Paul is staggering, exhausted by the heat. We manage twenty paces stumbling over each other before Charlie stops us so Gil can catch up. In the distance a flashlight enters the tunnel through the open manhole. An arm descends after it, followed by a head.
Come out of there!
The beam twitches in both directions, sending a triangle of light sharking through the tunnel.
Now a second voice, a woman's.
This is your last warning!
I look over at Gil. In the darkness I can see the contours of his head as he shakes it, warning us not to speak.
Paul's breath is wet on the back of my neck. He leans against the wall, beginning to look faint. The woman's voice comes again, deliberately loud as she speaks to her partner.
Call it in. Post officers at all the manholes.
For a moment the flashlight retracts from the opening. Charlie immediately presses at our backs. We run until we reach a T in the tunnels, then continue past it and veer right around a corner into unfamiliar territory.
They can't see us here, Gil whispers, out of breathe, clicking on his flashlight. Another long tunnel retreats out of sight, toward what I take to be the northwest of campus.
What now? Charlie says.
Back to Dod, Gil suggests.
Paul wipes his forehead. Can't. They padlocked the exit.
They'll watch all the main grates, Charlie says.
I begin pacing down the westward tunnel. Is this the fastest way northwest?
Because I think we can get out near Rocky-Mathey. How far is it from here?
Charlie hands the last of our water to Paul, who drinks it eagerly. A few hundred yards, he says. Maybe more.
Through this tunnel?
Gil considers for a second, then nods.
I got nothing better, Charlie says.
The three of them begin to follow me into the dark.
For some distance we continue through the same passageway in silence. Charlie trades flashlights with me once my beam grows too weak, but keeps his focus on Paul, who seems more and more disoriented. When Paul finally stops to lean on a wall, Charlie props him up and helps him on, reminding him not to touch the pipes. With each step, the last drops of water plink in empty bottles. I begin to wonder if I've lost my bearings.
Guys, Charlie says from behind us, Paul's fading.
I just need to sit down, Paul says weakly.
Suddenly Gil directs a flashlight into the distance, bringing a set of metal bars into view. Damn it.
Security gate, Charlie says.
What do we do?
Gil crouches to look Paul in the eye. Hey, he says, shaking Paul's shoulders. Is there a way out of here?
Paul points at the steam pipe beside the security gate, then makes an unsteady downward swoop with his arm. Go under.
Scanning the pipe with my flashlight, I see insulation worn away on the pipe's underside, just inches above the floor. Someone has tried this before.
No way, Charlie says. Not enough room.
There's a release latch on the other side, Gil says, pointing to a device by the wall. Only one of us has to go. Then we can open the gate. He lowers his head to Paul's level again. You've done this before?
He's dehydrated, Charlie says under his breath. Does anyone have some water?
Gil hands a half-empty bottle to Paul, who greedily drinks it down.
We should go back, Charlie says.
No, I say. I'll do it.
Take my coat, Gil offers. For insulation.
I put a hand on the steam pipe. Even through the padding, it's pulsing with heat.
You won't fit, Charlie says. Not with the coat.
I'm okay without it, I tell them.
But when I lower myself to the floor, I realize how tight the opening is. The insulation is scalding. On my stomach, I force myself between the floor and the pipe.
Exhale and pull yourself through, Gil says.
I inch forward and force myself flat-but when I reach the tightest section, my hands find no grip, only puddles of ooze. Suddenly I'm pinned beneath the pipe.
Shit, Gil growls, falling to his knees.
Tom, Charlie says, and I can feel a pair of hands at my feet. Push off me.
I force my feet off his palms. My chest scrapes hard against the concrete, and one thigh glances the pipe where the insulation is gone. Reflex jerks it away just as I feel the lancing-hot pain.
You okay? Charlie asks, when I shimmy through to the other side.
Turn the latch clockwise, Gil says.
When I do, the security gate unlocks. Gil pushes it open, and Charlie follows, still supporting Paul.
You sure about this? Charlie asks, when we advance into the darkness.
I nod. A few steps on, we arrive at a crude R painted on a wall. We're approaching Rockefeller, one of the residential colleges. As a freshman, I dated a girl named Lana McKnight who lived there. We spent much of that winter sitting by a lazy fire in her dorm room, back before the flues on campus were shut for good. The things we discussed seem so distant now: Mary Shelley and college Gothic and the Buckeyes. Her mother had taught at Ohio State, like my father. Lana's breasts were shaped like eggplants and her ears were the color of rose petals when we stayed too long by the fire.
Soon I can hear voices coming from overhead. Many of them.
What's going on? Gil asks as he draws near the source.
The manhole cover is just over his shoulder.
That's it, I say, coughing. Our way out.
He looks at me, trying to understand.
In the silence I can hear the voices more clearly-rowdy ones; students, not proctors. Dozens of them, moving around our heads.
Charlie begins to smile. The Nude Olympics, he says.
It dawns on Gil. We're right under them.
There's a manhole in the middle of the courtyard, I remind them, leaning on die stone wall, trying to catch my breath. All we have to do is pop the lid, join the pack, and disappear.
But from behind me, Paul speaks up in a hoarse voice. All we have to do is undress, join the pack, and disappear.
For a moment there's silence. It's Charlie who starts to unbutton his shirt first.
Get me out of here, he says, choking out a laugh as he pulls it off,
I yank off my jeans; Gil and Paul follow. We begin stuffing our clothes into one of the packs until it's bulging at the seams.
Can you carry all that? Charlie asks, offering to take both packs again.
I hesitate. You know there'll be proctors out there, right?
But by now Gil is beyond doubt. He begins to climb the rungs.
Three hundred naked sophomores, Tom. If you can't make it home with that kind of diversion, you deserve to be caught.
And with that, he forces open the cover, letting a gust of freezing air cascade into the tunnel. It rejuvenates Paul like a balm.
Okay, boys, Gil calls down, looking back one more time. Let's get this meat to market.
My first memory of leaving that tunnel is how bright it suddenly became. Overhead lamps lit the courtyard. Security lights fanned the white earth. Camera flashes pulsed across the sky like fireflies.
Then comes the rush of cold: the howl of the wind, even louder than the feet stomping and the voices roaring. Flakes melt on my skin like dewdrops.
Finally I see it. A wall of arms and legs, spinning around us like an endless snake. Faces pop in and out of view-classmates, football players, women who caught my eye crossing campus-but they fade into the abstraction like clips in a collage. Here and there I see strange outfits-top hats and superhero capes, artwork painted across chests of every description-but it all recedes into the great, rolling animal, the Chinatown dragon, moving to hoots and shouts and flashbulb firecrackers. Come on! Gil shouts.
Paul and I follow, mesmerized. I've forgotten what Holder is like on the night of the first snowfall.
The great conga line swallows us and for a second I'm lost even to myself, pressed tight against bodies in all directions, trying to keep my balance with a pack on my shoulders and snow underfoot. Someone pushes me from behind and I feel the zipper burst. Before I can shut it, our clothes have spilled out the top. In an instant all of them are gone, trampled in the mud. I look around, hoping Charlie's behind me to catch what's left, but he's nowhere to be seen.
Breasts and buttocks, buttocks and breasts, a young man somewhere is chanting in a cockney accent, as if he were selling flowers on the set of My Fair Lady. Across the way I see a fat junior from my lit seminar sneaking into the crowd of sophomores, belly rocking. He's wearing nothing but a sandwich board that reads free test drive on the front and inquire within on the back. Finally I spot Charlie. He's already made his way to the other side of the circle, where Will Clay, another member of the EMT squad, is wearing a pith helmet flanked with beer cans. Charlie snags it off the top of his head and the two begin chasing each other through the courtyard until I can't see them anymore.
Laughter fades in and out. In the commotion, I feel a hand grab my forearm. Let's go.
Gil yanks me toward the outside of the circle. What now? Paul says.
Gil looks around, spotting proctors at every exit. This way, I tell them.
We near one of the dorm entrances and duck into Holder Hall. A drunk sophomore opens the door to her room and stands there, confused, as if we're the ones who are supposed to greet her. She sizes us up, then raises a bottle of Corona in her hand.
Cheers. She belches, then shuts the door just in time for me to see one of her roommates warming up by the fireplace, wearing nothing but a towel.
Come on, I say.
They follow me up a flight of stairs, where I bang loudly on one of the doors.
What are you doi- Gil begins.
But before he can finish, the door opens and I'm greeted by a pair of great green eyes. The lips below them open faintly at the sight of me. Katie is dressed in a tight Navy T-shirt and a pair of weathered jeans; her auburn hair is pulled back into a short ponytail. Before letting us in, she bursts out laughing.
I knew you'd be here, I say, rubbing my hands. When I step in and hug her, the embrace is warm and welcome.
A birthday suit for my birthday, she says, looking me up and down. Her eyes are glowing. So this is why you didn't call.
As Katie backs into the room I see Paul fixated on the camera in her hand, a Pentax with a telephoto lens almost as long as her forearm.
What's that for? Gil asks when Katie turns to put the camera on a bookshelf.
Taking shots for the Prince she says. Maybe they'll print one this time.
This must be why she's not running. Katie has been trying all year to get a photo on the front page of the Daily Princetonian but the seniority system has worked against her. Now she's turned the tables. Only freshmen and sophomores have rooms in Holder, and hers overlooks the entire courtyard.
Where's Charlie? she asks.
Gil shrugs, staring down through the window. Out there playing grab-ass with Will Clay.
Katie returns to me, still smiling. How long did it take you to plan this?
Days, Gil improvises, when I can't think of a way to explain that this whole performance wasn't for her. Maybe a week.
Impressive, Katie says. The weathermen didn't know it would start snowing until this morning.
Hours, Gil revises. Maybe a day.
Her eyes never leave me. So let me guess. You need a change of clothes.
We need three.
Katie retreats to her closet and says, Must be pretty chilly out there. Looks like the cold was starting to get to you guys.
Paul looks at her as if she can't possibly mean what he thinks. Is there a phone I could use? he asks, gathering his wits.
Katie points at a cordless on the desk. I move across the room and press up against her, pushing her into the closet. She tries to shake me off, but when I press too hard, both of us fall onto the rows of shoes, high heels in all the wrong places. It takes a second to untangle ourselves, and I stand up expecting moans from Paul and Gil. But their focus is elsewhere. Paul is in the corner, whispering into the phone, while Gil peers out the window. At first I think Gil's looking for Charlie. Then I see the proctor in his line of sight, speaking into his radio as he approaches.
Hey, Katie, Gil says, we don't need matching outfits here. Anything works.
Relax, she says, coming back with handfuls of clothing on hangers. She lays out three pairs of sweatpants, two T-shirts, and a blue dress shirt I've been missing since March. It's the best I can do on short notice.
We throw ourselves into them. Suddenly, from the entryway downstairs, the hiss of a hand radio cuts the air. The outside door to the building thuds shut.
Paul hangs up the phone. I have to get to the library.
You guys go out the back, Katie says, voice quickening. I'll deal with it.
I take her hand as Gil thanks her for the clothes.
I'll see you later? she says to me, conjuring something in her eyes. It's a look that always comes with a smile now, because she can't believe I still fall for it.
Gil groans and drags me out the door by my arm. As we duck out of the building, I can hear Katie's voice calling down to the proctor.
Officer! Officer! I need your help…
Gil turns back, eyes trained on her room. When he sees the proctor arrive in the crosshairs of Katie's leaded window, his expression lightens. Before long, as we head into the piercing wind, Holder vanishes behind a curtain of snow. Campus is nearly empty as we descend toward Dod, and any residue of the tunnels' heat seems to radiate away, washed off in tiny beads of snow that roll from my cheeks. Paul walks slightly ahead of us, keeping a more purposeful pace. The entire time, he doesn't speak a word.