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Under the C

Mysterious strangers and unscheduled stops leave a man curious of what he's missing.

Mysterious commuters exit the train between Manhattan and

Mysterious commuters exit the train between Manhattan and Brooklyn, beneath the water, and a curious traveler makes the mistake of getting involved. Photo Credit: Dean Kotz

For the third time in three days, in the early hours of the morning as George rode home from closing the bar, the C train stopped between Fulton and High Streets. The doors opened, and two hunched men in rain slickers and orange safety vests stepped on. Their baseball caps were pulled low, their collars turned up. The train was practically empty at that hour, so George sat alone, staring at the huddled figures. They kept their backs turned and got off at High Street.

He told his roommate Tom about it at breakfast, which for George was early afternoon.

“The train keeps making this unscheduled stop for maintenance workers halfway between Fulton and High,” he griped. “Like I’m not getting home late enough already.”

Tom was just killing time until his trust fund kicked in, so he was usually around when George woke up and the other roommates were at work; but this was still almost the first thing George had ever said to him that wasn’t about rent or toenails in the sink.

“You’re an idiot,” Tom said. “There’s no maintenance stop halfway between Fulton and High. That’s right under the river.”

The next morning, a little before 5 a.m., George rode home in an empty subway car. Before this job he’d never been in an empty car, at least not one that smelled this good — but this was the magic hour when the club kids were already at their after-parties and the morning commuters were still showering at home. At Fulton, a burly, hunched figure in a rain slicker was waiting on the platform. George kept his eye on him. A few minutes later, somewhere below the river, the train slowed. George looked out the window to see if Tom was right. Usually the subway tunnels’ stony sides were dimly visible around the track lighting. But there were no lights here. Outside the car’s windows it was pitch black. The hunched form stood patiently by one set of doors, and when they opened he stepped off, into the blackness. The train moved on. If he wasn’t working on the tracks, where was he going?

All day long, as George fitfully napped and did his laundry and cleaned up after the irresponsible jerks he lived with, he thought about that step into the darkness. All night long, as he mixed drinks for people younger and wealthier than he was, George wondered where these furtive figures went, and where they came from. Two more on his homeward commute, and somewhere in the darkness they stepped off, and three more came on.

“Excuse me,” George said, but they just turned their backs to him. The way George looked after an eight-hour shift, he could hardly blame them. They seemed to be whispering to each other.

Then came four days running when there was no mystery stops at all. Manhattan straight to Brooklyn. George started to worry. What if the place had closed down? What if he had missed his chance to go there, wherever there was? By the fourth day, George was practically in a panic. A life of missed opportunities and regrets, and here was one more.

So the next morning, when the train slowed to a halt beneath the East River and a figure shambled on, George jumped up.

“Hey,” he said, grabbing the man by his rubber sleeve. “What’s this place?”

The hunched rider tried to pull away. Only the glittering of one eye was visible beneath his cap’s brim.

“Lay off,” he hissed.

George let go and turned to the closed doors. The train hadn’t started yet — he should be able to get the doors open, see what he was missing. He jammed his fingers into the crack where the doors met, just as the car gave a lurch forward. George wrenched them an inch apart and some hydraulic safety system began jerking them open the rest of the way.

“Wait!” cried the stranger. “The bubble won’t be there!”

His hat had fallen askew as he stumbled toward George, revealing bulbous, glassy eyes and pulsating gills stretched along the sides of his head, where the ears should have been.

George had less than a moment to gape at the monstrous stranger. Something cold was pouring through the widening gap in the doors, and as they opened completely, the water fell inward like a collapsing wall, knocking George off his feet. He staggered up to find water up to his knees, and rising steadily. The train crept along on its slow path to Brooklyn. The weight of the waterlogged car was clearly slowing it down. Water was already up to George’s waist. He tried to calculate how many minutes until the car angled upward, he tried to calculate, as he climbed on the seats to keep his head above water, if it would be soon enough.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Hal Johnson writes scary books, everybody's favorite of which is "Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods (Workman)." He has biked through three boroughs in the rain to avoid a subway ride.

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