When Adil didn’t come home, Melanie tried not to be suspicious. When he didn’t come home the next day, she tried not to worry. When the police came to her door, and told her that she would have to identify the body, she would not let herself think of the worst. Only at the funeral did she greet and call Reality by name: Adil was dead, and it was up to her to bring him back.
They had met at a seminar she had been giving in the back of her neighbourhood bookstore, an informal lecture on running a small e-business from home, which she had been doing for several years. Melanie hadn’t felt comfortable speaking on behalf of the subject, but the bookstore owner convinced her just to tell some illustrating anecdotes. She ended up speaking for an hour and a half. Adil had approached her in the coffee-and-cookies section of the evening, while she dropped down from the euphoria of a room full of people absorbing knowledge from her.
He had quite enjoyed her speech, he had said, smiling from the eyes.
Her enthusiasm for her work was infectious, he had continued, sipping coffee from a styrofoam cup.
Melanie doesn’t remember what she had said in response. She had been too busy watching his lips and imagining how they would feel.
The weather did not co-operate during the funeral. It was clear, and bright, a sunny late-April day with the lilacs that ringed the cemetery in full bloom, and lily-of-the-valley blanketing the shady parts of the grounds. Wafts of gorgeous scents drifted like the chestnut blossoms, settling on the mourners’ shoulders. It was obscene.
She didn’t speak much to anyone, either her family or Addy’s. They remained mired in grief, too tethered to the idea that he was dead. They were, in fact, defeatists. Not Melanie.
Her mother spoke to her, privately, concerned by Melanie’s lack of hysteria--which her mother called “grief processing” being big on psychobabble buzzwords--and Melanie calmly explained that she was not grieving as there was nothing to mourn. Adil’s absence was temporary, and wasn’t she, Melanie, a stronger woman than that, to not let a man’s momentary disappearance from her life cause her to become emotionally unhinged?
Her mother’s expression convinced her that perhaps she had better keep the rest of the plan to herself.
Melanie sat on the curb, one hand pressed against her forearm, holding the piece of gauze in place under her sleeve. A bench stood a block down at the street car stop but she couldn’t be bothered to walk; the curb was more convenient.
Up all around her the cliffs of the downtown core rose to dizzying points, the yellow of their scattered lights showing against the darkening strip of sky. The true stars of Toronto’s nightscape.
Melanie just sat, neck craned upwards, as the sky lost its red tinge to become a deep navy.
“You wanna be careful,” a voice said, startling her out of her thoughts. She looked over her shoulder. A homeless man, wearing an torn puffy jacket and baseball cap pulled down over his face sifted through a dumpster. He pulled out bits of plastic to sniff them, and, if they were worthy, stuffed them into bulging pockets.
“Careful?” Melanie repeated, not sure if he’d been speaking to her; but he nodded.
“Uh huh. A lady in this neighbourhood after dark--well, you just be careful, all right?” He stopped examining scraps long enough to look her in the face. “Jeez, lady, you don’t look so good.”
Melanie shrugged. She rolled back her sleeve and peeked under the piece of gauze; the thin slash mark had stopped bleeding. She carefully peeled the bandage away and crumpled it into a ball.
The homeless guy stopped rooting through the alley’s dumpster. “You got any cigarettes?”
“Nope, sorry.” Melanie played with the gauze, pulling and twisting it between her fingers. “I don’t smoke.” He didn’t move away, or go back to his digging, and she looked up to regard him, carefully. Medium build and height; white; fair; there was a substantial amount of scraggly facial hair--not enough to be called a beard but far too much to just be scruff.
“You been to see the psychic?” he asked her, scratching at an ingrown hair with fingernails completely black underneath.
“Yeah,” Melanie replied, going back to playing with the bandage. “She wasn’t very useful, though.”
“No?” the homeless guy seemed surprised. “She always seemed pretty good to me. Knew right who I was, soon as she saw me.”
Melanie snorted. “Yeah, well, she didn’t know who I was.”
“Well, you’re not me.”
She smiled at the irrefutable logic. “And you are?”
He came forward, awkwardly, and held out his hand. “Daniel Gabriel.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Gabriel. I’m Melanie.”
“Not Mr. Gabriel. Daniel Gabriel are my given names. Don’t go by my last name much.” He scratched his beard again, hesitated, and then sat down beside Melanie. He smelt of old trash and stale cig smoke.
“Okay,” Melanie agreed easily. Her commuter training kicked in: just be friendly and non-committal and maybe the person talking would go away. And yet she wanted to trust him, a completely unfamiliar sensation. She began to speak, hesitantly. “Do you ever find yourself in a completely random situation? I mean, you just sort of snap out of it and wonder how you ended up where you are?”
“Yeah,” he replied, quietly. “Sometimes.”
“Sometimes I do too. I mean, I am now. I mean, I am sitting here, on the curb, outside of a psychic, who drew blood from me--”
“It’s okay, she’s licensed.”
“And she needed it, for the sacrifice, she said. But that’s just my point. She’s the fifth psychic I’ve seen this week.” Melanie rolled back her sleeves: her forearms were lined with welts and scabs of previous slashes. “Looking for advice, looking for a way, and they all want blood, which is a little weird, but what do I know about oracles?”
Daniel Gabriel shifted slightly, his brow furrowing. “Blood sacrifice?”
He scratched at his scruff-beard again, the grime under his fingernails leaving thin black trails on his cheek. His eyes were a very strong blue under the brim of his baseball cap, even in the twilight. “Seems a bit like you’re looking for something that maybe you shouldn’t be.”
She bristled. “What would you know about it?”
“Nothing.” He shrugged. “I’m not anybody. But blood sacrifice, that’s potent stuff.”
Melanie stayed tense, her shoulders pulled up around her ears, while she played with the very deformed pieces of gauze. “I need to know,” she said, quietly. “I need to know. If a certain thing can be done.”
She sighed. “The psychic doesn’t know. Even with the blood she took, she still couldn’t see it.” She closed her eyes and brought her knees up, to rest her forehead against them.
They sat in silence for a long moment, Daniel Gabriel watching traffic a block away at the main intersection, Melanie with her head on her knees, her arms wrapped around her calves. Finally Daniel Gabriel spoke.
“What is it that you’re looking for? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“My boyfriend.” Melanie replied, muffled.
“He run out on you?”
“No. He died.”
There came a long pause, broken only by more terse scratching of facial hair. “Then don’t you already know where he is?”
She snorted and looked over at him, peeking out from under her bangs, still resting on her knees. “Nice.”
“Sorry. It just came out.”
“Whatever.” Melanie wiped her nose against her sleeve, and straightened up, stretching. “It doesn’t matter. He’s not where he’s supposed to be.”
“At home. With me.”
“Lady, he’s dead.”
She turned to look at him, frankly. “I’m going to bring him back.”
He returned her gaze, just as openly. “Why?”
“Why? He’s dead. People die, lady, it happens all the time. And they don’t come back. So why bother looking for him?”
And so Melanie talked about Adil. His sense of humour. She told the story of the broken sofa. How he made her feel safe, and protected and loved. She told the story of the beach vacation where the cottage nearly blew away in the storm. She told of how they were buying their first house. They had bought it. They were due to move in a week. He always put off packing, he said it distressed him. He packed by throwing things into boxes at the last moment, whereas she sorted carefully, making notes. The fights; the exasperation; the excitement barely contained. And then Adil didn’t come home, because he got in a fight with someone who took it too far. A week before they moved in to their new home.
She spoke calmly, steadily, her voice barely wavering, her eyes off in the distance, seeing old events again.
Daniel Gabriel didn’t say anything, but he rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “That’s awful, lady.”
“You see what I’m trying to do. Why I’m trying to do it.”
“Yeah... but...” he sighed. “You’re looking for something you can’t have.”
“Who says I can’t have it?”
“You just can’t, you know? Life doesn’t work out that way. You get what you’re given. And sometimes it doesn’t turn out the way you expect.” He cleared his throat. “I wanted a top hat.”
“A what?” Confused, Melanie grew a little angry that he compared her loss with an article of clothing.
“A top hat. Ever since I was a kid. No, just listen for a minute... when I was a little kid, I was one of them weird ones. Always standing apart from the other ones. And from my family. And I would look at my tired old dad, and my mom, and I would think, I won’t be like that when I’m old. I will travel the world, and wear a top hat, maybe have a cane, too, and do as I please, and I won’t be someone’s tired old dad. And life just doesn’t work out that way. You think you can have something just because you want it, but life, it has other plans.” Daniel Gabriel cleared his throat again, and then spat onto the street. “Man, I gotta get quit. Or get another pack.”
Melanie pulled her sleeves down, picking at a stray thread, shoulders hunching again. “Why don’t you have a top hat?” she asked, quietly.
“Never did find one. Probably couldn’t afford it if I did.” He shrugged. “Like I said. Life gets other plans.”
Melanie nodded, slightly, almost unconsciously. “I still have to try.”
He shrugged. “It’s your life, lady.”
She got to her feet, slowly, dusting herself off; she felt as though her strings had all been cut. “I should get going.”
He nodded, remaining on the curb. “Got any change on you that you could spare?”
“Sure.” She fished a couple of toonies out of her pocket. “It’s... it’s been good talking to you.”
He smiled up at her, depositing the toonies in a non-plastic-filled pocket. “People always say to me, I’m easy to talk to. I should be like that guy on tv, the doctor guy.”
She smiled back, but perfunctory. Already she was thinking about routes to take, streetcars to catch.
“You ever want to come back and chat, I’m always around here somewhere,” he continued, blithely. “That psychic used to be a good friend of mine.”
She nodded, hugging her arms to herself; it was getting cold. “Have a nice night, Daniel Gabriel.”
“You too, lady. You too.”
The next morning started gray. Melanie got up in the washed-out light, dressed, brushed her teeth. She didn’t bother to turn the lights on; she was comfortable in the half-gloom.
All her boxes had been put away, the furniture arranged. She hadn’t yet hung the photos and the paintings--there was debate with Adil’s sister over the ownership of some of them.
She checked her email. A friend since college had recently moved out West and urged her to visit and stay a while in Vancouver. A business-related email from a supplier. It could be put off a day or two.
Melanie padded across the living room floor in bare feet. Perhaps she would mop the floors today. She paused by the windows, looking out into the backyard that was an unruly profusion of green. No leaves fluttered from the wind or bent under with the rain. She took a closer look at the puddle under the coiled garden hose, hanging on the shed’s wall. No ripples. No droplets. So she didn’t need to stay inside and invent chores.
Anything to get away from the empty house.
She took the streetcar along King, slicing through the core to the west end. Addy endlessly groused about her habit of planning circuitous routes around the city, just so she could have interesting sights on the journey. Endlessly complained. Only--it had ended, hadn’t it?
Impulsively she grabbed the pull-cord and dinged for a stop. She could walk the rest of the way. She needed fresh air.
It was late in the day when she stepped through the door to the shop, the bell chiming overhead. Behind her, out in the street, sunlight struggled through the cloud covering; in front of her was the depth of the shop, shrouded in shadow and smelling very strongly of camphor and old dust.
As her eyes adjusted, Melanie took in the wares. Clothing. Piles of it, racks of it, bins of it. Vintage. How had she not known of this place before? This is, after all, my profession, she thought to herself, momentarily delighted. She ran her fingers over the sleeve of a velvet jacket.
“Can I help you?” wheezed a voice from the further gloom: the back of the store. She looked over, startled; what she had dismissed as a pile of tweeds and woollens was in fact an older man, cataloguing.
“I’m just browsing,” Melanie replied, quickly. “Just looking.”
“Take your time, my dear.” He coughed, and went back to his work. He checked back a moment later to find Melanie staring at him, open-mouthed. “Is there something that you’re looking for?” he asked, disconcerted.
She nodded, and pointed over his head at a small wall-mounted shelf displaying knick-knacks, and other vintage accessories, including a worn, faded top hat.
The top hat was expensive, even in its dilapidated state, being highly sought-after by collectors. The only reason she could afford this one was that it was the cheaper version made with beaver pelt--mostly intact but ratty in places and in desperate need of a good cleaning.
As she sat on the streetcar, hatbox on her lap, she thought about the futility of what she’d done. It was stupid. A waste of good money, her upbringing said forcibly. And yet, if her plan did work out, wasn’t the money worth it? Wasn’t anything worth the expense? The toll?
Her sleeve had ridden up exposing a thin welt barely healed and she knew then that she was doing the right thing.
Melanie stood outside the psychic’s, hatbox under her arm, wondering what to do next. The alley was empty. Somehow, in the daydream she had while punching in her Interac code she hadn’t covered this possibility. She debated getting the hat repaired and selling it; she would find a buyer easily and for a good profit.
But she knew she wouldn’t. She knew the box would be put somewhere, to be held until she came down this way again, and when would that be; meanwhile the hat, from its shelf-top perch, would glare at her malevolently. She would feel its accusing gaze on the back of her head until she finally gave it to someone, anyone, just for her own sanity.
So the money was as good as gone already. She had nothing more to lose.
Melanie took a pen from her messenger bag and hastily scrawled “To Daniel Gabriel” on the top of the hatbox and then placed it carefully between the two dumpsters.
And then she walked away, telling her upbringing to shut it.
When Melanie woke up, it was to a gray, semi-cloudy sky and she wondered, idly, if she was repeating Tuesday.
She got up, dressed, brushed her teeth. Her mother called, offering gifts of groceries. Adil’s mother called, proposing prepared meals. Both thought Melanie was off her rocker. She politely declined both gestures.
Email: useless forwards. Business email from supplier, following up. And then, tucked away, one from another psychic. It sounded promising, and Melanie grew excited: a lead. She clicked through to the website, noted the hours, and decided not to delay. She could get her breakfast downtown and then be back in the afternoon to take care of her business concerns. It looked like it might be a full day.
Melanie was awake now.
She grabbed her rain jacket from a hook near the door. Underneath sat a small stand they had picked up off a curb in Rosedale: it badly needed refinishing but was useful as a place to store keys, mail and other near-door detritus. And a small photograph in a stand-up frame.
Melanie turned it right-side up. She and Adil looked back up at her, grinning. Her uncle’s boat. She was freckly and swiftly burning: already pink spread across the bridge of her nose. Adil was tanned (the lucky bastard!) and would only grow darker. Waves crested off to the horizon. Their smiles were inanely happy. It was only last summer.
She gripped the frame tightly in both hands, her thumb covering her own portrait. “I’m getting closer,” she whispered. “You’ll be back soon.”
She turned the corner onto Broadview, walking briskly to the subway, ignoring the profuse greenery of the neighbourhood gardens. So intent on tuning the scenery out, Melanie nearly walked right past him.
He leaned against a telephone pole, sans baseball cap, with a clean jacket and jeans instead of the dirty, shredded versions. In fact, he looked so normal for Riverdale that Melanie wouldn’t have looked twice, except for the top hat he was playing with.
She first slowed her pace, then stopped completely, mouth agape. She tried to say something but her brain failed her. He smiled in recognition, straightening up from his slouch, and came towards her with his arms outstretched. She still didn’t have the power to move.
Daniel Gabriel wrapped her in a bear hug, still holding onto the top hat. He smelled of worn aftershave and coffee and mothballs. Melanie returned the hug, awkwardly at first but then with full feeling and found that she was shaking. Holding back tears. “Hello, Melanie,” he whispered in her ear. His breath, curiously, lacked any warmth, although he was warm himself; she could feel his cheek against hers. It rasped a little. “You gave me what I was looking for. Now it is time for me to return the favour.”
Melanie stood outside the store. Street kids, hipsters and the odd suburbanite-on-a-daytrip pushed past her, around her, as she stood staring at the ancient, cracked mannequins draped in dusty, god-awfully garish cloth. The yellowing vinyl sign over her head said simply “Fabric Importers”. This had to be the place. Daniel Gabriel had given her very specific instructions without actually naming the business or giving a street number.
“What is it called?” she had asked.
“Now, remember: the north side of Queen. If you hit Augusta, you’ve gone too far,” he had replied, top hat at a rakish angle. They both had studiously ignored the stares of the others at the station.
“Yes. Five stores east from Augusta. North side. But what is it called?”
“I think the number has a five in it, although I could be wrong...”
One of their first dates at been to the Second Cup at Augusta and Queen. Close to his work, and it just seemed easiest. Melanie hadn’t cared much about the locale; she wasn’t a coffee snob and the Second Cup seemed cosy and intimate. It wasn’t, of course, it was full of people picking up their thirteenth cup of joe of the day for the commute home. And a group of high school students who had smacked Melanie with one of their enormous backpacks and sent her crashing into someone doing a coffee run carrying an armful of lattes. Lattes which sprayed everywhere. Melanie had been mortified, of course, but Adil’s good-natured laughter had helped her smile too, just as he had picked her up off the floor and swabbed her off.
You seem like one of those people who never has a dull moment, he had remarked, chuckling, over his eventual cappuccino. Melanie hadn’t replied; she just went speechless, as she so often seemed to do, around him.
It all seemed so trite, now.
She pushed open the creaking, rusting door, which set off a bell over her head which tinkled off-key. At first glance, the store was a single mass of fabric bolts and rolls, reaching far over head, but further examination revealed a narrow, meandering path leading into the gradient darkness.
As she walked through the narrow disorganized corridors, the smell of dust and old cloth--a dry, tickling smell--intensified; over her head one of the humming fluorescent strip lights flickered off.
Melanie turned a corner and suddenly found herself confronted with an employee. She assumed the person was an employee.
The young Asian woman sat behind a glass countertop that contained a variety of glittering things, and supported a cash register wrapped in ancient, yellowing plastic. She was dressed in black blouse, with a similarly glittering broach and she was knitting a sock. She regarded Melanie with undisguised hauteur for a moment, eyeing her up and down before returning to her handicraft.
Melanie cleared her throat; the woman merely raise an eyebrow, not even slowing in her stitching. Nothing to do but try, she thought, and began, as Daniel Gabriel had instructed her: “Oh Shining One, your illustrious br--”
The younger woman put her knitting down, her look pure condescension, and Melanie trailed off.
“You don’t want me, you want her,” the saleswoman said, with a sigh.
“My manager. Duh.” The woman twisted around in her seat and yelled in Cantonese towards a door in the back before returning to her knitting, ignoring Melanie completely.
Melanie was left uncomfortably silent, knowing that the young woman would rebuff all attempts at conversation. She stared at some of the fabric, she looked in the case of glittering items--brooches and earrings of a gaudy middle-aged type--and then tried to make out what the young woman’s brooch was, without staring.
The brooch was a spider, with long thin silver legs, covered in rhinestones, with eight glittery ruby eyes. Unlike the items in the case, the workmanship was exemplary; it looked as though it could crawl away at any moment--
“May I help you?” Melanie jumped, then, catching her breath, turned around to see the manager, an older Chinese woman in a dark charcoal twinset, which offset her bright gray permed hair. “Did I startle you?” she continued, bemused, her voice with a Cantonese lilt.
“I’m sorry, I...” Melanie trailed off, and then shook her head. She took another prepatory breath and began: “Oh Shining One, your illustrious broth--”
The manager waved it off, and Melanie, once again, fell silent. “Which brother?”
“Which brother sent you?” The bemusement vanished from her voice and her gaze grew frankly assessing. “Although I have a fairly good idea already.”
“Um, Daniel Gabriel?” Melanie replied.
“Daniel Gabriel? Is that what he’s calling himself... oh, I see. That is fairly clever. And obtuse. How like him.” She turned her gaze to her assistant. “Go make some tea and be useful for a change.”
The younger woman snorted, and put down her knitting. “Whatever.” She sloped off into the backroom.
The manager smiled, a prim, thin smile that didn’t reach her eyes; a smile of principals, nannies, nuns, and head nurses. “Did he tell you my name?”
“No, ma’am,” Melanie replied, feeling herself regress with each instant.
“No, of course not. Only that ridiculous greeting. Well, you may call me Maotoùying.” She tapped her own brooch, a similarly stunning piece of craftsmanship in the shape of a snowy owl.
“Maotouying,” the younger woman repeated, feeling more useless by the moment.
Maotoùying sighed and rubbed her temples. “Oh, never mind. Where is that tea?” The younger woman replied with something obviously too sassy for her manager’s liking; Maotoùying lost the prim smile. “That girl, I don’t know why I ever bothered. Melanie, please sit down.” She gestured at two stools that Melanie was sure were not there when she first looked. “We need to discuss what is, I am sure, a ridiculous question.”
Twilight brought with it a cooler breeze, that put a nip in the evening even as it barely stirred the air. Melanie looked again into the black fabric sack, now lumpy with goods, and felt foolish. Mislead. Waylaid.
Daniel Gabriel was not waiting for her outside the store. She had hoped he would have been, however faintly. Around her, the night-time people of Queen East milled, the squeegee kids and the hipsters, all enjoying the evening’s respite from the day’s humidity.
She felt very alone, as she hefted the black canvas tote onto her shoulder, and headed for the streetcar home.
Three days later came a knock on her door.
She had had the apartment to herself. She tried to work, she tried to immerse herself in distractions, but it proved impossible. The walls were soaked in loss--the absence a vapour that leeched from the furniture, the dishes, the bedding.
Melanie threw open the windows, all of them, in the wind and the slanted rain. This had never before failed to produce Adil, complaining of drafts. She left remains of tomatoes and toast crumbs on the kitchen counters. The TV on when she left the room. None of her invocations worked. Instead she felt numb.
The point on her mental horizon where she would give up loomed closer, until it drew near enough to reality that her will once again boiled up: No, I will not let him down. I will bring him home.
She dug up her photocopied list of psychics and oracles, three-quarters of them crossed out. She would start up again just where she left off.
And then the knock came.
Confused, startled, irritated--not necessarily in that order--Melanie crossed the hallway and flung open the door, fully expecting her mother on the doorstep.
Instead there stood Daniel Gabriel, top hat in hand, wearing fashionable jeans and a tee from an east-end coffee shop.
“Hey,” he said, cheerful. “Long time no see, eh? How was the visit with my sister?”
“Hi,” Melanie replied. And then: “Bizarre.”
“Was she? Oh good. She give you anything?”
She felt awkward, standing uselessly in the doorway. “Do you want to come in?”
“Me? No thanks,” he replied, just as breezily. “Seriously, though, did she give you anything?”
“Yeah.” Melanie frowned. “It was all really weird stuff, though.”
“That’s cool, you can show me on the way,” he said, stepping aside and gesturing with an outstretched arm to the world.
“What? Where are we going?” But she was already reaching for her jacket.
The King streetcar ride was packed with commuters and tourists alike. Melanie had an inside window seat, Daniel Gabriel next to her, his arm along the back, resting against her shoulders. On her lap lay the black-and-green flat-bottomed Loblaws tote. She opened it to display the contents: a small flat disc, about the size of a dime; a battered furry toy squirrel; and a square, wrapped gift. He peered in, brow furrowed.
“What did you say to her?”
Melanie shrugged. “I don’t know. I tried to say what you told me, but she wouldn’t let me finish. Then she just asked me questions and I answered them as best as I could.”
Which was true: she had just sat, amid the dust of the fabric store, perched precariously, and answered rapid-fire queries, as though on a job interview conducted by a great-aunt. Maotouying had been unflinchingly precise, allowing no slips of the tongue, no omissions, no half-truths. Melanie had grown more and more intimidated until she had finally given up. She had looked at the older woman in silence for a long moment, broken by a single word: “Please.” And then: “Please help me.”
Maotouying had regarded her, head cocked slightly to one side, unblinking. Then she nodded, once, curtly, and began to talk in Cantonese, presumably for her helper, although her eyes never left Melanie.
When no answer had been forthcoming, they had both turned.
The young woman’s face was crumpled, her knitting lying in front of her on the glass countertop. She nodded, the tiniest of nods, to her employer, then had wiped both her eyes with the back of her hands before disappearing behind the curtain into the back room.
“And then she brought these things out,” Melanie finished. She paused, then dropped her voice. “Is it a magic bag?”
“I don’t think so,” Daniel Gabriel replied, looking it over. “It says ‘Loblaws’ on it.”
“Loblaws doesn’t make magic bags?”
“Not as far as I am aware.” He scratched at his chin. “Nope, I think this one’s normal.” He peered in again. “As for the contents... well, I hope you know what you’re supposed to with them.”
“I thought you were supposed to know!”
“Nah,” he replied easily, with a grin. “I’m just along for the ride. Speaking of, pull the cord, will you?”
She reached up, having to stand up with her arm fully extended to reach the thin cord that ran along the streetcar, above the windows. As she did so, she finally paid attention to out the window: they were in the core, almost at the intersection of King and University.
“Saint Andrew Station,” an automated voice sang out over the speakers. Quite a few people queued to leave, trying not to stare.
She knew that eyes had been following the pair the entire ride; Daniel Gabriel was less than inconspicuous with his top hat, although he was mercifully no longer wearing it. (Too hot, he had claimed.) “Are we getting on the subway?” she asked, as they jostled in line, trying to disembark the streetcar.
“In a manner of speaking,” he replied. He pointed towards University street. “Well you are, anyway.” Melanie merely sighed, following a pace or two behind him as they briskly walked up the sidewalk. As guides went, his cryptic comments were beyond puzzling and growing annoying.
The sunshine was bright and overhead as they walked quickly northwards, passing both subway entrances, leaving Melanie in a deepening confusion. She didn’t realize how deep in thought she was, however, until she smashed into his back, stubbing her nose, having failed to realise he’d stopped. She backed up, rubbing her face gently, and looked around. “We’re crossing the street?”
“Sort of? How can we only sort of cross the street?” She didn’t mean to sound that annoyed, it just slipped out; he regarded her with his head tilted, as though she was an unexpected curiosity in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Do you trust me?” he asked, his voice low, his eyes grown hard around the edges and staring, in a similar way to his sister’s. She swallowed, sensing a line. One she wasn’t sure if she wanted to cross just yet. She nodded, solemnly, feeling a cold chill slither down her back. “Good.” He gestured with his chin at the intersection: they had stopped at University and Richmond, and in the middle of the lanes lay a large island, one of several in an archipelago along the thoroughfare. “That’s where we’re going.”
The island was only a short block long, in between Richmond and Queen, and only about five meters wide. It had two parallel lines of small yet sturdy ginkgo trees, which never bloomed; at the Richmond end lay a small pond and a tinkling, splashing fountain bordered with scattered benches. Bushes lined an open square, surrounding a grating; then a large statue, from the back. She had seen it enough times from Queen Street to know what it looked like: a seated white man in Victorian clothing, carved in stone, with the back raised high behind him, the entire thing on a plinth of three steps. She had no idea who he was.
The grotto was empty, and Daniel Gabriel went his way around the bushes and the benches, towards a small niche carved into the back of the statue, a seat on the top of the plinth. He settled himself down, his hand still holding the top hat draped casually over his knee. It seemed comfortable, and almost scenic, if you only looked at the trees and the water feature and ignored the traffic all around. She imagined people brought their lunches here.
“Well, here we are,” Daniel Gabriel said, setting his hat down on the middle step as he rummaged in a back pocket, pulling out a flattened and battered pack of cigarettes. “Have fun.”
Melanie waited, politely, stupidly, as he lit up. After his first drag (politely blown out of his mouth sideways, although the way the wind drifted, it ended up in her face anyway) he gestured towards the grate in front of them. “There you go.”
She looked down, still very confused, when there came a rumble under her feet.
The tracks were below her, running along University. She turned her attention back to him, eyes wide. He smiled and gestured again, making no move from his comfy perch. “I’m only the guide, hon. I show you the door, and that’s it.”
“Oh,” she answered, beginning to feel the first trickle of trepidation. She looked down at the grate; one corner subdivided into a square, with hinges on one end. A dusty, old smell drifted up from the air below and goosebumps raised on her arms. She wished Adil was here, to encourage her, to urge her to be brave; but he wasn’t, so she must do it on her own. For him. She slipped the canvas tote off her shoulder, looking for the handle; of course it was on the edge opposite from the hinges. It was just a thicker piece of steel, covered in fallen leaves and an empty paper coffee cup, She swept it clean with her fingers, then braced herself and pulled.
She settled herself, braced her feet against the raised lip of the grating, pulled from the knees, and, with a rusty groan, it swung half-way up. She had to reposition herself, to get partially under it, so that she could heave it fully up-and-over. She embarrassed herself with the grunting noises that she had to make, but it manoeuvred open, just as another car rumbled underneath her. She looked around, half-expecting transit employees to come running, but of course no; traffic went by on either side, the drivers distracted or uninterested.
She turned her attention back to the hole. A heavy-duty metal ladder was bolted into the concrete. She couldn’t see the bottom. Swallowing heavily, she took a moment to breathe deeply and think about why she was doing this. Why she was here.
The cuts along her forearms seemed to glow red against her pale skin, the welts reminding her, giving her determination. She hooked the bag back onto her shoulder, and with another deep breath, she descended downwards.
Daniel Gabriel watched it all in silence, with a sad smile, in between drags of smoke.
The ladder’s rungs were coated in old green paint that flaked off under Melanie’s grip and clung to her clammy skin. About 15 feet down she stepped to the dusty, leaf-strewn concrete floor. To her left lay an archway, dimly lit by the same kinds of lamps she recognized from subway tunnels; she was immensely relieved and comforted by their presence. She looked back up at the sky through the grating--a vivid, overly-bright blue. A single pulled-puff of cotton candy cloud drifted by. She regarded again the archway, its amber lamps like eyes in the darkness.
She walked through.
The tunnel smelled of dirt, but not a fresh dirt, not of living soil; of compressed layers of dust. Of neglect. Of old corners in disused basements. Of cellars and broken sheds. Of things stored and forgotten.
Wires loped along the walls, which had eroded in crumbling chunks, littering the floor with bits of rubble. As Melanie’s eyes adjusted, she could see more easily the cracks in the floor, the holes in the wall, and the skittering movements just out of peripheral vision. She assumed mice (or rats), but she wasn’t sure she cared to examine more closely.
Several minutes walk along the dark tunnel, she came to a dead end: a bricked over archway. She retraced her steps, looking for a side exit that she had missed, but there was nothing; just the flat tunnel with its impenetrable wall.
She walked right up to it, feeling her fingers over the brick; they came away with a thick layer of dust on the tips. “I don’t understand,” she whispered to herself, or perhaps to the subway mice. She pushed, tentatively on the brick, but it stayed solid. She sighed, and leaned her back against it, rubbing the dust off her on her jeans, leaving streaks down her thighs, before looking down and noticing the a small stand, in the corner on her right, in shadows and nearly invisible. Mounted on the stand was a glass-and-metal box, with a slot on the top. A fare box, also coated in dust.
Melanie, very slowly and deliberately pulled the tote bag off her shoulder, her left hand rummaging blind in the corner, where she knew it would have collected. A shiny silver token, about the size of a dime, rimmed in bronze and ridged. She examined it, squinting in the faint amber light: one side was the logo of the TTC, a shield and banner, with tiny raised words that she couldn’t see but knew by heart. Valid for one fare. The other side, instead of bearing the name Toronto Transit Commission had instead a miniscule picture: three parts, like a clover with something round hanging over it, but the shape was too tiny and the light too faint. She wished she had examined it on the streetcar ride, in the full sunlight.
She leaned over and deposited the token into the fare box. There was a pause and then a chu-chunk noise as the fare was accepted.
Suddenly, Melanie could feel a draft on her left. A revolving gateway suddenly appeared in what had been blank wall. Instead of actual doors the thin entryway had only metal prongs, mounted in three blade-like arrangements, like hair-curler, mounted vertically. Above the red trim was the word ENTRANCE.
She repositioned the Loblaws tote on her shoulder, and, with a deep breath, pushed her way through.
I just don’t know if it’s a good idea, he had said, as they strolled through the neighbourhood one evening, snow falling thickly around them. I don’t want to rush into anything.
She had laughed, had thought it a good joke, but the expression on his face had sobered her up. You’re serious.
He squeezed her hand, then, his gloves and her mittens making a slight rasping noise, barely noticeable except in the hush of the snow. Why shouldn’t I be? he had asked her, looking down at her, frowning. It’s a big decision.
I just mean... so often she stumbled for words around him. Around others she was articulate and quick-witted, but with Adil, the faculty just left her, stranded. What she had wanted to say was: You rush into so many other things. Adil wanted to be a deliberate person, she knew, just as she wished she could be more confident, more determined, but with him (as with her) his deliberateness was like an ill-fitting suit that he thought made him more attractive. He wanted to be a calm, focused person, when in reality, his thoughts ran like quicksilver. She knew this about him. She could see it, could see his mental gears, and they were always spinning, even though he forced himself to weigh each word.
And here he was again, forcing them to go slowly when she knew that he, too, longed to just press his foot to the pedal, to charge streaming into the breach.
I know it’s a big decision, it’ll tie up all our savings, but I just think... I just think it makes sense. From an financial point of view. The market’s so good right now… She trailed off, knowing how fake she sounded, looking at warm windows through the filtered gray winter evening. The curtains were half-drawn and yellow gleamed through, beckoning, to a family that wasn’t hers. She wasn’t saying what she felt, and it came out wrong.
He pulled her in then and kissed the side of her head, his lips cold against her temples. There’s no need to rush, he had said, easily, knowing that he had won this round. We can start looking later on in the spring. We have all the time in the world.
Through the revolving door, her eyes closed, she emerged into an atrium, open and wide with high ceilings, every inch of it tiled in white ceramic squares. It was in a sad state of disrepair, with parts of the walls crumbled, many tiles cracked, and a thick layer of dust over everything, except a clear path in a straight line from the door to a platform. She walked towards the edge, her footprints clear and impressively distinct, as though in thick regolith. She stopped a few feet south from the shiny pathway, and looked down; sure enough there were rails. It was a subway station.
She looked behind her and there, sand-blasted into the wall, in the geometric script easily recognised the city over, was the word GRANGE.
But there was no Grange station on any of Toronto’s subway lines.
A rumbling overhead and dust showered down in curtains; a couple of tiles fell as well, shattering, the noise startling loud. Then all was thick silence.
Motes dancing around her with each breath, she considered her options. She didn’t bother to look behind her at the door; she knew that the spines only turned one way, and that the words above would say NO EXIT. So that left either waiting for the train--she disliked this idea immensely, and, although she couldn’t explain to herself why, the idea of waiting in the shiny spot at the end of the trail filled her with dread. No, that wasn’t an option. Which only left the one.
Making sure that her bag was secure against her shoulder, Melanie clamboured down off the platform, being careful to avoid the tracks. She knew the third rail was electrified (at least it was with normal trains on normal tracks) but she honestly couldn’t say which one was the third, and felt it prudent to avoid all three. At the right-hand-side was a series of three mounted beacons, like traffic lights, with the top being green and lit. Since she had no other way to make up her mind, she chose that direction and began to make her way towards the tunnel, keeping as close to the wall as she could.
The track curved, gently but noticeably, before coming to an intersection where it joined another, opening into the stem of a Y. At the junction more signal lights, all green. Melanie stopped, hesitant about which way to go, or indeed how far she should be going; perhaps she was heading in the wrong direction already?
While deliberating a rumbling begin under her feet, a low, ominous, utterly familiar sensation. Panicked, she whirled, trying to spot headlights in the gloom, but nothing was visible. Hopping over the rails, she pressed her hands against the left-hand wall: the rumble was much stronger. She peeked around the crumbling corner and could make out two round circles of light, coming closer. The signals at the junction turned red.
It wasn’t a subway train coming towards her, but a streetcar--confirmed by the clang of its bell as it approached the junction--of an old-fashioned style that Melanie barely recognized as belonging to her city.
Rounded where the usual cars were angular, and smaller: its top half coloured cream, its lower red, both trimmed in chrome like gaudy wainscoting. It rattled towards her and then creaked to a halt, the front doors opening with a wheeze.
She jogged up to it, her right arm pressing her tote to her to keep it from flapping.
An older white man with greying, receding hair and bristling beard, clad in maroon TTC livery, poked his head out into the tunnel. “This ain’t the station!” he exclaimed, whether surprised or irritated at her, she couldn’t tell the difference. “You’re supposed to wait at the station. What sort of moron...” he trailed off, then pushed up-and-back his flat-bottomed peaked transit cap. “You’re alive?”
He just stood with his hands on his hips, regarding her frankly, as though she were a dog on her hind legs or an electronic device that was particularly new-fangled. “Well doesn’t that just take the cake! Lois, we’ve got a live one. Look at that, look at that.” Lois, the driver, similarly attired in burgundy, slouched over her controls, propped up on one bored elbow, chin against her hand.
“Um...” Melanie cleared her throat after the silence stretched on too far. “Um... can I ... I mean, are you taking passengers? I paid my fare.”
“Well now, I don’t know about that, miss,” he said, finally, regarding her more beadily. “You might have paid a fare, but that doesn’t necessarily... what I mean is, you’re not at a station. We’re only supposed to pick people up at a station, isn’t that right, Lois?”
Lois: silence; slight raising of the shoulders.
“I could go back to the station.” Even as Melanie spoke, she knew how wrong a suggestion it was. “Or I could just keep walking, I guess...”
“Well, we can’t have you doing that either,” the conductor replied, peevishly. “You’ve put me in quite a quandary, all right, you being here. I’ve been a conductor on this line for quite a while now, and never before--well there was that one fellow but I wasn’t on duty--never mind him. Tickets on this line are strictly one-way, miss. No pass-backs. No doubling up on fares. And I don’t think this is the right line for you anyway, since you’re breathing and all. Back me up here, Lois.”
“You said someone did this before?” Melanie asked, hoping for a loop-hole, a precedence.
He scratched at his receding hairline, under his flat-brimmed burgundy cap. “Well... yes.”
“And you let him on?” she pressed.
“Not me, but... yes...” It was all the signal that Melanie needed; she started up the stairs but he blocked her way. “Hey now!” he exclaimed. “We could get in a lot of trouble for this, couldn’t we, Lois?”
Lois shrugged in silence once more, and, as soon as Melanie moved up to the second step, pulled the lever to close the door. She sounded the bell twice, and out in the tunnel the lights turned green.
The old streetcar lurched to a start. Finding her transit legs, Melanie took a seat on an empty bench underneath the swaying leather loops that dangled down for the benefit of standing patrons.
The conductor sat directly across from her, behind the driver, glaring, thwarted. The rest of the car was empty.
With nothing to distract her outside, and wanting to ignore the conductor’s stink-eye, Melanie stared around the interior. She had expected from the antiquated exterior that it would have been just as old-fashioned inside; wooden slats, perhaps. Instead it was remarkably similar to the modern streetcars--although instead of velour the seats were red vinyl, the kind that bare flesh inevitably stuck to in the summer. The most remarkable thing to her was the lack of ads; she supposed the car’s design predated the idea of space as a commodity. Or perhaps she was just jaded.
One thing that did catch her eye was the emblem above the driver’s head. Instead of the familiar TTC shield logo, it depicted a stylized trio of snarling dog’s heads, underneath a feathered helmet. She started to feel ice again in her stomach, as she recognised the design from the token.
A one-way trip...
Had Adil stood there, on that dust-free, well-trodden trail on Grange’s platform? Had he sat--or more likely stood, he liked to stand on streetcars--on this very vehicle? Taken this same journey?
“You know, people think this is an easy job, but it’s not,” the conductor said, suddenly, over the rattling of the wheels on the tracks. “People giving us all sorts of lip, getting on the wrong line, trying to hassle the driver, not paying their fare--it’s very stressful. On top of that, long hours! Some days I just feel like packing it all in, but here I am. And who’s going to get it in the neck from Management? Me, that’s who.”
“I’m sorry,” Melanie said, automatically.
He harrumphed, but seemed slightly mollified. “You know, the conductor before me ended up in early retirement. She earned it, and all, but still, that’s what this job does to you.”
“You said someone got on before? And that turned out okay?”
“I didn’t say anything of the sort!” he retorted, going red about the ears. “You must have gotten this far with help, that’s what I’m thinking, but between the two of us, it’s no good. Management does not take kindly to breaking the rules.”
The conductor went even redder around the ears, spreading across his high forehead. “And why shouldn’t Management want the rules kept? Rules are there for a reason, and if one person bends them--” more coughing “--then you might as well not have any at all--” loud coughing now, not a delicate tickle of the throat but a clearing designed to get attention, “--meaning we’ll have anarchy aboveground as well as below, and don’t think I don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish, Lois!”
Melanie waited, expectantly. When the conductor folded his arms and crossed his legs, she asked, as gently as she could, “But there is a way in, isn’t there?”
Silence from the conductor, very pink in the face, but with something more like embarrassment than anger. Two more fake coughs from Lois.
“Okay, okay,” he said, sighing, taking off his cap and wiping his forehead before replacing it. “Management is very strict about rules, and nothing changes that. But Upper Management... Upper Management has been known to... make exceptions, occasionally.”
“Really?” Melanie asked, hope rising, the icy feeling thawing. “So I should ask to talk to Upper Management directly?”
“Well, you’ll probably talk to them both, if you get that far,” he replied, uneasily. “And, if I were you, I’d be very careful what I say to Management.” He went quiet, and when he spoke again, his voice dropped low. Melanie leaned in. “Management makes the rules, you see, and rules are meant to be kept; but there’s nothing stopping ‘em from making one rule to contradict another, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m not sure--” Melanie began, but was interrupted by Lois suddenly--and rather startlingly--calling out “Last stop!”
“Last stop!” the conductor repeated, getting to his feet with practiced legs. He walked up and down the aisle, calling out, even though there was only Melanie seated.
As the streetcar clattered to a halt, she disembarked--smiling at Lois who seemed just as bored and disinterested as ever--stopping at the foot of the steps to stick her head out.
Their destination was another unbuilt station, this one called YORK. “Hey!” She pointed at the sand-etched tiles. “York Street is only a couple of blocks from the Grange--but we were en route for ages--”
“Time is subjective, especially on transit, you should know that,” the conductor said, standing behind the yellow line, frowning. “Especially especially down here. Anyway, this is your stop. If anyone asks, you walked. Good luck, and please move along, there are other passengers waiting.”
Obligingly, she stepped down and out of the way, although the dust lay just as thick as at Grange, and also oddly enough worn away from the station edge to the door.
The closer and longer Melanie looked, the more she fancied that the dust around the edges of the trails fluttered.... very... slightly... as though something of minimal mass disturbed it. The hairs on Melanie’s neck and arms threw themselves into disarray and she scrambled backwards out of the way of any disembarking “passengers”.
“Good luck!” the conductor called out again, as Lois closed the doors and rang the bell twice, the ancient red-and-cream rocket lurching off on its way.
Picking her way through the uncleared section, Melanie crossed the platform. She pushed through the revolving barrier with the overhead EXIT sign that made the familiar cha-chunk noise as it turned, signifying that it turned only the one way. Nowhere to go but onwards.
The other side was beige tiles in a steady-state of griminess; fluorescent panels buzzed overhead, flickering every few feet. A draft was wending its way around her, carrying an unpleasantly musty, vegetative smell—not quite dried compost--with it. The passageway seemed to go onto the horizon, disappearing to a tiny dot, making it even longer than Spadina’s northbound corridor.
Sighing, Melanie trudged.
Lost in a haze of endless walking, she didn’t notice where the dog came from; only that it was suddenly there, in front of her, ten feet away.
She stopped abruptly, trudging woes vanishing, her mouth dry, her tote clutched. Ever since she had seen the alternative transit logo she’d had a vague idea of what to expect, but coming face-to-muzzle remained a surprise.
The dog was large (expected), glossy black (ditto), with an upright carriage and pointed ears (sure, why not). She hadn’t forseen the red collar with the silver bone dangling name tag.
Merely twitching in a general forward direction set the dog to its elegant, lethal growling, ears back and teeth showing, full of promise and intent.
Very slowly and carefully, she reached with her cross arm into the tote bag, aware the dog watched her closely, and groped around the bottom. Her fingers located her target, and she grasped it firmly, a muffled -eee- escaping through the cloth.
At the sound of the squeak, the dog stopped growling, its ears pricking forward. It barked once, sharply, then lowered down slightly on its front legs, tail wagging briefly, waiting to see what Melanie would do next before it committed itself to one emotion or another.
She pulled the furry toy squirrel from the bag, the dog’s eyes tracking her movement. She hesitated. She only had the one chew toy and had a feeling that there were two more dogs out there.
An intuition soon confirmed: drawn by the first dog’s bark, a second hound emerged from the end of the corridor (an near-invisible bend, she could now see) and jogged down to join its partner, ears forward, tail held high but not wagging. It touched noses with its twin--identical except for a splash of brown across one hind leg and an ear--and then swiftly turned its attention to Melanie and the toy she held aloft.
She held the squirrel out, inviting investigation; the dogs sniffed, wagging once (as if politely). She squeezed it again, which solicited more wags but also definite glare from the first animal, clearly getting impatient. Not sure how much longer it would wait, and deciding two dogs were better than one, she got ready before noticing something nosing around the end of the hallway. Small, but a tawny doggish colour.
Melanie whistled, as loudly as she could. She had all three dogs’ attention now. Twisting, she whipped the squirrel behind her, down the long corridor she’d trudged. The twin dogs were off immediately, bounding and barking joyously. The third dog was a streak of tawny little legs as it passed her, rushing to catch up.
As soon as they were behind her, she ran.
The corridor’s end lay just a few meters after the bend, ending in steps up to a pair of swinging doors with metal push panels. She took the steps two at a time and shouldered through the threshold, winded.
They flapped to a close behind her as she paused for breath and her mouth fell open.
She stood in a vast, vast, measureless spiraled cavern. The immediate ceiling was low, and, like the walls, unpainted concrete. Massive round pillars of more grey poked through what could only be described as a jungle--but a jungle of only one kind of plant in particular, growing several feet high and sending out a familiar dusty vegetation odour. Bright blue-white lights hung on chains every few feet; fans whirred somewhere out of view, but she could feel their strong draft.
“Hello?” she called out, her voice muffled and small.
Deciding there was nothing to do but explore, she set off along an aisle, careful to make as much noise walking as she could. It occurred to her that it might not be wise to sneak up on anyone doing such an intensive amount of “gardening”.
Yellow lines had been painted on the cracked concrete floor, running occasionally across her path and disappearing into the orderly-but-bushy rows. The hot air around the lamps and the smell soon made her drowsy.
Are you sure you won’t join us? Addy had asked, as he got ready, selecting a jacket from the hall closet.
Melanie had responded with a tired shrug. It had been a long day, which he knew. She had already explained that she was too tired to socialize, refraining from adding that Adil invariably staggered home drunk in the wee hours and she had been up early that morning and had another early day planned for tomorrow. Carousing was not in the cards.
She leaned down to kiss him while he was tying his shoes; she misjudged and kissed his hairline, coating her lips in hair product, one that he used in vain attempt to tame his curls. She grimaced, giggling, trying to wipe it free, but before she could, he had straightened up, laughing too, and kissed her, gooey lips and all.
I’ll be quiet when I come in, he had said, still smiling. I know you have a busy day tomorrow.
Have fun, she repeated, as he reached the door. I’ll see you later.
Something wet and low-down touched the back of her leg. She jumped in alarm and found a small tawny-coloured corgi gazing up at her. In its mouth was the toy squirrel, thoroughly soaked in drool and missing a leg, bleeding stuffing. The corgi wagged its stubby tail and dropped the chew toy at her feet. She crouched down, letting it smell her fingers, which it did before giving her hand a lick. She scratched it behind the bat-like ears and it sat, tongue lolling happily, one tiny back-leg tucked under itself (he was a male dog) to avoid contact with the cold concrete. The dog’s posture allowed his yellow collar, with the silver tag--in the shape of a paw-print--to be visible, the name in small caps.
“Hi, Sielu,” Melanie said, scratching him under the chin. “Want to play fetch again?” The dog yawned. “Well, all right then.” She straightened up. “I need to get going and find my way out of here.” She patted him on the head once more and then starting walking in her original direction. Sielu picked up the discarded toy--she heard it squeak forlornly as he gave it a gnaw--to follow her, his nails little clicks on the floor.
At a crossroads--nothing but parallel yellow lines, pillars and leaves to decide between--Melanie kept going straight, but the little dog dropped the squirrel to pull at her jean cuff until she yielded. He yipped a few times, picked the toy back up and then turned right, stopping to make sure she understood.
She shrugged, following the trotting corgi.
A few twists, turns, and an indeterminable amount of time later--the wee dog always barking or nipping if Melanie tried to pick a different route--they emerged into a clearing, devoid of plants, the yellow lines clearly visible as parking spaces. At the centre two figures reclined in lawn chairs, underneath two big studio lamps.
Sielu bounding towards them, tail wagging furiously. Melanie approached more cautiously. All around her the plants rustled; the air smelled more fresh. She looked up high overhead to mounted fans, a welcome gust from outside. Her head felt a little clearer already.
The two figures straightened up in their chairs.
“Um... hello?” Melanie called out, feeling incredibly awkward. She moved closer; hesitated; moved closer again.
The figure closest--a woman--waved her over with a free hand, the other draped over the side of the lawn chair to pet the dog. “Come, come!”
Melanie did but stopped a few feet away. The woman looked to be mid-twenties, with a dark olive complexion and curly chestnut hair; she wore a green bikini and was exquisitely gorgeous, like a model or a movie star.
Her companion, a middle-aged white man, did not resemble someone in front of a camera. Thinning brown hair and a greyish pallor, combined with a baggy tee and cargo shorts said not so much “celebrity” as “IT specialist stuck in a basement for far too long”. Considering their surroundings, the description seemed apt. He pushed his sunglasses onto his high forehead, eyes watering in the sudden bright light.
The woman lifted her own large sunglasses to give Melanie a look over. “I don’t think she’s supposed to be here,” she said, in English tinted with Spanish shading. “She seems far too solid.”
Before Melanie could retort, the man replied. “I agree, far too opaque to be here. Better question is, how did she get here? Could she have wondered in from one of the tunnels? Or did she take--” here he sneered, “--the ‘better way’? Because if she did, I am going to have Abe’s head on a platter.”
“I walked,” Melanie said, at last feeling firm footing: she had reached Management.
“I doubt she could have taken transit,” the woman continued, running over Melanie’s words, still regarding her from under raised shades. “Where would she get the token from?”
Sielu, wagging his tail again, tried to hop onto the woman’s lap, or, at least onto the lawn chair; his mistress pushed him back down but not before he deposited the squirrel against her leg. She picked the sodden toy up with pincer fingers, nose wrinkled. Then a look of dawning spread across her elegantly made-up face. “Wait, isn’t this dog toy your sister’s? I could have sworn I saw her and that horrible assistant of hers playing fetch with it at the barbeque two weekends ago.”
He took the squirrel from her, shaking the loose drool from it. He squeezed it; it wheezed once. “Yeah, maybe?”
They both turned their gaze to Melanie simultaneously, who flinched, then cleared her throat. “O Shining Ones...”
The woman waved it away, much as Maotoùying had done, with the same irritated and impatient expression. “I hate when they do that.”
“It is annoying, and such a weird--I wonder if this is his idea of a joke?”
“His?” she replied, confused.
“This would just be like him, to set up something like this. She probably thinks she’s going to get help.” He lay back, replacing his sunglasses. “What a waste of time.” He put his hands under the nape of his neck. “Don’t bother paying her any more attention, honey. Let her find her own way up.”
But Melanie and the woman regarded each other. When the younger took her sunglasses off completely, her brows knitted in curiosity, with just a touch of concern wrinkling delicately around her eyes, Melanie knew she had made a slight connection and knew, just as clearly, what she had to do.
She had to talk.
She intended to make it a plea, but as she began, the words shifted, aligning themselves instead with an explanation, almost a justification. She began where it all ended: that last night.
Addy had left to go hang out with his university buddies. They had bar-hopped in the downtown until quite late, until the earlier locations started closing. They were between one club and the next, joking, laughing, stumbling, when they came across a group of younger men. The younger men, just as drunk but more rowdy, had lobbed a racial slur at one of Adil’s friends, and at Adil himself. Words were exchanged, words that turned to fists. Fists that turned into a broken bottle. And then, in the thick of it, a knife.
The knife wielder had been a kid, the friends had said. Young, white, dark hair, with a tattoo of a snake wrapped around his wrist. He and his buddies had gotten away as Adil’s friends, in their drunken, disoriented panic, tried to care for him on a suddenly deserted street. By the time the ambulance came it was too late.
She wanted to talk about Adil, about his kindness, humour, loyalty, but what came out as she spoke was not about him at all, but her. The unspeakable trio of loss, pain, and loneliness, that wrapped around her like a cloak, cutting her off from those around her. She began to talk fiercely about her determination, to go as far as she could, to do all that needed to be done to bring him back. She would hang onto her grief until she joined him. Either way.
The woman--though still reclining--clutched Sielu in her arms, having picked him up as the story began. He lay limp in her arms, ears drooped.
Melanie stopped, breathing in small shudders. In the dry air, she felt parched. Depleted. She sank down to the asphalt, legs tucked under her, while all around the plants rustled against each other, blending into the shush of the fans.
“Fetch him,” the woman said faintly.
Her companion stirred. “What?”
“The hell I--”
She whirled on him then, her face hidden from Melanie’s view but no doubt filled with fury, for her companion sat upright, alarmed.
“Fine,” he snapped, his previous irritation spreading back over his features. He swung his legs around, off the edge, and for the first time addressed Melanie directly. “Fine. I’ll fetch what you’ve lost. But don’t think you’ve won,” he added, seeing the brightening of her face. “There is a way that things are done around here, there are certain rules that are meant to be kept, and I don’t care how many of my family members interfere on your behalf. It changes nothing.” He clapped his hands together a few times, yelling: “Meili! Elin!”
Within a heartbeat, the two big dogs came barrelling out of the plants, touching noses with Sielu, jumping up on the chairs, before settling at their master’s feet. He reached down and pulled a clipboard from underneath his recliner and pointed to a list. The hounds touched the paper with their noses once and then rushed away, barking loudly.
Surprised, Melanie blurted: “You knew him. You knew who I was talking about.”
He sniffed. “Of course I did,” he said, his voice heavy with derision. “You think my idiotic nephew is the only person who listens to Oracle gossip? True, I didn’t modify a police scanner to pick up psychics like he did, but then I mind my own business.”
“Thank you,” Melanie said, deeply meaning it.
His brow furrowed. “What?”
“Thank you,” she repeated, louder. “I mean... I don’t know how else to say it, but--thank you. Very much. To both of you. I can’t say how much this means.”
He shifted uncomfortable, going back to reclining; she looked thoughtful. Melanie dropped her gaze, tucking the tote against her side tighter until something poked against her ribs. “Oh!” She pulled the small wrapped present from the bag and handed it to the woman. “Sorry, I forgot. I was asked to give this to you.”
The woman frowned, regarding the gift with its garish paper wrapping with confusion. She opened the attached envelope, and pulled out a gift tag. “It’s from my mother.”
She tore through the wrapping, and pulled out a wee wooden box, decorated with glued sea shells. As she opened the lid, the rich smell of the seaside filled the air and Melanie fancied she could hear tiny seagulls and the lapping of waves.
He groaned. “Your mother never can just send an ordinary gift, can she?”
She said nothing, her face twisted in consternation and longing, as she traced her finger over one of the shells. Sielu, still in her lap, whined and licked under her chin.
Melanie stood to the side, feeling an optimism rise like a caffeine high, a surge of hope and a jitter of impatience. Her eyes darted around for any sign, but no matter where she looked there was movement in the rustling leaves.
Instead the sound of dogs alerted her. She tracked their barks, barely breathing, twitches of anticipation up and down her arms, her hands clenched to keep them from shaking.
And then it happened.
He stepped from the thicket, Meili and Elin at his side, yipping, tails wagging. He drifted towards her, his steps not quite connected to the ground. Slowly. So slowly. She fought the urge to run to him, to seize him by the face, to kiss him and hold him as she did in each daydream.
The man was suddenly beside her—in her preoccupation she hadn’t seen him rise from his lawn chair--held up his hand. Both dogs stopped, tails dropping. “That’s close enough.”
Melanie drew breath to question but he cut her off. “You think you’re done, eh? You think you’ve won.” He stood and took off his sunglasses, glaring at her. “Is that the shade you wanted?”
“Is he--” a finger rudely jabbed in Adil’s direction “--the one you came here to find?”
She studied the neutral, wavering figure closely. His eyes were vacant. Bruising spread across one cheek; he still wore the clothes he had left home in, only now covered in dark stains. She couldn’t stop, her mouth dropped in rapt horror--
The man grabbed her by the elbow, jerking her attention away. “Is he the one you sought?”
“Yes--yes!” She pushed herself away, repelled by the closeness. “Adil--”
“He’s not yours yet.” His voice had lowered, and his lips curled. He pointed at the far end of the clearing to a curved ramp leading upwards. “You need to reach the surface with him behind you, and--” he smiled, showing too many teeth, one of them chipped “--you must never look at him. Do you understand? Once you cross that white line, you cannot turn back. That’s the condition. Take it or leave it.”
Melanie looked from him to Adil, so perfect, so whole, if a little transparent around the edges.
“I accept,” she said simply.
Standing just before the thick white line painted across the concrete, Melanie turned to Adil, who remained a good ten feet behind her. There was so much she wanted to say, so many things crowding her throat, that she, as always, said nothing but just smiled.
She reached out to take his hand but he didn’t offer his in return; he just stood there, limp, vacant, his eyes half-lidded as though in sleep. She crossed the distance to grab his hand but it was like putting her hand through a projection. There was simply nothing to hold and his own ghostly colour superseded hers.
“Adil?” she whispered, and he tilted his face towards her, still void of emotion.
“Melanie?” His voice, though, sounded rich and coloured, a heavy palette of emotions, the brightest tone of which was confusion. “What happened?”
“There was an accident.” Her own voice caught, tripping as it climbed from her throat. “But I’m here now and I’m going to take you home.”
“Ho-ome.” He drew it out, a breath of relief. Or perhaps fear? Melanie didn’t ask. Sielu trotted up to them and she crouched down to give the wee dog one last pat and scratch behind the ears.
“Thank you,” she said, softly, stroking under his chin. He wagged his tail and barked, jumping up to try and lick her face. She laughed, and straightened up as the woman approached. Her smile faded.
She came towards the pair with a track-suit jacket thrown over her shoulders and she lifted her hand to shake Melanie’s.
Melanie did so, surprised to find something in the woman’s hand, along with an expression of warning in her eyes.
“He means it,” the woman said, her voice low and anxious. “About the rules. There’s no skipping, no loopholes. Walk up the ramp with your eyes closed if you have to, but don’t look back.” She pulled away, and in a louder voice said: “Thank you. For being kind to my dogs.” She picked up a wriggling Sielu. “Goodbye, and good luck. I hope we don’t see each other again too soon.”
Once she departed, Melanie sneaked a look at the object: a small key-chain flashlight, the kind given away at tradeshows. Black, with a small bronze--yes, a small bronze helmet-and-dog crest. She stowed it away in her trusty Loblaws tote.
The ramp was not too steeply angled, nor twisting and the width for two cars to pass, either side of the bisecting yellow line, but as they climbed, floor by floor, she saw no vehicles of any kind. Only storey after basement level of nodding, rustling five-fingered plants and flickering overhead lights.
“How big is this place?” she murmured, meaning it rhetorically but Adil heard her.
“I don’t know. I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but I’ve never seen the end.” A tremor in his voice. She squeezed her eyes shut, her hands gripping the tote around the handles, one arm crossing over her chest as though hugging herself.
“It’ll be okay, Addy,” she said, doing her best to keep her own voice level. “We’ll be out of here soon.”
The walking seemed indeterminable. She had lost count, now, of the levels. She definitely had not come down this far by ladder, and she didn’t recall the subway tracks sloping, so trying to mentally place herself was bewildering and hurt her brain almost as much as her feet ached. Unlike a regular parking garage there were no numbers or signposts to mark their journey.
Just the yellow line curving around, and around.
She tried to pass the time by talking, but Adil remained monosyllabic, and seemed to have huge gaps in his recollections. She hoped it wasn’t permanent, and wondered what happened to a person down here that they could begin to forget things that had once been so important--that had been defining moments in a life well-lived. Well, she would remember, for both of them.
She wished, again, that she could take his hand, realizing what she missed the strongest was sense of touch. What she had thought about, as she lay awake night after night, was the memory of skin. The rough scratchiness under the pads of his fingers when he held her hand, fingers gently stroking hers as they walked along the Danforth. The tip of her nose against the smooth skin of his back, right between his shoulder blades, when she (invariably) snuggled up against him in the morning. The softness after he just showered, still slightly damp and smelling of body wash, when he used to sneak up behind her to startle her with a “wet hug!”.
Her hands clenched and unclenched at her sides, and she walked.
The levels grew wilder, unkempt. Instead of straight, orderly, garden-centre-esque aisles, the plants clustered under the grow-lamps. Some, she could see, lay on the ground, broken, and brown. It had become quieter too, the fans much reduced; she could hear her own breath now, loud in her ears. And that was not all: when she stopped to take a rest and wiggle her aching toes, eyes tightly shut, she realized she could hear him now. His steps weren’t slaps against the asphalt, like hers, more like rasps, as though something heavy was being dragged. The noise stopped abruptly.
“Addy?” she called.
“Can you walk a few steps back for me, please?”
“Sure, I guess.” More rasping sounds. “This okay?”
“That’s great.” Still with her eyes closed, she straightened up, buoyed with sudden exuberance. He was becoming solid. They would be okay.
With each rasp a note of joy in her ears, Melanie started again, noting that the lights flickered more and more, the pretense of a farm gone. Her eyes felt very wide in the long shadows; the fading light a concern due to the chunks of rubble appearing in her way, some too big to step over.
A deep, cold feeling of dread had simmered as she observed these strewn degradations, so when they did another quarter-turn and found the tunnel blocked completely by a cave-in, she was not exactly surprised.
“Addy, can you stay where you are, please? I don’t want to look back by mistake.”
“I’ll back up.” Heavy dragging sounds--his footsteps moving away. She breathed easier and examined the pile of rubble to see if she could make a way through, but the pieces were too big.
Scooping the flashlight from the bottom of her bag, mindful of its tiny size, she clicked it on, needing to keep the button depressed. The resulting beam was surprisingly intense, and she fumbled, nearly dropping it. It switched back off, but not before she saw the side entrance.
When she looked at the wall in the gloom, there was no breach: it was solid concrete, pitted and ragged in places but otherwise unbroken. She turned the flashlight on again, this time steeling her widened pupils against the glare and clamping her fingers down fiercely.
The tunnel was wide, square, with no lighting; as strong as it was, the beam could not illuminate the end. Still, there was little alternative.
Melanie stopped a few meters from the mouth with she realized that she hadn’t heard Adil following her. She almost--almost--turned but caught herself. Instead, she called out his name, eyes closed just in case.
“I’m here,” he answered, sounding far away and small. “I don’t know about this tunnel...”
“It’ll be okay.”
“We don’t know where it leads. You don’t know where it goes.” It was the longest thing he’d said to her since she’d found him. Accusation and fear coloured his voice with streaks of orange and green; Melanie’s eyes scrunched so tightly that flashes of colour sparked through where her field of vision ought to be. “Melanie?”
“Come back. We’ll go back down. Get better directions.”
She shook her head; swooshes of blue and red. “We can’t. We have to go on.”
“You don’t know where--”
“I have come too far to turn back now.” She opened her eyes to see the watery brightness disappearing into the unknown. Her breath was loud in her ears, competing with the sound of blood rushing. “I don’t know. We don’t know. But we have to go on, Addy, we have to take that chance.”
She couldn’t see more than a few paces in front of her. The darkness draped like a poor blindfold; she could only peek down and see her feet, one now and then the other, step by aching step. The air was thick with dust, super-saturated. Scratchy. Desiccated. The walls were smooth brick, long oblongs of gray. Everything was gray against the light, slipping into black.
The ground shook. A low rumble underfoot, overhead, through the walls. She thought recognized the sensation, but it was too sharp, stopping too abruptly. It couldn’t be a subway. Could it?
She felt muffled, swaddled and deafened.
“Melanie?” His voice called very faintly, and unsure. “I don’t know if I can keep going on.”
“It’s okay. We’re almost there. I can feel it.” She didn’t know why she said it; she just couldn’t bear to hear the tremor in his voice. Soon they’d be aboveground. Home...
The ground shook again, this time with far more force and Melanie staggered, smacking her shoulder against the hard wall. Wincing, she straightened up, rubbing her injury. “Addy?” she called, her voice a croak. “You okay?”
A hesitant: “Yeah. Think so. I... I don’t know if we’re supposed to be here.”
“It’ll be okay.” She coughed, still rubbing her shoulder. “We just need to keep moving.” Step. She was so tired, and fearful of whatever caused the shaking. But all she had to do was keep walking...
A third tremor knocked her to the ground, and the flashlight tumbled to the ground, cracking audibly, before going out, plunging the tunnel into near gloom.
“Addy?” she cried, her heart beating joyfully against her ribs, her eyes watering in sheer relief. “Can you see that? Daylight up ahead! I can see blue sky! We’re there!”
The return silence lay as heavy as the darkness had been. Suddenly she was falling, tumbling, as her elation swiftly collapsed into terror.
She pulled herself up on shaking arms, rung by rung, her fingers barely feeling the roughness of the iron or the flaking paint. She struggled with the grate, streaks of pain shooting through her injured shoulder, but one solid, well-braced shove with her free hand and it swung up enough that she could push it over. She hauled herself over the lip, scraping across metal grid, and then, like that, she was back in the world.
The sky gleamed obscenely blue; the ginkgo leaves a jewelled green. Cars rumbled and revved past, and a thin wisp of cigarette smoke coiled, wending overhead. After the totalitarian dust of the tunnels, the rich earthly odour of tobacco was like the smell of life.
Daniel Gabriel, still perched on his plinth, looked down, surprised. He hopped to his feet, dropping the cigarette and expertly stubbing it out while extending both arms to help her to her feet.
She couldn’t stand, instead staggering against the smooth back of the statue for support, before sliding down to the ground, breathing in quick gasps.
He didn’t say anything but sat down beside her.
Rush hour wound down. As the torrent subsided, the other noises of the evening replaced the chorus of traffic: the splashing of the water fountain. Tinny music from a nearby Starbucks. Bass notes from the bar across on Queen, their windows now open in the cooling air, air conditioning no longer needed.
“Didn’t look,” she whispered, her voice hoarse and scratched.
“I believe you,” he replied, quietly, leaning against her in solidarity. Summer filled the silence. Bicycle bells in the distance. An argument in front of the Opera House.
“He was never going to let me have Adil back, was he?” she asked, pleading. “Was he?”
He shook his head. “I love my uncle, I do, but sometimes he can be a complete asshole.”
She considered that, shivering slightly. “So there was never any way to get him back, was there.” A flat statement, not a question.
“Then why didn’t you tell me that?”
“Honey,” he said, slightly exasperated, “Eleven oracles and psychics told you that. Some things can’t be undone. They told you that; you didn’t listen.”
“I knew I had to try anyway,” she replied, as a justification, but as she said the words, as they floated into the air with the breeze, something inside her burst. Not a heavy feeling, but a lightening one; she had been carrying her determination with her for so long, clenched so tightly to her chest, that as it evaporated, she began to relax. Muscles unkinked. Feeling returned to her too-white knuckles and she sighed. “Thank you, Daniel Gabriel.”
“You’re welcome, Melanie. It’s been quite the ride.”
She nodded, her mind absorbed in the scenery and for once not thinking.
Sometime later, as the sky began to darken in strips, the lights of Toronto’s core dawning, she said, “You know, my friend keeps inviting me to stay with her. In Vancouver.”
“What did you say?”
“I kept putting a reply off. I had too much on my mind, too much to take care of here.” She paused. “But... maybe it’s... maybe I will go out and visit her for a bit. A while.” She laughed, tiredly and low. “Maybe it would be good. To get away. For a little bit.”
“Maybe,” he agreed.
“Maybe,” she repeated, picking at the loose threads of the dust-streaked and tattered tote that lay across her lap, the green Loblaws logo half-scratched away. She looked up at him, and he smiled, sadly. “Maybe. But first, I think I just want to go home.”
This story originally appeared in Love, Time, Space, Magic: Tales of Love for the Imaginative and Fanciful.