I couldn’t find a home for this story, but enjoyed working on it. Enjoy!
It was raining outside, the new kind of rain happening ever since they came and broke the sky, the kind we were warned against being out in. My tea was steaming and I clicked the recorder on, sitting at the kitchenette table in my apartment in the dark.
The maps are useless by now.
A lot of people do still ride subways regularly, myself included, but it’s not the same. You can still try it, but not only did a lot of the tunnels flood and collapse, but the fare’s…it’s not like money, get it?
You know, something happens to you. Or someone you know. Or to something you do. Me? I can’t, well, I can’t play anymore. I used to like, play music right? This sorta post-minimalist folk, just a little guitar, some synth stuff I could do on the computer, throw it up online. I had maybe a hundred downloads? Nothing crazy, but these days, sorta how I’d take the edge off, throw it up online and get a tiny following, nothing crazy. Anyway.
Right, post-scarcity and all, we have the time for stuff like that. Mostly I nanny for families with money, the ones who rode most of it out on Long Island and owned half of Brooklyn. Whatever, I like it and it pays and I get to each their food. Anyway, I had to start trying to make it out of Brooklyn and into Manhattan regularly, and the bodega guy told me the subway still works, right?
It doesn’t matter why I had to, I just DID, right?
The ways that hands can show you something about a subject are subtle but they were consistent in their movement, and the non-blinking was starting to show about a half-hour into our first meeting, there in the coffee shop-slash-breakfast spot now built into the remnants of a clothing store. The mannequins were still up and half-dressed, some half-destroyed and on the floor from what was probably a wave of looting back when…they…first showed up in the sky and battled and fell to earth. All that’s left on the mannequins the place has incorporated into the décor, which are now bolted to the tiled floor, are weird hats and too-thin blouses that make no sense, nevermind being a few decades behind fashion-wise.
I’d found this contact after a few weeks of digging around, asking questions, begging for favors and oddly, trading a toolbox to a fixer who claimed he was leaving land to join some new colony that was being assembled around an old offshore oil rig in the Pacific. It was small, but with the way that the skies felt and looked ever since they came and broke everything, more and more people were unsure of the land, of the ground beneath their feet. There’d already been rumors of herds of strange things that roamed the plains and forests in the Midwest, in the wilds that were growing up around the highways and freeways between cities.
Me? I was happy here, secure and comfortable for the most part, where we were less hiding in fear from the changes they brought and more learning to live with them. New Yorkers always were resilient like that.
The tape continued playing and I started taking notes. Anyway I can’t anymore, the energy for it, the spark for it, it’s like gone right? And not in a way where like I literally can’t look at a guitar or whatever, but like, it’s just not right. It’s not RIGHT she repeats and hands still enough to bang the tabletop.
It’s like, not on-Euclidean but more like, nonlinear and non-temporal? It’d been like this since they showed up and changed the sky, feel to the ground and changed it underneath us, right? The subway has become like, you know? It’s the blood vessels to the city? There’s a few fixed points, spots you always know you can get a train or at least find a platform where someone’s willing to help ya, but until you do it that first time, you just, you gotta take that risk and the plunge so you can Know, you know?
Some people thought that the big hologram ads on top of buildings kept them away, some thought they drew them in, so of course they were constant targets and scenes of micro-pitched battles between religious groups, roof-hugging hobo cults, and corporate security armed with rubber bullets and portable sonics.
I don’t play anymore. I can’t, the like, the mechanic isn’t there? No, more like the endorphin or Dopamine release when I hold the guitar isn’t even there, more like. That’s what it costs me to ride the subway, to Know.
To Know. The emphasis she’d put on that last word, I could almost tell that she meant for me to capitalize it. To Know, as opposed to know. What did I need to Know about the world, about the subway tunnels ever since they came and changed the very essence of the world, the fabric of the flesh that was the monster of the earth beneath us?
I knew what had happened when the survey men first tried to go into the subways after their remains had seeped into the oceans and earth from the first falls, titan bones, broken teeth, tentacles and limbs like mountain ridges changing the way we looked from space. We all “knew” in as much as humans could know when information was sparse, fourth-hand, and always ending badly. Tunnels full of brown water and black light and the dust that fell from giants, dust that was like a fog to insignificant insects like us. Underground wasn’t the first part of the planet to change when the new gods had come, but it was, some were arguing, the most changed.
While our planet’s surface, the cities and roads and forests and deserts, were broken and shifted by falling titanic corpses and footfalls, the underneath was changed differently. I remembered a coworker, a younger kid, telling us of how before he and his dad had made it to the city, coming across fissures that leaked light, light solidifying into fully-formed trees with vivid red and yellow leaves. We’d found out people called them smoke forests and that they were some kind of semi-sentient, ethereal Venus Fly Trap, snapping shut into a fog that sucked anything solid within its radius back into the fissure in a scream of sucked-in air and light. Someone posted a video of smoke forests catching a stray dog online and it was horrific to watch. I couldn’t watch, I hate watching things like that about animals.
In urban areas, the big still-standing cities, it was different but the same, in a way. The light columns were the first to come and the easiest to avoid, the green light columns that appear out of nowhere, and if you try to walk through it, sucking you up into the sky like some sort of magnet, up screaming in an instant. They come and go, most people avoid them. Still, you get drunks once in a while not noticing them at night, caught up in what we thought was maybe how they feed themselves? Like, a trap for food, an elevator right up into that broken sky for them. Stuff like that.
Something still runs the subways in New York City, but no one knows how. Empty trains move along stops that shouldn’t be there and through tunnels that can’t exist. I’ve heard of a whole open market that exists on a lower set of platforms at times square. The elevated platforms and train tracks in queens are constantly shrouded in fog.
If you need to go and know where you want to go and know where a station might be, you can pay the toll at the gate, an altar of sorts of metro cards and cell phone boxes and stones, you can risk it.
Or you can pay a toll ta really Know, to be able to really ride.
Those who do though, those who Pay For It to Know, heart they pay is permanent and deep. And it keeps drawing you down underground more and more, over and over. I clicked the recorder off. Two days later the source is gone, not answering her phone and someone tells me they saw her go down a subway station entrance.
Until you only ride. Until you never come back above ground, like you’re a new part of the new veins of our new changes word, the new market and economy of semi-permanent subway riders and hustlers and homeless men paid to act as mobile hotspot and wifi broadcasters in the shadows of above ground. When I first started looking into this, a source told me they’d met someone who ended up not seeing the sun for almost three years. Not that there’s too much to see since they broke the sky, but still, the human instinct for the openness above us is hard to shake off. How much of an allure could this new weird underground have, really? I mean, we were so far from understanding anything about what had happened to the world when the sky broke and they came, and barely learning to get by and adapt to it all. To give it all up and let that weird new order swallow you up? It was one of the things my paper was trying to do, what most publications these days were trying, filing report after report of what we could learn about this new world. We got most of what we needed to work and to keep the wifi going from the big supermarket chain that had stayed going, and we’d put the physical copies in their stores, slowly building up a little territory we tried to keep in the loop when it came to serving, moving around, getting by. We weren’t like the big websites, the big circulars that kept up some semblance of dumb news and entertainment writing lists and fake-news puff pieces, but we got by.
The subway piece was big, me and three other people had been working on it after hearing the rumors of the trains somehow working and about the underground markets. After years of no subways, after the horrific things we’d heard about the first responders and the military and cops dying down there at the hands and mouths of things no one could describe? We jumped at the chance.
I left instructions and whatever I could put together into some kind of map and itinerary with my boss and partner, all the “active” station entrances that were somehow fixed I’d gotten from that poor girl. I threw some stuff into a backpack, I swept my hair back into a ponytail, found the most humdrum comfortable outfit I could, and took a deep breath. The cat in the hallway, one I shared with my across-the-hall neighbor, looked at me from his makeshift bed, and I knelt down to scratch him softly behind the ears. Cats probably were having the easiest time since the skies changed, more and more people kept them as pets because they seemed to be able to sense when things were OK.
The station was pretty close to my apartment, one of those fixed places, a fixed point. Funny thing was, I thought as I walked around the block in the early morning light, the remnants of Chelsea around me slowly coming to life, I’d never seen it before. How could I have not noticed it? I’d lived in this neighborhood forever.
I took a deep breath, stepping off the curb to cross the street towards it, expecting something to happen, a shimmer in the air or a breath of the space around me, like somehow it wasn’t totally real, a trick of light that the new light in the new air played, thanks to the broken sky above me. But no, it was there still, and the inches closing between me and it made more and more sense, clicking things in my mind that I’d buried.
Or you can pay a toll ta really Know, to be able to really ride.
Her words filled my head as I stood at the top of those stairs down. I could hear some noise down there, people talking, a low hum like a large group, maybe one of those underground platform town square markets, living forever under unnatural neon lights that never really went out. I took a step down onto one step, feeling, suddenly, the full weight of it all on me, a sudden rush to keep going. To keep going down those stairs, one step at a time and feel myself become warm and comfortable, enveloped in some kind of blanket of shift in culture, in world, fitting in where I didn’t know I needed to go, belonging somewhere I didn’t know I belonged.
I stopped, on that first step down, one foot raised to come down to the second.
A step back, unsure now. I needed to know, we’d been trying so hard to find out for sure how it all worked, I…I needed to know, needed to see it through to find a way.
It was louder now, the voice was more like a stereo right by my ear that had suddenly jumped up in volume, like when a song on your MP3 player is at a higher volume naturally than the track before, old 90’s jams followed by slickly-produced modern tracks right off the digital mixing board. I stepped back again, back onto the sidewalk, staggering backwards, I tripped over something, falling back onto my ass and pack, it wasn’t right. This didn’t seem right, all of a sudden it didn’t seem right, the flight-or-fight mode fully going off in my brain, that oldest of the old instincts, one of the ones that recognized the dangerous things that were now all around us. I got up and brushed myself off, and I spit on the sidewalk, looking back at the stairs down to the subway, the sudden shock of having gotten away from something, like a weird Venus flytrap swaying in my vision making me gag and feel sick, and I realized I hadn’t eaten all day so far.
What was I doing? Why would I come here alone? I turned around and ran, ran back towards my place and threw the door closed, the sigil-scratched charms nailed on the inside rattling on their wires as I threw the windows closed and lay on the floor, starting to shake and cry, shake and cry and heave, slowly feeling my brain and body come back to me.