We’ve been walking for five minutes now, but there’s still no sign of the next station.
Please, it can’t be that much farther. I just wanna get somewhere I can sit down. Even a couple minutes would be a relief. Being up on the walkway had been bad, but, despite being roomier, the trackbed is even worse. There are bits of gravel and other debris that have built up on ground, and every time I step on some, I feel it through my shoes.
“So what were you doing in the city?” Kenzie says. “Protesting?”
“Hadda work,” I say.
“On a Sunday? That sucks.”
“Where ya work?” Dallas says.
“You must be really smart.” Kenzie sounds super impressed, like I told her I’m a doctor or an architect.
I open my mouth to say, no, I work in the gift shop, but before I can get a word out, Dallas asks, “Whatcha major in?”
“History.” The response is automatic on my part, and it takes me a moment to realize it sounds like I’m saying I’m an historian at the Smithsonian.
No. No, no, no. I hadda drop out before even completing my bachelor’s degree. I’m just a minimum wage monkey working a register.
But it’s too late. They already have the misconception in their heads, and I can’t bring myself to disabuse them.
Well, it’s not like they’re going to know me long enough to discover the lie. Once we get up to the surface, it’ll be, “Nice meeting you, maybe see you around sometime,” and then we’ll go our separate ways, never to see each other again. If they leave thinking I’m some exhibit curator… I’m not going to worry myself.
“You get to handle the Constitution and stuff?” Kenzie says.
“Nah, nothing like that. I just catalogue artifacts—it’s very junior stuff.” I mean, I put geodes on the shelves, so it’s sorta true.
Dallas does a fake cough. “Humblebrag.”
“Be nice.” Kenzie gives her a playful shove, but Dallas’s still wobbly and stumbles over a rail, barely catches herself.
“That musta been some party you guys were at.”
“Enh. I thought it was a fizzle,” Dallas says.
“You certainly seem to be experiencing the aftereffects of a good time.”
“Ooo, listen to the professor. You ever been out partying, or you only study them in books?” Dallas says.
“Okay, maybe not in a while, but I’ve been out drinking before.” One time, really—I’d gotten dragged to a party by my roommate in my first semester at college. Spent the whole night in a corner nursing a beer. It tasted like piss and I’ve never had any desire to try another one.
“Twenty bucks says he’s a virgin.”
“Leave him alone,” Kenzie says.
“You are, aren’t you?”
“Well, I mean …” What am I supposed to say to that? If I deny it, Dallas will keep badgering me for details about my experience—I’ve known girls like her before, and if they once they sense something embarrassing, they never let up.
“Uh-huh. Toldja,” she says.
“What?” Kenzie’s shocked. I guess I should be happy she has a higher opinion of me?
But maybe it’s better to let Dallas think she’s right, that way she’ll back off. I shrug. “I just never… you know.”
“Never had a girlfriend?” Kenzie says.
“Yeah. I did. One.”
But that sets Dallas off again. “How long were you together?”
“About three years, a little less.”
“And she never put out?” Kenzie says.
“Said she wasn’t ready.”
“What was this, high school?” Dallas says.
“You shoulda dumped her,” Dallas says. “I’m sure you coulda found something.”
“Okay, so when you say you’re a virgin … like, how far did you get with her?” Kenzie says.
Shit. I guess the conversation is going down this path whether I want it to or not. “Sometimes … if we were hanging out in her dorm at night, she’d change into her pajamas in front of me. I mean, she wouldn’t get naked, but she’d take her shirt off and then put a nightgown on overneath before taking the rest off.”
“That’s it?” Kenzie says.
“She never let you touch her or anything?” Dallas says.
I shake my head, then realize they can’t see it in the dim light. “No.”
“Why would you put up with that?” Kenzie says.
Shrug. “I was in love.”
“Man,” Dallas says. “You shoulda pushed harder.”
“She said she didn’t want to go further.”
“She was begging you. You didn’t pay attention.”
“I dunno,” Kenzie says. “Some girls can be—” She stops walking. “I think I see something.” She points up ahead.
“The end of the tunnel?” I squint but don’t see any light ahead.
“No, something in the tunnel.”
“Yeah… I think I see it too… maybe,” Dallas says.
“It’s not moving, is it?” A train would have its lights on if it were moving, wouldn’t it?
“No, doesn’t look like.”
We hurry on. After a few more paces, I start to make out an outline. It is a train, but it’s stopped dead. Without power, the electronic sign on the front isn’t working, but I’m guessing this is a Blue or Silver Line train—all three of them use this tunnel.
As we draw closer, though, there’s something not right. The train’s not sitting level on the tracks, and part of the roof is dented.
“Maybe something fell on it, a chunk of ceiling,” Kenzie says.
“Yeah, could be.” If that’s so, we better be careful. Even if we’re not under the river now, there’s still a million tons of dirt over our heads.
“What happened to the window?” Dallas says.
The glass in front of the driver’s compartment is opaque with a spiderweb of fractures, like the train hit something, though I don’t see anything in the tunnel that could cause that.
“Maybe we should wait for the others,” Dallas says.
Wait for them? Hell, I’m about ready to turn around and head the other way. If we hurry, we can be in Rosslyn by 6:30, I’m sure.
But Kenzie doesn’t listen. “C’mon, we can get around the side.” She pulls herself up onto the walkway. “Doors are closed. People must still be on board.” She knocks.
There’s no response.
“Hello.” She tries again, harder this time. When there’s still no answer, she presses her face to the glass, cupping her hands around the side of her eyes to protect from the reflection of the emergency lights.
“See anything?” Dallas asks.
“Nothing. It’s too dark.”
You’d think people inside would have their cell phones out for light.
“Maybe they got off,” Dallas says. “They’re a lot closer to a station than we were. They could’ve left through the back.”
Why would everyone leave through the rear of the train, though? Going through one or two doors would slow things down even worse than it had been on our train.
“The only thing to do is keep going,” Kenzie says. “C’mon.” She waves for us to come up.
Dallas looks at me like, I don’t wanna do this, do you?
Yeah, tell me about it. There’s something hinky about all this. If this were a movie, the audience would be screaming at us to turn around and run the other way.
“What’re you waiting for?” Kenzie says. “The next station can’t be that far. We get around this, we can be outta here in ten, maybe fifteen minutes max.”
She does have a point. Why spend another hour trudging to Rosslyn in this sweltering darkness when we’ve come so far already. It’s not like this is really a movie. There’s no monster gonna jump out at us. Backtracking through the leaky section of tunnel would be more dangerous than going forward.
Besides, I don’t want her thinking I’m chickenshit.
“We should probably keep going,” I say.
Dallas scowls, then shrugs. “Sure whatever.”
The walkway comes a little higher than my waist, so getting up is a bit of a challenge. I have to jump and get my chest onto the platform, then pull the rest of myself up. Then I turn around and give Dallas an assist.
“Thanks.” she brushes herself off, though by this point she’s so filthy it makes no difference. Not that me and Kenzie are in much better shape. Everything down here is covered in grime—if you even brush against the wall, you’re going to come away covered in dirt.
Kenzie’s wandered further down and is knocking on the windows of the second car. “Train’s deserted. C’mon, let’s get to Foggy Bottom, get outta here.”
We start towards her, but just then something skitters on the roof of the train. I can’t see it, but whatever it is, it’s heavy enough that the roof creaks under its weight.
After a moment, it stops moving.
“Somebody up there?” Kenzie calls.
Why would somebody be on the roof? There can’t be more than a couple feet of clearance up there. You’d have to crawl on your belly to get around. Maybe rats or something?
Whatever’s moving is heavy.
“Hey, gimme a boost,” Kenzie says.
“Cradle your hands like this.” She shows me.
“I dunno that’s a good idea.”
“C’mon, it’s not like the Babadook’s up there or anything.”
The what? Nevermind. Probably some movie I never saw—there’re like a million of them.
I lace my fingers together and hold them out for her. She steps onto my hand with one foot and hops up with the other. She grabs the edge of the roof.
“See anything?” Dallas says.
“No, nothi—whoa shit!” Kenzie lets go the roof and the full weight of her body goes right into my hands. I lose my balance and stumble back into the wall. Kenzie falls against me. She’s not that big, but she’s still got enough weight to knock the breath outta me.
“What happ—” Dallas starts.
“Run!” Kenzie pushes herself up.
“What?” Dallas says.
Kenzie grabs my shoulder so hard I feel her nails through the shirtsleeve. I push myself off the wall but nearly fall over from the force of her tugging me.
She lets go of me to give Dallas a shove. “Move! Run!”
We pelt down the walkway.
“Hey!” A door at the end of the train slides open and a man with a shaggy beard and black-rimmed glasses sticks his head out. “In’ere, in’ere!” He waves us on.
Kenzie sprints ahead.
I’m about to follow suit, but the strap on Dallas’s shoe chooses that moment to snap. She stumbles, but I grab her to keep her upright.
Behind me, there’s a noise like a thousand tiny feet on metal. Something hisses.
“We needa shut it,” somebody in the train says.
“Give ‘em a minute,” a woman says.
“C’mon,” I tell Dallas.
She takes a step, but her shoe is sliding off her foot. It’s a cloppy, high heeled sandal, so ditching it while keeping the other one on would only make things worse.
I wrap an arm around her waist and lift her up. Ooof. I didn’t think she’d be that heavy. Even when she hooks an arm around my neck, I can barely stay upright.
“You gotta run,” the hipster-looking dude calls out.
Yeah, easier said than done. I’m moving as fast as I can, but when you’ve got a hundred and some pounds of girl in your arms, it kinda slows you down.
We’re almost to the door, though. Kenzie’s already through. Just a couple more steps. Couple more, c’mon. We can do it.
But as I get closer, I see they only have one of the door panels open. There’s no way I can get through with Dallas in my arms. I drop her to the ground and swing her around, sending her flying through the door. Kenzie and the Hipster grab her.
I’m about to follow, but my curiosity gets the better of me. I look behind me.
That’s a mistake.
Clinging to the side of the train is giant, segmented bug. I can’t see its whole body because it snakes onto the roof, but what I do see is more than twelve feet long and at least three across. Each link in its body is flanged on the sides, bulging in the center, with a pair of triple-jointed legs growing from each join. Its eyes glitter like a geode, and a pair of pincers the size of my arms project in front of its maw.
Jesus fucking Christ!
The thing rushes towards me, its legs moving in smooth waves.
I jump into the car.
A man and woman crouched next to the door slide it shut, and then a third pulls up the emergency lever, securing it in place.
The train lurches. The ambient light dims as the creature passes across the windows.
“Holy hell,” somebody says.
“Shhh,” the woman at the door says.
The thing slows. Its head twists back and forth, looking for where we disappeared to. The man and woman plaster themselves against the wall and the rest of us go stock still as the thing peers inside with shining, violet eyes.
How well can it see? Does it have night vision? Can it see detail, or just spot movement?
It taps the glass with its pincers. They have three finger-like extensions on the ends. It uses them to feel for the seam between door halves. How much dexterity does it have? Are those fingers just for pulling food into its maw, or can they pry as well?
The creature stays at the door for what seems like forever. If it has that much curiosity, is it intelligent in some way? Even if it’s only as smart as a cat, that would be serious trouble.
But after several long minutes, it finally gives up, scurries away.
We wait to be sure it’s gone, and then everyone starts breathing again.
“What was that?” Dallas says.
“Millipede, looked like,” the hipster guy says.
“Nah, millipedes are nice guys. That was a centipede,” someone down the car says. “They’re nasty bastards.”
“Can’t be,” a woman replies. “Arthropods don’t get that big. Square-cube law.”
“Whatever it is,” the Hipster says, “we don’t wanna tangle with it.” He looks from me to Dallas to Kenzie. “You’re not from this train?”
“No, we were on the Orange Line,” Kenzie says.
“That explains it,” the Hipster says.
“Explains what?” Dallas says. She sits down on a bench and takes her shoe off, examines the broken thong.
The woman by the door is peering outside. “If you were on this train, you’d know that thing by now.” She’s an older woman, mid-forties at least, with weathered brown skin under a tank-top. Her hair’s pulled back under a bandanna.
“I thought you might’ve been hiding in one of the other cars, but guess not,” the Hipster says.
“We didn’t see anyone in the rest of the train,” Kenzie says. “We figured everyone had split.”
“We tried to.” This from the guy who’s standing by the door. He’s about my age, with his hair done up in cornrows, and dressed in a blue button-down shirt with a yellow tie. “We was about half unloaded when that bastard appeared.”
“Do we want to know what happened?” Dallas says. She’s pulled a barrette from her hair and uses that to repair her shoe.
“Take a look out the back door,” the woman in the bandanna says.
I don’t think I wanna, but I step towards the rear of the train. Kenzie moves to follow, but Dallas stays seated.
Outside on the tracks, there are bodies everywhere. They look like toys that were thrown in their air and left where they fell. Some of them are intact, but others are in pieces. The tunnel walls are spattered with blood, drips and drabs in places, a thick, solid coat in others.
And in the center of it all, there’s the creature. It’s curled around itself, like a cat napping in a pile of blankets, but it’s not asleep. It’s mouth-end is gnawing on… on… oh, I think I’m gonna be sick. The beast has a human leg sticking from its maw, its mandibles holding it in place and slowly easing it down its throat.
“What the hell is that?” Kenzie says. “Where did it come from? Jesus fuck.”
Those are very good questions, and I haven’t clue one for an answer. The thing sure looks like a centipede, but there’s never been a centipede that big on Earth.
“Keep your voice down,” the woman in the bandanna says. “The thing can hear.”
We back away from the window.
“We’ve gotta tell the others,” Kenzie says.
“What others?” Hipster says.
“The other people on our train,” Kenzie says.
“You aren’t alone?” Bandanna says.
“We got ahead of our group. They stopped to examine this kinda hole in the…” I trail off.
“What is it?” the Hipster says.
“About maybe halfway between our train and here, we found a hole in the wall, like something had burst into the tunnel from outside.”
Hipster blinks several times fast. “Like Shai-Hulud or something?”
I don’t know what that is, but I nod anyways. “Yeah, something like that.”
The Hipster turns his head towards the back of the train. “You don’t think it was that thing, do you?”
Shrug. “Well, it came from somewhere, right?”
“Sure as hell not from around here,” Bandanna says.
“Anyway, we’ve gotta tell the others,” Kenzie say. “If they get caught out there….”
Yeah, but shit, I don’t wanna go out there. Not with that thing outside. I mean, I don’t want anyone to get eaten, no way, but that especially goes for myself. As long as we’re on the train, we should be safe—we’re high enough that the river’s not gonna drown us if the tunnel busts, so all we gotta do is wait for rescue to arrive. It has to get here sometime. They can bring in police, or, okay, maybe National Guard would be more appropriate, but let professionals with guns deal with it. We can sit here for a few hours until everything’s safe.
“I think we should stay here,” Dallas says.
She’s voicing the sentiment of the entire car. Nobody wants to go outside. They all stare at their feet rather than meet Kenzie’s eyes as she looks around the train.
Her eyes lock on Dallas. “What about the people who helped carry you?”
“Yeah, that was great of them. But that was when we thought the tunnel was empty. If they knew there was a freakin’ monster out there, you think they’d’ve volunteered? Hell no. They’d’ve hightailed it straight outta here.”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s a nice sentiment,” the Hipster says, “but, uh, you go outside and you’re gonna get eaten.”
“And what about the others?” Kenzie says. “They can get eaten, no problem?”
The Hipster thrusts his hands in his pockets and shuffles his feet. “Yeah. I mean, we can’t make the whole world our problem. We gotta worry about us.”
Kenzie shakes her head. “Fine then, we can do it without your help.”
Wait, we? What’s this we stuff? Who’s we?
She looks at me. Her eyes have this look in them like she knows I’m on her side, of course I’m gonna come. Where did she get that idea? I think she’s crazy if she wants to go outside. There’s no way I’m going.
“C’mon.” She flips a finger for me to come with her.
If I tell her no, she’s gonna nail me with that same disdainful look she gave Dallas and the Hipster. She’s gonna decide I’m another one of these loser cowards, completely not worth her time to talk to. Which, to be fair, I totally am.
But when I imagine the look she’s gonna give me, I’m too much of a coward to face that, either.
“Sure,” I say, and I step towards the front of the car.
Oh my God, what am I doing? Am I crazy? Yeah, definitely crazy. Completely. Fucking. Nuts.
But now that I’m moving, I can’t back out. That’d be even worse than telling her no from the beginning. So I keep moving, one foot in front of the other, towards the door at the front of the car.
I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m gonna get killed, and for what? Because I don’t wanna embarrass myself in front of a cute girl? How can I be that much of a moron?
“Hey, I’ll come too.” It’s the woman in the bandanna.
The guy with cornrows is at her shoulder. “Yeah, me too.”
In a movie, this would be the moment the damn bursts. The Hipster would be next up. He’d probably say something about how completely fucking ridiculous this plan is, and then agree to come anyway, because, hey, why not, and then everyone in the train would join in.
But this isn’t a movie. Nobody agrees to come with us but those two.
Well, it’s better than nothing. And the more of us there are, the better our chances of someone getting away if the beast comes after us.
It doesn’t seem to’ve made a difference to the bodies outside. Only a small fraction of them had made it back onto the train. But then, they’d had no idea the monster was coming. We know it’s out there, we can be on our guard.
Yeah, if I keep thinking that, I might start to believe it.
We’re almost to the front of the car when I catch a familiar face from the corner of my eye. Not somebody I know, but somebody I see all the time in the cafeteria at work. She’s from the Natural History Museum—the actual museum, not the gift shop.
Our eyes connect for a second, but I don’t think she recognizes me. But hey, I’m not that memorable. I’m just some flunky from the gift shop, not worth paying attention to, especially if she’s an actual scientist. I recognize her because she’s cute and near my age, but there’s no reason for her to return the favor.
Kenzie grabs the handle on the inter-train door and tries to open it, but after a couple yanks, the latch doesn’t budge. I step up and give her a hand. Between the two of us, we get the latch open.
Thankfully the door on the other side is easier to deal with, and we’re able to file through quickly, closing the doors behind us, just in case that beast can squeeze between cars.
This car is deserted completely. A copy of the City Paper on an empty seat is the only sign of human occupation.
“I’m pretty sure everyone still alive,” Bandanna says, “is in the last car.”
There’d only been a few dozen people back there. Assuming this train had been as crowded as ours… that’s a lot of dead people.
“Do you think anyone escaped down the tunnel?” Kenzie asks.
The woman shakes her head. “Maybe somebody managed, but when that monster first appeared, it charged right past us before turning around and trapping us.”
“It’s not just its mouth,” Cornrow says, “the thing’s got barbs on its legs, I think they must be poison. It was knockin’ people over, and I didn’t see any of ‘em get up again.”
We reach the end of the car and I pull open the door latches. We pour into the next car and Cornrow seals the doors behind us.
“What I wanna know,” he says once the car’s closed, “is where something like that comes from?”
“It’s an alien,” Bandanna says.
“Yeah, a twenty foot long centipede crawling around in train tunnels is ridiculous. But here we are.”
“Alien sounds right,” Kenzie says.
“Yeah. I mean, who’s ever heard of anything like that on Earth?” I say.
Cornrow shakes his head. “Could be a government experiment. They do that stuff at the National Zoo, you know. Genetic engineering for the military.”
I don’t think that’s true, but I’m not going to argue it. I start down the car.
“If it is an alien, you think it has anything to do with the earthquake?” Kenzie says.
“Be a weird coincidence if it didn’t,” Bandanna says.
“Could’ve escaped from the zoo during the quake.”
“Zoo’s on the Red Line, and besides, the thing came from the other direction,” Bandanna says.
“Okay, but if it is aliens,” Kenzie says, “what does that mean? What’s going on up above?”
We all stop.
This whole time, I’ve been assuming our problem is local—something wrong with this particular line, or maybe—maybe—the whole Metro system. But if there are aliens, and they’re dropping giant centipedes on us, what’s going on topside? I’d figured we’d get up there, there might be a little structural damage, but nothing major. What if it’s Independence Day, though?
That also means there might not be anyone available for rescue attempts. We could be stuck down here a while.
“I’m tellin’ you, that’s nonsense,” Cornrow insists. “There ain’t no Darth Vader or Mr. Spock, none of that shit.”
“How can you be so sure?” Kenzie says.
“The Bible. God didn’t create no other worlds. We’re the center of creation.”
“Well, believe what you wanna believe,” Bandanna says, “I say it’s aliens.”
We move through the next couple cars in silence. We’ve got the process of opening and closing the doors down to a science, and it looks like we’re gonna make it all the way to the end with no trouble, when--
“Errrnk.” I tug the latch to the last car, but it won’t budge. The metal on the underside of the handle is biting into my fingers to the point that I have to stop and massage them. There’s no blood, but the skin is red and raw.
“Lemme have a try,” Cornrow says. He squats down and grabs the handle, pulls it with all his weight.
The latch moves halfway to open, but when it does, the handle screams.
“Oh shit,” Bandanna says.
We hold quiet for a moment. Did the beast hear?
Seconds tick by. Five. Ten. Twenty.
Cornrow gives the latch another tug, manages to move it another half inch.
“Did you feel that?” Kenzie says.
“Feel what?” Bandanna says.
I shake my head.
But then I do. The train’s vibrating.
Tudh-tudh-tudh-tudh. Something’s beating a steady rhythm on the roof. It sounds a couple cars back, but it’s drawing closer.
“Got it!” Cornrow says as the latch gives way. The door to the last car swings inward. “C’mon!” He jumps up and starts through, but Bandanna catches him.
“No, stay back.” She grabs the door to our car and slams it shut.
“What’re you doing? We could get across,” Cornrow says. He’s right. The beast is coming on fast, but even so, we have plenty of time to get into the next car and seal the door.
“And then what? We’re stuck inside with that thing crawling around.” Bandanna says.
“So? Now we’re stuck in this one.” Cornrow says. “Same diff, but we’re further from where we wanna be.”
“Uh-uh,” Bandanna says. “I’ve got an idea.”
Our car shakes. The beast is on top of us, its hundreds of legs beating on the roof. We can follow its movements even without seeing it.
This is what I was afraid of. We’re gonna die in here. Why the hell did I agree to come along? Did I think I was going to impress Kenzie with a show of bravery? Ha-ha-ha, yeah, that’s a good one.
The beast’s head slides into the gap between cars. It’s eyes are facing away from us, but it’s mandibles grope around. They home in on the window in the door and start pounding. There’s not enough room for the mandibles to make a big swing, but they still have enough power behind them that a crack appears in the glass. A second swing, the crack expands. New fractures appear.
It raises the mandible one more time.
I grab Kenzie and pull her behind a seat. I crouch over her.
The window shatters. The seat back shields us from most of the shrapnel, but some of it bounces onto my back.
The beast screams.
What do I do? Do I keep cowering back here and hope the thing can’t get in through the tiny window, or should I move, try to get away?
“It’s okay,” Bandanna says.
I look up. The creature has the tip of its head inside, but the window isn’t big enough to let any more of it through. As long as we stay out of reach of the mandibles, we’re safe.
For the moment.
There are two other windows at the end of the car, both of them much larger. Big enough for the thing to crawl through. Not to mention the ones on the side of the train. In the long run, we’re screwed.
Bandanna has a gash across her cheek. She wipes away the blood, but only manages to smear it.
“Jamal,” she says to Cornrow, “I want you to go to the other end of the car. Make some noise.”
He considers for a second and does as he’s told.
“Don’t open the door,” Bandanna calls after him. “Just pound on it or something.”
The beast can’t see us through the window—its eyes are blocked by the door—but it can hear, and it gets more frantic at the sound of voices. One mandible latches onto a pole, tugs it hard enough to bend it, but it must realize it’s not something edible and lets go.
Jamal kicks the far door. He bangs on the glass.
The beast withdraws its head. It holds for a second, listening, then scampers across the roof.
“Okay, go,” Bandanna says. She dashes forward and grabs the door. “Jamal, keep it busy.”
I jump to my feet and follow Bandanna. Bits of glass crunch under my feet. I look behind and make sure Kenzie’s with me.
Jamal hadn’t had time to re-latch the door to the next car, so once Bandanna has our side open, we get across no problem. I close the door behind us, being careful not to slam it.
“Oh my God,” Kenzie breathes. “That was intense.”
Bandanna grabs the hem of her shirt and wipes the blood off her face. More’s trickling out, but at least she doesn’t look like she stepped out of The Walking Dead now. “Hopefully that’s all the intensity we’re due today.”
Her lips to God’s ear.
“Let’s roll,” she says. “No telling how long Jamal can keep that thing interested.”
We head up to the front of the train. The driver’s box is open. I duck inside and peer through the front window, the part of it that isn’t shattered. The emergency lights barely give off enough glow to make out the tracks. The tunnel looks deserted. Are the others still back gawking at the hole?
In the distance, where perspective makes the lights run together, there’s movement. I can’t make out details, but I don’t think it’s another one of those monsters.
I step back to the passenger compartment. Bandanna has the cover off the emergency door release.
“I’ll pull it on three,” she says, “then you two pull the door open.”
“Sure,” Kenzie says.
“One… two… three.”
Bandanna pulls the handle. Something in the wall thunks and the rubber seals between the doors relax. I grab one side and pull. The door moves stiffly, stops halfway open. I dig my fingers into the seal and I’m about to yank it when Bandanna puts a hand on my forearm. She shakes her head and touches her lip with her index finger. She points to Kenzie, who has her side about three-quarters open. There’s enough of a gap for us to get out.
We step through to the emergency walkway, Bandanna in the lead, myself in the rear. I cast a glance behind me to make sure the beast isn’t gonna appear. Looks like we’re safe for the moment.
Bandanna sets a fast pace—not quite jogging, but a brisk, brisk walk. We need to intercept the others as far out as possible, that way any conversation we have will be unlikely to attract the beast. Who knows how good the thing’s hearing is.
Bandanna and Kenzie pull ahead of me and I struggle to keep pace. I’m not out of shape by any stretch—when I go to work, I have to walk a mile to catch the bus to Vienna and back again. But unless I’m running late, that’s a leisurely stroll. Hurrying is another matter. I’m not used to it.
Bandanna isn’t paying any attention. Why should she? It’s like that old story about the guys on safari, they’re camping out one night when they’re woken by the roar of a lion near camp. One of them immediately gets up and starts putting on his shoes.
“What’re you doing?” the other guy says, “You can’t outrun a lion.”
The first guy smiles and goes, “I don’t have to outrun the lion.”
Predators aren’t killing machines. They’re eating machines. They catch lunch, they’re satisfied. There’s no need to kill every zebra in a herd; the slowest will do. If Bandanna leaves me in the dust, her chances of survival go up.
But this thing isn’t behaving like a predator, not really. Look at how many people it had killed back at the train. Sure, it was munching on some of them, but unless it has an appetite big enough for King Kong, it’s not going to get through all of them before they start rotting.
Though I suppose it might not mind rotting flesh.
Still, its behavior doesn’t strike me as that of a predator. Only in sci-fi movies are predators ever that kill-happy.
But the fact remains, it did kill a train load of people. Why? That sort of viciousness could be a sign of malevolent intelligence. Its mandibles look like they could use tools. If it is an alien…
But if it were an alien intelligence, wouldn’t it have brought tools with it. Why smash through a window if it has ray-guns?
And besides, other parts of it behavior seem more instinctual. It chased after sounds the way my cat does, when an intelligent being would’ve kept focus in one place.
I can’t help but think we’re missing something here.
“Hey!” Mr. Take Charge calls out.
We’re close enough to his group to make out the shadowy line of people behind him, though not close enough to see faces yet.
He lifts his hands over his head and waves them back and forth. “Up here.”
They’re still walking on the tracks. Probably figured that climbing back onto the walkway was too much trouble, third rail be damned.
Bandanna jumps off the walkway without slowing and lands in a crouch. She jumps up and waves her own hands in front of her in a shushing gesture.
“Shh! Quiet,” she hisses.
Mr. Take Charge halts about twenty feet ahead of her, which in this darkness is the furthest we can see clearly. The rest of his column takes their time in stopping, and they end up bunching up around him.
Kenzie and I lower ourselves onto the track.
When Mr. Take Charge catches sight of us, he grimaces. “Where’ve you two been? What happened to the other girl?” He’s speaking in his normal tone of voice, which is loud and booming.
“I said quiet,” Bandanna tells him.
Mr. Take Charge glances at her for half a second, then back to us. “We were worried, thought something happened to you.” He’s a little softer now, but still too loud for comfort.
“We went on ahead,” Kenzie says, keeping her voice low.
“You should’ve said something.”
“We didn’t think it was a big deal. There’s only one way we could go. And it’s not like you’re in charge or anything official like that.”
That’s not the thing to tell Mr. Take Charge. “Somebody has to keep things together.”
“What part of quiet do you not understand?” Bandanna says.
Mr. Take Charge focuses on her. “Is there a problem?”
“Yes, there’s a huge problem, and if you keep talking like that, the problem is going to notice us and come over here.”
That gives him pause—only maybe half a second’s worth, but it’s noticeable. “What’re you talking about?”
“There’s a—” Kenzie starts, then hesitates before finishing, “—a monster up ahead.”
The reaction from the crowd is more confused than concerned.
“Excuse me, a what?” the annoying old guy says.
“We don’t know what it is,” Bandanna says. “But it’s big, and it killed half the people on my train.”
“Killed” is the magic word.
“Oh my God.”
“Who’s been killed?”
“Who’re these guys?”
“What did she say?”
“There’s another train?”
“Somebody got killed?”
“Christ, do you people not know what ‘quiet’ means?” Bandanna says.
Mr. Take Charge turns back to the group. “Hold it down. Hold it down, please.”
The chatter subsides.
“Now, what, exactly, do you mean by ‘monster’?”
“Twenty feet long, about a hundred legs, it eats people,” Bandanna says. “Monster.”
“It eats people?” Mr. Take Charge says. He looks over to me. “What’s she talking about?”
“What she said is exactly it. Like a giant centipede, and it eats people.”
“Okay.” He doesn’t believe us, but, “Let’s go take a look.”
“We need to get up on the walkway,” Bandanna says.
Mr. Take Charge looks to me again.
“Yeah, we need to be up there to get on the train, and better to do it here than down there with the monster around.”
He keeps staring at me for another moment, like he expects me to crack a smile and tell him, “Nah, we’re fucking with you man. Course there’s no monster.” When I don’t, he tells the group, “Okay everyone, back up on the walkway.
A groan goes through the group. Bandanna checks behind us again, makes sure the monster hasn’t heard.
Everyone starts climbing onto the walkway. Some manage it on their own, but most need help getting up. I assist a middle aged woman, crouching down and letting her use my back as a stool. While I’m doing that, Kenzie goes to the woman with the baby and helps her while Sarah holds the kid. Mrs. Schorr helps the woman’s two daughters up.
“Can you give me a hand with this?” Mr. Schorr asks. He sets his backpack on the tracks. “Didn’t have any trouble lugging this around DC, but I tell you, carrying it up that slope took the wind right out of me.”
“You need to be careful, Dan,” his wife says.
“I’ll be fine. Not a problem.”
I help his eldest son—Sam I think his name was—get Mr. Schorr onto the walkway, then we lift the backpack up to him.
“You really should let someone else carry it,” Mrs. Schorr says as he pulls the straps over his shoulder.
“I’ve got it, don’t worry about it.” He waves her off.
Me and Sam help her onto the walkway, then Sam scrambles up after them.
Me and Kenzie are all that’s left on the track. Bandanna’s all the way down at the front of the line, taking a spot in front of even Mr. Take Charge. He doesn’t look pleased.
There aren’t any gaps in the line, so me and Kenzie end up taking spots at the rear, behind the homeless guy. He walks with a stumbling stoop, and I half expect him to take a tumble after a couple steps, but he manages to remain upright.
“… the beast coming out of the sea… the beast coming out of the sea…” he mutters incessantly. “The beast, the beast, the seven crowned beast… and his number is six hundred three score and six.” He stops abruptly and turns. “What is the beast you saw? How many heads had it?” He’s clutching a wooden crucifix in his fist.
Kenzie takes a step back, either in surprise or from the rotten stench of his breath, and bumps into me. I put an hand on her shoulder to keep my balance. “Just the one,” she says.
“Mmm. Just one. Then he’s not the beast of Revelation. That’s good. That’s good.”
“Okay dude, yeah.” Kenzie says. “We should keep going. And be quiet.” She puts a finger to her lips. “Don’t want the demons to hear.”
The man smiles, revealing a mouth full of brown and yellow teeth. “Heh-heh-heh. Even though you dress like that, you understand.” He digs in his pocket and pulls something. “Take this. It is a holy book. It can protect you.” He grabs Kenzie by the wrist and pushes a small pamphlet into her hands. It’s called “The Last Generation” and has a drawing of a guy looks like a super villain on the cover.
She pulls her arm back, gently but forcibly so as not to provoke the guy further. “Yeah. Thank you.”
“Heh-heh-heh. The end times are upon us. Soon we will know the power and the glory.” His eyes beam.
He turns and resumes walking.
We wait a moment, let him get a ways ahead before following.
“You meet all kinds,” Kenzie whispers.
The walk back to the train takes far longer than the journey out, and as we draw nearer, I brace myself. Bandanna had said when the monster first appeared, it had raced past everyone and blocked the tunnel. If it pops up now, we’ll have to turn and run right away if we’re to have any chance of getting away. I’m half tempted to go now. But if there’s one beast loose down here, why not two or three? Though if that’s the case, we’re probably dead no matter what we do.
Pray it’s a lone monster. We might have a chance.
The train’s in sight ahead. Last time we’d approached without even glancing at the roof, but this time that’s all my eyes focus on. There’s not much to see, just a shadowy crevice. It looks empty, but…
My palms are sweating. My heart’s banging out a wild beat. If the beast is lying in wait, this is when it’ll jump out.
The seconds slip by, tick-tock, tick-tock.
We get closer and closer.
The front of the line reaches the train and we slow to a halt. Up ahead, Bandanna steps inside, then Mr. Take Charge. The rest file after them.
Maybe we can relax. We’re almost to safety and the beast hasn’t put in an appearance.
But then, what’s going to happen next? Once we get on board, we’ve got nowhere to go, not with the beast still out here. The train only represents relative safety. We still need a way out of the tunnel, and how’re we gonna manage that? We’ve been down here long enough that if rescue hasn’t shown up by now, it’s not going to.
Maybe we should’ve kept walking towards Rosslyn after all.
Ah, who knows? I’m tired. I don’t wanna think right now.
Most of the crowd is on the train by now. There are only a few people between us and the door. If the beast hasn’t attacked yet, it’s probably not gonna.
Provided we don’t do anything to attract its attention.
The last couple people step through the door. The homeless guy hesitates on the threshold, like he actually prefers the tunnel, but he finally steps inside. Kenzie and I follow.
“That everyone?” Bandanna says.
“Yeah.” Thumbs up.
She pushes one door shut, and Mr. Schorr’s eldest son gets the other one. She pulls the emergency handle to lock the doors in place.
Some people have decided to take a break and grab seats, but Bandanna claps her hands—not loudly, but enough to get attention. “Hey, hey! No time for rest.”
Mr. Take Charge glowers at her. “I thought you said we hadda get on the train.”
“Yeah, and my peeps are at the other end. Don’t worry, it’s not much farther.”
People struggle back to their feet. The journey may not’ve been that far, but most of the people here are tourists or protesters, they’ve spent the day schlepping around DC in the August heat. They’re exhausted.
“Hey, you.” Bandanna snaps her fingers at me.
Her eyebrows quirk.
“My name. River.”
“Yeah, River. Could you handle the doors again? Get them open, make sure they close and latch behind us.”
Do I have to? I remember what happened on our way out. Last thing I want is to get caught between cars struggling with recalcitrant latches. Good way to get killed. “Sure,” I say. I don’t know why.
I follow her to the end of the car. We wait for everyone to gather round and I pull the latch. This is the one that gave us trouble last time, but from the inside it opens, no problem.
I sigh with relief and step into the gap between cars, open the next door, the one with the shattered window.
When I get inside the second car, there’s Jamal waiting for us. He’s sprawled out on a side-facing bench. “Thank God you guys are back.”
“Where’s the beast?” Bandanna says as she comes inside.
“I dunno. It lost interest after a few minutes, scampered off somewhere. That way I think.” He waves towards the back of the train.
Hopefully it’s chowing down on leftovers—it’s a horrible thought, I know, but as long as it’s stuffing its maw, it’s not here.
More people pour into the car—Mr. Take Charge, the Schorrs, the woman with all the kids, I count them off. We’re twenty-seven strong including Jamal and Bandanna. Twenty-eight if I count myself.
Once I’m sure everyone’s out of the previous car, I pull the door shut. It creaks and won’t fit into the frame. Shit.
“Leave it,” Bandanna tells me.
Not gonna argue. I shut the door to this car—it closes and latches like it’s oiled with butter.
“What happened to the window?” somebody asks. “Why’s there glass everywhere.”
“Toldja. Monster,” Bandanna says. “C’mon.”
We get through the next two cars without incident. Only one more to go before we’re back to Dallas and Hipster and the others.
So of course, that’s when everything goes to shit.
To Be Continued...
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...