Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
Even from the far end of the platform, seeing the whole of the lower station at 190th Street, Harold noticed only one other person waiting for the train. Granted, it was quite late, around 2:30am, on (what day was it?) a weeknight, but still, it seemed unusually quiet. Harold could hear a single drip, ticking the seconds away. Not quite seconds, Harold noticed. A little slower.
He studied his watch, listening to the drops plop into the still, murky puddle on the tracks.
Yes, the drip was slightly behind the ticking of the thin red hand of his watch. But only just barely.
The puddle, obviously filthy, was large, filling up nearly the entire width of the train tracks and almost spreading to the third rail. Harold vaguely wondered what would happen if it did. And if a rat decided to take a shortcut through, what would be to the eggplant-sized rodent, a pond (really, almost a swamp)… Would it be electrocuted? How did the third rail work, anyway? There was always so much filthy water on the tracks, particularly after a heavy rain, one would think the tracks would be constantly littered with the charred carcasses of electrocuted rats. Harold thought vaguely that there must be some kind of failsafe against that sort of thing, although he hadn’t the slightest notion of what that might be.
Besides, there were no rats to be seen on the tracks tonight—Harold had the habit of scanning the dark crevasses of the subway tracks, the piles of garbage commuters had thrown onto them, for rats, to keep himself amused while waiting for the often insufferably slow train. The bigger the rat, the better.
Sometimes, while he searched for the critters below, he’d see something move out of the corner of his eye, a shadow on the platform next to where he was standing. Of course, it would be a rat, usually the biggest, grossest and most bloated of rats (The Godfathers, Harold called them).
Harold remembered once catching the glance of a young woman standing near him as a rat the size of a deformed kitten with gigantism wobbled across the platform. Wobbled, as though stuffed from a horrifying Thanksgiving dinner.
The young woman had paled, sickened, and gave a soft cry, backing away from the strange creature. Harold could feel the hair on his neck rising as his eyes locked with the poor young woman’s—what sleepy, hideous, dull obscenity was this? Harold and the woman both remained frozen as the little nightmare crawled away. He knew they were the only people that had seen the rat, as passengers elsewhere continued to chat with one another or listen to their music or check their phones, oblivious to the filthy, dull-eyed vermin only feet away from them. Harold remembered shuddering—how often had he himself stood on the platform, waiting for the train, oblivious to the horrible, slinky, wet creatures scuttering around him?
But tonight all the rats seemed to have vacated the station. Harold found himself, as always, relieved and somewhat disappointed at the same time.
Despite the repulsion he felt at the sight of them, the rats held a certain fascination for him—these were the carriers of the fleas that spread the Black Death during the Middle Ages. These were the companions (or fellow tenants) of the cockroaches. They were everywhere and anywhere and could sneak up behind you or right in front of you at any time, regardless of your social class, your education, your attractiveness or lack thereof—rats, Harold thought, like death, were a great equalizer.
Harold checked his watch—twenty-four minutes he’d been waiting, still no train. Not terribly unusual for the Downtown 1 at this hour but still slower than he’d like. He wanted to be on time. He started to think about what he needed to be on time for, which he was a little fuzzy about for some reason (the late hour, he assured himself, yawning). He did know for sure he had to be in one of the first five cars because he was getting off at South Ferry.
South Ferry was the last stop on the 1 train line, and you had to be in one of the first five cars to get off—otherwise the train would just loop back Uptown with you trapped in it, going back the way you came. That had already happened to Harold before and he was determined not to miss his stop again.
Glancing up from his watch, from which he’d been mildly hypnotized, Harold noticed the lone fellow commuter waiting down the platform had moved closer to where Harold stood. His stomach fluttered a little, disconcerted, although the person, even with their back turned to him, now appeared to be an elderly woman. She wore a khaki raincoat with one of those shower cap bonnet things on her head, like the kind his grandmother had worn when it rained so her coiffed white hair wouldn’t get wet.
Hardly a threat.
Harold hoped she wouldn’t come any closer—he had no desire to get sucked into conversation with an old lady, which would most definitely consist of pondering why and/or complaining about the train delay (of course, the MTA made no announcements explaining the situation and, probably due to budget cuts, he actually hadn’t seen if there was even a teller in the booth). He did wonder what the old lady was doing out at such an hour in this neighborhood, or where she would be going.
Where anyone would be going at this hour on a weeknight (was it Tuesday or Wednesday?) was beyond him. Maybe she was headed to visit a dying friend in the hospital. Maybe she was late-night shopping for cat food and Ensure. Maybe she was going to get laid. Harold suddenly pictured the old woman removing dentures, licking her puckered up lips smeared with red lipstick, getting ready for some hot date night on the town. He barked out a single laugh, which echoed loudly.
Harold clapped his hands over his mouth, squeezing his eyes shut, as though to try and lock the laugh back up before it could escape. But it was too late. It had escaped.
Harold opened his eyes. Startled, he saw that the old woman was standing much closer to him now (how did she move so fast?). Maybe only 20 feet away. Still with her back turned to him. Harold cleared his throat, his heart pounding a little. Not knowing where else to look, he checked his watch again.
2:43am. No sign of the train.
Still studying his watch, as though it were the fossil of some unknown dinosaur, Harold noticed that the dripping had stopped. The thinnest hand on his watch, which had been almost in sync with the dripping, had also stopped.
Out of the corner of his eye, much like the obscenely large rat, Harold noticed a shadow. His heart, which had just begun to slow down, started beating wildly again. It was the old woman. She was right next to him. Still facing away.
A feeling of dread began to seep throughout his body, beginning in his gut and spreading like ice water in his veins.
Why was she standing so close?
He turned his body slightly, pretending not to notice her—out of the corner of his eye he saw her begin to sway back and forth. He worried for a minute she was going to faint, maybe fall onto the tracks (please fall onto the tracks, please don’t turn around and look at me, please don’t come any closer).
But the swaying was steady, like the dripping had been, and she appeared in no danger of tumbling onto the tracks. Her swaying, in fact, the side-to-side of it, was synced up with Harold’s heartbeat. Did she know he was scared? Could she hear, sense, feel the rapid thumping of the muscle pumping blood (and now also terror) through his veins?
Why was he so afraid?
Harold realized with a start that his watch could have been wrong all this time. Was it really 2:43am? It could be any time, really. Any day, really. This only increased the dread he was feeling, the increasingly operatic level of panic vibrating out of his chest.
Where was the train?
The old woman stopped swaying, quite suddenly, and was still on the platform. Harold could hardly breathe. Barely, just barely, he heard a sound coming from her. Soft, almost indiscernible. He turned his ear slightly in her direction, still staring at his dead watch.
She was giggling.
Her shoulders, khaki in the raincoat, began shaking, as if she couldn’t contain her delight. The giggles, so soft at first, began to get louder. And louder.
Harold felt a rumbling beneath his feet. In sync with this hideous woman’s laughter, he felt the rhythm, the vibration of the train approaching the station. The Downtown train. To South Ferry. He had to be in one of the first five cars to get off at his stop. He desperately wanted to get off at his stop.
The subway, silver, dented, empty, came roaring into the station. Harold felt the breeze as the train shot by. The old woman’s laugh got louder and louder. Although it wasn’t exactly sounding like a laugh anymore. As the train began to brake he heard the piercing squeal of the wheels on the metal track.
Screaming. The old woman was now screaming.
The scream was high-pitched, hysterical with laughter, shrieking with horror. It was dissonant and also somehow hauntingly harmonized with the squeal of the brakes.
Please don’t turn around. Please.
The train stopped.
All was silent, including the old woman.
The train doors opened softly with a gentle bong sound. There was no one else inside. Harold suddenly was sure of something else.
No one was driving the train either.
And this train was not going to South Ferry.
He stepped into the car. The old woman stayed on the platform. Her back was still facing him. He knew she wasn’t joining him on the train. She was merely there to greet him.
As the doors of the train car closed, as the train began it’s journey Downtown, Harold saw her out of the corner of his eye one last time, like the demonic little rodent on the platform that had caused the young woman such terror, when their eyes had lock in dreaded understanding. He saw the young woman’s sheet-white face again in his mind and now knew why she’d been so terrified.
Because she knew. And that rat knew, because it’d come from there. And the old lady knew because she’d been sent from there as well.
They knew where the train was really going. And now Harold knew too. Where they were all eventually going.