Authors: Maggie Helwig
Tags: #General, #Literary, #Toronto (Ont.), #Airborne Infection, #FIC000000, #Political, #Fiction, #Romance, #Photographers, #Suspense Fiction
copyright Â© Maggie Helwig,
This epub edition published in 2010. Electronic ISBN 978 1 77056 076 5.
Published with the generous assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council. Coach House Books also acknowledges the support of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit Program and the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program.
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
Girls fall down / Maggie Helwig.
PS8565.E46G57 2008Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â C813'.54Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â C2008-901683-1
for David Barker Maltby,
The city is a winter city, at its heart. Though the ozone layer is thinning above it, and the summers grow long and fierce, still the city always anticipates winter. Anticipates hardship. In the winter, when it is raw and grey and dim, it is itself most truly.
People come here from summer countries and learn to be winter people. But there are worse fates. That is exactly why many of them come here, because there are far worse fates than winter.
It is a city that burrows, tunnels, turns underground. It has built strata of malls and pathways and inhabited spaces like the layers in an archaeological dig, a body below the earth, flowing with light. People turn to buried places, to successive levels of basements, lowered courtyards, gardens under glass. There are beauties to winter that are unexpected, the silence of snow, the intimacy with which we curl around places of warmth. Even the homeless and the outcasts travel downwards when they can, into the ravines that slice around and under the streets, where the rivers, the Don and the Humber and their tributaries, carve into the heart of the city; they build homes out of tents and slabs of metal siding, decorate them with bicycle wheels and dolls on strings and boxes of discarded books, with ribbons and mittens, and huddle in the cold beside the thin water.
It is hard to imagine this city being damaged by something from the sky. The dangers to this city enter the bloodstream, move through interior channels.
The girl was kneeling by the door of the subway car, a circle of friends surrounding her like birds. Her hands were over her narrow face, she was weeping, and there were angry red welts across her cheeks, white circles around them. Her friends touched her back, her arms, their voices an anxious chirp. There was a puddle of vomit at her feet, and she lowered one hand to wipe her mouth, leaning against the door.
A space had already cleared around them. Some of the passengers in the nearby seats held hands or tissues discreetly over their mouths, but as if this were incidental, as if they weren't quite aware
of anything. As the train rocked through the tunnel, a bubble of light between the dark walls, a few people got to their feet and moved down the car.
The train came into Bloor station and jerked to a stop, and the girl leaned backwards, the pool of vomit spreading, her friends lifting up their feet with little cries. As the door opened, a mass of people on the platform surged forward, then stopped, moved back into the crush and towards another car, their eyes turned politely away.
A grey-haired man in a dark coat stood up and walked to where the girls were standing. âDoes she have an EpiPen?' he asked.
âA what? What's that?' A tall girl brushed blonde hair from her eyes. Another girl was hanging on to the metal pole, resting her forehead against it, her red tie hanging straight down, her plaid kilt rolled up at the waist, brushing her thighs. The train wasn't moving on.
âAn EpiPen. For allergies.'
âI'm not allergic,' said the sick girl. The man bent down to look at her rash, keeping a slight distance between them. âShe smelled something,' the tall girl said. âThere's a gas in the car or something. They should tell somebody.' She kept talking, but at the same time the
system gave a quick shriek, and a distorted voice announced that the train was out of service. Beyond the door of the subway car, the crowd began to move like a huge resigned sigh, pushing towards the stairways.
âThey'll have paramedics here soon,' said the man. He was about to leave, it seemed, when the dark-haired girl who had been holding on to the pole suddenly swayed and put out one hand, falling to the muddy floor. The other one, the tall blonde, dropped to her knees beside her friend, crying her name.
The man knelt down, frowning. âIf you want, I could call â ' âGo away,' whimpered the first girl, dabbing at tears on her welt-covered face. âGo away, it's too awful. It's not right.'
âIt's poison,' cried a girl with curly rust-coloured hair. âSomebody put a poison in the train.'
The girl who had just fallen lay with her eyes closed. She too was covered with a rash, but a different one, a red prickly flush all over her face and hands.
âSomeone put a poison gas on the train,' shouted the tall girl, trying to lift up her friend. The crowd outside the train heard her, and the volume of their voices increased, heads turning, some people stopping where they were. The man held his breath for a second; then, as if seized by an uncontrollable impulse, he sniffed the air, deeply.
âWhat was it like, the smell?' he asked the kneeling girl.
The station was being cleared now, the crowd on the platform fragmenting, breaking into individuals, a blur of brown and beige skin tones, splashes of bright-coloured fabric, patterns and stripes. Announcements were sounding over the
system, men in uniform appearing, moving people quickly to the exits. A slender woman with plastic bags in her hand stood still and stared at the train, her mouth partly open.
The girl who had fallen was sitting halfway up, clinging again to the pole. âRoses,' she said. âIt smelled like roses.'
A heavy-set man sat down hard at the top of the stairs, his face suffused with blood, gasping for breath, and a stranger took hold of his arm and pulled him along as far as the fare booth, where he stumbled and fell.
The girl was creeping towards the door of the train, stopping to wipe at the smears of vomit on her legs, and her friend was sitting up, dazed, leaning her head against the tall girl's chest. On the level above, a woman took off her parka and bundled it underneath the head of the man by the fare booth.
The man in the dark coat started to put a hand out towards one of the girls, and then pulled it back. He looked up and saw the security guards arriving. âThey're coming now,' he said, âyou'll be okay,' and left the train, heading for the stairs. As he went up, the first team of paramedics pushed past him, carrying an orange stretcher, a policewoman watching from the upper level.
âThey smelled a gas,' someone was saying at the top of the stairs. The paramedics lifted the first girl onto the stretcher. âRoses,' she said.
One of the girls said, âPoison,' again. The woman with the plastic bags was still frozen on the platform. Then she swayed, fell to her knees.
âJesus!' crackled the voice on the
, someone forgetting he was in front of a live mike. âThere's four of them down now. What the hell's going on here?'
The man at the fare booth told someone that he thought it was his heart, he was pretty sure it was his heart, but when he thought about it he did remember the smell. Yes. The smell of roses.
As more paramedics arrived, a policewoman placed the first call for a hazmat team.
The corridor was narrow and badly lit, the arms of the mall branching off in odd directions, and the stairs were filled now with more police and paramedics coming down, wearing face masks, as the crowd, expelled from the subway, made their way up. No one was paying attention to Alex, as he slid through the turnstile and up the stairs to the mall â and why should they, he was ordinary and forgettable, a thin man who looked much older than thirty-nine, wearing a reasonably good dark coat, his prematurely grey hair cut short. He ducked into the drugstore on his right, hoping it would carry disposable cameras â pieces of shit, they were, he'd never get a decent picture, but at least he'd have a camera-like object in his hands, at least he'd be able to think.
He was not the only person who had broken away from the crowd; in front of him, while he waited at the checkout with a disposable that doubled as a coupon for a Shrek hand puppet, were several people with their arms full of what seemed to be anxiety purchases, vitamin C and ginseng tablets, plastic gloves, antibacterial handwipes. Last year when the buildings fell in New York, in the midst of the aftershock a day or two later, he'd gone into the SuperSave on Bloor and watched people hoarding, all of them apparently unaware of what they were doing â smiling, chatting, walking calmly through the aisles, and at the same time piling their carts full of toilet paper and canned tuna and bags of pasta. Commenting cheerfully on the weather to the sales clerks while stacking up boxes of cheap candles at the cash register. Because you didn't admit to fear, not up in this country; it would be disruptive and far too personal, and not very nice
for everyone around you. He used to consider this an appalling attitude, but lately he thought he was coming to see some virtue in it; the gentle restraint of people who live close together in the cold, and know that they must be patient.
He stepped out onto the seething pavement, between the concrete buttresses of the mall. People were standing at the curb waving for taxis, the line stretching down the block; in front of him at the corner they crowded together, surrounding the hot-dog vendor, covering all of the broad sidewalk and spilling into the street. A city bus arrived, running west, and was surrounded, rushed by a frantic swarm, a few of them making it inside, cramming up against the entryway until the doors groaned closed, and the bus swayed with the weight and set out slowly into the gridlock of taxis on Bloor Street. Another bus was creeping southwards towards them on Yonge â both lines were shut down, then.
He scrambled up against a buttress, bracing one leg at an angle and getting his head above the crush. It was nearly dark. He knew this camera couldn't really handle the complex light of the swiftly falling evening, but he turned west, tried to frame a shot of the buses, then eastwards, the spire of the Anglican church black against the ink-blue sky and a smoke of charcoal cloud, the line of raised arms hailing taxis down Bloor, an echo of upward movement. Dropping down again, frustrated by the shadows, he slid towards the curb and hopped delicately out into the road, firing shots off quickly in a flurry of car horns as the lights from the stores washed over the traffic, a choppy lake surface. Then, swinging one foot back onto the sidewalk, he realized that the viewfinder was framing the narrow clever face of Adrian Pereira.