Everything went white as my eyes adjusted from the daylight to complete darkness. It hit me so hard I almost lost my balance and fell backward onto the tracks. Just as quick as it happened, I felt a hand reach out and grab my arm. “Thanks, kid.”
He started walking again and a little slower than before. I could tell he felt more relaxed in the tunnels. “Don’t sweat it Mr. Finch. You’re going to have to be real careful until you get used to the dark.”
“Will that ever happen?”
“Give it some time.”
As I was getting my bearings I was hit with a waft of hot air coming from up ahead. I thought it was hot outside but the temperature retched up at least 15 degrees underground. And the smell was like all the worst parts of the garbage baking inside a hot oven. The sting of people’s stale business and old trash was all around. I imagined it was the closest thing to hell without going to the real place yourself.
“Any trains come round this way?”
He was about 15 feet ahead of me trying to slow himself down so I wouldn’t lose him. “Not on these tracks. They’re old connectors. Not used as much anymore. But when we get to the other side, we’ll be coming around Pennsylvania Station and we might just meet up with a train or two there. The important thing is to get off the tracks and put your head down.”
“Why is that?”
“A conductor can see your eyes reflect back at them.”
I never thought of that. What else was I going to not think of down here? “Good tips. Keep ‘em coming.”
“Don’t worry Mr. Finch, I’ll tell you everything you need to know.” This was an earnest kid who took his job seriously.
Suddenly We turned to the left and came to a door sunk into a solid concrete wall. Joshua jimmied it open with a little force. I felt a rush of cooler air from the other side smack the sweat on my drenched face and we walked into what felt like a large open room. The ceilings must have been higher with some kind of ventilation from the surface because the air wasn’t as still. The kid kept us moving forward and, so far as I could tell, in a straight line. When we reached a door, we opened it and repeated the whole process over again. I lost count on how many of those rooms we went through. I’d say at least five or six.
Occasionally my feet would trample over something soft like a blanket or a pile of clothes. He must’ve felt it too: “Street people sleep down here in the winter when it’s cold.” It was interesting that he made the distinction between someone on the street and his people.
“What happens if they find you?”
“Oh they don’t. We find them. We offer them a place to live. Some take us up on it. Some don’t. If they decide to stay, they have to swear they’ll be loyal.”
“And those who don’t?”
He laughed, “It doesn’t matter, they’d never find us again.” His skinny arms pushed open another door and this time I saw a faint light on the other end. “Be careful. There’s a stair case right here and it’s tall.” In the yellowish light I saw his silhouette slowly descend then disappear.
When I walked through the doorway I could see a naked light bulb about 100 feet below me. The stair case was built into the side of the wall and was dangerously old. I walked down like my feet were made of cement blocks careful not trip on account of the sweat stinging my eyes. Something about seeing some light comforted me though.
We came to more tracks at the bottom and there was faint rumbling sound in the distance: “Train?”
“Yessi-aah-Mr. Finch. Keep your eyes pealed.”
“Kid, I can’t see a damn thing.”
“Oh you’ll see a train.”
He was right about that. One immediately came barrelling down the tunnel like it’s job was to take me out as quick as it could. The only thing I could make out were these two streams of light screaming their way down the tunnel coming directly for me. I saw the kid jump the tracks and throw his shrimpy body flush up against the soot-covered wall. He buried his chin into his chest like he said he would. And I followed suit. I even closed my eyes as I felt the wind of the speeding cars nearly take my hat with it down the track. It was a warm wind, but it wiped the sweat clear off my face. Part of me wished it would last a little longer.
When the air stopped moving and the rumbling moved further down the tracks, I opened my eyes. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had kept them shut.
The kid just darted away: “Come on keep moving, we’re almost to the perimeter.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“A perimeter is the edge of something–”
“I know what a perimeter is kid, I mean what does that mean down here?”
“It means we’re almost within the borders of the City. We just have to go down two more levels.”
“That’s like French class was to me in school. Complete nonsense.”
“Just keep up!” The kid made a sharp turn to the left and we entered a trackless corridor with another faint light at the end of it. At this point he was almost running and I was breathless and thirsty as all get out.
“Aren’t you hot?”
“I’m used to it. It’s always warm down here.”
At the end of the corridor under another naked light bulb was another door. We went through it and found ourselves in a completely dark room.
“Keep that door open and look to the left,” the kid said to me. I saw him move aside a plank of wood. “See that hole?” Barely. It was a hole busted into the concrete half the size of me and a little smaller than he was. “We’re going through there in one minute.”
“Why not now?”
He disappeared to the right side of the room. I heard a swish of air and then a set of bangs against a pipe. I counted four. The pipes answered back with two. He returned with another three. I heard the kid drop what I assume was a smaller pipe. “That’s Jeb. He watches the perimeter. I alerted him that I was coming through.”
“What happens if you forget to alert him?”
“He hurts you.”
“That’s good to know.”
He made himself into a ball and went through the hole with not fuss at all. I, on the other hand, needed to do go through every range of motion I had just to kneel down and put myself into such a way that I could fit. It happened over the space of three or so minutes with a good deal of cursing which I will spare you.
“What about your board?” I said struggling to get my shoulders clear.
“I’ll get it later. Besides, no one would gets past Jeb.”
“Where is Jeb, he’s about 50 feet below us. You’ll never see him. We’ve passed about six of us on the way down. You didn’t see them though. They know how to move silently through the dark.”
That revelation scared the Holy Hell out of me. If everyone down here were so stealthy how in the name of St. Peter was I supposed to catch a murderer? All this and I could barely get myself through that damn hole. But when I finally did I felt like I literally fell off the face of the earth. All I could feel was open space.
“Where the hell are we kid?”
“You’ve officially entered the City. Actually we’re in the sky right now. Well, to us, it’s the sky. To you this is just the open space above where we live. We have to walk two levels down these steps. Be careful.”
As we walked down I could see a set of lights below my feet come closer and closer. In the distance I heard the murmuring of voices in conversation.
At the bottom of the stairs I could hardly make out the familiar face waiting for us. The kid landed first and turned back to look at me with pride in a job well done.
“Grandpa Jasper, he’s here.”
Jasper who looked a little more vital in his own surroundings smiled at his grandson and patted him on the shoulder. “Good work, Joshua.” He extended his hand out to me. “Welcome to our City Mr. Finch. You are now and ever will be a member of this community.”
I couldn’t bring myself to shake his hand. I stood there hot, dumb with awe and panicked at the idea of never being able to see the light of day ever again.