Thursday, November 16, 2006

Encounter in the Depths

Trip Morrow was looking at the silver-and-amber signet ring he’d just put on his finger -- not even the strangest of the objects he’d found in the cigar box resting at the bottom of his backpack -- and thinking about his grandfather’s face, how it had seemed so soft and diminished and unreal lying there in the coffin, when the train crashed.

It was suddenly dark, without even a flicker, and he was lying full on the grimy rubber of the subway car’s floor, and his entire left side felt like the beginnings of a bruise. He felt a tang of iron in the back of his nose and had to check hastily to make sure it wasn’t actually bleeding. It wasn’t, and after a quick intinerary there in the dark, nothing else was bleeding, or broken for that matter. He heard a shriek elsewhere in the car.

The emergency lights kicked in after a few seconds, with a dull whine, spilling flat reddish light throughout the car. Trip, getting to his feet with one of the silver railing poles, counted three other people in the car.

One of them, a young man in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, stood up. “It’s OK,” he said, shakily. “Everybody stay calm. I’m a cop. Just be calm.”

(By “I’m a cop,” Officer Brian Callas meant that he had finished the academy six months ago, in the middle of his class, and had since logged many dangerous hours prowling the mean streets of Wrigleyville, writing up college boys for public intoxication. He had once unsuccessfully pursued a very athletic purse snatcher, and had never so much as carried a gun, much less fired one outside the range.)

A young woman, dressed in a puffy black coat, spangly top, tight black pants, and shoes with nothing resembling any sort of proper structural support, sniffled and wiped at the mascara now running down her cheeks. An old woman in the sort of clothes she’d probably wear to church, her dark skin faded and mellowed to cafe au lait with age, made her way unsteadily across the car to offer the young woman a handkerchief.

Trip took a few deep breaths, feeling his heart rattle his ribcage, and began to think.

“We’ll be outta here in no time,” I’m A Cop said, reaching up to pull the emergency knob that would trigger the manual release on the doors on the side of the car, just like the colorful emergency diagrams had told him to do on a thousand prior train rides. He pulled the knob again. And again.

“Okay,” he said, “everyone just be cool. You on the floor, you okay?”

Trip nodded. “I’m good. Listen, I think that--”

“Can you try that door there?” the cop said, pointing to the door at the end of the car, labeled with EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY signs that the transients and panhandlers who periodically weaved through the cars each day made a point to ignore. “I’m gonna try the one up front.”

“Sure, but I think the crash might have--”

“Great,” the cop said, and hustled up the aisle, pausing to check on the young and old women sitting together by the window. “You two all right?”

The young woman blew her nose into the old woman’s handkerchief; the old woman nodded calmly, like someone who’d seen much worse, and patted the young woman reassuringly on the shoulder. “It’ll be all right, honey,” she said; Trip only half-heard it as he jiggled the handle of the rear door, and found it stuck, and wondered whether she’d said to to the girl or the cop.

In the weird glare of the emergency lights, Trip caught his reflection in the glass, all slabs of light and pools of shadow, and started for a minute, his mind overlaying his own face with that of his grandfather. The family had always said they were practically clones; same gangly build, same straight, floppy hair; same angular, earnest features. Trip had always liked the notion that he was going about the world wearing a face passed down from a loved one, and he thought again of the still wax puppet in the coffin to whom he had supposedly been related. From the opposite end of the car, he heard a handle jiggle, then rattle, and then a curse as the cop kicked at the door.

“All right,” the cop said, heading back down the aisle, “let’s just be cool. I’m sure somebody’s coming for us. Anybody got a cell phone?”

“I tried,” the girl said from behind raccoon eyes. She held up a silver wisp of a phone. “There’s no signal down here.”

The cop let out a long breath through pursed lips, hands bunching on the close-cropped hair on the back of his head. “All right, let’s just think. We could smash out the windows. Does anyone have, like, a heavy object?”

Trip had an idea, and began rummaging in his backpack. The cigar box rattled invitingly as he poked around inside, but it could wait. He came up with a swiss army knife, and carefully folded out the screwdriver attachment.

“Hey!” the cop said, as Trip began loosening the screws at the top of the silver pole that ran vertically from the roof to the floor of the car, in the middle of the space left empty for the unfortunate riders who couldn’t squeeze into a seat. “Hey! That’s public property! What are you doing?”

“It’s OK,” Trip said as he finished one screw and moved on to the other. “I think I have a way to get us out. Give me a hand with this?”

The cop made his way uneasily over, and Trip handed him the loose screw. “I think whatever we hit slightly warped the frame of the car,” Trip said. “That’s probably why the doors were stuck.” Having finished with the top of the pole, he dropped to his knees and began unscrewing the bottom. “We can get the side ones open, I think. Just need a little leverage. There. Now pull hard, with me, on three.”

Trip counted to three, and they both yanked hard on the steel pole, and managed to pop it from its housings.

“So what are you?” the cop said. “Like, that guy on TV who makes bombs out of candy bars?”

“Nah,” Trip said. “I just build stuff. I’m Trip.”

“Brian,” the cop said. “Hi.”

“I’m Jenna,” the girl in the back said, appropos of nothing, and Trip smiled and waved at her absentmindedly. She was, some part of his brain noticed, the sort of ridiculously cute girl who never even talked to him outside of potentially life-threatening situations. Of which this was approximately his first, so perhaps, he thought, he should endanger himself more often.

“Muriel,” said the old woman. “Y’all need a hand with that?”

“I think we’re good, ma’am,” Trip said, then turned to Brian and hefted the steel pole. “OK, help me get this wedged in the door.”

It took them a few tries, but together, they managed to get the tip of the pole into the narrow, rubber-flapped gap of the door.

“This totally reminds me of something,” Brian the cop said, suppressing a snicker. Trip shook his head, hair flopping from side to said, and looked at him quizzically. “Never mind,” Brian said. “So what do we do now?”

“Muriel, ma’am?” Trip called to the middle of the car. “We could use your help now. Can you pull the release knob?”

The old lady made her way slowly up the aisle, trailed by Jenna, the young woman walking unsteadily on the tall, skinny heels of her shoes. Muriel reached up into the recess at the top of the doorway, on tiptoes in her flat, squarish shoes, and pulled the knob down.

“Okay,” Trip said. “Brian, Jenna, give me a hand with this. We’re gonna try to lever the door open.”

It took them a few minutes of diligent tugging, until their faces were red and their muscles ached, but at last the doors shrieked and groaned and slid open wide enough to permit passage to the cool, clammy subway tunnel outside.

“Woo!” Jenna cheered, and Brian whooped in triumph. Trip wiped sweat from his brow and grinned.

“Give me a place to stand,” he said to himself, “and I will move the world.”

“Archimedes?” Muriel said, smiling gently.

“Ten points to Muriel,” Trip nodded. “Are you a teacher?”

The old woman shrugged. “I read a lot.”

“Okay, everyone out,” Brian boomed. “Come on, let’s go. Stick to the walls, and watch the third rail.” He wasn’t entirely sure which one was the third rail, but he figured avoiding them all would be a safe policy.

Trip quickly shouldered his backpack -- in an emergency, he supposed, the suitcase he’d had with him could wait for rescue -- and squeezed through the gap in the doors onto the narrow concrete walkway, then helped Muriel and Jenna through. Brian followed, still gripping the slightly crimped steel pole. “Just in case,” he told Trip, who just nodded.

They inched their way along the platform quietly, scuffing shoes echoing in the closeness of the tunnel, lit by the eerie emergency light from within the cars. The train had been nearly empty, this early in the morning, and no one stirred within the cars they passed.

Trip heard the girl, Jenna, behind him, her breathing becoming increasingly ragged. She put out a hand and clutched at the sleeve of Trip’s jacket, and he stopped and turned back to her as Brian and Muriel continued on ahead.

“You all right?” he said, as she continued to gasp, her eyes wide.

“It’s the tunnel,” she said. “I don’t -- I feel like I can’t breathe, it’s so small.”

“Here,” Trip said, slipping a bottle of water from a side pocket of his backpack. He cracked off the cap and gave it to her. “Just shut your eyes and drink it slowly, little sips. We’ll be fine.”

She did just that, taking small sips from the lip of the bottle, smudging it with her lipstick. In the light from the train, Trip could see the glitter on her cheeks. “Where are you from?” he said, conversationally.

“Lincoln Park,” she said, her breathing slowly quieting. “I’m, uh, I’m house-sitting for my sister while I look for a job.”

“Just graduated?” Trip asked, as she handed the water back to him. He screwed back on the cap and stuck it in the pocket on his back.

“Yeah, a few months ago,” she said, then laughed in embarrassment. “I know, who graduates in August? I had a few credits to make up. English major.”

“Want to be a writer?”

“Yeah, totally. Write for a magazine or something. All my friends say I do awesome horoscopes. When were you born?”

“November. The fifth. I’m a Scorpio, right?”

She smiled at him there, in the dim of the tunnel. “Ooh, good sign. Scorpios are all intense and passionate.”

“And also me, apparently,” Trip said, smiling, and got a giggle out of her.

“Hey, hey!” Brian’s voice echoed down the tunnel. “Come on! You’ve gotta see this!”

Trip and Jenna shuffled their way to the front of the train, where Brian and Muriel gazed silently at the front of the train. It had accordioned inward with the force of the impact, but the hulking, carved stone block into which it had smashed showed no cracks or other visible damage.

“Is the driver OK?” Trip asked.

“I dunno,” Brian said. “I think I saw somebody moving in there, but seriously, they’re gonna need the jaws of life to get him out.”

“Hey,” Jenna piped up, “did the crash bust that hole in the wall?”

As the four of them squinted in the gloom, they began to make out the outlines of a rough-edged hole in the concrete wall on the opposite side of the tunnel, next to the strange stone block. It seemed to slope down into an engulfing darkness.

“I don’t think so,” Trip said. “There’s no debris or anything big enough to--”

The tunnel came alive with the sound of stone grinding on stone. Jenna shrieked and grabbed reflexively at Trip’s arm.

“Where did that come from?” Brian said, hefting the steel pole, his head swiveling from side to side, eyes wide.

“From that,” Muriel said quietly, and pointed to the stone block. It was moving.

Now better adjusted to the darkness, Trip could see the strange geometric carvings that covered every surface of the stone block -- not the harsh angles of the Aztecs, but something a lot like it. The grinding sound continued, and the block seemed to get taller. It unfolded arms and straightened legs, and Trip realized it was a statue in the rough shape of a man, about nine feet fall. Solid stone, and yet -- its head swiveled slowly towards the four of them as they unconsciously flattened themselves against the wall of the tunnel.

Red eyes glowed like coals in its head, casting a strange radiance across its carved stone features and the black, open hole of its mouth.

“Irik ku ta Kroatoan?” it rumbled from somewhere deep within, like a quarry shifting in its sleep. “Ku va tirim Kroatoan.”

“What the hell--?” Brian said, and raised the steel pole. “Hey!” he shouted to the thing, waving the pole from side to side. “Get away from us!”

“Brian--” Trip began. The thing tilted its head slightly, and its eyes glowed even brighter, and then the pole glowed white-hot and burst into vapor. Brian howled, the sleeve of his jacket aflame, the flesh on his palm still sizzling from the burn, and toppled sideways onto the concrete.

Jenna shrieked and turned to run, stumbling on her heels and falling onto the plaform. It saved her life; the thing’s eyes glowed again, and a red line of molten concrete streaked across the tunnel wall at the former level of the girl’s head.

“Irik ku ta Kroatoan?” the stone statue said again, shifting its gaze now to look at Trip. He risked a glance to his left; Muriel was crouched next to Brian, using her tweed jacket to beat out the flames on his arm as he grimaced and writhed. Slowly, keeping his eyes on the statue, Trip extended a hand to Jenna as she lay, whimpering softly, on the platform.

“Just... stay... still,” he told her. “Don’t move.”

Keeping his hands low by his sides, he slowly stepped forward onto the tracks. The thing stood near the center of the tracks, about a foot from the white-capped, raised third rail, and its glowing red eyes tracked Trip as he slowly circled it, drawing its attention away from the people huddled by the wall.

“What are you?” Trip said softly, as amazed as he was knee-knockingly terrified. “You look like stone, but--”

Veins of red light slowly emerged and began to pulse softly along the body of the statue, illuminating its squarish, bulky dimensions.

“Whoa,” Trip said softly, stealing one hand inch by inch back toward the side pocket of his pack. Toward the bottle of water. “Definitely not stone.” He glanced over at the side of the tracks, at the recess against the tunnel wall beneath the lip of the raised platform.

“Okay,” Trip said, “so you recognize tones of voice, and aggressive behavior. And you’re not attacking me, right? Because I’m not doing anything. I’m just talking.”

“Irik ku ta Kroatoan?” the thing said, cocking its head slightly.

“You’re... you’re some kind of sentinel, maybe,” Trip said. “Like a security guard or something.” He slowly, slowly, unscrewed the cap on the water bottle. “But for what? What are you guarding? There’s nothing down here.”

“Irik ku--” the thing began again and Trip hurled the open water bottle underhanded toward its square stone bulk, and dove sideways and down toward the recess by the tracks. He landed hard, the breath rattling its way out of him, and a lot of things happened at once. The wood on the tracks where he’d just been standing burst into blue-white flame, and the metal tracks nearby glowed yellow-orange and began to sag and melt. The water splashed full against the stone guard, and against the third rail, and electricity surged and sizzled in blinding sparks up the sodden body of the creature. It screamed geologically, and the red veins of light on its body burst into flame.

The stone creature’s arms waved wildly, trailing afterimages of white fire, and flames boiled up out of its eyes. Then, suddenly as the fire had begun, it died out. The stone sentinel, now completely dark, toppled smoking to the tracks with a heavy crunch.

“I’m sorry,” Trip said to its hissing remains, and meant it.


Dawn was breaking, and on the street outside the subway station, activity was winding down. The ambulance had long since taken Brian to the hospital, and the transit guys were still down in the tunnel, sawing at the cars, freeing the remaining passengers and seeing to the injured. (Trip had asked the guy who looked like he was in charge to get his suitcase out as the transit team headed down into the station and the guy had just given him a look.) A few cabs and cars passed, and one guy on a bicycle, gawking, but the streets were still mostly empty at this hour.

The police detective had folded up his notebook from taking Trip’s statement, sighed, and shook his head. “Still too damn early for this sort of thing,” he’d said, and gone to the Starbucks across the street for coffee. That left Trip with Jenna and Muriel, the latter of whom had managed to find a Sun-Times in a vending machine and was reading the comics, chuckling softly to herself.

“You all right?” Trip asked Jenna, and she smiled up at him from her seat on the curb.

“Oh my God,” she said. “That was so amazing. I thought we were going to die. What was that thing?”
Trip shrugged and sat down next to her. Her hair was a mess, plastered in thick strands against her forehead. Trip liked it. He liked just about everything about her, except maybe her shoes. “I don’t know,” he said. “It looked Aztec or something, maybe, but I haven’t heard of anything--”

Jenna’s pocket began to sing I’m Walking on Sunshine, tinnily, and she reached in and pulled out her phone. “Oh my God!” she said to the voice on the other end. “Oh, sweetie, it’s so good to hear your voice. You’re never going to believe this. I totally almost died.” And just like that, Trip knew his brief and shining window of visibility had passed, and he was once more, and forever, beneath the her notice.

“Walk me to the next block over?” Muriel said to Trip, folding up her newspaper with a knowing grin. “I know I’m not a blonde in one of them short litttle skirts, but...”

“Uh... sure, ma’am,” Trip said. “My pleasure.” They began to walk, Trip taking small steps to keep pace with the old woman. “You sure you’re going to be all right?”

“The police let me call my friend Mary Jean. She’s gonna be by to pick me up in a few minutes,” Muriel replied. They rounded the corner and passed a bakery, its windows darkened like all the other shops on the street. The city waited in the dawn light, a breath away from coming alive.

“You’re a remarkable young man,” Muriel said, smiling up at him.

“You’re not so bad yourself, ma’am,” Trip replied, rubbing his bruised left arm. “You did a good job with Brian’s arm.”

“Used to be a nurse, back in the war,” Muriel said proudly. “Never forgot the training, I guess.” Trip noticed, for the first time, the small silver glimmer on the lapel of her tweed coat.

“Is that -- what, a pin?” Trip asked, and Muriel nodded.

“A needle,” she said, taking hold of it by the eye and drawing it out of her lapel. “Kind of a badge of honor, really. So’s I don’t forget.”

And then she stabbed him in the side of the neck with it.

“Ow!” Trip shouted, stumbling back, hand clapped to the sudden stinging on his neck. He felt a bead of blood form wet against his palm. “Why did you do that?”

“Had to be sure it was you,” Muriel said, casually wiping traces of Trip’s blood from the tip of the pin with a white linen handkerchief. “Thomas Morrow the third, grandson of the one and only, the great man himself.”

“Great man?” Trip sputtered. His legs felt wrong, rubbery, and a hot prickling was beginning to crawl up the base of his neck. “He did forty years behind a desk at Bell Labs!”

“Is that what he did?” Muriel asked, bemusedly. Trip’s world was beginning to spin slowly, and he realized he very much wanted to close his eyes. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. You seem like a nice boy and all, and if it was up to me, I’d let you live. But Stitch says you might try to get things all unfixed again, like the bad old days, and we’ve got a big enough mess to deal with as is.”

“What--” Tom said, his lips beginning to turn to disobedient mush. “What did you do to me?”

“You just lie down, Trip Morrow,” Muriel said. “Lie down and go to sleep, and I promise it won’t hurt you none. You won’t even feel it.”

Trip stumbled away from her, ran on blind rubbery legs. The world was canting wildly, and he fell over, tumbling, and lay in the middle of the street. And the last thing he saw before his vision went black was the blurry shape of a taxicab, hurtling toward him, horn blaring, and sure to run him over.

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