The beeping shattered the dank Atlantic evening.
It was five o’clock. The tide was falling like a stain down the pebbly beach of the coast, dragging stones and sticks and the garbage bags full of ten dollar bills that never seem to quell their flow despite the signs posted around the waterfront.
You were already ten minutes late.
The amber smear of the sunset across the passing storm formed a sword, stabbing repeatedly at your irises. Your phone kept ringing and you kept running. Sidewalk panels seemed to sag under your wide sneakers.
Shit. Acid stabbed at your throat, rubbing it raw with the tang of sea salt. You needed a break, despite the texts pouring in at three to the minute. Limping along the cracked road, you checked the time. Five oh two. They’d be waiting.
Electro-punk strains slashed at the evening air. Aspen was calling, again.
Aspen; clipped, brusque, hipster. Constantly quoted Burroughs.
“I thought we were meeting at five.”
“Toronto’s not waiting. There’s seven minutes before our tickets run out.”
You covered the phone and glanced over the hump of an intersection that rose from the dead centre of town. Water and Main were almost gravel, raised fifteen feet high and liberally scattered with old maples and bitter white pines, inured to the salt breeze.
“I’m at Water and Main. Be there in three.”
The line went dead. You wrapped your frayed old raincoat around your waist and trudged on, feeling the sidewalk turn to gravel and flood your shoes, turning them to bilges.
Three Peak Cove was beautiful and dead. The bright cottages and gaudy boathouses that lined Water Street were picturesque and peeling, both in terms of paint in honest integrity. The false cheer of the tourist industry had moved onto bigger fish.
Gravel bit at your heel. You limped faster, the lights of the platform blinking over the hump of the intersection. Still green. Good.
Past Moran’s decaying house were the remains of the bus station. Just two posts and an ankle-high edge of shattered glass, left over from two winters ago when Hurricane Lilly ripped apart the New England seaboard. It wasn’t special or disturbing. Half the country lay in ruins.
On instinct, you remembered to look both ways before crossing the street. Then you remembered it was irrelevant. The lights on the platform began blinking.
Time to move.
You put your head down and sprinted, backpack jarring into the small of your back. Bare fields and windswept patches of road passed by in a blur. You hear thunder, distant and low.
Two blocks of undeveloped land took you another four minutes. You only look up as you reached the doorway, panting, your buzz-cut hair sticking to the hood of your jacket.
The Three Peaks Cove sub-platform was twice the size of the old bus terminal and twice as high. There were no windows, just a neon sign and digital board for the schedule done in emerald green. White painted automatic doors marked the building as more than a power transformer with advertising. Wires hung off in skeins, trailing along high poles down the road, into the wilderness beyond the town.
“There you are.”
Aspen leaned against the wall, smoking, glasses set on an angle and reflecting the ambient glare of the sun. Laurie pounded away on her phone. Jeremy took his hands out of his jeans pockets and kissed you, before curling his fingers inside your pocket as he always did.
“Nice to see you too, Aspen.”
Aspen shrugged, the lengths of his flannel flapping in the evening breeze.
“Just trying to get the ball rolling. Don’t tell me you forgot your ticket.”
You dug into your pockets, yanked it out as Aspen half-drags the group through the double doors and into the platform. Three minutes left. Jeremy stepped around the desk and yanked out his own ticket.
The only room was subdivided. A desk with a glass front and microphone lined the length of the platform. A bored attendant tapped away at a computer. Bank lighting filled in for lack of conversation. Papers tacked to corkboards lined the other two walls. Job ads. Sale notices. Foreclosure dates. There were a lot of those.
“Three Peaks Cove Sub-Platform.”
You remember the attendant from a high school dance, or maybe a concert. He was bored and lanky and three years older than you.
Aspen butted in.
“Four jumps to Toronto.”
“Union, Exhibition, or Pearson?”
The attendant looked up from his screen, tapped a few keys. A sliding door beside his booth pops open with a hiss and a rush of condensation.
“Because this is cross-border, you will be scanned and searched once you reach Union.”
Another flurry of key-taps.
“Done. Step onto the platform, please. Have a good night.”
You stepped through the door behind Aspen. Strobes turned his back into a warzone of glare-spots and blinking dials. A technician rubbed shoulders with you as you passed. Three Peak Cove didn’t have any building wider than a boathouse. The platform was no exception.
Painted boxes marked the spots. You let go of Jeremy and hopped up the three steps to the master platform. Aspen tapped his foot, impatient as static crinkled his hair and sent tiny sparks along the hems of his pants. The technician, pale in the glow of his screens, began keying the scanning sequence.
Processors hummed. The edge of the platform lay in shadow. Only the light blue of the spiking tape and the spotlights bathing the platform gave any sense of outline or form to the tiny room.
You knew the drill. Suck in your gut, don’t tense as the scanners begin humming.
A trembling sensation rustles its way up your ribs. Your guts rattle; your kidneys knock together. Your eyeballs buzz, and seem to swell with sudden heat.
Flash screens slam shut, cutting you off from the technician.
A seeping yellow glow spread through your knees, your spine; chasing up your vertebrae and into the base of your skull where it rests, clawing and probing and biting every nerve end and every-
Flash screens hiss open.
There was even lighting, and noise, and the rolling static cracks of platforms as they disgorged their passengers for a good half-kilometer, up and down the old crumbling facade of Toronto’s Union Main Platform Station.
“Welcome to Union Station. Please step down from the platform and show your passports to the customs officer.”
You know the drill. The announcement’s automated, broadcast from behind a thin security mesh enclosing the platform you’re standing on. Crowds rattled the mesh, two thousand voices weaving between each other and adding to the din.
You’re still dizzy. No surprises. Teleporting three thousand miles takes its toll.
“How far to the Air Canada Centre?”
Aspen shrugged his shoulders, tried yelling over the press of the line as it anchored itself between the nightclubs lining the downtown street and the eternal shuffle of the pedestrian crowd beyond, endlessly driving onward to the downtown core.
You didn’t make out a word; couldn’t in the pulsing, throbbing, living light show of the neon bars that danced and ground against your irises in blistering reds and plasma blues. Bass beats assaulted your eardrums, rattled your teeth, shook the soles of your shoes and turned your mouth cavity into yet another sound space.
There were thousands pushing past you.
You check your phone. Thirty seven minutes.
The gateway between two nightclubs and the crush of Bloor Street East led into the Tunnel, one of dozens of capillaries snaking its way through the unused streets that made up the old entertainment district.
Cars rusted in a heap to your left, piled up tight against the street-front for a half-kilometer, all the way from the last intersection. Hondas rubbed shoulders with Dodges, which crushed Volkswagens under flattened winter tires.
They were all pointless hulks now.
“Ticket check! Ticket check!”
Matte black and onyx street-fronts open a chink, through which the whole city seemed to be partying. To your left was the Fringe; to your right was the New Door. Both vomited hipsters and party girls in rippling summer dresses and killer heels. Yelling from the gates were two Toronto Met cops on district duty. Reflective badges flashed in the ambient glow.
Laurie pushed past you, flashing her ticket, raising her arms as the scanner beeped and sang over the crowds. The officer nodded. She moved on. Your turn.
They asked the usual questions, checked your platform stub and the bag you carried. You raised your hands, gave Jeremy a wink and a smile, and watched the river of humanity surge past the curb. The remaining downtown streets descended into strips of rough asphalt.
Vendors closed up, advertisers hollered for trade, destitute taxi drivers and airline unions screamed at the crowd in locked ranks. There were no sirens. No engines. Nothing
but endless streams of humanity on another night, in another year.
“You’re good. Move along. Next?”
You stepped through the cordon, leaned on the veranda, waited with Aspen as Laurie and
Jeremy went under the scanners. Skirts swish inches above your head. Electric breakdowns drove them on.
“Thirty minutes. Let’s move.”
Aspen was gone, ducking through the crowd. Jeremy grabbed your hand, acted as an anchor as the Air Canada Centre loomed above.
It wasn’t far. The cherry-red lettering of the Centre sign bled into the tinted glass of the nightclubs that pressed in to both sides of the pedestrian path. It reflected again off the windows of the dozens of condo towers arranged haphazardly across the downtown core like tenpins. The eerie lighting blinked across the city on nights like this.
Beer tents and rave clubs mixed their scents and their sounds, fusing it together with the eager rumble of the hundreds that strayed off the dark Toronto streets behind you.
Twenty five minutes until show time.
“Those are our seats.”
The man in the poncho flinched. His partner didn’t look up from her phone as Aspen whipped off his glasses and began his usual ageist tirade.”
“Hey. I’m talking to you. Anti-corps. Move.”
His partner looked left, slipped something small and square-shaped under her seat. Her silver hair glistened and shone under the spotlights swinging in ponderous pendulums around the dome of the arena, bathing the thousands below.
“Kids these days.”
The contempt dripped off the man’s tongue like lukewarm tar.
You hung back. Laurie thumbed her phone. A couple of e-swingers drifted past you, all fedoras and industrial spacers. The couple didn’t budge.
“You might have corporate tickets. That doesn’t give you the right to be rude, young man.”
“I’m not your grandson. Get out of our spot.”
You decided to intervene. Letting go of Jeremy’s hand, you pulled your ticket and showed the serial number to the waiting couple. It matched.
He grunted, did the same. The numbers matched.
“We were just resting our legs. My wife’s got a back problem. Kills her whenever she walks.”
“Excuses, excuses. All you anti-corps are the same. I might not be drawing a pension, but that doesn’t make me gullible. Get moving.”
The woman wrinkled her nose.
“All you corporate dogs understand is sponsorships and instant gratification. Right, dear? Real integrity existed before the platforms made everything instant.”
“Less talk, more shuffle.”
Aspen wasn’t in the mood.
The man glared at you, rose from his seat and lifted his partner from her seat. The two shot Aspen another withering look and limped off, into the press of the spectators chattering and pouring in from the sloping stairwells that filled the balcony seating of the Centre. Static grumbled, died away in a calculated gesture to the improvised tuning schemes of rock concerts.
“Instant gratification, my ass. We worked for these tickets. Three months of promo work.”
Aspen’s grumbling died away the moment he sat down and flicked his phone on. Jeremy rose to find the bathroom. You give his shoulders and his back a bit of a glance as he makes his way up the ramps to the exits. He doesn’t seem to mind.
Two things stand out to you as the stadium flickers with camera shots and the tiny green fingers of glow-sticks.
One, the woman never hunched her back.
And two, neither of them wore a wedding ring.
You sat back as the industrial lighting died overhead.
Silence began, stretched time until it seemed like the crowd had been sitting forever, listened forever. A shoulder nudged yours. Coughing echoed sporadically.
The bass followed. Rumbling built on low buzzing, rolling and building and throttling the very walls of the stadium as static spikes began to prick and stab at the eardrums of eighteen thousand souls.
Halogens flashed, ringing the stadium like white quotation marks, blinking in the silent madness of epilepsy as the synthesizer drones and whines, ripping through the steady backdrop of the bass and reaching fiery heights before falling away, upstaged, by the clunky whip-snap beat of the drum set laying down the rhythm and the law.
Outlines branded themselves upon the stadium’s eyelids. They were skeletons and spectres; artists and ghosts and a story unto themselves. Corporate designs backlit the stage; red and interwoven like three double-helixes wound as a single piece of molten rope.
Government approval sigils glowed.
Bones glowed. First a deep purple, warming to orange as the strings and the battery of three guitars blurted, then wailed into the blistering chords of “Network Active.”
Backbeats filled the spaces between every note, every rest, every pause as the figures on stage twisted and contorted; puppets to their own strings.
There were words, but they weren’t sung. They were chanted, ethereal and alone and completely unnatural; above the storm. The hurricane of sound stripped them of inflection or meaning. You found yourself repeating them, as you always do, without meaning or sense.
Fists surge in unison. You’re reminded of rallies, but it drifted into the back of your mind and makes a last stand, alone, against the onslaught of camaraderie and the wave of unity that those corporate designs binds you to.
You’ll do more than weather the flood. You’ll break it.
Time stopped a while ago. You find yourself trembling. The bass is cracking. Breakdown time. The guitars modulate and fluctuate as the crowd began to crash into itself, flow through itself, dance and spin in a million tiny circles. You found Jeremy. You held him close, twisting in his arms, slipping your hands down his shorts and breathing in his ear as he-
At first, you thought the amp controls went wonky. A technician bumped the volume control and de-modulated the whole thing. But you figured out later that wasn’t the case. The speakers died, and eighteen thousand terrified voices drifted with them; forming the horrified ripples of a mob mentality seconds after the band on stage realized their instruments had died.
Like a choir, the voices rose louder, louder, louder. They tried to fill the void.
For a heart-stopping four seconds, they failed.
Emergency lighting began to blink. Drones filled the terrifying silence. Fire alarms hollered and shrieked as a platoon of vested duty police unbolted the exits and began hustling people out as fast as they could. It was an uproar. A battle. People fell underfoot. You saw a couple separated; she drifted with the crowd, he tripped underfoot, lost. They screamed, but screaming was everywhere. There was nothing unique about their terror.
You couldn’t see Aspen. You couldn’t see anyone. A myriad of terrified blurs of faces blinked past, shoved in place, funneled by the cops at the top of the stairs where the exit disappeared into the roof of the stadium, to the packed high halls of the exit ramps.
The cops were using truncheons and nightsticks to herd the crowd.
You prayed that you’d be on the inside of this human cattle drive.
You were. A slip of a girl five feet to your left was not so lucky.
Jeremy was gone. There will be sobbing, but this hadn’t sunk in. The disaster hadn’t placed a chisel over your heart and slammed the hammer home.
It had only set itself up.
Before you stumbled down the first leg of the ramp and into the terror, you feel a compression under your feet. Double booms soar over the crowd; knocking over hats, sending earrings and phones and handbags flying. Ripples of concussion rattled your skull.
The walls rose above you and around you, containing the crowd in a concrete tunnel that sloped ever downward. Another concussion. Glass blew out this time; further down at ground level. Megaphones crackled in the streets.
You smelled smoke as your feet touched ground. The garage-like emergency exits were wide open. Dozens of officers directed foot traffic and connected any casualties with the grim-faced black-uniformed paramedic clustering around the street front like vultures.
The street was cordoned off. Sirens flashed and winked in the midnight air, stinking and heavy and ashy. You look to your right. Fires burn between the condo towers. Multiple sources. You didn’t really care about them.
You cared about Aspen, Laurie, and Jeremy.
Hands scrabbled inside pockets; your phone survived. There are two messages. Both from Jeremy. Both less than three minutes ago.
The first: <Union Station Platform and 3/7 main transformer junctions bombed. No jumps in or out of city. Absolutely ok. Waiting by Bloor + Spadina. Love you.>
The second: <Police showed up. They aren’t letting anyone leave.>
You look up. Antique police vans have cordoned off both intersections on the Centre’s corners. Armoured squads of riot police and tactical SWAT are trotting down both sections. You watch a squad surround a local transformer/degrader station; a platform switchboard of sorts, sorting out the thousands of jumps made to and from Toronto and wiring them all to the correct place. It’s on the corner of the street, occupying a former convenience store’s place.
They weren’t fooling around. Three kicks and the door caved in. Eight men stormed the building. Shots pierced the air.
You lost yourself in the crowd and let it carry you along the street to the intersection. In bits and pieces, you texted Jeremy back and let him know you survived.
Beep. Message received. So easy.
Instant gratification was addictive.
You saw Aspen leaning against the street corner, smoking as if nothing was wrong. Two squads of police stood to just yards away from him. Jeremy broke away from the wall the moment you pushed past a gaggle of stricken fifteen year olds. You grip him, kiss him, feel his tongue brush past yours, smell the nervous sweat hanging off his jacket.
You ignored Aspen, broke out of the kiss giddy and dizzy. There’s a police officer standing beside you, snapping commands into his shoulder-rig radio rapid-fire.
You tapped him on the shoulder. They needed to know everything, anything.
Why had they been sitting at a corporate rally and slandering it?
There’d been no ring, no back pain.
No reason to pay for expensive tickets.
You explain the couple to the police; buzz-cut grey hair, no highlights, medium height, between forty and sixty five years of age. One male, one female. No suitcases or handbags. They shake their heads , thank you, and probably grimace behind your back as they survey the next dozen shell-shocked witnesses being lined up in rows against the Centre wall.
Aspen sat on the sidewalk and cursed. Laurie played with her phone. Jeremy slept against you, coughing occasionally and twitching as sirens screamed into the distant.
You expect you’re going to be stuck here for a while.