I work in the Grand Terminal, doing a little bit of everything. My favorite part of my job is taking visitors on tours of the station; my least favorite is doing maintenance in the oldest sections. You’d think with my love of this place that I would find nothing more delightful than tinkering in the hidden parts of the Grand Terminal. But no, I do not like being alone in the terminal. Not at all.
I always knew there were large sections of the terminal that had been blocked off. Even in the nicest parts, where they did excellent work to block up the stairwells, there is still a noticeable difference in the marble tiling. And there are air shafts that clearly keep going down below the public areas that we can peer into. I use these things to demonstrate to my tour groups that even though the Grand Terminal is impressive now, it was truly amazing fifty years ago.
Three weeks ago, I was told that there were rats under the south lobby (which is really very lightly used), and I needed to set some traps on the subflooring. We always start with traps before poison since the director hates the smell of dead rats. I can’t say I blame her. In any case, I went off to the south lobby not expecting anything of note. I set up my yellow “caution” triangles, and began levering up the beautiful stone floors. Each set of four actually has a built in notch in the corner of one giant tile that can be easily popped up, and I’m used to getting under there for one reason or another. There were a few people around, but no one was paying any attention to a small woman in a maintenance uniform (I do have a nicer uniform I wear for the public tours).
After I got the set of floor tiles up, I began setting two traps, which was all I planned on in this section of the lobby. I got the first one set up just fine, but when I tried to place the second trap, it fell on it’s side and went off. That got everyone’s attention! But once they realized the noise came from me, everyone turned away. In fact, I think some of them left at that point, thinking I was going to make more noise. So really no one was looking when I reached out just a bit too far to get the trap and fell onto the sub-floor. Now, I’ve walked on the subflooring in other sections of the terminal, but I’d never really done much work in the floor of the south lobby. I expected to hit and not have much happen. In fact, it’s definitely better to fall on the wooden subfloor than the stone main floor. But in any case, this time I hit the subfloor and just kept falling. I went right through that wood like it was paper, and I was gone.
I couldn’t figure out what was happening — it was like I was transported to another world, though of course I was just falling a long ways. I could see these beautiful arched windows in front of me, lit up as if there was daylight behind them. They were immense — probably several hundred feet high — and certainly taller than the windows in the south lobby. Below me appeared to be gray dust or feathers; something solid and not solid at the same time. Almost immediately, of course, I was in that gray dust which turned out to be piles and piles of the older style of insulation that is used in attics and crawl spaces. In fact, it’s in the main dome of the terminal behind the mural about the founding of our country, and is constantly sliding down and every year or two we have to climb up and redistribute it. Very unpleasant. In any case, I was now completely surrounded in the stuff. It’s really dirty, but at that point, I was just glad to be falling into something fairly soft. I slowed down remarkably gently. The whole thing happened so fast, I didn’t even get a chance to be scared. That came later.
At first I thought I was I going to drown in this stuff, but it was really not very dense. I threw my arm over my mouth and sort of waded and paddled my way towards those gorgeous windows. The mountain of insulation had really gentle slopes, and I was still half in the insulation when I could stop and just stare at the windows. Maybe I should have immediately started figuring out how to get out, but the thought didn’t even cross my mind. I didn’t even look up to see if anyone had noticed my fall and was looking down through my opened floor tiles. I just walked towards that light. There were ten or twelve of them, all lined up. Small dark areas that might be doors were at the bottom, but you barely noticed them. The glass was a milky white and was bright and beautiful from the light. The room I was in was huge and dark and gloomy, but angled shafts of light fell out of each window, a hundred feet high. The air had enough dust, probably from the insulation, that the shafts of light almost looked solid.
You have to understand, the main part of Grand Terminal is absolutely beautiful. The architecture is open and airy, like a lovely French cathedral. But this was better than anything I had ever seen. Now, it is true that some of it was the unexpectedness of discovering another terminal below where I had spent years of my life, but I think anyone would have been taken with that room even if it was full of ancient insulation. I just walked towards those windows without a second thought.
I did notice that there was some movement near one of the slender support columns that were scattered through the area, but I ignored it, thinking rats or something, and kept going towards the windows. As I got closer, I could see that the doors at the bottom of the windows were in the same etched bronze as in the rest of the Terminal, but the light was too dim to make out the scenes. I guess I should slowed down to look at them more closely.
I grabbed the door handle and pulled. There was a slight sucking sensation, as if I was breaking an air seal, and then I was surrounded by utter chaos. The first room had been so quiet and peaceful, it had never crossed my mind that this area would be occupied.
The noise was so loud, I felt like I had been hit in the face. Never, even on the busiest travel weekends, have the public departure platforms upstairs been so loud. And this was most clearly a series of departure platforms. There was one running with each of the giant windows, with trains on either side, so there were at least 20 trains and they all seemed to be pulling in or getting ready to pull out. The trains were amazing. There were newer electric and diesel engines, but there were also older diesel and steam engines. All types, all sizes, all colors. A large part of the noise was all those engines and braking and whatnot. It was quite hazy in that space, and I never could figure out where the light was coming from. I couldn’t see the ceiling, and I didn’t really try since there was so much other stuff to look at.
Once I got over standing in shock at the noise and then the trains, I got caught up in a mass of people. The platforms were packed with them. Most of them looked just like the passengers upstairs, but some of them were in decidedly old fashioned clothing and few of them looked like they had come from a costume ball or Halloween party. Almost everyone looked stressed and confused and was rushing about referring to a ticket in their hands.
I was swept along in front of the platforms for a while, back and forth, as the people around me hurried along. After a bit, I started to see places where people weren’t rushing as much, little eddies in the crowd, and I pushed my way over to one. There was a little quiet space along the back wall with the giant windows. Finally standing still, I really looked at the space I was in. Things were so odd, I was sure that had fallen to my near death and was now in a coma, dreaming. I could see people haggling with each other over tickets — I couldn’t tell if anything was exchanged other than tickets, but there was sometimes much screaming and occasional hitting. Some people actually looked excited and interested in where their train was located, but most people did not. Almost all of them were missing something, but I couldn’t put my finger on what. Women were carrying a twist of paper that looked like it should contain flowers, but did not. Men were dressed immaculately except for some missing component — including sometimes their shirt or pants. Everyone had a slightly drawn look, like they had just gotten over the flu. No one seemed bothered by these oddities, just anxious to find their train.
I kept looking in my hands, thinking my ticket might suddenly materialize, but I had no ticket and was dressed just as I had been when working upstairs. I don’t know if I was also looked peaked liked the others. My fellow resting members of the population were all sitting and gazing distantly off into the crowds. They looked like panhandlers, but did not have anything in front of them to collect change or any signs explaining how they had gotten stranded.
I crouched down next to the nearest fellow, and tried to catch his attention. With all the noise, it was going to be hard to talk, but I couldn’t understand where everyone had come from and where they were going. Eventually I had to tug on his sleeve, and he turned towards me. Only a few inches from my face, I couldn’t ignore the strangest thing about all of them. His eyes were dim. Flat. They just didn’t have that spark.
The rest of him seemed fine enough. He was definitely annoyed when he yelled, “What? What do you want?”
“What is this place?” I yelled back.
He paused and seemed to look at me a second time and his face softened. “You’re not supposed to be here. Do you have a ticket?” I shook my head. “You need to leave. If they catch you without a ticket, you have to work here.”
“I already do.” My throat was already started to hurt, but he seemed to be having no trouble projecting.
“No, woking here is not the same as working upstairs. Although many of the employees are lost train workers, which I guess is convenient. But you will never get to take a train away if you work here.”
“I don’t understand.”
“No? This is it. The big kahuna. The final pie. The ultimate terminal. I could go on?” asked the man.
“Uhhh.” I stared at him. “This is hell?” I wasn’t sure what else to say, and I was starting to get a tingling sensation in my stomach of fear. I was definitely going crazy or was very badly hurt and dreaming.
“No, more like the transfer station that takes you to hell. The banks of hell, perhaps. But I don’t know where exactly the trains will take you. I seem to have missed mine.” He tapped the piece of paper in front of him.
“Will you have another chance?”
“Probably. Someday, I will suddenly feel a need to jump up and run to a platform. It happens to one us occasionally.” He gestured to the other people sitting. “But that day hasn’t come yet. They have good reason to run fast.” Then he gestured to the crowds.
I had too many questions, and I just slumped on the ground staring at the crowds. Was I just completely dreaming and this would disappear? Was I actually dead and this was some weird afterlife and I had lost my ticket? How bad would it be to work here forever? I watched the various red caps, conductors, engineers, and yardmasters. They never stopped running, and seemed to take no pleasure from their work. A few of the conductors were sometimes dragging passengers by the arm towards a train while the passenger seemed to beg and cry for something. The conductors paid them no attention, but kept hauling them towards their train.
The more I looked, the more I dreaded attracting the attention of these harried and cruel employees. I did not feel dead. I felt alive and that I didn’t belong here. I neither wanted to board one of these trains nor did I want to work in this part of the Grand Terminal. I wanted out. Maybe the same gut twisting desire to leave was what was causing all these people to run so desperately, but I was going to return to my rat traps and my life above.
I jumped to my feet. The man I had been talking to didn’t even turn his head, and none of the other sitters glanced my way either. Unfortunately, a red cap was looking my way. We both froze, surrounded by running passengers. He reached for his whistle. I froze. My muscles were locked and my throat dry. The piercing cry of his whistle jolted me back into movement, and I ran with the crowd away from the red cap and straight into a conductor. His had flew back off his head, and he snatched at my arms. His eyes were all too alive, and whirled around, shoes skidding on the floor.
The crowd had slowed, apparently unsure what to do about the whistle. I forced my way back through the passengers, and towards a set of bronze doors. I wasn’t sure if the conductor or red cap was chasing me, but I assumed so. Slamming into the door, I pushed and pulled on the handle, but I couldn’t get it open. The whistle was growing louder when another man leaned over and pushed the door open for me.
I glanced at him in surprise. He looked just like everyone else, with dead eyes and in his case, a missing necktie. He turned back into the crowd and I ran through the doorway. The noise faded, and I rushed towards the mountain of insulation with some idea of hiding from the employees there.
That was when I saw the rat. He was a smart rat, as big as a raccoon, and his eyes were shiny and red. He stood on his hind legs, with mangy, matted fur and patches of raw skin. His front teeth were large, yellow, and sharp. I swear he grinned. Suddenly, I realized the rats were everywhere. Most were smaller — more like the size of a cat. Their large, naked tails switched impatiently, making an ominous whipping noise.
I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but I screamed. I had had too much. This whole thing was too much. Maybe I was in a coma and this was my crazed brain working overtime, or maybe this was real, but I wanted out. The scream seemed to startle or even hurt them and they all froze. I started to run as fast as I could away from the smart rat, skirting the edge of the mountains of insulation. The room was painfully quiet after the train platforms. My breath, my feet skidding on insulation, the clicking of rat nails, and the whipping of their tails. I knew there should be stairwells along the walls, back from the windows.
I was pretty sure I was losing the rats, and no one seemed to have come through the doors when I reached the wall to the left of the windows. I ran along the wall, dragging my arm, hoping to find the stairwell. The insulation rose higher, and the rats started gaining on me. I could hear them getting closer as I got bogged down, tripping on the insulation.
My heart sank when I reach the stairwell. It was blocked up as nicely as the others I had seen upstairs. I turned and saw the Rat King. He had grown and was almost as tall as my shoulder. He slowed and grinned, his rat lips pulling back from his yellow incisors. I glared as hard as I could and crouched into a fighting stance. He laughed, the crackling noise echoing in the giant space.
“Go away!” I yelled.
“Oh, I don’t think so. You don’t belong here yet. You shouldn’t be here. This is my terminal.” He grinned again. With disgust I realized his skin seemed to bubble up and then a second rat head popped into existence on his neck, like a foul soap bubble. “Our terminal.”
I am embarrassed to say I yelled some inappropriate things at him. Another couple of heads popped out around his neck, giving him the look of an evil rat bouquet. All of his heads seemed to be having a great time.
I looked up, wishing I could just fly away, and I realized could see a square of light in the sky that must have been where I lifted the floor tiles. There was a column that descended from that square and disappeared into the insulation.
I ran towards that column and into the insulation. The Rat King and his rat followers surged after me. I could hear them digging through the insulation. I shoved my way forward faster and faster, sweat pouring off my face and insulation sticking to every part of me. I felt like I was growing ever larger with collected insulation and that the rats were getting ever closer. The Rat King moved quickly, but I seemed to stay just ahead of him.
I just focused on where I thought the column was located and plowed forward. I slammed face first into the column sooner than I expected, and I saw stars. I grasped the sides, sliding along the tiles, praying that these were constructed like the columns above with metal rungs on one side to allow maintenance workers to climb towards the ceiling.
I found the rungs. Unfortunately, the Rat King found me at the same moment. I could smell and feel him right next to me. He seemed to now be my size, with his breath on my face.
“Where do you think you are going?” he hissed.
I gulped. “Home. I’m going home.”
I burst upwards, climbing fast. My hands were coated in sweat and insulation, but I managed to keep climbing as they slipped off the rungs. I could hear the Rat King’s claws on the metal rungs and his heavy breath right below me. Then I heard the snapping and felt my pants shred. The next snap landed in my calf and I was being dragged back down. I ignored the flame of pain and pulled upwards.
Something in my leg separated and I flew up, released of the weight of the rat and part of my leg. I didn’t worry about it, but climbed faster, pushing off with my left foot and leaving my right leg dangling. The Rat King still climbed behind me.
I looked up in desperation, hoping the light in the ceiling was close, but something had blocked the light. I slowed, panicked. Could someone replaced the tiles? Would they have not noticed the giant hole in the subfloor? I screamed again. Something soft fell on my upturned face, scratching my cheek and then fell on. I could hear rats keening below me, and then another rat fell on me from above.
“Come to me, my children,” hissed the Rat King, each head calling out to the rats falling. This was ridiculous, slowly beaten to death with rats or eaten by a many headed rat. I kept climbing, the rats kept falling and scratching.
I could no longer hear the Rat King, but I wasn’t sure that was a good thing. I had lost track of time when I slammed into the ceiling, and I almost lost my grip. My face was bleeding from many scratches and my hands felt like raw meat. I had forgotten my leg. I did think about screaming again when suddenly light poured down on me.
Many rat voices cried out. “Noooo. She’s ours now.” They seemed distant, but I wasn’t about to relax now. I tried to scramble higher but couldn’t reach far enough to pull myself into the light. I saw a hand reaching through, and I didn’t think twice but grabbed that hand. Blinking and dizzy, and I realized I was hanging onto the director, who was tied to a rope being pulled by three or four of my colleagues. And then I was out.