“No, mom.… No…. Mom... mom... listen... no... nobody’s been beat—Mom. We’re fine.… Yes, we’re fine.… No, we haven’t been arr—we haven’t been arrested.… Who got punched? ... He’s a Nazi, who cares.… Look, mom, we’re leaving now. We should be home in an hour or so.… Yessss, she’s safe.… No, nobody’s been hit by a car.… Look, I’ll call you when we get to Dunn Loring. Bye.” Shreya ends the call.
“Didn’t say anything.”
“Is your mom always like that?” Brook asks.
“All. The. Time,” I say.
“I thought Korean moms were supposed to be the worst,” June says. “God.”
“We had to twist her arm so she’d let us come without dad tagging along,” Shreya says.
“Aren’t you an adult?” Nick says.
“Yeah I am, but the brat’s not.”
“Don’t call me a brat.”
“Stop acting like one.”
I flip her off. She’s walking ahead of me so she can’t see, of course. If she could, she’d beat me down, even in the middle of a crowded street. Didi’s an ogre. And not the cute Shrek kind, either. One of the ones with clubs who attack unwary travelers in the mountains. Or are those trolls? I can never remember.
Josh pats me on the head. “Don’t listen to her,” he whispers. “You’re fine.”
“Thanks.” He is such a cutie. Look at those eyes, and those lips. Oooh! I’m lucky I don’t go into blabbering idiot mode like I usually do around guys. Shreya has a huge crush on him—she hasn’t said anything specific, but the way she talks about him, which is like incessant, it’s obvious. But we’ve been out with him since nine this morning, and he’s barely shown any interest in her. Me however… I will crush her.
“Excuse me,” a woman calls out to us from a van that’s parked on the side of street. She’s incredibly beautiful and made up like a movie star, though her outfit is a bit plain. She looks vaguely familiar. “Are you guys coming from the protest?”
“Yeah ...” Owen says cautiously.
“Would you mind if I interview you?”
“Who’re you with?” Owen says.
We look at each other.
“It’s Fox,” Brook says.
“But it’s the local station,” Josh says. “I don’t think they’re run the same way.”
“I dunno,” Shreya says. “Don’t we wanna get outta here before the rush?”
The protest is supposed to last until five, but we’ve ducked out a little past four. I’d wanted to stick around, but everyone was like, “No, we don’t wanna get crowded on the train.” Like we couldn’t hang out in DC until the crowd disperses? When I’d asked didi to take me along, I’d been hoping we’d hang out afterwards and get into, like, escapades and shenanigans and cool stuff, or at least hang out at a diner for a few hours. But at this rate it looks like we’ll be home in time for dinner. Mom will probably even make me go into the store to sweep and mop and all that tedious stuff. I swear, I’ll be in college and she’ll still expect me to work at the store every night. What a pain.
“C’mon,” June says, “we get to be on TV.”
“Yeah, why not?” Nick says.
But Brook, Owen and didi are against it.
“Guess you’re the tie-breaker,” Josh tells me.
I’m not sure I want to be on TV right now. Sure, it’d be cool, I could brag about it when school starts, but I’ve been out in the heat and humidity all day. I must be a mess right now.
But I don’t want Josh thinking I’m a--
“She votes no,” Shreya says.
“I do not.”
“You arguing with me, brat?”
“Yeah. I say we do it.”
Shreya lets out a dramatic sigh, but says, “Fine, we’ll do it. But if mom freaks out because we’re late, it’s your fault.”
The reporter brightens up. “Excellent, excellent.”
She and her driver get out. The driver goes around to the back of the van and retrieves a camera. It’s a lot smaller than the ones you see in movies, though it’s still huge compared to the one dad had when I was a kid, in the olden days before cell phone cameras.
We’re on a street with lots of huge, hulking government buildings, and the reporter directs us to stand with our backs to the street so she’ll get a good shot of them in the background. She’s very particular about arranging us, putting me, Shreya and June together in the front.
“Before we begin, I just wanna get to know you a bit. What are all your names?”
We go around and introduce ourselves.
“You all in college or something?”
“We are, but she’s in high school.” Owen points to me.
“Oh?” She focuses on me. “Do you follow politics a lot?”
“A little, I guess. I had to keep a journal on the news for AP Government last year.”
“But school’s out now, right?”
“Yeah, we’re on break until next month.”
“So you haven’t been following the news as much lately?”
“I still watch a bit.”
“Well that’s great.” The reporter smiles. “Always good to know the next generation is tuning in.”
I didn’t say I watch her channel.
“So why did you decide to come down here today?” She’s still directing questions at me.
“It seemed like fun.”
From the corner of my eye, I catch didi facepalming. What?
“I see. How about the rest of you?”
“We don’t want the US to go to war,” Owen says.
“Yeah, we’re old enough to remember Iraq and Afghanistan. We never want to see that again,” Brook says.
“Kim Jong-un’s a bad guy, but that doesn’t mean war is the answer,” Josh says.
“There’s talk of bringing back the draft,” Nick says. “That’s crazy. If rednecks wanna die for Cheeto Benito, let ‘em, but leave the rest of us out of it.”
The reporter perks up at that last bit. “Mm-hmm. So I know college isn’t in session right now, but if it were, do you think your classmates would all feel the same way?”
“Most of them, yeah,” Owen says.
Nick adds, “There are only a few guys at our school who like the President, and they’re all troglodytes who spend their time playing Warcraft and spanking to anime.”
“Dumbass,” Brook says.
“You can leave that part out when we’re filming,” the reporter says. She checks with her cameraman. He gives a thumbs up. “Well, let’s do this.”
“And three, two, one ... go,” the cameraman says.
She flashes a smile like the sun on that one cereal box, you know, with the raisins. “This is Kelly Kowalski, and I’m here in Federal Triangle, near the site of today’s anti-war protest. Despite being organized at the last minute, tens of thousands of liberal demonstrators turned out on the Mall to voice their opposition to US action against brutal Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. I have a group of protesters here with me right now.” She turns to our group. “So why’ve you come out to oppose the President today?”
She thrusts the mic in my face.
“Uh...” Shiiiiiit. “I thought it ... would be ... cool. Uh-huh.”
“You know, war’s bad.”
“Even against a thuggish dictator like Kim Jong-un?”
“Did you know he had his uncle executed with an antiaircraft gun? Those fire bullets the size of soup cans.”
What? I never heard that.
I look to didi. She’s cringing. The reporter uses that as an excuse to shift focus to her.
“So where’re you from?”
“Fairfax,” Shreya says.
“And you’re in college?”
“Now earlier, you guys were telling me there are extreme anti-administration sentiments on campus.”
“There are strong anti-administration feelings everywhere in Virginia,” Owen says.
“Actually, the President won most counties in Virginia,” the reporter says, “including a large chunk of Northern Virginia. If your college is that ardently against the President, it’s an outlier. Do you think that has anything to do with your professors?”
“No, it’s common sense,” Nick says. “Anyone smart enough to get into college can see the truth—the President has been a nonstop disaster.”
“But do your professors push a liberal agenda?” the reporter says.
“No!” June says.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Brook says.
“What would happen if a student espoused support for the President in class?”
“Nobody would do that,” Nick says.
“Out of fear of receiving bad grades? Social repercussions?”
“No, because they’d look like complete morons,” Nick says.
The reporter turns to the camera. “Well, I’ll leave that to our viewers to judge. This is Kelly Kowalski reporting from Federal Triangle. Back to you.”
“Aaaaand, cut,” the cameraman says. “That was great, Kel.”
“That’s gonna get picked up for Fox and Friends, I know it,” she says. They high five, then she turns to us. “Great job, guys. Great job.”
“What the hell?” Owen says.
“What kinda interview was that?” Josh says.
“The kind where I ask questions and you answer.” She opens the door to the van and climbs inside. She picks up a half-melted iced mocha and sips.
“I’m gonna edit and upload,” the cameraman says and gets into the back of the van.
“I told you guys this was a bad idea,” Brook says. “But would you listen? No.”
“Good job, brat,” Shreya says.
“What did I do?”
“Cast the deciding vote.” She flicks me in the forehead. Ouch. I slap her hand away.
She turns and heads towards the Metro entrance. The others fall in behind her, except for Josh.
“Doesn’t really matter,” he says. “Fox does that to anyone they interview. If it weren’t us, it’d be somebody else.”
“Yeah, probably.” I rub my forehead. I think didi left a divot with her nail.
“Here.” Josh kisses his first two fingers and then presses them against the hurt spot. “All better.”
I smile and blush and I must look like an idiot right now. “You know, using your fingers is homeopathy. You have to apply your lips for it to actually work.” Oh no, did I say that out loud? He’s gonna think I’m such a dork.
“You raise a valid point.” He looks down the sidewalk, but my sister and the others are all facing away from us. He leans down and pecks me on the forehead. “Does that work better?”
I want to say yeah, but my mouth is caught in a stiff grin right now. I can’t move it at all. With some effort, I manage a nod.
“C’mon,” he says and heads for the station.
I try not to skip after him. I don’t succeed.
Take that, didi, you eternal virgin. Second year of college, you’ve never even had a boyfriend. And I just got kissed by the guy you think is cute.
The only problem is, I can’t rub her nose in this—she’d freak out if I told her, and then she’d turn it into blackmail with mom. No way.
There are a pair of cop cars parked on the street, and an officer is standing watch near the station entrance. He gives me an especially long glance. Yes, I’m brown. That doesn’t make me a terrorist. Jerk.
We get on the escalators. We should hurry down to catch up with the others, but there’s a fat man ahead of us. He’s not walking and he’s too wide for us to get around. We don’t have any choice but to let the escalators do all the work.
Shreya’s waiting for us at the bottom, but the others have gone on ahead. “What took you so long brat?”
“I’m just slow.”
“Well speed up, we don’t wanna miss the train and get separated.”
“Well gimme my fare card,” I tell her.
“What’re you talking about?”
“My ticket. I gave it to you when we got up here, remember? I didn’t bring a purse and my pants don’t have pockets.”
“Did you?” she says.
She opens her purse and searches through.
From the platform downstairs, we hear a train arriving. We can’t see it from here, though, and if there’s an announcement, it’s too faint to hear over the sound of the crowd.
“Relax,” Shreya says, “there are like three lines that go through here. There’s only one chance in three that’s our train.”
“One in six,” I say. “Trains go both ways. Geez, how’d you get into college, dummy?”
“Whatever.” She’s finished searching her purse, no luck—she’s come up with one fare card, but that doesn’t do much good when there are two of us. I suppose we could try to run through the gate together when it opens ...
“Don’t worry about it,” Josh says. “I’ll buy her a new card.”
“It’s only four bucks, I got it.” He takes out his wallet and goes to the ticket machine. He returns a minute later with a fresh card for me.
“Thank you.” I shall treasure this always, the first thing you ever bought me.
“Not a problem.” He winks at me. My sister doesn’t notice.
We go through the gates and get onto the next set of escalators. Shreya cranes her head to see around the guy in front of her, who, despite being one step lower, is still a head taller than her.
“I don’t see Owen or Brook or any of them.”
“They wouldn’t leave without us,” Josh says.
They better not! We carpooled to the station in Owen’s SUV. We need them to get home from Dunn-Loring.
“There, look, it’s Nick,” Josh points.
Yes, there he is, but he’s all alone. He’s leaning against one of those poles that tell you what stations are in each direction, much to the annoyance of a man who’s trying to read the sign. Nick has his eyes on the escalators and spots us almost as soon as Josh points him out. He waves.
We step off the escalator.
“Guys, the others—”
He’s cut off by a train rocketing out of the tunnel. It slows to a halt, but one glance at the sign tells us it’s a Blue Line train, not the one we need.
Once the noise dies down, Nick tries again, “Owen and the others got on the train without realizing you weren’t here. I tried to warn them, but the doors closed before they could get off.”
“Ah, crap,” Shreya says.
We look to the arrivals board. The next Orange Line train isn’t due for another twelve minutes.
“Silver Line’s coming in five,” I point out. “Could we take that?”
“No good,” Nick says. “Silver splits off from the Orange before our stop.”
“Don’t worry,” Josh says. “Once we get to Virginia and out of the tunnels, we can call them and tell ‘em where we are.”
In the meantime, though, we grab some seats. As we wait, the station starts filling up with people leaving the protest. The Silver Line train relieves some of the congestion when it comes through, but most of the crowd sticks around. It’s getting noisy down here. A couple guys stand next to our bench, talking loud.
“I tell you what, if that idiot starts a war, I ain’t fucking around with letters to Congress no more. It’s militia time. Conservatives have been doing it for years. About time we realize we gotta adopt their tactics.”
“Yeah, but what did those militias ever accomplish? Took over a wildlife refuge for a few weeks? One of ‘em got shot for being an idiot.”
“It’s time we do more.”
“Yeah, but it’s like Warren Zevon said, you wanna accomplish anything, you gotta have lawyers, guns and money. All three.”
“Do we hafta bring lawyers into it?”
The men laugh. They’re still laughing when the station starts shaking.
My first thought is a train’s coming, but after a second I realize this is an earthquake. I look up at the ceiling. I sure hope they built it strong.
Somebody screams. It’s from the upper floor of the station.
The shaking gets worse.
Shreya stands, but Nick grabs her arm and pulls her back. “We aren’t going anywhere in this crowd.”
There’s another scream. Shouting. What’s going on up there?
But I’m distracted a moment later by a loud crash. My head whips around in time to see part of the tunnel collapsing. Oh crap, that’s the one our train is supposed to come through! How’re we gonna get home now?
Before I can worry any more, though, I’m hit by a cloud of dust that flies out from the rubble. Some of it gets in my mouth and I break out coughing so hard I feel like I’m gonna tear out my throat. My eyes tear up, partly from the coughing, partly from dust getting in there. I press my palms to my eyes and rub them.
When take my hands away again, I can’t see anything. Did I go blind? You can’t go blind from dust. Can you? But a second later my sight return. The power had gone out, and it took a second for backups to start. The lights aren’t at full power, though, and with the air full of dust, the station has a dim, smoky atmosphere.
It takes me a moment to notice the shaking’s stopped. Everything’s quiet down here, but there are still people shouting and screaming on the upper floor.
Josh has his backpack on the floor, and he’s unbuttoning his shirt—he has a tee on underneath, though, so I’m disappointed. He rips his shirt into pieces, then pulls a bottle of water from the bag and pours it onto the scraps. Huh? What’s he doing?
He takes a sleeve and wraps it around his head so it’s covering his nose and mouth. He hands the other sleeve to me.
Oh, I get it. I tie the sleeve over my face. That’s so much better. I can breathe clear.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Not a problem.” He hands another scrap of shirt to Shreya, and the last one to Nick.
“Thanks, man.” But instead of putting the cloth on right away, Nick first uses it to wipe his glasses clean.
Other people aren’t so lucky. They’re hacking their lungs out from the dust. Some try to get on the ground like you’re supposed to in a fire, but this isn’t smoke. The dust is slowly—slowly—settling to the floor, not rising to the ceiling.
A lot of people are heading for the escalators, but they’re so jammed that I don’t see them making any progress.
“I’m going up,” Shreya says.
“Are you nuts? You’re not getting up there with that crowd,” Nick says. “Better to wait here until it clears up a bit.”
“I’ve gotta call mom, let her know we’re all right. She’s gonna be freaking.”
That’s definitely true. She’s probably calling us right now and going into panic mode because she can’t get through.
“It’ll take you half an hour to get out of here, minimum,” Nick says. “If you wait, it’ll take the same amount of time, but you won’t be standing.”
Shreya doesn’t care, though. “Come on,” she tells me.
I’d rather wait down here. Nick’s right. It’ll take us forever to get up those stairs. The station looks to be in one piece, apart from the tunnel mouth, so let’s sit here. I’ve been on my feet all day. I don’t wanna be standing if I don’t have to.
“We don’t have all day,” she says and grabs me by the shoulder. “Get your butt moving.” There are times when she sounds exactly like mom.
“Fine, fine.” I stand.
“I’ll come with you guys,” Josh says. That changes my mind. Not only would I rather be around him, but I don’t wanna be left alone with Nick. He’s one of those dorks who thinks he’s ten times cooler than he is, and he’s always trying to show it off. If I stayed down here, he’d probably talk to me about how awesome Ed Sheeran is. Ugh.
“Thanks,” Shreya tells Josh. I can’t see her mouth, but I can tell she’s smiling. She thinks he’s coming because he likes her. Sorry, loser, it’s not you.
“Whatever, guys,” Nick says. “I’ll be up when the crowd clears.”
We leave him sitting on the bench.
The crowd around the foot of the escalators is twenty deep, and the people who are on the stairs are taking one step forward every five minutes or so.
“What’s the hold up?” Shreya asks.
“No one knows,” a woman tells her.
“Do you know what the screaming was about?” Josh says.
The woman shakes her head.
“I heard somebody got crushed when part of the ceiling came down,” a man says.
“I dunno, that’s what I heard.”
“Are you sure we should be doing this?” I ask didi.
“If something’s gonna collapse, it doesn’t matter where we are.”
“It matters if we’re under it.”
She flicks me in the forehead. “Don’t argue, brat.”
“You should be nicer to her,” Josh says.
“No. She’s a brat. She’s daddy’s little girl. She always gets what she wants.”
“Do not.” And besides, you’re momma’s little girl. You do everything she expects of you, no questions. You’re going to turn out just like her, a little-miss-bossy pants. Oh wait—too late.
“If I’m not mean to her, she’s gonna end up spoiled,” Shreya says.
“I am so glad I’m an only child,” Josh says.
“I wish I were,” Shreya says.
“I’m telling mom you said that.”
We move slightly closer to the escalators. Then we stand there for five minutes before we manage to take a couple more steps.
“Smart plan, didi. Smart plan.”
“Here, let me adjust that for you.” She grabs my face mask and pulls it tight across my mouth so I can’t talk.
Hey, hey! Quit that! I slap her hand away, loosen the mask.
Some of the people around us are giving us weird looks now. Look what you did, didi. You are so stupid sometimes, I swear.
There’s a commotion at the top of the escalators.
“Let me through.”
“Where’re you going?”
“You can’t get down there.”
There’s a woman up there, she’s pushing her way through the crowd, trying to get down here. What is she, crazy? There are so many people on the steps, she’ll never get through. She must realize that, because she climbs onto the thick metal banister between the escalators. She tries to slide down, but as she nears the bottom, she goes off course and bowls into the people who are standing on the stairs. She knocks them over, and that causes a chain reaction.
Me and Josh jump back in time not to get hit, but Shreya falls on her butt with a fat, bald guy on top of her.
“Sorry, sorry,” the guy says and rolls off her. He stands up and dusts himself off, then realizes he should help the girl he knocked over and offers a hand to Shreya.
“Thanks,” she says.
“What do you think’s so funny?”
“To think, I would be here to witness the first time my sister ever had a man on top of her. You are such a wanton hussy.”
She slaps me upside the head. “Shut up.”
She looks to Josh. He’s biting back laughter. She looks away embarrassed. That was worth it.
The woman who slid down the banister has gotten up and pushes her way out of the crowd. People give way, giving her nasty looks as she goes.
“We’ve gotta get out of here,” the woman says. She’s middle aged, but wearing a tank-top and shorts that girls my age would have a hard time pulling off.
“Going the wrong way for that,” says a man.
“We can’t get out up there!”
“What’re you talking about?”
“I didn’t hear, what’d she say?”
“What, did the escalator shaft collapse?”
“They’re all dead!” the woman screams. “You’ve gotta get away!”
She turns and runs to the edge of the platform, jumps. She lands on a rail and falls over. I don’t have a good view, but it looks like she twists her ankle when she goes down. “Aaa-aah,” she cries.
Shreya moves to check on her, but the woman pulls herself up and limps into the train tunnel.
What was that?
“Crazy people,” the fat man says. He turns around and sees that the crowd’s been disrupted enough that he has a chance to slip ahead.
Shreya sees it too and grabs me by the arm. “C’mon.”
We move ahead. A little bit at least. We’re up to the metal plate that covers where the steps disappear into the floor.
A few minutes later and I’m actually standing on a step—one of the ones near the bottom that’s half retracted, but counts.
We start moving faster after that. In five minutes, we’re halfway up the escalator.
“I told you you should’ve waited.” Nick joins us. He’s on the next escalator over, but people are moving faster on that one for some reason, and he actually gets to the top before us. I have decided that he’s a loser, and I intend to make him pay. I undo my ponytail, and I’m gonna shoot him with my hair-tie, but Shreya stops me.
“Behave yourself, brat.”
“What, you got a crush on him?” I put my ponytail back up.
“No! Eww. You know what Nick’s like. Yeeagh.”
“Yeah, he’s perfect for you.”
“Not in the slightest. I can do so much better than that.” Her head twists and she looks back at Josh. He’s fallen a bit behind us, three or four people back. Too far to hear.
“Keep dreaming,” I say. “You’re gonna end up disappointed. You should set your eyes on someone more your level.” I nod towards Nick.
“Brat, I am going to kill you.”
“What would mommy say?”
We finally make it to the top. It’s really crowded up here. Why aren’t people moving out of the station? It’s been long enough, you think they would’ve cleared out by now.
“They say the station manager won’t let us leave,” Nick says. He’s had time to go investigate while we were stuck on the escalator. This is the last time I ever listen to one of didi’s plans.
“Why not?” Josh says.
Nick shrugs. “I heard a bunch of things, they’re all crazy.”
“Such as?” Shreya says.
“Some people died on the escalators during the quake.” He points back towards the station entrance and the escalators to the surface.
“Died?” I say. The crazy woman had mentioned dead people, but I figured maybe somebody had a heart attack, or got conked on the head by something falling out of the ceiling.
“Is the entrance all right?” Josh says.
Nick shakes his head. “No clue. There’re a couple cops who are holding the crowd back, won’t let us go down the hall to where the escalators are.”
“Well that’s good, at least,” didi says. “If cops are here, there must be ambulances and fire crews too.”
“No,” Nick says. “The cops didn’t arrive. They were already here. Didn’t you see them when you came in?”
“There was one up above,” Josh says.
“There were a couple down here, looking for someone,” Nick says. “And now they’re telling everyone to stay here.”
The problem is, now we’re crowded into the area between the escalators and the fare gates, along with everyone else. And there isn’t even a place to sit down, except the floor—and you’d get trampled if you tried.
Shreya checks her watch. “It’s past five. I really gotta call mom.”
If we’d gotten on the train with Owen and the others and there hadn’t been an earthquake, we’d be home by now—or nearly so, depending who Owen dropped off first.
But mom must realize the earthquake stopped the Metro. This should be all over the news. There’s probably a strip running across the screen with all the closings listed. But even so, she’s gonna be worried until she hears from us—well, with her, she’ll be worried even after she hears from us, but knowing we’re alive will be a big help.
“I don’t see how you’re gonna do it,” Nick says. “We’re stuck here.”
“I’m gonna talk to the cops. We tell them it’s an emergency, they have to let us out.”
I doubt it’ll be that simple, but I don’t want to stand around here with people pressing in on me from all directions. If we can’t go back to the platform to wait, sure, let’s go see the guy in charge.
Nick doesn’t argue this time. “Whatever”
“Okay,” Josh says.
We push our way through the crowd. That gets us a few dirty looks, but nobody’s in a mood to argue. With the power out and so many people squeezed in here, the air is turning stuffy—though at least the dust didn’t get up here. In fact—I take my mask off. There aren’t any trashcans, though, so I don’t have anywhere to toss it. But then, Josh gave it to me—ripped the shirt off his own back, almost literally—so maybe I should keep it as a souvenir. Too bad didi has one, too.
As we get near the fare gates, our movement slows to a crawl. Nobody’s going through, but they’re milling around and blocking the gates, and it takes some effort to get them to step aside for us.
“It’s no use,” one guy tells us, “they aren’t letting anyone up.”
“We’ll see,” Shreya says.
At last we get to the gates. They consist of waist-high barriers set up so one person can get through at a time. There are pizza-shaped wedges that come out to prevent you from getting through without a ticket, but without power they seem to’ve retracted into the barriers, so we don’t have to climb over or duck under or anything.
Didi goes first, then Nick.
“Ladies first,” Josh tells me.
I’m tempted to ask what that makes Nick, but I don’t want to be mean to Josh’s friends. Even when they are dorks. Instead I mumble, “Thanks,” and step through.
I get two steps when I feel his hand on my butt. At first I think he’s just brushing against me, but no, he’s cupping my butt, and that doesn’t happen by accident. He squeezes.
I go stiff in surprise, but ... I kinda like it. He has strong hands, big too. That feels nice.
I twist my neck around.
His hand lets go, but he smiles and leans in to whisper, “Sorry, it was too good to pass up.”
Really? Shreya always tells me I have a flat butt. Well take that, didi! “That’s okay,” I mumble, though what I want to say is, “Please, do it again.” Maybe next time without any clothes in the way. Mmm, that could be fun.
Too bad it’ll never happen. Shreya’s in college, but mom still won’t let her go on dates—not that she’s forbidden or anything, but mom expects her to be at the store so much that she doesn’t have time to go out. Me, in high school? I’ve got no chance, even with guys my own age. A college guy ... forget about it. If Josh came to pick me up on a date, mom would lock me in my room and wouldn’t let me out until I’m thirty.
Though that would get me out of work, so ... hmm.
“Guys, you’re taking forever.” Nick’s stopped on other side of the gate and is tapping his foot super dramatically. He didn’t see what Josh did, did he? Well, at least didi’s moved off. I can imagine the fit she’d have if she knew. Especially with Josh, the guy she’s crushing on.
We get through the fare gates and head towards the hall.
“Hey, you guys shouldn’t be out here,” a cop says as we approach. “It’s not safe. Structural issues. We’ll need somebody to check it out before we can let people through.”
“But it’s safe to stay down here?”
“How long are we talking?” Josh asks.
The cop shrugs. “Dunno.”
“Come on, I’ve gotta get upstairs so I can call my parents,” Shreya says.
“Is there a landline down here?” Josh asks. “Maybe you could let people call out. I’m sure she’s not the only one with family that’s worried.”
That stops the guy. “Let me go talk with my boss.”
He retreats around the corner, but another cop comes over and blocks our way, so we back off a bit.
“What the hell is going on?” Nick says.
“I don’t know, but I’m not buying it,” Josh says. “It’s been more than half an hour since the quake. We should have first responders here by now—firemen, paramedics. Not just a couple pigs on patrol.”
“You think they’re hiding something?” Shreya says.
“Yeah, but what?” Nick says.
“If the entrance collapsed, they could tell us.”
“Maybe they’re afraid people would try leaving through the tunnels like that one woman,” I say.
“If the entrance is collapsed, we’re going to have to anyway,” Shreya says.
“Not necessarily,” Josh says. “If they get the power fixed, they could send a train to take us out. If people are in the tunnels that would complicate things.”
“Maybe,” Nick says, “but that’s not the impression those guys were giving me.”
I agree. Those cops were acting like the soldiers in sci-fi movies who tell people, “There definitely aren’t any aliens back here. Please ignore the funny lights you saw in the sky.”
But I’m not going to say it. Agreeing with Nick is ... gross.
“Excuse me.” Yet another cop appears, this one accompanied by a Metro employee.
“Yeah,” Shreya says. “Look, I don’t know what the trouble is, but I need to get in touch with my parents before they freak out and call the…” She was going to say “cops,” but that’d sound silly given the circumstances.
“Yes. That’s not going to happen,” the one cop says. He’s clearly the guy in charge here.
“What do you mean it’s not going to happen?”
“The phones are out,” the Metro employee says. “Cellular and wired both, I’ve checked.”
“Phones and power?” Josh says. “Don’t phones normally have a separate power supply?”
“Yeah, and it’s out,” the Metro guy says.
“Wait,” Nick says. “You said you’ve checked cell service. So you’ve been up to street level?”
The cop shoots the Metro employee a dirty look. “We’ve been up,” he says.
“So it’s possible to get up there?” Josh says.
“...It’s not impossible.” The way the cop says it, there’s something he’s holding back. If we could go up but he doesn’t want us to ...
“Is there something wrong up there?” I ask.
The cop doesn’t say anything.
“What happened?” Josh says.
“We should wait for emergency services,” the Metro employee says. “I’m sure they’ll be here soon enough.” His voice cracks.
“What happened?” Shreya says.
“I don’t know! Okay. A nuclear bomb? It’s bad, that’s all I can—”
“Quiet,” the cop hisses. “You want a stampede on your hands?”
“What the hell are you guys hiding?” Nick says.
“Shut up and go wait. We’ll ...” but the cop has no clue what he’s gonna do. “We’ll ...”
“If we go back,” Josh says, “we’re gonna start talking to the other riders. They’re going to want to know what’s going on. There are at least two hundred people back there. What do you think’s going to happen when they come over here and demand answers?”
“Hey, Mike,” the first cop we’d talked to says, “maybe we should ...”
The cop, Mike, he nods. “Fine, whatever. You wanna go up, go up. But don’t say you weren’t warned.”
Now that we have permission to go, though, I don’t know if I want to. The way these guys are acting, I’m afraid of what we’re going to find upstairs. “Maybe we should wait,” I say.
“Don’t be a scaredy cat,” Shreya says. She walks around the corner.
Nick looks back to the crowd. “I don’t see how we’re not screwed no matter what.” He follows my sister.
“I guess we might as well,” Josh says.
“Don’t worry, there’s any trouble, I’ll protect you.” He puts an arm around my shoulder and pulls me tight against him.
I don’t know that it makes me feel any safer, but it gives me a good feeling at least.
But as soon as we reach the corner, he lets me go. I understand why, and I don’t want my sister seeing us like that either, but I do wish he’d keep holding me.
The escalator area is dimmer than the rest of the station. The lights are glowing with the same low intensity as everywhere else, but sunlight’s pouring down the escalator shaft. The beam’s no wider than a spotlight, but it’s so bright that it makes the rest of the room pale in comparison. All I can see are the escalators and the floor in front of it.
And the clothes.
They’re all over, like people had been stripping naked as they came down and left their shirts and pants and underwear lying on the steps. After a moment, I notice it’s more than clothes. There are purses, and wallets, eyeglasses, cellphones, all kinds of things strewn on the escalators and floor.
I step into the room—or I try to. My shoe’s stuck to the floor and nearly comes off my foot. It’s like walking through a movie theater that hasn’t been cleaned properly. I twist my foot and the shoe breaks loose. There’s some thick, purple sludge all over the floor.
“What happened here?” Josh says. “What is this gunk?”
“That’s people,” Mike the Cop says. “What’s left of them.”
To Be Continued...
-by Sean O'Hara