A car journey through the city leads to trouble.
He didn't make any great effort to rush, not really rush, as he'd often done in the city. He'd spent enough time doing that to realize how counter-productive it could be. He was tired of the stress from trying to be somewhere in a hurry; of the mild panic, the resulting migraines, the little accidents that often happen as if out of spite. If he's going to be late, it simply won't be his fault. He'd allowed enough time for the journey, and that's the most that could reasonably be expected of him.
The centrally-located hotel was the most suitable place he could find to stay, while securing the right position. He knew it wouldn't take long; he was well-qualified, had the right experience and plenty to offer. So much so, that even being a little late would not rule him out of a job. Still, he liked to be punctual, or at least make the effort.
The parking lot was only a five minute walk away, but already he'd begun to regret buying new shoes and not wearing them in. Perhaps they were a bad fit. Certainly one heel felt like it was being flayed. Bear it - he thought. He didn't have any further to walk until the return journey. His feet smacked down the stone steps and along the walkway to his car, nestled among the nursery of sleeping vehicles.
The engine clicked once and purred. Dalen was soothed by its deep, smooth, humming vibration. It felt as velvety as the tie that occasionally stroked his neck - even better, since the car didn't threaten to restrict his breathing.
That velvety calm was starting to show signs of wear by the time he'd passed two blocks of moderate traffic. Just beyond the second intersection the cars in front had slowed like treacle before setting fast. He was at least relieved not to have gotten stuck in the way of passing traffic. Being caught in the crossfire of honking horns and abusive taxi drivers was not his idea of a pleasant drive.
As it was, some idiot thought it worthwhile to tap his horn, as if that would produce some space for Dalen to move into. He happily ignored the warning; he'd done nothing wrong. Then the queue was moving again, tortoise-style and in dribs and drabs. Dalen wasn't sure what was more annoying.
A bus trundled in the opposite direction, slowing, hissing, rumbling, then stopping, leaving its back-end blocking the hazy sunlight into Dalen's car. He pressed a button; a window whirred open. He wished he hadn't when the bus pulled away, farting a noxious cloud into his private space. His throat tingled bitterly and tightened before he could scrabble the window closed.
The vehicular blockage lurched forward, slowed and stopped again. Dalen tried to relax. It's not worth it - he forced himself to believe. Getting pissed won't shift a hundred tons of metal and plastic. A long wall of glass, cut into sections, barraged the street beside him, one section filled with shoes, one with plastic women whose figures looked identically emaciated, another containing a large room with an empty stomach - in the process of refurbishment. At the back of the room, a door lay open into a passage where Dalen could see a mirror or else a rear window. He was just puzzling over the column of bricks that appeared to hover above an old man, when a honk gave his heart an unnecessary jump-start.
A space of three cars had opened up in front, though it was only two cars long by the time he could move forward. The car behind revved its angry engine. Dalen tried not to stare in his mirror at the silhouette behind the wheel - a confrontation now would only cause more delay.
He switched on the satnav to see his location, though he couldn't imagine how it would help to go the final six blocks. The sea of cars started to move, slow but steady, right up to the next intersection and stopped. He didn't risk moving into the small gap that appeared in front. The traffic would never clear the cross-road.
Dalen glanced at the time. So what if he'd be five minutes late? - and that's only assuming the whole journey was going to be the same snail's pace. They usually make you wait even when you're on time, so what difference would it make? Yet the thought of much delay managed to crawl under his skin, curdling with the helplessness of waiting, starting to fester.
A tower of glass leaned over him as he looked to his left. The sun caught the surface somewhere high up, so brightly that it made the building appear to shrink and bend at its middle floor.
Squinting, he thought he saw something running up the side, its long legs pumping up and down. As it passed the glare, it took the more familiar shape of a platform on a pulley, its occupants waving poles and brushes like dying insects. Beyond stretched the roof of the city, a glassy avenue of blue-white, closed in by a border of jagged grey protrusions.
CRUNCH! Dalen slammed his foot on the brake. He hadn't noticed his ankle relax and the car slip forward. It can't be serious - he thought as he peered at the car in front which proceeded to eject its driver. A pug-face glowered at Dalen, who was deciding whether to lock his doors and sit tight. He soon rejected that idea. Trying to ignore the walking slab of muscle approaching his car would just make things worse.
Dalen slid out the door and put his hands momentarily in the air. "Look mister, I'm so sorry. Is there much damage?"
The man stifled his anger under a rigid face. "What the hell!" he rasped.
"My fault entirely. I just wasn't paying attention. I am insured," Dalen said as calmly as his nerves would allow, conscious of his accelerated heartbeat.
The man paused, then slapped the air. "Aaah, you're not worth it, pal." He turned, leaving Dalen to inspect his bumper - not even a scratch in the shining metal. As he re-seated himself, the clamour of impatient motorists unsettled Dalen almost as much as the threat of violence had.
Sitting awkwardly, his shoulders stiff with tension, Dalen felt himself drawn towards his old habits. A cigarette lit itself in his mind, then proceeded to sizzle softly. No! Don't make matters worse - he thought. Don't return to Lydia with no prospect of getting the job and then admit you couldn't handle two weeks without a smoke. Don't do that to Lydia, the girl who you thought you'd never be with, whom you had to fight for and work so hard to keep. Don't let down the biggest reason to even bother struggling for that perfect job.
Dalen inhaled shakily, released, puffed out his cheeks. His neck began to ache. The traffic moved ahead, just a bit… then a bit more, trundling on, slow but constant. That continued through two entire intersections, coming close to where he would need to make a left turn, yet it still seemed to take longer than he could tolerate.
The progress didn't last. As he ground to a halt, the face of a half-man half-beast lined up with his door window. It was just a homeless man, his hair wild and coated with an even wilder hood, like a lion's mane. He would barely need to lift his arm to touch the glass - perhaps that was the idea, so he could just stand and wait for cars to meet him. Dalen noticed the hand floating up and heard the tap almost before he saw it. He was much happier with the next lurch forward, leaving some other poor sucker to feel guilty.
He knew that taking the narrow side-street was a mistake as soon as it led him to the crowds. It had looked like the perfect little detour to escape the fuming, shifting blockage of humming metal. Then he'd wondered whether the new obstacle, filled with staring or complaining or miserable faces, would be worse. He thought they might be seeping from an old, red-brick building that could have been a religious or community center.
Some were bustling, some almost running, but Dalen couldn't quite tell what the louder ones muttered hastily. He tapped his horn, the burst clashing with a twinge of guilt. His car crept forward, prising its way through. Dalen was nearing an empty stretch of road when a loud crack made his head flinch forward. A shadow disappeared from his rear-view mirror. Some thug or lunatic must have taken his anger out on the rear window - a small but firm spider's web had grown across the glass.
Dalen's face began to throb. He clawed his tie loose but still sensed the edge of a migraine wedging its way into his brain. He honked more aggressively in the hope of clearing the remaining stragglers who insisted on walking everywhere but on the sidewalk. "That means move, not stand there!" rebounded from the dashboard. It only made his head feel worse. Claustrophobia began to shrink his flesh.
As soon as the car had nudged its way through the last of the jaywalkers and broken into the empty street, Dalen tried to work out how late he was going to be. Half a cringe bit into his face; the other half he fought back, still unable to accept that he might be later than he had ever been. He accelerated as much as felt safe, frightened of hitting the curb which had started to look more like a tiny wall.
The moment he saw the barrage of traffic cones, a slackness wiped the remaining cringe from his face. He felt trapped, despite the workman waving him towards a left turning. He knew he'd be going almost opposite to the required direction, but the alternative was to retrace his route and deal with the crowds. A small part of him wanted to hammer the steering-wheel and yell out the window at the orange-striped man. He yelled in his mind and swerved left.
As he sped through the narrow street, he felt the vacant backsides of brick buildings reaching towards him, closing in. How can this stupid road be so long! - he fumed, choking. He looked at the satnav and wondered how he could be driving through white space. He'd never actually been on roads that are so minor as to be 'unmapped'. He forced his tie loose, then yanked it off, bruising his windpipe. He tried to swallow, his throat so dry that it felt lined with glass wool. The car ripped into a clump of black plastic bags that had been growing off the sidewalk and spilling into the road.
Relief washed through his lungs as an opening onto the main road appeared. It surprised him even more when he saw how empty the road looked. As his car emerged from the side-street that felt like it was about to swallow him, Dalen was momentarily elated; not only to be back on track but at how easy it was to join the main road. He'd had visions of a relentless onslaught of traffic, too impatient to let him in.
But the good feeling didn’t last. The more he looked around at the wide road, the more unsettled he was by the lack of traffic. He tried to shrug it off, only too happy that now he could speed his way onwards - as indeed he had begun to, until he realized that he wasn't sure if he'd joined the road in the correct direction. He glanced at the map - a white screen with a dot. He cursed. It occurred to him that the satnav had gone awry back in the side street.
He slowed down, started to take in the surroundings - the tall buildings and glass facades that lay ahead. Was it just him or did they seem taller than the more familiar towers he'd seen around his hotel? And wider, more shiny, more glassy, more steely. He couldn't have been driving more than a mile, yet he'd certainly never been down this avenue before. In fact, he'd never seen such squashed up buildings. Where were all the patches of greenery, the trees, the alleyways, the side streets? And most importantly, where were all the people?
Soon after passing the shiny black marble base of one tower, he stopped to think. He peered up through the windshield at the looming monstrosities of masonry. Perhaps he'd never noticed how much of the sky they conceal when they are so close to you. They seemed so high they almost quivered; or was it just him starting to feel dizzy? Suddenly a rumble made a pen vibrate on the dashboard.
Dalen hit the pedal and spun the car around, screeching. He'd had enough of the strangeness, of the oppressive feeling starting to squash his skull. If he didn’t find his way soon, he was going to pass out from the pain in his head or else have a heart attack - whichever came first. He decided a job interview was out of the question. Now he just wanted the comfort of home, the velvet of her voice, the softness of her sweater, the fragrance of her hair. Together they would laugh when he described his bizarre experience.
He smiled, until his throbbing head pounded the smile away. His face sagged when he slowed down to take in the towering scenery, because he couldn't seem to find the black marble building that he'd passed only moments ago, before the U-turn. He felt sure he couldn't have passed it so soon. He slowed further, now scanning for the side street he'd emerged from. Double doors, wide windows, awnings and parked yellow cabs drifted past, but no side street.
He stopped, not bothering to pull to the side, since not a car was in sight that might have complained. A subway train rumbled from the earth's hungry stomach. He clambered out to approach a window where people were seated within. But they weren't people after all, just a line of movie stars imprinted against the back wall of a café. Dalen ignored how tiny the interior was and how strangely skewered the walls had looked. He strode along to the next shop-window, where someone has just opened a door. Of course it was just the mingle of reflection playing tricks on his eyes. The shop was empty, of everything except a brown, wooden wall running across the back. Obviously undergoing some kind of re-structuring.
He crossed to the other side of the road to the darkened window of a bank, only to find it was so dark it could have been unlit midnight within. He was even more bewildered when he turned back toward his car to find it had rolled partly onto the sidewalk. Either that or the sidewalk had shifted beneath the car. But how had it rolled both right-side wheels up the curb, when he thought he'd parked parallel to it?
Dalen started to feel drained from the relentless stress and confusion that met him with every turn. He tried vainly to rub away the pain that kept shooting up his neck to the back of his scalp. He heard the groan of girders as he stood, paralysed with indecision. Looking up, columns of concrete with myriad shining, silvery eyes swayed and danced. He felt more sure than ever that they were leaning over to meet, closing out the sky. He stumbled back, falling onto a man-hole cover, bashing an elbow on the iron studs. The smell of sewage flowed through his nostrils and stuck to the back of his tongue.
He rolled onto all fours, too dizzy to stand. Only now did the tremor reach through the cold, lumpy iron, through his hands, into his wrists. He thought he knew what the tremor must mean - but why had there been no announcements, no panicking people, no emergency services? The ground shifted as he fought to compose a lucid mental picture. He felt he would never be able to make it to his car and away from the danger. Even his vision had become impaired: the sky had dimmed, leaving greyness and structures that blurred.
As he pushed himself up a tremendous rumble shook the ground beneath him. His shoes felt as dissolved and blurry as his vision. His knees gave way. Striking the man-hole cover, one side lifted slightly away from ground. He didn't think but followed what his body was telling him, what his heart was trying to pound into his brain - the need to survive. He reached out to grasp the protruding iron. His fingers curled over the icy lip and held it up while his own pressure shifted off the metal disc.
Heaving it up, Dalen revealed the darkness of the hole beneath, unleashing a cloud of stink. He hesitated for only an instant - something large and noisy moved at the edge of his vision from across the street, something that he didn't want to see. He lowered his feet first. The ladder rattled under his weight, but held fast. The last glimpse of the scene above his head made his legs weaken and his feet slip. Half falling, half grappling with pitted rungs that crumbled to the touch, the effluent blackness rose up and smothered his senses. An image of a thousand cracking windows, leaning within their steel framework, had already imprinted itself behind his sightless eyes.
Dalen's shoe smacked the floor of the shaft. He stood frozen, bracing himself against the ladder, hoping he was deep enough to withstand the shock which he felt was inevitable. The blackness turned to dark gray as his eyes adjusted. He waited, but no crash came. No shaking of the ground. No tumultuous impact of masonry. How could it take so long for a building to fall?
He soon realized he had been mistaken - mental confusion or a trick of perspective or of lighting. Nothing could have been falling, at least nothing so immense and devastating as it had appeared. He breathed deep, his chest tremulous, his heart palpitating. A circle of grey light hovered above him, particles of dust and dirt sprinkling through. He crouched down, his knees spreading with cold wetness. Nausea made his clutching fists and the gray metal bars shift and blur.
And then the noise shattered his ears like a cannon blast. As he fell back into a pool of water, he could do nothing more than stare at the sudden wrenching of the earth. The entire surface of the tunnel peeled away like raw pastry, yanking the ladder clean from the ground. A section of the sewer gaped into the open air where clouds of concrete-dust billowed. A column of stone hurtled towards him from the grayness. It slowed suddenly. A ball of steel pins unfurled like a blossoming flower and clawed horribly at the air. Dalen shielded his face - if only to deny the twisting block of stone where the holes of smashed windows gaped like empty eyes.