Chapter 1 - Christmas Nightmare
I forcefully slammed the enter key, releasing all the pent-up rage within me. The blinking caret cursor moved down a line, trailing behind the period at the end of the last sentence. I double-checked my name and student number, making sure they were typed correctly before hitting the save button.
What a title for a document. The file name encapsulated all the pain and despair I had experienced in the past three days. Erasing the remnants of my miserable stream of consciousness, I fixed the filename.
My fingers moved mechanically as I typed in the professor’s email address, attached the file, and clicked the send button. I couldn’t recall what I had written in the body of the email. It hardly mattered anyway. It was most likely a perfunctory message filled with insincere pleasantries like, “Dear Professor, I hope you are well despite the sudden chill in the weather, blah blah blah.”
Letting out an agonized groan, I collapsed onto my bed. The ceiling seemed to oscillate between extremes of brightness, making my vision spin.
Three days. It had taken me a full three days. Three days of sleepless nights, toiling away at this brutal end-of-semester report. While everyone else had finished their exams and projects early, celebrating or traveling, I was still here, confined to my room.
Christmas was fast approaching, and wreaths adorned the glass doors of the dorms. Every time I passed through those doors, I felt an overwhelming urge to tear the wreaths down, trample on them, and set them ablaze.
My damn roommate had finished his semester a week earlier than me. He was gleefully planning to spend Christmas at a guest house with his girlfriend, practically dancing as he hastily packed his belongings before zooming away. His carefree excitement only fueled my fury.
After enduring a series of notoriously challenging exams for my major, all that remained was my major specialization’s final report. The deadline loomed just three days away, and I still had to wring out 50 pages.
Taking a few deep breaths, I headed to the convenience store on the first floor of the dormitory. I approached the task with the determination of a warrior preparing to single-handedly storm an enemy camp. I grabbed energy drinks, canned coffee, and anti-drowsiness gum, my hands overflowing with supplies. Eventually, I asked the part-timer to sell me the goods by the box. The look of sheer disgust on his face was seared into my memory.
After that, my recollection grew hazy. I powered off my phone, tossing it aside, locked my door, and drew the black-out curtains. Oblivious to the passing of night and day, I plugged my ears with earplugs and worked on my report like a madman. When I finally typed the last period and obsessively hit Ctrl+S, my weary eyes caught the time in the corner of my screen, revealing that I had a mere 10 minutes left until the deadline.
I had finally finished. The moment I hit submit, my semester came to a close. Grades were momentarily irrelevant—what mattered now was that I had completed the task.
“I feel like the last three days have aged me three years…” I muttered, my voice cracking, as I nestled into my sheets. Sleep, which I had forsaken during this ordeal, suddenly crashed upon me. Even if a third world war erupted and nuclear bombs ravaged the earth, I felt that I would blissfully slumber through it all.
A sharp, needle-like pain pierced my stomach, likely due to subsisting solely on caffeine and taurine. Yet, beyond that, fatigue overwhelmed me. My phone remained silent and drained of power. With a sense of finality, I closed my eyes.
Now, nothing could interrupt me. I was going to sleep. Even if the world ended in this very moment, I would still be peacefully unconscious. If I were to meet my demise, I wanted it to be in the embrace of sleep.
“Farewell, everyone!” I released all worldly burdens and attachments, seeking my own happiness. “May all of you find happiness too!”
Mumbling incoherent words, perhaps sleep-talking, I closed my eyes. Flashes of red and blue swirled behind my closed eyelids. My consciousness sank deep as I descended into darkness.
* * *
I opened my eyes, feeling as though they were glued together. Groaning, I tossed and turned, struggling to free them. I fumbled around, eventually finding my phone near my head. It was plugged in. I had slept deeply but fitfully, briefly awakening and drifting back into slumber. At some point during my drowsy state, I must have plugged it in.
I stretched, yawning expansively. How long had I slept? A day? Two? I had woken up intermittently, but it felt as though I had experienced an extended period of rest. I used to be exhausted, but now I felt completely rejuvenated.
With sluggish steps, I made my way to the bathroom and indulged in a hot shower. The shoddily constructed dorms ensured that you could hear the running water from adjacent showers. Moreover, if multiple people used hot water simultaneously, it would turn tepid for the rest. However, the dormitory was eerily silent. Perhaps it was due to the holiday season. Hot water cascaded from the showerhead.
After relishing in the peaceful shower, I emerged with a towel draped over my head. The heater had been set to high while I slumbered, so I adjusted it to a more comfortable temperature and changed into fresh clothes. Now, I felt human again.
My phone indicated it was fully charged. I powered it on, absentmindedly rubbing my damp hair with the towel. As the manufacturer and telecom company logos appeared, my familiar home screen greeted me.
I furrowed my brow at the subsequent screen that popped up. The blurry numbers before my groggy eyes gradually came into focus.
I had an overwhelming number of missed calls and unread messages. It wouldn’t have been unusual to miss a few messages, considering I had turned off my phone and cut myself off from the world. But why were there hundreds of missed calls?
Most of the calls were from my family: my mother, father, and younger sister. Their names alternated in my call history, filling it up.
They weren’t calling to console their poor son, trapped in a remote school on Christmas… Perhaps I had taken so long to contact them that they feared something had happened to me. That was why I had informed them in advance that I couldn’t visit them for the holidays due to my busy schedule.
I decided to ease my parents’ worries first. I wanted to assure them that I was fine, despite my projects nearly driving me to the brink, and that I was still alive.
“The person you are calling is currently unavailable. Please leave a message after the tone—”
However, all I heard was the generic voicemail prompt. I called both of my parents, but neither answered. I tried contacting my sister, only to receive the same result.
All three of them were unreachable. Had they left the country without me for the holidays? No, if they had gone overseas, the message would have indicated that their phones were either turned off or connected to international roaming.
My mind went blank, and my heart sank into the pit of my stomach.
Scrolling down, I checked the other messages. They were from classmates in my department—both upperclassmen and underclassmen—along with other friends and acquaintances. All of them were desperate and urgent, inquiring about my well-being. The last message had been sent half a day ago. After that, there was no more communication—as if everyone had conspired together.
[x] Mother, it’s Hohyun.
[x] Has something happened?
Each message I had sent was marked with an X, indicating that it couldn’t be delivered due to a network connection error. My gaze fixated on the signal bar at the top of the screen. The Wi-Fi and data indicators were at rock bottom. Even though my university was situated amidst mountains, we weren’t so remote that making a simple call would be impossible. The school’s Wi-Fi was usually quite fast.
I attempted to send messages to different people, my apprehension growing. Something was wrong. I hastily pocketed my phone and slipped on my shoes. After days of confinement, my dorm room door finally swung open.
The dormitory was eerily quiet. Though the semester had ended, it was unusual for it to be this silent. Normally, some students stayed behind for winter session courses, while others remained to participate in clubs or prepare for other exams. There should have been more people around.
The hallway appeared deserted. I scanned my surroundings. It was a straight passageway with a few open doors on either side. Even though the rooms were empty, why weren’t they locked? I briskly walked down the corridor, briefly peeking into the rooms. They contained clothes, books, and personal belongings strewn about.
Descending the stairs at the end of the hallway, I reached the ground floor. Upon turning the corner from the lobby, I spotted the sign of a convenience store franchise. It was a popular spot for students tired of ordering food and too lazy to visit the dormitory cafeteria. This was the same store I had frequented before delving into that end-of-semester report.
All the lights in the convenience store were on. I recognized the familiar labels on the items. Behind the counter, a shelf displayed a variety of cigarettes. For a moment, I felt a sense of relief. It seemed as though I was finally awakening from a bewildering nightmare.
Yes, nothing terrible could have occurred. Perhaps my phone data issues were merely a temporary glitch in telecommunications, and it was mere coincidence that I hadn’t encountered anyone on my way here.
“Excuse me,” I called out, but there was no one in the store.
The part-timer who should have been at the counter was also absent. Had she gone to the restroom? I surveyed my surroundings. The door to the storage room next to the counter was slightly ajar.
“Is anyone here?” No response emanated from within. I raised my voice a bit. “Excuse me! Hello!”
The storage room remained ominously silent. Approaching it cautiously, I could hear rustling sounds from inside. Perhaps they hadn’t heard me due to being engrossed in checking inventory.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, but I have a question.”
I peered into the doorway. The store was brightly lit, but the storage room was engulfed in darkness. How were they conducting inventory in such darkness?
An eerie noise reached my ears. I stared blankly at the shadows within the room. It suddenly dawned on me—the unmistakable stench of blood wafted from inside.
Someone—or something—turned to face me. In the dim light, I couldn’t see clearly, but our eyes locked in an instant. It gargled and slowly advanced toward me. The brightness from the rest of the store revealed its grotesque form.
The flesh on its face had decomposed entirely. Blackened and cracked, oozing yellow pus, it was a sight that defied the image of a living being. Its eyeballs were decayed to the point of murkiness, resembling the eyes of a dead fish at a market. Within its open maw, its gums and tongue appeared as mushy and liquified, exposing the bones beneath. There was no denying that it was something far removed from a living person.
I finally discerned what had been in the storage room behind this abomination. It was a tight space filled with shelves that reached the ceiling. In between, a person lay collapsed, resembling a broken mannequin. Their gender and former appearance were impossible to determine, obscured by the gruesome state they were in. The once-blue vest, the uniform of the store, was now stained crimson.
I stepped back, and the creature’s jaw unhinged, revealing bloodstained, blackened teeth. I dared not contemplate the origin of the red meat lodged between them. No, I couldn’t afford to dwell on it. I turned on my heels and sprinted, and that abomination lunged at me with terrifying speed.
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