They entered near the rear of the train and Hawkins sensed instantly that there was no place to sit. He still glanced around for an empty seat for Sway, just in case. Orange lights flashed on either side of the door behind them as a recorded female voice politely announced that they were closing.
The Red Line accelerated smoothly away from the platform as Sway and Hawkins carefully made their way forward through the packed car. Every seat was taken by people or their parcels, the ubiquitous in-ear headphones of the public commuter secluding each in their own little worlds. They walked nearly to the front of the car before resigning themselves to a vacant spot near a window where Sway could half-sit against a bright yellow handicap bar.
A group of young girls sat nearby, talking loudly and all wearing variations of the same uniform: impractical hooded sweatshirt with PINK or ROXY bisected by a zipper, black leggings or tight sweatpants, some likewise emblazoned on the butt with their own method of bodily bisection, hair carelessly held back in a ponytail, and those crummy faux-fur boots. A cloud of fresh cigarette smell hung around them like they’d all recently taken up chain-smoking.
Hawkins thought they looked too young to be smoking, but he knew that the older he became the worse he was at guessing age, especially girl-age, so he resigned himself to a mental shrug and moved on to the other passengers, eyeing them suspiciously in his peripheral vision. They’d been lucky so far, but it was only a matter of time before someone started looking for them. The guy they’d left alive could have already called for backup, and Hawkins had to figure they’d be watching the trains.
Sway seemed to read his mind. “Where are we going, Henry? The longer we’re on this line the easier it will be to find us.” She sat gripping the bar beneath her with a hand on either side of her body like she was having trouble keeping balance.
“I thought we could get off near the edge of town, there’s a ton of shady little hotels we could check into.” Hawkins didn’t know exactly where these hotels were, but he knew he’d seen them a hundred times on his way home. They’d find one. And after that… He couldn’t think much farther than hiding out. His head was full of static and even if Sway hadn’t needed to rest for the night he would have suggested it. His eyes still hurt, and he just wanted a place to close them for a few hours and not have to do any thinking.
The white noise of the train became suddenly closer as they entered the tunnel, the rush of air now echoing off the cement walls just a few feet outside the windows. The passing glow of the tunnel lights and the gentle rocking of the train provided the only indication that they were moving.
After a few minutes Hawkins felt the train begin to slow as the same female voice announced, “Washington Park. Doors, on my right.” A man’s voice played after a brief pause, repeating the message in Spanish. To Hawkins it sounded longer than the English version. He thought it was funny they said “my right.” It always made him imagine that the train itself was talking, but he figured it avoided confusion as to who’s right it meant. It never occurred to him that the recording was meant to act in the stead of the conductor.
The underground station slid quietly into view. The platform was usually deserted unless it was the weekend, as it served only the relatively isolated zoo and children’s museum at the top of the steep hill. Tonight, however, there were a handful of people watching the train roll in. Hawkins saw with rising dread that one of them was a woman wearing a badge. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought she locked eyes with his in recognition for just a second as they passed each other by.
“Henry?” Sway was standing now, alert. Her head snapped to where he was staring like he was about to be run over by a truck. She grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him down to the floor, trying to get them below the small portion of wall that wasn’t glass.
The train ground to a slow stop. Henry looked past people’s ankles back down the length of the car, barely breathing. The doors opened, paused, then closed. No one had entered their car. They rose as it pulled away and accelerated powerfully. The underground tunnel was the one place on the line where the conductors didn’t have to worry about inattentive pedestrians or red-light-running cars crossing their path, and it had the longest distance between stops. They always took the opportunity to make up lost time with speed.
Sway stood up slowly, looking back at the car behind them through the curved windows. Hawkins looked too but couldn’t make out anything in the other car.
“Can you see her, did she get on? Her radio wouldn’t work down here would it?” He was certain that they were speeding towards a line of waiting police cars, red and blue lights flashing, ready to take them to prison. Or worse.
She responded only by turning sharply and jamming her rigid thumb into a large red button with “Passenger Assistance” stamped into the metal plate surrounding it, and “EMERGENCY” below in red capital letters. After a pause a man’s voice came from the grill holes in the center of the call-box: “This is the conductor, is there an emergency in this car?” He sounded extremely bored; Hawkins had seen unruly teenagers press this button as they scurried off the train towards the mall.
“Stop the train! There’s a fire back here! Fire! Oh my god… oh my god… ” It was Sway talking, but it didn’t sound like her voice at all. It came out more girly than the way she usually sounded, and much more emotive.
Then her mouth opened wide, and from it Hawkins heard the confused, panicked sounds of a mob screaming for their lives. It was so desperate, so realistic, that he felt his scalp prickle in waves from his forehead to the back of his neck. Even though he knew it wasn’t real, it was authentic enough to press all the right fight-or-flight buttons in the animal part of his brain.
People up and down the aisle started to call out in actual fear as the train immediately began squealing to a halt. Sway had been loud enough to ensure that her performance could be heard at both ends of the car, even by those with ears plugged by headphones.
Hawkins looked around at the mounting chaos she had created so easily—the screaming passengers, the braking train—and burst into laughter. Sway gave him an inquisitive look, head cocked slightly, the question on her face clearly transmitted through the cacophony.
“You’re amazing!” He had to shout over the other passengers to be heard. Sway smiled at him with something like exhausted satisfaction on her pale face.
She didn’t wait for the train to come to a complete stop before reaching over and yanking down the flat red emergency door release lever. It was wider than Hawkins’ hand and longer than his forearm from elbow to fingertips. He half expected the words “CAUTION: EXPLOSIVE BOLTS” to be printed above it. Lights flashed on three sides of the door as they parted slightly, the internal mechanism that kept them shut releasing its hold.
As Sway reached both arms out and slid her hands into the open space, palms out, Hawkins noticed the smallest moment of struggle before she was able to slide them open completely, revealing the dark space of the tunnel beyond the dimmed emergency lighting of the passenger car. He reached out and they leapt into the darkness together, hand in hand.
They landed with a jolt on a small concrete ledge, like someone jumping into a puddle when they expected a pond. The ledge, no more than three inches from the train, was one-third the width of a sidewalk and seemed to run the entire length of the tunnel. Although outside of the ghostly islands of light every two hundred yards or so, Hawkins couldn’t see much of anything. A bare metal pipe that was just large enough for a toddler to get stuck in jutted over the walkway and ran parallel to the ground at exactly shoulder-level. He couldn’t decide if crouching to get below it or twisting sideways to walk alongside it was worse.
They shuffled quickly towards the back of the train and crossed behind it, entering the adjacent tunnel through a red metal door set into the smooth concrete wall. If the woman cop had followed them they needed to get as far from her as they could.
Hawkins held the door open and waited for Sway to pass before pressing half his face to the cold doorframe and peeking back at the inert passenger car. It didn’t look like anyone was following them. He kept on looking through the shrinking gap in the door until he closed it quietly behind them. Feeling for a lock, he cursed silently when there wasn’t one.
Henry Hawkins knew for a fact that the commuter trains drew their power from overhead. He’d watched the spring-loaded arm in the middle of each car press firmly on the cables that always ran above the trains, and he’d read the warning signs about electrocution on these overhead wires and not on the tracks along the ground. Despite all of this, he still could not keep himself from stepping over both rails with exaggerated care as they made their way to the opposite wall. He winced every time Sway stepped heavily behind him, convinced she was going trip and electrocute herself.
He climbed onto the dusty ledge and turned to help Sway, who raised her arms to him the way small children do when they want to be picked up. But as he bent to lift her onto the maintenance platform he was reminded again of just how heavy she was. With a little hop from her and some grunting from him she made it up, but just barely, and only after multiple tries.
“Wow, I’m outta shape,” he said, trying to laugh, but his voice echoed too coldly in the tunnel. Sway didn’t respond past slipping her hand into his in the darkness. It felt alarmingly hot and dry against his skin. He looked for her eyes but her lowered head cast a deep shadow that hid her face from him entirely.
He tried to keep the despair filling his heart from spreading to his face as he turned and lead them against the direction of the tunnel’s curved and hollow cetacean spine, their original direction of escape.
It only took half a dozen steps before they were completely out of the first cone of weak light. Hawkins saw with muted curiosity as they passed beneath it that each light was an airtight enclosure of glass and metal protecting an old-style lightbulb. The glass was so thick and covered in grayish-white dust that he could see the curlicued filament of glowing metal at its center.
As they waded slowly into the deepening gloom Hawkins became glad for the inconvenience of the pipe at his side. The cold metal scraped against his shoulder and gave him a frame of reference that kept him from falling off the ledge between each oasis of light.
They had just crossed into their fourth stretch of blindness when Sway stopped moving completely, jerking him back in mid-step. He turned and looked toward her, but all he could make out was her slowly crumpling silhouette of deeper black against the grey-black of the tunnel. It helped to let his eyes dart around the area he guessed she was, his peripheral vision creating a collage that gave his brain a better picture than the one it got trying to look at her directly.
“Sway, what’s wrong?” He crouched down to meet her eye-level. Her hair unexpectedly tickled his forehead and made him jump, keeping him from crashing his face into hers at the last second.
“Sway?” He thought she said something, but it had been such a tiny sound he couldn’t be sure he’d actually heard it. He carefully inched closer and put his ear next to where he guessed her lips would be in the darkness.
“-ain… Henry… I hear the train… Henry… I hear the…” Her voice was less than a whisper, but the words looping like a skipped record were unmistakable.
Hawkins couldn’t speak. He slowly turned to look over his shoulder at the tunnel that now loomed behind him like a monstrous predator, ears filled with excruciating silence as they strained to hear that which he most did not want to hear. There were no signs of it yet, but he knew it was coming.
“You have to get up Sway you have to get up,” he found himself standing, tugging at Sway’s one burning hand with both of his, leaning back against her weight and putting both legs into it, succeeding only in pulling her into a slight forward lean.
“Sway! Help me! You have to help me!” He was screaming now, his voice very loud in the stillness. “Why aren’t you moving!” He pulled weakly on her arm, very close to collapsing into tears.
He dropped her hand and jumped down from the platform, coming up beside her and shaking her by the shoulders. It was like jostling a pile of bricks. From the far end of the tunnel the first echoes of metal wheels on steel tracks came chasing each other off the walls.
“Oh. Oh, no.” He looked around the tunnel wildly but all he could see was the train barreling down on them in his mind’s eye.
Agonizingly far ahead of them, within the next splay of light, Hawkins noticed a small blue lamp mounted halfway down the wall. He squinted—there appeared to be a break in the bare cement wall beneath it. He had to believe it was a way out.
“Sway, there’s a door up ahead. We can get to it, but you have to get up and help me.” She didn’t move or make a sound.
“Jesus Christ…” Hawkins grabbed her arm with both hands high up near her shoulder and braced his foot against the wall. He allowed himself a deep breath and pulled hard, trying to keep himself positioned under her body. With the aid of adrenaline or the last bit of energy Sway had he was able to slowly bring her out over the edge of the platform. Somehow he was able to get beneath her as she fell, landing across his shoulders in a clumsy firefighter’s carry.
The strain was immense. He stumbled as he took Sway’s full weight on his frame, her two hundred and sixty-odd pounds feeling impossibly heavier on his out-of-shape body. He clamped her arm and leg around his neck with one hand and felt for the ledge with the other, struggling for the blue light so unattainably far away. Two pinpricks of light appeared on the dark horizon of what had become his entire grey universe.
He lumbered heavily without looking up, keeping one hand on the ledge as a guide and his eyes toward the ground he couldn’t see, frantically hoping that he was covering more distance than it seemed under the unbelievable force of Sway’s body. The screeching sounds of their oncoming doom grew more and more audible over his labored breathing. He forced himself to ignore it lest he succumb to panic and lose focus on his balance. If he tripped he knew he wouldn’t be able to get either of them up again.
He finally began to make out his feet in the darkness. He let himself look up when there was enough light to distinguish the gaps and ridges in the cement floor.
With a gasp that threatened to collapse into open weeping he saw that the space in the cement wall was indeed a door, and that it too did not appear to have a lock. They were twenty feet away.
He forced himself to look down the vanishing perspective of the track. The train was close enough that he could read the illuminated blue sign set above the conductor’s window: BEAVERTON.
He managed a ragged lunatic’s laugh between gulps for air so deep and painful he half-hoped to pass out, “Jesus… I fucking hate… fucking Beaverton…” His entire body was covered with sweat and his legs were so tense with effort they were like solid wood. Sway’s rigid internal structures were much less forgiving than bone and sinew—the places she laid heaviest across his shoulders were already raw and blistering.
Steam curled from every exposed inch of her skin. Her body would soon reach temperatures that could easily inflict second-degree burns. The lumbering, steaming, caterwauling monster of Sway and Hawkins’ combined shape in the darkness would have terrified anyone that might have been unlucky enough to run into it so deep underground.
Hawkins gritted his teeth and forced his legs to keep moving. Each step pulled the fibers in his muscles tighter and tighter together, bringing with them a searing pain that would have set him screaming if he’d had the breath for it.
He opened his clenched eyes just as he was about to pass the red door. He nearly tumbled over backwards before catching himself with an out-stretched leg sporting a cramp that knotted his entire calf. He heaved Sway onto the platform, the muscles in his lower back spasming with the Herculean effort.
The train was very close now. If he hadn’t been on the verge of collapse he could have read the expression of mild confusion on the female conductor’s face.
He tried to pull himself up onto the platform but all his strength had left him. His arms and legs trembled weakly but uncontrollably, unable to manage the smallest effort needed to reach the waist-high ledge.
With a wail of desperation and pain he was able to heft one leg up and pull on Sway’s body for leverage, badly scratching his chest and stomach on the raw cement edge as he clawed his way over. He struggled to lift himself a few inches off the platform on all fours before his arms gave out He fell back to the ground full on his face, unable to stop his fall.
Sobbing pitifully he was able to rise into a sitting position against the red door. The cold metal cut like ice through his sweat-soaked shirt. He reached up behind him, fumbling with the knob in his clammy hand. It swung open suddenly and he crashed backwards with it, hitting his head on the concrete floor with a bone-deep thud that reverberated through his entire skull, momentarily knocking him senseless.
He rolled on his side and crawled to where Sway was curled with her back to him motionless, one leg hanging over the edge into the path of the oncoming train. He hooked his arms beneath her armpits and pulled with his entire wasted body. Every lurch tortured him in places he hadn’t been aware of through the years of his sedentary existence, sweat and tears falling on Sway’s face each time he leaned over her to prepare for the next agonizing pull.
Finally they were both inside the room. Hawkins collapsed to the floor beside her, weakly pushing her legs out of the door’s path. He closed it with a last shove of his hand as the train roared by just feet away, a maelstrom concentrated into deadly force by the confines of the tunnel.
In the total darkness of a room that could be full of starving, poisonous spiders for all he knew or cared, Hawkins blacked out, laying beside the inert and overheating Sway.
Behind her ear a soft white light began to pulse slowly and steadily, joined eventually by a second light, and then a third, their placement suggesting a circle that would soon complete itself.