SHORT STORY BY JIM MUNROE
All I was in for, originally, was the Lost Subway Station. That I wanted to see. It appealed to me as a kind of urban Atlantis, disappearing beneath our consciousness and leaving a dizzying swirl of rumour and mystery in its wake. Well, that’s a little romantic, but how many hard headed rationalists would be tromping through a grimy tunnel in the wee hours of the morning?
“All I hope is that they don’t turn off the lights after it closes,” Kevin grumbled. He was mad we had waited till the trains stopped. I had hunkered down in the alcove beside the tracks and refused to move until the 1:10am train had passed. It didn’t make sense to risk getting smushed since it was just a case of waiting for a half an hour.
Not that any of this made sense, but I had the tendency to temper my irrational acts with careful logic. It bugged the hell out of Kevin.
“Watch out for the third rail,” I said, to razz him. In my best teacherly voice, I elucidated: “The Third Rail provides electricity that allows the subway to run — but it delivers quite a zap.”
Kevin snorted in the darkness. “Hey, you remember that bird that was always getting zapped to hell off some powerline or some shit?”
“The bird, man, in the educational commercials — OK, here it is.”
We had come to a part of the tunnel where we could see the southbound track between the mammoth supports. A change in the light that I at first processed as a visual mistake, suddenly coalesced into headlights. My body seemed intent at forcing as much blood through my heart as was physically possible.
Kevin threw himself against the wall, the light-dark whipping across his body, and I swear I saw him grin. A train passed on the far track with unnatural shortness. “Garbage train,” Kevin said.
“What are you smiling for,” I said, breathless and dizzy and light-headed. “You-fucking-maniac?”
“I wasn’t smiling,” he said, smiling. He stepped down onto the space between the supports and hopped down onto the other side.
I followed, and found myself on a parallel set of tracks, Ahead of us, unlike the level tracks to the right and left, they dipped downwards. “Wow,” I mouthed.
The tunnel, if anything, was just as grimy if not more grimy than the others. More a dust-grime than a grease-grime. The spaces between the concrete supports grew further and further apart as we moved on and down. Another garbage train passed by, this time on the tracks we had just left. I shot Kevin a dark look.
“No accounting for danger, eh, Mr. Safety?” he said lightly. “True adventurers — seekers — can’t avoid it.” Then, almost as a peace offering, he added, “The third rail’s live here, too, so watch it.”
We were once again in an enclosed tunnel, lit by a chain of lights along the wall. Every so often there was a door marked with a name so bureaucratic that it may as well have been Sanskrit: East Holdings Vestibule.
I started to see graffiti along the walls, not your sophisticated hiphop pieces but more your rocker scrawls: Motorhead, Iron Maiden, and the like. It deflated me a little bit — we weren’t exactly the first ones through here — but it also made me feel a little safer that we were walking along a beaten path.
My feeling of safety dissipated a little as the cheesy metal band graffiti gave way to more heavy-duty shit. Names I recognized from reading Lovecraft, runes, less dismissible markings. Kevin was walking ahead, silently, his head not noticeably turning to look at the walls — he’d seen it before, I guess. He stopped when he came to the altar, though.
I would have missed it. In the wall of the tunnel, there was a half circle carved out, about eight feet high. Kevin pulled a zippo out of his pocket and leaned down, lighting stubs of candles I didn’t realize were there. His movements were smooth and serious and he stood up and watched the flame for a moment. I couldn’t crack a joke, which is what every amazed bone in my body wanted to do, so I tore my eyes away from Kevin’s shadowed face and looked at the candles myself.
Continuing from the carved alcove was a line that closed the circle. Within the circle was — of course — a pentagram. It looked like it was actually carved into the concrete, but I couldn’t imagine how or why.
“What…” was all I was able to stammer out. I wasn’t frightened as much as amazed. How cliche! I mean, would the hooded dudes be coming out with the virginal sacrifice now?
“Just something we did as kids,” Kevin said as he leant over to blow out the flames. (I was just glad he didn’t extinguish them with his fingers.) “I’m superstitious, I admit it. That’s why midnight would have been better.” He waggled his finger at me as he said it.
I shrugged and looked away, and my eyes fell across a piece of graffiti on the opposite wall. It was a scrawled pentagram with a women’s symbol attached, the words SATANIC FEMINISM beneath it.
I laughed, a little nervously, and pointed.
Kevin walked over to it and lifted a foot, smudging it. It had been written in chalk. “There’s no respect left in this ironic age,” he said in a musing tone, obliterating the chalk scuff by deliberate scuff.
When I tell people this story, this is the part where they break in with “Where did you find this freak?!” So I’ll assume you’re thinking the same thing.
It was on a rooftop a month previous. The highest building on campus, to be specific. I was in the habit, after my Thursday class, of checking the door to the roof. It was just an extra floor up, so I would just go up, check, then go two flights down and take the elevator from there.
And one fine June day it was open.
There is nothing quite like the smooth turn of a usually locked knob. I checked to confirm that it was unlocked on both sides before I let it click close behind me.
The rooftop was as glorious as I had imagined. A great view of the York University campus below, a terrifically blue sky above, and, straight ahead, a guy striding purposefully towards me.
I quelled the primordial fight-flee instinct. Nothing screams guilty as loudly as running.
“You’re not supposed to be in this area,” he said in clipped tones.
“Oh,” I said. “The door was unlocked… I guess I went up an extra flight. I have a class on the 25th floor.”
“Not bad, not bad…” Kevin said, smiling. “Good eye contact, calm and assured, plausible reason.” He stuck out his hand and we did a one-pump that felt like a secret handshake.
I was a dilettante next to him, a dabbler — he’d actually learned to pick locks, and was to blame for the rooftop door being open. He wanted an acolyte, someone with the same strange sensibility of wonder and curiosity, someone to buy him beer.
In the bar after a foray into some abandoned wing of a hospital, I welded the friendship with a random observation.
I lifted the fifth mug of draft to my lips and pulled it away, overcoming my self-consciousness. “In a way, the places we’re going — they’re like these grey husks that bureaucracy sheds. These huge… insect skins.”
I could actually see it in his eyes that it made a sudden and complete sense to him. I smiled, giddy with the pleasure of something well said. I had been rolling it around in my head since the second beer, but it took a while to break the sound barrier.
He stood and lifted his beer. “To the insectile husks of the system,” he said grandly to the bar at large, and there was a dull roar of approval and clinking.
So I had followed this guy, who I knew nothing about other than that I had a dim reflection of his obsession, up into to the heights of skyscrapers and down into the bowels of the earth.
Now, as we entered the fabled Lower Bay Station, it was a bit of a letdown. The lettering on the wall read CHARON.
“What,” I intoned campily, “Have you led me into the pits of hell?” I had to say something to break the weird tension.
“That’s from when they were filming a movie down here,” he explained. “There’s the real lettering.” It read BAY, not even LOWER BAY, I was disappointed to see. I had heard whispers of this ghost station for years, and wanted it to come complete with hordes of treasure, or at least a secret library. But instead, it was just a dirtier than average station.
“I’m gonna take a look around,” I said, and Kevin nodded absently. I almost said I hoped he wouldn’t start any black masses when I was away, but I was still too tense to joke around.
There was a big fence on the platform around a storage area. Mostly what was in there were stairs for escalators in various states of disrepair. I wondered how many tax dollars were lost when plans for the route which were to use this station were abandoned. I stared at the underside of an escalator stair for the pure joy of seeing the underside of anything usually upright.
I rounded the storage space and noticed that between the fence and the wall there was a four foot gap littered with debris. A garage sale painting, a few inexplicable photos — one of a beaming guy behind the wheel of his/a car — not enough artefacts to form any sort of profile of the person who left them. A subway worker (I imagined the proud auto owner in uniform) may have decided to cheer the place up, perhaps. Kevin approached while I savoured the mystery.
“Whattaya figure?” I gestured at the photo where it lay.
Kevin picked it up. “Car isn’t new. This isn’t one of them check-out-me-in-my-new-wheel shots.”
“Might be used.” I scanned the face for signs of shock, Blue eyes, bristle-balding cut, big-ass grin, no shock. “Doesn’t look like a caught-unawares shot either.”
“Whatever,” Kevin said, slipping it into his back pocket. “It’s an odd souvenir.” Kevin used odd as a synonym for good, and I had seen his collection of exploration mementoes.
“Got something to show ya,” he said, jerking his head in the direction. I followed. He was in the habit of doing that silently in more sensitive areas. Made me feel a little like a horse, but I got over the indignity — where we went usually made up for it.
He pushed through a grey door (“picked it” in an answer to my unasked question) and closed it behind us. The darkness lasted just long enough to make me wonder why I get involved with people I hardly know who are into satanic rites — and then the florescents noisily sputtered to life.
The room we were in was small but uncluttered — practically empty, really, except for the control board and microphone. The control board was spotted with buttons, which (I was relieved to see) were unmarked. Any marking, I was sure, would be a temptation impossible for Kevin to resist.
We were kindred souls in many ways in regards to urban adventuring. Kevin, however, was far more interactive than I. He had pulled a fire alarm (“I knew it was dead,” he almost convinced me, “I just dig how it feels.”) and another time–
Kevin right then, snapped the control board to life. I opened my mouth to protest, but Kevin lifted a tense finger. With his other hand he adjusted the microphone and I could tell from the echoey metallic scrunching that it was on.
“23 Bay 23 Bay 23 Bay,” is what he said, and his soft voice bounced around the room with a slight edge of feedback. Or what I thought he said. He made a clicking sound with his throat and, just when I was waiting for his rendition of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” he shut everything down.
I was so scared my stomach was clenching. Kevin stared silently at the board, his hand still touching the mike, and I tried to form words. None of it made sense. Why would he do something so ludicrously dangerous as speak over the system-wide intercom? Why was he standing there so frozen and creepy? Why did he choose to send out a code that meant nothing?
Kevin had taught me the Toronto Transit Commission’s subway codes. I had always wondered what those mysterious messages had meant, and over lunch Kevin told them to me as if passing on some kind of oral tradition.
“Repeat after me: 99 Finch 99 Finch 99 Finch.”
I humoured him. “99 Finch 99 Finch 99 Finch.”
“That means they need a mechanic at Finch station,” he said, finally extricating his peanut butter sandwich from the saran wrap. “506 Kennedy 506 Kennedy 506 Kennedy.”
I waited, but finally repeated it. “506 Kennedy 506 Kennedy 506 Kennedy.”
“They need a custodial crew at Kennedy.”
I nodded. “Huh.”
“77 College 77 College 77 College.”
“77 College 77 College 77 College.”
Kevin had finished his sandwich and was palming his wrap into a ball. “Someone’s jumped in front of a train. A suicide.”
I rolled my eyes. “Bullshit. How often would they need that?”
“I’ve heard 77 four times so far. Gives me a chill each time.”
“I can’t even remember hearing about subway suicides. Your info is wrong, man.”
Now Kevin rolled his eyes. “You don’t hear about it because the newspapers agree to keep it out. Otherwise people would do it even more often, just for the publicity.”
He tossed the cellophane ball at my forehead. It bounced off and rolled to a stop near the salt shaker.
Kevin had taught me all the codes he knew, and 23 wasn’t one of them.
He let go of the mike and nodded for me to leave the room. I did, hoping we’d be making a quick getaway. Maybe he knew some alternate exit…?
At first, on the platform, I mistook the vibration for shaky legs. But when I paused to wait for Kevin to close the door, I was undeceived.
It couldn’t be a response to the call, I thought, not this fast. I could tell that Kevin felt it too, in the slow way he turned around.
His eyes were wide. “It… worked.”
I would have run at that point, I like to think, if I could have figured out where to run. But the growing sound came from everywhere, and there were no lights in the tunnel. I was sure that the one I picked would lead to sudden death.
I couldn’t bear to look at Kevin. I was sure he’d be grinning, and I’m sure I would have decked him. As it was, I soon had other things to look at.
It was the squeaking that I heard first, then the rumbling. From the blackness of the tunnel burst a series of harnessed rats the size of ponies. Dust and grime covered their coats, and, I saw as they loped past us (amazing the detail-observance intense fear can inspire) they blinked constantly with the dust.
I forced my head to look, past the dozen or so pairs of rats, down that bizarre train of giant vermin to its burden. It was a Victorian carriage, wooden but for the giant wheels of pocked stone. The implausible wheels were slowing even as I looked upon them.
The figure holding the reigns was a skeleton. I had a brief moment of hope then — this couldn’t be real. It had to be a funhouse horror. Kevin had brought me to an old abandoned amusement park, and this was a projection. The cameras were well hidden, probably near the tracks.
The skeleton stood up, set the reins down and hopped to the platform. It was the click of his foot bones on the ceramic surface that caused me to actually shit my pants.
It was a small squirt, thankfully, but I could feel it there, warm and cradled in by my underwear elastic. I had a moment of gratefulness for my briefs before my terror returned full force.
The skeleton moved without the jerky edge that animatronic technology and frame-by-frame animation had taught me to associate with skeletons. He walked towards us, slowly and with a slight hunch.
“Somebody call for a taxi?” he said. He said it jovially, but I couldn’t tell if he was grinning or not.
One of the rats snorted.
Kevin didn’t reply until the skeleton was standing right in front of us. “This is a taxi?”
The skeleton’s head tilted up a little as he said. “It’s a joke, son.” I imagine he would have rolled his eyes if he had had any. “I’m more like a bus driver. I got my route. Sometimes I pick up people, sometimes it’s empty.”
He looked around at his carriage. “Lot of the time it’s empty.” He touched the back of his skull, as if he forgot he had no hair to smooth. “Like now, for instance.”
I noticed his bones were worn smooth and yellowed in some areas, not the bleach white I would expect.
“How much… is the fare?” Kevin said, breathless but his eyes lucid.
“You’ve paid it.” The skeleton turned and walked towards the carriage.
“Let’s go,” Kevin said, pulling at my arm. “What’s that smell?”
To avoid the question, I asked him, “Where does it go?”
“To the waylaid way-stations,” he said. “All the lost and unused places of the world. But it comes back, we can always get back.”
The skeleton was boosting himself back up to his seat. If he had just leapt back into his seat, I wouldn’t have gone. But it was a struggle, and while climbing up the stone wheel he got his foot caught in a crevice. There was a small snap as he yanked it out and a small white bone, perhaps a toe, fell to the tracks.
“Fuck,” the skeleton sighed, and sat down.
My curiosity hit a critical mass with that, and my limbs moved towards the carriage.