The city is empty.
That sentence seems a contradiction almost by definition. Cities are aggregations of people, after all–and my city one of the largest. They stopped counting after eight million. Yet here I stand, on a street corner in the dawn light, and watch the snow falling on empty streets. There are no newspaper vendors. There are no pedestrians. No vicious yellow taxis sprinting toward their fare’s destination. No flatulent busses, nor suspicious patrol cars. The streets are empty, and I am alone.
All around me loom the buildings, the skyscrapers. I am walking through an empty forest of redwood trees, and the trees are hewn from steel and concrete and glass. Their glistening gray surfaces are dark, without motion or sign of life.
I call out, but my words are snatched away by the wind. With nothing else to do, I begin to walk. I know where I am: the southern end of Manhattan, not far from Battery Park. No footprints mar the virgin dusting of snow save for my own. The wind swells in melodramatic gusts, whistling. It tugs on my longcoat like an insistent child, whispers in my ear, kisses my cheek: then, embarrassed, it runs away crying.
Sounds drift on the wind, sourceless sounds. For a moment I hear the ringing of bells, like all the churches of Rome keeping the hour. Then, impossibly, the voices of children, that fade in and out like someone’s messing with the volume button. Someone laughs. Far away, down one of the alleys between buildings, there is a faint scream. But no-one appears.
I hear the wings first; a flutter, a thrumping; then it lands in the snow beside me, all blue-black feathers and cruelly curved beak. Its feet make little dinosaur tracks in the snow. Turning its head to the side, it fixes me with one glassy eye. “I’m pretty sure you aint supposed to be here,” the raven says.
“No?” I say.
“Nah-uh. The boss won’t like it.” It turns its raven-head to fix me with its other eye, as if to confirm something. Then, it raises its wings, lets them fill with wind like a child about to launch a kite. A leap, a lunge, and it sails away down the avenue, becoming a dark shape that blends with the white and gray of Empty Manhattan.
(“Should I be astonished?” part of me wonders. “Talking to a bird in an impossibly deserted New York?” I search myself for astonishment and find none.)
I continue walking, turning northward now, towards Penn Station. If the world is deserted, perhaps the trains are still running at least. North I walk, and east, planning to pass by Ground Zero where the rebuilding continues.
I round a corner, finding some brief shelter from the wind. And stare.
The Twins loom there, their silhouette as I remember from my childhood. The Twins loom there, forming the number ’11’. The wind screams past their heights, but there they stand, as tall and as proud and as… tall… as they ever were in their prime. There is no scarring from the plane crashes. No smoke streams up into the gray stormclouds. The Twins tower, and I stare and gape.
What are you doing here, Christopher Russo? asks a voice.
“What is this place?” I ask, without tearing my eyes from the site. The Twins, there still, as though they never left.
There is a pause, and then the voice answers, in the deep tones of a cathedral echo. People dream, it says. People dream of what was, or what they wish yet was. I took those dreams and used them to build this place. This is not your New York, Christopher Russo. This is the dream of your New York.
“It is a good dream,” I say, turning.
He stands above me on a second-story window ledge, leaning casually against the wall. He is tall, and pale, with skin the color of bone. His eyes are hid in the shadows of their sockets, so that at first glance one would thing that he has no eyes: but there is a glimmer, first in one, then in the other. The wind races past him, snapping out his dark cloak like a banner, and whipping his wild black hair around his face.
Do you know me? he asks.
I hesitate. It seems that I should know him, that his face is one that has haunted my dreams for some time now. Yet, like so much of dreams, it is near-impossible to remember. “Yes, sir, I believe I do,” I say slowly.
It is well met, Christopher Russo. But you should not be here, not this strongly. It is not the time for your dreaming, and morning approaches.
Suddenly he is beside me. I do not see him leap down, nor float down, nor anything of the sort. One moment he is above me on a window-ledge, the next he is beside me.
Come, says he. I will show you the way to return.
“Thank you, sir,” I say, and follow him from under the shadow of the Towers, with one last glance.
We walk for some time through the powdery snow, my pale guide and I. He says nothing, only walks, and so I feel the need to fill the windswept silence with words of my own.
“I can still remember when they fell,” I say. “It was my first week of college, as a freshman. It was a huge shock when they fell.”
He says nothing in return, only glances at me with those unfathomable eyes.
“It… it wasn’t so much liking the buildings themselves. I mean, I had never been in either of them. The night of my senior prom, we were supposed to go for dinner in Windows on the World. Do you know Windows on the World?”
It was the restaurant at the top of one of the buildings, says my guide.
“Yes. We were supposed to go there for the after-prom. But Kim, well, she wanted to go to Central Park and do the horse-and-buggy thing, so we ended up picking someplace further north.”
I look at him, but he is watching the swirling snow.
“So it wasn’t the buildings themselves that was so horrible. I mean–they looked nice and all… It was the people. All of the people. Everyone I knew, knew someone who had died when the towers fell, or in the planes. A boss’s wife, or a friend’s son, or someone’s aunt.”
Yes, he says
I fall silent myself for a moment. And then something occurs to me. “It wasn’t even that, either. I mean, that was certainly horrible. But it was more… I mean, wars and stuff happen all the time, all over the world, right? There’s that crap going down in the Balkans, and now in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there’s always someone killing someone in Asia. But not here. We were insulated, we were safe. We had this big stinking ocean between Us and Them. Well, except for Canada, but no-one’s really scared of Canada.”
We are here, Christopher Russo, says the pale king, turning toward a subway entrance.
I had been about to expound upon my thought, talking about how there hasn’t been a war really on American soil since 1865, and habits of safety, and the psychology of terrorism, so on and so forth. But now we were descending the stairs into warm darkness.
The lights flicker fitfully in the subway station. My guide walks unflinchingly through the turnstile, which operates for him without a token. It does not do the same for me, however, and I find myself forced to vault over.
A train is standing on the tracks against the platform, empty, the lights on within, and the doors jammed open. Enter, he says, gesturing to the subway train. You will return to your bed and your home, Christopher Russo.
“Will I ever return here again?” I ask, a little wistfully. Following his lead, I step onto the train, and turn to regard him through the open doors.
Perhaps, he says, bowing his head. I am pleased that you like my city. Yet you dream too strongly, Christopher Russo. You must take care, ere you come under the care of my sister.
“What do you mean, I dream too strongly?”
Poets and madmen, the pale king mutters, drawing a handful of something from a pouch that hangs beneath his robes. Poets and madmen.
He throws the handful in my face. It is some sort of powder, that billows like talcum powder, but feels like fine-grained sand. Startled, I step back, coughing, and almost instantly the train begins to move. At the same time, I feel my eyelids grow irresistibly heavy, and I yawn so hard that my jaw creaks. I feel myself fall to the floor of the subway car, but it is a dim feeling, and I can barely bring myself to care.
The train rocks as it leaves the station, and I hear the sepulchral voice of the pale king one last time. Sleep well and wake, Christopher Russo, says he.
(No copyright to this one, as the characters are not my own. Call this one a fanfic.)