Marble takes on a surreal cast when it’s empty. There’s a particular kind of reflection that only occurs when there’s no-one else on the surface; you can even tell if someone’s around the corner standing on that same floor. The wa of the floor is disturbed; maybe some sort of piezoelectric field effect that screws up the smooth sheen of the stone. This is but one of the many things I’ve learned about empty spaces.
My day was progressing as they always did. Traversing the underground, exploring the City’s underside. I stepped quietly across the vast expanse of the Main Lobby at Grand Central and headed for the number 6 train. The lobby, naturally, was empty.
So was the token booth down in the IRT. This would have surprised me, once; as a veteran New Yorker, the sight of a completely unattended subway station would have jolted me to a halt, sent my gaze casting about for the errant attendant or transit cop.
Ha. Not today. Wearily, I vaulted the turnstiles without even pausing in guilt and headed down the stairs to the platform.
It, too, was barren. A stray scrap of McDonald’s wrap scudded along the far end, pushed by the airhammer of an approaching train. I stepped up to the platform, waiting; whichever way the train was going, I knew I’d be on it.
Lights around the corner presaged its arrival. The peculiar ageless screech and thunder of steel rushed from the tunnel, dancing about my head before escaping up the staircases and escalators. The downtown #6 train (it said on the marquee) was slowing to a halt. A door set slid to a stop in front of me; I boarded the vacant car.
The rest of them are vacant too. I know.
An old habit: I headed up the train as it gathered speed leaving the station, until I stood before the door to the motorman’s cabin. I pounded on the door once, twice; then again. There was no reply. The train rushed into the tunnels, light from outside being scythed away by the monochrome flicker of tunnel light fixtures passing just above the tops of the windows. I tried the door; locked. After knocking twice more, to no avail, I retreated to the benches and sprawled across two seats, watching the lights flash outside.
I got off the train at Union Square, moved by the abnormally loud squeal of the train entering the curved station. Shielding my eyes from the detritus of its departure, I trudged towards the exit. Passing the empty booth and abandoned walkways, I emerged into the bright light of a cool fall New York day. Union Square Park beckoned across the street, an oasis of green in the grey hard world; I took a left instead, traveling away from it down Broadway for a block.
The door to Forbidden Planet was open as usual. New York’s largest Science Fiction Bookstore, the sign proclaimed; it probably used to be before it moved. I browsed aisles, finding four or five books that I hadn’t read and gathering them up. Paperbacks all, as carrying hardbound volumes became onerous. Some shred of honesty and faith caused me to throw a twenty-dollar bill on the counter as I exited, and to tip an imaginary hat to the absent counter clerk.
Union Square Park is a good venue to read a trashy paperback. There are pigeons there, some small comfort, and benches. Shade from the sun is provided by the small collection of precious trees. I managed to kill perhaps an hour and a half there, reading a so-so thriller that told of starships and sacrifice. Finally, my back began to ache from lying on the concrete wall I had chosen, so I stretched, left the finished book on the wall for the next passerby to enjoy, and strolled off uptown.
I enjoyed the walk to Thirty-Fourth street and Park, where, on a whim, I turned into an office building on the corner. The lobby was spotless, and with my newfound senses I could tell the floor was undisturbed except by me. I could almost see a ripple in the floor’s reflection, centered on my feet, as if I was standing on a rubber mirror; but as I blinked, it vanished.
The guard’s desk was empty and contained nothing save for some glowing security monitors, assorted forms and logbooks, one dirty pen, and a package of toothpicks (half full). I chose a toothpick, took a look around the quiet space, and took my leave.
Back to Grand Central. I still had three books to read. Zaro’s was open, of course; I went behind the counter and helped myself to a pair of black-and-white cookies and a small loaf. An iced tea from a nearby snack counter completed my arrangements, and I consumed the starch while lying on the wide stone railing of the upper balcony. When I had polished off the cookies, I poured myself a scotch at the Café at Grand Central, raising my glass to the silent Lobby and sipping appreciatively.
Curious, I ambled across to the Information Booth and tried to determine how one got in. There was no obvious route; persistence led me to the floor below, where the identically placed information booth – aha! – sported a spiral staircase up the middle, through the ceiling. Clambering up that left me in the information booth in the Main Lobby, looking out at the silent stretches of floor. Unused ticket windows for Metro-North stared peaceably out onto the room.
I think I sat there for perhaps twenty minutes with my chin on my fists, waiting in the time-honored tradition of the counter worker for a customer or client to stop by. None did. I wondered if I truly believed anyone would, or if I was just tired. Book number two, then; I discovered that the information booth actually had some quite comfortable stools in it, on which I passed the next few hours finishing the second book. H.G. Wells, a classic; When the Sleeper Wakes, a disturbing exploration of utopia. Graham the sleeper and I; an unlikely pair, with opposite problems. In his case, the world went on around his unknowing form. In mine…is the world going on? Is it still there at all, and do I know? I can't tell.
I haven’t seen anyone for, oh, perhaps three months. I’m not entirely sure; the first month was spent in a blur of panic and terror, running about until exhausted, then dropping into deep sleep only to awake and scramble again. I don’t know if I’ve just accepted it, or if I’m too numb to care, now; probably if I actually did see another person I’d expire on the spot of a coronary.
There’s no one here. There never is, except me. Yet I find burning cigarettes, cold drinks, hot food, all left there waiting, their owners having just stepped away and not returned.
I don’t even remember what I was doing when they left. Perhaps I was asleep; perhaps not…perhaps I even lived somewhere, in an apartment or a house, with other people. I can’t remember. I have vague memories that in fact I lived alone, and there is a keyring in my pocket, but my wallet contains no ID. In my wandering about the borough of Manhattan I’ve yet to see anything that looks like home, and simply trying the keys everywhere would leave myself and the keys dust before I found their match in this town.
Leaving my private Manhattan might be a solution, but I cannot. The trains do not run; only the subways, and I cannot tell who runs them, if anyone. Cars there are, but they remain parked in haphazard patterns in the streets, leaving tunnels and bridges impassable. I could walk, and I have; I’ve made it as far as Elizabeth, New Jersey before turning around.
If I have to be the only one in the world, I’d rather the world be New York.
Things do change, when I’m not there. If I return somewhere, I find things moved, new food, cigarettes, notes, and more all fresh and innocent, evidence of people moving about their businesses and lives just out of reach.
I tried moving things, once. I would rearrange things into patterns that made messages; I’d leave notes, I’d leave voice mail messages. Although some of these messages were received, none of the respondents believed my story, at some core level, and shunned me in a manner I’d become familiar with.
Not that I blame them. Can you imagine being told that the person on the other end of the phone can’t meet with you because he’s not there? How do you explain that? I tried arranging to meet people in certain places at certain times, but naturally, while we both showed up, we never met.
I think my favorite hypothesis is that unlike inanimate objects, humans live at a point in time and follow along. I think I just became unstuck, is all; and now I’m either a few minutes or seconds ahead or behind everyone else. Perhaps if I could move faster, or just stop, I’d come into sync again. I wonder what it would be like, if I could stay still? Would I see a brief flicker of crowds as the rest of the world caught me up and passed me by? Or would there be a longer period of overlap? If I’m behind, of course, how might I speed up?
Useless speculation. There’s no way of knowing.
In the meantime, all of New York is open to me. Food? Certainly, there’s always a just-served lunch on a table in some restaurant. If it wasn’t what I would have ordered, I can always go to another table, or another restaurant. Drink, likewise. Things work for me; water flows, meat slices, books flip and fall from my fingers. I don’t smoke, but just to be sure I tried smoking one of those cigarettes that lie about in droves in every bar. I was violently ill for a few minutes.
I find that I’m without fear, really. Oh, if I were to injure myself, what then? I’ve gone so far as to accumulate a small first-aid kit that I carry about me, and to read up on emergency medical aid. Without other people, though, the chances of injuring myself really seem to be much lower, in this urban environment. No cars. No buses. Well, there are the trains, but I don’t think I’d be around to worry if I were to run afoul of one.
The trains. I’m still not sure why they run. I’ve tried pounding on the doors of motorman’s cabins; tried waving frantically at the blank squares of glass on the front of the behemoths as they slide into and out of stations. Nothing. I can’t tell what’s behind them; the windows are always closed and dark. With no light behind them, it’s difficult to tell what’s in there.
I gave up finally, in fear that if I came to close to the truth, the trains would stop running. Then I’d have to walk everywhere, or steal cars- but the traffic congestion is too bad for that.
I sighed and slipped off the stool, closing the book. Stretching as I made my way back down the spiral stairs, I closed the door quietly behind me before moving back upstairs to the main lobby. All was as I’d left it. As I turned to wander out towards Lexington Ave, I heard a small noise from behind; spinning, I cast my gaze about frantically, but nothing-
No. One of the doors to Vanderbilt was swinging slightly, as if just released. A moment of shock paralyzed my legs before I burst into explosive motion, pelting up the stairs and through the doors onto Vanderbilt avenue.
Looking both ways took but a moment; seeing the woman disappearing around the corner took longer. I ran after her. Forty-Second Street was empty but for her, walking down the block towards Park. I gaped, the shock of it taking my breath, before dashing after her, struggling for something I couldn’t name until I was close. It was my voice, unused, starved. "M…Mi-s-s?" I gagged out.
She turned to look at me.
She didn’t say anything until I was closer.
"Yes?" Music, song, harmonics of heaven-
"How did you get…get here?" I panted to a stop next to her, leaning forward, hands on thighs. I haven’t had to do a lot of running.
"Oh, I live here."
"No, not New York, I mean-" her smile stopped me. "You mean always."
"Where are we?" I said it as quietly as I was able, but the naked need must have leaked through; she reached towards my hand and laughed, stopping before we touched.
"You poor man." Beckoning me into the Station through the front entrance, she led me in silence back to the main lobby and seated me on the stairs that I’d just scaled to reach Vanderbilt. The significance of the circle wasn’t lost on me, but I didn’t have the first clue as to what it meant, nor the brainpower to investigate. Breathing was occupying too large a percentage. Something kept nagging at me, but was lost in the noise of shock and strangeness that I swam through.
"There. Would you like some water?"
I shook my head mutely.
"Well then. Here we are. Where to start." She stopped, pinched one earlobe pensively beneath her ellipse of perfect blonde hair. "I suppose, really, that I’m here waiting. I’m not sure why you’re here."
She cut me off. "I don’t know, and never have."
She, too, sat, slowly. "I really don’t know. I stopped keeping track long ago."
"Don’t you check dates on the newspapers?"
"Why?" she shook her head, blonde waterfalls briefly eclipsing her eyes. "Do I want to know? Is their date my date? My time?"
The similarities to my own recent musings brought me up short. We sat there a moment before she continued. "In fact, I hoped to ask you what I’m waiting for. I’ve only seen a few others, you know."
"Others? There are others here? How? Where? Who-"
"Slow down!" She laughed again, treasure. "I’ve seen three others. One I speak with somewhat regularly; he lives down by Wall Street. He has," she noted as an almost private note, "a bit of an obsession about the markets. He doesn’t like to leave them. Wanders the trading pits disconsolate, and has for as long as I’ve known him. Still, he’s nice enough."
"What about the others?"
"One I only saw briefly. She was sitting atop a building near Fiftieth street, and didn’t respond when I called. I ran all the way upstairs to the roof, but she was gone when I got there. She was the first other person I’d seen since…" the trail-off was familiar. "The last, though, I’ve seen him a couple of times near Madison Square." She smiled again, the sweetness counterbalanced by a slight frowning of her eyebrows. "He’s cute. He’s so familiar, though…"
"What’s your name?"
She looked up at me with brightness returned to her eyes. "Oh, it doesn’t matter."
"Because names seem so superfluous, here. They’re used to differentiate us from other people when we refer to or about each other." Her vague expansive gesture took in our silent surroundings. "It seems pointless, really."
I sat a moment, digesting that. "But names are also who we are, aren’t they?"
"Are they really? Your parents gave you that name. Is who you are the name, or the pattern of images, responses, memories, wants, hates, needs all bound up with that small word as a convenient label?" The laugh. "I’m sorry. There’s so much time here to follow the trails of the thoughts that normally die off quickly, stifled by the world."
I noticed, at that point, that the nagging feeling I’d dismissed had come from her appearance. She as wearing a nicely tailored coat with sheer black gloves. This was not an unusual outfit at all, save the fact that it was perhaps seventy-five degrees where we sat and not much cooler outside.
"Why are you wearing that? Is that what you were wearing when you came here?" I pointed at her outerwear.
"I change my clothes, thank you very much."
"I’m sorry. I do too. It’s just that it’s so warm."
"Not for me."
"I’ve given up trying to explain it to myself. You see, it’s quite chilly here."
"No, it makes sense with one small fact, that where I am isn’t where you are."
"Huh?" I was unable to come up with a more intelligent response.
"It’s sometime in late fall in my New York. I’d suppose from your clothing that it’s late spring in yours."
"That’s- that’s about right. But, the trees, the flowers-" I waved again towards the invisible outside.
"Not here." She reached for her largish coat collar and produced a small brown object, handed it to me. I took it, feeling the desiccated leaf crackle under my fingers. I crumbled it and dropped it to the marble’s waiting electric field.
"Can we touch?"
She held out a hand, silently. I reached towards it, felt the strange electrics of surfaces warp and give, field lines curving silently in beauty and dance.
Her fingers were dry and warm.
I moved to take her hand, but she pulled away. I jerked back. "What?"
"If we touch for too long…"
"I don’t know, really, but you’ll go away. Or I will, from your point of view."
I laughed slightly, leaning back against the cold steps behind me. She glanced over quizzically. "What?"
"Oh, nothing." I waved my unfinished book in the air. "Science fiction. Do you read it?"
"God, I do, too much. You know how much?" I stood, began to pace with hands clasped behind my back, just dawdling from one step to another and back again. "Enough that my first thought, my first thought at that, was ‘Gee, that’s interesting. I wonder how the rules work here.’"
She laughed for a time. "The rules."
"Right. That’s crazy. Like it’s just me trying to figure out the plot, or something- outguess the author."
"Perhaps you can." That drew silence from me; I sat again, slightly farther from her.
"So what time of year is it for the trader?"
"Oh, I don’t know. I only see him indoors, there, and it’s always too warm. I’ve never asked him."
"How do you know about touching? Did you touch him?"
"No, Not him. I-" She flushed slightly. "The other one. He saved me. From a train, in the tunnels north of here. I think he was hurt, doing it, but he did. That was perhaps a day or so after I’d come…here." A pause. "I held him by the tracks. He smiled at me, like he hurt, and I kissed him…" She stopped, there, buried her head in her hands. I waited for her to sob, twice, then sniffle loudly and wipe her eyes before smiling determinedly at me. "You see, I’ve always wondered, if perhaps I’d done something different, if I might have, well-"
"Gone home." I added it softly.
There really wasn’t anything to say to that.
"Did you ever see him again?"
"Oh, now and again, but he makes me nervous, sometimes; he’s so very intent."
"Can he see anyone else?"
"I don’t…know." The hesitation made me wonder if she’d thought of this before. "I suppose, really, I might be the only person he can see. I didn’t realize, then…"
There was a sudden nonexistent breeze, a subtle changing of the station and the air. She looked up, a look of despair on her face; I stood quickly, confused and wary at her expression.
I heard a crunch, looked down. I’d just stepped on a small litter of browned leaves drifting in from Vanderbilt Ave. As I looked up at her, and down again, they were gone. She was smiling resignedly. I moved to touch her, stopped- "No! No, please no, please-"
"It’s not me." Her smile was still there. "It just happens. Quick, listen, meet me here. Try to be here in the evenings around five, all right? Just-" -and she was gone, knifed away by a wave of electric spring.
I sagged to the steps and cursed, loudly, for quite some time.
Then I slept.
When I awoke, curled in a ball on the steps, a coffee cup in front of me held three dollar bills and some change.
I swore one time, with feeling, and threw the cup across the marble. I sat there listening to the magic of a myriad of silver-tone echoes from coins losing energy to the floor in friction and impact.
Madison Square Park was empty, as I had expected. I seated myself on a bench and watched the litter blow about me in the spring breezes for a time before I gave up and began the walk back uptown.
I’d gone two blocks when he ran past me, screaming something from the set of his face and the reaching arm, but there was still absolute silence. I was so stunned that I didn't react immediately; he went perhaps another hundred feet and looked about him before leaning against a building in order to gasp for breath. He looked back downtown, through me, and I thought perhaps he’d seen me when the lights switched out in his face and he fell, nerveless, into a heap of meat and bones on the concrete.
Motionless; in this empty world, I was the only thing without movement. The man – no, boy, really – at my feet breathed; steam rose from a glory hole in the pavement; traffic lights clicked softly to each other in an unknown coda. I watched him breathe.
For no reason I could name, my first action was to attempt to stand him up in order to get a better look at him. He sagged, limp but most certainly still in the land of the living- if this could be called such.
What does one do at times like this? Light slaps to the cheek failed to rouse him, as did the chill air blowing on his face. She’d said she’d seen him in the tunnels, once. That he’d saved her life. Had he yet? I hoisted him into a fireman’s carry and staggered off towards the station.
The number six train arrived with its usual thunder; it let us off at sixty-eighth and Lexington. Somewhere near here . I bore him carefully to the platform, waited as the train blasted off back into the world I’d lost. Looking both ways, I sighed and maneuvered him up the stairs into the empty twilight.
He was rousing slowly, or perhaps just walking is an autonomic motion. Either way, I was by this point mostly leading him; we progressed up Sixty-eighth towards Park Avenue. I was tiring, so I helped him sit while I rested and wondered at the newness of my day; different from those that had come before, a treasure. I was tired, and my eyelids fluttered before I snapped myself upright to find my companion gone. Looking around, I could see him shuffling around a corner on Park Avenue, heading downtown- I lit off after in more of a shambling jog than anything else, and came around the corner to find the avenue totally deserted.
The surprise of that was enough to stop me. An effort of will caught my feet and forced me to continue south, casting my gaze about. There; a shoe, one of his. Catching it up as I ran, I could feel my breath coming raspy with unaccustomed effort.
At Sixty-fourth, there was an open manhole and clear sight lines. Unable to see anyone moving in the four cardinal directions, I looked down to see a gleam of light from the side of the manhole’s bottom; tunnels. Dropping down took five seconds; hearing the rising moan of the train yet forcing my way through the crack in the side took five more. I could see headlight glare from away off down the tunnel, but I couldn’t see him. He was here, however; I knew it with the certainty brought on by experiential loss. I ran from track to track, looking each way. The train blared by on the far side of the tunnel. As I turned my face from the glare and wind, I saw a figure roll from the tracks to the stony byway and protect itself from the passing of the metal Worm. He was awake! Struggling to contain myself, I waited until the train had passed before approaching him. I knelt to take his hand, setting the shoe down on the still-warm rail; but as I moved my hand over his forearm, I felt it slip through him and leave me almost in sprinter’s starting position as I caught myself from falling.
The tunnel was empty.
A last breath of chill air from where he had lain washed over me on its way out into the world. Autumn. It’s autumn, there, where they are. I shook myself, looked about. Shivering once, I hurried from the underground with hope for the lady of the station and her would-be/once-was savior in my breast.
It took ten blocks before I found a restaurant with a liquor license and wine on the tables. The first Scotch helped; the second was a miracle, and after the third I took the bottle with me into the nearest residential building to try doors until one opened. The bed that lay beyond was frilly and pink, but comfortable; offering my nightly prayer for discovery and human eviction I collapsed and slept.