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Higher Education


Dirk Bauman

Arthur Faust yawned as the elevator doors opened, and he stepped out into the basement tunnel system that connected the buildings of the sprawling campus. So far he’d spent two and a half years at Saint Claire Community College with little more to show for it than an Associate’s Degree in boredom. With two weeks remaining before the start of summer quarter, he had yet to find one single class listed in the bulletin that piqued enough interest to warrant a visit to the registration desk. He knew he had to find something soon if he intended to keep his cushy campus job during the summer months. Campus employment policy required a minimum of a three credit hour course load if one wished to hold one’s job during the summer term. Preferring the air-conditioned comfort of an academic computer lab to the fast food, deep fat fryer hell of the real world, he resigned himself to finding a class offering the required credits and a minimum of expended energy.

Arthur followed the twisting hallways until the placards on the walls announced that he'd reached his desired building. He quickly located another elevator and pushed the service button. A red digital number one lit up above the sliding doors, followed a moment later by the number two. He sighed with frustration knowing that the elevator would continue its slow journey all the way up to the fourth floor before reversing itself and returning to the basement. He shook his head, and as he did so, his eye fell upon one of the omnipresent bulletin boards scattered throughout the campus. It was covered with the usual assortment of garish flyers advertising the wide variety of classes being offered in the upcoming quarter.

The majority of the flyers lured prospective students with the promise of the academic adventure of a lifetime and ended with the reality of advanced algebra, statistics, or Conversational Spanish II. Having no intention of winding up mired in the Gordian knot of higher mathematics, or sitting at his desk conjugating verbs for hours on end, Arthur continued to look through the selection of available classes. Just as he was about to give up on finding anything of interest and return to his wait at the elevator, his eye was caught by a rectangular flyer hanging near the bottom of the bulletin board with a small picture of a cartoon devil on it. He tore it from the bulletin board and read:

Arthur had studied Dante’s Inferno in one of his previous high-school classes, and if memory served him correctly, he still had his notes tucked away somewhere in a closet at home. If the summer syllabus for Professor Dichner’s class provided a list of the required assignments, he just might be able to manage a passing grade without ever attending a single class. He folded up the small flyer and tucked it away in his shirt pocket. The elevator chimed, and the door opened just as he walked up to it.

* * * *

The next morning Arthur located Building Thirteen and rode the elevator down to the basement level. He had never been on this part of campus before and was quickly lost in the seemingly endless maze of dimly lit hallways. The majority of the rooms were locked and marked with “Electrical Shock Warning” or “Danger, Radiation” signs. There seemed to be an awful lot of strange mechanical noises emanating from behind most of the closed doors, and he began to wonder if perhaps a mistake had been made in the address number given for the location of the professor’s office. After all, the flyers were generally put together by students who were in a hurry to complete the task and get back to more important projects, like partying and finding dates for Saturday nights. He decided to try one last hallway before giving up on his quest and heading back to the computer lab to report for work.

After walking halfway down one more hallway filled with warning signs and the sound of rumbling machinery, Arthur stopped and decided to call it quits. That’s when he first noticed the odd smell. He sniffed the air. Once. Twice. A third time… Wood-smoke? It couldn’t be…could it? Curiosity aroused, he decided that perhaps he should investigate, and if something were amiss, he could sound the fire alarm. Following his nose he proceeded farther down the corridor and at last discovered a door from which the scent of wood-smoke seemed to originate. There was a small brass plaque on the door. It read:

Arthur knocked on the door, and a hearty bass voice called out, “Come in, come in, the door is open.” Arthur opened the door and stepped inside a dimly lit office. As his eyes adjusted to the near darkness, he caught his first glimpse of the bespectacled gentleman sitting behind a large desk. He appeared to be in his early fifties, no more than five and a half feet in height, and portly of build. His eyes twinkled brightly behind a pair of round wire-rimmed glasses perched precariously upon the bridge of his nose. Wearing a pleasant smile the man stood up and stuck out a hand, “I’m Professor Dichner. Poet Laureate.” The two men shook hands, and after exchanging introductions, the professor gestured towards a chair: “Please be seated.”

Arthur sat down in the indicated chair. He looked around the office and was struck by the odd menagerie of items that covered various shelves or hung from the walls and ceiling. There was quite a collection of gargoyles and what appeared to be crudely carved statues of animal totems and strange quasi-human figurines. The walls were covered with pieces of parchment manuscripts bearing very stylized calligraphy and medieval illumination of fantastic design. Garishly decorated masks hung from the ceiling and seemed to observe the proceedings occurring beneath them with a quiet malevolence. Even the desk behind which the professor was sitting was out of the ordinary. It looked to be carved from a large block of stone upon the top of which sat a slab of wood. The stone base was covered in what appeared to be something akin to Celtic runes very cleverly interspersed with bas-relief carvings of human figures dancing and cavorting in a most lascivious manner. “This is an amazing collection,” Arthur began, “Where on Earth did you manage to find all these things?”

The professor smiled and his eyes twinkled over the top of his glasses. “Ah, I see you are a boy with a fine eye for quality. I like that in a lad! You appreciate the mystical, I take it?”

Arthur smiled. “Thank you, sir. Yes, sir, I do. My girlfriend is really into the Wicca thing and her room is decorated kind of like this.” Arthur looked around the room once more and sniffed at the air. “I thought I smelled wood smoke in the hallway earlier and was a bit worried. The smell seems to be a bit heavier in here.”

The professor leaned back in his chair and looked chagrined. “I’m afraid you’ve caught me indulging in one of my few vices. I’m quite fond of good cigars--a special blend of my own recipe I call “Tormentor delle Anime.” I know I shouldn’t be smoking in the building, but it is such an inconvenience to travel through these interminable hallways to the upper floors.” He smiled and gave Arthur a small conspiratorial wink. “I trust that you won’t see fit to report my little indiscretion?”

Arthur grinned and shook his head. He was really starting to like this man. “You needn’t worry, sir, mum’s the word.”

The professor nodded his head and sat forward once again. “You’re a good lad. Now, what can I do for you? I’m sure you didn’t come all this way for idle chit-chat.”

“Actually, sir, I was hoping you could give me a little information about your class on Dante’s Inferno. Perhaps some idea of what assignments or projects you’ll require for grading?”

“I’d be happy to, my boy! First off, I don’t believe in tests or quizzes so I don’t give them. Second, there are no papers outside of class to write. There is only one assigned project to complete, and I will explain it fully to you on the first day of class. Any questions?”

“No tests?” Arthur couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“That’s correct.”

“No papers?” Arthur smiled. Things just kept getting better and better.

“None at all.”

“What’s the catch?” Arthur sat back in his chair and prepared for inevitable other shoe to drop.

Professor Dichner smiled and spread his hands out in front of him. “None at all, my boy. I just understand how young kids are today, and I’m sure you can think of better things to do with fine summer days than spend them poring over stuffy homework.”

Arthur stood up and prepared to leave. “Thank you, sir. I think you can count on seeing me in class this summer.”

“Excellent!” The professor stood up and offered Arthur a small white sheet of paper. “If you decide to take the course, simply fill out this form and turn it in to the admissions desk. I look forward to seeing you again.”

* * * *

Arthur couldn’t help but smile, considering that it was the first day of a new quarter, things couldn’t have been going along any smoother. The long line of people waiting in the registration lines had been processed and moved along quickly. When he’d picked up his fee bill and class schedule from the girl at the end of the line, she’d smiled and been quick to give him a phone number. He glanced at his class schedule and searched for the time and room number for Professor Dichner’s class. He found it and read Dante’s Inferno, Rm. 020, Building Thirteen. Arthur chuckled to himself as he walked off towards the already familiar building. If this class proved to be as easy as the professor outlined it, the summer quarter was going to be Skate City.

* * * *

As the elevator doors opened and Arthur prepared to step out into the basement, he nearly collided with Professor Dichner. The professor quickly stepped into the elevator and the doors slid closed.

“I’m so sorry, sir!” Arthur blustered. “I was just on my way to meet you for class.”

“Think nothing of it, lad. Lucky we bumped into each other and can now save ourselves an extra trip back through these damned hallways. Are you ready to begin your journey?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Good. Let’s get to class, shall we?” Professor Dichner turned towards the elevator control panel, pushed the down button, and the elevator began to descend. Quickly…

“Whoa, I didn’t even know the school had sub-levels. Just where is this classroom located?” Arthur braced himself against the sidewall of the elevator as it continued to pick up speed. Soon the metal walls began to squeal as the stress points began to shake and rattle. The lights began to dim and flicker madly. “Wh-wh-what’s going on here?” Arthur stammered, and then cringed as Professor Dichner turned to face him and began to smile cruelly. Something was beginning to happen to the face of the professor. It was changing.

Arthur watched with mounting fear as the features of the small professor began to shift and metamorphose. A goatee sprouted on his chin. Dark black wooly hair began to cover his head and run down the back of his neck. Arthur’s eyes began to open wide with terror as two small horns, resembling those of a goat, began growing out of the front sides of the professor’s forehead. The smell of sulfur began to fill the air as the elevator car started to shake wildly, and still Arthur watched as the horrible transformation continued.

Arthur grew pale as the body of the professor swelled larger and larger until his clothes began to rip at the seams and fall away from his body. The once small professor now stood at a height of six feet tall, or more. His legs began a liquid shifting and melting, forming and reforming, as hair covered them at an impossible rate of speed. The metal of the elevator screeched with an unholy agony as if it would shred itself to bits at any moment. Then it stopped. Jarringly. And Arthur fell to the floor, sobbing. The goat man towered above him and laughed.

* * * *

The elevator doors opened onto a dark and alien, nightmare landscape. The ground appeared to be composed of burning coals. The hot air seemed to waver and shimmer, and suddenly Arthur realized it was because the atmosphere was on fire. A blistering heat rushed into the elevator and sucked the breath away from Arthur, and his crying stopped. “Wh-wh-what’s going on? This can’t be happening; it’s not real!”

The goat man roared with laughter, and then reared back his cloven-footed leg. “This is where class begins, boy.” The leg swept forward and booted the stunned Arthur out through the elevator exit.

Arthur tumbled head over heels, finally coming t o rest upon his backside, looking back into the car from which he’d just been bounced. Arthur tried to rise, but the goat man lifted a hand, and he felt his body held down as if by an invisible force. The goat man leaned forward, his eyes turning black as night. “The only thing you need to do to complete this course, boy, is to find your way back.” He lifted his great head and shook with laughter. “Good luck, son. You’ll need it.”

The doors to the elevator started to close. Arthur began to tremble in horror as the elevator rose into the air like a burning cinder and then faded rapidly into nothingness. An unnatural darkness descended, and terrible shapes began approaching from the gloom around him. Red eyes peered forth from the darkness and began to draw closer and closer. Arthur took one last frantic look around the hellish landscape searching for an escape route. He felt a moist wet tentacle slither across his ankle. Then he opened his mouth and began to scream.

* * * *

Back in the comfy confines of his office, Professor Dichner leaned back in his chair and touched the end of the cigar hanging from his mouth with the thumb and index finger of his left hand. The end of the cigar began to glow a bright red as he puffed, and soon a cloud of smoke began to fill the room with what he regarded as a most pleasant aroma. “Kids today,” he chuckled aloud. “They just don’t realize what hell Italian poetry truly is.”