I don’t remember walking back to the station, but I must have since the next thing I know I’m standing at the bottom of the escalator. I’m coated in dust, and the inside of my mouth feels like a vacuum cleaner bag.
“You all right?” It’s the barista, come to check on me.
“No, I don’t suppose I am.”
“Hmm, yeah. Don’t suppose any of us are. Come on, the Metro guys went into the break room and broke open their vending machines. We don’t got much, but there’s soda and chips, some candy and other stuff. Bottles of water, too, you can rinse off.”
Wait, what? “Why with bottles?” Don’t the Metro workers have a bathroom down here? “Is the water out?”
“Well, it’ll run, but it’s coming out funny. I mean, no problem if you’re going to the toilet, but the stuff coming out of the taps, I wouldn’t drink it.”
“Yeah. Good times ahead.”
I follow the barista across the mezzanine to where everyone’s set up camp. She takes me through a door and into a tiny room with a folding table in the center and a couple blue plastic chairs on the side. Junk food and bottles are piled in the middle of the table.
“Bathroom’s through there.” The barista points to a door in the side of the room. “No light, though.”
“S’okay.” I pull out my flashlight and grab a couple water bottles—they’re tiny ones, only sixteen ounces. That’s plenty enough if you’re drinking, but it’s not much if you’re washing up. I’ll have to stretch it, and even then I should consign myself to not getting totally clean.
The bathroom is on the grungy side, with chipped tiles and rust stains around the faucet. The toilet is at least usably clean, though who knows how long that’ll last.
I set my flashlight on end and check myself in the mirror. The light coming at me from below gives a horror movie effect, making it hard to judge how bad I look, but it’s not good, that’s for sure.
“I’m Wendy, by the way,” the barista says.
“Heather.” I squirt a bit of soap onto my hand and pour some water on it, lather up.
“You work around here, right? One of those think tanks, foreign policy and stuff?”
“Yeah, how d’you know?” I pull up my sleeves and scrub my lower arms where they’ve gotten dusty.
“I’m not deaf. People come into Starbucks with coworkers talking about work, you learn what everyone does.”
“Is it interesting?”
“Sometimes.” I smear the soap across my forehead and cheeks, up under my chin and around the back of my neck. “But it’s not a job where you want excitement.” I unbutton my blouse so I can get at the dust on my upper chest. God, it’s gotten way down in there. My shirt doesn’t expose the least bit of cleavage, but I’ve got dirt halfway down my breasts. I really need a shower.
“I suppose not,” Wendy says.
“What about you? You work full time, or?”
“Nah, I’m in college. Doing grad work at GW. Computer science.”
“What’s your favorite type of statistical regression?”
“You have one, don’t you?”
“I’m more into graphics, really. I mean I guess, uh, Bayesian?”
“Everyone says Bayesian. I prefer multinomial probit myself.”
“Has anyone ever told you you’re weird?”
I’ve gotten soap on everything that looks dirty, but now the problem is getting it off. I don’t have enough water to rinse everything clean, and besides it’d get my clothes wet, so I settle for wetting down some paper towels and wiping myself off.
“So what were you doing?” Wendy asks.
“Going home for the day, or coming out for something?”
“My parents are down in Richmond. Hopefully far enough away that…”
“Yeah.” I’ve got my face more or less clean, and my neck. I toss the paper towel into the trashcan and get a new bunch. I wet it down and wring it out, but when I start wiping my chest, I still get bits of water leaking out and dribbling onto my clothes. Annoying. “So no one around here?”
“Fiancé, yeah. He’s a lawyer.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone says.”
“There’s a reason for that, you realize.” I’ve got my chest done and start wiping off my hands.
“He has a soul, you know.”
“Until the devil comes along to collect.”
“He works for the ACLU, actually.”
“That’s even worse. The point of dating a lawyer is they have money.”
“Do you have any friends?”
“Yes.” There. Done. I drop the empty water bottles into the trashcan and rebutton my blouse. “Do I look better?”
She reaches out and fixes my hair. “Much.”
We go back to the mezzanine where the others are. They have candy bars and a half dozen bags of chips spread between them and are chowing down. The guy with the blisters is still on the other side of the fare gates, looks to be asleep or otherwise comatose. Nobody’s watching him, but he doesn’t look like he’s going to snuff it any time soon.
“I’m telling you, that idiot went and started World War III,” the guy with a beard’s saying as we approach.
Everyone agrees, except the guy in a MAGA hat. “You’ve all been brainwashed by the fake news media. If it’s World War III, the Chinese started it. They musta realized America finally has a President isn’t gonna take their shit anymore, decided to strike first and hope to kill us all before we can nuke ‘em back.”
“Oh come on,” the station master says. “You believe that shit?”
“You can’t trust the Chinese. Look at Pearl Harbor. Sneak attack. It’s what they do, ‘cause they know they can’t win a stand-up fight.”
“That was the Japanese,” the older of the Metro employees says.
“Ain’t no same difference,” the younger employee says.
“Yes it is!”
“The Chinese are Communists. Japanese got anime.”
“I’m not stupid. Yeah, they’re different countries, but it’s the same culture. China, Korea, Vietnam. They all worship Gandhi.”
“That’s Buddha, and they don’t,” the stationmaster says.
The conversation doesn’t sound acrimonious right yet, but I don’t see it staying that way for long. Best to derail it now. Get them talking about something more productive.
“Are you sure you guys should be pigging down the food like that?”
They look up at me.
“What’s the problem?” the stationmaster says. “I mean it’s not healthy, but there’s enough to keep us all fed for a couple day until…” He shrugs. He has no idea what’s going to happen in a couple days; he’s just assuming that help’s coming at some point.
“What about for everyone else?” I say.
“Everyone who?” the stationmaster says.
“I’m not the only person who was on my train. I’m just the first to get tired of waiting. The others are going to be coming at some point. And in fact, there was another train that left right before mine. We could have two entire trainloads showing up here.”
The stationmaster’s face goes dark. He hasn’t been thinking. Everyone’s been deferring to him because he’s the guy in charge, but he hasn’t considered anything outside of his immediate domain. Everything in the station is okayish, so the stationmaster’s been thinking he has the situation in hand. That’s as far as he can see.
He recovers after a moment. “Well if need be, there’s a Starbucks up above. A couple other restaurants in the vicinity.” Yeah, assuming none of them are under a collapsed building. “We’ll have enough to get through until help arrives.”
I don’t buy it, but I’m not going to argue the point. “What about the people on the trains? Are we going to let them sit in the tunnels all night, or do you think we should let them know the situation?”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right.” The stationmaster looks to the younger of his men. “Jorge, we should have high powered flashlights in the equipment room. Run and get them.”
“Sure,” the guy says with absolutely no enthusiasm. He grabs a Kit-Kat bar and stands up.
“I’ll go with him.” I can’t sit around waiting for help to drop in. I need to be up doing something.
“Passengers shouldn’t—” the stationmaster starts.
“Have you looked upstairs? The city is wrecked. We’re on our own. Maybe FEMA’s gonna come in here searching, but if they do, it could be days before they get to us. And if they don’t…” I hold my hands up in a whatcha-gonna-do gesture.
“I guess you have a point.”
“Thank you. Now there are trains down both tunnels, that means we should have two parties go out, it’ll be faster.”
The stationmaster hesitates. He doesn’t want to get off his ass and do anything. He’s comfortable sitting here, nice and cozy.
“I’ll do it.” The older of the Metro employees stands up.
The two youngish guys get up as well.
“Beats sitting around,” Wendy says.
“You two,” I tell the stationmaster and MAGA Cap, “can keep an eye on the injured guy, ‘kay?”
“Yeah,” the stationmaster says.
MAGA Cap scowls but doesn’t speak.
We follow Jorge across the walkway to the other side of the mezzanine. He leads us to a heavy metal door and unlocks it. Inside is a room full of equipment—the batteries powering the emergency lights, the transformers, the servers that run the ticket machines and arrival boards. Most of it’s inert now, except for the batteries, which have LEDs signaling they’re on. They’re all shining green, but they have yellow and red lights as well.
“How long are these things rated for?” I ask.
“Eight hours,” Jorge says. “Dunno if there’s a plus-or-minus on that, though.”
“It’s emergency equipment,” the older employee says, “the rating should be on the conservative side.”
“Still, that won’t last much past midnight, one o’clock at the latest,” I say. “We’ll want lights in the morning so we can get outta here safely.”
“We can cut them off when we settle in for the night,” the older guy says, “then turn them back on in the morning.”
Jorge retrieves three flashlights—big, heavy duty ones that are nearly as powerful as a headlight. He distributes them to me, Wendy, and the bearded guy, then picks up a pair of headlamps, puts one on himself and hands the other to his coworker.
There’s a stack of helmets on a shelf, but only four of them.
“Don’t suppose OSHA’s gonna ding us,” the older guy says. “Here.” He hands the helmets out to us civvies, leaving himself and Jorge uncovered.
Once we’ve got them on, we head down to the platform.
“My train was down this way.” I point. “Jorge, Wendy, why don’t you come with me; the rest of you check the other tunnel.”
“Sure.” The older Metro employee has no problem with this, but the two young guys look disappointed they aren’t going to have any ladies in their party. Well too bad, so sad.
Jorge takes the lead again, and when we get near the end of the platform, he sits down on the ledge and slips onto the tracks.
“You sure that’s a good idea?” Wendy says.
“Power’s off, there’s nothing to worry about. And it’s easier to walk on the track than the emergency walkway. Just watch your steps so you don’t trip on the ties,” he says.
“What if the power comes back on?”
“I don’t think that’s worry right now,” I say.
“Maybe.” Wendy lowers herself over the edge, and Jorge helps her down.
Once we enter the tunnel, we flip our lights on. They’re a lot better than my little flashlight, but they still leave a lot of darkness around us. Though that’d be true even if the tunnel lights were all functioning. I doubt this place has ever been fully illuminated, not even when it was being dug out.
I feel like one of the Ghostbusters. There’s a scene in the second movie where they’re in an abandoned subway tunnel, exactly like this. Ray and Egon start having fun with the echo of their voices, but when Winston tries, this creepy, groaning voice calls his name instead. That scared the hell out of me when I was ten. I’d had to leave the theater—I told my dad I was going to the bathroom, but really I stood out in the lobby for five minutes until my heart calmed down. It wasn’t until I saw the movie on DVD years later that I discovered the full scene is even scarier—when the guys turn around to leave the tunnel, they’re surrounded by severed heads on pikes, and then a ghost trains blows through the tunnel and runs through Winston.
I hadn’t thought about the scene on my way out, but now that I’ve seen what’s happened on the surface, it’s set my imagination adrift. Now with every step we take, I imagine we’re going to see something on the tracks ahead—who knows what.
I shouldn’t be thinking about this. I’m going to freak myself out.
Focus on our goals.
Gotta get to the train and tell everyone to come back to the station. Should only take us ten minutes to get there, maybe as long again to get everyone off. The walk back will be slower—groups always move slow, especially if we’re watching out for stragglers. But once we have everyone with us, the tunnel will be a lot less scary.
I gotta keep telling myself that.
We continue down the tracks. The air in here is stiff, not even a trace of breeze. And the smell… what is that? I sniff.
“You smell it too?” Wendy says.
“Yeah, that’s …”
“Smells like raw meat,” Jorge says.
That’s exactly it. Where’s it coming from?”
“Up ahead,” Wendy says. She holds her flashlight with both hands so the beam’s steady. There is something on the track up ahead, but at this distance I can’t judge its size.
“A backpack?” Jorge says.
“Maybe,” Wendy says. “But if somebody left it there, where’d they go? If they came this way, wouldn’t we have seen them by now?”
“Let’s keep on,” I say, though I really don’t want to. A sick feeling’s entering my stomach.
I shift my weight forward to take a step, but my heel’s barely off the ground when Jorge shouts, “Holy mother!”
I snap around.
For a second I think there’s somebody lying on the emergency walkway, their face spotlighted by Jorge’s headlamp, but then I get my own light around and I see the head has no body attached. Almost as bad, its eyes have been torn out, and the mouth is caked with blood. It looks like a someone who’s been too enthusiastic at chowing down on barbecue, got sauce smeared across his chin and cheeks.
“Oh my God,” Wendy says. “How the hell did that happen?”
“Accident with the train?” Jorge says. “Got run over, and…”
“How?” I say.
He shakes his head.
We’ve made a mistake. We’ve seen what it’s like topside—clearly something beyond human experience happened up there. But we’ve been assuming we’re safe down here. We didn’t die during the quake, so nothing can get us now.
How stupid can we be?
I set my flashlight on the walkway and pick up the head.
“Don’t touch it!” Wendy says.
“Jorge, get your light on this.”
“You crazy, lady!”
“Just do it.”
He bends his neck so his headlamp is shining on my hand, but he closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to look.
The neck wasn’t cut through in a single motion. It’s jagged, as though the blade had stopped and restarted multiple times. There’s also a slight but noticeable curve to the scission—either the killer had changed the angle of the cut, or the neck had shifted in the process. Was it possible the guy had been alive during this, struggling to get free?
There’s something else, it takes me a moment to notice. The neck’s been cut in two directions at once. I can tell because there are little strips of skin where the blade had cut and pulled back and cut again at a slightly different point, like a child who still hasn’t mastered scissors. And these flaps of skin are pointing in different directions on each side of the neck. It’s like he’d been beheaded by giant shears. But how would that ever happen?
“I vote we go back,” Wendy says.
“What about the people on the train?” I say.
“This guy was on the train, right? I mean, where else did he come from?
“You’re probably right, yes.”
“Then probably everyone on that train is dead. I mean, this is not natural. Something fucked up happened down here.”
“We can’t know that until we see for ourselves.”
“I’d rather not see.”
“I’m kinda with her,” Jorge says.
“No,” I say. “We need to find out. If there is a danger down here, we’ll be better off knowing what it is, that way we can make an informed decision about what to do next.”
“My informed decision is, let’s get the fuck outta the dark tunnels,” Wendy says.
“What makes you think the surface is any safer?”
“The lady’s right,” Jorge says. “We’re screwed no matter what.”
“Shit. Okay, whatever. Have it your way. We’ll go down, take a look at the train. But we see anything move that don’t look right, we turn around and run.”
“Agreed,” I say.
We head down the tunnel again. We get to the backpack we’d seen earlier, turns out to be the body that goes along with the head. Whatever had gotten the guy hadn’t been satisfied with decapitation. His belly is torn out, his guts strewn across the tracks. He must’ve eaten lunch right before getting on the train, because there are bits of hamburger bun and half chewed pickles mixed in with the porridge of his stomach. If you’ve ever smelled somebody’s breath after they’ve vomited, that’s the stench here.
We walk by as quickly as we can, no one daring to open their mouth to speak lest they add their own vomit to the mess.
Not long after we’re past, the train comes into view ahead.
We approach cautiously. When we get up to it, I climb onto the rear hitch and peer inside. I have to angle my flashlight so I can shed some light on the interior without creating too much glare.
It’s an abattoir. There’s blood everywhere. The floor’s coated with it. So are the walls and windows—there’s a smear across the one I’m looking through, as though somebody had put a bloody hand against the glass and wiped it.
There aren’t any bodies that I can see. The car’s deserted.
Given the amount of blood inside, I don’t see how anyone could’ve walked away from this, which means that whatever did this—and there must’ve been multiple whatevers—took the bodies after they finished.
I dismount the hitch.
“Dead?” Wendy says.
I tell them what I saw.
“Well, where does this get us?” she says.
“Let’s go in. See if there are any clues.”
“Let’s not and say we did.”
I sigh. This is getting tiresome. “You can go back if you want.”
“I want, yes,” she says. Then to Jorge, “You with me?”
“There could be survivors,” he points out.
“Yeah, and whatever did this could be lurking around.”
“We should check and be sure.”
Wendy looks back down the tunnel. The long, long dark tunnel. She holds her flashlight over her head, but after about ten yards the beam’s too diffuse to be effective. “Dammit, don’t make me go down there alone.”
I hoist myself onto the walkway and offer a hand to Jorge. He grabs my wrist and pulls himself up.
“Okay guys, I’m coming,” Wendy says.
We help her up.
“Should we split up? We each take one car?” Jorge suggests.
“Hell no,” Wendy says.
“Let’s stick together,” I say. “And one of us should stay outside as a lookout.”
“Me,” Wendy says.
“You’re not gonna run off and leave us to die, are you?” I say.
The last door of the train is still standing wide open from when I’d left. Jorge and I go in. Blood squelches under our feet, and I have to hang onto the stanchions to keep my balance. It’s a damn good thing I’d worn sneakers today instead of dress shoes, otherwise I’d have zero traction. Jorge in his work boots is better off, but even he’s grabbing the backs of seats as he moves.
“Look up there,” he says.
The door between train cars is open—except “open” implies it was done in the manner intended by the designers. This is more like something had burst through the bulkhead, and the door’s opening was incidental to that. We can see clear through to the next car, and it looks like the far end is exactly the same. Our lights can’t penetrate the full length of the train, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s been turned into one continuous interior.
“What the hell could do that?” Jorge says.
“Terminators. Xenomorphs. Velociraptors.”
“This shit’s not funny, lady.”
“I’m not trying to be.” Clearly something had happened here that is several sigma beyond the ordinary. We truly are in the realm of science fiction.
We move into the next car. This one is wrecked up more than the last. Several stanchions have been pulled loose from the floor and ceiling, along with bits of the horizontal rails at the top. They’re bent and twisted as easily as if they were paperclips.
Jorge kicks something by accident, and when we shine our lights on it, we see it’s a severed hand—male judging by the coarse hair on the back, and married going by the wedding ring.
“Not totally thorough,” I say.
“Nothing. Let’s keep going.”
But we’ve only managed another couple steps when Jorge stops me. “Something up ahead.”
I don’t see it at first, but then the beam of his headlamp reveals a thin, iridescent strand across the next doorway. I play my light across the entire doorway and pick out a polygonal web stretched across the opening. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see in a long deserted building, not a Metro car that was filled with people just an hour ago.
“I’m getting creeped,” Jorge says.
I fish in my purse for my Swiss Army knife. I pull open the longest blade it has.
“You sure that’s a good idea?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“I just got a feeling.”
“So do I. So would anyone right now.” I slash my knife through the web in an inverted L. The strands cut as easily as the air, and the whole tangle flutters to the ground. I wipe the sticky residue on a seatback. “It’s natural cuz we should be scared and running the hell away. But there’s nobody in here.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Jorge says.
I step into the next car—this is the last one on the train, or rather the first one since we’re moving towards the driver’s compartment. There’s a sweet aroma to the air, though with a burnt tinge to it.
And on the floor there are lumps, about a dozen of them, all wrapped in—at first I think they’re bandages, like the dressing on a mummy, but once I get my light focused on one, I see it’s spider silk, just like what I just cut through.
“Or maybe not,” I say.
I drop to my knees next to the nearest lump. It’s the size of a person, and judging by the shape, a woman.
I slip my knife into the cocoon, but these threads don’t give way as easily. I manage a five inch incision before Jorge calls out, “Hey lady.”
I look up.
There are spiders crawling towards me, about a dozen of them, some on the floor, some on the windows, and even a few on the ceiling. They’re big suckers, too—their bodies are the size of Jack Russell terriers, with legs like giant lobsters.
I’m so startled, I lose my balance and fall on my bum. I get my hands behind me and crab-walk backwards as fast as I can, which isn’t nearly fast enough. The damned things are closing on me.
Except—when I fell down, I dropped my flashlight and kicked it over. When I did, the beam played across a couple of the spiders and they hesitated for a second. When they started forward again, they scurried around the beam.
I spin myself around and lunge for the flashlight. I grab it as the spiders are almost upon me, but the moment I blare the light at them, they stop and retreat. The only problem is, I only have the one light—if I aim at one, the others will surge forward.
But Jorge picks up on what’s going on and he takes his headlamp off and starts pointing it at them. That’s still not enough, though.
“Wendy! We need you!” I shout.
While we’re waiting for her to come—assuming she comes—I pull my purse around to the front of me with my elbow and dig inside with my free hand. My other flashlight is right at the top. I put it in my mouth and twist the front around until it comes on. It’s only a fraction as powerful as my other flashlight, but it proves powerful enough to ward the spiders off.
“What’s going on—holy shit!”
I don’t dare turn back to see Wendy. I just shout, “Shine your flashlight at them.”
She takes a couple seconds to respond, and I’m afraid she’s made good on her threat to leave us, but then a fourth beam joins mine and Jorge’s.
With four lights, we’re pretty well able to hold the spiders at bay, but that’s all we can do. The batteries won’t last forever, and it’s not like we have the wherewithal to keep this up. We need an exit plan. Will the spiders let us go if we retreat? And can we be sure this is all there is? As scary as these bastards are, there aren’t enough of ‘em to’ve overwhelmed all the passengers. There have to be more somewhere. What if they’re outside right now, trying to outflank us?
Dammit. We didn’t think to bring any weapons with us. All we’ve got is my Swiss Army knife, and despite the name, it’s not meant for combat.
Though now that I think about it, I do have something else in my bag. Who knows if it’ll do any good, but it’s better than nothing.
“Wendy. Dig in my bag. You should find a cannister in there.”
“You think that’s gonna work?”
“Honestly, I have no clue. But I don’t have any other ideas, do you?”
“No.” She reaches into my bag. The strap pulls against my neck. Our lights waver and the spiders advance towards us.
She takes her light off the spiders for a moment so she can make sure she has the nozzle pointed the right way, then she takes aim and fires. I don’t think it worked at first, but then the spider that took the brunt of her attack screams—a low, rattling scream, like a seagull with something caught in its gullet—and scrambles backwards.
Wendy sweeps the spray across the spiders. By the time she gets to the last one, it’s retreating without being asked.
“Let’s get outta here,” she says.
“No,” I say.
“You nuts?” Jorge says.
“We get them while they’re hurt.” I step towards one of the spiders, which is quivering on the ground in pain. I put my foot on top of it and press down. It’s surprisingly resilient. I have to put my full weight onto it before I hear its carapace crack. For a second that’s all that happens, but then my foot sinks to the floor with a sickening squuch. Yellow spider guts shoot out from all sides.
Jorge’s following my lead. With his extra bulk and heavy boots, he’s able to crush them with little effort.
Wendy’s more squeamish about it. Instead of stomping the bodies, she steps on their legs, cracking them into little pieces. The spiders go wild when she does that, snapping their mandibles vainly at the air.
A couple of the spiders are on the walls or ceiling, but one more blast of pepper spray and a burst of the flashlight is enough to dislodge them. One scurries under a seat, and we have to drive it out before we can kill it, but at last they’re all dead.
“Next time I say we get out of here, we get the hell out of here,” Wendy says.
“What she said. That was crazy.”
“It was indeed.” I kneel next to one of the cocooned forms on the floor and pick up my Swiss Army knife. I don’t see the opening I’d made earlier, so I start again fresh. I have to saw the knife to cut through the silk, but after a minute’s work, I’ve got the cocoon open.
There’s a middle aged woman in there, her face deathly white except for smudges of rouge on her cheeks. Even her lips barely have any color to them.
“She’s dead,” Wendy says.
I touch the woman’s throat. The flesh pulses faintly against my fingertips. “No.” I slap her cheeks gently. A natural flush appears, but she doesn’t wake up. “Here.” I offer my knife to Jorge. “You get the others out.”
“Yeah sure.” He takes the knife and kneels next to me, starts cutting open the next cocoon.
“Look, I don’t wanna sound cold,” Wendy says, “but we should be scramming.”
“Why would we do that?” Jorge says. “We killed the spideys, right? What we gotta worry about?”
“Yeah, but this here, this is not everyone who was on the train. Am I right?”
“You’re right.” My car alone had had twice as many people as I see cocoons. The whole train must’ve held a hundred plus people when the power went out.
“So something dragged the others off,” Wendy says. “And the things we killed—I mean, scary big for spiders, sure, but not nearly big enough to drag human bodies around, not unless there were a helluva lot more of them.”
“So what’re you saying?” Jorge says. He’s stopped cutting for a moment, and I nudge him to continue.
“I think these were kiddies. I think their parents left them here to stand watch while the adults dragged the bodies back to… wherever.”
“Spiders don’t act that way,” Jorge says. “They’re loners. And they aren’t smart enough.”
“Spiders aren’t the size of a cat, either,” Wendy says. “This is not normal. What happened up above is not normal. None of this is normal. We can’t say, ‘Spiders don’t act that way,’ because maybe they do. Now.”
“You’re probably right,” I say. I’m holding the woman’s hand, giving it squeezes to see if she’ll squeeze back. Nothing so far. “I have no idea what happened, but I think it’s clear we’re through the looking-glass right now. And yes, there probably are bigger spiders out there.”
“And if they show up and they’re the size of a border collie, or a donkey, or—God forbid—a hippo, we’re dead. Half a can of pepper spray won’t do shit.”
“A hippopotamus would never fit in here,” I point out.
“You are missing the point. Let’s vamoose while the vamoosing’s good.”
“Ehhr. Ehhhr. Yerrrt.” The woman in the cocoon is rasping for breath. Her eyes are open, but one of them is twitching.
I slip a hand under her back and get her to sit upright. “You’re okay.”
“Do you remember what happened?”
She shakes her head. Her whole body is trembling.
“Get the others loose,” I tell Jorge.
He nods and goes back to cutting the cocoons.
Then to Wendy I say, “And if you’re worried about more spiders coming, go outside and stand watch. If you see anything, you can take off running. Just pound the windows as you leave, so we’ll know.”
“Yeah. Sure.” She shakes her head and heads to the front of the train. The driver’s compartment has been torn out, and she can slip outside that way.
“Whaz goey ah?” the woman from the cocoon says.
“What’s the last thing you can remember?”
“Morney. Goey to rally.” She flexes her lips, puzzled at why they aren’t forming the sounds she wants.
“Touch your nose with your finger,” I suggest.
She tries, but ends up tapping her upper lip instead. The spiders must’ve poisoned her—not something lethal, at least not to humans, but enough to paralyze her. The effects are just wearing off.
“Well it’s afternoon now. Maybe even evening,” I say. I explain to her the basics of what’s happened, not skimping on the bad news, though not dwelling on it either.
“Yeh kiddey,” she says.
“I’m not, unfortunately.”
“My huzbee, he aza wiz me.”
I look around. Jorge’s got most of the people loose now. There are plenty of men, but only one or two are close to the woman’s age. “Do you see him here?”
She examines the faces. She shakes her head.
“The spiders must’ve got him.”
“Yeh stih sezeyat?”
She speaks again, slower, “Yeh stih sezey zat.”
Am I still saying that?
“Look over there.” I point to one of the crushed carcasses. She flinches when she sees it.
“No, lady, it ain’t,” Jorge says. “Not a crab, not a lobster, not Sponge Bob Squarepants.”
Some of the other passengers are showing signs of wakefulness, but before we can get them up and moving, Wendy comes running.
To Be Continued...
“What is it this time?” Brook says.
“I think somebody’s got a pebble in their shoe, or something,” says the guy in front of us in line, Doug he said his name is.
It’s been over an hour since we left the train, and it feels like we’ve hardly made any progress. Every couple dozen yards, we have to stop because somebody’s shoe laces came untied, or their contact lens came out. It is a serious pain.
“Shreya must be freaking out,” Owen says. “How many messages do you think she’s left by now?” There he goes. Why is it always Shreya with him, huh?
“Dozens, I’m sure,” I say.
“That’s assuming she isn’t stuck in a tunnel like us,” Brook says.
“It’s possible, but I don’t think there was enough time for the next Orange Line train to come along,” he says. “She’s probably back at the station, or she’s gone up to wait outside.”
I change the subject. “Maybe we should get off this walkway. We’d move faster if we weren’t all in a single lane.”
“What if the trains start again?” Brook says.
“The lights would come on, we’d know.”
“I dunno,” Doug butts in. “What I’ve read, the third rail can retain a static charge even without power. Get too close, bzap.”
I wouldn’t mind bzap right now. It’d be something different. I’ve been staring at the spotted pattern of Brook’s blouse for way too long. There are three colors—mauve, fuschia and turquoise—spread seemingly at random, but repeating after a fixed interval. I’ve been playing connect the dots in my mind. I’ve managed to find a giraffe, a dolphin and a dong. If keep at it much longer, they’re going to start moving and talking to me.
But before I can suggest we take the risk, the traffic jam clears and the line moves forward again.
We pass two unlit lights, and one lit. I counted off the distance earlier, and there’s about a dozen yards between each one, so we’ve moved nearly a quarter of a football field. Hooray. This is the longest continuous movement we’ve managed so far. But, just when I’m thinking we might reach Rosslyn while it’s still daylight, we come to a halt.
Brook’s squirming on her feet. “If we don’t get to the station soon, I’m gonna have to pop a squat somewhere.”
I could use a bathroom break myself. It’s not urgent yet, but my bladder’s full enough that it’s uncomfortable.
“Why didn’t you go before we left the march?” Owen says.
“In a Porta Potty? I don’t think so. And how was I supposed to know this would happen? If it weren’t for the quake, we’d home by now.”
“I hear ya, li’l sister,” Doug says. “I’ve got a Big Mac in me that’s ready to be recycled.” Thank you for sharing. With that image in mind, I may never eat at McDonald’s again.
“Shreya told her mom she’d be home in an hour, didn’t she?” Owen says. On the one hand, I’m thankful for him changing the subject, but did it have to be back to this topic? “You guys haven’t met her parents, have you? They’re going to kill her. They’ve probably called the cops.”
“If the Metro’s shut down, it’ll be all over the news,” Brook says. “They’ll know Shre and her sis are gonna be late.”
“I don’t think that’ll make a difference,” Owen says. “Her mom’s hardcore.”
Brook’s no more interested in discussing Shreya’s family than I am, so she lets the subject drop.
The minutes drag by, but we don’t get moving.
“What’s the hold up?” a man calls from behind us.
“I think we’re at the station,” a woman ahead of us says, “but there’s something wrong.”
“If the tunnel’s collapsed and we have to go back, I am going to scream,” Brook says.
“Please don’t,” the guy behind me says. We haven’t talked much, but I’ve overheard his conversation with his wife, enough to gather that they’re ex-hippies who are none too impressed by us Millennials and our half-assed protests and our Bruno Mars music. He’s been doing the, “Back in my day…” thing since we left the train. “We would’ve stormed the White House!” “We had songs about Kent State. They’re singing about Michelle Pfeiffer!”
“Hey, somebody’s coming,” a man way ahead of us says.
We all lean to the side and try to get a look. There’s a person—a man? Looks like—coming down the tracks. I sure hope he’s a Metro employee. Somebody in charge needs to know about the leak in the tunnel. If the crack worsens, it’ll shut down the entire line, maybe even flood the station.
“Okay, folks, we’ve got a situation.” The guy’s shouting, but this far back his voice is muffled and I have to strain to hear. “You need to turn around and go back.”
“C’mon, man, quit shitting around.”
“I’ve gotta get to work. I’m late already.”
“Hey! Hey! Hey!” the guy shouts. “The station is filled to capacity. We had one train sitting on deck when the quake struck, and we’ve already had two more trainloads walk in. We don’t got any more room, ‘kay.”
“Why can’t we go up?” Owen shouts. He’s not the only one saying this.
“You don’t wanna go up,” the guy on the tracks says. “Trust me on that. You do not want to go up.”
“What happened?” people shout.
“You wouldn’t believe me. Just turn around and head back to DC.”
“Fuck you man.”
“Yeah, who put you in charge?”
“We can’t go back. The tunnel’s flooded.”
That last bit gives the guy pause.
“Flooded?” he says.
“The roof’s leaking.”
“Water’s pouring in.”
“You better get a repair crew up in there, now, or the system’s gonna be out of commission permanently.”
“There aren’t any repair crews,” the guy says. “Is the tunnel completely flooded?”
“Not yet. Not when we left at any rate,” a guy towards the front says. He’s got a deep, smooth voice, sounds like he should be on the radio. I strain to see him, but he’s too far up.
“Then you best turn around now. Get back there while you can.”
“Give us some answers, man?”
“Okay, look, I’ll go back and talk to my guys. But they’re gonna tell you the same thing I’m saying. You can’t come in.”
He turns around and leaves.
“What the hell is that?” Brook says.
“I don’t even think he works for Metro,” Doug says. “Didn’t have a uniform.”
“This is some bullshit,” the guy in front of Doug says. “Fuck it. I’m not standing up here and waiting.” He jumps down to the tracks. That opens up a little space, and I don’t feel quite so crowded. Though only relatively so.
“You know what,” I say. “He’s right.” I sit on the ledge and push myself over.
“Damn right.” Brook follows me down, then Owen.
A lot of people are doing it, now, and those who remain on the walkway sit down on the ledge.
“Stick close,” Owen says.
I put my backpack down. I hadn’t brought much, but I have a Snickers bar. I take one piece for myself, then offer the rest to Brook and Owen.
“Thanks,” Brook says. She stuffs the whole thing in her mouth, chews three times and swallows. “Oh, that’s better.”
Owen takes a small bite and chews it thoroughly. “When we get outta here, what say we find a Denny’s?”
“Yeah,” Brook says.
“Sounds good,” I agree. Owen and I barely had time to talk during the protest. Even on the train, before the quake, we’d been too crowded to have a conversation, and the discussion since has consisted of, “Sure is a long way,” and “Think we’re almost there?” But if we go to Denny’s… well, nobody ever goes there for a quick bite. You always end up chatting for a couple hours after eating.
And best of all, no Shr--
“Plus, you know, we can wait for Shreya. If the Yellow Line’s still running, she can at least get to Alexandria, and Metro’s probably going to run emergency buses over. There’s still a chance we can meet up.”
Why is it always Shreya with him? I know she has big boobs, but so what? She’s so uptight, she’s never going to let a man touch her, so what does it matter how big her chest is? And besides, she clearly has goo-goo eyes for Josh. She barely pays attention to Owen.
Wake up! You’ve got no chance with her. I’m right here!
God! Men are such shallow idiots. They’ll waste their time on a girl they have no chance with if she has a nice chest, but they’re blind to what’s right in front of them. There are times I wish I was lesbian. Be less frustrating.
There’s a commotion from down the tunnel. Looks like the guy’s back, and he’s brought some friends along. Those of us from the train crowd around.
“What the hell’s going on?” one of our guys says.
“Yeah! We want answers.”
“Don’t give us any runaround.”
“Look!” one of the new men says. “We can’t let you through. It’s just not happening. You gotta trust us on this, it’s for you’re own good.”
“Can’t or won’t?” the guy with the nice voice says.
“Physically we could. Morally, we can’t allow it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Enough with this BS.”
The guys from Rosslyn look at each other.
“Tell ‘em,” one of them says.
“You wanna tell ‘em, you tell ‘em.”
“Tell us what?”
“Stop playing games!”
“Okay! Fine! Fine!” says the first guy who’d come out. “You all felt the earthquake, right?”
“Kinda hard to miss.”
“Wasn’t an earthquake,” the guy says. “We’ve been nuked,”
“Don’t lie to us.”
“Even Fox said the North Koreans can’t hit DC.”
“Well somebody hit us. The surface is a mess. Buildings toppled, cars crashed, and everyone who was up there is dead. We got a few hundred people in Rosslyn, and we can’t hold any more. You all gotta turn around and make do in DC.”
“What the hell, man? If Rosslyn’s wrecked, DC’s gonna be worse.”
“You’re asking us to commit suicide.”
“I’m sorry,” the guy from Rosslyn says. “We don’t have a choice.”
“Fine!” Doug steps forward. “You don’t want us in your station, we’ll leave. But we ain’t goin’ back to DC. My family’s in Fairfax. Let me through, I’ll walk my ass home.”
“Let us through.”
“We don’t wanna stick with you sorry ass losers anyway.”
The three guys from Rosslyn huddle together, but before they can even discuss the proposal, Doug steps forward and shoulders them aside. He had plenty of room to walk around them, but he makes a point of plowing through them.
“Hey, you can’t—” one of the guys shouts after him.
“Yeah? Watch us,” another guy from our train says.
The crowd surges forward. I’m swept up with them. Even if I didn’t want to go with them—and I’m kinda mixed on that question—I’d have no choice.
I look around, but Brook and Owen aren’t with me any more. I catch sight of a blonde with her hair in a ponytail, but I’ve seen at least three women with that style besides Brook.
We surge out of the tunnel.
Those guys hadn’t been lying. The station is packed. There are so many people on the platform, we couldn’t get up there if we tried.
Rosslyn has a funny layout compared to most stations. Instead of the tracks all being on the same level of the station, it’s split into two floors, with trains heading away from DC using the lower one. Both floors are equally packed—people are smooshed against the railing on the upper level—and even the escalators are full.
“We don’t have room for you,” a woman on the platform shouts.
“Go back to DC!”
“We aren’t staying here,” Doug yells back.
Somebody on the upper deck—some bratty teenager, looks like—tosses an empty water bottle at us. It bounces off a woman’s head.
“Hey, fuck you guys!” a man next to her shouts. She puts a hand on his shoulder and tells him to let it go, but it’s too late. Other men are taking up the calls. Both sides are shouting at each other so loudly I can’t make out what anyone’s saying.
A bunch of men jump off the platform and block Doug’s way. They shout at each other, and then Doug shoves one of them. It’s not a hard shove, only sends the guy back a couple steps, but his companions act like Doug threw a punch. One of them tries to headlock Doug, but Doug pushes his shoulder into the guy’s chest and rams him into the side of the tunnel.
Guys from our train rush to Doug’s defense, but that only brings more guys off the platform. No, not just guys. I see some women jumping down too. The whole trackbed turns into an arena.
I back against the wall, thinking that might keep me out of the melee, but a man comes rushing towards me.
“You stupid chink, this is all your fault.” He smashes his fist into my nose. Hot blood spurts down my lip, and I think—oh God, he knocked one of my teeth out.
The man’s about to take a second swing at me, but somebody grabs his arm and yanks it around behind him.
Huh? Was that somebody calling my name?
Yes! Owen and Brook are wading through the crowd. They’re trying not to fight, but Owen has to push a guy down, and Brook knees a guy who makes a grab at her.
I move towards them, but Brook waves for me to go towards the far tunnel. Yeah. Good idea. Let’s get the hell outta here. We can meet up when we’re safe.
I stick to the edge of the tracks, where the crowd’s lightest. I have to step over sprawled bodies. I don’t think anyone’s dead, but a bunch of people are knocked out.
I’m almost to the far side of the station, but I have to get around a massive fist fight before I can leave. They’re taking up most of the trackway. My only choice is to cut close to the platform. I make a run for it, but as I get close to the ledge, somebody kicks me in the back of the head. I fall to my hands and knees.
“Quick, get up.” The guy with that great voice stoops next to me and pulls me to my feet.
He gives me a little shove and takes off towards the tunnel. I run after him.
“They’re getting away!” someone on the platform yells.
I plunge into the tunnel. The next light is a long way down, and the tracks are barely visible, but I don’t care. I sprint as fast as I can until I catch up with the guy who’d saved me.
“No problem.” He’s in his mid-twenties, with one of those beards that’s barely crossed over from stubble.. He’s wearing black frame glasses that don’t have lower rims, and his hair’s gelled to the side. He’s got on a plaid button-down and khaki pants. It’s a very trendy look, and he pulls it off like fashion model. Except that his outfit is scruffed up. The side of his shirtsleeve is torn, he’s got dirt all over his back, and his lower lip is puffed out.
“You okay?” I ask.
“Not really. You?”
“Same.” My mouth is full of blood. I spit out a gob. Eww. And I’ve got more on my lips and chin from my bloody nose.
We’re a good ways down the tunnel now, and we slow to a halt.
“God damn.” He’s huffing for breath. “What the hell was that?”
“Jesus, that was like a zombie movie, the survivors fighting over canned soup.”
“Yeah. But did you hear what that guy said?”
“The nuclear bomb? Yeah.”
“If that’s true, we are… ah man.”
There are more people coming down the tunnel. More, but not nearly our entire group. Not even close.
One guy’s got a hand over his mouth, and when he takes it away, he shows us three teeth that are hanging by their gums. Egh. At least mine came out clean.
A woman’s clutching her arm against her chest like it’s broken, but she won’t let anyone look at it unless they’re a doctor—which nobody is.
Other people are bruised and bloodied to varying degree.
But what about Brook and Owen? I don’t see them anywhere. Oh God. This is horrible. What am I going to do? I can’t very well go back and look for them. But we can’t sit in this tunnel forever, either. We’ve gotta go on. But if Brook and Owen make it down here after we get a move on, I don’t want them worrying about what happened to me.
“What do we do now?” a man asks. It’s the ex-hippie guy. Somehow he and his wife are still together.
“If they’re telling the truth about DC being nuked, we wanna get the hell outta here,” the woman with a broken arm says. “I mean, Rosslyn’s pretty deep—have you ridden that escalator?—but there’s no door to keep radiation from getting in. Anyone who stays there will pus up and die.”
The guy with the bloody teeth says something, though it takes me a couple seconds to make sense of his words—“Isn’t that true wherever we go?”
“Not necessarily,” the guy with the deep voice says. “Nuclear bombs are big, but one isn’t enough to take out the entire region, and prevailing winds around here will push the fallout into Maryland. If we can get out to—where does the Orange Line go above ground? Falls Church?”
“Between East Falls Church and Ballston,” somebody says.
“Yeah, that’s going to be plenty far enough away.”
“You’re assuming there was only one nuke,” the woman with the broken arm says.
“On MSNBC they were saying North Korea only has a few dozen,” I say. “They wouldn’t use them all on DC, would they?”
“I watch Morning Joe, too,” the woman says. “But they were also saying Kim doesn’t have a missile that can hit the East Coast. Either they were very wrong, or the idiot in the White House did something very stupid and the Chinese stepped in. It’s very possible the entire country just went up in flames.”
“It’s possible,” a black guy in chinos and a tan T-shirt says. “But if that’s the case, we nuked the hell out of China right back, and it’s going to be nuclear winter. We’re all dead, no matter what we do.”
The woman doesn’t have an answer to that.
“Look, we only have two ways we can go,” the guy with the deep voice says. “Forward or reverse.
“We don’t wanna go backwards, that’s for sure,” a middle aged man says.
“Right. So we go forward. And if we do that, we might as well go all the way to the end of the tunnel. It’s as safe an option as we have.”
“Yeah,” the guy in chinos says.
The guy with the bloody mouth nods.
“Makes no difference, I guess,” the woman with the broken arm says. “But before we go…” She tries to shrug her purse off her shoulder, but it’s on her bad side and she winces when the strap slides to her elbow.
“Here.” I help her get it off.
“Thanks. If you look inside, I should have a tube of lipstick.”
“Really?” the ex-hippie woman says.
“Not for my face.”
I find the tube and hand it to the woman. She gets the cap off and holds it up to the wall with her left hand, then stops.
“Here.” She hands it back to me. “Can you write where we’re going and sign my name? That way if my girlfriends come this way, they’ll know where to go.”
“What about those assholes back there?” a man asks.
The guy with the deep voice shakes his head. “They’re happy where they’re at. Why would they come after us? If they do, it’ll be after we have a big head start.”
“Yeah,” the ex-hippie says.
“Okay.” I write, “WE ARE GOING TO E FALLS CHURCH” under a light. “What’s your name?”
“Kelly,” the woman says.
I write that underneath, then add my own. “Anyone else?”
“I’m by myself,” the guy with the deep voice says.
The guy with the bloody mouth says something which I take to be, “Jonathan,” so I add that to the wall. A couple other people give me names, but most don’t. The guy in chinos is Malik—he pronounces it Maleek but corrects me when I try to spell it that way.
After that, we set out for the next station. We don’t bother getting on the walkway this time—it’s obvious that we don’t have to worry about the trains starting again, and it’d take a freak accident for us to get electrocuted by the third rail now.
“If you look in my bag, I should have a jar of wet wipes,” Kelly says.
“Thanks.” I dig through the main compartment, going by feel rather than trying to see in the dim light. My hands touch a plastic cannister, and pull it out. “You a mom?”
“Dead giveaway, isn’t it? Yeah. Two kids, boy and a girl.”
I pull one of the wipes out and start scrubbing my face. The bleeding’s stopped and the blood’s had time to dry, so it flakes right off. I spread the wipe around my cheeks and forehead while I’m at it. There’s no telling when I’ll be able to wash again, might as well make the most of it now.
“Are they…” I trail off. Her kids aren’t with us, which means they either got separated in Rosslyn, or they weren’t on the train. Either way, that’s not a wound to be poking right now.
But Kelly guesses what I was about to say. “They’re in Manassas. Hopefully that’s far enough away that… hopefully.”
“I’m sure they’re okay.” I twist one of the wipes into a makeshift Q-tip and dab it at the blood still in my nose. As I do, I notice the wedge of cartilage in my nose—what is that, my septum?—is wobbly. Has it always been like that, or is it broken? It doesn’t hurt when I wiggle it, so I suppose it’s okay.
“Yeah,” Kelly says, “my husband probably threw them in the van and hightailed it east when the news hit Twitter. We’ve got a cabin up in the Blue Ridge. Even if it’s global armageddon, things should be less bad up there. The mountains should shelter them from the fallout, right?”
“Yeah. Yeah.” If it helps her keep going, yeah, sure. But if it’s really “global armageddon,” I’m not sure surviving longer is something to aspire to. If that’s what’s going on, I’m gonna find a pharmacy and pop some pills.
But hopefully things aren’t that bad. Hopefully it’s just DC, or at the very most a couple other big cities.
2019, right? Every day’s worse than the one before. You wake up each morning thinking things are as bad as they’re going to get, and by the time you go to bed, you’re hoping only ten million people died today.
“Listen, I’m gonna see if anyone else needs these.” I shake the cannister of wet wipes.
Jonathan accepts one of the wipes, but it does little good. He’s put his teeth back in his mouth, but his face is twisted in a constant grimace, and the way he has to keep his mouth open means drool is overrunning his lips.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
“Zhizzorz,” he says.
The mere idea sends a shudder down my back, but I suppose if I were in his situation, I’d be thinking the same thing. Better to cut those strips of gum than yank them out.
I search Kelly’s purse and come out with cuticle scissors. Who knows how sanitary they are, but in the circumstances I doubt we can come up with anything better. I hand them over. “Go ahead and keep them.”
I move away before I have to see anything.
Several people accept wipes to clean out cuts, and a couple people use them to wash their faces and hands. By the time I get to the guy who rescued me, the cannister’s almost empty.
“Last one?” I offer.
“Oh, thanks.” He dabs it at his swollen lip, flinches. “I think I can get by without it.”
“At least clean your cheeks.” I take the towelette from him and wipe a smudge off the side of his face.
“Thanks, mom. I feel like I’m a kindergartener now.”
“Hush. And lift your chin.”
He stops walking and does as I say. I scrub the soft patch under his jaw and down his neck to his collar.
“That’s better,” I say.
“Sure, mom. I’ll try not to get dirty again before dinner.”
I scowl at him. “My name’s June.”
“Really? You look more like an April.”
“They say that April is the cruelest month of all.”
“Yes, you’ve got cruel eyes.” He taps my temple. “I bet you’ve ruined many a poor lad.”
“I have not.”
“Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm. Come along, cruel April, we don’t want to get left behind.”
He starts walking again. We’re trailing behind the group now and have to hurry to catch up.
“And what about you?”
“What about me?”
“You do have a name, right?”
“Oh. Yeah. I’m Rick.”
“Really? You seem more of a Dick.”
“Nope, sorry. Dick is short for Richard.”
“Isn’t that what Rick’s short for?”
“No, my full name is Patrick.”
“Shouldn’t you be Pat, then?”
“No, absolutely not.”
“What’s wrong with Pat?”
“You ever see those old Saturday Night Live skits?”
“No. What skits?” I never actually watch Saturday Night Live unless somebody posts a video on Facebook, and half the time it’s not even funny.
“They used to have this character named Pat who was totally androgynous and nobody could figure out what pronouns to use.”
“I haven’t seen it in years, but yeah, probably. This was the ‘90s. But whether it was transphobic or not, it was extremely Pat-phobic. And those episodes were on Comedy Central all the time when I was in elementary school, not to mention there was a feature film and… ugh.”
“So you got bullied a lot?”
“No, actually I told everyone to call me Rick and kicked their ass if they didn’t.”
“I mean, I wasn’t a bully or anything. They started shit, I finished it. Simple as that.”
“Hey, I’m a nice guy.”
“Uh-huh, that’s what they all say.”
We stop. The whole group’s come to a halt. We’re at the point where the tracks split between the Blue and Orange/Silver Lines, and we have to figure out which way’s which.
“Blue follows the Potomac, so it’s the one that splits off,” Kelly says. “Orange Line goes straight.”
“Are you sure about that?” a douchey looking teenager says. He’s in an Insane Clown Posse T-shirt, and has a tattoo even though I doubt he’s eighteen.
“Pretty sure, yeah,” Kelly says.
“I think she’s right.”
“Does it make a difference?”
“Yeah. We left a message we’re goin’ to Falls Church.”
“More importantly,” Rick speaks up, “we wanna get as far away from the city as we can.”
“I dunno,” the douchey boy says, “I think we should go this way.”
“That’s going to take you closer to Ground Zero,” Rick says. “You’re going to get yourself dead if you go that way.”
“Yeah, right,” the douchey boy says. “You don’t get to tell me what to do.” He turns and walks into the Blue Line tunnel. A couple other boys go with him, and one pudgy girl with her hair dyed blue.
“Idiots,” Rick says. He stares after them. “We should… ah, screw ‘em.”
He heads into the Orange Line tunnel. After a moment, the rest of our group follows.
But we’ve barely gone any distance when we come to another halt. I’m at the back of the group now, so I can’t tell what’s going on at first, but I see Rick and a couple guys climbing onto the emergency walkway.
“What’s going on?” I ask the ex-hippie woman.
“Looks like there’s a train up ahead.”
I squint, but can’t see anything. I wish I had my glasses, but I left them at home today.
We end up standing there for an awfully long time. What’s the hold up?
I wander up to the front of the group. There is a train, and everyone’s milling around it like there’s no hurry. The rear door’s open, and I see some guys moving around inside. Rick’s nowhere around, so I suppose he must be in there.
“What’re they doing?” I ask Kelly.
“Checking out the train. Seeing if there’s anything useful on board.”
“Wouldn’t the passengers’ve taken their stuff with them?”
“Not necessarily. If this is the Silver Line, there would’ve been people going out to Dulles.”
Ah. Yeah, they’d probably leave their baggage on board rather than lugging it through the tunnels.
“Hey!” Rick leans out the rear door. “I’ve got a suitcase in here, if anyone wants to sort through it.”
“There could be medicine in here. Food. Who knows what else that’ll be useful.”
Well, it beats standing around. “Yeah.” I wave and step forward.
He squats down and extends his arms to me. I grab them and he pulls me on board.
The way the train’s stopped, hardly any light from the tunnel is getting into this car. I can only see the other people in here by the dim glow of their phones. They look like space explorers in a derelict ship on some inhospitable planet. Oh God, that is not a movie I wanna be thinking about right now.
Rick hauls a suitcase over to a seat and hefts it up.
“All yours,” he says. “We’ll be in the next car.”
“You’re leaving me all alone?”
“There’re people right outside.”
“Yeah, I know. But… abandoned train cars in tunnels…”
“It’ll be all right.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“We’ll just be a few minutes,” Rick says and heads forward.
Dummy. You’re supposed to volunteer to sit with me. Why are all the guys I meet totally oblivious?
I take out my phone and sit down. I’ve only got 28% left on the battery—I forgot to put it on the charger last night—so I can’t use the flashlight too much, but ten minutes shouldn’t hurt.
I unzip the suitcase and flip it open. It’s mostly clothes, and judging by the rumpled state they’re in, they need washing. They’re also huge—none of the women in our group are even close to this size. Even most of the men would be too small for these jeans.
I toss the clothes onto the seat opposite me, though half of them end up on the floor.
I uncover an overnight kit on the bottom of the bag. I’m not keen on using somebody’s toothbrush or comb, but the shampoo, soap and whatnot could be useful. Even better, there’s a bottle of Tylenol. Inside a side pocket on the suitcase, I find a novel—Blind Side by Catherine Coulter. That was a good movie, so even though it’s not immediately useful, I stuff it into the overnight kit. Who knows when we’re going to find another book? For all I know, this is all that’s left of American culture.
Anything else in here? Hmm, there’s a lump in the side of the case, but… where’s the pocket? Ah, there it is. But when I slip my hand inside, I can’t find anything. I flip the case around. There’s a zipper on the side. I pull it across and… oh. Ew. Ugh. She’s got a dildo in here. Who brings a dildo on a plane? You know TSA’s gonna find it!
I’m almost afraid to search that pocket further, but I force myself to. What’s this? A belt? Doesn’t feel like belt material, though. Kinda stretchy canvas. I pull it out. It’s more of a harness than a belt, reminds me a bit of crotchless panties, except there’s a plastic ring on the front with… wait, is this… what I think it is?
I pray to God this woman is a lesbian, because otherwise that dildo has been up some guy’s ass. Get it away from me! I pick it up by the base and hurl it down the car.
“What the hell was that?” Malik is standing at the other end of the car. He’s got a couple suitcases with him.
“You don’t wanna know.”
“Okay. You wanna look through these?”
Not particularly. Not after that. But I’m here, so… “Sure.”
He drops the larger bag on the floor and puts the smaller on top of the case I’ve already looked through.
Thankfully this one is less gross. I mean, there’s some dirty underwear with skid marks on them, but I’ve done laundry for my dad and brother, so it’s nothing I’ve never seen. Mostly, though, it’s men’s T-shirts and jeans that’ve been balled up. I don’t think anyone’s desperate enough for a change of clothes to wear these, so I toss them aside. What else? No toiletries in this one, but there are loose jars of aspirin, Valtrex, Viagra, and a half-used bottle of Nyquil. There’s a pack of condoms, too—box of three with one missing. I go ahead and put all the drugs in the woman’s overnight kit, the condoms too, figuring you never know who might need it.
The bigger bag is all clothing, though some of this is clean. I dunno if we should take any—it might come in useful eventually, but do we wanna be carrying it around with us? Hopefully we’ll be able to scrounge clothes when we get to the surface. I go ahead and stuff them into the little bag. I’ll let someone else decide whether to take it.
I’ve got everything situated when Rick comes back with the others. Besides Malik, he’s with a sharp-dressed, young Hispanic man. The guy’s hair is immaculately coifed—like, I wouldn’t spend that much time on my hair unless I was going on a date, and only if the guy was taking me to a damn good restaurant.
“That’s everything we could find,” Rick says. “Looks like the driver took all the emergency equipment when he left the cab. Sucks.”
“I didn’t find much,” I say. “We’ve got some medicine and stuff, but nothing major. A few clean clothes, if anyone wants to carry this bag.”
“Seems like a waste of effort,” Rick says.
“If there’s still civilization topside, we won’t need it,” Malik says. “If not, we’re gonna hafta loot stores anyway. I say leave it.”
The guy with the impeccable clothing shrugs.
“Okay, so just the overnight kit?” I say.
“Yeah,” Rick says. “Why don’t you tell the others we’re ready to move?”
While I do that, he starts fiddling with the emergency exit controls.
“What the hell’s going on?” a middle aged guy asks when I poke my head out.
“We’ve gathered up some supplies. Nothing much, but we’ve got some medicine and toiletries if anyone needs them. Now we’re about to get rolling again, so everyone...” I point over to the walkway. “Okay?”
“Yeah sure,” the ex-hippie guy says. He’s been sitting on the track with his wife. He stands up with creaky movements and then helps her to her feet. Neither one looks to be holding up very well. I hope they can last until we’re out of the tunnels.
People clamber onto the walkway. The more gentlemanly of the men offer to help ladies up, and the more feminist of the ladies refuse. That includes Kelly, but when she tries to get up with one arm, she has to relent and ask for an assist.
With that taken care of, I go back into the car. The side door’s open now, and Rick and the others are outside on the platform. I join them.
“You think we’ll get outta here tonight?” the stylish guy says.
“I wanna try,” Rick says. “Who knows how long the emergency power’s gonna last. I don’t wanna be walking down here with only our phone lights, that’s for sure.”
“How far do you think it is?” Malik says. “Ten miles?”
“Not even that,” Rick says. “Maybe five.”
“Shit, I could walk that in two hours,” Malik says.
“If we were on the street, sure. But these tunnels are slow going,” the nice dresser says. “I’d say three, four hours, depending on how many pitstops we gotta do.”
“We also have to consider, not everyone in our group is in shape,” I say. “I don’t know that some of the older folks are gonna hold up.”
Rick pulls his phone out and checks the time. “It’s six-thirty now. We probably won’t make it by sunset, but we’ll make it tonight.”
“If push comes to shove,” Malik says, “there are other stations between here and Falls Church. We can always go up to the surface there.”
“Yeah. I wanna get as far from the city as we can, but like you say...”
“What about people in those stations?” the stylish guy says. “Think they’ll give us any shit?”
“Maybe, but I doubt it,” Rick says. “Rosslyn’s a special case. You have three lines through there, and there were people coming in from multiple trains. There shouldn’t be that kind of pressure at the other stations.”
He looks over his shoulder. Everyone’s up here now, so we start forward. Up on the walkway, we have to move in single file, which keeps our pace down, but once we get around the train and move back to the tracks, our speed picks up again.
We move without interruption for five minutes, and I keep expecting a station to come into view ahead, but the tunnel just goes on and on and on and on.
“Anyone have any water?” a woman asks.
Speaking for myself, I’m less worried about water going in than coming out. There’s been pressure in my bladder for a while now, since before Rosslyn, but it’s building and building and building. The constant motion isn’t helping, either. I don’t want to ask for a pit-stop, though; I don’t wanna be the one holding us up. Maybe if I drop off to the end of the group, I can take a quick piddle and then catch back up. Not like I can get lost down here.
But the thought of being all alone in the tunnel fills me with dread. Doesn’t matter if it’ll only be for a minute. I’ve watched too many horror movies. I know what happens to people who leave the group—especially without saying anything.
I’ll wait until we reach the next station. That seems like a good point for a break. I’m sure other people will want one, too.
But dammit, I hope that station is clooooose.
I have to walk with my thighs pressed together, otherwise I’m gonna spring a leak. I’m just thankful I had my period last week, I don’t have to worry about a tampon or sanitary pad right now.
I try to put my mind onto a different subject, but everything I can think of right now is depressing.
Is my family okay?
How about Josh, Shreya and the others?
Are Owen and Brook following behind us? If they were, wouldn’t they’ve caught up while we were searching the train? Did something happen to them?
And what’s waiting for us above? If we come out the tunnel and find everything around us is a radioactive wasteland, what am I going to do? Kill myself right there?
The pressure in my bladder is almost a relief from these thoughts. But I can’t hold it in much longer. I’m… oh, I can’t make it. There’s no way. Even if the station came into sight now, I couldn’t hold out.
I slow my pace. The rest of our group starts passing me.
I’m almost to the end when, “You okay, hon?” Kelly asks.
“Yeah. I just need… a quick break.”
“Oh. One or two?”
“Want me to wait with you?”
“Would you? That’s great.”
We stop, and once the group fades into the darkness, I drop my shorts and squat.
Kelly turns away while I do my business. “So, that guy, is he nice?”
“Rick? Hmm, yeah. A little weird, but the funny kind.”
“Isn’t that always the way? You meet a cute guy, but it’s the end of the world. Isn’t it ironic, doncha think?”
My pee patters on the ground. Despite what I told Kelly, now that I’m down here, maybe I should try for number two. I don’t feel any need right now, but I will eventually. Getting it all done in one stop would be for the best.
Except for the part where we don’t have any toilet paper. Being stuck in a hot, narrow tunnel with a dozen other people isn’t a situation where you wanna have stank ass.
“You think it’s really the end of the world?” I ask.
“I dunno. We haven’t seen anything. We just have the word of those guys at the station, and I don’t know how much we can trust them. Part of me wants to think, maybe they were lying to get us to turn around. But that doesn’t make sense, does it? If there isn’t something wrong up above, why would they’ve been crowding in the station?”
“Yeah. But it’s like, you don’t wanna accept the end of the world based upon what one person says, or even two or three. It’s something you gotta see for yourself.”
“Uh-huh. It’s not like they can know for sure,” Kelly says. “Maybe something bad happened, but it doesn’t have to be the end of everything.”
“I just hope Rosslyn isn’t what it’s going to be like from now on. All Mad Max and stuff. I mean, I think Furiosa’s a cool character and all, but that doesn’t mean I wanna be her.”
“Yeah, less survivalist, more picking up the pieces. That’s how I like my apocalyptic fiction.”
I stand up, pull up my pants. “Only problem is, we’re in DC. We don’t have people with good, handy know-how. We’ve got lawyers and military contractors.”
“You put it like that, we’re definitely going the Mad Max route.”
We start walking down the tunnel.
“I’ll tell you this much,” Kelly says. “If any of those guys start talking about how we need to go back to ‘traditional’ society, or how the first order of survival is procreation, I’m stabbing him in his throat.”
“Yes. Matriarchy for the win!”
Kelly laughs. “Though hopefully most of these guys are from the protest, they’ll be progressive and none of that MAGA bullshit.”
“Hopefully.” But if there’s one thing I’ve learned at college, it’s that guys who seem hip and liberal turn into sexist ass-wipes after a couple beers. There are also guys like Nick who mouth the right words, help you with petition drives and come out to protests, but it’s all an act to pick up girls.
“Hey. What’s going on up there?” Kelly says.
I squint, but again I can’t see what she’s talking about until we draw closer.
Our group is standing in the middle of the tunnel, not moving. Did they notice we’re missing and stop? Maybe I should’ve let somebody know what I was doing?
But as we get nearer, I realize that’s not the case. The issue is something else entirely: just beyond the group, the tunnel comes to a dead end.
To Be Continued...