Chapter 52: Uris
Thunder rumbles the stone bones of Cornell’s Uris library. I sit behind the curved glass of the underground addition, a concrete and turf-bolstered bunker known incongruously both as the “Cocktail Lounge” and the “Group Study Area” though I can’t imagine serving cocktails here and the only groups present seem to be studying the insides of their eyelids.
Libe slope spreads beneath me—dorms in the foreground; Ithaca’s flats, Cayuga Lake and Connecticut Hill in the distance. The letter had predicted a bad storm, and severe storms are not uncommon in the Finger Lakes in May, but the monster churning over Trumansburg is another sort of beast altogether.
The sky over Ithaca is simply not of this earth. On the fringes of the storm front wander the flat-topped cells of potent but ordinary thunderheads, dark curds spinning off like tumbleweeds. But the center of the front bearing down on the land between the lakes rears and curls like a black tsunami. Concentric, layered rings give the appearance of a mushroom cloud from which descends an opaque curtain like an ashen bed skirt, and beneath it all, a back-lit jaundiced haze of rain. I have never witnessed such a storm. It’s the kind of entrance the Four Horsemen would make.
I drum my sweaty fingers against the arm of my chair. It’s been a strange day, full of bodily visitations and alien urges. I started off by heading to work, ignoring the letter’s pleadings to stay put, but when the traffic incidents and raccoons and bees all started to conspire against me, I took the company library pass and came straight here, ensconcing myself in this chair with a teetering stack of books, ignoring the ripples and flutters that kept squirming through my brain like a worm, fluttering in my chest like a second beating heart.
The yellowed envelope sits atop a tower of mouldering Apocrypha: the Book of Enoch, the Gospel of Thomas; along with every literary depiction of the afterlife I could dredge out of the stacks—most notably Paradise Lost and Dante’s Purgatorio.
My cell phone buzzes in my pocket. Gina’s been trying to reach me all day. This last weekend has been tumultuous, almost disastrous, and issues remain unresolved. I’m not even sure if a resolution is possible or desirable. For the fourth time, I let her call go through to voice mail and don’t even bother to look at the stack of text messages that has undoubtedly collected.
The library is packed. It’s the last week of final exams. I hear a tapping sound, a rattling breath. Chills trickle through me. A stubble-faced old man in a moth-eaten sweater wanders by, looking confused. Some emeritus professor, most likely, who’s lost his way. His cane probes a centipede’s feelers. He thumps past, dangling a yellowed shirt-tail over the back of his gray slacks.
As the storm swallows Ithaca, I no longer believe it was such a crazy thing to come here. I’m glad I listened to that strange woman who showed up on my porch speaking of ghosts and bearing a letter, she said, bearing warnings from beyond the grave. I took her to be a wacko. I had almost called the cops on her.
But everything she had told me has come true, from the series of little accidents that had befallen me in the morning, to the unsettling proddings and probings under my skin and in my bones, and now the very storm that would take my life if I failed to heed the letter she had come to deliver.
She came to me in early March, just before the trees started to bud, when the crocuses had just begun to pop. She pulled up to the house in a baby blue Cadillac with Connecticut plates. I was out back, refilling the bird feeder, certain that this stranger had come to the wrong house.
She came up the driveway, a heavy-set woman, honey blonde and gray, with doll-like features made grotesque by age and obesity.
“Dan?” she said. “You Dan Tompkins?”
“That’s me. Can I help you?”
“I got something here for you.” She showed me a yellow, dog-eared envelope, sealed and stained with rings of coffee.
My name is hand-lettered neatly on the front.
“What’s that?” I said.
“A difference-maker,” she said. “This will change your life.” She put her hand on my wrist and looked at me with what I took to be the earnest and empty stare of a proselytizer. “Before you read this, you’ve got to promise me to take this with an open mind. There are things in this universe we can’t possibly know, things unknowable to most of us … like life after death. Do you not agree?”
I’m not even sure I believe in an afterlife, fallen Catholic that I am, but I shrugged and sort of nodded. “Yeah, sure,” I said. “I mean … that’s unknowable.”
“Do you believe in ghosts?” she said. “Messages from beyond?”
That threw me. I was expecting Jesus talk. Saviors and such. I put the bag of birdseed down on a rusty patio table.
“Someone I know is trying to help you,” she said. “He’s my ex. Not the most dependable guy that’s ever lived, but his heart’s in the right place, and he wants to save you from a premature death.”
“I’ve been holding this letter for eleven years. He told me not to bring it to you too soon, and I see what he meant. You must have been in Middle School still when he came to see me. I was going to bring it this past winter, but I’ve been sick. I was getting worried I was cutting it too close, but I’m glad I waited. You’ve got two and a half months to come to terms with this. I suggest you take what’s written here really serious.”
“Who are you? Do I know you?” I said.
“Who I am doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m just the messenger.”
“Is this … some kind of scam?”
“I’m not asking for money. I’m just asking that you take care of yourself. Do the things Marco asks in this letter and you’ll be safe.”
“Sounds like a threat.”
“No,” she says. “Just a tip.”
“I don’t even know any Marcos.”
“You will,” she says. “If you don’t listen to what’s written here.” She handed me the letter.
“Why didn’t he bring me this himself?”
“Because he’s dead,” she said. “Eleven years I’ve been holding this for you. Kept it in a safe deposit box. Every year about this time I’d go to the bank to check on it, make sure it was okay. Please, I went through a lot of trouble to get this to you. Do take it seriously. There’s only one thing you need to do, and you’ll be fine: don’t go outside on the 17th of May. I don’t want to be reading about you in any obit.” She turned to leave.
“Wait!” I said. “What if I have questions? How do I contact you? Can I at least have your phone number?”
“I’m washing my hands of this,” she said. “Everything you need to know is in that letter.” She walked back to the driveway and got back in the car. I watched her start the car up and back out, her face grim but relieved. I wrote her plate number down on my palm: CRC 206.
As for the letter, I took it inside, but I was afraid to open it for days. It was the weekend before I got around to it. This is what it said:
You don’t know me, and if you’re lucky, you never will. Pay attention now. Someone wants you dead, and they will try lots of ways to get it done. You’re going to feel funny inside that day. This person has a way of getting into people. You’ll know what I mean when it happens. You’re going to think stuff you never think. Feel pains you never felt before. I know this, because you told me. Sounds strange, but if this letter does the trick, then all of that will get untold, and you will get undead.
Just to give me an extra boost of credibility (Something tells me I’m going to need it!), here are some tips. The Boston Bruins are going to blow a 3-0 edge to lose a seven game series in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Count on it. The Red Sox are going to fall below 0.500 the weekend before May 17. And the Celtics are going to beat some guy named Lebron James in six games. How do I know this shit? Because you told me.
To sum up, You will die if you get caught in the storm that’s coming down May 17, 2010. You remember that date like your own birthday and take cover in the deepest, sturdiest hole you can find. Don’t you dare go outside.
You saved me once from a gal named Alecto, so now I’m returning the favor.
Take care, Your friend,
A month went by. I put the letter aside and didn’t think much of it. But then the Bruins lost their series exactly the way he said they would and I fished the letter out again, had a good look at it. The notebook paper was brown and crumbly at the edges. I suppose it could have been forged, but it sure didn’t look it.
Now it’s May 17. I took the letter to work with me this morning just for reference, not really thinking anything would actually happen.
My commute was somewhat disturbing with my bonehead driving and the pains and all. I blamed it on sleeplessness and sciatica.
But I wasn’t in the lab much more than an hour before the weirdness started to accumulate. I read the letter and read it again and told Dr. Sharma I was going home sick, but instead, here I am in Uris, and I’ve been here all day.
The storm slams into Ithaca. Traffic lights are swinging madly, debris is flying. Pseudopods extend down from the clouds like baby tornadoes. Webs of lightning span the breadth of the skyline.
The storm’s ferocity awakens some of the slumbering students and they sit there and gawk, looking all disoriented. Other students come to stare down at the solid sheets of water pummeling the lake, until the scene is blotted out by jets of wind-blown rain.
The power blinks out. The thrum of the ventilation system silences. Students groan.
I stay put, safely ensconced in the soft round armchair as the storm beats its head against the glassed in bunker. Just when it seems like it will never end, it winds down to spasms and spurts. The rain falls vertically and evenly, the wind finds a calmer pitch.
The clouds thin and lift, revealing Ithaca below. North of town, the sun glances off the surface of Cayuga Lake. The world begins to brighten. The pressure that has been clamping down on my chest all day releases, and I feel freed.
At the base of Libe Slope, the monstrous elm that once graced the corner of Campus and West Avenue now reclines across the road, its exposed roots poking up like gnarled toes. One of the spruces on the slope itself has been cleaved in two as if by an axe blade. A row of recently planted Japanese Maples in the new construction below West Avenue have sprung from their moorings and lie neatly across the walk. The grounds are covered with branches and posters.Outside, the clouds are peeling away. The sun sends a shaft racing up the lawn, refracting through the windows of my bunker. I sit awed, humbled, relieved; the universe tons weirder and more dangerous than when I got up this morning.