Huffing and puffing, Turtle Fulton ran another few feet, while the Kincaid twins, Nate, and Nick came up behind him, barely winded. They were running a practice race in Central Park, and as the slowest member of the school’s already slow track team, Turtle expected the brothers to laugh as they roared past. Instead, they turned around to look at him, and then veered off into some bushes. They waited there, while Turtle plodded by, slow and steady.
Turtle went a few more feet and stopped to turn around. He was counting his footsteps in his head as he ran, breathing out on every prime number between 2 and 11 − 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 – a trick he used to keep himself distracted on the longer runs. His track coach said he was good at distances, and things like this made him better, but the Kincaids were always faster and always first. Now, they were doing something weird.
As he passed the twins, he saw them turn to rummage through a stand of tall greenery topped by purple flowers that ran up a towering rock. They moved further into the greenery, submerging themselves into the bushes like they were hiding. Turtle kept running. Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t his business, he thought.
Then the rustling stopped. Turtle halted mid-stride. From out of the bushes came something that sounded like a cork popping out of a bottle, and when Turtle turned to look, the twins were gone. Nick, with his long, wavy blonde hair, and Nate, with his short blonde buzz, had both vanished into the bushes.
Turtle’s real name was Paul Fulton. He’d been called Turtle for years. He had been a big kid when he was younger, fat and chubby, but he was slimming down, now, and he could even count his ribs in the mirror when he raised his arms. He was far from skinny, however, and the kids still liked to call him Turtle. But, they were nice about it, and the older students in track sometimes ruffled his brown hair and told him to speed up. He could run far, but not fast, just slow and steady; and that’s what his coach said would win the race. At 13, he was ready for a growth spurt and for his baby fat to slough off like a shell. The long waited-for growth spurt just wasn’t coming, but he was still young or so his grandmother told him, as well as the fact that his father hadn’t slimmed out until high school. It was especially hard when kids, like the Kincaid twins, were always skinny and ate all kinds of junk, but Turtle was never jealous.
Now, however, he was jealous. Where did they go? What was that noise?
He ran over to the rock, a few feet off the path, his heart rate slowing, the sound of his pulse booming in his ears. The scent of the flowers was strong in the air, even over the blurry, sharp smell of fresh asphalt coming from somewhere nearby. It had rained during most of March and, now, in April, the park was fresh and peaceful. The relative quiet was temporarily cracked by the thrum of a jackhammer near the street about a hundred yards away. It was the kind of spring day in New York that reminded Turtle that winter was over and summer was still to come – the best days were summer days, as his Grandma always said – but, that there was still a way to go.
The jackhammer stopped and the trill of birds replaced it in the quiet. Somewhere, over a low hill, Turtle heard the sound of traffic – a bus stopping with a whine of hydraulics, a horn beeping once in warning, the rev of a high-powered motorcycle peeling out into the street. He knew that the rest of the team was somewhere far ahead, but there were more pressing matters.
Turtle looked carefully at the bushes, convinced the twins were hiding there, somewhere; but in a few seconds he confirmed what he had suspected: the boys were gone.
The stone behind the bushes looked like a forgotten, ruined castle, with the edges of the rock chiseled roughly at right angles, and the cracks filled with brown dust. Someone had carved a pair of numerals into the rock − 13 – although the carving was old and worn down to near invisibility. It was just more vague, permanent graffiti that, by now, Turtle had become used to seeing in the city, although this was a bit tamer than some of the stuff he had seen written on Central Park rocks.
His grandmother had told him that all of the huge rocks in Central Park had been quarried upstate, then brought here on horse-drawn wagons. What a wild thought. This rock, alone, was a monster. Bigger than a small house, it had been taken from the earth and brought here as a decoration.
Wherever the twins were now, Turtle couldn’t see them. The jackhammer pounded again, drowning the sound of Turtle’s own heartbeat.
Turtle reached out a hand to feel the cold of the rock and the grit of the mud that had sluiced off the top of the rock and dried on its surface. There was nowhere for the twins to have gone Wiping his sweaty brow, Turtle faced a blank wall of stone, his hands searching for hidden handles or buttons. “Was this a magic trick?” he thought.
Waffle-patterned footprints scuffed the dust at the base of the wall, and Turtle saw the light imprint of a Nike sneaker in a patch of drying mud. He put his own foot next to the fresh track to measure it. It was about his size, and about Nick and Nate’s size. So they had been here. He wasn’t dreaming.
Turtle turned around. The grass leading up to where the twins disappeared was worn away and the dirt showed through in a thin strip, like a path. The park had always been crisscrossed with little, informal walkways, but this was the first time Turtle had seen one end in a blank stone wall. You weren’t supposed to follow paths in Central Park. First, you weren’t supposed to walk on most of the grass and, second, the older kids would talk about the dangers that lurked in the park. But, this was new New York and danger had gone out of style, replaced with glass and marble, and sidewalks that sparkled like diamonds. Danger came from elsewhere, from outside of the city. But, for some reason, Turtle felt a sense of dread – and of excitement.
Somewhere, someone laid on a car horn, long and loud. Turtle wondered if the twins had climbed to the top and over.
Slowly, cautiously, again, he rubbed his hand along the surface of the stone. He felt foolish. He was last in the practice, the rest of the team was already far ahead.
Just as he was about give up and keep running, Turtle felt a deep rumble under his feet. He placed a hand on the cold stone surface and listened. He felt it more than heard it, but there it was: the rumble again, like a train roaring by. He put his ear against the rock wall and it was louder – clack clack… clack clack – a subway train rattling on iron rails, a sound that was so impossible to miss that he got a chill. There was a train behind the wall.
Engrossed, Turtle didn’t notice that he was falling forward. The rock face gave way, moving inward on invisible hinges. Rivulets of dust cascaded down on him as the rock gave away. He was moving now, falling, his hands out to break his descent, but there was nothing to stop him, just a rush of air, like a pillow buffeting the front of him to slow his fall, but with gravity pushing him forward.
He was inside the rock.
The door shut quickly behind him with a mighty whoosh.
He had popped through and onto a subway platform. The door he had fallen through was, on this side, clad in heavy wood, and held together with polished iron bands. The iron was beautifully wrought and the wood was covered in delicate carving. The planks polished and burnished to a bright golden sheen. Birds took wing from long grass carved in rich deep wood. At the center of the door was a keyhole surrounded by a halo of lines that ended in sharp hooks. Everything was carved in deep relief and with great care. Sharp letters along the top of the door read: “Central Park South.”
The clack clack was wildly loud here, and Turtle took a quick breath and crouched down, with his left foot behind him and the other foot in front, ready to run. But where could he run? The door behind him was closed and that platform was a about fifty feet wide and ten feet deep.
Turtle stared, dumbstruck, at the twins, both of whom just stood there like they were waiting for the train. Something was coming down the tunnel. The wind and dust picked up and filled the platform with noise.
But, was it a New York subway platform? It wasn’t dirty or crowded or full of noise and mess. It was delicately gas-lit from above with crystal chandeliers. It smelled sweet and close, like a church; the scent of the polish and pine almost made Turtle sleepy. There was also a whiff of smoke from somewhere and the smell of ozone, like the water from a garden hose. The walls were inlaid with pieces of polished brass, and tile the color was robin’s egg blue and coated with crackled glaze. The ceiling swung up above them, into the darkness. Tracks led forward and backward into dark tunnels. Turtle could feel his heart beating in his ears and his own labored breathing, and he heard the laughs of his two teammates.
Next to the door was a wooden booth with glass windows. A tombstone-shaped opening was cut into the lower part of the glass, and a ticket machine made of wrought iron poked out of the counter, a length of connected tickets sticking out of the window like a tongue. A carefully hand-lettered sign, yellowed with age, read: “Closed Until Further Notice.”
Nick and Nate were standing on the platform as a train rolled into the station with a wild screech. “What the…” whispered Turtle, and Nick suddenly turned around, his eyes wide with surprise. Nate followed, and both looked at each other.
“What are you doing here?” asked Nick.
“Who let you in?” asked Nate.
Turtle suddenly found his words.
“I saw you guys come here and I fell through and I saw you guys…” said Turtle.
Nate and Nick looked at each other angrily, then at Turtle. Nick scowled.
“Didn’t you lock it after, Nate? How the heck did he get in?”
“There is no lock,” said Nate. “It just closes.”
The station filled with sound and light as a train streaked out of the south end of the tunnel – Was it the South?, wondered Turtle – and stopped abruptly with a squealing of brakes.
It wasn’t a modern train. It had a gas headlight and consisted of two long cars coupled together. They were painted a deep crimson that was almost brown, with black iron front and back platforms. Two red lights blinked on the burnished copper roof, and the front and back of each sloped gently down, making the train look almost like a centipede. The wheels rattled against the rails as it stopped, and the cars heaved forward, then settled on their springs as the doors – two on each car – swung back and in, hissing compressed air as they swung. Another hiss of air signaled that the brakes had let go. The train sat idling on the tracks.
The train cars looked brand new, washed and polished to a shine. They had been carefully maintained and, unlike normal subway trains, the steel wheels were still glossy and bright, as if they had recently been brush-cleaned.
“Get on the train, Turtle,” said Nick firmly. Nate moved to Turtle and grabbed him by the arm. “Come on,” he said.
Somewhere, something inside the train chimed twice. It was a mechanical sound. A bell ringing, rather than an electronic chime.
“This thing doesn’t stop for long and you’re not getting out of that door there. It’s locked, now, on this side. Come on,” urged Nick. He grabbed Turtle’s arm and pulled him onto the train. Had Nick not prodded him, he probably wouldn’t have moved.
Another chime sounded and the doors hissed shut. The train began to trundle down the tracks and pick up speed as it moved into the darkness.
Turtle stood on the train, holding onto a leather hand strap, and stared intently at the darkness out of the window.
“Guys, seriously. What is this? Is this a joke?”
“It’s no joke. It’s a train we use sometimes,” said Nate.
“Like New Jersey Transit?” asked Turtle.
“Not quite. But, it goes most places you need it to go,” said Nate.
Nick elbowed him to be quiet.
“Where are we going now?” asked Turtle.
“It stops at 69th Street, by the finish line.”
“Is that how you keep winning races?”
“Sure. Our Uncle showed us.”
Nate and Nick sat down. In their shorts and gym shirts, they looked out of place amid the train’s plush decoration. Wicker chairs lined the entire car, each one bolted beneath the wide glass windows. Small oil lamps flickered above the seats, and a sign above the door said “Mytro”, and next to it, was a small keyhole. Turtle ran to the window to catch a glimpse of the tunnel but, except for the bright red lights on the roof and the front headlight, it was completely dark outside.
“This is how we get A’s in gym,” said Nate.
“By riding a secret train in the middle of Central Park?” yelled Turtle. Nate and Nick looked at each other and shrugged.
“Sure,” they said in unison.
“But you’re not supposed to know about this, Turtle. We could get in trouble,” said Nick.
Turtle turned red with anger.
“This is not only crazy, it’s cheating,” he blasted. His voice was muffled by the rattling train and the rich velvet curtains along the clear glass windows. The whole train rolled side to side as they moved, and Turtle could tell they were moving fast.
“Sit down. Just wait,” said Nick.
Nick didn’t like Turtle as much as Nate did. Nate was into video games and computers – like Turtle – and Nick had a band and was into music. The two rarely played together, and Nick never sat with Turtle at lunch. Neither of them had ever been to Turtle’s house, but he had been to theirs. Turtle’s house was too far and Turtle was embarrassed when he told people that he didn’t live on Manhattan Island, but instead, lived in Brooklyn, over the bridge. Living “in the city” was a big deal – it meant your family had money and you could ride cabs to school, or even had a driver to take you from your apartment to the front door of Manhattan Friends, where they all were in eighth grade. Nick and Nate lived in the city; Turtle lived in Bay Ridge, two places that were only five miles apart, but as distant to each other as the Earth to the moon.
“Are you going to tell, Turtle?” asked Nick.
Turtle took a deep breath.
“No,” said Turtle. “I won’t tell. But, what is all this? Who runs it?”
“We don’t know,” said Nate. “My Uncle showed us a few stops and gave us a map. We use it to get around the city.”
“Who owns it?” asked Turtle, but Nick was busy looking over Turtle’s shoulder and Nate was standing up.
“Nobody,” said Nate. “Nobody owns it, which is why it’s so great.”
“Here’s our stop,” said Nick.
He led Turtle off the train into a new station. The walls were covered in grey-brown tile painted like duck feathers. The station name was “Central Park Mid. Conductor’s Line.”
They rushed past the wooden ticket counter – identical to the kiosk in the previous station with an identical “Closed” sign – and on through the door. A scattering of tickets swirled around their feet as they opened the door.
On the other side, Turtle realized they were behind another rock and another stand of tall bushes. The door shut behind them, disappearing completely into another rock wall into which it was set. This door was covered by a stand of tall, old trees and more of the sweet-smelling greenery, but no path. They popped through the greenery and stood blinking in the sunlight. Nick and Nate started running.
“Come on!” hissed Nick. “Run faster. We need to work up a sweat.”
“I’m already sweating like crazy,” said Turtle. “That was intense.”
“Pretty cool, huh?” asked Nate.
“Pretty cool,” said Turtle.
A minute later, they were at the finish line. They were in the middle of the pack, an acceptable performance. On the walk back to school, Nick, Nate, and Turtle hung back.
“Ok, guys. Now, you have to tell me how to get back on there. How did your Uncle find it?”
“It’s a long story,” said Nick with a smile, and Nate stared straight ahead, quiet and thinking. “And it’s pretty complicated.”
“And, we need to ask our Uncle before we tell it,” said Nick.