I wave my SmarTrip card over the machine and step through the fare gate. I cross my fingers as I head towards the escalators. Please don’t be crowded. Please.
The platform comes into view as I near the edge of the upper deck. Ehn. Not too bad, I suppose. The station’s busy for a Sunday, but it’s far short of a weekday rush hour. I’m glad Brad let me cut out early—another hour or so and the station will be swarming with protesters. The thought of being stuck on a train with people who’ve been in the August heat all day … that is the stench of Hell.
I descend the escalator and wander to the far end of the platform. I drop onto an unoccupied bench and stretch out my legs. Oh God, that feels good. I’d only been at work five hours today, but my feet are killing me, positively killing me. Guess it’s time for new shoes. I hate the thought of it. Even if I get cheapies from Ross or Wal-Mart, that’s gonna be thirty, forty bucks out of my budget. I can afford it, but it means I can’t afford anything else for the next two weeks—no books, no pizza, no music. Not even a night out—ha-ha, that’s a good one.
I slip my iPod from my pocket, a clunky old one with a little postage stamp screen. I plug the headphones into my ears and turn it on, crank the volume to drown out the noise of the platform. Jenny Lewis starts singing about dropping acid on her tongue. The battery’s down to less than half charge—it’d been full this morning and I’d only used it for an hour on the ride to work, but it keeps losing its charge even while turned off. Well, I’ve had it since I graduated high school. Shouldn’t expect it to last forever.
Be nice, though.
I lean my head back, find myself staring up at a poster telling me, “If you see something, say something.” I drape my arms over the back of the bench—or rather, the low barrier that keeps the station lights hidden away. My fingers brush against something, come away moist. Eww. Someone had stuffed a soft drink cup back there. I wipe my hand on my pants.
This is not my day.
I’d gotten the call to come into work at eight this morning—wasn’t even out of bed yet, but Brad didn’t care. Lori had called out, he needed someone to fill in. Knowing her, she’s probably out on the Mall protesting. She’s done it five times this summer—got arrested twice. She brags about it at work, like she’s actually accomplished anything. But Brad doesn’t care. She’s cute. She gets away with murder. I’m one he calls to clean it up.
And if that weren’t bad enough, the Natural History museum was hosting the premiere of some new documentary with Liam LaGrange Bassett this weekend, and the man himself was hanging around for a Q&A after each showing. Under other circumstances, the protests would’ve scared tourists away, but meeting LLGB was too good a chance to pass up. Every time the documentary finished screening, we were inundated with customers. Only after the last showing got out at three-thirty did everything die down, and Brad said I could leave early—he’d originally wanted me to work all the way till seven.
Dammit. Why had I even agreed to come in today? I could’ve told Brad I had plans, go beg someone else. There’s nothing he could do about it. But like a fool, I said, “Okay, give me a couple hours, I’ll be there.” I always do that, I don’t know why. I wanna say “No.” Wanna say, “Hey, did you ever think I might have plans for today?” even though the only thing I ever do on my day off is laundry and reading. I want to put my foot down and say, “This is the third time you’ve asked me to work my day off this month, and it’s not even the fifteenth.” But when the moment comes, I can’t do it. I just … roll over. I tell myself, “Next time. I’ll tell him no next time.”
But I never do…
There’s a light coming from the tunnel. A rumble fills the air, audible even over my music. People move towards the edge of the platform.
I glance over at the arrival sign. Yup, this is my ride.
I stagger to my feet.
The train shoots out the tunnel and brakes to a halt with a screech. There are a lot of tourists and out-of-town protesters here, so they hesitate for a moment, making sure this is the train they need. While they’re doing that, I slip through the crowd and get onto the first car.
It’s crowded inside, but not packed to bursting. It’s not even standing room only yet. I grab a rear-facing seat all to myself at the front, behind the driver’s cabin.
Facing me from the other side of the door are two girls, college age, very pretty—very hungover. One’s passed out on the shoulder of the other, who’s sitting with her arm propped against the window, staring vacantly at the far platform.
The passed out girl is a bottled blonde. Her mouth’s hanging open, and a metal stud glints on her tongue. She’s wearing a black mesh shirt over of a tie-dye bikini top, and she has some kind of Native American tattoo around her bellybutton.
The other girl is Asian, with her hair streaked purple and red. She has a tiny diamond stud on the side of her nose, and there’s a tattoo of a roaring lion peeking out from the shoulder of her halter-top. The halter has an oval cutout that exposes the inner slopes of her breasts, along with the lion’s tail and hind legs over her heart.
The driver makes an unintelligible announcement over the intercom, presumably telling us that the next stop is Federal Triangle. Ping-pong. The doors close. The train lurches ahead.
As we plunge into the next tunnel, the girl in the halter top looks away from the window. Shit. I shift my gaze to the far end of the train, pretend I’m zoning out to my music. Yeah, I totally wasn’t checking you out just now. I’m just sitting here minding my own business.
Is she buying it?
Our eyes meet. My cheeks flush—I can’t see them, but I feel the hot blood rushing through my face right now.
I look down at my iPod and pray she’ll look away, forget about me. I can’t be the first guy to check her out, not if she’s dressed like that. Hopefully I’ll fade into the sea of pervs she must deal with every time she goes out clubbing.
A Bright Eyes song ends and Camera Obscura starts singing that we should get outta the country. Yeah, I’m with you there.
Something whaps into my forehead, tumbles onto my lap. I catch it before it slides off my thigh, look at it puzzled. Where did a pencil eraser come from?
When I look up, the halter girl has a second eraser pinned against the divider rail, her finger ready to flick it at me. She stops and signs that I should take my earbuds out. I do.
“Whachoo listenin’ to?” she says.
“Oh yeah, they’re cool.”
Why is she talking to me? Is she trying to embarrass me for checking her out? I shift on my seat.
“What other bands you like?”
“Uh...” That’s a question from nowhere. My mind blanks. “REM.” First thing I can think of.
“They’re cool too.”
The train decelerates.
“You ever hear St. Vincent?” the girl says.
“Uh, yeah. Some of her stuff. She’s good.”
The girl starts to say something else, but she’s interrupted by the driver on the intercom. The train slows to a halt, the doors open. More tourists get on board, and a gaggle of protesters still sporting their placards.
NO BLOOD FOR KIMCHI!
KNEEL BEFORE ZOD
A WOMAN’S PLACE
IS IN THE
There are still seats available, but three of the protesters opt to stand next to the door, blocking my view of the girl. A fourth guy pops his head in.
“Hey guys,” he says, “Josh and Shreya are still upstairs, you know.”
They exchange glances, but before any of them--
“Please stand clear of the doors.”
—can respond, the driver signals that we’re ready to leave. The guy gets his head out of the way and the door shuts.
“Ah, crap,” a blonde girl says.
“What do we do?” a second girl says, this one Asian. “Get off at the next station and go back?”
“What if they take the next train and we miss ‘em?” a guy says. “Nah, let’s keep on till Dunn Loring, and they’ll have to catch up.”
I put my earphones back in. The Decembrists are singing “The Bagman’s Gambit.” Now why hadn’t I thought of them when the girl asked? Or Rilo Kiley? Regina Spector? God, the band names are flooding me now.
Well, not like it woulda done me any good. The girl’s way outta my league. I’m not even sure we’re playing the same sport. Mentioning Snow Patrol might’ve gotten us another thirty seconds of conversation, but she would’ve realized I’m a loser eventually and gone back to staring out the window.
I watch the progress bar on my iPod tick slowly upwards. 7:02. “The Bagman’s Gambit” ends as the train pulls into Metro Center. A handful of passengers debark, but twice as many come on board. The few remaining seats fill up—a woman in a Marriott uniform sits next to me. The protest kids fall back to the middle of the car, new arrivals taking positions at the doors.
After Metro Center, we’re out of the tourist area, and we get through the next few stops without the train getting any more crowded. But neither does it empty out. That’s not gonna happen until we get across the river.
Speaking of which, after Foggy Bottom the train makes its descent under the Potomac, plunging so deep into the Earth that my ears pop and I have to take my earbuds out for a minute. A woman standing in front of me takes out a pack of Wrigleys, pops a piece into her mouth, gives another to her son.
The lights flicker. At first I think it might be a bulb about to give out, but no, the whole train darkened for a second, like an inverse camera flash.
There—they did it again.
The train shudders. Or is that the tunnel? The lights outside are whipping by too fast to focus on, but they seem to be shaking on the--
The lights go out completely.
“You gotta be kidding me!”
“Well this is great.”
The train’s slowing down. Wheels screech. I’m pressed backwards by inertia. There are cries and thuds as standing passengers fall over. A kid starts screaming.
The train comes to a halt with a final lurch. For a moment the car is silent save for the crying kid, but then comes the babble of a hundred people speaking at once. Lights pop up as people pull out their cell phones, but those only provide enough light to mark the outlines of people.
“Everyone all right?” a guy calls out with an authoritative voice. Probably hoping to be the take-charge leader who gets interviewed on Channel 4 News.
Everybody ignores him.
“The tunnel lights are still on.”
“They’re on batteries, probably.”
“This happen a lot?” a tourist asks.
“It’s not the first time,” someone replies.
“Should we get off? What if another train comes and hits us?”
“That can’t happen. They’ve got safety systems.”
“This is Metro we’re talking about.”
That gets a laugh.
“Wish the driver would come out and tell us something.”
“Like I said, this is Metro.”
“The intercom’s not working.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“Somebody knock on the door.”
“Get some answers.”
The woman next to me mutters something in Spanish.
The folks in the aisle nearest the door are tourists, and they look like little kids who’ve gotten lost in a warzone.
“C’mon, somebody knock.”
I stand and squeeze my way past the maid, stuffing my earbuds into my pocket as I go. “Excuse me.”
One of the tourists gives me a weird look as I step into the aisle, like, “What the hell are you doing? Sit down and wait for things to work themselves out.” Yeah, last time there was a Metro accident, people told themselves that, and somebody died while they were waiting.
I rap on the door, just a polite tap really. Wait.
I try again.
“Knock harder,” a woman shouts from way back in the car.
Harder it is, hard enough that the sound carries throughout the car.
Click. The door unlocks, swings inward. The emergency lights in the tunnel give just enough illumination for me to discern the short, tubby shape of the driver, his bald head lit up like a crescent moon. Sweat glistens on his scalp.
He steps out of the cabin and the light from someone’s cell phone falls across his face. He’s so pale I wonder if he’s having a heart attack. Thankfully only the people nearest the door can see him, otherwise I think the look on his face would be enough to start a stampede off the train.
“What’s going on?” somebody shouts.
“Um, I’m ...” the driver says. He looks out the window. “We should, ah ... we should....”
“C’mon, what’s the problem?”
“The power is ... ah, the power’s out.” The driver says this so softly that only those of us at the front of the car can hear him, but the incredulous groans at his comment more than make up for it.
“No shit the power’s out,” a man says behind me. “What do we do?”
“We’re, uh, we’re supposed to wait for, for Metro to come. That’s, uh, that’s standard. The standard procedure.”
“You call them?” The guy shoulders his way forward. He has on a blue button-down shirt and dress pants. He’s undone his tie and stuffed it in his pocket, but he has an ID hanging from a lanyard around his neck. By his voice, I’m pretty sure this is Mr. Take Charge.
“No. Radio’s out,” the driver says.
“So they don’t even know we’re stuck.”
“No, they’ll ... they’ll figure it out. They should.”
Mr. Take Charge and me exchange looks. He rolls his eyes in disbelief. “We should get off, walk back to the station. Or forward to Rosslyn—which is closer?”
“No, no, no, we can’t do that. It isn’t policy.”
Mr. Take Charge is about to say something back, and I don’t think it’s gonna be too nice, but just then somebody knocks on the outside door. We all turn and see a face peering in at us from the tunnel. At first I think it might be a Metro worker come to check things out, but there’s no way he could get out here that fast. Besides, the guy has on casual clothes, not exactly appropriate for tunnel work.
Through the other windows, I see more people, passengers from the rearmost cars. They’re pooling up behind the guy at the door, and they look anxious to get around him.
“Open the door,” somebody says.
A couple guys, tourists by the look of them, put their hands against the doors and try to slide them apart. When that fails, one of them grabs the door from the center and tries to pry it loose.
“There’s an emergency lever next to the door,” Mr. Take Charge says.
The tourists look and don’t see it.
“It’s right there to your left,” Mr. Take Charge says. He’s gone from sounding like a school teacher to an annoyed cop.
One of the tourists finds the lever and, after fumbling to get the cover off, manages to pull it down. The door shudders as the mechanism holding it in place relaxes. The guys have no trouble opening it now.
“Hey, is the driver here?” the guy outside says. He casts a glance over his shoulder.
One of the people behind him tells him to get outta the way and then jostles past him. He steps onto the train to avoid getting stampeded.
“Y-y-you can’t be leaving the train,” the driver says. “We need to—ah, we—ah, need to ... orderly. Yes, orderly. Need to.” Nobody pays him any mind.
“What’s the problem?” Mr. Take Charge says.
“There’s water leaking outta the tunnel roof,” the other guy says. “I mean, it’s not a lot, it’s not gonna kill us any time soon.” He leans back outta the car and looks down the tunnel. “But still, we don’t want to be taking any chances, you know.”
“Shit,” a protester says.
“Th-th-that’s not not not, that’s not,” the driver says.
The guy from the tunnel didn’t speak loudly enough for everyone to hear, but word of the leak makes its way to the back of the car. I don’t know how many permutations it goes through along the way, but by the time it gets to the rear, people are starting to panic. They move to open the other doors onto the emergency walkway, but the crowd outside is too thick for anyone to get out.
And then somebody realizes there are doors on both sides of the train. They open those as well, and people start pouring out—slowly, ketchup-like—onto the track bed.
“D-d-don’t do that,” the driver says, and for once Mr. Take Charge agrees.
“Hey, you can’t go out there,” he shouts, but by now there’s so much noise in the train that I doubt anyone but me and the driver can hear him. “Idiots. Don’t they know what a third rail is.”
“They probably figure power’s out, no danger,” I say. I see their point.
Mr. Take Charge glares at me. “Yeah, there’s no power here, but what about the rest of the tunnel? And even if the whole system’s dead, what if it comes on again?”
“So what do we do? Wait here until the crowd thins out?”
Mr. Take Charge doesn’t like that idea either. “No. Come on, I got an idea.”
He heads for the other end of the car. The driver, the hotel maid who’d been sitting next to me, and a handful of tourists follow.
I hesitate for a moment. Do I really wanna go after him? He acts like he knows what to do, but I’m getting an alpha-male vibe from him that I don’t like. He reminds me of that annoying guy on MSNBC, Chris Matthews, and how he always shouts over everyone who doesn’t agree with him, like he’s not there to discuss an issue but to cow his opponents into submission. At first you don’t mind, because you know he’s right about most things, but then you hear him say something wrong and still overpowering everyone, and you get a little wary. After awhile, listening to him becomes such a chore you’d almost rather be watching Fox News.
But, this is my life on the line. If I wait for the crowd to clear, God knows if I’ll ever get off this train—that ceiling could come crashing down at any minute. Do I really have a choice here?
So I start after him. But I’ve only gotten a couple steps when a girl calls, “Hey, you, can you give me an assist.”
It’s the halter-top girl from earlier. She’s managed to get her friend upright, but she’s not gonna stay that way without support. Getting her to move—ha! Good luck with that.
“Get her other arm and maybe we can, I dunno, drag her. Or something.”
I don’t like this. If we have to carry someone, we’re gonna get left behind. It’ll take forever to get out of here, and we don’t have forever. “I dunno,” I tell her and edge my way after Mr. Take Charge.
“C’mon. Don’t you wanna be a hero, get your face on the news?”
Not that badly. Not if it means drowning in a subway tunnel.
“C’mon, please. I can’t leave her here.”
God she’s cute, and she’s looking at me with pleading eyes. I shouldn’t do this, but… “Okay.” I pull the passed out girl’s arm around my neck and try to shoulder her weight. Oof! She’s not that big, but she’s dead weight, and even with two of us taking up the burden, she’s heavy as hell.
“What’s wrong with her?” I ask as we start to drag the girl forward.
“Y’know. She partied a little too hard last night.”
“It’s after four o’clock.” I can’t check my watch, but it’s probably closer to five.
“Yeah, well, we didn’t get to sleep until almost ten this morning.”
“Oh. That musta been some night.”
“Well, I’m not gonna ask for my money back.” But then, after thinking for a moment, she adds, “Well, except for my Metro fare.”
We’re almost to the back of the car now. People are still crowding around the side doors, waiting their turn to disembark, but the rear door—the one leading to the next car—is open and I can see Mr. Take Charge and the others on the far side.
Halter Top and I manage to get her friend through the crowd, but maneuvering her through the inter-car door proves more challenging. We end up having to go sideways, me in the lead, and it takes some effort to get the girl’s feet over the thresholds, but we manage in the end.
The next car is more crowded than ours—I guess the passengers didn’t receive the news they had to evacuate like we did, so they sat waiting until they noticed people on the emergency walkway.
“What’s going on?” a guy asks me as we come through.
“I dunno,” I say with all honesty and push on.
“Where are all you guys going?” a woman asks.
I ignore her and concentrate on dragging the passed out girl.
By the time we get to the third car, we’ve almost caught up with Mr. Take Charge, and we close the gap when he stops to open the next set of inter-car doors. Looks like his group’s grown by a bit, though most people are still opting for the side exits. I don’t have time to count, but I’d say there are about three dozen people with Mr. Take Charge now, myself and the girls included.
“You need help?” a tourist asks, a middle aged guy with a backpack so overstuffed you’d think he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He has his family with him, his wife, two sons and a daughter. He shrugs his backpack off and hands it to the younger son, then he and his eldest take the girl from me and Halter Top.
“Thank you,” Halter tells him and leans against a pole. She rotates her shoulder and the joint pops.
“Yeah,” I agree. Just getting the girl half the train length had been an ordeal. Dragging her all the way to the next station ... no way, man. No way.
Mr. Take Charge has gotten the next door open and we pour through to the fourth car, which turns out to be mostly empty apart from a handful of stragglers waiting for their chance to get out.
“And thank you,” Halter tells me as we come through the door.
“Sure. No problem.”
“I’m Kenzie, by the way,” she says. “And my friend there is Dallas.”
I get that a lot. “Yeah. Named after my mom’s favorite actor.”
She looks at me quizzically.
“Phoenix. River Phoenix.”
“Oh, him. He’s awesome in that new Gus van Sant movie.”
“No, that’s Joaquin. His younger brother.”
“He has a brother?”
“Had. Guy ODed on drugs when I was, like, seven.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So what movies did this guy do?”
“He played the young Indiana Jones.”
“I thought that was Shia LaDouche?”
“No, no, he was Indy’s son. River Phoenix played Indy in a flashback in the third movie.”
“Oh. Haven’t seen that one. Anything else?”
“He was in Stand By Me.”
“Is that the one about the high school in the slums? With Commander Adama as the teacher? We had to watch that in social studies, like ninth, tenth grade I think.”
We stop for Mr. Take Charge to open the next door.
“No. I don’t know what that one is. Stand By Me is about a bunch of kids who go looking for a dead body.”
“Oh. I know that one. It has the geeky Star Trek kid, right?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
Mr. Take Charge gets the door unlatched and pulls it aside. Our group starts filing though.
“‘Suck my fat one,’” Kenzie says. “I love that movie.”
“Could you guys hush it,” a man in front of us says. I can’t see his face clearly in the dark, but I get the impression he’s on the old side. Not Wal-Mart greeter age, but he probably gets discounts at restaurants.
“Sorry,” I say.
Kenzie contorts her face into a grotesque expression behind his back.
We step into the next car. This one is truly deserted, but it’s noisier than any of the ones we’ve come through so far, filled with the sound of water drumming on the roof. It’s a heavy sound, but centered to one spot in the middle of the train. Water’s cascading down the windows, causing the tunnel lights to shimmer and waver.
“Goddamn, that sounds bad,” somebody says.
“Can you please stop cursing,” the old guy says.
“What could cause that?”
“I don’t think so,” Mr. Take Charge says. “The biggest quake this area’s ever seen wouldn’t even make the news in California.”
“Then what the hell happened?”
“There are children present, please.”
Mr. Take Charge thinks for a moment then shrugs. “No idea. But we’re not going to find out if we stay here. Come on.”
Even though the car’s empty, the crowd on the side hasn’t dissipated yet. They’re moving forward at a bare crawl.
Mr. Take Charge opens the door to the last car. As everyone presses to get through, a shrill child’s cry comes from the other side.
“Oh thank God,” a woman says. “You’ve gotta help me.”
At first there are too many people in front of me to tell what’s going on, but once we all get into the car and spread out, I see there’s a woman here with a bunch of kids. The oldest, a boy, looks middle school age, and he has a sister a couple years younger than that, but the youngest is strapped into a stroller that’s almost as big as a grocery cart. The woman’s sitting with a girl, just north of toddler-hood, on her lap.
“I wanna go home,” the girl screams. “I don’t like it here.”
“Please help me,” the woman repeats. “Everybody’s left, and I can’t handle them all by myself.”
“Of course,” a woman says—I think she’s the wife of the guy who took Dallas. She swoops forward and takes the girl. “It’s gonna be all right, honey. We’ll get you out of here.”
“Thank you,” the mother says. “I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I thought we was gonna be stuck here and nobody was gonna come.”
“It’s okay now,” the other woman tells her.
The mother slips off her seat and checks on the baby in the carriage. He—she? It? Whatever. The baby is zonked out, thank god. I don’t know how long it’ll stay that way, but the longer the better. If it can stay asleep until we reach the next station and doesn’t crap its pants or anything, life will be good.
The mother flips the brake switch on the wheels and starts to push the stroller towards the door.
“We can’t take that with us,” Mr. Take Charge says.
“Whadya mean?” the mom asks.
“It’ll never fit on the walkway.”
“Well what am I supposed to do with it?”
“You’ll have to leave it here.”
“That cost money.”
“Look, I’m sure the Metro will get it back to you, or they’ll pay for a replacement. But that’s an issue for later. Right now we want to get out of here as quickly as we can.”
“How far we gotta go?”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Take Charge says. “A mile, maybe two.”
“I can’t be carrying my baby that far. And I got a diaper bag, too. That’s heavy.”
Before the mother can lose all sympathy with us, the woman who took the younger daughter intervenes. “Sarah, get her diaper bag from the stroller.”
A teenage girl steps up. The mom helps her dislodge the diaper bag from underneath the carriage. No wonder she didn’t want to carry it—it’s big enough to be suitcase. The mom gathers a few other essentials from the carriage, tosses them into her purse and hands it to Sarah. Sarah doesn’t look too happy at being treated like a bellhop, but she holds her tongue.
“Okay, everything settled?” Mr. Take Charge says.
“Just a second.” The mom unbuckles her baby from the carriage and lifts it out. Of course doing so wakes it up and it starts screaming. She boosts the kid onto her shoulder and gestures for Dallas to open the diaper bag. She rummages inside and comes out with a bottle, but the kid refuses to take it and keeps crying.
“So what is the plan?” That’s the old man, the one who shushed me and Kenzie. “Why’d you drag us all the way back here?”
Mr. Take Charge looks at him like he’s an idiot. “We get off.”
“We coulda done that from the front of the train. And we wouldn’t be stuck at the end of the line.”
“We aren’t going to be stuck at the end of the line. We aren’t going with the rest of the crowd. We’re heading back to Foggy Bottom.”
“Why would we do that?”
“I-I’m not—I-I think, uh, we’re, uh, closer to the Virginia side,” the driver says.
“If we go with the main group, we’ll be forever in getting to the next station,” Mr. Take Charge says. “We split off, we can move faster. But there’s only one way we can split.”
Silence. A lot of people aren’t convinced by his logic. I’m not convinced.
“Look, you don’t like my idea, you’re free to do what you want, but I’m headed to Foggy Bottom.” And with that he steps out to the emergency walkway.
“Who the hell cares about him?” the old guy says, and this earns some nods around the car, but the agreement isn’t universal.
“I’m going with him,” the man who took Dallas says. He looks to Kenzie. “You want us to leave your friend here?”
She doesn’t answer at first. The pause is so long I wonder if she heard the question, but then she says, “No, let’s ... let’s go with that guy.”
She looks to me.
“Um. Yeah. Okay.” The words are out before I’ve have time to think them over. Wait. Why did I agree to that? I don’t wanna go back to DC. If the whole Metro system’s shut down, I’ll need to call my parents for a ride. Easier if I’m on the Virginia side of the river.
But it’s too late now. I can’t bring myself to contradict what I’ve just said.
“Okay then.” The man and his son lower Dallas to the floor. The emergency walkway outside isn’t nearly wide enough for them to drag her between them, so they’re going to have to come up with another arrangement. The man looks at her thoughtfully for a moment before saying, “Okay, I guess we’ll have to do it this way. He crouches down with his back to Dallas. “Get her up onto my back.”
We help his son move her. The man wraps his arms under her thighs to hold her in place, but that’s only good for her lower half.
“You’re going to have to hang onto me, honey,” he says. “Can you do that for me?”
“Wha? Yeah, hmm. Sure.”
Not very reassuring. But she slips her arms around his neck.
“Not too tight,” the man says.
The man hoists himself up. He walks with a stoop, not so much from Dallas’s weight, but to keep her from sliding off him if she loses her grip. She looks like she’ll stay in place, but he tells his son, “Stay behind me and catch her if she starts to fall.”
The boy nods.
By now we’re the last ones on the train. We step out onto the escape platform.
As soon as we’re through the door, we’re hit by stagnant, muggy air. You’d think being underground, it’d be cool, what with heat rising and all, but no, it’s not much more than a couple degrees cooler than the surface, and it’d been over ninety when I got off work. There’s not even a hint of airflow down here.
Our group—what’s left of it, anyway, a little more than half I’d say—is already moving off towards DC. The rest have joined the line that’s making its way towards Virginia. Well, supposedly making their way towards. I don’t see any sign of movement. Maybe Mr. Take Charge is right.
The man and his son let me and Kenzie go ahead and we hurry to catch up with the rest of the group.
The walkway’s about as wide as a suburban sidewalk, but with a ledge on one side and a curving wall on the other, it’s not made for two to walk abreast. We have to move single file, and once we catch up to the group, our pace slows to that of the slowest walker—the woman with all the kids.
There are lights every ten yards or so, but only a quarter of them are hooked up to backup power. Even if they were all operational, they wouldn’t provide as much illumination as you get in a movie theater before the show, but right now they’re little better than nightlights. Most people have their phones out. Unfortunately mine’s an old flipper, doesn’t have any sort of flashlight feature, so I have to go off the reflected glow of Kenzie’s and the guy behind me.
The walls aren’t entirely smooth, either. There are conduits running along the tunnel, and occasionally we have to squeeze around a junction box or other obtrusion.
And then there are the cracks. Most are tiny, probably superficial, but we pass a couple that look like serious structural damage. No more leaks, though. That’s good. By the looks of the water coming in, it’ll take hours, maybe days for the tunnel to flood. We should be good getting out of here.
Assuming the leak doesn’t get worse. If the roof should crumble completely, the whole Potomac’s gonna come rushing in. It’ll fill the tunnels until it reaches the level of the river. How high is that, though? Enough to flood the entire Metro system? The trains run underground, sure, but the ground rises up beyond the Potomac, so maybe the stations aren’t as deep as the river. Maybe. I don’t know.
Whatever the case, we should get out of here as quick as we can.
But without any landmarks, there’s nothing to judge our progress by. I try counting the tunnel lights, but I get the numbers fouled in my head after ... a quarter mile? Something like that.
Does me no good, anyway, since I have no idea how far we have to travel. The trip between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom usually takes three or four minutes, so it can’t be more than a couple miles, and we’re only going half that far. If we were walking down a city sidewalk, it wouldn’t be more than twenty minutes, twenty-five if the lights were against us. But our actual pace seems slower than that. Might be an hour before we get outta here.
Well, it would be if we could keep walking nonstop
—the sound of the baby crying hits me about two seconds before the stench.
The woman with the baby stops abruptly, causing the rear of the line to stumble to a halt. I nearly plow into Kenzie and have to brace myself on the wall to keep my balance.
The front of the line keeps moving, oblivious, until somebody calls out, “Hey, wait up.”
Mr. Take Charge holds up his hand—I can see it because he has his cell phone in it—and waves for a halt.
“What’re we stopping for?” That’s the voice of the annoying old guy. Damn, I was hoping he ditched us for the group heading towards Rosslyn. The way he was talking, you’d think he would’ve, but I guess the sight of the crowd deterred him.
“I gotta change diapers,” the mother shouts, way too loud for the enclosed space.
“C’mon, we can keep going. They can wait for her and catch up, or go around or whatever.”
“No, it’s best we stick as a group,” Mr. Take Charge says.
“Who’s got my diaper bag,” the woman says.
“Here.” The girl—Sarah, I think her name was—is about five places behind the woman in line, has to squeeze around people, which isn’t easy with her load.
The woman sits down on the ledge and sets to removing her kid’s diaper. Sarah drops the bag next to the woman and crosses her arms and waits.
While we’re stopped, Kenzie leans against the wall and starts digging through her purse. She pauses over a vape pen, decides against using it down here. Probably for the best. I’m sure someone would pitch a fit. Instead she comes out with a pack of gum.
“Sure.” I take a strawberry scented cube from the pack and unwrap it, pop it in my mouth. I stick the empty wrapper in my pocket, but Kenzie drops hers on the track, which gets a dirty look from the next woman in line, Sarah’s mom.
Kenzie doesn’t even notice. “Anyone else?” She offers the woman a piece.
“No, thank you.”
Kenzie extends the pack down past me to Sarah’s dad. He shakes his head, but his son says, “I’ll have one, thanks.”
I take the pack and pass it down to him.
“I could really do with some lunch,” Kenzie says as she chews.
Sarah’s mom switches the toddler to her right hand and checks her watch. “Closer to dinner time by now.”
“Slept late,” Kenzie says. “All I had for breakfast was a Pop-Tart.”
I nod. I hadn’t even had breakfast this morning, and just grabbed a bag of chips from a vending machine for lunch. I wonder if there’s anything good in Foggy Bottom? And more importantly, cheap. I know that’s State Department territory, George Washington University, too, so hopefully there’ll be some little bistro or deli where I can grab a sandwich while I wait for a ride.
The tunnel is silent except for the wailing kid. I don’t know if I’d call it eerie per se, but I feel like we’re in a bomb shelter during the Blitz. Certainly not pleasant.
Somebody needs to break the silence.
But it doesn’t seem that anyone’s in the mood to talk right now, not even the people who know each other. Come on, a little idle chit-chat, anything for a semblance of normalcy.
I can’t stand it any longer. I look to Kenzie. “You have any way to get home?” I speak softly, don’t want the whole tunnel to hear, but I guess I overdo it because she looks at me like she didn’t catch my question.
“You guys, uh—” I point towards Dallas, who’s still clinging to the guy’s back “—you got a way to get back home. Or wherever you’re going.”
She sighs, shakes her head. “Gonna hafta call around, see if we can get anyone to come get us. Either that or splurge on an Uber. Don’t even wanna think what that’ll cost.”
“Where you gotta—”
I was going to ask where she lives, maybe offer her a ride with my parents—super lame, I know—but I’ve barely started talking when Sarah’s mom plows in with, “Isn’t there another way to get to Virginia on the subway? I thought there was on the map.”
Kenzie looks blank, so I answer.
“You’d have to go the long way around, but yeah, there’s another crossing over by National Airport. But that’s assuming the problem’s local. For all we know, the Yellow Line’s down as well. Could be the whole system.”
“Maybe they’ll have buses we can use,” Kenzie says. “Don’t they do that sometimes?”
“Yeah, they might set up a transfer to the next working station.”
Down the line, the woman with the baby finishes changing diapers. She holds the dirty one at arm’s length, not sure what to do with it. The stench is something terrible, so it’s not like she can bring it along with us. So she tosses it across the track.
“Hey,” the driver says, “that’s not where you, um, you’re not supposed to… that’s not a trash can.”
“Yeah?” the woman says. “Why’oncha go pick it up.”
The driver doesn’t respond.
“Okay,” Mr. Take Charge calls. “If everyone’s ready, let’s get a move on.”
He starts forward again. Several people have sat down on the ledge or taken off backpacks, and it takes several moments for the entire column to get rolling.
We only have to go a little ways before we reach the upslope, which signals that we’re out from under the Potomac. Doesn’t necessarily mean we’re clear of danger, but it’s a welcome turn.
That’s what I think at least, but once we start upwards, I quickly change my mind.
I’d spent enough time sitting down on the train that my feet haven’t been doing too bad, but now the soreness returns. I have on the comfiest shoes that fit my job’s dresscode, but they’re still not intended for walking across anything but a level surfaces. And that’s when they were new. The soles have worn so thin that the air cushions are exposed in spots and make a tssst-tsst noise when I walk.
As we climb higher, the backs of my shoes start rubbing against my heels. Even with socks on, I’m gonna have a blister. But not like I have a lot of options here. I’m sure not gonna walk barefoot. Besides, we can’t have much farther to go. Once we reach the top of the climb, it’ll be a straight shot to Foggy Bottom and I can take a seat and rest.
Well, that’s how things should go. But I should’ve realized already, today’s not a day when things are gonna go to plan.
Up ahead I can see the bend in the slope where the track levels out again. People are disappearing over the lip. Not much farther.
But then the line stops dead.
“Hey, what’s the hold up?” somebody calls.
“Can anyone see?” Sarah’s mom asks.
The people highest on the slope should be able to get a glimpse, but they’re not communicating back to us.
“You think the roof collapsed?” Kenzie says.
“If it did, we’d just turn around and go the other way,” Sarah’s dad says.
“Maybe they think they can clear the rubble?” his son suggests.
“Too dangerous. We’d be better off turning around.”
“What about another train,” I say. The Blue and Silver Lines use this tunnel, too.
“Hmm, could be. Can’t be in working order, though, otherwise we’d see the headlamp beam.”
Before we can speculate further, Mr. Take Charge appears at the top of the slope. But he’s not on the walkway; he’s down on the tracks. “Okay, folks, we’ve got a bit of an issue, but nothing to worry about. We’re gonna hafta get off the walkway for a bit and proceed down the track. Careful of the rails, you don’t wanna get electrocuted.”
“What’s the problem?” somebody calls.
“You’ll see when you get up here. But it’s nothing too big.”
We all look at each other. What the hell does that mean?
“Well, nothing to it but to do as the man says,” Sarah’s dad says. He leans back and sets Dallas on her feet. “Hey, honey, you’re going to have to stand on your own, you think you can do that?”
Her feet touch the walkway and her legs don’t buckle. That’s a good sign. Her arms unwrap from the man’s neck. “We there?” She sounds drunk. Or maybe stoned. I’m guessing stoned.
“Not yet.” He gestures for his son to hold her upright, make sure she doesn’t totter over.
Kenzie and I sit down on the ledge and lower ourselves to the trackbed. Once we’re down, we help Sarah’s mom get the other woman’s toddler down. The kid’s been behaving herself pretty well, but balks at having to get off the walkway.
“It’s okay hon,” Sarah’s mom tells the girl and ruffles her hair. “If you’re a good girl, I’ll get you a piece of candy.” She pulls a pack of Mentos from her pocket.
The little girl smiles and let’s us get her down without any trouble.
Down the line, Sarah jumps off the ledge, earning a rebuke from her mother. The moment her mom turns away, Sarah sticks out her tongue.
“Here,” the woman with the baby calls down. She lowers the kid to Sarah, then sets about helping her oldest daughter down. The girl takes one look over the ledge and says, “Uh-uh, I ain’t goin’. That’s too far.”
“Shut it,” her brother says and cuffs her upside the head. His mom yells something at him, but he doesn’t listen. Instead he leans back against the wall and pushes himself off. There’s not any room to get up to speed, but he manages a nice leap, landing nearly on the other side of the tracks. He smiles over at Sarah thinking he’s hot shit.
Meanwhile Sarah’s dad has clambered down and his son is helping Dallas. I go over and give them a hand.
Once her feet touch the ground, she glances around groggily. “What happen’d the train?” Her eyes latch onto me. “You’re not ...” her words trail into a mumble.
“C’mon.” Kenzie puts an arm around her. “Only got a little ways to go.”
Kenzie leads her friend up the slope.
Sarah’s dad takes a pack of tissues from his pants pocket and pulls one out, dabs at his forehead.
“Don’t overexert yourself,” his wife says.
“I’m fine. Feel better down here than while we were schlepping around the city.”
“Tourists?” I ask.
“Yeah.” He nods. “Out from Chicago—well, Shermer, if you want to be exact. I’m Dan, by the way. Dan Schorr. This is my wife Susie, my son Sam, my other son—where’d Zac go?”
Mrs. Schorr looks down the track, “Isaac, get over here. Sarah, you too.”
The younger son is over with Sarah and Mr. Show Off. The two Schorr kids snap to attention and trot over to their parents.
“Yeah mom?” Isaac says with the fake smile of a kid who knows he can pull one over on his parents with very little effort.
“Don’t go wandering off. Stick tight to us. You too, Sarah. I know you’re helping that woman, but don’t get yourself separated.”
“Yeah, mom.” She gives me a please don’t judge me by my parents look.
“Here.” Mr. Schorr steps behind Isaac and digs into the heavy backpack he’d foisted on his son. He comes out with a giant water bottle, about one third full. “Not very cold, but it’ll do the trick,” he says after taking a swig. He wipes the top and hands it to me.
“Thanks.” I push my gum to the side of my mouth and take a quick drink. It’s more than a little warm, but he’s right—it’s good to have. I wipe it down and offer it around.
“I’m good,” Mrs. Schorr says.
Sarah waves it off, the two sons shake their heads.
“Let your girlfriend have some,” Mr. Schorr says.
“My girl—no, I met her about thirty seconds before I met you.”
“Oh. Sorry. Well, you know what they say about assumptions?”
I’ve never seen three people roll their eyes in unison before, but his kids manage.
“When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” Mr. Schorr not only feels he has to finish the statement, but he actually laughs. Realizing nobody else finds the line funny, he turns serious. “Well, you know when a guy helps out a pretty girl in a situation like this ...”
Mrs. Schorr elbows him. She shines a smile on me. “Why don’t you see if anyone needs water?”
I head to the woman with the baby first, figuring if anyone could use water, it’d be her, but she has her hands full with the sprog. “Fantasia,” she calls over to her eldest daughter. “Take some water.”
“Not thirsty.” The girl’s probably ten, eleven, right on the divide between elementary and middle school. Her hair’s done up in short, tight braids that are capped by those ties that have the colored balls on the end. Her hair clacks when she shakes her head.
“Girl, you best be drinkin’ now, cuz I don’t know when we be gettin’ home.”
Fantasia accepts the bottle and pretends to drink, but I don’t think any gets in her mouth. I offer some to her brother; he takes a long pull.
“Don’t be guzzlin’,” his mom warns. “Other people gotta drink that.”
“We ain’t gonna be down here that long.”
“Don’t you go sassin’ me, boy.”
The boy shoves the bottle back at me and walks away.
I move up the slope. Maybe half the people accept a drink. Some have their own water stashed in bags and offer to add it to my bottle, but I decline. Bad enough we’re all sharing one bottle, but at least the Schorrs seem like okay people. Some of the other passengers, though ... like this one guy, looks like his clothes are patched together from stuff Good Will threw out. His cheeks are crusted with dirt, and you can’t help but notice the stench of ass when you get within ten feet of him. When I offer him water, he tells me he only drinks natural “heaven water” that he purifies with the power of Christ. He shows me a bottle that looks like it has sea monkeys floating inside and offers to share it with the rest of us.
I move on.
Once I get to the top of the slope, I find out what the problem is—the tunnel really did collapse.
“Collapse” is the wrong word. It implies the roof came down under its own weight. If that were the case, we’d’ve just turned around and headed for Rosslyn.
This is different. It looks like a bulldozer crashed through the tunnel wall. From the outside. There’s rubble strewn halfway across the tracks. Dirt, too, and rocks. The tunnel isn’t completely blocked—the emergency walkway is covered in chunks of concrete and stone, but the trackbed itself only requires a vigilant eye to navigate.
Still, everyone’s gathered around the hole, rubbernecking.
“Hey,” I say to Kenzie. “What’s going on?”
I offer her the bottle, but she declines.
I squint at the hole, trying to see into its depths, but there’s too much darkness in there. It might only go back a few yards, or it could go on forever. But I know this much—no earthquake made this. This is something that was dug.
“I don’t like this,” Kenzie says. “I wanna get outta here.”
“Yeah.” I look around. “Where’s your friend?”
Kenzie nods over to the other side of the tunnel. Dallas is leaning against the far wall, puffing on an e-cig. The tip lights up briefly as she inhales. When she exhales, the vapor passes in front of a tunnel light and glows a sulfurous orange.
We go over and I offer her some water. “Thanks.” She takes a long drink and wipes her mouth. “That’s good.”
“You think you can walk?” Kenzie says.
“I’m not that hungover.”
I could point out that she had to be carried off the train, but I don’t see any point in arguing. “Well, I don’t see any harm in going ahead of the others. Not like we can get lost or anything, right?”
“Dude, don’t jinx us,” Dallas says.
To Be Continued...
-by Sean O'Hara