<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->
Park Ethereal - Chapter 7
Salvation comes sniffling around the corner in warmth and clarity. I could feel it pass me by, and as I reached out to grasp it by the cloak it slipped gently from my hands and fluttered away down the underground. I stood, shakily, and prepared to catch myself in case my body failed to support me. It did; the injuries had passed with the time and with the train. Looking about the tunnel area, I could see no trace of Ellyn or of the event that I had just seen. Affected? I didn't know. Walking uptown, I dragged my fingertips lightly over the grimy wall, eyes closed, feeling ridges and troughs in the concrete; dirt, paint, blackness. The hole in the tunnel was sharp and angular, and the rusty wall behind it yielded nothing more than a gleamy-dark slash when I wrote her name in the rust. I walked away.
The Main Lobby was as it always was, with one exception. A flickering redness caught my eye as I entered it, mounted high above the Chemical Bank near the windows. I blinked, and shifted to look at it <brief flash of a shape> and found myself looking at a tall red bar of flickering lights. I frowned, puzzled, then looked away. The shape reappeared, briefly, and I understood. Flicking my eyes back and forth across the bar yielded a pattern; the lights flashing in a sequence designed to produce a shape at speed. The shape, as near as I could see, changed; a Christmas tree, a Menorah, a crescent moon. Holiday images. That's right; holidays. I'd forgotten all about those. It had been sometime in November in the latest iteration of the City when last I'd checked; the magic week was doubtless approaching. I still had no idea what date it was, though, and really had no desire to find out. I swung my gaze around the lobby, smiling as it came to rest on a door. The door I'd seen and been heading for when I bumped into the cop. Miracle and holiness, it was open again - I could see the dark line along the jamb.
It actually managed to remain open for the twenty-eight seconds it took me to cross the open space of the Lobby and reach its frame, sturdily mounted in the wall. I reached out to it, hoping that it wouldn't change its mind again, but it slid away from me on oiled hinges to expose a blackness that speaks to the New Yorker in languages of avoidance and negation. A blackness that most commuters wouldn't even see, their gaze averted by the smarter and more experienced bits of their corpus callosum, their brainstems hurrying them past and along home.
Mine yawned and cast about for a newspaper, refusing to erase it for me. Stepping inside, I drew the Maglite from my waist and scythed about me with photonic violence. There was nothing inside; I closed the door behind me and looked again. The room was perhaps fifteen feet on a side, and blank save for another door aross the floor. I made for it, and swept the door aside to look and blink at the blackness beyond. The Maglite showed me spotlight circles of boxes, stacks of them, and piles of paper atop them in random order. Moving to bend over the stack, I examined a few sheets, enough to grasp that the stack I was looking at was what appeared to be six months worth of paperwork from the Metro-North ticket offices in the Main Lobby. Perhaps they put it in here to forget about it; I could imagine the hopeful note on which the manager closed the door, thinking, dear God, let it be gone in January, please, Lord, if you love me, maybe it'll just evaporate before then. It hadn't yet, apparently; I felt like Schrödinger's cat, poking my nose into the closed experiment. Rising from the squat, I circled the room with my light, and found another door, again opposite the entrance. Nothing ventured, nothing gained...I opened it, and swung through, into a more familiar world of dimly lit tunnel, pipes along the walls level with my head and along the ceiling. This tunnel went off south, into the murk; I could see perhaps three incandescent fixtures between myself and the limit of my vision. They lit their immediate areas, leaving the stretches of tunnel between dark and forbidding; the walls slid into patches of blackness with the ease of a snake. Perhaps four feet wide, the tunnel was wet. I couldn't tell if it was from rain, steam condensation, or just humidity, but it was dripping quietly and unconcernedly onto my head even as I stood there.
Experience forced me to examine the door I was still holding before allowing it to close; luckily, although it had an automatic lock, the locking mechanism appeared to be nonfunctional. A bolt swung awkwardly from a broken latch. It closed solidly behind me when released, and I began another subterranean journey.
Measuring time by objects instead of periods; by steps rather than seconds, by light fixtures rather than minutes. The tunnel I was in showed no sign of ending. It did, however, jog slightly to the left for a time before resuming its downtown path; I surmised from the local geography and the faint murmur of traffic that this was to avoid the Park Avenue tunnel that stretches from Thirty-Third to Fortieth or thereabouts. There were no doors, no signs, nothing except the bare brown sameness of Manhattan granite and the monotonous lights in their brown rusted wire grille cages. There were few dead bulbs; someone must therefore maintain the tunnel, which logically meant that there should be something of note at the other end. New York, however, is a land of eccentricities and oddball tasks. It was equally plausible that some poor nameless city worker replaced the bulbs regularly simply because no-one had told him or her to do otherwise, and the tunnel might simply end in the Con Edison equivalent of a sign reading Dead End.
Trooping onward, I avoided that thought.
After six or seven blocks, perhaps, the tunnel ended. In a wall of grey concrete cinder blocks, which cut the tunnel in two. The wall appeared to extend beyond the sides of the tunnel. Perhaps an expanded basement area for some skyscraper, or even the walled sides of some City construction job that happened to intersect my own private subworld. It made no practical difference to me; the wall simply indeed meant Dead End.
I sat and stared at it.
There was not much to see, really. It was fairly plain. Grey oblongs of concrete, with the darker hue of cement between. With no explanation or even understanding, I lifted the Maglite and brought it down wordlessly, the aluminum of the base smashing into the wall with the force of my weakened arm. The shock travelled up the light faster than the speed of sound in air; a pulse washing up the tube into the sinews of my arm, no pain, but drawing the tears from me, in frustration and in hot rushes of abandon. Grey the wall and grey my world and grey the shards that fell, I screamed for them; grey the sand of the world beneath the City and the bones of the City's heart.
Mag Instrument did not fail me; the tunnel remained lit by the wan yellow of the caged incandescents and tortured by the sudden actinic flares of the halogen element in my hands as it washed off my body, the walls, the ceiling, the floor, in twisted musical motion, ringing with the impacts and the groan of the world.
I had dropped to my knees, still flailing at the wall. The shards piled up around my legs, the depression in the wall growing slowly, a cratered pucker in the bones before me. With my last strength, kinetics and chemistry squandered into the concrete underdark, the flashlight smashed one last time against the earth, and there was a cracking sound as the block crazed, a dark line appearing across it. I dropped my hand to the ground, letting the light dangle backwards from my wrist in police grip, hands around the bulbous front. The light fluttered into my eyes; I closed them, watching my blood flow through my eyebrows in tireless effort to keep me upright and animate.
Sleep caught up with me then, my previous awareness vanishing on grey moldy wings into the blackness of the dream.
Seven Seventy Five Park Avenue. I woke blearily, my head still attached and as R.E.M. would say with my teeth in my mouth. The tunnel was unchanged, but I was not. I had a destination. I had a place to be, and a time to go- I examined the Maglite. The base was scratched and pitted, but the battery cap was still sealed and unscrewed at my turn; the photons leapt out eagerly on the pressing of the switch. I replaced it in my belt and began the long jog uptown, trying not to think of food and my complete lack of resources.
The doors to the station opened and shut. The door into the lobby shut behind me with a solid click indicating an automatic lock before I could catch it, my fear at being seen diving for it in the Main Lobby staying my hands long enough to allow the arc to complete. Suddenly wishing to see people, I turned right for the subway, and leapt a turnstile before checking for transit cops. There were none in sight, my eyes told my thudding heart as I landed, and I scuttled for the stairs down towards the trains with fear flicking at my feet. A local Six train breathed quietly in the station, and I joined a small group of people making for the doors. New York is interesting in that it is sometimes impossible to tell what time of day it is by the crowds on the subway. Sure, you can tell morning and evening rush hour; between three and five a.m. the ridership thins to an identifiable level. Other times, however, the crowds ebb and flow with an exquisite disregard for the circadian and the cycles of the planets. I was unable to discern the time from my fellow passengers' number, but from their dress and quiet air of fatigue I surmised that it was late (or early) enough for folks to be heading home after a night out on the town.
The Six took me to Sixty-Eight street, where I ascended to Lexington Avenue. No surprise at the darkened sky and the suddenly bitter chill in the air; pulling my tattered wardrobe closer about myself I headed uptown to examine my destination.
From a block away, the building was imposing. Perhaps twenty-five floors of pre-war apartments, real gems in New York real estate circles. It hadn't changed much since I'd seen it last those years or days before; additional security grills on the main entry doors, ornate but solid looking; a clear lightness to the stone and brick which bespoke of recent restorative actions. The awning drew near down the avenue as I trooped on, the gold painted 'Seven Seventy Five' gleaming dully in the brown streetlight glare. There were lights on in the lobby; I could see them spilling the curlicued pattern of the bars out onto the street in elongated zones of vision. There was snow piled along the curb, I realized dully. I couldn't remember it snowing; part of my mind managed to dredge up enough cholinasterase to wonder if this was because it had occured during one of my private New York excursions, which would mean that they didn't occur in zero time, or if it had simply happened while I'd been underground, here. I felt it conclude, grimly fighting off lethargy, that it was most likely the latter answer which held merit.
I passed the lobby doors without a glance, and continued down the block until I reached Seventy-Third street, at which point I turned right to follow the building's side. Perhaps a hundred feet down the block, I came across a service gate, locked, with grillwork fencing extending up to the third floor. Both guarded an alley which ran out of sight into stinking blackness behind the building. Slight stains on the sidewalk told of garbage hauled from this portal to the curb to await its watery fate. I examined the gate intently, hands in pockets to avoid the frost. There was no apparent way I was going to get past it; this building's occupants had the resources to secure themselves against serious intruders, much less my amateur fumblings. That meant a direct entry was out. Ah, what then is left? All the world's a stage, and players are we all.
The lobby lights were still burning, the sidewalk outside glowing in reflected warmth. I considered the question and thought, expending chemical energy in warmth and other, finer reactions, my head buzzing with exchanges. There was no obvious way in the front; my attire would be more than enough to cause the door staff to forcibly eject me. I couldn't see any way to approach from another direction without attracting attention or tripping alarms. Dispirited, but still in the game, I wandered off down Park in order to avoid rousing the suspicions of those who might be on duty. Crossing Seventy-Second street, I stubbed my toe in my daze, and although I didn't have the energy to hop about, I did howl briefly, glaring down in annoyance at the poorly fitting manhole that had arrested my stride.
I was rubbing my foot, somewhat ineffectually by regularly, and the rhythm slowed, my brow furrowing as my irritation faded. I looked down at the manhole. Turning, I looked about me; my object building towered above us on the avenue, steam rose from manholes. A traffic light clicked quietly to itself above my head. There were no cars in sight.
There were no pedestrians in sight either.
Shock of discovery, is what I hear they call it; a sudden elevation in adrenaline levels, followed by a desire to do something, anything, other than remain still. I bit down firmly on my knuckle, allowing only a moan of excitement to escape instead of the scream which I felt would shatter the walls of the world and loose the whole thing upon me again as I sat there realizing that I had bypassed it.
I raised the manhole with effort, a strained shoulder, and a piece of steel rebar that was in the gutter three-quarters of a block away in front of a demolition rubbish container parked at the curb.
It slid aside with a bone-shaking scrape, the blackness of the undernight staring back at me. The Maglite, my companion, shone upon a storm sewer tunnel beneath the streets. A slight current ran at the bottom of it, melted snow and ice rushing to find its home in the harbor before joining the Gulf stream ballet back out into clear ocean and the skies.
I dropped in silently, a wash of right coursing through me. Urban commando, you betcha. The night air was clear through the hole, but I ignored it as it slid from sight and trooped off towards Seven Seventy Five.
The time passed strangely. It passed slowly, and it passed, slowly. I imagined I could feel the transition, this time - a curling of the probable with a tightening of the skin, my body shivering in sympathy to tortured space. My flashlight beam would curve, impossibly, for one small infinitismal fraction of a second before snapping back to illuminate the tunnel directly ahead of me. Flashes of temperature - cold, warm, cold - and suddenly it was temperate in the underworld, steam rising gently from the deeper water. I looked back, once; there was no hole to the above, and the tunnel swallowed my light emptily. Turning, I moved forward into private time and space.
Several minutes later, I estimated I had passed under the pedestrian sidewalk (being most careful not to trip or miss anything). It was shortly afterwards that the grille appeared on the right, a metal mesh with water trickling down through it to join the mess at my feet. An odor wafted out in its company, one which I recognized in the boolean sense but was unable to put an identity to. I stopped, sniffed - warm, familiar, home, Kelly's...laundry. The smell of detergent, water and hot fabrics surged from behind the mesh, and I grasped its links eagerly, pulling. There was no response; the metal refused to even make a sound.
A rictus grin, that's what they call it, I have heard. My face contorted, I raised the now-experienced Maglite and began methodically hammering at one corner. The sound, echoed and travelling in the pipes of sous-New York beat at me, and I paused, for a moment, worried. Then frustration and fear overcame the hesitation, and I pounded with renewed strength upon the grille. After a minute, there was a screeching tear as the corner separated (reluctantly) from the bolts anchoring it to the concrete wall. I stopped, instantly, and listened. There was no sound, once the echoes had faded, other than the sad distant trickling of water over stone that had followed me since descent. Pushing at the grille forced its corner back, and I was able to press myself between its rusty grip and the wall, bending it back to a semblance of order once through. My hands were bleeding in several places, and many new rents showed in my clothes, but I was through, and I walked as quietly as I was able up the tunnel behind it towards the indications of light, and warmth, and life.
The tunnel narrowed as it passed several silent inflow ports, travelling uphill slightly. By the time it ended, I was worming along on my hands and knees, the Maglite stowed back in my belt and only my somewhat wasted physique allowing me to continue up the tube. Firm belief in my destination sustained me in my travels, forcing me to think once more of whether religious souls had an easier journey through life, then, defensively, ask if that made it less worthy, somehow. I had become so engrossed with my private theological argument that my first indication of the tube's end was when my head bumped against it, and I struggled to roll over onto my back in the now-dry confines, to see the bright blue wash of flourescent bulbs behind a grille above my face. There was silence from the other side, except for a steady bass hum which cycled in pitch. Laundry odors were quite strong, here, and I waited for thirty seconds before beginning the arduous task of bringing my hands up in front of me and pushing the grill up (it wasn't anchored) and out of the way, allowing me, by bending at the waist, to get most of my torso out of the tube and, finally, climb completely into the laundry room I had discovered. I lay there for a few moments, exhausted, before fear's coursing strength made me restore the grill and scuttle for a corner. Under a metal countertop with a sink in it (the floor was painted a dark reddish brown, and was a level of clean that spoke of high-pressure washes, flushed down my entry port) I pulled a pallet of soap powder between myself and the lights, and curled up involuntarily, my eyes closing as my body foreclosed on the energy debt I had paid maneuvering up the outflow tube.
I must have slept. Not for long; the machines were still humming patiently to themselves when I awoke, and my muscles, although stiffening, had not yet frozen up in response to the unyielding surface of the floor. I refrained from rubbing my eyes, rolled out from under the table, and by pressing my forearms on the pallet of soap levered myself up to my knees before looking around.
Totally ordinary laundry room. There were four machines lined up against the wall, two washers and two dryers. Judging from the flexible metal piping to the dryers, they used gas heat, which made sense in a building of this age. The sink counter was along an adjoining wall, opposite the door, and the third wall contained a storage cabinet along its length which looked to be of a size to hold hung clothing. There were a couple of chairs, some magazines sprawled across them with lurid faces staring emptily at the ceiling in off-colored tones.
The door was closed.
Shaking my head to clear the cobwebs which refused to settle into dust, I opened the cabinet. A couple of dozen uniform jumpsuits, as well as several door staff uniforms, stared back. I wrestled with guilt for perhaps five seconds, then appropriated the most nondescript and generic jumpsuit that fit my frame. I removed my clothes, bundling them into a package which I tucked under my arm. The Maglite fit neatly into a loop at my new belt; the Mace tucked into one of a myriad of pockets, velcroed shut. After some rummaging, I turned up a sweatshirt on the floor of the closet/cabinet which further detracted from the uniform nature of my outfit, a black pullover with hood. I pulled it over and opened the door quietly.
There was a dimly lit room beyond, with various forms of housekeeping equipment arrayed fairly neatly about several tables. One table was covered with bins, several containing clothes. Closer examination revealed apartment numbers on the bins, and I was turning back towards the exit when an empty bin labelled '9H' caught my eye. I thought about it for perhaps ten seconds, then dumped my clothing into the bin and checked the way out.
There was no door per se; a narrow hallway entered and crossed the room adjacent to one wall, exiting again on the other side. The door to the laundry was in a wall adjoining the hallway. I picked the exit opposite the laundry and made my way out. As buildings went, this one appeared fairly standard. There was a maze of high narrow passageways in the underground areas. Exploring this maze for several minutes brought me to a wide staircase with 'B1' stencilled on the wall in large characters.
I climbed. Slowly, but carefully, listening for any sign of company, I ascended to the ninth floor, and slowly and cautiously pressed the door release. I found myself in a well-lit corridor. Some few minutes of exploring led me to the door to apartment 9H. It was easier to identify than it might have been; a yellow police line (Do Not Cross - Crime Scene) was taped across it.
Too late, too late, too late. Somehow, I was too late again; she was already dead, and I sank heavily to the floor and stared at the door for several seconds before realizing how conspicuous I was out here. The door was unlocked; and I was able to wriggle between the strands of the door seal without dislodging any of them.
The apartment was dark, and I was unwilling to risk its own lights. The Maglite beam revealed a foyer remarkably free of furniture, with only a pair of end tables and one chair adorning an elegant space. An umbrella boot lurked near the door, a hall closet with narrow topcoat mirror occupying the space nearest the exit door.
I swiftly made my way about the apartment. It had obviously been searched by the police; fingerprint powder remained on several surfaces, and objects were placed randomly about the apartment; not strewn, but visibly several inches from where they were meant to be. The bedroom door was closed when I reached it, but a push swung it back. I stepped into the room, fighting a reflex desire to turn on the lights. The bed was central, and fairly high, with coverings in whites that matched the room. I swept my beam up from the base of the bed-
Ellyn's face in openeyed shock, blood flecked on her cheek, one hand up across her chest with the other ruined arm thrown back across her head, eyes staring into the pool of my flashlight beam
I think I may have screamed. I'm not sure. I do know I dropped the Maglite and stumbled from the room, falling over an armchair in the living room and ending up under the piano in whimpering terror. It took several seconds to realize that the glare in my eyes was not a policeman, not a spirit, not my doom, but merely a glow from the bedroom door where reflected light from my dropped flashlight was softly lighting the hallway.
Returning to the bedroom took more conscious self-control than I believe I had ever mustered before, including times I couldn't remember. I avoided looking at the bed while fumbling for the light, finally standing and drawing up my will before flicking the light across-
a mound of white pillows and white blankets, unoccupied-
and sitting down again in shock. The empty bed laughed silently as I slid to the floor with the relief of the moulding scraping my back in complex patterns, the hard parquet of the floor sending a shock up my spinal column. Discs slapping together, fluid sacs compressing, the spinal cord jangled, toes and heels starting in reflex response.
From this angle, I couldn't see the surface of the bed, merely the underside of the sleeping platform. There were drawers in this side of the base, two large ones about the size of dresser drawers. I began to wonder if Ihad screamed, and if that would be enough to bring the neighbors. Getting up, I staggered for the front door with my heart rate still high enough to induce dysfunction in fine motor control.
The front door was closed, locked, and looked quite solid. The building was old; I realized that even if I had screamed, unless it had been a full-on banshee screech it most likely would not have traveled outside the apartment. I turned to face the foyer once more, my hands clutched behind me about the door lock for reassurance. There were drapes on the windows; and in the living room at least, they appeared quite opaque. I drew them slowly and carefully, checking to make sure there were no open seams, then shut all doors into the living room and turned on the lights. They flicked on immediately, comfortable glow of incandescents in slightly ornate chandeliers and sidelight fixtures.
Something had been bothering me since I'd entered the apartment. Surveying the room, it became clear- the detritus of police activity. Fingerprint powder. Searched rooms. On closer look, two frames were present that were missing their photographs. It all seemed a bit much for an accident victim. Or, alternatively, I was missing something. Going to the kitchen, I drew a glass from the third cabinet I tried, filled it from the tap (originally from the watershed in northern New York state; legacy of some unknown farsighted bureaucrat, hero of New York City and bane of New York State who'd arranged the purchase of the canal and lake system in times past, Joyce-ian reflections on water tunnels One and Two, and the in my time soon-to-be Three...) and returned to the living room to sit in a most comfortable armchair while I rehydrated and thought.
As the glass touched my lips, I realized with a thrill of anticipation that this was, as far as I was able to remember, the first time I'd consumed food or drink in altertime. The water was cool and clear, with the faint taste of mineral, almost of glass, that New York water carries with it. A faint tang of crystal clarity through even the meanest faucet. No heavy overtone of metals; no chlorine aftertaste or odor, no bitterness of flouride. Just water wafting slightly of bedrock.
Apparently, then, the police weren't considering Ellyn an accident victim. Reconsidering, I rose, extinguished the lights, and settled back into the cushions of the chair, nearly-forgotted reflexes of civilization relaxing the muscles of my back and shoulders as the cushion accepted the load. I'd almost entirely forgotten...the simple luxury of a chair. My head touched cushion, forcing me to instantly vow not to sleep. In order to keep it, I thought as hard as possible.
Why wouldn't they classify her death an accident? Point one: the unknown tunnel dweller, or, alternatively, me, depending on how you saw the whole incident. I shivered involuntarily at the violation of causality, about which I appeared to have become quite blasé. So, if he/I was present when the current police showed up, perhaps they had classified it as murder, or at least violence (-screaming bloody murder, bloody murder, the fabric ripping as she fell to her knees-).
Point two (sip, hands shaking.) why would she be in the tunnels? I knew about losing the beret, but there's no reason they would. Perhaps they missed it? No, they couldn't have, they're thorough, especially in circumstances that strange. But, then, how did it wait patiently on the tracks all those years until I found it? Furthermore, would it be at all deducible that she wasn't wearing the beret when hit? How could they tell?
So, so far, plenty of reasons the police might decide to come toss the apartment looking for anything to help them understand what Ellyn Santano was doing underneath Park Avenue waiting for a train to help her on her way.
I was upset with myself for the somewhat flip manner which I had come to use when speculating about her death. I consoled myself that it was a defense mechanism, and soldiered on.
Looking about me, the only evidence of photos I could see were the two empty frames left by the police. I got up and began to wander about the room. As I walked I rolled the glass in my hand, warming it, feeling the molecules awaken and dance for me sleepily in the frozen fluid.
There were no other photos in evidence. Another glass, grey with fingerprint powder, rested on an end table. A footstool lay on its side, the bottom lining cut neatly and some stuffing drooping from the slit. Several square plastic shapes on a side counter, in front of a cabinet, which, I realized with a cold feeling in my stomach, were wrong. All wrong. Picking one up, I dropped the glass to hear it shatter against the floor, and jerked open the cabinet.
Several thousand dollars of Bang & Olufsen stereo equipment looked past me patiently, the circle of the compact disc player backlit in warm brownish cream with hard technics of red LEDs scattered through it. I staggered back, spun, and threw back the curtains.
Snow draped Park Avenue.
Quickly, I gathered up the glass shards and left them in a pile under the sink, after running some soapy water over them. The CD (Miles Davis) I wiped fastidiously with a paper towel moistened at the faucet, which I then ran over all surfaces I could remember touching. The doorknobs, the faucet, the cabinet pulls, the floor where I had sat...letting myself out, I closed the door as quietly as possible and moved blindly for the stairs. Swinging into the stairwell, I was half a flight down them when voices became apparent moving up towards me perhaps two floors below. Panicked, I ran silently upward, trading the burning protest in my lungs and the sudden cramped spasm in my arches for the silence which I achieved. I waited on the twelfth floor landing, and watched as the two right arms and hands that were visible down the stairway central well vanished at the ninth floor. Damn. Damn damn damn, they're going to notice instantly, and here I am...when I hard the stairwell door chunk home, I began to dash downward in nearly a controlled fall, trying to make as little sound as possible and sternly explaining to my lungs that if they wished to keep their highly successful position, they would damn well do what I told them to do.
Rounding the landing on Three. A quick stumble. ker-CHUNK from above; voices. Slowing to silent running, keeping to the outside of the stairwell. I can't be seen from above if I stay close to the wall. Listening as I run, hearing confused voices above; I can't tell, but the door slams home again, and I hear tentative footsteps. One person, looking for others in the stairwell. I could freeze, deny them the sounds, deny them the information, but I'm too far forward now, locked into the down. If I freeze now, my center of gravity goes forward right over my knees and I tumble.
Smoking sullen flash of my ankle turning under the conflicting orders of silence/turn left/go down/balance. I bite the pain, feel it coursing; tears leak hot from my eyes and I continue the run. The footsteps above haven't sped up; they are in fact steady and slow. Rounding the first floor landing the ker-CHUNK from above is the sweetest sound I've heard. The basement level beckons, both arms outstretched and fingers curling reflexively as it pulls me through the door. I let it shut oh so very slowly, and there is only a click as the latch slaps home.
The laundry room is dark; it takes little time to find the grill at the center of the floor's depression, to slide it away slowly. I ease down into the narrow damp space, my ankle protesting in its regulation Metro North track boot. I pull the grill back over my face, and begin to inch back down the tube. After a bit, I am crab walking, then I am able to turn and crawl; finally, running. The grill at the storm sewer is still there, still bent; I squeeze by it and stop, frozen in indecision. Where? Uptown? Downtown, more familiar; but it means passing my entrance point. The cold is biting, here, water lapping at my boots. I wish it could lap my ankle; the swelling is beginning now and my left boot is tight around the joint.
Downtown. No real choices, here; I make the best speed I am able in that direction, ignoring the manhole through which I'd descended perhaps a year (hour) earlier. The tunnel looms before me, silent but for the trickles; empty, but for the rivulet; dark but for my flashlight. Downtown waits, and I stagger towards its promise.
Poetic, that. Really, sounded fairly good, not at all like the muck-ridden reality of struggling ten blocks through a New York city storm sewer. Do you know what gets caught in those things? I do, now. I swear, half the 'missing persons' in New York are probably just shrike food on some underground obstruction in these things. No, I didn't see any bodies; not one, in fact. Just lots of places where one could easily be.
My survival humor is gone now. I try to conjure it, to sing demented songs, to recite poetry of a Seussish nature, but nothing comes, and I feel my lips pinched tight around the pain and the dark. The Maglite strikes obstructions harder than it would need to, and energy is wasted, brief hot sparks of red and heat in dogged obedience to the laws of thermodynamics. Water has splashed up my legs, but my new attire (the jumpsuit) appears to actually be fairly waterproof. That would make sense; mopping, cleaning, scrubbing and the like were its environs before. Now? Ah, with me, down below, Where The Wild Things Are. But the water is the same! The same molecule, pure in singularity. What's mixed in? At this point, down here, probably nothing worse than rock salt and occasional excreta. Roughly the same as any beachfront comber. Just colder.
It stays cold.
Ten blocks later, as mentioned, I venture to the side of the sewer to lean in exhausted recharge. I don't want to stretch my newfound waterproof luck by sitting, so I lean against the passage's corrugated wall, with as much weight as I'm able on my right leg. The left is throbbing gently with my pulse now, and I know I need to get off it. Struggling upright, continuing on. Nothing else left. Scarcely a block later, a hole opens in the right side of the tunnel, which has, by the speed of the water, been descending at a fairly respectable ratio. The hole is unobstructed, large enough to admit me if I stoop, and is breathing warm air with a steel and musty smell into the sewer. I know that smell. Grinning once, briefly, and (I hope) savagely, I head into the passage.
Not fifteen feet later, there is a tearing continuous rumble from ahead, and I slow, careful not to trip. The passage turns one corner, then slopes up at perhaps a thirty degree angle for perhaps ten feet. Groaning involuntarily at the thought of the climb, I rest for a moment before tackling the ascent. It takes perhaps five minutes, during which time I do my best to ensure that my foot isn't going to fall off, much as it feels like it wants to.
There is familiar flickering in front of me, and the tunnel floor levels off to deposit me in a dark place with flickering lights of windows before me as the Metro-North rushes past. I watch, hypnotized, as the lights flash by me, and when the darkness flasss again I stumble forward slightly, released from the vision. The train's red baleful stare disappears around unseen pillars, and I slowly sink down to feel the oiled gravel and shale, to run a hand along the mirror-smooth surface of one running rail. Home. Home is where the heart is, they say; in this case, it appears that they're wrong; home is where the start is. The start of it all, in the tunnels. Actually, perhaps the start is on a bench, but it's almost irrelevant now. The trains own me; I know them. Their schedule, their nature, their sounds, their appetites. I can tell when they're hungry; I can tell when they're sated. Walking downtown, the hot flashes of pain are an annoyance, but reaching the bolthole erases those hatch marks from the board with no more effort than rumor.
<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->