A late-night commuter witnesses a chilling event outside the window of their subway car, and becomes obsessed with solving the mystery which surrounds it.
Written, Narrated, and Produced by Doryen Chin
Sensitivity Reader: Auden Granger
Transcript and Content Warnings under the cut:
Note: The audio you will hear is slightly altered from the text below, but the transcript is accurate for most purposes.
[content warning: suicide mentioned, workplace sexual harassment]
by Doryen Chin
My name is Tracy Urnwight. It's been almost a year since the last time I took the train. I'm moving upstate next week, because even the low-pitched rumble of the subway beneath the street makes me break into a cold sweat.
It was the last week of October, and I was on my way home after working my second double in a row at a lounge in Soho and I was scheduled to open the next day. I needed the money.
I think it must've been almost three in the morning. At that hour, there are fewer lines open. I had to go half an hour out of my way just to get home, but it was either that or walk all the way to the nearest direct route. At the time, walking those dim streets alone just wasn't worth the trouble.
So there I was, sitting by myself in the last car on the train, my head against the window. My phone was dead, so I was forced to read all the cheesy ads plastered all over the car just to keep myself awake long enough not to miss my stop.
Near the end of my commute, there's a long stretch of tracks that run above ground. As the train emerged from the tunnel, I glanced out the window to look at the skyline that was visible beyond an old warehouse district. Neon skyscrapers flashed between the rows and rows of passing warehouses and old mills.
It was right about then that I caught a glimpse of something that made me sit up in my seat. You know that thing where the human eye finds faces in everyday objects? Para... Para-doll... whatever. Apparently it works that way for things that look like human bodies too. There's nothing quite like the shock of seeing a person where you don't expect there to be one. You can imagine then how it felt, as my train passed the last of the warehouses and I saw there, on the roof of the warehouse at the very end of the row, standing right on the ledge -- easily a hundred feet off the ground -- was a person.
I stared as the train pulled away, and just before the warehouses winked out of sight, my stomach lurched as I saw them jump.
Immediately I stood and craned my neck to get a better look. Unable to see anything, I ran to the back of the car and crammed my face against the window, my hands cupped around my eyes against the lights, but I saw only darkness, and the pale orange glow of the city against the sky.
My phone still dead as it was an hour before, I ran ahead to the next few cars and found, that, the only other people on the train this far down the line were, an old Vietnamese couple and a junkie passed out on the bench seats.
Funny how there's always a guard nearby whenever you lose your pass, but never one when you need any help. I don't think I got any sleep that night.
I spent the next day with one eye glued to the news. Checking Twitter, local stations, anything I could think of. By the end of my shift, I had mostly convinced myself that I must have imagined the whole thing. I hadn't exactly been getting any actual real sleep lately, and it was entirely possible that I didn't see anything at all.
But that night, as my train once again emerged from the tunnel, I held on white-knuckled to the seats in front of me as I found myself staring out at those old decrepit warehouses. I expected to see them dark and abandoned, like they always were. Of course they would be. They had to be.
I should have been dead tired, but instead I found myself wide, painfully awake. Unlike when you're dreaming, when the world is slightly dulled, I could feel the absolute reality of the world around me. Felt the cold handrail against my palm. I heard every squeak and rattle of the car on its greasy old tracks. I heard even the soft whistle of wind outside my window. And I knew that in a few short moments, my mind would be totally clear of any suspicion or guilt over whatever it was I thought I saw the previous night.
Maybe that's why, when the last warehouse swam toward me in the dark outside, I felt a stab of ice in my chest as, for the second night in a row, I saw a single person standing on the roof. Right on the ledge. I couldn't move. The ice in my chest dropped into my stomach and spread through every vein and bone and I was forced to watch, for the second time in as many nights, as a person leapt from the roof of a building at least a hundred feet tall and plummeted into darkness.
By the time I snapped out of it, I had missed my stop by three stations and we had come to the end of the line. Walking home, on that cold, dark, moonless October night, I found myself flinching at every slight rustle of trash on the street, every distant barking hound. But I kept my head down. My eyes on my shoes. My hands in my pockets. And eventually found myself at home. I turned on every light in the apartment and closed every window and curtain.
I was late to my shift the next day. When my boss confronted me, I just apologized and told him it wouldn't happen again. I must have been giving off some kind of aura because he looked at me and asked if something was wrong. I knew this routine. Everyone at the lounge did. I lied and made something up about being stalked by an ex-boyfriend and that I wasn't sleeping well because of it. It was easier than the truth. I knew what he would say next and, any other day I think I might have laughed it off like everyone else. But that night, at almost three in the morning, we sat together in the last car of the train back to my place.
Unlike most nights, the rear car wasn't empty. A small gaggle of college-age girls in elaborate Halloween costumes huddled at the far end, taking selfies and challenging each other to see who could make the worst Halloween puns. This thankfully limited the scope of activities which my boss might've attempted to engage in, and I found their antics a welcome distraction. I was so distracted that I lost track of time and place. I was already glancing out the window before I realized where we were.
Three nights in a row. The same time. The same place. The same human figure leaping into the darkness. My boss cried out in pain beside me and I realized I held his knee in a vice grip. Embarrassed, I turned to apologize but he had his mouth on mine before I got the words out. I pushed him away and stood up, overwhelmed and disoriented. As he cursed at me, I saw that the college girls were staring at the scene we were causing. I sat back down and apologized. The girls all got up and moved into the next car. He asked me if I was alright, if I still wanted this. I told him I was afraid. He said that he understood and wanted to help, and I felt his hand, hot and strong, sliding across my lap. When we got to my stop, I thanked him for riding home with me and left him at the station.
I didn't bother going to work the next day. I knew I'd have to find another job, but that could wait. Instead, I slept in. By the time I woke up, the sky was the fiery orange of a sunset before rain. There was only one thing on my mind. Only one thing I wanted, needed, to do. I ate what little I could stomach and spent over an hour on Google Maps, and when I finally found what I was looking for, laced up my boots and walked down to the subway station.
I was surprised at how quickly I was able to find it. I had to go a couple stops past my home station in order to access the road which led to the warehouse district. I thought it was unusual that such a large and prominent tract of land just sat there, unused and neglected in such a crowded city. It seemed like a waste.
A tall, ten or thirteen foot fence wrapped around the entire property. Rusty chainlink topped with razor wire. The main gate was padlocked shut with a thick gauge chain, as I expected. I didn't know how to pick a lock and thought it might be better not to even try. At least, not until the sun had gone all the way down. Instead I pretended to be on a casual stroll, and walked the perimeter of the fence. The ground around the fence was littered with refuse. Along the way I counted at least two broken syringes and one used condom which appeared to be tied to the fence about eight feet off the ground. Up close, the warehouses and old mills were much taller and more massive than I thought they'd be. Almost none of the windows had any glass left in them, having long-since been vandalized or broken by inclement weather. Just black voids where glass should be. Why is it that windows always look like eyes?
It wasn't until I found myself on the far western border of the industrial park, the side facing the river, that I spotted a potential way-in. A big tree had somehow grown on the rocky shore between the river and the warehouses, and its roots had gotten so large that it disrupted the land on which the fence sat. Because of the roots, there was a gap about two or three feet wide that ran under it. Having some time to kill before whatever was going to happen would happen, I decided not to cross the fence just yet.
I grabbed a bite to eat at a nearby gas station and ate my food on a bus stop bench under a dark street lamp. And I waited. While I sat there, I saw a pair of drag queens walking arm in arm across the street. I thought I recognized one of them, but by the time I realized it wasn't who I thought it was they had caught me staring and quickened their pace. I looked down at my feet and pretended to tie my boot.
When I finally made my way back to the gap under the fence it had been dark for several hours. To get through, I had to crawl on my hands and knees in the damp underbrush, and my shirt got ripped a little on the jagged fence wire. I didn't want to attract any dangerous attention to my activities, so I used my phone screen to light my way rather than the flashlight.
I happened across a cement driveway that seemed to connect all of the warehouses on this row. and thankfully faced away from the road on the other side of the lot. I followed it all the way down in a straight line past warehouse after warehouse until I saw it up ahead. The last one. Just as big as the others. Now just a black bulk against the night sky. No glass to reflect any light.
I slowly became aware of the weight of my feet which seemed to grow heavier with every step toward that desolate place. From where I walked, I could see the raised tracks which stood on concrete pylons some forty feet high. A train came down the line and I heard the clacking of its wheels on the bare metal. I watched it disappear behind the last warehouse on the row and knew what I had to do next. What I had to look for.
But when I came to the front of the building, I didn't find anything but overgrown weeds, cracked concrete, and chips of glass scattered about. Likely from the broken windows above. Three nights in a row I had watched someone leap from this building and land... apparently nowhere. Or had I? Did I really see it? To this day, I'm still not completely sure. I checked the time. It was just past two-thirty in the morning. Not much longer. I looked back at the warehouse and suddenly knew that if I wanted any answers, I'd have to find a way inside.
At the back of the warehouse there was a loading dock with a big rolling door that wouldn't budge. I didn't fiddle with it much because it would've made too much noise. Instead I walked around to the far side where I saw a fire escape and discovered that the emergency ladder had been let down to the ground. I stared at it, dimly illuminated as it was by the weak glow of my phone screen. A rickety assemblage of rusty steel which zigzagged up the side of the building and vanished into the darkness above. With a wave of sudden nausea, I stepped back from it.
I think I must've circled that warehouse half a dozen times, looking for any other feasible way inside. But no. There was nothing else. So as the clock marched on toward three, I did the most foolish thing I've ever done in my life. I climbed the fire escape. It swayed and groaned under my weight, the vibrations rattling the platforms above me. When I reached the first landing I leaned against the brick of the wall and closed my eyes as I caught my breath. The door at the landing had been boarded up and after testing it briefly, I knew deep down that the only way was up. And so I climbed. Thankfully, the ladder gave way to stairs, which squeaked and complained with every little movement, but ultimately bore me, floor after floor, to the roof.
When I reached the upmost platform on the fire escape, I was covered in sweat and trembling like a dry leaf. My heart pounded in my throat, and I swallowed hard as I saw that the only way to the roof from here was to climb a short ladder which was permanently affixed to the side of the building. The ladder was enclosed by a metal tube, presumably to reduce the risk of falling. A claustrophobic little cage hundreds of feet off the ground. I checked the time again. The hour was nearly up. If I wanted any chance of satisfaction, of understanding, that was going to be it. So up I went.
I emerged from the cage and tripped on the ledge as I tried to step onto the roof, falling over onto my side. I was cold, sweaty, terrified, and likely bleeding, but I made it. I staggered to my feet and, too exhausted to care, switched on my flashlight to get a good look at the rooftop around me. Across from where I stood, there was an access door which probably led down into some sort of inner stairwell. I tried the handle, but it was locked.
Behind me, I heard a soft scraping sound. Have you ever felt too frightened to scream? Like you're so scared you wish you could scream your entire heart out but nothing comes out at all? All I could do was slowly turn my flashlight toward the source of the noise.
Standing there, shuffling oddly in the beam of my flashlight, I saw a huge, grotesque shape emerging from the darkness. There were eyes. Wide and glistening. Folds of black flesh and some sort of dark, ragged coat. The head jerked sideways and revealed a cruel, hooked beak. It was a goddamn vulture. I'd never seen one in person before. I didn't even know there WERE vultures in New York. With an ugly croak and a sudden flurry of movement, the vulture leapt from the rooftop and disappeared into the sky.
I watched it go, stunned by its unexpected appearance. Right at that moment, everything began to make sense. This bird was big. Huge. The shape I had seen leaping from the rooftop all week must have been this garish bird all along. I laughed at myself. My stupidity. My suspicious mind. And if I had just gone home right then, I would've been fine. Absolutely fine. But I didn't.
I hesitated just long enough to hear the familiar sound of a train coming down the line and, checking the time again, realized that it must be the one I had taken home every night this week. Curious, I walked to the edge of the roof so I could watch it go by. The headlights illuminated the long steel tracks as it flew along the elevated curve. I counted the cars as they passed, and realized that from where I stood on that roof, I could see down into the little windows. I could even make out the faces of the few people on board. Suddenly something felt very wrong, and I was afraid. Afraid to see the last car go by. Afraid to see inside. But I couldn't look away. I had to look. And I saw a man. Staring straight back at me. His eyes wide in surprise. His lips curling back in slow terror. Aghast, my hand flew up to cover my mouth. And so did his. On seeing this action, which both in timing and in motion mirrored perfectly my own, I finally screamed. And the man on my train... in my car... in my seat... in my clothes... with my face... screamed back.