The subway is pretty packed. Not standing-room-only-body-to-body-I-exhale-y
Then someone starts crying. It's this middle aged guy, across the way, and a few seats over. He's there in a nice suit, an expnesive briefcase at his foot, and sobbing. And it spreads. The guy next to him gets the sniffles, and starts dabbing at his eyes with his tie. Then a little girl, who looks lost without her mother.
The rest of us look around now, looking at them, looking at each other, the unasked question: "Is there something we should know?" Another person starts crying.
The lights flicker as the train switches power grids. During that instant of changeover, where the flourescent lights go out, come on, go out, come on, only to go out for a split second longer, everything takes on an unearthly feel. Grotesque even. That lost little girl looks crushed, not emotionally, but physically. The guy in the suit has a gaping hole in his head.
But when the lights come on, it was only a trick. Everything's fine, except a few more people are crying. Now I'm starting to get confused. Did someone else see stuff in the dark? IS that why they're crying now?
I stand up, this is rapidly becoming "not my scene." I throw open the door at the rear of the car, and with a huff, move into the next one. Everyone looks up at the door as I enter. They seem surprised to see me. No one's crying in here, but they're all sitting down, wild eyed. The looks on their faces creep me out, but that's okay, because I can feel the train slowing down. I'll just get off on the next stop. That's all.
I'm out the door like a shot, leaving them behind. I look back, and see that they've gotten off too. Not following me, just getting off, as if this is the stop they were waiting for. In fact, alot of people are getting off. They start crowding for the stairs up to the concourse. Everyone seems to be moving slowly, as if they've got all the time in the world.
I don't. I'm on my way to meet some people, do some business. I put my arms together like a plow, and start forcing my way through, pushing people to the side. I excuse myself, and to my surprise, no one says a word. I push past that first guy that was crying, and he just looks at me, not angry, but surprised- no, awed. He's awed.
Somehow, despite the crowd, I'm in the first few people up to the concourse. I haven't seen this station before. It's got a high valuted cieling, like Grand Central, and it's almost as big a concourse too. The cieling is done in tiles, and it's this strange scene. Hard to get the details, but it looks like some lovers in a gondola or something, being pushed downstream by a poleman. Everywhere else, it's brass and marble.
There are alot of people in here, just milling around, aimlessly. They look at train schedules, check their watches, and then wander away, maybe to the bathroom, maybe to the newsstand, but no one seems to have any goal.
Except this one guy. He's tall, and dark skinned, wearing a perfectly tailored suit. Sunglasses. The works. Doesn't look like mafia, but has the same sort of feel, same mediterranian cast to his features. Maybe a little arabic. His face is birdlike, with a long nose. He's just standing there, leaning against the clock in the center of the concourse, but he's got purpose. He means to be there. He's waiting for something.
And he looks at me.
And he looks away.
I walk over to the newstand, throw down some change, and get a candy bar. I don't even look at what kind it is when I buy it, I just need to do something, to have some kind of purpose. When I bite into it, I realize that it's some nougat-chocolate thing. I hate nougat. I dump the wrapper in the rubbish bin, and examine the station again. There's no name, no street number, no identification anywhere.
I ask someone where I am, but they just walk on by, as if I hadn't asked. I try it a few more times, with the same result. But the bird-like guy is watching me. So fine, he seems to be interested in me, maybe he won't ignore me. So I ask him.
"In a subway station. These places are curious really, aren't they? Tunnels, hewn through the earth, and no one really knows all the paths? Why, you walk down the wrong tunnel, you could end up lost forever. Like a labyrinth. This entire underground world, underworld really."
I'm not in the mood for philosophy, and I say so.
"This place, it is a way station. Travellers get off thier trains, before proceeding to another destination. True of every subway palace that was ever built. No one stays here, no one lingers, or at least they shouldn't. Look around though, and what do you see? That couple there? They've been standing there for three months, waiting for their train to come."
This is starting to get a little wierd.
"That man, there. He has been on that bench for three years, reading the same news paper the entire time. Tell me, why would all these people be so hesitant to move on to their next destination?"
I shake my head and move to turn away, but his gaze nails my feet to the floor. I'm not really sure, I always like to get to the next place I'm going. And I've got a place to be, so I'll get going now.
"You're not much better."
"Hell, at least some of them admit to reality. You're still trying to get to a meeting. You are never going to make it to that meeting."
Is that a threat?
"No one is threatening you. It's a little late for that. Mister, you are dead."
Sounds like a threat to me.
"Look at the mosaic."
I look up. I can see it more clearly now, it's two people, pallid, corpselike in a black boat, on a dark river, and the polesman is this bird-headed man.
"I like you, and I'm determined to see one person across the river today. That's why I'm telling you this. You are dead. I don't know why, don't care how, but you are dead. The train you stepped off of was your passage to the Underworld. Now, you've got two choices. You can sit here, in limbo, like these loosers, or, you can get on the next train."
What the hell crazy shit is this? I'm supposed to buy this crap?
"Why do you think people suddenly started crying on the train? It's because they knew! Deep down, in the pit of their stomachs, they knew what was going on, they knew that there was nothing more for them, no more days in the sun, no more sweet kisses, or loves, or hates, or anything. That's why they were crying. Even if they couldn't admit it, that is why."
He's starting to get louder, more vehement, but nobody seems to notice. It's as if he and I are alone in the world.
"You won't even go that far. You're so stuck here, waiting for the train that will take you to your meeting. Let me tell you, only one line runs through here, and this line goes deeper down, to where your soul gets weighed. Where the decision is made. And that line only runs in one direction."
I still don't believe it, but he's making a strange kind of sense. What if someone trys to cheat this, walk back up the tracks? Sneak out the doors?
"The doors lead into other parts of the station, there's no street on the outside. As for wandering in the tracks? People have tried. It's not pretty really, they get lost. Without my protection, without the protection of my train, they get no where. Think about what lurks in normal subway tunnels? Think about the fact that these tunnels are the labyrinth to the underworld, the land of the dead. What do you think lurks in these tunnels?"
That's when I see it. Her. It. Fuck, I don't know. You know that girl in high school? The one that the most of the guys and some of the girls want, and the rest want to be? I see her walking around, gnoshing on some pile of steam from the little chinese place down on the opposite end of the concourse.
And then I know what's real.
Because she died five years ago, on a heroin overdose. I was at the funeral. It was kinda nice actually, it was her first time. Some scurv boyfriend whose dealer sold him a hotshot tried to get her into it. The killing dose meant for him hit her, right on her first try. It was nice, because she was still beautiful afterwards, without that long slide into decay that gets most junkies.
And she's here.
And what do I do? I don't cry, I don't think. I just go numb. He's right. I'm dead, and I've got a handful of choices. I stand there a moment and force myself to think. Even though everyone else gets lost, I might make it through. I could brave the tunnels. I could stay here and waste eternity doing nothing from fear, or I could ride the train to my eventual- and eternal destination.
Then I realize that I am crying. The bird-like man now looks like the birdman in the painting, the fabulously long beak of the Ibis pointing at me. He's still got the suit on.
I hear the station announcer call out for my train.
I look at the bird, and I look across the concourse towards the opening that leads to the platform. Whether I take the tunnels or the train, I've gotta go that way anyway. One thing is for certain I am not staying here.
I don't know what path I'm going to take, but I do know I'm taking a path. I will not, cannot wallow in the same vain obscurity that everyone else in here does. Not alive, not dead.
I look at "that girl", and study her face. I can see the the birdman shake his head. I was, just for a moment, thinking that maybe I could take her with me. But to where? And why?
Besides, she couldn't admit it to herself.
I walk towards the platform, turning my back on her, and on all the half-dead, who are more dead for their trouble.