<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->

Park Avenue Downtime
Park Ethereal - Chapter 4

The rest of the day passed without incident. I twice had the urge to return to the tunnels and search again, but some instinct that I would be breaking the rules of the game brought me up short, and I spent the day looking as miserable yet cheerful as possible in order to increase my meager finances. It didn't work all that well, but I caught up on normal, non-trauma-induced sleep. When darkness fell, I found myself stretching and yawning, looking around and blindly decoding the reflected and upside down image of Thirty-second Street and Madison that washed across my retinas. It was a rather bleak picture.

Getting up, I headed back up towards the Main Lobby of the Castle of my dreams as the night without descended softly over the ways of stone to blanket them with tender silken claws of deadly black which gently closed the eyelids of the City. I made good time up Park South, borne by the cold and my curiosity. Cornelius Vanderbilt welcomed me with warmly averted eyes, not wishing to see what they'd done to his station in the depths of the concrete caverns.

The floodlights were on, throwing back the curtain, at least as far back as Vanderbilt and Lexington, pushing the velvet folds up the side streets as far west and east as one could walk in Manhattan. The station waited for me, as it always had. I felt, of a sudden, as of old, as the humor returned to me in a rush from the secret cold place where it had been driven by the cares of a charmed life. I sang my way uptown, casting my voice at the buildings which snoozed quietly.

"Oompa, Loompa, Doompety-do, I've got another puzzle for you. Why did you find an old black beret? Because, silly boy, you had once lost your way." Many, many, silly verses, finally drifting off into the quite ribald by the time I reached Forty-first street. From that point, of course, things simply got worse, and didn't improve until the Main Lobby, at which point I stopped singing.

The lobby was empty. I mean completely empty, not a soul in sight. The intrusion of my private alterdimensional New York, which up until now had been kind enough to limit itself to a few blocks of Madison Avenue and surroundings, widened to become a rip and I felt the station fall through.

I turned to look back out the doors to Forty-Second, realizing as I did that the people who had been huddled or standing around the entrance would be gone. Whether they found other business, suddenly, or whether they faded slowly like the more fortunate sometimes wished they would, I had no idea. I turned back to the lobby.

"IF A TREE FALLS IN THE FOREST," I shouted at the ceiling, "AND I WERE TO CLIMB THE EMPIRE STATE AND LOOK DOWN AT MANHATTAN, WHAT THEN, DAMN IT?" There was no answer, of course, except for the sudden pigeon flutter of the Metro-North status board changing. I spun to look at it, startled by the motion. It looked quite normal; trains to Poughkeepsie and New Haven and Stamford and Scarsdale, all listed. Turning, I could see two or three trains breathing silently and deeply to themselves in the cradles of their platformed tracks. I turned on a sudden impulse and stalked off towards the 4/5/6 subway station, off down the downtown eastern passage form the lobby. No one disturbed me. Instead of going up the ramp towards the escalator that would take me there, I swung right and went down the stairs towards the Oyster Bar, down the silent marble passages. The Oyster Bar was closed. I wasn't sure if that was right. In fact, I wasn't even sure what day it was, really; it hadn't seemed important recently.

I looked about, but nothing seemed out of place. Wandering for a few minutes, I covered most of the main section of the lower level, and was ready to leap from my skin at the silence, which was the most dreadful still that I'd ever experienced. Everything said hush, hush, something's going to happen happen happen hush happen. Finally I couldn't bear it anymore and said clearly and loudly to the stillness, "Okay. Whatever it is had better happen now, or I swear I'll have a coronary when it does." I turned slowly, waiting and praying that the Powers That Be were going to be kind. I hadn't been kidding.

It was so faint that at first I had trouble identifying what was different. It took a whole minute to realize it was a sound, and it was echoing ever so faintly from above. A tapping, overlaid on itself and reverberating in the still marble byways. After that minute, I slapped myself deliberately in the face. Nothing changed except for the momentary pain, but then, I hadn't expected it to. Listening brought the same result. I raised my eyebrows at the floor, looking for understanding, and turned to dash for the stairs.

They, at least, hadn't changed, and bore me to the main level of the station with no surprises. I tore into the Main Lobby to find it (expectedly) empty, except for the tapping, which was receding into the silence down the platforms. I couldn't tell what track, so I picked one at random and ran across the marble vista and through the portal to come slamming up against a wall of reality in the form of a swarm of people getting off a Metro North local, tiredly checking watches and bags and glasses and pockets. Spinning, I found the Main Lobby was as full as was normal; folks passing through and even someone who had apparently chosen that moment to stand back up from behind the counter of the Information booth. The tapping might have been still in evidence; I couldn't tell over the white noise of travel.

My foot felt strange.

This was traceable to the fact that I was standing on something which shouldn't have been there. On lifting the foot in question, the right one in fact, I found that the item causing this discomfort was a matchbook. I picked it up. It fit neatly in my hand, and there was nothing on it except a blue cover and a stylized shield. Turning it over, I found the letters 'NYPD' emblazoned across another field of blue in yellow letters. Police matches? That was a new one on me. Opening the book revealed four matches (I counted them twice) and a scrawl in blue pen, which after many rotations of the matchbook and much muttering and squinting were decipherable as "64th and Park SE" which I presumed meant southeast corner. "Fucking cops are as bad as the fucking doctors. Good thing the world doesn't turn on their handwriting, or it'd precess us all straight into deep shit." The muttered aside felt right, and I found myself nodding in agreement.

It was by now around one-thirty in the morning, maybe two, and as I had no pressing social engagements, I rose from my lower world and began to trek up Park Avenue. The lights were impressive. Millions of candlepower and millions of horsepower being expended at the night in the hopes that someone will keep from breaking his neck, in the hope fulfilled that the skyline will stand out like the victorious frieze it is. The image of ten thousand candles stuffed into the streetlight above my head was an amusing one. The car next to me sprouted a hundred pairs of ethereal horse legs and began to gallop down the street past the thousands of green candle flames that burned atop the pole over the avenue. I watched in fascination as the multi-stagecoach Saab swung off up Park Avenue, its horse legs fading with distance and reality. Sad.

Up the street, to the cross, to the sky! Finding the Six and the Four on the sign and coming to rest precisely on the coordinate, a wonder that two numbers can delineate a place not a hundred feet square on the surface of the floor of the city- do the bushes here know their address, and is it painted on the nose of some nameless missile that waits sleepily in some unnumbered silo on the far side of the world? All of this, the bushes and the plants and the flowers and the benches and the lightpoles and the crosswalks and the potholes and the gratings and the manholes and the curbs and the garbage cans of mesh that New York is forever deploying and melting down - all could vanish in the barest splinter of a second if that missile is woken or if the City is put to Sleep in the slumber of my fantasies or of my life, which follow me wherever I go and exert a fearsome power over my cages of steel and concrete and people.

There was nothing really out of the ordinary on Sixty-Fourth Street. I searched for all of an hour, and as my feet began to go numb from the chill, I turned and headed downtown. At Fifty-Seventh, I climbed the wooden fence leading to the unfinished hotel and burrowed through the corridors until the loading dock gave way to tunnels and grating and I found myself back in the bolthole, which remained at a constant seventy-odd degrees. The constancy and warmth soothed me, and as soon as I dropped to my side on the floor, my head pillowed on my wrist, I felt the sleep whirl up from the pores in the floor to leech the light from my body leaving nothing but

dark BLARE of an air horn shattering the sleep and sending the fragments spinning into the corners to run and hide behind the shadows. I sat up muzzily, with a nasty taste in my mouth and my eyes gummed shut. Terribleseemed far too weak a word to describe the way I felt. I rubbed my eyes sleepily, until I realized that the fine coating of rust and dirt on my hands from the surfaces of my hole were only making it worse. Forcing my hands from my face, I made myself climb the ladder into the corridors. I averted my eyes from the east corridor as I passed it on my way to the basement, feeling its eyes laughing at me as I moved by.

The water was icy cold, and wonder of wonders, there was soap. I used it greedily until I could no longer feel the itchy tickle of metal in the folds of my skin when I turned my head or moved my face. There wasn't much I could do about my clothes, but I took them off and beat them clear of rust anyhow. It seemed to help, although they were far from the wash they'd had at Kelly's an eon and many blocks ago. They showed their passage through the tunnels, in tears and rips and small unexplained smudges and larger stains of oil and creosote and junk food.

I put them back on, sighing. No help for it. Rummaging through my rucksack had brought no joy, only clothing with varying degrees of rubbed-in contaminants. Stretching, I wondered what time it was, and was struck by the sudden thought that down here it truly didn't matter. The only fashion in which time intruded on the tunnels was to change the frequency of passing trains.

I strode back down, turning my back on the concept of daylight and time. Traffic was faintly audible, but even that was meaningless in New York where the only real difference sometimes between day and night traffic was the speed of the flow. At the intersection, I paused and looked down the easterly tunnel. It didn't look all that threatening anymore, really, just another hole in the ground to pour sanity through. I looked uptown, then downtown, then decided to change levels and went halfway back down the ladder to the bolthole and stopped on the first level above my rucksack.

This corridor was different. The light was dimmer, consisting entirely of the light that filtered down through the grating floor of the corridor above.There were a few pipes along the wall just below the ceiling, and they stretched out of sight north and south.

I chose north at random and started walking.

Nothing happened for the longest time.

Around what must have been Seventy-Ninth, judging from the increased crosstown traffic noise and the distance I'd walked, there was another intersection. An east/west corridor ran across mine, turning corners relatively soon so that my view of the two was cut short, limited to perhaps a hundred feet.

Random walk in my soul, I turned (flip, catch, slap, check) right and walked towards the East River. I had covered perhaps fifty feet when there was a dark shape on the tunnel floor ahead of me. I didn't recognize it, but kept going anyhow. The lighting here was irregular at best; 100-watt bulbs at intervals long enough to create areas of total shadow. I drew up to the object and stared at it. It patently refused to fit comfortably into its metal and stone surroundings, sitting proudly if a little shabbily in the center of the floor.

It was black.

Open sesame, alakazam, magic winds of reason and time and I reached for the latch (Ellyn reached for her beret) and flipped the metal piece off. Lifting the lid, I saw as expected the saxophone lying in its recognized case waiting for someone to move it. I looked around reflexively, but there was no one there.

I reached for the sax hesitantly, but it obediently maintained its corporeality as I touched its brass side and lifted it gently form the case. It appeared to be the same saxophone I had seen/heard played by the older man in the Main Lobby. After running my fingers over it a few times, I placed it back in its bed of velvet. Closing the case, I stepped back against the wall and sank to a sitting position, still staring at the case.

Signal, that's what he had said, a sign that everything was going to change. I wondered where he was, and why the sax was here and not with him. Still, I couldn't bring myself to leave it here, and I stood to grab the plastic handle, feeling the slight irregularities in the handle's edges caused by an imperfect mold. The horn was light in my hands, and I squared my shoulders and set off down the tunnel again. I made it perhaps fifty feet before the tunnel ended in a dead end, with a ladder leading up a manhole to a steel cover.

Taking this as a hint rather than a deterrent, I grunted and clumsily made my way up the ladder of curved steel rods set in the wall, banging the saxophone case against pretty much every surface available during the climb. The manhole cover yielded with little resistance to my shoulders, and it made a huge earthen clang as it fell backwards onto the pavement. I looked about me, and found myself on a unidirectional avenue that sure looked like...yep, Lexington. The large bulk of Lenox Hill Hospital proved my earlier underground cross-street estimate nearly correct; I turned downtown, crossed Seventy-Seventh street, and started to walk back towards Grand Central.

It was night; a fact which failed to surprise me. Recently I had adopted what I felt was a very sensible attitude towards time; I paid it little attention, and hoped it wouldn't notice and catch up with me in turn.

There was no-one in sight; the only motion was steam rising from other entrances to my private world, and from blinking traffic lights. It took five blocks to realize that besides having fallen back into what I had come to think of as the Schrödinger Plane, my uninhabited New York, something was different. For the life of me, though, I couldn't place it, and shrugged it off as I trudged downtown.

I had reached Sixty-Ninth, and was walking slowly past the blank and sere storefronts with my head bowed, watching my feet closely for fear that the wave function would collapse and the Schrödinger Plane would crash to earth in a sudden rush of feet and voices as New York repopulated itself once more through the fragile borders of my reality. I looked up, briefly, as I had been doing in order to avoid tottering into light poles and trash baskets (the fatigue was hitting now, slowly) and there she was.

Ellyn was standing in the middle of the sidewalk perhaps a hundred feet away, hands in pockets and smile on her face, looking at me. I deliberately placed the saxophone next to the bus stop sign that I had been passing and walked forward slowly, with my hands out at my sides and empty. She turned to face me directly, a slight glow about her washing over the gray leaden sea of pavement, and smiled brightly again before turning and walking out of view towards Park Avenue. I broke into a run for the corner, and skidded around it before realizing that the sax was sitting unattended waiting for a nonexistent dimensional bus behind me, and managed to dismiss the fact as distressing but ultimately unimportant as I saw Ellyn turn the corner onto Park a full block away heading downtown. Damn, but she was fast- I hadn't been more than a hundred feet from the corner.

Sprinting put the fear of God into my lungs, which promptly gave notice that they weren't really prepared for or happy about this sort of activity, thanks very much, with a series of sharp pangs. I snarled silently at them with no breath to spare that they should be glad I didn't smoke, at which they agreed reluctantly and the debilitating coughing fit that had been lurking in my chest dissolved unformed.

I made it around the corner to see her heading south against the backdrop of the Pan Am building, moving at a relaxed walk. Confused, I forced myself to stop. She wasn't looking back; indeed, she wasn't acknowledging my presence at all. Starting after her, I kept my pace to a walk that matched hers, and wondered where she was going and why she had turned up here, uptown, so far from the park and the bench. It didn't feel right, really; perhaps that's why I didn't chase after her more urgently.

The confusion lasted for several blocks. The wind was rising, and a chill breeze was lashing around the corners. There was still no-one else in sight, either ahead, behind or down the side streets. I was walking in what I realized was classic movie confusion fashion; arms akimbo, spinning from side to side in an attempt to find out what the hell was going on.

A few blocks later, Ellyn stopped, and bent to...tie her shoe? I was struck by the normalcy of her action, and stopped myself, moving to the side to lean against one of the streetlights that dotted the corners of Park Avenue. On the way, however, I struck something, and apologized to the man who brushed past me, nodding his acceptance as he continued downtown. I made it as far as the pole before the encounter struck me, and I spun back wildly to see...people, everywhere, walking, driving, running. None of them paid me or Ellyn the slightest attention. I was vaguely amused to realize I was panting, the adrenaline rush from the surprise pushing my sympathetic nervous system into juddering overdrive.

Ellyn finished tying her shoe, and made to rise. I started to push away from the light pole.

There was a moment of silence, odd in the city, that might have passed unnoticed but for the fact that I was already keyed up. Sound returned in a blink as the wind whispered around the corner of Sixty-Fourth street and tugged at my feet and clothes. The cold wasn't much, but the wind- I saw it whip the beret from Ellyn's head. She reached up to grab it, and missed, and the world went into slow motion as the beret fluttered from her head to fly seven feet to her right and waft gently over an orange warning tape strung around an open manhole and vanish into the depths. She stood for a moment in visible frustration, then walked to the edge of the tape and looked down. She called once, at least I think she did; there was no sound in my part of the universe as my feet refused to carry me across the street to her. I looked right, feeling the frustration, and managed to catch myself as a Cadillac stormed past running hell-bent for Lex. By the time I had turned back, I saw her halfway into the hole, having evidently found a ladder there (Sixty-Fourth Street) and as I watched she moved further down out of sight under the (Southeast corner) street.

All the alarms were ringing, now, all of them at once, and even as I shouted across space to her I launched myself across the street. She didn't respond, and I watched from the middle of the street in motion as her head vanished from sight into the ground. I tore through the tape and threw myself to my knees at the manhole. It was very dark, but I could see the bottom of the manhole and a light which seemed to be coming from the west side of the pit. There was no sign of Ellyn; though, and I looked around desperately only to see everyone passing by hurriedly with the deliberate self-absorption of the seasoned New Yorker. I cursed, once, with feeling, and dropped down the hole, praying I wouldn't turn my ankles at the bottom.

I didn't, but did lose my footing and roll. By the time I righted myself, I was conscious of a warm breeze coming from the crack in the familiar metal wall to the west, and I frantically clawed my way to my feet and through the hole. Looking left and right, I caught sight of Ellyn about thirty feet downtown, walking fast, slightly bent over, with her attention on something at her feet. By reflex I moved off the tracks and began to pick my way after her as fast as I was able, still shouting to no avail. As I moved away from the manhole, I saw another shape detach itself from the ground and move towards Ellyn, perhaps twenty feet from me.

The world slowed again, and I was now achingly aware of the warm rush of air coming from behind me to tousle my hair and propel the beret which Ellyn was intently chasing down the tracks. She didn't see the man who had arisen from the floor. I could; he appeared to be a fairly standard tunnel denizen, a bit wild looking and as far as I could tell uncomfortably intent on Ellyn.

At that moment, she caught the beret, and I heard somehow in my head her small gentle 'ha!' of triumph as she straightened and brushed it off. At that moment, the man's hand fell on her shoulder, and she screamed reflexively, the sound threshing at my eardrums. I knew I was going to be too slow, and in speeding up I felt my foot go between two track ties and in a brief glare of pain the world rotated and I ended up on my stomach with a sharp pain in my left ankle and smaller ones all about me.

I started slowly to my feet, struggling as I did so, and looked up to see Ellyn fall backwards with the unknown man's hand on her shoulder. Still screaming, she raised a hand to her throat as she tried to stand. She had made it as far as her hands and knees when he assailant grunted and pulled at her, bringing them both down prone once more. I had just made it to my hands and knees and was screaming bloody murder (bloody murder) when she looked over his shoulder towards me-no, past me, and the terror in her eyes was suddenly magnified as she opened her mouth for another shriek. He twisted next to her, suddenly realizing something was amiss, and I reached out a hand futilely as the world defocused in the tearing blast of an air horn and I was thrown roughly aside by the storm as the Metro-North swept by with brakes screeching, and the last view I had of Ellyn before the front of the train scythed past into my field of vision was with her hand before her face and an almost peaceful expression as the man tried to scramble sideways and everything went black in a double muffled thump and dissolved into the storm of sparks and scream of suffering metal as the useless brakes grabbed finally and brought the commuter to a sliding halt and I let go gratefully to fall on my face into the pool of black ink that waited for me there and everything went


Somewhere behind me, past the storm of minutes, a poor man with no home or job stumbled into a Lexington avenue bus stop. I felt him pick up the saxophone and curiously look around before flipping the catches-

The darkness was familiar. I rolled over, spitting out gravel, and wearily pulled myself up a support column to my feet. I could feel the deadness in my expression as I surveyed the tunnels before putting the beret back in my pocket and beginning the five-block slog back towards the bolthole. Behind me, the tunnels waited, patient and empty.


<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->

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