The sky over Manhattan’s 5th Avenue laid out a clear timeline. From under the hood of her jacket, Kim looked up to see a gradient of white fading into a wall of shadow bearing down on the Financial District. There, water vapor turned cumulonimbus had begun to dump its payload. A vast curtain of rain would envelope the city. Time was short.
Matt took in the more immediate surroundings. Trees dotting the sidewalk bent with the wind. Traffic lights hung above the street bobbed like buoys out at sea. Folk in the street were gunning for any bus or cab leaving town.
Matt motioned for Kim to follow him from an alcove where they had sought shelter.
Splash splash splash went their feet as they made their way over to a subway station marked by green railings. A stairwell plumbed down from the sidewalk. In his bulky, navy-blue parka, Matt struck an imposing form. From head to toe he cast a shape bold enough to brave rain, sleet or shine. Slung on his shoulder was a large duffel bag. Kim trotted behind him. A foot shorter than Matt, she was no less deterred. Her yellow boots were a welcome slice of sunshine in a world turning grayer by the minute.
Matt lifted the yellow tape reading “DO NOT CROSS”. Kim ducked under it, as did he. They were met with an iron barred gate locked into position at the bottom of the stairwell. Matt produced from his pocket a set of keys, singling out a smaller one from the pack.
After a bit of fidgeting… ka-chunk.
He opened the door and ushered his sister inside. He was right behind her, closing the door. The two took a left, descending another brief stairwell before reaching a lobby of turnstiles and ticket booths.
The air was cold. Dry. And still. The station, one big hub of commotion no more than twenty-four hours ago, had been brought to its knees by Mother Nature. Nothing but the hum and buzz of yellow service lights was left. Where their glow didn’t reach, creeping shadow filled the void from every corner. And there was the drip drip drip of water leaking from above.
With a running start, Matt hurdled over a turnstile. Kim walked up and lifted her leg over, struggled for a moment with the right. Matt held out a hand to help. She ignored it and followed through on her own.
Both were now on the platform. Its studded yellow boundaries stretched off to both sides. Across from them was a sister platform running parallel. A river of rails and concrete support beams filled the gap.
“You did bring flashlights. Right?”
A beam of light projected from Matt’s hand answered Kim. He gave her a second flashlight from the duffel bag. From her hands, a much brighter beam shot into Matt’s face.
“Jesus!” Matt yelled. “You trying to blind me?!”
“Give me that!” Matt wrenched the light from her hands. “It doesn’t need to be so bright. There’s a dial. See? There. Better.”
Matt zipped close the bag with an audible clinking of odds and ends heard from inside.
“What else did you bring?”
“Rope, rubber gloves, a first aid-kit, dry clothes and flares.”
“And you’re certain there’s no current? With the third rail?”
“No. When they anticipate anything like a flood they gotta shut everything down. Third rail included.”
“Should we have locked that gate? Did we leave it open?”
Matt shrugged. “I don’t know. Wouldn’t worry about it.”
“What about… What if somebody sees us?”
“No one’s down there. Every MTA guy’s run for the hills. Cept’ me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes!” Matt raised his voice in frustration. “And if Gavin knew how to be a decent brother, we would have too. But no. He’d rather be fucking off like some mole person. Not one text in two weeks. Not one. Can you believe that kid?”
Kim then raised her eyebrows in sudden realization.
“He might not even know about Sandy.”
“Exactly.” Matt replied. “Which is why we’ve got to fish him out.”
Matt turned for the right-hand side of the platform.
“Alright. Follow me.” Matt walked ahead with Kim in tow. “We’re going down onto the track. There’s a ladder at the end of the platform. Then it’s a straight shot to the mural. We walk the track for about five minutes. Then, there’s that station I was talking to you about. The one they shut down. Gavin’s set up in a room near there.”
Sure enough, a ladder was present. Matt climbed down to the track. His eye line was level with Kim’s feet.
“You might want to tuck your pant legs into your socks by the way.”
“Why would I do that?”
The answer to her question came in the form of small squeaking sounds. Her flashlight shot to the source down below. Four small rats, oily and slick, were waddling alongside the track.
“OH MY GOD.”
“Kim!” Matt gave her an aggressive shushing. “It’s the subway. What’d you expect? It’s fine!”
“It is not FINE. You’ve got me crawling down in the subway with RATS! I don’t fuck with rats, dude!”
“Chill! Just tuck your pant legs!”
“What’s that gonna do?!”
“It’s so rats don’t go crawling up-“
“Oh, HELL NO. Nuh-uh. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I’m sorry. I have to go back.”
Kim’s nerves were on full display as evidenced by the beam of her shaking flashlight. Matt lowered his voice and spoke slowly. “Please stay. Please. I’m responsible for you. And for Gavin. So I need you to come with me.”
“Wha- I’m responsible for me! Me! No one else! I’m only four years younger than you by the way. How do you find the balls to try and to pull me into this any more than you have?”
“Kim. Listen. I need you here with me.”
“Gavin’s a big kid. He’ll be fine. I’m leaving.”
“Kim! Listen to me!”
“We should’ve just called the cops. We should have just gotten out of this shithole while we could. I could be getting blackout drunk off wine at the dorms. Not slumming it with you and a bunch of rats.”
“You really think that’s a good use of your time? Getting wasted up at Purchase while everyone down here’s trying to find shelter?”
“Fuck. YOU. Everyone handles crises in their own way! What? What could I have done, Matt? I’m in graphic design. Am I gonna make pamphlets? Am I gonna hand out blankets? Am I gonna drop out, give up and work the MTA like you?”
“Matt, I… Shit. That was super mean. I’m sorry.”
“Whatever. Go back if you want. I don’t care.”
“Look, I just think you’re asking a lot of me right now. Ok? I don’t have nerves of steel like you to go spelunking in, like, the greasiest place on the whole planet.”
“Fine. I get that. Like I said, go back if you want. No hard feelings. But we haven’t heard from Gavin in weeks. I haven’t seen him at all in that time. Think about that for a second.”
Kim was silent. The squeaking and scratching of rats continued. More appeared out of the darkness. And then a few more. All were crawling away from the tunnel before them. Kim noticed how they kept to what space wasn’t inundated with water. Water. She saw how it bled from the ceiling at unseen entry points. Pooling. Collecting.
“I might need help… getting him out of here. He might not be in any condition to…” Matt’s voice trailed off into silence. He collected himself. “Point is, we can’t leave him down here. Because after the storm rolls through we might not find him ever again.”
Drip drip drip filled the silence.
“You think he’s…” Kim’s voice cracked. Her brother responded with a deep sigh.
“I just want to find him, Kim. We can’t leave him down here. He deserves better.”
Matt proceeded to walk away. Shadow began enveloping him. With every footfall a splash of water was heard.
Kim stood there looking down at her feet. She then looked back up to see Matt continue, with or without her. He grew smaller. Pretty soon he’d disappear. A family of several more rodents skittered by.
“God damnit, Gavin…” She whispered to herself. “Wait!”
She bent down to tuck both pant legs into her socks. She then sat on the platform for one… two… three seconds before summoning the courage to leap onto the track. Rats skittered from her landing. Chills ran up her spine.
Kim trotted after Matt to catch up.
Matt gave her a passing glance over his shoulder as he continued to cut a swath into the darkness by way of his flashlight.
The two went further into the bowels of New York’s arterial transit system. The sounds of their every step filled the silence. Splash splash splash they went. Their light was reflected by the stillness of pools numbering in the hundreds along the rails. Brown and grey backwash from the surface world. Those lanterns held aloft helped pave the way, revealing the ugly innards of New York infrastructure. Rusty and tarnished metalwork. Cloudy shades of grey concrete. A scrambled soup of graffiti tags.
For the next five minutes, nothing but splash splash splash into the darkness. And the occasional skittering and squeaking of their little friends.
Kim’s beam of light then illuminated the upper corners of the cavern. “Matt. Look.”
The two stopped to study rivulets of water creeping into the tunnel. The rush of water pouring through some grate hidden beyond sight could be heard as well.
“Storm must be picking up.” Matt replied.
Kim’s ears picked up something else.
Splash splash splash
Footsteps behind them. Back where they’d come from. Kim stiffened.
Splash splash splash
She turned to train her flashlight on the source. She slowly tilted the beam up to follow the tracks back from where they came.
Her light was reflected back. By two eyes.
Kim inhaled a sudden gasp out of fear. She reached out to Matt and frantically tugged at his parka. The eyes disappeared.
“What?” Matt asked
“There’s something behind us.” Kim whispered with a shaking voice.
Gavin looked down the track himself. No eyes staring back. Just gray support beams bracing the walls about every ten feet.
“Gavin?” He called out. Just the echo of his voice responded as it carried down the tracks. And the drip drip drip of water. After a couple more seconds of silence, Gavin let out a gust of air in relief.
“Goddamn, Kim. You scared the shit out of me.”
“But. There was…” Kim croaked in a hushed tone. She looked back again. Nothing.
“It was a rat, Kim.” Matt faced forward again. His light illuminated another platform waiting in the shadows no more than fifty feet away. “That’s our destination.”
The two approached, with Kim hot on Matt’s heels. He climbed up the platform’s ladder. Kim next. Up top, she gave another glance back into the tunnel. Nothing. She turned back towards the station to get a sense of where they were. Her breathing slowed and her nerves steadied.
A change of scenery revealed itself.
It was another world. Another age. Overhead, vaulted ceilings gave much-needed breathing room to the tightly confined subway system. They arched over both track and platform and consisted of interlocking terracotta tiling, shining with a luster not yet dimmed by time. The walls were inlaid with glass mosaics stretching down the length of the platform. They depicted vivid shapes and colors of wildflowers grown from sprawling ivy. The evergreen served as framing for several compositions of anecdotes borne from the Classical Age. Lavish feasts. Feats of strength. Warring city states. Libidinous gods and goddesses. Between each mosaic, marble columns carved with the relief of slender, art-deco inspired lattice work, bore the station’s weight.
The modern world could still be seen. Graffiti tags and articles of trash were scattered about. But they were few and far between.
“Where are we?” Kim’s eyes went wide. The breath was stolen from her lungs in awe of being transported to a world forgotten.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Matt replied. “This station got shut down in the fifties’ cause’ they extended the platforms North and South of here. To compensate for all the commuters. That made this one obsolete.”
Kim walked up to one mosaic and placed a hand onto its surface. The glass felt cold and smooth to the touch of her fingertips.
“Makes you wonder why we don’t put in the effort anymore.”
“C’mon. Follow me. I’ll show you what he’s been up to.” Matt cocked his head in the direction of a hallway positioned at the station’s midway point. “And maybe he’ll give us a tour. Right Gavin?”
Matt’s question echoed throughout the station, lingering in the air. No response.
The theme of the station continued as they made their way further inward no more than a few dozen feet. A square entry point to another room appeared before them. It receded to reveal a room standing at thirty feet high and thirty feet across. In lieu of windows, they were left with only their imaginations for what the purpose the room could have provided. While deprived of mosaics like those back at the platform, it was still a work of art in its construction. Off to both right and left, two more hallways branched off to unseen destinations.
Scaffolding was placed against the far wall across from them. Its skeletal framework spanned the width of the room and stood no higher than a dozen feet. The twin beams of their lights then illuminated the canvas itself. Directly before them was a mural filling the entire wall. Kim saw, rendered with spray paint, an overhead view of two dozen, equi-distant rats. All faced away from one another yet were all strung together. At the center was a tangled nest of tails, all woven together in a chaotic fashion. Each rodent was a different color and arranged to make a tri color gradient. Beginning at the twelve o’ clock position was a rat of red, fading into a green one at four, to a blue one at eight, then back to red.
Kim’s jaw hung open. On her face a look of both disgust and fascination.
“I know, right? Shit’s tight!” Matt replied.
“Why why why is he living down here?” Kim whispered to herself.
“How should I know? You know him… He’s always been… weird. What I don’t get is why he can’t just, ya know, put it on display above ground where people can, I don’t know, see it?”
Kim closed her eyes and shook her head while pinching the bridge of her nose. She let out a deep sigh. “Well… Maybe he needs to prove something to himself. I guess.”
“But what’s there to prove when there’s no one else to judge?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he wanted to get a real honest look at what he’s capable of. In a controlled setting. Where no-one can corrupt the whole experience. Something pure. Something only those willing enough could get close to. Something… like this.”
“That’s dumb,” said Matt.
“Well, I’ve seen his work. I’m the one who’s been bringing him paint, food and water. It looks fine to me. Not to mention it’s huge. I mean, all that work just for an audience of me?”
“Yeah, but you’re a total Left Brain type of personality. You’re all nuts and bolts. He’s wishy washy. He’s got his head in the clouds.”
“What, so I don’t count?”
“I didn’t say that. You count.” Kim motioned to the painting. “What do you think of it?”
“Ok… Use your words. Try to be a little more descriptive. What does it make you feel?”
“What? I just did. It’s good! It feels good to look at. I like how rat-looking the rats are.”
Kim rolled her eyes. She then paused for a moment. Her eyes were fixed on something. She shone the beam of her flashlight in that direction.
“There’s a note. There. Attached to the scaffolding. See?”
Kim made a beeline for a piece of folded up paper wedged into one of the joints. On its face were hand-written words reading: “For Matt.”
Kim took it and began reading.
“It says ‘For Matt…’ ”
Kim shushed her brother. Her eyes darted from right to left, traveling down a hastily scribbled hand-written paragraph.
“This… This doesn’t make any sense. What does he mean by…” Kim furrowed her brow with a look of concern.
“Here.” She then handed the paper over to Matt.
Matt. This is Gavin. If you’re reading this, I’ve already left. I’m just about finished. But I can’t stay any longer. There’s someone else. I don’t know their name. They’re not too chatty. I think they’ve lived down here for a while from the look of them. Their whole life probably. They stink like it. They threatened to kill me if I didn’t leave. They’re not too keen on outsiders setting up shop here like I have. They’re protective of this place. Territorial. I don’t even know how I managed to make it this far without them interfering. They’re pretty vocal about ‘how little patience’ they got left. You’ll know them by that thing on their head.
Do. Not. Approach. Just get out.
It can’t be a coincidence. I finished it. And then he appeared. I can’t explain it. But you have to leave now. I’ll be waiting around near the-