A man sits on a bench in a station, beneath New York, at one o’clock am. Outside the station rain is falling, but long ago the city discovered how to prevent the dripping of water from above to below. Still, the air is damp. People stand neatly spread on the platform, looking down or fixing their eyes on metal walls faintly gleaming under a film of dirt. The man lets his eyes slip over his shoulder to the bottom of a stair where a woman is standing. Only her profile and an arm of black leather, one small hand and a long leg are visible. The stairs lead up to another series of stairs. All of the stairs eventually lead one into the rain. “The next train will depart in three minutes,” crackles a voice in the station. The girl shows her eyes. Their eyes connect in recognition. She shifts her shoulder and looks away.
The man’s gaze returns to the subway wall in front of him. There are thin black cracks in the white tile. He fingers the notebook in his lap, and then drops it into his backpack, slings his backpack over his shoulder and stands up.
“The next train will depart in one minute,” crackles the voice. The man takes two uncertain steps towards the woman, letting his eyes linger before he turns and walks to the other side of the platform. He leans against the metal pillar and looks to where the darkness begins. He squints and his eyes cast their nets for light, but the tunnels are empty, there is no light yet. On a screen, O Minutes glows in red. A small and drawn out screaming starts from deep within the worm hole and fills the man’s head. He brings his hands to his temples; the screeching is everywhere, convulsing in the mind of creatures in the dirt behind the cracked white tile, rebounding again and again inside ears until the sickly sound waves burrow inside the bodies. The man feels the urge to run. He steps a little back, away from the tracks; where the light from the station reaches furthest, the head of the train appears. The screech is everywhere, steel scraping the bone-rock of Earth.
The clay-eyed men and women on the subway platform instinctively move closer to each other. The train stops at the head of the tunnel. There is a red circle on the face of the train, locked unblinking in the metal. The red circle illuminates the rail below it, and releases its red light that travels delicately down the shining metal length. The screeching stops, and without a sound the train fills the station with its body.
The doors remain closed and the men and women on the platform shuffle closer to the train and strain their necks forward and peer through the glass. It is black behind the glass and all the people see are reflections of their own searching faces.
The doors open, and light is sucked into the interior of the train. The train is empty, but a familiar scent drifts out onto the platform. It smells like people, and the people of late night New York sniff and wrinkle their nostrils, and wait, for a moment, in uncertainty. But the doors stay open so the man and the woman and the people on the platform step onto the train. The doors quickly close with a ding and the train slithers on, noiselessly, into the tunnels.
The station is empty, because long ago the city figured out how to prevent rodent infestation; there are no desperate claws that scratch at the dirt. Screens shimmer with sparks and every so often a voice recording sounds. Damp air falls on cold metal and becomes water, and drips down into drains leading deeper into the Earth. The ceiling sags with the buildings above it. The walls of tile bend inwards.
The man and woman exit the train at the same stop. The woman’s shoes go click click click up the stairs but the man’s shoes only sigh as they press into the metal stairs. The man and woman emerge from the cold underground into the rain at the same time. Raindrops that fall on the heated metal ground evaporate; the steaming air of the New York night dries and then shimmers on their skin, leaves them again in silvery whisps of steam They stop outside the subway exit. The man moves a hand, shiny with sweat, to his shoulder and smoothes his dampening t-shirt, and drifts to the side as more people sift themselves through the maze of subway stairs and rise out of the tunnels. They flinch and then cower against the rain. He stretches his neck so that his face turns in the direction of the woman, so that the faint wrinkles that have collected in the skin above his shoulders disappear, and a large blue vein pulses against the skin.
The woman is wearing a dress that clings to her body in the musk and steam. It bleeds into her flesh so that her skin is almost visible. She looks up. The sky is filled with the gray mass of glass buildings coated in steam. Embedded in the gray are smothered yellow stars, cubicles that blink on and off as people come and go. Connecting the buildings and the cubicle-stars are great sky tunnels, webs of glass and metal. They are the work of the metal spider, the modern age, paint brushes that one by one paint over the crying sky. Rain streams into the woman’s eyes and she looks down.
The woman moves her eyes over the people that have collected out of the train station. People are wearingblack suits and white pants and pink ties, but every color is fading in the dirty rain, every color gray to the great metal giants. The night presses down against the people in anger and resentment against the buildings that the people built that plunge into its fabric and obscure its stars. Each raindrop is tinged with smoke, moans against its poison and beats down on the people in tiny fists.
The woman looks at the man and he turns and looks at her. She breathes the heaviness in through her nose, the musk and the water curled over the sides of her nostrils, and walks out into the swirling silver steam and blackness. Her shoes click against the ground and the motion-activated street lights scan her, illuminate and die as she passes.
From deep within the station, the man hears the faint beginnings of a scream. He presses his teeth together and slides his bottom jaw forward and back, feeling bone grate against bone. He grasps the straps of his pack and pulls forward, the weight lifting from his back, and squints at the slow blinking of street lamps that follows the woman’s movement. His shoes are noiseless on the flat metal ground as he walks slowly after her.
The people who have gathered at the exit of the subway look up at the buildings that stretch upwards into different worlds that they are not part of and they whine and shuffle, looking for a way out. Some re-enter the subway because the screaming of the worms reminds them of their own screams that they cannot let loose. Others break into a run and are lost forever in the maze of rectangles. This is no longer their world, they think, as they are lost.
Slabs of sidewalk, metal, laid down by automated machines. Buildings built supported on either side by metal sidewalks, stretching upwards a thousand miles, piercing the atmosphere, stretching from planet to planet. Tunnels that have been dug into space, that connect planets, a great web stemming from Earth, the infested heart of the universe. A spire to the sun, un-melting, men in suits walking on platforms across the wailing surface, banishing little boxes of sunlight from lonely planets a thousand light-years away. Tunnels to those planets. Life going everywhere in metal and glass.
Woman in front and man behind, block after block. The man walks looking down, not lifting his eyes from the street. He walks with his hands grasping the straps of his pack, pulling forward. He walks quickly, looking down, his black hair matted under the rain, the ends of the follicles twisting together over his eyebrows and drops dripping, drops falling a centimeter apart, pouring around him.
As he turns into another street, he hears the clicking of her shoes ahead of him. He lifts his eyes from the shiny metal and she is there, walking in front of him. His lips part, his mouth struggles to let loose the thought that he does not understand. He steps more quickly, into the stunted trot of a man trying to find his run.
She is not more than fourty feet ahead of him. His eyebrows knit and his lips part again as the stupid, unused doors of sound, and he raises an arm and his hand stretches its fingers in their sockets towards her. The woman does not hear him. She comes to the crosswalk and enters the empty street, and as the man comes a moment away from stepping into the street behind her, the light changes and in red the word “Stop” appears in front of him. The light in front of the woman does not change, and she continues on. Arm still outstretched, lips still parted, the man looks at the word, then at the empty street, and then back to the woman. Her hips move into the distance, her hair lifts and falls softly on her back. He runs into the street and behind him a siren screams.
She is standing still at the midpoint of the block, her back to the street. The street lamp that stretches its long neck over her stares down with curiosity, and the automatic doors of the building in front of her are open. The man slows, and his eyes dig columns of light in the steam. She looks at him and her eyes fill at one end the empty columns. The man stops and she smiles nervously, one corner of the drawn lips quivering, and walks through the doors into the building. He begins to run, one street lamp fading as the next turns on under the murmur of his feet, the panting of his breath. He stops at the automatic door, and watches through the glass as the woman presses her thumb onto the resident-check screen. She tilts her head a little and he can see her eyelashes, and then walks through the hall of elevators. A voice with little patience crackles from above the door.
“Good evening Mr. ____, please step back, for your own safety.” He jerks back and the doors open and he hurries through the door and scans his thumb and lunges his hand into the elevator as the doors close.
The doors stop as his hand passes through a laser. A voice crackles.
“Mr. ____, for your own convenience, please use one of the other 99 elevators.” He looks through the space between the doors and the woman looks back with wide eyes. He takes a quick breath and squeezes himself through. The woman steps aside for him and the doors close.
“Good afternoon Ms. ____. Mr. _____.”
The bottom of the elevator is metal, the walls smooth black glass. There are no buttons, no markings anywhere. The man faces the woman, panting, and she looks at him and her mouth opens and her lips part in a whisper. The elevator lunges upwards and man and woman fall against the black walls. The elevator encircles the building as it climbs, and through the black glass the man and woman see whirlwinds of steam rip against the giant gray buildings. In seconds they rise one hundred, two hundred, three hundred stories until the air becomes thinned of its color and then everything is obscured in the dirty clouds.
The elevator begins to slow. It speaks.
“Ms. _____, we are approaching your floor. Mr. _____, please await our arrival on floor 726.”
The man shivers and takes a step towards her. The woman steps back and her lips quiver as she looks up at him in wonder.
“I…. ah” says the man.
Through the black glass walls trembles the faintest murmur of a screech as the elevator begins to stop. The doors fling themselves open.
“Ms. _____, we have arrived at your floor. Exit.”
Age 17, Grade 12,
Stuyvesant High School