I made it right on time. The train doors shut, and the conductor came down the aisle, his ticket punch clicking like a medieval torture device. I offered my ticket, he punched a hole in it—what is it today, a moon? a fire hydrant? there are six hundred and fifty unique shapes—and stuck in the back of the seat in front of me. The tiny hole in my ticket looked like a pudgy hand holding a peace sign, but I’m sure it was meant to be a bunny. A man across the isle spoke up; the conductor stuffed his anachronistic tool in his belt, whipped out a smartphone, and sold him an electronic ticket to Poughkeepsie.
The foliage had already peaked, but the woods along the banks of the Hudson were still dazzling. The ambers and coppers and crimsons, oh my. There’s a river boat tour around this time of year, specifically for the foliage. It goes from the city to Cold Spring. I’ve never taken the train as far as Cold Spring. Myself, I get off at Tarrytown, so when we made that sharp turn right after the Spuyten Duyvil station, I settled in for my twenty three minutes nap. It’s a comfortable commute. Some people swore off Metro North after that December derailment—not me. I was on that morning train too. In fact, I was in the car that flipped and slid all the way to the water. A woman sitting in front of me went through the train window. My legs got caught in the luggage rack after I landed on the ceiling of the car, so all I got was bruised shins. We were taken to New York- Presbyterian right after they pulled us out. They suggested counseling, but since I wasn’t injured, I didn’t see a point. I took a cab back home that day only because the train service was cancelled, and was back on the train the next day, on schedule.
When I sleep on the train, I usually set my phone alarm on vibrate—I like having a few minutes to get myself together without a fuss. I don’t know how I slept though it, but the next time I opened my eyes, the conductor was announcing, “Next stop: Cold Spring.”
“Excuse me,” I said, “I’m getting off in Tarrytown.” As I spoke, I was fully aware of how inapt my statement sounded. I was still groggy.
“You are ten stops away from Tarrytown. At the next stop, take the train at the opposite platform,” said the conductor. “The next Manhattan-bound train is in…” he checked his smartphone, “… thirty seven minutes.” That didn’t sound too bad, so, I thanked him, picked up my stuff and made my way to the vestibule without a fuss.
If there were other passengers getting off at Cold Spring, they must have already exited the station. The train’s silver side shuddered; it took off with a huff and was gone, living me alone on an empty platform. Across the tracks I saw the south-bound platform, also empty. Following the directions to the underpass, I came to a neat brick portal, stamped with 1929 over a flight of stairs leading underground. I focused on the numbers as I descended. The echo of my steps bounced off the vaulted ceiling, seemingly forever; certainly for longer than it should’ve for such a short distance. The air in the tunnel was cool, and I realized I’d been sweating. It was odd, simultaneously unnerving and mildly embarrassing, like a memory of a childhood fear. For a split second it felt like I’ll never leave this tunnel.
When I surfaced on the other side, I found myself in a bright street, nicely sloping to the river. Why didn’t I go straight back to the platform? I don’t know. It was that time of day right before dusk when the sun glare is particularly brilliant and shadows bottomless. Everything looks hyperreal and, as such, unreal. Usually, this time is loved by photographers, but the idyllic tree-lined street was empty. So was the embankment. Suspended in the golden glow, empty was the gazebo, and the benches, and the porches of the hotel and the ice-cream parlor. I couldn’t tell if the shops were open, either way, I wouldn’t dare to enter one of those neat, fake buildings. In the few minutes that took me to leisurely walk to the water, I haven’t seen a single soul, haven’t heard a single sound of life. No camera-happy tourists, no loitering teenagers, no locals hurrying home after a day of work. No human voices or machine engines, no birds; nothing but the thick steady buzz of cicadas. In this resonant, relentless silence, the intensely blue sky and the flaming autumn trees made the world appear false, like a crudely painted stage backdrop—a tightly stretched canvas behind which an incomprehensive and horribly alien emptiness is hiding. All it takes is to peel the corner, and it will come crushing over you.
This emptiness is absolute, like the vacuum of cosmos. And I am like the lone space-suited explorer from the cover of a science fiction paperback, standing on a copper cliff of some desert planet I crashed on, staring at the crimson expanse reflecting in the amber glass of my helmet. My spaceship is gone, and there is nowhere to go.
The only thing left is to try to survive here, in this empty world, on my own.